Derek Washington would be the first to admit he had been a jerk, but his ex-wife beat him to it. It didn’t help that his own mother agreed with Robyn.
Maybe it was the holidays or his son’s upcoming sixth birthday on Christmas Day that had him re-evaluating his life. Lately, the what-ifs plagued him every time he had custody of Tyler.
His divorce from Robyn had been so ugly, mean-spirited, and anything but Christ-like. It represented yet another vow they both had broken.
Their antics in the courtroom had caused the judge to decree they communicate through TalkingParents.com—a service designed to document their conversations—in case they returned to court for more litigation.
According to the parenting plan, the judge thought it best that they exchanged custody of Tyler at either of his grandparents’ homes. Most of the time, Robyn’s mother’s house was the drop off and pick-up spot.
“It’s not your child that needs adult supervision, but the adults who are his parents,” Judge Wilson had reprimanded them.
Sitting behind his desk, he couldn’t keep his mind from drifting to that fateful day when he kissed his marriage goodbye. As a quality improvement manager for a Fortune 500 company in West St. Louis County, he had plenty of projects to keep him busy, but he lacked concentration.
At one time, he and Robyn had everything going for them; they were the epitome of a Christian couple at their church, Holy Ghost Temple. People complimented them as an attractive couple. They had the support of their respective in-laws who welcomed them as one of their own, which explained why his mother, Lane, and her mother, Sara, sat unified on the front row in court, giving both of them a disapproving glare once his marriage was dissolved.
It had been two years and he still had past regrets. Did Robyn?
“Stubborn people are fools,” his mother stated on more than one occasion when he would drop by with Tyler. Of course, she made sure her grandson was distracted before she lit into Derek. “I know you still love Robyn or you would have moved on by now. Talk to her before she moves on. Don’t repeat the same mistakes your foolish daddy did. Now, he’s miserable with that other woman. Hmphed,” she scolded him as if he were eleven years old instead of thirty—almost thirty-one.
Somehow, he made it through the day, operating on autopilot. Hours later, he hurried home to change before picking up Tyler for his weekend visit. He was almost out the door when he received an email alert from TalkingParents.com: I got Tyler from kindergarten instead of Mom. You can pick him up from my house.
Her house—formerly their house. Derek grunted. It had been months since they crossed paths. Their greetings were nothing more than cordial. Would time eventually heal the wounds between them so they could hold a civil conversation and not play the blame game?
After parking in front of the two-story, three-bedroom suburban house, he sat staring at the starter home they had purchased. Neighboring houses were lit from the porches to the trees. Not Robyn’s. Besides the massive holiday wreath on the red door, the only other decorations were battery-operated candles that were displayed in all six front windows. Living in an apartment, his decorations were scarce too. Be nice, he prepped himself as he stepped out the car, then strolled up the pathway and knocked.
“Daddy’s here!” He heard Tyler scream from inside.
He grinned. At least someone was glad to see him.
“Get your hat and coat,” Robyn said as she opened the door.
Rocking on his heels, Derek stayed rooted in place. The few times they had to alter the arrangements for pickups, she never invited him inside, so he never crossed the threshold—rain, shine, or blizzard.
She didn’t make eye contact with him, but that didn’t stop Derek from noticing everything about her. She was one pretty lady, which was what attracted him to her in the first place. Robyn still maintained her beauty. Her goldish-brown color hair shone under the hallway light and her skin glowed.
There was something else he noticed while she multi-tasked, bundling up their son and slipping her arm in the sleeve of her coat. She was fast, but not without him catching a glimpse of a Red Lobster uniform. Robyn was an executive assistant, so what was going on?
“You’re working a second job? Why? I don’t mind adjusting my child support amount,” he offered with a frown. Money had been the source of many arguments. His wife loved to shop. He liked to save. But he wasn’t going to be accusatory, not this time, not again. He had no say in her financial affairs unless it affected their child. What else was going on that he didn’t know about?
“You’re more than generous with your child support.” She dismissed him when she knelt and opened her arms to receive a kiss and hug from their son. She stood again. “You can drop him off at my mother’s.” She guided Tyler outside.
“Bye, Mommy.” He waved before taking Derek’s hand. As they spun around to take the steps, he glanced over his shoulder. Robyn slowly closed the door without looking his way. He would give anything to earn her smile, a sparkle in her eyes, or her alluring tone when she used to tease him. Instead, he got nothing—no emotion.
Taking a deep breath, he continued to his car. He wanted to cross the line, and break the “don’t use the child as a pawn” rule to find out what Robyn was up to. He didn’t.
As promised, Derek took his son to the park for ice skating. While going around the rink, he kept a grip on Tyler’s hand while his mind stayed on Robyn. She had a liberal arts degree and could adapt to any working environment, but a waitress? No doubt, she had to be the prettiest one on staff. She could flirt without knowing it, and her shape…he groaned at the same time he almost fell, trying to steady Tyler.
Once they regained their rhythm, he thought about Robyn again. She was curvy and her pants did nothing to camouflage her God-given assets.
Forty-five minutes later, he hoped his son had worked up an appetite. “Hungry?” When Tyler bobbed his head, Derek grinned. He had a plan. “How about we go see Mommy at work?”
“Yeah.” His eyes widened in excitement. “Are we going to see Granny Gibson too? Mommy takes me there when she has to work.”
Hmm-mm. That narrowed down the locations. “Not today. After we eat, you’re going back home with me.”
It was two weeks before Christmas and he had planned to take his son to pick out his birthday present. That would have to wait until tomorrow. “Have you thought about what you want for your birthday?” Last year, Derek bought him a LEGO starter kit.
Since Robyn had Tyler last Christmas, he had to wait until the following weekend to play with him. That had to be the saddest Christmas of his life and he wouldn’t wish that same loneliness on anyone, but this year, Robyn would experience it.
“I want you to come live with us,” he stated matter-of-factly as he glanced out the window.
It was a good thing Tyler was strapped in, because Derek jammed on his brakes at the same time the street light turned red. He eased his foot off and exhaled.
“Son, what’s your second choice?” It would take a Christmas miracle for him and Robyn to reconcile for that to even be a possibility.
Robyn Washington couldn’t be concerned about the stunned expression on her ex-husband’s handsome face when he learned she had taken a second job—waitressing, at that. Under the hood of her long, thick lashes, she had a glimpse of what he was wearing. Black turtlenecks on Derek Washington should be outlawed. She chided herself for noticing.
It wasn’t his business to know that her long-time position could be in jeopardy. The hand writing was on the wall about possible layoffs and when no one received Christmas bonuses, Robyn refused to cut back on her son’s gifts for Christmas and his birthday. The job was seasonal and the day after Christmas, she would quit so she could celebrate a delayed birthday and Christmas with her son.
Until then, she would endure the constant walking and juggling of dishes. So far, the tips had been worth it.
Plus, shopping was her favorite pastime. Once she married, Robyn sometimes felt guilty about splurging. Then when Tyler was born, she and Derek practiced the Christian celebration of Christmas, but that was before she and her ex began to drift apart.
When her marriage ended, Robyn’s faith faded. She went through the routine of being a Christian, but she felt like a failure. Only being a mother kept her going and distracted from pity parties.
Her ex, Derek Tyler Washington, did make an exceptional father and a good provider, never missing a child support payment or house note. Then last year, without warning, he started sending monthly maintenance checks for her—a perk that wasn’t part of the divorce decree. She didn’t call or text him, but logged on the message board and asked him why.
Because you’re the mother of my son.
After graciously thanking him, she had cried that day—the first time in a long time. She told her best friend, she didn’t know what to make of the gesture.
“Maybe it’s his way of saying he’s sorry,” Erica Williams had suggested.
“Please. ‘Sorry’ is not in that man’s vocabulary. Maybe it’s guilt from being a terrible husband.”
“Well, count your blessings.”
Right. She didn’t trust her ex’s motives. When those blessings arrived like clockwork, she put them in a savings account for Tyler. Her mistake was to mention the money to her mother. Sara Gibson had sung his praises. “I think you two got married too soon and divorced even sooner.”
It was an argument she would never win with her mother, who was the die-hard captain of her ex-husband’s fan club. She was just as vocal about Robyn’s absences from church. “Why punish God for your mistakes? Jesus is our best friend. Proverbs 21:24 says, “He’ll stick closer than any brother.”
She once prided herself on her relationship with God and had sought Him for wisdom in choosing a mate. It took a while not to be angry with the Lord for her decision. Finally, she admitted marrying Derek had been a bad decision. They weren’t as compatible as she was led to believe.
Despite the disappointment, she was willing to give love a second chance in the future. There had to be a man out there who believed in death do they part and would accept her son as his own. She was definitely keeping her options open for the right one. Enough musings, she had tables to serve.
“Rob…” Doris, the head hostess, said, catching her strolling out of the ladies room.
She hated that nickname. There was nothing masculine about her. She wasn’t even a tomboy growing up, but she wasn’t going to be petty.
“I just seated two in a booth in section four. One is a cutie pie. The other is hot. Sizzlin’,” she practically hissed. “Whew!”
Right. As long as they left a big tip that was all she cared about. With sixteen shopping days before Christmas, the crowd was taking advantage of the weather that hadn’t delivered any ice or snow yet. She had three more hours to stand on her feet. Despite the top of the line walking shoes, her back was aching. Straightening her shoulders, Robyn took a deep breath and made a beeline to the booth. She almost stumbled when she looked at the patrons.
“Hi, Mommy.” Tyler grinned and waved.
Recovering from the surprise, Robyn gave her son a warm smile before squinting at her ex. “Derek, why are you here?”
“To get something to eat.” He smirked.
Oooh. She didn’t have time for his sarcasm. Showing up at their places of employment was off limits per their divorce, so why was he crossing the line?
“May we have our menus Miss…Miss…?” His eyes sparkled with mirth. At one time, she fell in love with his playful nature. As their marriage deteriorated, his teasing just annoyed her.
“Humph, it’s Miss for now.” She slapped his menu in front of him and gently placed the other one in front of her son and turned to the kids menu. “Here, sweetie.”
Derek leaned forward and whispered, “Careful, you don’t want to mess up your tip.”
Why was she letting this man bait her? Lifting her chin, she put on a happy face and rambled off the specials as if he was an unknown patron. “Hi, my name is Robyn. Welcome to Red Lobster. Can I start you off with a fruit smoothie, raspberry lemonade, or Boston Iced Tea?” If left up to her son, he would order tea—he wasn’t going to get it. “How about I get you started with our seaside sampler?” The spiel was protocol, but there was no way she was going to let her son eat that much fish this late.
“Mommy, can I have popcorn shrimp and macaroni and cheese.”
She gave Tyler a stern look.
“Please.” He was a carbon copy of his father when he grinned.
“Sure, sweetheart.” She faced Derek. “And you, sir?”
Tyler giggled. “He’s Daddy, Mommy.”
“Hmm-mm. I’ll get your drinks and come back for your order.”
“Hey,” Derek said. “You don’t know what I want.”
“Trust me, I do.” Robyn twisted her mouth and turned around. As she walked away, she heard Derek say, “You have a pretty mommy.”
“Uh-huh. You should marry Mommy.”
“I already did.”
Her heart dropped. Why couldn’t they have made it? Her parents had married for life. She thought she and Derek would follow in their footsteps, but after the first year of bliss, they couldn’t agree on anything. Small disagreements turned into major arguments. She shook off the memories as she walked to the drink station.
She poured milk for her son, then a glass of water with a slice of lemon for his father. Derek’s eating habits were predictable—or they used to be. He didn’t like soda or juices. Health conscious, he preferred water. Returning to the table, she placed their glasses on it, then pulled straws out of her apron pocket.
“Mommy, I wanted a sodie.” He twisted his mouth and scratched his head.
“Milk will help you grow up to be strong and handsome.”
“Like my daddy?” His hopeful expression was amusing.
Anchoring his elbow on the table, Derek rested his chin on his hands. He seemed to be anxious for her to answer.
“Like my daddy—your grandpa.” She patted her chest, then turned to him with a smirk of her own. “So, have you decided, sir?”
When he toyed with the silky strands on his mustache, she knew he was stalling. She excused herself to check on her other customers. Spending too much time at one table could compromise her tips, so once again, she chose for him, and placed their orders.
With two demanding tables, Robyn hustled to please the patrons. In her peripheral vision, she saw the cook going in the direction of her son’s table.
This was the most she had seen of her ex in one day, and it unnerved her.
Derek wasn’t the only man in the place who had an appreciative eye on Robyn Washington. He had watched for the last hour. At least, she still carried his last name, but for how long? He pledged her happily-ever-after. Would another man be able to succeed where he had failed? Lord, I messed up. He didn’t want to think about it. He yearned for her attention so he lifted his hand.
“Yes,” she said professionally with a blank expression. “Would you like a to-go box,” she stated in a tone that wasn’t meant to be a question.
“Actually, I would like to see a dessert menu.” He grinned, hoping it would soften her heart like it used to. It didn’t.
“It’s in front of you.” She lifted an eyebrow.
“Mommy, can I have a brownie?” Tyler’s eyes drooped.
She leaned forward. “You can have some pudding. It’s too late for chocolate. Okay?”
“O-okay.” He pouted. Clearly, his son wasn’t happy with his mother’s decision. Neither was he.
Derek had to get his son to bed, otherwise, he would have stayed until closing. He signaled for Robyn.
Flustered she returned to his table. “Yes, sir?”
He handed over his credit card. She didn’t even look at him and within minutes, returned. “I hope you enjoyed dining with us at Red Lobster.”
Enjoy? How could he, knowing the mother of his child was working two jobs as if he wasn’t giving her enough to survive? Plus, she earned a good salary, if she was managing her money, she wouldn’t need this gig.
“Daddy, I’m sweepy,” Tyler whined and rubbed his eyes.
“Okay, buddy, let’s go home.” He stood and heaved his son over his shoulder. Then, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. Instead of laying it on the table, he went in search of Robyn.
She was at the table where four men were flirting shamelessly as they placed their orders. “Excuse me, you were a great waitress.” He placed the bill in her hand and his son waved.
Thanks, son, for the backup. He smirked. Yeah, let them know that she didn’t need any more men in her life.
She kissed Tyler’s cheek then faced her customers who seemed stunned. Turning on his heels, Derek walked away with more pep in his step. Checkmate, gentlemen......want more, then join us at our Sweet Romance Reads's release party for Sweet Christmas Kisses 3