Sunlight filtered in through the open blinds. Outside, the street was cold and quiet. No snow covered the ground, but the chill in the air promised more to come. Max paced the living room. Chloe watched from her spot on the floor, a toy clutched in her hand. He checked the time again. Savannah would arrive at any moment. He turned away from his desk and padded toward the windows, eyes scanning the street outside for any sign of her car. He had no idea whether she would be arriving with a rental truck or if she was coming with as little as he had moved in with.
He wished he could have cleaned up a bit more. He still didn’t have any cleaning supplies, and no vacuum. The place had seemed all right when he moved in, but now that a woman other than Riley was coming over, he felt as if every speck of dust and dirt stood out.
Running his hands through his hair, he turned and started yet another circuit of the room. A few days after their trial run at the grocery store, Savannah had watched Chloe for a few hours while he picked up an extra shift. When Max got home, Chloe was sitting next to Savannah on the couch, listening intently while Savannah read her a story. His lips lifted at the memory.
As he neared his desk, his phone vibrated. Quickening his pace, he snatched the phone up, pressing the answer button without even looking at the screen.
“Hey,” he said, heart knocking in his throat. He struggled to keep his voice calm. “Did you get lost?”
Riley snorted. “I’m not lost, you dipshit.”
Max’s jaw clenched. “I thought you were Savannah,” he said.
“Your Craigslist nanny?” Riley laughed. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Knock it off,” he told her, perching on his desk chair. He turned toward the window. A dark car rolled by, but didn’t slow. “She seems really nice.”
“I still can’t believe you’re doing this,” Riley said. “Have you lost your mind?”
Max sighed. “Hey, you could have moved in. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Um, I don’t know,” Riley said. “Put her in day care, like every other modern parent. Who the hell lets a stranger move in and take care of their kid? What is this, The Sound of Music?”
“Chloe really likes her,” he said, glancing down at his daughter. “She’s seen Savannah more times this week than her own mother has seen her in her lifetime.” He looked out the window again. A delivery truck rumbled down the street. He tore his gaze away from the window, and wiped sweaty palms on his jeans.
“Well, duh,” Riley said. “Everyone sees Chloe more than Nikki does. Speaking of your track record, don’t you think Chloe’s a little young for this?”
Max frowned. “What are you getting at, Riley?”
“Come on, Max. I’m not stupid. Why else would you hire a female nanny and have her move in?”
Clenching his jaw, Max stood from his seat. “It’s not like that.”
“And what kind of girl moves in with a strange guy?” Riley continued. “Didn’t you say she has a bunch of skull tattoos? Seems kinda weird to me.”
Knuckles rapped gently at the door. Max’s eyes flicked to the window. Savannah’s BMW sat out front. His eyes widened. “I’ve gotta go, Riley,” he said.
She snorted. “Why, is she there?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Give it a rest.”
“Max, I know you’re in a crappy position, but you should really rethink this. Do you seriously want some strange woman living in your house? You don’t know anything about her.”
The doorbell rang. Chloe pulled herself to her feet, a chubby finger pointing in the direction of the door. “Daddy,” she said.
“What do you want me to do, Riley? My brothers won’t help me. My parents won’t watch her. You won’t move in with me. I have no choice here.” He crossed the room to the door. “I’ll talk to you later,” he said, and hung up before she could say anything else.
As he opened the door, a gust of cool air raced in. Savannah’s scarf blew against her cheek. She carried a single large box, her car keys clutched in one gloved hand. She smiled, her cheeks rosy from the cold.
“You didn’t have to ring the bell. This is your place now, too,” he said, reaching for the box.
“I’ve got it,” she said, tightening her grip around it.
Max ran a hand through his hair. “Okay,” he said, moving aside to let her in. She eased past him, and he closed the door. “So, welcome.” He spread his arms. “It’s not much.”
A soft smile danced on Savannah’s full lips. “It’s home,” she said, lifting a shoulder. Her eyes were a deep pool of warm brown, pulling him in.
Clearing his throat, he looked away. Gesturing toward the hall, he said, “Let me show you your room.” He led her down the short hall to a door on the right. Turning the knob, he pushed the door open. A square of sunlight decorated the carpet. Stepping aside to let her in, Max gestured for her to go ahead.
She moved past him, the scent of her perfume tickling his nostrils. She set the box down in a corner. “Thanks,” she said.
“Anything else coming in?” he asked, glancing at the unlabeled box sealed tight with packing tape. Its corners were dented, and a scuff marred one side.
Savannah shook her head. “Just this for now.”
“You don’t have a bed?” he asked. Eyes widening, he lifted a hand. “Not that I’m suggesting we share, or anything,” he said quickly, thinking of what Riley had said.
Savannah lifted an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t think you were,” she said, the corner of her mouth curling. “I’ll get one at some point.”
Despite the cold outside, the back of his neck bristled with sweat. He nodded and stepped out of the room to give her some privacy. “I was thinking about ordering pizza for dinner,” he called over his shoulder. “Do you want any specific topping?”
“Pizza?” she repeated dubiously.
He turned. Savannah stood with a hand on one hip, an eyebrow raised at him. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “Why not?”
“You’re gonna feed your baby pizza?” She clucked her tongue. Moving past him, she padded toward the kitchen. He found her stooped in front of his refrigerator, the door propped open by one leg. She slid items around, mumbling to herself.
Max held up a finger, then dropped his arm to his side. Maybe Riley was right. He didn’t know anything about Savannah. She had moved in without asking any questions, and she hadn’t brought any furniture with her. “Yeah, so, listen,” he began.
She backed out of the refrigerator, balancing a stack of food. Max saw a package of chicken, American cheese squares, and the gallon of milk. Savannah carried everything to the counter and set it down. Digging a hand into her pocket, she pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Her lips moved, and her voice tumbled out, but he didn’t understand a word that she said.
He squinted at her and rubbed his ears, wondering if he had somehow hit his head. “What?”
Savannah blinked at him. “You don’t speak Spanish?” Both of her hands were planted firmly on her hips. She frowned, but the dimples in her cheeks were still visible.
“No,” Max said. “Why would I?”
She smacked her forehead lightly and fired off something that sounded like a cross between admonishment and pity. Pacing back and forth, the words continued to spill from her mouth. Max had no idea what she said, but it was starting to look like Riley might be right.
“Are you okay?” he asked, glancing at the entryway to the kitchen. Chloe still played in the living room.
Savannah rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding me? Isn’t your last name Batista?”
“Yeah. So?” He crossed his arms.
“And you don’t speak Spanish?” She threw her hands up in the air. “How can that be?”
Max rubbed the back of his neck and shifted. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just never learned.”
“Your parents didn’t speak Spanish to you?” She put her hands on her hips again, frowning at him.
“No,” he said slowly. “Why would they have?”
Savannah scowled. “Seriously?” She pointed a finger at him. “Where is your family from?”
Max raised an eyebrow at her. “Waterbury,” he said.
“No, ding dong. Where are they from? Like, where did your grandparents come from?” She leaned against the counter, her arms crossed. Dark, silky black hair hung over her shoulders.
He licked his lips, trying to think. All four of his grandparents had passed away years earlier. He didn’t really know much about them. He had never thought about it very much before. The last real memory he had of them was going to church on Christmas. It had happened long before Chloe was born, before he had even started high school. “New York, I think,” he said finally.
“All of them came from New York?” Savannah asked, an eyebrow raised. She rolled her eyes. “They just appeared there one day, right?”
“No,” he said, crossing his own arms. “They died when I was a kid. What does that have to do with anything?”
She blew her long bangs into the air, making a motorcycle sound with her lips. Muttering something under her breath, she shook her head. “Where did they live before they came to the States?”
Max frowned at her. “Puerto Rico,” he said with a shrug.
“So,” she said, taking a step toward him. “You’re Puerto Rican, and you don’t even speak Spanish?”
Glancing at the door again, he took a step back. “Nope,” he said.
“Are you kidding me?” she said again, throwing her hands up. She took another step toward him. “You never even wanted to learn?”
“Jeez,” he said, holding his hands up. “It’s not that big a deal.”
Her large brown eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open. Then, she erupted. “Are you serious?” Lapsing into Spanish, she fired off a string of what he could only assume were curses. Instead of being terrified, like he probably should have been, though, he felt slightly turned on.
“Why are you smiling at me?” she snapped.
“Because,” he said. “You’re kind of cute when you’re cussing me out in Spanish.”
Howling in frustration, she stomped past him, the twenty dollar bill still clutched in her hand. He watched as she stormed through the living room. A moment later, the door slammed behind her.
Blinking, he stared after her. He hoped that she was coming back. Maybe that was crazy. He should probably be calling the police, or at least calling his parents to see what they thought he should do. “Screw that,” he told the empty kitchen. The last person he was going to call was his mother. Leaving the kitchen, he trotted into the living room. Chloe stood against the window, staring into the street.
“Na Na,” she said, turning to Max and pointing out the window.
He scooped her up and smoothed her hair. “She’ll be back.” He carried her to the couch. The scent of Savannah’s perfume lingered in the room. He hoped that she wore it every day. Shaking his head at himself, he cuddled Chloe to his chest. The last thing he needed to be worrying about was a woman. Savannah was his roommate and Chloe’s nanny. He needed to remember that and to keep things professional. Planting a kiss on Chloe’s forehead, he watched as a smile broke out across his daughter’s face.
He glanced at the window. “Did you see Savannah?” he asked the little girl. She shook her head. Max shrugged. Sometimes, little kids were just weird. Then, as the scent of rotten eggs hit his nostrils, he gagged. Pulling Chloe away from his chest, he lay her down on the couch. He ran into her room to retrieve wipes and diapers, his daydream broken.
Just as he finished changing Chloe, the front door opened. Savannah stepped inside, cold air swirling in after her. She clutched two plastic bags in her hands. A grin broke out across her face. Max lifted an eyebrow at her.
“What’s all that?” he asked.
“Dinner,” she replied, moving inside. She closed the door behind her and padded back into the kitchen.
Max remained on the floor next to Chloe, her dirty diaper rolled up into a football-shaped wad. Climbing to his feet, he held the diaper out in front of him. He walked into the kitchen after Savannah. He tossed the diaper into the empty box serving as a garbage and watched as she danced around the kitchen. Her coat sat in a heap on the floor. She pulled a knife from the drawer. Turning one of the plastic bags upside down, she poured out a package of shredded cheddar, a tomato, onion, green and yellow peppers, and what looked like a jalapeño.
“What are you making?” he asked, as she began dicing the tomato.
“Chicken enchiladas Suiza,” she replied. The blade in her hands blurred as she sliced faster. Max watched, eyes wide in awe. He had never seen anyone cut something so fast before, outside of a Food Network show.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Savannah froze, the knife mid slice. “You’ve never had enchiladas?”
He shook his head.
She put her free hand on her hip. “Have you at least had a taco?”
“Of course,” he said. “We always had to buy like four of the kits. My mom said my brothers were like locusts.”
Savannah paled. She sagged against the counter, the knife clattering into the sink. “Taco kits?” she repeated weakly.
“Yeah,” Max said. “The ones that come with the shells and the sauce? You just have to buy the meat and cheese.”
“Ay, Dios mio,” she said. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her long hair into a bun on top of her head. Max watched as the light from the ceiling shone off her hair. “You sit back, and let me handle this.”
Shrugging, Max leaned against the wall opposite her. She got back to work, cubing the rest of the vegetables. “Where did you get all this stuff, anyway?” he asked as she turned the stove on low.
Muttering something in Spanish under her breath, she shook her head at him. “There’s a bodega right across the street. Are you blind?”
He blushed, and folded his arms across his chest. “Isn’t that just like, chips and candy?”
“No, dude, they have a whole market in there. Are you an alien?” She pushed up the sleeves of her shirt, revealing the tattoos on her arm. The skulls danced across her skin as her muscles flexed. Max stared. Rolling her eyes, Savannah turned away from him. She drizzled oil into the pan.
“How’d you learn to cook?” he asked. He had assumed she was around the same age as him, yet she seemed to know so much more.
“You’re going to give me a heart attack,” she said, tossing the diced onions into the pan.
“It’s just a question,” he muttered, turning away. All girls were weird and prone to outbursts, he reminded himself. He made his way into the living room where Chloe lay on her stomach, kicking her little legs into the air. She clutched her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and dragged them across the carpet. Their feet made little lines in the fibers.
“Wanna draw, Chloe?” he asked her. She rolled onto her back, her face breaking out into a smile at the sight of him. At least one of the women in his house was happy to have him around. He crossed the room and pulled open one of the desk drawers, taking out paper and crayons. Then he joined Chloe on the floor, sprawling on his stomach in the same position she had been in.
With paper fanned out in front of them, he poured the crayons out. “What do you want me to draw?” he asked his daughter.
“Turtles,” she said in a singsong voice. He grabbed a green crayon and got to work.
The minutes slipped by. Before he knew it, the sky outside was darkening. Green and purple circles that vaguely resembled turtles dotted the paper, with Vs acting as birds, and blue scribbles across the sky. Chloe beamed at him and tapped his turtles with a finger.
“Make some dinosaurs,” she said.
“Sorry, kid,” Max said, putting down the purple crayon. “That’s as far as Daddy’s drawing skills go.”
“I can draw you a dinosaur,” Savannah said from behind him.
He glanced over his shoulder. She stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall. Chloe clapped her hands. Savannah lay down next to Chloe and picked up a gray crayon. Winking at Max, she sketched out the outline of a four-legged dinosaur with a long neck. She held the crayon lightly, layering in shapes slowly. Using pink, she began shading the dinosaur in.
Max watched her draw, entranced. The scent of tomatoes and spices floated to him from the kitchen, and his stomach growled. His eyes remained glued to the paper, watching as Savannah used a lime green crayon to add more detail. Slowly, the dinosaur came to life.
“That’s the mommy dinosaur,” Chloe said. “Where’s the baby?”
Savannah glanced at Max. Their eyes met, and she smiled, her dimples showing. Then she ducked her head and returned to the page, her hand moving back and forth as she added a smaller dinosaur. Chloe watched her every move, her chin tucked into her hands, her eyes wide and round.
Max’s heart pounded in his chest. He swallowed hard. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. He needed to remember that Savannah was technically his employee. It was her job to be good with his daughter. Plus, she was definitely weird, and at least slightly crazy.
Savannah put the crayon down, revealing a mother dinosaur with her baby. Chloe’s fingers traced the drawing, a smile breaking out across her face.
“You like it?” Savannah asked.
“Cool,” Max said. “Tell Savannah thank you.”
“Thank you, Na Na,” Chloe said.
“You’re welcome.” Savannah lifted herself from the floor. “Dinner’s ready. Come eat.” She floated into the kitchen as lithe as a dancer. Chloe followed her, as if in a trance. Max climbed to his feet and trailed after them, his heart still doing flip-flops in his chest.
As he entered the kitchen, the scent of hot, spicy cheese grew stronger. His mouth filled with saliva. Savannah strapped Chloe into her high chair, and slid a plate of cooled chicken on the tray in front of her. Then she gestured for Max to sit.
Feeling as if his head had disconnected from his body, he sat down, too. Savannah put down a plate of enchiladas in front of him. Steaming white sauce covered cheesy chicken rolled in a soft tortilla. A pile of orange rice and red beans encircled the enchiladas.
“Wow,” he breathed, picking up his fork. “This smells great.”
“I hope it tastes good,” Savannah said. “I spent my last twenty bucks on this.” She grinned and motioned for him to take a bite.
He shoved a forkful of rice into his mouth, the flavor exploding in a shower of salt and spice and sweet. The lids of his eyes lowered, and he smiled while chewing. Warmth shot through him, and the floaty feeling intensified. “This is so, so good,” he murmured.
He opened his eyes. Savannah’s eyes were locked on his. Hers were large and luminous, a smile illuminating from within them. He swallowed hard. Lowering his gaze, he took a bite of enchilada. Ducking his head down in an effort to not look like a total creeper, he watched as she left the table and made herself a plate. She sat down across from him. Coughing, he put his fork down.
“Are you all right?” she asked, an eyebrow raised at him.
He nodded and darted to the sink. Turning it on, he coughed into the stainless steel. Hoping that he wouldn’t throw up or do anything else embarrassing, he put his face under the stream of water. He took tiny sips, forcing down the food stuck in his throat. He splashed water onto his burning face. Shutting the water off, he turned from the sink, wiping his hands on his jeans. “How’s your chicken?” he asked Chloe, trying to sound nonchalant. His hoarse voice betrayed him, though. He sighed inwardly. He was never going to be cool enough to impress Savannah. Looking down, he ran a hand through his hair. What she thought about him shouldn’t matter, anyway. He had hired her to help take care of Chloe, not so that he could date her.
His daughter lifted her hands into the air. “Yummy!” she exclaimed.
Savannah’s lips curled into a smile.
Ears burning, Max sat down again. Lifting his fork, he forced himself to eat slower. Almost choking once was enough.
“You really never ate this before?” she asked, seemingly oblivious to his struggle.
He shook his head. “My mom’s allergic to cooking,” he said, taking another bite of rice.
Savannah shook her head sadly. “A Puerto Rican woman who can’t cook? Now I’ve heard everything.” She tossed her silky black hair over her shoulder. Max watched as the strands caught the light. His fingers twitched with the urge to run his fingers through her hair. “And no one speaks Spanish in your house?” she asked, bringing him back.
“Not that I know of,” he said with a shrug. He cut another bite of enchilada. “This is so, so good. Who taught you how to cook?”
“My mother and grandmother,” she said, studying him. “So, how is Chloe supposed to learn anything about her heritage?”
Max frowned. “Her heritage? She loves cheeseburgers. You just have to cut up the burger, no bun.” He shoveled more rice into his mouth.
“Not her American heritage, crazypants. Puerto Rican heritage.” Savannah reached across the table and touched his hand. He jumped, the spot where her fingers met his skin crackling. “We’re all American citizens, but there’s more to us.”
Crinkling his eyebrows at her, Max pulled his hand out of her reach. His heart thundered in his chest. He forced himself to breathe slowly.
“Don’t you wanna know about where you come from?” Savannah asked.
He lifted one shoulder. “I was born here, in Waterbury.”
“You’re still boricua,” she said.
“Do what now?” He set his fork down.
Her shoulders slumped. She pushed away her plate. “You’re Puerto Rican. Don’t you want to at least learn how to speak Spanish?”
Max snorted. “Everyone speaks English. What’s the point?”
“The point,” she said, “is to carry on your heritage. To pass on your culture to your daughter.”
“I didn’t realize we were gonna have a history lesson tonight.” He sighed and stood, pushing his chair back.
“You’re full?” she asked, pointing a slim finger at his plate, still piled with food.
“I want to start reading for next semester, get ahead of the game,” he said, moving away from the table. “Are you okay to watch Chloe?”
Savannah stiffened, her eyes turning down at the corners. “Of course,” she said, a smile quickly breaking out across her face. Max could see the hurt in her eyes, though. He left the kitchen, his own shoulders tight. She was too nosy for her own good, he surmised as he sat down at his desk. He reached for his textbook for his Best Practices in Classroom Management course and flipped it open.
He had never been a great student, compared to his brothers. Every test drained him of energy. It would be a miracle if he graduated and was able to get certified for teaching, he mused. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on the words lining the page, but his mind raced in fury.
Gritting his teeth, he rubbed his temples with his fingers, his head pounding. Savannah had no right to interrogate him about his personal life. He had hired her to help with his daughter, not lecture him on things that had nothing to do with him. The only way he was going to do well in life was if he studied hard and got out of Waterbury.
He dragged his eyes back to the textbook, and began reading, forcing thoughts of Savannah out of his mind.
Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.
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