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"Ooh, Aaron, she's so young! And pretty!" Mina Garcia, housekeeper and longtime family friend of U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Aaron Petrowski, clapped her dark hands together. She peeked out the Petrowski home window as the nanny applicant exited her car. The very young and vivacious applicant, very unlike the empty-nested grandmotherly types who'd interviewed so far.
Mina clutched Aaron's sleeve and continued to emit strange little squeaks as the trim-but-not-too-thin blonde crunched across a calico pattern of fallen leaves carpeting the yard he really should have raked. "Aaron Michael! Shame on you for not telling me how glaringly gorgeous she is!"
Glaringly gorgeous? That hadn't even entered his mind yesterday at the agency. What had attracted him were Sarah's on-paper credentials and her enthusiasm and gratitude over being chosen as a candidate for the job.
Trek paused, Sarah bent to pull a punctured leaf from her conservative but classy spiked heel. When she stood and eyed the house, catching a glimpse of them watching from the window, her excited wave and ready smile rivaled September's sun. Glaringly gorgeous?
Yeah, now that Mina mentioned it…
Aaron eyed Mina cautiously. "You haven't acted this excited about any of the other applicants, Mina. Please tell me you're not trying to find us something more permanent than a nanny?"
"What? Me?" Mischief twinkled from wise Hispanic eyes as she waltzed to the door with an agility and ease that told him she might have been exaggerating her "aches and pains" of late.
Though his boys could benefit from another mother, the last thing Aaron needed was another wife. The current state of his career wasn't conducive to relationships.
So why then did his heart suddenly start skipping beats as he stretched to peer around his housekeeper for a glimpse of Miss Sarah Graham, the woman he'd met at the agency yesterday?
"Hi! Hi! Come on in!" Mina grabbed Sarah's arm and pulled her inside, nearly robbing the young lady of her balance. Mina's exuberance left petite Sarah looking vaguely shell-shocked.
Mina suddenly possessed the lightness of a butterfly and the speed of a cheetah. Never before had she hugged any of the other applicants. All of them she'd eyed, hawklike, and interrogated, then shooed from his home in sputters of disgust.
Onto Mina's game, Aaron couldn't help it. He chuckled.
Sarah stepped farther inside and lifted her head at the sound. Their gazes locked for a very electric second.
A creamy glow graced her face. Layered light blond hair with trendy dark streaks fell in luxurious locks around her shoulders with every graceful movement. Wow. Beautiful indeed. Though dressed more executively today, she still looked way younger than most other applicants.
And… he should not be noticing that. At forty, he had to be at least ten years her senior. More like fifteen.
The draw of Sarah's lovely smile as she stuck out her hand to shake his made him forget what he was about to say. "Mr. Petrowski. Nice to see you again. This is Mina, I take it?" Sarah's expression went from nervous to warm when Mina vigorously shook her hand. Sarah eyed her curiously, then shifted to face him.
He cleared his throat. "Please, do come in." Major Duh, Sergeant Goof. She was already in. "Farther in, rather." He scratched his eyebrow and straightened his mouth to keep from laughing at himself.
Sarah started to shrug out of her jacket. She paused as her head tilted up to peer around at the jewel-toned foyer as though looking for someone. The twins, maybe?
He smiled. She'd meet the two of them in all the glory of their nearly four-year-old furor soon enough.
Mina tugged at the young woman's sleeve, helping the extraction along. "Si, take off this coat and stay a while."
A lo-ong while, Aaron thought, then refined his smile. He didn't need another pretty ornament around the house. He needed someone who could handle his children in their unruly moments. To safely care for them with compassion, and dare he say, love?
Aaron stuck out his hand, engulfing Sarah's in it. "Pleasure to see you again, Miss Graham…Sarah," he corrected and closed the door.
"You, too." She shifted a scuffed brown-leather backpack purse farther onto her slim shoulder. The worn item seemed out of place with her crisp, modern grayish-pink business suit and dressy heels.
His breath hitched at the stark blue of her eyes. He hadn't noticed that yesterday. "The boys are with friends until we get more acquainted, since yesterday was rushed. You can meet them another day if we move forward."
She clasped delicate hands together, but not in an obnoxious sense. "I can't wait." Sincere glee on her face proved it so.
She tucked strands of stylish hair behind her ear and peered around the large, open rooms. And at the toys his sister Ashleigh overdosed the boys with. And at the groceries and laundry strewn about.
Mina rushed forward. "You won't have to keep it clean. All he needs is someone to watch the children."
"Mina takes care of cooking and housework," Aaron agreed.
Sarah made a pleasant sound. Half laughter, half sigh of relief.
"That's good to know. Though I've no trouble with housework, I'm not that great a cook. While I'm not above trying to learn, I'm afraid there would be many kitchen disasters before I mastered more than TV dinners and microwave meals."
"I'm fond of the microwave myself. Although I can grill a mean steak."
Now why had he said that? Maybe she was a vegan and he'd just offended her.
Then again, according to her dawning grin, maybe not.
"I love steak. Especially from the grill, juicy and marbled. With sea-salt baked potatoes and sweet corn on the cob dripping with hot butter. And pumpkin pie so smothered in whipped cream that you can't see the golden filling. It's my favorite meal." Because she was not much over five feet tall and he was well over six, she seemed to have to strain her neck to maintain eye contact.
He motioned to a chair in the family room. "Have a seat, Sarah."
She nodded and followed Mina into the room. The way Sarah's hands rubbed together, she was no doubt chattering out of nervousness. Her stomach growled audibly. She placed a hand against it.
He lifted his gaze from her trim middle. "Hungry?"
"I was so nervous this morning I didn't eat breakfast. And I never skip meals."
"Absolutely. This job means so much to me. I—I mean, should I end up being chosen." Rocking back, she bit her bottom lip and darted her gaze to the gleaming white marble tile.
He smiled inside. Loved that her guard slipped enough to let him glimpse some carefree as well as vulnerable parts of her.
"I'm going to my office while you two get acquainted," Aaron said to Mina and Sarah. Trying not to snicker, he retreated to his study, which also boasted a gym. Tried unsuccessfully not to feel like a total fiend for throwing Sarah to his Doberman of a housekeeper.
No nanny had passed the Mina test yet. Would Sarah?
A half-hour later, it became apparent by laughter and friendly chattering that the two were actually getting along and that there would be no bloodshed, death by spatula or shooing of the new nanny from his home today.
The new nanny. Strange that his mind would go there already. But it was true. Deep within, he felt a solid instinct that firmly stated Sarah could be it for his family.
Aaron rejoined the women. Mina rose. "I'll take care of refreshments if you'd like to show her around," she said as she passed by and breezed from the room.
Aaron approached Sarah. "Would you like to see the boys' play area and where you'd sleep if things go through?"
Her smile intensified. So did his pulse.
"Follow me. Mina's making tea." And probably leaving them alone to get more acquainted in ways that had no business in Aaron's brain. Aaron led Sarah through the great room. He stopped at the wood banister. "You could choose any room other than, obviously, those occupied by myself and the boys."
"What about Mina?"
"She sleeps downstairs in one of the guest rooms off the kitchen. She has weak knees and trouble with stairs."
He watched her while she eyed the winding staircase. "This woodwork is absolutely gorgeous."
This girl is absolutely gorgeous.
"Feel free to look around upstairs." Aaron retreated to the kitchen and cornered Mina. "So, what do you think?"
Mina grinned like she'd won the lottery, though she never gambled. "I think you already know what I think." She winked.
Heat came to his collar for no apparent reason other than the way Mina smiled and eagle-eyed him. He fled to the formal dining room to gather paperwork that would hopefully bring his other two pararescue teams to Refuge.
Moments later, Sarah returned downstairs. "The rooms are amazing and—" Rapid movement cut her words short. Nimble feet took her to the kitchen doorway. She took the heavy, decorative wrought-iron tray from Mina, and headed to the family room.
Impressive. Pitching in already. And without her knowing, he observed her from the dining room. So her helping Mina had obviously been from pure motives and not falsity to impress him.
He made himself visible, joining them. From the tray Mina had prepared, he served the women and sat across from Sarah. "Besides being a meat-and-potatoes kinda girl who's not afraid to dive into dessert, tell me about yourself. What are you interested in and why exactly are you interested in this job?"
As Sarah spoke, her body posture relaxed.
Mina settled in a chair, forming a triangle of the three, and sipped her tea.
Every now and then he'd glimpse her mouth twitch into a privately amused grin that her dainty teacup did little to hide, as though Mina sensed his being totally enthralled by Sarah's heart and her love for children.
Yet he distinctly recalled her telling the agency owner yesterday that having children probably wasn't in her future.
While she was seemingly open and transparent in a bigger sense, he couldn't pinpoint something about Sarah. She remained a living labyrinth.
Until he determined what that something was, he'd bask in the moment and gauge Mina, whose radar would undoubtedly flip to red alert at the first sign of trouble.
Sarah's face glowed and she laughed unabashedly when Mina told of the twins' recent antics, both ornery and sweet.
"Sure you don't wanna run right back out that door?"
"Absolutely not. I never run from a challenge."
Aaron didn't doubt that.
"And the thing experts don't tell you about the terrible twos is that they last for two years." Sarah giggled.
He found himself laughing along with her. Stories rolled back and forth between the three. He couldn't recall the last time he'd had an easier, more carefree conversation.
Time to ask more questions.
Aaron rubbed his chin. "You applied to a Christian nanny agency. Tell me about your faith walk. What's your current relationship with God like?"
Aaron studied Sarah as she talked of her faith and adventures in child care. Too often he found himself smiling at the animation in her face without being sure what she'd even said. Had Mina noticed his being enraptured with Sarah? Aaron looked toward Mina's chair. Empty.
At what point had Mina gotten up and left the room?
He cleared his throat, not liking that he had been so into Sarah that he hadn' t noticed Mina's departure. "Tell me more about your education and experience caring for children." He adopted a serious tone, no longer lighthearted, and far from friendly. Like something he'd use on a Taliban defector he wasn't sure was for real.
Sarah's normally splendid smile dimmed enough to alert him she'd noticed. But soon her expressive face dazzled again as she lost herself in communicating how much she loved children. Her gestures became more exaggerated as she talked of interning at day-care centers and preschools. He loved her rendition of children's shenanigans, and found himself smiling, completely enthralled. Again.
Until he remembered why she was here.
Not to keep him company. Nor to entertain him or provide the female companionship that he hadn't known until this moment he'd been missing.
She was here for one reason only. And he wasn't the reason.
She was here to watch his precious boys. He'd do well to remember that, especially since that elusive peace he'd longed for had finally come home the very second she'd stepped inside his doorway.
Feeling a tug toward Sarah that he wasn't accustomed to or prepared to analyze, he forced his gaze to connect with his late wife's picture, the mantel centerpiece. The one memento of Donna that he kept in view, nearly four years after her passing.
And the one reminder of why he could not afford to entertain foolish thoughts of long-term with any lady.
His gaze switched to Sarah.
Not even the one who'd awakened something in him that he thought had gone to the grave with his beloved wife.
How had she died?
Sarah wondered the following day as she eyed the mantelpiece photo she assumed to be of Aaron's late wife. After all, the woman in the picture held two newborn babies swaddled in blue camouflage buntings.
Adorna, the nanny agency owner, had informed Sarah that the twins' mother had died when they were eight weeks old, but she didn't elaborate. And Sarah hadn't felt it appropriate to ask.
"Welcome back." Aaron came up behind her. "Mina let you in, I see." His gaze tracked where she'd been looking: the photo. He'd entered so silently it was eerie. She gathered he'd gained the ability from being a military special operative.
Sarah forced herself to seem oblivious to the profound sadness flashing across his gaze as it brushed the image. Then in awkward silence, he lowered himself to the footstool and skimmed his solemn gaze from the glass to Sarah. His face became completely unreadable.
Understanding dawned on her. How very difficult it must be for him to have to bring a stranger in to care for her children.
It took everything in her not to rush forward and say so.
A slightly frazzled Mina shuffled into the room with a tray, breaking the moment and preventing the opportunity.
Mina looked pointedly at Aaron, still seated. "The boys are about to come unhinged. They want to know when-when-when-when-when?" She darted a head toward Sarah and raised her brows.
Sarah bit her lip to keep from giggling, because it seemed to her Mina was just as anxious as the boys.
Sarah had to admit she was anxious, too. She'd hardly been able to sleep last night due to excitement over getting to finally meet the Petrowski twins.
Aaron rose. Again, as yesterday and the day before in the nanny agency upon first meeting him, Sarah was stricken with just how intimidatingly tall and watchtower-strong he was. Arms muscled into impressive facets made her glad he served in the job he did. If she were in need of rescue, she'd want someone this capable and strong. Blond hair with hints of starlike-silver above his ears was shaved into a military buzz. The masculine cut complemented his sturdy neck, jaw and otherwise exquisitely carved facial bones.
He gave the air a grand wave. "Let's bring in the troops." Exiting, he went to the doorway of the playroom, said something, and came back in.
Two sets of shoes clomped across an area of tile that she couldn't see. So loud it sounded like a herd of… something. The kitchen door leading to the other end of the room banged open.
Two tiny humans who each looked like miniature Aarons in different ways bounded toward her, toting twin grins.
Her smile stretched, and her heart twisted into taffy. Twice.
Hunkered to his knee, Aaron drew them close. Tenderly, he sandwiched both in his massive arms. "Boys, I'd like you to meet someone special. This is Miss Graham. I'd like you to get to know her while I run to the DZ."
Refuge had a drop zone? Duh, of course it did. She'd been skydiving before, so she knew a DZ was a skydiving facility. Made sense. Aaron was a commander of military search-and-rescue skydiving paramedic teams, the ones who dove into danger to rescue fellow military personnel as well as dropped feet-first into disaster to rescue civilians.