Unexpected Secrets, page 3part #1 of Hard Limits Suspense Romance Series
At least he had the decency to act semi-sheepishly, I thought, moving toward the stairs. It was incredulous that he hadn’t called to let me know he was coming home.
“Wait!” Mackenzie exclaimed, her voice nearly filled with panic.
“Zee, it’s okay.” I turned back to my little ward. My eyes flew to Dr. Mills, his eyebrows raised and eyes narrowed. “What’s going on?” I asked, walking toward Zee.
“I don’t want you to leave,” her tearful voice whispered.
I blinked hard to hold tears back from my own eyes at the desperation in her voice. Jeez, what was going on with me? “Zee, I’m not leaving, sweetheart,” I assured her, taking her little hands into mine with a smile. “I’m just going to my room to read for a bit. Why don’t you take your dad to the living room and show him what we’ve been working on while he’s been away, and I’ll see you in the morning? Maybe, just maybe, there’ll be pancakes waiting for my favorite sleepy-eyed girl,” I said with a wink.
“Okay,” Mackenzie whispered, but then brightened. “You’re okay?” she asked.
“Of course I am.” Intuitive little bugger, isn’t she?
I could feel Dr. Mills’s intense eyes raking over my face, and heat rising in my cheeks. “I’m more than okay, Zee,” I reached up to tap her on the nose. “Thank you for a fun afternoon.”
Zee stretched out her arms for a hug. I paused. She was still in her father’s arms. Awkward much?
He let Mackenzie down, and she raced into my hips and wrapped her little arms around me as far as they would reach.
“Thea—I love you.”
“I love you, too, Zee. I love you very much.” My body welcomed the little girl, and I picked her up to hold her tight, willing the tears not to fall. Then pulled back to give Mackenzie a smile.
“Thea, you have tears, too. Why are you sad?”
Good grief! From the mouth of babes.
“I’m not sad, Zee. Have you ever heard the expression ‘tears of joy’?”
The little girl nodded.
“Then that’s what these are. I’m happy your dad is home, and you can show him all the things we’ve been working on while he’s been gone. Now scoot.”
I put Zee down and turned as the heat in my face reached scorching, taking the stairs two by two, well aware that Dr. Mills’s eyes followed me all the way up the stairs.
“Come on, Zee, let’s see what you’ve been cooking up while I’ve been gone,” I heard, just before I reached my bedroom door.
“How was your trip, Dr. Mills?” I asked as the doctor walked into the kitchen where I was starting breakfast.
“It was good—thank you. And Thea, I’m sorry. My trip took longer than expected, and I neglected to let you know I was coming home.”
My eyes narrowed, and I studied him, trying to read him. How could his surprise arrival home have been anything but intentional? “What do you have planned for the day? Or do you need me to take Zee?”
“Goodness no. You’ve done enough and now I owe you two additional days off. Why don’t you head out, and I’ll take care of breakfast for Zee and me?”
“No, but thanks. I promised Zee I’d have something special ready for her breakfast, and I will. You guys went to bed late last night?”
“Yes. Given that I was away all week, I thought it best to let her stay up late and have extra time with me. She fell asleep watching the Disney movie, but it was still time well spent.” He paused a half-second. “You don’t have to call me Dr. Mills, you know.”
“It’s how I think of you.”
And then I saw that look cross his face that I’m-in-professional-mode-now-and-I’m-going-to-analyze-you look.
I put both hands on the counter and leaned forward, my eyes laser-focused on his. “Not everything needs to be analyzed, Gabriel. If you prefer that I call you by your first name, I will. It’s not like we’ve had time to discuss it yet.”
His eyes widened.
“Fair enough; and yes, please call me Gabriel.” His eyes turned thoughtful, and he looked as though he was going to ask a question, but we were interrupted by the pitter-patter of steps.
“Daddy!” Mackenzie squealed as she raced into his arms.
“Good morning, sleepy head. How are you?”
“Great! I had the best dream ever, Daddy. We got a puppy!”
He cringed and tried to cover it up with a smile. “Did you? That does sound like quite a dream.”
“Can we, Daddy? Can we get a puppy? I promise I will feed it and make sure it has water, and we could get a fence so the puppy doesn’t get hit by a car, and I can walk it. Thea can help me walk it, and it will be so much fun, won’t it, Daddy? I will take care of it, I promise.”
“We’ve talked about this, Mackenzie. My schedule is unpredictable and if we get a dog, it needs to be during a time I can be here, too. Do you understand?”
“But we have Thea now, Daddy. She can help, too, can’t you, Thea?”
“You know, Zee, that’s really something between you and your Dad. It’s his home and your home, and although I live here now, too—this is not really my permanent place so I can’t be part of that decision.”
Mackenzie’s lower lip began to quiver. “But it is your home, Thea. I want it to be your home, too. I want you to stay. Please, Daddy, please ask her to stay.” She raced around the kitchen island to hug me.
It quickly became apparent that this was about much more than a puppy or even my role as the nanny, and I looked to Gabriel for some help.
“Zee, come here, sweetheart. Let’s talk about this.” He reached out to draw Mackenzie to him, but she backed up.
“No! I don’t want to talk about this, and I don’t want a cuddle.” The quivering lip quickly turned into a frown. “I want Thea to stay here forever with you and me, Daddy—and I want a puppy.”
The silence stretched for two, three, four seconds, then the doorbell rang. Gabriel looked at me, but I shook my head. I had no idea who was at the door, or what to do about Mackenzie’s angst.
“We’ll table this conversation for later, Zee. I need to see who’s at the door.”
“Talk about saved by the bell,” I breathed, as I took what I now recognized as my seat across from him in his office.
He chuckled. “You’re not kidding. Remind me to thank Mrs. Epps for her timely interruption and the invitation to take Mackenzie to the playground with them.”
I smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was Divine intervention.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe it was, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mackenzie is struggling right now. I thought having a live-in nanny would be good for her but—”
“I hear you. I’ve been concerned that she’s taken to me so quickly and so completely.”
He pinned me with his eyes.
“Please don’t take that the wrong way, Gabriel. Of course I want to connect with her and for her to like me—but I have to tell you that the ease with which we’ve fallen into a comfortable routine has surprised me, too.” I paused a half-second, “It’s honestly almost uncanny how quickly it has happened. Part of me feels like I should just roll with it and be grateful for both of us. Yet part of me is concerned for Zee…because you and I both know this won’t last forever.”
His jaw tightened. and the color drained from his face.
“I’m sorry, Gabriel—I didn’t mean it like that.” I clenched my hand to keep from reaching out to console him.
“I know, Thea. It’s been well over a year now, but the pain and loss feel much more fresh, as though she’s been gone only weeks.”
“That’s because you loved her, and she clearly loved you and Zee. I suppose a love like that, as wonderful and rare as it is, takes longer to heal. They say that time heals, but what they don’t tell you is how long the healing will take.”
He cocked his head, and I could tell he had questions. They were questions I wasn’t ready to answer, yet I felt
“We do need to talk.” He leaned forward in his chair and closed the distance between us.
I felt heat pool in my stomach, cursing the fact that I was so vulnerable to his intensity—and turned on by it. Heat flared in my cheeks, and his eyebrow raised almost imperceptively. It sucked that he could read me like a book.
I pushed back in my chair, but there was nowhere to go, my back was already pushed against the cushioned high-back of the chair. I licked my lips, then bit my lower lip. His eyes followed, then darkened. I was giving far too much away, including my vulnerability, and I knew he would take advantage of it if I didn’t do something quickly.
His gaze moved to my throat where my pulse was beating like a frightened sparrow—rapidly.
“I’m not sure I can do this, Gabriel.”
Surprise scrolled across his face.
“I—I came here to nanny a five-year-old girl and use my time off to accomplish some things that are important to me. I realize I’ve only been here a week and a half—but honestly—during this time I’ve grown incredibly fond of your daughter, and she of me. Now she wants me to stay here forever. That’s not going to happen, and I don’t know how to deal with hurting her. I’m quite certain you don’t want her to be hurt, and that leaves us—where exactly?”
I tried to read his eyes, but it was impossible. It was as though he had an impenetrable veil across them that opened very rarely—and when it did, it was only for the briefest nanosecond. I constantly found myself second-guessing if I was reading into what I saw there, or if it was real.
Maybe he really was a robot, and I was projecting humanness onto him. My mouth twitched at the thought but quickly vanished as I watched as his jaw set and his expression change to one of determination. He leaned closer, and I wanted nothing more than to run—and run far.
“There is an alternative, Thea,” he said softly.
Why I have the feeling I did not want to hear what he was going to say?
He took both of my hands in his, his touch sending shivers through my body. His skin blazed against mine, and my breath caught in my throat. Our faces were mere inches apart, and our eyes locked. I couldn’t breathe—and then for a few seconds, the veil lifted. I saw desire ever so briefly before hard, cold determination set back in.
I should run, really I should. “I’m—I’m not sure I want to hear it. I must be going.” It sounded weak, even to me.
“Hear me out.” His thumbs caressed the skin between my thumb and forefinger. Heat zinged straight to my core, and I pulled my hands away, folded them over my chest, far away from his hands.
It was a mistake. My nipples beaded and pushed against the thin cotton lining of my bra—it was my weekend bra and designed for comfort. I might as well have not had one on.
His eyes narrowed, then he rested his palms on his knees. He was so good at this, and I felt completely out of my element as his eyes drifted to my breasts. Damn traitors, I thought.
“What if you did stay longer than we planned…”
My heart was pounding in my chest. Could he hear it?
His eyes went to the base of my neck where my pulse was throbbing—surely he couldn’t see it—could he? But he didn’t need to because he reached for my hands, his fingers brushing my nipples as he did, my eyes widened. Then his fingers caressed my wrists, and I was pretty sure the pulses matched in both places. Screaming.
I bit my lip harder, holding back a gasp.
“What if you did stay forever?”
I snapped out of whatever trance I’d been in. “Umm. Yea—no. No. Nope, no, absolutely no. What are you thinking? We don’t even know each other, and I signed a contract to be a nanny—not a—” I didn’t dare to say it, and what if that wasn’t what he was thinking to begin with? Darn, I should have just stayed quiet.
“I know, and I’m not asking you to give me an answer today. I just want you to consider it. Would it be so terrible? You love Zee already, and it’s obvious she loves you. You said it yourself, Thea.”
What he said resonated in my heart, but my head was not going for it. “Umm. I think this is—ridiculous and—well, am I dreaming right now?”
He put his hand on my knee, and I jerked it away. “Does it feel like you’re dreaming?” he asked, and his knee came between my open legs. I was wet, really wet, and there was no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing to me.
Suddenly I felt like I was being manipulated by a master, by a man who knew human behavior better than most, and was clearly very good at prevailing over emotions.
Well, he wasn’t going to prevail over mine. Anger replaced desire, and I moved up and out of the chair in one fluid movement, walking toward the door of his office, spinning around right before reaching it. “I don’t appreciate the manipulation, doctor, and this conversation is over. I’m going to the library and I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Please don’t wait up.”
“Why do you go to the library, Athena?” he asked without missing a beat.
My brow wrinkled in confusion for the briefest second before I planted my hands on my hips, my chest heaving. “I don’t have to answer to you for what I do in my free time.” I strode through the doorway, closing the door firmly behind me.
Was that a chuckle I heard? The gall of him! It took a lot more than physical attraction to make a relationship work, and it took more than a mutual love for a little girl. The last thing Zee needed was to lose someone else in her life, but I felt like it was already too late to save her from that. Wouldn’t it be better for Zee for me to leave now before she became even more attached?
I walked through my bedroom door, locking it behind me, moving to the edge of the bed. My hands rubbed against my temples, willing the headache threatening to erupt, to recede, but I could tell it wasn’t going to.
I hated to do it, but I reached into my nightstand and grabbed two pills, swallowing them back with my water from the night before.
Strangely enough—I felt like it was already too late. It was too late to save Zee from more hurt.
Lying back on the bed, I closed my eyes. This was supposed to be so simple—the perfect situation—but it had proven to be anything but.
After putting Zee to bed, I stood outside Thea’s door and listened. She’d said she was going to the library, but I hadn’t seen her leave, and the security system was still on. Was that snoring coming through the door? I turned the handle of her door, but it was locked.
I debated. Reaching above the door, I snagged the hidden door pin from above the frame and quietly clicked the lock open.
Thea was lying halfway on the bed, two legs dangling over the end, sound asleep, her mouth slightly parted with a light snore escaping. Her brown hair glistened with highlights from the light on her nightstand. It hung down below her shoulders and framed her head. She looked healthy, naturally outdoorsy and fit, still fully dressed in what she’d been wearing that day. Desire flickered to life—it was something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
My eyes narrowed as I walked over to the bed and picked up the bottle lying next to her body, glancing at the label—an over-the-counter migraine medicine. That was interesting, and not something that was mentioned in the medical file my FBI colleagues had pulled. Her breathing was steady, and her face relaxed. Whatever headache she’d had, the pain had abated.
I studied her—she looked young for her twenty-three-years—it was probably the freckles that dotted her face. She was an interesting mix of independence, strength, intelligence, and genuine kindness. Mackenzie had seen it, too, and it was no wonder she’d trusted Thea implicitly almost from the moment she’d met her.
My eyes wandered from her face to her neck, and I had to stop myself from taking her hair into my hands and kissing her while counting the pulse in the val
Her breasts, my god, the nipples had been peaked and firm when I’d brushed them ever so slightly earlier today. That might have been a mistake in light of her reaction immediately following, but at least it was out on the table that she’d been aroused.
My cock pressed uncomfortably against the zipper of my jeans as my eyes slowly continued from her breasts down to her slim waist and to the valley between her legs. She’d been wet for me earlier today, and I’d smelled her musty, sweet pussy practically gushing.
In my wildest dreams, I could never have anticipated the desire I would feel for this woman or the bond that would grow between her and my daughter in a matter of days.
This had been intended as a temporary solution that would allow me to begin working cases again while knowing Mackenzie was being cared for. But instead, I was facing a choice that could leave my daughter hurt, and feeling the abandonment of her mother’s death all over again.
Thea had looked shocked when I suggested that she consider staying permanently. I never make snap decisions—that was how mistakes were made, but I’d learned long ago to trust my gut, and in this case, the idea formulated in a way that seemed natural.
I don’t believe in love at first sight; I’d seen relationships and marriages that were born from choice stand the test of time and difficulties, far better than those born from chemistry or emotion.
I also knew a lot about her, far more than she would ever guess, thanks to my contacts at the Agency. She’d be furious if she guessed at half of what I knew—but I also believed this was probably what led to my comfort in asking her to stay and be part of our lives on a more permanent basis.
Before hiring her, I’d scoured the reports on her life, academic performance, friends, volunteer work, and read her papers—she was a gifted writer and deeply in touch with her emotions and beliefs. She’d been in therapy, and although those notes had not been available for my review, the duration of her visits seemed to suggest a healthy resolution to whatever prompted her to begin.
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