Nick vowed that he would make it work. He would prove Candace wrong. He was the only family Jennie had.
A pair of black swans glided toward them, long necks gracefully arched. Candace started to smile as Jennie beat her arms up and down and let out a squeak. Even Nick grinned at the baby’s antics.
“Sorry, no food.” Candace spread her hands out as the swans slowed in front of them.
“Look, there are even eels,” Nick said as an inquisitive nose poked out the water. “See?” Jennie was all eyes. “Want to take a closer look?”
Not liking the sound of that, Candace said quickly, “She’s fine in the stroller.”
But Nick ignored her warning and unclipped the restraint. “Come on,” he told Jennie. “I’ll show you.”
Jennie hung out of his arms as he hoisted her up, her arms flapping frantically. Little breathless puffs of baby excitement filled the air, and Candace clambered to her feet. “Nick, this isn’t a good idea—”
“Don’t be such a killjoy!”
Ducks crowded around, craning their necks, beady eyes fixed on him. In the water, the swans paddled in one spot. Nick laughed, shrugging aside the cautioning hand Candace placed on his arm as Jennie gurgled with unrestrained glee.
“Just look at her.” With Nick reveling in the baby’s amazement, Candace didn’t have the heart to spoil the moment. “Next time we’ll bring bread,” he promised the baby.
More ducks were scrambling out of the water.
“Nick, that’s probably close enough.” Candace cast an anxious glance at the water’s edge. “Those are geese coming—and they can be quite aggressive.”
“Jennie’s having the time of her life. And so am I.”
There was no suitable response to that. Candace let out the breath she was holding and tried to stop hyperventilating about the way Jennie was hanging over his arm. He wouldn’t drop the baby, she told herself. He really wouldn’t…
So why couldn’t she relax? She ought to be thrilled Nick was having such fun with Jennie, yet Candace couldn’t stop fretting as she cast a wary glance along the grassy bank to the trio of advancing, honking geese.
In Nick’s arms Jennie gave a squawk. The geese slowed. He chuckled. “That’s my girl. Give ’em hell!”
Candace frowned, but forced herself to bite her lip and say nothing.
“Look—” Nick took a step forward and pointed “—more ducks.”
Unable to stop herself, Candace hurried up beside him. “Careful, don’t drop the baby!”
Nick returned his hand to Jennie’s waist, anchoring her securely against him. To Candace’s increasing annoyance, he ignored her and murmured to Jennie, “Those are woodland ducks. I used to feed ones just like that in the creek near my grandmother’s cottage when I was a boy.”
After a second, Candace’s curiosity got the better of her. She knew so little about Nick, and what she’d read in the business newspapers and gossip pages mentioned nothing about a grandmother. It made him seem more human. “You lived with your grandmother?”
“Yes, she was a tough lady with a heart of gold. She never complained when I’d sneak a loaf out of the pantry to feed the ducks, even when times were tight.” Hitching Jennie higher up against his shoulder, he said, “What about seeing if there’s anything on the café’s menu that’s suitable for Jennie?”
Candace waved to the stroller where it stood surrounded by ducks. “I’ve got a tumbler with diluted juice she can have, and some apple slices…if the ducks haven’t gotten to them. We don’t need to go to the café.”
“I still owe you a coffee by way of an apology.”
Candace gave him a measuring look “Oh, all right then.” Then realizing he might well be affronted by her lack of enthusiasm, she added, “That would be nice.” And it would have the added bonus of getting them away from the water’s edge where Jennie’s flock of new feathered friends hovered.
She held out her arms for the baby. Nick hesitated for a fraction of a second, then surrendered Jennie. Candace stepped backward.
Nick leaped forward as she stumbled. Candace teetered, grabbing at him with one hand, clinging to the baby with the other, her eyes fixing on Nick in fright.
“Jennie!” she pleaded.
For a split second Candace was aware of the solid warmth of his body, the heavy thud of his heart, before the sobs of her own panicky breath drowned it all out, and Nick’s arms locked around Jennie. Jennie was safe.