For the curious among you. This is the original beginning. My beta readers thought the opening scene was too morbid.
“If you ask me, he deserved to die.”
Bailey stiffened. Typical Sadie. Whatever thoughts popped into her head, came out through her mouth. They were at the man’s funeral for mercy’s sake. No filter on that girl, but no one could ever accuse her of disloyalty. They had been friends since eighth grade. She had faithfully stuck by Bailey when it seemed no one else had.
A gentleman in the pew in front of them turned and scowled to show his displeasure at hearing such a statement.
“Well, it’s the truth. Just look at what he did to you.” She was loudly whispering to her friend while staring unflinchingly back at the stranger. Normally, Bailey felt it was her job to try and keep Sadie in check, but she was just too heartbroken at the time to shush her.
Jason Hillis had been Bailey’s first husband. Their marriage had been long over before this day, but it still hurt to know he was forever gone from this world. She leaned over just enough to see the casket at the front of the church, but of its own accord, her gaze shifted to the woman with the poufy red hair sitting on the front pew.
Sadie was practically standing now as she lifted from her seat to see who Bailey was looking at. Standing or sitting, the girl was short enough that it didn’t make that much of a difference. “Look at her hair. Doesn’t she know we left the nineteen eighties back in the last century? How could Jason have picked her over you?”
She had repeatedly asked herself that same thing. It wasn’t that she thought she was better looking than the woman with the big, red hair. It was more of a question of why Jason found her to be so appealing that he would give up everything they had to be with her.
Bailey had been too much of a coward to go to the wake the night before. She didn’t want to face his family—especially his sister, Trinity. She blamed her for the demise of their marriage more than she did the redhead now sitting at the front of the church. Jason’s sister had never liked her. If there was ever any indication that things would not work out between them before the wedding, Trinity was it.
Besides the sister, everything else had seemed perfect. She loved Jason. Her family had loved him. Her momma was the one to introduced them, and it had been a whirlwind romance from the start. He had been a widower with an adorable little boy named Tristan. After one date that included the three of them, Bailey had been head over heels.
Just three months after they met, the big white wedding with all the trimmings happened. This may have seemed an impossible task, but it could be said that marriage was the Foster family’s business. Bailey’s parents owned the Little Bit of Love Wedding Chapel. Daddy officiated and Momma did all of the planning. They were famous for their motto, Marriage takes two things: a little bit of love and a whole lot of work.
That may be the ingredients used for a marriage, but it took a good bit more planning for a wedding. Every wedded desire could be met all at one place in their hometown of Shiloh, South Carolina. In addition to Bailey’s photography business, there was also a florist, a caterer, and a bridal shop owner in the family, not to mention a hair dresser and a dance instructor to help make that big day even more special.
Everything had been picture-perfect for about six months. That was when Jason had started making trips to Columbia to see his sister. These trips always seemed to fall on the weekends when she would have a photo shoot scheduled. She felt abandoned every time he had loaded Tristan’s things into the car to head off without her. It wasn’t that she had wanted to spend time with his sister, but it had made her feel as if she would always be an outsider, never to be included as part of his family.
The visits became more frequent, until about two weeks before their one-year anniversary when he sat Bailey down and told her that he had fallen in love with someone else. He was headed to his sister’s again and told her not to be there when he got back. She cried and pleaded to no avail. He claimed she was making things worse than they needed to be. Good grief, how much worse could it get?
She moved back in with her parents thinking it would only be a temporary arrangement. He would eventually come to his senses. She was served with divorce papers two months later. She had no idea a marriage could be dissolved that fast, but apparently there was nothing to it if you were willing to admit to adultery. Bailey took back her last name, and Jason was married to his sister’s best friend, Olivia, the day after the divorce was final. That had been less than two years past, and now he was gone for good from both of their lives.
The funeral was wrapping up, and the family was being led back up the aisle so they would be in the vestibule to greet everyone else. Bailey wanted to slide down in her pew, as if that would hide her from those coming toward her. Instead, she stayed facing forward while looking through the side of her sunglasses at Olivia as she passed. She really did look upset. Maybe Jason had been able to feel the kind of love for this woman that had been lacking in their marriage. That was both painful and a relief. She stuffed those feelings down into her gut. She could analyze it better once she was alone.
She could not help but turn and look when Trinity came by holding Tristan’s little hand. He looked so cute dressed in a navy blue suit and white shirt. Boy, had he grown. He was almost four years old now. Did he know what was going on here? She wondered if he would even recognize her. Jason had insisted that he call her Bailey when they were still together. Considering that he was with Trinity instead of Olivia, it seemed that the child had not been allowed to bond with this step-mother either.
“That’s your problem right there.” Bailey knew what her friend was referring to. Sadie claimed she was a sucker for a man with a baby. She might have a point, but Bailey had no desire to rehash it—especially right then.
Her statement had caught the attention of Jason’s sister. Trinity whipped her head around in their direction. Judging by the instant scowl that formed across her brow, she certainly recognized her ex-sister-in-law. Bailey looked back toward the front and was careful not to make eye contact with anyone else.
They sat in the church until everyone had left the sanctuary. Bailey grabbed Sadie by the elbow and practically dragged her out the door, not stopping until they were halfway across the parking lot headed toward her old Cavalier. When she finally let go, Sadie rubbed her shoulder dramatically.
“There’s no need to try and jerk my arm out of socket. It’s not like I had a desire to talk to any of those people. I don’t know why we came to this thing to start with.”
“We came to pay our respects.”
“Jason didn’t deserve our respect. I suppose when David dies, you’ll be paying your respects to that loser too.” She didn’t even want to think about that disaster of a so-called marriage.
“I’ve got enough on my plate right now without you bringing up David.”
“Do you know what your problem is?”
Bailey did love Sadie, but sometimes she really wanted to smack that girl. She raised both eyebrows and tried for her most innocent look, but most of her sarcasm was hidden behind a large pair of sunglasses. “People who think they know what my problem is?”
Sadie stopped in her tracks on the way to the car, placed her hand on her hip, and peeked out over the top of her black-rimmed shades. “You are too kindhearted. That’s why you keep falling for these losers.”
Bailey turned and walked on to the car, seeming to ignore her, but what Sadie had said was actually one of the nicest reasons she had been given—and there had been a bunch of different explanations from her family and friends. She had expected her usual you’re just in it for the kids.
She had heard it all. There was the you’re too easy, the you are not taking enough time to find all of their flaws, she had even gotten you should live with them for a while before you marry so y’all can have time to get to know each other.
The best advice she had received came from Aunt Ginger. She had looked at Bailey in that direct way she had about her, as if she was looking into your very soul, and asked, “Did you pray about it?”
“Yes, Aunt Ginger, you know I did.”
“What I mean is, did you ask for God’s will or your own?”
That one question sent Bailey’s mind reeling. Both times it had been more like This is the man I want to marry, God. Please, please, please, Lord, make this happen. She had never once asked him if this was the man He wanted for her. If only she could have come to this realization sooner. It might have saved a world of heartache.
Aunt Ginger had gotten her answer by nothing more than the look on Bailey’s face. “Mmm hmm, that’s what I thought.”
After her second failed attempt at marriage, she had only dated a few times and they hadn’t amounted to anything. Bailey didn’t trust herself not to make the same mistakes again. It was painfully obvious that she had no business even trying. She made a vow to herself right there in the church parking-lot not to even think about a serious relationship again unless she knew for certain it was ordained from above.
If God wanted her to have the husband she so desperately desired, He would have to practically sit the man down in front of her with the words “Reserved for Bailey” tattooed across his forehead. On second thought, God, you can leave off the tattoo. A handwritten note pinned to his shirt would be cool though.
Aiden stood inside his front door looking over the pages he had just been served. He took a deep breath and unconsciously ran his fingers through his yet uncombed hair, causing the short, blond tresses to stand on end. The emptiness he’d been fighting off for the last year reared its ugly head, stronger than ever.
He had always pictured himself bound to one woman for the rest of his life, and here he stood with divorce papers in hand, his ticket to a freedom he had never wanted. The reason she had used to justify the divorce angered him—a year’s separation. He wanted to protest. He wanted those papers to state the truth. She had abandoned her family.
He felt a hand on his knee and looked down into the blue eyes of his three-year-old, Kensli. As usual, they were getting a lazy start to their Saturday, so even though it was edging close to lunchtime, she was still wearing her Strawberry Shortcake gown with her thin, blond hair just as rumpled as his. She would be crying in protest later when he had to deal with the knots that were surely present.
“Who was that, Daddy?”
“Just someone delivering some mail.”
He rubbed the top of her head, making a bigger mess of her hair than it already was. “Go play with your sister.”
“Okay.” She ran over to the coffee table where Riley stood banging a block against the glossy surface. She had just started to take her first steps, but for the most part, she still liked to use furniture as a support.
He sat down in his recliner and tried to concentrate on the legal jargon in front of him, but his mind kept wondering over everything that had led them to this point. His and Jenna’s relationship had been rocky from the very beginning. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. The relationship had started out fine. The rocky part hadn’t begun until after they had said I do.
They had met at a Superbowl party. She had looked so cute in her oversized football jersey—even if she was rooting for the wrong team. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail with loose wisps of bangs framing both sides of her face. She was just Aiden’s type, and he had noticed her right away.
She had noticed him too. Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle every time she looked his way. She wasted no time in making her attraction known. It was a heady feeling to know that out of all of the guys there, she had picked him.
It was embarrassing and just plain wrong how fast things moved after that. Aiden had resisted temptation from the time he had first noticed the differences between girls and boys until he was twenty-four years old, but it took Jenna less than a week to break down that guard. A month later, she came up pregnant. Two weeks after that they were married. And six months after the wedding, their first daughter made an early entrance into this world, weighing in at eight pounds, fourteen ounces.
He wasn’t stupid. He could do the math. But one look into Kensli’s face, and it was love at first sight. Besides, God had forgiven him of his sins, who was he to hold his wife’s sins against her, especially ones made before they had even met. He had no reason to believe she had stepped out on him once they were together. As far as Aiden was concerned, that baby was his.
It wasn’t until six months later that he started to suspect her unfaithfulness. She started going out with the girls. She called each one by name as she would recount one of their escapades, but the funny thing was, he had never once met one of these women. If he asked too many questions, she would accuse him of not trusting her. Well, she had a point.
Eighteen months after Kensli was born, they had Riley. Aiden was in love all over again. A couple of things were noticeable different about Riley. Her hair was jet black and she had chocolate brown eyes. Now how did two blond-hair, blue-eyed people end up with a baby with dark hair and eyes? If he had not been there when she was born, he would have sworn there had been a mix up at the hospital.
He couldn’t help but notice the strange looks coming from family and friends as they would hold the new baby and study her features. Finally, Caleb just came out with what Aiden knew everyone was thinking. “Man, you need to get a DNA test on this one.” Then his gaze moved on to the firstborn. Kensli may have had Aiden’s coloring, but other people could do math too.
Being Aiden’s closest friend, Caleb Palmer was probably the only person who could say what he was thinking without causing anger. His friend’s suggestion had freed him to examine the facts for himself.
When he started questioning Jenna, everything became unbearable between them. They argued all the time. They were both miserable. After a month of constant bickering, Aiden decided to let the issue drop. What had it mattered anyway. He loved the girls and had already accepted them as his own.
The arguing quietened down, but things still were not right between him and his wife. They didn’t touch. They didn’t kiss. It was like they were living in two separate worlds but together. Aiden began to wonder what was in this marriage for him. She stayed home all day, but he did all the cooking and cleaning. She managed to take care of the girls until he got off from work, but then they were solely his responsibility. Taking the kids to a daycare while he worked would have been no different. He may as well not have a wife, and six weeks to the day after Riley was born, he didn’t anymore.
He had returned home from work and opened the front door to an empty house. Literally—she had taken practically everything they owned. His first thoughts were of the girls. Panic rose up, closing off his throat as he raced through the house to the nursery. He breathed a sigh of relief when he opened the door to find Kensli playing on the floor with some scattered toys and Riley asleep in her crib.
How long had they been there alone? The thoughts of what could have happened were terrifying. He had picked Kensli up and held her to his chest. After the panic subsided, he walked back through the house, taking inventory of what was left, which was pretty much nothing aside from everything in the nursery. She hadn’t even left him a bed to sleep in. There was nothing more than some discarded debris left in each room.
“Mommy gone.” He looked down at the little munchkin in his arms with her head on his shoulder. It had been a statement, not a question. It was as if the child had seen it coming, but for Aiden it had been a complete shock.
His own parents had been together for over thirty years. He was sure there had been problems to crop up in their marriage, but they had stuck with it. He had thought that was how it would be for him and Jenna, but there was no working this out. Not only had she abandoned them, but she had left his babies there in the house by themselves. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He wouldn’t have taken her back then if she had begged him.
He didn’t need a wife. Him and the girls were doing just fine. He had rededicated his life to God and they hardly ever missed church now. Instead of a neglectful mother looking after the kids while he worked, he had found an excellent daycare, and the girls seemed content there. He had even replaced all of the furniture.
Other than the occasional bouts of loneliness, everything was great. Okay, so maybe the bouts were not so occasional, but it was a fair exchange for not having to deal with the possibility of another failed relationship.
He laid the papers down in his lap and held up his left hand. Besides the kids, the gold band he still wore was the only thing left as a reminder of his life with Jenna. He twisted it around on his finger a few times before sliding it off. Honestly, it had been more of a shield than anything else. Every time he even thought of dating again, he would look to it as his reminder that he was still a married man. He would no longer be able to use that excuse.
There was only one bright side to the papers he had received that morning. At least she had given him full and complete custody of the girls. This both hurt and was a relief at the same time. It was plain that she wanted nothing else to do with him or her kids. So be it. They would continue to be just fine without her.
One year and three months later . . .
Bailey lifted her camera and centered the decorating committee within the frame of the lens as they bent over sketches stretched out across one of the tables. Some had already begun putting their plans into motion. It was the day after Thanksgiving and you would have thought everyone in Shiloh would be busy shopping and gearing up for Christmas, but no. A good many of the town’s citizens were right there in the annex building, getting ready for the annual New Year’s Eve ball.
Every time anything went on in Shiloh, Bailey was there to capture it with her camera. She was the unofficial town photographer. She wasn’t on the payroll, but she would send the pictures in to the local paper, and they would pay her a small amount for her troubles.
New Year’s Eve was Shiloh’s most important holiday because it happened to be the anniversary of the day it became an official town. There was some serious planning and preparation that went on every year as they tried to outdo whatever had been done the year before. It was also Bailey’s birthday, which was pretty sweet as far as she was concerned.
Her daddy would tell the same corny jokes every year, implying the town’s celebration had really been in honor of his baby girl. Admittedly, it had made her feel extra special when she was a kid, but let’s face it, the jokes had gotten old and so had she. At least that’s how she felt. Bailey would be thirty in just over two years’ time and she worried that she had nothing to show for her time on this earth.
She was just about to snap a picture of Mayor Gavin Woodsley, leaning precariously at the top of a ladder while hanging gold-colored streamers from the ceiling, when she overheard her name being mentioned in the room directly behind her.
“I don’t think Bailey Foster deserves another shot at love. She has already gone through two marriages. She has had her chance, if you ask me.”
“Who are you to say what Bailey deserves?” She didn’t recognize the first speaker but that last one was definitely Aunt Ginger.
It was good to know someone had her back, but she didn’t want to hear anymore. She stepped away and started snapping more pictures, but the euphoria she had felt before was gone. She knew what people thought about her situation. She had already heard it all before. Everyone thought she was meant for the single life—everyone but Momma, Aunt Ginger . . . and Bailey.
Her momma would never tire of playing the matchmaker. She was constantly trying to set Bailey up with the latest gentleman whom she had deemed husband-worthy. It would have to be someone she just met because she had already exhausted all of her previous acquaintances. Bailey used to be caught up in her romantic view of the world, but she had learned her lesson the hard way.
“God has someone in mind just for you. You don’t go looking for him. You just need to wait on the Lord to bring him to you.” That was Aunt Ginger. She wasn’t really Bailey’s aunt, but she could always be counted on for her loyalty and sound counsel. What she said made the most sense, and Bailey was now living by this sage advice. She didn’t flirt. She didn’t look. If God’s man really did exist, he would definitely have to come to her.
Truthfully, she did not think there was even a remote possibility that the right man was out there. With her luck, he had probably passed by while Bailey was going through what she referred to as her idiot stage. But there was always that glimmer of hope. Deep down, she really wanted to love again and have someone love her in return. She wanted a husband she could raise a family with as they grew old together, loving each other a little more with each passing year.
I don’t think Bailey Foster deserves another shot at love. Those words kept playing through her mind like a broken record. She worked her way around the room snapping pictures as she headed toward the door. She dropped her camera into her bag and donned the russet-colored cashmere wrap she had discarded when she first came in.
“You’re not sneaking out so soon are you?”
She turned to see her daddy coming through with a box full of clocks to be used for decoration. He had the sleeves pushed up on the gray sweater he was wearing. This one seemed to be a perfect match to his hair that was becoming a little more salted with silver with every year that passed. Momma would fuss about him stretching out the arms of her favorite sweater.
“I need to go let Winston out. He has been cooped up all day.” Winston was her five-month-old, brown and white Yorkiepoo. Sadie had insisted that she had paid way too much money for a mixed-breed mutt. Bailey hadn’t even tried to argue with her. He was the one being she could count on for unwavering love, and he was worth every penny and then some.
“If you call your momma, I’m sure she would let him out.”
Yea, she would do it, but Bailey would never hear the end of her fussing about it. “You mean she isn’t here with you?”
“She decided to take the day off. We have a bunch of weddings to do next month, not to mention Christmas, so she’s resting up now while she has the chance.” His smile always lit up his hazel eyes every time he talked about Momma—no matter the subject. Why couldn’t she find someone who felt the same way about her?
“If she’s resting, then she doesn’t need to worry about Winston. I found a recipe online that would use up some of the leftovers from Thanksgiving. Why don’t I cook supper for y’all tonight? That way Momma can get a break from cooking today too.”
“Thanks, Baby Girl.” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
She took a deep breath of the crisp, autumn air as soon as she stepped out through the door of the annex building. Why should she allow the thoughts of a complete stranger color her mood for the rest of the day? She would go home, spend a little time with Winston who always made her feel better, and she would cook a satisfying meal for the family God had given her. Everything would be great . . . just great.