EXCERPT: Challenged By You (LITC, #5)

Hey, everyone!

I know I haven’t posted in a while, so I thought I’d share a little something I’ve been working on. Paige’s story is one I know my Love in the City fans have been patiently waiting for, but I’m here to tell you that I am working on it! Between my new full-time job (that I actually love and enjoy going to everyday, and you know, I’m almost 26 so I needed to get off my parents’ health insurance) and my writing, I am going to bring you Paige’s story soon! I’m still in the process of writing it, so I don’t have a release date for you yet. But in the meantime, I hope this unedited excerpt of the prologue will hold you over for a little bit. Paige’s story is so unlike the rest of the Love in the City books, and I’m trying my best to make sure it’s perfect for you guys. You’ll really get to know the woman you’ve read about in the first four books, and I’m bringing in a new hero just for her. But for now, let’s take a trip back to 2003 where her story truly begins. . .

Prologue

June 2003

Paige

Positive.

Two lines meant positive, but one of the lines looked a little more faded than the other. What the hell did that mean?

Standing in the bathroom, I closed my eyes tight and shook the test like it was a damn Etch A Sketch, hoping the more faded line would disappear altogether. Another fearful glance at it told me the shaking only made the line appear more clearly.

The knot thickened in my throat and tears pooled in my baby blues as I stared back at my seventeen-year-old self in the mirror. In my opinion, I didn’t look the same as I did yesterday. Maybe it was my imagination but my boobs already felt heavier. My long blonde ponytail still kept in its sleek, tight hold felt almost too tight, like it was giving me a headache. The minimal makeup I wore did nothing to hide the fatigue etched into my ivory skin.

With trembling hands, I laid the test back down on the vanity.

This cannot be happening. I’m seventeen years old; I can’t be having a child! Especially when its father just graduated high school yesterday and plans to move across the country to play college football on a full-ride scholarship.

I sighed and looked away from the mirror, talking to myself aloud. “I cannot be pregnant right now.”

A knock on the bathroom door resonated, giving the first tear permission to drop onto my left cheek.

“Paige?” Mom asked in a worried tone. “Everything okay?”

“Uh-umm,” I stuttered nervously, taking a few deep, shuddered breaths to try to calm down. How would she respond to this news? Her baby girl—the head cheerleader and president of her class—getting knocked up by the star quarterback. What a fucking cliche. “Not really, Mom.”

The knob turned and she peeked her head in. “May I come in?”

Turning my back to mirror, I nodded. Rachel Abram in her perfectly pressed jeans and pink cardigan, with the same blonde hair as mine tied back in a poofy ponytail with a scrunchy instead of a hairband, joined me in the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

My mom and I were close. She was almost more like a friend than a parent most of the time. Both of my parents were more friendly than authoritative. They grew up during that hippie era, where it was all, “Make peace, not war”, so they were laid-back but intuitive.

She took one look at me and immediately noticed something was wrong. “Why the tears, baby girl?”

Her comforting voice alone was enough to push me over the edge. I covered my face with my hands and uttered, “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, sweetie,” she soothed with a sigh, wrapping her arms around me in a hug. She kissed the top of my head and squeezed me tight. “It’s going to be okay.”

Holding on to her, I buried my head into her shoulder and cried harder. “I never missed taking a pill, I swear, and Drake always wore a condom.”

She ran her hand down my ponytail. “Things can still happen even when you use protection, Paige. You know that.”

“I know, but I-I-I didn’t expect this to happen.”

“Nobody ever does,” she replied calmly, dragging her thumbs over my cheeks. “It’s all going to be okay. Just take some deep breaths and—”

“Gah!” I cursed, pulling away from her. “Could you please try to be a little bit angry about this? This. Can. Not. Happen. Drake leaves for California in a few weeks to start football practice! The last thing he wants is a high school girlfriend with a baby on the other side of the country. This is going to ruin his life.”

“Paige. . .” Her brows furrowed as she took a step back. “Drake loves you. Maybe that’s why I’m not upset about this, because I know you love him, too. I knew you guys were serious a long time ago, when all you could talk about was him. You both used protection, but by some miracle, you still managed to get pregnant. This wasn’t just some stupid mistake you guys made; a baby is never a mistake. And I promise, it is not going to ruin either of your lives. Your father and I are here for you, and I know Drake’s parents will support you guys, too. It’s not the end of the world, it’s the start of a life. A life some women never get the opportunity to create.”

“None of that changes how I scared I am about this.” I knew she was right, but at the moment, I could only think about the future. I stared back at her and told her what scared me more than anything. “I’m scared to tell him. I’m scared I’m going to tell him and he’s going to do something drastic, like forget all about his full ride to USC and football so he can stay here and be supportive of us. You know that’s something he would do because he’s one of the good ones.” More tears threatened as I looked down at my flat stomach and fingered the hem of my shirt. “I can’t let him give up on his dreams for us, Mom. I love him too much to do that to him.”

Mom sat down on the edge of the tub and reached for my hand, pulling me down beside her. For the first time, I saw tears glistening in her eyes as she held both my hands in hers and smiled weakly. “You can’t make that decision for him.”

“YOUR MOTHER’S RIGHT!” Dad shouted through the closed door. “YOU HAVE TO TELL HIM!”

“Dad,” I whined, leaning into Mom as a wave of embarrassment washed over me. The door opened up and he joined my confessional. He squatted down in front of us, shot Mom a wink, and placed a hand over ours as he smiled at me. “Could you at least look mad, like you might kill Drake for knocking me up?”

He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “No way, because I’m going to be the best goddamn grandpa you’ve ever seen, and my grandchild is going to have the best throwing arm in the nation.”

“It could be a girl, Cal,” Mom quipped playfully.

“And she’ll still be able to out-throw all the boys if she inherits her dad’s arm.”

“This is true,” she laughed. “But either way, it’ll inherit our baby girl’s beauty.”

Their excitement caused an honest smile to spread across my face, a smile that wasn’t weighed down with worry, and for the first time today, I thought, I can do this.

“Okay, I’m going to tell him.”

***

I jumped in my Jeep and headed west toward Drake’s house. I nervously tapped on the steering wheel as I drove by the same handful of estates I always did on my way over to his place. Drake and I grew up in Bedford, New York. His mom inherited a dairy farm, and my dad’s writing career had landed us an estate almost as big as theirs. Bedford was known for its estates and rural appeal. It was close enough to the city but still far enough away from the rush of it all that we could see the stars at night when we laid in the back of Drake’s old Chevy truck. Bedford was home for us, but as I drove by the old, abandoned Massey Estate, the one I dreamed of remodeling and calling my own someday, the same place Drake and I frequented for alone time, I thought about where we’d call home if it was just the three of us. A couple of teenagers with a baby couldn’t afford to remodel an estate that had been left to rot.

Pulling into the Wilkins’ driveway, I took a deep breath and then threw the car into park. Their home was just as beautiful on the outside as it was inside. It didn’t look like a farm from the front, but behind the home sat a tennis court and a pool surrounded by barns and acres of farmland that catered to the cattle. Lillian, Drake’s mom, stood at the door, expecting my arrival.

I shot her a knowing grin as she opened the door for me. This had become our routine. She’d greet me at the door and tell me where I could locate my boyfriend.

“He’s up in his room,” she said with a smile.

“Thanks, Lillian!” I said, as I started up the winding staircase.

On the upper level, I turned left and headed down the hall to his room. When I came to his closed door, I knocked softly and turned the knob. On the other side, I found the most beautiful guy stretched out on his bed, tossing his beloved football up in the air. Drake Lyle Wilkins had the best set of muscles a girl could find, buried underneath his creamy pale skin that made my body tingle just looking at him. His short, wavy black hair was pushed back out of his face and his bright blue eyes smiled when they caught mine.

He leaned up and pulled me down on the bed beside him, eliciting a loud giggle out of me as he curled an arm around my waist to snuggle and kissed me on the neck. “Hey there, P.J.”

“Hey,” I replied, before relishing in the softness of his lips as I ran my hands through his silky dark strands. He’d given me the nickname P.J. after learning that my middle name was Jane. “How are you feeling today? Do you feel like a high school graduate?”

He laughed, laying my head on his shoulder as his fingers skimmed up and down my back. “A very hungover high school graduate, but it was well worth it.”

“Good.” The longer I stared at him and the more my hands roamed, the less I wanted to tell him what I needed to say. He’d given me all of my firsts. My first dance. My first kiss. My first boyfriend. My first sexual experience. My first love. Now, my first child. I couldn’t wrap my head around how I wanted this to play out. One part of me wanted him to be elated, but the other part still didn’t want him to know. He had a heart so big, he’d give up anything for me, and I wasn’t sure if I could live with knowing he gave up chasing his dreams to be here for us.

Laying together, the silence grew between us, and I could tell he was thinking about something as his eyes searched every inch of my face. Those bright irises grew darker which told me he was worried; it was the same look he got when he was worried about landing his full-ride.

“Have you thought about how this year is going to play out?” he asked in a nervous tone. “My parents have drilled it into my head that I need to stay focused on school and football, but all I can think about right now is us.” His fingers entwined with mine. “What happens when I leave?”

I swallowed around the same knot that was still lodged in my throat. “I don’t know, Drake.”

“Well,” he started, “what do you want? This past year has been all about me, and all I can think about right now is how you’re not coming with me when I leave for California. Do you still want to go to USC next year after you graduate like we’d planned?”

Of course, I wanted to go wherever he went because I loved him, but things had changed now that I was pregnant. I’d have a baby next year, and I couldn’t imagine trying to raise a baby and attend college full-time, especially on the other side of the country away from my parents.

“I don’t know,” I repeated, turning to stare up at his ceiling, unable to watch the devastation take root in his eyes. “I haven’t really thought about what I want to do.”

“That’s what I mean,” he stated, turning my attention back toward him. “I have no idea what you want to do with your life because we’ve been too busy trying to make sure I get into USC to play ball. We’ve only been focused on my dreams, on my football career, but I don’t want to take away your chance for you to chase after your own dreams. If yours don’t include me, I’ll understand. I just feel like I need to give you the opportunity to figure out what you want to do, especially after all the love and support you’ve given me, Paige.”

Tears reappeared and I struggled to keep it together in front of him after already breaking down earlier at home. This was it. This was our good-bye. He was letting me go, and I couldn’t even try to fight him. But I’d be lying if I said this was what I really wanted. “My dreams will always include you, even if you’re not physically here with me.”

It was a feat that his pillow wasn’t drenched in my tears.

“I know our friends Barrett and Zoey are off to college too come fall, but you should spend your last year of high school living it up with friends and figuring out what you want to do with your future.”

I nodded, unable to speak as the regret trailed down my face.

His thumbs caught the tears, wiping each one away after they fell, and then he pressed a soft, sweet kiss to my lips and rested his forehead against mine. “I love you. You know I will always love you.”

“I know,” I whispered as a sob rattled through my chest. Tightening my arms around him, I tried to memorize everything about him. The way he always smelled of freshly chopped firewood and musk. How he always kept a stick of spearmint gum on hand so his kisses tasted delicious. His infectious smile and the dimples that accompanied it. The cute chin-butt that caught my attention the first time I met him. His baby blues that were brighter than mine. The dark, smooth strands of his hair that felt like silk between my fingers. The hard planes of muscle that corded through each extremity and beyond, creating a man of steel that look magnificent without any clothes. The sound of his laughter and the fact that he couldn’t carry a tune when he sang while driving. But most importantly, the way he’d touched every part of me, even the parts he physically couldn’t reach. “I love you, too.”

He continued stroking my skin as if he never wanted to stop. “You deserve for this year to be all about you.”

Except it wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t just about me anymore.

His comment was like a swift kick in the ass from reality. I pulled out of his embrace and scooted to the edge of his bed where I gathered myself, drying my cheeks with the backs of my hands. I cleared my throat and stood, righting the twists out of my clothes, and then shot him a weak smile over my shoulder. “You’re right.”

In that instance, I’d made my decision: I’d tell him about the baby after it was born, so he could see that I could do this on my own.

I walked out of his room without looking back, and when I walked by his mom on the way out, I smiled politely and said, “Good-bye, Mrs. Wilkins.”

On the drive back home, I focused on coming up with a plan instead of crying my eyes out like I really wanted. My whole high school life so far had been about Drake and me. My friends were his friends, and we attended everything together. I didn’t know how it was going to be without him, or even Barrett and Zoey, but I wasn’t alone even now. I had a baby to raise. A human life that was my sole responsibility. By the time I rounded the corner and pulled into the garage, I had a plan set in mind, but when I walked through the door and my parents greeted me, I completely lost it again.

“What happened?” Mom asked, leading me over to the couch. “How did he take it?”

“We broke up.”

“You told him you were pregnant with his child and he broke up with you?” Dad asked loudly in disbelief.

“No,” I cried, shaking my head. “He let me go, and I let him.”

Mom and Dad shared a secretive look with each other, had a whole unspoken conversation right there in front of me, and then leveled their attention on me.

“You didn’t tell him,” Mom inferred.

For the first time today, Dad appeared genuinely concerned. “Dammit, Paige, you should have told him.”

Drying my eyes, I pushed up from the couch and gazed back at them. “He wanted me to focus on my dreams and what I wanted to do after high school. Well, this is what I want. I want him to play football because that’s all he’s ever dreamed of. That’s why I didn’t tell him. If I take classes this summer, I can graduate early and prepare for the baby. I figure I’ll have it before he’s back for spring break, and I will tell him then, when he can see that we can do this without him, that he can still play ball and know the baby and me are doing fine on our own.”

“Sweetie. . .” Mom said, shaking her head. “He needs to decide if he—”

“Mom, you said you guys would support me,” I interjected, throwing her words from earlier back in her face. “Please just help me keep this a secret until he’s back for spring break.”

Mom shared another apprehensive look with Dad and then pursed her lips together and nodded.

“Thank you,” I said, rushing over to give her a hug.

“On one condition. . .” Dad stated.

Turning around, I saw the smile widen on his face. “Name it, although I’m not naming him or her after you.”

He laughed lightly and threw his arm over my shoulder. “I get to document every moment so Drake doesn’t miss a thing. That means pictures and videos, and I’m probably going to make you keep a journal, and you don’t get an ounce of say over it. You know how I get about the details, being a writer and all. If I’d missed one second of your mom being pregnant with you, it would have crushed me. From one father to another, let me do this for Drake.”

I had the best parents in the world. “You got it, Dad.”

*************************************************
Eek! What do you think so far? Now, don’t forget to add Challenged By You (Love in the City, #5) to your To-Be-Read over on Goodreads, and maybe send some good writing vibes my way while you’re at it so I can keep at it!

Thank you for patiently waiting for this book. It’s one I really am taking my time on because I want you to feel everything when you read it. Every sweet, charming line. Every heart-breaking tear. Every hilarious bit of banter you know someone in the gang will drop. I want you to feel it all.

Xo,

Steph

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2 thoughts on “EXCERPT: Challenged By You (LITC, #5)

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