Chapter One

 

“DAFFY? CAN you bring me that bowl with the paper towels in it please?” Fried chicken. Seriously?

“Popsy? Can I have fried chickens for my birfday?”

Obviously he’d let Rosie watch too much Cooking Channel.

“This one?”

Ryan nodded to Daffodil, keeping one eye on his blonde, hazel-eyed seven-year-old and the other on the bubbling chicken in his pan.

As if deep frying chicken on the stove wasn’t enough, his phone began to ring, buzzing against the counter where it sat, playing his mother’s ringtone. Frank Sinatra’s tenor got progressively louder as he ignored it.

“Will someone please answer my phone?” he hollered. Four girls in this house and no one was answering? That didn’t bode well.

It was his fifteen-year-old Mel who finally came into the kitchen. Rolling her hazel eyes, she picked up his phone. “Hey, Gran.”

“Tell her that we’re having dinner in twenty if she wants to come,” Ryan said. The birthday party was planned for Saturday, but every little girl deserved a special dinner on her own birthday.

“Daddy says if you want to come for dinner, it’ll be ready soon. If he doesn’t burn the kitchen down.”

Oh, brat!

“I will beat you, girl,” he teased. “Or make you starve!”

Daffy cracked up, and Daisy and Rosie came running. “Popsy?”

“Yes, baby girls?” He gave them his best innocent look.

“Is that fried chickens, Popsy?” Rosie’s eyes were huge.

“That is what you asked for on your birthday, right?” He was not the kind of daddy who denied his girls without a good reason. Especially on their fifth birthday.

She nodded. “I did.”

“Well, there you go.”

Mel was still on the phone, and she kept shooting him looks. Honestly, it was a little suspicious.

“Is your gran okay, Mel?” He didn’t need drama. His hands were full—100 percent full.

“Uh-huh. She’s fine. She’s not coming for supper, but she wants to talk to you.” Mel handed him the phone. “You have to say yes.”

“Okay….” He wasn’t sure what to make of that, but if he was going to be concentrating on the call, he couldn’t be looking out for the kids. “Can you take the girls into the other room so there’s no popping of grease onto tender skin, please?”

“Sure—but you have to say yes.” She gave him the eagle eye, the way only a fifteen-year-old girl could, then gathered the girls and took them out.

He shook his head and put the phone to his ear. “Mom? I’ve got chicken frying on the stove, so I don’t have long.” It would break Rosie’s heart if it burned. And hell, he couldn’t afford to throw away all that grease and two birds’ worth of chicken.

“Hello to you too, son.”

“If you were a good grandmother, you’d be doing this. Isn’t this your job?” He loved teasing her. His mother could cook anything that involved dialing a phone for takeout. He adored her.

She snorted. “Danny and I have plans. We’ll be there on Saturday, with bells on. Speaking of plans, though, you remember Ada Powell?”

“Uh….” Ada Powell? The name was vaguely familiar, but it could easily have been because it was one of those common-sounding names.

“One of my friends from church—you remember her. She’s got the hair teased all the way to heaven? Dyed blue?”

“Okay….” It wasn’t ringing any bells, but his mom liked to show off her grandchildren, so they’d met most of her church friends at one time or another.

“Well, her nephew has just come back from Africa. Building wells. Or schools. Or maybe it was wells for schools. Roads to get to schools. Oh, I don’t know, but it was definitely something in Africa. Anyway. He’s single, and he bats for your team, and now he’s new to town and doesn’t know anyone, so I thought you should have dinner with him. That way he’d know someone. And you could tell him all the best places to see and stuff like that. Before you say no, he really doesn’t know anyone else in town.”

“Mom….” A blind date? Him? Seriously? He hadn’t been on any sort of dates since he’d adopted Rosie, Daffy, and Daisy. “I have the kids.”

“Melly has already agreed to babysit Thursday night. It’s all set—she’ll even help you with your outfit. Besides, it’s not a blind date. You’re doing the guy a favor.”

Yeah, he could tell even she wasn’t buying that.

“What is this all about, really?” Why the sudden interest in his love life? And if they had a date and time, then it had clearly already been set up on the other end. Why was he the last to know?

“This is about you not leaving that house unless it has to do with the girls. It’s about you being celibate for fifteen years. You deserve a life too, Ry.”

“Fifteen years is a little extreme, Mom.” Seven years? Maybe eight. It was probably eight. There hadn’t really been any dates, but quickies in the corner stall totally counted as not celibate.

“Well, you haven’t been out since the girls came to live with you, and even Mel’s noticed it. This was her idea, you know.”

“Mom….” Dammit. Just. Dammit. His fifteen-year-old conspiring with his mother? This was not a good precedent.

“What could it hurt?” she asked.

He rolled his eyes. He was sure he could come up with a dozen reasons why it was a bad idea. Starting with the four girls in the other room, three of whom were under the age of ten.

“She’s going to be disappointed if you don’t go. She’s pretty proud of herself for coming up with the idea.” Emotional blackmail, that’s what that was. His mother had just resorted to emotional blackmail.

It was going to work too. “Fine. Mom, I have chicken frying. Birthday chicken.”

“I’ll text you the details. Don’t burn the house down.”

“Pray for me.” He hung up and shoved his phone in his pocket. At least she’d done this today and not on Saturday during Rosie’s party. He was going to need his wits about him with a houseful of five-year-olds. Even if it was only for a few hours and he planned on them watching Frozen for the umpteenth time for one and a half of those hours.

Mel peeked around the corner. “Everything okay, Dad?”

Little sneak. He did love her.

“Uh-huh. You have something you want to talk to me about?” Like why she was setting him up on blind dates.

She stepped into the room. “Did you say yes?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure I appreciate you going behind my back, honey.” He dumped the potatoes into the colander and let them sit for a minute, draining into the sink.

She stepped from foot to foot. “But you wouldn’t talk to me about it. Besides, it’s… icky. You’re my dad.”

“But you can talk to Gran? Get me the milk and butter.”

She went to the fridge and grabbed both for him. “Yes. It wasn’t easy, but it was important. Can we drop it now and finish Rosie’s birthday dinner?”

“Uh-huh. Sure. I need the potato masher.” He dumped the potatoes back into their now empty pot. “Carrots or green beans?”

“Rosie likes carrots best.” She grabbed the masher and handed it over. “I could set the table for you.” Ah, nobody was as helpful as a teenage girl madly trying to change the subject.

“You can. And get me a can of carrots.”

“You think the cake looks okay?” Mel asked, worrying her bottom lip.

He nodded absently. Okay, fried chicken. Mashed potatoes. Carrots. Rol— “And I need the brown-and-serve rolls.”

“I’ll get them if you tell me the cake is okay.” Mel had made it herself, the pink so bright it was going to blind them all. It also had copious amounts of pink edible glitter on it.

Rosie was going to love it.

“I think the cake is perfect.”

She beamed at him and handed over the rolls. “I can’t believe you’re frying chicken.”

“I just hope it tastes all right. She’s so excited.” And it was his youngest’s birthday.

Who would have thought this was his life? He wouldn’t trade them for anything, though.

“It’s fried chicken. As long as you don’t burn it—maybe even if you do—she’s going to love it. I’m going to go get them, okay?”

“Okay.” He had presents for after supper. Rosie had this doll she’d seen at the store—strawberry blonde hair and hazel eyes, just like her. Most of the blonde dolls were blue-eyed, so it was quite special.

The girls came in, Rosie squealing and excited. “Popsy made me fried chickens!”

“I most certainly did. Everyone sit!” Somehow, wonderfully, magically, he had figured this out. It was a little dark and maybe the potatoes were a little lumpy, but the look on little Rosie’s face was worth it.

“Happy birthday, baby girl.”

There was a chorus of “Happy birthday, Rosie!” and his girls all started to eat.

For a second he sat there—exhausted and proud and wanting a beer—then he smiled and grabbed himself a piece of chicken. Not bad. Not bad at all. It didn’t even taste a little bit burned.

“Huh. This is pretty good.” Mel managed to sound surprised.

“It’s good, Popsy. So good. My popsy is a chef,” Rosie pronounced.

Daffy grinned and Daisy snorted, and Mel started to laugh because she’d been there the longest, back when all he could make was scrambled eggs and toast. They’d lived off that and rice cereal quite literally for months when she’d started to eat solid food.

“For you I try, Rosie. Now what do you want to do when you’re finished here? It’s birthday girl’s choice.”

Rosie answered without hesitation. “Presents and cake and snuggle movies!”

“Yes, ma’am.” They’d been having snuggle movies since Mel was little and he was still living at home with Mom and Pop. They’d get onto the sofa and snuggle together and watch a cartoon or animated movie, just be together under the covers.

“We’re probably just going to watch Frozen again, so can I go to Julie’s?” Mel asked, not quite looking at him.

Nice try, Mel. At least she’d come up with an excuse that wasn’t “I don’t want to hang out with my little sisters.”

“No, it’s Rosie’s birthday—we’re going to have a family evening together. You can go to Julie’s another night.”

“But Da-aa-a-ad!”

“Melissa Danielle.”

She sighed.

“We don’ have to watch Frozy, sister,” Rosie offered. That was his babiest girl, the sweetest, most giving little girl ever.

Mel shook her head. “It’s your birthday, Rosie. You pick.”

He nodded. Good girl. No upsetting the birthday girl with teenaged bullshit.

“I picked up The Secret Life of Pets the other day.” He’d been saving it for after the party to help calm the girls down, but maybe tonight was the time to pull it out.

“Oh… doggies!” Daisy’s eyes lit up. “That’s cool, huh, Rosie?”

“Uh-huh. I like doggies.”

He just hoped the movie didn’t renew the begging for a puppy. They’d been working him hard a few months ago.

The Secret Life of Pets it is.” He hadn’t vetted it yet—he usually didn’t let the girls see a movie he hadn’t already watched so he knew what problems might come up, but he supposed he could take a chance this time.

“Did you get Rosie a puppy for her birthday?” Daffy asked.

Oh Lord, here they went. He’d known that movie was going to be nothing but trouble.

“No, Daffy. I’ve already explained why we aren’t getting a puppy.” He could just imagine having to look after a puppy as well as the girls. At least he had them potty trained. He wasn’t willing to start that all over again, even if it was four-legged and not two-legged potty training.

Daffy sighed softly. “But, Popsy—”

“We’ll revisit this later. Not right now. Right now, we’re having a birthday!” God, he was tired.

And now tomorrow evening he had a date. That would be at least three hours when he could be working or spending time with the girls. Or even sleeping.

He couldn’t believe Mel had enlisted his mother on this. He couldn’t believe Mom had gone along with it. With his luck this guy was ancient and covered in boils.

The thought had him chuckling, and Rosie threw herself in his arms. “What’s fun, Popsy?”

“You are, my sweet baby. You’re fun. Happy birthday.”

She clapped, and they all laughed. God, they might be a handful, but they were his heart. His girls.

He’d go on this date for Mel and his mom, but really, he had everything he needed right here.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

ALEX TOOK another sip of his whiskey on ice and glanced at his watch. Ryan was late. Which was annoying because he was only here as a favor to his Aunt Ada. He didn’t do blind dates. Hell, he rarely did dates, liking his downtime to be exactly that. He worked hard when he was overseas, and he preferred to spend his time off doing the things he liked.

When he wasn’t doing paperwork. Which he had been doing all day today, so maybe he was a little more annoyed at not being able to sit in front of the TV and catch up on his movie watching this evening. Of course, that wasn’t this Ryan guy’s fault.

He finished his drink and ordered a second. There were worse ways to spend the evening than relaxing at the bar of one of Ottawa’s best restaurants with good whiskey.

A trim-looking, slender guy walked in, talking away on his phone. He was cute—jeans and a black tee, short wild red curls.

Now if he had a date with that guy, he’d be more than happy to rent a room in a nearby hotel and spend the night seeing how many ways they could make each other scream.

“I mean it. You guys be good. I’ll be home in a few hours.” Mr. Cutie Pie walked up to the bar, ordered a glass of wine, then texted someone.

Alex’s phone beeped at him, and he checked it, then chuckled softly at the text: at the bar, redhead.

Looked like the fuckable redhead was his date after all.

“Hey there,” he said, turning on his stool to face his blind date. “I’m Alex.”

“Oh. Hi. Sorry I’m late. I haven’t been downtown in ages, and I forgot that I needed time to find parking.” One long, lovely hand was held out to him.

He offered his own, and Ryan’s shake was firm, his skin warm, not clammy. It was a good handshake. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Ryan gave him a half smile. “So your mother conned you into this?”

He laughed. “My aunt. You?”

“It was a joint effort.” Ryan rolled his eyes, which were a fascinating mixture of blue and green.

“Well, we’re both here. We might as well enjoy a good dinner, eh?” It was a great restaurant—he’d been told one of the best in the city—and he had to admit he was looking forward to sitting down and eating a decadent meal. Steak. He wanted some meat with fancy sides.

It was meat he missed the most when he was overseas. And he wasn’t having rice for at least a month, maybe a year. Maybe not even until he went back. Of course, that was likely to be long before the year was over.

“Sounds like a great plan.” Ryan chuckled softly, offered him the sweetest smile, and then paid for his wine. “Would you like another drink, or are you good?”

“I’m good. This is my second,” he admitted. He grabbed his tumbler, and they made their way to the hostess, who was ready to seat them—the advantage of eating at eight; most people had already been and gone, and they didn’t have to wait for a table.

“I do apologize for being late. I hate being tardy,” Ryan admitted.

“Good to know it’s not a habit. Some people can’t be on time to save their lives, and I admit, it’s a pet peeve.”

“For me too. Seriously. I’m embarrassed.”

“I could spill my water once we get some, and then we’d be equal in the embarrassment department,” he suggested, testing Ryan’s sense of humor.

“Let’s go for a chocolate mustache during dessert instead.”

“That sounds like a lot more fun. Less wet too.” Lord, he was a dork.

“And way less cold.” Ryan winked at him.

He chuckled, pleased that his sense of humor hadn’t made Ryan wrinkle his nose or frown or get up and walk out.

“I see you’ve got drinks already,” the waitress noted as she stopped at their table. “Did you want anything else with your dinner?”

“I’d like some water, please. In a glass,” he added, giving Ryan a grin.

“Same here.” Ryan was laughing now. Soft, quiet snickers.

They chuckled easily together, and it was neat, having this kind of rapport right from the start.

“Do you know what you want, or do you need a few minutes?” their waitress asked.

“We haven’t even looked at the menu,” Alex admitted. They’d only just arrived at their table, and he’d refused the offer of a menu while at the bar.

“Okay. Take your time, and I’ll bring you those waters and some rolls.”

“Thank you.” Ryan gave her a nod and a smile.

Alex did like politeness in a man. So far, so good. Did that mean he was actually considering seeing this guy again? Yeah, yeah he was.

“I suppose we should look at our menus before we get into the getting to know you part of the evening,” he suggested. He’d hate to have to tell the waitress they still hadn’t done it when she came back.

“Works for me. Have you been here before? Do you know what’s good?” Ryan asked.

“I never have, no—I’m new to the city. But I’ve been told it’s one of the best in town and that everything is good.”

“Ah, well then, I will be daring. I never get fish at home, so I’m going to have the baked haddock.”

“I want meat.” Alex grinned, realizing he was almost drooling. “I’ve been out of the country, and I’ve eaten a whole lot of rice recently.”

“So, I’m dying to know what you do.” Ryan set aside his menu, turning his attention to Alex.

“I run a nonprofit organization that builds schools, homes, roads, and wells in third-world countries. I spend a lot of time overseas.” Or at least he had. He was running out of money, though. He was going to have to rely on the outside emergency relief gigs for now and start fundraising in earnest.

“Oh, very cool. That sounds so exciting! Where did you just come from?”

“Haiti. It’s still in really rough shape. Heartbreaking really. It’s going to be a long time before they don’t need help anymore.” Sometimes the disconnect between being home and ordering a steak dinner and being out in the field was huge. No, not sometimes. It always was, but it was a much larger disconnect when he’d just arrived home.

“I can only imagine. You’re a hero. That’s so cool.”

“I don’t know about that….” He was trying to make up for how his inheritance had been earned in the first place. He hoped his father was rolling over in his grave.

“Well, I think it’s vastly cool.”

He accepted the compliment with a nod of his head. “Thank you.”

The waitress came with the rolls and their water. “Have you decided?”

Ryan ordered first as Alex took a quick glance at the steak section of the menu.

“I’ll take the baked haddock, please, with the potatoes and haricots verts.”

Bingo, there was his favorite. “And I’ll have the filet mignon, rare, along with the roasted potatoes and vegetables, please.”

She wrote on her notepad and asked, “You guys want salad to start?”

“God yes.” He craved fresh greens almost as much as he did a steak. “Garden with balsamic dressing on the side, please.” He looked at Ryan to see whether or not he was going to be crunching on his own.

“I’ll take the strawberry spinach pecan salad, please. That sounds heavenly.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“It’s delicious.” Their waitress put her pad in one of her pockets. “I’ll have the salads out shortly.”

Alex waited until she’d left. “Maybe I’ll sneak a strawberry or a pecan. How do you feel about sharing with strangers?”

“It has been a long time since that sort of thing worried me.”

“Oh?” That was an interesting sentence.

“I live with four little thieves. I can’t remember a meal when someone didn’t want a bite.”

He felt his eyebrows rise up to his hairline. “Four little thieves?” That was an awful lot of dogs. Or cats.

“Yes. My girls—Melanie, Daisy, Daffodil, and Rose. Rose just turned five yesterday.”

“Oh! Kids. Wow.” Four girls. Wow. That was…. Ryan was a father. That was totally unexpected.