One toddler meltdown in the center of Walmart and Lt. Mike Stark, who had battled raging winter storms in the violent, mercurial Bering Sea to pluck stranded boaters from the ocean’s grip, had to admit he was over his head. Mike stood between a display of As Seen on TV fruit dehydrators and a cardboard mock-up of a NASCAR driver hawking shaving lather, and watched his own child dissolve into a screaming, sobbing, fist pounding puddle of tantrum.
“I want it now!” Ellie punched the scuffed tile floor and added a couple of kicks for good measure. “Now, Daddy. Now, now, now!”
Mike looked over at Jenny and gave her a help-me smile. “Do something. Please.”
Jenny shrugged and turned toward the shaving cream. “That’s your department, dude.”
When did his oldest daughter get so cold and distant? For God’s sake, she was eight, not eighteen. On the outside she was all kid, wearing a lime green cartoon character tank top and ragged tan shorts, her dark brown hair in a long ponytail secured with a thick pink elastic. Ellie had opted for denim shorts and a Sesame Street T that made her look cute and endearing.
Except when she was pitching a fit.
A mother at the other end of the aisle, whose toddler son sat prim and polite in the child seat of her cart, shot him a look of disapproval. Then she whipped the cart around the corner. Fast. As if tantrums were contagious.
“Give it to me!” Ellie’s voice became a high pitched siren, spiraling upward in range and ear-splitting. “Now!”
“No, Ellie,” he said, aiming for patient, stern, confident. The kinds of tones the parenting books recommended. Not that he’d read a parenting book. His education about how to be a father was mostly the drive-by kind—meaning once in a while he skimmed the forty-point headlines on Parenting magazine. “I told you—“
“I don’t care! I want it! I want it! Buy it, Daddy. Please!”
Across from him, Jenny shot a look of disdain over her shoulder, then went back to mulling men’s shaving lather. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be any help.
Not that Mike could blame her. On a good day, Ellie was an F-5 hurricane. When she was tired and hungry and in desperate need of the third new stuffed animal of the week, she was a three-foot tall nuclear explosion in Keds. One most people ran from, but Mike, being the dad, was supposed to step in and deal with.
The trouble? He had no idea how to handle his daughter. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his kids since they started walking and talking. It wasn’t something he was proud of, and in the long list of regrets Mike Stark had for the way he had lived his life up till now, being a sucky father topped the list.
Now he had thirty days to change that, and if he was smart, he’d start by laying down the law, being the stern parental figure, who didn’t put up with this temper tantrum crap. Yeah, take a stand, be a man, set an exam—
“Daddy! Please!” Ellie’s raging fit ramped up another level, more fist pounding, more kicking, and then the shriek that could be heard ‘round the world. Several shoppers turned around and stared. “I neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed—“
“Here,” Mike said, yanking the stuffed animal off the end cap display and thrusting it at Ellie’s flying fists. Take it, please, and just stop that screaming before my head explodes. “But that’s the last time.”
Uh-huh. Just like the toy he bought this morning and the two he bought yesterday had been the last time, too. Not to mention the cookies before dinner and the pizza for breakfast he’d caved to. No more. He was going to have to take a stand before Ellie became a spoiled brat.
In an instant, Ellie turned off the screaming fit and scrambled to her feet, grinning and clutching the cream colored bear to her chest like a prize. A toothy grin filled her face and brightened her big blue eyes. “Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
When her little voice came out with the extra lilt on the end of Daddy, it was all Mike could do to keep from scooping Ellie up and handing her the world on a plate. “You’re welcome, Ellie.”
Jenny shot him a look of disgust and shook her head then marched over to the cart and plopped her hands on the bar. “Come on. We need peanut butter.”
She sounded so grown-up that for a second, Mike had to remind himself he was the one in charge, the adult. Then he glanced at his triumphant preschooler, who had just reinforced her belief that tantrums brought results. Okay, the adult figurehead, at least.
Why was it that he could take apart a Sikorsky MH60 helicopter, work his way through the complexities of the engines, rotary and hydraulic systems, figure out the problem and put it all back together again, but he couldn’t manage a three-year-old child?
“If you give her what she wants all the time, she’s just going to be a brat,” Jenny said as they rounded the corner and headed toward the market side of the store. “You do know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Who do you think is the parent here?”
Her arched brow answered the question. “Peanut butter’s this way.” She shifted the cart to the left, one wheel flopping back and forth like a lazy seal.
He bit back a sigh. What did he expect? He’d come home on leave to see the kids, only to have his ex dump the girls in his lap and tell him she was going on an extended vacation and they were his problem now. The welcome mat to Jasmine’s place didn’t include him nor was he going to leave his kids in that dump Jasmine owned, so he’d packed up the girls and taken them to his friend Luke’s old house, vacant since Luke had moved in with his fiancé Olivia next door.
The kids hadn’t wanted to leave their house, or their neighborhood, or their rooms, but Mike had taken one look at Jasmine’s house and decided there was no way his girls were spending another night in that rundown trailer masquerading as a home. Last time he’d been here—heck, six months ago—Jasmine had been living in a rental house on the south side of Atlanta, a rental house Mike was still sending his ex a monthly check to finance. At some point, she’d moved to that hellhole, and when he’d asked, she’d refused to say why.
No way in hell was he going to leave his kids in that hurricane bait for one more second. But he’d underestimated what he needed to feed, clothe and entertain two young girls, which had brought him here, to the fifth level of hell, also known as grocery shopping on senior citizen discount day. In Rescue Bay, Florida, with two kids who barely knew him and barely liked him, when he’d expected to pop in and visit Ellie and Jenny for a few days, then head for a secluded beach at St. Kitts with a buxom stewardess who had promised to “forget” her bikini top. The only thing that could make this worse was
Diana Tuttle’s surprise raised her voice a couple octaves. He turned around, and when he did, his body reacted with the same flare of desire as it had every time he’d seen Diana, ignoring the memo from his brain that Diana was the exact opposite of the kind of woman he wanted.
He hadn’t seen, talked to or emailed the veterinarian in six months. Not since the night he’d left her sleeping in her bed, and taken the coward’s way out of ending things between them. Other than a scribbled note he’d left on her kitchen table, he’d had no other contact with her.
From the minute he met Diana, it had become too easy, too quick, to pretend he was a stay-in-place, dinners-at-the-family-table kind of guy. She had a way of wrapping him in that world, like the proverbial lotuses that captured Odysseus, and he’d forget reality for a little while.
The reality that he was a crappy father who lacked staying power, and was in no shape to be someone’s depend-on-anything. Especially right now.
“Daddy?” Ellie asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” he said, but his attention stayed on Diana’s wide green eyes, and the combination of surprise and anger lighting her eyes.
He’d known, of course, that he would see her if he came back to Rescue Bay. In such a small town, and they were bound to run into each other. Mike had convinced himself that he’d see her, and move on. Forget.
Yeah, not so much.
Diana still looked as beautiful as he’d remembered. No, even more so. Her shoulder length honey brown hair, so often in a ponytail, hung loose around her shoulders, dancing above the bare skin with a tease that said I can touch this and you can’t. The blue floral dress she wore scooped in an enticing V in the front, then hugged tight at her waist before spinning out in a bell that swirled around her knees and drew his attention to long, creamy legs accented by strappy black sandals and cardinal red polish on her toes. In the few weeks he’d known her, he’d never seen Diana in a dress. Jeans, yes, shorts, yes, but never anything like this, and a flare of jealousy burst in his chest for whoever the lucky guy who’d get to see her like this, sweet, sexy and feminine.
Then he reminded himself that this sweet, sexy, feminine woman also had a sharp side that could level a man in seconds.
“What are you doing here?” Diana asked.
He started to stutter out an answer, but Jenny beat him to it. “We’re bonding,” Jenny said with a touch of sarcasm most kids didn’t master till puberty kicked in.
“Bonding?” Diana asked with a little gust of disbelief. “You.”
It wasn’t a question. Still, the word made him wince a little. Maybe because the truth stung.
“We’re just grocery shopping. I’m staying out at Luke’s for a few weeks, with my daughters.” He gestured toward Jenny, who gave him another of her scowls, this one saying please don’t think I’m with him, and then toward Ellie, who still wore her look of tantrum triumph. His youngest daughter danced a circle in the aisle with her teddy partner. Mike scowled before he blurted out another word. Diana had put him on the defensive. What was it about that woman that made him feeling compelled to explain?
“Oh. Well. Nice to see you again.” She gave him a little smile, the kind people gave to relatives they tolerated only because of the DNA connection, then turned away. The little basket on her arm was filled with a single package of chicken, a single loaf of bread and four of those frozen dinner things. It screamed alone on a Sunday night.
Something in his chest caught. The same thing that had caught inside him the first time he saw her, six months ago, when Olivia had brought her sister over to Luke’s for a barbecue. The same thing he’d ignored when he’d walked out of her house a few weeks later. He ignored it now, because if there was one thing Mike sucked at, it was the whole settling down, being responsible thing.
Case in point: Thing One and Thing Two.
Ellie marched up to Diana and raised her chin. “Are you a friend of my daddy’s?”
Diana gave Ellie a smile and bent at the knees to match Ellie’s eye level. Diana’s skirt danced against the tile floor, like a garden bursting from the dingy gray tile. “Sort of a friend.”
Four words that didn’t even begin to encapsulate the hot fling they’d had a few months ago. But he wasn’t going to explain that to his preschool daughter.
“Do you fly big he-wa-coppers, too?” Ellie asked.
Diana laughed. “No, I’m a veterinarian. Do you know what that is?”
Ellie nodded, a proud wide smile on her face. “A puppy doctor.”
“Exactly. Do you have a puppy or a kitty?”
“Nuh-uh.” Ellie shook her head and thrust a thumb into her mouth. She was still doing that? Mike thought Jasmine had said Ellie quit sucking her thumb a year ago. “I wanna see one. Can we go now?”
“Well…” Diana shifted her weight, and shot Mike a glance.
“I wanna see one now.” Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, strangling the bear.
“Ellie, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mike said.
She ignored him and lifted her chin toward Diana. “How’s come I can’t go? Aren’t you Daddy’s friend?” She popped her thumb back in her mouth.
The question hung in the air for a moment. The Muzak shifted from a jazz version of a Beatles song to a peppy instrumental.
Diana flashed Mike a look he couldn’t read, then gave Ellie a patient smile. “Well, maybe someday you can visit the place where I work. We have a cat in the office who just had kittens. And they love to play and cuddle.”
The thumb popped out. “Can my Daddy come?”
The smile on Diana’s face became a grimace. “Sure.” Though she said the word with all the enthusiasm of someone volunteering for a colonoscopy.
“If I come ova there, can I have a kitty?”
Diana glanced at Mike, then back at Ellie. “Well, your mommy or daddy has to say yes first.”
“Neva mind. I don’t wanna see any stupid kitties.” Ellie’s face fell, and the thumb went back in her mouth.
Mike glanced at Jenny, but his eldest daughter had turned away. What was that about?
“It was nice to meet you, Ellie,” Diana said. “I—“
“I don’t wanna talk to you anymore.” Ellie spun toward her sister, and clutched the teddy bear tighter.
Mike cringed. “Sorry,” he said to Diana. “She’s…temperamental.”
A wry grin crossed Diana’s face and she straightened. “I have a fifteen-year-old, remember? He makes temperamental a sport.” She let out a little laugh, and for a second, the tension between them eased.
Mike remembered Diana’s son. Good kid, overall. “How is Jackson?”
“Fine. Thanks for asking.”
Just like that, the ice wall returned. He should be glad. He should get the hell out of here, and put Diana out of his mind. He should do a lot of things, but didn’t do any of them. Because he couldn’t stop staring at Diana’s legs and wondering why she was so dressed up. “You, uh, headed to work?”
Lame, lame, lame. But there didn’t seem to be a good way to say, hey, I know I have no right to know, but you going out on a date?
“Daddy? I’s hungry,” Ellie said.
“I better let you get back to your shopping,” Diana said. A polite but firm stay out of my business.
Why the hell did her dismissal bother him so much? He had more than enough on his plate right now. An ex-wife who had run out of town, leaving him with kids that were more like strangers. A career that was hanging by a thread. And then there was his father—
A topic Mike didn’t even want to think about, never mind deal with. The last thing he needed to add to that mix was a stubborn veterinarian who made his head spin and wanted things from him that he had no business giving. Diana Tuttle was a settle down, make a family, live in traditional lines woman. Mike was…not. At all.
“Daddy! I want ice cream! Now!” Ellie stomped her feet and made her mad face. “I’s hungry and you promised!”
Case in point.
“We have to finish shopping first, El, then we can get—“
“Now!” The word exploded in one over-the-top Mount Vesuvius demand. Thirty days, he told himself, thirty days, and then Jasmine would be back and he’d be free to return to Alaska.
Yeah, that’s what he should be looking forward to. The problem was, he didn’t want his kids to go back to living with Jasmine. Mike might rank up there close to number one crappiest dad on the planet, but when he’d picked up the girls, he’d finally seen what he’d been blind to for so long. The dancer he’d married in Vegas was a distant, hands-off mother who had blown his monthly child support checks on parties and shoes. While his daughters went around in too-tight, too-short hand-me-downs and ate store brand cereal three meals a day. That had pissed him off, and when he’d gone through the house to help the girls pack, it had taken every ounce of his strength to stop himself from exploding at Jasmine.
Because truth be told, it was his damned fault they lived this way, and if he’d been the kind of man and father he should have been from day one, then none of this would have happened. Yet another chalk mark in the failure column.
“Ice cream!” Ellie screamed. Several people turned around in the aisle, giving Mike the glare of disapproval.
Diana backed up a half step. “I’ll let you go. Have a good vacation with your daughters.”
He swore he heard a bit of sarcasm in the last few words. He told himself he should let her leave but a part of Mike wondered about that dress. And wondered if she’d thought about him in the last six months. Plus, she seemed to have a way with Ellie, a calming presence, that he could sure as hell use right now. At least until he figured out what the heck he was doing. “Do you want to get some ice cream with us?”
“Ice cream! Ice cream!” Ellie jumped up and down, the teddy bear flopping his head in agreement.
“Just what she needs, sugar,” Jenny muttered.
Diana began to back away. “Uh, it seems you have—“
“Come on, it’s ice cream,” Mike said. “Everyone deserves ice cream at the end of the day.” He nodded toward the basket in her hands. “Unless you have somewhere you need to go.”
Could he be more pathetic or obvious? Somewhere she needed to go?
“Please?” Ellie said. “Please go with us? I like you and Teddy likes you and Daddy is grumpy.”
Diana laughed, and seemed to consider for a moment. In the end, she was won over by Ellie’s pixie face. “Well, who can resist an invitation like that?”
Ellie jumped up and down again, then running back and forth in the aisle, nearly colliding with other shoppers, singing, “we’re getting ice cream, we’re getting ice cream.”
“Ellie, quit,” Mike said.
Ellie kept going. Jenny studied a hangnail.
“Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.” Ellie spun in a circle, nearly colliding with an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Teddy loves ice cream, Jenny loves ice cream, Ellie loves ice cream.”
“Ellie, quit it!” Mike said again, louder this time.
Ellie kept going, like a top on steroids. Her song rose in volume, her dancing feet sped up. She dashed to Mike, then over to Diana. “Ice cream, ice cream!”
Diana bent down and put a light touch on Ellie’s arm. “If you want ice cream, you have to be good for a little while, and help your daddy finish the shopping.”
“I wanna sing my ice cream song!”
Diana gave her a patient smile. “I’m sure everyone wants to hear your ice cream song,” an exaggeration, Mike was sure, “after the shopping is done. Because if we stop to listen now, it’s going to be a long time till anyone gets ice cream.” Diana picked up the teddy bear’s floppy paw. “And that might make Teddy sad.”
Ellie stopped spinning and whirring and singing, and stood still and obedient. “Okay,” she said.
Mike stared at his Tasmanian devil child, who had morphed into an angel. She slipped into place beside Jenny, standing on her tiptoes to place the teddy bear in the child seat, and turned back to Mike.
“Daddy, we need to do shopping. Jenny says we need peanut butter.”
Mike turned to Diana. His gaze connected with her deep green eyes and something dark and hot stirred in his gut. He remembered her looking at him with those eyes as the sun set and the last rays of the day lit her naked body like a halo. She’d slid down his body, taken him into her mouth—
Mike cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
Diana shrugged. “No problem.”
“Are we shopping or what?” Jenny said, with a gust of frustration.
“One sec, Jen.” He turned back to Diana. “I only need a few more things. Do you want to meet over at the Rescue Bay Ice Cream Shop in say, fifteen minutes?”
“And then what?” she asked.
“Then nothing,” Mike said. “It’s just ice cream, not a date. No expectations.”
Diana glanced at Ellie and Jenny, then back at Mike. “You know, I’m going to take a raincheck after all. Ellie, I’m sorry.”
She met his gaze and the warmth he had seen there six months ago had been replaced by an icy cold. “No expectations, remember?”
Then she was gone. Ellie started to cry. Jenny marched off with the cart. And a part of Mike wondered if it was too late to make his flight to St. Kitt.