Single Dad's Loss
After working for a moving company for two years, I would think I’d be less exhausted, but no such luck. I stood under the shower spray, the water hot, yet not doing anything to ease the tension in my shoulders. For some reason, I’d been thinking about Katie, the hot nurse from Eden Community Hospital, all day, and it had me hard in an instant.
We’d hung out a couple times when her friends and mine happened to be at the same bar, but she was so out of my league, I never dared ask her out.
Not to mention her work schedule was crazy. She worked the maternity ward, and although our town didn’t have birth rates the likes of Ashton Community, I knew she was busy, and even in a small town, things could go wrong during childbirth.
I shook my head, then scrubbed soap over my arms, feeling as if dust and sweat had given me a new layer of skin. I shouldn’t be thinking of complications when my best friend, Leah, was so close to delivery. She had another nine days to go, and since the guy who’d gotten her pregnant had run, I was something like a stand-in boyfriend—minus all the kissing and cuddling.
She’d been my best friend since I could remember, but never once had I been attracted to her in that way. She was cute, with her red hair and freckles, but I felt like she was my little sister.
Granted, we’d been each other’s firsts in a lot of ways, but that had been convenience, nothing more.
People didn’t believe me when I said we were just friends, but I didn’t care.
Turning off the water, I wished I had plans for this nice Saturday night, but I didn’t. I considered turning on the computer and playing some video games, but I felt restless.
Leah was out with her mom. I’d promised I wouldn’t text because each and every time I did, her mother asked her why she and I couldn’t get married, couldn’t be together. Well, we both knew it just wouldn’t work out.
Okay, it would, but that didn’t mean we would be happy.
Not that my last relationship had done that, either. Or the one before. I wasn’t very lucky in picking them, which was another reason I didn’t ask Katie out.
After drying myself, I walked out of the bathroom, padded into my bedroom and over the dark floor to the wardrobe, grabbing some sweatpants before searching for my phone. I had Katie’s number and was tempted to call her. I had no idea where the urge came from, but she’d been on my mind today more than any other day.
Her chestnut hair, hazel eyes… I knew how she looked in scrubs, how she could rock the little black dress. Besides that, I didn’t know much about her. I wanted to, but… Yeah, I wasn’t very good at bar talk…or talk, in general.
Thunder made me look up from my phone. I walked over to the window, seeing the sky covered in heavy clouds, lighting zapping across it as if Zeus had something to prove.
Jesus, I hadn’t even known there was a storm rolling in. It made me worry about my neighbor’s balcony. Her flower pots usually didn’t fare well during heavy wind, and she was too old and fragile to bring them inside. I grabbed a shirt, picking a black one so it wouldn’t get see-through if it started raining, then made my way downstairs.
My house was small with a tiny kitchen, small living room, and only my bedroom and bathroom upstairs, but I’d wanted it from the moment I’d walked in. I assumed it used to be a garden house that had been remodeled when my neighbor’s husband died, but I didn’t care. I rented it for cheap, and she knew she had someone nearby to help her.
Her son dropped by regularly to give me money because he knew I shopped for her more often than not.
Right after I made sure all my windows were closed, rain started coming down…hard. It pelted against the windows and the tin roof, making me wish summer wasn’t almost over. It was going to be cold in the mornings, and I wasn’t eager to turn on the heat just yet.
Over the rumbling thunder, I almost missed the sound of the doorbell.
“I’m coming!” I called over the loud rumble, thinking it had to be Mrs. Eason from next door. When I opened the door, I found Katie standing there, absolutely drenched. I saw her holding something, but urged her inside before trying to analyze it.
She stood in my entryway, dripping onto my tile, rivers of water running from her jacket.
Holy shit. Katie Pearson was in my house and I had no idea why.
* * *
I pressed Cory’s body closer to mine, hoping the little boy wasn’t soaked, as I turned back to Hayden Park. I had a crush on him since I’d first seen him at the bar, talking to Leah, but since my life consisted of nothing but work, I didn’t make a move.
Tonight, though, I had to be here. God, I didn’t know how I was going to say any of what I needed to.
He was handsome, his dark hair, dark eyes, those dimples, the constant scruff, but it was nothing compared to the tattoos peeking from the sleeves of his shirt, teasing me, tempting me—distracting me.
“I—” he started, interrupted by the doorbell.
Damn, I missed my opportunity.
“Before you open it, Hayden, there’s something you need to know,” I said, wondering if he’d hesitate to let the person in, but I should’ve known better.
He wasn’t that impolite, especially during a storm. I couldn’t help but think he’d soon wish he hadn’t opened the door, both to the woman standing there now and me.
“Mr. Park?” the social worker asked. He nodded and stepped aside, letting her in. We’d only gone from her car—she still needed to gather papers, so I walked up to the door first—up the drive, yet we were both soaked.
“Please, let me tell him,” I begged, wondering if maybe we should move from the hallway, but Hayden just shook his head.
“Let me get you both towels and at least a dry hoodie so you won’t catch a cold. I’ll be right back. Take off as much of the wet clothing as you can. After we get you dry, we’ll talk.”
I couldn’t believe he was so calm with two women he basically didn’t know standing in his house on a stormy Saturday night, but it made me admire the man he clearly was.
Once he came back with the towels and hoodies, he held them out, then looked at me, eyebrows furrowed. “Need me to take…” He nodded toward the bundle in my arms. I exchanged a glance with the social worker, then nodded.
“Please. His name is Cory…” And you’ll either hate him or love him.
Hayden took him in his arms. While I dried off, I kept my eyes on him. He shifted Cory until he could see the little boy’s face, then checked him, touching his tummy and legs. “Hey there, Cory. At least you stayed dry,” he cooed. I felt my heart break.
Slipping off the jacket and drawing my shirt over my head—Hayden was too distracted with the baby to notice me standing next to him half-naked—I pulled on his hoodie and reveled in the warmth. I hadn’t even realized how cold I was.
“I’m Candice McCoy, Mr. Park. Your social worker. Maybe we should go sit down.”
Hayden lifted his eyes from the baby, blinking slowly. “My social worker?” he repeated.
I stepped toward him, placing my hand on his arm. The muscle underneath my fingers jumped, as if he were surprised I’d touched him. I wanted to cry for him. He was oblivious to everything, and I knew his life would change the moment Candice McCoy said what she wanted to say.
“Living room?” I asked. He met my eyes, then nodded, confusion clear on his handsome face.
He led us into a cozy living room with small bookshelves, a huge flat-screen TV mounted to the wall, a couch, and a love seat. When he sat on the couch, Cory in his arms, I sat next to him.
I was tempted to take the boy from him, but figured maybe it was better if he had something to hold onto.
Instead, I grasped his free hand, entwining our fingers. Hayden stared at the connection for a long moment, then gritted his teeth.
“Okay. Something’s obviously very wrong, so someone better start talking. Now.”
The moment he demanded words, I suddenly had none left.
* * *
A social worker and a nurse walked into a house…
It started out as a joke, but ended as my worst nightmare.
Mrs. McCoy cleared her throat. “Two days ago, Leah Rogers was admitted to the hospital and gave birth. She had some internal bleeding that couldn’t be stopped. I’m sorry, but she passed away.” She nodded at the bundle in my arms. “Cory, her son, is perfectly healthy. His Apgar score was absolutely normal. He’s strong, beautiful, and always hungry. However—”
It took a second for what she said to register. Leah passed away…
My gaze snapped to Katie, who squeezed my hand. “My… My best friend is dead? I texted her just two days ago. She said her parents were coming and… and…” I had texted her in the morning that day, so when exactly had everything gone to shit? And why hadn’t she messaged me? Asked me to be there? “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I promised her I’d be there during the birth. I…” No. No.
I glanced down at the baby in my arms, who stared at me. His eyes were the same blue his mother had, the soft hair on his head being too dark to say either way.
“Her mother insisted Leah wouldn’t touch her cell phone. Everything looked normal when she was admitted. If I had known you weren’t informed, I’d have called you. I know how close you two were,” Katie whispered in a pacifying tone, trying to calm me down. However, I was furious and heartbroken at the same time.
I gently handed the boy to Katie, then got up. “I’ll be right back,” I announced, storming up the stairs and into my bedroom. Growling, I kicked the bed. It wasn’t possible.
I turned, finding Katie standing in the doorway. Her hazel eyes swam with tears, and I wondered whom she was crying for. Even though they went to school together, Leah and she hadn’t been close, yet here we were.
“Listen to what? Huh? Her parents hated me because I refused to marry her. They thought it would’ve been for the best after she became pregnant. They even thought I had fathered that child. I—”
“Leah put you down as the dad, Hayden.”
I blinked in shock. “What?”
My world started tilting, the floor moving. Impossible. I knew I wasn’t the father. Hell, Leah did, too. The asshole she’d been with had walked away after that first night, and she had no idea how to get in touch with him.
Not that she had cared to.
“Sit,” Katie said, her hand on my arm.
I let her pull me over to the bed. She was small compared to me, coming to just inches under my chin, yet I let her push me around because I had no strength left.
She vanished, returning a moment later with a glass of water. “Drink.”
“You’re bossy,” I commented, my tone hollow. I took a long sip while she crouched in front of me, her arms on my knees.
“Listen to me. She clearly wanted you to have that baby. If you refuse, they’ll still make you pay child support until you prove he’s not yours, which will cost you thousands and thousands of dollars. However, since you’re listed as the father, you’re the only one who’ll get him before he goes into foster care.”
My mind knew what that meant, but my body still refused to entertain the idea. My heart raced with panic.
“I cannot raise a child, Katie.” I spread my arms. “I don’t even have the space. He’s not mine. This… I…”
She stood, her hands framing my face so I had to look at her. “Breathe, Hayden. In. Out. In. Out.” I followed her instructions until the panic subsided slightly, blowing out a breath. “Okay. Listen to me. You’ll regret not taking that child. If you refuse, Leah’s parents won’t be able to get the boy for months. Even then, it’s not a guarantee. I know it’s a huge responsibility, and it’ll change your life, but you can do it. I know you can. Leah knew you could. So go down there, talk to that woman, then we’ll deal with everything else. I’m here. I was there when Leah…when…” She took a deep breath. “When the doc pronounced her dead, I took off because…”
She stumbled over her words. I cupped her chin, making her meet my eyes. “Because?”
“I knew Leah was your best friend and would want someone to help you with the loss and the child. I don’t know… It just feels right, so if you want it, need it, I’ll be here for a couple days to help you.”
I blinked. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Like I said, it feels like the right thing to do.”
I closed my eyes for a long moment, then pushed to my feet. “Fine. Let’s talk to the social worker and get her out of the house, then…”
Yeah, I didn’t know what would come next, but the mind had a way of making the body work on autopilot, and that was really all I needed at the moment.