The next morning, when Thane's alarm went off, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd been thinking when he'd told his new employer that he would be in that morning. Any other guy would have welcomed a day off.
Courtesy of Desi, he'd been up half the night. He groaned as he tossed his legs off the bed and attempted to sit up. She was fast asleep now, proving that she was indeed his daughter. Only his child could sleep through Alondra and Dustan's fight yet be unable to sleep through the night.
After a well-needed shower, he got dressed. Then one look at Desi's angelic little face and he decided to leave her right where she was, asleep in the portable crib he'd brought with him. There would be plenty of time to get her up after breakfast.
When he opened the door, the scent of food assaulted his nostrils. That couldn't be Alondra, he thought. Two meals in a row from her was too good to be true.
"Thank God!" Thane exclaimed when he caught sight of Kari at the stove flipping a pair of pancakes. "I thought I was going to have to survive on toast."
"Yeah, well, don't get used to it," she warned. "Toast is pretty much what you get in this place, but Alondra told me that you were starting your new job today and I figured you deserved something a little more substantial."
Thane was mid-bite when Alondra came in. He had to hold in the snicker as he watched her stumble in and grope half-awake for the coffee pot and a mug. "Hey, Sunshine," he said, grinning.
She grunted an answer he was unable to translate.
"Alondra's not a morning person," Kari said, by way of explanation, as Thane continued to smile.
"That much I knew."
"Anyway," Kari continued, handing Thane his plate of delicious smelling pancakes, "I'd better get going or I'll be late for work."
"Thanks again." He gestured with the plate. "I can't thank you enough."
"No problem. See you guys later," she called as she headed out the door.
He must have been even hungrier than he realized, or the meal was even better than it smelled, because his plate was clean before he even remembered the first bite. By that time, Alondra was about halfway through her cup of coffee and was looking a little more conscious.
He stood up and set his plate in the sink. "Well, I'd better get going myself if I'm gonna get Desi to the daycare on time." He'd had a hard enough time trying to find a daycare that had a space to fill on such short notice. The fact that all his calls had been made from Texas had doubled the difficulty of the search.
Alondra perked up instantly. "Daycare?"
"Well, someone has to watch her while I'm at work." He shrugged. "Daycare is the logical answer."
"You can't put her in daycare," Alondra said forcefully. "She's just a baby."
"I don't really have a choice."
"Well, at least tell me you picked a decent place."
Thane paused before answering. "It was really hard finding a place that accepts newborns."
"You didn't answer my question." And he probably wasn't going to, she suspected. "Just tell me what the name of the place is."
"It's an in-home place run by a woman named Maria George." He could tell the second the words were out of his mouth that he'd said something wrong.
"Maria George!" Alondra exclaimed. "Please tell me you're kidding. The local television station did an expose` on that place last year."
Thane was developing a queasy feeling in his stomach. "What's wrong with it, specifically?"
"Where do I begin? She smokes, its run out of a trailer, which isn't bad all by itself, but she takes in more children that legally she's supposed to have. The only reason it hasn't been shut down is her cousin works for the Department of Social Services and he tips her off when the state is coming for an inspection."
Thane swore softly under his breath. This was a disaster. If he didn't leave in exactly a half-hour he was going to be late to his first day on his new job, and somehow he knew that wouldn't give them a good impression of him. "What am I going to do," he murmured, more to himself than Alondra.
"Leave her here," she said spontaneously, surprising herself along with Thane. "At least until you can find another daycare," she quickly added.
"Excuse me?" Thane stared at her in amazement.
Alondra raised her eyebrows. "Well, it doesn't look like you have any other options here. You can't very well leave her with Maria George."
"Lonnie, a baby is a lot of work."
"I know that."
As much as Thane felt like it would be using Alondra if he left Desi there, she was right. He didn't have any other options. He didn't have any family left in the area, and Alondra was the only of his friends that worked at home. Alondra was offering him an attractive alternative, yet he was reluctant to agree. He knew what Dustan would say, that he was taking advantage of her generosity, and he didn't want to hurt his friendship with him any further.
"I don't know," he said, knowing that she would talk him into it. Alondra could convince him to do almost anything.
Except tell her about Vanessa. Not yet.
A SMALL cry came over the monitor, making Alondra drop her brush in surprise. She'd been so involved in her painting she'd almost forgotten about her offer to watch the baby that day.
She wiped her hands on a rag and tossed it under her easel. Her nose wrinkled as she surveyed her work. "It looks like," she sighed, "like the last one you did."
Another whimper reminded her of the task at hand and she hurried upstairs. She scooped Desi up and cradled her in her arms. "Good morning, beautiful," Alondra murmured, stroking the downy softness on her head.
She inhaled the sweet baby scent. What makes babies smell so good? She wondered, closing her eyes to savor the moment.
About an hour later, Desi was fed and not smelling quite so wonderful. Alondra had been tempted to go find one of the safety masks she used during the winter months to protect her from the paint fumes, but in the end decided that she'd better get used to it. Once Desi was clean and sweet smelling again, she carried her into the studio to take another look at her early morning work.
"It's horrible," Alondra announced to Desi, who stared wide-eyed up at her. "It looks like every other painting of the ocean I've ever done. I spend all my time doing these little scenes for the tourists and I never have time to do what I really love to do."
"That's right," Alondra continued. "I have painted ever possible view of the ocean. Unfortunately, the people that shop in Uncle Dustan's shop never buy my more modern stuff, which is what I really love. All they want to buy is the same old beach paintings that are a dime a dozen."
She sighed. "I am lucky though," she said, stroking Desi's cheek. "I get to paint for a living. Not many people get to do that. I could be cooped up behind a desk, typing all day in an office that isn't air conditioned in the summer. At least I have the freedom of setting my own hours.
"I mean," she trailed off when she noticed Desi had fallen asleep in the middle of her conversation. "Looks like it's time to get back to work," she whispered.
"ARE YOU going to catch a drink with us?" James asked Thane, following him into the parking lot. His first day at the Landscaping company had gone fairly well, but he was still in a foul mood. He was exhausted and sunburned, which was his own fault really. James had been kind enough to offer him some of his sunscreen, and it had been Thane's own fault that he refused.
"Well?" James tapped his foot impatiently. He's probably just become old enough to get a beer after work, Thane thought to himself. He barely looked old enough to buy alchohol anywhere other than just past the Canadian border.
He shook his head. "I can't, I have to get home."
"Come on. The guys wanna get to know you better. How can you do that if you go straight home?"
"Tomorrow," Thane promised. Today he was way too anxious to get home to his little girl. Leaving Desi with Alondra had purely been a result of being worn down. He never should have argued with her when he was this sleep deprived. He didn't even know if Alondra had any experience watching children, let alone babies!
"Some father you are," he muttered to himself. On the bright side, by now Alondra was probably so exhausted, she'd be more than happy to turn Desi over to a licensed child care provider. Then, maybe he's stop feeling guilty, like he was taking advantage of the way she felt about him.
That was something else to think about. She'd liked him when he left, but six months was a long time. How could he be sure that she felt the same way? Sure, she'd stuck up for him in front of Dustan, even without knowing why, but she was argumentative by nature. She and Dustan fought over everything.
He wanted to be with Alondra. The question was, could she trust him? Would she be able to wait until he could tell her the whole truth about Desi? Questions ran through his head the entire drive home.
Thane grimaced as he entered the house and heard loud music coming from Alondra's studio. Her taste in music hadn't changed, unfortunately. She still insisted on listening to cheesy boy bands like the Frontstreet Kids and In the Sink, or whatever the current popular ones were, just like his thirteen year old cousin, Marie.
His tastes ran more toward Alternative and Rock styles, which made listening to her music all the more painful.
He followed the annoying music down the hall and stopped dead when he found them.
Alondra was dressed in a red T-shirt with the words "Drama Queen" written across the front and a pair of baggy jeans that had most likely been stolen from Dustan's drawers. Her hair was pulled back in a thick ponytail.
Desi was lying in her arms with that innocent and trusting expression on her face that never ceased to amaze him. Alondra held her with one arm, dancing around, singing at the top of her lungs. Every now and then she would take a swipe at the canvas with the paintbrush in her hand.
Thane couldn't see the painting from his position in the doorway, but he could imagine the bright splashes of color flowing across the canvas as he watched her paint. Alondra's talent had always shown through, even just in their high school art class.
"Thane!" Alondra was so surprised that she dropped her brush on the floor, splattering red paint on her jeans. He merely smiled at her, thankful she'd dropped the paintbrush and not the baby.
"Having fun?" he asked, sweeping Desi out of her arms and cuddling her small body close.
Alondra blushed and he felt his stomach lurch. The effect she had on him always seemed to hit like a runaway truck, surprising him no matter how often it happened. If only she had some idea of how beautiful she looked, her face flushed a delicate pink and soft tendrils of hair curling around her neck in the heat.
She leaned down and picked up the fallen brush, causing Thane to hold his breath as her t-shirt stretched upward, showing him several inches of her bare back.
"She was no problem at all," she informed him, apparently having recovered from her momentary embarassment. "Much better than the little boy next door I used to watch when he was a baby. He refused to be put down, sleeping or awake, so my arms used to ache after watching him all day."
Relief washed over Thane. She had watched a baby before. That relieved some of the guilt at having left Desi with her that morning.
Alondra smiled, enjoying the expression of total and complete relief that came over Thane's face. He had probably spent all day worrying that she'd never babysat an infant before.
She surveyed his appearance. He looked exhausted and sweaty, not to mention... pink. She made a mental note to pick up some aloe vera lotion at the grocery store tommorrow. Thane was going to be pretty sore by the time he got back from his second day of work.
She bit her lip as he walked upstairs with Desi. Even sunburned and sweaty, Thane still managed to make her heart beat like she was facing a death squad. That combined with the fact that her stomach was perpetually tied in knots around him made sigh and sink down onto the floor.
There was a folding chair two feet away, but she didn't care. All that she could think about at that moment was the fact that she was falling in love with that baby. Maybe even Desi's father, although she wasn't quite ready to admit that.
Alondra stared at a wet lump of purple paint that had fallen to the floor. Only a single day had passed and she was already in danger of losing her heart. Maybe Dustan is right, she mused. Maybe he is using me.
"Anybody home?" The sound of the front door shutting and the clicks of high heels echoed in Alondra's ears. Kari appeared in the doorway.
She took one look at Alondra's face and hurried to sit beside her on the floor. "Are you okay?"
Alondra smiled. "I think so." Kari was such a sweet person. So caring she hadn't even noticed the purple paint that she had sat on and was probably ruining the skirt of her expensive business suit as she spoke.
"I got a promotion today." Kari worked as a secretary at a lucrative law firm in town.
"That's great!" Alondra leaned over and gave her a hug. "Who are you going to be working for?"
Her tone was calm. "Mark Johnson himself."
Alondra couldn't believe it. "Mark Johnson, the guy I went to elementary school with? The Mark Johnson who just became partner last year at the age of thirty? The guy who prosecuted that huge murder case last year in Boston?"
"The one and the only." Kari didn't look nearly as excited as she was. "I'm not sure if I'm happy about this."
Kari bit her lip. "He's kind of a recluse. Yes, he's a good lawyer, but I'm not sure what working for him is going to be like."
One of Alondra's feet had fallen asleep at some point during the conversation, so she pulled it out from under her and wiggled it in an attempt to get the feeling back. "I'm sure it will be fine," she reassured Kari. "Maybe he's just shy."
"True." Kari shrugged. "It doesn't really matter anyway. I'm getting almost twice the pay. So, to celebrate, I'm taking everyone out to dinner tonight."
THE TIDAL WAVE was easily the best restaurant on the Maine coast. The freshest seafood was prepared every night for crowds of tourists and a handful of locals. The best tables were on the screen porch, facing the waterfront where lights from all over the town could be seen. That was where Kari reserved them a table.
"I still feel like we should be treating you to dinner," Thane protested, "After all, you're the one who got promoted."
"And is making more money than you are." Kari reached into the basket for a roll. "Therefore, I'm treating everyone tonight. No more complaints."
Dustan held up his hands in defeat. "Hey, I didn't say a word. You're welcome to pay for me anytime."
"Cheapskate." Kari gave him a playful slap while Alondra watched.
She admired the casual way Kari and her brother were with each other. It was the kind of relationship that she'd always hoped of having. The relationship she'd always planned on having with Thane.
Desi squirmed in her arms. Alondra smiled and replaced the pacifier that had popped out, just as Desi began to fuss.
Next to her, Thane stared absently at the water glass in his hand. The scene he'd walked into that afternoon kept playing over and over in his head. Alondra, looking so young and radiant, singing and dancing with his daughter in her arms. It was like a scene from the future he'd always hoped he would have with her.
Only Desi was not her daughter.
He shrugged that thought away.
"Is everyone ready to order?" Their waitress, was Avery Bowman, the younger sister of Alondra's best friend, Fallon. She was a perky seventeen year old with curly, bright red hair that strained that the elastic that held it in a ponytail.
Alondra glanced around. "I think so. I'm going to have the fried shrimp."
"Would you like anything for your daughter?" Avery innocently raised her eyebrows.
"No." Alondra took a deep breath to control her annoyance. Avery knew full well she did not have a daughter. "This is Thane's little girl."
Thane smiled at Avery, no doubt amused by the bewildered expression on her face. Somehow she managed to get every else's orders before hurrying back into the kitchen.
After dinner they walked home, Dustan and Kari leading while Alondra and Thane trailed several yards behind them. As they walked across the footbridge, Alondra couldn't help remember the last time she and Thane had walked there together.
It had been the night before Thane left. Alondra, in an instantly regretted implulse, had blurted out her feelings for him in detail.
Instead of laughing, as she had expected, he'd been strangely serious. After a moment of silence, he'd taken her hand in his. "When I come back," he'd whispered, "we're going to talk more about this. Until then," he'd let his voice trail off.
The kiss had been warm and sweet, in short everything Alondra had been dreaming of for so long. It seemed like forever and an instant, all at once. Even now, she could still remember his taste.
Tonight he holding her hand again. She couldn't help smiling every time she looked over at him, such a large man with a tiny infant in a carrier on his front.
"You're remembering it too, aren't you?"
Can't-touch-th1s : Thank you so much for reviewing. I'm glad you like Kari and Dustan too, because if I ever finish this baby I have a sequel planned about them.
Sheena Hartley : I can understand why you might not like Thane yet. But you will eventually, I promise.
xxSilverMoonxx : It's always good to hear that I have someone hooked, I wasn't too sure about this story, actually.
Bipolar-magician : I updated! You were so polite I had to! Just kidding, this chapter was already written. J