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Below you’ll find the complete second chapter from my upcoming Contemporary MM Romance novel Last Bell, available on Amazon Friday, November 10th!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This chapter is unedited and subject to change before the final release. Also, I would have given you the first but it needs a bit more work still, and the second introduces new characters.

Chapter 2: David

I’ve tried to make this move as smooth and seamless as possible for Riley and me both. By the time I’m standing in our new driveway in Glen Springs, Kentucky, fighting with a U-Haul door that doesn’t want to open, I realize I’ve failed on pretty much every level.

My wonderful, beautiful, perfect teenage daughter–apple of my eye, best thing I’ve ever done with my life–is still sitting in the car, her feet propped up on the dash. I think she’s staging some kind of protest on the grounds that if she never leaves the car, she hasn’t actually moved from the suburbs of Chicago to this small “hick town.”

It’s been an exhausting day, to say the least.

“Hey Riley, can you give me a hand with this?”

No answer. I push down, then pull up on the door again. Then pull down and push up, thinking it might make magically some difference this time. It rattles, but doesn’t move otherwise.

“Riley?”

Still nothing. Leaving the safe position outside of the teenage warzone, I approach the passenger side of my wife’s old Chrysler and look in. Sure enough, my daughter is still sitting where I left her, earbuds in, completely ignoring me.

I tap on the window to get her attention. She pulls out one earbud and gives me a look.

“I need a hand with this, please,” I tell her, impatience bleeding into my tone.

Sidney’s the one who has a knack for speaking teenager. Meanwhile, everything I say these days gets an eyeroll, a huff, or both.

She does get out of the car, though, and between the two of us we manage to get the back of the truck open. A condensed version of my life stares at me–a small mountain of boxes arranged precariously in front of what little furniture we decided to keep. It’s a daunting task right now, but it would’ve been a lot more if we hadn’t dumped a truckload off at Goodwill beforehand.

I reach for a box, knowing the rest of my night’s going to be spent moving and unpacking this mess. I assume Riley will get the gist and at least help bring her stuff in, but she just stares at me like I’ve grown a second head.

“Aren’t the movers supposed to take care of this shit?”

I’ve stopped trying to get her to watch her language. It bothers me–oh how it bothers me–but I have to pick my battles.

“They won’t be here for another hour,” I answer, hefting a box marked ‘kitchen,’ “and they’re mostly helping with the furniture.”

I start to carry the box to the garage when I notice Riley isn’t grabbing one. I’m not sure if this is stage two of her protest, or just me not giving explicit instructions.

“Start hauling,” I tell her, and to my surprise she actually does.

We spend most of that hour just moving boxes, though Riley spent about twenty minutes looking for her laptop in one of them. My fault for packing it, but by that point I was just grabbing things and tossing them into boxes.

When the movers arrive, we both stay out of their way. That is until they set up Riley’s bed and desk in her room. Then she’s gone, and I’m left to sort through things in the garage, deciding it’ll get done faster if she’s preoccupied anyway.

Not long after I start slicing into boxes containing essentials, I can hear the sound of the stairs creaking in the old house. Riley pokes her head into the garage not long after.

“The wifi’s not working. You should probably call the ISP,” she informs me.

“They’re not setting up the internet until Wednesday,” I say. And because I know this is going to start a conflict, I pre-preemptively add, “it was the earliest day I could get a tech to come out.”

“Seriously?” She groans.

“Seriously.”

“Bad enough we have to live in this hick town,” she mutters, “what am I supposed to do without internet?”

“Well, you could help me unpack.”

She looks at the boxes, then looks at me. “I’ll come get my stuff later.”

“Riley–” Even Dad Voice isn’t enough to stop what’s coming.

“Yeah. Sure. I don’t get a say in anything else that happens in my life, so why not. I’ll help unpack all the shit that should’ve stayed in our old house, in our old neighborhood.”

Sidney told me not to rise to the bait; that this volatile little hell-beast isn’t actually our daughter, and arguing back only feeds her power.

I was never very good at taking Sid’s advice.

“You know why we had to move. Don’t act like I just did this to torture you, Riley. This is better for us–”

“Better for you,” she says.

“Okay, I need you to work with me here. Just a little bit,” I say, swiping a hand through my hair.

“Mom wouldn’t have freaked out like this, you know.”

She’s saying it to hurt me, and she hits the mark. To her credit, I can see the flicker of regret in her eyes as soon as the words leave her mouth, but I’m not going to give her a pass for this one.

“At some point you have to quit playing that card, kid,” I say quietly.

I know it isn’t the right thing to say. Hurt flashes in her eyes, and I her tangled mess of emotions are written all over her face. She feels like I’m casting her feelings aside. Her feelings about this move. About her mom. About everything.

I never wanted to do that, but I’m just so tired.

And so, so bad at this.

“Riley, I just–”

She turns her face away from me. “I’ll come get my shit later,” she repeats, and then she’s gone.

I close my eyes and my fingers flex around the edge of a box. It wasn’t always this hard, was it? I remember when Riley was little. Six or seven, maybe. We got along great then. I have no idea what happened, but it seems like I became the bad guy overnight.

All because I want her to be safe.

“She’ll come around,” I can hear my wife say, and I take comfort in those words, even if I’m not completely sure they’re true.

“So. When did you piss in her grits?” another voice asks. This one’s not in my head.

I look up to find a woman standing in my driveway. She’s older than me, probably by a good twenty years. Even from this distance, I can tell she’s smirking at me.

“Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear.”

Her tone is demure, not matching her exterior at all. She looks like she’d be more at home in a biker gang than this small town. Pierced lip, pierced eyebrow, a tattoo sleeve on her right arm.

“Actually, that’s a lie,” she tells me. “I could, but I chose not to. My right as a Nosey Old Lady.”

A laugh catches me off guard, and I shake my head, pushing myself to my feet. “Fair enough.” I wipe my hand on my jeans, then extend it to her. “David Frazier.”

“Gracie. I live next door,” she says, giving my hand a firm shake. “And that tornado of hormones who blew threw here…?”

“Riley.”

She nods like she’s recalling a war story, and I soon understand why. “My son was like that at her age. Surly as hell. Nothing like the sweet little boy I raised who loved to help his mama in the kitchen.”

I smile a little. I can relate, but some part of me bristles at this woman thinking poorly of my daughter. Even if she was just a disrespectful little terror.

“She… lost her mother, a little over a year ago. Between that and the move, I think she’s just feeling… I don’t know. I don’t think she’s handling it well.”

“Poor thing,” Gracie says with a frown, reaching up to touch my shoulder. “You’re raising her on your own?”

“Failing at it so far, I’d say.” My tone is cheerful; I can’t seem to rein in the sarcasm even around well-meaning strangers.

But Gracie just laughs. “Oh, honey. If parenting skill was measured in backtalk and slammed doors, we’d all get an F. Her whole world’s crumbling around her. Don’t be too hard on her, but don’t let her run you over, either. She’s not the only one who’s grieving.”

It’s a surprisingly insightful thing to say, and it throws me for a loop. I can’t help but think I should have heard those words before now–I must have heard them before. But no. Everyone’s sent their condolences and their hopes and prayers, but nobody’s passed along any practical advice.

Least of all my family.

“I’ll try to remember that when I’ve got my head in the lion’s mouth,” I say with a small smile.

She grins at me, and I get two things in that smile:

One, I’m positive she was one hell of a heartbreaker in her day. Maybe she still is.

Two, I feel like I can trust her. It’s crazy, and I never expected to get small-town, southern hospitality from someone with more tats than the lead singer in a punk band, but here we are.

“Well I’ve got nothing but time on my hand these days, so if you ever need help, just holler.” She studies me for a long moment, then asks, “Have you eaten anything today?”

I stammer a little under her scrutiny. Somehow she’s gone from cool aunt to stereotypical grandma in just one segue. “Uh, I… ate breakfast this morning. Well. I ate a biscuit from a drive-thru.”

She wrinkles her nose. “No.”

“No?” I ask, one eyebrow arching.

“The answer is no, you haven’t eaten. No wonder your child’s on a warpath.” She nods down at the box I was unpacking. “Finish what you’re working on, then get cleaned up and I’ll take you both out to dinner. My treat.”

“That’s really not–”

“My treat, David! You can’t refuse an old lady.” She winks at me, completely aware of the fact that she doesn’t look like the frail woman she’s pretending to be.

I sigh and just accept that this is my life now. Honestly, Gracie is a breath of fresh air, and my stomach is more than okay with getting some decent food. I was probably just going to see if there was a pizza place otherwise, so this is definitely the better option.

I finish sorting through the box I was working on, then drop it off in the living room, finding Riley curled up on the couch instead of behind enemy lines in her room like I expected.

“That was our new neighbor,” I say, treading with care. “She invited us out to dinner. Are you hungry?”

Riley just shrugs a little, her gaze fixed on her tablet.

All right. Time to exercise my rights as a dad. I step in front of her and gently reach for the tablet. I don’t try to pull it away, knowing that would be like taking a raw T-Bone from a starving wolf. Instead I just lower it, forcing her to look at me.

“Hey. I’m sorry for what I said. I’m not trying to be an asshole, I’m just…”

Trying. It’s all I’ve been doing for the past year. Sometimes I fail. Most of the time I fail.

But I can’t put that on Riley. She’s dealing with it herself; she doesn’t need to prop her dad up, too. So bottled away it goes, never to be heard from again.

“It’s fine, Dad,” she says, avoiding my gaze.

“It’s not.” I wait until she looks up at me again. “It’s not.” She gives me a single nod of acknowledgment, and the barest hint of a smile. I pat her knee, then say, “Come on, kid. Get washed up and we’ll get something to eat.”

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