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The situation called for "cheerful" and "soothing." Sorry, fresh out. But we are running a special on "desperate" and "borderline hysterical."
It was well past midnight, and Addie Caine's nerves were shot. She'd tried patiently explaining this to her niece, but as it turned out, five-and-a-half-month-olds weren't open to reason. Or bribes. Of course, Nicole was shrieking too loudly to have heard anything her aunt offered.
"Please, please, please stop crying," Addie murmured as she paced her cluttered bedroom with the infant. Addie glanced at the door she'd closed in an attempt to keep the sound from carrying down the hall—which was probably as effective as trying to ward off a missile with a parasol. "I finally got your brother back to sleep, and you're going to wake him again."
Addie had never for a minute believed that parenting was easy. She just hadn't expected it to be this hard. Then again, as a twenty-eight-year-old single woman, she hadn't expected to become the instant parent of two, either.
Exhausted, Addie sank to the edge of her mattress, misjudging the distance and narrowly missing the wooden finial of her pine and copper four-poster bed. She was too worn down to keep blocking the memories she'd tried to keep at bay, and the overpowering sense of loss that washed over her was far more painful than Nicole's skull-splitting wails. Addie's chest tightened at the memory of her brother's smile, the same smile her six-year-old nephew, Tanner, had inherited, although she'd barely caught a glimpse of it in the past month. Tanner's big brown eyes were far too solemn for a child who had previously been known to crash through the house attacking imaginary foes with a lightsaber.
He'd lost his suburban house in Corpus Christi the same weekend he'd lost his parents. He'd been uprooted to living with his aunt in a two-bedroom Houston apartment, starting first grade in a brand-new school where he didn't know anyone. Class had begun last week and his teacher, Ms. Phipps, reported that he hardly spoke. He deserves so much more than this.
Instead of his custom-painted playroom and big, fenced backyard, Addie had put him in her far-too-feminine guest room and had tried to convert her tiny home office into a nursery for Nicole. Once the Corpus house sold, she would use that money to buy a home here, something more kid friendly. But the market was slow right now and the listing was only a couple of weeks old.
Addie squeezed her eyes shut, but tears still leaked from the corners. It had been three weeks since she'd lost her big brother and his beautiful wife in a boating accident. They'd been so excited about the overnight excursion to the time-share beach house, their first away trip since Nicole had been born. Addie had gone down to stay with the kids and remembered her sister-in-law explaining to her how to prepare the bottles. "It took some effort," Diane had teased, "but she should have plenty of breast milk until I get back."
Three weeks later, Nicole had yet to adjust. She seemed perpetually ticked off about the formula Addie bought. Though it had been highly recommended by their new, Houston-based pediatrician, Nicole clearly deemed it inferior. Sorry, kid, there's only so much I can do.
Addie felt moments from giving up and just sobbing along with the baby. She forced herself to her feet, rocking and swaying her niece. Should she take Nicole to the front of the apartment, where the battery-operated swing was located? My neighbors would kill me. Addie's living room bordered the next apartment's master bedroom. She made a mental note for tomorrow: rearrange the jumble of boxed children's items and displaced office furniture now housed in her room to make a place for the swing. What she wouldn't give to have someone else here who could drag it back for her now, or someone just to offer moral support, for that matter.
If it weren't midnight, she might call her parents at their retirement community in Miami. Her mother had wanted to stay longer after the funeral to help, but Catherine and Edward Caine were both nearing seventy. There was a limit to how much they could physically do. Addie's best friend since college, Jonna Wilder, had a hot date tonight—an Astros home game followed by a late dinner with her new boyfriend. If things had gone as well as Jonna had anticipated, she probably wasn't home.
A month ago, Addie would have assumed she could call Christian for help. After all, she'd been planning to marry him, which implied some dependability in the whole "for better or worse" department. But her fiancé had fled for the hills some time between the reading of the will and baby Nicole yarfing down the front of his Brooks Brothers suit.
"Please understand, this doesn't mean I don't care about you, Addie. I just…I'm not ready for an instant family."
Yeah, well, neither was she, but what choice did she have? She owed these kids her best. Unfortunately, she felt like her best was woefully inadequate.
I need help. Nicole's face scrunched up into a nearly purple scowl and she let loose a shriek forceful enough that Addie expected her ceiling fan to crash to the floor.
Correction. I need a miracle.
Through the cell phone's hands-free earpiece, a man whose voice was thick with Texas drawled, "Really appreciate your doing me this favor, Giff."
Giff Baker stared out his windshield, absently monitoring the Houston gridlock. The increased congestion was due in part to schools being back in session, but the sweltering heat still felt more like summer than early September. Other people might suffer from impatience or road rage, but Giff was too accustomed to the traffic to muster genuine irritation. "With the salary you quoted me, Bill, I'm not sure this qualifies as a 'favor.'"
Money aside, Giff was secretly grateful for the distraction of this unique, short-term job. It might keep him from dwelling on recently changed circumstances and his resulting… What, melancholy? A stupid word that made him sound like the brooding hero of a bad gothic piece.
Giff might pride himself on staying calm in the face of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but the truth was, it had been a while since he'd felt any strong emotions. At least Bill Daughtrie's offer left him genuinely curious. Giff was an IT consultant. With the exception of a few repeat clients, most of his jobs were short-term. He'd done work on network security, but this was the first time anyone had sought his services specifically as a corporate spy. I'll be like James Bond. But without the underwater jet-pack or grenade pen.
Bill Daughtrie was a fellow Texas A&M graduate who owned a relatively small but reputable civil engineering firm. He was determined to protect his company from the apparent traitor in his employ who was sharing—presumably, selling—key data with Bill's biggest competitor.
"Your timing couldn't be better," Giff said. "My schedule is abnormally light." He'd deliberately cleared it because he was supposed to have been married by now. They would have been back from their honeymoon, settling in as a couple.
For a moment, his fingers clenched around the steering wheel. He wasn't mad at Brooke—she certainly hadn't intended to fall in love with Giff's best friend— but Giff had enjoyed such a clear picture of where he thought his life was going, where he thought he wanted to be. Now, he felt directionless.
Alone, you mean. His best friend and ex-fiancée were in Hawaii, where they'd eloped, and Giff's only family, the mother he'd helped take care of while she fought breast cancer, had recovered with flying colors. She was on a singles' cruise to the Caribbean and planned to stay with old friends in Florida on the way back. The people who meant the most to him in the world were off in tropical locations and Giff was here. Stuck in traffic.
As he and Bill made plans to meet next Tuesday, Giff tried to sound professional about taking this job rather than absurdly eager. He had no idea what he'd find working undercover as a project manager in Bill's company, but one thing was abundantly clear: I need a change.
"Girl, you look like hell."
Addie resisted smacking her coworker upside the head. Probably because it would require lifting my arm and I don't have that kind of energy.
"Tough night," she told Gabrielle Lopez, assistant to the marketing director. "Followed by a tough morning."
Whereas Gabrielle had probably been at the office for half an hour, Addie hadn't even made it to her desk. She'd made a beeline straight for the break room and the caffeine therein. Addie and the kids had survived Labor Day weekend at home—Nicole might even have slept for two consecutive hours on Saturday—but after a three-day holiday away from school, Tanner had been even more resistant to going back. She'd had to pry him off her and she'd felt horrible putting him on the bus. Intellectually, she knew it was for his own good and that she was simply making him join his peers for another day of educational enrichment. Emotionally, she'd felt as if she were making him walk the plank into shark-infested waters.
The ocean analogy reminded her abruptly of Zach and Diane's accident, and her stomach muscles clenched as if she might be sick. I miss him so much. She could barely begin to imagine how awful it was for Tanner.
"It gets easier," Gabrielle was saying. "For the first year after the twins were born, I thought I was going to lose my mind."
"Thanks." Addie appreciated the sentiment and bit back the reminder that Gabrielle had the assistance of her husband and a huge extended family, most of whom lived just around the corner in League City. "I'm sure it will get better. Eventually. For now, I just need a seriously strong cup of coffee and I'll be fine." Or at least, less noticeably not fine.
Gabrielle grimaced, then said apologetically. "I just poured the last cup of the caffeinated stuff. But I've already got a new pot brewing," she added, pointing behind her.
Addie turned and watched fresh coffee drip far too slowly into the glass carafe.
"Caine, shake a leg!" From the doorway, Pepper Har-rington—annoyingly impeccable in a tailored pantsuit and killer shoes—barked orders as if she outranked Addie in the office hierarchy.
Actually, they had both been hired about the same time. Addie often felt Pepper had zeroed in on her as a direct competitor because they were the only two women in the male-dominated IT department. Addie would have preferred to work more closely with Pepper and make them both look good, hopefully paving the way for more female IT employees in the future. But she had enough to worry about right now without sparing mental energy for Pepper's petty office politics.
"You're going to be late to the meeting," Pepper warned.
"On implementation strategies?" Addie frowned, trying to make her sleep-deprived brain function. "That's not until noon."
"They moved it to eight-thirty. Honest to God, do you even read your e-mails anymore? They're doing the strategy meeting this morning so that they can introduce the new project manager at noon." She smiled, oozing insincerity from her flawless pores. "You should rebut-ton your blouse between now and then. I'd hate for you to make a bad first impression."
Then she was gone, leaving the wicked witch's theme music stuck in Addie's head.
"That woman's heart is as black as her hair," Gabri-elle mumbled.
Pepper had sleek, raven locks that fell halfway down her back—not unlike Gabrielle's silky, but shorter, dark hair. Addie, on the other hand, had coppery shoulder-length hair that curled uncontrollably whenever it was humid. Which, given that she lived in Houston, was pretty much every day. Some mornings she was able to do damage control with a curling iron, making the corkscrews at least look as if they were on purpose. Today, she'd settled on the less effective but far quicker solution of a barrette while also making Tanner's lunch and packing Nicole's bag. The baby attended a small, exclusive day care that cost more than Addie's monthly car payment.
"Pepper may not win any congeniality awards, but she's right. I can't walk around the office like this. I look like an idiot who can't dress myself." The closest ladies' room was one floor down and apparently Addie had a meeting she wasn't fully prepared for in—she glanced at the clock—two minutes. "Can you cover me?"
Gabrielle nodded, moving to the front of the room and blocking the doorway while Addie faced the back wall and hastily rebuttoned.
"Good luck," Gabrielle said over her shoulder.
Once Gabrielle was gone, Addie stopped to marvel at the sensation of being alone. Moments of solitude that she'd once taken for granted were now a novelty. It's so quiet in here. No sound but the rhythmic burble and drip of coffee percolating. If she sat down, she'd be asleep in seconds.
Instead she pulled a compact out of her purse, scowling at the miniature reflection of her face. In her rush, she'd completely forgotten lipstick, she'd smeared mascara under one of her bloodshot, puffy eyes, and far from taming the red-gold frizz around her face, it seemed she'd merely angered it.
With a snarl, she unclasped the useless barrette in her hair, gave her head a brisk shake and reached for a cup. If she had to wait any longer for caffeine to hit her bloodstream, she was going to turn feral and start spooning ground beans directly into her mouth. As she poured, a few more drops fell and sizzled on the metal plate beneath, but the pot had mostly finished brewing.