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"Don't die on me."
Alexa Michaels patted the dashboard of her twelve-year-old car as it chugged toward its destination, only a half a block away.
At least the car had gotten her to the street where she needed to go, and she was thirty minutes early to her interview for the tutoring position. The vehicle bellowed a plume of smoke from its tailpipe, the wind whisking it away as it sputtered past another sizable dwelling. Finally, her car died two houses away from her objective, a single-story Mediterranean home on an acre.
She pushed the car door open. Its creaking sound protested the action. With a sigh, she retrieved her large purse from the floor and stood. A brisk breeze caught her long, multicolored skirt and whipped it about her legs. Holding it down while clutching her bag, she hurried toward the house.
Halfway up the sidewalk to the front entrance, a plastic liter bottle fell from the sky and splattered two feet from her, clear liquid splashing and wetting the bottom of her skirt.
What in the world!
Stunned, she stopped, her purse slipping from her fingers to plop on the concrete next to her, the bag's contents pouring all over the ground. She stooped to scoop up her items—lipstick, cell, brush, pen…
A man charged around the side of the house and hurried toward her. Jumping up, she took a step back, the few personal objects in her hand landing in the pile on the ground.
Maybe I've got the wrong place. Maybe I should leave…
Then she saw a young girl appear, not far behind the man, and relaxed, taking stock of the pair as they approached. Tall, lean, the male's long-legged stride ate up the distance between them quickly. His tanned features were set in a look of concern, but as his gaze roamed down her length, his eyes widened briefly before he managed to school his expression into a neutral one.
He came to a halt, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up his nose, framing beautiful Nordic blue eyes with long black eyelashes. "Are you all right? The rocket didn't hit you, did it?"
With her gaze held captive by his, the questions barely registered on her mind.
"Were you hit?" the man asked again.
She mentally shook herself out of the daze and focused on what he'd said. "No. It just splashed my skirt." She peered at the smashed liter bottle. "What was in it?"
The girl who looked about ten years old, with copper-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail, skidded to a stop next to the man. "I can't believe it went over the house, Dad. That was awesome!" She threw her arms around her father, not seeming to notice Alexa.
Returning the hug, he peered down at his daughter, grinning. "Yeah, definitely the best one yet. You did good."
At that moment a gust of wind sent Alexa's skirt dancing about her legs and played with her long mane, whipping it across her face. She reached down, grabbing up as much of the rayon fabric as she could while trying to keep her hair out of her eyes.
Hunched over, Alexa looked up through her curly strands at the man whose own short, black hair stayed in perfect place, complementing the impeccable clothes he wore, tan slacks, navy blue long-sleeved shirt and a jacket. "I'm here for the interview."
"You're early." He turned his grin on her and stuck out his hand. "You must be Alexa Michaels. I'm Ian Ferguson and this one—" he nodded toward the child "—is my daughter, Jana."
His smile lit his whole face and reached deep into his eyes. It set her heart to beating fast until she noticed the way Jana had stepped a little behind her father, gripping him tighter. Was the girl really that uncomfortable around strangers?
Straightening and hoping her skirt stayed down, Alexa fit her hand in his and shook it. The touch of his fingers around hers made her pulse speed up, but she quickly regained control. Being attracted to a potential employer wasn't in her plans. She needed this job.
When he looked at her quizzically, she squashed her reaction to the man and returned his grin. "I wasn't sure if my car would make it. I came early in case I had to walk some." She returned her attention to the child. "It's nice to meet you, Jana."
The young girl smiled, but it didn't stay on her face long. However, her wary gaze remained on Alexa as though she wasn't quite sure what to make of the situation.
"You like to do experiments?" Alexa tried again to connect with the child.
Jana nodded. "Yes. They're fun. Like this one." She gestured toward the liter rocket.
"Great, I do, too."
"We were testing different ways to make a rocket go up," Ian explained. "We used water and compressed air." He winced. "It went too well. If we do that one again, we'll have to go out into the country. Again, I'm sorry about nearly hitting you with the bottle. Our first four attempts weren't nearly as successful." He scanned the street in front of his house, then his driveway. "Where is your car?"
"It died." Alexa gestured toward the neighbor's curb. "It's over there."
"Come inside. We'll talk while Jana cleans up the rocket experiment in the backyard, then we'll decide what to do about your dead car."
Alexa squatted to gather her purse contents and stuff them into her bag. A lingering tinge of heat still scored her cheeks. His gaze had flared slightly when it had landed on her beat-up vehicle in need of being painted, especially where the rust showed. Most people who saw her car wondered how it even ran. Sometimes she did, too.
Before she could finish, Ian knelt next to her, grabbed her apple and brush on the grass and gave them to her. "You have a lot in that purse." The last item on the ground by his feet was a romance paperback. He picked it up and studied the cover. "Interesting."
She wasn't going to blush anymore. She enjoyed reading a good love story. After she took the book from him, she dropped it into her purse with the rest of the returned items. "I like to be prepared for all situations. You never know when you'll be stuck in a line. I get a lot of my reading done while waiting."
After rising, he offered her his hand. She grasped it and stood, trying to ignore the strong feel of his fingers around hers and the tingling that zipped up her arm. His firm grasp conveyed a confident man. Their gazes connected for a moment, and a rush of warmth continued its path through her. She quickly tugged her hand to her side.
Pivoting, he started for his stucco house, glanced back when she didn't move and said, "Coming?"
Still stunned by that brief connection, she managed to murmur, "Oh, sorry. Yes." What in the world was wrong with her?
Shaking her hand as though that would rid her mind of the sensations of the brief contact, she hurriedly caught up and walked beside him toward the double glass doors and the front porch. Ian Ferguson walked in and waved her through. She stepped into a spacious raised foyer. Through the back bank of windows, Alexa saw the small lake that several of the houses in the area abutted.
"Have a seat in the living room while I check on Jana." He headed across the sunken living room and mounted the couple of steps into a large kitchen.
As Alexa heard the murmur of low voices, she took a seat on the edge of a pristine white couch and put her oversize purse on the floor next to her feet. Her fingers grazed across the soft leather of the sofa. Very expensive, if the pliant feel meant anything.
The formal, tidy room screamed a warning: no kids allowed. She hoped she hadn't tracked in any dirt. She checked the path she'd taken and breathed a sigh of relief at the clean white area rug where she'd treaded.
The sound of voices had stopped. When she swung her gaze toward the kitchen, it fell upon Ian Ferguson standing in the doorway, studying her. A gasp escaped her lips, and as much as she wished she didn't, a blush seared her cheeks—again.
"Sorry if I surprised you." He folded his long length onto a black leather chair across from her and laid a folder in his lap. "Sometimes my daughter gets distracted and forgets to do what she's supposed to."
Don't all kids? Alexa kept that comment to herself. "Does she enjoy science?"
"One of her favorite subjects." He relaxed back. "What subject do you enjoy the most?"
"If I were smart, I'd say science, but it isn't. I do love anything to do with animals, though." She tried to loosen the tightness that gripped her, but she couldn't shake the sensation she was in a sterile environment of black and white that she needed to keep that way at all costs.
One thick, dark brow arched. "So what are your favorite subjects to teach?"
"English and history, though I have a gift for languages. I thought about being a secondary-school English teacher, but finally decided I love young kids too much so I chose elementary education. I'm starting my last year of college this semester. I can't take a full load of classes, but I hope to finish by May next year." Just a few years later than my peers.
"Your college adviser had glowing things to say about you. Dr. Baker is a friend. She said you're her top student."
"I've enjoyed her classes and was elated when she became my adviser." And friend. Nancy Baker had been responsible for her getting her last job as a nanny and for telling her about this job.
I want this to work out. Lord, I may need Your assistance here.
He picked up the folder, opened it and scanned a piece of paper. "Your résumé mentions you were a nanny for the Petersons up until last month. What happened?"
"Mr. Peterson's company transferred him to Houston. They moved there at the end of December." Which stuck her with finding another job. She was temporarily working at a restaurant, but being a waitress wasn't where her heart was.
"The past three days I've been interviewing some other applicants from an agency. I'll make up my mind this weekend. I need help as soon as possible."
Alexa heard a door shutting and then voices from the kitchen. According to Dr. Baker, Ian wasn't married. Who else was in the house besides the daughter? "Dr. Baker told me you're a CPA and with tax season coming up, you'll need help temporarily with Jana's schooling."
"I was able to manage teaching her and running my business from home until lately. But now, I need someone to work with Jana on her studies, continuing where I've left off. I'll still be involved as much as my job will allow, but for the next four months that won't be a lot."
The fact he was a single dad trying to be both parents touched Alexa. Across the room, their gazes linked, and for a brief moment her mind blanked. Finally she glanced toward the kitchen, the sound of a girl's voice resonating through the air. "How old is Jana?"
"She's ten. She'll be eleven in two months, and she's counting down the days."
Again she looked directly at Ian Ferguson, the blue of his eyes startling behind his glasses, an intensity, full of seriousness, pouring off him. "May I ask why Jana is being homeschooled?"
"My daughter has struggled with school anxiety—no, it's more than that. It's separation anxiety, and she hasn't attended since the end of August. In fact, she has problems sometimes even leaving our property."
Even with the little she knew about separation anxiety, Alexa realized there was a lot more to the story. But the firm set of his jaw indicated there wouldn't be any more information given out. "Does Jana like to write?" "That and science are her favorite subjects." "Good, even at a young age I encourage children to write. What does she hate to do?"
One corner of his mouth lifted, a dimple in his right cheek. "Math. She probably won't be following in my footsteps. She actually struggles in the subject, and I'm afraid my patience isn't what it should be when I teach something that comes easy for me." When his grin broadened, his whole face brightened, and laugh lines fanned outward from his eyes. The sparkle in those blue depths gave the impression of shared understanding.
But that was just an illusion. Alexa couldn't find anything they had in common. For starters, a room like the one she was in would give her hives if she stayed in it long, whereas the man across from her appeared as though he fit easily into a formal setting. "I have some games to help kids learn math. It wasn't easy for me when I was growing up, so I certainly understand what Jana is going through." "Do you have any questions about the job?" "No, Dr. Baker explained what you need. I'll be starting my spring semester at college in a couple of weeks. I take classes in the evenings and will have to leave by four on Tuesdays and Thursdays."
"What kind of teaching schedule would you maintain?"
"I like to seize the moment, especially in a one-on-one setting. If something comes up that piques Jana's interest, I'll use that and run with it. If she saw a TV show about, say, dogs and was interested in a certain breed, then we'd do a unit around that breed. Start with the child's interests and go from there is my motto."
"How about that math she hates?"
"We'd get to it. She just may not realize it at first. I can incorporate some math into other units—disguise it somewhat so she doesn't realize she's learning math."
Ian blinked rapidly then dropped his gaze to his lap. "I'm still checking out references and interviewing. But I'll have an answer by Saturday." He rose. "Now, let's check on your car. I can try to start it. If it won't work, I'll give you a ride home."
Alexa stood. "We don't need to check on it. It won't start. My cousin works for a garage. He'll have to come tow it to the shop. This has happened before. My car has lived past its life expectancy thanks to my cousin. And if the Lord is willing, it will be resurrected for another couple of thousand miles."
"And if not?"
She chuckled. "I'm in big trouble. All my extra money goes to finishing school. What's life without a few bumps in the road? I'm not gonna worry about it until I have no other choice."
"Let me go tell Jana and my housekeeper, Madge, I'm taking you home."
"Are you sure? I can call a cab. It sounds like you have a lot of work to do."