“Daddy! Come outside and look!”
“Okay!” With one-year-old Declan perched on my forearm, I went out the screen door into the yard where Penelope, our four-year-old daughter, was drawing with chalk on the cement patio. She wore a Cinderella costume over her shorts and T-shirt and a plastic tiara on her head.
“I wrote my name,” she said proudly, hunkered down with her bottom between her sneakered feet. With the fat blue chalk in her hands, she looked up at me and grinned. “See?”
I looked at the nonsensical wiggly lines and loops she’d scribbled. “I see. Great job, princess.”
“Thank you. Now I’ll write Declan’s name. Beneath mine,” she added, as if she wanted to be sure her baby brother understood his place in the Barrett sibling hierarchy.
“What letter does it start with, do you know?” I set Declan on the ground between my legs, and he grabbed onto my thumbs, still wobbly on his feet.
“Deh-deh-deh . . .” She sounded it out, her little brow furrowed. “D?”
“Very good.” I smiled at her and moved along with Declan as he waddled toward the tiger lilies blooming behind the house. She was a smart, inquisitive little girl with Millie’s blonde hair, my stubborn nature, and big blue eyes that reminded me of her namesake.
Every time I looked at her, I couldn’t believe she was mine.
Millie and I had been married quickly, just a couple months after getting engaged. After years spent planning huge weddings for other people, she promised she was content—actually, ecstatic was the word she used—with an intimate ceremony attended by immediate family only. Felicity and Mason served as witnesses, and everyone went back to Cloverleigh Farms for dinner.
I’d had the surgery within weeks of our marriage, and even though our expectations were low, Millie was pregnant with Penelope before the end of the summer. It took a little longer for Declan to come along, but we never panicked about it—no matter what, we were a family, and there were a lot of ways for a family to grow.
“Good job, buddy.” I smiled down at my son, who was loosening his grip on my thumbs and keeping his balance as he toddled forward.
“There.” Penelope set the chalk down and wiped her hands on her dress. “Now it’s time for the tea party.”
“I thought we were going to a ball,” I said, wincing as Declan pitched forward onto the grass. Quickly, I scooped him up and looked him over—he didn’t appear hurt and already, he was squirming to get out of my arms.
“We are, but tea is first. You go sit down,” she directed.
I brought wriggling Declan over to the outdoor table, where Penelope’s pink plastic tea set awaited, and sat in one of the four chairs. The large umbrella provided some shade from the hot July sun. “I hope it’s iced tea today,” I said as Penelope picked up a second tiara from the table.
“It’s not,” she informed me, placing the tiara on my head.
I frowned. “Why do I have to wear this?”
“Because you’re the prince. A prince needs a crown.”
“Oh.” I gave up trying to keep Declan still and let him down, and he crawled straight for the little sandbox I’d built. Too late I recalled Millie’s warning before she left for the the shop this morning not to let the kids get too dirty. Oh, well. I could probably give them a bath before she got home. I actually liked bath time. Sure, it was messy and loud and always took me three times longer than it took Millie, but the kids loved that I let them splash me and never got shampoo in their eyes when I washed their hair.
I once thought my life had the most purpose during my time as a SEAL, but those days were nothing compared to how I felt about being a dad. This was what I’d been looking for.
“Here, Daddy.” Penelope handed me a tiny plastic tea cup. “Careful, don’t spill it.”
“Thank you.” I took the little handle between my thumb and index finger and pretended to take a sip. “Mmm. Delicious.”
She beamed. “It’s my secret recipe. Grandma Frannie taught it to me.”
“Maybe you’ll be a pastry chef like she is.”
Penelope considered it. “Maybe.” Her eyes lit up. “Should I make us a mud pie?”
“Sure,” I said, forgetting once more the request to keep them relatively clean.
Penelope raced over to the sandbox, grabbed a foil pie tin, and lined it with sand. “That’s the crust,” she said. “Now I need the filling.”
“Okay, but don’t—”
Too late. She was already in the flower beds, which were wet from the morning soak we’d given them, kneeling in the dirt and scooping it into the pie tin with her hands. After one more trip to the sandbox, where she sprinkled some dry sand over the top like a dusting of cinnamon, she proudly carried the pie to the table and set it in front of me. “Here, Daddy. You can have the first piece.”
“Thanks, princess.” I glanced over at Declan in time to see him bring a fistful of sand to his mouth. “Declan, no!” Jumping up I ran over to the sandbox and picked him up, using the bottom of my shirt to wipe out his mouth. “We don’t eat sand.”
The screen door slapped shut, and I looked over to see Millie standing there, a grin on her face and hands on her hips. “What’s this?”
“A tea party!” Penelope eagerly tipped up the mud pie to show off her creation. “And look what I made.”
“Looks delicious,” Millie said as dirt plopped onto the table. She wandered over to me, a smirk on her pretty lips. “Your tiara is crooked.”
I scowled at her. “It’s a crown, thank you.”
She laughed and reached out to straighten it. “Of course, it is. I beg your pardon, Majesty.” Giving me a quick kiss, she took Declan from my arms. “Oh my goodness. You’re a mess.”
“Sorry,” I said, brushing off my shirt. “I tried to keep them clean, but it was impossible. I don’t know how to do it.”
“Zachary Barrett, I can’t even imagine all the Mission Impossible type stuff you’ve done in your life, and you can’t keep two kids out of the mud?” she teased.
“I was going to give them a bath right after the tea party,” I said defensively.
“No, after the tea party is the ball, Daddy,” Penelope announced. “And we can’t be late.”
“Better not keep a princess waiting,” said Millie, setting Declan on her hip.
Penelope came over and reached up to me with both arms, a gesture that never failed to make my heart swell. I picked her up and twirled her around, making her squeal with delight, then set her on her feet and proceeded to lead her through some steps I hope resembled a waltz. We finished with a dramatic turn and dip, prompting Millie to cheer. “Incredible! But the clock is about to strike midnight, Cinderella, so you’d better hurry inside!”
Penelope abandoned me on the cement dance floor and raced into the house. “Goodbye, Prince! Goodbye!”
Millie laughed and planted another kiss on my cheek. “I’ll get them in the tub. You clean up the mud pie.”
“Okay. How come you’re home early?”
“We were a little slow this afternoon, and I figured they’d be okay without me the last couple hours. I want plenty of time to get ready.”
“Why? Got a hot date?”
She lifted her shoulders, her expression coy. “Maybe.”
My body ignited at the thought of having her to myself all night, which was the plan. “What time are we taking the kids to your parents’ house?”
“Five,” she said, kissing the top of Declan’s head. “Which is only an hour from now, so I want to get moving.”
But I couldn’t let her go yet. As she started to move toward the house, I caught her by the waist and pulled her back against my body. “You’re excited about this date, huh? Should I be jealous?”
She laughed. “Everyone should. My date is always the hottest man in the room.”
“Your husband,” I growled possessively.
“My husband,” she corrected, giving me a smile over her shoulder. “My husband.”
* * *
After dropping the kids off with Mack and Frannie, Millie and I checked into our hotel, about an hour outside of town. I’d cleaned up at home while Millie was bathing and dressing the kids, but Millie had run out of time and still needed to grab a shower. I waited until she was in the bathroom, got dressed up, and left her a note.
Meet me at the bar. Wear the dress. Z.
That last part was probably unnecessary—she always wore the dress when we played this game—but I added it anyway. I liked giving orders, and she liked following them. We knew each other well.
I went down to the bar and ordered a drink, keeping an eye on the entrance. About thirty minutes later, I saw her, and my breath stopped just like it always did when she walked into the room.
She didn’t look around for me—this was part of the game—but instead headed for an empty stool. I watched her cross the room as the hunger within me grew, quickening my pulse, warming my skin, tightening the crotch of my pants. Years had gone by, but she still had that effect on me. She always would.
I waited for her to order her martini and take a sip, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone. Once she glanced my way, our eyes meeting only briefly, a flicker of heat passing between us.
After a couple minutes, I slid off my stool and slowly moved around the bar, walking up behind her. She didn’t turn around.
I grabbed her wrist. “Sorry I’m late.”
She looked at me over one shoulder. “Do I know you?”
“I think you do.”
“Hmm.” She pretended to assess my hair, my face, my body. “There is something familiar about you. But I don’t know. A girl can’t be too careful. Are you a gentleman?”
I kissed her cheek and put my lips at her ear. “Not tonight.”
She laughed. “Maybe I do know you. But I have to warn you, I have a jealous husband.”
“Grrr,” I muttered in her ear. “Does he love you right?”
“He does. I’m the luckiest woman in the world.”
I laughed. “You’re not playing the game.”
“I know.” Giggling, she pressed a kiss to my jaw. “I can’t help it. Sometimes I love the game, and sometimes I just want to be us.”
“I get it.” I smiled at her, my heart full. “Being us is pretty damn good.”
THANK YOU for reading Tempt! Next up for me will be a new small town series starting in 2023. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the single mom Zach kept safe in Tempt, grab KEEP THIS PROMISE by my friend Corinne Michaels!