As I thump the steering wheel of my truck with my fist, Lucy’s glistening eyes lift to mine. I grin at her before making out my angry bump is merely me grooving along to the latest pop group coming out of Ravenshoe.
My last assignment before eighteen months of rehab after being injured on the job gifted me more “cool creds” with my daughter than I am used to. It gave me direct access to the number one band in the country and saw Lucy looking at me with more value than most single fathers get.
When Lucy’s attention returns to the Spotify app on my phone, I direct my focus back to Thane, my once brother-in-law and now regular sounding board. “Sixteen years I’ve given them, and they put me on f’ing desk duty. The movement of my arm is back to full capacity. There’s not even a twinge of pain when I rotate it.”
I grind through my lie while circling my left shoulder to back up my claim like Thane isn’t on speakerphone. I got shot in the line of duty. My torso absorbed and disregarded the bullets like a pro, but an intern’s bad patch-up of the exit wounds has been the biggest obstacle to my recovery.
Occasionally, I still get stuck removing my undershirt, and although rehab has drastically improved the range of movement in my upper body, I face issues any time I lift my left arm above my head.
I didn’t tell the director that, yet I’m still scheduled for desk duty three weeks from Monday.
“I told you, man, all the money is in the private security sector now anyway.” I pfft at Thane when he says, “I’m sure Million-Dollar Marcus would give you a position quicker than a backhanded clit slap.”
I glare at the dashboard of my truck when Lucy asks, “What’s a clit slap?”
With his maturity as low as his IQ, Thane starts to explain, “A clit slap is when Uncle Thane’s girlfriends don’t—”
“Is the name of Uncle Thane’s new cat,” I interrupt before he can scar my daughter more than losing her mother when she was only six months old.
For the first time in months, the shimmer in Lucy’s eyes is from something more than sadness. “You got a cat?” She bounds out of her seat to get up close and personal with the speaker booming out her favorite uncle’s voice. Their bond makes me feel like shit that I tried to block Caroline’s family from having direct access to Lucy five years ago, but I was grieving and not in the right headspace to realize she is as much theirs as she is mine.
We all make mistakes.
Lucy takes Thane’s wheezy laugh as confirmation he got a new pet. Thane is my late wife’s youngest brother. He is twenty-five, lives the life of a bachelor even while shacked up at his parents’ mega mansion, and is clueless on how an almost six-year-old’s brain works.
He often puts me in a pickle.
Today isn’t any different.
“Can we come pet it?” Lucy’s eyes are on me, pleading and begging. “Please, Daddy. I want to see Uncle Thane’s cat. I bet he’s pretty and furry, and his breath smells like tuna! The last time I saw a cat was when Ms. Fiona brought hers for a visit. It didn’t like me. It scratched my arm.” After lifting the sleeve of her long-sleeved shirt to display the imaginary scratches, her nose screws up in disgust. “And it pooped in the garden. Well, not in the garden. On the footpath. You trod on it and walked poop throughout the house, and Ms. Fiona wouldn’t clean it up. She said if you’d looked where you were walking, you would have seen the poop.” With a sigh, she folds her arms over her chest and huffs. “She was bossy and mean and—”
“The reason we’re getting a new nanny.” My comment sours her mood in an instant.
We got lucky in the four years following the death of my wife, but with Ms. Mitchell moving to West Virginia to assist in the raising of her grandbabies, we’ve gone through more nanny placements than I have occupational therapists in the past six months.
I’d like to blame the “intolerable working conditions” on Lucy, but that would be as blatantly dishonest as saying my shoulder no longer hurts.
I’m not the most tolerable person in the world in general, but when I’m being weaned off the pain medication responsible for my ability to dress without sobbing like a baby and forced to face the possibility of a desk job for the remainder of my career, “intolerable ass” is a deserving title.
Ms. Mitchell didn’t put up with my crap. She was stern and raised Lucy with values Caroline would be pleased about. We’ve been lost without her, and as much as the nanny placement officer assures us she can be replaced, she will forever be irreplaceable to Lucy because she doesn’t want a nanny.
She wants a mother.
Ms. Mitchell was too old for the title, but her stories about her children and their occasional visits gave Lucy the family she craved. Her impressive baking skills stamped her place in my daughter’s heart.
Lucy can be bought with chocolate chip cookies. I’ve used this knowledge to my advantage numerous times in the past month as we’ve sought a new in-house caregiver.
Since we depleted our local agency of unknowing victims, the agency extended its search horizon. They assure me Ms. Seabourn will be the perfect addition to the team. It hasn’t been the best start, though. She was meant to arrive before my meeting this morning but missed her train.
Her new arrival time is 4 p.m.—which clicked over almost an hour ago.
“Shit.” I apologize to Lucy for my potty mouth, toss her my wallet so she can remove my penalty for the swear jar in her room, then throw the gearstick into reverse so I can back out of our driveway instead of fully entering it.
“You forgot your new nanny again, didn’t you?” Thane asks, barking out a humored laugh.
I wring the steering wheel. “My meeting ran over, and since I was frustrated with the result, I drove straight home.”
As I dismount the curb, Lucy asks, “Who’s that?”
When I follow the direction of her gaze, my throat dries. Long, lean legs, a sweltering midsection unhidden by low-riding cut-off jean shorts and a midriff top, with tits that belong on the glossy pages of the magazines I’m sure Thane still hides under his mattress.
My words are as hot as the blood roaring through my veins. “Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen such a fantastic pair of—”
“Swans!” Thane interrupts, snapping me out of the trance the stranger’s body placed on me. “Such nice swans.”
As Lucy flattens her face to the window to search for said swans, I yank out the cord responsible for my wife rolling in her grave. I never acted so disturbing while we dated, and I chased her for months before she agreed to go out with me.
“Killjoy,” Thane mumbles when the dashcam stops broadcasting the image of a blonde galloping down the front three steps of my home. Like every Baywatch long-range beach shot, she is slow-moving and extremely bouncy.
When I return my truck to the driveway, the mystery blonde most likely selling Girl Scout cookies holds her hand up to shelter her flawless face from the low-hanging sun but doesn’t creep further down the footpath.
I place my truck in park and switch off the engine. “Watch Lucy for me.”
“It would be easier to babysit if you turned the dashcam back on.” Thane almost has me over the fence until he adds, “I can keep one eye on Lucy and one on the blonde who’ll keep me company for my next seven showers.”
While grinding my back molars together, I remove my seat belt, crank open my door, then slip out of my truck. I don’t brace my gun while approaching the stranger trespassing on private property. She barely weighs one twenty, so a weapon won’t be needed to take her down, but I keep my tone stern to ensure she understands my dislike of unwanted visitors. “Can I help you?”
I hate myself even more for my initial response when her voice comes out as sweet and feminine as her unaged face. At a guess, I’d say she is late teens/early twenties, making me over seventeen years her senior. I should not have responded the way I did. It officially makes me a dirty old man.
“I think it is the other way around. I’m here to help you.” She smiles at my confusion while meeting me halfway down the footpath. “I’m Henley.” When she thrusts out her hand in offer, the curves peeking out from beneath her midriff top become impossible to ignore. Her body is on display for the world to see, but I should still not be looking, even more so when she finalizes her introduction. “Henley Seabourn.”
I cock a brow. Surprise is all over my face. “Our new nanny?” When she nods, sending waves of glossy locks toppling down her shoulders, I shake my head. “Nope. No. This is not happening.” Disgust morphs onto her face as I ask, “Are you even old enough to work in this state?”
Great. She is as young as I expected.
“And have plenty of experience—”
“Not enough for this role,” I interrupt, my tone curt. “I asked for a mature nanny.”
I wave my hand at her stomach, which has nothing to do with her experience. It merely announces why we can’t work together.
I’ve not had the urge to stare at anyone’s midsection since Caroline passed, but I’m an eye strain away from retinal detachment with how much effort it takes to keep my eyes off Henley’s stomach.
“This isn’t what I asked for.”
“Wow,” Henley bites back, her smile not heralding the sternness of her expression. “Sexist and age discriminating.” She doesn’t give me a chance to respond. Her dressing down commences immediately. “The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects employees under forty”—my mouth gapes—“which I assume you’re begrudgingly approaching even while hoping it will excuse your poor attitude”—she smiles at my narrowed glare before poking me in the chest—“from being discriminated against based on age. You have been through every nanny the agency has on file. I don’t take crap from no one, so Nancy said we’d be the perfect fit.” She flutters her lashes.
Although her sassy attitude dampens my worry that she can give as good as she gets, it won’t stop me from saying, “Nancy is way off the mark.”
I stop pulling my cell phone out of my pocket when Henley announces, “And saved from your unjust tirade by a blissfully long weekend.”
I cuss again when my eyes drink in the time on my phone screen. The agency closes at 5 p.m. It is five fifteen on the Friday of a holiday weekend.
“With that sorted, how about a re-introduction?” After waving her fingers at Lucy, who’s watching our exchange curiously from the passenger seat of my truck, Henley holds out the same hand in offering. “Henley Seabourn, your new nanny.”
This time, I accept her offer. “Brodie Davis, the father offering to comp you a hotel room for the weekend.”
Good lord, it should be illegal for arrogant men to be so attractive. I’d never considered how Jax Teller would look in a pristine black suit until Brodie slipped out of the driver’s seat of his big beastly truck. The sight hurts my eyes and makes me wonder if I have a daddy complex.
Brodie looks ten years my senior, if not a little older. The wrinkles in the corners of his eyes aren’t from smiling too often, and the V etched between his dirty-blond brows appears older than me, but age brings its own qualities to a man’s appeal.
Brodie’s frown wouldn’t look as attractive if worn by a younger face, nor would the slight sprinkling of gray hairs weaved throughout his manly bun. His age makes him as cultivated as the antique vase my grandmother never let me touch, and the “not allowed to touch” vibe beaming off him makes me want to bend the rules even more.
I’ve always dreamed of being a rule breaker.
My placement as Lucy’s nanny gives me the opportunity to achieve that.
I grin when the creak of a door being opened ends our intense stare-down. I had no intention of losing, but the tension was reaching its boiling point.
“Can I come out now, Daddy?”
Not waiting for him to answer, Lucy jumps down from a truck that should emasculate its owner’s mannish vibes but doesn’t, before she sprints down the sidewalk I paced for almost an hour while waiting for my new family to arrive.
“Hello.” She swivels on the spot as her teeth indent her plump bottom lip, and her big brown eyes scan my body as vigorously as her father’s had. “You’re pretty. I like your shirt. I have a shirt like that. We didn’t get it from the shop.” She cups her mouth with her hands like she’s about to whisper, but her voice still comes out loud. “I cut it with scissors. Don’t tell Ms. Mitchell. I’m not allowed to play with scissors.”
As Lucy continues her story, Brodie announces, “She babbles when excited.”
He sounds annoyed that his little bundle of joy is so welcoming. I love it. She demonstrates it’ll take a lot of wit to get her father to fall in line, and I’m just the girl for the job.
After bobbing down to Lucy’s level, I tuck a strand of her gorgeous yet wild hair behind her ear. “Scissors are okay on certain occasions, but what is one thing we should never do with them?”
Lucy’s eyes bulge before her mighty voice rumbles through my chest. “Run with them.”
“That’s right. We should never run with scissors.” I peer up at Brodie and grin. “But we’re not carrying scissors now, are we? We can run all we like. So how about you yank up the cuffs of your jeans that survived their hacking better than mine and show me the fastest route to my room.”
I don’t think Lucy’s eyes could pop any more. “You’re my new nanny?”
“Uh-huh.” My southern accent twangs my next five words. “Are you okay with that?”
Her squeal warms my heart. “Oh, yes, yes, yes!”
After looping our arms, she races us toward the front stairs of her home. Before I can trespass against the homeowner’s wishes, she seals my fate as her nanny by charging back for her father.
My heart melts into a gooey puddle when she throws herself in Brodie’s arms and smothers his hairy chin with kisses. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I love her already!”
Brodie wants to deny her claim that I’m her latest toy. He tries to subdue her happiness in a manner any father would when their child becomes instantly besotted with a stranger, but the longer Lucy’s praise fills his ears, the harder it is for him to steal her joy.
So instead of squashing her happiness, he peers at me over her golden locks and murmurs with a frown, “You’re welcome.”
* * *
“Oh my goodness, Lucy-Lou. This room is almost as precious as you.”
Lucy grins at both my praise and the use of her nickname before trudging to her bed with her toy rabbit swishing the floorboards behind her. The past couple of hours have been as tiring on her as they have been on me. She gave me a tour of her home, which is modestly sized and well-decorated. We cooked chicken and rice for dinner, ate on the outdoor patio, bathed, then read one too many bedtime stories.
Every task was conducted under Brodie’s watchful eye, so not only did I have to give the performance of my life as a doting nanny, but I also needed to ensure Lucy wasn’t subjected to the tension teeming between her father and me.
Children, girls in particular, are less forgiving of their parents when there is an apparent rivalry with their friends. At such a young age, they don’t understand that their parent is their biggest ally.
“Do you usually sleep with a night light?”
A smile graces my lips when Lucy shakes her head. “But can you leave the door open?”
“Of course.” I help her to bed before tucking her in.
I step back from her half-wrapped cocoon when “That’s my job” comes barreling from the hallway.
As Brodie enters Lucy’s room, his manly swagger more noticeable in the tight confines, Lucy’s eyes roll skyward. “When he’s not working, but since he’s returning soon, you should practice.” Her lower lip drops into a pout. It is the first time it’s hung so low in hours. “He won’t be around much once he goes back to work.”
Ouch. There’s the guilt every working parent faces. I once gave my father hell about his hectic work schedule. I never got the chance to understand how unfair I was being.
Brodie takes Lucy’s complaint on the chin with only the smallest rebuttal. “You know how important my job is, Lucy.”
His next set of words announces how closely he’s been watching. “It’s what allows you to sleep without a nightlight.”
He finishes getting her ready for bed before brushing back a lock that had fallen across her eye and kissing her forehead. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Daddy,” Lucy replies through a yawn, her earlier anguish forgotten.
I wait for her to wedge her hands under her cheek before I follow Brodie out. He leaves her door partially cracked open, saving me from announcing his child’s wish, before he lifts his murky eyes to mine.
Lucy must have gotten her dark eyes from her mother, because Brodie’s are light blue and utterly captivating. He is tall, muscular, and handsome, and something about his scent drives my insides wild.
My stomach hasn’t stopped dancing all evening.
His hair is a little longer than you’d anticipate for an FBI agent, but its knotted appearance around his face gives him a youthful look he could pull off well into his forties. However, his frown is the sexiest thing about him.
I just wish it didn’t directly follow every glance he tosses my way.
He doesn’t want me here. I’m just skeptical if something I’ve already done awarded me his distrust or if it’s something he’s worried will occur in the future.
It could be a bit of both.
I’ve not exactly been honest with him.
Our stare-down is so intense I expect Brodie to say something far more profound than he does when he ends it by dropping his eyes to his feet. “Night.”
I’m lost for a reply. Not only am I shocked by his nonchalant farewell, but it is also barely eight. If I go to bed now, I’ll be wide awake by two in the morning.
When Brodie waits for me to reply before leaving, I stammer out, “Um… night?”
I cringe at the desperation in my voice before spinning on my heels and galloping down the stairs. Brodie has already cleaned the kitchen and filled the washing machine, so I gather my new cell phone from my suitcase and enter the living room with the hope of a good cable subscription service.
I’m not surprised when I discover a ton of messages from my best friend. She is the only person with this number, and the instant she was given it, she would have commenced blowing it up.
What’s he like?
Did he welcome you with open arms?
Is he open to visitors? I need to get out of town for a few days.
Beau was asking about you earlier. *gag* Do you want me to pass on a message?
I don’t bother reading the messages following that. My reply to her question is too imperative for small talk.
Tell him we lost contact.
Considering the early hour, it’s no surprise that an ellipsis trickles below my received message.
I’d have a better chance of drilling off a massive chunk of the chip on his shoulder. Besties 4 life!
Her reply makes me laugh so hard that I snort.
Beau is my ex. He’s arrogant and uptight and believes his shit doesn’t stink. I’ve left him four times over the past two years. My returns weren’t my choice, and this time, I’ve placed a ton of distance between us with the hope this break will be final.
I exhale a big breath when my phone vibrates with an incoming message.
So… the new guy. Is he “daddy” material?
My fingers fly over my phone screen.
Don’t make it weird. You know I’m here for his daughter, not him.
I flick on the television, pick at the varnish on my nails, and twirl my hair before I eventually give in and type the remainder of my reply within a shamefully short time.
But yes, he’s seriously fucking hot.
I stab at the volume button with my thumb when the FaceTime ringtone bellows up the stairwell.
“Are you insane?” I say after connecting Amelia’s call. “The volume was up full bore.”
Springs of black curls bounce around the screen along with her smile. “You can’t tell me he’s ‘seriously fucking hot’ and not offer a sneak peek. You only swear when referencing guys who are gods. Beau only got a damn, and you had to bat women off him at every event you attended as his plus one.”
A long breath eases out. “Thanks for the reminder.”
She only takes in my eyeroll for half a second before asking, “What the hell are you wearing? Is that a Fluro pink bra under a see-through midriff top?”
“No.” I tug down my shirt like it might suddenly gain three inches in length. “I didn’t know how welcoming he’d be, so I tried what forever worked for Beau.”
“You need to stop watching Pretty Woman.” Amelia roars with laughter. “Not even deadbeat dads want their kids raised by a hooker.”
“I didn’t realize Lucy would get me over the line, so I tried to…” I stop talking, too embarrassed to continue.
Amelia will never let me off so easily. “So you…” When I remain quiet, she fills in the gaps. “Seduced him with your body?”
“It was pointless,” I say with a huff, incapable of denying the truth. “He seemed more impressed when I called him out for age discrimination than my outfit.”
“You didn’t?” Amelia says, her mouth gaping.
I sit straighter, sighing. “I did. He was being an ass.” Her laughter is infectious, but I try to play it cool. “Why are you laughing? We’re always treated like idiots because we’re not thirty.” We gag at the same time. “But we probably have a higher IQ than the combined ages of the people judging us.”
Finally she climbs over to my side of the fence. “This is true. Especially for you. Your brain is almost as big as that massive heart of yours.” I could kiss her until she demands, “Now give me a look at the hunk you’re hogging to yourself so I can hit the night scene early.”
“You’re going out tonight?” I ask, jealousy weighing heavily on my limbs.
Missing my forlorn look, she nods. “Mario and some guys want to check out a new band. They’re playing at The Fort.” After inspecting her lipstick and scrunching her curls, she shifts her eyes to me. “Give me a sneak peek, and I’ll take you with me.”
As much as I’m desperate to get to know Brodie better, I can’t spy on him.
When I say that to Amelia, she replies, “Uh… yeah, you can. Just slowly meander past him while holding your phone out in front of you. Easy peasy.”
“I’m not—” A grunt cuts me off. “Hold on. I think Lucy is awake.”
I take the stairs two at a time, breaking up Amelia’s reply so well I can’t decipher it.
My lips twist when I spot Lucy in the middle of her bed, sound asleep.
Amelia’s face fills the screen when a second grunt is loud enough for her to hear this time. “How short did you hack your jeans?” I’m lost on what she means until she asks, “Are they spank bank length?”
“Don’t be absurd.” Another grunt dampens the assurance in my tone. It is throaty and delicious and forces my knees to pull together.
“What direction are they coming from?” Amelia asks before demanding me to spin my camera around.
The frantic beat of my heart cuts through my reply. “From the bathroom. It’s one of those two-way designs.” I don’t know why I’m whispering. “Should I make sure he’s okay?”
“Uh… duh! Of course you should!”
“Shush,” I plead, glaring at her gorgeous face even with the camera facing the portraits lining the hallway.
“I won’t speak another peep.” She locks her lips and throws away the imaginary key. “But I think you should hurry. He sounds like he needs help.” My steps freeze when she gabbers, “You’re still wearing jeans as underwear, right?”
“I’m joking. Those aren’t masturbating grunts.” She couldn’t lie straight in bed if her life depended on it, and when my silence calls her out on it, she demands, “Just go. If you’re brave enough to walk in on Beau with his cousin’s friends, you can do this.”
Her reminder of my ex’s cheating ways sees me marching into the bathroom without bothering to knock.
What I find isn’t close to what I expected.