A look at A Father’s Love Book 4 in the Heartbeats Series

 

mockup-9-19523821500659751-largeChapter 1:

 

Maxwell Banks smiles at the buxom blond across from him. Her name has escaped his memory, but she will make a suitable companion for the night. The image of her long blond hair splayed like gold across his pillow fills his mind, sending his pulse into overdrive. Her yoga instructor body is just calling out for his attention if the tight shirt she is sporting is any indication.

Discreetly, he turns his wrist to check his watch. Fifteen minutes since they finished dinner. Surely that is a long enough segment of small talk. “You want to finish this somewhere more comfortable?” He reaches across the table to stroke her hand as he says the words. A little flattery goes a long way. He has mastered that art in the last few years.

Her tongue darts out and swipes across her lips, and her teeth bite the bottom one, causing the blood to flow to it and tint it a shade darker. “Um, sure, I guess that would be okay.”

Her words are hesitant, and Maxwell knows he will have to turn up his charm. He doesn’t usually have to work hard to get women to come home with him. With his dark hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders, and chiseled chest his looks alone attract many. The fact that he comes from money attracts the rest. Those are the harder ones to get rid of, the ones after his money. They tend to show up uninvited and blow his phone up all hours of the day.

But this one isn’t looking for a sugar daddy. This one he picked up in yoga class. Yoga was not usually his thing; he preferred lifting and running, but his friend Justin had dared him to try the class, and as the instructor was hot, Maxwell had taken the chance.

He could tell when he entered the large room that she found him attractive as her eyes followed him as he crossed the room to grab a mat. His blue cut-off t-shirt had showed off his muscular arms and brought out his eyes, and his playing dumb had kept her by his side most of the class. Asking for her number had been easy after that. He had simply put on his puppy dog face and emphasized the need for private lessons if he was ever going to improve. She had fallen for it; hook, line, and sinker. Now it was time to seal the deal.

“Great.” He whips out his wallet and places four twenties on the table. It is more than enough money as she only had salad and water – another perk to taking out weight conscious women. Then he stretches out his hand to her.

“Don’t you need to wait for change?” she asks, glancing around for the waiter.

“No, I believe in big tips.” He flashes his best smile, hoping it will soothe some of the hesitation he hears in her voice.

She shakes her head in disbelief, but accepts his outstretched hand. He gives it a squeeze for good measure and then leads her out of the restaurant and back to his black BMW Z4.

“What about my car? Shouldn’t I just follow you?” She glances around for her car in the full parking lot.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll bring you back to your car later.” Her smile is a little more relaxed as he opens the car door for her, and she slides into the grey leather seat.

He folds himself into the driver’s seat and turns the engine. As the air has cooled considerably, he presses the button for the heated seats before pulling out of the restaurant parking lot.

The girl—he really should remember her name—pulls on her skirt to stretch it back down. It has crept up her leg revealing smooth, toned thighs underneath.

“Can I turn on some music?”

He mentally kicks himself. He’s been so distracted with her thigh that he didn’t realize they were driving in silence. Silence is never good. It lets them think. “Of course, whatever you’d like.”

She punches the buttons on the dial a few times before landing on some newer pop music. Inwardly, he cringes – he’s more of a hard rock fan himself, but he knows the payout will be worth it.

Fifteen minutes later, he hears the sharp intake of her breath as he pulls into the driveway of his house. While not a mansion, the 4000-foot ranch home is impressive. The craftsman style boasts three slanted roofs, two chimneys, a grey-brick exterior, and a white wraparound front porch. A small working fountain sits in the middle of the circular drive.

“You live here?” The awe is plain in her voice.

He smiles inside. The deal is almost sealed now. “Yeah, it’s a little big for one person, but I hope one day to fill it with a family.”

When she turns back to him, he can almost see the stars in her eyes.

He pulls into the three-car garage and parks next to his Harley Davidson. The third bay contains no vehicle. The garage is neat; he can’t stand messes, and the few tools he owns meticulously line the shelves along the wall.

Her heels click across the cement floor as he leads her to the door into the house. It opens onto a large laundry room with a washer, dryer, and table to fold clothes on. The door from the laundry room leads into the hallway. To the left is the kitchen, dining room, and family room. To the right are the bedrooms. He leads her to the left where he has a bottle of wine waiting on the counter. It is yet another tactic he has learned will loosen women up and lower their inhibitions.

The kitchen is large, half the size of most houses entire first floors. The appliances are all stainless steel and a marble topped island in a crème color with brown and gold flecks fills the middle of the room. A large silver light fixture hangs above the island, and a deep sink takes up a portion of the space under the light. A bottle of red wine and two glasses sit prominently in the middle of the island, and across from the sink four plush barstools covered in black leather line the island. The cabinets that circle the room are a deep brown, and a large walk-in pantry covers most of the back wall, but it is the wine that he focuses on.

“Drink?” he asks as he uncorks the bottle and begins pouring the glasses.

“Oh, I don’t know if I should. I can’t stay too long. I teach an early class tomorrow.” The hesitation is creeping back into her voice, and her eyes are darting around as if she might bolt. It’s time to turn up the charm.

He pushes his lower lip out in a slight pout. “You wouldn’t make me drink alone, would you? Besides, what will one glass hurt?” The glass he extends to her is half full, and he focuses his steely blue eyes on her. Many women have told him that his eyes are what drew them in, and he knows how to use them to his advantage.

Her eyes flicker back and forth, but return to his gaze, and he knows he has her. “Okay, maybe just one.” Her arm rises and accepts the glass.

“To a wonderful night with a beautiful woman,” he says, clinking her glass ever so slightly. A blush spreads across her face, and she drops her eyes to the murky red liquid as she takes a sip. He is about to suggest they retire to the living room, where his leather couch will be more inviting and conducive to his seduction, when his doorbell rings.

A glance at his watch reveals it is nearly ten p.m. No one he knows should be ringing his bell, and it is too late for solicitors. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says to her, “I’ll be right back.”

As his shoes echo on the hardwood flooring, he curses the timing of whoever is on the other side of the door. He has worked hard to get this woman here, and she has proven more skittish than many before her. If he loses her because of this, there will be retribution.

He is fully prepared to lash into the unfortunate soul on the other side of the door, but when he swings it open, his heart stops and his words fail him. The anger sizzles as if doused like a campfire, and he blinks not believing his eyes.

 

 

Chapter 2:

 

“Sarah?”

Though much paler and thinner than the last time he saw her, he is almost certain that the woman before him is the only woman he ever loved, the woman he lost three years ago without a word of explanation. Though he was promiscuous before, it was her disappearance that sent him into the philandering tailspin he has been in for the last three years.

“Hi Max, can we come in?”

We? His eyes drop lower to take in the small child clutching Sarah’s hand in a death grip. She has dark brown hair and large blue eyes. Her daughter? But she didn’t have a daughter when he was seeing her, so that means the girl must have come after she left. Not much longer though. He isn’t a good judge of age, but the child can’t be younger than two.

Though every fiber in his body is screaming for him to say no, shut the door, and return to his busty blond—who must be getting bored by now—he finds himself opening the door wider. “Of course, come on in.” He never could deny Sarah. In fact, though he never told her, he probably would have married her if she hadn’t just up and left him.

Sarah and the little girl cross over the threshold and stand, staring at him. “Can we go somewhere more comfortable so we can talk?” Sarah asks, tilting her head at him.

“Right, of course.” He shuts the front door and leads them into the living room, completely forgetting the blond until she stands as they enter.

Her eyes shift from him to Sarah and the child and back again. “What is this, Maxwell?”

“Uh, this is my friend Sarah, Sarah this is… ”

The blonde’s eyes widen as she realizes he doesn’t know her name. “Seriously? You don’t remember my name?”

Max cringes and shrugs. He should care; he doesn’t like getting caught, but Sarah has taken his attention. “Brigitte? Heather? Selena?”

The woman’s face flames red as her hands curl into fists and jam into her slim hips. “Those aren’t even close. It’s Margo. I can’t believe you.” She pulls her purse strap tighter on her shoulder and shoves past Max, pausing to turn at the doorway. “Don’t bother walking me out; I can find my own way home.” The angry clomp of her heels echoes on the floor as she stomps to the front door.

Sarah turns her hazel eyes on Max. Her left eyebrow arches on her face. “I see some things haven’t changed.”

“What can I say?” he says, shrugging again. “Women find me irresistible, and there are too many to remember all their names.”

Sarah’s head shakes back and forth. “I’m not sure this was a good idea.”

“No, wait.” Max’s demeanor straightens as he reaches out to stay Sarah. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“Sweetie, why don’t you go in the living room and play while I talk to Max?” The little girl responds with wide eyes and a silent head shake. “Go on, you have your tablet. I’ll be right in here.” Reluctantly, the little girl lets go of Sarah’s hand and trudges into the living room. A tattered backpack hangs from her thin shoulders.

As Sarah sits in one of the barstools, Max notices the dark circles under her eyes and the hollowness of her cheeks. What has happened to her? He eases himself onto the stool next to her and waits for her to speak.

Sarah’s frail shoulders rise with her inhaled breath, and she forces her eyes to Max’s. “I guess there’s no easy way to say this, but I’m dying. I have anaplastic carcinoma. There’s a cancer hospital in New York that specializes in treatment for my condition, but I’ll be too weak to watch Peyton. You know I have no other family, and”—she looks into the living room where the girl is curled on one of the couches playing a tablet before turning her attention back to Max— “Peyton is your daughter, so I’m hoping you’ll take her in.”

Her words hit him like a truck, shaking any response from his mind. She is dying? He has a daughter? When he can finally wrap his mind around it, the words come out small and quiet. “Why didn’t you tell me about Peyton before?”

She tilts her head at him as if she can’t understand why he would even ask that. “Maxwell, you always told me you weren’t one for settling down, and the day I was going to tell you, you told me about your friend Justin being trapped into a relationship with a pregnancy and that he was going to push the woman to have an abortion.”

Maxwell’s eyes drop. He remembers the conversation. Justin is as much of a philanderer as he is, maybe more so. Justin taught him a few trade secrets, and it is true that the few times he ended up getting a woman pregnant, he forked over the five hundred dollars for the abortion rather than being sucked into a relationship or fatherhood. But Maxwell wouldn’t have pressured Sarah into that, would he have?

“I couldn’t take the chance you would do the same, as I wasn’t strong enough to fight back because I loved you so much. I probably would have agreed just to keep you, and then I would have hated us both, so I left.”

“Does she know?” Max asks, shrugging towards the little girl in the other room. He is still having trouble grasping the gravity of Sarah’s words.

When she smirks, he sees a glimpse of her old playful nature. “That I’m dying or that you’re her father?” Then her face grows serious. “Yes, she knows both. She isn’t excited to be left behind, but she understands I have little choice. It’s either you or foster care, and she is more inclined to try you than a total stranger not related to her.”

“But, Sarah, I’m no role model for a little girl.”

“So I see, but I took that into consideration.” She reaches into her purse and pulls out a card. “This is my best friend’s number. She has known Peyton since she was a baby, and she can help you out if you need anything.”

“Then why doesn’t she just take her?” Maxwell doesn’t mean for the words to come out as catty as they do, but the thought of being left alone with the little girl—even if she is his—terrifies him.

Sarah’s brow furrows. “Because she is still going to school and can’t afford a full-time nanny. You can. And because you’re her father. I’ve never asked you for anything, but I’m asking you now.” She reaches across and clasps Maxwell’s hand. “Be a dad. For once in your life, stop thinking about yourself or your next easy woman and think of someone else for a change. Peyton needs you. I need you.”

The words cut him to the quick. Her directness and unwillingness to put up with his crap were two things he loved about Sarah. “You should have told me about her sooner,” he says and finds that he means it.

“You’re right. I should have. We both made some mistakes, but none of those mistakes are Peyton’s fault. She’s a good girl, Max. She’s a lot like you when you aren’t trying to be suave and debonair.”

“I thought you liked my suavity and debonairness,” he says with a crooked, sexy smile.

“No, I hated those two traits. I liked you for the man you are when you take off the masks, and one day, if you can keep those masks off, you’ll find another woman who will feel just as I did.”

Her words sober him and wipe the smile off his face. “Do you have a chance?”

A small, sad smile plays across her lips. “There is always a chance, but it doesn’t look good. The cancer spreads quickly, and we may not have caught it in time. I’m going to give the doctor’s a chance, but at this point, I think it would take a miracle from God.”

God? She hadn’t been religious in the past, and he wonders if her cancer has made her seek solace in fairy tales.

“Here,” she reaches into her bag, pulls out a notebook and hands it over to him. “I’ve written down Peyton’s schedule, her bedtime routine, her fears, and what calms her down. I hope it’s all you’ll need, but again Alyssa can help. She’s expecting your call whenever you might need to make it.”

As she pushes herself up from the barstool, his heart tightens. “Wait, you’re going now?”

“I have to; I have a plane to catch. I have a few more bags for her in the car. I’ll set them on the front step before I leave.” Sarah looks past Max and calls, “Peyton, come here please.”

The little girl appears by her mother’s side, so quiet it is almost stealthy. Sarah kneels until she is face to face with the girl. “Peyton, Max is going to take care of you, but he might need some help. Be patient with him and help him out.”

Peyton’s big blue eyes fills with tears, and she wraps her arms around Sarah’s neck. “I don’t want you to go, Mommy.”

“I know, Baby, and I don’t want to go, but it’s Mommy’s last chance to get better.”

As the two hug, Max feels a stirring in his soul that he’s never felt before, but too soon, Sarah is standing again, and the little girl is crying big hitching sobs as tears stream down her cheeks.

“I love you, Peyton,” Sarah says, and then she is gone, and Max is left staring at the small girl. What is he going to do now?

 

 

Chapter 3:

 

As the sunlight streams in the bedroom window, Max opens his eyes, hoping last night was all a bad dream, but as he rolls to his left side, he sees the little girl curled up with her pink bear clutched tightly in her arms. Her long lashes fan out on her cheeks, and she looks peaceful as her little chest rises and falls, but he knows that won’t last long.

Last night after Sarah left, the little girl had been almost inconsolable. She had cried for an hour straight while Max awkwardly hugged her and tried to offer her books or movies – he had no toys, and she hadn’t brought many with her. He had finally decided to lay her down, but she hadn’t wanted to stay in his guest room either, so he had nestled her in his own bed and laid with her until she had fallen asleep.

As quietly as possible, Max edges out of bed and heads into the kitchen for coffee. It was a long night, and he has the feeling today will be a long day too. As he passes the front door, he remembers Sarah saying she was going to put more bags on the front porch. He had forgotten all about them last night, but thankfully they are still there when he opens the door. He brings them inside, locking the door once again, and continues his trek to the kitchen. His cell phone rings just as the coffee starts percolating.

“Hey, man, we still on for tonight?” Justin’s voice carries through the phone.

Max sighs. He has forgotten all about their plans for the evening. “I don’t know. Something happened last night, and I have to take care of some stuff.”

“Stuff? What are you talking about? This party is going to be epic.”

Max grabs a mug from the cabinet and fills it with coffee. “Sarah showed up last night.”

“Sarah? The girl from four years ago? What did she want?”

“She wanted to introduce me to my daughter.”

“Daughter? Are you sure? Did you ask for a paternity test? I know you liked her, but she could just be trying to trap you, man, get some money, you know?”

He hadn’t considered asking for a paternity test, partly because it was Sarah, and he couldn’t believe she would come back for money, but also because the girl looks like him. She has his nose and his blue eyes. He has no doubt she is his.

“It’s not like that. She’s dying, and she needs to get treatment, so she left Peyton with me until she either gets better or. . .” He trails off. If Sarah doesn’t get better, that will mean Peyton will be his responsibility forever. What had he agreed to?

“That’s heavy, man, what are you going to do?”

Max takes a sip of the hot coffee and shakes his head, though he knows Justin can’t see his head shake. “She left me the number of her friend. I’m going to call her today and see if she can take care of this.”

“Maybe her friend will be hot, and it will be worth it.”

Max rolls his eyes. Justin should know better than to mix business with pleasure. “Yeah, maybe. I’ll let you know.” Max hangs up the phone before Justin can add more. He takes another sip of his coffee and almost drops the mug when he sees Peyton. Again, he had not heard a sound.

“Hi, Peyton, you hungry? I think I have cereal or we could go get breakfast.” What did three-year-olds even eat?

“I want my mommy.”

“I know you do,” he says, kneeling to her level, “but Mommy had to go away for a while.”

“I want her back.” She steps to him and throws her arms around his neck. Last night, she would barely let him touch her, so the force of her hug throws him off guard and off balance.

She smells sweet and innocent. It is such a different smell from what he is used to that he isn’t sure he could explain it if he had to. Without thinking, his arms wrap around her, and his hands begin to pat the soft brown curls of her hair. It is an awkward and unfamiliar gesture. He doesn’t even like to console the women he dates, but he can feel his shoulder getting wet from her tears.

“Peyton, I know you miss her, and I am a lousy replacement, but I’m going to need your help, so can you try and be a big girl and stop crying?” His words do not have the desired effect as a loud screeching noise begins to accompany the sobs.

Crap. What do I do now? He remembers the card with Sarah’s friend’s name on it and untangles himself from the child to search for it. The counter. Sarah had laid it on the counter. Thankfully, he is a neat freak and his counter is clutter free. The white card calls like an SOS beacon from the same spot Sarah placed it last night.

Scooping it up, he peruses the information. Alyssa 434-555-1347. The screeching has gotten louder and shriller from Peyton, and he nearly drops his phone in his haste to extricate it from his pocket the first time.

Please be home. Please be home. The mantra runs through his head as he inputs the digits. Though it feels wrong to leave Peyton alone, he heads down the hall and away from the kitchen, so when Alyssa hopefully picks up, he will be able to hear her.

“Hello?” The voice is soft and feminine—music to his ears—but not for the usual reasons.

“Is this Alyssa?” His own voice sounds strange in his ears—desperate and high pitched.

“It is, to whom am I speaking?”

The properness in her return gives him pause, and he blinks trying to reform the words he had seconds ago. “My name is Maxwell. Sarah gave me your number and said you could help with Peyton. She’s crying—well, screaming is more like it—and I can’t make her stop. Is there a trick? Can you help?”

A small chuckle meets his ears. “There is no magic pill you can give her. She lost her mom. You have to learn how to console her. Hug her and let her know you are there for you.”

“I tried that,” he says, the desperation now clawing at his throat. “It only made her cry louder.”

“You have to give it time,” she says, “but give me your address, and I’ll swing by. It sounds like you are out of your element here, and I’d like to make sure Peyton is taken care of.”

 

 

Chapter 4:

 

Alyssa hangs up the phone and grabs her keys. Sarah had told her to expect a call from Maxwell, and while she hadn’t expected it so soon, she is curious to see what this man is like. The stories she has heard from Sarah have her intrigued to say the least.

Half an hour later, she pulls up in the grand driveway, and her eyes widen. Sarah had said he was wealthy, but the appearance of this house makes wealthy an understatement. Alyssa is sure she will feel underdressed in her jeans and “I love Paris” t-shirt.

Not bothering to lock her car door—she has nothing worth stealing compared to this house—she drops her keys in her purse and approaches the massive front door, which is actually two large wooden doors with an ornate gold trim. She presses the bell, curious as to what the inside will hold.

Alyssa is surprised when, a moment later, the doors open and Max himself stands on the other side. At least she assumes it is Max. He wears no uniform, just a pair of cargo shorts and a t-shirt. His dark hair is tousled as if he just woke up, but it’s his piercing blue eyes that convince her. Sarah had spoken of these blue eyes often, but even her description holds no candle to the effect they have in person.

“Maxwell?” Alyssa asks, tilting her head and holding out her hand.

“You must be Alyssa,” he says, shaking her hand. It is strong, but not rough. He must not work with them much. Sarah had never mentioned his job, but looking at Maxwell, Alyssa can see why. His physical appearance dominates her brain.

“Yes, sorry, I was just expecting someone else to answer the door. The house is so large; you must have some help.” Her eyes scan the foyer behind him. It is clean and minimalist, decorated in browns and cremes.

“I don’t keep full-time help,” he says, dropping her hand. “I like my privacy.”

Though Alyssa nods, she can’t imagine one wouldn’t still have privacy in a place this big even with full-time help. “Where is Peyton? May I see her?”

Maxwell steps back, scooting boxes aside with his foot, and motions her inside. “She’s in the living room. It took forever to get her calmed down enough to eat, but a frozen waffle and some cartoons seemed to have helped.”

Maxwell leads the way through the ornate foyer and down a hall into the living room. Alyssa tries to keep up, but her attention is drawn to the left and the right as they meander through the house. She isn’t sure if his artwork is genuine, but the sheer amount of famous paintings hanging on his walls is enough to awe her.

A large television screen hangs on the living room wall, displaying an episode of Sophia the First. Peyton is curled into one corner, her bear snuggled tight to her chest. She looks smaller than her three years on the large leather couch.

“Hey, Peyton, how are you?” Alyssa asks, as she sits down beside her.

Peyton turns big blue eyes up at her. They aren’t quite the same blue as Maxwell’s, but it is clear that the gene came from him. “Hi, Aunt Lyssa. I miss my mom.”

“I know, sweetie, but your mom is going to get treatment to see if she can get better. Has Maxwell been taking care of you?” She can feel Maxwell staring at her back, but she keeps her eyes focused on Peyton, who shrugs.

“I guess. He didn’t want to read to me last night, or pray, or sing, though.”

“I don’t sing,” Max chimed in.

Alyssa shoots him a silencing look. “Well, Peyton, Max isn’t used to having a little girl in the house, and he doesn’t know the routines, but I bet you could help him.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

As her attention turns back to the screen, Alyssa rises from the couch and motions Max to follow her to the kitchen where they can speak privately.

“You have to try and follow her routine,” she says as she places her hands on her hips. “She just lost all stability in the world. Those routines are the only thing grounding her.”

Max crosses his arms, and Alyssa’s eyes are drawn to the well-toned appendages. “Maybe you should take her. I don’t know how to be what she needs.”

“I would if I could, but I have to finish school. Besides, you’re her father. If Sarah doesn’t get better, you’ll be her custodian legally. Show me her room.”

“Her room?” Max blinks at her as if her words are not computing in his brain.

“Yes, her room. Where she will be sleeping.”

“She just got here last night, and she didn’t want to stay by herself, so she ended up in my room last night.”

“She can’t stay in your room. She needs a proper room. Show me your guest rooms then, and we’ll work on fixing one up for her, so she feels comfortable.”

“What do you mean fixing one up?” There is a hint of panic in his voice, which Alyssa can’t decide if she finds annoying or charming.

“I mean paint, a kid’s bed, toys.” As his eyes widen in alarm, she points her finger at him. “Unless you want to be sharing your bed with a three-year-old forever.”

Max takes a step back and shakes his head. “Fine, you can decorate a room. Follow me.”

He leads the way back down the hallway toward the foyer.

“What are these boxes? Are they Peyton’s?” she asks as he passes them again as if they aren’t there.

He shrugs. “Yeah, Sarah left them last night.”

“Why haven’t you opened them?”

“To be honest, I forgot about them until this morning.”

“Well, you should un-forget, and when we get her room figured out, we should unpack them for her. That would help. She needs familiar things to help her get through this.”

Max rolls his eyes, but nods. “Fine, we’ll unpack them later. Do you want to see the rooms or not?”

Alyssa swallows her agitation and motions for him to continue showing the way. They cross through the foyer and down another hallway. Three doors line the hallway on the left and right plus a door sits at the end.

Grasping the handle, Mark swings the first door on the right open. A spacious bedroom lies on the other side with a queen bed and a large dresser. Nothing else is in the room, not even a book or a lamp.

“Don’t use this one much, huh?” Alyssa asks.

“Don’t use any of them much. It’s just me, remember?” He opens the next room which is very similar to the first. The third door is the first-floor bathroom.

“Well, I can see why she didn’t want to stay in either of those rooms. They are impersonal at best and probably scary to a small child. We need to go get some paint, a smaller bed, and toys. Are you free now? I have some time.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he says shrugging. He closes the doors and they return to the living room to grab Peyton.

As they enter the garage, Alyssa looks around. Her brow furrows as she turns to Max. “Where is your car?”

“What do you mean? It’s right there,” he says pointing to the BMW.

“You can’t take Peyton in that. There’s no backseat. Where would you even put a car seat in there?”

He blinks at her. “A what?”

Alyssa rolls her eyes. Has this guy been living under a rock? “A car seat. Kids have to use them until they are old enough or tall enough to sit in a booster seat, which also wouldn’t fit in your car. Children can’t sit up front because of the airbags. Your car is a deathtrap.”

Max’s face turns to stone and his arms cross. “My car is a work of art. It goes zero to sixty in less than six seconds.”

A short burst of irritated breath flows out of Alyssa’s mouth. “A three-year-old doesn’t care how fast your car goes. She cares about being safe in your car. Never mind,” she says, shaking her head, “we’ll take mine.”

“You have a car seat in yours?” The comment is snide and meant to get under her skin, but Alyssa chooses to ignore it and closes her eyes for a moment before answering.

“No, I don’t have a car seat in my car, but at least it has a back seat. Didn’t Sarah leave Peyton’s car seat?”

“Not unless it’s in one of those boxes by the front door,” he says.

“No, it would be bigger than those boxes. She must have forgotten. Well, we can strap Peyton in my backseat, and I will drive very carefully to a store where we can get a car seat for her.” Alyssa looks down at Peyton who has been quiet during the exchange. Her eyes turn expectantly to Max as if she has been following them like an unseen tennis match.

“Fine, we’ll take your car, but I’m not getting rid of my BMW.” He hits the garage door button, and the bay begins to lift, allowing them access to her car in the driveway.

“With your money, you could just buy another car,” Alyssa says under her breath as she grabs Peyton’s hand and follows him. She can’t believe the nerve of this man nor can she understand how Sarah was ever attracted to him. Sure, he’s good looking, with his dark hair and tempting blue eyes, and he obviously takes care of his body as his shorts hug his frame just right and his arms display the lines of finely-toned muscles, but he is just as self-absorbed as he is handsome, and that is a trait she cannot stand.

Max stops short at the sight of her blue Ford Escort. “You want me to ride in that?” he asks as his head drops forward in disbelief.

Alyssa pulls her shoulders back. Her car may not be a convertible sports car like his, but it is reliable and hers. Through dedication, she managed to pay it off while going to school. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says pointedly. “My car is safe and reliable.”

“And boring,” he says in a sing-song lilt.

Letting the comment go, Alyssa opens the back door for Peyton and straps her in. “I promise I’ll drive safely, Peyton.”

Still grumbling under his breath, Max climbs into the passenger seat, and after strapping herself in the driver’s seat, Alyssa starts the car and points it in the direction of the nearest Wal-Mart.

“I cannot shop here,” Maxwell says as she pulls into the thrift store parking lot.

Exasperated, she rolls her eyes at him. “You can, and you will. They have everything we need here, and I don’t know where the nearest hoity-toity store is that would have what we need.”

The look on his face leads her to believe that no one has ever talked to him that way, and it gives her a small amount of masochistic pleasure to see him put in his place.

After rescuing Peyton from the back of the car, she places her in the front section of the shopping cart and fastens the strap.

“Is that really necessary?” he says over her shoulder, pointing to the strap.

“Every time.” She says the words, slow and pointedly. “I’ve heard stories of kids standing up and falling out of the carts while their parents’ backs were turned. If you keep them buckled, that never happens.”

Max shrugs. “If you watch them close enough, it also never happens.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure that would be your specialty if she were twenty-three instead of three.”

His eyes narrow into a glare at her, but he says nothing as they make their way into the store.

Alyssa walks the store as if she owns it. She steers the cart directly to the baby aisle and begins perusing the options of car seats. Max stares at the variety as if the sheer amount of options had never occurred to him “That one,” she says pointing to a red and grey Graco convertible seat.

“Why that one?”

“Because she can use it up to one hundred pounds, which means it should last you a few years.”

“Years? How long do kids have to ride in car seats?” He hefts the box and slides it onto the bottom of the cart.

“Until they’re old enough or weigh enough not to. You should look up the rules now that you’ll have her full time.” Her lips purse as she taps a finger to the side of her mouth. “Next, baby monitor.”

Max’s forehead furrows. “Baby monitor? What for? She’s three.”

“And if you lived in a normal house where you could hear her, I’d say maybe you’re right, but you live in the flipping Taj Mahal, which means you wouldn’t hear her cry out if you were on the other end of the house, so you need a monitor.”

“Fine. Lead the way.” The words are tight and forced through clenched teeth. His jugular bulges out on the right side and puts another little smile on Alyssa’s face.

After the monitor, they pick out a bed. Even though it’s broken down and in a box, there’s no room in her car to carry the bed, so they arrange to have it delivered. Then she wheels him through the clothes, picking up a few more things for Peyton. She knows Sarah didn’t pack all her clothes; she also knows Sarah didn’t have much money for clothes recently.

The toy aisle is next, and while she doesn’t want to overwhelm Peyton, the girl deserves a few toys, puzzles, and of course bubbles. Every time Alyssa visits, Peyton wants to drag her outside and blow bubbles. The last stop is the hardware section for some paint and brushes.

By the time they wheel up to the checkout line, the cart is overflowing. Alyssa almost feels bad for the amount of money he’s about to spend, but then she remembers his house and how he treated Sarah, and she decides he can afford it.

 

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