A Little Moonlighting
A Little Moonlighting
Amy winced, feeling suddenly emotional. She loved this job. She’d even come pretty close to loving her boss a time or two. But if she was going to have any sort of life at all, she was going to have to leave this all behind. “I—I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to work here anymore.”
Carter gave her a long-suffering look. “What do you want, Pendleton? A raise? A new title? More responsibility?”
“I want…” She hesitated. She’d never really told him this before, though she’d hinted at it often enough lately. “I want a home. I want a husband. I want babies, and a cat, and long mornings in bed and walks on the beach.”
Summer’s finally here! Whether you’ll be lounging poolside, at the beach, or simply in your home this season, we have great reads packed with everything you enjoy from Silhouette Romance—tenderness, emotion, fun and, of course, heart-pounding romance—plus some very special surprises.
First, don’t miss the exciting conclusion to the thrilling ROYALLY WED: THE MISSING HEIR miniseries with Cathie Linz’s A Prince at Last! Then be swept off your feet—just like the heroine herself!—in Hayley Gardner’s Kidnapping His Bride.
Romance favorite Raye Morgan is back with A Little Moonlighting, about a tycoon set way off track by his beguiling associate who wants a family to call her own. And in Debrah Morris’s That Maddening Man, can a traffic-stopping smile convince a career woman—and single mom—to slow down…?
Then laugh, cry and fall in love all over again with two incredibly tender love stories. Vivienne Wallington’s Kindergarten Cupids is a very different, highly emotional story about scandal, survival and second chances. Then dive right into Jackie Braun’s True Love, Inc., about a professional matchmaker who’s challenged to find her very sexy, very cynical client his perfect woman. Can she convince him that she already has?
Here’s to a wonderful, relaxing summer filled with happiness and romance. See you next month with more fun-in-the-sun selections.
A Little Moonlighting Raye Morgan
This one is for Val Payne,
good friend and fellow water polo mom
has spent almost two decades, while writing over fifty novels, searching for the answer to that elusive question: Just what is that special magic that happens when a man and a woman fall in love? Every time she thinks she has the answer, a new wrinkle pops up, necessitating another book! Meanwhile, after living in Holland, Guam, Japan and Washington, D.C., she currently makes her home in Southern California with her husband and two of her four boys.
“Pack your bags, Pendleton. We’ll be dining in Paris tomorrow.”
Amy Pendleton looked up from her desk with a worried frown, her sleek blond head tilted to the side as she regarded her boss, Carter James, who seemed all too cheerful with his news.
“Paris, France?” she asked, a slight hint of desperation in her tone.
“Of course,” he replied, waving papers at her before he dropped them on her desktop. His clear blue eyes shone with anticipation. “Ah, the Seine, the Champs-Élysées, the streetside bistros…”
Her pretty face twisted as her brows pulled together. “Weren’t we just in Paris last month?” she asked, wondering why he never seemed to notice that her enthusiasm for these constant business trips had waned in recent months. “Or was that Amsterdam?”
“Both,” he said happily, dropping to sit on the corner of her desk, one leg swinging. “And don’t forget that great steak dinner we had in Madrid on that trip. Too bad the meeting in Copenhagen lasted so late into the night that we had to settle for herring sandwiches.”
“Herring sandwiches,” she echoed, her voice hollow, her eyes glazed over. Absently, she picked up a pencil and held it in her hands. “Another cross-Atlantic flight. Cardboard airplane food.” She snapped the pencil in two and let the pieces drop onto her desk as she stared into a grim future. “Hour-long waits at ticket counters.” She picked up another pencil and snapped it, too. “Wearing clothes so wrinkled they look as though you’d slept in them.” Snap went a third. “No sleep. Jet lag. No way to keep track of the days.”
A deep sigh shuddered through her. “I just want to spend three consecutive nights in my own bed,” she said wistfully.
“Remember that little café where we had that great Turkish coffee the last time we were in Paris?” Carter said, his eyes focused on a distant memory.
His handsome face was relaxed, content. The picture of the successful businessman, his wide shoulders filled out his impeccable Italian suit as though he’d been born to wear the style. His thick dark hair was combed back in a slight wave off his forehead, but perfectly controlled, as was most of his life. “We’ll go there for breakfast on our first morning…”
She stared at him. He wasn’t paying any attention. But that was hardly new. He never paid any attention to her! Another pencil bit the dust.
How had she ever been so crazy as to dream about someday marrying this man when, after two long years of working together, he barely knew she existed outside of her performance as his administrative associate? He went on, rhapsodizing about Paris in the spring, and she marveled at him. How could he be so absolutely adorable and at the same time, so darn self-involved?
Marry him? Ha. Now that would be the height of insanity. First she would have to get him to think about something other than business or food long enough to notice she was a woman. And that seemed to be asking a little too much.
Although, she’d tried. Oh, yes, she’d certainly tried. She’d done all the normal things—brought in home-baked brownies, laughed at his jokes, smiled a lot, sat around looking doe-eyed and feminine.
And when that didn’t seem to jolt a response in him, she’d tried a more direct approach. She’d asked for advice from friends and—much to her later chagrin—had taken it. The short skirts hadn’t done anything noticeable to stir his blood. But she’d pressed on, donning dresses that emphasized her attributes, wearing her hair loose and casually shaking it in his face when she bent close to look over plans he was explaining to her.
“Pendleton, you’re going to make me sneeze,” he’d said, grimacing. “Can’t you do something with that hair?”
She remembered well the incident when she’d tried out the new perfume her friend Julie had told her was a surefire attention-getter. She’d stood very close to Carter and wafted the scent around her in his general direction whenever she got the chance. And suddenly, it seemed to work. He was sniffing the air.
“What’s that smell?” he asked her, frowning.
But before she could answer, while she was still busy producing her most flirtatious smile, he decided he knew.
“Someone’s ordered in pizza,” he said decisively. “My God, I’m hungry as a bear. Hold down the fort, Pendleton. I’ll go get us something to eat.”
Being mistaken for a freshly baked pizza was something a girl just didn’t get over all that quickly. That had been the last straw. She’d pretty much given up now.
And here he was going on and on about Paris as though this trip was going to be something special. Well, not for her.
“I’m not going,” she announced when he paused for breath.
He looked at her as though he wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “What are you talking about?” But before she could answer, he noticed the shattered remains littering her desk. “Pendleton, why are you destroying your pencils?”
She glared at him. “Because I am slowly going mad,” she told him grimly. “And that is why I am going to quit.”
She pulled open a desk drawer with a flourish and took out a sheet of paper that had her resignation printed on it. She’d been holding it there for weeks, waiting for the right moment. That moment seemed to have come.
“Here. Take it. I think it covers all the bases.” She winced, feeling suddenly emotional. She loved this job. She’d even come pretty close to loving her boss a time or two. But if she was going to have any sort of life at all, she was going to have to leave this all behind. “I—I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to work here anymore.”
He glanced at the paper, read a line or two, and gave her a long-suffering look. “Rubbish,” he said, and he dropped it into the trash can. “What do you want, Pendleton? A raise? A new title? More responsibility?”
He really didn’t listen. Suddenly she felt so tired.
“I don’t want any of those things. I want…” She hesitated. She’d never really told him this before, though she’d hinted at it often enough lately. But what good were hints to a man who never listened? Taking a deep breath, she launched into her new anthem of need.
“I want a home. I want a husband. I want babies, and a cat, and long mornings in bed and walks on the beach and…”
He laughed. Far from being offended, she stared at him in wonder. He didn’t often laugh right out loud, and when he did, the effect on her pulse rate was astounding. His brilliant white teeth gleamed against his tanned skin, his blue eyes sparkled against the thick, dark lashes, and his face softened for a moment. Laughing made him look so human, so approachable…so sexy. Her heart skipped a beat and a familiar longing rose in her chest, a longing she’d been beating back lately. But it just wouldn’t seem to die.
“Pendleton…” Reaching out, he took her chin in his hand and smiled into her eyes.
She smiled back, yearning for him, savoring his touch. That didn’t happen very often. He seemed to avoid it most of the time. But maybe he was waking up. Maybe he’d finally seen something in her to care for.
And his gaze did darken as he sobered. He looked more deeply into her eyes and for a moment, he seemed almost puzzled by what he saw there.
“Don’t you know that I can’t do without you?” he said softly.
Her heart was thumping in her chest. Had he finally noticed?
“You’re my other half,” he went on. “Without you I’m pretty good at this business. But together, we knock ’em dead.”
She sighed, shoulders sagging. Business again. She should have known. It was always business with Carter.
“You and I were made for this line of work,” he told her, dropping his hand from her chin but maintaining his hold on her gaze. “You know I’m right. You’re a born negotiator. I’ve seen your eyes light up when you see a chink in the opposition’s armor. I know how cool and silky you get when you know you’ve found a negotiating ploy that’s going to leave the other side gasping. I’ve seen your elation when we get a settlement that favors TriTerraCorp.” He grinned at her, very sure of himself.
He was right. They were very important to their company. TriTerraCorp was a large real-estate development firm with ongoing projects all over the world. The four-story, steel-and-tinted-glass headquarters here in the California central coast town of Rio de Oro was an imposing structure as was fitting for such a consequential corporation.
“And we always get a settlement that favors TriTerraCorp,” Carter was reminding her. “Because we’re the best.”
They were the best. He was right. She was good and he was better. He was so good, in fact, that he knew there was a good chance he could manipulate her. She knew it, too.
But she wasn’t going to give in that easily this time.
“I’m thirty-two years old, Carter,” she told him earnestly. “I’m edging into the zone of no return. If I don’t get started on finding someone to have a family with, I won’t ever have one.”
“Why do you have to quit your job in order to start a family?” he asked her, quite sensibly. “Lots of women keep working.”
“Your average job may allow for such things,” she said, shaking her head. “Being your sidekick is a little too nonstop for that. I barely have time to breathe. I don’t think I could fit in finding a mate and popping out a couple of babies while marking up contracts at the same time with my free hand.”
“Babies.” He shuddered. “Believe me, you don’t want to get mixed up with any of those. Messy, smelly, noisy things. A few all-nighters with a baby will sap all the fight right out of you.”
She turned her palms up. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. I can’t do both.”
Rising from the desk, Carter began to pace restlessly, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. She was being more tenacious than usual. She might actually mean it this time. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t lose her. Somehow over the past two years, their work patterns had become so intertwined, he couldn’t imagine setting up a series of important negotiations without her.
He looked at her sideways. Why hadn’t he seen this coming? He made it a practice to keep his distance, even from Pendleton. He’d learned early in life that human relationships always ended badly. It didn’t pay to let your heart get involved, not if you wanted to avoid getting it broken. Life was so much safer when you cruised the surface instead of plunging down into the deep.
He’d made a promise to himself never to let anyone become so important that his happiness depended upon keeping them in his life. Bad things happened when you did that. And yet, here he was, on the verge of losing her, and scared it just might happen.
Oh, what the hell! He could go on without her. He could get another associate, train her just the way he’d trained Pendleton. It would work out fine. No one was indispensable.
And then he turned and looked at her, took in her porcelain-fine profile, her beautiful blond hair, her trim figure, the graceful curve of her neck, and something seemed to quiver deep inside him. He couldn’t lose her.
“Not so fast, Pendleton,” he said calmly. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through. There are things in the works that could change your mind.”
She shook her head. “There will always be something coming up that would tempt me to stay,” she admitted. “I love working here and you know it. But my full nature isn’t fulfilled with work. I need more.”
He nodded dismissively and his face took on a pensive look.
“I talked to the Joliet Aire people this morning,” he told her with exaggerated casualness. “And Monsieur Jobert has agreed to meet with you.”
Her head snapped up and she stared at him. “What?” Monsieur Jobert was an illusive contact she’d been going after for six months. She jumped up, facing Carter and beaming. “You’re kidding!”
He nodded, gratified by her delighted surprise. “It’s true. That is exactly what we’re going to Paris for. He finally read one of your letters and wants to meet the lady behind the persuasive words.”
“I knew I could get to him eventually,” she said, eyes shining with triumph, her hand tightened in a little fist. “Now, to make sure I’ve got the right ammunition to convince him once we meet face-to-face…” Her voice trailed off as she realized what she was saying.
He studied her closely, one eyebrow cocked. “One more trip to Paris, Pendleton,” he said softly. “Come on. You know you can’t pass this one up.”
She turned away, thinking hard. He’d won again. But still, an interview with the famous Monsieur Jobert!
Carter watched her, his eyes filled with worry now that she wasn’t gazing into his. The last thing in the world he could afford was to lose Amy Pendleton. Together they were a well-oiled machine. Their successes were legendary at TriTerraCorp.
Besides, there was a part of him, deep down, a tiny part he didn’t often allow to surface, that would miss her in other ways. No, he couldn’t do without her. His throat tightened as he thought of it. He’d already lost too much, dammit. This was someone he wasn’t going to let walk out of his life.
“All right,” she said, turning back to look at him with stormy eyes. “One more trip to Paris. But after that…”
“Après moi le déluge,” he said, grinning at her as he repeated the famous quote attributed to Louis XV. “‘After me the deluge!’”
She laughed softly, shaking her head, not sure what the quote had to do with anything, but enjoying it anyway—enjoying him.
And that was part of her problem. She just enjoyed him too darn much! And that spoiled the rest of the male population for her. Every man she met she compared to Carter, and every other man came up wanting when she made those comparisons.
“More like, ‘after Paris, the resignation’,” she corrected him, her eyes sparkling. “Don’t forget. I’m quitting.”
He didn’t answer but his confident smile told her he would be working on new ways to keep her from doing that. And he was very good at orchestrating outcomes the way he liked them.
“‘The more you try to get out, the more they pull you back in’,” Meg quoted in her best mobster accent.
Amy laughed at her sister’s impression of a gangster. She’d always been a natural actress, even when they were both growing up together in San Diego. Amy remembered the neighborhood productions they had put on, with Meg playing most of the parts and other children drafted off the street to play against her. Amy herself was usually the set designer, promoter, ticket-taker and prompter. While Meg loved being in front of an audience, Amy had always preferred the behind-the-scenes activities.
“That’s about the size of it,” she admitted. “But I’m going to quit right after we get back from this trip. Honest.”
“Good.” Meg smiled at her sister. Only two years older, she’d considered herself the head of the family, ever since their parents had died a few years before. “Because, you’ve got to admit,” she went on, “you’re not getting any younger, Amy.”
Meg filled a little bowl with homemade strawberry ice cream and placed it on the kitchen table in front of her sister, then went on to fill two more tiny bowls.
Amy bit her tongue, taking up the ice cream and grabbing a spoon to eat it with, but fuming inside. What a dumb thing that was to say. Of course she wasn’t getting any younger. Nobody was. Meg might as well advise her to breathe air.
Still, she held back her temper and didn’t let her sister see how much she resented that comment. After all, she knew Meg was just trying to help her. She was concerned, and she wanted Amy to find a man and have the happiness she’d found with her husband Tim and her three little children.
Amy loved her sister. Looking at her now, with her common-sense attitude and her shiny auburn hair cut in a short bob, she felt a surge of affection. She really felt as though she’d neglected Meg over the past few years. She was on the road so much, she barely had time to stop by for holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving before racing off again to go to cities all over the world. Sometimes she felt that she hardly knew Meg’s little ones, and she regretted that.
“Besides, if you quit, you’ll have more time to date.” Meg turned and gave her a bright smile that failed in its attempt to seem offhandedly casual. “Paul is always asking about you.”
Paul was Meg’s neighbor, a perfectly nice man Amy had met over dinner at her sister’s. But she had to hold back her reaction once again, because while Paul was pleasant and had a certain charm, he was no Carter James.
Still, whom was she kidding? Carter was exactly the man she couldn’t get. Maybe Paul was more her speed. That is, if she really wanted to settle down and have a family.
“Deedee!” Meg called as she set out the two little bowls. “Scamp! Ice cream!”
A sound very much like that of stampeding cattle came thundering through the house and two very small children exploded into the room. The boy was a towhead with hair like flax. The little girl had a mop of chocolate-colored curls. They stopped dead when they caught sight of Amy. Deedee, all of eighteen months or so, reached out and clung to her four-year-old brother’s arm while they both stared, wide-eyed.
“It’s your aunt Amy, sillies,” Meg exclaimed with a short laugh. “Come give her a kiss.”
There was just no way that was going to happen. Amy could see it in their eyes.
“Hi, Deedee,” she said cheerfully, though she heard the oddly uncomfortable note in her own voice. And if she heard it, she knew darn well they did. “How are you, Scamp?”
Scamp, whose real name was William, answered her but didn’t look eager to make physical contact. He put his arm around his little sister’s shoulders as though to protect her, and they both sidled away from their aunt, trying to reach the table without having to come within arm’s reach of their unfamiliar relative. And they got away with it, since Meg didn’t notice. She had turned away and was chattering on about something she’d seen in the paper that morning.
Amy felt her smile harden like concrete around her mouth. The children hated her. And she had no idea how to charm them. Why wouldn’t they be wary? They grabbed their dishes of ice cream and made tracks out of the room, glancing back with half smiles, then ducking their heads and disappearing. Here she was dressed to the hilt, on her way to the airport to leave for Paris. They’d never seen her like this before, in heels and a power suit, with the obligatory silk power scarf, and her hair combed back severely into a twist held by a diamond-studded comb. She even had on her power makeup, which could almost be considered a mask. All necessary for striking tremulous awe in the hearts of negotiating adversaries, but hardly the thing to endear nieces and nephews.
There was that, and the fact that she hadn’t been around enough lately for them to be holding many fond memories. Why did she let herself get so caught up in business that she neglected her family? She wasn’t going to let that happen any longer. She was going to pick a time and come over every week. Right after she got back from Paris.
She groaned softly, realizing how that sounded like putting things off again. She’d done too much of that. Could she change?
She finished off the ice cream and sighed as she pushed the dish away. Well, there you had it. She was frightening to small children. Was this the future she wanted? It was down to the wire and it was her choice. She had to change.
“I’d better get going if I don’t want to miss the flight,” she said, rising and giving her pretty sister a kiss on the cheek.
“Remember,” Meg said stoutly, gripping her by the shoulders and gazing intently into her eyes. “You’re committed. You’re going to quit when you get back from Paris.”
Amy nodded, frowning with mock ferocity, and they both laughed as she went out the door, waving. But the laugh faded quickly as she made her way to her car.
Life without Carter. Was it possible?
But she did want to have a normal life and a family, and if she was serious about that, it was time to attack her problem with the right sort of focus and attention.
Suppose she took some time off and tried to get this done. What would it take? At least six months to find someone suitable and congenial whom she might want to marry. Another six months to really get to know him—and convince him that he wanted to marry, as well. Another six months to set up the wedding. Then a few months before getting pregnant…
She gasped in horror as she turned into the airport parking lot. It would take almost three years, from the moment she began her project, to the point where she could possibly have a baby in her arms. She was going to be a hundred years old before she got there!
It all seemed so hopeless. And as she stood waiting for the shuttle to take her to the international terminal, it did occur to her that there might be an indication of the root of her problem in the fact that she even thought about things like this in a business-like manner—projecting time frames and plotting out an attack the way she would plot out a business move. She’d been too long in the business world, hadn’t she?
She saw Carter waiting for her by the ticket counter and her heart leaped up as it always did when she saw him. She loved the way he stood, so casually sure of himself, so sure the world was his oyster. If only he were the marrying kind. If only he would somehow magically, suddenly, fall in love with her. That would take care of everything.
She sighed, then started forward, walking quickly to join him.
“Darn you, Carter,” she was saying under her breath. “Why don’t you love me?”
One week later
Carter shifted his weight restlessly as he stood waiting for Amy outside the ICU unit of the Monte Vista Hospital. He hated the look of the place—the anonymous white walls, the stainless-steel appliances. He hated the mysterious sounds, the jarring smells. Even the pretty redhead giving him the eye from behind the nurses’ station didn’t make things any better. Every instinct he owned was screaming at him to run for it. As far as he was concerned, only bad things happened in hospitals. He’d had these feelings ever since, as a boy, he’d watched his mother die in one.
Ordinarily, he shunned them like the plague. But this visit had been unavoidable. The moment he’d heard the announcement paging Amy as they stepped into the terminal at the airport, disembarking the flight from Paris, a knot had pulled up hard in his stomach and it hadn’t yet let go.
They had raced to a phone and the message had been bad. Just hours before, Amy’s sister and her husband had been in a terrible car accident. They’d been hit by a drunk driver. Both were in critical condition. Carter would never forget the look on Amy’s face as she absorbed the news.
They had raced to the hospital and found that both injured parties were in surgery. Amy had turned to him, her face stricken and questioning—as though he could stop all this from happening somehow—and he’d wanted to do something big and grand to make it all go away for her, to protect her. But there was nothing he could do but stay with her, and that’s what he did.
Not that she seemed to notice most of the time. For the most part, she had sat huddled in a chair in the lobby, staring at the far wall. She’d looked up when he’d brought her a cup of water, looked up and smiled absently at him and thanked him. And then went back to staring at the wall. He watched her, feeling helpless and frustrated.
He could see her now through the glass partitioning off the ICU unit, bending over her sister as she lay in the bed, leaning close to kiss her gently, then turning toward the exit. Carter straightened. Maybe he could finally get her out of here.
She came out through the swinging doors and he winced as his gaze swept over her. Her eyes were huge and clouded with anguish. The dark smudges beneath them, the tension in her face, all told him things didn’t look particularly rosy right now.
“What do they say?” he asked, falling in beside her as she walked the corridor toward the elevator. “What’s the prognosis?”
She glanced at him as though surprised to find him there. “Oh. Carter.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Carter, what are you still doing here?”
“I wanted to…” He hesitated and shrugged, his eyes hooded. “To take care of you.”
“To take care of me.” A bittersweet smile played at her lips. “Oh, Carter, you should know me well enough by now. I can take care of myself.”
“Hmm.” His mouth twisted, but he wasn’t going to remind her of the basket case she’d been just a few hours before.
“Well, at least they are sure Meg and Tim will pull through. Their conditions have both stabilized. But they will have to be hospitalized for…” She swallowed hard and forced herself to continue. “For weeks, maybe months. Tim’s back was broken. And Meg—” Her face crumpled suddenly. “Both legs broken…” she managed to whisper, shaking her head, her fist to her mouth.
Carter stared at her, feeling helpless and angry with himself. He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her everything was going to be all right. It shouldn’t be this hard. All he had to do was reach out…
He raised a hand awkwardly, ready to pat her shoulder. But she moved away without noticing and he let his hand drop. Something cold and painful filled his chest.
“No,” she was telling herself fiercely, closing her eyes and fighting back the tears. “I will not cry. I can’t cry.” Straightening her shoulders, she frowned at him. “I’m the one who has to take care of things. I will not cry,” she promised.
Carter shrugged, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and trying to look casual. “Go ahead and cry,” he said gruffly. “I’d say it’s a crying situation.”
“But I don’t have time for that,” she was saying briskly, wiping her eyes and heading for the elevator. “I’ve got to go to the children.”
He blinked, trailing behind her. “The children?”
She nodded, jabbing at the down button. “Meg’s children. Deedee and Scamp and Jillian, the baby.”
He relaxed. Meg’s children. Of course. Arrangements would have to be made. He could help her with that. He knew people who would know of a good child-care agency. A few phone calls should do the trick. His spirits brightened and he looked forward to doing this for her. It would make him feel a little more useful.
The elevator arrived and they boarded side by side.
“Those poor babies,” Amy was saying. “They must be so scared. Thank God they weren’t in the car when the accident occurred.”
He looked at her, barely hearing her words. He’d always liked the way she looked and for some reason, she was especially fetching right now with her lipstick rubbed off and her eyes so huge. Another impulse to offer her something more in the way of physical comfort rose in him, but he fought it back. They’d made it through two years and he’d managed to keep from letting their relationship get personal. This was no time to let his defenses weaken.
Pendleton was the best associate he’d ever worked with, more a partner than an employee. Together they made magic in the business world. If he allowed his natural inclinations to lead him to a romance with her, all that would be ruined. Once emotional elements were allowed to enter into it, the balance would be destroyed and disaster would be lurking just around the corner.
That was his golden rule. He’d had enough experience to know that romance never lasted and, when it was over, what had once been sweet quickly turned to bitter ashes.
They’d gone through a rough patch for a while. She’d definitely been attracted to him and she’d let him know it. He’d thought at first there would be no real problem, as she wasn’t really his type. But then he’d realized she wasn’t really any type at all. She was just darn good at business, and darn appealing to his male spirit. He’d needed the strength of Hercules to resist her, and there had been times he’d almost succumbed.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
That was another of his watch phrases. He’d come up through some hard times in his youth and he’d repeated that phrase whenever his situation seemed almost too much to bear. Now he told himself those words whenever the temptation to take Pendleton in his arms was almost overwhelming. He wasn’t sure if it really applied, but it always made him feel better.
Right now she was lifting her face to him and his breath stopped in his throat. The need to kiss those beautiful lips crashed though him like a summer storm. He stared down at her, only minimally aware that she was speaking.
“Meg was conscious for a while and I got to talk to her,” she said.
Carter blinked, catching hold of himself and looking quickly away so that he could breathe again.
“That sounds like a good sign,” he muttered, hoping she hadn’t noticed his minor lapse.
“Yes, I think so.” She sighed and he realized she looked close to the end of her rope.
“Why don’t we go eat?” he suggested. It had been hours since their last meal, and that had been airplane food.
“Eat?” She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think I can eat.”
He gave her a halfhearted grin. “Well, you could watch me.”
She patted his arm. “No thanks. I’m going to have to get out to Meg’s house,” she said, turning away.
“The children,” she reminded him just a bit impatiently.
They left the elevator together and both turned automatically toward the parking lot.
“I promised Meg I would go out and take care of them right away.” She shook her head. “That was the only thing she could think about and she could hardly force out the words, but I knew what she meant. All she cares about is those kids.”
She sighed. “Poor little things. And now they are going to be saddled with an aunt they barely know instead of their mother and father.” She remembered how they had reacted to her just days before and bit her lip. How was she going to win them over?
“Where do they live?”
“Just outside of town, in the Las Palmas Valley. It’s probably ten minutes from here.”
Carter frowned. “Listen, you don’t have to do that. I can make a few calls, get someone to handle this. I know some very good sources. We can get expert care out there immediately.”
Amy stopped dead and turned to look up at him, realization dawning in her gaze. “Carter, I don’t think you understand. I’m the one who is going to ‘handle’ this. I’m going to take care of them for the duration. I’m the only one available to do it.”
His brows came together. Something told him he wasn’t going to like the plans she was making.
“That’s absurd. You’re not a baby-sitter.” His glance was scathing. “You’re a businesswoman. You don’t do diapers. And believe me, you don’t want to.”
“Oh, Carter. How do you know?”
“You’d be surprised,” he muttered, scanning the lot and spotting their cars, parked together in the next area.
He nodded in the direction they needed to go and began to lead her there. “Where are the children now?” he asked.
“I think a neighbor has them. I have to check on that.”
“Then let the neighbor take care of them,” he began, but she stopped short again and faced him.
“No, Carter. I will not let the neighbor take care of them. They are my family and my responsibility.”
“But we have the Northridge situation to look into in the morning,” he said, looking as though he just didn’t get why she would prefer the company of children to the fast-paced atmosphere they both thrived in. “You know that’s going to blow up on us if we don’t take care of the details right away.”
“You’re going to have to take care of it on your own,” she told him firmly. Then she hesitated, knowing it was time to make him face what she knew he didn’t want to. “Carter…” She put her hand on his arm and searched his eyes, wishing she could think of a way to soften the blow. “Carter, come to grips with this,” she said softly. “I won’t be in tomorrow. I won’t be in the day after.”
He laughed shortly. “But you will be in the day after that. Two good days of child-care duty and you’ll be begging for an emergency assignment.”
“No. I won’t.” She pushed her hair back behind her ear and looked at him sideways. “This has been coming for a long time. You know that. I’ve made it clear, I think. And now any decision has really been taken out of my hands. I have no choice. And neither do you.” She smiled tremulously. “You do realize what this means, don’t you?”
“No,” he said stubbornly, avoiding her gaze, looking restlessly into the parking lot. “What?”
“I’m not going to be working for you anymore, Carter. I warned you.”
His head swung around and he stared at her, stunned. She was making it sound as though it was final. He’d been prepared for a short break in her presence at work, but nothing permanent.
Oh, sure, she’d been threatening to quit, and even written up resignations to taunt him with, but he’d never taken her seriously. He had always been sure that she valued their collaboration as much as he did. Now he was beginning to realize she was talking about a complete abandonment of her responsibilities. That just couldn’t be. What was he going to do without her?
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice low, his gaze intense.
She took a shaky breath. “I promised my sister I would take care of her children.”
He nodded tersely. “Of course you did. And we’ll spare no expense in finding the best child care—”
“No.” She shook her head adamantly. “I’m not going to leave them with strangers. I’m going to move into Meg’s house and be with those children night and day until their mother and father are well enough to come home to them.”
“We’ll see how long you last,” he said, managing to look more confident than he felt.
Shaking her head, she gave an exasperated sigh and said, “Carter, read my lips. I quit!”
Their gazes held for a long moment. Then she turned on her heel and left him.
Carter watched her walk toward where the car was parked, and for a moment, he couldn’t move.
This was not possible. There had to be another way. Why he couldn’t think of something right now, he wasn’t sure. Maybe he was too jet-lagged. Maybe he was just too unprepared for such a thing as was happening. In any case, his mind was fuzzy and his stomach was growling and he didn’t have a clue how he was going to get her back in the office. He only knew he was going to do it. Because he had to.
Amy lay very still, staring at what she could see of the ceiling. There it was again. A scratching sound. She knew what it was, what it had to be. But that didn’t make it any less chilling to hear.
Scratch, scratch. Scuffle, scuffle. Fred was riffling through the closed closet. And she knew it was going to be her job to catch him.
The children had told her about Fred the day before.
“He’s gone!” Scamp had cried, his eyes huge and filled with horror. “I on’y left the door open fer a little to get him water and he go’d away!” He’d clutched her around the knees, tears threatening. “Aun’ Amy, don’ let that mean ole cat get him!”
Fred was a white mouse. A very pretty little mouse, from what she’d heard. But Fred was on the lam.
Amy shuddered. She didn’t have a lot of experience at catching little white mice. A nice trap would have been her preference. But this was a beloved pet, so traps were out. She was going to have to catch him carefully, so as not to hurt him. How the heck was she supposed to do that?
Sighing, she rolled onto her side and closed her eyes, firmly determined to get a little more sleep before another day broke over her like a giant ocean wave. That was what the day before had felt like—surfing on the big ones at Makaha Beach—something way beyond her experience and capabilities.
Taking care of children wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Oh, she’d known it wouldn’t be all that easy. But she hadn’t realized caring for them would leave her drained, both physically and emotionally, and wondering how most mothers did it.
But women did do it, and most did it very well. In bygone ages, they did it without modern plumbing and washing machines and fast-food restaurants. Could you imagine? Not even Sesame Street. What she had was a cakewalk compared to what most women had gone through over the ages.
But that only made her feel even worse. If she was having this much trouble when it was so much easier than it had ever been in history, what did that say about her?
Oh, grow up, she told herself impatiently, rejecting the impulse toward self-pity. After all, she’d only been doing this for a little more than twenty-four hours now.
She’d raced over and collected the children from where they were being kept that first night. Paul Hanford, the man Meg had been trying to get her interested in, was the neighbor taking care of them. She’d taken the steps up onto his front porch slowly, feeling a lot of trepidation, anxious that the children wouldn’t want to go with her, and that she would have a hard time getting them to accept her as their interim parent. After all, the last time they’d seen her they hadn’t actually been brimming with friendliness toward her.
But when the chips were down, they had surprised her.
“Aun’ Amy!” Scamp had cried, peering though his wispy bangs of white-blond hair when she’d appeared in the doorway of Paul’s house. “Deedee, it’s Aun’ Amy!”
And the two children had run to her, with Scamp actually throwing his arms around her knees with so much force he’d just about knocked her down.
“I guess blood really is thicker than water,” she’d murmured to herself as she went down on one knee to embrace them both.
A warm feeling of affection curled through her, along with a strong sense of empathy for two young ones who had to be scared and very confused about what had happened to their parents. She must look like a comfortingly familiar face under these circumstances. And luckily, she wasn’t dressed to kill—in a business sense—as she had been days before. They’d at least recognized her for who she was.
“Hey, I just talked to your mother,” she told them, brushing Scamp’s hair back off his forehead and noticing, suddenly, how much like her sister he looked.
Pictures in albums saved from the childhood she and Meg had shared portrayed a little girl whose face was a very close model for this young boy in front of her. That made her want to hug him again.
“Your mother sends you her love and she promises to be home just as soon as she can.”
“Does she have a boo-boo?” Scamp asked solemnly.
Amy nodded, blinking quickly to hold back the tears that threatened to come again. “She has a bunch of boo-boos. And so does your daddy. The doctor is going to fix them right up, though. So don’t you worry.”
Scamp thought about that for a moment. “I got a boo-boo on my arm,” he offered at last, showing her the scab. “Is that like Daddy’s?”
Amy hesitated, then smiled at him. “Sort of,” she allowed. “Just a little worse.”
Scamp nodded wisely, showing he understood. “Are you gonna take care of us, Aun’ Amy?” he asked her, his blue eyes hopeful.
“Of course,” she told them, smiling warmly. “I’ll stay with you until your mother comes home. I promise.”
Deedee sighed happily and cuddled in close, while Scamp pulled back, seeming to suddenly remember that he had his young male pride to consider.
“I’m really glad you’re going to be able to do this,” Paul told her, smiling down at the picture she made with the little dark-haired girl in her arms. “I’ve got a sales trip to Omaha tomorrow and I won’t be back for three or four days. Otherwise, I would have been glad to take over for Tim and Meg.”
“Oh, no,” Amy said quickly. “They’re my family. I’ll take care of them.” She hugged Deedee closer, then put her on her little feet. “Run get your things, kids. I’m going to take you home.”
She rose, waiting for the children to leave the room before saying quietly to Paul, “I really haven’t heard all the details yet. Where were they when the accident happened? And where were Meg and Tim going? Do you know?”
Paul nodded. He was a pleasant-looking man with slightly thinning blond hair and a nice smile. “They were going to lunch to celebrate Tim’s promotion. Did you know his law firm just made him a partner?”
“No,” she said softly, feeling again a sense of having been woefully inattentive to what was going on in her sister’s life. “How great for him.” She swallowed. “So the kids were at home?”
“Yes. Cheryl Park, an older lady from down the street, was sitting with them. But she had to get home, so I took over and brought them over here.”
“Thank you so much,” she said earnestly, holding out a hand to shake his. “I—we all appreciate it. You’ve been a big help.”
“Any time,” he said, holding her hand a little too long and beaming at her significantly. “As soon as I get back from Omaha, I’ll be able to help a lot more.”
Her smile wavered as she witnessed the intensity of his and she pulled her hand away.
“Yes,” she said quickly. “Well…” She turned, looking toward where the baby slept in a travel chair. “I guess I’d better get them home. It must be way past their bedtime by now.”
“Yes, of course.” He looked pleased with something and she wasn’t sure why.
Deedee and Scamp came running up, ready to go home. Amy helped Deedee into her sweater.
“’Bye, Pooky,” Scamp called back at the huge orange-colored cat sitting on a pillow in the far corner of the room. “See ya tomorrow.”
“’Bye, ’bye,” Deedee said, copying her brother and waving at the animal.
The cat blinked its golden eyes and lashed its tiger-striped tail and didn’t say a thing.
“I’ll come with you,” Paul offered. “I’ll help you carry the baby, help you get the other two to bed.” He gave Amy a comforting smile. “You’ll need help, all right. They are a handful.”
“Are they?” Suddenly her confidence began to show some wear around the edges. Was she going to be up to this job? She’d never taken care of children before, never even baby-sat as a teenager. She was always too busy entering competitions and running for class office to have time for things like that.
And she hadn’t visited with Meg and her crew often enough to get a feel for it. Whenever she was over, Meg was a whirlwind of activity, usually ordering Amy just to sit and talk to her, tell her everything about what it was like to live in the fast-paced business world.
“Oh, sure,” Paul said happily as he headed out on the porch, baby in tow. “They’re not bad kids, mind you, but they are very, very active. But don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it right away.”
“Will I?” she had whispered to herself as she followed with the older children. “And what happens if I don’t?”
Snapping out of her reverie, Amy willed herself to drift off to sleep. She knew she’d need all her energy to face another day.
You’ll get the hang of it, Amy told herself encouragingly as she watched the morning sun begin to form a light pattern on the bedroom wall. Just give it some time.
But there was no more time—the baby was stirring. She could hear the little murmurs that would soon grow into a full-throated cry. For just a moment she longed for her usual mornings, awakening to her clock radio, lingering over coffee and the newspaper, dressing in something sharp and business-like and arriving at the office in time to get a morning glance, along with a cynical comment or two, from a suave and debonair Carter.
Carter. She felt an ache of regret that twisted inside her. Instead of that grown-up, sophisticated way to start her day, she had to share a bedroom with a noisy white mouse. There had been a time when she’d dreamed of sharing such a room with Carter.
But the baby’s noises were getting more insistent. No time for nostalgia. Sighing, she threw back the covers and rolled out of bed. Time to start the day.
“Carter, we really have to get the final numbers on the Milan estimate. They’ve been calling all week and I put them off because you were in France, but they know you’re back and…”
Carter looked up from the papers he’d been staring at and frowned at Delia, his secretary. Middle-aged and motherly, she ran the office with a fine efficiency and attention to detail; she liked her boss a lot, but didn’t necessarily approve of everything he did.
“I don’t have those numbers,” he told her. “Pendleton was working on those.”
“I’ve looked through her desk, but I can’t find them.” Delia waited expectantly, her large brown eyes earnest.
He hesitated, then shrugged impatiently. “Give her a call,” he suggested.
Delia set her lips and put her hands on her hips. “Mr. James, I will not bother her with office business. She doesn’t work here anymore. We have to do this without her.”
Carter stared out across the room at the desk where his administrative associate was supposed to be. There was an interloper sitting in her chair. A short, eager young woman with a head of bouncing red curls sat looking through files where Pendleton ought to be. He had an impulse to growl like a guard dog seeing an intruder, but he reined it in and managed to speak calmly to his secretary.
“I’ll work on the Milan figures later,” he told Delia. He held up a piece of onionskin-thin paper. “Right now I need someone to interpret what this letter from the Lee Group in Singapore is all about.”
“Well, give it to Martha. If she’s going to be your associate, she’s going to have to learn to do these things.”
He gazed at Delia as though she’d advised him to call in a palm reader.
“She won’t have a clue,” he told her scornfully. “Pendleton was the only one who ever knew what these screwballs were saying.”
Delia shrugged. “She’ll have to learn sometime. And you’re going to have to teach her.”
He groaned, almost writhing in his chair.
“You taught Amy,” Delia reminded him sternly. “She didn’t know anything at first, either.”
“Maybe not,” he rumbled. “But she had an instinct for the business like no one I’d ever seen before. I’ll never find anyone else like her.”
Delia threw up her hands. “You are resistant to change, aren’t you?”
Change? Was that what he was resistant to? He scowled at the woman. What was she so cheery about, anyway? She was going to miss Pendleton, too. He couldn’t believe she thought this Martha person was a fitting replacement any more than he did.
“Oh, she’ll do fine, in time,” Delia assured him as though she’d read his mind. She turned to leave. “Give her a chance,” she flung back over her shoulder.
He didn’t want to give her a chance. He wanted Pendleton back. He wanted to look out across the room and see her sleek blond head bent over a problem, see her jump up in excitement when she’d figured out an answer, see her striding toward his desk with a look of triumph on her beautiful lips…Where the hell was she, anyway?
Looking out at where she ought to be, he felt something painful in his chest. “Gas pain,” he told himself hopefully. “I’ll get over it.” But he knew better.
The day seemed to drag. Even sparring with his nemesis in Finance, Gary Brown, tight-fisted holder of the travel advance purse strings, didn’t perk him up much. He spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the telephone and thinking of different things he needed to say to Pendleton. But he couldn’t call her. That would be like…well, like admitting defeat or something.
Or admitting that you need her, said a little voice in his head.
But he’d already admitted that. In fact, he’d pretty much taken out billboards to make sure she got the message. So why not call her? Why not?
And then Martha, his new associate, was coming toward his desk, a look of eager expectation on her cute little face. She was so young, so earnest, so…so un-Pendleton.
“Mr. James,” she said brightly, her smile fixed. “I need to find a file on land prices in Australia. It’s listed in the file index but it’s not where it’s supposed to be.”
Ignoring the smile, he frowned at her. “We were just using that file recently. Have you checked the copy room? Someone might have left it in the copy machine.”
“That was the very first place I looked.”
His frown began to fade. “Have you looked through the desk?”
“Yes, sir. Twice.”
Carter leaned back in his chair. He glanced out at where Delia usually sat. Her desk was empty. A faint smile began to play at the corners of his wide mouth.
“I guess we’ll have to call Pendleton,” he said slowly. “I can’t see what else we can do.” He gave his new associate the first genuine smile she’d ever seen from him. “But there’s no need for you to bother about it. You just go on back and do some typing or something.” He sat up straight in his chair and flexed his shoulders. “I’ll make the call.”
Martha blinked at him uncertainly, then quickly went back to her desk. Carter stared at the telephone for a long moment, anticipating, then reached for it.
Amy felt like a woman under siege. If yesterday had been difficult, today was impossible. It had started out badly and just gotten worse.
The only high point had been a call to the hospital that told her Meg and Tim were improving steadily and might be able to take phone calls in another day or two. What a relief it was to know they were probably going to be all right.
But from there on it was all downhill.
The baby woke up fussing and had kept it up all day. She wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t sleep, only wanted to be held and carried around. Amy’s arms still ached from that activity. She’d finally had to put Jillian down, letting her fuss all to herself. But the sound of her wails was like the constant scraping of fingernails across a blackboard and she wasn’t sure how much more she could take. Luckily, the baby’s crying subsided after a while.
Scamp had decided at breakfast that the only way he wanted to communicate was by barking like a dog from now on. One bark meant yes, two meant no. The trouble was, he loved the barking so much, he usually went on and on until it was darn hard to figure out what he was trying to say. Amy had pretty much given up trying.
She’d tried to lose her cares in laundry work, but someone had left a crayon in a shirt pocket and the entire washload ended up stained with purple streaks by the time she’d pulled it out of the dryer.
“Oh, no,” she moaned, looking at the ruined clothing. There would be no way to hide this. Humiliation was dogging her now.
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