Read an Excerpt
The Billionaire Single Dad
Billionaire's Club: Texas Heartthrobs #2
By Mandy Baxter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Mandy Baxter
All rights reserved.
Carter Christensen had never been so grateful for the off-season. He stared out from the back porch of his vacation cabin at Lake Nacogdoches and the play of late afternoon sunlight that glinted off of the glassy surface of the water.
"Dad! Can we go swimming?" Jane bounced on the balls of her tiny five-year old feet, practically vibrating with excitement. Her bright brown eyes widened with her smile.
"It's way too cold for swimming," Carter said. The bite of the early spring air had him wishing he'd worn at least a sweatshirt on the drive down from Dallas but as far as his daughter was concerned, the weather was practically balmy.
"Aw, come on, Daddy! I wanna swim, too. It's not cold. The sun's out!" Jenny turned on the puppy dog eyes as she sidled up next to her twin and clutched her little fists together as though her entire life's happiness hinged on jumping into the freezing lake.
His girls were spitting images of their mama with their expressive, deep brown eyes and dark gold hair. They even had Stephanie's cute upturned nose. His chest ached every time he looked at his daughters. He hurt just as deeply today as he had when they'd first heard the diagnosis. The cancer had shown his wife no mercy. It had hit her hard and fast, and took her away from them far too soon.
The past year and half had been hard on all of them. After Steph's funeral, Carter had given himself over to the grief. He drowned his sorrows in a bottle and stayed drunk for a solid week before his twin, Travis, had grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and demanded he get his shit together for his girls. Carter had always been the responsible one. The levelheaded one. And yet it was his reckless, party-mongering brother who'd talked some sense into him. Not one of Carter's finest moments for sure.
"Hot tub, then!" Jane turned to Jenny with a grin.
"Yeah! Hot tub, hot tub!"
They'd only been at the cabin for half an hour, and already Carter was exhausted. If only he could bottle their seemingly limitless energy, he'd be a beast on the field. When preseason camp started, Carter needed to make an impression. He still couldn't understand how he'd snagged the starting quarterback position for the Dallas Cowboys. Especially with the epically shitty year he'd just endured. Either way, he was determined to earn his teammates' trust. It was important that he stay in Dallas. Carter wanted to be close to his family and he wanted stability for his girls. At least as much stability as they could have as motherless kids with a busy pro-footballer for a father.
All right, enough with the morose bullshit. This was supposed to be a vacation. "Dinner first," Carter said to the girls' mutual disappointment. "I'll turn on the heater now and by the time we're done eating the hot tub will be warm enough for you two monkeys to dive in."
The girls ran through the sliding patio doors and back into the house, a whirlwind of motion that made Carter tired just watching them. Lord, he was exhausted. He didn't know the first thing about raising girls. They were easy now. They liked to roughhouse, play in the dirt. They didn't mind the fact that their dad didn't serve anything that didn't come out of a box. It was later that Carter worried about. When they wanted their hair to look pretty or when they got their first crush. Boys. Jesus. He worried about all of those moments when his girls wouldn't be so little anymore and would need their mama. It weighed on Carter more than he wanted to admit. And it made him miss Steph all the more.
He never realized it was possible to feel so damned lonely.
A flash of silver caught his eye, and Carter turned his attention to the cabin next door. The place had been abandoned for years as far as he knew. He watched as a woman stepped off of the rickety back steps and onto the lawn. The tails of her long sweater fanned out in the breeze and she tugged the two halves of it together before she folded her arms across her chest. Another twinkle of sunlight bounced off something she wore on her wrist, and Carter shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness. Strands of her long strawberry blonde hair drifted in front of her face, but she seemed not to notice as she stared at some faraway point.
"Daaaaad!" Jane called from the patio. "We're staaaaarving!"
Carter cast one last furtive glance in the woman's direction before heading into the house. It had been a long time since they'd had neighbors out here. Especially ones with hair that caught fire under the light of the sun.
* * *
Tess Adams stepped out onto the yellowed lawn and tried not to think about the hard work that lay ahead of her. The little cabin on Lake Nacogdoches left to her by her great-aunt Millie might be a bit of a fixer-upper, but it was already better than her crappy studio apartment that she'd barely been able to afford. On the plus side, Texas was thousands of miles from Jared, which made it the best place on the face of the earth as far as Tess was concerned.
The cool May breeze whipped her sweater around her thighs and she gathered the halves together. Nacogdoches was a far cry from New York City, and the sleepy Texas town was going to take some getting used to. Tess wasn't opposed to a little peace and quiet, though. She sort of liked the isolation, the way her days passed like the lazy waves that lapped at the shore rather than rolled onto it.
It still stung to think of Jared naked in their bed with Stacie. So much for best friends, huh? It had been six months and Tess still had to remind herself that neither one of them were worth her worry or energy. She hadn't wasted a second calling the realtor she'd listed the cabin with to let her know she'd changed her mind about selling it. The decision had been a no-brainer. Her graphic design business could do just as well in Nacogdoches as it had in New York. She did most of her work from home anyway, and she was close enough to Dallas to make the business contacts she'd need to get her business off the ground in Texas. Tess didn't need New York to be successful. And she sure as hell didn't need Jared to feel good about herself.
Screw him. She was fabulous.
"Daaaaad!" A tiny voice called from the house next door. "We're staaaaarving!"
Tess turned just in time to see her neighbor duck back into the house. They certainly did make them bigger in Texas, didn't they? Tess swept a few errant strands of hair from her face as she watched him. He was so tall he almost had to duck to get through the patio door, and his wide shoulders took up the entire doorway. Wow.
Happy family to the left. Tess let out a long sigh. It's not like she was jealous. Much. She wasn't even looking for a relationship. In fact, the farther she stayed away from men, the better. At least for now. It was more the picture they painted that got under Tess's skin. The house shamed most of the cabins around the lake. It was more of a mini-mansion. Great house, the giggling voices of little girls, husband built like a freaking god. ... Tess could only imagine what Ms. Perfect had to look like to fit into the equation.
She looked down at her old ragged sweater and fiddled with the cuff that had begun to fray. For weeks she hadn't worn more than T-shirts and yoga pants and, if she had to be honest, she couldn't remember the last time she'd washed her hair. Not exactly the picture of a woman who'd gotten over her recent breakup. Ugh.
Maybe more a picture of a woman who'd given up. She'd been living in the cabin for almost a month and she'd yet to start on any of the home-improvement projects she'd lined up. Gallons of paint sat in the den that would be her office; the new throw rugs were still rolled up and stored in one of the guest bedrooms along with the new linens. She hadn't even unpacked her dishes. In fact, the only thing that had made its way out of the boxes labeled KITCHEN was her Chemex coffeepot, the one thing she couldn't live without.
Who needed a man? Caffeine was her stable relationship.
The sound of raucous giggles drifted from the neighbor's house, and Tess edged closer to the boundary of her property. She always thought she'd have kids of her own by now. For a while, she'd thought that Jared was the man she'd have those kids with. So much for hopes and wishes. Twenty-nine wasn't old, was it? Women were having kids into their forties. She had plenty of time. Right?
Oh good Lord, Tess. Who in the hell are you trying to convince?
The sound of her phone caught her attention and she jogged across the lawn and through the back door into the house. She swiped her cell off the kitchen counter just before it went to voicemail and swiped her finger across the screen.
"How are you doing, Chickpea?"
Tess smiled at her dad's teasing tone. "Did Mom ask you to call and check on me?"
"You know your mother doesn't ask me to do anything," her dad replied.
"She thinks you're living in a run-down shack without water or heat."
The house was old but it wasn't that old. Tess's mother had been adamantly against her moving into the house to begin with. She'd even gone so far as to suggest that she try to patch things up with Jared. Which was why Tess had been dodging her calls for the past month.
"Yeah, well, the outhouse has been sort of annoying to get to in the middle of the night, but I'm getting used to fetching water from the open well."
Her dad laughed. They'd always shared a love of sarcasm. "Want me to come down and do anything for you? It might not be an abandoned shack, but I doubt Millie was good about the upkeep."
Tess looked at the stack of unpacked boxes, paint rollers, and masking tape. Her plans for fixing up the place were all cosmetic so far. "Not yet." She definitely wasn't ready to deal with her mom. She needed at least six more months. "But when I do need help, you'll be the first person I call."
"For the record," her dad said. "I'm glad you kicked that bastard to the curb. You're too good for him."
Tears gathered behind Tess's eyes but she willed them not to fall. "Thanks, Dad."
"I'll tell your mom you've avoided catastrophe thus far."
"Love you, Dad."
"Love you too, kiddo."
Tess ended the call and set the phone down on the counter. Next door a happy family enjoyed their evening. Hopefully soon, Tess would have some of her own happy evenings.CHAPTER 2
So much for a happy family. Apparently this little section of the lake had become the misery-loves-company block. It had been a week since Tess's neighbors had shown up at their house, and for the past seven days, her ears had been assaulted by the sounds of little girls whining and their father being a grumpy pain in the ass. Where was their mother, anyway? Probably holed up in the bedroom, drinking. She'd thought that moving to a small town would afford her the luxury of not having to hear her neighbors' every move, but sounds seemed to carry when you lived so close to the water.
As far as she could tell, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Grumpy was a total buzzkill and it was starting to get on his daughters' nerves. The property next door existed in a virtual police state. No fun allowed. In fact, it had been so quiet for the past few hours that Tess had begun to wonder if the family had decided to pack it in and call it quits on their vacay. Fingers crossed. The restored quiet would give her plenty of time to continue to wallow in her own loneliness while she procrastinated on all of the projects around the house that she'd yet to start.
Tess, your new life is too exciting for words.
"No fair, Jane! You had five cookies and I only had four!"
"Nuh-uh! I had four cookies. The rest are for later so don't eat them!"
So much for her hope for peace and quiet. Tess sat up in her chair on the back porch and strained to hear the tiny voices that sounded as though they came from the small barn at the northern most corner of her property. The structure was barely sound, it tilted slightly to the right and parts of the roof had begun to sag. It probably wasn't suitable for squirrels to be running around in, let alone kids.
Tess tugged on her boots and trudged across the spongy spring-damp ground to the corner of the property. Would it kill their dad to keep an eye on them? And where in the hell was their mother?
The girls continued to bicker as Tess eased open the large rickety door. Like a couple of mice, the girls quieted, the only sound the loud "Shhhhh!" of one sister silencing the other.
They thought they were pretty sneaky. Amusement bubbled in Tess's chest as she made her way to the ladder that led to the loft. She couldn't begrudge them going out and looking for a little fun. She just wished they'd find somewhere safer to do it. Tess poked her head up the square hole in the loft's floor and her jaw fell slack.
Those little squatters ...
Today wasn't the first day the neighbor girls had decided to play in the barn. From the looks of it, they'd been squirreling away all of the things they'd need to turn the dilapidated loft into a luxury fort for quite a while. Much longer than the mere seven days they'd been here. Pretty dang impressive.
"Okay, little mice," Tess crooned. "No more hiding. Come on out."
She waited patiently as the sisters exchanged heated whispers from behind an old hay bin that they'd draped a sheet over to make a tent. "There's no mice here," a tiny voice replied. "Just ghosts. So you better run before we decide to scare you."
Tess suppressed a giggle. They were tough little cookies, she'd give them that. "Ghosts, huh?"
"Yep," another tiny voice answered. "And we're super scary."
"Okay," Tess said. "It's too bad. I baked chocolate chip cookies this morning and I was going to share them. But ghosts don't eat cookies."
"Yes they do!"
"Jenny!" one of the girls hissed.
"If we're running away, we need food."
Uh-oh. "It's true," Tess said. "If you're running away, you're going to need food. I think you'd better come in the house and get some cookies. It could be a while before you eat again."
The sheet rustled and Tess waited. One little body, and then another came out from the tent. Identical twins. No wonder their dad was a grump. There was a reason twins got a rep for being double the trouble.
The girls studied Tess with expressive brown eyes. Their blonde hair had been pulled back into abysmal, messy ponytails and one of the girls blew the long strands of her bangs from her eyes. Too adorable for words. Tess was torn between wanting to scold them for playing in the barn and wanting to cuddle them.
She made a show of appearing relieved. "I was worried there for a second. Ghosts are pretty scary. But you two are a couple of cuties." The girls giggled at the compliment. "I'm Tess. This is my barn."
"I'm Jenny," the girl on the left said. "And my sister is Jane. Your barn is our fort."
They stood as a united front, way too brave when they should have been wary. Tess was a stranger after all. "You know this barn isn't very sturdy. It's not a good idea to play here. It could collapse and you'd be hurt. I don't think your mom and dad would be very happy about that."
"Mama's dead," Jane said quietly. She had a tiny birthmark on her temple that Jenny didn't. Tess's heart sank at her words. No wonder she hadn't seen their mother around.
"I'm sorry, honey. That's very sad. But I bet your dad would be sad if you got hurt."
Jenny snorted. Her indignation was entirely too cute, and Tess fought to hide a grin. "Daddy doesn't care. He's cranky and needs about fifty naps. We're running away to someplace that we can have fun. He won't let us do anything and we only got to play in the hot tub once!"
Jenny was definitely the feistier of the two.
"Let's go get some cookies first," Tess suggested. The longer they stayed in the rickety barn the more nervous she got. Maybe before she tackled issues like painting, she needed to address whether or not the barn needed to be torn down. "We'll talk about running away after that."
Excerpted from The Billionaire Single Dad by Mandy Baxter. Copyright © 2015 Mandy Baxter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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