This Is What Withdrawal Feels Like

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It’s an established fact that I don’t get along with medication that affects my brain chemistry. Zoloft? Neurontin? Abilify? Nope, nope, nope—all poison to my sensitive system. I’ve learned that the hard way. For the past year and a half, I’ve avoided them completely—except for Tramadol, my main weapon for treating my UCTD. I often forget that Tramadol affects your serotonin levels, though.

After I had the flu, I stopped taking Tramadol. The Plaquenil and Prednisone were doing their job, and my pain was down to a 3 or 4 out of 10. I figured I’d be better off coming off the Tramadol. Less is more, after all. Besides, my doctor’s office has been acting weird and it looks like they want me off it anyway.

I thought nothing of stopping it. After all, I’ve taken it on and off for years and I’ve never had any problems. At first, I didn’t notice anything odd. I still had residual fatigue from the stupid flu, and things have been crazy so I thought my anxiety was just life being life-y. Then I woke up one morning feeling awful—unable to focus, out of my skin anxious, heavily depressed, completely unmotivated, and exhausted.

I tried to push through it, but the feeling didn’t lift. I felt physically and mentally weighed down, and again confined myself to the couch, bingewatching Grey’s Anatomy rather than working. At first I tried to tell myself it was still just leftover flu, but it felt more chemical, like when I came off Wellbutrin and Abilify back in 2015. I also had stomach pains that made me double over, and alternating constipation and diarrhea.

Plaquenil gives me diarrhea if I take it too soon after eating and it’s made my brain fog worse from the very beginning, so I started wondering if this was just a new development. I Googled Plaquenil and depression, and found lots of forums full of people discussing the possibility of depression as a side effect. If it’s on the internet, it must be true, so of course I panicked.

I called my rheumatologist’s office to confirm and see what he wanted me to do. His assistant called me back and told me that Plaquenil doesn’t usually cause depression, but that I could stop it and see if anything changed. (She also said it could be my Fibromyalgia, which confused me because I don’t have Fibromyalgia. Apparently it’s in my chart, along with the UCTD, which really pisses me off because I have zero Fibro symptoms and it’s been decided several times, by several doctors, that I don’t fit the bill for Fibro. Every single time doctors don’t know what’s going on with me, they just blame it on Fibro. This erases me, it erases actual Fibro patients, and you know what? Don’t get me started because this is a whole other blog post.)

I didn’t really want to stop Plaquenil because at this point it’s doing most of the heavy lifting (I started tapering off Prednisone in February). Like I said to my rheumatologist’s assistant, I don’t want to end up bedridden again. She said she understood, suggested that I stop it for a couple weeks and see, then let me go. I really didn’t want to stop it, though, and I think in the back of my mind I knew I was missing something. I took my regular doses that day.

That evening, I moved and my bad hip cracked, kicking off some fun pain. I took 50mg of Tramadol and, a little while later, my pain was less intense and I also felt fine mentally. Then it dawned on me.

I’m supposed to take 50mg of Tramadol twice a day, along with my twice daily Plaquenil. But I’d stopped taking it because the Plaquenil was doing so well for me. My symptoms weren’t Plaquenil side effects—they were Tramadol withdrawal symptoms.

I’ve been on a regular dose of Tramadol for a long time now. Before that, I was being stubborn and only taking it when the pain got unbearable—but that wasn’t working well because Tramadol works better when you’re taking it regularly. In the past, I didn’t have trouble any time I stopped taking it because I hadn’t been taking regular doses. Now, though, my body is used to its twice daily dose, and stopping it suddenly—especially because of the sudden drop in serotonin—threw me way off.

I’d have to ask my doctor to confirm, but it makes perfect sense… especially given my sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine (and what happened the last time I came off a SSRI/SNRI without weaning). Of course, I sort of don’t have a doctor at the moment. (I sent in a letter complaining about the APRN I was seeing and requesting to see the MD, but I never heard back. When I called a week later to check in, they blew me off and told me the office manager would be in touch. I still haven’t heard anything.) I started trying to wean myself off by cutting my dose to 25mg three times a day, but I still feel like hell so I think it’s safer to just continue the 50mg twice a day until I can see someone who will help me.

I want to strongly state here that I still think painkillers are a safe treatment option for chronic pain patients. I still think Tramadol was a good choice for me, because other painkillers are very strong and make me sleepy, so yeah. Despite my mistrust of SSRIs/SNRIs, I’m very grateful for Tramadol because for a long time it made the difference between functioning and not. There were too many days that my pain was so disabling, I couldn’t get out of bed or dress myself, but there were also many days that Tramadol helped me push through the pain to have some kind of quality of life. Until a better chronic pain treatment is developed, I will remain an advocate for opioids and opiates because, when used safely, they are life for people with chronic pain.

Life.

However, I have very complicated feelings about medications that affect my brain chemistry, and I kind of have the heebie-jeebies knowing that I need help in getting off a medication that basically saved my life. I’d also kind of like to know that, should I need pain medicine again, I won’t have to jump through hoops. I don’t deserve to be chained to my bed because my local and federal government would rather slam down on doctors and patients instead of helping treat patients with substance abuse disorders. I don’t think it’s fair or effective to demonize painkillers, vilify people struggling with substance abuse, and erase chronic pain patients.

But that’s also a whole other post.

I didn’t get the chance to call my doctor’s office yesterday, and my entire state is shut down today because of the blizzard, so for now I’m just going to keep taking the proper dose of Tramadol without trying to come off it by myself.

This has been another episode of I Just Can’t Win Lately, brought to you by My System is Stupid Sensitive.

I’ve Been Sick for 10 Years

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Today marks 10 years since I got sick and didn’t get better. I have a lot of complicated feelings about the whole thing. 10 years ago today I felt a weird tingling and numb sensation radiating from my wrist to my elbow, and shortly after that it turned into joint pain. In the years that followed, each of my joints systematically became affected until I was completely disabled.

It’s been a long, exhausting journey—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’ve been on Plaquenil and Prednisone for three months now. My disease is now under control; before I came down with the flu, I walked a whole mile—and didn’t pay for it. I walked a little over a quarter of a mile today. My plan was to walk the full mile over to Sandy’s, but she got sneaky and intercepted me. Still, it felt really good to walk—even though my anxiety was being an asshole and I was honest to goodness convinced that I was going to get hit by a car and die the entire time I was walking. 😂

I have Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. Since being diagnosed in December, I’ve done some reading. My disease could go one of three ways: it could go completely into remission, never to return; it could stay UCTD, which would be manageable with my current treatment plan; it could become Lupus, a whole new ball game. Funny enough, I don’t worry so much about it being pre-Lupus anymore or sticking around, because Plaquenil has changed my life and as long as I can keep my health insurance, I’ll be okay. I do worry about losing my health insurance, though, because there’s no way I could afford these medications out of pocket, and no health insurance company would cover me under the Republican’s proposed replacement for the ACA. Without the ACA, I will be disabled again. Period.

Right now, though, I’m extremely grateful for my rheumatologist and the treatment plan he has me on. I’ve had few side effects from Plaquenil, and they’re definitely tolerable compared to debilitating joint pain, fatigue, and my other UCTD symptoms. Illnesses like the flu will trigger flareups, but they fade when I recover. In this moment, I have a happy ending—something I honestly hadn’t dared to hope for.

My plan right now is to keep taking my medication for as long as I can, and fight to keep my health insurance. For me and so many others, the ACA is the difference between life and death; being bedridden and writhing in agony is not living. Lately I’ve been living more than I have in the last 10 years, and I’ll go down swinging to keep it that way.

A Touch of the Flu, a Touch of Depression

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It’s been a full week since I last posted here, which is weird for me because I’m usually a font of word vomit. I managed to come down with another flu virus, though, so I’ve been busy napping. This bout was particularly nasty and, from what I understand, it’s been going around. I didn’t even bother to get swabbed, because the second my eyeballs started hurting and my temp started climbing, I knew.

Still, it’s been rough. For several days, I had muscle, joint, and skin pain. Yes, skin pain. It’s a thing I sometimes experience with my Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, but it’s never a big deal. This? Was hell. I couldn’t move, because every inch of my upper body felt like it’d been badly sunburned. Showering and toweling off after? Hell, I tell you. The muscle and joint pain were nasty, too. On its own, the joint pain would’ve been a 6/10 and the muscle pain a 4/10, but the three together were damned near unbearable.

I decided not to call my doctor because A) Tamiflu only shortens the flu by like two days and B) I kind of currently don’t have a primary care doctor. My doctor’s office has been blowing me off ever since I sent in my letter of complaint, and I honestly didn’t have the energy to talk to them about my concerns and explain my symptoms—especially since they don’t listen in the first place.

I just toughed it out, and I’m still recovering. At this point I just have a runny nose and dry cough, and I’m still easily fatigued. I do feel better, though, so I really can’t complain. However, I’ve also come down with a touch of stupid depression.

It’s not easy for me to admit this. I kind of thought, once I’d worked through my PTSD, that I wouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore. But there’s been a lot going on in my personal life lately that I haven’t really talked about. I’ve been overwhelmed and dealing with a lot of anxiety, and it’s apparently turned into depression.

Granted, I think anyone in my shoes would feel this way. I’ve been through a lot lately, and things pretty much suck in my country right now. For the past several weeks—months, even—I’ve been in survival mode, reacting as I need to and staying on my feet. It’s not at all surprising that I got the damned flu again. In emergencies, I’m always the one to panic after it’s all over. Today I burst into tears and had to remind myself that Mike is okay, I’m okay, everyone’s okay, we got through it all, we’ll get through everything else.

I guess I just haven’t had the time to process everything.

So while I’m recovering from the stupid flu, I’m also working on processing the past few weeks and the things that I know are to come. I’m also working on easing up on myself; I put a lot of pressure on myself, and tonight I realized it’s time to let it go. Writing has been really hard for me lately. I had a lot of plans for 2017 and the only one dictating what I “need” to do was, well, me. I’m working on clearing my plate a bit and giving myself room to recover, as well as room to just be, and then room to grow.

I’m also working on my author website this week, so if it goes down for a while, don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.

Sometimes, you just need to pause and practice breathing—and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Living with an Autoimmune Disease is Weird

If I’ve gotten nothing else out of this whole autoimmune disease gig, it’s that living with one is fucking weird. I have Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD). Basically, my immune system is confused and is attacking my connective tissues: joints, skin, tendons, etc. My UCTD could be pre-Lupus, pre-RA, or something else entirely. Right now my rheumatologist is treating it as UCTD with Prednisone and Plaquenil.

Many autoimmune diseases are completely invisible. On the outside, I might not look sick—especially on a good day. With makeup, I can mask the fatigue under my eyes. Unless I’m wearing my wrist braces or using my cane, you might not even notice that I’m in pain. I’ve gotten really good at hiding my discomfort (unless it hits that 8/10 level that I just can’t tolerate).

 

Then there are the completely weird-ass symptoms. My main symptoms are joint pain and fatigue, both of which can be debilitating. Thankfully, my new medications have stopped my current flareup. However, I’ve got the flu again, which has aggravated another symptom which is usually no big deal.

You know how when you’ve got really bad sunburn or a burned yourself while cooking? Or, for those of us with tattoos, that feeling after several layers of color? It’s a raw pain on your skin that is aggravated when you touch it or when something—like your clothing—brushes up against it. I get patches of skin that feel burnt, but nothing is there and I haven’t hurt myself or been out in the sun.

Usually, these “patches” are no big deal; they go away in a couple of hours or a day at the most. They’re often super small areas, too, so it’s easy to avoid irritating them and ignore them. With this flu, though, most of my body feels this way. The flu and illnesses in general tend to aggravate my UCTD, but this is completely new to me. Usually it’s the joint pain that gets out of control. I also find it kind of odd that the Plaquenil isn’t suppressing this.

It’s weird symptoms like this that keep autoimmune patients on our toes.

via GIPHY

As if that’s not all bad enough, most of the time our doctors don’t even know what to do with us. I’ve had physicians suggest I see a psychiatrist, ask me what I want them to do for me, flat out tell me there’s nothing they can do… The list goes on. When you have cancer, you see an oncologist; there’s no such thing as an autoimmune disease specialist, which is a damned shame, because there are a lot of us and very few physicians who can effectively diagnose and treat us.

Thankfully, I wound up with Dr. S, who’s been amazing. If he ever leaves the practice, I’m going with him—even if I have to follow him to the North Pole. It’s that hard to find a good doctor who can roll with the punches of an autoimmune disease; doctors don’t like medical mysteries, because they’re not cut and dry. Hell, I don’t like them either.

Autoimmune diseases are just plain weird, and living with them is weird. Still, I keep on trucking, because I’m too stubborn to lie down and quit. I’m not too stubborn, though, to lie down and rest once in a while.


Do you have a rare disease? What are some weird things about it? Let’s commiserate in the comments below. ♥

I’m a Flu Magnet

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I’m 99.9% sure I have the flu again; my eyeballs hurt, I’m exhausted, my skin feels like it’s on fire, my muscles ache in places I didn’t even know I have muscles… I basically slept all day yesterday, went to bed early, and already I’m ready for another nap. I’m totally okay with that.

Apparently this year’s flu shot didn’t include the A strain flus. Plus, because I’m on Plaquenil and Prednisone, my immune system is a bit, well, nonexistent.

I don’t even know how I got it this time. My friends and their baby have it, but I haven’t been near them specifically because I don’t want it. I probably got it when Mike and I went grocery shopping, and he somehow evaded it.

Seriously. Every time I go out in public, I get the damned flu.

On the plus side, our state tax return came in, which means we can afford to both be down and out.

Happy 2nd Birthday, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos!

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Two years ago today, I released my third novel, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. In the two years since, this little book and I have had a wild journey together. It was the first romance I published, which was nerve-wracking enough, but I’d decided to push the boundaries with the social issues I tackle in my writing.

A single dad, dealing with his daughter’s irresponsible mother while trying to put himself through college.

A tattooed Latina artist, determined to do more than just get by, and have a real career.

A little girl who brings them together through a Craigslist ad.

I wanted to crush stereotypes, to show the world that young single parents and tattooed women aren’t the “losers” they’ve all branded us as. It was my friends’ decisions to raise their children alone, but they never asked for strangers’ opinions on whether or not they’re good parents. It was my decision to get tattoos, but I never asked for customers at the jewelry store I worked at to rudely interrogate me about my body.

I wanted to tackle heritage, how colonization forces immigrants to assimilate into American culture, to give up the things that makes them unique, the things they eventually lose. Like the Italian my family no longer speaks, the Spanish my niece and nephew rarely use.

I also wanted to challenge gender roles and equality rules. Who says a man can’t raise his daughter alone? Who says that a woman can’t choose to be a nanny while she builds her career?

These things had been burning inside of me for years, and they all sort of bubbled out of me while writing The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. I knew that a “traditional” romance was never told from the guy’s point of view unless it alternated with the woman’s, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break the mold.

Go big or go home, right?

I’ll probably never win any awards for this book, but I’m damned proud of it. It’s a great big middle finger to society and conforming, and that’s reward enough for me.


Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

That Time I Went Berserk on Facebook

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Over a decade ago, a guy I was dating raped me. I feel dirty just typing that, but there it is. For the longest time, I didn’t even remember the event, but it kept assaulting me from the depths of subconsciousness. It wasn’t until November 2015 that I finally started dealing with this and other traumas in both therapy and writing.

It was harder than I’d even imagined it would be. Basically, I spent months reliving every trauma I’d experienced—all at once. It was hell. While awake, I’d combat flashback after flashback. At night, I had disturbing nightmares.

But I got through it.

Then, several months ago, the piece of shit who raped me friend requested me on Facebook. After years of neither seeing nor speaking to this person, he suddenly thought it was appropriate to contact me. Never mind that he’d raped me or that we had a slew of other issues in our trainwreck of a relationship; the damage he’d done was extensive, the list exhausting. This person had been warned repeatedly years ago by myself and others to stay the fuck away from me, yet keeps trying to force his way back into my life every so often.

When I saw the friend request, I panicked. Full anxiety attack with hyperventilation and flashbacks and everything. I also went a little berserk.

Facebook and other social media are a digital part of my business and life, but they’re also a safe space. They’re the places with which my voice is amplified, places where I share my writings and feel strong, secure, and safe. In that moment, though, I no longer felt safe or in control. If he’d been able to find me on Facebook—when I’d made my privacy settings more secure than Fort Knox—he could find me anywhere.

Even at my home.

Again.

It all had to go, I realized. I had to scrub myself from the internet. Before I could fully think through what I was doing, I started deleting Facebook friends. There was no rhyme or reason to it; I just went into my friends list and started manually deleting people, one by one—people I’ve known for years, family members, readers. As I scrolled through my friends, mindlessly going through the “remove friend” process over and over, I started thinking about how to go about getting rid of Instagram, Twitter, my blog, my website.

And then it dawned on me: Was I really going to upend my entire career over this person? Yes, he’d hurt me—hurt me in so many more ways than I can ever express to anyone, taken from me not only my sense of safety but also three years of my life that I could have spent much happier. But I’d been healing. I’d grown strong. I’d found my voice and faced all of that pain head on. Was I going to let him undo all of that progress and send me burrowing deep down into myself again? Was I going to let him hurt me once more?

Hell no.

I stepped away from the computer.

Months later, I’m still dealing with the consequences of that day. Since then, I blocked him from my personal profile and business page, and opened up my personal profile to be public. Where I previously refused to add people I didn’t know well, my profile is as open as it can possibly be to my readers and colleagues. Still, I deleted a lot of people.

I tried re-adding as many people as possible, but 1) I had a lot of friends before my little spree and 2) the weird behavior confused a lot of people. One day we were friends, then we weren’t, and then they got a new request from me. There are a lot of scammers out there, so I totally understand people’s wariness, and I feel bad for confusing anyone.

Mostly, though, I’m proud of the progress I made after my initial panic. While I blocked this scumbag, I searched for and blocked the other guy who’d raped me a year later. In a way, it was sort of like typing the final sentence in a chapter.

I’m no longer afraid of these men. When I used to imagine running into them, I saw myself running away or freezing completely. Now I see these scenarios ending in one of two ways: me punching the shit out of someone, or me telling them to fuck off and stay away, and them walking away.

If You’re Not #OwnVoices, Maybe You Shouldn’t Write It

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Trigger Warning: The following discusses self-injury.


A couple days ago, a book blogger posted a photo on Instagram that several members of her audience and the book community felt triggered by. In the photo, she’d painted her hand and arm blue and added bleeding cut marks in gold. When several people politely pointed out that her photo was making them think of self-harming, she became defensive, saying she hadn’t read the book yet and didn’t know that it was harmful. She continued by stating that because she’s an artist, her photo can’t possibly be harmful because it’s art. (See screenshots of the photo and one of her comments here; the rest of her and others’ comments have been mysteriously deleted.)

It got worse from there. While more people politely spoke up and said that they too felt triggered by the photo, she became more defensive and began accusing these people of bullying her. She began deleting anyone’s comments who disagreed with her, and invited her friends to jump in and defend her from this horde of mean people recovering from self-harm. Other people started jumping in, saying “Well, it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you.”

When someone tells you “This hurts me, please stop,” your job is not to get defensive or angry. Your job is to listen to the human being in front of you. An appropriate response would be “I’m so sorry. I had no idea but I’m listening and I’d like to talk about this so I can do better.”

Whenever this happens, though, it’s almost always a marginalized person being bullied by a person of privilege. This blogger had no idea the effect of her photo because she’s never suffered from self-harm. She even admitted it herself, saying something to the effect of “I have depression and anxiety, but never self-harmed, so no one should be bothered by this.”

If you don’t know what the motherloving hell you’re talking about, maybe you should just not.

The book in question is Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth—a book that has been discussed to great extent for its many problematic themes. There are so many issues with this book, it’d take me a whole other blog post and then some to cover them, so I’m not going to go into detail. What I am going to talk about, though, is how privileged authors and their hordes of privileged fans are doing the marginalized communities that they pretend to serve more harm than good.

This should be obvious, right? Gather ’round. I’ll Liz-splain it to you, in case it isn’t.

Here’s how this goes down. Authors like Roth—who don’t suffer from chronic pain or self-harm, and are white—decide they want to tell a story. Maybe their intentions are good. Maybe they genuinely want to shine light on what it’s like to struggle with self-injury and chronic pain while showing the world that dark-skinned people are not dangerous by default. But in their lack of experience, their inherent prejudices show through. You don’t have to be purposely hateful to be prejudiced, by the way. This is another thing that privileged people can’t seem to wrap their heads around, but I digress.

Roth’s portrayal of these themes is problematic because of her lack of experience and neglect to consult anyone with those experiences. Often privileged authors go dancing into writing a diverse book like they’re doing marginalized communities some great big favor. They’re not.

Look, I’m a huge advocate for diverse books. I believe that the more of us who are writing them responsibly, the more normal they become. Readers won’t have to search very hard to find characters like them. But if you can’t be bothered to admit that something is outside your area of expertise and find an editor plus beta and sensitivity readers who do have that knowledge, then you shouldn’t bother to write that book. Leave that space for someone who does know what they’re talking about.

It’s pretty simple.

And if your fans are behaving problematically, posting triggering photos without regard for the people who are very nicely speaking up about it, then your book is acting as a catalyst for abuse, completely condoned by your flippant interview responses.

As authors, we have a responsibility for the weight of our words. There’s nothing wrong with including a particular topic or theme in our books—so long as it isn’t inappropriately glorified or vilified. We can’t control how our words are interpreted, nor can we control our readers’ actions, but we can do our very best to articulate ourselves well. That’s our damned job, after all.

I’ve been seeing a lot of marginalized people asking non-#OwnVoices people to stop writing diverse books, and I’m inclined to completely agree with them. Even when privileged authors do so responsibly, those who think they’re above serving their readers with care ruin it for everyone else. There are so many POC, chronic pain patients, and survivors of self-harm who should’ve had this publishing opportunity over someone who has never experienced these things and can’t possibly understand the perspective she’s written from.

I’m all for bringing diversity into your fiction whenever you can, but this attitude that some authors have—this sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want and too bad for anyone who’s hurt by it—needs to stop. It’s a message loud and clear to your horde of privileged readers that it’s okay to treat other people with the same prejudice and disrespect.

We see you.

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 1

The icy scent of frost floated in through the window, cracked open an inch to let the blazing hot air from the furnace out. Max paused the composition he was mixing on his laptop and inhaled. The air smelled like snow—a clean, cold smell that burned his nostrils. Glancing at the calendar above his desk, Max counted the days until the end of the fall semester. Little more than two weeks remained. He needed to hurry up and finish his final projects.

Leaning back in the squeaky desk chair he had owned since he was twelve, Max stretched his arms toward the drop ceiling. He lowered his arms, then moved his neck from side to side, stretching the tense muscles. Mixing was his least favorite thing to do. He’d always loved music—until he started majoring in it. He had the state of Connecticut to thank for that—all elementary education students were required to double major.

A cry from the top of the stairs interrupted his stretching routine: “Daddy,” his daughter Chloe wailed.

Max chuckled. He almost wanted to ignore her; he already knew what she wanted. Ignoring her would be mean, though. She was only two. “Yes?” he called, his voice echoing to the floor above him.

For a moment, she said nothing. Shaking his head, Max turned back to his desk. Just as he slipped his earbuds back in, she called out again. “I wanna watch George,” she said.

He glanced at the digital display of the alarm clock next to his bed. Exactly twenty minutes had passed since she last came to the top of the stairs. He needed to buy some longer DVDs.

“Coming,” he said. He yawned, wondering where his mother was. Betty Batista usually watched his daughter all day, even if he was off from work and spent the day doing homework. She had said she was going out grocery shopping, but that had been three hours earlier.

Sighing, he jumped to his feet. The chair rolled away, smacking into the desk. He shook his head. Whoever had finished the basement hadn’t really known what they were doing.

Taking the stairs two at a time, he stretched his arms out toward his daughter. Despite the dark circles under his eyes and his messy hair, she squealed with laughter and darted back into the kitchen. “I’m gonna tickle you,” he roared. Chloe raced into the living room, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. She dived onto the couch, tucking herself into a ball, her face buried in the cushions.

Max smirked. He scooped her up from the couch, tossing her into the air. When he caught her, he wiggled his fingers against her belly. She howled with laughter. Spinning her around, he plopped her down on the couch. She giggled, kicking her legs.

“Tickle me!” she said. Two tiny brown ponytails danced on the top of her head. Her blue eyes sparkled. For a moment, she looked just like her mother. Max turned away and knelt in front of the family DVD player, restarting the pair of Curious George episodes. “Tickle me,” Chloe said again. He turned around. She watched him with her head cocked to the side. “Daddy?”

He gave her a smile, stifling a yawn. “Sorry, baby. Daddy’s gotta work. You watch George, okay?” He stood and kissed her soft cheek.

Chloe frowned. “I want you to watch it with me.” Her lower lip quivered.

Max glanced out the window into the still empty driveway. “Where’s Grandma?” He took a step away from the couch.

Chloe shrieked, the sound piercing his ears and echoing off the walls of the house.

Grimacing, Max stared at his daughter. “Where did you come from?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She continued screaming. Pain exploded in his temple. Wincing, he rubbed at his head. “Look, George is starting.” He pointed to the television and took a step back. Chloe only glanced at the screen, her shrieking reaching another octave. “Knock it off!” he yelled, but the volume of her wailing only got louder. Gritting his teeth, Max turned and left the living room. As he entered the kitchen, he heard something hard clatter onto the coffee table. He froze in his tracks and pivoted on the balls of his feet. “If you break that, Grandma’s gonna be mad at you.”

Chloe screamed even louder.

He paced the kitchen, his fists clenched. On any other day, he could probably ignore the tantrum. Lately, though, all Chloe did was shriek and pound at the floor when she didn’t get her way. Max was running out of ways to deal with it. Usually, his mother handled the tantrums with a swift swat on Chloe’s diaper-padded butt. Max had never spanked Chloe, and he didn’t want to start anytime soon. His father, Alexander, could usually silence Chloe with just a few low words. She listened to Max less and less. Sometimes, he wondered if she even realized he was her father.

Fighting the urge to retreat into the basement, he went back into the living room. Chloe sat on the floor, the cushions of the couch strewn around her. When she saw Max, she cried harder, her face streaked with tears, cheeks blazing.

“If you don’t stop crying, I’m gonna shut the TV off.”

She screamed, and a headache pinged into the space between Max’s eyes.

“Fine,” he said. Stomping to the other side of the room, he turned the DVD player off.

Eyes widening, Chloe kicked at the coffee table. Candles and other knickknacks tumbled to the floor.

“Come on, kid,” Max grumbled. He ran a hand through his hair. “Why are you acting like this?” While she continued to scream, he sat on the arm of the couch. She had napped earlier in the afternoon, for forty-five minutes, and had slept in until around ten. She couldn’t be tired. She couldn’t be hungry, either, because they had just eaten lunch an hour before, when he watched the DVD with her for the first time. He sighed.

Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the front door opened. His mother walked in, a smile on her face. She started to say something. Her expression sagged the second she heard Chloe. She put her hands on her hips, glaring at Max.

“She won’t stop,” he said, raising his voice over his daughter. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

Betty shook her head, her short gray hair glinting in the late afternoon light. Through the open door, Max saw that the sky had darkened, threatening snow. His mother marched inside, closing the door behind her. Lifting Chloe, she bounced the toddler on her hip. “I know,” she soothed, stroking Chloe’s hair.

Slowly, Chloe quieted.

Max gaped. He wanted to tell his mother not to spoil his daughter. Instead, he tugged at his hair. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“She just needed some attention,” Betty said. She kissed her granddaughter’s cheeks. “Huh, baby?” Chloe snuggled into her grandmother, nestling her face into Betty’s shoulder.

“I’ve got a lot of homework,” Max said, turning toward the kitchen. “I’ll see you later.” He rounded the corner, heading toward the basement.

“Hold it,” his mother called after him.

He glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve gotta work, Mom.”

“We need to talk,” she said.

Max froze, one hand on the stair railing. “About what?”

“Come in here and have a seat,” she called to him.

Frowning, Max turned around and went back into the living room. His mother sat on the couch, Chloe in her arms. On the TV, the first episode on the Curious George DVD began.

“What’s up?” he asked, sitting on the love seat across from Betty. For the first time, he realized that his mother hadn’t brought in any grocery bags. “What’s going on? Is Dad okay?”

Betty waved a hand at him. “Your father’s fine. He’s at the office, driving your brothers crazy.” She rocked Chloe in her arms.

“Then what is it?” Max searched her face, but her expression gave nothing away.

“Well,” she said slowly. She shifted Chloe to her other side. “Your father and I have been talking.” Glancing at the TV, she watched the cartoon for several long seconds.

“About what?” Max asked. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans.

“We love you and Chloe very, very much,” his mother said, “but we both agree that it’s time.”

Max leaned forward. His heart thudded in his chest. “Time for what?”

Betty shot him a look, her lips twisting in a wry smile. “Don’t play dumb, Max. We’ve been more than generous here. I can’t raise Chloe for you, though. I just can’t.”

He frowned. “But you’re not.” Even as the words left his lips, he knew they weren’t true.

“Max,” his mother said, dangerously close to using his full name. “I watch her all day, sometimes from seven in the morning to midnight. I’m not a full-time nanny. I have my own life, you know.”

Max blinked at her and rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Well, the semester is almost over. It won’t be all day during winter break.”

Max,” his mother said sharply. “You’re not hearing me. It’s time for you to move out, on your own. And you need to take Chloe with you.” The toddler in question squirmed out of her arms and slid to the floor, her eyes fixated on the monkey on TV.

Gaping at his mother, Max sank back against the love seat in disbelief. “Move out?”

Betty nodded. “It’s time.”

“Why?” He ran a hand through his hair. “You said I could stay here while I went to school.”

His mother sighed. “Things change. That’s life.” She crossed her legs. “I’m not getting any younger, kiddo. I’m retired but I’m not dead—yet. I want to work on my own dreams while I still have time.”

“Dreams?” he repeated. “Mom, you’re sixty-seven. I thought you were done working. I thought you hated working.” He stood and began pacing.

“I hated working in the office,” she said. “I love your father, but he was a pain in the ass to work with.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling. “We’ve discussed finances, and we’ve decided that I can start that interior design business I keep talking about.” She stood, smoothing her dress pants. “I can’t work at home with a toddler running around, and you need to be independent. I can’t have you two living in my basement until you turn forty. Besides, it’ll be good for you both, like bonding.” Stepping over Chloe, his mother strode out of the living room. “You have until the end of the month,” she called over her shoulder.

Max stared after her, jaw hanging open. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to say to his mother.

* * *

Max left Chloe in the living room, retreating to his bedroom in the basement. The furnace blazed even hotter, and he cringed as he closed the door behind him. That was one thing he wouldn’t miss. As he stared around his room, the situation began to fully sink in. His mother had kicked him out. He yanked at his hair in an effort to wake up. It had to be a dream. Eyes wide, he took a deep breath, blowing it out through his nostrils. He slowly counted to ten.

As he calmed down, he confirmed that he was not, in fact, dreaming. He blew out another long breath. He needed to think.

He wished that he could just dismiss the conversation as a prank. His mom knew how to do a lot of things, but playing a joke was not one of them. He needed to find a place for him and Chloe to live, ASAP. Stalking across the room, he snatched his phone from his desk. He scrolled through his contacts, his mind whirling. There had to be someone that he and Chloe could stay with for a little while.

His oldest brothers were both married with young children. As the youngest of five, Max had thought he could live with his parents longer than his elder brothers had. Having a daughter at such a young age should have earned him that right. He selected Xavier, the brother closest to him in age, from his contacts.

His brother picked up on the second ring. “Maxi Pad,” he exclaimed.

“Eggs,” Max said in a flat tone. Leave it to Xavier to remember his childhood nickname.

“What’s up, little bro?”

“No time to catch up,” Max said, brushing aside the earlier dig. “Mom and Dad are kicking me out. I need to find a place ASAP. Can Chloe and I crash with you?”

Xavier hesitated. “Eh,” he said, drawing out the word.

“What’s wrong?” Max asked. “You already have two roommates. What’s two more?”

“Sorry,” Xavier said. “There’s no way we can have a baby around.”

Max scowled. “Chloe’s not a baby. She’s two, almost three.”

“Yeah, dude,” Xavier said. “My point exactly. Listen, we’re all surgical residents here. We work all kinds of crazy hours.”

Max began pacing. “You won’t even notice we’re there. Chloe will be really quiet.”

“Yeah,” Xavier said again slowly. “We do a lot of drinking around here. Babies and booze don’t mix, man. I can’t be waking up half-hungover because your kid’s crying.”

Frustrated, Max tightened his fingers around his phone and forced himself to take a breath. “Come on, Eggs. You’re killing me.”

“No way, José,” Xavier said, and hung up.

Max stared at the dark screen of his phone, his heart slamming in his chest. He thought for sure that Xavier would have said yes. Of all his brothers, they were the closest. “So much for that,” he said out loud. He went through his contacts again.

Levi, the third-born Batista boy, had always been nice to Max. He was nine years older than Max, but he didn’t act like a regular real adult. Levi would help. Max pressed the phone to his ear.

“Levi Batista,” his brother answered.

“You’re all formal, now that you’ve got that New York Times bestseller status,” Max said.

Levi laughed in embarrassment. “Hey, dude,” he said. “What’s up?”

“So I have a situation I’m hoping you can help me out with,” Max said. He explained what happened. “Eggs said no. I know you guys just got married, but do you think Chloe and I can crash with you?”

Levi sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Gonna have to check with the wife on that one,” he said.

“Come on,” Max said. “Just for a little while. At least until Mom changes her mind. You know she’s not gonna go anywhere with this business.” His eyebrows furrowed. In twenty years as her son, he’d never known his mother to have dreams. The mother he knew enjoyed taking care of her sons and relaxing with magazines and wine.

“Babe,” Levi called to his new wife. “Do you think my little brother can come stay with us for a bit?”

Max cringed. “Dude, don’t ask her like that. I’m not even married and I know that.”

In the background, he could hear Levi’s wife ask if he meant the little brother with the little girl.

“Yes, Max and Chloe,” Levi said.

Max held his breath. Even though Levi had just gotten married, maybe his wife was in one of those baby-making moods that women got into. Having Chloe around would cure the baby fever, at least temporarily.

“Hell no,” his sister-in-law said. “Is he crazy? I wanna have sex in my own house. I wanna walk around naked. I do not want any kids running around.”

Clearing his throat, Levi said, “Sorry, dude.” He hung up.

Max stared at his phone in disbelief. He had struck out twice in a row. Licking his lips, he continued through his contacts. There had to be someone. He couldn’t ask his two oldest brothers if he could live with them, but maybe he could ask Tristan for help finding an apartment. At the very least, when the end of the month rolled around, he wouldn’t be homeless. He could figure out rent and bills and stuff later. Maybe he could even borrow money from Levi and Xavier.

Rather than calling Tristan and going through the whole conversation all over again, he texted his oldest brother: Need your real estate agent friend’s # ASAP. He hit send and waited, tossing the phone onto his bed. He plopped into his rolling chair and turned in a slow circle.

Next to him, his phone vibrated.

He dove for it, springing onto the bed. On the display, without a single letter requesting an explanation or turning him down, was the guy’s number.

Max pumped a fist in the air and hit dial. He would show his mother that he could figure things out without her help. Even if he had to get the cheapest, crappiest apartment in town, he would prove to her that he didn’t need her or his father. She would feel stupid when she realized that her youngest son could survive on his own, and he would do it without his parents or brothers.

“Yeah,” the real estate guy said, answering on the first ring.

“Um,” Max said, his mind spinning. He squinted, lips twisting. He hadn’t thought about what he should say. Clearing his throat, he decided to drop his brother’s name first. If the guy knew who Max was, he might give him a break on rent. “I’m Tristan Batista’s brother, Max. I need an apartment as soon as possible.”

“What’s your budget?” the real estate guy asked, sounding bored.

Max glanced around his bedroom for inspiration. “Um,” he said again. “Cheap?”

“How about a three-bedroom in Brooklyn, at the bottom of Congress, for six?”

“I said ‘cheap,’ not ‘get me shot up,’” Max said. “And I only need two bedrooms. It’s just me and my daughter. What else do you have?”

“I’ve got a one-bedroom in Bradley Gardens. It’s seven-fifty. Security cameras, blah, blah, blah. It’s got a storage room that could pass as a kid’s bedroom if you don’t have DCF breathing down your neck.”

Max considered it. Levi had lived in a similar apartment, back when he was studying at the community college. Max hadn’t had to deal with his ex-girlfriend in years, and gaining custody of Chloe had been easy. Still, he wanted his daughter to have a real bedroom. He gnawed on a knuckle. “What else?” he asked.

“Behind Target. Three-bedroom. Seven-seventy-five. That’s my final offer,” the real estate guy said.

“I’ll take it,” Max said immediately. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it later. “What do you need from me?”

“Deposit. First month’s rent. I’ll kill the deposit if you pay me in cash.” The guy sounded slightly more interested than he had before.

Max glanced at the jar of bills stashed on top of his dresser. He probably had at least that much in there. He had been saving for an audio mixer, though.

He sighed. It wasn’t like he planned on having a career in music. That road, as his parents often reminded him, led nowhere. If he was going to make it on his own, he needed to start making more sacrifices for Chloe. Besides, he wasn’t good enough at music to do anything outside of what he needed to get done for school. It was time to let go of his childhood pipe dreams. He was only studying music to fulfill his elementary education degree requirement, anyway. “Okay,” he said.

“Good.” The realtor gave him the address and a time to meet, and they hung up.

Max flopped back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. The furnace kicked on again, washing the basement in blazing heat. Wiping his brow, he smiled in satisfaction. As long as he worked thirty or more hours at the music store and didn’t spend it on anything stupid, he and Chloe would be fine.

He sat up fast. His mother had also said that she couldn’t watch his daughter anymore.

Groaning, he tugged at his hair again. He needed to find someone to babysit Chloe for him while he worked and went to class, or he wouldn’t have a job—or future—at all.


Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 3

Throwing open the front door of his apartment, Max called out, “Honey, I’m home!” He trudged inside, tracking snow in behind him.

Riley poked her head out of the kitchen, a squirming Chloe in her arms. “I’m not your honey,” she said, lifting Chloe for him to see. Sauce covered his daughter’s face, neck, and hands. “Please take her.”

Max laughed and set down the bags of groceries he carried. “You look good with a baby on you, Riles,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” Riley said with a grin. She shoved Chloe into his arms, streaking sauce on his coat. “You’re late and I have to go to work.” She grabbed her coat.

Tucking Chloe under one arm, he moved to stop Riley. “My last final ran over a bit. I had to stop for groceries. Don’t be mad.”

She shoved past him, ducking her head. Snow swirled inside from the still open door. Without another word, she stomped out.

Max sighed. Carrying Chloe into the kitchen, he whistled “Jingle Bells.” Chloe laughed. He sat her on the counter, grabbed a paper towel, and began cleaning her up. “Babies are supposed to get messy,” he muttered. “You’ve really done it this time, though.” As he dampened another paper towel, a ding from his computer announced a new email.

Blinking at Chloe with dark circles under his eyes, Max yawned. “I think we’ll take a nap on our new free couch,” he told his daughter. Picking her up again, he carried her past the bags of groceries on the floor and flopped down on the couch. He sat her on his lap and, taking her hands in his, lifted her arms into the air. “Whee!” he cooed. She giggled, but yanked her hands away. Scooting down from his lap, she lowered herself to the floor.

“Suit yourself,” he said, laying back. He watched as she toddled over to the desk, and tucked an arm behind his head. “Daddy’s just gonna rest,” he yawned. His eyelids drooped, and exhaustion tugged at him. As he drifted away, his daughter burbled one tiny word.

“Ding!”

Cracking an eye open, he looked at her. She sat on the chair at his desk, her hands slapping at the keyboard of his laptop. “Oh, no you don’t,” he said, struggling to his feet.

The screen lit up and the computer came to life, his email program open on the screen. Crossing the room, he plucked Chloe from the chair and put her on the floor. “No computer for you,” he told her. As he leaned forward to close the laptop, he noticed that he had a new email. Reading the subject line, he settled into his chair, his fatigue swept away by surprise. His eyes widened.

“Looks like someone responded to our ad,” he said, clicking it open.

Inside the email, a link took him to the responder’s resume. “Savannah Santos,” he read out loud. He scanned through her credentials. She had watched three other children before, all of them under the age of six. Nodding to himself, Max read the rest of it. She was a student at Naugatuck Valley Community College, or had recently graduated. The resume didn’t specify.

Her cover letter said she was available immediately. Rubbing at the light stubble on his face, Max read through her resume again. She seemed perfect. She even mentioned something about providing educational activities. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed her number. Blood pounded in his head as he lifted the phone to his ear.

It rang. He swallowed hard. It rang again. He curled his free hand into a loose fist, sweat dampening his palms. If this girl was really available right away, he could call the music store and pick up some extra hours. They always needed extra help during the holiday season.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Savannah Santos,” she answered. Her voice was soft but commanding in a professional way. She sounded like she was probably from the Waterbury area. Most people from the city had a combination of a New York accent and Connecticut accent. No trace of a Hispanic accent laced her voice, despite her Puerto Rican last name.

“Uh, hi,” Max said, his mind racing. He struggled to gather his thoughts. “This is Max Batista. I’m calling about your email for the nanny position,” he finished, making it sound more like a question. He realized he had no idea how to talk to her. She was probably around the same age as he was. He wasn’t sure if he should try to sound like her boss, or if he should try to be friendly. He definitely couldn’t talk to her the way he talked to Riley, he mused with a smirk.

“Hi,” she said brightly, her voice still professional. “Did you get my resume?”

“I did,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk, trying to think of what he should say next. “I’d like to, um, set up an interview.” There. That sounded right. He glanced at the time on his computer. It was after two. “Are you free to meet this afternoon?”

“Sure,” she said, right away. “Where do you want to meet?”

Max licked his lips. He probably shouldn’t have her come to the apartment right away. It was a mess at the moment. Plus, if she turned out to be some kind of crazy, he didn’t want her to know where he lived. “Coffee shop,” he blurted. “You know, the one right on the Cheshire line.”

“Cheshire Coffee? Sure,” she said. “I can be there for 2:30. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” he said, eyeing Chloe. His daughter had pulled all of the canned vegetables out of one of the shopping bags and stacked them into a tower. If nothing else, the kid was definitely creative. “We’ll see you soon.”

“Great,” Savannah said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Hanging up, Max yawned again. Despite his excitement, he still felt tired. Coffee would definitely help wake him up, even if Savannah turned out to be a dud. Closing the laptop, he stood from the desk. If he was lucky, Savannah would be exactly what he needed.

* * *

Pulling Chloe out of her car seat, Max turned toward the building. Cheshire Coffee was nestled into a fairly new plaza, between a day spa and frozen yogurt shop. The parking lot was full for a weekday afternoon. More than likely, most of the people there were students prepping for exams. Balancing his daughter in his arms, he shut the car door and ambled toward the building. Cold wind swooped down from the sky, and Chloe burrowed into his chest. Max quickened his pace.

Inside, they were greeted with a blast of warm air and a smiling barista.

“What can I get you to warm you up?” she called over the light chatter of customers. The tables were crowded, especially the ones in front of the fireplace. Max bit his lip, scanning the faces. He realized that he had no idea what Savannah looked like.

“Chocolate milk and a cookie for this one,” he said, “and a half coffee, half hot chocolate for me.”

While he waited, he sidled down to the other end of the counter. He glanced at the faces in the coffee shop again. Businessmen sat hunched over laptops. A group of college-aged people sat, chatting animatedly, free of textbooks. Two women who looked like they might be sisters occupied another table, young children tucked between them. In the back corner, sitting at a table alone, a young woman with dark hair and golden brown skin watched him. A black peacoat was slung over the back of her chair. She wore jeans with boots and a short sleeved tee, exposing an arm of bright tattoos. She watched him with curious, luminous eyes. He looked away, turning back to the barista, who handed him his order.

“Thanks,” he said, balancing the drinks and Chloe.

“Here,” a soft voice said at his side. Brown hands reached out for his drinks, plucking them away.

He turned to find the girl from the back table at his side. Her dark eyes sparkled. Cocking his head, he dragged his eyes up from her sleeve of tattoos. Close up, he could see that they were colorful skulls. He frowned.

“I’m Savannah,” she said, turning away and leading him back toward the table. “I’m assuming you’re Max and Chloe.”

He followed her, too dumbstruck to speak. All he could see were the tattoos that covered every inch of her arm. They wound around the back of her bicep and forearm, a solid stream of skulls in a variety of colors. His eyes widened.

Savannah set the drinks down at the table and resumed her seat. Smiling at him, she waved to Chloe. “Hi, pretty girl,” she cooed. Dimples appeared in her cheeks.

Chloe waved back.

“Is it cold outside?” Savannah asked Chloe.

His daughter shook her head. Every time it snowed, she practically begged to go outside.

Max folded himself into the chair opposite Savannah, balancing Chloe on his lap. He dragged his eyes up from Savannah’s arm to her face.

“So,” Savannah said, turning her attention to him. “She’s two?” The smile remained on her face. Aside from the tattoos, she was kind of pretty.

“What?” Max asked, tearing his gaze away. He looked down at Chloe, who held up her bottle of chocolate milk.

“How old is she?” Savannah asked.

“Oh,” he said, opening the bottle and handing it back to Chloe. “Almost three.”

“Perfect,” Savannah said. “I used to watch a two-year-old little girl.”

Recovering, Max nodded. His thoughts stopped spinning and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. “Have you ever lived with the families of the kids you watched?” There. That sounded like a good, boss-like question.

“I spent a summer in Florida with the last family I worked for.” She sipped at a large cup of what Max assumed was coffee. Its contents were hidden by the cardboard to-go cup. She wrapped her fingers around it, and Max’s eyes returned to her tattoos.

“What happened with the last family?” he asked, taking a sip of his own coffee. “Why did you stop watching their kids?”

“They started school,” Savannah said, waving a hand. She seemed not to notice him staring. Aside from the sleeve, she seemed to have no other piercings or tattoos. He wondered when she had gotten them, if she had them while watching the other families’ children, or if the sleeve was new. He couldn’t imagine her getting an entire sleeve in one sitting. He didn’t have any tattoos himself, but Levi had one, a phoenix on his upper back, right at the nape of his neck. If he needed to cover it, he could wear a shirt. Max wondered how Savannah hid her tattoos. She seemed not to care. She lifted her eyebrows at him, a bemused expression crossing her face.

“What?” he asked, snapping his attention back to the conversation.

“I asked you if she’s potty-trained,” Savannah said. “I’ve done it before, but it’s always easier if they already are.”

“No,” he said. “She isn’t.”

“Okay. No biggie.” Savannah grinned at Chloe, and the little girl smiled back. She reached a tiny hand out for the cookie in the middle of the table. Savannah unwrapped it and handed it to her. Chloe broke it into two nearly even halves, and held one out to Savannah. “Oh, thank you,” Savannah said. “That’s yours, though. You eat it.”

Giggling, Chloe took a big bite out of one half.

Max smiled at his daughter. She seemed to be totally unfazed by Savannah’s appearance. Maybe he was being ridiculous. Tattoos weren’t exactly anything new, and Savannah didn’t appear to be in a biker gang or anything. Still, the skulls were unsettling, despite their mascara-lined eyes and bright lips. Thick, black filigrees, dots, and bright flowers decorated each skull’s face. He wondered what kind of woman put something so sinister on her body permanently.

“So,” Savannah said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I know you said in your post that you needed someone immediately. And it’s a live-in position?”

Max nodded. “I have a third bedroom,” he said quickly, trying not to appear like some overeager creep. “The pay includes basic living expenses.” His eyes flicked again to Savannah’s arm. One of the skulls looked like a cat’s. A nervous ball formed in the pit of his stomach. He was glad that he didn’t have any pets. He grabbed his cup of coffee, the heat from it grounding him in the present moment.

“Cool,” Savannah said. “It actually works perfectly, because I’ve been looking for a place.” She tossed her long, dark hair over her shoulder. When she moved, the soft spicy scent of her perfume floated to him on the air. He inhaled and for a moment, his brain went fuzzy. He stared at her, transfixed. If she wasn’t some kind of baby skull collector, she was definitely intriguing. Even more importantly, Chloe seemed to like her. “How soon do you need me to start?” Savannah asked, yanking him out of his thoughts once again.

“Tonight, if you can,” he said, watching her. No one would be able to start a job on the same day. He could use that as an excuse to not hire her. Surely, someone else would respond. He could keep using Riley as backup, and maybe he could talk his dad into taking Chloe a couple times a week. No matter how pretty Savannah was or how nice she seemed, no nanny should have skull tattoos.

“Sounds good,” Savannah said. She took another sip of her coffee.

Max kept his face neutral in an effort to hide his disappointment. “Awesome,” he said. He tightened his grip on Chloe. “I grabbed a few things at the grocery store earlier, but we should probably pick up some other things.”

“I can come with you, keep an eye on Miss Chloe while you do what you’ve gotta do,” Savannah said. Without waiting for him to answer, she stood from her seat. In one fluid motion, she swung her coat off the back of the chair and pulled it on. It fell to almost her knees, but it didn’t look like something a serial killer would wear.

Taking a deep breath, Max stood up, too. He needed to work as much as possible before the spring semester began. He couldn’t afford to wait for someone else to respond to his ad. Besides, as much as his father loved his granddaughter, Max knew that he wouldn’t watch her. His mother would intercept, telling him that they needed to let their son figure things out for himself.

With the holidays coming up, he would need help with Chloe even more. He sighed. “Let’s do this,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

Savannah gathered Chloe’s cookie and the rest of her chocolate milk, tucking it into a leather tote that Max hadn’t noticed. The gold logo jumped out at him, clear as day: Versace. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. As if seeing the bag had opened up some third eye, he realized for the first time that she wore Ugg boots and that her coat was Versace, too. “Ready?” she asked him.

Nodding, he led the way out of the coffee shop, his mind whirling. Those weren’t just brand names—they were high fashion. He didn’t have any sisters, but his brothers’ wives and girlfriends all went crazy for those things. His oldest brothers complained all of the time about their wives’ spending habits, and how they were glad they had gone into the family law business.

“Have a great day,” the barista called after them. Max pushed open the door and stepped outside, Chloe nestled in his arms. Cold wind gusted at them, and he bent his head against it, surging forward. He didn’t check to see if Savannah followed, but he heard the door close behind them.

“I’m parked over there,” Savannah said. He turned and saw her jerk a thumb toward the rest of the parking lot. “Where are you?”

He nodded at the Taurus, cheeks blazing despite the cold. He wondered what kind of car she drove. It would be ironic if, after he had judged her tattoos, he ended up looking like trash. With numb fingers, he pulled his car keys out of his pocket.

“I’ll follow you out,” she called, turning and walking in the opposite direction.

He grunted and opened the door to the backseat. Strapping Chloe in as quickly as possible, he planted a kiss on his daughter’s forehead and jogged around to the other side of the car. Cold air blasted from the heater vents. He shivered and turned the knob down, wondering how long it would take for Savannah’s car to warm up. She probably had a Lexus or BMW, with heated leather seats.

It served him right. Still, he wondered what someone with so much money was doing, babysitting for a living. Even though she would be living with him, he wouldn’t be paying her enough to finance a luxury car. Clutching the steering wheel, he grimaced as a grisly thought entered his mind. Maybe she sold children’s organs on the black market. He had heard that kidneys were actually pretty expensive.

Closing his eyes, he shook the thoughts away. He needed to stop. He was acting like some worrywart old grandmother. His brothers would call him an overprotective sissy, and Riley would say that his concern for his daughter was gross. He needed to not be gross, especially if a woman who wore Versace was going to live with him.

A dark car pulled up behind him and flashed its lights. In the rearview mirror, he couldn’t tell what make or model it was, but it was definitely Savannah. The air spewing from his car’s vents was still far from warm, but he didn’t want her to think that his car was a piece of crap—even if it kind of was.

He pulled out of his parking spot and inched his way to the exit. Savannah stayed right behind him. It occurred to him that he could just speed off and lose her. Then he would never have to see her again. It wouldn’t matter who she was or why she had so many tattoos. He could quit school, find a nine-to-five job at a bank or something, and put Chloe in day care.

He didn’t want to be that kind of father, though, even if plenty of people put their kids in school at a young age. From the day she was born, he had promised her that he would take care of her. Even if she had a live-in nanny, he would still spend more time with her than if she were in school all day.

A few minutes later, he pulled into a parking spot in front of the grocery store. Savannah carefully slid into the spot next to him. At least she was a good driver. Shutting the engine off, he opened his door and got out. As he headed toward Chloe’s door, he saw Savannah following him out of the corner of his eye. Her hand reached toward the handle.

“I’ve got it,” he said, lifting a hand.

“No problem,” she said, hanging back.

He opened Chloe’s door and unstrapped her. Lifting her into his arms, he rested his cheek against her head for a moment. Then, remembering their mission, he headed toward the grocery store.

Inside, he chose a cart and slid her into the seat. She kicked her legs against the metal, her shoes clanging. Max wrapped his fingers around the bar and began to push her toward the produce section.

“How are you supposed to test me,” Savannah called behind him, “if you’re pushing her?”

He paused, heat creeping up the back of his neck. He was being a tad overprotective. “Habit,” he said, stepping away from the cart. Swallowing hard, he watched as Savannah took control. She rolled the cart slowly, letting him lead the way. As they neared the fruits and vegetables, he prayed that he hadn’t made a huge mistake. Kids were abducted every day.

“So what do you need to get?” Savannah asked, gently tucking Chloe’s arm away from a shelf of apples.

He blinked. He didn’t exactly have a list. He cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “what do you like?”

Her lips parted in a little O, and he realized that they were full, pink and soft looking. For a second, he wondered what it would be like to kiss those lips. Heat flushed his cheeks, and he looked away, busying himself with selecting apples.

“Are apples okay?” he asked, ducking his head down.

“Sure,” she said. The scent of her perfume wafted his way again, and he felt himself get a little lightheaded. Great. On top of worrying about her tattoos and potential involvement with a cult of nannies or the black market, he was attracted to her.

He filled a bag with some apples and tossed them into the cart, already moving into the next aisle. “Chloe loves bananas,” he said, picking up two bunches. “She’ll eat them all day if you let her.”

“Noted,” Savannah said, wheeling Chloe up behind him. “What doesn’t she like?”

“Big raviolis,” he said, turning back to them. Savannah cocked her head, raising an eyebrow. “She likes the mini ones,” he explained.

Snorting, Savannah tapped Chloe’s nose lightly. “So no big ones,” she said. “Got it.”

Max moved away from the produce aisle, heading toward the rest of the store. “I just need bread and milk,” he said, visualizing his refrigerator. “If there’s anything you want, just grab it.”

“Okay,” Savannah said behind him. He heard the squeak of the cart and Chloe babbling to herself. Then, Savannah started singing. Her voice was soft and sweet, and although he didn’t understand the words, warmth pooled through his body. His shoulders relaxed a bit.

The rest of the shopping trip went smoothly. Savannah kept Chloe from grabbing random things off shelves and hurling them to the floor. She only selected a few things for herself: a bag of rice, two cans of black beans, a package of boned pork, and some Adobo.

“I like to cook,” she said with a shrug.

By the time they loaded everything into Max’s car, Chloe had fallen asleep. He tucked her into her seat, her head drooping against the pillowed fabric. Then he turned to Savannah, the address for his apartment dancing on his lips. He knew it was stupid to judge a person just from one shopping trip, but so far, she seemed like a good fit. Chloe really liked her, too.

He just hoped that they could all live together.


Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5