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Jack Mason knew he was in trouble the minute he saw her.
He didn't know why she snagged his attention, considering she sat in a room crowded with nanny applicants of all shapes, colors and ages, none of whom possessed a clue about his true intentionschoosing one of them for his wife. This woman dressed in a somber black pantsuit that wasn't the least eye-catching, so perhaps his reaction had something to do with the way she sat reading a paperback novel perfectly composed and preternaturally still, an expression of absolute patience on a face more striking than beautiful.
Jack examined her with greater care. Interesting. Everything about her appeared quiet and understated. She'd pulled her hair into ruthless obedience, anchoring the ebony mass into a tight knot at her nape. In addition, she'd used a restrained hand with her makeup, just a hint of color on her cheeks and lips. A light brush of taupe across her eyelids drew attention to a startling pair of deep-set eyes that wavered somewhere between honey and gold and were framed by lush black lashes. She looked impossibly young, and yet one glimpse of those eyes warned of someone who'd been through the pits of hell and back again. They overflowed with ancient wisdom and intense vulnerability.
Was that why he'd keyed in on her from all those crowding the room? And what, in particular, about her appearance aroused such intense interest? It was something subtle. Something that stirred instincts he'd honed during his years surviving in the shark-infested waters of the business world. Those instincts warned that this woman, while appearing so calm and controlled on the outside, seethed with secret passion. It was almostas though he sensed the ebb and flow of those restless seas and reacted on a visceral level to a call only he could hear.
If they'd met anywhere else, he'd have moved in on her and cut her from the crowd. He'd have found a way to break through that carefully cultivated self-control and release the inner passion. It had always been that way with him. He'd always responded to the essence of the woman swirling beneath the surface and felt the burning need to strip her down, layer by layer, to that passionate inner core.
This woman would have many layers, fascinating layers. Layers he could explore intellectually and physically. And he wanted to developwanted with an intensity he hadn't experienced in years.
One of his prospective "wives" coughed, snapping Jack's concentration. Awareness of time and place returned, along with an irritation that he'd allowed such pointless speculation to distract him. He forced his attention back to the business at handsecuring a woman who could act the part of both nanny and wife. On the verge of calling the next name on the list, the door to the outer office flew open and his niece burst in.
Her short, curly hair stood out from her head in matted golden-brown spikes that had yet to see a brush that morning, and he could tell what she'd eaten for breakfast with a single look at her shirt. She'd worked a hole into each knee of her new jeanswith a pair of scissors, by the look of it. And she'd used her watercolor paints to turn her face into a startling mask of red and black swirls.
Isabella scanned the room in frantic anger, her olive green eyes narrowed to slits. Taking a stance dead center in the room, she balled her hands into fists and then opened her mouth, letting out a scream loud and shrill enough to cause the windowpanes in his office to shiver in protest. For a split second, everyone in the outer room froze. Jack considered taking control of the situation, but then decided to wait and see how his nanny applicants reacted.
Some of the women took decisive action. They bolted for the door. Jack sighed. Three down. Several of the others exchanged uneasy glances, clearly uncertain how to respond to the crazed child who'd erupted into their midst. One large-set, no-nonsense woman rose and approached Isabella.
"You stop that this instant," she demanded.
Isabella responded by kicking the woman in the shin and increasing the volume and shrillness of her screaming, something Jack would have thought an impossibility. But somehow, his darling niece managed it. The woman exited, muttering furiously beneath her breathfour downand Jack thanked his lucky stars. He didn't think he could handle a wife with a moustache. Nor did he think Mrs. Locke would believe theirs was a real marriage.
Successfully having rid herself of four of the applicants, Isabella took control of the room. She darted from person to person, giving them an exclusive, one-on-one performance. Each reacted differently. Some attempted to cajole. Others took the first woman's approach and made demands. One actually threatened Isabella with a spanking. Several made shushing noises. Only the woman in black didn't react. She continued to sit quietly, reading her book as though she neither saw nor heard the chaos exploding around her. Isabella took note and her jaw assumed a determined slant.
Jack winced. Hell.
Rushing over to stand in front of the woman, Isabella gave full throttle to her displeasure. It didn't make a bit of difference. The only response was a leisurely turn of the page. Finally, Isabella's voice gave out and she croaked into silence. Only then did the woman look up. For an instant the two stared at each other, a silent contest of wills.
An odd expression burned in the woman's eyes, something that might have been fear combined with an intense vulnerability, which didn't bode well for her ability to control a child of Isabella's willful nature. In the next moment, the look vanished, replaced by a gentle relentless-ness, a searing look of hope combined with determination.
The expression took his breath away. She'd only been in Isabella's presence for mere moments, and yet he could practically see her weaving an emotional connection with his niece.
She said something to Isabella in a voice so soft it didn't carry any farther than his niece's ears. Then she stood and walked to the door. Opening it, she scanned the area. "Who's in charge of this child?" Jack heard her ask.
The temporary babysitter he'd hired, who'd no doubt been cowering in the hallway, reluctantly stepped forward. "I am."
Without another word, the woman ushered Isabella through the door and, before the child could react, closed it decisively in her face. Then she returned to her seat, picked up her book and resumed reading. A scattering of applause broke out around her, not that she took any notice. Even so, Jack could tell the incident had affected her. A telltale pulse throbbed at the base of her throat, betraying her agitation. It impressed the hell out of him that she could hide her reaction so well. He checked his watch and grimaced. Time to move this show along.
He called the next name on the list. " Annalise Stefano."
He wasn't the least surprised when the woman he'd been studying tucked away her book, shouldered her purse and stood. Somehow, the name fit. She walked toward him with a long, easy stride that suited her lean, coltish build. A tiny curl sprang loose from the tight control she'd attempted to impose on it and bounced against her temple in joyful exuberance. He almost smiled. Her hair was one of the layers he'd love to peel away. How would she look with all those curls tumbling down her back in total abandon?
"I'm Annalise," she said, and offered her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mason."
He took her hand in his and felt the odd dichotomy of fine bones in opposition to a tensile strength. Did it reflect the woman? He suspected it did. He forced himself to release her, when in truth he experienced a sharp desire to tug her closer, if only to see how she'd react, to see how deep that self-control ran. Not good. Whomever he chose for this job would be his temporary wife, a woman he'd want out of his life as soon as feasible. That meant their relationship could be boiled down to two words.
"Ms. Stefano," he said. "Come with me." He started to close the door to his office and caught a glimpse of another of the applicants scurrying toward the exit. Hell. Five down, though at least it was the one who'd advocated spanking. He closed the door and waved a hand toward one of the two chairs in front of his desk. "Have a seat while I review your résumé."
He scanned it quickly to refresh his memory. Right, right. He remembered this one. He'd almost rejected her out of hand because she had so little practical experience. What had tipped the scales in her favor was the fact that she'd received her teaching certificate in early childhood and elementary education, as well as in special ed, and that she'd possessed glowing recommendations. They were right in line with the qualifications Derek recommended in his future bride.
"I assume my assistant explained why I'm in need of a nanny?"
"Yes, she did. I also read about the tragedy in the newspapers, Mr. Mason. I'm very sorry for your loss."
He inclined his head, relieved that he didn't have to go into lengthy explanations. The papers had been quite thorough in that regard. "I'm afraid you had the pleasure of meeting my niece, Isabella, a few minutes ago."
Annalise offered a quick smile, one that transformed her face, lifting it from striking to luminescent. "So I gathered."
"As you can see, she's having a difficult time making the transition." He held out his hands. "And who can blame her? Not only did she lose her parents three months ago, but she's been uprooted from her home in Colorado."
Sympathy radiated off Annalise and her eyes glittered with a wealth of emotion. "That explains a lot about her current behavior."
Jack inclined his head. "When she first came to live with me, I contacted an agency to hire a qualified daytime caregiver. I went through their entire portfolio the first month. The longest stayed a week. The shortest clocked in at just under an hour. Since then, I've decided to take matters into my own hands and hire someone myself. Which brings me to your application, Ms. Stefano."
"Please call me Annalise."
"Fine. Annalise it is." He paused on the first page of her application. "You're qualified to teach elementary school. Why have you applied for a position as a nanny?"
She didn't hesitate, clearly anticipating the question. "I'm interested in attaining my master's before taking on a teaching job. This position will provide me with more flexibility than teaching and fewer hours of preparation while I pursue that goal."
He tilted his head to one side. That would fit in with his own plans. She could pursue her master's programa program he'd be only too happy to pay forwhile playing the role of devoted wife and mother. "Would you be willing to commit to an employment contract of two full years? And would you be willing to homeschool Isabella, if needed?"
She folded her hands in her lap and met his gaze dead-on. "It will take me two years to complete my master's program, so that aspect isn't a problem. Since it's the end of the school year right now, your niece and I will have the summer to work out a comfortable routine before fall classes begin. If you want to initiate a schooling program for her at that point, I'll have the next few months to put together a curriculum that meets with your approval. Then I can implement Isabella's lessons while I begin evening classes toward my master's."
Despite her outer calm, he sensed a certain level of nervousnessalmost anxietyand couldn't help but wonder what caused it. He allowed the silence to drag while he considered the various reasons for her turmoil. She could be nervous because she was lying to him about something, in which case he'd find a way to get to the truth. The irony of that fact didn't escape him, considering this entire interview was a huge fraud. Even so, he needed to trust his future wife, which meant all the cards on the table. Of course, she could be nervous because she didn't handle interviews well. One other possibility occurred to him, one that caused his gut to tighten and an unwanted hunger to gnaw at him.
Maybe he made her uneasy. Maybe she'd experienced the same odd awareness that he had. She didn't break the lengthy silence with a rush of nervous explanations the way many would have. That fact alone impressed the hell out of him.
"Let me be frank, Annalise. I'm concerned that you may change your mind midsummer and take a teaching position, leaving me to go through this process all over again. Isabella's had enough trauma and loss in her life without experiencing another so soon."
"That won't happen."
Instinct told him that she spoke with absolute sincerity. Even so, he sensed an intense emotional current that continued to ripple just beneath the surface, though he still couldn't quite pinpoint the reason for it. Perhaps it was a simple case of interview jitters. He glanced down at her file.
"I see you've also had some training with special-needs."
She stilled in the act of brushing another loosened curl away from her eyes. Her expression grew troubled. "Has Isabella always been a special-needs child? Or is today's incident related to the plane crash?"
He hesitated, choosing his words with care. "It started after she came to live with me. I want to make sure I hire someone who can help her adjust. Frankly, I don't think you have the necessary experience."
"Is she seeing a counselor?"
"I don't have much choice in the matter. CPS has insisted."
She raised an eyebrow at his dry tone. "With good reason. Children of that age can be manipulative. If she feels like you're cutting her some slack because of her loss, she'll use that for as long as it works. You should also consider talking to one yourself in order to learn how to best provide for her needs."
He leaned back in his chair and lifted an eyebrow. "Do I look like the sort of man who can be easily manipulated? Or is it just that you don't think I can provide for her needs?"
"Look, I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't give her love and stability and reassurance. I'm just suggesting you don't allow pity to make you too indulgent." Then she grinned, the vibrant flash of it arrowing straight through to his gut. "And now I've moved from dispensing unwanted advice to lecturing. It's well-intentioned, honestly."