Read Shelter in a Soldier's Arms Online

Authors: Susan Mallery

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Shelter in a Soldier's Arms (6 page)

BOOK: Shelter in a Soldier's Arms
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Determination stiffened her small frame. She raised her chin slightly, in a gesture of defiance that reminded him of a kitten spitting at a wolf. It looked great and accomplished nothing, except possibly amusing the wolf.

Instead of answering Ashley directly, he called for Brenda to join him.

Brenda bustled into the room. His assistant, a fifty-something blonde of medium height, was dressed in tailored slacks and a silk blouse. She looked efficient and ran his office with the precision and attention to detail of a neurosurgeon at work.

She walked to Ashley and held out her hand. “Hi. I’m Brenda Maitlin. You must be Ashley. Your daughter is such a sweetheart. And you look like death, honey.”

Ashley had responded to Brenda’s greeting by shaking hands with the woman. As Jeff watched, his assistant took the pile of clothes from Ashley and set them on the dresser. She maneuvered the other woman back under the covers and pulled up the blankets.

“Don’t think about anything,” Brenda instructed her. “Just sleep and get better.”

“But I have to get my daughter dressed and take her to school. Then—”

Brenda cut her off with a quick shake of her head. “You don’t have to do a darned thing. Maggie has been fed and dressed. I’m dropping her off at her preschool on my way to the office. Maggie’s sitter, one of her teachers from school, is going to look after her after school at her place.” She paused as if going through a mental list before continuing. “Oh, and a note taker will go to class for you today, so you don’t have to worry about that, either.” She turned to Jeff and beamed. “I think that’s everything.”

Ashley looked stunned. Jeff winked at her. “I know Brenda can be a little overwhelming, but that’s why I hired her. Get the best people possible to do the job.”

Brenda looked at him. “Then I have just two words to say to you. Field work.”

It was an old argument. “I have just one word in response. No. I’d miss you in the office and your husband would kill me.”

She glared at him before stomping out of the room. Jeff returned his attention to Ashley. “She’s convinced she would make a great spy. I suspect she’s right, but she’s late in starting her training and I doubt her family would approve.”

Ashley looked confused, as if she was having a difficult time following the conversation. Before she could respond, Maggie burst into the room. The little girl was dressed in purple jeans with a matching purple-and-white sweater. Tiny clips held her hair off of her face. She grinned at Jeff before racing to her mother.

“Mommy, Mommy, Brenda came and cooked me breakfast. We had waffles and I ate a whole one. Then we got me dressed and now I’m going to school in her car. She’s got a dog named Muffin and maybe when you feel better we can go visit them.”

“A whole waffle. I’m impressed.” Ashley raised up on one elbow to study her daughter. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Did you sleep well?”

Maggie laughed. “Mommy, I’m fine.” She gave her a quick hug, then dashed out of the room.

Ashley lowered herself back onto the bed. “Thanks for taking care of her. And of me. You’re being very nice.”

“No one has ever accused me of that before.”

“Probably because you didn’t give them reason.” Her eyes fluttered closed.

Her skin looked soft and smooth. He had an instant vision of touching her cheek, then her mouth. The image was so real, his fingertips burned. Suddenly uncomfortable, he took a step back and tried to figure out what to say.

“I’ll be at the office all day,” he told her. “Will you be all right by yourself?”

“Sure. I just need to rest a little more.”

“The kitchen is well stocked. Take whatever you’d like.” He set a business card on the nightstand. “Here’s my number, in case you need it.”

She nodded slowly, her eyes drifting closed. He knew the exact moment she found sleep. For a second he thought about giving in and touching her cheek

just to see if it was as soft as it looked. But he didn’t. Men like him didn’t have physical contact with women like her. Men like him remembered they weren’t the same as everyone else. And if he tried to forget, the dream was a constant reminder.


Ashley rolled over and glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand: 7:01

a.m. She blinked. As in the morning? She sat up with a hastiness that made her head spin. Morning? That wasn’t possible. She last remembered it being seven-thirty in the morning. Had she really slept around the clock?

She threw back the covers and slid to her feet. Aside from a little lightheadedness that was probably due to not eating in thirty-six hours, she felt a whole lot better than she had before. But all thoughts of health were pushed aside by the panicky realization she hadn’t seen her daughter since the previous morning.

She flew through the shared bathroom and into the adjoining room. It was empty. Empty! Panic tightened her throat. Dear God, what had happened to her daughter? Her eyes began to burn as tears formed. “Maggie,” she whispered. “Maggie?”

Just was she was about to scream, she heard a faint sound. She spun in that direction and realized it came from downstairs. There was a low rumble of a male voice followed by childish laughter.


Relief flooded her. Ashley hurried into the hall and made her way to the stairs. Ignoring the shaking in her legs and the dizziness that lingered, she ran down the stairs and raced into the kitchen. With one sweeping glance, she saw her daughter sitting at the table and eating a triangle of toast and jam.


Her little girl looked up and smiled with delight. “Mommy, you’re up! I wanted to see you last night but Uncle Jeff said you needed to sleep so I was very quiet when I came to say good-night.”

As she spoke, Maggie slid off her chair and hurried to her mother. Ashley took in the mismatched shirt and jeans, the smudge of jam on the girl’s cheek and the crooked clips in her hair. Her heart filled with love as she gathered her close and held her tightly.

“I love you, baby girl,” she murmured, inhaling the familiar scent of her child.

“I love you, too, Mommy,” her daughter whispered in response.

Still holding her child, Ashley looked past her to the man sitting at the table. His suit slacks were immaculate, as was his white shirt. His gray eyes seemed to see down to her receding panic. Which was crazy. He couldn’t have known that she’d freaked when she’d awakened and Maggie hadn’t been in her room. Could he?

“Brenda was delayed by a family crisis,” he said. “So we had to get ready without her.” He nodded at Maggie. “She picked out her clothes and got herself dressed without any assistance. I did her hair.” He smiled self-deprecatingly. “But you probably figured that out.”

His smile did something funny to her insides. Or maybe it was just lack of food. Ashley released her daughter and studied her clothes and hair.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

Maggie beamed. “I’ve been extra good for Uncle Jeff. I ate all my cereal and I’m going to finish my toast and milk.”

Ashley looked at their host. “Uncle Jeff?”

He shrugged. “Mr. Ritter seemed a little formal. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No. It’s fine.”

Weird, but fine. She had a hard time imagining Jeff Ritter as an uncle, but he’d obviously done well with Maggie.

He rose to his feet and pulled out a chair. “You must be starving. Let me get you some food.”

Ashley was suddenly aware that she’d jumped out of bed without a thought for her appearance. She hadn’t showered in two days or brushed her teeth, and her hair probably looked like a rat’s nest.

“I, ah, think I’d like to take a shower first,” she said, backing out of the room. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Give me ten minutes.”

Because of her recent illness, she wasn’t moving as fast as usual, so it was closer to twenty before she walked back downstairs. Her first glance in the mirror hadn’t been as horrible as it could have been, but she hadn’t been in the position to win any beauty prizes, either. Now she was at least clean, with her hair washed, although still a little damp. Her face was too pale and way too thin. With the onset of the flu, Ashley hadn’t been eating regularly for several days. Which meant a loss of weight she couldn’t afford. Her jeans were already hanging on her.

She made her way into the kitchen and found Maggie dancing from foot to foot.

“Brenda called,” she sang. “She called and she’s on her way to take me to school. And—” she paused dramatically before making the most monumental of announcements “—she’s bringing one of her dogs with her. The little one. Her name is Muffin and I get to hold her in the car!”

As Maggie spoke, she raced toward Ashley and threw herself at her. Automatically Ashley reached for her daughter, pulling her into her arms. But two days in bed and general weakness from the flu had sucked up all her strength. She staggered slightly and felt herself start to slip.

From the corner of her eye Ashley caught a blur of movement. Suddenly a strong arm encircled her waist, holding her upright. She found herself leaning against Jeff. She had a brief impression of heat and formidable muscles even as he led her to a chair by the table and eased her onto the seat. And then he was back in his chair with a speed that left her wondering if she’d imagined the whole thing.

Except that the left side of her burned from where she’d pressed against him, and she could almost feel his arm around her waist. She shivered slightly. Not from cold, but from

Ashley frowned. She wasn’t sure what. Awareness? Because she was suddenly very aware of the man sitting across from her. He didn’t seem as much the cold, mysterious stranger this morning.

Maggie shifted on her lap. “Do you think Muffin will like me?”

“How could she not?” Ashley asked. “You’re an adorable little girl.”

Her daughter beamed with delight. Before she could speak again, there was a loud rap at the front door, followed by the sound of steps on the entryway. “It’s me,” a woman called. “Brace yourself, Jeff. I have a dog with me.”

Her announcement was unnecessary. A bundle of fur careened around the corner and skittered into the kitchen. The creature was small—maybe seven or eight pounds of multicolored hair and big, brown eyes. At the sight of the animal, Maggie scrambled off Ashley’s lap and dropped to her knees. The little dog beelined for the child and sniffed her outstretched fingers, then licked the tips and jumped against Maggie, yipping and licking and wiggling with delight.

“Muffin loves kids,” Brenda said as she walked into the kitchen. “But then you probably guessed that.” She looked at Ashley. “You seem better.”

“I feel better, thanks.” Ashley smiled, feeling slightly awkward. While she’d never met Brenda before yesterday, the woman was an employee of Ritter/Rankin Security. What must she think of Jeff bringing a fellow worker into his house and caring for her and her child while she was ill? She felt as if she had to explain the situation, but she didn’t know what to say about it.

Brenda handed Jeff a folder. “I’d better get this little one to her preschool,” she said. “See you at the office.”

He took the folder. “Thanks, Brenda. I appreciate this.”

She grinned. “Remember this the next time I request an assignment.”

“Yeah, right.”

Brenda rolled her eyes, then collected her dog.

Maggie scrambled to her feet. “Bye, Mommy. See you when I’m done with school.”

They hugged briefly, then Ashley waved as her daughter headed for the front door. “Have a good day,” she called after her.

As the front door closed, bread popped out of the toaster. Ashley started to get up but Jeff motioned her back into her seat.

“You’re still recovering,” he told her. “Until yesterday morning I didn’t even know I had a toaster. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use it.”

He rose and put the two pieces of toast onto a plate. Butter and jam already sat on the table. He set the plate in front of her, then poured her a mug of coffee. “Milk, sugar?”

“Black is fine,” she said, slightly confused by his solicitousness.

He set the mug by her left hand, then resumed his seat. “Eat,” he said, pointing at the food.

Cautiously she reached for the butter and picked up a piece of toast. This was all too strange. What was she doing in this man’s house? Although based on the fact that she’d already spent two nights here, it seemed a little late to be asking questions.

“I spoke with Maggie’s teacher yesterday afternoon,” Jeff said when she began to eat. “I was told she didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects from being in a strange place.”

“Cathy spoke with you?” The preschool had a strict policy of dealing only with parents or legal guardians.

Jeff raised his eyebrows. “Why wouldn’t she?”

A simple enough question. Jeff was the kind of man who got what he wanted. That much was obvious from the way he’d brought her and Maggie here, despite her protestations and concerns.

“I’m glad Maggie is doing well,” she said in an effort to avoid his question.

“She is. Last night we had spaghetti and salad for dinner. She had a Pop-Tart for dessert.”

It might have been her imagination, but Jeff seemed to shudder. She felt herself smile slightly.

“I did not,” he continued.

“No real surprise there,” she murmured.

A slight upward tilt of the corner of his mouth was his only response. “Then we watched The Little Mermaid on DVD. We’d stopped at Blockbuster on our way home from the sitter’s. Maggie was in bed by eight and asleep by 8:10.”

Before she could comment, he passed her the folder Brenda had brought him. “Here are your notes from your classes yesterday. If you’re not well enough to attend classes tomorrow, I’ll have Brenda arrange for someone to sit in for you. Also—” he took a sip of coffee “—I sent someone over to your apartment building to collect more of your belongings. You’ll find them stacked in the living room.”

She flipped through the notes—typed and in perfect order—then looked at him. She didn’t know what to say. The man had completely organized her life, and made it look simple in the process. She thought of how her daughter had been dressed and fed in plenty of time that morning. He’d prepared dinner the previous night and provided entertainment. By comparison, all the men she’d ever known were incredibly incompetent.

BOOK: Shelter in a Soldier's Arms
10.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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