|:|PART 1|:| Bad Deal |
Tabetha opened the text from her sister.Attached was the photo of her soon-to-be niece-in-law. With all the wedding planning, Taylor couldn’t get to the school to pick up her fiance’s niece. He was overseas somewhere closing a multi-million dollar deal.
Where was the dad? Tabetha wondered in her head, tapping the steering wheel in an attempt to hold back her rising anger.
That was the bullshit that pissed her off. He was competent enough to make a baby, but when it came to really stepping up to the plate? Dud. Honestly, it didn’t make any sense to her.
She pulled up the text when she heard the bing. The only thing the little girl shared with her uncle, Samuel, were those emerald green eyes. Where he had dark hair, hers was blonde. Where he had a long, aristocratic nose, she had a short, cute little button nose. Where he had wide, thin lips, the little girl had well-shaped lips and a defined cupid’s bow.
Tabetha started when someone knocked on her door. She rolled it down and examined the woman’s attire.
“Sorry, ma’am, you can’t wait here. It’s a no-parking zone.”
“I’m not parking. I’m just waiting.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Unless you’re a bus, you can’t park, wait, stop, stand, idle, sit or pick your nose in this zone. See the sign?”
Tabetha followed the woman’s chubby digit. She presented a fake smile while biting her tongue. Oh, the things she could say, but they were socially unacceptable. She was in the wrong and just needed to move the hell out the way.
“Sorry,” she said. “First time picking up.”
The woman’s frown loosened. “Happens all the time. You can park in the lot right around the corner.”
She followed the woman’s instructions and parked in the adjacent lot, then climbed out of the car. She knew the school had been notified she was coming to pick up the little girl, Abby, but she wasn’t sure if Abby would know who she was.
She jogged up to the front of the building, scouring the troves of children rushing out to their prospective busses. More cars idled in the bus lane and the traffic lady yelled at them to move. At least Tabetha wasn’t the only one.
She waved when she saw the girl searching near the edge of the curb. “Abby?” The girl looked in her direction, shielding her eyes from the sun. She frowned and took a couple of tentative steps toward Tabetha. Tabetha cleared the rest of the space between them, taking in the little girl’s slim figure and large emerald green eyes.
“I’m Tabetha. Your uncle Samuel sent me.”
The little girl laughed. “No one calls him Samuel. Except Grandma, and he hates it.”
“Sorry. I should probably know that considering he’ll be my brother-in-law soon.”
The little girl’s eyes lit up. “You’re Taylor’s sister?”
Tabetha crossed her arms. “The one and only.”
“I love Auntie Taylor. Why didn’t she pick me up?” The two started walking together toward the parking lot.
“She got caught up with wedding stuff,” said Tabetha. Uh, if you don’t mind me meddling, where’s your father? I thought he was supposed to pick you up.”
The girl’s upper lip curled. “Where is my father? That’s a damn good question.”
“Hey, watch your language.”
The girl smirked at Tabetha from the corner of her eye, then suddenly stopped walking. “Oh shit!” she exclaimed. Tabetha faced her and crossed her arms, ready to scold her again for trying it.
“I forgot my science book. I’ll be right back!” The girl took off toward the school.
What were young people coming to these days? Didn’t have any kind of respect for their elders. She could only imagine the girl’s father. What parent would forget about their child?
She tempered her rage when she heard her name being called.
“Tabetha?” She turned to find a tall, well-built man in a suit jacket, tie and dress pants. “Tabetha Knight?”
Her breath was stolen as recognition smacked her like a ton of bricks. She was baffled. The words were not coming even though she knew they should. “M-Marcus Daily.” She had loved him since she was in middle school, but she hadn’t seen him since they graduated from high school over ten years ago. Her insides moved, still captured by his good looks and wide smile.
“Wow, I can’t believe it. It’s been a while.”
Again words should have come but they didn’t. He filled the space.
“I, uh, recently moved back. My mom,” he confessed, sadness tainting his fine baritone.
Tabetha blinked and brought her stare to her feet. “She’s sick?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Has been for a while. My brother was looking after her, but his wife got an opportunity overseas that she couldn’t pass up so now it’s my turn.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your mom.”
“Thanks. So goes life for some, I suppose.” He stuffed his hands in his pocket. “Last I heard, you were taking the world by storm. Started your own business, making moves.” His smile was a gift from God, she was convinced.
“Uh, yeah.” She nodded, upset that she couldn’t find one intelligent thing to say. What was wrong with her? She always had intelligent things to say. Well, if not intelligent then at least witty, something, anything.
“You picking up your kid?” he wanted to know.
She nodded. “A girl.”
He nodded. “Got a boy. Divorced about three years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” But she wasn’t.
He laughed, “I’m not. You still with your daughter’s father, husband, boyfriend?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Somehow his smile grew. “I’m taking Braden for ice cream. A place just a block away. You and--”
“Abigail, uh, Abby,” she stammered.
He smiled. “You and Abby should join us.” He looked up when a handsome little boy with the same caramel eyes and brown skin called to him. Braden was walking with Abby. That’s when reality came crashing down on Tabetha. Or rather, her very small but detrimental house of lies. What the hell was she doing? This little girl wasn’t hers. Until a few minutes ago she hadn’t even met her.
“Hey Abby.” Marcus put his arm over his son’s shoulders. “I invited you and your mother for ice cream. It’s down the block.”
“Mother?” Abby glanced at Tabetha over her shoulder, then mischief flashed across her eyes. “Uh, yeah, my mom.” Abby grabbed Tabetha’s arm. “I’d like to have a talk with my mom for a minute.”
“Sure. We’ll wait at the corner for a few minutes, if you decide to come.”
When they were alone, Abby crossed her arms over her slim chest and eyed Tabetha.
“I-I’m sorry I have no idea what came over me,” Tabetha stammered. “I haven't seen this guy since high school, over ten years ago, and I just froze--”
“Ten years? That puts you around, what, late twenties? Early thirties?’
Tabetha frowned. “What? Uh, yeah. Thirty-one.”
The girl nodded and tapped her chin. “Listen, Mom.” She emphasized the word. “I’m willing to go along with this, but you’ll owe me.”
Tabetha glared. “I don’t like open-ended deals.”
“I promise it will be of equal request.” The corner of her mouth pulled up. “Now you’ve got to ask yourself, how badly do you want to stare into those beautiful brown eyes?”
Tabetha raised an eyebrow. Clever and mischievous. Now she really wanted to meet the father. “What do you know about any of that?”
She rolled her eyes. “Please. I’m not two, you know.”
It was a dumb childhood fantasy and she knew it, but she couldn’t help wonder what it would be like to know this guy like she’d wanted to know so long ago.
This is stupid, she coached herself, but time was running out and she had to make a decision. She glanced over her shoulder and met Marcus’s eyes. He revealed a full set of straight white teeth.
“Gah! Fine! But you can’t tell anyone.”
The clever girl smirked. “Your secret’s safe with me, Mom.”
It was an hour later when Tabetha dropped Abby off. It seemed she couldn’t stop finding words the entire ride to her father’s house. The little girl was attentive and sociable and Tabetha rather liked her.
Before Abby could put the key in the lock, the door jerked open.
“Where the hell have you been?” a scruffy mountain man belted out from under a day’s worth of facial hair growth. Emerald green eyes glared from under long dark lashes. “Who the hell is this?”
“Aunt Taylor’s sister.”
“Who? You don’t have any aunt Taylor.”
The little girl rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. “Uncle Sam’s fiance. You are so slow, Dad.”
“Don’t talk to me like that! You’re the kid. I’m the adult.”
Her top lip curled. “Could have fooled me.”
His eyes darkened. “That’s it. You’re grounded!”
She pushed past him and walked into the house before turning to face him. “What kind of adult forgets to pick up their kid?”
“What? Your nanny was supposed to pick you up,” he retorted.
“Oh, the one you fired?” she sassed, moving her head side to side.
The man’s dark eyebrows pulled together. “What?”
“You fired her for not putting your socks in the right drawer or something lame. ‘Get the hell out and don’t dare come back,’ I think, were your exact words,” she mocked him. “That was two weeks ago.”
The man ran his hand down his face. “Who the hell’s been picking you up then?”
“Uncle Sam or Taylor. They couldn’t today so Tabetha did.”
The man grumbled. “Why didn’t Sam call me?”
“When was the last time you saw your phone, Dad?”
He turned on Tabetha and eyed her critically. “Do you usually pick up strangers’ children?”
Tabetha cocked her head to the side with a frown. This man had to be crazy to talk to her any kind of way. “Uh, I think what you meant to say was thank you.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m just going to assume some of your manners got lost in that beard on your chin.”
The man’s eyes danced with amusement for a moment. “Thank you for bringing my kid back an hour late. What the hell were you doing for an hour anyway? And, you young lady,” he turned to his daughter. “I called that damn phone you begged me to get you and you didn’t answer.”
“Look,” Tabetha said, pulling her keys back out her pocket. “I don’t have to listen to this shit–”
“Watch what you say around my kid,” the man retorted.
“There’s nothing I can teach her that you already haven’t. The girl’s got a mouth, Mr. Quinn. I’m leaving.”
“The hell are you implying?” he kept going.
She turned and headed back to her car but stopped when she heard quick footsteps approaching her.
“Tabetha, wait!” Abby grabbed her arm and the two faced each other.
“Abigail Marie Quinn, get back in this house!” her dad shouted.
“I’ll be in in a second.” She tossed a glance back at her glaring parent, but didn’t seem to be moved by the man’s stern facial expression.
“Two minutes.” The man went inside, leaving the door ajar.
“What is it, Abby?”
“You still owe me,” she whispered, despite the fact they were alone.
Tabetha grumbled. “Oh that. What do you want?”
She frowned. “What?”
“I want you to go on a date with my dad.”
She must have been hearing things all wrong. “What!? Did you miss that whole exchange? No way!”
Abby crossed her arms. “You owe me. You made a promise, Mom.”
Tabetha let out a deep sigh. She hated when people didn’t keep to their word, like the man who called himself her father. Her mother’s second husband was a slick-talking liar and she hated him for it. “Fine. I’m a woman of my word. When and where?”
The little girl’s green eyes glowed. “Tomorrow at Travine’s at 8 o’clock.”
She kept her grumble inside. Travine’s was a really romantic seafood place near the water. What was the little ankle-biter up to? Couldn’t be any good. Tabetha hated most that the girl was setting herself up for disappointment. There was no way she’d find common ground with the difficult man Abby called her father.
“Okay, I’ll be there. Good luck getting him there. You should probably leave my name out of it.” She headed to her car and pulled off her mind churning.
Had she mentioned she hated open-ended deals?
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