by Baxter Brown
A whirlwind romance…and only the rest of their lives to get over it.
When Kate and Lauren meet in college it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, the fact that school is almost over is the least of their problems. A roller coaster of emotions and uncertainty causes Kate to leave town, and a heartbroken Lauren, behind.
Fifteen years later, with her ten-year-old daughter in tow, Kate returns to Renfrew hoping to recapture some of the inner peace she found during her college days. She’s stunned when she discovers Lauren has purchased the local coffee shop and has her own ten-year-old surprise.
The two women attempt to avoid one another at all costs. But the incessant pull from the past—and the budding friendship between their daughters—has them on a collision course…to a second chance at love.
|Publication Date||August 13, 2020|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
Dianne K. - This book was impossible to put down. There was humor, heartache, lots of sarcasm, and hot chemistry—all the right ingredients for a romance novel. I quickly ran to get the author's previous work, and look forward to reading more from her.
I never thought I would be back in Renfrew after a fifteen-year absence, pulling a number of carefully organized boxes out of a U-Haul. Boxes for the bedrooms, the bathrooms, and kitchen, but no box for my sanity or lack thereof. The search for stability involved uprooting my life and my daughter’s because I was burned out. It was selfish, but I was out of options. The better parts of me were absent and usually found in the confines of my office when they should have been as a parent and a person. Something had to give. I scrutinized our savings account with a fine-tooth comb and determined that even with the move and the career change, we would be just fine. We had to be.
It took a few days for my daughter, Jack, to adjust to our new surroundings, but I had no doubt she would, as she was the strongest person I knew. She was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city, and up until that point in her life, she didn’t realize that things could move at a much slower pace. I was already well versed in the pregnant pause that was this small town because I had spent my college years here. There was the downtown, the college, a handful of businesses, but not much else. Older homes surrounded the river and the newer homes that had been built in the last century occupied First through Fifth Street. You could drive around the entire city in twenty minutes or less. Jack would be able to ride her bike anywhere she pleased. She never would have done that in the city, not with the cars, busses, and pedestrians jockeying for position; they never would have given a second thought to my ten-year-old.
In a week, I would be starting my new job, replacing Ms. Houtby, as the Humanities purchaser for the college library. It was like coming home again and I knew that the same smells that greeted me on my first day of college would still be present like they had never left. Reliable. Dependable. Home. Why did I ever leave? The truth was, I wasn’t replacing Ms. Houtby, I was returning to a career that I had left fifteen years earlier. I was on the precipice of starting my life, or starting my life over…I couldn’t decide which. But at the moment, I was on the verge of sorting the last remaining boxes in our garage and it felt like a small victory.
“Mom, can I ride around the block?” Jack broke me from my thoughts. She had helped for the last thirty minutes and then ridden her bike up and down the driveway.
“I don’t know…”
“Please? I know where I’m going.”
“We’ve only done the route a couple of times.”
“I promise I’m not going to get lost.”
Deep down I knew that she wouldn’t as she had a better sense of direction at ten then I did at thirty-seven. “Okay…but if you aren’t back in twenty minutes, I’m sending out a search party.” She maneuvered her bike, ready to race into the street. “I won’t be thrilled to be leading it!”
“Twenty minutes,” she called over her shoulder.
“I’m timing you!” I called out just as she departed.
I turned my attention back to the boxes, but not more than a minute later, I heard the tires of a bicycle come to an abrupt stop just short of the garage and a little bell rang out.
“Jack, I didn’t say twenty seconds…” But when I turned around it wasn’t Jack, but her doppelgänger in a yellow sundress riding a pink bicycle.
“Do you have a daughter?”
“I do.” I smiled at her directness and looked down the street, but Jack was long gone. “She just went for a ride around the block.”
Jack 2.0 looked distinctly disappointed. “My mom won’t let me do that yet…” She looked down the street and my gaze followed. A woman, no doubt her mother, was making her way up the sidewalk toward my house.
I turned my attention back to the young girl. “She’ll be back soon if you want to meet her. What’s your name?”
She couldn’t have been older than Jack. She had long, light brown hair and a pair of bluish-green eyes that looked sweet and oddly familiar. She was a pint-size version of me minus the sundress. Thankfully, my mother could never hold me still long enough to capture me in one.
“I’m Jack’s mom. You can call me Kate.”
“Jack?” she asked confused. “That’s a funny name for a girl.”
“It’s short for Jacquelyn. She hasn’t let me call her that in years. She goes by Jack.”
“Abbie!” a voice called out from the sidewalk and I immediately froze.
Fuck. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. It couldn’t be her. I turned to the bottom of my driveway with my breath trapped in my lungs. When my eyes found hers, I thought I had seen a ghost. Lauren. The word boomed throughout my entire body, but never materialized into sound. My heart started to beat frantically, causing a dull pain. “She was just asking about Jack…” The words slipped quietly from my lips, and the green eyes that were focused on Abbie immediately shot up and found mine.
She blinked with her head tilted slightly to the side.
I screamed at myself for not putting the pieces together quickly enough to send Abbie on her way, so that I could return to the safety of my home.
She shook her head like she was clearing the cobwebs and studied me carefully. The second the blood drained from her face, I realized she had made the connection. “You grew your hair out.”
I had thought about seeing Lauren again a hundred million times and not in a single scenario were her first words to me after fifteen years about my hair. I winced and brushed the locks behind my ears. Out of sight, out of mind. But it was no use as her gaze was fixed and not retreating anytime soon. She looked like she had been hit by a sixteen-wheeler. At that moment, I too felt the jarring impact. I did everything in my power to keep myself as even and calm as possible. “So…you don’t let her ride alone yet?” I asked stupidly, shrugged and looked for anything to do with my hands which had started to flail wildly out of control. I shoved them into my pockets and pressed my lips together.
I held up my hand, not wanting to hear anymore from a voice that had haunted me for years. “I didn’t know that you were still in town…” I trailed off from the shock, but recovered enough to utter, “Don’t worry. I lost your number a long time ago.”
“Well, it looks like I have your new address…” My stomach bottomed out as she surveyed the house, no doubt lost in her own shock. “What are you doing back in town?”
And although I wanted to say nothing and bolt for the front door, my manners took over. “I took a job at the library.”
“The library?” The disbelief blossomed but before she could ask any other questions, she was interrupted.
“How do you know my mom?”
I looked down at Abbie, not wanting to answer, but what other choice did I have? “We went to school together.”
“Then you know my dad?”
A simple innocent question that deserved a simple innocent answer. “I do.” I tried to force a smile, but I just couldn’t do it. I could feel Lauren’s presence, her eyes, the thousand questions she wanted to ask, even though I said nothing. I tried to keep my gaze focused on Abbie, but I did a quick check down the sidewalk to see if Drew was in tow. Thankfully, he never materialized. “You’re very inquisitive, you know that? You’re just like my daughter.”
“You have a daughter?” Lauren couldn’t hide the surprise in her voice.
“She goes by Jack,” Abbie added, and I finally smiled, although it felt uneasy.
“How old is she?” Lauren fumbled with the words, which she never did.
“Ten going on twenty-five. She wants to be a pirate when she grows up,” I added for Abbie.
“I know. I hope it happens. It would be fun to have a pirate for a daughter. What do you want to be when you grow up?” I rambled because it didn’t look like either one of them had any intentions on leaving my property anytime soon. I quickly looked down at my watch. I should have told Jack ten minutes and then I could have ended whatever the hell this was.
“A scientist that helps animals.” Broke me from my thoughts. Abbie practically jumped at the idea and it was so unlike her mother. Had Lauren been this way when she was Abbie’s age? Or was this Drew’s influence, or a combination of the two of them? I wondered, but I never asked.
“Maybe you and Jack can team up and be marine biologists,” slipped out because, although I could find somewhere to put my wayward hands, I couldn’t find anywhere to put my words.
“Can I, Mom?”
I could feel Lauren’s eye roll, but I didn’t dare look back to meet her gaze.
“We’ve got to get going, Abbie. Say goodbye.”
Abbie stuck her hand out at me and the gesture shocked me into inaction. That wasn’t Lauren, and it certainly wasn’t Drew. It was me, but it couldn’t possibly be. She probably saw it in a movie once and thought it was charming and decided to run with it. I looked down at the small extended hand and finally took it in mine and shook it, just firm enough to let her know that I was taking her seriously. “It was nice to meet you, Abbie.”
She released my hand and maneuvered her bike in the direction of her mother. When I looked up, I got a split-second glimpse of Lauren’s face before she walked off with Abbie. She looked exactly how I felt at that moment, completely pulled apart.
Fifteen years earlier
I looked down at the address scrawled on the half-torn scrap of paper, 28 Maple Street - 8:00 p.m. That’s what Drew slid across my desk when he invited me along with a number of other classmates to his first mixer of what would be our last year at school. Although he and I never spoke, we were in almost every law class together at college. He was a little full of himself, but not a complete asshole. I had never been invited to one of his parties before, and I couldn’t fathom why it was happening now. Perhaps it was because it was our last year and he took pity on me. Maybe they were just looking to add an extra bottle of wine to the mix. Whatever the reason, I didn’t care. Even though I would have been happy to stay home and get started on the mountain of case studies that had already accumulated, a night of drinks and half a bowl of chips, if I played my cards right, sounded like an excellent way to spend a Friday night.
As I neared his apartment, I couldn’t help the feeling that settled in the pit of my stomach. Turn back! But since I hadn’t been out in ages, I pushed the thought away as I counted down the numbers on each house. As I opened the front door to the brick building, a woman’s voice called out, “Hold the door.”
I turned and came face to face with a woman my age, early twenties, with dark blond hair swept up in a messy bun and a pair of dazzling green eyes. A thick scarf made of autumn colors looped twice around her neck. My gaze slipped only because I could tell that she was weighed down by multiple grocery bags and my sense of chivalry kicked me into gear. I instinctively reached for the bags. “Let me help you.”
She released a couple of them into my hands and studied me for a second longer than most did. “Are you coming to the party?”
“I was just headed up. I’m guessing you are as well.”
I was rewarded with a curious smile. “I’ll definitely be there.”
“Do you go to Central?” I asked as I held the door open with my foot and let her pass. If we did go to the same school, I had never seen her until that point in time. As my college career was coming to an end, I considered it to be a grave injustice. We started to make our way up the narrow set of stairs.
“I’m in the sociology program. What about you?” she asked.
“I’m in law. Drew and I have a lot of the same classes.”
“That’s funny, he’s never mentioned you before.”
“We don’t really hang out. He must have felt bad or needed extra wine,” I joked. “How do you know him?”
“I promise we don’t need the extra wine. I’m his wife, Lauren.”
“Oh.” I stopped mid-step and an imaginary bucket of ice water dumped its contents all over my head. I was shocked because even though he didn’t talk to me, he certainly talked enough in class that the subject matter of a wife should have come up a dozen times, but not once had he ever mentioned her.
I shook away my thoughts and tried to refocus. “You two are pretty young to be married, aren’t you?” I asked, my manners clearly seeking alternative shelter after the ice bucket incident.
She stopped her stride and gave me a look.
“I’m sorry,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster. “That’s absolutely none of my business.” But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop. “When did you guys get married?”
“I thought it was none of your business?”
“Isn’t small talk the absolute worst?” I shrugged and offered what I hoped was a humbling smile.
“We got married last year. We’ve known each other most of our lives. Our families are good friends. It was time to make it official.”
I said nothing, not wanting to make a bigger ass out of myself, or point out that it seemed like she was trying to convince herself more than me.
“Throw the bags on the counter and help yourself to a drink. Thanks for your help.”
“No problem.” I put down the bags and the bottle of wine that I had brought as a thank-you. I watched as she moved swiftly throughout the kitchen. Even though she wasn’t looking in my direction, it felt like she was watching me, or at the very least, she was aware of my presence. I did my best to quickly fill a tumbler with whiskey and get out of Dodge.
I recognized a few people from school in the living room, but none of whom I wanted to engage in any small talk. I’d already had my fill for the evening. Instead, I looked around the apartment for something safe and familiar. When my gaze landed on the bookshelves in the corner of the room, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wandered over and started to scan the different titles lined up neatly. It was an impressive collection of feminist theory and psychology, and based on my knowledge of Drew over the last three years, not a single solitary book was his, if his participation in class was any indication. I reached for a title that I didn’t recognize.
“I didn’t get your name before.”
I turned, but my hand was still suspended over the book. When I met green eyes, hers held mine for a moment and then darted to my outstretched hand. She smiled at my choice. I immediately disregarded the unknown title and extended my hand. “It’s Kate. Usually, I have better manners.” I wasn’t just talking about my failure to introduce myself, but my earlier comments about her marriage. Her smile confirmed that she got the double entendre.
“Like I said, I’m Lauren Dawson.”
“You didn’t take his name.” I could physically feel my foot as it wedged itself further into my mouth. I offered an apologetic look.
“No, I didn’t.”
Thankfully, she didn’t seem irritated, only amused. “You’ve got some good titles here. Are these all yours?”
She was lying but I let it slip. I nodded as I picked up a hardcover and flipped it over to scan the jacket, but only half of my attention was focused on the fine print; the other half was focused on Lauren. I couldn’t help myself. She was distracting in the most wonderful ways: beautiful, engaging and well-read. I shook my head as I pushed the thoughts away because another thought continued to pop up in large neon lights. She’s Married.
“How come we’ve never met before?”
I did my best to focus on the blurb in my hands. “Different programs.”
“Are you in your fourth year as well?”
“Yes. Thankfully, the end is in sight.” I finally looked up from my faux-reading.
“What are you going to do after school?”
“I’ve applied for law school, but I don’t know if I’ll get in. What about you?”
I looked back at the bookshelf and knew from her collection that she was a shoo-in.
“You look very familiar…” She inspected me, but it didn’t feel invasive. “I feel like I’ve seen you around somewhere. Do you work on campus?”
“The library. If law school doesn’t work out, I’ve lined up a job when school finishes.”
“Yeah, I’ve been working there for the past three years and they said that they would keep me on when school ends.”
“I can’t believe I’ve never seen you there.”
“It’s a big library.” I shrugged and put the book back on the shelf.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” When she asked, it didn’t feel like she was trying to place him, and if she was, she would have been up the creek without a paddle.
“That’s an odd question.” I took a sip of my forgotten drink and let the warm amber liquid calm some of the nerves that had started to flutter around my insides.
“Is it?” She tilted her head slightly. “I’m just trying to be friendly. I don’t know anything about you.”
“Not much to know. Kate. Law student. Library. I think I’ve covered all the bases.”
“No.” I quickly scanned the room to see if anyone was eavesdropping.
“How come so many questions?”
“You can ask me one.”
When she grinned and I could feel it in the tips of my toes, I quickly looked down at my drink. I needed a distraction. I pretended to contemplate a question as the one that kept popping up in my mind seemed completely inappropriate: Why did you marry him? Instead, I asked the safest thing that I could think of. “Where do you work?”
“The Steam Bean.”
“The coffee shop across from the library?” My mouth hung open for a split second. “I can’t believe that we’ve never crossed paths before.”
“I know. I go to the library all the time.” She shook her head softly and then gave me a pointed look. “So, how come you don’t have a boyfriend?”
I had to give my own head a shake from the conversational whiplash. “This seems to be an important issue for you.”
“One which you keep avoiding.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Lauren, boys don’t like me.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
I leaned in and it was a rookie mistake because as soon as she was within a few inches of me, her scent invaded me. She smelled like lavender and something else, a delicious fragrance that I couldn’t place. The subtle trap engulfed me and held me prisoner. I whispered, “I usually steal their girlfriends,” with a bravado that I didn’t actually possess.
She tilted her head, clearly confused.
“I date women.”
“Oh.” As she stretched out the word, her eyes fixed on my lips for a microsecond and then found my gaze once again.
“Oh.” I smirked but quickly tempered it.
She remained absolutely still as she watched me. It felt like she was trying to find my hidden wires and connections to make sense of who I was. It didn’t feel awkward like it should have, but it did feel intimate and I didn’t want to stick around any longer to find out why.
“It was nice meeting you, Lauren. I’m going to sneak out of here, while I still have an opportunity.”
I headed for the front door.
A few weeks after we were settled and most of the house was sorted, I closed my bedroom door and pulled out a box from under my bed. It was marked Miscellaneous and seemed to follow me around with every change in address. Four moves in fifteen years. I had become somewhat of an expert at packing up my life into a number of carefully marked boxes and moving them around. A restlessness that fit into 18 x 18 x 16 square inches.
I brushed my hand over the red lid, wiping away the dust that had accumulated. It had been a while since I took a trip down memory lane. The items at the very top were my most treasured possessions. I picked up Jack’s adoption certificate and a small scrap of her baby blanket and smiled. I never thought that I would be a mother. More than that, I never thought I would do it solo. When a colleague went through the adoption process, I found myself asking question after question, until I was sending out emails and enrolling in courses. Everything before that day was a blur of work and women, but after the adoption, Jack became my purpose. As for the keepsakes hiding just underneath, they should have been thrown out years ago. Those items had no business being in my life anymore, yet I couldn’t bring myself to part with them. I wanted to forget, but given that they were always underfoot, I knew I never would. I pulled out a small journal with cards and various notes stuck between the pages. I absentmindedly flipped through the blank sheets, but I knew where I would arrive, as I always ended up at the same spot. It was the reason that I stretched along the floorboards and reached for that damn box in the first place. I pulled out a card made of green construction paper with a note scribbled on the inside.
Sometimes i call to ask about school… just so i can hear your voice.
My fingertips traced over the half-cursive, half-print script. I had memorized every curve, to the point that I could pick it out of a police lineup, if half-cursive, half-print ever committed a crime and they needed me to identify the perpetrator. I’d point to the decapitalized i’s that dominated her writing. “Yes, officer, that’s the one.” I’d nod my head fervently. “That’s the one that’s haunted me all this time…”
My finger fell to the second line and I traced out the name.
I held the card to my nose and inhaled deeply. The day she slid it across my desk, she sprayed it with her perfume. It was intoxicating. Lavender mixed with something else. For months, even years after, I was convinced that I could still smell her fragrance mingling with the decaying construction paper. After all this time, the smell had completely vanished, but my memory and senses filled in the blanks and I was instantly taken back to the night we met. I closed my eyes and let myself linger on the memory for a moment. I didn’t have much from my time with Lauren, hardly anything, just a bottomless pit of emotions that I could never seem to climb out of and that little card bathed in her perfume.
I also had hidden a box in my mind. Into it had gone every last memory of our time together in college. I’d taped it shut and marked it Fragile—Contents Will Kill You, in big block letters on all sides. I’d taken that box to the deepest ocean in my mind and let it sink to the very bottom. I figured that given enough time, the fish would take care of it. I was wrong. I should have burned it. It’s funny the things that float to the surface, especially the ones that cause us pain.
* * *
Jack’s first day at her new school was more nerve-racking for me than it was for her. The urge to make sure she fit in and make friends kept me up most of the night, even though I knew it didn’t faze her. She needed very little to be happy, but I wanted so much for her. Moving back to Renfrew allowed us that, but more importantly it gave us the quality time together that we wouldn’t have had in the city. I associated my tiny college town with an easier way of life, and I wanted to give that to my daughter. I had experienced it firsthand during my college years and the novelty never wore off. It was charming. As much as I loved it the first time around, I had to leave it behind to pursue a different life in the city, a life that I thought I wanted.
When Jack arrived as a toddler, those lights quickly faded and the life that I had built post-Lauren couldn’t coexist with my responsibilities as a parent. But in my pursuit to ensure that Jack had the best of everything, it meant longer hours at the office. We both needed more, quantity and quality.
Today was the first day that Jack wouldn’t have to take public transit to school. We could walk hand in hand down the streets and be at her school. She let me hold her hand to the halfway point and then gave my fingers a squeeze and put both of her hands on her backpack straps. She was becoming more independent with each passing year, but she’d always been that way, even at a very early age. When we arrived at the school yard, she stopped me before I could pass the threshold of the playground.
“I got this, Mom.” She looked up at me brimming with a confidence that I never possessed at her age. If this was the city, Jack would have taken the subway from our condo and travelled two stops to get to her school. Walking to school together would be completely out of the ordinary for us, but I welcomed the change, and I didn’t want to part just yet.
“I know you do, sweetheart, but just humor me for today, okay?” I put my hand on her shoulder and we walked into the school. I introduced myself to the principal and her teacher, but I didn’t stay much longer, as I needed to get to my first day at the library. I gave her a quick kiss on the top of her messy blond head and was on my way.
When I arrived at work, it didn’t take me long to find my desk. I pulled a number of items out of my bag—a picture of Jack and me, my white ceramic mug with an image of a little ghost, a Christmas gift from Jack, and a miniature cactus. I turned on my computer and logged into the system. Despite the online tutorials that I had been working on over the past few weeks, I knew that it would take the better part of the day to try and get up to speed.
At three thirty my messy pirate walked into the library with her bag slung over her shoulder like she owned the place. She offered a silent wave and sat down in the empty seat across from me.
“How was your first day of school, baby?” I half whispered so that we wouldn’t disturb the students working on their research.
“Awesome, I love my teacher.”
I leaned across the desk and gave her arm a gentle squeeze. “That’s great. Did you make any friends?” It was something that I was always concerned about, as Jack kept to herself, despite my encouragement.
She leaned back in the chair and a huge smile crossed her face. “I met the most amazing girl today.” I beamed and she continued. “She sits beside me in class. She’s so nice and smart, and we hung out at lunch.” Jack swooned a little and I was a bit taken aback at the gesture.
“Oh?” I continued to study her expression. “That’s wonderful. What’s her name?”
“Abbie,” she whispered excitedly.
My stomach bottomed out. “Abbie?” I swallowed. “Do you know what her last name is?”
“Dawson,” she said dreamily.
I closed my eyes and shook my head.