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Danny Santori looked up from the résumé in his hand. "Thank you for coming over on such short notice, Mrs…." His mind went blank. What was her name again? Staring at the austere woman seated in his cluttered front parlor, he felt a smile stretch his mouth until he was sure he resembled a grinning monkey. It was a hot day in Warenton, Pennsylvania, but the woman opposite him was dressed as if it was early spring with her long-sleeved buttoned-up blouse and gray cardigan.
God, he hated this! It was a royal pain, interviewing babysitters, explaining his situation over and over again. He hated the fact that his wife wasn't here to do it for him. Of course, if she had been, he wouldn't be in this predicament at all. Laurie had been perfectly content to be a full-time wife and mother, and had even given up her job when Danny suggested it due to his schedule. Danny realized he'd been a lucky man—now he was discovering how lucky. He stared blankly at the stern face before him. "Uh, Mrs.…"
The older woman gave him the once-over with narrowed, suspicious eyes, then dropped her gaze to the frayed Oriental rug sprawled across the scarred hardwood floor.
Her mouth pursed as if she'd just sucked a lemon. "My name is Peach. P-E-A-C-H. Miss."
Danny blinked, unable to reconcile the sweet name with this sour woman. He wished her stare didn't make him feel so much like an errant schoolboy. After all, he was supposed to be in charge here, wasn't he? He stood, hoping to feel more at ease once he was on his feet.
"I understand from the agency that you can be here day after tomorrow, Miss Peach. That's great, because myshift at the firehouse starts that day at 7:00 a.m. The kids probably won't be up at that time, which is why I was glad you could stop by today so I can introdu—oooofff!"
Danny staggered, then righted himself to look down at the small, round body that had just wrapped itself around his left leg. His almost-four-year-old daughter hung on as if she were resisting a hurricane wind. "Emma, let go, honey."
"Daddy," she demanded, hugging harder. "Walk me."
"Not now, Em. I'm talking to this nice lady."
Emma just held on, staring up at him with that heart-wrenching smile and tousled blond hair that reminded him so much of her mother. Danny's resistance sagged. "Okay, just once around."
With Emma clinging like Velcro, he swung his leg wide and walked around the room, talking over his shoulder. "As I was saying, my shift lasts twenty-four hours, which is why I requested someone who can stay overnight. I take it this is okay with you?"
Miss Peach adjusted her black straw hat more squarely on top of her skinned-back gray hair. "Naturally the agency explained your needs in full detail."
"Good. And you're sure four kids won't be too much for you to handle?"
Miss Peach drew herself up even straighter in her chair. "I have been under the employ of the agency for twenty-two years, Mr. Santori. I assure you that I am quite capable of maintaining order and discipline in your household."
At her tone, Danny stopped walking, barely managing to keep his hand from flashing her a mock salute. Suddenly he wasn't sure he wanted to subject his kids to this rigid, humorless woman. The problem was, he didn't have much choice. Maybe he could suggest that she lighten up a bit. He reached down to peel Emma from his leg. "Okay, punkin, the ride's over."
Emma started to resist, but Danny headed her off. "Why don't you find one of Mommy's cups and we'll give Miss Peach a cup of Daddy's special coffee."
Emma brightened. "The purple flower cups?"
"That's right." Danny patted her bottom. "Now scoot."
Emma giggled and scampered through an arched entrance into the adjacent dining room. Danny smiled at Miss Peach and gestured toward an antique oak sideboard. "I keep a pot on all the time when I'm home. Firehouse habit, I guess."
"I don't drink coffee," Miss Peach announced with an imperious shake of her head. "Caffeine, you know."
"Yes, I know. Uh, isn't that the point?" Danny's frown was perplexed, but at her stern stare he added, "Can I offer you something else?"
"Fruit juice, if you have any."
"Sure thing." Danny prayed his refrigerator held something besides Kool-Aid. He went quickly to the kitchen, returning with a plastic pitcher in one hand and his own coffee mug in the other. "I have cherry Kool-Aid—will that do?"
"You have no juice? Juice is good for children, Mr. Santori."
"The kids like this better, I think. It's got lots of vitamin C and stuff."
"Huuummph," was her reply.
He started to speak but stopped short, following Miss Peach's rapier gaze as it circled the room, cutting across every surface—or at least what surface could be seen beneath the clutter. He grimaced at the sight of mail and other papers littering the coffee table, at the pile of gym shoes tossed haphazardly into one corner, and at the packs of crackers stuffed around the antique silver service that decorated an old tea trolley. He remembered how delighted Laurie had been to find that, and wondered how long since it had been polished.
"Sorry the place is such a mess." Danny shrugged sheepishly. He pushed aside a stack of magazines in order to set the pitcher and his mug on the coffee table. "The last babysitter quit rather unexpectedly last week. I called the agency right away, but I had to work last night…."
"What is that?" Miss Peach pointed to the wall between the kitchen and dining room.
Danny followed her gaze. "It's a dumbwaiter. One of those elevator things that comes up from the old cellar where the summer kitchen used to be. These old houses—"
"I know what a dumbwaiter is," Miss Peach replied. "I'm talking about that."
He squinted at the crack where the dumbwaiter's wood-paneled door met the frame. Was that a towel wedged in the opening? Despite his constant warnings, the boys must have been playing in the thing again. He'd started over to investigate when Emma's chirping voice claimed his attention.
"I found it, Daddy." She emerged from the dining room, cradling a cup and saucer protectively in her chubby arms as if they were more precious than gold. "I won't drop it, will I?"
"Of course you won't, punkin." Danny resisted the urge to snatch up the delicate china, waiting instead until Emma proudly placed it in his hands. "Good girl."
It seemed a sacrilege to fill the hand-painted porcelain with cherry Kool-Aid, but Danny didn't care to question Miss Peach's preference again. He handed her the cup and saucer, then picked up his own coffee mug. "When we're done here, I'll call in the rest of my crew. I'm sure you'll find them a well-behav—"
"AIIIEEEE!" A piercing screech filled the air, followed by the machine-gun-like rat-a-tat-tat of the dumbwaiter door as it slid upward.
Miss Peach jumped to her feet, her arms flying up, cherry Kool-Aid splashing all over the front of her starched white blouse. She managed to hold on to the cup in one hand and the saucer in the other as she stared at the opening in the wall.
From the dumbwaiter's depths two black heads emerged, then two perfectly matched, leering faces. "Earthlings! Surrender. Or we'll slice you open and turn your guts to goo!"
Danny stood frozen for a moment, unsure whether to laugh at the ridiculous sight his twin sons made, kill them or rescue Laurie's china from Miss Peach's death grip. He took a step toward the sputtering woman, then looked over his shoulder at Emma crouched behind a chair with her mouth gaping. "Emma, get some cold water."
Danny grabbed a towel from a chair and reached for Miss Peach, intending to blot the spreading stain from her formidable bosom. She batted his hand away, dropping the cup and saucer onto the rug, where they landed with a muffled thunk. Her hands now free, she used one to pluck her soaked blouse from her chest and the other to point at the open dumbwaiter. "What on earth…?"
"Come out of there, you two!" Relieved to have something else to do, Danny tossed the towel onto Miss Peach's shoulder, then reached inside the gaping hole and hauled out a pair of identical squirming, mirthful boys, dressed in shorts and T-shirts with aluminum wrapped around their chests to resemble armor. Their older sister's makeup was streaked all over their faces. Tufts of dark hair of varying lengths stuck out at odd angles from their heads, with pink scalp showing through here and there. They must have decided to cut their hair to resemble the alien space warriors they'd seen on an old video the night before.
Danny propped his twin sons against the wall. "Don't move, or the only gooey guts will be yours," he promised.
He turned back to his soaked guest. "I'm truly sorry, Miss Peach. You've probably guessed by now that these are my sons, Kyle and Kevin. They aren't usually so—"
Emma's warning cry from the vicinity of the kitchen door erupted just a split second before a resounding "Woof!" filled the air. Their huge yellow Labrador retriever skated into the room, paws skidding on the hardwood floor, pushing the Oriental rug up like an accordion. Emma made a valiant attempt to hold the dog's exuberant tail. "Out, General! Sit!"
Neither command was obeyed as the dog leaped toward the two boys. Miss Peach took a step backward, but her sensible low heel caught on a fold of the carpet. Danny grabbed for her, his fingertips just missing her elbow. She flung her arms wide again before falling back into the chair.
"Oh, God," Danny groaned. "Are you all right?"
"Here's the water, Daddy." Emma, holding a sponge at arm's length, raced into the melee and slapped the dripping sponge against Miss Peach's chest. The poor woman let out a strangled cry.
With her eyes bigger than saucers, Emma put one finger in her mouth and backed away. The boys collapsed into a heap, laughing hysterically.
Danny groaned again.
As if pulled up by strings like a marionette, Miss Peach jerked to her feet. She swatted at the dog sniffing the hem of her skirt, snatched the sponge up and flung it to the table, then pointed at Emma. "That was ice-cold, young lady."
Emma burst into tears, which drew her warrior brothers to the rescue.
"Hey," Kyle yelled, his hair sticking out in all directions like a molting rooster. "You can't talk to our sister that way!"
"You better leave us alone!" Kevin added furiously.
General barked an emphatic command before Danny finally gathered his wits enough to respond. "Quiet!" he roared. "Will everyone just… be… quiet!"
The noise level dropped as he turned back to Miss Peach. The woman was a mess. Her blouse was red-stained and soaking wet, her skirt was hiked up to reveal thick stockings and a slip with the bottom strip of lace torn. Amazingly, her hat was still on her head, though it limped to one side.
In a vain attempt at damage control, Danny gestured with his hands spread, palms upward. "Miss Peach, I'm so sorry. What can I say? Boys will be boys."
"Not when I'm here they won't." Miss Peach straightened her clothing. Once in command of herself, she took a deep breath, exhaled through flaring nostrils then bobbed her head with a definitive nod. "It seems my work is cut out for me here. Look around you, Mr. Santori. Usually I do not tolerate such unruliness. Be certain I shall have your children under control in no time. You are fortunate that I am not easily discouraged."
Danny cringed inwardly at the tyrannical tone in her voice; nevertheless, he obeyed her by scanning the chaos around him. But instead of seeing the mess, he saw only the way Emma huddled in the corner, tears in her eyes. Even the boys cowered beneath Miss Peach's smug expression.
He just couldn't do it.
Shoving his hand through his hair, Danny shook his head.
"To tell you the truth, Miss Peach, I like a little unruliness now and then."
"Perhaps you don't understand. I just said that I am prepared to give your children the full benefit of my experience. In one week you will hardly recognize them."
That was exactly what Danny was afraid of.
He sighed, feeling like a drowning man giving away his life preserver. "Miss Peach, I appreciate your willingness to take on this bunch," he said, his voice gentle but firm, "but I don't think this is going to work out. Thanks for taking the time to come over."
His declaration was met with stunned silence for a moment, then Kyle let out a triumphant whoop. Emma clapped her small hands, her upturned face beaming at him. Even the dog voiced his opinion, his tail thumping the floor in a happy rhythm.
"Well!" Miss Peach clutched her handbag to her stomach. "In that case, I won't waste any more of your time."
By the way her mouth pursed, he could tell her dignity was affronted, but Danny didn't have a chance to make amends before she headed down the hallway for the front door, chin high. He followed, but stopped when she allowed the screen door to slam back, practically in his face.
"Miss Peach," he warned. "Look out!"
Peering through the screen, he watched as she marched down the porch steps straight into the path of Nana, a neighbor's boisterous St. Bernard, who had just dashed around the corner of the house with Alison, Danny's oldest daughter, in hot pursuit. The woman teetered precariously on the last step, then nimbly hopped off into an overgrown flower bed. This time her hat flew off, landing a scant, tempting six inches in front of the surprised dog.
Danny pushed through the door, followed by his three other children but stopped short of attempting another rescue. Miss Peach stepped forward onto the walk, then snatched her hat from Nana's slobbery mouth. With remarkable dignity considering the circumstances, she looked up at Danny.
"I have no doubt that you will someday regret turning me away, Mr. Santori. In the meantime, good luck finding competent child care. You shall need it." With that she turned and stalked toward her car parked at the curb.
Danny watched her go, torn between feelings of relief and sheer panic.
"Who was that?" Alison asked, snapping her fingers to claim Nana's attention from the flower bed.
"Mrs. Vulcan," Kyle said.
"The Wicked Witch of the West," Kevin added.
"She was mean!" Emma exclaimed.
"My last hope," Danny moaned. He rubbed his temple, trying to ward off the headache he could feel coming on. "Well," he muttered, "that went well."
Only Alison, at the age of almost fourteen more astute than the others, seemed to notice the sarcasm. "What will we do now? Dad?"