***Part Six***

Steve sat in his rental car just down the street from Kayla's house. On the passenger seat next to him were a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, and a boxed gift for Stephanie. He had no idea what to get and not have it seem like a bribe under the circumstances. He doubted fifteen year old girls were easy to buy for under any circumstances so he took a bit of solace in that.

His car idled and he watched the car's digital clock display change from 5:59. She had told him any time after six o'clock would be fine, so he put the car in drive and continued the short distance to her home. It was a nice two-story home. Kayla obviously did well for herself. He imagined nurses in California got paid a healthy salary. The driveway and sidewalk leading to the house were cleared of any snow. He wondered if she did the shoveling or had someone else to do it for her.

She had mentioned not having a husband but that did not mean there had been no men in her life. She had said something about almost marrying again. He had quickly let that comment get dropped. He did not want to think of her having other lovers. Why did she still have to be so attractive to him?

He had secretly hoped that the real thing would not live up to his expectations. Years of daydreaming about her had built her up to incredibly unrealistic heights. He had hoped when he saw her again he would be disappointed somehow, so that the dull ache that was forever in his heart would finally go away.

Seeing her again only set his body ablaze with wanting her. And unlike knowing his daydreams were just works of fiction created in his mind she was flesh and blood. He finally had the real thing and he had to make sure he kept his libido in check.

He rang the bell, noticing the snow covered hedges in front of the house. The snow must have fallen recently because white Christmas lights shone brightly from underneath the snow. He smiled despite promising himself he would not get emotional too quickly. It was nice to see his daughter had a home, though. It was something he had never had growing up. His mother did the best she could, but Christmas decorations were the furthest thing from her mind most days.

Kayla answered the door and Steve felt an instant sense of relief that he did not have to come face to face with his daughter yet. He was dying to see her, but he was not sure how either would have responded if she had been the one to answer the door.

"You found it all right."

"Yes, easily enough."

"Good. Come in." She stepped away from the door, allowing him in.

"These are for you." He held out the flowers and the wine. "Well, the flowers are for the table."

"Steve, you shouldn't have.

"I know, but I couldn't come empty handed."

"I suppose not."

He took in the living room. It was done in earthy tones and pastels, feminine but not overly frilly. It was a room he would be comfortable in. She had a fire going in the fireplace, a real one he took note. A throw blanket was tossed over the back of the sofa, a book laid open on a coffee table. It was a cozy setting and he felt like an intruder.

"This is nice."

"Thanks. Stephanie helped me."

He noted there was no TV in this room, only a stereo which was softly playing some jazzy sounding tune. There was an easy chair that looked comfortable, and he could picture Kayla sitting there reading her book.

"Is she here?"

"Yes, she's upstairs getting ready. I'm sure she's on her fifth or sixth outfit by now."

"Is she okay?"

"I think so. I kept her home from school today. She was so distracted I didn't think she would be very productive there anyway. And she hasn't missed a day yet, so I'm not too worried about one day."

"You said she does well in school." He did not see a problem with keeping her out either. It made sense, though he was not sure he would have thought of it.



"Would you like to sit down?"

"Only if you'll be joining me."

"Well, I still have some things to do in the kitchen."

"I'll go with you then," he said. He was not sure he wanted to be sitting in the living room alone when Stephanie came downstairs. He felt most guilty about abandoning her.

"Okay," she said and led him to the kitchen.

He set the bottle of wine on the counter and she took the flowers from him once she had filled a vase with water. He wondered how often she received flowers if she kept a vase so handy. He grimaced at the thought, reminding himself to keep himself in check.

"What's for dinner?"

"Spaghetti. I had to work today and didn't get home until about an hour ago, so I didn't have time to prepare anything else."

"It's fine, Kayla, really. It's probably more than I deserve. It smells good, anyway. And to a bachelor like me that's all that matters."

He noticed her frown and realized he had said the wrong thing. His bachelorhood was self-inflicted. He had left a loving wife and a beautiful young daughter behind willingly. He had not felt as though he had any choice at the time, but he was not sure she would ever understand that completely.

"Is he here yet?"

Steve turned at the sound of the unfamiliar female voice and his heart stopped beating for a moment. She was beautiful. Perfect. She looked so much like her mother. And his mother without the harsh lines and pain he remembered seeing on his mother's face.

"Hi." It was the first thing to come out of his mouth. He found he was speechless now that he was face to face with her. Fifteen years worth of things he had wanted to say, stories he had wanted to share and all he could say was hi. "This is for you," he said, his mind finally starting to clear. He handed her the box. "If you don't want to open it right now, I understand."

He saw tears form in her eyes as his daughter looked to Kayla. She took the box. "Thanks."

"Steph, why don't you set the table while I finish with the salad."

"Okay, Mom." Steve thought he saw a look of relief pass on her face not that he could blame her. No one said a word as Stephanie took plates from a cupboard, tableware from a drawer and some napkins into what Steve presumed was the dining room.

He followed her without saying anything, watching her as she set the table.

"You'd better not hurt her."

"What?" He was not sure he had heard correctly. Teenagers were supposed to be the most selfish people in existence and here she was worrying about her mother. It made him realize how strong their bond must be and how difficult things must have been for them without him.

She looked directly at him for the first time since she had come into the kitchen to find him there. "I said you better not hurt her."

"I have no intentions of hurting her."

"Do you plan on staying?"

"I don't know. That all depends I guess."

"You know I remember being little and imagining that you hadn't died, that you were still alive and came back for us."

"I'm sorry."

"I never thought it would take this long for you to come back. Why did you leave us?" The light glimmer of tears he saw in the kitchen a few moments ago were full blown ones now. "Did I do something wrong?"

"What?" He felt as if he had just been slapped. "What could you have done?"

"I don't know. I just. Mom said you were happy and now I find out you didn't really die. So that means you left right after I was born. Who leaves their baby behind?"

His breath caught and he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. "There's nothing I can say to make you understand."

"But why?"

"Stephanie that's enough. Let's eat dinner." Kayla's was always a voice of reason.

Stephanie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Okay, Mom," she said softly, her voice soft from crying. Steve remained where he was when Stephanie returned to the kitchen. He had not expected to walk into their lives and meet with instant acceptance. He had not realized it was going to be this difficult, though. He had not counted on a teenager's emotions and heaps of self-doubt.

He had not thought beyond the fact he believed he was doing the right thing. Now that he was here about to have dinner with Kayla and Stephanie for the first time ever as a family he doubted himself for the first time. It had been incredibly easy to fool himself into believing he had his family's best interests in mind. He had not anticipated seeing them again and realizing he had missed out on so much. He never saw Stephanie walk. He never got to take her to Kindergarten or hang one of her drawings on the refrigerator door. Had she had her first date? Did she have a boyfriend? Had he kissed her yet?

His mind was running away from him, taking him to places he was not ready for. It had been easy to live emotionally closed off for over a decade because without Kayla and Stephanie he had nothing to care about. Here they were now, though, and he was feeling things, thinking things for the first time in years. Maybe this had not been a good idea.

He eyed the table, set for three. Stephanie had lit a pair of candles that adorned the table. He remembered the tablecloth. It had been one of Kayla's favorites. He had brought it home from a trip overseas back when he had done ISA business. Had she put it on the table tonight with that in mind or did she use it regularly?

He turned from the table, spotting the living room that provided an escape to the front door. Clearly, judging by the things he had seen in the house they did fine without him. In fact, they probably did better. It was tempting to leave and never turn back. His boss had given him time to think about his resignation. He could take it back, return to D.C. and pretend everything was the same.

As Kayla and Stephanie entered from the kitchen he realized he could not do that. Just seeing them was not enough for him. He had promised Kayla he would not just leave Stephanie's life again. There was no way he was going to move into her life and heart without some effort, but he wanted to earn her affection. Her trust. He wanted that more than anything he had wanted in a long time. The only thing he had ever wanted more was Kayla. And Stephanie was an extension of Kayla so it stood to reason.

Kayla frowned and Steve wondered if she knew he had contemplated leaving up until the moment he saw them again. She knew him well enough even if they had been separated for so long.

"You can sit here, Steve. Stephanie, you sit in your usual spot," Kayla said as she and Stephanie set serving dishes on the table. The spaghetti and what he presumed was fresh baked garlic bread smelled delicious. He was not entirely a novice at cooking, but nothing he ever made smelled so good waiting to be eaten.

He stood by the chair she had indicated was to be his, for this meal at least, and waited for them both to sit. Kayla led them in a prayer and Steve instinctively crossed himself, though it had been years since he had prayed. And then they sat. Serving dishes of salad, spaghetti, sauce, and a basket full of the bread he had smelled were passed around.

"I forgot the wine."

"I'll get it," Steve offered. "I just need to know where a corkscrew is."

"I'll show him, Mom. Can I have some?"

"I suppose a little taste won't hurt anything."

"Thanks," Stephanie said with a smile and entered the kitchen with Steve only a few steps behind her. She had volunteered to come with him. A good sign? Or a very bad one. He hoped it was a good one.

She handed him the corkscrew and leaned back against the counter, her hands holding the edge as if she was nervous. Good. He was not the only one. He said nothing as he worked the corkscrew. His eyes met hers briefly and saw that she was watching him intently.

"You like wine?" The silence was killing him. If she wanted to tell him to go to hell and get out of their house he wished she would just go ahead and say it.

"I've had champagne at weddings. Mom doesn't usually let me have any at home, but I figured tonight she might."

"It's not that big of a deal."

She shrugged and he quit talking. It was not his place to offer her advice on the evils of drinking too young. At least not yet.

"You never answered my question."

"What question was that?" She had asked a few, none of which had easy answers.

"Are you staying?"

"I'd like to." He glanced at her then and saw a look on her face that reminded him of looking in a mirror. He felt his throat tighten, his heart clench at seeing his daughter do something so familiar to him. "Very much," he added as the cork came out of the bottle with a loud POP.

"I think I'd like that, too," she said softly. With the pop of the cork and the resulting fizz from the wine settling he almost missed it. He realized she probably did that intentionally so refrained from getting too excited.

"Let's go pour this before the dinner your mom went through the trouble to make gets cold. I think she's mad at me enough, I don't want to make it worse."

"You're probably right." He saw it then and his heart melted unlike anything he had ever felt before. She smiled at him. It was a small one, but it was definitely a smile. He could not remember anything as beautiful as his little girl smiling just for him. And for the first time since he had set foot back in Salem he thought things might just work out okay. It would not be easy and would not happen over night.

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