A mom for Sasha?
Dutch is a man on his own, trying to raise his children.
Sometimes he gets things right. Sometimes he needs a little help. Sasha Archer doesn’t have a mother, but she’s got one of the best dads around. Now she feels it’s time he had a new woman in his life. And she’s decided it should be Claire Renquist.
She knows that Claire and her mom were best friends growing up—but then something happened and Claire moved away from Dovetail, Maryland. She’s finally come home, trying to make a go of it with her llama farm. So that means Claire needs Sasha’s dad, Dutch—who happens to be the local vet!
But getting over the past seems to be hard for Claire and Dutch. Good thing they have Sasha to bring them together!
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Claire watched Dutch leave and let out a huge breath when she saw the beams of his headlights sweep across the driveway as he backed out. She surveyed the gaggle of preteens and smiled.
“Who wants to do makeovers?”
The next several hours were spent painting toenails, eating pizza—which arrived just after Dutch left— making lots of popcorn and convincing the girls that they could stay up as late as they wanted as long as they put their pajamas on and got into their sleeping bags.
Claire agreed to keep the movies going.
After most of the girls had fallen asleep, Sasha stood.
“Can I show you something?” she whispered to Claire.
“It’s in Dad’s den.” Claire rose from the easy chair and followed Sasha into Dutch’s office.
“So this is where Rascal’s been hiding.” She smiled at the dog curled up in his bed. Dutch had brought Rascal out to the farm one day and Claire had immediately loved the dog’s soulful expression.
“Yeah, he always comes in here when there’s too much going on.” Sasha bent over as she spoke and pulled a large wicker basket out from under an end table next to the leather sofa.
Claire squatted beside Sasha on the rug.
“I wanted to ask if you can help me with this.”
“What is it?” Claire reached out and fingered the navy cotton yarn. It was hand-knitted.
“A sweater for my dad. Mom never finished it. I want to get it done for him by Father’s Day, but I can’t work on it here, and I have some questions about how to sew on the arms.”
The air whooshed out of Claire’s lungs. Whether due to the lateness of the hour or the weight of Sasha’s request, tears sprang to her eyes.
“I’m still so new at knitting, Sasha, but I’m sure we can find someone to help us.” The image of Mr. Black working on the Scandinavian sweater for his partner appeared in Claire’s mind. “As a matter of fact,” she said, “I have the perfect person to ask—he’s a master knitter and someone I’ve known since I went to school here.”
“Great! That’d be so cool, Claire. But let’s keep it a secret, okay? I really want this to be a surprise. I’ll bring the sweater and the rest of the yarn in my backpack next week.”
“Better yet, I’ll put it in my car now, and your dad will never be the wiser.”
“You’re the best, Claire!” Sasha all but knocked Claire over with the ferocity of her hug.
Claire hugged Sasha back. “No, Sasha, you are. This is a wonderful idea.”
Sasha grinned happily.
“Time to get some sleep, okay? I’ll run out right now and put this in my car.”
When Claire came back into the house, all the girls were asleep, including Sasha. Claire turned off the TV.
She had no illusions that finishing the sweater Natalie had started for Dutch would give either him or Sasha the closure they needed. But this was important to Sasha, so there was no question she’d do it.
A wave of fatigue swept over her. It had been a long, hard month since the crias were born, and this past week had been the longest. Claire was tired of thinking about her past and anything related to it.
Claire looked at her watch. It was past 3:00 a.m.
She’d stretch out on the couch in the den, near the living room where the girls slept, and doze. Dutch probably would be back any moment.
Dutch unlocked the side door and tiptoed into the kitchen. The dawn light glowed across the wooden floor.
The house was warm and smelled of popcorn, soda pop and pizza. He thought he smelled nail polish remover, too.
Rascal greeted him with a sniff, tail wagging.
“Hey, guy. Sorry I left you alone with all these women. Good boy,” he whispered as he rubbed the dog’s neck and then straightened. Rascal would be asking to eat in the next hour or so. To ensure some shut-eye without the dog whimpering, Dutch scooped two cups of dog food out of the bin near the door, then refilled Rascal’s water dish. Rascal would let himself out via the doggy door he’d installed when Natalie got the sickest—none of them had time to walk the dog.
He walked into the dining room, which was clean except for a couple of plastic cups on the table. Further inspection revealed all six girls practically comatose on the family room floor.
Sasha and the girls slept in sleeping bags. No sign of Claire. His gut tightened. Had she left them alone?
No, he’d seen her car when he drove up. He forced out quiet breath and walked into his study.
Claire lay sprawled on his leather couch. She was on her back, her mouth slightly open. Still in her clothes, she’d only taken off her shoes.
He realized she must be chilled without a blanket. As quietly as possible, he opened the storage ottoman and pulled out a fuzzy polar fleece blanket. She didn’t even stir as he covered her with it.
He studied her face. With her hair splayed on the arm of the couch, her expression was completely accessible.
The smudges under her eyes told him how late she must’ve gone to bed, and the tiny crease between her brows indicated stress, even in sleep.
But her beauty was inescapable. The same creamy skin he’d kissed in high school. The same delicious sprinkling of freckles across her nose. Her blond hair was darker and longer than he’d ever seen when she was on television as a reporter.
His fingers itched to touch her face. Her beauty had come into full bloom.
He couldn’t believe she’d never married. Well, actually, he could—Claire was a free spirit. But she was one hot free spirit. She must’ve had plenty of opportunities to hook up in D.C., in such a highly visible job.
He breathed in deeply and willed his mind elsewhere.
It wouldn’t do to allow his emotions related to Claire to surface. He tried to distract his lustful thoughts, reminding himself that she was the one link to Natalie that Sasha craved.
Dutch knew he was in dangerous territory. But it wasn’t the threat of a physical enemy that haunted him.
It was the emotions that were evoked by the one woman he’d sworn to write out of his life.
Here she was, asleep on his couch, in his den, in the middle of the night. The girls were sound asleep in the television room, guaranteed to stay that way for at least the next few hours.
Temptation ran through him, and it took all his willpower to back up and put mental space between them.
For a man who prided himself on his convictions, he sure wasn’t doing a great job with this one.
Worse, he was finding it harder and harder to come up with reasons to hold on to those convictions.…
Ginny believed that people changed. He hated to admit it, but his little sister might be right.…
He settled into the easy chair across from Claire and pulled the ratty throw he kept on it over himself. He sure as hell wasn’t going to get any sleep in his bed. The girls might need him, and he didn’t want them to wake Claire. Besides, the view from here was far more interesting.
Claire woke to the smell of stale popcorn and dog. As she became more aware she noticed that the blanket that covered her was keeping someone else warm—Rascal.
The medium-size dog was snuggled against her.
At some point she’d turned onto her side with her back against the couch frame and Rascal had snuggled up next to her. She didn’t remember throwing the blanket on when she’d lain down for what she’d thought would be a brief nap.
She held up her arm and looked at her watch.
Seven in the morning! That must’ve been some case Dutch had.
She listened—no sound came from the television room. The girls were still out cold, thank goodness.
As Claire rose onto her elbows and sat up, Rascal yawned and tried to snuggle deeper. She laughed and rubbed his head. “You’re a sweetie, aren’t you?”
The dog didn’t look at her, but at the big chair across the room.
Where Dutch slept.
Realization jerked Claire out of her sleepy state.
Dutch had come home—when? And how long had he been sleeping in here?
He lay with his feet up in the easy chair, the dim glow of a tiny lamp on the adjacent bookshelf the only light in the room. She’d left it on so she wouldn’t trip over anything if the girls called out to her.
Claire studied Dutch’s profile. This was the most relaxed she’d seen him since she’d returned to Dovetail.
His forehead was marked with lines, and his nose and chin seemed more defined. He looked sexier than hell.…
His hair was mussed and she wondered if it was still as coarse as she remembered. She’d only felt the nape of his neck when they’d kissed in her yard that day. No doubt that was thelast time she’d ever get to kiss him.
She sighed. They’d never get past their history. But she could go and make some coffee for Dutch. She’d leave it warming for him, along with a note.
Who was she kidding—she needed some coffee.
She eased herself around Rascal and slipped between the sofa and the chair to get to the door.
A hand grabbed her wrist.
She looked down into Dutch’s blue eyes and saw a sparkle of amusement in their depths.
“You’re awake!” she whispered.
“Oh, yeah.” He yanked on her arm and she fell into his lap. In an instant she was looking up into his face, very conscious of his morning arousal. “What a nice way to wake up…”
Unlike the kiss by the barn, this was a more welcoming event. Dutch’s warm mouth was on a slow, patient journey and his hand caressed her face. Claire felt wanted, desired.
She blamed her lack of resistance on the early hour.
Even after almost two years of tending to the llamas at the crack of dawn, Claire didn’t consider herself a morning person. It always took her at least two cups of coffee.
“Dutch, the girls,” she whispered as he nibbled her chin. “They’re going to wake up.”
“Then we shouldn’t talk or they’ll hear us.” He kept his focus on her face, her nose, her lips. His lips were firm yet soft, and elicited a curl of longing.
Claire reveled in Dutch’s attention, his deft caress.
She shifted on his lap and heard the creak of the old leather chair. In Dutch’s study. In his house—his and Natalie’s home.
Claire pushed against his chest. He didn’t fight her, but his puzzled look betrayed his thoughts. He wanted nothing more than to keep making love.
Claire couldn’t argue with his desire to be together. But neither could she be with him here, in Natalie’s house, with Sasha and her girlfriends sleeping in the next room.
She stood and looked at him. “I believe we had a deal.”
She sighed in exasperation.
“Or maybe we need to make a new one. We’re friends, friendly, not dating. That’s what you asked for.”