A Family for Ronnie

By: Julie Caille
Chapter One

Oh, Lord, there he was, all six foot two inches of him.

Alicia’s heart catapulted into her throat as, across the crowded airport lobby, their eyes locked. Her fingers tightened on her cosmetic bag, and her stomach clenched in a way it had not done since she was eighteen years old.

Ten years, she thought with dismay. After ten years and a failed marriage, she still reacted like a giddy teenager to her first sight of Luke Garrick. It was definitely not a good sign.

Commanding her legs to function, she stepped around a tall woman in a red sundress, watching as Luke bent to speak to the child who clung to his hand. At least two female heads turned as he straightened, which didn’t surprise Alicia a bit. Between the cowboy hat, the long, muscular legs in those tight blue jeans and the well-proportioned body, he looked like one of those extremely masculine men advertisers plaster all over their billboards. Not handsome in the conventional sense of the word, but dark and lean and strong and tough.

A dominant male.

He made his way over to her and stopped, his face devoid of expression. “So,” he said, amid the babble of voices. “You made it all right.”

“Yes.” She looked up into his gray eyes and swallowed.

Until this moment she had not really absorbed the fact that she would see him again. They had spoken on the phone twice during the past few days, briefly, and even that had been difficult. Neither had acknowledged the significance of the date she had chosen to travel on; she doubted he even remembered.

Tearing her gaze from his, Alicia looked down at her six-year-old nephew. He had chocolate around his mouth and a dirt smudge across the front of his oversize Oilers T-shirt, but his hair was neatly combed. Maternal anxiety filled her chest. He looked lost, forlorn, a solemn little waif in a sea of noisy adults.

“Oh, Ronnie,” she whispered, a lump in her throat. Forgetting Luke, she set down her things and held out her arms to her dead sister’s child.

Her nephew.

Luke’s nephew.

Their mutual responsibility now that the boy’s parents were gone.

No recognition flashed in the child’s eyes, for it had been two years since his parents had brought him to visit her in Massachusetts. She held her breath as he studied her, then he stepped forward and allowed her to hug him.

Tears stung Alicia’s eyes as she held the small body against hers. He was too young to comprehend tragedy of this magnitude, too young to have to bear such anguish.

“I’m glad to see you, honey,” she murmured. “You’ve gotten so big.”

He squirmed out of her embrace. “We saw your plane land.”

“Did you? I looked out my window, but I couldn’t see you.”

“I didn’t wave,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Uncle Luke didn’t, either.”

She forced a smile. “Well, I’m glad you came to meet me. I’ve never been to Houston before so I wouldn’t know how to find you on my own.”

The man who had once been her fiancé picked up her cosmetic case. “C’mon, Ron, let’s take Aunt Alicia to get her luggage.”

In subtle ways, he had changed. At twenty, Luke had been appealing, but the past decade had added an intriguing element to his face, an almost daunting quality that had been missing before. To Alicia, he seemed taller and broader, less boyish and more self-assured. Beneath the brim of his hat, his black hair looked curlier than she remembered, probably due to the oppressive southern humidity. And his tan was deeper, though she knew he must spend most of his time in his store.

As they followed Ronnie along the passageway toward the main part of the terminal, Alicia searched her mind for something to say, some remark to ease the awkwardness. “How has he been?” she asked, fighting an urge to double-check the top button of her blouse, which had a tendency to escape its hole.

“He’s doing all right,” Luke said tersely. “Sometimes something sets him off, and he cries.”

“Maybe he’s going to need some kind of counseling.”

“He’s tough. He’ll survive.”

Unconvinced, Alicia surveyed the child’s thin shoulders. “He doesn’t look tough. He looks like he’ll break in a stiff wind.”

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