Authors: Judy Christenberry
A lot more than the glass of icy lemonade she was bringing him now. Intending to give him the drink, say her piece and leave, she called his name. But when he turned around, the only sound she uttered was a gasp.
Nick had removed his shirt as he put together the swing set, and for the first time she saw his muscles and his broad chest. In the midday sun his pecs and six-pack abs glistened like Cortez’s gold. She stood there, her mouth agape, her mind blank. She’d wanted to tell him something, but couldn’t remember what.
She closed her mouth and swallowed, snapping herself out of her trance. “Thanks for doing this, Nick.”
He gave her that devastating smile. “No problem.”
It was a problem, all right. Her girls loved Nick, so she had to risk spending a little time with him. But could she resist the temptation?
Welcome to my new three-book miniseries, DALLAS DUETS, about three young women who live in the same fourplex in Dallas.
The first story is about a woman who feels rather alone in the world—that is, until she reaches out to some young children who really need a change in their lives. I was inspired to write this story because of something I’d seen on television about The Heart Gallery, an organization that enlists the help of the world’s top photographers to find homes for children who are up for adoption. You can find more information about them online.
I hope you enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always, I hope you appreciate my view about the importance of family, whether it’s made up of people who are related by blood, or a family of your own making.
If you have any comments or questions, you can contact me at my Web site, www.judychristenberry.com.
Judy Christenberry has been writing romances for over fifteen years because she loves happy endings as much as her readers do. A former French teacher, Judy now devotes herself to writing full-time. She hopes readers have as much fun with her stories as she does. She spends her spare time reading, watching her favorite sports teams and keeping track of her two daughters. Judy lives in Texas.
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
867—RENT A MILLIONAIRE GROOM
878—STRUCK BY THE TEXAS MATCHMAKERS
901—TRIPLET SECRET BABIES
969—SAVED BY A TEXAS-SIZED WEDDING
1000—A RANDALL RETURNS
1033—REBECCA’S LITTLE SECRET
1073—A SOLDIER’S RETURN
1097—A TEXAS FAMILY REUNION
1133—A RANDALL THANKSGIVING
A suitcase in each hand, Nick Barry shoved open the front door to the fourplex on Yellow Rose Lane. The residential North Dallas neighborhood was exactly what he needed. A tree-lined street, freshly mowed grass and peace and quiet.
No wonder his aunt had loved this place. Too bad she had to leave it, he thought, but at least she’d sublet it to him. Between the low rent and the amenities, it was a sweet deal.
He was in the lobby, having used the key Aunt Grace had sent to get in the front door. Now he was trying to figure out which key unlocked his new apartment when he heard someone behind him. He looked over his shoulder but not seeing anyone, he turned back to his task.
Simultaneously he felt something around his ankle and heard a tiny voice yelling, “I found him! I found our daddy!”
Shock filled him as he stared at the little girl sitting on the floor with her short, thin arms wrapped around his left leg.
He’d been a little forgetful lately, what with the change in his life, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t forgotten a child.
“Missy? Missy, where are you?” This time it wasn’t a child’s voice, but a woman’s. And if the woman herself matched her tone, she was a beauty. The sound came from afar so he decided to encourage her to come closer.
“Um, I think Missy is with me in the entry hall,” he yelled. He looked down at the towheaded preschooler staring up at him. “You are Missy, aren’t you?”
She nodded brightly, not appearing at all scared.
The woman was getting closer, but Nick called again. “She’s here with me in the lobby!”
When the door across from his aunt’s apartment swung open, Nick knew he’d been right: the flesh and blood woman matched her voice. The blond beauty rushed out. “Missy! I told you not to come out here without me! Get back inside at once.”
“But I found him!” Missy said indignantly, hugging his leg even tighter.
“Who did you find?” the blonde demanded.
Nick was finding the situation amusing until two other little girls appeared behind the adult. He’d forgotten
daughters? “Uh, I don’t think—”
“Missy, let go of—of whoever you are!” The blonde looked at him for the first time.
“Okay. Missy, let go of Nick Barry. He is not your daddy!”
“Whew! That’s a relief,” Nick said, grinning.
“This is not a laughing matter!” the young woman said sternly.
“Why can’t he be our daddy?” Missy asked, still not letting him go.
“Because I don’t even know who he is!”
“But we need a daddy!” Missy protested, her tone getting more indignant.
Nick looked down at the charmer hanging on to his ankle. He set down the two suitcases he’d been carrying and then bent down and picked her up. “Sweetheart, I’m sure wherever your daddy is, he’ll come soon. I can’t believe he’d ever forget you.”
Suddenly one of the older girls burst into tears and, sobbing, ran back into the apartment across from him.
“Was it something I said?” Nick asked, frowning.
The woman stepped forward and took Missy into her arms. “Why are you here?” she asked him, looking around. “And how did you get in?”
Ah. She’d finally started asking important questions. “I’m subletting this apartment.”
“Grace’s apartment? She can only sublet it to a relative and what happened to her? The last time I saw her she was doing fine!”
“She’s moved into an assisted-living facility. And I’m her nephew.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll deal with you later. Now I have to—”
“Jennifer, the stove is exploding!” another young voice called out from inside the woman’s apartment.
“What? Get out of the kitchen! I’m coming!”
Seemingly without thinking, she set Missy down and ran back into the apartment, frantic.
Missy grinned up at him. “Won’t you be our daddy?”
“Uh, no, but I will see if I can help your mommy. Come on.” He scooped up the little girl and entered the apartment. Missy showed him the way to the kitchen.
The blonde was on her way out of the room. “What are you doing in here?”
“You forgot something.” He nodded toward the child in his arms.
“Just put her down. I’ve got to see about Steffi!” Then, like a whirlwind, she moved on to another room.
“Who is Steffi?” he asked Missy once he’d set her on her feet.
“She’s my big sister,” Missy said solemnly. “You made her cry.”
“I did? How did I do that?”
Missy’s big brown eyes sobered. “She remembers our real daddy. And he’s dead.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“What’s dead mean?”
Nick stared at the precocious child. “Um, I think you need to ask your mommy.”
“She’s dead, too.” The little girl was beginning to tear up and Nick felt his heart breaking for her and her sisters. He tried to think of something to distract her.
“What was exploding in the kitchen?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Jennifer was making sketti for us.”
“Sketti? What’s that?”
“You know, long, skinny things with red stuff on it. It’s my favorite!”
With Missy’s description and from what he could see in the kitchen, he figured out their mother was making them spaghetti. The stove was turned off under the big pan of water and pasta. Nick was an expert on spaghetti, by virtue of the hundreds of pounds he’d eaten just in his adult life. He checked the spaghetti and determined it still needed to cook awhile. The sauce, in a smaller pot, was already getting cold. He put Missy in a chair at a nearby table and told her not to get down.
“Because I don’t want you to get burned.”
“Oh.” The little girl seemed satisfied with that logic.
He turned on the burners and stirred the sauce as he watched the water begin to boil.
“I didn’t know daddies could cook,” Missy commented from the table.
“Some daddies can,” he muttered, concentrating on what he was doing.
“Jennifer says we don’t need no daddy.”
“Who is Jennifer?” he asked, expecting to be told Jennifer was one of her sisters.
“She’s our new mommy,” Missy said with satisfaction.
“Yes. She’s our new mommy today.”
“You’ve only lived with her today?”
“Yes. Steffi said she skewed us,” Missy said carefully.
“She skewed you? I don’t understand what that means.”
“You know, like when Superman skews a baby. He saves her.”
he reasoned. But how had Jennifer rescued these precious children? Treading carefully so as not to bring a second child to tears, he decided to back into his questions.
“So you watch Superman?” he asked.
“Yes, my last mommy played it on the television a lot. Superman skewed somebody every time—”
“So you’re saying your new mommy rescued you?” he asked, sparing Missy a glance.
“Yeah, that’s what Steffi said.”
He stirred the sauce as he watched the spaghetti boil. When he checked the spaghetti again, it appeared to be ready. He found a metal colander sitting in the sink, ready for him to pour the spaghetti and boiling water in it, so he did so. Steam rose in the air.
“Is that smoke?” Missy asked casually. “Jennifer says smoke is dangerous.”
“No, it’s steam. That’s a little different, but it can also hurt you if you’re not careful.” He wondered what he should do now.
Hearing a noise in the hallway, he turned in that direction. The blonde reappeared in the doorway. The adult blonde, that is. Jennifer. All three little girls were also blond. But then he’d originally thought Jennifer was their birth mother. Not according to Missy.
“Why are you still here?” Her demand wasn’t exactly welcoming, but he realized she was under a little stress.
“I thought I could lend a hand. Especially since it appears I caused part of the problem.”
“Part?” she said, giving him a direct look.
For the first time he noticed she had gorgeous blue eyes to go with the blond hair.
“I didn’t volunteer to be anyone’s daddy by just coming in the door, did I?”
“I guess not,” she said, not sounding happy about having to admit it.
“How’s Steffi?” he asked, afraid she was about to tell him to leave. He was strangely reluctant to do so.
Steffi peeked at him from behind her new mommy.
“I’m glad. I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said to the little girl.
She nodded, then hid behind the woman.
“Well, the spaghetti is ready, and the sauce, too. And, hey, you’ve got hamburger meat in your sauce, you lucky girls!” he joked. During college, he hadn’t been able to afford meat for his spaghetti.
“You finished cooking it?” Jennifer asked in conster
nation. “I didn’t intend— That’s very kind of you. Uh, would you like to join us?”
Missy perked up at that invitation. “Yeah! You can have the daddy seat!”
“Missy, no, Mr. Barry is not the daddy. He’s a guest. We’ll welcome him to his new apartment and thank him for his assistance. Well?” she asked, looking at him again.
“Only if you’ll promise to call me Nick. I don’t like formality.”
She took a deep breath and he feared she was going to refuse, leaving him no option but to decline her invitation. And he didn’t want to do that.
“Of course, Nick. Steffi, can you and Annie get everyone a knife, fork and spoon?”
“Yes, Jennifer,” the oldest girl said.
“Is there anything I can do?” Nick asked.
“No, we’ll manage. You can entertain Missy.”
Nick grinned. He’d already entertained the little girl, but he settled in at the table beside her. “Looks like it’s you and me, Missy.”
“You and me what?”
“You and me who don’t have a job. We just get to watch.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m too little. But you’re old. How come you don’t have a job?”
Nick stifled a laugh. “Because I’m your guest.”
“Oh.” Missy rested her chin on her hands and seemed deep in thought.
“Is iced tea okay, Nick?” his hostess asked.
“Yes, that’ll be fine. Uh, Missy said your name is Jennifer?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Jennifer Carpenter, and these are my three daughters, Steffi, Annie and Missy, whom I believe you met earlier.”
“Definitely. Hello, girls. You sure look like your mother.” Okay, so he was fishing for information. He’d admit he was curious.
Steffi looked at him and calmly said, “Thank you.” Despite her earlier emotions she was now composed.
“Are you eight years old, Steffi?” he asked. He was pretty good at guessing the ages of children, since he’d been a schoolteacher and had several nieces and nephews.
“No, I’m only six.”
“Well, you seem much older.” From her slight smile she appeared pleased. “How about you, Annie?” he asked gently, realizing the middle child was much shyer than her older sister.
She stared at him, not saying anything.
Steffi spoke for her sister. “She’s five and Missy is three.”
He took another look at his hostess. She certainly didn’t look like the mother of three children. Her slender form, including a very flat stomach, would’ve fooled most anyone.
“You have a beautiful family, Jennifer.”
After sending the girls a special smile, she looked at him and said, “Thank you.”
She carried a platter of spaghetti covered in meat sauce, topped by grated cheese.
“You use cheddar cheese on your spaghetti?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes. The girls like it.”
Her voice was cool and he hurriedly said, “I’m sure I will, too.”
Since she added a tossed salad and warm garlic bread, he had no complaints.
As much as he tried to make conversation, there wasn’t much talking during dinner, nor the noise he expected with three young children. When they needed it, Jennifer corrected their table manners, but she was gentle and didn’t embarrass the girls. Despite the quiet, Nick couldn’t have enjoyed the meal more—unless of course Jennifer actually spoke to him. Still, he enjoyed stealing glances at her soft honey-colored hair and expressive blue eyes. He had time to find out her story, after dinner.
As soon as the girls were finished, Jennifer stood and said, “Thank you for joining us, Nick. We hope you like your apartment.” The polite version of “Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?”
Deliberately he stayed put. “I’m sure I will. Do you know the owners?”
“Yes,” she said with some hesitancy, which made him even more curious about her.
“Do you think I need to contact them? Aunt Grace wasn’t clear about that.”
“No, the lease says she can sublet to a relative, so there isn’t anything the owner can do.” Diverting her gaze, she started to clean the table.
He stood up immediately. “Let me help you with that.”
She put a hand out to stop him, but when it landed on his arm, she yanked it back. “N-no thank you. I’ll clean up later, after I give the girls their baths and tuck them into bed.”
“I could do it while you take care of the kids.”
“No!” Then, apparently realizing the vehemence in her tone, she sidestepped him and regained her poise. “A guest never does the dishes, Mr. Barry.”
“Well, in that case, Ms. Carpenter, thank you.” As much as he didn’t want to, he walked to the door, his hostess behind him. When he reached the hall, she stepped out, too.
“Oh, look. I forgot you dropped your suitcases out here. I’m sorry.”
“Doesn’t look like a problem. Don’t you worry.”
“Well, then, good night.” She turned and walked back into her apartment, but something made him stop her. For some reason he felt an overwhelming urge to get to know Ms. Jennifer Carpenter. He reached out and grabbed the door before she could close it.
“I…wanted to ask you…” He searched for some innocuous question to prolong the evening. “Are the other renters nice?” How glib, old man. With lines like that you’ll dazzle her with your wit.
“Very nice. In fact, your upstairs neighbors will welcome you most heartily. They’re six flight attendants.”
He let his eyes slowly appreciate her face. She was a beauty, with soft, wavy blond hair that shone like the sun, and flawless skin. With a neighbor like this, he wasn’t sure the women upstairs could even compete. But she was obviously sending a message:
Look elsewhere for your entertainment.