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William Delaney gazed into thickly lashed big brown eyes. While he loved his five-year-old niece with all his heart, this was the first time in his life he had had a problem with a female. Ever. From his earliest memories until now they always had given him smiles and laughter. He loved females and they loved him. Caroline's solemn gaze broke his heart.
He knelt to be level with the girl. Would he ever get accustomed to taking care of her? The responsibility weighed heavily and he was at a total lossanother first in his life.
"Here is a little present for you, Caroline. Just because you're a sweet girl." William watched her tiny hands tug free pink silk ribbon and silver paper to reveal a book.
She hugged the book, focusing on him. "Thank you," she whispered.
His heart skipped a beat with her simple thanks because he didn't always get that much response from her. "If you like it, I'll read it to you tonight. For now, after you have lunch, Miss Rosalyn will read your new book to you."
Caroline opened the book.
"I've got to go," William said, lightly embracing his niece, thinking as he always did how frail she seemed. "As soon as I get home tonight, I'll come see you," he added, releasing her. His heart thumped when big brown eyes stared at him. "Miss Rosalyn has your breakfast ready."
The nanny smiled at the girl and took her hand. "We have oatmeal plus one of your favoritesstrawberries," she said brightly.
As Will left, he hoped Caroline would eat something. Too many times in the year since he'd become her guardian, she would take only a few bites and then sit politely while he finished.
He drove his black sports car through the gated area in Dallas where he lived and headed for his private jet.
At half past eleven, he walked through the doors of an Austin restaurant where he was meeting a teacher. She had been recommended as a superb educator and one who could suggest excellent tutors for Caroline.
One more effort to find help for his niece. Since his brother's death in a plane crash the previous summer, Will had spent the past school year talking to Caroline's pre-kindergarten teacher, her tutors, her counselors, the child psychiatrists and the pediatricians. None had helped bring Caroline out of the shell she had retreated into with the loss of her parent. The death of her dad, plus her mother walking out of the marriage when Caroline was a baby, had been too much.
Will had never met Ava Barton. All he knew, aside from her great reputation, was that she was widowed. He had formed an image in his mind of someone who resembled one of his own elementary school teachers. When he entered the waiting area, he expected to see spectacles, graying hair and a smiling face.
The lobby was already becoming crowded. As he looked around, his attention was caught by a gorgeous sandy-haired blonde who met his gaze. Distracted, he momentarily forgot the teacher while he glanced swiftly from straight, silky hair that cascaded below her shoulders down to a tiny waist. Her short tan skirt revealed her knees, long legs and dainty feet in high heels.
His gaze traveled back to lock on her wide eyes, so green he could only stare and forget the purpose of his appointment.
Seemingly as captured in the moment as he was, she stared back at him. While seconds ticked past, her eyes widened a fraction. When she walked toward him, images of any teachers he had ever had vanished. The realization that he might actually be facing Ava Barton shook him. He should have a professional relationship with a teacher, but the relationship he wanted with the woman walking toward him was strictly that of a man attracted to a gorgeous woman. The tension that rocked him made him want to know her better, and his desire had nothing to do with her job.
He regained his wits. "Ava Barton?"
"Yes," she replied, offering her hand.
Her dazzling smile heated his insides. Her hand was warm, delicate, soft. He regretted having to let go the sizzling contact.
Fighting to keep his focus on her face and not yield to the temptation to look her over again from head to toe, he released her hand. "I'm William Delaney, Caroline's uncle and guardian," he explained. His secretary had arranged this appointment, and now he regretted not giving more time and attention to Ava Barton's background beyond teaching.
"I'll get the maitre d'."
Within minutes they were seated in a quiet area near a splashing fountain.
"You're not what I expected," he admitted as soon as they were alone. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose, but otherwise her skin was smooth, pale with rosy cheeks.
Her lips were full, enticing and as he focused on her mouth, he wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Another unprofessional curiosity. He was going to have to make a choice in dealing with her: keep it strictly business, or do what he wanted and get to know her as a woman. When he looked into her big green eyes, the decision seemed clear to follow his heart. He shrugged away a swift surge of guilt because he usually could follow a professional course with ease. But when he looked at her, he knew there was no way he could stay businesslike.
"Teachers come in all sizes and shapes," she said. "You're what I expected, but then I've seen your pictures in the newspapers and Texas magazines."
"You don't look like any teachers I ever had. I might have been more enthused about school if I'd had you for a teacher."
"I doubt it," she said, giving him another dazzling smile.
"You have no idea. I could have been the studious type."
"You look like the sportsno, the debate type."
"You're an observant teacher. Or good at guessing."
Before she could answer, their waiter appeared, took their drink orders of two glasses of water and left them with menus.
"I appreciate you meeting with me," Will said. "You have an impressive resume and you've been highly recommended by Caroline's principal and her teacher. The teacher she'll have next year is using one of the textbooks you authored."
"Thank you. I feel strongly that nearly all children can be taught to read." She tilted her head to study him. "If we had talked on the phone, it would have saved you the trip to Austin. I already gave your secretary a list of qualified tutors, so I assume you want to discuss the candidates."
He nodded. "I wouldn't have missed this lunch for the world," he said, not just because Ava could help Caroline, but because he was enjoying her company himself, too. She was stunning, and it was difficult to keep his mind on his mission.
"Your secretary told me about your niece, Caroline. She's had trauma in her young life."
"She lost her single-parent dad over a year ago, and after the accident she shut out the world."
"What about her mother?"
"She walked out when Caroline was four months old."
"Four months? What kind of marriage was that?"
"The kind the men in my family have had. Mom and Dad divorced and it was bitter. But we were all older than Caroline. I was fourteen. Marriage is not an institution that holds appeal for any of the males in my family."
She had a slight frown as she stared at him intently. "Two marriages gone sour doesn't mean all marriages are bad."
"We do well in the financial world. Not so great in personal lives. With her mom gone as far back as she can remember, Caroline poured all her love on her dad. When she lost him because of the plane crash, it was devastating to her."
"Does her mother ever see her?"
"She gave up all rights when she left."
"What kind of mother does that?" Ava asked, her green eyes open wide. Sea-green eyes he could gaze into all day.
"The kind of beautiful woman whose total focus is on herself, who loves money and things money can buy. When they dated, my brother was wild and a partying man. She liked to party. When they married, he settled like a rock, but she didn't want to give up the party life, or take responsibility even though in our family she would have had all the staff she wanted. They agreed to postpone a family until later, and then Caroline was a surprise that didn't go over well with her mother."
"Caroline is young for the kind of loss she's had. It hurts terribly and I'm sorry."
He glanced at the wedding ring on her finger. "I'm sorry for your loss. I see you're still wearing your ring."
Looking down, she touched her ring while her sandy hair swung forward on both sides of her face, making him want to run his fingers through the long strands.
"I wear my ring because I'm not interested in dating, and it keeps men from inviting me out. I loved my husband and losing him was dreadful. I don't ever want to run that risk again."
He studied her. "So you've given up on men, marriage and life in general."
"Not life in general. I love kids and working with them. You don't sound as if you have plans for marriage in your life."
"I definitely do not. I'm not getting into that trap. With the Delaney men's track record, marriage means heartbreak, bitterness and loss. No, thank you. How long have you been widowed?" he asked, expecting her to reply a year or less.
"Six years now. We were undergraduates in college when we married and he was killed in a motorcycle accident that first year of our marriage."
"Thanks. You didn't come here to discuss my history. Tell me about Caroline."
"Caroline has withdrawn from the world. Maybe it's defensiveif she doesn't love, maybe she won't get so hurt with loss. I've heard all kinds of theories, but that one makes the most sense. Caroline talks very little. She is unresponsive to people, and consequently she has performed poorly in preschool. She keeps to herself and doesn't associate with other kids. It didn't help when my father died recently, because he doted on her since she was the only grandchild. Even so, they weren't really close. It was just one more thing that hurt her. She became a little more receptive with me after he was gone because I think she feels we both share a loss."
"I'm sure you've had all kinds of help for her."
"I've tried everything. That's why I'm here." He studied her in silence a moment. "You don't approve of me, do you?"
She blinked and then her eyes widened and she blushed, a rosy pink filling her cheeks. "I didn't know it showed."
A slight annoyance pricked him. He was unaccustomed to negative reactions from females.
"I'll admit, I may have jumped to inaccurate conclusions because of your press," she continued. "I'm glad you're concerned about Caroline. But have you tried giving a little more of yourself?" she asked quietly.
Startled, he stared at her. When annoyance flashed briefly, he tried to curb it. "I don't know anything about little girls. I've done everything I can think of to do."
"Do you spend a lot of time with her?"
With an uncomfortable guilt at not being able to reach his niece, he frowned. "I try. She doesn't respond to me as much as she used to when her dad was living. I have to admit that I don't give her the hours of attention her father did. For the first time in my life, I'm up against something I can't cope with."
"If you're trying, that's important."
"Caroline's doctor said if she responds to someone, we should maintain the relationship as much as possible. Unfortunately, so far, I haven't found a single person she reacts to with enthusiasm. She used to have a sunny disposition. Now, instead of a joyous little girl, she's quiet, polite and withdrawn. Her nanny and my staff all try to pamper her, but it doesn't seem to matter to her."
He picked up his menu. "We better decide on something to eat before we get too deep in this conversation. Our waiter will return soon. Do you see anything that appeals to you?"
She laughed lightly. "It all appeals to me. This is one of my favorite places to eat."
"It's one of mine, too" he said, staring in surprise. "When I'm in Austin, I eat here. I can't recall seeing you. I'd remember."
As she shook her head, she smiled. "No, you wouldn't. We were strangers until today. Even though this is a favorite restaurant, I come at odd hours and not often." She closed her menu. "I do eat here often enough that I know what I want."
"It's always good when you know what you want," he said, watching Ava as the waiter returned and she ordered a Cobb salad and raspberry iced tea.
He ordered a hamburger, and as soon as they were alone, Will added, "On the flight here, I looked over the resumes of the teachers you recommended."
"I've given you highly qualified, experienced teachers who have very successful track records in raising children's reading levels."
"I know, and I appreciate that. But it's more difficult to choose a tutor than I realized. I'm worried about kindergarten because Caroline is going to have to participate and show her teacher what she can do. She'll be in a private school and they'll work with her, but there's just so much they can do. When she doesn't respond at all, people give up trying to help her as much."
"Hopefully the right tutor might make a difference."
"Right now, Caroline is the most important person in my life. Before we go further, I'd like to fly you to Dallas and have you meet Caroline. I think it would be better if you know her. Once you meet her and spend a little time with her, you might be able to better assess the situation. Since time is valuable, I'll make the trip worth your while. Two thousand a day plus expenses, and I'll fly you to Dallas and back to Austin."
"That's an enormous amount to pay," she said, not hiding her surprise.
"I can afford it, and this is top priority," he stated, determined to get what he wanted.
"You know there are excellent private schools where you can board her and they work with the children all day and have activities at night."
He could tell the question was a test, but one he knew he'd pass. "I'm not sending her away."