Authors: Jaci Burton
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Azizex666, #Fiction
“Daddy, I can’t see,” Zoey whined.
His kid needed a nap. As soon as Riley finished singing, they were outta here.
“It’s the best we can do, muffin,” he said, tugging on one of her pigtails. “Sorry.”
Then his phone buzzed, an unfamiliar number.
“Hey, Ethan, it’s Joann, Riley’s publicist. Are you here at the festival?”
“Riley has the front row saved for you and your family if you want to watch the concert.”
“Oh. We’re already seated, kind of in the back.”
“Then come on up front. I’ll be waiting here to seat you.”
He hung up and turned to his mom. “That was Riley’s publicist. She has the front row saved for us.”
“Oh, isn’t that nice,” his mom said, then herded the family up and out of their chairs and toward the front row.
Zoey, of course, was thrilled. And the view was much better up here in the front row. What he didn’t care for was having to endure knowing looks, encouraging nods and smirks from everyone as they made their way up there.
“Hey, didn’t know you and Riley were back together.” Mark Roberts patted him on the back. “Nice going, man.”
“We’re just so thrilled for you and Riley, Ethan,” Callie Roberts said.
Ethan half turned. “It’s not like that. She likes Zoey and wanted to make sure she could see. Plus she’s known my parents for a long time.”
Callie gave him a sly grin. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say.”
Ugh. Zoey was bouncing in her seat waiting for the concert to begin and telling everyone around her that she was Riley Jensen’s new best friend. Even his own mother had gotten into the act, sharing that he and Riley had “gone out” alone together the other night.
Maybe Ethan could just slip out and go home.
But then Riley and her band came out, and damn if his libido didn’t tie him to the chair, because she looked gorgeous in tight blue jeans, sinfully sexy thigh high boots, a wide-open suede jacket and a shirt that clung to her curves. She’d worn her hair down. It swept her shoulders in loose waves and all he could think about was how good she’d smelled the other night when he’d held her close and kissed her and touched her. And oh, man, he was sitting next to his mother and thinking about having sex with Riley.
He was probably going straight to hell for that.
At least this time she wasn’t singing about him. It was all Christmas songs, and Zoey couldn’t help but sing along, despite his mother’s best attempts to admonish her to stay quiet. But Riley smiled down at Zoey, since his daughter wasn’t exactly a quiet singer. Fortunately, she did have a great voice and Riley finally motioned to her to join her on stage. And since his daughter didn’t have a shy bone in her entire body, she got to stand with the choir and sing her little heart out along with Riley and the choir.
His mother took approximately ten thousand pictures. Plus video.
Ethan had to admit he was pretty excited about it, too, though it wasn’t like he thought of Riley as a celebrity. She was just Riley. But he was always thrilled to see his daughter happy, and Zoey was grinning from ear to ear, especially when one of the choir angels put her halo on Zoey head.
Zoey probably wouldn’t touch ground from her happy place for at least twenty-four hours.
After the concert, Zoey jumped into his arms. “Did you see me, Daddy? I got to sing on the stage.”
“I saw you. You were awesome.”
“Did you hear me? I sang really loud.”
He laughed as Riley joined them. “I had no problem hearing you.”
Riley rubbed Zoey’s back. “This young lady has a beautiful voice, just like her mama did.”
Zoey frowned. “Did you know my mama, Riley Jensen?”
Riley lifted her chin and Ethan could tell she fought tears. “I did. She was my best friend in high school.”
“Wow.” Zoey turned to Ethan. “I didn’t know that, Daddy. Did you know that?”
“I did.” He put Zoey down and lifted his gaze to Riley. “You did a nice job out there tonight.”
“Thanks. I’m just glad all
is over with.” She swept her gaze over the camera crews who were packing up.
He frowned. “You’re not?”
She shrugged. “I’ve sprung my people loose. Figured I’d hang out here until after the holidays and write some music.”
“By yourself?” his mother asked.
Riley smiled. “Yes. Everyone has their families to go home to. I plan to stay and enjoy the solitude. I do my best songwriting that way. No one to hover over me and no place I have to be.”
What she hadn’t said, Ethan noted, was that Riley had no family to go home to for Christmas.
“You’ll come to our house for Christmas,” his mother said, taking the words right out of his mouth.
Riley’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “Oh, no. I couldn’t. I wasn’t trying to wrangle an invitation. I really do intend to just spend a couple weeks alone and write.”
“That’s just fine, dear. You do that. On Christmas Eve you’ll come over for dinner and games. Christmas morning we have pancakes for breakfast, turkey for dinner. You won’t be spending Christmas alone.”
Riley slanted a helpless gaze his way.
“No use arguing with her. You know how she is. If you don’t come over she’ll just send one of us to fetch you.”
She inhaled and let out a sigh, then smiled. “Of course. Thank you, Stacy. I’d love to come over for Christmas.”
Ethan wondered how many holidays Riley had spent alone the past ten years. She’d never come home before so he had no idea where she’d spent her Thanksgivings and Christmases.
It would be…interesting spending Christmas with her. And okay, maybe he was thinking about carving out some time to be alone with her.
They might not have a future together, but they had right now.
He looked down at Zoey, who leaned against his mother and yawned. “Mom, why don’t you and Dad take Zoey home? She looks tired. I’d like to hang out with Riley for a bit.”
He knew his mother would jump all over that one. “Of course. Come on, little miss. Time for bed for you.”
Ethan picked up Zoey and gave her a kiss.
She turned sleepy eyes on Riley. “Night, Riley Jensen. I love you.”
Riley’s eyes sparkled with tears as she pulled Zoey into her arms. “Good night, Zoey. I love you, too.”
As they walked away, Riley lifted her eyes to Ethan. “She’s an amazing child. You’re very lucky.”
“Thanks. I think so.”
“And she really does have a beautiful voice. So clear and perfectly on key.”
“She gets that from Amanda because if you recall I can’t sing for shit.”
Riley laughed. “Your singing is great.” At his dubious look, she said, “Hey, at least you sing on key.”
“Okay, maybe that, but Nashville isn’t going to come calling to offer me a record deal anytime soon, so I’m grateful Zoey got her singing genes from her mom.”
He looked around and realized it had gotten dark. The crowds had thinned.
“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?” she asked.
“No.” He took her hand. “I want to take you ice skating.”
Her brows lifted and she grinned. “Really?”
“I haven’t been ice skating in years.”
The rink had been poured in the middle of town on one of the grassy fields behind the high school. Ethan had a hand in prepping and building it, and God knows it was plenty cold enough to sustain it. Proceeds from the sale of admissions and concessions would be split between the women’s shelter and the new field stands at the high school.
“I’m not sure I even remember how to skate,” Riley said as she finished lacing up.
“Oh come on. You never forget. You were always good at it.”
“Ha. I think it’s something you definitely forget. Plus I’m a lot older now.”
He rolled his eyes and took her hand as they headed over to the ice entrance. “You’re still plenty young and you bounce around on that stage like you’re fifteen, so don’t give me any of that ‘older now’ crap. Let’s skate.”
He rolled out onto the ice and turned to face her. She gave him an arched brow, hanging onto the entrance. “I don’t bounce.”
He laughed and held out his hand. “Yeah, you do. Like you have springs on your feet. If you don’t believe me, check out concert footage. Now come on.”
She took his hand and tentatively slid out onto the rink. She was a little wobbly at first as she fought for balance, but he held onto her, his hand around her waist. Not that he minded holding her close.
“Do you remember ice skating at the park on Friday nights?”
She grinned up at him, slipped and her eyes widened.
“I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.”
She stared up at him and her eyes, so clear and full of trust, were like a punch to his gut.
They glided along and she finally got her balance. “Yes, I remember skating nights in the winter. You, me, Amanda—all our friends. Even on the coldest nights we’d skate, then have hot chocolate and pretzels.”
He laughed, remembering it. “You and Amanda would try to lead the whip and fail miserably.”
She pulled out of his grasp, finally confident enough to skate on her own, though she stayed close enough to grab onto his arm whenever she started to wobble. “Hey, we were good at the whip.”
“You sucked at it and made everyone crash into the wall.”
“We did not. You have a faulty memory. When you led you deliberately crashed us into the wall.”
“Now who has the faulty memory? I whipped you all around until you squealed like…girls.”
She giggled. “Those were fun times.”
Ethan turned and skated backwards, facing her.
“Zoey can do it, too.”
“Oh, sure, make me feel bad.”
“We skate at the park a lot.”
She lifted her gaze to his, her hand on his arm. Did she even realize she leaned on him? Probably not.
“The rink is still open?”
“Yeah. Zoey loves to skate. She and Amanda…”
“It’s okay, Ethan. You can talk about her.”
“She and Amanda loved to skate together on the weekends.” His chest felt tight.
Riley moved to the side wall and held on. Ethan followed.
“Does it hurt you to talk about her?”
“Not really. The pain has mostly passed now. I just don’t want to hurt you.”
She shook her head. “I want to know about her, about the two of you and your life with Zoey. There’s so much I missed out on.”
He tucked an errant hair into her hat. “I think that would just be uncomfortable for you.”
She shrugged. “We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. The best thing to do is get it all out in the open and talk about it. Then there won’t be any more secrets between us.”
And then what
, he wanted to ask, but didn’t.
Because there would be no “then what?” Riley was looking for closure, and nothing more. He owed her that much.
“What do you want to know?”
“Tell me about your life with Amanda.”
He shrugged. “Not much to tell. We got married. Struggled at first. We had to get jobs, work full time and I was trying to take classes, too. Then it was hard after she miscarried. There was a lot of mistrust. I didn’t believe she was pregnant in the first place and she knew it, but once she showed me proof of her pregnancy I was committed, so we worked at the marriage, day by day.”
“Did you believe the baby was yours?”
“No. I asked her for a DNA test. We were going to do the test but she had to be farther along. Then she miscarried before we could make it happen. So I’ll never know if the baby was mine or not. If there was a baby.”
“That must have been difficult for both of you. Hard to have a relationship without trust.”
“It is. But eventually she mellowed, wasn’t as high strung as she’d been when you knew her.”
Riley nodded. “A lot of that came from her parents pushing her so hard. They wanted everything for her.”
He smiled. “That didn’t stop. They were so pissed about the whole pregnancy and marriage thing, accused me of seducing her and trapping her here. They hated me.”
Riley stepped off the ice and Ethan followed. They took off their skates and turned them in. “Let’s order a pizza and head back to the B and B to continue this talk. Unless you have to be somewhere else? Do you have to pick up Zoey?”
“No. She’s fine at my mom’s. I’ll just call her and have her keep Zoey for the night.”
Once they got the pizza, they went to the bed and breakfast. Since Riley had rented the place out and all her people had left, she was alone.
“Aren’t Bill and Macy here?”
“No. They’re vacationing for the holidays in Colorado with their kids. We took over the whole house from them.”
“So you’re entirely alone in this big place?”
She grinned and grabbed plates from the kitchen cabinet, then laid out slices of pizza. “All by myself. You have no idea how awesome that is. I’m never alone.”
“Huh. Never thought about that. You probably have people around you all the time.”
She dug into a slice and moaned. “You have no idea. Oh, this is good.”
“Catarina’s is a new place. Opened up about a year ago. Cat’s family is from Italy and let me tell you, every pizza they make is amazing.”
Riley looked as if she’d died and gone to heaven. She dug into the pizza as if she hadn’t eaten in a week. They each had a beer and didn’t talk much while they enjoyed their food.
“Okay,” she said as she wiped her mouth with a napkin. “So Amanda’s parents hated you because they thought you trapped their daughter into marriage.”
He took a long pull off the bottle of beer, then set it down. “Yeah. Amanda tried to tell them it wasn’t my fault, but you know how they were.”
“Yeah, I know. They weren’t fond of me, either. Thought I wasn’t the right kind of friend for their daughter.”
“They always thought they were more upper crust than they actually were. I mean this is Deer Lake, not Boston or New York. And yeah, her father came from money, but he was no industry giant, either.”
She shrugged. “Amanda was never influenced by it. A little spoiled, but she and I had always been great friends. I still can’t believe she was jealous of me.”