Meet Jenna and Linc . . .
I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by persuading Trent Wagner, the guy I’d been crushing on for months, to sleep with me. When he broke my heart and crushed my dreams by rejecting me afterward, I did the unthinkable. I tried to end my life.
Over two years later, I’m finally finding my balance again. My job at the county historical society is steady and predictable, two elements I appreciate right now. I’m living on my own, and my world is peaceful, if lonely.
That is, until hot single daddy Lincoln Turner comes to town.
When my wife was killed in a car accident, she left me with two small children and a bleak future. Six years later, I’m a recovering alcoholic who’s just gotten my kids back. I’m ready to tackle a new position as co-owner of a building restoration company.
I’m not looking for any attachments. But I’m also not ready for the irresistible attraction I feel for Jenna when a huge project brings us together.
The road to true love has more bumps than we could imagine. Making our way to a happy ending won’t be easy. But when two bruised souls find their way to each other . . . forever is possible.
“The water feels amazing.”
I turned my head toward the glare of the ocean as Abby Donavan—uh, Abby Kent now, I had to remember that she was married—dashed up the beach to where I sat next to her husband Ryland. I had to smile; I still wasn’t used to this more spontaneous, impulsive version of the contained Miss Abigail Donavan. When I’d met her a few years back, she had been our boss on the restoration of an old hotel, and I’d described her as steely. Maybe even a little bit icy. The lady had definitely melted, and I knew for sure it was more than the heat of the Florida sun that had done the trick.
In the beach chair next to me, the man who was responsible for most of Abby’s melting grinned. “Looking good there, Mrs. Kent.”
She shot him a saucy smile before dropping to the beach blanket in front of me, where my daughter sat with her arms around her knees. “Becca, come out with us! It’s so much fun. You can body surf with Ollie and me.”
Becca’s jaw tensed as she shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m fine here.”
“Bec.” I nudged her rear end with my foot. “Why don’t you go enjoy the water? This is your first beach trip. Don’t you want to play in the ocean? Have some fun, darlin’.”
My daughter replied without turning her head to look at me. “No, thanks. I don’t want to go into the ocean.” She paused a beat before adding, “It’s not safe. See that flag? It means there’s a rip current. People get carried away, and they can’t swim back.”
“We’re not going that far out, sweetie.” Abby pulled a towel out of her bag and dried off her legs. “I’m keeping my eye on your brother, too. We won’t go any further than just our hips, okay?”
“No, thanks.” Becca hugged her legs a little tighter as she repeated the words. “There could probably be jellyfish, too. And there can be bacteria in the water. Sometimes people die just from putting their feet in.”
I fought the strong desire to roll my eyes. “Becca, don’t be—”
Ryland jabbed an elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Becs, how long have I known you?”
She glanced back at us, frowning. “Ummm . . . I don’t know. All my life?”
“Yeah, just about. Did you know you were the first baby I ever held? Your mom didn’t give me a choice about it. She just plopped you into my arms. Now, would your mom have done that if she didn’t trust me?”
She gave a tiny headshake.
“Okay. And you know how much I love both you and your dweeby little bro?”
For the first time all day, my daughter’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “Yeah.”
“So you also know I would never, ever let you do anything where you might get hurt, right? Never. I’d throw myself in front of a speeding train to push you out of its path. Take on a grizzly bear if it were chasing you. You got that?”
“Then do you think, really think, that I’d let Aunt Abby take you down to the ocean if there were anything the least bit dangerous there?”
She pursed her lips and lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Ryland cocked an eyebrow at her. “We got to stick to logic here, tootsie roll. And logic tells you the truth.”
“But Uncle Ry—”
“Hey.” He pointed to her. “Not finished yet. Because I want you to think of something else. Do you know how much I love Aunt Abby?”
Becca sighed. “Yeah.”
“So you know I’d never want her to do anything where she might get hurt either.” Ry glanced at his wife. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t even told your dad. Aunt Abby and I are going to have a baby.” He paused, letting that news sink in. “As much as I love you and Ollie, as much as I love Aunt Abby and this little peanut in her belly, would I sit back and let all of you do anything where you might get hurt?”
Becca’s head swiveled in Abby’s direction. I could almost feel her struggling to accept what Ryland was saying, to let it begin to overcome the fear. Finally, she gave a tiny shake of her head.
“Okay. I’ll go down.” She stood up, brushing sand from her legs. “But only a little bit in, right? Not deep.”
Abby rose, too, and extended her hand. “I promise, baby girl. No further than you want.” Over my daughter’s head, Abby smiled at me and winked. “We’ll just play around by the surf.”
Hands linked, the two tripped across the sand. I watched them go, grinning when Ab body-checked Becca and pretended to be sorry. It gave me a sense of relief to see my little girl finally relaxing a little bit. She might’ve been going on twelve, but she was always going to be my baby.
Which reminded me . . .
“So.” I tilted down my sunglasses and folded my arms across my chest, fastening Ry with a glare that was more bark than bite. “Something you needed to tell me?”
His smirk was huge and not at all repentant. “Hey, the situation called for something big, so I gave it to her.”
“Yeah, jackass, telling my daughter before me that you’re going to be a dad. What the hell, man?” I couldn’t hold the faux-mad any longer. Reaching across between the chairs, I punched his arm. “Congratulations, bro. ‘Bout time.”
The expression on Ryland’s face could’ve lit up NRG Stadium. “Yeah, right, about time. More like a miracle. Between Abby working so hard to get the hotel up and running and me being on the road all the time, trying to move the business down here, what’s more amazing is that we were in the same state long enough to make it happen.”
“So is this the reason you’ve decided to stop traveling altogether?” I pushed my glasses back into place and leaned against the webbed chair.
Ry shrugged. “Well, it was in the works anyway, you know. It was always the plan, for me to move all the operations down here, so we could start a real life together. We figured that we’d talk babies after that, but it turned out someone had other plans.”
“Babies are like that.” I stared out into the blinding blue of the ocean. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but Becca wasn’t exactly planned. Sylvia and I had only been married about seven months, and we were living in this cramped apartment, barely more than a room. Working for Leo Groff back then, remember, but still pretty far down the food chain. Syl and I had plans—we had that crappy little apartment so that when I had to travel for a job, she could come with me. I came home one night, absolutely dead on my feet. Filthy from a project we’d just started. I remember I was pissed because I could tell she hadn’t started dinner yet, and I was starved. Syl was curled up in the corner of this ratty old sofa we’d inherited from her aunt, and she’d been crying. I finally got it out of her that she’d taken a pregnancy test.”
“Oh, man.” Ry’s voice was filled with empathy. “What did you say?”
“What could I say?” I lifted one shoulder. “I mean, it was a done deal. And she hadn’t exactly gotten knocked up by herself. Takes two to tango, and let’s just say, I always liked a good tango. So I hugged her tight, told her she’d just made me the happiest man on the planet, and we started picking out baby names. After Becs came along seven months later, neither of us could imagine our lives without that kid.” I sighed a little, remembering. “All this stuff works out for the best.”
“Yeah.” Ry fidgeted, his chair creaking as he settled again. “You know, Linc, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve heard you talk about Sylvia without . . . I don’t know. The deep pain. Like maybe you were about to lose it. It’s good to hear you say her name again with a smile.”
“We had good times. We had a great marriage, and I’ve never regretted one minute of our life together.” I hesitated, waiting for the usual boulder of grief to roll over me. But this time, as it has been lately, the feeling was not as devastating. I still missed Syl every day. I still sometimes talked to her when no one else was around. But the pain didn’t feel like it was going to consume me anymore. It was sadness, but it was no longer despair. “It’s not that common to find the love of your life when you’re seventeen. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m never going to forget it.”
“So you believe that?” Ryland regarded me with curiosity. “That we all get only one great love?”
I dug trenches in the sand with my heels until I hit the cooler damp layer. “Don’t you? Isn’t Abby your one and only love?”
“Of course.” He didn’t miss a beat in replying. “And I’m counting on us having at least a hundred years together.” When I raised one eyebrow, he lifted his hands. “What? My family is very long-lived. But if something wacky happened and I bought the farm after five years, I’d like to think Abby might find someone else. Someone not quite as attractive as me, of course, because hey, you can’t expect to hit the jackpot twice.”
“Don’t forget humble,” I added dryly.
“Never would. I’m just saying, maybe sometimes second chances come along. Look at Jude and Logan.”
Jude and Logan Holt owned the hotel whose restoration had brought Ryland and me to Crystal Cove two years before. They’d been married as long as I’d known them, but Ry had told me their story: Jude had been married to Logan’s best friend and business partner, Daniel, for over twenty years before he passed away from cancer, leaving her with two nearly-adult kids, her own beach-front restaurant and their company’s unfinished projects. Apparently, although he’d never let it be known, Logan had secretly loved Jude all those years. It was only well over a year after Daniel’s death that he’d begun to court his friend’s widow.
Knowing them now, as I did, I couldn’t imagine any other ending for those two. Logan clearly worshipped the ground Jude occupied, and she was head-over-heels for him. They shared not only their businesses—which had only expanded in the past years—but also her grown children and her two grandchildren.
“Yeah, that’s true.” I gave Ryland a brief nod of agreement. “But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the people I know who end up married again, or in another relationship after they lose a spouse, don’t find the same fire. They’re together for comfort and companionship. And that’s great, but it’s not an epic love. I don’t think anything can ever touch that first time you fall.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ryland fisted sand and let it sift through his fingers. “So, you ready for this change? Ready to become a man who stays in one place again?”
“I think so.” I stretched out my legs, letting the sun bake them. “It’s going to be good, I’m pretty sure. Burton seems like a nice town, and it’ll be a fresh start. For all of us.”
“And you need it.” My friend stared out ahead of us. “How’s it going, anyway? The transition with the kids, I mean. They seem to be doing okay.”
“It’s hard to tell yet.” I rubbed my fingers over my forehead. “We haven’t settled down to real life yet, you know? I picked them up from their grandparents’ house just about a month ago, and since then, we’ve been on vacation, more or less, down in Orlando and then up here visiting with you and Abby. That’s nothing different than what we’ve done other summers. The real adjustment will come when we’re alone in our new house, just the three of us, and I have to enforce the rules all the time. I’ll have to come up with a routine, and they’ll be getting used to new schools. That’s going to be the test.”
“Still.” Ryland cast me a sideways glance. “They seem happy.”
“Mostly.” I wanted to be optimistic, but the truth was, realism served me better. “But you see Becca. She’s scared of everything. Afraid to move and afraid to stay still. We were at a theme park last week, down in Orlando, and she got a little ahead of me in the crowd. I didn’t worry, because I had my eye on her the whole time, but when she looked around and couldn’t spot me, she freaked out. Took me nearly an hour to calm her down.”
“Hmmm.” Ry frowned. “That seems a little extreme.”
“It is. Maybe not for a five-year-old, but Bec’s almost twelve.” I lowered my voice, although there was no way either of the kids could hear me down in the waves. “That’s Doris. She’s always been a little bit of a worrywart, but since Sylvia’s accident, she sees disaster and tragedy around every corner. Becca’s picked that up, and it’s going to be a tough habit to break.”
“Maybe once you three are settled in Burton, she’ll relax a little. Have you thought about therapy?”
I nodded. “Both kids have had some counseling over the last six years. We might have to step it up a little in Becca’s case, though.”
“Ollie seems pretty happy.” Ryland watched my son as he splashed the females and made them squeal.
“Yeah, but he worries me, too. I don’t think the kid has quite wrapped his mind around the idea that they’re living with me now, for good. The other day, he said something about when he goes back to Texas. You know, he was only three when Sylvia died. He doesn’t remember her at all, and Doris and Hank are the only parental figures he knows. I was more like a visiting uncle than a dad to him.”
Ry gripped my shoulder briefly and then released me. “It’ll come together, man. Don’t stress it too hard. Kids are resilient, right? Isn’t that what everyone says?”
“I guess.” I sighed. “We needed this week in the Cove. I appreciate you and Abby letting us stay.”
“Hey, our hotel is your hotel.” He laughed. “Or something like that. And don’t worry. When we find a house, we’re going to make sure it has plenty of room for you guys to come down whenever you want.”
“You’re seriously going to move out of the Riverside?” Since before their marriage, Abby and Ryland had lived at the hotel that our company had restored. Abby was the manager, so it was easier for her to be on property. They had a roomy, comfortable apartment, and I’d never heard either of them complain.
“We are. We thought about trying to make it work there for a while longer, but the truth of the matter is that no hotel guests want to hear a crying baby in the middle of the night, and I’m given to understand that sometimes babies do that. Cry at night.”
It was my turn to smirk. “Now and then.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, Ab wants to do up a nursery, and I want a place where I can put in my own workshop. I’ve talked Cooper into partnering with me on some local projects, and it would be nice to have a place to do some of the work at home.”
“You’re becoming domesticated, Ry.” I ignored the twinge of envy I felt. “It looks good on you.”
“I never could’ve gotten here without you, buddy.” Ryland cleared his throat. “If you hadn’t come on as my partner and agreed to head up the new headquarters of Kent and Turner, I’d still have to be on the road. I’d still have too much responsibility to handle the local stuff, the artisan work. So . . . thanks, Linc. I can’t tell you how much Abby and I appreciate it. How much we owe you.”
I coughed away the lump in my own throat. “You don’t owe me anything. You . . . Ryland, you stuck by me when everyone else was ready to give up. When I was an ugly mess from the booze, when I cried my way through every day after Sylvia, you’re the only one who stayed. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, and my kids would be orphans, raised by their grandparents. And you gave me the courage and the wherewithal to take them back, too. If you hadn’t believed in me, I’d have let Hank and Doris keep them. I’d still be miserable, alone. So don’t think I’m doing you some big favor. You’re giving the kids and me a way to start over. To make a new life.”
“Guess we’re both good for each other.” Ryland didn’t look my way, which was fine by me. After all, we were men, and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes wasn’t our thing.
After a few minutes, I felt like it was safe to speak again. “Really appreciate you hooking me up with Meghan Reynolds, too. She found us a house that looks to be perfect for the kids and me. I’m looking forward to getting up there and settling in.”
“I think the location will be just what we need business-wise, too.” Ry took a swig of his water bottle. “There’s still a lot of historical restoration work going on in the greater Savannah area, and you’ll be central to jobs in Atlanta, too. Alex Nelson gave me some contacts from when he used to live there.” Alex and his partner Cal now ran the Hawthorne House, a bed and breakfast that was also owned by Jude and Logan Holt. Before he’d moved down here to the Cove, Alex had worked in corporate event planning in the Georgia state capital.
“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you.” I smacked the arm of the chair. “I had an email this morning from the Baker Foundation. The approval came down from the state on restoring that old plantation house, and we got the contract. So my first big job is going to be local to Burton.”
“Dude.” Ry lifted his hand for a high five. “That is huge. How’d you forget to tell me?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it on my phone right as we were leaving for the beach, and then Ollie couldn’t find his other shoe, and with one thing and another, I guess it just slipped my mind. Oh, and keep it quiet for now, okay? The local historical society hasn’t been informed yet. This was just a heads’ up from one of the Baker Foundation board members.”
“Will do. But hey, this is awesome. I’m jealous, though. A plantation? I’ve always wanted to take on that kind of project.”
“You’re welcome to come up and put in some hours whenever you want. Bring Abby, so she can see our new house and hang out with the kids.”
“We’ll plan on it. Don’t worry, I won’t be able to keep her away from checking out your new digs. Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s gotten attached to your kiddos.”
We both looked down to the ocean. Becca had ventured far enough in that the water hit her knees, and she was giggling as she watched her brother pretend to be a dolphin. My breath caught for a moment; I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard my daughter laugh with that kind of abandon.
“I think the feeling’s mutual.” The edges of my mouth curled. “Makes me wonder if we should’ve settled here instead. The kids would have you and Ab, and there’d be a sense of familiarity, at least.”
“Maybe. But at the same time I’d love to have all of you right here in town, I think it’s like you said. You need a fresh start, and in Burton, you’ll get that. You won’t be that far away from us, and we can visit.”
“Yeah.” A lump rose in my throat. “I guess there’s part of me that’s scared shitless I’m going to screw this up. The kids, I mean. Becca’s growing up. She’s going to hit those teen years before I know it, and how do I talk to her about all the ‘your changing body’ shit? That was supposed to be Syl’s job.”
Ryland blanched. “Dude, don’t look at me. I guess you’ll have to find some female up in Georgia who can help you out. Ask Meghan. She’s a chick.”
“But that’s just the beginning. There’s always going to be stuff I need to handle, not just as a dad, but as a mom, too. It’s terrifying, Ry. You think this baby part is going to be a tough gig? Just you wait, buddy.”
“Thanks, Linc. Appreciate all the encouragement.” He shook his head and gnawed at his thumbnail. “You know what, though? It’s going to be okay for both of us. We’ll make it through, ‘cause we’re both strong manly men. We got this.”
Scooping up a handful of powdery sand, I let it sift through my fingers. “I hope so, Ry. I really hope so.”