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Authors: Kris Fletcher - Comeback Cove 01 - Dating a Single Dad

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BOOK: Dating a Single Dad
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“Hey.” He tapped the board with one finger. “Heck of a rainbow you’ve got going there, kid.”

“It’s not a rainbow.”

“Yeah, I figured. That was supposed to be a joke.”

She kept her focus firmly on the fat blue marker in her hand. “Not funny, Daddy.”

“Well, how about we go home and you tell me all about it while we have dinner?”

She drew another circle, squeezing it in the space between two eye dots on a larger one. “What’s for dinner?”

“Uh...” Call him a pessimist, but he had a feeling that Kraft Dinner, salmon cakes and peas probably wasn’t the answer needed to turn this saga around. “Chicken and ribs from the drive-thru.”

She glanced up. Her eyes sparked for a moment, and he held his breath, hoping he’d won.

She set the blue marker down, selected a red one and added a blood-dripping frown to the face in progress.

He sighed. “Come on, Mills. Let’s go home.”

If he hadn’t been worried before, her silent acquiescence sealed it.

She stayed quiet all through the ride, barely answering his questions as to whether she wanted fries or baked, white milk or chocolate. When they pulled up to the house she hoisted her backpack on her shoulders and trudged inside, head down, shoulders and hair and even her jacket drooping.

He had a bad feeling about this.

As soon as her hands were washed and they were seated at the table with the food transferred onto plates—his nod toward sophisticated living—he decided the buildup had gone on long enough.

“So. Are you going to tell me, or do I need to guess?”

She picked up her fork. Two fat tears plopped onto her junior ribs.

Ah, hell.

“Mills. Talk to me, kiddo.” Taking a wild stab in the dark, he said, “Was it Noelle again?”

“Oh, Daddy!” The sobs came in earnest. Shoulders heaving, she described a picture he could see all too easily—a game in gym, a ball not caught, a chase at recess that ended with accusations of stupidity, babyhood and the taunt that the ball would have been caught and the team would have been victors if not for a misplaced thumb.

By the time the story was out Millie was on his lap, his shirt was soaked and his dinner was cold. Surprising, since he was pretty sure his anger was hot enough to heat anything within reach.

This had gone on long enough. Millie still refused to wear her lab coat to school or anywhere but home. He had half hoped that Heather’s return had meant Millie hadn’t needed the stand-in as much. Then came the morning he found the shirt wadded up beneath the covers at the end of Millie’s bed and he realized she was sleeping with it. She still needed it. But thanks to Noelle, she was afraid to wear it in public.

Now the thumb. Yes, Millie needed to give it up. He knew it. She knew it. But he would be damned if he would let some little brat-mouth shame Millie for it.

When her sobs finally subsided, he lifted her chin and looked her in the eye.

“Mills. I need to tell you something.”

A wet sniffle was her only response.

“When I was in high school, I went to a dance and tried out some moves I’d seen in a movie. It was pretty ugly. People teased me about it for a long time. You know what I did?”

“What?” It was barely more than a whisper, but it was a start.

“I did the wrong thing. I should have told them to take a hike, but I listened to them. I believed them. I stopped going to dances and I didn’t let myself dance except at home with you. And that was really stupid, ’cause you know what? I like dancing.”

“But you’re doing the dance with Brynn.”

Thank God she’d made him see the light. “You know why I said yes?”

She shook her head.

“Because I figured if you were brave enough to keep going to school every day, even though Noelle was being mean to you, well, I should be brave enough to go out there and dance again.”

“Really?”

“Really.” He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “Those kids were mean, but I was just as wrong. I let them be in charge of what I was doing. And you’re making that same mistake.”

“But I don’t like when she calls me names.”

“I don’t blame you, and I’m going to call the teacher again tomorrow. In the meantime, if you think you’re ready, there’s something we can do about the thumb.” He would let the lab coat wait. One battle at a time. “Noelle is wrong to tease you about it, but the fact is, you do have to stop. So how about you take charge of this? Not because of Noelle, but because you’re ready to do it for you.”

“What?”

“Brynn gave me stuff we can put on your thumbnail. Like nail polish. It’ll taste yucky, but she says that it’s the best thing to get you to stop.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, babe. And you know Brynn would never lie to you.” He took her hand and kissed the poor offending digit. “You and your thumb have had a good run, but it’s time to move on, kiddo.”

She drew a long, shuddering breath and burrowed her face deeper in his chest. But he distinctly felt the slow nod of her head as she gave her permission.

* * *

A
LITTLE
AFTER
MIDNIGHT
,
Brynn realized that half the reason she was unable to focus on the book she’d been staring at for the past hour was because the lights were still on at Hank’s place.

She’d had a meeting with the puppeteers who would be doing shows at the festival, so she hadn’t been able to take Millie after dinner. But she’d seen Hank and Millie down by the river when she drove home. They had been standing on the dock, pointing at something on the water, and she had been so damned close to hightailing it to the shore to join them. She’d longed to walk out on the swaying boards and kiss Millie’s head and slip her arm around Hank’s waist and rest her head on his chest while Millie caught her up on her day.

The temptation had been so strong, the image so vivid, that she had stood at the side of the car for endless moments, afraid to move because she couldn’t be sure her feet wouldn’t carry her down the slope. When she finally forced herself to pick up her bags she had to keep her gaze glued to her shoes shuffling down the gravel path to her cabin.

She was in over her head. She, who prided herself on keeping her work relationships light and her sexual ones even lighter, was getting sucked into a work–family blend that was all the more forbidden because of the complications coming down the pike. She needed to keep her distance. Not just for herself but for Hank and Millie and all the others who were going to have enough other upsets to cope with.

But after an evening of losing herself in notes and yoga followed by an hour of tossing and another hour of attempting to read, she conceded defeat. The lights from Hank’s house called to her. Mocked her.

And, after another hour, worried the hell out of her.

Because more lights were coming on. Someone was moving from Millie’s room to the kitchen to the bathroom. Then the living room light went on, and Hank’s room...then the kitchen again...

It was 1:37 a.m. and every light in Hank’s house was on.

Something was definitely wrong.

She grabbed her phone. Her finger hovered over Hank’s number.

Texting would be the smart thing to do. Shoot him a message, ask if everything was okay, feel like a dork when it turned out all was well, go to bed reassured. Sleep, wake, move on.

But she couldn’t. Because what if something was wrong with Hank? What if he had fallen or was sick and Millie was alone up there, crying and afraid and—

Brynn knew she was being an overdramatic idiot even as she reached for her jacket and pulled it over her cow jammies. Millie was smart enough to get her if there was a true problem. Hank certainly knew that he could call anytime. There was no need for her to grab her flashlight and slide her feet into clogs and make her way toward the lights that had her so troubled.

Yet here she was, knocking softly at Hank’s door. Because she was a totally overdramatic worrywart who—

“Brynn?”

Brynn had never been much for zombie movies but she was pretty sure that Hank’s white face, red eyes and feet that could barely shuffle were as close to the walking dead as she ever wanted to come.

“I saw the lights,” she said. “Is Millie—”

A heartrending sob pierced the night. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy...”

“The fingernail stuff. We put it on.” He scrubbed his face with one slow hand. “She can’t sleep. Because, you know, she’s never fallen asleep without it. Her thumb, I mean.”

Brynn closed her eyes while the guilt washed through her. Was there no end to the ways she could screw things up for this family?

A most pitiful moan greeted her as she entered the room where Millie lay curled in a ball, her blankets a thrashed-up mess, her face puffy and streaked with tears.

“Brynn.” Millie sat up, arms outstretched. “I want my thumb!”

Hank sank to the edge of the bed, the picture of exhaustion. Brynn took the other side and pulled Millie close.

“It’s so yucky. It makes my mouth all dry and squishy.” Millie shuddered against Brynn’s chest. “And I can’t get to sleep.”

“No sleep at all?”

“Not really,” Hank said. “She dozed on and off for a couple hours, then she woke up when I was getting ready to call it a night.” His eyes closed before opening slowly, as if he were dragging them back into place. “We’ve been awake ever since.”

Dear God, no wonder they both looked like death warmed over. “Have you tried hot milk?”

“Yep.”

“Drugs?”

“Nighttime cough medicine,” he said in a tone that verged on snappish. Not that she could blame him. “We rocked. Rubbed her back. Let her cuddle up in Daddy’s bed. I even read to her from an old economics textbook, okay?”

The unfamiliar edge to his voice told her she needed to tread carefully. None of them were operating at peak performance at the moment.

A few swipes of nail polish remover would do the trick, but she had to offer it in such a way that Millie didn’t understand. “I, uh, have some acetone-based liquid at my place that could eliminate the offending substance. If you get my drift.”

Bleary eyes blinked in her direction. “Ace— Oh. That.” His hand settled protectively on Millie’s trembling back. “No. We’re not backing off now. We’ve come this far, we’re not surrendering or moving on or any of that.”

She blinked. Why had that felt like it was aimed more at her than at Millie?

As if reading her thoughts, he shook his head. “Sorry. I just... If we give up now, we’ll never get a second chance.”

Of course. He was absolutely right. It was just exhaustion making him irritable.

“How about the plug-in drug?” she asked softly.

“You mean the electronic babysitter?”

“Right.”

“Didn’t try that. I thought it might be too much of a distraction.”

She nodded toward Millie, who was whimpering softly in her embrace. “I don’t think it could get much worse.”

He heaved a sigh. “What the hell. I’ll try anything.” He staggered to his feet. “But for the love of all that’s holy, I’m picking the movie.”

Millie’s head popped up. “What movie?”

Brynn shook her head. “Uh-uh.
I’m
picking.
You
are going to bed.”

Hank stared at her as if he weren’t able to process the words. She untangled one hand from Millie and made a shooing motion.

“Go. I had a catnap already, and this was my idea. I can handle this one.”

“And I can handle my own kid.”

Get out of here, Brynn. You’re not needed.

Silence hung in the room, thick and choking. Then he heaved a sigh and ran his hand over his face.

“Damn. I didn’t mean... That came out wrong. I’m more whupped than I realized. I’m sorry.”

She couldn’t manage anything other than a reflexive nod. Hurt and confusion clogged her throat. Words flitted through her head—
this was partly my fault, I just want to help
—but she couldn’t squeeze them past the wall of guilt and pain that had sprung up between them.

“I wanna watch a movie with Brynn.”

Thank God for Millie’s shaky whisper. If ever Brynn had needed a distraction, this was the time.

“Go,” she said to Hank, a little more forcefully than intended. “Sleep. We’ll be fine.”

Without so much as a glance in his direction, she tugged Millie from the bed, grabbed a blanket and headed for the door.

“Come on, Mills.
Tangled
is waiting for us.”

“Again? You always choose that one.”

“Trust me, honey. It’s got great music and the hottest hero Disney ever created. There’s no such thing as too much
Tangled.

She piled onto the sofa, pulled Millie close and started the movie. Within half an hour the familiar story and exhaustion took their toll. Millie’s eyes closed and her breathing grew more regular. Her fist settled at the side of her mouth and her knuckle slipped between her lips, but the thumb itself stayed clear.

Mission accomplished.

But it took a lot longer for Brynn’s eyes to finally close.

Hank had snapped, but she really couldn’t blame him. She knew he didn’t like to accept help, yet she’d barged in and started throwing around suggestions anyway. That wouldn’t go down well at the best of times. Toss in hours of frustration and fatigue, and he’d had every right to be testy. He wasn’t the only one who should be apologizing.

She could understand his reaction. It was her own that would have had her tossing and turning if not for Millie tucked in beside her.

She’d offered help before, he’d declined, she’d shrugged and moved on. Not this time. She’d been on the verge of tears, and much as she tried, she couldn’t convince herself that it was simply because his words dredged up her father’s brush-offs. No, it was because she
needed
to fix this problem.

Because she had contributed to it? Partly. Because every bit of her ached at the thought of Hank and Millie hurting. Because she needed to help them more than she needed to sleep. Because she knew there was no way she could be completely happy if their worlds were out of whack?

Oh, hell.

BOOK: Dating a Single Dad
6.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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