Nicole Darren pulled her hatchback into the address on the outskirts of Marietta and let out a relieved breath. That drive through icy passes and swirling snowflakes had been a nightmare—and she had splurged on good snow tires.
Well, she had spent her father’s money on them, but she wouldn’t have arrived in one piece if she hadn’t. And she was going to pay him back.
Right after she landed this job.
With another cleansing breath, she tugged her hat onto her head, pulling hard enough to bring the pink-and-yellow tails under her chin, then tied them off. As she stepped outside, her nose pinched and her eyes watered, stung by the fierce, biting wind.
I missed you, too, Montana. Ugh. Maybe she should have waited until May to leave California.
After slamming her car door, she pocketed her keys, then zipped her consignment-store ski jacket, taking in the farmhouse as she started toward it. It was two stories with a single-story addition wrapped in a covered porch off to the left. The east side, maybe? She was terrible with directions, but she knew pretty when she saw it.
In the waning light of afternoon, surrounded by the blowing snow, the house looked surprisingly sweet. It was in good repair, obviously restored by loving hands that had a flair for “quaint”. She adored the bold eggplant with teal trim and yellow rails. On a sunny day, it would be bright and welcoming, making any passerby smile. There was even an old washtub next to the stairs, sleeping under a layer of snow, but with a few ice-coated, brown stalks poking through, promising to greet visitors with a riot of blooms come spring.
Delighted by the idea of working for someone with such a warm, artistic bend, she clomped up the steps, rang the bell, then looked for a broom to sweep her footprints.
The door opened and a man was backlit through the screen. She saw more silhouette than expression. He was tall and had wide, strapping shoulders beneath a white-and-blue striped button shirt. No hat, cowboy or otherwise. He wore a neatly trimmed beard the same color as his dark brown hair.
He did not look like he needed a nursing aide.
She smiled as if he were her new boss. “Am I at the right house? Are you Ryan Quincy? I’m Nicki Darren.”
“Quincy Ryan.” He started to push the screen toward her.
“I’m sorry.” She stepped back, then loosened her boots and stepped out of them, leaving them on the welcome mat as she entered. “I thought the recruitment site got it backward, and Ryan was your first name.”
“That happens a lot.” He didn’t smile. In fact, he was doing a great imitation of the arctic outflow wind that he locked outside as he closed the door behind her.
Now she was in the foyer and could properly see him, she realized he was really good looking. Her inner spinster warmed and fanned herself. The aspiring actress who had been around that many pretty boys for the last seven years said, Oh, please.
But he was really good looking. He was a head taller than she was, fit and trim with dark brown eyes, brows that were on the stern side, and a jaw that was wide enough to be strong. It was beautifully framed with stubble grown just long enough to make her want to touch his cheek, suspecting it was smooth, not scratchy. He was one of those quietly powerful types of men who were natural leaders because people couldn’t help but look up and defer to him.
At the same time, he gave off such an attitude of aloof superiority, she had to catch back an exasperated chuckle. She had left L.A. precisely to distance herself from this sort of arrogance, and to get back to being around real people who were nice to one another because it was the decent way to behave.
Do. Not. Blow. This.
“You have a beautiful home.” Compliments were always a good start, right? She tugged off her hat and flashed another friendly grin at him. Maybe her face hadn’t opened as many doors as she would have liked, but her smile usually prompted an answering one when she offered it.
“It’s not mine. My father grew up here and just bought it again. We had nothing to do with this.”
The jerk of his head disparaged the crown molding, the polished hardwood floors, and the glossy white wainscoting under cornflower-blue wallpaper with white polka dots. Each of the stair treads was carpeted in blue while the risers were painted white. She would bet any money the kitchen was buttercup yellow.
“I see.” She didn’t. She instantly loved everything about this house and wanted to tell him how lucky he was. She’d been sharing rooms with cockroaches and starving actors. She hadn’t had her own space in years, let alone anything so dollhouse perfect.
“I just drove in from California. That was a shock to the system.” She thumbed toward the window draped in white curtains held open with bands of blue. Outside, flakes continued to swirl in the dusk.
“It was like this in Philly. And all the way across.” He frowned as he led her into a living room where the furniture was off center on its area rug. Boxes were stacked against the wall. In the empty, adjoining dining room, a gray modular desk was coming together, a handful of pieces still wrapped in shrink film. “We got in late last night. I thought your resume showed a Montana address?”
“My father’s place. One way or another, I was giving up my room in L.A. Since Glacier Creek is where I was born…” She shrugged as she removed her jacket and draped it across her thighs as she lowered to perch on the sofa across from him. “It’s where I’m headed if I don’t take a job elsewhere.”
She tried to make it sound like she had options other than this one.
He took the wingback, seeming to weigh her words. Did he think she was dishonest? Misrepresenting? Her palms began to sweat. She needed this job so bad.
A laptop stood open on the coffee table. Thankfully, there was only one file folder beside it, with her name on it.
Don’t send me crawling back to Glacier Creek. Please.
She had left anything that didn’t fit in her hatchback in California, then had barely slept in Utah, afraid her few remaining possessions would be stolen overnight, even though the couple she had found through a B&B app had assured her their neighborhood was very safe. She hadn’t detoured to stay with her father and stepmother on her way here either. Telling them she was back in Montana could wait until she had aced this interview. That was what she kept telling herself.
If she didn’t get the job, well, she could already hear her stepmother, Gloria, saying, “I told you so.”
“You didn’t list previous experience.” Quincy Ryan lifted his gaze from studying her file. He sounded skeptical. Looked dubious.
“I completed my certification earlier this year and did a practicum at an assisted-living home in Santa Monica. I was able to stay on at the facility a few extra months to cover for someone on leave. I’ve been working in the field all this time.”
She had to force herself not to blurt the words out too fast, but she was anxious to impress on him that she wasn’t completely green. Squishing her palms together between her knees, she fought to keep her voice measured and warm.
“But the cost of living in California is, well, prohibitive. And I was ready for a change. Montana always felt like home, so when I saw this position, I was really excited. I love the idea of being back here.”
Too much enthusiasm? She didn’t know how to read that blank stare of his and kept getting distracted by the stark beauty of his sculpted features.
He dropped his attention back to the folder. “No experience with children, either.”
“Well, babysitting, of course. When I was a teenager.” Everyone had that, didn’t they? “I also have CPR and the first aid that was part of my training. Plus, I took an elective certificate on diet and nutrition, so I can prepare meals along with, you know, spoon-feeding if he isn’t feeding himself. But I understood from the posting that the boy is four and there were no specific health concerns. Is that right?”
His lips went tight. He kept his gaze on the open file folder in his hand. “Yes.”
“But there’s a senior who is diabetic?”
“My father. Yes. He has an insulin pump and takes blood pressure medication. If it were only him, I could monitor that myself, but with Atlas… It’s too much to ask my father to watch him all day, and I have to work.” His gaze came up, flat and unreadable. “The position is more nanny than nurse. Full days of child minding and housekeeping, cooking and laundry. Whatever they both need, every day until Christmas. Preschool starts in January. I have someone arranged to help out then.”
Whatever they need, not him. Something about that struck her, but she was concentrating more on keeping her hand from waving wildly in the air as the words, Pick me, crowded her throat. She didn’t care if it was only for a few weeks. She needed the money.
“Atlas is your son?”
“Yes.” He didn’t say it with as much conviction as she would have expected.
“And you’re not married?” She wasn’t being sexist, assuming his wife would take care of everyone, but he hadn’t mentioned a spouse.
“His mother and I weren’t together. She passed away last month. Car accident.”
“Oh.” Wow. She had a lot of questions about each of those bullet-point statements, but she was overcome with such a wave of empathy for little Atlas, her chest grew tight.
“I’m so sorry,” she said with deep sincerity. “I lost my mom when I was eleven. He must be having a very rough time.” Her eyes welled before she could even try to stop it, old loss hitting afresh. And it was coming up to Christmas, too.
She looked around for the tike, wanting to hug him. That was all she had wanted when she’d been in his shoes—for someone to hug her. A little love went a long way when your world had completely shattered.
“I, uh…” Quincy did the man-panic and quickly stood to snatch a box of tissues from where it poked from an open box. He offered it to her. “Here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m fine,” she hurried to insist, forcing an abashed smile as she quickly dabbed and pulled herself together. How to not make a great first impression. Sheesh.
It struck her that Quincy had only mentioned his father. “Your mother isn’t with you?”
“Gone twelve years.” His face spasmed very briefly, the first sign of emotion she’d seen in him. “Cancer. Hit me hard at twenty. I can’t imagine at four.” He didn’t look at her, only seemed to take great care centering her single-sheet resume in the crease of the folder.
“I’m so sorry.” She meant it.
Quincy lifted his gaze. They sat in the shadow of grief for two slow heartbeats while the disquiet in his expression eased.
Then, as if he remembered they were strangers, he quickly re-enshrined his thoughts and feelings into their tomb. He glanced away. When his gaze came back, it was cool and unreadable.
“What were you doing before taking your certification?” It seemed a deliberate change of topic.
“Deluding myself.” She went for good-natured self-deprecation to hide the fact she wanted to shrivel into a ball every time she confronted her spectacular failure in California. See, Gloria? I can act.
Quincy’s brows went up.
“I, uh, had aspirations to star in movies. Apparently, so does the rest of Montana and every other state besides.” She scratched her brow, shrugging off years of heartbreak and struggle as if they were inconsequential. They were. No one cared. Only her. “You can only survive on ramen noodles for so long, right? I was flat out told I was getting too old. I’m twenty-five.”
She still couldn’t believe those words had been spoken to her and railed on with the subdued outrage she’d been trying to exorcise since it happened.
“My agent said she was cutting her list down to people under twenty. She only wanted talent who had the potential to pay back the investment of her time. Basically, she was saying even if I landed a good part tomorrow, I was already over the hill. My chances of building a career had passed. Isn’t that horrible? I was already tired of living hand to mouth, but still.”
She had fought against giving up. She had fought against accepting reality, so Gloria wouldn’t be right.
She sighed, still blue, but determined to believe the universe had a plan. “What she said got me thinking, though. About people who are actually in their golden years and dismissed by society. I looked into jobs in nursing homes. Then, when I actually started volunteering with seniors… I didn’t realize how depressed I was from all those years of rejection.”
Her heart lightened just thinking about those early days. She’d wondered if she was being punked, she’d been so astonished by the change in attitude.
“People were happy to see me and eager to chat. They thanked me for the smallest things. Like taking their blood pressure or pouring a glass of water. It’s my job. Why would I need thanks for that? But it made me feel so good. Such a nice change. And I remembered that people used to be friendly and sincere back home, so I decided to move back here. I’m over-sharing, aren’t I?”
She halted as she realized how badly she was running on. Dear Lord, the man was a robot. Stare, stare, stare, like he was cataloguing her brain with his laser vision.
“I’m just saying that it feels good to do something that helps people. I took the training so I would have marketable qualifications and more opportunity, but I’m eager to work wherever and however I’m needed. That’s why I applied for this job, even though it’s temporary and involves more childcare than senior care.”
Even if it would only allow her to pay her father back for the tires when she saw him at Christmas. The ledger sheet between her and her father was heavily in the red on her side. Please let her start balancing it out and prove she was amounting to something.
“So…” She swallowed, unable to stand the suspense. “What do you think?”
He thought she was a parakeet.
Par for the course, Quincy supposed, since he was residing in a house colored up like a peacock.
He used his thumbnail to scratch the line of his beard at the corner of his jaw, then turned over the single sheet in the folder he held. Surprise, surprise, very few people wanted to relocate to map-speck Montana for the month of December. The woman he’d hired briefly in Philly hadn’t wanted anything to do with such a big move to such a small place for such a short time.
Quincy had made inquiries here in Marietta a few months ago, when Pops had first announced his intention to move back here. At that time, he had only needed someone willing to look in once a day. His father was quite capable of living on his own, but things were different now.
Still, it was only one month. Three weeks, really. Once Atlas was in the all-day preschool, Quincy figured he could handle most of the daily stuff. Other parents did. At that point, they could settle for having a housekeeper come in once or twice a week.
He just needed help through December, while they got settled and he finished up some work projects.
He needed time to get used to all of this.
But he wasn’t even given time to decide if he should introduce her to his father. The swing door near the bottom of the stairs squeaked. Pops and Atlas came through from the kitchen.
“Oh. I didn’t realize we had company.” Pops redirected Atlas from the bottom of the stairs into the living room. “We were going to find a clean shirt, but hello.”
“Hello.” Nicki Darren stood.
Pops was carrying too much weight, which contributed to the diabetes, but he came forward with enthusiasm.
“Maurice Ryan. Call me Maury.”
“Nicki.” She shook his hand and offered a big smile.
House, meet fire. His father had spent most of his life in sales and got along with everyone. Quincy had already noted that Ms. Darren didn’t exactly hold back, either. They quickly covered the weather, driving conditions, and the ‘excitement’ of a big move.
Atlas hung back, his blue shirt stained with a few dribbles of tomato soup. The battered stuffed dog he liked to cart around hung from his grip.
“You have a son,” the lawyer had said, after asking if Quincy had once dated Karen Ackerman.
“Five years ago,” he replied. He didn’t like to talk about it because he still felt blindsided by the entire thing. After they met online, things had progressed more quickly than he had expected. He had thought that meant they were serious and started looking for rings.
They had burned out just as fast—on her side, anyway. He hadn’t understood the break up. It had been a slap when he thought things were going well.
They definitely didn’t have a son, though.
They hadn’t, maybe, but she had.
“He’s staying with his maternal grandparents,” the lawyer said. “But you’re identified as the father on his birth certificate. No one else has been designated for custody.”
One paternity test later, Quincy knew his Y chromosome had created this boy, but being a biological father hadn’t made him feel like a dad. He didn’t know how to be a parent.
That hadn’t mattered to Karen’s parents. They were finished raising their own children. They hadn’t approved of their adopted daughter having a child out of wedlock and keeping Quincy in the dark about him. They had not only insisted he be informed, but that he take responsibility.
Quincy privately believed they were holding him to account for something he hadn’t even known he’d done.
He had been sleepwalking ever since. This wasn’t real. How could it be?
Now he was trying to hire some help and his best shot was a failed actress. Nicki Darren was way too freshly minted with her ‘new’ career to take this job seriously.
He started to cut short the conversation before Pops took too much for granted, but Pops was already drawing Atlas forward.
“And this is Atlas.”
Pops was so proud to have a grandson, so taken with him. Quincy had gone to his father with the news the moment he’d hung up from the lawyer. Where else would he go with a shocker like that? He hadn’t known what to do, how to react.
His father had stared at him as if he couldn’t believe he had to spell it out for him. “You take him and raise him, son.”
Quincy was damned grateful he had his father, a man who knew the ropes of parenting, since he didn’t have a clue what to do with a boy that age himself. On the other hand, his father’s reaction put so much pressure on him. Love him, Pops seemed to urge relentlessly.
How? Quincy could barely stand himself, let alone anyone else. His father was the only person he would admit—internally, mind you, and without any flowery language—that he loved outright. He couldn’t simply look into a pair of brown eyes that yes, were disconcertingly similar to the ones he saw in the mirror every day, and fall in love. It was narcissistic, for starters.
He wasn’t dad material. He had never intended to become one. Karen had known that. Which put another wrinkle of confusion into how this had come about.
“Hello, Atlas.” Nicki knelt in front of him and shot a quick glance up at Quincy. “You look just like your father.”
A jolt went through Quincy each time he met her gaze. The zing carried the adolescent pow of electric excitement that used to happen when the head cheerleader tossed a surprise smile at the trig nerd he’d been.
He definitely couldn’t hire her. She was way too pretty. Pretty enough to be an actress, for sure, and definitely too pretty to be a nurse. She was noisy, too. Not just chatty, but he could already tell her personality was loud. She had been wearing a tacky hat when she first came in, a knitted pink-and-yellow thing with a big yellow pom-pom and earflaps that had trailed down into a pair of Technicolor Pocahontas braids.
She had popped it off and rich brown waves had tumbled around her face, hints of caramel and dark coffee giving the mass some depth. Fine strands had lifted with static and she had smiled so big his stomach had tightened with male reaction.
Now her jacket was on the sofa, allowing him to take in the snug pink turtleneck she wore. Her chest was as perfect as a woman could be made. Little glints of dark bronze caught the light as her hair shifted around her shoulders. Her hips flared above narrow thighs encased in skinny jeans. Her face had a sun-kissed California tone, or maybe she had some Latina heritage that gave her that soft glow. She wasn’t wearing makeup and didn’t need it. Those blackstrap molasses eyes of hers were sticky enough, practically gluing his gaze to her features, mesmerizing him.
Maybe he was using her as an excuse not to look at his son.
Son, son, son. He had to get over the shock and deal with it. He knew he did. But how? Hiring this woman couldn’t be the answer. He needed a miracle.
“It sounds like a lot of things have changed for you lately,” Nicki was saying to the boy. “Does it feel strange to be in a new house?”
Atlas brought the stuffed dog up to his chest and hugged it close. His expression grew even more shy than it usually was.
Who named a kid Atlas? He was a boy, not a titan. It made Quincy think the kid was being forced to carry too much. Damn it, if he could only have five minutes with Karen to ask how she’d become pregnant. Why?
He watched Atlas shift his little eyeballs up and down, between Nicki and him, weighing. Like he knew Quincy was making a decision that would affect him.
He’d been giving Quincy that same look since his grandparents had said, “This is your father. You’ll be living with him now.”
Quincy probably wore one just like it. He hated change, too, and always wanted some kind of warning.
“I’m Nicki.” She offered her hand. “Nice to meet you.” After a second, she said, “You’re supposed to shake my hand.”
Atlas did, gingerly.
“Good job.” Nicki’s voice held a warmth that made Quincy uncomfortable. It eased the tension in him a few notches. He needed resistance against her, not reassurance. He didn’t know why, but he did.
The barest hint of a smile touched Atlas’s mouth. Apparently, he wasn’t immune to her star power either.
“I’m excited for Christmas. Are you?”
Atlas shrugged his bony shoulder.
Quincy bit back a groan. He didn’t care about the holiday one way or another. After his mother had passed, he and his father always spent the day together, exchanging a gift of game tickets or hand tools and going out for a decent meal, but that was as far as either of their investment in celebrating went.
This year, Pops seemed to think it all had to be a big hoopla. Atlas didn’t even know his days of the week, as far as Quincy could tell. Did he even understand what Christmas was, let alone why he should be counting days in anticipation?
“My favorite part is making cookies and decorating them. What do you like to do?”
“Pops is diabetic,” Quincy reminded her.
His father shot him a look that told him to ease up, knotting Quincy’s shoulders even further.
“I would love for this house to be full of the smell of ginger snaps and shortbread. My wife used to make them this time of year. So did my mother, come to think of it.”
Nicki rose. “Quincy said you grew up here.”
“I did. I left to make my fortune, as young men do, but I’ve always missed Marietta. When I saw the house had been restored and was for sale, I decided to buy it and move back. That was before we knew about Atlas. I thought I’d be living here alone. Now I have both my boys with me.”
Quincy saw Nicki Darren’s expression sharpen with curiosity, but Pops didn’t give her a chance to ask what he meant by, Before we knew.
“We’ll have to get a tree,” Pops said. “You’ll have to take us shopping, help us with the wrapping. Are you up to all of that?”
“Of course. Does that mean…?” Nicki clasped her hands under her chin. “Do I have the job?” She seemed to have more teeth than normal people. They were straight, pearly, and couldn’t stand not to be seen because there they were again.
“What? Did I get that wrong? I thought you were hiring her?”
“There’s a lot of unpacking still to finish,” Quincy warned her. “I have to work. That’s why we need someone to…” He nodded at Atlas.
I don’t know what to do with him.
In his periphery, he saw his father’s chest rise and fall in subtle disappointment. It hit Quincy hard, every single time.
“If you’re up to that, fine.” Desperate times called for desperate measures. Maybe, given what she’d said about her own mom, and how she’d grown so sad and wistful mentioning it, maybe she understood where Atlas was at and could help the boy settle in. “Start as soon as you can. I need to finish building my desk.”
He went back to the living room.
End of Excerpt