Arriving at the Old Boathouse, on the rugged coast of Devon, Gaby suddenly has second thoughts. She's a super-nanny sent to help families who have hit a brick wall. But the rift between Luke and his daughter can only be bridged if Luke allows himself to be healed as well...
Gaby is perfect for the role, and Luke and Heather quickly capture her heart. But in helping to fix this family Gaby realises her real assignment is to become a mother to Heather...and a wife to Luke!
Shorlisted for the RNA's Romance Prize
Her Parenthood Assignment is a well-written tale which will tug at your heartstrings and tickle your funny bone with its captivating blend of dramatic scenes, hilarious one-liners and potent emotional intensity.
I don't know about you, but I love stories—real life, or fiction—in which a person defies other people's expectations, growing and blossoming into something surprising. Gaby in HER PARENTHOOD ASSIGNMENT is that kind of character. I cheered her on every time she stood up for herself, every time she refused to be the shrinking violet everyone took her for. And with the short-fused Luke around, pushing all her buttons, she had a lot of standing up for herself to do.
But, I also can't resist a gruff hero with a heart of gold underneath. So, like Gaby, I actually began to sigh a little every time Luke got grumpy. There's something utterly compelling about a big, strong man with a few chinks in his armour.
The story is set on the River Dart in South Devon, an area I know well from many childhood holidays, and still visit regularly. There's something about the rugged coastline, rolling hills and chocolate-box villages that is both refreshing and restful—the perfect setting for Luke and Gaby to discover the liberating power of love as they push each other to grow and change.
I really hope you enjoy Luke and Gaby's story. It's a bumpy ride that had me sometimes chuckling, sometimes crying as I wrote it.
Without him, of course.
What he wouldn't give to hear Heather laugh like that when she was with him. He put the medical journal he'd been reading down. At least her laser vision had gone into hibernation. He should just be grateful for every little bit of progress.
He took his reading glasses off and folded the magazine closed. If there was one thing he knew about female shopping trips, it was that the male of the species was required to grunt his approval at the spoils. It was as if the whole hunter-gatherer thing had been reversed.
Extra brownie points would be earned if he appeared to inspect each and every purchase without them having to come and drag him out of his study. He'd learned this much from Lucy. From the day they'd been married, she'd managed to spend money faster than he could earn it. He'd come to realise that it hadn't been about the things she'd bought, it had been about the buzz.
Lucy had lived for excitement. She'd been dazzling when he'd first met her. Beautiful, vivacious, and always on the verge of some new adventure. He'd been amazed she'd looked twice at him. Later, when their relationship got serious, he'd assumed that her reckless, thrill-seeking personality and his more cautious nature had been the perfect complement. He'd been devastated that night at the hotel when he'd seen her check in with her boss, Alex. Obviously he hadn't been able to offer his wife enough of the thrills she sought, after all.
He stood up, sending the office chair skidding backwards, and marched out of the room. How was it that he could still feel the sting of her betrayal when he'd forgotten how to feel the everyday stuff—like how to be a normal, rational human being?
Perhaps seeing Heather in her party dress would cheer him up.
His study was tucked away round the back of the house, down a little passageway that ran past the mud room. As he approached the hall, he could hear scuffling and squealing. Gaby entered through the doorway that led to the entrance hall and stood with her back to it.
'Could you hold on a second?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Could you just wait here for a minute or two?'
He made a move for the door handle, but she blocked him.
'What the hell is going on?'
'Heather would like you to see the whole effect in one go, so we just need to give her a chance to go upstairs and get changed.' Heather's distinctive thump could be heard on the stairs.
'I'm upstairs now! You can let him out,' she yelled.
Gaby moved away from the door knob to allow him to pass. Unfortunately, the passage had been built in an earlier time, when the residents' space requirements were obviously meagre, and she came close enough for him to smell the perfume she must have splashed on in the department store.
The daft thing was, it made him angry. She didn't smell like Gaby any more—of soap and fresh air. She smelled like Lucy used to, drenched in expensive scent. In the days between her death and his arrest, Luke had opened all the windows in their London home. Lucy's perfume had only reminded him of how she had dabbed it on that last night she'd gone out to meet him, telling her husband she was off for a night out with the girls.
It had been her best perfume. The one she saved for really special occasions. The fact she'd chosen to wear that one had solidified the half-doubts and questions he'd been having for some time. It was that scent that had caused him to jump in his car and follow her.
Gaby was looking at him. He ripped the door open, walked through it and kept going across the hallway and into the lounge.
He didn't want to analyse why making comparisons between Lucy and Gaby should bother him. He just knew he wanted Gaby to be different. He didn't want to find out that the warm, caring, serene person was a front for something else.
He was so lost in stewing over the past, he almost didn't notice Gaby enter the room a few minutes later. He looked up and knew from her reaction he wasn't wearing his happy face. Too bad. It was the best he could do now the dark memories had started circling round him.
'Presenting Miss Heather Armstrong,' Gaby announced, with a flourish of her hand.
Luke was definitely not ready for what he saw next. It could have been someone else's daughter standing in the doorway, a hopeful expression in her large eyes. Gone was his little girl, and in her place was a stranger, her hair cut in some kind of layered style that ended around her shoulders. A stranger who no longer wore a familiar scowl, but sparkled and shone.
There was no sign of the baby pink dress he'd expected. Instead he could see hot pink jeans and a glittery silver top. True, it had sleeves, not straps, and it didn't reveal any flesh, but it was far too grown up for his little Heather.
He stood up. 'My God, what on earth are you wearing?'
Heather's face fell. 'Don't you like it? Gaby helped me pick it out.'
He shot an accusing look at her partner in crime, but Gaby didn't look one bit repentant. Instead, she looked as if she were about to rip his head off.
'She looks lovely. Doesn't she, Luke'
He opened his mouth to reply, but a flash of something sparkly in Heather's ear caught his eye. He marched towards his daughter, and lifted her hair away from the side of her head.
'Pierced ears! At your age? Take them out right now!'
Heather's hands flew over her ears. Now she wore a more familiar expression. The one with seven kinds of hatred for him in her eyes. So why didn't that make things better?
'You always spoil everything!' she screamed, then she spun around and raced out of the room and up the stairs.
He turned his attention to Gaby, whose face was a shade of pink he'd never seen before.
'How dare you? How dare you do that to my little girl?'
Gaby's jaw clenched.
'I'm waiting. What on earth were you thinking?'
She looked at the floor. He had a feeling she was about to unleash the torrent she'd been holding back since he'd first opened his mouth. But when she looked up at him again, she merely said, 'You're right to be angry. I was wrong to let Heather get her ears pierced without your permission. I'm really sorry. We just got carried away…'
That was it? How about telling him to get a grip, that it wasn't as if she were wearing a three-inch mini-skirt and a crop top? Or that ninety percent of the girls in Heather's class had their ears pierced. She was just going to suck up all that righteous anger and buckle under?
It was then that he realised he wanted her to fight with him. He was sick of seeing her sweep all her negative emotions under the carpet and pretend they didn't exist. The childish urge to push the issue was so strong it was practically irresistible. He wanted to see the ever-calm Gaby lose her cool. And underneath the layers of bluff, he thought maybe she wanted it too.
'You're such a coward, Gaby!'
Her chin trembled, but not with the threat of tears. It was the effort of holding back her anger. The knowledge only spurred him on further.
'You heard. You think I'm being unreasonable and you're too gutless to say it.'
She'd be right, of course, if she did tell him he was being unfair. Maybe that's why he wanted to hear it from her. Perhaps it would help stop the rollercoaster his emotions were riding on at the moment. Heaven knew he was powerless to do it himself.
But that wasn't it, and he knew it. He wanted to see her skin flush, and her eyes flash, just as they were doing now.
'That's right. You're too scared to tell people what you really think, in case they don't like you any more. Well, get over it!' He knew he was pushing her too far, but he couldn't stop himself.
'You want to know what I really think?'
'Yes, I do.'
She faltered when he said that, as if she hadn't actually expected anyone to be interested in what she had to say. But he could see she was revving up to it, and the adrenaline surge that hit him made him feel triumphant at the prospect.
'Okay, okay. Just give me a second.' She was all jittery, hardly able to keep still. She plunged her hands into her jeans pockets, pulled them out again and smoothed down her hair. He almost laughed at the gesture. Even when she was about to yell, she couldn't help making some part of herself more presentable.
'I think…I think you're too hard on Heather!' The words fell out in a jumble. He wasn't sure whether he thought she looked surprised or relieved she'd got the sentence out.
She shoved her hands back in her pockets.
'Come on, Gaby, don't lose it now! Don't water it down and make it nice. Just let the words come out the way they want to.'
He saw fire glint in her eyes and his stomach rolled. He'd better be ready for what he was prodding her into unleashing.
'You are a control freak, Luke Armstrong! If you can't get your own way, you have a tantrum. And you wonder where Heather gets it from!' She wasn't shouting, or at least, not speaking at shouting volume, but her words carried the same vehemence as if she were shrieking at the top of her lungs.
'I think you bully her. I think you push and push to make her match the idea of the perfect daughter you have in your head. But it's stifling her, Luke! Suffocating her. One day you'll open your eyes and realise you've snuffed out the wonderful spark inside her, and she'll never forgive you for it. You'll never forgive yourself, either. So if you want that for her, just keep going the way you are, but don't expect me to hang around and watch you do it!'
All the time she'd been speaking her eyes hadn't left him. She'd fixed him with an intense, burning stare, and he was unable to look away. She broke eye contact and looked at the ceiling.
'You need to give her space to be herself, Luke. To love her, you need to let her be free.'
Her eyes returned to him as she spoke the last phrase. She wasn't quite so heated now and her breathing was fast and shallow. Somewhere along the line they'd stopped talking about just Heather.
Adrenaline from the row was still crashing through his system. In the silence, he could hear it inside his head, throbbing in his ears. And all he could see were those chestnut eyes, waiting for him to respond. But instead of being shuttered, they glowed with a defiant light.
She looked incredible. Lit up from the inside. In fact, she looked so alive that the only possible response was to close the distance between them, cup her face in his hands and kiss her.
From "HER PARENTHOOD ASSIGNMENT" by Fiona Harper
Mills & Boon Romance January 2007
ISBN: 0-263-19567-8 Copyright: © 2007 by Harlequin Books S.A.
This excerpt is posted by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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