Brie Sullivan stumbled into the downstairs bathroom, shut the door, and burst into tears. I can’t take it anymore—homework, baseball practice, bedtime, cleaning house, fixing meals, changing endless dirty diapers...
Oh damn, did I remember to empty that pail?
If not, the stench would resonate throughout the whole house in no time. Responsibility eased the flow of her tears. Did she really have to deal with the task now? Or for that matter, any of the countless chores around the house?
She sank onto the toilet seat and brushed her hands through her long blonde hair. The silky strands flowed through her fingers. She tugged the unruly mass into a ponytail, but she didn’t have a scrunchie to tie it up.
Tears, again, poured down her cheek. She deserved a moment to herself, didn’t she?
Allison and Ethan were both in their rooms. The baby, thankfully, was asleep. They didn’t need her. The house, well, it was already a mess. What could it hurt to leave it for a little while longer?
She debated heading to bed too. Though exhausted, she hated walking into her bedroom. It reminded her too much of Eric—his goodnight kisses, his arms around her, snuggling against his warm body as she fell asleep.
He never minded when she brought one of their babies to bed so she could rest and feed one at the same time. Maybe that’s why she’d decided not to breast feed Isabella because he wouldn’t be there this time. The accident almost a year ago had killed him, along with the rest of the executives at Mama Turner’s TLC.
Now she had the chore of raising her three kids alone. Yes, the other executives’ wives had offered help. She didn’t know how she could have survived so long without them, but ultimately the responsibility still rested with her.
Depression fell like a woolen cloak over her shoulders, heavy and burdensome. She dropped her head into her hands. “Oh, God, I can’t do it.”
Tears welled up in her throat, cutting off her breath. She struggled to think, as her thoughts turned dark. Would her children be better off without her?
Right, who else do they have?
She lifted her head and tightened her grip on the situation. Her parents lived in Florida and could barely care for themselves. Her brother had kids of his own. They’d never been close in the first place. Eric, the man she’d loved with all her heart, the father of her children, was dead, killed in a tragic accident.
Another flood of tears streamed from her eyes in their rush to escape. She fought the despair, working relentlessly for a solution.
Maybe one of the other executives’ wives could take care of them?
They had been thrilled at the prospect of her delivering Eric’s child, and maybe at the beginning she had been too. Now though, she realized the futility of the future.
Her children needed a father. No one believed she could do it alone, not her parents, not her brother. With all the help she had received from the executives’ wives, how could they believe it either?
And what was the chance of her finding another man? Who would want a woman with a ready-made family?
She couldn’t imagine never being held again. She wrapped her arms across her chest and squeezed, missing the enticing appeal of a man’s arms around her. Could she survive the rest of her life without hearing the deep masculine tone of a man’s voice while in bed, the heat of a hard body in the dark next to hers...sex?
Hell, she wasn’t even thirty.
The doorbell sounded.
Brie sprang up. If she didn’t stop the noise, it could wake the baby.
She fumbled with the bathroom door. The bath mat bunched at the bottom wouldn’t allow her enough space to escape. She pawed at the fluffy mess and finally managed to wedge the door open enough to squeeze through. Wrapped around her feet, the tangled mat wouldn’t release its hold and slowed her progress. With a swift kick, she broke free and dashed for the front door.
A tall silhouette stood behind the glass panels framing the door. She paused, her hand resting on the doorknob. “Who is it?”
“Brie, it’s me, Jason. Is everything okay?”
Wonderful, he wouldn’t stay long, not after everything that had happen during Isabella’s birth. Then again, could she blame him? She had clung to him as if he were a life line, becoming upset if he even stepped away from the hospital bed.
A little voice sounded in her head. Don’t invite him in.
She nodded her agreement. He didn’t need to see the dirty dishes in the sink or the half-folded laundry in the living room or that she hadn’t vacuumed in more than a week. She brushed back her hair and then flipped the deadbolt.
Inching the door open, she peeked through the crack at the son of one of the executives’ wives. Marianne had requested her son help Brie, just handle a few small jobs around the house so she wouldn’t have to. Thankfully, Jason had agreed. Now, he seemed to arrive whenever she needed help.
The chilly night air touched her cheek. Afraid he’d see her tears, she brushed her hands quickly over her face and rushed through her greeting. “Hey, Jason, we’re all fine, so you can just head on home.”
“I’m in no hurry.” He edged forward, his hand resting on the door. The gap widened. “I had a job at a house down the street. They needed a toilet reseated. Only took a few minutes, so I decided to stop by on the way home and see how you were doing.”
Brie blocked the door from swinging open any further. She struggled for a way to deny him entrance. His mother was one of her best friends. He coached her son’s little league baseball team, and had stood beside her during the birth of her daughter.
“Jason, it’s really not a good time. The house is a mess. The kids are in bed and well...” Her cordial manners sent a bullet of guilt through her for being so impolite. She edged back a step. The crack grew wider. “If you want to come inside, I guess I can rustle you up something to eat.”
Yes, food, the ever-ready gift of peace.
She’d hide in the kitchen, while he rested in one of the recliners in the living room. Then once she had everything ready, he’d eat, leave, end of story. He’d head home, and all would be right with the world. She frowned as he stepped across the threshold, but did she really want to cook?
Jason Clark walked through Brie’s doorway, asking himself why he insisted upon gaining entrance when she obviously didn’t want him to come inside. He’d decided after seeing it was eight-thirty on his van’s dashboard clock, he’d make this a pit stop visit—a quick check and then back on the road for home.
Her attachment to him during Isabella’s birth had amused him at the time. Brie couldn’t help wanting a man’s touch during the delivery of her daughter. Most women did, didn’t they?
Their hormones having gone wild.
Hell, he liked being there for her, holding her hand, but afterward she became uneasy every time he stopped by. Why? Was she embarrassed?
But then again, he had avoided her house for the last few weeks. Caring for a newborn and dealing with her parents, she probably had more than she could handle without him adding to the madness.
Spinning on his heels, his gaze caressed Brie’s sexy form. Her beautiful blonde hair swayed against a thin yellow t-shirt that topped a pair of light blue pajama pants. White daisies danced through the material’s pattern, highlighting her feminine curves. Need sizzled through his veins, but something about her movements struck him as odd. Raising her hand, she shut the door, but the task taxed her strength. She fought the door for a moment, pressed her shoulder against the partition, and drove it into place.
He frowned. Her earlier desire to get rid of him had troubled him, but now his concern grew. What could be wrong? Were the kids sick? Was she?
She stepped away from the door and offered him a weak smile. “What would you like to eat?”
“You don’t have to fix me anything. I just stopped by to make sure you’re okay.” He lifted his hand and cupped her face. Moisture met his palm. Why was she crying?
Brie laid her hand over his and leaned into his caress. “I don’t mind. I haven’t really eaten anything for dinner either. The kids wanted mac and cheese, but I wasn’t tempted by the sticky mess.”
Her watery-blue-eyed gaze met his. Misery swam in the depths of hers. Unease washed through him. What had upset her?
“Brie, honey, what—?”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Ethan leaned over the railing near the top. “Hey, Coach, what are you doing here?”
“Great,” Brie growled and knotted her hands into fists at her sides. Eyes igniting, she stormed angrily past him. “Ethan Sullivan, didn’t I tell you to stay in your room? Just because someone comes to the door doesn’t give you permission to disobey me.”
Her harsh tone floored Jason. He’d never heard her raise her voice to anyone, much less her kids. She doted on them as if they could do no wrong.
“Whoa, not his fault.” Jason caught Brie by the shoulders, tugging her back against his chest. He glanced up at Ethan’s young disheartened face. Dressed in superman pajamas, he gripped the banister. Tears twinkled in his eyes. His lips quivered in despair.
“Hey, buddy, why don’t you head back to your room? I’ll be up in a minute to say good-night.” Jason directed the boy out of harm’s way.
“Sure, Coach,” Ethan whispered. His head down, he turned and shuffled away.
With Brie standing stiffly in the circle of his arms, Jason waited for Ethan to move out of sight. The moment the boy rounded the corner, Brie spun around and buried her face against Jason’s chest.
“How can I be so mean?” Tears dampened his blue work shirt.
He slid his arms around her and held her close, offering what comfort that he could. “Easy there, you’ve had a bad day.”
“More like a bad year,” she muttered, ducking her head and hiding her face.
Not willing to make comment on the year she’d endured, he let the remark pass. Her head barely reached the top of his shoulder. He rubbed his chin over her hair, avoiding its ticklish caress. The sensual fragrance of honey teased his senses: a designer shampoo, conditioner, or just her unique scent?
“I, uh, didn’t mean to...” Brie mumbled against his chest.
Jason didn’t need to hear how she thought she felt like a failure, but he couldn’t stop her either. After the accident that took his father and the other executives, he’d had mourned, shutting himself off from everyone. Then his mother asked him to fix Brie’s leaky faucet.
He’d arrived during chaos, kids screaming and running through the house. She waved hers and half of the neighborhood children into the basement and then showed him the problem in the bathroom. Just seeing how ordering pizza had taxed her energy that night, he’d jumped in to help. He couldn’t turn away.
His grief had eased, but hers, well, it took longer to recover from losing a spouse, but if she needed him to hold while she cried, he’d gladly be there for her.
She snuggled into his body, her lush curves pressing into him like hot lava.
He drew in a shallow breath, wishing for a tall, cool drink, because the woman made him sweat. He’d watched her blossom with another man’s child and had helped her during the birth of her daughter. For almost a year, he’d stood beside her without letting her know how he truly felt. Now, after watching her shed a few tears, she’d completely shattered his resistance.
She hiccupped, but continued the sentence on a heart wrenching sob, “you, uh...”
Several unidentifiable moans followed, which must have been words, but Jason couldn’t decipher their meaning. Holding his tongue, he fought the desire to lift her up into his arms.
With her bedroom on the second floor, he could easily carry her upstairs and passed her children’s bedrooms. Ice water trickled through his veins, cooling his ardor. They wouldn’t understand, and Allison would have yet another reason to hate him. The little girl wouldn’t accept him no matter what he tried.
He allowed Brie a moment to gather herself. When she didn’t pull away and continued resting against his chest, he whispered, “Why don’t you go on into the living room and rest? I’ll head upstairs, say goodnight to Ethan, and be right back.”
Nodding, she stepped back, her hands falling from his chest. Her face averted, she didn’t let him see her tears and meandered down the hallway. The dejected slump of her shoulders almost had him following her, until a small voice murmured from above. “Coach, are you coming?”
“Be right there.” He rushed up the stairs two at a time and noticed the boy standing in the middle of the hallway. “Hey, buddy, let’s head back to your room.”
“What are you doing here?” Allison stood in the doorway of her room in a pink flannel gown, her long brown hair stringing down around her shoulders. She frowned, her hold on her doll tightened. “It’s late. You shouldn’t be here.”
Jason smiled, hoping to change the girl’s opinion of him. “I just stopped by to check on you guys.”
“Right.” Allison’s voice dripped sarcasm.
Ethan cupped his hands into Jason’s and tugged. “Come on, Coach, I want to show you my new G.I. Joe figure. He’s the superhero of my army, like Captain America.”
Knowing how much the boy loved his toys, Jason roamed through the doorway and then glanced back into the room on the other side of the hall. Allison shuffled her bare feet across the carpet on her way back to her bed. Her small shoulders held the same dejected angle as her mother’s. Did she miss her dad like her mother missed her husband?
Something shifted in his perspective of the little girl. Yes, she enjoyed criticizing him, went out of her way to be mean when he visited. Did her behavior hide a deeper hurt, a pain he had unwillingly fostered. Maybe, he had even helped it grow by showing his aversion to playing her girly game of dolls?
“Look at his muscles.” Ethan’s excited enthusiasm captured Jason’s attention. “He could save the world with a single punch.” The child swung his arm in a wide arch. G.I. Joe in his hand, Ethan barreled through a dozen army men in one swipe.
“Too bad he can’t rid us of unwelcome guests.” Allison’s words echoed from across the hallway.
Jason turned to look at her, again. She stood by her bedroom door, and he forced a smile onto his face. “If you like Allison, I can tuck you into bed after I’m done here with Ethan.”
With a casual shrug, she hugged her doll and shook her head. “No need, I’m not a baby anymore.”
Something about the quietly spoken words broke Jason’s heart. But like your mother downstairs, you still need someone to give you a hug.
Brie stared at the timer on the stove, entranced by the count down. Did time really move that fast, or was she moving in slow motion? With two seconds left, she pressed the button to stop the timer, grabbed a hot pad, and removed the tray of chicken nuggets from the oven. She could still hear Jason with the kids upstairs. Tired and probably impatient to get home, why had he bothered to stop by?
They hadn’t seen each other in weeks. With her parents’ visit and Isabella’s birth, Brie hadn't had a chance to get out of the house, much less have visitors. All of the executives’ wives, of course, had stopped by, but they hadn’t resumed their weekly meetings.
Wow, she really missed them, the adult conversation, the laughter, the chance to learn how each was managing. All of them had their lives so organized, so well-planned, so pulled together.
How did they do it?
She ducked her head, fighting the overwhelming sense of failure that consumed her. She couldn’t do anything right. Look at the awful dinner she’d prepared Jason. Tears trickled down her face. She brushed them away with the back of her hand.
Granted, none of the other executives’ wives had small children. Jen, only a few years older than herself, was enjoying the blissful life of a newlywed, having moved on after their husbands’ tragic accident.
Sylvia, as always, spent her time helping with her daughter’s activities. With school restarting, she’d be organizing fundraisers and setting up parent meetings.
Marianne, a picture of the petite woman formed in Brie’s head—her smiling face, her classic style, her resemblance to Jason. Was she still enjoying entertaining two men each week at the coffee shop?
Mentally, Brie reminded herself to call and arrange for them all to come over one night next week.
The thud of footsteps on the stairs drew Brie away from the counter where she rested.
Jason didn't need to see her wallowing in self-pity, again. She’d already embarrassed herself enough by blubbering all over the man’s shirt earlier.
Retrieving a plate from the counter, she shoved a few nuggets off the baking tray and onto her plate. The rest she dumped on his.
Pasting a smile on her face to hide the dark cloud hanging above her head, she lifted a plate in each hand and turned just as Jason strolled around the corner leading into the living room. His quick pace ate the distance between them. Dark hair, athletic build, sexy brown eyes, Jason epitomized what every woman would desire in a man, not counting that he was also caring and kind.
Why then, wasn't he married?
Unwilling to reveal the depths of her despair, she lowered her gaze as unwanted desire tingled down her spine. Not him, nor any other man in his right mind, would ever find her desirable. She drew in a breath, struggling not to torture herself by believing one ever would.
Stepping forward, she placed the plates on the counter, which separated the kitchen from the breakfast nook. “I'm sorry, but I haven't been to the grocery store since my parents left. All I have are fast easy meals for the kids.”
“No problem.” Jason paused by the bar and brushed his hand through the air, indicating the food. “You really didn't need to go to this much trouble. I could have fixed something for myself when I got home.”
Flustered by his comment when she hadn’t gone to any trouble at all, Brie shuffled to the cabinet and pulled down two glasses. “What would you like to drink?”
“Iced tea is great.”
She plopped the glasses down beside the plates, avoiding his gaze by staring at her footwear. The tiger head positioned on top of her slippers bobbed up and down as she walked across the room to the refrigerator. Opening it, she withdrew the pitcher. Her hand hovered over the condiments in the door. “Would you like some barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, or something else to go with the chicken nuggets?”
“No, I like them plain.” The sound of his voice drew near. The weight of the container in her hand lightened. He brushed his free hand along her back. “I’ve got this.”
His rich scent teased her taste buds more than the flavorful aroma of the chicken and his welcoming warmth tempted her to collapse into his arms.
She wrestled with the overwhelming impulse. He didn't need her problems. Yes, he’d been there when she needed him, and he’d been a good friend. A damn good friend, but she couldn’t continue to lean on him. He deserved a woman who could love him, not one with a built-in family, or one who was still in love with her dead husband.
Tears clouded her eyes as she realized a man would never hold her again. Her heart ached and then slowly broke in two at the thought of her children never having a father. Defeated, she closed the refrigerator door.
Jason stood by the counter, pouring tea in each glass. His six-foot frame towered above her, blocking her path forward. Waiting for him to finish the task, she gazed at his broad shoulders, trim waist, and round pat-able butt.
He swung around and raised an eyebrow of inquiry.
Her face heated. Did he know she’d been checking out his ass?
He smiled. “Did you want ice in—”
Isabella's cry rang through the house. The wail vibrated off the walls, instantly setting Brie’s nerves on edge.
“Oh, damn, can't the girl sleep more than two hours at a time?” She swirled around, jerked open the refrigerator door and dug inside for a bottle. Her mind raced with the last time the baby had woken. How long would it take this time to get her back to sleep? Would she be up all night again?
The crying grew louder, vibrating through Brie’s head as if the child had suffered a mortal blow or her life stood in jeopardy.
Quickly twisting off the cap, Brie nudged the fridge shut. “Jason, would you mind sticking the bottle in the microwave for about a minute, while I go upstairs and take care of Isabella.”
Brie shoved the bottle into his hand. “Thanks, I really appreciate it.”
She rushed through the living room, up the stairs, and past her other children's rooms. A quick glance. They were snug in their beds, and hopefully sound asleep soon. She sped into the master bedroom and skidded to a stop next to Isabella’s crib.
Her daughter’s cries echoed off the soothing light blue walls, shattering the calm tone Brie had envisioned when she’d decorated the room. Isabella, lying on her back, kicked her little legs and pumped her arms like a marathon runner, displaying her displeasure at her mom for taking so long.
The loud bawling jogged around in Brie's head like the bouncing ball that directed a kid’s sing along. Anxious to put an end to the abuse, she grabbed a diaper off the dresser and laid a hand on her baby’s stomach. “Easy there, sweetheart, let's get you changed.”
Working like a speed demon against the time clock of the consistent yelps, she unsnapped her daughter's jammies, released her legs, ripped back the tabs of the diaper, and tugged it free. After dumping the soiled diaper into the trash, she repeated the drill in reverse order, pleased by the fact she must have emptied the smelly pail earlier.
“Now, then, that wasn't so bad, was it?” Brie gathered the infant into her arms. Isabella’s wails decreased in volume. Brie cuddled her closer. The sweet scent of baby shampoo and the soft bundle against her breasts eased the turbulent pounding of her heart. All the heartache over the last year faded. Peace settled like a warm security blanket, calming her mind with a renew hope for the future.
“Okay, Jason should be here any moment with your bottle.” Brie settled on the end of the bed.
“Wow, that girl sure does have a set of lungs.” Jason strolled into the room, Isabella’s bottle in his hand.
Brie couldn't hold back a grin and lowered her baby to her lap before reaching for the bottle. “Yeah, with her range she could be an opera singer someday.”
Jason stopped by the bed, his sexy, brown eyes intent on her daughter. “She looks so sweet now. It's hard to believe she can make so much racket.”
A soft sucking noise whispered through the room. Brie studied her baby’s square jaw so much like her father’s. Eric, bless his heart, had longed to have a house full of children, but Brie had enjoyed having only two and had resisted the temptation to have more.
Issy was a divine gift, a special reminder of her husband.
“So, do you want to tell me what's bothering you?” Jason switched his brown-eyed gaze to hers, boring into her head as if to read her mind. “Are your parents still trying to get you to move to Florida?”
“No. After a few weeks of togetherness, I believe Daddy is more than happy to have us living here.” Brie recalled her father grumbling about what the kids should eat, watch on TV or do in their free time. The constant commotion had forced him out of the house several times for a walk around the park. “You see, Dad was never around much when we were kids. Being in the military, he spent months away from home.”
“Yeah, well, my dad was a workaholic. He might not have been out of town, but that didn't mean he spent time with us.” Jason eased back, leaned a hip against the dresser, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Maybe, but I swore when I grew up, I’d marry someone who had nights and weekends free.” Tears blurred her vision. Her dream had become a reality. Eric hadn't worked ungodly hours, and when he came home, he’d enjoyed his kids as much as she did.
“Is that what's got you down?”
“Among other things,” she muttered, leaving out the part about no man ever desiring her again. She didn’t care or at least wasn’t ready to have another relationship, but knowing she would never have another man care about her hurt more than she could bare.
“There’s no reason why you can't get married again.”
Brie groaned, “Hey, right. What man in his right mind would want a ready-made family?”
“I think you’re just tired. How much sleep have you been getting?” Jason walked forward, holding out his hands. “Why don’t you let me take care of Isabella while you lie down and rest?”
Unable to resist, she stood and handed him the baby. “Thanks, Jason, the girl doesn't want to sleep. She wakes up every two hours and usually stays awake for at least an hour or more.”
Brie waited until Jason had Isabella settled in his arms before she stepped back. A smile fluttered across her daughter’s face. Brie wished he’d hold her in his arms too.
“If you like, you can sit over there in the rocker.” She pointed to the chair wedged in the corner by the head of the bed.
“Thanks. Now why don't you lie down?”
Brie dragged herself to the other side of the bed and slung back the covers. “Let me know when you get tired. I’ll take over. I know you have to work tomorrow.”
“Right, like you don't have to get up and take the kids to school.” Jason settled into the rocker. A slight whimper escaped from the baby, he quickly fed the bottle back into her daughter's mouth.
“Yes, but at least I don’t have to pick them up. I'm in a carpool with another mother down the street.” Brie fluffed her pillow and crawled into bed. The soft cushion of the mattress cupping her body, she melted against the sheets. Peace teased her mind at the luxury of not having to jump up again in two seconds.
“So you've been able to get some rest during the day?”
“No, that's when I try to get everything else done.” Brie reviewed the chores she hadn't accomplished today. Laundry—half done. Dishwasher—still not unloaded. Formula—damn she only had two bottles left.
“Why? What can't wait?” Jason’s question made it sound like she didn't have two other children to take care of.
“Well, there are meals to fix, which reminds me, I have to make a run to the grocery store tomorrow.” She quickly glanced at the night stand to see if there was any paper available. She better make a list.
“Don’t worry about it now. Just try to get some sleep.” The soothing tone of his voice lulling her senses, she closed her eyes.
Visions of Eric floated through her thoughts...him getting up at night, bringing the baby back to her, his help in the evening with the chores, his steady presence when she was too exhausted to go on. “I need a second set of hands.”
An idea popped into her head. The perfect solution. She just needed to get married.
Forcing her eyes open, she rolled to her side and stared at the man holding her daughter. He wasn’t married and didn't mind her kids. If they could join forces, all would be good.
Excited by the possibility, she sat, the covers falling to her waist. “That's it. I need a husband.” Lifting her voice, she stared into a pair of sexy brown eyes. “Jason, will you marry me?”