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No one liked to be made a fool of and Casey Thomas had reason to hate it more than most. The last time someone did it, her best friend had died.
The last thing she needed was manipulation from her boss.
And what a boss she was. Ginger Davis was a beautiful brunette who proved that fifty really was the new thirty and not just a marketing phrase. The president and CEO of the Las Vegas-based Nanny Network had to be on the far side of forty-nine but didn't look anywhere close to that. Apparently she thrived on the stress generated by managing the exclusive, expensive company specializing in child care for the rich and famous.
Casey glared across the glass-topped desk in her boss's home office. "This could have been handled over the phone, Ginger. You insisted I come here because you don't think I can tell you no to your face."
Ginger folded her hands, then rested them on a stack of files, her expression not the least bit apologetic. "I wanted you to meet Blake Decker and his orphaned niece and tell him no to his face."
If that wasn't blatant manipulation, Casey would eat her Child Rearing for Dummies handbook. The woman just had to get the word orphaned in there. It wasn't that Casey was unsympathetic. She'd lost her own mother when she was eleven. But as a nanny, she had rules—and good reasons for them.
She had the physical and emotional scars to prove that undoing a system of beliefs ingrained over many years was a losing proposition and a waste of time and energy. Army service had taught her that life was unpredictable and whatever time one had on this earth should not be squandered by spitting into the wind. If she wasgoing to help a child, it would be in the child's formative years, before negative influences took hold.
"You know my focus is on children under ten years old."
Her boss nodded. "And you know that my job is to pair up my employees with clients who are a good fit. You're happy. The client is happy. Everyone is happy."
Casey wasn't feeling the love. "Is this where we link arms and sing 'Kumbaya'?"
"If that works for you." Ginger smiled. "Casey, I know what happened to you overseas while you were in the service. And I understand why you specialize in a certain age group. I've respected your boundaries without question since you joined the Nanny Network family."
Owing this woman was darned inconvenient. Ginger had taken her on after she'd been medically discharged from the army. Casey had received on-the-job training in the preschool Nooks and Nannies and was now working for the Nanny Network while taking early childhood development classes to finish up her elementary school teaching credential.
She was a live-in nanny, caring for children ten and under, giving them a stable base of operations and showing them how to be upstanding human beings through example, discipline and love. The career was incredibly rewarding. And she needed all the rewarding she could get to fill up her redemption jar. When a friend paid with their life because of you, going on with your own life wasn't easy.
Still, she was trying to make a difference as best she could. Why did Ginger have to put her on the spot? Why couldn't Ginger let her continue to do what she loved to do on her own terms?
"I'm already working for the Redmonds."
"You have a break for the next month, while they're in Europe with Heidi and Jack. I'll have a replacement when they return."
The truth was, Casey had been dreading having too much time on her hands to think. That didn't mean she was willing to bend her rules. "I have plans for my time off."
"And I need to ask you to cancel them as a favor to me. This little girl is twelve—only two years over your bottom line. She's a kid who needs a break."
Casey knew she was going to hate herself for asking but couldn't stop the words. "Why should I make an exception for Blake Decker and his orphaned niece?"
"See for yourself." Ginger hit her intercom and asked her assistant to send them in.
There was very little wiggle room between a rock and a hard place, and Casey hated that, too.
Moments after the summons a man came into the office with a young girl strolling behind him. He walked right up to Casey, who was still standing in front of Ginger's desk.
"Blake Decker," he said.
"Casey Thomas," she answered, shaking the hand he held out.
He looked at the girl beside him. "This is my niece Mia Decker."
"Nice to meet you, Mia."
The child barely made eye contact. In her threadbare jeans, multilayered T-shirts and zippered cardigan sweatshirt, which was hanging off her shoulders, she was the picture of bored indifference. She was also a beautiful little girl with long, wavy brown hair and huge eyes that were an unusual shade of blue-green, almost turquoise.
Apparently the remarkable Decker DNA was liberally spread around. Her uncle was an exceptionally good-looking man somewhere in his mid- to late thirties. Casey had seen her share of hunks in the army, but this guy's dark hair, blue eyes and square jaw could fill movie theater seats around the world.
The dark charcoal suit, red tie and white shirt fit his tall, lean body perfectly and looked expensive. Instinct told her that he could afford the Nanny Network's upscale price tag, but so far she hadn't seen any reason to make an exception to her personal rules. Not even the fact that he looked like he wanted to wring his niece's neck for her rudeness and attitude.
"I'm sorry for Mia's bad manners," he finally said.
"And I'm sorry you're such a dork," Mia shot back.
Ginger cleared her throat. "Why don't you both sit down and everyone can get better acquainted."
"What for?" Mia asked. "He's just going to dump me like everyone else."
Her uncle shifted uncomfortably. "Mia, I'm not going to dump you—"
"Define everyone," Casey said.
The girl stared angrily at her. "Why do you care?"
"I don't," Casey answered honestly. The last thing this kid needed was an adult patronizing her. "I don't know you well enough to have an emotional investment in you."
"Then why are you asking questions?" Mia demanded.
"Call it curiosity."
"I'm not show-and-tell," the kid snapped. "This is all just stupid—"
"Mia—" Blake's cell phone rang and he pulled it from the case at his waist. After looking at the caller ID, he replaced the phone and let the call go to voice mail. He shot his niece a stern look as he stared down at her. "Miss Davis asked you to sit."
Mia glared defiantly for several moments, then apparently decided that arguing about this wasn't a hill she wanted to die on. Without a word she flopped into a chair, although her body language was anything but silent. The slouch and scowl said loud and clear that every adult in the room was a complete moron.
In spite of herself, Casey was getting sucked in, and apparently her boss knew and planned to capitalize on the weakness.
The first clue was when Ginger stood and said, "I'm going to let the three of you talk. I have some calls to make and I'll just step into the other room to do that."
Before Casey could protest, they were alone. She wanted to end this meeting and walk out, too, but the girl's words had struck a nerve. "You didn't answer my question, Mia. Who else dumped you?"
"My niece has had a tough time," Blake said for Mia. "My sister wasn't in a good place and never developed the instincts or skills to handle her. There's no point in going over all that."
Casey looked up at him, way up. "First of all, Mr. Decker, my question was directed to Mia." She glanced at the girl and noticed something in her eyes. It vanished almost instantly, but for just a moment interest had replaced the bored look. "Secondly, may I ask what you do for a living?"
"I'm an attorney."
"What exactly?" Casey asked.
"Divorce." He met her gaze but it was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
"I see." She looked at the child. "Are you going to answer my question?"
"Do I have to?" Mia glared.
"Yes." Casey folded her arms and looked down, letting Mia know she was prepared to wait as long as necessary.
"I forgot what it was."
"Who else dumped you?" Casey repeated.
After several moments, Mia huffed out an exasperated breath. "My father split before I was born. My mother died. I stayed with his sister for a while but she didn't want me."
"It's not that black-and-white," her uncle said.
"Sure it is," Mia shot back, her beautiful eyes spitting anger and resentment. "No one wants me. Including you."
The words touched Casey somewhere deep inside and she looked at the girl. "Mia, would you mind waiting for your uncle in the other room?"
"Because I'd like to speak with him alone." Casey met the defiant gaze and said wryly, "What have you got to lose? This is all stupid, anyway. Right?"
Her full cupid's bow mouth pulled into a straight line before Mia snapped, "Whatever."
She stomped out of the room and slammed the door.
Casey leaned back against the glass-topped desk as she looked at the uncle. "If it's not black-and-white, there must be shades of gray, Mr. Decker. Tell me about your niece."
He unbuttoned his suit jacket and rested his hands on lean hips. "It's an old story, Miss Thomas. My sister got involved with the wrong guy. She got pregnant. My parents threw her out and she disappeared. I was away at college and never heard from her. I didn't even know I had a niece until Child Protective Services recently contacted me. There's no one else to take her."
The kid was right. He didn't want her, either. "You could let her go into the state system."
"That's a good question." His phone rang again, and when he looked at the number, he said, "Excuse me. I have to take this." Flipping the phone open, he snapped, "What?" After listening, he nodded. "I'll be there in a half hour. It's a deposition. They can wait." He ended the call and replaced the phone in its case, never taking his gaze from hers. "You want to know why I took her in and I wish I had an answer. It could be as simple as the fact that she's family, but it doesn't feel that way. She's a stranger. All I can tell you for sure is that she's not going to Child Protective Services."
Casey respected his honesty a lot more than she wanted to. She wished he were a complete jerk, which would make it easy to tell him to take a flying leap. Instead she asked, "Why do you need a nanny?"
"I have to work." He ran his fingers through his hair. "It's safe to say that I have no idea how to raise any child, let alone a girl. She's too young to leave unsupervised."
"There are after-school programs." Casey could feel her resolve weakening. Darn Ginger. She was right about telling him no to his face. The rock and the hard place were putting the squeeze on her. "I'd be happy to recommend activities that will give her supervision while you work."
"First of all, my workday is longer than your after-school activities." He blew out a long breath. "Second, don't pretend that she's your average, normal twelve-year-old girl. She needs more than arts and crafts and a field trip to the zoo."
"What does she need?"
"You tell me. That's your area of expertise." He held his hands out in a helpless gesture that looked like it didn't fit, like it was foreign to him. "If you were a client wanting to dissolve your marriage, I would be the legal professional you'd consult."
"But I'm not." She'd never been married. Came close once, but it didn't happen. She wasn't marriage material. Marriage required trust and that was blasted out of her by a suicide bomber in Iraq.
He met her gaze and there was something almost desperate in his own. "My point is that a good lawyer knows when he is out of his depth and needs to consult an expert. Specifically, I need an expert on children. The Nanny Network comes highly recommended and Miss Davis tells me you're the expert I need to consult."
This man was asking her to intervene on behalf of an obviously troubled girl and she didn't want to go there again. Her judgment couldn't be trusted and it wasn't fair to either of them for her to agree to the arrangement.
"Did she also tell you that I don't accept clients over a certain age?"
"Yes. I asked her to prevail upon you to make an exception in Mia's case."
"I can't do that. I'm sorry." She straightened away from the desk. "Ginger has a lot of contacts. I'm sure she can help you find someone."
"She already found you and she tells me you're highly qualified for Mia's needs. I'd really like you to think it over," he said.
So she'd finally told him no to his face and he didn't understand the meaning of the word. Casey walked to the door and opened it. "I've already made up my mind."
She glanced around, expecting to see a hostile Mia slouched in a chair, with antagonism rolling off her like sound waves. Instead the room was empty.
Blake Decker needed this like a brain aneurysm. He had back-to-back appointments stacked up like planes waiting to land and was due in court after lunch for a high-profile celebrity client whose wife had been caught cheating by the paparazzi. Mia couldn't have picked a worse day to do a disappearing act.
In the elevator, he glanced down at Casey. "You don't need to help look for her."
"No. But two pairs of eyes are better than one."
When the elevator reached the ground floor, the doors whooshed open and he held out a hand, indicating she should precede him. They hurried across the lobby of the luxurious high-rise building and walked outside, then scanned up and down the sidewalk, looking for a glimpse of Mia.
"Do you see her?" he asked.
Casey stood on tiptoe, trying to see around the pedestrians strolling past. "That green sweatshirt she was wearing will stand out, but I don't see it."
Blake wondered how this day had gone so horribly wrong. Technically, things had started south when Mia came to live with him a couple weeks ago. Since then his days and nights had been a nightmare of calls from school regarding tardiness and skipped classes, of not knowing where the kid was half the time, and of wondering what she was doing while he was at work.
He was a lawyer. He was good at it and understood the law.