Tempt Me(3)

By: Carly Phillips


He shook his head, determined to stay in the present with the one person who mattered. “Hey, guys, something smells good!” He joined Bailey and Mia in the kitchen, where Mia was placing servings of delicious-looking stir-fried chicken and vegetables on their respective places.

Although when she’d first started her job, Mia had planned to eat alone after he and Bailey had finished, it seemed natural to ask her to join them and not treat her like hired help.

They settled into their chairs and began to eat. Before her, his mom had cooked for the family. Left to his own devices, he and Bailey would live on tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, which he enjoyed, but it wasn’t exactly staple food to raise his daughter on every meal.

“Daddy?” Bailey asked, scooting her legs beneath her so she could reach the table better.

“Yes?”

“Can Mia come with you to take me to school?” she asked, her determination when she wanted something rivaling his.

“I thought we talked about this,” Mia said. “Your dad is going to drive you and I’ll pick you up,” she said brightly, trying to convince Bailey she had the best of both worlds with the planned arrangement.

Bailey pouted, pushing out her bottom lip. “But… but…”

“But what?” Austin placed his fork down and met his daughter’s gaze. It was that quivering of her bottom lip that did him in even before she replied.

“But Lisa’s mom and dad are taking her. And I don’t want to be the one without a mommy.”

He cursed his ex with everything he had in him but kept his expression warm for his daughter. “C’mere.”

She scrambled to her feet and he pulled her into him with one arm. Mia, he noticed, discreetly rose from the table and made herself busy by the sink.

“I know it’s hard for you, not having your mom around, but you know how much I love you, right?” he asked.

Bailey sniffed and nodded, those big brown, damp eyes his undoing. “You and me ’gainst the world.”

“Exactly.” He squeezed her tighter. “But if you want Mia to come with us tomorrow, it’s okay with me.”

“Yay!” She threw her arms around his neck and a lump rose to his throat. He’d do anything for her. Anything.

“Thank you, Daddy! See? You can come with us!” She pushed off him and ran to Mia, barreling into her and wrapping her little arms around Mia’s waist.

Mia met his gaze, green eyes the color of a grassy field locking onto him, a smile on her beautiful face.

“Will you come?” Bailey asked.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” she promised his daughter.

He closed his eyes and recommitted himself to viewing her as a caregiver and not a sexy woman with just enough curves to make his mouth water and green eyes he could drown in.

* * *

Mia walked into the elementary school with a cobblestone façade alongside Austin and Bailey. The little girl hopped her way inside, excited to meet her teacher and be with her friends. Though it broke Mia’s heart the way she was afraid she’d be the only girl without a mom there, once Austin had agreed to Mia going along, she’d seemed to put all sad thoughts out of her head.

Mia wished she’d had a father who cared as much about her as Bailey’s did. Though she had been in good foster homes, it wasn’t the same thing as a parent who loved you.

She centered herself, her attention back on Bailey, where it belonged. As she entered the room, she was immediately struck by the brightly decorated walls. Letters and pictures were scattered around, welcoming to all the children.

After they’d settled Bailey into her desk and warned her not to glare at Josh, who was, in fact, sitting in front of her, Austin knelt down, made certain his daughter was comfortable and happy before kissing her good-bye.

She glanced at Bailey. “So I’ll be outside when school is over to pick you up,” Mia reminded her, not for the first time. She didn’t want the little girl to worry about who would be waiting for her when the day ended.

“I know.” Bailey looked around the room, already eager for her class to get started.

Austin tipped his head toward the door, indicating it was time for them to leave.

Mia followed him into the hall. She didn’t miss the way some of the other mothers glanced at Austin appreciatively, eyeing both his handsome face and, yes, his spectacular ass. Which Mia, as his employee, should not be ogling. Or noticing. Or allowing herself to think about. But she did. Often.

The question she often asked herself was, did he think about her the same way? He was respectful, always, but she sometimes caught him studying her in that inscrutable way he had. As a bodyguard, he was probably trained not to let his emotions show and he didn’t. Yet she couldn’t help but wonder if the attraction was mutual.