Flynn’s six-year-old step-daughter was waiting for him when he returned from his morning run. He slowed the last few steps up to the front of the Victorian house he shared with Katy and her mother, Abby—his very pregnant new wife. It was never a good omen to find Katy waiting for him at the crack of dawn. It usually meant she was about to blackmail him for something her mother had already refused to give her.
“You’re not getting a pony,” Flynn said as he came to a halt in front of her.
She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Yes, I am. Somebody will give you a pony, and you’ll bring it home, and I’ll get to keep it. It’s how we end up with all our animals.”
She had a point.
“You’re not getting a pony today,” he amended, just so he could feel the tiniest bit parental.
She gave him a look of disgust that told him he wasn’t fooling anybody. So he tried a different tack.
“What did I tell you about wearing that shirt with pink?” He pointed to the shirt he’d worn when he played for Arsenal. One of many she’d stolen from him. And then wore with glitter and tiaras. This was his life now. One day, a professional footballer at the top of his career—the next, stuck in a never-ending pissing contest with a six-year-old.
“This shirt should be pink,” the little terrorist replied.
Today’s ensemble consisted of one of his old team shirts worn as a dress over pink Barbie-motif leggings. She’d tied the Arsenal shirt at the waist with a sparkly pink belt, had at least five different necklaces on, several bows randomly placed in her barely combed hair, and had completed her outfit with huge monster-feet slippers.
He bet David Beckham didn’t have to deal with this crap.
She opened her mouth, no doubt to lecture him on the merits of pink—again—but Flynn held up a hand to stop her. “We’re not getting into what color football strips should be.”
She frowned, snapped her mouth shut, took a deep breath and opened it again, ready to start in on her next favorite topic.
“And we aren’t going to talk about why they should have more sparkles either.”
Folding her arms, she glared at him. “Sparkles would make it easier to see the players on the pitch.”
For a second, he had a mental image of the England team in white Elvis suits and almost agreed with her. He shook it off. Even as a staunch Scotland supporter, he couldn’t do that to his fellow football players.
“What are you doing up this early anyway?” he asked as he headed up the steps to the house.
The faux innocence of her smile had him stopping in his tracks as all sorts of alarm bells went off in his head.
“I had to feed my guinea pigs,” she said sweetly.
Her statement seemed innocent enough, but experience told him there had to be more to it than that. “And?”
“And I counted them.”
Was this a six-year-old thing? Was she showing off that she could count to four?
“Well done?” he said.
This earned him another ‘are you really that dumb?’ look. “There were seventeen,” she said smugly.
“What the hell?”
“You aren’t allowed to say hell.” She stuck out her hand. “You owe me five pounds.”
“We agreed on fifty pence for every swear word.” It was his pitiful attempt at cleaning up his language before there were even more kids listening to his every word. And then blackmailing him with them.
She shook her head. “Fifty pence isn’t enough of a detergent for you.”
“You mean deterrent.”
“I mean you need to give me five pounds, or I’m going to tell Muma you said hell.”
“And I’ll tell her you said it twice.”
“I’ll tell her I said it because I was copying you.”
“Freaking terrorist,” he muttered, his shoulders slumping. “I don’t carry money when I run.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “If you forget to pay me, I’m doubling it.”
“Whatever.” He had bigger issues to deal with than her propensity for blackmail. “What do you mean seventeen guinea pigs? There are four. Can you even count to seventeen?”
The knowing smile on her face grew wider as she held up two hands and started to count. With each number, she lowered a finger. “One, two, three…” Sure enough, she made it to seventeen. Although, she had to kick off her slippers and use her toes for the last seven numbers.
Flynn vaguely noted that she gotten into Abby’s nail polish and painted her toes—not toenails, toes—an interesting shade of sparkly blue.
“There are four big guinea pigs,” she said smugly. “And there are thirteen little ones.” She held up her hands, keeping them close together to show him how small.
“No.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and groaned. “That can’t be right. We had four girl pigs. I checked myself. Girl pigs can’t have babies together.”
“Why not?” Her wide eyes focused on him like searchlights. The kid had a knack for zeroing in on information she really shouldn’t.
“That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is, there shouldn’t be any babies.”
“Well, there are. And they are adorable. Like little fluffy pompoms that run around. I’m calling them Daisy, and Mindy, and Poppy, and Ruby, and…”
He tuned her out as he tried to come up with a way out of his latest dilemma. He was training to be a veterinarian and had checked each pig before he brought them home. He’d promised Abby that all of them were girls. How could he have been so wrong? He was a semi-trained professional.
“This is all your fault,” he told Katy.
“That’s not what Muma’s going to say,” she said in a sing-song voice.
She wasn’t wrong.
“How are we going to hide thirteen guinea pigs?” he said as he sat on the step beside her.
“I can put some under my bed,” she offered.
“Thanks. But I don’t think that will work.” He heaved a sigh. “I need to find homes for them.”
That made her sit up straight. “Give them away?” she screeched.
“Sh!” He quickly looked behind him to check the house was still silent. “You’ll wake your mother.”
Frowning, she shot to her feet and stood in front of him, hands on hips. “You are not giving away my babies.”
“We can’t keep them. Nobody keeps seventeen guinea pigs.”
“I’ve named them. They belong to me.”
“They belong to their parents. And I’m sure if they could talk, they’d say they didn’t want thirteen kids either.”
She leaned forward until her face was inches from his. “You aren’t giving away my guinea pigs. They’re mine. You gave them to me.”
“I only gave you four. The rest are spares.” Now he knew how the EU felt when they tried to reason with Boris Johnson.
“I don’t care. They’re mine.” She folded her arms and stuck her nose in the air. “Anyway, I just came out to tell you not to wake up Muma because she’s still asleep. And I put all my pigs in the room with her because they were sleepy too. So don’t step on them when you go in there.”
“You did what?” He shot to his feet.
“I wanted Muma to see how cute the babies are.”
“While she’s asleep?”
“When she wakes up.” Katy stamped her foot.
“Come on.” Flynn took her hand. “We’re going upstairs. We’re going to be quiet, and we’re going to get all of the furballs out of my bedroom—before your mum wakes up.”
“But I don’t want to,” she wailed.
“Do I have to gag you?” he said as he pushed open the front door.
“You aren’t allowed to gag kids. Uncle Matt will arrest you. Then you’ll have to play football for the prison team.”
“I should never have let you watch The Longest Yard,” Flynn muttered as they tiptoed into the house.
“Good morning,” a voice called from the living room, making them stop dead in their tracks.
Slowly, they turned to find Abby sitting on the sofa, cradling a mug of tea.
“Hi, baby,” Flynn plastered on his sexiest smile and puffed out his bare chest—it was worth a try.
“Good morning, Muma,” Katy said as though ice cream wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Abby wasn’t buying any of it. “So,” she said, “I woke up to the sound of guinea pigs squeaking and imagine my surprise when I looked over the side of the bed and found the floor covered in furballs.” She took a sip of her tea.
Flynn and Katy just stood holding hands, waiting for the rest.
“I counted thirteen before I lost track of them,” Abby said. “But I’m fairly certain there were more than that.”
“Abby…” Flynn started, but she cocked an eyebrow at him, and it was enough to make him shut up.
“There is guinea pig poop all over my bedroom floor,” Abby said.
“Uh-oh.” Katy tugged on his hand, and when he looked down at her, she whispered, “It’s not my fault. I told them not to poop.”
Flynn smothered a groan.
Abby cleared her throat to regain their attention. “When Katy asked for guinea pigs, I said she was too young to take care of them. You”—she pointed at Flynn—“said that it would be fine. That you’d teach her what to do. Then we agreed on two pigs. But you brought home four—because you couldn’t ‘split up the band.’ It’s okay, you said. Don’t worry, you said. They’re all girls, you said.” She lowered her voice to mimic him, “I know how to tell girls from boys, Abby. I’m training to be a vet.”
Katy covered her mouth and giggled. When Flynn frowned down at her, she shrugged. “Muma’s funny,” she whispered.
“Now,” Abby said, “there are at least thirteen guinea pigs peeing and pooping on my bedroom carpet.” She held up an iPad that had been sitting on the sofa beside her. “I had time to look up the reproductive cycle of guinea pigs while you two were arguing on the front steps. They can get pregnant at two months. They gestate for about nine weeks. They can have as many as eight pups each. And have five litters a year.” She took another sip of tea. “By this time next year, we’ll be drowning in guinea pigs. Do you have anything you want to say?”
Katy and Flynn shared a look before pointing at each other. “It’s his fault.” “It’s her fault.” The accusations came out at the same time and they frowned at each other.
Abby groaned, her head falling back to the sofa. “Flynn. Deal with this.”
“I’m on it.” He ushered Katy toward the stairs. “I promise that every pig will be properly dealt with.”
Abby’s head came back up, and she glared at him. “You’re keeping them, aren’t you?”
“Maybe?” What else was he supposed to do with them? “But I promise to desex all of them.” He thought about it for a second. “Or at least pay someone who knows how to do it.”
“Just go.” Abby pointed to the stairs. “Round up the fluff balls and clean the carpet. I can’t deal with either of you right now.”
Katy tugged on his hand. “Are we really keeping them?”
“Aye,” Flynn said with a sigh.
With a whoop, she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tight. “I knew you’d let me keep them. Muma’s wrong; you can be trained.”
“Great,” Flynn said and Abby laughed.