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A little too late, p.1
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       A Little Too Late, p.1

           Staci Hart
 
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A Little Too Late


  A Little Too Late

  Staci Hart

  Copyright © 2017 Staci Hart

  All rights reserved.

  stacihartnovels.com

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Cover by Quirky Bird

  Editor: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing

  Proofreading: Love N Books

  Playlist: http://spoti.fi/2y2vJK7

  Contents

  Also by Staci Hart

  1. Wanted

  2. Lost Future

  3. Truth of Circumstance

  4. If Only

  5. Firelight

  6. So Simple

  7. The Devil in the Details

  8. Dancing Animals

  9. Just Two People

  10. No Amount of Banketstaaf

  11. Quite Contrary

  12. Say Yes

  13. Dreaming Is Free

  14. Absence

  15. Busy Hands

  16. Refuge

  17. The Other Side

  18. Say the Word

  19. Strangers

  20. Gone, Baby. Gone

  21. Home Is Here

  22. Wants and Needs

  23. Letting Go

  24. To Belong

  25. Dreamers

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  Also by Staci Hart

  About the Author

  Also by Staci Hart

  CONTEMPORARY STANDALONES

  Bad Habits

  With a Twist (Bad Habits)

  Chaser (Bad Habits)

  Last Call (Bad Habits)

  The Austen’s

  Wasted Words (Inspired by Emma)

  A Thousand Letters (Inspired by Persuasion)

  A Little Too Late (Follow up to Thousand Letters)

  Living Out Loud (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)

  Tonic

  Tonic

  Bad Penny

  Hardcore

  HEARTS AND ARROWS

  Paper Fools (Book 1)

  Shift (Book 2)

  What the Heart Wants (Novella 2.5)

  From Darkness (Book 3)

  Fool’s Gold (Novella 3.5)

  SHORT STORIES

  Once

  Desperate Measures

  Nailed

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  To those who have sought

  a place to call home.

  1

  Wanted

  Hannah

  This time will be different.

  I repeated the thought as I had a hundred times that afternoon, hoping the words were more than wishful thinking. When I glanced down one final time to check the address written on the heavy paper, my heart skipped in my chest.

  On the other side of the Victorian brownstone’s door was a man who had lost his nanny without warning. I’d left my last au pair job in a rush that left me in limbo, and without another job, I’d lose my visa. And I wasn’t quite ready to give up and go home. Not yet.

  Another jolt of nerves raced up my back. The employment pairing by the agency had been hasty and thoughtless. I should have refused the moment I’d learned he was single. If I took the job, I’d have to move in with him for a year. I’d be alone with him, sharing his space, after swearing I wouldn’t put myself in a position like the one I’d just walked away from. But I had no options. Things had happened too suddenly to plan for, and the opening at the Parker residence had popped up at the exact right moment.

  So, there I was, standing on the doorstep of a beautiful home off Central Park, gambling on my future.

  I summoned a long breath from deep in my lungs. I’d be smarter this time. And, if I caught even the slightest scent of danger in the air, I would refuse the job, simple as that.

  Still, my heart tightened, thumping as I rang the doorbell.

  It stopped completely when the door opened. For a moment, my fears washed out of me, fool that I was.

  The first time I saw Charlie Parker, I didn’t see one thing at a time; I saw all of him. It was an assault on my senses, an overwhelming tide of awareness, and for a moment, the details came to me in flashes over what was probably only a few seconds but felt so much longer.

  His hair was blond and gently mussed, his face long and nose elegant. I could smell him, clean and fresh with just a touch of spice I couldn’t place. I tipped my chin up—he was tall, taller than me, and I hovered just at six feet—and met his eyes, earthy and brown and so deep. So very deep.

  And then he smiled.

  He was handsome when he wasn’t smiling. He was stunning when he was.

  I was so lost in that smile, I didn’t register the flying gob until it whapped against my sweater. Tiny splatters of something cold speckled my neck.

  This was the moment the clock started again, and the sweet serenity slipped directly into chaos.

  A blond little boy looked up at me from his father’s side with a devilish gleam in his dark eyes. The spoon in his hand was covered in blood-red jam and aimed at me like an empty catapult.

  Several things happened at once. Charlie’s face morphed into embarrassed frustration as he reached for who I presumed to be his son. The boy—Sam, I guessed from the names I’d been given by the agency—spun around lightning fast and took off down the hallway, giggling. Another child began to cry from somewhere back in the house, and a bowl clattered to the ground, followed by a hissed swear from what sounded like an older woman.

  I glanced down at the sliding, sticky mess against my white sweater and started to laugh.

  Charlie’s head swiveled back to me, his face first colored with confusion, then in horror as he looked at the Pollock painting on my sweater.

  “Oh my God,” he breathed, his apologetic, wide eyes dragging down my body. “Jesus, I am so sorry.”

  I was still laughing, almost a little hysterical. I couldn’t even tell you why.

  I waved a hand at Charlie, and he took my elbow, guiding me into the house as I caught my breath. Another crash came from the kitchen, and a little girl came toddling out into the entry, leaving powdery footprints on the hardwood.

  Charlie’s face screwed up. “Sam!” he called, stretching the word, a drawn-out promise of consequences.

  A riot of giggling broke out in the kitchen.

  We both snapped into motion. I followed him as he scooped up his crying daughter and stormed toward the kitchen. The little girl watched me over his shoulder with big brown eyes, her breath hitching in little shudders and her small finger hooked in her mouth.

  Charlie stopped so abruptly, I almost ran into him.

  When I looked around him and into the kitchen, my mouth opened. I covered it with my fingers as laughter bubbled up my throat.

  A bag of flour sat in the middle of the floor, the white powder thrown in bursts against the surrounding surfaces and hanging in the air like smoke. The floor next to the bag was the only clean spot, shaped like a small bottom—the little girl’s, I supposed. A bowl lay upside down, its contents oozing from under the rim and slung in a ring from ceiling to cabinet to floor, as if it had completed a masterful flip on its way to its demise. And in the center of the madness stood an older woman with flour in her dark hair and dusted down the fron
t of her. Clutched under her arm was a wriggling Sam, offending spoon still in hand.

  Her face was kind but tight with exasperation. “Please tell me this is the new nanny,” she said flatly.

  “I doubt we could convince her to stay at this point,” he said with equal flatness.

  He turned to me with a look that I could only describe as shame. But I smiled and reached for Maven.

  Surprised, he gratefully handed her over. But when he turned for Sam, it was with thunder at his back.

  Sam stopped kicking. His face turned to his father, eyes goggling and little mouth opened as a glob of jam dripped onto the floor and into the flour with a pat. Charlie relieved the woman of Sam and blew past me.

  “Excuse me for one second, Hannah,” he muttered before disappearing up the stairs.

  I turned back to the older woman, whose face had softened. She brushed an errant hair from her face and sighed, wiping her hands on a dish towel that she slung over her shoulder as she approached.

  Her smile was warm, as was her hand when I took it.

  “I’m sorry just won’t quite cut it,” she said. “I’m Katie. And you must be Hannah.”

  “It’s nice to meet you.” I shifted Maven on my hip and reached for the paper towels. “Whatever happened?”

  Katie sighed and walked over to the broom closet, coming back with the tool of the same name. “Thirty seconds, just long enough for Charlie to answer the door—that’s all it takes with these two. I’d just turned my back—I was making roux for a sauce, and you can’t stop stirring, or it burns—and Maven here retrieved the flour I’d just put away. Then, Sammy made thief’s work of the jelly. You know the rest.”

  “Yes, I think I do,” I said on a small laugh as I tried to wipe up Maven, though I only succeeded in spreading the mess around. “In Holland, we have a saying that goes, Een kinderhand is snel gevuld. A child’s hands are easily filled. In this case, with flour, I’d say.”

  Katie laughed, a friendly sound. “I have to agree. I suppose I should move it off the bottom shelf in the pantry.” Her smile fell when she saw the front of me. “Oh, Hannah,” she said like she’d single-handedly failed me, “what a mess Sammy made. Your sweater!”

  I waved her off, though I did grab another paper towel, using it to mop up the excess that had slid a small distance down the knit fabric. “It’s all right. It’ll wash.”

  “Well, let me at least get you something to put on that.” She stepped into a small room off the kitchen, returning with a little detergent patch in a packet.

  “Thank you.”

  “It’s the least I can do,” she said, going back to the broom. “I’m the cook and housekeeper. Been here since just after Charlie’s wife left,” she said openly and without discretion, catching me off guard. “We had a nanny,” she continued, “but she left last week for a family emergency. Jenny’s about my age, and her widowed sister is real sick. But she left Charlie in a lurch—not quite fair, if you ask me. I’m happy to help out since she’s been gone, but as you can see, I’m not quite qualified.”

  Katie motioned to the kitchen with a genial, if not a little deprecating, look on her face. It was just her way, I realized—the openness—and I found I rather liked it.

  She sighed and set the broom aside, picking up the bowl from the ground. “Guess I’m starting my cornbread over again.”

  I chuckled. “Do you like working here?”

  Katie beamed at that. “Oh, I do. Charlie’s a good man even though he works harder than Noah building the ark. He tries; he does. We all see it. It helps that he’s kind and generous. My last boss was a real piece of work.”

  “I can relate.” I turned my full attention to Maven, taking care in cleaning her up as she looked up at me with bottomless brown eyes. “And the kids?”

  That question elicited a sigh. “It’s been bad since Jenny left. Better than when their mom left but still not great. It’s not their fault, nor is it his. They just want their daddy, that’s all. And Charlie doesn’t have the time he wishes he had to give them. They’re good kids, and Charlie does the best he can.” She closed off the topic as footsteps sounded behind me.

  I turned to find a freshly clothed Sammy, slope-shouldered and staring at his feet. Charlie stood behind him, brows low and with a hint of defeat in his eyes when they met mine.

  He ushered Sammy forward. “Go on, son.”

  Sammy stepped toward me, eyes still down, hands in front of him. “I’m sorry,” he said so pitifully, my heart ached.

  I set Maven on the ground, and she toddled over to her father.

  I knelt down to get level with Sammy. “That’s quite all right. Just a bit of fun, yes?”

  He sniffled. “Daddy’s mad.”

  “Yes, well, it was very naughty, wasn’t it?”

  He nodded.

  “And you made quite a mess of my sweater.”

  Sammy chanced a glance up at me, and I held his dark eyes.

  “But it will wash, and you’ve told me you’re sorry. Might we be friends now?”

  Another nod—this one with a small, hopeful smile.

  “I’m Hannah.”

  I offered my hand, and he took it firmly, his smile blooming.

  “I’m Sammy. How come you talk funny?”

  “Sammy,” Charlie warned.

  I looked up and saw he was embarrassed. “It’s all right,” I said to both of them. “I’m from Holland. Do you know where that is?”

  Sammy shook his head.

  “Have a look.” In the flour on the floor, I drew a rough likeness of North America and made a dot on New York. “We’re here, but I’m from here.” I drew Britain and a bit of Europe, making another dot in the Netherlands. “Have you ever been to the beach, Sammy?”

  He lit up. “I love the beach! We went to Coney Island once.”

  “Well, if you got in a boat and went a very long way, all the way across the ocean, you’d find yourself close to where I’m from.”

  “Could I swim there?”

  I laughed. “No, it’s much too far to swim. The fastest way is to fly in an airplane. But the reason I talk funny is because I’m Dutch. I speak Dutch, but I also know English, French, and Spanish.”

  He lit up. “How do you say”—he looked around the room—“chair?”

  “Stoel.”

  He giggled. “Say dishes!”

  “Borden.”

  “Say Katie!”

  I laughed. “Katie.”

  Charlie stepped behind him, and I stood, finding myself a little short of breath at the sight of him smiling, his eyes flickering with failure, daughter in the crook of his arm and son’s shoulder under his palm. There was something very honest about the sight, something dangerously disarming, and I found myself hoping I could stay.

  “I’m so sorry, Hannah.”

  “It’s no problem, Mr. Parker.”

  His cheeks flushed. “Please, call me Charlie. I don’t know that we need to finish the interview.”

  My heart sank with an aching slowness with the realization that I’d wanted to help them very badly. “Yes, of course,” I said and glanced down. “I’ll let the agency know to find another applicant as soon as possible.”

  But when I moved to step around him, he cupped my elbow. And when I looked up, I was met with smiling eyes.

  “What I meant to say was, when can you start?”

  I blinked, stunned.

  The smile blew out of him just like that. “I mean, if you want. But of course you don’t want to. I can’t imagine why you would, if I think about it. I shouldn’t have asked. This is too much, even for me, and I’m their father,” he rambled, punctuating the end of his speech by raking his long fingers through his blond hair.

  I suspected his mind kept going even though his lips were still.

  “You’d like to hire me?”

  “I can’t imagine a more practical interview,” he answered frankly.

  I looked over the three of their hopeful faces and then back at Ka
tie, whose smile was sweet and encouraging. And I met Charlie’s eyes, searching for the warning, for the whisper of menace I’d ignored before, but I found none. Instead, I found something far more precarious, disguised as something innocent.

  Naive and hopeful trust.

  And, before I could talk any sense into myself, I smiled and said, “How about now?”

  2

  Lost Future

  Charlie

  The afternoon had been, for lack of a better word, perfect.

  Maven sat in the crook of my arm as we headed up the stairs after dinner. Hannah followed with Sammy as he hopped up the steps, saying, Boing, boing, boing, on a loop. And I was struck with a sense of relief I hadn’t felt in what seemed like an age.

  Hannah fit in easily, stepping into her role with effortless grace, like she’d been there all along rather than being a complete stranger. The kids were enthralled with her. Sammy had exuberantly dragged her around, asking her to translate things into Dutch, and Maven had clung to her, quiet and content as she was but with more persistence than she usually had with new people.

  It was comforting—not only to have help with the kids again, but to have such capable help.

  God knew I was unqualified to do it myself. Years without enough practice had left me helpless when my wife left, and I’d been trying to make up ground ever since.

  I stopped outside the bathroom and turned to Hannah, who smiled. I smiled back out of instinct.

 
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