The Better Man (Chicago Sisters)

BOOK: The Better Man (Chicago Sisters)
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This might be his last chance at fatherhood…

Kendall Montgomery’s six-year-old son has barely spoken in the past year, locked in his world of silent grief. Then one day, he spots his dead father across a crowded street.

Max Jordan moved to Chicago to be closer to his own son and prove he can be a better father than his deadbeat dad. His striking resemblance to Kendall’s husband and his track record with fatherhood make her determined to keep her distance…until Max helps her little boy come out of his shell. But can she trust him with their future? How can she be sure he won’t take off just when they need him most?

“You remind Simon of his father. You kind of look like him.”

Kendall almost laughed at her gross understatement. It felt too strange to tell Max the whole truth.

“Simon told me—” Max paused, shifting his gaze to his feet before peeking back at Kendall “—about his dad. I’m sorry for your loss.”

The strain of the day, combined with the way Max’s face messed with her head, left her speechless and overcome with emotion.

“Oh, man. I’m sorry.” He gently wiped a tear from her cheek with his fingers. The physical contact caught her off guard. It was so familiar, yet not. It made her want to cry harder. “I didn’t mean to—”

Kendall shook her head and stepped back, out of reach. She couldn’t let him get too close. “I’m fine,” she lied. She hadn’t been fine in a long time. “I better get home. Have a good night.”

He didn’t stop her from going, but he looked like he wanted to.

Dear Reader,

My career in social work has placed me in the lives of many children and families in the middle of crisis. I’ve worked with children, like Simon in
The Better Man,
dealing with the death of a parent or struggling with school anxiety. I’ve seen the toll it takes not only on the child but the entire family.

The Better Man
is a story about parents trying to do right by their children and ultimately themselves. Kendall and Max both feel lost and are afraid to trust. The pain their kids feel is their pain, as well. It’s not until they open their hearts that the real healing can begin.

Time and time again, I have witnessed people find their way out of the darkness. I wanted to write a story about characters who do just that. Overcome. Persevere. Start again. Kendall and Max aren’t perfect. They’re flawed just like the rest of us. But by trusting one another, they find a way to be better than they were.

Thank you for joining me on their journey of love and self-acceptance. I hope you enjoy the story and come visit me at
www.amyvastine.com
!

Amy Vastine

Amy Vastine

The Better Man

AMY VASTINE

has been plotting stories in her head for as long as she can remember. An eternal optimist, she studied social work, hoping to teach others how to find their silver lining. Now she enjoys creating happily-ever-afters for all to read. Amy lives outside Chicago with her high school sweetheart turned husband, three fun-loving children and their sweet but mischievous puppy. Visit her at
www.amyvastine.com
.

Books by Amy Vastine

HARLEQUIN HEARTWARMING

29—THE WEATHER GIRL

Dedication

To my husband and my dad. Forget about the better man, you two are the best! Jerry, I’m a lucky girl to have someone who supports me and loves me unconditionally. I will love you forever. Dad, you’ve always been my hero. Your big heart and generous spirit are a gift to everyone who knows you.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank everyone at Harlequin for their hard work and dedication to making this book everything it could be, especially Victoria Curran for taking a chance
on
me, and Claire Caldwell for being an amazing editor. Claire, your encouragement and keen eye make this such a painless process. Thank you for making me look good!

Thanks to my dear friend Jo for her constant support and willingness to hold my hand whenever I need it. I am so fortunate to have you in my corner!

A big thanks to Eden, Lisa, Suzanne and Jen for the friendship and laughter you bring to my life. It also helps that you are so awesome at brainstorming character names! I’m sure I’ll use one of your suggestions…someday.

To Christine for being my friend even though I feed my kids Cheetos and refuse to try kale. Lucy wouldn’t be who she is in this series if it wasn’t for you!

To all of you who have encouraged me. My family and friends, my MSN family, my FIPsters, and every reader, blogger and writer who has supported me and my writing career. I couldn’t do it without you.

CHAPTER ONE

A
CONSISTENT
MORNING
routine was the key to a successful day. Toast popped up and the tea kettle whistled. Kendall Montgomery carefully ripped open the instant oatmeal pouch and dumped the contents into a bowl before adding the hot water. Brown-sugar-and-maple was Simon’s favorite. The time Kendall bought strawberries-and-cream had been a disaster. It was a mistake she would not repeat.

“You want to stir this time?” She offered the spoon to her sleepy-eyed six-year-old. He nodded and took it from her as she turned her attention to buttering the toast. They had fifteen minutes to spare before they needed to leave for school. If they weren’t the first ones there, Simon wouldn’t go in. Kendall had a busy day ahead of her; she needed him to go to school today.

“What two things are you worried about today?” she asked, taking the seat next to him and pushing the plate of toast his way. It was the same question she asked every school day.

Her son’s frail shoulders, which always carried more weight than necessary, lifted and fell. Nothing was said. The only sound in the room was the hum of the refrigerator. It was the single most irritating sound in the world some mornings.

Kendall didn’t fill the silence, even though she wanted to do nothing else. Experience had taught her that if she waited him out, he would answer. If she spoke first, he’d hold it all in.

“Calendar and free time.” The whispered words were spoken to the bowl of oatmeal in front of him but were spoken nonetheless.

“Calendar and free time,” she repeated. These were typical, easy ones.
Thank God.
“Let’s remember Mrs. Taylor promised that she wouldn’t call on you during calendar unless you raise your hand, right?” Simon nodded, spooning in another mouthful of oatmeal. “And free time is free time. You get to choose your activity. If you want to listen to a book with the headphones, you can do that. Or maybe you’ll want to play with the blocks today. Remember when you made that tower almost as tall as you last week?”

Simon’s slate-blue eyes met hers and stared. They were the same color as his father’s and always caused that familiar ache in her chest to flare up. Simon nodded again. No protest was a good sign. His shaggy brown hair covered his eyes as he glanced back down at his breakfast.

“Two things you’re looking forward to today,” she prompted. It was Psychologist #4 who helped her realize that if she could get him to focus on the positives, even if it was going home at the end of the day, he would have a better shot at making it through the day.

“When Nana comes to get me.” These words were a tiny bit louder than the last. Kendall smiled at both his volume and the choice. Her mother had a way with Simon, brought out the spirit that sometimes dwelled too deep.

“I bet Nana is looking forward to that part of the day, too. She told me last night that you guys get to take Zoe for a haircut.” Zoe was Nana and Papa’s dog, a feisty Bichon with a gentle heart and an endless need for affection. Simon loved the dog almost as much as he loved his grandparents.

The little boy perked up significantly. He snatched a slice of toast from the plate and began tearing off the crust. Kendall resisted the urge to remind him how wasteful it was to not eat the whole piece.

“Zoe gets haircuts? Like me?”

Taking the crust for herself, Kendall nodded. “Just like me and you, but she has to go to a special place for dogs. She can’t go to Supercuts like you.”

“Number two is seeing Zoe get a haircut.” Simon was bouncing in his seat, making his mother happier than she expected this Monday morning. She kissed him on the head as she got up to get her coffee. Today had potential. Great potential.

Hand in hand, they walked along the shaded sidewalk. Simon’s green camouflage backpack gently bounced up and down in time with their steps. Fall was quickly making its move on summer’s final days. It wouldn’t be long before Kendall would have to drive the three blocks to Wilder Elementary. Chicago was just too cold in the winter for walking.

The closer they got to school, the more Simon reverted into his shell. The term selective mutism was so deceiving. Silence was not something he selected, but rather was what held him prisoner. His hand tightened around his mother’s, squeezed it like it was a lifeline. It broke her already battered heart.

“It’s going to be a great day, buddy. I can tell,” she tried to reassure him as her cell phone rang in her bag. Without letting go of Simon’s hand, she fumbled and struggled to get hold of her phone. “Good morning,” she answered, trying to believe in the power of positive thinking and all.

“I’m stopping at Starbucks. What do you want?”

“Nothing, Owen. I’m good.”

“Nothing?” he screeched. “We have a presentation in less than two hours that will make or break us in the Chicago interior design world, and you’re willing to go in there not jacked up on something with an obscene amount of caffeine? Am I hearing you correctly?”

“I don’t want to be a jittery mess. We need to give off an aura of calm and Zen, my friend.”

“I’m Asian, sweetheart. People see me and can’t
not
think Zen.”

Kendall laughed. “That’s funny, I see you and automatically think crab rangoon.”

“For the love...” Owen let out a dramatic sigh. “How many times do I have to remind you that I’m Korean, not Chinese.”

“Well, the term Zen is Japanese, so don’t start with me.”

“Okay, no coffee for you. How’s the kiddo?” The levity of the first part of the conversation was immediately weighed down like a lead balloon.

Kendall gave Simon’s hand a loving squeeze as they crossed the street. He didn’t look up at her but kept his eyes on his feet. “I’ll tell you in about ten minutes.”

Owen switched her to speaker. She could hear more of the background noise around him. “My fortune cookie app says...you are in for a pleasant surprise. That sounds promising.”

“Let’s hope so, Mr. I-Thought-You-Were-Korean-Not-Chinese.” They were close to the school. Simon’s steps grew slower. Kendall had to pull him along. “I’ll see you in a few.”

“In a few, K.”

Dropping her phone back in her bag, Kendall stopped and crouched down so when Simon chose to look up, they would be eye to eye. “Owen says good things are going to happen today. He said we’re in for a good surprise. Can you try to remember that when the yucks come?”

Uncertain eyes rose to meet hers, while his small mouth twisted. Yucks were what Simon called the anxiety. He gave her the tiniest nod, allowing her to stand and start for the school steps.

They were the first ones in class, as usual. Mrs. Taylor welcomed mother and son warmly. The woman was a godsend. She was a million times better than last year’s teacher, who thought Kendall was a coddling helicopter parent.

“His grandmother will be picking him up today. They’re taking Nana’s dog to the groomer this afternoon. He’s very excited. Right, bud?” Simon didn’t speak but moved his head affirmatively. Again, Kendall bent down, gripping her son’s upper arms. “I love you and I’ll see you tonight. Keep an eye out for that surprise, okay?”

The little boy who existed before his father died pushed his way to the surface for a moment. He smiled and hoped. “Okay,” he whispered so quietly Mrs. Taylor couldn’t hear, but Kendall certainly did.

He spoke. He spoke in the classroom.

Kendall tried not to react too emotionally, but she wanted to squeal and cry and hug him. Instead, she kissed his cheek and gave his arms a firm squeeze. “I love you, baby.” She bit down on her bottom lip and held back the tears until she made it into the hallway. If that was her pleasant surprise, she’d take it.

* * *

“S
O
,
MY
COUSIN
has a friend. Works for Abbott. Good-looking, great hair, super nice guy.”

“Don’t start with that today. I am not in the mood to discuss men. We have one hour before we sell this design to Mr. Sato.” Kendall stood in front of the presentation boards with her arms folded in front of her. She had spent the last month putting them together and was now sixty minutes away from sharing them with their potential client.

“You’re never in the mood to discuss men, which is what concerns me more than anything,” Owen said. “I mean, I’m not an expert in selective mutism, but I have to believe if Simon saw you living a life, he would realize that it’s okay to live his.”

He was lucky he wasn’t in arm’s reach because she would have hit him. Hard. She was much too stressed to be having this conversation.

“Trevor’s been gone just over a year,” she said wearily. The anniversary of his death had led to Simon’s regression. It seemed every time Kendall thought they were making some good progress, something would set him back. She was not going to give her son another reason to worry. “Simon does not need to see me running around with men on dates. He needs me home. He needs to know I’m not ever going to leave him.”

His father had left. His father had left them both.

“Avoiding a date here and there isn’t going to make him better.”

“He spoke in the classroom this morning. He whispered to me when we were standing
in
his classroom.”

Owen wrapped his arms around her from behind and rested his chin on her shoulder. “That’s so great, K. He’s doing better. Before you know it, he’ll be like me and the teacher will be calling you because he won’t shut up.” He hugged her tightly.

Kendall leaned against her business partner and friend and smiled. “I would give anything to get that call.”

“As much as it kills you to see him close himself off to the world, it kills me to see you do the same. Trevor didn’t just leave Simon. He left you, too. Simon stopped talking and you stopped believing you deserve good things.”

Kendall patted Owen’s arms. “Trevor was the only guy I’ve ever truly been in love with. I can’t imagine feeling that way about anyone else.”

“People do it all the time. Hell, I’ve been in love more times than I can count.” Owen let go of his friend and threw his hands in the air.

“Love and lust are not the same,” Kendall corrected him.

He winked. “I know. I know. Lust was Brian, Greg and Manuel. Love was Hector, Johnny, Gil, Milo...oh, and Dylan. Wait, Dylan was lust
and
love. A lot of lust. A little love.”

Kendall shook her head. It was so easy for him. She couldn’t afford to be so careless with her heart. She had to be careful and cautious for Simon’s sake. Simon had to and would always come first.

* * *

M
R
. S
ATO
SAT
like a statue. He didn’t smile, didn’t comment, didn’t give any indication of loving or hating their design. When Kendall finished, the only sign of life he showed was the gentle tug he gave to the cuff of his shirt.

“We would love the opportunity to work with you,” Owen said.

Kendall’s rapidly beating heart was becoming a distraction. She unclasped her hands and tried to stand tall in front of her unreceptive audience, reminding herself that Mr. Sato never displayed emotion. The outside might scream apathy, but inside he could love it.

Mr. Sato leaned to his left and whispered to his son sitting beside him.

“We have a few questions,” the younger Sato said. Kendall felt her confidence surge. Questions were promising. She welcomed any and all questions. “And it’s likely Mr. Jordan will have some as well. We expect him any minute.”

Mr. Jordan was the restaurant manager who was already twenty minutes late. Kendall had no problem waiting.

Until her phone vibrated in her pocket.

She knew immediately that it was the school. Her family, Owen and the school were the only ones who called her. Her family knew not to call right now and Owen stood next to her.

“Excuse me.” She faked a smile for the Satos and looked to her partner for reassurance that he could handle this on his own.

“I got it. Go.”

She grabbed her bag and pulled out her phone as she headed out of the room to take the call.
Not today. Not today.

“Kendall Montgomery,” she answered on the fourth and final ring.

“Mrs. Montgomery, it’s Lisa Warner.”

“Hi, Lisa.” Kendall sucked in a deep breath. Lisa was the social worker at Simon’s school. Lisa was always the one to call with the bad news.

“We need you to come in.”

“I’m in a meeting. Is he with you? Can I give him a pep talk over the phone?” She hoped but knew the answer would disappoint.

“No, he won’t come out of the bathroom.”

Kendall pinched the bridge of her nose as she made her way outside and prayed for a taxi. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. What happened?”

“We had a dad volunteer in class today,” Lisa said solemnly. The word dad was all Kendall needed to hear. She hung up and texted Owen, feeling every bit like the burden she had warned him she would be when he’d asked her to go into business with him.

The drive to Wilder seemed long, longer than it should have been. Kendall shoved money at the driver and jumped out of the cab. Her feet moved swiftly across the pavement, up the steps and into the building. Deep breathing did nothing to ease the knot in her stomach or the pain in her chest.

Trevor would have had mixed feelings about this school. He would have liked that the children wore uniforms, and not just because he was a military man. He had loved the simplicity of them. “No nonsense” had been his middle name. Trevor believed time should not be wasted worrying about things like “What color should I wear today?”

Trevor would have wanted a school with a male administrator, however. Not because he was sexist, although it might have come off that way, but because he felt more men should show interest in the development of young minds. Trevor, like his own father, took the role of father seriously and believed boys needed a strong male presence in their lives to survive in today’s world.

Familiar faces greeted her in the main office. Her welcoming committee consisted of Lisa, the social worker, the principal, and the school nurse. They quickly ushered her to the first grade hallway, into the small boys’ bathroom with blue-and-white tiles on the wall and worn-out linoleum on the floor.

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