Unexpected Secrets, page 2part #1 of Hard Limits Suspense Romance Series
Mackenzie’s school was ten minutes from the house, and although there was a slight traffic jam with all the Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMW’s backed up on Main Street, all vying for a position as they dropped their children off at the private school, it was nothing compared to morning traffic in DC.
Not even close.
Anxiety swirled in my stomach after watching Zee skip toward the front door, teachers, and administrators diligently watching over each child as they made their way into the school. I turned the car toward the house and arrived at the driveway far too soon after dropping Zee off at school.
For a brief moment, I wished for the D.C. traffic—anything to delay the inevitable. I pressed the garage remote to open the door, but left the car sitting just outside.
Maybe it was the rebel in me, but doing it made me feel like I had some control over this damned meeting with the good doctor, even if I really didn’t.
I took my time taking off my jacket and shoes, making sure they were neatly placed under the entryway bench. I hung the Jeep keys back on the key rack and admired the shiplap entryway decorated sparingly, with a single painting. I’d missed it yesterday, but someone took the time to capture the sunrise I’d witnessed this morning in a watercolor.
Passing through the kitchen, I saw that everything had been put away, and it looked spotless. My heartbeat increased as I faced the fact I couldn’t delay meeting with him any longer. He’d likely heard the garage door open and had to know I was here.
With a fortifying breath, I turned and walked toward his office, hating the feeling that took me back to my childhood, standing on the doorstep of my father’s office, dread lining the pit of my stomach like a lump of lead.
The door was slightly ajar, and it sounded like he was talking with someone. I paused, unsure of whether to go back to the kitchen or knock.
“Yes, we’re very happy here, thank you,” the doctor’s voice drifted through the open door, and I could just make out what sounded like a muffled female voice in the background, maybe coming through a speakerphone. “No, no it won’t be necessary, Daisy, really.” He continued. “I can’t today, I’m heading into a meeting and then out of town… No, no we’re all set, and Mackenzie has a nanny now so that won’t be necessary… I see. Well, let me get back to you, and thank you for calling, Daisy, we appreciate everything you’ve done to make this transition go smoothly.”
I heard a click as the phone rested back on the hook, and then a deep sigh. I intended to count to ten but chickened out at four. I knocked.
I pushed the door open, moving just one step inside. “Should I come back later?” I asked, hopeful.
“No, this is a good time. Come in and sit down,” he invited, as he moved around his desk and sat in one of the two chairs positioned across from it, gesturing for me to take the other one.
I paused before moving forward, taking in the surroundings, appreciating the masculine and exquisite taste he had in furniture. It wasn’t dark and foreboding as some offices tend to be, but rather, the furniture matched the rest of the house—modern without being cold, yet minimalist and comfortable. Whoever had chosen the décor for their home had done an excellent job of creating simple and uncluttered spaces that somehow made you feel comfortable and at-home almost immediately.
His office had a fireplace, and my eyes gravitated to the portrait hanging above it—it stole my breath.
There was Mackenzie as a toddler in the lap of a woman. The woman holding her must have been her mother—she was stunningly beautiful with blonde hair falling in ringlets around her face, and the same vibrant sea-green eyes that Mackenzie had, except these eyes, radiated happiness and love toward the daughter she held.
I lost myself in that moment, the weight of all that Mackenzie had lost when her mother died hit me and drove the air from my lungs. Suddenly I realized Dr. Mills was staring at me and I forced myself back to the present. “Your wife,” was all I said.
“Yes. My late wife.” No emotion. No inflection in his voice. He gestured toward the chair again.
I lowered my eyes, forcing air back into my lungs, blinking away the tears that threatened at the back of my eyes. The artist who captured the obvious love and devotion she’d felt for Mackenzie was exceptionally gifted.
I wondered what it must be like to be loved like that. I was aware enough to realize the sadness gripping my heart wasn’t just for Mackenzie.
I sat and waited, hoping this was not going to be a repeat of the grilling session I’d endured during the original interview.
“Mackenzie likes you.”
I smiled and felt my face relax. “I like her, too.”
“You’re a natural with children.”
“I wouldn’t say that has always been the case, but your daughter is wonderful, and an absolute joy to be with.”
He nodded. “She’s been through a lot.”
“I realize that—and I’m sorry.” I could see he was going to object—it seemed completely logical to me to be sorry that something bad had happened to someone—it didn’t mean I thought I was responsible for it. “I’m sorry for your loss, and Mackenzie’s loss,” I clarified.
He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. “I have to go out of town for a few days on business.” His eyes followed my eyebrows, which had creased slightly. “If you’re not comfortable, I can cancel it.”
“I’m surprised,” I answered truthfully, “but Mackenzie and I can handle it. I wouldn’t have thought that in light of the fact that I’ve only just arrived, but we’re comfortable with one another, and I think she’ll be okay with it.”
“I agree. I would never have thought I’d even consider it, but then I didn’t expect her to take to you the way she has,” he added frankly.
“I couldn’t have predicted it, and I didn’t expect it, either. Truthfully—I’m honored to be part of Mackenzie’s journey, and I don’t take the responsibility lightly.”
“I’m aware. I appreciate that. I wouldn’t leave you with her otherwise.”
I nodded, waiting.
“I don’t really need to recount the terms of our contract, but I want to hear how you’ll approach these days with her. How you’ll handle it if she does miss me more than we realize, and what you’ll do if there’s an emergency.”
It was my turn to scrutinize. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
He shifted in his chair but kept his eyes locked on mine.
It was all I could do to sit still. I didn’t understand why every encounter with him seemed to take my breath away and sometimes turned me into a blithering idiot.
It hadn’t been like that during our interviews, but now that I was in his home, connecting with his daughter, a dynamic had changed. I pushed the thought aside and waited for his reply.
“I think it’s natural to want to understand how you’ll approach these possible situations as you and I have only just met.”
“I’m quite certain you had a thorough background check done on me—I certainly signed off on that. You grilled me for hours on these very topics. Do you need me to repeat myself?” There was no judgment in my voice, but I was annoyed. My eyes never wavered from his.
The corner of my mouth quirked up. “All right then. It’s Monday, so approximately how many days do you think you’ll be away?”
“Hopefully no more than two—three at the most.”
“Mackenzie has school each day, so we’ll have breakfast together each morning, and I’ll take her to school. I’ll pick her up at the end of the day, and on Tuesday she has ballet at 3:30 p.m. After that, we’ll come home, have a snack, maybe go for a walk, and get her homework done before dinner. Then we’ll read, or dance, or maybe another activity of her choice. Beyond that, our schedule will only vary with the after-school activity, which as you know on Thursday is an open afternoon. If you’re not home by then, I’ll
I paused, glancing at the painting briefly before continuing, my voice softer. “She’s going to miss you, so we’ll talk about that whenever she needs to and for as long as she needs to. Other than that, I’ll keep her busy with the activities she loves most, and make our early days together as positive and happy for her as possible. With respect to an emergency, I will call 9-1-1 if needed, first. Then call you, making my way down the list of emergency contacts—which, by the way, are organized in priority order in my Evernote iPhone app, which is always with me.”
I pulled my iPhone from the back pocket of my jeans and put it face up on the arm of the chair. He glanced at it briefly before his eyes returned to mine.
“But Thea, I don’t want to!” Mackenzie whined.
“Hmm. I think we’ve already been over that one. I love that you want to spend the day with me—and I would love nothing more—but I promised your dad I’d take you to school each day that he’s away and keep your normal schedule. Do you think I should break a promise?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Okay then, how about you get ready for school? I’ll make your bed for you and have a surprise ready by the time you’re downstairs. Deal?”
“Deal,” she agreed quietly.
“Ready… set… go!” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, turning to jog out of Mackenzie’s room toward the kitchen. It worked. I heard little steps pattering from her bed toward the bathroom.
Phew, I averted that one, but how many more will there be and when will he be home? Dr. Mills was already a day later than he expected and managed to avoid the question of what he was doing or when exactly he’d return during his daily call. He masterfully managed Mackenzie’s questions about it, as well, and there was no point in pushing the topic further.
I resolved to find some fun activities to fill our weekend with, in the event he didn’t return. It was supposed to be my weekend off, but I couldn’t complain. How many women were paid for a full-time job that in reality required very few hours during the day? My time was my own during the six hours Mackenzie was at school. And Dr. Mills had a housekeeper, so apart from fixing meals, cleanup, and making my own bed, everything else was taken care of by outside staff.
I spent my days at a local café or at the library—although I realized I may be slightly paranoid—I didn’t want to chance that Dr. Mills may be tracking the search activity on the home Wi-Fi.
I wasn’t exactly sure what he did when he traveled, but from what I had gleaned on the Internet, he worked part-time for the government in some capacity. What if he was a spy? Or a consultant with the FBI—or CIA? He certainly had the intensity for it, and if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he also had the ability to read minds. When he nodded at me—it wasn’t as though he was agreeing with me—but rather that he acknowledged I was telling the truth.
Add to that, eyes that seemed to reach into my soul, and other parts of me that had remained dormant for a very long time, and you had a rare situation where I felt like I was out of my league.
It didn’t happen often, but it was happening right now.
I bit my upper lip, I didn’t like it.
Gabriel clicked on the app and waited for the connection.
“Is that a nanny app?” his colleague, Hugh Diaz asked, looking over Gabriel’s shoulder.
“I swear, Hugh, would you let me know when you’re in the room, rather than stalking up behind me?”
“You’re losing your edge, my friend. Fatherhood has changed you.”
“Indeed it has.”
“So—is it a nanny app?”
“If you must know, it’s a home technology system connected to a variety of devices—the door locks, security cameras, lights, Wi-Fi, and a few other things.”
Hugh whistled. “Is she a runner? She looks good, and those freckles. Jeez, Gabriel, your nanny is pretty.”
“She’s not my nanny, and yes, she is pretty. Most importantly, Mackenzie likes her, and she’s a good judge of character. They connected right away.”
“That must be a huge relief for you. So the move is going well?”
“As well as can be expected. I think it was the right decision.”
“For both of us—we’re a package deal.”
“Do you still have a security team?”
“I do, although it’s more of a skeleton crew now.”
“Do they tail the nanny?”
“Initially they did, yes. It appears she mostly goes to the library or a café when she’s not home or with Mackenzie.”
“Avoiding the home Wi-Fi, huh?”
“Do you think so?”
“Not sure. What’s her background?”
“She’s a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in communications and government relations. Her mother and father are dead, and her sisters live in the same general vicinity in Massachusetts. Beyond that, her history seems unremarkable.”
“Then why would a beautiful young woman with a master’s degree from an Ivy League school want to nanny in Yarmouth, Maine?”
“Hey, Mackenzie, over here!” I yelled to get Mackenzie’s attention. School buses were everywhere, and my nose wrinkled at the diesel fumes and noise.
Something else was off, too, but I couldn’t quite place it. I bit my lower lip, something I always did when I was worried.
When I saw Mackenzie skipping down the stairs, relief flooded my twisted stomach. I stretched out my arms and knelt down for the hug that had become part of our daily school pickup routine, breathing in her sweet, innocent smell and strawberry-scented hair. Guilt singed my thoughts; it was going to be incredibly difficult to leave Mackenzie one day. Darn Dr. Mills for being away longer than expected. It was Friday, and I still hadn’t heard whether he would be home tonight.
A prickling sensation coursed up my spine for the second time; I glanced around but couldn’t see anything unusual. I quickly locked Mackenzie’s seat belt into place and scurried around the car. I’d promised Mackenzie we would get an ice cream after school today. Maybe not a wise choice for a Friday afternoon—but a necessary one for both of us.
I’d called two of the moms I had met during ballet practice to arrange for an impromptu gathering with some of Mackenzie’s friends. Fortunately, they were women I actually enjoyed being with, so it was something to look forward to and would be a bonus for both of us.
We reached the ice cream parlor within five minutes. The others had already arrived, and Mackenzie raced with glee toward her friends. My new friends had pulled two tables together, so there was plenty of room for everyone.
No sooner had I sat down than a thin woman with blonde hair piled high walked into the parlor, looked around, and immediately headed toward Mackenzie and her friends, seated at the table next to ours.
“Oh, Mackenzie my dear! How wonderful to see you! I’ve missed you!” she gushed.
“Oh. Hi, Miss Daisy,” came the flat reply.
Ahh, so this must be the Daisy Dr. Mills was talking to.
“Do you all mind if I join you?” she asked without bothering to wait for a response and snapping her fingers for the attendant behind the counter to grab the nearby chair for her.
I groaned inside. Some things you just knew without knowing why.
“So, Mackenzie, how are you? And how’s your dad?”
“We’re good. I’m here with Thea,” she added with a worried glance in my direction.
“Where is your dad? Oh! You must be the new nanny! How nice,” she said in that condescending I-don’t-really-mean-what-I’m-saying kind of way.
I had to save Mackenzie, so I decided to engage with the woman, even though I didn’t want to. “Yes, I am the new nanny—and you are…?”
“I’m Daisy Chandler, one of Yarmouth’s newest and best luxury real estat
I refused to take the bait. “It’s great to meet you, Daisy. I’m Athena Brady—the nanny.”
“Yes, well I figured that much. Oh, hello Shay and Margot, how are you?” Daisy asked, looking at my friends without waiting for a reply. “Sooo, Mackenzie, how is school?”
Mackenzie tore her eyes away from her friends. “It’s fine, Miss Daisy. Hey Abby and Jayleen, let’s go check out the arcade machine.”
I couldn’t help but admire the skill with which Mackenzie managed the situation with Daisy. She is her father’s daughter.
“Oh, well I just thought I’d stop by to see how Mackenzie is doing. I’m sure I’ll hear from her dad as soon as he’s back in town,” she stated to no one in particular as she rose from the table.
“Daddy!” Mackenzie exclaimed as she raced toward the man who walked through the open door, closing it swiftly behind him.
“Zee!” he said, using her new nickname and opened his arms as she leaped into them. He wrapped his arms around his daughter and held her tight, eyes closed as though he wanted the moment to last forever.
Tears pricked at the back of my eyes. I swear I could count on two hands the number of times I had cried in my entire life prior to this, but that number was increasing exponentially now that I was in Maine.
Dr. Mills seemed glad to be home, and Mackenzie clung to him. It was time for me to give them some time alone.
“Hey, Athena,” he offered casually.
“It’s Thea, Daddy,” his daughter corrected.
“Ah, yes. How could I forget?”
“Welcome home, doc.” I smiled. “I think I’ll retire if that’s all right.”
“Yes, yes of course.” His eyes flickered with a question, but he didn’t ask. Was that guilt I saw course across his face?
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