A Temporary Christmas Arrangement
It’s just supposed to be business.
They’re about to go their separate ways come the New Year…
Neither Harper Bravo nor Lincoln Stryker are planning to stay in Valentine Bay. She’s got big-city career plans, and he’s trying to figure out how to balance work and caring for his orphaned niece and nephew. But when Lincoln moves in next door and needs a hand, a cash-strapped Harper can’t help but step in. They make a deal: just during the holiday season, she’ll nanny the kids while he works, and then they’ll each leave town. But when they can’t deny the spark between them, will love be enough to have them both changing their plans?
The Bravos of Valentine Bay:
They’re finding love
—and having babies!—
in the Pacific Northwest
What Readers are Saying
“Kids, Love, and Christmas. Who could resist? This is a wonderful holiday read.”
5 stars, Cassie, Goodreads reviewer
“I say this after every book of Christine Rimmer's that I read. This is the best one yet. Well she did it again. This is the best book yet. I really enjoyed the cast of characters, the story line and everyone needs a Lincoln Stryker in their life or at least I do.”
5 stars, Phylis Carpenter, Goodreads Reviewer
“This is a wonderful story of love and redemption and the cutest 2 kids you'll ever read about. Christmas is all about new beginnings and possibilities. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!”
5 stars, Cassie, Goodreads Reviewer
“Linc Stryker. Has his hands full: remotely running his business, caring for his orphaned nephew and niece, and convincing his ex-fiancee she is his EX-FIANCEE. Throw in a distant father with a pregnant 3rd wife and Linc's absent, bitter mother - whew! No wonder he is taken with Harper Bravo's calm manner. Or is it the way she loves his nephew and niece? Whatever, he needs to find a way to convince her she is what he needs and wants in his life. What happens when you have two stubborn people together? A whole lot of laughs and a really good book.”
5 stars, Sharon Duff, Goodreads Reviewer
“Loved this story! Harper and Linc are great characters and Jayden and Maya are terrific sidekicks. A believable story with interesting family entwined. Harper has a large loving family, and Linc has a dysfunctional mother and not very close relationship with his father. Harper and Linc's relationship grows close real fast. I hated for story to end!”
5 stars, Karen Geurts, Goodreads Reviewer
“Do you ever want to read a book knowing it’s just going to make you feel good? This one does it for me. I love Linc and Harper and the ease of their relationship! If you want a quick, happy Christmas read, this is it!”
5 stars, Dyan Carness, Goodreads Reviewer
The drive from Portland to Valentine Bay started out just as Lincoln Stryker had been certain it would. Both kids seemed happy. Linc had everything under control.
A glance in the rearview mirror revealed five-year-old Jayden in the car seat directly behind Linc. The boy gazed dreamily out the window.
Jayden was a talker. He might be lazily watching the world go by, but he didn’t do it silently. Not Jayden. He chattered nonstop. “Uncle Linc, I hope the nice ladies next door are home. Did you meet the nice ladies?”
Had he? Linc had no clue. Probably not. “At the cottage, you mean?”
“Yes. They are Harper and Hailey and I like them a lot.”
“I don’t think I’ve met them.” Linc hadn’t been to his family’s seaside cottage in more than a decade. His hazy, fond memories of the place didn’t include the neighbors.
And, as it turned out Jayden didn’t care if Linc knew the “nice ladies” or not. The little boy babbled on, “Harper and Hailey are sisters and they are so much fun. I was only four last Christmas, but I `member. I `member everything. I `member they came over to play and they helped me make a snowman—and that `minds me. There should be snow, Uncle Linc. There should be snow, and Harper and Hailey can help me make a snowman. Will you help, too?”
Linc took his eyes off the road long enough to cast a quick look over his right shoulder at two-year-old Maya in the other car seat. She was already asleep, her plush stuffed pig, Pebble, clutched in her chubby little arms.
“Uncle Linc, will you help me make my snowman?” Jayden asked more insistently.
Linc faced the road again, caught Jayden’s eye in the rearview and winked at him. “Absolutely, I will.”
“Good. And don’t forget the Christmas tree…”
“I `member last year we had a tall one.”
Linc felt a sharp pang of sadness. “I’m sure you did.” Megan—Jayden’s mom and Linc’s only sibling—had always required a real tree, a tall one. “I want one like that this year, too, Uncle Linc.”
“A tall one, it is.” Megan Hollister had loved Christmas. For all her too-short life, she’d insisted that the holidays should be spent at the Stryker family cottage on the coast.
“We have to put on all the lights,” Jayden said. “All the lights and the red shiny balls and the little toy soldiers and the angel on the very top…”
Linc pushed his sadness aside and focused on the wide, gently curving road ahead as Jayden happily chattered away. The kid was intrepid in the best sense of the word. Nothing got him down.
And Linc would do everything in his power to make sure that Jayden—and Maya, too—had a good Christmas this year, the kind of Christmas Megan would have given them if she were still here. It was going to be Linc and his niece and nephew, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Family only, the way Megan would have wanted it.
The kids’ grandma Jean had tried to convince Linc that he would need a nanny at the cottage, especially if he hoped to work remotely. Jean Hollister was a wonderful woman. Jayden and Maya adored her—rightfully so. But Jean didn’t know everything.
Linc and Jayden and Maya would manage just fine. No nanny required until after Christmas, when they returned to Portland and Linc went back to the office full-time.
“Uncle Linc, I’m hungry…”
“You think maybe you can hold on until we get to the cottage?”
“I’ll try…” Jayden lasted exactly three minutes. “Uncle Linc, my tummy is growling…”
They were just passing Hillsboro, so there were still plenty of fast-food places with drive-throughs. Linc pulled into the next one.
As he rolled down the window to put in Jayden’s order, Maya jolted awake with a startled little whimper. She fussed as they moved on to the pickup window, where Jayden’s snack waited.
A few minutes later, they rolled out onto the road again. Maya had not stopped fussing. But with any luck, she would be lulled back to sleep by the ride.
Ten minutes later, Maya’s whines had turned to all-out wails. Linc pulled off at the next opportunity and checked her diaper. It was wet, so he changed it.
Jayden waited until they were back on the road to mention that he really, really had to pee.
It went on like that. One thing after another, a classic car-ride-with-the-kids experience. What with stopping to offer comfort to whichever child was upset, change a loaded diaper, get Jayden another snack and then, soon after, yet another potty break, the hour-and-a-half drive took almost twice that long.
When Linc finally pulled the Range Rover in at the cottage on the wooded bluffs above the ocean in Valentine Bay, it was after three and the shadows had grown longer. It would be dark by five.
And Maya had started crying again.
Jayden just kept on talking. “We’re here! I want to see the nice ladies. I want to go get the Christmas tree…”
“One thing at a time, Jayden.” In the phone holder, Linc’s cell lit up. Again. He let it go to voice mail. Already, he’d ignored several calls from the office, where they damn well ought to be able to get through one day without him.
He needed to unload the car, get the kids inside; settle them down a little; turn on the water, the power and the heat; and put something together for dinner—and okay, fine. Maybe he should have listened to Jean and considered bringing help.
At the very least, he could have called the property manager to get the water running, the lights on and the place warmed up.
But he hadn’t. Because it was tradition, after all. The Strykers might be one of the wealthiest families in Oregon, a fortune built on four generations of running Stryker Marine Transport coupled with smart investment strategies, but when Christmastime came around, having money running out their ears didn’t matter.
At the cottage, Linc’s family did for themselves. His happiest childhood memories were in Valentine Bay. At the cottage, he and Megan had almost felt like they belonged to a regular family, the kind where the mom and dad actually cared about each other and spent time with their kids.
And damn it, he could do this.
He would do this.
He just needed to take it one step at a time.
First up: try to settle the wailing Maya down a little.
Jayden announced, “I’m gonna get out and—”
“What, Uncle Linc?”
“I need you to stay in your car seat for a few minutes. Will you do that for me?”
Jayden wrinkled his nose, like the idea of staying put smelled bad. “There’s French fries under my butt.”
“We’ll deal with that, I promise. For right now, though, just sit tight.”
Maya had sailed past crying and straight on to wailing. “Unc Winc!” she screamed, and threw her beloved stuffed pig on the floor.
“She’s hurting my ears!” whined Jayden. Ever resourceful, he stuck his fingers in them. “There.” He let out a long sigh. “That’s better.”
Linc flashed the boy a big thumbs-up, after which he climbed from the car, ran around to Maya’s door, and extricated the unhappy toddler from her seat. “Here we go, sweetheart.” He hoisted her into his arms.
She grabbed him around the neck and screamed all the louder, burying her sweaty little face in the crook of his shoulder, smearing him with snot and unhappy tears.
He stroked her dark, baby-fine curls and soothed, “Shh, now. It’s okay…”
Pulling open the front passenger door, Linc laid her on the seat and somehow managed, through her layers of winter clothing, to get two fingers down the back of her diaper. It was a bold and dangerous move, but it turned out all right. She hadn't soiled her diaper, which meant her two-year-old molars were probably acting up again.
Maya confirmed the problem, pressing small fingers to her jaw. “Hurt, Unc Winc.” She needed a cold washcloth to chew on, but he couldn’t give her one until they were inside the cottage and he’d turned on the water. Jean had taught him to stick his fingers in her mouth and massage the area. But he hated to do that without washing his hands first.
“I’ll help,” announced Jayden, and snapped himself out of his car seat before Linc could order him to stay put.
Which was okay, come to think of it. “You’re the best, Jayden. Get that blue chew thing out of the front of her diaper bag…” It was soft silicone and shaped to fit in the back of her mouth.
Jayden crouched in the footwell to dig around in the bag. “Got it!” Beaming proudly, he handed the teething toy over the seat to Linc.
“Great job—now, stay close,” Linc warned. When left to his own devices, Jayden sometimes went off “adventuring.”
“I will, Uncle Linc…”
“Thanks.” Linc gave the screaming little one her chew toy. She knew what to do, sticking it into her mouth with a sad little moan, holding the soft handle while chewing the business end into the spot she needed it, all the way in back. The silence that followed was golden. “Better?” he asked.
Her expression relaxed and she made a soft, contented sound as she worked the toy inside her mouth.
He glanced over the seat at Jayden again. “Can you hand me Maya’s baby sling?”
“Yep.” The little boy dug out the sling and passed it to Linc.
Linc thanked him enthusiastically and then got down to the business of putting Maya into the sling, all nice and cozy against his chest. She was still small enough to carry that way—though she wouldn’t be for long. He spoke to her softly as she chewed on the blue toy and stared up at him with so much trust in those big brown eyes.
The sadness dragged at him again. He refused to surrender to it. Megan and Kevin were gone. But they lived on through Maya and Jayden—and Linc would do whatever it took to give his niece and nephew a happy childhood and a decent start in life.
Maya, attached to the front of him now, chewed away on her teething toy and reached up her free hand to gently pat his cheek.
His heart suddenly too big for his chest, he smiled down at her. “Okay, then, sweetheart. Let’s go on into the…”
Was it suddenly much too quiet?
He glanced into the backseat, where Jayden’s door gaped wide-open. The boy was no longer crouched in the footwell and, except for a few smashed fries, his car seat sat empty. “Jayden?”
Maya stared up at him, eyes wide as saucers. She made a tiny, anxious sound. “It’s okay,” he soothed her, rubbing her back as he turned in a circle, his gaze probing the shadows between the giant Douglas firs that loomed all around. “Jayden!”
Again, no answer. Linc’s heart pounded the walls of his chest and his pulse roared in his ears.
He’d only taken his attention off the kid for a minute or two, tops. And yet somehow, in that two minutes, he’d vanished.
Still no answer. Linc tamped down a hard spurt of adrenaline-boosted terror. No reason to lose it yet. Jayden couldn’t have gone far.
In the rambling family-owned cottage she used to share with her sister, Harper Bravo stared into the wide-open fridge and tried to decide what to have for dinner. Nothing looked good. She was just about to check the freezer when the doorbell rang.
Company. Her mood brightened. Harper had yet to become accustomed to living alone. She would love a little company, even old Angus McTerly, who lived two cottages south and had no doubt lost track of his wandering dog, Mitsy.
But it wasn’t Angus. She pulled the door wide and found little Jayden Hollister, whom she hadn’t seen since last Christmas, waiting on the step.
“Hi, Harper.” He threw his arms wide and beamed up at her from under the blue hood of his down jacket. “It’s me!”
“Jayden. What a surprise.”
“Is Hailey here, too?”
“Um, not right now.” The boy, who’d grown a good three inches since the last time she’d seen him, appeared to be on his own. Whoever was supposed to be watching him probably wondered where he’d gotten off to. “Jayden, are you all by yourself?”
He tipped his head to the side and looked up at her through a fringe of thick, dark eyelashes. “Not ezackly…” And he launched into a chatty little monologue about his uncle and his sister and how they were all in the car for “a reeeely long time.” From there, he segued into how he hoped it would snow and there could be a snowman like last year. “And we will be here all the way to New Year’s Day, Harper, so can I be in the Christmas show again and you can make me an elf suit like you did before?” Harper and her sister Hailey put on several community events a year at the Valentine Bay Theatre downtown—and Jayden had quite the memory for a five-year-old.
“Did you say your uncle is here with you?”
“Let me check with him about the Christmas show, okay?”
She stuck her phone in her pocket and grabbed her old wool Pendleton from the hook by the door. When she wiggled her fingers at him, Jayden took her hand. “Tell you what. Let’s go on back to your cottage, shall we? Your uncle is probably wondering where you are.”
“All right, let’s go!” Jayden skipped along beside her as they took the narrow, tree-lined path that led to the next cottage north of hers.
Halfway there, a handsome and harried-looking man appeared from around the next bend. He had a second child strapped to his chest in a baby sling—undoubtedly Maya, who was about two years old now. And the hot guy? The uncle in question, the one who took guardianship of the children when their parents had died so tragically last January.
Like most people in town, Harper had read about the plane crash in the news. Such a heartbreaking story, and it must be so hard for the family—the two innocent kids, especially. But for the uncle, as well. He’d lost his sister and his brother-in-law. Harper understood that kind of loss from firsthand experience.
“Jayden!” The uncle sounded as frantic as he looked. “There you are. You scared me to death.” The little girl in the baby sling started fussing, and Jayden, alarmed at the uncle’s wild-eyed expression, stopped stock-still on the path.
“Hi, I’m Harper.” She spoke in a cheerful, nonthreatening tone and plastered a big smile on her face, hoping the uncle would take the hint, lower his voice and stop scaring the kids. “Jayden and I are friends,” she said brightly. “We know each other from last Christmas. Are you staying at the Stryker cottage?”
The uncle turned his angry glare on her. “Where else would we be?”
Still in her child-soothing voice, she suggested softly, “You need to smile. Because a smile would be so much less scary than your face right now.”
Linc finally got what the woman with Jayden was trying to tell him. “Uh, right.” Bouncing Maya gently to calm her down, he drew a deep breath and rearranged his expression to something he hoped came off as not quite so freaked. “I apologize for the scariness. I was worried…”
“I completely understand.” The woman—Harper?—softened her smile. Linc found himself thinking how pretty she was, with long, thick blond hair and enormous pale blue eyes in a heart-shaped face.
He introduced himself. “I’m Linc Stryker, the kids’ uncle and guardian.”
“Great to meet you, Linc.” She cast a downward glance at the wide-eyed Jayden and then arched an eyebrow at Linc.
He took her meaning and spoke gently to the little boy. “Jayden, I’m sorry for using such a loud voice. But remember, no adventuring without an adult.”
Jayden gave him a slow and very serious nod. “I’m sorry, too, Uncle Linc. I shouldn’t have left like that, and I won’t do it again—and I wasn’t adventuring, not really. I just wanted to say hi to Harper and Hailey.”
“I get it. But leaving without telling me where you’re going is not okay.”
“I know, Uncle Linc. I promise I won’t do that again.”
Right then, Maya whined, “Unc Winc, I hungwy!”
He dropped a kiss on the top of her curly head. “Okay. Let’s see what we can do about that.” He held out his hand for Jayden, who let go of Harper to take it. “Thank you,” he said to the blonde.
“Anytime.” Her soft mouth bloomed in a radiant smile as he turned to take the kids back the way they’d come.
Harper felt weirdly stunned.
The uncle was way too attractive, tall and broad shouldered with caramel-brown eyes and full lips and a sculpted jaw dusted with just the right amount of scruff—and where were her manners?
Linc Stryker could clearly use a hand.
“Wait.” When he paused and glanced back at her, she offered, “Let me help. What can I do?”
Linc turned fully around again and grinned at her, a slow grin that caused the muscles in her belly to tighten and warmth to flare across her skin. “I’ve been trying really hard to pretend that I’ve got this.”
“Pretend? No way. It’s obvious to me that you know what you’re doing.”
He scoffed. “If you say so.”
“I do. Now and then, though, you need to let a neighbor give you a hand.”
“Honestly, I’m happy to help.”
“Hungwy, hungwy, hungwy,” chanted the little one in the baby sling, reaching up to capture Linc’s face between her hands.
He caught the teething toy she’d dropped and bent to whisper something to her. When he glanced up, he aimed that sexy smile at Harper again. “Help would be wonderful.”
“So, what can I do?”
“I hate to ask…”
“Just tell me.”
“Well, if you would maybe come on back to the cottage with us? I would owe you big-time if you could keep an eye on the kids until I can unpack the car and get the power and the heat turned on….”
The Strykers’ charming, gray-shingled two-story vacation house was a cottage in name only. Harper guesstimated the size at around four thousand square feet, with a beautiful, modern kitchen and lots of windows offering forest and ocean views.
“It’s been updated since last year, hasn’t it?” she asked, when they stood in the kitchen—still wearing their coats because the heat wasn’t on yet. “I remember seeing workmen here, in July and August…”
Linc gave Maya back her teething toy. “I hired a contractor last summer to upgrade the kitchen and bathrooms. Then in September, I arranged for a decorator to come in. She had all the rooms painted and changed out the furniture.” His warm brown eyes looked shadowed suddenly. Harper had a sense he was thinking of the sister he’d lost. “I wanted to bring the kids here for the holidays and the place needed an upgrade or two.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“I like it!” declared Jayden.
Linc seemed pleased. He ruffled the boy’s hair. “I’m glad to hear it meets with your approval.” He glanced down at the little girl attached to his chest and then up at Harper. “If you’ll take Maya, I’ll get busy unloading the car.”
Harper helped him unhook the sling. When he handed the little one over, Maya didn’t protest, just reached out her arms and let Harper gather her in, taking the blue teething toy out of her mouth long enough to remark, “I hungwy. Now.”
“We’ll fill up that tummy. Promise.” Harper brushed a kiss on her plump cheek.
Linc brought in the food first—what there was of it. “It’s not much,” he confessed sheepishly. “I had this idea I would just take the kids out with me to get everything we needed right here in town.” He set the two bags of groceries on the white marble countertop.
Harper shifted Maya onto one arm and took a quick peek inside the bags. “No worries,” she reassured him. “I see bread, eggs, milk and sandwich fixings. Fruit. Perfect. Nobody will starve.”
“Hungwy,” whined Maya hopefully around her blue teething toy.
Harper stroked her soft hair. “We’ll fix you a nice snack.” She sent a quick smile Linc’s way. “Turn the heat on. We’re fine.”
“Great.” He was already turning away.
There was a booster seat at the table. She put Maya in it, peeled a banana and gave the little girl half. Next, Harper found crayons and a tablet in a kitchen drawer. She handed them to Jayden and asked him to draw some pictures.
He had questions. “Pictures of what, Harper? How many pictures? What colors do you like? Should they be Christmas pictures?”
She tipped Maya’s chin up. “What do you think your brother should draw for us?”
Maya swallowed a bite of banana and exclaimed, “Cwissmuss!”
Harper winked at Jayden. “You heard your sister. We want some Christmas pictures—in Christmas colors, like green and red and yellow.” But why limit a guy’s creativity? “Blue and purple and pink are perfectly acceptable, as well. In fact, Jayden, you should use any color in the box. I kind of love them all.”
“A Christmas tree, Harper? A snowman?”
“Yes. Good ideas. Start with those.” She pressed a kiss to Maya’s silky hair just so she could breathe in the scent of baby shampoo and that special something else exclusive to little ones—like fresh, sweet milk and clean sheets hung to dry in the sunlight.
“More?” pleaded Maya, who had scarfed down the half banana in record time. Harper gave her the other half, found a plastic plate and a sippy cup in one of the cupboards and then supplemented the banana with dry cereal, sliced apples and milk.
Linc got the utilities turned on and the fire going in the gas fireplace. It wasn’t long before the cottage warmed up enough that they could hang up their coats.
Harper kept both kids occupied as Linc got the rest of the stuff from the car and then started making beds.
As soon as Maya finished her snack, Harper gave her back her chew toy and set her down on the kitchen floor, where she toddled around a bit and ended up plopping to her butt by the table. For a while, she just sat there cuddling the stuffed pig Linc had brought in from the car, contentedly chewing on the blue toy.
By then, Jayden had drawn a Christmas tree, a snowman and a picture of five smiling stick figures. “That’s me and Maya and Uncle Linc and Gramma Jean and PopPop,” the boy explained. “Gramma and PopPop just went on a boat to go everywhere around the whole world. They won’t be back for a looong time.”
Harper studied the smiling figures. “Are you saying your grandparents went on a cruise?”
“Yeah. A cruise. That’s what they call it. They took care of us for a looong time and now they get to go on vacation, and we will be with Uncle Linc, but get to see them all the time on Stype.”
“You mean Skype?”
Jayden wrinkled his nose, thinking it over. Finally, he nodded. “I think so, yes. Skype.” He bent over the paper again and began to add what looked like a boat to the picture. “All done!” he announced.
Harper praised his work and then found some magnets in the drawer where the crayons had been. She hung all three pictures on the big two-door fridge. “They look great,” she said. “Very festive.”
Jayden frowned. “What’s festive?”
“Happy and cheerful and jolly.”
“Like you feel at Christmas?”
She nodded approvingly. “That’s right.”
Jayden beamed with pride. “Yes, my pictures are festive. And I like them, too.”
“It’s always nice to be pleased with your work. And now that the pictures are finished, I think we need to get started on dinner.”
Jayden wanted to help, so Harper found him a step stool. He stood at the counter beside her, chattering away, munching on chips and nibbling on slices of cheese.
“I hewp, too!” insisted Maya midway through the process. She seemed pretty steady on her feet, so Harper let her stand on the other step stool, with Jayden on one side of her and Harper on the other. “I good!” announced the toddler as she chewed on a piece of bread.
“Yes, you are. Very helpful,” Harper agreed.
When they all four sat down at the table, Linc praised the meal and the kids’ efforts and confessed that he was having some serious trouble figuring out how to get the Wi-Fi working. “I may have to call the property manager,” he added.
“I’m pretty good with anything technical,” Harper volunteered. “Let me have a look at it first.”
“Not only a kid whisperer, but you’ve got the tech handled, as well?”
“I guess you could say that, yeah.” She explained her work at the Valentine Bay Theatre downtown. “I’m the theater’s tech director, which means if it doesn’t have to do with acting, I’m the one to talk to. We do several shows a year. With each one, we try to get the participation of every child in town.”
Jayden seized the moment. “Uncle Linc, can I please be in the Christmas show? I was in the show last year and it was so much fun.”
Linc turned to Harper. “So, the Christmas show would be at the Valentine Bay Theatre?”
“That’s right.” She gave Jayden a smile and suggested, “How about this? I’ll discuss the Christmas show with your uncle later and then he’ll talk it over with you.”
Jayden glanced from Harper to Linc and back to Harper again. She could see the wheels turning in his head as he considered going all out to get an immediate yes.
But in the end, he gave it up. “You just let me know, Uncle Linc.”
And then he couldn’t resist one more push at the goal. “Because I really, really want to be in that show.”
“I can see that.” Linc was trying not to grin. “Now finish your sandwich.”
After the meal, they all four cleared the table. Even Maya waddled back and forth carrying her sippy cup and Little Mermaid plastic plate to the sink.
“Bath time,” Linc said.
Jayden objected. “We just had baths yesterday.”
“Might as well freshen up after that long car ride.”
Jayden moved on to bargaining. “Can I get bubbles?”
“Well, then, okay!”
Linc herded the kids upstairs. Harper stayed behind to wipe counters and sweep bits of chips and apple from the floor.
With the kitchen tidy, she sorted out the Wi-Fi situation. It didn’t take long to get the home network up and running.
After that, she couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing immediately, though she was tempted to delay leaving any way she could. Her cottage always seemed too quiet, and it was so warm and cozy here. The kids were the cutest. And Linc was…
Well, never mind about Linc. She didn’t need to go getting too excited about the temporary guy next door.
And come to think of it, maybe the kids’ clothes needed stashing in drawers upstairs….
She caught herself—because putting things in drawers without being asked to do it verged on intrusive.
She’d been a good neighbor, done her bit to help Linc and the kids get settled in. Time to say good-night.
At the top of the stairs, she followed the sounds of splashing and laughter to the hall bathroom.
“Harper!” Jayden called when she stopped in the open bathroom doorway. He was in his pajamas and playing with Maya, who sat in the tub.
“Hawp!” Maya echoed.
They waved at her and Maya splashed with abandon, sending bathwater and bubbles flying everywhere. At this rate, Jayden would need dry pj’s before heading to bed.
Linc, kneeling by the tub, turned to grin at Harper. His button-up was wet and he had a patch of bubbles dripping down his cheek. She laughed.
“What?” he demanded.
She touched her own cheek. “You’ve got bubbles…”
“No kidding.” He wiped them away.
And then they both just stared at each other—for a while. Several seconds, at least. The sounds of the two kids laughing and Maya’s splashing faded into the background.
It was just Harper and this amazingly great guy—a guy who looked like someone off the cover of GQ and treated his little niece and nephew like the most important people in the world.
Because they were.
“Wi-Fi’s working,” she said, her voice strangely breathless.
“Best news I’ve had since you organized dinner. We have a video-chat with the grandparents first thing in the morning. They’re staying overnight in Miami, boarding a cruise ship tomorrow afternoon.”
“Jayden mentioned a cruise.”
“A cruise around the world, six months and thirty-three countries.”
“Jean and Alan Hollister are the best there is. They canceled a two-week Mediterranean cruise last January to stay with me and the kids. The world cruise is my attempt to make it up to them.”
Jean and Alan Hollister, he’d said. Gramma and PopPop must be Kevin’s parents, not Linc and Megan’s. “I’m sure they’re going to love it—and the Wi-Fi is ready for your video call tomorrow. I left the password on a sticky note next to your laptop, but it’s actually printed right there on the bottom of the gateway, too.”
He gave a low chuckle. “See, I knew that…”
She tried not to giggle and found it a challenge to restrain herself. Something about him had her feeling like a thirteen-year-old in the throes of her first major crush. “Looks to me like you’ve got everything under control now.”
“I hope so.” He’d barely finished the sentence when Maya gave a gleeful screech and let loose a volley of wild splashing. Jayden splashed her back. “Whoa!” Linc swiped bubbles off his forehead. “How `bout we keep the bubbles in the bathtub, guys?”
“Sow-wy,” said Maya, looking completely angelic, with her curly hair sopping wet and topped with bubbles.
Linc’s amber gaze fell on Harper again. “I have no clue where you got the idea that I’m running this show.”
“Hey. The kids are happy, and the beds are made. The Wi-Fi is working. Everybody’s been fed. You’re on top of this situation, and my job here is done.”
The corners of his sexy mouth turned down just a fraction. “Wait. You’re not leaving? You can’t go yet.”
“Yeah, Harper!” Jayden backed him up. “We still have stories. You have to stay for story time.”
“Stow-ie!” shouted Maya, and then tossed her rubber frog in the air. It plopped back into the water with a splash. “Oopsy.” She tried to look contrite but didn’t really succeed.
Linc gave his niece an indulgent glance and swung those melty eyes back on Harper. “Are you vulnerable to a bribe?”
Absolutely. “Hmm. What’s on offer?”
“Later, there will be wine—or vodka, if that’s your preference.”
“You have wine?” There hadn’t been any in the grocery bags he’d brought in.
“I do. I just haven’t brought it in from the car yet. The way I see it, so what if we only had sandwiches for dinner? At least, I didn’t forget the liquor.”
It happened again. They stared at each other. It felt like… Infinite possibility, somehow. Like she was floating on air, walking on rainbows. Like all the corny, lovely things a woman feels when she meets a certain special man.
And she really needed not to get carried away here. Linc was a great guy. They had a neighborly thing going on, not a budding romantic relationship.
But reading stories with the kids? That sounded like a lot more fun than returning to her empty cottage and going over the list of props she still hadn’t found for the Christmas show. “Hmm. Wine. It just seems wrong to say no to wine…”
Those gorgeous eyes gleamed at her. “I think you’ve earned it.”
“True. I’ve been such a good neighbor.”
“The best.” The kids laughed and chattered together as Linc and Harper continued to gaze at each other. His voice low, with a delicious hint of roughness, he coaxed, “Stay…”