Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Romance  ➡  Short stories

Back to You (Short and Sweet Romantic Read)

To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

Copyright by Inés Saint

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews. This is a new, expanded version of a title previously published as a short story.

Full-length Novels by Inés Saint

Spinning Hills Trilogy published by Kensington/Lyrical Press

In Spinning Hills, “quirky” is a good thing—especially the charming houses that line the streets. One by one, the Amador brothers are restoring them, committed to a new beginning for the old-fashioned town. But they’re learning that every house needs a heart to be a home…

Flipped! (Spinning Hills 1)

Needs a Little TLC (Spinning Hills 2)

Fixer-Upper (Spinning Hills 3)

Full-length Stand Alone Novels:

Charmed published by Amazon Encore

Strangers in the Night published by Amazon Encore

Coming in November 2016:

The Piper Sisters Trilogy

When three sisters arrive in Spinning Hills, home of the third most haunted street in the state, they’re looking for solace and support as they clear out the ghosts of their own pasts. But what they find is something a whole lot sweeter . . .

Perfect Paige (Nov. 8, 2016)

Good Gracie (April 11, 2017)

Haunted Hope (Late 2017)

Back to You

1

Their most nap-resistant child, Emily, laid her head down on her princess pillow, eyelids still fluttering. Samantha smiled and continued to sing, her gaze traveling toward the window and the picturesque downtown area outside. Spring-summer grass swayed in the breeze, as if it were dancing to her song, and rain clouds loomed on the distance, just beyond the rocky shores of Haven, Maine.

Hey, it’s Happy Time, you’ve gotta leave it all behind.

The long-ago words often came to her when she looked over at the old, rambling Victorian on the rocky cliff overlooking the expansive sea. Their town’s own plundering pirate, Captain Cook, had built it over two hundred years before, and it had inspired many an imagination. From a distance, it still looked majestic on its privileged perch. Close up, though, it had seen better days. The rose-pink paint was peeling, and some of the wood siding was rotted through.

She finished her song and looked back at Emily, who was sound asleep.

When Samantha’s cell phone began to vibrate, she soundlessly moved to the door, and signaled to Maria, the pre-k teacher, that she was leaving the soothing, sky-blue room where the youngest kids napped.

In the main room, she looked down at the caller ID, and closed her eyes. Should she answer? When the phone vibrated for the fifth time, she breathed out, and answered, “Hello?”

“Hey, Samantha, how are you?” Brad’s once-welcome voice asked.

Staring across the room at nothing at all, she answered, “Fine.”

A beat of silence. “Do you have plans for Memorial Day weekend?”

She heard sweet, melodic voices in the background and wondered if they belonged to his two little girls. “A few.”

“Have you decided if you’d like to meet?”

“No.”

“No you don’t want to meet, or no you haven’t decided?” His voice was soft, hopeful.

“No… I haven’t decided.” Musical chimes at the door signaled she had company. She looked up to see her best friend and office manager, Marisol, walk in.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

Marisol’s usual smile disappeared when she looked at Samantha’s face. “Was that Brad again?”

“Yes.” Samantha walked over to the sink and began filling a bucket with water and soap.

“You know why he’s calling you, right?”

“No, but apparently, you think you do.” She retrieved a sponge from under the sink, plunked it into the bucket, and carried it over to a milk-chocolaty mess on the tile floor, thankful the spill hadn’t occurred on the bright “fun with phonics” rug a few steps away.

Marisol blew out a sigh. “I’m sorry I caught you at the end of your conversation. I didn’t come here to argue, I came here to share some news.”

Samantha bumped her friend’s knee with her hand, relieved to be off the subject of Brad. “Well, then, share away.”

Marisol reacquired the excited look she’d had when she’d first walked in, and followed Samantha, kneeling on the floor in front of her. “Well, it’s about the new pediatrician. You’ll never guess who he is. Everyone’s talking about it, but no one can believe it.”

Samantha stopped scrubbing. “Who?”

“Tony the Town Terror! He bought Dr. Crisp’s practice,” Marisol declared. “I mean, I know I wasn’t around twenty years ago, but the guy’s a legend.”

“Tony’s back? And… he’s a pediatrician?” Samantha sat back on her heels and let the news sink in. The more she thought about it, the more she smiled. Of course nobody believed it. But she did, and she felt a rush of happiness like she hadn’t felt in years. “I used to babysit him.”

“So I’ve been told. You’re a legend, too, for putting up with him. Did you really jump into that disgusting pond over at Rolling Acres to save him?”

“I did.”

“Gross… and is it true you kept him from breaking his neck?”

“Well, he broke his right arm, his left leg, and three ribs the year before I started babysitting him, but he only broke an ankle and two fingers afterward, so people would say I saved him from breaking his neck, but it’s not technically true.”

“Wow. That was some kid. I also heard he suffered a partially collapsed lung after he rode under Mack Turner’s truck on his skateboard. Was that before or after you began watching him?”

“That was actually right before the town hired me to babysit him.”

“The town hired you?” Marisol gaped. “Where were his parents?”

“His dad skipped out on his mom before he was born, and his mom left soon after. His grandmother raised him till he was eleven, but her health was always fragile, so he tended to… get into trouble.”

“I’ll say. No wonder the kids here seem tame to you.”

Samantha looked outside toward the expansive yard where the kindergarten kids were playing, supervised by their teacher. She watched them for a moment. Some were playing hopscotch, others were running around playing catch, while a lone child sat under the huge oak, seemingly inhabiting her own world. She was brought back to summer days of exploring the town, the shores, and the fields with an imaginative Tony. “I think I’m the one who owes Tony—he taught me to appreciate kids. Everyone loved him, but they treated him like a caricature. They couldn’t see how genuine his spirit was. He was more real than anyone else I knew.”

“Are you going to stop by his office for a visit?”

Samantha shook her head, looked down, and resumed scrubbing the floor. “No, of course not. It’s been almost twenty years and he probably doesn’t remember me. I was four years older than him, and he was just a kid. But I’ll call Mrs. Stevenson to see if he’ll make house calls here, the way Dr. Crisp did.”

“Oh, she’s the one who told me all about him, and she already said he’d continue to do everything Dr. Crisp used to do. He wants the transition to be as smooth and painless for everyone as possible.”

Samantha was happy to hear that. She’d built two small sick rooms into her preschool, but if a doctor couldn’t come to see the kids, she had to call their parents to pick them up. She hated seeing frazzled parents taking vacation leave to pick up their sick kids when there was a doctor within walking distance who could check up on them.

The stench of stale milk soon grabbed her attention, and Samantha’s thoughts took another direction.

***

On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Tony Mancini got the call he’d been waiting for. A child at Happy Time Learning Center was feeling ill, and they needed him. Not that he was ever happy to see a sick kid, but he knew he’d get the call sooner or later, and he’d been curious to see Sam again.

He walked out of his office, turned north at the big plastic ice cream cone next to the Dairy Shed and thought about Samantha Presley, his beautiful, honey-haired, honey-eyed babysitter. The only person, other than him, of course, who’d enjoyed his wilder years. The girl who’d told him he was bright and amazing. The girl who’d hugged him tightly after the town’s mayor publicly scolded him for climbing the water tower to get to a nest in a branch in a tree.

It was fitting she’d started a preschool, and he was wondering if they’d reconnect. So far, all he’d been able to find out was that she’d married her high school football-star husband and divorced him five years later. She didn’t have any kids of her own.

The moment he stepped into Sam’s preschool, he smiled, enjoying the fun color scheme. The rugs were all bright and had educational themes; like shapes, colors, and letters, the walls were a soft yellow, and the tables were red and blue. Beyond that there was a sun-filled yard dotted with red benches and a huge tree off to the side for those who wanted to stay in the shade.

A young woman came up to him wearing a huge grin. She stared. He waited, but she didn’t say anything. Uncomfortable under her scrutiny, he introduced himself. “I’m Dr. Mancini, here to see a patient of mine.”

“Over here, Dr. Mancini,” a voice he’d never forgotten called to him. Something in his chest expanded, and he was surprised to understand that it was the first time since he’d come back that he felt he’d come back home.

He turned to see the same girl he’d loved with all his eight-year-old heart. The only person he’d truly missed when his grandmother died and he’d been taken from his little town in Maine to the big city of Richmond, Virginia, to live with foster parents.

The last time he’d seen her, she’d been at a bus stop across a busy street, watching him play basketball. She’d left before he could say hello, or goodbye. She was a woman now, with a woman’s curves and a woman’s more measured look, and it made her more beautiful than the more youthful Sam in his memory. But some things never changed. Her soft wavy hair still looked as if it had been kissed by the sun, and her blue eyes still rivaled the sky on a bright summer day.

Samantha called over to Dr. Mancini, embarrassed that Darlene, one of her child care technicians, was staring up at him with a goofy smile on her face. The moment he turned, she felt the goofy smile on her own face. God, but he was gorgeous! And it was definitely Tony. She could see the zeal behind the bright green eyes and the spiky black hair that always had a mind of its own. Samantha bit her lip, to keep herself from looking as silly as Darlene looked.

“You named your school Happy Time,” he said, his emerald eyes twinkling.

Samantha nodded, not knowing what to say. Tony was a man now, and he was a lot to take in. He walked over then, and engulfed her in a warm, wonderful hug. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he said when he set her down.

She laughed. “Great bedside manner there, but the last time you saw me I was fifteen. I assure you, I’ve changed quite a bit,” she said, thinking about everything she’d gone through.

They parted then, he looked down at her, and she became aware of the breasts and hips that hadn’t been there when he’d left. Why was she feeling like an awkward teenager? This was a kid she’d babysat, for crying out loud! She slipped into teacher mode. “Well, it’s so great to see you, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to find out you were back in town. And as our pediatrician, no less! I’m so proud of you.”

He grinned at her then, as if he knew exactly what she was doing. So she cleared her throat and reminded them both why he was at her preschool. “Your patient, Christopher Jenkins, is right here.” She motioned him into the room, and left him alone with his patient.

Ten minutes later, she strolled to the door, to see if Tony was through with his checkup. Christopher was looking up at Tony, wearing a frown. “But I have a T-ball game on Saturday, and we’re going to win. Can you please not tell my mom I can’t play?”

“You know you’re going to win? Don’t tell me you rigged the game!” Tony ruffled the boy’s hair.

Christopher giggled. “No. It’s just a strange feeling I have, that we’re going to win. I feel it here.” He rubbed his belly.

“Ah, the gut feeling.” Tony nodded, his face serious. “Hard to argue with that, because I happen to know exactly how you feel. How about I promise I won’t tell your mom you can’t play if you get better by Saturday?”

“Yes.” Christopher tried to yell, but coughed instead.

Samantha knocked on the door. Tony turned and seemed surprised. “Oh. I didn’t realize we had such a large audience.”

Large audience? Samantha looked back to see three of her employees standing behind her, on their tiptoes, all sporting sappy smiles. A moment later they crowded into the room and fawned over the patient. “Um, Darlene, Maria, and Marisol, who’s taking care of our other thirty-six children? Kindergarten recess isn’t over,” she reminded them.

“My half is napping; I can see them from here,” Maria defended herself.

A loud thud sounded outside, and Samantha ran out to see little Patrick Murphy had been pushed off a chair. She ran over, leaving the good doctor with Christopher and the three workers turned volunteer doctor’s aides.

Samantha had the kids sit in a circle on the soft grass under the tree so they could play “battle scars.” Each child had one minute to show a scar and safely act out how they’d acquired it. They all loved to show off and top each other with outrageous stories.

Tony came out then, and reassured her that Christopher could stay resting in the sick room until his parents picked him up. “I gave Darlene instructions and sent a prescription to Swinton’s Pharmacy down the street.” Samantha nodded, and Tony stayed to listen as the last two kids told their stories. When they were done, he leaned over to ask her if he could show off a few of his own battle scars.

“We’d be here for weeks.” She laughed. “And I’m afraid you’d give them some very bad ideas.”

The kids begged to see at least one of Tony’s battle scars, and he showed them a long scar that snaked up the length of his arm. “That one’s new.” Samantha felt her eyes widen.

“New to you. It’s been with me for fifteen years. I got caught on a security fence trying to rescue a dog I thought was being abused by its owner.”

“Was he being abused?”

“It was a she. And no, she wasn’t being abused. Apparently, beagles always howl as if they’re in intolerable pain. But the owner wasn’t angry, and she gave me one of her puppies.”

Samantha traced the scar, her skin prickling at the thought of the pain he must’ve endured. “This would not have happened under my watch.” She smiled until she caught Tony watching her. Their eyes met, and she removed her fingers, trying hard not to swallow.

“You used to watch him, too? Was he at this school a long, long time ago?” a little girl named Billie asked. It was the first time in years Samantha had thought of her age. Jeez! She wasn’t that old.

“Ms. Presley here was my babysitter,” Tony explained, suppressing a grin.

“Did you used to wish she was your mommy, too?” a girl named Carrie asked.

Samantha led Tony to the door and shuffled him inside before he could answer, while looking over her shoulder and explaining, “Dr. Mancini has many patients to see and prescriptions to write over at his office.”

Darlene, who appeared by Tony’s side yet again, said, “You know, even I wish Samantha was my mom sometimes.” Samantha’s insides sunk, in part because Darlene was the type to put other women down so she could lift herself up, and in part because she was starting to feel ancient.

Tony winked at Samantha. “I never did. I used to have the biggest crush on her, so that would’ve been kind of awkward.”

Samantha’s cheeks flamed. It was ridiculous that she should feel so flattered that a kid she used to babysit had had a crush on her, way back when.

Marisol looked up at Tony with a new appreciation in her eyes. “I think some of the little boys here do, too. And I’m sure some of the fathers do.”

“Okay, that’s enough. We’re at my school, guys, not McGruber’s,” Samantha reminded them, mentioning a popular downtown pub.

“Speaking of McGruber’s, why don’t you join us there Saturday evening?” Marisol asked Tony.

“That sounds great.” Tony turned to Samantha again. “Hey, before I leave, I was wondering if you could stop by my office on Friday, after work.” He jutted his chin toward a colorful wall behind her desk up front. “It’s seriously outdated, and I’m thinking something like this could work.” He looked at her then, and it was almost surreal how his eyes had retained the hopeful look she’d never been able to resist when he was a boy. But he wasn’t a boy, and the look was attached to a sexy man who oozed charm. He must’ve noticed her hesitation because he added, “I could really use your eye, Sam, and we can catch up while you give me a few ideas.”

Samantha nodded and quickly turned to go back outside. For the first time in years, she wanted to crumple up in a corner and cry, and only because he’d called her Sam. It had been years since anyone had called her Sam.

Sam had been the spirited, adventurous, but too-sensitive girl who’d always felt left out. At fifteen, she’d transformed herself into Samantha, a runner-up for homecoming queen, a cheerleader, and the football star’s girlfriend. Sam had been real. Samantha had not been.

At four o’clock, after the last child had been picked up and all of her employees but one had left for the afternoon, Samantha sat down to do some busy work and ignored Marisol, who had plopped herself into the chair in front of her to watch her.

“What?” Samantha gave up after a few minutes.

“I didn’t want to interrupt you, but now that you asked, I just want to tell you that I think Dr. Tony Mancini is the most exciting thing to happen to you in years.”

“Happen to me? He isn’t happening to me, okay? I used to babysit him, for Pete’s sake.”

“There were sparks between the two of you, I saw them,” she sing-songed. “And you’re only four years older than him. Four years is nothing at our age. And you’re only thirty-three!”

Samantha sighed. “Look, I admit Tony turned out… very well, but I’m sure he’s not interested in his old babysitter. And I’m not one to torture myself over aging and wrinkles and looks, but after everything that happened with Brad, and knowing the reasons he left me, that’s exactly what I’d start doing if I took an interest in a younger, hunky man. I’d be miserable. So please don’t mention it again.”

“Hmm. That’s interesting.” Marisol sat back.

“What is?” Samantha took the bait.

“Any time I mention a man, you always tell me I should go after him myself. You didn’t do that this time.”

“Go after him yourself, Marisol. Knock yourself out. You have my blessing. In fact, go after him right now, ‘cause I have a lot of work to do, and I’m guessing you’ll have plenty of competition. You may have to knock others out, instead.”

***

By Friday, Samantha was happy she’d agreed to meet with Tony. Seeing him again had brought back sunny memories, and walking along the quaint downtown area with its two steepled churches and myriad of colorful clapboard houses, knowing they’d both somehow ended up back home made her smile.

But as she crossed the park across Dr. Crisp’s old office, the old bench where Brad had proposed came to view, and her thoughts drifted to him. Would seeing Brad again bring her pain or the relief of indifference? She’d locked everything about her life with him up and shoved it into a corner of her mind, and she wasn’t sure what would happen if she picked that lock.

When she found herself standing just outside Tony’s office, she held her breath, took her phone out of her purse, and sent Brad a short text message. Parisian Café, Burlington, tomorrow at 2:00 pm. The dark clouds that had settled on her shoulders lifted. Knowing whether she’d moved on or not was the right choice.

On a breath, she released the thought, and instead took in the salty ocean air. She pushed open the door, a bell clanged, and Samantha stepped inside. Tony, who’d been looking at a computer screen on the other side of a Plexiglass window, glanced up at the sound and smiled brightly when he saw her. He held her eyes, her heart spun… and she felt ridiculous. “Come in this way and have a seat, I’m almost done,” he called.

She entered his receptionist’s office, took a seat, and looked around while she waited for him to finish what he was doing. There was a drawing of Mighty Mouse on one wall and one of Sleeping Beauty on another. The wallpaper in the reception area was worn and peeling and a few framed pictures of the town were too faded to be recognizable to anyone who hadn’t seen them twenty years ago. “You know, I hadn’t realized it before, but this place looks exactly the way it did when I was a kid, which is funny because my mom used to say the same thing.”

“It’s definitely outdated.” He continued to click away at the computer as he spoke. “I like what you’ve done with your preschool because it’s kid-friendly, but it won’t become outdated anytime soon.” He was leaning over the keyboard, and she had a great view of his backside. Broad shoulders, muscular arms, trim waist. Tony the Town Terror was terrifying in a whole new way.

“I don’t know, vintage is in. I’m thinking you should get rid of the wallpaper and the old picture frames and maybe paint the walls a nice buttery yellow, but you should have the pictures and the drawings restored. You could get new colorful frames, and maybe commission a few more drawings. I think Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and maybe Snow White won’t go out of style. They’re classics.”

Tony stopped what he was doing, followed her eyes around the office as she spoke, and then turned to tug at her hand and lift her off her seat. “I see it.” He nodded slowly. “And I like the idea of keeping a piece of yesterday in here. Tell me what you’d do with the rest of it.”

Flattered that he liked her ideas and touched that pieces of yesterday were important to him, too, she followed him from room to room until they’d come up with a plan for every space.

They were in his personal office now and Tony was oozing energy. He’d always oozed energy. But sex appeal was coming out of his pores now, too. She crossed her arms and said, “Well, my work here’s done. That was quick. You were always easy to please.”

Tony looked down at his watch. “Actually, you’ve been here for over an hour, and we’re not done yet. It’s time to catch up. What have you been up to the last eighteen years, Sam Presley?”

Samantha hesitated. “A pretty tame life. Finished high school, majored in early childhood education with a minor in business, got married, moved to Colorado while Brad was still in the NFL, took a job as a teacher.” She took another breath. “Moved to Burlington when he blew his knee out, got divorced, moved back to Haven, and started a preschool. How about you?”

“I don’t have your summarizing abilities.” He laughed. “We’d be here all night.”

All night didn’t sound like a good idea, so she said, “Then tell me why you decided to become a pediatrician. I’m most curious about that. The little boy I knew would use his science homework to stop the blood flow from one his cuts.”

“The girl I knew wasn’t such an outrageous liar, but I’ll tell you anyway.” He paused to give her a playful look. “I fell off my foster parents’ roof down in Virginia, they took me to a family doctor, and the moment he started yapping, I knew. Here in Haven, town folk scolded, preachers warned of wrath, and my grandmother threatened to ship me off to Siberia, but Dr. Crisp was always nice. In Virginia, my family doctor was always angry and impatient. And he had bad breath. I decided to be a nice, understanding doctor with minty breath, like Dr. Crisp.”

Oh, the twinkle in Tony’s eyes. It was impossible not to smile around him. “Of course Dr. Crisp was nice to you, you were his bread and butter,” she teased. “And you forget I was nice to you, too.”

“You were. But becoming a doctor was more appealing than becoming a babysitter. Doctors get to see guts.”

“When you babysit a kid like you, you get to see plenty of guts.” They laughed, and the tension she was feeling melted away. “Why did you come back to Haven?”

“Dr. Crisp and I kept in touch, and when he told me he was retiring and selling his practice, it made perfect sense. It’s a small town, so his practice was more affordable, and I loved living here when I was a kid, despite the threats, the scolding, and the lecturing.”

“And what does it feel like to be back after so long?”

“Kind of jarring at first, but now I know I’m home.” His eyes held hers when he said the last sentence, and tension coiled in her stomach again. It wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it was a little too pleasant. Dizzyingly so.

“I should go…”

“Sure. I’m heading home, too. I’ll walk you to the door.” She waited as he got his wallet and keys out of a drawer, and pulled his arms into a leather jacket. All the while she tried not to watch him.

At the door, he paused to look down at her. The deep, sensual notes of his musky cologne tickled her senses and she swayed toward him without even realizing it until she caught the flash in his eyes.

“Thanks, Sam. I’m getting started on your ideas right away. The wallpaper comes down tomorrow morning, and the buttery yellow goes up tomorrow afternoon.”

She chuckled, unsurprised. Still impatient, still full of energy, and still so much under that surface. Could they become friends once again?

Tony walked away, his heart full. His youthful memories of Sam were tinged with a hazy, sunny glow, and he often wondered if he’d cast her in too warm a light. But today he’d seen he hadn’t. As a boy, he’d sensed the deep understanding, bubbles of humor, and restless loneliness behind her sparkling eyes and bright smile. He’d been lonely too, and he’d latched on and held on tightly to her funny outlooks and her understanding nature. They’d been his safety net. Today, he’d witnessed them again as a man, and it made him wonder if they could share all they now understood as adults, and still laugh and be serious in turn, so he could fill a little bit of her loneliness, the way she’d once filled so much of his.

2

The next day, at two-fifteen in the afternoon, Samantha stood behind a telephone post and tried to spot Brad through the windows of the quaint café. Noisy traffic and pedestrian chatter faded to the background as she scanned the dark, snug room. Why had she chosen such an intimate setting?

She caught sight of him then, and the parts of her heart that had been empty for too long ached with resentment. It wasn’t the reaction she’d expected. He kept casting glances toward the door, and he saw her the moment she walked in. Up close, he looked much the same except for a beard, fine lines on his forehead, and deeper crinkles in the corners of his eyes.

“Samantha… wow. You look exactly the same. You look great.”

“Not having children of your own does that to you, or so I’ve been told. Apparently, I don’t worry or stress as much as mothers do,” she said before she could stop herself.

He sighed. “I thought we could talk a little about what we’ve been up to before digging up the past.”

“You’re the one who wanted to meet, Brad. All I’ve been able to think about all week is the past. How could you think it would be any different?”

“What do you want me to say? That I was wrong? I know I was wrong.”

Samantha looked out the window toward the pole she’d been hiding behind a minute before. As much as she’d tried to pin the blame of everything that had happened on herself, the moment she’d seen him, her heart had told her what her mind had tried to deny. His decision had hurt her. She shook her head and looked back at him. “I don’t know that you weren’t wrong. You wanted your own children, the old-fashioned way, and I couldn’t give that to you. I gave you an out, and you took it. I see now that I resent your choice, but I can’t say that I blame you.”

Brad picked a napkin up and shifted his gaze from Samantha, to the napkin, and back again. “Do you hate me?”

She tilted her head to the side and looked past him, thinking. “No. I don’t.”

“Then why do you sound angry?”

She sat still, zeroing in on the angry fist pounding in her chest, thinking about why it wouldn’t let up from the moment he’d first called. “Because you called, and because I don’t know what it is you want.”

“I called because…” Brad folded the napkin into a tight square, threw it on the table, and blew out a breath. “I called because I never stopped loving you. I called because I hated that we broke up, and I hated that, if we hadn’t, I would’ve ended up resenting you. And I called because Lilly and I broke up over a year ago, and…” he sighed and looked away, unable to finish the sentence.

Samantha blinked. Thinking about Brad’s new wife always hurt, but at that moment, the old, useless self-pity was replaced with a deep sympathy for a woman who also hadn’t deserved to be hurt. “Why did you marry Lilly if you never stopped loving me? That—that wasn’t kind, Brad.” Confused, she reverted to speaking to him as if he were one of her preschoolers.

“I loved her in a different way, and I thought it was enough.”

Samantha wondered who’d realized it wasn’t enough. Who’d voiced the heartbreaking moment? Old feelings mingled with new ones, and there was no way to clear her heart while he was in front of her. “What do you want from me, Brad?” she asked, softly, not knowing what to think or how to feel.

He looked at her, as serious as the day he’d said goodbye. “I’ve missed you, and I thought, maybe, we could try again.”

Samantha closed her eyes. “So you have your two little girls now, and you think we can rebuild what we had, so you can have everything you want?” She opened her eyes and tried to look deeper into his, not wanting to believe he was as selfish as his words and actions made him sound.

Brad didn’t meet her gaze, and for a while, he was silent. Finally, he raked a hand through his hair and sighed. “It isn’t easy to hear you put it that way. I know how it makes me sound.” He met her eyes. “But I want you to have everything you always wanted, too. You love children, and I thought…”

Samantha didn’t like the way it sounded either, but she hated that it also wasn’t as repulsive to her as it should be. Brad was the only man she’d ever loved. They’d been together for thirteen years, and after everything that had happened, she’d never allowed another man to get close to her again. Six years and many events had transpired, and yet here he was in front of her again, still wanting to be the promise she’d loved at sixteen.

“We had tons of plans, Samantha. So many things we wanted to do. You kept a notebook, and every time we thought of a new, exciting adventure we wanted to share, you’d jot it down, remember? We can still do all of it.”

He tried to reach for her hands, but Samantha shoved her chair away from the table. He flinched at the scraping sound. “I’ve got to go,” she said.

He stood up. “Do you want to meet them?”

“Your girls? Lilly’s girls?”

She watched Brad’s throat work. “Yes,” he said.

Samantha knew then she wanted to meet them, but she wasn’t quite sure why. The idea of it hurt. “When will they be with you?”

“They’re over at my house right now. They’ll be with me over the holiday weekend.”

Samantha hesitated. This couldn’t be good for her. Taking a breath, she said, “Maybe you can all meet me here on Monday, same time as today.”

“I was thinking we could all meet at my new house. It’s an old colonial, blue with white trim and black shutters, up on a hill.” She’d once seen a house just like that, in Colorado, and she’d told him it was her dream house. The way he looked at her told her he remembered.

She gave her head a shake. “I’ll let you know.”

***

That evening at McGruber’s, Tony stood at the door and scanned the inviting, rustic room for Sam, Marisol, and their friends. He spotted Darlene, and next to her, Sam, in a crowded booth. The music, the possibility of new friends, and the smell of wings and spirits welcomed him in, and he strode their way. Sam’s hair was loose, and the dim light from the lamp above played with its highlights, making them shimmer as she shook a French fry at one of her friends. Not exactly a romantic picture, but more in line with what he preferred.

Darlene caught sight of him and waved, making room for him in the small booth by practically shoving Sam to the side. Sam, who had been taking a sip of her drink, was unprepared for the momentum caused by the force of Darlene’s hips, and she thumped the side of her head with a frame on the wall, spilling some of it. She looked up to see Tony, and shook her head, amused at the true cause of her spill.

Tony slid in next to Darlene, and Darlene reintroduced him to Dennis, a guy he’d already met at the hardware store a few days back, and Craig, the town’s dentist. Marisol was sitting between them. “So, this is how you spend Saturday nights,” he said.

“Mostly,” Darlene turned to him. “But once a month we get all dolled up and drive up to Burlington to go bar hopping or wine tasting or dancing, depending on our mood.”

“And sometimes we go to concerts or festivals. Depends on what’s going on,” Marisol added.

“What do you usually do for excitement on Saturday evenings?” Darlene asked, her fingers brushing his hand and lingering.

Tony casually took his hand away and brought it to his thigh, hoping she didn’t follow him there. He’d caught how Darlene had tried to put Samantha down earlier that week, and he had a low tolerance for people who built themselves up by tearing others down. “I shoot rats in alleyways.” He couldn’t see Sam, but he heard her almost choke on her beer.

Darlene apparently couldn’t detect the mischief in his voice because she sounded disgusted when she exclaimed, “You what? I thought doctors were supposed to save lives, not end them.”

“I save human lives, not rat lives.” He paused as if to consider his statement. “Unless I accidentally shoot a rat mommy. Then I have to revive her so she can take care of her rat babies. I don’t harm the babies. I’m a pediatrician, after all.”

“Do you use electrical shocks, or do you give the rat mommy mouth to mouth?” Craig asked with a grin.

“I bring along this tiny battery-powered defibrillator,” Tony explained, gesturing with his hands to show he shocked the little patient.

Everyone except Darlene was either rolling their eyes at Tony and Craig, or chuckling. Darlene huffed when she realized she had been the only one to fall for the joke, but quickly got over it to try to get him to dance with her. When he declined a third time, and began talking about rats again, she pasted a tight smile on her face and dragged Dennis over to the dance floor instead.

Tony promptly scooted closer to Sam. “Hey, I thought that was you way over here.”

“You’re going to have to teach Dennis how to resist Darlene,” Marisol remarked with a smile. “He never can.”

Tony took a long pull of beer. “Well, I find her pretty easy to resist. Especially after she shoved Sam so hard she smacked her head against the wall.” He kept his tone light, but he meant his words.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Sam said, touching the side of her head.

“Then why are you drooling beer?” He took a napkin and pretended to wipe beer from her chin. She swatted his hand and grinned up at him, making him feel warm all over.

“Look, Dr. Yummy, you’re not going to score any dates if you go around saying you shoot rats,” Marisol pretended to scold.

“Dr. Yummy?” Tony raised an eyebrow.

Craig rolled his eyes. “That’s what they’re calling you. Watch out.”

Tony grinned. “I could get used to that. Not scoring dates could take some getting used to, though.” He raised his beer at Marisol. “I’ll take your advice into careful consideration.”

“Why do I feel like smacking you?” Marisol laughed. “I just met you.”

“Marisol wanting to smack you is a good thing,” Sam explained. “It means she likes you enough to bother.”

Dennis joined them again shortly after, and they chatted comfortably for a while, until Tony spotted Darlene making her way back to the booth. Before she reached them, he said, “Hey, I’m going kayaking tomorrow, do any of you want to come along? I’ve got three kayaks available.”

“Kayaking?” Sam lit up, and he wondered if she was thinking about the many times he’d accidentally dumped them into the water. “That sounds like a perfect Sunday. I’m game,” she agreed.

“Can’t— I’m picking a friend up at the airport,” Craig said. “But keep me in mind for next time.”

“I’ve got work.” Dennis sighed and took a swig of his beer.

Marisol looked from Tony to Sam and back again, the expression on her face downright wicked. “Oh, well, I can’t make it either. I’m… taking my niece shopping tomorrow. So it looks as though it’s just the two of you.”

Tony turned to Sam. The guarded look in her eyes told him she wasn’t sure about being alone with him, and he understood it. They were just getting reacquainted. For all she knew, he really did spend his Saturdays shooting rats in alleyways. Wanting to reassure her, he met her troubled eyes with a steady gaze of his own. “Meet me at Captain Cook’s at eight a.m. and we’ll have a perfect Sunday, Sam, like you said. I promise. But if something comes up, and you can’t make it, I’ll understand.”

“Why Captain Cook’s house?” Marisol asked, and turned his attention away from Sam.

“It’s mine,” he answered.

Beside him, Sam gasped in excitement and swiveled his way. “You bought Captain Cook’s?”

Tony merely nodded, not wanting to reveal how gratified he was by her enthusiasm. He didn’t understand it himself. He’d been looking forward to seeing her and reconnecting with her, but he hadn’t expected the warm, tender, and hopeful feelings that had filled his heart for her when he was a child to fill him again. It wasn’t logical. But it was what it was. She’d been kind, and she’d been real. Was she still those things, so important to him?

“You bought the pirate’s old place, huh? Interesting,” Marisol observed. “But why does she have to meet you so damn early?” she asked next, her eyes alight with a mischievous spark. Tony knew then that Marisol had caught his interest in Sam, and she was now having fun at his expense. He didn’t mind. In fact, he was sure he’d made a new friend. So he kicked her under the table to seal their new bond. Marisol shot him a, “Don’t worry—I’ll get you back,” glare and bent to rub her shin.

“Tony and I always got an early start on our adventures,” Sam answered with a big smile, oblivious to her friend’s pain.

Tony ignored Marisol and smiled back, but the look in Sam’s eyes was so pure and so hopeful, it made his heart clench hard in his chest. All of a sudden, Tony felt as if he were on new territory, when only seconds before, Sam had been speaking of the past. He excused himself and went to talk to a few other people he’d met since moving back.

Sam tried to keep her eyes away from Tony and on Marisol, but it was tough. He had a magnetic presence, and her eyes strayed despite her best intentions. She watched him flash his sparkling green eyes at a few women and wondered if he was flirting. Even as a kid, he’d been full of easy charm.

“So, how did it go with Brad?” Marisol asked when they were alone.

“He grew a beard,” was all she was willing to say. It had been a difficult morning, but she was feeling good now.

“Don’t get too close to him, then. I read a study that found that beards are as dirty as toilets.”

Sam laughed, another friend joined them, and Marisol dropped the subject. Tony never came back and when Sam was leaving she was so intent on looking around for him to say goodbye that she ran smack into him with a hard bump to his solid chest. “Hey, watch where you’re going,” a woman beside him said to her.

“Oh, she knows exactly where she’s going.” He placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her.

His smile was so contagious, Sam had to smile, too, even as she rubbed her forehead. “I do, I’m going home.”

“Well, I’m going home, too,” the woman beside Tony met his eyes and made him a subtle invitation by nudging her head to the door.

When Tony pretended not to notice and instead said, “Good night. Thanks for walking me to the door,” Sam realized she’d been holding her breath to see what he would do. It was beyond ridiculous of her.

“Did you walk or bring a car?” Tony asked when Sam took a step toward the door.

“I walked.”

“Is it safe for you to walk home alone?”

A moment they once shared popped into her head, making her heart flutter with the warmth of the memory. Without thinking, she said, “It’s safe, but would you like to take a walk with me? There’s something I’d like to show you.” The instant the words left her mouth, though, she regretted them. His youth had been difficult. Maybe he wouldn’t remember any of it with warmth.

His eyes twinkled. “That depends. Will you be holding my hand like you used to?”

She tossed him a look of mock-reproach, while inside, she was grateful he’d put her at ease once again. “That depends—are you planning on running after every squirrel you spot, like you used to?”

“Nope. I’m reformed. It’s been two whole months since I chased a squirrel.” She laughed, and he opened the door for her, following her outside.

The early spring night was brisk, fragrant, and full of stars. After a few minutes of comfortable silence, Sam said, “I’m glad you haven’t asked where we’re going. I’ll take it to mean you haven’t lost your sense of adventure.” She smiled up at him.

“I don’t think I’d be back in Haven if I had. Besides, I see we’re heading to the old trailer park grounds.”

She felt him stiffen ever so slightly beside her, and she stopped. “We’re going a little bit beyond that, to the Sweet Creek Park, but we don’t have to take that route if you don’t want to.”

He turned to her and graced her with a smile so tender, it warmed her from the inside out. “I’m not eight, Sam. You don’t have to protect me. I haven’t visited the old trailer park grounds since I’ve been back, and so a few memories hit me at once. That’s all. I’ll be fine.”

Sam continued to walk. “You’re like me, then. Memories come to me at the strangest times. Do your memories come back to haunt or to visit?”

“Both. I welcome them, though. Do you?”

Sam was silent until they reached the old grounds. Tony turned to where his grandmother’s trailer used to be, and Sam turned to the site her mother had leased so many years ago. “I haven’t thought about it, but I guess I welcome them, too. Sometimes you don’t know there are things you still need to overcome until the past stops by for a visit.”

Tony watched Sam. Her expression was open, vulnerable. “Is something haunting you now?” he asked. Her eyes fluttered, and her expression changed in an instant. She smiled the way she used to, when she was trying to convince the world that everything was all right. He had a smile just like it. Without looking at him, she said, “Let’s just say I’m glad memories of you are visiting, too.”

“I’m here to stay.” He didn’t mean to sound as serious as he did, but as sweet and hazy as memories of them together were, he was grounded in the present. “And I hope we can be friends again.”

“I hope so, too, but can we still act like kids from time to time?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll race you to the giant oak where we had your goodbye picnic.”

Before he could locate the oak, Sam took off. Tony followed, past the grounds, across the soccer fields, and to the end of the park. They stopped at the huge tree, and Sam leaned against it to catch her breath.

He was about to tease her, when something caught his eye. The words “Sam & Tony 4-ever,” were carved into the tree.

“You wanted me to carve it, remember? But we didn’t have a knife with us,” she explained. “So I came back the next day and carved it, even though I didn’t think you’d ever see it.”

Tony’s heart slammed against his chest. He looked down at the beautiful woman Sam had become. He’d been thinking his feelings were a mix of old gratitude and pure male lust, but they weren’t. Did a person’s soul remain intact throughout a lifetime? Was Sam Presley still the girl who understood his?

Sam looked into Tony’s eyes. Something passed between them, and it scared her. In one, breathless moment, he dipped his head and whispered “Thank you,” in her ear, his breath feathering her cheek. Her heart thundered in her chest.

He straightened, and looked as confused as she felt. A moment later, he grinned. “But it was supposed to say, ‘Tony and Sam, Friends Forever,’ you know.”

Sam relaxed. “My hand got tired, and I wanted my name to be first. I wanted you to know who was calling the shots, in case you ever came back.”

“You can call the shots, as long as you know I’ll ignore them from time to time.”

“Sure,” she answered. His tone was friendly, but her rusty libido and overactive imagination had her reading more into his words. “I really have to go now.”

“I’ll walk you home if you tell me all about your preschool.”

Sam nodded, happy he wanted to hear about her greatest achievement.

When they reached her door, their long-ago roles became reversed. Sam was the one feeling impulsive. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Sorry I droned on. Thanks for listening.”

Inside, she leaned against her door. Funny how a quiet stroll and conversation with an old friend had her feeling both more relaxed and more alive than she’d felt in ages.

3

Sam woke up to a bright, beautiful day. Butterflies fluttered outside and deep in her belly. Lately, she felt unsure of both every new and every old feeling.

She packed a picnic basket, the way she used to, and met Tony on Captain Cook’s front porch. Up close, she could see the house had been newly painted in the same old colors. Yellow and white trim, with red doors and shutters. She loved it. She always had. The colors made the house stand out against the blue sky and ocean, and green swaying grass.

“I’ll give you a tour later,” Tony promised, eager to get started on their kayaking trip. No, he was no longer a little boy, but the little boy was still inside the man. He took hold of her hand as if it were natural, and led her over the jagged rocks to the private pier. His warm hand dwarfed hers, and the observation made the fluttering in her stomach worse. Her eyes roamed over him. He was wearing swim trunks and a sleeveless shirt, revealing strong, muscular arms and legs.

A shiny new red kayak was waiting for them. “Wow, I see we’re moving up in the world, remember the canoe we used to borrow from Rose Arthur?”

“Yeah, it used to tip.” He pushed the kayak onto the water, and helped her settle into it.

Sam laughed. “Yes—you used to tip it.”

“That’s not how I remember it.” He grinned at her as he sat, and they began paddling their way along the shore.

The distant cry of seagulls and the swishing, rhythmic sound of paddles hitting the water calmed her, and she knew it would be the perfect Sunday she’d hoped for. “I see you’ve gotten better at this.”

“My arms are no longer puny.”

Nothing about him was puny, she thought, eyeing his chest and shoulders. Her cheeks felt warm, and she turned them to the sun, so she’d have something to blame.

After an hour of paddling and easy conversation, they pulled into a small, sandy cove. Tony dragged the kayak farther in as Sam spread their brunch on a blanket.

“Do you want to go for a swim first, before we fill up?”

“It’s spring. The water’s still cold.”

“It’s not cold, it’s invigorating.” He swept his shirt off, and just like that, the thought of cold water appealed to her.

She rolled her shirt up, revealing the turquoise bikini top she’d worn in case they tipped. She caught his appreciative glance, he looked up, and their eyes locked.

He smiled. “You were a beautiful girl, and I always knew you’d turn into a beautiful woman.”

Her breathing felt uneven, and she tore her eyes away. “You were twelve when you left. You didn’t know a thing about women,” she teased.

“Well, I know a thing or two now,” he said, as he walked toward the water.

She bet he did. The idea heated her up, and she raced past him and dove into the water, in need of a good, cold dunk.

Tony waded until he was waist-deep before diving in. He came up beside her and shook his wet hair in her face.

She squealed and splashed him back. “It’s cold enough without you wetting the only parts of me the sun can reach!”

“Come here, then, I’ve always been a degree or two warmer than most.”

She allowed him to pull her into his arms simply because it felt better than anything she’d experienced in ages. He wrapped his arms around her. “Is this better?” She shivered, and he raised her chin with his thumb. His eyes sparkled like emeralds in the sunlight, and he smelled of salt, fresh air, and sunshine. His lips looked warm and moist. She buried her head in his chest, feeling both safe and unsteady at once.

“This is nice,” she said, afraid of just how nice it was.

“It is,” he whispered. A moment later, he let her go.

They swam and splashed and talked and laughed, until Sam got too cold to do anything without shivering and stuttering. He ran ahead of her, dug a huge towel out of his bag, wrapped it around her, and held her close as they walked back to the blanket.

When she stopped shivering, they sat down to eat, and she wondered if he felt as she did, that this kind of happiness was fleeting.

“You’re twenty-nine now, right?” she asked in between bites of her egg salad sandwich. He nodded. “And you bought that big old house just for yourself?”

“Are you fishing for information?” He smiled a roguish smile. She didn’t remember that one. Her toes tingled at the sight of it, and she buried them in the sand, enjoying the warm, sinking feeling.

“Well, I know a few women who are interested,” she replied. It was the truth. “And none of them had to see you through poison ivy, clinging leeches, and golf ball-sized blisters, so there may be a chance they’ll stay interested.”

He laughed. “I’m single, but I’d like to fill the house up with kids someday—poison ivy, clinging leeches, and golf ball-sized blisters and all.”

Samantha pulled her toes out of the sand. “A pirate house brimming with kids who act just like their father. Some would say it sounds like a nightmare.” She smiled and tried to keep her tone light. Of course he wanted children. Children she could never give anyone.

“I think it sounds like the ultimate adventure. But who knows who the kids will take after? I don’t want to have any of my own. I want to adopt.”

Sam froze. “What?”

“I want to adopt. Do you know how many unwanted kids are out there, dreaming of a real home?” Sam remained still on the outside, but inside her heart ached for him, knowing he’d been one of those boys. He shrugged. “I figure I could care for at least four. I just need to find a sexy, spirited, female swashbuckler who’s up for the challenge.”

Again, he made her smile, and took her away from paralyzing thoughts. “Hmm, I don’t know of any sexy swashbucklers, but I’ll keep my eyes open. The costume alone should make her easy to spot. Any other characteristics she should have, like a good job, excellent credit, and basic cooking skills?” she joked.

His eyes caught hers the moment she smiled up at him. “Yes. She should know what it feels like to really hurt and what it’s like to lift yourself up. She should want to live and love and be loved by someone real.” The look he sent her told her that Tony Mancini had it together.

And she couldn’t, for the life of her, look away. “Real is good. And you’ve always been that. Even when you were a little boy, and I was a teenager, I was always happier being real with you than I was pretending with everyone else.”

Tony nodded. “I watched you pretend once or twice, with Brad. Why?”

Sam sighed and lay down on the blanket. She couldn’t lie. Not while they were talking about being real, but she couldn’t look at him either. “You must remember how it was. My mom was great, and she was a hard worker, but she’d dug herself into a deep hole. There were so many anxieties. The power got shut off all the time, and there wasn’t enough money for school supplies. And my father— well, he never even sent a postcard, let alone money. It was drilled into me that I had to make better decisions. That I had to go to college, and shoot higher than she had when it came to choosing a partner. She died thinking the sun rose and set on Brad’s shoulders, you know. He was so charming. And she used to talk about how lucky we were that he was overlooking where we lived. She’d say I had to show my gratitude and never embarrass him.” Sam shrugged. “So I tried not to. I tried to fit in with his crowd.”

Tony laid down on his side, planting his elbow on the blanket so he could prop his head up with his hand to look at her. “I remember Brad putting the moves on you,” he said. “My eleven-year-old self thought he was pretty lame. I was sure I could do better.”

Sam laughed hard. Unable to resist his charm, she turned to look at him and ask, “What moves would your eleven-year-old self have put on me?”

Tony searched her eyes and took longer than she would’ve expected to answer. “I would’ve told you that you were a forever girl,” he finally said.

Sam’s heart ached at the lovely sentiment. “That’s pretty smooth for an eleven-year-old,” she joked, trying to hide how deeply his words touched her.

His smiled. “Unfortunately, my moves haven’t improved much because I would still say the very same thing.”

His lips were inches away from hers. “That’s not unfortunate,” she whispered, feeling as if she were in a trance.

Slowly, he lowered his mouth onto hers and brushed his lips against hers once. Sam’s breath hitched, and she closed her eyes to savor the sweet sensation. The tender nip that came next lit a sweet, swirling fire inside, and she snaked her hand around his neck to pull him close. His mouth began moving over hers, achingly slow, and she held him to her, opening her mouth when he sought to deepen the kiss. He tasted of salt and sunshine, and she met him stroke for stroke, unable to get enough of him. When his fingers began tracing her throat and shoulders, she shivered, and her mind was brought back to the present, and to her fears, and she broke the kiss.

He fell back onto the blanket, searched for her hand, and gently stroked it with his thumb. They stayed like that for a long time, until the sounds of the surf lapping the shore got closer, informing them that high tide was near. Tony got up and began gathering their belongings without a word. Sam scrambled up to help him stuff leftovers into her picnic basket. As she knelt in front of him, the anxious thoughts that were suddenly on her mind tumbled out. “I’m going to see Brad tomorrow. I’m going to meet his two little girls.”

For a moment he froze, and she couldn’t look at him. A moment later, he stood, helped her to her feet, and kissed the crown of her head.

They paddled their way back to Captain Cook’s, their mood mellow and serene, talking about everything except their kiss and Brad.

Tony gave her a tour of his new-old legendary house, complete with scandalous tales of betrayed lovers, wicked ghosts, and stolen treasures. He built a fire and they lay in front of it, the sweet scent of wood smoke enveloping them. Sam told him of a few new tales she’d heard of over the years, and reminded him of a few he’d made up when he was younger, which made him laugh and roll his eyes at the kid he’d been.

“How about we trade stories about the years between then and now? Real stories instead of tall tales?” he suggested with a smile when their laughter died down.

She looked into his eyes, realizing that for the first time in a long time, she was eager to share. “Okay, but let’s start with you,” she said, as she rolled onto her stomach and laid her head on her hands to watch his expressions against the firelight. “Would you mind telling me a little more about your foster parents?”

“Not at all.” They talked until the sun disappeared, and the night grew chilly despite the fire crackling behind them.

4

Monday came too soon for Samantha. She chose a pretty pink dress and strappy white sandals, and drove out to Burlington, once again, this time under thunder and rain. Her GPS guided her to a beautiful, fairytale-like home. She parked her car on a paving stone driveway and walked up to the blue and white colonial, admiring the wraparound porch, only slightly aware that she was dressed up, and getting soaked.

She paused and peered into one of the windows. A small, golden-haired girl sat coloring on a table. Brad was on the phone, sitting on a sofa arm.

Samantha released a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding and walked up to the door. It opened before she had a chance to knock. A sullen girl with pretty, light brown curls looked up at her. “Are you my daddy’s friend?” The little girl who’d been coloring slid off her chair and came over to look at Samantha, too. Brad’s eyes caught hers, he brightened, and made a signal that he was about to get off the phone.

She smiled at the little girls and squatted down to their eye level. “Yes, I’m Samantha.” Lilly’s girls studied her, the golden-haired girl still and curious while the brunette swayed side to side at the door. Before she could ask them their names, Brad tossed the phone aside and talked toward them.

“Samantha, hi! Please, come in,” he called to her, but Samantha remained on the other side of the threshold. “I see you’ve met my girls,” he said when he got to the door. “Abigail and Sophia. Girls, step aside and let our guest in.”

The girls moved to the side, but Samantha didn’t get up. “It’s nice to meet you. I can see you’re both very good, very well-behaved girls, and I wanted to come by and see you because I’m an old friend of your father’s, but I’m actually not staying.” She extended her hand to each girl, and could tell they were relieved she was not staying. They tried to shake her hand, but Sam pretended it was weak and wobbly, which made them giggle and try to shake it harder and harder. When they let go, still laughing, Samantha got up.

“You’re not staying?” Brad asked, sounding surprised. Samantha shook her head no. The girls looked up at them. “Girls, why don’t you go and pop in a movie, I’ll be right there.”

Sophia didn’t need to be told twice, but Abigail pouted. “You always say that and then you only see the end,” she scolded her daddy, but she ran after Sophia anyway.

Brad stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him. “So,” he began. “Is it that you don’t think the four of us could get along, or that you don’t want to try?”

Sam hesitated. Rain pelted the roof in varying rhythms, filling the silence. She knew then that she’d only come to convince herself that she wouldn’t have been happy with Brad, even if she had been able to bear his children. But she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t lie to herself and pretend she wouldn’t have been happy living in the pretty house on the hill, with two little girls to call her own.

“I don’t want to try because I can’t love you anymore, Brad,” she finally answered.

“How can you know if you won’t even try?” He took a step toward her and looked into her eyes.

Sam stepped back and shook her head, not sure she could hold back. “Because I don’t even know if I ever connected with you in a way that was truly fulfilling for me, Brad. You always had it all. Some people just do, and I’m not criticizing you for it or holding it against you. I think the first time you ever suffered was when we were told there was no way I could ever have children, and looking back, it was almost as if it happened to you, more than it happened to me.”

“I know that it happened to you. I always knew that.”

“But you left the moment I gave you an out. You didn’t try to consider the different avenues we could’ve taken. I have no doubt you would’ve come to the same conclusion, and you would’ve left anyway in the end. Not everyone wants to adopt, and that’s okay. Not everyone is comfortable hiring a surrogate. That’s okay, too. It was the way you left that told me it was more about you than it was about me.”

They were quiet until it became unbearable.

“What can I say, Samantha? Tell me what I can say.”

“It’s Sam. And you don’t have to say anything. I’m not angry. I would’ve loved this life with you.” She swept her hand toward his home. “But I love my life now, too, and I’m proud of it. I built it on my own. And I’m stable enough that I can adopt a child now. I was approved by an adoption agency a few weeks ago.”

“That’s not the life you wanted.”

She cocked her head and studied him. “That’s not true. It’s not the life you wanted.” She shook her head at the stubborn doubt she saw in his eyes. She turned to make a dash to her car over the now heavy downpour, calling goodbye over her shoulder.

Sam didn’t think. She simply drove, the pounding of her heart soon becoming louder than the pounding rain.

When she reached the pirate’s house, she got out of her car, ran up the gravel driveway, and didn’t stop, not even when she spotted the shirtless, sculpted buccaneer through the window. She didn’t want to observe him from afar. She wanted to throw herself into his arms.

She knocked on the door, but the moment he answered, her heart got caught in her throat. She tried her damnedest to talk past it, but she couldn’t, so she took his free hand and simply squeezed it hard.

Tony dropped the paint roller he was holding, pulled her into his arms, and said, “Baby, what’s wrong? You’re soaking wet.”

The endearment undid her, and she began to cry against his chest. Through tears and a few humiliating hiccups, she explained, “I said goodbye to Brad today. For good. And I needed a friend. A forever friend. But then you called me baby, and I used to be your babysitter, so now I feel as though I’m being as impulsive and reckless and wild as eight-year-old you.”

Both touched and distressed by her words, Tony picked her up and carried her to his porch swing, where he held her to him and whispered, “Hey, it’s Happy Time, you’ve gotta leave it all behind.”

She looked up at him, and seeing her tear-streaked cheeks and wet lashes tied him up in knots, “You remember?” she asked.

“Of course I remember. I’d come home from school, sad cause I’d been assigned yet another detention, and there you were. Not my babysitter. My best friend. Yes, I was impulsive and reckless and wild, but I also knew too much about life, stuff way beyond my years.”

“You were my friend, too, but I was paid to watch you. And do you know what I did?” She looked down. “I saved all that money up, and the summer before high school—the summer you left— I spent it all to become the person I thought I wanted to be. I bought new clothes and makeup and lightened my hair… and it worked. You thought I was real, but how could I be when I wanted to be someone else? When I became someone else?”

He smoothed her hair behind her ear and spoke softly. “That’s not the only thing you spent your money on, Sam. You also made a twelve-hour trip on a bus to make sure I was okay. You never stopped being you.”

“You saw me?” She went very still in his arms.

Tony smiled. “I saw you. And every time I felt alone, I’d picture you standing there, and I’d know I’d never truly be alone. Not when you were somewhere out there, thinking about me, too.”

Sam snuggled into his chest. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t change in other ways. I would still be someone else if I would’ve been able to give Brad the children he wanted.”

“Is that why you and Brad got divorced, because you couldn’t…?” Sam nodded. “Oh, Sam…” he scooched her up, and began slowly and tenderly kissing her tears away. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She hiccupped. “I’m not crying because I can’t have kids, or over Brad leaving me.” She took in a shuddering breath. “I’m crying because when Brad came back and dangled everything I once wanted in front of me again, I felt like I had to go back and completely reject my old life, and the old hurt, so I could fully embrace my new life. But it wasn’t like that. Everything that happened is a part of me, and part of why I now know, so deeply, what I want and need to do. Then you came back, too, and reminded me also of what I’ve always had to give. And it made me cry.” She sighed. “Am I making any sense?”

“Perfect sense.” He kissed her forehead. “And I know what you have to give, Sam. The only parts I’m missing are what you want and what you need.”

She lifted her head to look into his eyes. “I want to adopt, too, Tony. I was approved by an adoption agency a few weeks ago, and my heart was so full! But part of what filled it was fear, because the old hurt was still there. It took me a while to understand that both the fear and the hurt are okay. They’ll help me understand my child, who will have already been through a lot, more deeply.”

Tony’s heart was so open and so raw at that moment, it was almost too much to bear. “You’ll be amazing, Sam,” he whispered, his voice hoarse from emotion. “How long is the adoption process?”

She smiled her sweet, beautiful smile. “With this adoption agency, anywhere between nine months to two years, but because I’m willing to adopt an older child, they think it will be sooner rather than later.”

He nodded. “You have the career you dreamed about and soon you’ll have a child. Is there anything else you want for yourself?” he asked, almost afraid to breathe.

She put her hand on his chest, and he wondered if she could feel how hard and fast it was racing. “I want to live, and I want to love and be loved by someone real.”

She’d remembered his exact words. He looked into her eyes, as serious as he’d ever been, and stood up, still holding her close. “Get started on your journey, Sam. I promise I’ll be your friend every step of the way. And maybe, if you let me in, we can live the ultimate adventure together.”

“Tell me about this ultimate adventure, and I’ll let you in.” She began to nuzzle his neck, and he had to steady himself.

Securing her against his chest, he carried her into the home that had once sparked their imagination. Between kisses and caresses, he whispered a new story. One about a beautiful house by the sea, where a town doctor, a preschool teacher, and a bunch of little boys and girls lived and loved, like nobody had ever lived and loved before.

The End

Full-length Novels by Inés Saint:

*Be the first to know about discounts or when the next book is available! Follow Inés Saint at https://www.bookbub.com/authors/ines-saint to receive new release and discount alerts.

Spinning Hills Trilogy

A fun cast of family and friends you’ll want to call your own!”
“HGTV hits Lifetime!… could not put this book down from the moment I picked it up” “Small-town charm, banter and sweet moments make it the perfect read for a summer afternoon escape” “Swoon-worthy story” [_  “It is a pleasure to read a story where there are just plain, good people in it.” Amazon Reviews_]

In Spinning Hills, “quirky” is a good thing—especially the charming houses that line the streets. One by one, the Amador brothers are restoring them, committed to a new beginning for the old-fashioned town. But they’re learning that every house needs a heart to be a home…

Flipped! (Spinning Hills 1) (Award-winning)

Needs a Little TLC (Spinning Hills 2)

Fixer-Upper (Spinning Hills 3)

Full-length Stand Alone Novels by Inés Saint:

Charmed (Amazon Encore) (Reached top 20 in Kindle Bestsellers)

“A must-read, lovely sweet romance from a talented author.” Amazon Reviews

Strangers in the Night (Amazon Encore) (Reached top 20 in Kindle Bestsellers)

“An opposites attract sweet romance that will completely suck you in.” Amazon Reviews

Coming in November 2016

The Piper Sisters Trilogy published by Kensington/Lyrical Press

When three sisters arrive in Spinning Hills, Ohio, home of the third most haunted street in the state, they’re looking for solace and support as they clear out the ghosts of their own pasts. But what they find is something a whole lot sweeter . . .

Perfect Paige (Nov. 8, 2016)

Good Gracie (April 11, 2017)

Haunted Hope (Late 2017)

Connect with Inés

Like on Facebook to learn about new books, contests, and giveaways! www.facebook.com/authorinessaint

www.inessaint.com

twitter handle: @inessaint

[email protected]

*Be the first to know about discounts or when the next book is available! Follow Inés Saint at https://www.bookbub.com/authors/ines-saint to receive new release and discount alerts.


Back to You (Short and Sweet Romantic Read)

Twenty years ago the entire town of Haven hired Samantha Presley to babysit Tony Mancini (a.k.a. Tony the Town Terror). Now he’s back as the town’s pediatrician and the single ladies find him terrifying in a whole new way: He’s gorgeous, he’s good with kids, and he knows exactly what he wants out of life. Tony isn’t too surprised to discover he still has feelings for his long-ago babysitter. What’s a four-year age difference to a man who knew his heart at the tender age of eight? But Samantha won’t take him seriously. Just when Samantha is ready to take an important new step in her life Tony, the spirited boy she used to babysit, and her ex-husband Brad come back to teach her about old dreams and new realities. Short Read; about 50 pages (reduced cast of secondary characters and faster resolution)

  • ISBN: 9781536519839
  • Author: Ines Saint
  • Published: 2016-10-02 19:05:11
  • Words: 12584
Back to You (Short and Sweet Romantic Read) Back to You (Short and Sweet Romantic Read)