For a decade, Mackenzie Brand had kept her daughter's paternity a secret. Then she unexpectedly ran into Dylan Axel, and the single mom knew there was no more hiding. Hope's greatest wish was to meet her father. And when Dylan got a look at the beautiful ten-year-old he simply knew she was his. But he didn't know everything
With Hope battling a terrible illness, Mackenzie needed all the support she could get. Dylan vowed to be there for them both and promised Mackenzie she could lean on him. But she was no longer the bookish girl enamoured of the dashing boy next door. Giving herself to Dylan this time meant going all-in. This was their second chance. Was she brave enough to take it?
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Mackenzie Brand parallel parked her 1960 Chevy sedan and shut off the engine. She leaned against the steering wheel and looked through the windshield at the swanky condos that lined Mission Beach, California. She checked the address that her cousin, Jordan, had given her and matched it with the address on the white, trilevel condo on the left. With a sigh, she unbuckled her seat belt and slipped the key out of the ignition.
"All right. Not exactly your crowd. But a job's a job and a favor's a favor." Mackenzie got out of her car, locked the door and dropped the keys into her Go Green recycling tote bag. She could hear a mixture of classic rock, loud talking and laughing as she walked quickly to the front door. It sounded like the Valentine's Day party that Jordan was throwing with her fiancé, Ian, was already in full swing.
Mackenzie rang the doorbell twice and then knocked on the door. While she waited, she stared down at her holey black Converse sneakers. They had passed shabby chic several months agodefinitely time to get a new pair. After a few minutes spent contemplating her pitiful tennis shoes, Mackenzie pressed the doorbell again. When no one opened the door, Mackenzie turned around to head to the beach side of the condo. She was about to step down the first step when she heard the door open.
"Hey!" Dylan Axel swung the front door open wide. "Where're you going?"
Dylan's voice, a voice Mackenzie hadn't heard in a very long time, reverberated up her spine like an old forgotten song. Mackenzie simultaneously twisted her torso toward Dylan while taking a surprised step back. Her eyes locked with his for a split second before she lost her balance and began to fall backward.
"Hey " Dylan saw the pretty brunette at his door begin to fall. He sprang forward and grabbed one of her flailing arms. "Careful!"
Silent and wide-eyed, Mackenzie clutched the front of Dylan's shirt to steady herself. Dylan pulled her body toward his and for a second or two, she was acutely aware of everything about the man: the soapy scent of his skin, the strong, controlled grasp of his fingers on her arm, the dark chest hair visible just above the top button of his designer shirt.
"Are you okay?" Dylan asked. He didn't know who she was, but she smelled like a sugar cookie and had beautiful Elizabeth Taylor eyes.
If he hadn't caught her, she would have fallen for sure. Could have seriously injured herself. And Mackenzie's body knew it. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her skin felt prickly and hot, and her equilibrium was off-kilter. Mackenzie closed her eyes for a moment, took in a steadying breath, before she slowly released the death grip she had on his shirt.
"I'm fine," Mackenzie said stiffly. "Thank you."
"Are you sure?"
Mackenzie nodded. She forced herself to focus her eyes straight ahead on the single silver hair on Dylan's chest instead of looking up into his face.
"You can let go now." Mackenzie tugged her arm away from Dylan's hand.
Dylan immediately released her arm, hands up slightly as if he were being held up at gunpoint. "Sorry about that."
Mackenzie self-consciously tugged on the front of her oversize Nothin' But Cupcakes T-shirt. "No, I'm sorry."
Dylan smiled at her. "Let's just call it even, okay?"
That was classic Dylan; always trying to smooth things over with a smile. He wasn't as lanky as he had been in his early twenties. His body had filled out, but he was fit and had the lean body of an avid California surfer. And he still had that boyish, easygoing smile and all-American good looks. Even back in middle school, Dylan had been popular with absolutely everyone. Male or female, it didn't matter. He had always been effortlessly charming and approachable. Right then, on Dylan's porch, the last ten years melted away for Mackenzie, but she knew that he obviously hadn't recognized her.
Still smiling, Dylan stuck out his hand to her. "I'm Dylan. And you are?"
Instead of taking his offered hand or responding, Mackenzie stared at him mindlessly. It felt as if all of her blood had drained out of her head and rushed straight to her toes.
I'm not ready for this
Dylan's smile faded slightly. He gave her a curious look and withdrew his hand. "You must be one of Jordan's friends. Why don't you come in so we can track 'er down."
Mackenzie was screaming in her mind, demanding that her stubborn legs take a step forward as she plastered a forced smile on her face.
"Thank you." She squeaked out the platitude as she skirted by Dylan and into the condo.
"Mackenzie!" Jordan wound her way through the crowd of people gathered in the living room and threw her arms around her cousin. "Thank God you could come! You're the best, do you know that?"
"Jordan!" Relieved, Mackenzie hugged her cousin. "Okayfirst things firstI have to see this ring in person."
Jordan held out her hand and wiggled her finger so her large cushion-cut blue diamond engagement ring caught the light.
"Jordan, it's beautiful." Mackenzie held Jordan's left hand loosely while she admired the large blue diamond.
"I know, right? It's ridiculous." Jordan beamed. "It's way too extravagant. Ian really shouldn't have but I'm glad he did."
"Dylan." Jordan draped her arm across Mackenzie's shoulders. "This is my awesome cousin, Mackenzie. She owns Nothin' But Cupcakes, home of the famous giant cupcakes. Look it up." To Mackenzie she said, "Thank you again for bringing us emergency cupcakes."
"Of course." Mackenzie kept her eyes trained on her cousin in order to avoid making eye contact with Dylan. For the first time in a long time, she wished she still had her thick tortoiseshell glasses to hide behind.
"Mackenziethis's Dylan Axel Dylan is the Axel in Sterling and Axel Photography. He's also a certified investment planner. He totally has the Midas touch with money, so if you ever need financial advice for your business, he's your man."
Mackenzie had to make a concerted effort to breathe normally and braced herself for Dylan to recognize her. But when she did finally shift her eyes to his, Dylan still didn't show even a flicker of recognition. He didn't seem to have the first clue that he was being introduced to a woman he had known in the biblical sense of the word. Instead, he looked between them with a slightly perplexed expression on his good-looking face. No doubt, he was wondering how she had managed to sneak into gorgeous Jordan's gene pool.
"Now I know your name." Dylan held out his hand to her once more. "Mackenzie."
The way Dylan lingered on her name sent her heart palpitating again. He was looking at her in the way a man looks at a woman he finds attractive. Dylan had never looked at her this way before. It was unsettling. And yet, validating. It was undeniable proof that she had truly managed to eradicate the obese preteen with Coke-bottle glasses and tangled, mousy hair that she had once been.
Mackenzie forced herself to maintain the appearance of calm when she slipped her hand into his. She quickly shook his hand and then tucked her hand away in her pocket. Inside her pocket, where no one could see, Mackenzie balled up her fingers into a tight fist.
Oblivious to her cousin's discomfort, Jordan rested her arm across Mackenzie's shoulders. "Do you need help bringing in the cupcakes?"
Mackenzie nodded. "You wanted a ton. You got a ton."
Jordan walked with Mackenzie through the still-open front door. She tossed over her shoulder, "Give us a hand, Dylan, will you?"
"We can manage," Mackenzie protested immediately.
"I'm not about to let you ladies do all the heavy lifting by yourselves," Dylan said as he trailed behind them.
As they approached her car, Dylan whistled appreciatively. It was no surprise; men always commented on her car.
"The 1960 Chevrolet Biscayne Delivery Sedan painted with the original factory turquoise from back in the day. Nice" Dylan ran his hand lovingly over the hood of her car. "She's yours?"
Mackenzie nodded quickly before she walked to the back of the delivery sedan; she unlocked, and then lifted up, the heavy back hatch of the vehicle.
"Who did this restoration?" Dylan asked as he leaned down and looked at the interior of the Chevy.
"A place up near Sacramento." Mackenzie wanted to be vague. Her brother, Jett, who had restored her Chevy at his hot-rod shop, had been friends with Dylan back in middle school. In fact, the last time Mackenzie had seen Dylan Axel was at Jett's wedding nearly eleven years ago.
"Wellthey did an insane job. This car is beautiful. I'd really like to take a look under her hood."
"Hey!" Jordan poked her head around the back of the car. "Are you gonna help us out here, Axel, or what?"
"I'm helping." Dylan laughed as he strolled to the back of the vehicle. "But you can't blame a guy for looking, now, can you?"
"Here. Make yourself useful, will ya?" Jordan rolled her eyes at him as she handed him a large box of cupcakes. "And, no, I don't get the obsession with cars that went out of production decades ago. They don't make them anymore for a reason. Now, if you want to get excited about a motorcycle, I can totally relate to that!"
Dylan took the box from Jordan but smiled at Mackenzie. "Wellyour cousin gets it, don't you?"
Mackenzie looked directly into Dylan's oh-so-familiar crystal-clear green eyes for a split second. "I get it."
"See!" Dylan smiled triumphantly at Jordan. "She gets it."
"Wellsure. Her dad and brother raised Mackenzie in a garage. Basically, she's been brainwashed. No offense, cuz."
"None taken." Mackenzie balanced the large cupcake box in the crook of her arm while she pulled down the heavy hatch door. Mackenzie gave the hatch door a bump with her hip to shut it completely.
"Okay," Mackenzie said, wanting to speed things along. "Let's get the troops out of the sun."
Dylan kept pace with her as they walked back to the condo. "I haven't heard someone say that since I was a kid."
"Really?" Mackenzie pretended to be fascinated with the neighbor's house. "I hear it all the time."
That was one of her father's favorite phrases; no doubt, Dylan had heard him use it a zillion times before he moved away from the neighborhood. Her father had restored vintage cars as a hobby in the garage behind her childhood home, and all of the neighborhood boys, including Dylan, had loved to hang out with him.
"This works." Jordan put her box down on the large marble slab island that separated the kitchen from the great room.
Mackenzie put her box down next to Jordan's and started to formulate an exit strategy. Dylan opened the top of his box and reached for a cupcake. Jordan slapped his hand playfully and put the box lid back down.
"Get your sticky paws off the cupcakes, mister! Ian isn't even here yet! I can't believe he's late for his own party."
"I'm still surprised he agreed to this at all," Dylan said. "You know Ian hates crowds."
"No. You're right. He does. But I'm determined to pull that man out of his shell kicking and screaming if I have to." Jordan pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her dark-wash skinny jeans. To Mackenzie she said, "Give me a sec, okay? I want to see what's holding him up. The two of you haven't even met each other yet."
Jordan plugged one ear and held the phone to the other as she headed outside to call her fiancé. Even though there was a large group of people milling around in the great room, using it as a pass-through to the bathrooms or the deck outside, at the moment, Mackenzie and Dylan were the only two people in the kitchen. Dylan sent her a conspiratorial wink as he lifted the box top and snagged one of her giant cupcakes.
Dylan devoured the devil's food cupcake in three bites. "These are incredible. Did you make these?"
Mackenzie nodded. "There's another cupcake designer who works for me, but these are mine."
Dylan grabbed a second cupcake and sent Mackenzie a questioning look. "I can count on you not to tell Jordan, right?"
"She is my cousin," Mackenzie said as she scratched her arm under her long-sleeved shirt. Being around Dylan again was making her skin feel itchy and hot.
"Good call," Dylan said before he bit into the second cupcake. "You gotta pick family over some random guy you just met. I understand."
Before she could respond, a statuesque Cameron Diaz lookalike in a tiny bikini breezed into the kitchen like she owned it.
"Babe," Jenna said as she dropped a quick kiss on Dylan's cheek, "we're running out of ice out there already!''
"Okay. I'll run down to the store and grab some more," Dylan said before he took another bite.
Jenna opened the refrigerator and pulled out a can of diet cola. She popped the top, took a sip and put the can on the counter.
"Hi," she said to Mackenzie and then moved on.
Dylan gave his girlfriend a "look" and handed her a coaster to put under the can. Jenna rolled her eyes, but put the coaster beneath the can. Then she crossed her arms over her chest, her pretty face registering a combination of disbelief and disgust.
"Babewhat are you eating?" Jenna frowned at him.
"Cupcakes." Dylan took another bite of the giant cupcake and pushed a box toward his girlfriend. "Want one?"
"Are you insane?" Jenna asked, horrified. "Carbs, Dylan! I've got an audition tomorrow in LAthe last thing I want to be is all puffy and bloated. I don't know how you can put that poison into your body anyway."
"Happily." Dylan winked at Mackenzie.
"Whatever." Jenna walked to the door. She paused in the doorway and yelled, "Ice!"
"Got it." Dylan didn't look at Jenna as he wolfed down the final bite of the cupcake.
Instead of leaving to get ice, Dylan stayed with her in the kitchen. "Sodid you grow up in Montana, too?"
Mackenzie looked up at Dylanone part of her wanted to exit stage left without saying a word, but the other part wanted to rip off the Band-Aid and get the inevitable out of the way. It wasn't a matter of if she would confront Dylan about their pastit was a matter of when. She was impatient by nature, so perhaps, when she should bring up their past was right now.
Gripping the side of the kitchen counter to hold her body steady, Mackenzie asked quietly, "You don't recognize me, do you?"
Dylan's brow dropped and a question mark came into his eyes. He stared at her face hard, and she could almost see the wheels in his brain turning, trying to place her.
"You're not going to believe this, you guys." Jordan threw her hands up into the air as she walked into the kitchen. "He's stuck at the studiohis editor needs him to do something for the new book. He won't be here for at least another hour." Jordan's shoulders sagged as she asked Mackenzie, "You can hang out that long, can't you? I've been so busy with my gallery show that I've hardly spent any time with you"
"I really can't stay." Mackenzie shook her head. "I have to get back to the bakery."
"What a drag." Jordan sighed. "I know, I know business first. Ian's exactly the same way."
"I'll text you," Mackenzie promised. "We'll figure out when we can sync our calendars."
"Okay. It's a plan," Jordan agreed as she hugged her cousin one last time. "Give Hope a kiss for me."
"I will." Mackenzie glanced nervously at Dylan, who hadn't stopped staring at her. Jordan's phone rang. She checked the number. "It's the caterer. Let me grab this first and then I'll walk you out."
"Don't worry about it." Dylan, still staring hard at Mackenzie's face, said to Jordan, "I'll walk her out."
"You're all right, DylanI don't care what they say about you." Jordan punched Dylan lightly on the arm, and then gave Mackenzie one last parting hug before she answered the call.
Mackenzie could feel Dylan's intent gaze on her as they walked the short distance to the front door. Dylan opened the door for her.
"You say we've met?" Dylan asked curiously after he shut the front door behind him.
Dylan studied the petite, curvy woman walking beside him and he tried to figure out who she was before she had to tell him. He had had a lot of drunken hookups when he was in college and he hoped that she wasn't one of them.
It seemed to Mackenzie that her heart was pumping way too much blood, too quickly, through her veins. She was light-headed and for a split second, as she was coming down the front steps, it felt as if she might just pass out.
This is happening. After all these years. This is really happening.