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Authors: Stephanie Bond

Kids Is A 4-Letter Word (6 page)

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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A sliding door revealed a wet bar, with another sliding door beyond leading to the formal living room, also vacant. Another set of French doors took them back into the entryway. John placed his hand on the banister and waited for Jo to join him before he began to climb the curving stairway to the second floor.

“I’m open to whatever ideas you have,” John explained. “I don’t have the time or the patience to coordinate the decorating myself, I just want the house to be comfortable for the kids.”

They took a familiar left at the top of the stairs. The first room on the left was a guest room, empty and expansive. This room shared the large bathroom that led into the boys’ room. If possible, their room was even more of a wreck than it had been the previous day. John shrugged his apologies. “I want new furniture in here, and as you can see, the sturdier, the better.”

Claire’s room was opposite the boys’ room. Jo decided changes were necessary at the first glimpse of the dark-wood twin bed and matching dresser. Everything was in its place, painfully neat. “New furniture in here, too,” he said, his face softening. “Something pretty for my little girl.”

As they walked past the staircase to the other side of the house, Jo’s heart began to pound. He was obviously taking her to the master-bedroom suite. He stopped at a closed door, his hand on the knob. “This is my room,” he said, then pushed open the door.

The room was gorgeous, flanked by a deep bay window on the short end of the room, and another one on the adjacent wall. An elaborate trey ceiling contained two skylights. The pale carpet was thick and plush. Absurdly, the first question
that entered Jo’s mind was whether the large copper-colored wrought-iron bed was the one he’d shared with Annie. The worn comforter had been yanked up over the sheets hurriedly, the pillows were still squashed at odd angles. “Your bed looks new,” she said before thinking. Then, to hide her burning cheeks, she bent her head to scribble furiously on the pad of paper she carried.

“It is new,” he confirmed. “But, as you can see, I need new bed linens, curtains, everything. The only other furniture was a straight-back chair with a towel hanging over it, and a wooden dresser with wrought accents to match the bed. “A comfy chair would be great,” he continued. “Along with a new mattress.”

Jo chanced a glance at John’s face and found him studying her. “A new mattress?” she parroted.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. “My back hurts when I get up. I think the mattress is too hard.”

Jo swallowed and willed herself not to lick her trembling lips. “So you’d like something softer?”

He stood unmoving, his gaze locked with hers. “Something softer in my bed would be a definite improvement.”

“Dad.” Claire’s voice startled Jo. She hadn’t seen her walk into the room.

John obviously hadn’t, either. He stood up straight. “What is it, honey?”

She frowned slightly, her eyes glancing back and forth from Jo to her father. “You’re going to be late for work.”

He turned his wrist to check his watch and nodded in agreement. “You’re right, sweetheart. I’m almost through showing Jo around. Can you get my beeper from my desk drawer and put it by my briefcase?”

She nodded, casting one more wary glance toward Jo before leaving.

John cleared his throat. “Anyway, the mattress aside, I’m worried I made a mistake buying the bed.”

Puzzled, Jo asked, “Why?”

He folded his hands, a sheepish look on his face. “You don’t think it’s too…masculine? I mean, would a woman…uh…” He blushed furiously.

Understanding flooded through Jo. John Sterling intended to remarry someday and wanted the room to be a place where a woman could feel comfortable. “It’s a beautiful bed,” Jo hastened to assure him. “And I’m sure any woman would…uh…like it.” Now it was her turn to blush.

He grinned. “I guess I’ll have to take your word for that.”

“Daddy?” Claire’s voice echoed from downstairs.

“I’m coming,” John called back. He hurriedly showed Jo the sitting room, huge bathroom and walk-in closet connected to his room, all equally bare, then they descended the stairs together. Jo tingled from his nearness and from their earlier banter in his bedroom. This man aroused feelings in her she didn’t want to scrutinize.

The children stood by the door, queued for a goodbye kiss. Jo had the ridiculous urge to get in line. Instead, she averted her eyes during the noisy smooches. When she peeked, Claire was plucking the bits of tissue from her father’s face as he stood patiently, bent at the waist.

“Jo,” he asked, standing and turning toward her. “Are you sure you don’t mind keeping an eye on the kids? I can take them to work with me for a few hours—I’ve done it before.”

“No,” she said, smiling brightly. “I need to get started here, anyway. And I have to dash out to a client not too far from here, but it’s a day care, so the kids should be fine for a few minutes.” Could he see that her heart was still jumping from their encounter? Or was it racing due to her planned act of deception with the Pattersons?

He shook his head and pulled on his suit jacket. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay, then I’ll be back around twelve-thirty or so.” He stooped to pick up his briefcase.

Jo carried a catalog to the cluttered kitchen table, anxious
for this unsettling man to leave. She spied his black and mustard-colored silk tie under a wad of napkins.

“John,” she said, reaching for the tie and holding it up.

He turned, eyebrows up.

“You forgot something.”

He tapped his forehead lightly with the heel of his hand. “Thanks. I was having so much trouble with my button, I put the thing out of my mind.”

Abandoning his briefcase, he walked toward her. He reached for the tie, then draped it over his shoulder. Jo watched while he struggled with the button at his shirt collar, stretching his neck like a rooster to gain a fraction of an inch more room to maneuver.

She smiled and crossed her arms, amused to watch an accomplished man reduced to such contortions.

He fumbled with the tiny button, the tip of his tongue protruding in his deep concentration. After several attempts, he conceded defeat. “Forget it,” he said, shrugging. “My fingers are too big for these ridiculous tiny buttons.”

“Let me,” she offered, stepping forward with her hands raised. She stopped a half step in front of him, her hands in midair, embarrassment flooding her when she felt his proximity. Her heart thudded in her chest, her throat tightening like a vise, forcing her to swallow hard and audibly. His green eyes held hers bondage, pulling her toward him. “Th-that is, if you want me to,” she stammered.

He hesitated until she began to lower her arms, then said, “I’d like that very much.”

Slowly, Jo lifted her hands to his neck. John raised his chin but Jo could feel his gaze riveted on her. She focused on the troublesome button, fighting to rechannel her rampant emotions, to quiet her pounding pulse. Placing her trembling fingers on his collar, Jo was struck with the intimacy of such a simple act. She might have been his wife, helping him to dress in the last hectic seconds before they both kissed and rushed off to day care, and then to work.

Except the mood now was anything but hectic. Time
seemed to slow, like cooling molasses, the intensity of the act stretching out each millisecond. As she tugged the ends of his collar together, her fingers brushed the warm, smooth skin of his neck. She was close enough to smell his woodsy aftershave and see a tiny patch of missed whiskers under his chin glistening red-gold in the light.

Jo carefully twisted the tiny button through the hole. She released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and chastised herself. Right now her brain could use all the oxygen her quivering lungs could deliver.’ “There,” she squeaked, lightly patting the area beneath the button.

“Thanks.” His voice vibrated warm and low, but he didn’t move a muscle as he stared into her eyes, his lips parted ever so slightly.

Jo remained frozen, her hands glued to the front of his shirt. Suddenly, a faraway sound made its way into her brain. John must have heard it, too, because he turned his head the same time she did.

One hand hiding his mouth, Jamie shook with giggles. Claire stared, too, but Jo couldn’t read her expression. Billy stared because the other two were staring.

Awestruck, Jamie asked, “Are you going to kiss her, Daddy?”

4

J
OHN TOOK
a half step back to escape Jo’s nearness, instantly missing the weight and warmth of her hand on his chest. As if on cue, she too had retreated, leaving a safe cushion of five feet between them.

“Finish your breakfast, Jamie,” John admonished in exasperation.

Jamie frowned. “I’m Peter,” he grumbled, returning to the kitchen.

Looking back to Jo, John said, “I’m sorry about that.” Her flaming cheeks brought a smile to his face. Not that she could be as embarrassed as he at that moment. He laughed nervously and lifted his hands. “Kids say the darnedest things.”

Jo smiled, and looked around the room, finally settling her gaze on him again. “It’s okay,” she said, then turned to follow Jamie to the kitchen.

John slid his tie around his shirt collar and began to fashion a knot, then made the mistake of glancing up. At the sight of her receding backside, he yanked the tiny knot at his neck to a stranglehold, then fumbled several seconds for relief.
I have to get out of this house.
He stooped to pick up his briefcase. “Kids, remember,” he said, using his best fatherly voice, “be good for Miss Montgomery, okay?”

His answer was a chorus of okays, Billy’s coming a half beat behind Jamie’s loud one and Claire’s quiet one. He met Jo’s eyes, and recognized a flash of panic. Had he spooked her with his desire to kiss her? He’d warned Jamie the previous night not to scare her off, yet he himself seemed to lose his head around her.

She gave him a shaky smile and nodded encouragingly for him to go. With one last glance at his motley crew and their temporary keeper, he left the house and walked to his car. He’d forgotten to stow it in the garage the night before, because his mind had been consumed by thoughts of Jo Montgomery.

Feeling slightly dazed, John let the car warm up for a few minutes, then backed out of his driveway and headed toward the interstate. Twenty-four hours ago he would never have envisioned the scene he left this morning. Jo Montgomery was a dream come true. Stunningly beautiful, intelligent, stunningly beautiful, his kids liked her, stunningly beautiful, unmarried. And to think she’d be spending lots of time at his home over the next…well, he’d have to think of a way to drag out this decorating project.

For the first time in two years, a feeling akin to pure happiness crept into his heart. She had a boyfriend, but she wasn’t married yet. He felt certain he’d seen desire in her eyes more than once this morning. And if she could evoke such a powerful response from him helping him get dressed, she’d put him in another galaxy helping him get undressed.

She’d looked interested. And interesting. Life was good. He turned up the radio and sang along badly with the tune, daydreaming about Mrs. Jo Montgomery Sterling.

With a start, John realized he’d driven four miles past his exit. He frowned and banged his hand on the steering wheel. A large sign announced the next exit lay a half mile down the interstate, so he settled back in his leather seat. Suddenly, the engine light blinked and the car slowed. He maneuvered to the shoulder, pressing on the gas but receiving no response. He glanced at the gas gauge and cursed. Completely empty, much like his befuddled brain.

The steering wheel received a harder whack this time. Then he released the trunk latch, got out and locked his door, retrieved the well-used gasoline container and began walking toward the exit.

Oh, well, the walk would give him time to think of a way
to get close to Jo Montgomery. He’d be an idiot to pass up this chance—even a fool could see she was a natural with kids.

“W
HAT THE HECK
is ‘time-out’?” Jo asked Claire, flinching at Billy’s increasingly hysterical wails. He fell to the floor, his little body stiff with anger. Rolling side to side, he wallowed in the remains of a building-block high-rise which had been rendered to scattered debris with one sweep of Jamie’s arm.

Claire sighed, rolling her eyes mightily as though Jo were as dense as a tree. “Time-out is when Daddy makes Jamie sit in a room by himself for a few minutes until he can control himself.”

“Until who can control himself—your dad, or Jamie?”

“Jamie,” Claire said, clearly trying to be patient.

“I’m Peter!” Jamie screeched, attempting to pull away from the firm hold Jo had on his shirttail.

“Anyway,” Claire continued in a calm voice, “you should put him in time-out now for wrecking Billy’s house.”

“It was an accident,” Jamie howled, straining to gain freedom.

“Good,” Jo said. She reined him in a few inches and tipped his chin up with her cupped hand to force him to look at her. God, he was a carbon copy of his father. Every feature—from the shape of his eyebrows to the set of his stubborn little mouth—mirrored John’s, only smaller and softer. Her heart tripped double time. “Since it was an accident, you’ll sit down and rebuild it with Billy, okay?”

While Jamie turned over this option in his mind, Jo realized she couldn’t make the boy do it, so what if he refused? Kids today baffled her. She’d seen plenty of preschoolers talk back to their parents, turning adults into quivering masses, pleading with their children to behave.

She bent down to his level, still holding his chin gently but firmly. “Okay, mister?”

Jamie worked his mouth, then gave her a lopsided frown. “Okay,” he grumbled.

Jo smiled and nodded. “I knew I could count on you.” She
gave him a pat on the shoulder as he turned toward his quaking brother. Billy quieted and sat up when Jamie began sorting the blocks in preparation for construction. Within a couple of minutes, they were playing together quietly.

Claire poked at her glasses, her mouth set in a straight line. “Daddy would have put him in time-out.”

Jo eyed her carefully. This one would not be won over easily. “Come on, I’ll help you clean up your kitchen.” She was careful to give ownership of the domain to the little girl.

“Mrs. Harris will be here in a few minutes—she always cleans it up.”

“Then let’s tidy it a bit,” Jo cajoled. “I need the table to spread out my decorating books and I could use your help coming up with a color scheme for all the rooms.”

Claire squinted while she thought it over. Then she looked at Jo and asked, “How much?”

Jo blinked. “How much what?”

“How much you gonna pay me?”

She should have seen that one coming. Jo pondered the question, crossing her arms and tapping a finger on her chin. “Does your dad pay you to do everything?”

“Uh-huh.”

Just like a guilty parent, Jo decided. “Tell you what—I’ve got a set of Nancy Drew books I’ve had since I was your age. Fifty-four, I think, plus the cookbook. If you help me, they’re yours.”

Claire’s eyes bulged. “Really?”

Jo smiled. The books were among her most prized possessions, but she and Alan didn’t plan on having a family, and she’d probably never meet another girl who enjoyed reading as much as Claire obviously did. “Really.”

The deal struck, Claire skipped to the kitchen and started gathering used napkins from the table. When the table had been cleared and the dishes loaded in the dishwasher, Jo spread her catalogs open on the smooth surface of the wooden table. “First, we decide on a color scheme for each room. Let’s start with your room,” Jo suggested, and Claire nodded
eagerly. Pointing to a page covered with matching swatches of solid, striped and polka-dotted fabric, she smiled at the plain little girl and asked, “How about pink and white?”

This nod was enthusiastic enough to cause Claire’s glasses to slip down to the tip of her nose. She poked them back in place, her eyes shining. Jo felt a funny little stir in her heart for this solemn little bookworm, denied the warmth and love of her mother at such an impressionable age.

For the first time, Jo scrutinized the girl’s clothing, and her heart squeezed. While undoubtedly good quality, her clothes were dull and shapeless, unflattering to the child. She wore stiff little khaki pants and a button-up shirt that was too small for her. Her small feet were shod in ugly, sensible black shoes. Her father hadn’t recognized that her fair coloring required bright accents. The child nearly disappeared in all that bland.

Jo looked back to the samples and carefully said, “Do you pick out your own clothes, Claire?”

Shaking her blond head, Claire replied, “No, mostly I just wear clothes I wore at our old school in Atlanta.”

“Was it a private school?”

“Uh-huh.”

Which explained the uniform quality of her outfit. “The spring semester starts here pretty soon, doesn’t it?”

Claire nodded. “One week. We’re going to a public school, though, so I don’t have to dress like everyone else.”

“Have you gone shopping for new clothes?”

She shook her head vigorously. “Aunt Cleo’s coming over from Atlanta next Saturday to take me—she said it would be a day for just us women.” She smiled timidly, and Jo nodded, satisfied the Sterling family had the situation under control. It had been foolish of her to think otherwise.

Heads together, they pored over the heavy sample books. They quickly chose shades of blue for the boys’ bed and bath, then moved on to the guest room.

“Granny Watts would like the rose color,” Claire asserted, pointing.

“Good choice,” Jo responded, impressed. “Rose is a great
color to lie down beside your pink room and the boys’ blue one.” She couldn’t resist finding out more about John’s relatives. “Tell me about your grandparents.”

“There’s just Granny and Grandpa Watts. They’re my mom’s parents and they live in Atlanta. Granny took care of us after Mom died, but then she got sick and we moved here.” Her mouth drew down and she chewed on her lower lip. “We were too much trouble, I guess.”

Jo wanted to hug her, but instead she swallowed and said, “I’m sure that’s not true. People just get sick sometimes, that’s all. I bet you miss them.”

Claire nodded. “They were going to get us a dog.”

“You’ll be able to visit them,” Jo said kindly, immensely sorry she’d raised the subject. “And thanks to your help, the house will look great when they come to see you.” This coaxed a smile from Claire.

“Now for your dad’s room.” Jo’s stomach squirmed annoyingly.

“Make it purple,” Claire said, her confidence growing.

“Hmm.” Jo pondered the color, then brightened in agreement. “Purple it is—that’s the color for royalty, you know.”

Claire beamed, and Jo decided the little girl was quite pretty when she was happy. With a slight pang, Jo wondered how often that was. “We’ll throw in cream and black for accent colors,” Jo added enthusiastically. “I’m sure your dad will like it.” She paused and leaned toward Claire. “You’re very good with colors.”

Claire’s eyes dipped, then she glanced back up at Jo beneath her lashes. “I like to paint.” She poked at her glasses unnecessarily.

Delighted, Jo asked, “You like to paint pictures?”

She nodded. “My mom painted pretty pictures, but Daddy has them all packed away.”

Jo felt another tug for Claire’s loss. Jamie’s memory of his mother would be dim at best, and Billy would never know what he missed. But Claire remembered and still nursed the pain. Smiling, Jo reached forward to place her hand over the
girl’s small one. “Promise me you’ll paint a picture someday for my office.”

Claire brightened. “I promise.”

They moved on to the rooms on the first floor and before long had selected taupe and white for the living room, brown and gold for John’s study, and coral and gray for the den. All that remained was the kitchen, and Jo turned to a palette of beautiful clear greens. “Since the bar will allow both rooms to be seen at once, green in the kitchen will be a perfect complement to the den’s coral,” she said, patting her notepad in finality.

But Claire’s face wrinkled into a dark frown. “Red.”

“Red with coral?” Jo asked, perplexed.

“The kitchen has to be red, with strawberries,” she said, crossing her arms resolutely. “It’s what Mom always wanted.”

Unknowingly, she’d hit an exposed nerve, but Jo knew when to back down. She glanced at her watch. “We’ll have to leave a few loose ends. Right now, we need to get going.” But almost another hour had passed by the time she herded up the boys, combed everyone’s hair, tamed one red cowlick, washed two sticky faces and knelt on the floor to change one diaper.

Jo shook her head and clucked as she bent over the toddler sprawled patiently on the floor, naked from the waist down. “Billy, if you’re old enough to get a diaper, bring it to me and ask for a change, you’re plenty old enough to go to the potty.”

Billy’s eyes turned dark. “Bad potty,” he said ominously.

She sat back on her heels and glanced around the room. “Where’s Jamie?” she asked Claire.

Suddenly a car horn sounded in the driveway.
Her
car horn. Fear stabbed Jo’s heart. “Oh my God, he can’t be in my car!” She raced to the door, threw it open and tore down the steps, nearly tripping in her haste.

Jamie was not only sitting in the driver’s seat, elevated by two thick catalogs, but he had the engine running, the windows
down, the stereo blasting, and was sporting Jo’s sunglasses. But by some miracle, the car hadn’t moved from its spot in the driveway. She glanced at the busy street at the end of the driveway and shuddered at what could have happened. Some mother she would make, all right. No kid would last a month in her care.

“Can I drive, Jo?” Jamie asked excitedly, turning the steering wheel sharply left, then right.

Make that a week—she’d kill them with her own hands.

“Whoa, he really needs a time-out now,” Claire breathed.

Jo was so scared and angry, she didn’t trust herself to speak. Her hands were shaking and her heart thudded in her chest. Finally, her feet propelled her to the car, where she reached in and yanked the keys from the ignition.

“Hey!” Jamie said in a loud, cross voice.

“Don’t you ‘hey’ me, young man,” Jo said, her voice low and trembling. “Do you have any idea how much danger you put yourself in?”

His chin went up. “I wasn’t afraid.”

“Out of the car,
right now!

Jamie quickly obliged, his towel-cape swirling around him as he jerked to a halt before Jo, his green eyes wide.

BOOK: Kids Is A 4-Letter Word
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