Authors: Kylie Brant
“Mr. Fridayâ” Kate leaned toward him, her voice earnest “âI'm not qualified to judge the exact nature of Chloe's attention problems. That would take a medical doctor. All I'm suggesting is that you take Chloe to her pediatrician, explain the problems she's having in school andâ”
“It seems to me that Chloe's
” he said bitingly, “is school. Or rather, her teacher. I gave a great deal of thought to her placement before deciding on the Children's Academy. I'd hoped that a private school would offer her the benefits that a public one couldn't.”
Kate nodded. “The academy is a wonderful institutionâ”
“It appears I was wrong.” His tone was icy. “If the school was as wonderful as you say, they'd employ teachers with more knowledge and experience.” He rose in an abrupt movement to tower over her. “I'll continue this discussion with your principal.”
Kate stood to face him. “If we could just discuss this furtherâ” She was interrupted by a whirlwind coming through the door.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, guess what? Me 'n Trask have a sa-prise for you.” A small blond girl sped across the room and launched herself at Michael. He caught her in his arms.
Belatedly, the intercom sounded, and Bernie announced, “Your daughter is here, Mr. Friday.”
A huge man ducked into the office, visibly embarrassed. “Chloe, I told you to wait.” Kate recognized him at once. It
was hard to forget someone as big as a redwood and nearly as taciturn. Trask, Mr. Friday's employee.
“Trask said we can have a popcorn party tonight, Daddy, 'cuz I didn't have any holes in my mouth.”
“No cavities,” Trask muttered. His gaze landed on, then slid by Kate to fix with what seemed to be great interest on the far wall.
Chloe bounced excitedly. “And you get to come to our party, Daddy, even if you have holes in your mouth, you still get to come. So you gotta come home early or you'll miss our party.”
Michael's face softened as he looked at his daughter. “That's super, munchkin. You must have had a really good visit with the dentist.”
She nodded her head with enthusiasm. “I got a ring, because I sat still. Kinda still,” she amended honestly. “And I looked for a ring for you, too, but they didn't have any big ones. But you can share the popcorn party with me.”
He gave her a hug. “I wouldn't miss it. I'll be home in time, I promise. But right now I'm in the middle of a conference with your teacher.”
Chloe's head jerked around, and for the first time she noticed Kate in the room. “Miss Rose!” she squealed. Wiggling down from her father's arms, she gave Kate a hug. “I didn't know you were gonna talk to my daddy today.”
Kate smiled. The child's exuberance was infectious. “Hi there, Chloe.”
But Chloe had already whirled away. “Daddy,” she said solemnly, “be sure you have your listening ears on when Miss Rose is talking to you. If you don't, you might have to go to the thinking chair.” She turned back to her teacher for corroboration. “Isn't that right, Miss Rose?”
The flush that Kate felt scalding her cheekbones was the curse of fair skin. She concentrated on Chloe, not daring a glance at Michael. “I don't think your father needs to worry about that.”
“'Cuz he's listening good?”
“Listening well,” Kate corrected. And not exactly, she an
swered silently. “Adults don't need a thinking chair.” Stemming the question she sensed poised on Chloe's lips, she added, “Adults can do their thinking wherever they are. They don't need a special place.”
That seemed to satisfy the little girl. “Oh.”
“I'm glad you came to tell me about your dentist appointment.” Michael's words drew Chloe's attention. “You go on home with Trask and have your dinner, and I promise to be home by six-thirty. How's that?”
“That's good, Daddy. That's re-e-al good. I'll know if you're late, because I can tell time. Can't I, Miss Rose?”
Kate smiled down into Chloe's wide hazel eyes. “You certainly can. And very well, too.”
Satisfied, Chloe beamed, then dashed across the room to Trask. “C'mon, Trask, let's go home so we can time Daddy.”
Trask took the little hand placed entrustingly in his huge paw and muttered, “See you at home, Michael.” His gaze flitted past Kate. “Miss Rose.” Then he and his small charge left the office.
“Whew.” Kate shot Michael a laughing look. “I'm guessing she keeps you on your toes.”
A corner of his mouth kicked up. “You know it. You'd never believe what she did last weekend when weâ¦” He stopped, and the humor abruptly vanished from his face. He reverted back to the stern, cold stranger he'd become before Chloe's visit with the ease of a chameleon changing colors. “I'm afraid that's all the time I have today, Miss Rose.”
Kate had never been a quitter, and there was nothing she wouldn't do for one of her students. Although the dark expression on his face had nerves skittering up her spine, she said, “Mr. Friday, if you would just considerâ”
“I'm out of time,” he repeated flatly. “I'll be talking to your principal soon.” He walked to the door and opened it, a silent invitation for her to exit.
Kate studied him for a moment, at a loss. Nothing more was going to be accomplished today, that was apparent. She picked up her bag, the portfolio she'd been sharing with him,
and walked to the door. “You may keep this file of Chloe's things,” she said, offering it to him.
Slowly his hand came up to take it from hers.
She tilted her head, newly aware that, even standing, she had to look up a good six inches to meet his eyes. His narrowed regard was unflinching. Except for the muscle twitching in his cheek, his face could have been etched from granite. Shaking her head, she murmured, “Thank you for seeing me today, Mr. Friday.”
He watched through hooded eyes as she walked swiftly into the outer office, collected her coat and went out the door, all without a backward glance. It wasn't until he noticed Bernie taking in the whole scene with avid interest that he backed into his office, slamming the door. His nostrils flared at the elusive scent Kate had left in her wake. It was something light and inherently feminine. It stirred a dormant, visceral response, which merely deepened his anger. He didn't want to respond to her, not on any level.
He strode back to his desk and propped his hips against one corner. Far from his first, hormone-driven assumption, Katherine Rose's visit fit perfectly into the trouble he'd been having the last two days. But his struggles with a pesky programming bug paled in comparison with what she'd had to say. Though he hadn't been listening very well when it had become obvious she was suggesting that his little girl hadâ¦
The thought caused acidic snakes to churn in his gut. He didn't know how his first impression of the woman could have been so wrong, but his opinion of his daughter's teacher had changed drastically since she'd walked into his office. Of course, he hadn't been thinking with his head when he'd first seen her.
He glowered in the direction of the door. Her suggestion that Chloe wasn't normal had all his paternal protective instincts rushing to the forefront. He'd never been around kids much, not when he was growing up, nor later, when he was busy scrabbling for his first million. But he'd been ecstatic when Deanna had gotten pregnant. A house, three cars, a wife
and now a child. The picture, one he'd formed in his mind when he'd been only a child himself, had been complete. This, then, would be a real family, one suitable for those goofy, picture-perfect Christmas cards.
He'd been totally unprepared for the tidal wave of emotion he'd experienced the first time the nurse had put Chloe into his arms. He'd gazed down into his daughter's scrunched-up red face and recognized the scowl she'd regarded him with as a miniature of his own. He'd since realized that the accompanying turbulence of feelings had stemmed from the emotional equivalent of having his six-foot, four-inch, two-hundred-ten-pound body wrapped around a baby's pinky. His baby.
Chloe had been the sole reason he'd battled so hard to save his marriage. Once Deanna had walked out, however, it hadn't been his wife's cool blond beauty he'd found himself missing; it had been the sight of his daughter's heartbreaking grin. He'd battled valiantly in court but had learned firsthand that many judges still favored the mother with primary custody. He'd been faced with the prospect of visits two nights a week and every other weekend.
When Deanna had broached the subject of reversing the arrangement last summer, he'd been stunned but had quickly agreed. He hadn't inquired very deeply into her reasons. He'd been overjoyed at the prospect of having a real home and a life with Chloe.
Though their life together lacked the June and Ward Cleaver stamp of approval, he thought they were doing well enough. Despite the appearance given by the missed appointments with Miss Rose, making time for his daughter was his top priority. Trask would be nobody's idea of a nanny, but he doted on Chloe almost as much as her father did. In fact, Michael was ashamed to admit that Trask was actually a better disciplinarian. Whatever Chloe's transgression, the sight of her tears had the ability to turn Michael into a quaking mass.
As he remembered the teacher's words, anger flared like a gasoline-soaked match. He'd be the first to admit that Chloe
had enough energy to fuel a rocket. Their home echoed with her laughter and her running footsteps. She had the bright, inquisitive nature of a normal, healthy almost-seven-year-old, and he fiercely resented the suggestion that she was anything but.
His brooding was interrupted by a knock on his office door. At Michael's growled invitation, his vice president, Derek Latham, entered, stopping short when he caught sight of Michael's expression. Raising both hands in the air, he said placatingly, “Ms. Bernwood said I should come in.”
“She would,” Michael muttered, surveying his vice president. Bernie didn't look on anybody in the company with favor, but Derek elicited a little less than her usual level of hostility. It was probably his looks. The silvery blond hair was always professionally styled, and it would be safe to say that, unlike Michael, Derek would never think of giving himself a trim with the kitchen scissors. The man had lavish tastes in clothes, cars and women. There had been a time, in the year after Michael's divorce, when the competition between the two men had spread to women. Or, more specifically, to see who could romance the largest number of them in the shortest amount of time. After long months of meaningless encounters, Michael had come to his senses. Derek, however, showed no signs of slowing down.
He had no more desire to speak to his vice president than he had for another visit from Miss Rose. His brows lowered farther. She was probably on her way to a conference with some other poor sap of a parent. Maybe she had a quota of days to ruin.
“I wanted you to know that I've just about wrapped up work on that new software protection package.”
“Good,” Michael said, still scowling at the door. “That's good.” He searched his memory, but he couldn't remember Chloe speaking of Miss Rose in anything but glowing terms. Somehow he'd imagined the teacher as a grandmotherly figure, somewhere around Bernie's age, only with a better sense of fashion. He sure as hell hadn't expected a woman who looked to be barely out of her teens, one who hadn't been
teaching long enough to know the difference between normal first-grade energy and some imaginary
Derek arched a brow at his boss's lack of enthusiasm. “Actually, it's damn near brilliant.” He slipped his hands into his pockets, being careful not to disturb the crease in his trousers, and strolled past Michael. With an eye on his boss, he continued, “So brilliant, in fact, that I deserve a ten percent bonus for my work.”
“Whatever.” Maybe that was the whole problem, he mused. Miss Rose didn't belong in front of a classroom, she belonged back in one as a student. She had a lot to learn about children. Maybe after a few more years of classes she'd know better than to falsely alarm parents with a bunch of psychobabble garbage.
“Perhaps now would be a good time to ask for a better parking space, as well. Your spot would do nicely.” Cool amusement laced Derek's voice.
“What?” Michael jerked his head around to glare at his vice president. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Derek tsked. “Your priorities, Michael, are deplorable. Talk of money goes right by you, but your attention is snared by parking spaces.” He shook his head sadly. “Doesn't speak well for the future of this company.”
Michael walked around his desk and dropped into his chair. “The future of this company never looked brighter. And I was paying attention the whole time. You've got the software security package completed.”
“Just about,” Derek repeated patiently. “As a matter of fact, a few more hours will do it. I was going to stay and finish it up. I can go over it with you later this evening, if you like. Are you staying?”
“No, I promised Chloe I'd come home early. Damn.” He suddenly remembered something else. “I think she has to have treats of some sort for Daisy Scouts tomorrow. I'm going to have to stop and pick something up.”
Derek shook his head pityingly. “My friend, you need a wife.”
The desk chair gave an ominous squeak as Michael leaned
back in it. “That's not exactly a subject you've ever had much interest in.” He eyed his vice president with sudden suspicion. “Have you been talking to Bernie?”
“As rarely as possible,” Derek assured him with unfeigned sincerity. “And I wasn't talking about me. I'm not in the market for marriage.” He made the word sound like a disease. But youâ¦” He gestured toward Michael. “You've got Chloe to consider. You have to make a home for her, and let's face it, you're as domesticated as a lapdog.” His face was bland when he noted, “With that haircut, you resemble one, as well.”