Can you have a second chance at a first love?
Nick Paine is just starting to return to normal after he told his wife he’s gay and asked for a divorce. Despite a daughter he loves dearly and a job he believes in, part of him is stuck in the past. He’s never forgotten the first love he let fade away fourteen years ago.
Adam “Izz” Azzi has settled into a happy rhythm. His daughter is healthy, he’s found a mosque that accepts him, and his work as a modern artist is gaining international attention. While his past is fraught with mistakes and what-ifs, his life now is good, and he doesn’t want to upset any of the balance he’s worked so hard to achieve.
When Nick and Izz are reunited by luck and fate, their attraction is just as undeniable, but what was left unsaid haunts them. They have hope for a future together, but wishing may not be enough.
NICK PAINE tried to duck as a gigantic scarlet bird whipped over his head and he began to lose his balance. The first airborne attack was followed a second later by a screech and another swooping red streak that caused him to crouch and fall to his knees. At least he was wearing jeans today instead of a suit.
Katie snorted, let loose a torrent of giggles, and pointed. “He’s not going to hurt you, Daddy.”
“Isn’t it me who’s supposed to be telling you that?” Nick scrunched his eyebrows together and tried to chastise his daughter while also searching the birdhouse for further threats.
Katie rolled her eyes and flipped her long blonde hair off to the side, appearing much older than her eight years. “Come on, Daddy. I’ll protect you.” She offered her hand, and Nick grinned as he stood, taking her tiny hand in his.
It was a Wednesday morning, one in which Nick should have been sitting in a colorless conference room listening to doctors and administrators fight each other over inane operational details, but despite the threat of being pecked to death by tropical birds, Nick didn’t want to be anywhere else.
It was rare he was able to escape from work during the day, and this field trip to the zoo with Katie’s class had been the perfect excuse. The hospital system was always there. It was a twenty-four-hour seven-day-a-week commitment of utter chaos. Nick still wasn’t quite sure how he’d ended up as a vice president by the age of thirty-three, but had to concede his success had a lot to do with the inordinate number of hours he spent downtown. His generous salary was meant to compensate him for the endless hours on call talking nurses and cardiologists off the ledge while also making sure all their equipment and staffing needs were met. He loved his job and he was good at it, but it took him away from Katie way too much for his liking.
Nick pushed aside thoughts of the hospital. He would be flooded with e-mails, texts, and voice mail as soon as he switched his cell back on. Instead he listened to Katie patter on about the different kinds of birds that filled the zoo aviary.
“How do you know so much about them?” Nick asked as he forced his complete attention back to her.
Katie shrugged in a gesture that was too much like her carefree Uncle Roban. “I watch the National Geographic channel.”
Katie huffed. “Yeah, Daddy. A lot. Loads and loads.”
Nick restrained a laugh. Where had she come up with that phrase? She was growing up so fast. Much too fast for his liking. The years just kept slipping by, and as hard as his path had been as of late, Nick was grateful for the luck he did have. Katie was a beautiful girl. Tall and thin, just like her momma, she had blonde hair shades lighter than his that ran down to her waist and snarled easily with how fine it was. He’d given up attempting to brush the mats out a year ago, leaving the task to Katie’s grandmother or her nanny.
“Look at the baby geese!” Katie exclaimed, letting go of his hand and running full tilt down the pathway toward the birds. Then just as suddenly she was veering off again, a delighted squeal emanating from her. “A waterfall!”
Nick dug into his pockets as he walked to catch up, knowing what she was going to ask even before she said anything.
“I want to make a wish,” she pleaded, looking up at him with wide eyes.
Nick placed a quarter in her outstretched hand, earning a satisfied smile from her.
She scrunched her eyes tightly closed and whispered something Nick couldn’t hear, then tossed the coin into the water.
“What did you wish for, baby girl?” Nick asked, as was part of their routine.
“Daddy, you know I can’t tell you,” she protested with a pout. “Or else it won’t come true.”
Of course he knew that. Katie wanted to flip a coin into every fountain they encountered. And she always went about it as if her whole existence was placed into making that one wish come true. But she never told Nick what it was that she silently hoped for.
Nick had to wonder if she would remember this later on. If she would remember what she wished years from now, or at the very least remember enough to tell him later whether or not they came true.
Nick looked into her brown eyes—so much like his but with a fire that was all her own—and his breath caught. Yeah, he was just about the luckiest man in the world. She stood on her tiptoes, cupped her hands around his cheeks, and planted a kiss on his lips that left Nick with an ear-to-ear grin that he wouldn’t be able to wipe off for hours to come.
A PLOP of wet plaster slid down Adam’s head, over his neck, and dripped under the collar of his shirt as Miriam’s laughter receded into the next room.
Well, then. He supposed he deserved that.
He’d been leaving Miriam to her own devices for far too long as he worked nearly nonstop to meet his deadline. Left on her own, Miriam would fill her time with the mischievous, surreptitious, and wicked dealings that could only be born of an Azzi. She was quiet like him, shy at first meeting, with the same black hair and chiseled features that stood out despite her age. Also like him, she was a goof when in her comfort zone, and Adam’s loft—even though it was a professional workspace—was one of the places she was most comfortable in. She had unlimited access to paints, pens, pencils, paper… and the plaster she’d just chucked at his head.
Adam picked up a stained rag and swiped the plaster off the back of his neck. “Miriam!”
He turned on his stool, rotating to face the kitchen area where Miriam peeked her head around the corner, hazel eyes wide and innocent. But Adam knew better than to be fooled by her appearance. He crooked a finger and pointed to the spot next to him.
She crawled on hands and knees, her eyes going Disney forest creature in size as she got closer to him, and Adam had to bite back a laugh. When she got to his feet, she sat with her legs crisscrossed, hands on her knees, and waited patiently for him to say something.
She was such a good kid. Wild at times, yes. But he’d been the same when he was her age. Unlike his upbringing, though, he was never going to allow Miriam to fear what kind of punishment she would receive. To others it might have made him seem like a soft father, but Adam had rules that were nonnegotiable and rules he expected her to challenge and break. He was always fair. Consistent. And he never touched her in anger. That alone made her childhood vastly different than his. Adam was going to protect her innocence as long as he possibly could.
“Miriam—” he started.
“Yes, Baba?” she interjected, then bit at her bottom lip.
Adam sighed. Whether it was genetics or environment, she was so like him it scared him some days.
“Why did you throw plaster at my head?” He asked the question in all seriousness, then heard how ridiculous it all sounded, looked at the growing smirk on his daughter’s face, and that was enough to send him into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Adam swooped her off the floor and hugged her to his chest, tickling her ribs. Miriam squirmed and protested, her high-pitched giggle filling the studio.
“I love you, Miri,” he said as he squeezed her tight.
Miriam tucked her head into Adam’s neck and pulled her arms in so Adam had her wrapped securely.
“I love you, Baba.”
Adam’s heart was full almost to bursting. The laughter was enough to give him a second wind. He needed to work. He had to get this sculpture done. But he didn’t want to let his little girl go.
“Finish, then play with me, ’kay?” Miriam offered.
Adam started to tear up. She knew him better than any person in the world. This brilliant, vivacious, too smart for her own good little girl was his best friend. And Adam wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Yeah, yeah. No more plaster, though,” he chastised her, then kissed the tip of her nose.
Miriam rubbed her nose in protest and squirmed out of his arms, already retreating at full speed. On to another adventure.
Adam sank onto his stool and turned back to his sculpture. Less than three weeks until his next show. And this piece, the focal point of the entire fiasco, had to be done by then. But Adam found himself pushing the work off. He sought inspiration and didn’t find it. He would rather not show it at all than display something that was so… incomplete.
He picked up his brush and studied the form, then put the brush back down. His fifteen-year high school reunion had been last weekend and he’d had no desire to go, but the memories had been inescapable regardless. It was those memories that had led to this piece…. Led to this creative fog he couldn’t force himself out of.
He would eat first. Maybe they’d take a walk. He’d do his afternoon prayers with Miriam, grounding himself in the tradition of his faith. He wasn’t as active in his practice as his mom was, but he still found strength in the words and tenets. In Islam, he found calm, and a connection to his family and to something that was greater than him.
Then, maybe then, his head would be clear enough to see this project to its end.
“NO, ROB,” Nick said definitively into the Bluetooth mic above his driver’s seat.
“Come on, dude!” Roban yelled on the other end of the phone, and Nick had to turn down the volume on the car speakers because of the sheer volume of the accent-tinged wail. It was only when Rob was really excited or drunk that his Indian accent started to slip through.
Nick took a deep breath and rested his elbow on the armrest. “This is my first day off in five months. I want to spend it with Katie.”
“She’ll be asleep—” Roban started at the same time that Katie, from the backseat, said, “I’ll be asleep, Daddy.”
Nick frowned. Well, then. Apparently the wee ones were joining forces on this one.
“Roban—” he tried again.
“Niiiick,” Roban answered.
Nick stole a glance in the rearview mirror where Katie was strapped into her seat. She had her arms crossed and a disapproving scowl on her face that would make her Uncle Daniel proud.
“Fine,” he relented and Roban gave a much too excited whoop in response. “I’ll go out. But not too late. I have to be at work early.”
“You’re always at work early,” Roban reminded him. “Live a little before your cardiologists drive you into a heart attack.”
“Fine,” he repeated. “But I’m going to drive.” He could try to keep some measure of control over the situation.
“Nope. We’re cabbing it. I’m getting you fucking wrecked. Shit, sorry, Katie,” Roban backtracked, as if he was just remembering he was on speakerphone.
“No worries, Uncle Ro,” Katie yelled from the backseat.
“That’s my girl. Now, Nick. I expect to see you in something else besides a button-down shirt and tie. We’re going downtown. Mayhem will ensue and you must be appropriately attired.”
“It’s a Wednesday,” Nick reminded him.
“Willful Wednesday at the Screamin’ Shillelagh,” Roban responded with a laugh.
Nick stopped at the red light and hung his head in defeat. “Can’t we stay in the burbs?”
“I’ll pick you up at eight” was all Roban said, then his car notified him the call had ended.
Nick shut off his cell and threw it into the passenger seat, then pulled away when the light turned green. Roban would be the death of him. At the very least, the odds were in their favor to end up in a full-on street brawl after closing time. Either way, it wouldn’t be a boring night. Nick chuckled to himself.
“Who do you want to come stay with you, baby girl?” he asked Katie as they drove toward home. Katie was twirling her hair, deep in thought, when Nick glanced back at her. “What is it?” he asked with an edge of worry.
“Can you call Momma? See if she’ll come stay with me?”
Nick restrained a sigh and tried not to feel defeated at the sadness in Katie’s voice.
“Yeah, baby girl. I’ll call her when we get home.”
All laughter wiped away, Nick gripped the steering wheel and steeled himself for the call he was going to have to make.
Meet S. A. McAuley:
I sleep little, read a lot. Happiest in a foreign country. Twitchy when not mentally in motion. My name is Sam, not Sammy, definitely not Samantha. I’m a pretty dark/cynical/jaded person, but I hide that darkness well behind my obsession(s) for shiny objects. I’m the macabre wrapped in irresistible bubble wrap and a glittery pink bow, I suppose.
I have a never-ending-abyss-like secret love for poetry. Especially Rumi, Hafiz, and Neruda. You can predict (as well as change) my moods and my writing schedule by my playlists.
Insomnia is my greatest ally and my nemesis. I like cheese and bourbon, not necessarily in that order, but I’m flexible.
If you’re in any fandom, then I’m probably already in love with you. I’m not joking.
I like my tv shows marathoned and I have to use internet blocking software to be productive. I have software called Producteev that I loaded onto my laptop and proceeded to fill out in detail and now I haven’t touched it in a year.
I enjoy normalized chaos.
Hit me up! I love to hear from readers. xx
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