Hayley Alexander sized Dillon up with street smart expertise, ran a hand through the thick waves of her honey blond hair and let out a short exasperated sigh. “Look, Mr. Gallagher, I appreciate your dropping by, but if you’ve come to do the ‘merry widow’ routine on me, you can forget it. I’m much too busy subletting my apartment, looking for a job, and finding a new place to live to mess with the likes of you. So let’s do both ourselves a favor and make it short.”
“Like I could get a word in edgewise,” Dillon drawled.
“You’re sorry. I’m sorry. Thank you. And goodbye.” She punctuated each short sentence with a decisive wave of her hands, then started to palm the door shut on him.
Dillon caught the edge of the door to her pricey New York City apartment and held firm’ easily preventing her from shutting it. “Whoa, babe.”
“And don’t call me babe,” she snapped archly.
He’d had a feeling she wouldn’t like that, no more than he liked taking the blame for something he hadn’t been about to do. “I don’t know what this merry widow routine is—”
“You don’t?” Her jade green eyes widened in cool disbelief.
“No, sweetheart, I don’t,” he replied.
Dark green eyes flashing, she took a deep breath to bolster her determination. “Then let me spell it out for you,” she said.
Dillon let go of the door and propped his spine against the jamb. Slouching slightly to better align his six-foot-three frame with her five-foot-eight height, he crossed his arms against his chest. “Considering how riled up it gets you, I can’t wait to hear.”
She pursed her incredibly soft-looking lips together and shot him drop-dead look that in no way detracted from her femininity. “Are you going to take me seriously, Mr. Gallagher?”
That was a hard one to answer, considering she was mad at him for no reason at all.
“Cause if you’re not—” she warned.
“Then what?” It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman with such spunk and vitality. Too long, he decided.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You NCN News guys are all alike.”
“Tell me about it,” he urged with an insolent grin.
“I’m a lady. I don’t use obscene language.”
He laughed. “I take it I’m not your first visitor?” he teased.
“Since the Gulf War ended, there’ve been twenty-two of you. You, Mr. Gallagher, make it twenty-three.”
That revealed, she turned her back on him and marched toward the kitchenette at the other end of the cluttered, overcrowded living room. Dillon followed, striding past a nubby oatmeal sofa, an easel, two eye-catching paintings of bunny rabbits and teddy bears, and a baby carriage heaped with clean laundry. “Let’s get back to the merry widow routine. What exactly is that?”
She picked up a wrench and restlessly cupped it in both slender hands. “Oh, you know, it’s where you come in and tell me how sorry you are Hank died last year—”
Sounded reasonable, Dillon thought. That was why he was here.
“And now that you’re back in the States, you just want me to know you’re here for me. I’m not sure,” she intoned dryly, “but I think that’s the part where I’m supposed to wail and act helpless. But I gotta tell you, Dillon,” she said, “I usually don’t. Then you take me in your arms and make a pass.”
Hayley began disassembling the faucet. “I don’t know what it is about widows, but damned if everyone doesn’t think we’re a sex-starved lot.”
Dillon couldn’t help it. He laughed. Bracing his hips against the other end of her kitchen counter, he said, “I assure you, Mrs. Alexander, I am not here to make a pass.” Although he’d damn sure like to be, he thought. Hayley Alexander was one sexy woman.
“So why are you here?”
Dillon edged closer, wishing he knew enough about plumbing to offer to lend her a hand. “I thought I’d stop by and see if there’s anything I could do for you, because I cared about Hank.” He paused, thinking briefly about the loss they’d both suffered. “I would’ve come sooner, but as you’ve already figured out, I just got back in the States myself.”
Hayley stood on tiptoe and put her weight behind the wrench to turn it.
“You don’t believe that’s all there is to it, do you?” Dillon asked when she continued to concentrate on her task. He wasn’t used to being ignored by women, period, and especially not pretty young ones.
She sighed. “The words are nice. My past experiences with NCN News guys says otherwise.”
“They all made passes at you?”
“Twenty-one of them,” she said flatly.
“Which is reason enough to be wary,” Dillon added pragmatically. “But it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of your husband’s colleagues would want to make a condolence call. Hank was respected. As for the passes—” Dillon sighed ruefully “—what can I say? I’m sorry anyone made you uncomfortable. On the other hand, let’s face it. You are a very beautiful woman and—”
“And what?” she interrupted. She faced him, hands on her slender hips. “Because I have looks, men aren’t responsible for keeping their hands to themselves?”
“Not at all,” Dillon said, trying hard not to notice how the preemptive action had drawn her blouse against her breasts.
Waving her wrench around dangerously to emphasize her point, she advanced on him. “I am not lonely, Dillon Gallagher. Contrary to popular opinion, I am not hot to trot! So try spreading that around NCN, would you please?”
Dillon chuckled and capturing the wrench from her hand, lowered it waist level before she did any damage with it, and held it between them. “Watch where you’re swinging that thing, would you?” Dillon asked, tightening his grip on her hand.
If she weren’t careful, she’d be swinging it below his belt. He didn’t need any more pain in that area; the ache he had from just looking at her was torment enough.
“Sorry.” Hayley had the grace to look embarrassed for her outburst. “I’ve just had enough tea and sympathy to last me a lifetime, you know?”
“I want to get on with my life.”
“Out of Manhattan. Somewhere safer, where Christine can have plenty of fresh air and sunshine, and a backyard to play in and plenty of friends her own age.”
“Sounds like a reasonable goal.” Even if that kind of life wasn’t for him, he thought. “As long as I’m here, is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Thanks for the offer,” Hayley said. She turned and went back to her faucet. “But as you can see, I’m getting along fine.”
More than fine, Dillon thought, as he watched her replace the washers.
He knew she’d just given him his cue to leave, but oddly enough, he wasn’t ready. And his wanting to stay had nothing to do with the way she looked in those close-fitting ivory leggings and that stylish thigh-skimming tangerine top. He just wanted to see she was all right. “Where are you moving to?”
Hayley frowned as she began to put the faucet back together again. “I don’t know yet. It will depend on where I get a job.”
“You’re a financial analyst, aren’t you?” The last he had heard, she’d worked for a high-profile Wall Street firm.
“Yes,” Hayley admitted, “but I’m not going back to it.”
“Christine. I don’t want to leave her with a sitter all day.” Hayley knelt down to turn the incoming water back on. Straightening, she turned the tap on. Water came out in a steady stream.
“You could free-lance and work out of your home.”
“I just went into the field because it would allow me to make a good living, but I hated the work.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
“Illustrate children’s books.”
That explained the paintings of teddy bears and bunnies he’d seen.
“Unfortunately I haven’t got the writing talent to go with it. So I’ll either have to find a partner who can write but not draw, or get hired as a free-lance illustrator by a publisher here in the city.”
“I’ve got a few friends in the business,” Dillon offered, finally seeing a way he could ease his guilt about what had happened to Hank. Though everyone had told him, from the lowliest camera grip to the chief of the network, that Hank’s death wasn’t Dillon’s fault. “Maybe I could help—”
“No.” She cut him off, her voice unexpectedly sharp. “Thanks.” Taking a deep breath, she softened her voice with obvious effort, “I do it on my own or I don’t do it.”
“All right.” He watched her replace her tools in the metal box on the counter. “Don’t you have a super who takes care of things like that for you?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Dillon drawled.
In the distance there was some shuffling and then a thud, followed by the sound of a baby’s happy gurgling. Hayley’s face lit up. “That’s Christine.” Her infectious smile widened. “Would you like to see her before you leave?”
Dillon hesitated. He didn’t know anything about babies, but not wanting to insult her, he nodded. “Sure.”
He waited in the hall. Hayley returned a moment later, balancing the baby on her hip. “This is Christine.”
Dillon stared at Hayley’s daughter, searching for something to say. “She’s beautiful,” he said finally, because it was true. Christine had Hayley’s same naturally curly, honey blond hair, heart-shaped face and dark green eyes with long gold-tipped lashes.
“I think so, too,” Hayley admitted, casting an adoring look at her baby daughter.
Dillon glanced at his watch. “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve got to interview some housekeeper over in Bridgeport.” Not that he actually intended to hire the old battle-ax, he thought. He was just going through the motions to humor his sister, Marge.
“For your family?” Hayley asked.
“For me,” Dillon specified, wanting her clear on that much. “I’m single. And the next few months are probably going to be sheer hell, as I try to get settled. I’m moving back to the States, after twenty years of living abroad.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
Dillon shrugged. “I don’t really want to work in New York again.”
“Too much crime?”
“Too dull. But the job was a step up, USA Bureau chief for NCN, Northeastern Cable News. So I told ‘em I’d give it a try for one year.”
Dillon shrugged, knowing the management experience there was going to be worth its weight in gold to him later. “If I don’t like it, I’ll head back to the Middle East.
“You sound like you think you won’t like it,” Hayley said, her brow arching in disapproval.
Dillon wasn’t about to apologize for his lack of domesticity or his love of adventure. “I’m going to give it my best shot.” He frowned. “It’s the house that I let my sister talk me into buying that I’m really uneasy about. It needs a hell of a lot of work to make it habitable, or so I’ve been told. I haven’t actually seen anything but pictures to date.”
Jade eyes sparkling, Hayley grinned and shook her head in silent bemusement. “Sight unseen, hmm?”
“So why’d you buy it?”
“The investment, of course.”
“Of course,” Hayley said dryly.
“I’m planning to resell it at the end of a year’s time, when my assignment is up, and make a killing.”
“So where is this house?” she asked.
“Connecticut,” she murmured wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to live there.”
Something about her expression, kind of like a kid with no money looking hungrily through the glass at the candy counter, got to him. It made him—he told himself firmly it was for Hank’s sake only he was feeling this way—want to make it possible for her to get exactly what she wanted. “Say,” Dillon said casually. “You wouldn’t be interested in the job as my housekeeper, would you?”
She merely rolled her eyes at the suggestion. “Thanks, but there’s no way I could commute back and forth from the city every day.”
Dillon shrugged, not so willing to be dismissed, even if his idea was a little crazy. “So you and the baby could live in,” he persisted. “Think about it. You’d have another entire year to get your future sorted out.”
She laughed, a rich melodious sound. “You’re kidding. Right?”
“No,” Dillon said. “You need a job, preferably one that will allow you a lot of time to spend with your baby, which mine will, and a nice safe place to live. You’re handy with a wrench. You seem to have a fair amount of decorating skill. At least I like what you’ve done with this place, sans moving boxes, anyway. You’re just what I need to make my house habitable. And my house is just the kind of place you
need to raise your baby in and regroup.”
“Thanks, but I’m not interested in being anyone’s maid. I have enough trouble just cleaning up my own messes.”
“Hey, I’m not that messy,” Dillon protested automatically. Her delicate brow arched. He continued, “Besides, you’d be a lot more. You’d be decorating, organizing all my stuff, creating order out of chaos, making a home for me.” He grinned mischievously. “Or at least enough of one to get my sister off my back.”
“Your sister?” Hayley blinked.
“Marge.” Dillon’s mouth curved fondly at the thought of the sister he loved. “She thinks I’ve ruined my life, and she wants me to settle down for at least a year and try to have a real life, one that includes more than just my work.”
Hayley wrinkled her nose. “It sounds like what she really thinks you need is a wife.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Only thing is I’m not interested in getting married.”
“Well,” Hayley said pragmatically with a sigh, “that makes two of us.”
“So how about the job?” Dillon tried to imagine what it would be like to have a woman as beautiful as Hayley working as his housekeeper. Bringing him his paper in the morning, making him breakfast... Maybe he’d even get a glimpse of her in some sort of negligee and robe, if they were under the same roof.
“Think about the time it would give you with Christine,” he said persuasively. He figured he could handle a good-looking woman with a baby under his roof a lot better than he could handle the mustached, overweight, drill sergeant of a housekeeper his sister was pushing him to hire. Employing Hayley would ease his own guilt over Hank considerably. Even if he found her incredibly desirable, he wouldn’t act on that desire because of his past friendship with Hank.
“Dillon, listen to me,” she said with weary tolerance. “I know you think you’re trying to help, but my schedule is erratic at best these days. I sleep when the baby sleeps. I’m awake when she’s awake,
even if that’s from three in the morning until dawn. I don’t know if I could have dinner on the table precisely at eight every night. Or even be awake enough to cook for you if you decided to have a dinner party.”
“I never give dinner parties,” he said flatly. “I only go to them. And as for schedules, my hours are erratic at best, too. Some nights I probably won’t show up for dinner at all.”
“Well, then I would be ticked off If I went to all the trouble to cook the damned meal, I’d expect you to eat it.”
He grinned at her feisty tone, liking the warm flush of color that had come into her cheeks. “I knew there was something I liked about you,” he drawled.
They stared at each other in contemplative silence.
“What about salary?”
“What’s fair?” Dillon volleyed back, mirroring her own pragmatic, let’s-get-down-to-brass-tacks tone. “Room, board and say. . .ten percent of the profit I make when I sell the house at the end of a year? It’s not as if you don’t know me,” he continued when she hesitated.
“True. Hank spoke of you often. He said you were a well-loved boss, respected by all who worked for you.”
Which made his own betrayal of Hank all the harder to bear, Dillon thought. He should’ve known better than to have sent Hank into the fray. But how could he have known the barracks would be hit by shrapnel from an exploding missile? Dillon sighed.
Hayley was silent. Whether she was blaming him or not, Dillon couldn’t tell. Finally she smiled. “I guess I can trust you.”
Dillon grinned back. “Now you’re talking.”
“Add a monthly stipend of four hundred dollars for my personal expenses and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Four hundred!” he echoed, stunned.
“Do we have a deal or don’t we?”
Damn but she was impulsive, he thought. Almost as impulsive as he was. And she drove a hard bargain. But what did it matter whether they thought about this for ten minutes or ten days, as long as it solved all their mutual problems, which it did. Dillon studied her with satisfaction, realizing it had been easier for him to take care of both his own guilt and Hank’s widow than he’d ever imagined it could be. “Okay, you’re hired.”