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All the ornate boardroom doors that Matt Patterson had faced hadn't been as intimidating as the ordinary brown door before him.
Dysart Adoption Agency.
His chest tightened. His palms began to sweat. His mouth went dry.
Still, he never shirked a responsibility. He opened the door and walked inside.
Wood-paneled walls, an empty reception desk and a soft powder scent greeted him. So did the sound of a baby's laughter. High-pitched and filled with joy, the little-girl giggles and squeals of delight rolled up the hall.
Nine chances out of ten that was his baby.
Man, this was going to put a cramp in his love life. And his traveling. And his staff.
Good God! The housekeeper, Mrs. McHenry, would have a fit when she discovered they were going to have to add a nursery and a nanny to his already-busy household.
He followed the sound of the giggles to an office at the end of a short hall. Her back to him, a slim woman held a baby in the crook of her arm. Her glossy chestnut-brown hair was swept up in a neat, professional chignon and her red dress rode her curves like an Italian sports car took the turns at Le Mans.
His eyebrows rose. "Somehow I'd always pictured the women who worked at adoption agencies as gray-haired old maids in tacky white blouses."
The baby stopped laughing. The woman at the window spun around.
For the first time Matt could remember, he was speechless.
Huge round brown eyes dominated her face. High cheekbones showcased a pert and proper nose and full, lush lips.
"Can I help you?"
He walked in slowly, his interest piqued. She was exactly the kind of woman he wined and dined, seduced and then left with the gift of a diamond bracelet. But before he could open his mouth to flirt, the baby in her arms squawked. Bella. Oswald and Ginny's daughter. His, because he'd agreed to be godfather to his ex-wife's baby.
Sadness stole over him. This time last week Ginny had called to make dinner plans for when he returned to Boston. Now she and Oswald were gone. He'd never again see Ginny's pretty smile or hear Oswald's goofy laugh. He'd lost the ex-wife he loved and her new husband, who had become a good friend.
Bella screeched again. The woman looked at the baby, then gasped slightly as her gaze jerked back to him. "I'm Claire Kincaid, Bella's caseworker. Are you Matt Patterson?"
Shoving his hands into the pants pockets of his handmade suit, he ambled into the room. "Yes."
"My God. In four days, Bella's hardly responded to anybody. She doesn't even cry. She eats and sleeps and laughs when I tickle her. But you're the first person she's spoken to."
"Spoken to? Sounded like a squawk to me."
She laughed. "Squawking is how babies talk."
Her pretty brown eyes glittered with humor and his gut tightened. She was incredibly beautiful.
"She knows me." He paused. "A bit."
"Because you're a friend of her parents?"
He nodded and took another cautious step toward the woman and Bella. Dark-haired, blue-eyed Bella strained toward him, reaching for him to take her.
Surprised, he jerked back.
Claire Kincaid's smile faded. "She wants you."
"Yes. And I fully intend to care for her but I—" He paused, sucked in a breath. His instincts insisted he should flirt with the beautiful woman. His brain, however, reminded him this wasn't a pleasure trip and he'd better get his head in the game. Somehow or another he'd ended up with a baby and he didn't have a clue what to do with her. "I can't hold her."
He pulled his hands from his pants pockets and raised them in a gesture of total helplessness. "I don't know how."
She took a step toward him. "It's really quite simple."
Her sweet and polite voice matched her nearly perfect face and sent tingly warmth through him. But when she stepped toward him, offering the little girl, he backed up again.
She frowned. "This child is yours."
"And I will take care of her. Next week." He shook his head. "No. That doesn't work for me, either. I have to go to Texas for some family reunion thing—"
The woman holding Bella stopped him with a wave of her hand. "I don't care if you're the king of the world and you have to hold court. Bella is yours now." She smoothed a hand down the baby's back. "Besides, there's nothing to be afraid of. She's such a sweetie that caring for her will come naturally." She held the baby out to him, and again, Bella strained toward him.
His nervous system rattled like the old-fashioned ticker at the New York Stock Exchange. He'd known for four days that his ex-wife was dead and he was to be Bella's guardian, and he hadn't panicked. He'd handled it the same way he handled everything in his life. He took it one step at a time. But with the baby in front of him, it all suddenly became very real. For the next eighteen years, this child was his. He'd have to raise her. Get her through toddler years and preschool, then elementary school, middle school—teen years.
"I—" He wanted to take her. He really did. But this was Ginny and Oswald's baby. A baby who deserved to be loved and pampered. He hadn't loved or pampered anybody in—well, ever. That's why he'd lost Ginny. He wasn't the pampering, wine and roses, long walks on the beach and talks all night kind of guy. Worse, the people who might be able to help him—his staff—were all out of town.
"Really. I can't take her now. I've been in London for three weeks. When I heard about Bella, I came home early. But I'd dismissed my household staff for the six weeks I was supposed to be away. They're in places like Aruba taking a much-needed break. Even if I called them home, they wouldn't get back before Friday. And I," he said, pressing his hand against his chest, "have absolutely no idea how to care for a baby."
"You don't have nieces or nephews?"
He winced. "No, but even if I did, let's just say I'm not much of a family man."
Though Claire straightened as if she were about to rain down the fire of hell upon him, she protectively rubbed her hand along Bella's back, soothing her. "You agreed to parent a child when you have absolutely no idea of how?"
"I agreed to be a godfather. I didn't realize that also meant I'd be the baby's guardian if something happened to her parents."
"How could you not know that?"
"In some circles godfather is a purely honorary term."
Her pretty face softened. "Apparently, your friends took it seriously because you're named Bella's guardian in their wills."
"Yes. But they never told me that and I am just not ready for this."
"You still have to take her."
Disbelief and anger at the injustice of it all reared up in him. Ginny dead. Bella his. It didn't make any sense. Mostly because he wasn't qualified to do this—any of it. He couldn't hold her, let alone change a diaper. And he was the last person who should be assigned to love her.
Bella began to fuss and Claire Kinkaid rubbed her cheek against the baby's, comforting and quieting her.
Inspiration struck like a band of angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus. "You're pretty good with kids. What are you doing tonight, Miss Kincaid?"
"It's Claire." She moved her gaze away from his, straightening the collar of Bella's little pink blouse. "And
His eyes narrowed. Busy? She was pretty enough to have a date on a Monday night. If she'd been able to hold his gaze, he might have bought that. "So what you're really saying is that you don't want to help us?"
"We're an adoption agency, not a nanny service." She walked to her desk, pulled out some business cards. "But these are the names and addresses of some well-respected agencies. You could get a stellar nanny from any one of them."
As Claire held out the cards to Matt, Bella blinked slowly. Her long black lashes fell to her cheeks and lifted again. Tears filled her pretty blue eyes, as if she understood she was being shuffled off again.
Sympathy for her swelled in Matt's already tight chest. He had been young, maybe three, when he'd felt odd about his dad—as if he and Cedric Patterson didn't fit together—as if somewhere deep in his subconscious he had always known that he wasn't really Cedric's son. And he didn't belong in the Patterson family. Though Bella was a lot younger, he'd bet that somewhere in her subconscious all of this was being recorded. He could see in her eyes that she might not fully comprehend what was happening, but she was afraid. If nothing else, she hadn't seen her parents in almost a week. She was alone. Frightened.
And though it didn't make sense from a practical standpoint, her emotional well-being suddenly meant more to him than worry over dirty diapers.
He slid his hands into his pants pockets again. "I don't want a nanny. At least not yet. I don't want to leave her with another stranger."
And right now Claire Kincaid was the one person in the world who wasn't a stranger to her.
He caught Claire's gaze and offered the only workable solution. "I'll pay you anything you want to spend the next week with me."
Claire knew the offer was for her nanny services, but her face warmed and her stomach tightened. Matt Patterson might not know how to care for a baby, but he was one good-looking guy. Six foot one if he was an inch, he didn't tower over her, but he was tall enough that even in her heels she had to look up to him. His hair was a shiny light brown, cut short, professional, businesslike. His wicked green eyes smiled when he smiled, and grew stormy cold when he didn't get his way. But happy or stormy they always had a quality of.. assessment. As if everything she said or did was of vital importance. And every time he caught her gaze, a lightning bolt of attraction shot through her.
She hadn't had a response to a man in years and her body picked now? And this guy? A man who'd left his baby with an adoption agency for four days? A man who didn't seem to want to take Bella now? Was she crazy?
"I'm sorry, Mr. Patterson, but as I said before we're an adoption agency. Not a nanny service."
He took a lazy step toward her, sending her pulse into overdrive. The way he looked, everything he did, was just so male. "You're pretty good with her, though."
She took a step back. "Yes. Well, I love children."
"You're better than just somebody who loves children." Studying her face, he frowned. "I'm guessing you got into this business because you were a nanny at some point." His frown deepened and he looked at her even more intently. "Probably when you were in school. Which wasn't too long ago."
Her heart shivered in her chest. He was so close she would only have to lift her hand to touch him, and for some strange reason she itched to raise her hand. Feel his skin. With all his attention focused on her, her body began to thrum.
Stupid hormones! Why pick now to wake up?
She swallowed and took another step back. "I put myself through my first three years at university as a nanny, Mr. Patterson. There is no deep, dark secret about my past."
He smiled. His full lips bowed upward and his green eyes lit with pleasure. "Too bad. Pretty woman like you should have a secret. It makes you mysterious and " His smile grew. "Interesting."
Her face reddened. Tingles of attraction raced down her spine. Damn, he was gorgeous. And charming. But she knew what happened the last time she got involved with a charming man. She ended up in a bad relationship. A relationship that broke her heart and caused her to stay away from men for five long years.
She forced the business cards for nanny services into his hand. "Dysart Adoption Agency was hired by the attorney for Bella's parents to keep her until you arrived. You have arrived. Our responsibility had ended."
He squeezed his eyes shut. "Fine."
Refusing to fall victim to the helplessness she heard in his voice, she became all business. "Do you have a car seat?"
"My driver picked one up and installed it."
Still holding Bella, she bent and grabbed the diaper bag beside her desk. "Great." She handed it to him. "Those are all the things she's needed for the four days I kept her at my apartment. I imagine there are more things at her parents' house."
"Like a crib. High chair. Baby swing. The things she needs for daily life." Brisk and with purpose, she headed out of the office and up the hall, expecting him to follow her. "I will go with you to your car and help you strap
When she reached the office door, he opened it for her and followed her out, but he didn't say a word. He didn't say a word in the elevator. Standing in the box packed with people, their shoulders brushed. A current of electricity crackled through her.
As inconspicuously as possible, she peeked over at him. With his sloping cheekbones and sexy green eyes, he was gorgeous. But she'd met other good-looking men and never felt this. He had power, but power had never been particularly attractive to her. Yet something about him called to her and he wasn't even reacting. Though he'd flirted a bit, it was because he wanted her help. The attraction was clearly one-sided.
She sucked in a quiet breath, glad to be getting away from him. In two minutes, he'd be gone and she wouldn't have to worry she'd say or do something stupid because her hormones insisted she and Matt Patterson should should Well, she knew what her hormones wanted.
And that was wrong. Good grief, she'd barely dated since her big mistake her senior year at university when she'd fallen for one of her professors. They'd had a secret affair that started off wonderful and ended when he introduced her to his wife at graduation, humiliating her. Looking back, she realized she should have seen the signs that he was married. He'd pulled her away from her friends, insisted they meet at her place even though he made fun of her condo and never took her out in public. But loneliness after her dad's death had made her vulnerable, needy, and she'd missed the signs.
Which was why, for the past five years, she'd been a woman in control of her emotions. She'd never be so foolish as to fall so fast or be so smitten that she let a man walk all over her. Being overwhelmingly attracted to a guy she didn't know was so out of character it scared her.
The elevator bell dinged. They strode across the building lobby. He pushed on the revolving door, motioning Claire through, into the crisp late-September afternoon. He followed her out into the busy Boston street and paused in front of the black limo parked there. A uniformed man raced to the back door and opened it.
Claire peeked inside. A bar and a television sat across from a curving white leather seat that looked like a plush sofa. But on the sofa sat a car seat.
She quickly passed Bella to Matt Patterson—so quickly he didn't have time to protest and their fingers didn't even accidentally brush. "I'll slide inside, then you hand Bella to me. I will strap her in the car seat, and you can be on your way."
She climbed in. He passed Bella to her. She put the baby into the car seat and secured the straps. As she pulled away, she looked at the baby's pretty face. Blue eyes. Pug nose. Cupid's bow mouth.
Her heart twisted. She'd had this baby with her twenty-four hours a day for four days. Caring for her. Teasing her and playing with her to help her accept her new circumstances. Walking the floor with her as she sobbed all night because she missed her mom and dad. Bella had cried so hard the first night that Claire had cried with her. A baby couldn't understand or deal with death. All she knew was she missed her mom and desperately wanted the comfort of her arms.
Claire swallowed. This poor sweet baby would never see her mom again. Just as Claire hadn't seen her mom after she died.
She pressed her fingers to her mouth. How could she leave this sweet baby with a man who didn't know how to care for her?
She scooted across the seat and out of the limo. Though fear trembled through her, she faced Matt Patterson and held out her hand. "Do you have a business card?"
He frowned. "Yes."
"Does it have your home address?"
His eyes narrowed. "Are you planning to do some kind of surprise inspection?"
"I'm going to lock the office, then meet you at your house."
He smiled. Those beautiful green eyes of his lit with so much pleasure, a corresponding pleasure tugged at her stomach. "You're going to help me?"
God help her. "This evening, yes, to get you settled in. Then you're on your own."