“Son of a—”
I tucked my burning thumb into my mouth to stop myself from swearing in front of my little girl. She was perched on one of the chrome-legged kitchen barstools. Chessie’s big brown eyes widened a bit in anticipation of the curse that never came, and we stared at each other while I nursed my tingling thumb.
“You’re not supposed to touch the pan, Daddy,” Chessie said empathetically. “It gets very hot.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Would you like to prepare the pancakes this morning?”
She flashed me a charming smile. Even though Chessie was only seven, she had the wisdom and language skills of a much older girl. She read at a seventh-grade level and impressed all her teachers, who always liked to ask me how I’d done it, how I’d raised such a smart little girl with a heart of gold and a never-ending sense of curiosity.
I never had an answer for those questions.
Chessie had been a seeker of knowledge since she was old enough to start putting things in her mouth—which she had done endlessly. My Rolex watches were often covered in baby drool back in those days, the faces distorted and fogged in business meetings without me realizing, becoming a happy reminder about what a joy I had to come home to at the end of the day. Those foggy drool-covered watches had gotten me through many rough workdays.
“You should put some toothpaste on it,” Chessie said with a matter-of-fact nod. Her morning hair, dark brown and thick like mine, was an unruly mess atop her head. Curls shot out in every which way and I smiled to myself as I pinpointed what she reminded me of as she cocked her head to the side.
Medusa. She reminded me of Medusa.
“What’s funny?” Chessie asked.
“Nothing, kiddo. Don’t worry about my thumb. It’s already stopped hurting.” I went back to pouring pancake batter on the simmering tray and flipped the three I’d already poured previously. They were a perfect golden brown underneath and stained with dark patches of chocolate from the chocolate chips. Chessie had no interest in eating pancakes unless they were overflowing with chocolate, drowning in syrup, and accompanied with bacon and a small side of strawberries for “something fresh” she liked to say.
There was no denying she was my little girl. Growing up in the lap of luxury and wealth had given her access to certain indulgences, most of which were far more impressive than a pancake breakfast on a Thursday morning. Somehow, I’d managed to save her from becoming a spoiled brat. Or more likely, she’d saved me from being the sort of father who threw money at his child to appease and distract them so he could carry on with his life as per usual.
Chessie shifted around on her chair, scooting back against the backrest. She let her hands fall into her lap and tugged at the hem of the lilac-colored dress she wore over a pair of white floral-printed leggings. “How much longer until we leave, Daddy?”
I flipped the most recently poured pancakes and removed the first three from the pan, setting them on a plate and covering them with another to keep them warm. “Not until very late this evening. I have some calls and conference meetings to attend to make sure everything holds up with work while we’re in Hawaii. And Verity has some last-minute shopping to do.”
Chessie sighed. “Okay.”
“Don’t worry, kiddo. You have a lot to do today, too. We’ll be on the plane before you know it.”
She blinked up at me. “What do I have to do today?”
“Well, for starters, you have to enjoy this delicious breakfast. And then Jessica will pick you up for your appointments. Remember?”
Chessie lit up like a Christmas tree, clearly having forgotten how desperately she had begged me to let her get a manicure and pedicure and hair appointment before we left for Honolulu. She claimed she wanted to “look her absolute best” for my big day. Secretly, I thought she’d just conned me into letting her do something that was usually only reserved for special occasions like her birthday or Christmas.
But I’d caved like I always did when it came to my little girl.
Maybe she is a little more spoiled than I think, I thought.
“I forgot about that!” Chessie beamed. “Am I still allowed to get any color I want?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t you be able to?”
Chessie shrugged one small shoulder. “I know Verity is picky and doesn’t want anything to ruin her color scheme.”
I waved off the comment. My bride-to-be was fickle, sure, but she only wanted to make sure our wedding day was as close to perfect as she could get it. She’d been born and raised by a wealthy politician in the Bahamas and was used to things being a certain way. She’d been the little girl who dreamt of her wedding since she was old enough to play dolls. Apparently, her doll collection had an entire shelf dedicated to bridal dolls in beautiful gowns and veils, with tiny bouquets clutched in their plastic hands.
“I’m sure Verity wouldn’t care if you painted your nails lime green,” I told my daughter. “They’re your nails. You pick the color you like best.”
Chessie bit her bottom lip as she considered all her options and I removed the next batch of pancakes from the pan. “I could do yellow. And sparkly. Oh… or pink! Or blue! I think I’ll do blue. Do you think they’ll have any dolphin stickers?”
I chuckled. “I’m not sure, kiddo. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Chessie swung her legs back and forth and heaved a dramatic sigh. “You know how much I hate waiting, Daddy.”
“Half the fun,” she finished dryly. “I know. You say that all the time. But I think that’s just something you say so I won’t ask you more questions.”
I grinned. She was catching on. “That’s not true. I believe it. All the best things are worth waiting for. Like you. I had to wait nine months to meet you. Can you imagine?”
Chessie giggled. “And I was worth the wait?”
“Worth the wait?” I stopped what I was doing. “Francesca Marie Garrett, I would have waited a lifetime to meet you if that’s what it took. You were worth every second.” I pointed the pancake flipper at her. “And always will be.”
Chessie was worth every argument with her mother, too. Every breakdown. Every night spent lying in bed staring at my bedroom ceiling knowing there was a chance I might lose her once she was born. Her mother had pulled away from me ever since she became pregnant, and I later learned it was because she was having an affair with one of my business colleagues and had been for the previous two years. She never intended to get pregnant, especially not with my child, and when it happened, she’d felt trapped. All the walls came closing in around her, and within three months of Chessie being born, my ex-wife had handed the baby to me and bowed out.
I want a divorce.
No words had ever cut so deeply before. I’d stood there staring at her with our daughter in my arms, wondering why she’d handed her to me at that exact moment. I looked from the doe-eyed baby girl in my arms to my wife’s sharp green stare.
Then she’d shed one single tear and told me she was moving to California to start over. Without me. And without Chessie.
And I’d let her leave without asking any questions. Without getting angry. Without trying to understand.
We didn’t need her, not if she didn’t need or want us.
“The pancakes are burning.”
I blinked back into the present moment and hurried to flip the new batch of pancakes. I muttered under my breath about not paying attention and resigned myself to my fate that I would be the one eating the not-so-golden-brown pancakes this morning.
The timer on the coffee pot beeped behind me. “All right, kiddo. Breakfast is up in two minutes.” I slid a plate full of crispy bacon wrapped in a paper towel across the counter to her. “Could you put this on the table and the butter and syrup as well?”
Chessie nodded and began climbing down from the barstool. She carried the bacon to the table and proceeded to set up the rest of the things while I polished off the last batch of pancakes. Then I carried those to the kitchen nook. It was a bright enclosed solarium that jutted out of the kitchen into the gardens of the backyard, and it was presently strung up with multiple strings of Christmas lights. In one corner stood one of the five Christmas trees in the house. The others were in the dining room, mine and Verity’s bedroom, Chessie’s bedroom, and of course, the most impressive of them all was in the living room.
That was the tree Santa would visit.
I was about to head upstairs and wake Verity when I heard her footsteps on the glass stairs. She descended in one of her morning outfits: a powder-pink robe down to her ankles trimmed in lace and feathers, matching slide-on slippers, and a silk hair wrap tied in a bow near her right ear to keep her long shiny dark hair off her face.
“Good morning, sweetheart.” I met my fiancée with a kiss and handed her a mug of piping hot coffee.
Verity took a sip and let out a soft moan of contentment. “Morning, handsome. Thank you for the coffee.”
We moved to the kitchen nook where Chessie waited patiently for us. We took our seats and began passing around the plate of bacon and then the pancakes, which we all buttered. Verity only took one pancake and two pieces of bacon. She’d been very mindful of her diet these past six months, insisting that she needed to stay trim to fit into her dress. But some things were harder for her to say no to than others.
We hadn’t eaten pasta in months simply to spare her the torture of not being able to enjoy it with us. I wished she wouldn’t be so hard on herself. She was an incredibly beautiful woman and she would make an incredibly beautiful bride.
“Did you have a good sleep?” I asked.
Verity nodded as she poured a light drizzle of syrup over her small pancake. “I did. You?”
Chessie crammed a giant bite into her mouth. Syrup dribbled down her chin.
“I’m going to be gone most of the day, Rick,” Verity said. “I have a lot of running around to do. I have to pick up some new outfits for our visit to Hawaii. I ordered some shoes as well. And jewelry. I probably won’t be home until around seven o’clock.”
“We can have dinner together,” I suggested.
“Sure. But no carbs. Please. This is already too much.”
“Your wish is my command.”
Verity took a dainty bite and licked her lips. She washed it down with a sip of coffee. “Have you talked to the wedding planner recently? She hasn’t responded to my last email. There are things I need to discuss with her. Important, time-sensitive things.”
“Kim will be meeting us in Honolulu. We’ll have a chance to speak with her in person.”
Verity nodded. “You know, I know she came highly recommended, but I must say it might have been wiser to opt for someone with a more worldly resume.”
“Worldly?” I asked.
“Yes. Someone who’s worked with bigger clientele. Like Jeffrey Baxter. That man is an absolute genius. He knows the trends in and out and he never would have made me wait forty-eight hours to respond to a message.”
“Kim has other clients,” I reminded my bride-to-be. “But she’s done great work for us. She’s very good at what she does.”
“If you say so,” Verity said.
I smiled at my daughter, who had made it halfway through her stack of pancakes. She had chocolate on her lips. “How is it, kiddo?”
Chessie nodded. “Good.”
“Rick,” Verity said. “Can you make sure they have real champagne on the flight this time? That stuff we had on our last flight wasn’t even drinkable.”
“Consider it done.”
“Thank you.” Verity slid her hand across the table and put it over mine, squeezing gently. “You take such good care of me.”
I rubbed Chessie’s shoulder with my other hand. “I’ll always take care of my girls.”