Fifteen minutes. Harper had fifteen minutes to get this baby settled down to nap, gather her papers and get to her meeting.
Then her darling girl burped against her shoulder, but instead of spitting up on the cloth that was in place for that purpose, the child lifted her head and dribbled the warm liquid all over the front of Harper’s silk blouse.
“Of course you got my blouse. Nice aim, kiddo.” Normally, her daughter would burst into a smile, her blue eyes twinkling and her soft skin flushing pink. But this time, her face scrunched and an ear-shattering wail filled the room. Anna’s scream was so loud, Harper was fairly sure the entire building heard. “Oh, God. Shhhh. Shhh, baby. I’m sorry.”
Harper hated when she cried and was sure every tear was her fault. “Oh, Anna,” she cooed, rubbing her cheek against the baby’s soft dark hair. “Please quiet down. Mommy has a meeting.”
“Why don’t you get ready for your meeting and let me try?” Harper turned toward the voice and saw her friend and boss’s wife, Meg Campbell. Meg was an experienced mom and as much as Harper hated to admit when she didn’t know something, Meg had been a wonderful help and resource. It had been said more than once that being a single mom wasn’t for sissies and standing in the middle of her office, covered in spit up, drove that point home. Anna was still squirming in her arms, crying like, well, like a baby. Meg was actually a godsend.
“Do you mind?”
“Are you kidding?” Meg reached for Anna and practically grabbed her out of Harper’s arms. “Come here you precious baby. Let Auntie Meg make everything better.”
Meg nuzzled Anna’s soft head and Harper marveled at the dichotomy. Her friend was movie star gorgeous, with her curvy body and long curly blonde hair, but she looked most at home with small children. It was a good thing considering Meg, who was married to a billionaire, insisted on keeping her job as a teacher.
Harper went to the closet in her beautiful corner office and took a clean blouse out of the dry cleaner’s plastic. She’d learned the hard way to keep a few sets of spare clothes on hand for the baby and for herself. It seemed Anna’s second favorite thing to do after eating, was spitting up.
The soiled blouse was tossed in the corner of her private bathroom, she donned the new slate blue top and as annoyed as Harper was about the mess, she couldn’t help but melt when she stepped back into her office and saw her little Anna giggling at her. She had turned into a complete mush for the kid.
“There’s Mama,” Meg sang. “All clean.”
The baby gurgled and spit one more time, but Meg was ready with a clean burp cloth. “Gotcha,” she said. She glanced at Harper who was putting a contract into her portfolio. “This one is a sneak. She waits until your guard is down and then gets you.” Turning Anna to face her, Meg kissed the baby’s cheek. “But it’s okay, isn’t it beautiful? We understand each other. What’s a little puke between friends?”
“You’re telling me.” Walking toward her baby she felt a pinch of guilt knowing her daughter and Meg were connected in a way no one suspected. Forget the pinch. Harper felt a bucket of guilt, but there was no way she could tell Meg the truth. She extended her hands to take the baby.
“I’m going to drop her at the nursery before my meeting.” Thank goodness for the in-house daycare. Anna’s nanny was on vacation for another three days and the nursery provided a perfect alternative.
Meg held Anna and turned her back to Harper in a magnificently defiant pose. “No. She’s going to stay here and play with Auntie Meg.”
“Meg, you don’t have to stay with her.”
“I want to. When she gets sleepy I’ll bring her to the nursery.”
“Are you sure?”
Meg settled into the big armchair by the window that overlooked the harbor. It was a gorgeous fall day and there were still a number of boats in the water. A seagull squawked and Harper felt her blood pressure drop. The building Jason Campbell had renovated for his firm, Reliance, was originally the main shop in an old shipyard. It was no longer the place where luxury sailboats were built, but instead, the entire complex had been taken over by the leading designer of financial security software.
And Harper kept it running smoothly.
The move from Manhattan to the old shipyard on Long Island, didn’t seem like a good idea when Jason first proposed it, but now that the renovations were done, and the campus was up and running, Harper understood why he did it. Everything about the new location was geared to employee comfort and productivity. Her boss learned from tech giants like Google and Apple that innovation, and profitability, went hand in hand with happy employees. Looking outside once again, Harper caught sight of some software engineers playing a game of pick-up basketball. Someone from marketing was sitting at one of the picnic tables in the courtyard, writing notes on a legal pad and looking at advertising sketches.
Jason spared no expense and pumped all the company’s profits for the past year into the renovation.
The result was spectacular and as Harper walked to her meeting, through the glass enclosed hallways, with loads of natural light and plants, she knew Jason, once again, had made the right decision. She’d had her doubts about moving the company from Manhattan, but the result spoke for itself.
The campus was a hive of activity and people were genuinely happy working for Reliance Software. It was a great environment and Jason and his partners, Nate and Owen, were seeing the benefits.
Harper was also starting to embrace her existence on Long Island’s picturesque North Shore. Still a city dweller, Harper had an apartment on the Upper West Side, and the reverse commute from Manhattan wasn’t bad considering she had a company car and driver at her disposal. But with Anna, she was coming to realize a house on Long Island might be a better place to raise a child.
She’d done some very preliminary house hunting, and found one she really loved. So much so, she couldn’t get the house out of her head. It was probably too big and too expensive, but when Harper got something stuck in her head, she didn’t stop until she got the job done.
The house would be hers.
The conference room was already buzzing by the time Harper walked in and took her place to Jason’s right. Her official title was Director of Operations, but along with keeping the company running smoothly, Harper kept her brilliant, and sometimes flaky, boss on track.
“You made it,” Jason said. “I heard Anna scream like a banshee, I didn’t know if you’d be here.”
“Your wife saved the day. Make sure you thank her later.”
Jason chuckled and nodded. “She loves that baby.”
“She loves all babies. I predict your house will be full in a few years.”
Jason grinned. “We can hope.”
Harper never thought she’d want kids, but when she found out she was pregnant a year ago, the mommy bug bit and bit hard. There wouldn’t be a daddy in the picture, but she knew she could support and love her child.
Of course, she didn’t know how the baby’s father would feel about the fact that he had a child. It had never been discussed, and that was the thing that twisted her insides. She assumed that his playboy lifestyle, that his lack of any real interest in long term relationships meant he wouldn’t want a child. But she’d never asked.
Glancing out the window she saw Meg walking through the garden with Anna snuggled close and once again the guilt dinged her. Harper kept way too many secrets and now Anna was at the top of the list.
The very top. And from the minute she made the decision to raise her daughter on her own, Harper’s entire life depended on the name of Anna’s daddy remaining a secret.
Kevin Rossi ran through Central Park with Springsteen blasting in his ears and a level of anonymity he could only get in New York City. He missed the perfect weather in San Diego, the hominess of Chicago, but the ability to be normal only happened here. And he loved it.
He still had to watch out for the groupies who zeroed in on him like he had a GPS chip embedded in his ass and he avoided the club scene because he was no longer interested in one night bar hook-ups. At thirty-five he was ready to settle down and he had a pretty good idea who he’d like to settle down with.
Leggy and hot, Harper had avoided his phone calls for six months before he finally gave up. After an incredibly hot bout of sex at his sister Caroline’s wedding last year, they’d gone on a dozen dates in a month’s time, all of them ending in her apartment the next morning. And Kevin, who never wanted a commitment while he was still playing ball, thought he could have found the woman he wanted to spend his life with.
She was snarky and fun. Independent and beautiful. Everything he could have wanted and they were great together in bed. She was completely unaffected by his money and celebrity. In short, Harper didn’t take his shit.
And since she’d been dodging him, she obviously wasn’t interested in him.
Being dumped was new for Kevin and at first he didn’t know if he couldn’t get his mind off Harper because he really liked her or because his ego was bruised. He got his answer a month before when he ran into her at the opening of his brother-in-law Jason’s new offices on Long Island.
Harper was there in her official capacity and looked better than good in her executive sexy suit and high heels. It was as Kevin watched her work the room, flashing her thousand watt smile at a client one minute and then organizing a brigade of waiters the next, that he knew missing her wasn’t about his ego. It was about her. He wanted her bad, and he was willing to make a total fool of himself if she’d just throw him a bone.
But other than a passing glance, Harper found every way to keep her distance and Kevin was trying to figure out what he did.
He finished the last quarter of a mile around the reservoir at a dead run, focusing on his stride and his heartbeat which was pounding with the drumbeat in his headphones. Once Kevin drifted off the foot path, he collapsed on a bench near a playground. He pulled up the front of his t-shirt and mopped his sweaty brow, reeling at the smell. He was ripe.
The day was perfect. Sunny and warm, but not hot, and the only problem was that it was October and he wasn’t playing baseball. Leaning forward, he dropped his head and watched a bead of sweat drop off his nose letting him know one more time how hard he’d pushed his body.
His work ethic was what made him most attractive to teams, but his matinee idol reputation was a distraction and it had him bouncing around the league. He attracted lots of female fans to games, but he wasn’t a big enough factor on any team to warrant the problems they caused. Kevin hadn’t been a number one draft pick. He wasn’t naturally talented. Everything he accomplished came from hard work. His conditioning routine over the past five years was like religion and he had no doubt in his mind that it was because of how hard he pushed himself that he’d gone from being a twentieth round draft pick to being one of the highest paid players in the game.
And one of the most traded, until now.
What a difference a year made. Kevin had signed a deal as a free agent to play in California the previous year that pretty much guaranteed he’d have a place to play for life. There was a no-trade clause built in, unless he was going to go back to New York.
Around the All-Star break, Kevin was part of a trade so major, league officials almost negated the deal. There was a huge concern about the power balance between the divisions and Kevin was having a hard time with the fact that trading him to another team could make that big a difference. But the trade finally went through, sending Kevin back to the Mets, his hometown team, where he would be a solid clean-up hitter and a catcher who could handle some serious pitching talent.
That plan fell apart, though, when the star lefty broke his leg trying to catch a pop fly that he should have let go foul. The kid was showboating and missed the last four weeks of the season as a result.
During those weeks Kevin did his part, posting the best batting average of his career, but the team pretty much tanked. And while no one knew how the season would have gone if the rookie had been healthy, there was nothing Kevin could do to stop the slide. So much for making a difference.
Staring at the ground, with his elbows braced on his knees, a pair of small pink sneakers suddenly appeared in front of him. He glanced up into the face of a pretty little girl of about seven years old who wore her blonde hair in a long messy pony tail. Her big blue eyes were wide and she held out a white plastic wiffle ball and a pen. “Mr. Rossi,” she said quietly. “Will you sign this?”
Her little voice trembled and Kevin remembered the times he approached a favorite ball player for an autograph. He had to give the kid credit for her nerve. Kevin nodded and took the ball and pen. “Why don’t you sit down?” He patted the bench next to him and his young fan scrambled into the seat. “What’s your name?”
The child beamed and revealed a gap-toothed smile. “Caroline.”
“I have a sister named Caroline.” His response elicited another smile and Kevin found himself charmed by the little girl. “You like baseball?”
Caroline nodded frantically. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw you sitting here. You’re my favorite player. Mommy said I shouldn’t bother you, but I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
He looked up and spotted Mom standing by a tree about twenty feet away. She was young and pretty and looked nervous, which made sense. Her daughter was sitting next to a strange man who probably smelled only a little better than a laundry bin filled with dirty jock straps. Rubbing his hand over his chin, Kevin could only imagine what he looked like. He hadn’t shaved in two days and he sorely needed a shower.
“Normally, you should always listen to your mom, but I’m glad you stopped to talk to me.” He signed the wiffle ball and handed it back. “Got a game?”
“Nah, we just came to the park to play. Daddy always meets us after work when it’s nice out. I’ll have to go on the swings now since I can’t ever play with this ball again.” Caroline held up the ball and showed it to her mother who waved her over as she nodded her thanks to him.
“Thank you, Mr. Rossi,” Caroline said.
“You can call me Kevin.”
She giggled. “Okay. Thanks, Kevin. See you around.”
Kevin felt his mouth curve into a smile as he waved goodbye. The girl was adorable, happy and enthusiastic, just what he would want in his own kids.
Kids he was starting to think he’d never have.