Years in the Army equipped Bailey Masterson for many things: target shooting, rappelling off cliffs, dodging grenades. She's lived through horrors that still give her nightmares. But nothing in Bailey's life-or-death training prepared her for caring for the tiny terror that is five-year-old Olivia Hale. Or how to control her raging attraction to Olivia's father, Streeter, the rugged, green-eyed cattle rancher who undermines her every move even when he stars in her dreams.
Streeter Hale has room for only two things in his life: his daughter and his job. He doesn't date. He doesn't get attached. Not anymore. So not only is Streeter stunned by Olivia's improved behavior after just a few days with Bailey, he's downright floored by his immediate attraction to the woman. But with secrets in her eyes and a body that doesn't quit, Streeter begins to worry that Bailey Masterson might just be the one woman to heal his fractured family and broken heart.
One thing's for surethese two wrecked souls are spinning out of control as they desperately try not to fall in love...
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No no no no no no no, not again.
Streeter Hale practically had to run after his babysitter as she hoofed it away from the house. "Please wait just a minute, Mrs. McCutcheon, I'm sure we can find a better way to deal with-"
That was all he got out before she whirled around so fast he nearly plowed into her.
"I'm done. That's it. I've tried. I've failed. Good luck finding a replacement caregiver. You'll need it since I was your last option at the agency." Through gritted teeth she said, "That child . . ."
Don't you dare say it. I swear I will lose my shit if you call my daughter something like the devil's spawn or a demon child.
"That child . . . what?" he said tersely.
"That child needs a firmer hand." She raised her chin and glared at him. "I have forty years of childcare experience. In addition to running a daycare and a preschool for twenty-five years, I have four children of my own and ten grandchildren. In those forty years I've never let a child best me. Never. Congratulations. Your five-year-old daughter did what so many others before her tried and failed to do: made me want to quit."
Streeter locked eyes with the older woman, who was a dead ringer for Mrs. Doubtfire. "Can I ask what Olivia did this time?"
"The fact you had to tack on 'this time' is the biggest indicator that there is a problem, Mr. Hale. It wasn't one action, although her drum solo on pots and pans was the final straw."
She harrumphed. "Olivia should be apologizing, not you. Stop letting her use her mother's death as an excuse to misbehave-she's not the only child who's lost a parent. Besides, she's five years old, for crying out loud. She'll be starting kindergarten in the fall. The teacher won't put up with her tantrums or her backtalking or her manipulations. And you shouldn't either."
Why don't you tell me how you really feel?
But she wasn't the first person who'd told him that. With her being the sixth childcare provider who'd quit in the past eighteen months . . . he had to admit something had to change. "Thank you for your advice, Mrs. McCutcheon."
She sent him a look that said she didn't believe he'd take it. She shrugged and continued her escape.
Streeter took several deep breaths. Then he counted to ten slowly, six times, before he headed into his house.
The trailer was completely quiet, but the place was a total wreck.
He said, "Olivia. Come out here."
Louder, he said, "Now. I mean it."
The crocheted afghan on the back of the sofa cushion moved against the paneled wall and he watched his daughter crawl out from behind the tweed couch.
Kid was like a little mouse, squeezing into the tightest spaces.
Her super fine blond hair nearly stood on end from static electricity. His eyes narrowed on her clothing. Not what he'd dressed her in when he'd left the house two hours ago. She'd donned her one-piece mermaid swimsuit, pairing it with her Frozen Elsa leggings, the plaid satin Christmas skirt from last year and a beaded metal necklace. His heart stopped as he imagined that necklace getting caught in the loose threads on the back of the couch and choking her. Not to mention the fact she'd somehow gotten into his closet where he'd stashed her mother's costume jewelry-an area he'd warned her multiple times was off-limits.
Pick your battles. Do not give in to your fear by becoming angry and yelling.
That was hard as hell when his little spitfire looked at him defiantly and said, "What?"
"You know what." He pointed to the time-out chair. "Park it."
"Right now, Olivia Joyce."
Her blue eyes widened. He only pulled out her middle name when she was in deep shit. She dramatically flopped in the chair like a disgusted teen. Tough for a five-year-old to pull off, but she managed it.
"Tell me what happened with Mrs. McCutcheon today."
"She made me sit at the table and color." Her freckled nose wrinkled. "I told her I wanted to play the drums. She said no and when she went to the bathroom I got all the stuff out because she was in there a really really really long time."
"And?" he prompted again.
Her bare feet began to swing beneath the chair. "And when she finally came out, she told me to stop beatin' on the pans."
She shook her head. "Then she tried to make me stop, but it's not my fault she tripped over my jump rope and fell down."
Streeter pinned her with a look. "Where was the jump rope, Olivia?"
"Umm . . . I tied it between a chair leg and the cupboard door handle."
"Like a booby trap?" he demanded.
She frowned. "A what?"
"A hidden trap."
"Well, yeah, 'cept it wasn't really hidden. I was just tryin' to keep her from comin' into the kitchen and stopping my drum practice."
He deeply regretted letting her watch that Drumline movie a few months back; she'd been obsessed with turning everything into a percussion instrument ever since. "Regardless. Who was in charge?"
"And if she told you no . . . what were you supposed to do?"
Olivia crossed her arms over her chest. "Listen to her and do what she says."
"And you didn't."
"It's my house, Daddy. Why won't she ever let me do what I want to do in my own house?"
"We've talked about this a hundred times, Olivia. You are not the adult. You are not in charge. You don't make the rules. You follow the rules set by the adults. All the rules. All the time."
"Even if the rules are dumb?" she countered.
"Yes." Streeter removed his cowboy hat and ran his hand through his sweaty hair. "And now I've had to take time off from work. So get your boots on, girlie, because we're leavin'."
"Mrs. McC isn't waitin' outside until you're done setting me straight?"
Good lord. The mouth and the brain on this girl. "No. She quit."
"Oh." Olivia slumped in the chair. "She smelled weird anyway."
His brain cautioned him not to ask, but his mouth was already moving. "What do you mean by weird?"
"She smelled mean."
"How do you know what mean smells like?"
"Because it smells like her."
Okay, then. "Get movin'. I don't wanna hear any complaints about you havin' a peanut butter sandwich for lunch again today."
"I'm comin' to work with you?"
Streeter stopped halfway to the kitchen and looked back at her. "Where else did you think you were gonna go?"
Olivia hopped off the chair. "To Aunt Jade's house."
"She just had baby Micah two months ago, sweetheart. She's busy with him and your cousin Amber."
"But I could help her!"
His sweet sister-in-law Jade was on the very short list of people who could handle Olivia on a regular basis. But he'd been careful not to overstep his bounds with his brother's wife, asking too much of her when it came to taking care of his daughter-even before Jade had two kids under age two.
"I would follow all the rules for her. I always do. Please, Daddy? I'll be good. I promise."
He had a lightbulb moment. "Is that what this has been about? You actin' up so Mrs. McC quits and you expecting that I'll let you stay with Jade instead?"
She looked guilty.
"Olivia, that ain't how things work. You know it. Now while I'm makin' your lunch, grab something to do in the truck 'cause you're gonna be in there a few hours."
"Hours?" she repeated with horror. "What am I s'posed to do for that long?"
"Bring your coloring stuff."
"Boring," she said with a sniff. "Can I play with your phone?"
"No." Maybe his smile was a little insincere when he said, "Or you could always practice your drumming on the dashboard."
Later that night, while Olivia watched a movie, Streeter scoured Craigslist for potential daycare options. With Olivia signed up for a half a day at the Learning Center in Casper, and a full day at the upcoming Split Rock Summer Day Camp, he only needed in-home daycare three days a week. Surely there had to be high school or college students looking for a part-time summer job. Without the agency fees tacked on he could afford to pay four bucks an hour more than the standard rate.
He followed link after link until his vision went blurry and his frustration mounted. As he was about to give up, he saw an ad for a babysitters' co-op, which appeared to be run by a woman and six of her female family members. He filled out the form, clicked send and crossed his fingers they'd get back to him soon.
Ten minutes later his phone rang. "Hello?"
"Speakin'. Who's this?"
"Marianne Smolen. You sent an online inquiry to Helping Hands Daycare Co-op?"
"Wow. That's what I call a fast response."
"This is the only time of day I can deal with business. So before I get to your questions . . . can you give me some more family information?"
A ball of dread tightened in his gut. "Sure. What would you like to know?'
"You indicated that your daughter Olivia is five and you've been a single parent since she was six months old?"
"Yes. Her mother died when she was a baby." Please don't ask specifics.
"I'm sorry. As a single parent myself, I know how hard that is. Do you have other family members helping you out with her care?"
"Olivia spent one day a week with my sister-in-law until she had a baby two months ago. Olivia spends some weekends with her maternal grandparents. The rest of my workin' hours she's either with me or I have someone come in to take care of her."
"She's not new to a daycare situation."
"No. We tried the drop-off type a couple of times and it never worked out. In-home daycare is better for both of us."
"For this summer session you're only looking for part-time care?"
"Yeah. Olivia will be attending two different camps, so I'll only need daycare three other days during the week."
"Living in Muddy Gap is a bit of a drive for us, since we're based in Rawlins."
"I'm willin' to pay for travel time. But they'll need to be here by seven thirty a.m."
"Would you need a childcare provider with her own vehicle?"
Weird question. "Only to drive here. I'm not lookin' for someone to haul Olivia around, just someone to take care of her in her own home when I'm at work."
"Understood. To be clear, the reason we're called a co-op is I have six daycare workers in my employ. Because you'd be a part-time client, I can't guarantee a specific caregiver, but I believe that might serve your needs better given the other information you provided about Olivia."
"You have any questions for me?" she prompted.
"What are the ages of the caregivers you're considering for this position?"
"All teenagers, all out of high school and attending college, all with great referrals, which can be shared upon request." She paused. "I'll be blunt, Mr. Hale. This isn't the most economical option for any family. Are you sure you want to proceed?"
Streeter's cheeks flushed. He hated the assumption that he was dirt poor just because he was a ranch hand and lived in a trailer. "Yep. Do I need to pay a deposit?"
"We call it an application fee, which you can pay online." Papers shuffled in the background. "I'd like to send a caregiver one day this week. Wednesday at noon?"
"That'll work. Have her call my cell when she arrives at the Split Rock Resort and I'll meet her and show her where to go."
"Perfect. I'll email you an invoice with the pay link. And if anything changes, please contact us. We have a twenty-four-hour answering service."
She hung up.
Streeter stared at the phone for a moment. Then he said, "Huh. I guess when one door closes-"
"I always close the door, Daddy," Olivia interjected.
He glanced over at his daughter sprawled on the couch, wondering how much of his conversation she'd paid attention to. "Most of the time you do."
"Did I get a new babysitter?"
So she had been listening. "Yep. Someone will be here this week."
"Is she old like Mrs. McC?"
She rolled on to her stomach and looked at him. "I heard you tell 'em I don't got a mommy."
"That's something they need to know, squirt."
Olivia crossed, uncrossed and recrossed her ankles as she studied him.
He braced himself. Any change in her life triggered questions about her mother. He just hoped it didn't trigger her night terrors too.
"Can I ask you something, Daddy?"
"If I had my mommy would I still have a babysitter?"
How was he supposed to answer that? "Maybe."
She considered his response for a moment. "Gramma Deenie always tells me that my mommy loved me so so so much." Cross, uncross, recross. "But I think she's lyin'."
Jesus. "Why would you think that, Olivia?"
"Because Gramma cries every time she says it."
"Talkin' about your mom always makes your gramma sad."
"Maybe Gramma was sad because she knew my mommy didn't love me."
He took a deep breath in and let it out softly. The therapist told him to let these types of conversations run their course. Don't correct her. Don't change the subject. Ask her questions and listen to her answers. "You still haven't given me a reason why you think your mother didn't love you."
"Because if she really loved me then she wouldna died."
Streeter moved to sit beside her. He smoothed back her staticky hair. "Darlin' girl, we've talked about this. All the love in the world can't keep anyone from dyin'. My mama loved me and she died too."
She crawled onto his lap and rested her head on his shoulder-an odd reaction for her, and he held his breath. Several long minutes went by as she fiddled with the buttons on his shirt. "Do you think Mommy loved me?"
Such an innocent question shouldn't require him to take a couple of breaths before he answered. "Yeah, sweetheart, she did."
"You love Mommy, right?"
"I did." Thank god she was too young to pick up on the past tense.
"Gramma Deenie said I don't need another mommy as long as I've got her."
He kissed the top of her head. "Well, you needed another babysitter today after Mrs. McC quit."