NERD WHO LOVED ME
Chapter One"At work my mommy wears teeny-tiny, sparkly clothes." Dexter, four going on forty, looked up from the chessboard, his expression innocent. "With red feathers. Did you know that, Mr. Harry?" "Uh-huh." Harry Ambrewster, M.B.A. with honors, Stanford, class of '92, didn't have a lot of experience with babysitting. Still, he didn't think babysitters normally discussed teeny-tiny, sparkly clothes that a parent was wearing right this minute. Thinking of Lainie Terrell in her skimpy outfits made his palms sweat.He wiped them on his Dockers and adjusted his glasses, determined to keep his mind on chess. After two nights of staying with Dexter while Lainie pranced on the Nirvana Casino stage, Harry had learned that babysitting involved lots of floor time, even when the kid was a bona fide genius.Consequently Harry sat cross-legged on one side of the coffee table, while Dexter balanced on his knees on the other side, his small body sandwiched between thetable and the couch. Actually, Dexter wasn't all that smallmore the size of your average six-year-old. That coupled with his intelligence made people assume he was much older. Harry could relate. He'd dealt with that a lot as a kid.Dexter picked up his knight and moved it within striking range of Harry's queen.Harry decided to give the kid a break. "Do you really want to move your knight there?" "Yep." Dexter leaned his chin on both fists. "Have you seen my mommy dance?" "Sort of." Lainie performed in four out of six numbers staged nightly at the Nirvana Casino. Harry had watched her so many times he had the numbers memorized, although he sat at a back table and hoped she had no idea he was such a regular. She might laugh. Better that she only know him as the boring accountant from payroll, a nerd in glasses who also happened to be a neighbor in her apartment complex."I wish I could see her dance."Harry tried to redirect Dexter's attention. "You do realize I'm going to capture your knight." "I know." Dexter sighed. "But I really, really want to see the show. Mommy won't let me." "Mm." Harry picked up Dexter's knight. He hated to beat the kid, but if Dexter didn't learn to pay attention, he'd get his ass whipped whenever he sat down at a chessboard, genius or not. "Well, she shouldn't let you go. The show is for big people." Big people like Harry, who was inconveniently obsessed with a certain sexy showgirl.He wasn't proud of giving in to his craving as often as he did. He should volunteer to be Dexter's permanentbabysitter, because then he'd be forced to spend his evenings playing chess with a four-year-old instead of secretly lusting after the kid's mommy.Although Harry liked Dexter a lot, he wasn't ready to make that sacrifice and give up his reserved spot at that back table. Not yet. He was only filling in for the regular sitter this week because if he didn't, Lainie would miss too much work and get her long-legged self fired. Then she might leave Vegas, and Harry wouldn't be able to watch her dance anymore.Logically, that would be a good thing. His fascination with her was doomed on many levels. For one thing, she was far too cool ever to be interested in an accountant. He was all computer spreadsheets and double-entry bookkeeping, while she was all fire and rhythm. His favorite dance number was called "Fever," where she wore fishnet stockings and red satin rose petals over her"Check."Harry blinked. "Son of a bbucket. How'd you do that?" "I just""Okay, okay. I see it now." Talk about embarrassing. The kid might have more brain cells than the Sahara had sand, but Harry was no slouch in that department, either, and he had the kid by twenty-nine years. Plus, Harry had only taught Dexter the game two nights ago."I didn't checkmate you. You can still get away." "Right." Harry made the necessary defensive move. Dexter's concentration was way better than his at the moment. Chess was one of the few competitive activities in which Harry was the alpha dog, and he'd obviously underestimated his opponent.Dexter leaned over the board, and Harry noticed that his curly dark hair needed combing. Dexter had his mother's hair, but hers was long enough to reach her waist when she wore it down. And she had such a tiny waist. And such generous"You're not mad, are you, Mr. Harry?" Dexter lifted his head, looking worried.Harry stared at him, astonished. "Mad? About what?" "'Cause I almost beat you.""Good grief, no! Maybe I was mad at myself for not giving my full attention to the game, but I would never be mad at you for doing your best. That's what you're supposed to do." "So you'll keep playing?" He seemed very anxious."Of course." Harry had decided the boy's gray eyes came from his father, because Lainie's were a mesmerizing shade of blue.Dexter flopped back against the edge of the couch. "Whew. What a relief."He sounded so adult that Harry couldn't help smiling. A faint memory of his own childhood drifted in. He used to have trouble holding on to playmates for the same reason. "Do people wimp out on you a lot, Dexter?"The little boy nodded."Your mom?" "Not really, but she doesn't like to sit still for very long.""Ah." Just as Harry had suspected. High energy all the time. A guy like him, who lived mostly in his head, would bore her silly. And maybe he was afraid she'd bore him, too. Even if they clicked sexually, they might have nothing to talk about afterward.That happened all the time with himphysical attraction, mental incompatibility. But the scholarly types he'd dated didn't turn him on. He was at an impasse."She likes it when we go play in the park, though," Dexter said loyally. "And that's fun." "I'll bet." Theoretically Harry was all for playing in the park. But as a kid he'd never worked up any enthusiasm for slides and monkey bars, preferring to sit under a tree and work on logic puzzles. Lainie and Dexter had been coming back from the park, their eyes bright and their hair tousled, the day he'd stopped to talk to them on his way to his own apartment. Lainie had confessed her babysitting crisis and he'd leaped into the breach."But Mrs. Flippo won't play anything with me anymore, not even Chutes and Ladders. I said I'd let her win, but nope, no dice." He tugged at his hair. "And who wants to watch TV all the time?" "Indeed." Harry felt himself weakening on the babysitting thing. This little guy was starving for mental stimulation. Harry empathized. Maybe that's why his own mother had given up on regular babysitters all those years ago and brought him to work with her.Unfortunately, work for her had been exactly like work was for Lainie, and Harry had spent his formative years backstage at a casino just like the Nirvana. Doing his homework surrounded by flowery-smelling, nearly naked women had seemed normal at the time.Looking back on it, he was pretty sure it was suboptimal for a little kid. There'd never been a question of his mom changing careers. She loved dancingstill did, even though she'd retired. In his experience, dancers were passionate about their work.So he'd made it a practice not to date showgirls. Logic told him they weren't likely to give up their glitzy, exciting careers for nights of reading to the kids and playing chess with Harry. Then Lainie had come to work at the Nirvana and moved into his apartment complex. And just like thatlogic had taken a powder. But he would conquer this infatuation that had temporarily caused him to act like an idiot, and once he did, he'd resume looking for Ms. Right."Check."Harry snapped out of his daze and discovered he was in a worse pickle than the last time. Unless he brought all his powers to bear on this chess game, this little sprout might actually beat him."While you're thinking, I'll get the cookies, okay?"Harry nodded, still studying the board. Because he wouldn't take any money for babysitting, Lainie had baked cookies for him. That was a true sacrifice in the middle of summer in Vegas. She must have turned the air conditioner to freeze to compensate for heating up the oven.First she'd left him peanut butter cookies, then oatmeal, and tonight, the most seductive of all, chocolate chip. She couldn't know his weakness for chocolate chip."Here you go, Mr. Harry." Dexter set a plastic plate loaded with cookies next to the chessboard.Harry couldn't believe how distracting the scent of chocolate and cookie dough was. His mouth watered, and he couldn't keep his mind on the chess game. Lainie had made those cookies, and that was part of the problem. He smelled them and imagined her bustling about the kitchen in her short shorts and tight T-shirt, bendingover to slip the pan into the warm oven, pausing to lick the spoon ...Dexter picked up a cookie and leaned over the board as he bit into it. A crumb fell on a white marble square. "Whoops." He wet his finger and picked it up. "What are you gonna do?"Harry surrendered to his urges and picked up a cookie. "Eat one of these." The cookie was incredible. Some people overbaked them and burned the chocolate chips, but this one was totally perfect, the outside a little crunchy and the inside soft and gooey. He moaned with delight."My mommy makes good cookies, huh?"Harry talked with his mouth full, something he never did. "She sure does."Dexter took another bite of his cookie and studied the chessboard. "I think it's time for you to castle, Mr. Harry."Harry had come to the same sad conclusion. And he wasn't even sure that move would save him. The kid had him on the ropes. "As soon as I finish the cookie." "Want milk?""Not yet, thanks." Oh, what the hell, he might as well castle and be done with it. Then Dexter would edge in with his king, and in a couple of moves, it would be all over. Harry glanced at the clock, wondering if they had time for a rematch before he tucked Dexter in at eight-thirty.Just as he'd picked up the rook, someone banged on the door. They hammered on it with a lot of force, like they were ready to break it down. Startled, he dropped the chess piece and scrambled to his feet, adrenaline pumping. This couldn't be good.He started around the coffee table to get Dexter, and Dexter met him halfway, grabbing him by the legs. Harry lifted the little boy into his arms and held him tight. "It's okay," he said, not believing a word of it."Open up!" yelled a guy with a nasal twang to his voice. "I wanna see my son!"Dexter moaned softly in distress. "It's Daddy," he whispered.Harry gulped. Lainie had never mentioned a daddy. From the way Dexter was trembling, there was good reason for that."I know you're in there! I can see the lights are on!"Dexter shrank away and buried his head against Harry's neck."A man should be able to see his boy!" Dexter's father bellowed. "Dexter! Come on out and let me see how big you are!"Harry figured the guy had to be drunk, and he'd probably come around now because he knew Lainie would be working. Maybe he thought a babysitter would be intimidated into opening the door to him. Harry decided not to respond. Letting this cretin know that the babysitter was a man might rile him up even more."Dammit, I know you're in there. The law's on my side, y'know. A woman can't take a man's son away. Let me in, dammit!" Dexter's father pounded on the door, making it rattle in the frame.Dexter winced with each blow and tightened his grip around Harry's neck.Harry leaned down and murmured in Dexter's ear. "Don't be afraid. I won't let him get you."More pounding. "If you don't open this door, so help me, I'll bust it down!"Harry wished he had more confidence in the door. He wished they were on the first floor instead of the second. And he wished he'd taken that karate course he'd always thought about. First thing tomorrow he'd check it out. But that didn't help him right now.Maybe he should dial 911, but Dexter's daddy could be through that door before a squad car pulled up. Besides, even if the police arrived in time, Harry didn't know if Lainie might be a mom on the run. Judging from this performance, she had a reason to run, but the courts could still put her in jail for it. Harry wasn't about to take that chance by alerting the cops."Okay, you asked for it." The door reverberated with a heavy thud, as if the guy had just rammed his shoulder into the wood.Keeping his eye on the door, Harry retreated down the hall toward Lainie's bedroom at the back of the apartment. He'd never been in there, but her floor plan matched his. People usually had heavy dressers in the bedroom, and that could serve as a barricade until Harry decided what to do next."I'm scared," Dexter whispered."Don't be. I'm right here." Even though Harry's blood was pumping way too fast, he tried to keep his voice calm. Lainie had obviously made a terrible mistake five years ago by letting this Neanderthal close enough to father her child. But Dexter shouldn't have to pay for that by being terrorized."He's very big," Dexter said.Not what Harry wanted to hear. "Well, I'm very smart." "So what are we gonna do, Mr. Harry?""Think." Somehow it didn't seem like enough. The moment called for boldness and daring. Harry wasn't the bold and daring type.Inside Lainie's darkened bedroom, he glanced around and found a dresser. Unfortunately, the dresser was made of flimsy white wicker. Considering the drawers were probably full of lacy underwear, the dresser lost all potential as a barricade.Another thud, louder than the first, echoed through the apartment."We could go out the window," Dexter said."Uh, we're on the second floor." Harry looked at the aluminum-framed sliding window. There was a good-sized tree outside, but the thought of climbing out the window and down the tree while holding Dexter made him queasy. If he dropped the kid ..."We could climb down the tree. Like Spider-Man."The crack of wood splintering narrowed Harry's choices. Lowering Dexter quickly to the floor, he closed and locked the bedroom door. Then he dragged the dresser in front of the door, for whatever time it might give them. After checking to make sure his car keys were in his pocket, he unlocked the window and slid it open. Warm desert air blew in and he realized his shirt was soaked with sweat.The screen wouldn't come out without lifting the window from the frame, so he punched the screen free and it clattered to the ground below. "Okay." He took off his glasses and tucked them in his shirt pocket beforecrouching beside Dexter. "We're going to climb out the window and go down the tree, like you suggested." "Right. Then what?""We'll take my car. Don't worry. We'll lose him. Are you with me?"Dexter nodded so hard his hair wiggled."I want you to climb onto my back, wrap your arms around my neck and your legs around my waist. Then I want you to hang on like Velcro. Got that?" "Yep." Dexter glued himself to Harry's back and got a choke hold on his neck.Harry adjusted the little boy's grip so the kid wouldn't strangle him during the climb. Then he stuck one leg over the windowsill."After we get in your car, where are we going?" Harry doubled over so he could work both of them through the opening. "To see your mommy."
In the midst of a dressing room filled with laughter, nakedness, and efficient movement, Lainie wiggled into her red rose-petal outfit for the "Fever" number. Halfway through the night's entertainment, the other dancers rode the crest of a performance high. Lainie wanted to throw off her uneasy mood and ride it with them. The crowd was friendly, sweetened up by the comedian the casino had recently hired. Jack Newman had turned out to be a good complement to the musical part of the show.He'd also indicated an interest in Lainie. Years ago Jack would have been exactly her type, but ever since tangling with Joey Benjamin, she steered clear of party animals. More accurately, she steered clear of all men.She had a son to raise, and she lived in fear that somebody, someday, would try to take Dexter away from her. If she ever lost Dexter, she'd die, plain and simple.She was smart enough to know that her profession could count against her if anyone challenged her custody, but she made more money dancing than she would clerking at a department store. Besides, she loved dancing. Still, a judge might not take kindly to a showgirl trying to be a mom. A boyfriend might make the picture even worse.She'd been thinking of potential custody battles ever since last night, when out of the blue, Joey had called her at work. If only she knew what he was up to. Six months ago he'd seemed more than happy to let her move from Atlantic City to Vegas. When she'd told him she'd waive her rights to child support, he'd seemed even happier. After six months of silence, she'd dared to think she'd cut Joey out of her life, and more important, out of Dexter's life.And now, this phone call. She wondered if he'd gone through the phone book or if he finally had access to some of his trust fund money and had hired a private detective to find her. Maybe it didn't matter. What mattered was that he'd begged her for another chance. She was through giving him chances, but she didn't want trouble, either.He hadn't mentioned Dexter, hadn't even asked how he was. That didn't surprise her. When she'd told him she was pregnant, he'd wanted her to get an abortion. Practical as that might have been, she hadn't even considered such a thing. She'd been a little surprised at her strong protective instincts, because she hadn't thoughtshe wanted a baby, but Joey's suggestion had horrified her, and she'd said so.She could still hear his reply: Don't make the mistake of thinking I'll marry you, sweetheart.With that statement, he'd killed any remaining affection she'd had for him. Don't make the mistake of thinking I'd have you, she'd thrown out before turning on her heel. The relationship had gone downhill after that. But for Dexter's sake, she'd tried to keep things halfway civil. She believed kids should know both their parents if at all possible, and she'd hoped Joey would warm to the idea of being a father.Instead, his drinking had become worse and he'd started to scare Dexter with his loud voice and threatening gestures. She'd had to rethink her strategy.The dressing room door opened. "On stage for 'Fever,'" called Tim, the stage manager.Lainie hurried out with the rest of the ensemble."Where's your accountant been keeping himself?" asked a blonde named Gina as they filed onto the curtained stage during the intro."He's not exactly mine." "Sure he is. He never takes his eyes off you, and he's been at that back table almost every night, except just recently. I wonder if he's sick or something."Lainie shrugged. Explaining that Harry was home watching Dexter would start all kinds of rumors, and she didn't need rumors right now, not with Joey popping up again. Besides, Harry might not want anybody to know he was babysitting. Although he seemed to have a crush on her, he'd never asked her out, and he'd had plenty of chances.Harry might be shy. She certainly hoped that was the problem. Unfortunately, shyness might not be it. He could be like a lot of guysincluding Joeywho thought showgirls were exciting but not the sort of woman they'd take home to Momma.Lainie would hate to find that out about Harry, because he seemed nicer than most, but the evidence was there. She wouldn't go out with him, of course, but he didn't know that. She wouldn't have minded being asked, for the record."Curtain," Tim murmured from the wings.Lainie smiled automatically, gratefully. As always, when the curtain swished open, it swept her worries into the wings where they belonged. For the few minutes of the number, nothing existed but the joy of moving to the music, feeling the energy of the audience, taking the rhythm into every cell of her body.How she loved this! Dancing before a live audience gave her a thrill greater than sex, which was a good thing, because she wasn't getting a smidgen of sex these days, unless she counted solo sessions with her vibrator. She'd created quite a fantasy life for herself during those sessions. Recently, because there was a rebellious streak in her, she'd thrust Harry, so to speak, into the role of her fantasy lover. Wouldn't he be surprised.
Harry had a much greater appreciation of monkeys as he hugged the tree branch and scrambled for footing on the tree limb. Dexter's breath rasped in his ear and the kid had reclaimed his death grip on Harry's neck, choking off his wind.Inch by torturous inch, Harry worked his way backward, keeping his balance by using tiny nubs where smaller branches had been pruned. He calculated the limb was about a foot in diameter and angled to the main trunk at approximately forty-five degrees. Somebody used to this kind of thing would have no problem.Harry wasn't used to it. His palms stung where the rough bark had cut into his hands. His clothes scraped the tree, and he'd already popped a button off his shirt where a stubby twig had caught in the front placket.Through the open window he could hear Dexter's dad banging around inside the apartment. The noise sounded close, so Harry guessed that the guy was trying to get through the bedroom door."Mr. Harry?" Dexter was whispering.Harry eased down another few inches before whispering back. "What?" "I have to go potty.""Hold it." "Okay, but I have to go really bad.""Do your best." Harry tried to climb down faster. He could remember being four years old and having to hold it.His foot connected with the crotch of the tree. Looking down, he judged it was about five feet to the ground. Fortunately grass grew under the tree. "Dexter, I'm throwing my glasses down. Watch where they go, okay?" "You're throwing your glasses? Why?""Because we're going to jump." Harry tried to sound confident."Jump? Are you really, really sure about this?" "Yes." He launched himself from the tree. When he felt the momentum pitching him backward, which would mean landing on top of Dexter, he kicked his feet out behind him so that he belly-flopped into the grass. Dexter bounced down on top, which knocked the air right out of Harry. His lungs burned as he fought to breathe. He couldn't stay here very long."Mr. Harry?" "Nn.""I can see your glasses." "G-good.""But I peed my pants."Copyright © 2004 by Vicki Lewis Thompson.