Chapter 1

 

“POPPY!” EMMA cried after the front door slammed closed, and she raced through their small house, pigtails flying behind her, to where Pat waited for her. “I won a drawing contest in school. Mr. Walther said mine was the very bestest.”

“Best,” Pat Corrigan corrected gently as he took the drawing his eight-year-old, blonde-haired daughter pressed into his hand. “That’s really wonderful, sweetheart.” He came from behind his desk and hugged her before taking her by the hand and leading her to the wall of fame. The side wall of his office was one huge corkboard. When he’d bought the house, he’d had it custom-made. “Where do you want it?” Pat let Emma choose the pushpins from the box on the table under it, and she picked out just the spot on the board where he could hang it. In some places the drawings, cards, hearts, and other projects were maybe two or three thick, but once something was on the board, he never took it down. Things were moved or sometimes covered up, but this was his wall of love, and with each addition, it grew.

“Right there,” she said, pointing, and Pat placed the drawing in the upper corner and pinned it into place.

“It’s perfect.” Pat stepped back. When he’d put up the board, he’d thought of it as a way he could keep Emma’s various projects on display, but now he realized it was an ever-changing art presentation of her life, one he got to look at every day. He lifted her into his arms and hugged her.

“Poppy,” she said with giggles that quickly turned serious as he put her down. “I’m supposed to go to Nicole’s after school, remember? We’re going to be late. See.”

She pointed to the clock. Telling time was her latest thing, and Pat hoped she’d get over watching every single minute fairly soon.

“Okay. Go on upstairs and change into play clothes, and I’ll take you over.”

“It’s a sleepover for her birthday,” Emma said. “You were supposed to get her a present.”

“I did, and it’s all wrapped. Let’s go get you packed for the night and we can go.”

She took his hand and practically pulled him upstairs to her room.

“Get your suitcase.”

It had to be Elsa, of course. Pat helped her pack, and then he got her sleeping bag and a pillow. Once he made sure she had a nightgown, clothes for the morning, and extra just in case, he closed the suitcase. He carried it down while she hugged her sleeping bag. Pat had gotten it for her especially for this.

He loaded everything in the car and then drove her the few blocks to her friend Nicole’s house. Apparently they weren’t the first or last to arrive. Pat walked her to the door, where he could hear enough screaming to set his spine on edge. “Joanne, are you sure you’re going to manage?” he asked, receiving a hug from Nicole’s mother. They had become just as close as their daughters were.

“Yes. I know you offered to help, but Annabeth’s mother is going to take the guest room. So you go on and have a night on the town.” She leaned closer. “Go shake that fine booty of yours at one of the clubs and see if you can’t get a little lucky.”

“Joanne,” he teased with mock horror, but she was having none of it.

“Don’t give me that. Emma will be fine, and you need some time for yourself. You either work or take care of Emma. When was the last time you had a day to yourself?”

Pat tried to remember and didn’t answer fast enough.

“See? Go on and have fun. I’ll take good care of her, and you see if you can’t end that monkish life of yours.”

She hugged him again, and a chorus of oohs echoed from the house.

“Are you going to kiss her?” one of the girls asked, followed by a group of giggles.

“Oh, please….” That was Emma’s voice ringing out over the others. “Poppy’s gay. He kisses boys, not girls. Don’t you know anything?”

He couldn’t see her, but Pat could easily picture Emma with her hands on her hips, daring anyone to argue with her.

“Be good, Emma,” Pat said, hiding his smile. Joanne wasn’t as successful as he was. “I’d say you’re in for quite a night,” he told her.

“You could be too if you got a move on.”

She wasn’t going to let this go, and Pat had to admit that it sounded like a good idea. He hadn’t been out on his own to dance in a very long time… well, nine years would be about it. Nearly a decade of diapers, feedings, baths, stories, playtime, you name it—but Pat wouldn’t have changed a minute of it. Well, okay, it would have been nice to have had some help, but that hadn’t turned out as he’d expected it to, and once Emma arrived, she took all his energy. She was what was most important in his life, and Pat had determined as soon as that adorable, pink, pudgy-cheeked bundle of joy had been placed in his arms that he would do everything in his power to make sure she had a better childhood than the one he’d been given.

“Okay. I know when I’m beaten. You have my number if you need anything,” Pat said and turned toward the screams from inside the house. “It looks like the number-one thing will be earplugs.”

“They’ll settle down soon enough.”

Pat wasn’t so sure about that as other girls arrived. He figured it was best if he got away while the getting was good—before Joanne changed her mind and decided she needed more help after all. Pat got in the car and hurried away. He went right home but continued to think about having a night all to himself, and Joanne’s suggestion serenaded his mind like a siren song.

 

 

“I THOUGHT you were dead,” Dustin said five minutes after Pat walked into one of his old haunts. The Pink Stallion hadn’t changed a bit. Well, the boys all looked younger, but that was about it. The disco ball still hung from the ceiling, and the lights danced around the room. The music playing was different but just as thumping and body-jarring as always. God, he wanted to dance so damn badly, and then maybe…. Jesus, he had a kid at home, and he was thinking of finding some dark corner to fuck a willing guy into oblivion. His body thrummed with the need to take away the edge that was nine years in the making.

“Not dead… just my sex life.” Pat sighed.

“Don’t you have a kid or something?” Dustin scanned the club the same way he always had. Dustin was older and had a few lines around his eyes, but he was still as handsome and studly as he’d ever been.

“I have a daughter, Emma, and she keeps me pretty busy. She’s at a slumber party tonight.”

Dustin threw his head back in a deep, rumbling laugh. “And you’re here to find someone to have a slumber party of your own with. That’s awesome. Go ahead and get out there. I can almost guarantee you won’t be dancing alone for long. You already have some admirers.”

Pat, confident in black jeans and navy blue shirt that set off his black hair, looked where Dustin indicated, and a group of younger guys were all looking his way. At first he wondered if they were interested in Dustin, but then one of them smiled, and holy crap, they moved forward in some sort of pack. “You wanna dance?” the black-haired beauty in the middle asked, and when Pat agreed, all four of them moved toward the dance floor.

“Have fun,” Dustin said.

Pat held up a finger and hurried back to Dustin. “What’s the deal?”

“They like to bring in an occasional fourth and take him to the moon. You lucky stiff.”

Dustin’s eyes twinkled, and Pat wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into, but the three hotties all looked at him as though he was the main course at a buffet.

“Come on,” the middle hottie said as he tugged Pat out onto the floor.

This was exactly what Pat needed. Three guys bumping, grinding, and thrusting around him while the music beat down into the depths of his soul was incredible.

“You’re a great dancer,” the hottie from behind him said before moving in close, pressing his crotch, with a sizable erection, right against his ass. “I bet you fuck just the way you move,” he added breathily in Pat’s ear. “Do you think you can handle the three of us? Because we’d sure as hell like to be handled by an older stud like you.”

Pat faltered for a few seconds. He never thought of himself as old, but he was definitely older than these guys. They had to be what… twenty-two maybe, and he was a decade older. Hell, if they didn’t care, why should he? It wasn’t like he was trolling for a long-term relationship. A few hours of fun and then he’d go back to his real life and all the responsibility it entailed. “Sweetheart, I can go all night and wear the three of you out more than once.”

“Hot damn,” the one in front said, tugging him down into a kiss. “I knew we picked the hottest daddy in the place.”

Pat nearly tripped at that word, his head filled with images of Emma and her playing with her dolls, running through the house and singing “Let it Go” at the top of her lungs. These guys were looking for a daddy to play with, and he was a father, a real father. “I’m sorry, guys. I think you need to find someone else.” Pat left the dance floor at a good clip and made his way over to the bar. He needed a drink, and then he should probably get out of here. This hadn’t been a good idea no matter how horny he might have been.

“Vodka, straight up,” Pat said when he got the bartender’s attention. He paid and downed the liquor in a single gulp. He thought about getting another, but that wasn’t going to do him any good. This wasn’t his life any longer, he saw that now, and he had so many other things he needed to be doing.

Pat thanked the bartender, tipped him, and headed for the door. The club was packed, so he had to wind his way through the throngs of people to get to the exit. He’d nearly made it when he bumped straight on into a very large guy in a tight white shirt. Pat lifted his gaze and was already apologizing when he looked into familiar blue eyes. “Son of a bitch,” Pat swore, and his lips curled downward. “What are the fucking chances?” He moved around the man and toward the door, getting away from him as quickly as he possibly could. He made it to the door and bounded through, already starting to turn to head toward his car before someone grabbed his arm.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Edgerton Winters said. “You don’t need to act like an ass.”

“You’re right, Edge, I don’t need to, but it’s actually a pleasure.” Pat smiled insincerely and then snapped his arm away from him. “I have things I need to do.”

“Like the Tweedle Triplets in there?” Edge spat.

“No. But if you hurry, I bet you can catch them before they find someone else. They should be right up your alley. At least that was what you wanted nine years ago.” He glared at Edge and then turned once again, heading farther away from the exit. He needed to get out of there and back home.

“We all grow up eventually,” Edge said from behind him.

“Then congratulations,” Pat called over his shoulder and picked up his pace. The last thing he needed was Edge back in town. Hopefully he’d get the message that he was persona non grata and leave him alone. Though that had never been Edge’s style.

Pat reached his car and got in, then drove back to his house. The one saving grace was that he’d bought the house after he and Edge separated, so maybe it would take some time before Edge found him. Pat pulled into the driveway and parked the car as his phone rang. He checked the display and answered his mother’s call.

“Edgerton is back in town,” she said without preamble. “You know I always liked him, even if he got cold feet and all. So I thought….”

“You thought that if you called and could connive your way into getting Edge back into my life that you could have your perfect son-in-law, which is what you always wanted.” He thought it was pretty sick that his mother liked his ex-husband more than she did her own son, even after nine years and him dumping Pat the way he had. “Fat chance, Mother. I’m not letting that bastard back into my life, and he certainly isn’t going to see Emma.”

“But, Pat….”

“If you bring it up again, you won’t be seeing Emma either.” He wasn’t above using his daughter to help keep his pain-in-the-butt mother in line. She was a reasonably good grandmother, which was a vast improvement over the parent she’d been to him. Evelyn Corrigan was a self-professed free spirit, which to her meant that she’d wanted him to be able to do his own thing most of the time. To Pat, growing up, it had meant that he was just as likely to come home to an empty refrigerator and no mother at home as he was to find her trying to hustle some afternoon delight out the back door before he saw whatever scumbag she’d dragged home.

“Hey….” That had gotten her attention at least.

“I take it his perfection has already called you.”

“He got back into town today and called to see if he could get a read on your feelings. He said he was interested in seeing you again and that he’d never lost the feelings he had for you. He said he hadn’t been ready back then for all the things that you were.”

“What did you tell him?” Pat asked.

“That you would probably either rip his head or his nuts off, I couldn’t tell which.”

“Well, you’ll be happy to know that I didn’t do either one. He’s still in possession of his handsome face, and as for his manhood, I have no intention of going anywhere near that, in any way possible. So I hope we’re clear on all matters Edgerton.”

“Crystal,” she said flatly. “So if he calls again, I can tell him to keep away from you and Emma.”

A spike of cold, bone-deep fear went through him. “If he calls, you tell him nothing about anything related to me. If you want to have a relationship with Edge, that’s your business, but if you in any way talk about my life… am I making myself clear? My business is my own and none of his.” He was getting way too angry over this, and he needed to calm down.

“Methinks thou dost protest too much,” his mother said, and Pat stifled a groan.

“No, Mother. I just want to be able to live the rest of my life without the man who shattered my heart and left me high and dry. He said he’d stay and be with me forever, and then he left. I don’t need that sort of person in my life ever again. So please just leave it alone. I know you want me to find someone, and I will, on my own.”

“Please. It’s been eight years and you’ve had one date, and that was because Josie fixed you up with him. You went out once, had by all accounts a good time, and by the next day, you’d torn him apart and dissected everything about him that wasn’t Edge. You’re my son, and contrary to what you think, I do know you.”

“Mom,” he said more gently, “just leave it alone, please. I’m better off without him.”

“If you say so, dear.”

She was clearly humoring him. He was tired of arguing with her about it, and he wasn’t going to get anywhere with her anyway. He rarely did.

“I’m going to head to bed.”

“Me too. Emma is at a slumber party, and I have the night to myself.”

“So you’re at home reading or something.” She sounded like he was the biggest disappointment in the world.

“No. I went out for a while, and I’m just returning home. I thought I could have a little fun while Emma was at her party.”

“Thank God. I was beginning to think that the fun genes completely skipped you. When was the last time you went out and had fun on your own? Wait, don’t answer that. I’m going to say it was a little over eight years ago, just before Emma was born. Since then you’ve worked, been a parent, and done little else. Sure, you’ve taken trips, like the one last year with Emma to Disney, but you haven’t done a single thing for yourself. And here you go out for the first time in who knows how long and you’re home just after ten? How boring are you?”

“I guess I’m as boring as you are irresponsible,” he countered. “I’d like to continue trading barbs with you, Motherheck, I could do it all nightbut I’m going to get some rest and enjoy the quiet for a few hours, because I’m sure Emma is going to come home sleep-deprived, high on sugar, and wired on enough fun to keep her going most of the day.”

“All right. I’ll talk to you later.”

She hung up, and Pat stuffed his phone back in his pocket and got out of the car. Why his mother could drive him crazy faster than anyone else in earth, he never understood. She got under his skin, and his patience with her was shorter than he ever wanted it to be. He loved his mother, but….

Pat went inside and locked the doors, then went right upstairs and into the shower. He needed to get the scent of sweat and strange men off him. Once he was clean, he climbed into bed and closed his eyes, trying to sleep. Of course, the one face he’d spent nine years trying to forget came roaring back. When they’d been together, Edge had been his life, and Pat had thought it wasn’t possible to get any happier. He and Edge had made so many plans—travel, a family, a home together. He’d thought they were building a life and that they wanted to do the same things. Then Edge had gotten a job offer, and suddenly everything had changed. Edge wanted to leave, their life wasn’t good enough any longer, and then he was gone. After his very unconventional childhood, Pat had wanted stability and happiness, but just when he thought he’d found it, everything had changed. Then less than a year later, the wheel had changed one more time and Emma had entered his life. So small and with the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. And then he realized he could have everything he wanted, just in a different way.

But Edge was always there in his mind. No matter how many times he’d tried to truly get him out of his life, Pat couldn’t. And now Edge was back and had found him. Pat hoped like hell that he’d be left alone. He’d managed a long time without Edge, and he could continue doing it forever. All that needed to happen was for Edge to stay away. Pat hoped that after tonight, Edge would leave him alone.

Pat rolled onto his side, punching his pillow. He wanted to clear his head and stop all these thoughts about Edge. He was so hard he could pound nails. All he had to do was think of Edge and how much he’d missed the way he’d always reacted to him. “No.” Pat sat up and groaned. He was not going back through all this. Never again. Edge had walked out of his life, and that was the end of it. This whole fascination with him was simply the fact that Pat was horny as hell. He probably should have gone to a different club. It was still early….

Clubs weren’t what he wanted. Pat longed for something more than that. He needed someone who cared about him and would be a true part of both his and Emma’s life. That was what he needed, and Edge had already proved he wasn’t that man.