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

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Dating a Single Dad (9 page)

BOOK: Dating a Single Dad
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Less than two minutes later, Hank stumbled into the room.

“Brynn?” He ran a hand over his chin, blinked in her direction. “What’s this?”

“Dinner.” She glanced at the clock. “Okay, maybe it’s closer to a midnight snack, but whatever. I haven’t eaten, I’m pretty sure you haven’t and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. So. Food.”

He looked like he was on the verge of protesting, even though she could tell he was half-dead. Time to dig deep into her experience wrangling reluctant males.

“It’s chili. I made it last night. And I know we talked about boundaries, but sometimes you just have to be a decent human being. Now sit down and eat.”

He reared back the tiniest bit. For a second she was sure she’d reverted too much into bossy-older-sister mode. Then a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and he dropped into his chair with a gracelessness that spoke volumes about how much he needed someone else to lend a hand for a moment.

“Lucky for you I’m too tired to fight.” He spooned up some chili. “And too hungry to last long if I did happen to be stupid enough to— Oh, God, this is good.”

She shrugged as she seated herself across from him and popped a spoonful of beans into her mouth. “Like I said, lots of brothers. I don’t cook a ton, but I know how to do filling, cheap and satisfying. Have some corn bread. You need it.”

He nodded, shoveled in more chili and helped himself to the bread. She poured tea, added cream and waited. It didn’t take long.

“Have I mentioned that you were a godsend tonight?”

“About a dozen times.”

The crookedness of his grin was far too endearing. “Sorry. You’d think the blood came from my brain instead of Millie’s hand.”

“You’re her father. You’re allowed to lose the ability to think rationally when your kid is hurt.” She drew in a deep breath, bracing herself. “But now she’s fine, and the worst is past and you’ve had some food. It’s time to talk.”

He hesitated a beat before breaking a piece of corn bread. “My mother used to do that.”

“What, say that it’s time to talk?”

“No. Make sure we were okay, get us fed and relaxed and breathing again and then pounce. I’d forgotten how well it worked.”

“Glad you figured it out. Now you’re prepared.” She cradled her mug in her hands, strengthening herself with the warmth as she leaned forward. “I understand your reasons for putting some walls between Millie and the people who will be in the cabins. But—”

“But you think I’m being a horse’s ass.”

Her lips twitched. “Thank you for not making me slam it through your skull.”

He dipped his spoon into the chili again, slower this time. She wasn’t sure if it was because he wasn’t as hungry, or if it had to do with her words, but years of harassing her brothers had taught her that sometimes, silence was the best policy.

At last he sighed and looked at her, fatigue and confusion lining his face. “How am I supposed to tell her that it’s okay with you but not others?”

“The way you said it just now. ‘Brynn is going to be here longer, and she’s working with Daddy, so this time, it’s fine. But we will have different rules for other people.’”

“Isn’t that too confusing?”

She sat back. “Seriously, Hank? You think a kid that smart doesn’t know that there are different rules at home and at school and at Grandma’s?”

The mulish twist to his mouth faded almost as fast as it had appeared. “Yeah. You have a point.”

Good. He was beginning to see the light.

“Hank,” she said gently, “I’m very glad that I was here tonight, but personally, I would rather not have a repeat of this evening anytime soon. I bet you and Millie could live without that, too.”

He looked at her with eyes that were the definition of
overwhelmed.
“You don’t pull your punches, do you?”

“Not over things that matter.”

He leaned back in his chair and hooked an elbow over the back. “Why are you so hell-bent on doing this?”

“I’m here. I like Millie. I like you. And sometimes, like I said, you just need to be a decent human being.”

He sighed. “It feels like I’m taking advantage of you.”

There was more to it than that, she was sure. Probably a smidge of ego and a hint of Superman complex and some of that need to prove himself that she had seen in her baby brother, Lukie, since he was born. The last thing he needed was to feel like he would be indebted to her.

She chose her words carefully. “I have this suspicion that you wouldn’t have been out there sawing things at six o’clock at night if I hadn’t pushed to have the festival here. So maybe I need to do this for me as much as for you.”

He ran his last bit of corn bread around the edge of the bowl, popped it in his mouth and sighed again, though this time with resignation. “We’ll need ground rules.”

She refrained, barely, from giving a little cheer. “Absolutely. You’re the dad, you call the shots. Tell me what’s important and I’ll go from there.”

“Okay. First rule—we wait until the morning to talk about the details.”

“That’s one I’m more than happy to work with.” She lifted her teacup as she stood. “In fact, now that we’re in agreement, I’m going back to my place to get some sleep.”

He shuffled to his feet, fatigue dropping off him. She had the most unwelcome desire to grab him by the elbow, march him down to his room and tuck him into bed before he fell over. And then she could curl up beside him and—

Where on earth had that come from? Sure, she had indulged in a few minutes—okay, more than a few—of lusting after Hank, but that was just biology and proximity and a really great-fitting pair of jeans. Lust, she could live with. Wanting to take care of him, to do more than lend a hand and share some extra food, that was a whole other ball of snow. It wasn’t like he was family.

He followed her to the door, reaching past her to open it as she shoved her arms inside her coat. He swayed a little and bumped up against her shoulder. She looked up, surprised, and lost her breath. For she’d been totally blowing smoke when she said she could handle plain, old-fashioned lust.

Hank’s face was mere inches from her own. His eyes had gone wide and were as filled with surprise as she was sure hers were. And the tiredness that had slowed his movements seconds earlier had fled, pushed aside by something far more insistent.

Kiss him.

The thought shivered through her, magnified tenfold when she saw that he was searching her face, his gaze lingering on her eyes, her cheeks, her lips.

She tipped her face up. Then, quick as a light being turned off, sanity returned.

She jerked back, cheeks burning, and raced for the cold and the night and the safety of outside. “Good night,” she said quickly. “I hope Millie has an easy night.”

She slipped into the dark, picking her way down the path between their cabins. When she reached her door she looked back. He was in his doorway. Watching to see that she made it home safely? She smiled despite her confusion, waved and let herself in.

He was just being a nice guy. She was reading too much in to this.

She almost believed herself.

Until she turned off the light and peeked out the window, where he still stood silhouetted against his door. As if he were trying to figure out what had happened.

As if he were as reluctant to see her go as she had been to leave.

* * *

H
ANK
BLEW
OFF
the festival committee meeting the next morning so Millie could sleep. He called Brynn to let her know of his plan and asked her to tell everyone what had happened. It wasn’t until he hung up that he realized he’d made a critical error in talking to her first instead of his mother. Ma was bound to read something into this.

That moment in the doorway the night before, with Brynn so close and tempting... Thank God she had backed away before he did anything. It was going to be hard enough to convince his mother that the only reason he had asked Brynn to deliver his news was because she had been part of the whole episode. It didn’t mean anything. As for that fleeting moment... Hey. He’d been exhausted, she had helped without making him feel incompetent, they had been almost touching and, yeah, she was pretty and he hadn’t seen any action in longer than he cared to admit. But no lines had been crossed. No relationships had shifted, other than her taking on child-care duties. There was nothing to make his mother suspicious.

Thank God.

All thoughts of Brynn and his mother were knocked out of his head when Millie crept out of her room with her bandaged hand pressed to her chest and tear tracks on her cheek.

“Daddy, when will my hand stop hurting?”

He dosed her with medicine, made her favorite mini-chocolate-chip pancakes and let her eat cuddled up to him in front of the TV. Maybe SpongeBob could cackle away the pain. But when the episode ended, the tears started rolling again.

“I don’t like this,” she wailed into his chest. “I don’t wanna be hurt!”

He rubbed her back. She needed to cry it out, his mother would say. Once she got rid of the leftover fear, she would be better.

Ma never had a good answer for how he was supposed to deal with the parental guilt that lingered after the child moved on.

The sobs were interrupted by a sudden gasp as Millie jerked upright, her face filled with almost as much horror as it had been when she realized what “getting stitches” really entailed.

“My lab coat! I left it at the hospital!”

“No, you didn’t, babe. We brought it home.”

“I need it.”

Crap. He should have washed it as soon as he noticed it in the bucket this morning. “Sorry, Mills. It’s dirty.”

“I don’t care. I need it.”

“I know, but it’s wet. Brynn soaked it last night. To get the blood out.”

Fresh tears filled her eyes. “But I
need
it!”

He was about to suggest they grab one of his shirts to use as a substitute when he figured out what she was really saying.

“Do you want to Skype with Mom?”

Thumb in mouth, she nodded. He kicked himself for not thinking of it earlier.

“Okay. You go to the bathroom while I get things set up.”

She nodded again and scampered off his lap. He grabbed the laptop and called Heather on his cell.

“Hank?” Her voice registered the mix of surprise and worry that always accompanied unexpected contact. “Is something wrong?”

“Hey, Heather. Everything’s okay now, but Mills had some excitement last night.” As quickly as possible, he gave her the details of the evening’s adventures, conveniently glossing over the part about him leaving her alone with the saw in the first place because he’d been fantasizing about his tenant/semi-employee.

“Oh, my God, the poor doll. How is she today?”

“She’ll be okay, but she’s hurting and a little shook up. She wants to talk to you. Is now a good time?”

“Of course.”

Thank God. Heather might have decided that parenting was best done from the other side of the freakin’ country, but over the past year or so she’d become much better at calling and emailing and doing as much as possible to be part of Millie’s day-to-day life. So much so, in fact, that he felt compelled to offer an explanation for the delay in keeping her up to date.

“I, uh, thought about telling you last night, but I was pretty beat by the time we got home.”
Plus, I was busy being fed and enticed by my forbidden semi-employee/tenant.
“Then this morning I didn’t want to scare you by calling too early.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “I understand.”

That was another recent development—her willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. No, not doubt. Trust. It was like Heather had decided to trust him more lately. There was a time when she would raise holy hell if she wasn’t consulted on everything, from which day camp Millie should attend to what she should wear on the first day of school. Pretty rich considering she was the one who left, but, thank God, lately that had eased.

Millie bounded back into the room, already looking more cheerful than she had a few minutes earlier. Within a couple of minutes she sat hunched over the laptop, holding her hand to the camera so her mother could see her bandages.

Hank usually tried to fade into the background during their calls, but this time he stayed beside Mills in case things took a turn for the worse. Sure enough, after the first few minutes of putting up a brave front, the tears started flowing again. Not just from Millie, either.

For a second the old hurt flared.
If you hadn’t left, you’d be here hugging her instead of crying over the computer. If you hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have been juggling this myself in the first place. If you hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have needed a semi-stranger to help me get her to the doctor last night, wouldn’t be depending on her to lend a hand now so I can—

But no. He wasn’t going down that road. The past was past, what was done was done and all that mattered was making sure Millie knew that both her parents loved her. Judging from the way she and Heather were pressing their hands against the screens, that message was coming across loud and clear.

“And, Mommy, I can’t wear my lab coat! ’Cause I got blood all over it and I thought I left it at the hospital, but Brynn put it in a bucket and it’s all wet!”

Heather wiped tears from beneath her eyes and offered a watery smile. “Oh, honey. I’m sorry. But Daddy will get it ready for you as quick as he can. You know that. And—” Suspicion crept across her face. “Wait. Who’s Brynn?”

Oh,
crap.

He leaned sideways to face the camera. “She, uh, she’s running the big festival for the dairy. She’s been staying in one of the cabins.”

“Yes?”

There was a boatload of emotion in that one simple syllable. Too late, he realized that it could sound like he was about to confess a romantic involvement. The whole damned world seemed determined to throw Brynn at him.

Best to nip this one in bud right away.

“Mills, did you show Mom that pot you made at school? Why don’t you go get it so you can show her?”

Suitably distracted, Millie hightailed it down the hall. As soon as she was out of earshot, Hank dove in.

BOOK: Dating a Single Dad
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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