I never did figure out if it was the man or the baby that drove me into action and changed the course of my life in the blink of an eye. Thinking about it later, I was inclined to believe it was the child, but somewhere deep in my heart, I had a suspicion that if the man hadn’t been the one holding the baby, I might have passed them by.
I noticed them first just as I was in the middle of coping with a crippling panic attack. For one dazzlingly terrifying second, I thought I recognized the set of shoulders on a blond man standing a little way down the train station platform, and I froze, fear cramping my belly.
“No,” I whispered in horror, both hands clutching my bag, too terrified to move. “Oranges. Apples. Bowling balls. Those little metal balls on strings that sit on executives’ desks.”
“Pardon?” the woman next to me asked, giving me a look that marked me as someone who should be bouncing off padded walls.
“Sorry,” I choked out an answer, my body slumping with relief when the man turned and I saw that it wasn’t Mikhail, just a terrifying facsimile of him. I felt weak with both the terror that had gripped me and, two seconds later, the knowledge that I was safe—he hadn’t somehow followed me to Auckland. I gathered my wits and turned with a slight smile at the middle-aged woman who had stopped next to me to toss away a paper latte cup. “Swami Betelbaum says that when you’re stressed, you should focus on round things. That calms your chakras. Or is it enlightens your ka? It was one of those two.”
“Round things,” the woman said, and after giving me a wary once-over, she moved off, her briefcase held tightly, as if she thought she might have to use it as a shield against sudden attack.
“As if,” I murmured to myself. “Snowballs. Crystal balls. Christmas ornaments.”
The station was packed with early-afternoon commuters, all of whom were pursuing their routine with steadfast determination. I was buffeted by men and women in business suits, busily carrying on with their lives and careers. For a moment, I stood marooned in the sea of humanity, alone, isolated, untouched even though I was surrounded by others, but self-preservation drove me to hurry over to a small oasis of quiet next to a bench littered with discarded newspapers.
Slowly, my heart began to calm, and my hands stopped shaking. “Those little chocolate candies with the yummy filling. Snow globes. Gumballs. Babies’ heads.”
Now, that was odd—I’d never really thought of babies’ heads as being round, but not ten feet from me, a couple stood arguing in low voices, a baby in his stroller next to them apparently forgotten. The baby had a very round head, and a pair of lungs on him that hinted at a future in opera or one of those reality shows where people yelled at one another all the time.
I frowned at the couple, distracted from my own troubles by the scene in front of me. How could they not be aware that their child was screaming his lungs out? What sort of parents were they that they were too caught up in their own argument to take care of their obviously upset child?
The woman, I decided, looked like trouble. She was tall and elegant, her long black hair as glossy as a bird’s wing swinging down to brush her hot pink miniskirt. A matching bodice showed off just about everything she had, and she had a lot.
“Breasts,” I said under my breath, qualifying it with, “Fake breasts. Wheels on a baby stroller. Big tears falling down a baby’s face.”
Poor kid. His face was turning red now as he continued to scream, red and sticky with tears, his misery highlighted by little snot bubbles coming from his nose.
“Snot bubbles,” I added, glancing indignantly at the parents. Why weren’t they doing something?
“There are better things for my life than this,” the black-haired woman said in a heavily accented voice. Russian? Ukrainian? Definitely Slavic. I gave a little shudder at the accent. I was all too familiar with something similar. “I have him ten month. Now he is yours. I give him to you! Here is papers. You get custody papers with lawyer, and I sign.”
“You can’t do that!” the man exclaimed, grabbing at the woman’s arm as she stalked off. He had an accent that sounded English, with something else mixed in.
I eyed him, intrigued despite the knowledge that it was far better not to get involved. He was tall, probably a few inches over six feet.
I didn’t like tall men.
He also had long legs and broad shoulders.
I really didn’t like broad shoulders.
Worst of all, he had the sort of face that made women stop and stare, all manly stubble and a little cleft in his square chin, and thick-lashed eyes that I personally would have killed for.
I really, really did not like handsome men.
“I don’t know anything about taking care of a baby!” the man was saying in an angry tone, his hand on the woman’s arm.
“Now is time you learn,” the woman snapped with a toss of her thick hair. “Is too much for me! I have career!”
“Nastya, wait. You can’t do this to me. I can’t afford it right now—” The man started after her as she left.
My eyes widened as I looked from the couple to the baby, the latter now fast approaching hysterics, snot and tears dribbling everywhere, his strident crying making me want to cover my ears.
They were leaving? They were just walking away from the baby? I looked around in horror to see if anyone else had witnessed this. Weren’t they concerned about some insane person grabbing the baby?
No one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care. I edged down the bench, closer to the baby. I should do something. I couldn’t let the people just walk off and leave that poor, angry baby alone. But it was better to not become involved in a lovers’ spat. That way lay disaster. Right? Right.
“Hey,” I heard a voice call out, and, to my horror, discovered it came from my mouth. “Hey, you’re forgetting your baby.”
The man must have heard, or realized that he couldn’t just leave the poor kid alone, because he turned around and marched back, a furious look etched on that handsome face.
I averted my gaze and slid back down the bench, pretending to be fascinated with the sight of my shoes.
The baby’s cries went up in tone. I took a peek out of the corners of my eyes to see the man was now holding the baby, bouncing it up and down a little, obviously trying to jolly it out of the temper tantrum. The baby, like the man, had black hair and dark eyes, most likely his son. What sort of father didn’t even know how to hold his own child?
“A very bad man,” I told myself, and dropped my gaze again. I would not get involved. It wasn’t my problem. He was probably one of those workaholics who had no time for their own children. I scorned those men. The way I saw it, if you made a baby, then you needed to own up to your responsibilities. It was just that simple.
I couldn’t help but glance up, badly wanting to tell the man what I thought of him, but the sight that met my eyes held me arrested for a few seconds. The man’s face was stricken as he held the screaming and writhing child, his expression not one of a heartless father who didn’t have time for his child, but a man who was obviously as distressed as the child and, what’s worse, had no idea what to do. He looked around desperately, clearly searching for some solution.
He looked utterly and completely lost, and as commuters streamed around him, men and women all intent on their own lives, ignoring the screaming child and helpless man, I felt a moment of kinship, of one isolated individual recognizing another.
“Don’t get involved,” I warned myself even as I was on my feet, moving toward the man. I stopped before him, saying softly, “Can I help?”
He turned a face of absolute agony to me, his dark blue eyes filled with panic. But even with those emotions stark on his face, some paternal sense must have kicked in, because he clutched the baby tighter, and started to shake his head.
“He’s … you know, he’s really snotty,” I said, pulling a little packet of tissues from my pocket and offering them to the man. “Maybe if you wiped that off him, he might feel better.”
“Snotty?” the man repeated, looking at the baby as if he had no idea what to do about the matter.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake … here.” I dabbed at the baby’s nose with a couple of tissues, wiping where the snot had mixed with tears and dribbled down his mouth and chin. “He’s really mad, isn’t he?”
“He’s not the only one who’s mad,” the man mumbled, grimacing when the baby screamed even louder, squirming and straining against the man’s hold. “I don’t know why he’s crying.”
I told myself to go sit back down, that it wasn’t my problem, that I was not responsible for other people’s parenting skills, or lack thereof.
“Well, you’re not holding him right, for one,” I said, exasperation driving common sense from my head. “I can’t imagine it’s comfortable to be held like you’re about to drop him. Here, let me have him for a minute.”
I held out my arms.
The man frowned at me, his long, narrow black brows pulling together when he studied me.
“Fine,” I said, dropping my arms and turning back toward my bench. “I was just trying to help. Sorry I bothered you.”
“God, I need help. I’m … here.” The man thrust the baby into my arms. I adjusted my hold on him, cradling him against my side, one hand rubbing his back.
“Shhh,” I murmured to the baby, rocking from side to side. “I know you’re pissed, but it’s going to be all right. You just need to calm down. You need to find your inner peace.”
“That’s not how you talk to a baby,” the man said, hovering protectively in front of me, as if he was going to snatch the child away.
“Oh really? You weren’t doing any better.” I gave him a sharp look and continued to murmur softly to the baby.
“I don’t know anything about babies,” the man admitted, his eyes moving between my face and that of the baby.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot to know how to comfort one.” I kept my voice gentle despite the sting of the words. Gradually the baby’s cries became less strident, and he started making soft little hiccuping noises. “How on earth can you have a child and not know how to take care of him?”
“I didn’t know I had him until an hour ago,” the man said grimly.
I shot him a startled look. “As bad as a man is who doesn’t have time for his kids, I have to say that one who doesn’t even know he has a child is infinitely worse.”
“I didn’t know I had a son because his mother never bothered to tell me,” he said, keeping his voice low as the baby started to go limp in my arms, making soft little wet snuffles against my neck when he relaxed against me.
“Oh. Well … oh. I’m sorry, then.”
“You’re not a nanny, are you?” the man asked suddenly, his gaze sweeping over me, no doubt taking in my shoddy clothes and my duffel bag with its remnants of travel tags. “You’re American?”
“Yes, I’m American, and no, I’m not a nanny. I don’t know anything about children other than they need their noses wiped and you should rub their backs when they cry. What’s his name?”
I thought for a minute the man was going to consult the wad of papers the baby’s mother had shoved at him, but he merely put them into his pocket, making a little grimace. “Nastya calls him Piotr.”
“That’s Russian for Peter. Hey, Peter,” I said softly, my lips against the baby’s damp forehead. “You go to sleep now, and your daddy will take care of you, OK?”
“I don’t know how to take care of a baby,” the man said, running a hand through his hair. He looked around the train station again as if he expected to see a magic nanny shop appear before his eyes. When one didn’t, his attention returned to me. “He likes you. Can you help me tonight?”
“No, don’t fight it—just go to sleep. I promise things will look better after you’ve slept,” I told the baby, still rubbing his back. The man’s words grabbed my awareness, leaving me staring at him in disbelief. “Help you how?”
“I need someone to help me with him. With Peter. I’ll call a nanny agency in the morning, but it’s too late now to get anyone,” he said with a glance at his watch.
His expensive watch, I noted. I also didn’t like men who had money to spend on expensive watches. Those sorts of men tended to believe they could buy anything, including the services of a stranger.
“I don’t know you from Adam,” I pointed out, shaking my head.
“I don’t know you either, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to trust you.” His gaze searched my face for a moment; then suddenly he gave me an odd half smile, one side of his mouth curling in an endearing way. A sudden flash of heat hit my belly at the sight of that smile. “Within reason, of course. I’d pay you. Double the going rate. Assuming you’re not on your way somewhere? And if you were, I’d replace your ticket.”
“I don’t even know your name, and you’re willing to trust your child to me?” I shook my head again. “You’re nuttier than I thought.”
“Not nutty, just desperate,” he corrected me, holding out a hand. “My name is Theo. Theodor Papaioannou.”
“Kiera Taylor,” I said automatically, giving his hand a little shake before returning it to stroke the now quiet baby.
“How about it, Kiera? Will you give me a hand tonight? I’ll pay whatever you want.”
I couldn’t help but recognize the desperation in his eyes. How could I not see it? Despite the knowledge that what he asked was way out of line, I considered it—I actually considered it for a few seconds. Then pain whipped me with the realization of what I was doing. When would I learn? How many times did life have to crush me to the ground before I got it?
“No,” I said, carefully placing the now sleeping baby into his stroller, strapping him in before I stood up and faced the man. “I’m sorry. I wish I could, but it’s just safer if I don’t. Good luck, Theo.”
He said nothing, just watched when I gathered up my purse and bag and, without a glance back, headed for the entrance of the station, where I could get a taxicab. It would damage my budget, but I couldn’t stay there with that handsome, desperate man.
I made it five steps before I heard an almost inaudible, “Please.”
I ordered my legs to continue walking. They stood firm.
Slowly, I turned back around. “Tambourines,” I told Theo.
His eyebrows rose.
“Drums. The bell on those big horns.”
“Musical instruments for five hundred?” he asked, a glint of amusement coming into his eyes.
“Swami Betelbaum, my meditation counselor, says it’s good to think of round things in times of stress,” I explained, staring at him.
The longer I looked, the less I liked him. He was too handsome, too big, too needy. Just … too.
I couldn’t do this. It was the height of folly. He was a stranger, and I … I couldn’t afford to trust anyone.
I opened my mouth to say no, but what came out was, “One night. I’ll help you with Peter until you get a nanny tomorrow, although I really do not know anything about kids. I’m just a paralegal from Sacramento. Do you live here in Auckland?”
“No,” he said, giving me a relieved smile that did far too many things to my insides to make me at all comfortable. “But I may be. I’m thinking of setting up an office here, and just got in to look around when Nastya tracked me down. I’m booked at a hotel not too far from here.”
If he thought I was going to stay in close confines with him, he was nuts. He’d just have to get me a room of my own. “Whoa, hold on there. I am not staying with you in your hotel room.”
He gave me another half smile. “It’s a suite. There are two bedrooms.”
“Which would be fine assuming I trusted you, but I don’t.” I eyed him. There was no way I would consent to spend the night with a man who looked that handsome. Handsome men were never, ever unaware of their appearance. They expected women to tumble into bed just as a matter of fact.
And why shouldn’t you have a little fun once in a while? my inner voice whispered. That damned inner voice, the one Swami Betelbaum said I had to learn to ignore, for it would lead me away from serenity.
And I so desperately wanted serenity.
“The doors have locks. You may lock yourself into your room,” he said, his mouth tight.
I realized that I’d offended him. And no surprise, I’d more or less accused him of being a rapist, or worse.
“Locked doors are nothing but an illusion,” I said, suddenly so tired, I just wanted to curl into a little ball and let the world pass me by. How long had it been since I’d slept? “How do I know you’re not some horrible ax-murdering serial killer who’s luring me to his hotel room so he can chop me up into little bits?”
“I doubt if many serial killers take their ten-month-old sons with them on their killing sprees,” he said with a hint of that sexy half smile. “If you like, I’ll give you the names and numbers of people who will act as a character witness.”
“Your ax-murdering buddies?” I said with a snort.
“Only one has an ax,” he answered, the smile definitely there this time. “I can give you the name of a respected banker in Sydney, and my broker in Athens, and …” His voice grew a little strained. “… my brother. He’s a successful real estate developer.”
“Uh-huh. I bet he’d say anything for you.”
“No.” The word was abrupt, but there was a lot of emotion behind it, emotion that I recognized—self-loathing, regret, and sorrow. “If anything, he’s likely to tell you all sorts of unsavory tales about me,” he finished, obviously trying to make light of the situation, his eyes not meeting mine. “He’s eminently respectable, though. He has a wife and four children.”
One night. The thought danced with dizzying temptation in my brain. Misha would never be able to find me if I wasn’t booked under my own name. I’d have a night where I could rest, actually sleep, without listening for the sound of my murderer creeping upon me unawares.
One night of safety. I wanted it so much, I could almost taste it.
“All right,” I said, even as I automatically scanned the crowd. It had become second nature to me now. “But I don’t want the hotel to know my name.”
He gave me an odd look, but agreed, picking up my bag. I hesitated a minute, then took hold of the stroller and pushed it after him. He paused a few yards away and collected a laptop bag and a small overnight bag.
“I’m going to call your references, though,” I warned him. “If anything seems wrong, the deal’s off.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgment and pushed the door with his elbow, holding it open for me.
I said nothing, but brushed against his arm when I passed through the door, suddenly very much aware of him as a man.
One that was far too handsome and self-possessed for my peace of mind.