Authors: Cara Colter
Tags: #Family, #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Modern, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Man-woman relationships, #Love stories, #Historical, #Adult, #Business, #Businessmen, #Biography & Autobiography, #Nannies
“Your ideal man is a college professor?”
“Yes!” How dare he say it with such scorn?
“Miss Dannie Springer, don’t ever take up poker. You can’t lie. You’re terrible at it.”
“As it happens, I don’t like poker, and neither does my ideal man.” With whom her whole relationship, in retrospect, had been a lie, concocted entirely by her, sitting at home by herself making up a man who had never existed.
“The college professor,” he said dryly.
“Yes! Now, if you’ll entertain Susie for a bit, it’s time for Jake to have a bath.” Of course, it wasn’t anywhere near time Jake had a bath, but she had to get out of this room and this conversation. She doubted Mr. Playboy of the World knew anything about baby bath times. Or college professors for that matter! But he seemed to know just a little too much about women, and his look was piercing.
“Entertain Susie?” he said, distracted just as she had hoped. “How? Since you’ve nixed Princess Tasonja.”
“Try noughts and crosses.”
He frowned. “Like those notes she used to give me? Before she hated me? That were covered with x’s and o’s that meant hugs and kisses?”
Dannie steeled herself. He was not
distressed that he had fallen into his niece’s disfavor. His world
was way too big that he could be brought down by the little things.
“Noughts and crosses,” she said. “Tic-tac-toe.”
He looked baffled, underscoring how very far apart their worlds were, and always would be.
“Get a piece of paper and a pencil, Susie will be happy to show you how it works,” she said.
“You mean a piece of paper and a pencil will keep her as entertained as the princess?”
“Do I let her win?” he asked in a whisper. He shot his niece a worried look.
“Would that be honest?”
“For God’s sake, I’m not interested in honest.”
“I’m sure truer words were never spoken,” she said meanly, getting back at him for being so scornful of her college professor.
“I’m interested in not making a little girl cry.”
“It’s about spending time with her. That’s the important part. Not winning or losing.”
“I have a lot to learn.”
“Yes, you do, Mr. Cole,” she said, aware of a snippy little edge to her voice.
“You have a lot to learn, too,” he said, quietly, looking at her with an unsettling intensity that she would have done anything to escape.
“Such as?” she said, holding her ground even though she wanted to bolt.
“The college professor. Not for you.”
“How would you know?”
“I’m an astute judge of people.”
“You aren’t! You didn’t even know whether or not to be honest playing noughts and crosses.”
“Not miniature people, the under-five set. But you,
I know something about you. I wonder if you even know it yourself.”
“You know nothing about me that I don’t know about myself!” she said recklessly. To her detriment, part of her wanted to hear what he had to say. How often, after all, did an invisible nanny get to hear love advice from the World’s Sexiest Bachelor?
But he didn’t say a word, just proved exactly why he was the World’s Sexiest Bachelor. He lifted her chin with the tip of his finger and looked deep into her eyes. Then he touched her lip with his thumb.
If it was possible to melt she would have. She felt like chocolate exposed to flame. She felt every single lie she had ever told herself about Brent. Dannie yanked away from him, but he nodded, satisfied that he did know something she didn’t know herself.
Except now she had an idea.
That she was as weak as every other damn woman he’d ever met. Not that he ever had to know that!
“You’re in the bedroom at the end of the hall,” he said, as if he hadn’t shaken her right to the core. “I had the crib set up in there. Is that okay?”
“Perfect,” she said tightly, and she meant it. A pint-size chaperone for weaklings, not that she needed to worry about this man sneaking into her room in the dead of night. That was fantasy.
Of the X-rated variety, and she didn’t mean tic-tac-toe, either.
“Hey, Susie,” he said turning from her, after one last look that seemed more troubled than triumphant, “do you want to play noughts and crosses?”
Susie glared at him, clearly torn between personal dislike and the temptation of her favorite game. “All right,” she said grudgingly.
Danielle marched down the hall with the baby. The room at the end had the same spectacular views and windows as the rest of the apartment.
The decorating was so romantic it was decadent, the whole room done in shades of brown, except for the bed linens that were seductively and lushly cream colored, inviting in that sea of rich dark chocolate.
Her suitcases were on the bed. How that had happened she wasn’t quite sure. A crib had been set up for Jake, too.
Through a closed door was a bathroom, with the Jacuzzi.
A jetted tub built for two.
“We have to get out of here,” she confided in the baby as she took his plump, dimpled limbs out of his clothes. The fact that Joshua thought his sister might be matchmaking—and that she could not say with one hundred per cent certainty that Melanie was not—just added an element of humiliation to the urgency she felt to go.
Was Melanie matchmaking? She frowned, thinking back over her conversations with her employer. As eager as Mel was to have everyone in the world enjoy the same state of wedded bliss she lived in, she had always been reserved about Brent.
Dannie assumed because she had never met him.
She had assumed Mel’s eagerness to have her join her children with their uncle had only been her effort to help her nanny over her heartbreak, to give her a change of scenery. A hidden agenda? Wouldn’t that be humiliating?
But Mel had never alluded, even subtly, to the possibility she considered her nanny and her brother to be anything of a match.
Because we so obviously are not,
Dannie thought, and detected just a trace of sulkiness in that conclusion.
As always, the baby worked his magic on her sour mood, her tendency toward dour introspection. Dannie put about two inches of water in the gigantic tub, and Jake surrendered his little naked self gleefully into the watery playpen.
When the baby began to laugh out loud, she was drawn in, and she laughed back, splashing his little round tummy with warm water until he was nearly hysterical with joy.
“Do I take myself and life way too seriously, Mr. Jake?”
What if Mel
sent her here with some kind of hidden agenda? So what? What if she just played along?
“Oh, Dannie,” she chided herself, “that would be like playing patty-cake with a powder keg.”
Jake recognized the term, cooperatively held out his hands and crowed.
she ordered herself.
If you still know how,
and then sadly,
if you ever knew how
cake, patty cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can.”
Dannie’s voice and her laughter, intermingled with happy shouts from the baby and splashing noises, floated down the hallway to where Joshua sat opposite Susie on the couch.
Who would have imagined the serious, rather uptight nanny could sound like that? So intriguingly carefree?
Not that that was the truth about her. No, the truth was what he had
when he had touched her lip—
“Tic, tac, toe,” Susie cried and drew a triumphant line though her row of crosses.
Susie was trouncing him at noughts and crosses.
Something unexpected was happening to him. Given that his carefully executed schedule had gone out the window, he felt unexpectedly relaxed, as if a tightly wound coil inside of him was unwinding. Watching his niece, whose tongue was caught between her teeth in fierce concentration, listening to Dannie and the baby, he felt a
unfurling inside him.
It couldn’t possibly be yearning.
He had the life every man worked toward, success beyond his wildest dreams, the great car, the fabulous
apartment, gorgeous women as abundant in his life as apples on a tree. Just as ready to be picked, too.
And yet all of that paled in comparison to a baby’s laughter and a little girl playing noughts and crosses. All that paled in comparison to the softness of a woman’s lip beneath his thumb.
His sister, diabolical schemer that she was, would be thrilled by this turn of events.
What had he been thinking when he had touched Dannie’s lip? When he had said to her with such ridiculous confidence, “I know something about you. I wonder if you even know it yourself.”
The truth was he hadn’t been thinking at all. Thinking belonged to that other world: of deals, successes, planning. That other world of accumulating more and more of the stuff.
The stuff that had failed to make him feel as full as he felt in this moment.
No, the truth was that thought had abandoned him when he touched her. Something deeper had temporarily possessed him.
He had seen her, not through his mind, but with his heart. He had seen her and
the lie she had told him about the college professor. How could she even kid herself that she would ever be happy with a staid life?
From the second she had appeared in his office, she had presented the perfect picture of a nanny. Calm, controlled, prissy.
And from the beginning, he had seen something else. A gypsy soul, wanting to dance. That is what he knew about her that she did not know about herself.
That the right man—and probably not a college professor—was going to make her wild. Would make her toss out everything she thought she believed about
herself. Under that costume of respectability she wore beat the drum of passion.
he told himself.
What is wrong with me?
“I win,” Susie said, carefully checking the placement of her crosses. “Again. You’re dumb.”
He stared at her, and then started to laugh. Yesterday he would have disagreed, probably argued, but today, since he had done one extremely dumb thing after another, starting with inviting them here, and ending with touching Dannie Springer’s most delectable lip, he knew Susie was right.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” he said. “Don’t drop out of school.”
“I don’t even go to school yet,” Susie informed him. “But when I do, I will love it. I will never ever stop going. I will go to school until I am one hundred.”
That was precisely how he had felt about college. From the first day, he’d had a sense of arrival. This was where he belonged. He loved learning things. He loved playing football. He loved the girls, the parties, all of it.
And then, in his senior year, along came Sarah. They were “the” couple on campus. The cool ones. The ones everyone wanted to be. She played queen to his king. Looking back, something he rarely did, what they had called love seemed ridiculously superficial.
And in the end it had been. It had not stood up to the test life had thrown at it. Despite the fact they had taken every precaution, Sarah was pregnant.
Funny how, when he’d found out, he’d felt a rush, not of fear, but of excitement. He’d been willing to do whatever it took to give his baby a family, a good life.
Sarah had been stunned by his enthusiasm. “I’m not keeping it.”
To this day, he could feel the bitterness, a force so real and so strong, he could nearly taste it on his tongue, when he remembered those words and the look on her face when she’d said them. “It.”
He’d actually, briefly and desperately, considered keeping the baby himself. But reality had set in, and reluctantly he had gone along with Sarah. He’d stuck with her through the pregnancy and the birth.
It was a boy.
And then he’d made the mistake.
He’d held his son in his arms. He had felt the incredible surge of love and protectiveness. He had felt that moment of connection so intense that it seemed nothing else in his life but that moment had ever mattered.
He had known,
I was born to do this.
But it was too late. He’d held his baby, his son, his light, for about five minutes. And then he’d let go. He had not met the adoptive parents.
Every other reality had faded after that. Nothing mattered to him, not school, not life, not anything at all. His grief was real and debilitating.
Sarah, on the other hand, had chosen not to see the baby, and she moved on eagerly, as if nothing had happened. He was part of what she left behind, but really, he had continued with her throughout the pregnancy out of a sense of honor and decency. But he had never forgiven her the “it.”
He dropped out of college a month before he was supposed to graduate, packed a backpack, bought a ticket to anywhere. He’d traveled. Over time, he had come to dislike going to places with children. The sound of their laughter, their energy, reminded him of what he was supposed to be and was not.
When he’d come across Sarah’s obituary a few years ago, killed in a ski accident in Switzerland, he had taken his lack of emotion as a sign he’d been a man unworthy of raising that child, anyway.
“Are you all right?”
He hadn’t seen her come down the hallway, but now Dannie was standing in the doorway, Jake wrapped up in a pure white towel, only his round, rosy face peeking out, and a few spikes of dark hair.
Her blouse was soaked, showing off full, lush curves, and she looked as rosy as the baby.
Dannie looked at home with Jake, comfortable with her life. Why was she content to raise other people’s children, when she looked as if she’d been born to hold freshly bathed babies of her own?
“All right?” he stammered, getting up from the couch. “Yeah. Of course.”
But he wasn’t. He was acutely aware that being around these kids, around Dannie, was making him feel things he had been content not to feel, revisit places he had been relieved to leave behind.
All he had to do was get through the rest of tonight. Tomorrow he’d figure out how to get rid of them, or maybe she would decide to go.
That would be best for everyone involved, and to hell with his sister’s disapproval.
Though what if Mel cut her own vacation short? She needed it.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Dannie asked, frowning.
He pulled himself together, vowed he was not going back to the memory of holding his baby. He could not revisit the pain of letting that little guy go and survive. He couldn’t.
He was going to focus totally and intensely on this moment.
He said, with forced cheer, “As all right as a guy can be whose been beaten at noughts and crosses by a four-year-old, thirty-three times in a row.”
Because of his vow to focus on the moment, he became acutely aware of what it held. Dannie. Her hair was curling from the moistness, her cheeks were on fire, her blouse was sticking to her in all the right places.
He glanced at Susie, who was drawing a picture on the back of a used piece of paper, bored with the lack of competition.
Her picture showed a mommy, a daddy, a child suspended between their stick arms, big smiles on their oversize heads.
Despite his vow, the thought hit him like a slug. The world he had walked away from.
His son would have been three years older than his niece. Did he look like Susie? Worse, did he look like him?
He swore under his breath, running a hand through his hair.
Susie snickered, delighted at the tone of voice he’d earned from her nanny.
“Sorry,” he muttered, “Let’s go get something to eat.” His mind wandered to the thought of Danielle eating spaghetti. “There’s a great Italian restaurant around the corner. Five-star.”
Dannie rolled her eyes. “Have you ever taken a baby and a four-year-old to a restaurant?”
he wanted to scream at her,
because I walked away from that life.
“So, we’ll order pizza,” he snapped.
“Pizza,” Susie breathed, “my favorite.”
“Pizza, small children and white leather. Hmm,” Dannie said.
“I don’t care about the goddamned leather!” he said.
He expected another reprimand, but she was looking at him closely, way too closely. Just as he had seen things about her that she might have been unaware of, he got the same feeling she saw things like that about him.
“Pizza sounds great,” she said soothingly.
Glad to be able to move away from her, to take charge, even of something so simple, he went and got a menu out of the drawer by the phone.
“What kind?” he asked.
“Cheese,” Susie told him.
“I hate everything else.”
“And what about you, Miss Pringy? Can we order an adult pizza for us? The works?”
“Does that include anchovies?”
“I think I’m in heaven,” she said.
He looked at her wet shirt, the beautiful swelling roundness of a real woman. He thought maybe he could be in heaven, too, if he let himself go there. But he wasn’t going to.
She glanced down at where he was looking and turned bright, bright red. She waltzed across the space between them, and placed the towel-wrapped baby in his arms.
“I need to go put on something dry.”
The baby was warm, the towel slightly damp. A smell tickled his nostrils: something so pure it stung his eyes.
He realized he’d had no idea what heaven was until
that moment. He realized the survival of his world probably depended on getting these children, and her, back out of his life.
She wanted to go. He wanted her to go.
So what was the problem?
The problem was, he suspected, both of them knew what they wanted, and neither of them knew what they needed.
Dannie reemerged just as the pizza was brought to the front desk. She was dressed casually, in black yoga pants and a matching hoodie, which, he suspected, was intended to hide her assets, and which did nothing of the sort. Her figure, minus the ugly black skirt, was amazing, lush.
Her complexion was still rosy from the bath. Or she was blushing under his frank look.
He had to remember she was not the kind of woman he’d become accustomed to. Sophisticated. Experienced.
“I’ll just run down to the lobby and pick up the pizzas,” he said. He glanced at her feet. They were bare, each toenail painted hot, exotic pink.
He turned away quickly. College professor, indeed! He’d
that’s what she was hiding. What he hadn’t known was how he, a man who spent time with women who were quite comfortable sunbathing topless, would find her naked toes so appealing.
Would have a sudden vision of chasing her through this apartment until she was breathless with laughter.
What would he do with her when he caught her?
He almost said the swear word out loud again. Instead he spun on his heel and took the elevator down to the lobby. He took his time getting back, cooling down, trying to talk sense to himself.
He might as well not have bothered. When he returned to the apartment, she was in the kitchen, scowling at his fridge.
“This is pathetic,” she told him.
“I know.” He brushed by her and set the pizza down. He tried not to look at her feet, snuck a peek, felt a funny rush, the kind he used to feel a long time ago, in high school, when Mary Beth McKay, two grades older than him, had smiled at him.
It was obviously a lust for the unobtainable.
She was studying his fridge. “No milk. No juice. No ketchup.”
“Ketchup on pizza?” he asked.
“I’m just making a point.”
“Your fridge is empty.” But it sounded more like she had said his life was empty.
Ridiculous. His life was full to overflowing. He worked twelve-hour days regularly and sixteen-hour days often. His life was filled with constant meetings, international travel, thousands of decisions that could be made only by him.
His life was million-dollar resorts and grand openings. The livelihoods of hundreds of people depended on him doing his work well. His life was flashy cars and flashier women, good restaurants, the fast lane. So why was he taking her disapproving inventory of his fridge as an indictment?
“Do you have peanut butter?” she asked, closing the fridge and opening a cabinet.
“On pizza?” he asked, a bit defensively. “Or are you making a point again?”
“Just thinking ahead,” she said. “Breakfast, lunch.” She took a sudden interest in a sack of gourmet coffee,
took it out and read the label. “Until you make arrangements for us to go. Which you probably will, immediately after you’ve seen the children eat pizza.”
“Give me some credit,” he said, though of course that was exactly what he wanted to do. Feed them pizza, talk to his assistant who made all his travel arrangements, get them gone. “Do you want wine? As you’ve seen, my beverage choices are limited.”