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Until now, Libby Bradford had never understood how it felt to be so angry you couldn't see straight. At least being this furious kept the grief at bay. Or maybe her fear was so big there was no room for the sadness.
She stared across the utilitarian oak desk in her boss's office. "I really need to talk to someone."
Probably it was the thread of desperation in her voice that made Ginger Davis shut off the computer. "Just a guess, but you didn't come to see me just to discuss the newest show at the Hard Rock Hotel. I'm listening."
Humor normally took the edge off Libby's intensity, but not this time. "Jess Donnelly is going to take Morgan Rose away from me."
"The Jess Donnelly?"
"Is there another one?" Libby couldn't imagine the world was big enough for two of him. At least not in his world. "I'm talking about Las Vegas's most eligible and obscenely rich bachelor."
It wasn't often Ginger looked surprised, but she did now. An attractive, brown-eyed brunette somewhere near fifty, she could pass for twenty years younger and it would be pathetically easy for her. Maybe because she loved what she did. As president and CEO of The Nanny Network, she placed thoroughly vetted nannies with famous and wealthy families who cherished competence and confidentiality in equal parts. She had also opened Nooks and Nannies, a preschool that included child care as well as parent and care-giver enrichment classes. Libby was a teacher here.
"Now it makes sense."
"What makes sense?" Libby asked her boss. "His attorney called and said that when Jess has child care in place he will take custody ofMorgan."
"Mr. Donnelly contacted me about hiring a live-in nanny."
"He did?" Fear balled in Libby's belly.
"Yes. I explained that I recently had two of my employees leave the agency to get married." Ginger removed her glasses. "But you didn't come by my office to hear that I'm shorthanded."
"Not really. It's Morgan I'm concerned about."
"Since Mr. Donnelly didn't share details, I had no idea that he was looking for a nanny for your Morgan. I had the impression that your friend Charity left her daughter to you."
Hearing her best friend's name brought a fresh wave of sorrow that hurt Libby's heart. Charity and her husband, Ben, had been in Africa for ten months on a humanitarian mission. They'd been killed by a rebel faction in a raid on the village where they were working.
"No one thought they wouldn't come home." Libby's voice broke and she stopped, trying to manage the unmanageable emotions.
"Apparently someone thought about it. Otherwise Mr. Donnelly wouldn't be making inquiries about child care," Ginger gently reminded her.
If Libby had been less emotional and more rational she would have commended Morgan's parents for taking care of the details. Except she'd fallen in love with the child she was caring for and giving her up to a man like Jess Donnelly seemed wrong on so many levels.
"Jess was named Morgan's guardian in her parents' will," she finally admitted.
"I don't," Libby said, squeezing her hands together in her lap. She'd always thought this office a warm place, what with its friendly oak desk and orange and yellow wall prints. But today everything felt cold.
"Why do you question their decision?"
Libby slid forward to the edge of her chair. "Because Charity and Ben trusted me with their child when they went halfway around the world."
Ginger's voice was full of gentle sympathy when she asked, "Are you angry because they put a humanitarian effort ahead of their daughter's well-being? Or because they died?"
"Both," Libby said without thinking.
Ginger nodded. "You grew up with Charity and were best friends. You told me that her primary goal in life was to make the world a better place."
"And isn't that ironic? Because the world is so much worse for her not being in it."
Libby had spent more time at Charity's house than with her own messed-up family because there wasn't any tension there and everyone was welcomed with open arms, accepted in a way Libby would never be where she lived. Her friend's folks took the girls to nursing homes, hospitals and women's shelters to give back to their community and make a difference.
"Charity was raised to help people. But now my primary concern has to be raising Morgan the way Charity would want. Her child's welfare is the most important thing."
"It seems to me that she'll be well taken care of."
Not by Jess Donnelly. The man was certainly handsome, wealthy and powerful. From firsthand experience Libby knew he was also arrogant, selfish and shallow. She'd met him the first time when Charity and Ben got married. Her attraction to him was instantaneous. The earth moved. Lightning struck. Cupid's arrow nailed her right smack in the heart.
He'd flirted and fixed his intense blue eyes on her. His thick dark hair and Irish good looks had made quite a lasting impression. She'd have been his for the asking. But he'd never asked.
Actually, he'd left with the other blonde bridesmaid, the buxom one Libby still fondly thought of as the wedding slut. In the nearly six years since Morgan's birth, Libby and Jess had occasionally seen each other, at Morgan's christening, birthday parties, Christmas. Every time their paths crossed, she felt the pull of attraction even though Jess would stick out his hand and say he didn't believe they'd met before, then proceed to introduce himself.
The first time Libby gave him the benefit of the doubt, believing a new hairdo and ten-pound weight loss made her look different. After that it became clear that her breasts just weren't big enough to snag his attention, let alone make her name worthy of remembering.
She pushed the humiliating past from her mind and looked at Ginger. "You think he can really take care of Morgan?"
"Mr. Donnelly certainly has the means to provide for her."
"It takes more than money to raise a child."
"I couldn't agree more," Ginger said. "It's too bad the two of you can't co-parent."
"What do you mean?"
"He has the resources, you have the heart. Seems like a partnership made in child-rearing heaven."
Libby's mind started to hum as an idea began to take shape. "I could be her nanny."
Ginger stared at her. "You already work here at the preschool."
"Which will save you time in the vetting process since I'm already a Nanny Network employee."
Her boss frowned. "Since you have a personal history with the client, I'mnot sure this would be an ideal situation."
"I respectfully disagree. Personal history isn't how I'd describe what we have. A handful of get-togethers over the years." And none of them had been the least bit personal, she thought with a mixture of annoyance and yearning that annoyed her even more. "He and I both knew and cared about Morgan's parents. She's a child who needs all the love and support she can get right now. The last thing she needs is to be yanked away from what's familiar and plopped into life with a stern guardian she barely knows."
"You make it sound like a wacky version of Jane Eyre."
"Not my intention," Libby assured her. "Just the opposite. It seems like a win-win situation. You said yourself that with his money and my maternal skills we'd make the perfect parents."
"That was an off-the-cuff comment."
"But it makes sense," Libby said, warming to the role of persuader. "You said you're short-handed right now. This is the perfect solution. I can do double duty—take care of her for Jess and continue to teach here at the school. I'll bring Morgan with me, just like I have been. Her routine wouldn't change and that's important right now."
Ginger tapped her lip thoughtfully before saying, "There's a certain logic to the idea that I could run by Mr. Donnelly."
"Of course he needs to make the final decision." Libby didn't think that would be a problem. As long as his personal life wasn't inconvenienced, Jess would be happy.
"This could be a short-term answer for everyone," Ginger said cautiously.
Exactly what Libby was thinking. It was impossible for her to imagine loving Morgan any more even if she'd given birth to her. She couldn't simply turn her over to a guy who had the sensitivity of a robot. She especially couldn't hand vulnerable Morgan Rose to him, then walk out of her life.
If Jess approved this arrangement, it would give Libby time to figure out a long-term solution.
Jess Donnelly had agreed to be guardian of his best friend's daughter, but he'd never thought he'd have to. Maybe he'd agreed because he never thought he'd have to. People did that all the time, never seriously entertaining the possibility that either parent would die, let alone both of them at the same time.
But the worst-case scenario had come to pass and now he was waiting for Morgan. In a few minutes the child's current caretaker would deliver her. Negotiations between his lawyer and the Nanny Network relayed through his secretary resulted in him expecting the nanny, Elizabeth Bradford, momentarily.
He'd checked the child-care company's references and called a random selection of current and former clients, all of whom had nothing but high praise for the professionals Ginger Davis had provided. Since he didn't know the first thing about raising a kid, let alone a five-year-old girl, he was more than happy to defer to the kid experts.
It wasn't that Jess didn't like children, so much as he didn't relish the idea of someone depending on him. He knew from firsthand experience how betrayal and disillusionment felt. It was especially unpleasant coming from the one person on the planet you counted on. This was his best friend's kid. The friend he'd vowed to support. Always. A friend who was the brother he'd never had. Jess had promised Ben, given his word, which put the pledge firmly in sacred territory. When you watched a friend's back, you didn't turn your own on a sacred promise.
He blew out a long breath as the pain of loss squeezed his chest. "What the hell were you thinking, Ben? No way am I prepared for this."
The phone rang, jarring him into action. He picked up the extension from the end table by the cream-colored sofa. "Yes?"
"Peter Sexton, Mr. Donnelly. Building security. There's a Miss Morgan Rose Harrison to see you and Libby—"
"They're expected," he said. "Bring them up."
Jess had fervently hoped the newly hired nanny would get here before Morgan so he'd have an on-site expert who could hit the ground running when he took custody of the little girl. If the nanny didn't show up soon, he'd be calling Ms. Davis and make Nanny Network news as the first dissatisfied client putting a big fat black mark on its pristine reputation.
The doorbell sounded and since he was already standing in the two-story foyer, it took only a second to answer. A young woman and small girl stood there— Libby and Morgan.
The taller blonde was slim, blue-eyed and pretty plain. Or maybe plainly pretty. On the few occasions they'd met, he'd never been able to decide. Her shiny hair turned under and barely touched the collar of the white cotton blouse peeking from the neck of her navy sweater. Dark denim jeans did remarkable things to her hips and legs, leaving no mixed feelings about his opinion of her figure, which was firmly in the approval column.
The little, tiny blonde who clutched an old, beat-up doll to her chest had curly hair and brown eyes she'd inherited from her father as well as the hint of an indentation in her determined chin. Both blondes stared expectantly up at him.
"Hi," he held out his hand. "Jess Donnelly."
"Right. How long has it been?"
"Last Christmas. Almost a year ago."
He remembered seeing her under the mistletoe at Ben and Charity's holiday party. It would have been so easy to catch her there and claim the kiss he'd wanted since the first time he'd seen her, but he'd deliberately let the chance slip by. Instinct said she wasn't the sort of woman he could easily walk away from and he didn't get involved with any other kind.
"You look great." An understatement.
Libby glanced at the little girl for a moment. "We missed you at the memorial service."
"Yeah." Pain sliced through him at the reminder that his friend was gone. "I was in Europe on business and there was a snow storm. The airport was closed for two days."
He couldn't tell from her carefully neutral tone whether she did or not. Either way there was nothing he could do about that. And what really mattered was his friend's child.
He looked down at her. "Hello, Morgan. Do you remember me?"
Her blond curls bounced when she shook her head. "Not really."
"That's okay," he said, guilt twisting in his gut. "Welcome to my home."
"Nice place," Libby said. Something flashed quickly through her eyes before she continued in a pleasant voice, "The security gates are pretty cool and a twenty-four hour guard who used his key card to escort us to the penthouse on the top floor of the building, in the private elevator, no less, is a nice touch."
Did he hear sarcasm in her voice? Or was the edge simply a symptom of the awkward situation? Did it matter?
"I'm glad you like it." He looked at the child. "What did you think, Morgan?"
"It's okay," she whispered, looking uncertain as she stepped closer and slid her small fingers into the woman's hand.
"Are you going to invite us in?" Libby asked.
"Of course." Mentally he smacked his forehead as he stepped back and opened the door wider.
"Don't forget your suitcase, Morgan," Libby cautioned.
The little girl nodded, then took the handle of a princess-pink weekend-size bag and rolled it onto the foyer's beige marble floor where no princess suitcase had gone before. The woman did the same with a plain black bag. For the first time he thought about the little girl's things. Surely she had more than would fit into the two pieces of luggage just wheeled in.
Major awkward silence followed that flurry of activity as the three of them stood there. He wasn't sure what to do next and wished again that the nanny would show up and bail him out. In the meantime he figured that a tour was in order. It's what he normally did with a first-time female guest. Although nothing about this situation could even remotely be described as normal. And this small female would be a permanent resident, a thought that registered pretty high on his uneasiness meter.
"How about I show you around?" he offered.
"We'd like that," Libby answered, then looked down. "What do you say, Morgan? Would you like to see your new home?"
Still clutching Libby's hand, the little girl nodded apprehensively. The solemn look on her pale face said she liked the idea about as much as a double helping of Brussels sprouts.