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Brand New Cowboy

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.

 

CONTENTS

 

 

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Epilogue

About Author

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.”

He smiled, feeling happier than he had in a long time. They finished putting away the tack and headed up to the house, Amberlyn and Ava leading and holding hands. He felt a sudden urge and looked at her, meeting her eyes. He started to reach for her hand when Ava tripped on the steps to the porch and let out a cry. Tears were welling up in her eyes as Leslie sat next to her and pulled her into her lap asking where she was hurt. The girl pointed to her knee and Leslie examined for a moment. The jeans did not appear to be scraped so Levi doubted there was any serious injury. Still, when Leslie touched the knee, Ava yelled, “Ow, Mama, owwwwww.”

Leslie stood and put Ava on her feet, sighing. “Okay if I take her into the bathroom and look at her knee?”

He nodded. “Of course. You remember where it was?”

“Yes, thank you.” She held her daughter’s hand and led her into the house.

Amberlyn looked up into her father’s face. “Is she okay?”

“I’m sure she’s fine. Her mother is going to check on it.”

They followed into the house and Amberlyn sat impatiently on the floor in the hallway near the bathroom. Levi wanted to laugh at the waiting room scene but smiled instead, not wanting to make her feel bad because of her serious worry. It was cute, actually.

He headed to the kitchen to start getting the food together. He’d just pulled everything out and set on the kitchen island when Leslie walked into the room.

“Ava okay?” he asked quickly.

She smiled and sighed. “Yes. I think it just scared her. She’s pretty intense about her feelings sometimes.”

He nodded. “Certainly a regular event here too.”

“They’re playing with Legos now. Can I help here?”

He pointed to a knife block. “Would you mind slicing these tomatoes? Knife is there and there’s a plate in that cabinet above. I’m going outside to light the grill.”

By the time he had returned, she had the platter of lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles arranged and ready to go.

“The grill needs a few minutes to get hot. Then I’ll take the meat out. When they’re almost done, we can bring the rest of our meal outside and put on the picnic table.”

The sun had started to set, splashing a blend of blues, pinks, and purples along the horizon. The girls were already in the living room floor as they had finished eating first, eager to watch the movie. The adults spent another fifteen minutes finishing their dinner and enjoying light, easy conversation before they cleaned up and joined the girls.

They sat on the couch, a modest distance between them, but not so far away that it felt like a ‘no crossing’ line. Even so, they sat stiffly, speaking pleasantries for what seemed like the first half of the movie. Finally, Leslie kicked off her tennis shoes and pulled her feet up under her, and Levi relaxed.

Worried about his feet smelling, he chose to leave his shoes on, but leaned back, his eyes more focused on her than the movie. Of course, he’d seen the movie a hundred times already, but even if this had been the first time seeing it and watching his daughter’s glee, he’d have still found it hard to pull his eyes away from the woman seated before him.

She turned away from the movie and met his eyes. She started to speak but closed her mouth and glanced over at the girls. He followed her gaze and leaned forward to study them. Their little eyes were closed and mouths open, breathing deeply. Levi and Leslie looked back at one another and smiled.

“They’re always so cute and precious when they’re asleep.”

“Yeah,” he returned. “Makes you forget all about the trouble they can cause.”

She laughed. “So true.” She put her hand on his arm which was on the back of the couch. “Levi, thank you so much for today. This meant so much to Ava.”

As a parent, he recognized how much it also meant to her as the mother. Levi had found that nothing was more important to most parents than their children, so to express how much something meant to one’s child meant that it was doubly meaningful for the parent. His arm heated under her touch, and he was aware of how much he wanted to pull her to him and kiss her.

“It meant a lot to Amberlyn too,” he said. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it’s been to see her so happy this week. She is crazy about Ava . . . and you.”

“We’re pretty crazy about her.”

Her hand was still on his arm, and he pulled himself closer to her. She didn’t move away, so he put his other hand on top of hers and entwined his fingers, watching for any sign of hesitation. Instead, she allowed his fingers to explore hers, meeting them with her own exploration.

“Levi—”

“Leslie—” They spoke at once and then grinned at each other.

When she didn’t continue, he jumped in. “Leslie, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you again, and I’d love to get to know you better. Since the first day I saw you last week, I can’t stop thinking about you, and I’ve been wanting to ask you out. I want you to know I don’t take that lightly. I haven’t really dated since Amberlyn was born. She comes first in my life, always, and I don’t want to bring around a string of women she only sees once.”

Leslie nodded. “Ava is my first too. And I haven’t dated anyone since Gary and I divorced.” Her face seemed to have a ‘but’ attached and Levi braced. “Look, I know that you know I had such a crush on you all through high school—”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with right now,” he interrupted.

She sighed. “Here’s the thing. You weren’t exactly kind to me in high school and I was crazy about you.” He started to interrupt again and she put her hand up. “I’m not trying to come down on you for that. We’re grownups and that was high school, and high school kids can be . . . insensitive. But then I met Gary, and he wasn’t unkind . . . at first. I think high school experiences added to my shyness around guys and fear of being rejected, and when Gary came on so strong, I fell for it. And that got me in a world of pain, but it also got me my daughter and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a bit of afraid of getting rejected again, and now I’m not just making decisions that affect my life. It’s Ava’s little life too, and that’s far more important than my own feelings. And this could affect your girl’s life too.” She nodded at Amberlyn’s sleeping form.

Dreading the destination of the conversation, he moved closer and took both of her hands. His eyes were intense as they met hers. “You don’t think I’m worried about the same things? You think I’ve had a lot of luck with women? Look at us, Leslie, I’m a single father, and her mother has never even met Amberlyn and I hope she never does. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes, but Amberlyn changed everything about me. Gave me purpose, a reason to move past all my anger and stubbornness. There’s not a single decision I make that I don’t consider how it’s gonna affect her first.”

She relaxed her arms and allowed him to hold her hands.

“This is the first time I’ve felt anywhere close to being interested in bringing someone into my home. I’m not asking you to jump into a relationship right now. We can just explore our friendship while letting the girls get to know each other better. We won’t let the girls know anything until we’re sure this could lead to something more. And keep in our minds that whatever happens we should stay friends for their sake.”

She nodded slowly. “I think that’s a doable plan. Their friendship first.”

“And Leslie”—he sighed deeply—“I know I was an ass in high school. I was angry and afraid and so goddamn insecure. My only solace is that most people, hopefully, grow up a lot after that. And I’m a brand-new cowboy. I’m most sorry about how I treated you because, honestly, I had a crush on you too.”

Her eyebrows lifted and he chuckled. “Don’t be so surprised. You’ve always been beautiful, and kind, and smart. You were out of my league. And for the record, I hated it when you went out with Carl. I made him stop seeing you because I couldn’t stand it. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that was why, but I know it now.”

“I—didn’t know,” she stammered.

“There were so many times, I’d see you in the stands during football practice and had trouble keeping my mind on the game. Especially that time you wore that yellow dress with the flowers on the bottom.”

“Really?” A grin spread across her face.

He raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Oh yeah, it was those spaghetti straps and I could just make out the tops of your breasts. I got sent home early that afternoon from practice because I couldn’t stay focused.”

Leslie laughed.

“Will you let me take you out, just you, next weekend? I’ve been waiting about fifteen years to ask you.”

He saw a tear shine in the corner of one of her eyes. “Well, I guess I can’t say no to that.”

Amberlyn whined in her sleep and rolled to her other side. Ava hadn’t moved.

“I should really get her home.”

“Let me put Amberlyn in her bed and then carry Ava out to your car for you.”

She nodded as he stood and gingerly picked up his child. Once Amberlyn was in his arms, he kissed her forehead and carried her effortlessly up the stairs. He put her on top of her comforter, planning to get the sleeping child into her pajamas after seeing off Leslie and Ava.

When he returned to the living room, he found Leslie on the floor next to her daughter, gently rubbing the hair matted to the child’s face by sweat. She looked up as he entered and smiled.

He gulped and pushed away thoughts of taking her up to his room. Patience, he thought.

“I can do this, you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve done this a bajillion times. I’m not doing this because I question your ability. Just wanted to have a few extra moments to say goodbye. And this way I can show off how charming I can be.”

She laughed and stood, moving back so he could bend down and lift Ava. She was considerably lighter than Amberlyn, underlining just how much his daughter had grown in the past year. It made him sad to realize how quickly she was growing up.

Leslie grabbed her purse and he followed her to her Explorer, her precious cargo in tow. Levi gently placed the still-sleeping Ava in her car seat and fastened all the belts and then backed out for Leslie to close the door.

She turned to him, and he couldn’t help himself; he stepped closer. When she didn’t back away, he put his hand to her cheek, rubbing her lips gently with his thumb. She opened them slightly, causing him to take a deep breath. She turned her face to kiss the palm of his hand and he brought his other hand to her jaw on the opposite side. He leaned in inch by inch, giving her time to pull away if she wished. When she didn’t, he lightly brushed his lips across hers, moving his fingers to the back of her head and into her hair, pulling her into him. She stood on her toes and met his kiss, deepening it and parting her lips so that he could slip in his tongue.

He was still holding her head, pulling her deeper into the kiss when she reached her hands around his waist, pulling herself even closer. He could feel her hips against his and he dropped his arms to encircle her body, causing her breasts to touch his chest. He inhaled sharply and lightly nipped at her bottom lip. He felt more than heard her moan against his mouth. Blood rushed to his groin and she opened her eyes in surprise as he hardened against her hip. He pulled away gently and slowly and stepped back, dropping his arms away from her. She knitted her brows, questioning, and he smiled at her, eliciting a grin from her.

“I hope we can explore that a little more later, but I’ve got a sleeping beauty in the house, and yours needs to get to bed. And honestly, I don’t want to rush this. It’s important to me.”

She nodded and drew back her hands, then reached into her pocket and pulled out the car key. “Me too,” she said simply, then surprised him by standing on her toes again and kissing him gently on the mouth before getting into her vehicle.

He watched her drive away and allowed himself to cool off before heading back into the house.

 

***

 

Levi didn’t really have strong feelings for Carey Madewell. In fact, he was pretty sure he didn’t like her at all. She was kind of a bitch, but she was the head cheerleader and had the figure that could cause a guy to get an erection in an instant, especially a seventeen-year-old guy. And she didn’t have to be a nice person to enjoy touching. It was better that way. He could stay mad and still get his fill of girls.

They were under a blanket in the bed of his truck, their clothes tossed aside. He was kissing her breasts while she wriggled and moaned his name. Annoyed, he moved his head to her face and began kissing her mouth, cutting off her words and allowing him to listen to the water falling over the dam nearby.

Unbidden and unexpected, a vision of kissing Leslie Perkins flashed in his head. He closed his eyes and allowed it to envelop him, and his thrusts quickened until he groaned and rolled off Carey. Keeping his eyes closed, allowing the vision to continue, he pulled her close and held her until she chastised him for lying on her uniform, and he pushed her away and returned to reality.

Chapter 5

 

Leslie spent Sunday considering what had transpired between her and Levi the night before imagining what could be building between them, though she kept reminding herself to not get her hopes up. Ava talked about the outing all day, asking when she could go back to Amberlyn’s and if she could get a pony. Leslie told her they’d need to wait for another invitation and that they could consider a pony in a couple of years but they both had to do a lot of research into how to take care of one and decide together if it was something they could do.

Undeterred, Ava worked on a string of suggested names for her pony and drew pictures of the animal she was determined to have. While the child planned for the addition to their family, Leslie prepared her home for another week of daycare, filled out paperwork to apply for the license she needed to open a full daycare center, and conducted some online research for funding opportunities.

Before dinner, she called Becca to ask a few questions. Her friend answered the ones she could and made notes of the ones she needed to investigate the next morning. Then, she dropped her professional tone and asked eagerly, “So, how did the big date go?”

Leslie knew Becca had been dying to hear about the day spent with Levi and Amberlyn. “It wasn’t a date, Bec.”

“Details, details.” Leslie imagined Becca waving her hand in the air to dismiss her answer. “Okay, how did the not-a-date date go?”

Leslie chuckled. “The playdate for the girls was really wonderful. We rode horses, had a picnic, then had dinner and watched a movie.”

“Wow, that sounds like it lasted all day and night.”

“Not all night. When we got back from riding, the girls begged to watch a movie so Levi invited us to stay for burgers on the grill and Finding Dory.”

When she didn’t continue or elaborate, Becca asked impatiently, “And?”

“And . . . well, he did ask me on a date and . . . we kissed.”

“Wow, Leslie. What did you say? You said yes, right? And how was the kiss?”

“I said yes, and it was amazing. I think I would have gone to bed with him right then if he’d asked.”

“That good, huh?”

“That good.”

Leslie told her a little more about what a wonderful, comfortable day they all had, Levi’s confession to having had a crush on her in high school, and their decision to explore their feelings on a low-key level, making sure that if it didn’t work out it wouldn’t impact their daughters’ friendship. Then they got back to business and Becca promised to drop by the next day to look over Leslie’s license application and get it submitted for her.

Leslie had just gotten Ava down for the night and was crawling into her bed to read when her phone rang. Her stomach fluttered when she looked at the display on the phone.

“Hello?” she answered with some trepidation.

“Hey, I hope I’m not calling too late,” said Levi. “I was trying to wait until when I figured you’d put Ava to bed.”

“Not too late. Just settling down to read. Ava’s fast asleep.”

“So’s Amberlyn.”

“So, what’s up?”

“Not really anything. I just wanted to check in with you and make sure you’re still planning on a date next weekend and that you’re not having any regrets about yesterday.”

She smiled broadly, remembering his lips on hers. “No regrets and yes I’m still planning on our date.”

She heard him breathe deeply. “Oh good. Not that we won’t be seeing each other this week or anything, but I was just trying to come up with a good first date idea. I mean, dinner of course, but would you like to go to a movie or some other kind of show?”

“I hadn’t put much thought into where we would go yet. Can I think about it for a day or two?”

“Of course. To be honest, I just needed an excuse to call you. I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

Leslie settled into her pillows and closed her eyes. “I’d be lying if I said you hadn’t crossed my mind a time or two . . . or forty today.”

He chuckled and they talked for nearly an hour about things they liked to do, each throwing out a few suggestions for the following weekend. When Leslie laid her phone down and turned off her light, she found it difficult to fall asleep and chided herself for acting like a schoolgirl. Finally, her breaths deepened and she fell into a deep sleep.

 

***

 

The week seemed to creep by, but it helped that Leslie saw Levi twice a day as he dropped off and picked up his daughter. Each time, he lingered just a few moments before saying goodbye, and each night, he called her, sometimes speaking for a minute and sometimes for an hour. He told her he’d found the perfect date for them but was going to surprise her.

She managed to find a couple of hours, when the kids were napping, to sit down with Becca and finish her paperwork for the license and a bank loan and put an offer on the vacant insurance office. She couldn’t believe how quickly everything was suddenly coming together and gave herself credit for going after what she wanted instead of finding every reason to wait.

By Friday, she’d received positive feedback from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. They assured her they’d let her know before the end of the following week if she would be granted a license, but everything seemed on the up and up and they had already done an initial background check and talked with a couple of references. Everyone had nothing but wonderful things to say about Leslie’s childcare skills and calm demeanor. They were also impressed with the thoroughness of her application, down to confirmed children who would be attending and two new employees. They had already begun the background checks on the two young women.

She’d also heard back from the bank who would be doing an inspection of the property the following week but indicated she would most likely have little trouble securing the loan. And the sellers of the office space were considering her offer.

She hardly recognized the strong, confident women she’d started seeing in the mirror each morning. When Levi picked up Amberlyn Friday afternoon, he managed to find a discrete moment to kiss her softly on the lips and told her he was so glad the week was over so they could have their first date.

On Saturday, Leslie took Ava to a nearby park to get her mind off wondering where they were going that evening. She suddenly realized that she didn’t have any idea what to wear for the mystery date so when they got home and she had put Ava down for a nap, she called Levi.

He answered on the first ring. “Please don’t tell me you’re calling to cancel.”

She chuckled. “Nope. But if you’re having second thoughts—”

“Absolutely not.” He let out a breath he seemed to have been holding in.

“Well I realized that I have absolutely no idea how to dress for this evening.”

He laughed in response.

“What’s so funny?”

“I was just imagining you going to where we’re going in a dress and high heels.”

She smirked. “So, I assume this is not a formal occasion.”

“Afraid I’m not much of a formal guy, but we can certainly do a formal date sometime.”

A pleasant burn tickled her stomach. He was expecting more dates in the future. “I don’t need a formal date. So, is this a jeans and tee-shirt kind of thing?”

“Yeah, and light jacket. Dress comfortably. I’ll pick you up at 6.”

She hung up feeling a little relieved that it was a casual date and headed to her room to pick out the nicest pair of jeans she had.

 

***

 

It was 5:45 when Levi pulled into Leslie’s driveway, Amberlyn in tow. Leslie’s mother had offered to watch both girls so the children could play together. Amberlyn was very curious about why her daddy and Ava’s mommy were going somewhere by themselves and bombarded her father with questions all the way to Leslie’s home.

“Let’s just say Miss Leslie and I are going on a playdate.”

Amberlyn found this to be hilarious. “You’re silly, Daddy. Playdates are for kids.”

“Is that right? I don’t think it’s fair that only kids can enjoy them.”

“Are you gonna kiss her?” the child asked as he turned off the motor.

His face grew hot. “Why do you think I’m gonna kiss her?”

Amberlyn shrugged and started brushing her doll’s hair with her hand. “Cuz that’s what grownups do on playdates.”

He got out and opened the back door to help her out of her car seat. “And how do you know what grownups do on playdates?”

She rolled her eyes as he unfastened her belts. “I’ve seen movies, Daddy. I’m not a baby. Kristoff and Anna kiss on Frozen. All grownups kiss when they like each other.”

He set her on the ground and grabbed her bag. “Well, we’ll see then.” He grinned.

“Are you gonna marry her?”

“What?”

Amberlyn sighed as if her father needed to be taught. “Grownups kiss and then they get married. That’s what happens.”

“Maybe in the movies, but that’s not always what happens with real grownups.” He took her hand and they approached the house where they were greeted by Leslie’s mother, Imogene.

“Levi Wilcox. What a sight for sore eyes,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “And you must be Amberlyn.” She held her hand out to the child who shook it. “Well come on in. Ava has been asking when you were getting here. We’re gonna have fun tonight, just the three of us.”

Levi sat his daughter on the floor. “Yeah,” said Amberlyn, “and Daddy’s gonna kiss Miss Leslie.”

Imogene’s eyebrows went up and she turned her attention to the child’s father who felt his face warm and was certain it was red. Then she started laughing and stepped back for them to enter. “Well, that sounds like a nice time, then. Come on in.”

As he walked by her, he said, “She thinks grownups kiss when they go on playdates. That’s what Disney teaches her, I guess.”

She winked at him. “Well, I hope she’s right.”

He was certain now that his face was bright red. Ava came running into the living room as they walked in. “Amberlyn,” she squealed as she grabbed her friend into a fierce hug. The girls ran over to the toy box and started pulling out dolls.

Levi looked up just as Leslie came down the stairs wearing dark, tight jeans and an orange button-up, short-sleeved top with sequins running alongside the row of buttons on each side. She had on a pair of boots and had flung a sweatshirt over her arm. Her hair was down and her makeup was just enough to highlight her blue eyes, making them almost sparkle.

She met his smile and he hugged her when she was standing next to him. Imogene gave her daughter and then Levi hugs and wished them a fun evening.

“Hey,” Levi called into the living room. “Aren’t you girls gonna say bye?”

Both girls ran to their parents and wrapped them in strong hugs and kissed their cheeks, then immediately ran back to where they were playing. Levi held out his elbow and Leslie took it as they walked out the door.

 

***

 

Levi saw her standing in front of the Tilt-A-Whirl. Eric elbowed him. “There’s your girlfriend.”

Whatever, asswipe,” he said, pulling his gaze from Leslie’s tight sweater. Carl waved a few feet beyond her, and he and Eric headed toward their friend. As they were passing her, Levi stepped closer and bumped into her, pushing his shoulder into her with more force than was necessary, causing her to trip. Her friend, Kayla, caught her before she fell and then stepped in front of her to put her face close to Levi’s.

Dammit, Levi. Why don’t you just leave her the hell alone?”

He started laughing as Eric pulled him away but caught Leslie’s distraught face before turning to Carl and found that his laughter was forced.

 

***

 

Levi was pleased when Leslie exclaimed her excitement as they pulled onto the road for the fair that was held in the next county each year. “I haven’t been to the fair in years.” Her eyes lit up as she scanned the rides she could see over the livestock barns. Levi pulled into a lot with a sign that said the money for parking was for the local Boy Scout troop. He gave the attendant ten dollars and was directed to a spot close to the entrance.

It had been a while since Levi had been to a county fair as well, and the smells of burgers, barbecue, popcorn, and funnel cakes, with an undercurrent of livestock, mingled to bring about childhood memories and the long-dormant thrills of the annual event that dominated much of the social lives of the young people in the area during this time of year.

They decided to have barbecue sandwiches and crinkly fries for dinner and picked a booth in the Midway supporting a local animal shelter. Then they stopped at a ticket booth and Levi bought ride wristbands for them. They rode a few rides, including the Scrambler and the Pirate Ship, and decided to take a break and walk through the awards building, especially enjoying the elementary school art. They remarked how they hoped they would be viewing art by Amberlyn and Ava in the next couple of years. Amberlyn, in particular, had shown an early inclination toward art.

After checking out some of the prize-winning quilts, they headed to the livestock barn. Levi took mental notes about expanding his ranch and lingered in the chicken section. The first thing he wanted to do was renovate the abandoned coop. When he was growing up, his grandparents had had many chickens but in the last few years had sold them off. He was particularly interested in the Plymouth Rock breeds.

Leslie was most fascinated with the horses and they stayed to watch one of the riding competitions and discussed horses that would be good for Amberlyn. Night had fully descended and the lights from the fair gave the sky a spectacular display. They headed back to the rides and enjoyed feeling young again by walking through the House of Mirrors and riding into the Haunted House, where Levi kept his arm protectively around Leslie and stole a kiss before being assaulted by a masked man with a chainsaw.

Before the date had wound down, Levi had won a large stuffed bear for Leslie and two stuffed Dory fish for the girls. They shared a candy apple as they walked around to decide on one final ride before heading home. Levi enjoyed putting his hand around Leslie’s on the apple and leaning in toward her, catching her scent, to take a bite. He insisted she continue to hold the apple rather than hand it to him when he wanted a taste.

Finally, the apple was down to its core and had found a resting place in the trash, and Leslie suggested the Ferris Wheel would make for a romantic ending. When they were stopped at the very top while more cars were being loaded, Leslie sighed and laid her head on Levi’s shoulder. They looked down at the small, distant people on the ground before he lifted her chin and kissed her lips gently, lingering to taste the candy apple on her lips and tongue.

 

***

 

It was almost midnight when they pulled into Leslie’s drive. She had gotten a bit drowsy on the ride home and nearly fell asleep with the windows open and the cool early fall air whipping around the vehicle. When Levi put the Jeep in park, she put her hand on the door handle and felt his warm hand against her other arm. She looked up as he leaned in and kissed her. When he pulled back, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

“God, I wish I had done this in high school. What an idiot I was.”

“You were,” agreed Leslie, smiling. His laughter joined hers and they continued chuckling all the way to the front door. She had just opened the door when Ava nearly knocked her over.

“Mama, I had some scaries.”

She knelt and picked up her baby girl, brushing the hair from her eyes. “You had bad dreams?” She felt the small head nod against her collar bone.

Leslie’s mother was standing by the stairs. “She just woke up. She was so happy when I told her you were home.” She joined the couple and kissed her daughter on the cheek. “Did you kids have a good time?”

Leslie looked at Levi whose face bore a sly smile. She smiled too and turned back to her mother. “It was a nice evening. Thank you for watching the girls.”

Imogene waved a hand dismissively. “Oh hon, it was my pleasure. Those girls are so good. And they really, really like each other.” Ava raised her head and nodded vigorously while looking at her mother. “Amberlyn’s asleep in Ava’s bed,” Imogene continued, and Leslie turned to the stairs.

Levi kissed Imogene on the cheek as they started up. She patted him on the back. “Oh, you old flirt. I’m gonna head on home. Your father will be wondering,” she said to her daughter.

“Okay, Mama. Thank you again.”

She blew a kiss to Ava, who snapped it out of the air and rubbed it on her cheek. Leslie and Levi started back up the stairs. When they got to the landing, Ava put her small hands on either side of her mother’s face. “Mama? Are you and Mr. Levi gonna kiss?”

Both adults were taken aback and chuckled. “Why do you think that, Ava?” asked Leslie.

“Well Amberlyn said that’s what grownups do when they go out on playdates.”

Levi sighed and wiped his forehead. “Hey Ava, what did you and Amberlyn do tonight on your playdate?”

Ava animatedly launched into a list of everything the girls had done. They had to walk slowly to give her time to talk before they made it to her room. They let her finish her story while they stood outside her bedroom door.

“Oh wow. That sounds like you girls had tons of fun,” said Leslie as she carried her into the dark room.

Levi walked around them and knelt in front of his daughter, kissing her cheek. She didn’t wake up as he lifted her. “I better get my Sleeping Beauty to her bed.”

Leslie nodded as she put Ava under the comforter. “Will you be okay here while I walk Mr. Levi and Amberlyn to the door?”

Ava rolled her eyes. “I’m not a baby.”

“Oh, honey, I know that. But you had some scaries so I just wanted to make sure you weren’t feeling afraid.”

“Nope. All better. You’re home.”

She smiled and leaned down to kiss her daughter’s cheek and then followed Levi and his daughter down the stairs and held open the door for them. Before he walked through the door, he turned back and kissed her tenderly on the mouth, allowing his tongue to taste the last trace of candy along her lips.

“I told ya you were gonna kiss,” came a sleepy voice from Levi’s arms.

Leslie smiled at the girl, and Levi kissed the top of Amberlyn’s head. “You are one smart cookie.” Then he looked back at Leslie. “I’ll call you tomorrow if that’s okay?”

She nodded and gave Amberlyn a kiss on her cheek before she shut the door behind them and locked it securely. She pulled back the curtain in the living room and watched Levi carry his daughter to the Jeep. Once he was pulling out of the driveway, she pushed the curtain back in place and headed upstairs. She put her head through the doorway to Ava’s bedroom and saw the child was sound asleep, so she pulled the door to her, leaving it open a crack and walked into her bedroom. She was so exhausted she barely had time to wash her face and put on her pajamas before she was passed out under her own comforter.

Chapter 6

 

Levi and Leslie talked every night on the phone over the next couple of weeks before going to sleep. Their discussions had taken a turn toward the more intimate but their promise to take things slowly and make sure of their desires before getting too involved, for the girls’ sake, had kept them from spending the night together.

The plan for the daycare center had started heading full steam ahead after securing the loan and the license, and closing on the new building. There was still work to be done to the former offices, and Levi offered his and Eric’s services. They refused payment but accepted Leslie’s offer of free childcare for a year. Eric and Donna had just learned they were expecting, so it was a relief to know that everything was already set up for their son or daughter.

They spent the next couple of weekends working on the plans and doing the preliminary work in the building. Each night after Eric left, Leslie and Levi had taken advantage of the babysitting to spend a few more minutes together, kissing and touching.

On the third weekend of the building renovation, Leslie was sitting on top of Levi in the chair, chatting and kissing, when Levi became serious and pushed her back a bit and asked if they could talk. She felt as if she were swallowing a stone, but said, “Sure.”

He directed her to a couch. Leslie’s stomach burned as fear started to wrap itself around her, but she calmed when he put his hand on hers and she saw his softened features.

“We’ve been going out for a few weeks now and I think it’s going well. Don’t you?”

She nodded but narrowed her eyes suspiciously, wondering where he was headed.

“This,” he said, motioning his hand between them, “has hit a place where it’s getting tougher and tougher to say goodbye when you leave or when you hang up.” He took both her hands. “I feel really, really good about this and frankly, I’m having to take care of . . . things . . . by myself after we’ve been together. I’m hoping you think it’s time to leave third base.”

She chuckled. “What exactly are you suggesting, Levi?”

He took a deep breath. “I think it’s time for a sleepover.”

Leslie’s eyes widened and her heart raced. It certainly was the natural progression, and he was right, they’d explored all they could and then some in this step. It was time to move on. She laced her fingers with his and met his eyes.

“Tonight?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “No, though I’m very, very tempted,” he said as he leaned closer and kissed her mouth. He pulled back. “Number one: we’d have to rush it to get back to the girls, and I want to take it slow the first time I make love to you.” She felt her face heat up, as well as other parts. “Number two, which is related to number one: This”—he gestured around him—“is not the most romantic place, plus I’d have a hell of a time getting that out of my mind every time I came here to work.”

“So—”

“And number three.” He put his finger on her lips. “Just imagine how it’s going to be when we’ve been thinking about it for a week, anticipating.”

Heat spiked in Leslie’s core. “So, you’re saying next weekend?”

“Do you think we could make that happen? I’ll work late nights this week so we’ll stay on schedule if you could keep Amberlyn. And if you don’t have anything better to do?”

“Well, I need check my social calendar first.” She grinned and bit her bottom lip. “Let me make sure Mama can stay all night with the girls. If not, we’ll find someone.”

Their fingers were still laced and he let go of her hand and pulled her closer. “Are you sure?”

She took a deep breath and nodded. “Am I sure I want to have sex with you? Do you have any idea how long it’s been for me? Not since Gary left.”

“I haven’t been with a woman since Amberlyn was born. I guess after Tanya—that’s Amberlyn’s mom—I was a bit afraid, and frankly, Amberlyn had my complete and undivided attention. I didn’t want to leave her long enough to have a date and I didn’t want to bring anyone home unless she was ready to be a part of my daughter’s life.”

“I completely understand.”

“And now, well, you’re already part of Amberlyn’s life. I have a good support system here, and . . . I haven’t ever felt this way about anyone.” He pulled her even closer and took her breath away with his kiss. She pushed him back to catch her breath.

“Easy, dude. Save it for next weekend.”

“Oh, there’s plenty more where that came from. But we should get back to the girls.”

“Yes, we should.”

He stood first and held out his hand to help her stand and pulled her close again for another kiss before they grabbed their belongings and turned out the lights. Leslie shivered as anticipation creeped in, and she thought it was going to be a very long week as they headed out into the night.

 

***

 

By Tuesday, it had already almost gotten the better of Levi. It helped that by the time he made it to Leslie’s in the evening to pick up Amberlyn, he was exhausted. And his daughter’s presence kept his focus off Leslie’s naked body. He had seen her with her shirt off during one of their make-out sessions, so his imagination had keen details about her full breasts with the softest skin he’d ever touched. He allowed himself a few minutes each night before going to sleep to picture her, knowing how much sweeter it would be when they were finally together.

By Thursday night he was close to breaking his resolve to wait until the weekend especially when Leslie opened her door at 8:00 and met him with her bright eyes and beautiful smile. He started to reach for her when a scream sliced the air. They bolted up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and almost tripped over Amberlyn who was hurrying out of Ava’s bedroom. Amberlyn grabbed her Daddy’s hand and dragged him into the room. Ava was lying in the middle of the floor, crying loudly. Leslie was on her knees next to her daughter trying to get her to calm down enough to examine her. Levi knelt before Amberlyn and asked her what happened.

Between sobs, the little girl said, “She was having bad dreams, Daddy, and she was trying to get out of bed but she fell. I tried to grab her. I really did. I’m sorry, Daddy.”

He held her and rubbed his hand down her hair. “Shhh. Shhh. It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”

Leslie lifted Ava into her arms and walked over to them. She reached down to touch Amberlyn’s cheek. “Oh honey, it’s not your fault. It’ll be okay. She just has a bump and a little bit of blood.”

Amberlyn looked up at her, tears streaming down her face. Ava had her face buried into her mother’s neck, her sobs collapsing into sniffles. “Are you telling the truth?” asked the little girl, her eyes searching Leslie’s face.

Leslie nodded. “Of course. It’s Rule Number One. Remember?”

Amberlyn wiped her face with the backs of her hands while her father rubbed her back.

“Now, sweetheart, why don’t you get your toys together while your daddy helps me.”

Amberlyn nodded and ran to the other side of the bed to gather her belongings. Levi looked at Leslie, concerned. He stood and she motioned for him to follow her.

When they stepped out into the hall, she said, “I don’t think it’s really bad but there is a cut and I wanna make sure she gets checked out for a concussion, so I’m going to take her to Urgent Care. I’ll call you when I know something.”

Levi shook his head. “We’re coming with you.”

Her face softened and she put a hand to his cheek. “You’re so sweet, but I’m sure it’s all okay.”

“Have you not met my daughter? She won’t be able to sleep until she’s sure Ava’s okay.”

Leslie smiled and sighed, then nodded. “Okay. But why don’t you guys meet us there? That way you can leave when you need to and we don’t have to get Amberlyn’s car seat out.”

Leslie headed downstairs while he went back into Ava’s room to collect his daughter. She stood up as he entered and held up her backpack. “All packed,” she said.

“Listen,” Levi said as she walked toward him. “Ava’s going to be okay, really, but we want to let a doctor look at her, okay?” Her little mouth turned up into a pout and tears welled in her eyes. He picked her up. “It’s okay. We’re going to go with Ava and Miss Leslie so you can know for sure that Ava is fine. Is that okay?”

He felt the little girl nod against his shoulder. “I promise I’ll be more careful. I won’t let her get hurt again.”

His heart nearly burst with the thought of what a compassionate soul his daughter had turned out to be, and she seemed to be taking on a big sister sort of role with Ava. It warmed him to watch the two together, and he shook his head to stop himself from thinking about the two becoming sisters for real someday. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but it wasn’t the first time the thought had entered his mind, and he felt certain it would not be the last.

 

***

 

Leslie counted herself lucky that this was the first Urgent Care visit for Ava. She’d always known it would just be a matter of time and was glad that she wasn’t alone for this. Levi had told her he had had to take Amberlyn to the Urgent Care three times, though one of those times he thought she had gotten into something that had created a rash all over her legs and it turned out that she had just colored herself with a red marker. It took nearly a week for the marks to finally rub off and from then on, he had been extra careful to keep all markers and pens out of her reach.

Leslie had nearly laughed thinking of the doctor’s reaction, but knew all too well the constant panic a child could cause a parent, especially when it was the parent’s first child. Her heart felt full as she watched him holding his snoozing daughter. She looked down at Ava, whose eyes were closed, and she sat her up and shuffled her until the girl’s eyes were open again, afraid to let her sleep before seeing the doctor.

They had been sitting in the waiting room no more than half an hour when Ava’s name was called. She stood up with the child, who was looking around with a sleepy expression, and reached her free hand to Levi. He took it and followed her. Amberlyn stirred as he stood but did not wake up.

It was nearly midnight when they left the center, each carrying a sleeping child. The kind, young doctor had assured them Ava would be fine, just have a lump on her head. The wound wasn’t deep enough for stitches, and it was okay for her to sleep but Leslie should wake her up a few times during the night and if she noticed anything unusual she was to bring her right back.

They reached their cars and secured their still-sleeping daughters, then met at the back of Leslie’s Explorer.

“Thank you,” she said, kissing his cheek.

“I’m glad Ava’s okay.”

“Me too,” she breathed. “Please make sure Amberlyn knows that this is in no way her fault and Ava is perfectly fine. She was good to hurry and get us as soon as it happened.”

“Yeah,” said Levi, looking over his shoulder to his car. “She seems to think of Ava as a little sister.”

Leslie watched his face, which was unreadable, though it did show signs of exhaustion. She stood on her toes and kissed his lips. “See you in the morning.”

He smiled and ran his fingers through his hair as he yawned. “Yeah, we may be there a little later than usual.”

“Good. Get some rest.”

“Hey, and if we need to reschedule this weekend, I completely understand.”

“Let’s not decide that just yet. Unless something happens tomorrow, I can’t imagine there’s any reason we should reschedule.”

He smiled and kissed her before yawning again. “Good night,” he said as he walked to his car.

Leslie watched him for a moment, then got into her car and looked back to watch Ava breathe her little three-year-old breaths. Then she started the car and headed home, feeling an enormous amount of gratitude.

Chapter 7

 

By Friday morning, it was clear that Ava had fully recovered. She’d started showing everyone her bump and telling them she almost died and that Amberlyn saved her life, reversing Amberlyn’s original fear of being at fault for her friend’s injury. The older girl gladly took credit for ‘saving her life.’ Neither Leslie nor Levi clarified for them, allowing them a few days of being amazed by the event.

Levi had made the hotel reservation in Oklahoma City as soon as Leslie had accepted the invitation for the ‘sleepover.’ When he dropped off Amberlyn on Friday, he confirmed with Leslie that she was still comfortable with leaving Ava. The unspoken, but obvious, question was whether she was still comfortable with taking the next step with him. She said yes to both the verbalized and implied question, causing Levi’s stomach to flutter.

For the large part of the week, his work on a client’s barn and his late-night progress on Leslie’s new daycare center had kept him preoccupied and exhausted enough to have thoughts of making love to her in the back of his mind but not so present to be torturous. On Friday, however, his longings had taken the torturous route, and it took every ounce of his willpower to stay focused on the jobs. The real test came that evening when he arrived to pick up his daughter.

Once again, it was the children’s presence that kept him in check and gave him reason to rein in his desires. On this night, however, it took the added effort of not looking at Leslie or kissing her goodbye to maintain control.

Once he’d gotten home and had Amberlyn safely tucked into her bed, he went in his room, lay down, and called Leslie. He noticed that she sounded distant and feared his efforts to hold in his desire for her had been misread.

“Leslie, you’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

“No, I’m not but are you sure you’re still up for this?”

“Oh, I’m up for it. That’s the problem.” They chuckled. “I know I may have seemed weird tonight.”

“Well, it was the first time in a while you didn’t kiss me goodbye.”

“Yeah, well that was on purpose, but not for the reason you might be thinking. This anticipation for tomorrow has gotten me so anxious for you, I can barely think. I needed to get away from you before it really was too much for me.”

She laughed, and he could hear the relief in her voice. “Well, the waiting’s almost over.”

“Thank God,” he breathed.

She laughed again. “Okay, are you still picking me up around 3:00 tomorrow afternoon? My mom’s all set to spend the night here with the girls.”

“Yes, if I can wait that long,” he said. “Amberlyn’s excited too. She got a new doll from her great-grandma this week that she’s been keeping put away just for this weekend.”

“Ava has talked of nothing else, except for the brief time she couldn’t stop talking about her horrible accident that nearly killed her.”

“I’m sure in her mind, that’s exactly how it feels.”

“Oh yes, that’s absolutely true. She’s been scared enough about it that she’s had to sleep with me the last two nights. I told her we’d get the sleeping bags down for the weekend so that she didn’t have the opportunity to fall out of the bed. She was very relieved and can’t decide if she should let Amberlyn use the Strawberry Shortcake one or the Disney Princess one. I love that she’s focused on which one Amberlyn will enjoy. We have some awesome kids, you and I.”

“We sure do. I can understand how you ended up with one, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how I got so damn lucky.”

He could hear the smile in her voice. “Well, I can. You’re an incredible father, Levi.”

He felt his face heat up and it was enough to send flames down his entire body. He breathed in deeply. “Okay, let’s stop here, then, and try to get enough sleep to get us through the next few hours.”

“I can’t wait.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

 

***

 

Ava changed her mind about the sleeping bags no less than six times on Saturday until Leslie suggested they connect both bags into one and that she and Amberlyn could share them both. Ava was thrilled with the suggestion and had Leslie set it up immediately so she could make sure it worked. She thought it was the smartest and coolest thing she’d ever seen and couldn’t wait to show Amberlyn. She asked if she could call her friend immediately to tell her about it.

“She’ll be here soon. Why don’t we save it as a surprise for her?”

Ava’s curls bounced around her face which seemed barely large enough to hold her grin. Leslie was glad she was still of the age where her mother was her greatest hero and the smartest person she knew. It wouldn’t always be this way, Leslie knew, and she wanted to hold on to it for as long as possible.

Leslie’s mother arrived at 2:00, thrilled to be getting to share the night with her two favorite little girls. Amberlyn had taken to calling her ‘Grandma,’ and it pleased the older woman, Leslie knew. They went over the few details that Imogene was not aware of and shared a cup of coffee while they waited for Levi and Amberlyn to arrive. Ava was busy coloring a picture for her best friend.

“That Levi Wilcox sure has grown into a fine, young man and wonderful father,” said Imogene, sipping from her mug.

“He really has.” Leslie sighed as butterflies descended into her stomach at the mention of his name.

“He seems to adore Ava.”

“Oh, she adores him too. He’s so good with both of them.”

“And he seems to be completely . . . taken by you.”

Leslie nodded slowly, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. “Well . . . yeah, I guess so.”

“An overnight getaway. That sounds pretty serious.”

Leslie shrugged it off. “Could be. Is there something you want to ask me, Mama?”

“Oh no. Just taking the temperature of the situation, hoping things are moving along nicely.”

The doorbell rang, saving Leslie from the uncomfortable conversation with her mother. She looked at the Mickey Mouse clock above the children’s table. Mickey’s gloved hands pointed to 2:45. Ava nearly knocked her down running to the door, and she called out, “Don’t forget the rule. I open the door after we’ve checked to see who it is.”

The little girl stopped in front of the door, her head not quite making it to the doorknob. She turned to look at her mother. “But it’s Amberlyn!”

“We don’t know that for sure. Let’s just try to practice a little patience,” she said as she opened the door to a grinning Levi with his daughter in his arms. Leslie blushed immediately, remembering the purpose of their impending trip. He set his daughter on the floor just inside the doorway, and Ava quickly crushed Amberlyn in an embrace before the two girls ran into the living room. “You’re a bit early,” said Leslie.

His eyes seemed to sparkle. “Are you complaining?” He leaned forward to kiss her and abruptly pulled back, his gaze on the doorway to her side.

Leslie looked back to see her mother standing there and stepped back to let Levi enter.

“Hello, Mrs. Perkins.” He kissed her on the cheek causing her face to turn pink.

“Oh, you’re such a sweetheart, Levi.”

Leslie joined them as they walked into the living room, where Ava and Amberlyn were already on the floor, playing with Amberlyn’s new doll. Leslie excused herself to grab her overnight bag from her bedroom. When she returned, Levi and her mother were laughing together. She suddenly realized that everything she needed was in this room.

They said goodbye to Leslie’s mother and then kissed the girls who were more interested in playing. Then they stepped outside, shutting the door behind them.

Leslie took a deep breath.

“Ready?” asked Levi.

She nodded. “You?”

“I’m so ready, it’s gonna be hard to keep my hands off you until we get into the hotel room.”

She giggled. “Why, Mr. Wilcox, are you planning on seducing me?”

“Isn’t that what I’ve been doing all week?”

She laughed as they got into the car.

Chapter 8

 

Levi did indeed find it difficult to keep his mind on the road during the 90 minutes it took them to get to the hotel. After checking in, they carried their bags into the room. He was pleased to see Leslie’s look of joy as she explored the room, noting the Jacuzzi, the roses on the table, and king-sized bed that looked extremely comfortable. She stepped into his arms and kissed him.

“This is wonderful, Levi. It’s perfect.”

His body reacted immediately to her nearness and he pulled her closer until they were breathing each other’s breaths. “If we don’t leave right now, we may not make it to dinner and the horse show.”

“I’m actually not very hungry, and I can see a horse show some other day.”

He raised his eyebrows and studied her shining eyes. “Come to think of it, I had a pretty big lunch myself and I’d rather be riding my own horse than watching someone else.”

“So, what should we do to occupy our time?” she asked innocently.

In answer, he lifted her into his arms and kissed her passionately, deciding it was absolute torture to put it off any longer. He carried her to the side of the bed and leaned down to pull back the comforter, not pausing his kisses, even as he laid her onto the bed.

He brushed the hair from her face and rubbed her cheek with his hand, watching her intensely until he could feel her shiver under him. He stood back and took off his shirt, and her sigh nearly caused him to explode.

“Hold that thought,” he murmured gruffly, and picked up his bag to pull out a small shiny package. “I’ve learned my lesson and I don’t think either of us is ready . . . just yet . . . to add a third child to our family.”

She laughed. “Not just yet?”

He set the condom on the nightstand and she sat up, raising her arms for him to peel off her top. He sucked in a quick breath at the site of her red-laced bra that revealed more than it hid. She put her hands behind her back and quickly unfastened it, dropping it to the side.

He cupped her breasts with his hands, using his thumbs to tease the nipples and then brushed his hand along her collar bone and down her side to grip her hip as he pressed in again and kissed her, no longer having to worry about slowing it down.

She reached for his groin and rubbed him through his jeans until he pushed her hand away.

“I definitely won’t last if you keep doing that,” he growled in her ear. Then he stood again and pulled her onto her feet. He knelt before her, kissing the tender skin of her stomach, then unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, pulling them down just enough to expose her hips and he put his lips just to the inside of them.

He gripped her bottom and pulled her to his mouth, then began pulling down the jeans in the back, careful not to remove her panties. She stepped out of her jeans and he sat back on his knees to take in the sight of her matching red panties that hung low under her hips. He put one finger inside the bottom of her panties and explored, teasing, watching her throw her head back and inhale sharply. She moaned as he intensified his exploration, and then pulling the panties aside to expose the most sensitive part of her body, he brought his mouth to her once again, urging her to the edge until she nearly screamed and shook. Her fingers had entwined themselves into his hair as he brought her to orgasm, and they relaxed as she put her hands on his jaws and pulled his face away from her. He watched her expression of satisfaction melt back into desire as he stood and pulled his own jeans and underwear down, preparing himself with the condom.

She offered a mischievous smile and he took her into his arms again, squeezing her bottom and pushing her onto her back. She parted her legs immediately, and he kissed her forehead and nose and then mouth before entering her in one thrust.

It was nearly his undoing, but he held on to push slowly, feeling completely enveloped in the hot, wet, soft cushion. Her breaths started coming faster, and he felt her pulse around him. She gripped his shoulders with her fingertips, nearly scratching at him and then wrapped her legs around his waist, urging him on until they both moaned and shuddered in each other’s arms.

She kept her legs around him and dropped her arms out to the side. He could feel her heartbeat and hear her breathing start to slow. As he lay there, he realized he wanted more, and feeling her thighs tighten around his waist and her arms encircle him again, he thought she might want more too.

 

***

 

It was after 8:00 when they finally rolled out of bed, having made love until they were exhausted and spending some time talking about their lives and their crushes on each other in high school. Levi suggested a romantic bath, and Leslie hurried into the bathroom to start the water. She looked into the mirror next to her and, noticing her body’s reaction to the pleasure she’d experienced, she suddenly felt beautiful. She hugged her breasts and sighed. In the mirror, she saw Levi enter the room behind her, coming up to her to put his arms around her.

His warm chest rubbed her back and she closed her eyes, feeling fuller than she had ever in her life. She turned to him and put her arms around his neck to give him a quick kiss, then disentangled herself to finish getting the bath ready.

Once it was ready, she sat in front of him, leaning back onto his chest. He used his finger to pull her mouth up to his and kissed her gently.

“You know,” said Leslie thoughtfully, looking into his eyes. “While I was a bit too young to dream up this, I did picture us together in so many ways that my little knowledge allowed.”

“And as a horny teenage boy,” he laughed, “I did picture some of these things with you. Don’t ask me why God made us this way, but sex was on my mind at least 99 percent of the time when I was seventeen. Though I must say, I don’t think I imagined it could be so emotional and filling.”

“That’s the reward of age,” she said, putting her head on his shoulder. “The dream I had the most was you giving me your high school ring. I know, I was a bit young and naïve, but that was a huge deal for me. You have no idea how crushed I was to see Carey wearing it when we were seniors.”

His chuckle caressed her cheek pleasantly. “She practically stole that from me. Begged me to let her see it. I didn’t think I’d ever see it again until she threw it in my front yard when she was pissed at me.”

“So, you didn’t truly give it to anyone, then.”

“Nope.”

“Well, I feel a little better. Not much, but a little.”

They laughed and enjoyed each other’s presence until the water grew cold.

 

***

 

They didn’t leave the room until checking out mid-morning the next day. They did finally order room service and joked about how much of an appetite they had worked up.

When they returned to Leslie’s home early that afternoon, they were greeted by two squealing girls. Leslie was reminded once again of how fleeting were these moments when her daughter would be so delighted to see her. She scooped Ava into her arms as soon as they entered the house, dropping her bag at the bottom of the stairs.

“Oh, I missed you so much!” She rubbed her nose against Ava’s.

“Me too, Mam. Can Amberlyn stay tonight too?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure Amberlyn missed her daddy too. I know he missed her.”

“Well, since you two had a sleepover, he can stay here too.” She looked down at Levi, who was kneeling before his daughter, tying her shoes. “Right, Mr. Levi?”

He looked at Leslie with amusement, and she suppressed a laugh.

“Please?” chimed in Amberlyn.

Levi stood and put his hand on Leslie’s shoulder, watching her as he replied, “Not tonight, hon. Maybe we could work that out sometime in the future.”

Leslie’s mother cleared her throat. She was standing in the living room doorway, unnoticed. She smiled broadly and chuckled before greeting her daughter and Levi with a kiss.

Chapter 9

 

It took nearly three months, but the new daycare center was finally in its last stages. Levi and Eric had put in so many hours. Levi surprised Leslie with a special addition that hadn’t been on the drawn-up plans. He’d created a small mudroom just inside the backdoor that opened into a large, fenced-in playground. The mudroom was a small area of ceramic tile and cubbies for each kid to store belongings, with a plastic square on the top of each of them where Leslie could slide in name plates.

The surprise brought her to tears, and she nearly overwhelmed Levi when she crushed him in a strong embrace. If they’d been alone at the time, there might have been an addendum to the hug.

Now all that was left was for Leslie to set the opening date. She wanted to host an open-house reception for the parents who had signed up to enroll their children and for the two young women, fresh out of college, whom she’d hired after weeks of extensive interviews and background checks.

Levi was amazed at how calm and organized Leslie was, planning every detail for the opening reception and the first day in business. She exuded confidence and was genuinely excited about her new business and working with more kids. Ava and Amberlyn were thrilled to be getting new friends, especially since there would be a few more girls.

When the last guest left the reception, he joined her as she collapsed onto the couch. Her mother had taken the girls home so Leslie and Levi didn’t have to rush to get them to bed on time.

“It seems so long ago when we sat here and talked about taking our relationship to the next level,” he said, taking her hand.

Her eyes were closed. She murmured, “Mm, hm.”

“I didn’t want to complicate anything or distract you while you were in the final stages of this all coming together, but now I think it’s the perfect time to talk about the next step.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, curiosity lining her brows.

“The night we got back from Oklahoma City, I spent a couple of hours looking for something. It’s one of the few times I was glad my grandparents never threw anything away.” He pulled out something from his pocket and kept it in his closed fist. “What I didn’t tell you was that I found my ring a few days after Carey tossed it. I was going to get rid of it, but Grandma took it and said she would hang on to it, that I might want it someday. Smart woman, that lady.”

Leslie nodded slowly and watched his hand open to reveal a golden class ring with a blue stone set in the middle and the year 2002 engraved on the side.

“So, it’s fifteen years too late, but would you please wear my class ring, Leslie?”

She took it from his hand, tears starting to slide down her cheeks.

“Oh, before you say yes, there’s something you should know. Taking this ring also means you’ll move in with me.”

He held his breath. He hadn’t been so sure about her response to that part, but he just wasn’t satisfied anymore with random moments, an overnight here or there. It nearly hurt every time he said goodbye to her.

When she continued to stay silent, he added, “I’ve done this backward. I’m sorry. I’ve been so nervous about this that I didn’t start out with the most important part of this.” He leaned in and brushed a tear from her cheek, studying her face. “Now that this part of your life is falling into place, I need you to know what you mean to me. I am so in love you with you I can barely see straight, and it doesn’t feel right for us to go to separate homes each night. It feels like we should be going home together, so I want you and Ava to move in with me and Amberlyn. It’ll be easier to plan our wedding that way too.”

“Wedding?” she gulped.

“Oh yeah, did I not mention that?” He laughed and pulled a box from his other pocket. “Like I said, I’m so in love with you I can barely see straight.” He opened the box and her tears flowed freely as she looked at the ring, wide-eyed.

It seemed to take her forever to respond. His gut tightened, worried that she might say no. He started to pull back the diamond ring, but her hand flew out and took it from him. She met his eyes and smiled broadly. “Levi, I’ve been waiting fifteen years for you to realize what a catch I am.”

He threw his head back and laughed deeply. “And I have loved you since I was thirteen. You have no idea how much you’ve exceeded my wildest kid dreams.”

She sighed and pulled his face to hers. “I love you too. And I love your daughter and the little family we’ve sort of put together. So yes, I’ll take that high school ring, and yes, we’ll move in with you, and yes, I’ll be your wife.”

“Can I put the ring on you now?”

“Which one?” she laughed.

“Both of them.”

Her eyes sparkled as she held out her hands and he slid on each ring and then took her into his arms, feeling so complete that he seemed to be floating and couldn’t wait to get their families together and begin to grow it.

Epilogue

Six months later

 

Ava and Amberlyn stood in front of the floor-length mirror, sticking out their tongues and giggling about the faces they were making when Leslie’s mother stepped in their view.

“Let’s be a little more serious, girls. This is an important day. Don’t mess up those beautiful dresses.” The girls’ dresses were soft yellow with eyelets tracing the bottoms of the sleeves, the necklines, and the hems. Silk sashes tied at their backs, and they each wore white tights and yellow patent leather shoes. Ava’s curls were adorned with two sunflower barrettes, and Amberlyn’s straight, long hair was held back with a headband, sporting small yellow flowers.

Leslie watched her mother check the girls’ sashes and smooth out the skirts. Everything was ready. They were standing just inside the kitchen of their home waiting on their cues. The girls couldn’t stop looking out the door into their backyard every few minutes as guests sat down. Finally, they both squealed, “There’s Daddy!” and Imogene had to restrain them from running right out. The music began and she handed them both white baskets with sunflower petals.

She looked at her daughter. “You look so beautiful. I am so proud.”

“Thank you, Mama.”

“Are you ready?”

“I’ve been ready for years.”

Her mother smiled and then put her hands on her granddaughters’ shoulders and directed them onto the carpet.

Leslie approached the door and watched her girls tossing petals. She could just make out Levi’s smiling features and noted when he wiped at the corner of his eye.

She put her hand to her chest, breathing in deeply, then picked up her own bouquet and took the first step toward her brand-new life.

 

 

 

 

The End

Books by Charlene Bright

Canton County Cowboys

A Cowboy Worth Loving

A Cowboy After Her Heart

Dare to Love a Cowboy

Captivated by a Cowboy

 

Cowboys of Courage

Courage to Follow

Courage to Believe

Courage to Fall

 

Cherish Cowboys

Cherished Love

Cherished Moments

Cherished Embrace

 

Wild at Heart Cowboys

Like a Cowboy

The Cowboy in Me

Cowboy Casanova

 

Cowboy Nuptials

To Have and Hold a Cowboy

To Love and Honor a Cowboy

To Cherish and Keep a Cowboy

 

Christmas Romance

I Saw Mommy Kissing a Cowboy

Snowfall Kisses

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Charlene Bright is the author of several contemporary western romance novels. She’s a lifelong resident of the American South and currently residents in southern Oklahoma on a family-owned cattle ranch. She greets each morning with a hot cup of coffee and an optimistic smile. Traveling to America’s national parks is her favorite pastime. After rearing her children, she and her husband recently became empty-nesters. With the peace and quiet that comes with that, she began to hear the characters in her head begging for their stories to be told which is when the author inside her was set free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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?

  • ISBN: 9781370203222
  • Author: Charlene Bright
  • Published: 2017-09-05 19:20:13
  • Words: 22347
Brand New Cowboy Brand New Cowboy