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Just Breathe

Cobblestone Press LLC

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Word Count: 49,000
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Dexter Morgan needs a nanny. The month-old twins won’t stop crying, and the nannies keep running away. He’s exhausted, grieving the death of his sister—the twins’ mother—and terrified he won’t be a good father. He’s at the end of his rope.

Crystal Jorgensen needs a job. After being out of the workforce for three years while she battled breast cancer, she’s finding it impossible to get back in. When her meddling uncles pressure her to see if their next door neighbor could use her help with his new babies, she reluctantly knocks at his door.

Excerpt

Gus Johnson shook his head in disgust as he watched the young woman rush out of the house across the road and make a beeline for her car. “Oh, boy. Looks like he’s losing another one.”

Jerald scowled, his bushy gray eyebrows meeting over his pale blue eyes. “What’s that make now? Four?”

“Five,” Charlie answered, his rocker creaking the porch floorboard with each push of his stubby legs. “If’n you count Cruella.”

Gus snorted. “That old witch don’t count. She saw those babies and caught the first train outta there. She was only hangin’ ‘round for his money.”

Jerald nodded. “And babies eat up a lot of money, that’s for sure.” He tipped his head to the side. “I r’member when my Sally was born—”

“Shh,” Gus said, tapping Jerald on the arm. “I wanna hear what this one says.”

Gus turned up his hearing aid just in time to hear the young woman wail, “They never stop crying, Mr. Williams. Never. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just never shut up.”

Dexter Williams, once the picture of sophistication, appeared utterly defeated. His shoulders were drooped and, even from the hundred feet separating them, Gus could see lines of fatigue etched in his face. His voice was too low for Gus to pick up his words, but when he withdrew his checkbook from his suit jacket pocket and started writing out a check, Gus shook his head again.

“That man needs a wife,” Charlie said. The rocker creak creak creaked as he rocked. “That’s what he needs, all right. A wife to look after them babies. And him, too. Not right for a man that age to be alone.”

Gus harrumphed. Wasn’t right for men their ages to be alone, either, but here they were, in their eighties, with nothing better to do than sit on the porch, watch over the neighborhood, and gossip like old women.

“Good luck, Mr. Williams. I’m really sorry,” the girl said as she slipped into the driver’s seat of her little red car.

Dexter stood back, hands in his pockets, and watched the fourth nanny in as many weeks drive off.

“Hey, Charlie,” Jerald said as he leaned forward on the porch swing to look around Gus.

Charlie kept rocking. “Yup?”

“When’s Crystal comin’ over next?”

Charlie gave a toothless grin. His great-niece was the only person left on earth that could make the old curmudgeon smile. “She’s bringin’ us supper tonight.”

Jerald raised his bushy eyebrows at Gus then looked back at Charlie. “She worked in a daycare a while back, didn’t she?”

Charlie nodded.

Gus grinned. “She’s real pretty, too.”

“The prettiest,” Charlie agreed as he rocked in his chair.

“And she’s lookin’ for work now that she’s feelin’ better, right?” Jerald asked.

Charlie nodded. “She had a couple interviews this week.”

“What do ya think, Gus?” Jerald asked. “Should we send her over there after supper? See if Dexter could use some professional help instead of all them girls he’s been hiring to watch the babies?”

Gus nodded. “Best idea you’ve had in a long time, J.” Gus turned his hearing aid down so he wouldn’t hear the damned squeaking floorboard. Pretty, sweet Crystal, and the uptight Dexter Williams. He grinned. If nothing else, the babies would have a fit caretaker.

Maybe having Crystal care for somebody again was just what she needed. Somebody other than the three of them, anyway. Someone closer to her own age. And she did love babies, even if she and that louse she’d been married to had never had any of their own.

He nodded and grinned, satisfied they’d made the right decision. Then he pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his brow. “Global warming,” he muttered. “Ain’t right it’s this hot in June in Seattle.”

“Uh huh,” Charles and Jerald both agreed.

Chapter One

Dexter Williams stood at the kitchen counter with a squirming, screaming bundle of baby in each arm, waiting for the bottles to heat up in the microwave.

“Shh,” he said for the millionth time as he jiggled the babies. “Shh. Please, girls, give me five minutes. Two minutes. Shh. Please.”

Dex had never been so far out of his element in his life. He’d been playing dad for a month now, and he didn’t know if he could do it much longer. The nannies didn’t stay because the girls cried all the time. He’d taken them to four different doctors, had test after test run, and there was nothing wrong with them. They just cried. A lot.

The microwave dinged, and he hit the door opener with his elbow. Careful not to drop his wiggling bundles, he grabbed the two bottles and headed into the living room. He tossed the bottles onto the couch, then went down on his knees and, with the utmost care, making sure to support the back of their heads, set each of the babies in their own chairs.

Dex’s head pounded with each high-pitched wail. He plopped down on the floor, grabbed the bottles, and tried coaxing the babies into taking the nipples. The one on the right finally latched on, but the other cried on, her face beet red.

Dex gritted his teeth. Please, God, just let her take the bottle and stop crying. Please! I’m begging You. Help me!

Outwardly, he spoke in soothing tones. “Come on, sweetie. I know you’re hungry and you’re pissed off, but you’ve got to stop crying if you want to eat.”

Finally, she latched on to the bottle nipple he’d been teasing against her lips, and blessed silence fell over the house. Dex sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “Thank you,” he whispered to the babies, and to the powers that be.

He hadn’t had a solid sleep in weeks. A constant, dull stress headache kept his neck tense all of the time, and he just didn’t know if he had it in him to do this. He wasn’t parent material. He’d never wanted kids. Not after the way he and his sister had been raised. No, thank you.

But here he was. Legal guardian—lifetime commitment—to a pair of very loud pooping machines.

Lifetime commitment, he thought as he watched them suckle the bottles he held. Almost forty years old, and he hadn’t had a relationship last longer than a year. Up until a month ago, the only commitment in his life was his business, but he’d staffed such good employees that his company could run without him if need be.

And thank God for that, too, because of all the days in the last month he’d missed because of these two little...beautiful...

Son of a bitch, he thought as his heart sank to his stomach. Twin pairs of wet, weepy blue eyes stared up at him with such trust. The crying and the screaming and the not sleeping couldn’t last forever, could it? Someday, they’d stop. Someday... He swallowed hard. “I’m here for you. I always will be. Even if it kills me.” He’d have given his arms and legs to hear those words as a child. He wouldn’t ever give up on these two.

* * * * *

Crystal Jorgensen pulled up in front of Uncle Charlie’s house and sighed. She’d hoped she could give him some good news, that she’d landed one of the jobs she’d interviewed for this past week, but no such luck. No one wanted her. She’d been out of work for almost three years, out of the loop, not up on the new technology. Who would have thought things in the computer graphics world could change so much in just three short years?

She leaned forward and laid her forehead against the steering wheel. Three of the longest years of her life. If she wanted to return to that field, she’d have to take a couple of college courses to come up to speed. But without a job, she couldn’t afford the classes, and without the classes, she couldn’t get a job.

Not a job she wanted, anyway. She didn’t have the strength or stamina yet to waitress as she had during college. And standing behind a counter with a paper hat asking customers if they wanted cheese on their burger... The thought made her want to cry.

She’d survived so much, come such a long way, and after a dozen disastrous job interviews, she was ready to give up.

What exactly was wrong with her? She wasn’t a whiner, or a quitter. She didn’t let crap like this get her down. So why was she acting as though it were the end of the world?

Because every bill in her name was past due. The interest on her hospital bills grew exponentially by the day. And if she didn’t find a job and hand over a wad of money by the end of next week, she would be homeless.

She supposed anyone would be ready to give up under these circumstances.

With a deep breath, Crystal sat back in the seat. The uncles would let her crash on their couch until she could get back on her feet. But she’d struggled so darn hard to make it on her own, it killed her to think about taking charity.

The front door to the house opened, and her dear old Uncle Charlie stood in the doorway smiling and waving at her. She smiled and fought back the tears. He was gruff to everyone but her. To her, he was a teddy bear who growled but never bit and was always there with a big hug when she needed it. She waved back and took another deep breath to make sure she wouldn’t burst into tears in front of him and upset him.

Uncle Gus stepped around Charlie and came down the front steps toward her car. She pushed open the door and climbed out. Though Gus and Jerald weren’t blood relation, they’d been her honorary uncles for as long as she could remember. When the three life-long friends lost their wives within a few years of each other, they all wound up in one house, the money from the sale of the other two houses adding to their retirement funds.

They looked out for each other.

Gus wrapped his arms around her and hugged her, kissed her cheek. “You look beautiful, Crys.”

She gave him a peck on his whiskery chin and laughed. “You only say that because you know I brought dinner.”

He grinned and shook his head. “You know better than that.”

Gus was the youngest of the three at barely eighty-one. Charlie was the oldest at eighty-six, and Jerald was right in the middle at eighty-three. She didn’t know what she’d do without them. They were the only family she had left.

She popped the trunk of the car, and Gus reached in for the bags before she had a chance.

“I smell meatloaf,” he said with a big grin. “My favorite.”

She smiled and blinked back the tears burning her eyes. “Yes, Uncle. Meatloaf for you, and ham and sweet potato pie for Charlie and J.”

Gus motioned her up the steps, and she preceded him. Uncle Charlie welcomed her with open arms, and she went into them, burying her face against his shoulder and breathing in the lingering scent of cherry pipe tobacco.

“Everything will be all right,” he whispered in her ear, knowing just what she needed to hear.

She nodded but stayed in his arms. He wasn’t as big and strong as he’d once been, but he still held her tight and rocked her side to side as if she were a child.

“I didn’t get any of the jobs,” she said softly when she lifted her head to look at him. His eyes were rheumy with age. He didn’t see well anymore, even though he refused to admit it.

He patted her cheek. “Then none of them were the right one.”

She smiled even as a tear dripped from her eye. “I love you, Uncle,” she whispered.

His face wrinkled so endearingly when he smiled. “I know. I heard you brought me pie.”

She laughed and turned into the house, wrapping her arm around his slightly hunched shoulders. “Yes, I did. So let’s eat. Where’s Uncle J?”

“Settin’ the table, girl,” Jerald called from the kitchen. When she pushed the door open for Charlie to enter the kitchen, Jerald wrapped her in a big hug. He was the tallest of the three, still standing over six feet tall, with shoulders almost as wide as a doorway.

As a child, she’d been terrified of him. He was a retired police officer and towered over everyone. In uniform, he’d been intimidating. Until the day he personally climbed a tree to rescue the fluffy white kitten Uncle Charlie had given her for her eighth birthday. She’d adored him ever since.

Dinner with her uncles was always a noisy affair. All of them had bad hearing, talked over each other, and without their wives to tell them to eat with their mouths closed, they sounded like a herd of cattle chewing cud.

Uncle Charlie looked as though he was having problems with his dentures, and she made a mental note to schedule an appointment to have them checked. And Uncle J’s tremors were quite pronounced tonight. She wondered if he’d been taking all of his meds. She frowned as he lifted his cup of coffee with both hands to keep from sloshing it.

“So,” Gus said as he swiped his plate clean with a slice of bread. “How’s the job hunting going?”

Charlie scowled at Gus, and for a second she thought he might slug his friend. She smiled. They picked on her sometimes, teased her because it’d been something they’d done since she was a kid, but they never intentionally hurt her feelings.

“I didn’t get any of the jobs.” She shrugged. “I’ll try again next week.” And pray like hell she got something.

Gus glanced at J and Charlie, and both of the other men nodded. “I think I know where you might be able to find some quick work, if’n you’re so inclined.”

Crystal shook her head. “I still don’t have the strength to waitress. I know you talked to the owner of Brandi’s Diner for me before, but I just can’t do it.”

“Nope, not talkin’ about Brandi’s,” Gus said. “You still like kids, don’t’cha?

She laughed and set down her fork. “Of course, I still like kids.” She loved kids. She just didn’t have any of her own. Might never have any of her own—probably would never have any of her own.

“Remember us tellin’ you a couple weeks ago about Dexter Williams getting some babies?”

She puckered her brow. “The guy across the street?”

All three uncles nodded in unison.

“He can’t keep a nanny. They all leave in a couple of days. He’s been stayin’ home to take care of them little babies, but he keeps tryin’ to get a nanny but it don’t work.”

“And you know this because...?”

“We seen him,” Uncle Charlie said. “’Bout every three days he gets home from work and the girls go runnin’. One even left without takin’ her money from him.”

The uncles sat out on their porch, weather permitting, and kept an eye on the neighborhood. She heard more than her fair share of neighborly gossip every time she came over. Everything from Janice Stewart throwing her husband’s clothes out on the street and driving over them with the car, to Parker O’Brien putting an ad in the paper to rent out one of his bedrooms.

The story of Dexter Williams suddenly bringing home two babies had intrigued her, but it wasn’t as if she had time to sit on her behind, dwelling on the strange goings-on around her uncles’ place.

“We think you should go over and talk to him. Offer him a hand,” Uncle Charlie said. “He needs a woman who isn’t afraid of babies.”

Crystal chuckled and picked up her water glass. “You’re joking, right? I don’t even know the man.”

“We know him,” Uncle J said. “He’s a hard worker. Owns his own real estate firm. I heard he got his contractor’s license last year, too. I even saw his picture and ad on TV the other day.”

“Great,” she muttered. “He’s a wonderful person because he’s on television. Uncle J, I can’t just walk up to a stranger and offer to help him with his babies. He’d think I was nuts.”

Uncle Gus shook his head. “He’s desperate.”

Uncle Charlie nodded in agreement. “I ain’t never seen a man need a woman so bad.”

“But I thought you told me that some woman moved into that house just a few months ago. Some ‘high class snooty broad’ as you put it.”

Uncle J tossed his napkin on the table. “That snooty broad moved out three days after them babies moved in. I swear she took all that man’s furniture, too. You shoulda seen the size of the moving van.”

“Of course, there were delivery trucks coming almost every day for two weeks after she moved in, so’s she was probably just moving her stuff back out,” Gus said.

“He needs a real woman to help him out,” Uncle Charlie said, then scowled at her. “You go talk to him.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but he slammed his palm against the table, making the dishes rattle.

“I said, you go talk to him, girl. You need a job, and he needs some help.”

As stupid of an idea as she thought it was, she nodded. “Okay, Uncle. Don’t get yourself worked up. You know it’s not good for your heart.”

His frown grew even fiercer. “You do what you’re told and let me worry about my own ticker.” Crystal nodded, but Charlie added, “Go do it now. We’ll do the dishes and wait for you to come back before we have dessert.”

Okay-y, she thought as she pushed away from the table. She had no idea what had gotten into Uncle Charlie. “Be back in a few minutes,” she said, then silently added to herself as she let herself out the front door, “Because the man’s going to think I’m a nutcase.”

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