BEVERLY BARTON

A Child Of Her Own


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triumphant happiness. “She catches on quick, doesn’t she, Miss Lori Lee?” Rick asked.

      “She’s a natural. She’ll be moving up to Twinkle Toes in no time.” Lori Lee focused all her attention on Darcie. “Now, let me show you another exercise.”

      Rick watched his daughter for several more minutes, then turned to Birdie and held out the estimate. “Lori Lee has okayed this, and I told her we can start work Monday morning. I won’t need any payment until the job’s done. It shouldn’t take more than one day, two at the most.”

      Birdie waved the estimate away. “I don’t need to see the thing. Just put in whatever this old building needs to make it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”

      “I think we can manage that.”

      “How much extra would you charge to make the job last an extra day or two?” Birdie cocked her head to one side, avoiding eye contact with Rick.

      “Why would you want the project to—”

      “To give you and Lori Lee a little more time together,” Birdie freely admitted. “It doesn’t look like y’all can think up any excuses on your own for seeing each other, so I thought I’d help out. After all, you’ve been in town five months and neither you nor Lori Lee had made a move to contact each other.”

      “Miss Birdie, what are you saying? I can assure you that there’s nothing going on between your niece and me.”

      “Yes, I’m well aware that there isn’t. I just want to know why not.” Easing up beside Rick, Birdie slipped her fleshy arm around his waist. “You’re single. Lori Lee’s single. And it’s obvious to me that y’all have got the hots for each other.”

      “You’re a plainspoken woman, aren’t you, Miss Birdie.”

      “Call me Aunt Birdie.” She hugged him around the waist.

      “Well, Aunt Birdie, tell me why you’d want your niece involved with a man like me? You know my reputation. I’m a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. I barely got out of high school and I’ve worked construction most of my life. What do I have to offer a woman like Lori Lee?”

      “She’s been afraid to fall in love again since her divorce,” Birdie told him. “She’s bombarded by the attention of all these lackluster Romeos. What she needs is a real man for a change. Somebody who’ll stir her blood.” Birdie jabbed him in the center of his chest with her index finger. “That’s you. A woman would have to be dead for you not to stir her blood.”

      Rick grinned. Damn, but he liked Lori Lee’s Aunt Birdie. She was his kind of woman. “Even if Lori Lee was interested in me, which she’s not, what makes you think I’d be interested in her?”

      The front door burst open and three little girls came rushing in, one breathless mother following them. Lori Lee gathered them together and introduced them to Darcie.

      “Your daughter is a lovely child,” Aunt Birdie told Rick.

      “Yes, she is, but my daughter’s looks have nothing to do with the question I asked you.”

      “I think maybe it does.” Birdie told him, then smiled at the harried young mother who approached them. “Hello, Mindy. How are you today?”

      “Running around in circles as usual,” Mindy said. “Who’s this? A new twirler father?”

      “Forgive my lack of manners.” Birdie patted Rick on the arm. “Mindy, this is Rick Warrick, Darcie’s father.” Birdie nodded toward the newcomer. “Rick, this is Mindy Jenkins. She’s the mother of the little brunette over there, and aunt to the redheaded twins.”

      “Well, welcome to the twirling world,” Mindy said. “Just be prepared for your little girl to sleep, eat and bathe with her baton for the next few months.”

      “Don’t you think Rick’s daughter is a living doll?” Birdie asked. “I was just about to tell Rick how much she reminds me of Lori Lee at that age. Do you see the resemblance, Mindy?”

      Mindy stared at Darcie, then at Lori Lee. She smacked her lips. “Glory be, you’re right. I swear, they look enough alike to be mother and daughter.”

      “Your wife must have been a very pretty blonde,” Birdie said. “I imagine she looked a lot like Lori Lee.”

      Damn smart old woman, Rick thought. Was she psychic or something? Without actually accusing him of choosing a woman who had reminded him of Lori Lee, Birdie let Rick know she’d figured out just why he’d been attracted to his former wife.

      “Yeah, she looked a bit like Lori Lee, but that’s where any similarity between the two ended.”

      Rick had to admit that he had a weakness for blondes, especially blue-eyed blondes with pouty lips and hourglass figures. He supposed he’d looked for Lori Lee in every woman he’d been with since he’d left Tuscumbia fifteen years ago. He’d been with plenty of cheap imitations, Darcie’s mother being the closest thing he’d found to his fantasy woman. At least in the looks department. It hadn’t taken Rick long to discover April Denton was no lady. But then, it hadn’t mattered. He sure as hell had never been a gentleman.

      Since the day he realized Darcie was really his, he’d thought back to when she’d been conceived, wondering why he’d been fool enough to have sex with a woman without using protection. He wasn’t usually that careless.

      He could recall only one night that it could have happened. The first night he’d had sex with April. The night he’d taken April Denton to bed and made love to Lori Lee Guy.

      Three

      It was a slow day at the Sparkle and Shine shop, slower than usual for a Monday in January. A cold drizzle had set in a little after eleven, and Lori Lee could tell by the clinking taps on the awnings that the rain was mixed with sleet. She hoped the weather didn’t worsen and force her to cancel the afternoon and evening classes. All the competition groups needed this last week of practice before they performed in Gadsden on Saturday.

      “Where are those tights with the pink and red hearts on them?” Aunt Birdie called from the storage room. “I wanted to plan our Valentine display for the window. I’ve got to find something to keep me busy. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have any customers.”

      “Mondays are always slow,” Lori Lee said. “Besides, the weather’s getting nasty. And we sold out of those tights last year. I have some ordered and expect them in any day now.”

      “Well, I can’t find anything else to get into back here.” Emerging from the storage room, Birdie pulled a pack of cards out of her yellow smock pocket. “We could play a few games to pass the time.”

      “You don’t want to play cards,” Lori Lee said. “You want to talk, to ask me a dozen questions about my date Saturday night.”

      “I couldn’t care less about your Saturday night with Powell.” Birdie slipped the cards back in her pocket. “Even if you slept with him, I’d probably find the retelling as boring as you found the actual event.”

      Lori Lee tried not to laugh, but several muffled giggles escaped. “I didn’t sleep with Powell.”

      “I didn’t think you did.”

      “We went to a play at the Ritz and had a late dinner at the Renaissance Tower.”

      “That’s nice, dear.” Birdie walked over to the front door and looked outside. “It’s just a coming down, isn’t it? Good thing Rick and his crew are working inside.”

      “I wondered how long it would take you to get around to talking about Rick.” Lori Lee walked over and placed her arm around her aunt’s shoulders. “I saw him this morning at the studio for all of about five minutes when I unlocked the door and let him and his crew in.”

      “I think I’ll run next door and invite them to eat lunch with us. Lord knows I brought enough food for half a dozen people.” Birdie headed for the storage room. “I’ll need my coat and umbrella.”

      “If you’re going to invite them all for lunch, just use the telephone,” Lori Lee suggested as she strolled around the shop, flicking imaginary specks of dust off the countertops.