"Are you my new Daddy?"
The little girl couldn't have been any older than four, but there was something about her tone of voice that made me think of a much older woman. A kind of sad cynicism that told of disappointments past, and the anticipation of yet another one.
I'm normally a fast thinker, but I was caught flat-footed for a second. She waited patiently, though, another sign of maturity beyond her apparent years.
"I certainly wouldn't mind if I was," I told her at last, "But it's way too early to be worrying about that. If your Mommy is who I think she is, then it's possible that I'll end up married to her, but it might not happen. If it looks like it's going to, then we'll start talking about whether I'm your new Daddy, or just your Mommy's husband."
She seemed relieved at my reaction. I suspected too many men in the past had bolted at the very sight of her, or worse, tried to be 'nice' to her to get into Mommy's pants faster.
"Becky, who are you talking to?"
I recognized Katie's voice, so the odds that this little girl was the daughter of the woman I was currently dating went up. It became a certainty when she replied, "He didn't tell me his name, Mommy. I think he knows you, though."
Katie walked out of a back room into the living room, then froze when she saw me. There was fear in her eyes, and sadness. When I didn't speak, they both got worse. I gave her a lop-sided grin, and said, "Surprise." I paused, then continued, "Mind if I come in?"
Her expression relaxed a bit, but she still looked spooked. "Sure, Jeff," she said after a long pause.
Little Becky stepped back, pulling the door open, and I walked in, smiling at her. "Thank you," I said, as she closed the door behind me.
"Please, have a seat," Katie said, visibly trying to gather her wits, and control her emotions. "Can I get you something to drink?"
Finding a spot on the couch, I settled down, saying, "No thanks, I'm fine," as I did so.
"What's that in your hand?" Becky asked, pointing to the brightly wrapped package in my hand.
Katie was still in shock, and I patted the couch beside me, and said, "Have a seat. We need to talk." I glanced at Becky and said, "We're probably going to be talking grown-up stuff for a while, but you can stay if your Mommy doesn't mind. I'll answer your question in a minute."
Katie walked over, and settled down on the couch. It was a three-cushion job, and I was on one end. She considered for a second, and sat down on the center cushion, keeping a bit of distance, but not too much. She was clearly afraid that it was going to be the kiss-off kind of talk, and Becky was sharp enough to notice that Mommy was unhappy.
"Cheer up, Mommy, I think he's nice. You must think so too, you were so happy the last time you came home."
Katie stared at her daughter, then turned to me. She wasn't looking quite so miserable, but she still was miles away from 'cheerful.' I reached over, and patted her hand, and smiled at her.
"First things first," I told her. "Like I told Becky, it's way too early to be worrying about if she's going to be calling me 'Daddy, ' but the idea that she might do so someday is fine with me. I've always wanted kids, and it would be nice to have more than one, but if we do get married and if we do have more kids, I have every intention of treating every one of them with the same love and affection.
"Second point. While it might have been less of a surprise to hear about Becky before I met her, we haven't been going out nearly long enough for it to be a concern that you haven't mentioned her. There are plenty of things about me that I haven't told you yet, and I'm sure there are a lot more things about you that I haven't learned. This one happens to be a bit more important than most of my untold stories, but that's what it is, a story we hadn't shared yet.
"Third point. Becky's existence does not make it any less likely that you and I will end up in a serious relationship. I happen to like kids, especially smart ones like Becky. The fact that she's as pretty as her Mommy doesn't hurt either."
Katie had been calming considerably as I spoke, and that last little bit finally provoked a smile. It was a weak one, but it firmed up when Becky said, "See, Mommy, I told you he was nice. Even if he didn't answer my question yet."
I looked at Becky and asked, "Do you know when your Mommy's birthday is?"
"Yes," she told me, puzzled at the apparent non sequitur.
"Is it any time soon?" I continued.
"No," Becky said. "It's not for months and months."
"Then what I have here is an Unbirthday Present, and a very early birthday card," I told her.
I handed the package to Katie, who stared at it for a second, then looked at me. I flicked my eyes in Becky's direction and said, "Go ahead, open it. We'll talk more later."
Katie opened the box, and found a small stuffed elephant, and the latest CD from one of the groups that she'd said she liked on our last date. The card was one of those mildly snarky ones with the old lady on them, but she smiled anyway.
"Thank you," she said, and kissed my cheek. We'd gotten quite a bit further than that the last time we'd been out, but we hadn't had a four-year-old audience then, either.
"You're welcome," I told her, then continued. "I don't know if you had any plans for the evening, but I was thinking about wandering around the mall a while, then grabbing a bite somewhere. I had a light lunch at Jim's a while ago, but I'm going to be looking for a real meal in a couple of hours. Interested?"
"Jim's" was the bar and grille where Katie worked, and where we'd met. It was your typical working man's bar, with youngish waitresses dressed to show off their charms. Katie had plenty of charms, but frankly the loose shirt and sweatpants she was wearing now were a lot sexier than the tighter, briefer outfits she wore at work.
"I don't know about finding a sitter..." she began, and stopped when I raised my hand.
"I wasn't clear," I said, "Not that I'm trying to bribe any little girls, or anything like that, but the invitation was for both of you. I'm sure we can find a nice place that both of you will like."
I'd been impressed by Becky's greeting and her behavior while I talked to her mother, but what she did next really convinced me she was something special.
"I can stay with Sarah's mommy while you go out, if you want, Mommy," she said. "She said so yesterday, when you thought you'd have to work today."
Katie smiled at her daughter, and said, "No, you're coming with us, unless you really don't want to go."
Becky's relief was obvious, and she said, "I want to come."
"Then go get ready. I'll be along in a minute to help," Katie told her. As Becky ran off, Katie turned to me.
"OK, I've got two questions," she said in a serious tone. "What made you think it might be my birthday, and how did you find out where I lived?"
We'd dated twice so far, both times meeting on neutral territory. The second date had ended at my apartment, with a fully-clothed make-out session that had left us both smiling, but still a touch too wary to go much further. I liked what I'd seen so far of her personality, but I could sense a wariness about her, and I'd been reluctant to press too far. I'd made it clear that I wanted to keep going out, and tried to convey the impression that the pace of development of a physical relationship wasn't going to affect that desire one way or the other.
Every waitress with an ounce of sense knows better than to date customers, and even those who give in on that front know better than to let one know where she lives before she's stone cold certain of him. Since Katie hadn't told me and I hadn't asked, it was a valid point.
"Same answer in both cases, and I don't think you're going to like it," I told her. "Laurie told me."
Laurie was another one of the wait staff at Jim's. Katie was always friendly to the customers, but didn't flirt. Laurie, on the other hand, flirted so outrageously it was a wonder she wasn't hit on more often. She'd always been just a bit aggressive towards me, but she'd backed off a bit when it became clear that I was interested in Katie.
"I've always gotten weird vibes from that girl," I told Katie. "Until now, I didn't quite know what to think, but now I've got a pretty good idea. I suspect she figured I was kid-shy, and she'd be able to pick me up on the bounce when Becky scared me off. Which does not say good things about her, in my opinion."
Katie looked annoyed, but not pissed, and not at me. "She's certainly not a friend of mine, but I've never had any trouble with her, until now. You're probably right about her intentions, though."
"Then let's be happy that her scheme backfired. Or at least didn't work," I said with a smile.
"No, I think you were right the first time. I liked you before, and I like you more now. You're right that too many guys are kid-shy, and most of the rest are downright creepy when they start trying to use Becky to manipulate me."
I was about to answer when I heard the clatter of little feet coming down the hallway, and Becky burst into the room, dressed in an incredibly cute little dress, with white tights and little black shoes.
"My, don't you look nice," I told her.
"I guess I'd better change, too," Katie said, standing up.
"Just your clothes, sweetheart, I like the rest of you just the way you are," I told her. "Sweetheart" just slipped out, but the look I gave her told her it might have been accidental, but it wasn't any less sincere because of that. The last traces of sadness left her eyes, and she smiled as she left me alone with her daughter. "Be right back," she said over her shoulder.
Like I'd told Katie, I liked kids. I ran my own business, and had had the bright idea of setting up a captive day-care center in the same building as my offices, with discounted rates for the call-center staff. Every once in a while, I'd wander down to the center and 'inspect' the operation. Everybody knew I was just there to watch the kids at play, but I got my best ideas when I turned off the thinking part and just enjoyed the sound of laughing kids.
And it had been at least a year since I'd cried while doing it.
Becky sat down at the other end of the couch and watched me for a moment, then started telling me about her 'school' in the half-rushed, semi-coherent way that kids have when they're excited about something. I listened politely and nodded at all the right places, but I was pretty vague on what she was trying to tell me.
When Becky paused for breath, I looked up and found Katie watching me with a smile, in a nice dress that matched Becky's, with tan hose instead of the white tights. The outfit had the slightest aura of 'resale shop' about it, but it was far from threadbare. I figured it was either newly purchased, or Becky's dress had been purchased to match it, since she looked to be at an age where clothes didn't fit for long.
I turned to Becky and winked, then said, "Gee, you aren't the only one who knows how to make yourself pretty."
Becky giggled, then jumped up and said, "Can we go?"
"Sure," I told her, then turned to Katie and asked, "If you're ready?"
She nodded, and we left the apartment. I reached for her hand as we waited for the elevator, and she let me take it, smiling slightly, but obviously back to being nervous. To take her mind off of her fears, I started a conversation.
"Becky was telling me about school," I told her. "I'd have thought she was a bit young for that yet. Did she mean her day care?"