Annie is dreaming.
Dreaming of classical music and a mouth-watering aroma and Andre’s gentle hand stroking her forehead.
It isn’t a dream.
As her senses awaken, she realizes she really is hearing music, smelling food, feeling somebody’s fingertips…
But not Andre’s.
Andre is dead, she recalls, with the jarring awareness that strikes her every time she returns to consciousness after a restful reprieve from her own harsh reality.
Andre is dead.
Her eyes snap open to take in the scene.
She isn’t in bed.
She’s in a recliner in the living room. But it can’t be her living room because the television is off and the stereo is on and it’s playing classical music. This can’t even be her house, because it smells like food—real food, not food from a can or a box or a pouch, not that her tragically bare cupboards can possibly contain even cans, boxes, or pouches.
Okay, so it’s her imagination again, carrying her and her growling stomach away.
Andre isn’t saying her name. Andre isn’t standing over her. No, it’s…
Annie bolts out of the chair. “What are you…?”
He laughs. “Yup, I’m still here.”
“You fell asleep, Mommy!”
Ella is standing beside James, looking gleeful. She’s wearing a bibbed white apron with red rickrack, circa 1940. Her hair is pulled back in a bread bag twist tie and a substance that looks like ketchup is smeared beside her mouth.
“Mommy, we made dinner for you!”
Annie shifts her gaze to Milo, whose pillowcase cape is now tucked into the front of his shirt and splashed with crimson stains.
“What time is it?” she asks, dazed, looking around the room and realizing that the light is different. Different, as in fading quickly.
“It’s dinnertime! Let’s go eat!” Ella giggles and dashes toward the kitchen with Milo on her heels.
“Dinnertime?” Annie echoes incredulously.
“Actually, it’s almost seven,” James says, checking his watch.
“Oh, cripes. I can’t believe I did this.” She zings an accusatory glare at him, needing to blame… somebody. Somebody other than herself. She’s sick of blaming herself for everything. She demands of James Brannock, “Why did you let me do this? I can’t just… sleep.”
“Why not? You were tired.”
“But… I have children!”
“No kidding. That’s probably why you were so tired. They have a lot of energy, don’t they.”
Somewhere in the midst of her groggy dismay, Annie notes that his pinkish-red shirt is dotted with pinker, redder splatters, that he currently smells more of frying onions than cologne, that his hair is spikier than it was earlier, as though he’s been raking his fingers through it.
“You’ve been watching my kids?” she asks, shaking her head in a futile effort to clear it.
Nothing makes sense.
James Brannock looks pleased with himself.
Well, bully for him.
Annie has never been more disappointed in herself. What kind of mother just… goes to sleep? Entrusts her children to the care of a complete stranger and… goes to sleep?
A lousy mother.
That’s what kind.
A lousy, incompetent mother.
Annie definitely isn’t a survivor. She sucks at survival. The house could have burned down while she was lying here catching a few “z”s. Somebody could have been hurt, or killed.
Tears spring to her eyes.
“Annie?” James touches her arm.
She jerks reflexively out of his grasp.
“Annie, don’t,” he says softly, his hand finding her again and holding her steady this time so that she can’t slip away. “Don’t be upset with yourself. You’re overwhelmed.”
She opens her mouth to protest, and to her horror, a sob escapes.
She stops fighting his grasp.
No, his… embrace?
Embrace, because, somehow, impossible though it is, he seems to be… hugging her?
This total stranger—this billionaire tycoon total stranger—is hugging her.
This, Annie thinks, should not be comforting. This should, in fact, be the most uncomfortable moment of her life.
She must be delirious, because she seems to have decided that she fits very naturally into James’s arms, a place she has absolutely no business being. Ever.
But he’s right. She is overwhelmed.
Awash in self-pity, she allows herself to lean against his broad chest, the way she used to do with Andre.
He even touches her hair the way Andre always did, tenderly weaving his fingers through the tangle of waves.
She looks up to tell him that she’s sorry, that he can leave now, but the unexpectedly provocative look in his dark blue eyes robs her of speech, of breath.
He’s going to kiss me, she thinks frantically, and realizes, even more frantically, that she wants him to.
She can hear his ragged breathing, feel it stirring the wisps of hair that have fallen around her face.
Something flutters to life in the pit of her stomach, sending gossamer quivers along dormant pathways into places that long ago ceased to exist for her.
His mouth is inches from hers.
He really is going to kiss her.
This is all wrong, and this is so right, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s wrong or right because Annie wants it to happen. More than that, it’s meant to happen.
Everything happens for a reason, Annie.
Deep inside her, restraint takes flight, leaving in its wake only urgent, aching need.
She closes her eyes and James’s lips brush hers lightly; too lightly, pulling back all too soon.
Frustrated, she opens her eyes and sees his tentative gaze. Touched by his cautious uncertainty, Annie allows the last of her own to fall away like a thick woolen coat on the first warm day of spring.
“It’s okay,” she whispers and tiptoes up to meet him this time, welcoming the exquisite pressure of his mouth against hers.
He kisses her hungrily, or perhaps she kisses him hungrily; she can no longer discern where her own desire gives way to his. Boundaries have been crossed and inhibitions shed; there is nothing but here, and him, and…
And then something clatters in the kitchen, severing the ethereal bond in a shattering instant. With a gasp Annie springs away, clasping her mouth as though she’s been branded there.
“Mommy! Milo dropped the pot lid and made a mess!” Ella calls.
“Don’t touch the stove!” Annie hurries toward the back of the house, half afraid that James won’t follow her, and half afraid that he will.
In the kitchen, she finds Milo picking up the lid and Ella setting the table. Kettles simmer away on the stove, emitting fragrant tendrils of steam.
“What’s going on?” she asks, dazed at the sight and scent of it all.
“We made pasta!” Milo informs her, climbing on a chair and stirring.
“With what?” She plucks him off the chair, pulls it away from the stove, and removes the saucy wooden spoon from his saucier hand. “That’s dangerous. You could fall or get burned, Milo.”
“I was being careful,” he says, and adds, “We made it with tomatoes and onions and noodles.”
“And chicken,” Ella reminds her brother, as Annie peers into one bubbling pot, and then another.
“Where did you get all this stuff?”
“We didn’t. James did,” Milo tells Annie.
“He left you alone to go shopping?” asks Annie, who left them alone to go to sleep and is consequently feeling guiltier by the minute.
“No, I had the stuff delivered,” James’s voice says in the doorway behind her.
She turns to see him watching her.
“You had tomatoes and onions delivered?”
“And pasta and chicken.”
That must have cost a fortune, she thinks, even as she reminds herself that he has one.
“Thank you,” she says aloud. “You didn’t have to—”
“I know. I wanted to, Annie. I don’t do anything unless I want to.”
Judging by the look in his eye, he’s talking about more than arranging grocery delivery.
But something inside of her refuses to accept anything he’s offering.
“Let me repay you,” she says, going for the Prada bag—courtesy of Merlin—that she keeps on a hook by the door. Ironically, all that’s in it is her old nylon wallet, and all that’s in that is the cash she earned waiting on James and his fancy friends last night.
Of course, the money is already earmarked for other expenses. But she’ll come up with more somehow. She’ll borrow it from Merlin, or she’ll work that luncheon he mentioned later this week.
Suddenly, it seems very important that she not allow James Brannock to do her any favors.
“Stop,” he says, crossing the kitchen and putting his hand on her purse before she can open it. “I don’t want your money. The only way you can repay me is to let me stay for dinner.”
“Come on,” he cajoles, a twinkle lighting his blue gaze. “After all this hard work, the least you can do is let me sample my own cooking.”
“All right,” she agrees helplessly, and glances at her beaming children.
“Can you come for dinner again tomorrow night, too?” Milo asks James, who shrugs and looks uncomfortable.
He begins, “I don’t think—”
Annie cuts him off with a brisk, “No, Milo, he can’t.”
To James, she says in a low voice, “Never say ‘I don’t think’ to a kid. All kids know that where there’s an ‘I don’t think,’ there’s a way.”
“Gotcha,” he says with a wink—a disappointed wink, she can’t help thinking. Almost as if he was hoping to be invited back for dinner again tomorrow night. Which, of course, is utterly ridiculous… no matter what just happened between them in the living room.
“Guess what, Mommy? I made place cards,” Ella announces. “And I used a purple crayon because James’s favorite color is purple. And we made Pasta à la Ella!”
“And Chicken Milo,” her son puts in. “James knew the recipes. He didn’t even need a cookbook. And I never even heard of Chicken Milo until now.”
“Neither did I.” Annie laughs.
“I’m not sure it’s any good,” James tells her in a whisper as the kids finish setting the table. “I’ve never cooked before.”
“No, but I used to watch our housekeeper do it when I was a kid. I always wanted to try it. How hard can it be?”
Annie shakes her head, speechless.
It’s all so surreal. Why is this man living out his domestic fantasies in her kitchen?
Never mind that. Why is he kissing her in her living room?
The next thing you know, he’ll be moving up the stairs to the—
Her bedroom is off-limits.
And so, for that matter, is her consideration of the skills James might be tempted to put to use there.