Up till now, Luke Barlow's biggest dilemma was deciding which debutante to take to which Stone Gap social. Until Peyton Reynolds appeared on his doorstep with a four-year-old blonde moppet and a birth certificate spelling out Luke's name in black and white. And it's time for the South's sexiest bachelor to step up and be the daddy his little girl needs!
Peyton had sworn she'd keep her cool around her onetime crush, but when Luke begins bonding with little Maddy, Peyton realizes she's in danger of losing her heart to the small-town heartbreaker. Perhaps this Barlow brother might be inspired to change his footloose ways and become the man Peyton can depend on for a lifetime!
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When Peyton Reynolds was a little girl, tearing through her grandmother's house on her way to whatever excitement waited outside the front door, her grandma Lucy would reach out, corral her granddaughter in a fresh-baked-bread-scented hug and say, "Goodness gracious, child, you gotta slow down. Life is just gonna pass you by if you don't learn to take a breath or two."
Peyton never had learned to slow down. She'd taken every day of her life ten steps at a time, running from high school to college, graduating in two and a half years instead of four, and putting in more hours at Winston Interior Design than any other designerearning her four promotions in three years. Then, a month before her twenty-third birthday, her world turned upside down when her older sister Susannah died in a car accident, suddenly leaving forty pounds of cuteness and need in Peyton's full-time care.
In that instant, Peyton had put the brakes on her rising career while she figured out how to be a surrogate mom to her niece, Madelyne, and still stay on the fast track in the design industry. She'd been so very close to a promotion to associate, just a step below her goal of partner, but in the past four weeks, everything she had worked for started to fall apart. And it wasn't just her career self-destructing that had Peyton worried
It was the quiet. The words unspoken, the tears unshed.
Maddy hadn't grieved, hadn't asked about her mother, hadn't wanted to talk about it. She'd gone on playing with her toys and eating her meals and brushing her teeth, but her mood was more somber, her heart more distant. Her laughter dulled, almost silenced.
That sad quiet was what finally spurred Peyton to go back home from Maryland, arriving yesterday in Stone Gap, North Carolina, one of those small Southern towns where it seemed the world stopped spinning. Where the trees and green landscape seemed to offer peace, and quiet, and healing. And where the last man on earth she wanted to see lived. A man who had no idea she was about to upend his world in a very big way.
For a very good reason. Peyton could only pray that he would see it that way, too.
The soft voice of Madelyne, four years old next week and as beautiful as a ray of sunshine, rose from the space on the carpet between the two double beds in their hotel room. Peyton's only niece, and the only real family she had left. There were times in the days since her sister had died that Peyton wondered how she could move forward, take a breath, without letting the grief drown her. Then she'd look at Maddy, at her bouncy blond curls and her lopsided, toothy smile, and a blanket of warmth would surround Peyton's heart. For Maddy, Peyton would do absolutely anything.
Peyton came around the beds, then bent down and offered her niece a warm smile. "What do you need, kiddo?"
"Can you play dolls with me? I gots a house set up and everything." Maddy waved toward an empty suitcase tipped on its side, flanked by a quartet of blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls in various stages of mismatched glamour. The moment Maddy had arrived back in Stone Gap, she had made herself at home in the hotel room, taking over every square inch of space with toys and clothes, a bright explosion among the tired and boring cream-colored decor.
"Wish I could, but remember I told you I had a meeting this morning? My friend Cassie is coming over to watch you."
"I like Cassie," Maddy said. "She always likes to play dolls."
"She sure does, buttercup!" The loud, happy voice of Cassie Bertram boomed into the room, followed immediately by the woman herselfplatinum blonde, dressed in a bright pink sundress and flip-flops sporting giant plastic flowers. Cassie had always been larger than life, and that was part of what Peyton loved about her best friend.
A peacock, Grandma Lucy had dubbed Cassie, for all her sass and snap. Cassie lit up a room when she walked into it and lived her life out loud, in ways that Peyton could only envy. Cassie had traveled all the opposite roads from Peytonmarried shortly after high school, settling down in Stone Gap with her husband, and then becoming a mother to five kids while working part-time in the school office. Cassie did the bake sales and cookie walks and all the craziness that came with kids, and more often than not, she sported glitter glue on her arms from the craft project du jour. She'd been Peyton's first call when Peyton had decided to come back home for a couple of weeks, and her biggest support system in the chaotic weeks since Maddy had become Peyton's charge. Cassie had visited Peyton often enough over the years that Maddy knew her well and loved her like another aunt.
"I've got a couple hours before I have to pick up the youngest rug rat at preschool," Cassie said to Peyton. "Is that enough time?"
"More than enough. It won't take me long to tell a certain someone that he should " She glanced down at her motherless niece, then stepped toward the window and motioned for Cassie to follow, saying "Be a grown-up. And do his part. Or walk away for good."
Cassie grinned. "I wish I could be a fly on the wall to watch this particular conversation unfold."
"It'll be fine. I'll make a logical, reasonable argument, and he'll see the wisdom in my plan."
"Logical and reasonable? With that hunk of testosterone?" Cassie grinned. "Good luck, honey."
Hunk of testosterone. Definitely three words that described Luke Barlow. Or had when Peyton had been a young, infatuated high school freshman, watching the much older Luke turn his charm on Susannah. Her sister's old boyfriendand also Maddy's irresponsible, never-involved father. According to Susannah, he'd washed his hands of her from the day she told him she was pregnant. She might have let it go, but Peyton sure as hell wasn't going to let the man get away with shirking his fatherly responsibilities, not for one more second. Especially now, when Peyton was nearly at her wit's end. Every decision Peyton made right now was driven by the urgent need to make Maddy whole again.
"How's the little peanut doing?" Cassie asked softly, as if reading Peyton's mind.
"Same. Won't talk about it. She plays and eats and does what she's told, but there's a wall there. I can't get past it."
Cassie put a hand on Peyton's shoulder. "It'll get better."
Peyton sighed. That was what she had been telling herself for a month now, and if anything, things were getting worse, not better. "I hope so. And I really hope I'm making the right decision today."
"Auntie P?" Maddy rose, peered over the bed at Peyton. "Are you leavin'?"
"Just for a little bit, sweetie."
Maddy's face flushed, and her right hand curled tight around the hem of her shirt. "Are you comin' right back?"
Peyton swung over to Maddy and lowered herself to her niece's level. "Right back, sweetie. I promise. Cassie will be here the whole time, and she's going to play dolls with you."
Maddy's lower lip quivered. "How long's a little bit?"
Peyton glanced at Cassie. These were the days that made it hard. Explaining to Maddy that just because she walked out the door didn't mean she was going to disappear forever. "Faster than you can watch Frozen!"
"And we'll sing 'Let it Go' together, munchkin." Cassie grinned at Maddy. "I'll dub you honorary princess for the morning, too."
"Okay," Maddy said, though there wasn't much enthusiasm in her voice. She dropped back onto her Barbie-riddled carpet space and went back to her dolls. Every couple of seconds, her gaze flicked to Peyton, and her shoulders tensed with worry.
Cassie and Peyton crossed to the other side of the bed and lowered their voices again. "You're doing the right thing, Pey. That poor little thing needs family and you need help. And if that foolish man can't be bothered to spend time with that precious gift from heaven " Cassie cast a smile in Maddy's direction. "I'd be glad to keep an eye on that little doll."
"Thanks, but you have your hands full with that basketball team you gave birth to and everything else you're doing. Besides, it's his responsibility to do the right thing." And the sooner Peyton got there to make sure Luke did that, the better. Peyton grabbed her purse, then darted over to plant a quick kiss on Maddy's cheek. "See you in a little bit, sweetie. Be good for Cassie."
"I will." Maddy's eyes were round and full, but she pressed her lips together and affected a brave front.
"A little bit," Peyton said softly, ruffling Maddy's curls. "I promise."
At the door, Cassie drew Peyton into a tight, quick hug. "Good luck. And go easy on Luke. He's a flirt, for sure, but he's always been a nice guy and maybe he had a good reason for what he did."
"The only good reason is being stuck in a cave for the past four years. Something I can arrange, if need be." Peyton grinned.
"I hope you're only half kidding," Cassie called after her. Peyton just grinned again and slipped out the door.
But when she climbed into her car and started the engine, the frustration and worry she'd been feeling for weeks flared anew. Luke Barlow was the town's most eligible bachelor for as long as anyone could rememberone of those charming, handsome, could-do-no-wrong playboysbut who had never had anything to do with his daughter. A daughter who had lost her mother, and desperately needed a caring father.
Peyton remembered those tearful conversations with Susannah, who said she told Luke about the baby the minute she'd taken the home pregnancy test. When he'd told her she was on her own, nineteen-year-old Susannah had left town, leaving behind her chaotic childhood homethe Reynolds parental storm mitigated too rarely by visits to grandma's when they were littledetermined to raise her baby alone. Peyton had followed soon after, switching colleges to be near her sister, and working part-time all through school, helping Susannah financially, emotionallyin all the ways Luke should have and never did.
How could anyone not want to be a part of Maddy's life? From the second she had held her niece in her arms, Peyton had fallen in love. She'd spent every spare minute with Susannah and Maddy, even moving Susannah into her condo in Baltimore so she could be sure they had a solid roof over their heads and a full refrigerator. It had been odd at first, coming home to the responsibilities of a full house when she was barely a grown-up herself, but Peyton had found she liked having a pseudo-family. And though her relationship with her sister had been rocky at bestthe two of them butting heads daily on Susannah's refusal to give up her partying habitsthe blooming bond with Maddy had been the highlight of Peyton's days.
How long's a little bit?
The heartbreaking words from her niece, so unsure and lost in the wake of her mother's death, told Peyton that Maddy needed a father, now more than ever, and the days of Luke Barlow running around town, as footloose as a loose kite in the wind, were over.
Peyton double-checked the address, then drove the few miles across town to Luke's house, located only a few blocks away from where the Barlow boys had grown up. She parked her car, strode up the walk, then pressed the doorbell, reminding herself to try to be calm, logical. To keep emotion out of it.
Uh, yeah, considering the riot in her gut right now, she had a better chance of being hit by a snowstorm.
The bell chimed, a dog barked, and then nothing. Peyton waited in the hot North Carolina air, while the cicadas buzzed in the deep woods to the east side of the house.
Luke lived in a modest bungalow, which surprised her. A house smacked of dependability. A mortgage or a lease. Permanence. She would have never thought he would buy a house, much less live in one.
An old wooden swing much like the one Grandma Lucy had hung for Peyton when she was a little girl drifted in the breeze on ropes hanging from an oak tree just down the hill sloping away from the driveway. The painted white mailbox hoisted a bright red mail-to-take flag, while an audience of pansies waved in the shade underneath. The whole property seemed to beckon her back in time, to the days when life had been unfettered, uncomplicated.
She rang the bell again. Waited some more. The dog kept barking, but there was no movement from inside. A restored Mustang convertible sat in the driveway, like some throwback to the '80s. Peyton shifted her weight, then pressed the bell one more time. If there was any justice in the world, Luke would have gotten bald and fat in the years since she'd last seen him.
The dog barked again, then shushed. A clatter of footsteps, and a moment later, the door was opened.
Luke Barlow stood on the other side, looking sleep-rumpled and scruffy with a five o'clock shadow dusting his chin. Her gut tensed, her breath caught. Definitely not bald or fat. At all. If anything, he looked better than he did when he was in high school, damn him.
"What can I do for you?" he said.
There wasn't a hint of recognition in his eyes. She told herself she wasn't disappointed. After all, she'd grown up a lot in the past five years, ditched the nerdy glasses and khaki pants for contacts and skirts. She'd let her hair grow long, made workouts a daily item on her to-do list and developed more curves than she'd had at graduation. When she was younger, she'd been the annoying little sister, while outgoing, flamboyant Susannah had always taken center stage. Now, though, she was an adult. A woman.
Hopefully, a woman to be reckoned with.
"I take it you don't remember me," she said. "I'm Peyton. Susannah Reynolds's younger sister."
Now recognition dawned in his eyes. His gaze swept over her, lit surprise in his features as he took in her dress, low heels, long hair. "Peyton? Peyton Reynolds? Holy hell, I haven't seen you in years. What are you doing here?"
Luke's deep Southern voice slid through her like honey drizzled over toast. Once upon a time, she'd had a crush on him. But that was a long time in the past, and a lot had happened in the years since. Except his damned voice still made parts of her warm.
She drew herself up. Calm, cool, collected, that was her. Maybe if she thought it enough, the words would be true. "I came by to see you."
She'd meant to say talk to you, but her eyes lit on Luke's tall, trim frame, and the word stuttered into see. He was wearing a bathing suit, the dark blue trunks hanging low on his hips, exposing a defined, tan chest, with a scattering of dark hair running a tempting line down the center of his belly. Her gaze followed that line, then she caught herself and jerked her attention back to his face. Damn. What was wrong with her? She was no longer a silly schoolgirl with an unrequited teenage crush on the older captain of the football team.
He quirked a lopsided grin. Busted. "See me?"
"Talk to you."
The dog took advantage of the open door and scampered onto the porch. Luke waved a hand at the dog.
The terrier glanced up at Luke, as if to say, Do I really have to? When Luke didn't relent, the dog let out a sigh and plopped onto the porch. His tail swished against the wooden floor, hopeful, anxious. It took a second, but then Peyton remembered.
"Is that " Peyton asked, as she leaned forward, peering at the lopsided brown ears, the big chocolate eyes, ".the same dog?"
A slow smile spread across Luke's face. "You remember that?"
Oh, she remembered a lot of things about Luke. Some memories that made her heart trip, some that tripped her common-sense alarms. "I thought you said you were going to bring him to a shelter."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Shirley Jump is a new-to-me author and I really enjoyed this book. The Instant Family Man is about Peyton, who is taking care of her 4 year old niece since her sister died. She takes Maddy to Stone Gap to confront Luke about abandoning his daughter. Luke never knew he had a daughter but is instantly smitten and wants to remain in her life. While Peyton and Luke spend time together so he can get to know his daughter they start to have feelings for each other. Love is a dream come true in this book.
Sits on a couch and waits.
This is a sweet, romantic romp of a book. I highly enjoyed spending the afternoon with Peyton Reynolds and Luke Barlow, as well as Peyton's precious little niece, Maddy. Jump's characters linger like the scent of grass after a spring rain and always remind one of current or former loves. Shirley Jump never disappoints. She is an intricate crafter of plot and her work is equal parts sweet and sensual, something not easy to master. I look forward to reading the next one in the series. It makes you wish the Barlow family were as large as the Waltons!