Elle Jeffers sighed. The next parent in line with his four-year-old daughter was Drew Penn, a widowed, single father. He snapped the fingers of his right hand as he held his daughter, Penelope’s hand, with his left. A sign of impatience, Elle knew from experience.
“Mr. Penn,” she nodded. She smiled at the girl. “Penelope, good to see you today.”
“It has taken four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, Ms. Jeffers.”
“I apologize, Mr. Penn. The parent in front of you had several instructions for us today.”
“Humph.” He checked his watch. “They should have instructions in writing.” He handed her a manila envelope. “Penelope requires this medication at precisely ten this morning and two this afternoon for a slight ear infection.”
Elle took the envelope. “Thank you, Mr. Penn. Efficient as always.” She signaled to a teacher. “Ms. Joanna will take you to your classroom, Penelope.” She handed the envelope to Joanna and smiled at the girl. “We’ll take care of it, Mr. Penn.”
The look he gave her indicated that he had reservations about that, but he nodded and said, “This afternoon, Ms. Jeffers. Five-thirty p.m. on the dot.”
“Yes, Mr. Penn.” She sighed with relief as he left and greeted the next parent and child.
“I think he’s warming up to you, Elle.” Joanna poured herself a cup of coffee mid-afternoon.
Elle sat at the break-room table, flipping through a child care magazine while on her break. “Who?”
“Penelope’s dad, Drew Penn.” Joanna sat next to Elle.
“Why on earth do you say that?” Elle looked at Joanna, an eyebrow raised.
“He smiled at you this morning. First time in the year he’s brought Penelope here that he’s done that.”
Elle snorted. “I think not. He still snaps his fingers. As though I’m a badly written computer program he wants to rewrite. He’s a programmer. People skills are not his strong suit.”
“Penelope adores him. She’s always talking about what he does and says.”
“She’s a doll.” Elle’d always felt bad for Penelope, having such a stiff father.
“Even so,” Joanna grinned. “I heard him say thank you this morning.”
“I didn’t notice.” Elle was having none of it. Her relationship with Jack was falling apart after two years of dating. He was too erratic, always quitting one job just to get another because he didn’t like the boss, or the working conditions, or the decor. It made their living arrangement precarious. She never knew if he’d have his share of the rent and utilities or not.
Joanna sipped her coffee. “If you say so.”
At five-thirty, Drew Penn was at the counter. Elle smiled. “Good evening, Mr. Penn.” She turned to look down the hall. “Here’s Penelope.”
The girl left Joanna’s hand and raced to her father. “We did finger-painting today!”
Elle watched as he took the paper, still damp, and examined it. “Good use of color, Penelope.” She realized that he did that every evening. While he wasn’t a big hugger, it seemed the two of them were close. She increased her regard of him. “We’re having a purple clothing day tomorrow, Mr. Penn. We’re all going to wear purple.”
He took his daughter’s hand. “I’ll endeavor to find a suitable garment.” Drew turned and led his daughter out.
The next day, Elle greeted Penelope. “What a charming blouse, Penelope.”
The girl grinned, running her hand down the lavender frilly top. “Papa bought it for me last night.”
“Oh, Mr. Penn. That wasn’t necessary. We didn’t expect parents to go to any extra expense. We have things here for any child that forgot to wear purple.”
“Instruction was given, Ms. Jeffers. We always follow directions.”
She smiled at him. “That was very considerate of you, Mr. Penn. Thank you.” She saw his eyebrow twitch.
“You’re welcome.” He turned and walked out.
So it went, week after week. By the end of the second year, his stiffness had lessened. At drop off, he asked Elle, “Would you be available for brunch on Sunday morning?”
Elle blinked. They had been friendlier over the year, but this surprised her. She hesitated.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve overstepped my bounds. You have a boyfriend.”
She could feel a blush rising. “No. No, I don’t. I’d love to have brunch on Sunday.”
Joanna took Penelope’s hand and with her back to Drew Penn, winked at Elle. Elle’s blush rose.
“We’ll see you at the Park Restaurant, then, eleven am, Sunday.” He nodded and left the building.
She fidgeted in her car in the restaurant parking lot on Sunday. The invitation was a little formal and he didn’t offer to pick her up. That keeps things simple, she thought as she checked her makeup in the rear-view mirror. She took a breath and went inside. By the end of the meal, she realized she’d had a good time. Penelope was her usual charming self and, it turned out that Drew Penn had a dry, sharp wit. Elle appreciated the upgrade from her old boyfriend.
A year later, she tossed her wedding bouquet to a crowd of bridesmaids and girlfriends. “What did I tell you two years ago,” Joanna said after the bouquet toss. She gave Elle a hug. “I told you he was interested.”
“Yes, you did.” Elle wrapped an arm around her friend’s waist. “It wasn’t love at first sight, though. He was so prickly.”
“I’m happy for you, El. I wish you a wonderful life.”
Elle nodded. Now she knew him better, she understood. He cared deeply, so appeared stiff and standoffish to those he didn’t know. She loved him and Penelope with her whole heart. It was going to be a great life and she couldn’t wait to get started.
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