SANTA'S PLAYBOOK
Book 3 in the Jersey Boys series
October 2014

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4.5 Stars Top Pick GOLD, Romantic Times!

Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice winner, Best Special Edition, 2014


Ever since his wife’s sudden death three years earlier, Ethan Noble’s only goal has been to keep his children’s world on an even keel – not to mention his, as well. Only his teenage daughter Juliette is sure Claire Jacobs, her adorable, fun-loving drama teacher, would make the perfect stepmom…and perhaps restore some of the magic to the family that’s been missing since her mom died. And not gonna lie, Ethan definitely finds Claire…tempting. Okay, so she makes him feel alive in a way he hasn’t for a very long time. But the idea of falling in love again, making himself vulnerable to that much pain a second time…how can he do that to himself? Let alone his kids?

Claire is as appalled as Ethan at his daughter’s match-making attempt, even though, heck, yeah, she’s attracted to the handsome, brooding coach. And his devotion to his brood steals her breath. But taking on a ready-made family with four kids? No way. Not to mention, how on earth can she compete with the memories of someone Ethan loved since he was fifteen? In other words, this is the mother of non-starters.

Even so, even the most stubborn hearts can’t resist the magic of the holidays…

 

EXCERPT

Chapter One

  

REVIEWS

Baby Steps

4.5 Stars Top Pick GOLD — "Templeton returns to her atypical Jersey Boys clan with an inspiring tragedy-to-triumph tearjerker. A captivating couple and matchmaking kid rock every page. The cacophony of loud children's voices, iconic Jersey-isms, and adult desires makes this an unapologetic, real slice-of-life."
Romantic Times

Today would have been his sixteenth anniversary.
 
Only half hearing the kids’ thudding and slamming and yelling from downstairs, Ethan Noble glanced out his bedroom window, where a pair of chattering squirrels chased each other through an oak tree, the bare branches thickly webbed against a pale November sky. It’d been cold and windy that day, too, the mottled clouds occasionally spitting on everybody’s windshields as they made their way to All Saints.
 
But nobody’d cared. About the weather, about the indisputable fact that Merri’s stomach bulged a little underneath her high-waisted wedding dress. So things’d happened slightly out of order. Since it’d all worked out like they’d always planned, anyway, what difference did it make—?

His cell buzzed – an incoming text message. Only one person who’d call this early. And for only one reason. Ethan scooped the phone off his nightstand.

Thinking of you.

If anyone would understand what he was feeling today it’d be the man who’d adopted Ethan when he was a toddler. Also a widower for some years now, Preston Noble had set an example of strength and loyalty and fairness that Ethan could only hope to emulate, especially as a parent. And his father had adored Merri…

God, she’d been beautiful. And so fricking happy. Same as he’d been, even if Juliette’s precipitous appearance hadn’t been in the playbook. Merri, though…she’d been a part of his playbook since they were fifteen.

Juliette’s age, he thought as his daughter appeared in the doorway, her wavy, warm brown hair streaked with some godawful color. At least it was only chalk, it washed out, but still. Lime green?

“Um…the others had breakfast, sorta. Cereal, anyway. So…I’m ready to go—?”

“Sure,” Ethan said, smiling. “We’re good.”

Jules came over, standing on tiptoe to give him a hug, a peck on his scratchy cheek. Shaving was strictly optional on the weekends. Then she released him, eyes full of concern, and Ethan’s stung. He didn’t make an issue of the anniversary, so the younger kids were oblivious. But Jules…she knew. In fact, she already had her eye on Merri’s wedding dress, packed up safe in the special heirloom box in Ethan’s closet. Never mind she was already three inches taller than her mother.

“You know, I don’t have to go—”

“It’s only another Saturday, honey. So get outta here,” he said in an exaggerated Jersey accent. “Do your mom proud, okay?”

“Okay,” she said and started off, only to spin around at the door. “I’ll do a real breakfast when I get back. How’s that?”

“Whatever,” Ethan said, loving her so much it hurt. And not only because she was the spitting image of Merri, except for her eyes, more green-blue than purple-blue. But because he’d look at her and think, How’d I luck out to get one this good?

Unlike the twins, he thought on a brief chuckle as the boys bellowed downstairs. Then Isabella had arrived, a surprise after a six-year dry spell, to more than outshine her brothers in the Tasmanian Devil department—

Briefly, resentment stabbed, that his youngest daughter would never know her mother.

But like always he shrugged off the memories, the self-pity and anger and – even after all this time – the disbelief as he slowly descended the stairs, his palm lightly raking the dark wood banister’s numerous dings and gouges that long preceded his and Merri’s buying the house four blocks from the high school, right after the twins were born. At the bottom he flexed his knee, willing the ache to subside: coaching Peewee football was a lot more physical than high school varsity.

He’d no sooner reached the kitchen than the three remaining kids accosted him about a dozen things needing his immediate attention – hell, even the dog whined to go outside. But Ethan found the bombardment comforting, even reassuring, in its life-as-usual normalcy. So, as he let out the dog and returned the kids’ verbal volleys and poured more milk for Bella and double-checked the schedule on the fridge so they wouldn’t be late for the twins’ game, he gave silent thanks for the day-to-day craziness that kept him sane.

That kept him focused, not on what he’d lost, but on what he still had.

Even when his gaze caught, prominently displayed on the family room wall twenty feet beyond the kitchen, the wedding portrait of those two crazy-in-love twenty-two-year-olds, grinning like they had all the time in the world to figure life out.

Happy anniversary, babe, he silently wished the only woman he’d ever loved.
* * *
Ancient floorboards creaked underfoot in the overheated Queen Anne as Claire Jacobs methodically assessed the leavings from someone’s life. She yanked off her heavy knit hat, shaking her curls free. Poodle hair, her mother had called it. Smiling, Claire lifted a lovely cut-glass bowl to check the price. Only to nearly drop it. This was an estate sale, for cripe’s sake. Not Southeby’s.

As if reading her mind, some prissy old dude in a tweed jacket squinted at her from several feet away. Ignoring him, Claire replaced the bowl and glanced around at the jumble of furniture and accessories and tchotkes, moping like rejected props from Mad Men. And for this she dragged her butt out of bed on one of the few mornings she could actually sleep in—?

Wait… She scurried across the room to practically snatch the leaded glass lamp off the table. Okay, it was hardly Tiffany, not for twenty bucks, but it would look terrific on that little table by her front door—

“Miss Jacobs?”

Clutching her prize, Claire twisted around…and grinned.  “Juliette! What are you doing here?”

Sporting a denim jacket, a blinged-out hoodie and preppy shorts worn over patterned tights, Claire’s student flashed a mouthful of metal punctuated by hot pink ties. “We live a few houses down,” she said, and Claire’s stomach pinched. Since “we” included Hoover High’s ridiculously good-looking, widowed football coach, the object of probably most of Maple River’s post-pubescent female fantasies. Except Claire, of course, who was above such folderol. Stomach pinching aside. “So I figured I’d check it out,” the teen said, “see what was good.”

“Not sure there’s much that would appeal to a teenager,” Claire said, even as Juliette zeroed in on a demitasse collection, carefully picking up one of the cups and holding it to the light.

“Oh, I’m not looking for myself.” She scrutinized another cup. “It’s for my business.”

“Your…business?”

“Used to be my mom’s. She’d buy stuff at estate sales and flea markets, then sell it on eBay. She was pretty good at it, too.” This said matter-of-factly as the girl sidled over to a stash of old books. “She taught me what to look for, how to price things and stuff. So a few months ago I decided to try selling some pieces myself.”

Baby Steps“And is it working?”

“It is.” Juliette selected a couple of the books, tucking them to her side. “Which is great, since it’ll help pay for college. Depending on where I go, of course.” Another sparkling grin accompanied, “I’d have to sell a boatload of stuff to afford Yale.”

Claire’s heart twisted. Although she’d only been teaching a few months – a fork in her life path she could have never predicted – she knew it was wrong to have favorites. And truthfully she loved all “her” kids. Not only her drama students, but even the less-than-motivated ones in her English classes who groaned every time she made them dredge correctly spelled words from their iPodded/Padded/Phoned brains and write them down. By hand. On paper.

But this one was special, for many reasons, not the least of which was her plucky, wide-eyed determination to not only succeed at something at which few did, but also her refusal to feel sorry for herself. Or let anyone else feel sorry for her, either, despite losing her mother so young. A stroke, she’d heard. At thirty-five. No prior symptoms, no warning…how scary must that have been? For all of them. Claire had been a little younger than Juliette when her dad died – suddenly, like Juliette’s mom – and she’d been stunned by how tenaciously the pain had clung. And yet, if Juliette was suffering from bitterness or resentment, Claire sure as hell couldn’t see it.

“There are plenty of drama programs besides Yale’s, you know,” she said as Juliette carted two of the delicate cups and saucers to the table. “And it would definitely be cheaper to go to school in-state.” Claire’s sole option, when her mother barely made enough to keep them housed and fed, let alone fund her only child’s college education.

“Yeah, I know.” Juliette meticulously stacked books, a few old toys, other odds and ends that Claire wouldn’t have thought worth squat next to the cups. Mr. Tweed frowned, but Juliette seemed unfazed, returning to poke through the offerings on another table. “But not a lot of schools that people will actually take your theater degree seriously.”

Except – as Claire knew only too well – when you’re one of a gazillion actresses auditioning for the same part, the invisible director sitting in the dark theater doesn’t give a doodly damn where you got your degree. Or even if you have one. However, she was hardly going to burst a fifteen-year-old’s bubble.

Juliette carted over a few more cups. “And, yeah, I know I’ll have to keep my grades up like crazy, and that’s not even counting the audition. But it’s dumb to admit defeat before you’ve even tried, right? At least, that’s what Mom always said.”

Claire paid for her lamp, which seemed to slightly mollify old Tweedle Dee. “Very true. And…your dad? Is he on board with your plans?”

“Sure,” Juliette said quickly, poking her hair behind an ear only slightly less studded than Claire’s. “And anyway, I’ve got a couple years to figure it out, so…” She stopped, frowning at her growing collection. Tweedy glowered.

“Problem, young lady?”

“Yeah. My eyes are bigger than my arms. Um…if I pay for everything now, would you mind if I take it in several trips? Since I walked over here—”

“I could give you a lift,” Claire said.

Big blue eyes met hers. “You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, then. Thanks!” Juliette dug her wallet out of the worn Peruvian-style shoulder bag she always carried as the guy added up her purchases. “Guess this is what you’d call…serendipity. See – I remembered from that vocab list last week. I am so gonna rock my SATs.” Then she sighed. “The language part, anyway. Because I totally suck at math. Like Mom did. It’s like a genetic curse.”

Claire smiled. “What about your father?”

Rolling her eyes, the girl handed over a wad of cash to Tweedsie as a woman wearing a matching scowl wrapped the breakables in tissue paper, placing them in a cardboard box that had once housed cans of Little Friskies. “He did his best when I was in middle school, and I didn’t flunk, so that’s something. But there’s a reason he teaches PE.”

And clearly the girl had also inherited her mother’s sense of humor, since from what little interaction Claire’d had with Juliet’s father, she doubted he had one. “Then maybe you should start working with a tutor. Get a leg up before it gets any harder.”

“Ohmigod – it gets harder?”

This said with a twinkle in those blue-green eyes, a flash of dimples. Shaking her head at the teen’s giggle, Claire hauled a bag of unbreakables off the table and started toward the front door, holding the lamp aloft like Lady Liberty’s torch. Juliette followed with the first of three boxes, which they loaded into the trunk of the ten-year-old Ford Taurus that had belonged to Claire’s mother. A few minutes later they pulled up in front of a dignified, but slightly weathered, ‘twenties-era Tudor…and Claire fell immediately in love.

Not that she felt inclined to two-time her adorable apartment, wedged under the eaves of an even older Queen Anne on the other side of town. It was quirky and funky and all sorts of other –y words, and she adored it. But this house, with its dark wood trim and gabled roof and ivy scrambling up one corner to tickle one of the windows…wow. Of course, three weeks before Thanksgiving the forty-foot oak on one side was bare, but a pair of frosted spruces glistened in the sun, and a little curl of fireplace smoke teased the bright blue sky, hinting of the warmth inside.

And this charming house was where Ethan Noble lived. Huh.

Claire popped the trunk and got out, figuring she’d help Juliette haul her loot inside, then scram. Except before they got through the slightly scratched- up front door, adorned with a slightly sorry fall wreath, not only did the cutest, fuzziest, little white dog trot over to say hi, but Juliette said, “Hey – have you had breakfast? I make awesome omelets. And I’m sure Dad put coffee on, there’s always coffee when he’s home. Or I could make hot chocolate?”

Yes, Claire could smell the coffee, singing to her like it was auditioning for The Voice. But, again, getting overly chummy with a student…not a good idea under the best of circumstances. Getting chummy with one whose father practically gave Claire the evil eye whenever they ran into each other….

“That’s lovely of you to offer, but—”

“Pleeease?” Juliette said, and the coffee crooned a little more sweetly, and Claire’s stomach growled, and she thought, Oh, what the hell?
           
“You really make good omelets?” she said, and the girl squealed and clapped her hands, yeesh, and the dog did a little dance on its hind legs, and then an absolutely adorable little squirt wearing half her closet barreled down the stairs and right into Juliet’s thighs, prattling on about stupid Harry and dumb Finn and how much she hated, hated, hated boys, and Claire got a little dizzy.

Baby StepsJuliette, however, calmly set her box on a nearby table and crouched in front of her baby sister, brushing back a tangle of pale blond hair from a very pissed-looking little face. “So what’d they do this time?” she asked, and the child rattled off a litany of offenses, which were then interrupted by a very masculine, but somewhat weary, “Bella. Enough.”

Followed by a silence thick enough to slice.

“Hey, Dad,” Juliette said, standing, then twisted her baby sister around in front of her. Like a shield. “Look who I ran into at the estate sale! And she gave me a ride home. So I invited her to breakfast. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Oh, dear. Was that adolescent defiance rearing its pretty little head? Only, before Claire could process that little tidbit, a certain steely blue gaze rammed into hers – speaking of pissed – and a thousand ancient insecurities tried to rear their heads, and she thought, no.

Or, more exactly, Hell, no.

Hey, she’d survived an ever-changing cast of roommates in more New York apartments than she cared to count, not to mention pointless cattle call auditions and insane directors and leering weirdos on the subway, capped off by caring for her dying mother back here in Maple River for nearly a year. A weenie, she was not. Not now, anyway. So no way was a pair of hot blue eyes slinging her back to that hellacious era when she hated her hair/body/clothes and a cute boy’s smile would render her a blithering, klutzy idiot.

Not that she’d actually ever seen Ethan smile. Although he was cute. In a brooding, Bronte-dude sort of way. Even if she hadn’t known he was ex-military, his posture and close-cropped hair – a dirty blond, maybe? – would have given him away. He was maybe a hair over six feet tall, but his bearing was…fierce. She imagined he was hell in football practice. Even though she’d never heard any of his players bad-mouth him. Ever.

“Your home is…” Claire glanced around, taking in the clutter of toys and sports equipment smothering what had probably at one time been nice furniture in mostly tans and reds and dark greens…the charred brick fireplace…the mantle choked with family photos. From some unidentifiable part of the house, an obviously ticked-off male child bellowed, immediately followed by an even louder bellow in response. Claire turned back, smiling. “Lovely. Thank you for having me.”

“You’re welcome,” Ethan mumbled, then yelled up the stairs. “Guys! Come pick up your crap! We’ve got company!”

“Aw, Dad…”

“Jeez, Dad!” Juliette chirped.

Ethan stabbed a dark look in her direction before turning again, shouting, “Now!”

Sneakered feet thundered down the wooden treads, attached to a pair of gangly, shaggy-haired ‘tweens – one blond, one red-haired – who threw Claire a mildly curious glance before attacking the mess. And she had to admit she felt a pang of sympathy for Ethan, raising four kids by himself. There had only been one of her, and both of her parents, and as a kid she’d been way too much of a scaredy-pants to rock the boat. But this – the boys vroomed around the room like a multi-limbed dust devil, snatching up equipment and tossing it more at than in what Claire assumed was a mudroom off the kitchen – was Crazyville. You hear that, ovaries—?

Ah. The glare was once more aimed in her direction. Over, she realized, Bella’s head, who’d somewhere along the way ended up in her daddy’s arms. Strong, muscled arms underneath a gray fleece pullover that emphasized the equally muscled, broad shoulders carrying the weight, if not of the entire world, at least the world that was his.

Realizing Juliette had disappeared – to the kitchen, Claire presumed – she said in a low voice, “I don’t mean to intrude—”

“It’s okay,” he muttered through a jaw that redefined tight. “Jules likes to cook, but it’s mostly lost on her brothers and sister.” His eyes dropped to the little girl clinging to him like a baby monkey, his expression softening. Sort of. “Can’t get this one to eat eggs for anything.”

“Because eggs are gross,” Bella said, making a face exactly like her father’s, and it was everything Claire could do not to laugh. Then the little one leaned back, frowning into her father’s eyes. “And could you please tell Harry an’ Finn to stop calling me a baby. It hurts my feelings.”

Ethan frowned back. “Then you have to promise to stay out of their room. You know it bugs them when you go in there.”

“But I want to see Spot!”

“You can see Spot when he’s out in his ball.”

“But they never take him out anymore!”

“Okay. I’ll talk to them, see if we can arrange visitation. Deal?”

After a second, the little girl pushed out a long sigh. “Deal.”

“Good.” Ethan set her down, cupping her head for a moment before she took off to another part of the house, sparkly sneakers flashing as she ran. He watched her for a moment, then turned back to Claire, muttering, “I’ll take eighty hormone-crazed teenage boys over one six-year-old girl, any day.”

Wait. Were her ears deceiving her, or was that Ethan Noble making a funny? Well, hell.

“So who’s Spot?” she asked when she found her voice again.

“A hamster. The boys named him. So…you ran into Jules…?”

“At that estate sale, yeah. I bought a lamp. She bought…a lot more.”

One side of his mouth lifted. More chagrin than grin, though. “Sounds about right.”

“She’s really good at the eBay thing?”

“She really is.” He paused, the faint glow in his blue eyes dimming. “Exactly like her mother. I gave Jules fifty bucks seed money, I’ve lost count of how many times she’s multiplied it since them. Kid has a real head for business.” Pride glowed through his words, if not on his face, and Claire felt a slight…ping. Of what, she wasn’t sure.

“Then she has choices, about what to do with her life,” Claire said, and Ethan’s brow furrowed. “If she’s serious about an acting career—”

“Not happening,” he said, effectively ending the discussion. But although something in Claire prickled at the dismissal, this was not her battle to fight. Especially since Juliette could easily change her mind a dozen times between now and graduation.

Baby StepsSo she smiled and changed the subject. “Mmm…breakfast smells great, doesn’t it—?”

“Just so you know,” Ethan said, his eyes locked on her face, “my daughter’s on a mission.”

Now Claire frowned. “What kind of mission?”

“To get herself a stepmother.”

An idea with which, judging from his expression, Ethan was not even remotely on board.

Which was fine with Claire, since that was one role she wasn’t even inclined to audition for.
* * *
Ethan’s brows dipped when Claire clamped a hand over her mouth…to, apparently, stifle a laugh.
 
“And you seriously think,” she whispered after she lowered her hand, “that’s why she invited me to breakfast?”

“Odds are,” Ethan said, not sharing Claire’s merriment. “You’d be the…let’s see…third woman in the past six months she’s tried to throw in my path.”

This time, a piece of that laugh broke loose to float in his direction, and Ethan felt his shoulders tense. That laugh…it’d been his introduction to the woman before he’d even seen her, during prep week back in late August. A sound far too low and gutsy to come out of someone so small, he remembered thinking when they’d finally met, and her smile had arrowed into him hard enough to make him flinch, her handshake as firm as any man’s. Now he literally stepped aside in a lame attempt to dodge that laugh. Not to mention the grin. Although there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to avoid the deep brown eyes. Except look away, he supposed. But that would be rude.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s not funny for you,” she said, but not like she really meant it. Then she shook her head, making all those curls quiver.

Those curls drove him nuts. Shiny. Soft. Bouncy—

No.

She grinned. “And here I thought we were bonding over a mutual love of the theater.”

Ethan bristled. Yeah. That. Or rather, that, too. Then again, knowing Jules, the stagestruck phase would in all likelihood go the way of the photography phase and the piano phase and a dozen other phases he didn’t even half remember anymore. This matchmaking thing, though, was something else again. He resisted the temptation to massage his knee, acting up despite his telling it not to. He loved Jersey, Jersey was home, but the damp weather sucked.

“Afraid not.”

Something like sympathy shone in her eyes, and he bristled again. After three years, you’d think the pity wouldn’t bother him anymore. “Then why’d you invite me to stay for breakfast?”

“I didn’t. Jules did.”

“But…”

“I didn’t want to come across like some hardass, okay?”

Her mouth curved. No lipstick. Or any other makeup that Ethan could tell. Not that she needed it, with her dark brows and lashes—

Yeah, it bugged him, bugged him like hell, this dumb physical attraction to the woman. Because had no business being attracted to anybody right now, especially some cute little bouncy-haired drama teacher who was obviously feeding his way-too-impressionable daughter a load of bull. Man, Juliette’s constant yammering about the woman was about to drive him up the wall. Even though he knew this was only a crush – although considering how many of the teachers at Hoover were barely younger than the school’s namesake, he could hardly blame her.

Any more than he could blame himself, he supposed, for the not-so-little pings and dings and buzzings when Claire was around. He thought he’d buried his libido with his wife. Clearly not.

And this despite her dressing crazier than the kids. Take today, for instance – a sweater that came practically to her knees, the ugliest, puffiest vest on God’s green earth, boots that looked like Chewbacca’s feet. Three pairs of earrings. Granted, all tiny, but….

“Honestly, I had no idea the kid had an ulterior motive,” Claire was saying, “Nor would I have gone along with her nefarious plan if I had—” Something crashed overhead, shaking the house. She looked up. “Because that would drive me nuts.”

“You don’t like kids?”

Her gaze snapped to his, and Ethan’s face heated. A knee-jerk reaction, totally uncalled for and way out of proportion to the situation. Especially considering how often his progeny drove him nuts, too.

Claire tilted her head, a little grin tugging at her mouth. “Kids are great. Noise, not so much. Which is why I love teaching – I can get my fill of the little darlings, then they go home. To someone else’s house. And I go home to mine.” Harry yelled at Finn about…something. “Where it’s, you know, peaceful.”

Not for the first time, he found her presence…unnerving, he supposed it was. Aside from the attraction thing, that is. Because it was like she was always “on,” practically crackling with energy. Made sense, he supposed, given her being a drama teacher. But the idea of being around that all the time – especially considering the little life-suckers his kids were – made Ethan very tired. Merri…she’d been the epitome of calm. Not dull, no, but steady. Soothing.

Grief twinged, just enough to prod awake the loneliness, usually smothered under blankets of busyness and obligation. Willing it go back to sleep, Ethan walked over to the fireplace, figuring he might as well stack wood for this evening’s fire as the house filled with the scents of bacon and cinnamon rolls. Jules was going all out. Great.

“I wouldn’t know peaceful if it bit me in the butt,” Ethan finally said, to fill the void as much as anything. Crouching, he grabbed a couple of logs from the metal bucket next to the hearth. “There were always a lot of kids around, when I was growing up. I was one of five, four of us being adopted.”

“Five? Wow.”

“And my parents fostered probably two dozen more over the years.”

“No kidding? That’s awesome.”

His back to Claire, Ethan smiled as he arranged the logs in the firebox. “Yeah,” he said, getting to his feet and dusting off his hands. “They were something else.”

Wearing an easy smile, Claire leaned against the arm of the sofa, her arms crossed, looking less…crackley. “Were?”

Baby Steps“Well, Pop still is, although he’s more than content being a grandpa these days. Mom passed away some years back. But being raised with all those kids…it only seemed natural that I’d batch of my own someday. Would’ve had more, but that wasn’t in the cards—”

And why the hell was he blathering on to this woman he barely knew? But while he could staunch the blathering, he couldn’t do a blamed thing about the memories, of the babies he and Merri had lost…of what he’d lost, period. Of the what-might-have-beens he rarely indulged, for everyone’s sake. And yet – stronger, even, than the scents coming from the kitchen – they practically choked him this morning. It was strange, how even after more than three years they could pounce out of nowhere, throw him for a loop.

Releasing a breath, he met Claire’s disconcertingly gentle gaze again and switched the subject. “You got brothers and sisters?”

“Nope,” she said, shaking her head before plopping cross-legged on the floor to rub Barney’s belly. “There were a few distant cousins, but I rarely saw them.” She grinned when the dog licked her hand. “I like people. It’s living with them I have issues with. I have a cat, though. Does that count?”

“I’m gonna have to say no to that,” Ethan said, and Claire snorted another little laugh as the dog crawled into her lap.

“What is he?”

“A schnoodle.” Claire’s eyes lifted to his. “Schnauzer/poodle. We got him…” He cleared his throat. “Three years ago.”

Still petting the dog, Claire quietly said, “Juliette really keeps trying to fix you up?”

“Yeah,” he breathed out.

“I assume you’ve asked her to back off?”

“Repeatedly. Only to get this look like I’m speaking Klingon—”

“Breakfast’s ready!” Jules called, and Claire shoved to her feet again.

“I could talk to her, if you want—”

“I can handle my own daughter, thanks,” Ethan snapped, only to realize how dumb that sounded, considering what he’d said not two seconds before. A realization Claire obviously picked up on, judging from the damn twinkle in her eyes.

“Yeah, well, as someone who used to be a teenage girl I can tell you they’re very good at ignoring what they don’t want to hear. Especially from their fathers. And since this doesn’t only concern you, I do reserve the right to set things straight from my end.”

Jeez, the woman was worse than his daughter. But Ethan also guessed she had Juliette’s ear, which apparently he didn’t. At least, not about this.

“Fine. Do whatever you think is best. But for now…let’s just get this breakfast over with, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Claire said with a quick smile before following him to the kitchen, and Ethan pushed out another sigh, that God willing in a half hour this – she – would be nothing more than a tiny blip on the old radar screen.

Because it’d taken the entire three years since Merri’s death to fine tune the playbook that held his family, his life, together…and damned if he was gonna let some curly-headed cutie distract him from it now.

Claire ducked into the main floor half bath as the landline rang: Jules had already picked up by the time Ethan reached the kitchen, deftly cradling it between her jaw and her shoulder as she served up omelets and fried potatoes, looking so much like her mother Ethan’s heart knocked.

“Hey, Baba—” The spatula hovering over the skillet, she went stock still. “Oh, no…that sucks! Ick. Yeah…I’ll tell him. No, we’ll work it out,” she said as Ethan motioned for her to give him the phone. But she only brandished the spatula, shaking her head. “Of course I’m sure. You need us for anything…? Okay, then…we’ll talk later.” She redocked the phone, glancing at Ethan as she finished dishing up breakfast. “Baba’s got a tummy bug, she can’t take Bella to dance class.”

He silently swore. Right or wrong, he depended on Merri’s parents to sometimes fill the gap, a role they both seemed to relish. And it’d been Carmela’s idea to put the little jumping bean in ballet class to burn off at least some of her boundless energy. Kid could run ten circles around her brothers. Speaking of whom… “The boys have their game at ten, I can’t do both. ”

“Another argument for letting me get my license sooner rather than later—”

“Forget it. Maybe I could get Pop to take her—”

“PopPop in a room full of baby ballerinas. Yeah, I can totally see that. Hey – maybe Miss Jacobs could do it?”

“Maybe Miss Jacobs could do what?” Claire said as she returned, scrubbing her obviously still damp hands across her butt.

Ethan looked away. “And I’m sure she has better things to do with her morning.”

“And you always say, Dad, it never hurts to ask. Right? Anyway, sit, both of you, everything’s ready. So Bella has ballet this morning,” she went on as Claire sat, “and my grandmother usually takes her, ‘cause the boys have football or soccer or whatever, it’s always something. Only she’s sick and can’t do it. So I said maybe you could. It’s not far, right over on Main—”

“Ohmigosh – not Miss Louise’s?”

“Yeah. You know it?”

“Know it? I took classes there for more than ten years! She’s still alive?”

“Barely, but yeah—”

And naturally, Bella picked that moment to bounce into the kitchen in her pink tights and black leotard. “Is Baba here yet? ‘Cause I’m all ready, see? And can I have a piece of bacon?”

“Help yourself,” Jules said, holding the plate out for her sister as Ethan said, “You’re not supposed to leave for an hour yet. But in any case—”

“Your grandmother’s not feeling well,” Claire said, chomping the end off her own piece of bacon, “so I’m going to take you.”

Ethan’s brows slammed together. “What?”

“My morning’s free, so why not? Besides, I’ve always been a sucker for trips down memory lane. So what do you say, Isabella?”

That got the Very Concerned Face. “But I don’t know you. And Baba always takes me for lunch afterwards.”

“It’s okay, Belly,” Jules said, “Ms. Jacobs is one of my teachers, she’s cool—”

Baby Steps“And maybe Juliette could go with us, if that would make you feel better,” Claire said, adding, at the teen’s nod, “and we can still go to lunch after.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” Then she grinned at her breakfast. “Even though I probably won’t be hungry for hours. This looks amazing, Juliette.”

“Thanks,” she said, then shot Ethan a grin that sent a brief, sharp pain shooting through his skull.



Copyright 2014, Karen Templeton Berger; cover art copyright 2014 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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