Alexa sat beside Kate on the edge of her bed, her arm around the hunched form of her friend.
“I would die if anything happened to Simon. I have to be there.”
“Don’t say another word. I know you have to go,” Alexa said. The timing couldn’t be worse. But somehow she’d figure it out. She’d done it before. She’d managed to graduate from high school and get into university while helping to raise six kids. This would be a piece of cake.
Kate’s eyes filled with tears again. “I do.”
“I can do it.” It was insane. “How long?”
Kate’s mouth thinned. “Two-and-a-half weeks.”
“And there’s nobody else that can do it?”
“Not… exactly.” Kate explained how her own parents were unable, and that Simon’s brother Will was away all summer.
“So that leaves me,” Alex said.
“And, because you’re at the office all day…” she hesitated, hiding behind her cup of tea. “And I know you can’t not do that. We need someone else to fill in.”
“Yeah…?” Alexa prompted.
“Bruce will have to do it,” Kate said.
“What? You must be out of your mind!”
Kate visibly deflated. “I knew you’d hate the idea. But he’s great with the kids, he really is. They adore him. And he’s the only person that’s flexible enough to fill in the gaps while you’re at the office.” She shrugged. “He’s already been helping me. And you know you’ll need back up. I trust Bruce completely.”
“I can’t imagine why. That player? How can he take care of the kids? He can’t even take care of himself. He’s like a big teenager. He won’t be any help at all.” As soon as the rant had left her lips, Alex wished she could take it back. That was no way to convince Kate to leave her kids and go rescue Simon.
“Someone has to be available and run the whole show while you’re working. I already feel terrible that I’m forcing you into this. This isn’t a good time for you with the big project and all. You know I wouldn’t if–“
“I know, Kate. It’s okay. Don’t worry about the kids, or me and Bruce - just go get your man and bring him home.”
“To be fair, you underestimate him. He’s a terrific guy and incredibly smart and talented. Resourceful. He knows how to do everything–”
“Except dress like an adult and behave civilly to women. Well. I’ll be damned if I’ll feed him and do his laundry,” she murmured with a smirk intended to soften her outburst with humour.
They all knew what Bruce was like, didn’t they? Ever since Alexa had met him again four years ago, she’d done her best to avoid him as much as humanly possible. He got under her skin like a thorn, a sharp prick and then hours of itching and irritation that made her grouchy as a bear.
She made it a habit never to be in his company that long. But what was the point of arguing? As annoying as he was, they had to make it work. They had to, for Kate.
“Bruce and I will be fine. It’ll give us a chance to get to know each other better. We’ll work it out.” Lord help her, she didn’t know how.
The doorbell rang.
His first couple of days as Kate's helper had gone smoothly, and he’d begun to feel complacent that she wouldn't demand too much of him, after all. On the third evening, however, after he'd already crossed the bridge and settled into his boat, he gotten her frantic call to come back immediately. Naturally concerned, he hopped in his truck and raced over. Little did he know that this visit would turn his life, his very world view, upside down.
Ever since they'd met and become fast friends in high school, Bruce had always treated Simon’s place like a second home. In fact, it was the closest thing to a real home that Bruce had had since– well, since his Mom had left in the third grade. Simon's parents had been kind to him. It had always been a safe haven from the perpetual state of chaos and persecution that he suffered growing up among his three boisterous older brothers and under the bullying dictatorship of his own father.
Some of his best meals had been shared with Simon and his brother Will as they watched games together. Starting in university, Simon had also hosted their occasional poker nights. Now that Kate was in the picture, and since Markus had been born, Simon’s house had taken on a feminine vibe, an atmosphere of domestic harmony and comfort, a qualitative difference from his first less-than-perfect marriage. Something that Bruce found vaguely disquieting, if oddly compelling. It smelled too sweet. And it seemed the last place on earth you’d set up a poker table. He always looked forward to coming, and just as eagerly longed to escape back to his floating bachelor pad.
He both longed for and feared the sense of safety, stability and belonging that it represented. But the price was too high. You just couldn’t trust relationships to last, and it hurt too much when you counted on someone to be there for you always, and then they left.
Bruce had stayed for dinner the day Simon had flown to Thailand, and been happy to head home afterwards. Tonight, the moment he arrived, he knew something was wrong.
Kate met him at the door and pulled him into Simon's den. Bruce leaned in, kissing her cheek. “Evening, Beautiful.”
She gestured to a chair and sat down. Then she just stared at him. Her eyes were red and puffy.
Oh, dear God. His gut clenched. "What is it?"
"Simon's been in an accident."
Bruce couldn't breath. He was horrified. He was a afraid to ask. "What happened?"
"He was running around trying to make arrangements for his parents, distracted I guess, jet-lagged. He was hit by a motorcyclist."
He waited, his heart in his throat.
Kate shook her head. "He's okay, I guess. Bruised up. But his leg is fractured. So now he's in hospital, too. But they took him to a different hospital than where his Dad is, so it's impossible. Everything's in chaos. He can't do what he went there to do. He's trying to arrange his father's health care and insurance as well as his own, and keep his mother calm, all from a hospital bed. Travel home at the moment is impossible. None of them can manage. I have to go to him. I need you to take care of the kids."
"What? By myself?" Of course he’d do it if he had to, but… “Wouldn’t the kids be better off with a professional? You can hire nannies for temporary gigs, can’t you?”
Kate’s eyes darkened. “I couldn’t do that to Maddie. After all she’s been through with her mother. Simon's never left her before, and her first experience with a nanny when she was a baby was… not good.”
Bruce remembered. Simon had had some horrific experiences with nannies and sitters when he’d been a single dad, and Rachel was notorious for disappointing Maddie by cancelling last minute. “Don't you have girlfriends? Surely a woman would be a better choice. The kids would–”
She nodded. "Alexa’s here, too.”
“What… Alex… You’re not… That harpy?” He bit back more vitriol. He should know better than to bad-mouth Kate's best friend.
"You don't know the first thing about her."
"I know she's never had the time of day for me. How's this going to work?"
“I know you and Alexa don’t have a great history, but… you two got off on the wrong foot years ago. You have to get to know her better.”
“Ri-i-ight.” Bruce nodded sceptically. He never knew whether he wanted to screw her senseless or punch her lights out, she drove him so nuts.
“Alexa is terrific. She’s a smart, caring, funny woman and my oldest, dearest friend. You’ll make a great team.”
Strange, somehow that had escaped Bruce’s notice. The terrific, caring, funny part. Okay, he’d admit she was smart. Too smart. But caring? funny? Nope. She was humourless and abrasive. She was so serious about her career she didn't have time for fun and leisure. Almost a caricature. She was attractive, he'd give her that, in a skinny, dark, exotic sort of way, though not his type. Not attractive enough to brave the prickly gauntlet of her personality. They never seemed to be able to get along without bickering. “You expect me to…”
“Cooperate. She has to work full time. What choice do any of us have, Bruce?”
Bruce wanted to run. He knew she needed his help. His, and obviously Alexa's. There was no way out of this. “Of course I’ll do it. But you’re worried about something?”
“Yes, frankly, I’m concerned that you two are going to fight like cats and dogs.
“Calm down, Kate. I promised Simon I'd take care of you and help you. I didn't know it would be like this, but it’ll be fine. We’ll cooperate. Of course we will.” Bruce wasn’t sure how, but he’d find a way.
“You need to get along, that’s all. Listen and be respectful. Don’t be a macho jerk.”
“I’m not the one who picks fights with her, you know.” Okay, maybe he was somewhat responsible for giving her a certain less-than-favourable impression of who he was. And trying to get a rise out of her. It was so easy to provoke her.
“I really mean it.”
“Hmph. Do you remember the time we first met up again, four Christmases ago? She nearly tore me to shreds.” Bruce’s voice rose an octave remembering. He felt the hair on his arms rise, tingling, and remembered the ache in his groin from their momentary encounter in the darkened hallway.
“You kissed her!”
Bruce grimaced. “There was mistletoe.”
Kate rolled his eyes. “That's what I mean. She’s not the kind of… tart you’re used to dealing with, that’s all.”
“You can say that again.”
"Bruce." Kate shook her head, scowling. “I want your word. Be respectful. Play nice.”
“I promise…” Bruce made a pleading gesture with his hands out. “I’ll…er, I’ll do my best to get along, I’ll even learn to like her. Okay?” Even if he had to stop poking fun at her. It might even be boring. He took Kate's hands in his and squeezed them. “And I promise you, Kate, the kids will be perfectly okay. You and Simon don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Kate stood up. "I knew I could count on you, Bruce." She wrapped her arms around him and held on tight. He returned the hug, but then she clung, and he felt her body temperature rise, felt her shoulders tremble, before he heard her sniffle.
"Hey, hey." He rubbed her back gently.
"I'm so worried about him. I never should have let him go alone."
"He'll be okay. He's a tough guy. Remember he's got a ton of experience travelling around Asia. I'm sure a broken leg won't slow him down."
She lifted her head and glared at him.
"Okay, obviously it will slow him down. I mean, he can cope. He's Sharpy. He can do anything. Right?"
She sniffed again and nodded. "I know. But what if something even more serious had happened over there? I can't bear to think–" Her face buckled.
"Well. It didn't." He set her away from him and looked around for a tissue or something. Finding nothing, he pulled up the tail of his shirt and wiped her cheeks with it. "Look this is a logistical nightmare. And that's why you have to go. But nobody's dying here, Kate. Everything's going to be alright. Okay?"
When they entered the hall, Alexa stood there with both Maddie and Markus in their pyjamas, looking scrubbed and combed, with their cheeks glowing pink.
"Right." Well, it took two to tango, but he would do his best to lead this dance, and choose his steps carefully. What choice did he have, after all?
"I'll take them upstairs," Alexa said.
Kate’s smile was indulgent as she picked up her son. “Say goodnight to Uncle Bruce, Markus.”
From her arms, Markus stared at him for a minute, but with a little jiggle from Kate, he finally said, “Night, Boos.”
They sure were cute kids. Three-year-old Markus was the spitting image of Kate, with her fine, smooth golden hair. Except he had Simon’s blue eyes.
“G’night, little buddy,” Bruce said, grinning. “Gimme five.” He presented his palm to Markus, who giggled and slapped at it wildly.
“Ouch!” A sharp pain shot through his shinbone. “What the…?” He looked down at Maddie. She’d kicked him viciously with her bony little foot. Simon’s seven-year-old daughter Maddie looked more like her mother Rachel, with her thick brown curls and catty green eyes.
“What’s up, Scallywag?” He scrubbed the top of her head. “Am I ignoring you?”
She stood with her arms folded, glaring up at him.
“Maddie! Apologize right now,” Kate said, frowning.
Madison responded immediately, if half-heartedly, chuffing the carpet with her bare foot. “Thor-ry.”
He wasn’t convinced. He could see an evil smirk pulling at her lips. Maddie apparently took after her bitchy mother in more ways than one. He pulled a funny face at her, trying to elicit a smile. It’d actually be fun to spend more time with the kids.
“Maddie isn’t thrilled with the arrangements,” Kate explained as they moved away. “It’s not you, though. It’s the fact that Simon had to go away in the first place. She has a bit of separation anxiety. He's never left her before, so she’s actually furious at me. But she’s taking it out on you.”
Oh, great. Bruce squinted back at Maddie and said in a syrupy voice, “Good night, Madison.”
“’Night,” she snarled, and stomped upstairs to bed.
Alexa followed her upstairs. "I’ll be right down."
“She seems okay with Alexa,” Bruce said.
"Yes. They're used to Alex. She babysits pretty regularly."
Bruce was surprised to learn that.
Kate led the way to the dining room, where a casual dinner was laid out on the table. "Help yourself to a beer, Bruce, and some lasagna and salad. I'm just going up to kiss the kids goodnight."
He did, and returned to the dining room, studying the food she set out. When Alexa returned, he ignored her but watched her through his peripheral vision. She sat down at the table, skulking behind a half-empty glass of red wine, like a mean little leprechaun ready to pounce. She scowled at him.
“Hey, partner.” He grinned at her. “Looks like we’re working together.”
“Koczynski.” Her husky voice was flat. She glared at him over the dark rims of her angular eyeglasses, obviously no more thrilled at the arrangement than he was.
He offered her a brilliant smile. “None other. How’re you doing, Al?” He sauntered around the table, flopped into the chair next to her. He still wondered if it was possible to melt through the ice with sufficient charm. Kate had no idea what she was asking him to do. He threw an arm across the back of her chair and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.
"Don't get any ideas, Koczynski." She turned her head away, and his face landed in her silky dark hair. It smelled of the tropics. Spicy and sweet. Almost like that cologne he used to wear– what was it called? She may not be his type, but she was like a burr in his hide, small, prickly and stubborn, hard to ignore. She was caramel-coloured with a petite, boyish figure. Kind of cute though. Even though she was the only woman he’d ever met who was persistently immune to his charms. Until she opened her mouth.
That mouth twisted in scorn and she shoved him away, looking like she might hit him with something. Instead, she plucked his arm off and handed it back like it was a rotting log full of maggots. “Do you mind?”
He smiled and shook his head, feeling the first rebellious stirrings from his body. There was something about her throaty voice that seemed to yank his chain.
He took a long draft on his beer, leaning back. “Aah.” A small belch escaped. “Pardon.”
Alexa shook her head, looking bored with his antics, and slightly annoyed. “So. I’m surprised you agreed to this little arrangement, Koz. You don’t strike me as the domestic sort.”
You’re one to talk. A bark of laughter escaped before he could prevent it. "Like we have any choice."
“What are you laughing at?”
He opted not to reply, instead smiling and taking another sip of beer. She reminded him of Cruella De Ville—hard and mean-spirited. All she was missing was a shock of white in her dark hair and a long cigarette holder. Oh, and a coat made of puppies.
“Nothing at all,” he replied, sniggering, then sobered. “You’re looking well.” She did, too. Her dark hair shone, strands of it somehow sticking out artfully. It managed to look both precise and post-coital at the same time. Everything about her was a carefully considered design statement. It suited her. He flicked the end of her scarf. “Love this, Al. Great colour on you. Matches your eyes.” He leaned in closer and flared his nostrils and let his gaze slide over her slender limbs.
Those eyes were narrowed at him now, her suspicions aroused.
There was a vaguely exotic quality about her eyes. They were a strange greyish-green, like a stormy sea, and tilted up at the corners. It might be appealing, if she would smile once in a while. He saw a twinkle of amusement in her eyes, though. Maybe he was getting somewhere.
“That’s Alexa to you, Koczynski.” She pursed her full lips and eyed his torso.
He sat up taller. “Like what you see?" Raising his arm to flex his bicep, he flickered his eyebrows at her. "I've been working out more."
She let out a gust of air, rolling her eyes. “Nice shirt,” she deadpanned. “Not wasting all your time at clubs and parties? I heard–”
He gave her a hard look, his teeth set. “Actually, it’s not having to work eighteen hour days that’s made the biggest difference.” He smiled broadly. “And you could call me Bruce.”
She ignored him. “Oh, right. I’d forgotten you were one of the idle rich these days.”
His eye twitched with tension, and he forced himself to relax. He tilted the beer bottle back, taking a long drink. “What kind of name is Alexa, anyway? Italian or Egyptian or something?” He’d always wondered if she was mixed race.
Again she ignored his question. No wonder she got under his skin. She retaliated with, “What’s with the long hair and Hawaiian shirt? Auditioning for a Hawaii Five-O remake?”
Bruce shrugged, combing a hand through his shoulder length hair. It wasn’t that long. “I see you can’t keep your eyes off of me tonight, Al.” He felt a warm stirring in his trousers. Even though she was trying to goad him, the sound of her sexy voice always had this regrettable effect.
“Hah! In your dreams, Hefner.”
He grinned. Feisty little thing. He’d forgotten how she oiled his gears. Her voice was velvety soft and deep, like a spell that spoke directly to his blood, causing it to surge out of control. A Siren’s song. He took a page from Odysseus and filed those thoughts away. Far away.
“So. How’s this going at work, Ms. Architect?” he asked, with another generous smile.
She sighed. “You’re such an ass, Koczynski.”
It was sheer torture, being physically attracted to someone you wanted to throttle. She was like a baby panther. Cuddly cute until the claws and teeth came out. Oh, that helped. His inconvenient boner eased off a little. That was another good reason to avoid contact with her.
Alexa continued to peer at him with obvious disdain.
“Seriously, tell me about your name—” but she didn’t have a chance to reply.
Kate entered the room, flustered, her hair in disarray. Both Bruce and Alexa sat up taller, pasting friendly smiles on their faces. It wouldn’t do to advertise their ongoing war of wills to their worried friend. In that respect they seemed to be on the same page. "Well they're down. I guess we'll see tomorrow how they react when I leave."
"Tomorrow?" Bruce said. So soon?
She nodded. "Help yourself to food, you guys." She filled a plate and set it down, pushing at it with a fork, taking tiny nibbles, distracted.
"So, not much time to prepare, but Kate's made a few notes for us," Alexa said, shoving a stack of crinkled papers toward him.
He took them and scanned them. The handwriting was almost illegible. The words seemed almost randomly arranged, as though Kate had jotted down fragments of ideas as they came to her. Not surprising, he supposed. Frowning, he looked up and met Alexa's gaze with a silent question. Was this supposed to make sense? She peered steadily at him, as though trying to convey something telepathically. Again he perused their so-called "instructions." He let out a soundless whistle, smiled again and nodded. "This looks great. We won't have any trouble at all, Kate. Nothing for you to worry about."
Possibly for the first time in history, he earned a smile from Alexa Jenner. What do you know? He did the right thing. He offered a half smile in return.
After a few minutes, Kate picked up an envelope and said, “I got a flight out tomorrow afternoon. You'll pick up Markus from day care, Bruce, at twelve-thirty. Then give him a snack, some exercise, and a nap. Then you pick up Maddie at school at 2:30. She’ll need a snack and some down time too. I know it sounds rigid, but trust me, that will make it easier on everyone. I have it all written down there.”
Bruce nodded. “I can handle that.”
“Don’t worry, Katie, it'll be fine.” said Alex, her voice soothing and calm. It was almost enough to calm the frenzy of panic rising in his own gullet. But not quite.
Bruce shot a glance her way. He hoped she was as chill about this as she seemed.
Kate continued. “The next part, I'm not so sure about. Alexa, you’ll get them ready for bed… you'll have to stay at the house, I guess,” Kate said. “Besides, someone has to take care of the kitties, too.”
Alexa nodded. “Anything special there? I know Lucy needs her shots.” Alexa adjusted her glasses to scan Kate's list.
“Right. Once a day, evenings are fine,” Kate said. “And Oscar’s no trouble. He’s so old, he sleeps all the time.”
The subject in question coiled around Bruce's ankles. He looked down. Fuck, that mangy old cat better not keel over on my shift.
Kate let out a big breath. “So, Alexa, your mornings will be a bit wild. You’ll have to get them up, fed, dressed, and drop Maddie at school for 8:45. Then Markus right afterwards.”
Bruce watched Alexa process this information, her eyes cast down at the list, her brow furrowed. “So I won’t be able to start my work day until almost nine-thirty,” Alexa said, her brow drawing down, her exquisite wide lips pursed.
Bruce studied the long dark lashes grazing her smooth tan cheeks.
She sighed. “With the new Arts Centre project starting, I’ll have a team expecting answers from me first thing.” She turned to him. “It would be better for me if you could come by here at about seven-thirty, and then drop the kids off.”
He froze as her words sunk in. “Do what?”
“Come early and take the kids to school?” She dipped her chin and peered at him over the frames of her glasses, creating the illusion that he was being scolded by a sexy little librarian.
Hell no! He cleared his throat. “It’s quite a ways for me to get over here from West Van.” His smile felt tight. He could imagine the hours it would take him coming over the bridge four times a day. He’d go nuts. “Morning rush hour traffic on the bridge can be brutal. I couldn’t guarantee getting here on time.”
Alexa slumped in her chair. “Oh. I see.”
The clash of cutlery against Kate’s plate jarred his nerve endings as she dropped a knife. He glanced at her, taking in her pinched expression, and remembered his vow to Simon. She offered him a watery smile.
He raised his hands, palm out and responded sotto voce. “But don’t worry, Kate. Maybe we can take turns or something. Al and I will iron out the details. It’ll be fine.” He met Alexa’s steely eye. "Right, Al?”
“Okay, alright.” Alexa nibbled her nail. “I’ll have to work longer in the evenings, I guess.”
He squinted. Both ends of this stick were getting shorter by the minute.
Kate nodded. “Well, the issue is dinner. I’m sure you’ll be home early enough to do the bedtime routine most days, but if they don’t eat at a reasonable time, you’ll be really sorry. They become unmanageable. It snowballs. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned–”
“I know all about that,” Alexa smirked. “A houseful of over-hungry kids is insanity.”
How would she know? “What time do they eat?” Bruce asked, frowning.
Kate said, “I’d say, six would be the latest.”
“Some days, maybe, I could be off work by five thirty and get here. That makes for a very short work day. I'll draw up a work schedule so you know when you have to cover for me.”
“Well, I can feed them dinner,” Bruce said. He’d have meals delivered from that gourmet place. "That's easy." Why that earned him a skeptical glance from both women he didn't know. He was resourceful. They'd see.
“Well don’t worry too much, Bruce. Alexa is an incredible superwoman with house and family things.”
His head jerked up. “How’s that?” It certainly wasn’t how he saw her. She was all about her career. He couldn’t even visualize her in a kitchen. A bedroom, yes, but…
“Don’t you know she practically raised her six younger brothers and sisters while graduating from high school? This woman can do anything!” Kate gushed.
Six? He narrowed his eyes at Alexa, blinking. No, he didn't know that. He tried to picture the shrew caring for six younger siblings and failed. That was a story he’d like to hear. The image didn’t fit. “You might have to give me some lessons, then, Al.” He shrugged, imagining some up-close one-on-one time in the kitchen, and his body heated. He took a deep breath and let it out through his open mouth. He shut his eyes. Forget that.
“I hope I don’t have to teach you everything,” she said, smirking while she leaned back and crossed her arms. "But I have my doubts."
“Whoah. You underestimate me, sweetheart.” Bruce looked for support at Kate. “I have skills, too—”
“He certainly does, Alex. That’s why Simon asked Bruce to help me in the first place. He’s fantastic with the kids, you should see them together. They absolutely love spending time with him. Nobody does fun and games like Bruce.”
“Fun and games,” Alexa repeated, straight-faced. Her eyes slid over to Bruce. “That’ll come in handy.” Her mouth twitched.
He gave her a half smile, cocking one brow. “You have no idea.” He’d like to have some fun with her. If only she were capable of letting loose for once. Or maybe not.
Alexa eyed him with flat, grey-green eyes that managed to communicate her lack of faith in him without a word. Somehow, he felt eight years old again.
He had promised to be nice, cooperate. He took a deep breath. “Right. We'll make a plan. “Alexa and I make a great team. She’s gonna help me with cooking lessons, and I’m gonna help her plan fun and games.”
She nodded, her eyes narrowing.
"Okay, then." Kate stood up, taking her mostly untouched plate to the kitchen. "I'd better pack," she said absently. "I'm exhausted already and I need a good sleep tonight." She turned back. "There's something I'm forgetting…"
Alexa got up and took the plate from her hands. "Let me clean up here. You go to bed. We’ll see ourselves out.“
Bruce rose too. He couldn't sit while she worked. "I'll give you a hand." He picked up some dishes and took them into the kitchen, then caught her smirking at him, a twinkle in her green eyes. "What?"
"This should be interesting."
"Well good night. I'll see you both tomorrow."
"You bet, Kate." He went to her and took her upper arms in his hands, meeting her gaze. She seemed frail. He wondered what it would be like to find out your one true love was injured half way across the world. "Don't even think about us. We’re in control here. You just take care of yourself and bring Simon and his folks home safely." He leaned in to kiss her forehead.
She nodded and slipped away.
A moment of tense silence followed. They stood until they heard her bedroom door close. Alexa's long slow exhale was audible.
Bruce raised his eyebrows at her. “Well?” he finally said, throwing down the gauntlet. Enough pretence—they needed to have this out.
“I get the impression you’re not happy about doing this,” she said.
“Not at all. I adore Maddie and Markus. We’re gonna have a blast,” he drawled, leaning towards her ear. His nostrils filled with her sweet, spicy scent, and he leaned back, regretting their proximity, and exhaled slowly.
Her darkened expression said he’d scored a point. “You can get out of the mundane shit like shopping and housework because you’re Mister Fun and Games. I have a very demanding job and a huge project starting up, so you’re going to have to pull your weight around here and then some, Hefner.”
She couldn’t be serious. “I don't see a problem. I’ll spend my mornings renovating my house and head over here for the afternoons. Easy-peasy.”
“I know you. You’ll try to weasel out of chores.” Alexa said."It will take a little more time management. I have good software for that. We’ll make up a spreadsheet, and divide up the responsibilities to make sure everything is covered. I’ll have to plan ahead as much as possible and keep you posted on my workdays so you’ll know what to expect from day to day.”
“Spreadsheets.” She was nuts. She was trying to take control of his whole bloody life. He rolled his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck with a hand, trying to loosen a knot of tension. Next she’d be giving him minute-by-minute instructions.
"You’ll have to find time for shopping and chores.”
The air in the room grew thin. Did he just get stuck with shopping and cooking? He’d have to hire an army of help. “Don’t you trust me, Al?”
“No.” She blinked. “We’re both making personal sacrifices for our friends. You’ll have to do your share, Koczynski. Get over it.”
"How can we possibly fail?" He offered her a wide smile. "You have project management software. Right, Al?”
She took off her glasses and shoved them into her hair so she could rub her eyes.
“Why are you worried about me, anyway? Sounds like you’re the one that’s got time management issues. It'll be fine. I can catch up on my construction work on the weekends.“ Bruce grinned at Alexa, and she stared back.
“Unfortunately, I work most weekends.” She pressed her lips together, nodding. “You’ll have to stay with the kids during the days and some evenings, too.”
“You’re not going to dump extra work on me so you can slip a few drinks with co-workers into your week.”
Then a slow, inscrutable smile spread across her face, and her voice dropped down a notch, sultry with a hard edge, like the cruel caress of a sharp blade. “Not that it’s any of your business, but if I’m working after hours, I’m actually working.”
Damn it, that voice! If he ignored her words, it almost sounded like an invitation. For someone else. Not for him. “You mean you have no social life? Quel surprise!”
She made a sound, a cross between a scream and a roar, but she kept her mouth clamped tight, so it seemed to bleed out of her ears. God, she was a tiger. Her smoky eyes burned with a fiery light that made him wonder what she would be like in between the sheets. “My personal life has nothing to do with this negotiation. I have responsibilities at work. Period.”
Jeezus, she was tense. It’s probably because she worked so much she never got any sex at all. Someone should redirect that ferocious energy into bed, and then give her a darn good reason to relax. Not him though. His erection twitched again. Not helpful. It made him so mad he could spit. Claws and teeth. Claws and teeth. He sucked a breath slowly in through his clenched teeth and forced a smile.
The stick! “I have to meet tradesmen at my house sometimes. It sounds like you're trying to offload all the work to me.”
“Hardly. I'm going to be living here. We’ll have to put it on the schedule.”
“Right. I guess we will,” he replied, grinning past gritted teeth. Despite his promise to Kate, Bruce laughed, because he knew it would annoy her. “I mean what does a thirty-something professional workaholic know about child care anyhow? I’m trying to be helpful, here. I know it’ll be a hardship for a career woman such as yourself, honey, but I guess you’ll have to pull up your garters and cope with your share of this childcare deal.”
“Please don’t call me honey.” Her shoulders slumped. “I know more than I ever wanted to about childcare and homemaking, thank you very much.”
Alexa sliced her hand across her other palm. “All I want is to split this up evenly and disrupt my life as little as possible. If we project manage our schedule and list of duties, we should be fine. I’ll put Kate’s list in my software and then you can add your constraints. If I can manage the design and construction of an entire civic building, I can handle a couple of weeks co-parenting with you.”
Bruce sighed. They were never going to be able to coexist in peace. That much was clear. “Fine. That suits me perfectly.”
She crossed her arms. “We’ll share the work fair and square, including weekends. You do your half and I’ll do mine. But let me make myself perfectly clear. I don’t care what you think of me, Koczynski. But please try not to make this situation any worse. Do your part and stay out of my way.”
He nodded. She so totally didn’t understand him. He’d do anything for Simon and Kate their kids. “It might be best if we try to stay away from each other as much as possible.”
They glared at each other.
“So. We have a deal?” Alexa thrust out her hand like a knife.
He gripped her small, strong hand firmly in his own and squeezed, perhaps a little tighter than he should have. “Deal.”
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