With This Baby...
With This Baby...
“Want me to take her?” Patrick said, reaching for the baby, and Jess gave him a beaming smile as he lifted her from Claire’s arms.
“Morning, gorgeous,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose, and Claire grinned at him.
“I thought you were talking to me,” she teased, and suddenly the atmosphere between them became electric.
After a moment of tense silence, Claire turned away, a gentle tide of color sweeping over her cheeks, and Patrick drew in a quiet, steadying breath and stepped away.
“Did you sleep all right?” she asked, hastily filling the silence, and he groped about for something sensible to say.
“Um—yes, fine,” he said, and rolled his eyes. He sounded like a total idiot, which was hardly surprising, because, as he was beginning to discover, being too long in Claire’s company was enough to completely addle his brain.
Not to mention playing hell with his hormones!
Every woman has dreams—deep desires, all-consuming passions, or maybe just little everyday wishes! In this brand-new miniseries from Harlequin Romance® we’re delighted to present a series of fresh, lively and compelling stories by some of our most popular authors—all exploring the truth about what women really want.
Step into each heroine’s shoes as we get up close and personal with her most cherished dreams…big and small!
• Is she a high-flying executive…but all she wants is a baby?
• Has she met her ideal man—if only he wasn’t her new boss…?
• Is she about to marry, but is secretly in love with someone else?
• Or does she simply long to be slimmer, more glamorous, with a whole new wardrobe?
Whatever she wants, each heroine finds happiness on her own terms—and unexpected romance along the way. And she’s about to discover whether Mr. Right is the answer to her dreams—or if he has a few questions of his own!
The Billionaire Bid
by Leigh Michaels.
With This Baby… Caroline Anderson
Patrick slammed the phone down and shot back his chair, narrowly missing the dog’s tail. Ever the optimist, the dog leapt to his feet, anticipating a walk, but Patrick shook his head.
‘Sorry, Dog, not this time,’ he muttered, snagging his jacket off the back of the chair and heading for the door. Still hopeful, those persuasive eyes watched him for the slightest encouragement, but Patrick lobbed him a biscuit and left him to it. This shouldn’t take long. It never did—although last time he’d felt almost sorry for the girl.
He shook his head to dismiss thoughts of last time from his mind, and headed for the lift. If this young woman thought she was going to be any luckier than the other one at slapping a paternity suit on him, she had another think coming. She’d have more luck with the lottery.
Patrick knew every woman he’d ever had an intimate relationship with—knew, loved and had remained friends with, furthermore—and no stranger was going to be able to hoodwink him into believing she’d had his child.
The lift doors slid open to reveal a young woman standing in the foyer with a screaming baby in her arms, and Patrick sighed inwardly. Was this a change of tack for the paternity punters? The last one had also come armed with a screaming baby—to wear him down, or tug his heartstrings?
Either way, it wouldn’t work. It hadn’t then, despite her haunted eyes, and it wouldn’t now. He was made of sterner stuff.
Well, that made a change. At least she wasn’t calling him ‘Patrick, darling’. He studied her for a moment, taking in the soft silver-blonde hair scooped back into a ponytail, the clear, challenging eyes, the too-wide mouth devoid of lipstick, the snug jacket that showed off all too clearly her softly rounded breasts and slender waist.
‘Do I know you?’ he asked, knowing full well that he didn’t—and for some reason regretting it. Stupid. She was just another money-grubbing little liar.
She shifted the baby in her arms and the screaming settled to a steady grizzle. Still rocking the infant gently, she looked up at him with those clear grey eyes that seemed to search into the deepest recesses of his soul and find him wanting.
‘No—no, you don’t know me,’ she said, and her voice surprised him, low and mellow and distracting. ‘You knew my sister, though—Amy Franklin. She came to see you a few weeks ago with the baby.’
Ah. ‘And I told her I’d never seen her before in my life.’
‘And I don’t believe you,’ she said softly, her eyes accusing. ‘I’ve got evidence—’
‘Excuse me—is that your car?’
They both turned and looked at his receptionist, Kate, who was pointing through the plate-glass doors. Right outside, and causing a chaotic traffic jam, a recovery truck was busily winching the remains of an ancient lipstick pink Citröen 2CV up into the air.
‘Good grief,’ he said weakly. It looked straight out of the 1960s hippy era. The tatty paintwork was smothered in huge psychedelic flowers, and as it was raised into the air the driver’s door fell open and swung gently in the wind, releasing a trail of paper cups and sweet wrappers that rained down like confetti on the man beneath.
‘How dare he?’
Thrusting the baby at him, the young woman turned on her heel and headed for the door, marching out with hands on hips and haranguing the unfortunate truck driver, arms flailing like a windmill as she gesticulated wildly at the dangling car.
‘Oh, good grief,’ Patrick said again, and, handing the screaming baby to his bewildered receptionist, he went outside, extracting his wallet and wondering what this little fiasco was going to cost him. Far more than the car was worth, without a shadow of a doubt, but any minute now she was going to land the poor guy one by accident and get herself arrested.
‘I’m sorry, this young lady was just trying to gain access to our car park, but the car stalled and she couldn’t get it going again. She’d just come in to call a recovery vehicle,’ he ad-libbed, shouldering her none too gently out of the way and stepping between them. ‘Perhaps I could reimburse you for your trouble…’
The man, burly and immovable, gave a dismissive snort. ‘Sorry, mate. Rules is rules. I have to remove it, it’s causing an obstruction. She’ll have to collect it from the pound—not that it’s worth it. I mean, what is it worth? A tenner? Fifty quid for the rarity value? Personally, if it wasn’t for the fact that you have to pay the fine anyway, I wouldn’t bother.’
Personally, nor would he, but, then, it wasn’t his car—thank goodness!
‘How much will that cost—this fine you’re talking about?’ she asked, elbowing herself back in front of him with a sharp dig in the ribs.
Not as sharp as her intake of breath, however, at the driver’s reply. ‘That’s obscene!’ she exclaimed, but he just shrugged.
‘Should have used a meter, love. Wouldn’t’ve happened then.’
‘But it broke down!’ she wailed, latching onto Patrick’s fabrication like a real pro. ‘You heard the man!’
‘And pigs fly. Look, love, I can’t winch it back down, I’ve done the paperwork and it’s more than my—’
‘Job’s worth,’ she and Patrick said in unison. The man’s face hardened into implacability.
‘It’s all right for you lot that don’t have to worry about money,’ he said.
Patrick sighed and rammed a hand through his hair, but his companion didn’t pause for breath.
‘You lot?’ she snapped. ‘Don’t bracket me with him! I worry about money constantly, and I haven’t got any to throw around—hence my worthless car! You can’t take it!’ And then, with a masterly touch of pathos, she added, ‘Besides, it’s got all the baby’s things in it—I need them! She’s hungry.’
‘Baby? What baby?’ The man eyed the car worriedly, and Patrick could almost hear her mind working, but then she took pity on him.
‘Don’t worry, I had the baby with me—but all her things are still in the car, you can’t take them away, I need to feed her.’
The driver sighed, clearly relieved that he wasn’t dangling a tiny baby in the car above their heads, and winched it back down with a resigned shake of his head. ‘Look, lady, I shouldn’t do this, but I’ll give you a minute to get what you want from it before I take it away.’
‘But I want my car.’
‘Just do what he says,’ Patrick advised her softly, eyeing the huge traffic jam that was building up behind the truck. ‘You can always get the car later.’
‘If I can find the money, you mean,’ she muttered. ‘And anyway, how am I supposed to get the baby home without a car?’
Patrick’s heart sank. Here we go, he thought, feeling the contents of his wallet slipping further out of his grasp with every second. ‘Don’t worry about that now. Just get your stuff.’
Five minutes later, the elegant marbled foyer of his empire was littered with a pile of junk which in total was probably worth less than the loose change in his pocket, and the Franklin girl was standing in the doorway with a ticket in her hand, staring dispiritedly after her vanishing car.
In the background the baby was still grizzling, and Patrick looked wonderingly at the pile of junk at his feet. Ancient trainers, a jumper that had seen better days, a ratty old blanket, half a dozen paperbacks, a briefcase—curiously decent and quite incongruous—and a whole plethora of baby stuff in varying stages of decay. He met his receptionist’s bewildered eyes, rammed his hand through his hair again in disbelief and sighed shortly.
‘Now what?’ he said, half to himself, half to Kate.
‘I’ll get a box,’ she said hastily, recovering her composure, and thrusting the baby back into his arms she abandoned him with it and disappeared.
Patrick looked down into the baby’s miserable, screwed-up little face and felt a surge of compassion. Whatever was going on, this poor little mite was innocent, and, judging by the feel of it, she needed a dry nappy and probably a decent meal.
‘Let me have her,’ the young woman said, and took the baby, cradling it against her shoulder and comforting it as if she’d been doing it all her life.
‘All right, sweetheart. It’s all right, Jess,’ she crooned, but Patrick wondered if it really was or if they were just empty promises.
No. Dammit, he wouldn’t fall for it.
The ticket the truck driver had given her had fallen from her fingers, drifting to the floor, and he picked it up and shoved it in his pocket. He’d deal with it later.
Kate came back with a couple of cardboard boxes and started packing the junk into them, and he crouched down beside her to help, just as the baby started to wail again in earnest.
Her hands stilled and she looked up at the baby with sympathy in her eyes.
‘I’ll deal with this lot,’ she said softly. ‘Why don’t you take Miss Franklin up to your apartment so she can see to the baby?’ she suggested, and with a resigned sigh he nodded and held out his hand to usher the young woman towards the lift.
‘I’ll need the baby seat and that blue bag,’ she said, and he scooped them up and led her to the lift, glancing over his shoulder at Kate still crouched on the floor.
‘Thanks, Kate. I owe you,’ he said softly. ‘Can you ask Sally to deal with my calls?’
She nodded, and he turned his attention back to the more pressing problem in front of him.
‘Come on, let’s get the baby sorted out and then we can talk,’ he said, reminding himself firmly that she was just a blackmailer, even if she did have a figure to die for and the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard in his life…
‘Right, now she’s asleep, let’s sort this out,’ Patrick said firmly, determined to take control of a situation that showed every sign of disintegrating into chaos. ‘As I said before, I don’t know your sister. I told her that when she came to see me, and I can’t imagine why she’s sent you now, because nothing’s happened since I saw her to change anything.’
She looked up at him, those extraordinary grey eyes filled with silent accusation. ‘On the contrary,’ she said. ‘Everything’s changed, because three days after she came to see you, my sister died of an overdose, and I’m holding you responsible—for that, and for your child—so, you see, everything has changed.’
Patrick felt shock drain the colour from his face. That poor girl, so tightly strung, her eyes haunted and despairing, was dead, and her sister was here to take up the cudgels on her behalf. No wonder she was so determined, but despite her assertions nothing had really altered, at least not as far as he was concerned.
The baby wasn’t his, and never would be, and there was nothing he’d said or done that made him in any way responsible for the tragic death of that baby’s mother, however regrettable.
‘I’m sorry about your sister,’ he said, gentling his voice but with no loss of resolve. ‘If I could help you, I would, but it really isn’t anything to do with me.’
‘Nice try, but it won’t work,’ she said flatly. ‘I’ve got the photographs.’
His heart sank. ‘Photographs?’ he asked. She’d been saying something downstairs about evidence just as the car thing had intruded, but it hadn’t really registered. Oh, hell…
‘Yes, photographs. Intimate photographs—if you know what I mean.’
He did, only too well, and he winced inwardly, even though he knew they must be fake like all the others. ‘Anybody can achieve that these days with a digital camera and a bit of chicanery,’ he argued, but she wasn’t finished.
‘Photographs taken in your apartment here? On that sofa, in front of the window? In the bedroom where I changed the baby’s nappy? On your roof garden? Where and how would she have got those? Someone on your staff? Come on, Mr Cameron, you can’t get out of it. All it will take is a DNA test to prove it, and if you won’t submit to it willingly, I’ll just have to take you to court, and, believe me, I fully intend to win.’
He didn’t doubt it for a moment.
‘Get the baby tested, by all means,’ he agreed willingly. ‘My DNA has already been tested for another of these bogus claims, and I can assure you it won’t match this baby’s any more than it’s matched any other. Your sister isn’t the first young woman to try this, and unfortunately I don’t suppose she’ll be the last. I’ll see if I can find the information and send it on to you.’
‘You do that. I’ll give you a week, and then I’m taking action—starting with sending the photographs to the press.’ She delved into the blue bag that seemed to contain her entire life’s resources, and produced a slightly dog-eared card that she thrust at him.
‘Here. If you don’t contact me by next Monday morning, you’ll be hearing from my solicitor and the tabloids, probably simultaneously. Now perhaps you’ll be good enough to call me a taxi. I’ll arrange to have my other things collected in the next few days.’
On the point of telling her to take a hike, he caught sight of the sleeping baby and his irritation evaporated.
Poor little scrap. She didn’t deserve this, and it was a long way to—he glanced down at the card.
Suffolk. Ms Claire Franklin, Lower Valley Farm, Strugglers Lane, Tuddingfield, Suffolk. Nice address, but she didn’t look like a farmer. A farm worker? Lodger? Nanny? Nothing too highly paid, judging by the car and her remarks about money.
Claire. He savoured it on his tongue. Interesting, how an ordinary name had suddenly become somehow musical.
‘How are you going to get home?’ he asked her, refocusing. ‘Have you got enough money for the train?’
The confidence in her eyes faltered for a moment, then firmed again. ‘I’ll manage.’
He sighed, opened his wallet and pulled out several notes. ‘Here—that should be enough to get you and your things home in a minicab.’
She eyed the cash and her eyebrows arched eloquently. ‘You must have a hell of a guilty conscience, Mr Cameron.’
He hung onto his temper with difficulty. ‘On the contrary, Miss Franklin, I have a perfectly clean conscience—and I want it to stay that way. Now, are you going to take the money, or are you going to be stubborn and independent and make the baby suffer all the way home on the tube and the train?’
For a moment she hesitated, then she took it with a curt nod and tucked it into the bottomless blue bag. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ she said, and something in her voice made him believe her against all the odds.
Drawing her dignity around her like a cloak, she picked up the carrier with the baby in it, slung the blue bag over her shoulder and stood patiently waiting.
‘I’ll call the cab,’ he said, a trifle curtly because he didn’t want to admire her for anything. Picking up the phone, he asked Kate to order a minicab. ‘On second thoughts,’ he added to his beleaguered receptionist, ‘get George if he’s free. Usual arrangement.’
He cradled the phone, then escorted his visitor and her now sleeping charge to the lift. ‘I’ve ordered a minicab. He’ll take your things, as well, so you won’t have to get them picked up.’ He stuck out his hand. ‘Goodbye, Miss Franklin.’
She took it almost graciously, her palm cool, her grip firm and capable, and inclined her head. ‘Goodbye,’ she murmured, but he had a feeling she wasn’t finished, and he was right. She carried the baby into the lift, turned and met his eyes with a steady look that held the promise of another skirmish to come. ‘I mean it,’ she said before the doors sighed shut. ‘One week, and then all hell breaks loose.’
He didn’t doubt it for a moment.
He held that clear grey gaze until the doors interrupted it, and then turned away with a shrug. Let her do her worst. There was no way the child was his, cute though she might have been, regardless of some bogus photographic evidence.
Of course, if Will had still been alive he would have blamed him. It wouldn’t have been the first time his brother had got him in a scrape, by a country mile, and it was just the sort of damn fool thing he might have done, Patrick thought with a fondness touched with irony.
He could just imagine him now, pretending to be his richer and more successful twin, capitalising on his brother’s success without bothering to earn the right to it. Had he entertained women here, told them his name was Patrick?
Surely he would have outgrown that kind of prank? They’d often pretended to be each other, with no thought of the consequences, driving their teachers and then later on their girlfriends mad, but then they’d grown up.
Or he had.
Will, on the other hand, had never considered the consequences of his actions—like getting the dog, for instance. It was just like Will to take pity on the poor, scruffy little black bundle he’d been and then all but abandon him when the responsibility for looking after a lively puppy got too irksome.
If it hadn’t been for Patrick, Dog would have ended up being rehomed. Instead, he’d found a master who struggled in the midst of the city to find time to exercise his intelligent mind and his restless body, and who took his care seriously.
Even if he hadn’t ever given him a proper name!
He summoned the lift, and as the doors opened he saw a small pink rabbit lying on the floor.
The baby’s. It must have fallen out of the little baby seat. Damn. He’d get Sally, his long-suffering PA, to send it—or, better still, Kate. She seemed to have a soft spot for the child and Sally would ask him endless questions.
He went into his office, the pink rabbit in his hand, and dropped it in his desk drawer just as Sally came in.
She tried hard to keep the curiosity out of her voice, but failed dismally. Dog, on the other hand, greeted him with cheerful and unquestioning enthusiasm, and seemed a much safer bet. He wasn’t going to ask awkward questions about his visitor!
‘Fine,’ he lied. ‘I’m going to take Dog in the park,’ he added hastily as she started to open her mouth again, and picked up the dog lead. ‘Hold my calls.’
‘Still?’ Sally said, but he pretended not to hear her. He went down to the now tidy foyer, Dog bouncing excitedly at his heels, and ignored Kate’s frantic gestures as she dealt with a phone call that was obviously for him.
The park beckoned—the park, and peace and quiet, time to think, because a troubling thought was beginning to take shape in the back of his mind.
It was early April—and Will had been dead a little over a year. If that baby was more than four months old, it could have been his.
And—because they were identical twins—the DNA would match.
‘No charge,’ the minicab driver said. ‘It’s on Mr Cameron.’
‘Oh.’ Claire blinked, puzzled. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure. That’s what Kate said when she called me. Anyway, I’m on a retainer. I’ll just bill them.’
‘But he gave me money.’
George laughed, not unkindly. ‘Of course, if I was a real rogue, I’d take that off you, love, but I’m not, so don’t argue, there’s a good girl. Just say “Thank you very much,” and be grateful. He can afford it.’
She opened her mouth, shut it again, then opened it and said, ‘Thank you very much.’
Eyes twinkling, he carried her miscellaneous possessions into the cottage, wiggled his fingers at the baby and left her to her confusion.
She could feel the cash burning a hole in the side of the blue bag. She’d give it back to Cameron, of course, and repay the cost of the minicab—once she’d earned it, and the money to get her car out of the pound.
Huh! That was the rub, she thought as she fed the grizzly, hungry baby and bathed her ready for bed. How on earth was she going to earn it? She couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill, and without a phone she couldn’t get work, at least not the sort of freelance stuff she did.
The irony of it was that Patrick Cameron was an architect, and there was probably room in his organisation for another draughtsperson, doing some of the donkey-work on the less important contracts. Maybe that was it. Maybe she should ask him for work, so she could support the baby and herself and be independent?
Independent? She snorted. She’d be more dependent on him than ever like that, and it wasn’t what she wanted. Nor did she want him taking any interest in the baby. Not that it seemed likely, because he certainly hadn’t shown any interest in her today!
No. All she wanted—needed—from him was enough money to pay for child care so she could concentrate on her job for a few hours a day and work herself out of this financial hole. Earn enough money, perhaps, to fund a bank loan to convert the barn and turn it into a studio so she could run the painting holidays she’d dreamed of.
She’d got it all worked out. She could live upstairs, with a farmhouse kitchen downstairs big enough to do all the catering, and she’d have a huge studio at one end, and the cottage could be the guest accommodation. Then she’d be able to earn money, indulge her creative streak and look after the baby, all at the same time.
Oh, yes. She’d thought it all through—all except how to pay for it, but Patrick Cameron had plenty of money, and giving his baby a future was little enough to ask of him under the circumstances.
And in less than a week she’d see him again, she was sure of it. He couldn’t afford all the mud-slinging the tabloids would get up to, not in his position, so he’d have to co-operate to a certain extent. He couldn’t continue to deny knowing Amy once he’d seen the photographs, and he’d have to start playing ball.
First off was the DNA check, of course, and then there would be no question about it.
It would be interesting to see how he dealt with that, she thought. In so many ways he’d been a real gentleman, but his stubborn refusal to acknowledge his relationship with Amy gave the lie to that. So which was the real Patrick Cameron? Her curiosity was piqued, and she realised with a shock that she was looking forward to seeing him again.
Not that she was interested in him in any personal way—of course not. He’d been Amy’s lover, and that made him strictly off limits. Besides, that dark hair, unruly even though it was short, and those curious green-grey eyes that should have been soft and yet were strangely piercing—they didn’t appeal to her in the least, except academically, because he was Jess’s father.
And that body—not that she’d seen much of it, of course, except in the photos which she’d been reluctant to study in any detail.
Claire ignored her honest streak in favour of self-delusion. Much more comfortable, because acknowledging her interest in a man rich enough to buy her out hundreds of times over, a man whose work she respected and admired, a man who, if she allowed herself to be honest for once, was the most attractive man she’d seen in years—actually, make that two and a half decades—acknowledging her interest in him would only underline just how fruitless that interest would be.
She was nobody. Nothing. Just a frustrated interior designer and graphic artist making a tenuous living freelancing at her drawing board, working for anyone who needed her draughtsmanship and visualising skills, with no future, no hope of career advancement, no pension prospects.
She laughed silently. Pension prospects? She was twenty-six—but suddenly, since she’d become responsible for this little scrap, that seemed to matter.
And without Auntie Meg’s unexpectedly generous bequest, they’d be homeless as well.
‘Oh, Auntie Meg, I wish I knew what to do,’ she sighed, staring out of the window at the dark shape of the barn just fifty or so paces away. She could sell it, of course, but that would mean the end of her dream.
Oh, well. Maybe Patrick Cameron would prove himself to be a guardian angel in disguise. She could only wait and hope.
Patrick looked at the letter from the DNA lab that had performed the last paternity test for him a year ago—a test that had proved unnecessary, because the woman had broken down in the end and confessed she’d just wanted to get some money.
Nevertheless, the test had been done, and, in case it should happen again, the lab had agreed to keep his profile on record, the details of the individual bar-code that identified each and every one of his cells as his and his alone.
He sighed. Until last year, he couldn’t have said that, but now Will was gone.
His clone, Will used to joke, but last year he’d been serious. It had been just before he’d gone away, and he’d said, very quietly and with some considerable dignity, that it was time to move on and stop living in his brother’s shadow.
‘It’s as if I’m a clone of you, and they left some vital nutrient out of the Petri dish—that extra je ne sais quoi. Still, without you standing beside me, who would ever know? And not even you, dear bro, casts a shadow long enough to reach Australia.’
And his smile had been wry and sad, and Patrick had hugged him hard.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ he’d said, choked, but Will had meant every word of it. He’d gone to Australia, bent on making himself a new life, and two weeks later he’d been dead, drowned in a stupid accident with a surfboard.
And now it seemed he might have had a child.
Patrick dragged in a deep breath and filed the information in its envelope, then tucked it into his jacket pocket. The car—the psychedelic 2CV—was sitting in the underground car park beneath the building, and it was time to go.
As he strapped Dog into his harness and fastened him to the front seat belt, he wondered if the car would make it. By the time he reached the M11, he was almost certain that it wouldn’t. Despite its service, it ran like a pig, it was hideously noisy and uncomfortable, not to mention terrifyingly vulnerable amongst the heavy lorries, and he decided the truck driver who’d winched it away had had excellent judgement.
Paying her fine was just doing the decent thing. Bothering to have the damn car serviced and valeted and returning it to her, on the other hand, seemed a ludicrous waste of money, because he was convinced it was destined for the crusher.
Still, maybe she’d be grateful. She’d seemed sorry enough to see it go—though why he wanted her gratitude he couldn’t begin to imagine. He certainly wasn’t sure he wanted it enough to risk his life in this bit of pink tin foil she called a car!
On second thoughts, tin foil might be better—it didn’t rust. This clapped-out old heap might be a classic, but it must be thirty years old if it was a day, and it was well and truly past its sell-by date. Hell, it was at least as old as him, and considerably older than Claire Franklin.
He rolled it round his tongue, savouring the shape of the word, remembering her eyes, her mouth, that soft, lush figure, the delicate fragrance that had still been lingering in the air when he’d gone back up to his apartment with Dog at the end of the day.
Was it really only two days ago? It seemed like a lifetime.
He could feel the little bulge of the pink rabbit in his pocket, and he wondered if the baby had missed it. Jess, she was called. Jessica? Jessamy? Jessamine?
The realisation that he was looking forward to seeing her again shocked him. He hated babies! Smelly, leaky little things—but this one could be Will’s, his last gift to the world, and for that reason alone he wanted to see her again.
The fact that she came with a rather attractive young aunt attached was nothing at all to do with it!
CLAIRE heard the car coming long before it pulled upon her drive.
Of course, if things had been going right, she wouldn’t have heard it at all, but she’d hit something in the long grass in the meadow behind the barn and the cutting deck on the little tractor mower had collapsed, and so it was silenced.
Silenced and broken, yet another thing in her life that was going wrong.
Hot and cross from struggling about underneath the mower to try and see what had happened, she rolled over and stared up—and up. Up endlessly long legs clad in immaculately cut trousers, up past a sand-washed silk shirt in a lovely soft green-grey the colour of his eyes, up to a face she hadn’t expected to see again quite so soon.
Great. Just when she was looking her dignified best!
She scrambled to her feet, taking advantage of his outstretched hand to haul herself up, and gave her back a cursory swipe to dislodge some of the chopped grass that was no doubt sticking to it like confetti.
There on her drive again, like a bad penny, was Amy’s car come back to haunt her—and haunt Patrick Cameron, if the look on his face was anything to go by. Oops. He didn’t look as if he’d enjoyed his journey.
‘Where’s the baby?’ he asked without preamble, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. Just like the dog’s—only the useless thing was sleeping inside with Jess, and ignoring her duty with not a bristle in sight.
‘She’s asleep. Why?’
He shrugged, but there was nothing casual about his incisive tone. ‘Just wondered. I mean, you’re out here—who’s looking after her?’
‘I am,’ she retorted, the irritation spreading from the back of her neck to permeate her voice. ‘I’m hardly far away. Do you have a problem with that?’
‘I just expected you to be right beside her, within earshot.’
‘I am right beside her. She’s in the house, about thirty yards away, and the dog’s with her.’
Or she had been until that moment. Pepper, belatedly cottoning on to the arrival of their visitor, came barrelling out of the back door, barking furiously.
‘It’s OK, Pepper,’ she said, and the lurcher skidded to a halt, lifted her head and then ran to the car, jumping up and scrabbling at the door.
‘Ah. Dog,’ he said, and Claire felt her eyebrows shoot up.
He gave a slight, humourless smile. ‘In the car. My dog. Well, my brother’s dog, actually. It was as far as we ever got with naming him. Will Pepper be OK if I let him out?’
‘She’ll be fine, she loves other dogs. She’s too trusting. Is he OK, though? I don’t need a vet bill.’ To add to all the other bills on her list.
‘He’s fine. We meet other dogs in the park all the time.’
He went over to the car and released the dog called Dog, and he and Pepper sniffed round each other and wagged cautiously.
Claire, used to Pepper with her shaggy blonde coat and little neat ears, stared at Dog in amazement. Black, with a white splash on his chest, and smaller than Pepper, he had the biggest ears she’d ever seen except on a German shepherd, and his body couldn’t seem to decide if it was terrier, Labrador or collie.
Pepper didn’t seem to care, however. She was just enjoying the attention and his lineage was obviously the last thing on her mind.
‘So much more direct than people,’ his owner said, watching them circle with their noses up each other’s bottoms, and she laughed, surprised by the dry flash of humour.
‘I think I’ll settle for being human.’
His smile was slow and lazy, and crinkled his eyes. It crinkled her stomach, too, and she felt as if she’d been punched by the force of that latent sexual charm. Good grief! No wonder Amy had fallen for him.
Amy. That’s what this was all about, she reminded herself before she could get totally sidetracked by his charm. Amy.
She brushed her hands together and looked up at him again. ‘Um—you brought the car. Thank you. What do I owe you?’
‘Owe me?’ he said, sounding surprised. ‘You don’t owe me anything. I had to get here somehow.’
‘And getting that heap out of the pound and driving here in it was your preferred choice of transport? Give me a break!’
He chuckled softly. ‘OK. I’ll admit I’m glad I don’t have to drive it back, but it made it, which I have to say surprised me.’
It surprised Claire, too, but she wasn’t telling him that! It would no doubt collapse on her the very next time she took it out—just like the mower and the strimmer and everything else.
‘Having problems?’ he asked, jerking his head towards the mower, and she rolled her eyes and sighed.
‘You don’t want to know. I hit something, and the cutting deck’s dangling now. Goodness knows what I’ve broken. I’ll get John to look at it.’
‘A mechanic-cum-miracle-worker. He keeps my bits and pieces going.’ When I can afford to pay him, she added to herself silently. ‘By the way, George wouldn’t take any money from me on Monday for bringing me back, so I owe you for that, too, and the cash you gave me.’
He shrugged. ‘I’ll let you pay it back in kind. I didn’t dare stop the car in case it wouldn’t start again, and it’s been a long morning. I reckon a cup of coffee should settle the score.’
‘That’s a very expensive cup of coffee,’ she told him, ‘and anyway, you’re in luck because I haven’t got any. I’ve only got tea, but no milk, so you’ll have to let me pay you back.’
‘Tea will be fine,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘Shall we?’
He held out a hand, gesturing for her to lead the way, and with a shrug of defeat she took him into the house through the boot room—as untidy and scruffy as ever—and through to the kitchen, where Jess was beginning to stir in the pram. ‘Have a seat,’ she said, pushing the cat off the only decent chair, and he sat and looked around curiously.
‘What a lovely kitchen,’ he said, and she nearly choked. It was ancient, the cupboards were all chipped and scratched, and it needed a match taking to it—or at the very least a bucket of hot, soapy water followed by a paintbrush.
‘I thought you were an architect,’ she said with a thread of sarcasm, and he chuckled that lovely, deep, sexy chuckle again.
‘I am. I spend my life specifying high-tech glass and stainless-steel kitchens, somewhere between an operating theatre and the control room of a spacecraft, and you daren’t touch them for fear of leaving a fingerprint. You could come in here with a muddy dog and feel at home—it reminds me of my childhood, visiting my grandmother. Homely. Restful. Soothing.’
She looked around her and saw it with his eyes—saw the old black Aga that she couldn’t afford to run, and the deep butler’s sink with its mahogany draining board, the painted solid timber cupboards—all the things that everyone wanted, by all accounts, only new, of course, and made to look old. Distressed. Claire nearly laughed aloud. It was certainly distressed!
Still, the blue and white Cornishware china on the dresser shelves was highly collectable now, and the brightly coloured mugs hanging on the hooks above the kettle brought a vivid splash of colour to the room. And through the gap in the hedge opposite the kitchen window, you could see across the meadow and right down the valley to the church in the distance.
Yes, it had charm, and she loved it—which was just as well, because she was no more likely to be able to fly than refit it. She’d been working her way steadily through the house until Amy had died and she’d had to give up her job. Now there was a huge list of essentials ahead of the kitchen, and the mower was tacked right onto the top as of today. Really, April was not a good time for the darned thing to fall apart.
‘How strong do you like your tea?’ she asked, dropping a teabag in a mug and pouring on the water.
‘Not very. Have you got lemon? No, forget it.’
She snorted. ‘I don’t have it anyway. I’m sorry, you’re not getting a very good return on your investment here, are you?’
‘That’s not why I’m here.’
No, it wasn’t. He was here because she’d given him very little choice, and all these smiling pleasantries were just exactly that. Any second now, she guessed, the gloves would be off.
She fished the teabag out of his mug, dunked it up and down in her own and wished, for the hundredth time that day, that she’d got milk. She’d tried some of Jess’s formula in it, but it hadn’t been the same, and, anyway, she was running out of that, too.
She turned to face him, mugs in hand. ‘So, where do you want to start?’ she asked, taking the bull by the horns.
‘I’d like to see those photographs.’
She set the mugs down in front of him and turned away. She hated looking at the photos. They weren’t sordid, thank God, but they were intimate—hugely intimate, emotionally revealing. Things no one should see except the participants—things Amy should have taken with her to the grave, locked up in her heart.
Still, he’d been there, so it hardly mattered if he saw them, did it? She didn’t have to look again and upset herself with the painful images of her sister with this undeniably attractive man.
She went to the study and pulled out the packet of photos from the bottom drawer, and gave them to him.
He took them, opened the envelope and eased them out, a strange expression on his face. Cradling her tea, she watched him as he sifted through them slowly, over and over again.
Then, without a word, he put them away in the envelope and looked up at her, his eyes curiously sad.
‘You’d better sit down,’ he said, and she sat, wondering what it was that had put that look on his face. Had he loved Amy? Was that it?
It wasn’t, and if she’d had a lifetime, she couldn’t have guessed what was coming next.
‘The man in those photographs isn’t me,’ he said. ‘It’s my twin brother.’
She stared at him blankly, then laughed. ‘Oh, very good. How clever—except, of course, that Amy called you Patrick. And now you’re going to tell me he was also called Patrick?’
Patrick—this one—shook his head. ‘His name was Will. He sometimes used to pretend to be me—a sort of prank we used to play as kids, except he apparently never grew out of it. He died a year ago, in Australia.’
‘Died?’ she echoed, and her hopes crumbled to dust. There was no way he’d pay for his brother’s child, and so she’d have to sell their home and move, or at least sell the barn, and Amy’s debts would eat up so much of that.
‘Tell me—what date were these taken?’
‘It’s on the back of the envelope,’ she said woodenly. ‘March, I believe.’
He turned the packet over, and nodded. ‘That fits. I wondered if it would. I was away—in Japan, on a contract. Will was using my flat for a week—and apparently masquerading as me. It must have been then. So, tell me, when was the baby born?’
‘Two weeks before Christmas.’
He nodded, then he turned his head slightly and studied Jess in the pram.
‘She doesn’t look like him.’
‘She’s very like Amy.’
He nodded again, and let out a quiet sigh. ‘I wish she’d looked more like him—a sort of reminder. That would have been nice.’
‘You could always look in the mirror,’ she said, and his mouth kicked up in a sad smile.
‘Not quite the same. Still.’
He stood up. ‘I’ve got something for you—I’ll just get my jacket,’ he said, and went out to the car.
She followed him, propping herself up in the doorway and watching as his long legs ate up the path. The dogs were playing now, having a tug of war with one of Pepper’s knotted bones, and he paused to ruffle their coats.
They wagged at him and carried on, growling and pretending to be fierce, and after one last pat he straightened up, pulled open her car door and reached in for his jacket.
As he closed the door, it bounced open again, as she’d known it would.
‘It does that,’ she told him, going over to yank the handle and bang the door. ‘It’s a knack you have to acquire.’
He flinched and muttered something along the lines of not in this lifetime, and she stifled a laugh. Poor baby, he’d really had to slum it! Oh, well, it would do him good—let him see what she was up against. She could do with all the sympathy she could get, the way things were panning out.
They walked back to the house, past the broken little tractor with its drooping cutting deck, past the barn with its door hanging half-open on rusty hinges to reveal the strimmer that had gone on strike over the winter and steadfastly refused to start.
She wondered what else could go wrong, and decided she didn’t want to think about it. She had more than enough to think about—like the fact that it seemed he wasn’t Jess’s father after all, although proving it could be tricky, because, of course, the DNA would match if he and his brother were identical twins. If that really was his brother in the photos and not him, then they were like two peas in a pod.
And, of course, because of that it would be the easiest thing in the world for him to pass off his child as his brother’s, now that Will and Amy weren’t there to argue the case. It would absolve him of all responsibility. How convenient.
And yet he didn’t seem dishonest.
She gave a silent snort. Like she was such a good judge of character! She’d let Amy hoodwink her for years, bleeding her dry in one way and another and now leaving her with Jess to bring up, safe in the knowledge that, of course, she, Claire, the sensible one, would do the right thing.
So he could be a liar and a smooth talker, quite easily, and how on earth would she know?
Oh, rats. It was too confusing, too involved, too difficult to deal with. She didn’t want to doubt him, but now it was there in the back of her consciousness, this insidious little doubt, niggling away and destroying her peace of mind.
Not that she had much of that these days.
‘Here,’ he said, pulling an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handing it to her as they went back into the kitchen. She eyed it warily.
A letter from a solicitor threatening her with legal action if she revealed the photos? A cheque—no, she didn’t get that lucky.
‘It’s the information about the DNA lab,’ he told her, putting her out of her suspense and puncturing the last little bubble of hope. ‘They’ve got my profile on record. The instructions are all in there. You just have to take the baby to the GP for a cheek swab, and get it sent off to them with the enclosed covering letter and the cheque that’s in there, and then they run the test. It should match if she’s Will’s daughter—and that’s definitely Will in the photos.’
‘How do I know that?’ she asked.
His brow pleated. ‘How do you know? Because we’re identical.’
‘Exactly. So how do I know it isn’t you?’
He stared at her, clearly taken aback. ‘Me? I’ve told you, I was out of the country.’
‘I’ve only got your word for that.’
‘It’s usually good enough,’ he said drily, and if she hadn’t known better, she would have said he sounded hurt. Then he went on, ‘Anyway, it’s easy. Apart from the passport stamps and minutes of the meetings I attended in Japan, I haven’t had my appendix out—unlike Will. And there’s a scar in the photos.’
And before she had a chance to say anything, before she could challenge him or express her scepticism, he tugged his shirt out of his trousers, hitched a thumb in the waistband and pushed it down, revealing a taut, board-flat abdomen without so much as a crease in it. ‘See? No scar.’
Her shoulders dropped. Well, at least she knew he was telling the truth. There was no way a surgeon’s knife had ever scored that skin. She dragged her eyes away from the line of dark hair that arrowed down under that dangerously low waistband, and looked back up at him.
‘OK, so it isn’t you in the photos,’ she agreed.
‘No—but it might as well be,’ he said quietly. ‘If the baby is Will’s, then she’d be as closely related to me as she would be if she were my own, and I would feel the same obligation towards her. I never thought I would, but it seems blood is thicker than water, after all, and if she’s Will’s child, then in his absence she’s mine, and I’ll do what’s right by her.’
He ground to a halt, the long speech seeming to open up more than he’d intended to reveal, and he firmed his lips together and looked away—at Jess, awake now and waving her arms and legs happily in the pram.
‘You don’t have to explain that to me,’ she reminded him. ‘Why do you think I’m looking after Jess instead of handing her over to Social Services for adoption?’
He nodded slowly. ‘Yes, of course you understand. You’re in the same boat. Lord, what a coil.’
His jacket was hanging over the back of his chair, and she could just see one pink ear sticking up against the rumpled grey-green linen.
She inclined her head towards it and smiled, deliberately lightening the tone. ‘So, Mr Cameron—is that a rabbit in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me?’
For a second of startled silence she wondered if she’d gone too far, but then he gave a soft huff of laughter and pulled it out.
‘I’d forgotten all about it. I found it in the lift. I didn’t know if she’d miss it—if she was old enough yet to have fixated on it. I gather babies can be funny like that.’
‘Not this young, not at four months, but she does like it. Thank you.’
He handed it to her and their fingers brushed, sending sparks up her arm. She snatched her hand away, feeling a little silly, and gave the rabbit to Jess, who grabbed it and stuffed one ear in her mouth.
‘Instant hit,’ she said with a smile, and scooped the baby up. ‘Here, it’s time to get to know her. Jess, this is your Uncle Patrick. Say hello.’
She dumped Jess on his lap, and for the first few seconds he looked dumbstruck and awkward.
‘She won’t break, you know,’ she told him, taking pity on him after a minute, and he shot her a slightly desperate smile.
‘Do I have to support her head?’ he asked. ‘It’s the only thing I can remember.’
‘No, she’s fine now. She can stand up if you hold her, and jump on your lap, but she shouldn’t do it for too long.’
‘How on earth do I know what’s too long?’ he asked with a thread of panic, and she laughed.
‘Don’t worry, she’s not made of glass. She’s just a baby. Don’t drop her on her head and she’ll be fine. They’re tough as old boots.’
She headed for the door, needing a moment to herself to let it all sink in, and his eyes tracked her like a laser.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, his voice rising slightly with alarm.
‘The loo. You got a problem with that?’
He relaxed visibly. ‘Um—no. That’s fine. I just thought—’
‘I was going out? One step at a time, cowboy,’ she said with a smile, and left him to it.
‘Well, little Jess. So you’re Will’s baby,’ he said softly, staring into her solemn brown eyes. ‘And like the lady said, I’m your Uncle Patrick. What do you think of that?’
Not much, from the expression on her face. Her lip wobbled, and instinctively he jostled her gently on his knee and smiled at her.
‘Hey, hey, I’m not so bad. I may not know anything about babies, but we can learn together. I don’t suppose you know too much about architects or uncles, either, but you’ll learn, just like I will about babies. Oh, yes, you will.’
He nodded at her, and she blinked, so he did it again, his smile widening, and all of a sudden her face transformed. Her eyes creased up, her mouth opened to reveal one tiny white tooth in a gummy smile, and she giggled.
Patrick swallowed. There was a lump the size of a tennis ball lodged in his throat, and he had to blink hard to keep her in focus.
‘So you think I’m funny, do you?’ he said, his voice a little scratchy, and she giggled again, one arm flailing out to grab at his nose.
‘Ouch! Sharp nails!’ he chided gently, easing her surprisingly strong little fingers off while he still had skin. Instead of his nose, she fastened her hand on his finger and clung, pulling it to her mouth and gnawing it.
‘I’m not sure that’s clean enough to chew,’ he said doubtfully, but Claire came back into the room at that moment and stood right beside him—close enough for him to smell the new-mown grass that clung to her—and suddenly the germs didn’t seem to matter.
Instead, the sharp, sweet scent of grass teased his senses, heady as an aphrodisiac, and he had to force himself to concentrate on her words.
‘Don’t worry,’ she was saying, ‘children shouldn’t be brought up in a sterile environment, it’s bad for them. I’m sure your fingers aren’t that grubby.’
‘Doggy, probably,’ he said, struggling for common sense.
‘She’ll live. Did I hear her laughing?’
He looked up at her, suddenly self-conscious. Had she heard him making a fool of himself with her?
‘She giggled,’ he said, still slightly awestruck by that manifestation of personality in someone so very young, and Claire smiled.
‘Oh, she does. The sillier you make yourself, the more she likes it. I think it appeals to her sense of humour, watching adults turn themselves into fruit-cakes on her behalf.’
Fruitcakes, indeed! So she had heard. Oh, well, it might be a point in his favour, and he had a feeling he was going to need all the Brownie points he could get!
I’ll still want to be involved in her upbringing, to see her first steps, to hear her first words.
The words had been going round and round in Claire’s head since Patrick had spoken them, and, watching him with the baby now, she still had no clear idea what that implied. What did ‘involved’ mean, exactly? He wanted to see videos of her from time to time? Visit her occasionally?
Or go for custody?
As the thought popped into her mind, she felt the chill of fear run through her, and her heart started to pump.
Surely not. He couldn’t. Anyway, he wouldn’t win, he was a man.
And his DNA was an exact match with Will’s. What if he said it was him, after all? What if he claimed she was his baby, and not his brother’s?
Her eyes went to the photos, the only proof she had that the man who had fathered her sister’s baby had been the one with the appendix scar. There were no negatives, and no other copies. If the photos were to fall into the wrong hands…
‘Claire, what’s wrong?’
She jumped, swivelling her eyes from the photos to him, and met his clear, steady green-grey gaze.
‘You said you wanted to be involved in her upbringing,’ she said, her voice a little taut.
‘That’s right. I do.’
‘How involved? What exactly did you mean?’ she asked, unable to prevaricate. She’d always been direct, always gone for the jugular. If he planned to take the baby from her, she needed to know.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, and she could see the confusion and honesty in his eyes. ‘I suppose it means I want to see her as often as possible, but she lives here with you, and I live and work in London. That’s not really very straightforward.’
‘You can visit her whenever you want,’ she said, trying to make it easy so he wouldn’t try and take her from him. ‘You can stay here—there’s room. I won’t try and stop you seeing her.’
He cocked his head on one side and regarded her keenly. ‘You think I’m going to go for custody, don’t you?’ he said, his voice deceptively soft, and she swallowed and looked away.
‘I don’t know. I just know I can’t lose her. She’s all I’ve got of my sister.’
She broke off, the wound still too raw, and he tsked softly.
‘Silly girl, I’m not going to take her from you. How can I? I’m not married, I live in a flat at the top of my office block with a tiny roof garden and a hell of a long drop to the street below. You’re a woman, you’ve cared for her since she was born, you live in the country in a totally safe setting. What judge in their right mind would rule in my favour?’
She closed her eyes briefly and nodded. ‘I suppose so. I was just…’
‘Panicking?’ he finished for her, his voice gentle. ‘Don’t. On the other hand, don’t expect it all your own way. My parents will want to be involved in her life as well, and they’ll want to have her to stay—there’ll be birthdays and Christmases and all sorts.’
Claire nodded again. He was right, it wouldn’t be easy, but if they were able to work together, perhaps they could dream up a solution that would help them all.
‘First things first, though,’ he said, his mouth kicking up in a wry grin. ‘There’s a strange smell coming from this little bundle of laughs, and I think she needs her auntie.’
I want to be involved with her upbringing.
Claire smiled, some of the tension easing away. ‘Time for your first nappy-changing lesson, then,’ she said, and stood up. ‘Come on.’
‘Oh, you can. You’ll be amazed what you can do. And once she’s washed and changed, it’ll be time for her next feed—and then, of course, there’ll be another nappy.’
The look on Patrick’s face was priceless, and it was all Claire could do to stop from laughing out loud.
‘I’ll make the feed up,’ he said, flailing for an excuse, but she was adamant.
‘They’re all made up,’ she assured him. ‘But you can do the next lot. I promise.’
Funny, he didn’t look in the least bit grateful…
AN HOUR later, Jess was back on his lap, sweet and fresh after her feed and second nappy change, and the dogs were hanging around looking hopeful.
At least, Pepper was looking hopeful, and Dog, head cocked on one side and those ridiculous ears at attention, was watching his master like a hawk. He’d clearly taken to his new playmate, but he wasn’t keen on Patrick being too far out of sight in this strange place, and he certainly wasn’t sure about that funny little thing on his lap.
Patrick looked down at the dog and gave his ears a gentle tug. ‘It’s all right, boy,’ he said softly, ‘she’s just a baby.’
Just a baby. Huh! The very idea of this cataclysmic development in his life being described as just anything was laughable, and his brother’s baby was about as complicated as it got.
The photos leapt into his mind again, the girl he’d seen once a few weeks ago with the man he’d never see again—he’d grown up with him, played with him, fought with him, loved and hated him alternately until, with maturity and understanding, love had won.
They were probably the last photographs taken of Will alive—certainly the last ones Patrick and his family would have access to—and he’d cut his throat before he’d let his parents near them.
Not that they were sordid—far from it. They were tender and touching, little intimate cameos, private thoughts and feelings captured, frozen in time. They were good photographs, which didn’t surprise him. Will had always been a keen photographer and he’d had a gift for somehow distilling the essence of a moment.
However, this time he’d used his skill to capture feelings that should have remained private between the two of them—which, of course, they would have done, had Amy not died. The photos of her revealed her vulnerability with painful clarity, and the naked emotion in some of the shots made Patrick’s heart contract.
Others, however, were more playful, and they’d made him want to smile. In one, Amy had obviously sneaked up on him with the camera and caught him sleeping. The next one showed him reaching out towards her, his eyes warm and laughing.
It was almost like a silly holiday snap, fun, less private than the others, and for a moment he considered doctoring it up for his parents and then dismissed it. No. They didn’t need to know about the photos. It would only provoke a barrage of questions, and they didn’t need the answers. He certainly hadn’t.
Will’s interlude with Amy was none of his business, and he heartily wished it had remained that way, but it hadn’t. Still, the time they’d spent together had brought Jess into the world, a fitting memorial to them both, a sweet, happy little thing who made his throat close with emotion every time she smiled at him.
For that alone, he could forgive her parents almost anything.
He looked up, dragging himself back into reality, and met Claire’s worried grey eyes.
‘Are you OK?’
His smile was twisted, he could feel it, but too much had happened and he needed time to assemble his emotions.
‘Yeah. Yes, I’m fine. I’m just…’
‘How about a breath of fresh air? I usually take Pepper out about this time, and Dog looks as if he wouldn’t mind a run.’
Fresh air sounded good. ‘He’d love it—but what about the baby? Shouldn’t one of us stay here with her?’
Claire stared at him. ‘You think I’d leave her? She comes too. She loves our walks. I put her in the baby sling, although I must say she’s getting a bit heavy. When she’s bigger she can have a backpack, and then she can see where she’s going, but for now, it’s this.’
She reached down a padded blue canvas contraption, and Pepper leapt to her feet and ran to the door. Claire laughed softly. ‘She knows, don’t you, darling?’
Pepper gave one sharp bark and wagged furiously as Claire sorted out the straps and shrugged into the sling.
Patrick looked down at Jess happily gumming a plastic keyring on his knee, and suddenly didn’t want to hand her over. He realised he was enjoying her, to his enormous surprise, and even the nappies hadn’t been too grim.
‘I’ll take her,’ he offered.
Claire paused. ‘Are you sure? She’s heavy and she dribbles.’
‘I’m sure I can cope,’ he said drily, and the next minute Claire had let out the straps on the sling and clipped him into it. Then the baby was threaded in, clamped firmly against his chest, her little arms pressed against his ribs and her feet kicking—ah. Just about safe, but a fraction lower and she might be the only child he ever got to hold.
‘I’ve made the straps too long,’ Claire said, and hoisted the baby up a little. He gave a quiet sigh of relief and shrugged into his jacket, catching a smile on Claire’s face before she turned away.
She shrugged, still smiling. ‘Nothing—it’s just not exactly your average dog-walking coat.’
He looked down at his pale linen jacket, the sort of thing that passed for casual in the city, and one side of his mouth kicked up in a wry smile.
‘I have to give you that, but it’s the only one I’ve got with me and it’s a bit chilly outside for shirt-sleeves.’
‘Didn’t you bring a jumper?’
He had, of course, and it was in the bag in her dreadful car still, but now he had the baby all strapped on and the dogs were dancing about with excitement.
‘I’ll live,’ he said, and with a shrug she pulled on a fleece and headed through the door and off down the drive, abandoning him.
He closed the door behind them, looking for a key without success. ‘Aren’t you going to lock it?’ he asked, and she turned and stopped in her tracks, looking at him in amazement.
‘Lock it? Apart from the fact that there’s very little in there worth stealing, this is the country.’
‘And knowing that, don’t the thieves target it?’
She laughed. ‘If they can find me. Strugglers Lane isn’t called that for nothing, you know. Come on, the dogs are getting a head start.’
And heaven knows what Dog will be like if he sees a rabbit, Patrick thought. He forgot about the unlocked house and set off after Claire, quickly settling into a rhythm beside her.
The baby, snuggled against his chest, soon fell asleep, her little body surprisingly heavy after a while. Still, it was a good feeling—extraordinary, really.
A few days ago he’d been a single man with no commitments, walking his dog alone in the park. Now, suddenly, he was walking the same dog, but with a baby on his chest and another dog and a beautiful woman by his side.
That thought brought him up short, and he looked at Claire keenly. Yes, she was beautiful. Of course she was—he just hadn’t really registered it amongst all the other information. Desirable, yes. Feminine, undoubtedly. Her sense of humour he had discovered to his cost, but—beautiful?
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