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That One Touch First 3 Chapters

Chapter 1

“Daddy, can you put my hair into a French braid?”

Presley Hartson looked up from his phone, where he was currently tapping out a very annoyed message to a supplier who’d promised that the marble tiles he’d ordered three months ago would be at the house he was renovating last week.

Only now were they admitting the tiles were somewhere in customs. But they didn’t know where. And he wasn’t looking forward to telling his client that.

“Come here.” He put his phone down next to him and patted the top of his thighs. Delilah, his six-year-old daughter, jumped onto his lap, holding out her brush and a thick hair band. He took the band and slid it onto his wrist, then started trying to brush her wild hair.

“Ow! That hurts.” She turned around to pout at him, and he wanted to laugh. Her expressions were the highlight of his day.

“Sorry.” He gave her a rueful look and started brushing again, this time more gently.

“You sure you want a French braid?” he asked once the tangles were all gone. “I do a mean ponytail, you know?”

“I have dance class tonight. Everybody there has braids.”

Yeah, but not everybody had a dad with fingers so calloused they could barely feel the strands of hair between them. The tips were thick thanks to years of playing the guitar and construction work, and it took him twice as long as it would anybody else to produce what was – let’s face it – a braid that was too thick on one side and veered off just a smidge to the other.

It made him feel bad that he couldn’t do this simple thing for her. She wasn’t asking for a lot.

Delilah ran off before he could warn her to curb her expectations, her tiny feet pattering in the hallway.

“It’s not good, Daddy,” she said when she came back from looking in the mirror. “It’s wonky.”

He bit down a smile. “I know. Sorry, sweetheart.”

She appeared back in the kitchen. “It’s okay. You’ll get there. Let’s just stick with a ponytail for now.”

That he could do. He undid the braid and brushed her hair again. Her hair was so thick yet so soft – she got that from her mom’s side of the family. It smelled of the strawberry shampoo his own mom had bought her. 

His phone buzzed as he doubled the hairband to make sure the ponytail was secure. Delilah was clearly already bored, she was trying to pull away from him. “Just one sec,” he told her. Sure, it was off center, but at least it wouldn’t fall out.

“That’s your phone,” she said. “Who’s the message from.”

Another thing that made him smile about his daughter. She was the nosiest kid he knew. “I’ll check it later,” he told her, kissing the top of her head. “It’s time for school. Go grab your things. Your lunch bag is on the counter. We can practice your spelling list in the car.”

“Spelling schmelling.” Delilah wrinkled her nose. “Uncle Marley says that God invented spellcheck, so we didn’t have to learn to spell.”

Uncle Marley – Pres’ twin brother – had a lot to answer for. The perennial bachelor who lived life to the fullest, but also loved Presley’s kid almost as much as he did.

His whole family tried to make up for what Delilah was sure to be missing after her mom had passed. From the day she’d died, they’d formed a protective knot around him and Delilah. He liked that Marley teased his kid. She needed some lightness in her life. God knew, Pres wasn’t always able to provide it.

As Delilah grabbed her backpack and slid her feet into the black shiny Mary Janes she’d picked out at the start of the school year, Presley pulled his own boots on and finally read the message.

Yeah, his customer was pissed about the tiles being late. Not that Mrs. Clancy was happy about anything right now. They’d reached the middle of the renovations. The time when all customers seemed to lose it. Being a construction manager sometimes felt like being a psychologist. He could guarantee with a fair amount of accuracy when he’d get the nasty threats like this one.

I’m going to tell all my friends not to use you.

I’m going to call my lawyer.

If you miss the deadline we agreed to I’ll be docking your payment accordingly.

Once upon a time he’d have gotten pissed, too, and told the customer where to shove their threats. But he was older now. Wiser. And he had bigger things to worry about than whether Mrs. Clancy’s fancy ranch house reno finished a couple of weeks late.

“I can’t find my spelling list,” Delilah shouted. “Where is it?”

Yeah, a lot bigger things. Like making sure this cute little cupcake of a kid grew into adulthood without him making any more mistakes. 

“I took a picture of it on my phone,” he told her, walking into the hallway. “You can use that.”

See, he could be a good dad sometimes. When he wasn’t working from dusk til dawn and relying on the goodwill of his parents to help him raise his kid. His mom looked after Delilah most afternoons after school, taking her to activities or watching her at their house. He was grateful for it, knowing his daughter was safe and happy while he was trying to keep a roof over their – and everybody else’s – heads. But he still felt like he was being pulled seven different ways. 

“Thank you.” Delilah skipped over to him and took his phone. He opened the front door, the cool rush of springtime air washing over him. Pres loved this time of year. Sunny but not too hot. The summer was a bitch because they’d have to start any outdoor work early to avoid the midday sun.

The sky was a perfect blue dome above them as he pressed the unlock button on his truck, helping Delilah up into the cab because her legs were too little to make the leap between the foot board and seat. He tweaked her ponytail, and she scowled.

Once he’d strapped Delilah safely in and he was in his own seat, he started the engine. “Tell me the words on your list.”

“Shouldn’t you be reading them off the phone?” Delilah asked over the roar of the engine as he put his foot down on the gas.

“I’ll remember them.” There were only ten. He at least had the faculties for that. If nothing else, it took his mind off his angry customer.

“Okay then. Copy, Baby, Happy, Study, Lady, Pretty, Empty, Funny, Brother, Sister…” 

The way she trailed off made him lift a brow because he knew what was coming next.

“You have brothers, don’t you?”  

“Yep, they are your uncles.” He continued the drive toward her school.

“But no sisters.”

“That’s right.” Up ahead he could see a couple walking together hand in hand. From behind you couldn’t tell their ages, but he knew them to the day without having to see their faces.

“Look, there’s Granny and Gramps,” Delilah shouted excitedly, even though she saw them multiple times a week.

“Where?” He pretended not to see and Delilah laughed.

“Daddy, they’re there. On the sidewalk, see?”

He slowed down and opened his window to call out to his parents. “Enough of the PDA this early in the morning.”

His mom just about jumped out of her sneakers. One of the first things he did after Jade died was move closer to his parents. It was that or get a nanny for Delilah and his mom had begged to let them help. Most of the time it was pretty cool living a short walk from them.

Unless his mom was in a nagging mood about him needing a social life, or playing in the band he used to run with his brother, or maybe even meeting somebody new.

Yeah, she especially loved to nag him about that.

No thanks. He had no time for that. And he certainly didn’t have time for the complications of dating while trying to raise a kid. His life was too full for relationships.


Pres bit down a smile because his mom only used his full name when she was telling him off. And he might be almost thirty, but she still did it.

His mom shook her head, but her face softened as she saw Delilah leaning toward the window and waving at her. “Hey cutie pie.”

“Hey Granny. I got a ponytail today.” Delilah swished her hair around.

“So I see.” His mom’s eyes crinkled. “And you look cute as a button.”

His dad caught Presley’s eye. “Still can’t do that braid, huh?”

“Nor can you,” Presley pointed out.

His dad shrugged. “That’s why I had three boys.”

“As if you had anything to do with it.” His mom rolled her eyes.

“Actually, I did,” his dad pointed out. “It’s the guy who decides the gender.”

Pres cleared his throat because Delilah was listening intently. And he absolutely didn’t want to have that kind of discussion with her right now.

“Gray Hartson,” his mom said to his dad. “You hush right up.”

His dad grinned, like he was enjoying the banter.

It was cool that Pres’ dad could walk along the streets unbothered. Anywhere else in the US and fans would surround him, even after all these years post retirement from making music and touring. Gray Hartson had been a big fucking deal in music back in the day.

But somehow he looked more at home walking down the street hand in hand with his wife than he ever had with a guitar up on stage.

“Gotta go,” Pres said, winking at his parents. “Be good. Don’t get up to anything I wouldn’t.”

His mom rolled her eyes, but you could tell by the way she looked at him that she loved him fiercely. The way she loved all three of her boys. Presley and Marley had come first – Presley beating his twin by an hour – and then Hendrix a couple of years later.

“Oh, you didn’t forget that Dad and I are out-of-town tonight?” his mom asked.

“Yep. I got it.” He nodded. “Have a good time.”

“You won’t forget to pick up Delilah from dance class, will you?” she added, glancing at her granddaughter.

Pres lifted a brow. “Only if she gets her spelling words wrong.”

“Daddy!” Delilah protested. “You can’t leave me at dance all night.”

“Okay kid.” He smiled at her because she was so easy to tease. “Don’t worry, I’ll be there. When have I ever let you down?”


* * *


“Okay, that’s it for dancing this afternoon. Let’s all come sit in a circle and wait for our parents to pick us up.” Cassie Simons clapped her hands together, smiling at the troop of little girls all dressed in pink leotards and pale white tights, their tiny feet shining in satin ballet shoes with elastic sewn across the top to keep them from falling off.

She was in a leotard too, but hers was black, with a pair of sheer tights. Her feet were encased in soft ballet shoes. Her long thick hair was twisted neatly into a bun, revealing her heart-shaped face.

This age was her favorite class to teach, she decided, because watching them try so hard to follow her instructions while being giddy that they get to dress up, was a blast.

A few parents had already arrived and were standing against the walls, where they’d watched the last dance of the class – a fun one where Cassie had played the piano and told them to pretend to be birds migrating. Like the dying swan but happier.

Much happier, because they all kept giggling which made her smile. 

“Okay, gang,” Cassie said, sitting in the middle of the circle with the clipboard full of names she’d been given. “If your parents are here, point them out to me.” 

Before the words were out of her mouth she knew she’d made a mistake, because ten six-year-old girls started shouting excitedly at once.

“Okay!” she called out. “Let’s start again. I’ll say your name and you’ll tell me if your parents are here. Let’s start with Angelina Smith.”

Within fifteen minutes all but one of her students had been picked up. Some parents had lingered to introduce themselves to the new teacher at the Forsythe School of Dance, others had asked her questions about how she thought their child was doing and whether she saw any potential in them.

And she’d had to answer honestly. It was too soon and they should be enjoying themselves for now. There was more than enough time for the pain of being over rehearsed and shouted at while your feet bled from being stuffed into pointes when they were older.

She knew that from experience.

“Delilah, isn’t it?” she asked the one girl remaining. She was sitting in the corner of the room, holding a giraffe. She was a cute kid. She’d danced enthusiastically for the entire class, and it was clear she had a natural rhythm, as her ponytail swayed from side to side.

Delilah nodded, suddenly shy, and Cassie’s heart clenched, because she knew what it felt like to be forgotten.

“Don’t worry, your…” Cassie looked at her sheet, “dad will be here soon. Maybe you can help me clean up while we wait? I could really use your help.”

She gave the little girl a warm smile. 

“Okay,” Delilah said softly, standing up. She walked over to Cassie with her stuffed animal still in one hand. The other reached for Cassie’s and Cassie took it, squeezing it reassuringly, because the little girl still looked scared. Maybe she should find something to keep her busy – wasn’t that what she used to do when she felt alone? Fill her mind until she didn’t think about it any more?

“How good are you at tidying up music?” Cassie asked, leading her to the piano. The sheet music was all over the place. It would probably take Cassie a minute to straighten them up, but she wanted to distract the little girl.

“I’m really good at it,” Delilah promised, looking hopeful. She let go of Cassie’s hand and reached for the papers. “I’m the best.”

Damn, she was cute. She still hadn’t let go of the giraffe, though.

“How about we put this little guy on the piano,” Cassie murmured. “He can watch you work.”

“It’s a she. Lola,” Delilah told her.

“Of course she is.” Cassie looked at the giraffe with a serious expression. “I’m sorry, Miss Lola.”

Delilah giggled and damn if that wasn’t a good sound.

Ten minutes later and the studio was neat and swept, and Delilah’s dad still hadn’t arrived. And if she was being honest, Cassie was getting a little furious.

Only a little – not a lot. And not because she was being inconvenienced, she didn’t exactly have much to run home for. But because the little girl kept looking hopefully at the door that never opened.

Why was it that some parents always put their kids last?

“I’ll tell you what,” Cassie said, smiling at Delilah. “Let’s grab a couple of drinks from the staff room.” And while they did that, she’d ask Gemma, her boss and friend, to call Delilah’s dad. Wherever he was, it couldn’t be more important than being here to keep his kid from getting upset.

Delilah nodded. “Yes please.”

Okay then. Cassie grabbed Lola from the piano and passed her to Delilah before they walked out of the studio and down the hallway to the front of the dance school. A drink, a phone call, and hopefully Delilah would get home before it was time to go to bed.

But before he took her home, Cassie intended to give Delilah’s dad a piece of her mind.







“Hey Pres!” Marley called out from the ground. Presley was on the roof, checking out the areas they’d fixed yesterday. It was due to rain overnight, and he didn’t want any leaks. He’d spent half the morning calming Mrs. Clancy down, and he didn’t want a repeat of it tomorrow. Good thing he could be a sweet talker if he wanted to be.

All words and no action.

He blinked at the sudden memory of that being screamed at him. He pushed it away and looked down at his brother, who was staring expectantly up at him.


“There’s a call for you. From Delilah’s dance school. You’re late picking her up.”

Fuck. What time was it? A glance at his watch told him it was half an hour past the time he could be considered a responsible parent.

“Shit.” He tried to extricate himself from the short lead he’d clipped to his harness for safety. “Christ, I can’t believe it. I set an alarm and everything.”

“And left your phone down here,” Marley pointed out.

Presley climbed down faster than he should have, unclipping the harness and looking around for his keys. If any of the crew had done that he would’ve been shouting at them.

“Here.” Marley pressed them into his hands. “It’s a few minutes, man. Don’t look so worried.”

“It’s half an hour. And you know what Delilah’s like about me being late.”

She hated it. She always had since the day her mom didn’t pick her up from daycare. Yes, she’d had counseling, and they’d had family therapy since then, but some wounds ran deep.

And he’d shoved a damn knife in it to open it up.

“Go. I’ll clean up here,” his brother urged. “Take her for an ice cream or something. She’ll be fine.”

Pres nodded at his brother, thankful as always to have Marley on his side. His brother worked with him part time on his days off from the fire house where he was a firefighter.

He was so used to having his brother around. They used to play together in a band, too, before he’d mostly given it up because being a single dad and playing gigs in bars really didn’t mix.

It took him a lot less time than it should have to drive to the dance school. And yeah, he might have broken the speed limit but only barely and with a good reason. It was only ten minutes later that he was parking The Beast – Delilah’s nickname for his huge truck – in the mostly deserted parking lot of the Forsythe School of Dance and climbing out of the cab in a hurry, his long legs speeding across the blacktop to the building.

When he strode into the reception area he could see that all the lights were off.

And Delilah was sitting on a chair, Lola crushed against her chest, her little legs swinging.

“Daddy.” Her entire face lit up as she jumped down from the chair and threw herself at him. He wrapped his arms around her, stroking her silky hair.

“Mr. Hartson?”

He hadn’t noticed the woman sitting with her. Was that Delilah’s teacher? He had a vague memory of his mom mentioning the old one had left, but he hadn’t paid that much attention. His mom did nearly all the pickups from class, so it hadn’t been at the top of his mind.

He glanced over at her again. She was wearing a black leotard that clung to her curves, and her legs were encased in white tights that emphasized the tone of her muscles. Not that he should be looking at those.

He swiftly brought his eyes up to her face, hoping she hadn’t noticed.

Her lips were pressed together. Her eyes narrow. But damn she was attractive if you were a douchebag who spent too long looking at somebody you shouldn’t.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. His words were aimed at Delilah, but the teacher nodded. 

“Could I have a quick word with you?” the teacher asked. “Alone?”

He glanced at Delilah as if to point out that it was almost impossible to be alone.

“Honey, why don’t you grab a couple of those donuts from the staff room for you and your daddy to eat once you get home?” Delilah’s teacher suggested, smiling warmly at her.

“Can I?” Delilah breathed, looking excitedly at Pres.

“Sure.” He nodded. 

Delilah skipped off, clearly happy now that he was here and her world was right again, leaving Pres alone with her teacher.

“Miss…” Damn, he didn’t even know her name.

“Cassie Simons.” She squared her shoulders but somehow she did it gracefully. It was like watching a bird move across the water. Every part of her seemed fluid. Light.

Such a contrast to his own body. Pres was built for strength, not grace. Her eyes dipped to his arms, no doubt taking in the tattoos he had inked from his shoulder to his forearm. 

All covered in dust from a day working on a construction site.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said again. “My mom usually picks Delilah up.”

“Delilah was very upset when you didn’t arrive. She started crying, so I did my best to distract her,” Cassie said. She had this soft voice that wrapped itself around you. 

But her words felt like a slap.

“Crying?” Pres swallowed hard.

“She thought you weren’t coming for her. You can’t just leave a six-year-old waiting like that. It’s not fair.” She lifted a brow at him and he felt like he was being scolded by the teacher.

Annoyance rushed through him. “I didn’t mean to. It was a mistake, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well mistakes to adults can feel like trauma to kids.”

She’d just stepped over the line he’d drawn around himself and Delilah, to keep them safe and unhurt. He didn’t let anybody that he didn’t trust penetrate it. And he was pissed, really pissed that she dove head first into a place she didn’t belong.

“How many kids do you have?” he asked her, his voice tight.

She actually blushed. “None.”

“Uhuh.” He lifted a brow, refusing to break their gaze. She ran the tip of her tongue along her bottom lip, her own eyes unwavering. He felt a tingle of electricity at the base of his spine. Like his muscles were waking up from a deep sleep. He’d be enjoying this, if this woman wasn’t making him so mad. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked him, tipping her head to the side. Her eyes were fiery and so damn pretty. His gaze dipped to her mouth.

Then resolutely away.

Her chest rose and fell with her breath. He wasn’t going to look at it. He wasn’t.

“It means that I’ll only be taking advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Cassie’s mouth dropped open, but she said nothing. And thankfully Delilah came back into the reception area, two iced donuts carefully balanced in her hands. She was walking slowly, like she was afraid they’d fall out of her palms and onto the floor.

“I got pink ones,” she said, looking pleased with herself. She lifted her hands – already covered in pink frosting – and licked her thumb.

Okay, it was time to go. He didn’t have time to argue with this woman. He had things to do. “Thanks for taking care of her,” he said gruffly, taking the donuts from Delilah’s sticky hands.

“No problem.” Cassie’s voice was tight.

“It won’t happen again.” He’d make sure of that, even if he had to strap an alarm clock on every limb. Being told off by the teacher really wasn’t much fun. Especially when he knew she was mostly right, but he was too proud to admit it. He spent most days beating himself up. He didn’t really need her help with it right now. 

Not even if she had curves he couldn’t get out of his mind.

“Can we eat them when we get home?” Delilah asked.

“After dinner. Say goodbye to Miss Cassie.”

Delilah did one better. She threw her arms around Cassie’s waist, taking her by surprise. “Thank you,” she said, still squeezing tight. “You’re my favorite teacher.”

And when she pulled back, Cassie’s cheeks were burning red. “Have a good evening,” she said to Delilah as she turned around to grab Lola.

And no, he didn’t look at her ass. Or see the sticky residue of Delilah’s hand marks on her lower back.

Because somewhere deep down, beneath the tattoos and the dust and the muscles, he was a gentleman. And gentlemen didn’t leer at their kid’s new dance teacher. No matter how long it had been since their hands had touched another woman. Because his daughter came first, always.

He’d promised himself that from the moment he became a widower.


* * *


“I can’t believe you forgot to pick her up.” His mom sighed over the phone. She and his dad were in Washington DC and she’d called to check in before the two of them went out for the night.

“I didn’t forget her, I was just a little late, that’s all.”

“Half an hour late, Presley. I’m surprised they didn’t charge you.”

He was finishing loading the dishwasher after dinner. Delilah was sitting in the den, fresh from her shower, wearing her favorite pink and white unicorn pajamas while she watched some cartoon he couldn’t remember the name of.

She’d fully recovered from him being late, but he hadn’t quite gotten there yet. The guilt nagged at him while they ate dinner, and he hadn’t wanted to eat the donut Delilah had snagged for him from the dance school. She’d asked if she could have it, but he’d shaken his head and put it in the refrigerator for another day.

Her diet wasn’t always the best, but dammit, he was trying.

That was the story of his life. He tried to keep everybody happy. Tried to keep a roof over his kid’s head. Tried to help her heal from losing her mom and tried to be both parents to her at the same time.

Tried and failed.

Yeah, he was in that kind of mood. He needed to snap out of it.

“I’ll buy her teacher some chocolates or something to say sorry,” he murmured, thinking out loud.

“Presley.” There she went, telling him off again.

“What? What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know. Not be late.” His mom sounded frustrated. And he got it, he did. When Jade died three years ago he’d been a mess. She and his dad had stepped in and taken care of him and Delilah.

But things were better now. They have a house, he has a job, and Delilah’s thriving at school. She loved unicorns and giraffes and dance class.

She was a normal little kid, and he was so thankful for that. She laughed, and she cried and she snuggled up to him when they watched movies together.

“I’ll sort it out,” he promised. “I’ll send flowers.”

“That’s better,” his mom said warmly. “You’re a good boy at heart.”

He laughed at the term boy. He hadn’t been that for a long time. By the age of thirteen he and Marley had been taller than their mom. By sixteen they were a full foot higher. Wherever they went, the two of them dominated the room.

The Heartbreak Boys, people in the town would whisper as they walked through the square. As handsome as their daddy, but twice as dangerous.

“You having a good time?” he asked his mom, loading a soap pod into the dishwasher and flicking it on. Once Delilah was in bed, he’d put in a load of laundry and attack some invoices. He had little time to sit around and do nothing, but that was mostly the way he liked it.

He liked being busy. Building things, making things. It beat thinking about how lonely you were in the middle of the night.

His mom was telling him about the party they were about to head to. He listened as he cleaned up the counters, humoring her. 

“I guess I’d better go,” she finally said. “We’ll be home tomorrow to pick Delilah up from school.”

“You sure?” he asked. He hated taking advantage of his parents. But they’d had this conversation enough times – they loved having Delilah around. They wouldn’t hear of him getting a nanny or putting Delilah in after-school care.

His kid was lucky to have so many people who loved her.

“I’m sure. Now sleep tight. And don’t forget to send the flowers.”

“I won’t.” He disconnected the call and slid his phone in his pocket.

“Daddy?” Delilah called out. “Come watch with me.”

He dried his hands on a towel and walked into the living room where his daughter was curled up on the sofa, Lola the giraffe wrapped tight in her arms. The stuffie was getting threadbare now, the fur on the ears had been rubbed away by her fingers over the years, and his mom had resewn the poor giraffe’s eyes back on.

“Okay.” He sat on the sofa next to her and she immediately climbed into his lap. She smelled of flowers and fresh showers and he breathed her in.

“Miss Cassie says I’m good at dancing,” Delilah told him, her eyes still glued to the television screen.

“Yeah, you are.”

Delilah preened like a cat. “And she says I have pretty hair.”

“That’s because I put it in such a great pony tail,” he teased.

Delilah sighed. “No, she had to re-do it for me. She can do French braids too, but she didn’t have time before class.”

Of course she could. He got the feeling his kid thought this new teacher was some kind of superhero. 

“She’s pretty,” Delilah continued. “Isn’t she?”

Pres blew out a mouthful of air. Yeah, she was, if you liked that kind of thing. Which apparently he did.

Or his libido, if it still existed, did.

His head, not so much. He was still bristling at her words, no matter how close to the truth they were.

She thought he was a bad dad. Yeah, well, he thought that daily, too. She could join the long line of people wanting to join that club.

“Am I pretty?” Delilah asked.

“Yeah, you are. And you’re smart and you’re funny and I love you very much.” He kissed her brow.

“I love you too.” She snuggled up against him. “But I’m not that smart. I only got four out of ten on my spelling test.”







The sun was shining as Cassie drove into work, which was a blessing after the overnight rain. She was still getting used to the short commute she now had. When she’d lived in the city, she’d had to catch two trains to get to work. It was one of the reasons she’d agreed to help her friend Gemma out by moving to Hartson’s Creek and teaching at the Forsythe Dance Studio.

She’d first met Gemma when she was nine and Gemma was eleven. It had been Cassie’s first day at her new school for performing arts and Gemma had been assigned as her buddy. It had been Cassie’s mom’s dream for Cassie to become a dancer, and Cassie had auditioned three times before she’d been given a place at the school.

They’d spent most of their days dancing, singing, and acting, their academic education second to their physical training. Their classes had been mixed – that’s how she and Gemma had become such good friends. They’d sit around after school while they were waiting to be picked up, giggling about the ‘trifecta’ their teachers were always lecturing them about.

“It’s not enough to be great at one thing. You have to be great at three to make it. Music, dancing, and acting. They’re the three legs your careers will rest on.”

When Cassie was seventeen, she’d joined the New York Academy of Ballet, and it had almost broken her heart to leave Gemma behind. By nineteen, Gemma had given up on performing and took a gap year to travel the world.

That’s where she’d met Riley – her now husband. By twenty they were married and she was pregnant. Soon after they’d moved to Hartson’s Creek, Riley’s home town, where he had a job at the local bank.

Cassie and Gemma had kept in touch as much as they could. And then when Cassie’s career was cut short thanks to her accident, Gemma had offered her a job at the Dance School she’d opened, while Cassie decided what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

Because it was clear she couldn’t dance anymore. Not professionally anyway. Teaching was the best she could manage.

Parking her car outside of the studio, Cassie grabbed her bag before climbing out. She had an hour before her first class – a mommy and me one – so she was planning on doing some exercise. Use it or lose it. And she didn’t want to lose it, mostly because dancing filled her soul.

It was the one time she could push everything out of her mind. Forget who she was and any troubles tickling her brain. She’d lose herself in the movement and rhythm of her dance, in the stretching of her feet and the tautness of her muscles.

“Hey!” Gemma greeted her as she walked inside. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

She didn’t look annoyed, though. Which was good because Cassie had enough annoyance from Delilah’s dad last night. She’d spent the evening trying to work out why she’d reacted so strongly to his anger.

Why she couldn’t stop looking at the way his dusty t-shirt clung to his chest, or the inked designs along his arms.

Ugh. He was so not her type. And yet somehow she couldn’t get him out of her mind.

“What’s wrong?” She stopped at the counter and dropped her bag to the floor.

“These just arrived for you.” Gemma pointed at an enormous bouquet behind her. “I put them in some water. They’re beautiful.”

Cassie stared at them, surprised. “Where did they come from?”

“Only one way to find out.” Gemma grinned, passing her a little white envelope – the kind that always seemed to go with flowers. Cassie opened it and unfolded the non-descript card.

The writing was masculine. As though he’d written it himself rather than calling the order through to a shop.


Sorry for being late. It won’t happen again.

Presley Hartson


Oh. She looked at it for a moment, like she was trying to read between the lines. Had she really been that much of a bitch last night?

Probably. But then she hated seeing the little girl cry. She’d been there too often herself. Forgotten. Alone.

Ugh, that was history now.

“I take it he came to pick up Delilah eventually, then?” Gemma asked. She’d been the one to call Mr. Hartson at Cassie’s request, but she hadn’t been able to stay late with Cassie as she had two kids of her own who were hungry for dinner, and there was no way Cassie was going to let them suffer because Presley Hartson worked on his own time frame.

“Yep.” Cassie lifted a brow. 

“The flowers are a sweet touch. I wish he’d sent me some.” Gemma sighed.

“You’re married.” Cassie smiled because she knew how in love Gemma and Riley were. He was a good guy, and Gemma knew it.

“I know, but a girl can dream. According to Riley, the Hartson brothers were everybody’s crush during high school. No other guys had a chance.”

For a moment, Cassie imagined Presley Hartson as a teenager, with the kind of swagger he only hinted at yesterday. 

Yeah, she probably would have been a fan, too.

“Such a shame though, what happened to his wife,” Gemma added, her expression suddenly serious.

Cassie’s throat tightened. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t know?” Gemma asked. “I suppose you wouldn’t. Why would you? You’re new.” Gemma smiled at her. “We need to write a handbook or something. It could have the history of Hartson’s Creek and a brief rundown of Chairs.”

“Chairs?” Cassie frowned. “What’s that.”

Gemma waved her hand. “I’ll tell you about that later. But I can’t believe I didn’t tell you about Presley. His wife died three years ago. He’s been raising his little girl alone since then.”

Cassie blinked. He was a widower? And she’d given him a hard time about being a bad dad? “Oh.” She felt terrible. Worse than terrible.

“He gets help from his parents. His mom is the one who usually does the pick ups from dance class,” Gemma continued.

She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that she might not see him again. 

Relieved. She was relieved. She didn’t need to be mooning after a widowed man. Her life was complicated enough, thank you very much.

She’d only arrived in Hartson’s Creek a week ago. She’d barely had time to unpack the boxes the delivery company had left stacked up along the walls in her rented house. Not that she needed most of it. Cassie wasn’t really one for too many possessions.

According to the therapist she’d seen after the accident, that came from a lifetime of moving around. After her dad left her mom when Cassie was a baby, they’d moved around a lot. Her mom still did. It was like she was always searching for something she couldn’t have.

As for her dad, Cassie barely heard from him. She’d long since accepted he wasn’t interested, even if her mom had always pined for him.

Neither of them had visited her at the hospital after her accident. Her dad hadn’t even sent a card. Her mom had called from Italy – where she’d been staying with some boyfriend – and that had been it. 

When the doctor had explained that her ankle would never heal properly and that she’d never be able to dance en pointe again, she hadn’t bothered to tell either of them. Her career was over thanks to a rainy night and a car with balled tires and she’d never felt more alone.

She could teach, though. So when Gemma had visited her – yes visited, even though she’d had to arrange childcare and cover at the dance school – and offered her a job, Cassie had taken it. She’d wanted to get away from New York, the city she’d grown up in. It had felt stupid to stay when she had no job and no prospects for the future.

Moving to West Virginia felt like a good way to take her mind off things while she worked out what she was going to do for the rest of her life.

So here she was. Teaching kids to dance. Living the dream life.

With flowers from a dad she’d misjudged on her first day.

“Is it okay to leave the flowers here?” Cassie asked. “I’ll take them home tonight.”

“Sure, no problem.” Gemma gave her a warm smile.

“Thanks. I’m going to head to the studio and warm up.” She picked her bag up, taking one last look at the bouquet. There were lilies. Her favorite. The same flowers her mom always sent her before opening night.

She wasn’t sure why that felt significant but somehow it did. 

“I’ll see you in an hour.” She’d buy Gemma a coffee after her first class when she had a break. Maybe this was the main reason she’d taken the job. So she could spend time with her best friend, the way they used to. Gemma felt like the only family she had anymore.

Angry dads aside, she already knew she’d made the right decision in coming here. And if she saw him again, she’d apologize too.

But she probably wouldn’t see him again.


* * *


By Friday, Cassie felt exhausted. She wasn’t sure if it was from the mental effort of trying to learn a hundred unfamiliar names or the physical effort of unpacking all the boxes in her house, but either way she was bone tired as she waved off the last children in her class.

She quickly showered in the staff washrooms and pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, looping her hair into a messy bun before running a slick of gloss over her lips.

By the time she reached the reception area, Gemma had locked the doors. “Ready?” she asked.

She’d invited Cassie to join her and her kids for dinner at the diner. An invitation Cassie had gratefully accepted. Gemma and her children dine there every Friday for dinner – Riley worked late on Friday nights so it’s their little treat for the weekend.

The diner was in the center of Hartson’s Creek, flanking the grassy town square where a bandstand stood in the center. Most of the buildings in the center were commercial ones. There was a hair salon – Gemma told her which stylist was the best – along with a realtor, a bank, and a bar. On the other side of the square was a white building with a spire – the First Baptist Church. 

Gemma’s kids were running ahead of them on the sidewalk. Lucy’s the oldest, at seven, and behind her was Andrew, who was five. The kids stopped and waited for them when they arrived at the diner. Gemma reached over their heads and pushed the door open.

The sound of voices and laughter – and was that a real jukebox? – hit them as soon as they stepped inside, behind Lucy and Andrew who were already running to the back. “Mom, somebody’s in our booth,” Lucy complained. 

“Honey, it’s not ours,” Gemma told her. “The seats are first come first serve, remember? There’s a table over there. Go grab it.”

“But it’s not a booth.”

Gemma gave her daughter the kind of look that Cassie knew all too well. She used it herself sometimes, when her students were shouting and not listening and she had to clap her hands to be heard.

“Okay.” Lucy nodded, looking resigned.

“We’re leaving actually, if you want ours,” a woman said. She was about Cassie’s age, with long dark hair and striking eyes. It was a face that drew a second glance. She slithered across the cracked leather bench seat of the booth, swinging her denim-clad legs to the front to stand.

“Oh, hey Grace,” Gemma said, smiling at the woman. “That’s so kind of you.”

“Not a problem.” Grace was the perfect name for her. She had the kind of innate glamor that you didn’t often see in women their age. “I’m just waiting for Pres. Here they are…”

Cassie felt a prickle on the back of her neck as she slowly turned around. Delilah was running out of a door at the back that led to the bathrooms, followed a few feet behind by her father.

Presley Hartson. The man she’d insulted a few days ago.

It was weird how quickly their eyes connected. The impact of his stare made her skin tingle.

She’d thought he was attractive when she’d seen him at the dance school. But that was nothing compared to now. There was no dust, no evidence of a day working hard with his hands. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a gray t-shirt, his hair a little messed up as though he’d been running his hands through it. He had a day’s worth of beard growth, too.

It made him look dark and dangerous.

“Miss Cassie,” Delilah called out, grinning at her. “What are you doing here?” 

Before Cassie could respond, Delilah threw herself against Cassie, her arms circling her waist. It was impossible not to hug her back. She was so full of life and excitement, it made Cassie’s heart feel warm.

“I’m just getting some dinner,” Cassie told her, smiling at the little girl. “Have you eaten?”

“Yep. I had nuggets. My favorite.”

“They were my favorite when I was your age, too,” Cassie told her.

“They were?” Delilah’s face lit up like Cassie had just told her she’d won a million dollars. “Oh wow.” She turned to look at her dad, who’d caught up with them. “Daddy, did you know that Miss Cassie likes nuggets, too?”

Cassie didn’t bother to correct her. Anyway, she kind of did still like them. They were comfort food, and she was all for that.

Presley’s gaze landed on her again. This time it was cool. Appraising. She parted her lips to take in a breath.

“Hi,” he said stiffly.

“Hi.” She smiled at him. He didn’t smile back. “Thank you for the flowers. You didn’t need to.”

Delilah had wandered over to Lucy. The two of them started talking rapidly about some TV show they both liked. Grace and Gemma were chatting, and Andrew was standing by his mom’s side, looking shy.

Presley shrugged. “No problem.”

She took a deep breath, because it had been playing on her mind all week. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you the way I did,” she told him. “I’m sorry.”

He blinked, and she noticed how thick his eyelashes were. Most women would kill for natural lashes like that. Or at least pay a lot of money for them. 

“It’s fine.” His words sounded like a period. No more conversation needed. 

And yeah, she wasn’t stupid enough to tell him how sorry she was about his wife. But she felt it. Yes, she’d hurt her ankle, but he’d lost his everything. It wasn’t comparable, and she felt bad for the way she’d talked to him.

“Delilah, we gotta go,” he called out. 

“Can’t we stay?”

“We have to get ready for Chairs.”

“Oh yay!” The little girl clapped her hands together, the diner clearly forgotten. “What are we waiting here for? Let’s go.”

He gave Cassie a nod and she nodded back. Okay, so he still disliked her, she could live with that.

She didn’t have to be friends with everybody. She’d learned that at an early age. But she was a friendly person at heart and hated that she’d gotten off to a poor start with him.

“Bye Miss Cassie!” Delilah waved and ran to the door, Grace and Presley following behind her.

She’d forgotten about Grace. Was she his girlfriend? She was pretty enough. A good match for the stupidly attractive Presley Hartson.

Not that it mattered. It wasn’t as though she was interested, anyway. She liked her men to smile now and then.

And not hate her.

“Come on, let’s sit down and order,” Gemma said, hustling Andrew onto the bench next to Lucy. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.”


* * *


An hour later she and Gemma were laughing about the Trifecta of Performing that was hammered into them at stage school, while the server cleared their plates. They’d spent most of dinner talking about old friends and what they were doing now. Lucy and Andrew were coloring a sheet they’d been given, waiting patiently for the ice cream Gemma had promised them if they behaved well at the table.

“Can I ask you something?” Cassie asked.

“Sure.” Gemma smiled.

“Does Presley Hartson’s girlfriend dance? She looks like a dancer.”

Gemma blinked. “He doesn’t have a girlfriend.”

Cassie’s heart did a weird clench. Ugh. “Who was he with tonight then?”

“Grace?” Gemma asked. “She’s his cousin. Her mom and his dad are siblings.” Gemma shrugged. “There are a lot of Hartson’s in this town. Hence the name.”

Cassie blinked, feeling stupid. It was Hartson’s Creek. She hadn’t put the two together. She had now though. “So the Hartsons are like royalty around here then?”

Gemma shrugged. “Something like that. Maybe they should bring some thrones to Chairs,” she chuckled.

Cassie remembered Gemma had mentioned Chairs before, and never expanded on it. “What is Chairs anyway?” she asked, curious.

Gemma grinned. “Oh I really need to write you that Hartson’s Creek manual.” She took a sip of her coffee the server had just topped up. “Chairs is when the town gets together on Friday nights. If the weather is good, we all carry our chairs down to a field by the creek and the kids play flag football or hang around and the adults drink lemonade and gossip.”

“No way. That’s not real. It sounds like something from a TV show,” Cassie said. She could picture the Gilmore Girls carrying their Chairs to the square to sit around and gossip.

“I’m not lying, I swear,” Gemma protested. “I thought it was made up, too, when we first moved here. But it’s actually kind of sweet. You get to know everybody really quickly at Chairs.” She lifted a brow at Cassie. “Maybe you should come tonight? We’re meeting Riley there. He’s going straight from work.”

“Oh no, I can’t. I have to finish my unpacking. But thank you.” It was a lie, but only a little one. Fact was, she’d imposed on Gemma enough. She appreciated her friend for showing her around town, but Gemma and her family deserved some family time without her. She was determined not to be a burden on them. She needed to make her own friends.

And then Presley Hartson’s face flashed into her mind. She pushed that thought firmly away. 

“Maybe next week then?” Gemma asked, reaching for the check, but Cassie grabbed it first.

“For sure,” she said. “And this is on me. To say thank you for all you’ve done.”

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