Baby Steps

 

BABY STEPS
Special Edition #1798
ISBN 0373247982
December 2006

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Despite her best intentions, Dana Malone finds herself falling under the spell of the charming, gentle, blindingly gorgeous Realtor helping her find a new location for her children’s clothing store. A pointless situation if ever there was one, because, come on – how often do men like C.J. Turner go for gals as generously padded as Dana? Still, she’ll never know if she doesn’t try, right? But when she finally gets up the nerve to make the first move, C.J. rebuffs her – not because of her weight, but because he insists he’s a dead end, marriage-wise. He’s never getting married, and he’s certainly never going to have children. Since Dana wants both – badly – she writes C.J. off and moves on.

Only then Dana’s airhead cousin literally leaves her baby son on the store’s doorstep. And with the baby, his birth certificate – naming C.J. as Ethan’s father. Even though he’s stunned, since C.J. has the larger house he suggests Dana and the baby move in with him. For Ethan’s sake – and for C.J.’s, who she can see is willing to step up to the plate despite his obvious terror – Dana agrees, even though she knows living under C.J.’s roof is complete and utter folly. But as the days, then weeks, pass, she begins to see past the practiced charm that initially attracted her to C.J. to the tangled, impenetrable maze of his past that has left this good, if confused, man convinced he’s incapable of love. So does she steer clear of the maze entirely in order to save her own ample butt. . .or hold out a hand to lead him through to the other side, even at the risk of becoming hopelessly lost herself?

 

EXCERPT

  

REVIEWS

Baby Steps

4 stars — "Baby Steps has lots going on and deals with several serious issues. . . .C.J.'s a special hero -- wounded but willing and able to change. .."
Romantic Times

“Yes, that’ll be fine, I’ll see you then,” C.J. said into his cell phone, clapping it shut and slipping it back into his pants pocket. Not a single call between lunch and Dana’s appointment; since then, the damn thing had rung every five minutes. “Sorry about that,” he said. From the other side of the vacant storefront, she waved away his concern. “At least this way,” she said, making a face at the bathroom, “I don’t feel guilty about takin’ up so much of your time.”

“It goes with the territory,” he said. “Take all the time you need.”

Her back to him, she lifted both hands in the air and waggled them as she click-clacked over the cement floor toward the stock room.

Chuckling softly, C.J. decided he wasn't quite sure what to make of Dana Malone. She exuded all the charm and femininity befitting her Southern upbringing, but none of the coyness. No eyelash fluttering, no feigned helplessness. On the contrary, her incessant fiddling with the printouts, the way she worried her bottom lip as they inspected each property, told him she was genuinely nervous about the position her partners had put her in. And becoming increasingly embarrassed – and ticked off – about being unable to make a decision.

The storm had lasted barely ten minutes, but leftover clouds prowled the sky, leaving the air muggy, the temperature still uncomfortably high. And, after a half-dozen properties, Dana grumpy and irritable. Now, at number seven, C.J. stayed near the front, his arms folded across his chest as he leaned against a support pillar, watching her. Trying to parse the odd, undefined feeling that kicked up in his gut every time she looked at him.

“It's okay, I suppose,” she finally said, her words literally and figuratively ringing hollow in the vast, unfurnished room. “It's certainly big enough. And the double doors in back are great for deliveries. . .”

She looked to him, almost as if afraid to say it.

“But. . .?” he patiently supplied.

Her shoulders rose with the force of her sigh. “But. . .there's not much parking. And you can't really see the front of the store from the street. I mean. . .” Annoyance streaked across her features as she fanned herself with the sheaf of printouts. “I suppose we really don't need more than five or six spaces in front.” She crossed to the front window, her skirt swishing softly against her legs. “And this big window is not only perfect for display, it lets in lots of outside light for the play area Mercy wants to put in. Right now, the toddlers have the run of the shop, and we're so afraid one of them is going to get hurt. . .”

He thought he heard her voice catch, that she turned a little too quickly toward the window. “And maybe that Mexican restaurant next door would pull in enough traffic to compensate for being on a side street. . .” Fingers tipped in a delicate shade of rose lifted to her temple, began a circular massage.

“So we’ll keep looking,” C.J. said mildly as he straightened up. “Next?”

A couple of the papers fell from her hand as she tried to shuffle them; he went to retrieve them for her, but she snatched them up before he had a chance, pointlessly pushing back a strand of hair that kept falling into her eyes. “Oh, um. . .this one near the Foothills might not be bad. Great square footage for the price, lots of families in the areas. . .” Then her brow creased. “But I don’t know, maybe we should stick with something more centrally located. . .oh, shoot!

“At the end of our rope, are we?”

“There's an understatement. . .oh! What are you doing?” she asked as C.J. took her by the elbow, ushering her through the glass door.

“Break time. For both of us.”

“I don’t—”

“You’re making yourself nuts. Hell, you’re making me nuts. This is only a preliminary look-see, Dana. No one expects you to sign a contract today.”

“Good thing,” she said, her hand shooting up to shield her eyes from the glaring late afternoon sun as they walked back to his Mercedes. “Since it’s all a blur.” He opened the car door for her; she didn't protest. Once he’d slid in behind the wheel, she plonked her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. “But what a weeniebrain,” she said on a sigh. “I can’t even eliminate the dogs.”

C.J. felt a smile tug at his mouth as he pulled out into traffic. “I can assure you I've met a fair number of people who'd qualify for that title, Dana. You're definitely not one of them.”

She seemed to consider this for a moment, while her perfume samba’d around the car’s interior. Something high end and familiar. But, on her, unique. “Thank you,” she said at last, her eyes still closed. “But I sure do feel like one. . .” Her eyes blinked open. “Why are we pulling in here?”

“Because it's at least five-hundred degrees out, you're obviously fried, and this joint makes the best ice cream sodas in town. My treat.”

A pickup festooned with yapping dogs rumbled up the street behind them as a whole bunch of questions swarmed in those hazy green eyes.

“You hate ice cream sodas?” he asked.

A startled laugh burst from her throat. “No! I'm just. . .” She shook her head, dainty filigreed earrings bobbing on tiny earlobes that had gone a decided shade of pink. “But I think I’ll stick with Diet Coke.”

A four-by-four roared past, spraying soggy gravel in its wake.

“It’s that woman thing, isn’t it?”

Her brows lowered. “Excuse me?”

“Where you won’t eat in front of a guy. If at all.”

Her mouth twisted, her gaze slid away. “I think it’s kinda obvious I’m no anorexic.”

“Good to know. Because I’m here to tell you that not-eating business annoys the hell out of me. But hey— ” He popped open his car door, then loosened his tie, his jacket having been given the heave-ho three properties ago. “—if you really want a Diet Coke, knock yourself out.”

“Actually. . .” She hugged her purse to her middle, as if trying to shrink. “I can’t stand the stuff.”

Baby Steps“Then it’s settled.” He shoved open his door, then went around to open hers. “Maybe if you just chill for a bit, you'll be able to think more clearly. Damn,” he muttered as his phone rang again. He grimaced at the number – a deal he’d been trying to close for nearly a month – then at her.

“Hey,” she said, as they both got out of the car, “you’ve got ice cream sodas to pay for, far be it from me to hinder your earning capacity.” She glanced up at the sky. “Wonder if it's going to rain again?

It sure feels steamy, doesn't it?"

It did. But somehow, he mused as he answered the phone, he doubted the humidity had anything to do with it.

 

(c) 2006 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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