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One glance at the next name on his nanny-candidate list told navy SEAL Calder Remington all he needed to know. She'd be a card-carrying unicorn lover or flake. He needed a Mary or Hazel. Someone not only dependable, but with impeccable references and the patience of Mother Teresa. The last four women had been nice enough, but they'd lacked experience. Ideally, he needed a grandmotherly type who'd successfully raised her own brood to be doctors, and now looked to pass along her vast parental knowledge to the next generation.
At twenty-eight, how much parenting knowledge could Pandora have?
Calder had pretty much resigned himself to not even let her in the house when the doorbell rang. He dropped his list and sighed. In light of the fluid situation, he adjusted his mission to ditching Pandora quickly enough to allow time for a nap before the next candidate showed.
Calder glanced at eight-month-old Quinn, who played on the floor with his favorite stuffed whale. "Might as well get this over with, huh, buddy?"
Calder shook his head. "My thoughts exactly."
He opened the door on a petite brunette whose blackrimmed glasses struck him as too big for her face. "Um, hello. I, ah, was sent by the Earth Angels agency to"
"Appreciate your stopping by" the August heat coming in the door already made him break out in a sweat "but I need someone older."
"Oh ." As if she were a leaky balloon, her shoulders deflated. "Maybe if you would just give me a chance? You know, like try my services for a week, then decide?"
Desperation fairly oozed from her pores. "Kind of you to offer, but"
He didn't think it possible, but when she glanced past him into the house, her complexion paled. He was shocked when she shoved him out of her way to sprint across the living room as if she'd just caught a Hail Mary pass and was intent on snagging a game-winning touchdown.
He turned to see what kind of nut-job stunt she was pulling, only to go weak at the knees. Quinn had turned blue. Pandora scooped him into her arms and turned him upside down. She delivered five raps on his back, then flipped him over to do the same in the front. No results.
Calder might be a navy SEAL and combat veteran, but he had never felt more helpless. Since May, he'd been meaning to take an infant first-aid class, but between work and single-dad duties, it was almost September and he still hadn't found time.
She repositioned his son once more and then like magic, a grape popped from Quinn's mouth onto the carpeted floor.
While Calder gaped, Quinn wailed.
Pandora hugged Calder's panicked son, rocking him gently, calming him with a soft, sweet lullaby in his ear.
Once his son's cries had been reduced to occasional shuddering huffs, she held out her hand for Calder to shake. "I'm sorry. In all the excitement, I failed to properly introduce myself. I'm Pandora Moore."
Still shaky, Calder shook the woman's hand. This certainly put a new spin on the situation. How did his conscience justify sending her on her way when she'd literally saved Quinn's life? Did he repay that debt by flat out giving her the job? "Nice to meet you. Calder Remington." Pointing to his son, he asked, "Where'd you learn thatthe baby Heimlich thing?"
"Basic Infant Care 101. Choking is a leading cause of infant mortalitywhich is beyond tragic considering most cases are preventable." She took the bowl of grapes from the coffee table, placing them on the mantel.
"Yeah, well, you made me feel pretty stupid." He rammed his hands into his jeans pockets.
"Oh, no, I didn't mean to imply you're a bad parent."
"I get it." Whether she'd meant it or not, her words stung because Calder knew them to be true. He may be good at a lot of things, but raising a kid wasn't one. He tried, but even after having had Quinn for a few months, nothing about it felt natural. Bottom line, Calder had wearied of the whole nanny search. Unable to shake the guilt telling him the least he could do for this woman who'd saved his son was give her a chance, he asked, "How soon can you start?"
Her eyebrows rose. "You mean you want me for the job?"
"Sure. We'll give it a try." He still didn't wholly trust a woman named Pandora, but guys on his team were always giving him crap for his name. Didn't seem fair for him to turn around and do the same. "Can you start first thing tomorrow?"
She pushed up her glasses and shyly smiled. "Sure. The agency said it's a live-in position, right?"
"Yeah." He gestured down the hall. "Follow me. I'll show you your room."
Standing in the sunshine-flooded bedroom with its own private bath and even a bay window peering out on the grassy, tree-lined backyard, Pandora fought the urge to pinch herself. A hardwood dresser, nightstand and headboard all matched and the tan carpet was clean enough for the baby in her arms to crawl wherever he wantedassuming there weren't more grapes lying around. The queen-size mattress was bare, but new enough to still wear furniture-store stickers.
After all she'd been through, this felt surreal. As a bonus, Calder even seemed like a great guy. Though he possessed beyond steal-your-breath good looks, her gut told her he was a gentleman. As for the indefinable jolt of awareness stemming from just shaking his hand? She was determined to push that from her mind.
"Don't blame you if you hate the color," he said in regard to the mixed shades of lavender, orange and lime green polluting the walls. "The last owner went a little crazy with their sponge painting. We'll pick out something more to your liking."
"Yellow," she automatically said. "I've always wanted a room the shade of lemon sorbet."
He laughed. "You got it. As for the bedspread, towels, sheets and everything, I figured you'd be more comfortable using your own."
"Yes. Thanks." Only trouble was, she didn't have her own. But she had managed to save some money. It wouldn't hurt to spend a smidge of her precious savings on the perfect floral comforter set to match her soon-to-be newly painted walls.
Quinn had fallen asleep in her arms.
The sensation of once again holding an infant struck her as sublime.
For the past year, she'd held a steady after-school child-care position until the Norfolk naval family had been transferred overseas. Pandora's charges had been two little girls aged five and seven. During that time and up to the present, she lived at a halfway house in a gloomy basement bedroom no bigger than some closets. The enormity of this job and all the secondary perks it entailed were too great to presently absorb, so she held them close as she might have a secret gift she wouldn't open until she had some privacy. No, she wouldn't even think about the full ramifications until Calder signed the agency paperwork that officially brought her dream one step closer to fruition.
"Want me to take him?" Her new boss nodded to his son before leading Pandora into the hall.
"Thanks, but I'm good." And she was. Nuzzling the infant's downy hair, she drank in his familiar baby smells of lotion and powder. If this angel were truly hers, she'd never let him go. "If it's not too personal, where's Quinn's mom?"
Calder's expression darkened as he said, "Not to be evasive, but that's a long story best told over a few beers."
"Oh." He drank? She'd hoped he didn't, but that was probably expecting too much.
"Come on. I'll show you Quinn's room and the rest of the house. We've only been here a few weeks. My schedule made it tough to nail down the closing date."
"You work a lot of overtime?"
He snorted as he led the way into a surprisingly drab nursery. "Guess you could call it that. SorryI'm still off my game from the whole choking thing. I'm a navy SEAL. A big part of my job is being called out with little or no notice. Like, I might tell you I'll be home for dinner, but then get assigned a mission and won't be back for six monthsgranted, it's usually not that long, but it can happen. Technically, for just that reason, my mom has shared custody of Quinn. But since she's in North Carolina, I need you here for any and all immediate contingencies. That's why it was important for me to hire someone through an agency. I need to know you're not only reliable and great with my kid, but have the kind of stable history and experience in caring for children that allows me to be one hundred percent certain you're doing a great job. That way, I can fully focus on what I do, which makes my life a helluva lot saner."
Pandora wished she were as confident with the trust he placed in her as Calder. Though in her head, she'd put her past firmly behind her, in her heart the fallout still remained.
Rocking Quinn, she asked, "How can you stand being away from this cutie?"
For a split second, Calder looked blank. "I, ah, guess for what I do, I don't have a lot of options. Come on, I'll show you the kitchen."
Pandora followed, trailing her fingertips along white walls. Had Calder already painted the hall? Somehow she couldn't imagine the same person who'd attacked her room with color being satisfied with a vanilla thoroughfare.
In the kitchen, Calder said, "Nothing fancy here. I don't expect you to cook for me. Just make sure Quinn gets decent meals. I set up a household account at the bank. You can use it for groceries, diaperswhatever else we need around here or for Quinn."
She nodded, though inside, she felt as if she may be dreaming. How many nights had she gone to bed hungry because she had no cash for food?
You sure managed to scrape up enough dough for other things, her conscience was all too happy to point out.
Fighting fire with fire, she squelched the seemingly constant voice in her head, reminding her she was destined to fail, by saying, "Thanks again for this opportunity. I'll care for Quinn as if he were my own."
Wrong choice of words considering what had happened to her sweet Julia. She squelched that thought, too.
"I'm pretty sure I should be thanking you." He fished a key from a meticulously organized drawer, handing it to her. "Everyone I know with kids says the agency you work for doesn't fool around when it comes to hiring the most qualified people."
Pandora knew that to be true. Her best friend, Natalie, put all of her employees through extensive background checks. She feared the only reason Natalie had hired Pandora was because of the friendship they'd struck up at the restaurant where Pandora waited tables. But no matter how many times Natalie assured Pandora that wasn't the case, or how much additional training she'd done on her own, she never quite felt part of acceptable societyor worthy of receiving good fortune.
"Well? You ever going to tell me how the interview went?"
Pandora glanced up from cramming her few books into a box to find Natalie seated on the halfway house's twin bed. She may have offered to help, but so far had done nothing but talk. "Obviously, it was good, or Calder wouldn't have hired me."
"Duh. I'm the one who filled out the paperwork. I want the inside scoop. Did you find out what happened with Quinn's mom? I kept waiting for an explanation, but he never told me."
"I asked, but Calder said he'd talk about it later." Pandora purposely left out the part about the beers. No need for her friend to worry about her returning to the dark side.
"Interesting." Natalie tapped her index finger against her lips. "Wonder what happened for her to leave? The guy's so handsome it hurts to look at him. Don't you think?"
"No," Pandora lied. In truth, not only was Calder easy on the eyes, but her cheeks flamed at the mere memory of the heat caused by just shaking his hand. "Even if I did, what would I do about it? Don't you have a strict nonfraternization policy with clients?"
"True, and I appreciate you pointing that out, but you'd have to be a zombie not to have at least noticed that killer grinand the width of his shoulders. Dear Lord " Natalie fanned herself.
Pandora pitched a pillow at her usually more serious friend. "Knock it off. All you need to know is that Calder seems to be a great guy, and the fact that he hired me is a miracle." She swallowed hard to keep the tears at bay.
"You deserve every ounce of good that's been happening for you lately." Standing, her friend ambushed Pandora with a sideways hug. "I never would've suggested you for this job if I didn't think you were capable of handling it."
"Thanks." Pandora sniffled and nodded. "But it's hard, you know? And I didn't expect that. For years, I've dreamed of living a normal life and now that I'm getting out of here and moving into this adorable home with an even cuter baby, I " Her blessings plate felt inordinately full. The only thing missing was her daughter. But not for long, she promised herself.
Pandora woke the next morning at five. Calder said she didn't need to be at his house until seven, but excitement refused to grant another minute's sleep.
She and Natalie had packed all her belongings into five boxesincluding her toiletries. Calder had offered to help her move, but she was embarrassed not only about where she lived, but how little she actually owned, so she'd declined.
She took a quick shower, dressed, brushed her teeth, blow-dried her hair and put it in a quick ponytail and carted the boxes to her car, then stripped her bed, swept the floor and wiped down all flat surfaces. Since she'd spoken with the house counselor and completed all necessary release paperwork the previous night, by six, she'd said her goodbyes to the few women who were awake, then turned in her key. Once in her car, headed toward her new home, she never looked back.
That part of her life was over and she never wanted to revisit it. Never wanted the shame of being forced by her own poor choices to live in a group home again.
She merged onto the highway and made it to Calder's Norfolk neighborhood thirty-five minutes ahead of schedule. She passed the time by driving around, admiring the tidy neighborhood and park close enough for her to take Quinn to play. She'd have so much fun caring for him and Calder's home that it hardly seemed fair for her to accept a salary.
Pulling her car into Calder's driveway filled her with a kind of quiet satisfaction she'd never known. The only thing better would be having a home of her ownwhich she would, but this made a great first step.
The redbrick house featured large-paned windows with white shutters. The postage-stamp-size yard was neat with box hedges lining the foundation, but the flower beds were bare save for a few hardy weeds. She wondered if Calder would mind if she and Quinn planted fall flowers. She'd always loved pansies.
"Hey, you're early."
Pandora had been deep in her daydream when her new boss stepped barefoot and bare chested onto the front porch. Wearing khaki cargo pants, he carried a sleepy Quinn still dressed in footy pajamas. If she'd thought the home a lovely sight, the man and his son were downright mesmerizing. Mouth dry, she took a moment to even form words. It sounded cliche, but she honestly hadn't known men had arms and chests so muscular outside of movies.
Quinn rubbed his eyes and whimpered.