Sunlight pours onto the front porch of the three-bedroom home I bought several months ago. I gave up my apartment in the city for a suburban zip code, a lawn I don’t have time to mow, and nosy neighbors who want to know why my baby’s mom isn’t in the picture.
It’s . . . a lot.
But at this moment, lawn mowers and property taxes are the least of my concerns.
The stress I’ve been under for the last few months, ever since before my daughter was born, has been beaten into temporary submission by warm sunshine, good company, and the cold beer in my hand. Anxiety still lurks just below the surface, in the tension in my shoulders, in the dark thoughts that linger, but for now at least, I’m relatively at ease. Summer has finally come to Chicago, and I’m parked in a lawn chair on my front porch with three of my best friends.
“Just like old times. Right, man?” Hayes leans back in his chair, kicking his feet up onto the brick ledge. He’s the easygoing one, always able to put people at ease.
I used to be that way. Friendly. Fun-loving. Always down for a good time. Now it’s a mixed bag. The stress of becoming a single father has done a number on me, and I’m still fighting for breath on what feels like a sinking ship at times.
“Something like that,” I murmur, lifting the bottle to my lips for a sip. The beer goes down with a bite, hoppy and full-bodied.
To my left, Wolfie grunts his approval. In contrast to Hayes, Wolfie is a bit of a handful. Complicated, but loyal. Unpredictably moody, yet reliable. Although his foul moods have improved drastically since he started dating my younger sister—a story that I have no intention of getting into right now.
“Thanks for the beer, man,” I say, raising my beverage in Caleb’s direction.
“Fuck yeah. Anytime,” he says before downing what I can only assume is half of his beer and releasing an enormous belch.
Caleb is a bit of a wild child. I keep waiting for the guy to grow up, but so far, that hasn’t happened. He’s still the same shamelessly immature guy I met in college, and by all indications, that’s not changing anytime soon.
“Chill, man,” Hayes whispers to Caleb, nodding in my direction. “Boys’ night isn’t just for the boys anymore.”
Ah. That’s my cue to acknowledge the tiny little cherub resting in my arms. Marley, my baby girl, who has my dark hair and my ex’s blue eyes and creamy skin.
“Oh, come on. She’s dead asleep.” Caleb leans forward in his chair. “Hey, Marley. Maaarley. Marzipan!”
My two-month-old daughter doesn’t wake, nestled peacefully against my chest, her plump little fist clutching my T-shirt.
We all take a moment to watch the rise and fall of her back, the cutest little poop-and-puke machine you ever did see. Even when she’s pooping and puking, she’s the most beautiful thing in the world, and you can fight me on that. I’ll die on that hill.
“How’s she been?” Wolfie asks with a deep line etched between his brows, tipping his chin toward the sleeping baby.
I smile. I’ve missed my old roommate’s perpetual frown.
Paternity leave has been . . . interesting. A bit isolating, but I’m starting to realize it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Good. She’s good.” It isn’t a lie. Marley is a good baby, usually low maintenance with only the occasional meltdown. Kind of like her dad.
“How about you?” Hayes frowns as he studies me.
Damn, I must look as exhausted as I feel.
“I’m alive.” I chuckle, but the humor in my voice sounds forced. That’s a new one for me.
“You’ll feel better once you’re back.” Caleb nods sagely, as if my returning to work will somehow restore the balance of the universe.
“If I come back,” I say to remind them, only half joking.
My partners graciously gave me six weeks of paid paternity leave, with a little leeway in the budget to sneak in another week or two.
Together, the guys and I own a sex toy business named Frisky Business, both an ecofriendly line of toys that we manufacture, as well as a retail store in the heart of Chicago. Despite the shop being a second home to me for years, I haven’t set foot in the place in six weeks, and part of me can’t picture myself going back. At least, not until I find someone I trust to take care of the most important person in my life, Marley.
“What about the day cares you were researching?” Wolfie asks, and I can see him crunching the numbers in his head.
I’m well aware that Frisky Business can’t afford to keep me on paternity leave for much longer. It’s already been two months.
I scowl. “No luck. Did you know there’s a government website where you can look up safety violations and infractions of any licensed day care? It’s terrifying,” I say with a shudder that’s all too real. “All the day cares within a five-mile radius have too many accident reports to even count.”
“Shit, seriously? Well, what about Beth?” Hayes asks.
Ah, yes. Beth. Part-time mother of my child, full-time med-school student alongside her med-school-student boyfriend.
They certainly don’t have the time to care for a child 24/7. We share joint custody, but a lot has been falling on me lately, not that I’m complaining. I love spending time with Marley, and I want Beth to be able to build her career. She’s a good mom, juggling school, a new relationship, and Marley with relative ease.
“When she finishes her residency next year, she’ll have more time to care for Marley. For now, she and Brett have her two days of the week. Beth wants more, but she can’t quite swing it right now.”
The guys nod, trying to understand this new life I’ve found myself living.
One day at a time . . .
Let’s rewind. Thirteen months ago, I was happily single, living in the city without a care in the world. The only unknown in my life was the familiar and somewhat amusing panic of waking up next to a woman whose name I couldn’t remember. Back then, I was going on a minimum of three dates per week, some of which ended with a satisfying hookup with whichever lucky lady could keep up with me.
My love-for-life dial was cranked up to 100 and locked into place with superglue. Nothing was gonna slow me down.
Of course, all that changed with a phone call from my former friend-with-benefits. Beth was busy becoming a doctor, and neither of us had time for a relationship. But Netflix and chilling became our thing for a couple of months last year, until those two little pink lines changed everything. Beth was carrying my baby, despite the precautions we’d taken.
But even with the massive overhaul of my social life, life is better with Marley, on all counts. She’s given me purpose, a word I thought was only reserved for the kind of people who go on mission trips to Guatemala twice a year.
Nowadays, I’m so much more than just Connor Blake, the bachelor. More than co-owner of Chicago’s number one sex-toy shop.
I’m a dad.
When I come to, I realize I’ve been droning on about day cares for give or take ten minutes. Even Wolfie’s sharp eyes are starting to glaze over.
“In summary,” I mutter, “finding a good day care in this neighborhood is a bitch.”
“Why don’t you just get a nanny?” Caleb says, cracking open his second beer. “I had the best nanny growing up. She still comes to my family’s Christmas party each year.”
“Probably ’cause you still need supervision.” I sneer at him, relishing the opportunity to give him a hard time.
But before Caleb can get a word out, Hayes cuts in.
“Where do you even find a nanny?”
“I’m sure there are databases for nannies,” Wolfie says, ever the pragmatic one.
“I don’t want to pick some random person off the internet, guys. If I get a nanny, they’d be alone in my home for the majority of the day. I’d need to trust them.”
“Do you have anything valuable to steal?”
It’s Caleb’s turn to give me shit, and damn, does it feel like we’re back in the shop. With a sleeping baby on my chest, I can’t smack him upside the head like I normally would. I’ll make up for it by teaching Marley to kick Uncle Caleb in the shins every chance she gets.
Hayes chuckles, shaking his head. “Other than his kid?”
Never too proud for a pissing contest, I’m about to tell him exactly how much I paid for my high-end espresso machine when a small sedan filled with moving boxes rolls to a halt in front of my neighbors’ house. Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes have lived in that house for over two decades as happily retired empty nesters. I’ve only met them a couple of times, but the old couple have grown on me.
Hayes, Wolfie, and Caleb must sense my curiosity, because the conversation stills as we wait to see who steps out of the car.
I hear the door slam and the soft padding of feet before I know who they belong to. When the driver comes into view to lift the roll-up door, I can’t help but do a double-take because the girl is unbelievably gorgeous.
She’s young, around our age, with thick brown hair pulled back in a long, unruly ponytail. Wearing sneakers, shorts, and a loose-fitting T-shirt, she looks like any twenty-something on moving day. She opens the trunk and lifts out a hefty suitcase, clearly stronger than she looks, and sets it on the sidewalk.
“Do your neighbors have a hot daughter?” Caleb asks, standing to get a better look.
“Will you sit down?” Wolfie sighs, aging with every second that Caleb does anything immature.
For the first time in a while, I’m kind of with Caleb on this one. I’m curious.
“Just sons, as far as I know,” I murmur.
When she reappears, I see her face for the first time. She’s flushed, but not just with the summer heat. She’s excited. And excitement looks really damn good on her.
We all turn to see Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes waving to her from their porch with wide, friendly smiles.
The woman we now know as Jessa sets a box down on the edge of the trunk and gives the old couple a wave. She jogs over to them, giving Mr. Wilkes a hearty handshake and Mrs. Wilkes a quick hug. I can’t hear their conversation, but I get the impression they’re meeting for the first time.
“All right, I’m bored.” Caleb sighs, plopping back down in his chair. “Anyone want another beer? Or am I supposed to finish this twelve-pack all by myself?”
I peer down at Marley, who is squirming unhappily, her bleary little eyes opening and closing. I guess nap time is over.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jessa’s box tilting over the lip of the trunk, about to topple. Instinctively, I jump to my feet, jostling the already grumpy baby. The box falls, Marley wails, Jessa and the Wilkeses turn, and suddenly everyone’s eyes are on me.
“Fuck,” I mutter under my breath. “It’s okay, Marley. It’s okay.” I pat her back softly, but it’s like comforting a fire alarm. I turn to the guys. “Would someone go help her with that box?”
Caleb and Wolfie spring into action as Hayes leans across the brick ledge with an apologetic smile for the neighbors. “Sorry for the commotion, folks. Can we help you out?”
“Oh, that’s all right. It wasn’t fragile stuff. Don’t worry about it,” Jessa calls back, her voice clear and cordial.
But Caleb and Wolfie have already rescued that box and are now unpacking the car, which contains a few more boxes, another suitcase, a smaller bag, and a duffel bag.
“Really, it’s okay,” she says, trying to intercept Wolfie on his trajectory to the Wilkeses’ front porch. One look at him in the zone, and Jessa steps aside, her eyes wide and a timid smile on her lips. “Well, thanks, um . . .”
“Wolfie’s the scary one. That idiot’s Caleb,” Hayes says, waving off her concern. “Best to just let them do their thing. They’ve already got an assembly line going.”
And they do. Caleb stands near the car, pulling out boxes as Wolfie carries them an outside staircase that leads to a separate entrance on the second floor that Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes directed him to.
You’d better believe that I’d be right there with them if I didn’t have a screaming baby in my arms. Marley’s eyes are scrunched tightly closed, tears trailing down her pink cheeks.
I try rocking her. I try bouncing her.
Is she crying because she’s tired? Hungry? Scared? I never fucking know.
In the ear that isn’t already deaf, I hear Hayes making polite conversation.
“That’s my buddy Connor’s house.” He points in my direction. “He’s the normal one. I’m Hayes, by the way. Where are you coming from?”
“Oh, I’m Jessa. Nice to meet you. I’m from a couple hours east of here. Well, east is the lake. Southeast. I’m from Indiana.” She laughs, somehow pulling off awkward and sweet at the same time.
Unable to take my eyes off of her, I ask, “What brings you to Chicago?” Instantly, I regret drawing attention to myself.
Yes, let’s all look at the sad son of a bitch who has no idea how to calm his distraught baby.
I shift Marley’s weight in my arms, hoping a new position will help. It doesn’t.
I don’t even hear Jessa’s answer to my question, as much as I’d like to. While Jessa and Hayes make small talk as Wolfie and Caleb continue to unpack the trunk, I pace back and forth, trying to soothe Marley by gently patting her back and humming softly. I wish I knew what was wrong so I could fix it. She does this once in a while, and I’ve yet to figure it out.
“How old is she?”
I turn to see Jessa walking up the steps, a warm smile on her lips. She’s close enough now that I can fully take in her features—light blue eyes, long lashes, and dozens of pretty freckles dotting her nose and cheeks. The neighbor girl is cute as hell.
“Uh, two months,” I say, my tone harsher than I’d like it to be. Why the fuck am I nervous?
“The best months.” Jessa nods, clasping her hands in front of her heart.
There’s something so warm about this girl. It’s like it comes off her in waves. I have to step back to keep from sweating. But she follows me, her arms outstretched.
What the . . .
“May I?” she asks softly.
My gaze darts to Hayes, who offers me nothing but a useless shrug.
“Uh, sure,” I mutter, allowing Jessa to step into the same square footage as me. The smell of her is intoxicating, sweet and floral, a mixture of shampoo and something decidedly feminine.
Her hands brush against my arms as she scoops Marley into hers. My heart nearly stops when she flips Marley over, my dad brain warning me of danger. But when Jessa starts massaging Marley’s back, the baby stops crying immediately.
“Gas bubbles,” Jessa says, all smiles, and Marley sighs happily.
I’m damn near shocked speechless.
“Holy baby whisperer,” Hayes blurts, his eyes wide.
I’m glad to see I’m not the only one blown away.
“How did you do that?” I ask, aware of how dumb I sound, but I don’t even care. She’s amazing.
“I’m the oldest of six. I can just tell,” she says, her nose scrunching up adorably in unison with her shrug. “She should be settled now.”
Humble too? Be still my cold, dead heart.
“Are you free for a nannying job?” Hayes asks, looking more at me than Jessa. “One that starts immediately.”
I shoot him a glare and he glares back, his eyes saying, What? You need a nanny, dude, and she’s perfect.
“Oh,” she says with a laugh, her cheeks turning pink. “I don’t know. I’ve never been a nanny before.”
She carefully adjusts Marley so that she’s supported comfortably. An unfamiliar warmth floods through my chest at the sight of my baby girl in Jessa’s careful embrace.
“I guess I do need a part-time job,” she says, more to herself than to me. “What’s her name?”
“Marley,” I say, hardly recognizing my own voice.
“Marley.” Jessa coos, nuzzling her nose against my daughter’s soft hair. “The perfect name for a perfect little girl.”
Hayes cuts in. “And he’s Connor, the dad. Could you give him your number?”
He means well, but this recruitment is downright aggressive. And annoying as hell.
Shaking my head, I say, “Please excuse my pushy ass of a friend. You don’t have to—”
“No, I don’t mind. I’ll put it in your phone. Trade you.”
With a moment’s hesitation, I pull out my phone, and Jessa and I swap baby and device with minimal fumbling.
As her quick fingers type her number into my phone, her thumb ring catches my eye. It’s delicate and feminine, a simple band wrapped around a small amber jewel. Did her boyfriend give that to her?
“Here you go. Nice to meet you, Connor,” she murmurs, her long eyelashes casting shadows on her rosy cheeks. When she gives my phone back to me, our fingers brush with an electric shock.
“Sorry,” she says. “Static electricity.”
“All good.” I chuckle, smiling sincerely for the first time in weeks. Nice to meet you too, Jessa.
As the sun begins its descent, Jessa and the Wilkeses head into the house. Marley is fast asleep in the crook of my arm. The guys are finishing off their final beers for the evening, and I’m utterly exhausted.
“Hire that girl,” Hayes says firmly, clapping me on the shoulder. “You don’t have to do it all by yourself. You need the help.”
“Come on,” I say with a scoff. “You heard her. She has no experience.”
He shrugs. “Well, she knew how to get Marley to stop crying. She seemed pretty experienced to me.”
I release a slow sigh. “I’ll think about it. Now, get out of here so I can put Marley down for the night.”
“Let’s leave the man alone,” Wolfie says quickly. He can always sense when it’s time to leave, which is one of the things I love about him.
The guys say their good-byes, and before I know it, I’m alone again. Just me and my baby girl.
I miss having Wolfie as a roommate more than I’d like to admit, but we’re both better off this way. No need to have both of us losing sleep at night, effectively knocking down Frisky Business’s production levels by half. Besides, the man’s in love, and with my sister, no less. Our friendship needed some space.
After kicking off my shoes, I heat up some leftovers and carry my plate and Marley into the living room. After I settle the baby into her body pillow on the couch beside me, I grab my dinner and the remote.
This is my favorite part of the day. I’ve worked hard to get Marley on a schedule. I know that I’ll have to adjust it as she gets older, but for now, she crashes by seven, so this quiet time we get together before bed is pretty sweet. As I eat, she blinks up at me and listens to my predictions about Chicago’s hockey team this season.
“Nystrom’s looking good this year,” I say, glancing at her. “I wonder if you’ll be a hockey fan like your old man.”
She stretches her arms over her head and lets out a yawn. I chuckle and take another bite of my food.
I hope we can share quiet moments like this as she grows. Eating pizza. Watching the game. Maybe even a little trash-talking about the opposing team. The idea of a precocious teenager with Beth’s blue eyes and my dark hair sharing in some smack talk about any team who’s not Chicago brings a smile to my face. I never imagined myself as a dad before, but now I can’t imagine not having Marley in my life.
By the time I’ve finished eating, Marley’s already asleep.
I carry her to her bedroom where her crib and changing station live. I’ve become something of an expert in changing diapers quickly and without any fuss.
Marley is still sound asleep when I lay her down on the soft mattress pad of her crib. In these moments, I don’t feel like an actor performing the role of father. I am her father.
I watch her sleep, all soft sighs and tiny grasping fingers. I love this little girl so damn much.
The soft look on Jessa’s face when she held Marley flashes through my thoughts. It was almost like she loved Marley too. Like she was her own.
I shake off the thought, recognizing it for what it is—my dad brain desperately looking for a mate to help rear my child. But even I know it wouldn’t be healthy to fixate on the cute neighbor who settled my baby one time.
Talk about delusional.
As attracted as I am to Jessa, I can’t let my imagination get the better of me. Even so, I can admire her bright blue eyes and distinct freckles. I can fantasize about her full lips, how they might feel under my fingers, under my own lips.
She’s beautiful, and if I weren’t emotionally unavailable, I wouldn’t have questioned pursuing her. I would have pursued and kept pursuing until she was in my bed. But the reality is that I can’t afford any distractions right now. Not when a tiny life depends on my full attention.
You need the help.
Hayes may have had a point. I can’t stay holed up in my house as a full-time dad forever. I have to take breaks, I have to have fun, and most importantly—I have to get back to work.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, I tap out a text before I can psych myself out.
If you’re interested in that nanny position, let’s talk. Would you be free for a chat tomorrow?
I press send. The message is direct and professional, with no indication of exactly how much I’m attracted to Jessa. And if I have any control over my libido, she’ll never know.
Get your copy at:
Amazon Apple Books bn Barnes & Noble k Kobo