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Ruthless Daddy: A Romance Collection by Emily Bishop (1)

Chapter 1

Eric

I had only one real regret in life. Just one.

Letting her go.

Olivia.

I strode through the old French Quarter with purpose in every step, just fucking burning to get there. To sit down. To read it.

The evening sizzled with life and jazz on this Thursday night I’d reserved for sitting in the haze of a dive bar, my fingers hungry to unfold the letter. It flapped at my side as I walked, holding promise. I couldn’t walk fast enough.

It was from the only woman in the world who’d brought chaos and love into my life—flipping my shit upside down and sideways throughout my youth, when I’d just fucking craved her.

I hadn’t seen her in twelve years, since the first and only night we’d fucked, thrusting our bodies together and inhaling lips, tongues.

My cock had throbbed in her hand as she’d gazed up at me with those big, almost-innocent eighteen-year-old eyes. The small-town carnival had raged around us, all glittering lights and clowns and spinning cotton candy. And we’d been lost in the back seat of my father’s car, in a sea of lust.

That was the last time I’d seen Olivia Thames. The night when the shit went down. When my life had changed forever.

God, I missed those days. Those hours with Olivia, the goodie-two-shoes cheerleader, hanging out with a bad boy like me. Tattoos, leather jacket, punk music: fuck yeah, that was who I’d been. I’d wanted to prove to the world, and to my father, that I was hard. That I didn’t need them.

I was different, now. I had to be. Sure, I still had the tattoos, the dark beard. But the softness, that had come with my daughter. Maggie.

I entered the bar fast then found my favorite booth and stretched out in it. I ordered my familiar red pint from the barmaid, a fifty-something woman named Marjorie. She gave me a crooked smile, showing blackened smoker’s teeth. “Well, here he is again. My handsome Eric and his long lost love letters.”

I’d never told Marjorie the letters were love letters. But I spent nearly an hour reading each one, and then another after that composing my own, pen in hand. Perhaps it was assumed.

Regardless, I loved the banter with the older woman—her southern drawl filled me with warmth, tenderness.

I hadn’t had a whole lot of tender in my life.

“Nobody said nothin’ about love,” I told her, faking a southern drawl.

She laughed. “That the best Nawlins accent you got?” She set the pint on the table. “You been living here how long, Eric, and you still sound like a Yank?”

“I wouldn’t call North Carolina particularly north,” I said, chuckling. “Although I have to admit, it’s funny hearing what Maggie’s been coming up with, accent-wise, just from going to the preschool down here. She’s gonna be a southern belle, I reckon.”

“You reckon so?” Marjorie teased me, ruffling my hair. “Listen up, I got me some mozzarella sticks in the back heating up. You want me to plate you up some?”

“Naw, thanks,” I told her, nodding toward the still unopened letter. My fingers tingled to open it. “I got something to do.”

I hadn’t seen Olivia in years, but she still haunted my dreams. These letters… they were all I had of her. They were the only thing connecting me to the past.

We’d kept up our pen-pal-ship for about a year or so now—ever since my divorce with Candace had been finalized. I wanted to see Olivia again. To claim her again, but damn if things weren’t too fucking complicated for that.

Maggie came first. And I wouldn’t risk putting her through more instability, especially after what’d happened with her mother.

I’d learned the hard way that this love shit, these feelings, they were sweet, but ultimately, they led to nothing. Nothing for me and nothing for Olivia.

I shoved thoughts of that aside. “Fuck it,” I grunted. “Here we go.”

I unfolded the letter, inhaling the soft smell of it. Something illusive, her perfume or her scent—lavender. Fuck, it brought back all the tight desire, the wet dreams.

We were memories speaking to memories. It allowed us a reprieve from adulthood, and I latched onto it with both hands, all ten fingers.

Eric. Eric Holzman,

I could say your name over and over again. It reminds me of all the lost days of our crazy teenage years. It all seems like a daydream, now, doesn’t it? That we were ever next-door neighbors. That you ever used to sneak into bed with me at night. What did we think being “adults” would mean? Was it this?

You’re a father, now. I still can’t believe it. Can’t imagine you changing a diaper or going to a PTA meeting or any of that. But the way you talk about your Maggie makes me realize that you’re probably a stellar father. Caring. Not the man I always assumed you’d become. Man, that sounds messed up! I just…

I hate that I have to tell you this over a letter, Eric, but your father has passed away.

He died of a heart attack in a parking lot downtown, as he was walking to his car. That old green Chevrolet he always drove. Apparently, he passed quickly; there was nothing the doctors could do.

I know your relationship to the old man was complicated, at best. I know you said many times you hated him more than anyone. I get that after what he did to you, Eric, I do.

But maybe, I don’t know, it would be best for you to come and bury him. You could show your girl where you grew up, and maybe you could come see me. There! I said it! I’ve been thinking about it ever since we started writing to each other again, and I’m pretty sure you have too.

If you do come, there’s something we need to talk about.

After all these years, you deserve to know. I apologize for being so cryptic. But I really don't feel comfortable explaining everything in this letter. Not now.

If you do decide to come, here’s my number: 555-325-9988. Call me.

Olivia

I leaned back in the booth, blinking into the hazy darkness, jazz music washing over me. I read the letter four more times, first two fast, last two real slow, absorbing every word.

My father. Old man Isaac. He’d croaked. Kicked the bucket.

Christ, when I was a teen I’d ached for the old man to die, to free me of him. “God, if he could just leave me alone,” I’d muttered in Olivia’s bed, aged thirteen. She’d stroked my face tenderly, where the bruise had formed. Seemed he always picked the same place. It was a wonder it hadn’t caved in on itself. “Why the hell won’t he leave me alone?”

Now, he was gone.

My stomach clenched with the knowledge of it, but I kept my face stony, processing. As I sat, clutching the letter, Marjorie approached and placed a platter of mozzarella sticks beside me. She clucked her tongue, speaking to me from another world.

“Come on, Eric. I know you didn’t eat anything today. Give me a panic every time you get in here, like all you’re doing is taking care of that daughter of yours and forgetting yourself,” she sighed. “When the hell are you going to get yourself another woman, huh? Someone to feed you dinner every once in a while.”

The mozzarella sticks steamed atop a paper towel, blotting it with grease. Olivia’s words swirled in my head, all muddled the fuck up.

He’s dead. And she wants to tell me something. Something she’s kept from me.

“I don’t feel comfortable explaining everything in this letter. Not now,” she’d said.

What the hell did that mean?

I bolted up from my seat, smacked a ten-dollar bill on the counter for Marjorie, and waved my hand toward her. “I gotta run,” I said. “Can’t stay for a chat. Take care, Marj.”

I tore through the French Quarter, toward home.

Fuck it, was I really going to do this? Go home? What the fuck did that even mean? Of all the places I’d considered home over the years, that one in North Carolina was… the least comfortable, the least happy.

The one shining light in all the shit was Olivia.

She’s practically fucking invited me back, now. Never figured we’d get that far. I wanted it sure, but I wanted a yacht and a Harley too—all fantasy, not reality. Maggie was reality.

I shook my head to clear it of the crap, but no dice.

It seemed that everyone downtown had a smile the size of a shark’s mouth. Their teeth glittered. This night reminded me of the chaos of that night at the carnival. How Olivia had wrapped her arms around me, cuddling me close, while the carnival had bumped along—the Ferris wheel churning in the distance, the games beeping deep into the night.

And then the blood-curdling screams riding high, echoing beneath the nearby Smoky Mountains.

Ten minutes later, I was home, and the babysitter, Sarah, hopped up from the couch, pretending she hadn’t been asleep. I dropped my keys on the counter and looked at her, my eyelids drawing far back, showing the whites.

“You okay Mr. Holzman? You kinda look like you seen a ghost,” she said.

“Naw, Sarah. I’m good,” I said, flipping through my wallet and drawing out a twenty. “Thanks for doing this. Wouldn’t have a night off without you.”

“You know she’s a dream kid,” Sarah said, warmly. “Best babysitting gig in town.”

Sarah left me alone minutes later, stomping off with books in her arms and a shy grin.

After, I dropped onto the leather couch, staring blankly into the corner. “Shit,” I muttered.

I didn’t want to go back. But I did.

The quiet was broken by the pattering of light feet on the steps which led to the second floor of the house. I spun right, watched as Maggie—four-years-old, crazy blonde hair, those big blue eyes like reflective pools—darted into the room. She collapsed onto my lap, bringing her nose against the gritty hairs of my neck.

“Daddy, I couldn’t sleep,” she whispered into my ear. “Will you tell me a story?”

My heart lightened, instantly. Having my baby girl close, talking to her, those were the only times I was truly happy. I drew her away from me, trying to swallow up her entire face with my gaze. To memorize every detail, knowing only that this face, this moment, would one day be a memory. Much the way Olivia was. A memory that had altered the course of my life.

After a long swallow, I heard my own voice—gruff, yet warm. “Maggie. What if we went on a trip together?” I asked.

“Where you want to go?” she asked, yawning mid-way through the sentence.

“I want to take you to meet someone special to me,” I told her. “And I want to show you where I grew up.”