Becca carefully set the last of her picture frames into the cardboard box then shoved two shirts around them, making sure they were tight against the sides. Folding over the flaps, she pressed down lightly as she pulled the packing tape across to seal the box. This day had come far sooner than she had hoped, but the twins she had watched over for the past year were officially on track with life, and she was no longer needed. It was time for them and her to move on.
The agency, Kiddie Academy, was sending her to a new home. They had warned her it would most likely be a temporary position. No one lasted long at this appointment. Becca had heard the rumors before Kiddie Academy had even decided to send her there. The other nannies all talked, all shared, and she had seen a vast number of women go through that house in just two short years.
Nerves ramped up in her belly as she picked up the box and walked it out in a light March rain to her run-down car. After opening the back door, she slid it in, her entire life fitting into the small sedan. Sighing and brushing away a few tears, Becca went to the house, triple-checked that she had everything, then set the alarm and left. All her goodbyes had been said, and this was how she’d wanted it—quiet and without fanfare.
Slipping behind the wheel, Becca turned the engine and backed out of the drive. A year had been a good run, her longest nanny position yet, but it was time for a new life—perhaps her last before she finally finished her degree. She was the fixer, the one who went into struggling homes and helped the kids turn around. That was what her employer Kiddie Academy called her, anyway. With a steadying breath, Becca headed to the address on the files she’d acquired, ready to begin her new job.
When she pulled up outside the house, she was gobsmacked. The house itself was beautiful, but it was also huge. This was the upper class. They routinely had nannies and maids who were live-ins and had their own sections of the house. That was why she’d opted to work for those families, to cut down her costs, pay more for school—that’d been her theory, anyway.
But this house? There was something different about it. The tans and browns blended together to look like a vast desert in the middle of a rainforest because of the number of trees and shrubs and green things that surrounded the building. Stepping out of her car, the glimmer of the sun off the waters in the pool caught her eye. She took a step to the side of the house to get a better look and let out a deep breath. Clenching her jaw, Becca flipped through the papers in her hand again and looked for the name of her new employer.
Something about it rang a bell, but she couldn’t place the name. Still, the niggling feeling in the back of her mind didn’t leave. Turning on her toes, Becca headed for the front door. Nerves swelled in her belly, but she tamped them down before pressing the bell. The ring echoed through the house. There was a loud thump then pattering feet as their owner no doubt raced toward the door.
Becca heard a small voice on the other side, squeaky but clear.
“Can I open it, Mama? Can I? Can I?”
“Wait until I get there, please. You know better than to just open doors for strangers.”
“But can I open it?”
Becca smiled to herself, knowing she’d likely have the same conversation with any child in her care. It was only a few more seconds before the handle turned and the left side of the French door snicked open a crack, revealing the bright brown eyes and red cheeks of a small, cheery boy. Becca planted the softest smile she could on her face and bent down to his level.
“Afternoon,” she offered. “I’m Becca. You must be Michael.”
“Open it all the way, kid.” The woman’s voice, still behind the door, was solid and strong, but her admonition to Michael was said with a tone of love.
Michael shoved the door the rest of the way open, the door itself flinging rapidly toward the wall. A small hand with thick, short fingers caught it before it slammed to a stop.
“Michael…we don’t open doors like that.”
“Who are you?” His small voice was full of curiosity. He completely ignored the beautiful woman now standing fully revealed before Becca.
Becca had to work hard to pry her eyes away from her, but she managed to glance again at Michael and hold her hand out for him. “I’m Becca. It’s good to meet you.”
The woman stepped behind Michael and pressed her fingers to his shoulder in a protective manner. “Are you from Kiddie Academy?”
“I am.” Becca straightened her back and turned her smile toward whom she presumed was Kimberly, her new employer, hoping it would disarm some of the hostility coming off her in waves. “I know I’m a little early.”
Kimberly waved her away before stepping forward and extending her own hand. “It’s all right. I’m Kim. This is Michael. We just finished dinner. Come on in. Michael can give you the grand tour while I clean up.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Becca put her focus on Michael as she swallowed the lump in her throat. First impressions were everything, and while she was there for Michael, her impressions of Kimberly mattered far more, since she was the source of Kiddie Academy’s problems. “What are you going to show me first?”
Michael bounced on his bare feet briefly before running inside. “My room!”
Chuckling, Becca waited for Kimberly to move to the side so she could come in, but Kimberly hesitated. Their eyes locked, and Becca found herself lost in the pale hazel with a hint of yellow. Becca raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to the side, surprised when Kimberly jerked and held her hand open for Becca to walk through the doorway.
As soon as Becca was inside with Kimberly behind her, out of her immediate sight, she was able to relax briefly. But she was just as lost as ever. Michael was nowhere to be found, and the inside of the house matched the outside. It was huge. The living area took over most of what she could see, and from there, all she saw was a kitchen.
Kimberly stepped beside her. “His room is down the hall off the kitchen. Third door on the left.”
Becca headed away from Kimberly, hoping she’d masked the shudder racing up her spine. The niggling feeling that she knew Kimberly came back sharply, but Becca ignored it and focused on Michael—the main reason she was there. She knocked on the door and grinned.
“You left so fast that I missed where you went. You must be as fast as Flash!”
Michael stopped where he stood and cocked his head to the side, the toy tractor slipping from his fingers onto the floor. “Who’s Flash?”
“What? You don’t know who Flash is?”
Michael shook his head. Becca stepped onto the carpet and curled her legs under her to sit down on the floor in front of him. She grabbed the tractor and set it the right way. “Flash is the fastest man alive. He was struck by lightning, and he became as fast as lightning. He can run for days and never stop. He can run so fast that you can’t see him.”
“Is he a superhero?”
“He sure is.”
“Cool!” Michael plopped down on the floor and grabbed the controller for his tractor. He drove it in circles around Becca, and she laughed as he ran into things and narrowly avoided her. Occasionally, she would pretend she was scared he was going to scoop her up and dump her somewhere else. Michael roared with laughter as he attempted to run her over.
Becca had no idea how much time had passed, but when she glanced out of the window after hearing footsteps down the hall, she realized it was dusk. She glanced around the room for a clock, found none then looked at her watch. “Michael, do you suppose it’s getting close to bedtime?”
He sheepishly crossed his legs and looked down at his hands in his lap. “I guess.”
“Do you think we should clean up your toys before bed, so your room is nice and clean in the morning?”
“I guess…” he muttered.
Becca smirked and picked up the tractor. “Where does this go?”
He jumped up, took it from her and put it in a cubby against the wall. It didn’t take them long before the room was cleaned, and when he turned to look toward the door and not Becca, Becca was taken off-guard.
“We cleaned my room!” He beamed.
“That you did.” Kimberly’s voice was like silk, floating over Becca’s skin and warming her. “Did you show Becca anywhere else other than your room?”
“Ummm. I did.”
Becca glanced up in time to see Kimberly give Michael a look that meant business. “Did you?”
“No. We just played.”
The smile that brushed Kimberly’s lips was one of pure love. “Why don’t you get changed into your jammies, and I will show Becca the rest of the house.”
He jumped up without another question. Becca, however, rolled to her side then got up to her feet. When she stood, facing the door, she found herself within an arm’s reach of Kimberly. Her heart rate ratcheted up and her breath left her lungs.
The curt tone was back, and Becca couldn’t figure out if it was just her Kimberly wasn’t liking or if she was like this with everyone. Doubling down on her efforts, Becca knew she’d have to make progress, otherwise her name would end up back on the available list like everyone else who had been through this house.
Becca followed Kimberly the way she had come before, her eyes focused on Kimberly’s swaying hips. Kimberly had generous curves and a rounded butt covered by skin-tight leggings. Her shirt billowed a little more as she moved, her dark hair straight down her back.
“There’s a bathroom at the end of the hall that Michael uses. The kitchen’s here, living area… There is a den down that hall, along with two guest rooms. There’s also the sunroom that leads to the pool that way. Michael is not allowed near the pool or in the backyard without you or me. You are CPR trained, correct?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Becca answered.
Kimberly wrinkled her nose. “No need for that. You can call me Kim.”
“Kim. Kim Burns.” The click in Becca’s head was nearly audible. “You’re Kim Burns. How did I not put that together?”
Kimberly hummed to herself. “I am. Didn’t think you recognized me. I tell Kiddie Academy not to share, so I’m not surprised they didn’t tell you. That, and Burns is my maiden name, not my married name.”
Becca’s eyes widened again, her muscles locking up with a touch of fear and worry. “I’m so sorry. I should have recognized you. I’ve seen your cooking show.”
“I don’t expect people to know who I am, but thank you.”
Becca grinned and winked. “I didn’t say I liked your show. I just said I’d seen it.”
Kimberly smirked, and it was the first time Becca felt she’d made a chink in Kimberly’s thick and solid armor. It was a small one, but a chink at that. Kimberly pushed open the door to a room down a hallway the complete opposite direction from Michael’s.
“This is your wing…bedroom and bathroom. You’ll have to share the kitchen with us. I do apologize for that, but I rarely cook when I’m home.”
“Don’t blame you for that. I can’t imagine cooking all day then coming home after work and wanting to cook again.”
Kimberly let out a snort. “Exactly. We can discuss everything else once you get a bit more settled and once Michael is asleep. I’d rather not mess up his routine any more than necessary.”
“Absolutely. I’ll just bring in my stuff then.”
“Here’s a key.” Kimberly held out the single key between her thumb and forefinger, dangling it in front of Becca. “I’ve got a file for you with the alarm code and everything else that you’ll need to know.”
“Got it.” Becca reached forward and held her hand open so Kimberly could drop the key into her palm. She would much prefer to avoid touching Kimberly if at all possible. Something about her set Becca’s nerves on fire.
* * * *
Michael was already tucked in bed, asking for anything and everything to delay bedtime once again. It was a song and dance Kimberly and her son had played many times. Smiling down sweetly at him one more time, she kissed his forehead.
“It’s bedtime. Seriously.”
“Okay,” he whispered. “Water?”
“No,” she answered, sternly. “I’ll see you in the morning. Night-night.”
“Night. Love you!” He gave her a cheeky grin with far too much energy for a four-year-old about to fall asleep.
“Love you, too.”
Kimberly stood up, ran her fingers over Michael’s cheek then exited the room, shutting the door as quietly as she could. The lights were still on in the kitchen and living area, and she could hear Becca going in and out of the front door. Rubbing her lips together, Kimberly paused in her tracks and debated where to go. Normally, she wouldn’t help. It wasn’t that she was cold or didn’t have a generous bone in her body. It was because she’d done the in-and-out-of-boxes so many times in the last two years that she loathed the idea of doing it even one more time.
When she heard the door close, she shook her head at herself and headed down the hall toward the main part of the house. Becca had disappeared into her room. Kimberly followed her silently, stopping in the doorway. This was Becca’s room, and she felt like an intruder to go beyond without an invitation. She knocked gingerly on the doorframe and leaned against it, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Do you need any help bringing your stuff in?” She tried to make her tone sound warm, but she feared it came off as cold. She often did that—and usually when she didn’t want to.
Becca spun around as if surprised by her presence. Her dark red hair spiked perfectly behind her head, not moving with the no-doubt crazy amounts of gel in it, and her pale blue eyes widened.
Kimberly put her hands up. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t. Well, I guess you did. I didn’t hear you at all.”
“I have been accused before of being too quiet.”
Becca wrapped her hands together in front of her. Kimberly straightened, tensing with nerves. She had to make this one work. Michael would start kindergarten soon enough, but Kiddie Academy had told her they would be canceling her contract if she fired another one of their nannies. She needed someone to help her.
“Do you have more things?” Kimberly asked again, not quite sure where to put her anxiety.
Becca shook her head. “No, this was the last of it. Did you want to talk about routine and everything else?”
“Sure. I was just going to grab a glass of wine. Do you want one? Wait! Are you even old enough for one?”
Shaking her head, Becca headed for the door. “Yes. I am old enough for wine, but I think I’ll skip it tonight and just have some water.”
Kimberly debated for one second whether or not to ask but gave in to curiosity. “How old are you, then?”
Becca scrunched her nose in Kimberly’s direction before snorting. “I’m twenty-eight. Yes, I’m still in college, working on my bachelor’s degree. Just taking it slowly—or as my mother would say, I’m on the twenty-year-plan.”
“Sounds like my mom,” Kimberly muttered as she reached the kitchen. “Glasses are in the cabinet to the right of the sink.”
Becca pulled down a drinking glass for herself and a wineglass for Kimberly. She handed it over, and their fingers brushed. Kimberly jerked and opened the white wine a bit more forcefully than she had to. She poured herself a glass—a full one, almost to the rim—before she headed for the giant island in her kitchen and sat. Becca soon followed with her glass of water and took up the next stool over.
Kimberly pushed a manilla folder over and took a long sip of her wine. “This is the basics of what I have. My schedule, mostly. I’m in the middle of building the television part of my career, so my schedule is crazy.”
“I Wiki’d you.”
“You what?” When she looked at Becca, there was a slight blush to Becca’s cheeks, and Becca refused to look Kimberly in the eye. “What did you find?”
“Random crap that may or may not be true.”
Kimberly hummed and took another long drink from her wine. “At least you don’t believe it all.”
“I don’t believe most of it.”
Kimberly narrowed her eyes at Becca. “I appreciate that. Short story? My ex and I split over two years ago, although we lived pretty separately before that, if we’re being honest. It was mutual, no hard feelings. We co-parent very well, mostly because Bradley has a hands-off tactic to parenting, but I have primary custody. Michael goes over there for one weekend a month and for two weeks in the summer—if Bradley ever actually takes him for two weeks.”
“That sounds very amicable.”
Turning on her stool to fully face Becca, Kimberly tried to judge where the tone was coming from. “You sound like you don’t believe me.”
“No divorce is amicable.”
“It was when he admitted finally that he is gay. No point in staying married to a woman.”
Becca’s lips formed into a perfect ‘O’ shape and color rushed to her cheeks.
“Wasn’t on Wiki, was it?” Kimberly snapped, this time allowing the anger to lace her tone. “He’s a doctor for the rich and famous, so he has a busy schedule and isn’t as interested in being a full-time daddy, but he does love Michael, and that’s all that matters in the long run. You will have those weekends completely off. I am home as much as I can be, and when I am home, you do not have to do a thing with Michael. However, my schedule is long and has random hours. I’m often gone for days when I’m shooting a show or for twelve-to-fourteen hours when I’m in the restaurant. I’m the executive chef at Gamma’s. That is when I need you to fill in the gaps.”
“That’s what I am here for.” Becca spun the glass of water on the counter between her fingers.
Kimberly bit the inside of her cheek, sure she had already screwed up what was her last-ditch effort to provide some sort of stability for her son while she was a single working mom. Silence carried over them. Kimberly was hesitant to break it, not sure what to say, but knowing she probably should. Exhaustion fluttered through her bones, and she rubbed the heel of her palm sharply against her thigh, as it ached.
Becca was the one who spoke first. “So, if you don’t cook at home, what does Michael eat?”
Kimberly snorted. “What I cook at the restaurant that’s left over.”
Becca hummed. “And you?”
“What? That wasn’t on Wikipedia?” Kimberly asked with a hint of sarcasm.
Becca clenched her hands, and her eyes drooped in sadness.
Kimberly wished she could take back her accusation, but she wasn’t the kind of person to filter herself.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”
Astonished, Kimberly shook her head. “No, it’s natural for you to be curious. You’ll have to learn I have a very odd sense of humor. It’ll take a while for you to get used to it. Until then, feel free to just ignore me or call me crazy.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.”
Kimberly finished her wine. “I have a short day tomorrow, so I’ll be around in the morning if you have any questions.”
Standing, she set the empty glass in the sink and turned to face Becca. Becca looked so young compared to how Kimberly felt. They were twelve years apart in age, but it felt closer to two lifetimes. Becca’s life was just beginning and Kimberly’s was smack in the middle.
“My room is down there, across from Michael’s, if you need something.”
“I think I’ll be set.”
Kimberly hesitated a moment before turning and heading toward her bedroom, leaving Becca behind. It had been a quiet day at home, but it had been stressful nonetheless. Kimberly turned the light on as she entered her room and shut the door behind her. After stripping out of her loose shirt and tight leggings, she pulled on loose pajamas and a tank.
Sleep was not her forte. She hadn’t slept more than four hours since…she couldn’t even remember when. Pulling out her laptop, Kimberly reclined in her bed and pressed the machine into her lap. She opened the top, scrolled her emails, then retrieved the one file she hadn’t shared with anyone. It was a cookbook, a dream—something she’d always wanted to attempt but had struggled to get started. Even twenty years into her career, she still couldn’t formulate how it should all go together. She skimmed her notes before growing frustrated and turning on the television to watch her favorite show and zone out. Perhaps tomorrow would be a new day.