an ever after romance
Still grieving the loss of her husband and young daughter, Abigail Jamieson is struggling to carve out a new life on her own. With no work experience and few marketable skills, Abby falls back on the one thing she knows how to do well--run a household.
Agreeing to be a nanny for an attractive and dedicated single dad, however, turns out to be more than Abby bargained for. Mitch Abram, a widower himself, can barely keep his head above water while raising three daughters who challenge him at every turn. Sympathetic to his desperation, Abby signs on for a three-month stint to get Mitch's house and family in order, but she soon finds the entire Abrams family stirring a warmth in her she thought she'd never feel again.
It's clear that the girls and Mitch all want her in their lives, but can Abby let go of the pain of her own loss and give herself another chance at love and family?
READ AN EXCERPT
“You must have something I can do.” Abigail Jamieson tried to keep the desperation out of her voice, but the way the woman across from her peered over her wire-rimmed glasses, she didn't think she'd succeeded. Through sheer force of will, she kept her hands linked loosely in her business-suited lap and didn't bolt for the door.
On the other side of the desk, Estelle Gagnon set aside the single sheet of paper that served as Abigail's scant resume. She leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers, touching the index tips to her lips.
“Why childcare?” she asked finally, her English tinged by a slight French accent. “Why not something in an office?”
Abigail reached deep inside, past nerves left raw by answering this same question too many times over the last two weeks, and dug up the humility she needed to answer again. Nannies to Go was the last nanny agency on the list in the entire city of Ottawa, and she would not, could not, go home to her sister Gwyn's with no prospects yet again. Not after the conversation she'd overhead this morning.
“I know she needs our support, Gwyn,” Gareth's voice floated through the door of his and Gwyn's bedroom as Abigail passed by in the hallway. “But it's been three and a half months. And yes, she's helping out with the house, but you need your space back. We need our space back. At least let me put her up in an apartment while she figures out what she wants to do.”
“Are you going to be the one to tell her she's overstayed her welcome?” Gwyn retorted. “She's my sister, Gareth, and her husband and daughter died. There is no way I'm turfing her out on her ear right now. She needs more time.”
“She's already been here almost three months. How much more time does she need? Another month? Three—”
The recruiter's voice jolted Abigail back to the present, and she pushed away the memory of her sister's disagreement with her husband. Over her. She crossed her ankles and tucked her feet under her chair, sitting up straighter. “I've been out of the workforce for a number of years,” she said, with rehearsed calm. “And I don't have any office skills to speak of, beyond being able to use a computer.”
“You don't have any childcare skills to speak of, either,” Ms. Gagnon replied. “Most clients these days are looking for someone with a background in early childhood education at the very least. I'm afraid one semester of a psychology undergrad degree isn’t quite the same, even if you did plan on going into child psychology. Without some kind of hands-on experience, there's nothing I can—”
“I had a daughter.” The words spilled from Abby before she realized they'd even formed, surprising her as much as they obviously surprised Ms. Gagnon. The recruiter stared at her, eyebrows raised, waiting for more. Abby curled her hands into fists on her lap. It was the first time she'd told that to a stranger in more than a year. Or maybe it had been an eternity. “I had a daughter,” she repeated, needing to say it again. Needing to hear it again. “She died.”
Tears burned in the back of her eyes. Rapidly, she blinked them back as Ms. Gagnon stood up from her chair and crossed the office to a bookshelf under a window. She poured a glass of water from a pitcher there and returned to pass it to Abby. Then she leaned back against the desk. “When?” she asked, all trace of professionalism gone from her quiet voice.
“Just under a year ago,” Abby said. “It was a car accident. She was eleven. She and my husband were both killed.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Ms. Gagnon. “Do you need a tissue?”
Abby gritted her teeth and shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Really.”
“Bon.” Good. The recruiter went around the desk to retake her chair. She looked down at the resumé on the desk for a moment, then peered at Abby over her glasses again. “You're certain you want a job caring for children? It will not be too difficult for you?”
“I can manage,” she said. “I’ve thought it through, and it really is the all I'm qualified for. To be honest, I’ve never even waitressed or worked in retail, and I would much rather work at something I know I can do.”
Ms. Gagnon tapped a pen against the resumé. “There might be something, but...”
Abigail's hopes leapt. Oh, to go home and tell Gwyn she'd found something! “But?”
“You would have to live in, and there would be some housekeeping involved as well.”
She clutched the glass tighter, needing an anchor in the sudden swirl of hope even as the irony made her want to laugh. Or cry. Or both. Oh, how William would love this, if he knew. All those fights over her desire for independence, for stimulation outside the home, and now look at her. Heading back into the kitchen to which he'd kept her tied for so many years. But...she'd get to move out of Gwyn and Gareth's house and actually stand—more or less—on her own two feet for the first time in a very, very long time.
Make that for the first time ever.
“I can definitely do that,” she told Ms. Gagnon. “I was a stay-at-home...” She trailed off, the word wife stuck in her throat, and mom still too raw. She compromised with, “I stayed home for twelve years.”
Something flashed in the recruiter's eyes—sympathy? pity?—but she moved the conversation along. “There are three girls: a five-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a thirteen-year-old. Their mother passed away just over a year ago—cancer—and their father is...struggling.”
“He runs his own construction firm, and his hours can be irregular. He's trying his best, but honestly, he's losing ground every time I talk to him.”
Abby frowned. “Every time you talk to him? How long has he been trying to find someone?”
Ms. Gagnon hesitated. Then she sighed. “I'm going to be honest with you, Mrs. Jamieson. This isn't an easy job. Frankly, I'm not even sure it's a doable job. If you take it, you'll be the twelfth woman to attempt it in the last nine months.”
“Oh? What's the problem?”
“My client's hours. His unwillingness to back up the nannies on discipline issues. Discipline issues, period.” Ms. Gagnon leaned back in her chair and sighed again. “My understanding is that the older girl resents having anyone tell her what to do. Part of the problem is the father's distraction, of course, and part of it may be the age of the nannies themselves. Most women who are coming out of early childhood education programs are young, and I'm not sure they have the air of authority that's needed here. You, on the other hand...”
Great. Now she was being offered a job because she was old? Abby tried not to grimace. She couldn't afford to be proud right now. Heck, she couldn't afford much of anything. She lifted her chin and took a deep breath.
“I'll take it,” she said.
“Excellent. You can start as soon as your police check clears. I’ll ask a friend to rush it.”
Abigail stepped around her sister as Gwyn bounced a fussy Julianne against one shoulder, patting the baby's back with her free hand. She felt Gwyn's gaze on her, following her from bureau to closet to open suitcase on the bed. Studiously, she avoided meeting it.
“You're sure about this,” Gwyn said for the fortieth time in the week since Abby had delivered her news. “I mean, a live-in nanny?”
Abby tried not to bristle at what sounded like criticism. Truth be told, if Gwyn was questioning her ability with children, she had good reason, because Abby had done her level best to avoid her nieces and nephew ever since her August arrival. At first, she'd told herself that it was because she couldn't handle being so close to what was obviously a happy family when she had lost so much. However, after three months, she'd begun to think it went deeper than that—into territory that included guilt and resentment and a whole lot of other baggage she didn't care to examine. That made it all the more important that she leave now, before the toxicity brewing deep in her gut found its way out and poisoned her relationship with her sister even more than it already had been for years. She took a pair of pants from a hanger and folded them into the suitcase.
“I'm sure,” she replied, also for the fortieth time. “I need to move on with my life, Gwyn. I can't camp out here forever. Katie needs her room back.” She glanced at the stuffed unicorns piled on a shelf and the Anne of Green Gables series piled on the bedside table. And I need not to be waking up every day in a room that could have been my own daughter's.
“Katie is fine sharing with Maggie. This is about you.” Gwyn wiped a trickle of drool from Julianne's chin, expertly following her daughter's twists and dodges and ignoring the squawks of protest. “I get that you want to move on, but raising someone else's children? What happened to that psychology degree you were studying for? Can't you do something with that instead?”
Abby closed her eyes. There was another thing she'd avoided since arriving here: any kind of conversation with Gwyn that touched on her life with William. For the same reasons she'd stopped writing to her sister about that life. Stopped confiding in her at all. Her cheeks grew hot, and she looked down at the floor. “I didn't finish,” she answered, silently begging Gwyn not to pursue the subject.
“Oh,” said her sister. Then, her voice hesitant, “Abby...”
“Don't.” Abby shoved the last of her clothes, hangers and all, into the suitcase and slammed the lid down. She zipped it shut, then leaned on it, blinking back tears she didn't want to share. Didn't have the right to share, after she'd refused to be there when Gwyn had needed her—no matter what her reasons at the time. She straightened and turned, a tight smile pasted to her face. “I'm a big girl, Gwyn. I know what I'm doing.”
“I'm not saying you don't. I'm just saying you don't have to do it. Stay. Please. Let us help.”
Abby's resolve wavered in the face of the offer. Even after that conversation she'd overheard between Gwyn and Gareth last week, it would still be so much easier to remain here under their roof and their protection. So much safer. Except she'd lived her whole life sheltered from risk of any kind—first by her parents, and then by William—only to discover there was no such thing as safe. Life didn't care whether she actively participated in it or not; it happened regardless. With all of its pain and its grief and its loss...and its devastation. Again, Abby blinked back tears. Then she straightened her spine and shook her head. “Thank you, but no. I need to do this. I need to look after myself.”
Gwyn gave a small, hesitant shrug. “All right,” she said. “But you know you can come back, right? Anytime.”
“And, Abby...one day, when you're ready? Let's talk. Just the two of us. Please?”
Her eyes blurring and her throat refusing to allow words, Abby looked away from the sister she'd once adored. She didn't see how they would ever overcome the chasm that had grown between them, but she nodded anyway. Because, in a perfect world, she thought she'd like that.
If only a perfect world existed.
“Auntie Abby!” her nephew, Nicholas, hollered up the stairs. “Your taxi's here!”
Mitch Abrams pulled his head and shoulders out of the disaster that was the front hall closet and, sitting back on his heels, ran both hands over his close-cropped, tightly kinked hair. He locked his fingers behind his head. Then he regarded the solemn, five-year-old girl at eye level to him, stuffed plush rabbit under one arm and one Wonder Woman running shoe clutched in her other hand. One, because the other was missing.
“You're sure you put both of them in the closet after school yesterday?” he asked.
Kiana nodded, her lopsided puff ponytails bobbing.
“Maybe you can wear a different pair today.”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, and she shook her head, shifting from foot to foot. Mitch's innards cringed at the telltale agitation. He unlinked his fingers and pushed himself to his feet. Eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed deeply. He was already ten minutes late for a meeting with the crew on the new build, and if he triggered one of his daughter's infamous meltdowns, he might as well cancel it altogether.
“Dad! Daddy!” a voice hollered from the kitchen at the back of the house. “The pancakes are burning!”
The shriek of a smoke alarm confirmed the announcement. Face scrunched tight, Kiana dropped the running shoe and slapped her hands over her ears. Then she turned tail and bolted up the stairs, heading for the safety of her bedroom. Mitch groaned. Great. There went another hour of his morning.
“Daddy!” Louder this time. And shriller.
“Coming,” he called back. He loped down the hallway to where his two other daughters, Brittany and Rachel, flapped tea towels at the smoke billowing across the room to the island where they sat. Thirteen-year-old Rachel delivered a withering look as he reached up to pull the smoke alarm from its housing inside the doorway and stuffed it in a drawer to muffle its noise.
“Again?” she asked.
“You could have flipped them,” Mitch retorted. “Or at least turned the pan off.” He switched off the stove and grabbed the skillet, pulling back with a hiss when he connected with red-hot metal. Scowling, he picked up a tea towel and wrapped it around the pan's handle, then carried it and its blackened contents over to the patio doors and tossed the entire works out into the snow. Shit, shit, shit. He slammed the glass door shut again, so hard that it bounced half out of its track, reminding him that he still hadn't repaired the thing. He scowled at the offending, lopsided glass panel. For six years, he'd promised Eve he'd fix it, and—
The doorbell rang.
“Oh, for—” Mitch scowled, then headed back down the hallway. Rachel trailed after him.
“You know that was our last frying pan, right?” she asked. “You threw the other one out last week.”
Mitch ignored the accusatory tone. And the fact she was right. He kicked a path through the contents of the closet, still strewn across the front hall floor. How in hell had that much stuff fit in there in the first place?
“And what are we supposed to do about breakfast, now?” she continued. “Starve?”
“Madame Sonia says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” nine-year-old Brittany offered, joining them in the chaos that had become a reflection of their lives. “She says—”
“Oh, stuff Madame Sonia,” Rachel snapped. “She's not God, you know.”
“Enough!” Mitch barked, his last nerve fraying as he reached for the door knob. “Brittany, Madame Sonia is right, but now is not the time. Rachel, apologize to your sister. Kiana! Kiana, please come downstairs. Daddy has to go to work, goddammit!” He wrenched open the door and bellowed, “What?”
He registered the smoky blue eyes first, the fur trim of a hood surrounding a pale face second, and the lazily drifting snowflakes third. He didn't recognize the first two, but he knew without a doubt that the last observation had just killed all hope of making it into work that day. There was no army on the planet that could get Kiana into winter boots or a snowsuit without a week of advance warning, and with him not having so much as checked the forecast for the last several days, that opportunity had passed him by.
“Shit,” he said, staring morosely out at the four inches of white fluff already piled up on the lawn. He recalled an image of the blackened frying pan landing in more of the stuff just moments before—he'd just been too distracted to pay attention. His gaze went back to the uninvited guest on his doorstep, traveling from head to toe. A woman, wearing a bright red jacket, pleated slacks, and the kind of furry boots Rachel had whined about for the last three Christmases and he had deemed ridiculous. He looked up again. A tiny frown had appeared between the smoky blue eyes.
He scowled. How in heck was he going to talk Kiana into anything halfway suitable for going to school? “Who wants to know?”
A white-mittened hand extended. “I'm Abigail Jamieson.”
He stared at the hand.
“From the agency?” she prompted.
He stared at her.
“The nanny agency. Nannies to Go? I left you a voicemail message on Friday telling you I'd be here at 8:00 this morning.”
“Daddy? Who's that?” Brittany wedged herself between Mitch's hip and the doorframe.
Smoky Eyes smiled down at her and again held out the hand Mitch had refused to shake. “My name is Abigail,” she said. “But you can call me Abby. And I'm guessing you must be Brittany.”
Brittany eyed the offered mitten for a second, then she accepted it and gave it a hearty pump. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. “Are you really our new nanny?”
“I am,” the woman said.
“No. She's not,” Mitch overrode her words. He ran a hand over his chinstrap beard. The scrape of stubble against his palm outside the normal confines reminded him he had yet to tidy it this morning. Or shower. He held back the choice epithets growling through his brain. Maybe he should just give up and see if he could talk Derek into handling the meeting for him. Hell, maybe he should just give up on the whole blasted—
He cut the thought short and waved a hand in half-hearted apology. “Look, I'm sorry, but I haven't checked my voicemail all week, I know nothing about a new nanny, and I don't have time to interview anyone right now. Tell the agency to call me again next week, and we'll set something up.”
His hand on Brittany's shoulder, he stepped back and started to close the door.
“Wait!” The white mitten shot through the opening and fastened around the edge. “I'm not here for an interview. I'm here to work!”
Mitch pulled the door open a fraction again and peered around it. For the first time, he noticed the pile of luggage on the snow-covered sidewalk behind her. One large roll-along suitcase, one medium-sized one, and an overnight bag. He raised an eyebrow. Met the blue gaze. Raised the other eyebrow. “Work?” he echoed. “As in move in?”
The fur-framed face went even paler as the woman's expression wobbled, then tightened. Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. “I thought—I was told—Estelle said—”
“Ms. Gagnon. At Nannies to Go.” The woman bit her bottom lip. “She said it was a live-in position.”
“Not without a freaking interview, it isn't.” Mitch looked her up and down again. “Do you really think I'd let someone move in with my children without meeting them first? Seeing their references? What the hel—heck kind of a parent would that make me?”
The blue gaze traveled past him to the shambles that was his front hall, and Mitch was pretty certain the words “a desperate one” hovered on her lips. He bristled, but to her credit, she kept the comment to herself as she squared her shoulders and nodded.
“Of course. I should have—I'm sorry. I'll let Est—Ms. Gagnon know. We can do an interview whenever you're ready.” She waved her mitten at the luggage. “I'll need a cab, if you wouldn't mind calling one for me?”
His gaze went to the driveway, empty of any vehicle but his own pickup. Great. Now he was turning her away in the snow and cold? His conscience twinged, but sheer practicality overruled it. He was in no way prepared to take in a new nanny without any kind of warning, he knew nothing about this particular wannabe, he was growing later by the second for that meeting, and he still had three girls to crowbar and/or cajole out of the house. He firmed his jaw. “Of course,” he said. “And we'll set up something for later this week. Maybe Thursday evening?” Then, because he'd been rather shorter with her than was needed, he added, “I'm sorry for the mix-up.”
Horror filled him as the blue eyes turned shiny. Oh hell, no. She wasn't going to cry, was she? Could this morning possibly get any worse? As he debated closing the door on her—admittedly not his most stellar moment as a human being—a car horn tooted curbside and a cheery voice called out, “Morning, Mitch! The girls ready to go?”
Rachel shoved him aside and waved to her best friend's mother, a woman as comfortable with her generous curves as she was with her status as a divorcée.
“We'll be there in a minute, Jessica!” she called. Then, ignoring the woman standing on the porch, she crossed her arms and scowled up at Mitch. “You forgot that you asked Mandy's mom to pick us up for school starting this week, didn't you?”
“And we still haven't had breakfast. What are we supposed to do, starve?”
Mitch bit back the uncharitable yes that hovered and instead said, “Just get ready. I'll get some granola bars from the kitchen.” He turned back to the open door. “Ms. Jamieson, was it? I'm sorry, but I really ha—” He stopped mid-sentence as Jessica Perkins danced up onto the porch to join the wannabe nanny. Hell.
“Oh dear.” She pulled a face as her gaze went to the hallway behind him. “Rough morning? You really should take me up on my offer to get you guys organized, Mitch, my friend. A couple of weeks and you won't even recognize the place.”
The air wheezed from Mitch. Oh, he'd seen Jessica's house, all right. The woman had invited the girls to go swimming in her pool in August, and then insisted on giving him the grand tour while wearing the skimpiest bikini he'd ever tried not to lay eyes on. He all but broke out in a cold sweat at the memory of how many times he'd had to extricate himself from various corners of that place. He didn’t think the woman had any serious designs on him, but she had made it abundantly clear that she thought two lonely people could—and should—find solace in one another’s company. But she was right—her corners had been organized. He just had no intention of putting himself in a similar situation again.
“Thanks, Jessica, but—”
“Oh, pooh,” Jessica waved away the objection. “You know it's no trouble. I'm happy to help. Why don't Mandy and I come over tomorrow after school? The girls can hang out, and I can get a start. We'll order pizza for dinner. It will be fun!” Without waiting for a response, she turned to the other woman. “I'm so sorry. How rude of me not to introduce myself. I'm Jessica Perkins, a family friend.”
“Abigail Jamieson,” Smoky Eyes murmured.
Was it Mitch's imagination, or was she trying not to laugh?
“I see,” Jessica said, when no further information was offered. She nodded at the luggage pile she'd skirted on her way up the sidewalk. “And you're here...for a visit?”
“She's moving in with us!” Brittany poked her head past Mitch, her voice muffled by the scarf she'd wound around her face. “She's our new nanny.”
“Oh?” Jessica looked over her shoulder at Mitch. “Rachel didn't mention you'd found someone new.”
Mitch opened his mouth to explain, then closed it as an image of Jessica Perkins organizing his house popped into his head. Another one followed of her wearing a bikini while doing so.
On the porch, Abigail Jamieson steadfastly refused to meet his gaze.
Abigail Jamieson, his unexpected—and unsuspecting—lifeline.
“It was a last-minute thing,” he heard himself reply.
“I see.” Jessica's narrow gaze traveled between Mitch and Abigail Jamieson, who stared down at a hole she'd made in the snow with the toe of her furry boot. Then Jessica’s expression cleared, becoming cheerful again and leaving Mitch wondering what she saw.
“Well then,” she said, “Welcome, Abigail Jamieson. I’ll leave you to get settled in, but make sure Mitch leaves you my number in case you need anything while he’s at work. I’m happy to help if I can. Come on, girls, we're running late.”
With a cheery wave, she trotted back down the driveway to the car she’d left idling, the snow swallowing the sound of her door closing. A second later, Rachel shoved past him, Brittany on her heels.
“Bye, Daddy!” Brittany sang over her shoulder. “Bye, Abby! See you after school!”
“Wait,” Mitch called after them. “Granola bars!”
Rachel waved a handful of wrapped bars aloft as she trudged across the lawn. She didn't deign to look back. Seconds later, Jessica's car disappeared down the road, and silence fell over the yard, as thick and muffled as the flakes descending now in earnest. On the porch, Abigail Jamieson stamped her ridiculous boots and wrapped her arms around herself.
Mitch sighed. Now that he'd made it past the knee-jerk reaction to her arrival, maybe giving her a try wouldn't be such a bad idea. Because the look she'd given his hallway was right. He was desperate. And he'd run through so many nannies in the last year that he'd been blacklisted by just about every agency in town. And Estelle Gagnon had assured him that every nanny she sent out had already passed a police check. And if he didn't find help soon, a lot more than the house was going to go south in his life. And—
He held the door wide. “I assume you have references?” he asked.