There are some things money can’t buy. Then again, there are some things it can. Like a three-week, all-inclusive vacation at a gorgeous, mountain-top mansion overlooking the majestic Atlantic Ocean.
In Rio-freaking-De Janeiro!
Holy God, two years ago when my friends and I agreed to have a little fun and put our names in a hat, I never thought the girl who drew my name would send me to a breathtaking ocean-side estate for my twenty-fifth birthday. I’m just a small-time daycare teacher in New Jersey. For me, Brazil isn’t just a long-ass way from home—the villa where she sent me is completely over the top luxury and definitely out of my league.
That doesn’t mean that for the next three weeks I’m not going to take full advantage of it, though. I have been working my ass off in the daycare trenches, striving to climb the corporate ladder to a managerial position so I can put my hard-earned business degree to use. And then to top it off, my ex-fiancé, also known as Dr. Douchebaggery, left me for his head nurse, one who was willing and eager to give him the children he wanted.
I used to want kids, until I started working in the daycare classroom. It didn’t take long for me to realize that today’s kids are spoiled, self-centered little monsters who have all of zero respect for authority and like to be cruel to their peers. I decided I didn’t want to bring a child into a world like that, which ended up being an obvious deal breaker between my ex and me.
After getting overlooked for the supervisory position at the last managerial meeting, and getting dumped with no warning, I’m ready for this vacation more than anyone can imagine, and I damn well plan to make every moment count.
I shift my suitcase in my hand and step along the foliage-lined pathway leading to the ornate front door with its shiny brass lion knocker. The briny scent of the ocean wafts around me, and I breathe it in. I’m as giddy as a preschooler on Christmas morning as I tap on the knocker.
Bring it on.
From the other side of the thick mahogany, heavy footsteps pound down the hall, and I inch back a little to once again absorb the specular estate before me. I honestly have no idea what to expect behind these colossal doors, but I’m beyond excited to find out. I scan the place again, a million questions running through my mind. Is this someone’s home? Do they rent it out privately? Or is it some sort of bed and breakfast that caters to numerous guests at one time?
I don’t know, and I don’t care. My only goal is to have some much-needed fun and experience everything Rio—and its people—have to offer.
The heavy door opens, and I suck in a quick breath when I come face-to-face—or rather, face to chest—with a Brazilian god dressed in khaki shorts and a snug shirt.
Well, happy early twenty-fifth birthday to me.
Lush lips made for kissing curve upward when our eyes meet, and the sexy little dimple tugging at his right cheek curls my toes, among other body parts.
I’m going to hug and kiss whichever friend drew my name and set this up.
“Piper Young?” He dips his head, and a thick lock of dark hair falls to his eyes. He shoves it back, his arm muscles thickening and relaxing with the movement.
Aware that I’m staring at the hottest guy I’ve ever met—a guy that makes me think of rockin’ vacation sex—I try not to gawk at his yumminess as I nod eagerly. “Yes, that’s me.”
“We’ve been expecting you.”
And you’re better than anything I’ve ever expected.
I think it’s best to leave that unsaid, so I smile and say, “Nice to meet you.”
As he waves his hand to guide me in, I take in the sexy, light scruff on his face and sneak another glance at his hard body. Please, oh please, let this hottie be part of my dossier.
We’ve been expecting you.
Dammit, the “we” part of that sentence must mean he’s married. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s every girl’s tall, dark, and handsome fantasy come to life. When we made the pact ages ago, we all agreed not to come back from our epic journey until we had back-bending sex. Even though I’d be more than happy to let this guy twist me like a balloon artist, if he’s hitched, it’s time for me to nix my dirty thoughts.
“I’m Lucas Santos,” he says, then grins sheepishly. “But of course, you already know that.”
Um, nope. Didn’t already know that.
“Piper,” I say and extend my arm. “But of course, you already know that.” He smiles at my teasing and takes my hand in his. His big, warm fingers close around mine, swallowing my entire hand and wrist. Heat floods me, and I take a moment to consider how those strong hands of his would feel on my body, caressing my nipples, which are currently stirring to life and hell-bent on saying hello.
Uh, what did you just say about nixing your dirty thoughts?
Move on, Piper. Move on…
He lets my hand go, and I take a moment to pull myself together as he waves toward the rooms off the grand entranceway. “How about a quick tour?”
I stare down the wide hallway. “Either that or you’ll have to give me a compass. I could get lost in here for days.”
He laughs—a rich, decadent sound—and my traitorous nipples harden just a little more.
Damn you, hormones.
“The floor plan is pretty straightforward. Right down the hall, at the back of the house, you’ll find the kitchen. Help yourself to anything.” The place is massive, with a curving staircase leading to the upstairs. As I look around the house, I see the ocean through the bay windows. Gorgeous. “My home office is this way. It’s where I spend most of my days.” He points to the left, and as I walk with him, he showcases all the big rooms. “Right off the living room is my bedroom. You’ll be upstairs, and for the next few weeks, I want you to treat our home as your home.”
Did that invitation extend to the bedroom as well?
Shit, get it together Piper. The man might be married.
“If there is anything at all you need, all you have to do is ask.”
Oh, if he only knew.
Seriously, though, what’s really going on here? I want to straight up ask, but he seems so happy to see me, so sure I know why I’m here, that I close my mouth and wait for some sort of clue as to why sexy Lucas Santo is telling me that, for the next three weeks, his home is my home.
From my peripheral vision, I catch a movement, a quick flash of pink, and Lucas follows my gaze. “Is that you, kiddo?” A little girl, no more than four, lingers at the doorway, eyeing me suspiciously. “Why don’t you come on over here and meet Piper?”
The girl’s lashes flash rapidly, and the uncertainty, the small flickers of fear in the depths of her big almond eyes, give me a funny little lump in my throat.
“She’s nervous around strangers,” he tells me quietly.
I might not want kids anymore, but I do know how to talk to them and ease their worries. Not just because of my job, but because of my own experiences with strangers.
“Hey there,” I say and go down on one knee, my heart squeezing when I think back to the day those strangers entered my home and took me away. I, too, was around four years old at the time and frightened half to death, not knowing where I was going or what would happen to me. A few months before, my mother had just upped and left us, and when my father started drinking heavily, the neighbors called social services. “I’m Piper. What’s your name?”
When she continues to stare at me, plucking at the ratty teddy bear she’s strangling in the crook of her elbow, Lucas shifts restlessly.
“I thought you knew,” he whispers.
I stand back up and lift my chin to focus on Lucas. When I do, I notice that he’s stepped closer, crowding me. I catch a whiff of his scent: sun, sand, one hundred percent hot man designed for sex. A fine quiver moves through me—a normal female reaction to his closeness—but I shouldn’t be thinking about a married man that way, or any way at all. That sort of makes me a sick human being.
“Her name?” I ask. Why on earth would I know her name?
“No, I mean. Didn’t Alyssa explain…?”
As his voice falls off, an uneasy knot tightens my gut. “Alyssa?” I ask, fishing for information. I’m not sure what he knows, or what he thinks I know, so I hold my response and wait for the pieces of the puzzle to fall in to place.
He frowns. “Alyssa, your friend. My distant cousin.”
Ah, so Alyssa is my secret sponsor.
“No, she didn’t tell me your little girl’s name,” I hedge, understanding we’re not talking about the child anymore, but something else entirely…something that’s going to reduce our friend group by one—because if I’m right about why she sent me here, I’m going to murder Alyssa, slowly and painfully.
Looking anxious, Lucas casts a worried look at his daughter, his body suddenly tense. “But she did tell you Maddie stopped speaking after her mother died last year, right?” he asks, his voice so low I have to strain to hear him.
My heart pinches as I take in the deep sadness in his eyes, his genuine concern for his little girl. “Ah, yeah, of course.” I should excuse myself. Go to the bathroom and call Alyssa to find out the exact details before I do or say something to make matters worse for this family.
He relaxes slightly, the hard ridges of his face softening as he slides his hands into his pockets, pulling his khakis lower on his hips. Jeez, just when I thought he couldn’t look any hotter, he goes and proves me wrong.
“Okay, good. We’re on the same page then.”
Same page, different book, maybe.
“Let’s get you settled into one of the guest room then I’ll give you the rest of the tour. Maddie’s regular nanny Eugenie left instructions.”
And there is. The bombshell I’ve been waiting for him to drop.
I’m here to babysit Maddie.
Good-bye epic sex.
What did one get for strangling a friend these days?
“Do you just have the one suitcase?” he asks.
Walk away, Piper, before this vacation becomes a complete train wreck.
I nod, and he says, “It might take Maddie time to warm to someone new. She’s gone through so much trauma. It’s not easy for a little girl to open herself up after losing her mother.”
Oh, hell. How can I walk away now?
Maybe I’ll poison that cockle soup Alyssa’s always raving about.
He dips his head, and that rebellious lock of hair once again falls over his face. “With your experience in a daycare, I’m sure taking care of one little girl for three weeks, as opposed to thirty or more in a classroom, will be a breeze.”
I stand still, feeling like I did that day in junior high when, on the way to soccer practice, Alyssa had accidentally slammed my fingers in the back door of her mother’s SUV—nauseous and dizzy.
Lucas steps around me and puts his hand on the heavy front door. He gives it a little shove, and I spin around and glance outside before he cuts off the view. What the hell had my friend been thinking? This vacation was supposed to be about me getting away from kids, not babysitting some millionaire’s little girl. Am I being punked? I search for signs of Ashton Kutcher, but as Lucas closes the door, the walls begin to close in on me.
I breathe past the panic. How can this be happening? The whole point behind the New Year’s Eve pact was to draw a name and secretly put together a sexy dossier for an epic adventure where sensual dreams come true.
I drew Harper’s name that fateful night, and I have spent months saving and putting together a once in a lifetime trip to England for her—with a little catch. One that will knock off her socks—as well as her panties—not lock her in a mansion taking care of a little girl who looks at me like I’m the monster under her bed. Truthfully, I might babysit kids for a paycheck, on my way to a managerial position, but in the two minutes I’ve been here, one thing has become perfectly clear. Maddie needs a mother figure, and that is something I’m not, and never tried to be, to the kids I care for. I’d be doing this family an injustice.
Lucas’s brow pulls together, and he angles his head, his eyes searching my face, no doubt registering the shock. “Piper, are you—?” A small squeak sounds from behind us, and we both shift to see Maddie dashing into the other room.
“It’s like this, ” I begin, ready to tell Lucas there’s been a mistake. But when he turns back to me, and I see the lost, frightened way he’d been looking at his daughter, my heart turns to Jell-O.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Don’t go soft now, Piper. You are not the girl for the job.
Then who is?
Lucas looks back at me and smiles, but it doesn’t reach those dark, haunted eyes that hold so much worry. “I’m sorry, what was it you were saying?”
Walk away, Piper. You’re not equipped to help this family.
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and run the words around my head so they come out right before I vocalize them. But when I open my mouth, I find myself saying, “I—I’m sure Maddie and I will do just fine.”