Authors: Catherine Mann
She fought back the urge to moan at just the sound of his voice and the memories his words evoked. “I thought you were taking the animals on this flight as a totally philanthropic act.”
She tipped her chin and stood her ground. “Then what’s this flirting about?”
“I’m a multitasker.” He knocked on the clipboard still clasped against her breasts. “Let’s get strapped in and ready to roll.”
* * *
An hour later, Megan rested her arm along the sofa back and watched the puffy white clouds filling the sky. The plane cruised as smoothly as if they were cushioned by those pillowy clouds, not a bump yet to disconcert her.
Shortly after takeoff, Evie had asked to join Whit. Megan had started to say no, but apparently he’d heard and waved her daughter up front to the empty co-pilot’s seat. As a single parent, Megan was so used to being the sole caregiver and primary form of entertainment for her daughter—especially since the tornado. This moment to relax with her thoughts was a welcome reprieve.
Hell, to relax at all seemed like a gift.
The cats were all happily snoozing now in their tranquilized haze. No more evil eye from the three stubborn ones that had stayed awake the longest.
Her gaze shifted back to her daughter up front. Evie, rejuvenated from her nap, was now chattering to Whit. He sat at the helm, piloting them through the skies with obvious ease and skill. His hands and feet moved in perfect synch, his eyes scanning the control as he seamlessly carried on a convoluted conversation with her four-year-old daughter.
“Mr. Whit, I’m a cowgirl,” Evie declared proudly.
“I see that,” he answered patiently as if she hadn’t already been peppering his ear with accounts of every detail of her life from her best friends at school—Caitlyn and Bobby—to what she ate for breakfast this morning—a granola bar and chocolate milk in the car on the way to the shelter. “Last week, you were a knight with a sword.”
“A princess knight,” she said as if he was too slow to have noticed the difference.
Megan suppressed a smile.
“Right,” Whit answered. “You always wear that pretty tiara.”
“This week, I’m keeping the monsters away with my rope.” She patted her hip where the miniature lasso was hooked to her belt loop. “It’s a lassie.”
“Lassie? Oh, lasso. I see,” he said solemnly. “You’re going to rope the monsters?”
Megan swallowed down a lump of emotion at how easily he saw through to her daughter’s fears.
“Yep, sir, that’s right,” Evie answered with a nod that threatened to dislodge her tiara. “Rope ’em up and throw ’em in the trash.”
He stayed silent for a heart-stopping second before he answered with a measured calm, “You’re a very brave little girl.”
Evie shrugged. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
Megan choked back a bittersweet laugh as her daughter parroted one of her mommy’s favorite phrases.
Whit glanced at Evie. “Your mommy takes very good care of you. You’re safe now, kiddo.”
“But nobody takes care of Mommy. That’s not fair.”
Megan blinked back tears at the weight her little girl was carrying around inside. He didn’t seem to have a ready answer to that one. Neither did Megan.
Evie hitched up her feet to sit cross-legged, picking at the Velcro of her new tennis shoes. They hadn’t been able to afford cowgirl boots, not with new shoes to buy. “I’m not sure what I’ll be next. Gotta look through my costume box and see what’ll scare the monsters.”
“Where are these monsters?”
“They come out of the sky with the wind.” Evie pointed ahead at the windscreen and made swirly gestures with her spindly, little-girl arms. “So I’m riding wif you in the plane. I’ll get ’em before they scare other kids.”
Megan tipped her head back to hold in the tears. She had seen this flight as a welcome distraction for her child. She hadn’t considered Evie might be afraid, and certainly not for this particular reason. But it made perfect sense, and somehow Whit had gotten more information on the fears in one simple conversation than Megan had been able to pry out of her strong-willed child in the past month.
Evie wiggled her feet. “I got new shoes. They light up when I walk.”
“My princess sneakers got messed up in the tora-na-do.” She pronounced the word much better these days than a month ago.
They’d all had lots of practice with the word.
Whit glanced at Evie for an instant, his brown eyes serious and compassionate. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“They were my favorites. But we couldn’t find ones just like ’em. I think these lights are a good idea. I coulda used the lights the day the tora-na-do made the school all dark.”
Megan’s stomach plummeted as surely as if the plane had lost serious altitude. Was every choice her child made tied into that day now? Megan had thought the shoe-shopping trip had been a fun day for Evie, and yet the whole time her daughter had assessed every choice using survivalist criteria. Megan blinked back tears and focused on listening to Evie.
“Mommy says lots of little girls lost their shoes too and we need to be glad we gots shoes.”
“Your mother is a smart lady.”
Was it her imagination or had he just glanced back at her out of the corner of his eye? A shiver of awareness tingled up her spine.
“I know, and I wanna be good like Mommy so Santa will come visit my house.”
His head tipped to the side inquisitively. “Santa will see what a very good girl you’ve been today. I suspect you’re always a good girl.”
“Not as good as Mommy.”
Megan frowned in surprise, her heart aching all over again for what her daughter had been through and how little Evie had shared about that. Until now. Somehow Whit had a way of reaching her that no one else had. Megan was grateful, and nervous to think of him gaining more importance in her life.
Whit waited a moment before answering, “Why do you think that about yourself, kiddo?”
Evie just shook her head, pigtails swishing and tiara landing in her lap. “Let’s talk about something else. Caitlyn and Bobby are my bestest friends. Are you Mommy’s new bestest friend?”
s the sun set at the end of a chilly day, Whit cranked the heat inside the rental car, an SUV that had been perfect for transporting the twelve cats to their new foster families with the Colorado rescue group. They’d just finished their last drop-off. Mission complete.
Megan had insisted on inspecting every home in spite of the long day and the Colorado cold. But in the end, she was satisfied she’d found a great new rescue to network with in the future.
Glancing at the rearview mirror, Whit watched Megan strapped her daughter into the car seat, a task he’d learned she never allowed anyone else to take over no matter how many stops they made. Evie had been patient, excited even, over seeing her mom in action. And the couple of times the kid had gotten bored, she’d been easily distracted by the snow flurries—which had necessitated a side trip to pick up a warmer snow suit and snow boots.
Evie had been hesitant about covering her costume and her trepidation stabbed Whit clean through with sympathy for the little tyke. Finally, he’d been able to persuade her even cowgirls needed cold weather gear more appropriate for Colorado—which was a helluva lot colder than Texas.
Megan tucked into the passenger side as they idled outside a two-story farmhouse belonging to an older widower inside who’d made a fuss over his feline visitor. She rubbed her gloved hands together in front of the heat vent and then swiped the snowflakes off her head.
“I miss Texas,” she said between her chattering teeth. “If you ever hear me complain during the winter, just remind me of this day.”
That implied they would keep in contact after this weekend. He was making progress in comparison to their previous standoff. Did this mean she’d forgiven him for claiming the land she’d wanted for the shelter? He wasn’t going to push his luck by asking. He intended to ride the wave of her good mood today and build some more positive memories.
Megan deserved to have some fun and recreation.
He’d seen firsthand how she carried a ton of worries around for one person, between taking care of her daughter alone and spreading her generous heart even thinner for these homeless animals. Who looked after Megan? Who gave her a break from life’s burdens?
He turned his heater vents in her direction as well. “You accomplished a lot in one day.”
“It’s a relief to have them settled, and so quickly.” She reached back to Evie and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Did you have fun?”
“I like the plane and the snow.” She kicked her feet. “And my new boots that Mr. Whit bought me.”
“Good, I’m glad, sweetie. We’ll get a Happy Meal before going back to the...hotel.” She swallowed, her eyes darting nervously to Whit. “Thank you again for arranging everything.”
He put the SUV into drive and pulled out onto the tree-lined suburban road, leaving the last foster home behind. “What about other rescues? Did you find more places that can help out with some of the animals back home?”
Her green eyes lit with excitement. “I have a line on a couple of breed-specific rescues that might be able to take a few of our beagles and our German Shepherd.” She touched his arm lightly; it was the first physical contact she’d initiated since that kiss. “But I can’t keep asking you to take off work to fly around the country.”
“I have a private pilot and I’m guessing if you already know the reputation of the rescue, then the animals can fly alone with him.” While the obvious answer would be to lock in their weekends with more of these flights together, he also knew a more subtle approach would win Megan over. Just as he’d told Evie, her mama was smart and Whit was drawn to that part of Megan as well. So he opted for a smoother approach. “This doesn’t always have to be about us spending time together. Not that I’m complaining. What? You look surprised.”
He bit back a self-satisfied smile and steered out onto the rural mountain road into a smattering of five o’clock traffic.
She tipped her head to the side, the setting sun casting a warm glow over her face. “You would pay your pilot to fly just one or two dogs at a time?”
“Sure, although I’ve also got an idea for recruiting some of my friends to help out.” He accelerated past a slow-moving vehicle backing up traffic. “A number of them own planes, short range, long range, and we all like to pitch in and help. Sometimes we just need pointing in the right direction.”
“Even if you don’t get to see me and make moves to follow up on....” She glanced up at the rearview mirror and watched Evie playing with her iPad. “Even if you know there won’t be a replay of what happened a month ago.”
“I can separate work and personal, just as I can separate personal and philanthropic. And,” he ducked his head closer to hers, “I can also blend them when the situation presents itself. Like today.”
Evie kicked the back of her mother’s seat. “Can I have my Happy Meal, please? ’Cause if I have to wait much longer, I’m gonna starve and then it would be a Sad Meal.”
Whit choked on a laugh. God, this kid was a cute little imp. “Absolutely, kiddo, we can get supper for you. And then after supper, I have plans.”
Megan sat up straighter. “Plans?”
Damn straight. He had an agenda full of fun for a woman who didn’t get much in the way of recreation. “Unless you have an objection, we’ll have dinner and ice skating before we turn in for the night.”
* * *
Megan never would have guessed the mega-wealthy, smooth operator Whit Daltry would plan a night of ice skating and burgers. Granted, they were the best burgers she’d ever eaten. But still, the laid-back quality of fun appealed to her.
He’d also taken Evie into account, something else that set him apart from other men who’d asked her out for a date—except wait, this wasn’t a date. She didn’t have time for dating.
She sat on a bench by the outdoor skating rink, eating the last of her sweet potato fries and watching Whit lead her daughter carefully as she found her balance on the children’s skates. Moonbeams and halogen lights created the effect of a hazy dome over the crowded ice, which was full of people getting into the Christmas spirit early. His patience was commendable. A person couldn’t fake that. He genuinely had a knack with kids.
Megan could see her daughter’s mouth moving non-stop as she chattered away, her breath puffing clouds in tiny bursts. Whit nodded periodically. Other skaters whipped past, but he kept up the slow, steady pace with Evie, making sure to keep her safe.
She stopped and tugged his hand, so cute in her puffy pink snowsuit next to Whit, who towered over her in his blue parka. He knelt, listening intently. Then he stood, scooping her up and skating faster, faster, faster still. Evie’s squeals of delight carried on the wind, mixing with music piping through the outdoor sound system. Megan’s heart softened, a dangerous emotion because this could be so easy to get used to, to depend on. To crave.
She exhaled a very long stream of white vapor. She needed to steel herself and tread warily. She ate three sweet potato fries. Fast. Feeding her stomach because she couldn’t address the deeper hunger.
Whit and her daughter circled the rink twice before he skidded to a stop in front of Megan’s bench. He held Evie confidently. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her little girl’s smile wide and genuine for the first time since the twister tore apart their lives.
Megan scooted over on the bench to make room for them to join her. She patted the chilly metal with her gloved hand. “You’re very good at ice skating for a Texan.”
Whit lowered Evie to sit between them. “My parents moved around a lot when I was growing up, all over the U.S., actually. I spent some time ice skating on ponds because we couldn’t afford the admission to a rink.”
That explained why his accent wasn’t as strong as others who lived in Royal. But she’d assumed he still came from a privileged background because he fit so seamlessly into the elite Texas world typified by the TCC members. She tried to picture him as a kid fitting in at all those new places. He’d earned all that confidence the hard way. She understood that road well.
“What other skills did you pick up over the years?” Megan passed her daughter the box of fries.
“You’ll have to wait to find out.” He stretched his arm along the back of the bench and tugged a curly lock of her hair.
“A man of mystery.” Had she actually leaned into his touch? The warmth of his arm seared her through her coat and sweater and the temptation to stay right here burned strong.
“Just trying to keep you around.”
Evie dropped her fry and looked up with worried green eyes. “Where’s Mommy going?”
“Nowhere, sweetie.” She gathered her child close to her side, love and the deep importance of her role as Evie’s mom twining inside her. “I’m staying with you.”
Her daughter continued to stare up at her. “Are you sure?”
Evie looked down at her ice skates, chewing her lip before turning to Whit. “You said I could pick somethin’ from the gift shop.”
Megan gasped, ducking her head to meet her daughter’s eyes. “Evie! You shouldn’t ask Mr. Daltry to buy you things. He’s already been very generous with this trip for the kitties and then entertaining us with ice skating.”
He squeezed Megan’s shoulder. “It’s okay. Evie’s right. I offered, downright promised. And a person should always do their best to keep their promises.”
Megan raised her gloved hands in surrender. “Sounds like I’m outvoted.”
“Yay!” Evie giggled.
Whit hefted her up, keeping his balance on the ice skates. “Did you have something already picked out, kiddo?”
She bobbed her head, pigtails swinging around her earmuffs—which she had instead of a hat so she could still wear her tiara. “I wanna get the snow princess costume so I can freeze the monsters.”
Megan’s stomach plummeted. This night may have felt like a magical escape from real life. But she couldn’t afford to forget for a second that her everyday reality and responsibilities were still waiting for her once this fantasy weekend was over.
This night was all she could have with Whit.
* * *
The more time he spent with Megan on this trip, the more Whit was certain he should take his time with her, get to know her. Win her over gradually once they got home.
For now, here in their cozy ski chalet, he needed to keep his distance. He needed to bide his time. Rushing her tonight could well cost him all the progress he’d made. Megan wasn’t the type to be interested in a one-night stand, and quite frankly, he couldn’t imagine that once with her would be enough.
The chalet was a three-bedroom in Vail, with a full sitting room and kitchen that overlooked a lake. He’d originally gotten three bedrooms to assure Megan that he respected her privacy, while still leaving their options open. But that timetable had changed.
He’d just finished building a fire in the old-fashioned fireplace when Evie’s bedroom door opened and Megan stepped out. Her hair was loose and curlier than normal around her face after their evening at the windy ice rink. She still wore her jeans and green fuzzy sweater, no shoes though, just thick socks. Her toes wiggled into the carpet as if she was anchoring herself in the room. Finally, he had her alone and today of all days he’d resolved to bide his time.
It would take all his restraint to keep himself in check.
Tucking aside some extra logs to keep the fire burning for a few more hours, he stepped behind the wet bar and pulled out a bottle of sparkling water. “Would you like something to drink? The bar is stocked. There’s juice and some herbal tea...”
“Any wine? Preferably red.” She slid a band off her wrist and tugged her hair back to gather it into a low ponytail. “One glass won’t incapacitate me.”
“Oh, sure,” he said, surprised. He scanned the selection and found a good bottle from a reputable California vineyard. He poured a glass for her, water for himself. He passed her the crystal glass.
She savored a sip and smiled, sinking down in the middle of a pile of throw pillows on the sofa. She could have chosen the chair, but she’d left room for him to sit, even sweeping aside one of the pillows to clear a space. Intentional or not? He kept his silence and waited while she gazed into the fire for a long moment.
“Thank you for everything, Whit. For bringing us here, for going to so much trouble to arrange such a special evening for Evie too.” Megan tucked her legs to the side, the flames from the fire casting a warm glow on her skin. “It was an incredible way to end an already wonderful day.”
As she shifted, her socks scrunched down to her ankles, revealing a tiny paw print tattoo. How had he never noticed that before? Did she have others hidden elsewhere on her body? His gaze fixed on that mark for an instant before he took his tumbler and sat in the leather chair beside her.
Was that a flicker of disappointment in her eyes?
“No trouble at all,” he said. “This has been a nice change of pace from eating alone or playing darts at the club.”
“You aren’t fooling me for a second.” Her green eyes twinkled with mischief. “Your life is much more fast-paced than that.”
“If you’re asking if I’m seeing anyone, the answer is no.” Although the fact that she would ask gave him hope he was on the right track playing this cool, taking his time. “You have my complete and undivided attention.”
Her eyes went wide and she chewed her bottom lip. “Really?”
He angled back, hitching a booted foot on his knee. “That was impressive seeing you in action today. You were amazing interviewing the foster families and sifting through all that paperwork. I had no idea how much detail went into ensuring the animals are safe and well cared for.”
“I’m just doing my job, a job I’m very happy to have. I get to do the work I love in an environment that is flexible about letting my daughter join me. It’s the best of both worlds and I intend to be worthy of keeping the position.”
“Well, I don’t know a lot about the animal rescue world, but from what I can tell, whatever they’re paying you can’t be nearly enough for how much heart you pour into saving each one of those cats and dogs.”