‘I have a right to see where my nephew is being cared for,’ Nik replied.
‘But that’s not why you’re here,’ Carrie said, hugging Danny protectively and glaring up at him.
‘Your nephew?’ Mrs Plewman said. Her deferential manner indicated that up until that point she had been impressed by Nik, but now Carrie’s reaction had given her pause for thought.
‘Yes, Danny is my nephew,’ Nik confirmed, but his sharp blue eyes were fixed on Carrie. ‘What other reason have I got to come here?’
‘To take Danny,’ Carrie said. ‘To get your hands on him when I’m not around.’
‘You really are overreacting,’ Nik said with infuriating blandness. ‘As Mrs Plewman will tell you, unauthorised people are not permitted to collect the children left in her care. And, quite apart from that, if that was my intention why would I choose to come at the exact time you are due to arrive?’
‘So that the staff see us together? To make yourself seem familiar? To give you credibility?’ Carrie rattled off the first things that came into her mind.
‘Being seen with you would give me credibility?’ Nik repeated. His eyes swept across her disparagingly, and his disdainful expression made it all too clear what he thought of that idea.
‘I’m taking Danny home now,’ Carrie said stiffly. ‘And just to be sure you understand—you are not to come here again. In fact, I don’t want you bothering us at all.’
Carrie didn’t wait for a reply. She knew she ought to talk to Mrs Plewman properly, to make it absolutely clear that no one but her should ever collect Danny. But at that moment she simply had to get away.
She let the door swing shut as she walked through and bent to pull the buggy out of the cupboard. Suddenly Nik was beside her again, taking it out of her hand.
‘Let me,’ he said. ‘It’s rather dangerous to carry so much on the stairs at once.’
‘I’ve got it, thank you,’ Carrie snapped, reaching out for the buggy.
‘I’m here, and I can help,’ Nik said firmly. ‘What’s the point of needlessly risking your neck, and more importantly my nephew’s neck, when you don’t have to?’
‘I’m not risking anyone’s neck,’ Carrie said, but she turned and started down the stairs. The sooner she got outside, the sooner she could catch the bus home.
‘I’ll give you a lift home,’ Nik said, once they’d stepped out onto the street.
‘Are you mad?’ Carrie gasped, pulling the buggy out of his grasp and flicking it open with an angry gesture that revealed all her pent-up emotions. ‘I’m not going anywhere with you!’
‘We still have to talk,’ Nik replied. ‘You ran off before we’d finished yesterday. I know when you collect Danny, and it seemed an appropriate time and place to meet.’
‘You had no right to go into his nursery.’ Carrie hugged the one-year-old protectively. ‘And Mrs Plewman had no business letting you in!’ She knew that wasn’t exactly fair to the nursery manager. But even as she tried to reassure herself that Mrs Plewman would never have let a stranger take Danny a shiver ran down her spine. Nik had clearly been doing an excellent job of charming her. There was no way to tell what would have happened if Carrie hadn’t arrived when she had.
‘My nephew has no business being in that appalling place,’ Nik replied. ‘I wanted to see for myself what kind of care he’s been receiving, and frankly I was not impressed. He will certainly not be spending any more time in that dreadful environment. That is not the way a Kristallis child is cared for.’
‘His name may be Kristallis,’ Carrie said, bristling at his harsh judgement of the nursery she had so carefully chosen for Danny. ‘But Sophie and Leonidas didn’t want him brought up like a Kristallis.’
‘His parents are dead. He is my responsibility now,’ Nik stated, his expression hard and unreadable.
‘Now? He’s nearly one!’ Carrie exclaimed. ‘How very responsible of you to miss the first year of his life!’
She knew she had hit a nerve the second the words were out of her mouth.
A change came over Nik so profound it made her blood suddenly run cold.
‘I don’t intend to miss any more of his life,’ Nik grated. ‘Now, we need to find somewhere to talk.’
‘Danny needs to go home.’ Carrie looked at his flushed face and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. It felt uncomfortably warm. ‘It’s not fair to keep him out if he’s feeling under the weather.’
‘Then I’ll give you a lift home.’ Nik indicated a sleek black limousine that was just pulling up next to the pavement. ‘When the child is settled, we can talk.’
‘I don’t need a lift, thank you,’ Carrie said. ‘We’ll be perfectly all right on the bus, just the same as every other day.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Nik said. ‘Just because you seem to have taken an irrational dislike to me, it doesn’t mean my nephew has to suffer the unnecessary discomfort of a public bus.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with buses. Not everyone has a private limo, you know.’ She glanced down and caught sight of her reflection in the tinted window of the long black car.
Suddenly she remembered seeing Nik going in to the nursery. If he had taken Danny and put him into that car she might never have seen him again. They could have driven right past her and she’d never have known Danny was hidden from view behind that sinister dark glass. ‘I’m not getting into a car with you. I hardly know you.’
‘The child doesn’t look well,’ Nik said. ‘Don’t let your pride and petty dislike of me make you ignore what is best for Danny.’
‘He’s not sick.’ Carrie bit her lip as she studied Danny and pressed her hand against his face again. ‘Teething can make babies hot and bothered, but it doesn’t mean he’s sick.’
Just at that moment the heavens opened, and it began to pour with rain. Danny howled as the first huge drops started to splash his face, and Carrie looked around in dismay. Rush hour was in full swing, and the thought of a crowded bus or tube train full of disgruntled commuters with dripping umbrellas, jostling her and tripping over Danny’s buggy, was simply awful.
But she couldn’t accept a lift with Nik. It was true that she hardly knew him, and she was still suspicious as to his motives for going into the nursery. Then Danny began to cry more loudly, and when she touched his cheek to soothe him it felt even hotter. She really ought to get him home quickly.
‘I’m giving you a lift home whether you like it or not. Tell my driver where you live.’
Despite her protestations Nik swept Danny out of her arms and stooped to secure him in a child’s car seat, which was already in position in the back of the limousine. Carrie bit her lip, wondering what to do. It was pouring with rain and Danny needed to get home. She’d be with him all the time in the limousine, and it would be a lot quicker than the bus.
The driver had the buggy and was struggling to fold it. Carrie took it from him and collapsed it down with a couple of swift and practised gestures. She didn’t want the driver to pinch his fingers. Though if it had been Nik trying to fold it that would have been a different matter.
A minute later she was riding in comfort in the back of the luxury limousine with Nik. Danny was crying at the top of his lungs, and nothing she did seemed to make him feel any better.
The nursery staff had thought Danny was teething. They had years of experience with babies and always seemed to know what they were talking about. But Carrie was beginning to worry that Danny might be ill. He really didn’t look right. But then it had probably been unsettling for him to see her arguing with Nik.
‘You shouldn’t have gone into the nursery.’ Carrie spoke suddenly. ‘You should have waited for me. You knew I’d only be a couple of minutes.’
‘You wouldn’t have taken me inside,’ Nik replied. ‘I didn’t like seeing him in that place, being cared for by strangers,’ he added. ‘He should be looked after by family.’
‘Those people aren’t strangers to Danny,’ Carrie said, pulling a toy ou
t of her bag and trying in vain to cheer the baby up. ‘The nursery might be a bit old and shabby, but I chose it because you can tell that the staff really love the children. Also, they have a fantastic ratio of staff to children—much better than any of the other places I looked at.’
‘It’s not the same as being with his family,’ Nik insisted.
‘You may be a blood relation to Danny,’ Carrie said, ‘but you’re the stranger to him—not the nursery ladies.’
‘That’s something that’s going to change,’ Nik said.
Carrie looked at him sharply. Something in his tone of voice made her nervous. The nursery didn’t seem such a safe place any more—how could she know it was safe to leave Danny there when she had to work?
Suddenly Danny upped the volume of his wailing, and all her attention flipped back to him. Poor child. She couldn’t bear to think of him sick. And if he was poorly, rather than teething, she wouldn’t be able to travel with him to Spain tomorrow with a client. She hated letting anyone down, especially a valued friend and client like Elaine, but Danny was more important than anything else.
‘Here.’ Nik picked up a bag of baby toys and handed them to Carrie.
She took the bag and pulled out a colourful rattle that seemed to be battery operated, with flashing lights and music. Danny usually enjoyed noisy toys.
To Carrie’s relief, after a last couple of sobs he fell silent, reached out a chubby little hand and took the rattle. She pushed the ‘on’ button, starting the flashing and music.
Danny began howling instantly.
‘Maybe not the best choice of toy.’ A patronising edge to Nik’s voice set Carrie’s nerves on edge. ‘I don’t imagine all that noise and flashing is very good if he has a headache.’
Carrie gritted her teeth and leant forward to switch off the wretched device. Danny wasn’t the only one with a headache. She could feel the tension starting to clamp round her head and shoulders like a steel vice.
‘There’s no “off” switch!’ she said in exasperation. ‘Oh! I hate noisy toys you can’t stop once they’ve started.’
‘I’m sure he’ll enjoy it when he’s feeling better.’ Nik was infuriatingly calm as he bent forward and studied Danny.
His face was only a few inches away from Danny’s and although he wasn’t doing anything but looking intently at the baby he seemed to catch his attention. The baby stopped crying, and while he didn’t look exactly happy, he wasn’t getting himself into a frenzy any more.
Carrie tried to ignore the feeling of foreboding that crept over her as she watched Nik and Danny staring at each other. The sudden silence as the musical rattle finally reached the end of its song seemed horribly ominous.
‘Danny can’t go back to that place.’ Nik spoke without turning to look at her, but that didn’t weaken the impact of his words.
‘He has to—so I can go to work.’ Carrie had to earn a living. It was as simple as that. She straightened her shoulders, refusing to let herself be intimidated by Nikos Kristallis and his self-important attitude.
‘What happened to the rest of your family?’ he asked.
The question caught her off-guard. For some reason she had assumed he knew all about how she had ended up alone with Danny.
‘My mother died when I was very young.’ She spoke steadily, knowing it was best to be open with him, but she was determined not to let any emotion show in her voice. She didn’t need to lay her heartfelt feelings out for him to scrutinise.
‘And your father?’ he prompted.
‘My father couldn’t cope.’ She thought unhappily how he hadn’t even managed to come to the funeral six months ago. ‘He left me with my aunt and uncle and their daughter, Sophie.’
‘And you grew up as part of their family?’
‘Sophie was like a sister to me.’ Tears suddenly pricked in Carrie’s eyes and she dropped her gaze slightly, determined not to let Nik see. Her relationship with her aunt and uncle had never been warm. Somehow the infrequent but unsettling appearances of her father bringing them money for her upkeep had seen to that. But she had loved Sophie.
‘You lost a great deal in that car accident.’
Something in Nik’s voice made her look up. Their eyes met and a tremor ran through her. For a long moment she couldn’t look away, despite the knowledge that he’d seen the tears swimming in her eyes.
Then Danny made a sound, and suddenly the spell was broken.
She looked back at the baby, and the love she felt for him welled up inside her. She wouldn’t let Nik take him from her. She couldn’t be parted from Danny now.
She’d loved him from the moment she saw him, and had revelled in their time together since then—even though hardly anyone had been truly supportive about her decision to take on an orphaned baby. Sometimes it felt as if they were all watching her, waiting to see how she would perform.
Her friends from the small town where she had grown up kept telling her to return home, where there were people who could help her out if she needed it. They told her it was irresponsible to try bringing up a baby alone in the city, especially as she had no experience and no one to help her. But Carrie had worked very hard to escape her painful roots, and she’d do almost anything to avoid going back.
She’d made a very different life for herself in London. She had been enjoying her new lifestyle, and found a real sense of achievement from her increasingly successful career as a personal trainer. Her London friends knew nothing about her childhood, and that was how she wanted it, but it meant they had no way to understand why looking after her orphaned cousin was so important to her.
Danny looked a bit better now. His cheeks were still flushed, and his wispy brown fringe was sticking damply to his forehead, but for the moment he was all right. They’d be home very soon, and she had to admit—to herself, anyway—that this way of travelling was better for a grizzly child than crowded, unreliable public transport.
Looking at Danny, comfy and secure in the car seat, she suddenly wondered why Nik had a car seat in his limousine. The thought that he might be married with children made her stomach lurch. Surely a family man wanting to adopt his nephew would have a better chance in court than a bachelor businessman?
‘Do you and your wife have children?’ Carrie asked abruptly.
‘Why do you ask?’ Nik said, the expression on his face telling Carrie he had misinterpreted her interest.
‘You have a car seat,’ she said flatly. She had no intention of letting him see how much the meaningful gleam in his eyes had suddenly made her heart beat faster. No doubt Nikos Kristallis was used to women throwing themselves at him—but she had more to think about than just herself.
He might be the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen, and there was no question that she had found him overwhelmingly attractive at first, but that had been before she’d learned his identity. That kiss in Darren’s study had been extraordinary for her—she was inexperienced and had had no idea a kiss could affect her so profoundly—but at that point she hadn’t discovered the threat he posed to her and Danny.
‘I am not married, and do not at present have children.’ Nik spoke smoothly, but his deep blue eyes were narrowed and fixed on her altogether too sharply. ‘However, we can continue our discussion about my marital status later.’
‘I thought the discussion was already finished.’ The last thing Carrie wanted was for Nikos Kristallis to start getting ideas. Or, even worse, to think that she was getting ideas! ‘Your marital status is of no interest to me,’ she added quickly.
‘Really?’ Nik drawled, ‘I thought you asked for a reason—a more pressing one than why I have a child’s car seat in my limousine.’
‘What possible reason could I have?’ she replied. ‘I was just making conversation.’
Nik smiled. It was a supercilious smile, with an infuriating lift to his straight black eyebrows. She turned to look out through the tinted window at the rainy street outside the limousine, and was desperately trying to think of a
suitably cutting remark to put him in his place when his sudden movement towards Danny took her by surprise.
‘What are you doing? Don’t undo his seatbelt—it isn’t safe!’ she gasped.
‘How else will we take him inside?’ Nik sounded genuinely surprised. ‘I assume that my driver has brought us to the correct address.’
Carrie realised with a shock that the limousine had stopped moving. She glanced back through the tinted glass of the window and saw that the street she had been looking at was her own! They were parked outside her home.
‘Thank you for the ride,’ she said, trying to sound cool even though she suddenly felt very silly. ‘I’ll take Danny now.’
‘All right,’ Nik said. ‘I’ll bring your things.’
A gust of cold rainy wind blew into the limousine as the driver opened her door. She lifted Danny up, slid across the black leather seat, and stepped out onto the wet pavement.
‘Thank you very much,’ she said to the driver.
‘We need to get Danny inside, where it’s warm and dry,’ Nik said. ‘Then we can decide on the best thing to do—whether he needs to see a doctor or—’
‘We?’ Carrie echoed, her hackles instantly rising at his arrogant assumption that he was coming inside with her to decide what was best for Danny. She was his guardian. Nikos Kristallis didn’t even know him. ‘I’ll take him inside,’ she said firmly. ‘There’s no need for you to go to any more trouble. Thank you for your help,’ she added, in a voice she knew didn’t sound convincingly grateful.
She reached out to take the pushchair from Nik, but he held it out of her reach.
‘I’m not going anywhere until I make sure my nephew is all right,’ Nik said flatly. ‘Now, stop wasting time and let’s get Danny inside.’
Nik sat in the only armchair and watched Carrie tidying her flat with quick efficiency. She was still dressed in the tight-fitting exercise gear that must be what she wore for work. He felt his body stir with pure male appreciation as he admired her long-limbed yet curvaceous feminine shape.
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