“Did you see me, Daddy? Did you see me?”
Paul Daniels bent down and lifted his five-year-old daughter, Chloe, into his arms. “I did.”
He gave her his best smile, not that she noticed. Chloe was too excited to pay much attention to anything for long. Paul thought nothing could top the excess of energy his little girl displayed the day Chris and Elizabeth called to ask her if she’d be their flower girl. He’d been wrong. Three months ago, Chloe had been full of questions about the unknown—she’d never been to a wedding before. Today, she was bouncing off the walls, and her smile matched his new sister-in-law’s in pure joy.
It was as if he hadn’t commented at all.
“And Eliz’beth’s dress is sooo pretty. Isn’t it pretty, Daddy?” Chloe didn’t wait for his response this time either, before she continued. “Now she’s my aunt.” She concentrated to make sure she got it right. Megan had been working diligently to help Chloe improve her speech before she started school in the fall.
Paul searched the crowd of people bustling into the reception hall for the woman in question, as Chloe squirmed wordlessly making her desire to be put down known. He lowered her feet to the floor, and watched as she slipped in between two wedding guests while he continued to scan for Megan.
Megan was the younger sister of his baby brother Gage’s wife. Paul had met her when she’d come to Thanksgiving with her sister. Little had he known what a savior she’d turn out to be. She’d brought life back into his house. Life that he hadn’t realized was missing.She’d rescued him when he’d been in desperate need of someone to watch Chloe. Hours before he’d loaded Chloe into the car to set off for the holiday with his parents, his in-laws had announced they were moving almost two hours away. For four years, they’d lived nearby and were able to take Chloe whenever he was called in to work. His job as a homicide detective meant that he could be called out at all hours, and he couldn’t leave his young daughter alone. Megan had fit the bill by offering to move to Indianapolis and into his house as a live-in nanny. She’d saved Paul from having to spend countless hours searching for an alternative.
As if knowing the direction of his thoughts, Chloe weaved through the people in her path until she was beside her nanny. Megan smiled when she caught sight of the little girl, and she circled her arms around Chloe’s shoulders, lifting her off the ground, and twirling. They were both laughing—happy. The two of them had clicked from the beginning, and his chest clenched almost painfully watching the two of them together. It should have been Melissa standing there twirling Chloe, but he couldn’t be upset that it was Megan. She’d put her life on hold for them—helped them out when they’d needed it most. Paul wished he could be as carefree.
His brother, Chris, wanted to give his fiancée, Elizabeth, the wedding of her dreams, right down to the ceremony being held in a quaint little church not far from where they lived in Springfield, Ohio—and it was. Elizabeth had walked down the aisle in a long white gown, his brother in a tux. Everyone who meant something in either of their lives was present. It was . . . perfect.
Unfortunately, it brought back too many memories for Paul. Memories that were raw and painful. Almost fifteen years ago, he’d been where his brother was—marrying the love of his life. He didn’t begrudge Chris and Elizabeth their happiness. No, he was grateful. His brother had had a rough time of it after his first marriage fell apart. For Paul, it was a sharp reminder that he no longer had his wife at his side. She’d been taken from him by a drunk driver.
Starting to get choked up, Paul cleared his throat, and made a beeline for the bar. He didn’t drink often, and never when he had to drive afterward, but tonight he didn’t have to go anywhere but upstairs to his hotel room. Chloe was here, of course, so he couldn’t go overboard. He just wanted to numb some of the pain.
Paul leaned his elbows on the bar as he waited for the petite blond bartender to finish with the drink she was making for another guest. He thought the guy standing patiently waiting for his drink was one of Chris’ employees. Paul was also fairly certain that the guy was single by the way he was openly eyeing the young woman from head to toe. She was pretty—Paul wasn’t blind, after all. Unfortunately, there was no spark. There never was. Not since his wife, Melissa.
Six months after Melissa’s accident, he’d tried. He’d left Chloe with Melissa’s parents and gone out to a club. It had been loud and he’d felt out of place, but he’d met a woman he found attractive and went for it. They’d ended up at her place an hour later, clothes on the floor, with him hovering over her.He hadn’t been able to go through with it, though. As he reached for a condom, he’d seen Melissa smiling up at him, her chest vibrating as she attempted to suppress her mirth while he fumbled trying to roll the rubber down his erection. It was an old memory, from when they were teenagers, but it had stung all the same. He’d gathered his clothes, dressed, and apologized, leaving the woman, whom he only knew as Karen, lying naked on her bed staring after him.
The bartender handed over the drink she’d made, and then turned to Paul without giving the other man a second glance. Looked like he wouldn’t be getting that after-closing booty call.
Her smile got wider. “Coming right up, handsome.”
Paul glanced over his shoulder, and caught sight of his mom and dad. They appeared to be engrossed in a conversation with two people he didn’t know. His dad looked in Paul’s direction, and Paul quickly turned back around. The last thing he needed was his dad zeroing in on his less-than-festive attitude.
The bartender placed the half-full glass of scotch down in front of him. She made sure to lean in a little closer than normal. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” Paul picked up the glass and took a drink. It burned as it went down his throat, which was good. Anything was better than the knife twisting in his gut.
“So how do you know the bride and groom?”
Not wanting to be rude, Paul answered her. “I’m the groom’s brother.”
“Older or younger?”
Paul laughed, before backing away. “Thanks again for the drink.”
He made it halfway to the corner he’d scoped out as a decent hiding place, before he was waylaid by his brother, Trent. “Hey, man.” Trent looked down at the drink Paul had in his hand, and raised his eyebrow.
“I was going to ask you the same question. Since when do you drink anything but beer?”
“I like to mix it up sometimes.” Paul didn’t add that those “sometimes” usually involved his wedding anniversary and the anniversary of his wife’s death. Chris’ wedding didn’t fall on either of those occasions, but Paul was making an exception.
After taking another sip of his scotch, Paul narrowed his eyes at his younger brother. “Did you have a reason for coming over here other than to give me a hard time?”Trent frowned, but let it go. For now, at least. “Megan and Chloe were looking for you. Chloe wants some pictures of you, Megan, and her together. Chris and Elizabeth don’t have a problem with it, but they wanted to make sure it was okay with you before they agreed to anything.”
The last thing Paul wanted to do was pose for more pictures, but there were very few things he’d deny his daughter. Pictures of the woman she’d grown extremely close to over the last four months weren’t one of them. “It’s fine.”
Again, he saw that look of doubt cross his brother’s face. “Okay . . .”
Paul ignored Trent’s curiosity. “Where?”
“Out in the lobby. The photographer has been taking some pictures in front of the fountain.”
Not waiting to see if Trent would come up with more questions regarding his odd behavior, Paul took off toward the fountain.
Before entering the lobby, he took one last gulp of his scotch, feeling the heat. He could do this. For his daughter, he could do this.Setting his now empty glass down on a nearby table, he plastered a smile on his face, and went to find Megan and Chloe.
Megan Carson held tight to Chloe’s hand as she continued to flutter about without a care in the world. They were in the lobby waiting on Paul. At least, Megan hoped they were waiting on Paul. It hadn’t escaped her notice that he’d been tense all throughout Chris and Elizabeth’s vows. And a couple of times she noticed him getting a look on his face. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was thinking about his wife.
He’d smiled and laughed along with everyone else, but she could tell his heart wasn’t in it. She now knew him well enough to know the difference. And she’d guess his family did, too. Although, technically, Megan was his family now as well—ever since her sister married his brother.
Chloe squealed, and pulled harder on Megan’s arm. “Daddy!”
Releasing the little girl’s hand, Megan stood back and watched Paul scoop up his daughter. Seeing them like this gave her a warm feeling. He smiled at Chloe, and this time it didn’t look fake or forced. Then again, whenever it came to Chloe, Megan didn’t question Paul’s love or willingness to do anything for her. Chloe was the apple of his eye—a tangible reminder of his dead wife.
“I was told there’s a picture that needs to be taken out here.” Paul tickled his daughter’s sides.
She giggled. “Yes, Daddy. I want a picture with yous, and mes, and Megan.”
Paul glanced down at Megan, and she took in his warm brown eyes. She loved when they sparkled with joy, as they did in that moment. No one could do that to him but Chloe. Not his mom or his brothers. Not even her. No matter how much she wished otherwise.
The photographer approached them with his camera hanging from a strap around his neck. “Ah, good. Everyone’s here, yes?”
He quickly corralled them into the correct position, with Megan and Paul flanking Chloe as the three of them sat on the edge of the fountain. To an outside observer, they’d look like a normal family. Appearances could be deceiving, though, and in this case they were way off. Megan was Chloe’s nanny, nothing more. She took care of Chloe when Paul was working, making sure she had everything she needed, and that the house wasn’t a disaster when he came home.
That was where it ended. Occasionally, Paul would allow Megan to cook dinner for them, but it was rare, and usually only on days when he knew he wouldn’t be home until after six. Paul took taking care of his one and only child seriously. She was his responsibility, and while he allowed Megan to take over when he had to leave, he didn’t take advantage of her presence in their life—although sometimes she wished that he would.
With the pictures over, Chloe ran back into the reception with an announcement that she was going to find her grandmother—Paul’s mom—leaving Paul and Megan behind.
She looked up at Paul. He towered over her, at just over six feet to her much shorter five foot five. “You know I’d do anything for Chloe.”
He was ultra-serious again. “I know, but you don’t have to. You’re not working tonight.”
Megan frowned. He had that melancholy look she noticed crossed his features all too frequently. “Are you all right?”
It was Paul’s turn to frown. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s my brother’s wedding.”
His answer didn’t ease her concern. Paul was a good guy—the best guy she’d ever met in her twenty-three years. He put every other man who’d crossed her path to shame, with the exception of Gage and the rest of his brothers and father. The Daniels men had certainly upped her standards in the opposite sex.
“I don’t know. You just don’t seem like yourself tonight.”
Paul waved off her observation. “It’s been a long day, that’s all.”
Yes, it had been a long day. Megan and all the other Daniels women, including Chloe, had met at the spa a little after eight that morning. They’d all gotten their hair and nails done while the guys did whatever guys did to get ready for a wedding. Since then, they’d all been going strong. Megan didn’t think that was the problem, but she let it go. For now. “It has been a long day.”
In what seemed like an effort to steer her away from any further questioning, Paul held out his arm, and motioned toward the reception. She took a deep breath, and smiled, allowing him to deflect. Whatever was going on with him today, she figured it had to do with his wife. One thing she’d learned about Paul in the four months she’d known him was that he was still very much in love with Melissa. It didn’t matter that she’d been dead for over four years. She was still alive in his heart.
Once back inside, Megan was hijacked by her brother-in-law, Gage. “Would you please talk to your sister?”
Megan laughed. “What’s up, Becca?”
Her sister, Rebecca, gave her husband a disapproving headshake. “Nothing, except Mr. Overprotective here doesn’t think I can do anything on my own.”
“I’m trying to be a gentleman.” Gage huffed his response, but at the same time, he wrapped his arms around Rebecca’s middle, pulling her up against him. It still amused Megan to see how Gage had changed since falling in love with her sister. He’d gone from the cocky playboy to the overprotective husband and daddy-to-be.
Rebecca leaned in to him. “I do not need for you to walk me to the bathroom. I’m not a child.” She paused. “And before you say it, I’m not going to get sick. I haven’t had a bout of morning sickness in over a week.”
Gage kissed her temple and inhaled. “I’m sorry, beautiful, but you know how much I worry about you.”
Megan watched her sister—her sister who could take down a man three times her size with her bare hands—melt in her husband’s arms. “I guess you two don’t need me anymore, then?”
They both chuckled, and Rebecca stood to her full height. “Of course I do. You, I don’t mind accompanying me to the ladies’ room.”
Before she knew it, Rebecca was pushing her toward the bathroom. “Hey, slow down.”
Rebecca stopped and released Megan’s arm. “Sorry. It’s just . . .”
“He’s driving you nuts?” Megan laughed.
“It’s not funny. You’d think I was terminally ill or something, instead of pregnant.”
Although she knew Gage’s attentiveness was probably getting to her overly independent sister, she also knew that Rebecca loved the attention. It was something Megan and Rebecca had lacked growing up—Rebecca especially. “You know you love it.” Megan paused. “And him.”
It took a few seconds, but then a soft smile brightened Rebecca’s features. “It’s sad, but I do. I know I shouldn’t, but to know that he’d drop everything for me and the baby, no matter what, is a pretty amazing feeling.”
“Yeah, I bet. I mean, we didn’t have that growing up. He’s going to be a great dad.”
Rebecca glanced back to where Gage was now talking to his father and Trent. “He really is.”
The talk of dads sent Megan’s mind drifting back to Paul, and she immediately began searching the crowd for him.
“Looking for someone?”
Megan turned back to face her sister. “Huh? What?”
“I asked if you were looking for someone.” Rebecca had a strange look on her face, and Megan knew Rebecca was going into big sister mode. It was the last thing she wanted.
Her sister frowned. “Is something going on I should know about?”
Now Megan was confused. “Like?”
“I don’t know. I mean you’ve gone four months without chasing after a guy. That’s a record for you.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t . . . I didn’t mean it like that. I worry about you. I want you to find a nice guy—someone who will treat you well. I don’t want to see you hurt again.”
“I know. And when I find him, you’ll be the first to know.”
Rebecca reached up to brush a strand of hair away from Megan’s face. It was something she’d done since Megan was little—a motherly gesture from the only real female authority figure Megan had ever known. “Come on. Let’s get to the bathroom before I burst. I think I drank way too much water earlier.”
Following her sister, Megan took one last look around trying to spot Paul, but she didn’t see him anywhere.
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