She'd been standing an arm's length away, offering herself to him, and he'd screwed it up. The sweetest gift anyone had ever tried to give him, and he'd totally screwed it up! He wanted to run after her. As a matter of fact, he felt as if he were attached to her by invisible strings. But Sammy was wailing. He had to go settle her down first.
He let himself into the small bedroom then moved toward her bed in the semidarkness. "Hey, sweet cakes? What's the matter?"
As he sat on the edge of the mattress, Sammy rose onto her knees and hugged his neck. He gathered the child close. He needed to get his ass to the other bedroom before Meredith changed her mind, or even worse, started to think he found her undesirable.
"I heard a loud noise," Sammy said groggily.
"I'm sorry, honey. I dropped my coffee cup. I didn't mean to wake you."
"Now I'm scared."
Please, Sammy, don't be scared. Give me a break, all right? "You are, huh? There's nothing to be afraid of, sweet cakes. Goliath and I are both here, and we'll keep you safe."
She patted his hair with a little hand. "I love you, Heef."
"I love you, too, sweetheart. Great big, as far as my arms will stretch."
"It sure is." He rubbed her back for a moment, the entire time his brain screaming at him to dump the kid and go find her mother. Before the mood fizzled. Before she covered that gorgeous body with clothing and buried it under a pile of blankets and vowed never to humiliate herself like that again. "I love you and your mommy a whole lot."
"Will you tell me a story?"
No! Not on your life. No how, no way! "What kind of story, honey?"
Cinderella had mice in her attic, went for a ride in a squash, wore glass slippers, fell in love, the end. Heath sighed and moved his fingers through her baby-fine curls. The writing was on the wall. At times, fatherhood was going to be a real bitch. But, hey, how long could a story take. Right? He'd just tell her a shortened version.
"Once upon a time," he began, "there was a beautiful girl named Cinderella who wanted to go to the dance."
"You forgot the mean, wicket stick mother and the ugly stick sisters! And she di'n't want to go to a dance. It was a boil ball."
She leaned back and peered at him through the shadows. "Your mommy died and di'n't never tell you this story, huh?"
He knew someone else who was in perilous danger of losing her life at an early age. "My memory's rusty, for sure. A boil ball?"
"Yup. At the tassle where the king lives. He gots a crown and he has a boil ball so the prince can pick a boil bride."
"Royal, you mean?"
"That's what I said, boil."
It took Heath thirty-five minutes to get the story told to Sammy's exacting specifications.