“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
I growled the words, ripping my mask and helmet off as I skated past our wide-eyed assistant athletic trainer. She was new to the team, joining us for her first season, and I didn’t mean to make her pale as a ghost with my reaction to the message she’d delivered — but I couldn’t help it.
Grumpy was my natural state of being lately.
And I was extra grumpy at the moment from being interrupted in the middle of our practice by a trainer telling me my daughter was here.
Ava was my fucking world. Other than hockey, she was all that mattered to me. I looked forward to every minute I got to spend with her.
The issue was that she should have been at home right now with the newest nanny I’d hired — not standing in the penalty box next to the home bench.
I tried and failed to school my breathing the closer I got to Ava, and Coach McCabe gave me a nod as I passed him to let me know it was fine — but to make it short.
Ava was perched up on the seat inside the box, pressing up onto her toes to get a better look at the rink through the glass. She was watching the rest of the team as they ran drills, her mop of dark brown curls falling out of the ponytail I’d tried to wrangle them into earlier that morning.
Like me, my daughter didn’t smile much. It was an unfortunate side effect to having me as a father and the only steady parental figure in her life.
But right now, her eyes were big and filled with excitement. The kid loved hockey just as much as I did, and any time I let her come to the stadium, she lit up like I’d taken her to Disney World.
Except this time, I hadn’t let her come. She was supposed to be at home — playing house or running in the yard or swimming in our pool.
Instead, she was watching pucks fly.
And it wasn’t her nanny standing beside her and making sure she didn’t fall.
It was Chloe Knott — her kindergarten teacher.
She stood out like a sore thumb, not just because the stands were empty, but because that woman wouldn’t be able to blend in anywhere no matter how hard she tried.
Her bright copper wave of hair was lobbed just above her shoulders and parted down the middle, her brown eyes framed with thick, dark lashes that dusted her rosy cheeks every time she blinked. Other than that blush, her skin was like porcelain, pale and smooth like she bathed in sunscreen every morning before leaving the house.
She wore a long black skirt with white polka dots and a white t-shirt with a rainbow on it. Under the rainbow, it said no rain, no rainbow. Jade green arches dangled from her ears to complete the look, and they shimmered in the stadium lighting the closer I got.
I remembered the way I’d felt the first time I’d met her. It was a mixture of annoyance and relief.
Annoyance, because no one had a right to be that damn bubbly.
And relief, because she’d lit up at the sight of Ava as if she were her only student.
Chloe had bent down to her level on that welcome night, looking my daughter right in the eye and talking to her like an adult. She’d managed to get Ava to smirk, which was a feat, and I’d felt the weight on my chest dissipate.
It was one thing to have Ava in a half-day of early learning last year, but to have her officially in school had put my emotions through the wringer. I didn’t want her to grow up. I wanted her to hold onto her innocence forever, to always stay this young.
Knowing she was in good hands with Miss Knott made me feel at least marginally better about it all.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Perry,” she said when I was close enough to hear her. She smiled apologetically, looking at Ava and then at me. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
I could put the pieces together before I even got an explanation.
After the run of bad luck I’d had with nannies over the summer, I’d made sure to let Miss Knott know when I hired a new one. I’d also written consent for Miss Knott to be able to drive Ava to me should anything happen. She had already been added to my approved list from when she’d tutored Ava in the first semester of the year, but I didn’t revoke that access even now that we were in the second.
The last thing I wanted was for my daughter to be stuck at school waiting on me when I was out of reach — and we didn’t have any other family nearby to help.
When I joined them in the box, I immediately shut the door behind me just in case a puck came flying our way. And even though it didn’t do much to block out the noise of practice, I was instantly aware of how the three of us fit in the tight space.
I was particularly aware of how close I stood to Chloe.
The modest skirt and t-shirt she wore did absolutely nothing to hide her curves, and I was as irritated as I was surprised by the fact that I noticed those curves at all.
I thought that side of me was dead. I hadn’t so much as cast a woman a second look since my wife passed.
But the awareness buzzing beneath my skin proved my theory wrong.
Because I was very attuned to my daughter’s teacher at the moment.
“What happened?” I grumbled more forcefully than I meant to.
“Hi, Daddy,” Ava said, not bothering to take her eyes off the rink.
I softened, just a bit, leaning in to sweep her hair off her face and kiss her cheek. “Hey, Pumpkin.”
Chloe lowered her voice a little, all while keeping a close eye on Ava to make sure she didn’t fall off the bench she was standing on.
“I tried calling,” she explained, her eyes sympathetic. “No one came to pick Ava up. We tried the number you left us for Ava’s new nanny, and when that failed, we tried your cell, and then the emergency contact you have on file. When we didn’t get an answer, I took it upon myself. I tried your home address first, but no one was there. So…”
“You came here,” I finished, pinching the bridge of my nose on a sigh. The emergency contact I’d put down was my uncle — the closest thing I’d ever had to a father. But he was a lineman, and he was on the road more than he was home anymore.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, and when I looked at her, she was biting her lower lip as if she’d done something wrong.
I blew out a breath. “Not your fault I seem to have a knack for finding the worst nannies in the world.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. We are doing our best.”
Again, Ava didn’t take her eyes off the rink when she said those words. When I messed up, which was often, those were the exact words I used. Now, she was echoing them back to me, and Chloe smiled, glancing at my daughter before her eyes found me again.
I couldn’t even find it in me to be pissed off — mostly because, at this point, I was just tired. I’d tried everything, from personal recommendations from my teammates’ wives to working with a recruiter.
So far, every nanny I’d hired had either been unprofessional, under qualified, or unavailable for the hours I needed them. I’d dealt with everything from older women who couldn’t keep up with Ava’s energy to younger women who pretended to be a nanny only to attempt to shoot their shot with me when Ava was asleep.
Why was this so goddamn difficult?
If Jenny were here, she’d know what to do.
Then again, if Jenny were alive, we wouldn’t need a nanny in the first place.
My chest tightened the way it always did when I thought about my late wife, the mixture of complicated emotions all too familiar.
“It’s me who should be sorry, and I am,” I finally said to Chloe, ruffling my kid’s hair before I looked at her teacher again. “Thank you for bringing her here.”
Chloe’s eyes flicked between mine, those impossibly wide brown irises watching me with uncertainty.
“I can watch her,” she offered suddenly, her voice louder than it had been. The offer seemed to surprise her as much as it did me, because she nervously grabbed her elbow with the opposite hand. “I mean, it seems like you’re a little tied up. Unless you want to call her nanny?”
“Oh, I want to call her ex nanny many things,” I grumbled.
Chloe smiled. “I’m happy to take her to my place, or to yours — whichever you’d prefer.”
I tilted my head to the side. “Really? I’m sure you have plans.”
She snorted at that — like actually snorted. “Trust me — I have nothing better to do.”
I grabbed the back of my neck, looking at the time on my watch before I glanced behind us at where practice was in full swing. I knew if I needed to leave, Coach McCabe would understand. It was rare for me to ask for anything, and I was a leader on the team.
But I didn’t want to leave.
We had a big home game tomorrow night against a team fighting us for a spot in the playoffs, and I needed the ice time.
“If you’re sure you don’t mind… just this one time,” I clarified quickly. “And I’ll pay you.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary.”
“I’ll pay you,” I reiterated.
Chloe offered a soft smile, her fingers twiddling with her skirt. “Yes, sir.”
My nostrils flared at that, for a reason that was entirely inappropriate, and I mentally slapped myself before turning my attention toward Ava.
“You’re going to go spend the afternoon with Miss Knott, okay?” I said, lifting her into my arms so I could look her in the eye. “And I’ll pick you up after work.”
“Can’t I stay here?”
She didn’t whine those words. In fact, she said them as if she didn’t actually care what I responded with. Her lips were turned down, her eyes seemingly bored.
She had my feigned indifference down pat.
I hated that I’d rubbed off on her.
“Not today, Pumpkin,” I said, kissing her temple. I sat her down then, squeezing her hand. “But if you behave, we can talk about you coming to the game tomorrow.”
She considered that, and then nodded, but still didn’t show any emotion when she said, “Okay.”
Chloe arched a brow at Ava, then at me, and shook her head on a soft smile. “I’ll bring her home around six?” she suggested.
“That would be perfect.”
I wondered if she heard the relieved exhale leaving my chest. Knowing Ava was with her meant I could focus on practice.
Of course, I still had rage for my former employee simmering under my skin — but I’d deal with that later.
“Maybe you could have dinner with us,” Ava said, and she did so on a shrug that indicated she didn’t care either way. “Chef Patel always makes too much food for just me and Daddy.”
I tried to give my daughter a warning glare that would tell her not to put me on the fucking spot like that, because as much as I was thankful for her teacher stepping in to help, I wasn’t eager to have anyone joining us for dinner.
Chloe peeked up at me, and for a moment, I thought she looked pleased by that idea. But the second she saw my face, her smile dropped.
She cleared her throat. “Oh, that’s okay, sweetie. You and—”
“You’re more than welcome,” I cut in. I hoped the words didn’t sound as forced as they felt, that she didn’t notice how much my teeth gritted together when I said them.
At that, Chloe tilted her head a bit, as if she could read right through the lie.
Then, she smiled. “Okay, then. Dinner it is.”
I hadn’t expected her to take that offer seriously.
I certainly hadn’t expected her to accept it.
And something about her satisfied smile as she took Ava’s hand and led her through the tunnel told me she knew it, too.