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"Here goes everything." Nicole Rhodes arrived at the front door of the sprawling ranch-style house. She glanced down at her navy ruffled vest, white tank and tailored khaki Capris. Together with her white sandals she felt she'd hit the right mark of cool and professional.
Two adjectives she rarely aspired to. She preferred to experience life.
Still, for today, going on her first job interview in five years, she needed all the confidence she could muster. Damn state budget cuts. She was one of a thousand teachers looking for alternative employment.
Pasting a smile on her face, she knocked on the door.
She needed a job and a place to stay ASAP. This nanny position offered both, with the added bonus of allowing her to stay close to her very pregnant sister, Amanda.
The door in front of her opened to frame a half-naked man. Oh, mama.
Her internal temperature spiked to match the hundred-degree heat as she admired six-pack abs, a strong chest dusted with dark hair attached to a corded neck, and a head buried in a gray cotton T-shirt.
"Hey, Russ." A deep voice came from within the depths of bunched-up material. "Thanks for coming over so quickly. I've been picking up before the nanny gets here. I've only got ten minutes to grab a quick shower."
Before she could respond, the shirt finished its journey, leaving mussed mink-brown hair in its wake. A myriad of emotions flowed over Sheriff Trace Oliver's sharp-edged features. Surprise, annoyance and finally resignation flashed through eyes the color of lush green grass.
"I suppose it's too much to hope you're Russ's older sister, come to help out in a crunch?"
She shook her head, felt the heavy weight of the long brunette mane hanging down her back and vaguely wished she'd pulled it up and off her neck. Smiling, and doing her best to ignore all the toned, tanned skin on display, she held out a hand.
"Nikki Rhodes, potential nanny," she introduced herself.
"You're early." The words were curt as he gripped her hand and let his intense gaze roam over her. Ever the optimist, she decided to take his comment as an observation rather than an admonishment.
"Yes. It's supposed to be an admirable trait."
In sheer self-preservation she broke away from his forceful gaze. Instead her glance fell to where her hand lay, cradled in his warm, strong grasp.
"Not always." He responded to her comment with a grimace, and motioned to his shorts and bare chest.
Oh, man. And she'd been trying so hard not to stare. She didn't want to think of her charge's father in a physical way. It just made for unwanted complications. She cleared her throat.
"I'll remember that for the future." She nodded her head toward her silver Camry at the curb. "Shall I wait in the car while you shower?"
"What? No." He stepped back, drawing her inside. "Please come in." He frowned at their clasped hands, as if surprised to find her hand still in his. Abruptly, he released her. "I'll adjust."
Nikki followed him inside; she took in the living room, small dining-room-kitchen combo, and wondered what he could possibly have had to pick up in anticipation of her visit. The rooms were buffed to a high gloss and lacked any form of clutter. The furniture, what there was of it, was all large and modern, all straight lines and muted blues and grays. Nothing in the room suggested a baby lived there. In fact, it had a military feel to it.
One glance around the everything-in-its-place interior and she recognized his need for control. Oh, yeah, she'd been there, lived with that and had no desire to repeat the experience. Reason number two why she should end this interview now.
Amanda, at home on bedrest, kept Nikki's feet planted right where she stood.
"Have a seat," he said. "I'm going to grab a clean shirt."
Yes, please. Cover up all that gorgeous toned skin.
"Girl, you are in so much trouble," she muttered under her breath, watching him disappear down a short hall.
She had no business noticing a prospective employer in that way. It said so right in her contract with the agency.
And she needed this job. She'd given up her apartment three months ago, and moved in with her sister while her brother-in-law was out to sea. Her intent was to save for a down payment on a condo. The timing had seemed perfect. Nikki would keep her sister company and help her to get ready for her first baby, then Nikki would move into her own place just before hubby and baby were due to arrive.
Instead Nikki had received a pink slip. And her brother-in-law had returned two weeks early. Yeah, perfect timing. She was very much the squeaky third wheel in the tiny two-bedroom house, but Amanda wouldn't hear about Nikki moving until she had a new job. She had good credentials, so she didn't worry about being employable, but this was the only gig in Paradise Pines, and it was important to her that she stay close to her sister until she had the baby.
But Nikki's reluctance to walk away was about more than that. Since the day she'd left for college, and discovered a sense of freedom she'd never known at home, she'd vowed to live life—not hide from it.
Still, she needed to protect herself. She tended to give her heart easily. It was one of the reasons she'd chosen to work with young children. They thrived on her affection and were honest in their responses. She could trust them with her soft heart.
Sheriff Oliver didn't look as if he knew the definition of soft. He was all about neatness, control and schedules. She'd bet structure and discipline were two of his favorite words. Babies were messy, chaotic and unpredictable. Discipline and structure were important, but so was flexibility and creativity. A baby needed room to grow, to makes mistakes and messes in order to learn.
If she took this job, Nikki saw nothing but strife and loggerheads ahead, because she would fight for what was best for the baby. Maybe even harder than she needed to, because the situation hit so close to home.
When Sheriff Oliver returned, he wore blue jeans and a dark green shirt that did incredible things for his eyes. Eyes cooler now than when he'd left the room. As were his features.
He'd gathered his guard, something he wore with such ease she knew it was what he usually showed the world. They'd only stumbled into that moment of rare unease because she'd surprised him at the door.
"The agency said you're a kindergarten teacher," he said as he sat in the recliner adjacent to the couch she occupied. "You know this is a live-in position?"
Down to business. Good. Maybe they'd make it through this interview yet.
"Yes. I'm a victim of the recent state budget cuts." She gave a jaunty shrug, pretending to him—and herself—that losing her job was just a blip in life's journey. "But I was a nanny before; it helped pay my way through college."
"You juggled kids and school? Quite a feat. Most mothers don't even attempt it."
"I had the kids during the day, so I took most of my classes at night. The Hendersons knew I was in school, so they respected my hours. It worked out."
"How old were the kids in your care?"
"Two and four when I started with them."
He glanced down at the paper in front of him, which she could see was a copy of her résumé. "And you were with them for two and half years? Why'd you leave?"
"My parents were in an accident and killed." She could almost say it now without having her throat close up. "My sister needed me. She was in her senior year of high school. I took a semester off to settle my parents' affairs, and to be there for her until she graduated."
"It must have been tough." A gruffness in his voice reminded her he'd lost his wife just over a year ago.
"We had each other, which helped." But it had still been the toughest year of her life.
"Right." He cleared his throat. "So you haven't had care of a baby?"
"Not as young as thirteen months, no, but I'm sure I can manage. I have a master's in Child Development, and I love kids. In fact, my sister is expecting, so in six weeks I'll be an aunt for the first time."
He showed no change of expression at the mention of a pending birth. From mild to effusive, most people showed some form of acknowledgment. It made her wonder about the relationship between him and his son, and why Trace was only now taking custody of the boy.
She knew from the agency that he was a widower, that the baby had survived the accident that had killed his mother, and that Trace's mother-in-law had had care of the baby until a week ago.
"So what's the deal with you? Why are you just now getting custody of your son?" She put the question out there.
A dark eyebrow lifted at her bluntness.
She smiled and lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "I believe in open communication. Life is simpler that way." She kept her smile in place and waited. So sue her. She wanted to know, and she'd found asking usually netted answers.
After a moment he answered. "I've always had custody. My in-laws were just helping out until I got settled in a new location."
It took thirteen months? But she didn't voice the thought. Obviously there was something more involved than a simple move. And there would be, of course. A cop and a newborn were hardly a good fit on their own. Plus, something in his voice told her he hadn't been completely comfortable with the arrangement. She took an educated guess.
"I imagine it was a comfort to your in-laws to have their grandson close while they dealt with losing their daughter."
He leaned back in his seat, his brawny forearms crossed over the wide expanse of his chest. He eyed her suspiciously. "Most people assume I was taking advantage of my in-laws. Not that it's any of their business."
From his defensive posture Nikki guessed "most people" weren't entirely wrong. But she also heard a note of hurt pride. Five years as a teacher had taught her to read people, be they little or big or somewhere in between. For a man of his control, who made duty a way of life, a shadow on his honor would bite big-time.
"Of course." She acknowledged his distancing comment, and then completely disregarded it. "Death is never easy on a family," she sympathized. "But from my experience once a grandmother has a baby in her care it takes a bomb and a crowbar to pry the child loose."
Sheriff Oliver choked on an indrawn breath.
"Oops." Nikki bit her lower lip. Her sister continually warned Nikki that some people didn't appreciate her chronic bluntness. "Not sensitive enough?"
Trace threw back his head and laughed out loud. Something he did all too rarely. He ran a hand over his face as he fought to regain his cool.
"You're very insightful," was all he said. Actually, the truth laid somewhere in the middle of what people thought and the need for a crowbar.
But, Lord, he did appreciate a little blunt honesty. The empathy was harder to accept. From the huskiness in her voice earlier, he had no doubt she still mourned her parents.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she urged him in earnest. "It couldn't have been easy handling a newborn on a sheriff's schedule."
"I wasn't a sheriff then. I transferred nine months ago. Before that I was a homicide detective, attached to a multinational task force."
"It was. And, as you said, difficult to juggle with a newborn. My mother-in-law offered to help out by taking Carmichael. I was grateful for her aid. But just over a week ago she had a stroke, and my father-in-law moved them back to Michigan, where her family could help with her care and support. It's just me and my son now."
Trace shifted in his chair. He didn't know why he felt the need to explain things to her he hadn't shared with anyone else.
Maybe talking was easier because of the understanding he saw in her intelligent amber eyes, or maybe her honesty called to something in him. Whatever it was, it needed to stop now.
"Carmichael?" she echoed. "I thought his name was Michael?"
"No, it's Carmichael. A family name on my mother-in-law's side."
"Oh. The agency has Michael on my paperwork."
"Then they have it wrong. He's been called Carmichael since he was born." Trace hated the name, but he'd agreed to it to make his wife happy. They probably would have shortened the name if she'd lived. But she'd died. "His mother chose the name."
"Right. Continuity is a fine family tradition." She carefully kept her tone even. He literally saw the struggle it cost her.
"But you don't like it?" He shouldn't test her when she'd made such an effort at politeness, but he couldn't resist.
She struggled for another moment, her smile both brave and patently false. Finally tact gave way to that refreshing honesty.
"It's just so much name for a baby," she said in a rush. "They have to learn to walk before they can run, and that's not just physically. Their little psyches need to grow and develop just like their bodies."
So much passion for his son, and she hadn't even met him. Just what any father would want in a nanny.
"Just be careful not to let guilt motivate your decisions."
The words hit him like a fist to the gut. This was what he got for sharing. "What are you talking about?"
"It's called survivor's guilt. And it causes rational people to make irrational choices. It's just something to be aware of. You think you're honoring her because she can't be here to raise Carmichael. But what she'd really want is for you to love him and raise him the best you can."
"Love the child, honor the mother?"
"Yes. It's that simple."
"Your life may be that easy, Ms. Rhodes, but you know nothing of mine. Don't presume you know my motive for anything."