My mouth drops. “What? You can’t do that!”
“We need people who are dependable, and you are not,” my jerk of a boss says calmly.
“My son was sick, and I’m the only one who can be with him. What was I supposed to do? You can’t fire me over this.”
“I just did.”
He hangs up on me like the bastard he is and I lean forward, clutching the steering wheel. This can’t happen to me. My eyes water with tears and I take deep breaths because I can’t cry. No matter how badly I want and need to. It’s been one bad thing after the other for months and now, I’m jobless and homeless.
“Momma,” Jackson’s soft voice says from the backseat.
I take a quick deep breath and turn to look at him. “What’s wrong, baby?”
“I don’t wanna go to school.”
We sit in the school’s parking lot. There shouldn’t be a reason why he doesn’t want to go. I unbuckle my seatbelt and lean over the console to reach him in the backseat, resting my hand on his knee. “Why? What’s wrong?”
He frowns. “I don’t feel good.”
I touch his forehead with the back of my hand; he doesn’t have a fever. He was sick earlier this week, but he’s been doing better. “Try and if you feel really bad, tell Mrs. Solomon, okay?”
He nods. I get out and walk around to his door. He unbuckles himself because he’s a big boy and Momma can’t do it anymore. He hops out and I reach in to grab his book bag. I have until he gets out of school for the day to find a job and a place to live.
He holds my hand and we walk up the breezeway and into the school. The closer we get to his classroom, the closer Jackson walks next to me. He’s always been a quiet kid, but when it comes to new people, he’s super shy. It’s only ever been the two of us, so it takes some adjusting when new people come into the picture. He has been in school for about three months, but he still refuses to walk in without me.
Mrs. Solomon smiles when she sees us and crouches to be eye level with Jackson. “Hey, Jackson.” She holds out her hand and after a few seconds, Jackson takes it. He walks away, glancing over his shoulder to wave goodbye to me. The tears can’t be helped now. I wait until he takes his seat before I leave. Not that I have anywhere to go. I was already trying to find another job because my boss is a sleazy bastard. I put in applications everywhere I can think of, but nothing has panned out so far.
I get in my car and break down like I’ve wanted to do for the past few months. The sobs rip through me, tearing me apart so easily while this voice in my head berates me for letting things get this bad in the first place. How could I let Jackson down? What kind of mother loses her job and home in one day? A terrible one. That’s me. How did I become like this?
I’ve been a strong person for so long, but life has finally broken me. Everything I own is in this dingy car. It’s loaded down with what few possessions we own since we had to be out today. What am I going to do now? Why does everything have to be so hard for Jackson and me? We’ve managed to get by just fine until a few months ago when everything started going wrong left and right and sucked my money away faster than I could make it.
You’d think in the five years I’ve been on my own, I would’ve made some friends and have someone to help me, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’m as alone now as I was when I left the hospital with a newborn in my arms. My parents were strict, hypocrites of preachers. They told me that I made the bed, and I would lay in it. They had as much issue with the fact that I was pregnant at sixteen as who the father was.
My parents got on my nerves so bad and stressed me out so much during my pregnancy that I nearly had him early twice. I went into labor on my seventeenth birthday and Jackson was born early the following morning. Everything was set. I had a job and I was able to move out and in with a family friend. As soon as I scraped up enough to move away, I did. I went across state lines and never looked back. My parents don’t know where I live and haven’t ever seen their grandson.
I’ve had to grow up, learn how to be not just a parent, but a single parent completely on my own, and survive for the two of us. I’ve managed to do it. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but my son has always been fed and had a place to sleep.
I can’t fail my son now. Something has to give. There’s only seventy bucks to my name. My son needs a place to sleep and I need to be able to feed him. I wipe my tears and sniff a few times. The time for Raelynn’s pity party is over. I need to move forward for Jackson’s sake. First, I stop by the public library, type up a résumé, and print off fifty copies. Hopefully paying the library to use their printer lands me a job before I go broke. With résumés in hand, I visit places of business and with more confidence than I actually have, demand to speak with whoever is in charge of hiring new employees and plead my pathetic case.
Like how I’m currently in a quilt shop faced with a pretty blonde and a tall, intimidating man. With a quick, steadying breath I hope they won’t notice, I hold out my hand, which the woman takes. “Hello, my name is Raelynn Woods. I’m sorry if I bothered you while you were busy,” I glance to the man, his black eye and busted lip particularly, but force the words to continue out of my mouth, “but I wanted to make sure I talked to the person in charge.” I find my résumé in my purse and hand it to her. “I don’t know if you have any positions open, but I’m in desperate need of a job, so if one opens up, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me in mind.”
She tells me what everyone has told me today. “I will. I don’t have anything right now.”
My shoulders fall. Is it too soon to give up hope and cry again? I’m nearly out of résumés. Someone has to have job opening. Someone has to be willing to hire me.
“Are you open to any kind of job?” the man asks, surprising me. He seemed content to stand and hang around.
“Yes.” If he’s offering, I’ll take it. I don’t care what it is, I’ll do it. I’m desperate.
“What about as a nanny?”
“I can do that. I have references, experience, and I’m CPR-certified.” The words can’t leave my mouth fast enough. At this point, I’ll take what I can get and figure out details later.
“Stay here for a second,” he says.
“What are you doing?” the woman asks him.
He says a name as he steps away with a phone in his hand. I watch him talk on the phone, hoping that this is my chance. The one that will ease the tension in my muscles, that will start me back on the up and up with Jackson. I don’t know how being a nanny will work, considering I have my own son, but surely it’s just babysitting during the day and maybe late at night, right?
Before I can worry too much, the man is back.
“Here’s the deal. I have a friend who is a single parent and he needs a nanny to help with his little girl, Bree. She’s almost nine months old. He can explain everything to you during the interview, which he’d like to do as soon as you can make it to his house because he’s in between interviews right now. Deanna, where’s a pen and paper?” She walks around the counter to grab him what he asked for and he asks me, “Can you go now?”
My anxiety returns as it hits me. It’s a single father? I don’t know any of these people. “To this man’s house?” I manage to say. I’m supposed to go to some random guy’s house? Is he insane?
“He’s a good guy. I can go with you if you’re uncomfortable going alone; that’s totally understandable,” Deanna says.
Is a potential job worth this? Her reassurances help, but I don’t know. I glance at the man. What if his friend looks like him? I’m being a judgmental bitch right now when I have no choice, but I also have no clue what he does or what I’m walking into here.
“Can you read that?” He holds out the piece of paper with his handwriting and I nod. “Are you going? He doesn’t have all day.” Deanna slaps his arm from across the counter. “What?” he asks.
“Don’t pressure her. She doesn’t know us and you’re trying to send her to a man’s house and she doesn’t know him either. And you got beat up at work, so you look a little sketchy.” What kind of work does he do where he walks away looking like that?
He frowns. “I’m not pressuring her.” He glances at her. “I look sketchy?”
“Intimidating,” I correct, using the word I first thought of when I saw him.
He smiles. “That’s a better answer.” He looks at me. “We’re all good people, but Deanna can go with you if you want. Here.” He pulls his phone back out and after a moment, he turns it toward me to show off a picture of a little baby girl. “That’s his daughter. How dangerous does she look?”
Okay, he has a point. I debate it while the two banter until I hear Deanna ask, “Anyway, would you like for me to ride out there with you?”
“You don’t mind?” It would make me feel more comfortable, if she’s willing.
“Not at all.”
“His mom is probably there too,” the man adds.
I nod. That works for me. I follow Deanna outside and then to this man’s house. It’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I could never afford to live here, that’s for sure. The house almost reminds me of a doll house from the outside. I wonder what this man’s job is.
I glance into my rearview mirror. I look frazzled and out of place. I tried to freshen up in the bathroom at the library, but obviously, I did a bad job. No wonder people don’t want to hire me. With a deep breath, I run my fingers through my hair again and get out to meet Deanna. It’s now or never. Deanna and I walk up the pebbled walkway. There’s a sign on the door.
Sleeping baby. DO NOT RING DOORBELL. Knock. Quietly.
Deanna raps her knuckles on the door softly. I want to ask her what his name is again, but he answers before I can.
“Hey, EJ,” Deanna says. “This is Raelynn Woods.” She looks at me. “Are you good?”
I nod and she waves as she leaves. EJ is a handsome young guy in jeans and a T-shirt that flaunts strong arms covered with tattoos. He appears to be not too much older than myself if I had to guess.
He sticks out his hand. “EJ Bertuzzi. Nice to meet you.”
I shake it. “You too.” No need to repeat my name when he already knows it. He steps aside for me to walk in.
How does a guy this young afford a place like this? Much less a nanny. Maybe he’s into something shady with all of those tattoos. Shut it, Raelynn. No judging. I follow EJ through his gorgeous house and into the kitchen. It feels rude to gawk at his house, even if he can’t see me, so I stare at his back. It’s broad and leads to a huge ass and thick legs. Damn. I shake my head. No ogling the potential boss either!
“Have a seat.” He motions to the dining table. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thanks. Does EJ stand for anything?” It’s a stupid thing to ask, considering he’s supposed to be interviewing me, but I can’t help it. I see a name like that and I’m always curious.
“Elias James, first and middle name, but only my mother calls me that. Most of my friends just call me EJ.”
Elias. That’s a pretty name. He seems more like an Elias to me for some reason. “So, I could call you Elias?” I ask.
He shrugs as he grabs something for himself from the fridge and then sits down across from me. “If you want. I don’t care.” He’s a bit intimidating between his size and those tattoos. What is it with intimidating men today? “Okay, here’s the deal,” he starts, getting down to business. “I haven’t liked or trusted anyone I’ve interviewed so far, and I’d like to finally find someone so my mom can return home. If I like you and I think you’ll work out, then I’ll give you a chance. Do you happen to watch hockey?”
I’m so thrown off guard by his question that it takes a second to shake my head. I’d need something other than an antenna to watch that.
“Well, that’s what I do. I play for the Carolina Rebels. I travel and have a rigorous schedule for most of the year. I need someone I can trust to be with Bree and who is willing to keep in contact with me while I’m on the road. You’d live here, and you’d be paid well. We can go over specifics if I decide I like you. So far, what do you think?”
I’d have to live here? Oh, boy. I wasn’t counting on that. He’s going to shun me the moment I tell him I have a little boy. But maybe if he likes me enough first, then we can somehow work out an arrangement? I don’t know. But I find myself saying, “I think I’m still interested.”
Elias smiles. It’s such a pretty smile. “Great. Other possible duties would be tidying up. Your number one priority would be taking care of Bree. You’d have vacation time during the offseason and—”
“When is that?” I interrupt, curious. “Sorry, I don’t know much about hockey. Or anything about it at all, really.”
“It’s okay. Season ends in April, unless we make it to playoffs. So, let’s just say late June to early September. You could take that entire time off or as little as two weeks. Up to you. I get one mandated day off every week during the season; that can be your day off, but if for some reason you need another day, let me know with plenty of advance notice if possible.”
Elias goes on and on about his schedule and things he’d want from me. Maybe Jackson and I could live here with him while I’m a nanny. That would solve both my job problem and living arrangements. But is that the right decision? Should I even contemplate that? Would Elias?
Soft cries comes from a nearby baby monitor and Elias jumps up.
“She’s awake,” he says with a crooked smile. The man just got hotter.
I shake those thoughts from my mind. “Can I come with you to meet her?”
If possible, his grin widens. “Sure. Come on.”
I follow him up the stairs. “You have a beautiful home,” I say what I’ve been thinking since I walked in.
“Thanks,” he mumbles. “My mom had a hand in decorating.”
The room we enter is a pink explosion fitted for a princess. Elias picks up his baby and rocks her gently. I step next to him.
“She’s beautiful,” I whisper, even though she’s awake.
“That she is.”
Elias seems enthralled by his daughter and it tugs at my heart. Bree reaches her arm out to me.
“Can I hold her?”
He hesitates, but then nods, handing her over to me like she’s his most prized possession.
“Hey, pretty girl,” I coo. She smiles. Holding her makes me wish Jackson was still a baby. Bree makes baby noises and I laugh when she tugs on my hair.
“You’re a natural,” Elias says. “You seem like you know more than I do,” he chuckles.
I shrug it off.
I follow him out of the room, but in the opposite direction of the stairs. He walks two doors down and opens the one on the opposite side of the hall.
“This would be your room. If you’d rather have your own things in here instead, I can move this stuff to storage, no problem.”
I nod, my stomach churning and tying in knots. I need to tell him about my son. Elias leads me back downstairs to the kitchen. Bree has dozed off again with her head on my shoulder, so he lets me continue to hold her.
“Any questions or concerns? Because I’m ready to make an offer.”
“I have the job?”
“If you want it.”
The relief at hearing those words overwhelms me and I squeeze my eyes closed to stop the tears. I will them away. This isn’t a sure thing yet. “Um, yes, I do have some concerns.”
Elias frowns, not expecting that. “What are they?”
Bree stirs and I take the opportunity to look at her instead of him. “I...I’m a single mom of a five-year-old. If I accept the job offer, if you’re still offering, then it would be my son and myself moving in.”
“How old are you?”
I lift my head. He doesn’t think I could be the mom of a five-year-old. “Twenty-two,” I answer curtly. I hope like hell he tries to judge me. That is one thing that brings out my inner momma bear. Judge me for almost anything else, but not that.
“Oh, man. I wasn’t expecting the kid.”
My heart sinks and my inner beggar makes an appearance. “Please. I need this job. I’m completely qualified seeing as how I’ve been taking care of my son for five years by myself. He’s in school for most of the day, and he’s a good kid, I swear. I can do this job and take care of your little girl. You wouldn’t have to worry about feeding him either. I can buy the food for him.” Elias said he would cover the grocery bill for me. “Please, don’t let this cause you not to hire me. I need this job. Please.”
Elias just stares at me. That can’t be a good sign.