Let It Be Me
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Four years ago, firefighter Caleb Romero saved a child and met the woman of his dreams. But trauma killed the timing, so he’s contented himself with being the friend she needed as she navigated sudden parenthood.
Four years ago, Emerson Aldridge became a mom in the worst possible way. Without qualm, she abandoned her own dreams to shepherd her teenage daughter through their shared grief. Her number one priority has been to raise Fiona the way her best friend would have wanted.
Now Fi’s headed off to college and Emerson has no idea how to feel about her suddenly empty nest. She barely even remembers life before motherhood, but Caleb’s right next door to give her a reminder—along with a toe-curling kiss that catapults them past friends and into something more. The life she wanted before the accident is still within reach. He just has to convince her that their age difference means nothing.
Piece of cake. Right?
Release date: January 8, 2021
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 222
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Let It Be Me
“I am not drunk enough for this.”
As truly horrific honky-tonk music slammed into her like a freight train, Emerson wished for a shot of something stout and the silence of the recording booth. Emerson almost turned around to go home to Hamilton as the blonde on stage reached the ear-splitting chorus of “Stand By Your Man.” But her boyfriend had blown their plans tonight because of work, and she’d promised Paisley she’d meet her new man. It seemed a shame to waste all the effort she’d put into her appearance for the cancelled date, so she’d dragged herself all the way into Nashville to Lower Broadway.
Weaving her way through the crowd that didn’t seem in the least deterred by the steady drizzle of spring rain, Emerson scanned the bar for familiar brunette curls. As she edged past too many bodies, her phone vibrated. Fishing it out, she saw Fiona Gaffney flash across the screen. Her goddaughter. One of the lights of her life. It was too damned loud to answer now. She’d get this meet and greet over with and call her back on the way home.
“Emmy!” Paisley’s excited squeal reached her, even over the catcalling toward the stage. She materialized out of the throng and looped an arm through Emerson’s. “You came!”
“You did not tell me it was karaoke night. You know how I feel about karaoke.” She had to lean close to be heard over the noise. Bad music aside, Paisley knew she avoided places like this because she had to protect her voice for work.
But her long-time friend didn’t wilt under the accusatory stare. “Oh, don’t be a fuddy duddy.” She began to drag Emerson through the bar. “You need to hear Dustin sing.”
“Please tell me you haven’t latched on to another country music hopeful.” Her excessively romantic best friend had definitely had a type back in college. They’d attended more than their fair share of open mic nights and karaoke competitions in the name of being supportive.
“God no. He’s just got a gorgeous voice.” Paisley winked. “And a really great ass.”
Stopping at a high-top table with a sandy-haired guy in jeans and an untucked black button down, she waved an enthusiastic hand. “Dustin, baby, this is my dearest, darling bestie, Emerson Aldridge. Emerson, my boyfriend, Dustin Phelps.”
Emerson shook his proffered hand and slid onto one of the chairs, sending up a prayer of sincere gratitude as the caterwauling from the stage finally stopped. Why? Why couldn’t they have picked one of the other venues that had actual good music? There were so many to choose from.
Once the waitress had taken her order, Dustin leaned across the table. “So Emerson, what is it you do?”
Yet again she had to lean too close to be heard without shouting. “I’m a voice actor.”
“Yeah? Like, what? Cartoons? Video games?”
“Sometimes. But mostly I do audiobooks.”
He blinked. “So you read for a living.”
She performed entire casts of characters, giving unique voices to each, such that listeners had a well-rounded experience and felt immersed in the story. But sure. They could just reduce her life’s work down to reading. He clearly wasn’t an audiobook listener. A lot of people didn’t understand, and she was not in the proper mood to educate him, particularly as she suspected he wouldn’t last the month once Paisley had her fill.
Did he even know that Paisley wrote romance? If he didn’t, how serious could this relationship be?
One drink. She’d have one drink and visit for a bit, then the social niceties would be discharged and she could go back home to the quiet. As the next pair of singers took the stage for an extremely drunk rendition of “Beer Run,” she knew that would be sooner rather than later. She was absolutely not in the mood for this. But she did her best to engage in conversation during the lulls between singers, listening to Dustin talk about his job as assistant baseball coach for one of the area universities. That explained the nice ass. Nearly a dozen more tone-deaf performers took the stage, each progressively worse than the last. Emerson wondered if blood was leaking from her ears. Where the hell was her drink?
Paisley studied her face. “You are not in a fun-loving-Emerson frame of mind.”
She definitely was not. But that wasn’t Paisley’s fault, and it wasn’t fair of her to spoil the night. Reeling in her lousy mood, she offered an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I’m disappointed that Blaine’s work schedule ruined what was supposed to be a romantic date night. Again. I know he’s trying to make partner, but I’m feeling a bit neglected lately.” The past few months, he’d been so dialed into work. At first, she’d been fine with it. It had given her time to really dig in and expand her own portfolio, making her name known in the industry. But she missed coming out like this with him. Being third wheel was not what she’d had in mind for tonight.
“That sucks. But it’s all the more reason to come out with girlfriends!”
Emerson slid a look over to Dustin, who was scrolling on his phone.
Paisley leaned closer. “Okay, fair point. But we haven’t gotten together in forever. I feel like I never see you anymore since you started dating Blaine.”
The waitress finally came back with her drink, and Emerson pounced on it in the name of buying herself time to find an answer. She had let her friendship slide in the past year since Blaine had come into her life. To some extent that was to be expected with a new relationship, but she could absolutely make more of an effort.
Before she could say as much, she spotted another familiar face across the room and froze.
Surely it wasn’t him.
But even as she watched, Blaine laughed and loosed that megawatt grin she’d seen him whip out at countless meet-and-greet mixers for work. What the hell was he doing at a karaoke bar on Lower Broadway? This wasn’t the kind of networking his firm engaged in. His arm was around the shoulders of another woman. The same one in cling-wrap jeans who’d been butchering Tammy Wynette when Emerson came in.
Paisley followed her gaze. “Is that…Oh shit.”
Blaine hauled the blonde to her toes and planted a smoldering kiss on her mouth.
Emerson was out of her seat and walking over before she could think better of it. She had to be sure. She dodged around tables, circling the room until she came up behind him. He still had his mouth fused to the blonde when she tapped on his shoulder.
His head came up, and the utter shock on his face was all the answer she needed. “Emerson?”
“You had to work?” How many times had he used that excuse and been doing this?
Blaine released the blonde, opening his mouth to make some kind of an explanation, but Emerson just lifted a trembling hand. “Don’t bother. We’re done.”
She needed to get the hell out of here before the reaction set in because, right now, she wasn’t sure if she’d fall apart or utterly lose her shit, and she wasn’t keen on having an audience for either. Eye on the door, she turned.
“Emerson, wait.” Blaine caught her by the arm and jerked her around.
She led with the drink still in her hand, flinging it in his face. “Let me go, you cheating bastard!”
He released her, howling as the alcohol dripped into his eyes. “What the hell!”
Taking advantage of his momentary blindness, she hustled back to the table to grab her purse. Dustin was throwing down some bills, and Paisley was gathering her own things.
“Don’t bother. I’m sorry. I’m going home.”
“Seriously. Y’all stay and enjoy your date. Don’t let me ruin your night, too.” Not waiting for an answer, she pushed through the throng, dimly registering a few “You go girl”s from some of the women on her way to the door.
Outside, she stopped just underneath the awning, sucking in huge breaths of air.
Blaine was cheating on her. And if he was doing it now, he’d probably done it before. She’d made it so damned easy on him, with her homebody tendencies, so often focused on her work, on the books she loved. Content in her little house outside the city proper, away from all the lights, the traffic, the noise. The pressure of all of it pressed in on her as she trudged through the rain back to where she’d left her car. How much had changed in an hour.
She’d been a damned fool.
Her phone began to vibrate again.
If that son of a bitch was going to try to offer excuses, she’d just have to give him a piece of her mind. But the vitriol died on her tongue as she saw Fiona’s name again.
She could hold it together long enough to talk to her. Hell, maybe talking to Fi would keep her distracted and calm until she got home and could fall apart in private.
“Hey honey. I’m sorry I missed your call earlier, I—”
“Is this Emerson Aldridge?” The deep, male voice was so unexpected, she pulled the phone away from her ear to check the display again.
“Yes?” Delayed concern began to set in, sharpening her tone. “Who is this? Where is Fiona?”
“I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”
* * *
That was all it took for lives to be changed. Lives to be lost.
Caleb Romero knew that better than many. Had lived through that knife’s edge when others had not. So he knew, before he even fully registered the truck barreling through the red light, before he heard the crash and shriek of metal, that someone else’s life was over.
He slammed on his brakes, skidding a little on the rain-slicked pavement as he yanked his truck to the shoulder of the road. His mind was already assessing the scene as he leapt out, raced over. Other vehicles were stopping. Someone else would dial 911. He needed to check for survivors, start stabilization if he could.
The truck was flipped on its side, front end accordioned where it had struck the little sedan. The car… Jesus God. It was upside down, the driver’s side entirely caved in. He didn’t need to see past the blood on the shattered window to know the driver was likely a lost cause.
The tremulous voice had his blood running cold.
His mind tried to throw him back to high school. Back to his own trauma. Caleb blanked it out, focusing instead on the here and now and the life still to be saved. He raced around to the passenger side, hunkering low to see through what remained of the window.
The girl hung upside down from the seatbelt, her blonde hair brushing the collapsed roof of the car. She reached out toward the woman dangling beside her in the driver’s seat.
“Hey. Hey there. I’m here to help.”
Tears clogged her voice. “Help my mom.”
It was more than evident, now that he could see, that her mother was beyond help. But now wasn’t the time to bring that point home to the kid.
“More help is on the way.” The distant wail of a siren underscored the point. “I need you to focus on me just now. Can you move? Are you hurt?”
The girl turned her head to look at him. Stiffly but with what appeared to be more or less full range of motion. “I don’t…I…”
“Take it slow. Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?”
Good sign. “Are you having any severe pain anywhere?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
She was definitely in shock, so no guarantees, but she didn’t show any obvious signs of spinal injury. “Okay. We’re gonna get you out of there.”
Stripping off his jacket, Caleb used it to break out the last of the window, clearing a space. He didn’t even ask if she could unbuckle the belt, just pulled out his pocket knife and carefully sliced through it, managing to catch her before she crashed to the ceiling of the car.
“I’ve gotcha.” Carefully, he eased her out, not taking a full breath until her legs cleared the wreckage. His mind ran through triage. No signs of massive bleeding or breaks. But there could still be internal bleeding.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?”
The soft question stopped Caleb’s assessment. He met the girl’s shattered eyes, read the horror of knowledge, and swallowed as he felt the long ago echoes of his own. “I’m so sorry.”
As sirens shrieked and emergency personnel began to swarm the scene, the girl slumped against him and wept.
She was the only survivor.
Because he knew what it was to be alone and terrified, Caleb had come with her to the hospital, done what needed doing. As a firefighter, he was a first responder and the emergency staff at this hospital knew him, so nobody kicked up a fuss.
By now, the tears had stopped, replaced by the glassy-eyed anesthesia of shock. After what she’d been through, that was a blessing, one that would end far too soon.
As Dr. Chahal performed the exam, the girl—Fiona—offered monosyllabic answers. Caleb wasn’t sure she really heard anything the kind-eyed doctor said. He could feel the tremors wracking her slim frame through the hand gripping his like a vise. He remembered all too clearly how fear and grief pooled just below the surface, waiting to rise and strike. How, when the bubble burst, they’d all but torn him apart when he’d been barely older than she was.
Fiona Gaffney would have a hard, hard road. She’d need solid support. Caleb wondered if the godmother she’d had him call would be that for her.
In the end, Liya Chahal sat back, addressing him, though she kept her dark eyes on Fiona. “She’s banged up, has some bruises and cuts from flying glass. But all in all, she’s physically remarkably unharmed.”
That was something, at least.
“Will she be cleared to leave?”
They both knew there’d be legal paperwork to hash out in terms of who the girl would be allowed to leave with. Who knew how long that would take?
A nurse knocked on the door before slipping inside. “There’s someone at the front desk pitching a fit to get back here for Miss Gaffney. An Emerson Aldridge?”
The hand holding Caleb’s tightened as Fiona jolted upright. “Auntie Em?” She started to scramble off the bed.
“Hold it.” Gently, Caleb pressed her back. “You stay put.”
“I’ll bring her to you.” There were things he needed to tell the woman before she got back here. Things he hadn’t felt comfortable getting into over the phone with a traumatized fourteen-year-old listening in.
Fiona’s eyes skittered to their joined hands.
Caleb squeezed, hoping she found the touch reassuring. “We’ll be right back. I promise.”
“I’ll stay,” the nurse offered. The entire emergency department already knew what they were dealing with here. News traveled fast.
After a long moment, Fiona’s grip loosened, and Caleb slipped out of the room. On the way through the familiar labyrinth of hallways, he braced himself for what was coming. It didn’t matter how many times he’d had to do it, these notifications never got any easier.
A water-logged woman stood at the triage desk, her hands white-knuckling the edge as she clearly struggled not to scream at the nurse on duty. “I was told she’s here. I need to see her.”
“Ma’am, as I said, if you’re not family—”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Her father is not involved. I’m her godmother. I am the next closest thing to family.”
The woman whipped her head around at the sound of Caleb’s voice. The carefully rehearsed words bled out of his brain as panicked blue eyes met his. The relative chaos of the waiting room faded away as he fell into those eyes, soaking up the sense of recognition, even though he knew he’d never seen her before.
Startled by his own thought, he snapped out of his stupor and closed the distance and nodded to the nurse. “I’ve got this, Janette.”
“I’ll take you to her. C’mon.” He gestured toward the double doors, and she hustled toward them. “I’m Caleb Romero—the one who called you. You need to know right off that Fiona is okay. Minor injuries.” It was the only comfort he’d be able to offer her tonight.
A little of the terror etched on her face faded as they pushed through the doors. But Emerson was sharp. “Could you not reach her mother?”
This was the part he hadn’t wanted to tell her over the phone. Navigating her into one of the empty rooms off to the side, he shut the door. Emerson didn’t move toward any of the chairs. Her whole body drew taut, and he recognized that, deep down, she already knew what was coming.
Tunneling a hand through his hair, Caleb sighed. “Fiona’s mother was in the car. She didn’t make it.”
Like a puppet with suddenly cut strings, Emerson collapsed. It was instinct to catch her, to pull her against his body, as if he could somehow offer protection from the truth. She sucked in a ragged breath, and he waited for the scream of rage and pain. But she didn’t make a sound as she wilted into him, her hands curled to ineffectual fists against his chest. Her silent, potent grief swamped them both for long minutes. Caleb felt a little like a voyeur. He didn’t know this woman. But he knew this pain. So he held her, until she found the strength to stand again.
“You were there?” The question rasped out, as if her vocal cords had been torched.
“I saw it happen. I pulled Fiona out. There wasn’t—” He stopped himself. The driver’s side of the car had taken the brunt of the impact. She didn’t need that horror in her head. “Her mom was already gone.”
Emerson closed her eyes, absorbing that. Maybe she’d take comfort in the fact that death had been all but instant.
“Thank you for saving Fi.” Her throat worked as she swallowed. “Does she know?”
She visibly armored up, pulling herself together for the sake of the child in a way that impressed the hell out of him. As she straightened, she seemed to register she was still pressed against him. A faint tinge of embarrassment brought color back to her pale cheeks.
Caleb forced himself to drop his arms and step back. “Are you up to seeing her now?”
She sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders. “Take me to her.”
The moment they stepped through the door to the room, Fiona broke. Emerson didn’t hesitate, edging onto the bed and pulling the girl tight into her arms as she sobbed, even as tears tracked down her own cheeks.
Eventually, the unintelligible cries turned into words. “I don’t want to go to my grandparents. You know what they’re like.”
Emerson’s face went fierce. “Not a chance in hell, baby. Your…” She swallowed. “Your mom made provisions. You’re with me.”
Everything in her posture and expression said she’d go to war for this kid.
Some tension in Caleb released. They had a long road to go, but he had a feeling these two would be just fine.
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