Grandpa Garnier: If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
She seemed ideal: Slightly overweight, older than the typical teen groupie and definitely on the frumpy side. All of which would keep things as simple as Tyson Garnier needed them to be.
“What was your name again?” he asked. But he kept his voice down. God knew he didn’t want to wake the nine-month-old monster in the other room. He’d just spent twenty-four hours alone with said monster and would rather suffer the roughest tackle imaginable than flounder helplessly through another fifteen minutes.
“Dakota Brown. I didn’t send you a resume, if that’s what you’re looking for. Gabe posted a flyer at the grocery store, saying you’d be staying at his cabin for a couple months and would need a good nanny while you’re here, but I didn’t consider applying until he called me.” The woman met his eyes but he had no idea what she was thinking. She certainly didn’t seem overly impressed with him or his fame—didn’t smile coyly, unbutton the top of her outdated blouse, or bat her eyelashes. She treated him as he imagined she’d treat anyone else, which made Tyson even more hopeful that he’d found the right candidate. It was a major point in her favor that she hadn’t turned into an idiot just because he played football on TV.
He set aside the stack of resumes he’d been searching. The name Brown was as ordinary as she seemed to be. But Dakota. That was unusual. Especially for a woman who looked to be of mixed race. Was she part Polynesian? Native American? Mexican? Tyson couldn’t tell. But her creamy, café au lait skin was clearly her best physical asset.
“And you have no children of your own?” He’d told Gabe Holbrook, who’d talked him into coming to Dundee in the first place, not to send him any potential nannies with children, but it didn’t hurt to double-check. The last thing Tyson wanted was more motion and chatter. He’d come to Idaho to get his mind and body ready for training camp at the end of July, barely two months away. Considering the recent changes in his life, that was going to be hard enough without any added distractions.
“No children,” she said.
She had no discernable accent, nothing that would give away her heritage. “Are you married?”
“Do you nanny for someone else right now or…?”
“I work behind the counter in the gift shop and soda fountain at the pharmacy.”
That was pretty ordinary, too. “You realize you won’t be able to keep that job and work for me at the same time? I need someone who’s available—” he nearly said “twenty-four, seven” but quickly amended it to something slightly more reasonable “—almost every day.”
“Good, because I have to be able to rely on you 100%.”
“Of course. This is your son we’re talking about.”
He tried not to wince at the reminder. He wasn’t ready for a child, for fatherhood. Having lost his own father at two years old, he’d never had much of an example. But Rachelle had circumvented his usual defenses, had set him up so perfectly….
Reminding himself to unclench his jaw, Tyson cleared his throat. “That’s right. He’s my son.” Maybe if he said it often enough, he’d believe it. My son. I have a son. A baby. He had a paternity test to prove it, along with a whole stack of canceled checks he’d given the child’s mother as a result. He’d been hoping the money would be enough, until an anonymous caller, a woman who was probably a neighbor or acquaintance of some kind, made him aware of the fact that Rachelle wasn’t taking care of Braden. Then he’d been forced to hire a private investigator to take a closer look—and, ultimately, to make a life-changing decision. He’d seen his son for the first time only two days ago, when he took over as primary caregiver.
Stifling a groan at the tremendous responsibility behind “primary caregiver,” he rubbed his face. It was all so damned ironic. There wasn’t another member of the Stingrays more religious about avoiding the groupies that congregated wherever the team went.
But Rachelle hadn’t been a groupie. She’d been a down-on-her-luck waitress without a place to stay. And he’d felt sorry for her….
The pencil in Tyson’s hand snapped in two, which caused Ms. Brown’s eyes to widen.
He tried to smile. It probably came across more like a pained grimace, but he wasn’t particularly lighthearted these days. After the injury that had benched him last year, he was hanging on to his football career by his fingernails. Grandpa Garnier, his father’s father and a central figure in his life, had just died. He had a baby he didn’t want or know how to care for. And he had the media hounding him at every turn: Would he sign for another two years with the Los Angeles Stingrays? Or would he move to another team when he became a free agent at the end of the season? How was he handling his grandfather’s death? Would his grief hurt his ability to play? Was his knee fully healed? Was he considering an early retirement? Who’d watch his baby once the season was underway? Would Braden travel with him?
Even the details of the arrangement he’d made with Rachelle had been splashed across newspapers all over the country: Stringray Wide Receiver Tyson Garnier Pays $1,000,000 for Custody.
Who the hell told the press? he wondered. It had to be Rachelle. She loved the attention. Which was a whole other issue. One he’d have to deal with later. He’d headed for the hills the day he saw that headline, hoping to disappear and regroup–before the paparazzi could surround his Malibu home in an attempt to get a picture of him caring for his million-dollar baby.
“You realize I won’t be here long, that the job is only temporary?” he asked, struggling to stay focused on the interview. He’d been up most the night, pacing with a crying Braden, and hadn’t had the chance to shower or shave. A day’s beard growth covered his jaw, and his eyes burned from fatigue.
“Gabe explained that to me, yes,” she said.
“And the job still appeals to you?” He hated to ruin his chances by driving home the negatives, but he didn’t want to lie to her. She was giving up her current job for an eight-week stint as a nanny. How wise could that be?
“Actually, it’s an ideal situation for me,” she explained. “I’ve been working at the pharmacy since high school, so I have a lot of vacation time saved up. Mr. Cottle—that’s my boss—told me I had to take it or I’d lose it.”
“And you’re going to spend it working for me? You don’t want to see the ocean? Go to Disneyland?”
Her eyes slid away from his, appeared to focus on the edge of the desk. “I can’t. Not right now. Anyway, I don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
Who considered such a brief job as a nanny an opportunity? “It’s only two months of work.”
“But it pays well.”
Tyson hadn’t decided on a salary yet. He’d been waiting to ascertain the expectations of his applicants. “How well?” he asked in surprise.
“Gabe mentioned that you’d pay me at least three times what I’m currently making at the pharmacy.”
Tyson felt his eyebrows jerk up. Thank you, Gabe! That’s some sympathy, buddy. “He did? Three times?” God, hadn’t he been taken for enough already?
She twisted the handle of her worn leather purse. “He told me you were looking for the best and were willing to pay for it.”
When she put it that way, what could he say? “How much is three times?” he asked, still a bit skeptical.
“Forty-five hundred a month.”
She stated the amount quickly, as if she was afraid he’d object. But he was actually relieved. Was that all? He’d have to pay at least that much in the city—for probably half as many hours. “That’s fine.”
She smiled self-consciously. “We could use it.”
He caught her choice of pronouns right away. “I thought you weren’t married.”
“I’m not. I live with my father. He…he can’t work right now.”
“Is he injured?” If so, Tyson immediately identified.
“No.” She tugged at one sleeve, seeming a bit self-conscious. “He has…health issues.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope it’s not serious….”
“He’ll be okay.” She lifted her chin.
“Does he need constant care?”
“Not constant. A neighbor, Mrs. Duluth, looks in on him every now and then while I’m at work, and that seems to be enough until I get home.”
“So he’ll have what he needs while you’re here.”
Tyson had hoped she’d explain what kind of health issues her father faced. When she didn’t, however, he had no choice but to move the interview along. There were only so many questions he could ask without invading her privacy beyond what was reasonable in a job interview. “Have you had any experience with children, Ms. Brown?”
“Nothing official, but I’ve been baby-sitting since I was twelve years old.”
At the mention of children, her face lit with enthusiasm and, just like that, she seemed far less average than before. It was her eyes, Tyson decided. Large and luminous and one shade darker than her skin, they seemed exotic. How old was she, anyway? Twenty-four? Twenty-five?
“I know most all the kids in Dundee,” she added, smiling wistfully. “I love babies.”
That made exactly one of them. At this point, Tyson was too angry to love anything. Even himself. “That’s encouraging.”
“I can get references if you want.”
“You already have the best reference you could get. Gabe thinks very highly of you.”
A squawk from the other room caused Tyson’s stomach muscles to cramp with tension. The monster was awake….
“When can you start?” he asked, anxious to make the final arrangements. Forget the rest of the interviews. He needed someone now. Maybe she was only the second person to apply, but he liked her better than the star-struck Ms. Davie he’d spoken to earlier. Dakota hadn’t even mentioned football. With her, he was just a man hiring a nanny, and she was just a nanny looking for work.
Her lips parted as she stared up at him. “I’ve got the job?”
“You’ve got the job.”
“That’s wonderful.” Smiling in apparent relief, she clasped her purse to her side and stood. “I can be here first thing tomorrow, if you like.”
He stood, too, and instinctively moved to cut off her path to the door. She couldn’t leave him alone with what was in the next room. He wouldn’t survive another hour. “Any chance you’d consider starting today?”
Her step faltered. “It’s almost two o’clock in the afternoon.”
Braden was just working himself up into a full wail, but it was enough to shred Tyson’s last nerve. “Is that a problem?”
She raked delicate-looking fingers through her long dark hair. “How long do you need me?”
He wondered how many hours he could get away with. “Four? Five?” he asked hopefully.
“I hadn’t expected to start quite so soon. I need to notify my current employer.”
The crying was growing louder by the second. “You can call them, can’t you?”
“I was also going to check on my father.”
“Can’t you call the neighbor and have her do it?”
Her teeth sank into her bottom lip. “I could try, I guess…”
Tyson needed a more decisive answer. “I’ll give you a five hundred dollar bonus if you can make the arrangements,” he promised. Surely a pharmacy clerk would be willing to briefly impose on a neighbor to be able to earn five hundred dollars! She could even share the money to make it worth the neighbor’s time.
He could tell by her expression that she was tempted, but she still took a moment to respond. “You’re serious?”
“Completely.” He wished he could slap the cash down on the desk, but he didn’t have that much in his wallet. Maybe that wasn’t the best approach, anyway. She seemed almost as spooked by his eagerness as she was relieved to get the job. “What do you say?”
She glanced around the office, at the action photos of Gabe Holbrook–from when he could still play football. “How long have you known Gabe?”
“Years and years,” he assured her. “We used to play together, when I was a rookie and he was MVP. Before the accident that–you know.” He couldn’t say it, wouldn’t jinx himself that way. What had happened to Gabe was every professional athlete’s worst nightmare. “Gabe likes me,” he went on. “Really, he does. You can call him, if you want. On that phone there.” God, stop the crying! “Then you can start.”
“No one pays $500 for one afternoon of babysitting,” she murmured. “I-I couldn’t even take that much.”
Her response threw him. “Sure you can. If you’ll stay, I’m happy to pay it. I can’t give it to you today. I don’t have that much on me, but I can get it for you tomorrow. After that I’ll pay you weekly.”
“Gabe mentioned that you’re going through a hard time right now, that you’re not really yourself.”
Tyson couldn’t help being offended. Who would be normal after what he’d been through? “I’ll have to remember to thank him for that.”
“He meant it well,” she said earnestly. “He’s worried about you. And…I’m not the type to take advantage of someone.”
What? Almost everyone he met wanted something from him. Sometimes he felt besieged, as if the whole world was pressing forward, forcing him farther and farther into a corner as they pleaded for a photograph, an autograph, an interview, a donation, an endorsement–even sex. Some women did all they could to sleep with him just for the bragging rights.
“I’m fine. Totally…fine,” he said. It was a lie, but he figured it didn’t really count because the quality of his life was a matter of perspective. By most people’s standards, he had it all. If he couldn’t say he was fine, who could?
Her shoulders finally lifted in a shrug that said she’d let him be the judge. “Okay.”
Thank you, Lord. The baby was making such a racket he could scarcely think. “Great. Follow me.”
Tyson led his new nanny through Gabe’s cabin to the bedroom where he’d spent over three hours trying to assemble the crib he’d had delivered from Boise. It wouldn’t have taken nearly so long except he could only work in short bursts, in between patting, bouncing and cajoling the child he’d unwittingly fathered that fateful night eighteen months ago. “There he is,” he said, waving her into the room.
He felt a little guilty, as if he was throwing her to the wolves. But she loved children. Doing the baby thing wasn’t torture for those who loved children, right? He just had no affinity for them, had never been around a baby. An only child, he came from a mother who was about as nurturing as an iron chair and had spent his summers with his widower grandfather in Montana. He’d been happiest on the ranch in Montana—but even then he’d been surrounded by cowboys, not children.
When he didn’t come into Braden’s room with her, Ms. Brown glanced between him and his child, who—amazingly enough—had quit squalling the moment the door swung open. A pair of chubby fists gripped the slats of the crib as Braden hauled himself to his feet, then stood there, wobbling, and deceivingly quiet.
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“And you call him…”
Monster… “By his middle name, Braden. I guess,” he added as an afterthought. Rachelle had named the baby without any input on Tyson’s part. She’d used his name to strengthen the link between them.
“I guess?” Dakota repeated in confusion, but the baby interrupted with a squeal. Bouncing in anticipation of being picked up, he offered them a drool-laden smile, and she melted quicker than a Popsicle on hot cement. “Look! He’s darling! You must be so proud.”
“Just make sure you take good care of him,” Tyson said gruffly and hurried back to the relative safety of the office before the truth could come out.
What kind of man couldn’t tolerate the sight of his own baby?