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She bent down to encourage Jimmy, and whispered, "It'll be okay, I promise."
The door whipped open suddenly and she nearly teetered. Unnerved, she looked up, way up, to meet a dark pair of unpleased eyes. Set in a rugged face with a determined chin, his eyes swept over her in uncompromising dismissal.
Awkwardly, Chloe straightened up, expecting to meet him face-to-face, but he was tall, unusually tall. "Um…hello."
"I'm here to see Evan Mitchell."
"You're looking at him."
"Oh." She'd held a wild hope that she'd knocked on the wrong door. Despite her boss's warnings, she had wanted to believe that Evan Mitchell would be approachable, reasonable. "I'm Chloe Reed." Wishing she could shield the little boy, she squeezed his hand again. "And this is Jimmy Mitchell."
Eyebrows as dark as the man's thick hair swooped downward. "What are you doing here?"
Wanting to protect the seven-year-old, Chloe beseeched the man with a pleading glance.
Relenting, Evan opened the door wider. "Come in."
She and Jimmy both stared as they walked into the circular, two-story-high entry hall, their steps echoing on the marble floor of the impressive house.
Evan hadn't expected his late cousin's son to appear on his doorstop, but he didn't want to hurt the boy. Raising his voice, he called for the housekeeper. "Thelma! Can you come out here? "
Wiping her hands on a cheery gingham apron, a pert woman in her sixties dashed into the hall. "What is it? I'm in the middle of pie making and…" Her voice trailed off when she saw Chloe and the boy, her face easing into a smile. "Who do we have here? "
"Spencer's boy," Evan replied briefly.
Thelma's eyes widened, then warmed in understanding as she spoke to Jimmy. "Do you like apple pie?"
Uncertain in his new surroundings, Jimmy looked at her warily, taking a step backward, leaning against Chloe.
Thelma walked toward him, extending her hand. "I've got lemon meringue, pumpkin, cherry and banana cream, too. I sure could use a taster."
Jimmy looked up at Chloe, who nodded. Accepting Thelma's hand, the pair disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
Evan wished he could whisk the woman away as easily, but he knew that wasn't going to happen. Instead he gestured toward the parlor, observing the swing of her long, wavy, caramel-colored hair as she walked. Once in the room, she turned, her large green eyes questioning.
"Have a seat."
As she did, he wondered what his late cousin's attorney was up to now. Sending a pretty woman was novel, even for Holden Wainwright.
"Reed," she supplied nervously. "Chloe. Call me Chloe, please. I work for Holden Wainwright. I'm his…that is, I'm the estate representative for Jimmy's parents."
He'd guessed as much. "What are you doing here?"
"Mr. Wainwright wants what's best for Jimmy. Your cousin and his wife didn't have any immediate family who could take care of him. And Mr. Wainwright himself is an old bachelor—he doesn't have a clue about raising a young boy. That leaves you."
"Wainwright knows how I feel about that."
Her face filled with distress, darkening her already unusual eyes, pulling down the edges of her full lips. "He does?"
"Oh, come now, Miss Reed—"
"Chloe," she corrected, staring at him in shock.
"Miss Reed, we aren't going to get to know each other well enough to worry about first names. I told Wainwright I wasn't going to change my mind. And I'm not." The thought of growing close to another child. The pain nearly choked off his breath. And his voice was gruffer than usual because of it. "You've come on a fool's errand. I can't say whether you're Wainwright's pawn or a schemer yourself. Doesn't matter. You can sort that out with Wainwright when you're back in Milwaukee."
Chloe found her voice. "It's taken us forever to get out here. The flight from Milwaukee to San Antonio took two plane changes. Then driving way out here to Rosewood…and you expect us to just turn around and head back?" Some of her distress had vanished, leaving fire in its place. "And I'm supposed to tell Jimmy what? That the only relative he has on this continent doesn't even want to get to know him?"
Evan watched as the quivering in her neck spread to the hollow at the base of her throat.
She stood abruptly, pressing her hands together. "How do you live with yourself?"
Bleakly. "We aren't in the time of Dickens, Miss Reed. There are no workhouses, no orphanages. Spencer left the boy a trust fund that'll guarantee his future."
"The boy's name is Jimmy. And all the money in the world can't replace his parents." She gestured toward the rest of the comfortable room. "Since your father is alive and living here, you obviously can't understand that kind of trauma."
Evan's throat was so tight it was a wonder any oxygen could pass into his lungs. Trauma. A trendy term, like closure. As though such a thing existed. The hole in his heart would never heal, certainly never close. Not since he'd lost Robin and Sean. He crossed the room so he could look out the tall, wide window. A rental car was parked in the circular drive. So that much was true. "And what do you know about trauma, Miss Reed?"
"Enough," she replied evenly.
Turning his back to the faceted panes of glass, he watched the sunshine illuminate Chloe's face. Wainwright was playing hardball. Sending a woman Evan couldn't ignore. At least that's what the old horse trader thought. "I doubt that. What are you, twenty-four, twenty-five?"
"Actually, I'm twenty-seven. But—"
He held up one hand. "No need to get in a one-upmanship contest. Not even the most tragic tale's going to change my mind, Miss Reed. I'm surprised you didn't learn more about the situation before you agreed to bring Jimmy here. I haven't seen Spencer since we were teenagers. Hardly a close relationship that would warrant any reason to appoint me the boy's guardian."
"Jimmy," she emphasized. "And to repeat myself, Jimmy doesn't have anyone else." Chloe took a breath. "He's alone. You're his parents' choice as guardian. Have you no compassion?"
Evan met the woman's unrelenting stare. His compassion had drowned along with Robin and Sean. But he didn't feel the need to spill those details to a stranger. The deaths of his wife and son were sacred, not to be bandied about for this woman's benefit.
Chloe stood as well, crossing the room, planting her petite frame in front of his. "I'm not suggesting it's an easy obligation. But surely you can see the sense in having Jimmy stay for a while, to see if the arrangement will work." She steepled her fingers together, the criss-cross pressure making them whiten. "The estate will pay for my services during the transition."
His humorless chuckle was bitingly sarcastic. "Two for the price of one? Am I supposed to believe that's a good deal?"
Thunder clashed across her face and for a moment it looked as though she was about to launch a tirade. Instead, she tugged at the jacket of her prim, navy blue suit, then tightened her hands further. "I don't believe you should be thinking of Jimmy in terms of a deal. But if that's the only emotional barometer you possess, then I'll tell you that it is a first-rate deal. Jimmy's kind, unspoiled, loving. And he's just had both of his parents blown to smithereens in a factory explosion."
Not stopping to let him speak, she held up her hands, ticking off her points. "One grandfather's dead. One grandmother is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. His other set of grandparents are on a dig in Egypt and suggested we put him in a boarding school.
"You knew Spencer. Do you think he'd want his son to have the same kind of lonely life he did? Crying himself to sleep because the other boys went home to their families for holidays and he stayed behind, hurt and alone? Spencer told Mr. Wainwright that his only good memories of growing up were here, in Rosewood, with you and your family. Don't you think his son deserves to be happy?"
Evan's gaze narrowed, his suspicions growing as he studied her. "Sounds like you're pretty chummy with Wainwright."
"I'm in his employ. You should know that Mr. Wainwright was more than Spencer's attorney. He and Spencer's father were best friends. After Spencer's father died a few years ago, Mr. Wainwright did his best to step into a father's role, to give Spencer some semblance of a parent."
Evan still didn't know what she had to gain by talking him into a guardianship, but it wasn't going to happen. "Then perhaps he ought to step into the grandparent role now."
She quieted for a moment, then her ocean-green eyes held a clashing combination of sadness and ferocity. "Mr. Wain-wright's health is not…" Chloe took another breath. "He's had heart problems—three surgeries so far. He doesn't think it would be fair to Jimmy to take him in and then." Clearing her throat, she met his gaze. "And regardless of his health, Mr. Wainwright doesn't know anything about little boys. He's never had children of his own. However, he does know that Jimmy needs more than an ailing elderly acquaintance or a soulless boarding school to be happy."
Evan knew the amount of love little boys needed. He didn't want or need a reminder. Five-year-old Sean had filled his heart and life. The emptiness was a piercing, never-ending reminder. Looking away from Chloe, he saw the shadows on the front lawn lengthening. Chloe could hardly drive to San Antonio in the fast-approaching darkness. And Rosewood's only bed-and-breakfast was full because of the approaching holidays.
Holidays. Little boys and holidays. The combination used to fill him with joy. Now the dread was inescapable. Still, he couldn't, in good conscience, turn Spencer's boy and this woman out in the night. "Dinner should be ready in about an hour. Thelma will show you to a guest room."
Chloe's delicate features brightened.
"Just for the night," Evan cautioned. "I haven't changed my mind and I'm not going to." Wainwright could send a dozen beautiful women and it wouldn't matter. His ability to love a child had died with his son. And there was no resurrecting it.
Chloe found herself tiptoeing as she wandered past the entry hall. After Evan Mitchell's rather abrupt dismissal, she wasn't quite sure what to do with herself. He had mentioned dinner and staying the night. Should she bring in their suitcases? No, she told herself. Plunking them on the floor of the immaculate entry or parlor seemed like a terrible idea, especially since hers was a Salvation Army classic. And she wasn't sure where the back entrance was.
Jimmy hadn't emerged since the kind-looking woman had led him away. The scent of sweet fruit and browning pie crust melded with savory vegetables and something else. Beef? Maybe it was stew.
Chloe's stomach growled. "Just like one of Pavlov's dogs," she muttered to herself. She could read a highway sign announcing the next Dairy Queen and suddenly be swamped with a craving for ice cream.
"Chloe?" Jimmy questioned, his voice floating out from deeper in the house. Even from the distance, she could hear the anxiety coating his words.
"We're in the kitchen," Thelma added in a louder voice. "Down the hall to the left. Just pass through the dining room."
Chloe followed her directions, pushing open a swinging door at the end of a long passageway. For a moment she thought she'd stumbled into the kitchen of the Keebler elves.
Bright bursts of color caught her attention, pulling her gaze to the limestone counters, the cozy eating nook, the massive stove.
Several pies cooled on the wood sideboard in front of the slightly opened window. Despite the charm of the room, Chloe wanted only to see Jimmy, to make sure he was all right.
She placed an arm over his shoulders. "How we doing, big guy?"
He scooted close to her without replying. And Chloe wished she could make everything better for him.
"That young man is a super worker," Thelma told her, winking at Jimmy. "Helped me roll out the pie dough."
Chloe squeezed his shoulder. "That's great, Jimmy! I've never been able to make a decent pie crust."
"Cold water's the secret," Thelma continued as though they were old acquaintances. "Ice cold. Otherwise the shortening melts down, makes it tough and the crust falls apart."
"I'll try to remember that." She bent down, closer to Jimmy. "You getting hungry?"
"I'm afraid I've given him quite a few samples of the pie fillings," Thelma confessed. "I knew something was off with the banana cream. So we had to taste that one at least three or four times."
"It was good," Jimmy finally offered.
"It smells delicious," Chloe agreed with a smile for the older woman. "Do you always make this many pies at a time?"
"We have a bake sale every year to raise money for the Angel Tree." She paused, then quieted her voice. "It's for the holidays, you know."
Chloe guessed the fund was to buy toys for children who wouldn't get them otherwise. And she appreciated Thelma's discretion around Jimmy. He'd had more than his share of untimely discoveries.
"Since Evan didn't introduce us, I'm Thelma, the housekeeper. My husband, Ned, is the. well. he's pretty much the everything-else man. Keeps up the gardens, the cars, whatever needs fixing."
"I'm Chloe Reed. I work for Holden Wainwright."
Thelma started to reach out her hand, then realized it was covered in flour. "Pleased to meet you. And I've thoroughly enjoyed meeting Jimmy. Ned's eaten so many of my pies over the years, he automatically says they taste good no matter what I put in them. The Mitchell men don't like their pies too sweet and Jimmy here helped me balance out the lemon meringue."
Jimmy wasn't distracted, though. His expression was pensive, anxious, worried. And Chloe felt sure he must be exhausted. As kind as Thelma seemed, she was another stranger.
"Would you mind if we walk around the grounds?" Chloe queried.
"Fresh air might do you both good." Thelma dusted the flour from her hands, then wiped them on her apron. "Back door's right over here. You'll find doors in most every room on this level—French doors open out from the front room. And upstairs, there's even a door that leads out and down the staircase from the bedrooms. There's three sets of stairs in the house." She pointed to the one in the kitchen. "We call this one the back stairs. Used to be just for the servants. As for all the doors, I guess a few hundred years ago people felt they might need to get away in a hurry." She chuckled. "There I go, running off at the mouth. Takes a little while to get the feel of the place, but then it seems right homey."