Jessica Hart

Assignment: Baby

Release Date: 2002

Gabriel Stearne might be a brilliant businessman – but there is nothing on his illustrious CV about children! So the unexpected delivery to the office of a baby leaves him only one place to turn – his PA Tess Gordon. Gabriel and Tess have been hiding their fiery attraction for each other behind strictly professional behaviour. Now, Tess has to stay in Gabriel’s apartment to help him care for little Harry. And between late-night feeds and early wake-up calls, anything could happen!


TESS sighed. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘I’ll help you – but help is the operative word!’ Lifting her chin, she met Gabriel’s gaze with a challenging expression in her clear brown eyes. ‘I’m not looking after him all by myself. You’re going to have to do your share.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Gabriel, too relieved to object to any conditions. Anything was better than being left on his own with the baby! ‘We’ll take him to my apartment,’ he went on quickly, before she had a chance to change her mind. ‘I can drive you home to get whatever you need for the night, and then we can go straight on.’

He was all set to hustle her off there and then, but things were happening a bit too quickly for Tess’s liking. ‘We could do with some advice first,’ she prevaricated, not sure she was ready to be swept off to Gabriel’s apartment just yet. She might have agreed to help him, but there seemed to be a lot of things they hadn’t discussed yet, and she wanted to be clear just what it was she had agreed to do.

‘I thought you said all the agencies would be closed?’ said Gabriel, frowning.

‘I’m not talking about ringing an agency. I’ve got a friend who had a baby earlier this year. Since neither of us know what we’re doing, I think it would be worth giving her a ring – if that’s OK with you, of course,’ she couldn’t resist adding with an innocent look that didn’t fool Gabriel for a moment. ‘I know you don’t like us making personal phone calls,’ she reminded him virtuously.

‘Yes, yes, get on with it!’ snapped Gabriel, thinking that staff phone calls were the least of his problems right now.

To his horror, he found the baby thrust into his arms as Tess reached across the desk to twist the phone round to face her. She had Bella’s number on the phone’s memory, but since she had just reminded Gabriel about his threatened crackdown on personal calls, she decided it would be wiser not to draw attention to it. That meant looking it up in her diary, which was something she rarely had to do with all the technology at her fingertips, and laboriously dialling the number in full.

Not that Gabriel was likely to have noticed. He had followed her to the desk, clearly in case he had to hand Harry quickly back, and was holding him awkwardly at arm’s length, and eyeing him with a mixture of trepidation and appalled fascination. Tess wouldn’t have believed that anyone could look more uncomfortable with a baby than her, but Gabriel managed it easily.

Presented with a baby, the ruthless arrogance had been wiped from his face, she noticed with some amusement. In his shirt sleeves, with his tie askew where he had been tugging at it in frustration, he seemed younger and much more approachable all of a sudden.

That had to be an illusion, thought Tess sourly. She had never met anyone less approachable than Gabriel Stearne. He was cold, unscrupulous, and completely out of touch with the people who worked for him, and whom he treated with a blend of indifference and contempt.

And this was the man she was going to spend the evening with, she reminded herself with a sinking heart.

Oh, well, she thought. She would just have to keep thinking of the money.

Perching on the front of her desk, she listened to the busy beeping in her ear as the phone connected and watched Gabriel jiggle the baby nervously up and down. For a moment, Harry looked unsure whether he liked it or not, and as his face screwed up, Tess held her breath, waiting for the outraged wail that she was sure would follow.

But Harry didn’t cry. He dissolved without warning into a gummy and quite irresistible smile which left Gabriel completely nonplussed. Tess saw astonishment, relief and perplexity chased themselves across his face, swiftly succeeded by a kind of baffled pride at the baby’s unexpected reaction to his handling, before he smiled instinctively back at Harry.

Tess nearly fell off the desk. It was like running up to someone you thought you knew and finding yourself face to face with a perfect stranger. She had never seen Gabriel smile before – she had never even imagined him smiling – and she was caught off guard by the way the cold eyes lit with humour and the stern mouth relaxed, creasing his cheeks and revealing teeth that were strong and very white against his dark features.

Her heart jerked queerly in her chest. If Gabriel had been taken aback by Harry’s smile, it was nothing to her own reaction to his, and she hoped her own expression wasn’t as easy to read. She felt jarred and breathless, and it was some moments before she realised that a puzzled voice was speaking in her ear.

‘Hello? …. Hello? Who is this?’

‘Bella!’ Tess jerked her gaze away from Gabriel and recollected herself with an effort. ‘It’s Tess.’

‘Tess!’ cried Bella in carrying tones. ‘I haven’t heard from you for ages! How’s the boss from hell?’

‘Standing right beside me,’ said Tess thinly. She didn’t dare look at Gabriel. Had he heard Bella or not?

As succinctly as she could, she explained the situation to her friend, but it wasn’t easy with Bella exclaiming and interposing irrelevant questions, and it took Tess some time to get her to the point. Once, she risked a glance at Gabriel, who raised a sardonic eyebrow. He had heard all right!

‘Just tell us what to do, Bella,’ she said hastily. ‘Harry’s grandmother said that we would everything we needed under the pram, but I might as well be looking under the bonnet of a car. There’s a whole lot of stuff there, but I’ve got no idea how any of it works.’

Responding to her frantic gesture, Gabriel pushed the pram nearer, so Tess could describe the various packets and bit of equipment that had been packed onto the lower rack.

‘Hhmnn.’ Bella considered. ‘How old is this baby?’

Tess covered the receiver with her hand, although since Gabriel had clearly already heard both sides of the conversation it seemed a little late for discretion. ‘How old is Harry?’ she asked him.

‘How do I know?’ he replied unhelpfully.

The ‘boss from hell’ jibe was still rankling, and he was annoyed to find that he had been distracted by the way Tess was leaning against her desk. She was wearing the same discreetly elegant grey suit she always wore, the same sensible court shoes, but she looked somehow different. Had she always had legs like that? Gabriel wondered. And if so, how was it that he had never noticed them before?

‘A baby is a baby, isn’t it?’ he added crossly, hoping that Tess hadn’t noticed him staring.

‘Apparently not,’ she said, holding on to her own temper with an effort. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on what Bella was saying when she could feel him frowning at her. Obviously Bella’s comment about ‘the boss from hell’ hadn’t gone down well.

Tough. Tess tried to convince herself that she didn’t care. It wouldn’t do Gabriel any harm to realise what they all thought of him, although the timing was less than ideal, she had to admit. If he had to learn how much she disliked him, it might have been better if it hadn’t been just before they had to spend the entire evening together!

Pushing the prospect to the back of her mind, Tess turned back to the problem of Harry’s age. ‘Did your brother mention when he was on this famous cruise?’ she tried again.

‘Some time last summer … August, I think he said.’ Gabriel calculated quickly. ‘That would make Harry about five months now.’

Tess, still trying to add nine months on to August, abandoned her attempts at mental arithmetic and uncovered the receiver once more. ‘Five months, we think,’ she told Bella.

‘Hhmnn … and where exactly are you proposing to take this baby?’

‘To Mr Stearne’s apartment.’

‘Oh?’ Bella managed to invest two letters with at least sixteen syllables. ‘You mean you’re going to spend the night with him?’

Tess hadn’t wanted to think about that aspect of the situation. Of course, she and Gabriel weren’t going to be spending the night together in the way Bella meant, but still, there was something uncomfortably intimate about the thought of being alone with him in his flat.

Involuntarily, she glanced at Gabriel, who had heard both the words and the intonation. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to. The faint lift of his brows spoke volumes. A man who went out with the likes of Fionnula Jenkins was hardly likely to have any problems keeping his hands off her.

Suddenly acutely aware of the wet patch on her blouse where Harry had pressed his face miserably into her shoulder, and of the wisps of hair escaping around her face, Tess turned her shoulder on him and told Bella crisply not to be silly. ‘It’s simply a matter of looking after the baby until we can get hold of a nanny tomorrow. If you could just explain what we give him to eat, Bella ….’

It took some time, but eventually Tess managed to extract instructions about sterilising bottles, heating milk, washing, winding and sleeping positions, all of which she scribbled down frantically, wishing that Bella wouldn’t be quite so vague about exactly what to do and when. When Bella had finished, Tess cast an eye over her notes and discovered that there was one thing missing.

‘What about changing his nappy?’ she braced herself to ask at last.

‘What about it?’

‘Well, you know … how do we know when to do it?’

Bella laughed. ‘Have you tried smelling him?’

Without being told, Gabriel lifted Harry nearer and sniffed cautiously. He wrinkled his nose and the downward turn of his mouth told Tess all she needed to know.

‘Ah,’ she said, her heart sinking. ‘It looks as if we might have to tackle that now. What should we do?’

‘Tess, I cannot believe that you’ve got to thirty four without changing a nappy!’ Bella scolded. ‘If you took a more hands-on interest in your goddaughter, you’d know all this by now! And what’s all this ‘we’ business?’ she went on before Tess had a chance to object. ‘Since when did you get quite so cosy with Gabriel Stearne?’

Tess avoided looking at Gabriel, although she could feel him listening. ‘Bella,’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘could we just stick to the nappy changing?’

‘Oh, all right, but you’d better ring me tomorrow and tell me everything!’

Noting down Bella’s sarcastically simplistic instructions, Tess had the feeling she wasn’t going to enjoy the next few minutes very much. ‘Thanks, Bella,’ she said dryly. ‘I can’t wait!’

‘Good luck!’ said Bella, and then raised her voice wickedly to make sure that Gabriel would hear her. ‘And tell that boss of yours that I’ve always thought he sounded very sexy, whatever you say!’

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