WANTED: Single dad needs nanny–In more ways than one.
Martin “Brick” Bricker is living the good life. He’s playing the sport he loves, has all the women he can handle, and parties like a rock star. At twenty-six, he has no interest in slowing down or taking anything seriously–except hockey, of course.
Then a knock at his door changes everything.Suddenly he’s the single father to a five-year-old daughter he didn’t know he had, and he’s trading his playboy ways for Barbies.
Amelia Stacey struggles to make ends meet and juggles her day-care job with a full load of college classes. When she’s offered a temporary, two-week nanny position making more money than she imagines, she jumps at the chance. Before she knows it, she’s in over her head, not just with her five-year-old charge but with the girl’s hot single father.
Brick always goes after what he wants, and he wants Amelia. Only responsible Amelia doesn’t want anything to do with the party boy. Struggling with fatherhood and his unexplainable attraction to his nanny, Brick has to figure out where his daughter and Amelia fit into his life.If they fit at all.
But one thing’s for sure: Brick can’t block this shot straight to his heart.
Chapter 1—In the Net
Martin “Brick” Bricker was one lucky bastard. He had it all. Good looks, ripped body, more money than he could spend, and more women than he could handle.
It was good to be him. Really, really good.
Being named sexiest male athlete last week by the Hot Hockey Hunks website was icing on his already rich, gooey cake. And he loved that cake, indulging every chance he got.
Who could blame him? He was young, attractive, and virile. He loved all females, tall and slender, short and curvy, and anything in between. And women loved him.
But Brick’s good fortune didn’t stop there. He was the starting goalie on one of the NHL’s hottest young teams. The Seattle Sockeyes were touted as Stanley Cup contenders by the preseason predictors, whoever the hell those people were. Brick wanted the Cup so badly he imagined the deafening roar of the crowd as the final buzzer rang, the weight of the Cup in his hands as he skated victoriously around the arena, and its sweet metallic taste as he drank champagne from it. He might only be in his fourth year, but he coveted the Cup as much as a guy who’d been in the league for fifteen years and had never won it. He sure as hell didn’t want to be that guy. He wanted to win it while he was young—and keep winning it.
With a weary sigh, Brick stretched and rolled out of bed. He squinted at the clock—two in the fucking afternoon.
He’d had a wild night last night and had staggered home well after the sun had come up. He’d been gifted with incredible stamina and a hardy constitution that required little sleep but for some reason last night’s activities had hit him harder than usual.
After taking care of business in the bathroom, he walked naked into the kitchen of his large Lake Union condo. He hated clothes, partially because of his propensity to overheat and partially because he enjoyed the shock value. Brick sweltered in warm rooms. They reminded him too much of how hot his stepmother—correct that, father’s second wife—chose to keep their house. The place suffocated him. He’d always preferred the chilly temps of his mom’s cabin in the woods.
Putting a Tully’s K-Cup in his Keurig, he waited for his mug to fill. Taking a sip, he carried it to the wall of windows and stared down at the water below. Houseboats rocked gently on Lake Union, and he had to smile. Ever since he’d seen Sleepless in Seattle, one of his mother’s favorite movies, he’d sworn if he ever moved to Seattle he’d own one of those houseboats. His Realtor had been toiling for months to find the right one. So far, no luck, but Brick was a patient man.
For now, he had to be content with his condo and the privacy it afforded his current lifestyle. He kept his place at arctic temps and never invited women over. He preferred an impersonal hotel room from which he could escape in the early hours, as he’d done this morning. He practically had a room on retainer in the luxury boutique hotel five minutes down the street. He was certainly on a first-name basis with everyone who worked there.
Brick rubbed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t caved to his teammates’ insistence he party with them, but he’d never been one to turn down a chance to raise hell. Staying home was never an option. Brick had a reputation to maintain, and he needed his people, probably more than they needed him. After all, if he wasn’t fun-loving, beer-guzzling Brick, people wouldn’t like him. Even worse, he might have to spend time alone with only himself for company, and he probably wouldn’t like what he found. Better to be the shallow party boy everyone loved than the introspective, serious guy everyone avoided.
The doorbell rang, rescuing Brick from a rare and unwelcome moment of personal reflection. He frowned. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and he didn’t encourage uninvited guests. None of his hookups had a clue where he lived, and his teammates rarely visited because of the frigid temps, except Rush. His teammate was from Russia and didn’t notice how chilly Brick kept his condo.
This person couldn’t be his buddy, though. Rush would still be passed out after a night of partying. He needed eight to ten hours of sleep, unlike Brick’s three- to four-hour requirement.
Perplexed, Brick took two steps toward the door and paused. Usually, he had no qualms opening the door bare-ass naked, but some sixth sense stopped him this time.
“Just a minute,” he shouted, and strolled to the master bedroom. He dug around for a pair of sweats and a T-shirt.
Walking back to the entryway, he looked in the peephole and saw nothing. His condo door opened to the outside, rather than into a hallway with a secure entry. That’d never bothered him before. He could handle himself in a fight. Yet something felt off. Those same instincts that alerted him where the puck was when he couldn’t see it clanged warnings in his head.
With his hand on the doorknob, he hesitated. Frowning, he glanced around for a weapon. An umbrella leaned against the wall. He grabbed it, then yanked open the door.
Staring into the rainy Seattle afternoon, he saw nothing until he looked down.
A little girl with long dark hair and huge brown eyes like an anime character rested her tiny hands on her hips and stared boldly up at him. He stared back, then glanced around for the mother. Tensing, he expected a gang of home invaders to emerge from the dreariness and force their way into his house. He saw nothing, except an old Toyota barreling out of the private parking area and down the street.
What the fuck?
“Are you lost?” he asked the little girl.
She shook her head, still staring, as if she expected something from him. “Are you Mr. Brick?”
“Yeah,” he said uneasily.
“Daddy!” She launched herself at him, displaying incredible strength for one so small. He staggered back against the wall as she grabbed on to his leg and hugged him tightly. Brick managed to regain his balance and extricated his leg from her tight grip. Placing his hands on her thin shoulders, he held her at arm’s length.
Daddy? A shot of fear stronger than the hundred-proof vodka he’d indulged in last night burned down his throat.
“Where’s your mother?” His uneasy feeling dialed up higher.
“In heaven.” The little girl’s expression flipped from happiness to sadness faster than the flick of a light switch. She picked up a raggedy doll and hugged it to her.
Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Uh, okay. I’m sorry to hear that. Where do you live?”
She craned her head around him and looked into his house. “With you.”
He felt as though he’d been dropped into the twilight zone. “With me?” he croaked.
“Yes, with you.” She nodded with absolute certainty.
“Uh, I don’t know who put you up to this, but I don’t have any kids.” This had to be a scam to get money out of him. Or one of his teammates had concocted an elaborate joke. Once again, he looked for an adult skulking near the stairs.
“Yes, you do.” She narrowed her eyes and studied him, scowling as if she’d found him lacking. She held out an envelope. It was smudged and wrinkled as if it’d been clutched in her hands for a long time. He stared at it, not wanting to take it and feeling as if the bottom was about to drop out of his charmed life.
She shoved it toward him, and Brick accepted it with a shaking hand. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out a coffee-stained piece of paper.
I’m dying of cancer, and my granddaughter is all I have left. Her mother has gone to heaven, and that’s on you. I only have a short while left to live. By the time you get this, I’ll be dead. I don’t want Macy in foster care. I have asked a friend to deliver her to your house upon my death.
She is your daughter, and she deserves to have all the things you can afford to give her. Please take care of her and love her. You owe us that.
He scowled. This had to be a scam. “How old are you?”
He did the math quickly in his head. He’d been playing on a major junior team in Vancouver, his hometown around the time she’d been conceived, and he hadn’t lacked female companionship.
He thought back six years but couldn’t recall anyone who stood out, not that his lack of memory meant anything. He couldn’t recall the names of the women he slept with last night, either. And he’d spent a lot of his late teens and early twenties in a drunken haze on non-game nights.
He read the letter again, stumbling over the sentence her mother has gone to heaven, and that’s on you. On him? Why would this stranger’s death be on him? Had she been some crazy stalker fan who’d committed suicide? Surely he’d have heard about it. At the least, his agent would’ve told him.
Her accusation probably meant nothing. He was reading too much into it.
He ran his hand through his close-cropped hair and blew out a sigh. He needed to call his attorney and his agent immediately. They’d know what to do.
In the meantime, what the fuck did he do? He didn’t want a kid. They were okay, and he got along fine with them at signings and shit like that, but he wasn’t father material. Thank God, she probably wasn’t his.
Though he had to admit, there was a resemblance, which made his blood run cold. Really cold. She looked like pictures he’d seen of his sister at that age. And those eyes… Damn, those huge eyes could melt the most strongly barricaded heart.
“Uh, why don’t you come in while we straighten this out?”
She nodded and tried to lug a battered suitcase as large as her inside. Brick took it, and she ran ahead of him, dragging the doll by one arm.
She stopped and surveyed the living room. Frowning, she hugged herself and shivered. “You can’t afford heat, either?” she asked.
“My granna couldn’t afford heat so it was always cold in her house, too.”
“I, uh, can afford heat.” He was at a loss for words.
“I’m cold.” Her lower lip puffed out in an unmistakable pout. She was a demanding little thing.
“I’ll fix that.” Brick hurried to the thermostat before she could do something scarier than shit, like throw a tantrum or, heaven help him, cry. He raised the temp from fifty-five to seventy and also turned on the gas fireplace.
“Thank you.” She sounded so adult, as if she’d lived ten lifetimes in five years. Brick didn’t form connections with people, not real ones, but something about her tugged at a deeply hidden vulnerability he hadn’t known he had.
Walking to the massive stone fireplace on one wall, she sat on the hearth as it flared to life. Brick wiped his brow, overheating already.
“What’s your last name, honey?” he asked, hopeful this could all be cleared up with a few phone calls.
“Bricker, like yours.”
“What about your granna? What was her name?”
Sighing, he reached for his cell. “Wait right here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Are you going to send me away?”
He froze in midstride. “I—uh—uh—” There went that tug again, harder this time, even a little painful.
“Granna said you would take care of me, but I didn’t believe her. No one wanted me but Granna and Mommy. Now they’re both gone.”
This was getting worse and worse. Brick didn’t need this complication in his footloose-and-fancy-free life. But he couldn’t send the child to foster care. He’d never been in foster care himself, but he’d had friends who were, and he wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.
“I’ll be right back.”
She gazed up at him, clutching her doll to her chest. Tears filled her luminous eyes, and one dribbled down her cheek.
The tug turned into a hard yank.
Before he did something stupid, he hurried to the bedroom, dialing his phone as he walked. His agent shared his time between Seattle, where he had a huge number of clients, and sunny California. Just so happened he was in Seattle right now.
“Al,” he said before Al could get one word in.
“Ah, Brick, my man. What’s up?”
“I have a fucking problem.”
“You always have fucking problems. What psycho woman did you piss off now?”
“I wish it were that simple.”
Al started laughing as if he were looking forward to Brick’s pain.
“Get your ass over here. I need you.”
Brick didn’t wait for an answer and hung up. He sank onto the edge of his bed and buried his head in his hands, suddenly feeling much older than his twenty-six years.
* * * *
When Brick returned to his living room, Macy was running around his kitchen island, arms outstretched as she unraveled a roll of paper towels while making barking sounds. She skittered around him, yapping like the obnoxious poodle his aunt Hazel once had. The sound grated on his nerves, which were already frayed.
She didn’t stop, only raised her voice until the barking neared ear-splitting decibels. He prayed Al showed up soon and rescued him from this particular hell.
The doorbell rang, and he bolted, tripping over the paper towels wrapped around his legs. Macy was one step ahead of him. Right before his eyes she transformed from a one-child wrecking crew to a sweet little princess with a cherubic smile.
She yanked open the door. “Hi,” she shouted in her piercing little-girl voice. “I’m Macy. Do you want to have a tea party with me and Daddy and Simone?” She raised the doll upward in one hand.
Al’s eyebrows shot all the way to his hairline. A slow, devious smirk spread across the bastard’s face. “Daddy?”
“I, uh, uh.”
Al laughed and knelt in front of the little girl. “Hey, honey, I’m Al. I’d love to play with you and Simone, but your daddy and I have a few things to discuss. Do you think you could sit over there like a good little girl and watch TV for a few minutes?”
“Okay.” She skipped to the couch. “How do you turn it on?”
Brick let out a sigh and flipped on his eighty-inch UHD flat screen. He scrolled through the channels until he found a children’s station, then quickly retreated to the relative safety of the kitchen.
“You gotta help me.”
Al grinned a toothy, wholly unsympathetic grin. “You think? I’m your agent, not your babysitter.”
Brick glared at him. “She’s not my child.”
“She thinks she is.” Al was entirely too amused.
“I need your help. I’m desperate. I can’t have a kid here.”
Al chuckled and glanced at Macy, who was singing along to the TV. “Care to explain what’s going on? You were childless when I talked to you yesterday.”
Brick filled him in, ignoring the bastard’s growing amusement. “Here’s the note.”
Al looked it over with a shrewd agent’s eye. “Interesting. Any idea who the mother might be?”
“You’re shitting me, right?” Brick growled, forcing himself to keep his frustration at bay and his voice low.
“It might be an important part of the puzzle.”
“Can’t you find out where she came from? I pay you to clean up my messes.”
“Not enough.” Al threw back his head and laughed.
“This isn’t funny. You gotta help me.” Brick’s gaze was drawn to the little girl sitting on his couch singing to her doll. His gut clenched, and he swiped at his sweaty brow.
“Okay, I’ll get my PI friend on this. Find out any existing relatives. See if I can get a picture of the mother. We’ll run a DNA test, but that’ll take time.” Al switched into troubleshooting agent mode, even though his mouth still twitched with amusement.
“I don’t have time. The regular season is under way. I have a road trip in two days, and I can’t have a kid living here.”
“It’s not like she’s a stray cat you can dump off at an animal shelter.” Al pointed out the obvious and drew a well-deserved scowl from Brick. “And most likely she is yours. She looks like you.”
Brick scowled all the more. “I always wear a condom.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.” Brick groaned and dropped his ass onto a dining room chair. He searched his memory, trying to recall any condom malfunctions. Yeah, there had been a few incidents during bouts of rambunctious sex, but he couldn’t begin to remember those women’s faces.
Al sat across from him. “Let’s see what the DNA test says. If she’s not yours, we’ll call Child Protective Services.”
“And if she’s mine?”
His agent’s smirk was downright annoying. “Then welcome to the world of the single dad.”
“What the fuck do I do with her in the meantime?” Brick scrubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He lived a charmed life. Everything always went his way.
“For starters, clean up your language.” Al snorted and leaned back in his chair.
“I can’t take care of a kid. I have a life. I play hockey. I’m gone half the season.”
“Real-world problems, my man. Real-world problems.”
“You’re not helping any.”
“Since when do my duties involve family matters? Be lucky you only have one—so far.”
Brick shuddered. “Don’t say that.”
Al snickered and winked. “Good luck. I’ll call your attorney, make sure housing this child is legal and all.” He stood and headed for the door.
Brick leaped to his feet and followed him. “You can’t leave me like this.”
Al waved at the little girl, completely engrossed in some kid’s show. “Bye, Macy.”
She waved back. “Bye, Uncle Al.”
“Uncle Al?” This kid was making way too many presumptions.
“I like the sound of that.” Al opened the door. “You’d better get cracking. You have a road trip in two days.”
“Where am I going to find a nanny in two days?” Brick groaned. He’d always avoided responsibility outside the rink, and an instant child was way too much responsibility.
“I noticed a day care a few blocks down the street. Ask them.” With those parting words, Al left Brick to fend for himself.
Glancing at the child, Brick considered his options. She smiled at him, and he swallowed around an odd lump. He managed a smile back.
He could dial his mother. She’d know what to do. She’d probably travel from Vancouver tomorrow and take this kid off his hands. His stepfather, Rick, wouldn’t mind. He loved kids. If only his mother had married him while Brick had still been living at home, maybe his teen years wouldn’t have sucked so much.
Brick slunk into the kitchen so Macy couldn’t hear him. “Mom?”
“Hi, honey, how are you?”
“I’m not so good.”
“Oh God, Marty, what did you do now?”
“I didn’t do anything. Not exactly.” He hedged, trying to come up with a way to break this to his mother. He decided on honesty and ran through the entire story. When he finished, silenced reigned.
“I’m a grandmother?”
He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or pissed. “I’m not sure. We need to do a DNA test.”
“Who leaves a child on a stranger’s doorstep and disappears?” His mother sounded indignant.
“I don’t know. That’s the least of my worries. I need help. I have a road trip coming up. Could you come to Seattle tomorrow and get her?”
Another long silence.
“Mom?” He wasn’t feeling too good about his odds right now.
She blew out a long-suffering sigh only his mother could produce. “It pains me to say this, but no.”
“What?” Surely he hadn’t heard her correctly.
“You heard me, young man. Did you forget Rick and I are leaving in a few hours for a month and a half in Europe?”
“Uh, yeah.” He hated to admit he’d forgotten. He’d been so focused on his surprise, he’d spaced on their trip.
She sighed. “You’re not the only person in this world with plans, Marty.” As if he hadn’t heard that before.
“I agree. With your schedule and not having a wife or steady girlfriend, it’d be next to impossible to raise a young child. Let me discuss this with Rick, and we’ll see what we can do when we get back, assuming she’s yours. This problem is your responsibility for now.” Leave it to his mother to be pragmatic about the situation.
“I have to go now. I’ll call you in a few days and see how you’re doing. I can’t wait to see my granddaughter when we get back.” The phone went dead.
Brick felt a tug on his sweats.
“I’m hungry.” The little girl looked up at him with the biggest, most innocent cocker spaniel eyes, and who could resist a cocker spaniel? His hardened heart cracked a little, and he shored it up with mental duct tape. He wouldn’t fall prey to this child. She couldn’t stay with him.
He tried another number. His sister would help. All he had to do was text her a picture, and she’d fall in love, as she did with every stray animal.
Nona answered. “Hey, Brick, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“How’s my favorite sister?”
“I’m your only sister. What’s up?”
“Just called to see how you were.”
“No, you didn’t.”
He was guilty as charged of calling his sister only when he needed something. Brick pulled out all the stops. “Ah, Nona, seriously. What’s wrong with me wanting to have a conversation with my sister?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it other than you never call me just to talk, so fess up, Marty.”
Brick groaned. “Okay, I admit it. I need your help. Desperately.”
“Oh, really.” He could hear her devious wheels turning as she calculated what he might possibly be calling for and how she could use it to her advantage in their friendly, ongoing sibling rivalry.
“Yeah, really,” he said gloomily.
“Daddy, can I have some milk?” The little urchin stared up at him with pleading eyes.
“Daddy? Did I hear that right?” His sister’s voice came through loud and clear, as did the restrained laughter. “Is that your problem?”
“Yeah, found her on my doorstep this afternoon.”
“Are you kidding?”
Brick made his way to the refrigerator and poured Macy a glass of milk. She thanked him and returned to her TV. Certain she was occupied, he relayed the story to his sister, who was dying of laughter by the time he’d finished. Why people found his predicament so hilariously funny was beyond him.
“And what do you expect me to do?”
“Come and get her. I have a road trip in two days.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. You’re the one who can’t keep it in your pants. Welcome to adulthood, baby brother. I’m in graduate school. I don’t have time for a child. And Mom’s leaving on her trip.”
“I know,” he answered grumpily.
Nona erupted with more laughter. The women in his family had no appreciation for the dilemma he was in. “You could always call Dad and Liz. You know how touchy-feely our beloved stepmother is.”
Brick shuddered. He knew all right. The woman could melt a hole in an ice rink with one glare. As desperate as he was, he’d never subject a child—any child—to that cold, calculating bitch.
“Never mind. I’ll deal with this myself.” He sighed and disconnected the phone, his sister’s laughter still ringing in his ears.
Macy yawned, and Brick realized with a guilty start she’d probably had a long, tiring day, even though it was early evening.
“Time for bed.”
“I don’t want to go to bed.” She screwed her face up into a nasty scowl worthy of Ice, the Sockeyes’ surly defenseman.
“Sorry, but you need some rest.” He was so not cut out for this parenting shit. He could leave her to her own devices. He was tired, even if she wasn’t. He must be getting old. Partying all night never used to wear him out, but last night’s binge had taken a toll.
“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her little chin. Her belligerence wore on his patience.
“Please, Macy, it’s been a long day for both of us.”
They stared each other down, but she was out of her league. He could stare down the best of them.
Finally, she looked away and stuck out her lower lip, which quivered. “Okay.”
Brick didn’t give her a chance to change her mind. He grabbed the suitcase and led her to the guest room. He showed her the adjoining bathroom.
She stood near the bed and rubbed her eyes. Her attitude had dissipated, leaving a scared little girl so alone in the cold, cruel world.
Brick stood in the doorway, praying she didn’t cry. “Do you need help getting ready for bed?”
She shoved her knuckles in her mouth and shook her head.
“Okay, well then, good night.” Drawn by emotions he couldn’t begin to explain, Brick crossed the room, knelt down, and gave her a hug. Her little arms went stiffly around his neck. He blinked several times, finding his eyesight a little blurry.
Sitting back on his haunches, he held her shoulders. “It’ll all be okay. I promise.”
She sniffed and nodded, gazing at him with disbelieving brown eyes. Not liking how close to the surface his own feelings were, he rose to his feet.
“Good night.” Her little voice wavered, and Brick got the hell out of there. He turned down the heat, stripped off his clothes, and crawled into bed. He sank into the welcoming mattress and closed his eyes. Only sleep didn’t come.
He was an asshole. A big asshole. Instead of comforting this scared child who’d been abandoned on his doorstep, he’d run like a coward. Sure, he’d hugged her, but he could’ve done more.
Brick stared into the darkness for God knew how long. Finally, he got out of bed, threw on a robe, and walked down the hall to the guest bedroom. He listened at the door and heard nothing. Cracking it open, he peeked inside. Macy lay under the covers, her doll clutched tightly to her. Her eyes were shut.
He walked closer and stared down at the cherubic face. She was a pretty little thing and would be a beauty by her teens, requiring her father to sit on the front porch with a shotgun to scare off the boys. He shuddered at the thought, not because he’d pictured himself hefting that gun, but because he knew what teenage boys were capable of.
He reached down and brushed a stray lock of hair from her cheek. Tenderness welled up in his chest, leaving him momentarily incapacitated. When she’d thrown her arms around him and called him Daddy, he’d lost his sanity for a split second and almost wished it were true. But it wasn’t, and he wasn’t fit to be any child’s father.
Brick backed away, fighting a surprising paternal urge to care for and protect this child.
What the fuck was wrong with him?