Rick had been an emotional man, he might have teared up at his child’s sweet, loving proclamation. But Rick hadn’t shed a tear since he’d been younger than Darcie was now. He’d learned early on that nobody gave a tinker’s damn whether he was upset, lonely or hurt. Poor little A.K. Had his own parents ever loved him? Sometimes he wondered if his mother had given him only initials for a first name because it had been quick and easy, no bother for her. But by the time he was in junior high, all his buddies called him Rick, taken from Warrick. And to this day, he preferred the nickname over the solitary initials on his birth certificate.
Rick hugged his daughter, kissed her on her forehead and nuzzled her nose with his. She giggled gleefully. “Thanks, big girl. I think you’re a pretty important person, too.”
“Snooky-nose me again, Daddy.” Darcie pressed her tiny button nose against her father’s long, lean, hawkish nose.
She loved to play what Rick had dubbed “snooky-nose,” where they rubbed their noses together. He repeated the nuzzling, then lifted her and set her down in her chair. “Eat your supper, young lady. I’ve got fifteen minutes to eat, clean up our mess and get you over to Aunt Eve’s.”
“When you own all of Mr. Bobo’s business, then will you be able to stay home with me every night?” Darcie lifted her grilled cheese sandwich.
“You bet.” Rick devoured his soup and sandwich, occasionally glancing at his daughter who nibbled at her food.
He supposed he should see April every time he looked at Darcie. She had the same blond hair and blue eyes, but since she’d been a toddler, every time he looked at his daughter he saw himself—and Lori Lee. Darcie had his facial structure, his wide mouth with a thick bottom lip and his prominent chin, but she was all blond, blue-eyed loveliness like Lori Lee. Once he’d realized Darcie really was his child, he had fantasized that Lori Lee was her mother instead of April.
More than anything, he wanted his daughter to become the kind of woman Lori Lee Guy was.
“While I clean up here, you get your pajamas and your school clothes for tomorrow ready to take over to Aunt Eve’s.”
He knew he had to bring up the subject of enrolling her in the Dixie Twirlers, but he wasn’t quite sure how she’d react. Darcie was shy and had had a difficult time making friends at school.
“Hey, Darcie, how would you like to take baton lessons from a very nice lady?” Rick dumped their disposable utensils, bowls, plates and cups into the garbage sack.
“Do you mean Miss Lori Lee’s twirlers, Daddy?” Darcie clutched her footed pajamas to her chest. “The Dixie Twirlers?”
“You’ve already heard about them, I see.”
“Oh, yes, Daddy. Steffie Royce and Katie Webber are in Twinkle Toes. They get to go to contests and march in parades and—”
“Do I take this enthusiasm to mean you’d like to enroll in classes?” Rick scoured the soup pot with steel wool, then rinsed the container and turned it upside down on the drainboard.
“Can I really? You aren’t kidding me, are you?”
“Tomorrow, after school, Aunt Eve can bring you by the shop, and when I take over an estimate to Miss Lori Lee on a new heating and cooling system, you can go with me. I told her about you today. She wants you to meet the other girls in her beginners’ class and see if you want to join them.”
“I want to join them. I want to join them!” Darcie jumped up and down, then flew across the room and into her father’s arms. “You’re the best daddy in the whole wide world!”
Dear God, what had he ever done to deserve this precious child? He knew he was far from the best father in the world, but if love and devotion counted for anything, then maybe he had a chance of someday earning that title.
“Well, well,” Birdie Pierpont mused, dramatically rolling her big green eyes heavenward. “Life never ceases to amaze me. Just when I’d given up hope of you ever awakening from your hundred-year celibate sleep, along comes Prince Charming to awaken you with a sweet kiss.”
“Rick Warrick is no Prince Charming,” Lori Lee said. “And he’s certainly not going to awaken me with a kiss.”
“No, you’re quite right, sugar. Rick is more a beast than a prince, and I imagine his kisses are more passionate than sweet.”
“Argh!” Lori Lee stormed out from behind the checkout counter in her costume shop and straightened a perfectly straight row of leotards folded neatly on a table. “This is the very reason I didn’t want to even mention Rick’s name to you. I knew you’d start cooking up some scheme in that evil brain of yours.”
“Thank you, sugar, for the compliment. So seldom does anyone appreciate a truly evil brain these days.” Birdie, all two hundred pounds, five feet four inches of her, rounded the corner of the counter and followed her niece.
“I wish I’d never told you about my crush on Rick when I was a teenager. Mother would have been shocked senseless if I’d ever told her that you advised me to go riding off on his motorcycle with him.”
“Look, my dear Miss Prim and Proper.” Birdie planted her pudgy hands on her wide hips. “You’ve been as fidgety as a worm in hot ashes ever since you learned that A. K. Warrick was back in Tuscumbia.” When Lori Lee opened her mouth to protest, her aunt held up a restraining hand. “No, no. Don’t you dare deny it. Since your divorce, you’ve led all the men around here on a merry chase, but not once have I seen you foaming at the mouth. Not until now.”
“Birdie Lou Pierpont, you have the most vulgar way of expressing yourself.” Lori Lee leaned over into the front window, got on her knees and began fiddling with the display. “I am not foaming at the mouth.”
“I’ve been accused of worse things than vulgarity.” Birdie fluffed her curly white-blond hair. “It wouldn’t hurt you to come down off that pedestal the men in town have placed you on and get a little vulgar yourself. I’ll bet Rick could teach you how to get down and dirty.”
Lori Lee crawled out of the display window, turned sharply and glared at her aunt. “Will you please stop this? Rick is going to be here any minute to bring us the estimate for the new heat and air system, and he’s bringing his daughter with him. I want you to promise me that you’ll be on your best behavior.”
Puckering her mouth into a sulk, Birdie crossed her fat arms over her ample bosom and let out a loud huff.
Lori Lee loved her Aunt Birdie dearly, but more often than not the woman tried her patience. She’d never been able to understand how her straitlaced, churchgoing, engineer father could possibly have an older sister as wild, zany and totally unorthodox as Birdie.
“I’ve seen him and his little girl, you know.” Birdie inspected her clawlike red fingemails.
“You never mentioned it to me.”
“I knew you’d been trying to avoid him,” Birdie said. “But I also knew that in a town this size, your paths were bound to cross sooner or later.”
“I have not been avoiding him! There is nothing going on between Rick and me. There never has been. There never will be. He’s going to oversee the installation of the new heat and air system, and I’ll see him when he drops his daughter by for classes and picks her up. That’s the beginning and end of my association with Mr. A. K. Warrick.”
“Fine. Far be it from me to interfere in your dull, lonely life.”
“My life is neither dull nor lonely, thank you very much.”
“Oh, don’t thank me, my dear.” Birdie smiled, cracking her full face into dozens of tiny, thin wrinkles. “You must thank men like Powell Goodman and Jimmy Davison for filling your life with so much passion and excitement.”
“I’m not looking for passion and excitement!”
“Pity.” Birdie tsk-tsked and shook her head sadly. “Rick would