I have struggled with poor self-esteem my entire life, and I still struggle. But things are also starting to get a little bit better. And I owe it all to my one-year-old daughter, Phoenix.

Back in 2013 when the doctor first revealed that I'd be having a little girl, I was truly frightened. A boy, I could handle–but a girl? A girl meant I'd be the one having the sex and puberty talks, she meant that I'd have to learn to style hair and pick out matching outfits, but most of all, a daughter of my own meant facing my issues head on and finally finding a way to escape their shackles.

In preparation, I tried reading a self-help guide to improved self-esteem, but it gave me nightmares of my inner critic taking corporeal form and beating me down both mentally and physically. You've got to understand that I've been trying to overcome this particular monster for my entire life, and every defeat only made it that much stronger and me that much weaker.

I've even written a novel about a teen with bulimia as a way of working through my own self-loathing. That book was so hard to write, I had to dictate a large chunk of it to keep the tears at bay. Over the years, I've visited countless therapists with the specific aim of improving my self-image, but none ever broke through my shell, none of them made even the slightest dent.

How then did becoming a mom finally put me on the road to recovery? One word. Need.

The irony of the situation is that to improve self-esteem, you need to first have enough of it to prove to yourself that you're worth fighting for. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get there… Until I felt my baby kick for the first time. It was like bubbles popping inside my tummy, and it was the absolute best feeling in the world.

My horrible, ugly body was good for something after all. It created life, it nourished that life, and it gave me new motivation. How can something capable of such profound miracles be worthless?

Then she came, and I learned a whole new level of love. The most terrible yet wonderful part? She looked exactly like me, and she was–and continues to be–the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

And she gets that from me. Ugly, no-good me.

The brain can only deal with a distortion like this for so long before it craves a reconciliation. Eventually, I had to either choose to believe my daughter was hideous or find the beauty in my own form. I chose the latter.

She is beautiful, because I too am beautiful.

And when she looks up at me with those big blue eyes that look so much like my own, I see wonder, I see joy, and I see my love reflecting back at me through her.

To Phoenix, I'm not a failure. I'm not awkward or stupid or ugly. I am only Mommy, and I am the most amazing person in the entire world. When I enter the room, she leaps straight into my arms and giggles–my arrival the best part of her entire day. Together we sit for hours and tell secrets, play games, and put on chapstick and jewelry. We cuddle and kiss and make ourselves beautiful by allowing ourselves to love each other with everything we've got.

I never knew I was beautiful until I learned to look at myself through my daughter's eyes.

Must Love Mommy

Must Love Mommy

Series: Alaska Sunrise Romances, Book 5

Mandy Rockwell has a bun in the oven and sugary dreams dancing in her head. Sure, she's hit pause on the whole "men" thing, but opening her dream bakery? That's a recipe she's still perfecting, even if it involves moving back to grandma's cozy nook.

Enter Luke Ward. Once a pediatric pro, a heart-wrenching event has him shifting gears. While the idea of treating kids is off the table, his passion for healing hasn't dimmed a bit. And now tending to a lively community of retirees feels like it just might be the perfect fit.

When the dreamy mom-to-be crosses paths with the dashing new doctor of the senior village, things get a tad...sticky. Can two people, both steering clear of their pasts, concoct a sweet future together?

Dive into this delectable tale by New York Times bestselling author Melissa Storm and let the whimsy whisk you away!

Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon

A lot can happen in one day, one hour, one second… Mandy Rockwell had always believed that a single moment could change a person’s whole life, so it was no surprise to her that a couple measly pink lines had just magically transformed her into an unsuspecting mom-to-be.

Two tiny pink lines, one so faint she almost wasn’t convinced it was even there. One line represented life as she’d known it until this point—not pregnant—and the other stretched out toward her future, a future she could hardly wrap her mind around, much less actually plan for. It’s not as if this had been planned.

It was—what?—a few weeks back. She and Josh had gotten hot and heavy in the back of his car, like a couple of oversexed high school students. Something about it just felt so deliciously wild she couldn’t resist. And when he’d said their strange positioning in that tiny backseat was uncomfortable enough and that if he used a condom it would basically guarantee he got no enjoyment out of their romp whatsoever… well…

After all, she was on the pill—and the pill was something like ninety-five percent effective, which might as well be a hundred when you think about it. Except now she realized that it definitely, definitely wasn’t, and she definitely, definitely fell among that tiny percentage of women who got screwed over and pregnant. It all made her head hurt. Perhaps she should have paid better attention in statistics class, after all.

But she hadn’t thought she’d need statistics in life since her dream involved baking cakes, not crunching numbers. She’d always loved tinkering in the kitchen with her grandma and sister, trying out new combinations of flavors to see what worked and what made them gag. And on her eighteenth birthday, she’d known that she could never be truly happy until she had a bake shop of her own—one that would sell her unique recipes and garner rave reviews from all who stepped through its doors. Everything would be decked out in pink and gold as if the building itself were a delectable treat. It would be perfect.

That’s what she’d told herself whenever she had to put in yet another double shift at the diner, whenever she couldn’t buy a cute, new pair of shoes or the latest, must-have kitchen gadget because she needed to save the money more than she wanted to spend it. Whenever life had gotten hard, her dream stood waiting in the wings, ready to remind her that some day very soon the hard work would all be worth it.

She hadn’t planned for these two pink lines. Betrayed by her favorite color, how cruel.

But now the more she stared at them, the less she saw them. Maybe they weren’t really there, after all. Well, she knew one way to find out…

Mandy took a deep breath and then leaned in toward the stick on the counter, made a confused face, and snapped a selfie. Before she could lose her nerve, she sent the pic straight over to her sister Charlie, then watched as the notification on her iPhone marked her message as read. Almost as quickly, her phone buzzed to life, blaring the latest Maroon 5 hit at an uncomfortable volume.

Ugh, her headache just got a million times worse.

“Mandy!” her big sister shouted into the phone. She couldn’t tell if she was excited, angry, or something else altogether. Heck, she still didn’t know her own thoughts on the matter.

“Yeah…?” she ventured, waiting to see which direction Charlie would steer this conversation.

“If this is a joke, it’s not funny.”

Mandy let out a deep sigh. “You’re telling me.”

“You’re not actually…?”

“I don’t know.”

Now Charlie sighed on the other end of the line. “Did you take the test?”

The more they talked, the more Mandy knew for sure, felt it in her gut—or rather her womb. “No, I took a selfie with another woman’s pee stick just for fun. Of course, I took the test.”

But Charlie still seemed unconvinced. “Okay, what brand is it then?”

Mandy told her the manufacturer and waited as her increasingly pragmatic sister looked up images on Google to help interpret the test’s results.

Charlie had found her perfect match with accountant Will. She was a crazy dreamer, while he helped keep her feet rooted firmly on the ground. And though Mandy was definitely happy for her sister, she was also insanely jealous. Being the oldest, Charlie had always gotten the best of everything growing up. She was the one who still had memories of their parents who had died before young Mandy could form any concrete memories of them. She was the one who got all her clothes brand new while Mandy was stuck with hand-me-downs. She was the one who had gotten engaged to basically the perfect guy, while Mandy had simply gotten knocked up from her deadbeat on-again, off-again, kind-of, sort-of boyfriend.

Well, some benefit this was!

“Yup,” Charlie said after a few agonizing moments. “That test is definitely positive.”

Neither said anything for a few seconds more.

“Are you happy, Mandy?” Charlie asked at last.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know what? Know if you’re happy?”

“Know any of it. Whether I’m happy. Whether I’ll be good at this. How I can possibly add a baby to my life right now. It’s all a bit much to take in.”

“Do you think you might…?” Charlie let her question trail off, but right away Mandy knew what she was suggesting—and that thought made her sick to her stomach. Was that morning sickness creeping in, or the first signs that she may actually love the baby she hadn’t even known about a few minutes earlier?

“No, no, absolutely not! You know I believe everything happens for a reason. I have no idea what reason this might be, but if I’m actually pregnant, then I don’t intend to do anything to change that.”

Charlie’s voice broke on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you shouldn’t have the baby. Really, I just wanted to know what you’re thinking. You haven’t said a lot about it, and I’m kind of worried about you. Can I come over?”

Mandy groaned and picked up the stick to study it once more. “Maybe later tonight, okay? I have some thinking to do, and then I have some telling the father to do, too.”

The thought of having this conversation with Josh made her want to run far, far away from her home in Anchorage and never look back. She groaned and threw the used test in the trash.

Telling Josh was the right thing to do, and who knew? Maybe he would surprise her. Maybe they could form the perfect happy, little family, the one she had never gotten the chance to be a part of growing up. Maybe things would turn out okay in the end.

Maybe, maybe, maybe… Maybes were all she had for now. Hopefully they would be enough.

* * *

Luke’s knees wouldn’t stop shaking. His hands, either. He took a deep breath and looked up toward the ceiling in an attempt to calm his nerves.

It didn’t work.

A moment later the door to his right opened and out stepped a young man with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. “Dr. Ward, we’re ready for you,” he said with a solemn nod.

This was it. He’d soon know whether his risky decision had actually cost him everything. Not that he had much more to lose, just his job. But what did a job matter when he had blood on his shaky, shaky hands?

As he rose to face his morbidity and mortality hearing, he hoped they would find him at fault. He deserved to pay for what he’d done, that much was true. He had attempted to play God. He’d taken a gamble and lost, but it wasn’t he who’d had to pay the price—the ultimate price.

Regardless of what the board said, he knew he was finished. How could he possibly care for another young child when every well-baby visit, every giggle, every new milestone would remind him of the ones he’d taken away from someone else? How could he walk the same halls that he’d paced while coming to the decision to take the ultimate risk, the risk that hadn’t played out in his favor?

He needed to find a way to escape it all, and soon.

“We find you not at fault,” the chairman declared. “After reviewing all the evidence, we’ve concluded that any reasonable professional could have been led to make the same decision on the patient’s behalf.”

Well, whether or not they found him guilty, he still condemned himself. He would leave of his own accord, rather than being ordered out by the board. It was all the same in the end, wasn’t it? Nothing could bring the little girl back.

“Thank you.” He bowed his head and left the room, vowing to never look back. Now he needed a new place to set his sights toward. Where could a pediatric specialist find new work not dealing with children, and how could he possibly explain the sudden professional shift? A part of him wanted to retire from medicine for good, but at hardly thirty years old, he just didn’t have enough stashed away for that many rainy days.

That was when he thought of his old college roommate, Steve. Steve and Luke had chosen divergent paths when it came to specialties—Luke electing to go into a more general practice and somehow getting roped into pediatrics along the way, while Steve had chosen geriatrics. Thinking of Steve, he had to know of someone who was hiring. Maybe such a bold change would prove refreshing.

He composed an email to his old friend as he rode the subway home, asking—begging—for any leads for a new position, one far away from New York. Steve would probably laugh at him, but at least Luke would know he’d tried.

That was what made it all the more surprising when the response came back later that night.

Hey, Luke! Good to hear from you. I actually might have the perfect thing for you. Meet me for coffee tomorrow to discuss?

And just like that, he’d found the escape hatch he’d so desperately needed. He knew that no matter what Steve offered, he’d take it. After all, there was that whole adage about beggars and choosers, and he definitely didn’t have the strength to choose—not after his last choice had ended so badly for all involved.

For him, at least, tomorrow would come. Where it would lead him, he didn’t know. Nor did he really care. Away was more than good enough for him.

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