Page 19 of Hot Mess

I was dreading her learning the truth about the tooth fairy. Three weeks ago, she’d spent an hour writing and decorating a letter to go with her missing tooth.

No, if Elle Evans was an illusion that would last for a long time, she was one I wanted my daughter to keep hold of.

Which meant keeping her away from my daughter.

Maybe I was overprotective, but I knew that was something I’d never regret.

“I’m done.” Ari appeared in the doorway. “Ooh, it’s cold!”

I bit back a laugh. The child wouldn’t know cold if it hit her. One day, I’d take her back to England again—in winter. “Oh, quit it. Go brush your teeth and get changed. We have to go get some groceries today.”

Groaning, she said, “Do I have to?”

“Does the Earth orbit the sun?”

“The people on the NASA videos on YouTube think it’s CGI. What’s CGI?”

“Usually used in movies, but also by flat-Earthers. Get changed.”

“What’s a flat-Earther? Do they make flat models of the Earth? Like a map?”

Kids.

“Yes. Exactly that. Now get changed. Please.”

“Yes, Dad.”

I glanced back. She left as quickly as she came, and I shook my head at the back of her. I had to admit, I’d never met a child who asked quite as many questions as mine did.

I blew out a long breath and cradled my mug. The warmth of it against my palms was soothing, and the low sounds of the waves crashing against the sand only relaxed me further.

Sitting back, I sipped my tea and looked around the beach. It was empty except for one person jogging and heading this way. As they got closer, I realized it was Elle.

Shit.

She was too close for me to go inside and pretend I hadn’t seen her. I didn’t have my phone either, so I couldn’t pretend that way. I was stuck in this shit situation, and her expression dropped when she saw me sitting here.

Damn it.

She was wearing black shorts that showed off her long, toned legs, and a flowing white strappy shirt that wasn’t quite thick enough to completely hide her turquoise sports bra. As she approached, she slowed, pushing her dark hair back from her face and into her messy bun.

“Good morning,” I said quietly.

“Hi,” she replied, gripping her water bottle. “Um, how are you?”

“Not too bad. Yourself?”

“Good.” Elle looked down at her pink trainers before back up at me. “Uh, I was going to stop by later. I wanted to apologize for snapping at you last night. I was really stressed and really tired, but I had no excuse for taking it out on you.”

“You had a little bit of one. I haven’t exactly been the nicest person in the world to you,” I admitted, slightly begrudgingly. “Also, my great-aunt and her friends will stress anyone would.”

She fought a smile, and it made her blue eyes shine in the sunlight. “Actually, they were pretty much the best part of my day. They’re funny.”

“Do we have a different definition of the word? Funny isn’t a word I’d use for them. Insane? Crazy? Nuts? Bonkers? Yes. But not funny.”

“Bonkers? What’s that?”

Right. “It’s another word for crazy. If you say, “That’s crazy!” a British person might say, “That’s bonkers!”

“That’s a weird word.”

“Eh, it’s a weird language.” I shrugged. “It’s all the same to me. Sorry they bothered you. I told Agnes she couldn’t use the beach for their little soiree, but I should have known they wouldn’t listen.”

She shifted her weight. “Honestly, aside from them appearing naked out of nowhere, it wasn’t so much a bother. Although I don’t think I drank enough wine before I went to bed. I can still remember it.”

I grimaced, slowly nodding my head. “Yeah, you need at least half a bottle of vodka for that.”

This time, she couldn’t hide her smile. “Well, again, I’m sorry for shouting. I let my emotions get the better of me.”

“Don’t apologize. It happens.”

“Elle! Hi!” Ari zoomed out of the kitchen onto the deck. “Hi!”

Elle smiled, but she took a step back. “Hey, Ari. How are you?”

“I’m happy! Hi!” She beamed so widely I thought her cheeks were going to fly off. “What are you doing today?”

“Oh, uh… I have a couple of phone calls to make, then I was going to ask your dad if he wanted anything painting in the house.”

She was going to do what?

“You don’t have to do that. You’re renting it.”

She shifted her weight again to the other foot. “It’s fine. I have nothing else to do. I saw paint in the utility and bathroom. I’m not too bad at it.”

It felt wrong to let her paint anything. It was the one job I hated more than anything, and that was exactly why those two rooms hadn’t been painted yet.

That and I was still waiting on the cowboy plumber to fix the leaky bath.

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