It’s Complicated by Jennifer Hanks

PROLOGUE

NATALIE

 

Pressing my hand to my cheek, I hissed when pain shot through my cheekbone and around my eye. I didn’t need to look in the mirror to know what I looked like because I could feel it. In my life, it wasn’t unusual for my mom to hit me, but this time, she’d landed more than one blow, including the ones not visible to the naked eye. I dropped my hand and continued down the long stretch of road toward the house where my niece and nephew lived with their half brother.

Tyler Morgan.

Even though Ty’s dad and my sister Tara had been married for years and shared two kids, I’d never met him. I knew he’d played in the NFL before an injury forced him out, but even after that, Tara said they rarely saw him.

Until a month ago.

When, together, we buried two of the most important people in our lives.

After the funeral, I figured I’d never see my niece and nephew again. I came from a terrible family, and the only person I was close to was Tara. I was allowed in their home, but my mother and my other sister were not. So, naturally, I assumed that I’d lost my only family when I lost Tara.

But then Ty invited me into his home so I could still see Seth and Sophie, and everything changed in an instant.

“Natalie.”

My head snapped up, and I saw Ty driving slowly beside me. I’d been so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t even heard him. “Natalie, get in.”

I waited for him to stop before I climbed onto the passenger seat, but I didn’t look at him. I was embarrassed by my family, and I knew as soon as he got a closer look at my face, I’d have to confess that they were even worse than he knew.

After Ty drove the rest of the way toward his house, he pulled into the driveway, threw the SUV in park, and shut off the engine. When I felt his stare on the side of my face, I reluctantly faced him.

His face hardened. “What happened?”

“It’s no big deal,” I whispered.

“Natalie, don’t tell me it’s no big deal. You have a black eye and a bloody lip, plus I can tell by the way you’re walking that you’re favoring your side.”

“I just did what I had to do for Seth and Sophie,” I said, knowing if I had to do it all over again, I would.

“What do you mean?”

I swallowed hard. “I recorded her.” When Ty tilted his head but remained silent, I continued, “My mom. She was trying to find a way to get custody of Seth and Sophie, talking to a lawyer and everything to fight the will, but all she wanted was their inheritance. She doesn’t care about them, and I don’t want them growing up there.” I looked down at my folded hands in my lap, remembering all the disgusting things my mom was planning and knowing it was all for the money. “They love it with you, and they’re doing so well here. It wouldn’t be fair if she got them.”

“What did you record?”

I sighed and looked back at him. “I recorded her discussing the plan with her boyfriend, including the plan for their inheritance. It was really bad. The things she said about the kids, the money, her plans for the money… She was even going to try to extort more money from you because she knew you’d fight to get them back.” I felt disgusted by what I was telling him, but I continued. “She was going to try to sell them to you after she had control of their inheritance. It was so messed up.” I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly before facing his house. “I made a bunch of copies, gave one to the police department, one to Tara’s attorney, who I guess was your dad’s too, and even one to my mom’s attorney.”

“Then what?”

I closed my eyes briefly. “She found out before I could leave tonight. Her attorney called her right away. I didn’t know he was sleeping with my sister, and that’s how they could afford him, so he called and told her about the recording. She cornered me, and I confessed.”

“She hit you?”

I sighed, hating this part of the story more than the rest because I’d taken the hits. I knew it would be over faster if I just took them, especially since she was drunk. “She hits me all the time, Ty, so this was nothing new. She hit us all. I was only staying there to finish high school, but I left and obviously am not going back.”

“You’ll stay with me.”

My head snapped in his direction, and my eyes filled with tears at his offer, but I knew I couldn’t ask that of him. “That’s sweet, but don’t worry about me. I’ll figure it out. I just wanted to come see the kids because I probably won’t be able to for a little bit while I figure out what I’m going to do.”

“You’ll stay with us,” he repeated.

“You have a pretty full house, Ty. You don’t need another houseguest,” I argued, thinking of Seth, Sophie, and his girlfriend, Grace, all living in the house already. Granted, it was a really big house, but Ty had lived on his own until a month ago. I couldn’t imagine any of this had been easy on him.

“You’re not a houseguest, Natalie. You’re family, and you’re staying with us.”

Family. The tears swimming in my eyes dripped onto my cheeks, and I quickly dropped my head and wiped them away. Family was something I thought I’d lost when Tara died, but here he was, offering me the one thing I needed.

Sniffing, I lifted my head, wanting to give him back the family he’d lost if I could. “You know, Tara talked about you a lot.”

His head jerked back. “She did?”

I nodded and sniffed again. “She always felt so bad for coming into your life because she felt like she caused a rift between you and your dad. She used to tell me that you got a raw deal when your mom died so young, and she hated that for you.”

I wiped under my eyes with my fingertips. “But she really wanted you to know Seth and Sophie, so I’ll bet wherever she is right now, she’s so happy they’re with you.” I smiled. “And your dad, I don’t know if you know it, but he bragged about you all the time. Ty this, and Ty that.” I lowered my voice to mimic his dad’s, feeling more confident when he grinned. “Ty was a second-round draft pick; Ty was an MVP in college; Ty’s the best center the league ever saw.”

Dropping my smile, I shook my head, remembering the conversations we’d had about Ty’s injury. “Tara told me he was so scared when you got hurt, but that he bragged to anyone who would listen how well you handled it and how hard you worked. She said he told her he wouldn’t have had the strength you did to keep fighting your way back, and that he secretly hoped you never played again. That you had time to find yourself, find someone to love, and have your own family.”

I reached over and laid my hand on his. A part of me felt like I was betraying my sister’s confidence in sharing this. She’d confided in me with the certainty that I’d never tell anyone. And I wouldn’t have. But they were gone, and his dad would never have the opportunity to tell Ty all he’s meant to him. He deserved to know so he could move forward. “He told Tara he spent too many years on the road and never valued family like he should’ve, but he wanted you to have more.” My eyes watered again. “God, I bet he’s watching you and just bursting with pride right now.”

“I wasn’t a great son to him, especially not the last two years of his life,” he admitted, almost as if he was ashamed of himself.

I didn’t want him to live with that weight he was so obviously carrying. “That’s not the way he saw it. I honestly thought you walked on water the way he talked about you.”

His expression grew thoughtful, and I had a feeling he was done talking. I’d given him a lot to digest. After a moment, he pointed at the house. “We should go in. Grace is probably pacing inside, wondering what’s wrong that we’re sitting out here.”

I reached for the door handle but turned back when he put his hand on my arm and spoke. “Thank you.”

I laid my hand on top of his and squeezed before I shoved the door open and jumped down from the seat, heading toward the house.

Ty followed me into the house and almost immediately called out, “I’m calling a family meeting.” I saw the surprise in everyone’s expressions when he continued, “Things have been changing here and are going to change a little more, so I think we should talk about it.”

Sophie wrinkled her nose. “What’s a family meeting?”

He gestured toward the dining room table, and we all sat. “It’s a chance for us to talk about what’s been going on.”

“Oh, okay.” Sophie smiled wide. “Grace let me pick out new nail polish at the store. It’s pink and sparkly.”

I giggled and watched quietly while both Grace and Ty chuckled at what was important to a five-year-old girl. “That wasn’t exactly what I meant, Sophie.”

She looked confused, so he continued. “I wanted to let everyone know that Natalie is moving in with us.”

Sophie sat up straight and squealed. “Yay, Aunt Natalie and Grace are gonna live here?”

I nodded when she smiled a huge smile at me. I hadn’t agreed to move in with them, but I wasn’t going to turn him down. He was offering me a home and stability, and as an eighteen-year-old senior in high school, the idea of being completely on my own was terrifying.

Grace and Ty shared a look before he continued. “And Dex is moving in after Christmas.”

My heart sank. I’d forgotten about that. I knew Ty’s friend from college was coming to stay with them until he found his own place, but it had somehow slipped my mind. “Oh shoot, I forgot about that, Ty. I can find somewhere else to go.”

He shook his head. “We have plenty of room. This is a big house with many rooms, but most of them need paint and new carpet, so I was thinking we should start doing some remodeling.”

Grace’s eyes widened in surprise, but she still stayed silent while Sophie spoke up. “Can we paint my room yellow like Grace’s car?”

Grace giggled and nodded at Sophie. “I think that would be a great color.” She glanced at my seven-year-old nephew, Seth. “What about you, Seth?”

“I like blue,” he replied quietly, and I smiled to myself. Seth was shy, painfully so, and the more I got to know Ty, the more I recognized the same in him. Although, it seemed Grace was determined to help him overcome that.

“What are you gonna pick, Aunt Natalie?” Sophie asked excitedly, and I shifted my attention from Ty to my niece.

“Hmm…” I laid my fingertip on my bottom lip as if I was thinking, but I already knew what color I was going to choose. It would be a way to keep my sister with me. For now, anyway. “I like purple.”

“I like purple too,” Sophie announced. “That was Mommy’s favorite color.”

I watched her smiling and laughing, even when talking about Tara, and hoped it would continue that way for her and Seth. Sitting back, I watched this little group becoming a family.

A family they’d asked me to join.

At that moment, I had no idea how much that would come to mean to me.