New book boyfriend. Check.
Bubble Bath. Check.
Glass of wine. Check.
Brynn Daniels glanced around her bathroom and saw that she had everything she needed to indulge in a rare, quiet evening alone.
Her Kindle was cued up with the latest Erin Nicholas book. She’d dropped a lavender aromatherapy tablet into the hot water that filled her tub. Flickering vanilla Yankee Candles illuminated the room and a generous pour of Roscato Rosé Dolce was flirting with her from beside the speaker that was playing her easy-listening Spotify list.
As the single mom of a thirteen-year-old boy, her two-bedroom, one-bath, eight-hundred-square-foot house was usually filled with the sounds of video games, music, sports, and other teenagers.
She didn’t mind the chaos or the tight quarters though. Heck, it was bigger than the five-hundred-square-foot apartment above the garage that she and Ryder had lived in until her mom had moved to Arizona. It did make her appreciate her alone time though.
Her ex-husband, Max, had surprised them both when he showed up earlier that afternoon and announced that he wanted to take Ryder camping. Technically, this wasn’t his weekend. Last weekend was his weekend, but it had been Labor Day and her ex had decided to go on an impromptu trip to Vegas. He often missed his weekends. Two weeks ago it was because of “a work thing” and two weeks before that it was because Max wasn’t feeling well.
In the twelve years that she and Max had been divorced, her baby daddy had only seen Ryder for his court-assigned visitations about a dozen or so times. Most of the time, just like this, he showed up out of the blue when he wasn’t scheduled to see him.
Thankfully, it didn’t seem to affect her son. Brynn worked hard and sacrificed a lot to provide a stable environment for Ryder. And, for the most part, she thought it had worked.
Ryder loved his dad and was happy to see him when he did. But he didn’t depend on him to keep his word. It was a healthy place for him to be, not that she was analyzing him which was a mortal sin. Oddly enough, her son didn’t appreciate her putting her master’s degree in psychology to use on him or his friends, go figure.
Brynn stared in the mirror as she untied the belt on her robe. As a child, she’d been in more pageants than she could count because her mother fancied herself a psychic and had foreseen Brynn wearing crowns. Growing up in that environment, she’d always been hyperaware of her appearance. But now, she barely recognized the woman staring back at her as the material slipped from her arms.
Jess had referred to it as the “breakup haircut” which would imply some kind of action in Brynn’s personal life, something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sadly, Brynn wasn’t in the chair because she’d gotten her heart broken. To have your heart broken, you’d actually have to put your heart out there, something she hadn’t done in years. Being single was one of the many sacrifices she’d made to provide stability for her son.
She’d tried dating when Ryder was younger, but when you’re a young mom (or teenage mom, in her case) the guys in your age bracket are usually more interested in partying than raising a family. And she didn’t blame them.
She ran her fingers through her wavy, red locks that fell just above her shoulders before pinning them to the top of her head. It seemed the ten inches Jess had taken off had weighed down her natural wave. She’d only ever seen herself with curly hair in baby pictures. For as long as she could remember she’d had long, straight hair that fell almost to her waist. These new, bouncy locks were taking her a little bit to get used to.
There were a lot of things that she was having to get used to lately. Ryder was a freshman in high school. The high school where she was a counselor. And his schedule and priorities were morphing before her very eyes. They’d always been just like the Will Smith song: it was just the two of them. They had Saturday pizza nights, Sunday movie nights, and Tuesday game nights. But lately, he’d been with his friends and if he was home he wasn’t spending quality time with her, he was texting and Snapchatting with Fiona Caldwell.
She got it. He was getting older and hanging out with her didn’t hold the same appeal it once did. On a completely different note, it seemed her thirteen-year-old son might have a serious relationship before she did.
A loud buzz interrupted Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” as it played through the speaker. She grabbed her phone to see if it was Ryder. The life of a mom. Every call and text when her son wasn’t around had to be checked immediately, just in case.
It wasn’t him. It was her only other family member, at least that she was in contact with. Her mother.
Shea Daniels was the epitome of a free spirit. Brynn’s mom was a self-professed spiritual guide and intuitive. Until she’d retired and moved to Arizona three years ago, she’d owned and operated The Blue Unicorn. It was a small boutique that sold healing crystals, oils, incense, bohemian clothing—and where she gave readings.
Since Whisper Lake was a thriving tourist town known for its over-the-top festivals and a real-life “haunted” castle, her mom’s shop had done well. Brynn believed that most of the out-of-town patrons just saw the store as a novelty. Still, her mother took her “spiritual gifts” and the items that she sold very seriously.
The text simply read: Are you there?
Yes. Brynn was “there” but the last thing she wanted to do was talk to her mom right now. Partly because she had a nice, hot bath waiting for her and partly because she knew exactly what her mom wanted to talk about. Her father. The man that had never treated her as anything more than a dirty secret.
Growing up, her father had been more of a myth than a reality. Like Santa Claus. Or the Tooth Fairy. He would show up out of the blue and give her presents. He never stayed for more than a few hours and had only made an appearance a handful of times during her formative years.
For a good chunk of her childhood, Brynn thought that’s what all dads were like. But as she got older she realized that a lot of fathers actually lived at home with their families, and if they didn’t, they often showed up more than once every other year.
After being assigned a family tree as a school project in third grade, Brynn had used the opportunity to question her mom about her father. Shea explained to her that Brynn’s father had another family that he lived with.
At the time, Brynn took her mom’s statement at face value and hadn’t questioned the moral or emotional repercussions of the bomb that her mom had dropped on her. She’d just accepted it. That lasted until she was a teenager and curiosity had gotten the better of her. So she’d Googled him. And with one click of her mouse, her entire life changed. Her rose-colored glasses cleared and any innocence that she’d had was stripped from her.
Her father, Ramsey Wilson III, was a senator from Massachusetts. He had a wife and four kids. One of those kids was a daughter who was born exactly six days before Brynn. She’d sat in her room and clicked through image after image, photo op after photo op of his “perfect” family and reality came crashing in on her.
From that day on, she hadn’t wanted anything to do with the man that she’d inherited half of her DNA from. Within six months of that discovery she was pregnant and married. She didn’t need to use her degree in psychology to figure out the significance in the timing of that. She’d wanted to create what she never had.
The last time she’d had any contact with her father was when he’d stopped by two days after Ryder was born. She’d told him to stay away from her and her son. He didn’t even put up a fight, he’d just walked out of the apartment, above her mom’s garage, where she, Max and Ryder had lived.
Then about a month ago a news story broke. Her father had been a witness to a shooting. The news reported that her father had been having a private after-hours dinner in a five star restaurant with one of his top campaign contributors. He left the table to make a phone call and when he returned not five minutes later he saw the man slumped over the table in a pool of blood. The news services also reported that an unidentified source close to the investigation revealed that Senator Ramsey Wilson III was able to give a description of the shooter and that the FBI was conducting a nationwide manhunt for the fugitive who was a known hit-man and wanted by the FBI.
His life had turned upside down and she was relieved that she and Ryder had no ties to the man. His name didn’t appear on her birth certificate, and as far as she knew, her mother had never told anyone of her paternal secret.
Her mother had been calling regularly to “check-in” with Brynn which always dissolved, rather quickly, into discussing whatever sensational headline had been revealed that day. Brynn would tell her mother she didn’t care and that he had nothing to do with her, which Shea would ignore completely or even defend Ramsey saying he was her father and nothing would ever change that.
It had always seemed strange to Brynn that her mom had no animosity toward the man that had left her to raise a child on her own. But, the truth was, Brynn felt no ill will toward Max, either. Just like her mother, she didn’t hold the man that she shared a child with accountable for anything.
Brynn dipped her toe into the water to test the temperature and a smile tugged on her lips. It was just hot enough to cause a prickling sensation to break out on her skin, but not so hot it actually burned, which was in her estimation, perfect.
“No,” she preemptively chastised Lucy AKA The Destroyer, her adorable, yet highly mischievous pug before slipping into the tub.
Lucy had never grown out of her “puppy stage” of chewing everything in sight. Especially if it was cotton. She’d eaten more towels, shirts, and blankets than Brynn wanted to think about.
As the heat of the water enveloped her, she gave her munchkin-faced mutt the side-eye to make sure she stayed in her designated corner of the small bathroom. The two-by-two square area she was banished to was far from temptations like toilet paper, the trash, and her plush robe.
When she saw the resignation in her pug’s big brown eyes, she relaxed into bubbly heaven. Just as she was reaching for her Kindle, her phone buzzed again. A quick glance told her it was her mother. Again.
I need to talk to you.
She hadn’t checked the headlines today but she assumed it was something related to her father.
Brynn had no interest in following her father or his story. To her, he was little more than a sperm donor. She was done talking about a man that hadn’t been in her life for over a decade. And now she knew more than ever that she’d made the right decision to cut him off all those years ago.
She ignored the message and tapped her Kindle and the cover of her new book filled the screen. Since she hadn’t had anything remotely resembling a love life in years, Brynn lived vicariously through the romantic lives of the characters in her beloved romance novels. The heroes in these stories never let her down and no matter how difficult the heroines’ circumstances might be, they were strong and always just kept swimming.
She set the device in the holder of the bath caddy and lifted up her wine glass. Her fingers wrapped around the thin stem and she tilted her head back as the fruity, sweet liquid filled her mouth before trickling down her throat as she prepared to lose herself in happily-ever-after.
Just as she was about to be transported into another world, her phone rang. A quick glance revealed that it was her mother. Again.
“Oh, for the love of Pete.”
A frustrated sigh fell from her lips as she sank into the water until it was just shy of her nose. She thought about continuing further beneath the bubbled surface, dunking her head and screaming as she stomped her feet Pretty Woman style, except her tantrum would be born of frustration whereas Vivian’s was out of pure, unadulterated glee.
She opted instead to answer the call. She pressed speaker.
“Oh good. I’m so glad you picked up, Sunflower. Are you at home?”
“Yes, I was actually just taking a ba—”
“Good!” Her mother interrupted again. “He’ll be there any minute.”
“He’ll? He’ll who?”
“He’s my new tenant.”
“Your new tenant?” Brynn repeated. “I thought we agreed that you weren’t going to be doing Airbnb anymore since you’re not here to deal with things.”
Shea had been renting out the vacant apartment above the garage since she’d moved to Arizona. Which would’ve been fine and dandy if she didn’t tell all of the occupants that her daughter lived in the main house and to “let Brynn know if they had any problems or questions.”
Guess what tourists had a lot of? Yep. Problems and questions.
It had been nothing but a headache. The water pressure up there was non-existent. The stove worked only about half of the time. A fuse would blow if you had the coffee maker and a hair dryer plugged in simultaneously. All things that Brynn had grown used to over the decade that she’d lived there, but vacationers weren’t too keen on.
“It’s not Airbnb, Sunflower. Axel is renting the apartment for the next few months.”
“Yes. And he’ll be there any minute.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Brynn saw Lucy stand up and turn so she was facing the door. She began grunting and snorting a second before there was a knock at the front door.
“Why didn’t you tell me he was coming sooner?” Brynn set the caddy to the side and stood from the bath.
“I tried but you never answer my calls.”
That was B.S. and her mother knew it. She’d only ignored two texts and those had come in the past ten minutes. She wished she could argue with her mother but another knock came at the door. She stepped out of the tub and deciding to forgo drying off she reached for her robe. After securing it in place she blew out the candles.
“I think you’re really going to like him,” her mother continued. “I explained the issues that the apartment and house had, including the landscaping, and he agreed to do the repairs.”
Shea Daniels was a dangerous combination of believing herself acutely intuitive while also being acutely naive. Brynn’s mother trusted her instincts about a person rather than that person’s actions, and she’d been taken advantage of more than once.
“Mom. Are you letting some guy live in the apartment for free because he promised to do the repairs?”
“Of course not. He already paid for three months. It is at a lower rate than we originally discussed.”
Of course it is.
Of course you did.
“But a man like Axel would never accept that.”
A man like Axel?
“How well do you know this guy, Mom?”
“Very well. I read his aura. He is grounded, strong-willed, and survival orientated—”
The knock sounded again and Brynn mentally added impatient to the list as she grabbed the phone and started down the hall.
“Mom.” The last thing Brynn wanted to hear was her mother’s take on the guy’s libido. After all, he was going to be living in her back yard for the next few months. “I gotta go, he’s here. Love you, bye.”
Her mom kept talking but she hung up. She glanced down to make sure that all of her lady parts were covered up and she threaded the belt, tightening it in place.
Lucy hated men. She always had. It took months, if not years, for her to tolerate anyone of the opposite sex who wasn’t Ryder. It even took months and lots of treats for Ryder’s best friends KJ and Ricky to win her over. She’d never even really warmed to Max and he’d tried to bribe her with steak on more than one occasion.
“Sorry, I was in the—” her words stuck in her throat.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to see but she knew that what she was looking at was not it.
This man could’ve walked right off the pages of one of her favorite romance novels. He was tall, dark, and handsome personified. But it was more than his outward appearance that had her stupefied. Brynn’s hormones weren’t in overdrive because of his deep brown stare, broad shoulders, chiseled arms, or his perfect lips. No. Her hormones were doing backflips because of his overwhelmingly male presence.
Brynn was no stranger to being around dominant alpha energy. Especially lately. Her best friend Ali had just married an MMA fighter and Jess had just gotten engaged to a U.S. Marshal. Both men oozed masculine energy.
But neither came close to the potency that the man standing on her porch was putting off. She wasn’t sure if it was pheromones or what, but her entire body was buzzing with electric energy.
She was so lost in its potency that she didn’t notice that Lucy had gotten a hold of the edge of her belt that was dangling beside her. One tug. That was all it took for her robe to part and her to be completely exposed. When she grabbed at the terrycloth to cover herself, Lucy thought it was a game and bit the hem of the robe and tugged as Brynn turned her back to Axel for modesty.
And that was how Brynn Daniels ended up flashing and mooning the only man that her body had taken any interest in in years.