Read Always Devoted Online

Authors: Karen Rose Smith

Always Devoted (3 page)

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When she turned to face Linc, for a few moments the sound of the ocean faded away.  The brush of the breeze on her face hardly registered because she got lost in his green eyes.  But then she remembered why she was here, at his house on the beach.

Her voice was loud and clear above the sound of the surf.  "I'd like to meet Gillian."

Chapter Two

 

When Linc pulled up in front of Emma's bungalow, pretty much the same as every bungalow on the street except for the orange poppies and Redbuds around the foundation, the pretty wreath on the door, he was feeling disconcerted to say the least.  He didn't like his attraction to Emma Henderson.

Plain and simple, he didn’t trust most women.  His parents' divorce had been brutal.  His mother had only wanted custody of him to win the war.  She made up garbage about his dad, how he lost his temper, how he was never home, how he went to the bar with his buddies to drink.  But Linc knew his dad only lost his temper when his mother ran up their credit card bill or when she forgot about Linc's track meet or when she had too many drinks at a party they attended.  And as far as working late?  He'd had to pay for their debt.  A drink with his buddies at a nearby sports bar on Friday afternoons was as far as that went.

Linc had been old enough to know the truth.  By twelve he'd learned to distrust his mother's motives about everything.  She'd wanted a huge divorce settlement and she'd gotten it.

Emma hadn't been able to find personal information on him because he was careful not to put it out there.  And if it got out, Nathan's internet skills managed to block it or make it disappear.

Once he'd thought he'd risk getting married.  Colleen had seemed not to care about his money or his name or his success.  But he'd been bamboozled by her and had learned the truth the hard way.  She'd had an abortion and hadn't told him.  He'd found out by accident when she'd been in another room and he'd picked up her cell phone, thinking he was doing her a favor.  He'd answered a call from a clinic confirming a follow-up appointment.  When he'd looked into that clinic and then confronted Colleen, he'd learned the truth.  She didn't want children.  She wasn't about to lose her figure to a baby or be chained down caring for one.

How had he been so blind?  Maybe he'd just wanted a family too badly.

He loved spending time with Nathan and Gillian, enjoying their kids, and with Jake and Sara and their little boy.  Over the past few months he'd been seriously considering adopting kids of his own.  Why not?  There were plenty of kids out there who needed a home.

As Linc stared at the front door of the bungalow, he somehow knew in his gut that this was a home.

Linc hadn't been able to reach Gillian on her cell.  Sometimes she went hiking with Nathan where there wasn't any cell phone reception.  Sometimes she and Jake had to make a trip to search for missing persons.  If she was flying, her cell would be turned off.

"Why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?  Then we can try Gillian again," Emma said.  "I'd really like to set up an appointment as soon as we can.  If I can't be in my shop, I have to juggle my salesclerks."

Should he go into Emma's house for a cup of coffee?  There was a car in the carport and he assumed that was hers.  "Is your daughter at your neighbor's?"

"No.  Maris watches her here.  If we didn't do it that way, Becky would want to take everything but the kitchen sink over there."

Linc shook his head.  "Kids and their toys.  I bought Nathan's little boy, Matthew, a monster truck for Christmas.  All he wanted to do was play with the box."

Emma's smile as she thought about children and maybe her daughter was devoid of the confusion and turmoil that had been there when she'd talked about her sister.  "Becky's into crafts right now.  She likes pasting cotton balls on a piece of paper to make a lamb or pasting popcorn kernels on a drawing to decorate a tree."

"An artist in the making," Linc suggested.

"Maybe.  But I think she just likes the mess it makes."

Linc laughed.  He enjoyed Emma's down-to-earth way of looking at life.  A cup of coffee with a four-year-old chaperone didn't seem like a bad idea.  But as Linc followed Emma to the side door, he watched the natural sway of her hips in her heels.  He also glimpsed her long, creamy neck as she pushed her hair over her shoulder.  When he again caught the scent of the flowery perfume she was wearing, his body told him coffee, even with a chaperone, could be an ordeal.

She wasn't asking him inside for a rendezvous, he told himself.  She was asking him inside because she wanted to find her sister.

Linc had guessed this door would lead into a kitchen and he was right.  He stepped inside behind Emma, into a charming blue-and-yellow flowered country charm ambience.

As soon as the little girl sitting at the kitchen table saw Emma, she scrambled off her chair and came running toward her.  "Mommy.  Mommy.  You're home!"

Emma stooped and hugged her daughter, gathering her close.  "I've missed you, honey," Emma said, hugging her, tickling her and blowing a kiss in her ear.

Her daughter giggled.  "I'm making cereal houses."

"Cereal houses?"  Emma stood and her gaze met an older woman's.  Her baby sitter was sitting at the table with a crayon in her hand.  "We've been making a whole village."

Emma released her daughter and stood and introduced Linc.  "Maris Stambaugh, this is Linc Granger.  He produced the interview I told you about.  It will air in a few days."

Maris came forward and shook his hand.  "It's good to meet you.  I hope the interview helps bring Paige home."

"I do, too.  We'll be doing plenty of promo for it, including on the social networks."

Emma's arm was around her daughter's shoulders.  "Becky, I'd like you to meet a new friend of mine.  This is Mr. Granger."

He crouched down to Becky's eye level.  "You can call me Linc."

Becky ducked behind her mom's sundress skirt and peeked out at him, only her little face—a very much younger version of Emma's—visible.

"She's often shy around new people," Emma explained.

"That's understandable," Linc said, still crouched down.  "Becky, can you call me Linc?"

She screwed up her little face.  "Linc?"

He laughed.  "Success!  How many houses do you have in your village?"

She seemed torn between her shyness and wanting to tell him.  He waited, knowing that's what you had to do with kids.

Finally, Becky looked up at her mom.  Emma nodded, as if it was okay to reveal such important information to him.

Suddenly Becky's arm appeared from behind her mom's skirt and she held up two fingers.  But then she added, "We're makin' more."

"Maybe you can paint a few of those cereal pieces silver and make a car, too."

"Don't give her any ideas," Emma chided.  "Have you been around paint and four-year-olds?"

He chuckled.  "I usually don't have to handle the cleanup."  Then he addressed Becky again.  "Do you want to show me your pictures?"

This time she forgot about being shy.  She ran over to the table, grabbed one and brought it to him.  "It's dry!" she proclaimed proudly.

"Good thing, too," Emma said wryly, noting the pieces of circular cereal all over the table and a few scattered on the floor.

Linc gave the picture the proper attention it deserved, then he rose to his feet.  "Would you like to show me the ones that aren't dry?"

Nodding vigorously, Becky led him over to the table.

He caught Emma studying him curiously.  Then she was in motion.  "I'll make that coffee."

#

As the coffee pot gurgled and spit, Emma watched Linc with her daughter.  He really
did
seem to like kids.  His talk about spending time with his friends' children must have been the truth.

Why wouldn't she expect the truth?  Because Barrett had lied to her on occasion—nothing big, just a little white lie here and there.  He'd tell her he was working late.  He was an accountant with his own office.  But then she'd find out he was really playing poker with friends.  Why he hadn't just told her that in the first place, she could never figure out.  He'd tell her he'd be home for supper at 5:00, but not actually come home until around 7:00.  It was as if he wanted to keep her off balance.  Maybe it had just been a control issue.

After Maris left, Emma noted that Linc was still talking to her daughter, helping her arrange cereal on another house.  Every once in a while they'd each snitch a piece and eat it.  Barrett hadn't played with Becky, hadn't cooed to her, rocked her, or fed her.  That had been Emma's responsibility, and she'd loved doing it.  But she'd felt so alone, like the things that really mattered to her hadn't mattered to Barrett.  Having a little girl to raise was something he put up with and didn't enjoy.  When they were dating and first married, he'd been charming and considerate.  But after Becky was born, their marriage had changed. 
He
had changed and she hadn't known what to do about it.

Becky's voice suddenly pierced her musings.  "Can Linc read a book with us?"

"Oh, I don't know, honey.  Linc's a busy man.  He might not have time."

Linc looked down at her daughter and then up at her.  When their gazes met, she felt the room shake a little.  It was an entirely disturbing feeling and one she wasn't used to.  She tried not to let
anyone
rock her world, but this man was succeeding in more ways than one.

He said, "I have to make a phone call.  But I do have time.  It's up to your mom, though.  Reading a book before bed is pretty special.  You don't just share that with anyone."

He was telling her it was okay if she didn't want him farther into her house, okay if she didn't want him to move farther into her life.  Confused by her attraction to him, but recognizing the way he was making her daughter feel special, she agreed to Becky's request.  "Okay, honey.  Do you think you can get cleaned up there?"

"Can you help?" she asked Linc, who definitely seemed to be her new friend.

"I can if your mom has a dustpan.  Somehow the cereal seemed to jump all over the floor."

Becky giggled.

Emma knew the cleanup wouldn't take long.  But when she took the dustpan off the hook in the closet and handed it to Linc, they seemed to be standing very close together.  He took up all the space in her kitchen.  He was so tall, so broad-shouldered, so slim-hipped, so…sexy.  Her mind went places it hadn't been for a very long time.

As he took the dustpan from her, he gave her a crooked smile, as if he seemed to know what she was thinking.  She felt flustered all over again.  She wished he could reach Gillian Bradley and reach her quickly.

Linc took out his phone while she readied Becky for bed.  She was picking out a book from the shelf when he entered the purple-and-yellow flouncy bedroom.  It was pure little girl with its white dresser, bookshelves, desk and single bed, its lilac curtains and purple comforter.  Becky's favorite color was purple, so Emma had given in to her daughter's desire to have the color everywhere.  But Linc seemed like a giant in the room and Emma realized it wasn't just his tall, fit build—it was his presence.  He emanated confidence and power.

He answered her question without her having to ask.  "Still not answering.  Nathan isn't either, which makes me think—"  He gave a shrug.  "They don't have many evenings alone, so they might be taking advantage of this one."

Emma knew she and Barrett hadn't done that often enough.  Maybe if they had, they would have grown together in their marriage instead of apart.

Linc reassured her, "I've left messages.  Gillian will get back to me as soon as she can." 

In the same small room, Emma couldn't ignore the electricity that was zipping back and forth between her and Linc.  Totally impossible, she told herself again.  Impossible.

But when Linc hunkered down beside Becky and asked, "Which are your favorite books?" and helped her pick out one they both liked, Emma sighed with an almost resigned acceptance of what she was feeling.  She wanted to touch his broad back.  She wanted to run her fingers through his thick brown hair.  She wanted to—

Nope, she didn't.  Not here, not now.  Not anywhere, not anytime.  Since Becky's bed was a single, Linc sat on one side of her daughter on the side of the bed and Emma sat on the other.

"Can
you
read?" Becky asked Linc.

Surprised, Emma glanced at him.  He seemed unfazed by her daughter's request.  "Sure."  He pointed up at the ceiling where silver stars were painted in a variety of constellations.  "What are those?"

Becky giggled.  "My stars.  We count them before I go to sleep."

"What a great idea," Linc said, glancing over at Emma as if she were a very smart mom.  His admiration felt good.

Even with Becky between them, Emma was aware of his bare hair-roughened legs in the cutoffs, his muscled forearms as he held Becky's book, the deep timbre of his voice as he read.  He seemed so comfortable, she wondered how many times he'd read to his friends' children.

After the story was finished, Becky looked up at Linc as if she expected something from him.  How easily she could get attached.  She saw her friends' daddies pushing them on swings, helping them on jungle gyms.  She knew her daddy had gone away somewhere and was never coming back.  Like Emma herself when she was a child, did Becky long for a father who would give her hugs and kisses and was always there when she needed him?

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