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The first time Addie McCoy saw Nathan Browder, he was in children's pajamas.
Not wearing them—standing in the middle of a display of them in Goodwin's Department Store. Even if they hadn't been the only two people on the second floor of the aging Star City, Tennessee, landmark store, she'd have noticed him. With his shaggy brown hair, dazzling white teeth flashing against his tanned skin and wearing a royal-blue Hawaiian shirt with gray palm trees against yellow moons, the man stood out.
Having grown up the only child of Bivvy McCoy, sometimes known as the 'Crazy Christmas Lady' for her over-the-top holiday displays in their small Smoky Mountain tourist town, Addie McCoy believed that standing out was vastly overrated. In fact, she went to great lengths to avoid it.
She sighed and looked at the man so totally relaxed even though he was so totally out of place in the dusty old store with dated blue ornaments, sparkly silver snowflakes and bell-shaped mistletoe with pink velvet bows suspended from the ceiling. "Excuse me, sir, but I need to get by you."
He jerked his head up as though he had just realized she was there. He raised his index finger and pursed his lips to pantomime a "Shh."
Addie froze, unable to take her eyes off the man's raised hand—which she noted had no wedding ring. She opened her mouth to say something more, but he rendered her speechless with nothing more than a wink and a grin.
He motioned for her to join him, holding out his hand for her to take.
A tingle sparked in the pit of her stomach, then shot through her veins. She wanted to resist. She needed to resist. Addie did not do things like this. She wasnot impulsive, and she certainly never did anything to draw attention to herself. Besides, it was her first day at Goodwin's, where she had wanted to work since she was a little kid looking into the huge picture windows out front. She had to report to the business office upstairs in a few minutes. But the unexpected invitation came so freely, steeped in fun and secrecy, that she found herself reaching out toward him.
His hand closed around hers.
She gasped at his touch.
He gave her arm a yank to bring her staggering closer, then behind him. After a stealthy backward glance her way, he pointed at a rack of "fun flannel" vintage-print pajamas. Without another sound, he crept toward them.
Her curiosity told her to do likewise, but her head? Well, as the daughter of the town's biggest eccentric— and in Star City that was saying something—she had already had to overcome so much, waited too long and worked too hard to get this job. She had no intention of losing it by being caught playing games with a strange man on the sales floor. She pulled her shoulders back, to physically and mentally wrench herself free of his allure, and asked, "Do you need some help?"
Addie strove to never be judgmental. She had experienced that kind of attitude coming from teachers, neighbors and even church members her whole life. And yet she heard herself laying her accent on a little thicker than usual as a means of implying she thought this fellow might want to seek the input of a mental-health professional.
He chuckled, held up his hand to remind her to stay quiet, then sprang sideways out of his half crouch. "No, thank you. I have work to do."
"Work?" Addie jumped backward, clutching her purse to her chest. "Are you—"
"Gotcha!" He yelled loud enough that even with his whole upper body wedged in the rack jam-packed with flannel pajamas, it startled her.
A child squealed with laughter before a small voice cried, "Let's do it again!"
"No deal. Time for fun and games has passed." The man straightened up and looked down. Then, with the kindest expression on his face, he reached in and lifted out what Addie figured was probably the world's cutest little redheaded boy, complete with a hooded sweatshirt, brand-new blue jeans and sneakers with wheels on the bottom.
The man was shopping in the store three weeks before Christmas. Wedding ring or not, clearly he had a family.
"He's very cute." Not surprising given his hunky dad. "Um, Merry Christmas to you both."
"No, Merry Christmas to you." He held the kid out toward her. "My work here is done. He's all yours."
"Mine?" Her pulse thudded all the way up into her throat. Her brain couldn't quite seem to function. She looked from the man's face to the boy's, then to the man's again. "No! You've got…That's not…I'm not that kid's mother! I'm not even married."
"This isn't the 1950s, ma'am." He studied her for a moment.
"The…?" Her hand flitted from the red-and-green-plaid headband holding back her shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, to the small, rounded white collar peeking from the neckline of the simple black sweater. She shifted her sensible heels, and the knee-length hem of her black skirt swayed slightly. She could just imagine that to a guy like this she'd look like a relic from another era.
He smiled thoughtfully, shook his head and said, "A lot of people have children now without being married. But…"
"Look, I'm a nice Christian girl who is not married or a mother, and that's certainly not my child." She took a step forward, searching the quiet surroundings. "If you want me to, I'll help you find her, though. His mom must be frantic looking for him."
"Hey, Jesse, pal, why don't you go get a drink of water?" He gave the boy a nudge toward the fountain near the elevators.
"Then we'll play hide-and-seek some more, right, Nate?" The boy ran two steps, then went flying down the aisle on his shoe skates.
"Not inside, kiddo," the man called.
The boy groaned but obeyed.
"Sorry to cut you off like that, but Jesse's mom hasn't cared where he was in years, and I didn't think he needed to be reminded of that." He took her by the elbow and guided her to one side, out of the boy's line of vision. "My name's Nathan Browder. Or Nate. I'm the kid's manny."
"Yeah. You know, male nanny?"
"Oh, I know what the word means. I just don't know what to do with the information."
"You do… you do work here, right?"
"Great. Now we're getting somewhere." He clapped his hands together. He took her arm again and spun her toward where the child was still getting a drink, then flattened his large hand between her shoulders and urged her forward. "I left his luggage at the customer-service counter downstairs, and I made lists of the things he needs, his likes and dislikes. As much as I could find out."
She dragged her feet, but the slick soles of her new shoes didn't give her much traction. "Luggage? Likes and dislikes? What are you talking about?"
"Okay, Nate!" The little redheaded boy swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, then took off running toward the left side of the building. "See if you can find me again."
"No, Jesse. Stay put. I can't…" Nate looked in the direction of the boy, clearly torn between his own desires and what the child needed from him. Finally, he ran his hands through his hair and sighed. "Duty calls. I'll help you grab him this time, but from then on you're on your own."
"On my own? He's not my—"
"Not mine, either." He narrowed his eyes and lifted his head, listened, then started down the main aisle away from the elevator landing area. "I have a job interview at a prominent private school in Los Angeles on January second. I only took the job escorting the kid here to earn a little extra money until I get that job. I have a plane to catch."
She followed him, not because she was going along with any of this but just to say, "Well, I have a job to do right now."
"Yeah. That job is to help me round up the kid so you can watch over him until your boss tells you differently." He came to an intersection of two aisles and looked both ways.
Addie did the same. The action didn't enlighten her one bit. "My boss?"
"Yeah. Doc Goodwin? Jesse is his grandson."
Addie thought she knew absolutely everything about the Goodwins and their family business. She had never heard of the Goodwins' only son, Darin, having children. "Even if that's true, why would you try to leave the boy with me?"
"I don't know anything about the whole custody deal, just that the kid's mom has given up her rights to him and I was hired to fly with him out here, drive him to Star City and deliver him to the top floor of Goodwin's Department Store. I was told they would take it from there."
"The top floor?" Addie looked up at the ceiling. Beyond the glittery, gleaming and mistletoe-decked decorations, she could envision the private offices that nobody could get to without using a special key on the elevator or having someone open the door to the private stairwell along the left side of the building. Doc Goodwin used that staircase to slip from floor to floor in his store. "'Fraid you're a floor short of the top. But don't feel bad. No one would have been free to let you up there this morning because the Goodwins and all the department heads are in a big, important meeting going over the results of the day-after-Thanksgiving sales."
"Sorry. So, you're…?"
"Seasonal temp help. Director of Christmas promotions." She adjusted the oversized crystal snowflake pin on the lapel of her coat as if that were a badge to prove her commitment to the effort. And even though she really wanted to blurt out that she hoped to build a career on these humble beginnings, she held back. Why draw attention to her dismal situation?
"So, do you think you could spare a few minutes to help with Jesse?"
To do a personal favor for the Goodwins? "I'll make the time," she said.
"C'mon then." He moved onto the carpeted area, threading through the tall racks of robes and gowns.
"Here, Jesse!" As an only child in a town where nobody would have let Bivvy McCoy's daughter babysit their precious darlings, Addie had no experience dealing with children. "Come on out. Here, boy."
"He's not a puppy." Nate looked at her, his eyes teasing. "He's—"
The clatter of plastic hangers caught his attention. He dipped his head and pointed to the tall, circular rack of full-length nightgowns. He raised his finger to his lips again.
Nate pointed to himself, then to her, then to the far side of the rack. He made a semicircle in the air with his finger, then stabbed it toward the side nearest where they stood.
With just that much from the man, Addie knew exactly what to do. In a few quick tiptoed steps, she was in position.
"I guess Jesse has given us the slip," Nate said too loudly. "Nothing more for us to do then but… go!"
Addie dove into the rack.
The metal hooks on the plastic hangers screeched over the rod. A white gossamerlike gown snagged on her headband. She stumbled forward, her hands out. A clunk split the air and a blinding pain resonated through her head.
She cried out, but she did not let that stop her. Her whole life she'd wanted to prove herself worthy of the trust of Star City's preeminent family, and she wouldn't let a bonk on the noggin, as her mother would call it, spoil her chance. She squeezed her eyes shut to help the ache pass more quickly, and when her hand met rough fabric and her index finger slid into a denim belt loop, she gave a firm yank. "Don't even try fighting it. I've got you good, and you are never going to get away from me."
"I wouldn't even dream of trying," came the deep masculine voice in reply.
"Oh…" Addie opened her eyes to find her hand on Nate's hip and his face just inches from hers.
She tugged to free her hand, but he moved with her, putting them both in the circle of light coming from above them. He leaned in closer to push her hair off her forehead as he asked, "You okay? We had a real skull-thumper there."
She looked up into his eyes. He seemed to actually care if she had been hurt. "I'm… fine. You?"
He paused only a moment before he cleared his throat and answered, "Fine. Me, too. Also fine."
Addie said, "Well, we better… We still have to find Jesse. And you have a plane to catch."
He tipped his head in agreement, swept the sheer fabric of the nightgown from her hair. "And you have a job to do. So, we…" He stepped back, but only a little. He rubbed the back of his neck, looked down then up, and then a grin inched slowly across his lips. "Look—mistletoe."
Addie followed the line of his vision. Her heartbeat quickened.
"Guess you know what we have to do?"
She couldn't believe this was happening. But why not? She had taken the first step on the path to her dream job, and she would never see this awesomely adorable guy again. She went up on her toes and planted a sweet but firm kiss right on his lips.
"Wow." He stepped back and grinned. "I was going to say we have to get back to work, but that was better. Much better."
He hadn't been asking for a kiss! She was mortified. She was humiliated. She was mad. "Oh!"
She stepped backward, ready to storm off in a huff, only to have the heel of her shoe catch in the hem of the white gown that had been draped over her. It jerked off the hanger and fell into a pool around her ankle. She shook her leg to free it.
"Here, let me help." Nate reached for her.
"I think you've done enough already." She put her hands on his chest to push him away, but before she could do it two handfuls of silk and lace jerked open behind her.
"What goes on here?" Without even turning to look at him, Addie instantly recognized the voice of short, portly, bald-headed Doc Goodwin. He boomed, "You? What are you doing here?"
"This is not what it looks like, Mr. Goodwin." She didn't know how she could breathe, much less speak. Still, she tried to appear calm. "I was just about to go upstairs to fill out the forms to start work today."
"And is this your idea of starting work?" Mr. Goodwin gave her a look that said, given her upbringing, he'd have believed her capable of any kind of wild tale. "I'm afraid you are not Goodwin's material, Miss McCoy. You should leave."