TITLE: Better Late Than Never
AUTHOR: Stephanie Morris
AUTHOR URL: http://www.stephaniemorris.webs.com
GENRE/THEME: Interracial Sensual Romance
PUBLISHER: Amira Press
RELEASE DATE: April 10, 2009
URL TO THE BUYING PAGE: http://www.amirapress.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&...
EXCERPT RATING: PG-13
Kristen Smith loves to work with children and her life-long dream of opening her own childcare center has finally come true. Everything couldn’t be more perfect until her high school sweetheart walks through front door with his son in tow. Randy Stroud was the "one" that she has never gotten over. She has never understood why he’d ended their relationship but it was obvious that he’d moved and she was more than willing to pretend that she has.
Randy smiled to himself when he looked over at his three-year-old son, Wade. He was taking him to enroll him into the new day care center that had just been opened. Being the sheriff of Appling County was a tough and demanding job at times, but he loved it. The downside was that there were times when he was on call twenty-four-seven, but when he wasn’t, he spent all of his time with Wade. His son was his life. One of his deputies, Gary, had recommended the new day care. His sister had enrolled her children and had nothing but good things to say about the day care and its owner. She seemed to work very well with children. There were two other day care centers in Baxley, but Gary was a pretty reliable guy, so Randy was going to take his advice and look at the day care center. His mother had been watching Wade when he needed her to, but she was getting up in age, and she shouldn’t have to keep a rambunctious three-year-old, whether she enjoyed it.
He cut off the engine to his truck after he pulled up in front of the decorative building. It would appeal to the eye of a child. Hoisting his thirty-two-year-old body out, he walked around to the passenger side and opened the door to the back seat. Wade had been an excuse for him to get the larger truck he always wanted. Randy’s frame was too large for a car. It was dangerous for a child Wade’s age to ride in the front seat, even if he was in a car seat. So the double cab truck was the perfect solution. He unbuckled Wade out of his car seat, Wade hopped into his arms, and Randy shut the door to the truck. He made his way up the steps. Randy opened the door and stepped inside. It closed behind him but not loud enough to draw the attention of the woman who stood behind the counter. He grinned when he recognized her.
They had grown up together in Baxley, although she was four years younger than him. In high school, he and her older brother Max had been good friends and had played on the football team together.
She looked up in surprise then smiled.
“Good morning, Sheriff. Good morning, Wade. What brings the two of you to this side of town?”
“I came to see if I could enroll Wade into day care here.”
Zebbie gave him a concerned look. “Is your mom sick?”
He shook his head. “No, but the fact you just asked the question let’s me know I’m doing the right thing.”
Zebbie reached under the counter and pulled out a clipboard with paperwork on it. “Fill this out, and when you are finished, let me know.”
He nodded and walked over to the chair and took a seat. If he didn’t know any better he would say Zebbie looked nervous, although he couldn’t figure out why. Shrugging the thought off he turned his attention to the paperwork in front of him. Wade settled onto his lap, and he began to fill out the paperwork. They were simple questions like Wade’s age, if he was potty trained, and other questions to determine how much individual attention Wade needed. Once Randy answered all of the questions, he handed the clipboard to Zebbie. She gave the paperwork a once-over, then looked up at him.
“Okay, follow me to the conference room.”
They were led to a room with a large table and three chairs. There was also a small table with four little chairs and a large toy box sitting next to it. Wade eyed them with obvious hope and then looked up at him. Zebbie left the room, and Randy led Wade to the table where they could have a seat.
“You will have to wait to see if you can play with the toys.”
Wade nodded like he had all of the patience in the world, a deception that would fool any person who hadn’t been in the presence of his son for more than five minutes. While Wade was well behaved, it would dissipate. Wade ventured over to the smaller table and sat in one of the chairs. It resembled the set he had at home. Randy glanced down at his watch just when the door opened. He froze in surprise when he saw who stood there. It was Kristen, the only woman he ever loved and had never been able to tell.
* * * *
Shocked, Kristen stared at the man in front of her. She fought the instant reaction of wanting to rub her eyes to make sure they weren’t deceiving her. It had been six years since she had last seen him. Six years that she tried to forget him, and now, she realized it had all been in vain. She was more in love with him now than she had been when she was a teenager. He seemed to have become more handsome than she recalled. His brown eyes still held the mystery they used to, and his light blond hair was cut short, yet still long enough to show his hand had been raked through it several times despite the early hour. He looked taller. His shoulders were broader, and he it looked as though he exercised to stay in shape judging by the way his uniform fit.
Kristen gave herself a mental shake. What was she doing? Drooling over a man whom she shouldn’t be. Looking down at the paperwork in her hands, she used the distraction to collect her thoughts and herself. If she had read it before entering the room, she wouldn’t have been unprepared. It was too late to think about that now. She stepped farther into the room and closed the door behind her. Walking over to Randy, she held her hand out to him and hoped he would shake it.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stroud.”
Before he could react to her formal attitude, Kristen continued. “Wade is more than welcome to enroll at the day care center. I would like to explain some things to you about the operations of my center, and then you make your final decision.”
Her gaze drifted over to Wade, and another pang traveled through her chest. He was a carbon copy of Randy, and he should be their son but wasn’t. What made it even worse was that there was no reason why he wasn’t.
Randy had walked away from her with no explanation at all. After walking over to the little boy, she knelt beside him.
“Hi, Wade. My name is Ms. Smith.”
He gave her a brief look then looked to his father for approval. When Randy gave it, Wade smiled before speaking. “Hi, Ms. Smith.”
“How old are you, Wade?”
Kristen’s mouth curled upward in amusement. He was such a sweetheart. “Do you see the box over there?”
He nodded eagerly, and she grinned. She explained to him that it was full of toys he could play with while she talked to his dad. “But you must put the toys up when you are finished playing with them.”
He agreed to the bargain, and she stood. Once she was out of his way, he headed to the toy box. She walked over to where Randy was sitting and took the empty chair next to him.
“You are good with kids.”
“Thank you. Now to discuss the business of . . .” She stopped when Randy’s hand touched hers.
“How have you been?”
“Fine, now if we could get—”
“Talk to me, Kristen.”
She shook her head and tried to pull her hand back, but he wouldn’t let her. “There is nothing to talk about, Mr. Stroud.”
He refused to let her distract him with her formality. Instead, he leaned forward. “Yes, there is.”
“What is there to talk about?”
“You can tell me how you have been.”
“I already have.”
“Kristen, I know we didn’t end on a good note, but the past is the past.”
Her eyebrows rose in disbelief. “It may be easy for you, but it isn’t easy for me. You know me well enough to know that I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
She held up her hand. “A long time ago, you broke my heart, and it took a long time for the wound to heal. Needless to say, I don’t want to open the wound again.” She looked down at the papers she was organizing. Her hand trembled before she steadied it. “Now, if you want, Wade can stay today. I will just need you to fill out these forms and he can.”
As she handed the forms to him, she explained what they were. One was a medical emergency form giving them permission to take Wade to the hospital if needed. Another asked about his history of health and immunizations. The last form explained the payment that was expected and when.
“Do you have any questions?”
He shook his head, and she knew he was being dishonest. His eyes told her he was.
“Not at the moment.”
Kristen knew he had as many questions for her as she had for him, and none of her questions was related to the paperwork.
“Good, then fill out these forms and he can stay today.”
He remained silent, but she could feel his gaze burning a hole into her, and she looked up. “Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I was just looking at how beautiful you are?”
She wanted to disagree with him, but his heated stare told her he still believed it. Her curly dark brown hair fell a few inches below her shoulder blades. Randy had always loved her hair and in the past could never resist touching it. Today, she had pulled her hair back into a French braid, a style that complemented her creamy cocoa colored face. She stared at him with milk chocolate eyes she tried to keep devoid of emotion, and it was a difficult task. Letting Randy go after he broke up with her had been hard to do, and now with all of the emotions bubbling to the surface at the sight of him, Kristen wondered if she had ever really moved on.
Looking down at his left hand, she looked for a ring or a ring tan line, and when she didn’t find one, she frowned. From what she heard, he should be married. Was he divorced? She tampered down the excitement rising to the surface. Baxley wasn’t a small place, but with a population a little under forty-five hundred, a few major events still got around. Like it had when she and her sisters had moved to Baxley with their mother. To this day, they were the only triplets to have lived in Baxley.
She was pulled from her thoughts when he leaned forward and brushed his hand against her cheek. Her eyes widened with weariness, and she had to force herself not to pull away. She couldn’t let him know his touch affected her.
“Give me a chance, Kristen.”
She did pull away then. This was exactly what she didn’t want. Couldn’t afford to give into. She already suffered one heartache, and that was plenty.
“Give you a chance to what?”
He gave her a gentle smile. “I want a chance to make things right between us.”
Kristen shook her head. It was something she couldn’t allow to happen. She looked over at Wade. “I don’t think your wife would approve.” Randy held up his left hand. She furrowed her eyebrows together in puzzlement. She heard he had married six years ago, but she hadn’t heard anything about a divorce. “Are you one of those guys who doesn’t wear a wedding ring?”
His lips curled upward. “I’m not married, and I never have been.”
She remained silent. That only meant she didn’t know Randy like she thought she did. He always seemed to be the kind of guy that would do the honorable thing and marry the mother of his child.
“Then his mother wouldn’t approve of it.”
He shrugged. “I doubt she would even be concerned.”
The comment bothered her. How could he be so unconcerned about flirting with one woman while he was involved with another? Randy continued speaking, not giving her the chance to respond.
“I know I hurt you. I also know I made a mistake. It is a mistake I plan to correct. I wanted you six years ago, and I want you now although this time it is for keeps.”
Kristen pulled away and stood up. “Finish filling out these papers, and I will take Wade and show him the rest of the center.”
At the mentioning of his name, Wade looked up. Kristen walked over to him. “Would you like to take a look around?”
He looked over at his father, and when Randy nodded. Wade did the same. That Wade always wanted approval from his father before he made contact with strangers was comforting. She held out her hand, and he took it. “We are going to meet some of the children your age.”
She led him from the conference room to the main room. This was the room where the three-, four-, and five-year-olds spent the majority of their time.
“This is where you will spend a lot of time.” She explained this would be the place where he would improve his counting and alphabet, writing, and drawing skills. “This is also the place where you will take your nap.”
Wade frowned at the idea, which gave her the indication that naptime wasn’t his favorite activity, and she laughed as she led him out of the room. She showed him the kitchen where he would eat breakfast, lunch, and a snack. Wade’s face lit up at the mention of food.
“Now it is time to meet some of your classmates.”
She led him to a large room where all of the kids were sitting, waiting for story time. “This is where we come for story time. Would you like to stay and hear the story?”
She led him over to his age group. “Good morning, everyone. This is Wade, and he is going to be joining us today.”
Everyone welcomed him, and his face lit up. She knelt down in front of him. “I need to finish speaking with your dad, but I will be back to check on you.”
He nodded, and she stood and took a deep breath trying to prepare herself to go back in to talk to Randy. When she returned to the conference room, he looked up briefly. She studied him when he looked down to add his signature to the last page. She blinked when he shuffled the papers back into their original order and handed them back to her.
“Would you like for Wade to stay today?”
“Yes. I will be back to pick him up at six.”
“That is fine. Our hours are five in the morning to six-thirty in the evening. If there is ever a time when you are running late, just call and let us know.”
He stood. “If I am running late, my mom or dad will come and pick him up. I put them down as the next of kin. They also have permission to pick him up when I can’t do so.”
Kristen smiled. “Okay.”
A strange expression materialized on his face, and she wondered what he was thinking. Curiosity coursed through her, and she fought it. She wanted to know, but she wasn’t going to ask. The last thing she should do was give him any indication there was any interest on her part. Instead she walked him to the entrance of her day care.
“It was good to see you again,” she replied casually.
He grinned. “It was good to see you, too.”
She wanted to stand there and watch as Randy got into his truck and drove off but knew it would be a bad idea. Instead, she turned and headed back into the day care. For the first time since Randy walked into, she allowed herself to react. Her knees gave out, and she collapsed against the wall. Randy had a way of making her weak in the knees. It was more than his sexiness. Randy always affected her in a way that no other man had. To be honest, she was surprised she was just now running into him. Kristen would never admit that she had been trying to avoid him. She had done a good job up until now. The only thing she wondered was if he was using Wade to get to her. She wasn’t the only person with a day care center. He had to have known this day care center was hers. Then again, she hadn’t placed any official advertisements. It hadn’t been needed. Word of mouth traveled faster.
Still, to have him show up with his son had hurt. When she found out about Wade several years ago, she had been upset. It bothered her that the son Randy had wasn’t with her. Wade should have been theirs. He would have been if Randy hadn’t called off their relationship. What had annoyed her even more was the fact that he had moved on. She hadn’t moved. She never had. There was no one else for her. She knew from the time she laid eyes on him. Randy was a good man. He had always been good to her. Even today she was puzzled as to why Randy had called their relationship to an end.
What irritated her now was he thought he could just walk back into her life and they could pick up where they left off. She didn’t like it, and she wouldn’t fall for it. After the way Randy broke her heart, he would have to prove that he wanted her back. Shaking her head to clear it, she groaned. She was going to hear it from her sisters when she made it home this evening, but it would be worth it because she needed their advice on this one.