Chapter 2

 

     Milo slipped sandwiches into baggies and grabbed juice boxes out of the refrigerator. Glancing at his watch, he called out, “Mia! Sofie! Come down and eat.”

     Glad that he hadn’t scheduled any work for later that morning, he sighed. Three years ago, he’d taken custody of his nieces after a car accident killed his sister and brother-in-law. He’d moved into a bigger apartment, exchanged his two-seater for their minivan, and gained the whole world.

     In the process, he’d lost his fiancée, but he tried not to think about that.

     Having Mia get ready for her first day of kindergarten stirred more emotion than Milo had expected.

     Footsteps pitter-pattered on the stairs. Sofie ran into the kitchen a second later. “Will you tie my shoes? When do I get to go to school with Mia? Can I use the princess lunchbox?”

     “Two years.” Milo held up two fingers. “Sit down at the table, and I’ll tie your shoes. And, yes, you can use the princess one.”

     She climbed into a chair. “Thank you, Dado.”

     She’d been only two months old when he started his crash course in being a father.

     He tied the shoes, kissed her forehead, and set a plate of breakfast in front of her. “Eat, so we can go.”

     Packing Sofie’s lunch into the chosen lunchbox, he called out again. “Mia!”

     “I’m right here, Dado.” Mia giggled and spun around. “Does my dress look pretty?”

     He scooped her up. “You are beautiful—no matter what dress you are wearing.”

     “You always say that.” She wiggled free and ran to the table. “Let’s hurry. I can’t be late for school.”

     “Yes, ma’am.” Lonely at times, Milo wouldn’t trade anything for life with the girls.

     Once lunches were packed and the girls were fed, Milo guided them to the car.

     Winning the lottery a year after adopting the girls changed his life. He traded the apartment for a home in a gated neighborhood, one with a large back yard, and replaced the minivan with a Volkswagen Atlas. Since he owned a limousine company, he still chauffeured part of the time. It kept him busy.

     As he backed out of the garage, the questions started.

     “Did you pack me the purple box? I like the purple juice.” Sofie swung her feet, kicking the back of his seat.

     “I don’t remember what kind, princess.” Milo hoped whatever flavor had ended up in her lunchbox wouldn’t be a problem.

     “Is kindergarten fun?” Mia chewed her lip, looking pale and nervous.

     “I think you will love your class and your teacher.”

     “But do you think my teacher will like me?”

     Milo couldn’t imagine anyone not liking Mia. “Of course she will.”

     He parked outside the daycare and helped both girls out of the SUV.

     Mia tugged on his hand. “This isn’t my school anymore, Dado.”

     “We have to drop off your sister.” He carried Sofie to speed up the trip across the parking lot.

     When they walked inside, Ms. Alma greeted Sofie before sending her into the classroom.

     Alma had been at the day care the first time Milo had dropped off the girls. When she heard about their story, she’d taken a special interest in the girls and often babysat when Milo needed someone.

     She’d become almost a grandma to the girls.

     “Look at you! Are you excited for kindergarten?” Ms. Alma clapped her hands together.

     “Yes.” Mia grinned.

     “And how is Dado doing?” Motherly, Alma always checked on him too.

     “I haven’t cried yet.” He winked at Mia. “It’s hard to believe she’s big enough for kindergarten.”

     Ms. Alma shooed them toward the door. “You need to hurry. Off with you.”

     Mia hugged her former teacher before grabbing Milo’s hand. “I’m ready.”

     He wasn’t.

***

     Milo smiled down at Mia as she gripped his hand. He pulled open the door to the school and hoped finding Mia’s classroom would be easy. He’d missed the meet-the-teacher night, which made him feel like he was starting off on the wrong foot.

     Spotting the roster on the wall, he searched her name. “Room four. That’s where you need to go.”

     She tugged him down the hall, counting as she saw numbers by the doors.

     They stopped outside a closed door, the number four glued to the frame. He couldn’t see much through the small window, only a few children seated at kid-sized tables.

     “Is this my classroom?” Mia gripped his hand.

     “I think so.”

     He pulled open the door and stopped.

     “Hello, I’m so glad—” His ex stood in front of him. She paled and grabbed the shelves next to her.

     Milo couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t seen Amy since she’d broken off their engagement three years ago.

     Faced with the idea of an instant family, she’d walked away.

     “You moved away.” Milo struggled to make sense of why she was even in the classroom.

     “I came back.” Pulling her focus away from him, she squatted down. “And what’s your name?”

     “Mia Sanchez.”

     “It’s so nice to meet you, Mia.”

     “Mia!” Another little girl called out from one of the tables.

     Mia waved, then looked at her teacher. “Can I go in, Miss Johnston?”

     “Yes. You may go in.” She watched as Mia joined her friends before turning around. “Milo, hi.”

     Hurt and anger bubbled inside, and it took energy to keep the anger out of his voice. “I’ll talk to the principal about switching teachers.”

     “Please, don’t. Why would you—” Amy blinked away tears. “I’m a good teacher.”

     “You didn’t want her, Amy!” He managed to keep his voice low but no longer bothered to sound polite.

     “Please, not here. Not right now.” She inhaled. “Can we talk later?”

     “What is there to say?” He wanted to leave with Mia in tow.

     “Please. I have so much to apologize for. I’m not the same person that walked out on you.”

     He’d almost come to terms with the hurt, and now she wanted to apologize?

     “Okay, but not in front of Mia.” Milo stepped closer, bringing back the familiar thrill. “I don’t want her to know that we were engaged.” Milo ran his fingers through his hair, remembering how it felt when Amy did the same.

     She clasped her hands together. “Of course not.”

     Milo hurried away as footsteps approached.

     Kindergarteners might not notice the tension, but to other parents it would be obvious. He climbed behind the wheel and leaned his head back. After a few deep breaths, he yanked the gear shift into reverse and turned around to check behind him.

     A bright yellow lunchbox sat in the backseat.

     Milo shifted back into park and jumped out of the car. Lunchbox in hand, he marched back to the classroom.

     Amy was standing in front of the class, her red hair dancing as she shook her head in answer to a question. After staring for longer than what would be considered polite, Milo knocked.

     She strolled across the room and opened the door. “Oh. Hi.”

     “I found Mia’s lunch in the car.”

     Amy reached for the lunchbox, a new and unfamiliar perfume teasing his senses. “She’ll need that.”

     When it came to Amy, Milo had two settings: angry and attracted. Neither worked in the current situation.

     Milo leaned around Amy and waved at Mia. Big brown eyes brimmed with tears, and her lips quivered.

     “Mia’s upset. I need to—”

     “She’ll be okay. I promise.” Amy glanced at the table for a second, but when she looked back and met his gaze, he noticed the tears in her eyes.

     Amy motioned for Mia to come to the door.

     Her shoes lit up with every step. She ran into Milo’s open arms and buried her head against his shoulder. He thought he might lose it.

     When she picked up her head, the tears were gone. “I’m okay.”

     Milo nodded, wiping his tears.

     She cradled his face in her little hands. “You’ll be okay, Dado. When I’m finished, you can pick me up, okay?”

     “You’re right.” He held her to his chest. “But I’ll miss you. A lot.”

     She wriggled down but grabbed his hand. “I love you, Dado.” Stepping back, she slipped her hand into Amy’s.

     Amy swallowed and blinked away tears. “Mia, can you put this in your cubby, please?”

     Mia took the box and waved as she walked away.

     “Milo, she’s—”

     “Don’t. I don’t want to hear it.” He couldn’t hear it.

     His insides were in shreds just dropping Mia off for kindergarten. Seeing Amy made him feel like he’d been gutted. If he made it to the office without crying . . . who was he kidding? He hadn’t even made it out of the classroom without tears.

***

     Milo busied himself with work, hoping the hours would pass quickly. When Art walked in, Milo leaned back in his chair. “Hey. Seems like a quiet day.”

     “So far.” Art had worked with Milo for years, since he’d started the company.

     Working long hours, they managed to keep the business going while Milo learned what it meant to be a dad. After the lottery win, Milo eased up on his hours, and the money allowed him to pay Art a better salary. Having a financially savvy friend had turned a one-time windfall into a whole lot more.

     With a handful of wealthy clients, Art and Milo stayed just busy enough.

     An idea sparked, and Milo thought there might be a way to avoid seeing Amy morning and afternoon every single day. “Would you mind if I put you on the list to pick up the girls? The private school requires me to have an approved list.”

     “Of course, I don’t mind. How did it go this morning? Did Mia like her teacher?” Art was the closest thing to a brother Milo had ever known.

     He rubbed his chin, figuring there was no point in trying to keep it a secret. “Amy Johnston is her teacher.”

     Art dropped into a chair, his jaw slack. “Your Amy?”

     “Don’t call her that.”

     “But she”—Art shook his head—“she moved away.”

     “All I know is she was the one greeting Mia at the door.”

     “Ouch. I’m so sorry. You okay?”

     Milo rolled his shoulders. “Why does she have to be so stunning? Hating her keeps the pain away, mostly. But I can’t do that. Mia doesn’t need that.”

     “You don’t need that.” Art checked his phone when it buzzed. “But all of that still confuses me. She’s a teacher. How can she hate kids?”

     Painful memories of a heated discussion thumped on Milo’s skull. “She doesn’t hate kids. Her mom was—Amy just wasn’t sure she could . . .” He couldn’t relive it. “I need to call Coop about getting the oil changed.”

     “Already did. He texted a few minutes ago that he can do it today.”

     “Let me know if you need me. I’ll be sitting here staring at the wall, trying to figure out what I’m going to do.”

     “Good luck.” Art was the only one who knew all of Milo’s story.

     And Milo wanted to keep it that way.


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