Marnie raced along the bluffs behind the cottage, shouting her daughter’s name, but the blustery wind stole the words from her lips. With impatience, she brushed away long auburn tendrils that slapped her face, barely noticing the icy tears streaking down her cheeks.
“Poppy! Poppy!” Where could she be?
Guilt hammered in Marnie’s chest. She’d been snappish and short with the child last night after the scene with Bryce at the office yesterday, and now Poppy was gone. Marnie had been embarrassed, yes, but also hurt. Knowing her tender, observant five-year-old saw through her carefully cultivated cheerfulness to the loneliness she kept hidden away in a corner of her heart had hurt.
This morning, she’d sent Poppy to her room to play after breakfast while she finished the dishes and started a load of laundry. When she’d checked an hour later, the room was empty. She’d searched the house without success then called Livy in near-hysterics. Livy had quickly mobilized a search party, and now half the town was combing every inch of ground a five-year-old could cover in an hour for signs of the child.
“Marnie, wait up!”
At the sound of her name, she turned her head.
Bryce came loping up. The wind had disheveled his coffee-colored curls, and his cheeks were stained red by the cold. “No sign of her yet?”
Marnie shook her head, tears continuing to leak from the corners of her eyes. Towering gray clouds roiled overhead, ripe with the scent of rain. “It’s going to storm soon.”
He wrapped one arm around her shoulders and scanned the bluff. “Have you checked the lighthouse?”
She shook her head again. “Why would she go there? It should be locked, anyway. It’s been closed for years.”
“We should try it, just to be sure.” He reached for her hand.
As he led her toward the faded, red-and-white striped lighthouse on the point, the heat from his hand banished some of the chill encasing her heart.
When they reached the old wooden door of the lighthouse, Marnie sucked in a quick breath. The lock was dangling from a single rusted screw. She stood back while Bryce gave it a tug. The door creaked opened about a foot. He yanked harder, and it fell open, sending a shaft of light onto the small figure of her daughter, huddled against the far wall, clutching her stuffed bunny.
She raced past Bryce and gathered Poppy into her arms, hugging her close and stroking her hair. “Baby, what are you doing here? I was so worried.” Tears threatened to clog her throat as the words tumbled out.
Poppy sniffed. “Harriet and I took a walk.”
“Why would you do that? You know you’re not supposed to leave the house alone.”
“I was sad.” Poppy drew back a few inches and met Marnie’s gaze. “You walk outside when you’re sad.” Her lower lip quivered.
Marnie struggled to contain her tears at the sight of her daughter’s misery. “But why did you come to the lighthouse? Why didn’t you come home?”
Poppy sniffed. “The wind made my ear hurt worse, and we were a long way from the house. Harriet thought maybe we could get in here, and she was right.” She hugged the bunny closer.
Bryce stepped from the shadows and crouched beside them. “I think we should get you home. If I carry you, we can go really fast. Would that be okay?” He held out his arms to Poppy. She hesitated then nodded and allowed him to pick her up.
Marnie pulled off her knit hat and tucked it over her daughter’s curls, tugging it down over her ears, then nodded to Bryce. “Let’s go.”
He kept his head down against the wind, shielding Poppy with his body, and Marnie followed behind, down the well-worn footpath. As soon as they reached the cottage, she bundled Poppy into bed with a dose of children’s pain reliever and a cup of cocoa. When she returned to the kitchen, Bryce was leaning against the counter, waiting.
“How’s she feeling?” he asked.
“Better, I think.” She met his concerned gaze. “Thank you for helping me find her. I wouldn’t have thought to check the lighthouse.”
His lips quirked up to one side. “You know what they say, it takes a village. And you had most of Boulder Bay helping today.”
She dropped her gaze to the floor and blinked hard as emotion threatened to overcome her again. “But you helped the most.”
He closed the distance between them and took both her hands in his. “Marnie, look at me.”
She hesitated, then complied. What she saw in his eyes kindled a warmth deep inside her.
“Was Poppy right?” His tone was gentle.
She wasn’t ready to face the question head-on. “Right about what?”
“You know what I mean. Your daughter thinks you’re lonely and sad.” When she remained silent, he continued. “Children have a way of seeing through us to the truth.”
Bryce tightened his grip on her hands. “Parenting is tough. Life is tough. Don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Everyone in town is on your side, ready to help.”
The unspoken offer in his words caused a small crack in the protective shell around her heart, but she couldn’t give in. The shell was all that had held her together the past two years. “I’m doing fine.”
“You’re doing a great job, but that’s not the point. I want to help you. Let me help, Marnie.”
“You have helped me. You were there for us when we needed you today.”
He pulled her closer until her cheek rested against his chest. His arms enfolded her without pressure. “I’ve missed you.” His breath stirred the fine hairs on the top of her head.
“I’ve missed you, too.” The soft flannel of his shirt muffled her words.
“I know you’ve suffered an overwhelming loss, but when you’re ready, I want to be there for you…every day.”
“That’s what Tom said.” She couldn’t keep the bitter edge from her voice.
Bryce loosened his grip and eased back until their gazes met. “And I’m sure he meant it. Life doesn’t come with promises or guarantees. In our profession, we know that better than most. All any of us can do is reach for what happiness we can and savor every minute for as long as possible.” He hesitated, gazing deep into her eyes, as if he was trying to see all the way to her soul. “I think we could be happy together, Marnie.”
Could she take the chance? Should she take the chance?
The crack widened until the shell splintered.
She raised her hands to Bryce’s shoulders, stood on tiptoe, and pressed her lips to his. His arms instantly came around her, lifting her off her feet. Her head grew light as the kiss seemed to go on forever.
They broke apart and turned in unison to face the small figure in footed pajamas, standing in the doorway, clutching a stuffed bunny.
Poppy’s eyes sparkled. “I think Harriet is going to get her Christmas wish.”
From the circle of Bryce’s arms, Marnie smiled. “I think she just might.”