A Surprise Father
Snowed in at the dog rescue farm where she's housesitting, Fern Easton can't turn away the handsome stranger who appears during the blizzard. Who is this mysterious man who's as capable with stray dogs as he is with her four-year-old foster child? Carlo Camden's returned to Rescue River to be a father to a daughter he never knew existed. But he doesn't expect to stumble upon little Mercedes right away. Let alone to start caring about the devoted beauty who desperately wants to be her mom. Carlo's surprise homecoming is all about making amends. But he might just have found the woman of his dreams, too...
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Lee Tobin McClain read Gone With The Wind in the third grade and has been an incurable romantic ever since. When she's not writing emotional love stories with happy endings, she's probably driving around a carload of snarky teen girls, playing with her rescue dog and cat, or teaching aspiring writers in Seton Hill University's MFA program. She is probably not cleaning her house.
Fern Easton looked at the fire she'd just built, then out the window at the driving snow, dim in the late-afternoon light. She shivered, but not because she was cold. No, she was happy.
Two whole weeks to herself. Two whole weeks to work on her children's book in blessed peace.
As soon as she'd gotten home from the library, she'd shucked her sensible slacks and professional shirt and let her hair out of its usual tidy bun. Threw on her softest jeans and a comfortable fleece top. Next, she'd set up her drawing table in the living room of her friends' house.
House-sitting was awesome, because out here on the farm, no one would bother her.
Out here, she had a chance to fulfill her dream.
From the back room, her four-year-old daughter crowed with laughter over the antics of the animated mice and squirrels on the TV screen. Her daughter. Some days, Fern couldn't believe her good fortune.
She'd fed Bull, the ancient, three-legged bulldog she was babysitting as a part of the house-sitting deal. Puttering around like this, feeding an animal, taking care of her sweet child, was what she wanted, and determination rose in her to make it happen full-time.
She'd create a fantasy world with her books, and in her life, too. She wouldn't have to deal with the public or trust people who'd inevitably let her down. She wouldn't have to come out of her shell, listen to people telling her to smile and speak up. She wasn't really shy, she was just quiet, because there was a whole world in her head that needed attention and expression. And now, for two weeks, she got to live in that world, with a wonderful little girl and a loving old dog to keep her company.
She practically rubbed her hands together with glee as she poured herself a cup of herbal tea and headed toward her paints.
Knock, knock, knock.
She jerked at the unexpected sound, and worry flashed through her.
"Hey, Angie, I know you're in there!"
Fern felt her nose wrinkle with distaste. Some friend of the homeowners. Some male friend. Should she answer it?
More knocking, another shout.
Yeah, she had to answer. Anyone who'd driven all the way out here in a snowstorm deserved at least a polite word from her before she sent them away.
She opened the door to a giant.
He wore a heavy jacket and cargo pants. His face was made of hard lines and planes, only partly masked by heavy stubble. Intense, unsmiling, bloodshot eyes stared her down. "Who are you?"
Whoa! She took a step backward and was about to slam the door in this unkempt muscleman's face—she had her daughter's safety to think about, as well as her own—when Bull, the dog, launched his barrel-shaped body at the door, barking joyously, his stub of a tail wagging.
"Hey, old guy, you're getting around pretty good!" The man opened the door, leaned down.
"Hey!" Fern stepped back, then put her hands on her hips. "You can't come in here!"
The guy didn't listen; he was squatting down just inside the door to pet the thrilled bulldog.
Fern's heart pounded as she realized just how isolated she was. Never taking her eyes off him, she backed over to her phone and turned it on.
"Where's Troy and Angelica?" The man looked up at her. "And who're you?" His voice was raspy. Dark lines under his eyes.
"Who are you?"
He cocked his head to one side, frowning. "I'm Carlo. Angie's brother?"
Her jaw about dropped, because she'd heard the stories. "You're the missionary soldier guy!" She set her phone back down. "Really? What are you doing here?"
His eyes grew hooded. "Got some business to conduct here in the States. And I'm sick."
"Oh." She studied him. Maybe illness was the reason for his disheveled look.
"Your turn. Who are you? You supposed to be here?"
"My name's Fern. I'm house-sitting."
"Okay." He nodded and flashed an unexpected smile. "I didn't think you looked real dangerous."
The appeal of a smile on that rugged face left Fern momentarily speechless, warming her heart toward the big man.
"Thought I could bed down with my sister and get myself together before I get started with my...legal work. Where is she?"
"She's at Disneyland Paris." She said it reluctantly. "For two weeks."
"She's in Paris?" His face fell. "You've gotta be kidding."
She studied him. "Didn't you think to, like, call and check with her? When did you last talk?"
"It's been months. I don't...live a normal life. And like I said, I've been sick." He swayed slightly and unzipped his jacket. "Still have a little fever, but it's not catching."
"Hey. You don't look so good." In fact, he looked as though he was going to pass out, and then how would she ever get him out of here? She took his arm gingerly and guided him toward the couch. "You'd better sit down." She helped him out of his heavy, hooded, military-style jacket.
"I don't want to bother you..." He swayed again and sat down abruptly.
So now she had some giant guy who claimed to be Angelica's brother, smack dab in the middle of her living room. She studied him skeptically as she picked up her phone again. Dark gray sweater that didn't look any too new, heavy combat boots melting snow on the floor. Hmm.
Could he be acting this whole thing out in order to get in here and...what? Steal everything Troy and Angelica had? They were plenty comfortable, as evidenced by the Euro-Disney vacation, but they didn't put their money on display in expensive possessions, at least as far as she'd been able to tell in the few months she'd known Angelica.
What else could he want? Had someone told him she was going to be out here alone? She normally wasn't a skittish person, but this was different. This wasn't safe.
She was about to dial 911 when he said, "Let me call Ang. I have to figure out what to do next."
He reached in his pocket and pulled out an ancient-looking flip phone.
Fern walked to the back room to glance in on Mercedes. The child was fully immersed in her princess movie, a Friday-night treat Fern allowed reluctantly. For one thing, she wasn't overly fond of the princess phenomenon for little girls, and for another, she'd rather read Mercy storybooks than have her watch TV.
But those were preferences. Mercedes had watched princess movies with her mom, and it comforted her to watch them now.
Even one day with Mercedes was a blessing, but now she had the potential, even the likelihood, of adopting her permanently and for real. That was truly exciting. That was a dream much bigger than her dream of writing and illustrating children's books.
If she could create a nest for herself and a child—or six—who needed a home, and write on the side, she'd be the happiest woman on earth.
And maybe, just maybe, that was what God had in mind for her. Because she obviously wasn't suited to relating to other people, right? She wasn't cut out for marriage, nor couples entertaining, nor a singles life with a big close-knit group of friends.
But kids! Kids and books. And a dog or two, she thought, walking back out to the front room followed by the loyal Bull. She rubbed his graying head and let him give her a sloppy kiss. This was the life.
Or it would be, once she got rid of her uninvited guest.
"Stupid phone." Carlo shook his head and stared at the shiny black object in his hand. "It's not doing anything. I can't reach her."
"We can try my phone," Fern offered. She picked hers up and clicked through her few contacts, watching as the man removed his boots and set them on a newspaper beside the couch. Despite his size, he seemed very weak. Fern wasn't as afraid as she'd been before.
She put in the call. Felt a little bad about it—she couldn't remember exactly what time it was in Paris, and she hated to wake up her friends.
"Did you get a connection?" Carlo asked.
She shook her head. "Angelica bought some special plan to be able to talk over there. I should be able to get hold of her, but it might take a while."
The guy, Carlo, stared down at his hands. "I guess I'll be on my way, then."
"Where will you go?" she blurted out against her own will.
"I'll figure it out."
"Do you have friends in town? You grew up here, right?"
He nodded slowly, putting a forefinger and thumb on his forehead and massaging, as though it hurt. "I did grow up here. Unfortunately, I wasn't the most upright kid. So a lot of people have a bad impression of me."
"That's too bad. I don't think it's a judgmental town these days—at least, I haven't felt it to be—but maybe it was different in the past."
Carlo shrugged. "We were a pretty offbeat family. My parents made some enemies and I just added to the number. It's not Rescue River's fault."
That made her almost like him, that he admitted his own culpability rather than blaming everyone else but himself. A disease so many people seemed to have these days.
"Do you...would you like something to drink?"
"Yes, thank you." His face had taken on a greenish cast. "My head hurts pretty bad."
"Of course. Tea and aspirin?"
"Tea sounds good. I've got medicine."
Fern hurried into the kitchen and turned on the gas under her kettle to bring it back to a boil. It was so rare for her to have someone over, she barely knew how to handle it. But Carlo looked as though he was about to pass out.
What was she going to do? She couldn't have him stay. Oh, the place was plenty big, but she couldn't house a giant man who seemed to take up all the air in a room. She couldn't deal with company full-time.
Being solitary, living in her own head, was what had saved her as a foster child, shuttled from house to house, never fitting in, never really wanted. It had become a habit and a way of life. Nowadays, she preferred being alone. She thought longingly of her paints, of the children's story she was working on.
The water boiled and she fumbled through the cupboards, finding a mug and tea bag. Carried it out to the living room.
"Do you like milk and sugar. Oh. No, you don't."
He'd fallen asleep.
He'd tipped over right there on the couch and was breathing heavily, regularly.
No! That wouldn't do. She didn't want a stranger sleeping on the couch. She had to get him out of here. "Hey," she said, nudging him with her knee as she set the tea down beside him.
He leaped to his feet and grabbed her instantly in a choke hold, pulling her against his chest.
"Aaah! Hey!" She screamed, which made Bull start barking.
Carlo dropped his arms immediately and sidestepped away from her, lifting his hands to shoulder level. "Sorry. Sorry."
She backed halfway across the room and eyed him accusingly. "What was that for?"
"Jungle instinct," he said. "Sorry. I...don't do well when I'm startled. Did I hurt you?"
She rubbed her neck and stretched it from side to side as her heartbeat slowed back down to normal. "I'm fine." The truth be told, his closeness had had a very weird effect on her. She didn't like being grabbed, of course, but being forced to lean against that broad chest had given her a strange feeling of being...protected. Of being safe.
Which was ridiculous, because obviously, having him here was putting her and Mercedes at risk, not keeping her safe.
"Mama Fern? You okay?" The little-girl voice behind her was wary.
She turned, squatted down and smiled reassuringly. "Yeah, honey, I'm fine. C'mere." She held out her arms, and the little girl ran into them, nuzzling against her.
"I didn't know you had a child here." Carlo stood as if to come over toward them, and then swayed.
Fern wrapped her arms tighter around Mercedes. "Sit down and drink your tea," she ordered, gesturing toward it on the end table. "You look terrible. Do you know what's wrong? Have you seen a doctor?" She sat cross-legged and settled Mercedes in her lap.
"You ever hear of dengue fever?"
"Dengue! You have it?" The mother in her was glad it was indeed noncontagious.
He nodded. "You know what it is?"
"I'm a reference librarian, so I learn about all kinds of things like that. Do you have a bad case?"
"I hope not." He was rubbing the back of his neck again, as if it hurt. "It's been a couple of weeks and I thought I was better, but I'm weak. And apparently, it's possible to relapse, and if you do, it's pretty serious."
"Thanks for reminding me."
"Sorry. Sit down."
He did, and drank the tea, and she watched him and stroked Mercy's hair and wondered how on earth she could get rid of him.
Carlo stared at the blurry woman and child across the room and wondered what to do.
His head was pounding and the pain behind his eyes was getting worse.
He reached out and brought the teacup to his lips, trying hard to hold it steady. Forced himself to drink. Staying hydrated was key.
"So you don't know anyone in town you could stay with?" she asked skeptically. "From growing up here, I mean?"
Well, let's see. He could stay with the family he'd bummed off when his parents had been too drunk or stoned to unlock the trailer door. Or maybe the teacher he'd lifted money from when his little sister had needed medicine they couldn't afford.
Or, who knew? Maybe some of the guys with whom he'd chugged six-packs in the woods had made good and would take him in. Trouble was, he'd lost touch during his years in the jungle.
"I'm not sure. I can work something out. Stay with my grandfather, maybe." Although Angelica had said something about new rules at the Senior Towers, maybe they'd make an exception for an ailing veteran, if he and Gramps could resolve their differences long enough for him to ask nicely.
He tried to stand and the world spun.
"Sit down!" She sounded alarmed.
He did, wishing for a cold cloth to cover his eyes.
"Let me call the emergency room in Mansfield. You need a doctor."
He waved a hand. "Not really. All they can do is tell me to rest and wait it out."
"Oh." She bit at her lower lip. Whoever she was, she was real pretty. Long brown hair and fine bones and big eyes behind those glasses. The kind of woman he'd like to sit down and have a conversation with, sometime when he wasn't delirious. "Well," she continued, "do you think some food would make you feel better? Chicken soup?"
Something hot and salty sounded delicious. He'd slept through the meals on the plane and hadn't stopped for food on the drive from the airport. Maybe that was why he felt so low. "Yeah, food would be great."
"Be right back. C'mon, Mercy."
"Is he staying all night, Mama Fern?" The little girl didn't sound worried about it.
Somehow this Fern didn't strike him as the type who'd have men overnight casually. She looked way too guarded and buttoned up. But her little girl seemed perfectly comfortable with the notion of a man spending the night.
"No, he's not staying. But we're going to fix him a snack before he goes. Come on, you can help."
"Yay!" The little girl followed her mother and Carlo watched them go, feeling bemused.
How old was this little girl—maybe three or four?
Not far off from his own daughter's age, so he ought to pay attention, see what she did, what she liked. He needed to make a good first impression on the child he was coming to raise.
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