By J. Daniels
Read by Holly Warren
Read by Jean-Paul Mordrake
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Wake up, Nathan."
My phone vibrated against the dark oak of the bar, pulling me out of the memory I frequently lost myself in. I blinked the room into focus, palmed the device, and slid my thumb across the screen as I took a generous sip of whiskey.
Get your ass home
My father's text read as an order and was meant to be taken as one. It was also a message I'd been expecting for a long fucking time. I was shocked it hadn't come sooner.
He was finally stepping in. The man who never bit his tongue around me had been unusually tolerant of my shit the past twenty-two months. But now he'd reached his limit—or, more likely, my mother had. She'd never say anything to me directly, of course. She would see my guilt and cave, allowing this to drag on indefinitely. Her only option was my father.
He was the better choice anyway. She knew I always listened to him. At least, I did before, back when we actually spoke to each other.
I pushed off the stool I'd been occupying for the past two hours and drained the remainder of my drink, dug the wallet out of my back pocket, and dropped two twenties on the bar, catching Levi's attention.
We weren't friends. I didn't know the guy outside of this building. But when you frequent the same bar nearly every night, you pick up a few names.
"Thanks, man. I'll see ya tomorrow." Levi swiped the money off the wood and wiped the bar down with a rag.
"No," I said, palming my phone and reading the text again. I met Levi's gaze. "You won't."
* * *
"We've raised our children, Nathan. Your mother and I are too old for this. We're supposed to be enjoying our retirement, but we haven't been able to do that, now, have we?" My father's voice echoed off the vaulted ceiling of my family room and loomed over me like thunderclouds.
He wasn't screaming. He didn't need to. His voice carried no matter what volume he used, and truth be told, he could've whispered this shit to me and I would've heard it as loud as I was hearing it now.
The truth was deafening.
"Now, we love that little girl—you know we do—and this is breaking your mother's heart, but I can't take this shit anymore. I've kept my mouth shut for long enough. You have a responsibility, Nathan. Marley needs you. Hell, she's needed you, and you are goddamned lucky she hasn't been damaged by this already. You can thank your mother for that—the beautiful angel that she is. She's put her life on hold for nearly two years while you've been doing everything except what you need to be doing, and—are you even listening to me right now, Nathan? Nathan." He grabbed my shoulder and shook me.
I barely reacted, slowly tipping my head back to peer up at him where he stood. I couldn't get angry. I'd seen this coming.
"I'm listening," I told him.
"Good. Because this ends now." He braced his hand on the back of the chair I was sitting in and bent closer, getting in my face.
My father was a big man. A former college linebacker who didn't look like he was pushing sixty-five. Two years ago, I would've shifted in my seat having him this close to me. Now I didn't even blink.
"We're giving you through Memorial Day, and then I'm taking that woman on a much-deserved vacation far away from here, and when we get home, we're going back to being grandparents who visit with their grandchildren. Our child-rearing days are over, son. It's time you step up. There is absolutely no reason why you should be at that restaurant as much as you are. This is long overdue."
Shock overwhelmed me. I felt my teeth clench as my back went rigid against the leather cushion. "You're giving me six days? That's not enough time for me to line something up."
"We've given you almost two years. I think that's more than enough time."
"Reasonable?" His eyes narrowed. "How about you be the man I raised, because I don't even know who the hell I'm looking at anymore. I can smell the alcohol on you, Nathan. You're lucky I didn't call you on this shit a long time ago."
"Why didn't you?"
I was getting bold. There was a time I'd never take issue with anything my father did or the way he decided to do it. Right now, I didn't even care if he hit me. I had checked out.
"I don't question how a man needs to grieve his wife," he answered without pause. "That's something I don't have experience with, and I pray to God I never will. But life moves on, son, and you gotta move with it. The drinking stops now. That won't give you what you're looking for. There's no changing what happened."
"Do you think I don't know that?"
"I don't know what the hell you're thinking anymore. You've shut us all out."
"And dropping this bomb on me is your way of getting me to open up?" I asked.
Movement caught my eye as my mother entered the room from the kitchen, balancing my daughter on her hip. Dad straightened up as Mom wiped at her nose with a tissue. She'd been crying. I could still see the tears in her eyes.
"This is a joke," I said to my father. "I need more time."
"You should've hired help already, Nathan."
"And you expect me to find someone in six days? What am I supposed to do with her?" I tipped my head in Marley's direction. She was resting her head on my mother's shoulder. She looked nearly asleep. "I still have to work. It's my restaurant, Dad. Who's going to watch her?"
My father shrugged like he didn't give a fuck about my problems anymore and folded his arms across his chest. "You're a parent, son. Sometimes you just gotta figure it out as you go along. We don't always have the answers."
"You're not even going to help me out until I find a sitter or something?"
"Vacation's already booked. We won't be here."
My leg began to bounce.
I stared up at him, waiting for sympathy to call his bluff and back down his demand, but he was unyielding. Panic tightened the wall of my chest. I felt like I couldn't breathe.
"I don't know how to do this," I whispered.
Not even that unusual admission changed his demeanor. He remained eerily still. My mother was another story. She immediately shuffled closer, most likely wanting to comfort me or give in and call this off. Her thirty-year-old son was breaking down for the first time in front of her, but she didn't make it two steps before Dad held her back with his hand raised, keeping his eyes on me.
"You'll figure it out," he said.
"Dad, please…" I was willing to beg. I would've done anything in that moment to have their help a little longer.
How could I do this by myself?
"Nathan." My father bent down and squeezed my shoulder. "You will figure it out." He spoke with confidence. He was certain, not doubting me at all, and I wanted that to ease my mind, if only a little, but it couldn't.
I knew I'd fail at this.
After goodbyes were said, I paced my house from end to end, trying to calm Marley, who began screaming the second the door latched shut.
My daughter wanted my parents, not me. She barely knew me.
Her cries were deafening. She squirmed in my arms and pushed against my chest with more strength than a two-year-old should have. Her tears wet my neck and soaked into my shirt.
I kept walking. I didn't know what else to do. She was typically already asleep by the time I got home at night. I didn't know what soothed her.
My parents ignored my calls. You'll figure it out. Guess that advice was going into effect immediately. I was on my own with this.
I lapped the family room thirty-eight times that night. An hour later, the house was finally quiet.
After laying Marley in her crib, I collapsed on my bed, fully dressed. I didn't even bother taking off my shoes.
"Wake up, Nathan."
I opened my eyes and turned my head on the pillow. The bedroom was dark.
I was alone.
Which animal do you think I should get on my face, Mama? A butterfly or a cat?"
Olivia, my daughter, studied her sun-kissed cheeks in the mirror above the sink as she washed her hands in the Whitecaps women's restroom.
We were here for the Memorial Day carnival the restaurant was hosting, and Olivia had made it known how badly she wanted her face painted the second we arrived. Especially after she discovered Sydney was running that booth. Olivia adored my brother's girlfriend.
"I think you'd look beautiful with either one," I answered, handing her a paper towel when she finished up and walked over to me. "Which one did you want first? That's probably the one you want the most."
"Then ask Syd for a butterfly."
"But what if I change my mind and she's already painted a wing? I'll be doomed if that happens. Cats don't have wings." Face reddening in distress, Olivia huffed and shook her head like this decision was eating her up inside. Her bright blue glasses slid down her nose.
I fixed them for her, smiling. "Do both, then."
Her eyes widened in hope-filled wonder. "I can do that?"
"Why not? You have two cheeks, don't you?"
She thought on this plan, her gaze briefly drifting to the floor. Then she nodded quickly, looking up at me. "I totally have two cheeks. I can be a cat butterfly! I bet nobody else will think of that. I'll be the only one and everyone will think I'm so cool, right?"
"Oh, absolutely. You'll be the coolest girl here."
Olivia pumped her fists into the air, hooting and hollering as she bounced on her toes. "This is the best idea ever!"
I followed her out the door, both of us giggling. When I noticed my son and Olivia's twin brother, Oliver, was nowhere to be seen inside the restaurant, I assumed he really did need to use the restroom, even though he'd assured me he hadn't.
"Oliver?" I called out, holding the men's room door open.
There was a wall separating anyone doing their business and the spot where I was standing, so I couldn't see anything. Thank God.
"Yeah?" he answered.
"Mama, can I go? I want Syd to get started on my face." Olivia jumped from one foot to the other and tugged on the two dark braids hanging past her shoulders. Her flip-flops smacked against the tile.
"Go ahead, but stay with Syd."
Even though my children were eight years old and knew better than to wander off, it was ingrained in me to remind them.
I waited until Olivia made it to the front of the restaurant before I turned back to the men's room. "Is anyone else in there, Oliver?"
"Just a man."
"Okay. And what's he doing?"
"Really?" a deep voice answered.
I ignored it, which was what I typically did in situations like this, and pressed on. "Oliver?"
"He's going to the bathroom, Mom."
"What else would I be doing in here?" the guy said.
I rolled my eyes at his tone, feeling completely justified in my questioning, and leaned my back against the door, getting comfortable just in case my son was nowhere near finished.
"Do you want to get your face painted like your sister? I bet Syd could do something cool, like a shark or something."
Water flushed. I heard the faucet kick on—someone was washing their hands.
"No. I wanna do the dunking booth. That looks fun."
"Do you think you can dunk Uncle Brian?"
"I know I can dunk him." Oliver's voiced raced with excitement.
I smiled, picturing my older brother doing anything he could to make sure Oliver could drop him into the water. Brian always went above and beyond with my kids. He was the main reason we'd moved to Dogwood Beach three years ago, leaving Denver, my old life, and our parents behind. We'd lived with him for a while until I found my apartment, and in those few months, Brian and my kids became inseparable.
We were incredibly lucky to have him in our lives. And I frequently made sure he knew that.
I lost some of the smile I was wearing when the man with the eye-roll tone moved out from behind the wall to exit the restroom. He had thick dark brown hair that was styled short, wore black-rimmed glasses, and had a tall, really tall, lean build, with a good amount of muscle putting stress on the button-up shirt he was wearing. I stared at the outline of his biceps a little longer than I meant to as I flattened my back against the door, allowing him room to pass.
"Excuse me," I offered politely.
His eyebrows shot up. "Do you always hold conversations like that in men's rooms?"
"If my son is in one of them, then yes," I answered, pairing my response with a fake smile. I didn't owe this guy anything. "Either that, or I'm coming in there and making sure nobody's doing anything they shouldn't be doing. You can never be too careful—creeps are everywhere."
The man's gaze hardened as he looked back at me over his shoulder, like what I'd just said offended him. What did he care? I hadn't actually walked in on him.
When he reached the door with the word "Manager" written in bold white, he stepped inside the office, disappearing out of view.
"Shit," I whispered. Eyes pinching shut, I dropped my head back and groaned low in my throat.
I felt bad. I knew that man. Well, I knew of that man. I'd never met him, obviously. But I'd heard stories about Sydney's boss, who didn't just manage Whitecaps. He was the owner. All the girls who worked here spoke highly of him. I was good friends with most of them and had heard talk about this guy. In fact, they appreciated him so much, the girls had come up with the carnival idea for today as a way of boosting summer sales for the restaurant and giving back to a man they all very much liked.
And you just alluded to his place of business as being a possible hangout for child predators. Way to go, Jenna.
I wanted to apologize, or at least explain myself. I could also sprinkle in some heavy compliments. Even though we'd eaten here only once before, I thought Whitecaps was a really nice restaurant. I could embellish a little and say it was one we frequented. He'd never know the truth.
Oliver finished up and stepped out of the bathroom as I thought on this plan, showing the same amount of excitement his sister had about the carnival, his voice carrying through the restaurant animatedly. And evidently, a little on the loud side.
Just as I was about to head toward the office, the door latched shut.
Okay. Someone didn't want to be bothered.
"How many tickets can we get, Mom?" Oliver asked. "Please say enough to do all the games. The games look so cool. They got a ring toss and the one where you gotta knock over the cans. I better warm up my arm."
I smiled, fixing his glasses for him when the windmill motion he did nearly knocked them off his nose. His excitement prompted a better idea. I'd show my support for Whitecaps while giving my kids a day packed full of memories. A face-to-face with the owner could wait for another time.
Two Weeks Later
Looking forward to tonight. Are you sure I can't pick you up?
Me too! I'll meet you there. I need to drop off my kids at my brother's house. He's watching them for me.
I didn't know you had kids.
I frowned reading the texts. Did this guy not read my profile? I'd mentioned being a mom. Should I have bolded that information?
Forcing myself to stay positive, I typed my response. Maybe this guy still had potential. That Oh didn't necessarily mean anything.
Yep. Two of them. Is 6:30 still a good time?
I'm really not looking for anything serious.
Translation: The thought of getting tied down to someone with kids disinterests me. This will only be a one-time fuck.
Disappointment came on swift, even though I should've known better. Every other guy I'd interacted with on CupidMatch.com had been a letdown, and seemingly only after sex. Nothing real or sustainable. It was my own fault for having any expectations here. But I was beginning to realize hope was a difficult emotion to turn off.
I believed in love. Why wouldn't I have faith in it?
Not that I had any personal experience with it in terms of a relationship. I hadn't been in love yet. Not real love. Crush-love, yes. The two voices booming from the living room were a testament to that. They were also the reason why I wasn't as practiced in dating as other twenty-seven-year-olds. Being a mom took priority. But I tried to grab a date as often as I could. And even though the men of Dogwood Beach were turning out to be more frustrating than anything, I still put myself out there.
I was, however, beginning to regret the dating app route. That really wasn't working out for me. And unless I became a different person, one who was looking for a meaningless hookup and nothing more, it wouldn't work out for me.
I finished applying my mascara, then stood from my vanity stool as I typed out my response to this guy. A response that might not have been necessary, but just in case, I needed him knowing—I was no longer interested.
I'm going to have to cancel tonight. Thanks anyway.
By the time I walked down the short hallway that opened up to the living room, that app had been deleted off my phone.
"Uno out!" Olivia shrieked. She threw her playing cards down on the coffee table and pumped her fists into the air. "Whoop, whoop!"
"Aw, man! I was so close to winning." Oliver collapsed sideways onto the sofa and punched the cushion. "I want a rematch, Livvy! You always win."
"We can play tonight at Uncle Brian's. I'll pack the cards in my bag."
"What if we did something else besides going over to Uncle Brian's tonight?" I asked, stopping behind the sofa.
Olivia peered up at me. "But what about your date?"
"I don't have a date anymore."
"I just don't. I decided to cancel."
"But you were really excited, Mama."
"I know, baby, but sometimes things just don't work out the way we want them to."
Olivia glowered, reaching into the back pocket of her shorts. She pulled out a pen and a small notepad, flipped it open to a page, and violently crossed something out.
"What's that? What are you doing?" I tried to see what Olivia had marked off, but she closed the pad before I caught sight of it.
"I had high hopes for him," she mumbled. She tucked her notepad away after sliding the pen through the rings. Then she took a seat on the coffee table and pouted.
I fought a smile. My daughter was a hopeless romantic as well. I wondered if she was becoming a little too invested in my personal life.
"What are we gonna do if we don't go over to Uncle Brian's?" Oliver asked, rolling to his back so he could see me above him.
"Well, I thought since today is your first official day of summer break, we should probably celebrate somehow." I paused for dramatic effect, looking between the two of them. "And I am pretty hungry…"
"Can we go out to eat?" Olivia sprang to a standing position and held her breath. Her eyes doubled in size.
"Mom, can we?" Oliver asked, scrambling to his knees. "Please? Please!"
I knew this would make up for the change of plans. Even though my children loved going over to my brother's house almost more than anything, they were practically addicts when it came to restaurant food. There was something about ordering off a menu. And because I kept us on a strict budget—a necessity since I was a single parent of two very active children who were always involved in some sort of extracurricular activity—I didn't allow meals out very often.
"Get your shoes on," I gave as my answer.
"Whoop!" Olivia punched the air. She fell into a fit of laughter when her brother stood up and shook his butt. The two of them high-fived, then raced each other for the front door, where their shoes were stacked against the wall.
"Can we go to Whitecaps?" Oliver asked.
"Sure. Wherever you guys want to go."
"I want a burger. They got the best burgers." He pushed his heel into his shoe and stomped the floor. "You know I'm right, Mom."
"I want a burger too," Olivia said, tying her laces.
I quickly shot a text to my brother, letting him know he was off the hook in terms of babysitting duty, and then I grabbed my keys and purse off the small table by the door. A large antique mirror hung above it on the wall. I checked my reflection while the kids finished getting ready.
I hadn't changed for my date yet, so I wasn't wearing anything fancy. Just a favorite pair of jean shorts and a soft yellow flowy top that had the shoulders cut out and billowed at my waist. But my hair and makeup looked more done up than usual. My long brown locks were loosely curled, making the caramel highlights my friend Shay had given me a few weeks ago stand out a bit more. I was wearing foundation instead of my typical tinted moisturizer, but kept my skin looking dewy since I'd skipped the powder. My eyes were lined black. Lips shiny with gloss.
"You would've looked real pretty for your date, Mama," Olivia announced, coming to stand beside me.
I smiled down at her and cupped her cheek, which was flushed from exertion. "Not as pretty as you."
"Are you sad?"
"Not one bit. I get to go on a date with you two now." I winked at her when she grinned big, and then I ruffled Oliver's dark hair when he got beside his sister. "And have the best burgers in Dogwood Beach."
"Oh yeah!" Oliver hollered, adjusting his glasses when they slid down his nose. "Let's go. I'm starving."
The kids rushed outside when I opened the door. I followed, grinning as I watched them sprint to the car and pile inside it. Their unrestrained excitement was infectious, and I realized halfway to the restaurant how much truth had been in the answer I'd given Olivia.
My children always made the best dates.
* * *
The oceanfront restaurant was busy, typical for a Saturday night, I was sure. The kids didn't mind the thirty-five-minute wait though, and spent it playing I Spy on the wraparound porch while I stared out at the ocean.
I braced my elbows on the railing and watched the waves crash through a break in the dunes. The June air warmed my shoulders.
I loved the beach. I couldn't imagine living anywhere but here now.
Olivia chose our car for the second time in a row and stumped Oliver, who called her a cheat and demanded a rematch. When it was her turn to guess, Oliver started with the same description—I spy with my little eye something silver—and I had to bite my cheek to stop myself from laughing.
It was precious, how well they got along. I had a feeling even if they weren't twins they would've been this close.
- "HOLY FREAKING SQUEEEE!!! This was an absolutely GORGEOUS book!! I read it in one sitting and honestly it was just pure angsty romance goodness! The hero was a single dad, the heroine was a single mom, and it was heart-warming beyond words to see them and their kids bond and form a new family out of their two previously broken ones. This is the kind of story that'll leave you so happy when you're finished reading it!"—Aestas Book Blog
- "Down Too Deep is emotional, heartwarming, and sexy. J. Daniels developed a thoroughly engaging story that I didn't want to put down."—Harlequin Junkie
- "When a romance novel can pack an emotional punch and take it to another level, it elevates the story for me. This was a heartfelt, tender story about two single parents and I ate it up."—She Reads
- "You do not want to miss this emotional, sexy, and utterly sigh-worthy romance." —Frolic
- "This one was definitely a hit."—Book Riot Kissing Books
- "Appealing leads, adorable children... a good choice for fans of small-town romances with heart."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Oct 8, 2019
- Hachette Audio