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He crept silently into the bedroom, his footsteps muffled by the hearty drumbeat of a summer thunderstorm.
He raised the knife, pausing only long enough to delight in the quick flash of lightning that illuminated his victim's terrified face, before
"Dalton, I need your help!"
Dalton Scott let out a curse. Then another one. His neighbor. Viola Winterberry, one of those people who needed favors like trick-or-treaters needed another chocolate bar, was somewhere downstairs.
"I'm working, Mrs. Winterberry. On the book," he called down.
"I know," she said, her voice rising in volume as she climbed the stairs toward his office, "but I have"
"I'm on a deadline." He shouted the words, heavy on the hint-hint.
Actually, he was way past his deadline.
"But you have to"
"And if I get disturbed, I lose my concentration." He'd told her that a hundred times, yet she still walked in uninvited. It was his own fault. He'd forgotten to lock the door after he retrieved the paper this morning.
He needed a guard dog. A big one.
Aw, hell. It wouldn't matter. His writing stunk, dog or not. Concentration or not. He'd already missed his deadline, ticked off his editor, nearly destroyed his career.
What else could go wrong?
"I have an emergency" Mrs. Winterberry said, poking her curly gray head into his office and into his line of vision. "I know you said not to bother you, but I'm desperate, Dalton. Desperate. You said anytime I needed a favor, you'd help me out."
She'd been desperate last week when she needed a cup of sugar from him so she could make her special raspberry cake. Desperate the week before when she needed him to come by immediately to change a lightbulb. Desperate the week before that when she'd called him four times in one day because she was sure the noise she was hearing outside her window could only be caused by an intruder.
"I've been calling you," Mrs. Winterberry said. "For ten minutes."
"I unplugged my phone." On purpose, he'd add, but that would offend her. And told her she was the reason he kept his phone disconnected when he worked.
He liked Mrs. Winterberry. She had that grandmotherly look about her, with her seemingly endless supply of cookies and muffins, and her mother-hen ways, but that package came equipped with a tendency to pop in unannounced, needing something almost every five minutes. When Dalton really needed to get this incredibly overdue book done.
"I'm sorry to bother you again, Dalton, but this time I really do need you. My sister
" Mrs. Winterberry's face flushed, and something churned in Dalton's gut, telling him this wasn't a lightbulb or a too-high can on Mrs. Winterberry's kitchen shelf, "my sister had a heart attack and
" She pressed a hand to her mouth. Her light blue eyes began to water.
Immediate regret flooded Dalton. He leapt to his feet, and crossed to the older woman, then stood there, helpless, not quite a friend, but not quite a stranger, either. In that next-door-neighbor-limbo of too distant to give a hug. Not that he was the hug type anyway. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Winterberry. Ah, do you need a ride to the hospital?"
"No. But I do need you to
" She gave him a hopeful smile. "Watch Sabrina."
Mrs. Winterberry made a vague wave toward the downstairs. "Yep. She's sleeping downstairs. All her things are there." Mrs. Winterberry started to leave.
"Wait. Who? What things?"
His neighbor poked her head back in. "I thought I told you. I've been looking after her for a neighbor. Ellie Miller? She lives in the little house across the street? You know, the brown one with the
Dalton looked back at his computer, not listening to the long-winded house description. Daylight was burning, as was his editor's short-fused temper. And he was no closer to being done. He had no time or desire to be watching so much as a neighbor's houseplant. "Mrs. Winterberry, isn't there another"
"Don't worry," she interrupted, misinterpreting what he was about to say. "I left Ellie a message. She should be here any minute. Surely, you can watch Sabrina until then? Besides, it will probably be good for you. Give you a whole new perspective for your work." Satisfied his non-answer was a yes, Mrs. Winterberry headed for the door of his office and down the stairs, her mind clearly on her sister and not on anything else. "Thank you!"
Before he could say yes or no, Mrs. Winterberry was gone. A second later, he heard the front door slam.
Dalton bit back a groan. Why had he ever shared the angst of a writer with his next-door neighbor? He'd been living alone too long, that was for sure. And now she'd left him with Sabrina, whoever that was. Probably the neighbor's cat. Mrs. Winterberry, self-proclaimed friend of the furry, was well-known for taking on people's pets when they went out of town.
Just great. Now he had a pooch or a cat to contend with. Well, it could be worse. He could be stuck with
A piercing wail cut through the quiet of his house. No, it didn't cut, it viciously slashed the silence. "What the?"
Dalton ran out of his office and into the massive, two-story great room, spinning, searching for the source of the sound. At first, in the huge space, he couldn't find the thing, praying it was a disc in his CD player, or someone outside, a screech of a teenager doing a one-eighty on the cul-de-sac, and then finally, his gaze lighted on a bundle of pink blankets squirming in a plastic rocker kind of thing on the floor by his favorite armchair.
He crossed the room, moved the blankets to the side. And faced his worst nightmare. A baby.
Hell, no. Not a kid. He didn't do kids.
Regardless, there was one. Kicking and screaming. And in his living room.
Its mouth was open in a cavernous O, the sound coming from its lungs reaching decibels usually reserved for deaf rock bands. Dalton was half tempted to put the blanket back, return to his office and shut the door. Except someone would eventually show up on his doorstep, demanding he do something about the human noisemaker. And besides, even he wasn't grumpy enough to leave a baby screaming in the middle of his living room.
"Hey," he said. "Hey!"
The baby kept screaming.
"Hey!" Dalton repeated, louder this time. "Cut it out. I'm not in the mood."
This time, the baby stopped. Looked at him. All blue eyes and red cheeks. A sliver of a memory raced through Dalton.
He closed his eyes for a second, but that only made the past push its way out of the mental closet and into the forefront of Dalton's brain. He opened his eyes and let out a breath. It was better when the baby had been crying, loud enough to keep him from hearing himself think. He took three steps back, putting some distance between himself and the bundle of pink, and in the process, between his mind and those memories. They dissipated a little, but didn't disappear. Not entirely.
He needed to get this kid out of here. That's what he really needed to do.
Then he could work. Try to wrangle that manuscript back into something resembling readable, and at the same time get his career back in order.
"Listen, kid. I've got work to do. You can just sit there and be quiet. I'm going to see if Mrs. Winterberry is still here and tell her to find someone else. There's no way I can babysit." He wagged a finger in the infant's direction. "And I mean it. Not a peep out of you, understood?"
The baby blinked, grabbed the edge of her blanket with her fist. Probably scared into submission.
Good. Now he could concentrate again.
He headed for the front door. Hopefully, he could catch Mrs. Winterberry before she pulled out of her driveway. The elderly woman wasn't exactly a speed demon behind the wheel.
As soon as he was out of the kid's line of sight, the wailing began again. Apparently, someone didn't take direction well. Dalton opened the door anyway, stuck his head out, and saw
No one. Not a soul. Mrs. Winterberry's driveway, two doors away, was empty and silent, her familiar gray car gone.
Leaving him stuck.
He spun back toward the baby. "Stop. I mean it." He wagged a finger at the kid. A gurgle, a blink, and then a few sputters before she stopped.
He stared at her. She stared at him. Trusting. Almost
Damn. No way. He couldn't do this. He hadn't been around a baby since
Well, he simply wasn't going to watch her. That's all there was to it.
The problem? He didn't see another available adult human option. He was "it" and he hadn't even asked to play tag.
Dalton crossed his arms over his chest. "So whose kid are you? Mrs. Winterberry said you belong to someone named
" He thought a second. What had she said? "Elsie? Emmie."
The kid was no help. There was no answer. Just some blinking. A blubbering lip.
She whimpered, and threatened to let loose one more time. He shifted his weight and then did what he'd been hoping he wouldn't have to do
He bent down and got close to the kid. There had to be a name tag or something on her. First, he inspected the car seat, bringing it forward and back, turning it right, left, sending the toys on the handle jingling and jangling. Hoping for an "If Lost, Return To" sticker.
He lifted the blankets, peeking underneath an inch at a time, wishing kids came equipped with a Paddington Bear tag. What was wrong with America? Really, all kids needed a stamp or GPS tracking or something so they could be sent back to whence they came.
But this one had nothing. And that meant Dalton was stuck with his worst nightmare and the one thing he, of all people, shouldn't be left in charge of.
A small child.
Ellie Miller's day had done nothing but get busier. Her best intentions had been derailed before she'd even arrived at work, given the number of e-mails and messages that had greeted her. Not to mention the meetings that had followed, one after another like dominoes. She let out a sigh and sank into the leather chair behind her desk, facing the inch-thick stack of pink message slips, accompanied by a furiously blinking phone. One two-hour meeting, and her afternoon had exploded in her absence.
If she wasn't stuck in meetings half the daymost of which were about as productive as trying to fill a hole-riddled bucketshe'd get much more done in a quarter of the time.
So much for her plan to leave early and spend the afternoon with Sabrina.
The tear in her heart widened. Every day, the ache between wishing she was home, and the need to be here at work, at a job she once thought she lovedbut more, needed to keep to pay the bills, to keep her and Sabrina afloat, carved a deeper hole in her gut. How did other women do it? How did they balance the family and work worlds?
"One pink message slip at a time," Ellie muttered to herself and started flipping through the papers. As a producer for a newly launched celebrity interview TV show in the hot Boston market, downtime wasn't a word in her vocabulary. It wasn't a word she could afford, much less worry about.
Besides, she'd worked for years to reach this rung on the career ladder, to finally have a chance to prove herself capable. Okay, so it wasn't exactly what she'd gone to college for. This job was a bit of a detour from what she'd dreamed of while attending Suffolk University. Still, the television work would serve well on her r sum and could lead to what she really wanted down the roador at least she kept telling herself that as she sat through another of Lincoln's pointless meetings. Either way, she'd probably be destroying her career if she walked away now.
Ellie sighed. Not that her bank account could even entertain that option.
The pressure of being everythingmother, father, providerweighed on her, more and more every day. Ellie tried to ignore it. She was a single mother. No amount of worry was going to change that situation. Even if sometimes she wondered whether she was handling the job very well.
Ellie glanced at Sabrina's picture, her heart clenching at the sight of her sweet eight-month-old, then she glanced back at the pile of missed messages. Work. A means to a better end.
Connie had marked the same checkbox on every one of the message slips: URGENT. Everything about this new job fit into that category, considering they'd hit the air a week ago. Finding guests, slotting storiesit all slammed into Ellie's days like a five-day-a-week hurricane.
At least a third of the messages had Mrs. Winterberry's name at the top. Ellie smiled and passed by those without reading them. She usually saved those for lunch, like a personal dessert, for when she had time to marvel over the details of Sabrina's day and call Mrs. Winterberry back. Mrs. Winterberry was a great babysitterbut one who thought she should call and report on every bottle feeding, every diaper change, every coo and gurgle.
Details that Ellie loved to hearbut that also made her miss her daughter more. If only she could be the one hearing those coos. Or be the one on the other end of those bottles. Every morning Ellie dropped off Bri
And seemed to leave a part of her heart behind.
Regardless, Mrs. Winterberry had been a godsend. She watched Sabrina for a very reasonable feeone much cheaper than any daycare in Boston would have charged. She'd seen the dire straits Ellie had been in, taken pity on herand probably fallen in love with Sabrina's big blue eyes.
Who wouldn't? Sabrina, in Ellie's personal opinion, was the cutest baby in the entire world.
Ellie picked up the picture of her daughter and traced Bri's face. "I miss you, baby," she whispered. "I'm doing the best job I can."
Then she replaced the image on her desk, and got back to work. For now, Mrs. Winterberry's messages would have to wait. If Ellie got too distracted by thoughts of Sabrina, she'd never get anything done.
Instead, she returned the call of a celebrity guest who was having second thoughts about her appearance on the show. Something about "thigh confidence," Connie had noted.
A knock sounded on Ellie's door and Connie poked her head inside. "I see you got your messages. Surprised you're still here."
"Are you kidding me?" Ellie paused, waiting for the ring on the other end. "With this stack to return, I'll be lucky to leave before next year."