Copyright© 2016 by ShadowWriter
As she stood there, staring out at the ocean, Rachel was amazed at how perfect the day was. Only a few wisps of clouds were present to break up the otherwise stunningly blue sky, and the temp was well on its way to a high in the mid 80s. The wave action, though, made her a bit nervous.
"You sure she'll be okay out there?" she asked.
A deep chuckle and pat on the back was the response. "For the fourth time, Rachel, she'll be fine." Pastor Markus Kuehne, who looked very relaxed in his pineapple print aloha shirt, shorts and flip flops, simply pointed out to the surfers on the water. "Look, Hailey's got Dee Dee, Robyn, and Melody out there with her, and they're pros. She's in great hands."
"But aren't the waves a little high for her?" the worried model replied, a deeply concerned expression on her face. "I mean, she's only seven today."
"They're a little high for her, I grant you – about three to four feet, I'd guess. But you saw her last run, she did great."
"Yes, she did," Rachel agreed. She paused and then gave him an apologetic look. "I'm worrying too much, aren't I?"
"Hailey's very blessed to have you in her life, Rachel," he replied diplomatically.
She offered a smile as thanks for the compliment, but opted to shift the conversation to a less emotional topic for her. Glancing around at all the decorations and food filling the picnic area, she spotted Marge, along with Silvia, talking with one of the ladies from the church – no doubt swapping recipes.
"Thank you so much for setting this all up, Pastor Markus," she acknowledged graciously. "Everything smells incredible and bringing those gals down from the surfer girl camp for Hailey was just awesome! This was a far better birthday than either Rance or I imagined."
"It was our pleasure, Rachel. The ladies of the church literally jumped at the chance to do this for Hailey. Better watch out, though, I think a couple of them might want to adopt her!"
"Absolutely not!" she replied with mock seriousness. "That chiquita is all mine!"
"Are you willing to share?"
Rachel could tell it was Marge without looking. Turning toward Hailey's grandmother, she attempted to seem like she was seriously considering the arrangement – even tapping her chin with her finger for effect – but couldn't hold the straight face for long. "I think we could work something out," she finally conceded with an enormous grin.
After a couple moments, the older woman's smile was as big as Rachel's. "Thank you so much for what the two of you have done," she added, radiating such gratitude as she gave them each a hug.
As Marge began to inquire about the minister's distinctive accent, Rachel noticed a car pull up that she'd been told to expect. Making her excuse to Marge and Pastor Markus, she headed for the gravel parking area. Drawing closer, she watched the slender man with thinning blonde hair as he struggled to pull several equipment bags from the trunk. His left arm was no longer in a sling, but it was obvious he still favored it.
"Here, let me help you with that, Nigel," she offered as she drew closer.
Glancing up over his wire rim glasses, he appraised her with a serious look but then nodded his head. "If you could get the case still there in the boot," he said, motioning toward the trunk, "I'd greatly appreciate it."
With a somber nod of her own, she retrieved the case from the car and closed the lid. "Feels kind of strange, collaborating with the enemy like this," she commented facetiously as they made their way back to the picnic area.
He didn't stop but merely turned his head toward her, right eyebrow raised and an amused smirk on his face. "I can imagine," he retorted. "But Terrance had Hannah call and here I am."
Once they reached the table reserved for him, he quickly and efficiently went about setting up his cameras and laptop. "So where are the girls?" he asked, without so much as a sideways glance from what he was working on. "I thought the calendar shoot was over two days ago."
"Chloe and Zoe were called back for a few hours this morning. Evidently the publisher didn't like what he was shown of them and demanded the photographer do a partial re-shoot," she explained as she set up one of his tripods for him. "Nina and her laptop, on the other hand, are at the hospital where she's waiting for us to get this streaming thing set up so Rance can watch it all."
Rachel smiled as she stopped to wave at the birthday girl out sitting on her board waiting for a wave. The smile diminished, however, as she brought the list of four to a conclusion. "While last, and definitely least," she was really struggling not to sneer, "the Aussie bimbo is out passing herself off as me and leading your colleagues on a wild goose chase as part of her penance."
"You really are being too hard on her."
"Ooh, who's the cute girl?" Rachel purposefully ignored the statement, choosing instead to focus on the background photo on Nigel's laptop. The picture was of a young girl with straight black hair and obvious Asian features, holding a small terrier puppy in her lap.
"That's my daughter, Hoshi," he replied. "But that's beside the point..."
"Did you bring her to Hawaii with you?"
"No, she lives in New York with her mother. Rachel..."
"How often do you get to see her?"
"Not nearly enough," he shot back testily. "Come on, Rachel, I'm serious! You should..."
"What, Nigel! Really ... I should what?" The model's voice rose in both anger and irritation. "I should kiss and make up? I should just get over my mad? Because of her, I've been under a perpetual state of house arrest for months! I get to a new location and inside a day, she's rung you up and then you and the whole mob descend upon me. I can't believe you..."
"I never told anyone where you were," Nigel interrupted, twisting on the end of the picnic table bench where he was sitting to turn and face her.
"I'm serious. Totally counterproductive. Besides, the lot of us already knew where you were."
"What do you mean? I thought... ?"
He shook his head firmly. "Hannah just gave me a heads up on your itinerary once in a while so I could be a step ahead of you and the other blokes," he explained with a shrug. "The house arrest thing was never her fault – or mine, for that matter. You need to look elsewhere for that one."
"But who would... ?"
Nigel, simply raised his hands in mock defense, palms outward, and shook his head. With that, Rachel knew he would not be the one to reveal that source. Swinging his legs back around, he returned to setting up his laptop to both stream and record the video from the cameras.
She was about to walk away when he spoke again.
"I must say, though, as attempts for ditching the flash mob go, that interview you and Terrance did yesterday was bloody brilliant. Nothing bores the public like open access – it takes away all the mystery."
"You really think that will work?" she asked, not a little surprised.
He glanced over his shoulder and gave her a nod, then turned back to what he was doing. "Oh, you'll still have them around for a couple more days – especially considering you sat next to Rance's bed, holding his hand the whole time," Nigel answered, as he rapidly clicked through a series of frames and windows on the screen. "That was adorable, by the way – a real nice touch – but you should be down to just a couple nosey parkers or so, if that, in real short order."
The dark-haired model just stood there, a bit perplexed by the celebrity photographer's evaluation.
"You didn't realize you were doing that, did you?"
His quiet question pierced her reverie and she looked up, only to find him staring at her curiously over his shoulder. She slowly shook her head in response.
"I wondered," he replied, an expression of compassion easing the tension around his eyes. "Sneaky thing, love," he added with an amused shake of his head. "I don't envy the choices you'll have to make, though."
A bit confused by Nigel's cryptic comment, Rachel decided it was the perfect time to leave him to his work and see how her little girl was faring out on the waves. Last time she'd looked, she and Anthony were sitting on their boards, listening intently to their surfing guides. Now, as she peered out over the water, she could see Hailey paddling fiercely to match a wave and then jumping up on her board to ride it. Following the line she was taking, Rachel could see the seven-year-old heading toward one of the three women – she couldn't tell which one – who was calling to the girl from the shallow water.
What happened next, however, took the seasoned model completely by surprise. One moment, Hailey was riding confidently on her board – the next, she was falling off it backwards. Rachel gasped in horror, her right hand automatically leaping to cover her mouth. For what seemed like minutes, though was likely just a few seconds, she scoured the surface of the water looking for the child to appear. When she finally did – waving up to her and happy as a clam – the now unnerved woman finally let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.
"There she is," came a familiar voice from behind her, followed by a series of soft pats on her back. "She's okay ... she's fine."
Turning, she noticed it was only Marge and herself standing there, the pastor having wandered off to talk with some with his church ladies at some point. "How do you do it?" Rachel asked, the sudden fear she'd experienced all too evident on her face.
The grandmother just shrugged nonchalantly. "You've got to strike a balance between holding on and letting go ... and some days are better than others," she replied. With a long glance out toward Hailey, she turned back to Rachel with a twinkle in her eye. "Today's actually a really good one, though. She's got three top notch surfers down there teaching and watching out for the two of them. And besides, it's a surfboard – not a motorcycle. So if she falls off, like she just did, it's only water – not pavement or ground."
She raised her hand as she saw Rachel start to object. "I know ... it can still be dangerous. Believe me, I get that – but this is worlds better than watching Terrance doing motocross." She snorted and then shook her head. "I nearly killed his father when he bought the boy his first dirt bike."
"He told me about that race in Paducah," Rachel remarked, nodding her head.
Marge rolled her eyes at the memory. "Oh, Lord, that was awful." Seeing the younger woman's curiosity, she simply shook her head and turned back toward the water. "One of my worst days ever – though the day you answered the phone at the hotel ranks right up there."
"For me, too."
"But today is not that day," the older woman declared brightly after a slight pause, putting her arm around the model's waist and giving her a gentle side hug.
In total agreement with her sentiment, Rachel hugged her back. "No, it's not," she replied, a smile now gracing her own face. "No, it's not."
"Daddy! Daddy! Did you see me?"
Rance couldn't help but smile, despite his discomfort and weariness, when a still slightly soggy Hailey burst into the hospital conference room. Overflowing with joy, the birthday decorations and beautifully decorated cake on the large table barely made an impression on her. Instead, she flew across the room to him, wrapped her arms around his neck from behind as he sat in his wheelchair – bumping his IV pole in the process – and kissed his cheek.
"Of course I see you, pumpkin – you're right here," he replied as seriously as he could.
"No, silly, on the cameras Mister Fletcher set up at the beach. Did you see me surfing?"
"Oh, so that's why your hair is so wet." Tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, he winked up at Rachel as she watched from the doorway. "Actually, Nina and I've been just sitting here playing cards. Did you have fun at the beach?"
"But Rachel said you could see me on the computer," the newly seven-year-old protested, shifting around so she could see his face. "Why weren't you watching?"
Her expression of disappointment, however, morphed to one of amused annoyance when she realized her dad was pulling her leg. The clue was the series of still photos, taken of her by Nigel while she surfed, flashing through as a slide show on the wall behind him.
"Watching what, pumpkin?" Rance asked innocently as he glanced over his shoulder at the pictures.
Rachel – now joined just inside the doorway by his mother, among others – just rolled her eyes.
Hailey, on the other hand, let out a theatrical sigh and affectionately slapped his arm. "Dad!"
With outstretched arms and a quick tilt of his head, he invited his daughter to come closer. Gingerly making her way around his outstretched left leg and the IV line in his right arm, she managed to climb up in his lap, where he wrapped her up in a loving embrace.
"Happy birthday, honey," he told her, kissing the top of her head. "Did you have a good time?"
She nodded into his chest. "Everyone was so nice – especially Melody, Dee Dee, and Robyn – but I wish you could have been there."
"Me, too, pumpkin. Me, too. But unfortunately I was dumb enough to run in front of a truck."
"Please don't say that, Daddy" she pleaded, lifting her head to look up at him. "Everybody's okay because of you. It makes me sad when you say that."
Hailey's beautiful brown eyes were so luminous and expressive – and so like her mother's – that he could deny her nothing.
"Well, we can't have you sad on your birthday," he said with a smile and another kiss, this time a light one on the tip of her nose.
She crinkled it in response but then shyly smiled and laid her head back on his chest.
Seeing Silvia, Tony, and Anthony show up, followed by a few nurses, Rance whispered in her ear. "You do know we have guests, right?"
She giggled and nodded into his chest again. "And presents?"
"And presents," he agreed.
"What about cake?"
"You ran right past it."
"Really?" she queried, twisting as she did so to look for it.
"Yep – a Hawaiian version of carrot cake, your favorite."
Cake spotted, Hailey turned back to her father sporting a huge grin. "Thank you, Daddy."
"Actually, you should thank Oma and Rachel – oh, and Nina – they were the ones that put this all together."
"I will," she promised but then leaned back in to give him a fierce hug. "I love you, Daddy."
"Love you, too, sweetheart."
"I wish..." she began before her quiet voice faltered.
Rance, however, knew exactly what she was going to say. "I know, pumpkin. I do, too." He leaned down, kissed the top of her head yet again, and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "I also happen to know she is looking down and is so very proud of her little surf monster."
"She's proud of you too, Dad."
"What, are you kidding?" he teased her. "If we were all home right now, I'd be out back in the pen with Buster. Can't you just see me with my bum leg sticking out the little doggy door?" Rance asked, wiggling the toes of his left foot poking out from the bandages.
Hailey giggled at the mental picture like her dad hoped she would.
"Tell you what, sport," he offered. "Why don't we get this whole birthday party shebang started and then maybe later, when I go back to my room, you and I can sit and look at pictures together, okay?"
She nodded at the idea but then offered one of her own. "Can Rachel come, too?"
Rance nodded. "Sure, if you want."
Just as she began to get off his lap, a rather funky ringtone sounded from what seemed to be the right pocket of his bathrobe.
Startled, Hailey gave him a confused look. "Is that you?"
"Yeah, it's my new phone," he answered, grimacing a bit as he struggled to retrieve the device. "Nina picked it up for me yesterday." With it finally in hand, Rance glanced at the caller ID. "And after all that work, it would appear it's for you," he complained as he handed the phone to his daughter.
Her confusion cleared up immediately when saw who was calling. With a slight squeal and a burst of adrenaline, she quickly tapped the touch screen and put it to her ear. "Hello? ... Hi, Grandma! ... Oh, it was awesome! ... No, we haven't gotten to the presents yet..."