Hooper parked in front of Mountain Cove Elementary School, a two-story brick building that bore the patina of time. Indeed, the date 1938 showed from a carved stone above the big front door. She’d seen picture-perfect buildings like this in movies.
“It killed me when Ella started school,” Hooper muttered. “Not that I want her home forever, but it’s just the start.”
“The start of what?” Mallie asked
“Of all the goodbyes.”
She heard the longing and above all, the type of goodbye he actually meant. The same goodbye that lingered just this side of her subconscious. Clearing her throat in lieu of replying, she rubbed a brisk mist from her eyes. They had today. Thinking beyond it was, well, unthinkable.
A troupe of miniature humans lined up at a gate led by a woman in a sweater appliquéd with felt cut-outs of books, apples, and pencils. Mallie recognized Hooper’s munchkin at once, and in a flash, the pretty little girl ran into his outstretched arms, a little backpack falling to the ground. Mallie’s heart couldn’t help but tingle. A daddy’s girl herself, she’d never have made it without her father’s love and care.
“Daddy! Daddy!” After a hefty hug and several smooches, Hoop set Ella down, and she looked straight at Mallie.
“Daddy, is this your new girlfriend?”
Mallie heard her own intake of breath.
“No, honey girl,” Hooper raid quickly. “It’s Miss Mallie.”
“But you want a new mommy for me. Since my old one went away.”
Mallie’s heart panged.
“Yeah, honey girl. But it doesn’t quite work like that.”
“Then who is she?”
Mallie bent down a little. “I’m here for your uncle Kenn’s wedding. I’m Mallie.
“Hi Mallie. I’m Ella,” the little girl said with dead-on seriousness. Then she peered closely at Mallie as if looking for lint. “My real mamma is gone, but someday I’d like to have another one all my own. It would be fun if she was you.” She announced. “You’re awfully pretty.”
“Oh mercy, Ella. What are you saying?” Hoop’s cheekbones colored attractively like sundown over shadows. “Miss Mallie is our friend. Now, come on. If you’re a real good girl, we can go to the Butterbean Café. You can have ice cream while we big people have coffee.”
“You can call me Mallie, Ella.”
“OK. So let’s go get ice cream from Auntie Chelsea, Daddy.” She peeked again at Mallie. “What do you think?”
“I think that’s a mighty fine idea,” Hoop said in a dry tone.
Mallie nodded with what she hoped was enthusiasm because her heart pounded with a terrible ache. How could any mom go and leave this angel behind?But if that was Hoop’s main goal, finding a new mom for his daughter, she was off the hook. Such a goal was way off limits for her. He above all people would understand she couldn’t promise a future to anybody. Therefore, she could enjoy her weekend with them without regret. It might break her heart, but she was a survivor, after all.