Bright orange buses pulled up along the sidewalk of Hartley Creek Elementary School, spilling out their loads of children. Some ran, some walked and some trudged up the sidewalk, their winter coats wide open, ignoring the chilly wind swirling snow around the school yard.
British Columbia mountain weather, Dan thought with a shudder.
But Natasha sat on the truck seat, her hands folded over her stomach, her brown hair hiding her face and falling down the front of her bright red winter jacket.
"My tummy still hurts," she said, peeking through her hair, adding a wince in case he didn't believe her. "And I still miss my mommy." Natasha sniffed, her brown eyes shimmering with tears.
Despite her performance of variations on the same theme for the past few minutes, his heart still twisted at her words. Though he and Lydia had been divorced for five years, Dan was still dealing with his ex-wife's recent death.
He couldn't imagine what his little girl, who had lived with Lydia up until her death a month ago, was going through.
He pressed a kiss to Natasha's head. "I know you're sad, honey," he said, tucking her hair behind her ear so he could see her face. "But school is starting and you don't want to be late, do you?" He made his voice reasonable and soothing, hoping she would move.
The bell sounded and the last of the stragglers entered the school. Dan tossed a quick glance toward the grade one classroom directly ahead of him. Kids moved past the frosted windows, getting settled into their desks. A taller figure stopped, looking out the window. Even from here, he caught the red-gold shine of Hailey Deacon's hair, that little tilt of her head that told him she was watching them. He'd seen her stop before to look out the window and watch them as soon as they pulled into the parking lot.
He tried not to let his heart flip the way it always did whenever he saw her, back when they were dating.
Since he and Natasha had come back to Hartley Creek, he'd managed to avoid Hailey, his old girlfriend. But she worked as a teacher's aide in the grade one class his daughter was supposed to attend. A first meeting between them was inevitable.
Dan turned back to Natasha, his concern for his daughter taking priority.
"I don't want to go." Her raised voice echoed over the now-empty school yard. "I want to stay with you."
"I know, but you have to start school. And I need to get back to work at Grandpa's hardware store."
He was about to tug on Natasha's arm again when a glint of reflected light from the school's door caught his attention. The door fell closed and there she was, her coat open, her hair flowing like a copper flag behind her.
As she came closer he saw the concern on her delicate features, the frown above her gray eyes. His heart flipped again.
Everything has changed, he reminded himself, turning back to Natasha. You were married. You've got a daughter. You lost your chance with her. Stay out of the past.
"We're going now," he said to his daughter, trying to sound as if he was in charge.
But Natasha just looked ahead, her arms clasped tightly over her stomach.
"Sorry to barge in," Hailey was saying. "But I noticed from the window you were having some trouble."
Dan steeled himself, then turned to face his old girlfriend. She brushed a strand of hair back from her face as a hesitant smile played around the edges of her mouth. She looked as beautiful as she ever had. Maybe even more so. Old emotions seeped up from where he thought they were buried. He pushed them down. He had no right to get distracted.
"Natasha is upset," he said curtly. "She doesn't want to go to school."
"Of course she's sad," Hailey replied, coming around to stand beside him. Then Hailey gave him a sympathetic look that almost found its way through the barriers he had thrown up. "I'm sorry to hear about your wife."
She pulled back from him, his tone obviously accomplishing what he wanted?to keep her at arm's length and protect himself.
"I heard about that too." She attempted another smile, then turned back to Natasha.
Dan looked down at the top of Hailey's head. She still parted her hair in that jagged line, still let it hang free over her shoulders, still wore perfume that smelled like oranges.
He clenched his fists and turned his wavering attention back to his daughter.
"Hello, Natasha, my name is Miss Deacon." Hailey held her hand out. "I'll be helping you in school this morning."
She had pitched her voice to the same low, reassuring level she used when she taught children how to ski and snowboard on the ski hill.
"I don't want to go to school," Natasha said, turning to Dan, her voice breaking. Her cries tore at Dan's heart. He couldn't leave her like this. But neither could he take Natasha back to the apartment above the hardware store. His father was recuperating from an extreme case of bronchial pneumonia. His mother worked at his hardware store and couldn't watch Natasha. Dan didn't know anyone who could babysit during the day.
He cleared his throat, embarrassed that Hailey had to witness his lack of control over his daughter. "I'm sorry, Natasha, but it's time for school."
He tried to get his arms around her to lift her out of the truck, but she swung out at him. "I don't want to go. Don't make me go." Her feet flailed in their heavy winter boots, hitting him in the arm. She wasn't going willingly.
Now what should he do? Drag her into the building?
"Dan, can I talk to you?" Hailey asked, catching his arm.
He shot her a puzzled glance and Hailey immediately released him, rubbing her hand against her pants, as if wiping away his touch.
As they walked away from the truck, Natasha's cries grew louder and more demanding.
"If I can get her into the classroom, I'm sure she'll be okay," Dan insisted. "She just needs to know who's in charge. Her mother always let her do whatever she wanted."
Hailey sighed and he got the impression she didn't agree with him. Big surprise. Hailey had always been the kind of girl who went her own way, did her own thing.
And you're judging her after all the things you did?
The old guilt rose up again, a feeling that nagged at him as much as his self-reproach over his brother's death seven years ago.
"Natasha has had a lot to deal with in the last few weeks," Hailey was saying. "Things have happened to her she had no control over and now she's trying to find a way to take back some of that lost control. This is how she'll do it."
She sounded reasonable and, thankfully, practical. They were simply two adults discussing what to do about a little girl.
"But I need to get to work," he said, glancing back at Natasha. "My mother needs me at the store now that Dad isn't doing so well."
"I know that and you should go." Hailey put her hand on his arm again. He was sure her gesture was automatic, but even through the thickness of his jacket her touch still managed to hit him square in the gut.
This time he jerked away.
"How will that work?" he asked, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
"The store isn't that far from here." Hailey folded her arms over her chest. "I suggest you leave the truck here and walk to the store. I'll stay here with her until she's ready to come inside."
Dan frowned, glancing from Natasha back to Hailey. "Don't you need to get to the classroom?"
"Right now, my priority is your daughter. She won't sit in that truck all day and even if she does that's okay. Tomorrow we might have to do it again, but eventually she'll get tired of sitting outside. If we let her make the decision, hopefully she'll feel as if she has some say in the matter. Once that happens, she can slowly move into a routine which will help her in the healing process."
"It seems like a lot of trouble," he said, glancing over at Natasha, who had quieted down and was watching them with interest. "What if it takes all day?"
"I'm not that busy in the classroom today. Two days of the week I only work half-time. Today is one of those days."
"So what do you do the other half of those days?"
As soon as he spoke he felt like hitting himself on the forehead. That was none of his business.
He was also surprised to see a faint flush color Hailey's cheeks. "I volunteer at the ski hill. Visit my Nana."
Her comment reminded him of her reason for her temporary return to Hartley Creek. "I heard about her heart attack. I'm sorry. I knew you and your sisters are very close to her. How is she feeling?"
Hailey tipped her head down, fingering a gold necklace hanging around her neck. "She's doing very well. Thanks for asking."
The little hitch in her voice kindled concern for her and resurrected memories and emotions he thought he'd dealt with long ago.
He blinked, mentally pushing them away. Natasha and her care was his priority right now. Hailey didn't even make the list. Besides, he had heard she was leaving town at the end of the school year.
He shifted his weight, trying to decide what to do, then glanced at his watch and his decision was made for him. Time was running out.
"Okay. I'll leave you with her," he said with a resigned sigh. "But if you need me, call me at the store." He reached in his shirt pocket for his pen and the pad of paper he always carried around.
She held up her hand in a stop gesture. "I know the number."
Of course she would remember. When they were dating, he worked at his father's store after school and she would call him every day.
He shook off the memory as he glanced past her to his daughter, who still watched them with an intent gaze as if trying to figure out what they were talking about.
"Just so you know, she's incredibly stubborn and strong-willed." His heart shifted at the sight of her, so small, sitting in the truck, her feet straight out. "But she really needs a routine in her life and the sooner the better." Then he turned back to Hailey. "You call me if she gets upset or needs me."
"I will," Hailey promised.
Still he hesitated. He'd had to walk away from Natasha so many times; he didn't want to do it again. At least this time he would see her in a few hours instead of a few weeks.
"I should say goodbye to her before I go," he said.
Natasha's expression grew hopeful when he approached the truck. He bent over and gave her a quick kiss and a hug. "I'm going to the store, honey. You can stay here in the truck, like you wanted."
Puzzlement creased her forehead as Dan straightened. She seemed unsure of this new twist in her plans.
He stepped away, fighting his own urge to give in to her. He zipped up his coat and walked toward Hailey. "You'll let me know how things go?"
"I'll make sure she's okay."