Celia bent over to tie her shoelace then stood up and took her niece’s hand again. “Come on, Ashton, we have a lot more to see.”
The petite child of four, her blond curls bouncing in the breeze aided by her half jumping- half walking gait, clapped her hands. “I wanna go to the jungle.”
Celia turned with a grin and asked, “You want to go to the jungle, do you?”
Ashton nodded her head and giggled. “Daddy takes me there and gits me losted in the balls.”
“He does, does he? Let's see if we can find it.”
Her brother and his wife were at a retreat and asked Celia to take care of the toddler for the weekend. Never one to turn down a chance to spend time with Ashton, she immediately cleared her calendar—which was pretty easy since she was single without any prospects—and made plans to come to the park. It was easy to get caught up in her niece's infectious laugh. Ashton experienced everything with zeal and excitement. There was nothing quite like spending an afternoon with her.
She lifted her off her sneakered feet, hoisting her over her head and onto her shoulders. “Can you see the jungle?”
Giggles erupted above her and she couldn’t help but laugh herself. “What are you laughing at?”
“Dat funny clown ober there.”
Celia looked around until she finally spotted a circle of clowns Ashton was captivated with. “Well,
let’s go see the funny clown.”
They walked across the commons to where three clowns stood performing tricks while what seemed to be their leader stood off to the side making balloon animals and giving them to the kids.
“Which funny clown do you like?” Celia asked.
Celia followed the direction of the baby index finger and walked to where the lead clown was standing. Carefully removing Ashton from her shoulders, they both watched as he took three balloons from his oversized pocket and stretched them out before blowing them up. Carefully, he twisted and tugged and spun them together to form a flower, which he handed to Celia.
“Me too,” Ashton squealed.
The clown pretended to be thinking then reached into his pocket, removing two orange balloons. He went through the motions again of tugging, twisting, blowing, and stretching until he finally fashioned a hat, which he set on Ashton’s head. The toddler giggled with delight and clapped her hands. The clown reached out and tickled her tummy as another burst of giggles parted the air.
“Do dat to Aunt CeeCee.”
Before Celia could object, the clown’s fingers were tickling her tummy and Ashton was laughing hysterically. Playfully, Celia swatted his hands away and took a few steps backwards. Ashton took that opportunity to lean forward toward the clown, throwing Celia off balance.
Two strong arms circled her and Ashton, steadying them. Celia looked up into the deepest blue eyes she ever saw, and her breath caught in her throat. When she was on sure ground again, she said, “Thank you for your quick actions.”
He took Ashton from her then held out a white-gloved hand. “I’m Ridge Rayburn. Happy to help.”
Celia placed her hand inside his and nearly jumped at the bolt of electricity that charged between them. She smiled as she drew her other hand across her abdomen. “I’m Celia Thornton and this is my niece Ashton. I guess we’d better let you get back to work. It was nice meeting you.”
They walked away and headed toward the jungle. As they fought their way through a sea of brightly colored balls Celia found her thoughts returning to the clown over and over again. His blue eyes were like lakes of mountain water. His grasp on her hand was strong and yet gentle. She’d never felt such a surge of electricity from such common contact before. She couldn’t help but smile each time she thought of him tickling her stomach because Ashton had asked him to tickle her. She figured he would have a carefree and natural way with children. Ashton giggled and tossed some balls at her, scattering her thoughts.
Several hours later, Celia carried a very tuckered out toddler away from the park. She waited by the entrance as a tram pulled to a stop directly in front of her. As she headed for the tram, a group of rowdy teens clamored aboard, filling up all the seats but one. Celia looked around and spied an elderly couple eying the tram as well. She smiled at them and said, “Please, go ahead.”
The woman smiled back at Celia. “You go ahead. You’ve got a sleeping wee one in your arms. We’ll wait.”
From behind them came a deep authoritative voice. “You kids double up on those seats or get off. These people need the ride to the lot more than you do.”
The teens grumbled but showed no disrespect. Some got off the tram while others sat two to a seat, as they should have done when they got on. Celia turned and saw a tall, dark-haired man towering over them. Had it not been for the pools of blue that were his eyes she never would have recognized him.
“Thank you, Ridge.”
He grinned. “I was afraid you wouldn’t recognize me.”
Celia smiled. “I’d know you anywhere.”
He took the sleeping toddler from her and waited while she boarded the tram before handing Ashton back to her. “I’d sure like to take you and the little one here for a bite to eat.”
Ashton chose that moment in time to sit up and yawn and declare, “Uhm hungry Aunt CeeCee.”
Celia nodded in agreement. “Me too.” She looked at Ridge who was grinning bigger than the painted on clown smile he wore earlier. As he got in beside her, she thought to herself that she really would have to thank her brother when he came back from his retreat.
About the Author: Valerie Patterson resides in Southwestern Pennsylvania with her husband, Steven, who also designs all her book covers. Currently, Valerie has two books released by Asylett Press: Montana Reins, which was reviewed by LASR, and The Lincoln Room. Her third book, Gee-Whiz Meets SHAFT—a creative blend of comedy and mystery with romance—will be released the week of Thanksgiving 2008. Visit the author at her website.