Her Surprise Hero….after the end

 

Note to Readers: Below is a standalone short story that serves as the after-the-end to Her Surprise Hero and also wraps up the entire Those Merritt Girls series. Unlike most of my after-the-end scenes, you don’t need to have read the books to appreciate the story. But if you’d like to find out more about the book, you can read an excerpt from the first chapter here.

After the End – The Those Merritt Girls
Adorable, by Abby Gaines

Jonah Merritt nabbed a couple of sofas with a prime view of the eighteenth green. He intended to make the most of the twenty minutes he had before his family would join him for lunch in the Fairacres Country Club by enjoying a scotch and a selection of the chef’s cholesterol-scaring hors d’oeuvres. Once the girls arrived, he’d be ordering fish and salad, or some other such nonsense good for his heart. What kind of Father’s Day treat was that?
A young couple attempted to sit on the other sofa. Jonah directed his most quelling stare at them and said, “I’m expecting family.”
They left, quickly. Ha! He might have retired from the law, but he still had the presence that made witnesses and even some judges quake in their boots. Jonah dusted his hands together.
He ordered his forbidden fruits from the waitress and settled in to watch the action on the eighteenth. Bob Marino was trying to thrash his way out of a bunker. At last, the ball popped out, and Jonah leaned forward to watch its progress in the wrong direction. It was obvious to anyone with two eyes Marino’s line was all wrong.
When he straightened, someone had taken a seat on the other sofa. Jonah’s sofa.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m expecting family.”
“How nice. So am I.” She smiled warmly. “My son and his wife—I know, it’s Father’s Day, not Mother’s Day, but every year they insist. Isn’t that adorable?” Her reddish hair, shoulder-length curls that bounced in all directions, was unruly compared with the rest of her. She wore an emerald green suit—bright, but elegant—with a black silk blouse. Her hands, folded in her lap, were well-kept, the fingernails painted a light pink. Jonah considered hands to be important.
“I need both these sofas,” he explained. She wore a wedding and engagement ring, but on her right hand. Suggesting widowhood, or divorce. He’d been through both himself, but he no longer wore the rings.
“Ah, a large family.” Her eyes, a rich brown, gleamed. “Delightful.”
“There are a couple of spare seats over near the fireplace,” he said helpfully. “Or if you prefer the conservatory, I could have the maitre d’ find you something.”
“Grandchildren?” she asked.
“Excuse me?”
“Your large family, does it include grandchildren?”
The waitress arrived with Jonah’s scotch. The woman ordered a glass of champagne.
Jonah detained the waitress with a finger held in the air. “Where would you like your drink served?” he asked his unwanted companion.
She looked amused. “Right here, thank you, dear.”
The ‘dear’ was for the waitress, not Jonah, but it gave him a little jolt. It had been a long time since a woman had called him that. He didn’t usually dwell on it, but he missed…he missed being dear to someone. And having someone dear to him. The girls were wonderful, of course, but they were all married now….
“I have grandsons,” his redhead announced. “Ages six and four. They’re the most adorable kids.”
Jonah wasn’t about to let her get away with having the ‘most adorable’ grandsons, even if he respected her refusal to be ruffled by his attempts to get rid of her. “I have three grandchildren on the way,” he boasted. He hoped there’d be a boy among them somewhere.
“Triplets!” Her eyes widened. He figured her to be in her late fifties, a few years younger than himself. But with her eyes wide like that, she seemed girlish. Appealingly so.
“No,” Jonah admitted reluctantly. Triplets would have been hard to top. “My three daughters are all expecting.”
“Well!” She beamed. “What are the odds of that?”
Her smiled warmed him right through. “Megan, she’s my middle daughter, she’s five months along. Cynthia’s nearly halfway—she only got married six months ago, but she’s a bit older, thought they’d better get started.”
“Good idea,” murmured his companion.
“Sabrina, the youngest—” his voice softened at the mention of his ‘little princess’ “—she and her husband stopped by this week to tell me the good news. They’re due in April.”
“You must have just about burst with pride!”
He chuckled. “I did, though why I should claim any credit…”
“Take credit where you can, I say.” Her enthusiasm was infectious. He raised his glass to her in a toast.
The waitress arrived with her champagne, and Jonah’s hors d’oeuvres.
He sneaked a guilty look at his companion. “Would you like to try one?” He no longer wanted her to leave.
“I’m saving myself for lunch.” She clinked her glass against his, then sipped her drink. She gave a little murmur of appreciation. “When you live alone, it’s such a treat to eat a meal with others.”
Jonah ate too many meals alone these days. “You can’t rely on your kids to hang around and keep you company,” he grumbled.
“Nor would you want to,” she said gently. “They have their own lives. Best to be grateful they’ve found someone who’ll make them happy. I adore my daughter-in-law.”
He grunted. “Sabrina found a good husband. But that fellow Megan married…” It had to be the whisky loosening his tongue.
“You don’t like him?” she asked, concerned.
“He’s a good lawyer and he’s smitten with Megan,” Jonah admitted. “But he’s…rough around the edges. Not what I’d have chosen.”
“But he makes her happy,” she suggested.
Jonah humphed. “He’s not as bad as Cynthia’s husband. Now that one has a few things to answer for.”
Her hand went to her mouth, a delicate gesture that drew Jonah’s attention to her lips.
“Is he…mean to your daughter?” she asked.
Jonah blinked, refocused. “No, no, he thinks the sun rises and sets on her. Besotted. But she could have been a supreme court judge.”
“Is that what she wanted?”
Jonah pffed. “That’s irrelevant, it’ll never happen now. Her husband lives in some hick town, which of course means Cynthia does, too. He has a son.”
“So you have a grandson? I’ll bet he’s adorable!”
“Step-grandson,” he corrected. “He’s nineteen, been in and out of trouble. Not one I’m anxious to claim for my own.”
“Oh, dear.” His companion looked disappointed. For him? Or in him?
He hurried on. “My daughters think I need a wife, now they’re all married.” That sounded like a pick-up line—even he could see that, rusty as he was. “They keep trying to match me up,” he explained.
Her eyes danced. “Successfully?”
He snorted. “Seems every woman you meet these days is a vegetarian, or she wants to take you on a cruise, or you have to swear undying devotion to her cat.”
“When you what you need,” she sympathised, “is a meat-eating, independent traveler with no furry friends.”
“Exactly.” Jonah liked this woman, liked her far more than any of the women his daughters had sent his way. Did she sense the connection between them?
“There’s my son and his family now.” She pushed herself off the couch.
Jonah stood, too. Saw the man and woman in the doorway with two little boys. The man waved when he saw his mother.
As she set her champagne flute down on the coffee table, Jonah snared her fingers. It seemed unpardonably forward, and yet natural. He didn’t want to let go. “Maybe we—could I take you to dinner sometime?”
She disentangled her hand. “I’m sorry, it wouldn’t work.”
“Why not?” he demanded, surprised and…he couldn’t be hurt, not on such short acquaintance.
“You’re very attractive—” her gaze flitted over his face, alighted on his lips, causing his whole body to tighten “—but I gather you’re the sort of man who’s hard to please.”
Those things he’d said about his sons-in-law, his step-grandson. She’d read them as criticism. Because they were criticism. “I admit I have strong views,” he began.
She shook her head. “There’s nothing worse than constantly feeling as if you’re falling short of some impossible standard. My husband made me feel like that. I’m a big believer in compromise, not in one person making themselves into something they never wanted to be.”
“I wouldn’t…” At least, he didn’t think he would.
“I don’t date often,” she said. “Only when I meet a man who will appreciate me, maybe one day adore me, as I am. When that’s your starting point, everything’s negotiable.”
“If you got to know me,” he protested, “you’d know I only want what’s best for my family.”
“And what, would you say, is best for them?”
It felt like the most important question he’d ever been asked.
He had no idea how to answer.
She touched his hand, one fleeting instant. Then she moved away.
“I don’t even know your name,” Jonah said, bewildered. Feeling suddenly very old.
She glanced over her shoulder, and her smile was quite lovely. He had the ridiculous thought that he’d like to paint her—he, who’d never painted anything in his life!
“It’s Sally,” she said.

Jonah toyed with the steak béarnaise he’d defied his cardiologist to order. But he couldn’t focus on the meat, though it was cooked perfectly medium-rare. He was too aware of Sally, half a dozen tables away, dining with her family. She had a little boy either side of her, and she chatted to them and her daughter-in-law as much as she did to her son. A happy gathering.
Jonah’s table was a happy gathering, too. It was just, Jonah felt as if he wasn’t part of it.
Sabrina and Jake sat to his left. Sabrina patted his hand occasionally, but so far she’d talked mainly to her sisters. Baby talk. Now, at the end of the table, Megan and Travis were deep in conversation. Those two always had their heads together. Reminded Jonah of himself and Daisy, his second wife. As he watched, Megan caressed Travis’s cheek. He caught her hand, turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm. Then made some whispered comment that had Megan blushing.
Jonah glanced away, to Cynthia, sitting on his right. Next to her was her husband Ethan, then Ethan’s son Sam. The boy looked quite respectable today, Jonah admitted. Sam had brought Ethan a Father’s Day card and a pen, a gift that had for some reason made Ethan and Cynthia laugh, as they hugged him.
Sam caught him looking, and his eyebrows drew into a dark slash.
“How are your studies going, Sam?” he asked. The boy had just started his second year at Georgia State.
“Okay,” Sam said warily. At a look from his father, he added, “thank you, sir.”
“Perhaps…” Jonah cleared his throat. “Since we’re related, Sam, maybe you could drop the ‘sir’. Call me Jonah.” Grandpa was a step too far.
“Sure, sir, ah, Jonah.” Sam flushed.
“Maybe you could come over for a meal sometime, if you get sick of the dorm food.” He wished Sally could hear the effort he was making.
Sam looked alarmed but Cynthia sent him a grateful look. “Dad, Sam’s hoping to switch to studying law next year.”
“Really?” Jonah’s first reaction was horror. The boy had been in trouble with the law, how could he hope to serve it? “That’s excellent news,” he managed. If he told himself that often enough, he might mean it.
“Excuse me, folks, I need to go to the bathroom.” Cynthia patted her stomach, implying the baby was responsible for the need. She wriggled out of her seat, then kissed Ethan goodbye—for a mere trip to the bathroom! Jonah thought irascibly. Her husband watched her go, his face alight with love.
“Isn’t she incredible?” Ethan asked.
Jonah had to admit, his oldest daughter was blooming. “I’m very proud of her.”
“You did an amazing job, Jonah, bringing up three such sensational women.”
Jonah’s head whipped around.
“Sorry to lay that on you.” Ethan grinned. He certainly had charisma, Jonah could see that. “Cindy’s convinced me it’s best to say what I’m thinking.”
Jonah couldn’t quite reconcile Cynthia with Cindy, but his daughter seemed to take it as an endearment. He fiddled with his knife. “I can’t take much credit for how they turned out. Daisy got them through the difficult years. But, thanks,” he added gruffly.
Ethan sobered. “I nearly lost Cindy because I couldn’t just tell her I love her. “ He looked Jonah in the eye. “I’m worried you might lose her, too.”
Jonah’s attempt at his usual freezing glare failed. Must be because Sally had him so churned up inside.
“I don’t think Cindy knows how much you love her,” Ethan said. “Maybe not Megan, either. There’s a distance between you and them that’s not there with Sabrina. With these grandbabies arriving, you don’t want there to be any doubt you’ll be a doting granddad.”
Jonah’s mouth was dry. “That’s enough,” he told Ethan.
Ethan clapped him on the shoulder. “If it’s any consolation, it gets easier.”
Cynthia arrived back. She sensed the tension immediately. “What’s going on?”
What had Sally asked Jonah? What was best for his family?
The hard work of raising daughters on his own was done. The only thing they needed from him now was love, pure and simple. Nothing simple about it. But he had to do it.
“Cynthia, I was just telling Ethan, just about to tell him that I, uh I—” he choked on the words.
“I know, Dad, you’re proud of me.” Her smile was perfunctory.
“No!” His knife clattered onto his plate. “Of course I’m proud of you, but I want you to know how much I love you.” To his amazement, it came out steady. And loud.
Cynthia gaped.
“Dad?” Megan spoke up from the end of the table. “Are you okay? Your heart…”
“The only thing wrong with my heart is I somehow forgot to tell you what’s in it,” he said. “I love you, too, Megan. Very much. And you, Sabrina.”
No need to tell his youngest, she’d never doubted him. Of course, he hadn’t pushed her as hard as he’d pushed her sisters. Had he pushed his older daughters right away?
“I’m in the fortunate position of having three successful daughters who’ve chosen three excellent men to marry.” His sons-in-law took the accolade without visible shock, which Jonah appreciated. “And I have no doubt you’ll soon deliver the three most—” what was Sally’s word? “—adorable grandsons. Grandchildren,” he amended hastily, embarrassed to have inadvertently revealed his secret longing. “But even without any of that, I want you to know I’ll always love you, no matter what.”
All three of his daughters were misty-eyed. Cynthia, who’d never been demonstrative, flung her arms around his neck, and hugged him. When she pulled away, she was wiping her eyes. “Maternal hormones,” she muttered.
Odd, because Jonah seemed to be suffering from them, too.
“We love you, too, Dad,” Megan said. She bit her lip, and said, “But, um, on the subject of ‘no matter what…’”
“You can tell me.” Jonah braced himself, determined to rise to the occasion.
“Cyn and I had our scans this week,” Megan said. “And I’m having a girl.”
“Me, too,” Cynthia said.
Granddaughters! “I love them already,” Jonah declared, meaning it.
Which led to more hugs from the girls, and grandfather-to-father congratulations between Jonah and his sons-in-law.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Jonah saw Sally and her family leaving the restaurant.
It was now or never.
He bolted from his chair, and managed to intercept her near the entrance. “Sally, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Her brown eyes were bright with surprise. “Go ahead,” she said.
He caught her fingers in his, and this time she didn’t pull away. He hadn’t rehearsed, he had no idea how to say this right. Jonah drew a deep breath, ignored the curious glances of her family and dived in.
“Daisy, my second wife, loved lute music. She had CDs of the stuff, played them all the time. Plink, plunk, plink.” He couldn’t help shuddering.
She chuckled. “You’re not fond of the lute?”
“Hate it,” he declared. “But in the end I got used to it. After Daisy died, I tried listening to one of the CDs, out of sentimentality. It was terrible.”
Sally laughed. She had a sweet laugh.
“The thing is,” he said, “a man can adapt when he has a good reason. And when he has someone who knows better than to let him get away with calling all the shots. When a man loves a woman, really loves her, he’ll be a better man.”
Her slow-breaking smile rocked him to his core.
“I—I’m Jonah Merritt, by the way,” he said belatedly.
“Jonah,” she said, “I’m a vegetarian.”
“No!” he said, dismayed. He swallowed. “That’s okay.”
“I started out because it drove my husband mad, but these days I prefer it that way.” She curled her fingers around his, sending a surge of energy up his arm. “I do eat fish,” she offered.
“Fish is good,” Jonah said, relieved. “We can eat out when I want meat.” Insane to be talking like this to a woman he didn’t know. But she seemed interested in what he had to say. And she was holding his hand. “Tonight,” he suggested. “We could eat out tonight.”
Her head dipped in what might have been agreement. “I also,” she warned, “happen to be very fond of cruises.”
“I hear the food is very good,” Jonah said stoutly.
“It is, but I’m willing to try alternative vacations.” She laughed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this!”
Jonah’s heart beat faster. They would go to dinner tonight, and he would kiss her. But first…
“I suppose you have a cat,” he said, as certain of it as he’d been of anything in his life.
“Two!” Delight lit her face. “But don’t worry, they’re—”
“Adorable!” he finished for her, suddenly convinced he was the luckiest man alive.