Single Dad at Mountain Creek Ranch by Lana Dash

 

1

NASH

I love my two girls. I’d do anything for them. But today was supposed to be the one morning of the month I get to sleep in, and right now, I can hear two little voices loudly whispering at the foot of my bed.

“Uncle Jamie said not to wake him.” My oldest daughter, Abbie says, concern evident in her voice.

“But I’m hungry.” Sophie whines.

I peek one eye open. My younger brother, Jameson, is supposed to be watching the girls so I can get a chance to sleep in. The last time I was desperate enough to leave them in his care, I came home, and they were hopped up on sugar with him asleep on the couch. I swear one of these days’ life will give him the wakeup call he needs to grow up.

“What time is it?” I mumble, my face half pressed into my pillow.

“Daddy!” Sophie yells. I feel the mattress dip slightly as she pulls herself onto the bed by my blankets and jumps on me. “Daddy, I’m hungry.”

I look over my shoulder at my wild girl. Her hair is still matted from sleep and all in her face. No matter how many tricks I try from watching YouTube hair tutorial videos, I can’t get her hair to stay out of her face.

“Sophie!” Abbie scolds as she rounds the bed, looking worried that I'll be upset.

“Morning, kiddo.” I give her a warm smile, and her shoulders relax a bit.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Are you hungry too?”

She bites her lip. “A little.”

“Where’s Uncle Jamie?”

“He got a call from someone and said he had to go.” Abbie wrings her hands. “He seemed worried.”

"Well, I guess maybe we should all take a trip into town and get some chocolate-chip pancakes at Mirabelle’s Cafe, what do you think?”

A smile lights up Abbie’s face just as Sophie’s high pitch squeal of excitement nearly bursts my eardrum.

“With whipped cream?” Sophie asks, her body shaking with excitement.

“Depends on how quickly you two can get dressed.” Both girls race out of the room, nearly trampling each other in the process. “I want hair and teeth brushed too!”

“Okay!” they both yell back.

“And Sophie, don’t think that just wetting your toothbrush will work!”

“I told you,” I hear Abbie say.

I fear the day Sophie is a teenager. I’m going to have my hands full with her. Abbie is my little rock. But since their mother left us last year, it feels like she's pulling away from me, and I don't know why or what I can do to fix it.

I push back my blankets and stretch, my joints screaming at me. I may only be thirty-two, but a lifetime working on my family’s ranch has done a number on my body. Most mornings, I wake up, and I feel like a sixty-year-old man until I get up and moving again. I stretch to get the blood flowing through my body. I rub my face. So much for sleeping in.

I sit up and grab my cell phone off the nightstand next to me. I pull up Jameson’s number and call him. It goes straight to voicemail.

"Jameson, you have a lot of explaining to do," I grumble and click the end button. It's too early in the morning, and I haven't had my coffee yet to make a menacing enough threat for leaving my girls.

There’s a loud crash down the hall, followed by Abbie and Sophie arguing.

“Dad!” They both yell for me.

I sigh. “Here we go.”

EDEN

The early morning rush in the café is finally slowing down. I’m holding a plastic bin and following Mirabelle around as she clears the empty tables of dishes. I’ve been waiting all morning for her to have a free moment, so I can talk to her about possibly getting a job.

“There's got to be some work you need doing around here. I catch on quick, and I'm a hard worker," I say, following her to the next booth. The bin is nearly full, and my arms are starting to ache from the weight.

“Honey, I know you’re a good worker,” she says, placing three more plates and some silverware in the bin. “And if I had something available, I’d hire you in a heartbeat.”

“I figured it was a long shot,” I say as she takes the bin from my hands.

“If I hear about anything, I will let you know."

“Thank you, Miss Mirabelle.”

"Now go sit back down, and I'll get you some of my cherry cobbler."

I laugh. “It’s not even ten in the morning.”

“It’s never too early for my cobbler.” She looks me up and down. "Besides, we need to get some meat on your bones.”

I look down at my curvy figure. “I have plenty of meat on my bones.” Some might say too much.

Mirabelle waves away my comment like she is batting away a bee. “Men love a woman with something to grab on to. Isn’t that right, Mr. Walker.”

Mirabelle’s husband and diner cook flashes her a knowing smile and turns back to the griddle. Even after over forty years of marriage, they still look at each other like teenagers in love. I want that.

The bell over the door rings and I turn to see two little girls run in—one wearing a rainbow dress with bright green tights and the other in a soft pink sweater and jeans. Obviously, sisters, but on two very different ends of the color spectrum. My gaze drifts up to the man walking in behind them, and I recognize him instantly. Nash Holloway.

His gaze meets mine, but recognition doesn’t show in the polite smile he gives me. I’m not surprised, but I had been a little hopeful. I used to be good friends with his younger sister, Willow. I’d spent a fair share of my childhood sleeping over at the Holloway’s Mountain Creek Ranch, but I shouldn’t have been surprised that Nash doesn’t remember me.

The family of three passes me, and I remember the town gossip my mother shared with me when I returned home a few weeks ago. Without warning, Nash’s wife up and left him about a year ago, leaving him to care for their little girls and the divorce on his own.

I turn to take my seat at the counter and find they’ve sat down on the other side of the corner near my stuff. Nash is about to sit down next to his daughters when his phone rings. He glances down at the screen.

“Girls, I’ll be right back.” He steps away to take it.

I sit down at my seat and take a sip of my coffee. I give a side-eyed glance at the girls. The older one looks like a mini-Willow with thick, wavy hair while the other one is—staring right at me.

I freeze as if I've just been caught, but instead of looking at me like a weirdo, she just smiles. But it wavers when she sees Mirabelle set down a dish of warm cherry cobbler with a scoop of melty vanilla ice cream in front of me.

“You get cobbler for breakfast?” she asks, her little voice dripping with envy.

I pick up my spoon and scoop up a bite and say, "One of the few perks of being a grown-up."

She sighs longingly at the idea. "I want to be a grown-up and eat cobbler for breakfast every day.”

“Don’t grow up too soon," Nash says, slipping back into the seat next to her and kisses the top of her head. “I hope my girls aren’t bothering you, miss.”

So much for Nash remembering me. Mirabelle sets down a carafe of coffee and a cup in front of him.

“You’re a saint.”

She beams at him and then turns to the girls. “The usual for you all?”

“Yes, ma’am,” both girls say at the same time.

Nash smiles at them and then back a Mirabelle. “Same for me as well.”

I can’t help but stare at him. He somehow looks unchanged and different at the same time—the same dimple in his right cheek when he smiles, but the muscles in his shoulders have doubled in size since I last saw him. His brown eyes still dark and intense, but now they have crow’s feet on the corners from years of working out in the sun. He glances over at me and catches me staring.

“I know it’s been a while,” I say to him. “But you'd think after all the sleepovers at your house. You'd remember me.” Nash nearly chokes on the sip of coffee he’s just taken, and I realize what I’ve just said also sounds like, so I clarify, “I’m an old friend of Willow’s.”

He looks at me, his brow furrowing in concentration. I can see the moment the light bulb of recognition goes off in his head.

“Of course, Eden Woodley.”