Secrets and lies tore them apart. Can love and forgiveness bring them back together?

Michelle Carter has been down on her luck since the day she was born. So it comes as no surprise when through a series of unfortunate events, she finds herself jobless, penniless, and practically homeless. In a desperate attempt to get back on her feet, Michelle accepts a job as a nanny and finds it absolutely impossible to resist her handsome, sexy billionaire boss—but resist she must for as long as she could, especially since she’s keeping secrets from him.

Believing that his late wife betrayed him with another man, falling in love again is the last thing Dr. Erik LaCrosse wants to do. But fall, he does, and so hard, he secretly marries the alluring nanny from the wrong side of the tracks. However, when he unearths a disturbing secret from Michelle’s past, Erik must choose between his loyalty to a dead woman and the love burning in his heart for one who is very much alive.

The Doctor's Secret Bride

Chapter 1

Erik’s eyes narrowed as a young woman hopped out of the cab that had just pulled into his driveway. His brows furrowed when she hauled a suitcase out behind her, raised her hand to shade her eyes against the noonday sun, and gazed speculatively up at his house.

“They’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered. He’d distinctly requested an older woman—no younger than fifty, who had experience taking care of young children.

Someone from the agency had called to say that the scheduled candidate had canceled due to a family emergency, and that a Michelle Carter would be coming instead. Was it okay if she brought her credentials with her?

Although the agencies conducted investigations, Erik ran his own background checks before interviewing potential employees. He could never be too careful when it came to the welfare of his only child. Today, he’d trusted Ready Nanny Agency because there was no time to check, and look what they sent him—a girl barely out of her teens.

Her hair was cut too short. She was too skinny and too tall. Her jeans were too tight, and the seductive sway of her hips was unequivocally too provocative. Despite his objections, Erik felt a poignant stir in his groin.

After ten years as a gynecologist, unlike some of his colleagues, he’d never been even the slightest bit interested in a patient. It was all professional. The woman walking up his driveway wasn’t his patient, and the images running through his head were anything but professional. They involved tangled sheets, soft sighs, harsh moans, and musky odor rising from damp smooth skin...

Shaking the racy thoughts from his head, Erik tightened his jaws and moved away from the window. He’d been without a woman for too long—two years since his wife’s death. Yes, that was definitely his problem.

At the chime of the doorbell, Erik stepped into the hallway and caught up with his housekeeper. “Mrs. Hayes, tell the young lady that I was called to the hospital, and—um—that I will contact the agency with a new date for an interview.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Mrs. Hayes threw him a speculative stare at the blatant lie.

Erik marched down the hall to his study. He closed the door, dropped into the chair behind his desk, and stared at the painting of his wife hanging above the fireplace.

As usual, he tried to shift his sexual interest in other women to memories of lovemaking with her, but as hard as he tried, there was no shifting for him today. As he stared into his wife’s brown eyes, the only images Erik saw were those of the young girl sashaying up his driveway.

“Come in,” he responded to the knock on the door. “Is she gone?” he asked, when it opened behind him.

“No. She isn’t gone. She’s still here.”

Erik swiveled around at the sultry voice. His heart did a triple take, and lust like he’d never experienced crawled through his belly and settled into his groin. At a loss for words, he took a hard, close-up look at the vibrant embodiment of temptation heading his way.

Her facial bones were delicately carved under her brown velvety skin. Her short crop of raven hair glittered like strands of black silk in the slivers of afternoon sun streaming through the glass door. Long lashes accentuated a pair of fiery, obsidian eyes, and her lips, full and provocative under a thin layer of gloss, looked as if they’d just been thoroughly kissed.

She was the most enchanting woman Erik had ever seen.

Unwittingly, his gaze fell to the ripe swell of her breasts pushing against the stretchy material of her blouse. Was she even wearing a bra? His gut wrenched at the thought.

“You must be Dr. LaCrosse,” she said, breaking the silence and offering him a tantalizing smile.

Her unfamiliar, yet highly stimulating perfume wrapped around him. He grew harder. Restless.

She was probably about five feet, ten inches tall, he thought, suddenly feeling uncomfortable sitting in her presence. But if he dared stand up, she would have a full view of his unsolicited arousal.  He cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m Dr. LaCrosse, and you are—”

“Michelle.  Michelle Carter.” She held out her hand.

Her wrist was delicate, her fingers long and slender, the nails red. Channel. Channel your thoughts. Erik’s hands curled around the arms of his chair. “Apparently my housekeeper neglected to relay my message to you, Ms. Carter.”

She dropped her hand. “Actually, she did relay your message, but I’d already seen you through the window when my cab pulled up.”

He held her gaze, not knowing whether to smile or scowl at her pursed lips. It obviously gave her great satisfaction to have caught him in a lie. “Ms. Carter,” he began in an attempt to repair the self-inflicted damage to his character, “the minute I saw you step out of the cab, I knew you were wrong for the job. For one thing, you’re too young. I specifically requested someone older who has experience taking care of young children.”

Feeling the tension in his groin loosen a bit, Erik stood up and stepped from behind the desk. He stared down at her, still appalled that she’d come to an interview dressed so unprofessionally. “You,” he continued, “do not fit that description.”

With considerable effort, Michelle suppressed the sensual jitters the deep sexy voice of the extremely tall man was causing inside her. Dressed in no smaller than size fifteen loafers, tan slacks, and a white Polo shirt, his olive-toned body was lean, hard, and athletic. He was classically handsome, with a nice straight nose and a rich crop of curly dark-brown hair. His smoky gray eyes, speckled with an array of golden hues, were as sharp as they were eccentric.

McDreamy and McSteamy rolled up into one. Move over boys. This doctor was so fine, he made her leak.

Michelle licked her lips as an inexplicable sense of fear washed over her. She’d had to deal with a few arrogant men in her past, but this one made her feel quite susceptible. If she were smart, she would walk out of this room, out of this cold, luxurious country mansion and whistle her cab back to Manchester.

But she wasn’t smart. She was desperate. She needed this job. She needed a roof over her head and a fresh start.

“Well, have you nothing to say, Ms. Carter? You barged into my study after you were asked to leave. I’ve explained why you don’t qualify for this job, and all you can do is stand there gawking at me?”

From the way he assessed her with his eyes, Michelle knew he disapproved of her attire as much as her age. Ready Nanny Agency had warned her that the fastidious widower had requested someone much older. Since they were fresh out of antiquated nannies and would probably lose him as a client anyway, they wanted to know if she was up to trying her luck.

Heck, yes. She had nothing to lose.

Michelle took a deep breath. When the agency had called her as a backup, she was in a laundromat in downtown Manchester. With a ninety-minute window of time, she barely had enough to finish the last wash, pull the half-dried load from the dryer, catch the city bus back to her apartment, throw her clothes and a few other personal items into a suitcase—since she was determined to land this job and move in tonight—and catch a cab to 204 Jefferson Drive in the upscale town of Amherst, New Hampshire.

If she told him all that, he would know she was desperate. That wasn’t happening. Not today, and definitely not after the way he was looking down his nose at her. She clutched the folder with her credentials to her chest. “Dr. LaCrosse, if I were you and saw me walking up my driveway dressed like this to interview for a nanny position for my seven-year-old daughter, I would have the same reaction.”

“Is that so, Ms. Carter? Then perhaps you can explain your attire?” His eyes lingered on her chest then wandered down to her waistline before he looked away.

Michelle didn’t miss the faint twitch of his jaws or the quick sparkle of interest in his eyes. Beneath that grim exterior, when all was said and done, he was after all, just a man. He found her attractive, maybe even sexy, but Dr. Rich Boy would shoot himself in the groin before admitting he wanted her, a girl from the wrong side of the river.

The moment she walked into the room, Michelle had figured out his type from the painting of the curvy, longhaired redhead over the marble fireplace.

Truth is, she intended to wear her white cotton jacket over her blouse, but in her haste to get here, she’d forgotten it hanging on her bedroom door. Everything else in her suitcase was wrinkled or damp. This was the best she could do.

She had twelve dollars and a penny in her pocket, and she could really use a home-cooked meal tonight. From the aromas coming from the kitchen when she walked through the elaborate foyer, she predicted it would be delicious.

But as desperate as she was, his arrogance was ticking her off. Since he’d blatantly lied about being at home for the interview, Michelle didn’t think he deserved the truth.

“Ms. Carter.” The impatient edge in his voice pulled her back on track.

“Dr. LaCrosse, I’ll assume you were expecting a model of Mrs. Doubtfire or Nanny McPhee, but quite seriously, sir, those kinds of nannies don’t exist anymore. They are long defunct. Like… gone,” she said with a flourishing swipe of her wrist.  “I could have arrived, dressed like a matron from the middle ages just to appease your visual palate, but tomorrow morning, I would have rolled out of bed, pulled on my jeans and tank top, then we’d be right back to square one.”

He grimaced. “Just as I predicted, Ms. Carter. You’re young, inexperienced, and unmistakably uncouth.”

“Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I’m inexperienced, Doctor.” She wasn’t touching uncouth. “I assure you, I am highly qualified for the job. I may not be as old as you wish, but I have lots of experience with young children.  My credentials will attest to that.” She held the folder out to him.

His eyes narrowed to amber slits as he continued to stare her down, obviously trying to intimidate her. But Michelle wasn’t easily intimidated. She’d grown up in the toughest part of Manchester. She had to learn to hold her ground at an early age, and so she held his gaze and the folder out until he took it from her.

He walked to the sliders and stood with his back to her. As he flipped through the pages, Michelle took the opportunity to admire his broad shoulders, narrow waistline and trim hips. She salivated at the thought of running her fingers down his naked body, cupping his delectable buns in her hands…

Michelle gave herself a mental slap in the head. She and the doctor were from two different worlds, and she doubted he’d ever cross that social line. The man had refused to shake her hand. And he’d called her uncouth. Besides, a man as handsome and sexy as Dr. Erik LaCrosse wouldn’t be unattached. She was sure he had some lucky couth babe to slake his noble passion. Anyway, she wasn’t his type, and he certainly wasn’t hers. Uh-uh. Too uptight.

He turned. “You’ve done a lot of babysitting, Ms. Carter, and your current involvement with the youth center in Manchester is quite impressive. But caring for children on a full-time basis is very different from spending a few hours at a time with them. It’s a huge responsibility. You’re always on call.”

Was that a maybe? “I understand.” Michelle spoke hastily, hoping to eradicate all his doubts about her capabilities to take care of his daughter. “I love kids, Dr. LaCrosse. Mostly what they need is love. I give them all I have, and for some reason they love me back,” she added humbly, thinking of the kids who flock to her when she walked through the doors of the youth center. “If you give me a chance, I bet you that black shiny Jaguar in the driveway I’d be the best thing that ever happened to your daughter.”

He tilted his head and continued to stare at her, his expression shrouded, unreadable. Finally, he strolled to his desk and set the folder down. “Excuse my manners. Please, have a seat.” He gestured toward the sofa behind her. His face still gave no clue as to whether she was in or out.

Eyeing him skeptically, Michelle slid unto the smooth leather sofa.

“Make yourself comfortable, Ms. Carter. I will be back momentarily.”

Erik headed for the kitchen. Mrs. Hayes always carried out his requests, as dubious as they may seem to her. She was loyal, dependable, and more like a member of the family than a housekeeper. Nobody got past her without permission. So why had she let Michelle Carter into the house when he’d asked her to send her away?

She was standing at the island in the kitchen, rolling dough for the bread she would be serving with a beef stew for dinner. “I thought I asked you to get rid of her, Mrs. Hayes,” he said in a diplomatic tone he knew was wasted on her.

Mrs. Hayes didn’t even look up from her kneading. “Oh, Dr., Michelle’s as harmless as—”

“You know her?”

“Since the day she was born.”

“You know her.” This was more a confirmation than a question.

Mrs. Hayes set down her rolling pin and peeked up at him, an affectionate smile on her face. “We lived on the same street in Manchester. Michelle’s mother died while giving birth to her. Life hadn’t been too good for her and her older brother when they were little, but according to Michelle, Robert now has a successful orthodontist practice.” Mrs. Hayes shook her head and sighed. “I reckon Michelle is here because she hasn’t quite found her way yet. Who knows, maybe she’ll find it in this big, lonely house.”

“Did you know she was coming for the interview today?” he asked, holding her gaze.

She hesitated before answering. “No. I did not know Michelle was coming for the interview today.” She took a pinch of salt from a bowl and sprinkled it over the dough before resuming her kneading.

Erik leaned against the island. The fact that Michelle had grown up without a mother gave her something in common with Precious. She might be able to connect with his daughter in a way Holly hadn’t, he speculated, seeing Michelle in a different light now that Mrs. Hayes, his trusted housekeeper, actually knew her and had vouched for her.

In his book, a personal recommendation outweighed an impressive resume any day. Michelle had both. She’d earned a four-year degree in three years with a double major in Human Resources and Business Administration. She’d worked in customer relations until she lost her job due to the downturn in the economy. According to her resume, she’d moved to South Carolina where she worked as a temp for about a year before returning to the area.

Times were tough. She quite clearly needed a break as Mrs. Hayes had pointed out. The girl was desperate, but even so, she had managed to preserve her dignity when faced with his arrogance and skepticism. He liked her tenacity. It showed character.

“But she’s so young,” he voiced his thoughts aloud. “Too young.”

Mrs. Hayes rolled up the dough and placed it into a greased bowl. She turned the ball of dough once then covered it with a piece of plastic wrap. Her task complete, she gazed up at him. “If you’ll pardon my frankness, Sir, Michelle is just what that sweet child needs to perk up her little spirit. Little Precious doesn’t need an old woman huffing and puffing over her. She needs a young girl with life in her bones. Don’t make them pay for Holly’s happiness.” She reached up and touched a cool hand to Erik’s cheek. “Give Michelle a chance. If she doesn’t work out, I’ll give her the boot, myself.” She walked over to the stove and began stirring her pot of stew.

Erik raked his fingers through his hair. He was either a glutton for punishment or he was simply insane to consider hiring Michelle Carter. She wasn’t the kind of woman a man could easily ignore. He’d spent a mere fifteen minutes with the girl and she was already wreaking havoc on his world. No woman had ever had that kind of effect on him. Not even his wife.

But, he had to consider his daughter’s wellbeing.

Her former nanny had been wonderful in helping Precious cope with her mother’s death for the past fifteen months. Then a month ago, Holly married and moved away to start her own family, taking Precious’ smile and spirit with her.

Erik longed to see his daughter’s eyes light up with laughter again. He longed to hear her squeals of delight ringing through the house and her feet clambering up and down the stairs. All she’d been doing lately was sulking in her room as if she’d lost her mother all over again. He was tired of the endless barrage of applicants coming to his house, only to be disappointed when Precious gave them the cold shoulder, time and time again.

Mrs. Hayes thought Michelle would make an excellent replacement. Perhaps he should listen to the old lady and give the girl a chance. If Michelle could work a miracle in his daughter’s life, he would be eternally grateful to her. She had a sparkling candidness that he liked—even admired, in a surprising sort of way, he thought, recalling the satisfaction in her black eyes when she’d pointed out his lie.

“Very well then,” he said, as Mrs. Hayes covered her pot of stew. “I’ll give her a chance since you insist.”

Mrs. Hayes smiled at him. "That's all anyone can ask for, Dr.

Chapter 2

Michelle stared at a collection of Monet landscapes lining one wall of the study. A smile ruffled her lips at the idea that she and the stuff-shirt doctor had something in common. He’d probably choke on that bit of info, she thought, her smile spreading to her eyes. What, a girl from the other side of the river with an acquired appreciation for fine art?

See, that’s the trouble with people, she thought. You think you know them until they surprise the heck out of you by doing something totally unimaginable.

Take her father for instance. He’d been a rotten parent throughout her childhood. In spite of his neglect and abuse, she’d earned a four-year college degree in three years by working two jobs and attending night and summer school. She’d landed a great job as Manager of Customer Operations at a well-established company, and moved into a nice apartment on Elm Street. She had a new car and a so-so boyfriend. Since she had no college loans to pay back, she was able to save a substantial amount of her salary.

Then it was all blown to smithereens one night when her father knocked on her door. He’d knocked on her door before, and she’d offered him a little food here and there—never money, because she knew it would end up in the cash register of the nearest liquor store. Once in a while, if she were in a good mood, she would let him take a shower and sleep off his intoxication on her sofa.

Michelle wiped her hands down her face. She wished she’d been in a bad mood that night. If she hadn’t been so nice to her father, when she was unexpectedly laid off a few months later, she would not have found herself penniless, homeless, and free-loading off her best friend, Yasmine, until she got back on her feet.

Michelle didn’t even know if she still had feet to stand on. What she did know was that she hated taking charity from anybody, even from her brother who’d been helping her out. She didn’t want Robert’s money. She didn’t want Yasmine’s pity. She just wanted her life back.

A nanny position was just the kind of job that could give her back some control on her life. She would have a roof over her head, home-cooked meals every night, and time to plan out her future. She wouldn’t need to depend on anyone’s financial support or live in anyone else’s house—well only as an employee.

Michelle had been surprised when Mrs. Hayes, a woman from her old neighborhood had opened the door. She hadn’t seen her in years, until a few weeks ago when she’d run into her at Mama Lola’s, a famous sandwich shop in Manchester. Seeing her had reminded Michelle that if it wasn’t for her kind heart, she and Robert probably wouldn’t have survived childhood. That sweet, old lady had kept them fed and warm many winter nights when their father was nowhere to be found.

Mrs. Hayes hadn’t seemed surprised when she’d opened the door to find Michelle on the other side, which had made Michelle wonder if she’d pulled some strings to get her the interview. It wasn’t unreasonable thinking, since she used to have a lot of clout back in the day when she ran a cleaning business. She’d gotten got a lot of kids summer jobs with some of the most prominent companies in Manchester. Some of them still work for those companies.

Michelle’s heart fluttered around in her chest when the door of the study opened and the doctor appeared in the threshold. She didn’t know if it was his presence or the uncertainty of her future that was affecting her ability to breathe.

His expression was still masked as he came further into the room. “Mrs. Hayes assured me that you are harmless,” he said directly.

Michelle wondered what else Mrs. Hayes had told him. She was sure she’d mentioned their acquaintance, and she was doubly sure it was the only reason Erik hadn’t marched back in here and ordered her to leave.

“So I’ve decided to give you the chance to prove yourself.”

Michelle buried the urge to jump up and throw her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she said, rising to her feet. “Thank you.”

“Don’t be so quick to thank me,” he warned. He glanced back at the half-opened door before continuing in a lowered voice. “My daughter has been in a somber mood since her nanny left. If you can bring a smile to her face, the job is yours.”

“You’re putting me on the spot, Dr. LaCrosse? You advertised for a nanny, not a shrink.”

“Are you saying you’re not up to the challenge, Ms. Carter? You told me you’d be the best thing that ever happened to my daughter. Well, here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is. Or should I say, my money,” he added with mock severity.

Michelle growled inside as she faced the challenge in his amber-gray eyes. Cad. He’d called her bluff. “Okay. I’ll make your daughter laugh.”

He turned and peeped around the doorframe.  “Come here, darling.”

Michelle braced herself.

“Come on, Muffin,” he coaxed when no one appeared.

Muffin? Michelle’s eyes widened. Well, celebrities were known to give their daughters names like Apple, Scout, and Rumer. But Muffin? A child with such a ludicrous name would be the butt and butter of baking jokes in her neighborhood.

When his daughter still refused to come, the doctor stepped into the hallway. Michelle heard a series of childish “Nos” in response to his gentle pleas. She was about to go get the little muffin herself when he reappeared at the door, dragging Muffin who was clutching to one of his long legs like a chimp to its mother.

“Ms. Carter, this is my daughter, Precious.”

Precious. Now that was more like it, Michelle thought, her heart melting at the sight of the little girl with long dark brown pony tails falling on either side of her little heart-shaped face. She was no muffin. She was precious.

“Hi, Precious,” Michelle said in a buoyant voice, coming closer to the tangled pair.

Precious glared at her through a pair of wide cinnamon-brown eyes. There was no doubt this little precious muffin didn’t like her. Well, neither did her father. So… “My name is Michelle, and I’m hoping to be your new—”

“I don’t need a nanny.”

“You’re so right, Precious.” Michelle fell to her knees and sat back on her haunches. “Just for the record, I wasn’t going to say nanny. I hope to be your new friend.”

“I don’t need any new friends. I don’t like you.” Her scowl deepened.

Ignoring her father’s swift intake of air, Michelle pointed to the rag doll tucked under Precious’ arm. “Who’s that? I bet she could use a new friend.” She smiled with hope in her heart. She needed this job and was willing to do anything to win this kid over.

But Precious just stared her down.

Michelle understood her unfriendliness. Her mother was gone, and during their quick chat in the foyer, Mrs. Hayes had told Michelle that Precious’ nanny had recently left to start her own family with her new husband. Precious felt abandoned. She was tired of people leaving her. She was protecting her little heart in the only way she knew how. If she didn’t become attached, she could never be abandoned. It was a hard lesson for someone to learn at such an early age. Michelle empathized. She never knew her own mother, and her father may as well be dead. It hurts like hell when people you depend on abandon you.

Michelle longed to tell Precious that it was okay to need and to love, and that when people left, it was their loss, as Robert had often told her. But in order to do that, she had to make her laugh first.

Michelle stared into the cinnamon-brown eyes staring back at her, and took a deep breath. “Okay, little one. Here’s the deal. We’ll stare each other down and make funny faces, and the first one to crack a smile, loses. If I win, you’re stuck with me.” Michelle had no doubt she would win this game. It was how she and Yasmine settled disputes when they were children. Heck, they still did. “Ready?” she asked Precious. “Okay, here goes. We start on three. One…  Two…”

“Wait,” Precious yelled, pulling her arm from around her father’s leg and handing him her doll. “What happens if I win?”

You won’t. “I’ll walk out of the house and you’ll never see me again.”

Precious’ brows puckered into a frown. “Okay.” She planted her feet apart and folded her arms across her chest.

Michelle veiled her smile of impending victory. The kid had no idea who she was up against. It would be over in thirty seconds. She settled her buttocks against her heels. “Alright, on three. You can go first. One…  two… three.”

Precious made a fish face, stuck her thumbs in her ears, and waved her fingers around.

Cute, but no effect. Michelle shrugged, made a monkey face, and began to sway back and forth on her haunches.

Precious rolled her eyes in boredom.

Darn, the kid was tougher than she thought.

“Your turn, Precious,” her father chimed, clearly amused at the game.

Michelle wondered if he was rooting for Precious.

Precious pulled apart her eyelids and let her tongue hang out of her mouth.

Unimpressed, Michelle decided to pull out the big guns—her unconquerable pig face.

She placed a finger in the space between her nostrils and pulled her nose upward. When she saw the slight hint of a smile flash across Precious’ face, she knew it was over. She rolled her eyes back into their sockets until she was certain that only the whites were visible, pursed her lips, and began making slurping noises like a pig at the trough.

“Hee, hee, hee, hee.... You’re silly.”

“And you’re precious. Come here.” Michelle held her arms wide. It was a huge risk, but she let out a long sigh when Precious wrapped her arms around her neck. The feel of those skinny arms about her pushed Michelle over the edge and tears flowed down her cheeks.

Precious was no different from Jessica, Malcolm, Tessa, Ashley, Parker, or any other kid who hung out at the youth center where she volunteered on a regular basis. She may have a lot more toys, nicer clothes, and eat more food in a day than they had in a week, but at the end of the day, all kids needed was love, and to know that somebody cared enough to fight for them, laugh with them, and tell them they were special.

Michelle looked up to find Erik staring at her. There was relief and gratitude in his eyes because his daughter had laughed, but there was something else shrouded in their depth.  Something she didn’t understand.

“This is Bradie.” Precious pulled her doll from her father’s hand and shoved it into Michelle’s face. “I call her Bradie cause she has lots of braids.”

“Hello, Bradie.” Michelle shook the doll’s limp hand. “I’m Michelle, your new friend.”

“Are you my friend, too?” Precious asked with a timid smile, apparently unsure if Michelle would forgive her earlier offenses.

“Of course, Sunshine.” Michelle touched her cute button of a nose then tapped a finger to her chest. “That is if you have room for one more friend in that little heart of yours.”

“I do.” Her eyes sparkled with eagerness. “You know what?” She started chattering like a seven-year-old high on life. “I have two goldfish. One’s named Bubbly and one’s named Flippy. Bubbly is the big one. You wanna see them? You wanna see my room?” She tugged Michelle to her feet.

“Sure, I’d love to see your room and your fish.” She looked at Erik. “If it’s okay with your dad.”

Erik pulled his gaze away from Michelle and walked over to his desk. She was crying, he thought in astonishment. She wasn’t afraid to show her emotions. Tears didn’t bother her. Cassie had hated tears. She never cried, at least not in front of him. He gave his wife’s portrait a quick glance, then cleared his throat before trusting his voice not to embarrass him. “Precious, run on back to your room now, sweetheart. Ms. Carter—”

“Michelle,” Michelle corrected him.

“Michelle will be along soon. I promise,” he added at the reluctance in his daughter’s eyes.

Precious glanced from Michelle to her father, then back to Michelle again.

Sensing her hesitance, Michelle pushed her hand into the front pocket of her jeans, pulled out a penny, and held it out to Precious. “This is my lucky penny. I don’t go anywhere without it. So, I can’t leave without seeing you, right?”

Precious stared at the penny. “But it’s old and rusty.”

“That’s exactly what I told my big brother when he gave it to me, many years ago when I was just a little girl like you. But you know what he said?”

“What?”

“He said, ‘Michelle, this penny may be old and rusty, but it’s worth just as much as any brand new shiny one’. Do you know what that means?”

Precious shrugged. “A penny is a penny, no matter what it looks like?”

“You are so smart. What’s important is what it means to you. So, is this a lucky penny or not?”

Precious snatched the penny from her hand. “It’s a lucky penny.”

“Good. Now the sooner you get upstairs, the sooner I can meet you there.”

With one last big bright smile, Precious ran out of the room.

“Your big brother sounds like a very wise man,” Erik said when they were alone.

“He is.” Michelle smiled. “Precious is a sweet kid,” she added.

“You have no idea what it did to me to hear her laugh. You almost made me laugh with that horrible pig face. Where did you learn to handle kids like that?”

“Babysitting and working at the youth center. Sometimes the kids walk in with such overwhelming problems that the only way to get them through the day is to make them laugh.”

Erik perched on the edge of his desk, studying the lingering smile on her lips. He would love so much to reach out and grab a ray of that sunshine she’d just showered on his daughter. “Well, you seem to have what it takes to be a nanny,” he said. “You are just what Precious needs. You have the job, Ms. Car—”

“Michelle.”

“Michelle.” He nodded on a smile.

Her black eyes sparkled with relief. “Thank you. I promise you, Precious will be the happiest little girl in Amherst, soon. Just leave her to me.”

“From what I just saw, I think she already is,” he replied, fighting to disentangle himself from the invisible thread that seemed to be forming between them already. How was he going to maintain his sanity with this irresistible woman living under his roof? Erik wondered. It was too late to send her packing. She’d scored big with Precious. His baby had already fallen in love with her. He’d never seen her bond so quickly and eagerly with any other woman. And never had he, Erik realized, as heat began generating in his loins again and his heart started to hammer in his chest.

He scooted off the desk and walked around to sit in his chair, but as he tried to escape the intense immediacy, Erik knew that putting physical distance between them was meaningless. He was so hard, he hurt.

His gaze shifted to the portrait of his wife as if she could help cool the fire in his veins. The fingers of his right hand mindlessly toyed with the gold wedding band on his left as he studied her classic pose. She was seated in a Victorian chair in front of the fireplace over which the painting was hung. She looked like a queen in a long flowing red dress—a red rose wedged between her fingers. Her flaming red hair completely covered her bare creamy shoulders. That was his Cassie. Elegant, sophisticated, and…

“She was very beautiful.”

The mellow voice interrupted his musing. “Yes, she was.” He met the million-dollar question in Michelle’s eyes and, to avoid it, he immediately asked, “Do you really only wear jeans and tank tops?” He groaned inwardly at how the question sounded, especially after he’d been admiring his wife’s portrait.

“Why? Don’t you like my style?”

“Well,” he said, trying to choose his words carefully. “I was just hoping you had something a little less… How should I say this? Um—”

“Trashy?”

“I was thinking… provocative.”

“Oh.” She smiled tentatively. “The truth is, most of my clothes were stolen from a laundromat. Since I lost my job, I could only afford to splurge at thrift stores. They don’t carry much for tall skinny girls, I’m afraid. Actually, I was at the laundromat when the agency called me. I hardly had time to finish my wash and get here. I was planning on wearing a jacket over the top, but when I got in the cab, I realized I’d left it hanging on the doorknob. I didn’t have time to go back.”

So the explanation she’d given him earlier was payback for the lie he’d told Mrs. Hayes to relay, Erik thought with a smile.

He knew that Michelle’s world, where people went out to do their laundry and had their clothes stolen, existed. He attended patients at the community clinic in Manchester who came from that world. He was just never part of it. He’d never lived in it.

Even though the circumstances surrounding his birth had raised a few eyebrows in the elite circle, he was born and raised in wealth. His late wife had also come from a wealthy family. Michelle Carter, on the other hand, had been born and raised in poverty.

As he gazed at her standing in front of him in clothes that someone else had worn and discarded, Erik felt a strong protectiveness toward her. He wanted to provide all the luxuries she’d been denied. Yes, he was physically attracted to the girl, but something about her touched a place deep inside him, a place no other woman—but Cassie—had ever been able to reach.

Strange, since the two women were as different as pink diamonds and cubic zirconia. Nevertheless, he couldn’t have her walking around the house or the neighborhood dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs. She deserved to look the part of the dignified young woman he was certain she was. “I’ll give you some money for a new wardrobe,” he said, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.

Her shoulders stiffened and her eyes flashed with pride. “I don’t take charity.”

“Who said it was charity? It’s an advance on your first paycheck.”

Her lips relaxed into a smile. “That, I will accept.”

Erik pulled out a stack of bills from his wallet and handed them to her.

“Thank you.” She tucked them into the pocket of her jeans without even looking at them.

Erik sensed her embarrassment for having to accept pay she hadn’t yet earned, especially in cash. A check would have been the normal and appropriate form of payment, but she would have had to wait the usual two days for it to clear. She needed a new wardrobe, pronto, for his benefit as well as hers. People shouldn’t be judged by the clothes they wear, but it was no secret that being adorned in the right clothes made us all feel a tat more confident in ourselves. He wanted Michelle to feel confident in his world.

“I noticed you brought your suitcase,” he said in an attempt to break the awkward silence between them. “Were you so sure you would get the job?”

She crossed her arms about her body. “I can be very persuasive when I want something.”

Nothing kept her down for long, and she possessed an uninhibited streak he found absolutely enticing, Erik thought as he watched amusement sparkle in her eyes. His gaze roamed down her body as she tightened her arms across her chest, causing her breasts to push upward and her nipples to strain against the stretchy material of her top.

“Well, that’s it for now,” he said, eager to have her gone. “Your bedroom is next to Precious’. Up the stairs, third door on your left. I’ll bring your suitcase up.”

“Thanks for giving me this chance, and the advance on my salary, Dr. La—”

“Come on now,” Erik cut her off with a grin. “If you insist I call you Michelle, you better start calling me Erik. Especially after subjecting me to that horrible pig face you made. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. Just promise me you’ll never do it again.”

They both burst out laughing.

Michelle’s heart leaped at the sound of his deep chuckles. There was a humorous side to him under that grim exterior he’d initially exhibited. Michelle had no idea what had caused him to take an immediate dislike to her, but his attitude changed the moment she made his daughter laugh.

She could tell he loved his child more than anything else in his world and that he’d appreciate anyone who contributed to her happiness. Today, she was that anyone. She had a job. She had a place to sleep. She would have a home-cooked meal tonight. She wouldn’t have to jump out of bed tomorrow morning and rush over to the corner store for a newspaper to check the want ads, or spend time on the Internet, sending off resume after resume into cyberspace.  She could relax for the first time in almost two years.

Well, that is if she could bring herself not to fantasize about the dangerously sexy doctor. From the way he’d gazed at the painting of his wife while fiddling with the wedding band on his finger, Michelle sensed he was still in love with her.

She and he were worlds apart—employer and employee, and the sooner she accepted that fact, the better off she’d be. “I should check on Precious before she thinks I skipped out on her,” she said, heading for the door on legs that felt like overcooked spaghetti.

“Michelle?”

She stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Yes?” She licked her lips nervously.

“We’ll go over Precious’ schedule later. I have to return to the hospital, but I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

“Okay.”

“And, Michelle.”

“Yes.”

“Thanks again for making my daughter laugh.”

“You’re welcome, Erik.”

Erik watched her go, a fire kindling deep within him as he took in the delicate sway of her hips and buttocks.

Oh yes, she was trouble.

Chapter 3

“You know what, Daddy?” Precious beamed from the opposite side of the dining table.

Erik smiled at the enthusiasm in his daughter’s eyes and voice. Since they sat down to eat, she’d been talking nonstop, bringing him up to date on her exciting afternoon with her new nanny. “What, sweetheart?” he asked, wiping his mouth with his napkin and placing it on his lap.

“Michelle pushed me so high in the swing, I almost saw Grandpa Erik and Grandma Danielle all the way in Granite Falls.”

“Wow, that’s amazing. I didn’t know Michelle was so strong. I guess we got us a super nanny, huh?” He winked at Michelle.

“Yeah, we have a super nanny. She’s the bestest, funnest nanny ever.”

The joy in his daughter’s eyes filled Erik’s soul with gratitude. He smiled at Michelle, hoping she understood what she’d done for him, for them.

“I think you should wait a while before you go handing me a diploma,” she said.

“What’s a diploma?” Precious asked.

As Michelle explained what a diploma was, Erik looked around the elaborately decorated room with its Waterford chandeliers and gold cabinets filled with priceless ornaments Cassie had collected over the years.

It had been a while since he’d taken a meal in here. He and Precious usually ate at the kitchen table, something Cassie would never have approved. She was all about prestige and appearances, the very lifestyle he’d been trying to escape when he left Granite Falls. The table had always been laden with gourmet dishes on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. They’d always had friends and family with whom to enjoy the elaborate meals. But since her death, he and Precious either went to his mother’s on the other side of town, or up to Granite Falls, his hometown, a three-hour drive north of Manchester.

The dining room had become a passageway from the kitchen to the family room. This afternoon, for some inexplicable reason, Erik had called Mrs. Hayes from the hospital and asked her to set the table for dinner. A faint smile ruffled his lips as he recalled that conversation.

“The formal dining room, Sir?”

“Yes, the formal dining room, Mrs. Hayes, where people sit down around a table and share a meal together.”

“And how many people will be sharing a meal, Sir?”

“Three.”

“Are you bringing a guest for dinner?”

“Tell Ms. Carter I expect her to dine with Precious and me tonight.”

As he gazed at Michelle talking so naturally and easily with his daughter, Erik wondered about his decision. Was he trying to impress her? And why? They were sitting around a dinner table like some normal happy family. He at the head, Michelle at the foot, and Precious across from him—the way it used to be when Cassie was alive. It was a good feeling. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this… well, content. He could say it’s because Michelle had made Precious laugh. But Michelle had made him laugh, too. Really laugh.

He’d been closed and guarded for the past two years, and when he’d let his guard down this afternoon, he’d rediscovered something he lost the night Cassie died—his vulnerability. The thought of opening up himself and letting someone in both scared and thrilled him.

As the conversation about diplomas wound down, Erik caught Michelle’s gaze. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asked. She’d been twirling the stew around in the bowl since they sat down. He was on his second helping of the delicious stew and Precious was almost finished with her first. Michelle had eaten two slices of sourdough bread, and two servings of the garden salad, but she hadn’t taken one single bite of the stew. “Is something wrong with it?” Something he had overlooked?

“I don’t eat red meat,” she said.

“Are you a vegetarian?”

“No, I just don’t eat beef.” She set the spoon down, seemingly relieved that she didn’t have to pretend anymore.

“Is there a specific reason you don’t eat beef?”

“Calvin.”

A cold chill ran up and down Erik’s spine. Was Calvin her boyfriend? He’d forgotten to ask her if she were currently involved with anyone. He’d asked for someone older to avoid a repeat of the nanny taking off when she decided to start her own family. He didn’t want his daughter disappointed again. He took a quick glance at her and recalled the excitement with which she’d shared the stories of her afternoon with Michelle. She was already in deep.

When they first met, he’d been so distracted by the effect Michelle had on him, he’d forgotten to ask her the most important question of the day. He couldn’t very well ask her if she had a boyfriend in front of his daughter, so he asked, as placidly as he could, “Who’s Calvin?”

A slow smile broke across her lips as if she knew the real question plaguing him. “A bull calf. Like in cattle.”

Calvin was a bull. Erik let out his breath. “Where did you meet, uh—Calvin?”

“A few years ago, I stayed on a farm that my friend’s family owned. I got very attached to this one bull that I named Calvin. He had the most pitiful eyes, like he knew what would happen to him. I used to wish I had a house with a big backyard so I could adopt him. I promised him that as long as I lived, I would never eat beef again. For a long time after I left the farm, every time I smelled burgers or steaks cooking, I would think of him.”

“Yuck!” Precious dropped her spoon and spat a mouthful of stew back into her bowl.

“Precious, mind your manners,” Erik said.

“But we could have just eaten Calvin, Daddy.”

Michelle shook her head hastily. Her conviction was hers alone. She had no wish to convince Precious or anyone else to adopt her belief. “No, baby,” she said smiling at the little girl. “Calvin was rescued by a nice man who took him far away to another farm where he fell in love with a beautiful cow named Izzy.”

“That’s sweet,” Precious said. “And they had lots and lots of baby cows and lived happily ever after, just like Cinderella and the Prince.”

“Just like Cinderella,” Michelle acquiesced, relieved at Precious’ naivety. She really had to watch what she said around the child. She was hired to babysit her, not indoctrinate her.

“How many babies did they have?” Precious asked, biting into a slice of bread.

“Well, I’d say...”

Feeling quite uncomfortable with talk about love, babies, and happily ever after, Erik tried to tune out the exchange between his daughter and Michelle. Love, babies, and forever was what he’d hoped for when he married Cassie.

If it hadn’t been for that drunk...

Well, he didn’t know that exactly. They never had the opportunity to resolve their last fight that night. He had no idea what he would have done if Cassie had confirmed his suspicions about her.

He couldn’t understand why people who claim to be in love lied, betrayed, and inflicted pain on each other. Love made you vulnerable. He’d been vulnerable to Cassie. He loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone, would ever love anyone again. Was that love strong enough to weather the storm of his suspicions, though?  He would never know. All he knew was that he would never make himself that vulnerable to anyone, ever again.

Well, he was going to try not to, he reassured himself as his eyes rested on Michelle sitting where Cassie used to sit, her brown skin glowing under the richness of the russet cotton dress she’d changed into. Her obsidian eyes sparkled like black magic, daring him to reach out and taste the sweet essence of her soul. Erik tried to picture Cassie’s chestnut-brown eyes, but all he saw were those fiery, black eyes of an irresistible woman gazing back at him, inviting him to explore and revel.

Shaking off the bewitching invitation, Erik pushed back his chair and smiled at his daughter. “Hey, little one. Daddy has a surprise for you,” he said, deliberately interrupting their conversation about forever after. As far as he was concerned, fairytale endings were just that... fairytales that belonged in children’s books.

Precious jumped out of her chair and ran to him. “A surprise for me? What is it, Daddy?”

Erik closed his eyes as he hugged his little girl. God, he loved her so much. She was all he had left of Cassie, and he cherished her with everything good in himself. He pried Precious’ arms from around his neck and peered into her eyes—Cassie’s eyes. He planted a quick kiss on her forehead. “Go wash up and meet me back here,” he said, placing her on the floor.

She raced out of the room without so much as a backward glance, her long ponytails bouncing behind her like thick cords of rope.

Erik turned his attention to Michelle who’d left her chair and was now gazing out the bay window overlooking a rose garden. Habitually, his eyes swept the length of her slender form. From the moment he’d laid eyes on her, he’d been fantasizing about the sight of her naked body, especially her full perky breasts and the shape and color of her nipples. He wondered about the haven of delight between her thighs. What were her waxing preferences? American, French, or Brazilian?

He knew what he liked. Would Michelle deliver or disappoint him? As his eyes took in the gentle curve of her long graceful neck, he wondered how her silky skin would feel against his lips. He could easily kiss her nape without having to trek through a thick mass of hair as he used to do with Cassie. Cassie.

At the thought of his wife, Erik took a deep breath and forced the pleasing yet dangerous musings about his daughter’s nanny out of his head. He took a moment to collect his thoughts then walked to the window to stand beside Michelle.

“They are beautiful,” he said, gazing at the array of red, yellow, white, and pink roses, all in full bloom. Cassie had put her sweat into that garden and after she died, he’d employed a gardener to tend the thorny bushes. They added a magnificent view from the dining table. He remembered the numerous compliments the spectacular scenery had generated from their guests over the years.

“You don’t look like the rosebush kind.”

Michelle’s voice interrupted his stroll down memory lane. She somehow had the uncanny ability to continually bring him back from his past. He chuckled softly. “They were Cassie’s, my late wife’s. She loved roses, especially the red ones, like her flaming hair. Red was her favorite color. You might have noticed that from the painting in my study.”

“How did she die? Was she sick?”

Erik tensed with dread and perplexity. Did she really not know? The news of Cassie’s death and the ongoing investigation to find her killer had made the headlines for months. He’d never met anyone who didn’t associate the name LaCrosse with that tragedy. Well, not until now.

He didn’t want to talk about it, but since Michelle was now an uninformed member of his household, the question would always be hanging over their heads. “She was killed by a drunk driver,” he said, wishing to put it to rest.

“I hope they caught the bastard.”

“Unfortunately, not yet.” Erik frowned at her use of the word ‘bastard’ and the disdain with which she said it.

“How could they not have found him yet?” she asked as if she had a personal stake in his loss. “Drunks aren’t that hard to find.” She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead.

Feeling the tension building around them, Erik ran his fingers through his hair. He seldom talked about that night. And he definitely never spoke about it with a stranger. But something about Michelle Carter made him want to open up his heart to her, tell her the whole truth. Maybe it’s because of the way she’d handled Precious earlier today. She seemed to have a gift to make people who were hurting feel better.

“It was a stolen car that was later abandoned. We knew it was a drunk because it was littered with empty liquor bottles. Cassie’s blood, and fabric from her dress were wedged into the front bumper.” He balled his fists at his sides. “He walked away without even a scratch while my wife bled to death in front of me.”

“You were there? You saw it happen?”

How much should he tell this woman who was gently coaxing the most horrifying, most painful experience of his life out of him? “We’d gone to a birthday party at a friend’s house in Manchester.” He spoke slowly and cautiously. “On the way home, we got into an argument. It was late and Cassie begged me to wait until the morning and she would explain everything to me. She was like that, you know. She hated confrontations. If a fight began brewing between us, she would walk away to cool off and when she returned, we would resolve the issue calmly.”

He closed his eyes for an instant. “But that night, I wasn’t having it. I wanted answers right then and there. So she insisted that I stop the car. We were passing a park, so I pulled over, thinking it would be a safe place for her to cool off for a few minutes. But just as she opened the door and stepped out, a car came whipping by.”

“Didn’t you see it coming?”

“It was dark. The driver didn’t have his lights on. It happened so fast.” Erik pressed his hands against his temples. His head was throbbing. At least, she was sensitive enough not to ask what they’d been arguing about. The only other person who knew about that argument was his ex-best friend, Clayton Monroe. Nobody else. Not even his mother. As hurt and angry as he’d been at the time, he didn’t want people speculating about his wife and what she may or may not have done. Most importantly, he didn’t want anything to tarnish his daughter’s image of her mother.

The authorities had questioned his action in stopping on the wrong side of the road and allowing his wife to exit into the street instead of the sidewalk. He’d been under suspicion for allegedly pushing his wife out of the car into oncoming traffic. But having no evidence that he wanted his wife dead, he’d been cleared.

He was an idiot, not a monster.

“I’ve never told anyone about that argument,” he said, wondering if he’d made a mistake in telling Michelle so much. He didn’t even know her, and yet he’d poured out the darkest secret of his soul to her.

Michelle gazed up at him with moist eyes, filled with the kind of homespun warmth he longed to have wrapped around him.

“I won’t repeat it to anyone,” she said. “I’m sorry, Erik. I’m sorry you and your little girl had to go through such a terrible experience.”

The sincerity in her voice seeped through his skin, into his blood. “You’re remarkable,” he said huskily. “Almost too good to be true.”

His heart jolted when she unexpectedly took his hand and laced her fingers through his. Her touch was like quicksand, pulling him into a chasm of pure desire. He felt an avid quickening of his heartbeat as a violent passion pulsed through his veins, bringing his dormant body to life.

The moment she touched him, a hot flash swept through Michelle, and her heart began to hammer against her chest. It was as if she’d been struck by lightning. Instantly realizing it was a mistake to touch him, she dropped his hand. “I’m sorry. I didn't mean to do that.” She cast her eyes downward to hide the boisterous storm raging inside her.

“Don’t be. You acted on impulse.” Erik put his hands under her chin and raised her face to his. He wiped his thumb across the softness of her cheek, capturing a tear that had escaped from her captivating eyes. He rubbed the warm moisture between his fingers, relishing the feel of it against his skin.

Her lips parted slightly, and involuntarily, her pink tongue darted out to wet her dry lips.  Erik groaned. Her compelling eyes spoke to him, offering him the intimate female delights he’d been deprived of for so long. His head started a lazy descent, and as he got closer, his predatory male senses were stimulated by the sensual fragrance exuding from her skin.

“What’s that scent you’re wearing?” he whispered.

Moonlight. You like it?”

“Yes.  I like it. I like it a lot.”

Michelle closed her eyes as her heart jackknifed in her throat. She whimpered when his smooth, warm lips touched hers, and the heady scent of his masculinity attacked her. There was no spicy aftershave, no musky cologne, just his potent manliness. Her limbs turned to jelly when he pulled her to him and completely covered her mouth and swept his tongue inside, ravishing her hungrily. She clutched his shoulders and opened wider, giving him absolute permission to enjoy her.

Sweat beaded Erik's forehead as his body heat reached a record high. His breath came in gasps as he stroked his hands down her slender body. He pulled her closer, fitting his erection against the soft cradle of her feminine heat. He rocked against her gently as their tongues danced intimately around each other.

Michelle made a mewling sound, deep in her throat, like that from a cat being stroked by its master’s hand. She wrapped her arms around Erik’s neck and pressed herself into the hard curve of his body. She’d had boyfriends before, yet she had no idea that being in a man’s arms could feel so gloriously wonderful. Somewhere in the dazed recess of her brain, she heard thunder rumble.

“I’m ready, Daddy!”

They jumped apart as Precious’ voice yanked them back to reality.

Michelle gasped and swallowed hard, forcing her heart back inside her chest. The rumbling she’d heard wasn’t thunder, but Precious’ footsteps clambering down the stairs. She turned toward the window and managed to straighten her dress just as Precious bolted into the room. She wondered how Erik was doing. She couldn’t even look at him.

“You look beautiful, Precious,” Erik said to his daughter, desperately needing any sound to break the steamy silence in the room. His voice shook so hard, he was afraid she would realize that something was wrong. She was too intuitive for her own good, and his. He dropped to the floor on one knee, placing his arms across his thighs in an effort to hide his arousal.

Precious had changed into a floral printed dress, but the two strips of cotton that would later become a bow in the back, hung down at her sides. She wore pink suede sandals, no socks.

“Daddy, your eyes are all red. Is something wrong? Were you crying?”

“No, darling. Daddy’s just excited about our date tonight.”

Satisfied, she ran over to the window. “Can you please tie my bow, Michelle?”

Michelle took a deep breath before turning around. Her fingers trembled as she pushed the long braids aside and tried to make a perfect bow from the two strips of cotton. “There,” she said, spinning Precious around. “Your daddy is right. You’re as beautiful as a princess.”

She gave her a bright smile. “Are you coming with us?”

“No. Not tonight. This is a father and daughter night out. I’ll come next time. Okay?”

“Okay. Come on, Daddy, let’s go.”

Somewhat recovered, Erik stood up. “Go wait for me in the Mercedes.”

“Bye, Michelle,” Precious called as she ran out of the room.

“I'm sorry,” they said in unison, then looked away from each other.

“Look,” Erik said, “I was wrong to come on to you like that. I wouldn't blame you if you walked out the door right now. I hope you don’t think I expect you to… well, I promise, it will not happen again.”

“It was nothing.” Michelle’s lips trembled as she brought her gaze back to his. The passion still burned affluently within his eyes, as she was sure it did in hers.

“On the contrary, it was something.” He watched her for a long, hard minute, then said in a composed voice, “I should be home around ten. I’m taking Precious to see a production of The Wind in the Willows. I’ve had these tickets for a week, but lately, every time I suggested we do something together, she turned me down. Thanks to you, that has changed.” He paused. “You sure you don't want to come along? I could get another ticket at the door.”

“No,” Michelle replied, thinking about what Precious had told her that afternoon about the day her mother died. She needed her father’s undivided attention more than anything else right now.

“I have to clean up since Mrs. Hayes has left for the day. I also have to finish unpacking and make some phone calls. I need to let my brother know where I am before he puts out an Amber alert on me.”

“Oh, yes, Mrs. Hayes mentioned you have a brother who’s an orthodontist.”

Michelle nodded, pride welling up inside her. Her big brother had achieved and surpassed the big dreams he’d told her about since they were kids. And he was working on an even bigger one, he’d recently told her. “We’re really close.”

“As family should be.”

“Well, goodbye. Have a nice time.” Michelle needed him gone so she could kick herself in the ass.

He lingered, looking around warily. “Are you going to be okay in this big house alone on your first night?”

What, was he afraid she was going to call her hoodlum friends to clean the place out the minute his car disappeared around the corner? Michelle smiled at the wicked thought. “I’ll be fine, Erik.”

“Okay, bye.” He finally left.

“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” Michelle slapped her palms against the sides of her head. How could she let this happen? She was hired to take care of the child, not seduce the father.

Her impulsive behavior could cause complications for all of them, she realized as she began collecting the leftovers from the sideboard. She took the serving dishes to the kitchen that was as elaborately decorated as the rest of the house.

The alabaster marble island in the center of the kitchen was trimmed in red oak to match the cabinets with decorated glass doors and gold handles. His late wife definitely had good taste, which brought her back to her dilemma.

By now Erik was probably back to his initial impression of her—a cheap tramp from the wrong side of the river. If he did, she couldn't blame him. She had offered herself to him, and he was only a man—one with huge needs. Her skin tingled at the memory of his strong arms pulling her into him, his hot tongue ravishing her mouth, and the enormous bulge in his pants pressing into her heat.

Whew. She fanned her face with her hand and stood a little longer in front of the fridge before heading back into the dining room.

She was a half-day on the job, and she was already giving her boss permission to do with her whatever he wanted. From now on, she had to be strong. Tough. His kind could hurt her. Real bad. She wasn’t the kind of woman men like Dr. Erik LaCrosse considered as permanent additions to their lives. He went for the classy type. The couth. He would play with her like a little boy with a new toy on Christmas morning, then he would toss her aside when he got bored.

Not that she was looking to settle down with anybody any time soon. She had to put her life back together. She had to write her book and build a new youth center for the kids in Manchester. Then if she was real lucky, she would find the right man—one in her own league—settle down, have a few kids of her own, and live happily ever after like Cinderella and Prince Charming.

Michelle chortled. She should know better than to make plans and build castles in the sky. The plans she’d made so far had been foiled so badly, she was now living in the house of the rich and famous and clearing their dinner table like a maid. Maybe she shouldn’t even make plans. Maybe she should just take one day at a time and hope Fate eventually threw her a lifeline.

Michelle carried the last stack of fine china to the kitchen and was in the process of loading the dishwasher when the phone rang. She glanced at the cordless extension on the counter, hoping it wasn’t anyone looking for the doctor. He hadn’t told her where he was going, just that he was taking his daughter to see a play. Worse, what if it was his couth lady friend? Nah, she was sure he would have told his woman where he was. She could be with him right now for all Michelle knew.

Or… it could be Erik, calling to see if she was still here, or if she’d called her friends to help her clean the place out and left. She smiled at the wicked thought. Maybe she should just let the answering machine pick it up. She was sure he had one somewhere in the house.

When the phone just kept ringing, she snatched up the extension. “Hello. The LaCrosse’s residence.”

“Hey, Mich.”

Michelle let out a long sigh of relief at the sound of Yasmine’s voice. She’d called her best friend earlier and left the house number since her cell phone didn’t work in this area. Too many trees around. God, she was going to miss the buzz of Manchester.

“So did you get the job?” Yasmine asked.

“I got the job.”

“Yeah!”

“Why, you happy to have your apartment back to yourself?”

“Come on, Mich. You know it’s not about that. I’m glad you’re getting your break.”

Michelle chuckled. “I know. Hey,” she added as she perched on a bar stool at the breakfast nook. “Speaking of breaks, you’d never guess who the housekeeper is.”

“Okay, so tell me.”

“Mrs. Hayes. You remember I told you I ran into her at Mama Lola’s about a month ago?”

“Yeah. Did she get you the job?”

“She wouldn’t admit it, but I’m sure she had something to do with it. She must have some clout with the owners at Ready Nanny Agency and asked them to cancel the other candidate and send me on the interview instead.” Michelle didn’t see the sense in telling Yasmine of the lie Erik had told Mrs. Hayes to tell her. “Anyway, she said I’m here because God wants me here.”

“Well, maybe she’s right. I’m glad you have somebody looking out for you over there.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So how is the kid? Not a rich spoiled brat, I hope,” Yasmine said.

“She’s sweet. I like her. I think we’ll get along fine.” She’d give Yasmine the facts about her and Precious’ first meeting later.

“And her parents? What are they like?”

Michelle’s lips ruffled into a smile. If Yasmine could see it, she’d probably slap the giddy out of her. “Well, her father is nice.”

“Mich, you holding out on me.”

Her smile deepened into a grin. Yasmine knew her too well.  “Okay. He’s handsome, sexy, and he’s a brother.”

“Really?”

“Well—half of him is. He’s ethnically mixed. And he kissed me,” Michelle added as her pulse raced with the sweet memories of being in Erik’s arms.

After a short silence, Yasmine shouted, “What kind of man kisses his child’s nanny, especially on her first day at work? Mich, you need to get out of that house, fast. Just give me the address, and I’ll come pick you up, right now.”

“It’s not like that, Yas,” Michelle corrected her friend who had been looking out for her since they were in first grade. Yasmine had even offered to have her brother beat the stupid out of her father for wrecking her life.

Michelle hadn’t even told Robert what he’d done. It was for her brother’s own good, because she knew he would find him and do something bad to him. She didn’t want her brother spending the rest of his life in jail over their rotten good-for-nothing father.

Robert still thought she’d lost everything because she’d lost her job, and had been living beyond her means, which was partly true. But she’d been denied so much for so long, Michelle hadn’t seen the harm in spoiling herself a little. In addition, she’d been buying clothes and other necessities for some of the kids at the center who had nothing. She wanted to bring some happiness to their lives, see them smile.

“And where was his wife while he was kissing you?” Yasmine continued. “Don’t tell me they’re a swinging couple who hire young girls to fulfill their sexual fantasies.”

“Yasmine, his wife is dead. He’s been a widower for two years.”

Silence. “Oh, okay. Was she sick or something?”

“No. She was killed by a drunk driver,” Michelle said quietly.

“Oh man, Mich. That’s too close to home.”

“You’re telling me. The worse thing is they haven’t found him, yet. As far as Dr. Erik LaCrosse is concerned, every drunk out there is a potential suspect, including my father.”

“Did you tell him about your father?” Yasmine asked.

Michelle sighed and picked up a crystal saltshaker from the breakfast bar and twirled it between her fingers. “What am I supposed to say? By the way, Dr. LaCrosse, my father is a drunk. It’s possible he’s the one who killed your wife.” He’d already formed an opinion about her the moment she stepped out of the cab. She’d had to prove herself fit to take care of his kid, and that still didn’t mean he trusted her completely. He didn’t know anything about her.

“I see what you mean,” Yasmine said. “But what are you going to tell him when he does ask about your family? He will want to know. I’m surprised he hasn’t already asked.”

“I don’t know what I’ll tell him, Yas.” Michelle set the saltshaker back on the counter.

“You know, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. That man may not be your real father. Neither you nor Robert look anything like him. Nothing. Zilch!”

“Yas, give it up. Lots of kids don’t look like their fathers or mothers, for that matter. You don’t look like your dad. And don’t you think our mother would have said something to Robert if that were the case?”

“Maybe she wanted to, but couldn’t. Maybe he threatened her. You know that temper of his.”

“So if Dwight is not our father, where is our real father?” Michelle asked. “Why hasn’t he been looking for us all these years?”

“I don’t know, Mich. Maybe you should go find out.”

“Yeah, right. You watch too much TV.”

“It’s not TV. It’s the weird cases I come across since I’ve been studying criminal law. You wouldn’t believe the things some people would do for no reason whatsoever. There are thousands of unsolved cases out there.”

“Well, I’m sure there are a lot, but mine isn’t one of them. Bye, Yas.”

After she hung up, Michelle pondered over Yasmine’s question about what she would tell Erik when he asked about her father.  One thing she knew was that she could not tell him her father was a drunk, had been since she could remember. Erik would begin to second-guess her character, her ethics, because that’s what people do when they learn you were raised in an unhealthy home environment. If Erik began to question her upbringing, he might be inclined to fire her.

As she slid off the stool and headed up a flight of stairs that led from the kitchen to the second floor, Michelle knew one thing: she would not let Dwight Carter take this job away from her.  He had taken enough already.

As to the other matter about Dwight  not being her real father, well that was just preposterous.

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