BEVERLY BARTON

A Child Of Her Own


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be just the man to give you both, but since you’re not interested... Of course, he does have one thing you might want.”

      “There’s nothing he has that I want.”

      “Are you sure?”

      “I’m sure,” Lori Lee said adamantly.

      “Not even his child?”

      “Are you implying that... For your information, several of the men I date have children, if I wanted a man for that reason.”

      “Yes, but all of the ones with children also have exwives,” Birdie reminded her. “I understand Rick’s wife is dead.”

      “I’m going to say this one more time, and then we’re not ever going to have this discussion again. Rick is not my type. He wasn’t fifteen years ago, and he’s not now. We have nothing in common.”

      The front door opened and the UPS carrier delivered a large box. Lori Lee signed for the package, exchanged pleasantries with the deliveryman and lifted the box to the top of the checkout counter.

      Just as she found a knife and positioned it to rip apart the box, the door opened again. She glanced up and her heartbeat accelerated. Rick walked in holding the hand of the little, blond angel at his side. Lori Lee glanced back and forth from Rick to his child. Tears misted her eyes. She looked down, concentrating on opening the box, trying desperately to hide her reaction.

      Rick’s little girl could be her little girl. The little girl Lori Lee had carried in her body for five months. The little girl who’d been unable to live outside her mother’s body.

      “Well, Rick, how are you?” Birdie padded across the floor in her sock feet, leaned down and held out her hand. “Hello there, cutie. You must be Darcie Warrick.”

      “How’d you know my name?” the child asked, gazing up at Birdie, a tenuous smile quivering on her lips.

      “Aunt Birdie knows all sorts of things about people,’ Birdie said. ”Especially people who interest me. And you, Darcie, interest me a great deal.”

      “I do?”

      “Yes, you do.”

      “Why?”

      “Well, you come with me and I’ll get you a cola and show you all the wondrous things in our little Sparkle and Shine shop here, then I’ll tell you why you interest me so ’ Birdie offered Darcie her hand. The child accepted, then looked to her father for approval.

      “It’s fine, sweetie. You go with Miss Birdie,” Rick said.

      “And you—” Birdie pointed to Rick “—take my niece over to the studio and discuss business. When you two come to a decision, I’ll sign whatever papers are necessary and write out a check.”

      When Rick and Lori Lee didn’t respond, just glanced awkwardly at each other, Birdie shooed them with a wave of her hand. “Go on, now. Darcie and I will be over to the studio by the time the beginners’ class starts.”

      “We can discuss things here, if you prefer,” Rick told Lori Lee, sensing her reluctance to go to the studio alone with him.

      “No, we’ll leave and pacify Aunt Birdie. She loves to fill children’s heads with all kinds of nonsensical stories while she gives them a grand tour. And kids usually love looking at all our costumes and supplies.”

      “I’ll bet y’all do a booming business around Halloween.” Rick surveyed the shop, noticing the wide variety of items, everything from ballet slippers and majorette boots to magic wands and drum major batons.

      “We do a good business year-round,” Lori Lee told him. “We supply all our twirlers, the Deshler band and majorettes and several of the dance studios, as well as a little theater group.”

      “Sounds like you’re doing all right.” Rick wondered just how much Lori Lee depended on her two jobs for an income. She’d been born into an upper middle class family, and he’d heard that not only had she inherited money from her maternal grandparents, but that her aunt was filthy rich.

      “I make a good living,” Lori Lee said. “Come on. While you explain what I need to know about your installing the new heat and air system, I’ll show you around my studio and give you an idea of what all is involved in your daughter—in Darcie—taking lessons.”

      Rick followed Lori Lee out of the Sparkle and Shine shop to the studio in the adjacent building. He watched the way she walked, a seductive hip-swaying come-on that she wasn’t even aware of. He’d known a lot of women in his thirty-three years, but he’d never known anyone as beautiful as Lori Lee Guy. How the hell had a woman like her remained single so long after her divorce? Had her ex-husband done such a number on her that he had scared her off marriage forever?

      “Come on in,” she said, unlocking the door.

      The moment he stepped inside, Rick felt the warmth. Puzzled at first, he surveyed the studio and discovered that she’d strategically placed small electric heaters around the room.

      “I’m going to hold classes down here until the new heating system is put it,” she said. “I’ve closed off the upstairs temporarily. I simply can’t postpone any more classes. We’re going to Gadsden next weekend for a competition.”

      Rick reached inside his jacket and pulled out the estimate. He’d worked it up around midnight last night, after he returned from the garage he rented on a monthly basis so he’d have a place to restore Powell Goodman’s ’Vette.

      “Here’s the estimate. The price covers everything.” He handed her the papers. “Look it over and let me know if you have any questions.”

      . “Let’s sit down.” She nodded toward the lounge area. “Would you like some coffee? I can put some on.”

      “Don’t go to any trouble for me.”

      “No, no trouble. I usually have a pot waiting for the mothers who like to stay and chat while their daughters are in class.”

      She glanced over the estimate quickly, noting every detail and deciding immediately that the cost seemed reasonable.

      “I noticed that several of Tuscumbia’s best families have their daughters in your classes.” Rick stuffed his hands in his pockets, then lifted his heels off the floor repeatedly as he craned his neck backward and glanced around the studio. “I want Darcie to be accepted.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t want who I am or who I was to... Well, you know what I’m trying to say. I never fit in. I was always an outsider. I don’t want that for my little girl.”

      The way he said my little girl hit a sympathetic cord inside Lori Lee. No matter what his sins were—past and present—it was obvious that Rick loved his daughter.

      “I can’t promise you that having Darcie enrolled here at Dixie Twirlers will ensure her popularity, but...well, I’ll certainly do what I can to see that she fits in and feels a part of everything we do.” Lori Lee tossed the estimate on the sofa, then busied herself preparing the coffee machine.

      “She’s all excited about taking lessons,” Rick said. “She’s a little shy and I was afraid she might feel uncomfortable around a group of kids she doesn’t know, but she’s been jumping for joy ever since I mentioned it to her.”

      “I’ll start her out in the beginners’ class,” Lori Lee explained. “She’ll need two batons. One for class and one for competition. We sell them next door at Sparkle and Shine.”

      Rick grinned, his sexy, captivating smile that turned Lori Lee’s stomach inside out. Why couldn’t Powell’s smile do that to her? Or Jimmy’s? Why was it that no one had ever affected her the way Rick did?

      “You tell me what she needs and I’ll be sure she has it.” Rick couldn’t afford the lessons, let alone anything extra. Every dime he made, that he didn’t spend on Darcie, went into savings. That’s why he didn’t have any decent clothes, still wore a fifteen-year-old leather jacket and worn-out boots and went months between haircuts.

      “I think Darcie’s a lucky little girl to have a father like you.” Lori Lee kept her back to Rick as she removed two mugs from the wall rack. “And the strange thing about it is that I never pictured you as a