Excerpt from JUST THIS NIGHT
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
I jerked up in bed, swinging around, my feet hitting the floorboards before my mind had a chance to process the movement. For a split second, fighting the fog of deep sleep, I didn’t know where I was. What time it was. Why I was here.
“Mommy? Where are you, Mommy?”
But I knew that voice. And the rest didn’t matter.
“I’m coming, Ashley!”
Bolting from the bedroom, I dashed down the hall, bursting into her room like some kind of superman on steroids. Ashley was sitting up in bed, hugging her grubby stuffed lion—the one I’d bought her from the hospital gift shop the day she was born, four years ago last month. Tears streamed down her chubby little cheeks and her thumb was firmly lodged in her mouth.
Dropping to my knees I pulled her into a fierce hug, forcing myself to be gentle and not squeeze too hard as my heart thumped wildly in my chest, working overtime to rid my body of the excess adrenaline her cries had unleashed.
She was fine. She was safe. She was okay.
“Shh,” I whispered. “Daddy’s here, baby. Are you all right? Did you have a bad dream?” I could feel the sweat dripping down her back, soaking through her thin princess nightgown as she snuggled closer, pushing her head against my chest as if she was literally trying to crawl inside of me and hide. My heart squeezed. Poor little thing. Was she actually shaking?
“I was scared,” she whimpered. “I woke up and I didn’t know where Mommy was.”
I could feel her head lift off my chest and realized she was looking around the darkened bedroom. As if her mother might magically appear out of thin air at any moment.
Sorry, kid. No magic in the world was that strong.
“We talked about this, sweetheart,” I reminded her gently, the bile churning in my stomach now. “Mommy has an important job to do far, far away. She can’t be with us right now.”
“I don’t want her to do her important job,” Ashley sobbed, dropping her head to my chest again. “I want her here, with us.”
Closing my eyes, I forced myself to draw in a heavy breath. “I know, baby, I know. You and me both.” I stroked her hair, leaning in to kiss the top of her head. “Now why don’t you lie down and I’ll use the magic pixie dust on you, okay? So you can fall back asleep.”
Ashley whimpered. “What if I have another dream?”
“If you do, it’ll be a good one,” I assured her with a confidence I didn’t feel. “That’s the great thing about pixie dust.” I reached for the tub of glitter-infused baby powder sitting on her nightstand. “It only allows for happy dreams about princesses and puppy dogs and hungry little caterpillars . . .” I turned the tub upside down and squeezed, releasing a puff of powder. The glitter dusted her skin and she smiled, snuggling against her stuffed lion again and looking up at me with wide brown eyes. Her mother’s eyes. Which was so unfair.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too, baby girl,” I managed to say, my emotions swelling. I leaned down to kiss her cheek. “More than anything ever.”
“Anything ever . . .” she repeated sleepily, her eyes fluttering closed. “Hey! I think the magic pixie dust is . . .” She trailed off, drifting back into sleep.
For a few moments, I didn’t move. I just sat there, watching her. She looked so tiny in the giant king-sized bed that took up most of my sister’s guest room. So sweet and fragile and precious. How could anyone willingly walk away from this little girl? Hell, I would rather die a thousand times over than leave her for just one night. But her mother. Her own goddamned mother . . .
I realized I was clenching the sheets with white-knuckled fists. Forcing myself to release them, I rose to my feet, the churning anger making me sick to my stomach. I stormed from the room, shutting the door behind me a little too hard and I paused for a moment, listening, making sure I hadn’t woken her. But the magic pixie dust had done its job and the room remained silent. My princess was asleep.
“Is she okay?”
I looked up. Lost in my tortured thoughts I hadn’t seen my sister, Sadie, hovering at the landing, dressed in an oversized Padres jersey and boxer shorts. Her long brown hair hung down her back in a tangle of curls and her face was washed clean of all makeup.
I sighed. “She’s fine. She just had a bad dream.”
Sadie gave me a sympathetic look. “Poor kid. Moving can be tough. And then being in a strange house . . . I’m sure she’s going to feel a lot more adjusted once you guys get all unpacked and settled in your new place.”
“Yeah,” I stared down at my feet. “Probably so.”
I could feel her peering closely at me. “What about you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I said quickly. Probably too quickly.
Sure enough, Sadie raised an eyebrow. “No offense, bro. But you don’t look so fine from here.”
I sighed. She was always too perceptive, my sister. “I’m just . . . frustrated, I guess,” I admitted. “I mean, I want to be a good dad, you know. But no matter what I do I can’t give her what she really wants. And it makes me feel so fucking helpless.”
My voice broke and Sadie moved to wrap her arms around me. But I shrugged her off. I didn’t need her pity. It was already bad enough I was practically a charity case, moving cross-country to San Diego to take advantage of her offer of free babysitting while I was at work. I’d offered to pay her, of course, but she had argued that she was already staying home with two kids—how hard could one more be? And like the pathetic broke bastard I was, I allowed myself to believe it to be true.
Sadie, to her credit, didn’t try to press me. Instead, she smiled. “I’m going to go make myself a sandwich. You want one?”
“Sure,” I reluctantly agreed. It wasn’t as if I was going to get back to sleep anytime soon anyway. Then I looked down at my current getup. I’d been in such a rush to reach Ashley’s side I’d forgotten I was bare-chested, only wearing a pair of ratty boxer shorts. Not exactly good houseguest attire. “Let me grab a shirt and some pants and I’ll meet you down there.”
By the time I reached the kitchen a few minutes later, Sadie had already gotten out all the sandwich supplies and was currently spreading a thick layer of mayo on my ham and cheese. I sat down at the breakfast bar, scrubbing my face with my hands, trying to banish the memory of Ashley’s frightened eyes from my mind. Her cries for “Mommy” that would never be answered.
God, I hated lying to her. But what else could I say? The truth?
The bitch left us, baby girl. She’s not coming back. But trust me—we’re much better off without her.
“Is this some kind of brother and sister secret powwow or does a poor, hungry husband stand a chance at scoring a sandwich, too?”
I looked up, stifling a groan as Sadie’s husband, Joe, stepped into the kitchen wearing a black Batman bathrobe and bare feet. Great. Ashley must have woken the whole house with her screams.
“What, are your hands broken? You can’t make your own?” Sadie shot back with mock grumpiness. But I caught the adoring looks they exchanged when they thought I wasn’t looking.
“Hey! I’m just saving my strength for that extra-long back massage I plan to give you once we’re back in bed,” Joe said with a sly wink. My sister laughed.
“Oh, fine. Just this once. But it better be a damned good massage.” She grabbed two more slices of bread from the bag and tossed them on the counter. Then she caught my look and her smile faded. “Are you sure you’re okay, Mac?” she asked worriedly.
Joe turned to look at me for the first time. “Yeah, man. You look like hell. No offense.”
I groaned. “Why thank you. I’ll be here all week.”
To my annoyance, he continued to study me. “You know what this guy needs?” he asked, turning to Sadie. “To get out of the house. A night on the town. That would fix him right up.”
“Uh, no,” I interjected before my sister could answer. “I’m good. Really.”
Joe turned back to me. “When’s the last time you went out?” he demanded. Before I could reply he added, “And, no, Chuck E. Cheese does not count.”
“Joe . . .” Sadie said warningly.
“What?” Joe asked, holding up his hands in mock innocence. “I’m just saying. A man needs a night out with grown-ups every once in a while.” He grinned wickedly. “Think about it, Mac. Endless lines of tequila shots, pretty girls, maybe some sexy, sexy times?”
“Joe!” Sadie’s voice rose.
“Okay, okay! Jesus.” Joe snorted. Then he turned back to me, lowering his voice. “You know I’m right though. Right?”
I sighed. I had to admit, the idea did sound pretty awesome. I hadn’t had a night away from Ashley since that night. And that night was pretty much a lifetime ago at this point. Just the idea of sitting at a bar, having an adult beverage as I people watched. It sounded like a little slice of heaven.
It was also impossible. I wasn’t that guy anymore. I mean, I probably was, deep down, but I had other priorities now. My life was not my own.
“Dude!” Joe cried, slamming his fist against the counter, as if something had just occurred to him. Though I had a pretty good idea he’d been working up to this from the moment he’d started in on me. “I’ve got a great idea!”
I could see my sister shooting him another disapproving look, but he ignored her, rushing in before she could interrupt. “I’m supposed to check out this new club for my company’s Christmas party tomorrow night. You could totally come with me. They say it’s a hot spot for reporters—News 9 is right down the street. So it’d be perfect.” Joe nodded enthusiastically, as if he’d already gotten me to agree. “We’ll have some drinks, take in the sights . . .” He waggled his eyebrows. “Maybe even find you a little hotness for the ride home.”
I rolled my eyes, waiting for my sister to jump in and save me again. Instead, to my surprise, I found her nodding slowly. “You know, that’s not a terrible idea,” she said. “I could watch Ashley while you were out.”
“No, thank you.” I shook my head firmly. “No way am I just going to go and take off and leave Ashley to go clubbing.”
Sadie frowned. “Uh, Mac, you do realize you’re going to be forced to quote ‘take off’ on her every day once you start your new job, right? Consider this a trial run—not to mention a good lesson for the both of you. Like, you learn it’s still possible to have a life in addition to being a good father and Ashley learns that when Daddy goes away, he always comes back. It’s kind of perfect, actually.”
“It’s completely perfect,” Joe agreed. “In fact, you’d be a terrible father to stay home and deny your daughter this all-important life lesson. And I know you don’t want that.”
I sighed, looking from one expectant face to the other. They weren’t going to drop this, I realized. And I was sick of arguing.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go. But,” I added before they could break into celebration, “don’t expect me to bring home anything but a hangover.” I’d go to their club, I’d have some drinks, but when it came to picking up women? That was off the table.
Joe snorted. “No problem. I’m sure Sadie can hold off picking out china patterns a few more days.” He paused, his playful face fading. “But seriously, bro, keep your options open. I mean, no pressure or anything—just see what’s out there. After all, it’s not fair to write off the entire female race just because of what happened with Victoria.”
I cringed. And there it was. The name that, spoken aloud, still had the power to send a cannonball of hurt straight through my gut. Hell, they might as well have put my balls in a vise and started cranking the handle.
“Look, I said I’d do this nightclub thing,” I ground out, forcing the lump back down my throat. “But we have to make a rule right now. From this point on no one ever, ever mentions that bitch’s name in my presence again.” I paused, then added, “Ever.”
I pushed back on my stool as I rose from my seat, the force of the movement causing it to crash to the floor. As I turned to pick it up I could feel my sister and Joe’s pitying stares burning into my back. Which, if I was being honest, was worse than their teasing.
I wanted to turn around and tell them I was just fine. That Ashley and I did awesome on our own and I didn’t need some stupid female to complete me. But I knew if I even started down that rabbit hole, I’d look like I was protesting too much. And in the end, it was better to just drop the whole thing all together.
The bitch was gone. I was still here. And evidently I was going clubbing.
It’s just one night, I told myself. What could happen in just one night?
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