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With a jerk, Kelsey Mason opened her eyes and groaned. She squinted at her watch. Nearly twelve hours since her flight had been canceled, stranding her in a strange city, with no money and less hope. The armrest of the standard-issue airport chair jabbed into her back, already achy from the load she carried around her middle. Every bone in her body protested as she rotated forward and straightened.
"You talk in your sleep," a tiny voice commented. "Somb-niloquy."
Swiveling toward the sound, Kelsey was speared by a pair of huge liquid-brown eyes in a face that couldn't be more than six years old.
"You talk pretty big for a little girl." Kelsey stretched, rolling her head on stiff shoulders.
"I'm a genius." The child said it as matter-of-factly as Kelsey would have said, "I'm a teacher." If that was true. Which it wasn't. Not any more anyway. She was no longer a lot of things she'd once been.
Glad for the distraction and amused by the dark-haired angel in front of her, Kelsey shifted around on the miserable chair until she found a comfortable spot for her belly and said, "I've never met a child genius before. What's your name?"
"Pollyanna." A dimple flashed. "Well, not really. I'm reading that book and decided to change my name. My real name is Mariah."
"Pleased to meet you, Mariah. I'm Kelsey." Kelsey smiled in spite of the crick in her neck. "I loved that story, too. Have you seen the movie?"
The child looked shocked. "Absolutely not. Daddy says the book is always better than the movie so you should read before watching and then compare and contrast."
"Daddy is absolutely right." Wherever he was. Kelsey glanced around but spotted no one watching the little girl.The man should be arrested for allowing a child this young to run around a huge airport unsupervised.
"We've been stranded here in Denver all day waiting on clearance. Actually, seventeen hours and twenty-two minutes but that's close enough to a day, don't you think?"
"Yes, I do. I've been here for twelve."
"It's fun, isn't it?" Fun wasn't the exact term Kelsey would use. "There are so many interesting people to talk to. Did you know the man over there," the child pointed, "works for the queen of Netherlands? He's going to send me her autograph. And that lady over there is really upset because her boyfriend moved to Syracuse with his mother. She gave me a dollar to go away. I bought her a cup of coffee with it. Daddy says never take money from strangers."
"Did he ever tell you not to talk to strangers?"
"All the time." The child giggled, covering her mouth with both hands. Long dark curls danced around her shoulders. "But I'm discerning."
"What if I were a bad person?"
"No. I'm a teacher." Or was before she'd given up everything to be Mark's wife. "And I like kids. But I could have been a bad person."
Brown eyes batted in innocence. "What could happen in a crowded airport?"
Well, actually lots of things, but Kelsey wasn't one to frighten small, unattended children. "Bad people have ways."
"But you aren't bad. You're nice. You're having a baby. Mommies are always nice, except I don't have one, but I'm interviewing. Would you like to be interviewed for the position?"
Kelsey laughed, though the sound was hollow and tinged with bitterness. "For the position of mommy?"
"Well, Daddy wants me to have a private tutor-slash-nanny. But I really want a mommy. My first mommy died a long time ago." If the memory pained her, the little girl gave no indication, but Kelsey couldn't stop the sharp pang of sympathy.
"So," the little girl went on, "do you think you could handle both positions?"
For tutor and mommy? What an interesting conversation. And Kelsey had no idea how to respond to such a question without treading on unpleasant ground. Fortunately, she didn't have to. At that precise moment, a harried man sprinted toward them. Tie askew, his jacket billowed out at the sides. Kelsey did her best not to notice the lean, lanky, fit body beneath.
A radiant smile lit the little girl's face. "There comes my daddy. He's nice. You'll like him."
Considering that she'd already formed a negative opinion of the man, Kelsey doubted it. Especially now that she saw him. Even without her contacts, she would have noticed this guy and run the other wayif she could move that fast. Tall and dark, with hair and eyes that matched his daughter's, he was too good-looking. Too successful-looking, too. And she was so off good-looking, successful men it wasn't even funny.
The child leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "He's been really depressed lately. Almost clinical. Don't tell him I mentioned it, but I thought you should know. It's the whole thing with that Dallas Businessman of the Year Award and the pressure of success. Being discerning as I am, I can tell. It's such a trial for him to deal with a genius child and run a multi-million dollar operation. So, if I can just find a mommy to keep me under control and out of his hair while he works, I'm sure he'll be better."
Kelsey stared at the child and then at the father, coming toward them like a stealth bomber, fast and furious, sleek and dangerous. It really irked her that this bright child thought she was a bother to her father. How unfair, and what a jerk he must be to make her feel that way.
"Daddy, come on over and meet my friend, Kelsey. She's having a baby, and I'm interviewing her for the job."
The man closed his eyes briefly and shook his head, hands on hips to catch his breath from what must have been a jog around the concourse.
"I apologize for my daughter, Miss" When she only stared instead of filling in the blank, he finished with "Kelsey. I'm Ryan Storm."
His name sent a shock wave through her. Ryan Storm? Ohmigosh. It couldn't be. But a second look through squinted eyes confirmed it. It was him. Ryan Storm, backstreet boy of Bartlett High turned Wall Street wonder, all grown up and looking good. Real good.
He didn't know it, but she'd once had a crush on him, most likely because he'd been so unsuitable for a goody-two-shoes who never broke the rules.
She'd always had lousy taste in men.
"You've already met my errant child, Mariah, who will likely be the death of me." He took the little girl by the hand. Mariah beamed up at him with unabashed adoration. "I'm sorry if she was bothering you."
"She's actually very entertaining." And you should have known where she was.
"That's one word for it."
Mariah at his side, he slid into the chair next to Kelsey, bringing with him the scent of a very recognizable and equally expensive men's cologne. How could he smell good after so long in an airport? She probably smelled like dirty gym socks.
"Where you headed, Kelsey?" he asked, as if she wanted to have this conversation.
He looked surprised at the empty answer, and she winced. Shouldn't let her hopelessness stick out for everyone to see. The last thing she wanted was pity. She had enough of that for herself.
"Actually, I'm going to Dallas." She cast a doubtful eye at the huge observation windows. Sleet continued to ping against the panes. "Someday."
He grinned, and darn if he wasn't even better looking. She flat out hated him. "I know what you mean. We're going to Dallas, too."
She knew that. Everyone who could read knew Ryan Storm lived in, worked in and practically owned Dallas. Ryan Storm, businessman of the year, entrepreneur, most eligible bachelor. All the things she didn't like in a man.
Well, actually there was one more thing she didn't like in a man. Deceit. Mark had been so good at keeping her in the dark. And none of that was Ryan Storm's fault or his daughter's. It was her own fault for being so gullible, for wanting to believe.
The man of the year had turned to look at her during the conversation and suddenly his eyes narrowed. "I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but you look familiar. Have we met?"
She almost laughed. Did he realize how insulting that was? Not only did he not recognize her, he wanted to be sure she didn't mistake his question for interest in her as a woman. Like anyone would be interested in a pregnant cow who hadn't had a shower and shampoo since night before last.
"Bartlett High, Dallas east side, Mrs. Rutger's history class. Although you slept through most of it."
A flicker of recognition dawned behind an intense brown gaze. His mouth dropped open and he raised one finger in a struggle to remember her name. "Kelsey Kelsey " He snapped his fingers. "Kelsey Slater, boy hater."
The old nickname made Kelsey laugh. She hadn't really hated boys, but with braces, glasses and freckles, the oft-repeated comment served as ego protection. Guys liked her. They just didn't date her. The butterfly hadn't exited her cocoon until after high school. Contacts, straight teeth and the right makeup had done a world of wonders.
"It's Kelsey Mason now, but how did you remember that silly nickname?"
Expensive fabric whispered as Ryan lifted one wide shoulder. "A mind that never shuts off."
"You mean the way it did while your daughter was running around the airport alone?" She widened her eyes in horror. Had she really said that?
Apparently she had, and the man of the year hadn't taken it too well. "Never mind. None of my business."
Braces may have fixed her teeth but nothing had corrected her habit of saying what she thought. Sometimes her big mouth got her in trouble.
Mariah, who had been patiently taking in the conversation, tugged on her father's sleeve. "Daddy, please. You're interrupting our interview."
Ryan dragged his offended gaze from Kelsey to his daughter. "Sorry, peanut, but I don't think Kelsey would be interested in the position."
"But I think she might be the one, Daddy, although we haven't yet discussed credentions or salary."
"Credentials," he corrected.
Mariah nodded. Her curls bounced on the shoulder of a dark green jumper. "You can ask her about that."
"I don't think so. Married ladies usually aren't seeking nanny positions." He indicated Kelsey's left hand. "See? She has a wedding ring."
Boy, was he observant!
"Oh." The child looked betrayed as she spoke to Kelsey. "You didn't tell me you were married."
Kelsey twisted the ring, wondering why she bothered to wear it. For the baby, she supposed. Certainly not for any residual attachment to Mark. "I'm a widow. My husband died."
Saying the words aloud seemed as unreal now as they had a few months ago. Mark was dead, his body lost in a horrible explosion that sunk the extravagant yacht he was sailing to a buyer in Greece. She felt both horrified and guilty. Horrified that it happened. Guilty to feel so little grief.
Her expression must have shown the stress of the last few months, because Mariah's little hand took hers. "Don't be sad, Kelsey. Daddy and I will make you feel better. You can come to our house and have hot chocolate and graham crackers in bed." The bouncy curls swirled toward Ryan. "Can't she, Daddy? We'll make her feel better and she can look after me while you work. Then she can be my mommy and give me a baby sister. She's a teacher, too, so she can help us with our geography. I still get mixed up with India and Indiana, you know. It's the perfect solution."
Ryan appeared as muddled by his little girl's logic as Kelsey felt. After staring at the child for several beats, he ran his fingers across the top of his head in an exasperated manner. "You're a teacher? You wouldn't be needing a job, would you?"
He didn't know the half of it. "Exactly what kind of job?"
He gave a short laugh. "It's nothing quite as involved as Mariah has in mind. You see, Mariah's au pair has gotten married. We're on our way home from the wedding."
"And Miss Janine hasn't been replaced yet," Mariah said, folding both hands on Kelsey's kneecap and staring up into her face. "We interviewed a few candidates, but I have the final veto."
Her father rolled his eyes and looked pretty much helpless. "It's a deal we made. I choose qualifications. She chooses someone she likes. I work long hours and need someone I can totally trust with my child."
"Sometimes I don't see Daddy for days," Mariah said. "He works very, very hard, you know, and although I miss him terribly, I understand. People depend on him. That's why your credentions have to be exemplary. We'll be spending a lot of time together. I really want a baby sister. And I promise to be lots of help with her. I'll read all the baby books and learn everything. You won't have to worry one little bit. And I'm always well-behaved. I promise. Aren't I, Daddy?"
All during this long persuasive speech, Mariah's little face was a picture of hope. Kelsey's heart twisted. With each word, Kelsey had grown more sure that Ryan Storm was a success-oriented workaholic and not much else. Poor little Mariah.
"Yes, you are, peanut." Ryan tweaked the end of the little girl's nose and then spoke to Kelsey. "So you see, with Mariah's intellect, I need to hire someone who can not only care for her full-time, but who can homeschool her as Janine did. She didn't fit too well in kindergarten and I don't intend to expose her to that again."
"Kids in kindergarten didn't like me much, although I'll never understand their reasoning. Playing with blocks seemed a little silly to me, but I was still nice to them and helped them organize the blocks into a color-coordinated map of Dallas." Mariah frowned. "For some reason, that made them all run away."
Ryan tilted an eyebrow at Kelsey as if to say, see what I mean? "Private tutors, in my opinion, are best for children like Mariah."
"Eventually, she'll have to learn to interact with other children," Kelsey said. "No matter how bright she is, she needs to learn to play like a normal kid."
"I'm far more concerned with making the most of her intelligence. Kids are born knowing how to play."
"Well, I think you're wrong about that." Kelsey didn't know what possessed her, exhaustion she supposed, but she was still annoyed that the child had been running loose in the airport without supervision. Add to that Mariah's concern about her father's emotional well-being, and Kelsey figured the guy needed to get a clue. "Socialization is important, too, particularly at this age."
"My daughter is quite social, as you have already observed."
"That's not what I meant. Did it ever occur to you that she needs to be a little girl instead of worrying about you?" Oops. Now she'd gone too far.
He blinked, those intense eyes hardening to onyx. "Excuse me. I think this interview is concluded."
Well, la-dee-da. Concluded.
"And here I didn't even know an interview was going on. Silly me." Story of her life.