Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
t the exact moment the hot water kicked on in the shower, the doorbell rang. Jill Bradford leaned her forehead against the ceramic tile and gritted her teeth. Timing. Life was all about timing and hers was usually bad.
Or maybe it was this house, she thought, grabbing her robe with one hand while she turned off the water with the other. Maybe there was a little light that ran from the bathroom to the front of the building so that every time she tried to take a shower, it went on. People saw the light and knew it was time to come calling. Yesterday it had been young girls selling cookies. Two days ago, someone selling magazine subscriptions.
The bell rang again, and Jill hurried down the hall. She had the fleeting thought that she could not bother with her robe and could simply flash whoever was rude enough to interrupt her shower, but decided against the idea. The way her luck was running, there would be a cop on the other side of the door and she would be arrested.
She reached the front door just as the visitor pressed the bell again. This time the long tone sounded impatient. Jill raised herself up on her toes and stared out the tiny peephole that had obviously been designed by and for the tall people of the world. She stared at the distorted image and gasped.
Barely pausing long enough to secure the tie on her robe, she turned the key to release the dead bolt and jerked open the door. "Yes?"
"Ms. Jill Bradford?"
"I'm Craig Haynes."
The police officer paused as if the name was supposed to mean something. Jill stared at him and blinked. It didn't mean a thing to her. She studied the man. He was tall. Too tall for her comfort. She had to crane her head back to see his face. But it was worth the crick in her neck, she decided, taking in curly dark hair, brown eyes and features handsome enough to grace a male model. She inspected the shape of his mouth and the stubborn set of his chin. She didn't have a perfect memory but she was reasonably confident she would have remembered someone who looked as good as he did.
Her gaze slipped down his chest. The black short-sleeved shirt of his uniform outlined his well-muscled body. He had the build of an athlete. Impressive. Very impressive. Even to someone who had sworn off men and relationships.
"I'm sorry, Officer Haynes," she said, returning her attention to his face. "I don't know who you are."
The faint hints of gray at his temples were the only clue he wasn't as young as he appeared. He didn't look thirty, but she would guess he was several years older than that.
He chose that moment to smile. Lines appeared around his eyes and mouth. His teeth flashed white. He should come with a warning label, she thought as her stomach clenched and her knees threatened to buckle.
Do not operate heavy machinery around this man
. If she hadn't been leaning against the doorframe, she would have collapsed in a heap at his feet.
"I should have been more specific," he said. "Your friend Kim gave me your name. She was going to take care of my kids. She said you would be happy to take her place."
Kids? "Oh, now I remember." Jill smiled. "Of course." She pushed the door open wide. "Sorry. Please come in, and we can talk about this."
"Thanks." He stepped past her into the small entryway. The view from the back was pretty impressive, too, she thought as she gave him a quick once-over. Wide shoulders and the kind of butt most women would kill to have. Why was it men had great butts simply by virtue of being men, while women could aerobicize until their hearts were strong enough to power a freight train but the shape was never quite right? Not that Jill spent all that much time on the treadmill. Still, she thought about it a lot and surely that counted for something.
"In here," she said, motioning for Craig to step into the living room.
He moved with an easy long-legged stride. She felt like a dwarf waddling along behind him. Not that she was heavy. She was just short. And curvy. An unfortunate combination that made her feel like a cuddly kitten in a world full of Barbie dolls.
The perfect creases in his uniform pants, and the carefully trimmed dark hair that stopped just above his collar, made her remember her own disheveled appearance. She touched her short hair and tried to remember how much it had been sticking up the last time she'd looked in a mirror.
"You'll have to excuse me," she said, perching on the edge of the sofa. Craig had chosen the wing chair opposite the fireplace. He leaned forward and placed his uniform cap brim-up on the coffee table. "I've been so busy taking care of things for Kim I haven't had a chance to shower this morning."
She tugged on the hem of her suddenly too-short robe and tried to look mature. She was thirty, but without makeup and tailored clothes, she looked like a teenager. Her mother had told her that in time she would appreciate looking so young, but Jill wasn't sure. She had a bad feeling she was still going to look like a cute, albeit wrinkled, kitten well into her seventies. The tall world did not take short people seriously.
"When did Kim leave?" Craig asked.
"They eloped yesterday." She smiled, remembering her friend's happiness. Kim hadn't been sure it was the right thing to do, but Jill had encouraged her to go. Real love, the forever kind, didn't come around very often. Jill might have had her heart broken more times than any one woman deserved, but she still had faith – for other people, if not for herself.
"It was very romantic," she continued. "Brian hired a limo to take them to the airport. She'd told a few friends, so they were here to see them off."
She stared out the window, but instead of the front yard and the house across the street, she saw the radiant couple. The love between them had been as tangible as the small bouquet Kim had been holding.
"She called last night from
, and they're already married. She should be back in a couple of weeks."
There was a manila folder on top of the glass coffee table. Jill reached for it and flipped it open. There were several sheets of papers covered with careful notes. Lists of people to call, bills to pay, errands to run. She didn't mind. It was the least she could do for a friend. After all, when her life had fallen apart, Kim had offered her a place to stay. Speaking of which, Brian would be moving into Kim's house after the honeymoon. Jill needed to start looking for a place of her own.
Later, she told herself, scanning the list. Craig Haynes. Oh, there he was. Right between canceling a dentist's appointment and checking on the delivery of Kim's new king-size bed.
"Here's the note," she said, then glanced up at Craig.
The police officer had the oddest look on his face. As if he'd never seen anyone like her before. She reached up and fingered the ends of her short hair. Was it sticking up in spikes? Did she still have crumbs from her Pop-Tart toaster pastry around her mouth?
She licked her lips but didn't feel anything. Craig's gaze narrowed and his back stiffened. She almost asked what was wrong, but figured she probably didn't really want to know. She glanced back at the list.
"Jill said you have three boys. Twelve, nine and six. That's really not a problem for me."
She made the statement brightly. Someone who didn't know her wouldn't notice the tightness around the words. No one would be able to feel her heart beating faster. Baby-sitting. There were a thousand other things she would have gladly done for Kim instead, like regrout the shower or put down a tile floor. But she hadn't been given a choice. Still, it was just for a couple of nights. She would survive.
A wave of longing swept over her. She missed her girls. Her fingers tightened on the papers she was holding. They weren't her girls, she reminded herself. She'd just been their stepmother. She must not have been a very good one, either, because ever since the divorce, neither of the girls had wanted to see her. But the pain wasn't enough to stop her from missing them.
"Not so fast," Craig said, leaning forward in the wing chair.
"Hmm? What?" She blinked away the past and focused on the very good-looking man sitting in front of her. "What do you mean?"
"Have you done this sort of thing before?" he asked.
"Taken care of children? Of course. I was a teenager, Officer Haynes. I baby-sat." She thought of mentioning her failed marriage but figured it wasn't his business.
"You're not employed now." It was a statement.
She felt a faint flush on her cheeks. "No. I left my last position a couple of months ago."
"Were you fired?"
"No! Of course not. I just needed to get away. It's more like a leave of absence. I have an open invitation to return if I want to."
His dark gaze held hers. "The name of the company you worked for?"
"McMillian Insurance in
"I know where it is." He pulled a small notebook and pen from his shirt pocket and wrote. "Who did you report to there?"
She gave him the name and phone number, then frowned. "Excuse me, Officer Haynes, but I don't understand why you're interrogating me."
"It's Craig, and I'm not going to trust just anyone with my children."
"I appreciate that. I assure you I'm not a convicted felon and—"
"Are you an accused felon?" The corner of his mouth tilted up with a hint of a smile.
"Not that either. I haven't even had a parking ticket in years. My point is, I'm going to be looking after your children for one or two nights. While I appreciate your diligence, I think you're taking it a little too far. I'm hardly going to be an influential force in their lives."
"Is that what you think? Ms. Bradford—"
"Jill," she interrupted.
He nodded. "Jill, I'm not looking for a baby-sitter. Kim had agreed to be a live-in nanny for my three boys. When she decided to elope, she said you'd take the job."
"Well, she was wrong," Jill said without thinking.
A full-time nanny? That was insane. Absolutely the last thing she wanted was to work with someone else's kids. Okay, she didn't have a job right now, but that was because she wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. She could go back to
. Her condo was sublet, but she could rent another one. Her job was waiting. But that didn't feel right. She didn't want to go back to her old life. That was the point of living with Kim for a few weeks.
Craig moved to the edge of the chair. He rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together, clutching the notebook. "Jill, I'm in a bind. I've interviewed literally a dozen women for the position, and Kim was the only one I thought would work. She was young enough to be able to relate to the children and old enough to maintain discipline. She assured me you had experience with children and would be just as suitable. She also said you'd agreed to take her place."
"I said I would baby-sit. She never told me it was a full-time job. My Lord, you probably want me to live with you and your boys."