Risa poured pancake batter into the sizzling skillet as Grace banged Tupperware together in her portable high chair. Risa had never realized how much furniture babies needed, nor that it was all so fold-able. Until Janine had shown up yesterday with what looked like enough baby equipment for quintuplets.
"Are the pancakes almost ready?" Natalie shuffled a bowl of fruit across the kitchen table.
"Soon, sweetie." She’d told Natalie and Jason they could use raisins and sliced strawberries and bananas to make pancake faces. At least this time her promise had involved fruit. She’d worried after the hamburgers yesterday and the lure of ice cream to get Natalie to nap that she was inadvertently contributing to future eating disorders.
Natalie made little puttering noises as she navigated the bowl around, but Jason sat looking bored and irritated, sighing every few seconds for effect. Risa knew why he was annoyed with her. The first thing he’d done after waking up from his nap yesterday was ask when Jack would return with the on-loan game system. As gently as possible, she’d explained that she wasn’t sure Jack would be able to borrow it after all. Jason must have sensed she had somehow messed up the arrangement because he’d been sulky with her ever since.
She flipped a flapjack, trying to come up with something fun they could do after school that wouldn’t be so extravagant it spoiled them for when their mother returned. "Jason, can you open the front door and bring in the newspaper?" Maybe she’d find an idea in the About Town section.
With another dramatic sigh that heaved his entire six year old frame, he headed for the door.
Risa pulled out three plates, which she handed to Natalie. "Do you want milk?"
Natalie shook her head. "Orange juice, please."
"What about your brother?"
"Only drinks chocolate milk."
Another item for the grocery trip she’d make while the kids were in school. She needed to replace Grace’s diaper bag, anyway.
Natalie sat half on, half off one of the chairs. "After breakfast, can you French braid my hair?"
"Sure." I think. At least that wasn’t something she had to worry about with Jason.
Speaking of which… Where was he? "Jason? Breakfast is ready."
Her front door slammed, then another door, inside her apartment. Maybe he had to use the restroom. A few seconds later, he appeared, whispered something to Natalie, then tugged on her arm.
Risa frowned. "Where are you two going?"
"We didn’t brush our teeth," Jason said.
"You do that after breakfast."
"I have yucky breath. I want to do it before and after."
"Well, hurry, I don’t want you to be late for school."
The kids rushed toward the bathroom, and for a second she was pleased they’d taken her admonishment to heart. But then it occurred to her that they were awfully giddy, not to mention secretive, for two kids brushing their teeth. She decided to investigate but had made it no farther than the edge of the kitchen when the doorbell rang.
"Coming!" The plot thickens. "Mrs. Carmichael. What brings you by so early?"
"Pierpont. My poodle," the elderly woman from 7-D elaborated needlessly. "We were headed out for our morning constitutional when I realized I’d forgotten the scooper. I left him in the hall for just a second, and—"
Loud whispering came from the guest bathroom, accompanied by an excited, high-pitched yip.
"Pierpont!" Gasping, Mrs. Carmichael paled and pressed a hand to her ample bosom. "I just want him returned to me safely."
Sheesh—it wasn’t as if the kids were holding the dog for ransom. She hoped.
Brother and sister appeared in the hallway, with the unmitigated gall to wear expressions of wide-eyed innocence.
"Give Mrs. Carmichael back her dog," Risa commanded. Be firm without yelling. "Right. Now."
She’d apparently achieved the right tone, because there were no arguments or lies. Jason simply reached behind him and opened the door. Pierpont bounded out, no worse for the wear, ran a lap around Risa’s living room, then darted to his distraught owner.
Jason glared at Mrs. Carmichael. "He was all alone in the hall, like he needed a home. Mikey Baxter and his family took in a stray dog. You can do that with dogs you find."
Pierpont, overfed and wearing blue ear-bows and a collar with a shiny gold tag, was no one’s idea of a suffering stray. "Tell Mrs. Carmichael you’re sorry for making her worry."
Neither of them glanced up from the carpet. "Sorry."
Mrs. Carmichael sniffed and pivoted on her heel, apparently wanting to flee the scene before her precious baby was further traumatized.
Morning sun spilled across Jack’s kitchen table as he sipped his coffee and listened to the smoke alarm next door. In other circumstances, he might have checked to see if his neighbor needed help, but he could piece together what had happened. He’d been retrieving his morning paper when Risa’s door creaked open, and he’d ducked inside, not wanting to see her after she’d tossed him out yesterday. Not a minute later, Mrs. Carmichael had knocked on his door, frantically asking if he’d seen poor Pierpont. He’d suggested she try next door.
Probably breakfast had burned while Risa was dealing with Mrs. Carmichael and the children. She didn’t need his help—even if part of him wanted the excuse to see her again. When the smoke alarm quit, the sudden quiet was jarring, making his thoughts echo too loudly in his head. Thoughts he’d rather not have about Risa Alexander. The woman left him feeling as fractured as a virus-ridden hard drive.
Stay away from her. She’s engaged! To the wrong guy.
Not that Jack was anyone’s "right guy."
Why remarry and give a second wife the chance to one day announce she couldn’t keep vows to a defective husband? He set his coffee down with a thud, the two spoonfuls of sugar he’d used no match against the bitterness rising in him. He knew plenty of men who didn’t want commitment, didn’t want to be tied down. Men who cringed if their girlfriends or wives missed a period, then waited in terror to find out what color the stick was. And yet Jack, who’d always dreamed of a big family, was sterile. Fury over the boyhood accident wouldn’t change matters, no more than fury over his divorce would bring back Amy—not that he still wanted her back. He’d recovered from the initial heartbreak, but not the sense of betrayal. She’d known when she married him…
Stupid, senseless playground accident. The fall had caused trauma to the groin area, and the doctor had warned Jack’s mother Jack might never father children of his own. Long before Jack had proposed to Amy, he’d been tested, discovered the grim prediction held true. He’d been honest with her, made sure she was okay with adopting one day. She’d said she loved him so much it didn’t matter. But years later, between the loud ticking of her own biological clock and the stressful red tape of the adoption agency, she’d changed her mind.
All of that was ancient history, though, and there was plenty of stress to be found at the office without hiking his blood pressure before he even started his day. He would go to work, throw himself into his job, and not waste time on thoughts of divorce or irrevocable medical conditions.
And he certainly wouldn’t dwell on Risa Alexander.
Steering the van away from the pick-up zone at the elementary school, Risa experienced a stab of irrational malice toward the unseen Mikey Baxter.
"It’s not fair." Jason sniffled in the back seat. "Mrs. Lannister gave him a gold star for bringing his dumb old hermit crab to show and tell. Why does he get to have a hermit crab and a dog and a cat…and a-a father?"
Her heart splintered.
From beside Jason in her booster seat, Natalie began to cry in a fit of sibling empathy.
Figures. Risa had spent the better part of the day trying to get a teething Grace to stop crying. Now that the baby was sleeping in her car seat, the two older ones were going at it. Risa didn’t blame them a bit, though. She knew how hard it was to lose a parent. Maggie had been her world.
Since her mom’s death, Risa had felt like an outsider looking in, but being with Janine and her kids helped. They treated her like she belonged. She’d do anything for them.
"I need to stop by the bank, but after that, do you guys want to grab milkshakes?" Shoot. She was probably breaking nutrition ordinances again.
Her reply was two half-hearted, "okays." They really were in a bad way if milkshakes didn’t help.
Risa navigated traffic and turned into the mall parking lot, where the small local branch of her bank was situated. The parking lot was more crowded than usual, with a temporary, carnivals taking up space. She almost asked the kids if they’d like to ride the Ferris Wheel or something, but she couldn’t safely supervise by riding with them with baby Grace in tow.
Natalie sighed, and Risa steeled herself for the inevitable request.
"Aunt Risa, could we have cotton candy instead of milkshakes?"
"Sure!" Relieved that she didn’t have to say no to two already depressed kids, Risa caught Jason’s eye in the rearview mirror. "Cotton candy okay with you, buddy?"
"Don’t care. Whatever Nat wants."
Once Risa finished at the bank, the four of them strolled across the pavement to the nearest food vendor. While she juggled her purse and Grace’s car seat, Jason began hopping up and down.
"Look! Look there!"
Following his pointed finger, she saw a man in overalls who had parked a truck next to the carnival booths. A sign hung from the tailgate, proclaiming "Turtles for Sale." A variety of aquariums sat in the bed of the truck.
"Can we see?" Natalie asked.
Jason’s brown eyes took on a determined gleam. "Mikey Baxter doesn’t have a turtle."
But Mikey had a dad. Hoping Janine wouldn’t kill her later, Risa said crisply, "Let’s go pick ourselves out a turtle."
Her decision was met with squeals of delight &mash; hard to believe these were the same two kids who had looked like the "before" picture in a Prozac ad only minutes ago.
Janine was reasonable. She’d probably be thrilled Jason had finally wanted a pet to which Natalie wouldn’t be allergic. If Janine did object, Risa could keep it at her place for the kids to visit. Yeah, because I always wanted a reptile for the apartment. Then again, maybe she should view this as an ounce of prevention. Having the turtle around should drastically reduce the number of poodle abductions in her building.
By ten p.m., Risa had run through her entire bag of tricks—numbing gel, teethers, medicine dropper, pacifiers. Nothing would calm the screaming baby. Meanwhile, Jason and Natalie, who should have been in bed by eight-thirty on school nights, were tired and cranky. Their fatigue led to arguing, which led to Jason pushing Natalie. The little spitfire responded by picking up a hardcover mystery from Risa’s coffee table and bashing her brother in the skull with it.
"Okay!" Her voice was louder than she’d intended, but how else would anyone hear her? "Everyone back in their beds! If you can’t sleep because of Grace, just read a book or something."
How did Janine do this all the time? Risa was happier than ever that she’d insisted on her friend’s vacation, recalling how relaxed Janine had sounded when she’d called to talk to her kids after dinner. Thoughts of the phone led to thoughts of help. Could she call Phillip, beg him to take a shift walking the crying infant? If she was engaged to marry the man, shouldn’t she be comfortable asking him for personal favors?
Marriage…parenthood. Seeing him with the kids might give her a more concrete idea of the kind of father he’d be. She should definitely call him.
Relieved to have a plan, she dialed his cell phone number, uncertain whether he was home or working late.
"Hi, Phillip, it’s—"
"Clarise, is that you? Hard to hear you over that racket."
"That’s Grace. She’s teething."
"Sounds awful. Can you get her to be quiet while we’re on the phone?"
What did he expect her to do, point the television remote at Grace and hit mute? "I know it’s horrible, but she’s a baby. Her teeth are coming in, and it hurts. That’s why I’m calling you."
"I see. You need help." There was a smugness to his tone she didn’t like. "Guess that nanny’s sounding like a pretty good idea right now?"
Continuing as though he hadn’t spoken, she said, "It occurred to me that since we’re going to be parents together, it might be good practice for us to take care of children together."
"An interesting proposal, not without merit. But I’m at the Judge’s playing poker, and—"
"Your step-father, yes."
"B-but his poker night is tomorrow."
"No, he switched it months ago. You didn’t know? This evening, he invited me so I could meet some influential friends of his. I suspect they’ll be very important to our future."
"I see." Tears stung her eyes, and she quickly sat on the couch before her legs gave out. For years, she’d worked to build a relationship with Judge Thomas Winters. Then Phillip had waltzed in one day, with political views and the law in common, and he and the Judge seemed like the best of friends. "I have to go, Phillip. I’ll call you later in the week."
Glancing at the weeping baby, Risa considered the old "if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em" adage. No, sobbing wouldn’t solve anything, and Risa was a solution-finder. Look at her company, the way she’d seen a need for Janine to get away and had arranged it, the way she’d kept trying with Judge Winters despite feeling rebuffed her entire adolescence.
There was another person she could ask for help, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.
"Jason! Natalie!" she called over Grace’s sobs—were they getting softer or was she just losing her hearing? "You two stay put, Grace and I are going out in the hall. Just open the front door if you need me."
She took a deep breath and hurried over to 7-G before she could change her mind. Jack had been up late that first night she’d met him, so maybe he wasn’t the type to go to bed early.
His door opened before she had a chance to knock.
"Did I catch you on your way out?" she asked, referring to the way he’d answered the door before she’d even announced her presence.
He inclined his head toward the baby. "Heard you coming. And I don’t usually go out looking like this." He wore athletic shorts and a dark blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. The man had seriously nice arms.
But she hadn’t come over here to feel his biceps. Or to notice the slight sheen of perspiration dampening his face and his dark hair that shouldn’t have been so attractive.
"Risa?" He fidgeted with the free weight she hadn’t noticed him holding because she’d been too busy noticing other things.
Focus. "When we talked in the cab the other night, you told me you had several nieces and nephews."
"That’s right." His face was impassive, giving nothing away.
"And you like children."
"Yesterday, you offered to help."
"I remember—shortly before you kicked me out of your apartment."
Risa shifted her weight, concentrating on being conciliatory even though she still felt that yesterday had been as much his fault as hers. More, really. He’d started it.
Wonderful. Twenty-four hours with Natalie and Jason, and she’d picked up their mentality.
"Forget it." Jack moved to shut the door.
Desperate, she wedged her foot in the way. "Forget what?"
"That baby has been crying all night, so you came over here as a last resort, but it’s obvious from your expression that you’re still miffed about yesterday. I have no reason to go over there and help you, but every sane reason to stay here and mind my own business. Isn’t that what you wanted?"
"Please, Jack. I need you." Painful as it was to admit, she managed to get it out. Odd that she hadn’t been able to be that candid on the phone with Phillip, yet she was here swallowing her pride in front of Jack.
His silver gaze arrested hers, the odd gleam in his eyes making her mouth go dry. "Say it again."
The command, issued in a husky, almost-whisper, should have irritated her. She wasn’t a fan of groveling. But something in his expression made her feel all melty inside. "Say what, that I need you?"
"No. Just the ‘please, Jack.’"
She swallowed. "Please. Jack."
"All the help you need until your friend returns, on one condition—when the kids go home, you come over sometime and pose for a painting." He blinked, as though his request had surprised him as much as her.
Which was hard to believe because she was shocked. He wanted to paint her?
"Your face is—" He broke off, looked away. "I’m curious to see if I can do it justice. So will you sit for me?"
"Deal. I’ll pose."
Grace chose that moment to crescendo into an ear-splitting wail, and the corner of Jack’s mouth lifted in his trademark teasing grin. "Nude?"
"Don’t push it."