Enter to Win a Signed Copy of The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos, by Elizabeth Barone, via Goodreads

I’m hosting a mega giveaway over on Goodreads right now, with five signed copies of The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos up for grabs! If you haven’t read The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos yet, now’s your chance. The giveaway closes November 30th, and you must have a Goodreads or Facebook account to enter.


Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.​

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—he only needs someone to help take care of his two-year-old daughter, Chloe. Or so he thinks. After being kicked out of his parents’ house, he’s determined to make it on his own. But juggling a full-time job, an undergrad program, and childcare is pretty much impossible. When his best friend jokingly suggests he post an ad for a live-in nanny on Craigslist, he goes for it. After all, he has nothing to lose . . . right?

When artist Savannah quickly responds to his ad, Max is thrilled. Her resume is perfect and Chloe seems to like her, despite the slightly menacing tattoos decorating her arm. Savannah brings a light and warmth into his life that he never thought possible. Max hasn’t so much as dated since Chloe was born, but he’s willing to give it a shot with Savannah. There’s just one problem.

Everything is perfect just the way it is. Even his daughter is happy. If he messed up things up with Savannah, how could he ever forgive himself?

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The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos by Elizabeth Barone

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos

by Elizabeth Barone

Giveaway ends November 30, 2017.

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Happy 2nd Birthday, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos!

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Two years ago today, I released my third novel, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. In the two years since, this little book and I have had a wild journey together. It was the first romance I published, which was nerve-wracking enough, but I’d decided to push the boundaries with the social issues I tackle in my writing.

A single dad, dealing with his daughter’s irresponsible mother while trying to put himself through college.

A tattooed Latina artist, determined to do more than just get by, and have a real career.

A little girl who brings them together through a Craigslist ad.

I wanted to crush stereotypes, to show the world that young single parents and tattooed women aren’t the “losers” they’ve all branded us as. It was my friends’ decisions to raise their children alone, but they never asked for strangers’ opinions on whether or not they’re good parents. It was my decision to get tattoos, but I never asked for customers at the jewelry store I worked at to rudely interrogate me about my body.

I wanted to tackle heritage, how colonization forces immigrants to assimilate into American culture, to give up the things that makes them unique, the things they eventually lose. Like the Italian my family no longer speaks, the Spanish my niece and nephew rarely use.

I also wanted to challenge gender roles and equality rules. Who says a man can’t raise his daughter alone? Who says that a woman can’t choose to be a nanny while she builds her career?

These things had been burning inside of me for years, and they all sort of bubbled out of me while writing The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. I knew that a “traditional” romance was never told from the guy’s point of view unless it alternated with the woman’s, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break the mold.

Go big or go home, right?

I’ll probably never win any awards for this book, but I’m damned proud of it. It’s a great big middle finger to society and conforming, and that’s reward enough for me.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 5

Icy snow seeped into the canvas of Max’s sneakers. He jumped, yelping, and dashed from his parked car. Every step he took brought more icy water into his shoes. He swore as he stomped through slushy puddles of half-melted snow. Tilting his head back, he stuck his middle finger up at the gray December sky. Toes going numb, he clambered onto the front porch, then opened the front door to his apartment, thankful that he had gotten the first floor.

Heat blasted him as he stepped inside, and his shoulders sagged in relief. He kicked off his shoes and unzipped his coat.

“Daddy?” Chloe called from somewhere in the house.

“Hi, baby girl,” he called back, draping his coat over the old gas heater. He splayed his fingers over the humped bars, the warmth sending tingles through his nerves. He shuffled closer and slid his feet underneath. Reaching down, he peeled off his soaked socks and laid them out over the heater to dry.

“Daddy, come here,” his daughter called.

Patting the heater, he ambled toward the back of the apartment. The doors to his bedroom and Savannah’s room were closed, but light spilled into the hall from Chloe’s room. Max’s bare feet pressed into the carpet as he neared the open door, reveling in the warmth oozing through his body. Poking his head in, he gazed through the room, searching for his daughter.

She sat in a pile of pink and purple tissue paper. Savannah sat next to her, slender brown fingers a blur. Max blinked, leaning against the doorframe. Pink and purple tissue paper flowers adorned the walls of the once plain bedroom, bursting from the wall and decorating the top bars of Chloe’s crib.

Savannah grinned at him, shrugging a shoulder. “What do you think?”

Chloe squealed, dipped her small hands into the pile of tissue paper, and flung some up into the air like confetti. Kicking her feet, she laughed.

Max felt the remaining ice melt from his face as his own lips curled into a smile. “How did you do this?” he asked, entering the room. He scooped Chloe up, tissue paper floating from her tiny legs. Twirling, he flung her into the air, snatching her just before she hit the ground. She shrieked with laughter.

“Dollar store,” Savannah said, watching as he threw Chloe into the air again. She drew her knees up to her chest. “Are you hungry?”

“Starving,” Max said, tossing Chloe up again. Her wispy hair flew out in all directions, her limbs splayed. He caught her again and snuggled her to his chest, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “I missed you,” he told her.

Savannah climbed to her feet. “Come on,” she said. “Dinner’s ready.”

He followed her into the kitchen, his nose catching the scent of garlic for the first time. A platter of spaghetti and meatballs sat on the table next to a pile of garlic bread. “I didn’t even know we had this stuff in the house,” he said.

Savannah picked up a slice of garlic bread. “Hot dog buns,” she said, handing it to him. “And I used the rest of the red peppers in the sauce.”

“Is there anything you can’t cook?” he asked as he strapped Chloe into her high chair.

“Try it first,” she said. “My ex always said my meatballs were too soggy.”

Max froze. “Your ex?” He winced at the squeak in his voice. Jealousy pitted in his stomach. He ran a hand through his hair, the back of his neck flushing. It was stupid of him to think that Savannah wouldn’t be off the market. Of course she was dating. She was beautiful and she knew how to cook. Just because she always had dinner on the table for him and decorated his daughter’s room didn’t mean that she was his girlfriend. He swallowed hard. The guys she dated probably spoke three languages and lived in Puerto Rico part-time.

The sound of a chair scraping across the floor brought him back to the present moment. “Yeah, he couldn’t even make pancakes,” she said, sitting down. She piled a dish with spaghetti and three meatballs, then held it out to Max.

“Thanks,” he said, taking it and setting it down in front of him. He sat across from her, his heart hammering in his chest. “So what does your boyfriend think of all this?” he said, trying to keep his voice casual.

“My boyfriend?” She snorted. “If I had one, he would be ridiculously jealous, blowing up my phone. I always end up with insecure assholes.”

“Yeah, right,” he said. “You drive a BMW.” The words were out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying. He flushed.

“So what?” she said.

“I just mean, like attracts like.” He shoved a bite of meatball into his mouth before he could do any more damage.

She scrunched up her eyebrows at him. “Sure,” she said, eyeing him.

“Good meatballs,” he said with his mouth full.

“Thanks,” Savannah said, filling her own plate. She twirled spaghetti around her fork. Silence settled around him.

Max cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about the other night,” he said. Despite the heat in the apartment, cold sweat dotted his hairline. “I was kind of a dick.”

“Kind of?” she said, but her dimples flashed and her lips curled into a smile. “I’m sorry, too. It’s none of my business. I just want to help.”

“I know,” he said quickly. “And you’re great. This is great.” He motioned to the spread of food on the table and to Chloe, whose face was covered in sauce and spaghetti. His eyes widened. “Chloe, no!”

Savannah laughed. “It’s okay. She needs a bath tonight anyway. No problem. You just focus on your work.” She reached for a slice of garlic bread. “So, what are you studying, anyway?”

Even though he was sitting, Max’s knees went weak. “Um, just elementary ed,” he said, preparing another bite of meatball.

Savannah’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re gonna be a teacher? That’s cool!”

He shrugged. “I guess.”

“No, it really is. I could never do anything like that.” The smile evaporated from her face, a longing expression burning in her eyes. Her gaze drifted away from the table, toward the living room. Her eyebrows slanted down.

Max frowned. “It’s really no big deal. I mean, my brothers are lawyers and authors and doctors. I’ll be lucky if I graduate.” He forced a laugh, despite his heart slamming in his chest.

“You will,” Savannah said, her eyes meeting his. She smiled.

He snorted. “No, really, I’m barely passing. You have to have a really high GPA. My dad wanted me to join my older brothers in the family law business.” He bit his lower lip, wondering why he was telling her so much. He should be talking himself up, not knocking himself down. Girls like Savannah wanted confident men, not family fuckups like him.

She muttered something in Spanish, her hands flying as she spoke.

He blinked at her. “English?”

Rolling her eyes, she huffed a sigh. “My dad’s a granite countertop contractor, and my mom’s a home designer.”

Max snorted laughter. “My mom’s doing that now, too. That’s why she kicked me out, so she could use the space I was apparently taking up as her office.”

Savannah twisted her lips. “Um, I meant she, like, designs houses. She draws up the plans in a CAD program.”

“Oh,” Max said, running a hand through his hair.

“They kicked me out when I dropped out of college,” she said quickly.

He blinked at her. “You dropped out of college?”

She nodded and flashed him a dancing thumbs-up. “Mmn-hmn. I was going to Naugatuck Valley for fine arts.”

Frowning, Max cut a meatball in half. “Why did you drop out?”

Her eyes glinted. “I failed math.”

“You couldn’t retake it?” he asked, dropping his fork.

“I also failed English.”

He stared at her. “Like, composition?”

She nodded. “And psychology. Basically every class that wasn’t art. I even failed art history.” She shrugged. “I just wanted to paint.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but how the hell do you fail all of those classes?”

She pointed a finger at him. “Watch it, pendejo.”

He stuffed spaghetti into his mouth, shoulders hunching.

“School is hard,” she said. “They gave me that BMW when I finished high school, but then they freaked out when I said I wanted to study art. I mean, what the hell? I guess it’s because I’m the only child. They wanted me to take over the family business.” She rolled up her sleeves, exposing the tattoos. “Can you imagine me designing houses for rich people? Screw that.”

Max’s heart pounded in his chest. He and Savannah weren’t much different, he realized. Despite his initial assumptions, he just might have a shot with her. “So you don’t have a boyfriend,” he said, trying to keep his voice casual.

She lifted an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Clearing his throat, he put on what he hoped was an innocent expression. “I just mean, I totally get it. My ex is crazy. She doesn’t even want to see Chloe.”

Savannah’s eyes darted toward his daughter, and her gaze softened. “Bendita,” she said, frowning. “Why not?”

Max shook his head. “I don’t know. We dated for two years in high school, and she got pregnant our senior year. Her parents didn’t want her to have the baby, and she wanted to have—well, I stepped in for full custody, and we had to fight in court. Luckily I have a lot of lawyers in the family.” He forced a smile, but his heart ached at the memories. He swallowed hard, remembering the look on Nicole’s face when she told him what she planned to do with their unborn baby. Tears sprang to his eyes.

“Okay, happier conversation,” Savannah said, thrusting another piece of garlic bread at him. “How much do my meatballs suck?” She grinned, but she squeezed his hand.

“They’re really good,” he said, taking a bite out of the garlic bread with his free hand. He sighed and squeezed her hand back, his heart racing. “Any guy who criticizes your cooking is an idiot. I would totally starve without you.” He smiled.

“You’ll see,” she said. “I’ll have you speaking Spanish and making sofrito verde by the time Chloe’s three.” She grinned.

“Yeah, I can’t even boil water,” he said, smiling back. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“Stop saying you can’t,” she said. “Every time you say you can’t, you knock yourself down a peg. You’ve gotta stay positive. You don’t see me saying I can’t, just because I dropped out of college. I can do anything I want.” Her eyes smoldered. Max swallowed hard. He realized they were still holding hands. He gently pulled his away, shifting in his seat. His pants tightened. Blood roared in his ears. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself for the millionth time that he needed to keep things professional between them.

Savannah stood and went to the kitchen sink. She dampened a towel and returned to the table. “I mean, think about this. I have like, no experience as a nanny. But I like kids, and I can cook. Here I am.” She put Chloe’s empty dish on the table and began cleaning his daughter’s hands and face.

“Wait, what do you mean, ‘no experience’?” Max asked, his eyes widening.

“I mean, I’ve watched my little cousins,” she said with a shrug. “My point is, if you don’t focus on your good qualities and only your bad ones, you’ll never get anywhere.” Tapping Chloe’s nose with her finger, she smiled. Chloe giggled. Savannah lifted the little girl from her high chair.

“So you lied to me?” he asked, frowning.

“More like I highlighted my good experience,” she said with a wink. “Do you trust me any less?”

Max rested his chin on one hand. So far, she hadn’t done anything to make him think she was a threat to his daughter or him. He shook his head. “Maybe I’m stupid, but no. I trust you.”

“You’re not stupid, Max.” Savannah cuddled Chloe. “People like us just have to work a little harder. But we’ve got street smarts. I mean, look at you. You got kicked out of your parents’ house, yet you were capable enough to find a place for you and your daughter to live. You can’t cook, yet you were smart enough to find someone who can.” She stuck her tongue out at him, her eyes dancing as she teased.

His skin tingled. He took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, his thoughts swirling. It seemed like she was flirting with him. He swallowed hard. “You’re right,” he told her.

“Of course I am,” she said. “I know more than you do. I’m older and I can speak Spanish.” With a wink, she turned and left the kitchen, carrying Chloe into the bathroom.

Feeling slightly dizzy, Max remained sitting. He stared at the spaghetti and meatballs, and the saucy towel on the table. From the bathroom, he could hear the water running and Chloe giggling. Savannah’s sweet voice drifted to him, a song in Spanish that he had never heard. He had no idea where she had come from or why she had decided to work for him, but he was glad. They had more in common than he had initially thought. Shame washed over him for judging her so quickly, but only briefly.

She had said that she didn’t have a boyfriend. She made dinner for him every night, even though he had only hired her to look after Chloe. She had even decorated his daughter’s room, out of her own will and pocket. His heart pounded in his chest. She teased him every chance she got. Sometimes, the way she looked at him reminded him of the way Nicole had looked at him, back when they had first started dating, when things were good.

Maybe he was crazy, but he was beginning to wonder if he had a chance with Savannah—and whether he should take it.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 4

Sunlight filtered in through the open blinds. Outside, the street was cold and quiet. No snow covered the ground, but the chill in the air promised more to come. Max paced the living room. Chloe watched from her spot on the floor, a toy clutched in her hand. He checked the time again. Savannah would arrive at any moment. He turned away from his desk and padded toward the windows, eyes scanning the street outside for any sign of her car. He had no idea whether she would be arriving with a rental truck or if she was coming with as little as he had moved in with.

He wished he could have cleaned up a bit more. He still didn’t have any cleaning supplies, and no vacuum. The place had seemed all right when he moved in, but now that a woman other than Riley was coming over, he felt as if every speck of dust and dirt stood out.

Running his hands through his hair, he turned and started yet another circuit of the room. A few days after their trial run at the grocery store, Savannah had watched Chloe for a few hours while he picked up an extra shift. When Max got home, Chloe was sitting next to Savannah on the couch, listening intently while Savannah read her a story. His lips lifted at the memory.

As he neared his desk, his phone vibrated. Quickening his pace, he snatched the phone up, pressing the answer button without even looking at the screen.

“Hey,” he said, heart knocking in his throat. He struggled to keep his voice calm. “Did you get lost?”

Riley snorted. “I’m not lost, you dipshit.”

Max’s jaw clenched. “I thought you were Savannah,” he said.

“Your Craigslist nanny?” Riley laughed. “How’s that working out for you?”

“Knock it off,” he told her, perching on his desk chair. He turned toward the window. A dark car rolled by, but didn’t slow. “She seems really nice.”

“I still can’t believe you’re doing this,” Riley said. “Have you lost your mind?”

Max sighed. “Hey, you could have moved in. What else was I supposed to do?”

“Um, I don’t know,” Riley said. “Put her in day care, like every other modern parent. Who the hell lets a stranger move in and take care of their kid? What is this, The Sound of Music?”

“Chloe really likes her,” he said, glancing down at his daughter. “She’s seen Savannah more times this week than her own mother has seen her in her lifetime.” He looked out the window again. A delivery truck rumbled down the street. He tore his gaze away from the window, and wiped sweaty palms on his jeans.

“Well, duh,” Riley said. “Everyone sees Chloe more than Nikki does. Speaking of your track record, don’t you think Chloe’s a little young for this?”

Max frowned. “What are you getting at, Riley?”

“Come on, Max. I’m not stupid. Why else would you hire a female nanny and have her move in?”

Clenching his jaw, Max stood from his seat. “It’s not like that.”

“And what kind of girl moves in with a strange guy?” Riley continued. “Didn’t you say she has a bunch of skull tattoos? Seems kinda weird to me.”

Knuckles rapped gently at the door. Max’s eyes flicked to the window. Savannah’s BMW sat out front. His eyes widened. “I’ve gotta go, Riley,” he said.

She snorted. “Why, is she there?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Give it a rest.”

“Max, I know you’re in a crappy position, but you should really rethink this. Do you seriously want some strange woman living in your house? You don’t know anything about her.”

The doorbell rang. Chloe pulled herself to her feet, a chubby finger pointing in the direction of the door. “Daddy,” she said.

“What do you want me to do, Riley? My brothers won’t help me. My parents won’t watch her. You won’t move in with me. I have no choice here.” He crossed the room to the door. “I’ll talk to you later,” he said, and hung up before she could say anything else.

As he opened the door, a gust of cool air raced in. Savannah’s scarf blew against her cheek. She carried a single large box, her car keys clutched in one gloved hand. She smiled, her cheeks rosy from the cold.

“You didn’t have to ring the bell. This is your place now, too,” he said, reaching for the box.

“I’ve got it,” she said, tightening her grip around it.

Max ran a hand through his hair. “Okay,” he said, moving aside to let her in. She eased past him, and he closed the door. “So, welcome.” He spread his arms. “It’s not much.”

A soft smile danced on Savannah’s full lips. “It’s home,” she said, lifting a shoulder. Her eyes were a deep pool of warm brown, pulling him in.

Clearing his throat, he looked away. Gesturing toward the hall, he said, “Let me show you your room.” He led her down the short hall to a door on the right. Turning the knob, he pushed the door open. A square of sunlight decorated the carpet. Stepping aside to let her in, Max gestured for her to go ahead.

She moved past him, the scent of her perfume tickling his nostrils. She set the box down in a corner. “Thanks,” she said.

“Anything else coming in?” he asked, glancing at the unlabeled box sealed tight with packing tape. Its corners were dented, and a scuff marred one side.

Savannah shook her head. “Just this for now.”

“You don’t have a bed?” he asked. Eyes widening, he lifted a hand. “Not that I’m suggesting we share, or anything,” he said quickly, thinking of what Riley had said.

Savannah lifted an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t think you were,” she said, the corner of her mouth curling. “I’ll get one at some point.”

Despite the cold outside, the back of his neck bristled with sweat. He nodded and stepped out of the room to give her some privacy. “I was thinking about ordering pizza for dinner,” he called over his shoulder. “Do you want any specific topping?”

“Pizza?” she repeated dubiously.

He turned. Savannah stood with a hand on one hip, an eyebrow raised at him. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “Why not?”

“You’re gonna feed your baby pizza?” She clucked her tongue. Moving past him, she padded toward the kitchen. He found her stooped in front of his refrigerator, the door propped open by one leg. She slid items around, mumbling to herself.

Max held up a finger, then dropped his arm to his side. Maybe Riley was right. He didn’t know anything about Savannah. She had moved in without asking any questions, and she hadn’t brought any furniture with her. “Yeah, so, listen,” he began.

She backed out of the refrigerator, balancing a stack of food. Max saw a package of chicken, American cheese squares, and the gallon of milk. Savannah carried everything to the counter and set it down. Digging a hand into her pocket, she pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Her lips moved, and her voice tumbled out, but he didn’t understand a word that she said.

He squinted at her and rubbed his ears, wondering if he had somehow hit his head. “What?”

Savannah blinked at him. “You don’t speak Spanish?” Both of her hands were planted firmly on her hips. She frowned, but the dimples in her cheeks were still visible.

“No,” Max said. “Why would I?”

She smacked her forehead lightly and fired off something that sounded like a cross between admonishment and pity. Pacing back and forth, the words continued to spill from her mouth. Max had no idea what she said, but it was starting to look like Riley might be right.

“Are you okay?” he asked, glancing at the entryway to the kitchen. Chloe still played in the living room.

Savannah rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding me? Isn’t your last name Batista?”

“Yeah. So?” He crossed his arms.

“And you don’t speak Spanish?” She threw her hands up in the air. “How can that be?”

Max rubbed the back of his neck and shifted. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just never learned.”

“Your parents didn’t speak Spanish to you?” She put her hands on her hips again, frowning at him.

“No,” he said slowly. “Why would they have?”

Savannah scowled. “Seriously?” She pointed a finger at him. “Where is your family from?”

Max raised an eyebrow at her. “Waterbury,” he said.

“No, ding dong. Where are they from? Like, where did your grandparents come from?” She leaned against the counter, her arms crossed. Dark, silky black hair hung over her shoulders.

He licked his lips, trying to think. All four of his grandparents had passed away years earlier. He didn’t really know much about them. He had never thought about it very much before. The last real memory he had of them was going to church on Christmas. It had happened long before Chloe was born, before he had even started high school. “New York, I think,” he said finally.

“All of them came from New York?” Savannah asked, an eyebrow raised. She rolled her eyes. “They just appeared there one day, right?”

“No,” he said, crossing his own arms. “They died when I was a kid. What does that have to do with anything?”

She blew her long bangs into the air, making a motorcycle sound with her lips. Muttering something under her breath, she shook her head. “Where did they live before they came to the States?”

Max frowned at her. “Puerto Rico,” he said with a shrug.

“So,” she said, taking a step toward him. “You’re Puerto Rican, and you don’t even speak Spanish?”

Glancing at the door again, he took a step back. “Nope,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” she said again, throwing her hands up. She took another step toward him. “You never even wanted to learn?”

“Jeez,” he said, holding his hands up. “It’s not that big a deal.”

Her large brown eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open. Then, she erupted. “Are you serious?” Lapsing into Spanish, she fired off a string of what he could only assume were curses. Instead of being terrified, like he probably should have been, though, he felt slightly turned on.

He grinned.

“Why are you smiling at me?” she snapped.

“Because,” he said. “You’re kind of cute when you’re cussing me out in Spanish.”

Howling in frustration, she stomped past him, the twenty dollar bill still clutched in her hand. He watched as she stormed through the living room. A moment later, the door slammed behind her.

Blinking, he stared after her. He hoped that she was coming back. Maybe that was crazy. He should probably be calling the police, or at least calling his parents to see what they thought he should do. “Screw that,” he told the empty kitchen. The last person he was going to call was his mother. Leaving the kitchen, he trotted into the living room. Chloe stood against the window, staring into the street.

“Na Na,” she said, turning to Max and pointing out the window.

He scooped her up and smoothed her hair. “She’ll be back.” He carried her to the couch. The scent of Savannah’s perfume lingered in the room. He hoped that she wore it every day. Shaking his head at himself, he cuddled Chloe to his chest. The last thing he needed to be worrying about was a woman. Savannah was his roommate and Chloe’s nanny. He needed to remember that and to keep things professional. Planting a kiss on Chloe’s forehead, he watched as a smile broke out across his daughter’s face.

He glanced at the window. “Did you see Savannah?” he asked the little girl. She shook her head. Max shrugged. Sometimes, little kids were just weird. Then, as the scent of rotten eggs hit his nostrils, he gagged. Pulling Chloe away from his chest, he lay her down on the couch. He ran into her room to retrieve wipes and diapers, his daydream broken.

Just as he finished changing Chloe, the front door opened. Savannah stepped inside, cold air swirling in after her. She clutched two plastic bags in her hands. A grin broke out across her face. Max lifted an eyebrow at her.

“What’s all that?” he asked.

“Dinner,” she replied, moving inside. She closed the door behind her and padded back into the kitchen.

Max remained on the floor next to Chloe, her dirty diaper rolled up into a football-shaped wad. Climbing to his feet, he held the diaper out in front of him. He walked into the kitchen after Savannah. He tossed the diaper into the empty box serving as a garbage and watched as she danced around the kitchen. Her coat sat in a heap on the floor. She pulled a knife from the drawer. Turning one of the plastic bags upside down, she poured out a package of shredded cheddar, a tomato, onion, green and yellow peppers, and what looked like a jalapeño.

“What are you making?” he asked, as she began dicing the tomato.

“Chicken enchiladas Suiza,” she replied. The blade in her hands blurred as she sliced faster. Max watched, eyes wide in awe. He had never seen anyone cut something so fast before, outside of a Food Network show.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Savannah froze, the knife mid slice. “You’ve never had enchiladas?”

He shook his head.

She put her free hand on her hip. “Have you at least had a taco?”

“Of course,” he said. “We always had to buy like four of the kits. My mom said my brothers were like locusts.”

Savannah paled. She sagged against the counter, the knife clattering into the sink. “Taco kits?” she repeated weakly.

“Yeah,” Max said. “The ones that come with the shells and the sauce? You just have to buy the meat and cheese.”

Ay, Dios mio,” she said. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her long hair into a bun on top of her head. Max watched as the light from the ceiling shone off her hair. “You sit back, and let me handle this.”

Shrugging, Max leaned against the wall opposite her. She got back to work, cubing the rest of the vegetables. “Where did you get all this stuff, anyway?” he asked as she turned the stove on low.

Muttering something in Spanish under her breath, she shook her head at him. “There’s a bodega right across the street. Are you blind?”

He blushed, and folded his arms across his chest. “Isn’t that just like, chips and candy?”

“No, dude, they have a whole market in there. Are you an alien?” She pushed up the sleeves of her shirt, revealing the tattoos on her arm. The skulls danced across her skin as her muscles flexed. Max stared. Rolling her eyes, Savannah turned away from him. She drizzled oil into the pan.

“How’d you learn to cook?” he asked. He had assumed she was around the same age as him, yet she seemed to know so much more.

“You’re going to give me a heart attack,” she said, tossing the diced onions into the pan.

“It’s just a question,” he muttered, turning away. All girls were weird and prone to outbursts, he reminded himself. He made his way into the living room where Chloe lay on her stomach, kicking her little legs into the air. She clutched her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and dragged them across the carpet. Their feet made little lines in the fibers.

“Wanna draw, Chloe?” he asked her. She rolled onto her back, her face breaking out into a smile at the sight of him. At least one of the women in his house was happy to have him around. He crossed the room and pulled open one of the desk drawers, taking out paper and crayons. Then he joined Chloe on the floor, sprawling on his stomach in the same position she had been in.

With paper fanned out in front of them, he poured the crayons out. “What do you want me to draw?” he asked his daughter.

“Turtles,” she said in a singsong voice. He grabbed a green crayon and got to work.

The minutes slipped by. Before he knew it, the sky outside was darkening. Green and purple circles that vaguely resembled turtles dotted the paper, with Vs acting as birds, and blue scribbles across the sky. Chloe beamed at him and tapped his turtles with a finger.

“Make some dinosaurs,” she said.

“Sorry, kid,” Max said, putting down the purple crayon. “That’s as far as Daddy’s drawing skills go.”

“I can draw you a dinosaur,” Savannah said from behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder. She stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall. Chloe clapped her hands. Savannah lay down next to Chloe and picked up a gray crayon. Winking at Max, she sketched out the outline of a four-legged dinosaur with a long neck. She held the crayon lightly, layering in shapes slowly. Using pink, she began shading the dinosaur in.

Max watched her draw, entranced. The scent of tomatoes and spices floated to him from the kitchen, and his stomach growled. His eyes remained glued to the paper, watching as Savannah used a lime green crayon to add more detail. Slowly, the dinosaur came to life.

“That’s the mommy dinosaur,” Chloe said. “Where’s the baby?”

Savannah glanced at Max. Their eyes met, and she smiled, her dimples showing. Then she ducked her head and returned to the page, her hand moving back and forth as she added a smaller dinosaur. Chloe watched her every move, her chin tucked into her hands, her eyes wide and round.

Max’s heart pounded in his chest. He swallowed hard. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. He needed to remember that Savannah was technically his employee. It was her job to be good with his daughter. Plus, she was definitely weird, and at least slightly crazy.

Savannah put the crayon down, revealing a mother dinosaur with her baby. Chloe’s fingers traced the drawing, a smile breaking out across her face.

“You like it?” Savannah asked.

Chloe nodded.

“Cool,” Max said. “Tell Savannah thank you.”

“Thank you, Na Na,” Chloe said.

“You’re welcome.” Savannah lifted herself from the floor. “Dinner’s ready. Come eat.” She floated into the kitchen as lithe as a dancer. Chloe followed her, as if in a trance. Max climbed to his feet and trailed after them, his heart still doing flip-flops in his chest.

As he entered the kitchen, the scent of hot, spicy cheese grew stronger. His mouth filled with saliva. Savannah strapped Chloe into her high chair, and slid a plate of cooled chicken on the tray in front of her. Then she gestured for Max to sit.

Feeling as if his head had disconnected from his body, he sat down, too. Savannah put down a plate of enchiladas in front of him. Steaming white sauce covered cheesy chicken rolled in a soft tortilla. A pile of orange rice and red beans encircled the enchiladas.

“Wow,” he breathed, picking up his fork. “This smells great.”

“I hope it tastes good,” Savannah said. “I spent my last twenty bucks on this.” She grinned and motioned for him to take a bite.

He shoved a forkful of rice into his mouth, the flavor exploding in a shower of salt and spice and sweet. The lids of his eyes lowered, and he smiled while chewing. Warmth shot through him, and the floaty feeling intensified. “This is so, so good,” he murmured.

He opened his eyes. Savannah’s eyes were locked on his. Hers were large and luminous, a smile illuminating from within them. He swallowed hard. Lowering his gaze, he took a bite of enchilada. Ducking his head down in an effort to not look like a total creeper, he watched as she left the table and made herself a plate. She sat down across from him. Coughing, he put his fork down.

“Are you all right?” she asked, an eyebrow raised at him.

He nodded and darted to the sink. Turning it on, he coughed into the stainless steel. Hoping that he wouldn’t throw up or do anything else embarrassing, he put his face under the stream of water. He took tiny sips, forcing down the food stuck in his throat. He splashed water onto his burning face. Shutting the water off, he turned from the sink, wiping his hands on his jeans. “How’s your chicken?” he asked Chloe, trying to sound nonchalant. His hoarse voice betrayed him, though. He sighed inwardly. He was never going to be cool enough to impress Savannah. Looking down, he ran a hand through his hair. What she thought about him shouldn’t matter, anyway. He had hired her to help take care of Chloe, not so that he could date her.

His daughter lifted her hands into the air. “Yummy!” she exclaimed.

Savannah’s lips curled into a smile.

Ears burning, Max sat down again. Lifting his fork, he forced himself to eat slower. Almost choking once was enough.

“You really never ate this before?” she asked, seemingly oblivious to his struggle.

He shook his head. “My mom’s allergic to cooking,” he said, taking another bite of rice.

Savannah shook her head sadly. “A Puerto Rican woman who can’t cook? Now I’ve heard everything.” She tossed her silky black hair over her shoulder. Max watched as the strands caught the light. His fingers twitched with the urge to run his fingers through her hair. “And no one speaks Spanish in your house?” she asked, bringing him back.

“Not that I know of,” he said with a shrug. He cut another bite of enchilada. “This is so, so good. Who taught you how to cook?”

“My mother and grandmother,” she said, studying him. “So, how is Chloe supposed to learn anything about her heritage?”

Max frowned. “Her heritage? She loves cheeseburgers. You just have to cut up the burger, no bun.” He shoveled more rice into his mouth.

“Not her American heritage, crazypants. Puerto Rican heritage.” Savannah reached across the table and touched his hand. He jumped, the spot where her fingers met his skin crackling. “We’re all American citizens, but there’s more to us.”

Crinkling his eyebrows at her, Max pulled his hand out of her reach. His heart thundered in his chest. He forced himself to breathe slowly.

“Don’t you wanna know about where you come from?” Savannah asked.

He lifted one shoulder. “I was born here, in Waterbury.”

“You’re still boricua,” she said.

“Do what now?” He set his fork down.

Her shoulders slumped. She pushed away her plate. “You’re Puerto Rican. Don’t you want to at least learn how to speak Spanish?”

Max snorted. “Everyone speaks English. What’s the point?”

“The point,” she said, “is to carry on your heritage. To pass on your culture to your daughter.”

“I didn’t realize we were gonna have a history lesson tonight.” He sighed and stood, pushing his chair back.

“You’re full?” she asked, pointing a slim finger at his plate, still piled with food.

“I want to start reading for next semester, get ahead of the game,” he said, moving away from the table. “Are you okay to watch Chloe?”

Savannah stiffened, her eyes turning down at the corners. “Of course,” she said, a smile quickly breaking out across her face. Max could see the hurt in her eyes, though. He left the kitchen, his own shoulders tight. She was too nosy for her own good, he surmised as he sat down at his desk. He reached for his textbook for his Best Practices in Classroom Management course and flipped it open.

He had never been a great student, compared to his brothers. Every test drained him of energy. It would be a miracle if he graduated and was able to get certified for teaching, he mused. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on the words lining the page, but his mind raced in fury.

Gritting his teeth, he rubbed his temples with his fingers, his head pounding. Savannah had no right to interrogate him about his personal life. He had hired her to help with his daughter, not lecture him on things that had nothing to do with him. The only way he was going to do well in life was if he studied hard and got out of Waterbury.

He dragged his eyes back to the textbook, and began reading, forcing thoughts of Savannah out of his mind.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 3

Throwing open the front door of his apartment, Max called out, “Honey, I’m home!” He trudged inside, tracking snow in behind him.

Riley poked her head out of the kitchen, a squirming Chloe in her arms. “I’m not your honey,” she said, lifting Chloe for him to see. Sauce covered his daughter’s face, neck, and hands. “Please take her.”

Max laughed and set down the bags of groceries he carried. “You look good with a baby on you, Riles,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” Riley said with a grin. She shoved Chloe into his arms, streaking sauce on his coat. “You’re late and I have to go to work.” She grabbed her coat.

Tucking Chloe under one arm, he moved to stop Riley. “My last final ran over a bit. I had to stop for groceries. Don’t be mad.”

She shoved past him, ducking her head. Snow swirled inside from the still open door. Without another word, she stomped out.

Max sighed. Carrying Chloe into the kitchen, he whistled “Jingle Bells.” Chloe laughed. He sat her on the counter, grabbed a paper towel, and began cleaning her up. “Babies are supposed to get messy,” he muttered. “You’ve really done it this time, though.” As he dampened another paper towel, a ding from his computer announced a new email.

Blinking at Chloe with dark circles under his eyes, Max yawned. “I think we’ll take a nap on our new free couch,” he told his daughter. Picking her up again, he carried her past the bags of groceries on the floor and flopped down on the couch. He sat her on his lap and, taking her hands in his, lifted her arms into the air. “Whee!” he cooed. She giggled, but yanked her hands away. Scooting down from his lap, she lowered herself to the floor.

“Suit yourself,” he said, laying back. He watched as she toddled over to the desk, and tucked an arm behind his head. “Daddy’s just gonna rest,” he yawned. His eyelids drooped, and exhaustion tugged at him. As he drifted away, his daughter burbled one tiny word.


Cracking an eye open, he looked at her. She sat on the chair at his desk, her hands slapping at the keyboard of his laptop. “Oh, no you don’t,” he said, struggling to his feet.

The screen lit up and the computer came to life, his email program open on the screen. Crossing the room, he plucked Chloe from the chair and put her on the floor. “No computer for you,” he told her. As he leaned forward to close the laptop, he noticed that he had a new email. Reading the subject line, he settled into his chair, his fatigue swept away by surprise. His eyes widened.

“Looks like someone responded to our ad,” he said, clicking it open.

Inside the email, a link took him to the responder’s resume. “Savannah Santos,” he read out loud. He scanned through her credentials. She had watched three other children before, all of them under the age of six. Nodding to himself, Max read the rest of it. She was a student at Naugatuck Valley Community College, or had recently graduated. The resume didn’t specify.

Her cover letter said she was available immediately. Rubbing at the light stubble on his face, Max read through her resume again. She seemed perfect. She even mentioned something about providing educational activities. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed her number. Blood pounded in his head as he lifted the phone to his ear.

It rang. He swallowed hard. It rang again. He curled his free hand into a loose fist, sweat dampening his palms. If this girl was really available right away, he could call the music store and pick up some extra hours. They always needed extra help during the holiday season.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Savannah Santos,” she answered. Her voice was soft but commanding in a professional way. She sounded like she was probably from the Waterbury area. Most people from the city had a combination of a New York accent and Connecticut accent. No trace of a Hispanic accent laced her voice, despite her Puerto Rican last name.

“Uh, hi,” Max said, his mind racing. He struggled to gather his thoughts. “This is Max Batista. I’m calling about your email for the nanny position,” he finished, making it sound more like a question. He realized he had no idea how to talk to her. She was probably around the same age as he was. He wasn’t sure if he should try to sound like her boss, or if he should try to be friendly. He definitely couldn’t talk to her the way he talked to Riley, he mused with a smirk.

“Hi,” she said brightly, her voice still professional. “Did you get my resume?”

“I did,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk, trying to think of what he should say next. “I’d like to, um, set up an interview.” There. That sounded right. He glanced at the time on his computer. It was after two. “Are you free to meet this afternoon?”

“Sure,” she said, right away. “Where do you want to meet?”

Max licked his lips. He probably shouldn’t have her come to the apartment right away. It was a mess at the moment. Plus, if she turned out to be some kind of crazy, he didn’t want her to know where he lived. “Coffee shop,” he blurted. “You know, the one right on the Cheshire line.”

“Cheshire Coffee? Sure,” she said. “I can be there for 2:30. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” he said, eyeing Chloe. His daughter had pulled all of the canned vegetables out of one of the shopping bags and stacked them into a tower. If nothing else, the kid was definitely creative. “We’ll see you soon.”

“Great,” Savannah said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Hanging up, Max yawned again. Despite his excitement, he still felt tired. Coffee would definitely help wake him up, even if Savannah turned out to be a dud. Closing the laptop, he stood from the desk. If he was lucky, Savannah would be exactly what he needed.

* * *

Pulling Chloe out of her car seat, Max turned toward the building. Cheshire Coffee was nestled into a fairly new plaza, between a day spa and frozen yogurt shop. The parking lot was full for a weekday afternoon. More than likely, most of the people there were students prepping for exams. Balancing his daughter in his arms, he shut the car door and ambled toward the building. Cold wind swooped down from the sky, and Chloe burrowed into his chest. Max quickened his pace.

Inside, they were greeted with a blast of warm air and a smiling barista.

“What can I get you to warm you up?” she called over the light chatter of customers. The tables were crowded, especially the ones in front of the fireplace. Max bit his lip, scanning the faces. He realized that he had no idea what Savannah looked like.

“Chocolate milk and a cookie for this one,” he said, “and a half coffee, half hot chocolate for me.”

While he waited, he sidled down to the other end of the counter. He glanced at the faces in the coffee shop again. Businessmen sat hunched over laptops. A group of college-aged people sat, chatting animatedly, free of textbooks. Two women who looked like they might be sisters occupied another table, young children tucked between them. In the back corner, sitting at a table alone, a young woman with dark hair and golden brown skin watched him. A black peacoat was slung over the back of her chair. She wore jeans with boots and a short sleeved tee, exposing an arm of bright tattoos. She watched him with curious, luminous eyes. He looked away, turning back to the barista, who handed him his order.

“Thanks,” he said, balancing the drinks and Chloe.

“Here,” a soft voice said at his side. Brown hands reached out for his drinks, plucking them away.

He turned to find the girl from the back table at his side. Her dark eyes sparkled. Cocking his head, he dragged his eyes up from her sleeve of tattoos. Close up, he could see that they were colorful skulls. He frowned.

“I’m Savannah,” she said, turning away and leading him back toward the table. “I’m assuming you’re Max and Chloe.”

He followed her, too dumbstruck to speak. All he could see were the tattoos that covered every inch of her arm. They wound around the back of her bicep and forearm, a solid stream of skulls in a variety of colors. His eyes widened.

Savannah set the drinks down at the table and resumed her seat. Smiling at him, she waved to Chloe. “Hi, pretty girl,” she cooed. Dimples appeared in her cheeks.

Chloe waved back.

“Is it cold outside?” Savannah asked Chloe.

His daughter shook her head. Every time it snowed, she practically begged to go outside.

Max folded himself into the chair opposite Savannah, balancing Chloe on his lap. He dragged his eyes up from Savannah’s arm to her face.

“So,” Savannah said, turning her attention to him. “She’s two?” The smile remained on her face. Aside from the tattoos, she was kind of pretty.

“What?” Max asked, tearing his gaze away. He looked down at Chloe, who held up her bottle of chocolate milk.

“How old is she?” Savannah asked.

“Oh,” he said, opening the bottle and handing it back to Chloe. “Almost three.”

“Perfect,” Savannah said. “I used to watch a two-year-old little girl.”

Recovering, Max nodded. His thoughts stopped spinning and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. “Have you ever lived with the families of the kids you watched?” There. That sounded like a good, boss-like question.

“I spent a summer in Florida with the last family I worked for.” She sipped at a large cup of what Max assumed was coffee. Its contents were hidden by the cardboard to-go cup. She wrapped her fingers around it, and Max’s eyes returned to her tattoos.

“What happened with the last family?” he asked, taking a sip of his own coffee. “Why did you stop watching their kids?”

“They started school,” Savannah said, waving a hand. She seemed not to notice him staring. Aside from the sleeve, she seemed to have no other piercings or tattoos. He wondered when she had gotten them, if she had them while watching the other families’ children, or if the sleeve was new. He couldn’t imagine her getting an entire sleeve in one sitting. He didn’t have any tattoos himself, but Levi had one, a phoenix on his upper back, right at the nape of his neck. If he needed to cover it, he could wear a shirt. Max wondered how Savannah hid her tattoos. She seemed not to care. She lifted her eyebrows at him, a bemused expression crossing her face.

“What?” he asked, snapping his attention back to the conversation.

“I asked you if she’s potty-trained,” Savannah said. “I’ve done it before, but it’s always easier if they already are.”

“No,” he said. “She isn’t.”

“Okay. No biggie.” Savannah grinned at Chloe, and the little girl smiled back. She reached a tiny hand out for the cookie in the middle of the table. Savannah unwrapped it and handed it to her. Chloe broke it into two nearly even halves, and held one out to Savannah. “Oh, thank you,” Savannah said. “That’s yours, though. You eat it.”

Giggling, Chloe took a big bite out of one half.

Max smiled at his daughter. She seemed to be totally unfazed by Savannah’s appearance. Maybe he was being ridiculous. Tattoos weren’t exactly anything new, and Savannah didn’t appear to be in a biker gang or anything. Still, the skulls were unsettling, despite their mascara-lined eyes and bright lips. Thick, black filigrees, dots, and bright flowers decorated each skull’s face. He wondered what kind of woman put something so sinister on her body permanently.

“So,” Savannah said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I know you said in your post that you needed someone immediately. And it’s a live-in position?”

Max nodded. “I have a third bedroom,” he said quickly, trying not to appear like some overeager creep. “The pay includes basic living expenses.” His eyes flicked again to Savannah’s arm. One of the skulls looked like a cat’s. A nervous ball formed in the pit of his stomach. He was glad that he didn’t have any pets. He grabbed his cup of coffee, the heat from it grounding him in the present moment.

“Cool,” Savannah said. “It actually works perfectly, because I’ve been looking for a place.” She tossed her long, dark hair over her shoulder. When she moved, the soft spicy scent of her perfume floated to him on the air. He inhaled and for a moment, his brain went fuzzy. He stared at her, transfixed. If she wasn’t some kind of baby skull collector, she was definitely intriguing. Even more importantly, Chloe seemed to like her. “How soon do you need me to start?” Savannah asked, yanking him out of his thoughts once again.

“Tonight, if you can,” he said, watching her. No one would be able to start a job on the same day. He could use that as an excuse to not hire her. Surely, someone else would respond. He could keep using Riley as backup, and maybe he could talk his dad into taking Chloe a couple times a week. No matter how pretty Savannah was or how nice she seemed, no nanny should have skull tattoos.

“Sounds good,” Savannah said. She took another sip of her coffee.

Max kept his face neutral in an effort to hide his disappointment. “Awesome,” he said. He tightened his grip on Chloe. “I grabbed a few things at the grocery store earlier, but we should probably pick up some other things.”

“I can come with you, keep an eye on Miss Chloe while you do what you’ve gotta do,” Savannah said. Without waiting for him to answer, she stood from her seat. In one fluid motion, she swung her coat off the back of the chair and pulled it on. It fell to almost her knees, but it didn’t look like something a serial killer would wear.

Taking a deep breath, Max stood up, too. He needed to work as much as possible before the spring semester began. He couldn’t afford to wait for someone else to respond to his ad. Besides, as much as his father loved his granddaughter, Max knew that he wouldn’t watch her. His mother would intercept, telling him that they needed to let their son figure things out for himself.

With the holidays coming up, he would need help with Chloe even more. He sighed. “Let’s do this,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

Savannah gathered Chloe’s cookie and the rest of her chocolate milk, tucking it into a leather tote that Max hadn’t noticed. The gold logo jumped out at him, clear as day: Versace. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. As if seeing the bag had opened up some third eye, he realized for the first time that she wore Ugg boots and that her coat was Versace, too. “Ready?” she asked him.

Nodding, he led the way out of the coffee shop, his mind whirling. Those weren’t just brand names—they were high fashion. He didn’t have any sisters, but his brothers’ wives and girlfriends all went crazy for those things. His oldest brothers complained all of the time about their wives’ spending habits, and how they were glad they had gone into the family law business.

“Have a great day,” the barista called after them. Max pushed open the door and stepped outside, Chloe nestled in his arms. Cold wind gusted at them, and he bent his head against it, surging forward. He didn’t check to see if Savannah followed, but he heard the door close behind them.

“I’m parked over there,” Savannah said. He turned and saw her jerk a thumb toward the rest of the parking lot. “Where are you?”

He nodded at the Taurus, cheeks blazing despite the cold. He wondered what kind of car she drove. It would be ironic if, after he had judged her tattoos, he ended up looking like trash. With numb fingers, he pulled his car keys out of his pocket.

“I’ll follow you out,” she called, turning and walking in the opposite direction.

He grunted and opened the door to the backseat. Strapping Chloe in as quickly as possible, he planted a kiss on his daughter’s forehead and jogged around to the other side of the car. Cold air blasted from the heater vents. He shivered and turned the knob down, wondering how long it would take for Savannah’s car to warm up. She probably had a Lexus or BMW, with heated leather seats.

It served him right. Still, he wondered what someone with so much money was doing, babysitting for a living. Even though she would be living with him, he wouldn’t be paying her enough to finance a luxury car. Clutching the steering wheel, he grimaced as a grisly thought entered his mind. Maybe she sold children’s organs on the black market. He had heard that kidneys were actually pretty expensive.

Closing his eyes, he shook the thoughts away. He needed to stop. He was acting like some worrywart old grandmother. His brothers would call him an overprotective sissy, and Riley would say that his concern for his daughter was gross. He needed to not be gross, especially if a woman who wore Versace was going to live with him.

A dark car pulled up behind him and flashed its lights. In the rearview mirror, he couldn’t tell what make or model it was, but it was definitely Savannah. The air spewing from his car’s vents was still far from warm, but he didn’t want her to think that his car was a piece of crap—even if it kind of was.

He pulled out of his parking spot and inched his way to the exit. Savannah stayed right behind him. It occurred to him that he could just speed off and lose her. Then he would never have to see her again. It wouldn’t matter who she was or why she had so many tattoos. He could quit school, find a nine-to-five job at a bank or something, and put Chloe in day care.

He didn’t want to be that kind of father, though, even if plenty of people put their kids in school at a young age. From the day she was born, he had promised her that he would take care of her. Even if she had a live-in nanny, he would still spend more time with her than if she were in school all day.

A few minutes later, he pulled into a parking spot in front of the grocery store. Savannah carefully slid into the spot next to him. At least she was a good driver. Shutting the engine off, he opened his door and got out. As he headed toward Chloe’s door, he saw Savannah following him out of the corner of his eye. Her hand reached toward the handle.

“I’ve got it,” he said, lifting a hand.

“No problem,” she said, hanging back.

He opened Chloe’s door and unstrapped her. Lifting her into his arms, he rested his cheek against her head for a moment. Then, remembering their mission, he headed toward the grocery store.

Inside, he chose a cart and slid her into the seat. She kicked her legs against the metal, her shoes clanging. Max wrapped his fingers around the bar and began to push her toward the produce section.

“How are you supposed to test me,” Savannah called behind him, “if you’re pushing her?”

He paused, heat creeping up the back of his neck. He was being a tad overprotective. “Habit,” he said, stepping away from the cart. Swallowing hard, he watched as Savannah took control. She rolled the cart slowly, letting him lead the way. As they neared the fruits and vegetables, he prayed that he hadn’t made a huge mistake. Kids were abducted every day.

“So what do you need to get?” Savannah asked, gently tucking Chloe’s arm away from a shelf of apples.

He blinked. He didn’t exactly have a list. He cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “what do you like?”

Her lips parted in a little O, and he realized that they were full, pink and soft looking. For a second, he wondered what it would be like to kiss those lips. Heat flushed his cheeks, and he looked away, busying himself with selecting apples.

“Are apples okay?” he asked, ducking his head down.

“Sure,” she said. The scent of her perfume wafted his way again, and he felt himself get a little lightheaded. Great. On top of worrying about her tattoos and potential involvement with a cult of nannies or the black market, he was attracted to her.

He filled a bag with some apples and tossed them into the cart, already moving into the next aisle. “Chloe loves bananas,” he said, picking up two bunches. “She’ll eat them all day if you let her.”

“Noted,” Savannah said, wheeling Chloe up behind him. “What doesn’t she like?”

“Big raviolis,” he said, turning back to them. Savannah cocked her head, raising an eyebrow. “She likes the mini ones,” he explained.

Snorting, Savannah tapped Chloe’s nose lightly. “So no big ones,” she said. “Got it.”

Max moved away from the produce aisle, heading toward the rest of the store. “I just need bread and milk,” he said, visualizing his refrigerator. “If there’s anything you want, just grab it.”

“Okay,” Savannah said behind him. He heard the squeak of the cart and Chloe babbling to herself. Then, Savannah started singing. Her voice was soft and sweet, and although he didn’t understand the words, warmth pooled through his body. His shoulders relaxed a bit.

The rest of the shopping trip went smoothly. Savannah kept Chloe from grabbing random things off shelves and hurling them to the floor. She only selected a few things for herself: a bag of rice, two cans of black beans, a package of boned pork, and some Adobo.

“I like to cook,” she said with a shrug.

By the time they loaded everything into Max’s car, Chloe had fallen asleep. He tucked her into her seat, her head drooping against the pillowed fabric. Then he turned to Savannah, the address for his apartment dancing on his lips. He knew it was stupid to judge a person just from one shopping trip, but so far, she seemed like a good fit. Chloe really liked her, too.

He just hoped that they could all live together.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 2

Three days after his mother told him it was time, Max packed his and Chloe’s few belongings into his beat up old Taurus, strapped his daughter into her car seat, and left his childhood home. His little girl kicked the seat behind him the whole way, and he drove with a box in his lap, but he was free. In a weird sort of way, it felt good to move out.

When he dropped the last box on what would eventually be the living room floor, Max turned to Chloe. She sat on the floor by the double windows, a toy clutched in one of her hands. “Well, Chloe, here we are. Home, sweet home.” He looked around the nearly empty room, frowning. His mother had let him take his desk, twin bed, and all of Chloe’s furniture, but he had nothing else. “Lonely home,” he amended.

“Daddy,” Chloe said, and turned away from him.

Shrugging, he ambled into the kitchen to start unpacking. It took three minutes. He spent two minutes trying to open the box, and another minute putting his daughter’s baby food into a cabinet. Stomach growling, he pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“Guess I’ll order some pizza,” he said. “Chloe, are you going to eat some pizza?”

His daughter gave no response, babbling happily to herself as she smashed two plastic action figures against each other in the living room.

He called his favorite pizza place, ordered a large pepperoni, and returned to the living room to watch Chloe. Then, his phone still in his hand, he scrolled through his contacts. “I think I know who’ll take that third bedroom,” he told Chloe.

“Hey, asshole,” his best friend, Riley, answered in her best fake British accent.

“Hey, yourself,” he told her. “I just ordered a huge pepperoni pizza. Wanna split it?”

She snorted. “Short on cash?”

“Nope,” he said. “I was hoping you’d come keep my bed warm. I’m all alone in my new apartment and it’s scary by myself.”

“Maybe some other time,” she said, laughing. “Wait, what? You got your own apartment?”

“If you bring beer, I’ll let you get drunk and sleep on my floor.” He stretched his legs out, pointing the toes of his scuffed Nikes toward the ceiling.

“I wish I had my own place,” Riley said. “My parents are killing me.”

Grinning, Max gave Chloe the thumbs up sign. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word. “I happen to have a third bedroom, empty and ready for you.”

“Wow,” Riley said. “I don’t know what to say. This is so . . . sudden.”

Max laughed. “Seriously, though.” He wished she was sitting right across from him. It would be easier to read her face.

“Seriously?” she said.

“Why not?” Riley had been his only high school friend to stick around after Nicole got pregnant. “You, me, Chloe. We’d be a happy family. And you could help me fill this place with furniture. Don’t you get a discount at Kohl’s?”

“Barely,” Riley said. “We don’t sell much furniture, anyway. When did you move out of your parents’ house?”

Max lifted his eyebrows. “I guess I didn’t tell you.” He filled her in, feeling a little bad for not calling her first. Luckily, Riley had never been the needy kind of friend that demanded every detail of his life. They just worked.

“That’s crazy! Your mom just kicked you out? What is she gonna do, use your room as an office?”

“If that was the case,” he said, “she could have used one of the guest bedrooms, or the spare room they’re using for storage.”

“Christmas decorations and Martha Stewart catalogs,” Riley said. “It would be the perfect storefront.”

“Seriously, though,” Max said. “You can move in whenever you want.”

For a moment, Riley was silent. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Why not?” Max jumped up and went to the front window. He peered out into the dark street at a passing car, but the car didn’t slow. “You complain about living with your parents all the time.”

“Duh,” she said, “but I can’t exactly pay rent on makeup commission.”

“I thought you said the stuff you sell is expensive.” He watched another car approach, hoping it was his pizza.

“I still don’t get paid that much. It sucks.”

He frowned. “Damn, I really thought you would be all over this. I need someone to help me out with Chloe.”

“I would if I could, handsome. I can help out when I’m not working,” Riley offered.

“Thanks, Riles. I need someone in between, too, though. I can get extra hours at the music store and make rent no problem, but Chloe can’t exactly stay here by herself, and my mom won’t watch her anymore.” A car pulled up in front of the house, and a guy wearing a Yankees cap got out of the driver’s seat. He jogged around to the passenger side and pulled out a box of pizza. Max opened the door and pulled out a twenty.

“Why don’t you post an ad online?” Riley said, laughing.

As Max shut the door, holding the pizza box in one hand and holding his phone with the other, he froze. “That’s actually not a bad idea.” He strode toward the kitchen.

Riley snorted. “I was kidding, dumb dumb.”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of a good idea.” Max opened the pizza box; cheese bubbled around overflowing slices of pepperoni. He inhaled and sighed, grinning. Then he grimaced. He had no plates.

“Please don’t do that,” Riley said.

“Why not?” he asked, lifting a slice from the pie. Heat seared his fingers. He dropped it onto the cardboard lid.

“Because you’ll end up with an axe murderer or something. I don’t really care if you get killed, but I like Chloe.”

“Thanks,” he said dryly, lifting the slice of pizza again. It was still hot, but he took a bite from it, slurping. “You’re missing out on some really good pizza.”

“Why don’t you put her in like, a day care or something?” Riley asked. “My sister uses Easter Seals. They’re accredited and shit, so your kid gets an education, too.”

“I don’t work nine to five,” Max said, taking another bite. “Plus I’m not really ready for her to go to school yet.”

“Gross,” Riley said. “Please don’t be that creepy father with attachment issues.”

“I don’t have attachment issues,” Max said, putting his slice down. “She’s only two. She’s still so little. I want her to be a kid.”

“Why don’t you have one of your brothers watch her, then? What about the journalist? Don’t writers work from home?” Riley asked.

Max plucked a slice of pepperoni from the pizza and popped it into his mouth. “He still has to work at the newspaper,” he said, chewing. “And the rest of them are too busy. I’ll just post an ad.”

No,” Riley said. The tone she used reminded him of his mother.

“Are you gonna be my live-in nanny?” Max asked.

She sighed. “No.”

“Then I’ve gotta go. I need my phone,” he said, and hung up before she could suggest anything else. He pointed a finger at Chloe. “You are not going to school yet, young lady.” He opened his browser and went to Craigslist. Scrolling through, he passed listings of free and cheap furniture. They would come in handy later. He went to the jobs section and started a new topic: “FULL-TIME NANNY, BEDROOM AVAILABLE.”

He cross-posted it to the apartments section, then picked up another slice of pizza.

* * *

Snow swirled down from the sky, coating the Taurus and the asphalt of the parking lot. Max stared at the screen of his laptop, completely oblivious. His finger twitched toward the refresh button, clicking it for the tenth time in the last minute. Still no responses.

Gritting his teeth, he drummed his fingers on the keyboard. Two weeks had passed since he originally posted the ad, and not a single person had replied. Next to him sat a stack of textbooks and final exam notes. He refreshed the page again.

Still nothing.

Jumping up from the desk, he left the living room and paced toward Chloe’s room. He inched her door open and peeked inside at her. She lay on her back inside her crib, an arm slung up over her head, her elbow bent. A dark curl lay against her forehead. Her eyes were closed, black lashes stark against her creamy complexion. Max sighed. If he didn’t find someone to watch her soon, he had no idea what he was going to do.

Closing the door, he padded back into the living room. He dropped into his desk chair again and hit refresh three times.


He swallowed hard. Rubbing his temples, he stared at the screen. Riley helped him out when she could, but if he couldn’t find someone permanent before the semester ended, he was going to have to drop out of school. He tried to imagine working days in a factory, standing in an assembly line, back aching. His grandfather had worked third shift long past his retirement. Max sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was end up like Grandpa Batista.

Glancing at the time, he frowned. It was past two in the morning, and he had a final exam at nine. Yawning, he closed his laptop, then stood from his desk. As he reached for his phone, the screen lit up, and a new text appeared. Call me if you’re up, Riley had written.

Max frowned. He unlocked the phone and called her.

“Hey,” she said, her voice hoarse.

“You do know it’s two in the morning, Riles?” he teased.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice cracking.

He hesitated, the dirty joke he had been about to spring dying on his lips. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she moaned. “I feel like someone tried to strangle me. My throat is killing me. I can’t swallow, either.”

Max grimaced. “Allergies?”

“Dumbass,” she said. “I think it’s a cold, maybe strep.” She sighed. “So I’m not gonna be able to watch Chloe in the morning.”

Max’s stomach clenched. “I have a final,” he said.

“Jeez,” Riley said. “I’m sorry that I don’t feel good.”

Guilt swept through him. He swallowed hard. “Sorry, Rie. Can I get you anything?”

She sighed again. “No. I’m gonna go to bed now.” Without another word, she hung up.

Max lowered his phone and stared at the screen as it went dark. With no one to watch Chloe, he would have to stay home—and miss his exam. Sucking in a deep breath, he ran his hands through his hair. If he dodged the exam, his GPA probably wouldn’t be affected too much, but he would definitely have to repeat the course. Professor Lee had made it clear—in bold letters on the syllabus—that the midterm and final counted for 75 percent of their total grade. Nausea curled into his stomach, and he leaned over, resting his cheek on the cool wood of the desk.

Even worse, he was supposed to work in the afternoon. He couldn’t afford to miss work, especially not with his first month of rent due so soon. He wished his parents could be normal, reasonable people. He wondered what kind of mother and father kicked their son and granddaughter out. If his mother had asked him to contribute toward groceries or even rent, he would have been more than happy to. It wasn’t fair.

Slowly, he lifted his head from the desk. If he emailed his professor right away, and said he was sick, he would probably be able to make up the exam. He could pretend that he was the one with strep or whatever. Maybe he could even email his boss at the music store with the same excuse. He had never missed a class or a day of work. That had to count for something.

Turning his computer back on, he slowly exhaled. Everything would be okay. Surely Riley would be feeling better by the next day, when she was supposed to watch Chloe for him while he took another final.

As he started typing the first email, another text came in on his phone.

I’m gonna have to cancel for Tuesday, too. I forgot I have to work.

Clenching his phone in his hand, Max curled his lip. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. He wondered how Riley could possibly have forgotten she had to work. Maybe she was mad at him for being so insensitive about her being sick. He sighed. Girls were so complicated—even Riley, who he had known for years.

Massaging his temples, he breathed in deeply. At least he had a good excuse for missing two days in a row. He could just pretend that he was still sick.

Still, he surmised, faking sick wouldn’t get him very far for very long. He couldn’t afford to miss work, and he definitely couldn’t flunk out of school. Something had to give—and soon.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos: Chapter 1

The icy scent of frost floated in through the window, cracked open an inch to let the blazing hot air from the furnace out. Max paused the composition he was mixing on his laptop and inhaled. The air smelled like snow—a clean, cold smell that burned his nostrils. Glancing at the calendar above his desk, Max counted the days until the end of the fall semester. Little more than two weeks remained. He needed to hurry up and finish his final projects.

Leaning back in the squeaky desk chair he had owned since he was twelve, Max stretched his arms toward the drop ceiling. He lowered his arms, then moved his neck from side to side, stretching the tense muscles. Mixing was his least favorite thing to do. He’d always loved music—until he started majoring in it. He had the state of Connecticut to thank for that—all elementary education students were required to double major.

A cry from the top of the stairs interrupted his stretching routine: “Daddy,” his daughter Chloe wailed.

Max chuckled. He almost wanted to ignore her; he already knew what she wanted. Ignoring her would be mean, though. She was only two. “Yes?” he called, his voice echoing to the floor above him.

For a moment, she said nothing. Shaking his head, Max turned back to his desk. Just as he slipped his earbuds back in, she called out again. “I wanna watch George,” she said.

He glanced at the digital display of the alarm clock next to his bed. Exactly twenty minutes had passed since she last came to the top of the stairs. He needed to buy some longer DVDs.

“Coming,” he said. He yawned, wondering where his mother was. Betty Batista usually watched his daughter all day, even if he was off from work and spent the day doing homework. She had said she was going out grocery shopping, but that had been three hours earlier.

Sighing, he jumped to his feet. The chair rolled away, smacking into the desk. He shook his head. Whoever had finished the basement hadn’t really known what they were doing.

Taking the stairs two at a time, he stretched his arms out toward his daughter. Despite the dark circles under his eyes and his messy hair, she squealed with laughter and darted back into the kitchen. “I’m gonna tickle you,” he roared. Chloe raced into the living room, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. She dived onto the couch, tucking herself into a ball, her face buried in the cushions.

Max smirked. He scooped her up from the couch, tossing her into the air. When he caught her, he wiggled his fingers against her belly. She howled with laughter. Spinning her around, he plopped her down on the couch. She giggled, kicking her legs.

“Tickle me!” she said. Two tiny brown ponytails danced on the top of her head. Her blue eyes sparkled. For a moment, she looked just like her mother. Max turned away and knelt in front of the family DVD player, restarting the pair of Curious George episodes. “Tickle me,” Chloe said again. He turned around. She watched him with her head cocked to the side. “Daddy?”

He gave her a smile, stifling a yawn. “Sorry, baby. Daddy’s gotta work. You watch George, okay?” He stood and kissed her soft cheek.

Chloe frowned. “I want you to watch it with me.” Her lower lip quivered.

Max glanced out the window into the still empty driveway. “Where’s Grandma?” He took a step away from the couch.

Chloe shrieked, the sound piercing his ears and echoing off the walls of the house.

Grimacing, Max stared at his daughter. “Where did you come from?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She continued screaming. Pain exploded in his temple. Wincing, he rubbed at his head. “Look, George is starting.” He pointed to the television and took a step back. Chloe only glanced at the screen, her shrieking reaching another octave. “Knock it off!” he yelled, but the volume of her wailing only got louder. Gritting his teeth, Max turned and left the living room. As he entered the kitchen, he heard something hard clatter onto the coffee table. He froze in his tracks and pivoted on the balls of his feet. “If you break that, Grandma’s gonna be mad at you.”

Chloe screamed even louder.

He paced the kitchen, his fists clenched. On any other day, he could probably ignore the tantrum. Lately, though, all Chloe did was shriek and pound at the floor when she didn’t get her way. Max was running out of ways to deal with it. Usually, his mother handled the tantrums with a swift swat on Chloe’s diaper-padded butt. Max had never spanked Chloe, and he didn’t want to start anytime soon. His father, Alexander, could usually silence Chloe with just a few low words. She listened to Max less and less. Sometimes, he wondered if she even realized he was her father.

Fighting the urge to retreat into the basement, he went back into the living room. Chloe sat on the floor, the cushions of the couch strewn around her. When she saw Max, she cried harder, her face streaked with tears, cheeks blazing.

“If you don’t stop crying, I’m gonna shut the TV off.”

She screamed, and a headache pinged into the space between Max’s eyes.

“Fine,” he said. Stomping to the other side of the room, he turned the DVD player off.

Eyes widening, Chloe kicked at the coffee table. Candles and other knickknacks tumbled to the floor.

“Come on, kid,” Max grumbled. He ran a hand through his hair. “Why are you acting like this?” While she continued to scream, he sat on the arm of the couch. She had napped earlier in the afternoon, for forty-five minutes, and had slept in until around ten. She couldn’t be tired. She couldn’t be hungry, either, because they had just eaten lunch an hour before, when he watched the DVD with her for the first time. He sighed.

Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the front door opened. His mother walked in, a smile on her face. She started to say something. Her expression sagged the second she heard Chloe. She put her hands on her hips, glaring at Max.

“She won’t stop,” he said, raising his voice over his daughter. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

Betty shook her head, her short gray hair glinting in the late afternoon light. Through the open door, Max saw that the sky had darkened, threatening snow. His mother marched inside, closing the door behind her. Lifting Chloe, she bounced the toddler on her hip. “I know,” she soothed, stroking Chloe’s hair.

Slowly, Chloe quieted.

Max gaped. He wanted to tell his mother not to spoil his daughter. Instead, he tugged at his hair. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“She just needed some attention,” Betty said. She kissed her granddaughter’s cheeks. “Huh, baby?” Chloe snuggled into her grandmother, nestling her face into Betty’s shoulder.

“I’ve got a lot of homework,” Max said, turning toward the kitchen. “I’ll see you later.” He rounded the corner, heading toward the basement.

“Hold it,” his mother called after him.

He glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve gotta work, Mom.”

“We need to talk,” she said.

Max froze, one hand on the stair railing. “About what?”

“Come in here and have a seat,” she called to him.

Frowning, Max turned around and went back into the living room. His mother sat on the couch, Chloe in her arms. On the TV, the first episode on the Curious George DVD began.

“What’s up?” he asked, sitting on the love seat across from Betty. For the first time, he realized that his mother hadn’t brought in any grocery bags. “What’s going on? Is Dad okay?”

Betty waved a hand at him. “Your father’s fine. He’s at the office, driving your brothers crazy.” She rocked Chloe in her arms.

“Then what is it?” Max searched her face, but her expression gave nothing away.

“Well,” she said slowly. She shifted Chloe to her other side. “Your father and I have been talking.” Glancing at the TV, she watched the cartoon for several long seconds.

“About what?” Max asked. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans.

“We love you and Chloe very, very much,” his mother said, “but we both agree that it’s time.”

Max leaned forward. His heart thudded in his chest. “Time for what?”

Betty shot him a look, her lips twisting in a wry smile. “Don’t play dumb, Max. We’ve been more than generous here. I can’t raise Chloe for you, though. I just can’t.”

He frowned. “But you’re not.” Even as the words left his lips, he knew they weren’t true.

“Max,” his mother said, dangerously close to using his full name. “I watch her all day, sometimes from seven in the morning to midnight. I’m not a full-time nanny. I have my own life, you know.”

Max blinked at her and rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Well, the semester is almost over. It won’t be all day during winter break.”

Max,” his mother said sharply. “You’re not hearing me. It’s time for you to move out, on your own. And you need to take Chloe with you.” The toddler in question squirmed out of her arms and slid to the floor, her eyes fixated on the monkey on TV.

Gaping at his mother, Max sank back against the love seat in disbelief. “Move out?”

Betty nodded. “It’s time.”

“Why?” He ran a hand through his hair. “You said I could stay here while I went to school.”

His mother sighed. “Things change. That’s life.” She crossed her legs. “I’m not getting any younger, kiddo. I’m retired but I’m not dead—yet. I want to work on my own dreams while I still have time.”

“Dreams?” he repeated. “Mom, you’re sixty-seven. I thought you were done working. I thought you hated working.” He stood and began pacing.

“I hated working in the office,” she said. “I love your father, but he was a pain in the ass to work with.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling. “We’ve discussed finances, and we’ve decided that I can start that interior design business I keep talking about.” She stood, smoothing her dress pants. “I can’t work at home with a toddler running around, and you need to be independent. I can’t have you two living in my basement until you turn forty. Besides, it’ll be good for you both, like bonding.” Stepping over Chloe, his mother strode out of the living room. “You have until the end of the month,” she called over her shoulder.

Max stared after her, jaw hanging open. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to say to his mother.

* * *

Max left Chloe in the living room, retreating to his bedroom in the basement. The furnace blazed even hotter, and he cringed as he closed the door behind him. That was one thing he wouldn’t miss. As he stared around his room, the situation began to fully sink in. His mother had kicked him out. He yanked at his hair in an effort to wake up. It had to be a dream. Eyes wide, he took a deep breath, blowing it out through his nostrils. He slowly counted to ten.

As he calmed down, he confirmed that he was not, in fact, dreaming. He blew out another long breath. He needed to think.

He wished that he could just dismiss the conversation as a prank. His mom knew how to do a lot of things, but playing a joke was not one of them. He needed to find a place for him and Chloe to live, ASAP. Stalking across the room, he snatched his phone from his desk. He scrolled through his contacts, his mind whirling. There had to be someone that he and Chloe could stay with for a little while.

His oldest brothers were both married with young children. As the youngest of five, Max had thought he could live with his parents longer than his elder brothers had. Having a daughter at such a young age should have earned him that right. He selected Xavier, the brother closest to him in age, from his contacts.

His brother picked up on the second ring. “Maxi Pad,” he exclaimed.

“Eggs,” Max said in a flat tone. Leave it to Xavier to remember his childhood nickname.

“What’s up, little bro?”

“No time to catch up,” Max said, brushing aside the earlier dig. “Mom and Dad are kicking me out. I need to find a place ASAP. Can Chloe and I crash with you?”

Xavier hesitated. “Eh,” he said, drawing out the word.

“What’s wrong?” Max asked. “You already have two roommates. What’s two more?”

“Sorry,” Xavier said. “There’s no way we can have a baby around.”

Max scowled. “Chloe’s not a baby. She’s two, almost three.”

“Yeah, dude,” Xavier said. “My point exactly. Listen, we’re all surgical residents here. We work all kinds of crazy hours.”

Max began pacing. “You won’t even notice we’re there. Chloe will be really quiet.”

“Yeah,” Xavier said again slowly. “We do a lot of drinking around here. Babies and booze don’t mix, man. I can’t be waking up half-hungover because your kid’s crying.”

Frustrated, Max tightened his fingers around his phone and forced himself to take a breath. “Come on, Eggs. You’re killing me.”

“No way, José,” Xavier said, and hung up.

Max stared at the dark screen of his phone, his heart slamming in his chest. He thought for sure that Xavier would have said yes. Of all his brothers, they were the closest. “So much for that,” he said out loud. He went through his contacts again.

Levi, the third-born Batista boy, had always been nice to Max. He was nine years older than Max, but he didn’t act like a regular real adult. Levi would help. Max pressed the phone to his ear.

“Levi Batista,” his brother answered.

“You’re all formal, now that you’ve got that New York Times bestseller status,” Max said.

Levi laughed in embarrassment. “Hey, dude,” he said. “What’s up?”

“So I have a situation I’m hoping you can help me out with,” Max said. He explained what happened. “Eggs said no. I know you guys just got married, but do you think Chloe and I can crash with you?”

Levi sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Gonna have to check with the wife on that one,” he said.

“Come on,” Max said. “Just for a little while. At least until Mom changes her mind. You know she’s not gonna go anywhere with this business.” His eyebrows furrowed. In twenty years as her son, he’d never known his mother to have dreams. The mother he knew enjoyed taking care of her sons and relaxing with magazines and wine.

“Babe,” Levi called to his new wife. “Do you think my little brother can come stay with us for a bit?”

Max cringed. “Dude, don’t ask her like that. I’m not even married and I know that.”

In the background, he could hear Levi’s wife ask if he meant the little brother with the little girl.

“Yes, Max and Chloe,” Levi said.

Max held his breath. Even though Levi had just gotten married, maybe his wife was in one of those baby-making moods that women got into. Having Chloe around would cure the baby fever, at least temporarily.

“Hell no,” his sister-in-law said. “Is he crazy? I wanna have sex in my own house. I wanna walk around naked. I do not want any kids running around.”

Clearing his throat, Levi said, “Sorry, dude.” He hung up.

Max stared at his phone in disbelief. He had struck out twice in a row. Licking his lips, he continued through his contacts. There had to be someone. He couldn’t ask his two oldest brothers if he could live with them, but maybe he could ask Tristan for help finding an apartment. At the very least, when the end of the month rolled around, he wouldn’t be homeless. He could figure out rent and bills and stuff later. Maybe he could even borrow money from Levi and Xavier.

Rather than calling Tristan and going through the whole conversation all over again, he texted his oldest brother: Need your real estate agent friend’s # ASAP. He hit send and waited, tossing the phone onto his bed. He plopped into his rolling chair and turned in a slow circle.

Next to him, his phone vibrated.

He dove for it, springing onto the bed. On the display, without a single letter requesting an explanation or turning him down, was the guy’s number.

Max pumped a fist in the air and hit dial. He would show his mother that he could figure things out without her help. Even if he had to get the cheapest, crappiest apartment in town, he would prove to her that he didn’t need her or his father. She would feel stupid when she realized that her youngest son could survive on his own, and he would do it without his parents or brothers.

“Yeah,” the real estate guy said, answering on the first ring.

“Um,” Max said, his mind spinning. He squinted, lips twisting. He hadn’t thought about what he should say. Clearing his throat, he decided to drop his brother’s name first. If the guy knew who Max was, he might give him a break on rent. “I’m Tristan Batista’s brother, Max. I need an apartment as soon as possible.”

“What’s your budget?” the real estate guy asked, sounding bored.

Max glanced around his bedroom for inspiration. “Um,” he said again. “Cheap?”

“How about a three-bedroom in Brooklyn, at the bottom of Congress, for six?”

“I said ‘cheap,’ not ‘get me shot up,’” Max said. “And I only need two bedrooms. It’s just me and my daughter. What else do you have?”

“I’ve got a one-bedroom in Bradley Gardens. It’s seven-fifty. Security cameras, blah, blah, blah. It’s got a storage room that could pass as a kid’s bedroom if you don’t have DCF breathing down your neck.”

Max considered it. Levi had lived in a similar apartment, back when he was studying at the community college. Max hadn’t had to deal with his ex-girlfriend in years, and gaining custody of Chloe had been easy. Still, he wanted his daughter to have a real bedroom. He gnawed on a knuckle. “What else?” he asked.

“Behind Target. Three-bedroom. Seven-seventy-five. That’s my final offer,” the real estate guy said.

“I’ll take it,” Max said immediately. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it later. “What do you need from me?”

“Deposit. First month’s rent. I’ll kill the deposit if you pay me in cash.” The guy sounded slightly more interested than he had before.

Max glanced at the jar of bills stashed on top of his dresser. He probably had at least that much in there. He had been saving for an audio mixer, though.

He sighed. It wasn’t like he planned on having a career in music. That road, as his parents often reminded him, led nowhere. If he was going to make it on his own, he needed to start making more sacrifices for Chloe. Besides, he wasn’t good enough at music to do anything outside of what he needed to get done for school. It was time to let go of his childhood pipe dreams. He was only studying music to fulfill his elementary education degree requirement, anyway. “Okay,” he said.

“Good.” The realtor gave him the address and a time to meet, and they hung up.

Max flopped back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. The furnace kicked on again, washing the basement in blazing heat. Wiping his brow, he smiled in satisfaction. As long as he worked thirty or more hours at the music store and didn’t spend it on anything stupid, he and Chloe would be fine.

He sat up fast. His mother had also said that she couldn’t watch his daughter anymore.

Groaning, he tugged at his hair again. He needed to find someone to babysit Chloe for him while he worked and went to class, or he wouldn’t have a job—or future—at all.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

Savannah’s Song: Chapter 5

After registering Chloe for day care, Savannah had said nothing else to Max about the whole thing. Barely sleeping that night, she tossed and turned, worried that she’d just sealed her relationship’s fate. When morning came, she waited until Max left to bring Chloe to the day care, her frazzled nerves sizzling under the hot sun. She took the T home alone, and the silence was deafening.

The apartment seemed smaller without Chloe. Savannah sat on the warm couch, the TV off, a full cup of cold coffee in her hands. Biting her lip, she shifted position. Maybe it was time to get up. Without Chloe, though, she didn’t know what to do. No small hands tugged at her shirt. No chatter filled the empty spaces between her thoughts.

“It’s for the best,” she reminded herself. The ache in her heart didn’t seem so convinced.

She needed to put her free time to better use. She had never gone through anyone else’s things before. Even when she tidied up, she merely organized. Max didn’t seem bothered by it, and she could probably throw away his old ATM receipts and scribbled lyrics, but it felt wrong. It felt even more wrong to purposely dig through his belongings.

Perhaps trying to talk to him again would yield better results, especially if she straight-up asked him what was going on. Or he would yell at her some more. Maybe he would even get aggressive. The Max she fell in love with wasn’t violent, but she hardly knew who he was anymore. That Max hadn’t kept secrets, either.

His nightstand was the obvious place to start. Kneeling in front of it, she pulled on the top drawer. As if refusing to betray him, the drawer stuck fast. She yanked harder. Papers crushed against each other. She gave the nightstand a flat look, wondering when it had gotten so full.

Putting all of her strength into it, she wrenched the drawer open. A stack of papers slid into her lap. She gathered them in a rush, then hesitated. If she was going to snoop, she should go all the way.

She fanned the papers out on the floor, eyes skimming each page. Most of them were drawings by Chloe. In the bottom corner of each one, she recognized the date in her own handwriting. She grinned. There was an obvious evolution to each piece. Chloe was getting good, for a little kid. She just might take after her.

“We don’t share any DNA,” she reminded herself in Spanish. There was no way that Chloe would ever be like her. It was probably for the best. She hoped that Chloe would grow to be honest and direct, less of a coward than she was, sleuthing through her boyfriend’s drawers for answers.

The first stack of papers contained nothing else of interest. She put it to the side and reached in for another. The receipts she found were mundane, things like Big Gulp purchases and groceries. One had a phone number scrawled on it, but when she examined it closer, she remembered that it belonged to the cell phone they shared. Neither of them had been able to memorize it when they first moved to Boston, after canceling their individual, more expensive plans.

She put the papers back where she found them. Perhaps there was nothing else to find.

Or, she surmised, she was looking in the wrong place.

She returned to the living room, went to the desk, and woke up the laptop. A twinge of guilt twisted through her as she navigated to Max’s email. His password was easy to guess. Scrolling through the messages, she skimmed the subject lines. Much of it was spam. The rest were from her—reminders to pick up milk after work—or from the other members of South of Forever.

She slumped back in the chair. So far, her search had turned up nothing useful. She started to shut the computer down when a thought occurred to her.

If Max was cheating on her while he was supposedly at work, the best way to find out was to watch the studio.

She snorted, shaking her head. The idea was preposterous, and yet, it made sense. She might be turning into the obsessive, stalker girlfriend.

Rubbing at her face, she told herself that she needed to stop. Whatever was going on would reveal itself in due time. Things like that always came out, she reminded herself. Her abuela liked to say that secrets were like farts.

Savannah wished that she and her own mother were so close. Maybe, when things calmed down a bit and she had a better idea of where she would be living, she could invite her parents and older sister to visit, to try to make amends. There was no point in contacting them if Max was about to break up with her. If that happened, she would have to go back to Connecticut. Though she hated the idea of crawling back to her parents, there was no alternative.

She had nowhere else to go.

Wrenching her thoughts back into the present, she left the computer on the desk and grabbed her keys.

She wasn’t sure how much she could observe in the two hours she had before the art show began. Still, she hopped onto the T and took it over to the studio. More than ever before, she relied on her own two legs since moving to Boston. The city had a romantic, alive feel to it that no other city she ever visited had possessed.

There were plenty of cities all throughout the United States that fostered careers in the business. Something drew her and Max to Boston, though, and that had to count. They couldn’t really be at the end of their relationship. They had to grow old together, first, she mused.

Stepping off the T, she headed toward the studio. The scent of burnt coffee from a nearby stand pressed down on her. Dread pitted in her stomach. Her mind reeled. The muscles in her shoulders tensed with each step.

Stopping outside the building that housed The Den, she paused. For the first time in her life, she wished that she was a smoker. Then, at least, she would have something to do, rather than standing outside idly.

She stared at the entrance and debated whether to go inside. Doing so would put her at risk of being seen. There wasn’t much she could observe outside, though. Hoping that she wasn’t about to make yet another mistake, she slipped inside the entrance to the stage. Before heading up the stairs, she glanced around to make sure that no one from the band was around. The coast clear, she bounded up two steps at a time. When she got to the landing, she paused.

Her heart thudded in her chest.

Other musicians occupied the hall. She ducked back into the stairwell. She couldn’t tell if anyone from South of Forever was out there. If they saw her, she would have a lot to explain. Drawing a shallow breath, she crept back into the hall. Her eyes darted from face to face. None of the musicians looked familiar.

Her own heavy breathing echoed in her ears.

The room adjacent to South of Forever’s, she remembered, had a one-way window into their recording booth. It was mainly for videography purposes. Now and then, The Den was used as a space to film music videos. More than likely, the room stood empty at the moment. She tiptoed toward it as if the door was about to burst open. Putting a hand on the knob, she paused for a second. It could be locked. Muttering a silent plea, she twisted the doorknob. It turned easily. She pushed the door open.

Darkness greeted her. Letting out a sigh of relief, she eased into the room. Her heart continued to pound, her mouth dry. She used her tank top to dry her sweaty palms, then walked toward the window.

No one occupied the booth at the moment, but the door was open. She saw Jett head to head with Koty as they pored over a notebook that was full, she assumed, of lyrics for their EP. Perry leaned against the couch, an arm slung over the back, his fingers brushing against Poppy’s hair. She scooted away from him, her chest rising and falling as she sighed.

Griff joined Jett and Koty. Though Savannah couldn’t hear him or read his lips, his body language and hand gestures told her enough. Poor Perry wasn’t getting the message that Poppy was off limits.

Her view was only a fraction of the room, and it didn’t include Max. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. Spying on him was stupid, especially if she couldn’t see him.

Opening her eyes, she took a step away from the window when movement caught her eye. Max sat on the other side of the couch. Poppy turned toward him, more out of gratitude, Savannah suspected, than actual want of conversation. The booking manager’s body language was purely professional, and Max didn’t seem interested in her, either—at least, not on a physical level. He looked as if he was going to drop, though.

Dark circles wove around his bloodshot eyes like stage makeup. He pushed his hair out of his face, and Savannah made a mental note to trim those locks later. He had a notebook balanced on his lap where he scribbled something down every so often. Savannah couldn’t tell whether he was taking notes on what Poppy was saying or not. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to her, other than a polite nod every few sentences.

Deciding that she had seen enough, Savannah turned away. Max was at work, where he was supposed to be. She needed to get to the gallery, or everything that she had done to get Chloe into day care would be for nothing.

Suspicion still tugged at her, though. If he wasn’t cheating, she needed to find out what was going on.

* * *

Savannah took the T to Seven Deadly Brushes, the painting tucked under her arm. Her nerves popped and sizzled, a frazzled mess under her skin. Even with the air conditioning on the T, her hair plastered to her forehead. She looked down at her sneakers and shorts, debating whether she was underdressed for the occasion. She suddenly wished that she had thought to call her father. Despite their lack of communication, she probably could have talked him into sending her the money to order a dress with overnight shipping. Begging for their help might be a little like cheating at adulthood. Her shorts would have to do.

Before she knew it, she stood in front of the gallery. She smoothed her hair and, taking a deep breath, forced herself to go inside.

She glanced around. Zachary hadn’t told her where to go once she got there. Eyes scanning the art on the walls, she noticed all of the paintings were Latina-themed. She searched for a blank space to hang hers. There was nothing available.

As she turned to go, a hand caught her arm. She gasped as she met Zachary’s eyes. “Well, hello there.” She held out her free hand.

Instead of shaking hands, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek, his warm lips lingering. It had been a long time since someone greeted her with a kiss. His scent teased her nostrils. It was a combination of, perhaps, whatever cologne he wore and his own natural scent—spicy, matching the heat of his lips. “Glad you came,” he said. His lightweight, button-down shirt clung to corded muscles.

She indicated the full lobby. “These people are all here for your show?”

“No, beautiful. They’re all here for you.” He lifted a hand and directed her gaze to an easel standing alone in the center of the clean, brightly lit lobby.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “What’s that?”

“That,” Zachary said, “is where we’re displaying your piece.” His eyes gazed into hers. Warmth shot down into her pelvis. Her grip tightened on her painting.

“Whoa. There’s no way I can do that.” She avoided his eyes. If she looked into them too long, she feared, she would be sucked in.

He put his hand lightly on the small of her back and steered her toward the easel. “This is my gallery, and I can feature whoever I want.” He lifted the painting from her grasp and began peeling off the paper it was wrapped in. “Ladies and gentlemen.” His voice boomed above the chatter. “Welcome to Seven Deadly Brushes, where you can view and buy Latina art and, if you’re feeling crazy, get inked.”

Polite laughter rippled through the group, though no one seemed particularly interested in getting a spontaneous tattoo.

Setting her painting on the easel, Zachary stepped to the side. “Please welcome our featured artist, Savannah Santos.” The way her name rolled off his tongue made her slightly dizzy. Applause undulated through the crowd, and people pressed closer. Leaning down, Zachary whispered in Savannah’s ear. “I have to go mingle now. This is going to sell. Just stand here and chat with people. I guarantee, you’ll walk out of here with money.” He gave her another kiss and sauntered away, raising an arm in greeting to someone she couldn’t see.

Though she wanted to wrap her arms around herself, she made her hands hang limply at her side. She tried to look inviting, though she had no idea how she was supposed to do that.

“That’s beautiful.” A woman in her forties stepped closer. She pointed at the painting. “How long did it take you to paint?”

Savannah glanced at the filigreed skull eyes and the pouting lips. She returned her gaze to the woman. She thought of Chloe, of the tiny hand that was currently missing from hers. Guilt pulsed through her, but she shoved it down. She could feel guilty later. “A couple days.”

“Amazing.” The woman nudged the slightly older man who escorted her.

He nodded. His gaze drifted across the room. “Ah! Let’s go look at that one.” He led the woman away, but she winked at Savannah over his shoulder.

“You might want to start tracking your time.” A thin woman in her early thirties stood at Savannah’s elbow. She wore purple lipstick, a stark contrast to her dark skin. Her long black hair was piled in a bun, and she spoke with a light Mexican accent.

Savannah turned toward her, switching into Spanish. “¿Por qué?

“Altagracia,” the woman said, pointing to herself. She leaned in and air kissed Savannah. “I did that one over there.” She pointed to a black and white painting of a woman dancing in traditional Campeche dress, long red skirt fanning out around her.

Savannah gasped. “She’s beautiful.” She started toward the painting, a hand outstretched. She air traced the long, flat nose and round, dark eyes, picturing how the woman in the painting would look tattooed on her shoulder. Altagracia drew her back.

“To answer your question, it helps you price things better. Stick by this.” She touched Savannah’s painting. “It’s going to sell fast.” Altagracia nodded toward the crowd milling around.

Everyone kept saying that. She wanted to believe it. Savannah bounced on the balls of her feet. Anticipation thrummed through her. The second that she could get away, she was going to check out the rest of the artists. Glancing at the rest of the paintings, it seemed as if she had fallen into her own personal heaven.

“It’s true.” Altagracia patted her hand and ambled away, her black skirt swirling about her ankles as she moved.

Most people passed by, giving Savannah a smile or nod. There was no mistaking the interest in their eyes, though. She had no idea that Boston had such an affluent Latina culture. She supposed that it made sense, though. The people fleeing conditions in South and Latin American countries wanted to get as far away as possible. For a moment, she wondered how many of the artists in the room were legal American citizens. She decided that it didn’t matter. They were safe from the violent gangs, and that was all that she needed to concern herself with. She had enough worries on her list.

Still, the thought of children and their families fleeing such violence often weighed heavily on her. A young man stood in the corner in front of a scene painted on cardboard with acrylic. In the painting, a teenager lay on the ground, blood gushing from a gunshot wound in his chest, hand outstretched. In the shadows, his shooters walked away without a second glance.

The artist didn’t look a day over seventeen. With his dark skin and haunted eyes, he could easily be a refugee. The painting was probably based on a real event. She made a mental note to figure out a way to ask him without sounding insensitive. She spent so much time wrapped up in her own problems that she often forgot about the suffering in the rest of the world.

“This is gorgeous. How much is this one?”

Turning, Savannah came face to face with a man wearing a shabby suit. Glasses sat askew on top of his head, and crow’s-feet etched the corners of his eyes. She held out a hand and introduced herself.

“Derek Galloway, songwriting professor at Berklee.” He shook hands with her, his grip cool but firm. “I walked in, and your piece drew me right over.” His voice was gentle, soothing in a grandfatherly way. “I try to bring color to my office, to inspire my students. I have to have this. How much is it?”

Her mouth opened, then closed. She gasped a sharp laugh. “How much is it?” she repeated. She looked around for Altagracia, but didn’t see her. “Excuse me, one moment.” She slipped away, eyes scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Her heart pounded in her chest. Someone wanted to buy her painting.

She found Zachary first. He stood talking with a man in a crisp suit. When he saw Savannah, he put an arm around her and drew her into the conversation. “Here she is, my star artist.” He introduced the other man as an art acquisitions manager for a local museum, but Savannah barely heard his name.

“Can I steal you for a second?” She hoped that the other man wouldn’t be offended.

“Of course.” Zachary led her to a less crowded spot, a hall that appeared to connect the lobby and gallery to the tattoo parlor. “What’s up? Is everything okay?” His eyebrows knit in concern.

“Someone wants to buy my painting.” She tugged at the hem of her shorts.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Zachary hugged her with one arm, and she was once more enveloped in the heat of his scent.

She backed away. “I don’t know how much to ask for, though.”

“Ah.” He drew her farther into the hall. The voices from the lobby drifted away slightly. “Here’s my advice. You don’t want to lose them by going too high, but you don’t want to cheat yourself, either. Let them make you an offer.”

Her brow furrowed. “What if they go too low?”

Zachary snorted. “Trust me, they won’t.” He indicated the well-dressed crowd. Her glance flicked to Professor Galloway, though, eyes roving over his worn suit. He ambled toward the young man with the painting of the dying youth.

“The tragedy of this one!” Professor Galloway lifted his arms.

“Just let them make you an offer, okay?” Zachary released her and sauntered back toward the crowd. Her knees wobbled in his wake.

Tilting her head back, she closed her eyes. She needed to get a grip. It didn’t matter how chiseled his chin was, how warm his eyes were, or how solid his body appeared. But, apparently, it mattered to her body. She wished he would stop touching her. Collecting herself, she walked back into the fray.

An elderly woman with her long white hair woven into a braid tottered toward Savannah. She leaned on a cane. “Are you the artist of the two sugar skulls?” she asked in Spanish.

Savannah nodded.

“How much do you want for it?” The woman limped back toward the painting. “I want to give it to my granddaughter.”

For a moment, Savannah thought of telling her that she could have it for free. The woman’s braid reminded her of her own abuela. But she could use the money toward fall and winter clothing for Chloe. She took a deep breath. “It’s up for negotiation,” she said, keeping her voice light. Her heart thundered in her chest.

“How about a thousand?” The old woman’s eyes glinted.

Savannah’s own eyes widened. “As in, a thousand dollars?”

“Or $1,500?” The woman swung her braid over her shoulder. It trailed down her back. Gnarled hands gripped her cane.

Savannah shook her head. “No, a thousand is fine.” Her voice came out in a squeak.

“Sold. I’ll go see Zachary.” The woman tottered away. “Don’t you go double-crossing me, selling to anyone else while I turtle my way over there,” she called over her shoulder.

Savannah looked for something to lean against. Her legs felt like jelly. She wanted to laugh. Blinking in disbelief, she glanced around the room. The youth in the corner shook hands with Professor Galloway. It was a firm sold handshake. Altagracia threw another number at the art museum’s acquisitions manager. He nodded. All around her, the other artists haggled with buyers. She watched as various forms of signs went up on paintings, marking them as sold. She wished she had thought to bring her own.

A short time later, she walked out of the gallery with $850 in her pocket. Humming to herself, she hopped onto the T. She couldn’t wait to tell Max.

Savannah’s forever has a secret that could destroy them—and the band.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

Savannah’s Song, Book 2 in the South of Forever series, is now available.

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Savannah’s Song: Chapter 4

The front door opened and Max shuffled in, hair disheveled. Her fingers twitched with the desire to run her hands through that hair, to try to tame it. Part of her wanted to know why he was home from his paper route later than usual, though.

Shoving her questions down, she wiggled the phone at him. “Guess who just called me?” Her lips broke into a wide grin.

Lifting a shoulder, he ambled past her toward the coffee pot on the counter.

Grabbing Chloe’s breakfast, she moved to the side so he could make his coffee. Savannah put the fruit and waffles in front of the little girl and practically danced to the refrigerator. “I submitted one of my paintings to a gallery.” She leaned toward Max, hands clasped, ready for his reaction.

He measured coffee grounds, his back to her.

Face falling, she inched closer until she stood next to him. “Did you hear me, papi?”

“So?” He turned the coffee pot on and reached for a mug amidst the dishes drying in the drain.

“I got in.” She waited for understanding to dawn on his face. It didn’t. Rocking back on her heels, she mumbled in Spanish to herself about how men were so oblivious to everything. “They’re going to sell it, for money. My art is being displayed to people!” There. Sometimes, she had to break things down for him. Men and women truly lived on different planets.

He gave her a nod and headed for the refrigerator.

“That’s it?” She lurched into his path. “You’re not going to congratulate me?”

His eyebrows knit together. “Why?”

She shook her head and moved to the side. “Never mind.” As he opened the refrigerator door and grabbed the half and half, she tried again, from a different angle. “Mira, the showing’s gonna be early in the day. I kinda have to show up. I was thinking, maybe we could enroll Chloe in a day care. Maybe I could start painting again, a couple hours a day.”

Max slowly turned to look at her. The half-gallon of creamer slipped from his grasp. It crashed to the floor, splashing against the cabinets and Savannah’s feet. “Day care?”

Grabbing the dish towel, she knelt to sop up the mess. “Yeah. Probably just one of the ones where they socialize, you know? Not one of the accredited ones.” She steeled herself for the argument. She knew they couldn’t afford childcare for the whole day, but if she could bring Chloe just a couple of times a week, it would be the perfect compromise.

“Are you serious?” He crossed his arms.

He glared down at her. She grimaced. “Do you want me to say I was kidding?” Meeting his eyes, she smiled. “Just think about it. I know we don’t have the money, but—”

“You want to just dump my kid with strangers?” His words cut into her like shrapnel. At the table, Chloe burst into tears at her father’s sharp tone. Max never yelled.

Lifting Chloe from her seat, Savannah rocked her back and forth. She shot Max a glare. “It’ll only be a few hours a week. Besides, the interaction with other kids her age will be good for her.”

Will be?” Max’s hands balled into fists.

Ignoring him, Savannah brought Chloe into the living room. The little girl’s favorite cartoons were on. Reaching for the remote, Savannah turned the volume up. Max followed her, though, and she sighed. So much for drawing attention away from their fight.

“You’re not putting my kid into some kind of baby farm.” He pointed a finger at her.

Taking a deep breath, she moved back into the kitchen, hoping that he’d follow. He stomped behind her, and when she turned, he looked even bigger than usual. Huffing, he reminded her of the Hulk. She took a step back, eyes darting for a way around him—just in case. Lifting a hand, she searched for a way to calm him down. “I’m just trying to make us all happy.”

“So you’re not happy?” He bristled and appeared to grow another few inches.

She rubbed her temples. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Glancing at the clock, she tried to change the subject. “Aren’t you going to be late?”

Max looked at the clock, too. Deflating, he nodded. “I had to cover someone else’s route on top of mine, and I got lost.” Stepping over the still-wet spot on the floor, he grabbed the pot of coffee and poured it into a thermos. Spinning away from her, he moved into the living room. He kissed Chloe’s forehead. She looked up at him, cheeks still wet. He turned away. Without another word, he left.

Blinking back tears, Savannah sank to the floor. The Max she knew rarely even raised his voice. If Chloe did something he didn’t like, he merely redirected her. She had never seen him angry, never been afraid of him. She pressed a hand to her lips. Both of her hands shook. Forcing her shaking legs to still, she stood. She needed to figure out what was going on with him. There was no way she could live in a home with so much negative energy swirling around.

Her gaze landed on the cell phone on the counter. She bit her lip. Arguing with Max was one thing. Going behind his back was another thing entirely. Though she would never let him run her life like she was some kind of Stepford robot, she hated to break his trust. When it came down to it, he had a certain parenting style, and she usually didn’t try to undermine him or work against him in any way. He relied on her to take care of his daughter.

She sighed. Missing the gallery wouldn’t kill her, but it would probably hurt her chances of selling the painting. It wasn’t as if she didn’t trust the little girl to behave. No matter how good she normally was, though, Chloe was only four. She had her moments. It could be embarrassing.

She reached for the phone. All she had to do was email Zachary. She could figure out the rest later.

Hands shaking, she opened up the email application. She started to type out a message, then deleted it.

She couldn’t do it, even if it meant giving up her dream. Chloe and Max were her dream instead. They had to be.

She put the phone down on the table and made herself walk away.

In the living room, Chloe sat in front of the television.

“Hey, baby girl, let’s go to the park. Come on, let’s get you dressed.”

Chloe ignored her, her eyes fixated on the screen.

Savannah chewed on the inside of her cheek. “Chloe.” She made her voice slightly sterner and marched across the living room. “Come on, cutie.” Even as Savannah plucked her from the floor, Chloe’s eyes remained on her cartoon.

Pausing, Savannah watched the characters. There didn’t seem to be a plot, and the things they said hardly made sense. When they did say something logical, it was completely inappropriate for a four-year-old.

She put Chloe down, her mind made up.

In several long strides, she was back in the kitchen. She retrieved the phone from the counter and opened the email app again. Taking a deep breath, she sent Zachary a simple message: I’ll be there. Then, closing her eyes and hoping she wouldn’t regret it, she pressed send.

When she opened her eyes, she wished she could take it back. She could only move forward, though.

Squaring her shoulders, she went into her and Max’s bedroom. Throwing open the closet door, she searched for the box that contained all of their personal records. Max hadn’t done much to organize anything back in Waterbury. When they moved to Boston, the first thing she did was bring order to the mess.

She found the box underneath a box of winter clothing. She hoped she wouldn’t regret her next move.

She tucked Chloe’s folder underneath her arm and pushed everything else back into the closet.

“There’s no going back, girl,” she told herself in Spanish. Her grandmother would say that she needed to give it to God. Savannah couldn’t remember ever believing in a higher power, but she could believe in herself. Still, she whispered the phrase her abuela often used. “Vaya con dios.” She suspected that her abuela was actually referencing an old Western, but Savannah liked to think she had been as pious as she always claimed to be.

She dressed quickly then, in the living room, tugged clothing onto Chloe.

“Wanna go to school?” she asked Chloe.

The little girl’s eyes lit up. “School? Like, where you play?”

“Basically.” Savannah held out her hand. “Come on. Let’s go sign you up.” She just hoped that, when the time came to explain, Max would understand.

Savannah’s forever has a secret that could destroy them—and the band.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4

Savannah’s Song, Book 2 in the South of Forever series, is now available.

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Savannah’s Song: Chapter 3

A groan rippled across the apartment. Savannah sat at the desk in the living room, her chin cupped in her hand. A yawn escaped her lips as she strained to listen for further movement. When no other sound reached her ears, she decided that it was probably just the building settling—or her imagination. With Chloe finally in bed and Max still at work, the house felt eerily silent. Plus, the late hour didn’t help.

She focused on the computer again. A web page displaying samples of logo designs sat open on the screen. She scrolled through, studying each piece. She figured that if she looked at enough examples, she would eventually come up with an idea for South of Forever’s logo. So far, all she had accomplished was keeping one eye open while her body grew more exhausted.

Instead of taking a nap, Chloe had spent an hour throwing a tantrum on the living room floor. Gazing at the screen with bleary eyes, Savannah resisted the urge to look up parenting blogs. Whatever was making Chloe boycott naps was probably normal. Besides, she needed to focus.

She eyed the kitchen through the pass-through and chewed the inside of her cheek. Maybe a cup of cocoa would energize her enough to get through the next couple of hours. Pushing back her chair, she padded into the kitchen and retrieved a pan from a cabinet. Within a few minutes, the scent of cocoa permeated the air. She poured it into a tall mug.

Carrying her drink back into the living room, she switched on a lamp. Max didn’t need to come into a dark house.

She set the mug down on the desk next to the computer and slid back into her seat. As she sat, something poked her bottom. Frowning, she lifted up and examined the chair. No stray screws protruded from the fabric. She slid a hand along the fabric of her shorts. Her fingers brushed something. Shaking her head at herself, she dipped her fingers into her pocket and withdrew the crumpled business card.

Smoothing it out, she leaned closer to read the small text. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she replayed her meeting with Zachary. She reached for the keyboard to look up Seven Deadly Brushes. From what the business card said, it seemed as though Zachary’s tattoo shop was also a gallery.

The home page proclaimed that they were taking submissions for their gallery. She wondered if Zachary actually had any staff, or if “they” stood for just him. Maybe he was hiring. She scrolled through the page, skimming the entry requirements. All someone had to do was email a photo of the painting they wanted to include in the exhibit. There wasn’t even an entry fee. She could submit one of her skull paintings.

Rolling her eyes at herself, she shook her head. She had no business submitting her work to any gallery. Nowhere near professional level, she would only be disappointed when she was rejected—or when she didn’t hear back from the gallery at all.

Still, her fingers itched to peel off the paper she had wrapped her paintings in. Something had to be worth submitting. Even if she never heard back, she had to try.

Shrugging, she reached for the cell phone that she and Max shared, then darted into their bedroom.

She slid open the closet door and pulled out a large wrapped canvas. Her fingers danced back and forth as she unwrapped the painting. By the time she finished, sweat beaded her hairline. Without air conditioning, the apartment was hot—and she’d just been drinking cocoa.

Three sugar skulls painted in vibrant pink, green, and purple stared back at her, surrounded by bright orange marigolds. She moved the phone around until the entire painting was in the frame. Then, before she could think about what she was doing, she pressed the button to take the picture.

She re-wrapped the painting and slid it back into its place behind her and Max’s clothing. A sigh escaped her lips. Her fingers twitched with the urge to pull out the last canvas she had worked on—a painting of Max that she had yet to finish.

Tapping a key, she woke up the computer, then connected the phone into the USB port. When the screen popped up asking if she would like to import the photo, she clicked yes and went back to Seven Deadly Brushes’s website.

Filling out their form, she uploaded the photo. Then, before she could change her mind, she pressed the send button. It zipped off into cyberspace to Zachary’s inbox. She wiped her sweaty palms on her T-shirt.

“And then right to his trash,” she muttered. Unplugging the phone, she deleted the photo. Her eyes swept toward the time on the display. Grimacing, she shut down the computer. She had spent far too much time on the gallery’s website. Steam no longer rose from her mug of cocoa. It was just as well.

She wondered what life would be like if she had finished college and started her own freelance design business. While she had never considered graphic design, she could have fallen in love with it, if she had given herself the chance. Instead, she had wasted her art history and English courses sketching rather than taking notes. She had seen the college’s required courses as a waste of time and wanted to spend more time on her actual major, and had paid the price.

Taking a deep breath, she walked back to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. It was time to stop dwelling in the past, especially when she had such a beautiful family. Given some time, maybe she could talk Max into having a baby of their own. Even though he didn’t make much money, they were relatively settled. Chloe would love being a big sister.

She pulled off her clothes and tossed them into the hamper. A satisfied sigh escaped her as the satin sheets enveloped her naked body.

The front door swung open, the creak groaning across the apartment. Max moved through the short hallway and into the living room. Imagining him weaving around their furniture, she propped her chin in her hands and prepared herself.

The door to their bedroom inched open. Max eased inside, probably because he thought she was already asleep.

“Hey,” she whispered.

Light from the street spilled into the room from between the blinds. As Max’s eyes adjusted to the dim room, his mouth dropped open. She rolled onto her side, exposing her breasts. He yanked his shirt over his head as he crossed the room. Kicking off his shoes, he joined her in bed.

The scent of his cologne hit her a second before his lips crushed to hers, his fingers tangling in her hair. Using his free hand, he cupped her breast, thumb roving over her nipple until it hardened. His other hand moved to stroke the back of her neck. She gasped, and he took advantage of the opportunity. His tongue flicked into her mouth, caressing hers. She pressed her body against his, feeling his erection against her thigh. Fingers trailed his chest, pausing at the waistband of his jeans. He kissed her harder.

She unbuttoned his jeans and dipped her hands into his boxers. She stroked the velvety skin of his head, drawing him out of his pants. He exhaled sharply into her ear, and her skin tingled. Finally, the moment she had been waiting so long for was about to arrive. Scooting to the side, she pulled him toward her with one hand. With her other hand, she helped him shed his pants. He kicked them off.

Grinning, she pressed him against her. His teeth nibbled at her earlobe. His fingers stroked the back of her head, tangling in her hair again. The slight pull only turned her on more. She arched her hips and thrust until he was inside of her. Adrenaline shot through her body, erasing the long day and her worries. Moving against him, she put her hands on his shoulders, and frowned.

He balanced on an elbow, eyes closed. For a moment, she thought he may just be savoring the moment. When his eyes remained closed, though, she stopped moving. He sagged to the side, slumping into a pile of pillows. Her jaw dropped. He had never fallen asleep during sex. Despite their recent dry spell, they joked all the time that it was their favorite pastime. Savannah turned onto her side and poked him hard in the chest. A soft snore rippled from his nostrils.

Shaking her head, she scooted down, intending to entice him into further activities. She cupped him in her hand, then frowned. He was already going soft.

Gritting her teeth, she glanced at the time. It was just as well. She needed to be up soon with Chloe, and he needed to rise early to deliver more newspapers. Curling up on her side next to him, she kissed his cheek, the stubble on his face prickly against her lips. The beard was new, too. She closed her eyes and waited for sleep to come.

It didn’t.

Thoughts swirled through the darkness, diving into her mind. Perhaps he wasn’t interested anymore. Maybe, she supposed, there really was someone else. Poppy hadn’t seemed interested, but he still technically had time after practice for a quickie with someone else.

Savannah’s eyes flew open.

If that was the case, she should hardly be worrying about designing something for his band. He didn’t deserve it.

Hugging a pillow to her chest, she turned away from him, tears slipping from her eyes.

* * *

Sunlight streamed into the kitchen. Chloe stared through the pass-through, transfixed by her cartoon in the living room. Standing at the counter, Savannah sliced a banana, arranging it next to Chloe’s mini waffles. If all the kid was going to eat was carbs and sugar, she was going to sneak something healthy into her diet.

As she dropped the knife into the sink, the cell phone vibrated against the counter. She didn’t recognize the phone number. She almost let it go to voicemail—she didn’t want to waste their minutes on a telemarketer—when she realized that it was a Boston area code. Her heart skipped a beat.

Taking the call, she pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Is this Savannah Santos?” a smooth, masculine voice asked. He sounded familiar.

Her jaw dropped. Her mind went blank as she realized who she was talking to.


Shaking her head at herself, she gathered her thoughts. “Yes,” she said. “This is Savannah.”

He chuckled. “Good, because I was going to be embarrassed if I called the wrong person.”

She laughed, too, though she wasn’t sure why.

“I think we met in the grocery store yesterday,” he continued.

His confidence only sped up her heart rate. “Sorry,” she feigned. “I meet lots of guys when I’m shopping for milk. Which one are you again?”

“I’m the one who’s going to make you a lot of money.” He paused. Heat enveloped her face. The phone nearly slipped out of her grasp. She wiped her hands on her pajamas. “I like your submission,” Zachary said.

“Oh?” She leaned against the counter, urging her heart to stop its galloping.

“It’s amazing. The color, the detail—I think it would be a great fit for Seven Brushes and what I’m trying to do. And I’m going to sell it for you, get your name out there.”

“You’re awfully certain of that, papi.” The term of endearment flew out of her mouth before she realized it. Clearing her throat, she forced her next words to come out quickly. “How can you sell it?”

“All you need to do, baby girl, is show up. I’m opening the exhibit at noon tomorrow. Just come, bring some business cards, if you have them. If you don’t, you’re going to be kicking yourself.”

She barely heard him. There was no way that she could go to a gallery smack in the middle of the day—not with Chloe underfoot. For a four-year-old, Max’s daughter was really well-behaved, but a gallery was no place for her.

“So I’ll see you tomorrow?” Zachary asked.

Hesitating, Savannah glanced at Chloe. She could probably figure out something. “Totally,” she said finally. She considered her options. “I mean, would it be okay to hang the painting and leave, if all else fails?”

“Of course.” The smile in his voice shot heat into her pelvis. He switched to Spanish. “It’s your painting, Savannah. I’m just here to help you succeed.” The way the words rolled off his tongue made her sag against the counter.

She had to get herself under control. Just because she was sexually deprived didn’t give her an excuse to go all loose-limbed whenever he spoke. She cleared her throat and forced herself to respond in English. “I’ll email you.” Her voice came out husky, thick with lust. Heat blazed across her cheeks. She turned on the faucet in the kitchen sink and grabbed a towel.

“I’m going to sell that painting within the first hour, Savannah,” he said.

She wet the towel and pressed it to the back of her neck. “Sure.” She nodded, her resolve strengthening. “I’ll see you there.” Then she hung up before he could say anything else—or entice her any further. She dropped the phone and leaned over the counter, the dish towel cold against the back of her neck. She needed to get a grip. She also needed to get laid, and soon.

Her mind flashed to the night before. It wasn’t like Max to fall asleep like that, she thought, but she would turn it around. She had to.

Savannah’s forever has a secret that could destroy them—and the band.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4

Savannah’s Song, Book 2 in the South of Forever series, is now available.

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