THE KNIGHT AND MAGGIE'S BABY by Lisa Mondello
Sometimes fate needs a little help…
Jonah Wallace knows what it’s like to grow up without love. Despite having more money than the Queen of England, his childhood was cold and stale as he grew up in boarding schools. He’s dedicated his life to helping homeless and displaced children find the love and support they need by creating the Haven House Foundation, work that resulted in him being knighted by the Queen.
Now that he’s living in America, his work is going along just fine…until his grandfather gives fate a little nudge by insisting he take a wife before he can inherit.
Coffee shop owner, Maggie Bonelli, is pregnant and the baby’s dad has gone AWOL. She knows too well the pain of growing up without a daddy. So when Jonah Wallace comes into her shop proposing marriage for a year, she takes him up on his offer, even if it’s only for a year. Live in a mansion and give her baby a name and a daddy to call his/her own. But can they keep their perfect arraignment strictly business…or will fate’s helping hand bring them love at last?
There were more digits in his bank account than most corporate portfolios saw in a lifetime of business. But right now, for the second time in his life, Jonah Wallace had empty pockets.
As a flurry of people swirled around him, he stood on the crowded Harvard Square sidewalk, roasting in the blistering sun, contemplating his options, such as they were. Dragging a deep breath of humidity into his lungs, he decided it was no use. He was going to have to swallow a mammoth lump of pride to get out of this pickle.
The first time he'd been forced to admit his failings he'd been thirteen, alone, and on the run. He had made an oath then it would be the last time he found himself in such a scrape. The fact that he was standing there penniless, wearing a satin-lined tuxedo in the middle of an August steam bath of an afternoon, the sun unmercifully beating him into the concrete, only magnified his current predicament.
How had he managed to let this happen again?
A taxi horn whined loud and long at his back, signaling the driver's unrest over the hordes of people jaywalking through the Square. Every one of them was in a hurry to go somewhere. At this time of the day, they were probably all heading home, which was where he intended to go.
He dragged his gaze back to the coffee shop door. It was his last hope. Tugging on his bow tie to give him some needed room, he reasoned the fastest way to make it home and deal with his disastrous day would be to swallow what was left of his stolen pride.
That is if he didn't choke on it first.
As his hand connected with the door handle, the heated metal bit into his palm. Jonah yanked open the door in front of which he had just spent the last ten minutes standing, hoping there was no one other than the owner inside. If he had no choice but to grovel, he'd prefer it be without audience.
As he swung through the doorway, the cool air from the air conditioning bathed his face, giving him immediate relief from the heat.
He drew in a deep breath to gather some courage and scanned the empty diner as his eyes adjusted from the sudden change of light. The room smelled of sugar and cinnamon and gravy. A strangely appealing combination, he thought. But at this point, anything was appealing. His stomach protested loudly at the scent of food assaulting his nostrils. Yeah, he was starving, but first things first.
Jonah had never stepped foot inside the small coffee shop, despite the fact that he practically lived at his office, located just across the street, for the past three years. The diner was compact; just a few booths lined the outer-glassed wall. A few more tables with red and white checked vinyl tablecloths occupied the center of the room. It reminded him more of something he'd see in the North End of Boston rather than Harvard Square.
Clusters of white spotlights shone against the brightly colored walls, and it took a moment for his eyes to register the color fully. Behind the counter were rows of parfait cups lying upside down on a glass shelf along with glasses and dinnerware.
A picture on the wall by the kitchen door caught his attention. Since the restaurant was empty, he took a few steps toward the counter for a better look. The photo was of two women, one elderly and one much younger, maybe even in her early teens, standing on the sidewalk from which he'd just come, arm in arm, smiling affectionately. Draped around the frame was a tiny cross of gold on a delicate chain.
A swish of cool air blew into the room. Instinctively, he glanced up toward the source. That's when he noticed the woman standing in the kitchen doorway, one arm on the door, the other in the pocket of her apron. She let go of the door and breezed into the dining room, slipping a psychedelic purple pencil from her apron pocket, and reaching for a small notepad at the same time.
“You caught me. I was just about to close up the shop early. I think the heat has been keeping people away.”
Her voice was smooth as velvet and her smile seemed genuine, not just pasted on for show. Her rich dark hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, resistant tendrils curled around her face, framing high cheekbones.
The woman motioned with her hands toward the vinyl-covered stool at the counter. “You can sit wherever you’d like.”
“I'm not here to eat. I was hoping I could ask a bit of a favor.”
She stopped short, a slow grin lifting the corners of her lips. Not the genuine smile of courtesy. This one was different, a hint of...something, perhaps mixed with a bit of surprise. Jonah wasn't quite sure.
“You're not from around here, are you?” she said, fiery blue eyes wide with interest. They were uniquely lit, not just by the canned lights positioned on the ceiling above her, but with gold streaks set into their deep sapphire color.
“Well, actually yes. My office is in the building just diagonal from you.” Jonah motioned out the window toward the street and beyond the honking horns and bumper-to-bumper late afternoon traffic. When he looked back, her gaze was fixed on him.
Her eyes widened, twinkling with a hint amusement. She flipped an errant lock of hair that had fallen from her ponytail neatly behind her ear and just stared at him.
“You may work in town, but I know for sure you're not from around Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
Jonah glanced down at his black tuxedo as he slid into the stool by the counter, brushing his hand absentmindedly across the smooth, clean Formica countertop.
“I know I look rather odd given the fact that it's about a thousand degrees outside.”
“One hundred and two if you want to be technical,” she said, cutting in. She thumbed back to the double doors at the end of the counter. “I had the radio on in the office.”
Jonah pulled at the collar of his wilting white tuxedo shirt until the top button popped free. “It feels every bit of it,” he said, forcing a smile.
And it was getting a whole lot hotter. It had already turned out to be the worst day of his life. Making a fool of himself couldn't possibly make it any worse.
As Jonah drew in a deep breath, he watched the smile play at the corner of the waitress's mouth. Her full lips were bare of color, and he wondered if she'd chosen not to wear any lipstick or if working a full day and conversing with customers had chewed off what color she'd applied earlier. His mind instantly pictured her full lips in ruby to compliment her dark hair.
He silently berated himself for thinking along those lines. If the day had gone as planned, he'd be on a flight to Australia with his new wife at his side.
The best laid plans...
“Well, regardless of where you're from, you look a little lost,” she said. “I don't see many tuxedos here at the Coffee Drop. Everyone who's been in here today was wearing shorts and shirts that barely meet proper dress code.”
“The clothes. Is that what gave me away?”
“Actually, it was your accent,” the woman said, dropping the notepad on the shiny counter top.
Heat crept up his skin from beneath his collar. He'd naturally assumed she'd been referring to his clothes when of course, his British accent would be a dead giveaway no matter what he was wearing. All he'd managed to do is draw more attention to himself.
“Now, since you've already informed me you're not here to eat, how about a coffee? I have to warn you though. Despite the name, I don't serve any of the fancy stuff here. No special blends, no cappuccino or espresso delights. No latte or chai. Only thing on my menu is old fashioned regular and decaf.”
It was now or never.
“I'm afraid I don't have...” He shook his head. It was never a good day for humiliation and it was something he didn't do well even if it was. If Catherine had at least left him with his keys when she fled the courthouse, none of this would be happening. “Never mind, it doesn't really matter.”
She appeared completely oblivious to his bumbling. “Oh, that extends to iced coffee, too. Given how oppressive it is outside, I'm sure you'd prefer that over something hot.”
She turned and pulled a clean white coffee filter from a plastic bag tucked to the right of the coffee machine and proceeded to make a pot of coffee.
“No, that won't be necessary...” As she turned around, Jonah took the opportunity to glance at her nametag. “Maggie. Yes, what I really wondered is whether I could use your telephone.”
She stopped spooning coffee into the filter and propped her slender hip against the counter. She stated the obvious. Obvious to anyone who'd stepped one foot on either side of the coffee shop door.
“No cell phone?”
“It’s in my other coat, I’m afraid.”
“There are pay phones lining Harvard Square.”
He dipped his head, embarrassment burning its way to the surface of his cheeks more than the blazing sun he'd escaped outside. If only he hadn't agreed when Catherine insisted they take the car instead of having his driver take them to the airport after the ceremony. Unfortunately, when she walked out on him moments before the ceremony began, she'd taken flight with his car and luggage as well. Since the clerk at City Hall was less than thrilled with the idea of allowing him to call his driver from her phone, given the scene that had erupted in the City Hall lobby, he'd taken the next step and pulled out his pockets.
Only to trip over them.
“I don't have any change and...I'm afraid I'm without my billfold at the moment as well.”
Her eyes grew impossibly wide, the fine features of her face registering panic. “Oh, I see,” she said, quickly lifting an empty cup from beneath the counter and placing it in front of him as if she were suddenly on automatic pilot.
“Are you hurt? Do you need some water or--”
He shook his head.
“I can call the police for you. Are you sure you weren’t hurt?” She was already heading toward the kitchen when he realized she had misunderstood.
“I wasn't robbed,” he called out to her.
“You weren’t? You don't need to call the police?”
He let out a staccato breath and shook his head.
With a slow gate, Maggie quietly walked back to the counter and resumed the task of filling the coffee filter with coffee grounds. She popped the filter into place and turned on the coffee machine before swinging around to him again.
“I must admit I'm a bit confused now.”
“Look, it's a bit of a long story. I would have preferred using my office phone, which, as I said earlier, is just across the street-”
“Let me guess. You don't have your keys to the building with you, either, right? And there’s no one there to let you in?”
“I gave them all the afternoon off.”
“Oh, how nice of you.”
He shook his head, wishing to God he'd wake up and this nightmare of humiliation would be over. It had been bad enough when he was thirteen and discovered on the run from the London boarding school he'd attended. Now nearly twenty years later, he wished the tile floor would open up and swallow him whole.
“I just need to use your phone to call for a ride.”
She nodded. “From the look on your face, this looks like it's one heck of a story.”
“You have no idea,” he grunted.
Maggie raised her eyebrows. “People tell me their troubles all day over a coffee and pie. Take a load off. I’m all ears.”
He was just about at his wits end when he saw the corners of her full lips tilt up to a teasing grin. “Look, this has been a horrific day and... I'll reverse the charges.”
She smiled again. This time it was full blown and when the light twinkle reached her eyes, he knew he was home free.
“Follow me. The phone is just on the other side of the swinging door. Careful it doesn't hit you in the butt when you walk through. The coffee will be ready in a few minutes. I just have to finish up in the back office so if it's not done brewing by the time you are off the phone, help yourself. And to a piece of pie from the desert tray, too. I left a clean dish on the counter.”
“Thank you. You're an angel.”
“No, I'm just the owner of this coffee shop.” She stabbed a pointed finger at him and tossed him an irresistible crooked grin. “But don't you dare breathe a word to anyone that I'm a softy or I'll go broke passing pie out to every sorry-eyed college student who walks through that door.”
“It’ll be our secret.”
As he followed her through the double swinging doors to the phone, she smiled back at him, and then walked into what looked like a supply closet at the far end of the kitchen.
If the day had gone as planned, he'd be married to Catherine by now. He'd be on an airplane, sitting in first class, heading to Australia for a three-week honeymoon he hadn't wanted to go on in the first place. All his problems would be over. Not only would he have a wife, but he'd have his car, his keys, his wallet...
And his pride.
* * *
Maggie tucked the bank slip in the moneybag and zipped it closed with a trembling hand. She'd already finished tallying up today's register totals and counting the money in the drawer when her tall, dark and sinfully handsome stranger waltzed into the Coffee Drop. As she straightened up her desk, her mind kept wandering to the gorgeous Englishman with the adorable accent now eating blueberry pie at her counter. Who would have ever thought a sensible girl like her would go weak in the knees over a few well strung out syllables?
She pulled at the waistband of her skirt and grimaced at the sudden tightness. Okay, so she never thought that a levelheaded girl like her would end up pregnant before marriage either. But there you have it. She’d done a lot of praying from the time she’d found out about her unplanned pregnancy and made her peace that with God’s guiding hand, she was on track again. She was determined to do right by her child.
She snapped the light switch off in her office and closed the door, giving the kitchen a last once over in conjunction with a silent reprimand. It would do no good to berate herself any more than she had over the last few months for being so careless. Regrets over the past took too much time and energy, and she didn't have any spare energy to waste on self-deprecation.
Money bag in hand, she peeked through the glass window of the kitchen door into the dining area out of habit to make sure no one was on the other side before she swung through.
There he was. He sat at the counter hunched over a blue stained plate that had a bite or two of pie left. Not many men could fill out a tuxedo the way this man did. He almost looked too tall to sit on the stool. His dark hair was cut short, but the ends still curled around the nape of his neck, most probably from being out in the heat in that tux.
Maggie fanned her face with her hand, telling herself she was just sympathizing with the man. But she knew she was lying to herself. She'd seen many people come and go in her coffee shop, but none of them gave her a jolt of lightning with just one look like he did.
He glanced up at her as she pushed through the swinging doors.
“What's your name?” she asked. She sounded a little breathless, even to herself and all she was doing was talking to a handsome stranger. Maybe the heat was getting to her, too.
Deep cobalt eyes smiled up at her and pulled her into his gaze. It wasn’t the heat. She was breathless. And over a guy!
Geesh. She had no business being attracted to this man, or any man for that matter in the condition she was in. She sucked in a deep breath and reached for the coffee pot, which was just about done brewing.
“You know my name. It seems only fair that I know yours.”
“Oh, right. Jonah Wallace and this blueberry pie was the best I've ever had in my entire life. Did you make it yourself?” He clanked the fork on his empty plate.
She shook her head. His compliment was probably just general small talk, but it flattered her just the same. She liked pleasing her customers. And as her grandmother always said, there was no better way to get a man’s attention than by plying him with good food.
“Anything is good when you're hungry. You ate that piece of pie like it was the first thing you had all day.”
He glanced away and appeared to be thinking, and then he chuckled. It was the first time she'd heard his laugh. It was rich and full of character like the tone of his voice. And it was nice. Too nice.
“Oddly enough, it was,” he said. “I don't usually leave the house without breakfast but it's been a...”
“Horrific day. I know, you told me,” she finished for him. “As flattered as I am, I can't accept the compliment for the pie, though. Virginia, my morning manager, does all the baking.”
“Then I'll have to make it a point to stop in and pay her the compliment in person.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”
Mr. English would be paying the Coffee Drop another visit. She wasn't quite sure why that pleased her so. Maybe because men in general weren't on her list of priorities for the coming year, possibly not for a long time to come.
He'd said he worked across the street but she didn’t recall ever seeing him before. Sure, there were thousands of people who worked in the square. And yes, he stood out now wearing a tuxedo on the hottest day of August like a big pumpkin at an Irish festival. But Maggie had the feeling even in simple casual wear Jonah Wallace would stand out among a crowd of men. He had a presence that commanded attention and that was rare. At least among the men she'd known in her life.
Oh, dear Lord, please give me strength.
Maggie fidgeted with the zipper of the moneybag. “I take it your ride will be coming soon?”
“Yes, I can't thank you enough for the use of your phone. If it wasn't for your kindness, I'd still be baking in the sun.”
“It was my pleasure. I hate to throw you out of the air conditioning and onto the street, but I do have to lock up here and make the bank before it closes. I'd be more than happy to give you an iced coffee to go while you wait for your ride.”
He slid off the stool and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. Instinctively, she took the dirty plate from the counter and slipped it into the gray tub filled with soapy water under the counter.
“You've been more than gracious. I don't want to keep you. But I'm afraid I won't be able to pay the check until--”
Maggie waved him off. “Don't worry, it's on the house.”
“You're very kind,” he said in a low voice that stirred something deep inside her. “But I've never left a bill unpaid in my life. I don't intend to take advantage of your generosity now.”
He dipped his gaze, hiding from her view the most incredible blue eyes she'd ever seen, as if he were embarrassed. She was sure that was the case. She'd had her share of Dutch treat dates for the brief time she'd attended Boston University, but she'd bet this week's register tally that Jonah had never allowed a lady he was with to go Dutch.
She couldn't help but chuckle. “It's just a cup of coffee and some pie. In some parts of the world people call that being neighborly.”
Jonah stared blankly, and then his eyebrows knitted together.
She pointed to the building across the street. “You said your office is in that building.”
His lips stretched into a slow grin. “I guess that would make us neighbors then.”
“Exactly. So, don't worry about it. Where I come from we look out for our neighbors.”
“And where do you come from, Maggie?”
His question as well as the genuine interest in his eyes caught her by surprise. This man was an enigma for sure. But it didn't take much to figure out they'd lived their lives worlds apart. Not just geographically, but socially. Despite not having two nickels to rub together at the present moment, Maggie could tell this man was from money. Either that or he was a good impersonator.
“Across the Charles River,” she said. Not quite the other side of the track, but far enough to make their differences evident. He was money, she wasn't. End of story.
She locked the door behind them and walked out into the sunshine of Harvard Square, wilting immediately under the cruel sun. The choking smell of fuels and garbage from a nearby trashcan made her stomach roll. Every little smell seemed magnified lately, just like this sudden attraction to a stranger.
Hormones. That's what this is, Maggie decided instantly. Not that she'd had this kind of reaction since she found out she was pregnant two months ago, but she'd never liked the combination of pickles and chocolate sauce either and that had been a regular treat of late.
“Thank you again, Maggie. I didn't catch your last name.”
Jonah gripped her hand. She was struck by how small her hand felt in his stronger one, how snug his fingers curled around hers. Safe and strong. For a moment, she found herself drawn even closer to this stranger. Abruptly, she snatched her hand away.
“It was nice to meet you Maggie Bonelli. You've made an otherwise rotten day...almost bearable.”
“I'm just glad I could help. Make sure you stop by again.”
She turned and walked next door to the bank, muttering to herself she shouldn't look back at Jonah Wallace. And she didn't. She made her deposit and decided her day had already been too long.
* * *
“Congratulations, Sir. How was the--” his driver said, opening the door to the back seat of his shining black limo.
Jonah put up his hand. “Hold that thought, Michael. Did you remember to bring the petty cash for me?” he asked, tossing the tuxedo jacket to the leather seat.
“Yes, Sir. It's in the--”
Rummaging through the console deck, he found his wallet and his spare set of keys.
“I have it, thank you. Be right back.” Twisting around, he walked back the way he’d just come.
He slammed the back door of the limo just as he saw Maggie push through the bank door, and walk out into the heat, moving in the opposite direction.
A few quick strides through the crowd and Jonah fell into her stride.
“I want to thank you again for your kindness.”
With the sound of his voice, Maggie did a double take, and stopped walking. His heart did a flip-flop as she peered up at him with wide eyes like she had inside the coffee shop.
“Didn't we do this already?” she asked, her brow crinkling slightly.
“Yes, but I see that you're still here and I've retrieved my billfold--”
As he held the leather billfold up for her inspection, she laughed. Little beads of sweat were already forming on her forehead and matting stray ringlets of hair to the sides of her face.
“You have a hard time letting people help you, don't you?”
He lifted a shoulder. “I'm use to taking care of things myself. I don’t think you full appreciate how unusual today was for me. I'm grateful for your help.”
Shaking her head, she said, “It was a cup of coffee and a phone call. You're making too much of this. “
“Don’t forget the pie. And I’m really not. I'd been to three other shops in the square before I came through your door. No one so much as offered up a smile. With you, at least I got a bite to eat while I waited.”
She rolled her eyes and grinned, pursing her lips. “It's genetic. I'm a softy. So was my grandmother.”
She continued walking again, this time passed him, and dropped her bag on the wooden bench in front of the bus-stop sign. She glanced back once, just to see if he was going to follow? He took it as an invitation. She glanced down the street toward the shiny black limousine that was now double parked outside her coffee shop.
She nodded toward the limo. “Yours?”
“My ride, thanks to you.”
She tried her best not to look impressed, but he could see that she was. He was used to it, but not many people were used to having a chauffeur at will. He generally didn't ask Michael to take him anywhere but formal functions. He'd hired him mainly for his housemaid, Mary, since she detested driving in the city on her own.
“If your friend doesn't want a parking ticket, I suggest he pull into a parking space...or two. The meter maid can be scary, I hear.”
“I'll have to remember that.” He glanced up at the bus-stop sign and then back at her. “Can I give you a lift?”
Maggie pulled at the waistband of her skirt. The white cotton top that she'd seemed cool enough wearing inside the coffee shop was now clinging to the swells of her breasts, compliments of the heat and humidity.
“That won't be necessary.”
“It's no trouble, really.”
She let out a quick breath and looked around at the people walking up and down the sidewalk, until her gaze settled back on his face again.
“Look, you seem like a nice man and all. But I don't make it a habit of getting into cars with strange men I've never met before?”
“I'm not a strange man.”
She tilted an eyebrow as her eyes drifted down to his tuxedo.
“Right. The clothes again.” He motioned back to the diner with his hands. “What was it you said earlier about being neighborly? We’ve just shared coffee and pie together. You could hardly consider us strangers anymore.”
Maggie chuckled, covering her mouth with her hand to hide her laughter. He liked the sound of her laugh, musical and sweet.
“Every day people come into my shop.”
Nodding, he said, “I see your point. These days you can never be too careful.”
“Exactly. Thank you for the offer. That’s really sweet of you. But the bus will be here shortly.”
Jonah turned and started toward the limousine, then abruptly stopped and angled back. He didn't know why this should mean so much to him. It wasn’t just her kindness that had him making the extra effort. He’d met many selfless people working with the Foundation for Young Wanderers. Something told him Maggie was a woman with a heart of gold and perhaps saw little back.
Now that he knew she'd been working directly across the street from him, he knew he could see her at the coffee shop again. He would see her. Something inside him told him it was a certainty.
He wasn't a gambling man by nature, but he decided to go for broke.
“Still, it is August and I hear the busses don't always run on schedule. The limo is air conditioned.”
Maggie eyed him speculatively, but didn't say a word.
“I promise to be a perfect gentleman and sit tight on my side of the seat. Scout's honor.”
She pursed her lips, grinning as she had before, making his heart hammer in his chest.
“You were never a boy scout.”
“Correct, but one good deed does deserves another, wouldn't you say?”
“I suppose,” she said quietly, glancing back at the limo, then at her coffee shop.
“If you accept my offer, you'll be home in no time. Or you could spend the next fifteen minutes to however long it takes for the bus to arrive roasting in this heat. And then of course, because the busses are usually crowded, another fifteen or more minutes standing with aching feet on a sweaty bus after a long day of--”
She tossed him a wry grin. “You're pulling out all the stops, aren’t you? All this for a lousy cup of coffee and a piece of pie?”
“Air conditioning,” he said, smiling devilishly, knowing that would be the catalyst to push her over the edge to accepting.
She heaved a sigh and then laughed, pointing a finger at him. “If my feet weren't killing me so much... You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Wallace.”
He gestured to the car with both hands, a grin of satisfaction stretching across his face. “Right this way.”
# # #