“Dad?” Emily repeated.
She stared at the man on her porch step, a man she barely recognized anymore. Silver hair where once before it had been black. The shadow of stubble on his chin. Creases and furrows lining his face. But there was no mistaking it. It was her father.
Words failed her. She couldn’t catch her breath.
The crinkles at the sides of Roy’s eyes deepened as he smiled. “Emily Jane,” he replied.
That’s when Emily knew it was real. He was real. It was her dad.
She ran as fast as she could up the porch steps and threw herself into his arms. She’d imagined this moment so many times, wondering how she would behave if he ever came back to her. In her imagination she’d acted cool, been aloof, had risen above it all by not letting him see the pain his disappearance had caused her, nor the utter relief she felt knowing he was safe. But of course the reality was completely different. Instead of being standoffish, she wrapped her arms around his neck and held him like she was a child again.
He was warm, solid. She could feel him breathing hard, each expansion of his lungs betraying his emotions. Her tears came almost immediately. As though in response, she felt his own tears wet her cheeks and neck.
“You came back,” Emily managed to say, her voice cracking as she spoke. She sounded as young and vulnerable as she felt.
“I did,” Roy replied through deep sobs. “I’m – ”
But he stopped short. Emily knew instinctively that the only word to conclude that sentence was “sorry” but that her father wasn’t yet ready to deal with the torrent of emotions such an utterance would unleash. Emily wasn’t either. She didn’t want to go to those painful places yet. She just wanted to stay in this moment. Bask in it.
She lost track of how much time passed as she and her father stood there holding each other, but she felt a sudden change in the way her father held her, a tensing of his muscles, like he was suddenly uncomfortable. She moved away from him and looked over her shoulder to see where Roy’s gaze was now affixed: Chantelle.
She was standing in the open door of the inn, a look of bemusement on her face as though trying to comprehend the strange scene before her. Emily could read all the questions in her eyes. Who is this man? Why is Emily crying? Why is he? What’s going on?
“Chantelle, honey,” Emily said, extending a hand. “Come here.”
Emily saw in Chantelle’s hesitation an uncharacteristic shyness.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Emily added.
Chantelle took a few paces toward Emily. “Why is he looking at me like that?” she said in a stage whisper that Roy could clearly hear.
Emily looked at her father. His damp eyes were wide with confusion. He wiped the wetness from his lashes.
“You have a daughter?” he finally stammered, his voice thick with emotion.
“Yes,” Emily said, reaching for Chantelle and pulling the girl to her side, into a half embrace. “Well, she’s Daniel’s daughter. But I’m raising her like a mother would.”
Chantelle clung to Emily. “Is he going to take me away?” she asked.
“Oh no, no, sweetie!” Emily exclaimed. “This is my father. Your grandpa.” She turned her gaze then to meet her dad’s. “Papa Roy?” she suggested.
He nodded immediately. He seemed bewitched by the child, his pale blue eyes sparkling with intrigue.
“She looks so much like her,” he said.
Emily understood immediately what he meant. That Chantelle looked like Charlotte. No wonder he’d assumed she was Emily’s child; Emily herself sometimes struggled to believe that those were not Charlotte’s genetic characteristics expressed in Chantelle.
“I see it too,” she confessed.
“Who do I look like?” Chantelle questioned.
Emily felt like this line of questioning was far too much for the child to handle. She wanted to shut it down right away. Even though she felt like a trembling lamb she knew she had to step up and take command.
“Someone we used to know a long time ago, that’s all,” she said. “Come on, Papa Roy needs to meet Daddy.”
Chantelle brightened suddenly. “I’ll get him.” She beamed, bounding off back inside.
Emily sighed. She understood why her dad had been so shocked by Chantelle, but having a stranger stare at her like that – like she was a ghost – was the last thing the child needed.
“She’s really not biologically yours?” Roy asked the second the child had disappeared.
Emily shook her head. “I know, it’s crazy. She’s sensitive like her too. And kind. Funny. Creative. I can’t wait for you to get to know her.” Her voice hitched then, with sudden fear at the thought that Roy wasn’t staying, that this was just a flying visit. Perhaps she wasn’t even supposed to have known he’d been here. Maybe his plan was to avoid her altogether, to swoop in and out before she’d had a chance to realize he was back, like his covert trips in his beat-up car that Trevor had witnessed from his spying window. She rubbed behind her ear awkwardly. “That is, if you have the time.”
“I have the time.” Roy nodded, a small flutter of a smile appearing on his lips.
Just then, Chantelle returned, dragging Daniel along behind her. He stopped at the doorway and glanced at Roy.
“Papa Roy?” he said, raising his eyebrows, clearly repeating the name that Chantelle had so innocently relayed to him.
Emily saw the look that crossed between them and remembered how Daniel had told her about that summer back when he was a teenager and had needed a friend, how Roy had been there for him, had helped him get his life back on track. She could tell in that moment that Roy’s safe return to Sunset Harbor meant almost as much to Daniel as it did to herself.
Roy offered his hand for Daniel to shake. But to Emily’s surprise, Daniel took the hand and pulled Roy into a bear hug. She felt a strange clench in her chest, a peculiar emotion that was somewhere between joy and grief.
“I think you’ve met Daniel,” Emily said, her voice cracking once again.
“I have,” Roy replied as he was released by Daniel, taking him instead by the shoulders. He seemed overwhelmed with emotion, treading that fine line between weeping tears of joy and bursting into relieved laughter.
“We’re getting married,” Emily added, somewhat dumbly.
“I know,” Roy said, grinning from ear to ear. “I read your email. I’m so delighted.”
“Are you coming inside?” Daniel asked Roy, softly.
“If I may,” Roy replied, sounding concerned that he may not be accepted back into Emily’s life.
“Of course!” Emily exclaimed. She clutched his hand tightly, trying to tell him that everything was okay, that he was wanted here, accepted here, that his return to her was a joyous occasion.
Roy’s face seemed etched with relief. He visibly relaxed, as though a hurdle he’d been worried about jumping had been accomplished.
As they walked toward the door, Emily became suddenly aware of the fact that the house her father had abandoned over twenty years ago in no way resembled its former self. She’d taken over, changed it all, changed its purpose from a family home to an inn. Would he be mad?
“We’ve made some renovations,” she said quickly.
“Emily Jane,” her father replied in a kind, firm voice, “I know you’ve been living here. That it’s an inn now. It’s fine. I’m delighted for you.”
She nodded, but still felt anxious about letting him inside. Chantelle led the way and one by one they filed into the reception hall, Roy taking the tail, his gait slower and stiffer than Emily remembered.
He stopped in the hall and looked around him, his mouth open with surprise and awe. When he saw the reception desk, his eyes widened.
“The same one you sold to Rico?” Emily said. “Yes.”
The inn had been a guest house originally before the owners abandoned it. Roy’s story with the home mirrored her own in reverse. He’d wanted this place to be a family home, a haven for summer vacations. Emily had turned it back into a guesthouse, a business.
“I can’t believe he kept it all these years,” Roy said with surprise, still looking at the desk. Then he turned his eyes to Emily. “Do you remember the day I sold it to him?”
Emily shook her head silently.
“You were quite adamant that I shouldn’t sell it,” he said with a chuckle. “You’d put a Barbie in every one of the drawers. Said it was a hospital for your dolls.”
“I think I do remember,” Emily replied, feeling a little melancholy.
“Rico was very kind about it,” Roy added. “Helped you to ‘transfer’ your ‘patients’ to another location. I think you chose the cupboard under the sink.” He, too, became somewhat wistful, and tore his attention away from the reception desk and back to the renovation work. “This really is incredible. You’ve done a fabulous job.”
The sound of pride in his voice made Emily’s heart jolt. This moment was so much more than she could have hoped for. It was perfect.
“Do you want a tour?” she asked.
Roy nodded. Emily led him to the kitchen first. Inside, they could hear the sounds of the dogs barking from the laundry room.
“I don’t know what to take in first,” Roy exclaimed, glancing around him at the fully restored kitchen with its original retro appliances and decorations. “The amazing renovation work or the fact you have pets!”
“This is Mogsy and her puppy Rain!” Chantelle announced, opening up the utility room door and allowing the two to run inside.
They rushed up to Roy, sniffing him and trying to lick his cheeks. Roy laughed, the fine lines around his face becoming more pronounced, and scratched them both behind the ears.
“We don’t usually let them run around the kitchen,” Emily explained. “But since it’s a special occasion – ”
Her voice cracked as that pang of melancholy she’d felt earlier returned. Being with her dad shouldn’t be “special”; it had been made that way by him leaving.
From his crouched position, he looked up at her, his expression filled with regret.