Kelly Shepherd followed the bustling passengers through the New Orleans terminal and toward the signs to baggage claim. Colorful posters of boiled seafood advertising famous restaurants lined the walls and the faint sound of jazz drifted to her ears. Regret rolled through her stomach, along with her meager in-flight snack.
As she descended the escalator, her gaze scanned the sea of awaiting faces. She noticed the sparkle in a young man’s eyes when he spotted the beautiful blonde standing on the step below her. When they embraced, longing filled Kelly’s heart. The person waiting for her was an editor who had volunteered to share his home and family for eight days while she wrote her Cajun Christmas story.
Kelly searched the crowd, but failed to see a brown-haired man with a receding hairline. At least that was how Carroll Lebouve had described himself over the phone.
“Miss Shepherd? Miss Shepherd?” The high-pitched child’s voice echoed above the hum of conversation in the busy airport. Kelly followed the sound to a little girl standing on tiptoes next to a row of chairs. She seemed to be about ten and held a brightly wrapped package. Mr. Labouve hadn’t mentioned a daughter. Kelly’s heart leapt at the sight of the candy cane taped on top the gift. Even though they didn't know what the candy cane meant to her, it was a comfort.
A tall, muscled man stood next to the child. Although, his full head of dark hair didn’t match the receding hairline description, he held a small poster with her name written in red print. His dark eyes searched the group of arriving passengers until his gaze settled on hers. He mouthed, Shepherd?
As she approached, the corners of his mouth tilted. More on the left than the right.
“Miss Shepherd.” He tossed the poster into a nearby trashcan then extended his hand—a solid masculine hand. “Denny Labouve, I’m Carroll’s brother. He sends his apologies for not being here. His father-in-law was rushed to the hospital this afternoon.”
“I’m so sorry.” She shook his hand. “Is he all right?” Even at five-nine, she had to tilt her head back to meet his brown eyes. A scar interrupted the smooth hair of his left eyebrow.
“Heart attack. He’s in surgery right now. Our whole family has been praying. Carroll will call when they have more information.” He turned toward the child standing next to him. “This is my daughter—”
“I’m Chelsea Labouve.” With an erect posture and brilliant smile, she extended one hand toward Kelly.
Kelly smiled and leaned toward the girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Chelsea, I’m Kelly Shepherd, but you already know that, don’t you?” Chelsea’s small hand warmed her own for the brief moment they touched. Either this child resembled her mother or she was adopted because with her fair hair and blue eyes, she looked nothing like her father.
Chelsea pointed toward the trashcan where Denny had ditched the hand-made poster. “Yes, ma’am, Miss Shepherd, I do.”
Kelly cringed then smiled. She’d never been called ma’am before. Suddenly, at thirty she felt old.
“This is for you.” Chelsea extended the package toward her.
Kelly accepted the gift and paused to rein in her emotions. If only this child knew what the candy cane meant to her. She stole a glance toward Denny Labouve. The loving look and gentle smile he showered on his daughter melted Kelly’s heart.