Loud pounding pulled Caleb Mast out of the first good night's sleep he'd had in a month. He squinted at the clock on his bedside table. Who was beating on his door at three-forty in the morning?
Staggering out of bed, he made his way through his condo. After four weeks on an oil platform in the Gulf, he was ready for some downtime. He'd stayed twice as long as his normal rotation to cover for an injured crewmate. The twelve- to thirteen-hour shifts seven days a week were tough. Lousy weather and a shorthanded crew made the extra two weeks a killer. All he wanted was to crawl back in bed.
If some of his crewmates were looking to celebrate on their first night in, they could have fun without him. He didn't do the party scene. Not since
He dismissed the thought without finishing it. He didn't look back. The pounding resumed.
He yanked open the front door. "If this building isn't on fire you're in trouble. What?"
A woman stood on his doorstep. She had a little girl beside her. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A fine mist was falling, scenting the air with rain and making a shimmering halo around the streetlamp across the roadway. A yellow hatchback with a dented door sat parked beneath it.
The woman pushed back her frizzy blond hair. "You're a hard man to find, Caleb."
The voice belonged to a bad memory from his past. "Valerie?"
She gave a halfhearted smile. "You remember my name. That's something."
Was she kidding? He had turned his life upside down, cut bone-deep family ties and moved halfway across the country with Valerie Perry. A year later, she left him a goodbye note with no forwarding address and an empty bank account. Now, after nearly nine years, she was back.
There were dark circles under her eyes and a droop to her full lips. She was thin as a rail. Her once-thick brown hair was bleached a brittle white-blond. It made her look cheap. Even at this hour, she wore heavy eye makeup. She licked her dry, cracked lips.
He folded his arms over his chest. "What do you want?"
"You could pretend you're happy to see me."
"If you're here to repay the money you stole, then I'm thrilled."
She dropped her gaze. "I've come for
"Mama, I'm tired," the girl whined. She peered at him through a mop of blond hair, straight and pale as wheat straw. He was stunned to see the characteristic round face, small upturned eyes and slightly flat nose that indicated she had Down syndrome.
His Amish mother had always told him such children were God's most precious gifts, sent to special families for a special purpose.
"I'm hungry. I wanna go home." The girl's speech was slow and halting. She hid her face against Valerie's leg.
"Hush. I'm talking," Valerie snapped.
Sympathy for the kid made Caleb take a step back from the door. October in Houston was balmy compared to the crisp autumn weather of his childhood home in Ohio, but the rain was picking up. "You want to come in?"
She steered the child past him into the living room. "Lie down on the sofa while we grown-ups talk."
Talk about what? What did they have to say to each other after so long? He should have shut the door in her face. She wouldn't be here if she didn't want something.
"But I'm hungry, Mama."
No matter what Val had done, the child deserved his kindness. "I've got some cold pizza and milk in the fridge. It's not much, but she's welcome to it."
Breakfast of champions. His Amish mother would be horrified to see him feeding a kid pizza at this time of the night. Then again, she'd be horrified by a lot in his current life.
The look the girl gave him was tired, fearful and hopeful all at the same time. He crouched to her level. "It's pep-peroni pizza. Is that okay?"
She nodded once. He glanced at Valerie. "Would you like something? Coffee?"
"Sure." She followed him into the kitchen. He pulled a pizza box from the fridge, placed a slice on a paper plate and stuck it in the microwave.
Valerie took a seat at the glass-topped table in the corner. "Things are such a mess. I didn't know where else to go. My boyfriend kicked us out, the jerk. My mom died last month."
"I'm sorry." Caleb had never met her mother. He shot a look toward Valerie as he spooned grounds into the coffeepot. She had a tight grip on her purse. She bit the corner of her lip and looked everywhere but at him. When the microwave bell dinged, she almost jumped out of her chair.
He checked to make sure the slice wasn't too hot, then carried it into the living room. Valerie's daughter was sitting upright on the sofa, struggling to keep her eyes open. He handed her the pizza. "I'll get your milk in a minute, okay?"
She snatched the plate from him and started tearing into the pizza. He went back to put a second slice in the microwave. Clearly, one wasn't going to be enough.
Valerie was on her feet, pacing the length of the room. "Mom's old man doesn't want the kid around anymore. Not that Joy is a problem. She's not. She's quiet as a mouse."
"Joy, is that her name?"
"Yeah, Joy Lynn."
"Nice." What else could he say?
"I thought you'd be married by now. I remember how much you wanted kids."
"I came close, but it didn't work out. She went back with her ex." And took her two kids with her. Another painful chapter of his life with a rotten ending. Parenthood didn't seem to be in the plan for him. The coffee finished dripping. He took a mug out of the cupboard and began to fill it.
Valerie sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "Joy is your daughter. I thought you should know."
He replaced the coffeepot with great care and set the mug down, amazed that he hadn't dropped either. "What?"
"I know I should have told you sooner, but she's your kid."
"I don't believe you." Val always twisted the truth.
"Joy, how old are you?" she asked over her shoulder.
"I'm eight, Mama."
"When is your birthday, honey?"
"You know that. December twenty-fifth. That is Christmas Day. Nana says I'm her Christmas Joy
only, she has gone to heaven, hasn't she?" Joy's voice faded away.
Valerie had left him in early summer. It was actually possible.Unlike the last woman who claimed he fathered her babe.
He refused to think about that final, painful confrontation with his Amish family. He had to focus on the present problem. Gripping the edge of the counter, he glared at Valerie. "Is this some kind ofjoke?"
She took a step back. "No. Mom's death made me realize that Joy should get to know you. You're all the family she has left."
"She has you," he retorted, wondering what kind of mother she was. Hard to imagine the self-absorbed, partyall-night woman he'd known in that role. He glanced toward Joy in the living room and his heart skipped a beat. He had a daughter.
If Val was telling the truth, he'd missed eight precious years of his child's life. The knowledge made him ache inside. Why had Valerie kept this from him? He would have stood by her. She had to know that.
"Mama, can I have my milk now, please? I remembered to say please. I'm being good."
Valerie arched one thinly penciled eyebrow. "Can she have some milk, Caleb?"
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