ALMOST A FAMILY – (reprint) September 1, 2014
Second Chances Series Book 1
What do you do when the boy next door turns out to be the only man you’ve ever loved?
When her sister is badly injured, Molly Schaeffer rushes home to look after her niece, Sara. Discovering that her ex, Jason, is living next door makes the task nearly impossible. Six years ago he’d had their lives all mapped out – where they’d go to school, the house, the number of kids they’d have – but Molly refused his ring and broke off the relationship to pursue her own dreams.
The last thing Jason expects is to have feelings for the woman who broke his heart so completely when she chose her career over a life together, but clearly things weren’t as over as they thought. She’s only home for a few weeks and they both know she’s going back to her successful career. Still, neither manage to keep their distance as old sparks ignite a new flame. Can they learn from past mistakes and give their love a second chance, or is this goodbye for good?
Read Chapter One:
Molly Schaeffer stopped the rental car at the end of the snow-drifted driveway. Shoving it into park, she reached inside her purse, searching for the slip of paper with instructions on it, written in her assistant’s elegant handwriting. Next door neighbor number one-thirty-two has Sara and the key to the house. Will expect you Wednesday.
Well, it was Thursday, but that couldn’t be helped, she thought with nervous irritation. She straightened the silk scarf around her neck, then pressed a hand to her trembling stomach. Molly had no control over winter storms and closed airports. Spending the night on a vinyl bench in the Toronto terminal hadn’t been her idea of elegant accommodation. She was used to four- and five-star these days.
But getting here had been more important. She checked her reflection in the rearview mirror and tucked a few strands of disobedient hair behind her ears. She took a fortifying breath. As difficult as it had been getting here, it was nothing compared to the job before her.
Putting the rental car into drive again, she inched her way up the snowy lane until she was sitting outside a cute little Cape Cod with blue shutters. Exhausted, she turned off the key and pocketed it, exiting the vehicle in flimsy heels that sank in the packed down snow. Icy cold bits flicked over her feet, so she stamped them against the step as she approached the matching blue door. She hoped this neighbor wouldn’t prolong matters. What Molly really wanted was to pick up Sara, put the child to bed for a nap and take a long, steaming bath.
She rang the bell, her fingers shaking from fatigue and nervousness, the beginnings of a headache tensing behind her eyes. She hadn’t seen her niece since the girl’s first birthday, and now Sara was nearly four. And she’d be staying with Molly for at least the next few weeks, full-time. Molly wasn’t sure she was up to the challenge.
The door opened, letting out laughter and ear-splitting squeals and giggles, but her jaw dropped in a most unflattering way when she came face to face with Jason Elliot.
She stared for a long moment. He hadn’t changed over the past six years, not really. Though his hair was shorter, it was still thick and black, his eyes still a deep rich brown, the color of espresso. Then there was the hint of dimples, always present, smiling or not. He still filled out his faded jeans like they were tailor-made just for him and his chest was wider, his arms stronger, beneath his tan button-down shirt.
His smile disappeared abruptly. “Molly.”
She tried to close her mouth and look composed, but it didn’t work. “You? You’re the next-door neighbor?”
“Kim didn’t tell you?” He frowned, his chocolate brown eyes disapproving.
He looked down her body and she flushed beneath his scrutiny, feeling incredibly stupid as she saw the corners of his lips quirk at the sight of her snowy heels. How was she to know they’d have six inches of new snow today? Who in their right mind wore heavy boots on an airplane, anyway?
She tucked her bag under her arms and straightened. “No, she did not. It doesn’t matter. I’m here to pick up Sara and take her home.”
His gaze met hers and she felt the pull, the one that still tethered them together though years of blame separated them. She swallowed, not wanting to get in any deeper than a basic hello. “Is she ready?”
“You haven’t seen her in a long time. Why don’t you come in and get acquainted first? We were just about to have a snack.”
Well, that plan was foiled. Head high, Molly squeezed by him into the foyer, removing her leather gloves and tucking them into her pockets. He looked good. Too good. Keeping an icy exterior wasn’t who she was, but she knew how to do it and donned it like armor. Even after all this time, looking at him made her warm all over. And that was a bad thing.
“We were expecting you yesterday.”
Uncomfortable and unsure of how to proceed, she removed her coat and draped it over the newel post of the white banister. “Yes, well, winter hit southern Ontario yesterday, and I was stranded at Pearson. I would have called but I couldn’t get through to Kim’s hospital room after nine o’clock, because they stop all incoming calls. And I didn’t have your number. I’m sorry if it inconvenienced you.”
A blonde rocket zoomed into the room. “Uncle Jason, when can I have my cookies, huh?”
Jason bent and picked up the girl, laughing and touching a finger to her nose. “In a minute. Do you remember your Aunt Molly?”
The girl narrowed brown eyes at Molly, deep in thought. “You sent me Barbies for Christmas.”
Molly laughed, charmed. “That’s right. I hope you liked them.”
“Yeah, but Bubbles chewed one’s head off.”
Molly looked at Jason, confused. “Bubbles?”
“Her dog.” He ruffled Sara’s hair, his voice and eyes softening. “You go on into the kitchen. We’ll have a snack together, then you need to get your things, okay? You’re going back to your own house today, muffin.”
She took off as quickly as she had arrived, and they stared after her.
“She looks like a handful,” Molly remarked, smiling after the tiny bombshell. A handful that was going to be in her charge for the next few weeks. Her smile faltered a little.
“She’s energetic and smart, but she’s a good kid,” Jason defended sharply, and Molly got the feeling that despite the warning note in his tone, Jason wasn’t too comfortable with their reunion either. He definitely didn’t act happy to see her.
“I never meant to imply she wasn’t,” Molly retorted, avoiding his gaze. If only this headache would disappear. She sighed and pressed her fingers to her eyelids.
His voice took on a cool veneer of politeness. “Come on into the kitchen. You look ready to drop. I’ll make you some coffee.”
She followed him through the living room into the airy kitchen. Sara was already seated in a booster chair at the table, scribbling on paper with crayons. A black and white cat slept in a wicker bed next to the patio doors. While Molly put her purse on the counter, Jason took two chocolate chip cookies out of a blue jar shaped like a cat and poured milk into a sippy cup.
“Here you go, Sara.” He put them in front of her, kissed the top of her head and went back to the coffee maker.
“You’re very good with her,” Molly commented quietly, standing a few feet away and leaning against the gray marble countertop.
“I’ve lived next door for two years now,” he replied, measuring coffee into the filter. “I’m surprised Kim didn’t mention it.”
Molly’s baby sister hadn’t mentioned it because she knew that Molly refused to speak of Jason Elliot and their past relationship. Full stop.
“We don’t talk about stuff like that much.”
That, meaning them. His head came up and their gazes met again. They had to quit looking at each other that way, as if they wanted to forget but couldn’t help but remember.
“More milk, please.”
The sweet voice interrupted them, and Molly was thankful for the diversion. She’d stared at Jason far too long, and he at her. Dredging up the past would do no one any good. “I’ll get it,” she mumbled and went to the fridge.
Jason poured coffee. “Cream and sugar, right?” he asked, and she hated that he remembered.
“No, black,” she answered. She hated it black, but she was going to be here for the better part of a month, and she had to keep things very cool between her and Jason. Dredging up past hurts wouldn’t help a thing. The past was the past and it needed to stay that way—making it clear they’d both moved on.
“Didn’t you have to work or something today?”
He handed her a mug and a cookie from the jar. “I worked this morning, and did some rearranging of my schedule to be home this afternoon. We had fun, didn’t we, Sara?”
“Mmm-hmmm,” she answered, her mouth full of chocolate crumbs. She swallowed. “I fed the kitties. Then we made hot dogs and cookies. I only like ketchup.”
Molly could only assume the ketchup was meant for the hotdogs and not for the cookies. She swallowed. “Kitties and hotdogs and cookies, oh my. My work is cut out for me.”
Jason raised an eyebrow at her tight tone. “I took her into the clinic with me. I’ve taken quite a bit of time off since last week, though, and the other vet is getting tired of covering for me. I’m glad you’re here.” He looked out the window, away from her.
Like hell, Molly thought, but she pasted on a smile and sipped the bitter coffee, missing her cream and sugar.
“Kim’s doing okay? I only talked to her the once, after she came out of surgery and asked if I could come. I should go in this afternoon, but I’m afraid I need a bath and a nap before I go anywhere.” She hated to ask any advice about Sara, but without Kim’s input, Jason was the only one who had an idea of the little girl’s schedule. “Does Sara nap in the afternoon?”
“Sometimes, but only if you get her tired enough first. She’s had a busy day so far. You might get lucky.”
Getting lucky. Molly sniffed. It had been so long since Molly had “gotten lucky” that she hardly remembered it. Her life in Calgary didn’t facilitate many personal relationships. But with Jason mere steps away, she couldn’t help remembering being with him. Remember what it was like to touch—and be touched—by him. And she knew it was time she and Sara got a move on.
“We should go. Does she have a bag or anything?”
“I’ll get it.” He left the room, leaving her alone with her niece for the first time.
Molly approached the tot and put on her friendliest smile. “Hey, you. We’re gonna head back to your house, okay? Jason’s just getting your bag, and we can take the car I rented. Then you can show me your room and all your toys.”
“No, thanks. I like it here.” Sara’s tiny fingers grasped a red crayon and she began drawing circles, unconcerned.
Molly sighed. Why couldn’t this be easy? She was unsure how to proceed, having so little experience with children. Fact was, she’d spent very little time in the company of any children.
“Well, Jason does have a nice house, doesn’t he?” She smiled down at the girl with what she hoped looked like an encouraging invitation. “But won’t you like being in your own bed tonight? I bet you have a pink room, right? And a favorite stuffed animal to sleep with. I know I did when I was a little girl.”
Sara’s gaze darted up suspiciously. “What was his name?”
Molly’s face relaxed, glad Sara had taken the bait. “It was a she. A fluffy brown teddy bear named Honey. I still have her in my apartment back in Calgary.”
The crayon forgotten, Sara squirmed in her booster seat. “Really?”
“Yup. Look, Sara, I know we don’t know each other very well, but your mom asked me to come take care of you while she’s in the hospital. And then we can get to know each other a lot better, okay? We’ll have lots of fun, you’ll see.” She wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince more—Sara or herself.
“Will you take me to see Mommy?”
Jason came back in carrying a pink backpack and Molly blushed, looking to him for help.
“Listen, sweet thing,” he said gently, coming over to the table and kneeling beside her. “You know your mom’s in the hospital, and she had an operation. She’s still pretty sick.”
At the girl’s crestfallen face, he sighed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll talk to Molly and your mom tomorrow, and, if it’s okay, I’ll take you both to the hospital after work. How’s that sound?”
Sara’s eyes glistened and Molly’s heart broke. Whatever the inconvenience to her schedule, whatever issues she had with Jason, they simply weren’t as important as what this little girl was going through. Sara’s whole world revolved around her mother. Now she hadn’t seen her mother in nearly a week, and she had to be afraid, insecure. How much did she actually understand? Something told Molly that Jason had turned his life upside down during that time to make things okay for Sara. The least she could do was help him out.
“Hey, Sara?” Molly ran a finger under Sara’s eye, gently wiping away a tear. “I’ll make you a deal. You and I go home and have a rest. It’s been a busy day!” She smiled brightly. “And then, after we eat dinner, maybe we can call your mom on the phone and you can talk to her. Does that sound like a plan?”
Sara nodded, and Molly’s answering grin was triumphant. At least she’d done something right.
They bundled Sara in her heavy jacket and mittens, and Molly took the backpack. “Okay, we’re off!”
“Um, Molly, hang on a sec. You need the car seat out of my truck. I’ll put it in for you.”
Jason slipped on a pair of utterly practical winter boots and a jacket, and to Molly’s dismay, it made him appear even more rugged and manly.
“I can do it myself.” Her voice came out more churlish than she intended.
He aimed a mocking glance at her footwear. “Whatever.”
He slid past her and jogged to his sport utility while she fumed in the background, shoving on her gloves and fishing for her keys.
It was her job to look after Sara, and she’d do it well. She didn’t need any help from Jason Elliot. Nope, she didn’t need him at all. She’d done just fine without him, and she’d continue to do so.
Two hours later she was recanting that thought.
Sara had slept for precisely half an hour. Just long enough for Molly to have half a bath. Hearing the little girl up and about, Molly groggily drained the water and pulled on Kim’s bathrobe.
“That’s Mommy’s!” Sara accused belligerently, her cheeks hot.
Then Molly spent the next twenty minutes reassuring Sara that she had only borrowed the robe for a few moments.
After changing into jeans and a sweater, she turned on the television and let Sara watch cartoons while she searched for food. Kim’s house was drastically different from Molly’s. Molly had a one-bedroom condo downtown. It was carefully and expensively decorated, completely appropriate for a single working woman. The fridge was only ever half full, and she ate a lot of frozen foods with the word “gourmet” on the label. Kim’s house, on the other hand, was littered with toys, the furniture comfortable and well broken in, the table and chairs slightly scarred. One thing Kim did have, however, was a deep freeze and a pantry. Unfortunately, not much was in them beyond baking goods. Did the woman make everything from scratch? Molly’s idea of baked goods were what she bought at the corner bakery on the way home from work.
The perishables in the fridge were past the point of no return, and Molly dumped most of them in the garbage. Searching the freezer, she found a small box of chicken nuggets and a bag of French fries. Ah, finally. Convenience food.
“Hey, Sara, how’s chicken nuggets sound for supper?”
Still no answer.
Molly dropped the frozen food in the sink and ran to the living room. The television was on, but Sara wasn’t there.
She took the stairs two at a time and slid to a halt before the bathroom.
There, on a stepstool, was Sara, happily smearing red lipstick on her face.
Molly took a deep breath. “Sara? What are you doing?”
“Looking pretty!” She aimed a happy smile at her aunt.
“Where did you get the lipstick?” Molly took a slow step into the bathroom, and Sara’s smile faded.
“From your bag.”
“Did I say you could go into my things?”
“No.” The little voice was hardly audible and she stared at her toes. Molly saw the bottom red lip start to tremble and she tried to remember to be patient. Sara was only a child and the accident had thrown her routine completely out the window. She took the tube of twenty-dollar tinting, capped it and put it back in her make-up bag.
Molly grabbed a Kleenex from the box on the counter and tilted up the girl’s head. “So next time you’re going to ask, right?”
The chin bobbed up and down quickly.
“Okay. Let’s get this cleaned up a bit. I found some chicken nuggets for supper. Maybe you can help me make them. And after supper you’ll have a bath and we’ll call your mom.”
“Okay, Aunt Molly.” The tiny voice was innocently acquiescent now.
Molly wiped the garish color from Sara’s lips.
“Can Uncle Jason come over? I miss him.”
The thought came so quickly, Molly had no chance to guard against it. Where in the world had that come from? She hadn’t seen Jason in six years. Not since she’d left for law school. Not since he’d left to become a veterinarian. And if she thought of him now and then, big deal! It didn’t necessarily mean anything. It didn’t mean she missed him.
You didn’t forget your first love. Or your first broken heart.
“Not tonight, okay? Hey, where’s Bubbles? I thought you had a dog.”
“Uncle Jason’s dog-sitting.” Sara grinned. “I’m gonna be a dog-sitter when I grow up.”
Molly ran a hand through her still damp hair. Jason was everywhere. Molly had no idea how to look after a preschool-aged child. Meanwhile, she had a dozen files in her briefcase that needed attention.
It was going to be a very long three weeks.