Unexpected Family, page 1
His Surprise Daughter
After five years apart, Tom Sheffield is shocked to find his ex-wife, Stephanie, on his doorstep. The news that they share a child he’s never met sends him reeling. Four-year-old Macy has his eyes, his mouth and, from their first encounter, his heart. Things with her mother are much more complicated. He doesn’t understand what went wrong between them or why she kept their daughter a secret. And he’s afraid of falling in love all over again. Yet he feels a glimmer of hope that somehow he can convince Macy and Stephanie to stay in Lake Endwell—and with him—for keeps.
“It’s strange. Being here again.”
Stephanie scanned the room. “Brings back memories.”
“Any good ones?” The question slipped out.
She lowered her chin. “A few.”
“Well, most of my memories of us together were good.” Tom kept his voice low. The past pressed against his chest, his heart craving the release of honesty. All the times he’d blamed her for ruining his life had overshadowed one big fact: he’d loved her, loved being married to her, and those days, for him, had been good.
“Most of them?” She picked at the edge of her sweater.
“Until we fell apart.”
“Are you sure your memory isn’t tricking you?” Her tone held no trace of sarcasm.
“It’s not. I might not have been what you needed, but that time was special for me.” He grazed her hand.
She glanced at him, questions in her eyes.
“I know we can’t go back,” he said. “I just wanted you to know. I was happy being married to you.”
Jill Kemerer writes novels with love, humor and faith. Besides spoiling her mini dachshund and keeping up with her busy kids, Jill reads stacks of books, lives for her morning coffee and gushes over fluffy animals. She resides in Ohio with her husband and two children. Jill loves connecting with readers, so please visit her website, jillkemerer.com, or contact her at PO Box 2802, Whitehouse, OH 43571.
Books by Jill Kemerer
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
For Olivia and Brandon.
You make me a better person.
I’m blessed by you each day!
Excerpt from The Amish Mother by Rebecca Kertz
Stephanie Sheffield climbed the creaking steps of the tan bungalow nestled in a clearing of dense woods. The covered porch looked lonely. A welcome mat would go a long way to cheer the space. If she owned a home like this, she would bring it to life with bundles of corn husks, pumpkins and a pot or two of burgundy mums.
But she wasn’t here to mentally redecorate.
Guilt had consumed her for five years. A sixth year wasn’t an option. Stomach tightening, Stephanie knocked.
Seconds ticked by without any movement inside. Maybe he wasn’t home. Maybe she had the wrong address. Or maybe God was giving her a grace period.
Grace? God may have forgiven her, but she still had to pay for her sins.
Stephanie rapped louder and turned to view the property. She half expected a deer to leap onto the lawn, moist from an autumn drizzle. Crimson leaves fluttered down from a tall maple, and the cobalt blue of Michigan’s Lake Endwell peeked through in the distance. The lake threatened to unleash memories, ones she couldn’t afford to think about right now.
A lone figure jogged down the country road. He rounded the drive, and her muscles tensed.
Did he still hate her?
If he didn’t, he soon would.
Drawing closer, he slowed to a walk. Shock flashed in those sink-into-them blue eyes, eyes that once lured her. Tousled dark brown hair softened his cheekbones. His straight nose pointed to a determined chin. He looked more athletic, more rugged than she remembered. Why couldn’t he have aged badly? And why did seeing him again make her feel as though she’d downed a warm cup of tea?
Stephanie leaned against the peeling porch rail and winced as pain shot up her rib cage. Now that he’d appeared, she had no idea what to say. Everything she’d rehearsed during the thirty-minute drive jumbled in her brain.
“What happened?” Tom closed the distance between them, reaching to touch her bruised cheek, but he snatched his hand back before making contact. His unexpected tenderness almost undid her. She chased away the sudden yearning for his touch.
“It’s nothing. I was in an accident yesterday. My car was totaled, but I’m fine. Bruised ribs. A few scratches.”
“Why are you here?” The tenderness was snuffed out like the candles she lit to chase away smells in her apartment.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Inside maybe?”
“Why?” He crossed his arms over his broad chest.
Because I’m about to shatter your world, and even strong Tom Sheffield will need a seat for this.
She gestured to the door.
He stood taller, legs shoulder width apart, intimidating in his gray sweatshirt and black shorts. The old Stephanie would have let him call the shots. But the old Stephanie had been a girl, not a woman in control of her life.
“It’s important.” A breeze played with the hair around her neck. She brushed it aside.
Finally he nodded, opening the faded red door. The living room, while tidy, lacked color. The only pictures were of some stadium and what appeared to be an autographed photo of a baseball team. A dark leather couch, love seat, matching chair and a huge television filled the room. No cozy aromas like vanilla or cinnamon lurked in the air.
She sat on the couch as he lowered his body into the chair. She’d mentally rehearsed this moment a million times. Gotten in her car to confess at least twice a week. Picked up the phone to tell him, to explain. And now she was here and her vocal chords went on strike.
“So?” He opened his hands, giving her a pointed look. Stephanie couldn’t tell if his gruff manner was real or an act, but it didn’t matter.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” she said. “I’ve wanted to. I’ve tried. But the accident yesterday—well, it got me here when nothing else would.” The rest of her speech stuck in her throat. His clenched jaw didn’t ease her nerves.
“Well, could you move things along?” He tapped his fingers against his thigh. “I’ve got another hour of training to get in.”
“Training?” The Tom she’d known had been driven by work. By success. He’d rarely spent time exercising or, for that matter, on anything outside his car dealership. He’d preferred his job to her.
“Look, I don’t have time for chitchat. If you have something to say, say it.” He shot
“There’s no good way to do this, so I’m going to be blunt.” Say it. Do it. Get it over with. “You have a daughter.”
His mouth dropped open. He shut it. Opened it again.
Stephanie’s legs instinctively prepared to run, but she didn’t move. The expressions crumpling his face hit her harder than tears ever could. The man’s world had just imploded, and she’d launched the bomb. What could she possibly say? Sorry?
Sorry wasn’t good enough, and neither was she.
His chest expanded. Cheekbones strained against skin, and the vulnerability, the pain she’d witnessed, vanished, replaced by something cold, something that would have broken her before she became a believer. She girded herself.
“What kind of joke is this?” His tone was lethal, the words quiet.
“It’s not a joke.”
Tom stared at her as if she’d grown two horns and a tail. Maybe she had.
“A daughter?” He shook his head. “No.”
His face drained of its healthy glow, replaced by a tinge of avocado green. “What’s her name?”
She hesitated, not expecting the question. What had she expected? Him to order her to get out? Absolutely. A slew of angry accusations? Yes. But the name? “Macy.”
“Macy,” he murmured. His glare was penetrating before confusion clouded it. “How? When?”
“She’s four. She’ll be five on April 20.”
He paced, growing six inches taller, everything about him bigger, restless. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She’d tried to justify not telling him—oh, how she’d tried—but only one of her reasons held up. Why would he care she’d stupidly thought she’d hurt him enough? That she’d feared he’d want to stay together for the baby’s sake? That she couldn’t, wouldn’t put him through a lifetime of being married to her?
“Remember the last thing you said to me?” Stephanie said softly. A flash of recognition crossed his face. She rose, setting her hand on the back of the couch to steady herself. “You said, ‘At least we didn’t have kids.’”
“I said a lot of stupid things that night. You should have told me you were pregnant.”
“I didn’t know I was pregnant then, and you served me with divorce papers the next week.” Stephanie trailed her finger over the leather. “But you’re right. I should have told you as soon as I found out. I was scared. Ashamed. I’d messed up our marriage. And I didn’t want to trap you into staying with me.”
If she could go back, be the person she was now instead of the insecure girl who married him... But she couldn’t. And it didn’t excuse him, either. His constant hours away had made it clear his job was number one. Macy deserved better than to be ignored.
“Not good enough.” The clipped words proved how much this was costing him. “Not when we’re talking about another life.”
“I know.” She tamped down the words battling to come out. His pale eyes held her captive, dared her to tell him the truth. What was the truth? “I told myself you’d moved on, so why disrupt your life? For all I knew, you could have gotten remarried, started your own family. You’d resent me barging into your world. But I know I was selfish.” Standing in front of him now, she could see how selfish she was.
“You’re telling me I have a daughter. A daughter.” He thrust his hand through his dark hair, his face haunted. “And I’m supposed to take your word about all this?”
Now that question she’d been expecting. She fumbled for her purse. “I have a picture.”
“Why are you doing this? Why now?”
“Because you deserve to know. You’ve always deserved to know, and Macy does, too. I can’t live with the guilt anymore. I’m sorry.” She swiped her phone and opened the photos to Macy’s smiling face. God, whatever happens here, don’t let it hurt my precious girl. She held it out to him. “Here. See for yourself.”
He didn’t accept it, but the pulse in his cheek throbbed—he clearly wrestled emotions. It wasn’t as if she’d fooled herself into thinking this meeting would be easy, but the reality of it? Brutal.
“Just look at the picture,” she said. “Take it.”
He took it from her hand. He blinked twice, his face relaxing. Then he snapped his attention to her. “She...”
Please let him see the obvious.
“My eyes...” He held it closer, peering at it. “She’s beautiful.”
“She is. She has your eyebrows, too. And your lips. She’s all yours.”
“Macy.” He traced his finger around the screen. He glanced up, recognition pushing the stress off his face. “Mine. I have a daughter.”
Out of all the scenarios she’d considered, she’d never allowed herself to hope he’d be happy. The full weight of what she’d done, what she had kept from him—how much she’d taken from him—slammed into her. Another thing she’d feel guilty about the rest of her life.
Tom handed her the phone, then wiped his hand over his face. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Ask me anything.” She propped her hands on the back of the couch for support.
“Do you still live in Petoskey?”
“No. I moved to Kalamazoo last year to finish college.” With a semester and a half left of her undergraduate program in accounting, Stephanie could practically taste success. In less than three years, she’d be a successful CPA. A role model. Someone Macy could be proud of. All the struggles she’d been through would be worth it to give Macy a better life.
“So you’re telling me you’ve lived half an hour away and it just occurred to you now to tell me I have a daughter?” He pushed his sleeves up.
“It’s occurred to me every day since I saw two lines on the pregnancy test.” Her ribs ached, but she didn’t dare sit again.
“I can’t believe this.” His voice broke, and his strained face tore her up inside.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry our child has lived without a father her whole life. Or...wait. Let me guess. She hasn’t lived without a father, has she?”
Stephanie couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. The accusation cut, but he had every right to say that to her. Every right. The clock on the wall ticked as she tried to figure out a reply.
“There hasn’t been a man in my life since our divorce. Until last year Macy and I lived with Dad, but he moved to Miami when I went back to school.” Her energy dissolved, and she fought to stay upright.
“I want to see her.” He stood, wide-legged, a fist on each hip.
“Okay, we can figure—”
“I want to see her now.”
“I want to see my daughter today.”
Stephanie’s mind swirled. “She’s in day care for another hour, but, Tom, she doesn’t know any of this.”
“Well, that makes two of us. It’s about time she does.”
“I agree she needs to know. It’s one of the reasons I’m here today. She’s been all over me about daddies and sisters and brothers. I told her she would meet her father when the time was right, and she accepted it. But she’s young. Producing a dad out of the blue... Well, I don’t want to traumatize her.”
“Kind of like when I saw you holding hands with another guy when you told me you were shopping with Tiffany?”
“I crossed a line, but I never cheated on you, Tom.” Her throat burned. Of course he’d throw that in her face. “I don’t want to introduce you to her as her father unless you plan on being a permanent part of her life. She’s not someone you can blow off for work. And you wonder why I didn’t tell you. You hate me.”
“I don’t.” His posture relaxed a fraction.
Did regret shine in his eyes? She doubted it
“I just want to see my child.” His tone sounded reasonable.
“I understand. But I’m not freaking her out by springing a dad on her today. The accident yesterday was bad enough.”
“Was she hurt? Is she okay?”
“She has a sprained wrist. Nothing a sling and time won’t heal.” She sighed. She’d gone over all the possibilities, knew there was a chance he’d demand to see Macy right away. Knew, too, he might refuse to allow Macy in his life. What if he met her and decided being a dad wasn’t for him? Stephanie fought back a groan. She owed him the right to make the decision. “Why don’t you meet us at McDonald’s in an hour and a half? We can say you’re an old friend of mine.”
“I’m not lying to her.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t want to lie to her, either, but do we have to tell her tonight?”
“Fine.” His shoulders dropped. “We’ll do it your way. For now.”
* * *
From the front seat of his truck, Tom glimpsed the golden arches. A hundred years had passed since Stephanie left an hour and a half ago. Seeing her on his porch had brought back all of it—the day they’d met, how quickly he’d fallen in love with her, their short engagement, their shorter marriage.
He hadn’t been enough for her.
Only Stephanie could manage to throw his life off course when he’d finally found a way to get it back on track.
This morning he’d been checking invoices, calling his assistant managers and planning his training session for the day. Forty-two weeks left plenty of time to build strength and endurance for his first IRONMAN competition. And nothing would stop him from finishing in less than twelve hours. The average competitor finished in twelve and a half.
He was done being average.
Signing up for the triathlon had given his life meaning again. Something to strive for. Something to feel proud of.
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