Sam didn't remember bringing his truck to a stop or even getting out of it so focused was he on the scene before him. He knew the look that passed between Sandra and Mark; the two of them were in a stand off. Mark's arms were folded, unmoving. Sandra's fury resonated from her very pores. But neither she or Mark was his concern, it was the little girl who was seated in the back seat of Mark's car, the silent outsider about whom all of the turmoil revolved.
Wide blue eyes followed his motions as he opened the rear door and climbed into the back seat. Its small occupant obligingly scooted over to give him additional space for his much larger frame. Still his knees bumped against the back of the chair in front of him, forcing him to contort a bit before facing her. The few moments gave him a brief time to think. It was becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what he needed to say to his wise little girl.
He met her eyes, saw the shadows there, and spoke the first thing that came into his heart. "I'm sorry."
Support was what Beth had needed this day and he hadn't been there to give it. It had not been Mark's place to accompany her to the park; it had been his as her father. He wasn't sure what more he could say to make her understand that he'd needed to be away that morning without her feeling as if he had abandoned her. She'd already had the worst sort of abandonment.
"Why are you sorry?" Her question surprised him. Her face was screwed up with the genuineness of the inquiry, and she was giving him one of those 'Daddy, what in the world are you talking about?' looks. It threw him slightly off center.
"Because I wasn't here before your mom got here." He spoke with uncertainly, still not entirely sure what to make of her response. "I didn't want you to have to meet her again all alone." He made a gesture toward the side of the car. "This is the kind of scene I was hoping to avoid."
"But you're here now, dad. And besides, she just got here." Her brow wrinkled in confusion. "Is something wrong?"
Sam frowned in response. "I didn't want you to be upset about this. You seemed upset – that's why I got in here. I wanted to talk to you."
"I was worried about you. You looked really upset when you got out of the truck."
"I was really. . . "Upset when I got out of the truck. The sentence completed in his mind as he did a mental rewind. A half chuckle rushed forward and some of the tension left him as the truth dawned. "You were worried about me," he said, more statement than question.
"We were worried about each other," Beth corrected with humor of her own.
"Aren't we just a pair?" Sam's smile grew. He sobered slightly, then continued. "Ready for this?"
"I think so." Beth heaved a very grown up breath.
"Me, too." Sam looked at three others standing outside of the car. Robyn's back was to the passenger side door as she was guarding entry to the vehicle. Cassandra was faced aware, her stance telegraphing her distaste. Mark stood at the other side of the car from Sandra looking thoughtfully between the two women. When he caught Sam's eye, his brows raised, silently asking if everything was okay. Sam gave a little smile, communicating the 'all clear'.
Sam turned back to Beth. "Give me a minute to talk to Cassandra and then we'll get you two together. In the meantime, how'd you like for Robyn and Mark to take you to find some seats for us in the pavilion?"
Beth played along, already scooting toward the other door so that she could get out on Mark's side of the car. "Sounds good."
Robyn moved when the other door opened and stepped to the side allowing Sam to maneuver his way out of Mark's not-meant-for-long-legs back seat. She called a greeting to Beth which was returned cheerily.
Sam made the same request of Robyn and Mark that he'd spoken to Beth in the car. They both readily agreed, but Robyn, standing so near took a moment to study him, as if seeking the answer to a question that she hadn't spoken aloud. She must have found what she was looking for because she graced him with the softest of smiles and headed off with Mark and Beth. Sam was compelled to watch them go.
Sandra approached in the intervening time, following the direction of his gaze. When he looked down at her, he saw obvious hurt in her eyes. "How serious is it?"
Sam sighed inwardly. He didn't want to go to this place with her. "We can all have lunch together. Depending on how that goes we can spend some time on the beach. If you want a few minutes alone with Beth, it will be there with me nearby."
The hurt hardened to resistance. "What makes you think you can dictate the terms of how I can see my daughter? And how is it that you think it's okay to bring your girlfriend along? I would think that you would have a better sense of propriety than that."
"I don't have the energy to trade barbs with you, Sandra," Sam told her tiredly. "Take it or leave it. Those are your options. But know that Beth wanted to see you and as far as I can tell you haven't spoken even one word in her direction. Things are boding well for time on the beach."
Sandra blinked, realization and then thoughtfulness chased across her face. "Have it your way, then." With a small smile, she gestured toward the buildings at the far end of the parking area. "Shall we?"
Sam responded by falling into step alongside her.
She sauntered lazily along, tossing her hair back as she looked at him over her shoulder. "You've changed, you know." She looked at him out of the side of hers.
He was aware that she was trying to flirt with him, and blithely ignored it. "In what way?"
"You're . . . ." she shrugged artfully before settling on a word, "Stronger."
"What?" he came to an abrupt halt, allowing her to get several paces ahead of him. That wasn't the answer he'd been expecting to hear at all.
She half turned to look at him and laughed outright. "Don't look so surprised. It isn't a bad thing, Sam. I rather like it. I think you could actually handle me now." She looked him up and down, an unspoken suggestion there for him to see.
Sam's mouth dropped open and his eyes widened. He really shouldn't have been so surprised. "You want us to get back together."
She faced him more fully, took a step closer and speared him with a look. "I think it's what's best for our little girl. You've been a wonderful father to her, but she's getting ready to enter those years when she'll need a woman's guidance. I want to accept my responsibility for the mess I've made and be there for the both of you."
Sam's mind stalled. "Sandra . . . I . . . ."
"You weren't expecting this, I understand that. But it's what I've wanted to tell you but the old arguments kept getting in the way. I'm willing to let them go and move on if you're willing to do the same." Without waiting for a response, she turned and headed in toward the giant pavilion.
Sam could do little more than follow, wondering at the minefield that might lie ahead of him.