LEVI STEELE FELT like hell, and he had his older brother Archer to thank for it.
Levi had known Tara forever. She’d been an adorably pudgy, introverted kid and had grown into a beautiful, funny, confident woman who had earned a phenomenal reputation for her photography on and off the island, and she somehow still managed to exude the allure of the girl next door. She had an innate sweetness and innocent blue eyes that had always made Levi want to protect her. He didn’t know if she was innocent or not, and yeah, he’d wondered about it from time to time, but he’d been quick to lock that shit down. She was Joey’s birth mother Amelia’s sister, for Pete’s sake, and he knew better than to get tangled up in that hornet’s nest. But now that Archer had opened his damn mouth, Levi couldn’t stop picking apart his brother’s comments. When Joey was born, Levi had purposefully closed off his heart to women, and now he wondered if it had skewed his perception. Had Tara flirted with him, and he’d somehow missed it? A zing of something hot and dark spiked inside him.
Jesus, do I want her to flirt with me?
He went to get dressed for a run, remembering how Tara, at fifteen, had been instantly smitten with his little bundle of joy. He’d been nineteen and living with his parents when he’d found out Amelia was pregnant and twenty when Joey was born. Tara had shown up every day after school and first thing in the morning during the summer to spend time with her. Joey had suffered from colic as an infant and had loved napping in Tara’s arms, holding her aunt’s long blond hair in her tiny fist. She’d cried when anyone had tried to take her from Tara. Levi could still picture his honey-haired little girl at two, toddling after Tara, and Tara scooping her up, nuzzling her cherubic cheeks, sending Joey into fits of giggles. He was convinced Tara had gotten a double dose of maternal genes, since her older sister seemed to have gotten none.
Levi cursed and scrubbed a hand down his face, annoyed that he let his brother get to him. He inserted his phone into his armband and put the armband on, trying to push away his annoyance as he pocketed his earbuds and followed the scent of freshly brewed coffee downstairs, but frustration pecked at him like a crow to roadkill.
He heard two of his sisters talking as he came down the hall. Last night was the grand opening of Indi’s cosmetic boutique, and their whole family had shown up to support her. While Jock, Archer, and their youngest sister, Jules, lived on the island, Levi lived in Harborside, Massachusetts, his twin sister, Leni, lived in New York City, and their oldest sister, Sutton, lived in Port Hudson, which was in Upstate New York.
He found Joey sitting at the kitchen table in her pajamas with his mother and Leni. Sutton stood at the counter pouring a cup of coffee. “Morning, ladies.”
He kissed the top of Joey’s head, giving her shoulder a squeeze, and met his mother’s smiling eyes. Shelley Steele was a big, beautiful woman with a vivacious personality. She had long auburn hair, bangs that gave her a youthful look, and a heart of gold, which his father wholly and completely owned. His parents had taught him more about patience, parenting, and love than he could have ever asked for.
“Look what the cat dragged in.” Sutton, a tall, sassy, and tenacious blond television reporter, carried her coffee to the table, exchanging a secretive glance with Leni.
“Grandma made blueberry pancakes.” Joey tilted her adorable freckled face up to look at him with a mouthful of food. She had Amelia’s fair skin and cinnamon hair, but thankfully, she’d inherited Levi’s love of life and big heart. “You look funny, Dad.”
“Maybe because you’re looking at me upside down.” He ruffled her hair and went to get a glass of water.
“Or maybe because you look like crap.” Leni sipped her coffee, her auburn hair framing her snarky expression. “What happened to you last night?”
“What happened to you last night?” he countered, their age-old banter coming as easily as his own name.
“What did you hear?” Leni asked coyly.
He filled his glass with water, staring her down. “What did you hear?” If Archer said anything to her or anyone else about Tara, Levi was going to kill him. The last thing Tara needed was to deal with unfounded gossip.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Leni’s lips curved slyly.
“Okay, you two,” their mother interrupted with a shake of her head. “Sheesh, it’s like you’re teenagers all over again.”
Levi leaned against the counter drinking his water, sharing a chuckle with his sisters. It was all in fun. They were each other’s confidants. His twin was the most sarcastic of his siblings, but she was also the most practical and level-headed, making decisions with her brain rather than her heart. He was fairly certain he was the only one who knew why she no longer opened her heart to men, and he’d take that secret to his grave. Just as he knew she protected his secrets.
Leni was the first person he’d called when he’d gotten that text from Amelia. She’d been at college in New York City, and when he’d told her he wanted to keep the baby, she’d come home. They’d talked all night, and Leni had done what she did best. She’d made lists—dozens of them—and had forced Levi to think of everything good and bad that could possibly come from being a single parent. Even at nineteen, she’d been far more practical, and smarter, than most people their age. She’d helped him forecast budgets for raising a kid from birth to college, which had freaked him out, but then she’d helped him feel less lost and more in control. She’d believed he’d be a great father, and in the years since, when things got tough, she was always there to say, I know you can do this.
His mother studied him with a furrowed brow. “Actually, honey, you do look a little rough around the edges. Did you and the boys go out and have too much to drink last night?”
“I haven’t had too much to drink in years. I just didn’t sleep well.” The conception of his daughter had knocked the urge to drink himself into oblivion to the curb. Back then he’d thought hangovers were hell, but they had nothing on Archer’s ability to screw with his head.
“I’m sorry to hear you didn’t sleep well,” his mother said. “Joey said you have a big afternoon planned with the Venting Vixens.”
When Joey was an infant, Levi had met a group of moms that got together on weekends to commiserate and hang out, and he’d dubbed them the Venting Vixens. They’d been his sanity saviors the first year after Joey was born. They understood his fatigue and frustrations and how, at times, he felt as though he’d lost his own identity. When he and Joey were in town, they still got together with some of them and their children.
“You’re not going to cancel, are you, Dad?” Joey asked.
“No way, sweets. I know how much you’re looking forward to showing them your new skateboarding tricks.” His daughter had gone through a long princess stage, but she’d moved on to skateboarding. He loved that she followed her passions, and he did everything he could to support them, including hooking her up with skateboarding lessons.
“Don’t forget my new Dark Knights stuff Uncle Brent gave me,” Joey exclaimed.
“It’s all in your bag and ready to go.” Levi and his twin older cousins Jesse and Brent, who also lived in Harborside, were members of the Dark Knights motorcycle club. Joey had grown up around bikers, and all the guys looked out for her and treated her like she was their own daughter. She was so close to them, she called most of them her uncles. Jesse and Brent owned a surf shop and restaurant, and Brent had been skateboarding since he was a kid. He’d been training Joey for the past year, and he’d given her a helmet and pads with the Dark Knights emblem on them to wear to her first tournament, which was just a few weeks away. It was a big one, the fifteenth annual for their town, and Joey was determined to win a trophy.
“I’m glad you’re making time to see the Vixens,” his mother said. “I was talking with Grace Chabot the other day, and she told me her daughter is still single.” Her brows waggled.
“Where are all the hot-single-dad groups?” Sutton asked.
“You won’t find them on this island,” Leni droned.
Levi put his glass in the dishwasher. “It’s not like that with this group.”
“But it could be,” his mother said. “You have so much love to give, honey. All our kids do, but not as easily as you used to. Don’t you remember how you were before Joey was born? You had lots of girlfriends, and you were always loving on them and spoiling them, and every one of them added something special to your life.”
He couldn’t imagine trying to fit a woman into their busy lives, much less splitting his attention between his daughter and anyone else. He wasn’t about to slight Joey. Her mother did enough of that.
“He didn’t just have a lot of girlfriends,” Leni chimed in. “Levi was a hot commodity in high school. All the girls wanted him.”
He’d had all kinds of game, but becoming a father at twenty had given him different types of moves. Like the ability to change a diaper while holding a bottle in a baby’s mouth and juggle his precious peanut and all of her accoutrements on two hours of sleep.
“He’s still got game,” Sutton said, as if he weren’t standing right there.
“Can we not analyze my dating abilities? My life is fine as it is.” When he needed to find a little relief, he did it when Joey was otherwise occupied, and that relief had become far less important in the last few years than it was when he was younger.
“Oh, honey.” His mother got up from the table and carried her plate to the sink. She looked pretty in a rust sweater and jeans. “Is it so bad that I’d like to see you happy, with a woman to share your life with? Someone Joey can look up to and talk to?”
“You’re not getting any younger,” Sutton pointed out with a glimmer of better you than me in her eyes. “You might want to hook a bride before you lose your hair or all those muscles.”
“We have Tara,” Joey piped in.
“Tara’s not ours in that way, peanut,” Levi said.
“But she wishes she were.” Leni smirked and speared a piece of pancake with her fork, popping it into her mouth.
“No, she doesn’t. Why would you say that?” Levi glowered at her. “What did Archer tell you?”
Leni raised a brow. “What did he tell you?”
“Nothing. Forget it,” Levi grumbled.
“Aw, come on. Now I have to know what Archer said,” Sutton urged. “Was it about Mouse?”
His protective urges flared at the nickname Amelia had given Tara when she was a little girl and would hide in the pantry at parties, nibbling on snacks to avoid her mother’s nitpicking. Even though her sister had started it by saying Tara looked like a cute little mouse, and his sister and their friends used the nickname affectionately, and Tara didn’t seem to mind it, the nickname reminded him of the insecure little girl he’d found in that pantry too many times—and the condescending way Amelia had said it to him after they’d had sex. Now every time you look at that pudgy little Mouse, you’ll think of me. He had no idea why she’d brought up Tara, and he’d never asked, but when he’d gone home that night, he’d felt used, as if he were a pawn in some type of twisted game, which made no sense, since Tara had been only fourteen years old. He didn’t regret having Joey, and he wouldn’t want to imagine his life without her, but he sure as hell regretted getting goaded into having sex with Amelia. The woman’s heart was colder than an iceberg.
“Why isn’t Tara ours like that, Dad?” Joey asked. “We always have fun when Tara stays with us.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Sutton taunted.
Leni put her elbows on the table and folded her hands, resting her chin on them with an expectant expression. “Do tell.”
There was nothing worse than the combined annoyance of sisters. He focused on his daughter, who looked innocently confused. “Joey, Tara and I are just friends. You know that.”
“I know,” Joey said. “You’re really good friends. You laugh a lot when you’re together, and you always say she’s your favorite dance partner.”
His daughter had a memory like an elephant. He and Tara had been dancing together for years at events on the island. She was a great dancer, and she saved him from having to dance with single women who were just looking to hook up. He steered clear of anything that could loop him into being part of the island grapevine. “You’re right, Joey, but what Grandma meant was that she’d like to see me dating someone, like a girlfriend.”
“And falling in love, expanding your family together.” His mother sighed dreamily. “Jock is married, and Jules and Grant are picking a wedding date, and now Archer and Indi are engaged. Can you blame me for wanting all our kids to be as happy as your father and I are?”
Levi was amazed that after raising six kids and working together at their family winery for decades, his parents still acted like newlyweds. They were always holding hands, touching, and kissing, making love look easy and appealing. But Levi had closed that door long ago to focus on his daughter.
“Sutton’s older than me,” Levi pointed out. “She should be next in your matchmaking lineup.” He grinned at his sister.
“Sutton’s not getting married until after she bags her hot boss,” Leni said.
Sutton rolled her eyes. “A body bag, maybe.” She’d been less than qualified for her reporting job when her company had promoted her, and her boss had been trying to get her fired ever since.
“What’s a body bag?” Joey asked.
“It’s what you put arrogant bosses in when they piss you off,” Sutton said.
Levi knew he should explain that his sister was kidding, but it was better to let that topic go than open a door for his sisters to add their even more confusing two cents.
“Sutton is still finding her way in her career, but your company has grown by leaps and bounds,” his mother pointed out.
Levi’s business, Husbands for Hire, was a franchise, originally started by a group of Dark Knights in another state. HFH was a handyman business, and Levi enjoyed helping people, but after taking on several employees, he’d expanded and now spent his time on larger projects and doing what he was most passionate about, buying houses in various states of disrepair and turning them into unique properties.
“How about Leni?” Levi suggested. “She’s single.”
“Yeah, right,” Leni said sarcastically.
“She’s married to her work right now. You know that,” his mother said. “You’re settled and doing well, and the right woman could add a lot to yours and Joey’s lives.”
She looked so hopeful, it almost made him wonder what he was waiting for.
“You could date Tara,” Joey suggested.
His sisters tried to stifle their laughs, their eyes darting to him.
“No, peanut. As I said, Tara is just a friend.”
“A friend who stays at your house all the time,” Leni pointed out.
“I heard she’ll be staying with you for two weeks over spring break to watch Joey,” Sutton added. “That’s a long time.”
“And not at all unusual,” Leni said in a tone that implied it made it even more curious.
They were relentless. He narrowed his eyes, but his sisters simply ignored him.
“That’s right, she usually covers Joey’s school breaks, doesn’t she?” Sutton arched a brow.
“Yes, and I love it,” Joey exclaimed. “My break starts right after the spring dance. I can’t wait.”
Leni glanced at him. “I bet Daddy secretly can’t wait, either.”
He glowered at her. He had to get out of there before he blew up. “Hey, Jo, I’m going for my run, okay? Be good for Grandma.”
“Okay!” Joey turned back to her aunts. “Dad’s starting a big project, and Tara said…”
Levi went out the kitchen door before his sisters started in on him again. He tipped his face up toward the sun, trying once again to tamp down his frustration. That felt like a never-ending battle today.
He put on his playlist and set out on his run. He’d always been a runner, and between that and the hard physical labor he did, he stayed in fairly good shape. He ran past his family’s vineyard, Top of the Island, and through the neighborhood streets he’d biked as a kid, catching glimpses of the ocean in the distance. He waved to families washing cars and kids playing in their yards. A run was usually enough to clear his head, but even with the peaceful sights and the Strokes playing in his ears, his mother’s comments still echoed in his head. Ever since Jock had fallen in love with his now-wife, Daphne, and her toddler, Hadley, and they moved to the island, Levi had noticed a flicker of Maybe one day nearly every time he saw them. But he never allowed himself to linger in those thoughts.
But now that he was thinking about it, Tara came to mind. Fucking Archer and our nosy sisters. He tried to push those thoughts away, running faster.
His phone chimed, and he withdrew it from his armband, seeing a group text from Leni sent to all their siblings, Daphne, and Indi, who happened to be Leni’s best friend. He opened and read it. Archer, what did you say to Levi last night about Tara?
“Damn it, Leni.”
Two more text bubbles popped up. The first from Jules, the original queen of group texts. Oh! Me likey! Levi and Tara would be so cute together. I’ve got LOTS of ideas to help them along. Freaking Jules and her matchmaking. Levi read the next text from Jock. Isn’t it a little early for group texts? Archer and Indi are probably busy. He added a winking emoji. Another text from Leni rolled in. We can wait seven seconds. Sutton, Jules, and Daphne sent laughing emojis, and Archer replied, I asked him when he was going to make a move on Tara. She’s into him big-time. I’m turning off my phone for AN HOUR or TWO.
Fuming, Levi muted the group text and cranked the music. He put his phone back in his armband and sprinted up the hill, wishing he could mute the voices in his head.
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