GINA WILKINS

A Match for the Single Dad


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from her children, Maggie had interpreted in a knee-jerk reaction of disapproval she’d tried to suppress. She told herself she had no right to judge a woman she’d never even met based on perhaps-exaggerated stories from two children.

      “Maybe you need a vacation as much as the girls do,” she suggested to Garrett. “We’ll try to make sure you have a good time while you’re here.”

      She spoke, of course, as a representative of the resort. No personal messages intended.

      “Thank you,” he said.

      She cleared her throat silently. Darn, but this man made her teeth tingle. How very inconvenient of him.

      “So, um, your grandmother is coming with you for the week?” she asked with a lift of her eyebrows.

      His smile turned rueful. “She is. She doesn’t want to be left out, even though she has given me an earful about how she’ll be spending six days in enemy territory.”

      Maggie couldn’t help laughing. Her grandmother, Dixie Bell, and his, Esther Lincoln, were lifelong rivals who saw each other as mortal enemies. It had begun back when they were in junior high competing for the attentions of the same boys, though Esther was a year ahead in school. The rivalry had continued when they participated in county-fair cooking contests after they’d married, competing for blue ribbons and each bitterly accusing the other of underhandedness.

      “I’m sure Mimi will be a gracious host,” she said, mentally crossing her fingers. “They probably won’t see each other much, anyway. Mimi’s usually in the offices or the store.”

      “I’ve already told Meemaw that she has to be polite while she’s here,” Garrett replied with a chuckle.

      She found it incredibly appealing to hear this serious-natured, somewhat stern-looking ex-military officer talk about his “Meemaw.” But then, she found entirely too much appealing about Garrett.

      He glanced at his watch. “I’d better collect the girls. I’ve got some appointments this afternoon. Nice to visit with you as always, Maggie. We’ll see you next Sunday morning.”

      “Actually, I’ll be out of town next weekend. I’m visiting my sister in Dallas to spend some time with her and the baby while her husband’s at a conference in Chicago. But I’ll be back Sunday evening, so I’ll be around if your family needs anything during your stay.”

      Garrett nodded, then looked at her with a bemused expression. “I have to admit Kix’s request to spend her birthday week here caught me by surprise. It seemed to come out of the blue. She said she didn’t even need another present, just the time here.”

      “Maybe she just wanted to spend a week with her family without the usual distractions at home,” she suggested.

      Garrett appeared skeptical. “According to her and Payton, they spend too much time with family as it is. Payton wanted to go to Padre Island for our vacation, but Kix was insistent on coming here, so Payton agreed since it’s Kix’s birthday.”

      “That was nice of her.”

      “Yeah.” But she noted that Garrett still seemed perplexed by his daughters’ behavior when he bade her goodbye and walked away.

      She wished him luck dealing with two girls of that age. It was certainly more responsibility than she’d want to take on.

      “Let’s go to the playground!” Kix hopped out of the SUV immediately upon arrival at the resort just after noon on the Monday of their vacation week. “C’mon, Payton, let’s see who can make it all the way across the monkey bars without falling.”

      “Whoa. Hold up there.” Garrett moved to stand in front of her. “We have a ton of stuff to carry inside, and you’re helping.”

      “Okay,” she said cheerfully enough, changing course to head for the back of the vehicle. “We can go to the playground later.”

      “Don’t you be running off without permission or supervision,” Garrett’s mom fussed to Kix. Sixty-year-old Paulette Lincoln McHale was medium height, broad-shouldered and hipped, with crisp gray hair and strong features. Yet despite her sturdy, rather imposing appearance, she was a compulsive worrier who tended to hover over the girls. “There are strangers in the campgrounds and the motel and the other cabins. One of us adults will need to go with you when you wander around the resort, you hear?”

      Garrett watched as his daughters swapped exasperated looks and heaved long-suffering sighs before loading their arms with bags to carry inside the cabin.

      Eighty-one-year-old Esther Lincoln, known in the family as Meemaw, was stronger than her daughter emotionally, though her body was going frail. Her hair was a cap of bright white curls around her soft face. Her shoulders were stooped and she relied on a walker to steady her gait, but her fiery spirit was undimmed. “Let the girls have some fun, Paulette. They’re not going to run wild around the place, and they know to be careful.”

      “You can’t be too careful these days,” Garrett’s mother retorted darkly.

      Garrett juggled two suitcases and a bag of groceries he’d removed from the well-packed vehicle. “Let’s just take the stuff inside and then we’ll make plans.”

      Though it bore the number six, the cabin to which they’d been assigned sat in the center of five lakeside rentals numbered four through eight. The cabins ranged in size from the little one-bedroom A-frames at each end of the row to the four-bedroom cottage where Garrett’s family would spend the next six days. A long, welcoming front porch held rockers and a swing. Inside, the living area, kitchen and dining nook made up the open central floor plan. There was a separate bedroom for each adult and a sleeping loft for the girls to share. A big back deck furnished with wrought-iron tables and chairs invited guests to sit and admire the lake.

      Kix looked forward to gathering around the fire pit in the evening to roast hot dogs and marshmallows, both of which Garrett had brought along. Between the groceries he’d purchased and the home-cooked goodies his mother and grandmother had insisted on preparing and bringing along, they probably had enough food for at least twice as many days as he’d booked for their stay.

      He insisted the girls help put everything away before they played. He’d already launched the boat he’d towed behind the SUV, secured it into a slip he’d rented for the week and parked the trailer in the provided lot near the marina. The lot had been crowded; even this early in the holiday week, business was brisk at the resort.

      He’d owned the fish-and-ski boat for several years. The girls always liked going out in it, one of the few things they seemed to enjoy doing with him these days. When their mother was alive, he’d spent many of his custody weekends taking them boating on waters near the base. They hadn’t considered him quite so lame back then, he thought regretfully. Probably due to a combination of them being younger and seeing him more rarely, making him less of a constant authority figure to be rebelled against.

      Breanne had been more indulgent with them, spoiling them with material possessions to assuage her guilt for spending so little time with them. She hadn’t been a bad mother, just a distracted one. Breanne had been easily bored. Most especially with him.

      Shaking off thoughts of his late ex-wife—and what had brought her to mind, anyway?—he nodded in approval when the girls reported that their things were all stowed away upstairs.

      “Okay, what’s on the agenda?” he asked, having promised to leave the activities for the week to them—within reason.

      Kix bounced around him. “We want to go out in the boat and have milk shakes at the diner and hike through the resort and play board games and cook hot dogs and—”

      “Breathe, Kix.”

      She giggled.

      “Let’s go find Maggie and see if she wants to go out in the boat with us,” Payton suggested.

      Both the girls had expressed disappointment that they hadn’t yet seen Maggie. A resort employee introducing herself as Rosie had checked them in at the main desk, and Maggie’s uncle, C. J. Bell, had assisted with the boat launch and slip parking at the marina. They had seen a few other faces familiar from Sunday services and Saturday boating-and-swimming