The last thing Joe Fraser needs is an opinionated young teacher telling him he needs to get his act together with his ten-year-old daughter. It’s hard enough working all hours to meet his estranged father’s medical bills. Who the hell does Philippa Browne think she is? Unfortunately he’s desperate enough to take her advice. But when he attends a four-day school camp as parent helper his clashes with Miss Browne take an unexpected direction…
Pip hasn’t resisted the advances of charming, easy-going Californians to fall for this taciturn tough guy so close to returning to New Zealand. But does any woman walk away from the temptation of a dangerous attraction? And they both have a safety net – she’s leaving the States soon. Her unexpected pregnancy changes everything.
Pip’s not ready for motherhood and while Joe’s suggesting marriage, his heart’s not in it. Unfortunately hers is.
As for Joe, he’s been down this road before. But is he really repeating the past…or finally getting a chance to do things right?
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A version of this book was published as Like Father, Like Son (ISBN: 978 0373 71596) by Harlequin SuperRomance in 2009 with this cover. Part of the Diamond Legacy anthology with fellow SuperRomance authors Janice Kay Johnson, Tara Taylor Quinn and Kathleen O’Brien, the story arc of the four books covered three generations to celebrate the sixty year anniversary of Harlequin Books.
When World English Rights reverted to me, I simplified the plot because reader feedback suggested that keeping track of multiple branches of a family tree (even with a genealogy diagram!) was tricky. I also changed the names of Joe’s maternal family to avoid confusion with other characters in the anthology.
Having said that, I loved the way the other authors wrote my hero Joe Fraser in their books. If you’re interested you may still be able to track down the originals: Tara Taylor Quinn’s A Daughter’s Trust; Kathleen O’Brien’s For the Love of Family; and Janice Kay Johnson’s A Mother’s Secret.
“Mr. Fraser, I’m your daughter’s teacher, Philippa Browne. I’m calling because-”
“My ex wife deals with school matters, Miss Browne.” A deep voice – impatience dragged over gravel. “I’m in a meeting.”
Pip doodled a frowny face on the blotter on her desk with a blue pen. “Nadia and her fiancé are out of town for a couple of days, your daughter’s staying with a friend.” Why not with him, she wondered fleetingly. “And this isn’t a social call. Kaitlin’s just been involved in a fight with another student and we need you to come pick her up.”
“Is she hurt?” Now he sounded like a concerned dad.
“No, though unfortunately the other girl will have a black eye.”
“Good,” said Joe Fraser.
Startled, Pip dropped the pen. Then she realized the man was laboring under a very natural misapprehension. “Perhaps I should clarify… Kaitlin started the fight.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “We are talking about Kaitlin Josephine Fraser, aren’t we?”
“This is a shock to us as well, Mr. Fraser. This makes three misdemeanors in the space of a fortnight.”
Another silence. He didn’t know.
“How about we talk when you get here,” she suggested. “Can you come before lunch recess is over?”
“Hang on.” There was the sound of a muffled conversation on what must be his landline. Pip had rung his cell. She caught the words, “…my father…best treatment…that’s for me to worry about.” Then started as his voice suddenly barked in her ear. “I’m on my way. What’s the address?”
His daughter had been coming to this middle school for eighteen months and he’d never picked her up, dropped her off? Pip began to see the problem and it wasn’t Kaitlin.
After giving him directions, she hung up and studied the girl through the window grid in the classroom’s door. The ten-year-old waiting in the corridor, knuckling her red-rimmed eyes did not look like a playground scrapper. Or someone who carved her name into trees.
She looked like the A-grade student she was, with serious brown eyes, tidy dark braids and a pre-pubescent coltishness that would have sent Pip’s farm-bred grandmother reaching for the worming tablets. Sensitive, quiet and conscientious – often lost amidst her boisterous classmates – Kaitlin Fraser had always aroused Pip’s protective instincts.
Pip opened the door. “Come and sit down, Kaitlin. Your dad’s on his way.”
If anything the girl blanched paler but obediently she crossed to the chair indicated, next to Pip’s desk. Outside, children raced past the open window in noisy, happy play.
Pulling her lunch sack out of her desk drawer, Pip unwrapped the ham and cheese sandwiches and offered half to Kaitlin who shook her head miserably. “I insist.”
Kaitlin accepted the sandwich and they ate. Pip needed information but she waited until they’d finished eating – cutting up the chocolate cake and apple with her letter opener which made Kaitlin smile. Color came back into the girl’s cheeks.
Balling the paper sack around the apple core, Pip lobbed it into the bin and sat back. “Did you really start it?”
She’d been on playground duty when she came upon the fight…more a flailing of hands with eyes shut than the roll-around-on-the-ground punching and biting that Pip had once inflicted on her older brothers. At her shout, Kaitlin had swung around and her elbow had accidentally connected with Sophia’s cheekbone.
Possibly in shock that she was the victim for once, Sophia kicked up such a squawk that a remorseful Kaitlin had accepted all the blame. Which was a shame – Pip had been trying to nail Sophia for weeks.
“I did hit her first,” Kaitlin said. “I mean she was calling me a geek and saying the giraffe wants its legs back, but she always does that.” A wobble came into her voice. “I’m just sick of people acting like my feelings don’t matter.”
Pip was surprised. Kaitlin might be quiet but she was well liked. “Are there other kids that make you feel that way?”
“No…not kids.” She hesitated. “You know you shouldn’t have called my dad. His work’s very important.”
Now that was an interesting connection. “I’m sure you’re important to him too.”
Kaitlin began to straighten the pleats of her uniform over her bony knees.
Pip’s counselor instincts kicked in. “While we’re waiting for him, why don’t you tell me about your dad.”
Brown eyes met Pip’s. “He’s not someone you mess with.” There was pride there and a warning.
Pip hid a smile. She could handle tough guys. “I’ll keep that in mind…remind me how long your parents have been divorced?”
Kaitlin returned her attention to the pleats; her fingernails were chewed ragged. “Since I was eight. Mom loved Dad but he didn’t love her,” she added matter-of-factly. “He always loved someone else. That’s why they split up. They only got married because of having me.”
Pip blinked. “They told you that?”
“No.” She hesitated. Remember that genealogy project we did last semester? My birthday was only six months after their wedding.” A deep blush colored her cheeks; she’d realized she was making an indirect reference to S-E-X. “And when you’re an only child you hear stuff…you know, if you’re quiet enough.”
Pip didn’t know; she was the youngest of four and the sole female. “How much time do you spend with your Dad now?”
“We spend Sundays together…when he’s not working. I don’t sleepover because he only has a one-bedroom apartment.” There was defensiveness in Kaitlin’s voice, as though she was used to justifying it to her peers. She shot Pip a suspicious glance then relaxed a little when she received an encouraging smile. “And Dad doesn’t have much furniture,” she confided, “or stuff to cook with.”
“Guys can be a bit hopeless like that,” agreed Pip but she was puzzled. King’s Elementary was a private school and Kaitlin lived in one of San Francisco’s affluent neighborhoods. Nor did Kaitlin’s mother, Nadia, seem the vindictive type in a divorce settlement. Through her daughter’s recent troubles, they’d shared several heart-to-hearts and Pip liked the woman.
In character she was very like her daughter but in Nadia, Kaitlin’s shyness had become composure. Pip always left her presence thinking ruefully, Next life I’m coming back impeccably groomed and dignified. The downside of being sporty and gregarious was a wardrobe of sweats and a distinct lack of mystique.
“Your Mom’s getting married again soon, right?” Maybe this acting out stemmed from adjustment problems.
But Kaitlin brightened. “Yeah, and it’s because of me they met. Mom made me do a team sport and Doug’s my soccer coach. He’s so cool he can even make that fun.” This time Pip did smile. Kaitlin was notoriously hard to motivate with sport.
“So, who’s acting like your feelings don’t matter?”
Kaitlin started gnawing at her chewed nails. “I wasn’t meant to be listening.”
“Is it your Dad?”
The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “I shouldn’t have told Mom I wasn’t enjoying my Sundays with him.”
Pip removed Kaitlin’s fingers from the girl’s mouth and held them gently. “She repeated it to your Dad?”
“Yeah,” Kaitlin gulped. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see him which is what he thinks now. It’s just…awkward because we run out of things to talk about. He likes sports and I don’t. I love fun parks but he gets sick on the scary rides. We always eat somewhere expensive as a treat and I have to pretend to like the food. Sometimes we go to movies but he always falls asleep. Mostly we go to the mall – he gives me some money and I go spend it while he sits at Starbucks doing work.”
Disapproval must have flickered across Pip’s face because Kaitlin added loyally, “I mean I tell him to. He always offers to shop with me but I know he hates it and I don’t want him to be bored. But now I’ve ruined everything because I heard him say to Mom…” Her voice trailed off, her hand tightened on Pip’s.
“You can tell me, sweetie.”
Kaitlin whispered, “He said maybe he should step aside for Doug since he makes me and Mom happier than Dad ever could.”
With difficulty, Pip maintained her non-judgmental expression. What a whiner Joe Fraser was.
“I see the problem,” she said. “You feel like you have to choose between your Dad and Doug.”
“When what you really want,” continued Pip, “is to have them both.”
“And to keep seeing Dad on weekends,” Kaitlin said in a rush, “but…”
She looked pleadingly at Pip.
“But to have more fun doing it?”
Kaitlin nodded again.
Pip thought hard. “Why don’t I ask your dad to join us at camp next week?” The four-day adventure retreat was the only activity where Dads out-volunteered Moms and places were so hotly contested, the school usually did a draw. But as camp organizer she could pull a few strings.
“He’ll be working, he always is.” The child’s voice had a strained adult quality. “I mean he can’t even make concerts and sports days and stuff like that.”
Pip experienced a strong urge to give Joe Fraser a swift kick in the derriere. “Let me handle your Dad.”
Kaitlin looked doubtful.
“Trust me,” Pip assured her. “I’ll have your father sorted out in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” She used her native New Zealand colloquialism to make Kaitlin laugh.
As they beamed at each other a grim voice said, “I thought I was here to discuss my daughter’s behavior.”
She and Kaitlin jumped. Pip’s immediate thought on facing the door was – who blocked the light? Her second, this guy isn’t the whiner type. With close-cropped black hair, square jaw and crooked nose he looked like a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers – despite the impeccably cut suit. Although his bearing and the laser focus of those deep-set navy eyes was more military.
And right now, decidedly hostile.
* * *
Joe remembered teachers as nosy and meddlesome and it appeared nothing had changed. He looked at his crestfallen daughter. “You okay?”
She gulped and nodded. His gaze swung back to Miss Browne who’d stood up behind her desk and was assessing him with equal candor. She barely looked old enough to have graduated teachers training college, with short, stylish blonde hair and a dewy-eyed prettiness that made her confident assertion laughable. No one managed Joe Fraser.
Unsmiling, he held out a hand. “Miss Browne.”
“Mr. Fraser.” She had a surprisingly firm handshake for someone barely taller than Kaitlin. Her assessment finished, she smiled suddenly, as though he’d passed some kind of test. For a moment the surprise of that open, friendly smile nearly disarmed him – then he frowned.
“I’d prefer to talk to the principal.” He let his tone fill in the gaps. Someone with authority.
Miss Browne’s eyes widened slightly, accentuating the ingenue effect. They were the color of the sky on a clear July day. “She’s mollifying Sofia’s parents right now but of course you’re welcome to wait.” Her accent suggested she was the Kiwi teacher Kaitlin raved about. “It could be some time.”
Resigned, Joe sat down. “What happened?”
As Miss Browne outlined events, he watched Katie, who started to squirm. Didn’t she know he was on her side? Only a few years ago she would have crawled into his lap for comfort, now he couldn’t even bring himself to put a supportive hand on her shoulder for fear of doing the wrong thing.
On the cusp of young womanhood, his baby girl was guarded, sensitive and quick to tears and Joe felt like a testosterone-charged bull in a china shop of female sensibilities. Her cheeks were still damp and a stab of tenderness made him reach into his suit jacket for a handkerchief, a habit instilled by his grandmother. Tentatively he held it out.
Kaitlin shook her head and looked away. “I am trying not to be a crybaby,” she muttered.
Wincing, he replaced it in his pocket and met Miss Browne’s luminous gaze. Bambi with blue eyes wasn’t a good look when Joe’s protective instincts were looking for a target.
He interrupted her explanation. “So you’re saying my daughter stood up for herself against a bully and she’s the one being sent home? What kind of crackpot approach is that?”
“Exchanging slaps isn’t a solution to problems, Mr. Fraser,” she replied calmly, “and both girls are being sent home early to reflect on their behavior.”
“Perhaps the school should be made to reflect on its behavior in allowing the problem to get to the stage where the victim has to defend herself.”
Miss Browne didn’t even blink at the threat of litigation. Or else she didn’t recognize it. Frustrated, Joe leaned forward and planted his forearms on her desk. “Do you even have a procedure for handling bullies?”
“Dad,” said Kaitlin in an agonized voice.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” said her teacher. “And yes, Mr. Fraser, I know exactly how to handle bullies.” She leaned forward and planted her forearms on her desk until they were eye to eye. “Zero tolerance.”
Bliss demonstrates a skill for snappy dialogue and clever plotting that will captivate readers.” ~ 4 stars from Romantic Times
“Karina, if you read this review, you are so evil. I laughed so hard my sides hurt (especially when Kait told her fib to Sam… you know what I’m talking about). I cried so hard I couldn’t see the page. The Thanksgiving scene was like a family dinner with the Munsters. There was just no way for me to enjoy this book any more than I did” ~ Wiccachick on eHarlequin.com