“Daddy?” Baylee looked up at Brian curiously.
“You’re gonna be fine, Baylee. I promise.” Brian managed a smile even as he felt the sweat pearl on his forehead.
Baylee’s brows rose. “I know, Daddy. Can we go in now?”
Brian gulped and took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go in.”
In the main office, they met with the assistant principal, who showed them around the school before depositing Baylee outside his new classroom.
“I’m sure Baylee will love Miss Holloway’s classroom. She’s one of our best teachers, and she’s been looking forward to your arrival,” the principal told Baylee with a smile before turning to Brian. “Mr. Littrell, Baylee and I can handle it from here. Why don’t you get on out of here? I’m sure you’ve got dozens of things to do with your new home.”
“Ah, yeah, I guess I do.” Brian hesitated, nervous about leaving Baylee with virtual strangers. He crouched in front of his son. “Bay, if you need anything, I’m just a phone call away. You know that, right?”
Baylee nodded all the while thinking his father had finally gone off the deep end. “I’ll be okay. I’m not scared or anything. I promise.”
Brian eyed him for a moment before he nodded. “Okay. Okay then.” He straightened and patted Baylee’s shoulder. “I’ll see you when you get home this afternoon. You know which bus to take, right?”
“Yes, Daddy.” Baylee had to suppress the long-suffering sigh. He just wanted to get on with the day and meet his new class, but Brian was making that harder to do by stalling.
Brian seemed to see the way his son felt and took the first step away. “Okay, well, have a great first day.” And, because he needed it, he flashed Baylee a brilliant smile. “I’d stay, but I gotta go!”
As he walked off, he heard Baylee’s giggle and felt a bit better. But by the time he made it outside, he was sweating buckets and more nervous than before. What if Baylee hated it? What if the teacher was a major bitch and picked on the new kid? What if the kids didn’t like his son?
Shuddering from all the questions, he pressed his back against the building and, leaning over to rest his head between knees, he took deep breaths. He was being ridiculous by worrying so much, he scolded himself. His son had been through a lot this year, and he’d come out okay, hadn’t he? He’d do perfectly fine in this new school. Baylee had taken to the dozens of new places and people he’d met with great ease, so why would this be any different?
Despite thinking such thoughts, though, he was still nervous.
“Whoa, bad day, huh?”
The voice straightened him up quickly. Brian found himself facing a woman who had just exited the building. Her dark eyes gleamed in sympathy and amusement. He shook his head. “No, ah, not a bad day.”
“Do elementary schools usually give you panic attacks?” Her voice was somber, but he could’ve sworn he heard the laugh in it…somewhere.
That snapped his nerves clear. “No. It’s my son’s first day at this school, and I’m just worried that he won’t like it.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you,” she told him. “What grade is he in?”
She smiled. “Look, kids at that age are remarkably resilient. Your son’s going to be fine. Kids are pretty easygoing at seven. It’s the later years where you’ve got to worry about their well-being.”
Brian thought of how amazingly Baylee had accepted Leighanne’s death, and he knew that she was right. “I guess you’re probably right.”
“I hope knowing that makes the rest of the day a little easier for you.” She stepped off the curb and headed into the parking lot. “Good luck.”
He didn’t bother calling back as she’d already disappeared. Whoever she’d been, he thought, she’d had a good point. “So I’m just not going to think about it anymore,” he told himself as he moved to his own car. “At least not every hour, anyway.”
By the time he’d gotten groceries to fill his nearly empty kitchen and picked Kayla up from his parents’ home, it was nearly noon. Balancing Kayla’s carrier in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, he walked up to his front door. The amount of jiggling and movement it took to find his keys and open the door made Kayla giggle and babble, so that Brian couldn’t resist leaving the rest of the groceries in the car a while longer just to pick her up and play with her.
When he did remember the bags sitting in his car and the ice cream and frozen foods that had probably begun to melt, he winced and hurried out to bring them back in. He set Kayla up in her swing in the sunlit kitchen as he put everything where it belonged or where he’d on the spot decided it would now belong.
As he put the last of it away—boxes of cereal unhealthy enough that Baylee would eat them—the phone rang. Checking on Kayla, who had decided it was time for a nap, Brian grabbed the receiver and moved into the family room. “Hello?”
“Hey, Brian. How’s it going?”
“AJ!” Pleased with the call, Brian dropped into a comfy armchair. “It’s going okay. Better than I thought it would. I’m glad you called.”
“I figured I’d given you enough time to move in and all. So how are the munchkins? Adjusting okay?”
Brian heard the flick of AJ’s lighter as he answered. “They’re doing way better than I am, to be honest. I took Bay to his new school today, and I was the biggest nervous wreck imaginable.”
“I think he thought I was nuts. He was cool as a cucumber, and I felt like I was nineteen and sweating it out before our first big show.” He found he could laugh about it after the fact. “I even had some woman—probably another mom—tell me to relax, too.”
“Oh, yeah? Was she hot?”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Come on, AJ. You don’t think I really noticed that, do you?”
“Why the hell not? Just because you lost your wife doesn’t mean that you lost your eyesight.” When Brian didn’t say anything, AJ huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry. That was a shitty thing for me to say.”
“No, you’re right.” Brian shook his head. “AJ, it’s only been three months since Leigh…since Leigh. I don’t think I’m ever going to get back into the dating or relationship thing because she was my one.”
“Come on, Bri-”
“No, you listen. I don’t want any other woman, I just want Leighanne. I’m going to spend the rest of my life without her, and that hurts like hell. Maybe I can still see when a woman is beautiful, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll be doing more than looking. I can’t even think about being with another woman, so let’s just not talk about it now. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay. I didn’t mean to bring it up when I called.” AJ sighed. “I’m just worried about you. You’ve just moved from where you lived for the last ten years, and you’re starting everything over. I know you want to leave the group for good instead of just having us all take a break like we agreed, but I can’t help but think that you might be better off if we worked together again.”
Brian wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d never miss singing or being onstage, but… “I need time.”
“That goes without saying.” And it was time to change subjects. “So, what’s Kayla up to?”
“She’s napping. That swing you gave her knocks her right out the second you turn on the music.”
“Well, good. I’m glad she’s using it. I can’t wait to see her again. I bet she’s grown a lot.”
Brian grinned, thinking at how fast she’d grown from the tiny infant to, well, only a couple inches more. “You’ll see her when we come out for Nick’s wedding.”
“Dude, don’t remind me. I still can’t believe the kid’s getting hitched and is going to be a proud papa soon. Who would’ve thought?”
“Definitely not Nick, but, then, love can hit you any time.”
AJ nodded at the words and filed them away for later use. “Oh, yeah. Well, I gotta get going. I told Howie I’d meet him to talk about the golf tournament he’s doing for the Foundation. You know how he gets when we’re late.”
“Yeah, but he’s still not as bad as Kevin.”
AJ chuckled. “Nobody is. Gotta love that about him. Anyway, I gotta run. I’ll call you later.”
Brian hung up and felt a mix of pleasure and sorrow at the call. It had been really great to hear from AJ, but, at the same time, he’d resented the way AJ had seemed so sure that Brian would be ready to see other women again in no time. He couldn’t even handle the idea of another woman in his life who wasn’t Leighanne, and he definitely wasn’t ready to meet anyone new. Not even close.
The only women he wanted in his life for the foreseeable future were the ones in his family.
The doorbell rang almost an hour later, and Brian frowned into Kayla’s beaming face. “Now, who could that possibly be?”
Tucking her into his arms, he checked the peephole, and his jaw dropped. “Holy wow, it’s the welcome wagon.” Knowing it was rude to leave people waiting on the porch, he pulled open the door and felt nervous all over again. “Hello.”
There were at least ten women on his porch, all carrying some form of food and sporting brilliant smiles. An image of the Stepford wives flashed in his brain before one of them stepped forward and greeted him.
“Well, hello there, new neighbor!” She carried a tray piled high with brownies. “I’m Stephanie Marshall. I live two doors down from you on the right with my family. The girls and I just thought we’d drop by and welcome you to the neighborhood.” She spotted Kayla in his arms, and her smile widened. “Oh, my. What a lovely baby! What’s her name? How old is she?”
Brian’s brows shot up at the curiosity and the barrage of information. “Ah, this is Kayla. She’s only three months old. I’m Brian,” he added. “Brian Littrell.” Remembering his manners, he held the door open and stepped back. “Why don’t you ladies come in? It was really nice of you to go to the trouble-”
“Oh, it was no trouble at all.” Another woman, this one in her mid-forties, patted his cheek as she sailed in the door. “We just love to meet new neighbors.”
They all gathered in his kitchen and introduced themselves. Some of the women were in their late twenties or early thirties, but the majority were housewives in their mid to late forties. And all of them lived on his street. Four of them were officers in the homeowners’ association, and all of them were desperately eager to know everything about him and his family.
By the time they left an hour and a half later, he was exhausted. Sprawling in a kitchen chair, he looked down at Kayla, whose eyelids were drooping. She’d been passed from woman to woman and cooed over. They’d pried out the fact that Leighanne had died in labor and had proceeded to flutter and coo over him, too. He’d told himself that a good chunk of his fans were just like these women, but he was still mortally embarrassed when they were fussing over him. He’d been invited to all of their homes for dinner, and they’d insisted that they needed to meet his son.
Brian sighed and shook his head as his gaze strayed to his food-laden table. There was everything from appetizers to desserts on it. “I don’t think I’ll need to cook for the next week, Kay. I can’t believe we have neighbors like that. It’s too Desperate Housewives for me.”
When Baylee burst through the door full of stories, he stopped short at the sight of the table. “Wow, Daddy. Did you cook all that?”
“Are you kidding me? Did you forget that your old man can’t even boil an egg right?” Brian ran his fingers wearily through his hair. “I just met all the neighborhood moms. I think one of them has a little girl in your class. Jaimie?”
Baylee frowned as he thought. “Oh, yeah. I remember her. She sits on the other side of the room, but she draws real good.”
“Really well,” Brian corrected. “Yeah, well, her mom made the chicken that we’ll have for dinner. And don’t even think about touching those brownies until after dinner.”
Baylee’s hand froze above the tray of brownies, and he stuck it behind his back. “I wasn’t.” He shuffled his feet before checking to see if Kayla was awake. Disappointed that she wasn’t, he looked up at his father. “Wanna hear about school?”
“Just tell me one thing.”
“Do you still want to go back tomorrow?”
Baylee’s smile grew. “Oh, man, yeah!”
Brian breathed a sigh of relief and let himself sink lower in the chair. “Thank God.”