Spending the evening with my friends was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. It wasn’t fair. I should be able to enjoy time with them. And I would if Xavier Hogan wasn’t there, too.
He made everything harder for me. Like my skin was on too tight. I was always tense, especially when I knew I’d have to face him. We’d only spoken a handful of times since he moved to town five weeks ago. No, I wasn’t counting how long he’d been in my town. My space. My life. Ugh.
I couldn’t see my closest friend and roommate, Finley, or her three-month-old son without seeing Xavier anymore. She was only home one or two nights a week, spending the others with her boyfriend, Trent, and baby George at MacKellar Estate. Not that I blamed her. Their little family was new, and she adored them, and she and Trent were getting married. I got it, but I missed my friend.
So, I sucked it up and went to their house whenever they called and invited me over. Like tonight. For Finley.
I parked next to Finley’s car in the driveway and turned off the engine. I needed a minute before I faced them. Another minute. Just to make sure I was okay.
It really wasn’t fair how great Xavier was doing. Between his adorable, sassy teenage daughter and the job Trent created for him, his life was easy. I didn’t know the full story about his ex, but I could do the math and didn’t want to know.
McJenna was fifteen. Which meant Xavier got together with her mom a few months after we broke up. Maybe. Assuming he wasn’t cheating on me when we were together. How the hell did I know? I didn’t know the man at all, apparently. If I had, I wouldn’t have been blindsided by him.
I blew out a frustrated breath and reminded myself I wasn’t there for him. I was there for Finley. And George.
I finally forced myself out of my car and went to the door. I rang the bell and waited for someone to let me in. It was a beautiful day out, sunny and gorgeous and the kind of day that made MacKellar Cove perfect in the summer. A part of me wanted to stay outside all afternoon, but then the door opened and I was beckoned inside.
“How are you?” Trent asked as he pulled me in for a hug. Trent MacKellar was a hugger. He was affectionate and friendly and seemed to think of me as family. It was weird after thinking of him as royalty most of my life, but why the hell not?
“Good. How are you guys?” I asked.
I never asked just about Trent. It felt weird. If Finley wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be either. They were a package deal in my mind because she’d still be living with me if he hadn’t pulled his head out of his ass and realized how lucky he was to have knocked Finley up out of all the women he could have accidentally gotten pregnant and been tied to forever.
“Good. Really good. Fin’s starting to talk about a normal work schedule again.”
“Really?” I asked, laughing. Finley was determined to go right back to work after George was born. She insisted she wasn’t going to be one of those women who altered their life completely when their baby came. Then George arrived. She hadn’t worked a full week since. I couldn’t blame her, but for her to talk about going back full time was definitely laughable.
“That’s what she says.”
“I’m sure her parents will be thrilled with that idea.”
Trent nodded. “Yeah, I think they’ve been working on her. But Anna’s been amazing. Finley is really grateful she’s been willing to help so much.”
“That’s what Fin told me, too. I haven’t gotten to know Anna as much, but I’m glad she was available.” Anna was a friend of a friend and started working for Finley before George arrived. She was a God-send and had definitely saved Finley’s romance only bookstore from shutting down.
“Me, too.” We walked into the kitchen, which was wide open with the back doors thrown wide to let the fresh air in. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Just a water would be great. Thanks.”
“Bottled or tap?”
“We have that sparkling water Finley said you like. Want one of those?”
“Sure. That would be great.” I smiled at Trent as he lit up. He was trying, and I appreciated that. We’d only just been getting to know each other when Xavier moved in, which put the brakes on Trent and I becoming better friends. I felt bad, but I couldn’t just put aside seventeen years of regret and act like nothing happened between Xavier and me. He broke me, and a part of me hadn’t recovered.
“Hi, Ms. Karissa,” McJenna said from the staircase.
I turned and smiled at the teenager. She was the only reason I tolerated Xavier besides Fin. McJenna was funny and smart and curious, and she made the times I came over much more tolerable. She liked computers and asked me a lot of questions about designing apps and expressed an interest in computers herself.
My mom was a server at a restaurant, and my dad worked at the hardware store. Neither of them knew anything about computers, so when I wanted to learn more, I had to teach myself or find the answers online. If I’d had a mentor, I think my career would have been different. I knew that wasn’t who I’d ever be for Xavier’s daughter, but I also wanted to encourage her as much as possible.
“Hi, J. How are you doing?”
She shrugged and slid onto a stool at the breakfast bar. “It’s so boring here.”
“It’s summer. It should be fun right now. Just wait until it snows and you can’t get off the property.”
“Does that really happen?” she asked, her brown eyes wide.
Trent opened and closed his mouth, then handed over my water. “It can, but it won’t happen much.”
“I don’t think I can handle that. I need to move.”
McJenna walked away, her feet dragging with each step. I snickered as I watched her go, then I caught Trent’s expression.
“Why did you tell her that?” he asked, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“That happened once in high school.”
I chuckled. “It’s possible.”
“She’s already been complaining because she doesn’t have friends. I know if she lived in town she’d be able to wander and meet people, but being all the way out here, she’s the weird Estate kid.”
“Like you were?”
Trent rolled his eyes. “You know how it is.”
I nodded. I did. There weren’t a lot of Black families in MacKellar Cove. Trent’s family was wealthy, and people respected money, so growing up there wasn’t as hard as it would have been in other places, but we were still the minority. And for McJenna, being new to town and living on the Estate where other kids didn’t just wander by and ask her to hang out, it would be harder to meet new people and make friends.
“Why is McJenna talking about needing to move before it snows?” Finley asked, walking inside with George in her arms.
“I need my godson,” I told her, reaching out for him with grabby hands.
Finley handed him over and raised an eyebrow at me.
I carefully avoided her gaze.
“Rissa told J summer is more fun and to enjoy it because when winter comes, we might get stuck out here.”
“You did not!” Finley gasped.
“I was joking. Sort of. She needs to go meet some kids. What about Anna’s son? Are they the same age?”
Finley shook her head. “Joey’s a year older.”
“Do we know anyone with a fifteen-year-old? How old is Goldie’s son?” Karissa asked.
“I think Paul’s fourteen,” Finley said.
“Does Valentina have a fifteen-year-old?” I asked.
Finley’s brows drew together. “I’m not sure. I know her girls are older, teenagers, but I don’t know how old they are.”
I made a mental note to stop into Cove Bakery sometime and talk to Valentina about her daughters.
“I’m going to start cooking,” Trent said. “Are you okay with that?”
Finley nodded and tilted her chin up for a kiss from him as he walked by. She smiled and watched him walk outside. He said something to McJenna we couldn’t hear, then went to the grill.
“How are you?” Finley asked me.
I smiled and focused on George. “I’m good. Busy. You know how I am.”
“I do, which is why I asked.”
I opened my mouth to tell her the truth when the reason for my hesitation cleared his throat from behind me. I clammed up, nuzzling against George’s neck and inhaling the baby smell that calmed me.
“Hello, Karissa,” Xavier said.
“Xavier.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at him, so I didn’t. I just waited until he walked outside, letting all of my attention stay on my godson.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Finley asked.
I forced a smile neither of us believed and nodded. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
* * *
Sitting across the table from the only man, besides my father and step-father, that I ever loved was downright painful. I never thought I’d see him again when I moved back home, when he said small town life wasn’t for him and refused to come with me.
And now, he’s living a small town life. Complete with a kid of his own. Guess the joke was on me.
But I wasn’t there for him, good or bad. I was there for my best friend to celebrate the first time her newborn baby slept through the night. I didn’t know anything about kids, but apparently it was a big deal.
“I was so scared. I went in and checked three times overnight. I was sure something was wrong,” Finley said with a laugh.
“Me, too,” Trent said. He looked between Finley and the baby with so much love in his eyes it actually ached inside me.
I was happy for them. Really, truly, I was. I was there through all of their ups and downs, and I wanted Finley to have the kind of love she deserved. The kind that made everyone around them believe that love was real and it was out there for all of us.
I would have believed in it if it weren’t for the walking heartbreak across the table.
“The first night McJenna slept through the night, I did the same thing. It was a hard adjustment,” Xavier said.
“Dad,” McJenna said, drawing out the word like only a teenager could.
I forced a smile for the table. The one and only non-parent in the group. The only one who had no idea what it was like to wake up at night and wonder about the safety of another person. I’d always assumed I’d have kids one day, but one day turned into one year, and I was staring down thirty-nine on the other side of a preventative double mastectomy that left me feeling even less like a desirable woman than I ever felt before the surgery.
I didn’t regret the choice I made, but seeing my friend coo and fuss over her tiny little bundle made me think about all the things I never did.
Like find someone who wanted to live in a small town. Someone I could build a life and a family and a future with. Instead, I helped countless other people find love.
Regrets were a funny thing. My mom talked about regrets when she was close to the end of her life. Her regrets were different, but maybe that was a few extra decades and the love of not one but two amazing men that changed her. As for me, I regretted all the things I promised myself I’d do one day but didn’t.
“What are you working on these days, Karissa?” Trent asked. He was trying to be nice and bring me into the conversation, but I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be included.
“I’ve been developing something new for a client. I was approached a few months ago about it,” I told him.
“A few months? That must be a big project.” Trent understood a little about how app design worked, but not much from what I could tell. It wasn’t the most exciting topic for people who didn’t get all hot and bothered about computers.
“It is, but the pay is really good and it’s given me a place to focus my energy lately.”
“That’s always a good thing. Maybe I should have you design an app for the theater. Something to help with buying tickets or choosing seats or something.”
I pressed my lips together and nodded. I hated working with clients who thought they wanted an app but didn’t really know what they wanted. It was easier to deal with the ones who knew exactly what they were looking for. Trent hired me to design an app for Finley’s store before George was born, but I knew exactly what Finley wanted and needed. A maybe I should was never helpful.
“Can I be done?” McJenna asked. She pushed her plate away from the table and looked at her dad. Her soulful brown eyes tugged at me. I’d never be able to say no to her. Good thing I didn’t have to worry about that.
“Put your plate in the dishwasher. We don’t need to create more work for Ms. Emily.”
She nodded as she stood. Her phone was in her hand before she made it to the dishwasher in the next room, texting someone.
“I don’t know how we’re going to deal with all that,” Trent said to Finley. “I don’t think I’m ready for a teenager.”
Finley snorted. “I think that’s why they start out small. By the time we have a teenager, we’ll be able to handle it.”
“I hope so. It does not look like a lot of fun to me.”
“Especially when you drag your kid across the state to a place she doesn’t know and people she doesn’t know. I’m pretty sure she hates me,” Xavier said. He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“She agreed to it. She’ll be fine. I hated growing up here, but it’s a good place for families. And she can’t get into as much trouble here,” Trent said.
His tone was light, but his words were loaded. I wanted to ask what kind of trouble she got into before they moved, but I didn’t have the right.
“Maybe not, but she’ll try.”
“Are you guys ready for dessert?” Finley asked loudly. “Karissa brought cake.”
“I could definitely go for some cake,” Trent said. “Thanks. We’re glad you could be here tonight. I know we’re boring and only talk about baby stuff, but we want you to be comfortable coming over here whenever you want to.”
“Thanks,” I told him. I would never feel comfortable going to his house, but I would try. For Finley, I would try.
“I also really hope you two can get along again. I know you were friends in college, but—”
“Friends?” I asked, turning to look at Xavier. “You told him we were friends?”
He shrugged like that was the best descriptor for what we’d been to each other.
“Did I say something wrong?” Trent asked.
I huffed a laugh. “No. No, you didn’t say anything wrong. But I think us being ‘friends’ again is going to be a high bar. I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but a prefer to be friends with people I can trust. People I can count on. People who don’t spend three years planning a future with me only to decide, out of the blue, that all the times we talked about getting married and building a life together was just fiction.”
“That’s not fair, and you know it. I told you I didn’t want to live in a small town. That there weren’t a lot of job opportunities there.”
“Yeah, and then you said we could try it.”
“I said maybe we could try it. Maybe. In the end, it wasn’t for me.”
“But it is now?”
Xavier glared across the table at me. “My life has changed a lot in the last seventeen years.”
“Well, I hope you’re happy with all the changes in your life. Funny enough, my life hasn’t changed all that much. But this is my small town. This is where I live. This is my home. And I’ll be damned if you’re going to make me feel like I don’t belong here.”
I stood and turned away from him. “I apologize for running out, Trent, but I seem to have lost my appetite. Fin, I’ll catch ya!”
“Rissa,” Finley tried.
“Nope. I’m good. Love you.”
“Love you,” she said.
I let myself out and drove home alone to my condo on the other side of the cove. A year ago, I never would have thought I’d be living alone or living in the same town as Xavier Hogan. Life definitely didn’t go the way we planned. Ever.