Then she saw the girl.
“That can’t be my daughter,” Libby murmured as she watched a teenager ascend the stairs of a crowded bleacher at the River’s Edge High football game. “That young lady has someone else’s genes.”
Medley Grant reached over and squeezed her hand. “Lib, Lib, you’ve got to keep an open mind. I warned you that Amber might not be what you expected.”
The crowd roared and Amber MacKenzie pivoted, gazing down at the play in progress. Towering floodlights cast a silvery sheen upon the tall, slender girl wearing a coral sweater and hip-hugging jeans. Waist-length hair hugged her shoulders and arms like a luxurious black shawl.
Libby studied every detail of the girl that she could glean from a distance, desperate to find some connection. “I expected to see something of myself in her,” she confessed. Instead, she’d come to a dead-end, once again facing the reality that the odds of finding her daughter didn’t lean in her favor. “She doesn’t resemble me at all.”
“Yes, she does!” Medley looked up and stared at the girl, perusing Amber with a smile of approval. “She reminds me precisely of you at that age.”
On the field, River’s Edge cheerleaders led the raucous crowd into a frenzy of school spirit. Clad in maroon skirts and gold sweaters, they swung matching pom-poms and kicked their legs high. “Push ‘em back, push ‘em back, w-a-y-y-y back! G-o-o-o Otters!” Behind them, both teams joined arms in their respective huddles, discussing their next plays.
Libby ignored the game and the crush of boisterous spectators seated elbow to elbow on the hard, metal bleachers. The crisp, September evening provided perfect weather for football, but she and her cousin never intended to spend their time watching the game. They were here on a mission—to find Amber MacKenzie. Ever since the girl walked into Medley’s salon last week to get a trim, Medley had pressured Libby to attend this event and observe Amber for herself.
Libby twisted at the waist, her gaze sliding from Amber back to her cousin. “What do you see that I don’t? I’m blonde and fair. She’s so...totally like her father.”
Medley paused, holding a couple of kernels of popcorn to her burgundy-tinted lips. “She inherited Cash MacKenzie’s looks, but I see other ways you two are exactly alike. That day she came into the salon, I noticed aspects about her that reminded me of you. She has your tall, slender frame. You both frown the same way when you’re reading. Oh, and another thing,” Medley paused to sip her soda, “Amber’s voice...” Medley’s fine, penciled brows arched. “She sounds exactly like you.”
“I wish I knew for sure.” Libby sighed and looked away, not wanting Medley to see her doubt. A couple of similar attributes didn’t prove a thing. “If she’s almost sixteen she could be mine. If she’s younger, then she’s his daughter by someone else.”
Even though it happened long ago, the thought of Cash MacKenzie marrying so soon after he’d severed all ties with her still touched a nerve. How could he have forgotten her so easily? Had he been seeing someone else all along? That could explain why he’d turned his back on her when she needed him the most...
She stared hard at Amber, wishing with all her heart this girl could be the one. For a moment, she dared to entertain the possibility.
“All these years I’ve believed total strangers adopted my baby,” she declared. “If Amber is my child and her biological father raised her...” Libby’s throat tightened as a simple question hovered in her mind. How did Cash end up with Amber? The only answer possible proved difficult to bear. The people closest to her, the ones she’d trusted, had deceived her.
Amber reached the top row. Squeezing past several people, she slowly made her way to her seat.
“There’s Cash.” Medley nudged Libby in the ribs. “Wow. The years have been good to him, haven’t they?”
The mere mention of his name made Libby tense. Ignoring the comment, she focused straight ahead and pretended to watch the game, but the players on the field quickly melded into a blur as the ploy failed and painful memories ambushed her. The past clouded her thoughts as she recalled the wayward, motherless girl of sixteen who thought she’d grasped the chance to have everything she’d ever wanted—the love of her life and a family of her own. Instead, she’d ended up lonely and alone, rejected by Cash MacKenzie, the only man she’d ever loved or trusted. She didn’t want to glance in his direction much less take inventory of his seasoned good looks. It took years to get over him, even longer to forgive him for what he’d done—and left undone.
Medley’s gentle nudge brought Libby’s attention back to the present. She expelled an unhappy sigh. “What’s he doing here? You said Amber planned to come with a friend.”
“That’s what Amber told me,” Medley chirped in her bird-like voice. She looked like a nosegay of fall chrysanthemums in her gold Ann Taylor sweater and dark green slacks. Her chin-length flip of auburn hair glistened with burgundy highlights. “Maybe her friend canceled.”
Libby cut Medley a sidewise glance. “Or maybe you secretly arranged this little reunion.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Medley’s quick laugh pierced the air. “When have I ever tried to match you up with a man?” Her heavy lashes fluttered. “Well, not this time. Honestly, I didn’t know he’d be here.” She leaned close. “But I did Google him on the Internet the other day.” A mischievous smile turned up the corners of her full lips. “He’s not married, you know.”
“Cash MacKenzie’s personal life is of no interest to me.” Libby pointed a warning finger at her. “So, don’t even think of hatching a scheme to get us together!”
“Aren’t you even curious about him?” Medley gazed up at Cash like an adoring groupie. “Like I said, he’s still a hunk.” She held out a small set of binoculars. “See for yourself.”
Libby pushed the binoculars away. “No thanks.” Medley’s cheerful persistence grated on her nerves, but her cousin had no way of knowing how deeply Cash had wounded her. She didn’t see any purpose in discussing the unpleasant details of her past, so she let it go.
“What about Amber?” Medley’s jade eyes twinkled. “You’ve waited so long. Don’t you want to gaze upon your own daughter? You’ll adore her once you meet her.”
“Meet her?” Libby shot her cousin an annoyed look. “On what basis? I have absolutely no proof she’s my child.”
“She is your daughter. I knew it the moment I saw her.” Medley grabbed Libby’s hand and slapped the binoculars into her palm. “Here. Satisfy your curiosity, once and for all.”
Libby debated only a moment. Then she gingerly tugged on the visor of her maroon and gold cap and leaned back to see past the shoulders of the mountainous man sitting to her right. She lifted the silver, palm-sized spyglasses and peered into the stands.
Amber MacKenzie sat tall and straight like a porcelain doll. Heavy lashes hooded her cocoa eyes as she scanned the crowd instead of watching the game. Nothing in either the girl’s manner or her features convinced Libby they were mother and daughter.
Someone bumped her elbow, shifting the binoculars sharply to the left. Her hand froze as a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt popped into view. The front hung open, revealing a gold T-shirt stretched across a wide, muscular chest. Cash MacKenzie, the man who’d shattered her teenage heart looked exactly as she remembered him, only more handsome and more mature. A little voice in the back of her mind warned her to look away, but curiosity held her. At thirty-five, he still had thick, onyx hair. His dark eyes still held the bold, piercing look of a man who planned to conquer the world but now reflected wisdom and confidence as well. He leaned toward his daughter and spoke into her ear. Amber responded with stony silence, her bow-shaped lips pursed into a defiant pout.
Cash kept his expression calm and appeared to accept the rejection, but Libby sensed his tension as he looked away.
The chill between father and daughter continued, vacillating between clipped words and taut silence. Libby watched for several minutes, caught up in the drama of their little family spat. Something in Amber’s stubborn expression bothered Libby, giving her the unshakable feeling the girl’s unhappiness ran deeper than mere teenage growing pains. She seemed troubled...
Libby sensed someone watching her. She shifted the binoculars and found herself staring straight into Cash’s visual line of fire. For a moment she floundered, stunned as his dark, piercing gaze seared through her.
A scene flashed through her mind, sweeping her back to a sultry, starry night. Cash’s sinewy arms encircled her waist, his lips softly brushing hers as he whispered, “I’ll always love you...”
A hollow feeling seeped through her, displacing her peace with emptiness, as though the bottom had just dropped out of her soul. She ducked her head and spun around, using the bulky man next to her as a shield.
Stop this nonsense, she chided herself, aware that her emotions were getting out of hand. You don’t love him anymore. You’d be crazy to love him still—after what he did to you!
“I need popcorn,” she blurted to get her mind off the subject and thrust her fingers into the red and white box, almost knocking it out of Medley’s hands.
“Touchdown!” Coronets and drums blasted out the school song.
Medley sprang to her feet with the thundering crowd as they gave the team a standing ovation. Libby followed, using the distraction to keep her mind off the most unsettling moment she’d experienced in a long time. She snatched the popcorn box from Medley and stuffed a handful into her mouth. Did Cash recognize her? “I hope not,” she worried aloud.
Medley cupped one ear with her hand. “What?”
“Nothing,” Libby shouted over the cheering and clapping. “Nothing that—”
“What? Did you say ‘who’s that?’ I don’t know, but he sure is trying hard to get Amber’s attention.”
Medley motioned toward an attractive young man at the base of the bleachers, standing off to one side. The tall youth wore low-rise, faded jeans and, despite the cool evening, a rust-colored tank top that showed off his lean, muscular build. Thick, walnut brown hair hung in loose waves about his shoulders. Libby lifted the binoculars once again and watched him make signals with his thumb and forefinger. She shifted her focus to Amber, who discreetly signaled back.
The crowd returned to their seats. Libby sat down and observed the teenage instant messaging in progress, curious about the secret conversation. Were they simply flirting, or being cautious because Cash disapproved of their friendship? That could explain why they weren’t exchanging text messages or why the boy didn’t simply climb the bleachers to talk to her.
Loud booing swelled among the crowd. The man next to Libby jumped out of his seat and blocked her view as he shook his fist, loudly disagreeing with the ref’s call. She turned back to the activity on the field, but her thoughts only intensified on Amber and the pain of not finding her child. Despair crept into her heart, draining her hope. Why bother to stay any longer when the answer seemed clear? She’d reached another dead-end.
Libby glanced into the stands and saw Cash sitting alone, talking on his cell phone. She nudged Medley. “Amber is gone. So is her...um...friend.”
Medley scooped up her designer handbag. “Yeah,” she responded in a tone that sounded more like a question. “I saw them sneak off together while you were daydreaming. Want to take a walk and get a closer look at her?”
Libby slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder and stood. “Amber MacKenzie’s social life is none of my business.” She checked the time on her cell phone, noting that she should be going over last-minute details of a pre-nuptial dinner scheduled for tomorrow night. Her job as an event planner for a local restaurant didn’t run itself. “Let’s go. There’s only a minute left of the fourth quarter and River’s Edge is ahead by fourteen points.” She looked up, scrutinizing Cash McKenzie once more. “This game is over.”
They squeezed past a half-dozen people, made their way down the crowded stands, and headed toward the school parking lot.
Libby surveyed seemingly endless rows of vehicles. “Do you remember where we parked?”
Medley gestured toward the farthest corner. “Over there.” However, once they reached over there they still couldn’t find Medley’s car.
“What’s the deal here?” Gripping her hands on her almost non-existent hips, Medley stopped and looked around. “How hard can it be to find a blue Focus?”
They wandered through more rows, looking for Medley’s car.
Medley suddenly grabbed Libby by the forearm. “Don’t look now, but Amber and her friend are right over...” She nodded toward the driver’s side of a red Grand Am. “...there.”
Libby craned her neck to see them.
“Don’t stare! You’ll give us away!”
Curious, Libby looked anyway. Amber stood in a semi-circle with five other teens, sharing a cigarette. The boy in the rust-colored tank top stood next to her, his muscular arm draped possessively around her shoulders as he gazed intently into her eyes.
Libby knew that look. It meant trouble.
Suddenly Cash appeared out of nowhere and strode toward his daughter, his expression grim, hands clenched at his sides. He grasped her by the arm and pulled her away from the boy.
“The restrooms are over there,” he said to Amber and pointed across the lot. “What are you doing here?”
Crimson, Amber glanced at the other teens. “I’m talking to my friends, Dad! Go away!” She tried to hide the cigarette behind her back, but Cash grabbed her hand and tossed the butt to the damp ground. He splayed her fingers, exposing a large class ring. Shaking his head, he slipped it off her hand.
“Don’t!” Amber grabbed at it to get it back.
Cash held up the ring in the boy’s face. “Is this yours?”
The teen reciprocated with an arrogant shrug.
“Take it back. She’s too young for you.”
“Stop it!” Tears pooled in Amber’s eyes. “Leave Brian alone!”
Scowling, Brian snatched his ring back.
Cash rebounded with a stern look. “Smoking, ditching homework, skipping school—my daughter never did any of those things until she started hanging out with you.”
Brian cut Amber a sideways glance then stared back at Cash. “If you say so.”
Cash let the statement go unchallenged and turned his back to the group. “C’mon, we’re going home,” he said tersely to Amber. Their gazes locked—hers rife with defiance and resentment, his burdened with disappointment and pain.
As he turned to go, he glanced across the trunk of the car and met Libby’s gaze. Jolting to a stop, he blinked and did a double-take, his mouth gaping as though he couldn’t believe what he saw—or, more accurately, whom.
Libby froze, but her heart pounded so hard she feared everyone could hear it. She never meant for Cash to see her, much less realize that she’d witnessed the entire episode at his expense.
“Oh-oh. Time to go,” Medley whispered.
Libby barely heard the words but knew she needed to get out of there. She needed to escape him, a living reminder of the most tragic event of her life. Without a word, she turned and swiftly walked away, leaving Cash MacKenzie to stare after her.
* * *
Cash drove out of the parking lot in an emotional daze. His hands steered, his foot accelerated and worked the brakes, but his heart shifted his thoughts into instant replay mode, reviewing the scene back at school.
“You embarrassed me, Dad! You made me look stupid!”
He vaguely heard the sobbing accusation. It sounded like Amber, but thoughts churned in his mind so hard he couldn’t concentrate on anything other than navigating his pickup.
“You look fine,” he mumbled, barely aware he’d replied.
He still couldn’t believe it. Had their paths crossed accidentally or had she deliberately planned this encounter?
Her tall, slender image loomed in his mind like a permanent screensaver in Technicolor. She looked the same, yet different. She still wore her blonde hair long and sleek. And she still looked good in jeans and a blue blazer—the color of her eyes. Yet, something about her made him pause. Besides the passage of time, what made her seem different? He stared at the road ahead, wondering why it mattered. After all, she had turned her back on him and Amber long ago. He thought the years had erased the hurt over the betrayal they’d suffered, but it still lived in his heart. He clutched his gut. Now it had affected his stomach, too.
“I’ll never be able to face my friends again! Tomorrow everyone in school will be talking about me. And laughing!”
“We’ll discuss it when we get home,” he muttered.
So... Why show up now? What did Libby want? An accusing little voice whispering from a far corner of his mind suggested what he already suspected; she’d come back to reclaim her daughter. She meant to take Amber away from him. The possibility made his stomach burn like acid.
He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a roll of antacids, popping two into his mouth, chewing them like candy. The pain in his stomach flared. He devoured two more. His stomach couldn’t take any more bad news. Amber’s obsessive crush on a kid with a bad attitude had him tied in knots. Libby Cunningham’s intrusion could destroy his family.
What’s going on, Lord? You’ve already pushed me into a season of testing with Amber. Do you expect me to deal with Libby Cunningham, too? Why are all of these things happening at once? What are you trying to do, turn me inside out?
“I’m never going to school again! Ever!”
Amber’s shouting finally broke through his thoughts. He cut her a sideways glance. If she hugged the door any closer, she’d be in the street.
“You’re the worst dad in the world,” she spat with a loud sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I hate you! I hate you! I’m going to run away!”
Cash turned into his driveway and shut off the engine. At any other time, he would have bridled at Amber’s behavior and grounded her on the spot. Today, however, her tantrum seemed tame compared to what he’d just experienced. Gripping the steering wheel with one hand and clutching the keys—still in the ignition—with the other hand, he tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and expelled a deep groan. He had a bad feeling his life would never be the same again.
Suddenly, he became aware of an odd silence in the truck. Pushing aside his troubled thoughts, he looked sideways at Amber. She sat smeared to the door, glowering at him with the tenacity of a cornered wolverine.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!” She rounded out the claim with an exaggerated sniff and swiped the back of her hand across her cheek. Thick, wet lashes fringed her large brown eyes. It reminded him of how she looked as a young child. She had once been so sweet, so trusting and carefree. He wanted his little girl back. Where had she gone?
Amber continued to stare at him as if his reticence garnered suspicion. “H-how come you’re not yelling at me for smoking and sneaking off with Brian?”
He couldn’t imagine how to explain what he’d just been through, so he stayed silent.
She sat up straight and placed her hand on the door latch, frowning in confusion. “What’s the matter with you, Dad? Ever since we got into the truck, you’ve been acting strange. Spaced out—like you’ve been struck by lightning or something.” She squinted, giving him a curious once-over, as though trying to catch something she’d previously missed. “Are you okay?”
Struck by lightning? Or the divine hand of God? Deep in his heart, Cash knew God had put him on notice today and the pain in his gut told him he’d better pay attention because neither Libby Cunningham nor his indigestion planned to go away. Or God, for that matter. But what God wanted from him he wouldn’t give—couldn’t give. All these years he’d believed he’d forgiven Libby for deserting him and their child. Seeing her today made him realize he’d neither forgiven nor forgotten what she’d done.
Man, did he have a mess on his hands. He had problems with Amber, Libby, and now, God, too. He reached into his pocket, hunting for his antacids. The way things were going, he figured he’d soon be buying them by the case.
* * *
“I know you meant well, Medley, but we’ve checked her out and she’s not my daughter. So, let’s put it behind us and move on. Okay?” Libby paced the ivory carpet of Medley’s living room, making a futile attempt to walk off her frustration.
Medley emerged from the kitchen with two orange mugs of French roast and set them on the coffee table next to a tin of chocolate-dipped biscotti. She collapsed onto her white leather sofa with a satisfied sigh and kicked off her dark green shoes. “Sit down, Libby.” She patted the cushion next to her.
Medley’s condominium looked like an IKEA showroom with leather furniture, glass, and wood bookcases, and brass table lamps, all in the modern, simplistic styling that described her outlook on nearly everything. “Let’s have some Starbucks and discuss our next move.”
Libby walked over to the window instead, lifted the curtain, and stared down at the tree-lined street. The burgeoning fall colors in Minneapolis provided a mosaic of scarlet, orange, and gold under the glow of city streetlights.
“I appreciate your wanting to help find my daughter, I really do, but we struck out this time and I don’t see the point in talking about it anymore. We gave it our best shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as we’d hoped it would.” Her sigh formed a misty spot on the glass. “I’m tired and I have a busy day at work tomorrow. I need to go home.”
Home meant the lonely, six-bedroom monstrosity overlooking Lake Harriet that she’d inherited from her late father, former U.S. Senator, Franklin Cunningham.
“What you really need is to lighten up.” Medley pursed her lips as she pulled the cover off the tin. “You can’t be tense when you talk to Cash; otherwise you may not be able to convince him that the best situation for Amber is to have both her parents involved in her life.”
Libby let the curtain fall and spun away from the window. “Medley, I’m not going to put myself through embarrassing agony and call him begging for non-existent information.” The stress of another defeat had taken its toll. She swallowed hard, fighting a catch in her throat. “Didn’t you notice when they were arguing how much alike they looked? It’s obvious she’s not mine!”
“Of course, she is!” Medley’s quick smile asserted that she believed it without a doubt.
“How can you be so sure? She doesn’t possess a single characteristic that resembles me.”
“Lib, Lib, you’re just upset because so much is at stake. It’s natural to be apprehensive.” Medley offered her a steaming mug. “You’ve dreamed of this moment for years.”
Libby walked back to the sofa and sat down. She accepted the coffee and took a sip. The rich, hot liquid soothed her throat but did nothing for her morale.
“Cash didn’t appreciate our intrusion. We both saw the shock on his face. Even if, by a remote chance, Amber is my daughter, I can’t imagine him welcoming me into her life.”
“He knows what’s best for her. He’ll do the right thing.” Medley set her mug on the coffee table. “You want to know the truth, don’t you? So, you can put this behind you and get on with your life?”
“You know I do.”
Medley picked up her cell phone and placed it in Libby’s free hand. “Then stop being so stubborn about this. Swallow your doubts and make the call. For Amber’s sake as well as your own, confront him and get it over with.”
Libby’s hand shook so hard she could barely set her mug down. She held the gold bling case in her quaking palm and stared at it as unbearable pain filled her heart. She dreaded the thought of having her hopes destroyed again—like so many times in the past. Now that she had observed Amber, the mirror image of Cash MacKenzie, would today be any different?
Medley produced a business card from her handbag. “He owns a construction company. Amber dug this out of her backpack when I said I wanted to remodel the kitchen.” She placed it on the coffee table and pushed it toward Libby. “Come on, Lib. Do it.”
Libby’s heart raced as she tentatively punched in the number and waited. She held her breath and listened to one ring, then another. She’d almost given up when he finally answered.
“MacKenzie here.” Cash’s telephone voice had a deep, masculine note, precisely as she remembered it. The sting of his abandonment gripped her heart with fresh intensity, as though it had happened yesterday.
The assault on her confidence startled her and she nearly dropped the phone. Her mind suddenly went blank. She squeezed her eyes shut, reluctant to expose the deepest part of her to someone who hadn’t cared back then and wouldn’t now.
Holy Spirit, please, she prayed, I need Your help! Give me the right words to say to him!
Medley gave her a gentle nudge, pressuring her to speak.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “Hello, Cash.”
Want to find more good authors who write sweet romance? Join my reader group - Happily Ever After Stories. If you like sweet romance and want to be part of a great group that has lots of fun and fantastic parties, visit us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HEAstories/.