Colm Cleary lost his wife just moments after his son Aiden’s birth, and it’s been just the two of them ever since. Dating is his very last priority—until he spots gorgeous Monica Rayburn on the playground with her little girl. Suddenly finding a woman sympathetic to the demands of single parenthood seems like a great idea—especially if they agree to a no-pressure, no-strings date . . .
Dazzled by the hot “Saturdaddy” who asks her out, Monica doesn’t get around to mentioning that little Emma is her niece. She’s in commodities, not children. A gambler to the bone, she’s going to take a chance on an adult evening with Colm—and worry about the details later. But when their casual connection deepens into something more solid, the truth will have to come out—and both Colm and Monica will have to throw caution to the wind to hold on to a future together . . .
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Monica Rayburn inched closer to the picnic tables littered with diaper bags and juice boxes and lifted her cell a centimeter higher. The angle was perfect. Her subject was centered in the frame. This was a skill she'd honed during years of after-work happy hours and had finally mastered — the sly snapshot.
A quick look at the enormous play structure mounted in the center of the playground verified that her niece, Emma, was safely ensconced in one of the numerous hamster trails leading from one slide to another. Wiggling her thumb over the screen as if frantically typing a text, Monica tipped the phone up to adjust the angle a smidge. The whir of a fake shutter marked her success. She gave the photo a surreptitious glance as she lowered the phone.
All she had to do was determine if the handsome hunk of a man leaning against the wide trunk of an oak tree was parent or predator. If he was the latter, she had a great picture for the police. If he was some lucky kid's daddy, there was a good chance she could snag the prize for best "Spotted in the Wild" photo on her friend Sarah's photo blog. There were many beautiful specimens of manhood in the urban jungle, but few rocked the whole package like this guy did. He was tall, a bit brawny, and sported the right amount of scruff shadowing his jawline. Wavy black hair set off skin so creamy a cartoon princess would put in a call to her dermatologist.
But all those tasty tidbits weren't what kept her riveted. There was something about the way he stood. Yes, those broad shoulders were touching tree bark, but there was a readiness in his stance. Like he could spring into action at any moment. Like a jungle cat. Her heart did a little stutter-step. She focused on her breath until the pounding organ tripped into a semi-normal rhythm. Judging by the number of drive-by glances he was racking up from the mommy brigade, every woman within a hundred-yard radius was thinking the exact same thing.
Exhaling long and slow, as her yoga instructor taught her, Monica tore her eyes off the man of the minute to run a munchkin check. Emma had made her way to the twisty slide and was patiently waiting her turn in line. With her lopsided nut-brown pigtails and solemn expression, her niece resembled Monica more than her own mother. Melody was as fair and light as her name. Petite. Easy-going. The popular girl. The fact that her niece resembled her was an odd, and probably petty, point of pride for Monica, but she couldn't help feeling smug. Melody's only offspring took after her. Score!
She'd been the gangly girl who wrecked the curve.
Though she was older, for most of her life Monica felt like her sister's negative image. The one who got all the miscellaneous traits. Like her parents couldn't get everything right the first time. She had their dad's boring brown hair and lean build. Mel claimed to envy her sister's fast metabolism, but Monica would have happily swapped a few hundred calories a day for a little more, uh ... endowment. The only feature she shared with her sister were the blue eyes they'd inherited from their mother. Well, the blue eyes and the residual effects of their parents' miserable marriage.
Emma called her name and Monica veered away from those disturbing memories. She'd collected dozens of self-help books over the years. Enough to start a library. But she'd have to think about her many manifestations later. Today was about Emma. She waved as her niece showed off her swinging skills. And Melody wouldn't screw her baby up the way their parents had messed with them.
Smiling, she watched as her niece proceeded to school a kid nearly twice her size on proper slide protocol when he tried to shove ahead in line. At nearly six, Emma was all arms and legs, like her Aunt Monnie. Mel claimed her daughter inherited Monica's bossy streak as well, but Monica didn't see herself or her niece as bossy. They were both naturally orderly people. And perhaps they were a little assertive about maintaining order, but self-control was no sin.
"If Barbara Walters ever asked me what tree I'd be, I'd pick that one," one of the ladies parked at the picnic table said, heaving a gusty sigh.
The sentiment was greeted by a round of appreciative groans and one reverent "Amen."
Monica chuckled at the mild blasphemy. She couldn't blame the woman. If they were talking about the guy she'd been checking out earlier, the view was worth possible damnation. Lifting her phone, she pretended to text as she zeroed in on the big oak tree on the far side of the playground once more.
This time, her dishy daddy wasn't alone. Two other men had joined him. The tall, angular man had burnished copper hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and impatient red-haired twins pulling at each of his arms. The third was more serious looking. He was shorter than the other two, but was manhandling a double stroller with impressive skill. A kicking toddler and a boy, who clearly thought he was too old to be pushed around, jabbered at him, eager to be turned loose.
"Lord, I love the Saturdaddies," the woman closest to Monica said, propping her chin on her hand.
"Saturdaddies?" Monica asked, unable to stop herself.
The cluster of yummy mummies tore their attention from the trio under the tree to give her the collective once-over. The one who was nursing an infant under an enormous giraffe-patterned tent made no attempt to be subtle as she checked Monica's bare left hand. Turning to one of the others, she gave a grudging huff. "No ring."
Another shrugged and sighed. "Someone might as well get a little play out of them."
The nursing mother tilted her head to look Monica in the eye. "Saturdaddies are men who only have time to bring their kids to the park on Saturdays. Usually divorced or never-marrieds."
"The married ones never come to the park," another grumbled. "Too tired after working so hard all week long."
The sarcasm in the woman's tone was tough to miss. The top notes of bitterness rang through Melody's request for Monica to take Emma for a few hours. Normally, she wasn't really the babysitting kind of aunt, but Mel's husband was heading out of town for a conference, and her sister swore the only thing keeping her from divorcing her steady, reliable dentist husband was the possibility of hot monkey sex. And for hot monkey sex to be a possibility, she needed someone to remove the inquisitive six-year-old from the premises.
With the words hot, monkey, and sex flashing through her brain, she turned to the trio under the tree. "None of them are married?" "Widowed, divorced, never legal," another mother reported, nodding to each man in turn as she rummaged for a juice box for her whining son.
Monica wanted to ask how she knew this and which was which, but Emma came tearing across the grass as fast as her spindly legs could carry her shouting, "Monnie! Monnie!"
Acting purely on instinct, Monica shoved the phone into her pocket and dropped to one knee to catch the tiny human missile. Damp seeped through the knee of her designer jeans. The Marc Jacobs tote she'd repacked with the supplies Mel provided slid off her shoulder and hit the ground. She didn't care. There was no way in hell she would trudge around town carrying a Dora the Explorer backpack. No way. No how.
Brushing thoughts of fashion sacrifices aside, she peered down into Emma's pointy little face. No tears. She couldn't feel any broken bones. No sign of blood. Only a shallow furrow of worry bisecting the girl's wispy brows gave any indication something might be wrong.
"What? What happened?"
"I found her at the bottom of the slide." Emma took a step and held up a grubby princess doll as if presenting Exhibit A to a jury. "Someone losed her."
Monica didn't bother suppressing her grimace as she eyed the doll's grimy face and dirty dress. "Lost her," she corrected gently.
"We gotta give her back. That's what you do when you find somebody else's stuff," Emma said, all wide-eyed sincerity.
Swallowing an unexpected lump of pride, Monica nodded and took her niece's free hand as she rose. "You're right. We'll ask around and see if we can find her mommy."
Emma blinked. "Mommy? Her mommy is Queen Cassandra. I didn't see a Queen Cassandra doll."
"Princess Clarissa's mommy." The little girl nodded, obviously happy to share her knowledge with an ignorant grownup, but her frown returned. "But she's not here. She lives in the Crystal Palace."
"Well, maybe we can find whoever brought Princess Clarissa here," Monica amended. She straightened and looked over at the women crowded around the tables. "Did anyone lose a, uh, Princess Clarissa?"
There was a flurry of activity as they rifled through bags. "No, I've got Eden's."
"Maribeth's is here."
"We didn't bring Laurel's because I told her I wouldn't buy another one if she lost one more."
The nursing mother looked up from her one-handed search, her mouth set in a grim line. "Sophie's isn't here." She craned her neck to get a good look at the play structure. "Great. She's camped out in the tube again. God, I hate that thing."
Monica looked over her shoulder and spotted a dark-haired girl sitting cross-legged in the giant plastic tunnel while other kids crawled around and over her to get to the other side.
"I'll go aks her," Emma volunteered.
Monica didn't have the heart to correct Emma's pronunciation. Her niece was practically vibrating at the thought of having a mission to accomplish, and Monica knew exactly how she felt. Giving her niece's hand a squeeze, she smiled at the harried young woman camped out under the nursing tent. "We'll go check with her."
About halfway to the playground, Monica gave up on restraining Emma one second longer. The girl sprinted toward the nearest ladder and started to climb. Monica's shoes sank into the recycled rubber mulch. She ducked under the plastic tunnel as Emma launched herself into the tube. They both froze in place when they spotted the pristine Princess Clarissa doll clutched in little Sophie's hands. A second later, Emma popped out of the tube onto a platform, waved the doll over her head and shouted, "She's not hers!"
Emma's mouth dipped at the corners as she squinted down from between the rails. Her baby blue eyes were wide but dry. Her lower lip trembled as she clutched the gnarly doll to her chest and hugged the nasty thing protectively. Recognizing the first signs of panic, Monica shifted into crisis management mode.
"Okay, okay. Come on down and we'll ask around," she coaxed, lifting her arms as if she expected her niece to catapult right into them.
Thankfully, Emma had sense for the both of them. She nodded once, and made her way to the wide, flat slide kids were hurtling down two and three at a time. Monica collected her at the bottom. Holding her hand tightly, they began to weave their way through the maze of activities, stopping to ask every little girl who crossed their path if the doll belonged to her.
As frustrating as receiving no after no was, the search went a long way to eroding Monica's cynical outlook on life. All of the girls they questioned were scrupulously honest, even the ones who eyed the grubby doll covetously. Monica promised herself she would purchase a dozen Princess Clarissa dolls and donate them to whatever charity gave out toys to kids in need. They scored another no as they rounded the corner near the swings, and Monica mentally upped the ante to two dozen dolls. She could afford the expenditure.
Hope wore thin as they approached monkey bars anchoring the far end of the equipment. Taking a deep breath while she eyed the kids hanging from the maze of tubular steel, Monica turned and squatted in front of Emma. All the noise of the morning faded away as she stared into the crystalline blue eyes so like her own. Keeping her voice steady and logical, she held her niece's earnest gaze.
"How about we leave the doll on one of the picnic tables and maybe whoever she belongs to will come looking for her later?" "But we have to make sure they get her back," Emma insisted.
"I'm sorry, sweetie, but I think we've asked everyone," she said, calling off the search gently but firmly.
"We didn't ask the boys."
Monica blinked but somehow managed to hold off a snort when she looked down at the doll's sequin-strewn gown. Smiling, she tightened the more bedraggled pigtail and ran a soothing hand over the girl's soft cheek. "You're a sweet kid."
"We can ask them," Emma insisted, nodding to the red-haired twins Saturdaddy Number Two turned loose on the world.
Monica eyed the boys skeptically. They looked to be all boy, through and through. "Most boys don't play with dolls, honey."
"Some do," a deep voice interrupted.
Gripping Emma's arms to steady herself, Monica whipped her head around. She knew instinctively who was speaking. Saturdaddy Number One. Mr. Spotted in the Wild. He stared straight at her, his chin lifted high and his eyes narrowed to slits. Pride and defiance etched lines into his forehead. Cripes, he was even more gorgeous up close. A rugged-looking male model born to pose propped against a faux rock climbing wall.
He held a boy dressed in baggy jeans and a shirt declaring him a one-man wrecking crew on his hip. The little fellow peeked at them from the crook of his father's neck. The shock of wavy black hair matched, but the resemblance ended there. Whereas her hunk had green eyes the color of an old Coke bottle, the little boy's were nearly black and glassy with misery. At least some of those tears managed to overflow the fringe of lashes to streak down cheeks as brown as burnt caramel. Slowly, as if she were the predator she'd thought him to be a short time ago, he lowered the loose-limbed boy to the spongy ground.
"Go thank the little girl for finding P.C.," he said gruffly.
"P.C.?" Monica blurted.
When he raised a challenging eyebrow, she laughed and shook her head. She watched as Emma handed over her prize as though the grungy doll were the Holy Grail.
"Not very P.C. if you can't even call the doll by her proper name."
"Not very P.C. for you to ask only the girls if the doll was theirs," he countered.
"Touché." Monica inclined her head in acknowledgment of the hit, but she wasn't about to let opportunity slip away. "Hi, I'm Monica Rayburn," she said, extending her hand.
He clasped her hand. "Colm Cleary." He nodded to the boy who'd returned to his side so quickly she wondered if the two of them were magnetized. "This is Aiden," he said, running a protective hand over his son's head.
She smiled down at the shyer of the Cleary men. "Hi, Aiden. I'm Monica." Colm cast a pointed look at Emma. Startled from her trance, she laughed and placed her hand on her niece's shoulder. "Oh! This is Emma."
"Hello, Emma," Colm said, dipping his head in greeting. "Thank you for finding our friend for us." He turned his attention to the boy clinging to his side. "Aiden, did you thank Emma?"
"Thanks," the little boy murmured.
"You're welcome," Emma replied primly. "Monnie, can I go up to the slides again?"
Monica gave one of the lopsided pigtails a tug. "Sure, kiddo. Knock yourself out."
Emma took three steps and skidded to a stop. Spinning around, she fixed her eyes on Aiden. "You wanna come?"
In a flash, all vestiges of shyness disappeared. With Princess Clarissa dangling by her tattered tulle overskirt, Aiden took off after Emma without a backwards glance for his father. Colm exhaled long and loud, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and dug the toe of his shoe into the recycled rubber chips.
Amused by his undisguised relief, she turned to him, her lips curving as she spoke. "Crisis averted?"
"We're talking Charlie-Sheen-level meltdown averted. Without the swearing. Or the drugs. Or the hookers."
"Ah, well ... winning." She grinned.
He rolled his eyes but rewarded her with a smirky smile. The lopsided flash of teeth packed a wallop.
"So, uh, Colm," she began, hoping her voice didn't sound as high and squeaky to him as it did to her, "has Aiden always been a big Clarissa fan?"
In an instant, the smile was gone and the squinty-eyed stare was in place. "Is there a five-year-old who isn't?"
Monica searched her memory, trying to access the detailed wish list Emma had presented to all members of the family at Christmastime. She seemed to remember a few items with a royal theme, but frankly had no clue if they had anything to do with the scraggly doll Colm's son clutched as he climbed the rungs to get to the slide platform.
Excerpted from "Play Dates"
Copyright © 2017 Maggie Wells.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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