Ben wouldn’t have called himself a nervous man. He was used to heading up high-profile business meetings, dealing with government ministers and other grandees, was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. But watching the small figure dancing her way across the sand towards him, he found himself shifting from foot to foot, his insides twisting. No meeting had ever mattered more, no first impression had been so important.
He’d hoped to have been able to return to Asturia to meet Alice, but taking over the estate had taken longer than he’d liked. Maybe in the end it was more fitting that their first meeting was here in Cornwall, where it had all began. Sally had prepared Alice and told her how much Ben was looking forward to getting to know her, had suggested the beach for this all-important first encounter. She couldn’t have done more.
His gaze shifted to the woman walking by his daughter, red hair blowing wildly in the breeze, looking like an advert for seaside living in her coat and scarf. This was another meeting that mattered. Ben didn’t know why it was so important he redeem himself with Sally, whether it was because she was Alice’s mother or because he still had feelings for her, but it was. Vitally important.
They were close enough to see clearly now and Ben started walking towards them. Alice stopped and clutched her mother’s hand as he approached.
‘Hi,’ he said to Sally, who gave him a guarded smile. ‘And you must be Alice. I’m Ben.’
The small girl didn’t answer but peeped up at him from under long lashes as he fell into step beside them. He kept the conversation light, asking about their flight back from Asturia, checking that the press interest had died down and telling Sally about the house he had found to rent close by.
‘Although I have a great estate manager and house manager, I still need to be based at Askett Hall. But I plan to be here as much as I can, so I’ll rent for now and figure out the rest later.’
‘That’s good,’ she said, her voice a little husky. ‘That you’ll be here regularly.’
‘I want to be involved.’ He watched Alice run ahead. ‘Not just show up on a Saturday with gifts and return to my normal life the next day. I want to take her to school and help with homework, pick her up from swimming…’
‘And surfing, ballet, gymnastics, football, tennis etc.’
He blinked. ‘That’s a lot of activities.’
‘She’s an only child. I don’t want her to feel like she misses out.’
‘Pick her up from activities, know her friends and teachers, go to school concerts. If you’ll allow me.’
‘You don’t need my permission. You’re her father.’
‘Yes.’ Alice started to twirl, arms out and laughing up at the sky. ‘And I promise, Sally, I’ll be the best father I can be. But this is all new to me. Tell me when I’m going wrong.’
She reached out and squeezed his arm, the contact surprising. Heat coursed through him, radiating from her touch. ‘You’ll figure it out. We all do eventually.’
Alice ran back and tugged shyly at his coat. ‘Ben?’
‘Are you really my daddy?’
He gazed down into her dark brown eyes and knew his heart would always belong to this small girl ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘And you’re back for keeps?’
‘Forever,’ he promised. And he meant it.
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