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It was a one-night stand five years ago.
As much as I hated myself for thinking about Emelia, I couldn’t help it.
But she left town and life went on.
I married someone else and started living.
I thought we were both happy. I was wrong.
My ex-wife walked out on me and our son, not wanting domestic anything.
So I did the only thing I could.
I started over.
A single dad with my focus on my boy and my job teaching kiddos.
Until Emelia came back to town and got a job teaching at my school.
Then everything changed.
All those memories came rushing back in.
What we were supposed to be if that one night had turned into more.
Beautiful. Clever. Funny. With a body made for loving and a heart of gold.
I didn’t know what had been missing from my life until I kissed her again.
But she has a secret from our night together that threatens to change everything.
Seems I don’t have just one son.
I have two.
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It was the third week of September and the fourteenth time I’d dropped Paxton off at his preschool, Youngster Academy.
The illusion I’d fallen into that the drop offs would get easier in time had all but shattered completely as he clung desperately to my pinky finger, dropped to his knees, and pleaded for me not to take him inside.
I dropped to a knee on the sidewalk outside the preschool. Other parents, mostly mothers, wove around us and cast wary looks down at my son as he wailed like a banshee and rubbed at his eyes with his little closed fist. His breath came in desperate, shaky sobs, and his grip on my finger tightened tenfold.
For such a little guy, he had impressive strength.
“Paxton.” I spoke his name calmly but assertively. The last thing he needed right now was for me to cave under the pressure of all the eyes on us. The other parents and children and teachers did not matter. Not in this moment.
All that mattered was reassuring my son that everything would be all right.
He blinked blurrily up at me through tear-filled, light-green eyes, the same eyes as me. I offered him a warm smile and closed a hand over his shoulder.
“I know you don’t want to go inside. But remember how much fun you will have once a little bit of time passes? Miss Jasmine is inside waiting for you. We’ll go in and say hello, and before you know it, I’ll be picking you up from Grandpa’s. Just like last week.”
Paxton sniffled and blubbered. “Don’t go, Daddy.”
I wish I could stay, buddy.
“Come here.” I wrapped him up in my arms and gave him a tight hug. He clung to my back, his little fingers curling in the fabric of my plaid shirt, and a puddle of wetness formed on my shoulder. It was either tears or snot. I didn’t care which. I stroked his hair, and he nuzzled his chin into my shoulder. “You’re a brave boy, Paxton. This is important for both of us. Okay?”
“Good,” I said, relinquishing my hold on him just a little.
Paxton trembled in my arms. “I miss Mommy.”
A cool September breeze rustled the leaves of the maple trees lining the sidewalk and the path up to the front doors of Youngster Academy. It carried with it the faint scent of the deli and bakery up the street where me and Gwen used to have breakfast after dropping Paxton off at daycare in the attached business to the preschool.
Last year, things had been as they should be.
Paxton wasn’t afraid to be left at daycare two days a week while I went to work and his mother taught her piano lessons. In fact, he liked going. He’d come home full of new words and information, and he’d spew it at both me and his mother in the kitchen while we prepared dinner. He hadn’t been a picky eater then, either.
But everything had changed in a matter of months.
Paxton fell apart, and so did I.
And everything—everything—became infinitely more difficult.
“I miss her too,” I whispered in my son’s ear. “Every day. But just because we miss her doesn’t mean we don’t keep doing the things that make us happy and strong. Like preschool. And being with friends. And going to work. Do you understand?”
Paxton nodded against my shoulder.
“Good boy.” I gave him one last squeeze before letting go. Paxton licked his lips, and I ran my thumb under his nose and wiped boogers on my pants. The life of a single father. Then I pushed myself to my feet, held out my hand, and waited for Paxton to make the decision to accept it.
I only had to wait a collective five minutes before he took my hand and let me lead him to the front doors of his preschool.
Our matching boots thudded softly on the pavement as we made our slow progression to the entrance. Other mothers and their children hurried past us. Everyone was always in a rush in the mornings to drop their kids off and bustle off to work. If I was late, I didn’t really care.
Things had been strained, and my job as a teacher at the high school just a few blocks from there was the only source of income I had, but my boss, Principal Bishop, was understanding of my current situation. She was a single mother too and had come through her storm in one piece after three years of court dates, meltdowns, lots of wine (or so she told me), and late-night screaming matches with her ex. I was lucky to have her in my corner while Paxton and I navigated our new way of life in his mother’s absence.
Sometimes, I wondered if things would have been easier if Gwen had died.
I know. It’s a terrible thought. One I have never spoken aloud before.