Excerpt: The Dating Dilemma
Book 1: The Sweet Spot Series
“Nice view.” A male voice from behind her penetrated her scattered brain.
Darcy Jenkins stilled in her hunched-over position, mauled papers clutched in her right hand, her too heavy bag she used for her paperwork, half upended, in her left hand. Glancing down, she realized her feet in pink three-inch heels were splayed apart, toes pointed inward, her knees met in the middle, and her once cute charcoal gray business suit was hitched up to just below her butt cheeks.
“Oh crap,” she whispered, heat whooshing up her neck and into her face like kerosene dumped on a flame.
“Can I help?”
“Nope. Got it.” Go away! Now!
“Yep, you’ve got it alright,” he mumbled under his breath.
She peeked over her shoulder. Her gaze met his impressive wide chest. White shirt, nice burgundy silk tie, and black suit…Slowly, she looked up and encountered his green eyes. On the way, she noted the square jaw, outdoorsy look, the impression of reddish-brown hair. “Hi.” How to look like an idiot in front of a cute guy, well, ruggedly handsome guy.
“As much as I like this, I have to insist on helping you.” He nodded to the mess strewn about her feet. “Rough day at the office, dear?”
Her knees actually wobbled as she rose. From the strain, silly. Nothing more. She let out a nervous giggle. “You could say that, honey.” Turning toward him, she couldn’t brace herself for the full impact of the man. Whoosh! Hot!Little butterflies buzzed in her veins and fluttered in her belly.
Someone came in the glass doors of the community center. “Excuse me,” the sixtyish-year-old woman bellowed. “I’m late here.”
“My bad.” The man held up his hands and easily moved to the side of the small foyer.
Miss Permanently Marked With A Scowl shot Darcy a scathing look and stepped on her papers as she walked into the building. Dirty shoeprints remained on half a dozen once crisp white pages.
“Thanks for helping,” the man called out. A loud humph came from the woman fleeing down the hallway. “She’s a real gem, isn’t she? Must be a hot date.”
Shaking her head, Darcy smiled. A sense of humor. How rare!
In the next few minutes, he bent beside her, scooped up the wayward forms, and helped her tidy them before sliding them back in her oversized bag.
Being this close, nearly touching knees—there’s those pesky knees again—Darcy became highly aware of the man and his every movement. The subtle hint of his cologne tickled her senses and the brush of his hand had her nerves tingling.
“Do you come here often?” The grin in his voice made her smile.
“First time. You?” Who was this man?
“Mine, too. Either you could say I’m a virgin or a rookie.”
She heard her neck snap as she jerked her gaze to his. The twinkle in his green eyes melted her bones into a big puddle. “Virgin, huh?” Yep, she went there. She allowed her gaze to travel over him. As if this guy couldn’t get a lady. He probably had them at his feet. Ouch, like you, right now.
With her papers safely tucked away and her bag intact again, he touched her elbow, helping her stand. Branded a fool. The line went through her muddled mind as warmth spread up her arm.
“And you?” he baited.
“Rookie all the way.” She swallowed hard. “Thanks. I owe you.” Darcy turned to leave, giving him a little wave. A wave? Really? What, are you in high school again?
“You can pay me back anytime.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” With reluctance, she turned and forced herself to put one foot in front of the other to get to her meeting.
“Thanks for the view. And you’re welcome.”
Her grin grew. “Thanks, honey. See you at home.” A wave of awe rushed through her. She hadn’t flirted in more than a year, well, even longer. Her ex-husband would certainly agree to that.
The guy’s chuckle followed her down the hall and lingered in her head.
God, he was so different than Ted.
Her ex was her ex for a good reason. College sweethearts, they’d ended up getting pregnant in her junior year. He was all for taking responsibility. Great! But his serious nature took the excitement out of her.
He worked two jobs and finished college. His idea of a night out was at the library studying the many how-to guides on expecting a baby and raising a child. There was no veering off the course or the “expert’s” advice. Ugh!
Emotion? The guy didn’t know the meaning of the word. Loving? He was a Type A personality and had to get the job done. He had a list and checked it off at the end of the day in his three-inch thick planner and in the app on his cell phone. A joke? The man couldn’t even laugh, not a full-out deep belly laugh. A grin? It would crack his stony expression.
“Eleven years? And I still would have carried on…” Darcy muttered as she arrived at her meeting room. “If only I hadn’t have heard him tell our daughter how he really felt. Seriously? You tell an eleven going on twelve-year-old girl you never loved her mother and never would?”
Another wave of shock hurled through her at that memory of walking in on them at the kitchen table. Her daughter’s pleas and soft cries wrenched her soul more than his agonizing declaration wounded her heart.
Couldn’t he see how much damage he’d inflicted that night and since? Oh, he delivered his support check on time every month like clockwork, did the obligatory asking their daughter how she was doing, and, once satisfied with the one-syllable answers, he’d depart to get back to his demanding corporate executive job. He was too busy to be a real dad. Too busy to give a damn that his daughter cried herself to sleep every night and ached for a father.
Memories of her doing the same when her own dad’s sales job took him away for weeks at a time rushed back to Darcy now, like a flash of pain, razor-sharp and quick, striking the broken pieces.
She’d do anything for her daughter now more than ever.
Darcy sucked in a sharp breath, grabbed the doorknob, twisted it, and yanked the door open.
Why else would she ever dare to attend a Single Parents meeting? And why else was she looking for a replacement husband and father?
Benjamin Evans whistled softly. “Okay, what just happened? You didn’t even get her number.” Of all the women who he’d encountered over his life, this one rattled his senses the most. Even more than when he’d met his wife. Ben winced at that acknowledgement.
Avoid that topic.
“Focus.” The woman’s image blasted him again. Five five, five eight with the heels, on the thin side, long blonde hair, heady perfume-lemony and flowers, and an unbelievable perfect butt.
Hot! Incredibly sexy legs—from the back as well as the front.
Trying to shake free of the whirlwind impression, he reminded himself of a few things.
He didn’t want to feel anything. Numb was the best condition to remain in. But his doctor’s mind prodded him to follow his own advice to his mourning patients. Get on with your life. Live your life, fully. Your loved one wouldn’t want you to wallow in grief.
Too bad they reminded him on an ongoing basis, especially Mrs. Sweeny this morning. She shoved the flyer at him, making him read it. “If I can do it, so can you.”
To see how she’d transformed over the years amazed him. Her husband and she were patients of Ben’s for years. Their fifty-year love story was legendary at his office. Then Abe got sick. The test results were hard to grasp. The day Ben broke the news, they sat huddled together and cried, he right along with the lovely couple.
They cheered him up, assuring him everything would be all right.
Devotion to each other followed. They wanted him to speak at the service. He still choked up every time he recalled those moments.
The legacy lived through Alice. After a time, she pressed on. Even dating. Now, approaching eighty and coping with an adult handicapped daughter, she’d founded this program and threatened him if he didn’t show up tonight.
She’d used his greatest weakness. “For the twins. Do it for them. They should know their daddy loved their mommy enough to fulfill his promise to her. Love again.”
Knife to the heart. Again.
He straightened his tie as he marched down the hallway, as if it would protect him like armor going into battle. “Maybe worse.”
Rounding the corner, he checked the room numbers. Not here. “Can I go home now?” He went back the way he’d come and stopped short. There was that damn flyer taped to one of the doors.
Something big and hard dropped to the pit of his belly.
Before he could turn tail, Ben reached out, opened the door, and entered the battle.
Maybe a half-dozen others were already there, some seated in the circle of chairs, some getting coffee and refreshments at a nearby table.
“Where is she?” He scanned the room and found Mrs. Sweeny near the front, chirping like a little bird to an elderly man. Ben smiled at her and waved.
She cried out in delight, excused herself and rushed to him. Once near, she hugged him tight. “I’m so glad you finally got some sense in that thick skull of yours, my friend.”
“Nice to see you too, Mrs. Sweeny.” He adored her and would gladly take her ribbing on occasion. Pulling back, he nodded to her new beau. “Flirting again?”
A pink blush came to her cheeks. “How else can I have any fun?”
“How many does he make?”
“I’ll have you know, Doctor, I haven’t gone all the way with him or the others yet.” She patted her silvery hair, perfectly coiffed.
“Yet?” His professional concern came into play. He didn’t want her to get hurt or suffer in any way. “I guess it’s time I have that talk with you.”
“Birds and bees?” She snorted.
“STDs. Unprotected sex.”
Her face fell and her mouth dropped open, making a large O. “I never thought. Why, I’m older than dirt. I just thought I don’t have to worry about getting knocked up anymore. STDs?” she whispered the last, shuddering.
He patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Drop by the office tomorrow and I’ll get you some condoms.”
“Really?” She looked intrigued. “The glow-in-the dark kind?”
He scratched his head. “I’m not sure if we have the fancy stuff. Just standard fit, all natural.”
Disappointment clouded her features. “Oh, too bad.” Her sigh made him reconsider.
“I’ll see what I can do.” A trip to the drugstore after the meeting may be in order. Would she agree to go with him? Condoms 101?
She brightened. “Would you?” Leaning in, she whispered, “I would love to try it. Florescent green or pink, so I can see it. You know, my eyes are getting bad. I’ve got to see it.”
Ben chuckled. “Don’t get too creative. I wouldn’t want you to break a hip or anything.”
Her gentle swat on his arm made him grin even more. “I’m flexible. Yoga class.”
“My, my, Mrs. Sweeny, you are quite the woman.” In his heart, he was glad she could get on with her life at this late stage. Maybe she could teach him a thing or two. He swallowed hard. Was he even ready, though?Just the idea of the whole getting to know someone, dating, introducing them to the twins, made him break out in a cold sweat.
“I’ve just had this wonderful idea. You can teach a class to my senior group.”
Frowning, he asked, “A class? My schedule is pretty hectic. My patients, the kids, the house… What kind of class are you talking about?”
“Sex Ed for adults,” she cried out.
The chatter stopped abruptly. The silence was deafening.
Wincing, Ben looked around the small group of people and his gaze landed on her!
With wide eyes, she stared back. “You?” she mouthed. “Sex Ed?”
What was the woman he checked out minutes ago in the foyer doing here in a Single Parents support class?
Darcy ended up sitting directly across from him. It was difficult to look away as they went around in the circle so everyone could introduce themselves. Under her lashes, she’d sneak a peek. Large frame, hands loosely clasped in front of him, suit jacket open and revealing more muscles… Looking up, she stilled. He was staring back at her; a little sly grin inched up the corner of his mouth.
Jerking her head away, she concentrated on the woman sitting to her right. Her highlighted golden brown hair, makeup, and delicate gold jewelry were perfection no less. And her expensive navy blue pantsuit shouted business.
“I’m Sandra Turner. Sandy for short. My rotten, SOB baby daddy shacked up with one of those stripper types. Well, wannabe stripper.”
Pulling back, Darcy blinked at the words tumbling out of this woman’s mouth. Her words and her appearance contradicted each other. A big yawning gap between what you see and what you got.
“She ain’t got it,” she said, gesturing with her hands cupped in front of her boobs. “If you know what I mean. Anyhow, he left me when I was preggers. Wasn’t there for any of it, no sirree, and now he’s engaged to some other floozy.” Her voice cracked. Tiny sobs escaped.
Gently, Darcy reached out and touched her hand.
Sandy grabbed for it and clutched it. “I don’t have any family, no friends, just my baby.”
Darcy couldn’t feel her hand; the woman squeezed it so hard. She reached over and patted their hands, but Sandy slapped her other hand on top and gripped even tighter. She had her in a death hold. “I’m sorry,” she said, tugging at her hand, at least shifting it some. Sandy latched onto her wrist. Crushing my hands here! Bruises in my future.
But Sandy kept sobbing and tears—hopefully, just tears—dripped onto the back of Darcy’s hand.
Looking around, she could see the empathy etched on the others’ faces, but no one intervened.
“Some help here. Please?” she asked softly.
It was him who came to her rescue. “Sandy, oh, Sandy,” he called out, apparently trying to yank the woman back to reality. Leaning forward, he caught her attention. “Easy now. You’re here. We’re listening. Take deep breaths. In. Out. That’s good. Now relax.”
Sandy’s grip loosened by slow degrees until Darcy could pull her hands free. Flexing and shaking them, the blood returned and the pinpricks of feeling did, too. Would it be rude if I pulled out my hand sanitizer and used it now?
Just like that, the People Whisperer did his magic. Heck, even Darcy was calmer now.
“Thanks. I owe you,” she said softly.
“Two for two.” He winked at her.
Did her heart just flip-flop? No, it can’t be.
The older woman seated next to him, the one in charge, reined them back in. “Thank you for sharing with us, Sandy. Now.” She turned to Darcy. “And you are, my dear?”
She gulped hard, trying to get some saliva to coat her throat. Not happening. Trying again, she had a tad more success. “Darcy.” No last name. “Single mom.”
“How old is she?” This from a fortyish-year old woman who wore a pretty flowery yellow dress, flats and purse to match.
“Twelve now, going on thirty.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry for you, sugar,” she said. “I’m Ellen Rose, by the way. Been there. Done that. Got the scars to prove it.” She tapped her chest. “Now, my boys. Easy peasy. Her, not so much. And that’s being nice. ’Cause that’s how I roll. You know.” She wrinkled her nose. “Don’t like to focus on the bad stuff.”
“Thanks.” Darcy smiled, liking her instantly. Glancing at him, because there was no way to avoid it, she saw shadows chase across his eyes. “I’m good. Getting better. We’ll work it out.” She shrugged. Yeah, right!She was walking on eggshells every time they were in the same vicinity since her ex showed up the other night with the support check. “You know kids. They take it out on the parent who stays.”
Suddenly, the sound of the closing door rent the air.
“Really, Darcy? If I remember correctly, you were the one who asked to divorce me.”
Her ex’s voice shattered her concentration. Shock rippled over her. “Ted? What are you doing here?”
“Our daughter.” He held up the flyer. “Asked me to. No, begged me to come here.”
The flyer. Darcy had found it in Chelsea’s backpack last night, thinking her daughter wanted her to find it. Her unspoken communication style as of late. “Begged?” As far as Darcy knew, Chelsea hadn’t felt that much about anything lately. A poker of hurt stabbed her.
“Yes. She wants me to find someone so I can be happy. In fact, she wants me to remarry and she can come live with us.”
Bang upside the head!Pain lanced through her heart, cracking it in two. “You’re making that up,” she whispered brokenly.
“I’ve never lied to you.”
Nope, never had. Why start now, right?Inside her, it felt as if glass shattered, tearing her apart. Blood seeped from the invisible wounds.
Darcy sucked in a sharp breath. A shard ripped through her lungs. “Wow!” she half said, half breathed. “That smarts.” Tears stung. Blinking hard, she grabbed for her bag, nabbed it, and rose. “Sorry, folks. For the show. And the go.”
Her legs were wooden and her steps jerky.
There were murmurs of protest and several don’t gos.
Ellen Rose said, “Don’t you take that to your pretty little heart, sugar. She’s lashing out to get to you. I know.” Getting up, she came to her side and tucked a card in her case. “You call me. Anytime. You hear?” Her tiny hand patted her on the shoulder.
Nodding, Darcy held back a wave of tears. “Sure thing.” Maybe she would. Maybe not.
“This is quite awkward,” Ted said. “I’ll go.”
“No, no, Chelsea wanted you here. Not me.” Her throat clogged up. “You stay.”
For years, she’d agreed to not wear heels because she’d tower over him. But as she looked down at the man—her ex, the man she’d practically grown up with in college and young adulthood—she could see the utter confusion on his face. He never was good with emotion or difficult situations. He was a numbers guy. All facts. All reason. He was that businessman who lived and breathed his work, to the exclusion of all else.
It was okay for a very long time, until it wasn’t. Until she’d heard him in a cool, calm reasonable voice explain to their daughter how he’d been a man, taken responsibility for his mistake, and married her mother. There was no love, no feeling, in the beginning, middle, or end.
Just as there was no empathy for her now. Sheer bewilderment in this uncomfortable situation held him in place. Half a dozen people sat dumbfounded, watching their painful exchange.
“Ted, is it?” It was him who stood up, saying, “Here, take my seat. I’ll make sure she gets home.”
Frowning, her ex stared at him. “Alright. If you insist.”
Darcy practically rolled her eyes. The great escape. “Thanks for letting me sit in,” she said, turning one last time to the attendees. A pang of regret hit her. In a funny sort of way, she liked them. Even clingy Sandy wasn’t so bad. And even though the men hadn’t had a chance to introduce themselves yet. This hodgepodge group stared from her, then to her ex, and back again.
Mrs. Sweeny, or so it said on the flyer, came to her. “Dear, please come back next week. We would love for you to, wouldn’t we?” The others quickly agreed. In a low voice, she said, “He won’t show up, I promise. And we need you, dear.”
“I’ll…think about it,” she said, trying to be gentle, but knowing she wouldn’t be returning to her walk of shame. Her own daughter?And these people witnessed it.
“Dr. Ben will see you home.” There was a quick exchange and brief hug between the older woman and him.
A few minutes later, her shaky legs carried her out of the room, down the hall, and out of the building. The humid Texas night blasted her.
“Dr. Ben, huh?”
He shrugged off his jacket, loosened his tie, and then rolled up his sleeves. His steady presence didn’t once leave her side as he opened doors for her and strode by her side. “In the flesh?”
“Specialty?” Her numb lips moved, her mouth shooting out polite chitchat.
“Family practice. You?”
“Low rung on the ladder in a bank. Trying to work my way up. The papers you helped me with. Forms to fill out for a more senior position. But, you know how that goes. Stay-at-home mom returning to the work force.” Somehow she made it to her used silver Ford Fusion. “Here I am.” Standing, facing the driver’s side door, she grasped the metal door handle. She didn’t know where to go. Not home. Alone. Chelsea was at her friend’s studying. Chelsea? How could you?
Half aware of his movements, she sensed his hand come up. Turning just in time, she watched as he reached out. The backs of his knuckles brushed softly down her cheek. “I’m sorry.”
Her gasp came from deep inside. His touch warmed her in places she didn’t dare admit out loud. It had been a long, long time since a man had been so close. “Is there a cure, Doctor?” Was she asking about him or her home life?
“Quick, painless.” He dropped his hand, shrugged, and then shot her a smile. “Well, almost painless, as long as you don’t overdo it. A drink.”
“You’re prescribing me a drink?”
“With me.” He stilled as if shocked by his own invitation.
His anxiety somehow eased hers. Breathing again, she asked, “I don’t give just anyone that view, you know?”
“I’m a doctor. I’m registered and certified.”
She grinned. “Not by me.” Maybe, though, in the future.
Ben Evans had no idea what he was doing in her house. A simple fix was called for. He’d botched it. Now, how could he get away? Did he even want to?
The small cozy house snagged at a place in him. Family photos peppered the stone mantel and side tables. He looked closer. She even kept the picture of the ex with her and her daughter at the kid’s birthday party. “She looks like you.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled, dashing around the kitchen in her heels. “I swore I had some wine glasses. Oh, up there,” she said, trying to reach the top shelf in one of the cupboards.
Seeing her struggle, Ben went to her. “Let me.” He stretched around her and easily grabbed two by the stems and brought them down. But he was pressed to her back as she gripped the counter.
“Darcy, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced yet.” Her long blonde hair smelled like sunshine and lemons. Ben closed his eyes, breathing in.
She giggled. There was an edge of nervousness to it. “You can remedy that, right?” Twisting around, she faced him now. Her soft sigh feathered over him. “Darcy Jenkins. And you are?”
He handed over the glasses, trying to act as if being this close didn’t matter. Hell, it did! Heat stole through him. His heart picked up speed. “Bartender, if you want me to be.” The words came out seductive. He groaned inwardly. It had been three long years since he’d been in a relationship. Relationship? No way, buddy, this is just…? What is this anyway?
“I can pour wine.” She placed the delicate crystal on the countertop. A little frown appeared between her delicately arched brows. “You’re a doctor. Family doctor. First name’s Ben. Last?”
Don’t do it! Stop! Go back; no, run like hell. “Evans. It’s nice to meet you. Again.” Her lips were right there. “I must say, I do like this view almost as much as the first view I had of you.”
Her gasp rolled over him right before he leaned in and captured her parted lips.
“Soft,” he moaned, surprised he could even register that much in his foggy state. She hesitated for only a moment before she responded, tentatively at first. But her shyness sent a wave of awe crashing through him.
And then there was that pulse pounding in his ears. Along with that heat that suffused him, rushing through him like a wildfire.
She groaned and it rumbled through him. He deepened the kiss, savoring her delicate lips, touching her tongue with his. They both uttered nonsensical things, stroking the flame.
Where was he going with this? Who the hell cared anymore?
Darcy froze. He jerked back.