Hi everyone! He’s Always Been the One is up and running on Amazon. I hope everyone reading is enjoying it. I really adore Maggie, Harper, Elliot, and Cora. I can’t wait for you to get to know these characters. If you haven’t previewed the first chapter yet, you can read that here. If you want to follow along with my inspiration board, here is the link to my Pinterest board. 🙂 So, without further ado, let’s get on to chapter 2!
I’d been languishing in the surgical waiting room since Gram was wheeled into surgery. For the past hour, I’d stared at the muted grey-blue walls that had been paired with that horrible blue, vinyl furniture that adorned nearly every waiting room in existence. The decorator had, no doubt, taken a class on calming colors, yet I still tapped my foot in a frantic rhythm on the floor. I swear time had crawled slower than a herd of turtles while I read and re-read the obligatory signs posted around the room, unwillingly committing them to memory. I blew out a breath and dropped my head to rest on the back of the sofa, putting the heels of my hands on my eyes. I’d tried to read a novel on my phone. My mind refused to cooperate so I was stuck, the practically sterile surroundings closing in on me.
My body jolted at the proximity of the low, familiar voice, and I removed my hands to find a coffee cup from Starlight café held in front of me. “How’d you know?”
“I checked in on your grandmother yesterday after my shift. She might’ve mentioned her surgery was today.”
“Oh.” That might’ve explained why Gram had given me that shit-eatin’ grin yesterday. She could be devious when she wanted, though always for a good cause. I had to admit it was hard to stay angry with a five foot nothing elderly lady. She could give you some pathetic eyes capable of guilting even the iciest of hearts when she felt it necessary.
Elliot chuckled, a deep noise that rumbled through me. “She tried to persuade me to smuggle some whisky in for her.”
“Geez, Gram,” I muttered as I took the coffee. “She knows it’s the last thing I’d do.”
“Don’t worry. I told her no. I didn’t want to thin her blood before surgery.”
“Thanks.” I took a sip, waiting for the bite that comes from no milk or sugar of any kind, yet it never came. Instead, the perfect combination of milk, coffee, and hazelnut flavor rolled across my taste buds. “How’d you know?”
“I asked what you usually order. You know Miss Bates has the regulars’ orders committed to memory.”
“I don’t always order the hazelnut.”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “She claimed you ordered the hazelnut more than any other flavor.”
My eyes traced over his cleanly shaven jawline. I preferred the stubble, but he was still hot. “Do you have to work today?”
“No, I went into the gym earlier to work out, and now I’m here.”
“You didn’t have to come,” I said softly. Shit! I sounded like such a bitch.
“I know. I wanted to.” He dropped into a chair in front of me and propped his forearms on his knees. “Look, Maggie. I like you. I like you a lot. I’ve never really come out and said it before, so I am now.”
“What about Harper?” My fingers tightened around the coffee as everything inside me clenched.
“What about her?”
I took another sip of coffee and rubbed my palm up and down the thigh of my jeans. Darned sweat! “Well, she’s not exactly a guy magnet.”
He frowned and shook his head. “Any guy who makes a kid his excuse is a douche canoe.”
An amused bark burst from my throat. “I agree.” His deep, warm laugh did strange things to my stomach. I closed my eyes, breathing evenly in the hopes it would stop. “I’m very flattered.”
I held up my hand. “You’re a great guy, but I’ve busted my ass to build a life for Harper and me. I rarely have free time, and when I do, I spend all of it with my daughter and Gram.”
He sat up and watched me with an odd dip of his eyebrows I couldn’t interpret. “Don’t you want to marry some day? Maybe have another child?”
“I fucked up my chance for that,” I said quietly while I traced the letters on my cup with my finger. “I’m happy with the way things are. I’m not ready for them to change.” I might wear out my vibrator in the next six months. A battery-operated boyfriend, however, didn’t have the same demands as a living, breathing man. They also didn’t leave. “I hope we can be friends.”
“As a friend, am I allowed to try to change your mind?”
My head shook back and forth. “I’m not changing my mind.”
He drank from his own cup before his eyes latched back onto mine. “Do I know Harper’s father?”
“No, he doesn’t live in Marysville anymore.” I couldn’t explain how I knew he would ask the history. Most people in Marysville remembered Sawyer from high school. Elliot hadn’t grown up here, so he’d never met him. I suppose it was natural he would wonder. “I started dating Sawyer Crawford when I was sixteen. We stayed together through graduation, and we both decided to attend the College of Charleston. He was majoring in systems engineering, and I was majoring in art. When I learned I was pregnant and refused to have an abortion, he decided he wasn’t ready to be a father. He’d hoped I would give the baby up for adoption. I simply couldn’t do it. I loved her too much. That ended our relationship. Fortunately, his father’s job was moved to Virginia shortly after we started college, so I don’t have to deal with them either.” That little detail was a blessing. His parents had always hated that Sawyer had “taken up” with me. I never knew what they hated about me. I only knew that they never wanted me around.
“Did you finish school?”
“Harper was born in June, so I was able to finish out my second year; however, even with Gram’s help, I couldn’t imagine trying to finish my degree full-time while being a single mom. For one thing, I needed a job of some kind to support us, and art classes are time consuming. Meanwhile, Gram’s house needed some work, and she was struggling to pay for the repairs on her limited income. In the end, I changed my major to business administration and finished online. I also bartended and waited tables at Mugs in the evenings to pay bills and help out Gram.”
“How did you end up wedding planning?”
“Jena, Charlie, and Ellie put out an ad for an assistant. Harper qualified for Head Start, so I dropped her off at school and Gram picked her up. I still worked at Mugs for nearly a year to save up some money. Tips were always good, so we were able to fix Gram’s house and I was able to buy a decent car.”
“Miss Dashwood?” I looked toward the doctor, who stood a few feet away.
I shot out of my chair and took a step forward. “Yes. How’s Gram?”
“She came through surgery like a champ. She’ll be monitored in recovery for an hour or so before she’s moved back to her room. We’ll need to watch her carefully for leg pain—more specifically thigh pain—for the next few weeks. The nurses should have her sitting up by this evening. Hopefully, we’ll get her standing by tomorrow.”
“So soon?” It sounded more painful than beneficial to me.
“Yes, we’ve found the sooner the better.” The doctor smiled and glanced at the wall clock. “You might as well get something to eat since there’s not much you can do before she wakes.”
“Thank you,” I said, holding out my hand to shake his.
“You’re welcome. From the conversation I had with your grandmother’s primary care doctor, she’ll benefit from this procedure more than a lot of people her age. With a little rehabilitation and physical therapy, she should be able to resume her former lifestyle in time.”
After saying “goodbye,” the doctor walked away while everything in me sort of sagged, a large exhale leaving my lungs in a whoosh.
Elliot twitched his head toward the door. “Come on. Let’s celebrate. I’ll take you to lunch.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Friends take each other out to eat—especially after good news.”
I cocked my head to the side and took stock of the man in front of me. Yes, I was the one who asked if we could be friends, but how much of a friendship could I handle with a man I was crazy attracted to? “Okay, sure. Why not?” Screw it. It was one lunch.
The hospital was on the outskirts of Marysville, though after its construction, a small community of businesses grew around it: a low-priced motel, a florist shop, a few medical supply companies, and a couple of restaurants—no doubt kept afloat by those who worked or convalesced in the hospital. The proximity to the medical complex made matters a lot more convenient.
Elliot led the way into a small place set on a corner. Outdoor seating begged for someone to enjoy warm air and sunshine, yet due to an overnight thundershower, no one braved the grey clouds to eat outside. Inside, a row of booths lined the windows while small tables were spread through the center of the room. A waitress invited us to seat ourselves, so Elliot walked backward for a few steps. “Where do you want to sit?”
“The booth that’s open by the window looks good.” It was still early for lunch, so while the restaurant had patrons, they weren’t packed to the gills yet.
As soon as we seated ourselves, the waitress dropped two menus on the table and took our drink order before bustling away in the direction of the kitchen.
“How long have you been an EMT?”
He relaxed back into the shiny ivory vinyl while he fingered the roll of silverware on the table. “My parents didn’t have the money for me to go to college, so I joined the Army National Guard in high school to become an EMT. I went to school part-time after to complete my bachelor’s degree. Three years ago, I started the physical therapy program at MUSC.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “How much longer do you have?”
“I finished my coursework and clinicals last month and took my licensing exam two weeks ago. I’m just finishing out my last few weeks on the rig until my license comes in. I already have a job waiting for me.”
“How long will it take for your license?”
“About four weeks.”
He reddened a little and nodded. “Thanks. It’s been a long road, but worth it.”
“Are you still National Guard?”
“I am. Since I’ve finished physical therapy school, I’m now an officer. I’ve only got two more years before I hit my twenty years. I plan on retiring. I paid for physical therapy school myself so I wasn’t obligated to stay any longer.”
The waitress put our drinks in front of us, took our food order, and departed once more.
“You said you were an art major,” he said. “Do you still draw or paint or whatever you did before Harper?”
“I sketched using powdered graphite and a brush, and no. I simply don’t have the time.” I shrugged and sighed. “I hated the classwork for my business degree, but it seemed more practical for a single mom. I love working with the Three Weddingteers because I can stretch those creative parts of my brain that haven’t seen the light of day for so long.”
He laughed and lifted his eyebrows. “The Three Weddingteers?”
I smiled in return. “I made the joke not long after I started working with them. It’s kind of stuck.”
He shook his head. “Who are your art heroes?”
“Yes, who would you love to emulate? What artists speak to you?”
I crossed my arms under my breasts and peered out of the window. “That’s tough. I might not like an artist’s overall work, but one of their works might touch me or impress me with its technicality or emotion.”
“You’re stalling.” He leaned forward and put his forearms on the table.
“I am not.” My tone wasn’t petulant, it was a bit high pitched, incredulous. With a huff, I clenched my arms a little tighter. “Fine. There’s an artist out of Minneapolis named Melissa Cooke. She does these amazing hyper-realistic graphite and brush self-portraits. Some are quirky, some are strange. It’s her ability to make her artwork so life-like is amazing. I also like Alfred Conteh and Amy Sherald, even though their art is very different than mine.
He nodded and clasped his hands, his long fingers wrapping around the backs. I don’t know why they caught my attention. I couldn’t help but watch the way they moved as well as their strength.
“I’ll have to look them up,” he said. “Does Harper share any of your talent?”
“Who said I have talent?”
“You don’t go to art school without being able to draw more than a stick figure.”
I unrolled my silverware and put my napkin in my lap, smoothing it more than once. “Maybe I draw the best stick figures ever.”
He lightly kicked my shoe under the table. “You’ll have to show me those sometime. I’d love to see them.”
The rest of the meal was nice. We chatted about work and our experiences. The only problem was my body hummed like a tuning fork on overdrive the entire time we were together. What was it about Elliot that made my body stand up and shiver? Yes, he was attractive. He had these amazing chestnut curls that I’d never seen neat and tidy. They were always adorably tousled. His hazel eyes stood out from his lightly tanned skin, and when I was lucky, he wore a slight scruff that boosted his appeal even further.
I’d occasionally seen him in workout gear at the gym. I still don’t know how I kept my tongue in my mouth instead of letting it loll around on the floor in front of me. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall flat on my face.
Yes, he was good-looking—no, he was fucking hot—and I knew other good-looking men who didn’t affect me in the same way. Jensen, Charlie’s husband, was known for the way he filled out a police uniform, yet I didn’t have this reaction to him. Jena’s fiancé, Brandon was attractive. Again, nothing when I’d first checked him out. I had no reaction to Ellie’s husband either. Of course, that was a relief. The last thing I needed was to lust after one of my bosses’ significant others!
After we paid the bill, we walked outside, more strolling than moving with a purpose.
“Can I ask you a question?” He watched his feet while we headed back in the direction of the hospital.
“You’ve already asked me several without permission.”
His inhale was audible and uneven as he laughed under his breath. “Touché. I was just wondering about your parents.”
I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jeans. “Where are yours?”
“Mine live in Louisiana. My dad still works part-time at Home Depot to help pay bills, and he’s a handyman of sorts. Mom works for a florist.”
“Is that where you grew up? In Louisiana?”
“I did,” he said with a dip of his chin. “In Covington, which is across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans.”
I watched one foot step in front of the other. “My mother died of cancer when I was three. My dad tried to go on. I believe he didn’t know how to cope without her. He was in a car wreck a year later. He hit a tree off Highway 78. Thing is, no one knows why he was out that way. He had no reason to be.” I’d never said the word suicide. The last thing I wanted to do was say it now.
“Gram took me in, raised me. She was great. She went to every school event and art exhibition. Now she takes care of Harper when I have to work. She sews and quilts, and even has her own Etsy shop. Most of her sales are quilts for cribs, bumper pads, and matching patchwork and crochet animals. Larger quilts take up a large amount of time, are expensive, and don’t sell as often.”
“Not much of a profit if you’ve spent a ton of time on it.”
“That’s why they’re expensive.”
As we approached the rotating front door, Elliot stopped and turned toward me. “I’m not going to barge into your grandmother’s room while she’s not feeling her best. Tell her I hope she feels better. I’ll be by to check on her soon.”
“Okay. Thank you for lunch.”
I stared as his hand reached out and took mine, this odd current traveling up each and every nerve, creating this prickling that made me struggle not to squirm. “Do you need someone to pick up Harper?”
“Um, no, thanks. Jensen’s picking her up and bringing her to his and Charlie’s.”
He nodded and tilted his head in the direction of the parking lot, letting it sort of pull him that way. “I should go.” He held up a hand.
“Bye,” I said. Shit, this was awkward!
When I went upstairs, Gram was sleeping, so I settled in and opened the reading app on my phone. I needed to get my mind off the way Elliot made me feel. Usually sappy romance novels were the perfect distraction when I needed one—except now, the handsome earl out to win his fair lady bore Elliot’s face. Well, crap!