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By Linda Dale
Copyright © 2017 Linda Dale
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this publication may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author or publisher, except in the case of brief quotations used in reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters and events depicted are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Any person depicted in the licensed images is a model.
It was a nice summer day, warm and sunny but with a hint of hotter days ahead. The city streets were shaded by trees, their canopies bursting with bright green leaves. It was after work and David walked the streets at a leisurely pace, taking in the changes in a town that he used to know like the back of his hand. He had gone away to attend college then got a position at a prestigious consulting firm in Santa Fe. A new job brought him back to Westbridge, the place where he grew up.
Since being back, David had discovered that his favorite deli had closed. Of course it did. It had been years since he had been there. As he was taking an aimless stroll before going home, he was hoping to find a new favorite deli. In the meantime, he was enjoying the familiar sights and all the changes since he had been gone.
Plenty of other people were out, taking advantage of the nice weather. Among them David spotted a familiar face. It was Lee Newman, an old friend. They waved to each other then converged on the sidewalk and stopped to talk. They went to middle school and high school together, but went to different colleges so David hadn't seen him in a long time. There was plenty of news to share about old friends and what each of them had been up to.
David told him about the job he left and this new one that brought him back to his home town. He was just thinking that they might go and eat somewhere, talk properly over some food. That's when Lee blindsided him with his next question.
"And how is your kid? I'm sorry. I forgot her name." Lee said.
"What? I don't have a kid," David told him with a laugh, but Lee stayed serious.
"But I met her," he said then a startled look came over his face. "Oh. Right. Sorry. I... I just got mixed up," Lee stammered and forced a smile.
From his expression, David could tell that it wasn't just a mix-up. Lee was happy to see him before, but now he looked nervous and ready to run.
"Lee?" David prompted him.
"No, I umm..." Lee motioned as if he had to go.
"What's going on?" David insisted, his voice low and serious.
Lee sighed and his shoulders slumped. He finally realized that he couldn't backpedal his way out of this. He resigned himself to answering, but all he said was one name. "Julie Sayers."
"What about her?" David asked. Julie was his high school girlfriend. He hadn't seen her for years.
"It was her kid I saw. She and Julie were coming out of the movie theater on Bunting Road. We only talked for a few minutes. The little girl held up four fingers and told me she was four years old. I guess she would be five by now. She had blue eyes and curly, dark blond hair. I just..." Lee didn't need to say the obvious. He just pointed at David.
David had blue eyes and curly light brown hair, which he kept trimmed so it wouldn't look ridiculous. Most people didn't even know his hair was curly, but Lee had known him since middle school. On the other hand, Julie had straight, dark brown hair and brown eyes. David pictured her big eyes, her silky hair, the shy smile on her face. She came back to him so vividly at that moment.
He could see her smile widen just for him. Her expressive, dark eyes would reveal so much. Then she would blush and tilt her head down, trying to hide her face behind her long hair—the hair David loved to smell and to feel brushing his skin.
It was strange to think of her having a daughter, but even stranger to consider the possibility that he was the father. The thought was too overwhelming. He looked at Lee as if he might ask him something, but he didn't know where to start. With David standing there speechless, Lee was now just in a hurry to get out of there. After what he just heard, David was too stunned to stop him.
Left alone standing on the sidewalk, David stared all around. It was just a chance meeting on the street, some chitchat and a little catching up, no big deal. Then with a few words, Lee had turned his world upside down.
There was a five year old kid with the same color eyes as his and curly hair. Julie's daughter. It could be a coincidence, or maybe Lee was playing a prank on him, though he wasn't much of a joker.
Or it could be what Julie wanted to tell him after they broke up, when she came by his dorm room and saw him with Cynthia. That was just over five years ago. At the time, David thought that she might have come by just to say hi and arrived at the wrong time.
It was David's second year in college, Julie's first. They had only broken up that summer, only a few months before. A light knock on his dorm room door interrupted him as he was making out with Cynthia on his bed, nothing too heavy though. He wasn't going to answer the door but then he heard Julie's voice.
"Can we talk?" she said.
When he opened the door to Julie, she didn't see anything too shocking, just Cynthia sitting on his bed with her long legs crossed. Despite the breakup, it was obvious that Julie didn't like seeing him with another girl. She made that clear with a wounded look and an abrupt exit. David remembered how her long hair trailed behind her as she ran off. He didn't realize it then, but that was the last time he would see her.
When she ran out of his room without a word, David wanted to follow her, but he stopped himself. He was afraid he might make things worse and embarrass her. They were broken up after all.
Now he wondered what he would have learned if he had gone after her. He never got a chance to speak to her again. Right after that, she transferred to a local college, right outside of Westbridge. David heard about it from her roommate and wondered why she would transfer when the term had barely started. Her roommate didn't know. And Julie didn't even say goodbye or answer any of his calls, texts or emails. He figured she just wanted a clean break.
David finished college out of state, and his parents moved away from Westbridge. Until now he had no reason to come back here. In all that time, he never got any news about Julie until just now.
Maybe there was nothing for him to know. Was he just reading too much into it? What Lee just told him and Julie leaving so suddenly all those years ago, it could all be a coincidence. Or maybe Julie had some big news for him that day when she came to his dorm room and said she needed to talk. David shook his head. It was no good to speculate. He needed to know for sure.
Returning to his new apartment, David felt disoriented. He stared at the place, which didn't feel like a home yet and probably wouldn't for a while. There were too many blank walls. He had it mostly furnished and organized but plenty of boxes were still left to unpack after the move.
Vaguely he remembered that he had gone in search of food earlier. His stomach growled, but he was too preoccupied to eat. He didn't know what to believe about Julie's daughter. One moment it all seemed so clear, and the next moment he was convinced that he was jumping to conclusions.
Before he could do anything else, he had to find out the truth. Looking through his contacts, he called a few old friends until one of them gave him Julie's number and confirmed that she still lived here. He didn't ask any of them if they knew anything about Julie's kid. He didn't need secondhand information. He was going straight to the source. After all Julie wouldn't lie to him, would she?
Though he had the number, David had to take a few deep breaths. This was such a huge thing. He couldn't rush in, but at the same time he couldn't wait a second longer than that. He had to call right away. While he paced up and down his living room, David told himself to settled down as he dialed.
There was a pause and the sound of the phone ringing. Then after more than five years, he heard Julie's lovely voice again.
"Hello. This is Julie."
Like an idiot, David just stood there, mute with the phone to his ear. Julie's face flashed through his mind and he felt like the room around him was spinning. While he tried to get a hold of himself, Julie almost hung up on him. David broke the silence at the last second.
"Hi, Julie. It's David," he said.
"David?" she said, clearly surprised to hear from him.
For his part, he was surprised at his reaction to hearing just a few words from her. The sound of her voice made him feel kind of giddy. The way she said his name warmed him up inside.
"David," she said again like she couldn't quite believe it was him.
"Yeah. I moved back to Westbridge. Do you think we could meet somewhere to talk? Tomorrow. Any time you like," he said. He was willing to leave work or whatever it took. He couldn't wait. He had to know as soon as possible, but he couldn't ask her over the phone. Though he was tempted to ask to meet her right now, that would seem crazy if it turned out that Lee was wrong.
Now she was the one who took a moment and said nothing for a while. His jaw clenched, and David held his breath and waited for her answer.
"Ok. Tomorrow at lunch?" she said after a while in a hushed voice. She sounded hesitant, not unfriendly but cautious. They agreed on a meeting place—a coffee shop that wasn't too far from his office. David thanked her and another silence followed. Finally she said, "See you tomorrow." Her voice was so soft and low, he barely heard her. If she was that nervous about a meeting over coffee, what did that mean?
After they hung up, David thought about the brief phone call. The long pause before she agreed might mean that she wasn't eager to see him. At the end, she sounded kind of resigned, like she had no choice.
What they needed to talk about was serious, but David found that his mind strayed to wondering what it would be like to see Julie again. Once upon a time, she had stolen his heart at first sight. But if what Lee told him was true, would she still be the same girl he knew?
Though he had arrived at Mo & Jo coffee shop first, David didn't have the patience to wait inside. He had been wound up since yesterday and hardly got any sleep. Now he paced in front of the coffee shop's big window. Trying to get his nerves under control, he constantly glanced up the street, searching for Julie.
Finally he saw her. His heart sped up at the sight of her. His mind rushed back in time, and for a second he felt free to walk up to her and swing her up into his arms. Of course he wasn't free to do any such thing. More than five years had passed and too much had happened.
As she came toward him, he stopped dead and waited as the past and the present resolved themselves and he could see her clearly. What he saw was beautiful. Julies face was a little flushed. Her dark, inquisitive eyes shone from her pretty face. The sky was cloudy, the wind was a bit chilly so she wore a short, blue jacket over a white top and a chocolate brown skirt. Her hair was down and it moved beautifully as she walked.
David took in the sight of her like he could drink her in with his eyes. This was exactly the way she had taken his breath away when he first saw her back in high school. That time she was coming down the corridor, rushing to get to class before the bell. When she caught him staring at her, she had given him a questioning look before she quickly turned away. It would be a while before they talked for the first time. She had seemed so shy, David didn't know how to approach her.
She seemed more confident to him now, but David still didn't know how he would start the conversation they needed to have. She was approaching so he better figure it out fast. Unlike David, Julie didn't stop in her tracks when she saw him, but she did slow down. She finally came to a stop right in front of him.
David remembered how she came up exactly to his chin but a little higher in heals, like now. After they greeted each other, she waited like the next move was his. But all he could do was stare at her stupidly.
"I thought we were having coffee," she said to him mildly. She gave him a quick smile, but there was a more serious look behind it.
After they went in and sat down, he asked her about that apprehensive look he saw in her eyes. "Why do you look so worried?" he asked her. He tried to keep any accusation out of his voice. After all, he didn't know anything yet.
"I'm wondering why you called and wanted to meet," she said simply, but she seemed even more nervous now. Her delicate hands were restless on the table until she clenched them into fists to hold them still.
David fought the urge to reach across the table and wrap her hands with is own. They ordered their coffees and then he told her. "I heard that you had a kid, a daughter. I'd like to know more about her," David said then steeled himself for what she might say.
From her stricken expression, it was obvious that this was what she feared. Their coffees arrived but the cups were left untouched, steaming between them. For a while neither one of them said anything.
David waited and Julie stared down at her coffee cup without having a single sip. She frowned, bit her lower lip and blinked like she was fighting back tears. David hated that she looked so upset, but he couldn't let her off the hook about this.
"We have a daughter," she said finally, her voice low and thready, like she was giving him terrible news. She raised her eyes to him apprehensively and just waited.
Though he had expected this news since the day before, David was thrown. This was real. It was a shock but Julie had just confirmed it. David was a father.
"How could you not tell me this?" he asked as anger broke through all the other emotions he was feeling.
"I'm sorry," Julie said. "I'm really sorry."
David could see real sorrow on her face. He ran his hand through his hair and leaned back, still stunned. That didn't last. He leaned forward. While he tried to make his brain form some coherent thoughts, his tongue stumbled over several questions at once. "Why...? When can I...? What's her...? Sorry. What's her name?"
Julie blinked at him then told him in a shaky voice. "Her name is Mandy. Amanda. But right now she looks more like a Mandy than an Amanda."
"Mandy. That's nice," David said as the name of his kid made his heart race. Mandy. He had a daughter named Mandy.
"That was my mother's middle name," Julie explained. "Mom's name was Lilly Amanda. Mandy is actually named Amanda Lilly." Julie had tears in her eyes as she spoke about her late mother. David had never met her. She had died when Julie was little.
"That's a pretty name," David said. "It's really pretty. Good choice."
Julie seemed happy that he liked it, but she still looked scared. She finally gave him a small smile. It warmed his heart just the way her smiles always did, but he couldn't let go of his anger all the same.
"Does she know about me?" David asked. He was a little afraid to know the truth about that. He couldn't imagine what she might have been told.
"I only told her that her dad was nice. And handsome," Julie added then looked down shyly. "She asked if you were 'a handsome guy' and I had to say yes."
He was relieved that Julie talked about him with her, but Mandy should have been able to see him for herself. "What about why I wasn't around?" David asked and clenched his fists, trying to keep his anger under control. He could have been around if he had only known he had a child.
"I said you lived far away. I know you were in Santa Fe for a while," she said apologetically.
David pushed down his anger. The past couldn't be changed. "I moved back just a few weeks ago. I got a really good job offer. It's nice to be back," he said, but he was thinking that he wouldn't know about his daughter if he hadn't come back. "Were you ever going to tell me about my daughter?"
Julie took a big, shaky breath. David could tell she had no plans to tell him. Maybe once Mandy was old enough to start demanding answers.
Then he thought of something that only now occurred to him. He had noticed there was no ring on Julie's finger, but that wasn't definite proof. "Mandy doesn't have a stepfather, does she?" he asked and dreaded the answer. The thought that some other man might have taken his place in his daughter's life, while he didn't even know about her, made his blood boil.
"No," Julie said and drew back from his grim expression and looked down.
David must have been looking at her harshly, but now he was mostly relieved. "Good. No, I mean... I mean good. I don't want any competition," David admitted.
"Competition?" Julie said, raising her eyes to him questioningly.
"For Mandy's heart. I'm going to be her one and only dad," David said.
Julie smiled then she frowned. "I do have a fiancé. Bruce is in London right now. His company sent him to oversee the relocation of some projects. He had to go suddenly and we got engaged right before he left."
"Oh, Ok." David tried not to show that he was disappointed to hear that. "You don't wear an engagement ring," he noticed. He had already noted a lack of any rings on her hand, and now he knew for a fact that wasn't proof that she was a free woman.
"Yeah," Julie said and looked down at her hands too. The expression on her face was unreadable. It wasn't what David expected. Julie should have been beaming with happiness, but maybe she was subdued because her fiancé was overseas. "Bruce wanted to give me the engagement ring that belonged to his great-grandmother, but it's in a safety deposit box in Connecticut. We got engaged right before he left for his trip, kind of suddenly, so he didn't have time to go and get it."
"I see," David said. This seemed like an uncomfortable topic for both of them so he decided to move on to the next step, except he wasn't sure what that should be. "So, how do we do this? What do we do next?" he asked Julie.
She looked at him uncertainly and her eyes grew so serious they looked downright sad. "We don't have to do anything. You have your life and I have mine."
Instantly David got angry. "Mandy doesn't have a father. Are you really going to tell me to go away when I'm here and I want to be a father to her?" David asked sternly and watched her eyes go wide.
"Of course not, but you have to be sure it's what you want," she said earnestly. Looking at her solemn expression, David realized she didn't really mean that they should go their separate ways. She was just giving him a way out. "Don't feel like you have to..."
"I want to meet her. I wish she was here right now," David said emphatically. He had this scary ache inside him, like something was wrong with his heart. Maybe a piece was missing and her name was Mandy. "Now that I know I have a daughter, I have to meet her," he said his voice rough with emotion.
Julie was blinking back tears, and David didn't know what she would say. She wouldn't try to keep him from his daughter, would she?
"I've been a father without knowing it. I want to be a real father now," David said to confirm to her that he knew what he wanted.
"Just like that. You don't need to think about it?" she asked, still not giving him an answer.
"What's to think about?" he said bluntly. "It's a done deal. I'm a dad. So when can I meet my daughter?"
Before their meeting at the coffee shop, Julie was a mess. She tried to prepare herself for whatever might happen, good or bad, but that was no use. The one thing she could never prepare herself for was David himself.
Then he was right in front of her, waiting for her. He was as amazingly handsome as ever. Julie had sort of forgotten what it was like to be with David, how tall and very attractive he was. Looking into his blue eyes—the same eyes that Mandy shared—Julie felt a little lost. It was overwhelming. Always so earnest and direct, David had that way of looking into her eyes with an irresistible intensity.
But she couldn't get carried away by all the emotions he stirred up in her. Once they were face to face after all this time, he was demanding answers and she had no choice but to tell him about Mandy. The rest was up to him. If he wanted to blame her or hate her, she would have to accept that and deal with it. She wouldn't be able to blame him though, only hope for his forgiveness.
On seeing him, an old hope resurfaced despite Julie's caution. It was a hope she had nurtured since the day she found out that she was pregnant, a tiny hope that David might be glad to hear the news. Because this was David, it wasn't so farfetched to have a little hope.
After all these years, it was strange and frightening to share the big news with him. But he had smiled and his eyes had brightened when she told him their daughter's name. She was so overjoyed that he was happy about Mandy and that he wanted to be a part of his daughter's life.
David couldn't wait to see her with his own eyes. "I'd like to meet her as soon as possible."
Seeing him so eager to meet their daughter, Julie had to hold back the tears that welled up in her eyes. When she hesitated, he misunderstood and thought she was reluctant to share Mandy with him. "I think I waited long enough," he said, his voice deep and forceful, making it clear that he wouldn't be denied.
Julie couldn't make him wait too much longer. She took a deep breath and said, "How would you like to come over to the house for dinner on Saturday?"
"I get dinner too?" David said with a smile, but he looked a little apprehensive as well. "I can take us all out to dinner somewhere," he offered.
"I would rather make dinner. I need something to distract me. I'll be a nervous wreck," Julie admitted.
"Why would you be nervous? You've already met everyone who's going to be there." He gave her a teasing smile then he got more serious and asked, "What can I do? Can I bring anything to go with dinner?"
At first she was going to say no, but then she thought of something. "Yes, bring something gummy, bears, worms, anything."
"Sour or regular?"
"Either one. If it's gummy, Mandy will love it."
"Mandy? Oh, I thought the gummies were for you," he said deadpan.
"Funny," she told him as they stood up to go. He always used to tease her about her sweet tooth. It took her back to the old days.
When he had been her boyfriend, even that kind of thing made her love him. David had been warm and bright like sunshine. He had a big laugh and he was always ready to make fun of her then kiss her if she got mad. She hadn't been able to resist him.
"What are you doing?" she would ask with a frown, pretending she didn't know even though he held her in his arms ready to kiss her.
"Making you like me again," David would say, then he would lean in slowly and kiss her softly. He liked to tease her with the softest kisses, so that she would be the one who kissed him back harder and made their kiss deeper.
In those days, it seemed to her that every second she wanted and loved him more. That's why it had been so painful for her when he got restless.
Leaving the coffee shop, she and David parted, and Julie went back to work like a sleepwalker. Seeing David again had left her in such a confused state. She hoped she would be able to do her job somehow.
This was how she felt when she got his call and heard his voice for the first time after more than five years. Julie had been gripped by an incredible mixture of emotions. She had to get over the shock first as time stopped. Just hearing his voice took her back to being that young girl, hopeful and so in love. It all came back to her in a rush—all the love and the pain.
When David asked to see her, sounding serious, she remembered the unsaid words, and her Mandy, her baby and secretly David's too. She could hardly breathe as she agreed to meet him.
She had nearly collapsed afterward. For a while she was simply too stunned to think. It took her a long time to get herself together and even longer to sort out her feelings about that phone call and what it meant.
Despite her fear, she had looked forward to seeing David again. And he hadn't disappointed her. He was everything she remembered except now he was a dad too.
Somehow she survived seeing him again and didn't fall apart, but Julie was nervous about their next meeting at the house too. Now that the big day was decided on, an even bigger hurdle awaited her. She had to tell Mandy that she was finally going to meet her dad.
That evening after dinner, Julie sat her down so she could give her the news.
"Let's sit down and have a little talk, Mandy," she told her.
Mandy fidgeted impatiently and looked at her eagerly.
"This Saturday we're going to have a visitor for dinner. It's someone I told you about. Your dad is coming to see you." Julie barely got the words out before she had to clamp her mouth shut and just focus all her energies on not crying her eyes out in front of her baby girl.
"My daddy?" Mandy's blue eyes went wide.
"Yes. Him. He wants to meet you," Julie told her and swept Mandy's long curly hair off her shoulder.
"Ok!" Mandy said making it sound like she was expecting this meeting to happen that very second. She looked ready to jump out of her chair and run into her dad's strong arms.
"You'll have to wait till Saturday, and we'll make a really nice dinner," Julie told her.
"And dessert?" Mandy said.
"Yes, dessert too," Julie confirmed.
Mandy nodded then she huffed with impatience. The poor little thing couldn't wait for Saturday to come. Julie gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek. Mandy couldn't wait to meet her dad, and he couldn't wait to meet her.
Extra early on Saturday morning, Mandy started jumping around with excitement. She wouldn't even sit still for breakfast. Julie hoped she wouldn't be a handful all day.
At least Mandy slept fine. Julie had only managed to fall asleep a little before dawn. She wasn't sleepy though. She didn't even want coffee. If anything, she felt too awake, almost as jittery as Mandy.
Julie couldn't fidget and pace if she didn't want to get strange looks from Mandy. To try to get rid of some of the tension, she decided to straighten up around the house. Mandy helped so that kept both of them busy.
"I want to show Daddy my room. It has to look nice," Mandy said as she arranged her toys carefully.
After the cleaning was done, going food shopping would distract both of them until it was time to make dinner. While they were out shopping, they stopped at an accessory store and she told Mandy to pick out a new hairpin for the special day. They had sparkly ones, but Mandy wanted a butterfly.
At first, she was sure of her decision, then she stopped halfway to the register and turned to Julie. "Does Daddy like butterflies?" she asked worriedly.
"Of course he does. Everyone likes butterflies," Julie assured her.
Mandy was relieved. She wanted to make a good impression so much, but all she had to do was be her sweet self.
Julie continued the distraction strategy at home and had Mandy help her in the kitchen. Mandy paid close attention to everything Julie asked her to do. She wanted dinner for her dad to be perfect. That kept her busy until it was time to get ready.
For the last two days, Mandy had been asking Julie a million questions about David. One of the things she asked was his favorite color. Julie remembered that he made a big fuss one time when she wore a red dress, so she told Mandy that he liked red.
Usually Mandy wasn't too choosy about what she wore as long as it was bright and colorful, but today she picked out her clothes very carefully. "It has to be red," she insisted when Julie suggested she wear her favorite yellow skirt with big, white daisies.
"Then we have just the thing," Julie said and put together a denim skirt that had red patches all over it with a red t-shirt with a big loopy M on it.
Mandy pointed to the blue of the denim. "That's not red, Mommy."
"David likes blue too. He is a boy, you know."
"A guy," Julie corrected herself since Mandy didn't have a very high opinion of boys.
Once she got her into her outfit, Mandy looked up at Julie uncertainly and asked, "Do I look nice?"
Julie hugged her and kissed her and told her, "Yes. You look very nice, honey."
"You look nice too, Mommy," Mandy said to her sweetly.
Julie thanked her. She had chosen her outfit carefully too while making sure that it looked casual. She didn't want to overdo it. After all David wasn't coming to see her. There was no reason for her to try and show off.
While Julie finished up in the kitchen and did her best to stay calm, Mandy looked out the front window. She yelled "Nooo!" every time a car passed without pulling into their driveway.
"Settle down. It's not time yet," Julie told her, but she didn't listen.
Julie could have said the same thing to herself, and she wouldn't have listened either. Wondering if David was as nervous as they were, she tried to imagine seeing Mandy for the first time like she was now. She tried, but she couldn't.
This curly headed wonder had been a part of her life for so long, she was part of her very being. Julie felt that her life began when she had Mandy, like they came into being at the same moment a brand new baby and a brand new mom. They even cried at the same moment, Mandy from the shock of arriving in this big, bright world and Julie from happiness at seeing her and hearing her cry.
How could that be the same bundle of nervous energy that was peering out the front window, craning her neck for a glimpse of the next car to drive down the street? But it was her. She was once a screaming, red faced newborn. Julie was so worried that after he met Mandy, David might not forgive her for depriving him of her for so long.
David was a nervous wreck. For two days straight, he wasn't fit for anything. It was a good thing he was still new at his job so he had an excuse for the blank stares he gave his colleagues when they talked to him. How was he supposed to focus on property valuations? He had a daughter, a tiny daughter he hadn't even met yet.
Saturday morning, he went running at the crack of dawn and then to the new gym he had just joined. He wanted to sweat off some of the tension and keep himself from going over to Julie's several hours too early.
He could hardly show up on her doorstep and say, "I know you said dinner, but I'm here for lunch." Of course after lunchtime was over and he hadn't eaten anything, he just scoffed at his hunger pangs. He couldn't eat a thing. Hopefully he would be able to eat once he got to Julie's.
Only a little early, he went over Julie's armed with the gummies she told him to buy. He drove there obeying the speed limit almost the whole way. That might have been a first, but he felt like he couldn't take even the smallest risk while he was on his way to meet his daughter.
Julie's house was in a nice, quiet community called Finley Park. Unlike some of the other communities he passed on the highway, here the houses weren't cookie cutter. The sidewalks were wide and there were plenty of trees.
He found number 2214 on the mailbox at the end of a curving driveway. The driveway led to a shaded house, small but very nice. A long porch was halfway in sunlight, halfway in shade. Potted plants were placed along the banister. Two wicker chairs completed the inviting setup.
Julie stepped outside to meet him before he reached the door. She wore her hair down. Her dress was very simple, light blue but had some nice swing when it moved. It made him picture her dancing.
Unlike him, Julie was a good dancer. No matter how bad he was, Julie was never embarrassed to dance with him. She would just say, "Dancing isn't about showing off. It's about having fun."
"You mean making fun of me," he said.
"Yes. That too," she had agreed with a grin.
David had to shake himself out of the memories that assailed him at the sight of her. He told himself to focus on the present. Right now Julie was standing in front of him, welcoming him to her little house.
"Mandy saw you from the window," she said. "Come in, but watch out. She has worked herself up into quite a state. I think she'll burst into flames if she has to wait another minute."
"I was afraid I was too early. I couldn't wait either," he confessed.
David hoped he wouldn't disappoint her. After all he was just an ordinary guy. He couldn't possibly measure up to whatever ideas his little girl had built up around the word dad. As for him, he kind of got a little panicked every time it hit him that he was really a dad and his daughter waited somewhere behind that door.
Whatever ideas David had built up for himself about Mandy vanished when he walked in through the front door and two bright, blue eyes looked into his. The eager and curious look on his little girl's face broke his heart right there on the spot.
"You're big." Mandy put up her hand like she was going to measure him. She stared at him so intently, David was afraid to breathe.
"This is him, honey. This is your dad," Julie told her.
Hearing those words, David's heart skipped a beat. He felt like he became a father at that very moment.
"David, this is Mandy," Julie said while he tried to catch his breath.
"It's nice to meet you," David said, his voice tight with emotion. He had trouble speaking, but he managed to put his hand out for a handshake. Mandy took his hand, shook it and jumped in place a few times.
"That's a nice handshake you have there," David told her and she looked pleased to hear it. She was such a cute kid.
Mandy had Julie's pretty face topped with his curly hair only lighter, and of course those blue eyes. David couldn't take his eyes off her except to look at Julie for moral support and to blink back a few tears. When Julie pointed to the colorful gift bag he carried, he remembered to give it to Mandy.
"This is for you," he said, but now he wished he had bought her a ton of presents.
Mandy dug into the bag eagerly then brought out three different kinds of gummies with their simple packages tied with pink ribbon.
"You know I like gummies!" she said in owe of his fatherly clairvoyance, but he couldn't take credit.
"Your mom told me. She said buy her gummy anything and you'll win her heart forever," David told her.
"You're paraphrasing a little," Julie said.
But Mandy nodded, agreeing with the truth of what he said.
"Don't open those until after dinner," Julie warned her.
Mandy pursed her lips but set aside the gummies.
"Don't worry, you won't have to wait long," Julie assured her then she turned to David. "Dinner is ready. I hope you're ready to eat."
"More than ready," David told her, but he really wasn't. He didn't know if he could swallow one thing, but since Julie cooked the meal, he was going to do his best.
They all sat down at the small, round table off the kitchen. The food Julie served looked delicious, but David wouldn't have eaten a bite if Julie wasn't looking at him expectantly. He just wanted to watch Mandy eat and listen to her chirpy little voice as she asked how many carrots she had to eat.
Once the smell of the food hit him though, his appetite kicked in and he remembered that he had exercised on an empty stomach. Julie had made pork stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. It was delicious and he didn't have to be told to eat his carrots.
"This is really good," he told Julie as soon as he had a few bites.
"Mandy helped me make it," Julie said and Mandy beamed at her then ducked her head shyly.
"That must be why it's so tasty," David told Mandy and he got a big smile from her.
If Julie wasn't there, David wouldn't have been able to take his eyes off Mandy for one second. But he wanted to look at both of them. Seeing them together was amazing. Julie was only a little different from when he knew her. And Mandy was a revelation. With Julie's bright spirit and David's hair and eyes, she united them again in one person, this beautiful being. Mandy was so small and lively, restless from the newness of suddenly having a dad.
For David, being with her, with both of them, had brought out some sadness and anger too. That's because he realized that this could have been his life.
He wasn't only angry at Julie for not telling him. David was angry at himself too. If he had done things differently five years ago, he wouldn't be meeting his daughter for the first time today. He would have known her for her whole life, from the moment she was born.
David wasn't one for second-guessing himself, but it was hard not to regret his choices when they gained him so little and cost him so much. At the time when he broke up with Julie, the world seemed to be offering him everything. He didn't know then that those were just empty temptations.
When he started college, there were so many pretty, new girls to want and admire. On those early days in college, David sometimes felt like he wanted all of them. The more all those other beauties drew his eye, the more he felt it was unfair to Julie to stay with her while lusting after other girls.
He liked her more than anyone he had ever known. She was great. She deserved to be with someone who wanted only her. He broke it off and went chasing after new faces, new bodies. It took awhile for the thrill to wear off and for him to realize that what he and Julie had was something special.
Seeing her now, David didn't know how he had looked at her beautiful eyes and told her he wanted to screw around more than he wanted her. That was a strange regret to have all these years later, but in the end his decision did cost him the first five years of his daughter's life.
"I have the same eyes as Daddy," Mandy whispered to Julie like it was a secret.
"That's why you're my blue eyed baby," Julie told her and leaned over to kiss her little face.
Seeing how much Julie loved their daughter touched David's heart like nothing else ever had. While he gazed at the two of them, he notice that Mandy struggled a little when she had to spear the carrots with her fork.
"It's more fun to eat with your fingers," he told her.
"That sounds kind of messy," Julie said.
"I don't eat with my fingers. Only little kids eat with their fingers," Mandy said indignantly.
"And you're not a little kid," David guessed though his eyes told him that she was.
"No. I'm gonna be in kindergarten." As she said that, her face was very serious and she sat a little straighter in her chair while her legs dangled.
"That's impressive," David told her.
She nodded, accepting the compliment, but then she got distracted. Before she was even done with her last bite, she was already eyeing the gummy candy that David had brought.
"Mandy, don't you remember what else we made today?" Julie asked her.
Mandy gasped. "The little cakes!" She was beside herself and her eyes were huge. Under the table her legs kicked and she squirmed in her chair.
"Those must be some cakes," David said seeing her excitement level shoot through the roof.
"I'll bring them out as soon as all those carrots are gone from your plate," Julie said to Mandy.
Mandy looked down at her plate in alarm. Seeing what was left there, she put on a determined face and eyed the last two carrots like they were in big trouble. Nothing was going to stand in the way where little cakes were concerned. Those carrots didn't stand a chance.
Now that her plate was cleared, she looked at her mom like she was saying, "Your move."
"I guess I'll bring out those little cakes now," Julie said. As she got up she gave Mandy a kiss on top of her head. Julie picked up some plates to take to the sink and David grabbed a few as well.
"You don't have to do that," Julie told him.
"Sure I do. I have to set a good example," David told her.
Julie smiled at him then they saw Mandy pick up her plate to bring it to the sink as well.
"I guess it's already working," Julie said to him. "Don't drop the utensils, sweetie," she warned her.
"I won't," David said and he watched Julie smile at him wryly.
Damn, that brought back memories. He used to love to tease her just to see that smile and the flash in her eyes. Of course what came after was usually a kiss to make her like him again. It was so weird to remember how close they were once, how much he loved to see her smile and even to see her get mad at him a little.
He had to shake off those memories. They had nothing to do with the present. Julie was engaged, and today was about Mandy. And right now, she was looking up at him curiously while he was staring at Julie. Good thing Julie was busy loading the dishwasher so she didn't catch him at it too.
Once the table was cleared, they all took the little cakes to the living room. And for the first time since he came, David started to notice Julie's house. It was small but very welcoming. The living room was decorated in light colors and soft lines. It was very comfortable looking and stylish. Of course it was. Julie had good taste.
They sat on the couch with him and Julie on either side of Mandy. David watched Mandy eat the cake with her eyes first. Then she took a deep, shaky breath and dug in. After she had a mouthful, she gave her mom a big, messy smile.
David had a bite too. It was chocolate cake with peanut butter filling and caramel drizzle. He smiled.
"Mandy likes peanut butter too," Julie said. She knew what he was thinking. Looking down at her cake, Julie seemed a little bit embarrassed, like she didn't want to admit she remembered how much he liked peanut butter and that's why she made these cakes.
After enjoying Julie's embarrassment for a little bit, David turned from Julie's blushing face to Mandy.
"So you like peanut butter too?" he said to her like it was a big surprise.
With her mouth full of cake, she only nodded.
They all finished off their cakes with him and Julie taking it slowly while Mandy had to be told not to pile up one bite on top of another. David enjoyed the cake a lot especially since Julie made it with him in mind.
"Best piece of cake I ever had," David said once he was done.
Mandy nodded again Julie reached over with a napkin to wipe cake crumbs off her face.
"No, Mommy," Mandy protested. "I can do it."
Julie handed her the napkin and Mandy wiped her face furiously and managed to get some of the crumbs off.
"A few more left." David handed her another napkin so she could have another go.
"Am I good now?" she asked and she turned her face to Julie then to him.
"Looks pretty good, but let's make sure," David said. He moved over a little and stretched out his arm with his phone in his hand. He took a picture of him and Mandy together then showed it to her. "What do you think? See any crumbs?"
"No. I'm good," Mandy said and smiled at the picture of the two of them.
"Yes, you are," David said to her while he gazed at the first picture of him and his kid. He was kind of overwhelmed.
"That's an interesting way to check for crumbs," Julie said. "I can take a few pictures of you guys if you want."
From the look in her eye as she made the offer, David could tell that she knew that this moment meant a lot to him. He handed her his phone and then he and Mandy posed for some pictures. In one of them they held up their empty cake plates. Julie took some pictures with her own phone then looked at them pretty much the same way David had looked at the ones on his phone. Her eyes were shining and David tried not to notice how pretty she looked.
Since he was so taken with the brand new pictures they took, Julie offered for them to watch some videos and look at some pictures on her iPad. They sat together and watched Mandy in a school play, or preschool. The children were dressed as fruits and vegetables though there was a spoon and a sandwich in the mix.
Maybe it was a play about nutrition. It was hard to tell. The kids were lurching around the stage, bumping into each other because of their bulky costumes and because they couldn't see very well. They sometimes shouted their lines, sometimes whispered them, and sometimes just looked anxiously off stage. David wasn't sure what was going on and Mandy's explanations only confused him more. As long as Mandy looked adorable, that's all that mattered.
When she said that she messed up, he just had to take her word for it. But as the play ended and he saw parents stand up to clap enthusiastically, all he could think about was not being there, not being one of those dads waving to their kids and telling them they did great.
Setting aside his anger and regret, David took the opportunity to tell her now. "You were so good."
"I was a cauliflower," Mandy told him, finally explaining that mystery.
David never would have guessed. "You were an excellent cauliflower."
She leaned closer to him and whispered, "I don't like cauliflower."
"I didn't used to like it, but now that I've seen you as a cauliflower, I love it," David told her.
She ducked her head and giggled. Julie raised an eyebrow at him and put on a crafty look, like she was thinking up recipes for cauliflower dishes she might serve to test this newfound love of cauliflower he was professing.
Then Mandy spoke up and reminded them that she was promised gummies after dinner. Julie let her have a few, and David had some too. Julie took a picture of them sitting side by side eating gummy bears and worms. Then it was on to more pictures on her iPad.
As they looked at more pictures and Julie and Mandy told him stories. David couldn't get enough though he felt kind of shell-shocked too. He had Mandy's whole life to catch up on, but then Julie started to wrap things up.
"Look at the time, Mandy. We'll continue this show and tell some other time," Julie told her. "You know what time it is, right?"
Mandy glanced at the clock then quickly looked away. She shook her head, her curly hair bouncing.
"It's past time you went to bed," Julie insisted.
"Nooo! Dad is here," Mandy protested.
Julie asked her, "Don't you want to show your dad how nice your room is?"
"Yes. Want to see my room? I have lots of toys," she told him like she thought he was another kid who had come to play.
"If you want to show him your room, you have to put on your pajamas first and brush your teeth," Julie said.
Mandy whined but then looked at David.
"I really want to see your room and all those toys," he told her. "It sounds like fun."
"Ok," she said. Pouting a little, she ran off as fast as her little legs would carry her. Soon she was back wearing pajamas with orange and lemon slices on them.
"Those are some nice pajamas," David told her and she smiled.
"Let's go!" she said.
"And your teeth? Did you brush them?" Julie asked.
Mandy made an exasperated face then she ran off again. David laughed and looked over at Julie who smiled at him. She blinked, looked embarrassed then turned away and got busy putting away the gummies.
David tried not to stare at her, but that wasn't easy. She was the same girl who had once stolen his heart, something no other woman ever managed to do.
When Mandy was done brushing her teeth, he and Julie went over to join her so he could get a tour of her bedroom.
"This is my room," she announced as if the multicolored room could belong to anyone else. There were polka dots in every color on her rug and flowers and butterflies stuck to her walls. Her lamp was a mermaid, her bedspread had hearts and stars on it, fish were swimming on her curtain. Her desk was striped and her chair shaped like a clamshell. There was no unifying theme but it was a lot of crazy fun.
Mandy dug around in her toy chest, which was shaped like a turtle, and brought out toys that David just had to meet. She had a story to go along with each one. Finally Julie had to put a stop to the endless parade of toy introductions.
"Ok. Time to climb into bed so your dad can tell you a goodnight story," she said.
"He will?" Mandy said and looked at him eagerly.
David was surprised too and looked at Julie with alarm. She only smiled and told him, "You'll do fine."
She helped Mandy get under the covers and then they both sat on the floor next to her bed. While Mandy peered at him eagerly, waiting for her story, David racked his brain. Then he had it and he grinned at Julie.
"Once upon a time there was a princess called Jules."