* * *
He'd avoided her for days. Two, to be exact, and it was making him hunger for company. And hearing the rapid pound of footsteps, the squeals of Kelly's laughter wasn't helping. The sound competed with the rain outside. The noise and music and giggling had filtered up to him all day, making him want to steal a peek, but he kept telling himself he had work to do. He glanced at the three computers from which he ran his companies and communicated with his employees, and snarled at them, then snatched up the remote and flipped on the TV. He turned the volume up enough so he couldn't hear the two females playing tag in the house.
Tag. Only Laura would think of doing that, he decided, then realized how well he'd come to know this woman in just a few days. Even as he stared at the afternoon talk show, he thought of how involved Laura was with Kelly, and that she easily devoted herself to his little girl. It wasn't just the laughter and chatter, but little things like the colored ribbons in Kelly's hair that matched her clothes, or the way Laura set a place setting for Kelly with linen and goblets just like Laura's. And how she dropped everything to hold his daughter when she needed it. But he wanted to be doing the holding, the one tying her shoes, wiping her tears.
He switched on the intercom so he could hear the entire house. Odd, to be eavesdropping when for so long there'd been no one to listen to.
"Miss Laura, look!"
He heard footsteps and a moan that was Laura's. That sound—the last time he'd heard it, when she was soft and pliant under his kiss, made his body seize. He rubbed his fingers across his lips, shaking off the memory, and listening.
"Oh, Kelly, she looks so pitiful."
"She'll get squashed if she stays in the stable, won't she?"
"Can I get her?"
"Oh, we just have to. Put on your raincoat, though. Now, you'll have to bend down and be patient. If she comes to you, then you can bring her in. If not, then she's really not ready to be with us and might scratch you."
"Okay," Kelly said, a little sullen. "But she'll come."
Frowning, Richard rose and crossed the upper floor to the far window overlooking the backyard. His daughter ran out, dressed in a yellow slicker, and went to the stable doors. There was a tiny coal-black kitten nestled near the door. Kelly knelt and held out her hand, waiting as Laura had instructed. Richard hit the intercom on the wall.
"A cat, Laura?"
"It's a kitten, and I thought you were working?"
He ignored that and said, "I don't think this is wise. She's only four."
"And she needs something to care for. It will ease the loss she's suffering, Richard. She needs to feel a little in control, and the kitten is harmless."
"Kittens meow at all hours, and it won't eliminate her grief."
"No, it won't. Her father coming out of his cave and being with her is what she needs, but then you won't do that, will you?"
Guilt pressed down on him and he looked at his hand, slashed with scars from the accident. "Dammit, Laura, you know I can't do that."
"No, Richard, I don't know that." Exasperation came through the intercom loud and clear. "What I do know is that you've lumped the reaction of a few onto me and Kelly, and you're cheating yourself out of a lot of love."
Richard rubbed the back of his neck.
"Oh, look! It came to her."
The excitement in Laura's voice nailed him in the chest. "Laura—"
Her voice faded a bit as he heard her say "Walk slowly, honey. It's slippery. Hold her very gently, she's just a baby." She was yelling out the back door. He could hear the hollowness of her voice beneath the slap of rain. Then Laura was close to the intercom, her voice warm but firm. "If you could see her face you would not question this. And I promise, I will see she takes good care of the kitten. It will be my responsibility. Happy, my lord?"
How was he going to fight that and not come out the ogre?
"And I'll make sure the kitten never sees you."
He drew his head back and scowled at the intercom. "Very funny. All right. It's your responsibility."
She clicked off, but he could still hear her voice coming through the speaker on his desk as she helped Kelly off with her coat and wet shoes.
"Oh, isn't she beautiful?" Laura crooned.
"Can I keep her?"
"Of course you can. She needs a home."
"But … what will Daddy say?" Fear laced her voice, and Richard didn't like hearing it. He did not want his baby to be afraid of him.
"Your daddy thinks it's wonderful."
Liar, he thought, and though Richard couldn't see Kelly's smile, he felt it all the way through the house. Laura was determined to make him a hero in his daughter's eyes.