The Baby Deal

By: Kat Cantrell


Juliana Cane hadn’t spoken to Michael Shaylen in eight years, not since the day she’d realized that if she was going to lose him, she’d rather do it on her terms.
And today, when she opened her front door to the man who’d once taken her to heights never experienced before or since, her brain deserted her. She’d practiced a highly appropriate “hello” and a lovely “nice to see you,” both suitable greetings for an ex-boyfriend who calls with no warning.
But obviously his brief and to-the-point “I need to talk to you” had knocked her upside down, and she hadn’t reoriented yet because all she managed was “You’re not on crutches.”
Like the last time she’d seen him. A broken leg did take less than eight years to heal.
“Day’s not over.”
A familiar, cloud-parting smile broke open across his stubbly jaw, its effect a forceful punch to a feminine place long forgotten.
Unbelievable. After all this time, both her brain and her body still reacted to him without her permission.
“How are you?” he asked. “It’s Dr. Cane now, right?”
“Yes.” She was a psychologist and thus well equipped to handle this unexpected visit, if the bongo drum in her chest would lay off. “But only my clients call me that. You didn’t mention on the phone if you’d be staying long. Do you have time to come in?”
“Sure.” He shot a glance toward the long, sleek car idling at the curb.
“Is someone in the car? Everyone is welcome.” Even a size-zero supermodel with photo-worthy hair and fourteen thousand dollars’ worth of dental work. His usual type, if the media could be believed. “I don’t want you to feel awkward about this visit, Michael.”
His name stuck in her throat. She’d never called him Michael.
His lips curved into a half grin. “Then stop first-naming me. I’m still Shay.”
Shay. His mega-watt personality engulfed the porch, too big to be reined in by skin. That chiseled physique honed by hours of brutally challenging sports hadn’t changed. A new scar stood out in sharp relief on his biceps, a long slash interlaced with crosshatches.
Stiches. Messy stitches, which meant he must have been sewn up by a third-world doctor after a zip-line accident in Off-The-Map City. Probably without anesthetic or antibiotics.
Still the same Shay.
She stepped back, refusing to dwell on scars—visible or otherwise—and nearly tripped over the Persian runner in the foyer. “Come in, please.”
With another glance at the idling car, cryptic with its rental tags and tinted windows, he followed her into the house. Where to put him? In the living room or the less formal family room? She decided on formality, at least until she got her feet under her and her brain functional.
How could Shay still wreak such havoc on her senses after eight years?
Maybe because he was still gorgeous and untamed and… She didn’t like that kind of man anymore, despite certain feminine parts trying to insist otherwise.
She ushered him into the living room and gestured to the plush navy couch. It was supposed to be big enough for two people but Shay’s six-foot frame dwarfed it. As he settled onto a cushion, she worried for a fanciful second that the metal webbing beneath the fabric would collapse under the weight of so much man.
Eric was six feet tall. The couch had never seemed small when her ex-husband sat on it. She opted for the armless Queen Anne chair at a right angle to the couch and didn’t allow a speck of self-analysis about why she hadn’t sat next to Shay.
“I’m sorry about Grant and Donna,” she said right away. The deaths of his friends and business partners was no doubt fresh on his mind. “How was the funeral?”
“Long.” Grief welled inside his sea-glass-green eyes.
She could still see clear through them, straight into the wrenching agony of having to bury his best friends. Her primal, unchecked reaction to his emotions was frighteningly unchanged as well—a strong urge to soothe, to heal. To hold on to him until the pain fled.
Instead of reaching for him, she clasped her fingers together in a tight weave. They were virtually strangers now, no matter how abnormal it seemed. No matter how convinced she’d been that time would surely have dimmed the shimmering, irrational dynamic between them.
It hadn’t. But she’d pretend it had.
Once, she’d been so drawn to his lust for life, to his powerful personality and his passion for everything—especially her—that he’d engulfed her, until she couldn’t see the surface anymore. It was too much. He was too much.
She’d never been enough for him.
So why was he here? Instead of jumping right into it, she went with a safer subject. “Tell me about the funeral.”
“We did both services together. Better that way, to get it all over with. Closed casket. It was easier. I didn’t have to see them.”
“Of course,” she murmured. It wasn’t like they’d had a choice.
Grant and Donna Greene had died in the explosion of an experimental ship designed for space tourism. News stations had continually replayed the clip, but Juliana couldn’t imagine the couple being inside the craft when it blew. It was too ghastly. Instead, she remembered Shay’s friends the way she’d last seen them eight years ago—standing on a bungee platform, sun beating down on the four of them as they waited to plunge into the unknown.
One by one, they’d jumped. First Shay, because he never failed to be first in line for whatever new thrill he’d conceived. Then Grant jumped, then Donna. They’d all jumped.
Except Juliana.
She couldn’t—couldn’t even peer over the edge. She’d just backed away with a wordless shake of her head, too overcome to speak. Too overwhelmed by the slippery darkness encroaching on her consciousness.
Shay was fearless. She wasn’t. They didn’t make sense together, and she’d known he’d eventually realize that, eventually grow bored with her at best, or resentful at worst.
She’d just realized the truth first.
She shook her head now and focused on the breathtaking mountains dominating the view through the floor-to-ceiling glass opposite her chair. She’d moved on, moved to New Mexico from Dallas for a reason. That hadn’t been her place, in a relationship with a man who thrived on the indefinite, with whom she couldn’t imagine a future. Or children. Or a normal marriage.
In New Mexico, she could find her balance in structure and order, the opposite of what her home life had been while growing up, the opposite of what she’d had with Shay. She could build a safe life firmly planted on the ground.
It just wasn’t happening quite like she’d planned.
“How are you coping?” she asked. Her Dr. Cane voice betrayed nothing of the sharp and vivid memories fighting for her attention.
Eric disliked her Dr. Cane voice, disliked it when she answered all his questions with questions. Shay didn’t seem at all bothered that she’d retreated behind her degree.
“Taking it day by day right now.” Shay coughed and stared at the ceiling for a long time. “Greene, Greene and Shaylen has some good people running the show and that’ll continue until I figure out some things.”
“I’m so sorry, Shay. Let me get you a drink.”
“First I have to tell you why I’m here. The will…” He cleared his throat. “Grant and Donna had a son. You probably heard. Their will named me as the guardian.”
Her lungs contracted. That poor, motherless baby had been shuttled around with little regard, no doubt, for the potential trauma. Instinctively, she cupped her own barren womb and swallowed. “The news did mention a baby, but I assumed he went to relatives.”
“I am a relative,” Shay shot back. “Not by blood, but Grant was my brother in every way.”
Juliana blinked at the fierceness clamping his mouth into a hard line. “Yes, I didn’t mean anything by the term.”
Shay backhanded a dark caramel-shot thatch of hair off his forehead. Almost every day of the two years they’d been together, he’d worn a baseball cap to keep that wavy mane out of his face. Had he traded the cap for something else or was he always bareheaded now?
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a hellacious couple of weeks. I’ll get to the point. I’m a dad now. I owe Grant’s kid the best shot at that I can give him. But I can’t do it by myself. I need your help.”
“My help? I haven’t seen Grant and Donna since college.”
Even then, they’d been part of Shay’s world, not hers. The three were always together, poring over some complicated schematic. Muttering about accelerants and a myriad of other baffling rocket science terms. Three of the best minds in a generation hashing out improbable solutions for the optimal way to get off the ground. Always in a hurry to leave the earth—and Juliana—behind.
“You’re a kid expert. That’s what I need.”
He’d been keeping tabs on her. Since she’d kept tabs on him, it shouldn’t have come as a shock. Except Michael Shaylen’s name graced the headlines every week, especially the past couple of years, once the cascade of government contracts awarded to GGS Aerospace catapulted its three founders onto the short list of billionaires under the age of thirty.
The story of her life was considerably less newsworthy. A dissertation arguing for more traditional child-rearing methods. Marriage to a compatible man. Four failed in vitro attempts. One quiet divorce and a year of floundering. But she was on track now, with a thriving psychology practice and the beginnings of a new parenting book. If she couldn’t have a baby, she’d help other parents be the best they could be.
Much better than her own parents had ever been. They didn’t know half of what had happened to her and didn’t care to know. They’d always been too caught up in moving to the next town one step ahead of creditors to notice their daughter’s problems, so she’d stopped telling them how rootless she’d felt. She’d stopped telling anyone.
All her angst, all her longing would be funneled into the book she’d conceptualized a few weeks ago. She’d birth a legacy instead of a baby.
“Yes, I’m a child psychologist. How does that make me what you need?”
“How do I raise him? How do I care for him?” Shay met her gaze and the strength of his plea hummed through the air. The years vanished as her flesh pebbled like it always had when provoked with that searing intensity. “Anyone can show me how to mix formula and change diapers. I’m asking you to teach me to be a father.”
With a shiver, she ordered her goose bumps to cease and desist. He wanted her help, as a professional advisor of sorts. Not a smart idea. How could she work with him so closely when he still had such a strong effect on her? “That’s a tall order. Hire a nanny.”
“I plan to hire a nanny. Help me pick a good one. Help me pick schools, toys. Grant entrusted his son to me and I have to do everything right.” The green tide pool of Shay’s eyes sucked at her, mesmerizing her, as he pleaded his case.
He meant it.
Never would she have suspected such a sense of responsibility lurked in the heart of the roller coaster ride sprawled on her couch.
Eight years ago, she’d ended their relationship because she’d wanted to have children with a man who would raise them by her side, not one who was likely to wind up in a broken heap at the bottom of a cliff after his rappelling rope failed. Not one who willingly sought to upset the status quo every five seconds.
How ironic that he was the one who had ended up with the baby.

“Please, Juliana.”
Shay fought the urge to clear his throat again.
He hadn’t said her name aloud in a long time. Hadn’t allowed himself to think about her. For the past eight years, he’d successfully avoided recalling what a mess she’d left behind when she’d walked out on him.
“Will you consider it? If the answer is no, I’ll be on my way.”
In the past twenty-four hours after making that phone call, he’d done nothing but think about Juliana Cane. The way her lips curled up in a half smile as she drew a bow across her violin. How she threw her head back while in the throes of pleasure. The exact shade of blue of her eyes.
Her still-gorgeous mouth pursed in thought, shifting the lines of her heartbreaker of a face. “What exactly are you proposing? I have clients. A practice. A life.”
A life. Well, so did he. Or he used to. These days, life had an aggravating tendency to be one way when he woke up and a whole other way by the time his head hit the pillow that night. If he slept at all.
He hadn’t closed his eyes once the night after Grant and Donna died. Too busy counting the if-onlys. Too busy shouldering blame and cursing himself for not double-checking that fuel line personally. Too busy figuring out that yeah, men weren’t supposed to cry, but after losing everything that mattered, rules didn’t apply.
Shay crossed his arms over the perpetual ache and scooted back against the fluffy, senior-citizen-approved couch cushions. “Sounds like the answer is yes.”
She straightened the perfectly symmetrical hem to her grown-up suit and crossed her mile-long legs. “Yes to considering it. Iced tea? It’s organic, and I only use stevia as a sweetener.”
He hated iced tea and always had. What did it say that she didn’t remember? Likely that she’d moved on and rightly so. They’d had no contact for eight years, and without the accident and his resulting parenthood, they would have continued to have no contact. Yeah, he’d followed her career. He couldn’t help but wonder if she’d found the boring life she seemed to want.
Shay trailed Juliana into the neat kitchen, eyes on her heels. Nice. Did a lot for her already spectacular legs. Those legs dredged up crystal-clear memories of her smooth limbs wrapped around his waist, her hot torso heaving against his.
Their relationship had bordered on mythical. The sex had been awesome, too. Nearly a decade later, the heat between them was banked. But still there. He could feel it.
The kitchen told him a bunch about this new professional version of Juliana Cane. Canisters lined the immaculate counter, all labeled in precise script. No dishes in the sink, not even on a Saturday. Crayon drawings lined the refrigerator—the only visual difference between this kitchen and one set up in a pristine home décor showroom.
Seemed like she’d hit the boring jackpot. He’d hoped it would make her happy, but no one as passionate about music as Juliana had been would ever be happy with such a vanilla life. The sad lines around her mouth proved it.
“I’m proposing a job,” he said as she retrieved a glass from an overhead cabinet. “In case that wasn’t clear. A consulting gig. Name your price.”
“Still not much of a negotiator, are you?”
She tucked a lock of pale blond hair behind her ear. A simple gesture, but a familiar one. Back in the day, Juliana’s hair had always hung loose and sexy, curling along her shoulders, begging for a man’s fingers to sweep it back.
His fingertips strained to reach for those pale locks but that wasn’t the purpose of his visit. Mikey needed him. Juliana didn’t.
“Negotiation is for people who can afford to walk away if the terms aren’t agreeable. I’m not trying to bargain. If I had another choice, I’d take it. You’re the last person I expected to be asking for help.”
The iced tea she’d been pouring splattered on the counter, missing the glass by six inches.
Rattled. Good. He barely recognized the woman she’d grown into. She looked the same, made some of the same gestures, but her reserve bothered him. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this polite stranger.
With the baby’s welfare sitting like bricks on his shoulders, the last thing he should be thinking about was how to rattle Juliana some more. But he was.
“I see.” She wiped up the spilled tea without looking at him. “It seems we have some latent issues to address before we can enter a consulting arrangement.”
No. There was no way he was discussing what had happened in college. He grinned, the best form of deflection he had on him. “The past is the past. Let’s leave it there. Now it’s addressed. Name your price.”
She handed him the glass, blank-faced. “I’d hardly call that addressing it. But I’m willing to let it lie, at least until I decide if I’ll accept. There’s a lot to consider.”
Calling her had dug up difficult memories, but he owed Grant and Donna. Mikey deserved the best. Shay wasn’t leaving without Juliana’s agreement. “Allow me to play the sympathy card, then. Be right back.”
He left Juliana and the glass of revolting tea in the kitchen and let himself out the front door. He waved at the car and Linda stepped out with Mikey fast asleep in her arms. His admin carried the baby to Juliana’s porch. Gingerly, Shay took him. Such a little guy to have so much expectation attached to him, and no matter what anyone said, holding him was nothing like carrying a football.
Linda held the door open and retreated to the car. He’d really stretched her job description lately and the raise he’d already given her wasn’t nearly enough. If he could get Juliana’s help, his admin was due for a two-week, all-expenses-paid cruise.
As soon as he cleared the foyer, Juliana came out of the kitchen.
“Oh.” Juliana’s hand flew to her mouth. “I didn’t know you brought him.”
“Figured you could say no to me, but not to that face.” He grinned at the quiet baby. First time in God knew how long Mikey wasn’t screaming his head off. “This guy here is Michael Grant Greene. We call him Mikey.”
Juliana’s eyes filled. “They named him after you.”
It wasn’t a question but he nodded, his throat too tight to respond. That had pretty much been the way of things for two weeks. Lots of nodding. Lots of pretending that if he could run a billion-dollar company, raising a baby should be a snap. But Mikey wasn’t just a baby. Mikey was his kid now. He’d already started adoption proceedings.
Why hadn’t someone warned him a piece of paper didn’t automatically bestow parenting powers? He was doing what he always did—facing down the gaping jaws of challenge without blinking. So why wasn’t he getting to a place where it started to come together, where the thick coating of scared-out-of-his-mind didn’t strangle him twenty-four hours a day?
The sleek blonde peering at him from those earthy blue eyes was going to get him back on solid ground. She’d always had a way about her, as if she could carry the world on her shoulders without stumbling. Steadiness. He’d missed that.
Missed her.
Where had that come from?
The past was in the past, but it hadn’t been a very clean break. He’d done a lot of yelling and Juliana had cried a lot but ultimately, she stubbornly dug her toes into the ground and he craved the sky. Both of them had been unwilling to compromise.
He’d loved her. A lot. But not enough to take up knitting so she’d have a guarantee he’d be in one piece at the end of the day. So she’d dumped him because she couldn’t love him as is. He was an adrenaline junkie to the core, sure, but he’d channeled considerable energy into their relationship. Some women would have sacrificed limbs to be so fiercely loved. It still stung that she wasn’t one of them.
If he’d known being in her presence would stir all that up again, he’d never have picked up the phone.
Their voices—or whatever demons haunted the baby—woke Mikey and he let loose with a shriek. That was the kid he’d lived with for the past two weeks. Shay rocked his arms. “Shh. Shh.”
Stupid soothing noises never worked but neither did anything else.
“Let me.” Juliana gathered up the baby, her eyes lit from within as she focused on the bundle of blanket and bleating kid, and nestled him against her breast. Mikey buried his face in her shirt and miraculously shut up.
Humming. Juliana was humming. He’d never thought of that.
Early-morning floor-treading, night after night, gave birth to much insanity and calling Juliana obviously topped the list. But usually nothing worked to stop Mikey’s constant crying. Shay was at the end of his rope. Mikey needed more than what Shay could physically do, and late at night, all he could think about was how Juliana had once made everything all right.
“See?” Shay whispered. “That’s why I’m here. You’re perfect for this job. Say yes.”
The tremulous smile on her face sent a shaft of hope through him. Hope and warmth. Eight years was a long time. They’d both changed—Juliana clearly more so, with her professional reserve and grown-up clothes—but regardless, he’d spent a long time not thinking about her. How hard could it be to work together?
“Fifty thousand dollars. And I want to write a book about it. You agree to let me use the experience, and I’ll do it.”
Did she not know how much he was worth? He’d have paid a million without hesitation. “A book? Diapers and giraffe mobiles aren’t a very interesting story. Maybe you should add a vampire.”
“Non-fiction. About parenting.” She shifted Mikey higher on her chest and brushed her lips across his baby-fine hair with a tiny smile. “It’s a project I’ve been thinking about for a while and I need a good platform. Teaching a man to be a father is great in and of itself. The fact that it’s you will make it a bestseller.”
“You want to use my name in a book?” A half step away from selling the story to a tabloid, and partly the reason why he was here instead of interviewing someone from Nannies-R-Us. “That’s going a little far.”
“You asked my price. I’m not the one with the problem.”
Apparently it was a negotiation. One day, he’d learn to think before speaking. Before it was too late to take back his words. “Only if I get approval of the final version and you stay at my house so you can be on call all the time. That’s my price.”
Looked like today wasn’t the day he’d learn his lesson because he definitely could have thought of a better way to phrase that. He hadn’t meant that kind of on call. But now he was thinking about it. A beautiful, single woman would be in his house, eating, sleeping—did she still sleep naked?
Her expression blanked. “I’d prefer to do it via video conferencing. Virtual consulting is as good as in person.”
“Not to me. I want total immersion. Mikey responds to you. I barely know how to change diapers and I have no idea what else I don’t know. I want to be a dad who puts Band-Aids on his knee and throws a ball in the backyard. That doesn’t happen automatically.”
Not even when the dad shared DNA with his son. Shay’s own father had never done Band-Aids or ball-throwing. The first time Shay had picked up Mikey after being awarded custody, he knew instantly he would be a different kind of dad, the kind he’d always wanted. The best replacement dad he could be. He had every intention of living up to the confidence Grant had in him.
Softness stole across her mouth. “No. It doesn’t. It takes commitment and sacrifice and it starts in the cradle. Some parents don’t understand that. It says a lot that you do.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged, unsure why the compliment meant so much. “Will you do it?”
“What’s the time frame? The breadth of fatherhood is a lot to cover in a week.”
“Then stay for six months. A year. I’ll double the money.”
She shook her head and frowned. “I can’t leave my practice that long. Some of these kids are really damaged. They need me.”
“They can get another therapist. I can’t get another you.”
Their gazes crashed and she held him captive, drawing out a connection that pulled him in like a magnet. She felt it, too—he could see the sway of her shoulders. Was she remembering how good it had been? The idea fed his own memory, and he couldn’t shut off the video in his head.
He’d moved on because he’d had no choice. Didn’t mean he’d forgotten the curves now hiding under her prim suit or the way she kept a good hold on him as she blasted him into outer space. The way she’d been the only one he’d wanted waiting for him when he came back to Earth.
“Perhaps we should discuss the nature of the arrangement you’re offering.” Her dry tone left no doubt she’d been right there with him on the trip down memory lane. “It’s strictly professional or no deal.”
He’d also never forgotten what had happened after he’d broken his leg snowboarding. She’d said sayonara and left his heart in pieces that never fit back together quite the same way. There was no worse pain than being told you weren’t okay exactly the way you were. Her love was conditional, available only if he became someone else, someone safe and acceptable.
He could hire a nanny tomorrow. Ask his mom for advice. But he wanted the best and he’d pay the emotional price for it.
“Of course. I’m interested in you for your expertise,” he said, but it was only half the truth.
He was also, suddenly, perversely, interested in proving to Juliana she’d made a big mistake by walking out on him. In proving he could get under the skin of this buttoned-up Juliana who was clearly willing to ignore the humming vibe between them. By the time he was through, she wouldn’t be ignoring anything. And she’d admit she wanted him. As is.
“I’ll help you,” she said, leaving him rabidly curious about why she’d agreed. Because of Mikey, the book or that trip down memory lane? He’d never been able to read her and the mystery intrigued him. “For a couple of months. I have to make arrangements for my clients and it’ll take a week or so. I’d like to see each of them personally to explain my absence.”
It was done. Relief flooded that empty place hollowed out by the explosion. The most qualified consultant money could buy would help him become the father Mikey deserved. If he was smart, he’d leave it at that.
He’d rather rattle Dr. Cane than play it safe.

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