DAPHNE ZABLONSKI WAS running late again. Her entire life had been running just south of on time since her daughter, Hadley, was born nearly three years ago. Luckily, the friends she and Hadley were meeting for breakfast were very understanding, as were her bosses, Drake and Rick Savage and Dean Masters, the owners of Bayside Resort, where she worked as the office administrator. She only had to walk next door for breakfast, which was great, but first she had to get out the door, and she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something. Hadley’s backpack, bird, lunch, snacks, water bottle…?
She glanced at her honey-haired daughter sitting on the floor by the coffee table playing with her favorite toy, a stuffed bird given to her by Dean’s brother Jett. Jett was one of only a handful of people her little girl gifted with a smile. Hadley withheld her adorable toothy grins as if she had only a limited supply, which sometimes saddened, and often worried, Daphne. Hadley’s latest obsession, for whom she had an endless supply of smiles, was Jack “Jock” Steele, who was quite possibly the most gorgeous man Daphne had ever set her eyes on, and equally mysterious. When Hadley wasn’t around, Jock came across as an intriguing gentleman who knew far more about etiquette than Daphne probably ever would. But all that disappeared the minute he set eyes on her little girl. While Hadley would give her baby teeth to be in Jock’s arms, Jock cringed every time she was near him.
Story of my life.
Being a single mother was hard enough. Having to dodge emotionally unavailable hot guys because of her daughter’s penchant for them made it even more difficult.
“Go now?” Hadley turned serious blue eyes to Daphne. “See my baby?”
Rick and his wife, Desiree, had recently had a baby boy, Aaron, and Hadley was madly in love with him.
“Not yet, chickadee. Mommy needs to figure out what I’m forgetting.” And make sure the coast is clear.
She and Hadley lived above the resort’s main office. Jock had rented a cottage there for the next few months, and Hadley made a beeline for the tall, darkly handsome cringer every time she saw him. Daphne had to time their exits carefully, or she’d be forced to endure that beautiful man looking like he wanted to bolt at the sight of her precious little girl.
She hurried to the window for her morning spying mission. Although Jock rarely came out at night, mornings were a different story. Sometimes he sat outside with his laptop, writing, she assumed, but other times he went running with her bosses. Daphne didn’t know much about Jock’s current life, although she knew he was from Silver Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, had written a bestselling book when he was in college, and then he had spent a decade taking care of Harvey Fine, an aging philanthropist. Harvey was Daphne’s friend Tegan’s great-uncle. He had passed away last summer, and from what Tegan had said, the loss had torn Jock up. He’d taken off to travel and had returned a few months ago to help Tegan with her late uncle’s amphitheater business.
Daphne peered past the array of cottages flanking the recreation center to the glorious view of Cape Cod Bay and allowed her gaze to linger there for a few seconds, hoping it would calm her quickening pulse. But just as it had since Jock had moved in, her stupid heart beat faster as she shifted her gaze to cottage number three. She felt like a stalker, noting that there were no lights on and there was no movement in the yard. If Jock was going running this morning, he’d meet up with Rick or Dean. Daphne glanced toward the inn where Rick and Desiree lived and then in the direction of Dean’s cottage and breathed a sigh of relief. The coast was clear.
Hadley pushed to her feet in her bright-yellow shorts and cute white shirt with tiny pink bows all over it and toddled to the door. “Go now?”
“Yes!” Daphne hurried to the foyer, shouldered her purse and Hadley’s backpack, and pulled the door open. As Hadley toddled out with bare feet, Daphne groaned, realizing what she’d forgotten. “Hold on, Had. We forgot your shoes.”
“No wait.” Hadley plopped onto her butt on the top step.
“Hadley,” Daphne said in her best warning voice, causing Hadley to huff out a breath. Daphne peeked inside and snagged her daughter’s sandals from the foyer.
She hated that their mornings were always rushed. It seemed no matter how early they got up, they still ran behind. But she’d figured out a few time-saving tricks, like putting Hadley’s backpack in the car before meeting her friends for breakfast so she wouldn’t have to trudge back upstairs with her little curmudgeon, which could cost them an additional ten minutes. Longer if her newly potty-trained princess needed to go to the bathroom, because Hadley insisted on stripping naked every time she used the potty. But family and friends were important to Daphne, and she’d rather give Hadley the fun of a quick breakfast with friends who cherished her as much as Daphne did and allow her to spend a few minutes loving up baby Aaron than just send her off to daycare as if that were the most significant part of their day.
“Now, Mommy?” Hadley asked as Daphne shut the door.
“Yes. Go.” She locked the door as Hadley slid down the steps on her bottom, making a singsong “Ahhaahha” noise as she went.
Daphne followed her down and pushed open the door that led into the resort offices. There was another set of steps that led from Daphne’s bedroom balcony to the ground below, but the steps were too steep for Hadley, so they almost always used the office entrance.
She nudged Hadley along. “Come on, baby. We’re late.” They hurried past her desk, and Daphne unlocked the front door and pushed it open. A wave of dry heat held the promise of another summer scorcher.
Hadley rushed out the door, turning around on her belly to slide down the front steps.
“Wait for me,” Daphne said as she locked the office door.
“Huwwy.” Hadley popped up to her feet in the grass, immediately hopping from one foot to the other. “Pokey! Pokey! Pokey!”
“Sit down on the step. Let’s put on your sandals.”
“I do it!” Hadley plunked down in the grass. “Pokey legs!” She rocked on her butt from side to side.
“Sit on the steps, honey.”
Hadley shook her head, lips pursed, brows furrowed.
“Suit yourself.” Daphne handed her the sandals. There were only so many battles a mother could fight, and pokey grass on her daughter’s legs was not one of them.
The offices were located across the gravel road from the tennis courts and pool, which were busy all summer long and would come to life in another hour or two. Daphne always parked in front of the office, so she wouldn’t need to worry about Hadley darting out in front of cars. Feeling the seconds ticking by like minutes, she opened her car door and leaned in to tuck her purse under the seat. She glanced out the driver’s-side window at her little slice of heaven—two wooden chairs and a small table tucked beneath the umbrella of a large tree where she sat and read every night. An anticipatory thrill moved through her. Her days were so busy, by the time Hadley went to bed, she craved the simple, quiet spot.
“Okay, little miss. Ready?” She turned around and found Hadley’s stuffed bird lying on the ground and her daughter running across the grass toward Jock. He was coming out of his cottage with Rick and Jett, all three of them shirtless. Daphne’s pulse raced, bringing beads of sweat to her skin, as Jock looked over—and froze.
No, no, no!
Daphne picked up Hadley’s bird, hoping to distract her daughter with it, and ran after her. “Hadley! Come back! I have your bird!”
Jock’s gaze shot past Hadley to Daphne. Look away. Please look away. She didn’t know if she was hoping he would look away or if she was telling herself to, but she was powerless to break their connection, and he continued staring, turning her into a tingly, anxious mess. She’d always been a curvy girl, and she was still carrying a good fifteen pounds of the weight she’d gained during her pregnancy. Her breasts felt like water balloons, her thighs rubbed together, and her belly jiggled with every step. She felt like she was moving in slow motion as his eyes drifted down her body, spreading heat like wildfire in their wake.
“Dock! Dock!” Hadley yelled, running faster.
Her daughter’s pleas snapped her back to reality, and as Rick stepped forward and swooped Hadley into his arms, Daphne swore Jock took a few steps back. Ugh! She must be delirious to have been lost in a man who couldn’t even look at her daughter.
Hadley pushed at Rick’s chest, tears streaking her face as she reached grabby hands toward Jock. “Dock! My Dock!”
“I’ve got you.” Rick rubbed Hadley’s back, trying to coax her into calming down. He was as sweet with her as he was with his new baby boy.
“I’m sorry,” Daphne panted out, sweat dripping between her breasts, as she reached for her daughter.
“It’s okay. I’ve got her. Catch your breath,” Rick said.
Jock turned an apologetic gaze to Daphne and said, “Sorry, Daph.”
“Here, give Hadley to me,” Jett suggested. “She loves Uncle Jett.” Jett had been Hadley’s pre-Jock obsession.
As Rick tried to hand her over, Hadley wailed, “Dock!”
Daphne’s heart broke for her daughter as Jock’s jaw tightened. This was exactly what she’d hoped to avoid.
“Sorry, Hadley,” Jock said with a regretful expression. “I’ll meet you guys down by the water.” He headed for the path that led down the dunes.
“Dock! Peese!” Hadley cried, arms outstretched.
Daphne wanted to shake Jock and give him a piece of her mind, but Hadley needed her, so she retracted her mama claws and reached for her daughter. “Come here, baby. Sorry, you guys,” she said, trying to ignore the pitying look in Rick’s eyes.
“Daphne, don’t take it personally,” Rick said. “Jock doesn’t go anywhere near Aaron.”
“Yeah? Well, that stinks. What kind of a friend does that?” She patted Hadley’s back and said, “It’s okay, sweetie. Let’s go have some of Desiree’s breakfast goodies.”
“Dock…” Hadley whimpered, tucking her face in the crook of Daphne’s neck.
Daphne stroked her back. “Shh. It’s okay, baby. Hold your bird.” She handed Hadley her bird, and Hadley clutched it against her chest.
“Daph,” Jett said cautiously. “Jock’s a good man. He’s just uncomfortable around little kids.”
Jett had always been good to Hadley, bringing her presents and lavishing her with attention. Daphne trusted his judgment, but he and Jock had gotten close these last few months, and sometimes friendship had a way of overshadowing deficits.
“Well, this is my little kid, and she’s hurt and confused.” Daphne brushed Hadley’s tear-soaked hair from her cheek and lowered her voice to say, “He doesn’t need to like her, but that was…” She shook her head and shut her mouth before anything too harsh came out.
“I get it,” Jett said as she started walking toward the inn. “But you can’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. I thought the soles of my shoes were worn thin, but they’re nothing compared to his.”
His words gave her pause, and she stopped walking. Jett wasn’t one to refer to the broken fences that had kept him from his family for many years and had only recently been rebuilt. She met his gaze, hoping he’d say more, but he just shrugged and said, “That’s all I can tell you.”
“Hungy, Mommy,” Hadley said softly.
Daphne glanced at Rick, hoping he’d give more of an explanation.
“I don’t know what’s going on with him,” Rick said. “But I know Jock’s not a mean-spirited person or a child hater.”
She didn’t know how to respond, so she said, “I’ll keep that in mind.” She pressed a kiss to Hadley’s forehead. “Say goodbye to Rick and Jett.”
“Bye,” Hadley said in a craggy voice.
“See you soon, sweetie,” Jett said.
Rick cocked a grin and said, “Hey, Had. Don’t eat all of Desiree’s chocolate-filled croissants. Save one for me.”
Hadley lifted serious eyes to Rick, his attempt at lightening the mood having no effect, and said, “’Kay.”
Daphne mulled over Jett’s words as she carried Hadley across the grass. A cool breeze swept up the dunes, and she turned her face toward it, catching sight of Jock on the beach below, pacing by the water’s edge. Her stomach knotted.
He had become part of their friend group through Tegan. Daphne didn’t go out with her friends often, but when she did, if Jock was there, he was never standoffish toward anyone except Hadley, which was why Daphne worried he simply disliked her daughter. But given what Jett and Rick had said, she wondered if there was more to it.
“Dock!” Hadley pointed at Jock.
Daphne silently chided herself for not walking farther away from the dunes where Hadley couldn’t see him.
“Dett.” Hadley accentuated her word with a shake of her hand. “Wick!”
Relieved the sight of Jock hadn’t brought more tears, Daphne tried not to let Jock’s behavior get the better of her, and in her best happy-mommy voice, she said, “They’re going running, and we’re going to see Aaron and eat breakfast.”
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