After being burned by love, Claire Ayers had just about given up on finding her dream husband. The physician's assistant would have to be content taking care of other people's kids. Until she met her happily-ever-after wrapped up in one seductive single-father package….
Nick Barrington wasn't looking for a happy ending. Except the more time he spent with Claire, the more the captivated journalist wanted to make her a part of his family. With a little help from one well-meaning matchmaker, was Nick ready to pop the question…and make Claire a bride after all?
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Claire Ayers pulled into the parking lot of the community center with ten minutes to spare before facing a classroom filled with parents eager to learn how to best care for their children. As the physician assistant in her brother Derek's pediatric practice, Claire spent a lot of her time dealing with concerned parents, but with her class it was a little different.
Many of them barely spoke English. Many had come to America never having seen the inside of a doctor's office. They provided her with a challenge she didn't face in her brother's practice.
But all of the parents she saw had one thing in common. They all loved their children and wanted what was best for them. She admired them all, so much.
Not that she saw children anywhere on her own personal horizon. She had, once, when she and Steven were first married, but that dream had disappeared along with the marriage. Then again, Steven had been enough of a child himself to not want competition from some sweet-smelling adorable infant.
Claire hadn't thought about Steven in months, or their home in Chicago, or the life she'd had there. But he'd phoned her today, to tell her he was getting married again. Had he thought he'd needed her permission? Or maybe he'd just wanted to rub it in. See? Other women find me lovable. I told you it was you, not me. You're the one with the problem, babe.
Maybe this time Steven had found the right woman for him. One who was content to be Steven's wife, and nothing else, no one else. He was very, very possessive. Claire hadn't seen that side of Steven when they were dating, but once they were married, everything had changed. When she'd been late to dinner because of an emergency at the pediatric office she worked in, or tried to share a story about something that had happened during her day, or sought his comfort when parents had been forced to hear frightening news about their child, Steven's only answer had been, "Quit. I need you more than they do. I don't see marriage as a part-time job, damn it."
Not for her, anyway. He'd never think that he should quit his job and stay home so that he'd be there when she got home. But Steven was a real "I'll get the meat, you keep the cave warm" kind of throwback, with an increasingly frightening penchant for jealousy that had her rushing home from work, mentally preparing her apologies.
She'd stuck it out for six months, even if the marriage had been over only a few weeks into it.
It had been difficult, admitting that kind of defeat, and especially so early in the marriage. But the day she'd spotted his car behind her, following her from the office to the supermarket, had put the topper on it for her. She'd moved out the next day while he was at work, leaving behind everything except her clothes and most personal possessions. He could have the house, the furniture, all the wedding presents. She just wanted out, needed to be out, before Steven took the next step in what was clearly a poisonous situation—physical violence.
She'd called her brother, flown to Allentown on the first flight out, and begun working in his office the following Monday after finding a furnished apartment in nearby Bethlehem. She'd given Steven everything in the divorce, and then taken back her maiden name.
Life went on, or so they said, and she was determined to get on with hers.
Except she probably hadn't. Gotten on with her life, that was.
So now, three years later, while Claire was pretty much still treading water, Steven was getting married again. Well, good for him. Maybe he'd changed, wised up. Or maybe this marriage would be strike two. Steven and his bride-to-be were not her concern.
Which didn't mean Claire hadn't considered calling the girl and giving her a friendly heads-up, except for the fact that women in love rarely listened to soured ex-wives.
Claire flinched as someone knocked on the side window of her car. She'd been sitting there, her hand on the key that was still in the ignition, wasting time she didn't have to spare.
She turned and smiled at Marylou Smith-Bitters, who had now stood back to give her room to open the car door. Claire had first met Marylou last Tuesday, when she'd helped translate for a new member of her parenting class who still needed to formally register. Not that Claire's Spanish was very good, but it was infinitely better than Marylou's, which was pretty much limited to ordering sangria and paella.
"Hi, Marylou. Hang on a sec," she said as she exited the car, and then opened the back door to extract her purse and briefcase. She reached back to grab Susie, the infant CPR mannequin she'd borrowed from her brother's office.
Marylou looked at the mannequin, a smile curving around her collagen-enhanced lips (not that Claire could tell—but Marylou had confided in her when they'd gone for coffee after class was dismissed). "Is that the new way to carry infants? By the ankle?"
"Susie doesn't mind," Claire told her as they fell into step and headed for the front door. "She doesn't even mind when students smash all her ribs trying to resuscitate her. You will hear the alarm go off if you're passing by the classroom, though, so don't let it throw you."
"Very little throws me, Claire. Running out of my favorite lipliner. Popping an acrylic nail ten minutes before leaving for some evening event Ted insists we attend. The mere thought of my cosmetic surgeon retiring to Boca. Alarms don't faze me."
Claire laughed, as she knew she was supposed to do. Really, though, she couldn't help liking Marylou. The woman was rich, pampered and totally upfront about all of it, even poking fun at herself. And she was very sincere about giving of her time and money because she had both, plus a genuine interest in the people around her. What was not to like? Even if she had found herself telling Marylou things—like about her divorce from Steven—when she had always made it a point to keep her private life private.
Some people just had that knack for getting others to talk about themselves. Marylou Smith-Bitters had it in spades.
They entered the building together and walked down a hallway crowded with students heading for classrooms.
"Uh-oh, I seem to have a line at my desk," Marylou said, sighing. "How about this—Ted is in Palm Springs for some golf outing and I'm alone, with no reason to go home. Are you free to meet me in the cafeteria after class for some caffeine and deadly white sugar?"
Claire gave a moment's thought to her small condo and the empty refrigerator in the galley kitchen. "Sure, although I think I'll stick to my usual caffeine-free soda and a couple slices of pizza. Thanks for asking. See you later."
Marylou was looking past her. Busy-busy, that was Marylou. "Good. Great, it's a date." She put her hand on Claire's upper arm and almost pushed her aside. "Excuse me, there's somebody I want to corral before classes start. See you in the cafeteria."
Claire turned around to see Marylou approaching a man she'd seen last week. And last month. And during the spring session. He was the kind of man you didn't miss, even if you weren't looking.
Tall, sandy-haired in that casually mussed style she had always found intriguing—making her palms itch to run her hands through the hair falling onto his forehead and push it back into place while hoping it would fall forward once more so she could do it again.
He dressed casually, but casual looked good on him. As did his smile, currently aimed at Marylou.
What didn't look good on him was the eight- or nine-year-old boy he brought with him every Tuesday and Thursday. She hadn't seen a wedding ring (because she'd looked), but that didn't mean anything. Idle curiosity had made her check, nothing more.
One, she didn't date. Two, he might be married.
Three, men with kids were often looking for a mother for those kids, and she wasn't interested in being dated for her mommy potential.
Claire turned and walked toward her classroom, stopping only twice to look back at Marylou and Mr. Casual.
Not that she was interested.
The food court in the community center was well stocked, but the aroma of pizza was always what got to Claire, so much so that she didn't even have to place her order anymore. Ruth, the woman who manned the counter, automatically served her two plain slices and fished a bottle of caffeine-free diet soda for her from the cooler.
Was that good or bad, being so predictable?
Her purse and briefcase hanging from her shoulder and Susie clasped by the left foot and dangling upside-down, Claire hung onto her tray and stood in the middle of the crowded tables and chairs, looking for Marylou.
"Claire! Over here!"
Claire turned toward the sound of Marylou's voice. Her smile froze on her face, because Marylou wasn't alone at the table in the corner. Mr. Casual was sitting there, too.
"Oh, Marylou, what are you doing?" she grumbled under her breath, and then squared her shoulders and headed for the table. "Hi, I guess I'm late," she said as she slid her tray onto the tabletop and then divested herself of her belongings. Susie was cute, and helpful, but she was also heavy. "Hello," she said to the man across the table as she sat down.
Then, to keep her hands busy, she opened her bottle of soda and took a drink from it. Her mouth had gone rather dry.
"What? You two don't know each other?" Marylou asked as if shocked. "I would have thought—haven't you both been teaching classes here forever?"
"This is my second year."
The first answer was from Mr. Casual, the second Claire's own, delivered at the same time. "Sorry," Claire added, trying to ignore Marylou's soft kick under the table.
"Oh, no, no, don't apologize," Marylou said, beaming. "Because now you're going to know each other, aren't you? Claire Ayers, please allow me to introduce Nick Barrington. Nick, my friend Claire, who teaches a parenting class here. Nick teaches English as a second language." She picked up her coffee cup and smiled at them both from above the rim. "There, that was easy. All done."
"Hello, Nick," Claire said, extending her hand halfway across the table. "It's nice meeting you."
"Back at you," he said, taking her hand. His eyes were green, now that she could see him up close. And they were laughing. Like he knew what was going on and found it all extremely amusing.
Claire clenched her teeth even as she continued to smile. That way maybe nobody would know that the touch of his hand had done something strange to the region of her stomach, but she probably would be able to keep from throwing up her first sip of soda.
Marylou put down her cup and actually rubbed her hands together. "Nick has a son, you know. Sean. He's over there, at that big round table with all the other kids from his karate class. Aren't they all just so cute in their white pajamas?"
"The uniform is called a karategi, Marylou," Nick said, clearly suppressing another smile. "If Sean heard you calling his uniform pajamas he'd be highly insulted. He's up to his red belt now, with the brown one coming next, if he qualifies." He looked at Claire. "Karate is supposed to foster the spirit to overcome life's obstacles, along with instilling courage, respect, self-confidence, self-control, and self-discipline. I'm still waiting for those last two to kick in, but he's getting there."
"How old is Sean?"
"Nine, going on thirty-five, which makes him older than me and means sometimes he thinks he's the parent and I'm the child."
"I think I remember reading somewhere that the children of single parents often mature quickly," Marylou slipped in neatly as Claire felt another soft kick on her ankle. "But you'd know that, wouldn't you, dear, working with children all day. Claire's a physican assistant for her brother, who's a pediatrician," she told Nick, turning to look at him, her eyes wide and innocent. "It's all very…very medical," she ended rather weakly, then flashed another smile.
The woman's cell phone, which was on the table next to her, rang, and Marylou snatched it up like a drowning man grabs a life ring thrown from a friendly passing ship.
Claire kept her eyes on her plate as Marylou spoke rather breathlessly into the phone. "Yes? Yes? Oh, no! Well, of course, Chessie, I'll be right there. No, no, no problem at all. It's not like you wanted your battery to go dead, now did you?"
The cell phone snapped shut and at last Claire looked up again, to see Nick Barrington sitting with his chin in his hand, his eyebrows cocked in a way that made her want to laugh as he listened to Marylou explain how she had to leave, she really did, but please just stay and talk to each other while Claire finished her pizza.
Which could take a while, as Claire's appetite had disappeared about three minutes earlier.
Marylou gathered up her sweater and purse and blew kisses to both of them before hurrying out of the food court in her three-inch heels.
"Well, that was subtle," Claire managed when she could find her tongue.
"You noticed? But I think her intentions are good. At least I hope so. You aren't a secret ax murderer, are you?"
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