Helen smiled her I'm-an-approachable-professional smile as she laughed with the small circle of clients and coworkers at her boss' anecdote. Jake caught the you-had-better-join-in look she shot him, and laughed. Perhaps a bit too exuberantly, as the boss' wife had just pinched his butt and he was trying to cover up his surprised yelp. Helen frowned. Jake looked for an escape route.
He hadn't wanted to go to Helen's boss' Memorial Day barbeque, but Helen hadn't really given him a choice. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw their daughters, Daria and Quinn aged six and just turned five, sitting at the picnic table behind them. Daria seemed relatively occupied with the book she brought, but Quinn was standing on the bench, reaching far over the table in an effort to get a grape. Her new favorite stuffed animal, a bunny she'd aptly named 'Brown Bunny', dragged along the table in her other hand, precariously close to an open, but still almost full, bottle of beer.
"Quinn, honey, let Daddy help you." Grateful for the excuse to bail out of the conversation, Jake scooped his youngest up. Grabbing a bunch of dark red grapes, he carried her to the shade under a tree in the large backyard. The midday sun was beating down and the tree provided one of the few oases of shade. Being far from the food, drink and other partygoers, it was also one of the least desirable. At least to everyone else, Jake thought.
As Quinn happily munched on grapes, humming and dancing Brown Bunny on the grass, Jake watched the other adults from his safe position under the tree. I wonder if Helen will ever get anywhere in this town. Maybe we should move closer to Austin. Or even Dallas. I don't think the girls have much of an advantage here, either. He sighed. Maybe I just want to get away. Quinn's humming had turned into her favorite song, mostly the word 'la' repeated over and over in a random tune.
Looking up as a small shadow melded to the edge of their patch of shade, Jake smiled at his oldest daughter. "Hey, kiddo! Tired of reading?"
Daria blinked owlishly. "I finished it."
Jake smiled to himself. Just like her mom, sharp as a tack. Gonna have to keep an eye on her. "Come sit with us." He patted the grass beside him.
Daria dubiously eyed her sister, mashing a handful of grapes as she dragged her bunny though the grass, continuing her rendition of the 'la' song.
Quinn looked up and grinned at her sister. "I wanna story now!" She turned to Jake. "Story!"
Jake looked to Daria. "Why don't you read her some of your book?"
Daria's expression started to turn mulish. Why did she always have to do what Quinn wanted? Before she could refuse, Quinn interrupted. "No! I wanna Daddy story!"
Quinn climbed into his lap, smearing red grape juice all over his white shirt. Daria's expression darkened, but Jake gestured her to sit by him. "Daria will help tell a story, right, Daria?"
Quinn squealed with glee.
Daria sat by her father and listened as he began, "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess…"
By the time the story was over, the princess had had many harrowing encounters with frightening prince eating dragons, terrible witch-cast ugliness spells, and an evil gumdrop monster. Though it seemed doubtful at times, Jake made sure the princess came out all right in the end.
Quinn who had hidden her face in her father's shirt in fear a number times during Daria's additions, clapped with delight when it was over. They finished just in time for Helen to collect them for their thank yous and goodbyes.
"Jake, I really wish you had made more of an effort to make some contacts. You hardly spent any time with the adults!" Helen chided as they drove home.
Later that night, Jake tucked his girls into bed. He kissed Daria's forehead. "Goodnight, Kiddo."
"Night," Daria replied. "Dad?"
"Today was fun."
Jake smiled. "I thought so, too."
He walked to Quinn's bed and kissed her head as he tucked her in. "Goodnight, Princess."
"I love you, Daddy."
Jake hugged her. "I love you, too." He went back to hug Daria. "Both of you."
He made sure the nightlight was on before he flicked off the light switch. "Goodnight."
Daria looked at the first edition of her first book. She had three copies in front of her to be signed and given to her mom, dad, and Quinn. Who would have thought my first published book would be something like Princess Bunny's Magical Adventures. Far cry from my Melody Powers stories. She finished the note she was writing in the last book and signed it just under the dedication, which read:
I love you, Daddy.