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The woman on the sofa beside Kayla James suddenly sat up straight and looked at her with round eyes. "I've got it. I've finally figured out why you've been turning down men and declining invitations. You you've broken the cardinal rule of nannies!"
Kayla ignored the flush racing over her face and focused on the bowl of pretzels sitting on the coffee table. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, yes, you do," Betsy Sherbourne said. Her long, dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she looked barely old enough to be a mother's helper, let alone a full-fledged fellow nanny. She wiggled, bouncing the ruby-colored cushions. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
Kayla pulled the edges of her oversized flannel shirt together. There was a chill in the air tonight. "You're jumping to conclusions because I didn't feel like being the fourth in your blind double date last weekend."
"The fact is, you haven't gone anywhere in months," Betsy replied. "Your social life is limited to these weeknight, girls-only get-togethers we have with our friends from the nanny service."
Kayla latched on to the new topic like a lifeline. "Did I tell you that the others can't come tonight? Everybody had a conflict except Gwen, who should be here any minute," she said, naming the woman who owned and ran the We ❤ Our Nanny service which had placed both Kayla and Betsy with their current families.
"Yes, you told me," Betsy said. "And I won't let you change the subject."
"Look," Kayla responded, feeling a little desperate. "You know I'm busy with my job and school."
"Half of that's not an excuse you can use anymore."
Kayla sighed. Her friend was right. A couple months back she'd finally been awarded her college degree at the advanced age of almost twenty-seven.
Since then, her friends had bombarded her with suggestions about how to fill her newfound free time. "I should have never let you guys throw me that graduation party," she grumbled.
"Yeah, and other than those brief hours when we whooped it up, when was the last time you took some time out for yourself?"
"Today. I went shopping. I bought bras." Kayla rummaged in the knitting basket beside her, withdrawing the almost-finished mitten she was working on. "What do you think?" she asked in a bright voice, still determined to distract her friend. "Is this large enough for Lee? He's big for eight."
"Bras?" Sounding skeptical, Betsy ignored the mention of Lee, one of the two children Kayla looked after. "What color bras?"
"What does color have to do with anything?"
There was pity in the other woman's gaze. "Kayla, swear to me you have more than white cotton in your lingerie drawer."
She felt her cheeks go hot again. "Do we really have to"
"Okay." Betsy relented. "Just tell me about these bras, then."
"The bras. They " Kayla sighed again. "Okay, fine. They were for Jane."
"Jane! Jane's first bras?"
Kayla nodded, hope kindling that this would be the topic to derail the original discussion, even though it was a risk to bring up the kids again, as the second cardinal rule of nannies was to never get too attached to the children. "Can you believe it? All her friends have them now. Time has sure flown."
"Yes." Betsy reached for a pretzel and eyed Kayla again. "And you've given Mick and his kids almost six undivided years of yours now."
Uh-oh. She was losing the battle once more. "I've not given it to them," Kayla said, aware she sounded defensive. "I've been employed by Mick to take care of his daughter and son." It had been ideal. As a firefighter, after his wife died in a car accident, Mick had needed an overnight, in-house adult when he was on a twenty-four-hour shift. His schedule, however, had enough off-duty time in it that Kayla could pursue her degree part-time. But now that she'd graduated, and now that the kids were getting older, eleven and eight, the people in her circle were starting to squawk about Kayla making some adjustments.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. "La-La," a voice called from above. Mick's voice, using the name that toddler Lee had used for Kayla when she'd first come to live with them.
Jumping to her feet, she strode to the bottom of the staircase, her expression determinedly blank in case her nosy friend was watching her too closely. "You rang, boss?" she asked, focusing on his descending shoes since no one would show inconvenient emotion staring at shoelaces. His feet stopped moving at the bottom of the steps. She detected his just-out-of-the-shower scent now, and she put the back of her fingers to her nose in order not to inhale it too deeply. The soap-on-a-rope and companion aftershave had been her Christmas present to him and she should have thought twice before purchasing a fragrance that appealed to her so much.
"Hey, there, Betsy," he called over Kayla's head. "I'll be out of the way of you ladies in a minute." His voice lowered. "Can I talk to you in the kitchen?"
She glanced up. She shouldn't have.
When had it happened? When exactly had the widower she'd first met, the man with five o'clock shadow and weary eyes, gone from gaunt to gorgeous? The straight, dark hair hadn't changed, but he smiled now. There was warm humor more often than not in his deep brown eyes. She supposed he still had his demonsshe knew he did, because on occasion she'd catch him sitting in the darkened living room staring off into space. But he'd found a way to manage his grief and be a good dad to his kids.
A good man.
One who looked at her, who treated her, just as if Kayla was the fifteen-year-old girl next door who occasionally babysat when both she and Mick had to be out.
She followed him across the hardwood floor, trying not to ogle the way his jeans fit his lean hips or how his shoulders filled out the simple sport shirt. She'd ironed it for him as part of her job, of course, just as she'd helped Jane pick it out as his Christmas gift, knowing the soft chamois color would look wonderful with his olive skin.
In the kitchen, he swung around, nearly catching her too-interested examination. He was only thirty-four years old, but she figured he'd have a heart attack if he knew in which direction the nanny had been staring. With a flick of her lashes, she redirected her eyes to the calendar posted on the double-wide refrigerator that was nestled between oak cabinets and red-and-white-tiled countertops. Mick turned his head to follow her gaze.
"Okay," he said. "We're good, right? You've got your nanny service friends here tonight. Jane is working on her poetry project, but she's only two doors down and will walk herself home, after she calls so you can watch her from the front porch."
"Yep." They went through this routine every day. She didn't know if it was a result of Mick losing his wife in such a sudden way, if it was because he was a man trained for disasters, or just because he adored his children. All made perfect sense to her. "And Jared's mom will drive Lee home after Scouts."
"Bases covered, then." His mouth turned up in a rueful grin that she let herself enjoy from the corner of her eye. "So I really don't have any excuse not to meet the guys for pizza and a cold one or two."
"None that I can think of." She smiled, despite wondering if that "cold one with the guys" included a couple of hot women. He'd dated on occasion well, he'd gone along with varying degrees of good grace when someone fixed him upbut she thought she'd detected in him a change there, too. A new tension that everything female in her suspected had to do with his growing need for opposite-gender adult companionship.
Something he surely didn't consider her in the running for.
He reached out and tugged on the ends of her blond hair in a manner that made that perfectly clear. Jane got the same treatment from him often enough.
"Why the sad eyes, La-La?"
She pinned on a second smile. "Just one of those days."
"Tell me about it." Mick shoved his hands in his pockets. "They're growing up, Kayla, and I can't tell you what a blow it was when Jane spilled about your shopping trip. All at once I felt about a hundred."
"Nonsense. You're only a few years older than I."
He shook his head. "Yeah, but today my little girl went to the mall where she bought bought " One hand slipped out of his pocket to make a vague gesture. "You know."
Amused by his inability to articulate, Kayla leaned nearer. "Bras, Mick," she whispered, a laugh in her voice. Her gaze lifted. "It's not a dirty word."
Their eyes met. Oh, she thought, as something sparked to life in his. Suddenly, more than humor seemed to warm them. With a soundless crack, heat flashed down her neck and the oxygen in the room turned desert-dry. She wanted to put out a hand to steady herself, but she was afraid whatever she touched would emit a jolting shock.
Bras? she thought. Dirty? Did one of those two words made it feel so so naughty to be this close to him?
Mick blinked, severing the connection, then he turned away to grab a glass from the cupboard by the sink. With a steady hand, he filled it with water and took a long drink in a gesture so casual she figured she must have imagined that moment of of whatever.
Wishful thinking on her part?
Kayla cleared her throat and folded her arms over her chest, the shirt fluttering at her hips. Maybe if she wore something other than jeans and flannel around him, he might notice her. But he'd had years to do thatsummers when she'd been in shorts and tank tops, vacations by a pool when she'd worn a swimsuit that wasn't Sports Illustrated–ready but that didn't cover her like a tent, either. He'd never appeared the slightest bit intrigued by any of it. When she'd recently cut twelve inches from her long hair he hadn't noticed for two weeks, and then only when someone else mentioned it.
Upon inspection of the new do, he'd appeared appalled by the change. She'd felt stupid, like that time he'd caught her about to bestow a good-night kiss on a date on the doorstep. The fact that she'd been glad of the interruption, and that afterward she'd daydreamed in her bed of Mick pulling her away from the other man and into his own arms instead, hadn't been good signs.
That event had occurred six months ago, and since then she hadn't dated anyoneor shown any interest in dating anyonewhich had prompted Betsy's earlier conversation.
"Well," Mick said, pulling open the dishwasher to rack his glass, "I guess I'll head out now. Have fun."
He strode toward the door that led to the garage, then hesitated. "Kayla," he said.
Her heart jumped. "Yes?"
"In case I've never said it "
She held her breath.
"You're great. You've always been great." He swung around. Reached out. "Such a pal to me," he added, patting her shoulder.
Her skin jittered, his light touch zinging all the way through the heavy plaid fabric of her shirt.
No. Make that his shirt. She'd been attached to it like a new fiancée to her engagement ring since the last time she'd removed it from the dryer.
"Yeah." He patted her again. "Such a pal to me."
And as he walked away, the appreciative words slid down her throat like a medicinal dose of disappointment to land like lead at the bottom of her belly. Who knew that "such a pal to me" could cause such gloom?
But somehow it did, because
Oh, boy. Oh, no. Oh, it was useless to deny the truth any longer.
Betsy was right, it seemed. Kayla had shattered the number-one item on the no-no list. Because the cardinal rule of nannies was simple. Never fall in love with the daddy.