November was busy. I traveled to Houston for a romance author conference where I met a lot of amazing authors, then Philadelphia for Indies Invade Philly—thank you to everyone who came up to my table and introduced themselves, and finally, a family vacation to Treasure Island, Florida. We couldn't go to Sanibel Island this year because of the destruction from Hurricane Ian, but we still had a great time at the beach.
Now I'm happy to be home and preparing for the holidays and my middle child's birthday, which is the day after Christmas. I'm ecstatic to share my newest second chance, single dad romance, A Chance at Forever with you. It's live on my shop and will release on all other retailers this Tuesday!
Scroll down for Chapter 2. If you missed Chapter 1, check your inbox for Thursday's newsletter.
The cool air in the bakery had chilled the sweat running down my back, but it did nothing to lessen the conflicting thoughts I was having about my ex.
When I first realized who she was, my heart had stuttered under my rib cage, and it had nothing to do with the way I’d pushed myself on my early morning run.
She’d seemed flustered, her eyes wide and her breathing staggered. Inside, she seemed to relax, and that’s when I noticed she was wearing a pink T-shirt with the words “Sophie’s Sweets” stretched over her breasts. Those words and the way they emphasized all her curves had my imagination running wild.
For a second, it was like no time had passed. She was still my girl, and I was the guy she could depend on, the one she loved. I wanted to move closer, grip her hips, and pull her against me. I wanted the sensation of her soft curves against my hard body. I wanted to feel the familiar weight of her hair in my fingers.
Would she smell like sugar and dough? Would she be as sweet as she’d been as a teenager? Or was she spicier now?
Instead, I’d taken a step toward the counter to block the evidence of my arousal while she’d grabbed the water. When she’d turned, I’d realized she was even more gorgeous than she’d been in high school. Her lanky frame had filled out into enticing curves. Her thick, red, wavy hair with the dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks was the same. She was achingly familiar.
When I’d moved closer to throw out the water bottle, her breath had hitched. She was as affected by my presence as I was by hers.
My heart clenched at seeing her for the first time in a long time. We hadn’t been alone in the same room since she’d turned down my proposal. I’d tried to reach out several times when I was gone, and a few times when I visited home, but she’d been cool toward me. Her wary eyes and the hurt that simmered just below the surface made it seem like I was at fault when she’d been the one to say no to the logical next step—marriage.
Back then, I’d had no choice but to enlist. It had seemed so clear that I needed to leave, to escape my father and this small town. It would have been selfish to beg Sophie to come with me.
She was the practical one. I was the dreamer. The one who thought there was more to life than this small town and my dad’s business. She hadn’t felt the same. Maybe what we had was just young love, and it couldn’t withstand the test of time.
I picked up the pace to a jog on the last stretch home. The endorphins were already kicking in. I felt good. Each step that took me away from the bakery had me thinking about my future. Things had changed. Now that I was discharged from the military, no one controlled my life but me. Anything was possible.
Could I have everything I’d ever wanted, my daughter and Sophie?
It was still quiet when I opened the door, so I made coffee, then started to make pancakes with chocolate chips. Kendall always liked them when she was little, and I hoped she still did.
I wanted to make a good life for my daughter, Kendall, in Annapolis, but I had no idea what to do for work now that I was back.
When I was discharged, Kendall’s mother, Melanie, said she wanted to travel and it was my turn to raise her. Like our daughter was a doll we passed back and forth. I eagerly agreed because I hated that I’d missed so much of her life and was determined to make up for it.
I ate and passed the time reading the news on my phone. I was getting antsy when Kendall finally came down at eight in her pajamas with her hair sticking up.
Affection for her warmed my chest. “Good morning. Are you hungry?”
She plopped down on the end of the couch, her nose wrinkling when she saw my coffee mug. “No.”
“I made chocolate chip pancakes.”
Her lip curled. “What am I? Five?”
I bit back my initial response to remind her to be respectful. I knew moving here would be an adjustment. Kendall hadn’t wanted to leave her friends or her school.
For me, it made sense to move back home. I had family and friends here. It was familiar, and I needed that after being gone for so long.
I took a deep breath. “What would you like to eat?”
She rolled her eyes, and I held my tongue again.
“Why did we have to move here?” She’d made it known she hated small towns.
But I suspected her main issue was that I’d deleted all the apps on her phone. Melanie didn’t monitor her usage. I didn’t mind if she kept in touch with her friends, but I didn’t like the things I was hearing and seeing on those apps. She was constantly primping and prepping and then filming herself. All I could think about was who was watching my little girl on the other end.
“This is my home.” This decision tore me up inside because she would be more comfortable in the home she’d grown up in, but Melanie had sold it.
“It’s not mine.” Her jaw set in a stubborn line, reminding me a little of myself at her age.
I settled my elbows on my knees, drawing on the patience I’d used in the military. “I hope you’ll like it. That you’ll at least give it a chance.”
She snorted and looked away from me.
I liked to think I wasn’t the same when I was a kid, but I was probably worse. I butted heads with my dad every time we were in the same room together.
But I couldn’t let her disrespect continue. “I know you didn’t want to move here.”
“I want to live with Mom.”
I wasn’t expecting that admission, and I guess I should have. She’d always lived full time with her mother, but I thought she would still want to see me. In the past, she enjoyed our time together, but it was limited, and I always planned fun things for us to do.
It wasn’t real life. Now we’d be living together full time, and I was tasked with making sure she went to school and did her homework. It was a different dynamic. A role she wasn’t used to me playing.
“I’m sorry I missed out on so much of your childhood, but I want to get to know you better. I want to be your father.” I needed to be patient with her and let her get used to the idea.
She didn’t respond, but I took it as a good sign that she didn’t roll her eyes this time.
“I loved my job, but I hate that it took me away from you. I wanted to be there when you said your first words, took your first step, and when you learned how to ride a bike. I want to be there for you now.” I didn’t ask her if she’d let me because I didn’t think I’d like her answer. It would take time for her to get used to me being in her life more.
She swallowed and then nodded.
I let out the breath I’d been holding. It was something. A small step forward. It was more than I expected after the painful drive from Indiana to Maryland.
I needed to focus on Kendall and what she needed. I shouldn’t be caught up in a high school relationship that ended ten years ago.
I got up to move the chocolate chip pancakes to a container and pour myself some orange juice.
Kendall followed me and sat on the stool. “Can I have blueberry pancakes?”
“Sure.” I probably should have refused because I already made her a perfectly good breakfast, but I needed to pick my battles. I’d gotten a small concession from her this morning. I wouldn’t push it.
I mixed the batter, pleased that Kendall helped put the blueberries in before cooking them. Kendall brushed her brown hair behind her ears. She had my brown hair and eyes and was on the cusp of developing into a teenager. I wasn’t ready for any of it, but I’d figure it out. She needed me no matter how much she pushed me away.
She was still in that last stage of being a girl but not yet a teenager, and I wanted to hold on to that for as long as I could. It was the primary reason I’d taken away the apps on her phone. It might have been the right thing to do, but I knew I’d make missteps along the way.
I didn’t want her to put herself in danger, but I also didn’t want her to grow up too soon, worrying about how she looked on video, wearing makeup, and—God forbid—stressing about her weight.
“What are you going to do this summer?” When I was her age, I was really into sports, but Melanie said she wasn’t. I’d looked into activities, but other than camps and some recreational sports, there wasn’t much that wasn’t already full.
Kendall’s shoulders raised. “I usually hang out with my friends.”
“We need to find some girls your age,” I said, with one eye on the batter and the other on her irritated expression.
Kendall huffed. “How are we going to do that? You don’t know anyone here anymore.”
I knew Sophie. Maybe I could ask her. She had younger sisters, but they’d probably be too old for Kendall. “We’ll figure it out together. In the meantime, you can hang out with me.”
She huffed a second time, but I got the impression she was pleased. Melanie had worked full time, and I often wondered if Kendall was left to roam the neighborhood with her friends all summer. That was a recipe for trouble. I didn’t want that for her.
I didn’t have a job yet, but I had some time to figure things out. I toyed with the idea of going to school, too. I’d wait until Kendall was settled in first. Then I’d figure out my life. Right now, I needed to reestablish a relationship with my daughter. I needed to ensure that she felt safe and secure. I wanted her to be happy.
The idea of starting over rested heavily on my shoulders. I loved the military enough to be a lifer, but Kendall changed everything. I wasn’t okay with missing her grow up. I wanted to be more than a part-time dad.
I had a box of letters she’d sent over the years. They started out as hand-drawn pictures and had evolved over the years to letters where she told me about everything. As she got older, they got shorter and less frequent. She was growing up and away from me.
I only had this time with her. I was going to make it count.
As I drove toward my childhood home, my stomach tightened. I left town at eighteen because my dad issued an ultimatum, and I wanted to be free of his control. The only option that made sense was enlisting in the military. The recruiting officer said I’d earn a good paycheck, they’d shape me into a man, and, in the end, I’d have a marketable skill. I could even go to college.
I wanted to be independent, but I also loved the idea of belonging to something bigger than myself. I immediately felt like part of a large family, one that accepted me no matter what my homelife was like. I was following someone else’s commands, but I’d never felt so free and proud of who I’d become.
If I’d stayed at home and worked in my father’s lumber business, I would have felt stuck. My dad had this way of making me feel less than, like nothing I could do would ever please him. Even with Sophie here, I would have always wondered what else was out there.
Now that I’d seen the world, I knew the only thing that mattered was my daughter, and making her feel safe, secure, and happy. I wouldn’t be like my father. I wanted her to want to be around me. Not escape as I had at eighteen.
I pulled down the long drive of the property that doubled as my father’s home and lumber company.
“This is huge,” Kendall said.
My parents usually flew out to see Melanie and Kendall, so she’d never been here. I felt a pang that she’d missed knowing her grandparents better.
We passed several large buildings where supplies and equipment were held. The lane was long and dusty and frequented by large trucks. Finally, the family home came into view.
“I can’t believe you lived here.”
“It wasn’t quite this large when I lived here, but yeah, it was a lot.” I couldn’t escape my father’s expectations that I’d take over the business one day.
I wanted to have options, and if I’d stayed here, I wouldn’t.
I parked my truck in front. “Are you ready for this?”
Kendall looked from the house to me. “Are you?”
I chuckled without any humor, amazed that Kendall sensed it was difficult for me to be here. “My father and I didn’t always see eye to eye.”
That was an understatement. He wanted me to work at the lumberyard, not play sports or be involved in activities. He hated that I was seeing Sophie. He disliked anything that kept me away from my responsibilities.
Kendall touched my hand and then opened her door to slide out. I sensed it was her way of telling me she was here with me. We were a unit. I let that idea settle in my chest.
She waited at the hood of the truck for me to join her. With a nod, I continued toward the porch, taking a deep breath before I knocked.
Kendall raised a brow at the move. She was probably wondering why I didn’t feel comfortable walking inside.
Mom opened the door. Her eyes widened as she took me in, and then she enveloped me in her arms. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
Mom never wanted me to leave, but she wanted me to be happy. She’s the one who sent care packages and letters updating me about the town and Sophie.
As much as it hurt to hear about Sophie and to know she didn’t want to hear from me personally, I ate up every tidbit I got.
“And you,” Mom said as she pulled away from me to hug her granddaughter. Tears sparkled in her eyes. “I’m so happy you’re here.”
The teenage attitude I’d seen this morning had dissipated. In its place was a girl who seemed pleased to be getting attention from her grandmother.
Mom pulled back, her eyes bright. “Come in. Come in.”
We walked through the foyer, following the smell of baked chicken into the large kitchen. It had been completely renovated since I’d lived here. The wall between the kitchen and the living room had been knocked down so I could see out the large windows to the trees on the back of the property. “This looks great.”
“Your father finally let me have free rein a few years ago.”
Comfortable furniture faced a large stone fireplace. Not seeing my father, I asked, “You need any help with dinner?”
“Oh, it’s finished. I just need to set the table if you want to take the plates and silverware into the dining room.”
Kendall followed me, grabbing the napkins and the pitcher of iced tea. We quietly set the table. I was lost in the memories after not being in this home for a meal in ten years. Anytime I visited, I stayed in a hotel and met my parents at a restaurant. I needed to maintain distance.
“I didn’t believe it,” my father said as he entered the room.
My stomach tightened further as I looked up at the man who never failed to set me on edge. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
I sounded just like Kendall had earlier. My tone filled with irritation. Christ, he made me so prickly.
He stood in the room, his feet set shoulder-width apart, his arms crossed over his chest. His jaw was tight, his eyes narrow. Then his gaze settled on Kendall, and he softened. He lowered his arms to his side. “Kendall.”
“Grandpa.” She moved into his arms that he held out for her.
I’d never been present for her visitations with her grandparents, so I didn’t know how close their relationship was. But she seemed genuinely happy to see my father, in a way she hadn’t exhibited with my mother. Were they close?
Dad closed his eyes as he squeezed her tighter. When he pulled back slightly, he looked down at her. “Is it true that you moved here?”
Kendall nodded. There were no eye rolls or complaints. She seemed to have a soft spot for my dad. I couldn’t reconcile that with my relationship with him.
Dad ruffled her hair. “I’m happy you’re here.”
Was he happy I was here? Why did I care? I thought I’d gotten over seeking his approval a long time ago.
“I’m surprised you moved here,” Dad said to me over Kendall’s head.
“It’s a great town to raise a child. Plus, I have family here.” When I made the decision to move back, I wasn’t sure how Dad would receive me. I knew Mom would be pleased, but would he expect me to work for the business?
Dad scrutinized me before he finally nodded. “I’m glad.”
Had I finally done something he agreed with?
My parents had been upset when I got Melanie pregnant. They thought it was reckless and that a baby would ruin my life. At the time, I’d been trying to forget Sophie. It was after boot camp, and I was set to deploy. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage it unless I erased Sophie from my memory bank. She’d been clear that she wasn’t interested in creating a future with me, or at least, that’s how I took it.
We were drunk. I couldn’t even remember if we’d used protection. I was pissed at myself until I saw Kendall for the first time. I’d never forget what it was like to hold her, to feel her warmth and the grip of her fingers.
I didn’t regret Kendall because she was the best thing in my life, but it wasn’t easy expecting a child with a one-night stand while deployed. Instead of making my father proud that I was doing things on my own, I’d disappointed him yet again.
Mom came into the room with a casserole dish in her hands. Dad took it from her and set it carefully in the center of the table.
“I, for one, am ecstatic you’re here. We have so many things to catch up on.” Mom’s gaze flitted from me to where Dad stood.
There was palpable tension in the room between my father and me.
Kendall looked at me uncertainly.
“Sit. I bet you’re hungry,” Mom said as she left the room again.
“I’ll see if she needs help,” Dad said.
I poured iced tea for everyone and then sat across from Kendall in my old spot. The one where I’d spent countless evenings waiting for my father to come home from work. More often than not, Mom and I ate alone. She made excuses for him, and I wondered if I’d grow up to be the same way. A man who let his family down again and again.
I wanted to be different. I valued hard work, just not at the expense of my family. My father didn’t get that distinction. I was convinced he could have done better, encouraging me instead of putting me down.
I dished the chicken casserole onto Kendall’s plate, then mine.
Mom and Dad came back into the room with a salad bowl.
“Go ahead and dig in,” Mom prompted Kendall, who lifted her fork and took a tentative bite.
I wasn’t sure what life was like with Melanie. Whether she cooked or ate out for most meals. Was Kendall alone a lot? Had she wished I was there for her like I’d pined for my father? The thought settled uncomfortably in my gut.
I took a large bite of the casserole, chewing and swallowing. It settled heavily in my stomach.
“What are your plans now that you’re here?” Dad asked.
His tone was deceptively casual. Every argument we’d had those last few years hinged on this very question. What were my plans? Would I forge my own path or fall back on his expectations?
“We need to get settled, register Kendall for school, and find some friends for her.”
I felt Dad’s unwavering gaze on the side of my face.
“That sounds like a good plan,” Mom said.
“What are you going to do for work?” Dad asked.
I tensed. I should have known he wouldn’t let it go. “I have time to figure it out.”
The silence fell on the table like snow in the winter.
“I might go to school, but I have options and the time to figure it out.”
Dad made a disbelieving noise in his throat.
He didn’t believe in figuring things out. He believed in decisive action. According to him, the decision was easy: work for him.
I’d always resisted. I think it was the weight of expectation. It felt like I’d had no other choice, and I’d rebelled hard against that.
“They just got here. Let them settle in,” Mom chided.
We ate while Mom talked about the farmer’s market, who’d stayed in town and who’d left. It was mindless chatter to keep the air filled with words. I sensed Dad at the other end of the table getting tenser by the second.
I finished eating and pushed the plate back. “I saw Sophie today.”
I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it up. Other than wanting to share it with somebody who understood.
Mom smiled. “She opened that bakery a few years ago.”
“It looks like she’s doing well.” I couldn’t see much of the bakery beyond Sophie standing in front of me. Even then, I didn’t know if she was happy or content with her life. Had she gotten everything she’d ever wanted?
“She’s a sweet girl. She stops by to see me sometimes and drops off baked goods.”
It was a small town, and Mom told me how she was doing over the years. So that didn’t surprise me.
“Who is Sophie?” Kendall asked.
Shit. I shouldn’t have even brought her up. I wasn’t prepared to explain my relationship with Sophie to Kendall. Maybe not ever. “She’s an old friend.”
“They were high school sweethearts,” Mom said with a smile.
I stiffened. Why was she giving more information than I wanted to reveal?
Kendall’s eyes widened. “Why did you break up?”
“I enlisted.” There was more to it than that. But what could I say to a nine-year-old? I asked Sophie to be my wife, and she said no. The familiar rejection flitted around the edges of my consciousness.
“You didn’t try to make it work?” Kendall asked.
“She didn’t want to.” My jaw ached with the force I used to keep my mouth shut.
“Are you sure—” Mom started.
I held my hand up. “That chapter in my life is over.”
I didn’t have time for dating or revisiting an old love. Sophie hadn’t wanted me back then, and I wouldn’t get my hopes up that anything had changed.
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