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Damn! This wasn't going to go well. Jack Mason shiftedhis almost-four-year-old against his shoulder as he rangthe bell at the Yellow Rose Lane fourplex.
"Ally, I need you to be really quiet and stay next toDaddy this morning, okay?"
"Okay, Daddy." Her voice didn't show any concern.She probably had no idea what he was asking, but he'dkeep her out of the way. He certainly didn't want herrunning into The Shark's sharp bite.
The apartment door swung open and Jack wassuddenly face-to-face with the dreaded Shark. At leasthe thought he was. He sure hadn't expected her to openthe door with a smile. "I'm looking for Miss McNabb."
Dark eyes flashed at him, darting from his face toAlly's and back again. "I'm she."
"I'm Jack Mason. Judge Robinson recommended Icontact you about some cabinetry work you wanted done."
"Yes, come in, Mr. Mason and " She paused,staring at his child.
"Um, this is my daughter, Allison. Her child-carefacility closed suddenly this morning and I couldn'tfind a sitter. But she'll stay by my side and she won'tcause any problems."
"All right," the woman said calmly, swinging thedoor wide, as if bringing a child to work was normal.She indicated that he should be seated, so he settled ona white couch that made him a little nervous. He perchedAlly on his knee, whispering for her to be still.
"I'm not sure exactly how you work, Mr. Mason, butJudge Robinson raved about the quality of your work."
"That's very kind of him. I'd like to start by askingsome questions about what you have in mind, the kindof wood, the length of time available, things like that."
"Of course." She watched him juggle the child whiletaking out pen and paper. "Isn't it going to be difficultto hold her and write?"
Jack glared at her. He didn't care how pretty shewas. She had no business telling him how to do his job."I'll manage."
She didn't argue with him, but her gaze remainedfocused on his child.
"Are we only talking about one room?" he asked.
"Yes. My third bedroom. I have a month off work andI'd like to be settled in at the end of the month."
"All right. Do you have a particular type of wood thatyou'd like me to use?"
"I believe you used oak in Judge Robinson's office.I liked that a lot."
"I want to draw, Daddy,"Ally said, reaching for the pen.
"No, sweetheart. Daddy has to write now."
"But, Daddy"No, Ally, not right now."
Ally frowned but didn't protest again. He held her alittle closer.
"Do you want something similar to Judge Robinson'shome office?" he asked Ms. McNabb in his best professional tone.
"Yes, I do. Except I would like more storage space."
"What kind of storage space?"
"Some bins with sliding drawers. Nothing fancy.Why don't I show you the space while we talk. Thatmight make everything more clear." She stood,assuming he'd agree.
He had to put the pad and pen in one hand and holdAlly in the other, but he eventually was ready to followthe woman. Standing behind her, he realized she wastall. Around five foot nine, he'd guess.
To his surprise, she was wearing a polo shirt and jeans. And well-fitted, too. The denim fit like a second skin,hugging her curves. Very un-lawyer-like, he noted. Ofcourse, his impression of lawyers was tainted by personalexperience. The lawyers he'd dated in the past had beenpicky and difficult, always wanting to win every argument.
After going down a hall, she opened a door andwalked inside. Following her, he stepped into an emptyroom, quite spacious for a home office.
"It's good that there aren't already some built-ins.That will save me the time of ripping them out."
"You have limited time?" she asked sharply.
"No, but you might. Most of my customers seem tothink I can do my work overnight." He challenged herwith a direct look.
"I wouldn't expect that, especially since you seemdetermined to hold your daughter at the same time. Youdid say she is your daughter, didn't you?"
"Yes, she is. I'll have child care worked out bytomorrow." Though there was no sarcasm in her voice,he was perturbed anyway.
He began asking questions about the type of shelvingshe wanted. He wasn't surprised to discover she knewexactly what she had in mind. Picturing this woman ina courtroom, he saw a confident, persuasive attorneywho could argue any case. Sitting Ally down on thefloor with an extra pencil and a piece of paper, he begandrawing the room, hoping his interpretation of her ideaswould come close to what she envisioned. With a tapemeasure, he made sure everything would fit.
"Can we do storage bins along the back wall?" she suggested. "They could form a credenza of sorts for my desk."
He found himself in complete agreement. The officewas taking shape in the drawing, becoming a pleasantplace to work. There were windows across the backwall that came about four feet from the floor. A credenzaunder them would be a great utilization of the space.
"Daddy, I need another sheet of paper," Ally called,distracting him.
"Okay, baby. Here you go." He ripped off anothersheet of paper and handed it to his child. Then he gotinvolved in the picture he was creating.
He asked questions of the lawyer and she providedsuccinct answers every time. Working for someone whoknew exactly what she wanted had its advantages. Andlawyers were good at that, he'd admit. It was thepersonal stuff they had trouble with.
An hour later, he had a finished drawing of the roomand showed it to the woman. She agreed that he'dcaptured exactly what she wanted.
"That's perfect.You're a wonderful artist, Mr. Mason.How long will it take to make the room look like that?"
"Three or four weeks. I can't be sure."
"Perfect. I have four weeks."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I have four weeks off work. I'll be around to monitoryour work. Then, when I go back to work, I'll have myoffice ready."
"I don't need my work to be monitored, MissMcNabb. I'm quite capable of turning out good workwithout supervision." He'd clenched his teeth, knowinghe was facing a battle.
"Nevertheless, Mr. Mason, I'll be here for the entirefour weeks to keep an eye on the progress of your work."
"You mean you'll look at it each evening?"
"I mean I'll look at it whenever I feel like looking atit. I won't be working during those four weeks."
"Why not?" he demanded.
Affronted, she straightened, and her chin rose anotice. "That's none of your business!"
"Well, I think it is my business. It's ridiculous to takeyour vacation to be sure the room turns out all right. AskJudge Robinson!"
"What I do with my time has nothing to do withyou!" She put her hands on her hips, her arms akimbo,and met his eyes with a challenge. "Will you do the jobor won't you?"
Jack accepted the challenge. "I'll do the job, but Iwon't have you peeking over my shoulder all the time!"
"Fine. When can you start?"
"Today. I'll take the measurements I need and get thelumber right away."
She seemed prepared to stalk out of the room until alittle voice asked, "Isn't my picture pretty?"
Jack felt a sense of disorientation when he looked atAlly, holding up a multicolored picture. How had shedone that with the pencil he'd given her?
LAUREN LOOKED DOWN at the little girl. "Why, Ally,that's beautiful. What a nice job you did."
"Thank you. I drew a picture like Daddy, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did. Let's go put it on the refrigerator," shesuggested, reaching out a hand to the child.
"No!" Jack shouted.
Lauren turned around to stare at the man. Then sherealized what she'd done. She'd treated Ally like one ofher brothers and sisters, pretending to be the mother, asshe had ever since she was twelve.
Jack took the picture from his child. "We'll put it onour fridge at home, Ally. That's where it belongs. Uh,where did you get the markers?"
Ally tucked the box of colored markers behind herand looked at Lauren.
"I gave them to her. I thought she would enjoy usingthem." Lauren raised her chin again. Surely the manwouldn't object to such kindness to his child.
"She'll get the ink on herself. Ally, just use Daddy'spen, okay?"
"Ally, do as I say, please."
The child grudgingly took the markers from behindher back and gave them to Lauren. "Thank you," shesaid politely.
"You're welcome," Lauren replied.
The man took out his tape measure to begin measuring and marking down numbers on his pad of paper. Heobviously hadn't realized Lauren had also given hisdaughter a pad of paper.
With her gaze on her father, Ally carefully moved thepad of paper behind her. A quick look at Lauren invitedher silence.
Lauren just stood there, thinking how cute the littlegirl was. She had sandy blond hair like her father andhis brown eyes, but while his features were masculineand handsome, hers were delicate and beautiful.
"Daddy, I'm hungry," the little girl said, flashing alook at Lauren.
"Yeah, baby, I'll get us some lunch in a little while,"he said, obviously distracted by his work.
"I'll feed her," Lauren said quietly, hoping not todisturb him. She didn't think he'd agree to such a planif he realized it. She held out her hand to Ally and thetwo left the room very quietly.
When they reached the kitchen, Lauren whispered,"Do you like grilled cheese sandwiches?"
Ally nodded, her brown eyes big."Good. I'll fix you one for lunch. We'll cut it intosoldiers. And if you eat a soldier, you get a cookie fordessert. Okay?"
The child nodded enthusiastically. Lauren sat her atthe table and began preparations for lunch. In no time,she'd made a grilled cheese sandwich and cut it intothree long strips, calling each one a soldier. Then shepoured her a glass of milk to go with the sandwich.
While Ally ate, Lauren made three more sandwiches,two for Mr. Mason and one for herself. She also heatedsome tomato soup.
About that time, they both heard Jack's voice, callingfor his daughter. He came running down the hall.
"We're in here," Lauren called. She almost brokeinto laughter when he burst through the open door. Onewould've thought he'd come slashing through the jungleto rescue the princess.
"Ally! You weren't supposed to leave my side!"
"I told you I was fixing her lunch," Lauren interrupted.
"I didn't hear you! And I don't need you to fix uslunch. I'll take us out to lunch. Come on, Ally."
"But, Daddy, I've almost finished my soldiers and Iget a cookie for each one."
"Ally, we have to"
"Mr. Mason, she has almost eaten all her lunch. Itwould be a waste of time to take her to lunch now.Besides, I've already made your lunch, too." She put aplate with two grilled cheese sandwiches and a bowl oftomato soup on the table.
He stared at the food. "I didn't ask for this!"No, but I thought it might save you some time."He didn't move, staring at the food."Look, eat, don't eat. It makes no difference to me."She sat down to eat her own lunch.
Ally looked at Lauren's plate. "You don't havesoldiers?"
"No, sweetie, only children get soldiers."
Ally leaned toward her father. "Daddy, do you wantmy last soldier?"
Her generosity broke through Jack Mason's stupor."No, angel, you eat your last soldier," he told the littlegirl. "I have plenty of food, thanks to Miss McNabb."
He sat down at the table, saying stiffly, "I appreciatethe lunch."
Lauren didn't believe him, but they ate silently andshe was satisfied that he ate all the food she'd provided. Ally ate her three cookies, but she was almost halfasleep by the time she finished.
"I have a bed she can sleep on," Lauren said.
"No! She stays with me." He stood and removed thecorduroy jacket he was wearing and wrapped Ally in it.
Lauren watched as, carrying his child, he walked outof the kitchen toward the office. She wasn't sure whatwas behind his watchfulness, but she wanted the littlegirl to be comfortable. She went to the other bedroomand pushed a big chair into her future office with twopillows and a blanket to cover the child.
He had already put Ally on the floor with the jacketbunched up at one end to form a rough pillow. Shepatted the chair and he nodded, transferring his daughterinto the chair.
"Thank you. She'll be more comfortable."
Lauren nodded and left the room. Whatever theman's hang-ups, he appeared to love his child, and thatcounted for something in Lauren's book.