Authors: Susan Meier
Her already white face paled again. “I'm sorry. You're right. I should have gone to Ava, not had her come to me.”
Her apology stopped him cold. He didn't know why he expected her to argue, but when she didn't his anger deflated and he stood there like an idiot. Embarrassed because he'd yelled.
He rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “I'm sorry that I lost my temper.”
“Thank you. But in fairness, you never told me Ava couldn't come in.”
He pulled in a breath, counted to ten, then said, “Okay. That was my mistake.” He'd thought telling her that she couldn't let anyone know where she was working covered that, but then again by the time he'd set down that stipulation she'd already told her helper at Happy Maids about her assignment. So maybe she felt this woman was grandfathered in or something?
“But I really don't want outsiders in the house. I understand your responsibilities to your boss's company, but I also want my house rules kept. Plus, you're free to leave anytime you don't have charge of the kids. Tomorrow,” he said, pointing at Ellie, “you go to herâ” he pointed at Ava “âfor this meeting.”
With that he walked out of the kitchen, his heart pounding and his head beginning to ache. This had been a terrible plan. Hiding in plain sight had sounded so good when Mrs. Pomeroy suggested it, but it was failing. He couldn't use a typical maid company. He'd hired a woman who needed more training and guidance than he had time to give. And that woman was probably growing tired of breaking rules she didn't even know existed.
Still, he didn't blame himself. He blamed the circumstance. His options had been limited.
Walking along the marble floor Mac headed to the main stairway. The cell phone in his pocket rang and he grabbed it.
Thank God. He didn't know what he'd do if he had to fire Ellie. He'd used his only option for secrecy when he'd found her. But he did know that one way or another something had to give.
“Can you talk?”
“I'm on my way to my room.” He couldn't even go to his office because he had to be available in case Lacy or Henry woke. It was no wonder he was off his game. “So you talk for the two minutes it will take me to get there.”
“Okay.” Phil paused and Mac heard the sound of his indrawn breath as if what he had to say wasn't good. “I don't know if you're going to like this or not.”
“Just spill it. This situation has to change. Even if what you tell me is bad, it only means I start over.”
“Okay. Ellie Swanson was a foster kid who ran away. South to Florida where it's warm.”
“All of which I know.”
“She actually got a job in a pizza shop that was part of a big chain of shops that was growing with leaps and bounds in the South Florida area.”
“Oh.” So she hadn't spent a lot of time on the streets. That relieved Mac. He hated thinking of her cold and hungry. Which didn't just puzzle him; it angered him. The very fact that he cared about her showed he was beginning to like her and he didn't want to like her. She was insubordinate, pretty, funnyâ¦all kinds of things that could be trouble. He wanted her to be a normal employee.
“Yeah. All that's good,” Phil said as Mac reached his bedroom.
He walked inside, closed the door behind him and flopped into one of the white leather chairs in the sitting room in front of the bedroom. “So what's bad?”
“I did some digging. Real digging. Talked to friends, employees of the pizza shop who'd been around awhile, neighborhood people, and discovered that the owner of the chain of shops took a special liking to Ellie.”
Mac sat up on his chair. “What do you mean âspecial liking'?”
“They dated and eventually moved in together.”
“Oh.” Technically that had no bearing on her ability to be a nanny, so Mac wasn't happy when the news squeezed his heart. It could mean that he was jealous, but since he didn't know her well enough to be jealous, that left option two. He knew what happened when starstruck employees dated bosses who had money and power.
“One employeeâ¦a Jeanie Blairâ¦said that Sam Kenward hung around the shop where Ellie worked for a few weeks chatting her up, flirting, being really good to her. He asked her out and he continued to be good to her. Then they moved in together and within a few weeks, Ellie became withdrawn.”
Mac sat back in his chair again. “Damn.”
“She lived with him for a year. Nobody ever saw a mark on her, but it was fairly common knowledge that he verbally abused her.”
Mac pressed a finger to his forehead.
“The reigning rumor is that he hit her once and only once, and she left him.”
“Good for her.”
“Yeah,” Phil agreed wholeheartedly. “She came out of it really well. I don't have specifics on what happened. She never came back to the pizza shop where she worked or contacted her friends.”
“Probably because whatever shelter she went to told her that if she contacted anyone they could slip her location to the pizza shop owner.”
“Precisely. Anyway, she appears again in employment records when she got a job working for Liz Harper at Happy Maids.” Phil chuckled. “From the looks of things she was Harper's first employee.”
Which was why Liz trusted her to run her company while she was away.
“I talked with a few of the ladies at Happy Maids and every one of them adores her. They call her Magic.”
Mac laughed. “Magic?”
“Yeah, something about her intuition. Anyway her coworkers would trust her with their lives. They call her fierce. They adore her. She babysits for most of them.”
Bracing his elbow on the arm of his chair, Mac leaned his face into his hand. “Thanks, Phil.”
“So are you keeping her?”
“Actually, I feel like I owe her about eight apologies.”
“You've been a real pain in the butt with her, haven't you?”
“So fix it.”
Only someone Mac had known for most of his life could be so bold with him, which was why Mac laughed. “Crawl back under your rock, Phil.”
“Call me when you need me.”
“I always do.” Not because Phil was an employee, because he was an old friend. Phil knew how difficult Mac's life was and knew to keep his secrets. He was discreet when he investigated, and people like Ellie would never know Phil had been investigating them. He might have questioned Ellie's friends and coworkers, but he'd undoubtedly used a great ruse to get information. Her coworkers probably wouldn't even have realized they'd been questioned. Phil was that good.
Mac hung up the phone, paced to his bedroom and opened the drapes to look out at the water. As Phil had said, he had a right to be careful about his kids, but he might have pushed things a bit too far with Ellie. Worse, he'd yelled at her. Sure, he'd backed off once he realized he hadn't told her she couldn't let anyone into his house. But he'd yelled at a maid who'd had a difficult enough life.
Plus, he was attracted to a woman who'd lived the worst-case scenario of getting involved with a boss. He'd have to be a hundred times more sensitive in her presence. He couldn't even say one inappropriate word.
And he somehow had to make this up to her.
Surprised by Mac's unexpectedly happy greeting, Ellie stepped into the kitchen. “Good morning.”
“I'm going into the office today.”
Though Ellie's mouth dropped open in shock, she noticed that he was wearing a suit and tie. As always, Henry sat in his highchair, beating a rattle on the tray. Lacy sat beside Mac at the table, sneaking shy peeks at Ellie.
“The children are all yours.”
That took her shock to astonishment and she had to stifle the urge to say, “Really?” Instead, she said, “Great.”
Mac rose, kissed Henry's cheek, then Lacy's, and headed for the door. “I'll see you guys tonight around six.” He paused and faced Ellie again. When their eyes met, something new shifted through her. He looked at her totally differently than he had just the day before. It was as if in the past twelve hours something had happened that caused him to trust her.
“I'd like dinner on the table at six when I get home. Lacy can't wait much longer than that to eat. Feel free to give her a decent-sized snack when she wakes up from her afternoon nap.”
Then he was off. Ellie got a cup of coffee from the pot that had been brewed and ambled to the table. Dropping
to a chair she said, “Well, guys, it looks like we're on our own.” She glanced at Lacy. “What would you like to do today?”
Lacy didn't hesitate. “Swim.”
“We can do that in the morning. Then this afternoon, what do you say we have a picnic?”
Lacy gasped and put her chubby little hands over her mouth. “A picnic!”
“In the yard.”
Lacy bounced out of her seat. “All right!”
She was so excited that Ellie said a silent prayer that she hadn't accidentally stepped over any boundaries. Because the truth was she was as excited as Lacy. She had a month to do all the things she'd always wanted to do with a child. She didn't want to waste a moment.
When Mac came home at three o'clock that afternoon and couldn't find either his children or his nanny, panic filled him. He raced through the house, checking empty rooms and finally saw them when he ran to the French doors to see if they were in the pool.
They weren't in the pool. They were under a tree. In fact, he might not have seen them at all, except something shiny caught the sun and reflected a flash of light strong enough to be noticed.
His loafers made a soft tapping sound as he ran down the stone stairway, then grew silent as he walked across the grass. But he stopped suddenly. Close enough to see Ellie and the kids, but not so close that he'd interrupted them, he gaped at the scene in front of him.
Over shorts and a T-shirt, Lacy wore one of the pretend princess dresses his mother had bought her for her birthday andâhe wasn't sureâbut he thought his maid was wearing a sheet draped around her and then gathered at
the waist to look like a ball gown. Sitting in his baby seat at the edge of the blanket, Henry giggled nonstop, as if thoroughly enjoying the whole thing.
The glimmer of light that had caught his attention came from a mirror Lacy held.
“It's mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?”
Lacy frowned at Ellie. “What does that mean?”
“Well, the wicked queen was asking the mirror who was the prettiest.”
“Because she was jealous of Snow Whiteâ¦a beautiful princessâ¦and she worried that someday everyone would love Snow White more than they loved her.” Ellie leaned in closer as if to tell Lacy a secret. “But the truth was the wicked queen wasn't really loved by her subjects.”
Lacy's eyes rounded. “Why not?”
“Because she was mean. Snow White was very, very good.”
“And do you know what that means?”
Lacy shook her head, sending her soft blond locks bouncing.
“It means that real beauty comes from inside. From how you behave and how you treat people. Not from how you look or what you wear.”
“But you'll never have to worry about that,” Ellie said, pouring something from a plastic teapot into one of the matching little plastic cups. “You're a very good little girl.”
Lacy nodded enthusiastically. “Daddy calls me a princess.”
Taking the teacup from Ellie, Lacy asked, “What was the other story?”
“Yes. I like that one better.”
“I like that one better too.”
Twin arrows lanced Mac's heart. The first arrow was pain. He couldn't believe his ex-wife had never told their daughter simple fairy tales. The second arrow was gratitude. Even after the shabby way he'd treated Ellie the past few days, she wasn't angry or upset. And she was treating his children better than their own mother had.
“What's going on here?” he asked, announcing his presence as he walked over to the blanket spread out on the thick grass.
“We're having a tea party!” Lacy said, springing to her feet. “Do you want some tea?”
“It's actually fruit punch.” Ellie picked up one of the tiny cups and poured about two tablespoons of fruit punch into it before handing it to him.
“Thanks.” Awkwardness filled him. Not because he'd just lowered himself to a blanket while still dressed in the suit and tie he'd worn to the office. But because he'd so horribly misjudged this woman. She'd had a difficult life. The kind of life he only read about in news magazines. Yet here she sat, playing with his daughter, treating her like a friend or a daughter rather than someone she was employed to care for.
“How did your day go?” He asked the question of Ellie, but Lacy bounced with enthusiasm and joy.
“We swam. We ate pickles. And Ellie told me stories.”
“So I heard.” He ruffled Lacy's hair. How did a man thank someone for making his child feel normal? He caught Ellie's gaze and she smiled at him as if what she'd done for Lacy had been no big deal.
His heart swelled with something he didn't even dare try to identify. His entire purpose for living was now tied up with these kids. And he suddenly realized that they were his vulnerability. All a woman really had to do was mother his kids and he'd be putty in her hands.
But that was the problem. Pamela's beauty had turned him into a blathering idiot when he'd met her. He'd learned his lesson about getting so wrapped up in one or two of a woman's good traits that he missed the bad ones and found himself tied to the wrong woman foreverâif only because of their kids.
He wouldn't put himself through that again. Because of the kids he had to be doubly careful. It didn't matter that the “good” trait of Ellie's that seemed to be snagging his heart was her kindness to his kids. A vulnerability was a vulnerability. A way for Ellie to get power he didn't want her to have. He was too careful to create the same problem twice.
He rose from the blanket. “What do you say we have some Daddy time? You guys stay with Ellie while I change out of my suit, then I'll meet you in the playroom. We'll play that video game you like while Ellie makes dinner.”
Lacy bounced up and down. “Okay! This is the best day of my life.”
Sadly, Mac knew she was correct. He also knew that even though he would judiciously squelch any and all romantic notions he might get about his temporary housekeeper, he did owe her for everything she'd done for him. Thanks to her, he now had a very good idea of what he'd
look for when he began interviewing a new maid/nanny. But more than that, he appreciated how good she was to the kids. Yet, he'd misjudged her.
How did a man make up for any of that?
Halfway up the yard, close to the shimmering pool, he stopped and faced her again. She and Lacy were gathering the tea set and blanket as Henry gurgled happily. “Ellie?”
She stopped. “Yes?”
“Your friend, Ava, can come to the house anytime. I'm sorry I was a little harsh last night. I'm overprotective of the kids, but for good reason.”
He turned and headed for the French doors again. Oddly, for the first time in about eight years, he felt his world righting.
The rest of the week passed in a blur for Ellie. Mac worked every day but Sunday. He planned to take the kids out on the ocean for a few hours on Sunday morning and they would spend the afternoon with Mrs. Pomeroy. He suggested that Ellie take the dayâ¦really take the dayâ¦leave the house, go to her own apartment to check on things, have lunch with friends, even sleep in her own bed and come back early Monday morning.
Ellie didn't need to be told twice. Though she had access to a washer and dryer she hated being in the same clothes all the time. Plus she missed sleeping on her own pillow. She spent the day running around, visiting her friends from A Friend Indeed, doing some shopping and packing a second suitcase.
She returned to Mac's house Monday morning, second suitcase in hand and pillow under her arm. Stepping into
the kitchen, she saw Lacy at the table and Mac standing at the counter, holding Henry. She dropped her suitcase to the floor and set her pillow on an available counter.
“Here, let me take him.”
Mac didn't hesitate. With another dad, a woman might suspect he was eager to get rid of his slobbering son. But Mac being so quick to give the baby to her was a show of trust. Happiness swelled inside her and the oddest thought occurred to her. If she didn't like her Happy Maids job so much, she really would consider taking this one permanently.
He handed the bubbly baby boy to her. Their arms and hands brushed in the transition and a sprinkle of awareness twinkled through her, reminding her of why she couldn't take this job permanently. Not only did she owe her loyalties to Liz, but also she was attracted to Mac. Lately, with him treating her well, the physical attraction had morphed into a full-blown attraction. She wasn't merely responding to his looks. She liked him.
The second Henry was in her arms, he slapped her, bringing her back to reality.
Mac winced. “I seriously think that means he missed you.”
She kissed the baby's cheek. “Well, I missed him.” The realization caused her breath to catch. She
missed Henry. She'd missed Lacy. She'd missed Mac. She'd been away only twenty-four hours, yet she'd missed this little family. They were definitely staking a claim on her heart. And if she didn't get a hold of these feelings she'd be sad when she left.
Because she would leave. She had to leave. She couldn't risk another mistake with a man that ended in disaster.
Mac ate his breakfast while Ellie fed Henry and chatted with Lacy. Both kids kissed him goodbye, then Lacy
spouted a list of things she'd like to do that day. While Henry napped, Ellie and Lacy colored and Lacy filled her in on what they'd done the day Ellie had been away. After that they swam and ate lunch then Lacy and Henry took an afternoon nap, giving Ellie time to take inventory of the house.
The place wasn't any worse for her being away. Mac was very disciplined about replacing toys and tossing dirty clothes into the basket. She ran two loads of laundry, dusted and vacuumed the floors. By the time she was done both kids were awake and ready for a snack.
She fed Henry first then as Lacy ate her fruit and crackers, Ellie began dinner. Just as she was opening the freezer, her cell phone rang.
“Hey, Ava. What's up?”
“Would you mind if I came over a little early today?”
“No. Early's fine.”
“Like about four?”
She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Are you at the gate?”
Ava laughed. “Close. But not there yet. I figured I'd call to see if there was anything you needed me to bring you.”
“Actually, I forgot to get something out of the freezer for dinner.” She winced. “If you really want to help me out, you could stop at Fredrick's and get me some spaghetti sauce and meatballs.”
“Sure. Not a problem. See you in about half an hour.”
True to her word, Ava arrived in a half an hour. She set the steaming container of spaghetti sauce and meatballs on the counter and said hello to Lacy. “Hey, pumpkin.”
“Hey, Miss Ava,” Lacy said, using the name Ellie had suggested she use when Ava had visited the week before.
“What are you coloring?” Ava asked, sliding onto a seat beside Lacy after giving Ellie the report on the Happy Maids employees' hours and the schedule to sign off on.
“She's beautiful. Purple is a good color for her.”
“Ellie says purple is for royalty.”
“Ellie is right,” Ava agreed with a laugh.
Ellie handed the signed papers to Ava. “So what's up tonight that you had to come early?”
Ava winced. “Would you believe I have a date?”
“Oh my gosh!” Ellie laughed with glee.
Lacy said, “What's a date?”
“It's when the prince comes to the princess's house, picks her up and takes her to dinner,” Ellie explained, using language Lacy could understand.
Lacy's eyes widened. “Wow.”
“Yeah, wow is right.” Ava rose from her chair. “It's been thirty years since I went on a date. I can't believe I'm going on one now.”
“You'll be fine,” Ellie said, stifling a laugh. “It's about time you got back into the real world. Your husband's been gone ten years. I can't believe you waited this long to even date.”
“Call me picky.” Ava organized her papers and turned to go, but she stopped and faced Ellie again. “And you'd do well to follow my example. I've never heard you talk about going on a date.”
Lacy's eyes widened even further. “You do?”
Ava frowned. “You do?”
“Yes. I've gone out with Norm and Gerry, two of the volunteers from A Friend Indeed.”
“Norm and Gerry? Good grief, Ellie! Norm still lives with his mom and if Gerry steps away from his computer long enough to go on a date I doubt thatâ”