worth the risk

A Final Sneak Peek: Worth the Risk

Chapter Three

Raelynn

Bree stays home with Elias and his mom while I take Jackson to school. I may shed a few tears on the way home because for the first time, my baby wanted to walk by himself to class. I walked him to the entrance of the school, and then he left me without a backward glance. It was almost like the first day of school all over again. I had to go inside anyway to update his files with a new home address.

When I return, Elias goes straight into showing me every nook and cranny of the house practically before having another round of discussion in the kitchen with his mother nearby with Bree.

“I won’t be home until kinda late because we have a game tonight,” he continues. “Lock the doors if you go to bed before I get home, but if you set the alarm, make sure you do the silent alarm. That way it won’t go off when I come in and wake the kids. I have to run out and get a key made for you before I head to the rink. Is there anything you or Jackson need me to pick up? Do you want me to go ahead and set up her carseat in your car, so you don’t have to do it later?”

“I don’t think so, and if you want. It doesn’t matter.”

“I’ll do it.” He nods to himself. “And here’s a credit card you can use in case you decide there is something you need or would like to have here.”

He holds out the card, but I stare at it, flicking my gaze to see a disapproving look from his mother. “Um, that’s okay. We’ll be fine.” It doesn’t feel right to basically have my employer’s credit card to use at my disposal for things for Bree or Jackson and me. It’s worse that his mother watches my every move, waiting for me to mess up so she can convince him to fire me. It feels that way, at least.

“Raelynn, take it. I said I’d provide groceries for y’all. There’s a road trip coming up around Thanksgiving. You’ll need this. I’m not always going to be here or have time to go shopping.” Reluctantly, I take it, and he adds, “You don’t need to ask before you use it either, but Mom will show you where to put the receipts. Need anything else before I go?”

I think about my car, which is low on gas. I think about my phone bill, which is due today and will likely wipe my account of what money I have left. “Could I get this week’s pay already?”

“Yeah, sure.” He disappears upstairs and returns a minute later with a check.

I’ve never made so much money in one week before. I almost feel like I should argue about the amount since I’m living here rent free, utilities free, and grocery free, but I’m not. This was the amount he offered and I could definitely use the money.

“Thank you,” I say softly.

“Just don’t let me down.” He walks over to his mother, kisses her cheek, and then leans down to kiss Bree’s forehead, causing her to have that goofy baby smile. “Love you, princess.” It’s so sweet to watch Elias interact with his daughter. It also makes me wonder how he ended up with custody; he’s yet to mention her mother. I’ll have to ask about that later. I don’t want to be unprepared in case someone shows up. “I’ll be back shortly, Raelynn,” Elias tells me before heading out the door.

With her son gone, Alice interviews me with far more questions than her son did. I answer them completely. What harm is there in telling her that Jackson and I have struggled and the only reason I’m here is because I needed a job and Elias was offering? She asks me if I’m trying to take advantage of him, but when it becomes clear that I’m not because I had no clue I could take advantage of him, she accepts that. When she asks of my past, I politely shut her down. My past is my own and has no relevance.

~ ~ ~

Alice hugs Bree in her arms. “Take good care of my granddaughter, okay? I have complete faith that you will, but I have to say it anyway.”

“I will take care of her as if she’s my own,” I promise. Today is a big day for a couple of reasons, one of which is Alice leaves to go home.

I’m also here to take care of my daughter, Ma,” Elias tells her. “She’ll be fine. Unless you don’t trust us?”

“I trust you. That’s how I’m able to leave.”

It’s been nice to have Alice around. She’s helped me adjust to things here, learn my way around, and feel comfortable, somewhat. It’s nice to know she’s giving me her official stamp of approval.

Alice kisses Bree’s cheeks until Elias takes matters into his own hands and takes Bree away, giving her to me.

“It’s time to go, Ma. We don’t want you to miss your flight.”

“Fine. Fine.” Alice hugs me, kisses Bree one last time, and says, “Tell Jackson I said goodbye.”

“I will.” He’s already at school, so he’s missing the goodbye session. Alice did say goodbye to him this morning, but I’ll be sure to pass along the second goodbye.

Elias leaves to take his mother to the airport and I focus on a new milestone I must cross. Elias is about to leave for his first road trip with me as his nanny. I’m slightly terrified, especially since his mother is gone. To stay calm, I’ve been doing what I’m doing right now: sitting on the floor, playing with Bree, so I don’t have to think about it.

“Hey,” Elias says as he comes into the living room. “Feeling good about being on your own?”

“Yeah,” I lie. I mean, I can take care of my own baby, no problem, but it’s giving me serious anxiety to be left alone in someone else’s house with someone else’s baby and with someone else’s credit card to use as I see fit. What if I mess up? What if I do something that’s not up to his standards? I don’t feel like I know Elias well enough to know boundaries yet.

“Good. I, uh...”

At the sound of Elias sounding nervous, I glance up. “Is something wrong? Did I do something?”

“No,” he quickly says. “I feel like a jackass, but I’m not sure what’s the polite way to tell my nanny to give me my baby and sort of leave me alone until I have to leave.”

I laugh. “You say, ‘Raelynn, I’m about to leave for a few days and I’d really like to spend some time with my daughter before I go. Shoo, please.’” I stand, picking Bree up as I go, and hand her to him. “There you go. I’ll be in my room.”

Elias’s smile slowly disappears. “You don’t have to hole up in your room.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, meaning it. “Pretend I’m not even here.” I walk away before he can say anything else.

This is another thing I haven’t figured out yet. When and how to give him space. I live here, but I’m also an employee. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I don’t want him to feel like I’m constantly intruding on his space or on his time with his daughter, like I almost accidentally did just now. That’s one reason why the other night, when he texted me after a game, mentioning how the guys were going to a bar and he was debating going with them, I told him he should go. The kids were asleep. Why should he rush home? To keep me company? Ha.

I need to figure out a game plan to combat this. This, as in, a way to make sure he’s free to do as he wishes in his own home, and even out of it. I guess Jackson and I could always hang out in our rooms or outside when he’s home. We’d always be out of his way if we did that.

Despite my nerves and uncertainties, this job has been such a blessing. I’ve been able to do some schoolwork when I manage to snag some free time. Thankfully, Elias has internet, so I don’t have to go to the library to get my work done. I’ve been slowly working through earning a degree online. I’ve been lucky to receive grants through financial aid to pay for the expenses. I normally do my work when Elias has a game or once everyone has gone to bed.

I’ve been getting my baby fill, too. Every now and then, I’d wish I could find someone only to give Jackson a little brother or sister. He’s such a shy kid who sticks to himself. Maybe a sibling would help. I was an only child and I hope that one day I can give Jackson siblings. One day when I’m better off financially, which means it’ll be a long time before I can entertain the idea. Well, I’d need a man, too, but that’s not the point.

This is the only drawback to a job like this. I love babies. Jackson was a good baby. Then again, I was so in love with him, he could’ve cried twenty hours out of the day and I would have thought he was a good baby. Bree is also a good baby. She loves to interact and play. She naps during the day. She cries and makes a fuss when she wants something. She’s crawling up a storm and loves for us to walk around the house together. She’s adorable.

After awhile, Elias calls my name because it’s time for him to leave. He’s been great, too. It’s been sweet to watch him with Bree, but also because my second day here? When he was out getting a spare key made for me, he bought Jackson a nightlight. He refused to let me pay him back for it, but it was sweet that he decided to do that for Jackson.

As he hands Bree to me and I say, “Say bye bye to DaDa,” I see the nerves on his face for the first time. That’s not reassuring in the least, especially when Bree hiccups and whines a little, reaching for him. She knows what bye bye means. She also knows who DaDa is.

“Take care of my princess, please,” he says softly with his eyes on her.

“I promise I will.”

“If she says a coherent word that’s not DaDa, don’t tell me.” At that, I laugh and Elias looks at me. “Okay, tell me anyway.” He smiles easily and kisses her forehead once again. “I’ll see you soon. Call me if you need me.”

“Go,” I whisper. He’s wasting time unnecessarily. Elias nods and then he’s gone.

Bree and I play the day away until it’s time for her afternoon nap. She wakes up just in time for us to leave to pick Jackson up for school. Jackson has settled in okay; he’s taken a great interest in hockey all of a sudden. We watched a game on TV last night for the first time, but saw a player get hurt. Not so much fun. However, I’ve never seen Jackson take so much interest in something before. He keeps asking me about things, but I don’t know anything about the game.

“Momma, Bree is looking at me,” he says from the backseat on the way home. He hasn’t quite gotten used to her yet.

“She’s curious about you. Why don’t you talk to her? Or sing to her?”

Jackson decides to talk. He does so for a few minutes, but then asks, “Is Bree really a princess? She doesn’t look like a princess and Mr. EJ calls her princess.”

I smile and say, “She’s his princess. Like how you’re my baby.”

“So, she’s not really a princess?” he asks, not letting it go as I pull into the driveway.

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“Definitely not a princess,” he mutters. “Where’s Mr. EJ?” he asks once we’re inside and it’s clear we’re home alone.

“Mr. EJ is on a road trip. The team goes to other cities to play games.”

“Can we watch the games?” he asks hopefully.

“Maybe.”

Later that night, my phone vibrates with a video call from Elias. Before I answer, I pick Bree up from where she’s playing on the floor and say, “Want to talk to DaDa?” Her face lights up with a smile, and I’m pretty sure it’s only because I said DaDa. I swipe across on my phone and hold it away from us.

Bree is looking at me with her smile, patting my chest, until she hears Elias say, “There’s my princess.” Her head swivels toward the phone and she squeals.

Jackson leans over from next to me, his eyes filling the screen. “Hey, Mr. EJ.”

Elias laughs. “Hey, J-man. Did you have a good day at school?” My heart warms a little at him entertaining Jackson, even though he only called to see his little girl. It’s already sweet that he has a nickname for my son, too.

A foul smell tickles my nose as Jackson answers him. “Jackson, hold my phone for a second, and you don’t have to hold it so close to your face.” I peek into Bree’s diaper and find the source. “Talk to Mr. EJ. Elias, I’m changing her diaper real quick and then she’s all yours, I promise.”

“No rush,” he says.

Bree is pretty easy to change. She likes to play with her feet. As long as you talk or sing to her, she’s happy and lets me clean her up and change diapers rather quickly. Jackson has gone quiet on Elias by the time I return, leaving him to do all the talking. Sometimes, he talks to him just fine. Others? He reverts to being shy.

“Thanks, baby,” I say, kissing the top of his head. Jackson doesn’t waste a second saying goodbye to Elias and handing the phone back to me. “No coherent words so far,” I tell him, causing him to smile.

“Good. How’d today go?”

“Just like every other day,” I speak over Bree who wants to talk just as much in her gibberish. Elias doesn’t seem to know who to focus on: me or her. I decide to be quiet and let her talk, making sure I smile and laugh when she seems to want a reaction.

“She really likes you,” he says quietly, bringing my gaze back to my phone. “She cried a little when you left the room today; that was when I knew. She doesn’t do that for just anyone.”

I can’t tell if he’s happy about this or not, so I’m not sure what I should say. “I really like her, too,” is what I settle on.

He talks to her for a little bit before it’s time for me to lay her down for the night. He doesn’t hang up, though. Oh, no. I have to take her upstairs, place her in her crib, and then let Elias say goodnight. She cries as I walk out of the room and Elias frowns.

“I always hate when she does that, even though I know she’ll stop within a minute or so. It took my mom a long time to convince me not to stay by her side all night.”

“It’s nice that you had a good support system to help you learn the ropes.” It took forever to become semi-confident in my actions as Jackson’s parent because I was so young and didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. A question seems to be on the tip of Elias’s tongue, but I don’t want to talk about me or my past. “I’ll let you go. I need to get Jackson ready to wind down for the night as well and tidy up the house.”

Elias nods and says goodnight, hanging up a moment later. I take a deep breath and peer into Bree’s room. She’s still lying down. I’ve caught her standing up a few times after I’ve walked out. I’ll check on her later to see if she’s asleep.

~ ~ ~

The next day, Jackson watches cartoons while Bree sits on my hip. She’s been a bit fussy, so I’ve been dancing around the house with her, singing, much to Jackson’s annoyance. Bree has loved it, though. There’s a knock on the door and I freeze, mid-step. I should have no guests with Elias gone. What if it’s her mother? I still don’t know if she may pop up at some point. Damn it, I should’ve asked Elias!

With a deep breath, I slowly walk over to the door and open it. My eyes nearly pop out of my head. Never thought it would be this guy. “Brayden, right?” The man from the quilt shop. Elias told me his name is Brayden. He’s one of his teammates and Deanna is his girlfriend.

“Yeah. Sorry to drop by like this, but I needed to get out of the house. Can I hang here for a while?”

“Um.” Why on earth would he want to do that? Why is he even here? Then, it hits me. He was the guy who was injured in the game Jackson and I watched. I glance over my shoulder at Jackson, who watches with interest with his chin resting on the top of the back of the couch. This guy was nice to me. He’s friends with Elias. “Sure,” I say, not totally confident in this answer.

“You can say no, you know. I just wanted to see Bree, but if you’re not comfortable or whatever...”

“No, that’s okay. Come in.” I won’t take it back now. I step aside and Brayden doesn’t give me a chance to change my mind again.

“Hey, Jackson,” he says as I close the door.

He knows my son’s name? Jackson looks as surprised as I feel. Elias probably told him.

“This is Mr. Brayden, Jackson. He’s friends with Mr. EJ.” Jackson, my shy, shy boy. He turns around and focuses on the TV. “Sorry. He’s shy around new people.” That’s what I always say. “Did you want to hold her?”

“Yes, please.” He holds his hands out for Bree and I let him take her, watching as he walks into the living room as if he’s been here before.

For a moment, I worry if this is the right decision. Would Elias want him over here while he’s not here? Would he want him to play with Bree? Does Elias know he’s here? But then, I remind myself that this guy helped me get this job, so Elias has to trust him.

“Do you mind if I catch up on some chores?” Might as well take advantage of the unexpected babysitter.

“No, go ahead,” he says. “I’ll find you if we need anything.”

“Thanks.” I glance down at Jackson. “I’ll be in the kitchen, baby.” He doesn’t look up at me. “Mr. Brayden plays hockey with Mr. EJ, so you’ll be fine,” I add, hoping that relaxes him. He finally glances at Brayden when I say that.

Feeling better about things, I leave the three of them to clean up the house. I scrub and clean the kitchen until it’s sparkling before I return the living room to check on my guest.

“How is it going in here?” I ask.

“Is there a place I can lie down for a minute?”

He wants to lie down? I nod, hoping I didn’t look too surprised. Brayden and Bree are behind me as we walk upstairs. “You can lie in here if you want,” I say as he lays Bree down in her crib. “But if you’d rather have a bigger bed, you can have your pick of Elias’s or Jackson’s, I guess.” I’m certainly not offering mine, even if he does seem nice enough.

Brayden seems confused for a moment, which worries me, but then he says, “I’ll lie in here. I’ll be out of here soon.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

The moment he nods, I leave the room, pulling the door until it’s almost closed. I could use a break for a while, so I go sit with Jackson. He and Brayden apparently talked about hockey. Jackson shows me what he’s learned, which is mostly what the referee’s signals mean.

He, of course, wants to watch the hockey game tonight and I don’t think I can deny him. He won’t be able to stay up for all of it, but he can watch some of it. The game comes on and I keep glancing at the clock. Where is Brayden? It’s getting kind of late. I wait and I wait, but when eight thirty rolls around, I walk upstairs.

He’s lying on the bed with a pillow over his head. Oh, man. I have to wake him up. He probably wants to go home. With a deep breath, I shake his shoulder. “Brayden? Brayden?” He lifts the pillow and winces immediately. “I’m sorry to wake you, but it’s getting kind of late and I thought you might want to wake up.”

“What time is it?” he grumbles.

“Eight thirty.”

“I’m sorry.”

He rubs his forehead before standing and sighing. When he has to blindly reach out for the wall to steady himself, I worry about what happens if I have to support him. This is a big, tall man. I am not even average height for a woman. He’d probably crush me if I had to help him down the stairs. He’d lose his footing and then we’d fall and I’d die either from the fall or him landing on me.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yeah.” He pats his pockets and then pulls out a phone. “I’m going to make a phone call.”

He seems to be fine. Bree stands in her crib, so I pick her up to take her with me downstairs. She’s not used to people in and out of her room and talking, or to going to sleep as early as she did. Tonight will be a long one with her; I just have a feeling.

I reclaim my seat next to Jackson on the couch and Bree pulls on my hair. It’s her favorite thing to do. She doesn’t really pull too hard. She likes to tug while her fingers try to make knots form in my hair.

Brayden’s footsteps are heavy down the stairs. “Someone’s coming to pick me up,” he says. I nod as he takes a seat in the chair, looking absolutely miserable. He leaves with a quick thanks and a see you later once he sees his ride is here.

With him gone, I focus on getting Bree back to bed. With Elias gone for a few days and Jackson out of school until next Monday due to Thanksgiving, my plan is to take him shopping. He’s in desperate need of new clothes and now, I have some money to buy him some. It’ll be interesting to shop with both him and Bree, but I’m sure I’ll manage just fine.

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Another Sneak Peek: Chapter Two of Worth the Risk

Chapter Two

EJ

Damn. I didn’t see this coming at all. Not to have a hot as sin woman knock on my door to be Bree’s nanny, sort of recommended to me by Brayden, or the fact that she’d be a single mom. Raelynn looks at me with these big, watery green eyes. All I thought I was getting was a new roommate, but adding a kid to the mix makes things trickier, doesn’t it?

There’s a buzz from her pocket and she winces.

“I’m sorry. I need to pick him up from school.” She carefully hands Bree back to me. “I’m sorry for wasting your time.” She moves for the door the moment my princess is securely in my arms.

“Wait,” I call out, standing to follow her. “You threw me for a loop. I wasn’t expecting that. You’re the first person I’ve interviewed who I’ve liked and actually seems interested. I need someone to hire, too. The job is yours if you want it. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.”

I’ve never seen such a heavy tension leave someone before, but I swear, it’s like I lifted the world from her shoulders.

“Can I start this afternoon?”

“Yeah, sure. Come back here once you pick up your boy.”

She surprises the hell out of me by coming over and hugging me, careful not to disturb Bree. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to me.” The sincerity is obvious.

I nod as she pulls away with embarrassment. “Hey, what does he like to eat?”

She chuckles to herself. “Hotdogs and mac and cheese are his favorites. He likes to drink water or apple juice, too.”

I nod. Raelynn leaves. I cancel the remaining interviews just in time for Bree to start whining, so I feed her, change her, and gather her up to run to the store. Hotdogs and mac and cheese are not regular items in my kitchen. Once I’m back home, I sit on the couch with Bree in my lap and play patty cake, which causes her to giggle constantly. My mother also returns. I sent her out for a spa day because I felt like hiring a nanny needed to be something I did on my own.

Now that I have a nanny, Mom will be able to move back home. She was home over the summer, but she came back once the season started. Mom has been helping me adjust to becoming a dad and learning how to take care of a baby, but she can’t stay forever. Hence, the nanny search. It’s taken way longer than I thought possible.

“Well?” Mom asks.

“We have a nanny.”

“Oh, yeah? Do you think she’ll be good?”

“Yeah. Her name’s Raelynn. She’s younger than I am, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s actually a single mom. She seems to have had a rough time; she has no one but her kid.”

“Wait. They’re both moving in with you?” Mom frowns at this and I know she is feeling the same thing I was when Raelynn told me about her son.

“They should be here soon. Her son is five, so he’s in school during the day.”

“Are you sure about this, son?” Mom interrupts.

“Yeah. Bree likes her and Raelynn seems perfect for the job. I have a good feeling it’ll work out like it should.” That’s the only reason I still hired her. My gut told me the second she held my daughter that this girl was the one. I can’t waste any more time looking for other okay nannies when I know I’ve found a fantastic one.

Mom is quiet for a moment. “Okay then. I’m going to stick around for a few days and make sure she passes my inspection.”

“Ma.” That causes her to glare at me. “You might make her nervous.”

“And? She’s going to be caring for my granddaughter. I need to make sure your instincts are correct.”

Before I can argue with her further, there’s a knock on my door. I forgot to take down the sign about the doorbell. I open the door with Bree in one arm and Mom hovering behind me to find Raelynn and the spitting image of her in the form of a little boy. He has his arms wrapped around her thigh as he hides behind her, peeking out with one eye.

“Hey. Come on in. This is my mom, Alice. She’s been helping me so far and she’ll be here until you get settled in.”

I step aside. The boy stays glued to Raelynn’s side as she and my mom shake hands. We go into the living room and he climbs onto Raelynn’s lap.

“Hey,” I say gently. He glances at me. “What’s your name?”

He ignores me and Raelynn rubs his back. “Jackson’s shy when it comes to new people.” She glances down at him. “Jackson, this is Mr. Bertuzzi. Don’t you want to tell him hey?”

Jackson looks over with his head still resting on his mom’s shoulder and mumbles, “Hey.”

“My friends call me EJ; you can too.” No way that kid should have to say Bertuzzi if he ever does talk to me. “Want to watch cartoons with my mom while I talk to your mom in the kitchen?”

Jackson shakes his head. Raelynn whispers something in his ear. “Any cartoon will work,” she tells me. Jackson moves to his own seat on the couch. “I’ll be right in there, okay?” she tells him as she stands. I place Bree in my mom’s lap and we go into the kitchen.

We hammer out the details of her pay, and she thanks me like three more times for giving her the job.

“What’s your story?” I finally ask. She’s definitely got one.

A wry smile appears as she glances into the living room. “Which one?” Raelynn shakes her head. “Most recently, stuff happened back to back to back to make making ends meet that much harder; I lost my job and apartment this morning, and everything I own is in my car. If you hadn’t given me this job, the last of my money would’ve been spent on dinner for Jackson and a very cheap hotel room.”

“You don’t have any family? Or friends?”

She shakes her head. “It’s just Jackson and me.” Raelynn clears her throat. “Can you watch him while I get our things and put them in our room?”

“Sure.” Then I realize she said our room. “Actually, I have another spare bedroom, the one next to yours. Jackson can have it.” There’s a twin bed in Bree’s room, so I’ll sleep in there and let Mom have my room until she leaves.

“Oh. Thank you.”

I feel like I should help her, or do it for her, but she may want to move her things herself. She goes outside and I return to the living room. Jackson’s eyes widen as he watches his mom walk out the door.

“It’s okay.” He whips around to look at me. “She’s getting your stuff out of the car. She’ll be right back.”

“You aren’t going to help her?” Mom asks.

“She seemed to want to do it herself. Go move your things into my room.”

She purses her lips, but gets up to do it, leaving me alone with the boy.

Jackson sits on the edge of the couch and seems to be anxious as he waits for his mom. Then he looks at me. “You’re a Rebel.”

My eyebrows rise. “Yeah, I am.”

“You were at my school.” His little legs swing, bumping into the couch each time.

“I was?”

He nods. Oh, maybe I was. We went to some of the local schools in September, right before training camp, for this reading program thing. We read to a few classes and then played ball hockey with the older kids.

“What’s hockey?” he asks as if he’s been dying to ask this question ever since I went to his school.

“It’s a game. Like baseball or basketball, but you play on ice with skates.”

Raelynn walks back inside, her arms loaded with stuff. She smiles at Jackson before continuing up the stairs. Bree cries, so I pick her up from where Mom placed her in the pack ʻn play and sit on the couch. Jackson and Bree eye each other. Bree leans over and tries to grab Jackson, but he leans away from her.

“Who’s that?” he asks.

“This is Bree. I’m her dad.”

“She drools a lot.”

I laugh. “Sometimes. I bet you drooled a lot when you were a baby.”

Jackson doesn’t seem to like that idea. “Momma,” he says when she comes back down the stairs.

“Yeah, baby?”

“Did I drool when I was a baby?”

She laughs. “Yep. All babies drool.” She kisses the top of his head before going back out to her car.

“Mr. EJ, I’m thirsty.”

Part of me wants to correct him and tell him he can just call me EJ, but if his mom has told him to say mister, then I don’t want to overstep. “What would you like to drink?”

“Apple juice.”

“You’re in luck. I have some of that. Come on.” He follows me into the kitchen. “Do you drink out of a big boy’s cup?”

“Yep,” he answers, popping the p just like Raelynn did earlier.

I find my smallest plastic cup and pour him some juice. I hear the door open and close, and then footsteps up the stairs. I carefully watch him and I’m kind of impressed when he drinks out of his big boy cup without spilling his juice. I so have a ton to learn about kids. Raelynn appears in the kitchen a moment later, some papers in her hand.

“Momma, look! No straw!”

“I see. Did you tell Mr. EJ thanks for fixing you something to drink?”

“Thanks,” he quickly says.

“Welcome, buddy.”

Raelynn looks uncomfortable for a second. “Um, mind if we use your table? He’s got some homework.”

“In kindergarten?” I ask with disbelief.

She laughs. “Yep.”

“Go ahead. I’ll start dinner.” I put Bree in her seat and get busy while listening to Raelynn help Jackson focus on his homework. “Are you guys allergic to anything?” I ask as Mom appears in the kitchen.

“No.”

Good to know. I let Raelynn know that there’s an extra carseat in the garage and that she can park in there starting tomorrow. I’ll run out to get an extra key made in the morning. I’ll need to write down the code for the alarm system, too. I give her my cell, Mom’s cell, and the number of some people within the organization in case of an emergency. I’ll give her the full house tour tomorrow morning.

Jackson is delighted about having hotdogs and mac and cheese. I feel like an oddball in my own house as Raelynn asks him about his day and the apparent upcoming field trip. Jackson can be a chatterbox if he’s talking to someone he likes. Raelynn offers to clean up, but I decline her offer. I go upstairs to change a stinky diaper, something I didn’t think I would be doing at twenty-four, that’s for sure. Raelynn and Jackson are cuddled on the couch, watching TV when I come back.

We watch cartoons before Raelynn declares it’s bath time. Bree is fast asleep on my chest, so I show Raelynn where everything is after laying her down.

“I like her,” Mom declares. “She seems like a good mother and that means she’ll be a great nanny.”

“Told ya.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m going ahead to bed.”

I follow after her to get what I need from my room, so I won’t disturb her later. Afterward, I check on Raelynn and Jackson. The bathroom door is open, showing it’s empty, so I peek into Jackson’s bedroom.

“I wanna go home, Momma. I don’t wanna stay here. Why can’t we go home?”

“This is part of Momma’s new job, baby. Isn’t this better than our home? You even get your own room here.” He didn’t have his own room before? “You know how Peter Pan goes on an adventure? That’s what we’re doing. We’re on an adventure.”

Jackson seems to think about this. “Is Mr. EJ Captain Hook?”

Raelynn laughs. “No, he’s not. Think you’ll be okay in here by yourself?”

“I’m scared.”

She crawls into bed next to him, her back facing me. “I’ll be right here while you fall asleep, okay?”

He must nod because they don’t talk anymore. I quietly move away to stop eavesdropping. I can’t imagine how bad things might’ve been for her, or what it must be like to raise a kid without any help or a lot of money. Kids are expensive, and mine isn’t but nine months old. With Bree down for the count, I quickly jump into the shower. Afterward, I head downstairs to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and set the alarm.

Jackson is all alone in his room, I peek into Bree’s room, and then stop outside of Raelynn’s. The door is cracked. I’m about to knock when I hear soft cries. Oh man. I’ve never been good around crying chicks. Do I knock or leave her alone? Before I can think better of it, I push her door open.

“Raelynn? You okay?”

She’s lying on her side, her back facing me, and she hasn’t yet changed into any pajamas. Still, I can see her quickly wipe her eyes. “I’m fine. I was tired, so I’m going to bed early.”

“Okay. Well, um, I’ll be across the hall in Bree’s room if you need anything. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the morning.” I wait to see if she’ll say anything, but she doesn’t. “Good night, Raelynn.”

“G’night, Elias.”

With that, I close her door and retreat to my temporary bedroom. Bree was a surprise that entered my life. I was a carefree guy who played the sport he loved for a living. Then, all of a sudden, I’m a single dad with an unfamiliar set of responsibilities. I’ve never worried so much in my life. I don’t know what I would’ve done if my mom hadn’t dropped everything to come help me. I still don’t know what I’m doing half the time, so I’m relieved to have Raelynn, an expert practically like my mom, around to take care of Bree when I’m not here, but to also help me out.

I fall asleep in the pink room, worried that I’m going to somehow mess my little princess up.

~ ~ ~

Something pokes my shoulder and then I hear, “Mr. EJ. Mr. EJ. Mr. EJ.”

My eyes creak open to see Jackson standing next to the bed. “What’s wrong?”

“Where’s my momma?”

I toss my sheets aside and am surprised when Jackson takes my hand. “Her bedroom is right next to yours,” I whisper as we cross the hall to her room. Raelynn is on her back, her arms above her head, and she’s sound asleep.

“Momma,” Jackson whispers, poking her in the ribs before I can say her name.

Her eyes fly open and she quickly sits up. I’ve never seen someone wake up so fast. “You okay, baby? What’s wrong?” She glances between us.

“He found Bree’s room by accident. He was looking for you.”

“He didn’t wake her, did he?” I shake my head. “I’m sorry he woke you, Elias.”

I shrug. “I live with a baby. It’s okay.”

Jackson lets go of my hand to crawl in bed with his mom. She seems able to handle the situation, so I turn to leave. “Momma, I wanna sleep with you,” I hear Jackson say. “It’s too dark in that room.”

“Okay, come on.”

I make a mental note to find the kid a nightlight when I get the key made in the morning. Since I’m up, I peek into Bree’s crib. Her eyes are open and I’m surprised she’s not crying. “Hey, princess,” I whisper, reaching my hand inside her crib, smiling when she grabs a finger. I pick her up and settle into a recliner that’s in her room. I rock her gently until she falls back to sleep.

My life has been turned upside down. It’s been hard and exhausting and more often than not, I feel like a dumbass. But it’s been worth it. Bree has made it worth it.

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Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Worth the Risk

Chapter One

Raelynn

“You’re fired.”

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.

Until today.

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.

“Come on.”

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.

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The next Carolina Rebels book is up for preorder!

WorthTheRisk_ecover.jpg

EJ fans, have you heard? Worth the Risk is the next Carolina Rebels novel, and it will release April 12, 2018! Read on for all the details! :)

EJ Bertuzzi didn’t expect to be a father so soon in life, and he’s had to rely on others for help when it comes to taking care of his little princess, Bree. At first, it was his mom, and after a long, excruciating search, it’s now his attractive nanny, Raelynn. But EJ has some insecurities. Not to mention, the last thing he needs to do is something to cause his perfect nanny to quit.

Raelynn Woods is a young single mom who has had many lows in her life with the only bright spot being her son, Jackson. For the past five years, she's done whatever she's had to do to make ends meet for her and Jackson. Raelynn has a difficult time trusting others and letting people in, but she hopes working as EJ's nanny can help change that and bring some much needed stability into their lives.

EJ and Raelynn battle with their attraction to one another while struggling to keep a friendly, yet professional relationship. If they give each other a chance, they might just discover the outcome is worth the risk.

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(Amazon linking coming as soon as I can list it on that site!)