Substitute Family Chapters 16 and 17

Chapter 16

Garret walked into his office after a meeting with the representatives of an insurance company who wanted to update their billing system. The meeting should have lasted an hour, as it was a preliminary discussion of what the client was looking for. They’d had more questions than he’d anticipated, and it had dragged on.

There was an air of tension when he walked in. Laurie stood near the reception desk, talking with Teri. He glanced at Teri first. She folded her arms across her chest. “It’s about time you got back.”

“The meeting went over—”

Over Teri’s shoulder, Laurie glared at him.

“What—”

He heard a noise that sounded somewhat familiar, like a child playing noisily.

Ron walked into the room. “Garret, you’re back. Come into my office.”

When Garret turned to follow Ron, he stumbled into something. Looking down, he saw two car seats and a couple of suitcases. He recognized the luggage

Emily and the kids?

She wouldn’t—

They passed the conference room, and the distinctive sound of Cody’s laughter hit him.

“Emily’s here?” He turned towards the conference room door.

Ron grabbed his arm and pulled him along the hall. He dropped it when he got to his office. He gestured for Garret to go inside and followed him in, shutting the door.

Ron didn’t even bother sitting down. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

“I didn’t think she would bring the kids here.”
            “From what she said, you’ve been ignoring her calls for weeks.”

“I—”

“And you told her that we frown on personal calls at the office?”

Garret broke out into a sweat. All of his lies and omissions had come back to bite him.

“I told her that it was for emergencies only.”

“If you were my kid, I would clobber you. I should do it, anyway, but I don’t want you to file an assault charge against me. You, on the other hand, are facing some pretty heavy repercussions.”

Garret shifted his feet. He couldn’t get fired over this, could he? “There’s nothing in the policy about my personal life that affecting my job.”

“It says something about your lack of leadership skills if this is how you treat your own family.”

Garret held up a hand in surrender. “I’ll make this right.” Somehow, after he talked to Emily, he would straighten everything out.

“Don’t you dare take this out on that girl.” Ron’s warning threw him. “Before you go off half-cocked, remember that she did this for those two precious kids of yours. They don’t deserve your anger.”

Garret left Ron’s office, and drew in a few deep breaths to cool down the anger that surged through him. Emily had had no right to interfere with his life—

What a jerk he’d been, not giving her the respect of telling her what he was doing. He should have called her, or at the very least, returned her calls.

He stood in front of the conference room door, and although he hadn’t prayed in a long time, he offered up a brief petition that he could keep his cool.

And that Emily could keep hers.

He opened the door and walked in. Emily met him with a mixture of guilt and anger in her expression.

“What a surprise.” He couldn’t keep his anger out of his tone. So much for that prayer for keeping his head.

Cody poked his head out from under the table. “Da-Da!”

Garret bent down, and the big grin that Cody shot him made him grin in response.

“Hey, Code-man.” He moved a chair out of the way so Cody could get out without bumping his head. He lifted his son in his arms and squeezed him tight. Cody hugged his neck. Garret’s heart softened, and all the anger died out. He’d missed this.

Cody turned in Garret’s arms to face Emily. He pounded Garret’s shoulder. “Da-Da home.”

Emily’s eyes filled with tears. Garret looked from her down at the his daughter, who was bouncing on Emily’s lap.

He stared into her innocent blue eyes and wondered how he had ignored this little miniature-Julie, or considered giving up his rights to be her father. He reached down and lifted her into his other arm.

The kids had grown heavier since he’d last held them. He sat down and gathered them onto his lap. Cody, satisfied that he was not going to leave, wiggled to get down. Garret released him, then turned to face Emily. She crossed her arms and stared him down.

“I can explain.”

            “You’d better.”

            Garret cleared his throat. “I wanted to make a fresh start here in Dallas. I couldn’t do that with all of the reminders of the past. I swore Ron and Taylor to secrecy about the fact that I had been widowed and had children. They both thought I was making a big mistake.”

“Da-Da, see me!” Cody had crept under the table again, and was peeking out from beneath it.

Garret leaned down and grinned. “I see you, Code-man.”

Cody giggled and hid his face, then popped out again.

“See me!”

That play could go on all day, but Garret felt Emily’s impatience. He looked away from Cody and back to her. There was no sympathy in her expression.

“I hate the pitying looks that people get on their faces when they learn about Julie’s death. I had all of that I could stand when I was in Michigan. I thought here, I could get away from that. I decided to wait until I was well-established in this office before I let anyone know about my personal life.”

And how that had backfired when Laurie thought he was single and started chasing him. He couldn’t imagine what she was going to do now that she knew he’d lied to her, well omitted the truth, anyway.

Laurie wasn’t his biggest concern. The challenge in Emily’s eyes was.

“I’m due back to work in two weeks. With my leave coming to an end, I needed to hear what your decision was so I could make arrangements for the twins.”

He was amazed by how calm her voice sounded, when he’d expected her to yell at him.

Garret nodded. “I was, and I did. I should have let you know. I realized too late that by not telling my employees about Julie and the kids, I had dug myself into a big hole. They trusted me as their manager and leader, and I was not honest with them from the beginning. I knew if I brought the twins down here, it would mean having to face them with the truth, and I didn’t want to face it.”

Cody thumped Garret’s knee.

“See me, Da-Da. See me!”

Garret lowered his head. “I see you.”

This time, he played the game back and forth with Cody for a few minutes, taking a breather. Emily had a right to be angry with him. But he was angry, too.

“Why didn’t you just leave them with Peg and go back to work?”

“Are you kidding me?” Emily’s tone turned loud and shrill. He glanced towards the door, afraid her voice would carry into the hallway. “You want Aunt Peg and Uncle Dan to raise your kids?”

“I guess I was avoiding making any decisions about them. I guess I can’t avoid it any longer, thanks to you, can I?”

“They’re threatening to call a lawyer and file for custody.”

He grimaced. “I should have known they would try something like that.”

“You’re not giving them any other option, Garret.” Emily’s voice had softened. Her eyes filled with tears. “You’re their dad. They need you.”

“Right now, they both need a diaper change.” Garret grimaced and held Chloe off his lap. Her diaper had leaked, and his pantleg was wet.

Emily reached down and picked up the diaper bag. “Should I take them to the restroom and change them?”
            “Let’s take care of it in here. Do you have a bag for the wet diapers?”

“I think Cody’s is more than just wet, but we can tie it up in the plastic bag and dispose of it on our way out.”

Garret passed Chloe over to Emily and reached under the table to pick up Cody. He changed one while she changed the other, and they double wrapped the smelly diapers in plastic bags. She slipped them back in the diaper bag. “I’ll air it out later.”

Now that the practical was taken care of, Garret stood holding Chloe, and looked down at Emily. He’d grown used to seeing her over the video chat, and her face was familiar to him. He recognized the relaxed expression. She wasn’t showing any signs of anger.

“I’m surprised you’re not screaming and throwing things at me.”

Her lips curved, drawing his attention to them. “If it would make you feel better, I could do that.”

He shook his head, chuckling softly. “I’ve been a jerk and a fool and any other name you can think of, Emily. I know I deserve anything you want to dish out.”

She looked at Chloe, who snuggled against his chest with a contented expression.

“I guess if they aren’t going to hold it against you, then I won’t, either.”

Glancing at the clock on the wall, Garret said, “It’s about time for everyone to head home for the day. Why don’t we take them out there, and I’ll make the proper introductions?”

“I don’t think I’m ready to face everyone. I know I shouldn’t have come.”

“Hey.” He chucked her under the chin. “Whatever the fallout is, it’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’ll deal with the repercussions, whatever they may be.”

Emily reached out for Chloe. “You can corral your son.”

Garret turned to get Cody, who led him on a chase around the room. Cody’s shrieks when Garret caught him and tossed him in the air lightened his mood. Whatever happened, he could deal with it. He had his kids, and they were again the most important priority in his life.

He opened the door and walked out, with Emily behind him. He led the way into the front reception area. Teri sat at her desk. Laurie stood nearby. Tony and Craig leaned against the wall. Ron sat on the edge of the desk. They all had anger simmering in their expressions.

Garret drew in a deep breath, gathering courage and saying a silent prayer that they would understand. “I know you’re all probably ready to stone me right now. And I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I’ve been a fool for the past three months, and I want to tell you how sorry I am for not letting you in on the truth.”

“You’re married?” Laurie’s tone was sharp.

Garret shook his head. “I was. My wife died in an auto accident last November. These are my kids, Cody and Chloe.”

He reached back and grasped Emily’s elbow, pulling her forward to stand beside him. “This is Emily, their nanny. She’s been staying with them in Michigan while I waited out the trial period here in Dallas. I didn’t want to bring them down here when I wasn’t sure how things would work out.”

“You should have told us about them, anyway.” Laurie’s cheeks were red as she flashed an accusing glare at Garret.

He nodded. “I know I should have, Laurie. And I apologize. It’s just when people hear that I’m a 30-year-old widower, they get these awful looks of pity on their faces and tiptoe around, always apologizing for what they say. I did not want to have to deal with that here.”

“I knew it had to be something like this that you were keeping from us.” Tony straightened away from the wall. “You should have trusted us enough to tell us.”

“Ron knew about them.” Laurie wasn’t letting this go as Garret had hoped she would.

Garret looked at Ron, who flushed with guilt. “I made him promise not to tell anyone. He told me I was being a fool, and as always, he was right.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Emily. I’m Tony.” Tony walked over and extended his hand to her. She shook it, and he held it a little longer than what Garret liked. She smiled politely at him.

“I’m Craig.” Craig also reached out and shook Emily’s hand but didn’t hold onto it. Garret didn’t miss the way Craig’s eyes flitted over Emily from head to toe, and the glint in his eyes said that he approved. He nearly growled, surprising himself at the possessive feeling.

Teri remained at her desk and gave Emily a polite smile. “I’m Teri.”

Garret wasn’t surprised when Laurie ignored Emily completely.

Tony hovered near Emily. “So did you just decide to fly down here by yourself? And Garret didn’t know you were coming?”

“It was a last-minute decision. We wanted to surprise him.” She hadn’t thrown him under the bus, but he wasn’t ready to let her make excuses for him.

“I didn’t call Emily for a couple of weeks and she got worried that something had gone wrong. I wasn’t expecting them, but I’m glad to have them here with me, however it may have happened.”

“So what now?” Back to Laurie with the demands.

“I’ll be taking the day off tomorrow to spend time with them. I’ll be making some decisions over the weekend, but my plans are to stay here, if I still have a job to come back to on Monday.”

Ron moved away from the desk. “I’ll help you carry your stuff out. Can you guys close up shop without us?”

“Don’t we always?” Teri asked flippantly, and the laughter broke the tension.

Garret started towards the door, glancing over to make sure Emily was following. He looked down at the car seats and luggage. He gave a slight shake of his head. How had Emily managed to bring this all in?

“I’m all done for the day,” Tony said. “I’ll help.” He picked up the two suitcases and turned to Emily. “How did you like flying with a pair of toddlers?”

Emily smiled, and Garret felt that foreign stab of jealousy. “It wasn’t easy. There wasn’t enough room for Cody to move around in.”

Tony carried on small talk with Emily while they walked out of the office, with Ron bringing up the rear carrying a car seat in each arm.

If it hadn’t been so stressful, Garret might have laughed at the way they must look like a parade. They took the elevator down to the parking level and Garret led the way to his car.

When they all stopped and gathered next to his car, he nodded to Ron and Tony. “I appreciate your help, guys.”

“Maybe we’ll see you around this weekend, Emily.” Tony’s grin grated on Garret’s nerves. But what could he expect? Garret had introduced Emily as the nanny, which she was. But Tony was a player. Garret wouldn’t trust Emily with someone like Tony.

“We’ll probably hang out with the kids since I haven’t seen them for a while. You guys have a good weekend.”

Garret set Cody down while he fastened in the car seats. Emily held tightly to Cody’s hand. She’d been so quiet that Garret was waiting for her to explode with anger.

“Did you bring car seats from home?”

Emily buckled Chloe into the back seat. “No, I rented them at the airport. At the car rental agency. But I didn’t rent a car. I brought a taxi here.”

“That’s probably just as well. This city can take some getting used to driving around.” He popped open the trunk and loaded the luggage into it, and Emily got into the passenger seat of the car. Garret slid in behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition.

“How did you manage this all by yourself, Em?”

At his question, she burst into tears.

Chapter 17

Tears overcame Emily as she collapsed under the weight of the stressful day.

How had she managed this all by herself? She’d been so angry yesterday when she made the plane and hotel reservations. That anger had carried her onto the plane with two toddlers. The flight had been stressful. Chloe had cried most of the way, and Cody fought against having to sit the entire flight. Then there had been the task of getting their luggage and finding the car rental place, all assisted by an airport employee with a cart. The taxi driver had helped her fasten the car seats, but both of the kids had fought getting buckled in. By the time she’d arrived at Garret’s office, she’d lost it.

Then the anger had kicked in again when she walked into the office and saw the receptionist’s shock. She realized that the other woman hadn’t known that Garret had children.

Ron had confirmed that fact when he led her into the conference room. Emily’s anger had mixed with fear of what Garret would say when he saw them there. She realized that she’d had no business bringing them without his knowledge. She’d made a bigger mess of things than they already had been.

Sobs tore through her.

“Memmy?” Cody’s voice brought her back to reality. “Memmy c’y?”

She gulped back her tears and half turned in the seat. “I’m okay, Cody.” A tissue was pressed into her hand. She didn’t meet Garret’s eyes as she dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose.

When she finally had her emotions under control, she braved a look at Garret. He was staring at her with something like awe.

“I just can’t believe I came here like I did.” His look said he couldn’t believe it, either. At the glimpse of anger in his eyes, she felt her chest tighten. “I left the message with your office yesterday. When you didn’t call back, I was so mad I that I called the airline and a hotel, and packed our bags.”

“How did Dan and Peg react?” His eyes widened. “You didn’t kidnap them, did you? There won’t be police waiting at my apartment?”

She laughed. “No. I called them this morning and they tried to talk me out of it, but here I am.”

Garret started the car and backed out of the parking space. “I can’t believe it, but here you are.”

“I hope I have not caused problems for you with the office. I guess it’s a little late to apologize now.

“I’m the one who set myself up for problems.” Garret backed out of his parking space and followed the ramp to the exit. He inserted his card in the machine and the arm lifted. As he passed through the gate, he glanced at Emily.

“How did you pay for the trip?”

“I haven’t spent any of the money you’ve paid me. I’ve been using my vacation days and personal time for pay.”

He turned onto the busy downtown street. “I’ll pay you back.”

“We can talk about that later.”

“You said you booked a hotel room. Which one is it?” When she told him, he shook his head. “That’s in the opposite direction from where I live. Why don’t we go to my apartment first, and we can talk about things there? Did you have anything to eat?”

“Ron ordered a sandwich and fries from the deli while we were waiting for you.” Emily laughed. “He said he would charge it to your bill.”

At the mention of his boss, Garret frowned.

“F’ies!” Cody picked up on one word that she’d spoken. “I eat!”

Garret’s mouth turned into a wry smile. “Always hungry, still, is he?”

“He is.” Emily smiled back at Cody.

“We can pick up something at a drive-thru on the way to my apartment.”

She didn’t want to feed the kids any more junk food today. “Could we just go to your apartment and feed them there?”

“He’s hungry now.”

“He won’t starve. He just heard me say fries, so he thinks he needs some.”
“F’ies,” Cody proved her point.

“I have boxed macaroni and cheese.” Garret’s suggestion made Emily wrinkle her nose. He chuckled. “I can’t help it. I like the stuff and it’s quick to fix. I also have plenty of peanut butter, but I’ll need bread.”

“Do you have milk?”

“I have a half gallon. We’ll stop at the convenience store near my apartment and get milk and bread.”

Emily fell silent as Garret drove through the five-o’clock traffic and then headed west of the downtown area. She glanced back, and saw that both kids had fallen asleep.

“Ah, peace at last.” Garret’s relieved sigh made her smile.

She took a moment to study him as he drove. She had grown used to seeing him over the video chat and was familiar with every detail on his face. She’d started to have feelings for him that went beyond friendship. That attraction came to the surface as the stress of the day faded. She had put herself in a precarious position by coming here without warning. He could have sent her packing.

He still might. That was the reason why she’d reserved the hotel room. She hadn’t known what kind of reception she’d get. From the way he’d hugged the twins and held them, she was hopeful that she hadn’t made a drastic mistake by coming.

Garret exited the freeway and entered a neighborhood with apartment buildings and strip malls. He turned into the parking lot of a gas station that had a convenience store attached.

“I’ll get some apple juice as well as milk. I just have water at the house. Do you want some diet cola?”

“That would be great.” She could use a caffeine boost.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Garret turned the car off, then started it up again. “I don’t want them to wake up and give you a hard time.”

“We’ll want to wake them up when we get to your apartment, or they won’t sleep tonight.”

He grimaced. “That won’t be good.”

            After Garret left the car and started across the parking lot, Emily checked the mirror. She winced at her puffy eyes from her bout of tears. She wasn’t the sort of person who cried much. She was embarrassed that she’d broken down in front of Garret.

Her hair was falling out of her ponytail. She removed the hair tie. She found her hairbrush in the flight bag and ran it through her hair, then remade the ponytail.

Her T-shirt felt sticky, and her deodorant had worn off a long time ago. She’d sweated on the plane and throughout the ordeal of getting to Garret’s office. She couldn’t wait until she got to the hotel tonight and could take a shower.

She’d planned to leave the kids with Garret, but she wasn’t sure he wanted them overnight. She’d chosen a hotel that had a pool. She figured the kids were used to swimming with her, and she’d brought their flotation devices, all folded up, in their luggage. Getting in the pool and relaxing was at the top of her priority list.

When he came out of the convenience store, he had a full grocery bag in one arm, a gallon of milk hanging from that hand, and a twelve-pack of diet cola in the other. He balanced the case of soda in his arm while he opened the back door and slid everything onto the floor beneath Cody’s car seat. He reached into the bag for something. When he got in the car, he handed over a cold bottle of diet cola.

She clutched it like a lifesaver. “I could kiss you right now for this.”

Her words shocked him. They’d shocked her, too. Not that she hadn’t imagined kissing Garret—she had. But she never would have told him that, if she hadn’t been so relieved to have the cola.

Her face burned as he chuckled. “Well, you know what I meant.”

“I take it that means you’re happy with the cold drink.”

“Exactly.” She peeked at him through her lashes. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

“I figure you deserve that, and more, for getting them here in one piece.”

She could deal with his anger more than she could this sweet side of him.

Garret drove out of the parking lot and a couple of blocks later turned into an apartment complex. The row of buildings looked similar to Swiss chalets, and the grounds were landscaped beautifully.

“This looks like a nice place,” she said as he parked the car.

“          They’re not brand-new, but they are clean and well-maintained. And they’re reasonably priced.” He looked at the sleeping toddlers. “What do we do? Do we carry them in the car seats?”

“Let’s get them out. We don’t want them to stay sleeping, remember?”
Garret glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “It’s their bedtime back in Michigan, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. And they have not had naps today, so they’re going to be cranky if we wake them up.”

“Well, do we, or don’t we?” Garret stood helplessly by the car.

“I brought them all the way here to see you. Let’s get them up so they can spend some time with you before we go to the hotel.”

“You’re not staying in a hotel.” He reached into the car and lifted Cody out of his seat. Across the back seat of the car, Emily’s eyes met his defiantly.

“Yes, we are. I can’t stay with you.”

Garret’s eyes flashed angrily. “That’s ridiculous, Emily, and you know it.”

She rose with Chloe in her arms. She threw the flight bag over her shoulder. Garret balanced Cody on his hip and grabbed the grocery bag in one arm. Cody struggled to get down as Garret carried him towards the building. “I’d forgotten what a handful they are.”

“You’ll get used to it again.”

At the thoughtful look on Garret’s face, Emily bit her lip. She hadn’t come all this way for Garret to tell her that he wanted Peg and Dan to raise his kids. She was praying that wouldn’t be his decision. She wanted him to raise them himself. She’d realized on the flight here, though, if Garret brought them to Dallas to live with him, it would be like tearing a big piece of her heart out.  She’d been secretly hoping his job wouldn’t work out and he’d be back home after the trial period. Both Ron and Garret had said he’d accepted the position permanently.

She listened with half an ear Garret carried on a conversation with Cody as they walked into the apartment building. Hearing the two of them convinced her that they’d made the right choice.

The building wasn’t conducive to carrying toddlers, though. “There’s no elevator. I’ll carry Chloe up, and you can take Cody’s hand.”

That sounded good to Emily, although she had a hard time holding Cody back behind Garret as he led them up three flights of flights of stairs. Emily had felt exhausted before, but now she was ready to collapse.

As they stepped out of the staircase into the hall, Cody pulled away and Emily let him go. There was nowhere for him to disappear to.

Garret opened a door near the end of the hall. Emily grabbed the back of Cody’s shirt and guided him inside.

The apartment was drab. It was decorated in neutral shades: brown carpet, beige walls and curtains in muted earth tones. It was clean, but the furniture was older and not plentiful.

“We’re home, guys.” Garret glanced at Emily. “I told you it’s pretty bland.”

He had told her that in one of their first phone calls.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She checked the caller I.D. “This is my mom. I need to take the call.”

“Go ahead.” Garret waved her towards the living room. “I’ll fix peanut butter sandwiches and get their juice ready. He pulled a pack of juice boxes out of the grocery bag.

Emily groaned.

“What?” Garret’s brow furrowed.

“Cody tends to squeeze those tight, remember? You might want to make him sit at the table.”

“Got it. Go ahead and talk in the spare bedroom. I have it set up as an office.”

Emily answered the phone. “Hi, Mom.” She crossed the living room and walked down the short hallway to an open door. Wrong one. That was the master.

“Emily, are you in Dallas yet?”

Emily opened the other door. There was a desk with an office chair. She sank into the chair and kicked off her shoes.

“We got here a couple of hours ago. I didn’t have a chance to call you yet.”

“How did Garret react when he saw you?”

“Well, he was shocked, of course. He hadn’t told anyone here that he had kids.”

Emily grimaced. Maybe she shouldn’t have shared that. Aunt Peg and Uncle Dan were going to be furious when they found that out.

“You’re kidding!” Her mom’s anger surged through the phone connection. “I knew you shouldn’t have gone there.”

“Well, what’s done is done, as you always say.” Emily tried to treat the situation lightly but her mom clucked her displeasure.

“You shouldn’t have interfered. Did he tell you what he plans to do?”

“You know, Mom, I haven’t had a chance to really talk things over with Garret.” It was a partial lie. She’d talked enough with Garret to know he intended to stay in Dallas. But she wasn’t going to tell her mom that until she’d discussed it with Garret and heard him out regarding his future plans.

“Where are you now?”

“We’re at Garret’s apartment. I took a taxi to his office, and he brought us here.”

There was a significant pause. “Are you staying there?”

Emily didn’t tell her mom that she and Garret were still arguing that point. “I’ve got a hotel room, but it’s near the airport and a long way across town from Garret’s apartment.”

“That doesn’t sound very safe, Emily. Doesn’t Garret have a spare bedroom?”

“I didn’t think you would approve of me staying with him.”

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t.” Obviously her mom didn’t have the same reservations Emily had. But then her mom didn’t know she had a crush on Garret and felt uncomfortable sharing his living space. “It would be safer there with him then in a hotel by yourself. You don’t know anything about that city.”

“Mom, I get it. But I really need to go. I’ve got to get the kids settled and fed.” A slight exaggeration, but Emily was anxious to join Garret and see how the kids were doing.

“All right then. Do you want me to call Peg and let her know you’ve arrived.”

“I’ll call her in a little while, if you don’t mind. Garret’s going to want to be in on that phone call.”

“I doubt that, but I won’t call her and tell her anything.”

Emily thanked her mom and disconnected the call.

She went into the other room to face Garret.

He looked up as she entered the living room. “There’s only one bedroom. I can put the kids in there with me, and you can sleep out here on the couch, or if you want to have the bed, then I can take the couch. Whichever would be most comfortable for you.”

“The hotel,” Emily murmured in response, her cheeks turning red at the turn in conversation.

“I think I better put this stuff away.” He picked up the bag of groceries and led the way to the kitchen. Emily took the empty bottles and juice cups out of the flight bag and followed Garret. Seeing their bottles and cups, the twins tagged at her heels.

Emily watched Garret unpack the bag of groceries while she washed out the bottles and cups in the sink. There was a gallon of milk, a bottle of apple juice, a loaf of bread, a bag of tortilla chips, and a few bananas. He had also picked up a package of cheese slices and a diet cola. There were a couple of candy bars in the bottom of the bag.

“Looks like we could make a meal out of this for tonight,” she said.

“That’s what I was thinking. Grilled cheese and bananas for them, and chips and candy bars for us.”

“‘Nana,” Cody said excitedly when he saw the bananas.

“I’ll give them a snack and start the sandwiches if you want to go ahead and take a shower,” Garret offered, peeling a banana.

“I think I’ll take you up on that.” She was feeling the fatigue set in after her long day, and letting Garret tend to the twins’ needs was a welcome surprise.

When Emily came out of the bathroom, nearly a half an hour had passed.

“Memmy!” Cody ran up to her and hugged her like he had lost her.

“What does he call you?” Garret asked.

“Memmy. Peg suggested I call myself ‘Emmy’ to the kids, as it is easier to say than Emily. Only Cody doesn’t pronounce it that way.”

“Huh. ‘Memmy’?” Garret tried out the name, then laughed. “As long as they don’t start calling you “Mommy.””

“Believe me, I won’t let them call me ‘Mommy,’” Emily said, feeling that her face was on fire.

Emily sat at the table. She looked at the remaining pieces of grilled cheese sandwich and banana on the kids’ plates. “You guys were starving, weren’t you?” Cody rewarded her with a grin, cheese sandwich oozing between his teeth. “I guess I should know better than to ask you a question when your mouth is full,” she said.

Garret slid the bag of tortilla chips across the table to her. She reached in and took out a handful. “Did you eat a grilled cheese?” she asked.

He made a face as he shook his head. “Not my favorite food. Unless I have a big bowl of chili to eat with it.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And you don’t have a can of chili in the cupboard you can open up?”

Garret grinned. “It’s not the same thing.” He glanced at the clock. “You should probably call the hotel and cancel your reservation.”

“I don’t know if I should. I would not feel right about staying with you all night, even though we would be in separate rooms.”

“You brought the kids clear down here to see me, and now you want to run off to the hotel because you’re afraid of what people might say. There are no people around here who will even know, except you and I.”

“I could leave them here, and go stay at the hotel by myself.” She saw his eyebrows raise in concern.

“I don’t know how they’ll be if they wake up and you’re not here, after you’ve been taking care of them for three months.”

“I don’t know, either.” Emily sighed. “I didn’t think about all this when I came, but I did book a hotel so that I would have a place for the twins and I to go, in case you were angry,” she admitted.

“So you thought about whether or not you would make me angry, and you came, anyway?”

Emily’s eyes sparked with defiance as they met his. “Did you think you being angry with me would stop me from doing what I thought was right?”

“It never has, before, has it? So why let what other people think stop you from doing what is right in this situation?”

“You set me up for that, didn’t you?” she realized, and he grinned.

With a silent prayer that God would not frown on her decision, she phoned the hotel and canceled her reservation. While Garret ran a bath for the twins, she called Peg, and told her that they had arrived safely.

“I’m so glad you called. We’ve been worrying about you all day.” Peg sounded truly relieved. “Was Garret angry with you?”

“Not really. He was shocked, but he admitted that he was wrong for not keeping in contact.”

“At least he knows he’s at fault. Has he decided what he’s going to do yet?”

“We have not talked it over in detail yet. Garret’s giving them a bath

right now, and after we put them to bed, we’ll have a chance to sit down and talk.”

Peg was silent for a moment. Then she asked thoughtfully, “Where are you staying, Emily?”

“I had a hotel room booked, but Garret wanted to have the kids at the apartment with him as much as he can. He really has missed them.”

Peg’s muttered, “Serves him right,” was not lost on Emily, but she chose to ignore it.

“I don’t feel right about staying in the apartment, but I don’t want to leave the kids here with him and go to a hotel, either.”

“Oh, that wouldn’t be right,” Peg was quick to say. “They would wake up and not have you there, and then Garret would have to get up in the middle of the night to take them over to the hotel. I know we can trust you and Garret not to get involved or anything, so I don’t see that staying there just one or two nights is going to affect your reputation.”

No, Emily could not see herself and Garret involved in any intimate way, either, she thought, and that was because she was not Julie. Julie, the petite, pretty cousin, was the one Garret had married and loved.

Emily realized her uncle was listening on a second extension when he spoke up. “I really didn’t want you and the twins to stay at a hotel alone, anyway, Emily. You read all sorts of stories about things happening in hotels, no matter how much security some of them have.”

Emily heard the water draining from the tub. “I’d better go and get them ready for bed,” she said. “I’ll call you again tomorrow.”

Garret came out of the bathroom, a towel-wrapped twin in each arm.

Emily took Chloe in her arms and handed Garret Cody’s diaper and pajamas. “Who were you talking to?” Garret asked.

“I called Peg and Dan, to let them know I arrived safely.”

“I guess I never asked how long you were planning to stay.”

“Our flight leaves Sunday morning at 8:00.”

“That’s not much time.” Garret’s reply sounded a little sad.

Emily went to the kitchen and brought back bottles of milk. She picked up Cody and sat down on the couch, and Garret sat in the easy chair with Chloe. “Not exactly a rocking chair,” he said, settling comfortably with her on his shoulder. “Should they still have a bottle. They’re going on two years old now, right?”

“They’re just eighteen months. I still give them a bottle at bedtime, and during the plane ride I gave them bottles of juice.” Emily tried not to sound upset, but some of her defensiveness showed in her tone of voice.

“I did not ask you that to criticize you, Emily. I think you’ve done a great job with them, better than I could have done.”

“You were doing a good job last summer, Garret.” She watched as Chloe reached up and patted Garret’s cheek. “I think she missed you.” Emily’s voice caught in her throat.

“I’ve missed them, too.” Garret’s reply was husky. “I’ve been throwing myself into my work down here so I could forget all about them, and Julie, and everything.”

“Has it worked?”

He looked bleak. “As long as I keep moving, it seems to, but when I stop and take a breather, then the guilt and everything hits me.” Garret met her eyes with honesty. “That’s why I quit calling you.”

“Because you felt guilty?”

“I knew these two were better off without me.”

“How can you say that, Garret?” Emily looked at the way Chloe was nestled in Garret’s arms. “They need you in their lives.”

“I haven’t been too sure about that.” He looked over at Cody, asleep in Emily’s arms. “Where do you think they should sleep?”

“They’ll probably be okay on your bed.”

Tucking the toddlers in opposite sides of the bed in Garret’s room, Emily and Garret returned to the living room. He made a phone call, and in fifteen minutes their pizza order was delivered. Garret turned the TV on, and they ate in the living room while watching a movie. Emily was exhausted from the long day of travel, and she fell asleep before the movie was over.

Garret brought a quilt from the linen closet and covered her with it, then went to his room. Afraid that crawling into the bed would awaken the sleeping toddlers, he took a couple of blankets and made a bed on the floor, but it was a long time before he fell asleep.

Emily awakened a couple of times in the night, but fell back asleep.

When she awakened fully it was 9:00 by the clock on Garret’s living room wall. When she realized how late it was, she sat up, worried about Cody and Chloe. Garret was standing in the doorway to the dining room, and Emily was glad she had gone to sleep fully clothed.

“Good morning,” he said, “or should I say, ‘good afternoon.’?”

“I guess it’s almost afternoon, by Michigan time. What did you do with the kids?” As if in response to her question, there was a cry from the bedroom. Her eyes flew to the clock and then over to Garret. “Are they still sleeping?”

“They were. They must have been all tired out.” Garret disappeared down the hallway, and came back with Chloe in his arms and Cody running in front of him.

“Memmy!” Cody yelled when he saw Emily. He tore across the room and she scooped him up in a hug. Just as fast, he was ready to get back down. Looking around the room, his lower lip puckered up. “Home?” he said, in a sad little voice.

“No, we’re not home, Cody. We came to see Daddy, remember?”

“Da-Da!” Cody said, running over to Garret and grabbing his pant leg.

Then he stopped and looked around. “Toys?”

Emily’s eyes met Garret’s, and she saw sadness mingled with amusement in his gaze. Like Garret, she was not sure whether to cry or laugh at Cody’s antics. “I think he may be homesick for his house,” Emily said.

Garret nodded. “At least, homesick for his toys.”

“Maybe we can remedy that.” Emily opened the larger suitcase. She had packed a few of Cody’s trucks and cars, Chloe’s doll and some books. Cody was excited when he saw the toys. Emily found an outfit for each of them.

“Do you want to eat some breakfast here, or go out to eat?” Garret asked while they were getting the twins dressed.

“There are still some bananas from last night, and they can have a grilled cheese. It won’t matter that it’s for breakfast.”

“I have cereal, and peanut butter, if you want some toast.”

Garret fried up two grilled cheese sandwiches. Emily made toast and spread peanut butter on two slices. Garret had a fresh pot of coffee on the counter, and was sipping his while he cooked.

“Do you drink coffee now, Em?”

“Not every day, but I think I will have a cup this morning. I could use the caffeine.”

“Do you have plans for today?”

“No. I wasn’t sure if you would want us here. Are you certain you can miss work today?”

“I haven’t used any of my personal or vacation days yet.”

“Can you get fired for me showing up at the office?”

“Ron and I are the only ones down here who can do any firing. The company headquarters in Michigan can fire one of us if a complaint is filed against us.”

He looked a little concerned.

“Do you think anyone will do that because of the lies?”

She thought of the angry look the chic Laurie, had given her when they were introduced.

“Technically, it’s an omission. I was being honest when I told them I wasn’t married. No one asked if I had kids, assuming I wouldn’t because I was single.”

“Still—”

He laid his hand on her shoulder. “What’s done is done. I’m not going to spend this weekend worrying about what might happen. I am just so glad to see the kids and spend time with them.”

“I was hoping you would feel that way.”

“Dallas has a great zoo that I’ve been wanting to check out. Not something a single man would necessarily do. Do you want to take them there today?”

“Um, sure. I think they would enjoy that. You remember how hard it is to take them places, though, right?”

“It looks like to me that you have learned how to handle them very well. Better than I will ever be able to.”

She let that comment slide. She packed a bag with snacks, diapers, a change of clothes for each toddler and their sippy cups.

“You think of everything, don’t you?” Garret asked, watching her. Emily was pleased by his comment.

At the zoo, they rented a double stroller at the entrance. Cody wanted to walk, so Garret walked ahead of the stroller with him. “He does not slow down, does he?” Garret asked as they walked along.

“Not very often,” Emily said. “It often surprises me when I see the differences in their personalities. I guess with twins, you would expect them to be more alike, but they have their own unique character traits.”

“I remember when Julie was having her ultrasound and we found out that there were two babies, instead of one,” Garret said, slowing his pace to walk beside Emily. He kept his eye on Cody, but his son was standing in front of the window of the mountain lion exhibit for the moment. “I was in shock for days, I think, and so was Julie. She was so excited about it, talking about how we would have to have two of everything, highchairs, car seats, stuff like that. I was scared half to death, wondering how she would be able to carry two babies. I don’t think she ever had a thought for her own health, but that was what concerned me the most.”

Emily quietly listened as Garret talked about Julie. “I remember how often she talked about what she would name them. The doctors were pretty sure she was having fraternal twins and not identical, but she wanted to know whether it was going to be two boys, or two girls or one of each.” Garret sighed. “I was just glad they were healthy, and that she came through it without any serious complications.”

Cody started to run, and Garret caught up to him near the tiger cage. Cody was fascinated with the way some of them paced back and forth near the glass. “Kitty,” he said, pointing at the tiger closest to him.

“Big kitty,” Garret said, emphasizing the word big.

“Big kitty,” Cody repeated, and Garret chuckled.

Cody climbed into the stroller. Emily tried to push it and found it difficult.

“This stroller is heavier and harder to push than the one we use at home.”

Garret took over the stroller.

“The double stroller was one of the things Julie insisted she needed. I guess it was a good buy, though. You use it a lot, don’t you?”

“I could not get by without it,” Emily admitted. “We take a lot of walks around the neighborhood or at the parks with Melanie and Denise.”

“How is Melanie doing with her job and the baby?”

“She likes working the three days a week, and Peg watches Lance one day. She takes him to Scott’s cousin the other two days for day care. They are determined that Peg is not going to control Lance like she tried to with your two.”

            “Don’t remind me,” he said, half-serious. “There were certainly some challenges with Peg.” As if he did not want to think of his problems with his mother-in-law, he asked, “Do you think they’re ready to eat lunch yet?”

“I think they probably are. I know I am.”

“Do you want to eat in somewhere?”

“I think it would be better to take the food back to the apartment, so they can get down and run around,” Emily said. “Cody, anyway, is too excited to sit still for very long.”

He gave her a funny look.       “You know them better than I do.”

“That will change,” she said, “if you move them here.”

“I don’t know what the right thing is,” he said seriously.

“Have you made your decision about your job?” She read the answer in his eyes when they met hers. “You like it here, don’t you?”

“The move has been a good one for my career. The main office has informed both Ron and myself that this branch is already performing better than they had hoped. They are making it a permanent headquarters for the southwest region. At this point, I don’t see me returning to Michigan anytime soon.”

The news was what Emily had expected, but she had not expected to feel so sad about Garret’s decision.

They picked up fast food from a drive-thru and Garret drove back to his apartment. As Emily had predicted, Cody hardly sat still long enough to eat, before getting down on the floor and playing with his little cars and trucks. Garret sat on the couch, Chloe nestled in his arms.

“I’ve decided that I want to stay here in Dallas, but I don’t have an easy decision when it comes to Cody and Chloe. Do I move them down here, away from Julie’s family and the only home they’ve ever known, and have strangers raise them while I work? Or do I leave them with Julie’s family to raise and see them on holidays and vacations?”

Emily felt the heat of her anger rising in her cheeks. “I think you already know the answer to that question, Garret.”

“I’m not sure I do know what’s right for them. For all of us.”

“If you let Peg and Dan raise them, you’ll miss out on watching them learn everything.” Emily’s voice held a warning.

He sighed. “If I were still in Michigan, they would help me raise them, and so would my mom. But I felt like moving here was the right choice. I don’t think I’ll ever regret making that choice.”

“But you will regret letting someone else raise your children, Garret. They will never remember Julie, but they will feel abandoned by her as they grow up. When they are old enough, they will realize that she could not have done anything to prevent her death and leaving them. If you let someone else raise them, then they’re going to feel abandoned by you, as well. And they’ll know that you gave them up by choice.”

“I could still keep in touch with them, you know.”

She shrugged. “Maybe for the first few years, you’ll see them at holidays and during the summer vacations. But as they get older, you’ll find you have less in common with them, and you’ll find yourself canceling visits with them, or they’ll want to cancel visits with you.”

He glared at her. “How do you know so much about it?”

“I’ve seen a lot of broken families since working in the school. You should hear these little five-year-old’s who come to school and tell me, ‘My daddy moved out of the house. He doesn’t want to be with me anymore.’” Emily’s eyes welled up with tears.

“They’re too little to understand that it’s not their fault their daddy is gone. And you see as a teacher how the separation affects them in school, with their attitudes, their schoolwork, everything.”

Garret’s expression was bleak and hopeless as he met Emily’s intense gaze. She held hers steady, pleading with him to see the truth in her words. His shoulders shook as he drew in an uneven breath, and then he visibly relaxed. “You’re pretty convincing, you know.”

“Probably because I believe I’m right.” He smiled slightly at her response.

Cody threw his truck on the floor and stomped his foot.

“I think someone is ready for a nap,” Emily said. Garret could see the corners of her mouth curving up as she tried to hide a smile. It was clear she liked his kids.

His kids, he thought, looking from Cody to Chloe. He couldn’t believe he had considered, was even now considering, letting someone else raise them.

“You don’t have a DVD player, do you? They will settle down and take a nap if they have something to watch.”

“No DVD. I have cable, though.”

Emily paged through the channel selections and came up with one that had shows for preschoolers. Cody settled down between Emily and Garret on the couch. After a short time, both Cody and Chloe fell asleep.

Garret rose from the couch and laid Chloe on the cushion. Emily stood up and stretched Cody’s legs out, so he was resting comfortably.

Emily went to the bathroom. When she came out, Garret was seated at the table, his laptop open. She poured herself a glass of diet cola with ice, and sat down opposite him.

“So do you really think I’ll be able to raise these two by myself, Em?”

“It’s not going to be easy,” she replied in a careful tone. “They’re going to demand a lot of attention, and you won’t always have the time and energy to devote to them, as a single parent.”

“I never pictured myself as a widower at 30, let alone being a single parent to twins. I just don’t think I could do a very good job with them.”

“Julie would have thought so,” Emily reassured him. He looked at her, slightly puzzled. “You were the one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She wanted to marry you and have children with you. She also believed that you were the one God chose for her, Garret,” she continued in earnest. “God brought you and Julie together and blessed you with two wonderful children. And God does not make any mistakes.”

“It sure feels like He did,” Garret said in a heavy tone. “It does not seem right that He would let Julie die so young, when we loved her and needed her so much.”

Emily reached across the table and covered his hand. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, but the warmth that spread through her fingers at the contact made her jerk it back quickly.

He looked at her thoughtfully. “Now that you’ve convinced me that I should raise my kids, are you going to help me?”

“Me?” Emily’s voice squeaked in response. “I’m supposed to go back to teaching in two weeks.”

“You’ve convinced me that I was wrong to consider giving them up. But I also know I can’t do this alone. I don’t even know where to start getting a good day care provider for them, and I can’t quit my job.” Garret watched the emotions play out in her face and continued earnestly. “I’ve watched you over the summer, and again this weekend. You are very good with them. You’re as patient and efficient as Julie was. I can’t think of anyone better to be their nanny than you, Emily.”

“I admit I’ve grown pretty attached to these two. It hasn’t been easy taking care of them by myself this fall, but it feels a lot more rewarding than my teaching job did.”

“Would you consider putting your teaching career on hold and staying on as their nanny? I can pay you a fair wage, not as much as your teaching job, though.”

“I honestly wasn’t sure when I flew down here this weekend that you would even talk to me, let alone ask me to stay on as the nanny.”

“What did you hope to accomplish?”

“I wanted you to accept responsibility for the kids. I could tell that you were considering leaving them behind. Chloe and Cody missed you so much, and it wasn’t right that you were thinking about giving them up. I knew if I brought them here, you would have to face your choices.”

“Dan and Peg are going to think you’ve failed,” he said, and she looked at him with a slightly puzzled expression. “They probably hoped that you would get down here and convince me to move back home.”

She laughed, but it was short-lived. “I think you’re right. If I go home and tell them not only are you staying in Dallas, but you’re going to move them here with you, I will probably be disowned.”

“Then there won’t be any reason for you to stay there, without the twins,” he said, attempting humor. “You won’t be welcome anywhere.”

She thought of her parents, and the friends she had at the church and at school. Her parents would be angry about her decision, but her dad would come around and be supportive after he thought about it. The school board would not like her decision, but they could find someone else to replace her. “I don’t really have any ties there, other than family.”

She thought about the women she had met in his office. The one named Laurie had looked more than a little disappointed to find out he was a widow with children, and angry that he had not mentioned it before. Was there something between them? Or did he want there to be?

“You wanted to come down here to start a new life. It’s one thing to bring your children with you, but if your nanny is also your late wife’s cousin, won’t it be hard to put the past behind you and go forward?”

“If anything, in the past few months you’ve helped me through the grieving process,” he said, meeting her eyes gravely. “You’re the only person I’ve been able to be completely honest with.”

His words meant more to her than she would like them to. It was time to change the subject before he saw just how much his request for her help affected her.

She went and took her cell phone out of her purse. “I want to check my Facebook and return some emails. Do you mind if we just give our situation some serious thought and prayer, without making a quick decision?”

“I somehow knew you would want to involve prayer in it.” He scowled, but there was humor his eyes.

While she sat in the chair in the living room area and scrolled through her Facebook and emails, Garret logged into his workstation. There was a message from Ron.

It seemed that Ron had called a meeting with all of their employees this morning, without him. Ron had leveled with them about Garret’s marital status and his children. He admitted as the vice president of the branch, he should not have agreed to Garret’s request to keep it from his new employees. Garret appreciated Ron’s support, but ultimately, it was his decision and his job that was on the line, not Ron’s.

Garret typed an answer back to Ron, asking what, if anything, had been decided. All but one of the employees agreed to give Garret a second chance. He could guess which employee wanted him terminated. Laurie was still angry with him for sending her to that training seminar.

“I’m moving the kids down here with me,” Garret typed in response to Ron’s message. “I’m trying to talk Emily into staying on as the nanny.”

“I’m surprised that Emily is even speaking to you,” Ron messaged back.

“I know. She was pretty angry with me.”

“You have a habit of making women angry.”

Garret wasn’t sure if Ron was joking or not, so he didn’t respond to Ron’s comment. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. He looked over the edge of his monitor at the sleeping toddlers. His gaze moved over to Emily. She was curled up in the chair, and she had fallen asleep. What courage it had taken her to board a plane and fly down here. He should be angry with her, but she was right. He had needed to accept the responsibility for his own actions and decide about his, and his children’s, future.

“What do you say to dinner at a nice sit-down restaurant?” Garret suggested when they all woke up from their nap. “Do you think they would sit still?”

“They probably would, at least long enough to eat.”

Eating out at a family friendly restaurant was successful only because Emily and Garret both devoted their attention to making sure the toddlers’ needs were met.

After they left the restaurant, Garret suggested they stop at a big box store for some toys and a DVD player.

“So you are planning to move the kids down here, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m going to do the right thing and raise my kids myself.”

“Even if I don’t move down here with you?”

He sighed. “I really want you to, but I can’t pay you what your time would be worth. I can understand if you don’t want to make the move, but yeah, I still want the kids here with me.”

They picked out an assortment of noisy trucks and racecars for Cody, and a baby doll for Chloe that made lifelike sounds. Garret also purchased a set of blocks, and Emily picked out a DVD that the twins had not seen before. They returned to Garret’s apartment and spent the rest of the evening playing with the kids. As they built block towers and watched the DVD, they avoided the subject of moving the twins and Emily to Dallas.

When Garret had gone to bed in his room and Emily was curled up on the sofa, she spent some time in prayer. God had a plan for her life, just as He had a plan for Garret’s and the twin’s future. She did not want to miss God’s will, so she prayerfully asked for His guidance. Her heart was telling her to make the move down to Dallas as the twins’ nanny, but she wanted to be sure that her decision lined up with the will of God.

End of Chapter 17

Come back next week to read Chapters 18 & 19 of Substitute Family.

Published by Carol Underhill

Author of Christian romance. Mom to 3 adult children and a spoiled Lab. Household includes several rescued cats. Loves flavored coffees and quiet mornings. Likes finding new authors on Kindle and binge reading all their books.

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