She’s his nanny and his close friend. He shouldn’t be thinking about her that way…
In the year since I lost my wife in childbirth, I’ve been all about survival as I adapt to life as a single dad to our son. That’s especially true after my mother-in-law also died suddenly. Life has been way more than I can handle, but somehow I’m getting by, thanks mostly to the Wild Widows, a group of fellow travelers who make me feel less alone with my grief. They encourage me to hire fellow Wild Widow Wynter as my nanny, and that’s been working out great, until two things happen—she and my son go missing, and when they’re found safe, I realize my feelings for her are anything but platonic.
I cannot be feeling this way about my employer. He’s entrusted me to take care of the most important person in his life, and I nearly screwed that up epically. After the big scare we had, I should be giving Xavier my undivided attention, which I do until his daddy is in the room. All I see is him. Then I catch Adrian having sex, and now all I can think about what it would be like to be with him that way. He’s my boss, my close friend and we share many mutual friends. A mess between us would be devastating, and not just to us, so I need to avoid that at all costs. I’ve got enough on my plate managing my grief for my late husband. I don’t need the complication that could come with Adrian. If only I hadn’t seen him naked…
AVAILABLE IN MARIE’S STORE
Someone to Love
Wild Widows Series, Book 3
I knew I shouldn’t have come here today. I hadn’t planned to. So what if it’s been one year since Jaden died? What makes this day any different from the three hundred and sixty-four that came before it? He’s gone and coming to his gravesite doesn’t ever make me feel better.
Why would it?
My twenty-two-year-old husband is buried six feet underground where I can never see him or touch him or talk to him again. What does it matter if I come here to stare at the stone marker with his name, JADEN MICHAEL HARTLEY, along with his lifespan in dates far too close together?
Officially changing my name from Wynter Snow, and yes, my mother thought that was a clever name that caused me no end of hell in school, to Wynter Hartley was one of the better days I’ve had as a widow.
Because I’m apparently an emotional cutter, I came. It’s what’s expected of me as his widow. I should visit him on the anniversary of his death. That means something to people.
It means nothing to me. It’s just another day I have to get through without him to show me the way.
In the last year, I’ve learned that’s something I have to figure out for myself. I’m no closer to knowing how to do that than I was the day he died. If anything, I feel further away from those answers than I did then.
With my Wild Widows friend Adrian’s son, Xavier, strapped to my chest, I make my way up the steep hill to the spot Jaden’s parents chose for his final resting place. I hate that I’m out of breath and sweating by the time I get to the top—every time. If Jaden is somehow still here, I hardly look my best showing up red-faced and out of breath. He used to tell me I had the prettiest face he’d ever seen. I doubt he’d say that now, with deep purple circles under my eyes that never seem to go away and new lines that bracket my mouth from frowning all the time.
What is there to smile about?
I feel like the best part of my life is behind me. How does someone go forward with that mindset?
Judging by the huge floral arrangements on either side of the headstone, Jaden’s parents have already been here. Of course they brought gifts, and I came empty-handed. That about sums up my relationship with them—they do everything right and I don’t. Or at least that’s how they made me feel as Jaden slowly slipped away from us. As soon as I have that thought, I feel like a nasty, ungrateful bitch. They were always so good to me and never judged me. I was so busy judging myself during those brutal final weeks with Jaden that I barely had time to notice what they were doing.
Xavier lets out a soft coo to let me know I’m never alone when he’s with me. Somehow I managed to convince Adrian to let me be his nanny, which has given my days the structure I badly needed. I had no idea how much I needed it until my life began to revolve around Xavier. Nothing takes your mind off your own problems quite like an infant with a diaper full of poop and an empty belly.
He’s so sweet and happy. He’s the one thing that can turn my frown upside down, as my always-cheerful mother likes to say. She drives me crazy with her peppy optimism and her this-too-shall-pass approach to my young widowhood.
What the hell does she know about it? She’s never been married. To my knowledge, she’s never been in a relationship that lasted more than six months. I was the result of a one-night stand with a man whose name she can’t remember. Jaden and I were together for six years and would’ve been married the rest of our lives if it hadn’t been for fucking bone cancer.
You might be asking how I could possibly know that, being as young as I am. When you know, you know. Jaden was it for me. He got me in a way that no one else ever has or ever will. From the day we met in ninth grade at a rave that neither of us was supposed to be at, we were soul mates. We crashed into each other in a mosh pit, and he grabbed me, keeping me from being trampled. He saved me then, and he saved me a hundred other times when I might’ve done something stupid to get myself killed. I had this weird desire to tempt fate back then, to do dangerous things, like riding on top of speeding cars and trying any drug that someone put in front of me. Doing that stuff made me feel alive because it didn’t kill me.
Jaden was the one to tell me to cut that shit out and stop acting as if I didn’t care if I lived or died. He cared, and that was enough to get me to stop risking my life.
And then he went and died on me. How is that fair?
“It’s not fair, and you know it,” I tell him as if he can hear me.
I kick the stone because that makes me feel a little better. For a second, anyway. And then I wonder if maybe he can feel me kicking him, which is ridiculous. Welcome to the madness that is my brain on grief.
Being here isn’t doing a damned thing to help me, but at least the box is checked if Jaden is keeping score in heaven. I hate how early it gets dark this time of year. It’s started to mist since I came up the hill, which will make my hair huge and the trip down that much more dangerous.
I used to love tempting fate, until I had someone else’s baby strapped to my chest. Now there’s nothing fun about danger. There’ve been days since I started working for Adrian that I honestly believe that my love for Xavier is the only thing keeping me alive.
No, I’m not being dramatic.
I didn’t care about anything until I cared about him.
Funny how a person could change from being the biggest risk-taking daredevil to caring so much about a tiny boy that you’d give your own life if it meant saving him. He’s the cutest little thing, with his pudgy brown cheeks and big dark eyes that look at me with so much love. Adrian keeps saying that Xavier needs a haircut, but I love his hair, which seems to get longer by the day. I even adore his tiny baby teeth and the way he drools when he smiles.
There’s no way to overstate the impact this job has had on changing the trajectory of my widowhood. I’ve gone from total despair to having a spark of hope burning inside me. However, that spark is like a candle in a stiff breeze that could go out at any time.
If it does, I don’t want to think about what would become of me.
Xavier has become tied to my survival.
It’s that simple—and that complicated, because the longer I work for Adrian, the more I realize that I’ve developed one hell of a crush on my boss and friend. But who wouldn’t crush on him? He’s gorgeous, with brown skin, prominent cheekbones, the same dark eyes as his son and lips that have me thinking about kissing him far too often lately.
And what kind of an asshole am I to be dreaming about Adrian’s lips when I’m visiting Jaden’s grave? Widowhood is ridiculous in more ways than one.
I take one last look at Jaden’s stone surrounded by the sunny yellow roses his mother insists on bringing for every occasion. “I’ll be back. Not sure when, but I will. Don’t go anywhere, okay?”
I chuckle at my own morbid joke as I begin the perilous trek down the hill.
One minute, I’m inching down the incline, and the next, I’m flying through the air with Xavier strapped to me.
We hit the ground hard. Thankfully, I land on my back, which knocks the wind out of me as I pitch forward again, rolling and turning and doing everything I can to protect the baby’s fragile body from impact. This goes on for what feels like forever, and when it finally stops, I’m at the bottom of a weird ditch I’ve never noticed before. My left leg is bent at an awkward angle under me, and my back is screaming with a sharp pain that requires nearly all my attention just to keep breathing.
Xavier is so quiet that I immediately panic as the breath returns to my lungs in a great whoosh that makes me light-headed.
“Xavier! Sweetheart. Xavier!” With my hand on his back, I can tell he’s still breathing, which is a huge relief. Maybe he slept through the calamity. That’s possible, right?
I shift his weight on my chest and reach for my phone, which should be in my pocket.
Except it’s not.
I feel all around us, hoping it’s there, but the only thing I feel are damp leaves, rocks, sticks and cold water seeping through my clothes. My teeth begin to chatter as the skies open and the rain begins to fall in sheets.
What the hell am I going to do?
Every minute that passes with no word from Wynter takes a year off my life. Where in the hell is she with my child, and why isn’t she answering her phone?
I made that a prerequisite to her employment: If I call you, you answer, no matter what else you might be doing.
Why the hell isn’t she answering?
Gage and Iris are here, working the phones, but so far, they haven’t gotten anywhere.
“Do you have a number for her mother?” Iris asks.
“I don’t.” I realize that was a major oversight on my part. I hired Wynter knowing she could be unpredictable. However, I never doubted her devotion to Xavier, which has been incredible since the day we met her, shortly after my wife died giving birth to him.
I was muddling through the swamp of grief and new parenthood until my mother-in-law died of a heart attack—or a broken heart if you ask me—leaving me without someone to care for Xavier while I’m working.
Wynter offered to help, our Wild Widows friends urged me to give her a chance, and here we are. I should call the cops, but I’m afraid to. Involving them is a last resort. Besides, the last freaking thing I need is child protective services breathing down my neck because my nanny was late getting home. A friend from high school went through a year-long nightmare with CPS after his daughter fell out of bed and broke her arm.
I’ll give it another hour before I make that call.
“I think I have her mother’s number at home somewhere.” Iris grabs her coat and heads for the door. “She reached out to me about Wynter joining the group.”
My phone rings with a number I don’t recognize.
As I pounce on it, Iris stops, waiting to hear if there’s news before she leaves.
“Is this Adrian?”
“Yes, it is. Who is this?”
“Wynter’s mom, Ginger. Is she still there? I was expecting her home some time ago. We had dinner plans.”
“No, and we can’t find her or Xavier. I’m totally freaking out. Do you have a way to track her location?” That was another thing I should’ve insisted on with hindsight. What the hell do I know about being a single father to an infant?
“She stopped allowing me to track her after Jaden died.”
My heart sinks. “Do you have any idea where she might be? I’m about to call the police.”
“She didn’t tell me her plans for the day, but it’s the one-year anniversary of Jaden’s death, so she may have gone to the cemetery, although she hates it there.”
“Where’s he buried?”
She tells me the location of a cemetery about four miles from my house. “He’s at the top of a steep hill. You can’t miss it.”
“We’ll take a look. If you hear anything from her—anything at all—please call me. I can’t help but think the worst. She’s got my son with her.”
“She loves that baby with her whole heart and soul. She would never do anything to harm him.”
“I know, but…”
“Let me know if you find her. I’ll start calling her friends.”
I end the call as I run for the door with Iris and Gage following me.
“I’ll drive,” Gage says as Iris gets in the back seat. “You navigate.”
I’m glad he gives me something to do since I feel like I’m coming out of my skin.
I use Waze to get us to the cemetery around the rush-hour traffic that’s such a fact of life in Northern Virginia.
“Did we know today was Jaden’s anniversary?” I ask them.
“No,” Iris says with a grim note to her voice. “I should keep a list of these things.”
She’s the cofounder and de facto president of our Wild Widows group.
“You… You don’t think she’d do something dramatic, do you?” The thought is so big and so overwhelming that I can barely wrap my head around it.
“Not with Xavier,” Iris says emphatically. “No way.”
The gates to the cemetery are closed when we arrive.
“There’s her car!” Iris says, pointing to a vehicle inside the gates.
We park and get out of the car, going around the gates to run into the cemetery. I continue to call her phone, hoping it might lead me to her. What if she isn’t here even though her car is? Where else will we look? I don’t know much about her life beyond the things she’s shared with our group, which isn’t much.
“Wynter!” Gage calls out as he runs. “Wynter!”
I keep dialing the phone. Over and over and over again until I go mad listening to her voice mail message, which is quintessential Wynter: “Can’t pick up. You know what to do.”
“Wynter!” Iris yells.
In the distance, I hear the faint trill of a cell phone, or is that just wishful thinking?
“Do you hear a phone?” I ask Gage and Iris.
The three of us are puffing with exertion and shivering from the icy rain.
I dial it again.
We stop to listen.
“I hear it,” Gage says. “This way.”
We take off running again, calling for her as we go.
Her voice is faint, but it’s her.
I nearly collapse from the rush of relief that floods my system.
“Holy shit,” Gage says. “She’s at the bottom of a ditch. Call 911.”
I dial the emergency number and detail the situation as best I can while watching Gage work his way down to them.
Wynter begins to cry as Gage reaches her.
“It’s okay,” he tells her. “We’re here.”
“Xavier…” I am almost afraid to ask.
“He’s with her,” Gage calls up to me. “He’s breathing.”
I start to cry, too. I’m shaking so hard, I can barely remain standing, and in that moment, I realize my fear is for both of them. At some point, she’s become that important to me. I’m as worried for her as I am for my son.
Iris puts her arms around me. “They’re going to be okay.”
In the distance, I hear sirens, which means help is on the way.
I want to go down to them, but my legs won’t cooperate. I drop to my knees and listen as Gage asks Wynter if she’s hurt.
She says something about her knee and back.
I recall that I promised her mother I’d call if we found her. Somehow I manage to make that call.
“She fell at the cemetery. EMS is on the way.”
“Oh my goodness. Is she all right? Is the baby?”
“She’s hurt but okay. The baby seems fine. We don’t know yet for sure.” Would they tell me if Xavier wasn’t fine? Why isn’t he crying or making any noise? It’s not possible for me to lose anyone else. I’d never survive it.
“Let me know where they’re taking her?” Wynter’s mother asks.
“Thank God you found them.”
“Yes, thank God.”
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Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge
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