What do you do when your dreams for tomorrow happen today? John Forster's plans to eventually be a father hit high gear when he's granted custody of his little girl. Although he does his best, it's soon clear she needs help adjusting to this small Australian town. Fortunately, there's one person with the right skills to assistKatie Henning. Too bad she's his ex-fiancée.
Seeing Katie with his daughter resurrects John's dreams about having a family together. And the simmering attraction that still sparks when he's with Katie makes him think, maybe. Maybe he can make up for their past. Maybe he can build on what they share now. And maybe they can have that future he's always wanted.
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Katie gazed at the children's book section in Summerside Books, pretending she was just browsing, drawing out the anticipation of seeing Lizzy And Monkey on the shelf.
She had finished having a coffee and a chat with Josie, the owner of the shop. Now she couldn't wait any longer. The bright red cover was in her peripheral vision. Slowly, slowly, she let her gaze alight. Her breath caught.
Lizzy And Monkey by Katie Henning.
With the cover facing out. Thanks, Josie.
She took out her cell phone, glanced around to make sure no one was watching and snapped a photo.
"Katie, hi." John Forster appeared from around the corner of a bookshelf. Six foot four, he had the broad shoulders of a swimmer, the lean build and sun-streaked blond hair of a surfer. With a wink he presented her with his profile, a strong nose and chiseled jaw. "Did you get my good side?"
"Hey, John." She stuffed her phone in her purse.
Of all the people who could have caught her gloating over her bookit had to be her ex-fiance. If he could still be called that after seven years apart. There must be a statute of limitations on how long someone could be referred to as an ex: ex-fiance, ex-lover, ex-friend. Now he was the chief of police in Summerside and her brother Riley's best mate. Someone she didn't avoid exactly, but neither did she spend a moment longer in his company than was necessary for small-town politeness.
His intense blue gaze swept over her from head to toe then returned to linger on her face. "You look great. I like your hair like that. What are you up to?"
Self-consciously she tucked a dark strand of shoulder-length hair behind her ear. He always did this, acted as if he didn't remember they'd broken up. Even though she never gave him the slightest encouragement.
She moved away, pretending to look at other books. "i'm looking for new titles for my classroom."
The long dimples in his cheeks deepened. He pulled Lizzy And Monkey off the shelf. "This looks interesting."
She reached out to stop him from handling her book. Grinning, he backed up, daring her to come after him. She snatched her hand away. "You know about this. How?"
"Riley, who else?" John flipped through the colorful pages. "Congratulations, by the way. I remember you talking about wanting to write, years ago. It's a big achievement."
"Thanks." She made a mental note to kill her brother the next time she saw him. Or at least seriously maim him.
"Why so secretive? You're a published author now. You'll have to get used to publicity. You should have a launch party and sign copies." Somehow he'd edged close enough to nudge her.
His bare arm heated her skin below the cap sleeve of her cherry-red dress. He smelled like bracing ocean winds, sea minerals and memories. Although he didn't surf professionally anymore she knew he still swam in the bay every morning.
Casually she stepped away. His touch didn't affect her one way or another. And they were no longer on flirting terms.
A burst of laughter from a group of teenage girls heading to the in-store cafe reminded her where she ought be. "I've got to get back to school." She tried to ease past him to get to the central aisle. "Excuse me."
"Katie, wait." He deliberately blocked the narrow space between bookshelves.
"The lunch bell is going to ring soon." Coolly she gazed into his Paul Newman eyes. He didn't bother her. She didn't care. She'd gotten over him long ago. She refused to make herself late because of him. There was nothing he could say that would detain her another second
"Do you think a six-year-old girl would enjoy your book?"
Except that. Damn it, with a few words she was hooked.
"I wrote it for that age group." Was he teasing her again? On the whole she thought not. The eye glint and the dimples were not in evidence. "Are you asking for one of your nieces?"
"Er something like that."
It wasn't like John to be evasive. If she wasn't one of his nieces then his current girlfriend must have a daughter. According to her brother, John had broken up with Trudy, his previous squeeze, a few weeks ago. His girlfriends never lasted longer than six months. Whoever she was would be another in a long and endless line of John's women. Katie was inured to that now. She wasn't really interested but writers were curious types.
"New woman in your life, one with a kid?"
Instead of replying he flipped through the book, turning his attention to the colorful illustrations. "Nice pictures. Riley said you did those, too."
"Is this little girl from around here?" Not in her class, she hoped, her mind skipping ahead to John arriving at school to pick up some other woman's child. Well, it had to happen someday. She was surprised he'd remained single this long. He'd been in a hurry to marry when they'd been going togethermaybe he'd finally met another woman who had been able to convince him to drop his role as the town playboy.
"What's the story about?" he asked, still ignoring her questions.
"A little girl and her pet monkey. Sort of Curious George meets Madeleine!''
"I always had a soft spot for monkeys."
She knew that, of course. John was the inspiration for Monkey in the story. Bold, clever, brave. "The monkey and the girl go on adventures together. It's going to be a series." If her latest book proposal was picked up by her publisher. Big if, but she was counting on it.
He closed the book and smiled at her. "Your hair looks really pretty today."
"You said that." She felt nothing, she really didn't.
"Do you have time for a coffee?" he went on. "It's been ages since we've had a chat."
"I can't. I told you. I have to get back to school." She wished he would stop. He never gave up asking her out even though she'd replied with a firm no about a billion times.
"No worries. Another time." He said it as if it mattered not a whit to him, as if all his flirtation was just hot air. It probably was. John didn't seem to know any other way to relate to women.
He held the book out to her, open at the title page.
"Will you sign it?"
Katie dug in her purse for a pen. "Who should I make it out to?"
"That's unusual," she said, but didn't make much of it. As a teacher she'd learned not to bat an eye at the odd names parents came up with these days. She propped the book on her knee and wrote:
To Tuti, I hope you enjoy my book. Warmest wishes, Katie Henning.
Katie couldn't help smiling as she handed the book back. She'd just signed her very first book. "Do you think the girl you're buying this for will like a story about a monkey?"
He didn't answer for a moment while he read her inscription. Then he looked up at her. His smile had the power to melt hearts. But not hers. "Monkeys are perfect. They live in the jungle near her village."
Katie blinked. "Seriously? She lives near a jungle?"
"Yep." That was it, no elaboration.
Not the offspring of the girlfriend of the moment. Who, then? No, no, no. She was not going to ask about the mysterious Tuti. Writer or not, she didn't care enough about John to be that interested.
He tucked the book under his arm and gave her a last lingering look. "I'll see you around."
No, he wouldn't unless it was by accident. Katie made sure she was never at the same social gatherings, despite their mutual friends. The statute of limitations would never be up on his violation after he'd abandoned her when she'd needed him most.
But then curiosity got the better of her after all. As he turned to go, she asked, "Who is Tuti?"
His smile was bland and fixed. But a shadow passed across his eyes. She couldn't read his expression.
"Just a girl I know in Bali," he said.
John tied a traditional Balinese brown cotton band around his head. He didn't know Tuti, his six-year-old daughter. He was about to meet her for the first time at the funeral of her mother, Nena. He was mixed-up and confused, not sure how he was supposed to feel. This meeting was never supposed to happen. What would he say? What should he do? What was going to happen to Tuti now?
Incense wafted over the high stone walls of the family compound. Drumming and chanting floated on the sea breeze. Wearing a borrowed batik sarong beneath his short-sleeved shirt John went through the gates to join the dozens of family and friends behind the funeral tower, a thirty-foot-high golden pagodalike structure built of wood and bamboo that transported Nena's body.
Women dressed in silk batik sarongs and lace blouses carried offerings of flowers and fruit on their heads. The men wore cotton headdresses and sarongs. The funeral procession slowly wound through the tiny fishing village. There was no crying, no sadness, even though Nena had died prematurely in a motorcycle accident. In Bali, death wasn't a cause for grief but a celebration of a life that had moved to a higher plane.
John recognized Tuti among the throng by the pigtails that stuck out on either side of her head. She also wore traditional clothing and carried her niece, a toddler almost as big as she was. He hadn't had a chance to speak to her yet. He'd arrived late last night and the elaborate funeral preparations, already two days old, consumed everyone's time.
Tuti had no idea who he was. Was there any point in telling her? He'd only come to pay his respects to Nena and to make sure the girl would be cared for.
There'd never been any question that he and Nena might stay together long term. They'd both been clear it was a holiday fling. He'd been on the rebound and Nena, who worked in a souvenir shop in Kuta, a tourist hot spot and part of the surfing scene, wasn't looking for a husband. When she found out she was pregnant, she made her intentions known. She didn't want to live in Australia, nor did she want her child to pine for a father who only visited once a year. It was better to raise the child without John. That had hurt but he'd sent her money regularly and extra whenever she needed it. He would continue to help out Nena's brother and the family.
Being back in Bali, among Nena's people, brought back memories and emotions from that turbulent time. What he'd wanted out of life and what he'd ended up with were, sadly, two different things. He'd wanted a home and family with Katie but instead she'd gotten cancer and broken their engagement. Fleeing to Bali, he'd had a fling with Nena and accidentally fathered her child.
Katie had been near death but she'd survived. Nena, the picture of health, had died at the age of thirty-three. He and Katie lived in the same small town and he saw her frequently, but their relationship was strained. After his affair with Nena, despite telephone and email communication, he'd never seen her again. It was a tribute to the generosity of her family and community that he was now welcomed into her world.
When he'd known Nena seven years ago she'd seemed very Western. Her funeral, and village life on the less-populated side of the island, was revealing a foreign culture with unfamiliar rituals. He didn't know whether nonfamily members were aware he was Tuti's father, but his presence seemed to be accepted.
He joined the procession that wound its way to the cremation grounds next to a temple overlooking the ocean. The coffin was placed in a ten-foot-high wooden bull painted in black and gold standing atop a funeral pyre. The white-robed priest said prayers. There was more chanting, more incense. The dissonant notes of a gamelan orchestragongs, bells, xylophones and drumsfilled the air.
Someone doused the bull with petrol and set it alight. Flames shot skyward. Heat pushed the crowd back. Silently, John said a few words of remembrance. He hadn't known Nena long but he'd cared about her. She was gone far too soon.
He glanced around for Tuti. She stood a little apart, on her tiptoes, trying to see through the crowd. Her headdress was askew, her pigtails sagging. Someone must have taken the toddler. In her hands she held an offering of woven palm frond containing boiled rice and marigold petals.
John nudged through the crowd to get to her. He touched her shoulder and mimed picking her up so she could see. She nodded shyly. He hoisted her onto his hip and carried her to the front where he lowered her briefly so she could place her offering by the fire. He didn't know if he was breaking any customs or committing an impropriety but it felt like the right thing to do. Then her small arm circled his shoulders. He blinked and swallowed around a lump in his throat. Tuti was too young to be without her mother.
After the ceremony, the feasting began. John set Tuti on the ground and they made their way to a bale, a raised wooden platform where the women were laying out rice, fruits, vegetables and spicy grilled meats on banana leaves.
Wayan, Nena's older brother, was seated cross-legged on the bale, his legs tucked beneath his brown-and-purple sarong. At his invitation John kicked off his sandals and climbed up, folding his legs into a cross-legged posture. Tuti brought him a glass of rice liquor.
From previous visits to Bali John knew the Balinese often spent their life savings on cremation ceremonies. He had ready an envelope containing several hundred dollars. This he passed to Wayan. "To help with the funeral."
Wayan nodded his thanks and slipped the envelope into a fold of his sarong. Then he gestured at the array of food. "Please, have something to eat."
John spent the hours until sundown among Nena's family and friends. He spoke with the adults but his gaze frequently drifted to Tuti. Now that the formal ceremony was over she and the other children ran around and played. She was a tomboy, climbing barefoot up a palm tree with her sarong hiked up, revealing pink shorts underneath. He smiled to himself. As a boy he'd spent half his life up in trees. Somehow he'd always imagined his sonwhen he had onewould be a tree climber. He'd never thought of a daughter that way. Yet here was Tuti, just like him in that respect.
One of Tuti's aunts spoke to her in Balinese with what sounded like a gentle reprimand. Tuti shook her head and giggled, showing her dimples. The aunt smiled and gestured for her to come down. Tuti just tilted her head and laughed again.
John blinked. Until this moment, he hadn't thought Tuti bore any physical resemblance to him or his family. In appearance she looked much like her mother's sidebrown skin, dark hair, almond-shaped eyes. But the way she'd tilted her head just then she reminded him of his mother.
The realization rocked him. All through Tuti's short life he'd been able to hold himself apart from her. Yes, he'd had the DNA test to prove she was his and he did the right thing with support payments. But he'd done that as though sending money to a sponsor child, as if he had no personal ties to Tuti. Even when he'd first seen her it was easy to feel separate because superficially she looked nothing like him.
Witnessing their connection in the small mannerism was living proof they were connected, that Tuti wasn't just a distant responsibility. She was his daughter. His parents' granddaughter. His brother and sisters' niece. It was a bizarre thing to realize here and nowsurrounded by Nena's familybut the foreignness just made the recognition sharper.
Tuti belonged to him. She was part of his family, too. He simply couldn't walk away from that.
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