The Surprise Holiday Dad(8)

By: Jacqueline Diamond

Not that last year, though. Once he entered adolescence, Wade recalled with embarrassment, he’d become surly and quick to rush off with his friends. No wonder his mother hadn’t believed he’d needed her any longer.

Now, passing the staircase, he entered the family room. Judging by the view through the bay window, most of the action was on the patio. “I’d better go check on the food,” Cole said. “Nice to meet you.”

“My pleasure.” Wade stayed where he was, not quite ready to plunge into the mix of people outside.

He was alone in the den except for two school-age girls who stood near the window. They seemed to be debating whether to take their stuffed animals outside and risk getting them dirty. Boys would never argue over something like that, Wade thought in amusement.

“Mischief wants to run around,” said the shorter of the pair, a little charmer with elfin features. “He’s restless.”

“He should follow Roar’s example.” Her taller companion, a graceful African-American girl, cradled her lion. “He’d rather watch the others and write about them later.”

“I guess that’s okay.” The first girl clutched her well-worn bear. “Mischief, we can play later, okay?”

The girls set their little pals in the bay window facing the yard and darted out through the kitchen. Following, Wade spotted Cole hovering near the oven.

“I’d forgotten that boys this age still have girls as friends,” Wade remarked.

“Berry and Kimmie are stepsisters,” Cole said, as if answering an unasked question. “Took them a while to warm up to each other, but now they’re best pals.” A timer rang. “Excuse me. That’s the gluten-free cupcakes.”

“Gluten-free cupcakes?”

“Some of the kids and parents have allergies.”

Wade wondered how people kept track of such things. He’d have bought a cake at the store and been done with it.

Moving through the sunny kitchen, he stopped by an open slider window to take in the scene. A handful of adults gathered on the patio while children galloped on the grass and walkways. Among the three or four little boys, he couldn’t tell which was Reggie.

He ought to recognize his own son. Thanks to Vicki, he couldn’t.

Behind them a vegetable garden still flourished in October. Wade identified squash, peppers and a stubborn tomato plant. Nice touch. His mom used to raise herbs and vegetables, too.

Returning his attention to the patio, he noted a gift table. Should have wrapped this thing, he reflected. At least he’d attached a card.

After setting the box on the pile, he tried to pick out Reggie’s aunt among her guests. Definitely the pretty blonde woman with her hair pulled back, although those coveralls didn’t fit his image of a starchy professional. Why was she hiding in such a shapeless garment? It failed to disguise her attractive figure, however, just as the no-frills hairstyle didn’t detract—much—from her lively face, intelligent light green eyes and full mouth.

Wade registered the instant she recognized him. Disbelief flashed across her face, then disapproval, yielding at last to a painful attempt at a smile. Well, if she’d invited him, she wouldn’t have received such a shock.

As she started in his direction, a tall woman with long brown hair followed her gaze, then said something and indicated the children. Adrienne nodded, and her friend—corralling a couple other parents, including Patty—began distributing yo-yos in the yard.

With the others occupied, Adrienne approached Wade, her expression wary. “I wasn’t expecting you today.” Her warm, low voice stated that as a fact, not a challenge.

Wade decided to try a diplomatic approach. As a police officer, he’d learned that a courteous tone often defused potential violence, not that he expected anyone to start throwing punches around here. “You’ve put together a great party. I didn’t mean to crash, but I was in the neighborhood.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“On purpose,” he admitted. “I was impatient to meet my son. Only I didn’t expect all these people.”

Adrienne swallowed. “I thought it would be better for you to meet him next week, just the three of us.”

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