Excerpt: The Bachelor's Baby Promise
There was no doubt about it—he’d left the hospital too early.
Jared Montgomery wedged the wooden crutches into the corner of the stair riser, took a breath and lunged up another step. The impact when he landed rocked through his entire battered and aching body. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he paused a moment to gather his reserves. Dogged determination kept him going.
Eyeing the remaining stairs, he counted fourteen. Slowly repositioning his crutches, he took a breath and lurched up one more step. His broken ankle throbbed, his good leg burned with the unaccustomed double duty, every bone in his body ached, especially his ribs. Not broken, just bruised. He couldn’t tell the difference.
Another step gained.
The door at the left of the small landing opened and an inquisitive face surrounded by fluffy white hair peeped out. Mrs. Eugenia Giraux. She’d been his neighbor for the eight years he’d rented his apartment. He couldn’t remember speaking with her more than a dozen times in those eight years.
“Oh, dear,” she said, taking a good look at Jared. He tried to smile, but it hurt too much. At least the swelling around his eye had diminished. He could clearly see her look of shock.
“Mrs. Giraux,” he said. She set great store with manners. He was too tired tonight to care but old habits died hard.
“Oh dear,” she repeated, darting across the landing and rapping quickly on the other door. His door.
Jared made another stair. He hadn’t come five thousand miles to be stopped by another dozen steps. He’d make it to the top or die trying.
Bad comparison, he thought grimly as he gathered his strength for another step. He’d barely escaped death ten days ago. No tempting it now. He hoped he could make it. The thought of just sinking down on the stairs and not moving for ten hours was tempting.
The second door—his door—opened and a tall blonde woman stepped out, peering down at him in startled surprise.
Glad for any excuse to stop for a moment, his gaze took in the two of them at the top of the stairs. Mrs. Giraux wore an old fashioned silk dress, her expression concerned. The other woman caught his attention and momentarily distracted him from the remaining stairs.
Tall and shapely with shorts that should be declared indecent, she had long tanned legs that made him forget every ache and pain. Sparks of interest shimmered in the air. Every nerve ending tingled with unexpected tension. Pricks of excitement and vague yearnings danced across his skin. Banged up and in pain, he still could appreciate a beautiful woman. And wonder what she was doing coming from his apartment. He’d never seen her before.
Ah, probably the nanny his sister had hired to watch the baby. For a moment he hoped that’s who she was. He couldn’t imagine himself doing much more than making it to his bed and the oblivion of sleep. More’s the pity.
Swallowing hard, Jared knew he couldn’t blame the pain medication for his reaction to this beautiful woman—he hadn’t taken any since starting out yesterday morning. Despite the lack of meds, his brain still felt like mush. He needed sleep, he craved it.
“Mr. Montgomery’s here,” Mrs. Giraux announced needlessly.
Great, just what he needed, two women to watch his every move as he struggled up the steep stairs. It was bad enough to take so long with the cab driver behind him. He didn’t need an expanded audience.
“Jared Montgomery?” the blonde asked.
“Who else in their right mind would try to climb these stairs in this condition?” he snapped, clenching his teeth once again against the pain that wracked his body.
As soon as he reached the apartment, as soon as he turned over the baby to the woman his sister had hired to care for her, he’d pop a couple of the pain pills the doctor had prescribed and find oblivion in sleep.
His headache was growing worse, a lingering result of the concussion. And probably exacerbated by the jarring of his lunging up the stairs. His ribs now felt like a fiery band encircling his body and breathing became more difficult. Each impact when he forced himself up another step sent shafts of pain everywhere.
“Are you the nanny?” he asked using the question as an excuse to hold off on a moment on taking another step.
She tilted her head observing him and Jared felt his interest notch up another click. It wasn’t enough that the outside temperature hovered in the high eighties, his own skin seemed to ignite from within. A fever? He drew in another ragged breath.
Feeling suddenly as gauche as a teenager, he stared up at her, unable to look away—imagining her silky hair tangled in his hands, her tempting lips rosy from his kiss. Maybe that concussion had been more serious that he thought!
“I’m the temporary nanny.” Glancing at the fading bruises on his face, at the plaster that covered his foot and leg to his knee, she looked worried. “Looks like you need a nurse.”
“I don’t need anyone. You’re here for the baby,” he said impatiently, gesturing behind him.
For the first time, the woman looked beyond him and noticed the cab driver standing at the foot of the stairs. The bundle he carried awkwardly was an infant in a baby carrier—the sole reason for her presence in New Orleans.
“I’m Jenny Stratford. I’m not a professional nanny, but I know how to take care of babies. Your sister hired me,” she said, looking back at him.
“I assumed as much, since you obviously have the key to my apartment,” Jared said. An apartment still ten steps away.
He could do that. He’d survived worse. He could make ten more steps. He wouldn’t even let himself dwell on the steps inside his two-story home. Once he reached the living room, he could collapse on the sofa.
“Can I help?” Jenny asked, apparently intent on ignoring his bad attitude.
Jared rested against the crutches and stared up at her. Unable to resist, he again let his gaze travel again from the pale champagne-blond hair down the slim body. She wore a skimpy sleeveless shirt and those blasted shorts. He wished he could come up with some ideas about how she might help, but he outweighed her by maybe seventy or eighty pounds, and he hadn’t a clue how she could possibly get him up the stairs.
Shaking his head, he gripped the crutches tighter. “Just what do you propose?”
She shrugged, a slow smiled starting. “Nothing, I guess. You’re almost at the top,” she offered encouragingly.
“I can see that.” Again he positioned the crutches and hopped up another step. Again the impact slammed through him with the force of an explosion.
Not quite. He’d never forget the effects of a true explosion. Or the results.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Giraux said, watching him with worry in her eyes. Hovering at the top of the stairs, she looked as if she also wanted to help. She was even smaller than Jenny Stratford. For a moment he imagined them both reaching for him, knocking him off balance and all three tumbling to the bottom. If that ever happened, he’d give up and spend the night there.
“Mrs. G., I’m sure Mr. Montgomery will make it fine. Thanks for letting me know he was here. I’ll get him and the baby settled and see you in the morning.” Jenny patted the elderly woman on the shoulder and gently turned her toward her door.
Jared said nothing but appreciated the younger woman’s actions in getting rid of his neighbor. At least that made one fewer spectator watching him struggle up the stairs. It’d be too much to hope that Jenny Stratford would also disappear—until he reached the landing.
He didn’t care if it was sheer masculine pride, but he hated her seeing him struggle. Would hate any woman to watch. But something about her…
Another two minutes and he was down to three remaining steps.
“I drove down this afternoon, but I didn’t expect you before tomorrow,” she said, stepping back to the doorway to clear the landing.
“I sent Patti a cable.” Another jump and he’d be there. Level surfaces he could manage. But there was no way he’d be able to climb the stairs inside his apartment. Not tonight. Why he had to have a two-story apartment with no elevator was beyond him. Of course normally he loved it when he was home. Now the mere thought of climbing another seventeen steps was more than he could cope with.
He’d crash on the sofa tonight and worry about getting up to his room tomorrow. There was a small powder room beneath the inside stairs for immediate needs. He was too tired to worry about a shower or anything except getting off his feet! Or, rather, foot.
Reaching the landing at last, Jared moved into his apartment and headed directly for the large, overstuffed sofa placed against one wall.
Sinking down gratefully, he lowered the crutches against the cushions and leaned back. He felt exhausted. What didn’t ache from the injuries received during the explosion ached from using crutches and sheer exhaustion from the twenty-seven hours of traveling. He should have waited, no doubt about that. But he’d wanted to get home, get the baby settled and heal. He wanted life to return to normal as quickly as possible.
Soft jazz melodies floated in through the open French doors, the laughter of tourists faintly discernible in the distance. During the day, Jackson Square bustled with activity, but at night it grew quiet, as if lingering over memories of long ago days—of the Creoles who had called New Orleans home, of the changes the old city had seen over the years. Only the haunting melodies from nearby streets filled the night.
The square had been spared during Katrina, the entire Quarter taking only a minimum hit, enabling it to continue with its jazz clubs and tourist allure. Just over the banks the Mississippi flowed as it had for endless ages.
He could smell the damp from the river mingled with the scent of night blooming jasmine. The familiar songs and the faint hint of laughter were familiar and welcomed. Jared sighed. Despite the circumstances, it was good to be home.
Jenny switched on another light as the cab driver entered the apartment and carefully placed the infant carrier on the floor. The baby was sound asleep. She’d been awake most of the flights, finally falling asleep only when exhausted. He hoped she’d sleep the night away.
“I’ll get the bags,” the cab driver said and turned to head back outside.
Jenny looked at the baby, then back at the man now leaning back on the sofa as if he’d never move again. Eyes closed, head leaning against the cushions, she wondered if he’d fallen asleep instantly.
He couldn’t be more than thirty or thirty-one—and was drop-dead gorgeous. His sister hadn’t mentioned that part. Thick dark hair glinted beneath the light without a speck of gray. His skin was tanned a deep copper from his hours in the Middle Eastern sun, no doubt. His shoulders and arms were muscular, which explained the ease with which he maneuvered the crutches on the steep stairs. Bruises on the left side of his face were already starting to fade. He appeared rugged and determined, but she knew the trip home had been arduous and tiring.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at her.
For the space of a minute, Jenny could neither move nor speak. Trapped by the force of his gaze, she could only stare back, feeling her heart race, her breath catch. His eyes were as blue as her own, the light color a surprising contrast to the dark hue of his skin and hair. The contours of his face seemed carved from teak, from his strong nose to the high cheekbones, to the stubborn jut of his jaw.
When his gaze moved from her eyes to once again trail slowly down her body, Jenny resisted the urge to dash out onto the landing and slam the door between them. His look was blatantly masculine and interested. She hadn’t felt so conscious of her own femininity before. But one look from him, and she started thinking things she had no business thinking.
A million thoughts crowded her mind. She wasn’t ready for his arrival. She hadn’t unpacked, hadn’t bought groceries or aired out the apartment beyond opening the French doors that gave way to the balcony overlooking the square. She hadn’t even made the beds with fresh linens. She still wore shorts from her drive down, had done nothing with her hair since that morning. And on top of all the thoughts that tried for dominance was the glaring one that concerned her more than all the others.
This man was dangerous. He was bigger than she expected. He had a hard edge showing even through the exhaustion. His jaw was squared denoting stubbornness. And he was the best looking man she’d ever met.
The sense of awareness that shivered across her skin when he looked at her warned as nothing else could. He could also be very dangerous to her own peace of mind. There was something compelling masculine about him despite his temporary injured state. A kind of arrogant, king of the world attitude that appealed to women everywhere.
She’d love to have that attention turned on her.
No, she wouldn’t. He was light years out of her league.
Shifting her gaze to the sleeping baby, she refused to allow herself to even imagine there could be any sort of relationship between her and her new employer beside the professional one. She was so not interested in men with children! No matter how gorgeous they looked or how feminine they made her feel, they were forever off-limits!
The baby was sleeping, sliding slightly to the left in the infant carrier.
The heavy, humid air seemed to vaporize and she had trouble drawing a breath. Mesmerized, she turned to stare back at Jared, unable to resist. She wondered how she could have agreed to a summer job without knowing more about the man with whom she would be working. Had she lost all common sense? Had the lure of a summer in New Orleans been too much to resist? Or the need for escape overpowering her good sense?
There was something definitely intriguing about the way he looked at her. And the way that look made her feel. After Tad’s defection, it was like a balm to her spirit. Her heart skipped a beat then settled in at double-time.
Jenny licked her lips as she tried to switch her focus from Jared to the baby. She dragged in another ragged breath. This had to stop. She was here for a job, not to conjure up some fantasy romance with a stranger. An injured stranger for whom any interest in his baby’s nanny was certainly the farthest thing from his mind.
The right leg of the jeans he wore had been cut away to accommodate the cast, which ran from mid foot to just below his knee. His white shirt, opened at the throat, revealed the strong column of his neck, the breadth of his shoulders. Even sitting on the sofa, obviously battered and bruised, he looked stronger and more virile than any man she’d ever known.
Her gaze darting over him, Jenny noticed the pain lines bracketing his mouth, the tight look on his face. He was in obvious discomfort. She felt like an idiot for letting her mind wander.
“Do you need anything?” she asked, feeling she needed to do something to earn her keep.
“A glass of water would be great.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small packet of pills. “I held off taking these so I’d stay awake for the baby. But I sure wouldn’t mind a couple now.”
She hurried into the kitchen, glad for something to do beside stare at the man. Running water into a glass, she took a deep breath before returning. She almost laughed at her foolishness. The man was injured and not a bit interested in anything but a good night’s sleep. And in someone to watch his daughter. And that was her only reason for being here this summer. Take care of his baby until he was better, or could hire a permanent nanny for her.
She handed him the glass, startled at the spark that seem to jump between them when his fingertips brushed against hers. He took hold of the glass, she pulled back. The heat of his touch lingered. He didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary, however, and she could kick herself for the fantasy that danced in her mind. Too much of the romance of New Orleans. She had to remember she was here to work, not become involved with Jared Montgomery.
Almost forcing herself to move away, Jenny crossed to the baby. She was much smaller than Jenny had expected. Flicking a glance at Jared, she knelt near the carrier, fussing needlessly with the light blanket. She’d been hired by Jared’s sister to watch this baby during the time it took Jared to recover from his injuries. She needed to demonstrate she was capable of doing that job before he questioned her capabilities. A summer in New Orleans–it was a dream assignment.
Jenny loved babies. Always had. One day she hoped she’d have a house full of her own. Until then, she satisfied her interest and delight in children by teaching elementary school.
Sighing quietly, she tried to focus her attention on the child and ignore the constant awareness that seemed to center around the man on the sofa. Easier said than done.
Had she let her joy at obtaining a coveted job in New Orleans, at the exact time she wanted to escape Whitney, blind her to reality? Anything that looked too good to be true probably was. She knew she’d have primary care of the baby for several weeks, along with providing meals for the father and light housekeeping. Why hadn’t she given any thought to the man himself? Or the difficulties that could arise sharing close quarters? Why hadn’t she given any thought to the possibility of an attraction that she was having a hard time believing had even begun?
Rebound. That’s all.