Marred: Kyle and Violet
“This book was amazing…This story showed that through all the pain, guilt, and mistakes people could grow and become what they never thought possible. This entire series has been heartwarming with hints of romance, pain, and family.” —Boundless Book Reviews
A playboy with a painful past finds help he never expected to need, in the most unlikely of places, in this standalone, opposites-attract romance from USA Today bestseller Tess Thompson.
Real estate developer Kyle Hicks only has time for three things: his latest project, his very best friends, and his next no-strings-attached tryst. Struggling single mother Violet Ellis is just as busy. Between her son, her failing business, and her historical preservation work, there’s never any time to catch her breath.
While Kyle’s bringing progress to Cliffside Bay, Violet’s fighting to protect the small town’s increasingly rare charm. But for once they’ll find themselves on the very same team when a brand new project that neither of them anticipated arrives.
As this unlikely pair quickly learns, working together will require trust and respect. And there just might be something else simmering under the surface of their once-acrimonious relationship—something special that both of these former rivals are willing to fight for.
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Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.
Chapter 1: Kyle
Kyle Hicks hadn’t had an episode for two years. Until now. He stood under the shower with the water as hot as he could stand it and scoured his body with a rough kitchen sponge. Steam as thick as morning fog obscured his vision. His skin stung. He would not stop. Not until the stench was gone.
The child outside of the food bank with the ravenous eyes. That’s what did it. The memories like a riptide snatched him from the present and swallowed him whole. Sucked him into the vortex of memory. He couldn’t fight them off. They just kept coming.
Pig. Pig stinks.
The taunts and jeers of his childhood rose around him, ghostlike in the steam.
Please, just leave me alone.
Recollections of fists and steel-toed boots blotted out the past twelve years with an invading darkness like black ink spilled on his expensive stationary. The memories devoured his accomplishments. They crushed his friendships. The stunning properties he’d created tumbled under their weight.
He crossed over to that other time when he was a scrawny, hungry, shell of a boy. The bullying and poverty and shame. The stench of it all.
The children called him Pig.
The telephone rang from the other room. A lifeline to the present.
I am Kyle Hicks. I helped build this resort. I’m a partial owner. I am no longer afraid. No one can hurt me.
He tore out of the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around his waist. Steam followed him as he stumbled to the phone. “This is Kyle Hicks.” His voice was normal. I am the boss.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Hicks. This is Robert from the front desk. There’s a lady in the lobby asking for you.”
“Does this lady have a name?”
“No, sir. I mean, yes, I’m sure she does, but she wouldn’t give it to me. She has a baby with her. She says it’s your baby.”
“That’s what she said.”
“I’m sorry? Could you repeat that one more time?”
“Yes, sir. She said you’re the father of the baby. She wants you to come downstairs, so she can give it to you.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“Please hurry, sir. She’s creating quite a scene.”
“No, the baby.”
He knew what this was—one of the Dogs playing a trick on him. Of his four best friends, which of them would do this? Probably Lance. He had a wicked sense of humor and had recently been chiding him for his lack of support regarding Zane and Honor’s adoption of a six-year-old orphan named Jubie. This was the type of joke Lance would find hilarious. A joke wrapped up in a morality lesson.
He would have his revenge. This was not funny. They should know better than to mess with him in front of the staff. But still, he had to give it to them. This was good. They knew he was not a family man. If they knew why, they would have more sympathy. But he would never tell his secrets. Not even to the Dogs.
He went to the window, breathing deeply, purging the darkness. The child outside of the food bank had looked like him. That’s all this was. It had been years since he’d had an episode. He examined his arms. They were pink but not bleeding. He was fine.
His reflection in the window stared back at him. His muscular frame, expensive haircut, and capped teeth told the story of the new Kyle. When he dressed it would be in the finest clothes money could buy.
Outside the windows, rain fell in dogged stripes. This October was particularly dreary, even in quaint Cliffside Bay. That’s right. He lived here. The Dogs were his family. He had everything. Wealth, cars, land. Most of all, friends. The Dogs had his back. He didn’t have to be afraid ever again.
Minutes later, he exited the elevator into the lobby. The sound of a screaming infant reverberated against the marble floors and cathedral ceiling. Even the crystal chandelier seemed to shake. Kyle looked in the direction of the racket. A young woman with a stroller stood by the glass windows. He quickened his pace. His staff shot him worried glances as he passed by the desk. Several patrons wrinkled their foreheads in irritation, clearly annoyed their peaceful afternoons sipping cucumber water had been interrupted by reality.
The Dogs had gone to a lot of trouble. How had they convinced a woman and a baby to go along with the act? This was the work of Zane and Lance. Jackson and Brody were too mature to think of something like this. Plus, as the town doctor, Jackson had sick people to care for. Brody was currently halfway through the football season. The highest paid quarterback in the AFL did not have time for pranks.
Having arrived at the source of the racket, he peered into the stroller. He took inventory: pink blanket, and a baby no bigger than the span of his two hands. A girl baby, probably a week or two old. He vaguely recalled holding his baby sister when she first arrived. This baby clenched her fists and kicked at her blanket, her complexion a disconcerting shade of purple. Perhaps she was hungry? Or needed a diaper change? He had no idea. Kyle knew nothing of babies.
He did, however, know about angry females, and this was one of them, albeit a tiny one. He looked away from the baby to study her companion. Dingy blond hair in need of washing hung in her eyes. Her right tennis shoe had a hole near the big toe area, and her leggings were thin from wear. She smelled of grease and the inside of city bus. Who was she? No one he knew. He never forgot a face or a name. Real Estate development was about people. The secret to people was to be generally interested in them. He could tell you a person’s life story after one afternoon of golf.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“You can say that again.” She glared at him with hostility mixed with triumph. Her features were flat and her complexion gray, like a rock honed by years of rushing water. She reached into the stroller and picked up the baby, who immediately stopped the terrible howling. Why hadn’t she done this earlier? This was a mystery he couldn’t explore now because the woman’s next words eviscerated all coherent thought. “This is Mollie Blue Hicks. Your baby. I have the paperwork to prove it.”
The gazes of every person in the lobby bored a hole into the back of his head. “Perhaps we could talk in the office?”
“Whatever.” She thrust the baby toward him. “Take her.”
He couldn’t think of what else to do but accept the parcel. Kyle Hicks took Mollie Blue into his arms, cradling her close to his chest, then indicated for the sullen young woman to follow him with a nod toward the office. The manager was out this afternoon, so it would be free.
Zane and Lance were going to pay for this.
He shut the door of the office with his foot. Still holding the surprisingly warm baby in his arms, he asked the woman if she’d like to sit.
She plopped into a chair and rolled her eyes like she was disgusted by his suggestion that she sit.
“Good joke. How did the Dogs convince you to go along with it?” Man, this girl could act. Contempt practically dripped from her.
“Who are the Dogs?” she asked.
“My best friends. Apparently, they think they’re comedians.”
“I’ll cut to the chase. My name’s Paulina Shore. Do you remember Katy Theisen? You had a one-night stand with her about nine months ago.”
Any moisture in his mouth evaporated. “Sure, yeah. I mean, of course I remember her.” Katy Theisen was a bartender in the town up north where he had spent several months working on a shopping mall deal. About nine months ago.
“Katy was my best friend. She died last week from complications of childbirth.” For the first time, Pauline’s expression wavered from livid to that of extreme sadness. Her body seemed to sag under the weight of grief as she sank into the armchair.
“Died? From childbirth?” Kyle perched on the edge of his desk. Mollie Blue shuddered.
“Yep. That’s what happens when you’re poor.”
“In America?” He knew poverty. It ran through his veins, like the blood of his family, unseen but there, waiting to remind him of the past he’d escaped from. Generations of poverty was his family legacy. Still, no one he knew had ever died from having a baby.
“Impoverished women are more likely to die in childbirth. It’s on the rise in rural areas. Look it up. I did when Katy died.”
He gazed at the baby in his arms. She’d fallen asleep. She’s sweet when she’s not howling. “I’m sorry to hear about Katy, but this isn’t my baby.”
“Katy wasn’t the type to sleep around. She knew Mollie was yours. Broken condom, dude.” She reached into the stroller and pulled out an envelope. “It’s all in here. The DNA test proves it.”
“But how?” How would she have had his DNA?
Pauline answered his silent question with a roll of her eyes. “Think about it. Stained sheets.”
“Don’t you need permission for that kind of thing?” he asked.
“Not when they sell DNA tests at Walmart.”
“Jesus, they do?”
“A guy like you should probably buy them in bulk,” she said. “Or maybe double up on condoms.”
The broken condom. He was always careful. Condoms were his friend. Until, like the night with Katy, one of the damn things broke. Water. He needed a glass of water.
A DNA test was undeniable.
This was his baby. His daughter.
He put Mollie back into the stroller. His arms felt light without her.
Paulina crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t you dare judge Katy. You’re the one who couldn’t keep it in your pants.”
He flinched. “I wasn’t. I’m just in shock here. You could give me a chance to catch up.”
“What happened—I mean during the birth?”
“An infection they should’ve caught.” Paulina’s voice wavered again. “Look, it’s obvious you’re rich, so there’s no reason you can’t take care of your kid unless you’re a jerk. If that’s the case, then I suggest we put her into the system, so a nice couple can have her.” She scowled and blew her dirty bangs out of her eyes. “But I know Katy, and she would’ve preferred you take her. There’s nothing like flesh and blood.”
He laced his hands together behind his back. Sweat rolled down his spinal column. What was he supposed to do with a daughter? He could barely take care of himself. Should he give her up? Let someone else raise her? Surely anyone in the world would be better than him. He wasn’t father material. All anyone had to do was look at his past to see that truth.
He sucked in a deep breath. The air thinned like he’d reached a mountain peak. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, breathing hard.
An image of his mother pierced his consciousness. Skinny with those dull eyes, she stood by the front door with the tattered blue suitcase in her hand. I’m leaving. You look after your brother and sister.
His heart pounded harder. He staggered over to the desk and perched on the edge. The room tilted. Black dots danced before his eyes. His recently scrubbed skin burned. I can’t do it. Not this. Anything but this.
The day his mother left roared to life and played out in front of him.
Where are you going? Are you coming back?
He ran after her. The trailer door slammed behind him. Rain dumped from a stormy Oregon sky. Wait. Don’t go. Please, Mama. She pulled the hood of her faded raincoat over her head. A man stood waiting by the car. He grabbed her suitcase and tossed it into the back seat. Kyle slipped in the mud and fell. By the time he rose to his feet, they were gone, tire tracks on the muddy driveway their only legacy.
Now, he rubbed his eyes and looked over at Paulina. “I have money, but nothing else to offer her.” I’m a single, selfish womanizer with secret panic attacks.
“That’s better than most.”
Was it? Money would hire staff to help raise her. Yet, a daughter needed an emotionally healthy father, one who knew how to give and receive love. Not him. Anyone but him.
“I’m sorry about Katy. Truly. She was a sweet girl.”
“She was.” Paulina picked at the skin around a fingernail. Her nails were short—not trimmed neatly with clippers, but ragged and uneven, like those of a nail biter.
“Does Katy have any family?” he asked.
“No one. And I can’t keep her if that’s what you want to know.”
He didn’t say anything. No one would expect her to. She was young and probably broke. A baby was the last thing she needed, especially one that wasn’t hers.
“It hurts too much to look at her,” she said as if he’d asked a follow up question.
“Katy was my best friend. I thought this baby would ruin her life. I had no idea how right I was. I’ll just leave it at that.”
I can’t be like my mother. I must do the right thing. This is my child.
Kyle crossed back to the stroller and stared down at the sleeping infant. She was so small and helpless. He was her only family. It had to be him. He picked her up and cradled her close, catching a whiff of her head. “Her head smells good.”
With the baby in his arms, he went around the desk to sit in the chair before his legs collapsed under him.
“I know Katy wasn’t the type to go home with some loser she met at the bar,” he said.
“But she did.”
“I was having a rough night. She took pity on me.” He stroked the peach fuzz on Mollie’s head. Should she be wearing a hat? He touched the tips of her ears. They were cold. Should they be?
“That sounds like her.”
“It wasn’t my finest hour,” he said.
Paulina stood. “I’d love to stay for a gabfest, but I’ve got to go. There’s some formula and a few diapers in the stroller. You’ll need more. Get ready for some sticker shock.” This last part was muttered under her breath.
“I don’t know anything about how to take care of a baby.”
“There’s this thing called the internet,” she said.
Mollie squirmed in his arms and opened her eyes and looked directly into his. A strange feeling spread through his stomach, like warm soup sliding down the back of his throat and into his stomach on a cold day. He gritted his teeth, almost willing himself to remain distant. Mollie was having none of that. She pursed her mouth and blew a bubble before closing her eyes again.
At the door, Paulina turned back to him. “Good luck.”
“Wait, before you leave. Why didn’t she have an abortion?” Paulina shrugged. “She wasn’t the type—not a brain in her head when it came to that stuff. She thought it was meant to be—that God wanted her to have this baby. I guess she was wrong.”
“One more thing.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out several hundred dollars from a money clip. “Take this.”
Her eyebrows lifted. She stared at him like a feral animal, evaluating whether he wanted something in exchange.
“Please, take it,” he said. “Diapers and formula and everything probably set you back.”
“It did.” She took the money from the desk. “Katy said you were a good guy. Sad but nice. You’ll do fine with Mollie.” With that, Paulina disappeared.
Dazed, Kyle pushed the stroller out of the elevator and into the hallway, then used his keycard to enter the penthouse suite. Mollie woke with a whimper that within seconds turned into a howl. Hunger perhaps? Or a wet diaper? He recalled these ailments from movies. There might be a bottle of formula somewhere in the contraption, which now that he took a closer look, seemed like it had been rescued from the town dump. A stroller shouldn’t have rusted parts. He didn’t know much, but that seemed obvious.
What was the plan? Should he call one of his staff to come up and help him? Surely one of them would know what to do to make the baby stop crying. But no, he had to do this himself. If he let one of the staff see him this out of control, they’d lose all respect for him. He’d have to reason through this without help. The most important thing was to stop this poor mite from hurting herself with all this shrieking and flailing of limbs. He rolled the stroller inside and closed the door.
Seriously, how can something this little make such a commotion?
He lifted the squirming, screaming baby into his arms. She arched her back and kicked her arms and legs with surprising ferocity. The blanket fell to the floor. She wore an outfit that looked like a t-shirt with buttons. What was that heinous scent? The offensive odor came from the red-faced Mollie’s bottom. He almost gagged.
No question. First things first. He would change her diaper. Sure, no problem. He bought and developed real estate up and down the state of California. He could surely change one diaper.
He held her at arm’s length and made a shushing sound. She howled even louder. Great, he’d made her angrier. He carried her over to the sofa. Should he place her on there or would she fall off? What, with all the kicking and fussing, she might launch herself onto the floor.
The rug was safer. When he had her settled there, he sprinted back to the stroller. A bag hung from the back. He hadn’t noticed that until now. A diaper bag? Has to be. He unzipped it and found diapers and, hallelujah, a full bottle of what must be formula. There was also a box of cleaning wipes. No doubt these were for wiping the offensive bottom. Sweating, he brought all three items back to the baby.
You can do this. The little bug can’t sit around in a dirty diaper.
His hands shook as he unbuttoned the romper. Romper? Where had that word come from? He had no idea what a romper was, let alone if this was one. Whatever it was called, the outfit was cute, with little ducks scattered across the soft material. Mollie’s legs parted like they were attached to springs. Three snaps were in the center of the crotch area. Crotch area? Was that what it was called when referring to a baby? That didn’t seem right, especially for a baby girl. Never mind that. I must focus on the task.
He tugged at the snaps. Voilà. They loosened with no problem. This was genius, now that he looked at it more carefully. One could change the diaper without taking the entire outfit…or romper…off the baby. He lifted it up and over the diaper, despite her flaying limbs, then gasped. There was a horrific stump where her belly button should be. Pink and painful looking and covered with dried blood, it stared up at him like the head of a snake. “Does it hurt Mollie Blue?”
She kicked her legs in response.
He’d take that as a no.
Next, he lifted the sticky flaps that held the diaper on the baby. The smell was bad. He held his breath as he lifted her legs to slide the diaper from her puckered bottom. That’s when he saw it. A gooey substance the color of burned butternut squash soup stuck to every crevice of the little one’s private area.
The wipes? Surely this is what they were for. They’d better be superpowered if he was going to coax the goo from this bottom. Breathe through my mouth. He went in, holding her legs in one hand and swiping with the other. This was totally fine. He could do this.
A few swipes later, she looked clean. Should he use one more to make sure? Yes, he would. He’d heard of diaper rash. Given that goo, it would make sense that a rash could develop if not cleaned properly.
He reached behind him for another wipe. When he returned, a yellow puddle had stained the brand-new rug of his brand-new penthouse suite. He cursed under his breath and reached frantically for another diaper. His hands shook so badly and were so slick with sweat that it took several attempts to open the stupid plastic potential rug-saver. By the time he’d accomplished that task, Mollie was done urinating all over his rug. For heaven’s sake, what now?
But wait? What was this? Silence. She’d stopped howling. It must feel better to have the disgusting diaper away from her skin. And, taking a leak when one really had to go was always a happy relief.
He lifted her from the soaked area of the carpet to a fresh spot. This time he put the unfolded diaper under her bottom before he wiped her. “I’m a quick learner. Always put a diaper under you before turning away. And you’re much more pleasant when you’re not screaming.”
How many of these wipes would a parent use in one day? He’d already used a dozen. Sticker shock indeed.
Assured he had her nice and clean now, he fastened the diaper. Was that right? It looked a little crooked. One side had more of a gap—from which nasty fluids could leak. He repositioned the diaper and fastened it tighter and straighter. That should do it.
She whimpered. Was she cold? Maybe she needed a romper with legs. Was there such a thing? Never mind, he would feed her the bottle first. Then, he would call for backup.
He grabbed the bottle and settled with her on the couch. The moment he placed the bottle in her mouth, Mollie sucked with ravenous intent. Was there anything in her face that looked like him? She was a particularly pretty baby with dimples on either side of her mouth and ears close to her head. Not his ears, thankfully. He’d had ears that stuck out when he was a kid. Finally, around fifteen, his ugly mug grew into them.
Katy Theisen. He knew at the time it was wrong to sleep with her. She was an innocent, sweet and guileless. No match for his wicked charm. He knew it then and he knew it now. Like the broken condom, she was out of his normal mode of operation. His women, and yes, there were a lot of them, were female versions of himself. Sex was a game of fun. Physical connection only. No emotional intimacy allowed behind closed doors or anywhere else. Occasionally he made a mistake and misread a woman’s capacity for casual sex. Those were the times he got himself into trouble.
But that wasn’t the situation with Katy. It was the damn anniversary of the car accident that had made him vulnerable.
The day came around once a year, like a dark holiday. He anticipated the date for weeks beforehand, dreading his inevitable collapse into despair. Over thirteen years had passed since that day, but the memories were as easily refreshed as a drink in Zane’s bar. That night, nine months ago, they’d been brisk and relentless. To escape them, he’d taken a long run. Not even exercise or loud country music through his headphones could chase them from his mind. After his run, instead of collapsing into bed like he usually did after a day of work and punishing exercise, he got into the shower and scrubbed his skin raw. No relief. Without a plan other than to find a numbing mechanism, he wandered out of the hotel and into a little rundown, depressing bar that matched his mood and his memories.
Katy had been behind the bar. He hadn’t noticed her, too troubled to engage in his usual flirtatious antics with any attractive woman within the vicinity. She’d poured him a tumbler of the best scotch she had. After a few drinks, she’d started asking him questions. What was he doing in town? Why was he out alone? He’d started answering. Somehow, he couldn’t say precisely how, Katy had gotten him to talk about his sister. With lovely blue eyes and a sympathetic mouth and a way of cocking her head to the side when she listened, she dragged the past out of him like a magician pulled a never-ending scarf from his sleeve. Each time she tugged, a new aspect of the story slipped out of him.
He’d told her the whole sordid tale. That had surprised him most of all. Not even the Dogs knew the story of the one event that molded every single aspect of his adult personality. No one in his current life even knew he had siblings.
No one knew the story of Pig and the Miller Brothers either. He’d never shared it with another human being after he drove away from the little Oregon town where it had all unfolded. Until Katy. He cringed now, remembering how he’d cried. Too many drinks and a sympathetic woman had unhinged him. And guilt. Don’t forget guilt.
Katy had reminded him of Sheri from back home. Sheri Swanson with her kind heart and beautiful face. Gone too soon. That had been the title of the newspaper article when she’d died at fifteen. If he’d written the article he would have described her kindness, her utter intolerance to cruelty of any kind. Even to Pig. She’d been the only one who had been kind to him. Everyone hated Pig. They tortured him and taunted him. Not Sheri.
Katy didn’t know that Kyle. She had seen him as he was now—muscular, charming, rich. She’d seen him around town, she’d said. There’s something about a man in a suit.
They’d had sex. No doubt about that. Even as drunk as he’d been, he remembered her little apartment and the water stain on the ceiling above her bed. She’d told him this wasn’t the type of thing she did—bringing home a man she didn’t know. He would have liked to have said the same, but he didn’t lie to women. Yes, he slept with a lot of them, but he never lied, and he never promised anything he couldn’t deliver.
The sex had been sweet. Shy and inexperienced, she’d evoked a strangely protective feeling in him. When he realized the condom had broken, he’d hoped like hell she was on the pill. She fell asleep afterward, curled up like a child. He’d slipped out, hungover and ashamed. He’d taken advantage of a nice girl who was way too young for him and way too accommodating.
What the hell was he going to do now? He needed one of the women in his circle to come over and help him figure out what to do. Three of the Dogs were in steady relationships with women. His first thought was Brody’s wife, Kara. She was a nurse. No question she’d know what to do with a baby. That said, he wasn’t sure how he felt about sharing all this with her just yet. He didn’t know her well and she would probably be horrified that he had a baby from a one-night stand. It couldn’t be Maggie, Jackson’s wife, even though she was more compassionate than anyone in the world. She was on her way home from the city after an interview on a local television station. That left Zane’s fiancée, Honor. She was clearly the best choice. He needed someone who could help him sort out what to do and no one could figure a way out of a pickle better than Honor. Plus, she wouldn’t judge him. Or would she? It didn’t matter, really, because eventually he was going to have to tell everyone that instant fatherhood had been thrust upon him.
How did one use the phone while feeding a baby? He was stuck on the couch with baby pee soaking deeper into the carpet. There was nothing to do but let her finish and then he’d call Honor. No, first he’d call someone to clean up the pee and get rid of that heinous smelling diaper.
When Mollie Blue was done, she stared up at him with glazed blue eyes. Was he supposed to burp her? How was that done exactly? He’d seen women do it before. He lifted the baby up to his shoulder and patted her back. Not long after the fourth tap, a large burp erupted from her tiny body. Afterward, she snuggled into his shoulder and stopped squirming. She’d fallen asleep. Thank the good lord. He breathed in the scent of her head and closed his eyes. He’d never smelled anything better in his entire life.
Smells. The bane of his existence.
Pig. The taunts of his childhood echoed through his mind.
Take care of Mollie. Don’t think of the past. Not now.
He gingerly positioned her back in the stroller, figuring that was the closest thing he had to a crib. His hands shook when he punched in Honor’s number. She answered on the second ring.
“Hey dummy. What’s up?”
“I have a little situation.”
“What you’d do, get someone pregnant?”
His mouth dropped open.
“Kyle? Are you there?”
“Yes. I’m here. I need you to come over to the resort. I’m staying in the penthouse this week.” He cleared his throat. “It’s urgent.”
“Are you all right?”
“I’ll explain when you get here.”
“I’m at Brody’s finishing up some work, but I can be there in ten minutes.” Honor was Brody’s manager and often worked from the office at his home. Brody was away in San Francisco for the football season and only came home occasionally.
After they hung up, he moved over to the bank of windows that looked out to the small town of Cliffside Bay. By design, the top floor of his resort looked out to the ocean. Today it reflected the ash-colored sky. Fall had come suddenly at the end of September. Now, just days into October, shades of gray replaced nuanced hues of blue. The landscape here reminded him of an independent woman. An expensive view was of no consequence to her. She approached and retreated as she wished, regardless of where you ranked in the human order of things. Rich or poor, young or old—no title or status were of any use to her. If she wanted to hide beneath a sheath of fog, she would. If she wanted to drown you in the powerful forces of her riptides, there was nothing to be done but succumb.
The main street of town was quiet today. Tourist season ended after Labor Day, leaving the sleepy town to doze. His new resort had opened several weeks ago. So far, the weekends were full, but during the week most rooms remained vacant. He wasn’t worried. The winter would be sluggish, but by spring every room would be booked. For the first time in the history of Cliffside Bay, there would be a place for tourists to stay. Someday he would build a house on the piece of property outside of town that he shared with Jackson. For now, he’d been content to make hotels or his friends’ homes his home. No need to commit to one place given his travel schedule. Up until now, that is. A baby changed everything.
What was he supposed to do with Mollie? He had multiple projects going, including a new shopping mall in a suburb up north. His calendar was packed with travel and meetings. A baby. He wasn’t a family guy. Nothing about him, neither his past nor his present, would give him a chance in hell of being a good father.
A knock on the door startled him. It was one of the housekeepers to clean the soiled rug. After he pointed it out, she dropped to the floor with a spray and a rag without comment. The staff knew better than to ask what in the name of God a baby was doing in his room. The boss was the boss.
No sooner had the maid left than Honor arrived. He put his finger to his lips before he allowed her inside the room. “I have a little situation.”
“So you said. What’s up?”
He gestured toward the stroller. “This.”
Her eyes widened as she covered her mouth with her hands. “What the what?” she asked through her fingers.
As quickly as he could, he told her of Mollie’s arrival. Then, he handed her the DNA test and the birth certificate. “So, there’s no question she’s mine.”
“Holy crap, this is a situation. A major situation.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
She placed her hands together under her chin. “Tell me what you’ve done so far.”
“I changed her diaper and fed her. By the way, no one should have to see what I just saw. She sucked down the only bottle of formula and I don’t know what to feed her if she wakes up.”
“Formula. You have to get more formula.”
“Okay. Where does one get that?”
“The store will have it. It comes in a powder. You just mix it up with water.”
“How do you know that?”
“Everyone knows that.”
“I most definitely do not know that,” he said.
“It’s fine. That’s not the problem here.”
“How did this happen?” she asked.
“The condom broke.”
“Oh, Kyle. This is bad. Very bad.”
“I know.” He covered his face with his hands and sank onto the couch. “Jesus, what am I going to do?”
Honor sat across from him on the coffee table and placed her hands in the long strands of her blond hair. He’d never known what the term intelligent eyes had meant until he met Honor. “We need a plan.”
“Yes, a plan. A plan’s always good,” he said.
“First things first. We’ll send one of your staff out for supplies to get us through the next few days, but bottom line—you have to hire a nanny.”
“A nanny. Right. And where do we find one of those?” Not the same place as the formula. He knew that much.
“We’ll ask Nora to help us.”
“Great idea,” he said. Nora ran a small placement agency out of her home. She had the resumes of most residents of Cliffside Bay in her database. In fact, she’d helped his manager staff the entire resort. “Yes, Nora will know someone.”
“Until then, we need to get Violet over here,” Honor said.
“Violet Ellis?” His mouth twisted like it did when he bit into grapefruit. “I hate that woman.”
“I know. However, you’re going to have to put that aside for now. She’s the only one who knows how to take care of a baby.”
Violet Ellis was his arch enemy. With her chocolate brown eyes and silky caramel skin and her rock-hard yoga body, she looked like an angel. However, she worked like the devil to make his life miserable, including picketing the building of this very resort during its construction. He hated to admit it, but Honor was right. Violet would know how to take care of a baby because she was a single mother to three-year-old Dakota.
“She’s not going to help me. Violet despises me.” Just saying her name made him want to spit.
“She won’t be able to say no to a baby.” Honor moved to the stroller and peered down at Mollie. “What a doll.” The tremor in Honor’s voice betrayed her. A full hysterectomy at eighteen meant she would never have a baby of her own. Although she and Zane had adopted six-year-old Jubie, he suspected she wanted a baby of her own. Shame and self-hatred coursed through him. Why should he get a baby when poor Honor and Zane pined for one? I suck. Pig.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Honor said, looking over at him. “Don’t feel bad. I’ve accepted that I can’t have one of my own. We’ll figure out a way to have a baby. You don’t have to apologize for having one.”
“But I don’t deserve her and we both know I’m not qualified to take care of her.”
“Do you want to put her up for adoption?”
A tunnel of blackness blighted his vision. Images floated through the tunnel of his own lonely childhood. His father passed out on the couch with his arm slung over his eyes. The red dress his mother wore the day she left them. His sister’s mangled body on the highway. “I can’t. I won’t. I’m keeping her. When I look at her I get this feeling in my stomach.”
“It feels like nothing you’ve ever felt before, right?” Honor asked.
“Something warm and soothing but that stings at the same time.”
“That’s parental love. I felt it with Jubie right away, even though she was six when she came to us. Once you feel that, it’s all over.”
“I had such a bad childhood.” He paused, swallowing the tremor that had crept into his voice. “What if I can’t do this?”
“You can do it,” Honor said. “It’ll be the hardest and easiest thing you’ve ever done. Trust me.”
He sighed, resigned to his fate. Violet Ellis would have to come to his temporary home and help him with his very permanent daughter. “Call Violet.”
“I’ll call Violet.”
“Just until Nora can find someone else,” he said.
“It’s good timing, actually. Violet’s parents are coming back from South America and want their house back. She doesn’t have a new place, so she’d planned to stay with Kara and Brody. She could stay here with you instead.”
“Why can’t she stay with her parents until she finds a house?”
“Her dad didn’t know she and Dakota were living there.
Apparently, he doesn’t approve of her having a baby out of wedlock.”
“Does he think it’s 1952?”
“I guess so.” She dismissed the topic with a jerk of her hand. “Anyway, she’ll have to bring Dakota with her.”
“I’ll make the call.”
Chapter 2: Violet
Violet Ellis’s Blouse stuck to her hot, damp skin. She couldn’t find her car keys. Her son’s church preschool closed in exactly four minutes. The teachers chastised parents if they were even thirty seconds late. For Christians, they were not especially forgiving of human failures. Last time she was late, the elderly Mrs. Knight had shaken her knobby finger right in Violet’s face and given a terse lecture about teaching children responsibility through one’s own example.
She never used to be late for anything. Her life used to be in perfect order: five minutes early to appointments, bills paid on time, house neat and orderly, clothes folded into perfect squares. She was a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake. Sweating on a cool autumn day while madly searching for lost keys did not suit her. But the past few months of failure and humiliation had ripped through the fabric of her very existence. Her calm demeanor had eroded into a hot mess.
She yanked open drawers. This was an exercise in futility if there ever was one. The keys couldn’t have magically jumped into one of them. Even in her current state of dishevelment, she wouldn’t put keys into a drawer in which they didn’t belong. Then, where were they? She dumped the contents of her purse onto the counter. A pack of gum, hairbrush, cell phone, wallet, hair tie, and lipstick tumbled onto the bare counter. Nothing unusual, other than the fact her keys were not in there.
Fighting tears of frustration, she circled the kitchen. A shiny object glistened on the windowsill by the breakfast nook. The keys. How in the name of God had they gotten there? There were no pets to blame and Dakota had been at preschool all morning. She grabbed the keys and ran out the door. Exactly two minutes to get down the hill and to the church by five o’clock. It was a physical impossibility.
Violet’s hands dampened the steering wheel as she turned out of her parents’ driveway and onto the narrow road that headed down the hill. A drop of sweat dribbled between her breasts. She hated this quality about herself—this apologetic and nervous attitude when confronted with authority figures. Who cared if cranky Mrs. Knight was annoyed at her? Violet certainly did enough volunteer work for the preschool and the church to be given a late pass occasionally.
This character flaw explained every single bad decision she’d ever made. When given a choice, she always succumbed to authority. Her father’s hypercritical parenting had made her desperate to please. Not that it mattered. Whatever she did wasn’t good enough for him.
The parking lot of the church was empty. Fantastic, that meant she was the only late parent. How were the other mothers so perfect?
A drizzle dampened her overheated face as she sprinted into the building. Mrs. Knight and Dakota sat outside the classroom on the naughty bench. The children were sent there to think about how to make better choices. Violet thought that was such a stupid expression. Choices. They were preschoolers, not taxpaying adults.
“Hi, Mama.” Dakota grinned and scooted from the bench to run toward her. “I’m in trouble because you’re late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Knight. I couldn’t find my keys,” Violet said.
Dakota wrapped his arms around her legs and looked up at her.
“Wasn’t that the excuse last week?” Mrs. Knight folded her arms over her abundant chest and pinched her eyelids into narrow slits. Shame. Well played, Mrs. Knight. She would not cry in front of this mean woman. No one could be expected to remain strong under the disappointing gaze of Mrs. Knight, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t fake it until she got out to the car.
“I’m sorry,” Violet said again. “Between closing my shop and moving, I’ve been scattered.”
“Miss Ellis, life will always present challenges. The important thing is to rise to said challenges.”
“Yes, I know. I’m trying.” Violet inwardly cringed at the conciliatory tone of her voice. Allowing this battle-axe to bully her over being a few minutes late was silly. She was so tired. Her defense mechanisms had evaporated under the pressure of the last few weeks. She bit the inside of her lip, trying not to cry.
Dakota, however, didn’t crumble under the hot beams of Mrs. Knights eyes. His protective instincts seemed to kick in when he heard the tremble in his mother’s voice. He crossed his arms over his chest in a perfect mimic of his teacher. “Mama said sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t always enough,” Mrs. Knight said.
“You say sorry to Mama now,” Dakota said. “You were mean.”
“Young man, you will spend the first five minutes of tomorrow on this very bench,” Mrs. Knight said.
“I don’t care,” Dakota said.
Violet almost laughed despite the tears that stung her eyes. She must keep it together or he’d have ten minutes on the naughty bench before they were out of here. “Dakota, we should always be respectful to adults,” Violet said. “Please apologize to Mrs. Knight.”
He looked up at her like she’d just suggested they join the circus. “I won’t. Not until she says sorry to you.”
“Despite his above average intelligence, this is just the kind of rebellious behavior that will keep him from a good college,” Mrs. Knight said.
College? That was a stretch.
“I’ve seen it a hundred times. Brats in preschool turn to drugs and a life of crime.” Mrs. Knight stood, her impressive girth now only inches from them.
Violet stared at her new nemesis, so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say next.
“Tell me you’re sorry.” Mrs. Knight glowered down at Dakota.
He stepped closer to her and stared right back at her. “I will not.”
“Da-Dakota…” Violet stammered.
“That’s it. You’ll spend all day on this bench tomorrow.” Mrs. Knight’s face had turned the color of a cooked beet. Faint white whiskers on her upper lip glistened with perspiration.
“I don’t care,” Dakota said. “I hate it here anyway.”
“You do?” He did? She thought he loved school. When she picked him up, he smiled and bounced like a brightly colored beach ball.
Dakota stepped closer to his mother and took her hand. “Let’s go, Mama. I’ll cheer you up at home.”
“He apologizes to me or he cannot come back to school,” Mrs. Knight said. “This is what happens when a child doesn’t have a father. Born in sin becomes sin.”
“How dare you,” Violet said. “You don’t know anything about our life.”
“I know you have no husband and a very rude little boy,” Mrs. Knight said.
Dakota tugged on her hand. “Let’s go, Mama.”
“Let me tell you something, Mrs. Knight. I’m doing the best I can to raise a person who is kind and generous, like Jesus asks of us. You are not the kind of example I want for my son. He will not be back. Not tomorrow. Not ever. And you can bet your ass I’m going to tell anyone who will listen how utterly terrible you are with children. I’m not sure why someone like you would become a teacher in the first place.” Violet turned away and let her little son lead them down the hallway of the church basement and up the stairs to the main floor.
Rain fell harder now. She tilted her face to the sky and let the drops cool her overheated skin. Dakota continued to squeeze her hand. At the car, he climbed obediently into his car seat and raised his arms so she could buckle him in.
Once settled into the driver’s seat, she turned on her windshield wipers. This was the first earnest rain of the year and these wipers were no match for it. They barely scraped the water from the glass. Her old car might not make it through the winter. Two hundred thousand miles might be its limit. Old Zelda was as tired as she. The only difference was that Violet was twenty-eight and shouldn’t feel two hundred.
She pulled out of the church parking lot and onto the main street. “Mama, you said ass.”
“Dakota Ellis, that’s a bad word.”
She looked at him in the rearview mirror. He nodded, looking earnest and serious. “I know, Mama. That’s why you shouldn’t say it.”
“Okay, but you don’t say it just because I did. You could have just said that I said a bad word and not said the word itself.”
His big blue eyes blinked as he stared back at her. “Okay, Mama. I’m sorry.”
How complex her little guy was. He could quickly apologize to her but not that old battle-axe.
“Do you really hate school?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you don’t have to go now.” How was she going to get a job if he had no preschool to go to?
She turned the wipers on high speed, which did nothing to influence their competency.
The plan was to live with Kara and Brody Mullen until she could find a place of her own. When you’re the best quarterback in the AFL, houses with several wings come with the territory. Fortunately for her, the Mullens were generous people. Thank God, she could use their home as a temporary residence. There were no places to rent in Cliffside Bay. Not that it mattered if there were any. She didn’t have a job. Plus, there was a mountain of debt from her small business loan. Landlords didn’t rush to rent to people like her.
They passed the empty building where her shop had been. Since she walked into a store back in Boston that sold items made from recyclable or refurbished material, she’d dreamt of opening one of her own. She’d felt sure it would be a hit in Cliffside Bay. She’d been wrong. A purse made from old tires or jewelry twisted from chicken wire—who wouldn’t love that? Apparently, most of the people who walked into her shop. Nothing to do now. It was over, done, finished. Inventory had been returned to vendors. The accounting books were closed. She was officially a failure.
She’d rented her side of the building from the owners of the town’s bookstore. The owners were retiring and had sold the bookstore business and the building to Lance Mullen, Brody’s younger brother. Fortunately, Lance had graciously let her out of her lease with no penalties. Soon, the walls between her shop and the bookstore would be torn down to make way for a bigger space. Lance planned to merge an old-fashioned soda fountain, coffee shop, and bookstore into one space. Mary Hansen, a former librarian, would run the bookstore portion of the business. Lance had offered Violet a job as a clerk when they were ready to open, but that was months away. She needed a job now.
A job for a person with no skills in a small town with few opportunities? It was a tall order. As she often did when thinking about how exactly her life had gone so epically into the dumpster, she blamed her father. If he’d allowed her to attend UC Berkeley instead of demanding she attend a conservative Christian college back east she might have a career in the environmental studies.
You go where I want, or I won’t pay. Off she went with her suitcase and her bible.
Violet was about to turn onto her street when the phone rang. It was Honor. She’d called every morning and afternoon for weeks to check up on her.
“Hey, Honor. I’m fine.”
“Hey girl. So, we have a little situation.”’
“A situation? Is Jubie okay?” Sometimes she asked for parenting advice. Like I know what I’m doing.
“Yeah, she’s great. It’s…Kyle.”
“Kyle? What does that have to do with me?” She despised Kyle Hicks. Loathed. Abhorred. He was nothing but a greedy planetimploder with no respect for the past or the future. His irresponsible resort had opened just as she closed her shop. If that wasn’t a sick irony, she didn’t know what was.
“Well, there’s a baby here. Kyle’s baby. We don’t know how to take care of her.”
“He didn’t know about her until today. She was kind of left on the doorstep, so to speak.”
“Could the guy be any more of a cliché? What did he do, just get some girl pregnant and take off?”
“Not exactly like that. Yes, on the pregnant part. But he didn’t know she was pregnant. It was more of a one-night type of thing.”
Reckless, careless, immature Kyle Hicks.
“Where’s the baby’s mother?” Violet asked.
“She died from complications of childbirth.”
“That’s awful,” Violet said.
“The baby—Mollie Blue—she’s only a week old and there was only one bottle of formula and she already ate that and now we don’t know what to do. We need you.”
Mollie Blue. What a sweet name. A little girl. In Kyle Hicks’ hands? The poor child didn’t have a chance.
“I’ll come, but only for the baby. Make sure you tell Kyle that it’s not for him.”
“Trust me, he knows that already.”
“Where are you guys?” Violet asked, turning the car in the other direction.
“The penthouse suite at the resort,” Honor said.
“Of course he’s in the penthouse suite.” He disgusts me. “I’ll be right there, but I have Dakota with me.”
“Totally fine. And thanks. I realize he isn’t your first choice of someone to help.”
“He’s not even my last choice,” Violet said.
Violet hadn’t stepped inside of the Cliffside Bay Resort and Spa until today. She’d spent plenty of time on the outside while they were building this blight on the land. With a picket sign in her hand. Little good it did. Kyle Hicks just went right on with his plans to clear acres of trees and meadows. For what? To build a resort in what should have remained an isolated and pristine area of the world. His sole purpose was money.
She had to admit the lobby was beautiful. Breathtaking, even. The room seemed like something from the past, a more elegant and sophisticated time where women wore gowns to dinner and men still opened doors. White marble floors, a fountain, and a sweeping stairway that led to a glittering restaurant on the second floor reminded her of something out of The Great Gatsby. She half expected Daisy to come down the stairs with a long cigarette hanging from her mouth.
She instructed Dakota to hold onto her hand. “No running or shouting in here. You got it?”
They crossed the lobby. As they passed the fountain, Dakota’s gait slowed. She knew he wanted to put his grubby fingers in the spray. This could not happen. There would not be a second accusation of poor mothering skills today. Once was quite enough.
“Dakota, no touching.”
“I know, Mama.”
She spotted the concierge desk near the glass doors that opened to a terrace. Was that Joan Adams at the desk? It was. What was she doing working for the enemy? Joan Adams had lived in Cliffside Bay all her life and had once worked at the feed store, which was currently being torn down to make way for Zane Shaw’s new brewery. Sadly, no one needed farm and garden supplies. Beer, however, was popular with both tourists and townspeople. Yet another business morphing their secret town into a tourist destination.
Mrs. Adams looked up from her computer screen. “Good afternoon, Miss Ellis. Welcome to Cliffside Bay Resort and Spa.” She slid a keycard across the shiny surface of the desk. “Mr. Hicks is expecting you. You’ll need the keycard to access the top floor.”
“How have you been, Mrs. Adams? I didn’t know you were working here.”
“Yes, Miss Ellis. I was one of the first employees. It’s a pleasure to serve you.” Mrs. Adams sounded like a polite robot. What had Kyle done to her?
“Why are you talking so weird?” Violet whispered.
She lowered her voice. “Our manager likes us to speak formally, even if we know the guests. Stellar customer service begins and ends with precision and attention to detail.”
“You used to sneak me a candy every time my dad took me to the feed store. Formality is a little ridiculous.”
“Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.” Mrs. Adams’ mouth stretched into a smile, but her eyes were pleading with Violet to let it go.
Letting go wasn’t Violet’s strongest attribute.
“How could you sell out like this?” Violet asked.
“This place is like the devil moving into town.”
“That’s a bit of an overstatement,” Mrs. Adams said.
“You’ve lived here all your life. How could you agree to work for a business that…that poor excuse for a man Kyle Hicks tore down the forest for?”
“Kyle Hicks is a wonderful man. Smart and fair.” She lowered her voice again. “And he’s quite handsome. If I was a young woman, I wouldn’t hesitate to flirt my way into his heart.”
Violet stared at her, horrified. What was wrong with this world? “He’s a money-grubbing pig.”
There was a brief pause as Mrs. Adams looked at her hands. When she looked up, her voice had dropped to just above a whisper. “This resort—Kyle Hicks—brought over a hundred jobs to this town. I don’t know if you’ve noticed from your parents’ enormous home where you live for free and dabble in your little store, but we need these jobs. I need this job. My husband’s not well enough. I’m an old lady. No one wants to hire me. But Kyle Hicks did. He and Mr. Kauffman, our manager, said no training was necessary. They would teach me everything I needed to know. I won’t hear one bad word out of your mouth about him, young lady.”
Violet flooded with heat, embarrassed and angry all at once. Why did everyone in this town feel it necessary to lecture her today? “I didn’t know Mr. Adams was sick.”
“He has rheumatoid arthritis,” Mrs. Adams said.
“I’m sorry,” Violet said. “My dad has that too.”
“You didn’t know. Still, sometimes you need to think about people over causes.”
“I am thinking about people. I’m thinking about the health of our planet. We only have one, you know. I’d like it to still be here for my son.”
“We all saw you down here with your picket sign, and frankly, it was embarrassing. I thought you had better manners than that.”
“Manners? What is everyone’s obsession with manners? Sometimes manners are exactly opposite of what we need. Nothing ever changes without protest. Women who make a difference in the world are rarely polite.”
“It must be nice to have time and money to think of such high ideals. I’m too busy paying for my husband’s medicines to concern myself with such things.”
“I’ll have you know I closed my store last week. It’s all over. Finished. I have no place to live either now that my parents—who were so dedicated to manners—are coming back to town. I’m pretty worried about feeding my son, so I don’t appreciate the lecture.” Violet stopped. If she started crying in front of Mrs. Adams in the middle of this glossy lobby, she would die right there on the spot.
Dakota tugged on her hand. “Mama, I see Honor.”
Honor. Thank God. A way to escape.
Violet picked up the keycard from Mrs. Adam’s desk and sniffed. “Have a great day, Mrs. Adams.”
“You as well, Miss Ellis.”
Dakota broke from her grip and sprinted across the lobby toward Honor. Violet cringed when he shouted Honor’s name and leapt into her arms. So much for quiet. She glanced at the front desk. Thankfully, busy with guests, Mrs. Adams and the rest of the staff weren’t paying any attention. An older woman sitting on a lounge chair looked up from her magazine to smile at Violet. “What a darling boy.”
Violet thanked her and quickened her pace. Honor and Dakota were by the elevators. Apparently, her son had managed to tell Honor the entire story of their altercation at school.
“So now I can’t go to school,” Dakota said.
“Are you sad about that?” Honor asked.
“No. I don’t like that old battle-axe.”
“Dakota! Where did you hear that word?” Violet asked.
“You said it today.” Dakota wrinkled his forehead as if she were the most perplexing woman on the planet. Maybe she was.
“Never mind that. Honor, what can we do to help with the baby?”
“Baby 101, that’s what,” Honor said as they followed her into the elevator. “We had one of the staff go out and get formula and diapers.” She put a keycard into a slot and punched the top floor button.
The elevator moved. Dakota squealed. “Elevator, Mama.”
Violet’s stomach lurched as they came to a stop. They all exited into a hallway. A plush, sage-green carpet felt wonderful under her feet, like walking on a firm mattress. She would love to take off her shoes and let it soothe her tired feet. The scent of lilies from a vase on a rectangular table tickled her nose. Where did he get lilies this time of year? Probably flown in from some third world country for exorbitant amounts of money. None of which trickled down to the poor farmers who grew them.
“Dakota, this is a very special floor,” Honor said. “Kyle’s a part owner so he stays in the very nicest suite in the whole resort.”
“Wow,” Dakota said.
“He’s not Superman,” Violet said under her breath.
Honor shot her a look. “Be nice. You have the power right now.”
“I’ll try not to let it go to my head,” Violet said.
“Stop being so grumpy,” Honor said. “Wait until you see this baby. She’s precious. Seriously, you’ll want to eat her up.”
“Eat a baby?” Dakota asked.
“Not really,” Honor said. “It just means she’s yummy. I mean, she’s pretty and I just want to kiss her all over.”
“Oh,” Dakota said. “That’s weird.”
“I have a thing for babies,” Honor said. “What can I say?”
Violet flushed with shame. Honor couldn’t have a baby of her own. Seeing a newborn must hurt. And here was cavalier Kyle Hicks with one just dropped into his lap like everything else in the man’s life.
They reached the door of the suite. Honor didn’t bother to knock; she simply pressed the keycard against the door and entered, gesturing for Violet and Dakota to follow.
“Don’t be loud,” Violet said to Dakota. “The baby might be sleeping.”
Dakota mimicked her finger to her lips and made a shushing sound.
When they entered the suite, Violet had to physically restrain herself from gasping out loud. The suite was magnificent. The same white marble floors as the lobby shone under the light of a chandelier made of sparkling glass. Posh, richly hued furniture in greens and purples, fluffy rugs, and glass tabletops with silver trim were arranged in geometric perfection. Paintings of various bright and vibrant flowers decorated the creamy sage walls. The bank of windows looked out on the entire town of Cliffside Bay, surrounding country roads, forests, and meadows. If it weren’t foggy today, you would be able to see the endless waters of the Pacific.
She quickly forgot all of that at the sight of Kyle Hicks with a baby in his arms. A spot of sunshine had broken through the gray sky and washed the room and the man in a warm glow. She drew closer, mesmerized. He cradled the baby against his chest and softly sang “You Are My Sunshine.” Kyle Hicks knew a lullaby. Go figure.
He looked up from the baby and smiled at her. Triumph glittered in his deep blue eyes. “I got her to sleep,” he whispered before his gaze turned back to Mollie. Those thick, black lashes didn’t belong on a man. Whatever. That was of no consequence. Pretty is as pretty does.
She glanced around the room. A dilapidated stroller was parked over by the couch. “It’s like 1972 is looking for its stroller.”
Honor laughed from across the room where she had Dakota on her lap.
“No, seriously,” Violet said. “You must never use that again. It’s not safe.”
An empty bottle and a used diaper sat on the coffee table. Apparently neither Honor nor Kyle knew how to roll a dirty diaper because it was wide open with the baby’s last deposit displayed for all the world to see. Violet rushed to the table and arranged the diaper into a tight ball.
They needed a diaper pail or things were going to get stinky very fast.
“What do we do first?” Honor asked.
“Kyle, put the baby on the ottoman here.” Violet pointed to the large ottoman adjacent to the armchair near a gas fireplace. “She’ll be nice and warm there.” She instructed Dakota to switch on the fire. He leapt from Honor’s lap and gleefully pushed the switch.
“What if she rolls off?” Kyle asked.
“She can’t roll yet,” Violet said. “We’ve got weeks and weeks before she can do anything close to rolling.”
Violet grabbed the pink blanket from the couch. “Before you put her down, we need to swaddle her.”
“Swaddle?” he asked.
“I’ll show you how,” she said.
Surprisingly, Kyle followed her directions and put the baby in the center of the blanket.
“Does she seem healthy?” Kyle pointed to her head. “What’s that dent there?”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Violet said. “All babies have that when they’re first born.” She gently caressed the soft dent in Mollie’s head, remembering when Dakota had been that age. “I didn’t know that when Dakota was born. I freaked out.” The plates of the head had to fully grow together. Her nurse at the hospital had kindly explained it to her. She now explained this to Kyle.
“What about her eyes? Do you think she can see out of them?” Kyle asked.
“You mean because they look kind of glassy?” she asked.
“Totally normal. All white babies are born with blue eyes that look like this. They turn their real color later.”
Kyle nodded again. His eyes looked like a startled animal’s. Arrogant Kyle Hicks, all shook up.
She deposited the blanket on the ottoman and instructed him to put the baby in the middle. “Now you wrap her up like a burrito, as tight as you can get it.”
“Won’t it hurt her?” Kyle asked.
“No. They like it. Mimics the womb,” Violet said, amazed how fast all this came back to her. She hadn’t had the luxury of anyone advising her. Not that she needed anyone. Books had everything a new parent needed to know. If you had a chance to read them before the baby appeared on your doorstep.
“We need a plan.” Honor glanced at her wristwatch. “I’ve got to pick up Jubie in thirty minutes.”
“You need supplies,” Violet said. She explained the need for a crib, pacifier, car seat, stroller, and changing table.
“Can you rent that stuff?” Kyle asked.
Violet shook her head. “No, but you can buy them online and have them rush delivered.”
“Right.” Kyle let out a deep breath. “I’m not thinking clearly.”
Honor patted his arm and drew him over to sit on the couch. “You look a little pasty. I think we need to get some food in you.”
“We can call for room service,” Kyle said. “Whatever you guys want.”
From over by the window where Dakota had decided a knickknack of a seashell was better as a truck, replete with engine noises, he looked up, suddenly interested. “Can I have a cheeseburger?”
“Absolutely. If it’s okay with your mom. Do you let him eat meat?” Kyle asked.
“Yes. Why wouldn’t I?” Violet asked. What was it with this guy? Did he have to make a case about everything?
“Can I have a milkshake?” Dakota asked.
“If your mom says yes, then I say yes,” Kyle said. “Your mom’s saving me right now.”
“You can have one for dessert. Burger first,” Violet said.
“After we order dinner, let’s get on the internet and order what we need,” Violet said.
“How much is this going to cost me?” Kyle asked.
“Why are you worried about money?” Violet asked.
“I’m not worried. Old habits die hard, that’s all,” Kyle said.
Was he referring to an impoverished childhood? Despite herself, curiosity poked through her annoyance. No one knew much about his past, other than he’d come to USC as an emancipated adult.
“It’s a little late to worry about money now,” she said in a tone sharper than she meant. “You made a baby and now you have to pay to take care of her.”
“I get it. Back off with the judgey tone,” he said.
“I’m not judging you.”
“Yes, you are, but it’s fine,” Kyle said. “I don’t care what you or anyone else think about me. I haven’t for a long time. Regarding furniture, I want the best. Top of the line.”
“Of course, you do,” Violet said.
“Didn’t you just lecture me that I need to take care of my daughter?” Kyle’s eyes darkened when he was annoyed. She’d noticed that before. They darkened every time she was anywhere within his vision.
After Honor left, they ordered dinner and went to work. In less than forty-five minutes, they’d ordered furniture and the other supplies. Shopping was speedy when you simply ordered the most expensive item in every category. Violet kept her opinions to herself. Who cared if this guy wanted to waste his money on designer names? It wasn’t her concern.
Mollie Blue woke up and began to cry the moment they all sat down to eat.
“It’s a baby thing,” Violet said. “They have some kind of radar to ensure you never eat an entire meal or get an entire night’s sleep.”
Kyle’s shoulders slumped. “I’m starving.”
Despite her intentions to the contrary, she softened. “You eat. I’ll feed her this time.”
“She probably needs to be changed first,” Kyle said.
She looked over at him, surprised. “You catch on quick.”
“That’s what it was last time anyway,” Kyle said.
While the boys ate, Violet changed Mollie’s diaper and fixed a bottle from the powdered formula, careful to read the directions. She’d breastfed Dakota exclusively.
“Is it supposed to be warm or cold?” Kyle asked.
“Room temperature is fine, but they prefer if it’s the temperature of breast milk.”
“What the heck temperature is that?”
“Body temperature. See here?” Violet sprayed a small amount of formula on her forearm. “If you can’t feel either hot or cold then it’s the exact temperature of a person’s body. Whatever you do, don’t heat a bottle in the microwave. Hot spots.”
“Hot spots? What is that?”
“Hot spots in the water that could burn her. Microwaves don’t heat liquids evenly.”
“Jesus. I had no idea.”
“It’s all right. You know now.”
Violet sat in the armchair and placed the bottle in Mollie’s mouth. The baby sucked with no fussing, which meant she probably had not been breastfed. How sad to think the child would never know her true mother. The poor woman. To leave before they could know each other was incomprehensible and so unfair. She wondered, too often, how God let a tragedy like this happen. What had an innocent little baby ever done to deserve this fate? Her father would say that it was not our place to ask, but Violet had a few questions she planned on asking God when she arrived in heaven. Mollie would be on the top of the list of questions, right after how did a man like Cole Lund thrive despite his hypocrisy?
Cole Lund. America’s Pastor. Dakota’s father. Someone else’s husband. She’d been naive to believe he loved her.
She’d gone to work for him after leaving college. His strategic seduction had taken time. It started with lunches, then dinners out, all under the pretense of a working meal. As one of the administrators to the pastor staff, her job was to take notes while he brainstormed sermon ideas or plans for church growth. After a few months, he started dropping by her apartment in the evenings to ask her opinion on a sermon or a staff decision. Flattered and beguiled, she’d let him kiss her one night after he confessed to his feelings. I can think of nothing but you.
America’s Pastor, as it turned out, could think of other things besides Violet Ellis—his status in the church, his family, his Mercedes where he’d first placed his hand on her knee. When she told him she was pregnant, he dropped her so fast she could almost hear the thump of her head hitting the proverbial curb. That night, a man showed up on her doorstep with a check and a threat. Tell anyone and you won’t live long enough to give birth. Don’t come back to work. Don’t contact him ever again.
A sliver of loneliness crept of her spine. She was alone with her questions, alone with her mistakes.
Violet stroked the peach fuzz on Mollie’s head. “What a pretty one you are,” she said under her breath.
Mollie was a concentrated eater with an occasional appreciative grunt. Although, they should have Jackson or Kara give her an exam right away. She said as much to Kyle.
“Doctors? But she isn’t sick, is she?”
She almost laughed at his worried expression. Welcome to parenthood.
“No, it’s just standard for newborns to have frequent visits for checkups. They weigh and measure them and make sure they’re thriving. They call them ‘well-baby visits’.”
Kyle ran both hands through his hair as he crossed the room and sat on the coffee table across from her. “I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a disaster.”
“You’ll be fine.” She smiled, remembering her first few weeks as a mother. “I thought they were insane when the hospital sent me home with Dakota after less than twenty-four hours. I told the nurses I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no one to help me. They assured me I would be fine and to trust my instincts. I wanted to say, but I have no instincts. I’m too young for this. And my mother wasn’t speaking to me—I didn’t tell them that part, but seriously, I had no one. That said, the nurses were right. It all fell into place. Although, Dakota was an easy baby. For one thing, he was giant. He weighed nine pounds when he was born.”
“How did nine pounds come out of you?” He gestured toward her narrow hips.
“It wasn’t pretty. At all.” He’d ripped her in several places. She wasn’t sure everything was good down there, even now. It would require having sex with someone to find out, which seemed unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“Are bigger babies better?” he asked. “Because she doesn’t seem very big.”
“I’d guess she’s just over six pounds. I’ve heard the smaller they are, the longer it takes them to sleep through the night. They have to eat more frequently than a big fat baby like Dakota.”
“Sleep. How am I going to work and take care of her by myself?” His eyes had darkened to the color of the night sky just after twilight when the first of the stars appear.
“You’ll hire a nanny for during the day and a nanny for the nights. Once she starts to sleep through the night, you’ll be fine with just a day nanny.”
“There’s such a thing as a night nanny?”
“Yes, all rich people have them.”
“They do?” he asked.
“A lot of rich people have them.”
“Did you have one?” he asked.
A bitter taste at the back of her throat prevented her from a sarcastic laugh. “I couldn’t afford one. My parents had disowned me. I was solo. Fortunately, Dakota slept through the night at six weeks.”
“Six weeks? That seems like forever.” The corners of his mouth turned downward. “This cannot really be happening.”
It was almost endearing how bewildered and frightened he was. Almost, but not quite. This was Kyle Hicks. Rich and self-satisfied with little regard for anyone but his smug, attractive self. “It’ll be fine. Looking back, those weeks were just a blip on the radar. Honestly, cherish every moment. Before you know it, she’ll be three.”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know if I can do this. Truly.”
“Do you have younger siblings?” Violet asked.
He looked away, scratching behind his ear. “Yeah. A brother and a sister.”
“Do you remember helping with them at all?” She couldn’t recall ever hearing that he had siblings. Not that she exactly asked around about Kyle Hicks.
“No. They were two and four years younger than me. I don’t remember anything under the age of six.”
“I was an only child, so I had the same problem. No memories to recall—like my mom did this, so I’ll do this. I couldn’t ask her either, since she wasn’t speaking to me.”
“Were they that uptight for real?”
“My parents are very religious.” She glanced at Dakota. He was dipping a french fry into his vanilla shake without a thought to what the adults were doing or saying. She lowered her voice anyway. “They were mortified I was pregnant without a husband.”
“Kind of antiquated, isn’t it?”
“You don’t know the half of it. My dad’s a real charmer.” She rolled her eyes to hide the pain behind those words.
“I’d choose supporting my daughter over any belief system I’d read in stories written a long time ago.”
Not religious. Duly noted.
“Don’t look like that,” he said, matching her subdued volume. “I’m not a total heathen. All I’m saying is that if I had a daughter like you and a grandson like Dakota, I’d be proud, whether you had a husband or not. The fact that Dakota’s father bailed tells me everything I need to know. Good riddance. Take it from me. No dad is better than one who doesn’t want to be there.”
She stared at him, shocked. A dozen questions floated across her mind. Had he given her a compliment? What was his father like? Instead, she surprised herself by sharing something of her own father.
“My dad hasn’t spoken to me in almost four years. We’ve been staying at their house without his knowledge. My mom kept it from him. Their house burned down in South America, so they have to come home. If it weren’t for Brody and Kara, I’d be majorly screwed right now.”
He ran his hands through his hair once more. “Hey, listen, I’m sorry about your shop. Lance said he offered you a few months free rent, but you turned him down.”
“Yeah.” She shrugged as Mollie took one last suck and then shook the nipple from her mouth. Violet gathered her to her shoulder and patted her back until a nice loud burp erupted. “Good girl.”
“Here, I’ll take her,” Kyle said.
Violet placed her in his arms. He kissed Mollie’s head. “She smells so good,” he said.
“They always do.”
“Why didn’t you take Lance up on it?” Kyle asked.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘bleeding cash’?”
Kyle grimaced as he cradled Mollie closer to his chest. “I’m familiar, yes.”
“It was more than just rent. The whole shop was a failure.” She looked away, embarrassed by the tremor in her voice. “I’m not cut out for business, I guess.”
“A lot of successful people had early failures. Most successful people.”
“It doesn’t matter. I have no place to live and a son without daycare.”
“What happened to daycare?”
“We had an incident today. I was late, and I got into it with Mrs. Knight. He’s no longer welcome.”
“You have a bit of a temper, don’t you?” He raised his eyebrows, teasing her. It wasn’t funny.
“I do not have a temper, but I won’t be pushed around. Not anymore.”
“Never mind that. Anyway, I need to focus on paying down my debt and finding a job.” Stop talking. He doesn’t need to know all this. Keep your guard up. This is the enemy.
He narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips into a thin line. “This is going to sound crazy…given our past, but we both need something the other could provide. I need a nanny. You need a place to live and a job where you can bring your son to work. What if you moved in here with us for a while? There are two bedrooms and two bathrooms. You and Dakota could have one and I’ll take the other with Mollie. You can have the day shift, and I’ll pay you twice the going rate for a full-time nanny, plus free room and board. You can get back on track financially, and I can rest easy that Mollie will be taken care of by someone I trust.”
You trust me?
“I’d ask only that you stop picketing my building.” He smiled, but it stung just the same.
“It’s done now. There’s nothing to picket. You’ve already ruined the land and the town.”
“Ruined? Really? Do you actually believe that?”
“You don’t get it and you never will,” Violet said.
He sighed and kissed Mollie’s head again. “That’s probably true. But we can agree to disagree, right? Just say yes. I promise to play nice from now on.”
“What about the night nanny?”
“I don’t want one. If I have you during the day and someone else at night, it means nothing’s left for me. She’s my baby and I should be the one up with her at night. I should be the one who feeds her and comforts her. You did it.”
You say that now.
“I know you don’t believe I can do it,” Kyle said. “For all I know, you might be right. But I should try. I have to try. I can’t bail on my kid like my parents did. I have to be present.”
“So, you’re really doing this?”
“I have to.” He stood and rocked the baby in his arms, gazing down at Mollie. His expression softened. Had he fallen in love with his baby already? “I mean, look at her. She’s perfection. I can’t let her down. I won’t.”
Two sudden thoughts flooded her resolve to remain strong. I wish a man would look at Dakota that way. I wish a man would look at me that way.
The first step was to recover financially. If she had to work for the enemy, then so be it. Plus, she’d get to hold sweet Mollie every day. A job where she could be with her son every day was the best she could do.
“What do you say?” he asked.
“Let’s try it for a month. Trial period only.”
“Fine, that’s reasonable.”
He bent over the baby again. His black hair shone in the lamplight. Was it as silky as it looked? No, no, no. This is the man you hate.
He represented everything in this world she loathed.
Or, did he?
She would never have predicted his reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby. Additionally, there were the references to his childhood. Had he grown up in poverty? Were his parents cold like her own? Were these the reasons he was so driven to succeed? Honor had suggested as much before, but Violet had dismissed it, assuming their friend was overstating to persuade her that he wasn’t so bad.
“Mollie looks like you.”
“Do you really think so?”
The hopeful, vulnerable tone in his voice gave her pause. Kyle Hicks was full of surprises today.
She pointed to Mollie’s mouth. “That’s your mouth. See the fullness of her bottom lip?”
He touched his fingertips to his own bottom lip. “Yeah?”
“She has your dark coloring too,” she said.
“Supposedly we have some Italian in us,” he said.
“I bet she’ll have your eyes too. If she’s lucky.” His were an unusual blue that turned from light to dark like the fickle Pacific. Not that she’d noticed…much.
“Her mother was pretty,” he said. “Blond and tall.”
Violet didn’t say anything for a moment, thinking about how tricky it would be for him, like it was for her, when his child grew old enough to ask about her mother.
“Dakota asks about his dad sometimes,” she said as if they’d already broached the subject. He seemed to follow her line of thinking without having to ask.
“What do you tell him?” Kyle asked.
She glanced over at her son to make sure he wasn’t listening. He was intently removing the seeds from his pickle wedge and singing the words to “The Wheels On the Bus” under his breath. “I tell him not everyone has one, but that I love him enough for two parents.”
“Does he buy it?”
She grimaced. “For now. Later, I’ll have to tell him the truth.”
“What is the truth? Are you in the one-night-stand club with me?”
“Don’t judge me. I can’t take it.” His eyelids drooped as if he were suddenly exhausted.
“I’m not. Truly.” She touched his forearm, wanting to reassure him. “I’m not in much of a position to judge, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I’ve been judged enough today for both of us.”
He gazed into her eyes for a moment before looking back at the baby. “It was when I was up north working on a project. It was a hard night for me and I drank too much at this dive bar where she worked. We talked. She had this way about her—one of those women who gets you talking about things you wouldn’t normally. Like Kara.”
“Yes, sure. I know exactly.” Kara Mullen was a witch that way. Two minutes into their first a conversation and she had cut through all the pleasantries.
“One thing led to another and I followed her home like an injured dog. She was a sweet girl. Way too young for me.” Kyle sighed. “Believe it or not, I felt bad afterward. I let my own weakness get the better of me. It’s not my thing, despite what you’ve heard, to seduce innocents. My women are usually of the savvy and sassy variety.” He paused and gazed down at the baby in his arms. “I don’t know if I can be enough for two parents. I look at you and I don’t know how you do it. Dakota’s a great kid.”
Her chest swelled with pride. “Not everyone’s a fan of my parenting.”
“That meanie at the day care? Screw her.”
“Everything I do seems to turn to sand in my hands.” Why was his kindness undoing her, making words tumble from her mouth?
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re a bad mother. It’s simply not true. As much as you and I disagree over certain things, I’ve always noticed how good you are with Dakota. Why do you think you were the first person we called?”
She flashed him a rueful smile. “I’m the only one of us who has raised an infant.”
He laughed for the first time since she’d arrived. “It’s not just that. And listen, I’m grateful you’re willing to help. I know it’s for Mollie, not me, but I’ll take it.”
“There’s no better reason for calling a truce than a baby.” A motherless baby.
He kissed Mollie’s forehead. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“It’s so sad about her mother.”
“Yeah. Now she’s stuck with me. Katy’s friend told me mortality rates for mothers in poor rural areas is on the rise. In America. There’s a cause in need of Violet Ellis.”
“Are you mocking me?”
He met her gaze. “Not one bit. I’m completely serious. We need to figure out what’s happening and do something about it. Isn’t that what you’re all about?”
“Kind of.” She looked down at her hands. “I don’t seem to have influence on much of anything, despite my efforts.”
“You don’t know if you are or not. These things aren’t measurable. Not all the way, at least. I know you prompted a few of my decisions on this place.”
“Have you noticed how green it is?” He pointed to the ceiling. “Solar panels on the roof? The sustainable kitchen in the restaurants. Ten percent of our profits will go to environmental groups.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never asked,” he said.
Dakota called out from over at the table. “Can I be excused now, Mama?”
“May I be excused,” she said.
“May I be excused, Mama?”
“You may. Come on over here, I have something exciting to tell you.”
Her little boy, her heart, ran from the table on his chubby legs. Why walk when you could run?
She pulled him onto her lap. “How would you like to move in here with Kyle for a little while? Baby Mollie needs our help. I’m going to take care of Mollie while he goes to work.”
His eyes widened. “Live in a hotel?”
“Sure. It’ll be an adventure. And no, you can’t have a milkshake every day.”
“What do you say?” Kyle asked. “I need another guy around here.”
Dakota’s gaze moved from her to Kyle. “My friend Jacob has a mom and dad and sister.”
“He does?” Kyle asked.
Dakota nodded. “But I just have my mom.”
“You’re lucky to have such an awesome mom. And we’re just borrowing her for a bit,” Kyle said. “She’ll still be your mom and your mom only.”
Kyle didn’t understand. Dakota wasn’t expressing angst over sharing his mother. He wanted a family like his friend Jacob had.
Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. All she needed was to break her son’s heart when they had to leave.
No, she had to do this. None of it mattered if she couldn’t provide the essentials. Shelter and food for her son had to be her priority. A job and a place to live had fallen in her lap. Kyle was right. They needed each other. She would just have to hope for the best regarding her own baby. Providing a place to live and food to eat was about as good as she could do now. Later there would be therapy bills, no question. Yet another reason to escape the mountain of debt. For now, however, one grown man, a little boy, and an infant girl needed her to do what she did best—take care of them.
“We have work to do, gentlemen,” she said. “Operation Take Care of Mollie starts now. Can you both accept the mission?”
“Bring it,” Kyle said.