Exclusive Excerpt from Curl Around My Heart
by Londra Laine
“So,” Tate said. Reece looked up briefly as Tate parted LJ’s hair before rubbing some oil onto her exposed scalp. “What animals are you excited to see at the zoo tomorrow?”
Reece pushed a cam lock into one of the dresser parts then looked up again to see Tate dip a bristled brush into a shallow bowl of water that Tate had brought in from the kitchen and set on the coffee table before starting LJ’s hair. Tate brushed LJ’s strands into submission with the damp brush.
The little girl hummed. “The flamingos. I want to know how they stand on one leg all day. I would get tired if I did that.”
Reece smiled and looked up from his building again, catching Tate’s nimble fingers stop mid-braid and he cocked his head to the side. “You know, that’s a good question.” He continued braiding, forehead still creased in thought. Reece grabbed another cam lock and pushed it into a piece of wood. “I heard that flamingos don’t even fly,” Tate said.
“Nope,” LJ answered. “My dad looked that up. They can fly but mostly at nighttime. Right, Dad? Isn’t that what Alexa said?” Reece lifted his head as LJ looked over at him making Tate lose the grip he had on a section of hair.
Tate gently directed her head forward and down so he could continue his braiding, and Reece dropped his own head, focusing on the dresser again. “Keep your head still, ladybug. Now, who is Alexa?”
Reece grinned at Tate’s tight tone but kept his gaze on the two pieces of faux wood that he was slotting together.
“It’s a lady, on the cell phone, or a little round thing you can put in your house. And she talks to you,” explained LJ.
Reece looked up to find Tate frowning in confusion, the brush beside him on the couch, his motion stilled. “You know. Alexa. The app? You ask her questions and she answers.”
“My Nana Darlene has one,” LJ added.
Tate cackled, picking up the brush again and dipping it in the water again. “Well, the next time you talk to her, ask which birds don’t fly. Maybe it’s the turkey?”
“No,” said Reece, struggling with a particularly stubborn screw. “It’s the ostrich you’re thinking of.”
“Yes,” Tate exclaimed. Reece looked up from his project to find a beaming Tate with the hairbrush thrust up in the air in victory and LJ giggling. “That’s the dang bird I was thinking of.”
Reece met Tate’s grin with one of his own. It was probably the first time he’d seen the man really smile. Tate’s smile lit him from the inside, making him glow. Reece loved it. His skin pebbled from the sight.
“What’s an ostrich, Mr. Tate? It’s a bird too?” LJ asked.
Tate guided LJ’s head back down as he parted her hair into another section. “Yeah, it’s a kind of bird. They don’t fly but they run fast. And they’ve got big bodies with long legs and great eyelashes.”
At Reece’s chuckle, Tate looked over at him, his fingers gliding rhythmically around the three strands of hair he was pulling into a braid.
Reece grinned, picking up the instruction manual to see what part he needed to put together next. “Big bodies, long legs, and great eyelashes. You just made the ostrich sound like someone you’d want to message on Grindr.”
Tate laughed, parting another section of LJ’s hair and greasing her scalp. “Well, the ostrich is an attractive bird. And hell, that description does kind of fit the profile of my last date now that I think about it. He wasn’t much of a runner… He was little roided out to be honest.”
“You like boys too, Mr. Tate?” LJ asked.
The hammer Reece had lifted to tap a stubborn cam lock flew out of his hand and thumped to the carpet as he looked up at his daughter in embarrassment, his cheeks warming. Reece met Tate’s gaze, the man’s face full of uncertainty and maybe even fear. Reece hated that Tate would even consider that Reece might be hostile toward him because of his sexuality.
Sure, Tate had been a little glammed up the day that they’d met, and Reece had assumed the man was gay. But Tate hadn’t volunteered that information, and Reece hadn’t asked, but having Tate’s sexuality addressed out in the open clearly made Tate ill at ease.
Reece cleared his throat. “LJ⎯” he began, but his daughter plowed forward. “My dad likes boys and girls.”
Reece watched Tate roll his lips together before the man began braiding again.
“Is that right, LJ?”
The little girl started to nod but stopped herself. “Yep. Maybe you can date him?
He’s got long legs and lashes. My Nana Darlene says she’d kill for his eyelashes, but I don’t think she should do that, though.”
Reece’s face heated fast from embarrassment. He didn’t feel any better when he caught Tate grinning at him, his body shaking with suppressed laughter. Then his insides lurched. Was Tate amused because the idea of going on a date with Reece laughable?
“That’s enough, Lettie Jean,” he admonished gruffly. The little girl looked over at him, eyes wide, and even Tate’s motions stopped. “It is not okay to ask people about their dating life. It is rude. That’s personal. Do you understand?”
LJ’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, Dad,” she mumbled before looking up at Tate. “Sorry, Mr. Tate.”
Tate met her gaze and tweaked her nose with his thumb and index finger, making her grin. “It’s okay, ladybug.” He put his fingertips to her temples and turned her head. “Head forward so we can finish.” Tate looked forward, spine stiff, hands moving on autopilot, before his gaze skittered over toward Reece again.
Tate looked like he wanted to say something else, but Reece was afraid of what that might be after the way the man had laughed at the prospect of dating him. Reece looked back down at the structure he was working on, avoiding Tate’s nervous glances.
“For the record, LJ,” Tate said in a low voice, his eyes completely focused on LJ’s hair, “I do like boys. And I’d go out with your dad.”
LJ giggled. “I told him to ask you, Mr. Tate.”
Reece had once again abandoned the work in front of him, his lips parted slightly in surprise.
Tate looked over at Reece, his gaze running over Reece’s body like a caress. Despite once again wanting to sink into the floor—his daughter’s direct nature was truly a gift and a curse—Reece couldn’t look away.
The corner of Tate’s mouth quirked up. “You did? Well, hopefully he takes your advice.”