Melanie’s face transformed into a wreath of smiles. She scampered up the front walk at full tilt, calling out, “Daddy! Daddy! I’m here! I knew you weren’t dead!”
What on earth? Hope’s blood ran cold. Had she heard correctly? She hurried after Melanie as fast as her high heels would allow her.
Melanie yanked on the screen door as Quinn opened the front door. Melanie latched on to his legs. “Oh, Daddy! You’re not dead.”
Quinn seemed to stagger under her assault. The flash of pain that whitened his features and turned his eyes into gray pits of agony halted Hope in her tracks on the porch steps. Even as Quinn was pulling Melanie up into his arms and cradling her tightly against his chest, she knew who these children were. Tears blurred her eyes as Quinn said raggedly, “Oh, baby. I’m Uncle Quinn. Not Daddy. Daddy’s dead. I’m so sorry.”
Melanie’s face twisted, and a heart-wrenching sound echoed from her throat.
Hope’s heart felt as if it were being punctured by her ribs. The poor darling lamb! Her hand fluttered to her mouth as Melanie turned brown eyes glaring with accusation at her.
“You lied. You said Daddy was here.”
Hope’s voice trembled. “Oh, sweetie. I didn’t know. I thought he was your daddy. I’m so sorry I upset you. I hope you can forgive me.”
Melanie’s lower lip jutted out belligerently.
Quinn pressed a kiss on his niece’s cheek. “It’s not her fault, Mel-Mel. Kyle woke up before I could tell Hope why we’re here.”
Melanie fingered the baby’s breath in her hair. “Does this mean I’m not always a fancy eater?”
Quinn’s brow crinkled. “Huh?”
Hope leapt to his rescue. “Never mind. It’s a girl thing. Of course, lamb. You’re a fairy fiancée. Now how about that snack I promised? Poor Kyle must really be feeling the need for a clean diaper about now.” She handed Quinn the diaper bag.
“I don’t wear diapers,” Melanie announced in a superior tone. “I’m not a baby.”
“Kyle?” Quinn whirled around and strode into the house, Melanie still clutched in his arms, the diaper bag banging against his thighs. “Oh God. I forgot about him.” He turned toward the small downstairs bedroom Hope used for a change room and her kids’ cubby holes.
“He’s not there,” Hope said, hearing the tinkling of toy piano keys. “He’s in the playroom—the big room right off the kitchen.”
She paused a second to kick off her pumps and rooted through the toy-crowded closet for a pair of the knitted slippers she kept for guests. Her regular slippers were packed in her suitcase and there was no time to unpack them.
She’d just eased her cold, pinched toes into the second slipper when a deep groan reached her ears from the playroom.
Hope padded down the hall into the kitchen. When she saw the naked toddler and the suspicious network of puddles that streaked her kitchen floor like the canals of Venice, she sternly told herself that things could be a lot worse. She could be spending her wedding night with a man who didn’t want to be married to her.
KYLE HOWLED bloody murder when Quinn hauled him off to the bathroom to clean him up. Quinn gritted his teeth as he taped a diaper in place and tried to snap Kyle’s outfit around the toddler’s thrashing legs. Hope’s tidy bathroom looked as if a brigade of firemen had bathed in it. Kyle had splashed water all over the floor and smeared soap on the mirror when Quinn had tried to give him a quick bath in the sink. Fresh talons of guilt sunk unrelentingly into Quinn’s stomach. Every passing second he spent with Kyle and Melanie demonstrated how totally incapable he was of taking care of them properly.
What would he do if Hope said no?
Her attempt to close the door in his face pretty much expressed her current opinion of him. Somehow he had to change that.
Leaving a couple of the snaps undone, Quinn carried Kyle back into the kitchen and set him down. Hope had already finished cleaning the floor and was opening a tin of apple juice at the counter while she offered Mel fashion advice on the dress-up clothes his niece was pulling out of a wicker trunk. Kyle made a beeline for a pile of blocks.
As if she sensed his entrance, Hope turned toward him, her mouth set in a thin, tight line, her eyes misty and golden…and full of questions.
And Quinn felt the full jabbing thrust of the intense physical attraction he’d once had for her all over again. She hadn’t changed much in ten years, he thought, taking in the wild disarray of her dark brown hair streaming over her bare shoulders. She’d removed the jacket of her suit and wore a Rugrats apron over a silky, lace-trimmed camisole top. Her short pink skirt showed off her great legs and the nicely rounded curve of her hips. All that smooth white skin and lace reminded Quinn of a delectable iced cake on a tea tray. Pure, irresistible sweetness.
Her pointed chin and the delicate joy lines fanning those golden eyes and dimpling the corners of her mouth, still made him think she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. Maybe because his scrutiny was so intense, he noticed the lone white flower clinging to her hair like a snowflake—which reminded him that she’d had flowers in her hair when she’d come to the door. Had she had a date earlier tonight? Quinn frowned. Tom Parrish hadn’t mentioned a current boyfriend, the existence of which might put a serious wrench in his plans.
“I’m preparing apple juice and graham crackers for the children,” she said, putting an end to the uncomfortable silence that stretched between them. “Do they have any food allergies?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Quinn clenched his fists, feeling awkward as she set the snack on a kid-size picnic table and told Kyle and Melanie they could eat only at the table. What if Hope had a boyfriend? How could he ask her to sacrifice her personal happiness when that had been his excuse for abruptly severing their engagement? He felt like a hypocrite. He shouldn’t have come. He never would have thought of seeking her out if Tom hadn’t brought up her name. “I’m really sorry to put you to all this trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. My plans for the evening kind of fell through anyway.” Something about her tone of voice told him she was telling him a half truth, but she folded her arms across her chest and changed the subject—to the heart of the matter—with her usual directness. “So, what brings you to my doorstep at nine-thirty at night? You mentioned my brother-in-law sent you?”
Quinn nodded and gestured toward the hallway. “Maybe we could discuss this out of hearing range of the children? I don’t know how much they understand, but they’ve suffered enough trauma in the last thirty-six hours. I don’t want to upset them further.”
“Of course.” Hope was almost afraid to listen. She couldn’t imagine Quentin McClure being dead. Hope had always referred to him as Quinn’s better half—the younger-by-fourteen minutes, brainy, mild-natured twin. His death had obviously rocked Quinn hard. Quinn’s lean, muscled body quivered with tightly reined emotion as they stepped into the hall. It took all her willpower to hold back the urge to touch him. She’d already agreed to listen to him and had let him into her home. Had even let herself look at him again. Not touching him was her last remaining defense to his unexpected invasion. Somehow she felt that if she didn’t cross that line, she could survive this encounter with her heart still intact. “What happened to Quent?” she asked softly.