One weekend a month. If Abbie Webster wants an adult social life, she has to cram it into the one weekend a month her kids are with their father. Nonetheless, she’s grateful for that one weekend a month–for a long time she didn’t have even that much. She figures she’ll just make a few friends and call it good. After all, who needs more than a few good girlfriends.
But then along comes Daniel Stevenson–all bearded, muscular six-foot-plus of him–and suddenly she’s not so sure that a few good girlfriends will cut it. She wants him and–miracle of miracles–he wants her, too. Still, one weekend a month isn’t enough to make a real relationship. And Abbie has to keep in mind that her first priority has to be to her kids. So, she and Daniel will have to keep this just a casual thing.
Why does she feel like that’s easier said than done?
Read an excerpt of JUST A CASUAL THING
The clock over the stove said 5:18 and Abbie was close to tears. She could feel them stinging her sinuses and pricking the backs of her eyes—tears of frustration, tears of rage, tears of disappointment, and probably some of sorrow and regret as well. Harrison was over an hour late, and years of hard experience had taught her that if he was that late, he wasn’t coming.
Damn it, she really needed him to come through today. And he had said that he was trying to do better.
And you believed him because…?
Well, because he really did seem to be doing better. He had a steady job. He had made his last six child support payments on time and in full. As far as she could tell, he was staying sober. And for the last five months he had arrived on time to pick up the kids for his one weekend a month with them. He had dropped them off when he said he would, too. Sure, Olivia and Bennett came back from those weekends a little buzzed from too much sugar and not enough sleep and the freedom to live mostly without rules, but they were otherwise fine and at least he seemed to be trying.
But, of course, not only was he flaking out on her just when she had started to think she might be able to count on him, he was doing it on the day she really needed him to come through.
Typical. Fucking typical, said that skeptical voice in her head, the one that sounded an awful lot like her brother. Unreliable ought to be that man’s middle name.
Through the door into the living room, Abbie could see Olivia and Bennett sitting on the couch watching television. Bennett, as usual, was thoroughly engrossed in the cartoon on the screen, blissfully unaware that anything was wrong. Olivia, though, was old enough to tell time and knew that her dad should have already arrived. She was also old enough to have noticed that nothing good ever came of his tardiness. Abbie saw her daughter cast a glance at the clock and frown. Her small sigh was somehow both disappointed and unsurprised. Abbie’s mood dropped even further. No nine-year-old should be that world-weary.
With a deep breath, Abbie pulled herself together, deciding there was no point in wallowing. The kids would need dinner. She would, too, although she was pretty sure most food would taste like paste right about now. The duffel bag she’d packed for the kids would need to be unpacked, their toothbrushes put back in the bathroom, their lovies put back in their rooms for bedtime. But first, she needed to cancel her plans for the evening.
The plans she’d been basically living for all month.
Damn it, the tears were threatening again. She sniffed hard and cleared her throat, relieved when the burning behind her eyes receded, then pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans and typed in the unlock code.
Her text messaging app was already open to the messages she’d been sending Harrison for the past hour. He hadn’t responded, although it appeared that he had read them. Don’t think about that right now. She tapped away from that screen, over to the group text with her friends Natalie and Amber to give them the update.
Hey girls, bad news, it looks
The doorbell rang. Abbie froze and from the other room Bennett said, “Is Dad here?”
“I don’t know,” Abbie said, but she was already heading for the door, practically running. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” she called, as the doorbell rang again. She didn’t even look out the window to see who it was, just wrenched the front door open.
It wasn’t Harrison.
It was Harrison’s mother.
“Oh. Hey, Nancy,” Abbie said. “What are you doing here?”
Nancy frowned, reaching up to touch her smooth chignon. “Harrison is stuck at work,” Abbie’s former mother-in-law said. “I’m here to pick up the kids.”
“Stuck at work, huh?” Abbie repeated. Even to her own ears she sounded eight shades of skeptical.
Nancy stood up a little taller, a little straighter. “Yes. Work.” She said it just a little too vehemently. “I’ll take the kids back to my house and Harrison will pick them up tomorrow.”
Abbie closed her eyes and sighed. Probably, she should say no. She should insist that Harrison call her first, confirm that he really was at work and not on a bender somewhere. Then again, maybe this was for the best. Nancy wouldn’t take the kids to McDonald’s for dinner. She’d make them real food with a vegetable included and there would be milk or juice rather than soda. Bedtime would be at a very reasonable 8:30 and 9:00. In the morning, she’d feed them something with whole grains and protein. And Abbie had absolute faith Nancy would never let Harrison take the kids if he wasn’t sober. Nancy might love her son, might forgive him a little too easily and frequently, might have bailed him out of a few too many jams, but she adored her grandchildren fiercely. “Okay,” Abbie said. “I’ll get their stuff.”
Bennett came rushing around the corner. “Grandma!” he said. He threw his little five-year-old body into Nancy’s arms and she gave him a squeeze. Abbie left Bennett chattering away to his grandmother about kindergarten and went back to the living room.
“Grandma’s here,” Abbie said to Olivia, picking up the duffel bag and slinging it over her shoulder. “Your dad’s stuck at work, I guess, so Grandma’s going to take you until he’s done.”
Olivia unfolded herself from the couch and turned off the television. She didn’t say anything, just nodded.
Abbie placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “I’m sure he really is stuck at work,” she said, trying to sound certain.
The look Olivia gave her was pitying.
Outside, Abbie hugged the kids goodbye and helped Nancy get them situated in their boosters in the back seat. She thanked Nancy awkwardly, and Nancy just pressed her lips together and nodded. Abbie stood in the driveway, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm, her sweater hugged around her against the cold winter evening, and waved until they were out of sight.
And then she practically sprinted back into the house.
When she had thought about this evening—and she had thought about it obsessively since she and Natalie and Amber had planned this a month ago—she’d envisioned herself looking like the best possible version of herself: hair blown out and styled, makeup perfectly done, outfit classy. It was her first evening out with friends in years and she’d wanted to look cute. Maybe even sexy. Now that it was after 5:30, though, she had less than half an hour before she was supposed to leave, so she was probably going to have to scale down her expectations.
Well, I’m practically an expert at that.
A little after six, she had on a pair of skinny jeans that made her butt look all right and a pretty green sweater that was snug enough without being tight. She wore her favorite boots, brown leather, knee high, with three inch heels. Her makeup and hair were… fine. She stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom, wishing that she’d been able to come up with something with a little more sex appeal, something that made her look more like a fun, carefree girl and less like a harried single mom. Then again, she was a harried single mom, after all. And she had no plans to pick anybody up, so really what would be the point of looking like a sex pot? Cute enough was fine. She pulled on her puffy winter coat—definitely more functional than sexy—and ran out the door.
As she was sliding into the driver’s seat of her car, her phone buzzed with a text message. It was from Amber.
Sorry ladies, bad news. Aiden just puked everywhere. I’m going to have to stay home. 😦 Have a great time without me.
Abbie dropped her head back against the seat. Amber’s husband was supposed to be taking care of their kids tonight. Abbie was sorely tempted to send a text message back asking why a puking kid was a deal breaker on Amber going out. But Shaun was generally a good husband and a good father and, anyway, Abbie knew how it was. A sick kid wanted his mum. So she just wrote back, Bummer. We’ll miss you. Hope he feels better. Then she put the car in gear and drove to the bar.
She’d never been to this particular bar before. Truthfully, though, Abbie had been out so rarely in the last several years that bars she hadn’t been to wasn’t a very exclusive club. But she liked this one as soon as she walked in. It had a slightly rustic feel, with exposed beams and a simple L-shaped wood bar. The shelving that held the liquor behind the bar was unvarnished. There was quiet but upbeat music playing. This was exactly the kind of place she would have chosen if she was planning her first girl’s night out. Even though they were now a duo rather than a trio, this was going to be a lot of fun.
“Wherever you want,” a waitress said as she sailed by carrying a tray of drinks. Abbie chose one of the high tables near the wall. She settled herself on the stool that faced the door so she’d see Natalie when she walked in. Abbie set her phone on the table and dropped her purse and jacket on the third stool.
A minute later, the waitress came back and put a coaster down in front of her. “What can I get for you?” she asked with a big smile.
“Glass of chardonnay,” Abbie said, figuring it went with pretty much everything.
“Sure thing. Just drinks tonight or do you want a menu?”
“A menu would be great. I’m meeting someone and I think we’ll order food when she gets here.”
“Awesome! I’ll be right back.”
The bar was pleasantly busy and getting busier. The warm chatter of the patrons, punctuated with happy laughter, was strangely soothing. Abbie felt tension start to drain out of her. She needed this. She so needed this.
Once upon a time, drinks with friends wouldn’t have been a momentous occasion. These days, just the idea of having friends made Abbie feel a little giddy. She hadn’t meant to let all those old friendships go. It had just happened. First, she’d gotten married and pregnant younger than all her high school friends. They’d been just starting their professional lives and she’d had a husband and a newborn. Her social life ground to an absolute halt. By the time those friends started getting married and having kids, Abbie found that they weren’t really friends anymore.
After that, Abbie’s marriage fell apart in the wake of Harrison’s drug and alcohol use and his apparently chronic infidelity, and not having friends to go out with was the least of her worries. She suddenly found herself a broke single mother, one bad car repair away from not being able to make rent with an ex-husband who seemed to provide nothing but drama. And so, for years, she had just focused on making sure that the kids had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies and that the car payments and student loan payments were made on time. Honestly, she’d mostly been too tired to worry about something as silly as having friends.
But six months ago, Abbie had taken a job in a new dental office and there she met Amber, a fellow hygienist, and Natalie, one of the practice dentists. The two of them had basically adopted Abbie, eating lunch with her, chatting during the occasional slow afternoon. They’d almost immediately started inviting her to their monthly girls’ night out, a Friday where they went out for drinks and dinner, no boys allowed. At first Abbie had gone with her knee jerk reaction: decline. But since it seemed, miraculously, that Harrison’s rehab was taking this time, and as she started to think that maybe she could start counting on that weekend without kids, she started to think that maybe she was the kind of person who could have friends. So, this month she had said yes and, oh, how she had looked forward to it.
So, it was a little disappointing that Amber wasn’t going to make it but as Abbie thought about it, perhaps this was actually better. Perhaps one on one she and Natalie could get to know each other better than they would have if it were the three of them.
And maybe Harrison really was stuck at work. There was really no reason to assume the worst.
The waitress brought her wine over and Abbie took an appreciative sip before opening the menu to see what kind of appetizers looked good. She was suddenly starving. Maybe she should order something to munch on while she waited. Hopefully Natalie would be here soon.
Abbie’s phone rang and she had a sudden stab of panic that it was going to be Nancy, calling to say something was wrong and Abbie needed to come get the kids. But it wasn’t. It was Natalie.
“Hey,” Natalie said when she answered. “Are you at the bar already?”
“Yeah. Are you on your way?”
Natalie groaned and Abbie’s heart sank. “I’m so sorry, Abbie,” she said. “I’m not going to make it.”
Disappointment felt like lead in Abbie’s gut. “How come?”
“I wasn’t supposed to be on call tonight but Dr. Thomas has the stomach flu. And then I was just going to come hang out at the bar and not have anything to drink and just leave if I got called, but—” she groaned again “—I just got a call. I’ve got to go in. I don’t know how long this is going to take. I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Abbie said, hating the little quaver in her voice.
“No, it’s not,” Natalie said. “I know how much you were looking forward to this. I was, too. Next month. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Next month.” Abbie tried to make her voice sound like she was smiling. “Definitely.”
After they hung up, Abbie dropped her phone on the table. As a rule, she wasn’t given to self-pity. Feeling sorry for one’s self sapped a person’s energy, and for the last several years that was a thing she couldn’t afford. But in that moment, alone in the bar, a powerful wave of unhappiness washed over her. She took a sip of wine, but it just tasted like vinegar now.
Ugh, she was pathetic. At least, she felt pathetic. Here it was, clearly date night for most of the patrons at the bar, and she was sitting all alone at a table like a loser. Her first attempt at having a real, grown up social life was a failure. Maybe this was the Universe telling her that she wasn’t meant to have that, that her life was going to be a dog run from work to home and back again just as it had been for years now. The Universe didn’t pull any punches in delivering the news, apparently.
She looked over toward the bar. The stools there were almost all occupied by men, guys with beers in front of them watching the hockey game on the screens. This did seem like the kind of place a decent guy might go to have a drink and watch part of the game after work, maybe meet up with a couple of friends before heading home. She thought of how these guys would probably go home in a little while, kiss their wives or girlfriends hello, hug their kids, eat dinner, maybe watch some television, maybe have comfortable, pleasant sex before rolling over to sleep. That’s how reliable, functional men lived, right? She supposed she wouldn’t really know.
She took another bitter sip of her wine and let herself feel a little wistful. Why couldn’t she have wound up with a functional guy, someone who could be counted on? She looked down the row of shoulders and backs, thinking about the lives these men lived. Her gaze snagged on one particular set of shoulders there at the bar. See, really: why couldn’t that have been the kind of guy she went for? He was tall and broad-shouldered, with thick blond hair that was just a little too long. She could only see the back of his head, but she thought he had a beard, probably thick like his hair. He had his elbows propped in front of him on the bar, his broad back curving slightly, hinting at thick, strong muscles under the flannel shirt he wore tucked into his dark jeans. It was probably too much to infer just from the back of someone, but he seemed solid, dependable, trustworthy. She would bet he had a good job. He would answer his phone when his wife called. He wouldn’t disappear on her for days and then come back high and acting like she was the crazy one for being upset. He wouldn’t lie to her face, wouldn’t hit on other women right in front of her. He was probably kind. Why couldn’t someone like that have sat down in front of her in homeroom freshman year in high school, instead of skinny, brooding Harrison Webster? How different would her life have been?
The hockey game went to commercial and the blond man stood up from his stool. Unsurprisingly, those broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist, a good butt, nice thighs. Not that those were signs of dependability, but certainly they were nice things to have in a partner. There was an ease to the way he stood. She would bet he was an athlete in high school. Well, there it was, then, the reason she never fell in love with somebody like that—she didn’t really go for athletes back then. She’d thought jocks weren’t smart or interesting enough. Plus, there was too much competition from other, prettier girls. Maybe, though, those other girls just knew something back then that Abbie didn’t. Maybe she’d had it all wrong.
Well, too late to change all that now. She swallowed another mouthful of wine and rested her elbow on the table, propped her hand under her chin with a sigh. She really should just go home.
The blond, bearded man at the bar prepared to step away, saying something to the man next to him that made the man chuckle. God, he seemed so decent. How pathetic that decency was such a turn-on and not just a given?
He was smiling when he turned away from the bar and Abbie sucked in a breath.
Oh, shit. She knew him.
Daniel Stevenson, her brother’s high school best friend and football teammate. It had been—what?—nearly twenty years since she’d seen him last, and he hadn’t been quite so tall and broad back then, nor had he had that full but carefully trimmed beard. And yet she recognized him immediately. There was no way that he would remember her, right? He and her brother had been seniors when she was a freshman. She’d just been Trevor’s twerpy little sister back then. Like every little sister, she’d nursed a couple crushes on her brother’s friends, but she’d barely even talked to them. So, no, he wouldn’t recognize her, she told herself as he walked away, heading for the hallway that led to the restrooms.
But, oh, God, what if he did? When he returned to his seat at the bar, he would be facing her. She didn’t look that different from when she was in high school—just older, really, more haggard. And who knew: he and her brother might be friends on Facebook, he might have seen her comments on her brother’s Facebook page, might have seen her recent profile picture, might recognize her from that. What if he came over, smiling broadly, wanting to catch up, find out how she was doing?
She couldn’t do that, not tonight. Not when she was sitting there drinking wine alone. Like her brother, he was probably happily married to a beautiful woman and had a whole mess of gorgeous kids, and she really didn’t want to hear about it. What would she respond with? Hey, remember that guy I was dating freshman year that my brother loudly and frequently said was a loser? Yeah, turns out marrying him and having a couple of kids didn’t improve that situation so now I’m thirty-three and divorced and barely hanging on to my sanity. Aren’t you impressed?
Ugh. No. Absolutely not. She had to get out of there before he came back.
Abbie looked frantically around for the waitress, but she was nowhere to be seen. Abbie could go ask the bartender to close out her tab, but what if Daniel came back from the bathroom while she waited? Then she’d be standing at the bar. There would be no getting out of talking to him.
Christ, this evening was a fiasco.
Abbie reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. Fuck. The only cash she had was a twenty. She looked around one more time, hoping to spot the waitress, but still no sign of her. Well, $20 was way too much for a single glass of wine, but there was no helping it. Abbie took a healthy gulp of the wine still in her glass—damn it, she was going to be leaving more than half of the wine here, to boot—and then tucked the twenty under the stem, grabbed her coat and purse and walked as quickly as possible toward the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the door to the men’s room opening. Terror seized her and, completely forgetting any sense of dignity, she straight up ran out the door, escaping out into the frigid night.
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