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"Do you think Daddy got my letter yet, Connie?" Connie Ladden couldn't bear to quash the hope shining in Silver Abbot's glossy blue eyes, so she brushed the riot of blond curls away from her fouralmost fiveyear-old charge's face and eased onto the bed, next to the little girl.
"Remember, I showed you on the map how far away Argentina is?"
"Uh-huh." Silver nodded solemnly.
Too solemnly for Connie's liking. Silver wanted her daddy, and after two months as nanny for the delightful child, Connie thought Wade Abbot needed to act more like a father and be here for his precious daughter. Still, her job was to help Silver with her life as it was, not the way they wished it could be.
"Well, it's only been about a week since we mailed it, sweetie. Argentina is a very long way for a letter to go."
Thanks to the courier's emailed confirmation of delivery, Connie knew the package with Silver's recorded message had safely arrived at its destination. But she didn't want to say that. Connie hadn't yet met Silver's father,
and she wasn't sure how Wade Abbot would react to his daughter's latest communication.
"It's been ten days. I counted." Silver frowned. "David, at my preschool, told me email is very fast. Do you know how to do email?"
"Yes." Connie smiled at her serious look.
"You could have sent my letter that way, couldn't you, Connie?"
"I guess I could have. But think how nice it will be for your daddy to get an envelope from home, from his own little girl."
David Foster, Mr. Abbot's lawyer and Silver's guardian, had made it clear when he hired Connie and provided Wade Abbot's email address that Silver's father did not want to be distracted by everyday minutiae. Wade Abbot was in Argentina on a very tight schedule. It was urgent that he bring in the project on time for Abbot Bridges, Inc., according to David. The way he'd phrased it had led Connie to deduce that the company stood to lose a substantial amount of money and perhaps forfeit future contracts with the Argentinean government if the deadline was missed.
"Your daddy might not have had a chance to open it yet."
"'Cause he's so busy." Silver sighed. "I know." Resigned, she snuggled into her bed and drew her puffy pink quilt up to her chin.
Connie bent to kiss her good-night a second time, unable to resist the downy softness of Silver's rounded cheek or the delight of another hug.
"Can't we have just one more story, Connie?" The chubby arms refused to release her neck. "Please?" The beguiling smile begged her to relent.
"You've already had three stories, munchkin. Now it's bedtime. You know my rules." Connie rubbed her nose against Silver's, unclasped her grasp and tucked her arms beneath the pink quilt patterned with fairy princesses. Tiny silver bells attached to princess shoes tinkled softly. "We have a lot to do tomorrow. It's our bird-watching day. I want to find out more about the hummingbirds here in Tucson. You need to rest those baby-blue eyes so you'll be able to point them out."
"You sure like hummingbirds."
"I sure do," Connie agreed.
"Hey, we forgot to say my prayers." Silver grinned.
"So we did. Okay, go ahead." Connie knelt at the side of the bed, closed her eyes and waited.
"Dear God, thank you for today. And for Connie. I love her lots."
Connie's heart squeezed so tight that she could barely breathe. It's mutual, kiddo.
"We had fun flying our kites this afternoon, God. Thanks for the wind and for Cora's yummy muffins and for Hornby's pretty roses. Bless my daddy and bring him home soon. And help Granny Amanda not to be mad at Daddy anymore. Amen."
"Amen." Connie hesitated as she studied Silver. "Honey, why do you think your grandmother is mad at your father?"
"Because she said" Silver's blue eyes welled with tears and she snuffled, unable to finish her sentence. "I don't believe he'd forget about me," she muttered defiantly a moment later. "My daddy loves me. Doesn't he, Connie?"
"Of course he does, sweetie. Everybody knows that. You must have misunderstood your grandmother." Connie hugged the fragile body close, praying her words were true. "Why, look at all the lovely things your daddy sends you. Your room is going to burst if he doesn't stop."
That made Silver smile. A few moments later, her eyelids drooped and she was asleep. Connie rose, switched the lamp to dim and padded quietly out of the room. She set the door just the tiniest bit ajar so that if Silver woke during the night she would see the hall light and not be afraid.
Connie paused, debating the wisdom of her next move. But she couldn't put it off any longer. Something had to be done. Her job was to protect Silver.
Help me, Lord.
She trod downstairs, moving silently over the glossy hardwood until she came to the living room. She tapped on the door once then waited for an invitation to enter.
"Constance. Is everything all right?" Amanda Abbot glanced up from the magazine she was perusing. She'd spilled her tea over the lovely rosewood table and onto the white carpet but seemed oblivious to the mess.
"Oh, dear." Connie stemmed her irritation and grabbed two napkins to sponge up what she could. "I hope that doesn't mark."
"Who cares? Wade can afford another one." Amanda waved an irritated hand. "What did you want, Constance?"
Connie rose, inhaled and prayed for courage. Some noise outside the room drew her attention for a moment. Probably Cora, the Abbot's cook, leaving for the night.
"Well?" Amanda's eyes flashed with annoyance.
"I wanted to talk to you" Connie gulped and forced herself to continue "about Silver."
"What about her?" Amanda continued to flip through the magazine. "Is she sick?"
"She was upset by your comments about her father." There, she'd said it.
"My comments?" Amanda's lips tightened. She tossed the magazine away. "What comments, exactly, Constance?"
"Actually, it's Connie. Plain old Connie." She cleared her throat. "I believe you hinted that her father had forgotten about her. Silver was quite agitated by that."
"Oh, fiddle." Amanda huffed. "The child needs to hear the truth. As it is, she lives in a fairy tale world. It's better to face reality."
"But it isn't reality, is it?" Connie asked quietly. "Her father couldn't have forgotten about her when he sends her a gift every week."
"Are you questioning me?" Amanda sounded outraged. "You know that you only have this job because I allow it. I could have suggested many others to be my granddaughter's nanny."
But none of them would put up with your manipulations. It was the truth, but Connie didn't say it. Amanda did not like to be contradicted.
She also did not like her stepson.
Or so it seemed to Connie.
"I believe Mr. Foster hired me because he knew I'd protect Silver. I'm not questioning you. I'm simply telling you that when you say these things about her father, it hurts Silver. And I know you don't want to do that." Connie paused to gather her courage. "Yesterday, you said her father had probably found another family in Argentina. Perhaps you didn't mean for her to overhear, but she did, and she cried about it for an hour."
"Then you weren't doing your job, were you?" Amanda didn't look fazed by her part in her granddaughter's unhap-piness. "You're supposed to keep her busy and happy."
"I'm trying to do that. I care a great deal for Silver. That's why I've come to ask you to be more careful."
Connie refused to back down. "What you say could damage the relationship between Silver and her father. That's not right."
"What I say is none of your business. Pack your things and get out. You're fired."
Connie wanted to protest, but she knew it wouldn't help. Amanda was not one to be swayed by others.
"I'm sorry if I've offended you," she said quietly. "I'm only trying to do what's best for Silver. That is why I was hired, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. Isn't it, Amanda?"
Connie whirled around at the quiet but controlled voice that had come from behind her. A man identical to the picture on Silver's night stand dropped the bag he was carrying beside his feet. He held out one hand.
"I'm Wade Abbot. I assume you are Connie Ladden, Silver's nanny."
"I am." She shook his hand, felt the strength in his tanned fingers. He was so rugged looking and so handsome. A tiny shiver wiggled its way from her hand to her heart in a twitch of awareness. "I'm pleased to meet you. Your daughter talks about you constantly. She adores you."
"Does she?" He studied her for a few moments then inclined his head. "I'd like to speak to my stepmother privately, Ms. Ladden. But when I've finished, I'd also like to talk to you. Could you meet me in the kitchen in a few minutes? I've been flying for seventeen hours and I'm starved."
"Certainly, Mr. Abbot."
"Yes, sir." Connie forced herself not to look at Amanda as she left the room. She hurried down the hall, pausing momentarily to glance at herself in a mirror. She wished she'd had time to do something about her ponytail and lack of makeup before meeting Silver's father. Not that it mattered. She was just the nanny.
And that's all she intended to be. Romance was highly overrated.
"You're not hungry again, are you?" Cora grumbled when she saw Connie. But her eyes twinkled. "Because if you are, I've left some chocolate cake in that cupboard."
"Great. I'll cut some for Mr. Abbot. He's talking with Amanda just now, but I'm to meet him here. He's hungry."
"Wade's back? Wonderful." Cora's round face wreathed in smiles, then as quickly saddened. "If I'd known earlier I'd have made his favorite pie, but " She glanced at the clock.
"You have your granddaughter's recital tonight, right? Don't worry. I'll heat some leftovers for him." Connie hugged the older woman and helped her into her coat. "Go on now."
"You're such a dear. This house has been filled with light and joy since you've come." Cora hugged her back then frowned. "But there aren't any leftovers to heat."
"Then he'll get eggs. I'm not a fantastic cook like you, but I can manage to scramble some eggs. Leave it to me."
"Thank you, dear. I believe I will. Bless you." The woman hurried away.
Connie assembled ingredients, set the kettle to boil and prepared the toaster. But when the slam of the front door shook the house, she decided to check on Silver. If she hadn't already been awakened, the child would be overjoyed tomorrow when she learned her father was home.
Upstairs, Connie noticed Silver's door was open wider than she'd left it. She hurried toward it then froze. Wade Abbot stood beside Silver's bed, watching as the little girl slept. He stretched out a hand as if to touch her hair then quickly drew it away. Instead, he squatted beside the bed, apparently content to stare.
He was a tall man with dark brown hair cut short, probably to stem the riot of curls that now caressed the tips of his ears. Lean and fit, he had the kind of physique that came from hard physical labor. His shoulders stretched his faded chambray shirt, which he'd tucked it into a pair of well-worn jeans. His feet were covered by battered brown boots. Nothing about him gave away his status as head of a prestigious contracting firm.
Earlier, Connie had only caught a quick look at Wade Abbot's face, but now with Silver's bedside lamp illuminating it, she saw deeply set eyes beneath a broad forehead, chiseled cheekbones above gaunt hollows, a straight aquiline nose with a mustache beneath that partially hid his lips and a jutting chin that telegraphed grit and determination.
In slow motion he lifted something bright blue and fuzzy that released a faint tinkle. Another of Silver's beloved bells? He set the stuffed animal beside his daughter. Then he tenderly lifted her covers and snugged them in place under her chin.
Connie knew very little about the Abbot family. David Foster had told her that Mrs. Abbot had died four years ago on a yacht in Brazil shortly after Silver's birth. Connie knew from her internet search that the couple had been living in Brazil at the time Mrs. Abbot had died, but she'd found few other details.
Silver remembered nothing of her own mother, which was probably why she yearned for her father so much. But David Foster had warned Connie that the last nanny had left because she'd developed an affection for Wade.
He'd been adamant that Connie should not suffer the same fate.
Wade isn't interested in love, so don't have any illusions about him.
As if Connie needed that warning. She wasn't about to give her heart to any man again. Not after being jilted at the altar by a man she'd called a friend for years, a man she'd thought she could trust completely. He was the second important man in her life to let her down when she most needed him. Connie didn't need a third lesson.
"I didn't waken her." Wade now stood beside her in the hallway, his brown eyes swirling with secrets.
"It wouldn't have mattered if you had," Connie murmured, smiling. "She's been longing to see you. She'd be ecstatic."
"But her rest would be disturbed. I don't want that. I'll wait till morning." He took one last look at the sleeping child then motioned for Connie to precede him down the stairs. "She looks well. And still crazy for bells?"
"Oh, yes." Connie chuckled. "She'll be delighted with the toy." She motioned him to a chair at the counter and poured a mug of tea. "I'll scramble some eggs."
"Please, don't bother. I can have toast. Or anything."
"It's no bother. I told Cora I'd do it, because she had to leave to attend a function for her granddaughter. In fact, I have to do it or she'll punish me tomorrow. I don't want that. Her cooking is to die for." Connie grinned at him then set the pan to heat while she whipped the eggs and added onions, cheese and peppers. "Are you finished with the bridge?"
"You sound like Amanda." He chuckled at her blink of surprise. "Yes, it's finished. A month early, too. Tell me about Silver."
Connie had been prepared to dislike this man. After all, he'd left his little daughter alone for several months to complete a job in some distant country. She didn't see that as the sign of a doting father. But the eagerness in his question now had her reassessing her judgment. She knew nothing about the reasons Wade had left, and she didn't trust the nasty hints Amanda had dropped. Not everyone was like her own father. Why did she have to keep reminding herself of that?
"Silver's very bright. She seems to enjoy her gymnastics club, storytime at the library and her art class."
"So she said. Clever idea, that video you sent. I should have thought of it before. I could have sent one back to her, shown her where I was working, what I was doing." He frowned and then sipped his tea.