Enjoy the first two chapters of Love Meant to Be today!
E-book preorder available now! Coming to Kindle Unlimited on Nov. 10.
Meredith Lawson stepped onto her front porch and gazed up into the late afternoon sky.
Snowflakes poured down, as big and fluffy as popcorn. In less than an hour, her drab yard, leafless trees, and even the muddy field across the road had been transformed into a world of sparkling white.
She buttoned her old brown work coat, dug gloves out of the pockets, and tugged on her navy knit cap.
Duke, her German shepherd, raced off the porch and stuck his face in the snow, then lifted his head, black nose now frosted white. He let out a woof and bounded across the yard.
The vet might say Duke was a mature dog of nine, but he was still a puppy when it snowed.
Meredith pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans, snapped a photo of Duke, and texted it to her sister, Ava, with the message “Happy New Year!”
Within seconds, her phone rang.
“Happy New Year to you as well!” Ava said. “Those flakes look enormous.”
“I’m so jealous.” Ava let out a soft, pouty groan. “Here in Atlanta, it’s rainy and gray. I wish I was still with you in Missouri.”
“I wish you were too.” Somehow, ever since Ava drove back to Georgia two days ago, things that Meredith hadn’t noticed before stood out like lonely lighthouses in her life. The silence of the house at night. The meals alone in front of the TV. The fact that she ran her dishwasher half empty simply so bits of food wouldn’t get dried onto the plates and silverware. Even sitting with her aunt and uncle at church this morning, she’d felt alone.
Still, she didn’t want to discourage Ava from pursuing her dream at culinary school. Dreams were important. And speaking of dreams… “Even though you’re missing the snow, I’ve got news that will brighten your day. If I can get a loan from the bank, I think I can make the plan for the restaurant work.”
Ava squealed. “Really? You can buy Uncle Harris and Aunt Ruby’s place?”
“I think so.”
“Oh, sis, that would be amazing.” Ava’s words echoed with longing.
Meredith’s heart warmed. It would be so wonderful to be able to do this for Ava. So fun for them to work as a team, with her growing organic produce in the greenhouse and Ava cooking it in her restaurant.
Of course, buying Ruby and Harris’s place would mean the loan would need to be sizable. And she wouldn’t have much money left over each month after the payments. Certainly not enough for any exotic vacations. Not that she got away for vacations, with the greenhouse demanding all her time. But she and Ava had looked at rental space, and there was nothing at all suitable locally. Plus, buying her aunt and uncle’s farmhouse next door wasn’t just a good idea. It was the least she could do for Ava.
Plus, rejoining the properties made sense.
After all, the five acres she and Ava owned, along with the land where her aunt and uncle’s house sat, had once been part of the same parcel, right outside the little town of Abundance. The property had only been divided after Grandma and Grandpa Carlton died when Meredith was five. They left Uncle Harris twenty acres, including the house, and left Mom twenty acres, plus their savings. Mom and Dad sold all but five acres and used the proceeds and the savings to build their own home and start the greenhouse business. Uncle Harris and Aunt Ruby stuck with traditional farming and, over the past three decades, had added six hundred acres to their land.
Meredith might find Uncle Harris difficult to be around, but she had to admit he was a good businessman.
Now that he and Aunt Ruby were retiring and moving south, if she could buy part of their land, the three acres with the house and yard, it would make a fabulous restaurant. Unlike the more modern, one-story ranch-style house her parents had built, the old Carlton family farmhouse had real historic charm. It was two and a half stories, built in the Queen Anne style, with a roomy wraparound porch and—best of all—a turret. Just the look of the place would attract customers from the city.
“Buying their house for the restaurant would be perfect.” Ava sighed. “You could continue with the greenhouse, and once I finish culinary school, we could run the two businesses together. Farm to table, the ultimate in locally sourced food.”
Meredith studied the big house next door. The more she played with the idea, the more she liked it. “I’ve been crunching the numbers all afternoon, and I think it will work. I just came outside to take a break because the snow is so pretty.”
“If I was there, we could celebrate by building a snowman, like we always used to for the first real snow.”
“We could. This snow is perfect. Wet enough to stick really well.”
“You’ll have to build it without me,” Ava said. “Send me a picture.”
Meredith pushed some snow back and forth with one foot. Building a snowman wouldn’t be the same without her sister, but… “Okay. It’s quite nice out here. Too nice to go right back inside.” Besides, the beauty of the snow was exactly the kind of blessing she tried to take time to appreciate.
“I’ll be waiting for the picture. And envisioning the menu for the restaurant. Thank you so much for trying this. I love you, sis.”
“I love you too.” Meredith hung up, tucked her phone back in her pocket, and scooped up a handful of snow. “C’mon, Duke, we’ve got a snowman to build.”
Fifteen minutes later, the snowman was coming along well. Duke hadn’t been nearly as much help as Ava, especially when it came to lifting the middle ball of snow on top of the bottom one. Still, Meredith had gotten the three snowballs stacked right in the middle of the yard where she and Ava had built their snowmen for years, ever since they were little, before Mom and Dad died.
Even during the four years that Ava had worked in a restaurant in Kansas City, she’d come home for her days off, for holidays, and for the first big snow. And next year, after Ava finished culinary school and moved back home, she and Meredith could continue their snowman-building tradition together.
Meredith brushed some snow away from the flowerbed by the front porch, gathered up a few pieces of mulch, and used them to create eyes and a cheerful smile.
Now she just needed Grandpa Carlton’s fedora and a carrot for a nose.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Duke as she went inside.
Zach Gilcroft neared a curve on the narrow blacktop. He eyed the road, tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the rented Toyota, and carefully applied the brakes.
The car slid, its tires no match for the snow that had quickly piled to four inches.
He pressed more firmly on the brakes and, after a second, the anti-lock feature kicked in, putting him back in control of the vehicle.
Whew. He let out a silent breath, then glanced over at his thirteen-year-old daughter, Hailey, in the passenger seat.
Seatbelt on, long blond hair pushed back over her shoulders, she was smiling at her phone, oblivious to the road conditions. Probably thumbing through the photos she’d taken of that horse.
Kayla, the girl Hailey had met at church this morning, had been so nice to invite her over to see her horse. That one kind action had made such a difference. Most of the time they’d been here in Abundance visiting family for Christmas, Hailey had been just as unhappy as she had been back in Phoenix. Until she’d met Kayla.
Getting Hailey cheered up even for an afternoon was a big deal. So big that Zach had been reluctant to pull her away and had stayed, visiting with Kayla’s parents, after he arrived to pick Hailey up. They probably should have left sooner.
Cautiously, he rounded the curve to where the road straightened.
Good thing he knew this stretch of County Road 1400 so well. He’d been out here in the snow many times as a teenager, driving Dad’s pickup with a load of firewood in the back to make it easier to steer, when he visited a friend who’d lived a mile past Kayla’s house. These days, though, at thirty-five, he was old enough to know to head home when the snow started to come down heavy.
Yet he’d lingered, foolishly hoping that one fun afternoon might somehow make up for the fact that Hailey was facing the evils of middle school without her mom to offer guidance.
Hailey set her phone on her lap. “Dad, do you think there’s any way I could have a horse in Phoenix?” She looked over at him as if she didn’t already know the answer was no.
A no that was hard for Zach to get out every time they had this conversation. He loved his girl so much. Every day she reminded him more of her mom, with her big blue eyes and golden hair. If only Jillian were still alive to see their daughter growing up.
And to help him handle the murky waters of parenting a thirteen-year-old girl, a girl who had—after she seemed to recover from her mother’s death—been so full of life. Until last year when she started middle school. Now, except for discussions about horses, Hailey was sullen and withdrawn.
“Buying a horse would be hard, princess.” Zach caught her eye and shook his head. “With where we live, we’d have to board it, and I’m not sure how often you’d be able to get out to see it.” He tried to keep his nights and weekends clear, but running his own energy business didn’t allow nearly the amount of free time Hailey would want to spend with a horse.
“I bet we can find a stable close to town, and I can take the bus there after school to go riding.”
Ride without him or another adult there to keep an eye on her?
That wasn’t happening.
But somehow he had to find a way to get her past seventh grade. Truly, he was desperate enough to let the horse live in their garage and tell her she could ride it around their quarter-acre backyard in the suburbs and—
The car hit a slick spot and veered toward the right shoulder of the road.
Zach’s pulse kicked up a notch, and Hailey sucked in an audible breath.
He steered into the skid, then eased the vehicle back toward the center of his lane.
“How far”—Hailey’s voice wobbled—“are we from Grandpa’s place?”
“About three miles.” He tried to sound confident. He’d like to give her a reassuring look as well, but after that skid, he didn’t dare take his eyes off the road. “We just have these two big curves.”
Curves that, even now, seventeen years after he’d graduated high school, still weren’t banked right. He crept along, staying in the tracks from other cars as best he could.
Finally, he got back to another flat, straight part of the road. “We’re in the home stretch now, Hailey. We have that little hill up ahead and after that we’ll be on a road that’s plowed.”
“Good.” She went back to her phone. “Although I’d rather be stuck in a ditch here than go back to Phoenix.”
Her voice had that hopeless note again, the one that cut right into his heart. So much for cheering her up with a visit to a horse.
She let out a long sigh. “I can’t believe I have to deal with Desert View Middle School again in only two more days.”
Zach winced, gave the car a tiny bit of gas, and—
It fishtailed and spun out.
A thud sounded outside Meredith’s house.
She put her gloves back on, grabbed the carrot and fedora, and opened the front door.
For a second she stood motionless, mouth open. The fedora and carrot fell from her hand, silently plunging into the snow on her porch.
There, in the middle of her front yard where her snowman had stood, was a light-blue sedan. The lower sections of her snowman were shattered. The snowman’s head, fully intact, sat on the hood of the car with its smile still in place. And a tall, dark-haired man in a black jacket was climbing out of the car with his head angled to one side as if he couldn’t quite take in what had happened.
Duke raced over, barking at top volume.
“Hush,” she told the dog. “He’s all bark,” she called to the driver. “Really, a big love.” She shut the front door and dashed over. “Are you hurt?”
“We’re okay. I’d slowed almost to a crawl, but I couldn’t stop before…” He gestured to the snowman’s head on the hood of his car. “I’m afraid your friend sustained pretty serious injuries.”
A young teenager climbed out of the car, hands covering her mouth, turquoise gloves the exact shade as her puffy coat. “Dad, you decapitated it!” A note of wrought-up emotion rang in her words, a note that tugged at something inside Meredith, reminding her of when Ava got upset when she was younger.
“Don’t worry. I can fix it.” Meredith lifted the snowman’s head off the hood of the car and set it on the ground beside her. “I’m simply glad you’re both are okay. I’ll build a new base for Mr. Snowman and do…well, a…a head transplant.”
For a half-second the girl seemed unsure of how to react, then she gave a small smile.
Meredith grinned at her. Good, just like with Ava, a little humor helped.
The man walked closer and his scarf slipped down, revealing a face with a strong jaw and familiar blue-gray eyes.
Eyes that sent a tingle through Meredith’s chest.
“Thank you,” he said. “For being understanding.” His gaze held hers, as if adding unspoken thanks for how she’d lightened the mood.
But there was no glimmer of recognition in his eyes.
Maybe that was too much to expect.
“I’m sorry I ended up in your yard.” He gestured to the muddy ruts behind the wheels of his car. “I’ll be happy to pay to have new sod put down.”
She brushed his offer aside. “Really, there’s no need. I’ll throw out some grass seed when it warms up.”
“Are you sure? I feel like I should—” His eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. I remember you. We went to school together. You’re…Megan, isn’t it?”
She pressed her lips together and mustered up a polite smile. “Meredith, Meredith Lawson. And you’re Zach Gilcroft.”
“Yeah.” He tipped a head toward the girl. “This is Hailey, my daughter.”
She’d heard he was married, living in some city out west, and was a pretty big deal. From the looks of things, it was true. She didn’t know much about men’s clothing, but those boots the girl was wearing cost $300.
So Zach was rich, married, and probably living a lifestyle she could only imagine. No wonder he barely remembered her. She was just plain old Meredith Lawson. Five foot four, fifteen pounds overweight, with brown hair and brown eyes. Whether it was when she’d had a crush on him at eighteen or today at age thirty-four, she was nothing memorable.
He opened his car door. “At least let me move my car and help with the, uh, head transplant.”
“What? Oh, you don’t need to—”
“I insist. The snow seems to have stopped, so the roads aren’t getting any worse.”
A minute later he’d backed the car into her driveway and begun rolling a snowball in the yard.
His daughter waited by the car, petting Duke.
Zach pointed to the place where the original snowman had stood. “Should we put him here?”
“Sure.” She rolled her own snowball toward the spot. Zach’s snowball was already larger. Clearly, it would be the base.
He angled his head toward the house. “I see those two big greenhouses out back. What do you grow?”
“Organic microgreens and a few bedding plants, especially flowers. What do you do?”
“I’m co-owner of a business in Phoenix in the energy sector, funded by venture capital.”
That certainly sounded more impressive than growing baby radish and cabbage plants.
“We’ve been home for more than a week visiting family, but we fly back tomorrow.” He smoothed the side of his snowball, flattening out a lump. “School starts in two days, and I need to get back in the office. It’s pretty busy, being an entrepreneur and a single parent.”
Meredith stopped rolling her snowball. “Single parent?”
“My wife died when Hailey was seven.”
Oh. Poor Zach. Poor Hailey. Meredith glanced over at the girl, who was deep in conversation with Duke. It didn’t matter how old she was, a girl needed her mom. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “Here, let me.” He took the second snowball from her, easily lifted it into place, and added the head. “Does that look good to you?”
“Even better than before. Thank you.” She added branches for arms, then dashed to the porch, dug out the carrot and hat, brought them over, and positioned the carrot nose so that it pointed slightly up.
Zach took Grandpa’s fedora and set it atop the snowman’s head at a jaunty angle. Then he patted the snowman’s shoulder. “Sorry about the incident, old fellow, but now you’re as good as new.” He turned to Meredith. “I guess we should get back on the road. If you’re sure about the sod?”
“Seriously, do you know anyone in Abundance who puts down sod?”
“Besides, I’m a farmer. If I can’t get a little grass to grow, I need a different career.”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Then I guess we’ll head back to my dad’s place.” He looked toward the car. “We should take off, Hailey.”
The girl hugged Duke, waved, and got in.
Zach hesitated, then turned back to Meredith. “It’s been nice seeing you.” He caught hold of her hand, dwarfing her small navy glove with his big black one. “I miss people like you, living out in Phoenix.”
A zing of warmth shot through her chest. “Have a good trip home.” She stood there, waving, as he pulled onto the county road and drove away. The warmth in her chest fizzled out at the thought of how far away Arizona was.
There was no use getting excited over a chance encounter with Zach Gilcroft. He was out of her league. His time in Abundance was limited. He had big deals to put together in the energy sector.
And she had a loan to secure.
“Thank you so much for seeing me, Ellen.” Meredith sat down across from the loan officer and laid her black wool dress coat in the chair beside her.
Because New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday, the bank had been closed yesterday, January 2, but Meredith had phoned first thing this morning and gotten a one o’clock appointment. She wasn’t sure she could have handled it if she’d had to wait another day. Ever since she’d talked with Ava, she’d alternated between certainty that the bank would loan her the money and fear that it wouldn’t. Yesterday, she’d been so nervous that her stomach had been upset.
There was no way to afford the old farmhouse without a loan, but surely, surely, the bank would come through.
And meeting with Ellen was an unexpected blessing. Meredith’s appointment had been with a guy named Gary, but he had gone home sick over lunch. Unfortunate for him, but fortunate for Meredith because she and Ellen went way back. Meredith had even babysat Ellen’s daughters every weekday the summer she was fifteen, when Ellen first returned to work. A conversation with her would be much easier than talking to a stranger, even if Ellen did look a lot more polished now in her plum suit and green glasses than she had when she’d started as a teller.
“Meredith, how nice to see you. What can I help you with?” Ellen adjusted a small fan on the edge of her desk, positioning it to blow on both of them and clicking it up a notch so that it drowned out the voices from the lobby. “Sorry about the heat in here. The HVAC system in this building is so old we either melt or we freeze. They really need to replace it.”
“Thanks for the fan.” Meredith drew in a deep breath. The cool air felt good, especially as she tried to gather her thoughts. “I’d like to talk with you about a loan.”
Ellen leaned forward, one elbow on the desk, her chin resting on her knuckles.
“My Uncle Harris and Aunt Ruby are retiring and moving down to Arkansas to live near their son. I want to buy the old family farmhouse and expand my business to include a gourmet, organic restaurant. I’ve got a business plan worked up.” Meredith dug into her purse, unfolded the three sheets of paper, and slid them across the desk.
Ellen sat back, resettled her glasses on her nose, and peered down at the first page.
“Ava worked in a restaurant in Kansas City for four years, and she finishes culinary school in June. She’d be the chef, creating a menu of farm-to-table, locally sourced food. She thinks we can easily attract diners from Columbia, sometimes even from Kansas City, who want a special destination for events like wedding anniversaries or engagements.”
“Um-hum.” Ellen’s eyes narrowed, and she turned to the second page.
Meredith scooted back in her seat. She needed to be patient, stop interrupting, and let Ellen read. And not think about how nervous she was, or about the irony of someone like her, who almost never dated, opening a restaurant that would become a romantic destination. She bit her lip and glanced around the office.
A bowl of Dove Promises candy sat on the outside corner of Ellen’s desk, asking for visitors to help themselves.
Meredith unwrapped a dark-chocolate piece and popped it in her mouth. Wasn’t that just like Ellen? Considerate, offering chocolate to people who might be nervous. All Meredith’s worry had been silly. She should have had more faith. Any minute now Ellen would approve the loan and then Meredith could call Ava and tell her the good news. The first step toward making her sister’s dream a reality, toward paying at least part of her debt to Ava.
“Let me check a few things.” Ellen pulled a calculator from the desk and tapped quickly, dark-mauve nails shining. “Well…” She frowned and clicked her fingers over the calculator again.
The tightness returned to Meredith’s stomach, and all of a sudden she wished she’d prepared more for this meeting. Wished she’d painted her short, stubby nails. And wished she’d put her proposal in a binder.
But her math was solid, and though she might not appear as polished as Ellen, she ran a greenhouse, not a bank. And Ellen wouldn’t care about silly things like a binder.
“Do you have any other collateral?”
“Collateral?” Meredith picked at a hangnail. She realized what she was doing and slid her hands under her thighs, trapping them between her black dress pants and the scratchy upholstery of the chair. “Well, the house and the land that Mom and Dad left Ava and me. The greenhouses. The commercial van I use for the business. And, um, my truck.”
“Investments? More savings somewhere?”
“No. Just the account here at the bank.” Which she’d been adding to bit by bit, even with the expense of Ava’s schooling.
After her parents died, there had been a life insurance policy, but Aunt Ruby, who never had a chance to go to college, insisted that Meredith finish her degree. The money from the policy had gone to pay for her classes at community college and for living expenses for her and Ava until she finished school. If only she’d saved that money instead.
She leaned forward. “Did you see that part on page three about how I don’t want to buy the whole property that’s for sale, only the house and three acres?”
“I did.” Ellen’s eyebrows gathered in. “I’m sorry, Meredith, but we won’t be able to help you. Your numbers are fine, as long as everything works out perfectly, but a good business plan needs some cushion, some provision for when things don’t go well.” She ran a hand over the pages Meredith had worked so hard on. “There’s not any cushion here. I’m sure you know that sometimes there’s a bad year.”
Meredith’s stomach clenched. “I grow my plants in greenhouses. It’s not like I’m raising wheat or corn.”
“Even so, things can happen.”
“Maybe I should talk to another bank?”
“Really, I’d help you if I could. I’m pretty sure that any other bank will say the same thing. You’re stretching things too thin.” Ellen slid the papers back across the desk and shook her head slowly. “I’m very sorry.”
An ache grew in the back of Meredith’s throat. She picked up her coat, stood, and slipped it on. “Thanks for meeting with me, Ellen.”
Ellen walked around the desk. “Hey, I don’t say this to everyone, but remember—in the same way how others treat you doesn’t change the value God gave you, whether or not you can get a loan doesn’t determine the value of your idea.” She put a hand on Meredith’s arm. “Don’t give up.”
Meredith gave a tense nod, then hurried through the lobby and down the block to where she’d parked her truck. Once inside, she cranked up the heat and sank into the seat, pressing her back teeth tightly together and drawing in an unsteady breath. She was not going to cry.
“Don’t give up” sounded nice, but it didn’t change the fact that she had no way to get a loan, no way to buy the old farmhouse, no way to make Ava’s dream come true.
Zach pulled his SUV into the garage and shut off the air conditioning. Normally, the weather in January in Phoenix was perfect. Today, January 3, had been downright hot.
And long. Finally, though, the end of the day had arrived. He’d tried to keep up with work during the trip to Missouri, but he’d started this morning feeling at least a month behind. Hopefully tomorrow would be better, and he’d have time to brainstorm on the next venture for Sunburst Energy.
He grabbed the carryout bag from the passenger seat, went into the house, and set the food on the granite-topped island. “Hailey, I’m home. I brought your favorite dinner from that fancy Middle Eastern restaurant you like.” That should brighten their Tuesday night. The girl had a real thing for lamb wrapped in grape leaves. Once she got a whiff of the rich, spicy fragrance, she’d appear in the kitchen.
Except she didn’t.
She had to be home, though. Her backpack was dumped in its normal spot near the wall in the breakfast nook.
He moved to the base of the stairs. “Hailey?”
No answer, just a thump like a door slamming shut.
Zach started up the stairs. Halfway up, he heard her crying and quickened his pace. “Hailey, what’s wrong?” He knocked on her door.
“Go away.” Her voice was shaky.
“Hailey, don’t you want to talk about it?”
“Go away,” she said more loudly.
Should he do as she asked?
He let out a silent sigh and glanced at the photos on the hallway wall. Pictures of Hailey, Jillian, and him from when Hailey was little, from before Jillian got pregnant the second time, from when they still were the perfect happy family. Why did you have to die, Jillian? Why couldn’t you be here to help me figure out what to do?
In September, he’d researched teenage depression online. The articles he’d found terrified him. In October, he managed to get Hailey in to see a private counselor, but after one visit, Hailey refused to go back. He’d prayed about it, but no miracles had occurred at Desert View Middle School.
Over the weekend, when he was in Missouri, he’d talked to his sister Stacey. “Treat her like you treated Jillian,” she’d suggested. “At least that way she won’t say you’re treating her like a baby and push you away.”
Okay, he’d try Stacey’s advice. It definitely meant that leaving Hailey crying in her room wasn’t the answer. That would have made Jillian mad. And walking in was treating Hailey like a little kid.
“I’m not going away until I’m sure you’re okay,” he said through the door. “You don’t want me to stand here, starving to death, with a huge bag of food from Restaurant Istanbul downstairs, do you? I even got that baklava you like.”
Silence, then Hailey blew her nose. “Fine. Come in.”
Progress. At least a little. He opened the door.
Hailey hunkered over her bed, back against the headboard, with a pillow bunched up against her chest.
“What’s going on, honey?” He sat on the foot of the bed, giving her space.
“Serena.” Hailey’s blue eyes grew tearier.
Uh-oh. Serena, star of the seventh-grade volleyball team, was the worst. There were sociopaths who were kinder. From what he’d pieced together, Serena was vicious to every kid except a select few, but polite and charming to every adult. The kind of kid who never got in trouble, no matter what they did wrong. From what he heard, about ninety percent of the time she did things he’d consider wrong.
He leaned toward Hailey. “What happened?”
She pulled the pillow up higher, hiding most of her face.
“Really, honey, you should talk. It might make you feel better, and maybe I can help.”
She peeked out at him. “Right.” Her tone was one-hundred percent sarcasm. “Like you helped back in September when you talked to the school counselor.”
He’d thought that was a good idea.
According to Hailey, it only made things worse.
What else could he do? He couldn’t call Serena’s parents and tell them that their daughter should be grounded for life. He couldn’t stop by the school and give Serena a piece of his mind. And he had a pretty good idea that teaching Hailey to punch Serena in the jaw wasn’t the answer. “Maybe things will be better at school tomorrow.”
“I have the flu.”
Except for the tears and the redness her face always got when she cried, she seemed perfectly fine. No cough. No runny nose. “You don’t have the flu.”
“Well, I’m not going. I hate it there. All that matters to anyone is how popular you are and how much money your family has.”
“We have money. We live in one of the nicest areas of Phoenix.”
“Which is the only reason I don’t have to sit at the loser table at lunch.” She clenched the pillow tighter against her chest.
“Hailey, that can’t be true. You’ve got friends. Like Ally. She’s a nice kid.”
Most of the kids at Hailey’s school probably were as shallow as she said. Their parents certainly were. But Ally was different. Her mom was a kindergarten teacher. Her dad worked for the state. They were decent people, people he enjoyed talking with. In fact, Ally seemed a lot like the girls he remembered from when he was in seventh grade. A sleepover with her would solve all of Hailey’s problems. “Why don’t you call Ally and ask her to spend the night on Friday?”
“Al—ly.” Hailey drew the word out into a lament. “Ally is going with Brock. She won’t even look at me in the hall, much less talk to me.” She rolled to her stomach and began to cry again.
“Oh.” Zach’s shoulders sank and an ache burned in his chest. What should he do now? He ran a hand over Hailey’s back, but she scooted away.
For a long moment he sat there, trying to think of what to say. Every idea that came to him sounded stupid. His precious Hailey was hurting and, except for carryout Middle Eastern food, he had nothing to offer her.
Should he encourage her to eat? At least then he’d be doing something. “I’m going downstairs. I’ll be there any time you want to talk or want a hug. And I’ll get dinner on the table. I hope you’ll come down.” He gave her back a soft pat.
She rolled to the far side of the bed.
Feeling as if his lungs had been replaced with lead, he walked out of the room and left the door open. He hated this helplessness. Absolutely hated it. He liked solving problems and solving them fast. But he had no solution for this. He couldn’t protect his daughter from Serena any more than he’d been able to protect Jillian from her heart condition.
Downstairs, he unpackaged the food. The dinner now seemed pretentious and overpriced. Lamb wrapped in grape leaves wasn’t his favorite, and it wouldn’t fix Hailey’s problems. He’d rather be eating burnt ends from Whole Hog Barbecue, back in Abundance.
If only Stacey lived closer. He hadn’t been able to get Hailey to talk to her much over Christmas, but if they spent more time together, he knew his sister could help. She’d been popular in high school. She’d know exactly how to handle Serena.
Stacey, though, was never moving out of Abundance.
He paused, halfway through spooning the hummus into a bowl.
His sister might not move.
But he could.
As long as he got his partner and his investors on board, he could start his next venture anywhere he wanted.
Even in his hometown of Abundance.