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The Billionaire's Baby -- Susan Meier

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Single Dad's Christmas Miracle

He needs a helping hand…

Having recently lost his wife, Clark Beaumont is trying to make it through the holidays for the sake of his kids. But with his son failing at school and his little girl talking only in whispers, he needs nothing short of a miracle….

…when one arrives on his doorstep!

Althea Johnson is only meant to tutor Clark's son. But with her help the Beaumont family begins to come alive again, and against the odds Althea hopes that when Christmas morning arrives there will be four stockings hanging over the fireplace….

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Jack about died of happiness when Althea told him about her talk with his father. He dove into his studies, set the table for their lunch of canned soup and bagels and met his father at the door when he returned from work that night.

He launched himself into his arms, hugging him. “Thanks.”

Clark’s gaze rose to meet Althea’s, as he spoke to his hugging son. “This is all contingent on you getting your grades up.”

Jack stepped away. “I know. I will.”

Althea slid her arm around Jack’s shoulder. Looking at Clark she said, “So what’d you bring for dinner?”

“I stopped at a fish place.”

“I didn’t see a fish place in town.”

“That’s because I don’t work in town. I moved my office to a big, empty warehouse in between Worthington and Greenfield, the next town over.”

“Oh.” And she knew why. He’d kept Jack out of school to protect him from gossip, but he’d moved his offices so he didn’t have to deal with it either.

“So, Jack, get the paper plates. I’ll open the boxes and we’ll have dinner.”

They ate their fish, laughing over the fact that they would soon run out of fast food places to get supper. When dinner was over, Clark tossed his paper napkin into the basket-like container that had held his food.

“At least we never have to do dishes.”

“I would do the dishes tonight,” Jack said, happily gathering the boxes and paper bags to toss into the trash.

Althea caught Jack’s arm to prevent him from leaving the room. “I have a better idea.”

Clark peeked up at her. “Oh, yeah?”

Her nervous system went haywire. Now that they’d talked, she understood why. His heart had been on his sleeve that morning. He loved Jack but he was afraid. Not for himself but for Jack. To a woman who had grown up in a home with dad who hated his children, Clark’s love for his son was amazing.

She rose from the table. “I found a stash of Christmas decorations in the attic while Teagan was napping and Jack was working. I thought we could hang the lights.”

Clark’s face scrunched in confusion. “It’s too early to put up a Christmas tree.”

She gave him a look, trying to tell him to keep up with where she was going with this. They’d talked about him decorating with the kids that morning so he could interject things about their mom as they decorated. She was helping him get that ball rolling.

“I don’t want to hang lights on a tree. I want to hang them on the porch, around the railing and along the roof overhang.”

Jack cheered, Teagan clapped but Clark gaped at her. “You want to use a ladder in the dark?”

God, he was thick! Of course, he had worked all day and lots of things had happened to him in between this morning’s conversation and now.

Still giving him her remember-our-talk-from-this-morning-look, she said, “There are plenty of outside lights on the front porch and around the house. Once we turn them all on, it won’t be dark. Plus, there’s a big storm coming on Saturday. We do it tonight or we don’t do it at all.”

Jack said, “Please. Please. Please.”

Teagan looked at her dad with a pleading expression and Althea burst out laughing. He might have forgotten their conversation, but the kids wanted to decorate. “You’re outnumbered.”

He pushed back his chair and rose. “I’m also the one who’s going to have to climb the ladder, which will be sitting in snow.”

“We can anchor it.”

Clark sighed. “Yes. We can.”

Jack said, “Yay!” Teagan danced around, hugging her bear. Clara Bell woofed.

Clark shooed them all toward the front foyer. “I’ve gotta change into jeans. You guys get coats and boots on.”

Jack helped Teagan with her coat and boots while Althea raced to the attic and retrieved the boxes of lights she’d found.

By the time she slid into her coat and boots and carried the two boxes marked “outdoor lights” onto the front porch, Clark was lugging the ladder over.

“Okay, Ma’am, where do you want this?”

His imitation of a handyman made her laugh, but he wore the same tight jeans and sweater he’d had on the day she’d arrived at his house and Althea remembered why she’d instantly been attracted to him. The soft denim of his well-worn jeans caressed his butt. The sweater accented muscles hidden by his white shirts and ties. He looked happy, comfortable.

Her quilted jacket suddenly became too warm. She licked her lips.

“Althea? Ladder?”

Embarrassment flooded her cheeks. She’d been staring at him – virtually salivating over him – and he’d seen.
She peeked up, saw his twinkling eyes. Oh, yeah. He’d seen.

She shook her head haughtily, causing her hair to cascade around her. He wasn’t the only attractive person in this equation and she wasn’t the only attracted person in this equation. If he wanted to play games, he could bring it. She was ready.

“Are there hooks on the roof for the lights?”

His face contorted a bit as he thought. “If memory serves, I think there are.”

She sashayed over, patted his forearm. “Then why don’t you just take the ladder to the left corner?” She smiled sweetly. “You climb up, I’ll hand you the lights and you can connect them.”

His breath hissed out from between his teeth. He looked about ready to say something, but glanced at his eager kids and walked the ladder to the far corner of the house. He anchored the bottom before he slowly let it fall to the porch roof.

She smiled. “Want me to hold it while you climb up?”

He frowned. “I don’t think we have a choice.” Then his eyes narrowed. Probably because he realized she’d have a perfect view of his behind while he ascended the rungs.

She laughed. “Just start climbing.”

As he ascended the first few rungs, she handed Jack the big circle of lights. When Clark got about halfway, they unwound enough of the string that he could take the end with him. He found the hook and latched it.

“It looks like there’s a hook about every four feet. The next time I’ll set the ladder in between two hooks.”
“Makes sense to me.”

He climbed down. They moved the ladder. Althea and Jack took a few steps to the right as Clark ascended again. This time he connected the lights onto two hooks.

That process continued until the front porch roof had been strung with lights.

Clark climbed down from the ladder. Teagan yanked on his sweater sleeve. She whispered in his ear and he shook his head. “We don’t turn them on until we have all the lights up.”

Her little lips turned down into a pout.

“That’s what mom used to say.”

Clark’s head jerked up and his gaze to flick to Jack.

Althea held her breath. Sympathy for Jack mixed with the ache she felt for Clark. He didn’t want to talk about Jack’s mom, but he had to. They’d already decided that this morning.

A second ticked by. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Then Clark quietly said, “She was a stickler for details.”

The breath Althea had been holding leached out slowly, soundlessly. But she picked up some snow and tossed it at Clark. This couldn’t be a sad conversation. It had to be fun. “Like you’re not?”

Stunned, Clark pivoted to face her. She nudged her head in Jack’s direction, hoping he’d catch her meaning. Nobody wanted to be sad. Three years had gone by. Jack needed to remember his mom in a good way. A happy way. Especially when it concerned a holiday.

“Oh, his mom was worse.” Clark picked up the second string of lights and pointed so Jack would walk with him to the far side of the porch railing. “If you think I worry about details, you should have seen you mom.”

Jack laughed.

Unstringing enough of the lights that he could latch them into the hook on the porch railing, he said, “She didn’t like to shop in stores or malls. So she’d go online and pour over descriptions of silly things like ornaments for the tree as if they were family heirlooms.”

“Someday they will be family heirloom,” Althea reminded them. “Jack, you and Teagan should find ornaments you really like, things your mom bought, and save them for when you’re adults. They’ll be great keepsakes for your trees.”

Jack nodded.

Althea and Clark’s gazes met over Jack’s head. Clark said, “You know, we don’t talk about your mom much. Is there anything you’d like to know? A memory you’d like to tell us?”

He shook his head. “I don’t remember much.”

Althea placed her hand on Jack’s back and rubbed affectionately. “Maybe you have photo albums?”

“We have some pictures in the computer,” Clark said slowly. The subject was painful, but necessary. Still, even understanding that, Althea could see how difficult this was for him.

Teagan sidled up to Althea and slid her tiny white mittened hand into hers as she snuggled against her side.
Clark unstrung enough of the lights to get to the corner of the porch. Jack followed behind him, holding the neatly wound circle of lights. They worked together as if they’d done this a million times, but from what Jack had said about their Christmases they only put up a tree. Which meant these lights had been wound by his mom, Clark’s wife. That was probably what Clark was remembering.

A reverent hush fell over the night. Surrounded by darkness, the lit porch felt like a world of its own. Clark latched the lights into the hooks. Jack followed him, the circle of colored bulbs unwinding as Clark walked it to the next hook. Teagan held Althea’s hand.

She understood why Clark hadn’t wanted to talk about his wife. She understood why he’d let a tradition or two go to the wayside. But the damage left in the wake of his necessary healing process was the emptiness, the quiet, the silence that seemed to permeate everything they did.

And she didn’t know how to fix it. Her own life had been a dark place. Silent while her dad worked. Filled with terror when he was home.

Why had she ever believed she could help these kids? This family?

She might be attracted to Clark and she might long for a real relationship, but her problems had formed her. She’d never been anything but afraid, skeptical, wary. She didn’t trust. She didn’t know how to be a normal woman, forget about being a mom. And if she got involved with Clark, fell in love and married him, she instantly became a mother. Her only example of marriage was a man who beat his wife until she so feared her husband she didn’t eat and died before she turned fifty.

Her thoughts that morning about having a relationship with Clark had been selfish and foolish. It might have been fun to daydream about it, but he had enough problems in his life without dragging him into hers.