Jasmine pulled the sheet over the two fluffy pillows, smoothing out the wrinkles before reaching for the soft, pink comforter. A paper card fell off the nightstand. Picking it up, she smiled. Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy! The script no doubt belonged to one of her sisters-in-law, but the shakily scribbled Z’s all over the card were from her favorite person in the world. Zoey had drawn two smiling faces: one for Jasmine and one for herself. Jasmine set the card back on the nightstand before running her hand over the bedspread once more. Never in a million years would she have imagined having such a feminine color in her space. Motherhood had changed more than just her body.
After tucking the edge of the comforter under the pillow, she moved across the small room she shared with her three-year-old daughter. She pulled open the old and worn dresser, wiggling it side to side at the same time so it wouldn’t stick. Like everything in her life, it had been used almost beyond its limit. She placed Zoey’s carefully folded clothes inside before wriggling it closed again. She scanned the room, catching the few dolls scattered across the floor. Jasmine bent and picked them up, opening the wooden dollhouse that Mikel, her brother, had made especially for Zoey. He’d painted it bright pink at her request. Jasmine bit back her smile. Only she would end up with such a girly girl for a daughter and be terrified.
She sighed, tracing the edge of the doll’s expression. The two smiling faces on Zoey’s Mother’s Day card flashed in her mind. Her chest tightened. Would Zoey have had a better life if I’d let someone adopt her? Would she have two parents who loved her, rather than just me? I can barely keep a roof over her head and used clothes on her quickly growing body.
Maybe it had been selfish to keep Zoey, but the moment she’d seen that little heart beating on the ultrasound, she’d known: she’d never be able to give her up. But will I be good enough? Will I be able to protect her? Will she resent me when she knows what I’ve done? Who I was? Life would be so much easier if Jasmine was someone else with a different past.
The walls seemed to be closing in. Her ribs squeezed and the backs of her eyes burned. She gently placed the doll inside the wooden house and straightened. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself. I just need to keep doing better. For Zoey. Her phone chirped, jarring her out of her thoughts. She had one guest checking in today, and that was what she should have been focusing on. She needed guests to keep her inn—her livelihood—afloat.
She wiped her hands on her ripped jean shorts that had seen better days and opened her door. As she walked down the stairs to the desk, a tall figure caught her eye. His back was to her, all attention focused on the painting of the crashing ocean waves on the wall.
“Good morning. You must be Mr. Remington.”
A low chuckle sent a shiver through her. “My father is Mr. Remington. I’m just Atlas.”
She smiled politely as her eyes darted to his face, and she froze. Time stopped. The air evaporated as terror gripped her heart and squeezed it like a vise. His tall frame filled out an expensive-looking suit. His black hair was long at the top and flecked with grey at the shorter sides. Dark scruff peppered his perfectly chiseled jaw. She shivered, remembering the way it had felt brushing across her shoulder. And those eyes. Grey and bright. She only knew one other person with the same cloudy orbs. Zoey.
He’d changed some in the last four years since she’d seen him. Not that she’d had much time to really look at him before she’d nodded towards the dingy bathroom in the bar where he’d followed her and bent her over the sink. Flames of embarrassment lapped at her skin. She’d been looking for an escape that night, and the stranger had been more than willing to help.
Atlas. Atlas Remington. She finally had a name for Zoey’s biological father.
“What are you doing here?” She gasped. Was he here to take Zoey from her? Had he known all this time? No. That wasn’t possible. No one knew what had happened in that bathroom except them.
His eyebrows furrowed. “Uh, checking in. I should have a reservation for two weeks.”
Did he not recognize her? Was it possible? He’d smelled strongly of whiskey that night. Maybe he had no idea who she was.
“Right. Sorry. We don’t know each other, do we?” She held her breath.
“I think I’d remember if we did.” He smiled. Was he flirting with her?
“What are you in town for?” she asked carefully, finding his paperwork.
He looked around the room at the high, white patched ceiling and then over to the paint-chipped furniture, rather than at her before he answered. “Just needed a little vacation.”
“And you chose my inn? Was it my two Yelp reviews that convinced you?” She couldn’t hold back her smile.
He chuckled again. Those grey eyes flashing as they focused on her. “I like the location and wanted to see it for myself. The pictures didn’t do it justice though.”
Her eyes flicked down momentarily. “Well, someday I’ll hire a professional photographer.”
“Oh, no. The pictures were great. I just meant it’s even better in person.” He smiled, showing off his perfect, white teeth. Good God. Was he a toothpaste model?
“Do you need my credit card?” he asked.
Shit. She’d been staring. “Uh, no. It’s all on file. Just sign here.“ She pointed to the space on the form ready and waiting on the counter. “You have the Lighthouse suite like you requested. There are extra towels in the closet in the bathroom. I’ll come in to clean every three days unless you need it done sooner—just let me know.”
He nodded and scribbled his signature on the paper. Jasmine held out the lone key ring with a lighthouse chain and his receipt. “I’ll charge the card you provided when booking with any incidentals. Your room is just up the stairs to the left.” Across from mine. “There’s a sign on the door. The silver key works for the front door, and the brass key is for your room. Did you need more than one set, or will it just be you staying with us?”
“Just me. The one is fine.” He took it from her and reached to grab a duffel bag she hadn’t noticed in the shock of seeing her baby daddy from a one-night stand—if you could even call it that. Were ten-minute stands a thing?
“Enjoy your stay. I leave my number at the desk here.” She pointed to the folded card stock sign right next to the one stating No cash kept on premises. “And it’s also on the copy of your receipt. Just text me if you need anything and I’m not at the front desk.”
“You run the inn by yourself?”
She smiled with pride. “Yes, I do.”
He nodded and grabbed the papers before walking towards the stairs. She waited until the click of his door closing sounded to let out the breath she’d been holding.
“Holy fucking shit.” She placed a shaky hand over her racing heart as if it would help to calm the panic.
She whipped out her phone and stepped into the large kitchen, dialing her big brother Bently’s number.
He picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Jas. You on your way?”
She swallowed hard before answering. Jasmine didn’t need her brother freaking out and showing up here to make things worse. Even she didn’t know what the hell was going on yet. “Uh, no. Actually, I need you to keep Zoey overnight.”
“Is everything okay?” The concern in his voice brought a rush of guilt crashing over her.
Not even close to okay. Of all the people in her life, Bently had been the one constant—the only person she could count on. She hated to lie, but she’d brought enough trouble to their family. No. She’d handle this on her own.
“I have everything under control, Bent. I just need you to do this and not ask me any questions. Okay? I’ll owe you one.” More like a million, but who was counting?
“Okay. Fine. Anything you need,” Bently said.
“Thank you. I’ll call before bed to say goodnight to her.”
“Sounds good.” Bently ended the call.
Jasmine opened her contacts. She needed to talk to someone about this. But her best friend, Remy, was married to Mikel, and she was shit at keeping secrets from him. The last thing Jasmine wanted was her two overprotective brothers jumping in to save her. Again. She’d caused them all enough pain. This was her doing and she would fix this. Somehow.
She scrolled through her contacts until Emma’s name popped up and hit call before she could back out. It rang and rang until her friend picked up.
“Jazzy! Hey, mama. I got a quick break from the studio. How are you?” Emma asked as background music filtered through the phone.
Jasmine covered her mouth with her hand, trying to quiet the sob that surprised even her.
“Jas? What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Emma asked. The noise grew quieter, as if she’d moved away.
“He’s here,” she managed.
“Zoey’s father. He’s staying at my inn.”
Emma was silent for a few beats. “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
She couldn’t blame her friend for not knowing. There were several things Jasmine kept locked away in a vault of topics she wouldn’t talk about. Zoey’s biological father was one of them. She was too ashamed.
“I don’t know, honestly.” Jasmine wiped the tears from her eyes and walked out to the back deck. Salty sea air blew gently over her skin as waves crashed in the distance.
“Okay. Does he know about Zoey?”
“I don’t even think he remembers me.”
“I—I don’t know what to do.” Jasmine shook her head.
“I wish I could offer advice, but you have never said anything about this guy.”
Jasmine sighed. “I know. It’s a part of my past that I’d like to omit. I did a lot of fucked-up things, and I’d just rather forget the girl I used to be.”
“I get it . . . So, can you explain how you made a baby with him, but he somehow can’t recognize you?” Emma asked carefully.
Flashes came back of that dark bar. Those grey eyes had burned her skin with awareness, making it clear exactly what he’d wanted from her before he’d ever even offered to buy her a drink.
“He was just a guy from a bar. We never exchanged names, just . . . body fluids.”
“Thanks for the mental image,” Emma said and laughed. “Is he hot?”
Jasmine rolled her eyes. “On a one-to-ten scale, he’s an eleven.”
“Damn, girl. So, how can this godlike man not recognize you? Tell me it was something kinky like a sex party with masks.”
Jasmine laughed. Only Emma could take a subject like this and turn it into something to laugh about. “It was less than ten minutes in a bathroom and I never saw him again . . . until today.”
“Was it a good ten minutes?” Emma asked.
Jasmine blew out through her nose. “It was . . . okay.” Achieving orgasm with a partner was pretty rare for her. Zoey’s father hadn’t been one of those unicorn moments.
“Hot but not great in the sack. Got it. Well, we can’t all be perfect. Maybe you should try sleeping with a woman; I’ve never not had an orgasm with a woman. With guys, it’s fifty-fifty.”
“I wish I could be sexually attracted to a woman.” They seemed safer.
“Okay, so maybe it is a good thing your baby daddy is back in your life,” Emma suggested.
Jasmine paced back and forth over the long porch. “How exactly?”
“You can get to know him and see if he’s a decent guy. Maybe Zoey can have her dad in her life after all.”
Jasmine stopped, a rush of dizziness spinning though her head. She sat on the ground with her head lowered to her knees. “I’m scared. What if he tries to take her from me? What if he says I’m a bad mom? What if—”
“What if he’s a great father? What if Zoey could have two parents in her life? What if he can help provide for her and take some of that stress off you?”
Jasmine blinked back more tears. She hated showing her emotions like this, but that was something else that motherhood had changed. She couldn’t hide anymore.
Emma had a point. Jasmine wouldn’t let fear stand in the way of Zoey’s chances of happiness. If Atlas was a good father, and she didn’t try, then she’d be robbing Zoey of something Jasmine herself had never had but always wanted. She couldn’t hold the man’s sexual history against him. After all, she’d done the same thing—more than once.
“You’re right. I’ll get to know him. I’ll see if he’s a safe person, observe how good he is with Zoey. Then I’ll tell him.”
“I’m here for you. Whatever you need,” Emma offered.
“Thank you. I appreciate it. Can you keep this between us for now? I don’t want Remy to find out just yet. She’ll tell Mikel and then—”
“And then you’ll have two big brothers and their best friend knocking on your door and getting into the middle of your business. I got you.”
Jasmine laughed. “They probably wouldn’t even knock. They’d bust the thing down.”
Emma giggled. “True. Well, I know they have your back, but I also respect your right as Zoey’s mother to do what you think is right.”
“You’re the best, Em.”
“Tell that to my stepbrother the next time you see him.” Emma laughed again, but this time it sounded forced.
“I’ll mention it to Link,” Jasmine promised. It was a hopeless cause, much to her friend’s dismay.
“Okay, well, I gotta get back. Almost done with this album and then I start my tour next week,” Emma said.
“I’m so happy that your dream is becoming a reality. Soon you’ll be too famous to be my friend.”
“Talk to you later.” Jasmine smiled.
“Love you, bitch.”
“You too.” Jasmine slipped the phone in her back pocket and got to her feet once more.
Taking a deep breath, she stared past the tall beach grass and rose hip bushes towards the expanse of green-blue waves. They crashed against the rocks to her left and licked the sandy coast to her right as the ocean tide worked its way in. She could do this. For Zoey, she’d do anything. If that meant giving her father a chance, she’d do it. And if it meant keeping who he was a secret for the rest of her time on earth, she’d do that too.
Because Zoey would not go through the shit she’d been through. Jasmine would work through the pain of the past so that her daughter didn’t have to have one-tenth of the trauma in her life that Jasmine had had. She’d protect her daughter, no matter what it took. Jasmine knew better than anyone that of all the people in a child’s life, the father figure could be the most dangerous.
That’s it for this romance novel excerpt.
To read the full standalone novel, order your copy of The Lighthouse Inn today.