Impossible Dreams, page 16part #1 of Carolina Series Prequel Series
Her daughter. Just because he’d delivered Alexa and worried about her welfare didn’t make Alexa his. Almost reluctantly, Axell handed the whimpering infant to her mother. A tiny fist wouldn’t let go of his finger. If Alexa were his, he’d have the right to continue letting her hold it as she nursed. If Maya were his... He was doing this for the kid, he reminded himself.
“Infant formula is expensive,” he argued, unable to give up without a fight. “The stuff you brought home from the hospital won’t last much longer.” He’d spent too long studying this issue. It grated on his self-esteem to think he could lose an argument to a twenty-five-year-old gypsy who didn’t know where her next meal was coming from.
His mistake had been treating her as one of the empty-headed college students working at his bar for clothes money — like Angela. It was easier to work this out in his head by thinking of Maya as malleable, but that nonconfrontational attitude of hers hid a world of hard-earned wisdom. It would behoove him to remember that.
He watched as Maya efficiently changed the soggy diaper, dropped the soiled one in a trash can beside the bed, and turned her shoulder on him to place the child to her breast. “I haven’t given up yet. And there are programs to help children from families of limited income.”
Food stamps. She was probably living on food stamps. My God, a teacher with a master’s degree, and she was living on welfare. How in hell did single women with only a high school diploma make it?
That wasn’t his problem. Right now, his problem was providing a mother for Constance, a quality mother, not some socially ambitious, money hungry female. Maya was the only woman he knew who met the requirements as a mother for Constance, and who might conceivably fit into his life without constant demands and emotional upheaval. And she still wasn’t accepting his offer.
“I’ll get her bottle — just in case,” he added when Maya threw him an annoyed look. The damned woman didn’t know when to give up, but he didn’t have a problem with perseverance. He just wasn’t going to let the kid starve.
When he returned with the warm infant formula, Alexa was fretting and beating her fists hungrily against Maya’s breast. Hot lust shot straight to his groin at just the sight of a full ivory breast.
This was ridiculous. He’d seen women’s breasts before. He wasn’t a frigging adolescent. This had to be some possessive caveman reaction to the idea of acquiring a wife. But as Maya removed the infant and he caught a glimpse of an engorged nipple, he grew harder than a piling rod. Nervously, Axell dropped back to the chair and hid his lap with a Dr. Spock baby book from her nightstand.
In his experience, a good offense beat a tardy defense every time. Marrying Maya was the best thing for the children. Period. That was enough to make the decision imperative. But their marriage would also force the mayor to realize his dirty tricks wouldn’t drive Maya back to California, so he could let up on the building inspections and liquor licenses and whatever other cards he had up his sleeve until he found another outlet. Axell could almost swear there would be an investigation into the day school’s license by now. After they were married, if the school lost its license, he wouldn’t have to worry about Constance losing Maya.
And with a wife by his side, he’d be more appealing to voters come election time. He was uncertain of Maya as a political wife, but the mayor’s job in a small town like Wadeville wasn’t precisely as demanding as a governor’s. If she stuck to taking care of the kids, he could keep the rest of his life in order.
He’d just have to learn to live with kites flying from his roof and cats in his kitchen and whatever else she demanded. He hadn’t really given much thought to that aspect of marriage. He’d been working on the assumption that she’d slip quietly into the empty places in his life as she had thus far. He supposed he could get used to Aretha Franklin roaring through the house.
As Alexa burped contentedly on her mother’s shoulder, Axell decided he could manage the material disruptions. He spent most of his time at the office anyway.
He took the infant from Maya and admired her sleepy, wrinkled features. “She doesn’t look like she has a temper.”
“Give her time. She’ll grow into it.” She looked at him quizzically. “Don’t you have to be at the office or something?”
“Not until we get this settled.” He tucked Alexa into her cradle. “You’re ignoring my offer.”
She regarded him warily. “You’re offering me more than I have ever dreamed of, in return for what? A mother for Constance? You could go to the bar on Friday night and choose any woman you like. Why me?”
Startled, Axell raised his eyebrows. “I haven’t noticed women falling all over me,” he countered. “And I doubt that any of my acquaintances have your credentials for dealing with children. I’ve watched you at work. You know what you’re doing. I’m not walking into this blindly.”
She shook her head and leaned back into the pillows. “You’re going to wear me down over this, aren’t you? Why don’t you give me a few days around here and see if you don’t change your mind? Admittedly, I’m not up to my usual standards right now, but I think even my brand of low-grade chaos will drive you screaming for the doors.”
Axell relaxed a fraction. He had her hooked. He just needed to reel her in. He cringed mentally at the fishing reference. He’d have to remember he was lousy at fishing, and Maya was more intelligent than any fish, but he would win, whatever the cost.
“If you’re feeling well enough, we can go down to the courthouse for the license tomorrow.” With this suggestion, he called the signals for a touchdown run. She didn’t stand a chance against a planned offensive, and he played with a home field advantage.
“It will take a few days to meet the requirements and line up the preacher’s time...” Axell glanced at her speculatively. “Constance and I attend church on Sundays. Will that be a problem for you?”
Maya grimaced and tugged at the purple strand of her hair. “And I thought I was the insane one around here.”
Axell held his breath, but she fell for his setup.
She shrugged. “Matty and I haven’t gone because we have no clothes and no transportation. Church isn’t a problem. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s the big stuff that worries me. Isn’t a license a little premature?”
“A license isn’t a permanent thing. We can always tear it up.”
She looked doubtful but didn’t argue, as usual.
With the knowledge that he had her trapped, relief flowed through Axell’s veins. In celebratory triumph, he leaned over and kissed Maya’s worried frown. It felt so right, he let adrenaline overrule caution and transferred the kiss to her lips.
Mistake. Hot blood shot downward so fast his brain bubbled air and all intelligence fled. Taking advantage of the easy access supplied by her surprised intake of breath, Axell indulged in the orange-juice sweetness of Maya’s mouth. When her tongue hesitantly caressed his, Axell nearly tumbled into the bed with her. Lust had damned well never steered his course before. Not in years, anyway.
Light-headed, he shoved his hands against the pillow and reluctantly peeled his mouth from hers. He wanted another sample. He didn’t have that right yet.
Propping himself up with one hand, Axell brushed the wayward strand of purple from her forehead and watched Maya warily. She seemed more bemused than affronted as she stared back at him.
“I’m sorry, I...” Axell halted his automatic apology when Maya’s lips quirked upward and her eyes crinkled in the corners. She had the most damnable way of laughing at him. “I take that back. I’m not sorry in the least,” he said dryly. “And I don’t think I’m ready to hear your comments either.”
“You definitely haven’t lost your Prince Charming status yet,” she admitted. “I’ve been feeling like one of those bedraggled mice Muldoon presents for my approval. Treating me like Cinderella isn’t hurting your cause at all.”
Axell nodded, afraid to admit his overwhelming relief. The next few months would be pure torture, but if she ac
“Just don’t paint any fairy tales in your head,” he warned, pushing himself upright and out of reach of temptation. “I’m no good at flowers and romantic dinners. I spend twelve- and fourteen-hour days at the restaurant. This is no picnic we’re embarking on.”
The warning helped. As Maya watched Axell stride out, once more the assertive businessman, she understood her place in this “relationship” a little better. She really and truly would be his live-in convenience, someone to keep the children’s schedules organized, to keep his personal life in order, to give him sex on demand. She had a sneaking suspicion she might manage that last, but she already knew she’d be a failure at the rest. Organization was not one of her stronger qualities.
With a tear in her eye from the devastating tenderness of his kiss, she wondered if one out of three would count, because he was offering almost everything she had ever dreamed of, and she had a hard time not believing in her dreams.
Okay, who stopped payment on my reality check?
Curled in a corner of the family room sofa, wrapped in a cotton throw cover, Maya fashioned a sleek version of a paper jet out of construction paper while Matty bounced in the chair on the far end of the room and flung her last model with appropriate roaring noises.
Constance preferred the more sedate pastime of rubbing balloons on her sweater to create static electricity and hanging them above the cradle so Alexa could admire them. Maya didn’t think the infant cared one way or another at this point, but blowing up the balloons kept Constance happily occupied, and her balloon design on the wall was quite artistic.
Unfortunately, the balloons had captured Muldoon’s interest, and he had staked out a place on the floor where he could wait for them to fall. He’d already dug his nails into one, surprising the cat as much as Constance.
Alexa, bless her little heart, slept right through the speakers blaring the sound track from Pocahontas. Maya figured the child had to learn to cope with noise if she was spending her days at the school after this week, and if babes in the womb could bond with a mother’s voice, then she’d probably bonded with the blare of speakers and screams of children by now, too.
Maya could easily adapt to the illusion that this was really her home, that she could relax in the security of not worrying where the next meal would come from, and that all she had to do was make certain the children were happy and well loved. She didn’t often have the luxury of living a dream, so she indulged herself with these few hours of true bliss. Without the fairy dust of magical kisses, the illusion would wear off soon enough.
With surprise, she heard the garage door opening. After his comment about twelve-hour days, she really hadn’t expected Axell to return before she had the children in bed. She hadn’t deliberately planned to spring her guerrilla warfare on him so soon, but he might as well have a taste of it now that he was here.
Carefully folding the last crease into her paper jet, Maya flung it in Matty’s direction just as Axell walked through the door wearing his raincoat and juggling a pizza box and briefcase. It was only sheer coincidence and an amazing amount of her brand of luck that the jet ricocheted off Axell’s nose and plummeted toward the balloon-covered wall. Muldoon yowled and struck as two of the balloons bounced in front of him.
Constance cried out and raced to save her creation, Alexa screamed in startlement at the sudden noise, and Matty — apparently needing equal attention — fell off the chair. Axell threw Maya what she could only deem a wry and accepting look as he dropped the briefcase to save the teetering pizza from his startled stumble.
“I don’t believe for a minute you’re capable of planning this,” he stated stoically as he set the box on a table, helped Matty from the floor, and leaned over to kiss Constance on the head as she babbled about her balloons.
Maya stifled a sharp spike of longing as she watched this handsome, elegant man awkwardly patting a sniveling five-year-old on the back, then leaping to retrieve popped balloons from the cat. The man had promise, she’d grant him that, and she shivered a little at the niggling image of all that single-minded determination focused on her.
“Nah,” she responded inelegantly, dismissing that stray thought. “If I’d planned chaos, Matty would be quietly coloring at the table, Constance would be reading in her room, and Alexa would be sound asleep. I gave up on planning long ago.” Maya nodded at the pizza. “I do, however, know how to cook a nutritional meal. I started with something easy, but they’ll never eat it now.”
Axell had the grace to look embarrassed as he nodded for the children to carry the box into the kitchen. “There’s never anything in the refrigerator, and I didn’t think you were ready to attempt the grocery store.” As the children raced into the other room, he bent over the infant cradle to check on Alexa. “Has she been sleeping through this racket? Constance used to shriek every time I shut a door.”
He crouched beside the cradle still wearing his strikingly tailored raincoat, the one with the caped shoulders that made him look even broader than usual. His square face was pensive as he surrendered his large finger to little grasping ones. Even though that raincoat was a feared symbol of authority to her, Maya knew she was in serious danger of losing her lonely heart to this man. The poor devil instinctively took care of everyone around him, but he had no clue how to accept the same in return.
“It just depends on what they’re used to.” She shrugged off the topic. “I’m not as good as your chef, but I’ve got bean soup cooking in the kitchen. Have you eaten?” She tried to dismiss her reaction to him, but she knew it for what it was — the burning desire to have a man’s love to fulfill her impossible dream of a family.
She would have to cure Axell of his absurd notion of marriage before she fell any deeper. She knew her nature too well. Without the bonds of love, at the first sign of trouble, she’d be out of here, just as she’d done with Stephen.
He stood and shrugged off his coat. “Bean soup sounds delicious. We actually had beans?” Axell offered his hand to help her from the deep cushions of the sofa.
His fingers were firm and warm and slightly callused as they closed securely over hers. As much as she’d like to, she couldn’t dismiss him as one of the effete rich. He was a working man, like all the other men she’d ever known. He just happened to be more successful at what he did.
“In the back of the cabinet. And there were frozen onions and carrots in the freezer. I had to use a ham slice for seasoning, but it looked like it had been in the freezer so long it wouldn’t have had much use for anything else. I even found a package of cornmeal without weevils, which is a miracle since I suspect it’s been in there since Noah invited them on his ark.”
Axell grimaced. “Kitchen cabinets are not high on my priority list, and they’re not on the cleaning service’s list of chores. Make a grocery list and I’ll run in later.”
The phone rang before she could reply, and as Axell carried the infant seat into the kitchen, she grabbed the receiver.
“Is Axell there?” a breathless female voice asked from the other end of the line.
“Yes, may I ask who’s calling?” Maya had a sneaking suspicion she knew, and throwing a naughty glance over her shoulder, she verified that Axell was caught up in handing out pizza and not paying attention to her. She could tear down walls as fast as he could build them.
“This is Katherine, at the restaurant. I need to speak with him, please.”
“He’s busy at the moment. Could I take a message?” The man deserved some time to eat his supper. Unless the restaurant was on fire, she couldn’t see any reason for interrupting him. Of course, ticking off the miniskirted model he called an assistant was a plus, too. She would have to watch these jealous impulses.
“We have a drunk and unruly at the bar already, and one of the kitchen staff didn’t show up
Maya heard the irritation in the woman’s voice, but she suspected it was as much at having to leave a message as over the problems arising at the bar. She knew procrastination and dereliction of duty when she saw them. She’d been as guilty of laziness as the next person. She checked to see if Axell was still occupied — he was watching her suspiciously as he spooned soup into bowls — and lowered her voice.
“He says the bartender can heave out the drunk or call the cops, and you can handle the staff problem in whatever manner you consider most efficient. He’ll be down there after he’s eaten and put the kids to bed. After all, we wouldn’t want him accused of neglecting his daughter, would we?”
The dead silence on the other end indicated a direct hit. With a smile, Maya gently hung up the receiver.
“Problem?” Axell inquired as he set the bowls on the table between the kids.
“Nothing someone else can’t handle. I didn’t have enough shortening for the cornbread. I hope it turned out all right.”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously at her evasion, but he did no more than go for the dishrag as Matty knocked over his glass of milk.
“May I come in?”
The elderly voice quavered, and Maya jerked her head up. She hadn’t heard the bells chiming over the door, but then, she’d been feeding Alexa and not paying much attention.
“We’re not open,” she answered gently, wondering why on earth an old man would even bother with a New Age store like this. The sunlight through the windows behind him cast his face in shadow, but he seemed vaguely familiar.
“That’s all right. The girl who worked here before, is she coming back?”
All her protective instincts leaped into gear. Cautiously, Maya leaned her head to one side so she could better see the newcomer without the glare in her eyes. “Mr. Pfeiffer?” she asked incredulously, finally recognizing his silhouette. “You know my sister?”
PATRICIA RICE SERIES:
Other author's books:
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