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CHARLENE

BRIGHT


Brand New Cowboy


Modern Cowboy Second Chance Romance Novella



Brand New Cowboy

Copyright © 2017 by Charlene Bright

All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without the express written permission of the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


Brand New Cowboy

Levi Wilcox thought he had left Morris Grove and the ghosts of his past behind him after high school. Living in Oklahoma City, he has had to deal with the anger he feels over the death of his parents. When a life altering event calls him back home, he opens his heart in unexpected ways.


Leslie Perkins has been in love with Levi since she was twelve, but he broke her heart in high school. She has spent the last fifteen years mending her heart and building a life for her and her young daughter.


Levi is now a single father to a four-year-old girl and when the two children meet, they form a fast friendship. Can their budding friendship bring their parents together? Is Leslie ready to give Levi a second chance?



Prologue

1997


Levi unlocked the front door and dropped his backpack on the table just inside the door as he wiped his feet on the rug.

Anybody home?” he shouted as he headed up the stairs. He knew his parents were supposed to be out until after dinner—which was why he was getting a ride with his best friend Eric Cooper to football practice—but he thought he’d check just in case they’d gotten home early.

No answer.

He ran into his bedroom to grab his equipment bag and helmet and dropped them off downstairs, before going to the kitchen to make a snack. He fixed himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and wrapped it in the napkin just as he heard a horn from the driveway, then grabbed his football equipment on the way out the door, locking it behind him.

Eric’s dad drove a dark-blue Chevy Blazer, and Eric was hanging out one of the back windows encouraging Levi to hurry up. He wanted to get to practice before Charlie so he could talk the coach into letting him practice as quarterback.

Eric, get back inside. People around here are going to think I let you ride like a dog with his head out the window,” Mr. Cooper said, as he tapped at the automatic window control to threaten him. Eric pulled back inside and turned to Levi as he hopped into the seat next to him. They snapped their seatbelts and launched into an animated discussion about who should play which position.

It was dark by the time they were leaving the football field. Eric was teasing Levi about running in to Leslie Perkins.

You li-i-i-ike her,” he said in a sing-songy voice.

I do not!”

Whatever, dude. She’s gonna get you to marry her and have babies with her. Levi and Leslie, sittin’ in a tree, K-I—”

Boys!” growled Eric’s dad from the front. “That’s enough arguing.”

He pulled into Levi’s driveway.

Hey, Levi,” he said to the young boy, “doesn’t look like your parents are home yet. Why don’t you go check? I’ll stick around here until we know for sure.”

Levi looked up at the dark house. The front porch light was on, but he saw no other lights. He hopped out of the vehicle and keyed in the code to open the garage door. His parents’ car wasn’t there, so he walked back to the driver’s side window of his friend’s vehicle.

I’ll go see if they left a message inside.”

I’ll wait right here,” said Mr. Cooper.

Levi nodded and carried his helmet and bag to the front door. As he was inserting the key into the lock, another car pulled into the driveway. Expecting to see his parents, he looked over, ready to complain to them for being late.

It was his grandparents. They lived in a ranch out past the town limits, or out “in the boondocks” as his mom often called it. She’d grown up there so felt she was allowed to poke fun at the farmland where she was born and raised. But no one else had permission to put it down in her presence.

Confused, he dropped his hand from the keys and walked toward the car as his grandparents emerged. His grandmother ran to his side while his grandfather stopped to talk to Mr. Cooper. Levi saw his friend’s father’s face show concern as his grandmother pulled him into her arms and whispered, “Let’s go inside, dear.”


Chapter 1


Levi Wilcox awoke from his dream in a cold sweat. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d had the nightmare in the twenty years since his parents had died. Unfortunately, the son-of-a-bitch drunk who plowed through the red light and into their car had never been identified. Perhaps if he had, Levi wouldn’t still be dreaming about the incident.

He lay in the dark, coming into consciousness and remembered where he was. He and his four-year-old daughter, Amberlyn, had been living in his grandparents’ ranch house for less than a week. It had been her, more than anything, that had caused him to finally grow up so that when his grandma told him she and his granddad were moving into an assisted living facility, he had been mature enough to step up and move back to Morris Grove. He could be counted on now to be a responsible and kind grandson.

Levi had spent most of the years after ‘The Night,’ as they all referred to it, causing his grandparents a good deal of worry. There had been more than one night spent in jail, mostly for driving under the influence—he shuddered to think of it now—but once for public indecency. He hoped they never had any reason to know about many of the things for which he hadn’t been caught.

The night that he’d told them he was going to be a father, and a single one at that, they had been far less upset than he had expected. It was cause for concern, but there seemed to be some relief mixed into the emotions, as well as excitement and joy. He was now certain that they had known something he didn’t: that number one, he was capable of raising and loving a child, and that number two, it would change his life so much for the better that now he could barely conceive of a life without his daughter.

Levi rolled over and looked at the bright red numbers of the clock in the dark: 5:06. He put his arms behind his head and stared up into the darkness, imagining the ceiling above him. The sun would be rising soon, he thought, so he might as well get up. But another voice crept in, reminding him that he did not have a job to rush to or a daycare for Amberlyn yet. Hopefully that would change today, though, or at least head in that direction.

He’d heard that a high school classmate ran an at-home daycare center. He planned on calling her later that morning to see if she had any openings. Then later this week he was meeting with his old buddy Eric about partnering on a construction business. He’d spent the last ten years in construction and had found not only that he did it well, but that he was interested in pursuing it. It had helped rebuild his bank account after he’d mostly squandered the money left to him by his parents. One thing he did not regret spending that money on, however, was his daughter.

Amberlyn’s mother had not been interested in having a child at the juncture of her life when she’d found herself pregnant. Levi barely remembered the night he met Tanya. A friend in Oklahoma City had hosted a party. After an hour of excessive drinking and flirting, Levi and Tanya found themselves locked in a bedroom upstairs at the buddy’s house. When he left, he’d promised, insincerely, to call her. A couple of months later, she called him.

At first, he hadn’t believed her when she said she was positive it was his baby. He had planned to wait until after the baby’s birth and get a DNA test and then decide what role he’d play in the child’s life, but Tanya was planning an abortion and begging for his help. Without really understanding why he’d done it, he offered to pay her to have the child, using the balance of his trust fund, and let him raise it.

For the next seven months, he prepared his home for a baby, went to parenting classes, stopped drinking, and attended every doctor’s appointment with Tanya. She remained uninterested in raising the child, considering herself as only a surrogate. Honoring their agreement, she named him the father on the birth certificate and signed over all parental rights.

He never saw her again and doubted she’d ever even told her parents that they had a grandchild. Levi struggled regularly with whether he should find Tanya’s parents and let them know about Amberlyn. He worried about what he would tell his little girl when she inevitably wanted to know about her mother and her mother’s family, but had decided he’d just cross that bridge when they came to it.

He named the baby after the two most important women in his life, his mother Amber, and his grandmother’s middle name. Sandra and Alton Paulson were delighted with their great-grandchild and with the father Levi had become. They doted on Amberlyn, much the way they had doted on him when he was young and in their care. Levi never felt alone in raising his daughter.

Now having to come face to face with their mortality, he had started to feel alone and hoped he’d still be able to offer his daughter all the care she deserved.

Levi started to roll over and close his eyes again, to get in a few more winks, when his bedroom door burst open and a four-year-old girl pattered into the room and leapt onto the bed. He had acknowledged that there might come a day when he would need to start locking his bedroom door, but he’d had very little time for girlfriends in his new life, and he figured it would be another bridge they’d cross at a later time. For now, he enjoyed the morning snuggles with his baby girl and was not particularly looking forward to the day when she no longer enjoyed them as well.

“Daddy!” she squealed as she crawled over to him and lay her head on his shoulder. “Are we gonna see Nanny and Poppy today?”

“We sure are,” he said, putting his arm around her and trying not to think of the day when she would be too big to hold like this. “And we might even make some new friends today.”

“Really?”

He imagined her eyes getting wide beneath her blond bangs. Amberlyn was a very friendly child and made friends easily. She would be excited at the possibility, especially since she didn’t have friends yet in Morris Grove.

“Really,” he answered. “Would you like that?”

She squealed again and jumped off the bed.

“Where are you going?”

“To find presents to give my new friends!”


***


Leslie Perkins took the backpack from the young mother whose two-year-old son took off for the playroom as soon as his toes touched the floor. There were already three other children playing with blocks. Leslie’s daycare had five children enrolled, counting her own three-year-old daughter, Ava. One of those was an eight-month-old who was home sick today. If she took on any more children, she’d need to hire an assistant, which she’d considered doing anyway. Her at-home daycare had been doing well enough to consider expanding. She’d been thinking off and on for two years about opening a center and hiring other caregivers and had recently begun the process, having toured an empty insurance office with five rooms, a small kitchen, and a nice, large lobby space, which would make a great playroom.

“He’s got a little bit of a sniffle,” the mother was saying, “but the doctor says it’s allergies and not anything contagious.”

“Thanks for letting me know, Kim. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if he starts feeling bad.”

Kim nodded and reached into her purse. “Here’s some Children’s Claritin if his eyes start itching and watering.”

Leslie took the medicine and thanked the young woman before heading into the playroom where four children between the ages of two and four were playing.

She had just popped a Disney move in the DVD player when her cell phone rang. It was her friend, Becca, the mother of the sick eight-month-old.

“Hey, Becca,” she answered.

“Hey,” the woman replied with a marked lack of enthusiasm.

“Something going on with Jacob?”

“No, he’s fine, but I do have some bad news.”

Leslie looked over at the children who were lying on a blanket on the floor, eyes glued to the television. She stepped into the hallway where she could talk more privately but still see the kids.

“Mark was laid off today,” her friend said.

“Oh no. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Tell me about it,” Becca sighed. “We knew it was coming when CVS moved in. It’s not the first independent pharmacy to go under because of the giants moving into small-town America.”

“No, I guess not. So, do you think he’ll try to get on at CVS?”

“Not sure. We’re hoping he doesn’t have to. Right now, it would feel like joining the enemy, but we’re not ruling it out. Luckily my practice can sustain us until we decide what to do, and Mark’s been so good at keeping up our emergency fund. It could be so much worse.”

“Yeah, it’s still difficult, I bet.”

“Yep. It does mean that we won’t need daycare for Jacob for a while and I know you sometimes have to turn away folks.”

Leslie pulled the phone away from her mouth. “Billy, we don’t wipe our noses on the blanket,” she said into the room. “Please get a tissue from the supplies box.” She turned her attention back to the phone. “Sorry about that.”

Becca giggled. “You’re so good at that, you know. Look, I’m still working on our plan. I’m not cancelling our dinner tomorrow night. We’re still going to finish up this paperwork for you to get a facility and the license to own a larger daycare center.”

Leslie smiled. Becca was one of the few attorneys in the area and often in demand, but she always made time to help her friend pursue her dream.

“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you,” Becca said. “Guess who I’m meeting with on Thursday.”

“Um, the pope?” teased Leslie.

“Yes, Leslie,” her friend deadpanned. “My rabbi thought it would be good for us to make some inroads with the Catholics and try to merge our religions.”

The two women giggled.

“No, I’m meeting with Eric Cooper and his old buddy Levi Wilcox. He’s moved back here with his daughter and is taking over his grandparents’ ranch. You know, since Mr. and Mrs. Paulson moved into Shady Tree Retirement Center.”

Leslie had heard about the Paulsons and wondered if Levi would be returning to Morris Grove.

“Interesting,” she said absent-mindedly as she thought about times Levi had teased and embarrassed her for her crush on him in high school. “Didn’t know he had a daughter.”

“I don’t know anything about his child, but he didn’t mention a wife.”

A single father? The thought nearly made Leslie laugh out loud. Levi Wilcox was about as far from a caring parent as anyone could get. Not only had he been a jerk to almost everyone at school, he’d also been in trouble more times than she could count. She worried for the child and looked at her own daughter who had turned over on her back, her brown curls encircling her head, not watching the movie.

“Hey, Becca, I gotta go.”

“Oh, of course. Didn’t meant to keep you.”

“No problem. Thanks for letting me know about Mark. I hope Jacob is feeling better soon. Keep me posted.”

“Will do. Talk to you later.”

She set her phone on the bookshelf as she walked over to her daughter whose arm was draped over her forehead. “Mama, do I have a fever?”

Leslie smiled and sat in the arm chair. “I don’t know. Come here and let me feel.” Her daughter was prone to being dramatic and craving attention, but Leslie was careful to listen to her and not brush her off. She wanted her to feel comfortable telling her mother when she wasn’t feeling well, and not ever feel embarrassed or afraid to tell her when something was really wrong. Those incidences also made for good teaching moments about the difference between feeling bad emotionally and feeling bad physically. It could be a difficult distinction for a three-year-old.

And as far as craving attention, Leslie could hardly blame her. It had only been the two of them since the day she was born and her mother’s attention had to be shared so often with other children. Leslie found herself walking carefully the balance beam between being too indulgent and encouraging manipulative behavior, and making sure her daughter knew she would always come first in her life.

Mother and child talked often about being honest about feelings and needs and asking for things appropriately instead of trying to ‘trick’ them out of someone. Still, Ava was only three and many of her needs and tactics were developmentally appropriate, so Leslie was careful to choose her battles.

Ava crawled on her stomach over to her mother, drawing another smile from Leslie’s face. Ava stood so that Leslie could put her hand on the child’s forehead. She turned her hand over and laid the back of it on her cheek, then put her palms on both cheeks and pulled her daughter into a kiss. “You feel fine to me.”

“Are you sure? I feel hot.”

“I’m sure, but we’ll check again in a few minutes. You want some cold juice to help you cool down?”

The little girl nodded and Leslie went into the kitchen, unlocked the childproof gadget, and pulled out a sippy cup three-quarters full of apple juice. Every morning, she prepared several drinks for the children so she could spend as little time out of their sight as possible.

Seconds later, she brought the juice to Ava, who sat back down on the blanket and turned her attention back to the movie.

Leslie’s phone trilled and she grabbed it off the bookcase, not recognizing the number.

“Leslie’s Place,” she said in answer.

“Hi, is this Leslie Perkins?” came a deep drawl.

“This is she.”

“Hi, Leslie. I don’t know if you remember me but this is Levi Wilcox. We went to high school together.”

Oh, I remember. “Oh, hi, Levi. I just heard about Mr. and Mrs. Paulson moving out of their home and that you had moved back.”

“Yes, my daughter and me. We’ll be living here. That’s actually why I’m calling. Amberlyn—my daughter—will be needing a daycare. She’s four. I heard you have an at-home daycare and was hoping you had an opening.”

She started to say that her home was full, but closed her eyes, remembering Jacob. And since she hadn’t really started a waiting list, she didn’t feel comfortable telling him she had one. “Actually, yes, just got an opening this morning, in fact.”

“My luck ain’t usually that good.” She could hear the smile in his voice and remembered the smile she had so often dreamt about when she was sixteen.

“Okay if we come by there in a little bit to meet you and check out the place?”

“Sure,” she sighed. They arranged a time before lunch and Leslie returned to the armchair, noting that Billy had fallen asleep, a snot bubble blowing with each breath. She grabbed a tissue and knelt next to him, wiping softly. She quietly picked up the two-year-old and took him to the playpen on the other side of the room. Dread filled her stomach as she thought about Levi Wilcox standing in her doorway.


***

Leslie couldn’t figure out what it was she liked about Levi. She just knew that her breath caught in her throat every time she saw him and had since she was twelve years old. It seemed more like an old habit by now, something that no amount of reason could change. No matter how many times she witnessed scenes like the one at lunch today.

She had been sitting with her friends on the outdoor table when Levi and Eric had arrived, wearing their new football jackets and laughing. Levi caught her eye and winked at her, sending a flood of flutterings into her stomach. He’d kept his eyes on her, a mischievous grin spreading across his cute face when he sat next to Jordan and put his arm around her. He kept watching Leslie’s face when he leaned in and whispered in Jordan’s ear and she abruptly turned to Leslie, laughing.

Her face hot, she had quickly turned back to Becca who hadn’t missed the exchange, and Leslie, fighting back tears, had to grip her best friend’s arm to keep her from jumping up and confronting them.

Later that afternoon, it was almost as if the incident—a common one anytime Levi was around—hadn’t happened as she pretended to read her book on the bleachers while watching him practice football, something she did often with her friends as they waited for their rides. She almost convinced herself he’d been watching her and had to remind herself that he had no interest in her as she watched Carey run up to him and throw her arms around his neck.


Chapter 2


Levi arrived at Leslie’s home promptly at 10:30. He rang the doorbell and looked down at his daughter whose hand he was holding. She smiled broadly, excitement causing her to bob up and down on the balls of her feet.

The door opened and he held his breath when the tall brunette opened the door. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and glasses sat low on the bridge of her nose. Her blue eyes shone just above the frames. She pushed the glasses onto the top of her head as he reached out his hand and she took it. He noted the softness of it.

“Hey, Leslie,” he said, then turned to his daughter who was pulling his shirt tail. She had straight blond hair and big brown eyes, like her father’s. Her hair was pulled back on each side with daisy barrettes.

“This is my baby girl, Amberlyn.” The child stepped across the threshold and held out her hand with an exaggerated properness. He smiled as Leslie squatted in front of the girl and shook her hand.

“Hi, Amberlyn. It’s so nice to meet you. I heard that you’re four years old.”

The child nodded emphatically. “Yep, but I’ll be five on my birthday,” she said, looking up into her father’s eyes. “It’s before Christmas.”

He nodded. “November 13th,” he said.

“Oh wow,” said Leslie standing up but still considering the girl’s face. “My daughter’s birthday is in November too. But she’s only three. Her name is Ava.”

She stepped back to allow father and daughter to enter. Amberlyn took her father’s hand again and peeked into the playroom, then looked back at him questioningly.

“Why don’t you go in and meet the other kids,” encouraged Leslie. Amberlyn continued to watch her dad who nodded and let go of her hand. She ran into the room and stopped suddenly in front of the four curious children, sitting at the small table with crayons and coloring books in front of them. Leslie and Levi followed into the room just as Ava held out a crayon to the new girl and scooted over. Amberlyn sat down on the seat next to her and picked up a book from the pile in the center.

As the children started talking animatedly, Leslie indicated a larger, adult table on the opposite side of the playroom, next to the playpen. They sat, both pair of eyes watching the children for a moment in silence before they turned to each other.

“I think Amberlyn is already fitting in here,” said Leslie.

He nodded and glanced back at his daughter who was coloring furiously with a purple crayon, her favorite color. He turned his attention back to the pretty woman before him. She’d always been a cute girl, not really considered cheerleader-pretty but certainly not unattractive. He remembered his buddy Carl going out with her once in high school and how he wasn’t sure why it made him so angry at his friend. But after making fun of him for dating her, Carl had abruptly stopped seeing Leslie and started dating Cara, who was later voted homecoming queen.

Watching her now, Levi couldn’t for the life of him understand why he never asked her out in high school. Instead, he’d chosen to date a string of cheerleaders, no girl for more than a month.

“Thank you for considering taking her in.”

“Of course,” she said dismissively.

Levi could see the question on her face and answered for her. “Her mom isn’t in her life,” he said with swift directness causing Leslie’s eyebrows to lift suddenly.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said.

“I’m not,” he replied. “Anyway, I’ve heard you have a lot of respect from the parents around here. Hopefully I’ll start working full-time later this week. Eric Cooper and I have been planning our own construction business for the last couple of years.

She nodded. “I’d heard that.”

“He’s been working for Jackie Hale, who’s getting ready to retire. He’s agreed to sell us his business.”

“That’s great news, Levi.”

“I was hoping I could go ahead and get Amberlyn into daycare starting this week so we can get some sort of regular routine back in place and let her start meeting friends right away.”

They looked over at the children who were giggling.

“Doesn’t look like she has any difficulty making friends,” said Leslie.

He laughed. “She certainly doesn’t. My main concern is teaching her to be at least a little hesitant in making friends. I want to make sure she learns to be cautious with strangers.”

“I can understand that.”

“So, Ava there is your daughter?”

Leslie smiled. “Yep.”

He started to ask about the girl’s father, noticing that Leslie wasn’t wearing a wedding band. But that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t married. He bit back the words, deciding them intrusive and said, instead, “She looks a lot like you, but with curly hair instead of straight.”

“I get that a lot. We certainly don’t get mistaken as not being related. That’s for sure. So anyway,” she said, opening a drawer next to the table, “here’s a packet of info about my place, the rates, and the rules. There are also some forms in there that need to be filled out and signed by you and a witness.” She handed him a blue folder.

“Thanks a lot,” he said, taking the folder. “You have no idea how relieved this makes me. I’ll look over these this afternoon.”

“Call me if you have any questions,” she said as they stood.

They watched the children play for a couple more minutes before he reached his hand out to shake hers again. “I will,” he said. “Okay if she starts on Thursday?”

Leslie nodded. “As long as you have all the paperwork filled out.”

He called to his daughter who pouted all the way to the door. Before they walked out, Leslie put her hand on the little girl’s shoulder and looked into her chocolate-brown eyes.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be back here in a couple of days and have plenty of time to hang out with us. I know Ava can’t wait.”

The three-year-old was standing just behind her, her little hand on her mother’s shirt. She nodded vigorously and reached out for Amberlyn who accepted the fierce hug.

Levi’s heart felt as if it were swelling. His life seemed to finally be falling into place.



***

Leslie watched Levi and his daughter walk down the drive. She turned back and picked up her own child. “Looks like you made a new friend.”

Ava grinned. “She gonna be coming here?”

Leslie nodded, kissed her child’s cool cheek, and set her back on the floor. Ava ran into the playroom shouting, “Yay, another girl.” Currently she was the only girl in the daycare.

Leslie headed to the kitchen, where she turned on the baby monitor to listen to the children while she pulled out a plate of small wrapped sandwiches and baggies of children-sized cuts of fruit and carrots.

She thought about what a handsome man Levi had grown into and then smirked, remembering what a jerk he had been to her in school. She’d only gone out with his friend Carl twice before Carl started ignoring her. No doubt because Levi had told him to.

But that was more than fifteen years ago, and they had been teenagers. Still, her chest burned a bit as she remembered how often she’d watched Levi practice football, hoping he’d notice her.

She called into the playroom as she carried some napkins and two of the plates. “I hope that table is cleared off like I asked.” She paused, listening to the little feet scramble and the papers shuffling. When it grew quiet, she walked in to find them all sitting at the empty table. She smiled as she set down two of the plates and reminded them all to wait until she’d brought everyone’s food out to start eating.


***

Leslie could hardly believe it when Carl Johnson shyly asked her out. She thought he’d never actually get the words out of his mouth. Though he was on the football team with Levi, and one of his buddies since Kindergarten, she thought this just might be her chance to bury her feelings for Levi once and for all.

Carl was good-looking, though not nearly as attractive as Levi was to her, and he was kind, a trait Levi did not seem to possess. It irritated Leslie beyond measure that she still had trouble keeping her mind off Levi even on her second date to the movies with Carl. It made her feel guilty, and she couldn’t deny that she felt an inkling of relief when they didn’t go out again. Still, it hurt that he never gave her an explanation, just started avoiding her. It hurt even more to believe that it was probably at the request of Levi.



***


After putting Ava to bed that night, she called her friend Becca to check in on Jacob. The baby was feeling better but still coughing. The pediatrician had given them an antibiotic that afternoon.

“So, Levi Wilcox came by today,” Leslie said. “His daughter Amberlyn is gonna start coming here beginning Thursday.”

“Wow. What timing, right?”

“Yep. She’s adorable and Ava is already asking when she’ll be back.”

“Oh good. Sounds like they’ve both made a new BFF.”

Leslie laughed. “Yeah. They’re so amazed that their birthdays are in the same month.”

“I bet,” said Becca. “So, did you find out anything about the mom?”

“Levi says she’s not in the picture.”

“Interesting. Is he still as cute as he was in high school?”

“And then some,” said Leslie. “Tell me you’re not hatching some fixup plan.”

“And why not? When’s the last time you had a date?”

“Not going there. Remember what an ass he was in high school?”

Leslie could almost hear Becca roll her eyes. “Teenage boys are always asses. They grow up, Leslie.”

She sighed. “Yeah, anyway, I’ve got more important things on my mind than . . . boys.”

“Speaking of that. I did some research during lunch. How many kids do you think you’re planning on starting with if you start the daycare center? That’ll make a difference in which licenses we pursue and the type of certifications you’ll need.”

“I’ve got a list started of families who’ve expressed interest. Let’s talk about that at dinner tomorrow night.”

After hanging up, Leslie grabbed her book and turned off the living room light before heading upstairs. She stopped by her daughter’s bedroom door and listened for a moment. Not hearing anything, she opened the door and stuck in her head. She could just make out the little girl’s gently rising-and-falling chest in the dim nightlight and heard the deep breaths of sleep. She stepped in and pulled the covers up to Ava’s chin and kissed her forehead. Then she headed to her room, leaving her door cracked to hear if Ava woke up.

After donning her pajamas, she headed to her bathroom to brush her teeth. She splashed cool water on her face and blindly reached for the towel next to her to pat her face dry. Opening her eyes, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, not seeing herself, just deep in thought. Sometimes it took her breath away to think about how much she loved her baby girl. She was the only thing she didn’t regret about her brief marriage.

She had been pregnant when she caught Gary with one of his students. Gary had been a professor at the local college. It had been the second time she’d learned of one of his dalliances and the final blow. She wasn’t sure why she’d ever married him in the first place. She had at first found him very charming, and he’d made her feel so good by telling her how beautiful she was. She supposed she had really loved him at some point, but had been more afraid of being alone as she approached thirty years old. It had been such a brief and painful experience, especially when he showed no interest in their child, that she’d changed back to her maiden name and given Ava that as her last name as well, instead of Woodlee.

She knew that though Ava would have no lack for love, there could come the day when her father’s abandonment would have an effect on how the girl saw herself, regardless of how much love she had from others. It was something that Leslie would have no power to shield her daughter from. She could only hope that the love in the child’s life would be large enough to keep the scales balanced.

Though it was an infrequent thought, Leslie had wondered a few times if there might come a day when someone entered their life and took on a father role for Ava. The few times the vision had appeared, it had been only with the concern for Ava’s happiness. Curiously, today, the vision returned, though this time Leslie considered her own desires. And the man in her imagination suddenly had a very familiar face.

She smirked and shook off the daydream as she turned out the light and shut the bathroom door.


Chapter 3


It had been a full, long week with Becca’s news about her husband’s layoff, their baby being sick, Levi bringing his daughter to her daycare, and the continuing plans to expand into a larger daycare center. Leslie was more than ready for a night out with friends. Becca had almost backed out of the plan they had put in place a month earlier—and that had been after having to reschedule it twice—but Leslie had convinced her that she needed it more than any of them did.

So, on Saturday night, Leslie’s mother dropped off the two women so they could have a well-deserved drink and dinner at Joanie’s Detour with their friends Marty and Kayla. The four women had been close friends since middle school. Marty was a yoga instructor in Oklahoma City, and Kayla was a ninth-grade teacher at the high school where they had all graduated. It seemed amazing that the four had remained so close while having taken such different trajectories in life.

Leslie was pulling Becca’s phone from her hand as they entered Joanie’s.

“I’ll take this. Don’t worry. I’ll give it right back if you get a text or a call, but I don’t want you looking at it or calling home every five minutes.”

Becca’s shoulders relaxed. “Guess I haven’t really gone out since Jacob was born, huh?”

“Well there was that one afternoon we tried to have coffee and you made it ten minutes before you started crying and left. But other than that? Nope.”

Leslie slid her friend’s phone into the front pocket of her purse and put her arm around her reassuringly.

“All right,” said Becca, pushing a smile onto her face. “I’ll try to keep my mind off of breast pumps and sniffles. Mark is perfectly capable of taking care of our child alone.”

“It’s okay,” said Leslie, steering her friend to the host desk. “All caring parents go through this.” Becca nodded as Leslie told the host they were meeting friends.

The young woman led them to a semicircle booth on the other side of the bar, where Kayla was sipping a margarita and texting. She put the phone down and smiled at her friends, waving them over. “Marty’s running a few minutes late. Traffic. I just told her to be careful and get here in one piece.”

“Good,” said Leslie as she and Becca slid in on either side of her. “And she’s staying with you tonight, right?”

Kayla nodded, taking another sip of her drink. “Yeah, and Josh is going to pick us up so we can have more than one drink tonight.”

Josh was Kayla’s husband. They had just barely been married four months. It had been a second marriage for both and they’d had a private ceremony in Vegas.

“As you can see, I’ve already started.” She raised her glass. “It’s been one hell of a week.”

“You can say that again,” said Becca, picking up a menu.

Marty arrived shortly after the server had taken their drink orders and slid in on the other side of Becca, who pulled her into a hug.

“I ordered your piña colada,” said Kayla over Becca’s head.

After everyone had a drink in front of them and their dinners had been ordered, Becca filled in Kayla and Marty on Mark’s job and Jacob’s cold. The friends circled their wagons to discuss how they could help. Becca explained what she had told Leslie earlier that week and promised them things were being taken care of.

“But you will reach out if you need anything, right?” asked Kayla. “And I mean anything.”

“Of course I will.”

They each ordered different dishes with the plan to share all four. After dinner, everyone had another drink, since they all had rides, and spent another hour laughing.

Kayla was telling a story about Josh’s run-in with his ex-wife when something captured Leslie’s attention. She looked up as three men walked into the room and were seated four tables from them. It appeared to be guy’s night out too. Levi was chatting with Eric Cooper and Randy McGregor as they sat down.

She felt her face flush slightly. He’d certainly impressed her with his relationship with his daughter. Amberlyn was a delight and she and Ava had quickly become inseparable. And age had been his friend, taking his boyish teenaged good lucks and transforming them into a handsome man, well-defined in his ruggedness. More importantly, he seemed to have matured into a kind and sensitive father. But Leslie was no longer that naïve girl who had tried so desperately and ineffectually to get his attention. And her failed marriage had caused her to draw more into herself and become protective of her daughter, caring more for Ava’s needs than her own.

Leslie knew enough to keep her heart protected but couldn’t deny the easy rapport they had built over the week. She focused her attention back on her friends.

“Hey, ladies.” A warm, strong hand gripped Leslie’s shoulder and she turned to the deep voice.

“Well, hey there,” said Kayla. “I’d heard you were back in town. Here for good?”

“Hope so. Just hanging out with buddies tonight.” He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. The women looked around him and waved at Eric and Randy who returned the greeting. He looked back down at Leslie and gave her a smile that made her feel like liquid. “Don’t want to interrupt you ladies. Just wanted to say hello and thank this pretty woman right here for taking such good care of my baby girl.”

Leslie could feel all three women’s eyes on her. She smiled in return and said, “It’s my pleasure. She’s a great kid. You’ve really done well with her.”

“Thanks. I’m lucky to have her. I’ll let you ladies get back to your meal.” He saluted the table and returned to his friends.

Leslie turned back to the women and found them all staring at her.

“What?”

Kayla spoke in an excited whisper as the women leaned in closer to Leslie. “When were you going to tell us about that?”

“About what?”

Marty nodded at Levi’s table and Leslie shrugged and rolled her eyes. “There’s no that there to tell.”

Her friends looked skeptical.

“Seriously. His daughter is enrolled in my daycare. That’s it. You don’t think I’d make the same mistake of chasing after Levi Wilcox again, do you?”

This time, Becca rolled her eyes. “That was high school, Leslie. All bets are off. We’re all grown up now.”

“And he called you, pretty woman,” said Becca.

Leslie waved her hand dismissively and gave her full attention to her drink. Finally, all four women shifted the conversation to Marty’s yoga studio, much to Leslie’s relief.


***


This had been the first time in months, maybe even years (he couldn’t remember), that Levi had gone out with buddies or even out without Amberlyn. When he had first dropped her off at Eric’s house, where Eric’s wife, Donna, had offered to watch his daughter so the guys could go out, it was all he could do to keep from checking in. But when they walked into Joanie’s, his mind found another preoccupation.

After he had spied Leslie, he’d had a fierce debate in his head about whether he should talk to her. Finally, he decided that it would be weirder not to say hello. He had been pleased to note the excited whispers coming from the women as he headed back to his table and had the sudden passing feeling he was in high school again. His stomach flipped as he acknowledged that there had been such a reaction, indicating, perhaps, that he wasn’t the only one who was noticing something between them.

Eric and Randy, however, seemed oblivious and spent most of the evening alternating between conversations about the construction business, sports, and their families. He was glad for the distraction and the opportunity not to have to explore his feelings.

They’d just gotten their second round of beers when the women stood and gathered their purses. A wave of disappointment washed over him as he realized they were leaving. The four women stopped by their table to say goodbye and the fact that Leslie’s eyes had stayed locked with his until they turned to leave, had not been lost on him.

Luckily, he was facing the exit so he could surreptitiously watch her as she left. He resisted the urge to follow her into the parking lot and, instead, forced himself to focus on his friends.

He was startled when Randy observed, “That Leslie Perkins is still a looker, huh?”

Levi looked up at him and noticed that both his and Eric’s eyes were on him, waiting. He was not able to stop the smile from spreading across his face. “I can’t say I haven’t noticed that myself.”

Eric scoffed. “I’d have to kick you if you hadn’t noticed, my friend. And something else I noticed? Looks like that torch she carried for you in high school is still burning.”

Levi took a sip of his beer and glanced back at the door.

“And I might add that there seems to be a spark on your side too.”

Levi studied his friends. When had they become so observant? “I won’t lie. She’s got my attention.”

Randy reached over and clapped Levi’s arm. “Dude, she’s had your attention since you were thirteen. And now that you’re a halfway decent guy who deserves someone like her, you’d better finally man up and ask her out.”

“I don’t know that I’ve grown to deserve her.”

“Shit, you’re a helluva lot better than that asshole she married,” said Eric.

Levi had not found an opening to ask Leslie about Ava’s father. “They divorced?”

Eric nodded and took a drink of his beer. “Yeah, before that little girl was even born. Man, he was something else. A professor at the community college in Rockford. Sleeping with every female that moved.”

Levi frowned, a sudden urge to find the man and punch him.

“He wasn’t even interested in that little girl. I don’t think he’s even ever seen her.”

Levi was reminded of Amberlyn’s mother. At least they hadn’t gotten married. What a disaster that would have been. It made his stomach hurt a little for Leslie, trying not to imagine what it might have been like for her.

He was still thinking about Leslie and Ava when he returned home with a sleeping Amberlyn in her car seat behind him. As he gently pulled her from her fastened seat and carried her into their home, he ached at the idea of not wanting to be part of Amberlyn’s life. And he cursed Leslie’s husband under his breath as he carried his baby girl to her bed.


Chapter 4


In addition to being a teenaged boy, Levi was an angry kid. As far as he was concerned, he’d been cursed. It wasn’t fair that he’d lost both his parents in one night, and especially not fair that he’d been so young. And every time he thought about it, he wanted to scream and punch a hole in something. It helped to be someone else, someone who could handle the pain. It helped to drink beer and see how much he could get away with. Somehow, it took him out of himself and gave him brief moments of relief from the anger and hurt. It may have been the only thing that saved him.

Leslie Perkins was too sweet, too smart, and too cute. He’d noticed her, and he’d noticed her crush on him. But every time he thought about holding her hand or kissing her, it opened something that he needed to keep closed. And it pissed him off that she liked him. He didn’t want her to like him. He didn’t want to like her.

The day that he heard Krista talking loudly about Leslie in the hallway and saw Leslie run the other way in tears, his instinct had been to tell Krista to keep her big mouth shut and then run after her. Instead, it seemed to cause less complicated feelings for him to just laugh with everyone else.

Levi was remembering laughing horribly at her in the eleventh grade. For what, he couldn’t even remember. But what he did remember was her face, and it had haunted him for years.

He walked up the drive to Leslie’s front door, not bothering to even try to catch up with his daughter, who’d run up to the house as soon as he’d set her down from her car seat. She’d been talking nonstop about Ava all weekend, and it had given him an idea.

Leslie opened the door just as Amberlyn was ringing the bell. His heart nearly hurt when she squatted down and greeted the girl with a hug. He had to catch his breath. As soon as Leslie let go of her, Amberlyn sprinted into the house, running to find Ava, he was sure.

Leslie stood and he caught a good look at her frame once he could pull his eyes away from her dazzling smile. He tried not to be obvious as he checked her out. She was plump in all the right places, curvy and fit. He figured running after four children between the ages of two and five kept her in shape.

When he was standing next to her, he couldn’t help himself and pulled her into a hug. She seemed to freeze for a moment before softening in his arms. They pulled away from each other and he caught the flushness in her face.

“Did you have a fun girl’s night out?” he asked.

She nodded. “Did you?” He raised his eyebrows. “I mean, guy’s night out, obviously.”

He chuckled. “You know, it was nice, but I was a bit nervous about being away from Amberlyn.”

She smiled. “I hear it gets easier.”

“Well, I’m headed to the bank to get the ball rolling on the construction company.”

“That’s wonderful news.”

“Hey, I was thinking. You know how Amberlyn and Ava have gotten to be such good friends?”

Leslie narrowed her eyes. “Uh huh,” she said suspiciously.

“Well, what do you think about setting up a playdate for them this weekend? You could bring Ava out to the ranch and we could go horseback riding.”

“She’d love that,” Leslie said thoughtfully.

“Of course, you could join her . . . or just leave her with us and enjoy a day to yourself.” He shrugged, trying to make the comment seem casual.

“I think I’d feel more comfortable being there the first time she rides a horse. I would want to be on the horse with her.”

He nodded and started to turn away.

“I think she would love that so much. Let me just check a few things and see if I can clear my calendar for Saturday.”

He resisted the urge to hug her again and instead shared a big smile that made her face pink.


***


As Leslie had predicted, Ava was over the moon about spending the day with Amberlyn and her dad. She even begged her mother to buy her a pair of pink cowboy boots and matching hat. Leslie was feeling a bit nervous and excited the morning of the playdate. She hadn’t been on a horse since she was a teenager, and she admitted a small amount of fear surrounding her daughter’s first encounter. But the dominant feeling was the flood of butterflies in her gut at the thought of spending the day with Levi.

They drove to Levi’s family ranch, and more than once Leslie had to ask Ava to stop straining against the seat belts to see the horses.

“Baby, we’re about to get out and see them up close. Don’t hurt yourself trying to see them now. I promise it’ll be worth the wait.”

The three-year-old stopped moving long enough for Leslie to unbuckle her and put her on the ground.

“Now please stay close until Mr. Levi joins us. And remember, do exactly as he says.”

“Okay, Mama.” Ava started wiggling in place. “I gotta peeeeee. Now.”

Leslie sighed as Levi and Amberlyn came onto the porch of the two-story log house. Forgetting her bladder, Ava squealed and ran to meet Amberlyn as she skipped off the porch. The two girls hugged as if they hadn’t seen each other in a year. Ava lost no time in showing off her new boots and hat to Amberlyn’s utter delight. She looked to her father and asked if he’d buy her some too.

“Hey, didn’t someone need to go to the potty?” asked Leslie.

“Oh yeah.” Ava started to dance in place again.

“Here, come with me. I’ll show you where it is.” Amberlyn grabbed the younger girl’s hand and pulled her up the stairs and into the house.

Both parents were grinning, eyes alight with laughter at their children.

“How ’bout you? Need me to show you where the potty is?” Levi teased.

“Actually, it probably wouldn’t hurt to know where it is when I need it.”

He gestured for her to follow him inside. “Amberlyn and I made some fresh lemonade for everyone,” he said as they entered the house. “Would you like a glass now?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“Okay, we’ll give the girls a few minutes to calm down and have a few sips and then I’ll take you all to the barn. It’s just out in the field a few yards.”

Summer had just barely begun to turn into fall, so it was still hot and the lemonade really hit the spot. An hour later, they were saddling up the horses. Leslie slid into the saddle and adjusted herself before Levi picked up her little one and helped her straddle the horse in front of her mother. Her hat fell off in the process; Levi caught it before it hit the ground, and set it back on the little girl’s head.

“Here, you might want to tighten this string a little,” he said, showing Ava how to adjust it.

Leslie watched how comfortable and attentive he was and was reminded of an earlier thought she had questioning his parenting skills when she had first learned he was a father. She felt slightly embarrassed now but relieved that it had only been an internal dialogue.

After making sure she and her daughter were secure, Levi helped Amberlyn onto his horse, named Snickers, and sidled up behind her.

“I’m getting my own pony soon. Daddy says so,” the child exclaimed gleefully.

Ava looked up at her mother with wide eyes.

“Pretty impressive, huh?” Leslie said to her.

Ava looked back at Amberlyn. “Can I ride her too?”

Amberlyn nodded eagerly. “Yeah, and you can help me name her.”

Leslie kept their horse, Junebug, close to Levi and Amberlyn so the girls could jabber with each other. They had no loss for subjects as they commented on pony names, their favorite Disney princesses, and a joke over which they giggled for what seemed like forever, that neither Leslie nor Levi really got. It was enough to listen to the girls’ squeals for the adults to join in the laughter as well.

They rode to a peaceful oasis in the middle of the field—a small pond with a couple of shade trees. Levi said this was the best place to picnic and helped the girls off the horses, before setting down the backpack with their lunch and a blanket. He had attached a small cooler with four cold bottles of juice to his saddle and allowed Snickers to act the part of pack mule. Leslie had offered to carry it with her, but he wanted her unencumbered since Ava had never been on a horse and she hadn’t ridden one in more than a decade. He did, however, allow her to help him spread out the blanket and set up the picnic.

After the girls gobbled down their peanut butter sandwiches, their parents gave them permission to take off their shoes and wade along the edge of the pond. Leslie and Levi moved the picnic as close to the pond as possible without getting muddy so they could be near their daughters in case one of them fell in. They helped the girls remove their shoes/boots and socks and rolled up their jeans. Watching the girls splash and laugh at the mud coming up between their toes, Leslie felt a wave of love for her daughter and her daughter’s new playmate. She was careful to allow herself to articulate that love for only the girls in her head, not daring to make any assumptions about the man sitting next to her.

After swallowing the last bite of his sandwich, Levi packed away the trash and then removed his own boots and socks and rolled up the bottoms of his jeans. He joined the girls and helped them hunt for pretty rocks around the mud. He pointed out the tiny minnows along the edge and then beckoned Leslie to join them. Unable to resist, she, too, prepared herself for wading and met them in the water. It was colder than she had expected, but felt very pleasant against the heat of the air.

She was squatting between the girls as they showed her a couple of smooth rocks when she felt a presence behind her. Levi was standing close enough for her to feel energy radiating off him, but not so close that she was uncomfortable. She looked up and felt hypnotized for a moment by his smile. She tried to stand too quickly and, in a panic, began to wobble. He reacted immediately and grabbed her elbow, while the girls jumped to her legs.

“Mama!” squealed Ava. Then she and Amberlyn started giggling, and Levi and Leslie joined in.

Leslie suddenly realized that Levi’s hand was still on her elbow, though she was perfectly steady now. A pleasant warmth filled her chest and stomach, and she looked up into his amused eyes.

“I’m afraid the only adult women’s clothes we have around here are my grandmother’s. So just remember that before you go swimming.”


***


They were careful to pick up all trash and picnic items and pack them away in the backpack and cooler. The sun was low in the sky as they were putting away saddles and getting the horses settled into the stalls. Both Ava and Amberlyn had been subdued by the time they reached the barn, lulled into near sleep by the pace of the horses and the low, gentle voices of their parents. But once their feet were on the ground, the young spirits had reentered their bodies and they were running around, wide awake.

Levi suddenly felt a sharp disappointment realizing the day had come to an end, when Amberlyn and Ava ran up to them, speaking at once, out of breath.

“Can we watch Finding Dory?” Amberlyn was pulling at her dad’s jeans.

“Yeah, Mama, Dory. I haven’t seen that movie. And Amberlyn has it!”

Leslie kneeled before her wide-eyed daughter, the child’s hat bobbing up and down on the back of her neck, held securely with the string. The curls had gotten wet from the sweat and sleepiness and Leslie pushed some of them off her forehead.

“Oh, honey, I don’t know. We should—”

Levi’s face lit up. “We’d love for you to stay for dinner,” he announced, suddenly hopeful. Amberlyn nodded eagerly. “I actually have some hot dogs and hamburger patties in the fridge. We could grill out if you want.”

Leslie started to speak and Ava pulled at her mother’s arm. “Pleeeeeeeeaaaaaase.”

Leslie looked from her daughter back to Levi and sighed. “I feel a little outnumbered here. That’s very kind of you to offer dinner. I think we will stay for dinner and the movie. I’ve been wanting to see Finding Dory, too.”


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