Ever have a defining life moment you wish you could do over?
Harley Spark has one.
The time she almost kissed the widowed father of the toddler she nannied for. It was so bad they moved across the state and she never saw them again.
Fast forward seven years and she’s totally over it.
At least she thinks she is.
Until Gavin Rhodes and his adorable now nine-year-old daughter, Peyton, reappear at a princess-themed birthday party hosted by Spark House, Harley’s family’s event hotel.
Despite trying to avoid the awkwardness of the situation, she can’t help but notice how unbearably sexy he looks in a tutu (why is that hot?).
Add to that a spontaneous hives breakout, and it’s clear she’s not even remotely over the mortification of her egregious error all those years ago.
Except Gavin seems oblivious to her inner turmoil.
So much so that he suggests they get together for lunch.
For Peyton’s sake, of course.
It’s the perfect opportunity to heal old wounds. Or it could just reopen them.
This is one of those times Harley wishes she could see the future…
A Future Too Distant to Realize
My eyes snap open at the despondent cry lighting up the baby monitor. It’s the third time Peyton has woken tonight. She’s teething and she has a cold, the combination of the two making her restless and uncomfortable.
I lie there for a few seconds, waiting to see if the cry is isolated or she’s actually awake and needs comfort. A few seconds later another cry filters through the baby monitor, and then again, more insistent this time. I toss my covers off and my feet hit the cold floor. I grab my housecoat and shrug into it as I rush down the hall, wanting to get to her before the cries reach their highest pitch and wake her father as well.
Gavin’s been burning the candle at both ends, work taking up more of his time than he’d like, and with Peyton not sleeping particularly well this week, he’s been tired. If I can save him another broken night’s sleep, I can also save myself from having to drive something to his office because he’s forgotten it on the kitchen table.
He steps into the hallway just as I reach Peyton’s room. He’s wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a thin white T-shirt, his lean, toned body throwing shadows on the wall and floor.
He blinks blearily at me and runs a hand through his sleep-messed hair. “I can handle this.” His voice is gruff and thick with exhaustion.
“You have to be up in two hours. She’s teething and cranky. I can take care of it.”
He glances at the door and then at me, teeth tugging at the skin of his bottom lip before he blows out a breath. “She’s been up three times already.”
I pat him on the arm. “I know. And you have to function tomorrow. I can take a nap when she does. I’ve got this. Go back to bed.”
“Thanks, Harley.” He gives me a weary smile and turns around, disappearing into his bedroom.
As I rush into Peyton’s bedroom, she’s standing in her crib with her arms outstretched, stiff and shaking. When she sees me, her wailing hits the high notes and she stomps her little feet.
“I’m right here, sweetie. You must be so uncomfortable.” I pick her up out of her crib and she snuggles into my neck, sniffling and crying. Her cheeks are red and her fingers go straight into her mouth. At eighteen months, we’re in the thick of another round of teething, and this time it’s her canines, which are proving to be particularly uncomfortable. And I thought the molar stage was rough.
I carry her over to the rocking chair and cuddle her, singing lullabies until she finally falls asleep again. I don’t know how long she’ll be down before she wakes up again, so once I have her settled in her crib, I make a trip to the kitchen to grab a teething ring from the freezer.
I stop when I reach the threshold. Gavin is sitting at the island with a glass in front of him. It’s mostly dark, the only illumination comes from the light above the stove. His broad back expands and contracts on a sigh, and he drops his head, fingers pushing through his thick, dark hair. He laces them behind his neck and makes a despondent sound.
I don’t know whether I should leave him and let him have a moment of peace, or offer him comfort.
This week has been difficult for him. Peyton just turned a year and a half, and with each milestone, it’s another reminder of how long it has been since his wife died. Add in the sleepless nights, the long work hours, his parents still both working full-time and unable to offer much in the way of babysitting support, and his in-laws in Boulder, it’s no wonder he’s struggling.
I overheard him on the phone with his mother-in-law before he took it off speaker phone. She doesn’t feel it’s appropriate that I’m the woman practically raising her granddaughter. I’m too young to be taking care of Peyton. I spend too much time with them as a family. It didn’t sit right with her that I was solely responsible for Peyton while Gavin was at work. I might be twenty, but I have always loved working with children. I took the babysitting course as soon as I turned eleven and started sitting for family and friends right away. While other teenagers went out with friends on weekends, I spent them taking care of little kids while their parents went on dates or out with friends. And with over half a child development degree under my belt, I’m more than qualified to be a nanny. Besides, I’ve been through more than a lot of people my age, lost more and survived.
My feet make the decision before my head can weigh in, and my heart is already in agreement with my actions as I cross the kitchen and head for Gavin.
I purposely step on the board that creaks, and Gavin’s head shoots up. My heart clenches at his expression. Shock, dismay, and embarrassment pass through his eyes, but the pain I see reflected back at me is what stops me from changing course. I bridge the gap between us and settle a hand on his shoulder. “What can I do to help?”
He scrubs a hand over his tired face. “You’re already doing too much.” His chocolate eyes lift to meet mine. “I’m putting too much on you.”
I shake my head. “You’re not.”
“I am. You’re only taking Sundays off. You should be going out on weekends with your friends, going to house parties, doing what college kids do.”
I don’t understand where this is coming from, or why all of a sudden Gavin is worried about my social life. “I’m more into Disney movies, arts and crafts, baking cupcakes, and making popcorn than I am going to house parties.”
“I just mean you deserve to have a life. I need to cut back my hours. I need to be here more.” His voice is low and gruff. “I should be here for Peyton. It’s not fair for me to keep piling it all on you. You’re too young to be handling all of this.”
“I would tell you if it was too much. And you are here for Peyton. You’re always home for dinner, and you make sure you’re here for bedtime. Sure, you work extra hours once she’s in bed, but that’s not unusual. Especially since you’re helping run a family business. You’re doing the best you can, and that’s all anyone can ask for.”
“But is it enough?” He shakes his head. “I feel like I’m in purgatory, Harley. I feel like I’m stuck in the past, and all I want to do is be able to move forward but I can’t. I don’t know how to do this on my own.”
“But you don’t have to do it on your own, Gavin. You have your family and you have me.”
“I don’t know how to let go of this guilt.” His face crumples and he scrubs a hand over it.
“The guilt over what? What do you feel guilty about?” We don’t usually talk like this. Mostly he asks about Peyton, how her day was, and the milestones she’s reaching. At dinner he’ll sometimes ask about my courses, but it’s all surface conversation. I know it’s been a struggle for him to move past the loss of his wife. While she’s never a topic of conversation, she’s memorialized everywhere in this house.
He shakes his head. “I can’t . . . I just want it to stop hurting all the time.”
I settle my hand on top of his and squeeze. “I’m here. You can talk to me. I understand what it means to lose someone you love. I know the hurt doesn’t go away. We manage, we adapt, we develop armor, but we don’t stop missing them and we don’t stop loving them.”
“Is there no peace?” His expression breaks my heart.
I don’t know how to help him with anything other than the offer of comfort. So I do something I normally never would when it comes to one of my charges and their parents. I wrap my arms around his shoulders and hug him.
He stiffens for a moment, and I’m about to release him and apologize for overstepping, until he folds his arms around me and pulls me tightly against him. The sound he makes holds so much torment.
“It’s okay, Gavin. I’m here. I know it’s hard.” We’ve always kept it professional between us. Sure, I may be living under the same roof, but my job is to care for the sweet little angel that is sleeping down the hall. But tonight is different.
In this moment, I feel like I’m more than the nanny. Right now, it’s as though I’ve become part of this family.
I understand what he’s going through. Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to lose your partner before you’ve even had a chance to really and truly start your life together. But I know what it’s like to lose both of my parents. They died when I was twelve, leaving me and my older sisters, Avery and London, orphaned. Our grandmother stepped in to raise us, but those Mom-and-Dad-shaped holes in my heart can never be filled. There will always be two empty spaces in my chest where they used to be.
Slowly he loosens his hold on me. “I need to get a grip,” he mutters, voice thick with emotion.
Goose bumps rise along my skin when his fingertips skim my arm as he drops his hand.
“We all have difficult days. I’m always here. Whenever you need me.” My heart is beating so hard, it feels like it could crack my rib cage. I can’t seem to find it in me to step back, to break this connection. The longing to feel needed like this clouds my judgment. The intimacy of the moment making it difficult to separate my desire to comfort from other, new feelings I don’t know what to do with.
I lean in until I can feel his sharp exhale against my lips. My stomach flips and my muscles clench in anticipation.
But whatever spell I’m under breaks before I connect.
Gavin’s hands wrap around my shoulders and he pushes me back, not forceful but firmly. “Harley, no.”
Peyton’s shrill cry is a bucket of ice water over my head and a welcome distraction from my complete horror and mortification. I rush down the hall to Peyton’s room and scoop her up like a shield. Panic takes over, fear and guilt swirl in my gut and make it tough to swallow. What did I do? How could I be so stupid?
“I’ve got it, Harley. You can go back to bed.” Gavin holds out his arms, his expression flat and remote.
I can’t say no. He’s my boss. He’s her father. I’m just the nanny.
And I almost kissed him. I would have, if he hadn’t stopped me. He’d been in need of comfort, and I’d taken advantage of that weak moment. Shame and disbelief make me want to disappear, to sink into the ground, to hide from my own mistake.
Uncomfortable, awkward silence follows as I pass her over, but Peyton’s cries grow louder, maybe because she senses the disquiet between us.
“Go to bed, Harley.” Gavin’s voice is tight and clipped.
I move around him, unable to meet his gaze now. I feel numb, as if my emotions have been dipped in liquid nitrogen. Frozen. And one flick will shatter me.
As I step into the hall, Peyton screams, arms stretched out to me. “Momma! Mummy!”
I pause, a sick feeling rolling through my stomach and creeping up my throat, and turn to see Gavin’s reaction. She’s said it before, at the park I sometimes take her to with a few other nannies in the area, but it’s never happened in front of Gavin before. I usually just shake my head and say, “No, not Momma, it’s Harley” to her because she doesn’t know the difference. To her, it’s just words she hears the other kids say.
But his eyes flash with ire, and he gives me a hard, cold look that makes me want to disappear all over again.
“That’s Harley, not your mommy. Daddy’s got you.” He shuts the door with a quiet click, and I stand there, my heart in my throat.
I go back to my room, tears of embarrassment and guilt falling. I don’t know what to do. How to fix this. I spend the rest of the night pacing the floor, trying to figure out how I’m going to apologize. That I didn’t mean to overstep. That I have no idea what came over me. That it will never happen again.
A few days later, just when I’m ready to tell him how sorry I am, Gavin tells me they’re moving to Boulder to be closer to his in-laws.
And when they do, I don’t hear from Gavin or Peyton ever again.
Chapter One: This Memory Lane Is Closed
“I need you to work your magic!” London rushes me the second I walk into the Spark House office and thrusts baby Ella at me. “I have a call in five minutes, and I can’t take it with Ella losing her mind.”
Ella’s mouth is open in a wide O, and her face is beet red. She lets out a hearty wail and flails her arms and legs like a tiny human pinwheel.
Without a word, I drop my purse on the floor and hold out my arms, accepting my screaming niece. “What’s going on Ella-bella? Why so sad, little cutie patootie?”
She stops for half a second and cranes to look over her shoulder at London, then realizes she’s not in her mother’s arms anymore and starts up again.
London cringes. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to make it quick.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it handled. I’m happy to listen to Ella’s woes while you take the call.” I kiss her chubby, warm cheek and give her a raspberry. She startles, then giggles, then starts to frown until I do it again.
London shakes her head. “How do you do it? Every single time you get her to stop.”
“I distract her. And I’m calm, and you’re . . . a little high-strung and stressing about this call.”
She opens her mouth as if she’s about to argue, then clamps it shut again. “Maybe I need to take up recreational weed smoking or something.”
“I’m going to go ahead and say that if you do, please don’t make any videos. Remember the turtle-rant incident compliments of Avery?”
She makes a face. “Right. Good point. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Years ago, Avery’s friends accidentally fed her half a dozen pot brownies, and she ended up ranting about the lack of plastic straws and how turtles were smelly and not the only important species on the face of the earth. The rant ended up on social media and did not go over well, especially since we’d been trying to secure a sponsorship. We’ve moved past that, and more than recovered from that accidental blow to our business, which means we bring it up on occasion, mostly to annoy Avery.
“CBD oil is a good alternative,” I suggest and then shoo her off. “Go make your call. Ella and I will be out back setting up for the birthday party.”
“What if it goes long? The call, I mean?”
“This is a party for kids. I’m holding an adorable baby. Everyone loves babies, especially when they’re as cute as you, right?” I tickle Ella’s tummy and she giggles again. “Now go, you’ve wasted three out of your five minutes to prep standing here fretting with me and Ella.”
London rushes back to her desk and drops down in her chair. I take Ella outside, into the yard where the party will be held. I pass the potting shed, which is actually more like a small garage, on the way to the party area. I keep forgetting to suggest we figure out a use for it since it just sits there these days.
My sisters and I have been running Spark House for the past seven years. It started as a boutique hotel that functioned mostly as a bed-and-breakfast and a venue for small weddings or celebrations. But over time, and with our older sister Avery’s creative brain, we’ve turned it into an event hotel. We host everything from weddings and bachelor parties, to charity events and hobbyhorse competitions. Yes. That’s a real thing, and probably one of my favorite events ever that we host on a yearly basis.
The hotel has been in our family for years, but we officially took it over when our grandmother decided to retire. Avery is the backbone of Spark House and manages the event-planning side, her husband, Declan, deals with finances, and London manages the decorative and creative parts of the events. I run the social media. Or I used to, until Spark House was taken under the wing of London’s almost-billionaire husband. Now we have a team of people who manage our social media outreach and I just supplement it.
Since the additions to our team means I have more time to spare, I took on hosting birthday parties, specifically ones for children, which I really love. Today’s party is an elaborate setup with a princess theme. The birthday girl is a big fan of all things princess, and this party is right up my ball-gown-loving alley. Today I’m dressed like a magical fairy, complete with sparkly, poofy tutu and star wand. I’m not the only one who will be dressed up, though. There are all kinds of fun costumes for the kids, along with a special princess outfit for the birthday girl.
I have a crafts station set up where the kids can make edible cookie wands. They’re shaped like stars and baked with a stick, so they’re perfect for icing and sprinkle decorations and making magic.
I keep Ella distracted with things that sparkle as I double-check everything one final time before the guests begin to arrive. I’m in the middle of making sure all the costumes are labeled with the guest names—we asked the partygoers who their favorite princess was, and their size, so we could have all the costumes ready ahead of time.
When I read the name peyton on a fairy costume, my heart clenches, taking me back in time to when I nannied for a little girl with the same name. She’d have to be close to the same age as the birthday girl by now. I shove those memories down, because the feelings that come with them are never easy. Mortification and guilt are forever associated with that time in my life. Mortification over the lines I crossed. Guilt that those actions are what sent Peyton and her father to Boulder to be closer to his in-laws. Or at least that’s how it seemed.
“This place looks like a princess convention.” Avery appears in the doorway to the dress-up tent. Like everything else, it’s been decorated with balloons, streamers, and all things glitter and sparkle.
“It pretty much is,” I agree.
Ella coos, and when Avery tickles her under her chin, she giggles, toots, and ducks her head.
“How are you doing?” Avery asks, her smile questioning and slightly chagrined.
I lift a shoulder and let it fall, working to keep my smile in place and my tone light. “At least my birthday parties are going out with a bang.”
“I’m really sorry we can’t keep hosting them.”
“It’s okay. I get it. They aren’t a moneymaker, and we need to keep Spark House available for bigger events.”
“I know how much you love them.” Avery tried to go to bat for me, and so did London when Declan told us the birthday parties were costing us money instead of making it. A two-hour birthday party on a Saturday afternoon isn’t as financially lucrative as a wedding where every room in Spark House is booked for two nights.
When I first suggested the birthday parties a couple of years ago, it was a way for me to feel like I was making a more significant contribution. But Declan is right. It isn’t financially responsible. They have to be cut. So I’m making the last one as awesome as possible.
“I’ll be able to throw kick-butt parties for my nieces and nephews, starting with this little princess.” I give Ella a kiss on the cheek.
She takes my face in both of her hands and plants a wet one to the left of my nose.
“You know Ella was crying for half an hour before London pawned her off on you.”
“London’s stressed. Babies feel that.” And I’m sure London thought it would be fine to bring Ella to Spark House since the birthday party isn’t going to take the whole day. “Where’s Jackson, anyway?” Jackson is London’s husband and owns Holt Media, a massive company that started up an initiative called Teamology. It pairs companies with sponsors to help put small businesses on the map. Since Teamology took Spark House under its wing a couple of years ago, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds.
“He had a meeting this morning. And Declan is out with the guys.” She glances around the tent. “Do you need help with anything?”
“I don’t think so. Catering has set everything up in the food tent. Crafts and games are all organized, the adult tent has appetizers and beverages ready to be served, and guests should be arriving shortly. I think we’re good.”
As sad as I am about my birthday parties ending, I know changes are coming. Recently we’ve been in talks with the owners of Mills Hotels, who run some of the most luxurious and prestigious hotels in the world. They’ve expressed interest in helping us expand even further by creating a Spark House franchise. It’s a huge opportunity, and if it happens, it could take Spark House to an entirely new level. The kind of level where afternoon children’s birthday parties are definitely off the table.
I can see the value in it, especially for my sisters, who are both starting families and need the security and the time. I know that in the grand scheme of things, it will give us incredible exposure. And financially it will help us move forward. But at the same time, the things that I love most about Spark House, and my role here, keep shifting. I feel as though I’m always rushing to try to catch up with the changes. And like we’re leaving the hands-on approach behind, which is something I’ve always enjoyed.
“Okay, well, if you’re good here, I’ll just leave you to it. Do you want me to take Ella back to London?”
“You can leave her with me for now. I’ll let you know if I need backup.”
Avery heads in the direction of the main house, and I deflate a little. Just because I know the birthday parties aren’t good for our bottom line, doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed about losing them. They’ve been my baby for the past year, and I really love planning them. Plus, it’s given me an opportunity to work with kids on a semiregular basis, which is something I’ve missed. It reminds me of the days when I used to be a nanny. It’s not a road I’ll likely ever go down again. Not after what almost happened the last time.
I swallow down the familiar unease that comes with just thinking about that time in my life. Ella’s chubby, damp hand settles against my cheek. Her expression is serious when I give her my attention again, as though she can sense the change in my mood.
My phone buzzes from the pocket in my poofy skirt. I have to push layers of tulle out of the way, but I finally manage to find the opening and pull it free. I hold it up to my face to unlock it, and Ella tries to grab it with her spit-covered fingers.
I raspberry her cheek while I open the message from my boyfriend.
Meet up later for drinks with K&K at the Firkin? Sevenish? I can pick you up.
The sound of tires rolling over pavement alerts me to the arrival of our first guests. “It’s show time!” I say to Ella who mimics my wide eyes.
I respond to the text with a thumbs-up and slip my phone back into my pocket with just as much trouble as I had retrieving it, then leave the dress-up tent so I can greet the partygoers.
Twenty minutes later the backyard is buzzing with energy. Twelve eight- to eleven-year-olds bounce around excitedly, all dressed up as their favorite princess.
The parents are standing in small groups in the adult tent set up a short distance away from the party. Close enough that they can observe what’s happening, but far enough that they’re not directly in their kids line of sight. They have a dedicated bartender with a lovely array of cocktails to choose from and appetizers. I’ve found the adult tent is much needed at these things.
There’s also a late lunch scheduled to be brought out at three. It’s buffet style, but a heck of a lot more exciting than the pizza, salad, and subs the kids are having. Although I’m never one to turn down a good slice of cheesy pizza.
As far as children’s parties go, we set the bar pretty high.
“We’re waiting on one more guest,” Lynn, the mother of the birthday girl tells me, then takes a small sip of her champagne cocktail. “This is delicious, by the way. Everything is perfect. And all the parents appreciate having their own place to mingle. You’ve really thought of everything.”
“I understand that some parents are more comfortable sticking around. We wanted to make it fun for them too.” I wink knowingly. “Would you like me to hold off on starting the craft until the final guest arrives?” I don’t want to leave anyone out, but the kids need an activity to break things up. They’re currently posing for pictures in the castle-themed backdrop. I’d say we have about five more minutes before they get restless and bored. I’d like to prevent that from happening if possible.
“Oh! There they are! I’ll be right back!” Lynn smiles and touches my shoulder, then heads toward a man and little girl making their way across the field.
I squint as they get closer. The little girl has long dark hair, pulled up into a ponytail. She stays close to her dad’s side. He’s tall, with the same dark hair. Even from a distance, I can tell he’s the kind of attractive that turns heads. And the closer he gets, the more familiar he becomes.
And not in the I’ve seen him around town or he works with my boyfriend and I’ve run into him at a Christmas party kind of way. It’s more I wish a UFO would appear out of the sky and beam me up. Being probed would be preferable to what’s about to happen.
A hot feeling creeps up the back of my neck, along with a tickle that’s reminiscent of ants crawling on skin. I’m fair-haired, and I don’t tan particularly well. So the heat that seems to be spreading over my body like wildfire is also causing it to go pink. Bright pink, in fact. Almost the same color as my tutu.
Oh my God. This honestly couldn’t get any worse. I’m wearing a freaking tutu, and I’m dressed like a fairy, and the man who moved across the state because I almost kissed him is heading toward me. Today can suck a giant rotten hotdog soaked in pickle juice.
The little girl is rushed by some of the princess partygoers who drag her toward the dress-up tent, laughing and smiling. I want to run in that direction too. But I can’t. Because I can’t make my arms and legs move. As it is, I’m barely registering the weight of Ella, or the fact that her hands are now in my hair and she’s yanking on it.
My heart is beating so fast, it feels like it’s on the verge of busting through my rib cage. I imagine it landing on the ground with a splat and almost let loose a slightly hysterical laugh. Instead, I make a sound similar to a duck being stepped on and plaster what I hope isn’t an entirely fake-looking smile on my face.
I shift Ella, more to see if I still have feeling in my fingers. I’m starting to sweat. I can feel it dripping down my back, and it trickles awkwardly down the inside of my thigh. I’m glad that I have something to do with my hands so I don’t touch my hair, or adjust my dress, which incidentally is bunched up on one side because Ella’s foot is caught in the pocket.
She grabs my hair with her drooly hand as Lynn and the man approach. They’re a handful of feet away now, and Lynn is pointing out the dress-up tent and the adult tent, which is behind me. There’s no option but to pass right by me to get there.
And of course, Lynn being the ever-gracious woman she seems to be, stops to introduce us to each other.
“Gavin, you have to meet Harley.”
It would be awesome if I were a real fairy godmother, and I could magic myself out of here.