“Have dinner with me, Melanie. We need to talk.”

It was the smell of moo goo gai pan that did it, she thought. Not that smile. Not that pleading look she’d never seen on his face before. Okay, he was right, they needed to talk. Getting it all out on the table, so to speak, would make it clearer to Jack that she couldn’t marry him.

She nodded and he smiled, walking to the kitchen and dropping the pints and bags on the kitchen table. She was right behind him.

He turned and took the laundry basket. “I’ll do this.”

“I’m capable.”

“I don’t doubt that. But Her Highness looks like she’s working up to a Mach 1 scream.”

Melanie looked. Juliana was trying to move the walker, but her legs were still too short and all she did was kick the air in frustration. The baby was reaching for her and Melanie’s heart shifted. She handed over the basket and went to her daughter. “Come on, munchkin, dinner’s on.”

Jack watched her with the baby for a moment. How Melanie soothed Juliana, offered her a cracker as she set her in the high chair. She held a conversation with their daughter as if they were the only two people in the world, and feeling like the odd man out, Jack disappeared into the garage with the laundry basket, assuming that was where the washer and dryer were located. They were. He separated a load. Ignoring the lace panties and bras, he focused on the baby clothes. Baby detergent, he thought, remembering a TV commercial for it. He started the load and went back into the kitchen. Melanie was feeding the baby.

Jack watched. He couldn’t help it. Just the sight of them, doing something so ordinary, fascinated him.

Then Juliana leaned out to look past her mother at him. His heart soared and he blew her a kiss. She smiled and spit food as she tried her best to talk to him, and Melanie turned to look at him, a smile tilting her lips.

“I think we’re communicating,” Jack said.

“That doesn’t say much for your intellect.”

His gaze narrowed. “You’re crabby.”

“I’m sorry. I’m a mother. This time of day we’re required to be crabby.”

He smiled, shaking his head and moved to dish up the Chinese food. “You ready for some chow?”

“I’ll wait. But you go ahead.”

He frowned at her over his shoulder.

“I have to give her a bath after this. She sleeps better.”

Jack nodded. “I’ll wait for you. But…” He fished in a bag and took out a few egg rolls, then cut them in pieces and brought the plate to her. “Appetizers?”

She snatched up a piece and popped it into her mouth. Jack sat adjacent to her as she finished off the plate while she fed the baby. Then she cleared the dishes and lifted Juliana out of the high chair.

“Bath time,” Melanie said to Juliana, then looked at Jack. “We’ll be a little while.”

A direct hint for privacy, he thought and leaned back in the chair and folded his arms. He wanted to be a part of their lives, not a pest. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Dang. Hopes dashed again,” she said, and walked to the bathroom.

Jack shook his head. She was as determined to keep him at a distance as he was to get closer. But then, she really didn’t know him that well. But she was going to learn.

A half hour later, Melanie closed the door to Juliana’s room and stepped into the bathroom to clean up the mess in there. She was beat. And she really didn’t want to deal with Jack on top of that, she thought, bending to collect dirty clothes and towels. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and groaned. Her hair was coming out of the ponytail, she didn’t have on a stitch of makeup, and her shirt had baby food all over the shoulder.

Some “I can handle everything” impression, she thought. She dumped the clothes in the laundry hamper and slipped into her bedroom to run a brush through her hair and change her blouse. It smelled, anyway.

When she stepped out of the bedroom, the aroma of moo goo gai pan made her mouth water and she walked toward the living room. Something more than maternal instinct made her pause at her daughter’s room. She heard Jack’s voice, soft and deep, like the distant rumble of thunder. Gently she pushed open the nursery door.

He was leaning over the crib, stroking the baby’s back. “No, I swear to you, princess, nothing is ever going to hurt you. I’m here for you, even if Mommy doesn’t want it. I’m not going away. And I’m going to protect you. You can count on it.”

Melanie’s throat tightened.

“I’ll slay your dragons for you, princess. I give you my word of honor.”

Tears burned in Melanie’s eyes.

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