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There was a time when some might ve said that Sammy Halvorsen lived a charmed life, but—as Sammy cracked his eyelids open and squinted against the harsh sunlight, the taste of last night's party still on his tongue—those days were definitely over.
Those days ended exactly six months, sixteen days and four hours ago.
Dragging a hand across the scruff of his cheeks to wipe at his mouth, he struggled to a sitting position on the sofa just in time to hear his front door opening. He groaned silently. He'd forgotten—or maybe he'd just blocked it out of his mind—that his mother was coming with a friend to discuss something he had no interest in discussing.
"Samuel?" His mother's sharp query clanged in his head and set off a riot of pain that would gain no sympathy from Mary Halvorsen simply for the reasons he was hurting. Tying one on didn't rate on Mary's Sympathy-O-Meter; neither did anything Sammy was doing these days. And Sammy didn't have the energy to argue the fact with her.
"In here," he answered with a scratch in his throat. He cleared it and tried again. "In the living room, Ma."
She appeared in the doorway and the smile on her face froze when she took in his appearance. Deep disappointment or anger—he wasn't really sure but neither boded well for him—flashed in her expression, but he was too hungover to try and charm his way back into her good graces. Everything these days took too much effort. Instead, he ran a hand through his hair and then gestured to the sofa. "Can I get you some coffee or something?" he asked, pulling himself up to walk with an unsteady gait to the small kitchen.
"Coffeewould be fine, Samuel," Mary said.
Sammy swayed when he reached for the dark roast blend, grimacing as the world tilted on its axis and he nearly lost whatever was souring his stomach. That would not go over well, he thought with dark humor. "Anything for your friend?" he asked, once he'd finally noticed the petite blonde standing beside his mother.
The woman shook her head and, following Mary's lead, gingerly took a seat on the sofa where previously Sammy had crashed for the night, too drunk to even make it down the short hallway to his bed.
Sammy could hear murmured conversation between the two as he filled the coffeemaker and set it to brew. He wondered why he'd agreed to this meeting. Right now he was just wishing they'd go away so he could return to that blissful sleep of the inebriated. But, as he returned with two full mugs, one for his mom and one for himself, he knew the chances of that happening were slim to none.
This was an intervention Mary Halvorsen-style, and it would take more than his discomfort to sway her from her mission.
"Maybe we should come back another time," the woman suggested, as if reading Sammy's mind. He lifted his mug to her and cracked a grin but it must've come out looking more like a grimace, for she didn't respond favorably. "You don't seem… well."
"He's hungover," Mary said before Sammy could answer, and he frowned. "Too bad for him, I say. I didn't rearrange my schedule to accommodate this meeting just to reschedule because my son doesn't have a lick of sense in his fool head these days." She speared Sammy with a short look as she asked pointedly, "Where's Ian?"
At the mention of his son's name, Sammy took another bracing sip of his coffee and zeroed in on a dust bunny on the floor. "With Annabelle and Dean. I forgot about today. I needed to go out last night."
"What you need is a nanny. Someone who can help you take care of Ian. It's not fair to Dean and Anna-belle to keep shouldering your responsibility when they have a little one of their own. This has gone on long enough, Samuel."
Sammy couldn't respond to that. He knew she was right, but inside his chest was a useless shell where his heart used to be, and he had nothing left for his young son. It hurt just to look at the kid. If it hadn't been for him, Dana would still be here. Sammy blinked back the wave of shame that followed and finished his coffee in two scalding swallows.
"What's your name?" he asked the woman.
"Aubrey… Aubrey Rose. I just want to say that I'm so sorry for your l—"
"You know much about kids?"
She started at the interruption. "Well, I was an au pair during college and I did a lot of babysitting when I was a kid."
"What the hell is an au pair?"
"It's another word for nanny, used mostly in Europe. I spent a year in Italy.… Anyway, yes, to answer your question I have some experience. I'm also CPR and first aid trained."
"See?" Mary said. "Perfect. More than perfect. And she can start immediately."
Sammy glanced away. Not perfect. Everything was far from perfect but who was he to belabor the point? It didn't much matter either way.
He gestured to his mom. "How do you two know each other?"
"We met at the Quilters Brigade," Mary answered. "And before you open your mouth to say some kind of joke, let me spare you the effort. I am not in a joking sort of mood."
"Jeez, Ma, lighten up. You'll scare the young folk," he said, his mouth curving in a tired grin, but he dropped it quickly enough when his mother's stare narrowed. She wasn't kidding. "So the Quilters Brigade…"
Aubrey shrugged. "It's a relaxing hobby and I usually donate the piece when I'm finished." "Not from around here, I take it?" "No. I'm a transplant, as Mary calls it." "Yeah," he said, trying hard not to remember that Dana had been an outsider, too. He swallowed and looked away. "I guess you'll do well enough. Hell, I don't know the first thing about babies so you're already more qualified than me to take care of him." And that fact sliced him to the bone every single day.
Aubrey should've known this wasn't going to work out. What had she been thinking? She slanted a look at Mary, realizing that the older woman hadn't been entirely honest about her son's situation. This was more than a widower needing help with his infant son. This man was a train wreck. And she wasn't interested in hitching a ride. She had enough baggage to sink the Titanic. She didn't need this guy's, as well.
Aubrey gathered her purse, ready to leave when the front door opened and a curvy redhead walked in cradling a bundle against her shoulder. "Sorry, Sammy, but something came up and I had to bring Ian home. I know you said you'd come by later but… Oh! I'm interrupting. Mary said you were interviewing a nanny. I'm so sorry. You must be Aubrey?"
Aubrey nodded and the woman continued in a rush, gently dropping a full diaper bag to the floor and bringing the baby to his father, which by the expression on his face was about as pleasurable as having a nail pounded into his foot. He held the child awkwardly, almost away from his body so as to limit contact, and was quick to hand the child to his grandmother, who immediately started snuggling the boy. "I'm Anna-belle," she said. "Nice to meet you. You're going to love Ian. He's the sweetest baby. Mary, I'll see you later?"
"Eight o'clock. Bring Jasmine. I haven't had my granddaughter fix in two days."
"Will do. Oh, one more thing, there are a few pre-prepared bottles in the diaper bag that need to go into the fridge right away. Okay, bye!"
In a blink, Annabelle was gone again but Sammy had hardly registered her presence after she'd put the baby in his arms.
Even as Mary continued to lavish the child with whispered endearments, Aubrey caught a look so full of anguish in Sammy's eyes that for a moment her own heart spasmed. But it was gone in an instant, replaced by that dull, empty stare that said I care about nothing and no one so don't even try, and Aubrey knew taking this job would be a mistake.
She opened her mouth with the intent to decline but Mary took that moment to place the baby in her arms. As Aubrey held that soft body she felt an echo of an old pain that never truly healed no matter how many years she put between it and herself. Babies. She loved them.
Truly and deeply. All sorts, all kinds. They were her Achilles' heel. And it was the cruelest of ironies that she would never bear one.
"Aubrey, meet Ian Samuel Halvorsen. Isn't he a doll?"
Aubrey nodded. About that part, Mary hadn't lied. This child was beautiful with a full head of dark hair, porcelain skin and a rosebud mouth that was nearly too pretty for a boy. In fact, if he hadn't been decked out in a sleeper with airplanes on it and gripping a blue blanket it might've been hard to tell his gender. But then again, babies at this age were sometimes hard to tell anyway. She couldn't resist bending down to inhale that sweet intoxicating baby scent and knew even as she did so, walking away was going to be difficult.
"He's beautiful," Aubrey said softly, a slow but reluctant smile forming on her mouth. "Does he look like his mother?"
"The spitting image," Sammy choked out before leaving the room on legs so stiff it looked as if his back might crack from the pressure.
Oh, Lord. That man was drowning. It didn't take a degree in psychology to see that and Aubrey knew from firsthand experience that drowning people often took down the people trying to save them. She hadn't put her life back together only to have it torn apart again by someone else.
Aubrey handed Ian back to his grandmother. "Mary, I like you and I appreciate the opportunity you've offered me but I think this job is more than I can handle."
After a moment, Mary said, "Ian needs you, Aubrey."
"Me? Why me?"
"I'm going to level with you because I get the feeling that you can see right through bullshit and I'm not going to waste your time feeding you any. I'm too old to be raising my grandchild, and my other two sons are busy trying to raise their own families. Annabelle is wearing herself out trying to do everything for Sammy because Dana was her best friend and that's how she deals with her own grief. But Sammy needs to start bonding with his son. He can't do that if he has too many people picking up the slack for him and that's what's been happening since Dana died."
"How is hiring a nanny going to help him with that?"
"It will allow him to break in slowly." Mary inhaled softly as she touched Ian's downy cheek. "He loves his boy. He just doesn't want to right now."
Aubrey shook her head, her gut instinct telling her to stick with her initial decision and decline, but she was secretly horrified at the idea of leaving the baby to his father's emotional void. Babies needed love and affection to grow and thrive. She doubted Samuel Halvorsen was capable of that right now. So where did that leave Ian? You can't save every child, a voice warned. No, but she could at least help this child for a short while. No one said she had to get emotionally involved. And no one said she had to stay forever.
"I'll take the job—temporarily. I understand what you're saying about your son needing to break in slowly but if it turns out that I think it's not helping, I'm going to give notice."
"Fair enough." Mary rose and placed the boy in the swing. "I'll go get Sammy so you two can talk salary."
The gently swaying swing drew her attention and she withheld a sigh. She was such a sucker for a sweet face.
Her attention strayed to the photographs on the walls. There were several of Sammy with his late wife. Mary had said her name was Dana and they'd only been married a short time before she died. Aubrey tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and couldn't help but feel sad for the young family. A son left without a mother and a husband left without a wife. Sometimes life dealt crappy cards.
Mary returned with Sammy and Aubrey sat a little straighter, projecting as much detached professionalism as she knew how to, and even did a good job of dismissing the casual observations that drifted through her mind as he started talking compensation, schedules and whatnot. Observations such as the dark golden scruff on his face, which was a shade lighter than the tousled mess on top of his head, and the mesmerizing hazel of his eyes that, even bloodshot from a night of tearing up the town, were still pretty arresting. No doubt about it, this guy was a looker. He had that rugged, construction-worker thing going on that would cap off a calendar of hot guys quite nicely, alongside the requisite batch of firefighters and military men. Not her type, really. She could almost hear her mother's voice carping in her ear that Sammy Halvorsen might very well be her type if she were looking to get her heart broken—yet again—but she wasn't so it didn't matter, right?
No, Sammy Halvorsen was so off-limits he might as well be orbiting a separate planet. As far as bad habits went, rehabilitating brokenhearted men was by far her worst. Catching a man on the rebound wasn't something Aubrey wanted to do ever again. No matter how attractive the man was or how adorable his baby was.
Besides, what was she worried about, anyway? It wasn't like she was looking for love—far from it—so everything should be fine.
"When can you start?" he asked abruptly.
Mary interjected with a firm shake of her head before Aubrey could answer. "Not today. She has plans. Tomorrow is soon enough," she added with an arched brow. "You can handle your boy for one night, can't you?"
"Of course I can," he said, but his eyes said something else entirely.
Aubrey checked the frown she felt building in her brow. It was no business of hers what kind of relationship Sammy had with his son. Her job would be to feed, clothe and otherwise care for Ian but no one said anything about getting personally involved.