FREE FRIDAYS: WEEKEND READING—ON US.

Let It Be Me

Jody Holford

She might not be a princess, but Megan Carter fully planned on getting her fairy tale. From the time she was a little girl, she’d had her career fully mapped out, and today was the day her pumpkin turned into a coach.

Right after she got her coffee.

Pulling open the freezer above the fridge, her stomach dropped. No coffee. “How can you not have coffee?” she scolded herself.

Because she usually started her days at the main house, where she drank Adam’s coffee while making breakfast for his son, Charlie. Megan didn’t take days off from her full-time nanny job, but Adam was bringing his son to school today so she could interview for a teaching position in the Brockton Point School District. Her interview wasn’t for three hours, and there was no way she could wait that long to put caffeine in her system. Adam and Charlie weren’t expecting her this morning, but going without coffee was more ridiculous than busting in there to get some.

Heading down the stairs beside her over-the-garage apartment, Megan sang her own version of the once-popular Black Eyed Peas song. Today was going to be a good day. When she reached the heavy oak door of the one-story brick colonial, she stopped mid-verse. Adam and Charlie didn’t need her weak attempt at song before seven a.m. With a smile that felt etched into her cheeks, she let herself into the house as she had every weekday morning of the last five years.

The high-pitched beeping reached her before the smell of something burning. Hurrying through the foyer and down the hallway to the kitchen, she found her boss bare-chested, cursing, and chucking a blackened piece of bread into the sink. He sucked his forefinger into his mouth while Megan’s jaw dropped open without her knowledge.

Five years she’d lived in his home and it had never occurred to her that underneath his perfectly pressed dress shirts and ties was a sculpted chest with a light dusting of dark hair that led all the way down to his—

“What are you doing here?” Adam’s hooded gaze locked with hers, which wasn’t hard, since she’d been staring.

She closed her mouth. Opened it. What’s wrong with you? Speak. The beeping continued. “I, uh…I couldn’t sleep. Excitement. And I’m out of coffee. Thought I’d come see if you needed some help.”

Megan pressed her lips together and kept her eyes wide, refusing to let them wander.

He looked at the machine, which held a full carafe. “Help yourself.”

Frowning, Adam walked out from behind the large island that sat in the middle of the room and down the hall that led to the bedrooms. Megan zipped around the counter and over to the toaster oven, pressing the reset button, smiling. She’d made her fair share of burned toast. She grabbed a mug and was pouring the deliciously scented brew when Adam returned a moment later with a T-shirt covering his upper half. It looked a little funny with the dress pants he wore, but it was a lot less distracting. And probably more professional. Not that covering his six-pack—she really never suspected that—would erase the image from her brain anytime soon.

“You made it stop shrieking. Thank you. When you said you needed the morning off, I didn’t expect you to come rescue me,” he said.

Megan sipped her coffee, not minding the burn on her tongue. She sighed in pleasure but cut off the sound when she saw Adam watching her with a strange expression. Taking another swallow, she set her coffee on the counter as Adam grabbed the bread. Without the incessant beeping, the quiet of the morning echoed in her ears. Where was Charlie?

“I didn’t think I’d be rescuing you. Not that you’d let me even if it were needed. But you having caffeine rescued me, so thanks. Is Charlie up yet?”

Adam glanced at her as he slid the bread into the toaster oven. She opened the fridge and saw that he’d already made Charlie’s lunch. Smiling, she grabbed the carton of orange juice. Charlie started every morning with orange juice and toast. This month anyway. Last month it had been Cheerios and apple juice.

Adam opened one of the white cupboard doors and grabbed a mug for his own fix of caffeine. “No. Thought I’d let him sleep while I packed his lunch and got breakfast. I went to steam my shirt and forgot about the toast.”

“It happens. I can take over here if you still need to do your shirt,” she said.

Adam passed Megan a small glass for the juice. She accepted it and the funny buzzing in her stomach. She usually saw her boss in the mornings as she came in, and he left for work absurdly early. They exchanged minimal pleasantries as she did what she’d done this morning—make a beeline for his coffee pot. By the time Charlie got up most days, his dad was almost always gone.

“Sure. Thanks.”

When he walked by her, Megan caught the fresh scent of his shower gel and inhaled deeply without thinking. He stopped and frowned at her, his brows furrowing over his dark green eyes.

Megan coughed, trying to cover up the fact that she’d just tried to smell her boss. Who, a lot of the time, she didn’t even particularly like. Her excitement over the interview was making her crazy. Literally.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She stepped back. “Yup. I’m good. Great. Go do your shirt. I’m on toast.”

When he walked away, she groaned quietly. I’m on toast? She really should have forced herself to sleep in this morning. Or stayed in her own space.

When she’d taken the job, just before her twentieth birthday, she’d been thrilled to have her own apartment, despite its tiny square footage. It was an adorable little place, and Megan was happy that when Adam got home each night, she had more than just a bedroom down the hall to retreat to. This morning, however, it had just been too cramped to contain the energy shimmering over her skin and in her blood.

Being Charlie’s nanny had been the perfect job while she’d pursued teaching. But now, she was ready to make the transition. Mostly. As she put a thin layer of jam on Charlie’s toast, she focused on how excited she was about the future and not how hard it would be to leave him at the end of the summer. She’d been caring for him since he was two years old. Adam might be her boss, but Charlie was her family.

“Leaving won’t change that. It’ll be fine,” she said, putting the knife in the dishwasher. It was already emptied, making her wonder what time Adam had gotten up this morning.

“What will be fine?” Adam asked, walking back into the kitchen. He still wore the same shirt, but he had an adorable, messy-haired accessory clinging to his back. Megan’s heart clutched at the sight of Charlie, who was getting a bit big to be carried. His face was buried in Adam’s shoulder, so Megan couldn’t see him.

“Uh, nothing. Sorry. Just talking to myself,” she said. Better than singing, at least. “Morning, Charlie.”

“Morning,” he mumbled, still not lifting his head.

Megan frowned and, forgetting about personal space, stepped closer to Adam. His eyes widened slightly, and she heard his sharp intake of breath. Ignoring it, she leaned around his shoulder.

“You okay, bud?”

“He’s just tired,” Adam said, looking over his shoulder. “Is he usually hard to get up on school days?”

Megan shook her head and reached out to touch Charlie’s forehead. “Hey. You feeling okay?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Charlie murmured.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Adam said, jostling Charlie a little. “Aren’t you, pal?”

Charlie talked like the roadrunner ran. He didn’t wake up slow or drift off to sleep. When he was up, he was full of life until the end of the day when he crashed on his Star Wars sheets, surrounded by the protectors of his favorite galaxy far, far away.

“He’s warm, Adam,” Megan said, her lips still curved downward.

Adam pulled him around and set him on his feet. Charlie came up to Megan’s waist. He was getting so tall. Kneeling, she put her hand to his forehead again. He leaned against her, his eyes still closed and a little pout puckering his lips.

This was not her Charlie.

“I don’t feel so good,” he mumbled.

Adam crouched on his haunches, his knee tapping gently against Megan’s. Fortunately, she didn’t have time to wonder what the actual hell was with the spark that zipped up her leg at the contact. Adam Klein was not a man who sent off sparks.

Charlie’s hand flew to his mouth, and Adam, recognizing the motion, picked him up and hauled him to the bathroom just in time. Megan heard the little guy throw up, and she cringed. He must have picked up a bug at school, which sucked, since it was the end of the year and they had lots of fun activities planned.

She went to the pantry and grabbed a can of ginger ale, grateful she’d come by this morning and doubly grateful it didn’t sound as if he was heaving any longer.

When Charlie stumbled in beside his dad, Megan wasn’t sure who looked more ghostly.

“I threw up,” Charlie informed her.

Megan tried to smile. “I got that. Come here. Have some ginger ale. It’ll settle your belly.”

“I’m not sure pop in the morning is a good idea,” Adam said.

When Megan looked at him, she decided he won the whiter-than-a-ghost-covered-in-a-sheet award. Charlie’s skin was more flushed. “The ginger and the carbonation will both help his stomach.”

Adam nodded, clearly trusting her as Charlie went to the table and sat down. Megan poured a bit of pop into a glass and set it in front of Charlie, who sipped it.

“Am I going to school?” His big green eyes—so much like his dad’s—were more awake now.

Megan glanced at Adam, who pressed his lips together and looked down at his watch. Nerves bubbled in her stomach like a pot boiling over. Adam had agreed to take his son to school, but not to take the morning off from his own job.

With a sigh, he smiled at his son. “Not today, pal. You don’t want to share whatever it is you’ve got.” Adam looked at Megan. “Your interview is at ten?”

She nodded, unease bouncing all over her like a kid on a trampoline. Megan never took days off ever since she’d become a nanny, but she was pretty sure Adam had never taken a day off in his life. Even when he was home with Charlie on the weekends, or in the evenings, he worked. Other than hang out with his son, it was all her boss seemed to do.

“I have a couple of files I can work on from home until lunch time, but they’re at the office. I’ll go in and grab them. Can you stay with him until then?”

Happiness burst in her chest. He really did see how important this was to her. “Yes. Of course. Go.”

He turned toward the foyer, but then stopped and looked down at himself. With a half-smile, directed more at his son than her, he huffed out a laugh. “Should probably change first.”

Charlie was sipping his ginger ale but giggled. “You do look silly, Dad.”

Megan’s heartbeat slowed, returning to a normal pace. Everything was fine. She’d make a special dinner tonight to thank Adam for being so accommodating. When he’d left for the office, Megan set Charlie up on the couch with a bucket, a blanket, and Netflix.

“I’m going to run over to my place and grab my interview clothes, okay? I’ll be less than five minutes.”

Charlie looked up at her, his eyebrows scrunched. “When you’re a teacher, will you still live here?”

Megan put the remote on the coffee table and sat on the edge of the cushion he was curled up on. “I don’t think so. But we don’t have to worry about that until the end of the summer. And, if I get the job, I could end up in your class if your own teacher is ever sick.”

Today’s interview was for an on-call position, but it was the first step toward a career in the district. She could work in neighboring counties, but when she’d moved to Brockton Point five years ago to be near her brother, she’d fallen in love with the adorable seaside town. Her dream was to build a career and a life, hopefully one with a hot and charming husband and maybe a couple of kids, right here in the Point.

“That would be weird. Would I have to call you Mrs. Carter?”

Megan laughed and brushed a few strands of hair off his forehead. She needed to book him a haircut. “Ms. Because I’m not married.”

Charlie scrunched his nose up. “Ew. That would be weird, too.”

Still smiling, she pressed her lips to his forehead, happy to feel that the Tylenol she’d given him had cooled his temperature.

“Be right back.”

 

Charlie fell asleep while Megan got ready for the interview. She tried not to watch the time but knew first-hand how easy it was for Adam to get caught up at work. Waiting for her flat iron to heat, she leaned into the mirror and checked her makeup. She’d added just enough liner to highlight her eyes and a touch of mascara. Dressing up was about the only thing not in her job description as Charlie’s nanny.

When she’d started, Adam had just divorced his wife, who lived in Hollywood and was an honest-to-God money-making soap-opera-starring actress. She hadn’t been at the time of the separation, but it had been the reason for her leaving. At first, Megan took care of Charlie, but very quickly, that came to mean grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, booking appointments, and essentially taking care of Adam’s home while he was gone. Which was a lot.

Megan picked up the flat iron and ran it through her hair. The dark tresses had a natural wave, but today she was going for straight and serious. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d put any effort into her appearance. Most of her days were spent running Charlie back and forth to school, soccer, and playdates, along with errands, studying, and taking classes that fit easily into his schedule.

She jumped when her phone rang, swiping the screen when she saw her friend Stella’s smiling face.

“Hey,” she said, leaving the bathroom where she was doing her hair to check on Charlie.

“Hey yourself. I wanted to call and say good luck. Not that you need it. They’re going to love you,” Stella said.

Charlie was still asleep, and though he felt a touch clammy, he wasn’t running a fever. “Thanks. I hope you’re right. I’m waiting for Adam to get back from the office and trying not to drive myself crazy wondering what questions they’ll ask.”

Leaving the living room so she didn’t wake Charlie, she went to the kitchen and opened the freezer to see what they had for dinner.

“What do you mean waiting for him to get back? He was supposed to bring Charlie to school.”

Megan took chicken out of the freezer and set it in the sink while she filled her best friend in on the morning.

“He couldn’t just call and say he’d come in later? Like after your damn interview that he knows you’ve been waiting on forever?”

Megan smiled. Stella Lane had moved back to Brockton Point about a year earlier. Sadly, it was the death of her father, the town’s beloved veterinarian, that brought her home. As a vet herself, she’d planned to take over the practice, but from the bits and pieces Stella actually shared, Megan got the impression that the paperwork had been quite a jumbled mess. The clinic had to close down for six months while Stella sorted it out, all the while dealing with the grief of losing her dad.

Through her brother and his boyfriend, Megan had met Stella, and they’d immediately hit it off. While it was a newer friendship, Megan counted her as one of her closest friends. She was loyal, funny, and a little bit fierce. Being a jilted bride had made her more than a little wary of men. Particularly ones who might take advantage. Megan didn’t think that was Adam’s intention, but she appreciated Stella’s protective streak.

“He should be back any minute. It’s fine. He’ll work from home until after my interview, but he can’t do that if he doesn’t have his stuff here. Don’t worry about it.”

Stella made a loud scoffing sound. “Right. Because Captain Stick-up-his-ass always puts your needs first.”

Megan laughed, some of the tension easing from her shoulders. Stella had only met Adam a handful of times, but she knew full well that Megan’s love of her job was entirely because of Charlie. Adam was a good man and an excellent father, but he rarely made the effort to extend a conversation beyond polite pleasantries. This morning had been the most time she and Adam had spent chatting in longer than she could remember. Usually, their conversations consisted of Charlie updates, upcoming events, and household needs. Which was fine with Megan because he was her boss, not her friend. If she worked at the library or the shopping mall, she wouldn’t expect heart to hearts with her employer.

“Stop it. He’s trying to get a promotion, and he’s stressed. And you’re not really in a position to call him on being a workaholic,” Megan teased.

“Fine. Just text me when you’re done, okay? I have to go.”

Megan hung up and went back to the bathroom to gather her things. It took effort not to look at the clock obsessively. When Adam finally walked through the door just after nine, she let out a deep breath that had been lodged in her lungs. See? She could count on him for this.

Walking down the hall to greet him, she stopped in her tracks, her stomach pitching at the look on his face. “What’s wrong?”

He stared at her a moment, his gaze roaming over her face, like it was the first time he’d seen her. Remembering she had makeup on, she started to throw out a comment about him seeing her like this. They were both so used to…other versions of each other.

“Megan,” he said.

She froze. No. No. No. He wouldn’t do this to her.

She shook her head. “I need to get going.” She started to step around him, but he blocked the path, unmoving.

“I have to go out of town. I didn’t plan it, but I can’t say no. I need to leave in the next ten minutes if I want to catch my flight. I just came home to grab an overnight bag.”

Pain stabbed her chest. She pressed her palm to it, needing to counteract the pressure. “My interview…”

His jaw clenched, and he pressed his lips together. Standing so close, she could see he’d missed a tiny spot on his chin that morning when he’d shaved. Looking down his slightly crooked nose, he nodded curtly. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Panic pushed at her rib cage. “I can’t miss it. You know this.”

Waiting for a small sign of the softening and compassion he usually had only for Charlie, Megan held her breath. Adam squared his shoulders, and she had to tilt her head back even more to hold his gaze.

“There’s nothing I can do. I can’t stay here and argue about this with you. You’ll need to reschedule. I’ll be in New York until tomorrow night.”

Adam stepped around her, but Megan’s feet wouldn’t move. Neither would the air in her lungs. Before he reached his bedroom, she turned. “I can’t miss this. Can you take a later flight? It’s one hour, Adam. I never ask you for anything. You promised me this morning.”

He turned to face her, his shoulders hunched, and ran a hand through his dark, slightly messy hair. “I didn’t expect Charlie to get sick. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not happy to leave while he isn’t well, and I know this puts you in a tough spot—”

“A tough spot?” Anger replaced all her other jumbled feelings as she walked closer. She wasn’t used to the turbulent spin of emotions and couldn’t keep the rancor out of her voice. “It’s my career. It’s everything I’ve been working toward.”

The fire that leaped into his eyes seemed a startling contrast to his usual cool gaze. “I know a bit about that, seeing as this is my career. Which, by the way, is the source of your income. I can’t say no to my boss. And while I’m sure this won’t earn me an employer of the year award, neither can you. I have to go. I’ll call you tonight to check in on Charlie.”

He turned and left her there, her breath whooshing in and out. She was, quite literally, speechless. A couple of hours ago, she’d been all but drooling over his abs, and now she’d like to kick him in them. How had she thought she’d seen a sliver of humanity in the machine that was Adam?

He said nothing when he came out of his bedroom less than five minutes later. Megan leaned on the wall, glaring at him when he walked past. He met her gaze but didn’t speak. She watched him walk toward the living room and, a minute later, heard the front door close.

Tears burned as Megan breathed through her nose, in and out, trying to keep herself in check. Clenching her fists at her sides, she lost the battle as tears escaped. She swiped at them, determined not to wreck her makeup.

Pushing off the wall, she went to the living room to check Charlie. He was awake, barely, staring at the television.

Though it took effort, she kept her voice even. “How you doing, sweetie? You need anything?”

He shook his head. “Dad went to New York.”

Megan’s stomach seized. “He did.”

“I wish I could go.”

It looked like they were both wishing on dreams that wouldn’t come true.

Let It Be Me