Baby Steps

 

A HUSBAND'S WATCH
Special Edition #1470
ISBN 0373274777
March 2006

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Faith Andrews has always loved her husband Darryl, the easy-going, uncomplicated, auto mechanic with a huge heart and a devotion to his family to match. If their youthful passion has somewhat dulled around the edges, well, she supposed twelve years of marriage and five kids would do that to anybody. But when a tornado turns “normal” into a nightmare, she finds herself suddenly facing what-might-have-beens ignored for a dozen years. . .and the untenable choice between staying the course, or resurrecting the Faith she’d thought she’d willingly left behind to become a wife and mother.

At eighteen, Darryl might have been both overjoyed and scared spitless to discover he’d gotten the preacher’s daughter pregnant. But his never-wavering goal, during the intervening dozen years, was to never give Faith a reason to regret marrying him. . .a mission now seriously threatened by a double whammy of nature. All he wants is to get everything back to normal, to again see the look of love and worship in his wife’s eyes. But maybe it was gonna take more than a little tune-up to get this marriage back up and running. . .maybe it was time to start thinking in terms of completely rebuilding the engine. . .

 

EXCERPT

A Husband's WatchAt the moment, the only thing keeping Darryl Andrews from kicking the crap out of something was the fact that his foot was just about the only part of his body that didn't already hurt.

So instead he hung back close to the road, where there was nothing to kick except a few dried-up weeds, or a stray soda can, hoping maybe a little distance would make the scene easier to absorb. To accept. Slung low in a sky his oldest girl, Heather, called "forever" blue, the morning sun barely warmed his right temple through the thick wad of gauze, although the badass November wind drilled right on inside the old baseball jacket Faith'd dug out of the church's thrift shop donation box. So he wouldn't have to cut up the sleeve on one of his own coats, she'd said in that matter-of-fact way of hers, as if attending to that one little detail was the key to solving all the rest of it.

He kicked at one of the soda cans anyway, hurling it out onto the paved road to clatter mournfully for several feet before getting hooked up again in a small pile of trash across the way.

Darryl would've sucked in a breath, but his bruised ribs had other ideas. With his good hand, he scrubbed his eyes, only half kidding himself they were stinging because of all the wood smoke in the air. Oh, sure, he'd gotten choked up at his kids' births. And there'd been Griff Malone's ten-seconds-left-on-the-clock, state-title clinching touchdown his senior year, but, hell, everybody'd been blubbering at that one. Nothing wrong with a little display of emotion now and again, long as it was the right emotion, let loose at the appropriate time.

This wasn't it.

He swallowed, blinking until he could clearly see his father and the claims agent pick through the tangle of shingles, twisted metal siding and two-by-fours where not twenty-four hours before his auto shop and filling station had stood. Where he had as well, come to think of it.

Yep. The general consensus was that he was damn lucky to be alive.

He'd never even heard the tornado siren go off, not between his radio blaring and the earplugs he wore to muffle the sound of the air compressor. But then, who the hell expected a twister the day before Thanksgiving? Let alone five, if you counted the two that touched down between here and Claremore. Most of 'em had been puny little things, but even a puny tornado had few qualms about chewing up whatever got in its way. At least the one that'd visited this part of Haven had seen fit to bypass the gas tanks. If those lines had ruptured, especially so close to the downed power lines...

No doubt about it, coming that close to biting the big one definitely makes a man reassess his priorities. Still and all, Darryl's means of supporting his wife and five kids had been reduced to a pile of toothpicks. Maybe that business hadn't made him, or his daddy before him, rich, but Darryl'd been doing okay. Sure, they could have used a bigger house, even if Faith did insist there was a certain comfort in knowing she could go to the bathroom and still hear what every single kid was doing. But then, it wasn't in Faith's nature to complain, not about the house, or the ten-year-old Suburban Darryl kept jump-starting back to life, or even that she was still wearing the same dresses to church she had when they first got married. Those she could still get into, at any rate.

He looked over at her now, standing where the second bay used to be, eleven-month-old Nicky balanced on her round hip. Faith's blond curls, longer than they'd been in a while, danced around her face in the breeze; she was already dressed to go to her parents for Thanksgiving dinner later — no sense upsetting the kids any more than necessary, they'd both agreed — in her "good" jeans and a soft-looking sweater. And that puffy orange jacket she'd bought the first winter after they were married, the one that made her look like a pumpkin, although Darryl had the good sense to keep that particular opinion to himself.

It wasn't always easy to figure out what was going on inside Faith's head — although most every male he knew swore it was better that way — but the creases between her sandy brows, the flat set to her mouth, didn't leave much room for interpretation.Yeah, the insurance would cover rebuilding, but that would take months. Months in which he wouldn't be able to work, or even help with the reconstruction, not with an arm broken in three places.

As if she could hear his thoughts, Faith glanced over. It'd been real late by the time they got back from the hospital last night; she'd slept on the pullout couch in the living room, insisting he'd be more comfortable in their double bed without her crowding him, especially since he had to keep his cast elevated on pillows. Only, except for the times Faith had been in the hospital after the first three were born, they'd never spent a night apart. More comfortable? Hell, he might as well have been sleeping on a bed of nails for all the rest he got.

He started when his father's hand landed on his shoulder. "How're you feelin'?" the older man said, in a voice not unlike an idling lawnmower. "You really want the truth?"

"Think of the alternative."

"Trust me, I have been."
L.B. — short for "Little" Bud, Darryl's granddaddy having been "Big" Bud — gently squeezed his shoulder, then folded his arms across a barrel chest. At six foot two, there hadn't been anything "little" about L.B. for years, although none of his three sons had inherited whatever genes had determined their father's height, Darryl being the tallest of the three at five foot ten.

"It's mostly structural damage," L.B. said. "Looks like a lot of the major equipment came through okay, the office just needs a new roof.And it's all covered. That was a stroke of genius, takin'pictures of everything, keepin"

"em in a binder with all the invoices."

Darryl managed a small smile. "I've got Faith to thank for that." As well as her insisting that the policy covered replacement value, not purchase price.

"Yeah, she's a smart gal, all right." L.B.'s gaze followed Darryl's, watching Faith talking to the adjuster. She hiked Nicky higher up on her hip, like he was getting heavy for her. Darryl sensed more than saw his father purse his lips, and he braced himself. Sure enough, L.B. said, "You thought about what you're gonna say if her folks offer to help? Financially, I mean?"

"I doubt they've got any more than we do, L.B. —"

"But if they do. You know how I've always felt about goin' outside the family. You need help, you come to us, you hear me?"

Never mind that Darryl had been part of Faith's family for more than twelve years now. But then, Darryl understood this wasn't about money near as much as it was about pride — the pride of a man who'd determined early on that nobody would ever call his sons trailer trash. A man who'd gone white as a ghost when Darryl'd told him he'd gotten the preacher's daughter pregnant. Hell, if Darryl hadn't stepped up to the plate to marry Faith on his own, it would have more likely been his father, not Faith's, standing at the altar with a shotgun in tow.

A Husband's WatchDarryl met his father's coffee-brown gaze, as penetrating as ever underneath heavy, dark brows, even if these days the occasional white hair jutted out like a stray broom bristle. "You know I've never taken a dime from Faith's parents, and I have no intention of starting now," he said, and some of the muscles in his father's face loosened a bit. But assuaging his father wasn't going to solve the problem, was it? God knew, Darryl wasn't any more keen than his father on accepting help from the Meyerhausers. But it hadn't only been Faith's absence from their bed, or even his injuries, that had kept him awake most of the night, but rather the incessant, nauseating tattoo of Whatnowwhatnowwhatnow...?

Faith was really struggling with the baby by now — why she'd brought him when she'd left the other four with her folks, Darryl had no idea — so he excused himself and slowly headed in her direction. Every muscle screamed in protest; whatever hadn't been gouged or broken had been banged up pretty good. Par for the course, he supposed, when an entire roof falls in on top of you.

Nicky saw him and broke into a big dimpled grin, clapping his chubby hands. White-blond curls poked out from the edge of his red sweatshirt hood, his eyes a deeper brown, even, than Darryl's. "Da!" he squealed, his breath fogging around his reddened cheeks as he lunged forward, arms spread.

"No, no, Butterball," Faith said, straining to keep the kid from falling on his noggin. "Daddy can't hold you right now —"

"Sure I can." Darryl stretched out his good arm, even though his ribs clearly wondered what the hell he was doing. "Come here, Mr. Chunks."

But Faith pivoted, settling the baby more securely up on her hip. "Darryl, for heaven's sake...you can't possibly hang on to a wiggly baby right now!"

"I'm perfectly capable of holding my own kid, Faith. Like everybody keeps reminding me, I'm not dead yet!"

Nicky's face crumpled up, his lower lip quivering. Word-lessly, Faith shoved the baby into Darryl's outstretched arm, then walked back to the Suburban and grabbed hold of the door handle, her head bent as if she was trying to pull herself together. Or maybe she was praying. Not all preachers' kids ended up being particularly religious, he knew that, but this was one case where the apple had definitely not fallen far from the tree. More often than not, Darryl found that comforting. Other times he found it a big pain in the butt. Especially when he got the definite feeling he was the one being prayed over.

At his elbow, the claims adjuster cleared his throat. His son clutched to his side, Darryl turned to the bland-faced little man, meeting a watery blue gaze behind slightly crooked rectangular glasses.

"Looks like I've got everything I need for now, so I'll just be on my way. The wife'll have five fits if I don't get home soon."

"Oh. Yeah, sure," Darryl said, trying not to flinch every time Nicky grabbed for the bandage covering the ten stitches marching over his temple. His broken arm throbbed — he needed to get it elevated, put ice on it like they'd told him to do. "We really appreciate you coming out on a holiday like this."

"No problem, I was in the area, anyway. Figured I may as well get a jump start on things. "Specially as here and Ivy Gardner's were the only two places to sustain any significant damage. Can't say the same for Claremore, unfortunately — the outskirts got hit pretty bad. No loss of life, though, praise the Lord. Craziest darn thing, tornadoes this time of year —"

"I don't mean to pressure you, but any idea how long payout might take? I'm pretty anxious to get things set to rights again."

Behind the man's glasses, apology flashed. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you are, I'm sure you are. Might take a touch longer than usual, with the holidays and all, and they'll probably want to send somebody else out for a second look-see...." The man turned to set his briefcase on the hood of his runty little sedan, dropping his clipboard inside. "I'll be in touch shortly, but if you have any questions, don't hesitate to give me a call. Our aim is to make the process as painless as possible."

It did not escape Darryl's attention that the man never directly answered his question, but he probably had no idea when they'd fork over the money. So Darryl thanked him for his help, then watched him drive off to have his Thanksgiving dinner, during which Darryl doubted whether he, or his annihilated livelihood, would be given a second thought.

"I best be gettin' on, too," L.B. said behind him. "Unless you still need me to stick around...?"

Darryl shifted to face his father, who tickled Nicky's tummy. The baby gave one of his gurgly laughs, while Darryl thought his arm was about to fall off. Damn, this was one heavy little dude. How five-foot-three Faith lugged him around every day was beyond him. "No, you go ahead. I'm sure Mama's an inch away from crazy with SueEllen's folks joining you this year."

"You don't know the half of it," L.B. said, referring to Darryl's youngest brother's in-laws, who hadn't accepted their daughter's pregnancy at eighteen with nearly as much grace as Faith's had. Darryl glanced over at his own wife, who seemed to have given up praying for silently fuming. "Every year," L.B. added, "Renee threatens to skip Thanksgiving, but you and I both know she'd go nuts if she didn't have something to fret over..."

L.B.'s eyes followed Darryl's. "Go on, son," he said quietly. "I imagine she needs some reassurin'right about now." He patted Darryl's back, then set off toward his truck, parked a few feet away. "And give your mother a call later," he called out as he climbed into the driver's seat, "let her know you're okay. You know how she worries."

"You know something, Mr. Chunks?" Darryl said to the baby as he made his way back to the car. "Being indispensable isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Faith reached for Nicky, who happily lunged back into his mama's arms. "You might be able to haul him around for a few minutes," she said with a grunt, "but you sure as heck aren't going to be able to get him in the car seat."

"Hell, I can barely manage it when I've got both arms in working order," Darryl said, surreptitiously working the kinks out of his shoulder while nostalgically gazing at his wife's bottom as she strapped the kid in. He was crazy about his kids, but their presence definitely wreaked havoc on the concept of spur of the moment.

Faith backed out of the car, her curls all messed up; ribs or no ribs, Darryl automatically lifted a hand to smooth her hair away from her face. But he knew damn well there was nothing he could do, not really, to ease the worry from those wide, blue eyes, the same "forever" blue as the sky. Still, habit prompted, "It's gonna be okay, baby. You know I'd never let you or the kids down."

The corners of her mouth curved up, sort of, before she nodded. Then she took the car keys out of his hand. "I'm drivin'."

"I got us over here —"

"Against my better judgment. Last thing I need is for you to pass out while you're behind the wheel, get us all killed..." Her mouth clamped shut. "Get in," she said, yanking open her door.

A Husband's Watch"The kids'll be wonderin' what happened to us. And Mama is probably waiting on me to mash the potatoes."

He grabbed her hand. "Honey, I know things have been tense lately —"

Her eyes shot to his, shiny with unshed tears. "Not today, Darryl. Tomorrow, we can start figurin' out how to put the pieces back together. But today all I want is to go to my parents' house and eat turkey and pumpkin pie and act like everything's normal. Today I'm just gonna be grateful my babies aren't fatherless. Okay? Can you give me my one day?"

 

(c) 2006 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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