Thursday, August 12, 2010
Nick Carlino hopped into his Ferrari and drove out of the Rock and A Hard Place parking lot, gravel crunching under his tires as he turned onto the road that led him to his Napa Valley home. He could really use a smoke right now and cursed the day he quit for good. Rachel Mancini had had that look in her eyes tonight, the one that told him she was getting serious. He'd seen that soft half-lidded expression a dozen times in the women he'd dated and each time he'd been wise enough to back off and let them down easily.
Nick liked Rachel. She was pretty and made him laugh and as the owner of the successful bar and nightclub, she intrigued him with her business smarts. He respected her and that's why Nick had to break it off with her. Rachel dropped hints like bombshells lately that she needed more. Nick didn't have more to give.
Moonlight guided his way on the dark patch of highway with vineyard columns on either side of him, the pungent scent of merlot and zinfandel grapes heavy in the summer air. He'd been called back to Napa after his father's death to help his two brothers run Carlino Wines and according to the will they had six months to decide which of Santo Carlino's three sons would become head of the empire. None of his old man's sons wanted the honor. So it was win by default. Yet Tony, Joe and Nick had pulled it together for the past five months and they had one more to figure out who'd run the company.
As Nick rounded a hilly curve, oncoming headlights beamed straight at him. He let out a loud curse. The car skidded halfway into his lane as it took the turn. Those beams hit him straight in the eyes and he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but not enough to avoid impact. The two cars collided with a loud smack and his Ferrari whipped around in a tailspin. The jolt jarred him and his airbag deployed. He found himself sitting at a perpendicular angle to the car he'd just collided with.
"Damn," he muttered, barely getting the words out. Pressure from the air bag crushed his chest. He scooted his seat far back and then took a deep breath. Once he was sure all of his body parts were in working order, Nick got out of the car to check on the other driver.
The first thing he heard was a baby crying. Holy crap, he thought, fear gripping him tight. He moved quickly, glancing at the damage to the dated silver Toyota Camry as he strode past. He peered inside the car to find a woman behind the wheel, her body slumped forward, her head against the steering wheel. He opened the door with caution and saw blood dripping down her face.
The baby's cries grew louder. Nick opened the back door and glanced inside. The baby was in a car seat facing backward and looked to be okay—no blood anywhere, thank goodness. The car seat had done its job.
"Hang on, kid."
Nick didn't have a clue how old the child was, not an infant, but not yet at the walking stage, he presumed. He focused his attention on the woman behind the wheel, placing his hand on her shoulder. "Can you hear me? I'm getting help."
When she didn't respond, Nick braced her head and shoulders and gently guided her back, so that he could see her injuries. Blood oozed down her forehead—she had a deep gash from hitting the steering wheel. He rested her head back against the headrest.
Her eyes opened slowly and the first thing Nick noticed was the incredible hue of her hazel eyes. They were a mix of turquoise and green. He'd only seen that spectacular color once in his life. He brushed aside blond wisps of hair from her face, "Brooke? Brooke Hamilton, is that you?"
"My baby," she whispered, straining to get the words out, her eyes beginning to close again. "Take care of my baby."
This woman he'd known in high school, twelve, maybe thirteen years ago, implored with her last conscious breath. "Promise me, you'll take care of Leah."
Without thinking, Nick agreed. "I promise I'll take care of her. Don't worry."
Brooke's eyes closed as she slipped out of her conscious world.
Nick dialed 9-1-1.
When he was through with the call, Nick got into the backseat of the car. The baby's sobs grew to soft whimpers that tore at Nick's heart. "I'm coming, kid. I'll get you outta this contraption."
Nick could write a book about what he didn't know about babies. He had no idea how to remove the little girl from the straps that bound her into the car seat—hell, he'd never even held a baby before. He struggled for a minute, then finally figured out the release, all the while muttering soft words to the helpless child.
To his amazement, the baby stopped crying and looked up at him, her face flushed and her breaths slowing. With eyes wide, she stared at him in wonderment with her mother's big hazel eyes. "You're gonna break hearts with those eyes," he said softly.
The baby's lips curled up. The smile caught him by surprise.
Nick lifted her out of the car seat, holding her awkwardly in his arms. "You need someone who knows about babies," he said quietly.
Nick shifted the baby onto one arm and got his cell phone out again to call Rena, Tony's wife. She'd know what to do, then he remembered the late hour and how much trouble Rena was having sleeping these days. She was nearly ready to have her own baby. He clicked off before the phone had a chance to ring and dialed Joe's number. Joe's fiancée, Ali, would come running to help and he'd be glad to turn the baby over to her tonight.
The phone went straight to voicemail. Nick left a quick message then remembered Ali and Joe were vacationing in the Bahamas this week. "Great," he muttered, taking the baby in both of his arms now. "Looks like it's me and you. That's not good news for you, kid."
Before the paramedics arrived, Nick managed to sift through the woman's handbag and find her driver's license. In the car's dim overhead light, he saw he wasn't wrong. The woman who'd swerved into his lane and caused the accident was Brooke Hamilton-Keating. He'd gone to high school with her. He'd gone further than high school with her once, but that was ancient history.
Nick sat the baby down on the backseat. "Sh, you be quiet now, okay? I've gotta check on your mama."
The second he released her, she whimpered.
Nick gazed at her and made a slow move toward Brooke. The baby opened her mouth and let out a wail.
"Okay, fine." Nick picked her up again and as soon as she was back in his arms, she quieted. "Let's both see to your mama."
Nick held the baby in one arm and opened the front passenger door. He slid in carefully and adjusted the baby in his right arm, so he could look Brooke over better than he had before. She was out cold, but still breathing. He didn't think the collision had been enough to cause internal injuries, but hell, he was no doctor so he couldn't be sure.
Sirens in the distance sent a wave of relief through him. Nick closed his eyes for a moment. It was late and no other cars were on the road. Napa wasn't exactly a party town and the road they were on led to nothing but residential properties and vineyards.
With the baby in his arms, Nick greeted two paramedics in dark blue uniforms that came bounding out of the van. "The baby seems fine, but the mother is unconscious," he said.
"What happened, sir?" one of them asked.
"One minute I'm driving around a curve, the next this Camry is coming at me head on. I swerved the second I saw her car, or it could have been a lot worse."
"The baby yours or hers?" he asked as he examined Brooke.
He looked at his partner. "We'll take them both to the hospital." Then he turned to Nick. "How about you? Are you injured?"
"No. The air bag inflated and I'm fine. The Camry doesn't have one, apparently."
The paramedic nodded. "Looks like the car seat saved the baby any injuries."
Within fifteen minutes, the police arrived to take a statement and Brooke's gurney was hoisted into the ambulance. Nick stood by, holding Leah in his arms.
"I'll take her now," the paramedic said, reaching for the baby.
"What'll they do with her?"
"Give her a full exam and then try to reach a relative."
The second Leah was out of Nick's arms, she put up a big fuss. Her face turned red and those big eyes closed as she wailed loud enough to wake the dead. Worse yet, when she opened her eyes, she stared straight at Nick looking at him as if he were her savior.
He remembered the promise he made to her mother.
"Let me have her," he said, reaching for the baby. "I'll ride with you to the hospital."
The paramedic cast him a skeptical look and kept Leah with him.
"I know the mother. We went to high school together. I promised her I'd watch out for Leah."
"She opened her eyes and was conscious long enough to make sure the baby was taken care of."
The paramedic sighed. "She likes you a heck of lot better than me. Grab the diaper bag in the car and anything else you see they might need. We've got to get going."
Brooke opened her eyes slowly and even that slight movement caused a slashing pain across her forehead. She reached up to rub it and found a bandage there. She didn't know how long she'd been out, but slivers of sunshine warmed her body.
Her first thought was of Leah and a wave of panic gripped her. "Leah!"
She sat straight up abruptly and her head spun. Her eyes rolled back and she nearly lost consciousness again.
Stay awake, Brooke.
She fought dizziness and took slow, deep breaths.
"She's here," a masculine voice announced softly.
Brooke glanced in the direction of the voice, narrowing her eyes to focus. She saw Leah tucked into her pink blanket, looking peaceful and content, sleeping in the arms of a man. Relief swamped her at first. Her beautiful baby was safe. Tears sprung from her eyes when fragments of the accident played over in her head. She'd gotten distracted by Leah's wailing as she navigated a sharp curve in the road. She glanced back for an instant to check on her and the next thing she knew, she'd collided with another car. She vaguely remembered waking for a moment before all had gone black. Brooke took a minute to thank God for keeping Leah safe in the Peg Perego car seat she'd insisted on when she was pregnant.
Her gaze shifted up to the deep blue eyes and self-assured smile of… Nick Carlino? She'd never forgotten the timbre of his voice that oozed sex or the handsome sharp angles of his face. Or the dimples that jumped out when he smiled. It was enough to make a girl get naked in just under a minute.
She knew. She'd been one of those girls, way back when.
"Leah is safe," he assured her again.
That's all that mattered to her. "Nick Carlino?"
"It's me, Brooke." Those dimples peeked out for a moment.
She reached out for Leah and the movement rattled pain through her head. "I want to hold my baby."
"She's sleeping," he said, not moving a muscle.
Brooke rested her head against her pillow. It was probably better she didn't wake Leah now, she still felt light-headed. "Is she really okay?"
"She was examined last night. The doctor said she had no injuries."
"Thank God," Brooke whispered, tears once again stinging her eyes. "But why are you here?" She couldn't wrap her head around why Nick was holding her baby in her hospital room.
"You really don't remember?"
"I barely know my own name at the moment."
"You came around a turn late last night and crashed into my car. For a minute there, I thought it was lights out for all of us."
"It was your car I hit?" If she were a cruel-hearted woman she'd say it was poetic justice.
"My Ferrari. Yeah."
His Ferrari. Of course. Nick always had to have the best of everything. How was she ever going to pay for the repairs? She'd let her insurance lapse when she took off from Los Angeles.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
"What were you doing driving so late at night?"
"I was looking for my aunt's place and must have taken a wrong turn. The roads were dark and I got distracted. We'd been driving all day and I'd thought we could make it to her place rather than stop at a motel for the night. Are you all right? You weren't injured, were you?"
She still couldn't believe that Nick Carlino was in her hospital room, holding her baby in his arms like Leah belonged there. A shudder went through her. This was all so surreal.
"I'm fine. The air bag saved my as—uh, butt."
She let go a sigh. "Oh, that's good. What about your car?"
"Needs some repairs."
"The same. I had them towed to my mechanic's shop."
Brooke wouldn't think about the cost to repair those cars. If she did, the tremors in her head would escalate to a major earthquake.
"You haven't been here all night?" she asked.
The dimples of doom came out on cue and he gave a short nod. Her heart fluttered. "You have?"
He glanced down at Leah then up at her again. "I promised you I'd take care of her last night."
"You were adamant, Brooke. You woke just for a minute to make sure Leah was taken care of. You made me promise."
"Thank you," she said, holding back another round of tears. She didn't need to fall apart in front of Nick Carlino. "I appreciate all you did last night for my baby."
Nick nodded and glanced down at Leah for a second. "Where's her father?"
Brooke blinked. Leah's father, Dan? The man she'd been married to for all of two years, who had told her on her twenty-ninth birthday that he was having an affair with a woman he'd always loved and that he'd gotten her pregnant? He'd left Brooke that night, and one week later she found out that she herself was going to have a baby. That father? "He's not in the picture."