Returning from active duty, Gunnery Sergeant Luke Barrett is shocked to learn he’s a father. Having just lost his mom, ten-year-old Caleb is reserved and wary—and Luke is simply overwhelmed. So when Tess Greenwood agrees to become Caleb’s nanny, it’s an answer to his prayers. Injured while working at an international mission in a war-torn country, Tess is in town to recuperate. The last thing she wants is to get too involved. But as she spends time with the handsome marine and his son, Tess comes to realize that caring for them may just be the cure to her own battered heart.
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Luke took the last nail out of his mouth and placed it precisely on the wooden beam. One strong whack of the hammer and the nail was halfway in the wood. Two more lighter thumps and it was all the way in. Job finished. One screened porch added to a beautiful old cottage on Bogue Sound. He felt an incredible sense of satisfaction and inner peace as he looked out at the sea from his vantage point on the roof. As if on cue, several dolphins surfaced, jumping playfully, breaking through the glassy face of the calm water.
Luke was pretty certain that there was no more beautiful place in the world than this lovely little town on the North Carolina coast. And since he'd seen a fair bit of the world in his service as a marine, that was saying something. He stood up and stretched, deeply inhaling the tangy salt air laced with the softer scent of honeysuckle. The warm summer breeze caressed his body lightly.
Thank You, Lord, for this wonderful day, he prayed silently, and the strength to help others in need. "Hey, Dad, look."
Luke snapped out of his reverie when he heard the young boy's voice. Dad. He was still getting used to the title, and to the ten-year-old standing at the foot of the ladder. If only Luke had known he was a father. So much time wasted.
Coming to terms with the fact that he had a son had been difficult for him, but he suspected that Caleb was having a more difficult time. First the boy had had to deal with losing his mother to cancer. Only then, as per the conditions of her will, had Luke and Caleb learned about each other. Now Caleb was coming to terms with a new parent and a new homea new life, all things considered, although he really never talked about the huge turns his young life had taken in the past six months.
"What is it, son?"
"It's those ladies."
"Luke! Yoo-hoo, Luke!"
Luke smiled at the term "those ladies" as he turned his eyes from the tranquil scene in front of him to the hot-pink golf cart bouncing down the dirt lane. Nimbly, he climbed down the ladder, wiping the sweat from his face with a towel he picked up off a table. Casually, he ruffled the hair on Caleb's head as he watched the vehicle approach them. The boy didn't smile, but he didn't pull away as he had a habit of doing when Luke touched him. They were still getting used to each other, and signs of physical affection from a father he had just met were new to him. Luke understood the boy's caution and felt no irritation. He knew his son would come around, with God's help. Luke prayed for it daily.
"Hello, ladies," he called. "Say hello, Caleb," he instructed the boy.
"Hi." Caleb inched closer to his father and Luke draped an arm around his thin shoulders, feeling a burst of happiness when the boy let it rest there.
"Hi there, Caleb!" Both ladies smiled broadly at the youngster.
"Oh, it looks just fantastic!" Katie Salter declared as she pulled the cart close to the brick terrace adjoining the new screened porch.
"Just perfect!" Annie Salter concurred as she sprang from the golf cart with the agility of a woman half her age, a wicker hamper in her grasp.
"What have you got there?" Luke reached a hand to help the elderly lady, but she waved it off, carrying the basket with ease to the table.
"Brought you and Caleb lunch. You both must be starved what with all of the work you've been doing for us this morning," Katie chirped as she began pulling wrapped sandwiches and containers of what appeared to be various salads from the white basket. Luke's stomach rumbled audibly at the sight. The women laughed, Annie reaching out to slap the source of the rumble lightly.
"Guess I am pretty hungry. How about you, Caleb?" Luke's face reddened slightly with embarrassment as another loud growl emanated from his midsection. This time Caleb laughed with everyone else.
In no time the sisters had the small table on the terrace set with paper plates, napkins, forks and plastic cups. Katie deftly poured frosty sweet tea into four of the cups, while her sister made short work of setting out fresh shrimp salad, coleslaw and several kinds of sandwiches. Luke got Caleb to help him pull four chairs up to the table while the women worked on the food. Honestly, he could not think of a better place for lunch or better company.
Once they were all seated Annie reached for his cal-lused hand and the smaller, slightly wrinkled hand of her sister, while Katie reached for Caleb's. The boy hesitated before placing his smaller hand in hers, a questioning look on his freckled face. She winked at him, giving him a reassuring smile.
"Will you bless the meal, Luke?" she asked in her soft Southern drawl.
"I would be honored." He nodded. Reaching for his son's other hand, he began.
"Bless this food to our use, and us to Thy service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others, Lord." He paused and continued with a twinkle in his eyes. "And thanks for the company of two such beautiful women and my son. I am truly blessed three times over, Lord. Amen."
The two elderly women giggled like young girls and Annie squeezed his hand in response.
"Ah, Luke Barrett, if I were twenty years younger you'd be in trouble!" Annie proclaimed, her sparkling brown eyes taking him in appreciatively.
Her sister snorted. "More like forty years younger.
And even then you'd be a what do they call it nowadays?"
"Cougar. I'd be a cougar, which I don't mind being at all!" Annie declared with a spirited nod, almost dislodging the wide-brimmed straw hat that covered her blue-gray hair.
Luke choked on the bite of the ham-and-cheese sandwich he was eating. Katie absentmindedly began pounding on his back, her attention still focused on Annie. Caleb was following the conversation with a great deal of interest, his blue eyes moving from one adult to another as he dug into the food as though he was starving.
"Annie May Salter!"
"Oh, like you never thought of it." Annie laughed at her sister's scandalized expression.
"Well, yes, but good manners dictate that you do not voice such thoughts aloud. And there are young ears present." Katie tried to be prim, but Luke noticed she was close to laughter, as well. He also noticed she was still thumping on his back.
"I'm fine, Miss Katie," he assured her.
"Sure?" she asked kindly, giving his back a couple more wallops for good measure.
Luke nodded. "Yes, ma'am." Gently, he led the topic in another direction by asking, "When do the new tenants arrive?" Luke knew the cottage was rented out to vacationers each summer season.
Miss Katie frowned slightly, her eyes focused on a hummingbird that was flitting gracefully among the flowers of a nearby scarlet hibiscus bush. "Tenant," she corrected. "That poor girl," she added softly. "She should be here sometime today or this evening. She's driving down from Raleigh."
"She just needs a little R & R and TLC," Annie asserted firmly. "She'll be right as rain in no time. Isn't that what you marines call it, Luke? R & R?"
"Yes, ma'am, rest and relaxation," Luke confirmed as he leaned back in his chair, stretching his long legs in front of him. "Although we don't use TLC very often at all," he said with a crooked grin. He couldn't imagine telling his troops they needed tender loving care, no matter what condition they were in.
"The cottage won't be rented out for quite some time," Annie said. "Tess has been invited to use it as long as she likes. That's why we added the screened porch. Thought it would be a comfy spot to curl up and read on rainy days."
"Well, she is family, after all, and Swansboro is the perfect spot for her right now. I reckon she'll be glad to get away for a while." Katie began packing the hamper with the remains of the lunch as she spoke, then stopped when she noticed Caleb eating another sandwich.
"Extended family, but family is family," Annie amended. "Sister! Perhaps you should ask our guests if they are finished before taking their meal away from them." Annie looked pointedly at the little boy, who was wolfing down his second sandwich with a great deal of relish.
"Family?" Luke asked, wondering about this mysterious tenant. "Is it someone I know?" He wasn't related to the sisters, but they'd adopted him so thoroughly into their lives and their hearts ever since he'd moved to town that he felt like part of their family. Given his own troubled background, it was a feeling he relished.
"No, dear, you haven't met her," Katie answered. "Tess is Livie's sister-in-law."
Luke nodded in understanding. Livie was the sisters' grandniecea sweet girl who Luke had known for the past few years, along with her husband, Adam, and her adorable twin daughters, named after the Salter sisters. "This Tess is Adam's sister?" he asked.
"That's right. We love Livie and Adam, and by extension, we love Tess. Just like we love you, Luke. And now we have Caleb to love." She flashed the boy a warm, grandmotherly smile.
Caleb stopped eating, looking at Katie curiously. "How can you love me if you don't really know me?" The question was honest and straightforward, but neither of the sisters was taken aback. Katie's answer was honest and straightforward in return.
"We chose to love you and we have plenty to go around. No sense in letting it just sit there and go to waste."
"Yep." Annie nodded. "Don't fight it, kid. Just go with the flow."
God bless both of you, Luke thought. He watched his son closely, gauging his reaction to their words. Caleb seemed to be considering what they had said, then shrugged his shoulders, accepting it without question.
"Okay. Thank you for choosing to love me." Then he went back to finishing his lunch, the conversation obviously over for him. But not for Katie, who had been watching him carefully.
"You're quite welcome. Would you like some more shrimp salad, Caleb? I don't think your daddy feeds you enough."
"No thank you, ma'am. I'm full now. And my dad feeds me good. I just get really hungry sometimes." He hesitated before adding, "Dad, can I go sit on the dock and watch the dolphins?"
"Yes, you can. Remember the rules, though. No touching the boat, got it?"
"Got it," Caleb affirmed as he grabbed the chocolate chip cookies that Annie handed him, then raced across the yard to the long weathered dock that jutted into the sound. "Thanks for lunch!" he yelled back over his shoulder.
"Ladies, that was the best lunch we've had since you made us lunch last weekend." Looking at Annie, Luke winked, and she blushed to the roots of her shiny blue-gray hair.
"I declare, Luke Barrett, you are a pure scamp!" she twittered happily.
Katie scowled at her twin sister, shaking her head as she tossed the empty paper plates into a plastic bag she had taken out of the hamper.
"Annie, you are far too old to twitter and simper," she declared. "Besides which, we have places to go, people to see and many things to accomplish in the next few hours. And what's this about the boat?" She turned her attention back to Luke.
"It appears that he and Joey Mason have been taking a boat and going over to Shackleford Island without permission. Joey's dad caught them yesterday, tying up at the dock in front of his house, and read them the riot act. Seems this wasn't the first time. Caleb and I had a long talk last night."
Or at least, they'd spent a long time in the same room with Luke doing a lot of talking. Caleb hadn't had much to saywhich was par for the course. Luke just didn't know how to connect with the boy. He felt as if he was still searching for his footing when it came to being a father. Maybe because he'd never really had a father of his own. At least Caleb seemed to have bonded with Joey Mason. Caleb needed someone he could talk tosomeone who could make him laugh and relax and enjoy life in North Carolina.
Luke just wished that someone could be him.
"Just being boys. Besides, Joey knows how to handle a boat. He was raised in a fishing village, for goodness' sake."
Luke knew that Annie was trying to make light of the incident, but he had been scared out of his mind when Joe had called him. Anything could happen on the water.
"I respect what you're saying, Miss Annie, but I disagree. Joey may know what he's doing, but he just isn't big enough to handle the boat by himself if something goes wrong, and Caleb doesn't know enough to be able to help. Joey isn't allowed to take the boat out without an adult, and now Caleb knows the ground rules, as well. They're only ten years old."
"He's right, sister," Katie agreed. "Now come, we need to get moving."
Not for the first time Luke marveled at the energy the sisters exuded. They were all light and motion, rarely slowing down even for an instant. Well into their seventies, they had more vim and vigor than most women thirty years younger. He blessed the day he had met them, after he had attended his first church service in town over four years ago. They had taken to him immediately and had drawn him into the fellowship of the church and the easy pace of life in the quaint fishing village that he had come to love. He felt a sense of family with them, something he had sorely missed, first in his troubled childhood, then later in his vagabond life as a marine. Something he was desperate to give to his newfound son.
Each time he had deployed, they welcomed him back with open arms and home-cooked meals. Home. Yes, Swansboro was home now, as close to home as any place he had known, and he was determined that this was where he would raise his boy. And he was more than happy to take on any little task he could to show his appreciation for his home, and the family that had all but adopted him.
"Miss Katie, do you have that list for me?" he asked as he jumped to his feet to help clear the last of the containers from the table.
Katie handed him a sheet of note paper, where she'd jotted things that they had asked him to do before the end of the day.