The Small Town Boy’s Second Chance 

Chapter 1

Foster Truax slung the bag over his shoulder and carefully opened the door to his dad’s home.

He supposed, from the car that was parked in the driveway, that the rumors were true. His dad’s ex-wife, Judy Powell, had moved back in.

It had happened in the past week, since Foster had been here last Saturday afternoon. He’d talked to his dad then, and his dad had said that it would be fine for Foster to move in, on a temporary basis, while his home was being remodeled.

Not necessarily remodeled. He’d gutted the place. Originally an old barn, in the 70s or early 80s, someone had put up some wainscoting and a few studded walls and turned it into a duplex or something along those lines.

Foster was completely redoing it and turning it into a home. Wasn’t sure why, since he was a mechanic and a welder, not a builder.

He closed the door behind him. The TV was on. Odd. Since his dad wasn’t supposed to be home until after five.

Maybe the arrival of Judy had changed his plans of driving to Richmond and picking up a part for his truck.

Foster shuffled the box in his hands that contained his alarm clock, toiletry items, and a few books, including his Bible.

His brothers had helped to move the little furniture he had—a bed, a couch, and his kitchen appliances—from his house into paid storage, and he only brought the necessities with him, since he wasn’t planning on being here long, and also he didn’t want to have to move everything back out. His dad’s spare bedroom had two beds and a dresser, and he could live with the bare necessities. The less he had, the more inspired he’d be to hurry the project along.

He walked through the kitchen, glancing to the left at the living room and the TV.

Cartoons.

He stopped short.

That was odd. Cartoons?

It was so weird that he actually backed up and took a closer look at the living room. He couldn’t see the couch from where he stood. So he shifted the bag on his shoulder, hefted the box, and walked to the doorway.

There were two little kids, a boy and a girl, sitting on the couch staring at the television.

The girl’s hair was bright red, and the boy, who looked slightly younger, had light brown hair. He couldn’t tell their eye color, but it looked light.

These wouldn’t be Judy’s children. Judy had kids that were his age. Girls. Two of them.

At that thought, old feelings that he thought he’d buried forever took hold of his heart, like long, skinny fingers with sharp nails.

He wasn’t thinking about Holland. Not now.

Plus, it couldn’t be Holland’s children. Couldn’t be. God would not do this to him.

He’d heard some rumors about her marriage breaking up. And he tried to ignore them. He wasn’t happy about that. It was never a good thing when a marriage failed.

Hopefully, if the Lord were looking down on him, those kids would be someone else’s. And Holland would be nowhere around. Not while he was in the home.

Or maybe, Judy was just watching her grandchildren. That had to be it. Judy must be around here somewhere.

Judy had never liked him. Not him, not any of his brothers. She’d been used to girls, who were soft and sweet.

Maybe they cried a lot and got upset over nothing, but they didn’t run around, they didn’t break things, they weren’t loud, and they didn’t foul the air with the gas from their body. Or some such other thing that Judy always said he and his brothers did.

Judy pretty much hated boys. He didn’t know what she was doing with his dad.

At any rate, he was going to think positively. Those kids were not staying, and they were not Holland’s. Holland was not here. And he would never need to see her again.

The kids hadn’t looked up, hadn’t looked away from the TV.

With determination, Foster turned on his toes and took one step back through the kitchen. Before stopping short again.

Holland was here.

In the kitchen.

Staring at him.

He couldn’t name the feelings that trucked through his body. Swirling and curling, ripping through his heart and mind. Hate. Nostalgia. Pain.

There was a lot of pain. It was red. With orange edges that colored the sides of his vision until Holland looked like she stood there with an orange and red halo around her body.

Still slender. Maybe her figure was a little bit fuller than what he remembered. He recalled the bow of her upper lip, the fullness of her lower one. They were still the same.

Her green eyes were still deep and dark, like grass at dusk. And her hair, he remembered it as more auburn, and now he’d say it was brown with a reddish tint. Maybe from the light in the kitchen.

Or maybe it was from the orange halo that shimmered around her, reminding him of how she’d left, and what she’d done, and how it hurt.

She wore a T-shirt and jeans. Sneakers. Her hair was in a ponytail. There was a smudge of dirt on one cheek. She held an empty box in one hand and picked at it with the short fingernails of her other. Her hands were still white. Soft.

Her eyes didn’t have the innocence he remembered from high school. There was definitely more knowledge of the world in them. Weariness. Wariness. And maybe some pain of her own.

His heart might be hurting, but he’d never wanted to punish her. No matter what she’d done to him. Her pain would never negate his, and he didn’t wish for it.

Never had.

But his pain was her fault. There was no denying that. So he’d be a fool, an absolute fool, to get anywhere near her again. Not happening.

He eyed the box in her hand. Hoping it didn’t mean what he was afraid it did mean. That and the kids on the couch.

“Your dad mentioned you might be here this afternoon.” The delicate skin of her throat worked as she swallowed. His eyes were drawn to it, and his fingers flexed on the box he held. He knew how soft it was. “I thought I might run into you.”

There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that, except she didn’t exactly say that she knew he was moving in.

His dad only had one spare bedroom.

“You’re visiting for the afternoon?” Lord, please let that be the reason she was there. Please?

Her eyes fell, and her knuckles whitened on the hands that gripped the box. “No. It’s a long story.” Her shoulder went up in a little shrug. “My kids, Jax and Daisy, and I were living with my mom. When she had to move out, so did we. I moved our things into the spare bedroom.”

Now she was the one eyeing the box in his hand. Her eyes flicked to the bag over his shoulder bulging with as many clothes as he could shove into it. He had two suitcases out in the car. They contained every other piece of clothing he thought he might need for late fall in Virginia.

“Were you delivering some things for your dad?” she asked softly.

He supposed the same hope that was in her eyes now had been in his eyes earlier when he had asked if she were visiting.

“I’m remodeling my house. It’s going to take a month or two. I told Dad last week I was moving in today. He’s known for several months now that I was renovating and going to live with him.”

His stomach shifted. His brain told him to run. To take his things, walk out to his car, and go somewhere, anywhere, else. It wasn’t safe for him to be around her.

His eyes wanted to linger on her like no one else. Ever. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t allow himself that luxury. He’d been down that road before, and the recovery had taken a long time. It had left scars. Dark and deep.

He hid them well, wore them even better, but they were there. They had ruined his heart. Made it unsuitable for anyone else, ever. Which meant he had no plans for a serious relationship, because while his heart was welcoming the idea of having Holland back in his life, there was no way. It would never happen.

But he wasn’t a coward, he wasn’t a weakling, and he wasn’t afraid.

Her mouth had opened into a surprised O. She truly hadn’t known about him moving in. Leave it to his dad to leave out that pertinent information. Maybe his dad had known that Holland was moving in and had left that information out of his and Foster’s conversations.

Foster could see that happening.

His dad probably didn’t even know about Holland and him. Probably didn’t have a clue what had been going on under his roof until the night of graduation. For the most part, it had been innocent. Which didn’t make it hurt less.

Her fingers picked at the box again. And her eyes shifted along with her feet. “I, um, I had moved the kids’ stuff and my things into the spare room, but it’s your dad’s house. If you want me to move things back out, I can. We can sleep in the living room.”

Up until that point, Foster supposed if someone had asked, he would’ve said he was going to insist on the spare room being his. After all, he’d already cleared it with his dad. His dad had known for months.

But Holland was being decent about it. Not that he expected anything different. She might have dumped him hard and fast, but she wasn’t mean. She’d always been nice. It was part of what he’d always liked about her, loved maybe. Not anymore. He was over that emotion.

But he couldn’t make the woman and her two children sleep in the living room while he had two beds all to himself. It was bad enough that she would be sharing a room with her kids.

He lifted his shoulder and couldn’t quite meet her eyes when he said, “There’s room in the basement. I’ll go down there.”

The basement wasn’t finished. And it definitely wasn’t where he would choose to stay. But he didn’t want to spend the money on a hotel, not for several months, so his options were limited. The basement would do. It would certainly do better for him than it would for Holland.

He didn’t like her. Almost hated her. But he wouldn’t make her sleep in the basement with her kids.

There were no windows down there. His heart shifted as he remembered that he and Holland had spent more than a few evenings their senior year in the basement together. Not a lot.

Most of the time they spent together, they’d been out in his truck with her sitting in the middle close to him, his arm around her, the windows down, the radio up, and the soft Virginia breeze blowing over hot teenage skin.

He’d won more than a few drag races like that, with her beside him. She seemed to like it. But in the end, he’d known how she really felt.

It was only on rainy days, maybe five or six times total, that they’d been in the basement together.

He wasn’t sure he’d been down there at all in the last ten years. But he could handle it. The memories wouldn’t be that strong.

There was a small cot, if he recalled correctly, and it would be enough for him.

“No.” Holland’s tongue touched her upper lip, and her feet squared. “I couldn’t ask you to do that. There’s plenty of room down there. The kids and I can go down.”

He didn’t bother to answer her. Just the few minutes they stood in the kitchen talking had made it difficult for him to turn and walk in the other direction. He wanted to walk to her. Wanted to touch that soft skin on her neck and bend his head, touch his lips to her temple.

He wouldn’t have thought he was that dumb. Wouldn’t have thought he’d forget the pain she’d caused so easily.

Those thoughts made him even more determined to be smart, to stay away. They might be sharing the same house, but he wouldn’t be here during the day, because he’d be working at the Richmond Rebels’ garage. He could spend evenings renovating his house. And weekends. He only needed to be here to sleep.

And maybe once his house was partially finished, finished enough that he could take his sleeping bag and hang out there, maybe he wouldn’t even need to be here at all.

“Foster?” Just his name spoken from her lips, and he stopped without even meaning to.

He didn’t say anything, though.

“I… I… Thank you.”

“Mom! Mom! I’m hungry. You said you were going to get us something to eat. That was a long time ago. Where’s the food?” The little boy that had been sitting on the couch earlier ran out into the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Foster standing at the door to the basement. “Who’s that, Mommy?”

The little girl appeared behind him. “I’m hungry too. You said you would have something ready for us when our show was over.” Her eyes were on her mom but skipped to Foster as she stepped into the kitchen. They widened. Deep green, the same color as Holland’s.

Foster’s heart gave a little start. The little girl looked just like her mother. He felt like he could be looking at Holland when she was a kid.

“I’m sorry. Carrying this stuff up took a little longer than I thought it would. You guys can watch one more show, and I’ll start working on food right now.” Holland walked to the counter and set the box down. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out jelly.

The kids didn’t move.

“Who’s that, Mommy?” the little boy said again.

“He looks scary.” The little girl’s lip trembled.

Foster supposed he probably did look scary. He realized he was glowering. Not really meaning to. Just staring at the girl and seeing Holland in her, the innocence, the sweetness that he remembered from the high school years they’d shared together, although the girl was younger.

Holland, like every other adult probably, changed since they graduated. The innocence was gone. Maybe the sweetness too, because he didn’t see it. Just weary tiredness.

Where was the dad of these kids?

His eyes shifted back to Holland, who had grabbed peanut butter and bread and some paper plates and was working on putting sandwiches together at the table, brows furrowed together with wrinkles between them, like she had a headache or was getting one.

He didn’t know what to do to help her. He shouldn’t be helping her anyway. Although he did want to. Just seeing her with those lines between her eyes, with the weariness about her shoulders, watching as she worked under the load she carried brought out his protective instincts, and yeah, he wanted to help her.

But his brain told him to protect himself. She’d brought him to his knees before. She could do it again.

He’d survive. He knew he would survive. But he didn’t want to.

He turned, grabbed the door, and carried his box down the cellar stairs.