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The evening began with such promise. The house was in order, the kids had been bathed and dressed in matching outfits and Jack Cortland was looking forward to his date.
He'd met Heidi Gray in the grocery store on one of his rare trips into town. The sophisticated, attractive blonde had smiled at him, and before they'd left the produce section, they'd made a date. Since that time they'd been out three times, and tonight was the first time she would meet his children.
Ten minutes before she was set to arrive, he sat down with his two sons on the sofa. Four-year-old Mick sat on one side of him and three-year-old David was on the other.
"Now, boys, this is a really important night. I want you both to be on your best behavior and be nice to Miss Heidi when she gets here," he said.
"Heidi tighty whitey," Mick exclaimed.
"Heidi tighty whitey," David echoed, and the two broke into gales of laughter.
"Now, now, boys," Jack said in an effort to gain control, but it was too late. Their giggles increased in volume, and Jack sat and waited until finally they'd worn their giggles out.
"I do not want to hear you say that again," Jack said as firmly as possible.
David frowned at him. "Bad Jack," he said. "No yelling."
"I wasn't yelling," Jack protested, and then sighed. "Why don't the two of you go play in your room until our guest arrives."
He watched as they raced out of the living room and down the hallway toward the bedroom. When they disappeared out of sight, he released a sigh of exhaustion.
The boys had been in his custody for a little over four months, ever since their mother, his ex-wife, Candace, had been murdered. And in those months he'd realized they were undisciplined, wild and had absolutely zero respect for him.
Jack knew how to beat a rhythm on the drums to stir the blood. He could sing the rock and roll that was in his soul. He knew how to entertain a stadium of fans with his music. There had been a time not so long ago when he'd also known how to drink and drug himself into oblivion, but he didn't know anything about parenting.
He pulled himself up from the sofa and went into the kitchen, where the delicious scents of pot roast wafted in the air. Betty, his cook, stood before the sink, washing the last of the dishes before she left for the day.
"Everything is done and in the oven waiting to go on the table," she said as she turned away from the sink and dried her hands on a towel.
"Sure you don't want to stick around?" Jack asked hopefully.
She gave him one of her dour gazes. "I told you when you hired me that I cook and that's it. I don't serve, I don't clean house and I definitely don't babysit." She grabbed her purse from the top of the counter. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, Mr. Cortland."
As she headed for the back door, Jack squashed the panic that threatened to rise in his chest. He told himself that the night was going to be a rousing success.
He wandered into the dining room, where Betty had set the table with the good dishes and linen napkins. It was probably a mistake to share the meal with both his date and his sons, but it was important to him that whatever woman he invited into his life knew that his sons were part of the package deal.
For a year following his divorce from Candace, Jack had rarely seen his sons. Candace has spent much of that year globe-trotting, and Jack had been in no condition, either financially or emotionally, to chase after her.
When Candace had been murdered the boys had come to live with him, but Jack knew Harold Roth-child, Candace's father, was just waiting for him to make a mistake so he could swoop in and take the boys away.
Jack's stomach tightened at the thought of Harold. There was no question the wealthy, powerful Las Vegas mogul wanted his grandsons, but the only way he could take custody away from Jack was to prove that he was an unfit father. Jack was doing everything in his power to make sure that didn't happen. He was determined to be the best father he could be.
The doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of Heidi, and Jack hurried to the door to welcome her. From the direction of the bedroom came the sounds of the boys laughing, and once again he mentally muttered a prayer that the evening went well.
The first thirty minutes were relatively successful. On their previous dates Jack had found Heidi to be a good conversationalist, and it didn't hurt that she was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. He was male enough to enjoy the scent of her perfume in the air and the hint of cleavage that her V-neck blouse offered him.
After a brief introduction to the boys, they returned to playing in their room, giving Jack and Heidi time alone.
When it was time to move into the dining room for the meal, there were several minutes of chaos as Jack got the boys settled in their booster seats at the table, then hurried into the kitchen to bring out the meal that Betty had prepared.
Pot roast and potatoes, broccoli florets with cheese, homemade dinner rolls and a Jell-O salad all went to the table, and after filling the boys' plates, Jack returned to his seat.
"This looks yummy," Heidi said. "Did you do all this?"
"I wish I could take credit for it, but no. I have a local woman who comes in to cook for us." He smiled at her, then blinked as a piece of cheesy broccoli smacked her chest and slowly slid downward before falling into the vee of her blouse.
Jack stared at his son in horror. "Mick!" He turned back to Heidi. "I'm so sorry."
Another cheese-covered floret struck her in the head, and this time it was David who laughed uproariously. Suddenly the broccoli was flying and Jack was yelling. Heidi jumped up from the table in an effort to escape the onslaught of food, her features tight with aggravation.
"Mick, David! Stop it right now," Jack exclaimed.
"Bad Jack," Mick yelled.
"I'm out of here," Heidi exclaimed. "I wasn't sure that I was at a place in my life to be an instant mother, and now I know the answer. I'm definitely not ready for this. Your children are undisciplined little boys, and you all need more than I can offer." She grabbed her purse and marched out of the dining room. Jack ran after her, muttering apologies that she obviously didn't want to hear.
As she slammed out of the front door, Jack leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. She was right. His boys were unruly animals, and he didn't know what to do about it, but something had to be done.
He could just see the tabloid headlines now: "Rock Star Children Belong in a Zoo." He hoped Heidi wasn't the type to cash in by selling the tale of the evening to the tabloids.
By ten that evening the boys had finally fallen asleep, David on the living-room floor and Mick on the sofa. Jack carried them into their room and put them into their beds, then returned to the living room and called his lifelong buddy, Kent Goodall.
Within fifteen minutes Kent was at the house and the two men were seated at the kitchen table sipping coffee as Jack told Kent about the disastrous date.
"I need help," Jack said. "Heidi was right. The boys are out of control, and I don't know how to fix things."
Kent swept a strand of his long blond hair behind one pierced ear. "I know a woman, a professional nanny. Her name is Marisa Perez, and she lives right here in Las Vegas."
"How do you know her?" Jack asked. Kent had no children. He wasn't even married.
"Remember the woman I dated? Ramona with the big hair and bigger chest? She's a friend of Marisa's. Last I heard Marisa was saving money to open up her own nanny agency."
Jack frowned. He didn't want to just invite anyone into his home and into the lives of his sons. As he recalled, Ramona with the big hair also had a pea brain. She'd been working as a showgirl in one of the casinos. He wasn't sure being a friend to Ramona was necessarily a good qualification for interacting with his children.
"I'm not sure Ramona vouching for somebody makes me comfortable," he finally said.
Kent grinned. "Trust me, I hear you, but it wouldn't hurt for you to interview Marisa and see if she's everything Ramona said she was. I'll call Ramona and get her number for you."
Jack wrapped his hands around his coffee mug and nodded. "I have to do something. If Harold gets wind of how badly I'm mangling the parenting stuff, he'll have me back in court fighting for custody." A painful knot formed in Jack's chest as he thought of the possibility of losing his boys.
For the next few minutes the men talked music and bands. When Kent and Jack had been teenagers, they'd formed a band that had played local clubs and at weddings. The band had been successful on a regional level, but Jack had hungered for more.
At the age of twenty-two he'd left Las Vegas for Los Angeles and eventually had hooked up with a group of musicians who had become the rock band Creation.
While Jack had ridden the rise of fame and fortune, then eventually crashed and burned, Kent had remained in Las Vegas with his band members, playing local gigs whenever they could get them.
It was after midnight when Kent finally left, and Jack had finished clearing the dishes from the dining-room table.
When he was finished he went down the hallway toward the bedrooms. The first one he stopped in was the boys' bedroom, and he stood in the doorway and stared at his sons.
Mick slept on his side, his legs and arms curled into a fetal position. David lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs thrown to his sides as if he'd fallen asleep in the middle of a leap off a building.
A surge of tenderness flowed through him as he watched them sleep. The love he felt for his sons was like nothing he'd ever experienced before.
Although he didn't want to think ill of the dead, Candace had possessed the maternal instincts of a rock. Jack had hoped that the birth of the boys would somehow domesticate the wild, beautiful woman he'd marriedand for a while it had worked. But it didn't take long for the novelty of motherhood to wear off and for their marriage to self-destruct.
The boys had so many strikes against them. A mother who had been murdered and a father who was a recovering addict and knew nothing about being a dad.
They needed somebody else in their life, a nanny who could teach them how to be good boysand the sooner the better.
"You are stupid to even consider this," Marisa Perez said aloud to herself as she drove down the dusty Nevada road in the direction of Jack Cortland's ranch.
He'd called her earlier that morning and asked her about her services as a nanny. Against her better judgment she'd agreed to meet with him at his house.
It had been big news when Jack had moved back to his family home two years ago following a very public divorce from Candace Rothchild.
For years Jack and Candace had been a favorite topic of gossip in the tabloids. Their lifestyle of excess and drugs and alcohol had been legendary.
The public had loved stories of the hard-rock star and his beautiful heiress wife.
From everything Marisa knew about Jack Cort-land, she was not impressed. She glanced out her side window, passing land that her parents probably owned.
Like Candace, Marisa had come from wealth, but unlike Candace, Marisa had decided early on that she wanted to make her own way. She didn't want to work for the family in their real estate ventures. What she loved was working with children.
She tightened her grip on the steering wheel as she turned into the long, dusty driveway that led to the Cortland ranch.
This visit was more to satisfy her curiosity than for any other reason. Since moving back here Jack had kept a low profile, rarely being seen out of his home.
She'd read the stories about Candace's tragic murder and knew there were two little boys in Jack's custody. More than anything she'd been driven to come out here to check on those boys.
She might not think much of Jack Cortland as a person, but he had a low, deep voice that could weaken the knees of a soldier. After talking to him on the phone that morning, it had taken her several minutes to get that sexy voice out of her head.