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Jammed closely between rush hour commuters, her backpack hopefully still by the door where she'd left it, Ainslie didn't even need to hold the handrail to stay standing as the London Underground jolted her towards a destination unknown and her mind begged the question: where could she go?
There was Earls Court, of course—wasn't that where all Australian backpackers went when they were in London?
Only she wasn't backpacking. She had come to London to work. She'd had a job and accommodation already secured, and had been enjoying her work and life for three very full months—until today.
Her thick blonde hair was still dripping from the rain shower she'd been caught in, and beads of sweat broke out onto her brow as another surge of panic hit.
What on earth was she going to do?
Oh, she had friends, of course. Or rather other nannies she'd first met at playgroup, then at weekly get-togethers with the children. Later, on their time off, they'd discovered together all that London had to offer.
Friends who right now would be sitting in a bar. Sitting and listening, aghast, to the news that Ainslie had been fired, had been accused of stealing from her employers. And whether they believed she'd done it or not didn't really matter—their bosses moved in her ex-boss's circles, and if they wanted to keep their jobs the last thing they needed was a branded thief arriving homeless at their doors.
'Scusi.'A low male voice growled in her ear as the tube lurched, and the baby the man was holding was pressed further against her.
'It's okay,' Ainslie said, not even looking up, instead trying to move back a touch as the tube halted in a tunnel between stations. But there was no room to manoeuvre, and she arched her back, trying hard not to disturb the sleeping child in his arms.
God, it was hot!
Despite the cold December conditions outside, here on the tube it was boiling. Hundreds of people were crammed together, dressed in winter coats and scarves, damp from the rain, turning the carriage into an uncomfortable sauna, and Ainslie took a grateful gulp of air as someone opened an air vent.
The baby looked hot too. Bundled into a coat, he was wearing gloves and a woolly hat with earflaps—like an old-fashion fighter pilot—and his little cheeks were red and angry. But he didn't seem distressed. In fact he was asleep, long black eyelashes fanning the red cheeks.
Cute kid, Ainslie thought for about a tenth of a second— before her eyes pooled with tears at the thought of Jack and Clemmie, the little charges she hadn't even been allowed to say goodbye to.
'Sorry!' It was now Ainslie's turn to apologise, as she was pushed further against the baby. She saw his little face screw up in discomfort, and she pressed herself back, to try and give him more room, looking up at his father to briefly express her helplessness. Only suddenly she was just that...
Lost, just lost for a moment, as she stared into the most exquisite face she had ever witnessed close up. Glassy blue eyes that were bloodshot briefly met hers. His thick glossy black hair was unkempt, and his black eyelashes were as long as his son's. His mouth was set in a grim line as he nodded his understanding that it wasn't her fault, before his eyes flicked away down to his son, trying to soothe the now restless, grizzling baby back to sleep, talking to him in Italian. But his rich, deep voice did nothing to soothe the child. The babe's eyes fluttered open, as blue as his father's, but it was as if the child didn't even recognise him. His wail of distress caused a few heads to turn.
'Hush, Guido, it is okay...' He was speaking to him in English now—English that was laced with a rich accent as he again attempted to calm the baby. Now that he wasn't looking at her, Ainslie could look at him more closely. Though stunning, he was clearly exhausted, his skin pale, huge violet smudges beneath his eyes, and he needed to shave. The stubble on his jaw was so black it appeared blue.
'Guido, it is okay...' His voice was louder now, as the tube lurched back into motion, but it only distressed the baby further. His back arching like a cat trying to escape, he clawed his way up his father's chest, flinging himself backwards. But there was nowhere to go, and his little face pressed into Ainslie's as his father struggled to contain him.
'It's okay...' Ainslie didn't know if she was talking to the father or his child as he apologised, gained control and pulled the babe tightly in. But Ainslie could see the child's panic, had felt his burning cheek against hers for just a fraction of time—it had been boiling. Instinctively, as if at work, she put her hand to his head and felt him burning beneath it.
'He's hot...' For a second time she looked into the man's eyes, only this time her mind was on the child. 'He has a fever...'
'He's sick...' The man nodded, and Ainslie didn't know if he would have elaborated further because just then the tube pulled into a station, and as commuters piled off and piled on they were separated.
She should have put it out of her mind. Heaven knows she had enough to think about at the moment—like finding somewhere to stay for tonight, finding a job with no reference, clearing her name, telling her mum—only she couldn't. The little boy's screams, though muffled, still reached her; the look on his father's face, the wretched exhaustion, his voice, his eyes, stayed with her. This stranger had whirred her senses. He was wearing a heavy grey coat, but she'd caught a glimpse of a collar and suit. Maybe he'd picked the little boy up from daycare? Perhaps they'd just come from the doctor's...?
What did it matter? Ainslie told herself as the tube pulled into Earls Court station.
According to her guide it was the descending place for Australians in London—now all she had to do was find a youth hostel. Pushing her way through the slowly moving masses, relieved that her backpack had amazingly still been where she'd left it, Ainslie stood on the platform, taking a deep breath, glad to be out of the stifling crowd.
She could hear her mobile trilling and sat on a little bench, nervous when she saw that it was Angus, her old boss, calling. Wondering what he had to say, she let the call go through to her message bank, grateful she wouldn't have to come up with an instant answer to any difficult questions he might pose.
Angus Maitlin might be a famous celebrity doctor—one who appeared regularly in magazines and on television— but he was also a consultant in Accident and Emergency and a wise and shrewd man. Living with him for three months, Ainslie had worked that out quickly, and in the evenings when he had been at home, listening to him as he read a book to one of the kids, half watching the evening news Angus had always made her smile.
'There's more to it!' he'd often say at the end of a report—or, 'He did it!' as an emotional plea was read out.
But the memory wasn't making her smile now, as Ainslie wondered how she could possibly lie and get away with it to this wise, shrewd, and also terribly kind man.
'Ainslie—it's Angus. Gemmajust told me what happened. I don't know what to say. Look—I don't like that you're out there with no money or references—I hope you're at a friend's. If you needed money... we could have sorted something out. I'm working till late, but I'll ring tomorrow...'
Clearly Angus was finding the situation difficult, because his voice trailed off then, and Ainslie felt tears tumble out of her eyes for the first time since it had happened. Sadly she realised that he believed her to be guilty. She could hear the disappointment in his kind voice.
Well, of course he believed Gemma—she was his wife! A wife who had told her husband that things had been going missing since Ainslie had started. A wife who had told him she had caught the nanny red-handed, having found her ring and necklace in Ainslie's bedroom drawer. Better that than admitting that it was the nanny who had actually caught her red-handed.
Or rather red-faced, beneath her lover, when Ainslie had brought the children home unexpectedly early.
Slumped against the wall on the busy platform, Ainslie began crying her eyes out—not loud tears, just shivering gulps as she gave in and wept. She'd been counting on her Christmas bonus—had needed the money desperately, thanks to Nick and the mess that was unfolding back home. It was the first time she'd actually cried since she'd picked up her mail two weeks ago and found out that her ex-boyfriend had, unbeknownst to her, taken out a joint loan while they were together. The deceit had been almost more upsetting than the financial ramifications, and the tears she had held back spilled out now, as she faced the bleakest of Christmases. Not that anyone noticed. Not that anyone even gave her a second glance. Surrounded by people in one of the busiest cities in the world, never had Ainslie felt more alone.
She could hear the baby crying again too, and his loud sobs matched how she felt...
The fraught cries snapped Ainslie out of her own introspection, her eyes scanning the platform until she found him.
He wasn't a baby, more a toddler—eighteen months old, perhaps. He was standing—no, sitting. No, now he was lying on the platform floor and kicking his legs, throwing a spectacular tantrum. His less than impressed father was half kneeling, a laptop and briefcase discarded on the platform beside him, holding his child with one hand as with the other he attempted to open a pushchair with all the skill of someone who'd never opened a pushchair in his life—and certainly not while trying to hold onto a frantic toddler.
And just as the crowd had ignored her tears, so too did they ignore this man's plight. Heads down, they just hurried past, and either didn't see or pretended not to notice; everyone was too busy to offer help.
Wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, Ainslie walked over. 'Can I help?'
She watched him stiffen momentarily. His head was almost...
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Book Description Harlequin Presents, 2008. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0263864774