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One man and a baby was all it took… When sexy, bad-to-the-bone Greek playboy Theo Papaioannou finds himself in possession of a son he didn’t know he had, he has to overcome a lifetime of bad choices, and become the father his son deserves…assuming he can figure out how to change a diaper. It’s just lucky that Kiera Taylor is there to help…or it would be if she wasn’t keeping some dangerous secrets from him. Kiera is on the run from a violent man who has threatened her more than once. And although she knows she shouldn’t trust Theo’s handsome dark looks, or his winning smile, or the way he makes all her good intentions melt, she has no choice. For somehow, she’s fallen for him and his adorable baby. Desperate for a happy future with them, she makes a deal with the devil, one that risks everything–and everyone–she loves.
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF
Memoirs of a Dragon Hunter
“Bursting with the author’s trademark zany humor and spicy romance . . . this quick tale will delight paranormal romance fans.”—Publishers Weekly
“Balanced by a well-organized plot and MacAlister’s trademark humor.”—Publishers Weekly
It’s All Greek to Me
“A fun and sexy read.”—The Season for Romance
“A wonderful lighthearted romantic romp as a kick-butt American Amazon and a hunky Greek find love. Filled with humor, fans will laugh with the zaniness of Harry meets Yacky.”—Midwest Book Review
Much Ado About Vampires
“A humorous take on the dark and demonic.”—USA Today
“Once again this author has done a wonderful job. I was sucked into the world of Dark Ones right from the start and was taken on a fantastic ride. This book is full of witty dialogue and great romance, making it one that should not be missed.”—Fresh Fiction
The Unbearable Lightness of Dragons
“Had me laughing out loud. . . . This book is full of humor and romance, keeping the reader entertained all the way through . . . a wondrous story full of magic. . . . I cannot wait to see what happens next in the lives of the dragons.”—Fresh Fiction
A Papaioannou Novel
Copyright © Katie MacAlister, 2018
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Cover by Croco Designs
Formatting by Racing Pigeon Productions
This book is dedicated to you. Yes, you. I know, no one ever dedicates a book to you, and that’s so wrong, isn’t it? Think of all you do for people! All the work you slog through every single day just to make life nice for everyone, and what thanks do you get? You work, you slave, you spend time doing things that you don’t particularly want to do, but you do it because you know it will make others happy.
You so deserve a book dedicated to you, and now you have it. Feel free to show this book to everyone, and offer to sign this page for them. It is, after all, dedicated to you.
Note to Readers
Other Books by Katie
I never did figure out if it was the man or the baby that drove me into action and changed the course of my life in the blink of an eye. Thinking about it later, I was inclined to believe it was the child, but somewhere deep in my heart, I had a suspicion that if the man hadn’t been the one holding the baby, I might have passed them by.
I noticed them first just as I was in the middle of coping with a crippling panic attack. For one dazzlingly terrifying second, I thought I recognized the set of shoulders on a blond man standing a little way down the train station platform, and I froze, fear cramping my belly.
“No,” I whispered in horror, both hands clutching my bag, too terrified to move. “Oranges. Apples. Bowling balls. Those little metal balls on strings that sit on executives’ desks.”
“Pardon?” the woman next to me asked, giving me a look that marked me as someone who should be bouncing off padded walls.
“Sorry,” I choked out an answer, my body slumping with relief when the man turned and I saw that it wasn’t Mikhail, just a terrifying facsimile of him. I felt weak with both the terror that had gripped me and, two seconds later, the knowledge that I was safe—he hadn’t somehow followed me to Auckland. I gathered my wits and turned with a slight smile at the middle-aged woman who had stopped next to me to toss away a paper latte cup. “Swami Betelbaum says that when you’re stressed, you should focus on round things. That calms your chakras. Or is it enlightens your ka? It was one of those two.”
“Round things,” the woman said, and after giving me a wary once-over, she moved off, her briefcase held tightly, as if she thought she might have to use it as a shield against sudden attack.
“As if,” I murmured to myself. “Snowballs. Crystal balls. Christmas ornaments.”
The station was packed with early-afternoon commuters, all of whom were pursuing their routine with steadfast determination. I was buffeted by men and women in business suits, busily carrying on with their lives and careers. For a moment, I stood marooned in the sea of humanity, alone, isolated, untouched even though I was surrounded by others, but self-preservation drove me to hurry over to a small oasis of quiet next to a bench littered with discarded newspapers.
Slowly, my heart began to calm, and my hands stopped shaking. “Those little chocolate candies with the yummy filling. Snow globes. Gumballs. Babies’ heads.”
Now, that was odd—I’d never really thought of babies’ heads as being round, but not ten feet from me, a couple stood arguing in low voices, a baby in his stroller next to them apparently forgotten. The baby had a very round head, and a pair of lungs on him that hinted at a future in opera or one of those reality shows where people yelled at one another all the time.
I frowned at the couple, distracted from my own troubles by the scene in front of me. How could they not be aware that their child was screaming his lungs out? What sort of parents were they that they were too caught up in their own argument to take care of their obviously upset child?
The woman, I decided, looked like trouble. She was tall and elegant, her long black hair as glossy as a bird’s wing swinging down to brush her hot pink miniskirt. A matching bodice showed off just about everything she had, and she had a lot.
“Breasts,” I said under my breath, qualifying it with, “Fake breasts. Wheels on a baby stroller. Big tears falling down a baby’s face.”
Poor kid. His face was turning red now as he continued to scream, red and sticky with tears, his misery highlighted by little snot bubbles coming from his nose.
“Snot bubbles,” I added, glancing indignantly at the parents. Why weren’t they doing something?
“There are better things for my life than this,” the black-haired woman said in a heavily accented voice. Russian? Ukrainian? Definitely Slavic. I gave a little shudder at the accent. I was all too familiar with something similar. “I have him ten month. Now he is yours. I give him to you! Here is papers. You get custody papers with lawyer, and I sign.”
“You can’t do that!” the man exclaimed, grabbing at the woman’s arm as she stalked off. He had an accent that sounded English, with something else mixed in.
I eyed him, intrigued despite the knowledge that it was far better not to get involved. He was tall, probably a few inches over six feet.
I didn’t like tall men.
He also had long legs and broad shoulders.
I really didn’t like broad shoulders.
Worst of all, he had the sort of face that made women stop and stare, all manly stubble and a little cleft in his square chin, and thick-lashed eyes that I personally would have killed for.
I really, really did not like handsome men.
“I don’t know anything about taking care of a baby!” the man was saying in an angry tone, his hand on the woman’s arm.
“Now is time you learn,” the woman snapped with a toss of her thick hair. “Is too much for me! I have career!”
“Nastya, wait. You can’t do this to me. I can’t afford it right now—” The man started after her as she left.
My eyes widened as I looked from the couple to the baby, the latter now fast approaching hysterics, snot and tears dribbling everywhere, his strident crying making me want to cover my ears.
They were leaving? They were just walking away from the baby? I looked around in horror to see if anyone else had witnessed this. Weren’t they concerned about some insane person grabbing the baby?
No one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care. I edged down the bench, closer to the baby. I should do something. I couldn’t let the people just walk off and leave that poor, angry baby alone. But it was better to not become involved in a lovers’ spat. That way lay disaster. Right? Right.
“Hey,” I heard a voice call out, and, to my horror, discovered it came from my mouth. “Hey, you’re forgetting your baby.”
The man must have heard, or realized that he couldn’t just leave the poor kid alone, because he turned around and marched back, a furious look etched on that handsome face.
I averted my gaze and slid back down the bench, pretending to be fascinated with the sight of my shoes.
The baby’s cries went up in tone. I took a peek out of the corners of my eyes to see the man was now holding the baby, bouncing it up and down a little, obviously trying to jolly it out of the temper tantrum. The baby, like the man, had black hair and dark eyes, most likely his son. What sort of father didn’t even know how to hold his own child?
“A very bad man,” I told myself, and dropped my gaze again. I would not get involved. It wasn’t my problem. He was probably one of those workaholics who had no time for their own children. I scorned those men. The way I saw it, if you made a baby, then you needed to own up to your responsibilities. It was just that simple.
I couldn’t help but glance up, badly wanting to tell the man what I thought of him, but the sight that met my eyes held me arrested for a few seconds. The man’s face was stricken as he held the screaming and writhing child, his expression not one of a heartless father who didn’t have time for his child, but a man who was obviously as distressed as the child and, what’s worse, had no idea what to do. He looked around desperately, clearly searching for some solution.
He looked utterly and completely lost, and as commuters streamed around him, men and women all intent on their own lives, ignoring the screaming child and helpless man, I felt a moment of kinship, of one isolated individual recognizing another.
“Don’t get involved,” I warned myself even as I was on my feet, moving toward the man. I stopped before him, saying softly, “Can I help?”
He turned a face of absolute agony to me, his dark blue eyes filled with panic. But even with those emotions stark on his face, some paternal sense must have kicked in, because he clutched the baby tighter, and started to shake his head.
“He’s ... you know, he’s really snotty,” I said, pulling a little packet of tissues from my pocket and offering them to the man. “Maybe if you wiped that off him, he might feel better.”
“Snotty?” the man repeated, looking at the baby as if he had no idea what to do about the matter.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake ... here.” I dabbed at the baby’s nose with a couple of tissues, wiping where the snot had mixed with tears and dribbled down his mouth and chin. “He’s really mad, isn’t he?”
“He’s not the only one who’s mad,” the man mumbled, grimacing when the baby screamed even louder, squirming and straining against the man’s hold. “I don’t know why he’s crying.”
I told myself to go sit back down, that it wasn’t my problem, that I was not responsible for other people’s parenting skills, or lack thereof.
“Well, you’re not holding him right, for one,” I said, exasperation driving common sense from my head. “I can’t imagine it’s comfortable to be held like you’re about to drop him. Here, let me have him for a minute.”
I held out my arms.
The man frowned at me, his long, narrow black brows pulling together when he studied me.
“Fine,” I said, dropping my arms and turning back toward my bench. “I was just trying to help. Sorry I bothered you.”
“God, I need help. I’m ... here.” The man thrust the baby into my arms. I adjusted my hold on him, cradling him against my side, one hand rubbing his back.
“Shhh,” I murmured to the baby, rocking from side to side. “I know you’re pissed, but it’s going to be all right. You just need to calm down. You need to find your inner peace.”
“That’s not how you talk to a baby,” the man said, hovering protectively in front of me, as if he was going to snatch the child away.
“Oh really? You weren’t doing any better.” I gave him a sharp look and continued to murmur softly to the baby.
“I don’t know anything about babies,” the man admitted, his eyes moving between my face and that of the baby.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot to know how to comfort one.” I kept my voice gentle despite the sting of the words. Gradually the baby’s cries became less strident, and he started making soft little hiccuping noises. “How on earth can you have a child and not know how to take care of him?”
“I didn’t know I had him until an hour ago,” the man said grimly.
I shot him a startled look. “As bad as a man is who doesn’t have time for his kids, I have to say that one who doesn’t even know he has a child is infinitely worse.”
“I didn’t know I had a son because his mother never bothered to tell me,” he said, keeping his voice low as the baby started to go limp in my arms, making soft little wet snuffles against my neck when he relaxed against me.
“Oh. Well ... oh. I’m sorry, then.”
“You’re not a nanny, are you?” the man asked suddenly, his gaze sweeping over me, no doubt taking in my shoddy clothes and my duffel bag with its remnants of travel tags. “You’re American?”
“Yes, I’m American, and no, I’m not a nanny. I don’t know anything about children other than they need their noses wiped and you should rub their backs when they cry. What’s his name?”
I thought for a minute the man was going to consult the wad of papers the baby’s mother had shoved at him, but he merely put them into his pocket, making a little grimace. “Nastya calls him Piotr.”
“That’s Russian for Peter. Hey, Peter,” I said softly, my lips against the baby’s damp forehead. “You go to sleep now, and your daddy will take care of you, OK?”
“I don’t know how to take care of a baby,” the man said, running a hand through his hair. He looked around the train station again as if he expected to see a magic nanny shop appear before his eyes. When one didn’t, his attention returned to me. “He likes you. Can you help me tonight?”
“No, don’t fight it—just go to sleep. I promise things will look better after you’ve slept,” I told the baby, still rubbing his back. The man’s words grabbed my awareness, leaving me staring at him in disbelief. “Help you how?”
“I need someone to help me with him. With Peter. I’ll call a nanny agency in the morning, but it’s too late now to get anyone,” he said with a glance at his watch.
His expensive watch, I noted. I also didn’t like men who had money to spend on expensive watches. Those sorts of men tended to believe they could buy anything, including the services of a stranger.
“I don’t know you from Adam,” I pointed out, shaking my head.
“I don’t know you either, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to trust you.” His gaze searched my face for a moment; then suddenly he gave me an odd half smile, one side of his mouth curling in an endearing way. A sudden flash of heat hit my belly at the sight of that smile. “Within reason, of course. I’d pay you. Double the going rate. Assuming you’re not on your way somewhere? And if you were, I’d replace your ticket.”
“I don’t even know your name, and you’re willing to trust your child to me?” I shook my head again. “You’re nuttier than I thought.”
“Not nutty, just desperate,” he corrected me, holding out a hand. “My name is Theo. Theodor Papaioannou.”
“Kiera Taylor,” I said automatically, giving his hand a little shake before returning it to stroke the now quiet baby.
“How about it, Kiera? Will you give me a hand tonight? I’ll pay whatever you want.”
I couldn’t help but recognize the desperation in his eyes. How could I not see it? Despite the knowledge that what he asked was way out of line, I considered it—I actually considered it for a few seconds. Then pain whipped me with the realization of what I was doing. When would I learn? How many times did life have to crush me to the ground before I got it?
“No,” I said, carefully placing the now sleeping baby into his stroller, strapping him in before I stood up and faced the man. “I’m sorry. I wish I could, but it’s just safer if I don’t. Good luck, Theo.”
He said nothing, just watched when I gathered up my purse and bag and, without a glance back, headed for the entrance of the station, where I could get a taxicab. It would damage my budget, but I couldn’t stay there with that handsome, desperate man.
I made it five steps before I heard an almost inaudible, “Please.”
I ordered my legs to continue walking. They stood firm.
Slowly, I turned back around. “Tambourines,” I told Theo.
His eyebrows rose.
“Drums. The bell on those big horns.”
“Musical instruments for five hundred?” he asked, a glint of amusement coming into his eyes.
“Swami Betelbaum, my meditation counselor, says it’s good to think of round things in times of stress,” I explained, staring at him.
The longer I looked, the less I liked him. He was too handsome, too big, too needy. Just ... too.
I couldn’t do this. It was the height of folly. He was a stranger, and I ... I couldn’t afford to trust anyone.
I opened my mouth to say no, but what came out was, “One night. I’ll help you with Peter until you get a nanny tomorrow, although I really do not know anything about kids. I’m just a paralegal from Sacramento. Do you live here in Auckland?”
“No,” he said, giving me a relieved smile that did far too many things to my insides to make me at all comfortable. “But I may be. I’m thinking of setting up an office here, and just got in to look around when Nastya tracked me down. I’m booked at a hotel not too far from here.”
If he thought I was going to stay in close confines with him, he was nuts. He’d just have to get me a room of my own. “Whoa, hold on there. I am not staying with you in your hotel room.”
He gave me another half smile. “It’s a suite. There are two bedrooms.”
“Which would be fine assuming I trusted you, but I don’t.” I eyed him. There was no way I would consent to spend the night with a man who looked that handsome. Handsome men were never, ever unaware of their appearance. They expected women to tumble into bed just as a matter of fact.
And why shouldn’t you have a little fun once in a while? my inner voice whispered. That damned inner voice, the one Swami Betelbaum said I had to learn to ignore, for it would lead me away from serenity.
And I so desperately wanted serenity.
“The doors have locks. You may lock yourself into your room,” he said, his mouth tight.
I realized that I’d offended him. And no surprise, I’d more or less accused him of being a rapist, or worse.
“Locked doors are nothing but an illusion,” I said, suddenly so tired, I just wanted to curl into a little ball and let the world pass me by. How long had it been since I’d slept? “How do I know you’re not some horrible ax-murdering serial killer who’s luring me to his hotel room so he can chop me up into little bits?”
“I doubt if many serial killers take their ten-month-old sons with them on their killing sprees,” he said with a hint of that sexy half smile. “If you like, I’ll give you the names and numbers of people who will act as a character witness.”
“Your ax-murdering buddies?” I said with a snort.
“Only one has an ax,” he answered, the smile definitely there this time. “I can give you the name of a respected banker in Sydney, and my broker in Athens, and ...” His voice grew a little strained. “... my brother. He’s a successful real estate developer.”
“Uh-huh. I bet he’d say anything for you.”
“No.” The word was abrupt, but there was a lot of emotion behind it, emotion that I recognized—self-loathing, regret, and sorrow. “If anything, he’s likely to tell you all sorts of unsavory tales about me,” he finished, obviously trying to make light of the situation, his eyes not meeting mine. “He’s eminently respectable, though. He has a wife and four children.”
One night. The thought danced with dizzying temptation in my brain. Misha would never be able to find me if I wasn’t booked under my own name. I’d have a night where I could rest, actually sleep, without listening for the sound of my murderer creeping upon me unawares.
One night of safety. I wanted it so much, I could almost taste it.
“All right,” I said, even as I automatically scanned the crowd. It had become second nature to me now. “But I don’t want the hotel to know my name.”
He gave me an odd look, but agreed, picking up my bag. I hesitated a minute, then took hold of the stroller and pushed it after him. He paused a few yards away and collected a laptop bag and a small overnight bag.
“I’m going to call your references, though,” I warned him. “If anything seems wrong, the deal’s off.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgment and pushed the door with his elbow, holding it open for me.
I said nothing, but brushed against his arm when I passed through the door, suddenly very much aware of him as a man.
One that was far too handsome and self-possessed for my peace of mind.
Theo sat in the cab and wondered if life would ever be the same.
He had a son. A ten-month-old son. His gaze slid over to where the baby sat strapped into the seat between him and Kiera. A child, one that looked like him, so he knew that Nastya wasn’t pulling a fast one. Not that he really thought she would. She might be many things, but her mind was too shallow to work along those sorts of devious routes.
The paralyzing sense of desperation washed over him when he looked at the baby sleeping next to him. How the hell could he be a father? He couldn’t even straighten out his own life, so how was he supposed to raise a child who wouldn’t turn out to be as big a failure as he was?
His brother, Iakovos, was the perfect father. Not him. Not the drunkard who almost killed an innocent woman and her two unborn children.
God, he wanted a drink. No, not just wanted it, he needed it, craved the sense of oblivion that would ease the pain that always seemed to be near, no matter what he did.
He looked at the baby again, trying to assess his feelings. Part of him, what he thought of as the good part, was moved by the sight of the child. Your son, the good side whispered to him, an alien wave of protectiveness gripping him hard in the chest. A son to be protected and nurtured, to be taught. A son who would grow up to be a better man than his father.
The baby slept with his head crooked to the side. Theo frowned. That couldn’t feel good. Just as he was about to move the baby’s head, Kiera leaned over Peter, adjusting him into a more comfortable position.
Her gaze met his, and he was aware once again of the condemnation she obviously felt for him. And why shouldn’t she—hadn’t she herself asked what sort of a father didn’t know he had a son, let alone how to care for him?
“I really didn’t know about him,” he told her, feeling it necessary, for some reason, to explain. “Nastya called this morning, saying she was going to Italy, and she wanted to see me before she left.”
“Italy?” Kiera asked.
“She’s a model.” Without thinking, he ran his gaze over her body, assessing and weighing the positives and negatives without being aware he did so. She was taller than medium height, a bit too thin for his taste, with hair that he had first thought was dark brown, but turned a rich auburn in the afternoon light. He couldn’t get a good look at her breasts in the shapeless, baggy T-shirt she wore over a pair of leggings, but they didn’t seem to be overly inspiring. Her face was heart-shaped, heavily freckled, and bore the faint mark of a dimple on one cheek. Her eyes ... her eyes haunted him, even though he was consumed with his own troubles.
“What are you running from?” he asked softly, so the taxi driver couldn’t overhear.
She jerked back against the door, eyes the color of the Aegean suddenly wide with fear. She didn’t deny it; she just looked at him with those huge eyes, like a gazelle startled at a water hole. For some bizarre reason he didn’t at all understand, he was aware that the newly born need to protect Peter extended to her, as well.
He didn’t know her, he reminded himself. True, he’d be in possession of all the available facts about her and her legal history in the next hour, thanks to the text message he’d sent to his assistant while waiting for a cab, but that would give only the details about her life. He didn’t know her as a person. And yet ... there was something about her, some sense of fragility, as if she was so wound up, the least little thing would shatter her. The image of a startled deer poised to flee remained with him.
“What are you afraid of?” he asked.
“Lots of things,” she said, her gaze dropping to her hands. “Sharks. Poison pygmy darts. De-decapitation.”
His eyes narrowed on her as she stuttered the last word. She was plainly terrified of something. No, someone. Why else would she agree to stay with a stranger? Some motive was driving her willingness to help him out, despite the fact that she clearly didn’t trust him. He’d never been the lesser of two evils, and he didn’t like the feeling. He wanted to know whom she was afraid of before he entrusted his son to her.
His son. Would he ever get used to hearing that? Would he ever make even half as good a father as Iakovos? A sense of panic hit him hard in the gut before he pushed it down, telling himself that he didn’t have a choice. He had a son now. He had to be a father even if he hadn’t the slightest idea how to do that.
“I think I’ll take those references now,” Kiera said, holding out her hand for his phone, which he’d told her she could use to make calls.
What sort of woman didn’t have a mobile phone in this day and age?
One who was running from someone.
He pulled up the address book, picked a number, hit dial, and gave her the phone. “This is Simon, my banker.”
He listened in silence as she apologized for disturbing the banker and explained that she was calling regarding a business proposition she was considering undertaking. “What I really would like to know is whether you feel Mr. Papaioannou is a good risk.”
He raised one eyebrow when she studiously avoided meeting his eye.
“No, no, of course not, I’m not asking for financial information—I just want to know, if you were considering a ... some business with him, would you be comfortable doing so? Well ... I don’t think what sort of business is really pertinent. Either you trust someone or you don’t. No, sir, I do not—”
Theo sighed, took the phone from her, and said abruptly, “Simon, she wants to know if I’m trustworthy. That’s all,” before handing the phone back to her.
Her face turned a delicate shade of pink, something that both amused and amazed him. He didn’t think women still blushed. Certainly, the sort of women he usually dated had long since lost that ability. He couldn’t even imagine Nastya blushing over anything.
“I see. Thank you for your help. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
She hung up the phone, biting her lower lip for a moment.
A surge of heat hit him when he looked at her mouth. She had the cutest little rosebud lips that just made him want to taste them.
“Cantaloupes,” she finally said.
She shot him a surprised glance. He smiled.
“Oreo cookies viewed from the top,” she answered in a challenging voice, then added, “That was really embarrassing, but if you don’t mind, I’d like another reference.” She handed the phone back to him.
He looked at his watch, and dialed a number. “Hello, Henry. Do me a favor and tell the lady I’m about to put on the phone whether or not you feel my word can be trusted. No, just do it.”
She took the phone, her gaze still avoiding his. “Hello. Yes, thank you. You do. With ... oh.” The tiniest corner of her mouth curved in the beginning of a smile. “And has he ... no, no, of course not. I see. Thank you very much.”
“Have I what?” he couldn’t keep from asking as she handed him the phone, her cheeks still pink, but for a moment, her eyes held laughter.
“He says he would trust you to date his eighteen-year-old daughter, and he can’t say that about anyone else, least of all the young man who is dating her.”
“Satisfied, or do you want the last one?”
The smile in her eyes died when she leaned back over Peter, adjusting a lightweight blanket that covered him. “I’d like one more, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t, but it’ll have to wait a few minutes,” he said, nodding out of the window as they pulled up in front of an elegant hotel.
She looked worried, and as they got out of the car, Theo covertly checked his phone, knowing that even an assistant as proficient as Annemarie couldn’t turn up a background check that quickly, but wanting very much to know what she’d find out about Kiera.
He wasn’t stupid—he wouldn’t place his son in what could be a potentially dangerous situation until he knew more about Kiera, but until then, he reserved the right to be intrigued by her.
The background report had better have information about whom she was so afraid of. He had a feeling he was going to want to have a word or two with whoever it was.
I was more than a little self-conscious walking into a hotel with a complete stranger, but two things reassured me: the first was that the hotel was large, with a steady stream of people moving in and out of the lobby, and the second was the fact that Theo got a call while he was paying off the taxi driver. That allowed me to edge forward into the lobby while he stood outside talking rapidly in Greek.
“Look, Peter, people. Lots of people. Aren’t they interesting?” I pushed the baby in his stroller just inside the doorway, pausing to quickly assess the people in the lobby. No one showed even the slightest bit of interest in me. No one rose up to ooze menace and horror, or point a finger and demand the police arrest me. No one so much as looked our way, which did much to calm my already frazzled nerves.
At the very least, I’d be out of Mikhail’s reach for a night.
“Sorry about that,” Theo said, appearing suddenly beside me. He picked up his laptop bag and the baby’s bag, leaving the others for the porter, startling me for a second when I felt the warmth of his hand on my back as we entered the lobby proper. “You two stay here. I won’t be long.”
The baby was starting to fuss again, having woken up just as we arrived at the hotel. I knelt down to check that he wasn’t strapped in too tight, caught a whiff of something horrible, and wrinkled my nose at the deceptively sweet baby.
“Oh, man, I didn’t even think of that,” I told him, sending up a little prayer that Theo knew how to change a baby. “I’m sorry you’re sitting in your own feces, Peter. I imagine it’s very uncomfortable as well as being extremely stinky, but as soon as your daddy gets us to his room, I’m sure he’ll clean you up and make you happy again. I wonder what you like to eat.”
Peter, who had been sucking on his fingers, suddenly yelled, “No no no no” when Theo approached, pointing the accusatory wet fingers at him.
“He can talk,” Theo said, a look of delight crossing his face. “I wonder what else he can say? Can you say ‘Papa,’ Peter? ‘Papa’? Maybe I have a piece of candy... ” Theo set down his laptop bag and started patting the pockets of his suit jacket.
“He’s not a parrot, Theo,” I said, and, when Peter’s face started to crumple up into more tears, gave in to instincts I didn’t know I possessed and took him out of the stroller, balancing him on my hip while I rubbed his back again. “I’m going to give you a little piece of advice that I hope you take to heart, baby. Never let other people project their expectations onto you. You do not have to say ‘Papa’ if you don’t want to. Just because he’s your father doesn’t mean he has the right to demand things of you that you’re not comfortable providing. You say ‘Papa’ in your own good time. And if you don’t want to do that, you can just call him no no no. We are not here to judge you. Just find your inner happy place, and don’t worry about other people, OK?”
Theo looked like he wanted to laugh, but he managed to keep a straight face when we went toward the elevator, a porter with our things on a wheeled cart following behind us.
“Oh, this is quite ... large,” I said a few minutes later, looking around the suite that Theo had booked. The living room alone could probably have fit my previous apartment into it.
Theo paid off the porter, opened the door to one bedroom, then strode across the living room to the other. “Do you have a preference which room you want?”
I shook my head, still taking in the elegant surroundings.
“I’ll take this one, then. It has two beds in it.” He collected his luggage and that of the baby, and took them into his room.
Hadn’t he said something to his ex about not being able to afford the baby? How was he paying for this room if money was tight? He should have downgraded. Or was it a business thing? One of the attorneys in the law firm I’d worked for once told me that appearance was everything, and that if you looked like you had money, people believed you did. Maybe he was putting on a good front for business reasons?
Guilt pricked me. He’d promised double a normal babysitter’s fee, and I had been willing to take it. “Tires. Olives. Aunt Talia’s left earlobe.”
Then again, what was I doing there? Was I really willing to help with Peter’s care just for the thought of a night’s sleep? “Sadly, yes, I am,” I said aloud, wincing when another wave of baby stink hit me. “We’re here, and we’ll just deal with situations as they arise, right? Holy cow, baby. That is really powerful.”
“Your room is there,” Theo said, reemerging to nod toward the other door. “You should probably check that the lock works. I’ll take Peter.”
“Sure,” I said, handing him the baby and hurrying toward my room. “He needs changing.”
I paused at the door to my room and saw the moment when he understood. His face twitched as he held the baby out at arm’s length, saying something in Greek, looking like he couldn’t believe that odor came from such a small child.
And then he looked up and started toward me.
I spun around, slamming the door shut, and locking it for good measure.
“Kiera.” His voice was slightly muffled.
“The baby needs changing.”
“Yes, he does.”
“I’ve never changed a baby.”
“Neither have I.”
“But you’re a woman.”
I gave in and giggled a little before opening the door. “I hate to break this to you, but just because I have a uterus does not mean I have instinctive knowledge regarding diaper changing.”
“Please,” he said, holding out Peter.
The baby’s face started to crumple, like he was about to cry. Theo looked like he might cry, as well.
“He’s your son,” I pointed out.
“And I’m trying very hard to cope with that fact, but I’m new at this, and I need help. Pleeease.”
“Oh, very well, but we’re doing this in your bedroom.” I gave in to the inevitable, taking the baby and walking past Theo toward his room. “I want to be able to sleep in mine.”
“I’ve got to make a couple of calls. Then we can order dinner.”
I nodded and went into the bathroom attached to Theo’s bedroom, spreading one of the hotel’s thick blue towels down on a bath mat before laying the baby on top.
“I hope you don’t have expectations about this experience that I can’t meet,” I told the baby, opening his bag and examining some of the contents. “I will do my best, but just keep in mind that this is a first for me. What do we have in here ... ? Diapers, check. Some sort of ointment. Powder. Oh, a box of wipes. That looks handy. Now, let us get you undone. This unsnaps along there, excellent. And this looks like it comes off there, and then we remove that, and OH HOLY JESUS!”
The memory of the ten minutes that followed would live with me for a long, long time. Eventually, I got the baby’s bottom mostly cleaned up by using half the box of wipes, and two extra diapers to mop up the overflow, leaving the floor strewn with debris of my battle.
Even with the fan going full strength, the odor in the room was enough to send Theo reeling backward when he came in to see how we were doing. “You’re not done yet?” he asked, staring in disbelief as, covered in baby powder that had somehow exploded all over Peter, the floor, and me, I clutched a naked, squirming baby to my hip.
“Does it look like we’re done?” I snapped, at the end of my tether. “Make yourself useful. Get a garbage bag and gather up all that. I got Peter cleaned up, but he still reeks. I think I’m going to have to wash his bottom.”
“Do something,” Theo agreed, flinching while he backed out of the bathroom.
Hope flared with the sight of the bidet. “Right, that’s what its job is. Let’s just try ... oh, Lord, no!”
I must have held Peter in the wrong position to intercept the stream of water, because it merrily sailed through his kicking legs and got me dead in the chest.
Peter looked like he might cry again, filling me with panic and a newborn sense of determination. “All right, don’t get stressed. Think of your happy place. Find your inner Zen, and relax there while I try to work out a solid strategy,” I told the baby, and pulled off my sopping wet bidet-water T-shirt.
“He needs a shower,” Theo said helpfully when he returned with a garbage bag, gathering up the debris.
“I’m going to give him a bath,” I answered, running some warm water, the wet, naked baby still clutched to my side. I didn’t dare set him down, not knowing how clean the floor was. Before the powder had exploded all over it, that is.
“He’s pissing on the wall.”
“What? Oh, Peter, no!”
I realized a little too late that turning around to see what the baby was doing was simply going to spread pee everywhere, and it did, right across the front of Theo’s shirt as he was in the process of bending down to pick up a diaper.
Theo jumped back and swore.
“Oh, don’t make such a big deal about a little baby pee,” I snapped when he ripped off his shirt. “I had poop all over my arms. I had to wash them three times before I could stop gagging.”
He looked up to answer and stopped, his eyes focused on my chest.
I looked down and discovered that my last clean bra, a sheer little number with pretty embroidery on the cups, had been soaked along with my shirt, and was now, in effect, translucent.
I felt hot and uncomfortable and damp, and yet, at the same time, oddly aroused by the look he was giving my breasts. But I’d die before I let him know that. “I’m sorry if the sight of my boobs offends you. I got wet trying to wash the baby in the bidet.”
Theo dragged his gaze off my chest, giving the bidet a curious look. “You tried to give him a bath in the bidet?”
“I tried to wash off his bottom, yes. That’s what it’s for, after all. But he didn’t like it, so we’re just going to go with a full bath. You can leave now.”
“I’ll stay and help now that he’s not ... I’ll help give him a bath.”
“You want to do it? Fine.” I tried handing him the wet baby.
He backed up, holding his hands up. “I said I’d help. You can do it and I’ll watch you so I can do it the next time.”
“Either you do it, or I do it, but if I do it, you have to leave,” I told him, removing from the baby’s grip the toilet paper he had snagged.
“Why can’t I stay?” Theo asked, frowning down at me.
I wanted nothing so much at that moment as to punch him in the knees. “Because my underwear matches my bra.”
“That’s nice to know, but does it have some bearing on bathing Peter?”
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