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Christmas In the Snow: Taming Natasha / Considering Kate, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  The angry insults that rose to her throat were swallowed, but not before Spence saw them reflected in her eyes.

  “No,” was all she said as she turned.

  “Miss—” Spence began, then Freddie whirled down the aisle, carrying a big, floppy Raggedy Ann.

  “Daddy, isn’t she nice?” Eyes shining, she held out the doll for his approval.

  It was redheaded, Spence thought. But it was anything but beautiful. Nor, to his relief, was it a symbol of Angela. Because he knew Freddie expected it, he took his time examining her choice. “This is,” he said after a moment, “the very best doll I’ve seen today.”


  He crouched until he was eye to eye with his daughter. “Absolutely. You have excellent taste, funny face.”

  Freddie reached out, crushing the doll between them as she hugged her father. “I can have her?”

  “I thought she was for me.” As Freddie giggled, he picked up the pair of them.

  “I’ll be happy to wrap her for you.” Natasha’s tone was warmer, she knew. He might be a jerk, but he loved his daughter.

  “I can carry her.” Freddie squeezed her new friend close.

  “All right. Then I’ll just give you a ribbon for her hair. Would you like that?”

  “A blue one.”

  “A blue one it is.” Natasha led the way to the cash register.

  Nina took one look at the doll and rolled her eyes. “Darling, is that the best you could do?”

  “Daddy likes her,” Freddie murmured, ducking her head.

  “Yes, I do. Very much,” he added with a telling look for Nina. Setting Freddie on her feet again, he fished out his wallet.

  The mother was certainly no prize, Natasha decided. Though that didn’t give the man a right to come on to a clerk in a toy store. She made change and handed over the receipt, then took out a length of blue ribbon.

  “Thank you,” she said to Freddie. “I think she’s going to like her new home with you very much.”

  “I’ll take good care of her,” Freddie promised, while she struggled to tie the ribbon through the yarn mop of hair. “Can people come in to look at the toys, or do they have to buy one?”

  Natasha smiled, then taking another ribbon, tied a quick, sassy bow in the child’s hair. “You can come in and look anytime you like.”

  “Spence, we really must be going.” Nina stood holding the door open.

  “Right.” He hesitated. It was a small town, he reminded himself. And if Freddie could come in and look, so could he. “It was nice meeting you, Miss Stanislaski.”

  “Goodbye.” She waited until the door jingled and closed, then let out a muttered stream of curses.

  Annie peeked around a tower of building blocks. “Excuse me?”

  “That man.”

  “Yes.” With a little sigh, Annie waltzed down the aisle. “That man.”

  “He brings his wife and child into a place like this, then looks at me as if he wants to nibble on my toes.”

  “Tash.” Her expression pained, Annie pressed a hand to her heart. “Please don’t excite me.”

  “I find it insulting.” She skirted around the checkout counter and swung a fist at a punching bag. “He asked me to dinner.”

  “He what?” Delight showed in Annie’s eyes, before a look from Natasha dampened it. “You’re right. It is insulting, seeing as he’s a married man—even though his wife seemed like a cold fish.”

  “His marital problems are no concern of mine.”

  “No….” Practicality warred with fantasy. “I guess you turned him down.”

  A choked sound caught in Natasha’s throat as she turned. “Of course I turned him down.”

  “I mean, of course,” Annie put in quickly.

  “The man has a nerve,” Natasha said; her fingers itched to hit something. “Coming into my place of business and propositioning me.”

  “He didn’t!” Scandalized and thrilled, Annie grabbed Natasha’s arm. “Tash, he didn’t really proposition you? Right here?”

  “With his eyes he did. The message was clear.” It infuriated her how often men looked at her and only saw the physical. Only wanted to see the physical, she thought in disgust. She had tolerated suggestions, propositions and proposals since before she had fully understood what they meant. But she understood now and tolerated nothing.

  “If he hadn’t had that sweet little girl with him, I would have slapped his face.” Because the image pleased her so much, she let loose on the hapless punching bag again.

  Annie had seen her employer’s temper fly often enough to know how to cool it. “She was sweet, wasn’t she? Her name’s Freddie. Isn’t that cute?”

  Natasha took a long, steadying breath even as she rubbed her fisted hand in her other palm. “Yes.”

  “She told me they had just moved to Shepherdstown from New York. The doll was going to be her first new friend.”

  “Poor little thing.” Natasha knew too well the fears and anxieties of being a child in a strange place. Forget the father, she told herself with a toss of her head. “She looks to be about the same age as JoBeth Riley.” Annoyance forgotten, Natasha went behind the counter again and picked up the phone. It wouldn’t hurt to give Mrs. Riley a call.

  Spence stood at the music-room window and stared out at a bed of summer flowers. Having flowers outside the window and a bumpy slope of lawn that would need tending was a new experience. He’d never cut grass in his life. Smiling to himself, he wondered how soon he could try his hand at it.

  There was a big, spreading maple, its leaves a dark, dark green. In a few weeks, he imagined they would grow red and vibrant before they tumbled from the branches. He had enjoyed the view from his condo on Central Park West, watching the seasons come and go with the changing trees. But not like this, he realized.

  Here the grass, the trees, the flowers he saw belonged to him. They were for him to enjoy and to care for. Here he could let Freddie take out her dolls for an afternoon tea party and not have to worry every second she was out of his sight. They would make a good life here, a solid life for both of them. He’d felt it when he’d flown down to discuss his position with the dean—and again when he’d walked through this big, rambling house with the anxious real-estate agent dogging his heels.

  She hadn’t had to sell it, Spence thought. He’d been sold the moment he’d walked in the front door.

  As he watched, a hummingbird swooped to hover at the cup of a bright red petunia. In that instant he was more convinced than ever that his decision to leave the city had been the right one.

  Having a brief fling with rural living. Nina’s words rolled through his mind as he watched the sun flash on the bird’s iridescent wings. It was difficult to blame her for saying it, for believing it when he had always chosen to live in the middle of things. He couldn’t deny he had enjoyed those glittery parties that had lasted until dawn, or the elegant midnight suppers after a symphony or ballet.

  He had been born into a world of glamour and wealth and prestige. He had lived all of his life in a place where only the best was acceptable. And he had relished it, Spence admitted. Summering in Monte Carlo, wintering in Nice or Cannes. Weekends in Aruba or Cancun.

  He wouldn’t wish those experiences away, but he could wish, and did, that he had accepted the responsibilities of his life sooner.

  He accepted them now. Spence watched the hummingbird streak away like a sapphire bullet. And as much to his own surprise as to that of people who knew him, he was enjoying those responsibilities. Freddie made the difference. All the difference.

  He thought of her and she came running across the back lawn, her new rag doll tucked under her arm. She made a beeline, as he expected, to the swing set. It was so new that the blue and white paint gleamed in the sunlight, and the hard plastic seats were shiny as leather. With the doll in her lap, she pushed off, her face lifted skyward, her tiny mouth moving to some private song.

  Love rammed into him with a velvet fist, solid
and painful. In all of his life he had never known anything as consuming or as basic as the emotion she brought to him simply by being.

  As she glided back and forth, she cuddled the doll, bringing her close to whisper secrets into her ear. It pleased him to see Freddie so taken with the cloth and cotton doll. She could have chosen china or velvet, but had picked something that looked as though it needed love.

  She’d spoken of the toy store throughout the morning, and was wishing, Spence knew, for a return trip. Oh, she wouldn’t ask for anything, he thought. Not directly. She would use her eyes. It both amused and baffled him that at five, his little girl had already mastered that peculiar and effective feminine trick.

  He’d thought of the toy store himself, and its owner. No feminine tricks there, just pure womanly disdain. It made him wince again to remember how clumsy he’d been. Out of practice, he reminded himself with a self-deprecating smile and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. What was more, he couldn’t remember ever experiencing that strong a sexual punch. It was like being hit by lightning, he decided. A man was entitled to fumble a bit after being electrified.

  But her reaction… Frowning, Spence replayed the scene in his mind. She’d been furious. She’d damn near been quivering with fury before he’d opened his mouth—and put his foot in it.

  She hadn’t even attempted to be polite in her refusal. Just no—a single hard syllable crusted with frost at the edges. It wasn’t as if he’d asked her to go to bed with him.

  But he’d wanted to. From the first instant he had been able to imagine carrying her off to some dark, remote spot in the woods, where the ground was springy with moss and the trees blocked out the sky. There he could take the heat of those full, sulky lips. There he could indulge in the wild passion her face promised. Wild, mindless sex, heedless of time or place, of right or wrong.

  Good God. Amazed, he pulled himself back. He was thinking like a teenager. No, Spence admitted, thrusting his hands into his pockets again. He was thinking like a man—one who had gone four years without a woman. He wasn’t certain if he wanted to thank Natasha Stanislaski for unlocking all those needs again, or throttle her.

  But he was certain he was going to see her again.

  “I’m all packed.” Nina paused in the doorway. She gave a little sigh; Spence was clearly absorbed in his own thoughts again. “Spencer,” she said, raising her voice as she crossed the room. “I said I’m all packed.”

  “What? Oh.” He managed a distracted smile and forced his shoulders to relax. “We’ll miss you, Nina.”

  “You’ll be glad to see the back of me,” she corrected, then gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

  “No.” His smile came easier now, she saw, dutifully wiping the faint trace of lipstick from his skin. “I appreciate all you’ve done to help us settle in. I know how tight your schedule is.”

  “I could hardly let my brother tackle the wilds of West Virginia alone.” She took his hand in a rare show of genuine agitation. “Oh, Spence, are you sure? Forget everything I’ve said before and think, really think it through. It’s such a big change, for both of you. What will you possibly do here in your free time?”

  “Cut the grass.” Now he grinned at her expression. “Sit on the porch. Maybe I’ll even write music again.”

  “You could write in New York.”

  “I haven’t written two bars in almost four years,” he reminded her.

  “All right.” She walked to the piano and waved a hand. “But if you wanted a change, you could have found a place on Long Island or even in Connecticut.”

  “I like it here, Nina. Believe me, this is the best thing I could do for Freddie, and myself.”

  “I hope you’re right.” Because she loved him, she smiled again. “I still say you’ll be back in New York within six months. In the meantime, as that child’s only aunt, I expect to be kept apprised of her progress.” She glanced down, annoyed to see a chip in her nail polish. “The idea of her attending public school—”


  “Never mind.” She held up a hand. “There’s no use starting this argument when I have a plane to catch. And I’m quite aware she’s your child.”

  “Yes, she is.”

  Nina tapped a finger on the glossy surface of the baby grand. “Spence, I know you’re still carrying around guilt because of Angela. I don’t like to see it.”

  His easy smile vanished. “Some mistakes take along time to be erased.”

  “She made you miserable,” Nina said flatly. “There were problems within the first year of your marriage. Oh, you weren’t forthcoming with information,” she added when he didn’t respond. “But there were others all too eager to pass it along to me or anyone else who would listen. It was no secret that she didn’t want the child.”

  “And how much better was I, wanting the baby only because I thought it would fill the gaps in my marriage? That’s a large burden to hand a child.”

  “You made mistakes. You recognized them and you rectified them. Angela never suffered a pang of guilt in her life. If she hadn’t died, you would have divorced her and taken custody of Freddie. The result’s the same. I know that sounds cold. The truth often is. I don’t like to think that you’re making this move, changing your life this dramatically because you’re trying to make up for something that’s long over.”

  “Maybe that’s part of it. But there’s more.” He held out a hand, waiting until Nina came to him. “Look at her.” He pointed out the window to where Freddie continued to swing high, free as the hummingbird. “She’s happy. And so am I.”


  “I’m not scared.”

  “Of course you’re not.” Spence looked at his daughter’s brave reflection in the mirror while he carefully braided her hair. He didn’t need the quaver in her voice to tell him she was terrified. There was a rock in the pit of his own stomach the size of a fist.

  “Some of the kids might cry.” Her big eyes were already misted. “But I won’t.”

  “You’re going to have fun.” He wasn’t any more certain of that than his nervous daughter. The trouble with being a parent, he thought, was that you were supposed to sound sure of everything. “The first day of school’s always a little scary, but once you get there and meet everyone, you’ll have a great time.”

  She fixed him with a steady, owlish stare. “Really?”

  “You liked kindergarten, didn’t you?” It was evasive, he admitted to himself, but he couldn’t make promises he might not be able to keep.

  “Mostly.” She lowered her eyes, poking at the yellow, sea horse-shaped comb on her dresser. “But Amy and Pam won’t be there.”

  “You’ll make new friends. You’ve already met JoBeth.” He thought of the pixieish brunette who had strolled by the house with her mother a couple of days before.

  “I guess, and JoBeth is nice, but…” How could she explain that JoBeth already knew all of the other girls? “Maybe I should wait till tomorrow.”

  Their eyes met in the mirror again; he rested his chin on her shoulder. She smelled of the pale green soap she loved because it was shaped like a dinosaur. Her face was so much like his own, yet softer, finer, and to him infinitely beautiful.

  “You could, but then tomorrow would be your first day of school. You’d still have butterflies.”


  “Right here.” He patted her tummy. “Doesn’t it feel like butterflies dancing in there?”

  That made her giggle. “Kind of.”

  “I’ve got them, too.”

  “Really?” Her eyes opened wide.

  “Really. I’ve got to go to school this morning, just like you.”

  She fiddled with the pink ribbons he’d tied on the ends of her pigtails. She knew it wasn’t the same for him, but didn’t say so because she was afraid he’d get that worried look. Freddie had heard him talking to Aunt Nina once, and remembered how impatient he had sounded when she’d complained that he was uprooting her niece durin
g her formative years.

  Freddie wasn’t sure exactly what formative years were, but she knew her daddy had been upset, and that even when Aunt Nina had gone again, he’d still had that worried look. She didn’t want to make him worried, or to make him think Aunt Nina was right. If they went back to New York, the only swing sets were in the park.

  Besides, she liked the big house and her new room. Even better, her father’s new job was so close, he would be home every night long before dinner. Remembering not to pout, Freddie decided that since she wanted to stay, she’d have to go to school.

  “Will you be here when I get home?”

  “I think so. But if I’m not, Vera will be,” he said, thinking of their longtime housekeeper. “You can tell me everything that happened.” After kissing the top of her head, he set her on her feet. She looked achingly small in her pink and white playsuit. Her gray eyes were solemn, her bottom lip trembling. He fought back the urge to gather her up and promise that she’d never have to go to school or anywhere else that frightened her. “Let’s go see what Vera packed in your new lunch box.”

  Twenty minutes later he was standing on the curb, holding Freddie’s hand in his own. With almost as much dread as his daughter he saw the big yellow school bus lumbering over the hill.

  He should have driven her to school, he thought in sudden panic—at least for the first few days. He should take her himself, instead of putting her onto that bus with strangers. Yet it had seemed better to make the whole event normal, to let her ease into the group and become one of them from the outset.

  How could he let her go? She was just a baby. His baby. What if he was wrong? This wasn’t just a matter of picking out the wrong color dress for her. Simply because it was the designated day and time, he was going to tell his daughter to get onto that bus, then walk away.

  What if the driver was careless and drove off a cliff? How could he be sure someone would make certain Freddie got back onto the right bus that afternoon?