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"I'm going to marry Cole when I grow up," a small voice said from the backseat.
"You are?" Dani Wilder glanced at her three-year-old daughter in the rearview mirror. Her mahogany curls were the perfect blend of her father's dark chocolate hair and Dani's burnished copper tresses. Fate had blessed her daughter with her daddy's deep blue eyes since Dani's were a nondescript gray. Faith met Dani's gaze and grinned.
"Yep." She confirmed her wedding plans. Never one to sit still, she kicked her black patent leather shoes against the seat back. "He says I'm his number-one sweetheart."
Dani gritted her teeth and determined to talk to Mr. Cole Sullivan at her earliest opportunity. A picture of the man came to mind, ruggedly handsome with mink-dark hair and brilliant blue eyes. He was tall and broad, with the lanky build of a runner.
They'd moved to Paradise Pines ten months ago, and she hadn't been in town for more than a week before learning of the mayor's reputation with the ladies. A total charmer, he was the love-'em-and-leave-'em type. Which said it all as far as she was concerned. It hardly mattered that he mysteriously stayed friendly with his castoffs. She wasn't letting the man mess with her little girl's head.
She made a left-hand turn into the restaurant parking lot and looked for a park. They were on the way to dinner with Samantha Sullivan, Dani's best friend since high school, and her family.
Samantha was the reason Dani chose Paradise Pines when she decided to move to a smaller, safer town to raise Faith.
"Don't you think you should have asked me before agreeing to marry anyone?"
"When I grow up, I'll be a big girl. But I'll still ask you, Mommy."
Dani smiled as she pulled her hybrid car into a spot near the front door. She was lucky to have such an agreeable child. She turned in her seat and straightened the hem of Faith's pretty pink dress. The outfit had a short jacket to match; the two pieces were piped in black and two heart-shaped black buttons decorated the jacket.
"You sure look pretty tonight."
Pleased, Faith patted her skirt. "You look pretty, too, Mommy."
"Thank you. Remember, you're going to be good tonight. Mind your manners and behave yourself."
Faith nodded and Dani got out to walk around and release the little girl from her seat.
"Do you think Cole would be my daddy instead of getting married? Then he could live with us, and I don't have to wait until I get bigger."
Pain stabbed Dani in the heart, which made her mad for not anticipating the question. Faith's newest and dearest desire was for a daddy.
Dani longed to tell Faith she had a daddy, but though Dani often shared pictures and stories of her father with Faith, the reality was he'd never be real for his daughter.
She wanted someone to play with, to look up to, to tuck her in at night.
"It's not that easy, Sweet Pea." Especially not with Cole Sullivan, who by all appearances was allergic to any form of commitment. He probably took two seconds to make a decision and never suffered any doubts.
"Why not? " Faith took Dani's hand as they walked toward the large wooden doors of the steakhouse.
"Because a daddy is part of a family. You and me, we're our own family."
"But we could ask Cole to be part of our family."
"It doesn't work that way. Mommies and daddies are supposed to love each other, and I don't really know Mr. Sullivan." Which was true. Though she'd seen him on several occasions in his capacity as mayor, socially she'd only been in his company three times and always in a group setting. Every time she'd kept her distance.
He was Samantha's brother-in-law. Faith knew him because Samantha babysat for Dani in the afternoons three times a week. She understood Cole enjoyed playing with the kids and was a frequent visitor to the house.
"Oh." Totally despondent, Faith sighed her disappointment.
Little drama queen. Dani loved her to pieces.
As she reached for the door handle, boots sounded on the wooden porch behind them.
"There's my favorite girl," a deep voice said as a muscular arm reached around Dani to grab the door and hold it open.
Startled, she looked up into smiling blue eyes.
"Cole!" Faith launched herself at the man's long legs. "What are you doing here?"
Good question. Dani could only hope he wasn't a part of their party. She bit back a protest when he hiked Faith up into his arms. Her little girl beamed down at Dani.
"Look, Mama, I'm bigger than you."
"Yes, I see." She lowered her gaze from her daughter to Cole Sullivan. "Mayor. Can you please put her down? You're wrinkling her dress."
He lifted one dark eyebrow, making Dani feel that she'd overreacted. But he didn't challenge her.
"It's okay, Mommy." Faith was the one to protest.
She showed her preference by looping her tiny arms around Sullivan's neck.
"No, your mother is right, we don't want to muss this beautiful dress." He carefully set Faith on her feet. "There you go."
He returned his amused gaze to Dani. "No need to be so formal. You can call me Cole."
Was he laughing at her? What nerve. She had every right to protect her daughter as she saw fit.
"When you have a few minutes, I'd like to speak with you privately."
The smile slowly disappeared; he gave a noncommittal nod. "Sure. The Sullivan party," he said to the hovering hostess.
The teenager, dressed in unrelieved black, walked to her podium to check her list. Just then the big wooden doors opened and Sullivans spilled into the restaurant lobby.
Chaos ensued while greetings were exchanged. The brothers shook hands; of the same height and coloring, they had different builds. Where Cole was lean and ripped, Alex had more brawn. He easily handled the carrier with his seven-month-old son tucked inside.
Dani knew there were six Sullivan brothers altogether. The four she'd met were incredibly beautiful men, strong and male with dark hair and blue eyes. She had no doubt the twins, whom she hadn't met, were made from the same mold.
She was under no illusion that Samantha was hoping she'd hook up with one of them. But Dani just wanted to raise her daughter and build her business. Her gaze rolled over Cole Sullivan—she really didn't have time for a man in her life.
Samantha held the couple's two-year-old while their four-year-old ran forward to hug Faith. Samantha stepped up for her own hug and little Seth made the jump from her arms to Dani's.
"Hello, sweetheart." Dani kissed him on the head and smiled at her friend. "I'm glad we could do this."
"Me, too." Samantha hooked her arm around Dani's elbow. "We're going to have fun. Do they have our table ready?"
The hostess stepped forward. "Right this way."
Once they reached the table and the kids were settled into their seats, Cole stopped Dani from sitting down. His hand, warm and sure, cupped her elbow and drew her away from the group.
"Excuse us for a few minutes. We're going to have a small talk on the porch."
"We didn't have to do this now," she protested as he led her toward the exit. "After dinner would have been fine."
"No." He released her once they stepped outside. "I find it's best to address these issues early in the evening, then there's no opportunity for false expectations to grow."
"False expectations?" she repeated. What was he talking about?
He sat down on a bench deep in the corner of the porch and gestured for her to join him. She sat, found herself way too close to him and tried to scoot away, which almost sent her toppling to the ground. She reached out to save herself and ended up grabbing his leg.
Before she could snatch it away, he lifted her hand and patted it.
Mortified, she looked up to apologize and encountered kind blue eyes.
"You're a beautiful woman, Dani," he said in the gentlest of tones, "and I'm sure you're intelligent and witty and have a lot to offer a man. But you're just not my type."
She blinked as she processed his nice-guy routine. "You think I wanted you to ask me out?"
"There's no need to be embarrassed—"
"I'm not embarrassed. I'm annoyed." She pulled her hand from his. "I know I'm not your type, obviously I'm too old. You like them younger, a lot younger."
His eyes narrowed and his posture became defensive. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the wedding plans my daughter was making on the way over here tonight. Are you insane, making a comment like that to an impressionable three-year-old?"
"Ah." Comprehension dawned. "I thought a fictitious engagement would distract her from what she really wants, which is a daddy."
The breath caught in the back of Dani's throat. "Did she say that to you?"
He shrugged. "It was headed that way."
"I talk to her about her father all the time."
"Yes." His tone turned gentle again. "His name was Kevin, he went to heaven, and you miss him very much."
Dani's heart constricted, in sorrow for the husband she'd lost and in heartbreak for the daughter who sought to replace him in her life.
"He's not real for her." She thought again, only realizing she'd spoken aloud when he answered.
"No. Someday she'll appreciate knowing him through you, but that day is far in the future."
"You sound as if you know."
"I lost my parents when I was ten. I remember them, but my grandfather I only know through my grandmother's memories. I'm told I take after him."
She felt for the little boy he'd been, but she couldn't let sympathy distract her. "I'm sorry for your loss. And I recognize your efforts to waylay Faith's absorption with you, but as you are neither daddy nor husband material, I'd appreciate it if you keep your distance from her." Expecting that to end the matter, Dani stood and dusted off her backside, ready to head inside.
"I can't promise to do that."
"Excuse me?" Shocked by his refusal, she turned back to him.
"Look, I'll do my best to stay away from Faith, but for the most part I only see her when I visit my nephews. I'm not going to avoid them, so I can't promise to completely avoid Faith."
"I'm her mother, you have to honor my request."
"Can you tell me positively that making myself scarce will change anything?"
"She'll lose her fascination with you."
"If I disappear from her life, she'll just transfer her desire for a daddy to someone else."
"There is no one else."
"There's no one else in your life. Faith gets out more."
A sad but true fact. And wasn't he less than a gentleman to point it out.
"Look, I'd never do anything to hurt your baby. She's a cute kid, clever and bright as a rainbow. I enjoy her company and I'm her friend. I'll try to visit the boys on days she's not there. And I won't encourage her, but I'm not going to ignore her. That would hurt her feelings."
Dani wanted to protest, to make him bow to her parental demand. But on a more rational level she knew he was right. He'd conceded to the spirit of her request and, much as she'd like to blame him, the root of the problem was with Faith, not him.
"We should head back in before someone comes looking for us." He gestured for her to lead the way. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."
Dani wanted to pout but that would only upset Samantha, so instead Dani pasted on a smile and determined to have a good time. It didn't take long to see the man was surprisingly amusing and amazingly good with the children, which only made her feel foolish.
She drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly and decided being upset hurt her more than him, and she didn't want to give him the satisfaction of ruining her evening.
So she breathed in, breathed out then turned to Samantha with a witty anecdote of Mrs. Day coming in requesting a shampoo and comb-out for her miniature poodle, Pebbles.
Samantha laughed. "So how did you convince her you couldn't do it?"
"I didn't. Lydia from the sheriff's office came in, took one look at Pebbles, and pulled out a ticket book and began to write Mrs. Day up for health and safety violations. Mrs. Day couldn't get Pebbles out of there fast enough."
"That is so funny." Samantha shook her head. "You know Lydia can't write tickets. She's administrative support."
Dani blinked at Samantha before grinning. "I didn't know. And thankfully neither did Mrs. Day."
"My grandmother raves about your salon, Dani," Alex said. "Says you make her look young and hip."
"Gram is young and hip," Cole put in.