Authors: Jennifer Greene
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction
Tender Loving Care
By Jennifer Greene
When tragedy strikes, Zoe Anderson finds herself in the one role she never expected to have: mother. Sharing guardianship of four-year-old twins with sexy Rafe Kirkland is a responsibility she simply cannot accept. Rafe is just going to have to take care of the boys himself.
Rafe’s not prepared to be a single parent either, but deserting the children is not an option—and he’s never been as attracted to a woman as he is to their godmother. He proposes a solution: Zoe and the boys will move in with him, at least until other arrangements can be made. Or until he can convince her to make their temporary family permanent.
Zoe reluctantly agrees to the plan, but even after she loses her heart to the twins, she can’t possibly take that emotional risk with Rafe…
“Snookums!” Thirty-four pounds of OshKosh overalls hurled himself at Zoe, effectively dislodging her ribs for all time. “What’d you bring me? Where’s your suitcase?”
Wishing she could protect them both from an exceedingly nasty world, Zoe Anderson simply held the recently orphaned little boy close. “I came here so fast that I didn’t have time to bring you a present, but we can shop for something together, okay?” Slowly, she unwound the sticky fingers from around her neck and let Aaron slide to the floor.
“Sure. Did you bring Mommy and Daddy?”
That fast, her heart jumped in her throat. For an instant, she couldn’t even speak. “No, honey.” She took a breath. “So where’s your brother? And your grandma?”
“Grandma’s in the kitchen, and Parker’s in the bathtub with Uncle Rafe. You don’t want to see my brother,” Aaron informed her. “You want to see me.”
“I want to see both of you,” Zoe said pleasantly, and gave him another quick hug.
“Grandma said she was going to have a really nice lady come to live with her here, did you know that? Are we going somewhere with you and Uncle Rafe?
what we had for dinner!”
“Macaroni and cheese!”
“No kidding?” Feeling emotionally out of control and overwhelmed, Zoe swallowed. Belatedly noticing that the front door was letting in a cold March wind, she closed it, took off the rakish red felt hat that was one of her favorites and started unbuttoning her coat. Her gaze skimmed the living room. She’d been here for Christmas. At Christmas, Janet and Jonathan had been alive.
Janet had been compulsively neat—now two lampshades hung crookedly; toys were strewn from wall to wall; and a TV set blared, although no one was watching it. One of the twins—undoubtedly Aaron—had recently taken a magic marker to the wall by the stairwell.
“Zoe?” Mrs. Gregor appeared in the kitchen doorway, leaning heavily on her walker. The twins’ grandmother looked tired from the inside out. Her soft complexion was dangerously pale, and tears blurred her eyes when Zoe surged toward her for a hug. Loss and grief dangled between them for that moment; neither said anything.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here yesterday,” Zoe said fiercely. “I felt so bad, but I was out on the water. I never got the message until the night before, and then—”
“Zoe, I understand about your work, you know that. Just thank heavens you’re here now,” Mrs. Gregor said finally.
“You’re all right?”
“Of course she’s all right,” Aaron said irritably. “She’s Grandma. Now that Snookums is here, can we stay up late?”
Zoe glanced past Mrs. Gregor’s shoulder. Janet’s kitchen had always been spotless. Now debris littered every surface, and the counter was piled high with dishes, a measure of how impossible it was for a woman who used a walker to deal with two active four-year-olds. Despair racked her. Decisions had to be made quickly that she simply wasn’t prepared to make. “Mr. Kirkland—”
“Yes, Rafe. He managed to get here yesterday?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Gregor confirmed. “He spent most of the afternoon at the lawyer’s, Zoe. You’ll have to talk with him—he’s upstairs with Parker.”
“I told you that,” Aaron reminded her. “Parker will wait.”
Mrs. Gregor afforded her grandson one censoriously raised eyebrow. “You’re still in trouble with me, young man.”
“Uh-oh. What’d you do?” Zoe asked him.
“Slugged Parker.” Aaron shrugged. “He deserved it.”
“Come on, monster,” Zoe suggested. “We’ll go upstairs together, and you can show me where your brother is.”
where the bathroom is,” he objected.
A piggy-back ride made Aaron willing to get out of his grandmother’s hair for a few minutes. Upstairs, Zoe winced at the look of the twins’ bedroom—sheets and blankets had been fashioned into a makeshift tent; clothes had been tossed every which way. Resolutely, she aimed for the sounds of splashing and laughter coming from the bathroom.
Letting Aaron down, she rapped on the door once, which earned her a bewildered stare from her godchild. The concept of privacy was about as interesting to him as spinach.
“Mrs. Gregor, there was no need for you to climb the stairs. I told you I could handle this…” The wet and weary man who pulled open the door abruptly stopped talking.
“Snookums!” Fast as a flash, Parker leaped naked out of the tub. Zoe dropped to her knees and braced herself just in time for the generous wet hug. Parker and Aaron both had stand-up-straight red hair and freckles and sassy blue eyes, but they had distinguishing characteristics. Parker was the sturdier twin while Aaron was the dreamer, “Gosh, you and Uncle Rafe are both here,” Parker breathed delightedly. “Are we going to have fun or are we going to have fun?”
“We’re going to have colds if you don’t pop back in the water,” she scolded teasingly. Corners, ceilings and walls were dripping. “What is this? You’ve turned the bathroom into a submarine!”
A throat was quietly cleared behind her. “I had the misguided notion that a bath was a relatively simple project.”
As Parker hopped back in the tub, Zoe stood up to take a good look at the man whose leg Aaron was hanging on to for dear life. Over the past few days, she’d talked to Rafe Kirkland on the phone three times, but she had only met him once—six years ago at Janet and Jonathan’s wedding. She still remembered the bold angular features, the natural assurance, the blue eyes that pounced on a woman.
Those eyes were pouncing on her now. Allowing two boys near water at the same time was an error in judgment that resulted in whoops of giggling and splashing confusion. For that moment, Zoe heard none of it. She felt Rafe’s gaze intimately slide over her from head to toe, and straightened.
The pregnant silence crackling between them echoed with man-to-woman vibrations. Perhaps she should have been prepared for that? At the wedding long ago, Zoe had been a frisky twenty, more than happy to indulge in champagne and exercise her flirting skills on Jonathan’s best man. She wasn’t about to apologize for being a carefree twenty once upon a time, but that wasn’t the image she wanted to convey to Rafe now.
Her appearance accurately reflected the capable twenty-six-year-old woman she had become. Her hair was a warm chestnut with streaks of copper; she wore it short and windswept-casual, the best style for her profession as an oceanographer. Her black sweater and white slacks accented her slim figure without being too tight—Zoe didn’t own clothing she couldn’t move in.
She never bothered with much makeup; her skin always had the blush of the sun, and lipstick was useless—she bit it off. Today, as usual, she’d brushed on a little mascara, conceding to vanity over her best feature—huge oval eyes that were the luminous green of the ocean on a clear day.
His eyes were definitely Paul Newman blue. She remembered that. She also remembered a man determined to follow his own rhythms on a crowded dance floor; she remembered him filling her champagne glass far too often. She remembered feeling out of her league as far as flirtation skills went, and exulting in a false sensation of danger where there really was none—at the time he was working in South America, and she never expected to see him again.
Neither the hazy memories nor the recent phone calls had prepared her for the impact of actually seeing him. He was too tall, and his shoulders were too big for a small bathroom. His jeans advertised virility and his rolled-up shirt cuffs showed off sinewed arms. He had the vitality of a man who valued the physical. The lumberjack physique was accented by a face that revealed a strong character. Sun-weathered skin stretched taut over angular bones; his eyes were sharp with intelligence and perception. No one was going to argue with that chin.
He would be a demanding lover, she mused, and immediately banished the thought. Sexy was fine. Not relevant and a little disturbing, but fine. That didn’t matter…it couldn’t.
She searched Rafe’s face for what did matter—signs of flexibility in him, hints of understanding and compassion. The slash of laugh lines around his mouth promised humor, but he wasn’t smiling now. She looked for any clues that would help her reach him, discovered a woman could get lost in those compelling blue eyes, and felt abruptly uneasy.
For Zoe, Rafe represented more trouble than she knew what to do with. He was a relative stranger. He was also the man who had been named to share the guardianship of the twins with her.
“This place suit you?”
Zoe shook her head. “Any place is all right by me.” Ten o’clock now, and the Detroit night was pitch black. At the Gregor household, Mrs. Gregor and the twins were finally asleep. Through the confusion of the past several hours, Zoe and Rafe hadn’t had a chance to exchange more than a few words, much less discuss the subject on both their minds. At the house, she’d simply taken over. So had Rafe. Neither had had any choice.
Both faces reflected strain and weariness as Rafe drove into the bar’s parking lot. Both of them had wanted to get away from the house, to a place where they could talk more freely.
The flashing sign said Leeds. Zoe only hoped the place was reasonably quiet. She opened the car door and wrapped her coat tighter around her against the biting March wind. Rafe walked at her side, both of them silent.
Inside, the bar was dark and nearly empty. Candles flickered from red jars on each table, and a ruddy-faced bartender was silently wiping glasses behind the counter. Several men played poker in a far corner; two women were drinking coffee at a small table; and a few couples were buried in booths against the wall.
Disorientation flooded Zoe. None of this was real. She didn’t know this place, this man, this town. Her best friend simply couldn’t be dead, not so fast, not so young. And the twins…there was no possible way she could take on the care and raising of two four-year-olds. She couldn’t take on any children. Ever.
Rafe steered her to a corner booth. “You want a drink?”
“Maybe coffee.” As Rafe strode toward the bar, she pushed her coat off her shoulders and cupped her chin in one hand, bracing her nerves for the confrontation she knew was coming.
Over the past few hours, she’d learned all kinds of things about his character that she would never have guessed. He was completely unfamiliar with kids—that was obvious from the state of the bathroom after Parker’s bath. Still, with his slow, lazy baritone, Rafe had a way of soothing tempers and averting the skirmishes that the little boys were so good at starting. Patience flowed in and around him while Zoe’s nerves were jangling. She’d discovered that he was capable of being in three places at once, that he did it without ever moving fast, and that nothing deterred him from a course once he’d decided what he wanted to do.
Rafe was a rock, which was very nice for anyone who wasn’t disagreeing with him. It counted heavily in his favor that he was good with the boys, but Zoe hadn’t noticed any of those easy smiles of his directed toward her.
Carrying a tall stein of beer and a steaming mug of coffee, he maneuvered around tables back to their booth. Pushing the coffee toward her, he eased his long body into the opposite side. She took a sip of the acid brew; he took a long draft of his beer. That ended that. “What the
” he said slowly, “are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“They had no right to do this to us.”
She nodded. “I agree.”
He was quiet a long time. His gaze wandered over the poker players, then the two women, but when his eyes focused back on Zoe she felt disturbingly pinned. “I spent the afternoon talking to the attorney for the estate,” he said. “We’re not legally obligated to make a home for the twins. Neither of us signed anything. Ethically, morally and legally, being guardians simply means supervising the caretaking of the children.”
“Yes.” She understood. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter. Two small children had lost both their parents and had their entire world turned upside down in less than a week. Zoe couldn’t have cared less about legalities.
“One option would be to hire a woman to live full-time with Mrs. Gregor and help her take care of them.”
“An option,” Zoe echoed, but she knew that Mrs. Gregor couldn’t assume even a supervisory role for the kids. Her health was just too precarious.
“So,” Rafe said slowly, “are you willing to look at any of the alternative options?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He clipped out a swear word, conveying his frustration. “Neither am I.”
More silence. The bartender stopped wiping glasses long enough to lean on the bar and speak to a woman who had just walked in. The lady wore a sapphire-blue dress with a long slit in the skirt that showed her thigh when she slid onto the bar stool. Zoe wondered vaguely if they were on the wrong side of town.
Her eyes swung back to the man across from her. Every time she looked at him, she could easily picture him climbing out of a woman’s bed. But she couldn’t imagine him handling two volatile, energetic four-year-olds on a permanent basis.
Unfortunately he had to, because she couldn’t. For a moment, Zoe concentrated on making swirls in her coffee with a plastic spoon.
She’d loved Janet like a sister…more than a sister. For the past few days, grief over her friend’s death had alternated with anger and frustration. If Janet had asked her to be guardian for the twins, Zoe would have said no. Janet knew exactly why Zoe would never have agreed to take on any children…just as Zoe knew there’d been no relatives on whom Janet and Jonathan could depend.
If both she and Rafe declined the guardianship, the little ones could end up in an orphanage or foster home. The thought made Zoe ill.
She pushed back her hair, leaned her chin in her palm and stopped fussing with her coffee. “I have a good job,” she said quietly. “I could save money by moving to a smaller apartment. I’m not trying to get out of my financial responsibilities here—I wouldn’t. If you take the twins, I’ll foot the bill for a full-time babysitter, and I’ll pay for their schooling. They could visit me during vacations and on holidays, and—”
He swiftly interrupted her. “There’s no possible way I can take them. I told you that on the phone.”