Single Daddy Secret by Lauren Wood

1

Emmett

Iput the car into park and stared into the rearview mirror at Anna in her carseat. She was leaning against the straps to try and get a better look at the daycare center we had just pulled up to. She pointed towards it and looked back to me with her big blue curious eyes.

“Remember this place from the other day, Anna? The one with all the nice teachers and the toys?” I asked her.

She smiled with a wide toothless grin. “Toy.”

“That’s right. Want to go inside and play with the toys again?”

She bounced her legs and squirmed in her seat with impatience as I shut off the car and went around to grab her diaper bag and scoop her into my arms.

The Little Tykes Day Academy was a small brick building with immaculate landscaping. The front lobby was just as stark and sterile aside from the bright colorful drawings and posters hanging on the walls, and the bold colored furniture. The whole place smelled like glue, which I vaguely remembered as being a normal thing from kindergarten. But outside of those hazy memories - I had zero frame of reference. Every step of choosing a place and getting Anna enrolled felt so foreign to me, and I had the sneaking suspicion that I was somehow doing everything wrong. But then again, that’s what every day felt like ever since I lost my wife and was left to raise our daughter on my own.

The same teacher who had been in the classroom the day of our tour was back again to greet us as we walked into the colorful den of kids around Anna’s age. Joanna looked to be in her early 20’s, and she had short brown curls pulled into a bun on top of her head. She was bright and bubbly and just about everything you could ask for in a stranger you were entrusting to care for your only child.

“Anna! So good to see you again!” she beamed.

Anna eyed her sheepishly and laid her head against my shoulder. I could tell she was feeling shy and uncertain, and so was I. I had half a mind to turn and walk right out of there, taking her back home with me.

“It’s perfectly normal for both of you to be a little nervous,” Joanna assured us. “This is her first time in daycare?”

“Her first time with a sitter of any kind,” I replied, cradling Anna tighter, kissing the thin pale blond hair along her soft forehead.

“That makes this a big moment, indeed.” She leaned in closer to Anna and smiled. “Do you see all of the other kids over there having fun with the toys? Would you like to go play with them? Then we’ll clean up and have a yummy snack.”

Without waiting for much of a reply, she reached out and took her from me. I was reluctant to let go, but didn’t want to freak her out and make it even scarier than it already was. As Joanna carried her off to the playmat with the other kids, Anna turned to look at me. Her big eyes welled up with tears and her bottom lip quivered. She held out her hands for me and started to cry.

I, of course, went running after her. But Joanna held up her hands firmly to stop me. “It only makes it worse if you linger. Trust me. A few minutes after you’re gone, she’ll be smiling and laughing and having fun. The longer you stay, the longer she’ll cry.”

I stammered there for a moment, feeling tears well up in my own eyes too. There wasn’t a bone in my body that felt okay about turning around and walking out to leave her there. But parents did this every day, right? I looked at all the other kids playing and having fun, and tried to assure myself this was all normal and safe and fine.

“Right, okay,” I croaked, nodding curtly.

I forced myself to turn and leave, doing my best not to look back. I only made it halfway to the door before forgetting my resolve and spinning around to go racing towards Anna again, but Joanna wagged her finger in the air.

“She’ll be fine! I promise you. Don’t forget, you can check in on her any time throughout the day on the cameras we have set up here in the classroom.”

I sucked in a deep breath and made the final march out to leave. Stop crying, Emmett. Come on, don’t break down like this in front of all these people. You look ridiculous.

But I couldn’t help it. One big tear was streaming down my stubbled cheek by the time I was crossing back through the lobby.

“Awww, the first day is always the hardest,” the sympathetic receptionist called out to me. “It will get easier. We see it all the time. You and your daughter must be very close.”

“We are,” I sighed. I stopped myself from explaining part of the reason why. I was learning to stop announcing to anyone who cared to listen that I was a widower.

“I put it off for as long as I could. Sending her to daycare,” I explained. “But I have to get back to work…so here we are.”

“What do you do?” she asked as she stood and handed me a tissue.

“I work in the music industry. I manage artists. I just got a new recording studio built out into our basement actually. So, yeah…First day back on the job.”

“I can relate,” a tired looking woman groaned from the other edge of the desk. She had a little boy on her hip and was struggling to keep the diaper bag strap over her shoulder while she signed him in. “First day back to work for me too. The first few years,” she shook her head. “They really fly by. We were lucky to be able to stay home with them for as long as we did though, right?”

“Yeah,” I offered half-heartedly. But truthfully, I’d hardly call myself lucky for getting my wife’s insurance money. I would have gladly given it up if it would have brought her back.

The moment I got back in my car, I pulled out my phone and checked the cameras for the classroom. Anna was sitting in Joanna’s lap, playing with a wooden toy train like nothing had happened. I felt mildly better, but I had a feeling I’d still be checking the cameras all day long.

The only thing that took my eyes off the camera at that moment was an incoming call from my brother. I switched it over to bluetooth and started the drive home as I picked up.

“Hey, my man. How’s the new house and business going?” Hunter asked.

“Good. We’re all unpacked. I just dropped Anna off at school for the first time.” My voice cracked as I said it, and I couldn’t manage to hold back my sniffling.

He was silent for a moment. “Are you…Are you crying?”

“Back off. You’re going to know what this feels like before you know it. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for damn sure.”

“Alright, fair enough,” he submitted. “Listen, Lauren wanted me to call and see if you and Anna could come over for dinner tonight. Or better yet, we’ll come there and see your new place.”

“Ah, I don’t know if tonight is such a good night,” I admitted, running a hand down my face as I waited at a red light. “I’m sure Anna will be exhausted tonight after such a big day.”

“Okay, then I’ll come by for lunch. I’ll pick up something on the way. I need to meet with a client on your side of town anyway.”

One of the worst parts about losing your spouse was the way everyone worried about you. At first, it was great to have all the support. But as the months turned into over a year, I was desperate for everyone, including Hunter, to just back off a little and stop fussing over me so much.

“No can do. I’m rushing home right now to meet a potential tenant from the ad I posted.”

“Already?” he replied. “Damn, that was fast. Didn’t you just post it last night?”

“Yeah, I was surprised myself. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? I really gotta go.”

“Sure, okay. How about we…”

I pretended not to catch his third attempt at making plans and quickly ended the call as I pulled into the garage. After glancing at the time, I realized I only had maybe five minutes before the lady who called about renting the room would be arriving. I raced into the house and made a mad dash to pick up the laundry and toys strewn across the living and dining room. I knew I couldn’t very well ask for a clean roommate if the house wasn’t clean to start with.

With everything picked up and tossed into a laundry basket, I got stuck for a moment in trying to figure out what to do with it all in such a short amount of time. I was still getting used to the big new house, which was really almost too big for us. But the basement was so perfect for the studio, I couldn’t turn it down. It was perfect for recording demos for the artists I signed on to represent. And it would come in handy for a good stream of side income if we ever needed it. People were always looking for a good studio and engineer to rent out for their indie albums. The spare room had potential for some good side income too, which would be helpful in paying the mortgage until I had a new roster of clients built up.

The doorbell rang while I was still standing cluelessly in the foyer with my arms full of random misplaced junk I had collected from around the house. Not knowing what else to do, I darted for the hallway closet and stuffed it all in there. Then rushed over to answer the door, pausing for just a moment to smooth back the stray curls of my disheveled thick brown hair.

After just a brief pause to catch my breath, I turned the knob and flung the door open.

“Hi. You must be Emmett. I’m Lori. We spoke on the phone a little while ago?”

My mouth dropped, and I was unable to form words. I was also immediately unable to imagine inviting this woman to live with us. She was jaw-dropping hot in a way I was nowhere near ready to even look at, much less live with.

She was tall, only a few inches shorter than me. And well over half of that height seemed to be coming from her long caramel brown legs which were on full display beneath the thin strip of cut off blue jean shorts she wore. The top didn’t fare much better with a thin, flowy yellow blouse. She was wearing a tank top underneath, which was good because the thing was see-through. But it still gave a plain view of her ample cleavage, leading right up to her long neck. Her curly brown hair was also long, like everything else about her, and extended down the full length of her back and half of her ass - even though I was doing my best not to stare there for too long.

“Sorry. Hi!” I managed to snap out of it and reach out to shake her hand. “Yeah, Emmett. Nice to meet you, Lori. Come on in.”

Her plump pink lips stretched into a smile over her big, perfect white teeth. Her dark eyes sparked with warmth as she shook my hand and walked past me. I was certain a woman that beautiful hadn’t crossed my path since my wife died.

I didn’t think I could handle living with someone like that. She looked like a Victoria’s Secret angel, only with her clothes on - leaving too much to my dirty imagination. But she was already here, and it wasn’t fair to reject her right off the bat just because she was ridiculously attractive, which she couldn’t necessarily help.

I must have sounded like a fumbling idiot as I walked her from room to room and spouted off meaningless details about the house and repeated things from the ad she had obviously already read. When the tour was over, we took a seat in the living room. At least when we were walking around, I was able to avoid eye contact. Now we were sitting right across from each other, and it was hard not to stare. Worse, it was rude not to look at her while we were talking, but I worried I looked and sounded like a stammering creep.

All I had to do was find some other reason why I couldn’t rent the room to her, and then I could tell her goodbye and carry on with the search.

“So, where do you live now?” I asked her.

“With my brother,” she replied, nodding with a smile. “I was doing some modeling work in West Elm, but decided to come back here and stay for a while. I love my brother, and we’ve lived together before. But this time around…it’s not going so well. I’m ready for a new place on my own.”

A model. Of course. How could she not be?

“And I take it you’ll be doing more modeling work while you’re here in Bronze Bay?”

She seemed to tense up at the question. “Uh, no, actually. I’m, uh…I’m in between jobs at the moment. I haven’t decided what I’ll do next, but I’m very resourceful. I always end up landing right where I need to be. I’m just taking a little time to reset and make a plan.”

“Ah, I see,” I frowned, rubbing my palms together. “No offense. It’s just that I’ll be very busy with this new business I’m starting, and things will be chaotic enough as it is. I really need whoever moves in to be dependable and drama-free. I’m a little concerned you’d have trouble keeping up with the rent…given your situation.”

“I completely understand,” she assured me, seeming unphased. “I’d worry about the same thing in your shoes. But that’s actually why I’m looking for a place. There was too much drama between me and my brother, so I am in need of the same low-key deal. Trust me.”

“Right, it’s just…the bills and…”

“I can pay you six months rent in advance,” she blurted, now sounding a bit desperate. “Thirty-six-hundred dollars. Today. In cash. Deal?”

I tried to stutter through a response, but before I could get out a single word she was headed for the door, calling back over her shoulder, “Great. You won’t regret this. Let me just grab my things. I can move in right away.”