The Difference You Have Made (PREVIEW ONLY)

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Chapter 2 - A Fresh Start

The sound of her tormentor getting out of bed wakes Cristiana the following morning. He moves about the room while she lays perfectly still, keeping her eyes close. She feigns sleep not wanting to draw his attention. The end is near! Soon she will be free.

"I'll see you tonight. Love you." He leans over her, softly kissing her cheek before walking out of the bedroom. She lays in bed waiting to see if he will return. He sometimes does when he's feeling remorseful.

When she's sure Tyson is gone for the day, she throws off the covers and jumps out of bed. A nearly unbearable backache halts her movements. This won't do. She takes some pain medicine to get her through the day. She has a large suitcase and a duffle bag. There's also a medium-sized cardboard box in the hall closet. All of her stuff should fit in in those things. She messages Derrick asking for his help. He comes over right away. Together they gather all her belongings. She's moving slowly from the aches and pain Tyson has yet again inflicted upon her body.

"Maybe you should sit down and let me do all the work," Derrick suggests with a deep frown. She'll be free soon. The reminder keeps him from charging to Tyson's job and showing him how a real man hits.

"No," Cristiana refuses as her cell phone rings. It's an unsaved number calling. "Hello?"

"Is this Cristiana Barnes?" A feminine voice speaks.

"Yes, who is this?"

"This is Mariah Logan, Mr. Skylark's secretary. He wanted me to call and ask you to meet him for a late brunch so that the two of you can review your contract."

Cristiana grimaces. "Oh, um, my friend is helping me move my things. Can't we go over the contract at the house?"

"You can have your friend bring you to the office. Mr. Skylark will meet you in the parking garage." Mariah responds without a preamble.

"Okay," Cristiana sighs. "What time do I need to be there?"

"Eleven o'clock."

"I'll be there."

"Perfect." The call ends without further ado.

It's half an hour past ten when Derrick and Cristiana finally get all her belongings packed. She doesn't have much to take with her. She doesn't need the furniture or the dishes. Although she does take the candy red slow cooker. It was a gift from her mom. She changes into a pair of red and black plaid leggings and a large black graphic tee with black laceless sneakers. Her hair is loose to help cover her freshly bruised cheek.

"Are you ready to finally be free?" Derrick smiles proudly at her. Cristiana is the toughest woman he knows. It breaks his heart knowing what Tyson did to her. He had always refrained from calling the police out of fear that Tyson would blame Cristiana and kill her just to keep her quiet. As the marks and bruises worsened, Derrick grew desperate to make her safe. Now the moment had come. He would miss having her nearby. They'd become great friends. Yet he knows the change is what she needs.

"Yeah, let's go." She walks out of the apartment for the last time without looking back. It hasn't been her home in a long time. It was a prison. A place that brought her nothing but anxiety, pain, and fear. Immense pressure lifts from her shoulders as she gets into Derrick's car. This is the moment she's been waiting for. Soon Tyson will be nothing more than a bad memory.


Cole walks out of his office tugging at his red necktie. He pulls his cell phone from his pants pocket. There are ten messages from the girl from last night. Natalie. She's attractive and decent in bed, but he has to cut ties with her. Last night was their first and last night. She had too many stars in her eyes thinking that a roll in the bed meant they would be together forever. He could practically hear her planning their wedding when she saw his flashy car. He made sure to take the used condoms with him when he left her home in the early morning hours. An old college friend of his was scammed by the turkey baster less than a year ago. Cole won't make the same mistake.

Mariah looks away from her computer as he walks towards his office. "How did the meeting go?"

"It was boring but productive," Cole grumbles.

"Productivity leads to income. Isn't that what you always say?" She smirks after lobbing his own words at him.

Cole frowns at his loyal assistant. "I see you're being a wise-ass today."

He and Mariah have an informal relationship. They met during one of his many wild nights in college. He pursued her, but she wasn't interested. They became good friends. Years later the woman who previously held Mariah's position was promoted. Cole asked Mariah if she wanted the job and she accepted.

"I'm always a wise ass." Her shoulders shrug. "Jules loves that about me."

He grins at the reminder that she's going through a proclaimed 'girl phase.' Mariah doesn't like labels. She'll never refer to herself as bisexual although she's dated men and women for as long as Cole has known her. She has an attraction to blondes which led to a wild night involving her, Cole, and a campus cheerleader.

"Cristiana is going to get her friend to bring her here to meet you at eleven. You'll need to put her things in your car."

"It's a good thing I drove my truck today. Have you met her?"

"I saw her yesterday when she and Rachel were looking for you. She's gorgeous, but I'm not single currently."

He rolls his eyes. "I don't think you're her type. What did you think of her personality?" Mariah has a way of reading people better than most. She claims it has something to do with her Louisiana roots. Her grandmother was a rumored witch.

"I wasn't around her long enough to pick up on her personality, but there's something in her eyes that's concerning." Her response unsettles him. "I sense that she's been through a rough bout of life lately."

"I sensed the same thing. I don't know if I should trust her to take care of my son."

Mariah waves away his concern. "She's definitely trustworthy. She has the brightest aura I've seen in a long time."

"I hope you're right."

"I usually am right about these things. You better get a move on."

Flipping over his wrist, Cole checks his watch. It's already 10:50. He makes his way to the elevator and impatiently rides down to the floor with the overpass that leads to the parking garage. Cole makes his way to his black Mercedes Benz X-Class, imported from South Africa, and tosses his suit jacket and necktie on the backseat. A black Toyota slowly drives past him. It stops mere feet away. He watches it with interest. The passenger door opens and Cristiana steps out. Her hair is in a sloppy ponytail. Dark bags are beneath her eyes. Her bottom lip is slightly swollen with a cut that makes Cole flinch when his eyes land on it. Memories of her odd behavior the night before fill his mind. There is something concerning going on with the new nanny. Whatever it is better not interfere with her caring for his son.

"Do you mind if we postpone brunch?" She slowly walks toward him. "I'm really tired." Her face is pinched tight with pain.

Suspicion pricks the back of his neck. "That's fine. We can go over the contract at the house." He looks past her as a tall man with dark skin steps out of the car.

The man makes his way over and extends his hand. "I'm Derrick."

"Nice to meet you. I'm Cole."

"She's dragging today, but there's not a lot of stuff." Derrick lifts the lid of the trunk. "I can follow you and help unload."

"I think I'll manage," Cole responds. Cristiana reaches into the trunk causing her sweatshirt to lift. He notices a large ugly bruise on her back. "What happened?"

She flinches, straightening herself and grimacing with pain. "I fell pretty hard last night."

"Did you fall on a boulder or something? That's a large bruise." His nostrils flare. Her problem isn't drugs, it's an abusive boyfriend. He cuts his eyes to Derrick wondering if he's the man responsible for the bruise on her back.

Derrick meets his eyes and subtly shakes his head. "Cris, why don't you just get in his truck? You're not going to be any help."

She bites her bottom lip. "It's my stuff."

"We've got it," Cole interjects. He's known her less than twenty-four hours and can already tell she has a stubborn streak.

As soon as the passenger door closes, Cole seeks information. "Who the hell did that to her?"

"Her jackass of a boyfriend. I guess I should say ex-boyfriend now. His name is Tyson. If she ever mentions him, make sure she's not trying to go back to him." Derrick grumbles with a scowl.

"How often did he hit her?"

"I'm not really sure. She's hiding a lot from me and others who care about her. I think it was a daily thing."

Cole's eyes nearly bug out of his head. "Daily? How did she survive that?"

Derrick's broad shoulders shrug. "She's stronger than she looks. Tyson put her through hell. You've got to be patient with her. She's not herself."

They load Cristiana's things into Cole's truck before parting ways. Derrick obviously cares about her. Cole wonders why the man didn't intervene. He knew she was being abused. Surely, he tried to help. If he didn't, then in Cole's opinion Derrick is just as complicit as the coward who mistreated the beautiful woman quietly riding in his passenger seat. She's present in the truck, but her eyes are far away.

"We can stop by the lab now and take care of the drug test," Cole suggests. It's a little out of the way, but he doubts she knows that.

"Okay," Cristiana easily agrees. He asked his brother to conduct a thorough background check on the new nanny last night. He would undoubtedly know all her secrets by the end of the week.

"This is where all Skylark employees come for drug testing," Cole explains while holding open the swing door. If Cristiana is bothered by being drug tested, she doesn't show it. He waits in the stiff chairs of the lobby as a lab technician walks her back to an exam room. Cole looks at the plain white walls. He's never actually been inside of the building but has passed it a handful of times.

"All done." Cristiana's hesitant voice draws his attention minutes later.

"We'll send the results via email," the technician informs him.

They arrive at the house less than fifteen minutes later. It doesn't take him long to get her things unloaded. He refuses her offer to help. She doesn't have the physical strength to lift heavy things today.

"Linda cleared out a bedroom for you," Cole informs her as he lugs her suitcase into the house. "It's across the hall from Liam's bedroom on the third floor for your convenience." He leads the way up the stairs and to her bedroom.

She hesitantly opens the door and steps inside. There's a queen-sized four-poster bed with a powder pink quilt and satin and cotton blend cream-colored sheets. A white vanity table with a lighted mirror is situated in the far right corner. A television hangs on the wall between two empty floating shelves. There's a walk-in closet with drawers at the base of all three walls and plenty of hanging space. There's an attached bathroom with a frosted glass shower, single vanity, and a partitioned toilet.

"You can decorate however you want. Let Linda know what you need, and she'll get it." Cole announces as he rolls her purple suitcase into the room.

"Thank you." She takes the handle of the suitcase and pulls it to the bed.

"Get settled. I'll be on the first floor in my office if you need me."

Her eyebrows rise. "You aren't going back to work?"

He shakes his head. "I'm working from home for the rest of the day. I want to be here when you officially meet Liam to make sure it's a smooth transition."

He makes his way to the modern kitchen, pondering his new nanny. There's something peculiar about Cristiana. He can see strength in her eyes which makes it hard to comprehend the terrible relationship she's newly escaped. That thought has him digging out his cell phone and making a call to Mariah. Cristiana needs a new cell phone and number rather she's on a shared plan with her ex-boyfriend or not. He doesn't want the abusive man to be able to track her down.

"She told you about her abusive ex on the first day?" Mariah asks on a gasp.

Cole groans, "No, her friend told me."

Mariah hums, "Oh okay. That makes sense. I didn't sense that she's big on sharing personal information."

"We can talk about that later. When will you have the new cell phone and service ready for her?"

"Hopefully by the end of the day, but I'll let you know for sure."

It's afternoon when his mother calls. Truthfully, he's surprised it took so long for her to contact him. He's been expecting to hear from her since he woke up this morning.

"Did you get her settled in?" Heather asks her eldest son excitedly.

"She's unpacking in her bedroom now." He grunts while rummaging through the refrigerator for something to eat. Linda is off for the day due to a sudden family emergency. Her sister had a stroke five months past and is currently unable to care for herself. Their mom is in her eighties and in decent health, but she can't take care of her eldest daughter without some assistance. The assistance usually comes from Linda's niece who is a nurse, but she's not always available.

"Good! Cole, she's going to be a real asset to you."

"That's what I keep hearing," he dryly says. He can't deny that she has a lot of experience working with kids. His mom swears she tamed Liam in less than two minutes. Still, he needs to see her miracle work for himself before trusting that she's truly right for the job.

Heather hums as if in thought. "Remember that she's there for Liam. Not for you. We don't need a repeat of the last situation."

He rolls his eyes. "You and Rachel have reminded of that mistake nearly one hundred times. I won't make it again. Please let it go."

Admittedly, he's promiscuous, but his family seems to think he'll have sex with any woman that comes his way. The nanny before Cristiana was a young and attractive woman that Cole suspects applied for the job for him and not for his two-year-old son. He wasn't responsible for hiring her. That didn't negate the fact that he was irresponsible for going along with her sexual advances until they ended up tangled together in his California king bed. It was a stupid decision on his part. He never mixes business and pleasure, but Farrah was a tempting selection with her olive skin, long legs, and long brunette hair. Her pouty lips pleased him in ways he had only imagined. Her slim waist and subtle curves called to his libido.

Their salacious affair carried on every week when Liam was gone for the night. Everything was fine until she came to realize that their late-night excursions did not make her Cole Skylark's girlfriend. Farrah flipped out one night when Cole brought home a recurring female guest of his. She yelled belligerently about his betrayal and threatened violence against the other woman. He fired her on the spot and filed a restraining order the next morning after she snuck into the house. He hasn't seen or heard from her since then. His family is still disappointed, to say the least. He understands their reasons. Still, he wishes they would let it go. It happened. There's nothing anyone can do about it. It's time to move on.

"What time will Liam be home?" He asks, hoping to deter his mom from giving him a lecture. He doesn't need her telling him how to handle his dealings with women. He's been doing it for nearly twenty years without her help.

"I'll bring him in a couple hours. That gives you time to iron everything out with Cristiana. He's being an absolute delight right now." Cole can hear his son giggling in the background. The boy always seems happier with everyone else.

"I'll see you then. Love you, Mom." He ends the call as Cristiana walks into the kitchen. He's leaning against the granite-topped island to the left of the cooking range. "Did you get everything unpacked?"

"Just about." She answers while looking at the black shaker cabinets with wonder. "Um, is it possible I could get something to drink? I'm really thirsty and didn't bring any groceries with me."

"You don't have to ask." Cole motions to the tall double-doored black refrigerator. The entire kitchen is unlike anything Cristiana has seen before. It has a black and gold aesthetic with large shaker cabinets that have to be custom-made. There are two sinks, one on the island and one on the counter just under the window. The countertops are made of dark stone with gold and white veins. The kitchen is the epitome of modern wealth.

"Help yourself to whatever is in the kitchen. Linda goes grocery shopping once a week. If you give her a list of what you like, she'll pick it up for you."

"That's okay. I'm going to find a mini-fridge for my room and buy some food."

Cole shakes his head and frowns. "No, that's ridiculous. Everything here is available to you. That includes anything in the kitchen, except for the frozen protein shakes. Those are mine." He sees the hesitation in her eyes and sighs impatiently. "I'm asking you to live in a house that isn't yours and raise my son because I'm too busy to do it. The least I can do is provide the means for you to eat everyday."

"Well, when you put it like that, it does make sense." Her voice is light as if she's teasing him. She pulls on the gold handle of the refrigerator. The amount of options is overwhelming. There are various yogurts, organic eggs, prepped meals, and more food than a grown man and child should be able to consume. "Wow," the word whooshes out of her mouth.

Cole chuckles. "Linda likes to make sure we have everything we need and want."

"I see that." She grabs a can of sparkling water and closes the refrigerator. "Thank you for helping me. We can sign the contract now."

"There's no rush. We just need to have it signed by the end of the month so you can get paid." He informs her. She nods and takes a sip of the water. "How did you fall?"

"I'm clumsy. Sometimes I trip over my own two feet."

"Did you go to the hospital? That bruise looks pretty nasty. Maybe you should get it checked out."

"I'm fine." She turns away from him.

Cole hums in thought. "Are you sure? I can drive you there."

"No, thank you." Going to the hospital would lead to questions that would lead to police involvement. She doesn't want to ring any bells. She's away from Tyson now so she won't get hurt again. It doesn't matter anymore.

"You're in a safe place now, Cristiana. If you're running from something, then you need to let me know."

"When will Liam be home? I can't wait to actually meet him." She disregards his statement, hearing the skepticism in his voice. If he finds out about Tyson, he'll fire me.

Cole heavily sighs realizing she isn't going to tell him anything more than what Derrick shared. "He'll be home soon. He stayed with my parents last night and they like to hold on to him as long as they can. You can observe tonight since you're injured. Linda will be here to help you tomorrow."

Cristiana grimaces as Cole compensates for her shortcoming. "I'm off to a bad start with this nanny thing."

He scoffs, "It's not your fault." It's the fault of the lowlife man who put his hands on you. "Are you hungry? I was about to have lunch."

"Do you cook?" The teasing tone returns to her voice. It feels strange to joke around with a man she doesn't know, but she gives in to the urge. It's been too long since she had fun.

"Absolutely not, but I have Vinzo's Italiana on speed dial, he says with a smirk. "What would you like?"

"Eggplant Parmigiana with alfredo sauce instead of marinara." She requests with a small smile. She loves Italian food, but it has been a while since she had any. Tyson didn't like for her to eat fattening things.

"Okay, I'll order our lunch." Cole pulls out his cell phone to call in their order. She decides to continue unpacking until it arrives.

It's half an hour later when Cole's voice comes over the small speaker to the left of her bedroom door announcing that lunch has arrived. She carefully walks down the stairs. He's now wearing black sweatpants with a plain white t-shirt. There are two food containers placed in front of the black upholstered barstools.

"I hope you don't mind eating out of the containers. I don't want to bother with dishes." He offers her a fork.

She shakes her head. "I don't mind. It's what I usually do." Whenever I'm allowed to order food. The thought is tainted with sadness. Tyson kept her locked away from the world, afraid that she would escape. Even the pizza delivery person was a threat to him. He would make her wait in the bedroom while he accepted the food.

Over lunch, they make small talk. Cole learns that his new nanny hates the cold and doesn't like to watch horror movies. Her favorite time of year is fall. She doesn't watch professional sports but enjoys college football. She rarely drinks alcohol and her favorite thing to cook is tortilla soup.

"I'll determine if it's any good or not," Cole taunts as they finish lunch. "I'm going downstairs to exercise. Use the intercom system if you need me."

She waits until Cole is out of earshot before making a call. Her sister answers right away.

"Cris, is it really you?"

"It's really me, Ty."

Tyra happily squeals. "I haven't spoken to you in months. None of us have. How have you been? Where are you? I tried coming to see you, but Tyson kept saying you weren't home."

Cristiana closes her eyes fighting the tears. She remembers the last time Tyra came by. Tyson locked Cristiana in the bedroom as he lied to her sister. She wanted to scream out for Tyra's help, but she was scared that he would hurt her as well.

She shakes her head and responds. "I have a new job. I'm a live-in nanny for a little boy. I left Tyson."

"Good," Tyra huffs. "Not to be mean, but he seemed controlling."

"He was," she admits. She takes a shaky breath before speaking again. "Ty, he hit me."

Tyra gasps loudly. "When? Did you tell Dad or Dell?" Dell is their brother. He's younger than Cristiana by three years.

"No, and you better not say anything either. I've left Tyson now. Everything's fine."

"Cris, we have to meet up. What are you doing tomorrow?"

"How about I meet you for lunch on my next off day?" She suggests, not wanting Tyra to see her right now. She's still broken. Her recovery won't be easy. Even after the physical injuries heal, the mental will remain. She's already searching for a therapist, but it's hard to find an affordable one without insurance.

Around the corner, Cole quietly leans against the wall, listening as Cristiana talks to her sister. He was headed back to the kitchen for a bottle of water and overheard the conversation. His worry increases. Cristiana may not be hooked on drugs, but she has a rocky past. If Tyson is as controlling and abusive as it seems, then he won't let her go easily. Cole doesn't want any trouble indirectly impacting Liam. If his new nanny is still tied up with that man, then she has to go.

"I'll talk to you later. My number will be different. Tyson is the one paying my phone bill and he'll probably get the line disconnected once he realizes I'm gone. I'll get a new phone when I get my first paycheck. That's supposed to be at the end of the month."

"Okay. Call me as soon as you can. I miss you, sissy."

"I miss you too. Love you."

Cole slips into the shadows as Cristiana walks out the kitchen and up the stairs. He has half a mind to follow her and demand she pack her things and go, but that would mean sending her back to her abuser. The mere thought of that makes his stomach turn. Logically, he knows he doesn't have a real reason to fire Cristiana. She hasn't lied to him. She simply omitted the part about her former boyfriend being an abusive asshole. She seems to be genuinely done with the man, and there's no reason to believe that the abuser knows where she is, so there's no reason for Cole to believe his son will be in any danger. That is what he tells himself as he shakes his head to clear away the unpleasant thoughts.

Loud innocent giggles suddenly fill the house. "Daddy!" Liam's little voice excitedly exclaims.

Cole kneels and his son runs into his arms. "Oh, I've missed you, buddy. Did you have fun with nana and papa?"

Happily, Liam nods his head. "Lot o' fun, daddy."

"Lots of fun? That's what I like to hear." Cole tickles the boy's belly before setting him free.

His mom watches the father-son interaction with a fond smile. "Where's Cristiana?"

"She's upstairs," Cole responds as Liam runs around the living room with too much energy.

Heather nods her head. "I'll have lunch with her soon. I actually need to get going. Your father is dragging me to a charity banquet tonight."

Cole notices she's wearing a designer burgundy wrap dress that is too stylish to be casual wear. "That sounds like fun."

"Not at all. It's a bunch of old money bags complaining about giving away a single penny to those less fortunate."

"Mom, I hate to break it to you, but you're an old money bag," Cole jokes with a humored snort.

Heather waves away his comment. "I am not old, and I don't mind helping the less fortunate. You know that. Liam had a big lunch, so he probably won't eat dinner." She blows a kiss to her grandson before walking out of the house.

Cole walks to the digital intercom and presses the button labeled 'announcement'. "Cristiana, Liam is home. Come downstairs so you can meet him."

Moments later she bounces down the stairs now dressed in black yoga pants and a white long-sleeve shirt. He frowns at her attire. She's trying to cover the bruises that the coward left on her skin.

"Why didn't you take the elevator?" He asks.

Her shoulders shrug, "I needed the exercise." He refrains from commenting. There's no doubt in his mind that the words she said were a product of the violent life she escaped this morning.

"Vator lady!" Liam gasps as he looks at Cristiana with wonder.

She giggles, kneeling in front of him. "Hi, Liam. My name is Cristiana. You can call me Cris."

"Hi, Cris!" The boy happily says.

"Cris is your new nanny," Cole announces while bracing himself for his son's unhappy reaction.

"You play lion?" Liam asks.

Cristiana nods her head. "I'll play lion with you."

"Okay!" He shrugs his little shoulders and continues running around the living room.

With a baffled look on her face, she looks at Cole. "Was that approval?"

"As close to it as you'll get. Let's go to my office and sign the contract, then I'll show you Liam's bedroom and bathroom. We should probably also coordinate schedules."

"Why do we need to coordinate schedules?" Cristiana questions as she carefully lifts Liam onto her hip.

Cole takes the boy from her with a knowing look. "We're both young and I'm concerned that your social life might interfere with mine. It's not easy being a single dad and running a fortune 500 company. Sometimes I need to let out steam."

Understanding dawns on her face as she takes a seat in front of his desk. "Oh, you mean schedules. Don't worry, I'm not participating in that for a long while."

"You say that now but who knows how you'll feel in a couple of months or even weeks," Cole responds, setting Liam free after he closes the office door. "My only request is that you don't have one of those guests over while Liam's home. I try to keep his exposure to that part of my life as minimal as possible. I expect you to do the same."

"No problem. I doubt there will be any guests like that while I'm working for you." She doesn't have any interest in a romantic or physical relationship. The scars of her last one are still fresh.

Cole rubs his chin. "I'm sure your mind will change once you're acquainted with your new life. You'll get one day off during the week whenever my parents get Liam for the night, but weekends might be more of a hassle. Most weekends I'm out of town and my parents have various obligations."

"Business trips?"

"Sometimes," Cole responds honestly. He's a very eligible bachelor. There's no shame in his game. "If you need to be free on a weekend when I'm not here and my family isn't available, there's a babysitter who I frequently use. I'll give you her contact information."

"I'm the nanny. Don't you think it's inappropriate for me to hire a babysitter?"

With exasperation, Cole rolls his eyes. "You're a human with needs, Cristiana. Getting a babysitter to fill in for you every blue moon isn't a bad thing. I promise you won't be out of a job."

"Poo poo, daddy," Liam whines before she can respond.

"You need to, or you already have?" Tension fills Cole's face. Tears break free from Liam's eyes. The dad expels a breath with exhaustion.

"I'll clean him up." Eagerly Cristiana jumps to her feet.

"No, you're still injured. I'll do it." Cole walks over to the boy, taking his hand.

"I'm fine. It's my job to take care of him. Let me work, so you can work."

He shakes his head. "You are not fine. Your job doesn't begin until tomorrow. I've got this."

"I can help you." She insists on following them out of the office and to the elevator.

"I don't need your help," Cole grumbles while jabbing the button for the third floor.

Once again her shoulders shrug. "You're going to get it anyways. I'm the nanny."

After arriving on the third floor, they make their way to Liam's bedroom. Surprise widens her eyes. The toddler's room is definitely bigger than hers with a white toddler bed that has jungle-themed bedding, a vanity dresser, and a floating nightstand. Large jungle animals are painted on the sky blue walls. There's a paneled pocket door to the right that Cole slides open revealing an alley-style closet packed with more clothes than any toddler needs. There's another pocket door at the back of the closet which leads to the bathroom. A standard white tub is in the bathroom along with a single vanity and toilet. Cole sits Liam on the vanity top and walks back to the bedroom. Cristiana holds the boy in place. She rubs soothing circles on his back and patiently waits for his crying to stop.

Cole returns to the room with a mystified look on his face. He expected to find Liam still upset and striking out at Cristiana. Instead, the boy is cradled in her arms with a pitiful look on his face.

"Well, that's a good sign," he murmurs, placing the pale blue pajamas on the counter. "Come here, buddy. Let's get you undressed."

Liam shakes his head. "Cris bath me."

"Not tonight."

"It's fine," Cristiana interjects. She doesn't want Liam to become upset again.

Heavily Cole sighs, "Cris-"

"Let me do my job." Her voice is surprisingly firm. Reluctantly Cole holds up his hands and steps back.

She carefully undresses the toddler, moving slowly when she takes off his full training diaper. After cleaning his bottom with wipes, she lifts Liam into her arms and makes her way to the bathtub that is now brimming with bubbles. She kneels and places him in the tub. When she leans forward to reach him, pain shoots up her back. A grimace tightens her face, but still, she reaches for the soft washcloth.

Cole notices her obvious discomfort. "You don't have to handle bathtime. It's only your first day." He watches as she reaches out to run to wet cloth over the boy's skin.

Sharply she gasps as her eyes widen. With a defeated shake of her head, she leans back on her legs. "I'm sorry, it hurts too much."

"It's okay." Cole kneels on the tiled floor beside her. "I didn't think you would make it this far. Liam can be standoffish towards new people." He turns his attention to his babbling son.

It isn't long before the bathroom floor is covered in water. Cristiana leans against the vanity watching father and son bond. Liam relishes his father's attention. He doesn't get much of it, so he soaks up the time that Cole does spare to spend with him. He's sad when bath time ends because he's smart enough to know the close attention is ending as well. Cole lifts Liam out of the tub and wraps him in the towel that she holds out. He stands the boy on the counter with dramatic airplane noises. She straightens up the bathroom as Cole playfully dresses Liam in his pajamas. An occasional glance in the mirror reveals her beaming fondly at the toddler. Cole can't recall the last time a woman who wasn't related to him looked at his son that way. 'Keep her around as long as possible.' Those had been his sister's parting words yesterday after she sang Cristiana's praises. He carries Liam out of the bedroom, down the hall to his playroom. There are built-in shelves along the back wall that are filled with toys.

"You can do whatever you need to now. I can tend to him until dinner time." Cristiana offers as Liam plops down on a large red bean bag.

Cole falters, "I'm good."

Her mouth presses into a tight line. "Cole, you have to let me do my job." There's a determined look on her face.

He fights a grin. "Fine. I know when I'm not wanted." He holds up his hands, taking cautious backward steps. "I really do need to get some work done. I'll be on the first floor. Remember to use the intercom if you need me." He leaves the room feeling surprisingly light. Cristiana can surely handle Liam alone for a couple of hours. After all, it is her job.
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