*Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, individuals, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Second Chance

Chapter One

It had been years since she had seen him. Years since she had heard his voice. Years since she had touched him and held him close. And as her young daughter, Emma, tugged impatiently on her hand, that bittersweet memory from oh-so long ago flooded her mind, and yet again, she relived it

Her best friend, Maria, had just gotten married at the age of twenty to her high school sweetheart.

Ah, young love. How sweet. She knew that it wouldn't last. Nothing that was too good to be true lasted.

Why was she being so bitter? Shouldn't she be happy for her friend on this happiest of all occasions?

She should, yes; she should, but she couldn't help but be jealous. Here she was, still single and looking for the one. Here she was, depressed and feeling hopeless, though she was young, beautiful, and energetic. She had her whole life ahead of her.

She was envious of her friend, of what she was so close to having—a family, the one thing she longed for most in the world. She wanted a blossoming love, one that made her heart beat quickly and butterflies flutter madly in her stomach. She longed for a tender, romantic relationship with a man who loved her more than life itself, a faithful husband whose beauty radiated from the inside our. Someone who saw her for whom she truly was.

Those things seemed so very out of reach for her. Nothing more than wishes and dreams. Besides, her mind was set on her ultimate goal—to be the first in her family to finish college and establish herself in a career. A family would come later, always be in second on her to-do list. And despite her longings for love, she made no move to change that part of herself. She had yet to stop and enjoy the good, simple things in life, and figured she never would.

She sighed as she hoisted her thin frame onto a barstool. She ordered from the bartender a glass of white wine in a monotonous voice that could have depressed even the most cheerful of people. Her normally flawless appearance had vanished, morphing into unkempt clothing, disheveled hair, and glazed, bloodshot eyes. She was grateful nobody she knew was around to witness this.

The bartender set the wine before her. She took a sip. This was not her first drink, and it was obvious.

A person sat on the once-unoccupied stool beside her. She glanced over at him, studying his profile, and realizing that he was cute, with dimples appearing periodically, and startling blue orbs that held so much depth, despite his somewhat drunken state, that they were intriguing. She watched intently as he ordered himself a beer. When the bartended gave it to him moments later, he chugged it down in mere minutes with a refreshed sound as he set the bottle down on the counter, banging it with more oomph than was necessary. Then he ran a hand through his curly, light brown mop of hair, and ordered another drink. And another. And another.

He noticed her watching him. He pretended not to notice, though his eyes kind of brightened, the effects of the drinks not yet making him completely delirious of what was around him.

For a while, both strangers sat in silence, drinking drink after drink, each in their respective, jumbled thoughts. But after she had had a couple more drinks herself, she finally turned to him, feeling flirtatious.

So, what's your name stranger?

He looked over his beer bottle at her as he took another swig.

Brooke. So what are you doin' here? She smiled coyly.

He grunted before he replied. Friend just got married. He muttered it as if it answered everything, his eyes wandering from her head to her toes, and back up again. They shined in unspoken approval.

Mine, too. She sighed, then giggled stupidly.

He looked at her; she looked at him. Their eyes locked long and meaningfully. Wanna go ta ma place? S not too far from here.

Brooke nodded. Both stood and stumbled out of the bar together, him leading the way back to the hotel he was staying at. Clumsily, he slid the key-card through the electronic lock and fumbled with the doorknob. Eventually, he threw it open, stepped inside, and took off his shirt and pants almost immediately.

Brooke giggled again, disoriented, but still quite aware of what was happened. She made no move to stop it, either.

Jason staggered over to her and ran his hands through her short, curly brown hair, suddenly kissing her passionately. She kissed him back with just as much passion and no abandon. Her hands rested on the small of his bare back. She swayed as he shut the door behind him. Slowly and methodically he undressed her, as though he had done this many times before

Then she looked at the product of that drunken night of lovemakingher daughter, who still tugged on her hand, shaking Brooke out of her reverie.

Mommy, Woofy has to go poo-poo, she garbled, referring to the stuffed dog she held in her hands.

No, he doesn't, honey. He's just a stuffed animal, Brooke chided gently.

Nuh-uh. Woofy go poo-poo!

Fine. Take him to go potty, Brooke relented. Emma grabbed her mother's hand and dragged her toward the bathroom. Once there, she dropped Brooke's hand and went to carefully hold the dog over the open toilet, pretending that it was relieving itself.

What an imagination, Brooke thought, laughing to herself. She leaned against the doorjamb carefully, watched this scene in front of her, and wished she had a video camera.

Good boy, Woofy, Emma praised her dog. She turned to her mother with big, serious blue eyes so much like his. Woofy's dirty. He need a bath.

Sweetie, we'll give Woofy a bath tomorrow, Brooke promised her daughter absentmindedly. She knew that by tomorrow, Emma wouldn't remember.

Emma pushed her bottom lip into a pout and folded her arms over her chest.

Guess what time it is, Emma? Syrupy sweetness dripped off of her voice. Emma just stared at Brooke, daggers spawning from her angry eyes. It's time for beddy, she said, threateningly.

Emma cried. Even as she did this, she stuck her thumb into her mouth and began to suck on it, the same way she did when she was tired. Me watch TV!

Are you going to be a good girl for Mommy?

She sniffled and swiped at her runny nose with the back of her hand.

Brooke smiled, picked up her daughter, and sat down on the couch. Her daughter snuggled up to the warmth of Brooke, one hand tightly clutching Brooke's hand, the other her stuffed dog.

Emma's eyes began to droop as Brooke picked up the remote and turned on the television. The beginning of the jingle for hit children's show The Wiggles was heard and Emma perked up some. Emma loved the show, with its corny tunes and silly stunts, and although it annoyed Brooke, it amused Emma, so she wasn't about to complain.

Brooke watched Emma's face as she peered at the screen. A peculiar look was in her eyes that Brooke just couldn't place for some reason.

Another of Emma's random questions floated into her mother's ears as she toyed with a lock of her blond curls. Mommy? How come I don't have a daddy? Her adorable blue-eyed face looked confused, and Brooke's heart hurt for her.

Yet it was on the tip of Brooke's tongue to tell her the truth. That he didn't know about her. That she was the product of a drunken night of no-strings-attached lovemaking. But she couldn't bring herself to say any of those words. Instead, Brooke said, Because, honey. Just because She couldn't tell her daughter that she did really have a daddy, or that he didn't even know about her. The concept simply wasn't one that her three-year-old daughter would understand.

A frown whitened the corners of Emma's tiny mouth. The Wiggles once again appeared on the television screen, and she returned her attention to the four men. Emma loved her mother. But often, she wished she had a daddy, too. She was treated differently at day care; the children always asked her why she didn't have a daddy like they did It was a thought that plagued the little girl. All Emma knew was that, as she watched The Wiggles singing and dancing, she wished that one of them could be her daddy.

The following morning, Brooke yawned loudly as she made her way up the walk to her daughter's day care, holding tightly to Emma's hand.

Sleepily, Emma wiped her eyes with her tiny fist, still trying to wake up.

Hi, Brooke, Kathleen Thomson greeted as Brooke hurriedly entered the front door.

Hi, Kathleen, she replied. Sorry I can't stay and chat today. I'm already running a little bit late.

Kathleen and Brooke had a friendship that went back many years. They had been good friends in high school and had attended the same college, both wanting to become teachers. There was only a year difference between them, and they got along well. They had Maria, Kathleen's older sister, to thank for their close friendship, however. If Brooke hadn't been friends with Maria, she and Kathleen might never have had discovered how much they had in common, nor would they ever have become as close as they had.

Kathleen chuckled slightly. It's okay, Brooke. I understand.

Brooke currently taught in the elementary school.

it's going that good, huh? Kathleen joked, noticing the expression on her friend's face.

Lately, the kids have just been unruly. Brooke wagged her head. I just can't seem to control them.

You do look exhausted, Kathleen commented. Why don't I take Emma for the night and you go out and do something. Have some me time.' You deserve it.

Brooke just looked at her. You don't have to she began weakly, though a night out, without a child tagging along, did sound fantastic.

Kathleen waved her off. Nonsense. Go and have a good time. Emma and I will, too, won't we, sweetie? She looked down on Emma and smiled brightly.

Yes, Miss Kafween, Emma said shyly.

I don't knowdon't you have something you'd rather do?

No. Just pick up Emma in the morning. I have some of her extra clothes here still, so everything will be fine. Don't worry, Brooke.

You're sure?

Positive. It's settled. Go. Kathleen smiled, making a motion with her hand. I'll call you later. Maybe you could even call Maria and Chad and see if they want to go out. I'm sure they would love to.

Fine. Maybe I will. Thanks, Kathleen. I owe you. She slowly headed down the sidewalk and to her car. She drove off to the elementary school. She pulled her cell phone out and dialed.

Hey, Maria, Brooke said as she maneuvered her way in and out of morning rush hour traffic. How are you?

A sigh. I'm fine, Brooke.

What are you doing?

Right now? Right now I'm chasing after a child who refuses to take a bath! she exclaimed. As she said this, Brooke realized her breathing was labored. She also heard shrieks of laughter in the background.

Actually, Maria, I meant tonight, Brooke replied.

Tonight? Nothing's planned. Why?

Kathleen offered to take Emma for the night to give me a much-needed break, so

And you wanted to know if we could do something with you?

Gee, you can read me so well. Brooke laughed. Can you do something? Otherwise I'm going to be stuck at my apartment bored out of my mind.

I think we can arrange for a babysitter. Or my mother. Gotcha! Brooke head squealing on the other end and guessed Maria had finally caught her mischievous daughter.

Awesome. Just let me know, Brooke said. Maria said she would before they both hung up. Brooke was looking forward to tonight.

Well, who do we have here? Brooke asked kindly to the adorable little boy of about seven or eight who shyly stood before her, shuffling his feet.

he answered bashfully in a thin, wispy little voice.

You're a little late there, Michael. Brooke smiled at him and leaned down to look him in the eyes. Is there a reason you're missed a whole week of school?

There have been some problems in the family, a deep, masculine voice answered. Its owner stepped forward and placed his hands on the little boy's shoulders.

Oh? Is there something I should know about? Brooke kept her eyes on the little boy.

His mother had to leave suddenly, and she asked me to watch him. She didn't remember to tell me when school started until last night, which is why Michael missed a week. The person speaking didn't seem to be bothered by Brooke's seeming aloofness.

She finally brought her eyes up and glanced at him. He was handsome. Oh, God, was he handsome. Those dimples. The light brown hair. And those eyes. Those deep blue, sparkling orbs that had drawn her interest in the first place. It wasn't possible. Was it?

she whispered aloud accidentally. It brought a frown to his full, shapely lips.

Excuse me? he asked confusedly. What did you say?

Brooke immediately became flustered. nothing. I didn't say anything. Brooke stumbled over her words, flushing a deep red color.

No, you just said my name. How did you know my name? He looked her over, brows furrowed.

don't. You look like a Jason. Just a lucky guess, I suppose, she stammered feebly. She sounded like she was an obsessive stalker who was unsuccessfully trying to remain unknown.

Have we met before?

I don't know. A shrug.

Wait, I have met you before!

You have? Meek, afraid. This was the father of her child standing here, she was sure of it. God, he was even better-looking than she remembered him being.

No, I really haven't, he then said.

The beating of Brooke's heart slowed slightly. In relief or disappointment, she wasn't sure. She did look extremely different than that night nearly four years ago, that she did know. Her hair was a different shade and she was fuller, perhaps even more than from the summer sunshine. Otherwise, she felt she looked the same. Why didn't he seem to remember her?

He had been drunk out of his mind, you idiot! The voice inside Brooke's head screamed.

He smirked, but held his hand out to her all the same, shaking Brooke out of her thoughts. I'm Jason Elleson. This is my nephew whom I am going to be looking after for a couple of weeks, Michael Brooklyn, he introduced. A broad smile curled the corners of his lips up as he held out his hand over his nephew's head, waiting for her to take it in hers and offer her name. Brooke did shake it, hesitantly. And you are

That's for me to know and you to find out, she blurted, boldly. She smiled slightly, taken by surprise.

Jason grinned, as shocked as she was by the statement. I think I can manage that.

You can? she stammered, her eyes wide.

Jason nodded. Can I assume you're unattached?

I have a daughter. I'm single, though. She sighed heavily. She had to start class.

Well, then, would you be interested in meeting me for a cup of coffee during your lunch break? Jason asked, flashing her a smile of persuasion that Brooke couldn't say no to. She knew that by meeting with him, she would be treading on thin ice, but she couldn't help it. Being so close to her daughter's long-lost father was kind of exciting. It gave her hope. And maybe, someday, she would be close enough with him to tell him that her daughter was also his.

With a smile, Brooke replied, I'd like that, but I really shouldn't leave school.

That is a problem, isn't it? he said almost mockingly. Thoughtfully, he rubbed his chin. Would you mind if, instead, I came by to visit you on your lunch break?

Brooke sighed. I suppose that would be all right.

I guess I'll see you later, then. I should probably be going. I'm sure you have to start class.

Yes, I do.

Yes, of course. Then I bid you adieu.

Brooke watched with fascination as he leaned down and smilingly whispered something into Michael's ear. Brooke noticed that little boy faintly smile before he headed into the classroom. Jason waved at her before turning around and leaving.

Brooke now had two things to look forward to. She knew, however, that it was only a matter of time before Jason actually figured out who she was. And she had a feeling that his reaction would be less than favorable.

So, you live here? Brooke asked Jason as they sat, sipping the flavored Tim Horton's coffee that Jason had brought with him. Although Jason was Emma's father, Brooke still didn't really know that much about him.

Here? In North Carolina? Where the wind blows soft breezes from the ocean? Where Spanish moss dangles off of the trees to give the state an air of romance? No. He shook his head and smiled ironically. I live in lovely Los Angeles, California. The land of the rude people and the land of pollution; and the land of pathetic people desperately trying to make it in Hollywood. Lucky me, he said dryly with a roll of his blue eyes.

Brooke took a sip of her coffee and swallowed before asking her next question. Why do you live there, then, if you hate it so much?

To be quite frank, the only reason I'm there is because that's where my job is.

Really. And what is it you do, exactly? Please tell me you are not a model!

Jason laughed. No, no, I'm not a model. I write for the LA Times, he answered.

Oh? What kind of articles do you write? Assuming that you write articles, that is. For all I know, you could be the coffee and doughnut boy. She chuckled lightly to indicate she was mere joking around with him.

Still, he looked offended, though it wasn't genuine. Excuse me, I am the coffee and doughnut boy!

Her eyes widened and her face flushed with embarrassment. I'm sorry!

Jason began to laugh. I'm just kidding with you.

Oh, thank God. Brooke said it with relief, a smile brightening her face once again. Anyway, you never answered my question. What type of articles do you write?

Children's screams and playful squeals could be heard in the background. They were happy sounds, but when Brooke gazed out the window, she frowned in worry. One little boy was standing all by himself. He just stood there watching the children that were having fun without him.

But she returned her attention to Jason when he replied, I write for the entertainment section, mostly about music. My friend, Erik, writes for the paper here, but the sports section. He recently got offered a job with me at the LA Times and will be moving there in a couple weeks.

Oh, that's interesting, Brooke said, ignoring his last comment. That would make you a music critic?

Something like that. Now, enough about me. I want to know about you. He leaned forward, while Brooke leaned back.

And what exactly do you want to know about me?

How old is that daughter you speak of? She can't be very old, can she?

She's three. Her name is Emma.

And where is she now? While you're teaching?

She's at day care. My friend runs it. In fact, lucky me, she's taking Emma for the night so that I can have some time to myself.

The whole night? Must be exciting.

Oh, it is. Brooke smiled with a mixture of seriousness and contentment. You have no idea.

Since you have the night off, then, how about dinner tonight? he suddenly asked.

Brooke sighed. She would love nothing more than to do that, but she already had a commitment, and she told him so somewhat regretfully.

is there somebody else? He seemed disappointed, and in some strange way, she felt flattered.

Oh, no, not somebody else. I believe I already told you that there's no man in my life. No, I've actually made plans with a couple friends of mine and we're going out tonight. They're my best friends, and they get out as much as I do, so I decided they could use a night out as much as I could.

How long have your friends been married?

Oh, they got married when they were both twenty. They've been married for a little over four years now, I believe, she said, although she knew exactly how long they had been married? How could she forget? Not only was it the night Maria and Chad had gotten married, it was also the day Jason had impregnated her. But he couldn't know that. Not yet anyway. He didn't even live here; what they had going on would not last, she was sure of it. Not that they even had anything going on. Just a faint attraction and friendly conversation, nothing more, and nothing less.

Brooke smiled at herself in the mirror as she got ready to go out. For a change, she was pleased with her appearance. She wore a black dress with an uneven hem and a scoop-neck. It was casually, yet dressy at the same time. Her short brown hair was down and she'd left it curly. It spiraled flatteringly around her face, framing it. Little makeup had been added to her face. Just some concealer, eye-liner, and lipstick. She liked to look natural.

A quick glance at her clock told her it was time to go. She would be meeting Maria and Chad at their house at eight. From there, they would be heading to a bar for some drinks and dancing.

Smiling to herself, she slipped on a pair of black, strappy sandals before she headed toward the living room. She left her apartment and headed to her car. She slipped into the driver's seat. Immediatley, music filled her ears. Brooke hated silence, so the radio was never turned off.

Ooh, I want you / I don't know if I need you but / Ooh, I'm dying to find out / Ooh, I want you / I don't know if I need you but / Ooh, I'd die to find out...

Brooke realized as she drove that that was how it was with Jason. She wanted him; but she didn't want him. She didn't want him to find out about Emma. She was positive it would scare him away, and she wanted the little time that she had with him to last. Even if she would only see him in school when he dropped off his nephew for a couple weeks. It was better than nothingright?

Then again, Brooke wondered if she was being selfish. Thoughtless by not telling Jason about his daughter.

But that thought was discarded out the open window of her car, along with the rest of her disturbing thoughts, as she concentrated on the road in front of her.

Maria cried when she opened her front door. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman with long blond hair, shining blue eyes, and a smile brighter than a Christmas tree's lights. Come on in. We're almost ready. She leaned forward to hug her friend, whom she didn't see much of anymore, much to her dismay, because of their busy schedules.

Brooke walked in and smiled when she saw Isabella, Maria's little girl, curled up next to a teenage girl, whom Brooke assumed was the babysitter. They were watching the infamous Spongebob Squarepants cartoon that children seemed to love so much. Brooke actually found it to be quite amusing at times herself.

How are you feeling? Brooke asked as she followed Maria into the large kitchen.

Oh, I'm doing okay.

How far along are you again?

About three months, Maria answered as she bustled about, finishing up the dishes before they headed out. She was already dressed and wore a flattering off-the-shoulder red dress.

Have any more morning sickness? Brooke made a face. Maria did, too. They both laughed.

You bet. It's the most disgusting thing, you know? Maria smiled sarcastically. You always manage to barf at the worst times.

Oh, I know. Remember how bad I had it with Emma? God, it was awful.

You were on the saltine and Vernors diet for weeks. That must have been terrible.

Emma suddenly ran into the kitchen and reached up for her mother. Brooke frowned, confusedly, but picked her up and held her. Emma lay her head on her shoulder, her eyes drooping.

I invited Kathleen to come with us, Maria explained, seeing her friend's expression. The babysitter can watch her.

What's going on in here?

Oh, we were just talking about how good you are in bed, Chad, Brooke joked. She turned around. Her eyes widened when she saw him standing beside Chad, a puzzle expression on his face but appreciation in his eyes as he looked her up and down. They landed on Emma and stayed there for a few moments.

A cute guy with light brown eyes and hair was there, too. He was grinning, his eyes sparkling, as he watched this scene before him with almost knowing eyes, but Brooke wasn't paying attention to him. Her eyes were elsewhere, and they refused to budge.

Seeing the befuddled expression on Brooke's face, but somehow missing the recognition, Maria hastily said, I hope that you don't mind. I invited a couple of friends along with us. You know we don't get out the often and Chad hasn't seen Jason for a long time. Next to him is Jason and Chad's friend, Erik. She trailed off. An uncomfortable silence fell upon them.

Kathleen stepped into the room a moment later. So, Brooke, are you ready to go? she asked, breaking the silence. Jason's eyes widened in remembrance. Brooke flinched noticeably, but managed to send a scathing glare toward a bewildered Maria.

Jason shook his head. Can you guys give us a minute?

Confused, Kathleen, Maria, Chad, and Erik all headed out of the kitchen, leaving the two alone. Jason immediately turned to Brooke, his eyes widened into bright blue saucers.

Brooke? You're Brooke from four years ago' Brooke? From the bar? Jason stuttered. Wait a minute! You did know who I was! And you said nothing?

Jason, stop. It's not that big a deal. I never tell strange guys my name. It's a habit I can't seem to break, she said with a weak hint of laughter in her voice.

Strange guys? But you know me, Brooke! In fact, you more than know me!

The loud talking aroused Emma. She lifted her face up. It was a spellbinding moment when she first laid eyes on her unknowing father.

I know. I was justsurprised, I guess. Listen, let's just go. She knew that she had ruined her chance to have anything with him, before they had even had a chance.

Jason took her arm gently, holding her back. Wait. I'm just confused is all. It's really you?

Yes. It's really me. Is it really that hard to believe? Brooke said the words in a sharp, exasperated fashion that normally would have taken the person whom she spoke to aback, but Jason ignored her tone.

Emma continued to stare at him. Jason suddenly looked at Emma as if noticing her for the first time. He studied her. Brooke could almost see his mind working.

Who dis, Mommy? Emma whispered.

Emma, this is— Brooke wanted so much to say, your father, but she forced herself to say instead, She gulped, and after a few minutes, Jason returned his glance to Brooke.

It's just thatyour hair, it's lighterand you.look differentfuller maybe, and less drunk And you're friends with Maria and Chad? The series of inquiries spewed out of his mouth quickly.

Would I be here if I weren't friends with them? she shot back, answering his last remark.

No, you wouldn't. Jason wagged his head. So I take it that Maria was your friend who had gotten marriednight, then?

Yes. And I'm guessing that Chad must have been yours. Now can we just go to dinner, please?

Can we talk more at dinner?

If we must. Brooke rolled her eyes. She walked out of the kitchen and into the living room, setting her daughter down on the couch. She smiled at the babysitter and thanked her before following the others out the door.

This evening, which had started out relaxing, was now going to be a most uncomfortable one.