My daughter's make-believe party taught me a real-life lesson in trust.

By Rachel Sarah

Leaning over the counter, my daughter ordered the same meal she always had at our favorite taqueria: a quesadilla, no salsa, no sour cream. I wasn't sure what I wanted to eat. But that wasn't all I was uncertain about.

I'd thought that bringing my 8-year-old to a familiar place to meet my new boyfriend was a good idea. But now I felt awkward. "She's going to be shy," I'd warned Chris the night before.

My daughter followed me to a table and slid into the chair next to me, our elbows touching. She grabbed a tortilla chip and crunched into it, looking straight at Chris. "Have you seen Nacho Libre?" she asked.

"Seen it? I own it," he said with a big grin, referring to the Jack Black movie.

"You do?" She jumped out of her seat. "Can I come over and watch it?" I guess I'd been wrong about shy.

After dinner, we all walked back to my car, making plans for our Jack Black movie night. "Thank you," I whispered, wanting to kiss Chris but instead taking a step back as my daughter wrapped her thin arms around him.

"See you soon," she said. I was silent as we drove to our apartment, just the two of us, the way it had always been. When my daughter was a baby, her father had left the country to start a new life, and I'd been a solo mom since. I wasn't going to let another man hurt me — or her.

At home I climbed into my daughter's bed, as I did every night. First, I waited for her to rearrange her pillows — the firm one, followed by the mushy ones. When she was ready, she laid her head down. It was time for us to talk about her day, something we've done since she was a baby. Without fail, dusk transformed her into an orator.

In the glow of her nightlight, she told me about school, her hands making shadows on the wall. Although she said nothing about Chris, I couldn't stop thinking about him. How would I know that he wouldn't bail on us, like my ex did?

Two weeks later, my daughter and her girlfriend were lining up dolls on our deck for a tea party when Chris biked over.

My daughter ran to him as he pulled out a bag. "Madeleines!" she shrieked. "Thank you! They're my favorite!" Chris was beaming.

Then she requested he join them. "Sit down!" she ordered Chris, pointing to the cloth on the ground that billowed in the wind.

Chris obeyed, slipping off his hard clip-on cycling shoes so they wouldn't tear the fabric.

My daughter's friend bent over and whispered, "Play something else?" But my daughter shook her head and turned to Chris, grinning. "Want some tea?"

I crouched down to join too. "Not you, Mama!" She crossed her arms over her chest.

Chris sipped the lukewarm tea and leaned close to my daughter. "Thank you."

Watching this scene unfold, I wasn't taken so much by the fact that my daughter had invited my boyfriend, in his biking spandex, to her tea party. It was that he wanted to be there.

I'd lost count of how many of my daughter's birthdays had passed now without a word from her father. Clearly, my daughter was already enamored of Chris' generosity, charm and DVD collection. Why couldn't I open up to his love, the way she did?

After tea, my daughter jumped up. "I want to show you my room," she said, clasping Chris' hand. He stood and followed her inside.

If only I had the assurance to allow him in like that. Every day Chris sent me e-mails that said things like "I adore you beyond belief.” Yet the doubts lingered. As I leaned on the doorframe, that mistrustful voice whispered, "Is he for real?"

We'd been dating for more than six months when Chris went out of town for work. By his third night away, I was slamming kitchen cabinets, irritable. I was pining for him, but I wasn't about to admit it.

My daughter, on the other hand, asked for his e-mail. Then she left this "sent" message on my laptop: I miss you. I love you.

I sat there and stared at the screen. I'd started to date again when my daughter was a toddler. There was so much at stake, yet I'd initially felt so hopeful about finding love again. I'd imagined meeting the right man when she was still little, and blending our families. While that never happened, years later here was my daughter, so open to love.

One year after meeting Chris, we were on a much-treasured dinner date. But Chris was edgy. He downed his cocktail too fast. His shoulders tensed up whenever the waiter came by. As we walked back to his car in silence, he let go of my hand.

"There's something I need to tell you," he said.

I turned around. His eyes were teary. "I'm sorry, I'm like my mom. I can't talk when I'm emotional."

I thought someone had died.

After pulling a ring from his pocket, Chris tugged out a glittering necklace — for my daughter. He asked if he could join our little family.

"Yes," I whispered.

"Are you sure?" he said.

I was finally ready to open this door. After all, he and my daughter were already there, waiting for me.

Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking, which has been optioned for a TV show by 20th Century Fox. In 2012 she and Chris welcomed a second daughter.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.