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Millie Spencer took a deep breath, wiped a few stray potato chip crumbs from her sundress and knocked on the door a second time.
As she waited, her eyes scanned the front porch of the large shake-shingle house, empty save for an intricate spiderweb inhabiting one corner. The wraparound porch practically begged for a wooden swing, where a person could sit on a late-summer afternoon sipping a glass of lemonade and watching the world go by. As a girl, Millie had longed for a place like that, but in the tiny condo she'd shared with her mother there'd been no room for any space of her own.
Still no one answered, so she rapped her knuckles against the door once more. This house sat at the edge of town in Crimson, Colorado, but only a few minutes from her sister's renovated Victorian near Crimson's center.
She was here as a favor to her sisterhalf sister Olivia. Or was Olivia doing the favor for Millie? Millie'd shown up on Olivia's doorstop a few days ago, beaten down both emotionally and financially. To her relief, Olivia and her husband, Logan Travers, hadn't asked many questions, just welcomed Millie into their home. Up until today, Millie had spent most of her time curled on the couch watching bad reality TV and overdosing on junk food.
Now she was here, sent to help Logan's recently injured brother and his daughter. Except it appeared they weren't home. Which was weird, since Logan had said his brother, Jake, couldn't drive yet. It was a beautiful late-August day, so maybe the two had walked to the park Millie'd seen a few blocks over.
She was ready to leave when the door opened a crack. She could see a sliver of a man's face through the opening. "We don't want any," he said, peering down at her.
"Any what?" She leaned forward, trying to get a glimpse beyond him into the house. Curiosity almost always got the best of her.
"Cookies or popcorn or whatever you're selling," he answered quickly, glancing behind him before the eye she could see, a startlingly blue eye, tracked back to her again. It was the same blue as Logan's, so this must be the brother. "Do you have a parent with you?"
Her mouth dropped open and she pulled herself up to her full height, all five foot two. And a half. When she wore heels. "I'm not
" she began, but the man muttered a curse and disappeared into the house.
He hadn't shut the door when he'd turned away. She could still only see through the couple-inch slat, and without a second thought, she extended her foot and nudged the door open wider. She stretched forward but didn't step into the house. "Hello?" she called and her voice echoed.
The entry was devoid of furniture. Olivia had told her Logan's brother had recently returned to Crimson, so maybe he had furnishings for his home on order. She hoped his purchases included a porch swing.
A sound reached her from the back of the house. Another curse and a child crying. She bit down on her lip and grabbed her cell phone from her purse, intending to call Olivia and Logan for backup. But the crying got louder, followed by a strangled shout of "no," and Millie charged forward, unable to stop herself.
She came up short as she entered the back half of the house. Rays of sunshine streamed through the windows, lighting the open family room as well as the kitchen beyond. Her gaze caught on the family room. Unlike the front of the house, the room looked furnished, although it was hard to tell because dolls, stuffed animals and an excess of pink plastic covered every square inch. It looked as if a toy store had thrown up all over the place. Did Jake Travers really have only one child? There was enough stuff here to keep a whole army of kids busy. She forced her eyes away from the girlie mess to the kitchen.
Two tall bar stools were tucked under the island, which was littered with cereal boxes and various milk and juice cartons. A mix of what looked like chocolate milk and grape juice spilled over the counter onto one of the stools and the tile floor, soaking a pile of soggy Cheerios from an overturned bowl.
Jake stood in the middle of the kitchen with his back to her. She noticed immediately that he was tall and broad, wearing a gray athletic T-shirt, basketball shorts that came almost to his knees and an orthopedic boot on his right leg that covered him from midcalf to foot.
He also sported a purple tutu around his waist. Despite the chaos of the situation, she almost smiled at that. No wonder he hadn't wanted to open the door for her.
In front of him, a little girl was crying and jumping up, grasping for a stuffed animal he held out to the side. It might have been a rabbit and was dripping more juice on the floor. The child had no hope of reaching it. Millie guessed he was well over six foot. When Olivia had sent her here to help Logan's poor, injured brother, Millie had pictured a debilitated invalid, not the hulking man before her.
She almost backed out of the room and fled, but at that moment the young girl's eyes met hers. They were the same shade of blue as her father's, so big they almost looked out of place on her heart-shaped face. Her hair was several shades darker than her father's, hung past her shoulders, and although she had the enviable natural highlights that children got, it looked as if it could benefit from a good brushing. She wore a pale pink leotard and matching tutu, the very essence of a tiny ballerina. Other than the juice stains down the front of it. Millie felt an immediate connection to her.
The child fell silent except for a tiny hiccup. Her eyes widened as she pointed at Millie. "It's a real life fairy."
Jake Travers breathed a sigh of relief before turning to see what his daughter, Brooke, was pointing at. He hardly cared if a real life fairy was standing in his house. It had stopped Brooke's crying and already the pounding in his head was starting to subside.
But it wasn't a fairy staring at him from the far side of the family room. The girl he'd tried to chase away minutes earlier held up a tentative hand and waved at him. Not a girl, he realized now. She was a woman, a tiny sprite of a woman, but the morning light silhouetting her body revealed the soft curves underneath her flowery flowing dress.
"I'm Millie," she said, nodding, as if willing him to understand her. "Millie Spencer. Olivia's sister? She and Logan sent me over." She tucked a strand of chin-length, caramel-colored hair behind one ear, the bracelets at her wrist tinkling as she moved.
Brooke let out an enraptured gasp. "Look, Daddy, she sparkles."
He narrowed his eyes as he set the dripping stuffed bunny onto the counter. Millie Spencer indeed appeared to be shimmering in the light.
She looked down at her bare arms and laughed, a sound just as bubbly and bright as the noise from her bracelets. "It's my lotion, sweetie," she said, taking a step forward. "I must have grabbed the one that glitters."
He watched his daughter's face light up. "I want glitters," she answered, her tone dreamy.
"You said Logan sent you?" Jake crossed his arms over his chest, careful of the splint that cradled his right hand. Glitter was the last thing he needed in this already chaotic house.
Millie scrunched up her pert nose. "I was under the impression Logan talked to you about me. That you need help because of
" She waved her hand up and down in front of him. More tinkling from the bracelets.
His back stiffened. Jake hated his injuries, how they'd changed his life and how out of control he felt these days. He vaguely remembered Logan calling last night to suggest babysitting help for Brooke and someone who could drive Jake to his physical-therapy and doctors' appointments. But Jake had been in the middle of burning a frozen pizza and had only half listened to his brother's well-meaning offer.
Jake didn't need help. At least he didn't want to need help. Especially not from someone who looked as if her best friend was Tinker Bell. "We're all good here."
She glanced around the room before her gaze zeroed in on his waist. "Are you sure about that?"
"We were having dance lessons," he mumbled as he pulled the crinkly tutu Brooke had insisted he wear down off his hips. He flicked it to the side and gave Millie a curt nod. He could handle this on his own. That was how he'd gotten by most of his life. He wasn't about to change now.
"I want glitters." Brooke tugged at the hem of his T-shirt.
He placed his uninjured hand on his daughter's head, smoothing back her long hair. His fingers caught on something that felt suspiciously like a wad of gum. Damn. He smiled and made his voice soft. "No glitter today, Brooke. Do you want to watch a show?"
Her mouth pinched into a stubborn line. "Glitters," she repeated then ducked away from his touch. "And Bunny." She grabbed the stuffed animal off the counter before he could stop her.
She squeezed the bunny to her chest. Jake couldn't stifle his groan as a trickle of purple liquid soaked her pink blouse. The last bit of command he had over his life seemed to seep away at the same time.
He turned back to Millie, but she'd disappeared.
Oh, no, he thought to himself. Not now when he was willing to admit defeat.
Lifting Brooke and Bunny against his chest with his good arm, he tried to ignore that his shirt was already soaking through. "Let's go find our fairy," he told his daughter and was rewarded with a wide grin.
Millie didn't stop when Jake Travers called her name. She concentrated on the warm sun and cool mountain breeze instead of her tumbling emotions. Even as a favor to Olivia, Millie had no intention of sticking around where she wasn't wanted. She made the mistake of turning around halfway through the yard when the little girl cried out.
Jake was struggling down the porch steps, his daughter clutched to his side as he balanced most of his weight on the nonbooted foot. "Are you really going to make me chase after you like this?" he asked as she met his gaze.
"I thought things were all good" she said as she retraced her steps toward the house.
He stood at the edge of the grass. "I'm used to taking care of myself. Needing help is a bit of a foreign concept."
"Everyone needs help from time to time."
He pursed his mouth into a thin line. "Not me."
Jake was clearly disconcerted by his current circumstances, and Millie felt a twinge of sympathy for him. She could spout platitudes about everyone needing help, but she'd been fending for herself long enough to understand his reluctance to rely on another person.
Before she could answer, Brooke squirmed in her father's arms and he reached out to steady her. Millie saw him wince as the girl's elbow jabbed into his splinted wrist. He lowered Brooke slowly to the ground and she clung to his leg. Millie noticed that liquid from the sopping wet stuffed animal had not only drenched his shirt, which now clung to a set of enviably hard abs, but a trail of wetness also leaked into the black orthopedic boot that covered his leg.
He didn't seem to notice, just stared at his daughter as if he wasn't sure how he'd ended up with a small child wrapped around him.
Millie cleared her throat and he looked up. "Sorry.
I haven't been a dad for very long. It's still sometimes amazing that she's really mine."
"How old are you, Brooke?" Millie asked, squatting down to the girl's level.
Brooke, suddenly shy, kept her gaze on her bunny but held up four fingers.
Millie glanced at Jake, her eyebrows raised.
"What did Logan and Olivia tell you about me?" he asked.
"Not much," she admitted. "That you're a surgeon who travels around the world. You were injured during an earthquake on an island near Haiti and need help with your daughter while you recover."
One side of his mouth curved. "That's an abbreviated version."
"So I gathered," Millie answered. She held out a hand to Brooke. "Sweetie, can I help you give Bunny a bath? She's dripping all over your daddy's leg."
"Bunny's a boy," Brooke and her father said at the same time.
Millie smiled. "He's not going to smell very good if that juice dries on him. How about we wash him off, then you can watch while he goes in the dryer?"
Brooke released the death hold she had on Jake's leg the tiniest bit. "He wants a bubble bath."
"Of course he does." Millie straightened and took a step forward, wiggling her fingers. "Can you show me the bathroom? We'll take good care of him."
With a tentative nod, Brooke took Millie's hand. This brought her only a few inches from Jake, who smelled like a strangely intriguing mix of grape juice and laundry detergent. "I'd like to understand the whole story," she said quietly.
He nodded, his deep blue eyes intent on hers. "I'll get changed then explain it." He lowered his voice and added, "I'd rather not discuss the details in front of Brooke."
The little girl tugged her toward the house. "Bunny wants to smell good."
Millie started to follow but paused as Jake pressed his uninjured hand to her bare arm. She almost flinched but caught herself, focusing on the warmth of his fingers.
His hand lifted immediately. "I just wanted to say thank you."
"I haven't done anything yet."
He leaned in to whisper in her ear, "My daughter hasn't cried for the past fifteen minutes. You have no idea what an accomplishment that is."
Although she knew it meant nothing, Millie was surprised to feel a tiny kernel of happiness unfurl in her chest along with a shimmer of awareness for Jake Travers. Best to ignore the awareness and focus on the happiness. It had been so long since she'd accomplished anything of value in her life. She'd learned to appreciate even the smallest victory.
"It's going to be okay, Jake," she said, hoping beyond all reason that she could make it true for both of them.