City of Champions (A Gateway to Love Novel Book 2) - Chloe T.Barlow

CITY OF CHAMPIONS

A GATEWAY TO LOVE NOVEL

PROLOGUE

"Baby girl."

"Yes, Daddy?" Jenna asked, looking up at her father's face. She forced herself to smile at him as big as she could — a grin so wide it made her ears hurt.

She knew he was sad — had been for a long time now. Her biggest smile always made him happier. Yet it didn't work this time. He didn't pick her up and swing her around. He didn't tell her he loved her.

No — instead, he put his hand out to her and said, "I need you to come with me."

There were tears in his light blue eyes. That was the only feature they clearly shared, because every other part of her was all her momma's.

"Why, Daddy?"

He paused and swallowed roughly and Jenna swung her legs underneath her chair as the rush of fear hit her.

"Because, it's time to say good-bye."

His hand hovered near hers, waiting for her to take it. She loved holding her daddy's hand, it was always so big and rough, just like the footballs that were scattered everywhere around their yard at home. Yet, as much as she wanted to reach for him, Jenna didn't budge.

She felt her smile curl into itself, twisting into a nasty frown. Her stomach turned over so many times she thought she may get sick, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't find her words.

"Jenna?"

"I don't want to, Daddy," she finally whispered, looking down at her lap.

He crouched down in front of her and stroked her hair with one hand, while the other rested on his knee, clutched into a tight ball.

"I know," he said to her softly, his voice cracking around the words.

Jenna kept looking down, focusing on the gray linoleum floor beneath them. Maybe if she never looked up again she wouldn't have to stand up and say good-bye. Maybe everything would go back to the way it had been before.

She swallowed around the fist squeezing at her throat and picked at the golden hair of the dolly her mother had given her on her birthday the last spring. That had been right before she'd gotten so tired all the time — back when everyone was still happy and Jenna got to be at home with both her momma and daddy every day.

But then her momma started to feel really poorly until she couldn't get out of bed at all. The days became a blur of doctor visits and grown-ups talking in hushed, worried tones.

One person after another would stop by the house with a casserole or fried chicken. Sometimes they had a new toy for Jenna, but she never wanted to play with them. She would rather sit in the corner quietly holding her dolly until everyone went away again.

Momma and Daddy had just looked so scared all the time, and people kept coming by with sad words and tears. Then one day Daddy had said they all needed to go to Atlanta to be with Grandma, so Momma could go to the big hospital for a long time.

It was almost Christmas and her mother was worse than she'd ever been. Daddy said Momma had gotten a bug. It had made her really sick because she was so weak already. Jenna was starting to get worried they'd never get to go back home.

"Daddy, I want to stay here," Jenna said. She thought maybe if she could hold onto the perfect little doll from her mother and never look up, then maybe the bad dream would end and everything would be better.

It seemed like their whole world had been bad since Momma had gotten sick. Even though Jenna was still little, she understood life might never be okay for them — not ever again.

"Jenna," her father whispered again, sliding his hand to her chin and tilting Jenna's face up to look into his eyes, "we need to go."

"No, Daddy, I won't do it," she said, shaking her face out of his hand.

"Baby girl, please," he pleaded gently, smoothing out the skirt of her brand-new fancy, crinkly dress that Grandma had made her wear.

She just kept whispering, "No, Daddy, no, Daddy," over and over again, as the perfectly curled ringlets her grandma had painstakingly forced her hair into were hitting her wet cheeks with each increasingly violent turn of her head. The stiff lace of the dress — along with the multiple Band-Aids Grandma had used to cover Jenna's always-skinned knees — made sitting in her plastic chair uncomfortable. Even so, Jenna