Pattie uttered this command from the door of her home office, pausing one horrified instant before flying across the room to block the bookcase atop her desk with her arms. “Just‑‑stay right there.”
Tristan whimpered. Pattie’s two-and-a-half year-old nephew had somehow stuffed himself into the top shelf of the bookcase. Resembling some oversized and poorly considered knick-knack, he lay in between her mother’s crystal candlesticks and a macumba mask from her pre-business-owner trip to Brazil.
How he’d managed to get himself into such a position was beyond Pattie’s imagination. How to get him out again was not very firmly in her imagination, either. He was about six feet up.
“Of all the‑‑ Let’s see. Maybe I can…climb onto the desk…” The candlesticks were goners, Pattie understood. The macumba mask probably wouldn’t survive the rescue either.
Hiking up her narrow skirt, she placed a foot on the cushion of her desk chair, then maneuvered her other knee onto the top of the desk. As she put her weight on that knee, however, she heard an ominous crack. Along with the bookcase, the desk already held two computers and four monitors. Pattie herself, though athletically built, was five feet ten and no featherweight.
“Damn cheap Ikea furniture,” she grumbled.
“Damn!” Tristan echoed. “Damn, damn, damn!”
Pattie groaned. Parenting was definitely not her forté. After taking her eyes off her nephew long enough for him to get into this fix, she was now teaching him a few cuss words for good measure.
“Please forget I said that,” she muttered. “At least don’t practice it, okay, while I go get the stepladder.” But as Pattie started to ease off the desk, Tristan began to wiggle off the shelf.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, halting in her half-on, half-off position. Did the child have a death wish? “Please, kid, don’t move.”
Tristan stared at her with his dark brown eyes, eyes that were so much like Nick’s. Suppressing the self-disgust that thoughts of Nick stirred, Pattie stared back. As they settled into this stand-off, the chimes of Pattie’s doorbell echoed through the apartment.
The nanny. “Damn,” Pattie whispered. The nanny, whom the agency had told her was her ‘last chance.’ The one she’d wanted to impress that taking care of Tristan wouldn’t be such an impossible job, after all.
“Damn,” Tristan replied. “Wanna get down.” He began to wiggle off the shelf again.
“No!” Pattie cried, and held up her hands. She wouldn’t be able to catch him if he fell off the shelf. Meanwhile the desk beneath her gave another threatening creak.
Utter helplessness. The sensation settling over her was one she’d rarely experienced before her nephew had entered her life.
Now it caught her at least ten times a day.
Dammit, she couldn’t finish this rescue by herself. Fortunately…
“Hello?” she called, wondering if the nanny could hear her through the exterior wall of the adjacent dining room.
“Hello?” a deep, male voice answered.
Pattie blinked. Oh, yeah. The agency had told her they were sending a man. He was the very best they had, they’d warned Pattie, the implication being if she let her charge drive this one off, they had nobody else to offer her.
“Hello?” The male nanny’s voice carried strong and clear once again. It was a deep voice, too deep really, for a young man.
Frowning, Pattie called out again. “I can’t get to the door‑‑” But she needed the nanny in here. He could prevent Tristan from falling off the shelf while she ran to get the stepladder from the kitchen. “There’s a spare key,” she remembered. “Under the Tiki god!”
There followed a silence of apparent confusion. Nearly a dozen figurines nestled by the front door on the second-floor landing. Would the nanny know which was a Tiki god?
He must have, for she heard the too-deep voice again. “Found it.”
Hallelujah. “Great! Let yourself in‑‑” But Pattie could hear the front door already opening. The nanny appeared to own some initiative, which was a good thing, as Tristan was wiggling treacherously close to the edge of the shelf. A crystal candlestick wobbled. He was perched on disaster.
“Wait!” Pattie demanded, and waved her hands at the kid.
To her surprise, Tristan waited. In fact, he went absolutely still. His gaze shot past her.
A man who was definitely not a nanny stood in the open doorway of her home office. One of her downstairs neighbor’s hotshot lawyer friends? No, even in the semi-casual clothes‑‑tan chinos, a dark shirt, and a deeper tan zip-up jacket, he looked beyond that. With light-colored eyes in a face of hard-knocks experience, he could have been anything from a shark of high finance to a mafia henchman.
Damn. He’d be no use at all.
All the same, he strode into the room. With a twitch of his lips, he came to a stop in front of Pattie’s desk. From there, he reached up and plucked Tristan out of the shelf.
The crystal candlesticks wobbled, then settled back into their places. The macumba mask from Brazil spun once, and fell gently onto its side. Without uttering even a small grunt of effort, the man set Tristan down on the Persian rug.
Tristan gave the man one petrified regard, then scrammed. His sneakers could be heard scurrying down the hall.
The man who was definitely not a nanny raised his eyebrows and turned to face Pattie. He was a big and solid guy, at least four or five inches taller than herself. Powerful. For a moment, very brief‑‑and surprising‑‑she felt awareness of him. It was a moment that felt like a punch.
He smiled. “Patricia Bowen, I presume?”
Pattie’s mouth opened. How did the shark know her name?
“Zane Kincaid.” He held out his hand. “Your new nanny. Or manny, if you prefer.”
Oh, no. He couldn’t be. This man looked like he belonged behind the prosecutor’s table in a murder trial, or smoking cigars in the back room of some high-ranking politician. Meanwhile, the man who couldn’t be her nanny stood with his hand held out as if he fully expected her to buy this rot.
Worst of all, he looked as if, behind that smile, he was laughing at her.
Uncharacteristic heat suffused her face. She supposed, being objective, it was funny. She’d just allowed her ward to wedge himself onto a shelf like a spare dictionary, she’d had to shout through the dining room wall to tell the nanny where to find her spare key, and she was still perched with one foot on her office chair and the other on her desktop.
But she wasn’t in the mood to laugh at herself. Besides, it wasn’t as if any of this was really her. She wasn’t a parent; she was a businesswoman. Her real life was hustling her website design company, expanding her client base, and winning awards. Efficiency and success.
Meanwhile, it was impossible to scramble down from her desk with any pretense of grace. It didn’t help when the guy reached out to help her, a big hand under her elbow as she stumbled back onto her feet. A strong hand. Her five feet ten didn’t even make it tremble.
Pattie let out a deep breath, determined to grab back her pride. Casually straightening her blouse, she gave the way-too-old nanny a firm smile before holding out her hand. “Things aren’t always this crazy around here,” she claimed, straight-faced.
The hint of his laugh blossomed into the real thing.
She could tell she was blushing again, dammit. Okay, things were crazy. How else were they supposed to be? She’d inherited Savannah’s impossible child three months ago. There’d been no warning, no possibility for preparation, and Pattie certainly had no previous experience with parenthood. God knew, she felt for the poor kid, but still‑‑ It had been like a volcano going off in the middle of her life.
And she wasn’t even Tristan’s closest relative. It was his father, wasn’t it, who should be dealing with all this?
Yes, Nick should be the one handling this problem.
But Nick wasn’t here right now. “I’d better go find Tristan,” Pattie realized, “before he gets into more trouble.”
Zane Kincaid shrugged. “I doubt he’ll have the stomach for another escapade for, oh, twenty minutes or so.”
He doubted it, did he? He was an instant expert on Tristan Bowen, was he? Zane Kincaid appeared to think he was, for he gifted her with a knowing grin.
Pattie narrowed her eyes. The grin said he knew more than she did. Of course, he probably actually did. Pretty much anyone knew more about kids than she. But the grin still got to her.
“Twenty minutes?” she said. “Oh, good. That will give us just enough time for our interview.”
Interview? a voice screeched in her head. As if she had a choice about hiring the guy? She had a client coming at two with a check she badly needed‑‑for a website she hadn’t yet completed. She’d lost six nannies in the three months she’d contracted with NannyOntheGo. She wasn’t exactly in the beggars-can-be-choosers market here. She had to take what she could get.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t make him squirm a little first. Yeah, she’d like to wipe that grin of his face.
“Why don’t you have a seat?” She indicated the cushioned sofa she kept in the room for clients. She sat in the desk chair and swiveled away from her desk to face him.
Looking amused, the man sat on her sofa. He crossed one ankle over the opposite knee, like he didn’t have to impress anybody here.
Pattie put on her professional smile, then quickly crossed one leg over the other to conceal a shallow, two-inch cut she saw on her knee, probably a result of her bout with the Ikea desk. To Kinkaid she said, “Why don’t you tell me something about your background?”
“My ‘background?'” Eyes oh-so-innocent, he reached into his zip-up jacket. “What, exactly, would you like to know?”
Pattie watched in confusion as he removed a finger-length toy train engine from his jacket. She blinked as he set the toy on his crossed leg and began to run it up and down his thigh.
“Uh. Ahem.” She forced her gaze up from the tan chinos and the muscles she could see under them. “How about telling me how you were previously employed?” Stockbroker, corporate raider‑‑Olympic runner?
“Ah, you would be referring to Emma Goldstein.” he said.
The toy engine went up and down the chinos. “I not only got her two-year-old daughter toilet-trained, but taught her the alphabet. A very pleased client, Emma Goldstein.”
“Oh, really? And you’re no longer with her because…?”
“Her daughter started preschool.” There was a suspicious glint in the manny’s eyes. “After Emma, I worked for Sophia Dawani. She was so happy with my services she asked me to move with her family when they relocated to Scottsdale last month.” He smiled. “But I’m based in L.A.”
“Hmm.” Pattie’s top leg began swinging up and down. Meanwhile, the manny set the toy train engine on the sofa, about a foot from himself. Only then did Pattie notice Tristan was standing in the hall, half hidden by the door frame. His gaze fixed on the manny.
So that’s what Kincaid had been up to with the toy train engine. Getting Tristan out from hiding. Engaging with him. Something suspiciously like admiration curled through Pattie. Her leg swung from side to side now. She didn’t want to admire the manny. She wanted to find something wrong with him, something to put her back on an equal footing with the guy‑‑or even give her an excuse not to hire him at all.
She had a feeling that something could be found in whatever explanation he gave for playing at mannying. With his high-powered demeanor and well-educated looks, Pattie was certain he ought to be plying some other trade. What trade had that been, and why wasn’t he still at it?
While she attempted to frame the question, Tristan inched into the room. Pattie watched in fascination as he crept slowly toward the train engine.
“Uh…I don’t believe NannyOntheGo mentioned your…training.” Pattie did her best to avoid looking at Tristan. The kid was actually approaching an adult?
“I don’t have any.” Cheerfully admitting this, Zane set one arm along the back of the sofa. “I just seem to have a knack for taking care of kids.”
“So you don’t have any children of your own?”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second. “I don’t.”
There was something there, in that answer… But Pattie knew a brick wall when she saw one. Might as well cut to the chase. “What did you do before you became a manny?”
His eyebrows shot upward, as if it were legitimate to be shocked by the question. Meanwhile, Tristan slipped up to the sofa, put out his hand, and laid it over the train engine that sat a little apart from Kincaid. Very slowly, Tristan made the toy roll.
Zane, with his eyes on Pattie, walked his fingers down the sofa toward Tristan. Suddenly, his hand pounced, closing over Tristan’s with the train engine. A growl came from his throat.
Tristan screamed. Zane grabbed the boy. There was another scream and a tussle. Pattie jumped to her feet. Before she could do anything to stop the assault, the pair ended with Zane on his side on the sofa, Tristan clasped in his arms.
The kid was laughing.
Pattie stood transfixed. Tristan wasn’t merely smiling‑‑something she’d never seen him do. He was outright laughing, his face aglow, cheeks red, eyes sparkling. He looked…happy.
An odd sensation tingled through her. To see the kid happy‑‑finally‑‑hit a spot deep inside. Three months ago Tristan had lost his mother, his home, and any comfort of routine. For three months she’d watched helplessly as the child spiraled ever deeper into a defiant, angry funk.
In about five minutes, this man had made Tristan a kid again.
The tingling sensation intensified. An interview? Who was she kidding?
The guy was a godsend.
Zane knew it, too. His light-colored eyes looked into Pattie’s with pure confidence. He knew Tristan’s situation. He knew Pattie needed him.
He knew way too much.
It occurred to Pattie that her sister Savannah would have enjoyed the situation to the hilt, if she were still alive to see it. Pattie-the-capable, Pattie-the-independent was totally floundering. She needed help so desperately she was going to have to take it from this insufferable know-it-all. Savannah had loved seeing Pattie put where Savannah thought Pattie belonged: down.
Why Savannah, the pet of their parents, had felt it necessary to put Pattie down might have looked mysterious, but Pattie had understood the impulse very well, had probably understood it even better than Savannah had. Unfortunately, her understanding had only made Savannah more determined than ever to crush her younger sister.
In death she was managing the mission better than she ever had in life‑‑with one possible exception.
Now Pattie let out her breath slowly. This man was‑‑no. There had to be someone else‑‑anybody else‑‑who could make Tristan laugh.
Before Pattie had to conclude there was no such person, her doorbell chimed. She shot to her feet. At least she had an excuse to postpone her surrender.
“Excuse me.” Trying to look like she wasn’t retreating, she strode from her office for the front door. She heard the tussle resume as soon as her back was turned. “I’m gonna get ya” and “No, you ain’t” preceded scuffles and screeches.
Pattie hoped her office wouldn’t be destroyed while she was gone, but she had a feeling‑‑an oddly sinking sensation‑‑that Zane Kincaid was far too effective to let such a calamity occur.
Pattie’s landlord and downstairs neighbor was at the door. Michael Derby was tall, thin, and always expensively clad, even when he was wearing nothing fancier than jogging pants.
Today he was wearing a ‘casual’ ensemble of pleated trousers and button-down shirt that had probably set him back a thousand dollars. His shaved head gleamed in the West Los Angeles sunshine.
“Postman was early today,” Michael said. As he handed Pattie a stack of envelopes, his gaze went past her shoulder. “Who’s the cute guy?”
“My manny.” In the background, Pattie could hear Zane still playing with Tristan. She inwardly moaned, realizing she’d described the guy as if she’d already hired him.
“A manny,” Michael’s attention instantly sharpened. “Can I meet him?”
Bringing up her mail had clearly been an excuse. “I thought you were dating Todd.”
“Oh, I am.” Michael grinned. “But you can’t blame a guy for looking.”
Pattie opened her mouth to tell Michael he needn’t bother wasting energy on an obnoxious know-it-all, then decided to hold her tongue. She stepped back from the door. “Be my guest. They’re in my office.”
Pattie watched Michael saunter down the hall while telling herself she wasn’t being vindictive. Siccing Michael on Zane wasn’t a cheap effort to get even with Zane for making her feel incompetent. Besides, the manny might even be gay. But she was smiling with decidedly feline satisfaction as she glanced down at the mail Michael had handed her.
Her smile dropped as soon as she took in the top envelope. “Refused,” was scrawled over the front of the certified letter, the one she’d sent last week. Nick hadn’t even opened it. He hadn’t even accepted delivery.
Oh, boy. This was the last straw. Whatever irritation she’d felt toward Zane Kincaid multiplied, sharpened, and shifted toward this far more familiar object.
Why should her life be in upheaval while Nick got away without even opening her letters?
It was the more infuriating in that Pattie felt she’d gone overboard in the restraint department. She had a lot to feel angry about, but she’d been patient. She understood it had been a shock to everyone, herself included, when Savannah had died at that nightclub party.
But Nick wasn’t suffering from shock. More like a severe case of deadbeat-itis. He’d never answered one of Pattie’s phone calls, phone calls made with an heroic display of diplomacy. He hadn’t replied to her emails, similarly self-controlled. So last week Pattie had sent the certified letter.
A father was closer in blood than an aunt. Nick should have custody of Tristan. Nick should be the one dealing with overblown nannies. Nick should be the one doing the job of parent.
Pattie’s fingers crushed the returned envelope. That bum could refuse to answer a phone, or even open a certified letter, but he couldn’t refuse to see Pattie if she were standing right in front of him. Especially if she were standing right in front of him with Tristan’s hand in hers. His son.
Reason tried to rear its ugly head, but three months of turmoil and frustration stamped it down, mixed with an embarrassingly large dose of bitterness and the unhappy prospect of having to hire Mr. Zane Kincaid. It was time for Nick to step up to the plate.
Pattie whirled. She stalked down the hall.
In her office, Zane was chatting with Michael while holding Tristan around his neck. The kid was alternately struggling and giggling. Everyone stopped talking and stared when Pattie swept into the room.
“We’re going to the Getty Center,” she announced.
Michael’s lips made an ‘O.’ He knew who worked at the Getty Center Museum. Meanwhile, Zane’s brows dove downward and Tristan’s smile transformed into an expression that looked like the precursor to a cry.
Way to go, Pattie. Succeeding in the parent department, as always. She was terrifying the kid, poor thing. Trying her best to modulate her tone, she nevertheless heard it come out as flinty as before. “We have to leave now.” Nick. How dare he refuse to deal with this, especially when‑‑when‑‑he was saddling Pattie with it? Had the man no shame?
“‘We’ do?” Zane queried.
“Tristan and I. Come on, Tristan.” Pattie held out her hand toward the boy. She was going to get his father to acknowledge him. That’s right. In forty-five minutes she could be parking in the Getty lot, another fifteen from there to Nick’s office. She could have this out within the hour.
Meanwhile, Tristan grabbed Zane’s forearm. His lower lip puffed out. It was an expression Pattie had come to know well. It meant ‘no fucking way.’
Her face began to heat. She was learning that when grown-ups made plans, kids destroyed them. But Tristan had to come with her. It was time‑‑past time‑‑for Nick to meet his son. “Come on, Tristan. We need to leave. Now.” It occurred to Pattie, dimly, that she’d have to cancel her client meeting‑‑and postone getting the check she needed. But…too bad. This showdown with Nick was three months overdue.
“No!” Tristan scuttled further behind Zane.
“Is this some kind of emergency?” Zane eyed Pattie warily.
“Yes.” Seeing the returned envelope had been the last straw. Nick wasn’t going to weasel out of his responsibilities one more day. “Come on, Tristan.” Then made the mistake of stepping toward the boy.
Without warning, he slipped all the way past Zane and down the back of the sofa.
Pattie stared at the spot Tristan had been. He was under the sofa now. She could hear him slithering down there. How the heck was she going to get him out? It would be impossible, even if she were willing to crawl on the ground in her tight business skirt.
Feeling that increasingly familiar, and increasingly unpleasant, helplessness, Pattie stared at the bottom of the sofa.
“I’ll get him,” Zane said quietly.
Oh, he would, would he? Did he have magic power? Incredulous, she stared at him. He stared back.
Behind her, Michael nervously shifted weight.
“Find your car keys and your purse,” Zane instructed. “I’ll have the boy ready by the time you are.”
Pattie hesitated. Dammit, he probably would. So far he’d demonstrated remarkable talent with Tristan. She should feel grateful.
Instead, she felt shame. She hated accepting help. she hated needing it. She particularly hated the respectful power Mr. Kincaid managed to project. She should be the one able to take on that role.
But she wasn’t. In fact, she was so weak she was going to have to let Kincaid get Tristan out from under the sofa.
God. She was useless.
“Fine,” Pattie returned, clipped. She whirled toward her desk. There she grabbed her car keys, her purse‑‑and the paternity testing kit for which she’d paid $99.99. She wasn’t about to forget the whole point of this little trip. Nick was going to admit, like it or not, his role in Tristan’s existence in the world.
Slipping the paternity kit into her large purse, she turned around.
Michael had already flown the arena. But Zane stood by the office door with Tristan’s hand caught in his. The kid gazed at Pattie with sullen distrust.
“We’re ready to go,” Zane said.
We are? thought Pattie, mentally stumbling. She hadn’t realized‑‑hadn’t considered‑‑Zane thought he should come along?
She let out a breath. Well, of course he thought he should come along. The chances of another disaster between herself and Tristan were astronomical. Face it. If she wanted to make it to the Getty Center and confront Nick in his hilltop office, she was going to have to take Zane.
Hiking her purse over her shoulder, Pattie swallowed her pride, something that was becoming quite a habit recently. “Fine,” she told Zane. “Let’s go.”
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