Excerpt: Cassidy’s Daddy

A dry blast of July heat entered the room, but Trixie felt a bolt of chill streak down her spine. A man stood, backlit by the sunlight streaming in through the glass windows, his tall frame in dark relief against the brightness of afternoon. He paused for a moment in the doorway, as if uncertain, before stepping all the way in and letting the door swing shut behind him.

She could hardly make out his features, silhouetted against the sun as he was. And still, Trixie’s mouth went dryer than the desert surrounding Rose Quartz, and her hand fluttered midair over the telephone as if waving goodbye. She didn’t need to see his face to know him. She’d recognize him blindfolded.

Sam West, was all she could think. Sam West was back.

He looked taller than she remembered, and far broader in the shoulders. And now that he’d taken another step or two into the diner, she could see he was all cleaned up in olive-toned khaki slacks, leather shoes and a button-down shirt in a pale butter-yellow hue.

Way back when, Trixie had rarely seen him in anything but old, stained tee shirts and faded blue jeans that were ripped at the knees.

He still had that golden look to him that he’d always had—sun-streaked brown hair pushed back from a tanned brow, gray eyes, framed by gold-tipped lashes, that used to bore into hers relentlessly, stealing her breath away.

He wasn’t staring at her now, since—thank the universe for small miracles—he hadn’t spotted her yet. Trixie stood just inside the entrance to the kitchen, partially hidden by the counter and the open shelves that were stacked high with clean plates, bowls, water glasses and coffee mugs.

She should retreat all the way into the kitchen and hide out until he left. She should do something, anything. But all she could do was stare at him and wonder when she might recover the use of her basic motor functions. Like breathing, swallowing, speaking. Walking away.

Hal’s small eyes darted nervously from his waitress to the man now standing dead center of the room, and back again. Hal had owned the Love Shack for twenty-five years. He had hired Trixie Belmont when she was just seventeen years old, the same summer, ten years earlier, that he had hired Sam West, against his own better judgment, as a short-order cook.

And now the boy was a man, and the man was back in town.

“Well, if it isn’t Sam West,” Hal blustered, lumbering forward. Trixie watched him plaster a grin onto his face. In her view, Hal’s natural approach to life seemed to include the motto, When in doubt, plunge right in. No doubt he figured the tension in the room couldn’t get any thicker. Nearly everyone in the diner had stopped eating when the tall, lean, muscled man had walked in. Someone had to break the ice.

She watched Hal hold out a meaty paw to Sam. “Shake my hand, son. It’s been a long time.”

Sam used the handshake to pull his old boss into a quick, back-thumping embrace. “Hal. It’s great to see you.” He grinned back, a lopsided smile that didn’t look entirely heartfelt, from where Trixie was standing. “You’re looking fit as ever.”

Hal chortled and shook his head. “Sam, you old dog.” He waved an arm excitedly. “Come on, come in, come get yourself something to eat. A slice of Fourth-of-July pie? Trixie’s been…”

His voice trailed off into an uncomfortable cough. “There I go again,” he muttered, loudly enough that Trixie could hear every word, even across the room.

She winced. Of course Hal would mention her, pretty much immediately. The man had a well-deserved reputation for shoving his foot into his mouth like it was a hotdog on a stick. Of course, that was to be expected. Anyone looking at him could tell he had a weakness for junk food.

Sam cleared his throat. “Is she here?”

“Uh—” Hal wrung meaty hands together, clearly uncertain what to say next.

Trixie knew she should move her damn feet, already—either go out there and let poor Hal off the hook, or run straight out the back door to safety, whichever, it didn’t matter, just move—but somehow, she was frozen, rooted to the spot.

“Come on, Hal,” Sam was saying, his mouth quirked in a quick half-smile, his eyes sober. “Is Trixie here?”

Trixie closed her eyes for a moment, then squared her shoulders and forced herself to walk out into the open, where he could see her. “Of course I’m here. Where else would I be? Hi, Sam West.”