Gianna's Christmas Wish by Amanda Clark

"Here are our three and fours. They do a lot of arts and crafts, as you can see," his tour guide gestured to the room as she spoke.

Rick smiled kindly at the group of preschoolers, happily gluing glitter and jewels to foam crosses.
Gianna's Christmas Wish
Gianna's Christmas Wish by Amanda Clark
“Jen!” Someone called out down the hall, distracting his tour guide, Jenna. She held up a finger and hurried towards the voice that had called for her. Rick took the time to observe the classroom from the doorway where they had stopped. One little girl in particular caught his eye. She was the spitting image of his niece, Natalie. He tried to shake the comparison away. His niece was hundreds of miles away in Oregon with his sister and brother-in-law. She was also about two years older than this little girl. "Pastor, I hate to leave you, but I'm needed downstairs. Feel free to pop into the rooms and meet the parishioners and teachers." He smiled his thanks to Jenna and opened the door to enter the room as she hurried away. The young teacher inside greeted him kindly and he introduced himself to her as the prospective assistant pastor of the small church. Before she could introduce herself, a little boy dumped a bottle of glitter, requiring her immediate attention. Rick knew he should leave and go to the next room on his tour, but something about that same little girl drew his attention. Before he realized what he was doing, he was crouched down in front of her and asking her name. "Gianna," she smiled sweetly at him. There was something so familiar about the little face smiling back at him. He just couldn't place it. Perhaps he knew her parents? Highly unlikely since he was from Oregon and hadn't visited the little town in Iowa since he was twelve. That was the year his grandfather passed away and his grandmother moved in with his family. Still, it was the only explanation. "I'm Pastor Rick. It's nice to meet you, Gianna. Do you know your mommy and daddy's names?" "My daddy lives far, far away. He doesn't want to, because he loves me and Mommy, but he has to. He's coming back though." She spoke the last part with such confidence. He hoped for her sake that it was true. A lump formed in his throat. No matter who her father was, it was devastating that he wasn't in her life, no matter the reason. He could never leave his wife and child. The little girl continued on, unfazed by his reaction. "My mommy's name is Shelby Donnelly." He felt the blood drain from his face as his throat clogged up and the puzzle began to click into place. It couldn't be. The name was different but everything else fit. "How old are you?" He could barely get the words through his tight throat. "Four! But, I'll be five on Valentine's Day." The little girl beamed at the thought of the event, even though it was still a few months away. Rick paled further. The puzzle completed as he stared at the beautiful little girl. His little girl. "You have your mother's chin and nose," but everything else is mine, he thought. My muddy brown eyes. My hair color. My tall, lanky frame. Even my pointed elf ears and high forehead. The world dropped out from under him as he slowly stood. He was certain that he was white as a sheet. He quickly exited the room and used the hallway outside to hold himself up. He couldn't believe what he had just heard and seen. It was true. No denying it. Five years ago, in the bed of his little Ford pickup, that precious little girl had been conceived. And he had no idea. The first, last, and only time he had ever had sex he had become a father. Yet, the woman he wanted to marry, the woman he had convinced himself was dead, had spent months searching for, and years praying for, had not only taken off like a thief in the night worrying him and her entire family, but had also birthed his child and kept her from him. For nearly five years he had been a father. He had a daughter. A beautiful little girl who favored his side of the family and he hadn't the slightest clue. Suddenly the disbelief gave way to anger. How dare she keep my child from me? She knew good and well he wouldn't have left her to take care of Gianna alone. The night they were together was the night he had proposed for crying out loud. She had said yes. They were planning an August wedding, only a few months away from when he had asked, but they were going to be attending the same college and wanted to be married before her freshman and his senior year began. Without a second thought he stepped away from the wall and started working his way past the classrooms, paying special attention to the adult rooms, hoping to find Leslie…Shelby, he corrected mentally. She must be using an alias for some reason. The mother of my child, he thought bitterly. It was the beginning of the Sunday school hour. The church offered several classes for all age groups and interests. There seemed to be something for everyone. Impressive for such a small town, Rick though absently as he searched the rooms. Finally, he found the room for single parents, and glancing in the window saw a familiar sandy brown head of unruly curls. He yanked the door open and without any introduction or explanation simply said, "I need to borrow Les…Shelby Donnelly, please." At the sound of his voice, her head snapped up. Immediately, she paled and looked as though she may be sick. The rest of the group didn't seem to find anything odd in his request and essentially ignored him, save for a few gawking single mothers. Leslie excused herself quietly and joined him in the hall, quickly leading him to a vacant room and closing the door once they were inside. He didn't waste any time. His blood was boiling and his vision was tinted red. "I thought you were dead, Les. Your parents, your brothers, the whole dang town. We all thought something horrible happened to you! I spent months searching alongside your family for you! The whole time you were here? Living as someone else in a different town…a different state. Why, Leslie?" She sank into a chair, tears rolling down her cheeks. His own eyes were streaming as well, a mixture of anger, relief, and sadness. "I'm sorry." She whispered. "For what? For worrying everyone who loves you? For taking off on your fiancé? For not telling me I was a father? For keeping Gianna from me for the first four years of her life? What exactly are you sorry for, Leslie? Or should I call you Shelby?" She sobbed loudly and then, as if something finally registered she met his eyes. "How do you know about Gia?" When she called her that, the name clicked. "You named her after our grandmothers? Like we talked about?" They had planned all of their children's names many times. They always agreed that their first child should be named after their paternal grandparents. They never quite figured out how to combine Georgia and Anita beyond Gia, but always figured they had plenty of time. "Her middle name is Lynn," she added quietly. He smiled. It was his middle name as well, passed down to the first born in his family each generation. Though, as he and his sister were twins, they both shared the family name. "Thank you," he choked out. She nodded, "How did you find out?" He sighed and took a seat. This wasn't easy for her either. He needed to go a little easier on her. She may have kept him physically out of Gianna's life, but she had still made sure to include him in a little way. Not only with the names they had discussed, but also in the way she had explained his absence to Gianna. She probably had good reasons. Or at least what she thought were good reasons for keeping him away. "I applied for the associate pastor position here. They asked me to come down for a few months and try the town and the church out before making a final decision. I loved this town as a kid. Anyway, I just got in yesterday. I was getting a tour of the classes when I saw a little girl that looked just like a slightly younger, cleft-chin version of Natalie. I couldn't shake how familiar she looked. I asked who her parents were and she gave me your name...It took a me a second, but I remembered you telling me how much you loved the name Shelby and that your grandmother's maiden name was Donnelly. She looks just like me." He still couldn't quite believe it. "You didn't tell her you were her…" "Father. Les, I'm her dad. I had a right to know. I wouldn't have left you. I wouldn't have left her. She has a right to know me too." She looked devastated. Again, the anger began to subside. This was hard for her too. "No, I didn't tell her." Her breath whooshed out. "Thanks. I know you wouldn't have left us. I can't really tell you why I did it, but I am sorry. More so than you'll ever know. I've wanted to tell you. So many times I wanted to pick up the phone, or write you a letter. I just…I couldn't, Rick. I wanted to. Believe me I did. I just couldn't." "You could have, you just didn't want to." A look of defeat crossed her face. He could see how sorry she was, but it didn't change the facts. "Look, you don't have to tell her who I am right away. But she is my daughter and I intend to be a father to her. Starting today. I have a lot of time to make up for, Les. If I have to get a lawyer, I will." Her head snapped back like he had slapped her. She shook her head, cutting him off. "I'd never do that to you. But, what if you don't get the job here? I won't bring anyone into her life that might not be permanent." Finally. There was a little bit of the ferocious, opinionated woman he had fallen in love with. "Doesn't matter. She's here, so am I. I'll work in the diner bussing tables if I have to. I'm not leaving my daughter now that I know I have one. You should know me better than that, Les." "I know. I'm sorry. This is all just so…" "Overwhelming and unexpected?" He supplied. She nodded in response. They had both calmed considerably, and the tears were all dried up. She knew he was serious. She probably knew she was stuck with him as a part of her life again from the moment he had interrupted her class. "We'll figure something out." He nodded in agreement. They would have to. "Are you married…or seeing someone?" She looked surprised by his question, but shook her head. "You're the only…" He nodded in understanding. "Me too." The bells sounded, announcing fifteen minutes to the start of church. Rick stood and held out his hand to her. "Let's go pick up our daughter and get ready for the sermon. Then I'm taking you both to lunch." She nodded and didn't object a bit to his bossiness. She stared at his hand for a long moment before taking it. The moment their skin touched, he was thrown back five years. In spite of the time, the anger, the lies, and the unanswered questions, the spark that had always ignited between them was still there. Judging by the bewildered green eyes staring up at him, he wasn't the only one who felt it. "One thing, Rick," her voice trembled as she looked up at him. "Everyone here, including Gia, knows me as Shelby. Please just go with." He gave one curt nod, still unsure why she had taken off and apparently adopted an entirely new persona. They stopped into the classroom where he had first met his daughter, not thirty minutes earlier, and without question Gianna joined her mother and immediately told her all about her Sunday school adventures. She showed her the cross she had made and explained all about how difficult it was to choose between the pink and purple heart-shaped jewels. Rick hung back a few steps trying to take it all in. He prayed for guidance and the strength and grace to handle the situation appropriately. The whole thing was so surreal. Not only did he have a daughter, but the only woman he had ever loved was alive and well, and raising that daughter. And from what he could tell so far, she was doing a great job. "Gia, Pastor Rick wants to go to lunch with us today. Is that okay with you?" Leslie-Shelby asked as they gathered in the vestibule after the service. "Can we go to Happy's?" Gia was bouncing up and down, pleading with him. Her little face was so full of hope and enthusiasm that he prayed he wouldn't have to say no for some reason. He looked to her mother for help. "It's a pizza place in town. They have an arcade and I always let her get ice cream when we go." "Can we? Can we? Please Mister-Pastor-Rick? Pretty please with sugar and cherries and sprinkles on top?" He couldn't help but laugh at that. She was too adorable for words. "Pizza and ice cream? I'm in, kiddo," he tweaked her nose. Before they could see what was coming, Gia had wrapped herself around his legs and was thanking him profusely. Taken aback, he gently reached down and patted her head. This wasn't behavior he was accustomed to. His sister's kids were much more reserved with their affections. Her enthusiasm and gratitude melted his heart. He swallowed a lump when he realized just how many of these little moments he had missed in the last four, almost five years of her little life. "Come on my little seedling, let's get your coat," Leslie cooed and extracted her from Rick's legs. His mouth fell open, she didn't just call her… before he could fully process what she had just said the senior pastor, who had been watching the exchange between the small should-be family came over. "Hi Richard, how are you finding Hanesworth so far?" The older man offered his hand. "Rick, please. It's been…revealing so far, sir." The pastor's eyes flicked to the coat closet where Leslie—Shelby—he had to get used to the new name— was kneeling down in front of Gianna, helping her with her coat. "Mike please, Rick. I can see how it might have been revealing. She's the spitting image of you." Rick's eyes snapped to his. Was it that obvious? Mike laughed at Rick's obvious confusion, "I had no idea when we asked you to come out. The second I saw you with her it clicked. You couldn't deny her if you wanted to." Rick stiffened. Now that he knew about her, he would never deny her. "I know you wouldn't, son." He must have read his face. The acknowledgment calmed him. "Listen, I was supposed to invite you to lunch, but it looks like you have more pressing matters to attend to. I'll see you in the morning. Listen, go easy on Shelby. She has her reasons. It isn't my place to say, but trust that at the time she thought it was the only choice." Rick was dumbfounded. Pastor Mike clearly knew more about the situation than he did. Before he could respond, the girls were back at his side. They said their goodbyes to Mike, and then Rick followed Leslie and Gia across the parking lot to their beat up little two-door. *~*~* "Alright my little seedling, you know the drill. No coat in the car seat," she cringed when she let the nickname slip again. She had noticed Rick's reaction to it earlier and the memories came flooding back. They were in the bed of his truck, spooning after coming together for the first and only time. She had suddenly realized what they had done, and without any protection whatsoever. She started crying and Rick had immediately turned her so she was facing him. "Les, what's the matter? Honey are you okay? Did I hurt you? I did. Damn it, Les. I am so sorry…" That was her Rick, always worried about everyone else. She covered his lips with a finger, effectively stopping his tirade against himself. "No, it isn't that. I just realized what if…what if we…" She couldn't even bring herself to say it. They were so young and just getting started in life. They weren't ready for a baby. "What if we planted a little seed?" He asked, looking at her under raised brows. She nodded and stifled a giggle as she recalled the sex talk her parents had given her using the same analogy. He pulled her closer, planted a soothing kiss on the top of her head, and splayed a hand across her stomach. "Then we'll nourish it and let it grow. We'll pray for it and God willing, in about nine months we'll have a little seedling to nourish and raise. That little seedling will become a plant all too soon. We'll give that plant whatever nourishment it needs to be the best plant it can be. “If we did, we did. We'll get through it, together. We'll get through everything together. Little seedling or not." She sighed and relaxed into his embrace, confident that nothing could shake their love and commitment. Of course, Rick wouldn't abandon or blame her. He had proposed just a few hours ago. In a few months, they'd be married and it wouldn't matter if they were pregnant or not. "Shelby?" Shelby shook her head and snapped back to the present. No matter how confident she had been then, things hadn't turned out the way she anticipated the night their little seed was planted. "Uh, sorry. I was just…thinking. Who's ready for pizza?" She double checked Gia's chest clip and pushed the driver's seat back into position. "And ice cream!" Gia chimed. Shelby and Rick both chuckled as she climbed into the driver's seat and started the car. Mercifully, Gia talked the entire way into town allowing Shelby time to think and attempt to soak in everything that had happened. She probably should have stopped Gia from regaling Rick with her entire life story, but she just didn't have the energy. Besides, he wanted to be in her life, well, this is what it was like. Rick, being Rick, took it all in stride. He seemed truly interested in everything she said and Gia was eating up his responses as well. It was like the two had always known and cared for each other. You would never guess that father and daughter had been reunited only a couple of hours before. Shelby swallowed the tears that threatened to spill over again. She had never wanted to keep Gianna from Rick, never wanted to move halfway across the country abandoning everyone she loved to become a single parent. Sometimes, life just doesn't work out the way we assume it will. She hated herself for the pain she had caused the only man she had ever loved. Unfortunately, his forgiveness wasn't her biggest concern at the moment. The safety and security of her daughter was her number one priority. The only thing in the world that could have gotten her to leave Rick and her entire family without a word. Gianna was her world, and she would move heaven and earth to ensure her safety and security. Even if it meant hurting the only man she would ever love…again. "Look Mommy! It's Abby and Bree!" Gianna brought her attention to the parking lot that she hadn't even realized she had pulled into. Sure enough, going in the front doors was another family from their church. The older girls, twins, always played with Gia at church functions and made her feel included instead of like a baby as many of the other older kids did. "That's Jenna, from the church, right? She showed me around this morning. Is that her family?" "It's complicated. Like, really, really complicated. I don't really have an answer for that, and I don't feel like it's my place to say anything." He nodded in understanding and they both exited the car. Gia begged to have Rick help her with her coat and then carry her inside so her boots wouldn't slip on the floor. He did so without hesitation and the whole scene brought tears to Shelby's eyes once again. Not only was he taking to fatherhood like a fish to water, but she also knew that the longer he stuck around, the bigger risk she was putting Gia in. She had told him he could stick around because she knew he wouldn't take no for an answer, but she couldn't let him stick around inevitably. She was already in breach of contract. They could take Gia at a moment's notice and there wasn't a thing she could do about it. As much as she loved Rick, and loved seeing him and Gia so happy together, she knew she couldn't risk it. She knew what she had to do. Only now that he knew she was alive and had their little seedling it would be much harder to disappear. *~*~* "Alright, Les-Shelby. Spill." Rick steepled his fingers and leaned across the table, keeping his voice low. Jenna had taken Gia with her group to play in the arcade until their pizza came, so it was just the two of them at their table. "I…I wish I could tell you, Rick, but I just can't. I want to. I do. You have to believe me." He didn't want to believe her. He wanted to be angry at her. He wanted to demand every detail of the last five years, but he just couldn't bring himself to. Not when she was looking at him like that. Her face had always said what she couldn't. Right now, he could tell that she was regretful, saddened at what she couldn't say, and most concerning, frightened. That was the one that felt like a kick to the chest. What was she scared of? They had never kept secrets from each other, never had any issues telling the other what was on their mind. Yet, here she was, scared and refusing to tell him what was going on. He decided to change the course of the conversation. There was still so much he needed to know. "Fine. I know all about Gia's friends, favorite colors, love of all things transportation related, and disgust of anything green. What I don't know is anything about what you've been doing in the last five years. How did you end up here? Why the name change?" He relaxed back into his chair and she followed suit. "I remembered you telling me about this little town. I know how much you loved spending the summers here with Grandma Anita," she shrugged and looked away, sucking in on the corner of her lip. She was lying. "It just made sense to come here." Rick sighed. He wasn't going to make any headway on why she was here or why she left. If she was lying, and she was, she thought she had good reason. "Thank you for making me a part of Gia's life. Even in a small way." The number of things Leslie had done to ensure that he was included in his daughter's life in a small way warmed his heart. It also left him more confused as to why she had shut him out. She clearly wanted Gia to know her dad, at least in little ways. "I try Rick. In any way that I can get away with. You're a great guy…the best really. I know you love her and would do anything for her. Just like I am. I want you to be in her life. In whatever ways I can find. Always." Her words confused him more. They were too cryptic. Too careful. The pizza arrived and Shelby jumped up to call Gia back to the table. Rick mentally patted himself on the back for remembering to refer to her by her new name. Jenna escorted the three older kids with her back to their table while the man they were with carried an infant. Shelby had hinted at a complicated situation and from what Rick had observed so far, she hadn't been kidding. The kids all called her by her name, but the man she was with they called daddy. This wouldn't have been so strange if Jenna and the children's father hadn't both worn looks of pain mixed with wistfulness every time one of the older kids slipped up and called her mommy. Rick shook his head. It wasn't his business. "Pizza! Mister Pastor Rick are you gonna pray with us?" Rick smiled as Gia slipped into the chair between him and Les-Shelby. "I would like to, if that's okay with the two of you." Both girls nodded and Rick spread his hands out to take each of theirs. The familiar jolt of awareness went through him when Leslie's delicate hand rested in his. He bowed his head and asked the blessing on the meal. Silently, he asked one over his little family. The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. Their meal was filled with anecdotes of Gianna and her short little life. Rick cherished each one as they gave him a better understanding of who his little girl was. He loved hearing anything about her, no matter how mundane. After they had finished their pizza and ice cream, Rick and Gia went back into the game room and played until the poor little girl was struggling to keep her eyes open. Carrying her to the car came so naturally. He could barely believe that at the same time the previous day he had no idea she even existed. "So, you became a pastor anyway?" Leslie asked once they were back on the road. Gia was passed out in her car seat before she had even turned the key. "Yeah. You know it's what I always wanted to do. My mom wasn't happy of course, but I felt that it was what I was called to do, so I continued on once I went back to school." "You mean in the fall, right? I left at the beginning of summer. You went back to school in the fall, right?" Her voice was coming out high, almost panicky, as if she knew the answer and the reason behind it. "No, Le—Shelby. I missed the fall semester altogether. Thankfully, I was able to make it up and finish not too long after I originally planned." "I'm so sorry, Rick. I was supposed to save your education by leaving, not put it in jeopardy." He could hear the catch in her throat and the guilt that laced her words. Without thought, he covered the hand she had resting on her knee with his. "Les, I didn't say that to make you feel guilty. I just told you the truth. You know I won't lie to you, honey. I never have and I don't intend to start." She nodded and he gave her hand a quick squeeze before releasing it. "Anyway, that basically sums up my life since you left. I just finished school and an internship at a mega church. They offered me a position, but that type of environment was never my goal. I kept putting out feelers for smaller churches. Finally, on Monday I got a call from Pastor Mike asking me to come try out the position here for a few months. Well, here we are." "How do your parents feel about you being here?" The question sounded reasonable enough, but her tone betrayed something more than casual interest. "They don't know. They're on a cruise for Christmas. They won't be back until after New Year's. They're unreachable for another couple of weeks. This was all kind of sudden, but I couldn't let this opportunity slip away. I'm sure Mom won't be pleased when she gets back. She hated that I was applying out of state. Period." As soon as he mentioned his parents being unreachable she had relaxed visibly. He wondered what that was about, but didn't push it. They were on good terms right now. He didn't want to stir anything up. "Gia said you're a teacher at her school?" She nodded with a smile. "I have one of the preschool classes at the church. It's a great job. It allows me to be off when Gia's off and near when she's at school." "What about before this year? What did you do before she was in school?" She smiled fondly. "We have some fantastic people at our church. They gave me a custodian job while I took classes at the community college and promised me the preschool position as soon as school started as long as I was still working toward a degree. I also got to keep my custodian job. Once Gia was born and I was ready to go back to work a group of older women volunteered to watch her. They would take turns while they worked in the kitchen or sorted items for charity. It was nice because I could run and grab her for her feedings and sometimes she even slept in the classroom. You can't do that at most jobs. "Everyone here was so supportive. They still are. She's had a whole church full of grandmas and doting aunts." She choked up as she talked about the church family. He assumed she was missing her own family. "They're fine, Les." He heard her breath whoosh out. "You know me so well. Do you see them often?" "As often as I possibly can. They were like a second family to me while we were dating. After you disappeared, we all grew even closer. We were all we had left of you." They pulled into the parking lot next to his car, but she simply turned off the ignition and turned to hear more about her family. "I was at their place every day after you left. Your dad's actually the one that finally kicked my butt back to school." She laughed and the sound filled him with warmth. "Sounds like him. What are they all up to now?" "We finally convinced your dad to retire. Well, officially anyway. He decided to start subbing at the high school level. Try convincing him that doesn't count as being retired though," Rick rolled his eyes and they both laughed. "So he hasn't changed?" She asked as she dabbed at a few tears. "Not a bit." "Good. Stephen and Seth? Did they both go through with their weddings?" Stephen and Seth were her older brothers. They were only eighteen months apart and had both had weddings planned the year Leslie left. Had she stayed, the Macintyres—her last name when he knew her—would have seen all three of their children wed in a six-month time span. "They did. They ended up having a double wedding that December. They both have two kids now, too. You're an aunt times four." She smiled a sad, sweet smile. "Zahra and Seth were set on a June wedding, what…" She trailed off, realizing the answer to her question was her disappearance. She immediately let it drop. "How many nieces and nephews? Ages? Names? Do you have pictures?" Rick chuckled, "Slow down, Les. Seth has a three-year-old girl, Emily and a thirteen-month-old boy, Andrew. Stephen and Erin's oldest, Ryder is three as well, three months younger than Emily. Rayne, their daughter, is fifteen months now. I do have some pictures on my phone. I left it at home this morning, but I can show them to you tomorrow." She nodded, but there was a sadness in her eyes that he couldn't quite place. Perhaps regret at all the time she had missed? Before he could ponder it too long, she asked about her mother. Thoughts of Lisa Macintyre brought a smile to his face. "Well, now that your dad is semi-retired and none of the kids are living at home she's added crafts and matchmaking to her repertoire. In addition to all of the baking and volunteering she's always done, of course." "Matchmaking? For you?" He nodded slowly. "About a year and a half ago I came to dinner one weekend and there at the table was this girl that I'd never met before. Lisa spent the whole evening expounding both of our positive qualities to the other. It was the most obvious set up. She got more discreet after that. Still, I think I've met at least thirty women in less than two years. All attempts to get me to move on." He had said it in a joking way, but her sharp intake of breath revealed that she hadn't taken it that way. "Thirty? And none of them have caught your eye?" He shook his head and smiled sadly at the only one that ever had. "Afraid not. My eye was caught nine years ago and hasn't strayed since. Even when I wanted it to. Tried to make it. Apparently, I've only ever had eyes for one girl." The mood in the car shifted. The tension was palpable. He stared into her eyes, and she stared back. It was just as it had been five years ago. She was the only thing in his universe again. No matter why she had run or what she had hidden from him. There was no other woman that could make him feel the way she did. No matter how hard he had tried to erase or replace her, he never could. Leslie cleared her throat, breaking the intense moment. They both jumped back, unaware that they had been leaning toward each other. "It's starting to get cold. I should get Gia home and inside so she can finish her nap." "Sure…" His throat was thick with tension. He cleared it and tried again. "Yeah, sure. We both have a lot to process after this crazy day. Can we do dinner tomorrow night? And maybe spend Christmas together?" He realized with a start that he had less than a week to find out what Gia wanted and make it happen on Christmas morning. She gave a noncommittal shrug. He noticed tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "Goodbye Rick. I am really sorry for running. If I had my way, we would have celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in August. I'm sorry we couldn't get what we wanted." There was regret and fear in her eyes again. But this time there was also guilt. She started the engine, his sign to take off. Rick opened the door and turned back to her. "I know you're sorry, and I forgive you. I'm not quite over it. I missed essentially five years of my daughter's life. I can't get over that in an afternoon, but I do forgive you." Tears were leaking from the corners of her eyes again. "Thanks, Rick." "See you tomorrow, Shelby. Thanks for including me today and over the last several years." She nodded, wiped at her tears, and gave him a sad smile. "You remembered my new name. Goodbye, Rick." She turned away as she said it and began pulling off before he could fully shut the door. Something about that goodbye didn't sit well with him. It was too final. He couldn't put his finger on what she had said or done exactly, but he got the distinct feeling that she was saying goodbye. Not for today, but for good. Rick sat in the church parking lot praying for nearly an hour before finally starting his car and returning to the small house he would be renting. Thankfully, a parishioner had the furnished one-room rental available. Pastor Mike had been able to secure it for him and his wife had stocked the cupboards the previous day. For the rest of the afternoon Rick alternated between prayer, reflection, and deep contemplation on Shelby and Gianna. He really wasn't sure what to do about the entire situation. His first instinct was to bang down the good pastor's door and beg for an emergency ceremony. His second thought was to call her family and tell them the great news that not only was their only daughter alive and well, but they actually had five grandchildren instead of four. However, he knew he couldn't do either of those things. She had made it clear that she wasn't thrilled about being found. She seemed downright terrified of something. What, he didn't know. But he intended to find out. Around nine o'clock he had grown restless and couldn't stand being in the tiny house a moment longer. Without thought, he donned his heaviest winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves and set out. It was a cold winter night in December. Rick thought he was insane to go out walking, but he needed the fresh air and thought the cold might do him some good. At first, it was just an aimless walk around town, getting to know the lay of the land and trying to take his mind off of…everything. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself walking down the street where he had spent so many childhood summers. His parents had sold his grandparent's house years ago, even before she had passed, but at this moment, he wanted nothing more than to see the old place and relive those fond memories. As he drew nearer to the house he couldn't help but wonder about the people who lived there now. He hoped they had honored the old place and kept it up. His grandfather had designed and helped build the house that should have stayed in his family. It was hard to tell from the rest of the homes on the street what to expect once he made it to the end of the street where the house stood. In small towns like Hanesworth there was no such thing as a good or bad neighborhood. Each house he passed was a different neighborhood on its own. One house would have missing shingles and a debris-riddled yard, while the next could have jumped off the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. Rick squinted to see the house that was still several doors down. There weren't many operational streetlights around, and the cloud coverage made for a nearly pitch black walk save for the homes with Christmas lights blazing. Finally, he caught sight of the familiar home. Everything appeared as he remembered it, with the exception of a new shed off to the side and a swing set in the back. He slowed his pace as he approached. The house was as beautiful and homey as he remembered. It was all decked out for Christmas at the moment, but everything else was as he remembered. There were lights strung on seemingly every available spot and a huge wreath adorned the front door. Thankfully, it appeared the new owners had left every light inside the place burning as well. This helped him to get a better view of the house that was set much further back from the sidewalk than any of the others he had passed. As he neared the long walkway to the front door, it opened. At first he didn't pay much attention to the person carrying a box toward the beat up two-door Sunfire parked in the driveway. Then the car registered and he realized it was a very familiar one. A car he had ridden in only hours ago. He looked back to the sidewalk and sure enough, Shelby was toting boxes to her car. He looked to the car again and noticed that it was already loaded down with boxes and bags. Before the thought to do so came into his mind he was storming toward the woman who still hadn't noticed his presence. "Leslie Marie Macintyre what on earth do you think you're doing?" Startled, she dropped the box she was holding and a look of sheer panic overtook her. Before she could respond, the front door flew open and a four-year-old torpedo was barreling toward him screeching. Rick had to listen intently in order to understand her words as she ran and jumped into his arms. "Daddy! You came! You are coming with us! I knew God wouldn't bring you home just to take you away again." Rick's jaw was on the ground as he held his little girl tightly and tried to make sense of what she had just said. Rick looked back to her mother who was frozen on the sidewalk with a look of absolute horror on her face. He noticed the silent sobs racking her body. He had to do something, now. He wanted them to be a family. Well, now was his chance to lead them as one. "It's freezing out here. Let's get you girls inside, okay?" Numbly, she nodded, picked up her box and walked toward them in a trance. Once inside Rick put Gia down and instructed her to take off the coat and boots she had hastily thrown on over her fire truck pajamas and guided Shelby to an overstuffed chair. "Shelby, honey, can you hear me? You're scaring me, babe." He was careful to use her assumed name. Her only response was a nod as she sank into the chair. "Alright, I'm going to get Gia to bed, find out how she knew. I take it you didn't tell her?" Shelby shook her head. That was a good sign. She was with him, just stunned and out of it at the moment. "Okay, I'll talk to her, tuck her in, and then we'll talk. Sit tight, we'll figure this out." She didn't respond, Rick sighed and headed to the wide-eyed little girl in the entryway. "Mommy's going to be just fine. She's just a little surprised, okay?" Gia seemed to think that was a reasonable explanation and relaxed with a nod. "Okay little one. Show me to your room and on the way, tell me why you called me daddy." She looked at him with wide eyes. "Because you are my daddy, aren't you?" Rick took a deep breath and prayed for guidance. He couldn't lie to her. "Yes, but how did you know?" She shrugged her little shoulders and headed up the stairs. "It's Sunday," she said as if that cleared up everything. "What do you mean?" "Last Sunday during the children's prayer Pastor Mike told us to pray for something very important. I prayed that God would bring my daddy home within a week. I prayed it every day. Today makes a week. And you're my dad." To have faith like a child. Rick couldn't help but chuckle a little, she was so confident in her faith. His chest puffed with a bit of pride for his daughter. Even though he couldn't take credit for raising her, he could take credit for half of her DNA. They were in her room now, the room he had always used as a kid. Gia plopped on the edge of the bed and he pulled up the old wooden desk chair that had remained from his youth. It was comforting to see that Shelby had kept so many of the items his grandparents had used. "That simple, huh? You prayed and knew God would answer?" Gia nodded with a huge smile. It was so simple to her. "What made you pray for me to come this week?" "I didn't want to wait no more." At his confused expression she sighed and explained, as if the answer should be as plain as the nose on his face. "On New Year's last year Mom said to make a goal for the year. Something I wanted more than anything in the whole world. It was to have my daddy come home to me on Christmas. That would be the best Christmas present ever. So I prayed all year that I would get my dad for Christmas. I wrote Santa a letter every week this year asking to bring you home and when we went to the mall a few weeks ago to see Santa's helper, I asked again. But, I got tired of waiting so I changed my prayer last week." Rick chuckled, she had prayed for eleven and a half months, but one more week was too much. "Well, I'm really glad that you did. I didn't know about you, but I'm really proud and happy to be your daddy." She jumped off the bed and into his lap. "Are you going to stay with us now? And go on our trip?" Rick stiffened. There would be no trip if he could help it. "Mommy and I have to talk about all that. For now, just know that as long as I can help it, I'll be a part of your life. Now, let's get you in bed. Tomorrow's a school day. What's the bedtime routine?" Gia scrambled off his lap and knelt in front of the bed. "I say my prayers and then Mommy tucks me in, kisses me, and turns the lights off. She keeps the door open and the hallway light on so I can go potty. I already went once and brushed my teeth." He nodded. This sounded like a manageable routine. Rick listened as Gia thanked God for bringing him to her, begged that he would stay and marry her mom, and asked God to keep at least thirty people safe, including her grandmas and grandpas who she had never met. She even asked God to bless every kid without parents or food or money. She ended the lengthy prayer by asking if she could change her Christmas wish to having her parents live together and if God could pass that along to Santa. Watching her talk to God brought tears to his eyes. He couldn't have been more proud of his little girl. Or of Leslie for doing such a great job with her, despite her circumstances. Circumstances that all fell into place the second he realized that she was the one living in this home. After Gia had finished her prayers and crawled into bed Rick pulled the blankets snug around her shoulders, kissed her on the forehead and made his way back downstairs to a still nearly catatonic Leslie—Shelby, he corrected again. He knelt in front of her and took both of her hands in his. "Alright, Shelby, what did my parents threaten you with?" *~*~* Shelby stared blankly back at Rick's compassionate brown eyes staring into hers. How did he know? How had her entire, perfect life fallen completely apart in less than a day? The tears began to flow again. What was she going to do now? Not only had she broken the contract by Rick finding out about Gia, but somehow Gia had figured out who he was as well. Now there was no way they could leave…but there was also no way they could stay. Rick's thumbs began drawing little circles on the backs of her hands in an old, familiar way. "Come on honey. Tell me what happened. You're terrified, trying to take off in the middle of the night…again. You're living in a house my parents told me they sold. I know they threatened you with something. You aren't the kind to be paid off. Lord knows my mother tried that. The only way they could have gotten you to leave like that, to turn your back on everyone you love was to threaten you. So please, honey, tell me what happened and we'll figure it out. Together." She stared back at him, unsure of what to say or do. On one hand, she had signed an agreement stating that she wouldn't disclose the circumstances or agreement. Yet on the other hand, he had already figured it out for the most part. She was up the proverbial creek without a paddle. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and made her decision. "Tell me how Gia found out and I'll tell you what happened five years ago." Rick smiled, let out a long breath and stood briefly to pull up the nearby ottoman and take a seat. Her hands felt strangely empty and cold once he let go of them. "She said her wish on New Year's last year was for her dad to come home to her on Christmas. She's been praying for it all year and writing to Santa weekly, but apparently got tired of waiting. Last Sunday she started praying that I'd come to her by the end of the week," he paused to chuckle. "In fact, when I first asked how she knew she simply said 'It's Sunday' as if that just cleared everything up." Shelby gave a short chuckle as well. "Sounds like her. She's a very logical child. Everything is very black and white with her. I wondered what she wanted so badly from Santa. I couldn't get her to show me the letters and she insisted on handing them to Margie, the post master, herself…who also refused to let me see them…Gia's orders." Though, Margie's compassionate looks and "Santa's" letters reminding her that he wasn't God and some things just weren't possible for him to bring down the chimney now made a lot more sense. "Just like her mother. So, I told you mine. Now tell me yours." Shelby sighed, settled back in her chair and steeled herself for the admission to come. "After that night we were together I couldn't think of anything other than whether or not we had conceived a child. The worry and guilt consumed me." Rick's face scrunched in confusion. "We talked every night for five weeks once I went back to school. You never mentioned that you were worried. I was too, for the first few weeks, but you never brought it up again so I just assumed…" She nodded in understanding. "You had finals and your job to worry about. I knew I was already putting extra stress on you with all the wedding planning. I didn't want to add something that I thought probably hadn't happened anyway." She stared at the floor for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Still, it was always there, in the back of my mind. My periods have never been regular, so that wasn't much help at all. So, the day before you were supposed to come home I finally went to the grocery store to pick up a test. I thought the grocery store would be safer and easier to explain than the drugstore if I ran into anyone. I was wrong. Your mother saw me agonizing over which test to buy and immediately came to help. She had actually been talking to me and planning the wedding with me since our engagement, so I wasn't too suspicious. I thought she had finally resigned herself to the fact that she couldn't separate us. "She was very sympathetic. She even bought the test with the rest of her groceries and then drove me back to your place to take it. She held my hand while we waited for the results. As soon as the indicator window read pregnant though, things changed." She paused as she recalled that day, how scared and alone she felt. She wanted nothing more than to call Rick right away, knowing he would know what to do, but that hadn't been an option with Sandra Lexington looming over her. "At first her angle was my age, my inability to properly care for a child, my lack of funds and education. I refuted every one of those arguments so she started in on—" "Wait," Rick cut in. "I just want to be clear, she wasn't suggesting you abort Gianna, was she?" Rick had gone completely pale and stiff. "No. Adoption. She didn't bring up abortion even once." Rick visibly relaxed and nodded, signaling that she should continue. "Anyway, when pointing out my flaws failed she started in about how I was ruining your future and taking all of your dreams away. She went into the same discussion we'd had a hundred times about how you were meant to run the family business and I was the only thing holding you back. That resonated with me a little more. I told her I'd think about adoption and talk to you about it." "I wouldn't have agreed," Rick bit out. Shelby smiled sweetly at him, "I know." "You want to hear the ironic thing? Literally the only thing that would've made me push forward with my business degree and take over the business would've been knowing about Gia and needing to step up and take care of you two." She sighed. She knew this too. That was another part of her motivation. She didn't want to take Rick's dreams away just to have him in her life. She knew he would drop them in an instant to take care of her and their baby. She couldn't do that to him. Rick's family owned an international chain of high-end hotels. He was in line to take over when his father retired. Big business had never appealed to him though. He had always felt a calling toward the ministry. Rick was a simple man in a complicated lifestyle. In his parents' defense, they didn't actually live a lavish lifestyle on the outside. It was very important to their image to appear simple and family oriented. Not that they didn't know how to use money to their advantage, but they didn't like to make a show of it. Byron, Rick's father, had grown up simply in that very house in that tiny town and had built his empire single-handedly. Unlike most new-money folks, he wasn't the type to spend it on big houses and fancy cars. "So, what did they say to finally convince you to run? It's not you, L—Shelby. You're stubborn as an ox and tough as nails. It had to be bad." She swallowed hard. "Gia. Sandra finally found my weak my spot. I was terrified, but I was also in love with our baby. As it all started to sink in, I realized that more than anything else I loved the little seed that we'd planted. She convinced me that if I didn't voluntarily give her up for adoption that they'd take custody of her. She told me that with no money, job, or education and with my dad only making a community college professor's salary that we wouldn't stand a chance against them." Shelby gulped back tears. "I loved that little baby so much already. She called in a lawyer and your dad and they came up with an alternate plan. They'd let me keep my baby and set us up comfortably if I agreed to disappear. That night. "It was the only option I saw. I didn't want to, but I couldn't let them take Gia from me either. I signed an NDA and a contract agreeing to never tell you about Gia or see my family again. "Within a few hours they had a plane ticket under a fake name, complete with fake ID. Your mom even used boxed dye on me. I was bleach-blonde when I got here. They somehow managed to get everything through third parties so it didn't lead back to them. I was surprised they let me move into a family home, but they got away with it somehow. I'm surprised the police didn't check." "They did. According to them and everything they found, it had been sold for almost two years, as soon as Grandma Anita moved in with us. We weren't really suspects, so they didn't push it." Rick scoffed. "The power of money. I wonder how many people they paid off to get that one arranged." "That's basically it. Most of the furniture was here already. They gave me enough cash to get started and they send checks monthly like clockwork. Through a third party, of course. According to the agreement, if I ever tell you about Gia or what happened they'll take her. I can't lose her Rick. I can't. I don't want to take her from you. I never did, but what choice is there?" She was sobbing hard into her hands again. Rick was by her side in an instant, holding her close. "I am so sorry they did that to you. I would say I can't believe it, but sadly I can see my mother doing exactly that. She never agreed with my choices. I can't believe she'd go to such extremes to get you out of the picture. I'm so sorry. We'll figure this out, okay? Together. I'm not letting anyone take her from us." She wanted to believe him, she really did, but they were powerful people. Rick had given all that up when he went against their plan and chose to follow God instead. "This explains so much. Oh, I know something that will make you feel better." Shelby looked up and scrubbed her face with the back of her hand then looked to Rick, precariously balanced on the edge of her chair, when he saw her tears slowing he shifted back to the ottoman, leaving her cold and alone again. "Yeah, what's that?" "My dad refused to look for you. I understand now, but at the time it made me so angry. I thought he just didn't care. He even let your dad punch him and didn't say a word. He and Mom fought a lot about it. It really confused me at the time. Distant and cold isn't really him." Surprisingly, the revelation that Byron hadn't spent months alongside her parents, lying and pretending to be worried about her safety, did make her feel better. "Your dad isn't a hypocrite. Never has been. My dad punched him? I can't believe that!" Her father was a big teddy bear, never violent, and never one to provoke anyone. Rick sobered and his fists clenched on his knees. "Les, it was a horrible time for all of us. The cops said you'd just run away, but there was no sign of your car and they couldn't get a trace on your phone. You didn't use your debit card. You just vanished. We all thought you were dead." He choked back a sob. "Shoot, Les. Your parents still do! You need to call them." Rick jumped to his feet and dug his cell phone from his pocket. She smiled sadly at him. "I can't, Rick. What am I going to do when your parents find out you're here? They'll know we ran into each other. We're a town of less than fifteen hundred people. I want to. Goodness, do I want to. I hate what I've put them, and you through. But I don't have a choice." Rick ran a hand through his dark hair. "We're going to figure this out. There's no way what they did was legal. You have copies of the agreements, right?" At her nod he continued. "Good. We'll see about finding an attorney to go over them. As soon as we figure this all out we'll get you reunited with your family. They deserve to know you're alive and that Gianna exists. For tonight, it's late and we both have work in a few hours." He knelt in front of her again and took both of her hands in his. "I'm going to go back to my place to sleep. I would take up residence on your sofa, but I don't think the fine folks of Hanesworth would take too kindly to the new associate pastor shacking up with their preschool teacher. Especially once they realize Gia's mine. Promise me you'll both be here in the morning." Shelby swallowed the lump in her throat and fought the urge to flee in the dead of the night like she had planned. Logically she knew it was too late for that. Right now she needed to trust Rick to help her. Something she should have done five years ago. "I promise, Rick. Get some sleep. We have breakfast around seven thirty. You're welcome to join us." Rick's smile was enough to take her breath away. She had missed that smile. "I'll be here." With that, he leaned in and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek, causing her heart to beat right out of her chest. How she'd missed his kisses, no matter how chaste. Rick stood and held a hand out to help her stand as well. "This has been the longest day I've had since…well, since thirty hours of labor with Gia," she chuckled once they stopped at the door. A hint of sadness flashed through Rick's eyes at the mention of Gianna's birth. He lifted a hand and caressed her cheek. "I hate that I wasn't there. Do you have pictures?" "Yeah, Anna Erickson, you'll meet her once you really get into the church life, took some for me. She came along for moral support, as did several other women from church. I promise one day soon, once all the craziness settles down we'll sit down and I will give you every boring detail of the last five years. I mean it, from morning sickness and pregnancy cravings to her first steps and first words, and everything in between. You'll be bored to tears." This time his kiss was to her forehead. "I look forward to it sweetheart. See you in the morning." With that, he was out the door and on his way. Shelby stood in Gia's doorway and watched her precious little girl sleeping. Though the timing and the circumstances may not have been perfect, Shelby couldn't imagine her life without the rambunctious, inquisitive little girl. She felt more tears leak down her cheeks as she thought about what could happen. She drew in a breath and shook her head. She couldn't think of maybes and what ifs right now. Right now, she needed to trust that Rick was right. Besides, he already knew and there wasn't much anyone could do about it. *~*~* "Daddy!" Rick couldn't help the smile that swept over his face when Gia greeted him with wide-open arms and a big smile the next morning. By the way she had run into his arms the moment the door opened one would think she had known him as Daddy her entire life, not just a few hours. "Morning, sweet pea. Are you about ready for breakfast? I walked over. I hoped we could all ride to the church together. If that's okay with Mommy?" Shelby, who had stayed a few steps away from the door nodded, wiped her eyes, spun on her heel, and strode back into the kitchen. Gianna might be taking to Rick like a fish to water, but Shelby certainly wasn't. He couldn't blame her. She was still terrified of what his parents could do to her and Gianna. "Yup! Mommy's making eggs and bacon. I love bacon. Do you like bacon?" Rick chuckled and sat her back on her own two feet. "I love bacon too. Are you wearing pajamas to school, or should you be getting ready?" Gia dropped her head guiltily. "I was looking out the window waiting when I was supposed to be getting dressed." "That's okay, why don't you head up now and get dressed so Mom doesn't have to ask you again, okay?" With a quick nod, she turned and bounded up the stairs. Rick chuckled and followed his nose to the kitchen. "You've done an amazing job with her," he paused, remembering her new name. "Shelby." Rick leaned on the counter across from where Shelby was turning the bacon. He was amazed that the sight of her could still take his breath away just as it had his senior year of high school when they met. She turned and gave him a sweet smile. "She's a great kid. I see a lot of you in her. Speaking of, so will everyone else…especially since I clearly failed at getting her to call you Rick." A pain sliced through him at the mere thought of his daughter calling him by his given name now that she had figured out who he was. "I've been thinking about that too. I think we should get married." There, he'd said it. He didn't know how he was going to broach the subject, but now that it was out, it was out and up to her to make the next move. The spatula she was holding clattered to the ground and she faced him with her jaw dropped and a look of utter surprise. Judging by her reaction, marriage hadn't even been on her radar, even though it was the most logical answer. They loved each other…or at least he loved her and at one time she had loved him back, and they had a child together. They should have been married years ago. "I know it isn't the most romantic proposal I've ever given you, but it is just as heartfelt as the first. I've never stopped loving you, and that little girl fell into my heart the moment I saw her. It's the only thing that makes sense, Shel. Gia deserves both of her parents under the same roof. Besides, what do you want to bet the entire town knows I'm her father by now?" She continued to stare at him for another beat before picking up her spatula and tossing it in the sink. "I'll think about it, Rick. You have to remember that I'm not the eighteen-year-old-girl you were in love with before. You might not love me the way I am now." Though her back was turned, he could still hear the tears in her voice. He placed a hand on the small of her back and a kiss on the top of her head. "So far so good babe. I'm not saying we have to jump right in to a real marriage. We could get married for Gia and get to know each other again. You know, practice abstinence until we know each other again. Just think about it Shel." A smile was fighting its way onto her lips. "You've started calling me Shel." The wonderment in her tone brought a smile to his face. Strangely, the name fit her well. The next thing he knew they were leaning into one another just has they had so many times before. He could feel the tension and anticipation building around them. "Are you going to move in with us, Daddy?" At the sound of the little voice interrupting their intense moment they jumped apart. Instead of answering her inquiry, he moved to the table she was standing by, giving Shelby a chance to compose herself. "All ready for school? You are quite the snazzy dresser, young lady." Gia beamed under what she perceived as a compliment. In truth, Rick didn't know quite what to think of her ensemble. She had on gold sequined boots, white and orange polka dot leggings, a gold and black glitter tulle skirt, a white shirt that said sparkle in gold glitter, a black faux-fur vest, and at least a handful of multicolored costume jewelry necklaces. "As long as she's covered and dressed appropriately for the weather, she dresses herself." Shelby informed him as she brought plates of eggs and bacon to the table and motioned for them to sit. "That seems like a fair rule." He smiled at Gia who had taken the seat nearest him. "Rick, over easy, right?" Shelby asked as she slid two perfectly cooked eggs on to his plate. He nodded and smiled. "That's my favorite, too. Mommy says the runny yolk reminds her of snot." He couldn't help but laugh. "She used to tell me that too. Looks like we're egg buddies." This earned him another beaming smile from the little girl. Shelby finished serving the eggs, sat and automatically held out her hands for Rick and Gia. He smiled at the familiarity, wishing it could be like this every day. "Good morning. Have a seat," Pastor Mike indicated a chair with his hand. "Well, from what I saw yesterday we have more important things to discuss than the job right now. Did Shelby explain the situation to you?" Rick nodded and explained all of the revelations from the previous evening. When he got to the part about Gia's prayer, the older man nodded and interrupted. "I knew God was at work in this. If you want to know the truth, you weren't even on my short list for possible candidates. Yet somehow, the deacons were unanimous in the decision to give you the opportunity. The second I saw you with Gia, it all clicked. She looks exactly like you." Rick felt his chest swell with pride. "She does, doesn't she?" Pastor Mike chuckled. "Proud papa already. So, what's the plan then?" "Well, I'm going to find a lawyer to go over these documents. I'm certain they won't hold up in court. Ideally, I'd like to marry Shelby and raise Gia, as I should've been for the last several years. Either way, I'm in her life for good." "I told her when she first moved here that there was no way they could do that legally. She was too afraid to risk it." The older man shook his head sadly. "You knew her when she first came? How was she?" The pastor's eyes darkened. "Broken. We live a few doors down from her. Your grandmother was a dear friend and mentor to my wife, April. She assumed Shelby was one of her grandchildren." Rick smiled at this. Grandma Anita loved Shelby as if she were. "As soon as we asked though, she broke down and told us the whole story. The girl I met that day was just a shell of the Shelby I know now. It was real tough for her to adjust. She was terrified. The entire town rallied around her and has continued to support her and Gianna. They became part of the Hanesworth family, and we're protective of our family," he said it in a warning tone. Rick straightened. "I would never hurt Shelby or Gianna. I didn't leave her then and I have no intention to now. I love them both, and would marry Shelby today. If she'd have me." *~*~* I think we should get married. The words had haunted Shelby all morning. She was grateful that the last few days before Christmas break were reserved for crafts and practice for the Christmas Eve concert. She didn't have to focus as much on the kids, which left plenty of time to dwell on the Rick situation. Now that the parents were arriving and most of the children were gone for the day, she had nothing but time to worry about it. Part of her, a large part, wanted to scream yes at the top of her lungs the moment he asked. The other part of her was still fearful of what his parents could do. Not only that, but what a riff it would create between the two families. Her parents would be devastated that they had missed out on so much of her and Gia's life. She had no idea what she should do. "Stop stressing about it." A deep male voice started behind her, causing her to jump. "Pastor Mike and April agreed to watch Gia this afternoon while I take you to lunch. I have news." His mischievous smile told her it was good news. "Please?" He implored. His smile had always been infectious. As hard as she tried, she couldn't fight the smile threatening to take over her own face. The tingles that raced down her spine told her it wasn't a smart decision. The heart beating out of her chest told her she didn't stand a chance regardless. The words popped out of her mouth much more calmly than she anticipated. "Alright. I am pretty hungry." She turned to where Gia sat putting together a puzzle with one of the older volunteers. Surprisingly, she hadn't noticed Rick at the other end of the room yet. "Gia, do you want to go to Pastor Mike's for a little while and play with April?" The little girl's eyes lit up immediately. The older couple had become surrogate grandparents to both of them. "Yay! I lov—Daddy!" Shelby cringed as every head in the church basement turned in their direction and Gia launched herself across the room. Being the week of Christmas there were several more people than usual bustling around the shared space. Rick ignored the curious onlookers as he squatted down to catch his little girl. Shelby rubbed her temples in exasperation as she watched father and daughter embrace, oblivious to the gaping mouths surrounding them. She couldn't fix this. There had already been far too much damage done. She could feel her breathing accelerate. Her palms grew sweaty. Her vision blurred. Her heart tried escaping her chest. Her world crashed around her again. Her head spun. There was no more anonymity. No more hiding. No more security. It was gone. All of it. With one stupid Christmas wish from her four year old, her entire safe world was gone. She could never ever get it back. Everyone knew. The people she tried hardest to protect—Rick and Gia. The people that loved her and took her in at her worst—all of the people staring at her now. It was too much. She couldn't go back. She couldn't run. She was stuck. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. Her breath was coming out in short, desperate gasps now and she barely registered all of the eyes on her. Except for one pair of wide brown ones, set in the most perfect little face. "Mommy! Are you okay?" Someone took Gia away and directed Shelby to a chair. Breathe. In and out. Focus on calming down. You're okay. The voices swirled around her until finally, finally, she was able to focus on only the one directly in front of her. The voice that she had missed every day since she had left. The voice she still used all of her quarters to hear yell at her once a week. For some reason, the absurdity of her weekly ritual was the one thing to ground her and bring her out of her panic attack with a giggle. His eyes widened at her sudden outburst. "Are you okay honey? I don't see anything funny about this." Before she could answer his question she needed to see her little girl, know that she was okay. Rick continued to stare at her, waiting for an answer while she scanned the room. "I had Mike take her into the nursery to play. She was a little startled, but she's fine. You just had a panic attack. Are you feeling okay now?" She nodded, grateful for April's understanding. "I'm fine. Sorry about that. I just got a little overwhelmed. I'm okay though." April patted her shoulder before walking off to wherever the others must have disappeared to. "Are you really okay? Do you do that often?" It was Rick's turn to panic on her behalf. She was finally in control enough to stand and give him a halfhearted smile. "I'm fine. That's actually the first one I've ever had. Sorry to worry you." He rubbed her back gently. "As long as you're okay, I'm happy. Now, want to tell me, what was so funny?" She blushed at the thought of sharing her secret with him. She didn't even like to admit it to herself. "Well…I broke the contract a long time ago." His brows rose at her confession. "I break it every week. Or I skate it at least." He stared at her in confusion. "Every week I tell myself I won't. But every week I drive an hour and a half to a pay phone out of town and—" "Call me from a blocked number," he said in astonishment. She nodded and sucked her lip between her teeth. "You know, if it weren't for the tiniest bit of hope that you'd call me one day I would have changed my number years ago." He shook his head in amazement. Without preamble, Rick swooped down and covered her mouth with his own. The familiar shocks of awareness ran through her body. Their kiss was short and anything but sweet. Five years of pent up emotions went into that kiss. She hadn't kissed anyone before or after Rick but still this kiss was so much more than any that they had shared before. She could feel his love and longing in the way his lips moved over hers and knew he could feel hers as well. All too soon, he pulled away and wore an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself. It took me a minute to remember that we're still in a church. I can't believe that you've called me every week. I was so annoyed by the hang ups, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to not answer them or change my number." Tears were threatening at the corners of her eyes. "I just needed to hear your voice. I've missed you so much, Rick. I know it was stupid and foolish, but once I did it the first time I couldn't stop. I needed to know that you were okay. I promised myself that the moment a woman answered I'd stop." He smiled indulgently at her and rubbed her back gently. "I'm sorry my parents put you through this," he paused and his eyes lit up with understanding. "Your parents get the same hang ups. When they started coming on every birthday and Christmas your mom swore it was you," he shook his head in amusement. "We all thought she was nuts. Turns out we were wrong." She knew it put her and Gia at risk. That's why she traveled, used different pay phones, and always blocked the number. Even that was too much of a risk but she needed some connection to her loved ones. Some way to know they were all alive at the very least. "It's the only connection I had." She shrugged and dropped her gaze to the floor. Rick squeezed her gently and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "I know. Let's go let Gia know that you're alive and well and then go get some lunch, okay?" She nodded and let him lead her to their daughter. "Are you sure?" Shelby questioned Rick skeptically over lunch. "Absolutely. Pastor Mike put me in touch with the local lawyer, a Brian…" Rick pursed his lips, trying to bring the name to mind. "Harris," she supplied. "Right. Brian Harris. He went over the contracts that you gave me and said that there was absolutely no way that any of it would stand up in a courtroom. In fact, you could probably make a pretty solid case against them, if you wanted to." She shook her head vehemently as he continued. "Even if the contract held up, you technically didn't break it because you never sought me out. I didn't mention the phone calls." He winked. She felt the heat race up her neck. "You're sure? Absolutely positive that there isn't anything they can to do us legally?" She so badly wanted to believe him. More than anything Shelby wished that she could take him up on his offer of marriage, reach out to her family and let them know she was alive, and raise Gia with him. But, there was still that nagging worry that she had lived with for so long. Rick covered her hand with his. "Yes, I'm absolutely certain. He did say that it might be best if we offer them the money back. I have my trust fund and a small inheritance from Grandma—" "I haven't spent any of it." She cut him off. "I mean, at first I did. Just to get settled. I've replaced all of it. It's in an account that I figured if nothing else, Gia could have when she's older. I've even been paying rent into the account." She scrubbed at the tears on her face. "I don't want anything from them." He walked around the table and scooted into the booth next to her, pulling her into his arms and resting his chin on the top of her head. "I'm not a bit surprised. I knew my mother didn't like you, but I had no idea she was behind this. I'm sorry that she hurt you. The good part though is that we can move on from here. We can get married. Gia can have both of her parents." He paused and pulled back to look at her. "We can add on to our family," he wiggled his brows seductively, eliciting a giggle from her. "You're a pastor. You shouldn't be talking like this," she admonished with a smile. He laughed heartily. "Actually, marrying the mother of my daughter and the woman I love is exactly what I should be talking about." Her heart swelled with love as his lips covered hers. She knew in that moment, as she had known years before that her answer was going to be yes. Her hand absently went to the chain around her neck where the engagement ring he had given her still hung, tucked safely away under her clothing. She was amazed to find that even after five years apart she was still as in love with him as she had been as a teenager when he had first presented her with that ring. She also knew that they had a long road ahead of them and a lot of missed time to make up for, but that they would get through it. Together. *~*~* Rick scrubbed his sweaty palms on his suit jacket, anxiously awaiting his bride. Things had moved quickly throughout the last week. They had worked with Brian Harris to ensure that his parents couldn't retaliate over the broken contract. He had also gotten to know his new family better. All of his spare time had been spent looking at pictures and listening to stories from the five years he missed. Now, he was about ready to make his daughter's Christmas wish come true. In just a few moments Shelby would walk down the aisle and Pastor Mike would pronounce them man and wife. Gia would officially have her daddy home and he would have the woman of his dreams back in his life for good. Rick felt his eyes begin to leak as soon as he looked to the end of the aisle. Because of their hurried plans she had opted to wear a simple white and red Christmas dress and a borrowed veil. She was absolutely stunning. Peeling his eyes away from his first love, he looked down at the little girl that had fallen into his heart the moment he had seen her. Her dress was red velvet with puffy white trim and her smile was electric and caused his own to widen. The butterflies in Rick's stomach started to do the tango as Shelby and Gianna neared the front of the church. He had a huge surprise for both of them, and he prayed it would go well. Especially since most of the town had come out to celebrate their beloved Shelby's wedding. That in itself amazed him. It was Christmas day and a wedding that had been hastily planned, yet everyone in the tiny town dropped their plans to watch them get married. It was further confirmation that this was the place to raise their family. "Who gives their blessing for this woman to be married to this man?" Rick's gut clenched as pain consumed Shelby's features at the pastor's question. He knew it was not having her father there to walk her down the aisle and her mother to help her prepare. She had refused to call them, even after they had both been assured and reassured that there wasn't a thing his parents could do to them. It was guilt, he knew. She was afraid that they would be livid to discover that she had been hiding out as they worried and assumed the worst. She didn't want to see disappointment in their eyes. He knew exactly why she hadn't called them. Luckily for her, he had saved her the hassle. Right on cue her parents, brothers and their families, and even his own sister and her family stepped out from the darkened hall to the side of the sanctuary and declared "We do!" in unison. Shelby's head snapped toward them, and before Rick could blink, she was wrapped in her mother's arms. He smiled as Shelby lifted her head over her mother's shoulder and mouthed a silent thank you. Knowing Lisa Macintyre, she wouldn't want to give her up any time soon. The woman had been devastated to lose her only daughter. He knew that not a day had gone by since her disappearance that she hadn't prayed for her daughter's safe return. When the rest of them had resigned themselves to never seeing her again, Lisa insisted that she was still out there somewhere. Seeing Lisa finally reunited with her daughter brought a smile to his heart and a tear to his eye. She had been right after all. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. After Lisa had gotten in a lengthy hug and given her long lost daughter a thorough once over, she finally pried herself away and let her husband move in to his hug his daughter. Instinctively, his eyes sought out his own daughter and he was alarmed to find her standing nervously to the side, soaking in all of the chaos that erupted around her. All of the unfamiliar faces must have overwhelmed her. Rick hurried down the altar steps and scooped up his wide-eyed little girl. "These are your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins," he gestured to the people now passing her mother around for hugs. "In a few minutes your parents will be married and I'll be coming home to live with you. How do you feel about that?" He asked Gianna as he stepped closer to his own sister to give Shelby and her family a moment to reacquaint. "I think Santa and God must've done team work. This is the best Christmas ever!" Gia cheered. "I think so too. Thank you Rick. I love you," Shelby's tear filled voice sounded next to his ear. He couldn't help but lean down and plant a kiss on her soft lips, Gia giggling in his arms all the while. "Ahem," her father noisily cleared his throat to the delighted laughter of everyone in the room. "No more kissing until the pastor says it's time. Now give me that granddaughter of mine and go marry her momma, son." Rick smiled, wiped a tear from his eye and handed Gianna off to her already doting grandparents. Once everyone was settled, Rick took Shelby's hand and led her to the altar in front of Pastor Mike. "Well now, everybody take a moment to dry their eyes and let's get this long overdue wedding over with so they can get to an equally overdue family reunion." Another smile overtook Rick's face as he stared down into the eyes of the most beautiful woman he had ever known and the only one to ever have his heart. He couldn't wait to start their forever. Thank God for little girls and Christmas wishes, he thought to himself as he bent to kiss his new wife for the first time.


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