There was only one sure fire way to make my morning great: bacon. Crackling, sizzling, wafting up my nose, filling my mouth with saliva. Bacon was my constant. Bacon and Paisley.
“Daddy!” Paisley jumped into my arms, her own flying around my neck.
“There’s my girl.” I hugged her tightly before she slid to her feet. “I was worried you would sleep all day.”
“No way!” Paisley’s green eyes, a mirror image of my own, narrowed sharply as she shook her head from side to side.
“That’s good,” I said. “Because the bacon is almost ready.”
“Bacon again?” Paisley rolled her eyes and skulked over to the kitchen table. “We have bacon every morning.”
“And eggs.” I pointed the spatula at her. “Bacon and eggs and pancakes and fruit. All the makings of a great breakfast.”
“Whatever you say, Daddy.”
Smiling, I turned back to the stove. The bacon was almost done, the eggs scrambling perfectly in a pan beside it. I poured Paisley a glass of milk before starting on the pancakes. By the time everything was ready, Paisley was tapping her foot impatiently.
“Hold your horses,” I said over my shoulder. “It’s done, it’s done.”
“You know,” Paisley said, her tone too mature for a four-year-old. “Maddy’s parents let her have cereal every morning. And Tiffany’s parents give her Pop-Tarts.”
“Ugh.” I shuddered. “That sounds disgusting.”
Paisley’s eyes widened. “You’ve never had a Pop-Tart?”
I winked and piled Paisley’s plate high with food. She narrowed her eyes at me again, her face falling into her signature scowl.
“You’re teasing me,” she said firmly.
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
Paisley tried to keep the scowl on her face, but all it took was a splat of ketchup on her plate to wipe it away.
“Now is it better than Pop-Tarts?” I asked as Paisley dipped her bacon in the ketchup.
She grinned, bacon seeping out between her lips. “Yup.”
“That,” I said, “is also disgusting. I actually think it’s worse than Pop-Tarts.”
“Whatever you say, Pea.”
“Are we having a movie night after school?” Paisley asked.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s Friday. You know what that means.”
Paisley grinned. “You. Me. Anna, Elsa, and Olaf.”
I picked up my fork and stabbed a bite of eggs. Before it reached my mouth, my cell phone vibrated on the counter.
“Don’t answer it,” Paisley said darkly.
“I have to,” I said, already rising to my feet. “It might be Uncle Max.”
Paisley didn’t say anything as I crossed the kitchen to grab my phone. Looking down at the screen, I felt my stomach drop to the floor.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite boss,” I said as I placed the phone to my ear. “What can I do for you, B?”
“Ryan Winters.” I could hear the smile in Beatrice’s voice. “Have I told you lately that you’re my favorite Romeo?”
“B.” My eyes fell closed. Turning away from Paisley, I forced them open with a sigh. “Tell me you’re calling about some mix-up with my paycheck or because you need someone to babysit your dogs or something, anything other than what I think you’re calling about.”
“I need you tonight, Ry.”
Groaning, I ran my hands through my dirty blond hair and shook my head. If I was in Beatrice’s office, she would have batted her too-long eyelashes and plastered a wide smile on her too-red lips. Instead, she was reduced to base flattery.
“You know you’re my highest earner,” B said, her voice light and flirtatious. “Women always point to your picture and say, ‘Him. That’s the one. That’s the man who will get me over my dirtbag ex.’”
“It’s my day off,” I said firmly. “I’m with my kid, B.”
“I know, I know, I know.” Beatrice paused. “Ry, you know I would never call you in, but honey, I am desperate.”
“Ask Kason,” I said simply.
B laughed, the sound piercing my ear and making me jerk the phone back. “That brute?”
“He’s sexy as hell,” I said. “The girls love him.”
“If you’re into that sort of thing,” B said. She sucked in a rattling breath that told me she was smoking.
“Come on, B,” I said softly. I took a step away from Paisley. “Don’t do this to me, please. Not today.”
“Ryan, I need you,” B said firmly. “It’s as simple as that.”
Glancing behind me, I saw Paisley watching me like a baby hawk. Those same, intense green eyes were narrowed again, her face pulled back down into her signature scowl.
As I turned back around, the phone pressed against my ear, I prepared myself to say no. I was ready to tell B to stick it up her ass and never call me on my day off again, but just as my mouth opened, my eyes fell on the stack of bills piled up on my kitchen counter.
“What time?” I asked, defeated.
“Oh, Ryan.” B cooed. “I knew I could count on you. You’re the only reliable man in my life. Did you know that?”
“I already agreed, B. You can lay off the compliments.”
“Five,” she said. “I’ll text you the details, baby. Do me proud.”
With a click, B was gone. I stood in my kitchen, staring down at the stack of bills in front of me, frozen in place. My daughter’s disappointed eyes burned a hole in the back of my head.
“Pea …” I plastered a soft smile on my face and slowly turned around. “That was Daddy’s boss. She needs me to work tonight.”
Paisley shook her head. “You can’t. Tonight is movie night.”
“I know.” I sighed and walked over to her. “But Daddy can’t say no to his boss. Sweetheart, I’m really sorry.”
Sitting down, I let my eyes fall to the table. Paisley was right. And the worst part was, we’d been here before. More times than I wanted to admit.
“Uncle Max will have a movie night with you, okay?”
“It’s not the same.”
Without another word, Paisley hopped off her chair and hurried into the living room. I listened closely as she put on her shoes and grabbed her backpack off the couch. After a few minutes, she reappeared in the kitchen.
“I’m ready,” she said simply.
“What if you skipped pre-K today?” I asked, the idea suddenly popping into my head. “We could have a movie day instead.”
Paisley thought about it, her forehead creased. With a tug on her dark brown ponytail, she shook her head and marched toward the back door.
“Hey,” I called out. “P?”
She stopped but didn’t turn around.
“I’m really sorry, sweetheart.”
Paisley slowly turned around. Her face softened. With a shrug, she ran back to me for a hug. I held onto her for a second longer than usual.
“I love you,” I said when she pulled away.
“I love you too, Daddy,” Paisley said. “But I don’t want to miss school today, okay? Mrs. Tucker said she would bring in her pet snake. His name is Timothy, and I really want to meet him.”
Chuckling, I nodded and grabbed a handful of bacon off my plate.
“I understand,” I said, getting to my feet. “Timothy is a great name for a snake.”
At three o’clock, Paisley slid into the back seat of my car with her ponytail falling out and her face flushed from the day.
“How was Timothy?” I asked.
“He was huge!” Paisley threw her arms out. “This big!”
I shook my head. “No way. I don’t believe you.”
“I’m serious!” She bounced up and down on the seat. “He was so big. Mrs. Tucker let me hold him.”
“She did?” Frowning, I craned my neck around to look at her.
“Well, not really hold him,” Paisley said quickly. “Just like, hold part of him and stroke his scales and stuff.”
Paisley told me all about her day as I drove her to my brother’s house. I only had a couple of hours before the new client was expecting me. As much as I didn’t want to go, I’d never kept a date waiting, and I wasn’t about to break my record now.
“Am I spending the night with Uncle Max?” Paisley asked as we pulled into his driveway.
“Not tonight.” I grabbed her backpack and helped her out of the car. “I’ll be back later, but you’ll probably be asleep when I pick you up.”
“I’ll stay up,” Paisley promised.
I pursed my lips and turned my head. “Hmm. I don’t think so.”
Shaking my head, I led the way to the front door. “No way. You’ll be too tired. I think you’ll pass out before you even get through one movie.”
Paisley ran to the door and rang the bell. When Max answered, she darted inside and immediately claimed his attention.
“Uncle Max,” she said. “Tell Daddy I’ll stay up all night, and I won’t go to sleep until he gets back!”
“Hmm.” Max put his finger to his chin. “I don’t know about that. I just bought two new movies, so I think you’ll be pretty tired after we watch them both.”
“I won’t!” Paisley shook her head firmly. “What movies did you get?”
Max jerked his head toward the living room. “See for yourself.”
Paisley sprinted away from us, her tiny footsteps fading into nothing as she reached the living room. Once she was gone, Max’s smile instantly disappeared.
“Thanks for doing this,” I said.
Max nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“I won’t be too late,” I said. “It’s a new client.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, finding it hard to hold my brother’s gaze. His brown eyes were always full of disdain when focused on me.
“I’ll see you later then.” I sighed and turned to leave. “Thanks again.”
As I stepped outside, Max followed quickly. He pulled the door closed behind us with a snap.
“Today was supposed to be your day off.” He accused me firmly.
I turned to face him. “Things change, Max. Beatrice called and she—”
“You should have said no.”
At six-four, Max only had two inches on me but somehow, it always felt like more. He towered over me, looking down his long nose with eyes that said he wanted to punch me.
“I couldn’t say no,” I snapped. “I have to pay bills, Max.”
“You had other options.” Max reminded me. “When Kason brought you this bullshit opportunity, I told you—”
“I’m not doing this again.” I held my hands and turned on my heel. “Take care of Paisley. I’ll be back tonight.”
Max didn’t try to stop me again. He watched as I climbed behind the wheel of my car and whipped out of his driveway. When I reached the end of the street, I glanced in my rearview mirror, and he was gone. Back inside, ready to hang out with my kid for the night.
My mood was nothing short of miserable when I got back home and dressed for the evening. Whoever this client was, she would be waiting. I had less than an hour to find my way to her, and when I did, I couldn’t be pissed off. I couldn’t be sad. I couldn’t be anything other than charming, welcoming, happy.
And when I stepped out of my car that night to see a short redhead walking toward me, that’s exactly what I was.
I stuck out my hand and smiled my best, calming smile. The girl blushed when our fingers touched, her nervous eyes flitting to the concrete.
“Don’t be shy,” I said, taking a step forward. “I’m Ryan, and tonight, everything is about you.”