worked up a smile and tipped his head to her. “Thank you, ma’am. I would like to talk to the dentist.”
He told the kids he’d be back shortly, warned them again about behaving, then headed down the hallway grinning like an idiot. He was here to return a piece of stolen property, after all, and to beg for a trick toothbrush for his baby girl.
This in no way resembled a date, even if he had tried to take a bath in the sink at the office after work to get rid of the worst of the grime and the sweat clinging to him, then thrown on the clean shirt he tried to remember to keep in the car for those days he was summoned to Luke’s school on the way home from work.
He wouldn’t even know what a date was, but he for sure knew this wasn’t the way to make a good first impression on a woman.
Striding down the hall, Joe thought about how much he’d love to get away, thought about the satisfaction he could find planting himself on the back of a horse and riding from dawn to dusk, even eating dust and smelling bad-tempered cows all day.
He missed Texas. He missed working the ranch and being so tired at the end of the day he just fell into bed and didn’t so much as blink until the sun was nearly up again and it was time to go to work and do it all over.
It had been another life, he reminded himself, one he couldn’t go back to. Besides, the life he had, while frustrating, even infuriating, at times, wasn’t that bad. He had Luke and Dani, and that was forever. No one would ever take them away from him.
And this was all a part of being a parent, Joe told himself.
He’d come here to please his wife; there’d been a time when he’d have done almost anything to make her happy. She’d been pregnant with Luke and uneasy about the whole process and about being a mother, and she’d thought it would be easier having her own mother close by. They couldn’t very well keep following the rodeo circuit—not with a newborn baby. It was time to settle down, and they’d settled here in Virginia.
Joe had considered moving back to Texas after Elena left, but this was the only home the kids had ever known, everything that was familiar in their world at a time when so many things had changed. They’d panicked when he’d even mentioned the possibility of moving, and he’d decided to stay put for their sake. They needed all the stability he could offer them at the moment—same school, same friends, same house. And as much as Elena’s parents had disapproved of him at first, they’d been great to him since Elena had left. They seemed as baffled by their daughter’s behavior as he was, and embarrassed, as well. They were great to his kids and understanding and supportive as Joe fumbled his way through life as a single parent.
He was fumbling right now—over teeth.
Resigned to guiding his son through his apology to the lady dentist, Joe lifted a hand to knock on the door next to the plaque that read Dr. Samantha Carter.
But the door wasn’t quite shut, and as he paused in front of it, he heard something. A muffled strangled sort of sound. Pushing the door open another two inches, he glanced inside and saw the slight figure of a woman hunched over the big desk. Her shoulders were shaking, her head buried in her hands.
Glancing around the office, he saw that she was all alone, and Joe couldn’t quite stomach that. Something about a woman crying her heart out, all alone, just didn’t sit right with him. He had to help her.
Even as he told himself it was none of his business, that he couldn’t let himself touch her, couldn’t hold her. He didn’t let himself think about the fact that he barely knew her or about how very much he wanted to comfort her.
He pushed open the door, then closed it behind him, because she didn’t need an audience right now. She needed a shoulder, someone to hold on to, someone to whisper in her ear some empty meaningless words like “Everything will be all right,” and Joe was the only one