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Heart's Cove Hotties Book 9: Dirty Little Midlife (fake) Date

Heart's Cove Hotties Book 9: Dirty Little Midlife (fake) Date

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Small town sizzle meets fake dating fun. What could go wrong?

Single mom Mia has a problem. Her new landlord Des just raised her rent, and even in her dreams, Mia wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Not that she’d want to dream of Des. Ever.

To make matters worse, Des is big, grumpy, and apparently his heart is made of granite. He’s not willing to meet Mia in any sort of middle.

Suffice it to say, Mia’s forties aren’t off to a good start.

Until.

A blind date turns to disaster, because that funny, charming guy she’s been talking to?

Yeah. That’s Des. And he has a proposition for her…

One little fake date–a cheeky weekend away to go to his family reunion–and Mia’s rent troubles will disappear.

But as she gets to know Des, feelings start to grow. Could something fake turn real–or is true love just a fantasy?

MAIN TROPES

  • 40+ year old characters
  • Small town
  • Fake dating
  • Family reunion
  • Single mom
  • Grumpy vs. sunshine
  • Grovel
  • Comedy
  • Steamy/Spicy

Chapter 1 Look Inside

THEY SAY THAT when it rains, it pours. In my case, when it rains in my shower, it pours in my kitchen. Wonderful.

“Okay, turn it off!” I call out.

My daughter dutifully shuts the shower off, but the puddle of water on my linoleum floor keeps growing inch by inch. Bailey comes stomping out of the bathroom and stands at the mouth of the hallway, her lips bunched to the side, her hands on her hips. “It’s leaking,” she points out.

I glance at her above the spreading water, unimpressed. Bailey rolls her lips inward to hide her grin.

My daughter is nine years old—soon to be ten in a few short months—and she is my life. Wearing an old graphic tee with a picture of the Ninja Turtles paired with loose, faded black jeans, her hair in a no-nonsense ponytail, Bailey surveys the damage like she’s an expert plumber about to tell me how to fix it. She has a way of looking completely comfortable in any situation. She’s confident, exuberant, active, and totally hilarious. She’s the best kid in the world (I might be a touch biased).

I, on the other hand, feel like I’m about to have a nervous breakdown.

Standing there watching the growing lagoon for a moment, I allow myself two or three short seconds of despair. I don’t need this. I’m already struggling to come up with next month’s rent money for this two-bedroom apartment and the attached barbershop. It’s the fifteenth of September, which means I have two weeks and a day to come up with more money than I have right now.

But worse than my money woes is the fact that this leak means I’m going to have to call my landlord, and that’s an item on my to-do list I could really do without.

I grab an old towel from the stack on the kitchen table I’d prepared. I toss it haphazardly on the floor and watch it quickly saturate with water. It’s not enough, so I toss another towel down. Bailey grabs an old tea towel from the oven door handle and creates a dam on her side of the lake.

“Where are we going to shower tonight?” Bailey asks, shoving the tea towel farther into the kitchen. A rivulet of water escapes to the side and she yelps, trying to catch it with her hands, then her shirt, then her legs. Finally, she decides to lie on her side to act as a human barrier. Water absorbs into her clothes, drenching her all the way down her front and side. “There.” She beams at me, satisfied—and soaked.

I drop my shoulders, lips twitching.

Bailey gives me that impish grin—the one I can never resist.

“You did that on purpose,” I accuse.

“I didn’t want the water to get onto the carpet in the hallway!”

“And your clothes are better?”

Bailey bites her lip, leaning her head on her hand like she’s lying on a chaise and not a puddle of dirty kitchen floor water. “Yeah,” she says simply.

I click my tongue and give in to the giggles. I probably shouldn’t. I always feel like I’m doing wrong by Bailey, like I’ve never been able to be the mother she needs. But when Bailey gives me that look with her sparkling hazel eyes and messy blond hair, it’s impossible for me to resist laughing.

She does it on purpose, the little hobgoblin.

“I’m going to call Mr. Thomas,” I say, tossing another towel on the floor, finally absorbing the worst of the water. At least the puddle isn’t growing. I glance at my daughter. “You go get changed and ready for bed.”

“No shower?” Bailey stands, dripping everywhere. Despite her best efforts, the hallway carpet won’t be saved—not even a little bit.

“Wash in the sink,” I say, feeling like a terrible parent. Not only am I struggling to make rent, but I can’t even make sure my daughter has the facilities to keep herself clean.

“Okay.” Bailey wrings out her tee onto the wet towels on the floor, then disappears down the hall.

With no other choice, I grab my phone. Time to call my stinking, rude, arrogant, good-for-nothing landlord and tell him to fix this dump if he wants to get his precious (extortionate) rent payment.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.


THE DOORBELL RINGS half an hour later, when I’ve just shut the door to Bailey’s room, leaving her tucked into bed with a book. I glance down at my own appearance—messy hair, old tank top, yoga pants—and curse.

A snicker from behind the door tells me Bailey heard it, and once again, I wonder what kind of mother I really am. It’s been the two of us against the world for so long, I wonder if I’m blind to all the ways I’m failing her.

But I gather my pride around me like armor and head for the door. I have a plumbing problem to sort out and a big, bullish landlord to confront.

My apartment is a two-bedroom, one-bathroom residence that occupies one story, tucked in behind my barbershop. It’s accessible from a door at the back of the barbershop that opens onto Cove Boulevard, the main road through town, or via an entrance on the back lane.

Through the frosted glass of the back door, I spy a very large shadow, and I wish I were wearing something that didn’t scream, “I’m a hot mess.” But hey—this is me, and if Desmond Thomas doesn’t like it, well, it’s no skin off my nose. I don’t like him either.

I pull the door open and glare. I can’t help it. The man has that effect on me. He’s so big and broad, he makes me feel small. His hands are the size of dinner plates. If he held my hand—which, no, thank you—it would probably feel like my palm was being completely engulfed in his flesh. Gross.

Worse than his size, though, is the way he looks at me. He’s always serious, hiding behind that shuttered expression, looking at my little kingdom like it’s the most pathetic thing he’s ever seen. When he first walked into my barbershop all those weeks ago, slapping a new lease on my desk and telling me he was raising the rent, I could just feel the disdain leaking off him, like oil spreading over a pristine body of water. He polluted my sanctuary. I wanted to punch him.

The feeling hasn’t gone away.

Listen, I know I’m a single mom and what I can provide my daughter isn’t the best. But it’s my best. I don’t need some massive thug reminding me of all my inadequacies.

My landlord is wearing olive-green pants and a white T-shirt. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in anything but a button-down, and the sight of it does something strange to my stomach. I feel like I’m witnessing something I’m not supposed to. This is too intimate. His own gaze coasts down my body and back up again, taking in my outfit, but his expression gives nothing away. His dark eyes are just as black, his jaw just as hard.

I’m sure he thinks I’m a slob.

“Hello, Mia.” Desmond’s voice is deep and rumbly, and it sets little explosions off in the pit of my stomach. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. My hindbrain sees a threat, and some wires are getting crossed somewhere because my body is reacting with…arousal? The best I can tell, it’s some sort of fight-or-flight response.

Being me, I choose to fight. “There’s a leak,” I start. “The shower is unusable. If this place isn’t livable, I don’t know how you get off charging this much rent for it.”

Pow, pow! Mia lands an uppercut on Desmond’s jaw…and breaks her hand in the process.

Desmond watches me for a moment, those dark, dark eyes steady on mine. He blinks slowly, like a lazy cat, and sweeps a hand to indicate that he’d like to come inside.

Why did that make my nipples tighten? Honestly, what is wrong with my body? This fight-or-flight response is whack. I glare at him for as long as I can stand it, then pull the door open wider.

He smells amazing. I get a big whiff of it when he steps past me, sandalwood and the hint of something fresh and citrusy.

Glowering, I shut the door gently and follow him into the kitchen. He looks gigantic. The room seems to shrink around him, like some sort of doll house. If he stretched his arms on either side, he’d almost be able to touch both walls.

I don’t like having him in my space. Not one bit.

He stands with his toes just touching the first towel, which I’ve clumped up into a big mess of wet terrycloth on the kitchen floor. Then he crouches, peering into the cabinet where the water was leaking. It’s soaked, of course, with what looks like old water damage on the back of the cabinet.

Before I can stop him, Desmond reaches inside and yanks the back of the cabinet apart. The particle board disintegrates in his hands, and he opens a huge hole up to look inside. Wet gypsum board comes off next, the damaged materials growing in a pile next to him.

He’s strong. Even with the water damage, I doubt I would’ve been able to pull the wall apart with my bare hands. He just did it like he was tearing a wet piece of newspaper. I watch his shoulders bunch and release as he widens the hole. His legs flex as he leans forward, his whole body coiling with strength.

I wrap my hands around my chest and rub my puny biceps, wanting him to leave.

“Hmm.” Desmond goes to lean forward, but the mountain of soaked towels is in the way. He shoves them aside with a frustrated grunt, his forearm flexing with hard, corded muscle while he does, then kneels on the floor in front of the cabinet. The position gives me an unobstructed view of his butt, which is nice.

No. No, it’s not nice. Well, yes, the butt itself is nice, but the fact that I have a view of it is not. Sure, his pants fit perfectly, and he obviously works out enough that he has some junk in his trunk, but I should not be staring at it right now.

“Looks like this has been leaking for a while,” he says, his voice muffled.

I tear my gaze away from his ass, but the only other thing to look at is the breadth of his shoulders, which take up the entire space inside the cabinet. I didn’t know humans could get so big. It’s unnatural. “Oh?”

“Maybe I can figure out where the leak is…” He pulls his upper body out of the cabinet and glances at me. “Can you turn the shower on?”

“I’ll do it!” Bailey says, her head poking around the corner of the wall, then disappearing again.

I jump, staring after her, wondering how long my daughter was watching me stare at my landlord’s butt. Again, this begs the question: What is wrong with me?

“Okay, I’m here!” Bailey yells from the bathroom. “Hot or cold?”

“Start with cold,” Desmond answers, ducking his head back into the cabinet. “Go ahead!”

The pipes bang as Bailey turns the shower on full blast, and for a second or two, nothing happens. I imagine the water is leaking, because Desmond hums thoughtfully. He shifts his weight and shuffles deeper into the cabinet, his knees spread wide on the floor, his big, thick thighs hard against his dark-green pants.

Then there’s a noise, like a big crack, and water blows through the cabinet in a violent spray. Desmond yells, jerking, and bangs his head into the countertop. With an awful snap, the laminate counter cracks, jumping slightly, and Desmond comes tumbling out of the cabinet.

Water sprays out of the bottom cabinet so hard I stumble back. It soaks me from head to toe while Desmond rolls on the floor at my feet, groaning. He’s clutching his head, swearing as he crawls on the ground toward the cabinet.

“Whoa…” Bailey stares at us, eyes wide, while the water comes pouring and pouring and pouring in.

“SHUT THE WATER OFF!” I scream, my hands straight out in front of me in a useless attempt to stop the spray.

Bailey springs, and a moment later, the fountain stops.

There’s a pause, with the only sound in the room being a steady trickling of water. I lift my bare foot up and place it back down, unable to see a single spot of dry land. Everything is covered with an inch of water.

Desmond lets out a sigh and lifts himself up so he’s sitting on the floor, one arm curled around his bended knee. He’s drenched. His white tee clings to him, completely see-through. I can see the shadow of chest hair, the hard pack of his muscles. He runs a wet hand through his hair, causing it to tousle oh-so-perfectly. Then he lets out a sardonic little chuckle. Like he thinks this is fucking funny.

It infuriates me. I don’t know why. Maybe because he’s wealthy, and successful, and rude, and he has a gorgeous body. It just isn’t fair. He waltzed into my life, raised my rent, and brought me to the brink of homelessness. Now he’s sitting in my kitchen like he just won a wet T-shirt contest, staring at the waterfall still coming out of the cabinet like he didn’t just wreck my home.

This home isn’t much. My barbershop isn’t much. Most people would walk in here and think it was too small, or too cramped, or too dark. Years ago, my mother tried to shame me into moving back in with her and Dad, because she said an apartment like this was no place to raise a daughter. Her words burned me like hot coals. I hated it—hated feeling inadequate. Hating knowing she was right.

But this place is mine. I made a home here for me and my daughter out of nothing. My ex-husband left me when I got pregnant because I wouldn’t give up the baby. I put myself through cosmetology school, I built my business, and I gave Bailey everything I could.

And now this oaf, this blockhead, this rich asshole is sitting in my kitchen, staring at the water damage, not understanding that he just ruined my life.

Anger winds through me like a flame, licking at my insides, coiling around my limbs.

Desmond lifts his gaze to me, taking in my sodden sweatpants and the old pink tank top clinging to my upper body. Heat and cold go to war inside me. My skin feels cool, but just below it, my blood burns.

When Desmond’s slow perusal stops on my face, he has the audacity to frown and say, “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” I seethe. “Am I okay?”

He unfolds his long body and stands before me, towering above me like some hulking meathead. “You’re trembling.” His giant hands come to rest on my upper arms, thumbs stroking the front of my shoulders. They’re so warm, I almost allow myself to enjoy the touch.

Then I knock his hands away and take a step back. “Look at what you did!” I stomp my foot in the inch-deep water so it splashes us both. “Why? Why did you have to turn the water on? Wasn’t it enough to see the evidence of the leak? Look at this.” I splash my way to the countertop and point at the cracked laminate. “How am I supposed to use this kitchen now? Your stupid, hard head broke my countertop.”

It’s the silliest thing to be upset about. I should be mad that every single one of my towels is in a wet clump on the floor, and that there’s an inch of water everywhere. I should be mad that my shoes, which had been stored by the back door, are now floating by the kitchen table. I should be mad that neither I nor my daughter can bathe, cook, or live in the only home she’s ever known.

I should be mad about a lot of things, but I’m finding myself staring at the countertop that came up against Desmond Thomas’s hard head—and lost. And that’s making me very, very angry.

Desmond lifts his hands. “Mia. Calm down.”

The words hit me like bullets. “Calm down,” I repeat, a trembling starting in my toes and slowly making its way up my legs. I spin slowly, trying to burn a hole through my landlord’s forehead with my gaze. “Calm down? Did you just tell me to calm down?”

“Mom…” Bailey clings to the corner of the wall, staring at me with worried eyes.

“Bailey—” It comes out too harsh, so I take a deep breath. “Baby, can you go to your room and pack up some clothes for tomorrow? We’re going to sleep in a hotel tonight.” It’s not like I have any other options. My parents sold their home and took off on a round-the-country RV tour in their retirement, and my sister lives on the East Coast.

I have friends now, sure, but I just met them after years of keeping to myself. I can’t exactly call them up and ask to crash on anyone’s couch. The thought of asking for a favor gives me hives.

Bailey doesn’t move, just flicks her gaze between me and our landlord. Then she nods.

“Don’t forget your toothbrush and your gym class uniform,” I tell her after she’s disappeared down the hallway. My voice is full of tension, but at least I can breathe again.

I turn back to the landlord who’s made my life infinitely harder than it needs to be. His lips are pinched and a muscle feathers in his cheek as he stares at the destruction in the kitchen. He stands with his hands clamped on his hips, tension written in every line of his body.

Good.

He should be tense. He should feel guilty. He should feel like the worst person in the world right now, because he basically is. Who says they need to call a plumber, then proceeds to cause a geyser in their tenant’s kitchen? Who makes someone’s home unlivable, then laughs?

I can’t even look at him right now. I turn my back on my gigantic, hot idiot of a landlord and grab my phone from the table. Thank God it was on the table. If I’d had to shell out money for a new phone on top of everything, I would’ve lost it.

Well—I would’ve lost it more than I already have.

There’s only one hotel in town worth staying in, and that’s the Heart’s Cove Hotel. It’s run by two elderly ladies, the twins Dorothy and Margaret. They’re probably not at the hotel right now, but I’m sure whoever’s manning the front desk will be able to help me.

Unfortunately, my phone’s touch screen is having a hard time registering my wet fingertips. I growl in frustration, poking at my phone, then finally give up and use a voice command. “Call Margaret.”

“Mia, wait.” Desmond takes a step toward me, sloshing through the water from the geyser he created, and stops when I lift my hand.

“Don’t come close to me. You’ve done enough damage.”

“Hello?” Margaret’s voice sounds strangely echoey over the speakerphone. “Mia, is that you?”

“Hi, Margaret. I’m sorry to call you so late.”

“What’s wrong, dear?” There’s a shuffling sound and a man’s voice. Then Margaret says, obviously to Hamish, her partner, “It’s Mia. I don’t know why she’s calling. Let me ask her.” More shuffling. “What’s going on, honey?”

“There’s been…an incident…at my house,” I say, glancing at the manmade lake both Desmond and I are standing in. “Water damage. I need somewhere for Bailey and me to stay tonight.”

Desmond plucks the phone from my fingers before I can even squeak in outrage. “Margaret, it’s Des.”

Margaret’s voice warms. “Oh, Des! I’m glad you’re there. I just spoke to your grandmother this morning and she said you were settling into town just wonderfully. Is everything okay? I can call up the hotel and reserve a room if—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Desmond growls. “One of my grandparents’ condos is available on Seventh Avenue. I’ll put Mia and Bailey in there until we get the water damage fixed.”

“Oh, you’re a dear,” Margaret croons, and I wonder if she and I know the same Desmond Thomas. I would never, ever, not in a million years, call him “a dear.” “I’ll still call the hotel to warn them, and if Mia needs a place, we can put her in one of the cabanas out back. I think the one Candice stayed in is free, and we’ve just renovated all the bathrooms.”

“Thank you, Margaret,” Desmond says, and his voice loses the edge of tension it usually has with me. “It’s really not necessary. I can take the girls over to the condo tonight. It’s furnished, and it has two bedrooms.”

Excuse me—“the girls?” Did he just call me and Bailey “the girls?” Are you freaking kidding me? Since when does he have the right to refer to us like that? That sounds…it sounds…intimate. Like the three of us belong together. Like he has some sort of ownership over us.

I do not like that. Not one bit.

Margaret doesn’t seem to notice, though. She just says, “All right. I’m glad you were there to sort things out. Ta-ta!”

The call ends, and I snatch my phone back. “You had no right to butt in. I’m taking Bailey somewhere safe, and you can’t do anything about it.”

Desmond’s face gains a neutral expression. “Legally, I have to provide you with livable accommodation, but you’re free to refuse it. Since we have the condo on Seventh Avenue available, if you decide not to stay there, you’ll be out of pocket for the hotel room.”

My throat burns. I clench my phone in my hand and I think it might be to stop myself from punching that solid chest of his. Once again—just like when he raised my rent—Desmond is using money to try to push me around.

The worst part is, I think I might have to accept. I can’t afford a hotel room, and I have nowhere else to go. I could probably call Georgia, my new friend and neighbor, but we barely know each other. She’s glamorous and beautiful and I’m too proud to show up at her doorstep like a bedraggled beggar-woman.

Desmond is offering me a two-bedroom residence, free of charge, until my own place is fixed. It would be stupid and irresponsible of me to refuse.

“Fine,” I sneer at him. “Text me the address, and I’ll let you know when we’re on our way.”

“I can drive you.”

“Yes, but then I wouldn’t have my car with me, would I?” I sound snippy and awful, but I can’t help it.

Desmond’s jaw tics. His shirt still clings to every carved inch of him, his pants drenched so they look almost black. A droplet of water runs down his bicep and onto his forearm. He would be sexy if he weren’t such a dick.

I widen my eyes. “Goodbye, now. Thanks for nothing.”

My landlord has the audacity to grin. It’s devastating. Men shouldn’t be allowed to be that attractive and that dickish at the same time. Ugh!

It’s not until the door closes behind him that I take a full breath, gather myself together, and go check on my daughter.

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