GINA WILKINS

A Match for the Single Dad


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at a table near the bar, pulling up an extra chair so Kix and Payton could crowd together on one side. Sarah served glasses of fizzy pink soda topped with dollops of fresh whipped cream and cherries. Garrett chuckled when she slipped him a cherry to accompany his plain black coffee. He bit the candied fruit off the stem, then set the stem aside.

      Maggie turned sideways so she could visit with the family while she finished her lunch. She didn’t actually have to stop eating to talk. Hyper with excitement about her special day, Kix rattled on almost without stopping to take sips of her soda. Her upper lip dotted with whipped cream, she told Maggie about the special breakfast they’d had—her favorite cinnamon-apple French toast—and about the wildlife they’d seen during their cruise around the lake. Payton managed to break in a few times to talk, and the older women chatted a bit with Sarah.

      Maggie listened to it all, keenly aware of Garrett quietly sipping his coffee while his family talked. It seemed that every time she glanced at him he was looking back at her. Probably just coincidence, but each time she looked away quickly, making an effort to appear casual about it. She was entirely too drawn to him, especially considering he was sitting there with his daughters, two of the primary reasons that nothing was likely to come from her attraction to him. She and Garrett were unlikely ever to be more than casual friends. Which didn’t mean she couldn’t fantasize a little….

      “Are you working this afternoon?” Kix asked her a bit too casually. “Daddy said we can’t bother you if you’re working, but if you aren’t, maybe you want to play games with us or something? We brought our tennis rackets and a basketball and a volleyball and some board games for if it rains but it’s really nice today and not rainy at all, so …”

      “Kix,” Garrett murmured.

      “I know.” She sighed heavily. “Breathe.”

      “Right.”

      Maggie couldn’t help laughing. “I would love to play with you, Kix, and I promise I’ll try sometime while you’re here, but this afternoon I’m helping decorate the lobby for the festivities this weekend. We’re starting in just a few minutes. I’ll be there this evening for your birthday cake, though.”

      Though she’d initially looked disappointed, Kix’s face lit up. “I love to decorate. Can I help? And Payton, too?”

      “Kix,” her dad said quickly, “you’d be in the way. Why don’t we shoot some hoops instead?”

      “I wouldn’t get in the way,” Kix argued, looking at Maggie with hopeful eyes. “I’d do everything Maggie said and I’d help a lot.”

      “They’re both welcome to help decorate if that’s how Kix wants to spend part of her birthday,” Maggie assured Garrett. “I’ll keep a close eye on them if you want to let them stay for a while.”

      Kix bounced in excitement. Payton even forgot to look bored. “I like decorating, too,” she said.

      Garrett’s mother frowned. “I thought we were all going to spend time together this week.”

      Maggie wondered immediately if she’d made a mistake inviting the girls to help her decorate. Their grandmother looked so disapproving that she couldn’t help asking herself if she’d made a gaffe.

      Garrett must have sensed her discomfort. He gave her a slight shake of his head, then addressed his mother. “You and Meemaw both said you’d like to take a nap this afternoon before the birthday party. You weren’t expecting the girls to watch you sleep, were you?”

      His mother cleared her throat. “Well, no, but I thought you would be doing something with the girls.”

      He turned to Kix. “You can help for a little while, if Maggie is sure you won’t be in the way, but I expect you to follow her instructions to the letter. I’m leaving my cell number with her and I want her to call me if there are any problems. I’ll be back to collect you in time for you to wash up and have dinner before the birthday party.”

      “Don’t go wandering off,” their grandmother added, still looking anxious. “Stay in the building with Miss Maggie. And don’t be climbing any ladders or handling anything electrical. And—”

      “Give it a rest, Paulette,” Esther ordered. “They’ll be fine.”

      Garrett drained the last of his coffee and stood. “Come on, let’s get you two down for your naps. And I’m not talking to the kids.”

      Maggie bit her lip to prevent a grin, which probably would not be appreciated by his mother. Garrett paid for the beverages, gave Maggie his phone number, reminded his daughters one last time to be good, then ushered the older women toward the door.

      They had almost made it out when Maggie’s cousin Shelby and their grandmother entered. Maggie fancied that she could almost feel the tension settle into the room. The two cowboys at the other end of the bar glanced around as if sensing an impending shootout.

      Telling herself not to be silly, she shook her head and stood with a bright smile. “Mimi, you remember the McHale family, don’t you? Today is Kix’s eleventh birthday. She and her sister, Payton, are going to help us decorate for a while.”

      She congratulated herself on thinking to casually mention Kix’s birthday. Surely the older women could set their differences aside to avoid any unpleasantness on such a happy occasion. Mimi had always been gracious enough to Garrett and the girls on the few times they’d crossed paths, despite their connection to her enemy.

      Her ploy worked. Both Mimi and Esther immediately forced their stern mouths into somewhat softer lines.

      “Hello, Esther,” Mimi said coolly.

      “Dixie,” Esther replied with a curt nod, her tone just as frosty.

      “Happy birthday, Kix,” perky blonde Shelby said, characteristic warmth in her smiling blue eyes when she turned to the youngest McHale. “We’re going to have fun decorating. I’m glad you’re joining us.”

      Grinning ear to ear, Kix expressed her eagerness to get started. Paulette was still fussing at the girls to be careful when Garrett finally ushered her out.

      Mimi shook her head as she watched the trio leave. “That grandmother of yours is a worrywart, isn’t she, girls?”

      “Mimi,” Maggie murmured in warning, dragging her attention back to the room. Maybe she’d gotten a bit distracted watching Garrett leave, but now she had to make sure her own tactless grandmother didn’t say anything to distress the girls.

      “She’s right, Maggie,” Payton said with a heavy sigh. “Grammy worries about everything. She drives us crazy.”

      “Crazy,” Kix echoed with a fervent nod.

      “That just means she loves you very much,” Sarah said briskly, silently daring her mother-in-law to continue that particular conversation. “Kix, maybe you’d like to help me put up some decorations here in the dining room? I have some flag decals for the windows and some little flags in vases for the tables and some bunting to hang behind the counter. I can work with you now since there are no customers at the moment.”

      Kix looked thrilled to work in the diner. Knowing her aunt would enjoy working with the girl, Maggie led Payton into the foyer to get started in there. She tucked Garrett’s phone number into her pocket before opening the first box.

       Chapter Three

      With his mother and grandmother napping and his daughters busy decorating, Garrett took advantage of the time alone and the nice weather for a brisk walk around the resort. It was a sunny afternoon but a nice breeze kept it from feeling too hot, and he enjoyed the outing. Usually he ran several miles a day, a way of staying in shape and working out some of his frustrations, but today he settled for walking at a fast clip around the perimeter of the resort, probably a couple miles in total.

      Leaving the cabin, he veered right, in the opposite direction from the marina. After entering through the front gate, the main road formed a big rectangle within the resort. It passed the pavilion and playground, then the motel and the first three of the eight detached cabins before leading to the main building housing the diner,