Annie’s eyes widened and filled with shame. Her lower lip trembled as she whispered her apology. “Sorry, Uncle Liam. That wasn’t very nice of me.” Her body curled into itself, and she grew smaller right before his eyes. Tears slipped down her cheeks as her tiny voice cracked. “Daddy wouldn’t be very proud of me, would he?”
“Aww, honey.” His heart melted. That her first thought was of what her father’s reaction might be didn’t surprise him. He longed for the day when she would accept that Tripp wasn’t coming back to them.
Though she tried to be strong for her younger sisters, the burden was too heavy for Annie to carry. Like her mother, she still struggled fiercely with her dad’s death. As the oldest of the three girls, her father’s memory whirled through her mind on constant repeat. Even though more than two years had passed, she sometimes waited beside the door, hoping Tripp would walk through and sweep her up in his arms. More than once, Liam had caught her carrying on a conversation with her dad, reminiscing about the time they’d spent together. The past Christmas had hit her hard, and her uncle had spent most of the day with her tiny body snuggled on his lap, attempting to soothe her and encouraging her to enjoy the day.
No child should need coaxing to open her gifts.
He leaned down and tipped her chin up, forcing her to look him in the eyes. “Baby girl, if your daddy were here, there wouldn’t be enough room to hold the pride he’d have for you.” The sight of her glistening eyes and wet face slammed against his heart. Pain shot through him, and a single tear traced a path down his cheek. His voice cracked under the weight of his grief. “He would see you growing up, being such a good big sister, and helping your momma all the time.” He thumbed the tear from his ruddy cheek, lifted her off the floor, and carried her to the couch.
“And he would snatch you right up and tell you just how proud he is of you, how much he loves you.” His arms tightened around her, trying to calm her shuddering sobs. “I know I’m not him, and I never will be, but I love you, and I’m so proud of you. You’re such an amazing little girl.” He chuckled quietly and tickled her side. “Or maybe not such a little girl, as I’ve been recently reminded.”
His joking words produced the result he wanted. Blinking her eyes at a rapid pace, she looked up at him and cracked a small smile.
“Thanks, Uncle Liam.” She settled back against his chest, her words coming out in choppy huffs. “I really am sorry I was mean to you. I just miss him so much.” Her breath hitched, and her petite body melted against him.
“Oh, sweetheart, I know you didn’t mean it.” He brushed a kiss on the top of her head. “And just remember, there’s nothing wrong with being sad or missing your daddy. We all miss him, every single day.”
He may not be their dad, but he loved those girls more than life, and his primary goal was to ensure their happiness and wellbeing.
Liam squeezed her close as his eyes drifted to the kitchen doorway. Wrynn leaned against the doorframe and mouthed thank you. Her mahogany hair was tangled and unkempt. Stains dotted her sweatshirt. Liam wouldn’t be surprised if those were the same clothes she’d slept in the night before. What he wouldn’t give to see her happy and carefree again. Because grief had a way of aging a person, she looked much older than their twenty-eight years. Her pale face flushed as she wept.
Glad I have Wrynn’s girls to fill the empty. Don’t know what I’d do without them.
His thought made him grimace. He tried not to dwell on his lack of family, but at times, when he was with Wrynn and his nieces, it became harder to fight back the desire to have his own. He often wondered if he was meant to live his life alone because he’d yet to meet the right woman he wanted to share in his life, his love, his family.
“Okay, guys and dolls, let’s eat.” His sister’s hoarse voice broke through his musings.
He wrapped Annie in one arm, grabbed six-year-old Bekah in the other, and turned sideways on the couch to help Maggie climb on his back. Satisfied all three were safe and secure, he stood to his feet and lurched toward the kitchen with giant, fumbling steps. Giggles rang out around him. He placed Annie and Bekah in their chairs, then leaned forward and flipped Maggie over his shoulder. Lifting her above his head, he nibbled on her toes. As her laughter increased, he blew raspberries on her belly before sitting her down and strapping her in her booster seat.