Icy snow seeped into the canvas of Max’s sneakers. He jumped, yelping, and dashed from his parked car. Every step he took brought more icy water into his shoes. He swore as he stomped through slushy puddles of half-melted snow. Tilting his head back, he stuck his middle finger up at the gray December sky. Toes going numb, he clambered onto the front porch, then opened the front door to his apartment, thankful that he had gotten the first floor.
Heat blasted him as he stepped inside, and his shoulders sagged in relief. He kicked off his shoes and unzipped his coat.
“Daddy?” Chloe called from somewhere in the house.
“Hi, baby girl,” he called back, draping his coat over the old gas heater. He splayed his fingers over the humped bars, the warmth sending tingles through his nerves. He shuffled closer and slid his feet underneath. Reaching down, he peeled off his soaked socks and laid them out over the heater to dry.
“Daddy, come here,” his daughter called.
Patting the heater, he ambled toward the back of the apartment. The doors to his bedroom and Savannah’s room were closed, but light spilled into the hall from Chloe’s room. Max’s bare feet pressed into the carpet as he neared the open door, reveling in the warmth oozing through his body. Poking his head in, he gazed through the room, searching for his daughter.
She sat in a pile of pink and purple tissue paper. Savannah sat next to her, slender brown fingers a blur. Max blinked, leaning against the doorframe. Pink and purple tissue paper flowers adorned the walls of the once plain bedroom, bursting from the wall and decorating the top bars of Chloe’s crib.
Savannah grinned at him, shrugging a shoulder. “What do you think?”
Chloe squealed, dipped her small hands into the pile of tissue paper, and flung some up into the air like confetti. Kicking her feet, she laughed.
Max felt the remaining ice melt from his face as his own lips curled into a smile. “How did you do this?” he asked, entering the room. He scooped Chloe up, tissue paper floating from her tiny legs. Twirling, he flung her into the air, snatching her just before she hit the ground. She shrieked with laughter.
“Dollar store,” Savannah said, watching as he threw Chloe into the air again. She drew her knees up to her chest. “Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” Max said, tossing Chloe up again. Her wispy hair flew out in all directions, her limbs splayed. He caught her again and snuggled her to his chest, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “I missed you,” he told her.
Savannah climbed to her feet. “Come on,” she said. “Dinner’s ready.”
He followed her into the kitchen, his nose catching the scent of garlic for the first time. A platter of spaghetti and meatballs sat on the table next to a pile of garlic bread. “I didn’t even know we had this stuff in the house,” he said.
Savannah picked up a slice of garlic bread. “Hot dog buns,” she said, handing it to him. “And I used the rest of the red peppers in the sauce.”
“Is there anything you can’t cook?” he asked as he strapped Chloe into her high chair.
“Try it first,” she said. “My ex always said my meatballs were too soggy.”
Max froze. “Your ex?” He winced at the squeak in his voice. Jealousy pitted in his stomach. He ran a hand through his hair, the back of his neck flushing. It was stupid of him to think that Savannah wouldn’t be off the market. Of course she was dating. She was beautiful and she knew how to cook. Just because she always had dinner on the table for him and decorated his daughter’s room didn’t mean that she was his girlfriend. He swallowed hard. The guys she dated probably spoke three languages and lived in Puerto Rico part-time.
The sound of a chair scraping across the floor brought him back to the present moment. “Yeah, he couldn’t even make pancakes,” she said, sitting down. She piled a dish with spaghetti and three meatballs, then held it out to Max.
“Thanks,” he said, taking it and setting it down in front of him. He sat across from her, his heart hammering in his chest. “So what does your boyfriend think of all this?” he said, trying to keep his voice casual.
“My boyfriend?” She snorted. “If I had one, he would be ridiculously jealous, blowing up my phone. I always end up with insecure assholes.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “You drive a BMW.” The words were out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying. He flushed.
“So what?” she said.
“I just mean, like attracts like.” He shoved a bite of meatball into his mouth before he could do any more damage.
She scrunched up her eyebrows at him. “Sure,” she said, eyeing him.
“Good meatballs,” he said with his mouth full.
“Thanks,” Savannah said, filling her own plate. She twirled spaghetti around her fork. Silence settled around him.
Max cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about the other night,” he said. Despite the heat in the apartment, cold sweat dotted his hairline. “I was kind of a dick.”
“Kind of?” she said, but her dimples flashed and her lips curled into a smile. “I’m sorry, too. It’s none of my business. I just want to help.”
“I know,” he said quickly. “And you’re great. This is great.” He motioned to the spread of food on the table and to Chloe, whose face was covered in sauce and spaghetti. His eyes widened. “Chloe, no!”
Savannah laughed. “It’s okay. She needs a bath tonight anyway. No problem. You just focus on your work.” She reached for a slice of garlic bread. “So, what are you studying, anyway?”
Even though he was sitting, Max’s knees went weak. “Um, just elementary ed,” he said, preparing another bite of meatball.
Savannah’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re gonna be a teacher? That’s cool!”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
“No, it really is. I could never do anything like that.” The smile evaporated from her face, a longing expression burning in her eyes. Her gaze drifted away from the table, toward the living room. Her eyebrows slanted down.
Max frowned. “It’s really no big deal. I mean, my brothers are lawyers and authors and doctors. I’ll be lucky if I graduate.” He forced a laugh, despite his heart slamming in his chest.
“You will,” Savannah said, her eyes meeting his. She smiled.
He snorted. “No, really, I’m barely passing. You have to have a really high GPA. My dad wanted me to join my older brothers in the family law business.” He bit his lower lip, wondering why he was telling her so much. He should be talking himself up, not knocking himself down. Girls like Savannah wanted confident men, not family fuckups like him.
She muttered something in Spanish, her hands flying as she spoke.
He blinked at her. “English?”
Rolling her eyes, she huffed a sigh. “My dad’s a granite countertop contractor, and my mom’s a home designer.”
Max snorted laughter. “My mom’s doing that now, too. That’s why she kicked me out, so she could use the space I was apparently taking up as her office.”
Savannah twisted her lips. “Um, I meant she, like, designs houses. She draws up the plans in a CAD program.”
“Oh,” Max said, running a hand through his hair.
“They kicked me out when I dropped out of college,” she said quickly.
He blinked at her. “You dropped out of college?”
She nodded and flashed him a dancing thumbs-up. “Mmn-hmn. I was going to Naugatuck Valley for fine arts.”
Frowning, Max cut a meatball in half. “Why did you drop out?”
Her eyes glinted. “I failed math.”
“You couldn’t retake it?” he asked, dropping his fork.
“I also failed English.”
He stared at her. “Like, composition?”
She nodded. “And psychology. Basically every class that wasn’t art. I even failed art history.” She shrugged. “I just wanted to paint.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but how the hell do you fail all of those classes?”
She pointed a finger at him. “Watch it, pendejo.”
He stuffed spaghetti into his mouth, shoulders hunching.
“School is hard,” she said. “They gave me that BMW when I finished high school, but then they freaked out when I said I wanted to study art. I mean, what the hell? I guess it’s because I’m the only child. They wanted me to take over the family business.” She rolled up her sleeves, exposing the tattoos. “Can you imagine me designing houses for rich people? Screw that.”
Max’s heart pounded in his chest. He and Savannah weren’t much different, he realized. Despite his initial assumptions, he just might have a shot with her. “So you don’t have a boyfriend,” he said, trying to keep his voice casual.
She lifted an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Clearing his throat, he put on what he hoped was an innocent expression. “I just mean, I totally get it. My ex is crazy. She doesn’t even want to see Chloe.”
Savannah’s eyes darted toward his daughter, and her gaze softened. “Bendita,” she said, frowning. “Why not?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t know. We dated for two years in high school, and she got pregnant our senior year. Her parents didn’t want her to have the baby, and she wanted to have—well, I stepped in for full custody, and we had to fight in court. Luckily I have a lot of lawyers in the family.” He forced a smile, but his heart ached at the memories. He swallowed hard, remembering the look on Nicole’s face when she told him what she planned to do with their unborn baby. Tears sprang to his eyes.
“Okay, happier conversation,” Savannah said, thrusting another piece of garlic bread at him. “How much do my meatballs suck?” She grinned, but she squeezed his hand.
“They’re really good,” he said, taking a bite out of the garlic bread with his free hand. He sighed and squeezed her hand back, his heart racing. “Any guy who criticizes your cooking is an idiot. I would totally starve without you.” He smiled.
“You’ll see,” she said. “I’ll have you speaking Spanish and making sofrito verde by the time Chloe’s three.” She grinned.
“Yeah, I can’t even boil water,” he said, smiling back. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“Stop saying you can’t,” she said. “Every time you say you can’t, you knock yourself down a peg. You’ve gotta stay positive. You don’t see me saying I can’t, just because I dropped out of college. I can do anything I want.” Her eyes smoldered. Max swallowed hard. He realized they were still holding hands. He gently pulled his away, shifting in his seat. His pants tightened. Blood roared in his ears. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself for the millionth time that he needed to keep things professional between them.
Savannah stood and went to the kitchen sink. She dampened a towel and returned to the table. “I mean, think about this. I have like, no experience as a nanny. But I like kids, and I can cook. Here I am.” She put Chloe’s empty dish on the table and began cleaning his daughter’s hands and face.
“Wait, what do you mean, ‘no experience’?” Max asked, his eyes widening.
“I mean, I’ve watched my little cousins,” she said with a shrug. “My point is, if you don’t focus on your good qualities and only your bad ones, you’ll never get anywhere.” Tapping Chloe’s nose with her finger, she smiled. Chloe giggled. Savannah lifted the little girl from her high chair.
“So you lied to me?” he asked, frowning.
“More like I highlighted my good experience,” she said with a wink. “Do you trust me any less?”
Max rested his chin on one hand. So far, she hadn’t done anything to make him think she was a threat to his daughter or him. He shook his head. “Maybe I’m stupid, but no. I trust you.”
“You’re not stupid, Max.” Savannah cuddled Chloe. “People like us just have to work a little harder. But we’ve got street smarts. I mean, look at you. You got kicked out of your parents’ house, yet you were capable enough to find a place for you and your daughter to live. You can’t cook, yet you were smart enough to find someone who can.” She stuck her tongue out at him, her eyes dancing as she teased.
His skin tingled. He took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, his thoughts swirling. It seemed like she was flirting with him. He swallowed hard. “You’re right,” he told her.
“Of course I am,” she said. “I know more than you do. I’m older and I can speak Spanish.” With a wink, she turned and left the kitchen, carrying Chloe into the bathroom.
Feeling slightly dizzy, Max remained sitting. He stared at the spaghetti and meatballs, and the saucy towel on the table. From the bathroom, he could hear the water running and Chloe giggling. Savannah’s sweet voice drifted to him, a song in Spanish that he had never heard. He had no idea where she had come from or why she had decided to work for him, but he was glad. They had more in common than he had initially thought. Shame washed over him for judging her so quickly, but only briefly.
She had said that she didn’t have a boyfriend. She made dinner for him every night, even though he had only hired her to look after Chloe. She had even decorated his daughter’s room, out of her own will and pocket. His heart pounded in his chest. She teased him every chance she got. Sometimes, the way she looked at him reminded him of the way Nicole had looked at him, back when they had first started dating, when things were good.
Maybe he was crazy, but he was beginning to wonder if he had a chance with Savannah—and whether he should take it.
Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.
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