The Air I Breathe Chapter 1
Excerpt from The Air I Breathe (Steadfast Love Book 1) by Karen Baney
“Alana, come on.” Kelly failed to keep the frustration from her voice as she pulled a fresh shirt and leggings from her six-year-old daughter’s closet. “I don’t like that shirt.” Alana crossed her arms over her chest as her lower lip curled downward. Her dark hair flopped in her eyes. “Which shirt would you like to wear?” Kelly kept the edge out of her voice that time, even though her patience wore thin at the third attempt to dress her daughter. “The blue one with the unicorn.” “It’s in the dirty clothes basket.” Alana huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “How about this one?” “Fine.” Alana’s arms went limp, but her scowl stayed. Kelly sucked in a deep breath as she helped Alana into the yellow shirt and matching leggings. She tossed her daughter a pair of socks and asked her to tie her shoes before going downstairs for breakfast. Then Kelly hurried back into her room, removed her robe, and donned a light pink blouse. As she tucked it into her high-waisted jeans, she opened her makeup drawer. Taking less than ten minutes, she applied a thin foundation, concealer, powder, and mascara. No time for anything more colorful. She donned no-show socks before stuffing her feet into a pair of checkered Vans. As she stood in front of the mirror, she surveyed her appearance. Presentable. Almost. Good enough for a single mom. Once she finished, she hurried down to the kitchen. After she filled a bowl with Alana’s favorite cereal, she poured milk over it. The brightly colored crispies popped in the cool liquid. “Mom! I wanted Reese puffs!” Too late. “Here, eat this.” Alana tapped the spoon against the bar, her eyes flashing defiantly. The sound of the metal on the granite countertop reverberated through the room, grating on Kelly’s nerves. “Alana.” Kelly glared at her daughter, wondering when had she become so willful. Slowly, Alana ate the soggy cereal. Kelly let out a sigh as she opened the fridge. She tore the foil top off a yogurt and scarfed it down before she glanced at the clock. The daycare asked her to arrive by seven-thirty. She would not make it. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s go.” Alana stuffed one last bite into her mouth as Kelly held out her coat. After she slid her arms into the sleeves, she zipped it up herself. At least she stopped fussing about every little thing. Until they arrived at daycare. “Why can’t I stay home with you?” “Because I have to look for a job. I might interview if things work out. And school doesn’t start until after New Year’s.” “Mommy, I don’t want to go to daycare.” Too bad. She bit back the words and forced a cheerier tone. “It will be fun. You’ll meet some new girls your age.” She cut the engine on her beat up Corolla. Then she opened the back door and unfastened Alana’s seatbelt. Alana swatted at her. “I can do it!” Kelly withdrew her hand. Once Alana climbed out of the car, Kelly held her daughter’s hand until they entered the building. Then Alana pulled away. “Morning Mrs. Sutton,” the daycare center receptionist greeted her with a strained smile. “Miss,” Kelly corrected. With a glare, the woman gave a quick, affirmative nod. Kelly clamped her mouth shut, fighting the urge to release a harsh retort. It was the twenty-first century. Plenty of single parents must use their daycare. She couldn’t be the only single mom dropping off a child. “This must be Alana.” Kelly nodded. The woman’s voice was firm as she rattled off the rules and asked for an alternate contact. “Her father, Kyle Jacobs, may pick her up sometimes. And possibly her aunt, Marcy Schaefer.” Kelly pulled up the contacts on her phone and jotted down their numbers. “If anyone else needs to fill in, you or her father will need to notify us ahead of time.” “Understood.” The woman gave her a copy of the paperwork, which Kelly crammed into her large everyday canvas purse. She thanked her, then hugged Alana tightly. The sweet, unmistakable bubblegum scent of her body wash lingered. “I’ll be back at three. Or your daddy will pick you up at five if I can’t make it.” “Love you, Mommy.” “Love you, sweetie.” Kelly waved as a worker introduced Alana to the other six-year-olds. Then she strode out to the parking lot and climbed into her car. Letting out a loud sigh, she rested her head on the steering wheel. What had she been thinking, uprooting her life to move to Chandler, Arizona? It certainly seemed to make sense when Kyle suggested it a few weeks ago during a visit with Alana. Yeah, that whole thing still felt weird. Her baby’s daddy, Kyle, had finally stepped up to be a father about a year ago after he found Jesus. Kelly was glad he wanted to be a part of Alana’s life, even though it made Kelly’s more complicated. They had been friends once, back in college. Though she planned to save intimacy for marriage, she failed. Because she had been so desperate to feel loved by someone—anyone—she allowed things to go too far with Kyle. One night changed her life forever. A tear slid down her cheek at the memory. When she first told Kyle she was pregnant, he distanced himself, agreeing to pay child support and nothing more. She lost her only friend and became a single mom. As Kelly squared her shoulders, she sent a quick prayer of gratitude heavenward that Kyle wanted to be a part of Alana’s life now. Even though they shared zero romantic interest in each other, she and Kyle’s friendship had rekindled. It was good for them to find a way to co-parent their daughter, for Alana’s sake. Truthfully, he had been a godsend as he helped them move to Chandler, Arizona, a few days ago. It had been his idea for them to move closer to where he lived so he could be more involved in Alana’s life. Kelly had been brokenhearted after her fiancé ended their engagement and she had lost her job, so she impulsively moved. Now she was in a new city, jobless and mostly alone. Letting out a loud breath, she turned on her car and the roar of the engine broke through the silence. No time for a breakdown. She needed to find a job. Kelly’s stomach tightened as she pulled into the parking lot of her townhouse. Memories of her breakup with her fiancé raced through her mind. Derek, the low-life, broke up with her over text message while she had been in Arizona for Kyle’s sister’s wedding. When she had returned to Colorado Springs, Derek admitted he had been seeing someone else for months. How she ended up engaged to a cheating man, she did not know. But those were Derek’s true colors. At least she found it out before she married the jerk. The conversation when he picked up the ring still crushed her heart. He didn’t want to wait until marriage to be intimate. He had glanced at Alana and made some comment about how Kelly’s old-fashioned convictions must not have been important to her almost seven years ago. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been a single mom. As Kelly opened the door to the townhouse—the one Kyle owned and graciously let her live in rent-free until she found a new job—she dropped her purse on the kitchen counter. She tidied up the kitchen from the hurried breakfast. The spoon clanked against the dirty cereal bowl as she loaded them into the dishwasher. When she finished, she sat on one of the bar stools staring at the job website on her laptop. The quiet of the house failed to calm her nerves. She typed in a search for event coordinator positions and drummed her fingers on the cool granite, waiting for the results to load. At twenty-nine, her life turned out far differently than she dreamed. Starting over on her own as a single mom in a strange new city wasn’t what she expected. She had hoped to be married. To raise a family. Instead, she was living in a townhouse owned by her baby’s daddy while she started over again. She couldn’t live off his charity forever. She needed a job. A job when the hospitality industry struggled to restart after a few tough years. The week between Christmas and New Year’s was a terrible time to look. When she stood, the tightness in her chest started. Her eyes widened as her breathing morphed into wheezing. Lightheadedness overwhelmed her, and she fell to her knees, the coolness of the tile floor seeping through her pants. As she reached for her purse on the bar, it crashed to the floor, littering its contents everywhere. She found her phone and tapped the picture of Kyle’s face. She couldn’t draw in a breath of air. Then she sat on her legs and bent forward to keep from passing out. Her heart raced frantically. “Kelly?” “Need.” Gulp of air. “Help.” “Is it happening?” “Yes.” “I’ll send someone right away.” The line went dead. Her vision swam as her lungs constricted. Please God.