Chapter 3 - Settling In
"Thanks," Cole huffs as they walk out of the bedroom. He's impressed by how fast she was able to calm Liam down and lull him to sleep. It was faster than Cole has ever been able to. Maybe even faster than his mom or Rachel have been able to do so.
"You don't have to thank me. It's my job."
"Well, it's only day one, but it's safe to say that you're doing your job well. Much better than I expected."
She looks down with a shy smile. "Thank you for saying that, and for giving me a chance."
Cole shrugs his broad shoulders. "You deserve it, especially after putting up with me all day and not quitting. You probably think I'm a horrible father." They're standing in the hallway between their bedrooms.
"I don't make it a habit to negatively judge my employers." Her voice is full of hesitation.
He groans, "I never really planned to be a dad, but I love my son. It's just that sometimes I get frustrated with him. He makes everything more difficult than it has to be."
"He's really young. The world is still an overwhelming and confusing place for him. You have to be patient."
"Patience is not something I have a lot of, especially when it comes to his disobedience." He runs a hand over his hair. She chews her bottom lip but doesn't say a word. "Speak your mind."
She shakes her head, "It's not my place."
"I think it is. You've been hired to take charge of raising my son. It's your place to tell me what I'm doing wrong in that department."
"I don't know you or Liam very well, but from what I saw today, it seems like you both would benefit from spending more time together."
He frowns, "So you do think I'm a bad dad."
"That's not what I said. It's obvious you and Liam miss each other, and you don't know how to interact with each other because you don't spend much time together. I think if you change that, then you'll see a change in his behavior," Cristiana softly explains.
He scratches his chin. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you for the advice."
"You're welcome. Good night, Mr. Skylark." She opens the door to her bedroom and steps inside.
"Goodnight, Cristiana," Cole murmurs as he turns away with a mind full of thoughts.
With the door to her bedroom tightly shut, Cristiana decides to take a hot bath in the deep tub in hopes of relaxing her body. The bath makes her aches and pains feel better, but she knows recovery won't happen overnight. After dressing in pink flannel pajama pants and a plain white T-shirt, she digs through her things until she finds a bottle of sleep aid pills. She takes two before burrowing under the covers of her new bed. For the first time in a long time, she sleeps peacefully.
Her first day as Liam's nanny starts with an adventure. It's well past seven o'clock in the morning when the boy runs into her room and launches himself on her bed. He jumps as hard as his little legs allow until she wakes up. It's a marathon from there. Cristiana quickly learns that Liam loses interest in things rather quickly. She's running out of ideas when he gets fussy and his little eyes start to droop.
"Wow, he never goes down for a nap," Linda comments when Cristiana descends the stairs looking like she could use a nap too. "Here, take this." The older woman hands her a white plastic bag. "Mariah dropped it off. It's your new cell phone. Cole got it for you."
"He didn't have to do that." Cristiana takes the bag timidly. "I was planning to get one for myself."
Linda waves away her comment. "You better learn now that if Cole Skylark sees something you want or need, he doesn't hesitate to get it for you."
"That's generous," Cristiana grumbles uncomfortably. She's not used to someone doing something for her without the expectation of a returned favor. Tyson's generosity disappeared when his fists started connecting with her flesh.
"To say the least," Linda responds with a wink. She's been working for the man long enough to know that there's no use fighting his kindness. Something tells her that it'll take Cristiana a while to accept Cole's generosity without feeling uncomfortable or waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Linda knows Cristiana can't be blamed for her skittishness. Cole shared the few details he has regarding Cristiana's ex-boyfriend before leaving for work this morning. Linda's heart nearly broke when she learned that the new nanny had been the victim of domestic violence. It was a fate that Linda once suffered as well. The difference was that she never gathered the strength to leave. Instead, her abuser lost interest in her and moved on to another woman. He left her with nothing and no one. She shattered with very little will to leave. Cole intervened at the perfect time and offered her a job. To this day she's never been able to express to him just how grateful she truly is. Rather he meant to or not, Cole Skylark saved her life.
Cole comes home just after six. Linda has been gone for an hour, but she left behind a delicious dinner of jerked chicken, mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots. Cristiana sets the dining table and makes the plates so that father and son can enjoy dinner together.
"You're joining us, right?" Cole questions as she places the boy in his booster seat. He notices that a setting for her is absent from the table.
"Oh, no, I'm going to eat in the kitchen. You can yell for me if you need me."
Cole frowns with revulsion. "I will not yell for you like you're a dog or something. Get your plate and have dinner with us."
"I shouldn't. It's inappropriate."
His eyes roll. "Cristiana, have dinner with me and Liam. That's an order."
She gulps and nods before walking to the kitchen to retrieve her plate. She returns seconds later and sits to Liam's right. Cole refrains from telling her that she doesn't have to tend to the boy right now. It's obvious that is what she feels comfortable doing. She spends most of the time focused more on feeding Liam than she is on feeding herself. It's a fight getting him to eat more than the chicken. Eventually, Cristiana wins much to Cole's surprise.
"You're a natural with him," he compliments after they have put the little guy to bed.
"I don't know about that," she laughs almost lightly.
"Don't sell yourself short. You're good with him. He responds really well to you. "
"I'm just doing my job and paying attention to what he needs."
Cole's tongue flicks across his lips. "Maybe you could pay attention to what I need tonight." His voice deepens with lust. A blind man would notice how beautiful Cristiana is. It doesn't feel right for Cole to ignore it. Living together when they're both unattached nearly guarantees that something is going to happen between them, or at least that's what he's convinced himself of. It's best to get it out in the open now. The sooner they act on their desire, the faster it'll fade. He's certain she's nothing like Farrah, so a roll or two in the bed won't interfere with her job as the nanny.
Cristiana rolls her eyes and suppresses a humored grin. "Good night Mr. Skylark."
His humored chuckles follow her down the hallway. "Okay, I can wait until another night. You need more time to adjust. That's fine. I'm a patient man."
"I hope your patience keeps you warm."
"Not nearly as warm as you could keep me," he winks.
"Then you're going to be cold for an awfully long time." She slips into her bedroom and closes the door.
As the days progress, Cole sees more and more why his mom and sister insisted on hiring Cristiana. She has more energy than he does when it comes to keeping up with Liam. She's creative, always thinking of something new for the boy to do. The most impressive thing to Cole is how she manages to calm Liam down without raising her voice. By the end of her first week, Cole is in awe of her. Even Liam's original nanny, May, the woman who had cared for Cole when he was a child, couldn't compare to Cristiana. Farrah doesn't even deserve to be mentioned. Cole wasn't sure the woman ever tried to truly care for Liam.
Her first weekend in the Skylark residence goes by in a blur. Cole is away from Friday morning to Sunday night attending a conference in Seattle. Linda takes it upon herself to stop by every day and check on Cristiana and Liam even though it's obvious that they don't need her. The nanny has Liam eating out of the palm of her hand. He'll do anything she says simply to make her happy.
One week turns into two which turns into three, and before she realizes it, Cristiana has been Liam's nanny for a month. It's her phone that Heather calls on Thursday afternoon when she decides to get Liam for the night.
"I'll bring him back around noon tomorrow. I have a luncheon at the club," Heather announces while carrying the happy boy out of the house. "Tell your nanny goodbye."
"Bye, bye, Cris." Liam waves with a saddened pout. He's grown attached to Cristiana. When he's sad or upset he turns to her for comfort. They spend their days basking in each other's attention.
"Have fun!" She calls out to him with mixed emotions. She's happy to get a night off but sad to see him go. She knows she needs the time to decompress. Cole tries to spend time with Liam, but most nights he works late and he's hardly around on weekends. He wasn't joking when he said that he needed Cristiana to raise Liam because he didn't have the time. During the four weeks that she's been in the caretaker position, she can count on one hand how many times Cole has made it home from work before Liam was asleep.
She doesn't complain about the constant work hours. Taking care of Liam distracts Cristiana from her traumatic past. For two weeks she's been attending group meetings for women that escape abusive relationships. Talking to other women who have endured suffering similar to her own gives her an outlet for vulnerability and other emotions she's constantly suppressing throughout the day. Slowly she's becoming the woman she used to be. The woman that was bold and outspoken. The woman who didn't shy away from compliments or clam up when a man stood too close.
The group only meets on Monday, so going to work out her issues isn't an option after Heather and Liam leave. Her sister is working and the one friend she's reconnected with is out of town. There's nothing else to do with the rest of her night, so she decides to put the home gym to use. She hasn't spent a lot of time in the underground level of the townhouse. It may lack windows, but it's still bright and inviting. She makes it about half an hour on the treadmill before she's out of breath with an aching back. It's been a long time since she's exerted herself that way. Tyson was worried enough about her weight to restrict her diet, but not enough to let her go to the gym even when he went.
A hot shower loosens some of the tension and muscle relaxers take care of the rest. She dozes off after dressing in a loose t-shirt and stretch cotton shorts. She's not sure how much time has passed before she up wakes around two a.m. to a growling tummy. She makes her way downstairs to the kitchen and warms up a portion of the leftover lasagna Linda cooked the day before. She sits at the island and eats in the welcomed silence. She rarely has a moment to herself these days. It's nice to enjoy her meal without being rushed or being distracted by a demanding two-year-old.
After she's done eating, she leisurely washes her plate and fork before making her way to her bedroom. She decides to walk up the stairs instead of using the elevator. Truthfully, riding in the contraption by herself makes her uneasy. That's likely because the last time she was in an elevator alone was after Tyson had beat her so bad that she had no choice but to go to the hospital.
Shaking away the memory, she ascends the stairs to the second floor. She's continuing to the third floor when she hears something that causes her to pause. Her head tilts so that her left ear is up towards the ceiling. She waits to hear it again. Seconds later there's no denying the unmistakable sound of a woman moaning in pleasure. She's unsure of what to do. Cole, and whoever his guest is, will hear her if she goes to her bedroom, and if they don't, then she will surely hear them given the proximity of her bedroom to his. The thought of listening to them is not appealing. She'll have to put on her earbuds and play music until she falls asleep. Carefully she continues up the stairs, doing her best to not make a sound. She's just stepping on the third-floor landing when the voices reach her ears.
"Why didn't you tell me she was here?" A nasally feminine voice demands.
"She's no one important. Just the nanny." Cole responds in a husky tone that Cristiana has never heard him use before. Clearly, it's reserved for the bedroom.
"I don't care who she is," the woman fusses. "I'm not doing anything if she's creepily listening to us."
"Vanessa you're being paranoid. She's not listening to us. Come on, we were just getting to the good part."
"No," the woman, Vanessa, huffs. "You need to make sure she's not listening."
Cole sighs heavily looking at the tall and slender woman standing before him. Her orange hair is a mess around her slim face. Her naturally narrow icy eyes are ablaze with indignation. She crosses her thin arms over her naked breasts.
His shoulders slump with disappointment. "What do you want me to do?"
"See if she's awake," Vanessa suggests with a shrug of her boney shoulders.
"You want me to go into her room." Cole is amazed by the ridiculousness of the suggestion. He hasn't been in that bedroom since Cristiana moved in.
Vanessa gives a stiff nod of her head. "Either you go see if she's awake or my legs are closed for the rest of the night." It's a dirty ultimatum and she knows it. That doesn't stop her from making it.
"Fine," Cole grumbles as he slides out of bed and pulls on his boxers.
Realizing that he's coming her way, Cristiana quietly rushes to her bedroom and slides under the covers. Her eyes are squeezed shut as she begs for sleep to take her before Cole enters. It doesn't. He quietly opens the door as if scared of being caught. She doesn't dare open her eyes. Cautiously Cole steps inside.
"Cris, are you awake?" He asks, clearly not expecting an answer. She holds her breath, waiting for him to turn around and leave. He creeps further into the room and trips over the rug causing him to fall onto the foot of her bed.
Heavily she sighs. There's no use pretending to be asleep now. Cristiana reaches over to the crystal lamp on her nightstand and groggily sits up. "Mr. Skylark is something wrong?" She inserts the right amount of drowsiness into her voice. If childcare doesn't work out, she may have a career in acting.
Cole quickly rights himself. "Nothing's wrong."
"Then why are you in my room?" She challenges, wondering if he will fess up. He rubs at the back of his neck, standing before her as exposed as he's ever been. He's shirtless only wearing his boxers which are hanging low on his hips. She diverts her gaze from the obvious tent below his waist.
"I just wanted to make sure you were alright," he responds lamely.
Cristiana folds her arms sassily, "I was until you interrupted my sleep."
"Right," Cole murmurs. "Well, um, I think I'll go back to bed now."
"Yeah, you should go back to bed. Good night Mr. Skylark."
"Good night Cristiana." He pulls the door closed behind him. Shame coats his every move. He doesn't even have a mind to continue with Vanessa. Instead, he lays on his side with his back to her wanting nothing more than for the night to end.
Cole is happy to be home. It's just before noon on a Friday and he has escaped the office for the rest of the day. That's very unusual. One two-hour conference call, a site inspection, and a magazine interview created a tediously long morning for him to endure. As soon as he confirmed with Mariah that his schedule for the remainder of the day was clear, Cole left while whistling a tune.
"Well, this is a nice surprise. You usually come home after I've left for the day," Linda comments as Cole enters from the garage and tosses his keys onto the island.
"It's Friday and I have nowhere to be this weekend," Cole responds with a happy strut to his step.
"You sure do seem to be happy about that. Your friend let herself out about an hour ago," Linda informs him with disapproving eyes. She knows why he avoids commitment but that doesn't mean she likes his activities.
"That's good. One less thing for me to worry about." Cole was cautious to leave Vanessa sleeping in his bed this morning because he ignored her last night after his encounter with Cristiana. Yet, he had to get to work and Vanessa is no stranger to his home or Linda. She's stayed at his place more times than he can count. She knows how to discreetly leave.
Cole jogs up the stairs to his large bedroom. His king-sized sleigh bed is empty with freshly laundered white sheets and a vibrant blue duvet. He walks through his on-suite to his closet to change into a pair of light gray joggers and a black t-shirt. Walking out of his bedroom he passes by Cristiana's room. Her door is open. She's stretched out on the off-white chaise lounge she added to the room with a book in hand. He lightly taps his knuckles against the open door.
Startled, she looks up from the book. "Mr. Skylark, you're home early."
He grimaces, "I've told you a hundred times to call me Cole. May I come in?"
"It's your house."
"But it's your room," he counters as guilt from last night returns.
Her lips press together as she contemplates her response. "That didn't seem to matter to you last night."
"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about." Cole runs a hand over his head awkwardly. "I want to apologize. I should have never invaded your privacy by coming in here without an invitation."
"As I said, it's your house." She sets her book aside.
"It's your home, or at least I hope you think of it that way, and I want you to feel comfortable."
"Well, all is forgiven. Is there anything else? I just got to the climax." His eyebrow quirks as a knowing grin spread across his face. Her eyes roll. "The climax of the book."
He chuckles, "I can help you get to a different climax."
She stares blankly at him. "I'll pass." For now. The thought words are a shock.
"Fine, I'll continue practicing patience." He gestures to her bed. "May I?" She nods in response prompting him to have a seat on the end of her bed. "My brother, Peter, is a federal agent."
"Okay," she drags the word out, not sure where he's going with the conversation.
He folds his arms across his chest. "I was hoping you would tell me, but I'm starting to suspect that you won't. I know that your ex-boyfriend used to hit you, Derrick told me. I also know about his illegal drug dealing."
Cristiana gulps. She'd hoped the subject of Tyson would never come up. It has been four weeks. She hasn't talked to him since the night before she left. She hardly talks to Derrick out of fear that Tyson will pressure him for information.
"D-di-did you say drug dealing? Tyson is a scoundrel, but he's not a drug dealer?"
Cole stares at her. "Yes, he is. My brother is a federal agent. He did a background check on you a man that they've been investigating for over a year." He watches her closely. Her eyes widen as her face goes pale. "You didn't know about that."
"No, I didn't. I wouldn't have ever dated him if I knew about that."
"Well, now you know. Why didn't you tell me about him?"
"I didn't think it was important. Tyson is in my past."
"Sometimes our past comes back to bite us in the ass." If the conversation wasn't so serious Cole would have chuckled at his unintentional rhyme. "How did you meet him? He sounds despicable."
"He was a friend of a friend. When we met, he was nice and I thought we would be good together. I swear I didn't know about the drug dealing."
"I hope you're no longer in contact with the friend who introduced you to him."
She shakes her head in response. "I haven't talked to her since the first time he hit me. She told me I'd probably done something to upset him."
"How long was the hitting going on before you started working for me?" It's insensitive of him to ask, but he needs to know. Her past could affect Liam.
"It started after the accident. He was mad because the accident was my fault." Cristiana's voice wavers with emotion.
Cole cocks his head. "How so?"
She gulps before explaining. "I was driving and didn't see the car run the stoplight in time to avoid being hit."
"That's not your fault." Cole sits beside her on the chaise lounge.
Her eyes fill with tears. "I shouldn't have driven. I was tired and we had been out all night. The accident was my fault. Tyson missing work was my fault."
Cole's mouth turns up. "Being tired does not mean you caused that crash to happen. The driver who decided not to stop is the one at fault. Tyson missing work did not give him permission to hit you. Stop carrying that guilt. It's not yours to bear." The tears spill from her eyes. He wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her into his embrace. "Forget everything he's ever said to you. Those were the words of a sick man who never deserved you."
"I'm sorry," she cries. "I should have told you about Tyson. I was scared. I don't want to go back to him."
Deeply he exhales. "I cannot risk exposing Liam to danger and your ex-boyfriend is dangerous."
"You're right," Cristiana agrees despondently. "If it's not an inconvenience I can be gone by tonight. I'll grab as much of my stuff as I can. The rest you can throw away. I'll replace it when I have a new job."
He holds up his hands, cautioning her. "Whoa, I'm not firing you Cristiana. I'm upset and rightfully so, but that doesn't negate the fact that you're great with Liam. He's crazy about you. I would be stupid to send you away. All I ask is that you be completely honest with me from now on and please do not have any dealings with your ex."
"I can do that."
"I'm serious. If I find out that you're talking to him at all, then your time here will be done."
"I understand." She wipes at the tears that stain her cheeks.
"Okay, I'm going to take a nap now." He releases her and walks towards the door.
"Cole," she calls after him using his first name for the first time ever. "Thank you for giving me a second chance."
"You deserve it. Just be honest with me. I need someone I can trust." He leaves the room without another word.
Her teeth nibble at her bottom lip. She's too uneasy to read, so she goes downstairs. Linda is folding clothes at the dining table.
"Hello, sweetheart. Do you need something?"
"No," Cristiana shakes her head while taking a seat at the table. "Do you want some help?"
"Nah, I'm pretty much done." Linda declines. She watches as the young woman plays with her hands nervously. "What's on your mind?"
"I think I messed up," Cristiana divulges with a whoosh of air.
"How so?" Linda gently questions. She doesn't want to push too far, but she has been waiting for Cristiana to open up to her and it looks like the moment has finally arrived as Cristiana begins to share details about her life before she became Liam's nanny. Linda listens objectively. Her heart breaks as Cristiana recalls all the times Tyson hurt her. Yet that doesn't seem to be what's bothering the young woman now.
"He says I'm not fired, but I'm certain that he doesn't trust me."
"Honey, Cole is a very forgiving man. Just be honest with him and everything will be alright. You're not still communicating with Tyson, are you?"
"Absolutely not. I haven't talked to him since the night before I left."
"Good, keep it that way," Linda advises while rising from the table. "Men like that have no place in your life. They only want to use and abuse you.
"Yeah, I found that out the hard way." Cristiana hangs her head in shame.
Linda touches her hand comfortingly. "We all have moments in our lives that we regret. You went through something awful and you have every right to regret it and want to forget about it, but don't let it taint who you are. Don't carry shame for it. You're a kind and wonderful woman who learned a very valuable lesson about life. That's all that matters."
"Thank you." Cristiana smiles gratefully. She likes Linda. The woman is friendly and maternal, something that the new nanny is currently lacking in her life.
Linda gives a warm grin. "Whenever you need to talk, I'm right here."
"Can I ask you something?" Cristiana lowers her voice.
Linda purses her lips. "I think I know what you're going to ask. You need to talk to Cole about that."
"He's not going to tell me," Cristiana groans. She's curious. She's been working for Cole for a month now and not once has Liam's mother made an appearance. There are no pictures of the woman anywhere in the house. Cole is obviously single. There's nothing about him being divorced on the internet. She wants to know who the woman is that gave birth to the adorable boy she's paid to take care of.
Linda sighs heavily and shakes her head. "Cole really needs to be the one to explain the situation. I'm sure he will in due time."
"When exactly is duetime?"
Linda lifts her shoulders. "I don't know and it's not my place to know. You need to know the story, but it's not mine to tell. Talk to Cole."
Cristiana's lips press together. It's obvious Linda won't tell her what she wants to know. She's not sure how to approach Cole about it either.
A couple of hours later, Liam is brought home. This time it's Peter who returns the boy. Cole embraces his brother warmly. They look strikingly similar to each other although Peter is two years younger. There are some noticeable differences. Cole is a couple inches taller. Peter's shoulders are wider and his hair shorter. He also has slightly darker skin. Cole has crater-like dimples in his cheeks. Peter has a dimpled chin and sharp cheeks like Rachel.
"Cristiana, this is my meddling little brother Peter Skylark," Cole introduces the man with an arm over his shoulders. "Peter, this is Liam's new nanny, Cristiana."
"Well, hello there." A charming grin covers Peter's face. "I don't have any kids, but you could always take care of me."
Cristiana's eyes widen as he locks his eyes on hers and lifts her hand to his lips. "You've got a way with words."
"It's one of my many talents. You want to find out about the others?" Peter taunts in a suave voice that makes her shiver.
Cole interjects before the flirting can go any further. "She's off-limits. There's a no fraternizing clause in her contract."
"That clause is for you. I'm not her boss." Peter winks at Cristiana. She looks away with a giggle.
"Cris, why don't you go check on Liam? He ran to the kitchen." Cole desperately suggests. He wants her away from his brother.
Peter frowns like a disappointed child as he watches her walk away. "No, why did you send her away?"
"Cut it out," Cole grumbles, leading the way to the elevator.
Peter follows after him. "What's your problem? She's freaking gorgeous. It's not like me getting involved with her would interfere with her taking care of Liam. I can share with the little guy."
Cole's jaw clenches as the elevator rises to the fourth floor. "Don't go there."
Peter studies his brother knowingly. "You're interested in her."
"No, I'm not," Cole denies the accusation half-heartedly. "She's my nanny. I can't be interested in her. I can't get involved with the nanny."
A taunting smirk covers Peter's face. "You've done that before."
"And look how that turned out. That was not my brightest moment."
"And yet you're still interested in her in a non-professional way."
With a groan, Cole steps out of the elevator and walks to the den. "I don't want to talk about it."
"You're screwed. Didn't you just say something about a no fraternizing clause? Cristiana doesn't look like the type to break the rules."
Cole slumps onto the sectional. "Don't remind me."
He's been doing everything he can to keep things strictly business between him and Cristiana. For the first week after she turned down his offer, he barely acknowledged her. He had to change tactics when he overheard her crying on the phone to her sister one night claiming that he hated her. That was when he started being more cordial. Of course, that only lasted so long before Cole caught himself slipping into pursuit mode. Whenever they're alone, his voice deepens, his eyes darken, and he moves closer to her. Cristiana is good at bringing him back to reality, but he can tell she's fighting her desire. It only encourages him to continue chasing her.
Peter shrugs his shoulders. "Rewrite the contract. Unless you think Cristiana is the clingy and crazy type like Farrah. That girl was nuts."
"No, I know she's nothing like Farrah. She actually cares about Liam. She took this job for the right reasons. She's not going to break the rules because she needs this job."
His brother slyly grins. "I guess she'll just have to settle for the more attractive younger brother."
Cole punches his arm. "Shut up. Don't you have somewhere to be?"
With a taunting grin on his face, Peter shakes his. "No, I think I'll stick around for a few hours."
He decides to stay for dinner much to Liam's delight. Cole bites his tongue to keep from verbally lashing out as Peter continues to charm Cristiana. He's thankful when his brother's triumphant grin fades as she politely declines his dinner invite.
Playfully Peter pouts. "Oh, come on. I thought you liked me."
She giggles for the hundredth time. Cole has never heard her do it so many times before. "I do like you, but I'm not going on a date with you."
Peter feigns hurt, clutching at his chest. "You wound me."
Cole's eyes roll. "You'll live. Isn't it time for you to go? There must be some sketchy sting operation that needs to be conducted tonight."
"Nah, it's my day off." Peter is taunting him. He's enjoying his brother's obvious discomfort.
"Well, I need to give Liam a bath and put him in bed," Cristiana proclaims.
Peter winks at her. "I'll let you bathe me next."
"You are too much." She laughs while lifting Liam from his highchair and carrying him out of the dining room.
Cole growls, "It's time for you to go."
"Damn, you're putting me out." Peter's eyes widen with surprise. He's never seen his brother get so agitated over a woman.
"Yep!" Cole stands from the table.
"You've really got a hard one for her, huh?"
Cole's head snaps to the stairs. He sighs in relief when he doesn't see Cristiana. "Shut up before she hears you."
Peter grins unapologetically. "It's not my fault this place is like a freaking mausoleum."
Cole rolls his neck. "Have a good night." He doesn't bother walking with Peter to the door.
"Give Cristiana a kiss from me!" Peter taunts as he hurries out of the house.
Cristiana bathes Liam and puts him to bed. He's exhausted and goes to sleep without a fuss. She kisses his forehead before quietly making her way out of his bedroom. She showers and changes into a thin pink camisole and black stretchy shorts. Without a second thought, she walks down the hallway to Liam's bedroom. She discovered during her second week that he sometimes rolls out of bed. Luckily, she finds him peacefully slumbering in the middle of his bed. She reminds herself to talk to Cole about buying guard rails for the bed. Liam moves a lot in his sleep and she doesn't want him to get hurt.
On her way back to her room, she passes by Cole's bedroom and is surprised to find the double doors open wide. Cole is stretched across his bed on his back. He's wearing only a pair of black jersey athletic shorts and is mindlessly staring at the smooth ceiling.
"Everything alright?" She stops in the doorway but doesn't actually step inside of his space.
Cole rolls his head so that he can look at her. "I'm just tired." He sighs heavily. He's been waking up early and staying up late with all the work on his plate recently. "How are you? I haven't really spoken to you in a while."
"You spoke to me last night," she teases.
His eyes roll. "Don't remind me. How are you?"
"I'm good," Cristiana responds with a wry smile.
"Yeah, enjoying the new job?"
"My boss is a little standoffish, but I think I'm settling in."
"I'm sorry about that. If you haven't guessed it by now, my life is dominated by work. It distracts me all day and night." Easily Cole sits up.
Cristiana waves away his apology. "It's not a big deal. I'm not here to socialize with you. I'm here to take care of Liam."
"You can socialize with me too." He slides to his feet and makes his way to the door, pausing in his steps to take in her appearance. Her curves are on display tempting him to put his hands on her waist and lock his mouth on hers. "Nice outfit."
Subconsciously she looks down at herself. "I'm sorry. It gets hot in my room at night."
"I'm not complaining," Cole assures her with an amused smirk. "I'm glad you're not hiding anymore."
"I was never hiding."
He steps closer to her until they're nearly chest-to-chest. "You've been hiding from me since day one."
"Mr. Skylark," Cristiana sighs, readying her objection.
Cole groans, throwing his head back. "Don't do that."
"Do what?" She feigns innocence.
"Don't slip into formalities to stop yourself from feeling something."
"That's not what I'm doing."
He glares at her. "Yes, it is. You do it nearly every day. Just let go, Cris."
She huffs indignantly. "I'm not here to let go. I'm here to take care of Liam. Rachel and Heather made it very clear that under no circumstances am I to become involved with you beyond a professional level."
Her statement makes his mouth pop open. "Wow, they told me to keep it strictly professional with you and added the clause in the contract, but I didn't realize they also said something to you. They really think I'll screw any woman that crosses my path."
Cristiana's eyes brighten with anger as she stomps her foot and turns away from him. "Good night!"
With a muttered curse he dashes after her. "Wait, that came out wrong. Don't be mad." Good job idiot. Now she'll never give you a chance.
"I'm not mad." She spits over her shoulder. "I'm going to bed."
Cole sticks his foot in the doorway as she attempts to slam the door close. "Cris, I'm sorry. Let's talk about it."
Petulantly she refuses him. "There's nothing to talk about."
"You're upset. We can't go to bed like this."
"Watch me," she seethes.
Cole groans "Please, talk to me."
"We can talk in the morning."
"No, I think we should talk now."
With a huff, she releases the door and stomps to her bed. "Fine, let's talk."
Cautiously Cole enters her bedroom. He moves slowly while taking a seat on the end of the bed. "I was a jerk for what I said. It doesn't reflect how I feel about you in any way. Please don't punish Liam for my bad behavior."
"You should know that I would never punish him because of you. He's not responsible for your behavior. He's innocent, and you're exhausted, so your mental filter isn't working that well right now. It's not a big deal."
Cole scoffs with abhorrence. "Is this how you were with Tyson? Did you make excuses for him when he hit you?"
She looks down at the quilt in contemplation. "I did at first, but I think it made him feel more entitled to hit me. He would always tell me what I'd done wrong. I lied or I made a mistake. Any little thing would set him off."
"You did nothing that entitled him to strike you. He's a coward."
Her shoulders fall. "He is a coward. One I hope not to see ever again, especially Saturday."
"What's happening Saturday?"
"It's my sister's birthday. She wants to go out. Rachel is getting Liam for the night, so I agreed to go."
"Are you all planning to go somewhere that he might be?"
"Yeah, but it's not a big deal. I can handle him."
Sarcasm covers Cole's words. "Yeah, because you were handling him so well before you left. Maybe I should go with you."
Indignantly she frowns. "I don't need a babysitter."
"I wouldn't babysit you. I'd provide protection in case he's there."
Cristiana glances to the ceiling. "I'll be with a group. I'll be fine."
Cole knows she won't budge. He doesn't want to press her to the point where she shuts down. "Fine, but let me know if you change your mind. I don't have any plans as of now."
"Thanks." She yawns stretching her arms above her head. Her shirt rises revealing her pierced navel. "I'm tired. No offense but get out."
He stands. "I can also provide a warm body if you come home wanting." She tosses a pillow at him, but he catches it with a chuckle. "I'm just putting it out there."
"Get out of my room."
"Give me a good night kiss." His eyebrows wiggle. Cristiana stares blankly at him. He chuckles again. "It was worth a shot. Sweet dreams." He leaves her room with a heavy heart. There's an amazing woman behind the wall she's built around herself. He hopes that someday the wall will fall down.