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Rising from the desk in her office, Emily Diaz hurried into the hall at the sound of children's laughter.
Dr. Jared Madison stood there, his shock of dark-brown hair falling over his brow, his tie askew. He held the hands of his identical twin daughters. Usually the epitome of calm and tact, he dropped the stuffed unicorn he'd clutched under one arm.
One of the little girlsboth were dressed in Cinderella T-shirts and pink shortslet go of his hand and warned, "Don't step on Stardust!"
"I'd never do that," the physician replied, his Texas drawl more evident this morning than it usually was. He spotted Emily as his daughter saved the unicorn.
Emily didn't know quite what to say. Dr. Madison had hired her over seven months ago to be his obstetrical nurse practitioner. Ever since she'd interviewed for the position, she'd felt a current between them, though Dr. Madison had never been anything but professional. She'd told herself more than once that she wouldn't get involved personally because she valued her job and because
She shivered to think of the consequences for her job if he learned her secret.
"Who are you?" the twin not clutching Stardust piped up. Both girls were adorable with light-brown hair and huge green eyes, the same color green as their father's.
Without thinking, Emily dropped down to the their eye level, her own black, very curly hair flowing forward to tickle her chin. She kept it banded back when she examined patients, but this morning she'd intended to spend a quiet morning in her office catching up on paperwork. "My name is Emily, and I work with your dad."
Everyone knew Dr. Madison had twin, three-year-old daughters, though that was about all they knew. He was a very private man. One very tall, broad-shouldered, sexy man.
Emily tried to ignore him as she concentrated on the two little girls. "What are your names?" She glanced up at the physician, hoping he wouldn't mind her asking.
The twins checked with their dad and he gave a nod.
"Amy," the twin on the left easily told Emily.
The little girl on the right poked her finger into her mouth, studied Emily for a few moments, then mumbled, "I'm Courtney."
Amy added, "Daddy's taking care of us because Grandma fell boom."
"Honey, how about if you and Amy go into my office?" He opened the door across the hall and gestured the girls inside.
His daughters ran into the office as if they'd never been there before, peering at everything in sightthe floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the long mahogany desk, the two comfortable padded chairs facing it, the old-fashioned car replicas on the credenza, the coffeepot and packet of sandwich cookies on a side table.
"Cookies!" Courtney cried with glee, heading toward them.
But Dr. Madison was quick. "Oh, no. You just had breakfast."
Striding to his desk, he bent to one of the drawers, opened it and took out several sheets of blank paper. Then he reached into the pencil holder on his desk, plucking out two markers.
He pointed to the carpet at the side of the room. "How about if you draw for a couple of minutes while I find some toys in the waiting room?"
He glanced at Emily, still in the hall. After giving his girls the paper and markers, he met her at the door and lowered his voice. "My mother takes care of them and she fell this morning. Unfortunately, they saw it. The ambulance, too. They were upset and I couldn't get hold of my cousin who watches them sometimes. I had no choice but to bring them in."
He checked his watch. "I'm going to have patients to see in about fifteen minutes. I could try to reroute them to the partners"
"I'll watch the twins."
As he studied Emily, she could hear every one of her heartbeats. She was wearing a cranberry suit this morning. She'd lost weight over the past year and a half because of everything she'd been through, but she still had a well-rounded figure. Usually it was covered by her yellow smock. Now it wasn't. She didn't know why she'd offered to watch his girls. Maybe it was because she missed being around babies and children. She took care of pregnant moms now, but she didn't assist in deliveries. Back in Corpus Christi, in addition to being a midwife, she used to volunteer at the pediatric unit at the hospital. She thought wistfully of her old lifebefore the lawsuit and her divorce and the move to Sagebrush, Texas. She was lucky, she told herself, to live a short drive from these offices in Lubbock, at the Family Tree Health Center.
"Why would you want to watch them?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Because I like kids and I don't have patients this morning. My first appointment isn't until one. I don't know what you're going to do this afternoon, but I can cover the morning."
Dr. Madison was a good six inches taller than she was. He looked down at her and suddenly smiled. "How do you know they're not hellions on wheels?"
When she peeked around him into his office, her arm brushed his. Her heart practically stopped from the jolt of electric current. Had he felt it, too?
She quickly scanned what the girls were doing. They were drawing.
When Emily met his gaze again, she saw the glint of interest there. "They look more like cherubs than hellions, and from the way they settled down so quickly, I'd say they're well behaved. But I have been known to be wrong. If I am, you can add a bonus to my salary."
He laughed and seemed surprised he did.
Emily knew Dr. Madison was cordial with his patients. But he was usually serious otherwise. She'd gotten the impression that the lines around his eyes hadn't come from laughing, though maybe they'd been deepened by it with his daughters. In his early forties, he was a widower. Emily wondered if his serious nature and the lines on his face had something to do with that.
"I'd be forever grateful if you could handle them for the morning," he decided. "I don'tknow if there are enough toys in the waiting room to keep them occupied for that long."
"With LEGOs, a miniature farm set to play with and my origami skills, I think we'll be fine."
"Origami skills?" He grinned. "Have you been hiding your talents?"
The word hiding made her almost panic. Calm down! she told herself. This jumpiness was why she'd never had such a long, personal conversation with Dr. Madison. "Not so hidden. I did a science project on origami when I was in high school. In college, I took to it as an art. So as long as I have paper to fold, the girls might be a little fascinated."
The doctor's cell phone beeped a few times and he snatched it from his belt, opening it. "Excuse me," he said to Emily. "It's Dr. Garcia from the hospital. I asked him to call me as soon as my mother had X-rays."
When he stepped outside the room, Emily stepped inside, but she was still aware of his cologne, still aware of his tall, lean physique, still aware of everything about the man whom she'd admired since he'd hired her.
She sank down to the floor beside the girls. "Tell me about your pictures."
Courtney explained the boxy vehicle she'd drawn had come to their house with lights flashing. Amy's picture, on the other hand, was a stick figure of a man with a stethoscope around his neck. Anyone else examining the picture could have mistaken it for a necklace, but Emily guessed the girls had seen their father wearing it.
When Emily saw Jared had finished his call, she stood and went out to the hall again.
He was frowning, looking troubled. "My mother's hip is broken," he said gruffly. "After discussing it with her, they've decided to do surgery." He sighed and raked his hand through his hair. "That means she'll be in the hospital for a week, rehab for two. I have to get hold of my cousin to see if she'll be willing to help out. She's a free spirit, doesn't like to be tied down, so I don't know how this will play into her plans."
"Dr. Madison, I'm so sorry."
Their gazes met again and Emily felt a shiver of male-female awareness.
"You've been here long enough to call me Jared."
"I didn't think time had anything to do with it. You're my boss."
He gave her a half smile. "I am. But I think those stringent barriers have blurred a bit this morning. Is it all right if I call you Emily?"
She felt her cheeks start to flush. "Yes, that's fine."
"You could take the girls into the lounge," he suggested.
In the very small room with a table and chairs and refrigerator, employees came and went. There wasn't really enough room to gather, even if they had time.
"I think I'll take them to my office. It's bigger. Can they have juice? I know there's some in the refrigerator."
"Juice, but nothing else that's sweet. I'm hoping the morning goes smoothly and I can buy them lunch at the deli."
The Family Tree Health Center really was a center for specialty practices. Conveniently, there was a café on the first floor and a deli cart sandwich station on the second.
"If you get tied up, I'll get them something."
"Emily, do you know what you're volunteering for? Children can be tiring and cranky."
"And an absolute joy. We'll be fine. Really. Trust me."
A shadow passed over Jared's face and Emily wondered whether trust was difficult for him. Why?
Trust wasn't easy for her, either. In fact, except for her housemates, Francesca and Tessa, she usually kept to herself. It had seemed safer, especially in a new place. She had to remind herself Tessa was no longer her housemate. Her friend had gotten married and moved out last week.
"I'll get the toys," Jared said, grounding Emily in the here and now.
His gaze locked with hers again and she seemed mesmerized for a moment by the mysterious green of his eyes. Then he broke the spell and strode toward the reception area.
When Jared's last appointment for the morning canceled, he was almost relieved. He had to see how Emily Diaz and his daughters were faring. He'd looked in on them briefly after their first hour with her, and they hadn't even noticed he was there! Quite a feat, since after they'd lost their mother, they'd stuck to him like glue. It said something about Emily's charm. She'd seemed so robotic since he'd hired her. Maybe because he'd felt sparks he shouldn't have felt when he'd interviewed her and she'd sensed his masculine interest. Yet, he told himself, there was no interest. With a failed marriage that had been mostly his fault, and his daughters to take care of on his own, he wasn't about to get involved with anyone, not even a dark-haired, brown-eyed beauty who might ease his restlessness.
When he peeked into Emily's office, he heard Amy's awe as she said, "It looks like a swan. There's a swan in one of my story books."
"I think I know which one," Emily offered. "The Ugly Duckling."
Both girls nodded vigorously. "What else can you make?" they chorused.
Jared noticed the array of toys on the floor, a daily occurrence at his house, too. The August sun streamed in the window as his twins sat together in one chair beside Emily's desk. She was just around the corner with colored sheets of paper splayed here and there.
When Courtney saw him she scrambled from her chair and hugged him around his legs. "Emily knows how to play with toys. She was a farmer."
"She took the milk to market," Amy piped in.
"Well, you have been busy. I happen to have an extra half hour freed up. I brought us lunch." He opened bags on the desk and produced an array of food from sandwiches to salads to fruit cups.
As he settled the girls with a half sandwich each and some milk, he asked Emily, "Would you consider doing this for the afternoon, too?" Unbelievably, he did trust her with his daughters.
"I have patients."
"I know you do. But Tom's OB nurse is free this afternoon and he said he wouldn't mind lending her to me and she's willing to help. I know this is a lot to ask, but I'd really like to keep some continuity with the girls, and I still haven't been able to reach Chloie. Sometimes, when she doesn't want to feel tied down, she'll leave her cell phone at home. So I have no idea where she is."
Jared found himself studying Emily again, wanting to get to know her better. They were across the desk from each other, yet there seemed to be a magnetic pull that shortened the distance between them.
Emily chose a fruit cup from the lunch assortment. "Maybe you'd like to talk to Amy and Courtney and find out if they've been having a good time."
"The smiles on their faces when I came in and their rapt attention to you told me all I need to know."
She looked surprised by the compliment as if she didn't get many. Then she asked, "If I watch them this afternoon, do you mind if I take them for a walk down to the garden to look at the fountain?"
"I promise I'll hold their hands and never let them out of my sight. I know how precious children are, Jared."
The sound of his name on her lips made his gut tighten. Damn, but he was attracted to her. "All right. But let me know when you leave and when you return."
He'd lost people in his life. He needed to know his daughters were safe.
He instinctively felt they were safe with Emily.
Ever since he'd hired her, something about her had intrigued him. But he'd shut down that intrigue. He'd tried to turn off the current of electricity that vibrated whenever he got close to her. He was the boss. He shouldn't be thinking anything but professional thoughts about her.
At the end of the day, Jared found his daughters with Emily in her office, building houses with glue and tongue depressors.
"Have you gotten hold of your cousin?" she asked as soon as she saw him. She lowered her eyes.
Was she trying to avoid the pull of attraction that he was feeling, too? He'd been away from the dating circuit for so long, maybe he was mistaking her kindness for chemistry.
"I've left messages for her. I'm hoping she'll call me this evening." Then before he even realized what he planned to do, he asked, "Can I repay you tonight with a take-out dinner? Or have you spent enough time in the company of kids?"
He'd never invited a woman back to the house with his girls. Actually, he was hoping for a little adult conversation that wasn't professional in nature. How long had it been since he'd spent a casual evening talking?