It was supposed to be a win-win situation-a safe environment in which to raise a son for single mom Vicky, housekeeping and childcare for widowed Jack. Believing they’ve had their shot at happiness, neither is looking to complicate their lives with a romantic entanglement. At first Jack sees Vicky as skinny and plain, guarded with him, but openly warm with his children, an important quality for a man who grew up in the foster care system. However, his growing attraction to the woman who scrubs his toilets and washes his underwear complicates their working relationship. Vicky, too, is reluctant to get involved, having been down that road before with disastrous results.
When Jack learns his best friend fathered Vicky’s son and now wants partial custody, he feels threatened. He’s come to care deeply for both, and doesn’t want to lose the family they’ve become. In desperation he offers a radical solution—marriage. Vicky knows she can do worse than marry Jack, but wonders how successful their marriage would be when its only reason for being was to keep from losing her son. Add to this a troubled child with a secret about her dead mother, and a vindictive ex bent on revenge, and complications abound.
WHERE DREAMS ARE BORN
Vicky Lowell cleared her throat and rang the door bell. When no one answered her first ring, she rang the bell again. This time a baby howled and heavy footsteps approached. “Mr. Hazlett?” she asked when the door swung open.
“It’s about time you got here,” the harried man shouted over the din.
Taking care not to muss his shirt and tie, the man handed the fussy baby into her arms. Two little girls, still in their underwear, clung to each of his pant legs. “You’re late,” he said. “That means I’m late. But I’m willing to overlook that because you come highly recommended by the agency.”
“Mr. Hazlett, I think there’s been some mis―”
“Look, if it’s all right with you we can discuss the details later. I’d hoped to be able to talk to you first, but I just learned I have to give a very important presentation this morning. So if you can start immediately, I promise to make it worth your while.”
“Damn it,” he said, shaking off the clinging children. “Look at that, I’m wrinkled already.”
The man strode into the kitchen and she followed. “But, Mr. Hazlett―” she said again.
“I left important phone numbers for you on the desk.” He took a last slurp from a coffee mug on the table, grimaced, and then rushed for the door. “If you need anything else, ask the kids,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Mouth still open, Vicky took note of her immediate surroundings―a kitchen table littered with pizza crusts and cereal bowls, remnants, no doubt, of its occupants’ last two meals, counters piled high with dirty pots and pans, and microwaveable plastic overflowing from the trash can. Clearly, Tuesday must be the cleaning lady’s day off. Though from the overall condition of the room, the woman must have been AWOL far longer than a day.
Surprised that people of obvious means could live so haphazardly, she turned her attention to the whimpering baby in her arms and the two children staring up at her. The younger one hid behind her sister, a thumb in her mouth and one tiny finger hooked around her button nose.
The baby, suddenly aware of the stranger whose hip she straddled, began to cry in earnest, and Vicky bounced her on her hip.
“Jodie thgared,” the thumb sucker said.
“Jodie? Is that her name? And what’s yours, sweetie?”
The child released her wrinkled thumb. “Soo-soo,” she said, before latching onto it again.
“Soo-soo?” Vicky repeated.
“Suzy,” the older girl said, yanking her sister’s thumb from her mouth with a pop. The indignant thumb sucker stomped her feet in an angry little jig, then re-plugged her mouth.
“And what’s yours?” Vicky said to the older girl.
Vicky rubbed her chin, pretending to be deep in thought. “Now let me see. Could it be Ophelia, by any chance?”
The guess elicited a frown from both children.
“No? How about Wilhelmina?”
The girls gave tentative giggles.
“Oh, I know, I know,” she said. “It’s Hepzibah!”
The girls howled. “No, it’s Yinda,” little Suzy said.
Linda’s brown eyes flashed as she elbowed her little sister. “She was s’posed to guess, dummy.”
Little Suzy gave an ineffectual swipe at her sister.
Hoping to head off a skirmish, Vicky diverted their attention with a rubber squeeze toy, poking it into baby Jodie’s tummy, then squeezing. The air emitted made a funny noise, drawing giggles from all three children. Taking heart from their amusement, she aimed the squeaker at Suzy. The child lifted her undershirt and stuck out her belly. Vicky squeezed again, and another spate of giggles followed. But when she approached Linda, the little girl pushed the toy away.
So warned, Vicky set the squeaker aside, put the baby in her high chair with a hard cookie to gnaw on, and then tackled the clutter. As long as she was stuck there, she might as well make herself useful. Her shift at the café didn’t start until five. “So,” she said as she scraped dried tomato sauce and Froot Loops from the table, “where’s your mommy today?”
“In hebben,” Suzy said.
The unexpected answer gave Vicky pause, perhaps for its content, perhaps for the matter-of-fact way it was delivered.