“If you want shared custody, you’re going to have to make some changes,” my attorney, Jackson, said as he filled a glass with water.
My stomach twisted. “What kind of changes are we talking about?”
“You’re a single guy, and you’re self-employed.” My attorney put the pitcher aside and held up his hands. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But the court might not look too kindly on it.”
Up until now, our custody arrangement had been an agreement, which was submitted to the court and signed by a judge, making it an enforceable order. Lola was against changing the schedule, and, up until now, I’d been afraid to rock the boat. Things were amicable, and I wasn’t sure how she’d take me formally asking for a modification.
I finally felt confident enough to ask for what I wanted—more time with my daughter. Especially since it was what Wren had been begging for. “What do you mean?”
Jackson sat across from me, opening a manila folder. “Judges like stability. They want to see that you’re in a secure job, getting a paycheck. That you’re committed to making this work. Are you living in the same school district as the child, or do you intend to be? Will the child be in your care or be watched by a sitter?”
“I’m a hundred percent committed. I live in the same school district as Wren, only about ten minutes from her house.” I was glad I’d thought of those things when I purchased my home a few years ago.
“Good. Shared custody works best when you’re living close by. Are you in a relationship, or are you a serial dater? What I need to know is, are there women coming in and out of the child’s life?”
I didn’t appreciate Jackson’s rapid-fire questions, but I appreciated his getting to the issues quickly.
“I’m not a saint, but I’ve been careful. I date, but I don’t bring anyone home to meet Wren.” Just the thought made me slightly ill.
Jackson grimaced. “I hate to say this, but it would look better if you were in a serious relationship, engaged, or, better yet, married.”
I couldn’t believe asking for shared custody meant that I had to make all these changes. I wasn’t seeing anyone. I wasn’t close to being in a serious relationship. Then an image of my best friend popped into my head—Everly. She was the perfect option, and I had no other choice.
“I didn’t want to say anything because it’s technically new, but I’ve been seeing my best friend, Everly. I waited to make a move because I was afraid of losing our friendship. We haven’t told anyone because we don’t want them getting their hopes up if it doesn’t work out. I was planning on waiting to get engaged, mainly because of my daughter. But if you’re saying it’ll make a difference in this case, then I’ll adjust my timeline.” My mind was racing, running through everything I’d need to do. Talk to Everly. Tell my grandmother I wanted to get engaged and ask for her ring.
Jackson nodded enthusiastically. “This is good.”
The reality was, Everly was my best friend. Even if I thought there was going to be something between us, I hadn’t let myself go there since I had Wren. After college, I moved back home to be close to Lola, Wren, and my parents. Everly had been by my side ever since. She’s like an aunt to my daughter, and I didn’t want to lose her. But there was nothing more important than Wren, and if getting engaged meant that I had a shot at shared custody, I’d do it.
I didn’t want to be one of those dads who only saw their kids on the weekends or every other Wednesday.
Jackson flipped through my file. “Let’s talk about your job. You’re self-employed. Cain Rental, right?”
“That’s right. I rent tents, tables, linens, and silverware for big events—mainly weddings. I work closely with the wedding planning service in town, Happily Ever Afters.”
When Jackson grimaced, I asked, “You said being self-employed would be a potential issue in court?”
“It’s better if you have a job where you get a paycheck that someone else is writing. Your situation isn’t bad. It’s just not the best-case scenario. The judge wants to know that you’re stable, not moving anywhere, and that you’re financially secure. We both know that most businesses fail in the first five years.”
My stomach dipped. “Mine’s been in operation for two.”
Jackson let out a breath.
And I couldn’t reassure him that the business would be successful. I was still in the precarious position of trying to fund the business and provide for my living expenses. It was a daily struggle, especially when I needed someone to watch Wren while I worked events on the weekends.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Wren. That’s why I opened my own business. I wanted to be able to set my hours and be financially secure. The thing is, it takes time, and Wren isn’t getting any younger.”
Jackson waved a hand at me. “I think you’ll make a great witness on the stand. You’re clean-cut and educated, you own a business, and you’re close to your extended family. The judge wants to see that you have help with Wren, too.”
“I have my parents, my sister, Sage, and Everly.”
“We just have to make sure the judge knows that. Get a ring on your girl’s finger. And I’ll let you know as soon as the paperwork is filed.”
I stood to shake his hand. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing.”
Jackson led me to the doorway. “The hard work is yet to be done. The custody case will be stressful, and I’m gonna need you to hold it together for the next few months. No scandals, no DUIs, no arrests.”
“I work and take care of Wren. Sometimes I get a beer with my brothers when she’s with Lola, but I’d never drink and drive or do anything to put her at risk.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that you would. I just wanted to warn you that the stakes are high. In Maryland, custody is only revisited when there’s been a change in circumstances. Once the judge makes his or her decision, it’s final. It would be next to impossible to get a second crack at it.”
My stomach dropped. I’ve only got one chance at this. “Is there any way he could give me less custody?”
“He could keep things the same, grant shared custody, or reduce your time. But he’d have to have a reason to do that. That’s why I said to keep your nose clean.”
I shook my head. “That won’t be an issue.”
“What you’re asking for is to have Wren with you for one week and then with her mother for one week. Be sure that’s what you want before I file. A custody hearing has the potential to stir up everything in your past.”
“I don’t have any skeletons in my closet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Jackson lowered his voice. “There’s nothing that could come out that’s going to look bad? If so, I need to know.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
Jackson shook my hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
On the way out of the office, I wondered what I had just done. I promised to ask my best friend, the woman who’d been by my side through everything, to marry me. What was I thinking? Sure, there was nothing more important in my life than Wren. And I wanted to spend more time with her, but what if it ruined my relationship with Everly?
I’d made a promise to my attorney without even talking to her about it. What if she said no? What if she didn’t want anything to do with my crazy plan? Whatever her reaction, I had to know what it was. I couldn’t put it off because Jackson was planning on filing the paperwork soon.
I pulled out my phone and sent her a text.
Harrison: Can you meet for dinner tonight?
My phone buzzed as I got to my SUV.
Everly: Yes! Where at?
Harrison: See you in 30.
I loved the easy relationship I had with Everly. Even when we went to different colleges, and I got Lola pregnant, she was there via emails and texts. And we picked up right where we left off when I moved back home.
I hoped this conversation didn’t change anything. I didn’t want to give her any indication of why we were meeting or give her a reason not to show up. I wasn’t sure how she would react. She’d never given any indication that she wanted anything beyond friendship with me. And this was asking a lot from someone who had never requested anything in return. I was asking her to pretend not only to be in a relationship but to be engaged, as well. And how far would this go? Would we have to live together? Would we need to set a date? Actually go through with it and get married?
Jackson wanted it to look real. We were asked all the time if we’d ever gone there with each other. Most couldn’t believe we hadn’t. So, no one would question if we did.
If we told everyone we were a thing and later broke up, my grandmother would be heartbroken. I couldn’t tell her the truth. If we were going to lie in a court of law, everyone needed to believe the lie.
On the drive to Max’s, I wondered why I never thought of Everly as more than a friend. The obvious answer was that her friendship was too important to me. I just hoped that pretending to be together didn’t have the same effect. Everyone knew custody cases were stacked against dads. And there was nothing technically wrong with Lola’s parenting. There was no reason why a judge would reduce her time other than me wanting more of it. I wasn’t sure how judges handled those situations, and I wanted to present the best case.
As Jackson said, this was my best chance.
I parked and walked slowly toward the restaurant. My feet felt heavier with each step. The space between my shoulder blades tightened.
For the first time, I was nervous to see Everly. I wasn’t sure how she would react. If she’d be on board or if she would think I was completely crazy and laugh at me. I wouldn’t blame her, no matter what she did. The entire situation was unreal.
When I opened the door, Everly was already waiting. As soon as she saw me, her blue eyes brightened.
For the first time, I really looked at her—long, dirty-blonde hair curled into waves. She wore a dress as if she’d come straight from her office job. She described herself as shy, but I rarely saw that side of her.
She moved into my arms, hugging me like she always did, except this time, I was hyperaware of the way her breasts pressed against my chest.
She pulled back slightly, leaving me wondering if I could feel her nipples through her dress or if I was losing my mind.
Her brow furrowed. “Is everything okay?”
I nodded tightly. I’d never been more aware of her physically. My body still tingled where she’d touched me.
We followed the hostess to our table. Sitting across from each other, we ordered drinks, and Everly said, “You met with your attorney today. How did it go?”
I sighed, knowing I needed to get this over with. “He said I had to make some changes in order for me to look better in front of the judge.”
Everly leaned in and lowered her voice. “What are you talking about? You’re responsible and mature. You own a business. What would you possibly need to change?”
“He said it would look better if I was in a serious relationship, engaged, or, better yet, married.” I let the bitterness seep into my voice.
“Well, that’s ridiculous. You’re not seeing anyone, are you?”
I didn’t sense anything other than genuine curiosity in her tone. We rarely discussed our relationships unless one of us went through a bad breakup and needed the other to commiserate. I didn’t think too closely about why that was. I didn’t particularly like hearing about her dating anyone.
“What are you going to do?”
I couldn’t even look at her. “You’re going to hate me for this.”
Everly laughed. “I could never hate you.”
Knowing what I had to say could change everything, I drew in a deep breath before I told her the truth. “I told him I was going to propose.”
“Propose. Propose to who?” she asked, her tone incredulous.
I hadn’t been dating anyone seriously, so I wasn’t sure where her mind was at. “Well…you.” When she didn’t respond right away, I tried again, “I told Jackson I was going to propose to you.”
“You did what?” Her voice raised, and she looked around at the other tables to see if anyone was staring at us.
I held up my hands. “Before you freak out—”
“I'm already freaking out,” Everly hissed.
“Just wait a second. Let me explain.”
She waved a hand at me as if to tell me to go ahead.
“I’m a single guy. The judge might assume I’m bringing women in and out of Wren’s life.”
“You don’t do that, do you?”
“Of course not. Apparently, custody cases can get ugly. Lola’s married with another baby on the way. The fact is, she looks stable. I don’t.”
“I can’t believe you told your attorney we were getting engaged.”
“The case will come down to who’s reliable and steady. And let's be honest, it tends to be stacked against the guy.” I wasn’t positive if that was true or just the way it felt to me. But I wasn’t above appealing to Everly in a way that would get her behind my idea.
“That’s not fair. I cannot believe that you have to be engaged or married in order to get more custody of Wren, and I’m still stuck on the fact that you need me to do it.”
“Honestly, I panicked when he said it would look better if I was engaged. Your face immediately popped into my head because we’ve been friends for years, and everyone’s always asked us if something’s ever happened between us.” At the irritated look on her face, I rushed to continue. “And, of course, it’s not true. We know that. But at the same, no one is going to question if we get together. It’s assumed we will.”
“I’m talking about, in everyone else’s mind, we make sense. We’ve been friends for years. We help each other. We’re there for each other. You’re always at my house.”
“That’s because of Wren, too. I love her. She’s like a niece to me.”
“Everyone will believe it. No one will question it.” The more I thought it through, the more it made sense. “But if you’re not okay with it. I can tell him I made it up. You obviously get a say in this.”
“Let’s say I wanted to help you. What would it entail?”
“Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But I would think it means a few dates, being seen around town.”
“Do I need a ring?”
“I’m sure Gran wouldn’t mind if I use hers.”
Everly dropped her head into her hands. “We have to lie to your grandmother?”
“I don’t want anyone to lie for us, so it’s best if we’re the only ones who know the truth.”
Everly nodded. “That makes sense. But if we’re going to do this, we need to go all-in.”
A thrill shot through me that she might be on board with my plan. “How so?”
“I think we’re going to have to live together and set a date. Really show the judge we’re serious about this.”
“Wren’s worth it.” Was she worth me living with my best friend? What if wires got crossed and one of us started having feelings for the other?
Everly’s forehead wrinkled. “You know I’d do anything for you.”
I could hear the but coming. She was my best friend. She was always there for me. She was the one I called when I needed help when Wren was sick. It was natural that she’d be the one I would go to for this, too. I didn’t consider all the possible ramifications. Or what it might mean for Everly.
“So, let’s make a plan.”
“We’re doing this?” It was almost too good to be true.
“I’d do anything for you and that little girl. I hate to lie, but it’s for a good cause.”
I tried not to think about what might happen if anyone found out it was fake.
It would be an issue for the custody case and my business, but there was an elephant in the room that neither of us had mentioned. What if one of us liked the arrangement a little too much? Everly had never made any move toward me. Not even when she was drunk or when we’d commiserated over a breakup.
It was only me who wondered what would have happened had I not gotten a one-night stand pregnant. Would Everly look at me differently? Would she see me as a man and not just her friend who needed her help?
There were so many questions swirling in my brain; my head was throbbing. But we needed to plan our arrangement before I could consider the consequences.
For a limited time:
Lisa Coleman committed to stay in Heart Falls until her sister’s baby arrives, but after that, she’s moving on. She’s not sure exactly what is on the agenda, so it’s good to still have a few months to figure out her dreams. While she’s waiting, there’s no reason she can’t enjoy herself with the very sexy local veterinarian.
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Ruby Roberts is heading to Cedar Point to connect with the father who left her behind. A handsome stranger on her cross-country flight isn’t what she’s expecting, but their relaxed smiles and easy conversation leaves free-spirited Ruby wanting something... more.