Chapter One

I noticed her before we even got out of the car. She was standing away from the other parents with her arms crossed and her weight shifted to one hip. Unlike the rest of the soccer moms in their jeans or shorts, she was wearing a designer suit that showed off her curves and demanded attention. She looked bothered to be there, and I immediately thought all the things I shouldn’t have—she’s a horrible mother who doesn’t support her kid, and her kid knows she doesn’t want to be there. And wow, she’s got great legs.

“I’m going to need some help.” Emma’s tone was duly noted. She’d gotten comfortable with me after two days, and by the third, she was bossing me around. It was only for two more days, so I let her get away with being a jerk. I didn’t care. I needed the money, and Robin and Henry Minks needed a babysitter for the week.

“Hang on. I’ll be right there.” I pushed open the door and hustled to the back seat, where she regally sat on her booster seat.

“It’s about time.”

“Don’t be rude. It’s not nice,” I said.

“You work for us. I can tell you what I want.”

I ignored her and helped unclasp her booster seat. She refused help after I unbuckled her, and I had to stifle a giggle when she tripped getting out of the car.

“You did that on purpose.” She glared at me and plopped on the grass to put on her cleats.

Pissed that I wouldn’t let her put on her cleats at home, she’d made a great effort to kick the passenger seat a lot during our short drive to the soccer fields. I didn’t care. My car, given to me by my Nana the week before, was a piece of crap, and tiny six-year-old feet weren’t going to damage it more. “I did not. Pick up your stuff and head to your team.” She grabbed her ball and marched to the coach. I watched her go and shook my head the entire time. Just when I thought I wanted kids, Emma reminded me why it was a good idea to wait.

“She’s a handful. So angelic, yet a tiny demon hides inside,” a woman said. I turned to find a pleasant-looking woman with short-brown, stylish hair standing a few feet away. She brushed her hair back and smiled at me. “Hi, I’m Alex. My kid plays on the team with Emma and about fifteen other entitled children.”

I laughed. I wasn’t expecting such an honest introduction. “Hi, I’m Cassie. Caregiver to Emma this week.”

“I was wondering who they were going to rope into watching her while Robin was in DC. Henry wasn’t about to take time off. Where did they find you?” Alex seemed genuinely interested, even though the way she phrased her question seemed condescending.

“Care and Companions. This is my first job with them. Emma was so quiet when we first met.”

“It’s the quiet ones you have to worry about.”

I liked Alex immediately. She was laid-back but quick.

“She’s just a kid. She’ll learn soon enough that being bossy isn’t always the best idea. You know, more flies with honey,” I said.

We stood there in slightly awkward silence until practice began. Alex pointed out the bleachers for us to sit down, but I wanted to head back to the car. I needed to read a few chapters of my environmental-technologies textbook before my next class, yet I didn’t want to be rude, so I followed her to the third row. The woman in the suit was sitting on the bottom bleacher on the edge, as if she needed a quick escape. Her white-blond hair was loose, stylish, and fell just below her shoulders. Even though I hadn’t seen her face, I knew she was beautiful. She sat confidently, alone, yet seemingly unfazed. When a boy dribbled the ball successfully in front of her, she sat up straighter and softly clapped. The white-blond hair was a dead giveaway that he was her son. I was intrigued by her standoffish behavior and wondered why she wasn’t sitting with the other soccer moms.

“Noah really is a sweet kid.” Alex bumped my elbow and pointed to the kid who held the suit’s attention. “But he’s probably the only one. What kind of snacks did you bring the kids?”

Panic burned throughout me. I was supposed to bring snacks? What the fuck? What snacks? Henry didn’t say a thing to me. “Uh, none. I didn’t know we were supposed to. Nobody told me anything.”

Alex looked at her watch. “Well, we don’t have a lot of time left, so let’s see what we can round up. I’ll text the moms.”

I watched several heads shake as they read Alex’s text. When the suit looked at me, I froze. She was more beautiful than I expected. Her light blue eyes were expressive, her lips red and full. I was nervous not just because she was beautiful, but she was confident and her gaze never wavered once her eyes met mine. I held my breath for no other reason than I simply forgot how to breathe. She stood and motioned for me to follow. Without hesitation, I stood, wove my way around the other moms sitting on the bleachers, and met her near a very nice, very clean Mercedes SUV.

“Hi. I’m Cassie and apparently have committed the heinous crime of not bringing snacks today.” I was nervous and had absolutely no game.

She stared at me for a few moments, then opened the back of her SUV to reveal canvas bags filled with goodies. “I understand you are filling in for Robin. I have juice boxes and oranges that you can pass out after practice. I always have spares on hand for the parents who forget.” Her voice held a slight note of judgment.

“In all fairness, I didn’t forget. I was never told. Plus, I’m not a parent.” I shrugged, trying to convey that I didn’t care what she thought about me, but I did. I was always self-conscious around pretty women, especially today with my hair pulled back in a ponytail and very little makeup on. I was babysitting. Who knew I would run into a hot mom? “But thank you. I can repay you Friday.”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.” She handed me the two bags and walked away to claim her seat on the first row, away from everyone else.

I wanted to know her story. I wanted to know why she didn’t sit with the other moms, why she was dressed like she was closing multi-million-dollar deals, and why she wasn’t wearing a ring on her left hand. I heaved the bags up to Alex and plopped down. Shit. I forgot to ask the suit’s name.

“Wow. Good for you. Brook Wellington doesn’t talk to a lot of people here.”

Wellington. It was a well-known high-society name. “She seems nice. And she helped me out of a bind.”

“I’ve never spoken to her, and our kids have been on this soccer team for two years now,” Alex said.

“You’re kidding. That doesn’t even make sense.”

“I mean, I’ve heard her talk to the group as a whole, but we’ve never actually had a one-on-one conversation.”

I stared at Brook. Her eyes never left her son. When he scored during their practice scrimmage, he turned to find her in the crowd, his face beaming with pride. She pumped her fist in the air, and it looked like they did a distant high five. I smiled. Brook Wellington might be an ice queen with this crowd, but I saw her unguarded, softer side with her son.

“I’m just thankful she had snacks. She just saved me from breaking a dozen hearts.”

“She’s saved us quite a few times. Always prepared.”

When practice ended, the kids circled me like vultures, hungrily picking at the bags. Alex reminded the children of the manners they had abandoned and lined them up like soldiers. I handed each one a juice box and an orange and received more eye rolls than thank yous, but I didn’t blame them. Where were the fruit roll-ups? What about chocolate-chip cookies or tiny bags of Doritos? It was bad enough that Emma ate only organic and had zero processed sugar in her diet, but every single kid in this neighborhood, too? That seemed unfair. When snacks were divvied up, I found Brook at her car and handed her the empty canvas bags.

“Thank you so much for saving me back there.”

Brook gave me a curt, dismissive nod and told Noah to buckle up in his booster. Once he was secure, she walked to the driver’s seat and climbed in. I had no idea why I was still in their space, other than I wanted to stay connected with her.

“I can replenish your supply at the next practice.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Her blue eyes were so piercing I had a hard time breaking eye contact. Most incredibly attractive women made me fidget from nervous energy and fumble around like an idiot. “Have a good night.” She drove off slowly, and I stood there watching until Emma growled something rude at me.

“What?” I turned to find her bouncing her soccer ball against my bumper. Although it grated on my nerves, I smiled sweetly at her. Her face scrunched up right before she huffed and gave me the biggest eye roll I’d ever seen a small child make.

“We need to leave. I’m hungry.”

Just two more days. “Okay. Let’s go home and eat some yummy kale and quinoa.”

Saying that made me shudder. Tonight’s menu was roasted quinoa with vegetables and avocado. It wasn’t as if the food tasted bad; it just wasn’t kid food. Emma probably never had a fish stick dipped in ketchup or macaroni and cheese made with powdered cheese from a box. I knew those weren’t healthy foods, but they were delicious.

“I don’t like the orange you brought.” She emphasized that statement by throwing the orange on the floor of the back seat.

I sighed. Working for the Minks family was a lot more than I had bargained for. Henry had neglected to tell me it was their turn to bring snacks. To be fair, he probably didn’t know either. He had to text Robin to find out what practice field they were on and text me the answer. “Noah’s mom helped out your family by donating the juice boxes and oranges.” I rolled my eyes at my own childish antics. I’d sunk to her level. “When we get home, I’ll cut you up an apple with peanut butter. How’s that?”

“Okay.”

It was six fifteen. I had just enough time to fix dinner, feed her, put her in the tub, and tuck her into bed before Henry came home. He appreciated my help even if Emma made it extremely difficult. This was Emma lashing out at a stranger. Her mom must have had it ten times worse.

“Do you have any homework?” I punched in the temporary code to the front door.

She pushed past me to get inside first and gave me another award-winning eye roll. “I’m six. School just started, and we don’t have homework yet.”

“Get cleaned up and I’ll cut up a snack. You can keep me entertained while I cook.” I busied myself with the ingredients and put the quinoa on the stovetop to boil. She slipped into the chair and watched me work. “Do you help your parents cook?”

“No. They don’t want me near the stove. Or the oven. Sometimes I can use the microwave, but only when they’re around.”

“That’s a good plan. It hurts when you get burned. You have to be careful when you cook.”

Emma crunched on her apple slices and a dab of natural peanut butter that I had to stir forever just to get it smooth enough to spoon out.

“I think I want to be a chef when I grow up.” Her voice was firm and sure.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea. You eat a lot of grown-up type food, so I think you have the taste for it.” I decided not to tell her I wanted to be a nun when I was her age. I diced tomatoes and an avocado and slid her over a small plate.

“Yum. I like these.”

“See? I didn’t like avocados until I was an adult, so you’re one step ahead of me.”

“What did you eat?” If nothing else, Emma was inquisitive if something piqued her interest.

“When I was a kid? Um, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, corn, grilled cheese, stuff like that.” I fluffed the quinoa with a fork and seasoned it. I liked cooking. I just rarely had the time anymore.

“Sometimes the school lunches are fun.”

“Fun how?”

I fixed her a plate. She blew across the quinoa to cool it. I’d never seen a kid eat healthy food with such gusto.

“Sometimes we have pizza with red sauce and cheese.”

“How else do you eat pizza if it’s not cheesy and covered in red pizza sauce?”

She looked puzzled. “Pizza has white sauce and vegetables.”

“Oh, sweet child. Pizza has cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and all kinds of other delicious things.” I helped myself to some of the quinoa. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t life-changing either. The lime juice I drizzled on top really brought out its earthy flavor. But I still wasn’t convinced it was good.

“Can we make a pizza tomorrow? Or get one?”

I backpedaled. I didn’t want to be responsible for destroying this child’s palate and healthy habits.

“Your mom has a menu plan that I have to follow. But I tell you what. You don’t have soccer practice until Friday. Why don’t we make some oatmeal cookies tomorrow?” Surely, there was a recipe that was somewhat healthy and low sugar.

Her eyes lit up, and a smile spread over her face. In that moment, Emma was genuinely adorable.

“Yes. Let’s do it. Can I help make them?”

I scoffed at her. “It’s going to be all you. You have to measure, mix, and bake them. Are you up for the challenge?”

And just like that, we became friends. She didn’t fight me when it was bedtime. I was reading her a bedtime story when Henry got home.

“I’m sorry I’m late tonight. I’ll be sure to tell the service to add an extra hour,” Henry said. He looked exhausted.

I thanked him, got my first hug from Emma, and headed out to my car. Babysitting wasn’t too bad. You just had to find a way to communicate with the kid. I was kind of sad that this easy money wasn’t going to continue after Friday, but I had a feeling I would see this family again.

 

Chapter Two

“I remember Brook Wellington. Yes, of course.” I was elbow deep in laundry and playing Uno with Nana, my new roommate. If she hadn’t taken me in, I don’t know where I would have gone. She’d missed bingo last week because she gave me her almost-dead 1994 Acura, and her friend who normally took her had cataract surgery earlier in the week so she couldn’t drive them. Nana was being way too nice to me.

“She’s looking for a live-in nanny for her son Noah. Is that something you’re interested in?”

My heart thumped twice as fast as normal. Who could forget Brook Wellington? I sat down to process the request. “Live-in? I can’t be a full-time nanny because I go to school.”

“I told her you had late morning and early afternoon classes, and she said Noah’s in school then anyway. She’s looking for five days a week, from seven in the morning until seven at night, with time off during the late morning and early afternoon for your classes.”

That sounded very restrictive. Rebecca must have sensed my hesitation. “But the pay is great and comes with health insurance. You’ll have the weekends off, and a small studio apartment above the garage is included.”

“I don’t think I understand. I’ve seen Brook with her son. She’s very attentive. Why does she need a nanny?”

“Ms. Wellington has a busy career, and her hours are all over the place. She needs stability for Noah. And, Cassie? She asked for you specifically.”

I sat down. I tried not to read too much into why Brook asked for me. We spent a total of two minutes together. I wanted a job, yes, but being a full-time nanny was a huge commitment. And that also meant that I would see Brook every day. Not that I was scared of her, but I didn’t want to crush on her either. I hadn’t had a girlfriend in at least six months, and I was susceptible to doing stupid things like falling for beautiful, powerful women.

“When does she want this to happen?”

“As soon as possible.”

“But why me? I mean you obviously have a ton of qualified nannies. I’ve babysat, but I’ve never been a nanny before.” I’d only been employed by the agency for a few weeks. This seemed like a big leap.

“Let me send you over the job specifications. You can review them and call me back. How does that sound?” Rebecca’s voice insinuated that she wasn’t going to let me say no right away. Within two minutes, I had the guidelines for the job. Make sure Noah gets to and from the school, handle any issues during the day with him at school, fix snacks for him, simple stuff. Brook had a staff that cleaned and a chef that cooked the evening meals. The killer was the one-year contract. Could I commit to one year?

Two months ago, when my parents threatened to cut me off after I dropped out of med school and enrolled in a master’s program, I didn’t take the veiled threat to heart. It wasn’t until the school started pressuring me for tuition payments and my monthly stipend didn’t show up in my bank account that I knew they were serious.

When I took a year off after high school to travel across Europe with two of my friends, my parents weren’t happy. But I promised to go to med school like they both did, so they backed off. It was only after completing a year of medical school that I admitted I had no desire to become a doctor. To say they didn’t approve was an understatement.

Brook had sweetened the deal by having a signing bonus. An opportunity to move out of Nana’s house would have been enough. It had been only two weeks, and I was already going crazy. But the bonus pushed me over the edge. I called Rebecca.

“Okay, I’m in.”

“Perfect. Let me call Brook and tell her the news. When can you start?”

I wanted to have a few days to get organized, but really it was a stall tactic. School was my only commitment. “I guess I can meet her tomorrow and review expectations, but I should be able to start after we meet.” I gripped the phone tighter, anxious about such a big commitment, nervous about Brook Wellington. What if she was a tyrant? What if she’d been through several nannies and simply recognized fresh meat on the market? I wrote down the address and promised to be there at seven in the morning.

“What was that about?” Nana asked when I returned to the kitchen.

“So, I’m a nanny now.”

“For Emma? I thought she was a devil child.”

“No. For one of the other soccer moms. Brook Wellington. I think she’s one of the Wellingtons from the news and all the banks and stuff.”

Nana clasped her hands together. “Oh, honey, that’s wonderful news. You’re so good with kids. And the Wellingtons are a good family to have in your back pocket.”

“I barely spoke to her, so it scares me that she requested me personally. The good news is that she has an apartment I can live in. Not like in their house, but a studio above the garage is part of the deal. I’ll check it out first before I leave you.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. And if it’s shit, you come back here.”

There was the Nana I knew and loved. Spunky with just enough kick to make me smile. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

 

v

 

Not only was the studio fine, it was way nicer than the apartment I had once shared with my roommate Lacy. Brook Wellington’s idea of studio was more like my idea of a condominium. Brook’s garage housed five cars, so the space above it was a solid fifteen hundred square feet. It had an open floor plan with a full bath, full kitchen, and several closets for my clothes. I was in the moment I saw the storage space.

“I know it’s not much, but it’s private, and it’s close to the university.”

It was hard not to gape at Brook. This fully furnished apartment was a dream come true. I ran my hand over the taupe couch with bright accent pillows. “This is perfect for what I need.” My voice was steady, even though I wanted to break into a song and dance at my good fortune.

She gave me a curt nod, her signature move. “And you can change the code once you move in. The instructions are inside on the kitchen counter.”

I gave her a full look-over on our way back to the main house. Her black suit was tailored to perfection, accentuating every beautiful curve of her body, and the raspberry-colored blouse made the lightness of her blue eyes pop even more. Her hair was pulled back in a twisted topknot, stylish yet professional. Brook Wellington was the kind of woman who pinged my radar and checked all the boxes I looked for in the perfect woman. I wondered about her age and figured she had to be either late twenties or early thirties, given that Noah, her Mini-Me, was six. If I had to guess, I would say twenty-eight. I felt like a complete failure, being already twenty-four and just starting my graduate degree. She had a few tiny crinkles around her eyes that I noticed when she smiled at Noah, but for the most part, I had no idea how old she was. I made a mental note to google her later.

“Do you have any questions for me?” She sat at her desk and reached for her cup of coffee.

I slid into a leather guest chair and waited. The silence in the room made her look up at me. I wanted her full, undivided attention during this interview. I didn’t want any mistakes or misunderstandings of what was expected of me and what I expected in return. A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. I couldn’t tell if my silence amused her or she respected me for it.

“Yes, I have a lot of questions. I’ve never nannied before, so I need to know what’s expected of me.” I held up my hand when she pulled out the same list the agency had handed me. “I know what’s on the list, but I want to hear it from you. That way there are no misunderstandings.”

“My number-one priority is Noah and his well-being. A lot of my meetings run late, and rather than send everybody to go pick him up and pray that they get him in time, I’d rather have one person I trust to get him to and from places safely and timely.” She sat back in her chair.

I leaned forward. “Does he attend after-school care, or would he catch the bus home, or do I need to collect him? I don’t mind, but I will need a copy of his schedule so I know when to pick him up, and I’ll need a booster seat.”

“You won’t need a booster seat. You’ll have access to the Range Rover when you’re taking him places, including to and from school.”

“I’m sorry. What?” I was clueless.

“The Range Rover. It’s yours to drive when you’re taking Noah places. The agency said your driving record was clean. I trust that’s accurate?”

Something told me she already knew the answer. “Just a parking ticket at school last semester.” I tried not to get excited about reliable transportation. That was my biggest concern. “Does Noah have food allergies or restrictions?” I thought about Emma’s dinners and hoped Brook allowed him some sugary liberties.

“No allergies. I try to keep his diet healthy, but I’m not a stickler about it. We can come up with a list of foods and snacks that I approve of.”

I smiled for the first time. She wasn’t going to be cranky if I slipped him a piece of chocolate or a cookie.

“What does Noah like to do besides soccer? Does he have any extracurricular activities?”

“Good question. He has violin lessons on Mondays and Thursdays from four to four forty-five. Soccer is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from five to six, but we have only a few more weeks left. And I’ll make sure you have snacks on the day we’re responsible for them.” Heat blossomed on my cheeks when she gave a slight hint of a smile. “I’ll leave you his soccer schedule, too.”

“What’s after soccer? Anything?”

“Thankfully, no. Just violin.”

“Is he allowed to play games?”

She looked puzzled. “Like video games?”

I nodded but wasn’t going to press. Video games were a slippery topic with parents.

“He has an iPad with a few games, but he doesn’t have a gaming system yet. I’m going to hold off on that as long as I can.”

“I understand.” I had all the systems but hadn’t played them in a few weeks. Getting a job was more important than slaying beasts in fantasy worlds. I watched as Brook jotted several notes in her notebook during the interview. She was a lefty but didn’t curve her hand like most left handers. Her nails were perfectly filed and painted red. “Why did you ask for me, Ms. Wellington?”

Brook’s blue eyes met mine.

“Call me Brook. I picked you because I saw how patient you were with Emma and how you fit right in with the other moms. That means you aren’t afraid to ask for help. Emma is a handful, and you didn’t let her walk all over you. At Noah’s fourth and fifth birthday parties, she was a pure terror, so I know you’re good with kids. I spoke with Robin and Henry Minks, and they only had good things to say about you.”

“I will say Emma tried my patience. But by the end of it, she really was an angel. We just needed to find common ground and start from there.”

Brook cocked her head at me almost in disbelief. I shrugged. “Well, Cassie, what do you think? Are you up for the job?”

“I’m not going to be perfect, but yes. I’m up for it.” I took a deep breath. This was a big commitment. The paperwork was straightforward. If I wanted to quit, Brook required a two-week notice. If she fired me, I would get paid up until that moment. “When do you want me to start?”

“As soon as you can. The studio is ready whenever you want to move in, or you can commute until the weekend. You can park your car on the concrete pad beside the garage.”

I snorted. “I think I’ll park on the street.”

She stopped writing and looked up at me. Those eyes. I’d never seen eyes so blue before. I leaned back because her intense stare was both mesmerizing and unnerving.

“What’s wrong with your car?”

“It leaks oil, and I don’t want to stain your driveway.”

The single nod again. “We’ll figure something out.” She looked at her watch and stood. “I’d like for you to go with me to Noah’s school so I can get you added to the list and you can meet his teacher.”

I stood when she did. “Sounds good. What time does school start?”

“I get him there before eight. There’s a before-care where he gets half an hour to play with the other kids in his class. School doesn’t officially start until eight thirty.”

Why did I need to be at work at seven if school didn’t start until eight thirty? As if she could read my mind or my facial expressions, Brook answered my question.

“I need to start getting to work earlier than I have been. I’ll need you to make sure Noah gets up, eats breakfast, and either goes to school for before-care or hangs out here at the house until school starts. It all depends on your schedule and his mood.”

Brook slung her messenger bag over her shoulder and motioned for me to follow her. Noah was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal and watching cartoons on his iPad. “Hey, kiddo. I want you to meet Cassie. She’s going to help us out around here like we talked about. Say hello.”

“Hi.” He went back to eating his cereal, his focus on whatever video he was watching on YouTube Kids. Brook reached out and gently pulled the iPad out of his grasp.

“I’m going to need you to do better, please.”

His brow furrowed in quick anger, but he didn’t say anything. He took another bite, and we waited until he swallowed. His voice was quiet, but each word was distinct. “Hi. I’m Noah. Nice to meet you.”

I crouched down to his level. “Hi, Noah. Nice to meet you, too. Looks like we’re going to be spending a lot of time together. I can already tell we have a lot in common.”

“What do you mean? We just met.” He gave me the same head tilt Brook did.

“I like Cheerios, too. And I like Peppa Pig. And I go to school, too.”

He looked at me and shook his head. “You’re too old to go to school.”

“Noah. Don’t be rude.” Brook raised a stern eyebrow at him. He looked at his bowl.

“It’s okay. I go to college in town. I like school a lot. I like to learn new things and talk to my friends there. Do you like going to school early?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes.”

“Okay, well, you let me know every morning if you want to go. We can make a sign, so when I get here in the morning, I can look at it and see if we’re going in early or hanging out together instead.”

“What do you mean sign?”

I hadn’t planned that far in advance. “We can make it out of construction paper, definitely glitter, maybe some colorful string to hang it up somewhere, and crayons. Do you have crayons?”

He nodded, a glimmer of excitement in his eyes. He was still wary of me, but warming up quickly.

I pretended to be deep in thought, trying to think of things we needed, but I was really studying him and his body language. He leaned slightly away from me and more to the side where Brook stood, but he also leaned forward toward me as we spoke. “How about glue? Do you have glue?”

He nodded again, but this time with a smile.

“How about a hamster? Do you have a hamster or a lizard?”

He laughed that sweet-young-child giggle. “Why do we need a hamster or a lizard?”

“Well, who’s going to flip the sign every morning? I thought maybe your pet hamster or lizard could come down here while you got dressed and flip the sign to whatever you wanted. I would totally make him breakfast for being so helpful.”

Noah laughed harder. “I don’t have a pet. I’ll just do it.”

I shrugged. “I guess that would work, too.”

“Okay. We need to get moving. Noah, put your bowl in the sink and go brush your teeth. Two minutes. Let’s go.”

“Mom.” His voice held a note of embarrassment.

Brook ruffled his hair when he darted by. “You’re really good with him. He’s hard to crack because he’s so shy.” Brook smiled at me. Not a fake one, but a genuine smile that I felt deep inside. The kind that made my knees weak.

“He’s sweet. I’m looking forward to getting to know him.”

We stood in awkward silence until Brook’s phone rang. She excused herself and answered the call in the adjoining dining room. To give her privacy, I walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows and stared out at the backyard. It was magnificent. A flat stone patio gave way to a pool with a waterfall. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the pool for safety, but the rest of the yard was wide open and spacious. I was sad I wouldn’t get to use the pool. Even though school had just started, the season was changing rapidly from summer to fall.

“I just can’t bring myself to close down the pool.” Brook startled me with her nearness. I put my hand on my heart.

“It’s beautiful. Your house, this estate. Perfect for raising children.”

“A child. Only one. That’s it for me,” she said.

I was dying to know if she was married or dating someone. Her left hand was free of any jewelry. Her right hand sported a silver band on her middle finger, which meant absolutely nothing other than she liked simplicity. I knew in time I would find out about her, but I was curious.

“He’s okay being an only child? Has he ever talked about siblings?”

I barely heard the stifled sharp intake, but it was enough to know I’d crossed the line. “Or maybe a hamster or a lizard really is the best idea.” I backpedaled to not piss off my boss on what was technically my first day.

She forced a small laugh. “At some point I know we’re going to have to get a pet, but I’d like to wait a few more years.”

I waved both hands at her in complete surrender. “I totally understand. You’re a busy woman, and he’s a busy little man.”

Noah walked in with his backpack slung over his tiny shoulder. “I’m ready when you are.”

“I’m ready when you are,” Brook said.

They both turned to me. “I’m ready as well.” Apparently, that was their morning ritual that I was now a part of.

“Do you want to drive so you can get used to the car?” Brook dangled the fob in front of me on our way to the garage.

“Oh, no. It’s okay. I’m sure the school will be crazy. I’d rather see you drive us there and learn the rules first.”

Brook’s heels clicked loudly on the hardwood floors. My eyes traveled the length of her legs, down to the source of the repetitive tap tap that echoed around us. Her shoes were sexy as fuck and added three inches to her height, which now equaled my own. I was a sucker for a woman in high heels.

“I’ll never be able to sneak up on anyone in this house.”

Guilt washed over me when our eyes met. I knew she had busted me staring at her legs.

“The shoes. They are disturbingly loud.” She pointed to her feet as if my attention wasn’t already there.

“The high ceilings make all noises echo. I have a feeling I’m going to get lost here.” That gave me an excuse to break eye contact and pretend to look around. It was a large space for just two people. Well, the two I knew about.

“Oops. Careful there, buddy.” Brook reached down to steady Noah as he tripped up against her, pushing her into me for just a moment.

“Sorry, Mom.”

Brook adjusted his backpack for him, and I took a small step to my right to distance myself from her. She unnerved me. Rich, powerful, attractive, successful—the list went on and on. All the attributes I admired and also wanted for myself. When she opened the door to the garage, it took everything in me to not gape. She had a sleek two-seater sports car with a hard top, a luxury sedan, the SUV I remember seeing at soccer practice, a motorcycle, and the Range Rover she had mentioned. She indicated I should jump into the passenger seat. Noah opened the back door of the Rover and crawled into his booster.

“Do you have your seat belt on?” Brook asked. We both turned to look at him, our faces only inches apart. The spice of her cologne was a pleasant surprise. I expected Brook to smell like flowers and vanilla. The hint of sandalwood and cedar wasn’t overpowering, but it was enough to notice.

“I’m buckled.”

“Okay, let’s head out. Cassie, it’s push-button start. I’ll give you a fob when we get back. The garage opener is here, and the code to get in is fourteen fourteen.”

“Fourteen fourteen. Got it.” I gave her the signature one-nod affirmation. A small smile appeared on the right side of her mouth. I think I amused her.

 

Chapter Three

Hessick Academy, less than ten minutes away, was tucked on acreage that couldn’t be seen from the street. I didn’t even know the school existed. The driveway was flanked by large sycamore trees and flowering shrubs. The school itself towered at the end of a circular drive. I imagined my new nanny salary rivaled Hessick’s tuition. Brook pulled into a parking lot beside the school’s main building.

“This looks like a private-college campus,” I said.

“It is large, but it’s kindergarten through middle school. Thankfully, Noah has to worry only about finding his homeroom class and the gym. His teacher, Ms. Trina, is very nice and is great with the kids.” Brook slipped out of the car and opened the back door for Noah to climb out.

I reached for his backpack, surprised at how heavy it was. “How many books do you have in here? This thing weighs a ton.” I made a production of trying to heave it over my shoulder and got a smile out of both of them.

“I’ll take it.” Noah reached out, and I helped him into it.

According to the plaque by the door, Hessick Academy was built in the 1880s and looked as charming as one would expect. The inside, however, was a completely different story. Security cameras and automatically locking doors prevented anyone from just barging right in. Brook walked to a window marked Administration and flashed her credentials.

“Good morning, Mary. I need to get my assistant registered here so she can pick up and drop off Noah. Also, I want to see Trina Moore for a moment, if you could call her.” Brook was direct, to the point, and gave off an aura that denying her wasn’t an option. Mary nodded and buzzed us in.

“And you are?” Mary looked at me expectantly.

“Cassandra Miller. I go by Cassie.” I smiled, hoping to get one in return, but dour Mary turned back to her computer screen and actually pressed her lips together in a frown.

“Look right here.” She pointed to a circle on the back of her monitor.

“Why?”

“I need to take your picture for your identification card.”

I flashed Mary a brilliant smile that was snarkier than I intended, but it got my point across. I heard a small laugh that morphed into a cough from Brook. Mary shook her head at me and busied herself getting my credentials in order.

A woman about my age with long brown hair opened the security door and smiled at us. “Ms. Wellington, Noah, good morning.”

It certainly was for me. She was super cute. Was this Noah’s teacher? Damn kid was surrounded by beautiful women. “Hi. I’m Cassie.”

“Cassie’s helping me with Noah, so she’ll be your point of contact if he gets sick or is behind in a subject.”

Trina nodded and reached out for my hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Cassie.”

She was so genuine and downright gorgeous that I almost forgot about Brook standing next to me.

“It’s nice to meet you, too.”

“Let’s head to the classroom, shall we?”

Noah led the way, and Trina filled me in on the school’s policies and classroom etiquette. Brook lagged a few paces behind us, scrolling on her phone. The tap tap of her heels weren’t as pronounced, but I was still aware of her. When we reached Noah’s homeroom and Trina gave us the tour, I was surprised the class had only ten students.

“Cassie, look at Leonardo.” Noah pointed to a large aquarium with a box turtle resting on a flat rock.

“Noah’s pretty animated today.” Trina looked at Brook. Brook gave her the single nod but offered no other information. Trina turned back to me. “Normally, Noah is pretty quiet. He must really like you.”

I stood a little taller with pride. “I’d better meet Leonardo.” I followed Noah and dramatically gasped.

“Oh my gosh, that’s Leonardo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, right?”

“How did you know that? It’s supposed to be a secret. People aren’t supposed to know he’s here.” Noah looked up at me, wide-eyed.

“Oh, no. His secret is safe with me. I won’t say a word.” I pinched the air in front of my lips and twisted my hand, indicating they were locked.

“Here. Let me show you where I sit.” He hesitantly took my hand and walked me to a short but long desk that he shared with another classmate. A cubbyhole was attached on either side. He shoved his backpack into the space.

“Who sits next to you?”

“Tom.” His smile fell a little. “He’s not very nice.”

I felt protective of Noah already, even though we’d just met an hour ago. “Is he mean to you?”

“He’s just mean to all the kids in the class. His dad plays football, so he thinks he’s important.”

I snorted. The Wellington money was probably a lot more than an NFL player’s. “Don’t let him bother you. I’m sure he’s just doing it for attention. And besides, just because his dad is a football player doesn’t make him more important than anyone else in your class.”

Noah sighed and sat. He pulled out an iPad from his table. Wow, first grade really had changed since I was in school. We didn’t have tablets until high school, and even then we had to check them out of the library.

I squatted so I could look him square in the eye. “Do you want me to pick you up today, or do you want to play with your friends?”

“Can you pick me up right after school?”

“Definitely. I’m going to talk to your teacher now, but I will see you this afternoon.” I stood and tapped his shoulder playfully. “Have a good day.”

“Here’s my email address and my phone number if you have any questions. You can email me or text me any time. Noah’s such a great kid.” Trina handed me a business card that contained all her contact information. Her fingers brushed mine, and I smiled when a tiny flicker of desire warmed the pit of my stomach.

“Thank you so much. Noah wants to be picked up as soon as school’s out today. What time can I get him?”

“Three thirty. If you email me, I’ll send you the schedule and other important information.”

She had a tiny scar in the corner of her mouth that disappeared when she smiled. Her skin was smooth, and the hint of a tan line peeked out from the collar of her blouse. She was attractive in a girl-next-door way, from the sweet, simple style of her hair to her practical, yet fashionable shoes. She couldn’t have been a teacher for more than a few years.

“Definitely,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Brook glance at her watch. The kids were filing into the classroom, and I knew we had to go. “Thanks for your help. I’ll email you later.”

“I have a copy of everything you need as well,” Brook said.

“It was good that I met Noah’s teacher, though. I have a good feeling about her.”

That single nod again. “I want you to drive us home.” Brook slipped into the passenger side.

“So you can evaluate my driving?” I winked at her. What the hell was I doing? Brook was my boss. That meant she was off-limits. I scooted the seat back to fit my long legs and adjusted the mirrors. “What are the rules for dropping off and picking up kids? Are there rules?”

Brook flipped the mirror down to look at her makeup. I waited as she wiped a tiny fleck off of her cheek that probably wasn’t even there. She tucked a strand of hair that had fallen out of her twist. I was staring, but she clearly didn’t care. When she flipped the mirror back up, she turned to me, and those brilliant blue eyes were so piercing, I felt as if she could see right inside me and read my thoughts and feelings. I turned away and started the car.

“I’ll email you the school’s handbook. All the information can be found in it. You’ll have to drive slowly around here. And be careful. The accelerator and the brakes are super sensitive.”

I eased into the line of traffic leaving the school. I barely heard or felt the smooth rev of the engine, but smiled at its quick pickup. I missed driving luxury. Twenty-five years ago, Nana’s Acura was probably a dream car, but time, a few fender benders, and poor upkeep made it iffy transportation.

“If you hit this button and say ‘home,’ the GPS will direct you back to the house.”

“Yes. I had a similar one in my Lexus.” A Lexus SUV that my parents repossessed. I cringed, realizing I’d given away too much information.

“Any time you’re on the clock. so to speak, you can drive this. Grocery shopping, chores, errands. I don’t drive it much.”

“I see that. It barely has any mileage on it.” The odometer read two thousand and thirty-four miles. This car was brand-new. We pulled up to the gate, and it opened automatically. “Wait a minute. I didn’t even punch in the code.” I looked at Brook in surprise.

“It’s programmed with the gate. All the cars are. I just wanted you to know the code in case you want to park inside instead of out on the street.”

“I’ll keep it across the street for now, but I’ll get a new car soon. Monster is really my grandma’s.” I needed to stop talking. I was telling Brook my sad story on the first day. My life was better told over the course of several months and a dozen bottles of wine. Plus, my problems were small in the scheme of things.

Brook showed me all the alarm systems, how to arm them, disarm them, and handed me all Noah’s schedules. “I have to get to the office, and you probably need to get to class, but call me if you have a problem.”

Even though I didn’t have to be at school for another hour and a half, I felt weird being there alone, so I headed across the street to my car. It finally started on the third try, after serious praying and gently stroking the dash. One of the first things I intended to do was buy reliable transportation.

 

v

 

“Excuse me, miss?” I yelped in surprise at the knock on the window by my head. I scowled at the security guard and lowered the window.

“Yes?”

“Can I help you with something?” He leaned closer so his face was even with mine.

“I’m here to pick up a student. Noah Wellington. I know I’m early, but I thought I could wait for him here until school lets out. Do some homework, you know.” I flashed him my credentials even though he didn’t ask to see them.

“You’re going to have to either go inside and wait, or come back in twenty minutes.” He looked at his watch to confirm the time.

“Look, it’s my first day. I don’t really know all the rules yet.”

“There’s a nice air-conditioned foyer with comfortable couches. You could get a lot done in there.”

The car was so quiet I almost forgot to turn it off. I grabbed my laptop and scratch pad and followed him.

“I’m Al. Maddie, Pete, and I are the campus monitors at Hessick.”

“Hi. I’m Cassie. I’m Noah Wellington’s nanny.” I cringed at the description. Caregiver sounded like I was looking after an old man. There really wasn’t another way to put it.

“Noah’s a good kid. Introvert, keeps to himself most days.”

“You know all the students here, Al?” He struck me as the kind of guy who liked it when people called him by his name.

He shuffled his belt around his waistline as if preparing to say something very important. “I try to. Our school has a strict enrollment policy, and we keep the classes small for more one-on-one interaction.” He sounded like a brochure. I found it endearing how he was so proud to be a part of Hessick. “Here. Let me get the door for you.” He jogged up the stairs, the keys on his belt clanking against one another in repetition with every step he took, and swiped his key card to get us inside.

“Thanks for your help. I really appreciate it.” I emphasized really because I meant it. I showed Mary my credentials, and she pretended not to know me even though I’d just interacted with her that morning. I was the only one in the waiting area, but Al assured me that would change soon. Fifteen minutes later, five women disturbed my peace with their laughter and clicking heels. I looked up and made eye contact with two of the five. One smiled at me. The other did not. Everyone else pretended I didn’t exist. I sat up straighter and focused on the words in front of me, but I knew the pack was watching me. A few hushed whispers, a sprinkle of giggles, and finally one of them walked over to me.

“Hi. I’m Amanda. Do you work for Brook Wellington?”

She couldn’t have sounded snottier if she tried. Thanks to my Nana’s sarcastic wit, I had the perfect response.

“No.” I looked at my laptop and ignored her as if the entire exchange didn’t happen. She stood there for a solid ten seconds and stared at me. “Did you need something else?”

“Ah, no. No.”

Probably not the best way to make new friends, but Amanda had bitch written all over her face. I was aware of the games of bored, rich girls. Amanda was about thirty and had more makeup on than she needed. Her outfit was top-of-the-line but casual. I was curious if she worked, but not enough to strike up a conversation. When the bell rang, I closed my laptop and waited for Noah. I saw him before he saw me. He was quietly making his way to the front to check out. I met him at the desk and showed Mary my credentials again after she asked.

“Hi. Did you have a good day?” I turned to Noah and straightened out his backpack. He was smaller than most of his classmates.

He shrugged. “It was okay.”

“Want me to take your bag?”

“I got it.”

He was tough, but I was determined to make him warm up to me. “Well, then, will you carry my stuff?”

“Why would I do that?” Noah sounded genuinely perplexed.

“To be nice. To help me out.”

“But you don’t need help. Your hands are free,” he said.

“I’m just playing around.”

A hint of a smile appeared on his lips.

“Guess who I met today?” I exaggerated my voice and drew out each word to bait him into further conversation.

“Ms. Trina. And Leonardo.”

“True. But I also met Al, the security guy. He’s nice. He knows you.” I walked Noah in front of me until we reached the steps. “We’re parked right over there.” He reached for my hand to walk down the stairs, and I melted. He was so trusting. I gently held his small fingers against mine and pretended it didn’t mean everything. When we got to the Range Rover, he climbed in. I helped him buckle up, and we carefully made our way down the drive. “So, we have violin practice today.”

“Yeah. I need to get my violin and change my clothes.”

Noah’s uniform was khaki pants, a white polo shirt, and brown boat shoes. The school colors were navy and red, so those were also appropriate shirt colors, according to the pamphlet I’d read that morning. White surprised me because children were notoriously messy and awkward around anything that could possibly spill on their clothes. Noah’s shirt was untainted.

To my surprise, Noah’s violin teacher, Ms. Natalie Rowman, made house calls. While I was racing around trying to find an address for Natalie and refraining from panic-texting Brook, the front gate chimed, and a video of a person at the gate popped up on the video monitor in the kitchen. I had no idea what to do.

“Noah? Can you come here, please?”

I hit the button that said answer at the bottom of the video and wondered if she could see me, too. “Yes? Hello?”

“This is Natalie Rowman. I’m here for Noah’s lesson.”

Well, fuck me. All this stressing for nothing. “Sure. I’ll buzz you in.” I hit the button marked open and watched Natalie park and walk to the front door.

“Hi. You must be Cassie. I’m Natalie. Brook let me know you’re helping her with Noah.”

How anyone managed to work with all these beautiful women was beyond me. I smiled at her before inviting her inside.

“Hi, Natalie. Welcome to day one of me trying to figure this all out.”

Her small laugh was sweet. She was charming with her hazel eyes and slight overbite that she hid behind her full lips. Natalie was probably in her early thirties, with brown hair pulled back in a single twisted braid that reached the middle of her back. Her blouse was fashionable and freshly pressed. Her black pants fit her perfectly, and she had the body to pull it all off.

“I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.” Natalie was ten minutes early, which she apologized for.

I sat at the kitchen counter while we waited for Noah. “How long have you been teaching Noah?”

“Oh, gosh. About a year now.”

“Is he good?” I thought back to my piano lessons and guitar lessons from ages five until ten, when I got into sports instead. I’d hated playing an instrument.

“Well, you’ll hear him in just a little while. We practice in the library. It’s the quietest place in the house and has the best acoustics.” She carefully put her messenger bag on the counter and rifled through its contents until she pulled out sheet music.

I felt like I was in the way, but I wanted to make sure Noah was ready for the lesson and had everything he needed. Brook had never told me the plan other than he had violin lessons Mondays and Thursdays. I wanted to know more about Natalie because I wanted more insight into Noah’s world.

“Hi, Miss Natalie.”

“Hello, Mr. Noah. Have you been practicing?”

He ducked his head. “A little bit.”

“Well, let’s go find out.” Natalie followed him into the library.

I pulled out my tablet to read for my next class. We were learning about soil management and how to best utilize what was available in a region to grow crops or plants. Both were important for survival. I would read a page, stop and listen to Noah and Natalie, go back and reread the same thing, stop and listen again. I decided to move to the living room, where it was quieter and where I could hopefully concentrate better. Three pages later, I gave up. I could pick this up after work. I had to concentrate on dinner. What time did kids eat?

I poked around in the oversized refrigerator. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, organic this and that. It was fully stocked for two people. The pantry to the right of the refrigerator was also full of healthy foods. I smiled when I saw the sugary cereals and cookies tucked in the back, where Noah couldn’t see them unless he used a stepladder. At least Brook wasn’t a processed-sugar hater like Henry and Robin Minks.

“Cassie?”

My eyes widened at being caught rummaging through Brook’s pantry. “Yes?” I tried to sound like I was there for a reason and walked out carrying a jar of natural peanut butter and a roll of aluminum foil.

Natalie looked at my haul and back at me. She cocked her head like she was trying to figure out what I was doing.

“Oh, I’m a scientist.” Like that meant anything. “A chemist, really.” Still did nothing to explain my weirdness.

“Okay, well, we’re done here. Please tell Brook that Noah is doing well, but I want him to practice more than he has been.”

“He sounds really good for six years old. I mean, I was a horrible music student, but my parents pushed me until I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She placed her bag on the counter to tuck the sheets of music back inside. “What did you play?”

“Piano and guitar. By ten, I begged to do something else, so I got into soccer and softball. Now I wish I’d stuck with music.”

“Why’s that?” She leaned against the counter, giving me her complete attention. It unnerved me. She was so quiet, so confident.

“I love music more than sports. It’s hard to make big decisions when you’re young.”

She shrugged. “It’s never too late to get back into it. I’d be more than happy to give you private lessons, too.”

I tried not to notice the soft sigh that escaped her lips or the fact that she was leaning toward me. I wasn’t an expert in body language, but if I were to take a guess, Natalie was interested in me. My ego inflated, and I bit the inside of my cheeks to prevent myself from giving her the cheesy smile that instantly made me uncool. “Maybe so. Let’s see how all of this plays out and what kind of free time I have after taking care of Noah and going to school.”

“You’re going to school, too?”

“I’m going for my master’s in environmental sciences and eventually my doctorate. I dropped out of med school, much to the disappointment of my parents.”

“Oh, I’m sure you aren’t a disappointment to them.”

I kept the bitter retort back and nodded instead. Natalie didn’t need to know about my almost nonexistent relationship with my parents. “At least I’m doing something I want to, you know?”

“Good for you for taking a chance.”

We stood there smiling at one another until Noah walked in. “Miss Natalie. You’re still here.”

“Out of the mouth of babes.”

I laughed. “It was nice to meet you, Natalie. We’ll see you Thursday.” I walked her to the front door.

“I’m looking forward to it.”