“Mommy,” Paisley calls from the backseat. My little girl’s vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds every day. But that’s her favorite word. Not that I can blame her. Paisley’s mom does happen to be the most special woman in the whole world.
“Soon,” I promise her.
She sticks her lower lip out. “Now!”
That’s probably her second favorite word followed by “no” and “ice keen”. I’m pretty sure that “Dada” ranks in the top twenty. Possibly. It’s hard to tell with a one-year-old.
The last six months have been the best of my life. Just when I think our lives can’t get any better, they suddenly do. Like when Audrey got her GED last month. The three of us celebrated with ice cream sandwiches at Ernie’s diner.
She’s applying to colleges in the state now. While she’ll take online classes if she has to, I know her dream is to go to a brick and mortar school. I’ll support that dream no matter what it takes.
I’ve already started pricing apartments around her top three schools. We figure we’ll try to get her on a part-time schedule that lets her attend school three to four days a week. We’ll spend the remaining days on the ranch.
My brothers have already made it clear that they’re willing to do anything to help Audrey. That means they’ll tough it out for the four or so years without my full-time help until we can get back to living on the ranch permanently.
Audrey wants to work in the foster care system. She said that because of her history and mine, she wants to be there for other kids. We’ve talked about becoming foster parents ourselves when Paisley is older and we’re ready to expand our family. But for now, the little girl that’s made from sunshine and giggles keeps us both on our toes.
I pull into the parking lot for Bloom Anywhere and take Paisley in my arms. My wife works part-time here now. I keep telling her that she doesn’t have to worry about earning money, but I understand what this is. She’s a survivor and that need to prepare for the worst may never fully leave her.
“Mommy!” My daughter squeals just as Audrey exits the building. She practically floats across the street.
She’s looking like a goddess this afternoon. She’s dressed in her tight, cut-off blue jeans and a black halter top that makes me think about last night. She gave me a lap dance that I’ll always remember. Even if we have seven decades together, I’ll never get enough of this woman. I’ll crave her touch forever.
She bounds into the truck, her cheeks flushed from the afternoon sun. She covers our daughter with kisses. “My baby girl!”
I love the easy affection between the two of them. She reads so many books on motherhood. She’s terrified of being a bad mom, of not being there for Paisley the way her mom wasn’t there for her. But on those nights when her fears are loud, I remind her of how incredible she is. I point out that Paisley looks at her like she hung the moon.
“My turn,” I playfully grumble and kiss Paisley’s other chubby cheek. The little girl dissolves into delighted squeals that have me and Audrey quickly joining in.
“Ice keen, Dada!” Paisley finally demands when I’ve settled her back into her car seat and started the truck again.
Audrey glares at me. “Did you promise her again?”
“It’s not my fault that the girl has never met a vegetable she likes,” I argue. Like me, Paisley likes potatoes in all forms but will reject any other vegetable that touches her plate. Audrey spends half of her time trying to sneak green things into our meals. Last week, she even made something called kale cookies.
To get Paisley to eat green foods, I have to bribe her with ice cream sandwiches. Those are her favorite. Mine too.
“What happens when she’s twenty and you’re not here to give her ice cream?” Audrey asks as I turn into the parking lot for Ernie’s diner. Griffin, the sheriff’s deputy, wasted no time when he came home. He put a ring on the finger of Missy, one of the waitresses that works here.
“Why would she not be here?” I ask as I unbuckle our little girl. I toss her up into the air in the way that makes her laugh. “You’re never leaving Daddy, are you?”
“She’s going to eventually go,” Audrey says, giving me that soft-eyed look she has when she thinks I’m being an overprotective father.
“We’re a no to that one, aren’t we?” I ask.
Paisley grins at me, revealing even more of those little baby teeth. I never thought babies were that cute until Paisley. Now I have the world’s cutest one, and she’s all mine. “Ice keen!”
“See, I know how to keep this sweet girl around,” I smile triumphantly at Audrey who just shakes her head and follows me into Ernie’s.
After the ice cream, we drive back to the ranch. I roll down the window to wave at Ethan and his wife, Valentine.
I wasn’t sure that Ethan’s marriage would make it since his first one was such a train wreck. But he’s so happy with Valentine. He spoils her constantly and she looks at him like he’s a superhero. I know what that’s like because I get that same look from Audrey. It makes me feel like there isn’t anything I can’t do.
The happy couple waves at us as we continue up the drive to our house. Since my girls have moved in, the house has seen all sorts of improvements. Flowers up the walk and the driveway has been paved.
There are rocking chairs on the front porch now and a tiny pink bike in the front yard. Paisley still doesn’t fully understand the concept of the bike yet so mainly she just sits in the seat while I push her around. But I don’t mind. I cherish every minute with my daughter.
Since it’s hot today, we take her to the lake on our property. She’s learned how to float though that doesn’t exactly ease my mind. I know it’s only one-part of swim safety and the moment she’s old enough to grasp the basic movements, I’ll have this girl swimming.
It’s funny the things I never worried about before Paisley. Now I think about everything. Audrey fusses at me sometimes for overthinking it. She says I worry about her because my own childhood was so hard. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s just that there’s so much love in my heart for this little girl and her sweet mama.
After she’s splashed her heart out and her eyes are growing heavy, I settle Paisley on the picnic blanket between me and Audrey. She’s reading a book, some romance if I had to guess by the way she kept looking at me while I was in the water.
I stretch out on the blanket and stare up at the sky, reaching for Audrey’s hand. The familiar zing of attraction still goes through my body at just her touch.
“What are you thinking?” She asks after the comfortable silence has stretched between us.
I let out a soft sigh. “I’m thinking that my life is perfect these days.”
She chuckles and scoots Paisley closer to me so she can put her head on my shoulder. “I think our lives are perfect too.”
When I first heard about my grandfather’s plan to force me and my brothers to marry, I was so angry at him. But now I hope he’s looking down on me. I hope he sees Audrey and Paisley and how special they are. He sent this cowboy a family, and I couldn’t be happier.
If you want to know what happened with Ethan and Valentine, they’re starring in The Cowboy’s Valentine, the next book in the Courage County Brides series. Read their story now to see what happens when this grumpy, loner cowboy meets his curvy mail-order bride!