Impossible Dreams, page 15part #1 of Carolina Series Prequel Series
Briskly, he carried Alexa to the room Maya and Matty had slept in before. A lovely hand-carved cradle padded with a pale pink mattress and sheet waited beside the bed. Tears sprang to Maya’s eyes at the sight. A cradle. She’d wanted Alexa to have a cradle of her very own. She’d looked at doll’s cradles, wondering if she could at least afford a toy. It wouldn’t have lasted long, but it would have been better than a dresser drawer. And here was the real thing, with flowers and hummingbirds, and daubs of pink and blue paint. She wanted to sit on the floor beside it and sob her heart out.
She didn’t think she could get back up if she did.
“Axell, you didn’t buy that, did you?” she whispered, praying he’d say no so she wouldn’t have to refuse it.
“Made it...” his voice broke and he coughed, “...a few years ago. Will it do?”
She heard his pain even though he kept his back to her as he set the infant seat down and unstrapped the baby. The lion king could entertain governors and run city councils, restaurants, and half the town, but he was terrified of revealing his feelings. Maya shook her head in amazement at this contradiction. Must be a Southern thing — real men don’t cry.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she admitted tearily.
He turned in alarm at the sob in her voice, and she hastily wiped her eyes with her sleeve. His expression was one of panic, and lower lip trembling, Maya managed a smile. She remembered that look. She’d seen it when she’d told him the baby was coming. Tenderness and longing and an odd feeling of connection welled inside her as she resisted the urge to stroke his clenched jaw. He’d probably run if she did. She was actually beginning to understand the man.
Carefully, she took Alexa from his arms and cuddled her to hide any further outbreak of tears. She didn’t think Axell could handle a sobbing woman right now. “Thank you for letting me use the cradle,” she whispered. “I’ve dreamed of having one for her. It’s the nicest thing you could have done — except for delivering Alexa,” she amended.
Looking a little more sure of himself, Axell nodded curtly. “It was sitting in the attic, going to waste. I’ll go get your suitcase. Selene packed up some of your things from the apartment. I just put the boxes in the closet. You’ll have to arrange them.”
He walked out without any further explanation.
She really would have to learn to argue instead of going all soppy sentimental if she wanted to survive in a partnership with a man like that. But for right now, Axell’s decision-making was such a relief, she simply couldn’t offer any objections. She hadn’t realized how tired she was. Taking care of Alexa in that run-down attic at the school would be hell, especially with dozens of noisy children below. She hoped the substitute teacher they’d hired was working out.
Gently laying Alexa in the cradle and rocking it, Maya did what she did best — swam with the flow. She’d analyze Axell’s odd behavior later, when she was stronger.
“Does she sleep all the time?” Matty asked in disgust as he entered the bedroom to give Maya a good-bye kiss before school. Last night, he’d refused to sleep in the room Axell offered him but had agreed to a fold-up floor mattress beside Maya’s bed. This morning, he was all brash male arrogance again. She was relieved he wasn’t retreating into the troubled child she’d found when she’d first arrived.
“Only when she isn’t crying,” Maya teased. “You grew out of it.”
Matty grimaced and gave her a hug. Constance remained standing, fascinated, beside the cradle.
“She’s so tiny. I didn’t know babies were so tiny. She looks just like my doll.”
“She won’t when she starts crying and spitting up on you, or smiling and pulling your hair. I’ll teach you to hold her when you get home, all right?”
Constance looked awed and worried at the same time as she glanced in Maya’s direction. Maya held out her arms. “Give me a hug. You’re the kind of little girl I want Alexa to be when she grows up.”
Constance beamed, hugged her, and towed Matty out of the room with cries of “We’re late. Daddy’s waiting.”
If only they could stay little and so easy forever, instead of growing into impossibly arrogant, stubborn adults, Maya thought whimsically a half hour later when Axell appeared in the bedroom door in all his designer-suited elegance. His tie this morning was a shiny gold and blue silk. His golden hair had been recently barbered, and a drop of moisture on his jaw indicated he’d just shaved.
Instinctively, she shoved her hair behind her ear and wondered if she looked a total wreck. Next to Axell’s neatly styled hair, pressed clothes, and self-assured air, she would always resemble a hurricane strike zone.
She wished she could read his expression as his gaze lingered on her for just a second or two longer than it should before he looked down at Alexa, who was beginning to fuss a little. Tentatively, he rocked the cradle with his polished shoe, and the infant settled down. He looked mildly astonished.
“It works. Why do they like movement so much?” There was the curious professor who hooked her everytime.
“Because they’re used to bobbing around in water all day in the womb? I haven’t the foggiest. Cleo used to fall asleep in the car even as a teenager.” Maya wound her fingers together and tried to think of some way of relieving the unexpected tension between them. He’d carried in her breakfast earlier — toast and orange juice and hot water with a tea bag — but hadn’t lingered for more than an inquiry about how she’d slept. She’d thought he’d forgotten his promise to talk, and hadn’t expected him to return here after he took the kids to school.
Still, just attempting breakfast for her was a sweet thing to do, and she rewarded him with a smile, just to see how that would work.
He stiffened like his shirt collar, if that was possible. Nervously, he fingered Constance’s artwork on the wall and looked anywhere but at her. She wondered if she had pillow wrinkles on her face.
Absorbed in her college studies and tedious hours of work, she’d never really looked at older, established men as anything more than interesting caricatures as unreachable as the faces on a movie screen. Stephen was the most grown-up lover she’d ever known, and next to Axell, he was positively adolescent. Axell’s mature confidence was starting to grow on her. Scary.
She really should apply her mind to looking beyond his surface polish. That tanned, golden-boy veneer hid a piercingly intelligent mind. Those stony eyes that watched the world so warily disguised a man who couldn’t reach out to others. But the lion-like physical grace and Nordic god confidence were bred to the bone. It was a good thing he always wore those suits or she’d be admiring his chest next. Intrigued by his slipping self-assurance but growing as nervous as he, Maya sought another ice breaker.
“You had something you wanted to tell me?” Well, so much for being subtle.
Axell tightened his mouth, lined up the hairbrush and comb on the dresser, and with a decided air of resolution, took the wing chair beside the bed. Against the feminine chair, his shoulders loomed enormous and entirely too masculine.
“We have problems.” He steepled his fingers and searched for the next step.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Maya said with humor. “I try to tackle them one at a time. You really don’t have to solve mine, you know.”
He defrosted ever so slightly and shot her a wry look. “They’re starting to get a little tangled together, you’ll notice.”
Maya wrinkled her nose and considered it. “Not really. I can move Cleo’s stuff out of your building. You can send Constance to another school. Before long, we’re all untangled.”
“I’m not certain that’s the route I want to take.”
He said that so firmly, he startled her. Maya stared at him in incredulity. “Why on earth would you want your problems entangled with mine? I’m a walking disaster area. You don’t strike me as the type to handle that kind of chaos well.” Actually, Virgos were excellent caretakers. She just didn’t know if sh
Axell’s steepled fingers slid together until they formed a solid grip across his silk tie. “I’m very good at handling chaos,” he replied grimly. “It’s Constance I don’t manage so well. Sandra has demanded a paternity test, and the judge is considering it. Sandra claims I’m not fit to raise Constance.”
Maya’s eyes widened. “She can’t do that, can she? You’ve given Constance everything. Children go through stages. She’s already growing out of this one.”
Axell shrugged but it wasn’t indifference reflected in his determined expression. “Sandra can make life hell for me and Constance. There will be court battles; Constance will have to go to court-appointed psychologists. The lawyers will have a field day.”
Maya blinked in disbelief. She’d thought she was the only victim around here, but apparently it didn’t matter what end of the socioeconomic ladder one was on when trouble called. In their overeagerness to right all wrongs, the courts hadn’t developed a measure for determining good parenting. Money still won more often than love, and women won more often than men. She stared at Axell in dawning horror as she realized his dilemma.
“How can I help?” He’d done so much for her, she owed him more than she could possibly pay in a million years. Besides, he was hurting, and she loved his daughter, and she wanted to help.
“Marry me,” Axell demanded, meeting her gaze without flinching.
If sunlight had poured through the roof and Disney bluebirds had started draping pink bunting across the ceiling, Maya couldn’t have been more astounded. Actually, a mockingbird burst into song outside and sunlight spilled through the window for the first time in days. In her cradle, Alexa stirred and made sucking sounds.
Alexa. Her daughter. The one she’d sworn to protect with every ounce of her body and soul. She hadn’t done a very good job of it so far. This man was offering to take over the responsibility. This man was insane.
“You’re kidding, right?” Maya asked nervously, tugging at a strand of hair that had escaped her barrette.
“No, I don’t, generally,” Axell replied with more thoughtfulness than he’d used in his proposal. “I’ve talked to my lawyers and the judge. They all agree that Sandra wouldn’t have much of a case if I’m married, especially if I’m married to someone with your credentials in child care.”
A rebellious giggle formed in Maya’s throat. He’d lined up all his soldiers in a row again. He hadn’t realized how subversive her form of guerrilla warfare was. She managed a straight face. This was, after all, a serious topic. She thought. “You mean, you’re willing to put up with Matty and Alexa and a wife who paints dragons on shoes in return for a live-in baby-sitter for Constance?”
Axell didn’t blink a single splendid eyelash. “We can work out any arrangement you prefer. I just know it isn’t wise for us to cohabit. Social Services has already threatened to take away Matty if you stay here under ‘immoral circumstances.’ Since neither of us are his legal parents, my lawyers say they have that right.”
He pressed his lips together as he formulated his next argument. So appalled that she was fascinated, Maya held her tongue.
“If I’m to take on a political fight, I need a wife and not a ‘significant other,’” he finally continued. “Both our businesses would be on more solid ground if we regularized our relationship, and we would be in better positions to fight the mayor.”
Their “relationship”? Did they have one? If so, it was the strangest one she’d ever known. Her heart did drum rolls and the butterflies in her stomach turned to roaring mammoths as she realized his seriousness.
“I hate to point this out,” she said tentatively, “but there is a little more to marriage than taking care of kids and making political points.”
Axell sketched a nod of agreement, and she thought maybe beneath his hooded gaze she saw a glimmer of warmth.
“I’ve been married before. I’m not much good at it. I don’t like my routine disturbed, and I’m apparently incapable of giving the kind of emotional support women like. I realize I’m not a good candidate for husband. But if you can deal with that, I can offer you and the children the kind of security you would never have otherwise. I can help you with your businesses. I can even help your sister into a rehab program if she needs it. It’s a trade-off.”
He was serious. Maya stared at him in total disbelief, then turned to gaze around the enormous room he’d brought her to. She could live here in the lap of luxury, give Alexa everything she’d ever dreamed of, protect Matty and Cleo, and never have to worry about Social Services again. She could do it in the blink of an eyelash.
All she had to do was give up any hope of love for herself. The adult kind, at least.
It hurt. It hurt like the very devil. All her life she’d dreamed of finding someone who could actually love her for herself. But she wasn’t very lovable. Heaven only knew, she’d been taught that the hard way through numerous foster homes and failed relationships. She had an impossibly eccentric character no one could understand. Could she trade the impossible dream of love in exchange for all the others he could provide?
Could she give up her one shriveled-up bit of hope in return for happiness for Constance and Matty and Alexa? Who was she kidding?
Maya looked Axell straight in the eye. “You’ve considered all the ramifications of this proposal? Including sex?”
He looked a little taken aback by her bluntness but nodded. “I’d prefer that we keep the vows of faithfulness, for the sake of the children. We’d have to learn to deal with each other on that level.”
He carefully avoided looking at her but Maya had a sneaking suspicion that — like most men — his mind had never traveled too far from “that level.” A pleasant shiver prickled her skin as she realized that the formidable lion king found her attractive even while calling her twenty-months pregnant. Or the Scorpio passion she was beginning to seriously suspect he possessed had overruled all logic. But physical attraction wasn’t enough to keep a relationship alive.
“You haven’t disrupted my routine with constant demands as so many other women would,” Axell continued. “I think you could adjust to my habits better than most.” He hesitated, then apparently decided on frankness. “You’re young. You probably want more out of life than someone like me. But you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I think you see the wisdom of my suggestion. In return, I’ll try to bend as far as I’m capable to make you happy.”
Maya bit back another bubble of laughter at his seriousness. He was so right, and so very wrong. And so damned Virgo.
“I adore you,” she managed to say with what she thought was enormous equanimity. “Every little girl dreams of a prince on a white horse riding to her rescue, one who will take care of her forever after.”
His brow drew down in a frown as he recognized her satire. In his favor, he shut up and waited for her to finish.
“But I can’t return the enormous debt I owe you by turning your life into my vision of hell for both of us. I’ve lived all my life with other people’s rules, and I simply can’t do it anymore.”
Maya thought she ought to cut her tongue out right about now, but the words had been building up inside of her for a long time, and they all spilled out at once, with disastrous consequences, she was certain.
“As easy as it would be to accept your offer, I’ve got to make it on my own this time,” she continued. “I’m an adult now; I don’t have to take anyone’s charity. I may have to live under a leaky roof, but it will be my roof, and I can fly kites from it if I like,” she said defiantly. “I can paint on the walls, wear dirty shoes on the carpet, and scream out loud anytime I want — in my own home. This isn’t my home.”
Axell looked down at his hands. Maya noticed they were shaking. He must have noticed it at the same time. He unclasped them and gripped the chair arms, then looked up at her again. She had never seen so much defiant determination on any person’s face.
“Just leave me my wing of the
I’ve hired a new piano player, one who makes me laugh and doesn’t play sad songs. I’m having the walls painted and I’m installing a mirror over the bar. Maybe I’ll make the place high-class and invite the ladies.
Maybe I’ll start a campaign to legalize liquor, go to church on Sunday, and join your girlfriend’s Sunday school class. What do you think Dolly will think of that? Does she know hard liquor has crossed your wicked lips? Does she know where that sinful mouth of yours has been? Should I tell her?
If you ain’t making waves, you ain’t kicking hard enough.
Baby Alexa whimpered louder. Axell rocked her cradle with his toe, but she seemed determined to wake this time. He’d have to remember how inconvenient and intrusive children were. Perhaps he should be glad Maya had turned him down flat. Constance and the restaurant kept him busy enough. If he was bored with his orderly life, he could run for mayor.
He wasn’t bored. He was lonely.
Leaning over to lift the infant, he grimaced at Alexa’s soggy diaper. Another good reason to hope Maya didn’t agree to his absurd argument. Babies were dirty and wet and he didn’t know what to do with them. He could save his liquor license some other way. Constance might be better off with Sandra.
He wasn’t accustomed to rejection, but Maya probably had it right. They’d never work out. What could he have been thinking? He couldn’t run for mayor with a wife with purple hair and dragons on her shoes. He should be feeling relief, not this looming shadow of dread, as if the dry sands of the Sahara whispered closer.
Alexa blinked at him with big round eyes and grabbed his finger. The knot in Axell’s stomach twisted tighter as they stared at each other.
“Hand her here. I’ve got dry diapers in the drawer. One of the mothers from the day school gave them to Selene. She would never have remembered on her own.” Maya leaned over and produced a disposable diaper and waited patiently for Axell to hand over her daughter.
PATRICIA RICE SERIES:
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