“Slow down!” Deena had been attempting to match her pace to Luis’s angry, fast one since they’d left the bookstore, but keeping up was impossible and she was tired of trying.
He didn’t listen. So, as they got out of the commercial district, headed toward her neighborhood, she stopped and crossed her arms.
When he realized she wasn’t beside him, he finally stopped and walked back to her. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t keep up with you, and you just made a wrong turn. Why are you so angry?” She started walking again, in the right direction, at a much slower pace.
He fell into step beside her. “I don’t understand why you didn’t seek an official diagnosis.”
Deena felt guilty about that, but she also didn’t appreciate the way he’d immediately started criticizing her care of the child she loved. “I’ve been in charge of her for two months, ever since Tammalee…” She swallowed. “Ever since the accident. It’s been a little hectic.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath and moved his shoulders like his neck hurt. Obviously trying to calm himself. “What makes you think she has FAS?”
Interesting that he knew the acronym. “She’s fussy, harder to console than she should be. Her fine motor skills are behind other babies her age. Plus, I think she has the facial features, or some of them.”
“Wow.” He nodded and looked across the busy street as if trying to collect himself.
“I’ve been researching it,” she said, to give him time. “I can send you some resources.”
He looked back at her and nodded decisively. “Great. Thank you. And I’ll take her to a specialist before we head for Teaberry Island.”
Men and their lack of listening skills. “Did you not hear what I said before? She’s not going to Teaberry Island.” Of that, she was determined.
He glanced over at her and then looked ahead. The sidewalk was getting more crowded as they approached her street. In the springtime, everyone was out, including a lot of kids and teens. A small group of boys was shoving each other, playfully, and Luis held up an arm and blocked one as he stumbled toward them. “Watch it, pal,” he said.
The boy straightened and glared at Luis, and she recognized sixteen-year-old Nicky, a chubby kid who was always trying to prove himself. “Hey, Nicky. Hey, fellas.” She smiled at the group and kept walking. They didn’t answer, but a couple of them nodded at her.
“My place is two blocks up,” she said, gesturing.
“So…if you live over here, why’d you want to meet at the bookstore?” he asked.
She’d wanted to talk with him before inviting him to her place, which was what he’d asked for initially. He wanted to see where his daughter was living. Fair enough, and once she’d seen the paperwork and ascertained that he was at least somewhat sincere about wanting to be involved with Willow, she’d agreed. Maybe seeing her place would forestall a custody lawsuit. “It was on my way home from work, plus I used to work there. Was actually on track to become a manager. I love books.”
“Why’d you quit, then?”
She shrugged. “With the baby, I was missing too many shifts.”
“This has been a hardship for you.”
“It has,” she said. “But it’s a welcome one, and nothing I can’t manage. I still want to take care of Willow.”
“Why? I don’t get it.”
She glanced over at him. In the midafternoon light, his hair shone like polished ebony. He had a strong profile, a sharp nose and square jaw. He was striking, and probably a big hit with women, but he seemed to lack a heart. “I told you,” she said. “I love her. Her mother and I were friends and roommates since before the baby was born. I’ve always helped care for Willow, and I want to keep doing it. I promised Tammalee I would.”
“And I want to take her to Teaberry.” He frowned, looking around him.
She fumbled for her keys and edged past the silver-haired man sitting on the steps in front of her building. “Hi, Mr. Richards, excuse us.”
The man lifted his bottle to her. “Where’s that sweet Willow-tree?”
She felt Luis tense beside her. “I’m picking her up soon. If you’re still here, we’ll stop and say hello.”
She opened the door to the building and ushered Luis inside. As soon as the door shut behind them, he exploded. “You know that wino? And he knows everything about my daughter?”
“Come on, I’m on the third floor. The elevator isn’t working.” She led the way up the narrow wooden stairs, all too aware of the scuffed woodwork, the torn carpeting on the landings. “Mr. Richards is a sweet old man. I do wish he’d go to AA, I’ve told him about some of the local meetings, but…” She shrugged. “He has to want to change, and so far, he doesn’t.”
“If he hasn’t changed by eighty…”
“He’s only sixty, he just looks eighty.” She opened the door to her apartment. “Come on in.” Having him walk her home might have been a mistake, since he seemed unimpressed with the neighborhood. But she was proud of what she and Tammalee had done to the apartment.
“Willow’s room is here.” Deena swallowed hard because it had been Tammalee and Willow’s room up until two months ago. She’d occupied herself and assuaged her grief by redecorating the place in little-girl style. A unicorn mobile she’d found at a thrift store, a coat of pale lavender paint she’d coaxed out of the landlord and fresh checked curtains she’d sewn herself. The room looked sweet.
“She still sleeps in a crib?” he asked.
Oh, well, a man wouldn’t be impressed by cute decor. “She’ll outgrow it soon, sadly, but for now, it helps keep her safe and in bed.”
“Speaking of safe,” he said, turning to face her head-on, “this isn’t a safe neighborhood.”
Of course, a couple of police cars drove by at that moment, sirens blaring. That was unfortunate, but it could happen in any city neighborhood. Once they’d passed, she spoke. “It’s not the greatest, but people take care of each other. It’s basically okay.”
“Not for my daughter. I want her out of here.”
Her face heated, and she gripped the railing of the crib to keep from smacking the arrogance off his face. “Don’t you dare stand there in your designer suit, criticizing the way I’ve been raising the child you didn’t even know you had. Did you ever think of coming home with Tammalee, having an actual relationship before you fathered a child with her, seeing if she lived in a place nice and suitable enough for her, let alone the child you were careless enough to conceive?”
“You’re obviously very privileged, enough that you don’t realize this is how a lot of people live.”
Something flashed across his face and was gone. “I meant no disrespect.”
“Really?” She was breathing hard. She wasn’t normally one for outbursts, but he’d provoked her.
“Really. But I’m also not letting my daughter be raised here.” His forehead wrinkled as he studied her.
That quiet determination scared her more than open anger would have. “You don’t get to walk in here and decide that.” She checked the time on her phone. “I need to go pick her up. And no, you’re not invited.” Because if he thought this apartment was shabby, he’d be horrified by the babysitter’s. Mrs. Martin had so much love, and her grandkids were a delight, but with six of them, the house was never neat or quiet. Which, undoubtedly, was what this man would expect.
He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it,” he said. “You need to come to Teaberry with her, as her nanny.”
She’d been walking out toward the front door, wanting to urge him on his way, but at his words, she turned back and stared at him. “Are you kidding me?”
“No. I can see how much you care for Willow, and it looked like she was pretty attached to you, the other day. You’d get to stay with her, and you wouldn’t be leaving much behind. It’s the perfect solution.”
You wouldn’t be leaving much behind. She huffed out a breath, staring at him. “You realize I’m a human being with a life, right? I have a job, and friends, and a support system here. There are lots of people in the neighborhood who love Willow. You can’t yank her away from that just because you have a nicer house somewhere else.”
“I’m guessing, from your uniform, that you work at a restaurant. I can pay you twice as much as you’re probably making there, and you won’t have to worry about rent or food.”
That made her pause. Did he mean it? What she could do with twice as much money, starting with paying off the credit card balance that had grown so big when she was caring for her mother.
He crossed his arms and had the nerve to smile.
That decided her. “No. Just no. You can’t bully me and throw money at me and make me do whatever you say. I have a life.” Not only that, but she wanted to be in charge of Willow, and she had the feeling that power would go away if she succumbed to Luis’s wishes.
“I’ll convince you,” he said confidently.
“No, you won’t.” But as she ushered him out, she had almost no faith in her ability to withstand this wealthy, egotistical man’s persuasion.
AtMrs. Martin’s place, Deena was so annoyed that she told the woman what had happened. The sixtysomething grandmother of six had been babysitting Willow more often since Tammalee had passed, and she and Deena were becoming closer friends.
They sat on the couch, side by side. Mrs. Martin didn’t own a television—said she didn’t believe in it—but the floor was covered with toys and picture books. On the wall, a large, colorful crucifix stood prominent, its surrounding tiles depicting what Deena was pretty sure were the stations of the cross.
“You have the opportunity to move to an island and make twice as much money?” Mrs. Martin asked. “If you’re not taking the job, tell him to come knock on my door.”
Deena snorted. “Your life is here. You know you’d never leave this neighborhood behind.”
“True,” she said. “But I have a husband, four kids and six grandkids. And three sisters within a few blocks. You have lots of friends, yes, but…you’re young and you’re not tied down. You should do it.”
“I don’t even think he’d be a good father,” Deena said. “He’s all about money. He barely asked about Willow.” She twisted the hem of her uniform vest, worrying.
“It’s a lot for him to take in, becoming a father. Give him a chance.”
“I don’t want to give him a chance.” She knew she was being unreasonable when she heard the way the words came out of her mouth, fast and angry.
Mrs. Martin tilted her head, rocking a baby on her lap. Around them, three of her youngest grandkids stacked blocks with Willow. “What’s really bothering you about this man?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but Mrs. Martin held up a hand. “I get that he’s acting arrogant, but you’ve dealt with arrogant men a lot, working at the bookstore and the restaurant by Capitol Hill. What’s different about this guy?”
What was different? “It’s something about the way he looks at me,” she said.
“Creepy?” Mrs. Martin’s voice went suddenly alert. “I mean, definitely do a background check before you let him have anything to do with Willow. Or with you, for that matter.”
“I did research him online. He’s not a criminal or anything, and he seems to support good causes, but…”
“You don’t feel good about him?”
She wanted to be fair. “It’s not creepy, exactly. I don’t feel like he’s sneaky or out to hurt anyone. He’s more…watchful. Like a tiger on a hunt.”
Mrs. Martin laughed. “Oh, I see. And is he handsome, this Luis Dominguez? A Latin lover type?”
Deena rolled her eyes. “How would I know what a Latin lover is like?”
“Maybe it’s time you found out,” Mrs. Martin said. “I know you had a bad experience when you were younger, but is that a reason to stay away from all men?”
Deena wished she’d never told Mrs. Martin about that, and she certainly didn’t want to go there now. “All I know is that he scares me, and he wants to take away Willow, and I’m not letting him get away with it.”
Carol’s mood improved as she pulled up to the house she shared with her husband and started unloading boxes onto the driveway.
It was Sunday morning, about 11:00, and she could hear church bells from the cathedral down the street. She’d chosen Sunday as the day to move her things out of her office, partly so that no one would be there to see her humiliating departure, and partly to put off the move until the last minute. She’d been told to be out by the end of the week, but there was always the chance that Evie Marie and HR would change their minds.
That hadn’t happened; on the contrary, someone had come in and boxed up all her things and left them in the lobby of the tutoring center, topped by an index card with her name on it. Irritating, the thought of someone else handling her stuff. That weasel Bambi had already taken over the director’s office; Carol had peeked.
But she wasn’t going to think about that on this beautiful April morning. As she rested from lifting boxes out of her Honda, she surveyed the house she and Roger had lived in for the past fifteen years. It was a small frame structure, plenty big for the two of them, but looking a little neglected these days. She was going to pull weeds and plant spring flowers, make the place look nice. Since she’d gotten home earlier than expected, she might even do some yard work today.
Maybe she’d even put a couple of lawn chairs out here. She and Roger could sit outside in the evenings and drink iced tea and chat about their days.
Not that either of them would have much to chat about, now that neither of them was working. Roger had been on disability for five years, ever since his crane had tipped over at the plant where he worked and thrown his back out. He spent a lot of time watching cable news these days.
She shuddered to think of listening to him spout his opinions on world events for hours on end. Well, maybe they’d stream a new series together, really get into it. Or they’d cook together and invite people over.
Losing her job had been a wake-up call, emphasizing the importance of the other aspects of her life. You shouldn’t put all your eggs into one basket, say for instance a job; that wasn’t reliable. But marriage was for life, and she was going to work on theirs.
She hoisted the heaviest box with some difficulty and opened her mouth to call for Roger to help. Then she closed it again. He might try, but he really wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavy. She staggered to the door, put the box down on the concrete stoop and opened it.
And there was Roger, carrying something quite a bit heavier than her box; he was carrying his giggling caregiver, Misty, toward the hall that led to the bedroom.
“What on earth!” Carol burst out, staring.
He didn’t hear her—his hearing was bad—but Misty did, and she struggled out of his arms, escaping his playful efforts to grab and lift her back up. She straightened her old-fashioned nurse uniform, whacked Roger on the shoulder and pointed toward Carol.
Roger turned around and saw her. His face flushed a dark, dangerous red. Good heavens, was he going to have a heart attack?
Carol said the first thing that came into her mind. “You’re going to hurt yourself! She’s way too heavy for you!”
“I beg your pardon.” Misty’s expression changed from guilt to anger. “I’m smaller than you are.”
Around the roaring in her ears, Carol walked right up to Roger, propping her hands on her hips, ignoring Misty. “Your health isn’t good enough to do what you were about to do.” The Lord knew, she and Roger hadn’t made love for months.
“I, uh, I thought you wouldn’t be home until this afternoon.”
“I see that.” She kept her spine straight, trying to disbelieve what was right before her eyes. Roger couldn’t be having an affair with Misty. Could he?
Even as she had the thought that it was impossible, various puzzle pieces fitted themselves together in her mind. Roger had insisted on hiring Misty rather than the caregivers with more credentials. Misty always wore that short, tight nurse uniform that looked more like a Halloween costume than something a professional caregiver would wear.
They were all three caught in a tableau of staring at each other: Carol in the living room, Roger in the hallway and Misty partly behind him. Finally, Carol lifted her hands, palms up. “Are you going to explain what’s going on?”
Roger cleared his throat, the color in his face still high. “I’ve changed, Carol,” he said, “but you can’t see it.”
That wasn’t the kind of explanation she was looking for. Trust Roger to turn things around so it was her fault. “I wish I could unsee you hoisting that tramp like a sack of potatoes.”
Misty sidled past Roger and Carol and grabbed her purse from a living room chair. Hand on the front door, she looked back. “I’ll leave the two of you to work this out.”
“You’d better leave,” Carol said in a voice that was almost a shout. “Don’t come back!”
“I’ll call you,” Roger said almost as loudly.
Misty didn’t answer. She hurried out the door, tripped over the box on the porch and went sprawling.
Her short nurse uniform was no protection against the hard cement; she was going to have a bad scrape. Involuntarily, Carol took a step toward the door. What if Misty had really hurt herself?
But the woman picked herself up quickly and scrambled toward her car, which Carol only now realized was parked across the street and a house down. She rolled her eyes. Very sneaky, Misty.
After Misty was in her car, Carol spun and glared at Roger. “You’ll call her? And you said that right in front of me?”
Roger walked into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch, wincing. Evidently that macho ploy of carrying, or attempting to carry, Misty back to the bedroom had cost him. Good. Men were such idiots. If the disability office could have seen him, they’d have stopped his checks in a heartbeat.
“Sit down, Carol.” He picked up the TV remote and turned it around and around in his hands, as if eager to turn on the Sunday morning news shows.
Should have thought of that before Misty came over, buddy. “Don’t tell me to sit down when you’re cheating on me.” But she did sit down. Her legs felt shaky.
He leaned forward and set down the remote. “I want a divorce.”
She blinked. “You?” The truth was, she’d occasionally thought of leaving Roger. Their marriage had lost its spark years ago. But she’d stayed because she felt obligated to him in his infirmity. And because she’d always expected to stay married for life. “You can’t take care of yourself.”
“I’m stronger than you think.” The weary sound of his voice and the slump of his shoulders defied his words. She was about to point that out when he added, “I’m not happy with you.”
Whoa. Carol closed her mouth, her body deflating like a leaky tire.
How could Roger get up the gumption and the strength to ask her for a divorce? How could he think he could get along without her? “How can you manage?”
“I want to keep the house. It’s all set up for me.”
It was true; when he’d first come home from rehab, using a wheelchair, they’d gotten help widening the doorways and installing ramps and grab bars. He still used the latter two; she’d thought he needed them. He did need them, some days more than others.
The question that kept spooling through her mind was, how could a man who often walked with a cane, who sometimes needed help getting up off the toilet, have an affair?
“You don’t mean it,” she said. “Have you been taking extra pain pills?”
His face twisted into an expression a lot like pity and it hit her like a blow, and then he pounded her again with his words. “I’m stone-cold sober, Carol, and I don’t want to be married to you anymore.”
Words failed her then. She looked at his face, the face she’d seen expressing pleasure and pain, happiness when his team won, grief when his father had died. After thirty years of marriage, it was more familiar to her than her own.
And it was set now, unyielding. He meant it; he wanted a divorce.
“My car is full of boxes from the office,” she said in a low voice. “What am I supposed to do?”
He looked relieved to get out of the emotional weeds and onto something practical. That was so Roger. “I’ve thought about that. You could go live in the family place on Teaberry Island. Your sister isn’t coming until school’s out, is she?”
That was true, and she liked the place. But she was stuck on what he’d said: I’ve thought about that. For how long?
She sucked in a shaky breath. “How am I supposed to earn a living on a tiny island like that?”
“Didn’t some of your relatives own a shop there?”
“Yeah, but it’s long gone.” She couldn’t believe they were having a civilized conversation about the details when he’d just betrayed her in the worst way possible. The image of him carrying Misty, the woman’s skirt riding up her legs, was burned into her brain. The worst of it wasn’t Misty’s legs, though; it was the smile on Roger’s face.
She hadn’t seen that smile in years.
It was that smile that made her know he was serious about leaving her. Or rather, kicking her out.
She could fight him; she knew that. Friends at work had gone through divorces and talked about maintaining occupancy in mutually owned homes.
Come to think of it, was her name on the deed of the house?
Tears pushed at the backs of her eyes and she felt like something heavy was shoving her entire body down into the sofa she sat on. How would she muster the energy to deal with her life?
Although the truth was, there wasn’t much of a life left to deal with.
“Aw, Carol, don’t take it so hard,” he said. “Wouldn’t you be happier with a whole man, someone who has more of the same interests?”
“Shut. Up.” She glared at him. “Since you’re so strong and fit all of a sudden, you can load that box Misty tripped over back into my car. I’m going to call around until I find a moving company that can get me packed and moved in the next day or two. Meanwhile, I’m staying at a hotel. And—” she fixed him with a teacherly glare “—don’t you even think of emptying out our checking account. I’ll take my half of what we have and start new accounts in my name tomorrow.”
Roger looked disconcerted. “I haven’t really thought about money yet—”
“That’s because you’re not thinking at all. But you’re right. I will be happier with someone else. Someone who doesn’t pick his teeth at the dinner table or blow his nose on my cloth napkins.” Her voice rose at the end. She was getting hysterical, so she pressed her lips together and gestured toward the box.
She supposed the next step was to call her sister and make sure she was okay with Carol living in the house. Come to think of it, Mary Beth might be there now, since it was Pete’s spring break.
She’d make a list of what she needed to do. Carol was efficient, despite wretched Evie Marie’s denigration of her technology skills. She could survive.
But the trouble was, she didn’t know what she’d survive as, who she’d become. If she wasn’t Roger’s long-suffering wife, and she wasn’t the warm, compassionate head of the tutoring center…who was she?
Excerpted from The Beach Reads Bookshop by Lee Tobin McClain. Copyright © 2023 by Lee Tobin McClain. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Hometown Brothers #3
Running a bookstore on a quaint Chesapeake island is exactly the life Deena Clark would have chosen for herself. But helping billionaire businessman Luis Dominguez figure out fatherhood is part of the package. Can bonding over books and one little girl help them open their hearts to each other?
Romance [HQN, On Sale: April 25, 2023, Mass Market Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781335427441 / eISBN: 9780369722188]
Lee Tobin McClain grew up as a happily-nerdy kid in Columbus, Ohio. Checking out stacks of library books, taking long walks with her sister and their dachshund, and devouring chocolate ice cream were her primary activities—that, and a lot of daydreaming.
Lee never thought she could become an author—that was for exotic, important people, not everyday girls from the Midwest. So instead, she found a book-centered career as a graduate student in literature and then as an English professor. One year when the teaching job fell through, she tried her hand at romance fiction—and her writing habit was launched.
After getting a professor job at Seton Hill University, Lee helped to start the only graduate program in North America specializing in popular fiction—mysteries, YA novels, fantasy, and, of course, romance. Seton Hill’s MFA in writing popular fiction has grown into a lively, crazy, successful enterprise, and Lee still loves teaching in it.
In 2002, Lee and her then-husband travelled to China to adopt their daughter, Grace–the best decision she ever made. Grace is now a college student majoring in English, which makes Lee very happy!
In 2014, Lee was thrilled to get “the call” and learn that her first inspirational romance, Engaged to the Single Mom, would be published by Harlequin’s Love Inspired line of books. That same year, she began independently publishing the stories she’d been writing for years: the Sacred Bond series of Christian romances, and the Sacred Bond Guardians series of romantic suspense novels. In February 2016, she achieved a lifelong dream when her second novel for
Harlequin, His Secret Child, hit the Publishers’ Weekly bestseller list. In 2017, she reached another personal milestone when she contracted with HQN to write longer, more complex contemporary romance novels.
Nowadays, Lee spends her time writing love stories—for Love Inspired, HQN, and independently—as well as teaching writing and taking adorable pictures of her goofy goldendoodle and her aptly-named cat, Trouble.
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