Read an Excerpt
So I guess Kaden's excited that Daniel Brantley is back in town, huh?"
Mandy Carter couldn't control the natural flinch that Jessica Martin's question provoked. Consequently, the perfect photograph she'd been about to take turned into a distorted mess when her normally steady hand jerked the camera. Instead of capturing Nathan and Lainey Martin giggling atop two bales of hay by the pond at Hydrangea Park, she got a blurred picture of the grass around her feet.
"Wait, hold on, let's try that again," she coaxed the kids, but the two-year-old had turned her attention from her brother to the buckles at the top of her pink overalls, and a group of bicyclists passing by had piqued Nathan's interest.
"Oh, sorry," Jessica apologized. "I should have known better than to talk to you while you were photographing the kids."
"It's okay, really." Normally Mandy wasn't affected at all by conversation while she worked. There was plenty of background noise at the park, and none of that disturbed her concentration. But Jessica's statement had been far from typical conversation.
"Oh, no," Lainey said, her tiny brows furrowing when she accidentally unhooked one of her buckles.
Nathan turned back toward his little sister. "Here, Lainey, I'll help you." He guided her small hand through the process of fastening the strap while she watched in awe.
"Thanks, Bubba," she said, giving him a full baby-teeth smile.
Mandy snapped away, capturing the precious gesture and getting even better photographs than she'd planned.
"Oh, wasn't that adorable? Did you get that?" Jessica asked.
"I sure did," she said, grinning.
"Chad's going to love photos of the kids for his birthday present."
"I certainly hope so," Mandy said, while a tiny poke in her back told her Kaden's patience had run out.
"Hey, Aunt Mandy, are you done yet?" Sky-blue eyesBrantley blue eyessquinted up at her in the sun.
"I am now," she said, packing up her camera. "Thank you for being so good while I took the pictures." She ran a hand over his sandy waves.
"So we can go play now?"
Kaden pumped a fist in the air. "Yes!" He ran toward Nathan. "You want to slide or swing?"
"We'll slide first, and then we'll swing," Nathan said.
Nathan, at seven, was three years older than Kaden and therefore "major cool" in her nephew's eyes. Mandy loved seeing him so excited, so happy. Nine months ago she'd worried that she'd never see that sweet smile again, but there it was, stretching from cheek to cheek as he ran after his new friend toward the wide red slide. Maybe she was getting a better handle on this parenthood thing than she thought.
Jessica scooped up Lainey from Mandy's hay props and kissed her soft blond curls. "I'm so glad you brought Kaden along today so he and Nathan can play."
"Me, too," Mandy said. It wasn't as if she really had a choice, since he was with her 24/7, but she didn't mind.
"Kaden looks like he's doing well." Jessica didn't add, "considering all that he's been through," but it was definitely implied.
"He is. It took a little time for him to get adjusted. He was quiet for a while, and he still asks a few questions about his mom and dad every now and then, but I really think he's going to be okay." Mandy wasn't so sure about herself, but she was determined that one way or another, Kaden would be fine. That was her main mission in life now, keeping her promise to Mia and making sure Kaden was okay.
"He sure enjoys playing with Nathan." Jessica pointed to him as he flew down the slide headfirst with his new friend cheering him on. "Nathan likes being the big boy. He's really good with younger kids and a great big brother for Lainey."
"I'm glad Kaden's getting a chance to play with another boy. Most of his time is spent with me." And soon Kaden's time would be split between Mandy and Daniel Brantley, if Daniel had his way and sent her packing.
"Hey, we have a great four-year-old class at the daycare if you ever want to bring him in and let him try it out. He wouldn't have to go full time, you know. There's a Mommy's Day Out program on Wednesday morning that you could put him in. It'd be good for him, social interaction and all."
Mandy blinked past the automatic response to the mommy reference. She wasn't Kaden's mommy. In fact, she missed his mommy, probably as much as Kaden. Mia had been more than a sister. She'd been Mandy's best friend and confidante. They'd been through so much together. Mia was truly the only person who not only knew Mandy's history but had experienced it, too.
"Sorry," Jessica said, obviously noticing the change in Mandy's disposition. "I'm sure you want to keep him close by with everything he's gone through. It's a reflex, telling people about the daycare, since I work there. But I wasn't thinking."
"It's fine." Mandy was glad so many people in town were interested in Kaden's well-being, a sign of how much Mia and Jacob had been loved and a promise that Mandy wasn't completely on her own raising her nephew. Claremont, Alabama, was small enough that everyone knew everybody's business and looked out for each other. Growing up, Mandy had hated that. Now, though, with Kaden to watch after, it didn't seem like such a bad thing. "From the looks of the way he and Nathan are playing, Kaden might enjoy spending time with other kids. I'll think about the Wednesday morning option."
"Well, I have it on good authority that the teacher for that four-year-old class would absolutely adore him."
"I'm guessing that teacher would be you?" Mandy asked.
"You'd guess right," Jessica said with a laugh.
"I swing, Mommy?" Lainey pointed toward the swing set beside the big slide where Nathan and Kaden were playing. "Please?"
They walked toward the swings chatting, and Jessica slowly worked her way into a topic that had come up way too often in Mandy's conversations around town over the past nine months.
"So, Chad told me about a new support group at the community college for people who have been affected by drunk drivers, specifically those who have lost someone due to an accident caused by drunk driving." Jessica gazed at her friend, concern evident in her eyes. "I was thinking that maybe you could give it a try."
Mandy bit her lower lip and focused on Kaden, instantly orphaned when a drunk guy climbed behind the wheel, drove the wrong way and crashed head-on into Jacob and Mia's car. She swallowed past her emotion and said, "I don't need a support group."
"It might help," Jessica said. "I can tell you're coping okay, but I also can tell that you aren't as involved around town as you used to be. We've missed you at the church, you know. And Iwell, everyone, reallywants to see you happy again."
"I'm happy with Kaden," she said truthfully, which was why she wasn't about to let Daniel take her nephew.
"I believe that, but you need to find happiness with life again. Most people can't relate to what you went through, but this group can. That's what they are there for."
Mandy pictured Mia, squeezing her hand as her life slipped away that night. Jacob had died at the scene, and the guy driving the other car died en route to the hospital, but Mia had held on until Mandy and Kaden made it to the hospital. Long enough for Mandy to get there and make that promise.
She kept her emotions in check as she glanced at Jessica, who was only trying to help. "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I'm not ready to meet a group of people who've been through the same experience. It hurts to even think that someone else has had to suffer that much." She shook her head and added, "I don't think I'll ever be ready for a support group."
Jessica was undeterred. "Chad plans on talking to Daniel about going to the meetings also. Maybe it would be easier for you if y'all went together, especially since you were both affected by the same accident." She pushed Lainey in the toddler swing and waited for Mandy to respond.
Mandy was glad the boys were so involved with sliding that they weren't listening to this part of their conversation. She did her best to keep Kaden focused on the positive memories of his parents when they were alive, instead of the negative memory of their death.
"What do you think?" Jessica asked.
Mandy wasn't about to give her friend false hope. If Daniel was going, she sure wouldn't be a part of the group. He was only returning to Claremont to take Kaden, and she wasn't spending any more time with him than necessary. So she sat on a nearby swing, avoided the question and asked another one that would turn the subject back to what she most needed to know. "Did you say Daniel is already back?"
Jessica didn't press the issue, but instead nodded while Lainey pumped her feet and squealed with each push. "Yeah, I thought so, but I guess if you haven't seen him yet, he may not have made it back to Claremont, huh? I mean, I'm sure he'll make a beeline to come see Kaden, don't you think?"
Daniel would make a beeline to Kaden, not to Mandy. Miraculously, Mandy managed a smile. "Yes, I'm sure he will."
All of a sudden, Jessica slapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, dear, maybe he was going to surprise you and Kaden, and I just blew it."
"No, really. It's fine." Mandy's shoes dug deeper in the dirt. "When I see him, I'll act surprised. Don't worry about it." But Mandy was definitely worried. Daniel could take Kaden away from her, or try to take him away. She loved that little boy as if he were her own. Why couldn't Daniel see that?
Because of that email, her mind whispered.
"Well, that's what the church bulletin said on Sunday, that he was moving back this week and would begin working with the youth at the church as soon as he returned. I have to tell you, Chad and I were thrilled to hear he'd taken the youth minister job." Jessica smiled warmly. "It'll be nice seeing Nathan and Lainey become more involved with the youth group as they get older, especially if Daniel is leading the way."
"He's always been good with kids," Mandy mumbled, more to herself than to Jessica. Daniel worked directly with children in his missions; she'd seen the photos. Children beaming. Daniel laughing. If those photos were shown in court, a judge would probably decide that he'd be a better parent than Mandy. Her heart sputtered in her chest.