The sounds of Sesame Street songs filled the car as twenty-six-year-old Emily Bancroft glimpsed in the rearview mirror, where the single most important person in her life was snuggled in a powder blue snowsuit and matching cap and strapped safely into a padded leather safety seat. “How are you doing, sweetheart?” she asked affectionately.
In response, one-year-old Bobby Bancroft banged his raffle against the little armrest and babbled a stream of highly charming but completely unintelligible baby talk, complete with pauses, voice inflections and sophisticated intonations.
“That good, hm?” Emily asked cheerfully as she turned the windshield wipers up another notch against the blowing wind and increasingly fat, wet flakes of snow. “Well, it won’t be long now. We’re almost there.”
“Bah!” Bobby shouted gleefully in response, dropping his raffle and waving both hands high above his head. “Bah!”
“Thirsty?” Emily asked with a grin. She wasn’t surprised her blue-eyed, dark-haired angel was demanding his bottle. It had been almost two hours since their last stop. Eight hours total on the road. Ten hours since they’d seen their last glimpse of their Maryland home. And through it all her only son had been a real trouper.
Keeping one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the road, Emily reached in the diaper bag beside her. Her fingers curved around the bottle of apple-pear juice she’d packed. She worked off the cap and the insulated cozy, slipped her arm over the seat and handed it back. Bobby’s tiny hands brushed hers as he cheerfully babbled some more—no doubt teffing her how much he was looking forward to a long guip of his favorite beverage.
“Do you have a good hold on it?” Emily asked. When she was sure he did, she let go. Seconds later, the chattering stopped and she heard him slurping away on his boffle.
Emily slowed her station wagon as she came upon yet another magnificent horse farm, surrounded by an immaculately kept white split rail fence. It was like something out of a storybook. “Do you see that, Bobby?” she asked, aware they were now deep in Kentucky horse country. “This is Somerset Farm. That means we’re only a couple of miles away from the Fairfax Farm.” And not a moment too soon, either, Emily thought with ever-escalating relief. The blizzard they’d thus far managed to elude was quickly descending upon them. There was an inch of snow on the ground now. And from the looks of the dense white clouds overhead there were buckets more to come.
“Hahsees—” Bobby said, dropping his boffle onto his lap, and pointing excitedly at the sleek and handsome horses with the shiny dark brown coats and heavy black manes. “Hahsees!”
“Yes, honey,” Emily said, glancing at the fenced-in pasture her son had pointed out. “I see the horses. The grooms are taking them inside, aren’t they?”
Bobby replied with another unintelligible string of excited words. Emily drove past a series of beautifully maintained horse barns, another fenced pasture and another and another, and then suddenly the white split rail fence of Somerset Farm turned abruptly to dark brown. There was a small elegantly crafted sign that said, Fairfax Farm, Sweet Briar, Kentucky, Established 1909, and after that a small, one-lane drive leading to a collage that was set far back from the road.
As Emily turned down it, her snow tires slid an instant before once again snugly gripping the pavement beneath.
She tensed, aware the roads were getting bad. Nevertheless, she couldn’t leave this part of the country for good before she made amends to Edmund Fairfax and his eight-year-old daughter Chloe in person.
“Heaven knows I don’t want to do this,” Emily told Bobby with a beleaguered sigh as they closed in on the small, charming caretaker’s collage where Edmund Fairfax and his daughter Chloe had resided for the last week. “But circumstances have left us no choice.”
“Hi,” EMILY BANCROFT said softly the moment Edmund Fairfax opened the door of the caretaker’s collage. She lifted a leather-gloved hand before he could voice his surprise at finding her on his doorstep. “Don’t say it. I know I’m early—almost a week.”
Edmund regarded the twenty-six-year-old widow of his boyhood friend. Though they had corresponded numerous times over the past year, after the sudden deaths of his wife and her husband, his job in Seattle hadn’t allowed him to actually see Emily since her wedding to Brian two and a half years ago. To his surprise, the five-foot-six-inch beauty was lovelier than he had imagined she would be after all she’d been through, and at the same time, somehow more fragile, too. Yet the essential things about her—the thick silky waves of her shoulder-length raven hair, her high rosy cheeks, straight nose and luscious full mouth, the thick dark velvety lashes that framed her intelligent sea blue eyes—none of that had changed. True, her figure was a little more full since giving birth, her breasts larger, her hips slightly curvier, but the overall slenderness of her feminine frame was intact. Her skin was golden and glowing and, as in the past, she radiated breezy, natural beauty in a healthy girl-next-door way.
“Is everything okay?” Edmund asked as he ushered Emily and her baby boy in out of the cold.
“Actually, no.” A little rush of breath escaped her soft, parted lips as Emily shifted Bobby to her other hip. Snowflakes dotted her shoulders, face and hair. “Which is why I’ve come.” Emily paused. “I’m sorry, Edmund. I know it’s awfully short notice. Es pecially since I’m the one who convinced you not to even advertise the position and give it to me instead. But I can’t take the job as Chloe’s nanny after all.”
Edmund Fairfax felt his hopes to have his life return to some semblance of normalcy crumble. His daughter needed a mother figure around. A soft, gentle, giving woman to take Lindsey’s place in her life. And he had thought
—hoped—he’d found her in Emily.
“Are your in-laws giving you more trouble?”
“You guessed it.” Emily grimaced.
Not that this was any surprise, Edmund thought, as he took in the clean, sexy fragrance of Emily’s perfume. He and Emily had both known, going in, the upper-crust couple would not approve of their grandson’s mother working as a nanny, no matter what the circumstances, or how well Emily and Bobby would be treated by him and Chloe as members of the family.
“So you’ve decided to return to teaching third grade instead?”
“No.” Emily frowned. “At least not yet. I’m still thinking specifically about what I want to do. I just know I can’t work here.” Her expression softened apologetically. “I don’t want to put you and Chloe in the middle of the ongoing unpleasantness between the Bancrofts and myself.”
Edmund understood that. Inwardly, he commended her for her thoughtfulness. And yet... His brow furrowed. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“Why?” Emily asked, abruptly looking a bit edgy. She took a seat on the overstuffed chintz sofa, settled Bobby on her knee and loosened the strings of his knit cap.
Because the evasiveness in your eyes tells me there’s something else—some other complication—you’re not telling me about, Edmund thought as he watched Emily unzip Bobby’s snowsuit.
“Don’t tell me you went to the main house first,” he continued, only half joking. Had his mother done something to mess this up, too?
Emily shook her head as she finished removing a fidgety Bobby’s outerwear. “I came straight to the cottage.” When he continued to fuss, Emily let Bobby sit on the rug in front of her. “Why? What would’ve happened if I had gone to the main house?”
You’d have met my well-meaning but hopelessly meddling mother, Edmund thought, and probably run as fast as you could the other way. But not wanting to tell Emily that, when she was already inclined to bolt, he merely shrugged. “Nothing, I—”
Emily glanced briefly at Bobby, who was exploring the faded colors of the Aubusson rug with his fingertips, then turned her gaze back to Edmund. “Yes?” she prodded.
But before he could say anything, Chloe bounced into the room, her sable brown curls swirling around her face. She promptly sat down next to Bobby. “Daddy’s worried ‘bout what Grandma Maureen mighta said, ‘cause Grandma Maureen doesn’t want us to have a nanny.”
“She doesn’t,” Emily parroted dryly.
“No,” Chloe said seriously as she offered her hand for Bobby to clutch. “She wants us to live in the main house with her. But Daddy doesn’t want to do that anymore, on account of Grandma Maureen’s always trying to fix him up with some woman he doesn’t want to be fixed up with.”
Emily chuckled out loud at that bit of information and Edmund found himself flushing despite himself. “Chloe—” he reprimanded gently.
“Daddy, can I show little Bobby my stuffed animals?”
Welcoming the abrupt but timely change of subject, Edmund nodded his permission.
As Chloe ran to get them from the kitchen, she explained to Emily over her shoulder, “I brought them all out.” She dashed back with her Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore gathered in her arms. “Daddy made tea for my tea party. But I don’t get to drink real tea, only he does. I only get to drink apple juice.” Chloe carefully set her stuffed animals down for Bobby to play with. “Can you and Bobby come to m party?” she asked eagerly.
“Oh, honey, we’d love to but—” Emily looked out the window. Her expression became worried. “The snow is starting to come down rather hard, isn’t it?” She picked up Bobby’s snowsuit and cap. “Which is exactly why Bobby and I should be on our way.”
“No,” Edmund corrected firmly but gently. “It’s why you should stay here, at least for a night or two.” She tensed at the suggestion and he continued amiably, “Haven’t you been listening to the weather?”
Emily nodded. “An hour ago they said the brunt of the storm was going to hit one hundred and fifty miles east of here. Only a couple of inches was predicted for central Kentucky.”
“They’ve since revised the forecast. We’re now expected to get up to a foot of snow from the record blizzard that’s moving its way up the East Coast. And since it’s only been snowing here for an hour and we already have an inch on the ground, I’d venture they’re right.”
“Oh, dear.” Emily placed cap and snowsuit back on the sofa.
Chloe tugged on Emily’s sleeve. “Can Bobby have some of my apple juice?”
Emily smiled. “Actually, he already has a bottle of apple-pear juice in the car—but he can have that.”
Chloe ran to get one of her storybooks and sat back down on the floor to play with Bobby. “Tell me where Bobby’s bottle is and I’ll go get it,” Edmund said.
Emily was already tying the belt of her long, camel-colored wool coat. “That’s okay. I’ll do the honors,” she said as she searched out her car keys and inched on her gloves. “If you could just keep an eye on Bobby for me for a moment—”
Edmund caught another whiff of her clean, sexy fragrance as she passed. “Sure.”
“Mommy will be right back, honey.”
Thoroughly happy where he was, Bobby did not protest her departure. Emily turned up her collar against the cold and slipped out.
Edmund sat down next to Bobby and Chloe. As he studied the raven-haired toddler, he thought how long it had been since he’d held a little one. Too long. His heart ached at the thought he would never have another child.
Chloe wrapped herself around Edmund’s knee. “He’s cute, isn’t he, Daddy?” she asked on a wistful sigh.
“Very,” Edmund admitted as he watched Bobby babble something eloquent—and completely unintelligible—to Chloe’s Pooh bear. His face scrunched up in fierce concentration, Bobby reached for a red plastic block. Finding it out of his reach, he used Edmund’s leg for leverage and pushed himself up to a standing position. Grinning triumphantly, he bobbed up and down, as if trying to propel himself into motion.
“Look, Daddy,” Chloe said, fascinated. “Bobby’s gonna walk!”
Bobby continued to bounce and look in the direction he wanted to go. Edmund held out a hand to assist. Bobby dropped backward, landing on his diaper-clad bottom with a thunk.
“Guess he’s not gonna walk,” Chloe said, disappointed, as Bobby rolled onto his tummy and crawled to what he wanted. He smiled and gurgled as he brought the red block to his mouth for further exploration.
“Maybe next time,” Edmund said.
“I wish they could stay with us.”
“I do, too,” Edmund admitted. You don’t know how much. He’d been incredibly lonely since Lindsey had died. Having Emily and Bobby there—knowing they were in the same boat—would have been nice. He and Emily could have share.d what it was like to lose a spouse you loved more than life, and become a single parent overnight. The kids could’ve bonded, too.
“So how come Ms. Bancroft doesn’t like us?” Chloe asked Edmund with heart-wrenching honesty, clearly feeling shunted around and abandoned all over again.
Emily came back inside, appearing windblown and slightly out of breath. A bulging diaper bag and a cloth sack of baby toys were slung over her shoulder. She’d obviously caught Chloe’s remark; regret was etched on the pretty features of her face. “You can call me Emily, sweetheart. And I do like you, Chloe, very much,” Emily told her gently as she set her things down.
“Then why don’t you want to stay and be my nanny and help me with my lessons from my school in Seattle? Especially,” Chloe continued, looking both confused and hurt, “when Daddy said you were as excited about coming here as we were about having you here?”
Emily shot Edmund a hesitant look that let him know in an instant she wasn’t any happier about opt ing out of their arrangement than he was, before she returned her glance to Chloe’s. “It’s...complicated,” she said finally, as a flush highlighted her cheeks.
“Probably too complicated for your ears, young lady.”
Edmund confirmed in the tone of voice that let Chloe know that subject was closed for her. Wanting to talk to Emily himself, he looked at her for permission. “Is it all right if we let Bobby stay on the floor with Chloe while we go over here?” He indicated the table in the adjacent breakfast nook.
“Sure. Just let me give him some of his toys, too, and the rest of his bottle—” While she made sure Bobby was settled, Edmund poured them both some tea. They took their seats at the cozy table by the window. He glanced at the kids, who were playing beautifully, then moved to take charge of the situation. “What exactly has happened to change your mind? Is it the salary?” It had to be something more than what she’d said thus far, since the disapproval of Brian’s parents was something she’d been dealing with from the very beginning of her relationship with their son.
Emily shook her head. “The salary you’ve offered is more than generous.”
“The location, and the fact we’re so far from the city, then? Because if that’s it, I’m planning to return to Seattle just as soon as I get things straightened out here with the family business—”
“Now that you’re here and have had a chance to assess things, how long do you think that’s going to take?” Emily asked, knowing originally Edmund had estimated anywhere from a week to a month or so.
Edmund frowned. “I’m not sure. It may be two months or more. Just depends on how quickly I can get things turned around.” He paused. “Is the fact we’re going to be here a lot longer than I originally thought troubling you?”
Emily stirred sugar into her tea. “No. I like living out in the country as well as the city.”
Steam from the tea caressed her face as Emily lifted the bone china cup to her lips and, still avoiding his eves, took a delicate sip. “I’m just thinking farther south would be heifer.”
Edmund studied the tense set of her femininely-shaped chin. “Do you have another job lined up?”
“Well no.” Emily squared her slender shoulders, as if girding up for battle. She turned her laser bright eyes back to him. “But I’m sure I’ll have no difficulty finding one.”
Edmund was sure she wouldn’t, either. And that meant he only had one shot to make this work. He leaned forward urgently. “I really would like you to give it a try here,” he said softly.
Emily tucked a lock of thick raven hair behind her ear. “I thought I explained this just isn’t going to work out for Bobby and me.”
He wasn’t going to change her mind about the larger issues. Maybe he could persuade her on the smaller points. “Nevertheless, you and your son would be a lot safer here with us until the weather clears.”
Emily hazarded another look outside the priscilla-curtained bay window, and saw—as did he—that the snow was coming down all the harder. How far is it to Lexington from here?” she asked, her delicate brow furrowing.
“An hour, when the weather’s good. The way it’s snowing now you may as well quadruple the driving time assuming the roads between here and there don’t shut down entirely.”
Emily bit her lip. “What about hotels?”
“The closest is about thirty miles from here,” Edmund replied as he poured them both more of the hot, fragrant tea. “It’s located next to a truck stop on the interstate highway, and if you don’t mind my saying, the crowd that frequents the place is kind of rough. It’s no place for a lady or a baby.”
Emily’s head lifted. “Really, we don’t want to impose.”
“Then how about an even trade? I’ll offer our gold star accommodations—” Edmund made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the cottage around them “—complete with meals, free. If you, in turn, will at least give the job a try for the length of time you’re here.”
Emily mulled over the suggestion. “You don’t pull any punches, do you?” she murmured, not half as displeased as he had feared she might be.
It was time to lay all his cards on the table. Edmund leaned forward intently. “I know what I need here, Emily. I know what Chloe needs. And I think you and Bobby are it.”
Emily fell silent, for a moment studying the man who would’ve been her employer. She’d known she liked him from the first time they’d met, two and a half years ago at her wedding to Brian. The fact they’d both lost their spouses the previous winter in sudden, tragic accidents had added another bond. It had been Edmund’s letters, written sporadically over the last few months, that had helped pull her out of her grief. His offer to hire her as nanny to his daughter, when Chloe’s old nanny suddenly developed health problems and had to quit, had pulled Emily toward a new—and necessarily different—life.
But none of that, compelling as it was, had prepared her for seeing him in person again. None of that had prepared her for the sheer impact of the ruggedly handsome face, dark sable brown hair, and penetrating sable brown eyes of this sexy, well-to-do dad. None of that had prepared her for his physically fit six-foot frame or naturally athletic grace, nor the tender understanding and affability he displayed toward not only his child, but hers. Edmund Fairfax was a man who genuinely liked kids—and women—and people in general. He was a man who’d grieved every bit as deeply as he had loved. A man who was struggling to find his way to happiness again, just as she was. He was also smart, sophisticated, protective and gallant in an old-fashioned, Cary Grant way. He was everything she could ask for in a good male friend, and she found herself yearning to simply stay here with him. So why was she trying to run away from the shelter he offered when he’d made it clear he only wanted to help her, as some sort of last, gallant favor for Brian?
Was it because he made her feel so alive again? Or was there something more here, something else she didn’t want to see?
“The question is, Emily,” Edmund said in a low, husky voice as he reached over and took both her hands in his warm, callused ones. “What do you want here? What do you need?”
In short, Emily thought, as she curled her fingers into his, a safe place to stay. Plus, time to figure out what to do next. Where better for either than right here? After all, realistically, what were the chances her in-laws or the process server from the family court in Maryland would find her if she did stay? Emily wondered.
She hadn’t told her in-laws exactly where she was planning to take a job as a nanny. The discussion with the Bancrofts had never gotten that far. They had exploded at just the thought of her leaving the Maryland area and-or wanting to move on with her life. And heaven knew, this cozy cottage had to be a lot better for Bobby than a cold, sterile, maybe even dangerous hotel room.
“Emily?” Edmund prodded gently, still waiting for her answer.
The kindness in his face was enough to prod her to go with her instincts. “All right. I’ll stay,” Emily relented. “But on1 until the blizzard is over.”
Edmund grinned, victorious, and sat back just as a knock sounded at the door and a handsome sixty-something woman in an elegant fur coat, pillbox hat and soft leather boots breezed in. She was followed by a similarly dressed, much younger woman with traffic-stopping movie starlet looks and dazzling silver-blond hair. “Edmund, darling, look who stopped by!” the first woman announced cheerfully.
“Hello, Mother.” Edmund nodded at the first woman. Then—more stiffly still—the second. “Selena.” Edmund reached behind him to lace an arm about Emily’s waist and pull her forward. “I’d like you both to meet Emily Bancroft. Emily, this is my mother, Maureen Fairfax. And the niece of our neighbors, Selena Somerset.”
“Hello.” Emily nodded cordially at both in turn.
“Emily’s gonna be my new nanny,” Chloe piped up.
Maureen Fairfax shot her son a look. “I thought we had discussed this, Edmund.”
“Actually, Mother, I think you discussed.” Edmund angled a thumb at his chest and grinned wryly. “I don’t think I got a word in edgewise.”
“You obviously didn’t listen, either.” Maureen eased out of her fur and dropped it on the back of the sofa before turning to Emil and confiding, “No offense, dear, but Edmund does not need a nanny, he needs a wife, whether he realizes it or not!”
Edmund picked up his mother’s fur and hung it safely out of Bobby’s reach. “Mother—”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m not planning to be here all that long anyway,” Emily interjected. She did not want to be put in the middle of a Bancroft family dispute, however inadvertently. She’d had enough of that with Brian’s family.
“How long is not long?” Maureen asked cheerfully.
“Just a few days,” Emily said, disappointed it wasn’t going to work out after all. For a moment there—just a moment—as Edmund had held her hands in his she’d had a glimmer of hope it might.
“Unless, of course, Chloe and I can convince her otherwise,” Edmund replied firmly, taking center stage in the conversation once again. And, Emily noted, Edmund looked as though he were going to be working on that. A fact, Emily noted, that did not make Selena very happy.
Selena handed over the covered pie dish she’d brought in with her. “Well, I better be getting along home. I just wanted to drop this off for you and Chloe.”
“Nice to see you, Selena. And thanks for the—” Edmund lifted the lid to check the fragrant, perfectly baked contents “—pie.” he said politely.
Selena flushed with pleasure. “Your mother told me it was your favorite.”
Edmund glared at his mother in exasperation.
Maureen smiled right back at him. “Edmund, maybe you could walk Selena to her car,” she suggested firmly.
“Be happy to.” Edmund ushered Selena.
Maureen turned to Emily. “Selena is the niece of our neighbor and my dearest friend. She loves horses and she adores Kentucky. She wants to settle in this area permanently and get married and have children.” Maureen placed her hand over her heart and sighed dramatically. “In short, she is exactly what my son needs—if only he’ll be open to the idea of a life with her.”
Emily paused. “And you’re telling me this because...?”
“I know my son. He never wants what he can easily have or should have for that matter.