Throwing open the front door of his apartment, Max called out, “Honey, I’m home!” He trudged inside, tracking snow in behind him.
Riley poked her head out of the kitchen, a squirming Chloe in her arms. “I’m not your honey,” she said, lifting Chloe for him to see. Sauce covered his daughter’s face, neck, and hands. “Please take her.”
Max laughed and set down the bags of groceries he carried. “You look good with a baby on you, Riles,” he said.
“Go fuck yourself,” Riley said with a grin. She shoved Chloe into his arms, streaking sauce on his coat. “You’re late and I have to go to work.” She grabbed her coat.
Tucking Chloe under one arm, he moved to stop Riley. “My last final ran over a bit. I had to stop for groceries. Don’t be mad.”
She shoved past him, ducking her head. Snow swirled inside from the still open door. Without another word, she stomped out.
Max sighed. Carrying Chloe into the kitchen, he whistled “Jingle Bells.” Chloe laughed. He sat her on the counter, grabbed a paper towel, and began cleaning her up. “Babies are supposed to get messy,” he muttered. “You’ve really done it this time, though.” As he dampened another paper towel, a ding from his computer announced a new email.
Blinking at Chloe with dark circles under his eyes, Max yawned. “I think we’ll take a nap on our new free couch,” he told his daughter. Picking her up again, he carried her past the bags of groceries on the floor and flopped down on the couch. He sat her on his lap and, taking her hands in his, lifted her arms into the air. “Whee!” he cooed. She giggled, but yanked her hands away. Scooting down from his lap, she lowered herself to the floor.
“Suit yourself,” he said, laying back. He watched as she toddled over to the desk, and tucked an arm behind his head. “Daddy’s just gonna rest,” he yawned. His eyelids drooped, and exhaustion tugged at him. As he drifted away, his daughter burbled one tiny word.
Cracking an eye open, he looked at her. She sat on the chair at his desk, her hands slapping at the keyboard of his laptop. “Oh, no you don’t,” he said, struggling to his feet.
The screen lit up and the computer came to life, his email program open on the screen. Crossing the room, he plucked Chloe from the chair and put her on the floor. “No computer for you,” he told her. As he leaned forward to close the laptop, he noticed that he had a new email. Reading the subject line, he settled into his chair, his fatigue swept away by surprise. His eyes widened.
“Looks like someone responded to our ad,” he said, clicking it open.
Inside the email, a link took him to the responder’s resume. “Savannah Santos,” he read out loud. He scanned through her credentials. She had watched three other children before, all of them under the age of six. Nodding to himself, Max read the rest of it. She was a student at Naugatuck Valley Community College, or had recently graduated. The resume didn’t specify.
Her cover letter said she was available immediately. Rubbing at the light stubble on his face, Max read through her resume again. She seemed perfect. She even mentioned something about providing educational activities. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed her number. Blood pounded in his head as he lifted the phone to his ear.
It rang. He swallowed hard. It rang again. He curled his free hand into a loose fist, sweat dampening his palms. If this girl was really available right away, he could call the music store and pick up some extra hours. They always needed extra help during the holiday season.
On the third ring, she picked up. “Savannah Santos,” she answered. Her voice was soft but commanding in a professional way. She sounded like she was probably from the Waterbury area. Most people from the city had a combination of a New York accent and Connecticut accent. No trace of a Hispanic accent laced her voice, despite her Puerto Rican last name.
“Uh, hi,” Max said, his mind racing. He struggled to gather his thoughts. “This is Max Batista. I’m calling about your email for the nanny position,” he finished, making it sound more like a question. He realized he had no idea how to talk to her. She was probably around the same age as he was. He wasn’t sure if he should try to sound like her boss, or if he should try to be friendly. He definitely couldn’t talk to her the way he talked to Riley, he mused with a smirk.
“Hi,” she said brightly, her voice still professional. “Did you get my resume?”
“I did,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk, trying to think of what he should say next. “I’d like to, um, set up an interview.” There. That sounded right. He glanced at the time on his computer. It was after two. “Are you free to meet this afternoon?”
“Sure,” she said, right away. “Where do you want to meet?”
Max licked his lips. He probably shouldn’t have her come to the apartment right away. It was a mess at the moment. Plus, if she turned out to be some kind of crazy, he didn’t want her to know where he lived. “Coffee shop,” he blurted. “You know, the one right on the Cheshire line.”
“Cheshire Coffee? Sure,” she said. “I can be there for 2:30. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” he said, eyeing Chloe. His daughter had pulled all of the canned vegetables out of one of the shopping bags and stacked them into a tower. If nothing else, the kid was definitely creative. “We’ll see you soon.”
“Great,” Savannah said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Hanging up, Max yawned again. Despite his excitement, he still felt tired. Coffee would definitely help wake him up, even if Savannah turned out to be a dud. Closing the laptop, he stood from the desk. If he was lucky, Savannah would be exactly what he needed.
* * *
Pulling Chloe out of her car seat, Max turned toward the building. Cheshire Coffee was nestled into a fairly new plaza, between a day spa and frozen yogurt shop. The parking lot was full for a weekday afternoon. More than likely, most of the people there were students prepping for exams. Balancing his daughter in his arms, he shut the car door and ambled toward the building. Cold wind swooped down from the sky, and Chloe burrowed into his chest. Max quickened his pace.
Inside, they were greeted with a blast of warm air and a smiling barista.
“What can I get you to warm you up?” she called over the light chatter of customers. The tables were crowded, especially the ones in front of the fireplace. Max bit his lip, scanning the faces. He realized that he had no idea what Savannah looked like.
“Chocolate milk and a cookie for this one,” he said, “and a half coffee, half hot chocolate for me.”
While he waited, he sidled down to the other end of the counter. He glanced at the faces in the coffee shop again. Businessmen sat hunched over laptops. A group of college-aged people sat, chatting animatedly, free of textbooks. Two women who looked like they might be sisters occupied another table, young children tucked between them. In the back corner, sitting at a table alone, a young woman with dark hair and golden brown skin watched him. A black peacoat was slung over the back of her chair. She wore jeans with boots and a short sleeved tee, exposing an arm of bright tattoos. She watched him with curious, luminous eyes. He looked away, turning back to the barista, who handed him his order.
“Thanks,” he said, balancing the drinks and Chloe.
“Here,” a soft voice said at his side. Brown hands reached out for his drinks, plucking them away.
He turned to find the girl from the back table at his side. Her dark eyes sparkled. Cocking his head, he dragged his eyes up from her sleeve of tattoos. Close up, he could see that they were colorful skulls. He frowned.
“I’m Savannah,” she said, turning away and leading him back toward the table. “I’m assuming you’re Max and Chloe.”
He followed her, too dumbstruck to speak. All he could see were the tattoos that covered every inch of her arm. They wound around the back of her bicep and forearm, a solid stream of skulls in a variety of colors. His eyes widened.
Savannah set the drinks down at the table and resumed her seat. Smiling at him, she waved to Chloe. “Hi, pretty girl,” she cooed. Dimples appeared in her cheeks.
Chloe waved back.
“Is it cold outside?” Savannah asked Chloe.
His daughter shook her head. Every time it snowed, she practically begged to go outside.
Max folded himself into the chair opposite Savannah, balancing Chloe on his lap. He dragged his eyes up from Savannah’s arm to her face.
“So,” Savannah said, turning her attention to him. “She’s two?” The smile remained on her face. Aside from the tattoos, she was kind of pretty.
“What?” Max asked, tearing his gaze away. He looked down at Chloe, who held up her bottle of chocolate milk.
“How old is she?” Savannah asked.
“Oh,” he said, opening the bottle and handing it back to Chloe. “Almost three.”
“Perfect,” Savannah said. “I used to watch a two-year-old little girl.”
Recovering, Max nodded. His thoughts stopped spinning and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. “Have you ever lived with the families of the kids you watched?” There. That sounded like a good, boss-like question.
“I spent a summer in Florida with the last family I worked for.” She sipped at a large cup of what Max assumed was coffee. Its contents were hidden by the cardboard to-go cup. She wrapped her fingers around it, and Max’s eyes returned to her tattoos.
“What happened with the last family?” he asked, taking a sip of his own coffee. “Why did you stop watching their kids?”
“They started school,” Savannah said, waving a hand. She seemed not to notice him staring. Aside from the sleeve, she seemed to have no other piercings or tattoos. He wondered when she had gotten them, if she had them while watching the other families’ children, or if the sleeve was new. He couldn’t imagine her getting an entire sleeve in one sitting. He didn’t have any tattoos himself, but Levi had one, a phoenix on his upper back, right at the nape of his neck. If he needed to cover it, he could wear a shirt. Max wondered how Savannah hid her tattoos. She seemed not to care. She lifted her eyebrows at him, a bemused expression crossing her face.
“What?” he asked, snapping his attention back to the conversation.
“I asked you if she’s potty-trained,” Savannah said. “I’ve done it before, but it’s always easier if they already are.”
“No,” he said. “She isn’t.”
“Okay. No biggie.” Savannah grinned at Chloe, and the little girl smiled back. She reached a tiny hand out for the cookie in the middle of the table. Savannah unwrapped it and handed it to her. Chloe broke it into two nearly even halves, and held one out to Savannah. “Oh, thank you,” Savannah said. “That’s yours, though. You eat it.”
Giggling, Chloe took a big bite out of one half.
Max smiled at his daughter. She seemed to be totally unfazed by Savannah’s appearance. Maybe he was being ridiculous. Tattoos weren’t exactly anything new, and Savannah didn’t appear to be in a biker gang or anything. Still, the skulls were unsettling, despite their mascara-lined eyes and bright lips. Thick, black filigrees, dots, and bright flowers decorated each skull’s face. He wondered what kind of woman put something so sinister on her body permanently.
“So,” Savannah said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I know you said in your post that you needed someone immediately. And it’s a live-in position?”
Max nodded. “I have a third bedroom,” he said quickly, trying not to appear like some overeager creep. “The pay includes basic living expenses.” His eyes flicked again to Savannah’s arm. One of the skulls looked like a cat’s. A nervous ball formed in the pit of his stomach. He was glad that he didn’t have any pets. He grabbed his cup of coffee, the heat from it grounding him in the present moment.
“Cool,” Savannah said. “It actually works perfectly, because I’ve been looking for a place.” She tossed her long, dark hair over her shoulder. When she moved, the soft spicy scent of her perfume floated to him on the air. He inhaled and for a moment, his brain went fuzzy. He stared at her, transfixed. If she wasn’t some kind of baby skull collector, she was definitely intriguing. Even more importantly, Chloe seemed to like her. “How soon do you need me to start?” Savannah asked, yanking him out of his thoughts once again.
“Tonight, if you can,” he said, watching her. No one would be able to start a job on the same day. He could use that as an excuse to not hire her. Surely, someone else would respond. He could keep using Riley as backup, and maybe he could talk his dad into taking Chloe a couple times a week. No matter how pretty Savannah was or how nice she seemed, no nanny should have skull tattoos.
“Sounds good,” Savannah said. She took another sip of her coffee.
Max kept his face neutral in an effort to hide his disappointment. “Awesome,” he said. He tightened his grip on Chloe. “I grabbed a few things at the grocery store earlier, but we should probably pick up some other things.”
“I can come with you, keep an eye on Miss Chloe while you do what you’ve gotta do,” Savannah said. Without waiting for him to answer, she stood from her seat. In one fluid motion, she swung her coat off the back of the chair and pulled it on. It fell to almost her knees, but it didn’t look like something a serial killer would wear.
Taking a deep breath, Max stood up, too. He needed to work as much as possible before the spring semester began. He couldn’t afford to wait for someone else to respond to his ad. Besides, as much as his father loved his granddaughter, Max knew that he wouldn’t watch her. His mother would intercept, telling him that they needed to let their son figure things out for himself.
With the holidays coming up, he would need help with Chloe even more. He sighed. “Let’s do this,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.
Savannah gathered Chloe’s cookie and the rest of her chocolate milk, tucking it into a leather tote that Max hadn’t noticed. The gold logo jumped out at him, clear as day: Versace. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. As if seeing the bag had opened up some third eye, he realized for the first time that she wore Ugg boots and that her coat was Versace, too. “Ready?” she asked him.
Nodding, he led the way out of the coffee shop, his mind whirling. Those weren’t just brand names—they were high fashion. He didn’t have any sisters, but his brothers’ wives and girlfriends all went crazy for those things. His oldest brothers complained all of the time about their wives’ spending habits, and how they were glad they had gone into the family law business.
“Have a great day,” the barista called after them. Max pushed open the door and stepped outside, Chloe nestled in his arms. Cold wind gusted at them, and he bent his head against it, surging forward. He didn’t check to see if Savannah followed, but he heard the door close behind them.
“I’m parked over there,” Savannah said. He turned and saw her jerk a thumb toward the rest of the parking lot. “Where are you?”
He nodded at the Taurus, cheeks blazing despite the cold. He wondered what kind of car she drove. It would be ironic if, after he had judged her tattoos, he ended up looking like trash. With numb fingers, he pulled his car keys out of his pocket.
“I’ll follow you out,” she called, turning and walking in the opposite direction.
He grunted and opened the door to the backseat. Strapping Chloe in as quickly as possible, he planted a kiss on his daughter’s forehead and jogged around to the other side of the car. Cold air blasted from the heater vents. He shivered and turned the knob down, wondering how long it would take for Savannah’s car to warm up. She probably had a Lexus or BMW, with heated leather seats.
It served him right. Still, he wondered what someone with so much money was doing, babysitting for a living. Even though she would be living with him, he wouldn’t be paying her enough to finance a luxury car. Clutching the steering wheel, he grimaced as a grisly thought entered his mind. Maybe she sold children’s organs on the black market. He had heard that kidneys were actually pretty expensive.
Closing his eyes, he shook the thoughts away. He needed to stop. He was acting like some worrywart old grandmother. His brothers would call him an overprotective sissy, and Riley would say that his concern for his daughter was gross. He needed to not be gross, especially if a woman who wore Versace was going to live with him.
A dark car pulled up behind him and flashed its lights. In the rearview mirror, he couldn’t tell what make or model it was, but it was definitely Savannah. The air spewing from his car’s vents was still far from warm, but he didn’t want her to think that his car was a piece of crap—even if it kind of was.
He pulled out of his parking spot and inched his way to the exit. Savannah stayed right behind him. It occurred to him that he could just speed off and lose her. Then he would never have to see her again. It wouldn’t matter who she was or why she had so many tattoos. He could quit school, find a nine-to-five job at a bank or something, and put Chloe in day care.
He didn’t want to be that kind of father, though, even if plenty of people put their kids in school at a young age. From the day she was born, he had promised her that he would take care of her. Even if she had a live-in nanny, he would still spend more time with her than if she were in school all day.
A few minutes later, he pulled into a parking spot in front of the grocery store. Savannah carefully slid into the spot next to him. At least she was a good driver. Shutting the engine off, he opened his door and got out. As he headed toward Chloe’s door, he saw Savannah following him out of the corner of his eye. Her hand reached toward the handle.
“I’ve got it,” he said, lifting a hand.
“No problem,” she said, hanging back.
He opened Chloe’s door and unstrapped her. Lifting her into his arms, he rested his cheek against her head for a moment. Then, remembering their mission, he headed toward the grocery store.
Inside, he chose a cart and slid her into the seat. She kicked her legs against the metal, her shoes clanging. Max wrapped his fingers around the bar and began to push her toward the produce section.
“How are you supposed to test me,” Savannah called behind him, “if you’re pushing her?”
He paused, heat creeping up the back of his neck. He was being a tad overprotective. “Habit,” he said, stepping away from the cart. Swallowing hard, he watched as Savannah took control. She rolled the cart slowly, letting him lead the way. As they neared the fruits and vegetables, he prayed that he hadn’t made a huge mistake. Kids were abducted every day.
“So what do you need to get?” Savannah asked, gently tucking Chloe’s arm away from a shelf of apples.
He blinked. He didn’t exactly have a list. He cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “what do you like?”
Her lips parted in a little O, and he realized that they were full, pink and soft looking. For a second, he wondered what it would be like to kiss those lips. Heat flushed his cheeks, and he looked away, busying himself with selecting apples.
“Are apples okay?” he asked, ducking his head down.
“Sure,” she said. The scent of her perfume wafted his way again, and he felt himself get a little lightheaded. Great. On top of worrying about her tattoos and potential involvement with a cult of nannies or the black market, he was attracted to her.
He filled a bag with some apples and tossed them into the cart, already moving into the next aisle. “Chloe loves bananas,” he said, picking up two bunches. “She’ll eat them all day if you let her.”
“Noted,” Savannah said, wheeling Chloe up behind him. “What doesn’t she like?”
“Big raviolis,” he said, turning back to them. Savannah cocked her head, raising an eyebrow. “She likes the mini ones,” he explained.
Snorting, Savannah tapped Chloe’s nose lightly. “So no big ones,” she said. “Got it.”
Max moved away from the produce aisle, heading toward the rest of the store. “I just need bread and milk,” he said, visualizing his refrigerator. “If there’s anything you want, just grab it.”
“Okay,” Savannah said behind him. He heard the squeak of the cart and Chloe babbling to herself. Then, Savannah started singing. Her voice was soft and sweet, and although he didn’t understand the words, warmth pooled through his body. His shoulders relaxed a bit.
The rest of the shopping trip went smoothly. Savannah kept Chloe from grabbing random things off shelves and hurling them to the floor. She only selected a few things for herself: a bag of rice, two cans of black beans, a package of boned pork, and some Adobo.
“I like to cook,” she said with a shrug.
By the time they loaded everything into Max’s car, Chloe had fallen asleep. He tucked her into her seat, her head drooping against the pillowed fabric. Then he turned to Savannah, the address for his apartment dancing on his lips. He knew it was stupid to judge a person just from one shopping trip, but so far, she seemed like a good fit. Chloe really liked her, too.
He just hoped that they could all live together.
Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.
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Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5