Chapter One

 

“OOOH DAD,” Ivy exclaimed. “I just had the best idea ever!”

Oh God. “No.”

“You don’t even know what I was gonna say,” she argued.

I groaned.

“What? How did I know you didn’t like blonds?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

Even though I loved her, Ivy could try the patience of a saint. Since I wasn’t one, I was this close to throttling her. The matchmaking had to stop. Even though she meant well, I was starting to cringe whenever I came home and smelled something cooking as I walked into the house.

“Craig was adorable,” she cooed.

He was also, easily, twenty years my junior. And even though the school counselor had put his hands all over me when my daughter left the kitchen to set the dinner table, showing me in no uncertain terms that he was more than interested, I was not. I wasn’t in the market for a boy; I was looking for a man. Or more precisely, if I was, in fact, searching for anyone, it would have been a grown-up.

“Stop trying to set me up,” I enunciated for her.

“Pardon me?”

Her eyes blinking as though she were all innocent sweetness… was a crock. “Stop bringing strange men home.”

She scoffed.

Jesus, what had I just said?

“I bet you didn’t think you’d be saying that to me until I was eighteen, huh?”

I was horrified. “That’s so not funny. Don’t ever say that to me again.”

Her cackle was evil. “I wouldn’t have to bring home strangers if you’d just put on your big boy pants and take a chance.”

I stopped walking. “I’m sorry?”

She whined, “Come on, Dad, it’s time already.”

It was a blessing that Ivy, who thought she missed nothing, considered me boring and stalwart and all those things a good father should be. But after my friendly, supportive divorce, I had made up for lost time after living in homosexual denial and slept with every man I found even remotely appealing. What that amounted to was more sex than I’d ever had in my life, and I became such a player that names got confused and I turned into one of those guys I hated who evaporated in the morning light, all slick come-on lines and no substance. I got really good at sneaking out of bedrooms, down fire escapes, and out back doors.

When I woke up one morning in Seth Jordan’s bed, alone, I was surprised that he walked into the room a minute later with two cups of coffee as I was frantically dressing. The arched eyebrow, warm smile, and teasing tone while he asked what my hurry was threw me for a loop. It turned into one of the best relationships of my life.

Ivy continued. “I know you’re all worried because Mom died and you think I’ve lost enough and you don’t want me to get attached to people who aren’t gonna stick around.”

It was a lot of psychology so early in the morning. “Where are you getting—”

“I talked to Hutch, and he said that since you’re the only parent at present, that you probably have unrealistic expectations of what you need to do to keep me emotionally balanced.”

“You—”

“And Mike said that you’re probably concerned about bringing people into my life who might not stay.”

They were both dead men.

Seth hadn’t lasted. Six months was all we got before Deanna’s illness and Ivy needing me full-time took its toll. I’d lied to her, lied to both my girls—told them I wasn’t ready to tell people about Seth and so he left me, because the real truth—that he wanted me to live with him and hire a nurse for Deanna and be less involved with Ivy—was too hard for me to say let alone allow them to hear. He’d given me an ultimatum: him or my dying ex-wife and my little girl.

Leaving Seth, his home, his bed, the circle of his arms, annihilated me. He was the first man I had ever loved, but I made the only choice I could. I had to spend the small amount of time Deanna had left with her and Ivy as a family and make sure she was as comfortable as she could be. I had to let her know she was loved. Pancreatic cancer ate Ivy’s mother up, and the end of her battle had been heartbreaking for both my daughter and me. When the end came, we were with her, my dear friend who would forever be the mother of my best girl.

When it was finally all over, I sought Seth out, only to find him happily moved on. At the time I didn’t understand why I was relieved, but it occurred to me afterward, as I was leaving Detroit for Miami, that I needed a fresh start. I needed to breathe on my own for a while. I was glad to be reinventing myself, excited for Ivy to be on the adventure with me, and ready to live and simply be.

I hadn’t clearly thought out the move to Miami. Exchanging one big city for another was not something either Ivy or I had needed. It had taken only a month of being there for me to go to my new boss and explain the situation. I was fortunate he’d been so understanding, and even more fortunate that he’d known the tiny resort town of Mangrove was in the market for a new fire chief.

“The money’s crap,” he told me as he stood in my office. “But it’s beautiful there, and small, and maybe you and your kid—after what you just went through—could use a small, tight-knit community.”

“I think that sounds great,” I sighed, and his smile, in response, was warm and kind.

“I do too.”

While I had stayed in Miami and closed up my office and got out of our lease and hired movers and basically undid everything I’d just gotten done doing, I sent my daughter on ahead of me with my sister’s kid, who was a twenty-two-year-old struggling actress I thought was far more responsible than she turned out to be. I was lucky Ivy had found Hutch and Mike next door along with other friends in the tiny resort community.

But now I really needed them all to butt out of my love life, especially because I had no idea what to do.

Ivy was still talking. “But I understand you have needs.”

I was lost for a second, catching up. “What?”

Needs,” she said, emphasizing the word, making her eyes big for my benefit.

I was about to have an aneurysm. “Please stop.”

“What, Dad? It’s a natural part of being an adult.”

“I’ll pay you to stop.”

“You know Hutch and Mike are right next door. You can always start spending the night other places, because you know I’ll be safe.”

“Ivy,” I began, rubbing the bridge of my nose, my voice pained.

“And c’mon, this is Mangrove. There has never been any kind of violent crime in the history of this town. Coz told me.”

I groaned. All the people I knew who were trying to be helpful, and probably even thought they were, were driving me nuts.

“Not that there are a ton of gay men to choose from here, that’s true,” she continued, pinning me with her stare. “Don’t look at me like that. Hutch said, so you know it’s true.”

I needed a drink.

“He’s going to run for mayor, you know, just because Mrs. Evanston told him not to.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear.”

“She hates him for no good reason.”

But having known Hutch Crowley for the last six months, I was sure that Mrs. Evanston had cause. The man was definitely annoying.

“So I was thinking you should ask out Dr. Hammond, cuz he’s superhot.”

I did the slow pan and glared at her, and she waggled her eyebrows.

“Yo, Poison!”

Her head snapped up, and there was the boy, that one, the blond surfer with the hair and the dimples and the big blue eyes. She made a noise, that noise, the one my wife had made when she first met me, half whimper, half sigh.

“Don’t do that,” I groused.

I thought there’d be a learning curve, there normally was. I figured Ivy would need me… and she did. She loved me, of course, but she did not need hand-holding.

Except when she did.

Sometimes, not often, but upon occasion she broke into a million pieces I had to gather and hug whole. She needed her daddy when it hit her—at sometimes strange, unfathomable times—that her mother was altogether gone and all she had was me.

A lot of that pain and desolation had run through her system by the time we reached the sleepy little coastal town, but I still thought she’d disintegrate more often. She had moments of falling completely apart, and though there were hundreds in the past, once we moved to Mangrove, she suffered only a handful. I blamed the town. It wasn’t Detroit, full of memories and pain for her. Instead, everywhere she looked was new and shiny and God, so very bright. I’d never worn sunglasses so often in my life.

“I gotta go,” she said, brushing me off, as she ran to catch up with… Derek. I was pretty sure that was it.

“Davis!” she called, and he turned and waited and had the balls to wave to me.

I growled.

Davis, not Derek, had been on my porch the first weekend they’d met and every one after that. I’d said no, but he was relentless.

“Why are you here?” I’d asked, irritated, as I stood there in the entryway of my home.

His smile was blinding. “Mr. Dodd, you realize that I have the utmost respect for your daughter.”

I sighed deeply. “I’m sure you do, Derek—”

“Davis,” he corrected. “But you can call me Derek if you want.”

Which was where the confusion came in. I had the kid’s own permission to re-christen him. “No.”

“But sir—”

“She’s fourteen,” I reiterated, as I’d done the last five times he was on my porch.

“And a half,” he added.

“Sixteen,” I told him again. “That’s the magic number you’re shooting for here. She doesn’t get to date until she’s sixteen, Der—crap, Davis.”

“But we can hang out, right?”

He himself was sixteen, and I knew that because he’d told me so on a number of occasions. “Not alone,” I explained, “because I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

“She’s the only one who can hurt me, sir, by taking away her smile.”

He was seriously going to make me vomit.

Ivy sighed from behind the screen door like she was a character in a Jane Austen novel, and Davis leaned sideways and smiled the smile that would serve him well later on in life when he became President.

And now he was waving, and she slipped her hand into his as they turned and walked away.

“I thought she couldn’t date until she was sixteen?” Lazlo Lassiter, formerly Maguire, reformed rent boy, now full-time father, shop owner, and new husband to Britton Lassiter—they had been married at Brenner Manor right on the beach—volleyed as he walked by.

“She can’t,” I snarled.

He tipped his head at my girl and her suitor. “That looks like more than friends to me.”

“I will kill you where you stand,” I warned.

His shrug, along with a giggle from Katie, his adorable little girl he was currently walking to preschool, told me I wasn’t scary in the least. “It’s sweet,” he assured me.

I rounded on him and pointed down at the cherub at his side. “I will remind you of this conversation years from now when she starts to date.”

His eyes bugged out and he looked suitably horrified.

“Yeah, see that?”

He muttered something under his breath before tugging his daughter after him, leaving me alone on the side of the road.

Ivy had friends, activities, she was grounded and happy. I was needed, of course, but not nearly to the extent I had been.

My job as fire chief was easy, mostly kittens in trees, CPR classes, checking fire extinguishers, and talking to Mrs. Halsey about bonfires on the beach and getting the correct permits before she and the other seniors got naked and danced around the blaze. Having a group of them all looking at me while I averted my eyes was problematic. I also helped Mr. Sutherland, the deputy mayor, talk to local businesses about fire lanes and how packing boxes in front of emergency exits was not kosher. It was tame, my life, and so I had no excuse, none at all, not to focus on my love life. Or, in Ivy’s case, have it focused on for me.