I’ve met the greatest guy ever.
Noah Walsh is handsome as sin. He’s sweet and smart and successful and sexy—all the best adjectives beginning with “S.” My six-year-old daughter worships the ground he walks on ever since he fashioned her smiley face pancakes out of bananas and blueberries. Oh yeah, and he can cook.
The only problem?
I dumped this great guy a decade ago, right after I wrecked his life.
And boy, this man holds a grudge.
My Perfect Ex-Boyfriend
Riding with my daughter Lily on an Amtrak train may be one of the nine circles of hell.
It’s like Lily read a magazine article before the trip on how best to annoy your parents during a long train ride. First she’s hungry. That’s an easy one—we feed her. Then she’s sick to her stomach from the food she just ate and wants me to fix it somehow. Then she’s bored. So bored. Soooo boooooored. I brought a stack of activity books for the train, but none of them hold the slightest interest for her. She starts kicking the seat in front of her, oblivious to the glares from the passenger unfortunate enough to be sitting there.
Now, with twenty minutes left until we arrive at our destination, Lily has gotten stuck in an endless loop. For the last hour, every five minutes, she has asked, “Are we there yet?”
I thought kids saying “are we there yet” was one of those stereotypes about kids that doesn’t really happen. But I assure you, it does really happen. Over and over and over. And there’s no way to stop it. No way for me to say “not yet” or give her a sense of the arrival time that will keep her from asking.
“Are we there yet?” Lily whines.
“Not yet, Lily!” snaps my father. Even he’s lost his patience with her.
Lily’s never been yelled at before by Grandpa, and immediately, her little heart-shaped face crumples. And now she’s wailing hysterically. She’s six years old and she’s louder than the newborn infant two rows down. I’m scared someone’s going to throw us off this train.
And we can’t get thrown off this train. Because we are on our way to Baltimore for me and Lily to meet the woman my father has proposed to. I’m not thrilled about it, but I promised Dad I would try not to be judgmental, so here I am—trying. Apparently, her son owns a cabin out in Maryland and we’re going to spend the week of Lily’s spring break getting to know each other.
Dad is apologizing to Lily for his outburst when my cell phone rings. I see the name on the screen and groan. It’s my ex-husband, Theo. I’m not in the mood for Theo right now. Well, I’m never in the mood for Theo, but especially not now. But then again, it will be a break from the monotony of this ride and Lily’s screaming.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Hey, Bailey,” he says. “I was just thinking about taking Lily out for dinner tonight. Maybe we could go see a movie.”
I flinch. Last weekend, Theo was supposed to take Lily to the movies, and he stood her up. He stood up his six-year-old daughter. He left her waiting on the stoop of our building for the better part of an hour, her eyes perking up at every car that turned the corner.
“Sorry,” I say, even though I don’t feel at all sorry. “We’re taking a trip to Maryland for the week. We’re actually almost there.”
“What?” Theo has a temper. It’s one of the many, many things I’ve come to dislike about him. And it’s flaring up right now. “You never told me you were taking Lily to Maryland!”
“It didn’t even occur to me that you’d care,” I reply honestly.
“You’re supposed to tell me when you take Lily on a trip!”
“Yeah, well, you’re supposed to pay me child support.”
Theo snorts. “Are you trying to shame me, Bailey? You know I pay what I can.”
Yeah, and that’s apparently nothing.
“Look,” I say, “I don’t know what to tell you, Theo. We’re nearly in Baltimore.”
“Are you going with some guy?” he growls. “Is that what this is about?”
Ha. That’s so far from the truth, it’s depressing. But I’m not going to tell him about my father and give him any window into my life.
“It’s none of your business,” I say.
“The hell it’s not!” Theo yells. “Lily is my daughter! You can’t just jet her off wherever you want with your… your man-whore!”
Back when Theo and I were married, I had to listen to him scream his head off at me when his temper was flaring. Fortunately, we’re not married anymore. So I can click the “end” button and our conversation is over. He calls me back immediately, but I put my phone on “silent” and shove it back in my purse. If only I could temporarily put Lily on “silent,” this would be a great trip.
I hear the conductor announcing overhead that the next stop is Baltimore. I breathe a sigh of relief. “How are we getting to the cabin?” I ask my father. “Do we need to call a taxi?”
Dad shakes his head as we hear a train whistle overhead. “Gwen’s son is picking us up at the station.”
“The son’s here?” I imagined that Gwen’s son was lending us an empty cabin to stay in. I didn’t know we were going to have to share it with the son and likely his family. Fabulous.
Dad nods. “I haven’t met him either, so Gwen thought this would be a nice introduction for everyone. He sounds like a nice kid.”
Kid? How old is this guy? Old enough to drive and old enough to own a place in Manhattan and a cabin in Maryland. Of course, my father probably still refers to me as a kid, so for all I know, this guy could be fifty.
“How are we supposed to know it’s him?” I ask. “Is he going to be holding up one of those big signs that says, ‘CHAPIN’?”
He laughs. “Maybe. I don’t know—I didn’t ask her. Apparently, he thinks he’ll be able to find us.”
The train skids to a halt in the Baltimore station. I stand up, stretching out the crick in my neck from the long ride. Lily leaps out of her seat and smooths out the dress she’s chosen to meet her new step-grandmother-to-be. The dress has a lot of cats on it. And when I say that, you might be imagining a dress that has three or four cats on it, so let me rescue you from that delusion. Every inch of this dress is covered in multicolored pictures of cats. It’s almost dizzying how many cats are on her dress. There’s got to be, like, fifty of them. It’s her favorite dress.
“Come on, Lily,” I say as I grab my duffel bags down from the compartment above the seats. My father was bright enough to purchase luggage on wheels, but I was apparently not. All our clothes and supplies for the week are stuffed into these two giant bags. Well, aside from the few things I fit into Lily’s miniscule backpack. I hope Gwen’s son is strong and likes carrying luggage.
We dismount the train, my father holding Lily’s hand as I struggle with my two pieces of luggage. I really hope this guy is waiting for us and we don’t have to look everywhere for him. Dad is looking around, shading his eyes from the sun with his hand. That’s when I notice that there’s a man walking in the opposite direction of the passengers coming off the train. He’s clearly coming toward us.
It’s very sunny and I squint to see him better. The first thing I notice is the tousled dark blond hair and strong, solid build—this is a guy who should have no trouble throwing a couple of duffel bags over his broad shoulders. As he gets closer, I can see the muscles filling out his blue T-shirt. Damn, this guy is a hottie.
And then his features come into better focus. The stubble on his chin. The blue eyes. The solid jaw.
Oh my God.
Not Noah. Anyone but Noah. Please, God, let him be here for some other coincidental reason completely unrelated to my father and I.
But no, I’m not that lucky. The man I haven’t seen in a decade strides in our direction and comes abruptly to a stop in front of us. I don’t see any trace of surprise on his face, which makes me think he knew I was Leonard Chapin’s daughter. He hasn’t been blindsided like I was.
I also notice he isn’t smiling. No big shock there.
“Mr. Chapin?” Noah nods at my father. “I’m Gwen’s son, Noah.”
“Nice to meet you!” Dad’s face lights up and he thrusts his hand in Noah’s direction. “Please, call me Lenny.”
My father has no idea who he is. Not a clue. He has no idea that he’s already shaken Noah’s hand before and commanded him to call him Lenny. I, on the other hand, get a sickening sense of déjà vu.
“And this is my daughter, Bailey,” Dad tells him.
Noah faces me and one corner of his mouth lifts in something that is a poor excuse for a smile. “Actually,” he says. “Bailey and I have already met.”
“Have you?” Dad squints at Noah, clearly trying to place him. Mom would have known Noah in an instant. She loved Noah. But my father is struggling. It takes him several seconds, but finally, I see the color leave his face and I know he’s made the connection. “Oh. You’re…”
He doesn’t complete the sentence. I think we’re all grateful for that.
“What about me?” Lily yelps.
I laugh shakily. “Oh, um… Noah, this is my daughter, Lily.”
Noah looks down at her and offers his first genuine smile since we arrived. “Well, hello, Lily.”
Lily blushes and hides her face in my jeans. I think she’s smitten. I can’t entirely blame her. That bastard has only gotten handsomer in the time since I’ve last seen him. Back in college, he was good-looking, but now he’s gotten sexy. So sexy. His face has filled out and the muscles in his arms and chest seem more pronounced under his light blue T-shirt that makes his eyes look oh so blue. His blond hair always used to be shaggy back then, but now it’s clipped short and professional, making it look darker than it used to be.
I glance down at the fourth digit of his left hand. Bare, like mine.
“Let’s go to my car,” Noah says. He eyes my two bulging duffel bags. “I’ll carry those for you.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say quickly as I tighten my grip on the straps. “I can manage.”
He raises his eyebrows. “They look heavy.”
“No, don’t worry about it!” I say quickly. “They’re not as heavy as they look.”
Noah narrows his eyes at me, but then shakes his head. “Fine. Suit yourself.”
I regret my decision as the straps of the duffel bags dig into my shoulders. I hurry after Noah, who is walking just a little too quickly. As he pulls ahead of me, I examine the way he walks. He limps. It’s definitely noticeable if you’re looking for it. I glance over at my father, wondering if he’s noticing too.
Noah’s car is parked so far away, I’m beginning to feel like we probably could have walked to the cabin faster. I’m covered in sweat and there are painful grooves in my shoulders where the straps of the duffel bags have been digging in. When I see the gray Toyota 4Runner light up, I nearly collapse with relief—I drop my bags to the ground and rub my aching shoulders. Noah pops the trunk so that I can throw the bags inside. I can’t help but notice he’s got handicapped plates on the car, although he obviously decided to park in the next town over rather than use them.
Noah lifts one eyebrow. “Where’s your booster seat for Lily?”
“Oh.” Somehow it didn’t occur to me we’d be riding around in a car much. Considering I live in the city and don’t have a car of my own, car seats aren’t something on my radar. After all, you don’t need one on the bus or the subway. Theo had a car seat up until Lily was three, when he said she was “too big” and that it was a “pain in the ass.” Oh, and also “Lily agrees,” as if we’re taking the opinion of a six-year-old into consideration on major safety issues. It’s something Theo and I have argued about multiple times, although it’s hard to refute his argument that neither of us were in booster seats when we were six. “I don’t have one.”
“Aren’t kids supposed to be in a booster seat?” Noah presses me.
I glare at him. “I said don’t have one. So what am I supposed to do?”
He mumbles under his breath, something that sounds like, “Way to be a responsible parent.” But who is he to judge me? I’m a freaking single mother. He doesn’t even have kids.
Dad is too quick for me and jumps into the back seat next to Lily before I can claim it. So now I’m stuck sitting next Noah. Who smells nice. It must be his aftershave. Theo was all about being a grungy musician, so I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be near a man who smells so…
Good. He smells good. Let’s leave it with that adjective.
I watch Noah start up the car. It seems like a completely normal Toyota—it’s got what appears to be automatic transmission, and when I lean over, I think I can see pedals for the gas and brake.
“Excuse me?” Noah says as I’m practically leaning over him to check out the pedals.
“I just…” I swallow and attempt a smile. “I noticed it’s a normal car.”
He rolls his eyes. “Yeah. How about that? I can drive a normal car.”
I need to shut up. Permanently.
Noah pulls out onto the road and it looks like he’s right—he can drive a normal car. That’s not to say I’m not worried about the whole thing though. I’m really beginning to wish Lily had that booster seat.
“You don’t have to cling to the dashboard,” Noah says to me. “I’m a safe driver.”
“I’m not clinging to the dashboard,” I lie. He actually seems to be driving very carefully, staying around the speed limit and not tailgating the way Theo always does. Still, I’m hoping this isn’t a long drive.
Noah’s blue eyes stay pinned on the road, and he doesn’t even attempt to make conversation with me. He turns on the radio and generic pop music fills the silence of the car. Usually I can count on Lily to chatter through any break in conversation, but she must be worn out from the train ride, because she’s completely silent.
The car glides past a hospital. I watch an ambulance pulling into the entrance, its lights flashing. My head floats back to a conversation fourteen years ago.
“So, Noah, you’re pre-med, huh?”
“Yeah. I’m planning to become a surgeon.”
“Seriously? That sounds hard.”
“I know, but it’s my dream. I’ve wanted to be a surgeon as long as I can remember.”
“Are you a surgeon?” I blurt out.
Noah slows to a stop at a red light before turning to glare at me. “I’m an ER physician.”
“An ER physician,” I murmur. “That sounds… really fulfilling.”
“You don’t have to patronize me, Bailey,” he says. “I’m a doctor.”
My cheeks grow warm just as Lily blurts out, “Mommy is a social worker!”
Noah bursts out laughing. I’d forgotten what the sound of his laughter sounded like, and even though I know he’s laughing at me, it still fills me with an almost painful sense of nostalgia. I missed Noah’s laugh.
“You’re a social worker?” he says incredulously.
I sniff. “What’s so wrong with that?”
“Nothing. I mean, it’s admirable.” He smiles crookedly. “I just never saw you as someone who was interested in helping people.”
Well, that’s insulting.
“Bailey did an amazing thing for this woman who was a hoarder,” Dad speaks up. “She got the whole neighborhood and all the woman’s friends together and they all pitched in to clean out her two-story house. The house was going to be condemned, but they got it spick and span by the end.”
I smile at the memory. That was one of my successes. I’ve had plenty of failures, but the success stories make it worth it.
“Is that so?” Noah pulls onto a road that leads out of the city. “Didn’t you always want to be an artist or something useless like that?”
“Mommy’s a really good artist!” Lily pitches in. “She draws all the time.”
I look away from Noah, out the window. I did hope to have a career in art at one time. The reason I’m a social worker is because of Noah. It’s part of my penance.
“I need the bathroom!” Lily abruptly calls out. She used the bathroom no less than one-thousand times on the train. It was tiny and smelled like urine. I don’t know what’s wrong with this child—it’s like her bladder is the size of a pea.
“Sweetie, you just went on the train,” I remind her. “You’ve been going every five minutes.”
“I have to go again!” she whines.
“Maybe she has a urinary tract infection?” Noah suggests.
“She does not have a urinary tract infection,” I snap at him. “This is a behavior issue, thank you very much.”
Noah shrugs. “Well, if she can’t wait, I’ll find a gas station.”
“How long till we get there?”
“Fifteen minutes maybe.”
Lily agrees to hold it in for another fifteen minutes. If she soils Noah’s car, I’ll have to quit social work and become a nun or something.
“My mom is really excited to meet you, Lily,” Noah calls to her.
I vaguely remember Gwen Walsh. She was a sweet woman with a chubby but beautiful face and blue eyes that reminded me of Noah’s. The last time I saw her, she greeted me with a warm hug that felt like it would never end. The thought of seeing her now makes me physically ill.
“Does your mother… remember me?” I ask him.
“You sound like you hope she doesn’t,” he observes.
I squeeze my palms together. “Well…”
“Why?” He raises his eyebrows. “Do you think you did something extremely despicable to her son that you’d hope she wouldn’t remember?”
Okay, Noah’s being a jerk right now. I think my best bet is to avoid speaking for the rest of the weekend.
To be continued....
P.S. If you are enjoying the story so far, please leave me a comment! I always get anxious whenever I start posting something new. Noah's disability will be revealed in the next chapter.