TWO'S A DATE. THREE'S
When they become guardians of their best friends' orphaned baby, Ryan Garrett and Harper Ross expect disaster. The two can't be more differentshe's an uptight career woman; he's a laid-back ladies' man. But for little Oliver, they're now Mommy and Daddy.
For Harper, playing house with the flirtatious Ryan is as difficult as being a mother. Fussy babies elude her but sexy Ryan pursues her! He reminds her of the night they spent together years ago; she needs to forget it. All they agree on is their love for the baby. They'll do anything for the little guy. But when their custody is threatened, will they go all the way and marry?
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The baby was crying.
Harper Ross jolted awake, her heart pounding and her throat aching.
After eighteen daysand eighteen nightsshe should have been accustomed to Oliver's middle-of-the-night outbursts, but she wasn't. By this time, she'd expected to feel more comfortable with the baby and more confident about her ability to care for him, but she didn't.
As the assistant producer of an award-winning television show, she wasn't just competent but confident. When she was in the studio, she was in charge and in control. When she was with her best friend's orphaned little boy, though, she felt completely helpless.
She didn't know what to do for him, how to console himor if anything could. She was completely out of her element with the child. When she'd learned that she was now responsible for sixteen-month-old Olivershe'd panicked.
She didn't know the first thing about caring for a child. She didn't know what to feed him, when to put him to bed or even how to change a diaper.
Thankfully, she knew how to research, and the internet was overflowing with informationincluding step-by-step video demonstrations of diaper changing. But there was still so much she didn't know, and every free minute she had, she spent reading childcare manuals and psychology textbooks.
She wouldn't have minded the steep learning curve so much except that her co-guardianRyan Garretthad stepped into his role with no apparent difficulty, his ease with the child highlighting her own ineptitude. And although Ryan usually dealt with Oliver's middle-of-the-night demands, he didn't seem to be responding tonight.
She and Ryan had given up their respective apartments and moved into Melissa and Darren Cannon's house so that Oliver would be able to stay in familiar surroundings, but she knew that nothing could ease the loss of his parents.
She drew in a slow deep breath and pushed her legs over the edge of the mattress, swallowing around the lump in her throat. Her best friend's baby needed so much more than she could give him, but she was trying. Of course, she might be more successful if she could get more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep in any given night, but so far that hadn't happened.
Oliver had apparently started sleeping through the night when he was five months old, but he hadn't done so even once since the accident. According to Ryan's mom, who had become their go-to source for all child-related questions, his nighttime waking was neither surprising nor cause for concern. His life and his routines had been disrupted and it was reasonable that he would be upset and confused. Harper's understanding of that didn't make her any less cranky.
And as the baby continued to cry, his sobs punctuated with heartfelt entreaties for "Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma," she wanted to cry right along with him. Instead she padded across the hall.
Other than the soft glow of the night-light that emanated from the baby's room, the hall was in complete darkness. She had no concept of time: how long she'd been sleeping or
The unfinished thought was snatched from her brain along with the air from her lungs when she collided with a wall.
Not a real wall, but the wall of Ryan Garrett's chest. Solid, strong, naked. And wet.
His hands, strong and steady, caught her hips as she stumbled backward. She felt the imprint of every finger through the whisper-thin cotton of her boxer-short pajama bottoms, and the heat of his touch made her skin tingle and her pulse race in a way she hadn't experienced in a very long timeand definitely didn't want to be experiencing now.
She sucked in a breath and inhaled the clean, fresh scent of a man just out of the shower. Which explained why he was wetbut not why he was wandering around the house half-dressed.
"I just turned off the shower when I heard Oliver crying," he responded to her unspoken question. "I was trying to get to him before he woke you up."
"Too late." She winced as the baby's cries hit the next decibel range. "So maybe you could take the time now to put some clothes on?"
Her tone was sharper than she'd intended, but she didn't apologize for snapping at him. She knew it wasn't his fault that the child's cries had awakened her, but she was half-asleep and his half-naked torso was waking up parts of her that she didn't want awakened, so she wasn't in a mood to be fair.
"I'm wearing pants," he said, following her into the baby's room. And though it was too dark for her to see the sexy half smile on his face, she could hear it in his voice. "In fact, I put them on just for you."
As if pajama bottoms sitting low on his hips could be classified as pants.
The man knew how attractive he was. After all, he was a Garrett, and it wasn't a hardship to look at any one of them. To describe Ryan as tall, dark and handsome would be accurate but completely inadequate. Those complimentary but generic words didn't begin to do him justice. He was at least six-foot-two, because he towered over her own five-six frame even when she was wearing heels. His hair was thick and soft and the color of dark roasted coffee beans; his brows were the same shade, straight and thick over eyes that were probably noted as hazel on his driver's license but were actually mossy green with flecks of golden amber. His jaw was strong and square and often covered with stubble. She didn't usually like the unshaven look that seemed to be in vogue these days but couldn't deny that it suited him, somehow increasing rather than lessening his appeal.
But Harper had grown up surrounded by beautiful people, so she wasn't readily enamored of a handsome face or an appealing physiqueand Ryan Garrett had been blessed with both. Far more dangerous, at least to her way of thinking, was the quick mind and easy smile that added to the package. As if that wasn't enough to stack the odds in his favor, he was also friendly and charming and kind. And if her brain had been more awake than asleep, she would have spun on her heel and gone back to her own bed. Instead she followed him into the baby's room.
She turned on the lamp beside the rocking chair while he went directly to the crib and lifted Oliver into his arms. The baby's heart-wrenching cries immediately ebbed to shuddery sobs as he snuggled against Ryan's strong chest.
Harper hovered a few feet away, feeling useless and ineffectual as she watched him soothe the distressed child. His voice was low and even, and the sexy timbre was enough to stir the blood in her veins.
She knew only too well how it would feel to be cradled in his strong embrace, to lay her cheek on his chest and feel the beating of his heart. She knew because she'd spent one incredibly magical night in his armsthen the sun had come up, bringing not just morning but the harshness of reality.
"What's wrong, buddy?" Ryan crooned to Oliver softly. "Are you wet? Hungry?" He patted the baby's bottom. "Yepa diaper change is definitely in order."
She watched him work, noting how Ryan held Oliver in place on the changing table with one hand splayed on the boy's tummy while he rummaged on the shelf beneath for a clean diaper. He made it look so effortless and easy, while she worked up a sweat trying to prevent the little guy from wriggling off the edge whenever she attempted the task. Which was, admittedly, not nearly as often as Ryan did.
Over the past two and a half weeks, they'd started to establish a routine. He took care of Oliver in the mornings while she was at work, and when she got home from the studio, he would go into his office for a few hours. They hadn't created a specific schedule for grocery shopping or laundry yet, but Harper was pretty sure that, in the past week, Ryan had done the bulk of those chores, too. She usually started dinner before he got home, and after they finished eating, they worked together to clean up, followed by bath time for the baby. But when it was Oliver's bedtime, he'd made it clear early on that he preferred falling asleep in Harper's arms.
Ryan glanced over his shoulder at her now as he finished fastening the tabs on the diaper. "Go back to bed, Harper. I've got him."
Since her alarm would be going off at 4:45 a.m., she wanted to do exactly that. When she'd gone back to work a few days after the funeral, Ryan had offered to be the one to get up in the night with Oliver so that she could sleep through. It wasn't his fault that she heard every sound that emanated from Oliver's room, across the hall from her own.
Thankfully, she worked behind the scenes at Coffee Time with Caroline, Charisma's most popular morning news show, so the dark circles under her eyes weren't as much a problem as the fog that seemed to have enveloped her brain. And that fog was definitely a problem.
"Do you want me to get him a drink?" she asked as Ryan zipped up Oliver's sleeper.
"I can manage," he assured her. "Go get some sleep."
Just as she decided that she would, Olivernow clean and drystretched his arms out toward her. "Up."
Ryan deftly scooped him up in one arm. "I've got you, buddy."
The little boy shook his head, reaching for Harper. "Up."
"Harper has to go night-night, just like you," Ryan said.
"Up," Oliver insisted.
He looked at her questioningly.
She shrugged. "I've got breasts."
She'd spoken automatically, her brain apparently stuck somewhere between asleep and awake, without regard to whom she was addressing or how he might respond.
Of course, his response was predictably malehis gaze dropped to her chest and his lips curved in a slow and sexy smile. "YeahI'm aware of that."
Her cheeks burned as her traitorous nipples tightened beneath the thin cotton of her ribbed tank top in response to his perusal, practically begging for his attention. She lifted her arms to reach for the baby, and to cover up her breasts. "I only meant that he prefers a softer chest to snuggle against."
"Can't blame him for that," Ryan agreed, transferring the little boy to her.
Oliver immediately dropped his head onto her shoulder and dipped a hand down the front of her top to rest on the slope of her breast.
"The kid's got some slick moves," Ryan noted.
Harper felt her cheeks burning again as she moved over to the chair and settled in to rock the baby.
"It's a comfort thing," she said, not wanting to go into any more detail than that. She knew that it had started when Melissa was trying to wean him and Oliver stubbornly refused to drink from a cup. Her doctor had suggested that he was rejecting the cup because he wanted the skin-on-skin contact of nursing. So Melissa cuddled with him as if she was nursing but gave him milk from a cup.
After a few weeks, he would happily drink from the cup so long as his hand was on her skinand yes, she confided, that usually meant her breast. But over time, even that had become unnecessary. Losing his mother had obviously rekindled that need for skin-on-skin contact, and Harper had no intention of refusing Oliver the little comfort she could give him.
"Maybe I need to be comforted, too," Ryan teased.
She rolled her eyes. "Then maybe you should call Brittney."
He looked at her blankly. "Who?"
"The woman you were with the night I called to tell you about Melissa and Darren's accident," she prompted.
The confusion in his eyes cleared. "That was Bethany."
"I'm going to have to write down the names of all of your girlfriends in order to keep them straight."
"That won't be necessary," he said. "Because there's no reason for you to cross paths with any of them."
"Fair enough," she agreed. "So long as you're back from whatever bed you tangle the sheets in by five thirty so that I can go to work, I don't care where you sleep."
"That's what time you leave every morning? Five thirty a.m.?"
Because Oliver had been waking so frequently in the night, Ryan usually slept like the dead after he got the baby settled back down and returned to his own bed. So while he knew Harper's day started early, he hadn't realized it was quite so early. "That's insane."
"Look on the plus side," she suggested. "It will save you those awkward morning-after goodbyes."
She'd made it clear from their first meeting that she didn't hold the highest opinion of him. Even at twenty-one, not yet graduated from NYU, Harper Ross had been a woman with plans and ambitions. Ryan had been finishing up his business degree at Columbia and preparing for an entry-level position at Garrett Furniture. And although there had been some definite chemistry between them, she'd made it clear that she wanted more than a man content to work in sales.
Even when she'd found out that his family owned the multimillion-dollar company, she hadn't been impressed. In fact, she'd accused him of coasting through life on his family name and money. There was probably some truth to that, but Ryan had grown up with a workaholic father who missed more family dinners than he attended. As a result, he'd vowed not to live his life the same way and he refused to apologize for the fact.
He also refused to let her put him on the defensive about his personal relationships.
"The only awkward morning-after I ever experienced was with you," he told her.
Harper drew in a sharp breath and glared at him over the baby's head. "We agreed to never talk about that night."
"I didn't agree to any such thing," he denied. "You decreed it and I chose to go along."
She glanced down at Oliver, who, despite their heated exchange, had immediately settled back to sleep. "So why are you bringing it up now?" she challenged.
It was a good questionand one he wasn't sure he knew how to answer. Because even if he hadn't explicitly agreed that the subject was off-limits, he had gone along with her request that they both forget it had ever happened.
Except that he'd never really forgotten about that night. Yes, he wanted tobecause it was more than a little humbling to share an incredible sexual experience with a woman who made it clear that it was never going to happen againbut his efforts had been unsuccessful.
No, he hadn't forgotten about that night, but he'd pretended that he could. And he'd never said a word about it to anyone. Until now.
"Because it's there," he finally said in response to her question. "Even if we don't talk about itit's there."
"It was one night more than four years ago," she reminded him. "Ancient history."
"If it was so long ago and so unimportant, why didn't you ever tell Melissa about it?" he challenged.
"You always said that there were no secrets between best friends, that you told her everything. So why did you never tell her about that night?"
"Because I didn't want things to be awkward between us."
"Us who? You and her? You and me?"
"All of us." She kept her focus on the baby. "If I'd told Melissa, she would have told Darren. Then anytime we were all together, it would have been awkward and weird."
"You don't think it was awkward and weird anyway?"
"Not at all," she denied.
"You don't feel any residual attraction when we're together?"
His gaze narrowed at the dismissive tone, but he noticed that she didn't look at him as she spoke. Her gaze had dropped to his shoulders, skimmed down his torso. Even in the dim light, he could tell that she was checking him outand appreciating what she saw. "You're a smart woman, Harper."
She dragged her eyes from his bare chest to meet his again. "Thank you," she said, just a little warily.
"So you must realize that a lot of guys would take that statement as a challenge."
"It was merely a statement of fact."
He told her what he thought of that in a single-word reply.
She rose from the chair with the sleeping baby. "I'm putting Oliver in his bed and going back to my own."
He couldn't resist baiting her, just a little. "Is that an invitation?"
"Has hell frozen over?"
She responded without missing a beat, and he found himself smiling as he watched her gently lay Oliver down on his mattress. What was it about this woman that, even while she infuriated him, he couldn't help but admire her quick mind and spunky attitude?
He walked beside her to the door. "You still want me."
"You really need to do something about that ego before"