The Surprise Holiday Dad(4)

By: Jacqueline Diamond

In reality it was Adrienne who’d swooped in to rescue Reggie. And she suspected that once this stranger tired of playing Daddy to a kid with real needs, she’d have to do it all over again.

Might as well wait until Monday to tell Reggie. She’d rather keep everything normal for him as long as possible.

* * *

WHEN WADE EXITED the freeway at Safe Harbor Boulevard, he inhaled the briny tang in the air with bittersweet nostalgia. This used to be his home. After six years away, he felt like a stranger.

Although he kept in touch with his father, Daryl, and they met for the occasional camping trip or for a weekend of watching NASCAR races, Wade rarely made the nine-hour drive to his hometown. His last visit had been years ago, and memories of a wrenching argument with his grandfather still stung. Now he figured he’d stay with Daryl while he secured his claim on his son and put out feelers for a job in the area.

Having worked at the Safe Harbor Police Department early in his career, Wade had applied there, but the department’s tight budget meant there were no hiring plans. He’d received the same response at other nearby agencies.

But while he might not be able to provide little Reggie a home instantly, he intended to demand custody as soon as it became feasible. As for the kid’s aunt, he appreciated that she’d stepped up to the plate in the past, but with a sister like Vicki, how reliable could she be, even if she was a doctor?

Wade steered his black sports coupe downhill from the freeway. At barely eight o’clock on Sunday morning, not much was stirring. He’d left Pine Tree late last night after working a final shift at the warehouse. Every paycheck counted.

To the south, he glimpsed an expanse of blue where the Pacific Ocean sprawled beyond the town’s namesake harbor. Wade could also see the six-story medical center where Vicki had barred him from the maternity ward after Reggie’s birth. Based on whatever she’d claimed about him, a guard had escorted him out, refusing to let him hold his son. Maybe he should have hired a lawyer and insisted on his rights, but the situation had caught him unprepared.

Anger and shame twisted inside him as he stopped for a red light. He’d do things differently now, but at twenty-four he’d been unsure of what it meant to be a father.

When he’d told his captain at the police department about Vicki’s threat to file for a restraining order if he insisted on contact, the man had warned him to keep his distance. Pay the child support and be more careful who he hooked up with in future had been the gist of the captain’s remarks. Wade’s father had put it more succinctly: Save yourself. Get the hell out of Dodge.

Now everything was about to change. He had a son, and he refused to let anyone stand between them.

Except that you have no idea how to be a father. Daryl hadn’t been much of a role model, acting more like a buddy than a parent. And in Pine Tree most of Wade’s socializing had been with other bachelors.

Well, he intended to learn. There were books and the internet and, he hoped, some long-dormant instincts.

A few blocks farther, he turned into an apartment complex and parked in a visitor’s spot. Carrying his laptop, his guitar and a duffel bag containing essential gear, he followed a path to the manager’s unit.

Carefully, Wade twisted the knob. His father, who got free rent by handling caretaker duties in addition to his job as a mechanic, had promised to leave his place unlocked rather than be awakened this early.

The instant the door opened, the smell of beer hit him. He stopped, uneasy. His father had a tendency to go on occasional drinking binges, punctuated by periods of sobriety. Daryl always claimed he could control his drinking, and despite serious doubts about that, Wade realized he had no power to run his father’s life.

He was reaching for the light switch when he heard a snore. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Wade made out his father sprawled on the couch, sitting with his head thrown back as if he’d fallen asleep while watching TV. A couple beer cans littered the coffee table, but the TV was off. It must have a sleep setting.

Morning light, faint as it was, proved unkind to Daryl Hunter. Even at this angle, Wade could see the pallor of his father’s skin, the red veins in his nose and the thinning hair. Some of that might merely be signs of age, but—quick mental calculation—his dad was only fifty-two. At roughly the same age, the police chief in Pine Tree looked healthy and fit. Or had until he’d gained a few worry lines over the layoffs.

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