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Authors: Brenda Harlen

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BOOK: The Single Dad's Second Chance
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Daniel shuddered at the thought. “I don’t think so.”

Andrew pushed away from his desk and went to refill his coffee mug. He gestured to the pot. “Do you want a cup?”

His brother shook his head, then his gaze narrowed on the hand that was wrapped around the mug. “You’re not wearing your wedding ring.”

“I’m not married anymore.”

“You haven’t been married for three years,” Daniel pointed out, not unkindly.

He nodded in acknowledgment of the fact. “I wasn’t ready to take it off before now.”

“So who is she?”

He could pretend not to know what his brother was talking about, but what was the point? “Her name’s Rachel.”

“Is she the one you went bowling with on Valentine’s Day?”

“Honestly, you and Nate gossip about my love life like a couple of high school girls.”

Daniel snorted. “You don’t have a love life. Or has that changed?”

“I’m hoping to change it.”

His brother considered, nodded. “Good for you.”

“Really? That’s it—no other snide remarks?”

“Nope. I’m happy for you.”

“It’s early stages yet,” he said, cautioning himself as much as his brother.

“Does Maura like her?”

“I’m sure she will.”

Daniel’s brows winged up. “She hasn’t met her yet?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I haven’t actually had a chance to tell Rachel about Maura.”

“You’ve been dating this woman since Valentine’s Day and she doesn’t know you have a child?”

“We haven’t been dating since Valentine’s Day.”

His brother frowned. “So this is someone else?”

“No. Rachel is the one I went out with on Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t see her again after that until this past weekend.”

“And while you were with her this past weekend, you didn’t manage to slip something into the conversation along the lines of ‘by the way, I have a daughter’?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Daniel shook his head. “Man, even I know that’s a recipe for disaster.”

“I was planning to tell her at lunch today.”

“Obviously that didn’t happen.”

“Our plans got changed,” he said, aware that he sounded more than a little defensive.

“When this comes back to bite you in the ass, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

* * *

Andrew did call Rachel Monday night, and then again the next night, and the night after that. She enjoyed talking to him on the phone. She hadn’t realized how rarely she had a telephone conversation that lasted more than a few minutes with anyone, even her family. It seemed like everyone preferred to communicate via text message or email these days.

Most of the time, Rachel appreciated the benefits of electronic communication, especially the convenience of sending or responding to messages on her own time. But she could easily listen to Andrew’s voice for hours.

And even when she wasn’t talking to him, she was thinking about him—and thinking about the kisses they’d shared. And she couldn’t help wondering what she’d be thinking about if they hadn’t stopped after those few kisses.

It was easy enough to imagine the feel of his hands on her, the weight of his body pressing down on hers. But she didn’t want to imagine; she wanted to know. And she felt like a hypocrite that she’d chastised Holly for sleeping with a man she barely knew when she was thinking about doing the same.

Unfortunately, she didn’t see that happening anytime soon, especially when they couldn’t seem to coordinate their schedules to get together again during the week. He was available Wednesday night, but she had a book-club meeting. She would have happily skipped the meeting to see him, except that she was hosting this month. She suggested they might be able to get together on Thursday, but he had already committed to helping his brother with something.

“Do you like art?” she asked, when he called her after her book club on Wednesday.

“It depends on who’s defining the term
art.

“I think, in this case, it refers to metal sculpture.”

“That could have potential,” he allowed.

“Elaine, one of our part-time employees, has an exhibit opening at the art gallery this weekend. I figured I should go check it out and be supportive, and I thought, if you didn’t have any other plans, you might want to go with me.”

“When?”

“Saturday afternoon.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding genuinely regretful. “But I can’t make it.”

She was undeniably disappointed—and curious as to the reason behind his refusal. It didn’t bother her that he had other plans, as he apparently did, but she wondered why he seemed unwilling to disclose what those plans were.

“Maybe we could get together Sunday afternoon,” he suggested.

She and Holly tried to set a schedule so that they each got one weekend day off, but this week, Rachel’s day off was Saturday. “I’m scheduled to work on Sunday.”

“I wish I could switch my Saturday plans, but I can’t.”

“I might be able to get Trish to fill in for me at the shop,” Rachel offered. “She’s usually happy to get extra hours.”

When he called her Thursday night after what he described as an unsuccessful meeting with his brother, she confirmed that she’d made the arrangements with Trish, and he said that he would pick her up at noon on Sunday.

She went to the art gallery on Saturday as planned, then she met Holly at the movie theater. It was the opening weekend for the film they’d chosen to see and the theater was rapidly filling up, so they went to find their seats before worrying about snacks. Since Holly had bought the tickets, Rachel left her to hold their seats while she went to get popcorn.

She was on her way to the concession stand when she saw him. “Andrew, hi.”

He looked equally startled to see her—and not entirely pleased. “I thought you had something at the art gallery today.”

“I did,” she confirmed. “And I’m glad you didn’t let me drag you along. Elaine is great with flowers, but I don’t think the lumps of metal she put on display would fit anyone’s definition of art.”

He smiled, but it seemed forced, as if he wasn’t really listening to what she was saying. It was then that she realized he was standing directly outside the entrance to the ladies’ room, as if waiting for someone.

Probably the same someone with whom he was going to share the large popcorn and two drinks he carried.

“Oh.” As all the pieces clicked into place in her mind, hot color filled her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize...”

She trailed off, hurt and embarrassed and frustrated with herself for apologizing to him. Why was
she
sorry? She wasn’t the one who had made some lame excuse about having plans in order to spend the afternoon with someone else.

He frowned. “What didn’t you realize?”

Her cheeks burned hotter, but combined with the humiliation was anger that he would make her spell it out. “Obviously you’re here on a date.”

He was shaking his head before the words were completely out of her mouth. “No. I’m not.”

But she didn’t want to hear his denials. She didn’t want to know how close she’d been to falling for yet another man who didn’t know how to be honest.

“Enjoy your movie,” she said, and started to move past him to the concession stand.

“Rachel, wait—” Andrew began.

But she’d already turned away and, in her haste, nearly bumped into the child who had exited the ladies’ room and was moving toward him.

Then she heard the little girl say, “I’m ready now, Daddy.”

Chapter Seven

D
addy?

Rachel froze, her shocked gaze moving from Andrew to the little girl and back again.

Was it possible that she’d misunderstood the child’s words? But no, she could see it now. The familial resemblance wasn’t obvious, but it was there—in the shape of her eyes, the curve of her mouth, and even the way she tilted her head when she looked at Rachel.

She was a beautiful girl with cornflower-blue eyes, a light dusting of freckles over the bridge of her nose, and a cupid’s-bow mouth. Her shoulder-length blond hair was held away from her face with butterfly barrettes. The puffy purple coat she wore was unzipped to reveal a lilac-colored fleece sweater with a bouquet of pink applique daisies on the front and pink corduroy pants. If she had to guess, Rachel would say she was around seven years old, but all of the details that buzzed around in her mind were insignificant compared to the fact that this child was undoubtedly Andrew’s child.

“This is my daughter, Maura,” he confirmed. Then, to the little girl, “Maura, this is Rachel.”

The child’s eyes widened and her mouth curved, as if she was both surprised and sincerely pleased to meet her. “Are you going to see the movie with us?” Maura asked her.

“No,” Rachel and Andrew answered quickly and in unison.

Maura’s smile faded and she looked to her father, as if for an explanation.

“I didn’t know Rachel was planning to be here today,” he said. “And I’m sure she’s not here to see
The Pixie Princess.

“I’m not,” Rachel confirmed.

“Okay.” The little girl accepted the explanation easily. “Maybe next time?”

Her hopeful tone piqued Rachel’s curiosity.

“Maura,” her father said sternly.

“Speaking of movies,” Rachel said. “Holly’s probably wondering where I disappeared to, so I should get back to my seat before mine starts.”

Andrew looked as if he wanted to say something, but then he only nodded.

Rachel shifted her gaze back to the little girl and managed a smile. “It was nice to meet you, Maura.”

“It was nice to meet you, too,” the child echoed politely.

She’d only taken a few steps when she heard Maura speak again. “You were right, Daddy. She’s really pretty.”

The statement only added to Rachel’s confusion. Was it possible that Andrew had mentioned her to his daughter? But why? And why had he never even hinted to Rachel about the existence of his child?

She stopped inside the doorway of the theater and tried to organize her scrambled thoughts, but she didn’t understand any of this. Had he lied to her? Or just withheld information? And was the distinction even relevant? Obviously she didn’t know anything about the man if he’d kept such a monumental secret from her.

Maybe it was her fault. Maybe she hadn’t asked the right questions. The next time she met a guy, she was going to ask him point-blank: do you have any wives or kids I should know about?

She climbed the stairs toward the back of the theater and squeezed down the aisle toward Holly.

Her friend looked puzzled when Rachel dropped into the seat beside her. “Popcorn?”

She winced. “I’m sorry.”

“You went to get popcorn...and you forgot the popcorn?”

“I ran into Andrew on my way to the concession stand.” She shook her head. “No, not just Andrew. Andrew and his daughter.”

Holly frowned. “I didn’t know he had a kid.”

“Neither did I.”

“Oh.”

Rachel nodded.

“I’m sorry, Rach.”

She nodded again. She was sorry, too. Sorry and sad and angry. She’d honestly thought that he was different, that he was a good guy who might not trample all over her heart. She’d been wrong.

She drew in a deep breath and forced herself to push all thoughts of Andrew Garrett to the back of her mind. The previews were just starting, so she figured the line at the concession stand would be gone. “I’ll go get our snacks now,” she whispered to Holly.

But her friend shook her head. “Forget the popcorn. After the movie, we’re going to Marg & Rita’s.”

* * *

Marg & Rita’s was one of downtown Charisma’s hidden gems. Tucked beside the library and in the shadow of the town hall, it wasn’t obvious to someone who didn’t know it was there. But anyone who lived or worked in the downtown core knew about it.

The restaurant was owned by two women—neither of them named Marg or Rita—and boasted authentic Mexican cuisine and more than twenty-five different flavors of margaritas.

The male waiter offered menus, but Rachel and Holly already knew what they wanted: a plate of nachos supreme and two traditional margaritas. Their beverages were delivered almost immediately, and Rachel lifted the glass to her lips to take a long sip of the tart icy drink.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” Holly said, after she’d sampled her own margarita. “Maybe it’s not as big a deal as you think.”

“He has a child—I’m not sure any deal gets bigger than that.”

“But you like kids,” her friend reminded her.

“I do,” she agreed. “The issue isn’t his daughter...it’s that he didn’t tell me about his daughter.”

“He told you he’d been married. You didn’t think to ask if they had any kids?”

“No—I was too busy empathizing over the fact that his wife had died.”

Holly winced. “Okay. I can see how that might have deflected any further inquiries.”

The waiter delivered a heaping plate of crisp tortilla chips layered with spicy ground beef, onions, tomatoes and jalapeños, and covered in melted cheese.

“Thank God—I’m starving,” Holly said.

“Or you could thank the waiter,” Rachel suggested drily.

Her friend glanced up at the server and gave him a wide smile. “Thank you—sincerely.”

“You’re welcome.” He returned the smile.

Rachel lifted her glass to her lips and realized it was empty.

“Can I bring you ladies another round?”

“Yes, please.” One of the other great things about Marg & Rita’s was that it was within easy walking distance of Rachel’s apartment.

Holly dug into the plate of nachos with enthusiasm. Although it was one of Rachel’s favorite menu items, too, she wasn’t feeling very hungry tonight. But she put a couple of chips on her plate and nibbled on them.

“Getting back to the topic of our conversation,” Holly said, and popped a jalapeño in her mouth. “I just think you should consider giving Andrew a chance to explain before you write him off completely.”

“Okay.” Rachel dunked a chip in sour cream. “Considered and discarded.”

Her friend shook her head, but a smile was tugging at the corners of her mouth. “It’s not like you to be so rigid and unforgiving.”

“It’s the new me—the one determined not to end up with her heart broken again.”

“But you know there’s got to be more to the story.”

“And I’m not willing to get sucked in by another man’s story,” Rachel told her.

“Another... Oh. Eric.”

She nodded.

Holly wrinkled her nose. “I forgot about him.”

Rachel couldn’t forget, and she wouldn’t let herself make the same mistake again.

She’d started dating Eric a few years earlier. She’d met him at a housewarming party for some mutual friends and she’d fallen for him hard and fast. He’d been upfront with her from the beginning, admitting that he was recently divorced and shared custody of his eleven-year-old daughter, Summer.

Although she’d been eager to meet his child, they’d dated for six months before Eric had let that happen. Rachel understood his reticence, and she appreciated that he didn’t want his daughter to get attached to someone who might not be around for the long haul. He was trying to protect her from the disappointment she experienced every time her mother—his ex-wife—broke up with yet another boyfriend. So when Eric finally introduced Rachel to Summer, she thought it meant that he wanted her to be a part of both of their lives.

But every time they had plans to do something together with his daughter, his ex-wife would interfere. It was a testament to how naive Rachel was that she didn’t realize he was still in love with Wendy. Every time his ex-wife called, he would jump. He would cancel plans with Rachel without apology in order to hang a picture on Wendy’s bedroom wall or perform some other menial task. Once, they’d been in the middle of sex and he’d answered a hysterical call about a mouse in Wendy’s basement—and then he left Rachel naked in his bed to go dispose of the rodent.

Every holiday and birthday was a family celebration, which meant that Eric spent it with Summer and Wendy. Rachel had been willing to accept second place in his life—she understood that his daughter was his first priority, as she should be. But she’d sincerely resented that he was more considerate of his ex-wife’s feelings than he was of her own.

“The situation with Andrew is completely different,” Holly said now. “He doesn’t have an ex-wife pulling his strings from behind the scenes.”

“No,” Rachel agreed. “But I think I understand better now why it was so difficult for him to take his wedding band off. Nina wasn’t just his wife...she was the mother of his child.”

“But he has taken it off,” her friend reminded her.

“He still didn’t tell me about his child.”

Holly sighed. “I just think you should let him explain.”

Rachel had no interest in his explanations. In fact, she wouldn’t have minded if she never saw him or talked to him again.

But when she slipped her key in her lock and realized that her phone was ringing, she automatically raced across the room to answer it because it didn’t occur to her tequila-clouded mind that it might be Andrew.

“Hello?”

“Hi.”

He only said one word—barely one syllable—but she recognized his voice immediately. She sat down on the edge of the couch and willed her head to stop spinning so she could focus. “Why are you calling, Andrew?”

“I wanted to apologize.”

“No apology necessary,” she said coldly.

“I should have told you about Maura.”

And she couldn’t help thinking that he would have told her if he’d ever planned on introducing her to his child. The fact that he’d never mentioned the little girl’s existence proved that Rachel didn’t matter enough to him to share the details of his life. They’d gone out a couple of times and shared a few kisses, but he’d obviously never intended for their relationship to go any further than that.

“I handled the situation badly,” he acknowledged. “I’ve never been in the position of having to introduce my daughter to a woman I was dating, because I haven’t had more than one date with anyone since Nina died.”

He sounded sincere, but she wasn’t going to let herself get sucked in. “So what is the magic number? How many dates did we need to have before you decided to tell me that you had a child?”

“I wanted to tell you. I tried to tell you.”

“When? Because I’m pretty sure if you’d said anything that even remotely hinted at the existence of a child, I would have remembered.”

“Monday,” he said. “The reason I wanted to have lunch with you on Monday was to tell you about Maura. But then you couldn’t get away from the shop, and I didn’t want to dump that kind of news on you when you were obviously distracted by other things.”

Thinking back, she did remember that he’d started to say something before Holly had interrupted him. But how could she really know what he’d intended to say? How could she know he wasn’t just making an excuse after the fact? And why hadn’t he made any other attempt since?

“That was five days ago,” she pointed out. “And we’ve talked on the phone every day.”

“I wanted to tell you in person.”

She was wavering, and she didn’t want to waver. She wanted to stand firm and righteous and protect her heart. The more time she’d spent with Andrew, the more she’d realized that she could easily fall for the man, but that was a risk she was willing to take. Now she knew there was a lot more at stake.

The sexy man was a father and his little girl was too adorable to resist, and falling for both of them would definitely lead to heartache. And she’d been there and done that once before.

“Will you still have lunch with me tomorrow and give me a chance to grovel?”

She wasn’t sure that was a good idea. She didn’t want to get drawn deeper into his world and start to care for him, only to find out that he was just like Eric.

“Please,” he added, when she didn’t immediately respond.

The single word—or maybe it was the sincerity in his tone—tugged at her heartstrings.

“I’m only asking for an hour of your time,” he continued. “If, after that hour, you don’t want to see me again, I promise to respect your decision.”

She wasn’t worried about him—she was worried about herself. That she would be willing to take whatever crumbs he was offering her. When would she learn her lesson? When would she realize that she deserved to be with someone who was willing to make her a priority in his life?

“Will Maura be there?” she asked.

“No, she’s going to a birthday party tomorrow.”

If he’d said yes, she might have given him the benefit of the doubt. But it seemed more than convenient that he’d made plans with her when Maura would be somewhere else—it seemed contrived. He hadn’t intended for her to know his daughter—that part of his life was off-limits. And no way was she going there again.

But she would have lunch with him tomorrow—so that she could tell him, face-to-face, that she wasn’t going to get involved with him. She was going to end their relationship before it really had a chance to begin, before she fell for him more completely than she’d already done.

“Where did you want to go for lunch?”

“Why don’t we decide after I pick you up?” he suggested.

“I’d rather meet you.” That way, she could walk out when she was ready.

“Okay,” he relented. “How about noon at Chez Henri?”

She frowned at the unfamiliar name. “Where’s that?”

He rattled off an address on Evergreen Trail, which she realized could only be in Forrest Hill. No wonder she didn’t recognize the name of the restaurant—she didn’t spend a lot of time in that part of town. If Chez Henri had prices to fit its location, lunch was going to be an expensive meal.

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