- Billionaire Romance
- Secret Baby
- Opposites Attract
At 23, my heart shattered when Cal, my husband, left me. Now, at 25, I'm a single mother trying to move forward until I discover the reason behind his abandonment. Meeting Chris causes my emotions to resurface, but I can't risk another heartbreak for the sake of my daughter.
How the fuck did I end up here? It’s the same question I’ve asked myself a thousand times. I've imagined what this would be like for two years…Now, I’m terrified of it. My heart’s beating like a drum. I’m confused, I’m angry, and a sense of guilt is creeping over me. I thought I’d grown, that he couldn’t make me feel like this anymore. Now I feel like I’ve been transported back through time, and it’s all a game again. I’m at the beginning of an unexpected match that I haven’t trained for.
“I can do this,” I mutter to myself.
Now, if only I believed it…
2 months earlier…
“I can do this,” I tell myself for the millionth time. I exhale a cleansing breath; my nerves are completely shot. Forget shot—blown to smithereens.
“This is for Caylen,” I tell myself again as I scrutinize my reflection in the mirror of the Scotts’ bathroom. It’s still the same me. I look the same, I sound the same, but I feel like someone else standing here. I splash cold water on my face and sigh at the girl looking back at me. She’s smiling, but it isn’t real. It’s practiced, close to perfect, and completely artificial. If I can just look happy and content, I might actually start to be happy and content. I look fine—great, if I say so myself. Unfortunately, I feel like I’m being smothered. Although the bathroom is quite large, I swear the walls are closing in around me.
I’ve been trying to convince myself that I can make it through today. I’ve been in this bathroom for ten minutes, and I feel like I’m drowning.
I glance at my phone and notice how much time has passed. I can’t just hide in here like a big scaredy-cat. My daughter is out there with them. Well, not them—her dad and her grandparents. Grandparents who have been coddling her since the moment Mrs. Scott burst out of the house and swept her into her arms before we could even make it up the steps. The icy glare that Mr. Scott gave me completely melted the moment he laid eyes on Caylen. The Scotts’ living room is filled with so many toys and stuffed animals you would think it was Toys R Us. They love her.
I should be thrilled.
I really should.
I am thrilled.
In a way…
I expected this to be awkward. I prepared myself for the fact that they might not take to Cal’s daughter. There is no awkwardness. They adore her. I’m happy, so happy for her, but I have to admit I feel isolated.
She fits perfectly.
“Everything is great,” I tell myself aloud, running my hands through my hair, moistening my lips, and practicing my fake smile once more.
Everything is great, except I’m in love with a man who has no idea who I am. Oh, and he’s engaged to another woman. Other than that, things are just dandy. When I finally emerge from the bathroom, I find that half the toys have been opened. Mr. Scott and Chris are attempting to set up a gigantic dollhouse, while Mrs. Scott is playing with Caylen and the stuffed animal Chris bought her. This looks like a scene out of a Hallmark card.
Still, I want to bail. I want to tell them that they can spend a few hours with Caylen while I go back to my hotel room and cry. Maybe even have a drink. Who am I kidding? This would be a whole-bottle kind of night. No, no! Stop it! I’m too old for this now. I’m a mom. Just grin and bear it. My eyes drift to Chris. I’ve been trying to avoid looking at him.
I haven’t been here that long, but I told myself that I shouldn’t look at him for more than five seconds. My eyes didn’t agree with me earlier, and they still don’t seem to now. They follow his every move, waiting for another glimpse of who I saw earlier.
It was him. It had to be. Or maybe I imagined it. Me and my damn imagination. I’m losing it. It was only a matter of time before Cal drove me nuts, and now it’s finally happening.
“Is everything okay, Lauren?” Mrs. Scott’s voice reminds me that I’m not alone in my own head. I need to interact with the other people in the room and not act like a freaking zombie.
“Yeah. Yes. Your home is beautiful,” I say eagerly. A little too eagerly. I haven’t seen any other room in the house except the living room and bathroom. Ugh, now they probably think I’ve been snooping around the house instead of just the bathroom, which is where I said I was going. Oh well. I settle into the comfy brown chair and fold my hands together. Caylen has made her way over to Chris and Mr. Scott, about to be Godzilla to the dollhouse they’re building.
“Caylen, let them finish.” I laugh.
“So you like to break things, huh?” Chris teases as he picks her up and holds her in the air. She giggles as he lifts her up and down.
He’s not Cal. He’s not Cal. He is not Cal…
“This is harder than fixing an engine,” Mr. Scott mutters, looking at the instructions for the dollhouse, like they’re written in a foreign language.
“Lauren, would you mind helping me in the kitchen?” Mrs. Scott’s voice interrupts my mantra.
“Sure,” I say, getting up to follow her. I feel like my body is moving in slow motion. Chris gives me a reassuring smile, and my heart practically jumps out of my chest. I look over my shoulder and see him and his dad playing with Caylen as I head into the kitchen.
Their kitchen is large, separated from the dining room, but still big enough to easily fit a round table and four chairs. There’re tons of counter space, lots of cabinets, a huge white refrigerator, and a double stove. This is definitely a kitchen that gets used. I hope to God she’s not going to ask me to help her cook anything.
I make my way over to the sink and wash my hands after she does. Glancing out the window, I see a horse in the distance. Two horses, actually.
“You have horses?” I ask, surprised.
“Horses, cows, just a few pigs,” she says with a smile. Well, duh! It is a farm. My daughter’s grandparents have an actual farm.
“Do you ride?” she asks, pulling out three plastic containers from the refrigerator. She takes the tops off, revealing ham, turkey, cheese, and lettuce.
“Not really. Well, not professionally or anything. Just here and there when I was in high school,” I say nervously.
“Chris rides. Well, he used to. I’m sure he could teach you, or help you brush up on your skills,” she says.
I almost laugh at the thought of Cal on a horse with an enormous cowboy hat on.
“Is meat okay?” Her question interrupts my thoughts.
“Oh, yeah, it’s fine.”
She’s asked me to help, but she’s cranking these sandwiches out like she worked at a Subway.
“The food at the zoo is so expensive, and I’ve been told my sandwiches are pretty good,” she says with a wink. I laugh, peeling the lettuce she’s assigned to me. It’s weird, but being in here with her makes me feel calmer. Not so odd, nervous, or anxious.
“Caylen loves the zoo. She’s obsessed with animals,” I tell her, taking a slice of tomato and putting one on each piece of bread she’s put out on the counter.
“Chris does, too. You’d think since we have a farm, that would have been enough for his animal obsession, but he’d beg us to take him all the time.” She hands me Ziploc bags for the sandwiches.
“I want to thank you for bringing her here,” she says, leaning against the counter and turning her attention toward me.
I smile nervously and fidget. “It’s fine.”
“After everything, I know that it could have been… You would have had every right to make this difficult, and I just want to thank you for… Thank you, Lauren.” Her smile is sincere, and a tiny part of me wants to hug her. She gives off this motherly aurora that just makes you want to be embraced by her. Tell her exactly how you feel. If I were to tell her how I feel now, I’d say, “I’m desperately in love with your son, and I’d give almost anything to make him remember he was in love with me.” I’d ask her, “How do I stop feeling this way?!”
I don’t, of course, but I could see myself hugging her someday, maybe. If I don’t completely screw things up. After we make the sandwiches, and get juices, chips, and fruit packed up, we make our way back to the living room, where it doesn’t look as if the dollhouse has made any progress at all.
“You guys are all packed up,” his mom announces as we enter the living room.
“Are you ready for the zoo with the best animals in the world?” Chris asks excitedly, lifting Caylen up with him. I can’t help but smile; Chris genuinely looks excited.
“Hopefully, by the time you get back, I’ll have this done.” His dad chuckles, and he and Mrs. Scott walk us to the door.
“Have lots of fun, little one,” she says, kissing Caylen on the cheek.
“I’m going to get that dollhouse together if it’s the last thing I do,” Mr. Scott promises, rubbing her cheeks.
“I’ll call you guys when we’re on the way back,” Chris says as we make our way down the stairs.
“Have a great time,” Mrs. Scott calls.
“So whose car are we taking?” He adjusts Caylen in his arms. It’s still surreal to see him holding her. They fit, and it’s almost as if he’s never missed a day of her life.
“The car seat is in mine, but we could switch it if you want.”
“Do you want to drive?” he asks. I hate driving, especially when I’m not familiar with where I’m going.
“Not really. You want to drive my car?” I offer.
He glances over at it, and I see a smile spread across his face. “Sure,” he says.
When we make our way to the car, I swap the lunch bag for Caylen with him, pop the lock on the doors, and start to put Caylen in her seat.
“Can I try?” he asks.
“Yeah.” I step back, and it takes him a few tries to get the straps adjusted and snapped in, but Caylen cooperates, her hand in her mouth and a smile on her face.
“I’m a quick learner,” he tells her, then grins back at me. I laugh and ignore the butterfly flying around in my stomach. We both get in the car, and he adjusts his seat a lot. It’s been a while since anyone his height has been in the driver’s seat.
“You’re really short,” he says with a chuckle, and I’m caught off guard. He’s not only called me short, but really short. I think back to Jenna—she was at least five feet seven inches.
“Uhm, yeah,” I say, buckling my seat belt. If things weren’t awkward before, they sure are now.
The playful smile on his face has disappeared.
“Says Gigantor,” I joke to ease the tension.
He starts to laugh, and I join in. “Good one,” he jokes.
I glance at him through the rear-view mirror. I exhale quietly. When the radio comes on, one of my Italian operas begins to play. I never listened to them while Cal and I were together. After Caylen was born, Angela introduced me to a few, and they were surprisingly calming. It was as if only a mourning singer could express the pain I was in, and Caylen always slept really well to them. From the look on Chris’s face, I can see that he’s anything but comforted.
“I can switch to something else if you don’t like it,” I say, a little embarrassed.
“It’s sort of depressing,” he responds with a nervous laugh as he turns onto the road from his driveway. I suppose when you are actually depressed, it’s soothing.
“Kind of,” I admit as it continues to play.
“Top 40 okay?” I ask, turning to the radio.
“A little better,” he says playfully.
The ride to the zoo was smooth. He drives like a regular person and not like a NASCAR driver on speed, the way Cal did. But if we'd had Caylen when Cal and I were together, I’m sure he wouldn’t have driven like a maniac—possibly. The zoo is actually pretty impressive to be near such a small town. We only made it through two hours before Caylen drifted off to sleep. These two are really entertaining together.
“She fell asleep before we even made it to see the bears,” he says with genuine disappointment.
I laugh. “She had a good run. Let’s take a lunch break. She might wake up in a half-hour or so,” I assure him. We make our way over to a picnic area, and I pull out the sandwiches his mom made for us.
“Thanks.” He takes one from my hand. I hand him a sanitizing wipe, and he takes it, amused.
I really am a mom now.
I unwrap my own sandwich and bite into it. My taste buds have died and gone to heaven.
“Oh, my gosh,” I moan.
There’s a glint in his eye. “Good isn’t it?” he says, tearing through his own.
“This may be the best sandwich I have ever had,” I say, diving back in.
“My mom makes the best sandwiches,” he says, finishing his in record time.
Now I know why his mom made five for just the three of us. I giggle and hand him another one. He smiles. He looks like Cal. He sounds like Cal, but…
“So, other than hanging out at the zoo, what do you like to do?” he asks in between bites, his green eyes on mine.
The lone butterfly in my stomach gains a friend. It’s like we’re on our first date. Well, except our one-year-old is asleep between us in her stroller. Actually, I feel like I’m tagging along on Caylen’s playdate. I take a juice his mom packed and take a sip.
“Most of my time kind of revolves around Caylen.” I shrug. “But when I get a breather and don’t use it for a nap, I try to squeeze in some drawing,” I tell him, resting my head in my hand.
“Drawing, huh? Are you good at it?” he asks curiously. And now I’m having déjà vu.
“What do you mean?” I joke.
He laughs. “Well, are you drawing stick figures?” he asks, crumpling up the plastic that his sandwiches were wrapped in and shooting it in the nearby garbage can. His shot is successful.
“Impressive,” I joke.
“That’s my talent, making trash shots.”
“I can do a little more than stick figures.” I laugh.
“What about you? Is trash ball really your talent?” I ask, making use of the excuse to really look at him. He looks like Cal, and he has his voice, but he doesn’t necessarily sound like him. This guy who wears a t-shirt and jeans, plays with kids, jokes around, and is different. And today, unlike the day we talked in my hotel room, he seems carefree and unburdened. It’s refreshing.
“Well, I play the guitar,” he says, leaning on his elbows. “But you probably already know that.” When he runs his hand through his messy hair, I remember when he’d let me do that.
“You…play the guitar?” I ask in disbelief, and his eyebrows rise.
“Yeah…I never…Umm, Cal, he never…?” he asks awkwardly.
“I used to be in a band,” he says with a shrug, and my mouth drops open.
“You’re kidding?” I can’t believe this.
He nods shyly. “We played a few gigs here and there. It’s not like I was selling out concerts or anything,” he says modestly.
“You’re in a band?” I’m completely shocked.
He smiles, then sighs. “Used to be,” he adds. “It’s a little hard to stay in the band when you never know if you’re available.” His playful smile is completely gone.
I nod my head and think about the fact that every moment Cal was with me was an interruption to his life. I can’t help but feel a little guilty about that.
“Can I ask you a question?” He leans forward on the table.
I bite my lip. Usually, that means a really awkward question will follow. “Sure,” I say, preparing myself.
“Well,” he says, running his hand through his hair again. Cal used to do it as a flirtation; I think Chris does it when he’s nervous. “Do you come from money or something?”
I let out an amused gasp. “Uhm, no. Why do you think that?” I ask hesitantly.
“It’s just, well, the car you’re driving isn’t exactly a base model, and then, uhm…the ring you threw at me the other day looks pretty expensive, and Chicago isn’t exactly the cheapest place to live, and you haven’t mentioned having a job…” he says, letting out a nervous laugh and rubbing the back of his head.
“Oh, no. Well…” I try to think of how to explain this.
“You—uh—Cal made good money working for the Crestfields.” I see his hand tighten around his drink.
“Do you know what I did there exactly?” he asks tensely. I know his dad didn’t have an obvious affection for them. It would seem Chris’s opinion of them must not be much better.
“I don’t know much. The details of your job were mostly confidential,” I say, clearing my throat. Now I wonder what his job was. I can’t imagine him being entrusted with such a valuable position, knowing he could become Chris at any time.
He sighs angrily and shakes his head.
“The only thing you told me was that you were a liaison for Public Relations and Research and Development,” I say with a shrug. There’s another round of silence. I reach in the bag Mrs. Scott packed and hand him a juice box. He smiles gratefully and takes it.
“A shot of tequila would be a little better, but grape juice should work just as well,” I joke.
He nods as he opens it and drains the little box. I’ve been trying to restrain myself this entire time, but there’s so much I want to know, and I know he wants to know about me. We’re like two polite strangers with a kid. Anything too personal would be going into the realm of intimacy—or maybe that’s my own paranoia.
“Now, is it my turn to ask a question?” I say quietly, playing with my empty sandwich bag.
“Go for it.”
“You don’t remember anything?” I ask, folding my hands together.
His head tilts a little to the side.
“Not just about me or our—my life with Cal, but before me?” I’m waiting with bated breath…if he could just remember something about us, about me, about our life together. I know it’s pathetic, but it would be some consolation. If Cal loved me, and he’s a part of him, he should feel something. Even if it’s locked away in another part of his mind, he should remember something. His eyes lock with mine. For a second, he looks at me the way Cal used to, with an intensity that overwhelmed me, that used to consume me. This time, it spits me back out.
“I’m sorry, Lauren, but I don’t remember anything,” he apologizes and stares down at the table.
I try to pretend like the words aren’t a knife through my heart. I can’t do this. I can’t cry and feel sorry for myself every time I’m around him, and things don’t go my way. This isn’t about him or me.
It’s about Caylen.
“No, it’s okay. It’s nothing to be sorry about.” I plaster my practiced smile on my face. I really hope he buys it. So what? Even if he remembered something, it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’d just leave the single thread of hope more time to catch fire, the fanning of a flame I need to stomp out fast.
“It looks like rain,” he mutters. At first, I think it’s an attempt to fill the increasingly awkward silence that has followed this discussion. Still, I know it’s not when I look up at the previously sunny sky that’s now overshadowed by darkening clouds.
“It does.” I sigh. At least Mother Nature is doing us a favor, excusing us from our uncomfortable little outing.
We grab our items and throw them in the trash. I push the stroller as we make our way to the parking lot, ending what started as a nice trip to the zoo. Thankfully, Caylen was asleep before her mommy managed to suck all the fun out of it.
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