Authors: Karen Rose Smith
"Who did you end up living with?"
Linc felt as if he was excavating his childhood and didn't like doing it. "My mom. But she didn't really want me. She just wanted the child support. So when I was sixteen, I went to live with my dad."
"Where's your dad now?"
"He lives in Portland."
"And your mom?"
There Emma went again, hitting a vulnerable spot. "After I went to live with dad, she wanted nothing to do with me."
"You still don't talk?"
"Talk? All my mother cares about is money. When I was nominated for my first Emmy she contacted me wanting some."
"What did you do?"
"I gave it to her in the form of a trust she couldn't blow all at once. I haven't heard from her since."
The empathy in Emma's eyes was almost too much to gaze at. The expression on her face wasn't pity, but rather understanding. He almost wanted to get up and leave. Whatever was happening between him and Emma was happening way too fast. He knew she wasn't ready for it.
What about him? He didn't know if he was ready, either. But he did know this beautiful woman with the little girl and understanding heart and too much on her plate couldn't keep handling all of it alone.
"You need to get a good night's sleep."
She laughed. "It's already midnight."
"I know. So some deep, unworried sleep matters even more."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm suggesting I sleep on your couch tonight. What if you get dizzy again and you're alone here with Becky? Until you have that blood work done, you won't know if something's going on that shouldn't be. Zack can probably get it rushed through. If you go to the medical center first thing in the morning, you'll know by the next day."
"Fainting won't happen again. I was just overwrought and overtired."
"My point exactly. If I sleep on your couch, maybe you'll feel safe and actually fall into a deep sleep. When Becky gets up, I can make breakfast and you can sleep a little later."
"Absolutely not! I'm not going to start depending on you, Linc. That won't be good for me."
He was about to argue when Gillian came into the kitchen, looking excited.
"Are you sure your sister never mentioned San Diego?"
Since Emma had eaten and had lots to drink—Linc kept pushing milk and juice—she definitely felt more clear-headed, though her anxiety level hadn't lessened. She searched her mind again for any references Paige had ever made to San Diego and still came up empty.
"I'm sorry. Nothing I can remember."
Gillian pulled out a kitchen chair and sat. "Jake found posts by a man—Tim Levine."
Again, Emma searched her mind for that name, and finally shook her head.
"He and Paige had a get-to-know-you back-and-forth about a year and a half ago," Gillian said. "Then just a post here and there until another flurry about six months ago. Yet I got the sensation that they communicated in between somehow. When I read his posts, I'm getting a strong sense of Paige—like they're still very connected. Does she have a long tunic top with a tie-dye design?"
Emma felt excitement she hadn't experienced since her sister disappeared. "Yes. She made it last year for Christmas."
"That's when their posts were more frequent," Gillian murmured with a nod.
"What were they about?"
"Nothing helpful. But I got the feeling they might have taken their friendship offline. There was an email in your recycle bin from him. She thanked him for being there and said she'd call soon. When we checked this guy's stats, we saw he lived in San Diego. Jake always tries to find a fact to confirm my feeling. We did."
"So what's next?" Linc asked.
Emma had already realized he was a man of action.
Jake entered the kitchen then, looking tired, but pleased they had a lead. "Gillian and I are going to fly to San Diego. The question is—do you want to come along?"
"You made a good decision," Linc said with a smile as Emma walked into the living room, carrying two pillows and a sheet.
He took them from her and somehow transferring bed pillows from her arms to his caused her racing thoughts to speed up into super-drive. This could be
a big mistake. "All three of you convinced me. I do need to get some rest. Tomorrow I'll have to put some things in order if we're leaving for San Diego the following morning."
"You just wanted to shut us all up. That's why you agreed to me staying. Jake and Gillian are worried about you, too," he said more softly.
"I understand. I scared everyone. They won't want me along if I can't hold my own."
After plumping the pillows, Linc plopped them at the foot of the sofa. Then he unfurled the sheet and draped it at the opposite end.
"You're going to be uncomfortable out here. You're welcome to sleep in the guest bedroom."
"But it's really not a guest bedroom, is it? It's Paige's room."
The night had been one surprise after another. Now here she was with a near-stranger in her living room and he was spending the night.
"How am I going to explain you to Becky?" she suddenly wondered.
The look in Linc's eyes as he approached her caused Emma's breath to hitch. He was in her house, under her roof and anything could happen. But she had a daughter to think of and it couldn't.
Almost tenderly, he slid a hand on either side of her face and held her there, gazing at her with concern and desire and protectiveness she'd never felt from a man before. "Becky has sleep-overs, doesn't she?" he asked.
"You mean with friends?"
"Sure. Jake's little boy does it. Nathan's girls do, too. Just tell Becky you and I are having a sleep-over."
"I can imagine her telling that to her friends!"
Her expression must have been so wry, Linc laughed. "She'll be having a sleep-over with Maris," he pointed out reasonably.
She had to call Maris in the morning to make sure she was available to stay with Becky.
They had decided to keep their tickets open-ended. Jake would be making reservations today. So she didn't know exactly when they'd be back. She hoped she'd be back the same day. But it depended if their leads were really leads. A name from
and one email didn't seem to be much to go on.
Before Linc could kiss her and she fell into his arms, possibly ending up in her bedroom, she backed away.
"Are you going to take the sleep medication Zack left for you?" He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets, as if he wanted to do something else with them but wasn't.
"I'd rather not. I'm tired enough. I should be able to fall asleep."
"I'm sure you've been tired other nights. Did you sleep then?"
"No," she admitted. "That's what started this whole cycle."
"Then don't try to be an iron maiden. Do what you have to do. That's why I'm staying over."
His chiding tone rubbed her the wrong way. He must have seen that because he massaged the back of his neck. "It's your life. You do what you want. I'm going to switch on the sports channel for a while if it won't bother you. And then I'm out. It takes me about two seconds to fall asleep."
Relaxing a bit, she knew he was being kind. And she was acting like a woman who— Who'd never had a man around before. That wasn't true. But her relationship with Barrett had never been filled with all these sparks...a push-pull she didn't understand...and an innate desire on her part to make sure Linc knew where she stood.
"What time do you get up?"
"Early," he said almost curtly and she felt bad that this "awkwardness" was interfering with what could be a decent friendship.
"I'll have to make some early calls and video-conference," he added.
"You won't have to go into work?"
"I'll drive into the studio tomorrow afternoon. I have a few meetings and a schedule to rearrange if I'm going to be away. I should be back for an important taping on Monday. But we'll see how things go. We don't know what we're going to find. Sometimes Jake and Gillian have to do the footwork without the well-meaning interference from relatives or friends."
"You're saying I could get in the way."
There was that blunt honestly again that she wasn't sure she liked. But there were so many other things about Linc Granger that she
like. Maybe too many things. She'd only known the man a little over a week but it felt like a lot longer.
As Emma turned toward the hall and her bedroom, Linc asked, "Am I making you uncomfortable because you don't want me here? Or am I making you uncomfortable because you want your husband here?"
How would Barrett have acted if he were here and Paige had disappeared? She hadn't stopped to think about that. To her dismay, she realized she'd have to be taking care of him as well as Becky. After Becky had been born, he'd been...jealous of his daughter and the fact that Emma no longer had as much time to spend with him as she had before their baby had come into the world. In some ways, he'd acted entitled to what she could provide as a wife. But then they'd developed a rhythm. He'd understood Becky's needs had had to come first. Their marriage had settled into something satisfying if not exciting.
But he wouldn't have been any kind of help in this situation. Not knowing how much comfort he would have been made her sad.
"I'm confused about a lot right now, Linc. But as far as tonight goes, I'm glad you're here."
Then she hightailed it out of the living room for her bedroom before anything happened between them she'd regret.
Linc felt the tug on his arm and instantly came awake. Becky's dark brown eyes held questions and he didn't have most of the answers.
"Mommy's door's shut! Her door's not ever shut."
Linc had closed Emma's bedroom door last night after she'd fallen asleep. He'd guessed she probably left it open so she'd hear her daughter. But last night she'd needed sleep and he had intended to take care of Becky if she called.
"Your mommy's been really tired lately. So I thought it was a good idea if I stayed and helped if either of you needed anything."
Becky shifted a small pink blanket she'd dragged in over her arm and bit her lower lip as she considered his explanation. Then she eyed the remote on the coffee table. "Can we watch SpongeBob?"
Maybe Emma didn't let her watch TV in the morning. If so, today was going to be an exception. He sat up and handed her the remote. "Do you know the channel?"
Grinning at him, she pressed the "Power" button then three of the numbers.
, he thought with a shake of his head. SpongeBob popped up on the screen. At least it wasn't another Barbie movie like Nathan's youngest daughter insisted on watching.
When Becky sidled close to Linc and laid her head against his chest, then poked her thumb into her mouth, he felt as if he'd dropped into a life that wasn't really his. Draping his arm around Becky, he watched the cartoon with her.
After about a half hour, though, he'd had enough. Action was his strong suit. "Are you hungry?"
"Is there time for pancakes?"
Linc imagined that on days when Emma left for work, pancakes weren't on the breakfast menu. But today, he wasn't going to deny this little girl anything.
A few minutes later, Linc realized that Emma kept an organized pantry. It wasn't long before he found an electric griddle, pancake mix, milk and eggs.
When Becky wandered into the kitchen, her pink blanket over her arm, she pushed one of the kitchen chairs over beside him.
After she climbed up on it, she announced, "Mommy lets me watch."
"Does she let you help stir? I can always use help stirring."
Becky finally let her blanket drop to the chair seat, took hold of the spoon he held out to her, and tried her best to stir the eggs into the mix with the milk. There were a few splashes of course. He'd have to change his shirt before he dropped by his office. But a few dollops of pancake batter were nothing compared to the good feeling in his chest for helping this mother and daughter.
He'd flipped the last of the golden brown pancakes on the griddle and was watching the scrambled eggs on the stove when Emma came through the living room. Just awakened, she looked sexy. Visions of her waking up beside him urged his internal temperature up a few degrees.
Becky must have heard her mom's soft footsteps, because from her shotgun position at the griddle, she turned and spotted her. Quicker than lightning could strike, she was off the chair and running to her.
Emma hugged her as if she hadn't seen her for a week. "Hey, baby. What are you doing?"
"Makin' us breakfast. Helpin' Linc. It's almost done. Come see."
Becky grabbed her mom's hand and pulled her toward Linc.
Emma's gaze met Linc's. "Good morning."