Nicholas Valentine stared at the glossy black front door and drew a deep breath. The imposing lion-head brass knocker had been one of the few touches he'd selected for the modern three-story Auckland house.
Ignoring the lion's ferocious expression, he keyed a security code into the access pad concealed in the doorframe. The heavy door swung inward.
Pocketing the keys to his Ferrari, Nick stepped forward. Carrara marble gleamed under spotlights that illuminated a triptych of tangled forms painted on three canvases facing the front entrance. He should've been pleased to be home. He should've been elated following a week of success after several months of living on the lip of a volcano.
Instead, he was too jet-lagged to care. He wanted a shower and a bed.but first he had to see Jennie.
It wasn't going to be a comfortable moment, but it had to be done, regardless of the feelings her existence aroused in him.
Nick stopped at the foot of the white-marble stairs that ascended halfway up the two-story lobby. Resisting the urge to flee into the safety of the living room, where he could take refuge in the television remote, he placed a foot on the first stair.
He hadn't seen Jennie for almost a month.
Nick couldn't identify whether his overwhelming response was guiltor relief. How was it possible that he could deal with a multimillion-dollar company, several hundred employees and a barrage of reporters without missing a beat, yet Jennie scared him witless? Not that he'd ever admit that to another living soul. Or even a dead one
At the top of the stairs, a landing ran the length of the house. To the right lay two king suites, to the left four bedrooms with en suites, one of which had been converted into a nursery. In front of the four bedrooms the landing widened into a sitting area decorated in black, gray and white, and highlighted with colors that Jilly had referred to as pistachio and chartreuse yellow.
Nick paused. The usual clutter-free look of the designer-decorated space had given way to bright yellow and pink storage bins he didn't recognize. The glass coffee table had been pushed to one side, and foam squares patterned with numbers covered the area between two white love seats.
Someonehis sister?clearly had high aspirations for Jennie's mathematical abilities. Nick was positive he hadn't been away long enough for Jennie to learn to countafter all, she was only six months old. A little farther along, some sort of contraption was rigged up on the white wool carpet.
The door to Jennie's nursery stood ajar. Nick pushed it open and entered.
One sweeping glance revealed that the room was empty.
Three strides took him past a tea party of teddy bears sitting on the floor, to the wall of windows overlooking the pool deck. There was no sign of the child or her motherly nannyNick couldn't remember the woman's nameby the pool, or on the expanse of manicured lawn rolling down to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
He glanced at his watch. Five o'clock. He knew from the schedule he'd memorized that it was Jennie's dinnertime. The baby should be home. Mrs. Busby, his housekeeper, would have an answer.
Downstairs, Mrs. Busby was not in the high-tech chrome-and-black kitchen. Where had all his staff gone? Impatient now, Nick rang the bell.
Long minutes later, Mrs. Busby appeared through the swing doors that led to the basement suites where the staff lived. At the sight of him, the housekeeper tugged at her dress collar. "I'm sorry, Mr. Valentine. I didn't know you were home yet."
Nick didn't bother to tell her that he'd gotten an earlier connection; instead, he got to the crux of what he wanted to know. "Where is Jennie?"
"Candace took her to the parkyou can reach her on her cell phone." The housekeeper headed for the kitchen island with its bank of drawers. "I'll get the number"
"Wait!" Nick's brows jerked together. The nanny's name wasn't Candace. He would've remembered that. "Who is Candace?"
Mrs. Busby hesitated, clearly flustered. "The new nanny. Didn't Mrs. Timmings let you know?"
New nanny? His sister hadn't said a word about any such thing. "What happened to
?" He searched his memory for the woman's name and came up blank.
"When Jennie got sick, Margaret resigned," Mrs. Busby explained hurriedly.
Nick tensed. "Jennie's sick?" He hadn't been notified. "What's wrong with her?"
Mrs. Busby looked increasingly uncomfortable. "She's much better nowCandace has been looking after her. Mrs. Timmings didn't want me worrying you about it." For a moment the housekeeper looked as if she wanted to say something more. Then she added, "She thought it best to wait for you to come back."
Nick's mouth compressed as he bit back his rising impatience. Mrs. Busby looked like she was about to faint with apprehension. But it wasn't her fault he hadn't been told. "I'll speak to my sister."
Relief softened Mrs. Busby's round features. "That would be best. What can I make you to eat, Mr. Valentine?"
Nick waved a dismissive hand as he headed for the double doors leading to the lobby. "I ate on the plane." At her crestfallen expression, he relented. "Maybe one of your special omelets, Mrs. Busby. But first get me the nanny's number. I'll be in the sitting room."
The nanny's cell phone must be off, Nick decided after reaching a crisp, recorded message for the second time. Impatiently, he scrolled through his phone's contacts list for his sister's number.
"Why didn't you let me know Jennie was ill? What happened?" Nick demanded as soon as Alison answered. He paused his pacing in front of the tall glass doors that folded back to reveal the pool deck, and stared unseeingly out over the expanse of water.
Silence hummed across the telephone line. "How about 'Good evening. How are you, Alison?'"
He ignored the sarcasm and started to pace again. "What's wrong with her?"
"An ear infection. I took her to the doctor, we watched it very carefullyI didn't want to disturb you
" Her voice trailed away.
"She's my daughter." He said it with more conviction than he felt. "You should've given me the choice."
"Nicky, she's fine."
"So Mrs. Busby told me." He switched the phone to his other ear. "Do you know how it made me feel to hear from my housekeeper that Jennie had been ill and I didn't know anything about it?"
"I'm sorry, Nicky." His sister sounded subdued. "I should've let you know. Even Richard said so. But I thought you had your hands full"
He cut her off. "Richard was right." Sometimes Nick pitied his long-suffering brother-in-law.
"I heard on the news that the unrest is over in Indonesia. I've been so worriedyou might have let me know."
"Your Valentine's stock is safe. And I've managed to source the eco-friendly furniture and statuettes we need for the garden centers."
"That's not what I've been worried about. Though I should tell you we've had an offer on our stock."
Nick was too tired to follow as his sister leapfrogged from one topic to the next. Yet that one phrase stuck out.
He knew how desperately Alison and Richard needed to liquidate their Valentine's stock to shore up the losses their chain of appliance stores had taken during the recent recession. Out of loyalty to Nick, they'd held off selling to give him an opportunity to buy their Valentine's stockan impossibility until his usurious debt to his father-in-law, Desmond Perry, had been settled. And now the end was in sight. Tomorrow he would pay Perry every last cent that he owedit would give Nick more satisfaction than anything in his life to throw the final check down on his former father-in-law's desk.
Of course, that would leave him with no liquid funds, but if Alison and Richard could hang on for a few months more, he'd be able to acquire their Valentine's stock outright.
With people going out less and spending more time at home, his business was expanding aggressively. To Nick's satisfaction every sizable town in New Zealand's North Island now boasted a Valentine's Garden Centerjust as he'd dreamed of when he first started out. People were flocking to his centers in ever-increasing droves, seeking the leisurely family lifestyle that the red heart of the Valentine's logo had come to promise.
Landscaping advice. Tranquil water features. Outdoor furnishings and art. Every plant under the sun. Customers could find it all at a Valentine's Garden Center. He had plans to carry the expansion into South Island and then farther afield into Australia. While the land the centers stood on and the business assets were worth millions, making Nick wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, the rapid expansion had left him short of cash. The repayments to his father-in-law had only made the situation tougher.
Nick knew the end was in sight. But Alison's mention of an offer for their stock had caused a frisson of unease.
"When was the offer made?" he asked.
"A few days ago." His sister sounded suspiciously vague.
"Alison." he said warningly.
"Nicky, I was much more worried about Jennie's ear
and you." After recent riots in the capital, Alison hadn't been too keen on his trip to Indonesia. "Tell me you are okay."
Nick wasn't in the mood to talk about his roller-coaster month away from home. He was focused on Desmond Perry's calling in the final installment of the multimillion-dollar loan three months early. It hadmuch against his willforced Nick to consider selling one of the more successful of the garden centers. He'd held off, and now he was relieved that he had.
In the long run, liquidating a center would cost them all. Him. Alison and Richardand the other stockholders. Each center had been carefully selected for its position; in time every center was going to be a crown jewel. But future profits didn't help his sister; she needed help now.
"I'm okay. I've told you before, you fuss too much," he stalled.
"That's right. Shut me out, Nickyas you always do. I suppose I should be grateful you at least speak to Richard. although that's only about business, I suppose. Not about your marriage, about what it's been like waiting for the sword of Damocles to drop."
Nick sighed. "Alison"
"Don't worry, I know! Your marriage is none of my business. I should know by now that you never give an inch
never talk about what matters. One day you'll need to learn to let someone inside that hard shell you've grown."
He rubbed his hand over his eyesGod, he was tiredand resisted the urge to tell his sister that she was overreacting, that the hard shell she harped on was all in her imagination. Whatever he said, she'd only argue.
Instead, he crossed over to the white leather sofa and sank into its cushioned depths. Propping his feet onto one of the four mirrored cubes that together acted as a coffee table, he said, "Well, I want to talk now. Why didn't you let me know the nanny had walked out? That you'd seen fit to hire someone else?"
"Candace isn't really a nannyshe's a nurse."
At once fear flooded him. His hand clenched around the phone. "A nurse? Is there something you haven't told me?" Was Jennie a lot sicker than his sister had led him to believe? "Alison"
"Jennie is fine! And Candace is a godsendshe's very capable. I met her at the hospital. We hit it off instantly and when she heard that Margaret had left"
"Why did Margaret leave?"
"Her blood pressure had risen and when Jennie got ill she said it was too much for her."
Nick closed his eyes and suppressed the urge to swear.
He hadn't known the woman had high blood pressure or he might have had second thoughts when Jilly had hired her. Which was probably why she hadn't mentioned it on her resume. Margaret had seemed so perfect. An older, maternal-looking woman from a reputable agency with impeccable references. He'd been pleased with Jilly's choice. Now it appeared that she hadn't been quite so perfect.
"What do you know about this other woman?"
"She's a pediatric surgery nurse by training. She's been away from the hospital for a little whiletraveling or something. But she has fabulous references and the hospital snapped her up to do overflow shifts in the emergency room as soon as she came back." His sister paused to draw a breath, but rushed on before Nick could get a word in edgewise. "Surely even you can see the benefit of Jennie having a nanny who can take care of her if she gets ill, as babies so often do? It certainly sets my mind at ease. I'm sure it's what Jilly would've wanted."
"Let's leave aside what Jilly would've wanted."
Nick wasn't about to let his sister change the focus of the conversation to his mixed-up emotions about his late wife
"Once you meet Candace, you'll see that she's absolutely perfect." His sister changed direction, one of those frog-leaps Nick was finding more difficult than usual to follow. "I don't know what we'll do when she decides to go back to full-time nursing."
"Hire a real nanny?" suggested Nick, closing his eyes. "So that when I come home from being away for weeks on end Jennie is at least here to greet me?"
A scarlet Ferrari occupied the space that had been empty since Candace had arrived to take care of Jennie.
Candace's mouth set into a firm line as she eased the station wagon that had come with the job in between the sleek sports car and a silver Daimler. So Nick Valentine was home. About time. The electronically activated garage door lowered with a hum behind her. But her ire toward her neglectful employer didn't extend to his daughter. Opening the rear door, Candace crooned to the baby as she lifted her out of the car seat and she was rewarded with a happy smile.
Jennie was the sweetest baby in the world. In her job as a pediatric surgery nurse, Candace had seen many, but this one was special.
Her face softened and she tightened her arms. Jennie made a snuffling sound of contentment against her T-shirt and Candace's heart melted like honey in summer sunshine. Poor little motherless thing. The first time she'd held the baby she'd felt the inexplicable bond. This wasn't her child, she had to remind herselfJennie belonged to someone else. Yet she couldn't help being smitten
and more than a little envious of the gift that Nick Valentine treated with such cavalier disregard.
Pushing the door leading into the house open, Candace tiptoed into the glossy marble-and-silver perfection of the foyer that made her feel like she'd stumbled into the pages of an architectural design magazine every time she entered the house. No plants softened the hard edges; no flowers spilling out of vases broke the palette of black, silver, icy lemon and white.
The baby in her arms was the only real thing there.
She glanced through to the black-and-chrome kitchen. It was empty. Across the lobby she could hear the blare of the television. Her pulse quickened and her stomach tied itself up in knots. She resisted the urge to flee upstairs. No point putting this meeting off. The sooner she met her boss the better.