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Daniela de la Cruz sat in her seventh-floor office in Houston, Texas, gripping the telephone until her knuckles ached.
"It's not fair," her fourteen-year-old sister complained to her over the phone. "I hate being cooped up in the house, babysitting, when all my friends have the whole summer to do whatever they want and have fun."
Life isn't fair, Dani wanted to snap back. Deal with it, Sara. I've had to.
At twenty-five, Dani was the youngest and newest associate of Phillips, Crowley and Norman, and she was working her tail off to build a career and make a name for herself. On the outside, it appeared as though the sky was the limit in terms of her upward mobility. But that wasn't the case. Most attorneys in her position didn't have to balance home and career the way she did.
"Marcos!" Sara shrieked at her brother, obviously not covering the mouthpiece. "Put that down. You're going to break the lamp."
Dani pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping to ward off the headache that began the moment Sara called. "What's your brother doing?"
"He's swinging a baseball bat in the house," Sara said. "And he better take it outside right now, or I'm going to scream."
"Sara's mean," the ten-year-old boy shouted in the background. "I hate being stuck with a couple of dumb girls."
"I'm not dumb," little Delia said loud enough to be heard through the receiver.
If Dani wasn't at work and trying desperately to keep her turbulent home situation a secret, she'd pitch a fit that would rival any of Sara's.
Couldn't the teenager understand that Dani was trying her best to keep the kids fed, clothed and safe? Didn't she understand that they all had to pull together?
Dani's frustration level was at an all-time high, and she was beginning to feel inept when it came to solving the domestic disputes that were popping up regularly, now that it was summer and the kids were out of school.
Before she could respond to her squabbling brood, the intercom buzzed.
"Hang on," she told her sister.
As the teenager continued to object to the unfairness of life, Dani silenced her with the punch of the hold button. Then she tried to morph into the career-minded attorney she'd professed to be during the job-interview process and connected with the senior partner who wanted to talk to her.
"Daniela, can you please come into my office?"
"Certainly. I'll just be a moment." She switched lines, reconnecting with her teenage sister, who was still in mid-rant and hadn't realized she'd been on hold.
"...and all my friends are going to the mall. But oh, no. Not me. I'm stuck here at the house babysitting a bunch of juvenile ingrates."
Dani slowly shook her head and blew out an exasperated sigh. If anyone could relate to Sara's complaints, it was Dani, who'd begun looking after her younger brother and sisters after her stepmother died. When her father passed away nearly two years ago, she'd really had to step up to the plate, accepting the role of single parent. There'd never been a question about what to do with the children. She'd taken custody and tried her best to make a home for them. Her only problem had come in learning how to balance it all.
Dani had been in her third year of law school and had almost dropped out to put the family back together again, but a professor had talked her out of it.
Somehow she'd pulled it off and had passed the bar.
She loved the kids, but now that she was on a partnership track, parenting them was proving to be more difficult each day.
"Listen," she told her sister. "I'll see what I can do about lining up someone to help with child care this summer. But right now, I need you to hang in there with me. I can't come home and settle things in person, but I'll try and leave work early today. Maybe I can take Marcos and Delia to dinner and a movie. Then you can have some time with your friends, okay? It's the best that I can do."
"Well, what am I supposed to do about Marcos right now?" Sara asked. "He's driving me crazy with that baseball bat."
"Let me talk to him."
When her ten-year-old brother answered the telephone, his aggravation came out loud and clear in the tone of his voice.
"Listen up," Dani said, proceeding to make a deal with him to take him out this evening if he behaved himself.
Enthusiasm chased away his frustration. "Okay, I'll go outside and play. But can we see Revenge of the Zombies?"
"That's not a movie I want Delia to see," Dani said. Actually, she didn't want Marcos to see it, either. And God knew she didn't want to sit through it.
"But the deal is off if we have to see one of those dumb princess cartoons," he said.
Dani hated negotiating with a ten-year-old, but time and her options were running out. "I'll find something we'll all enjoy. Now take that bat outside and stop harassing the girls."
When the line disconnected, Dani blew out an exaggerated sigh. She may have settled the dispute, at least temporarily, but she had a feeling there would be another crisis on the home front before the day was done.
She stood, tugged at her skirt, checked to see that her blouse was tucked in, then adjusted her jacket.
One of these days she feared the transformation from frenzied guardian to competent professional would fail and she'd be exposed as the phony she was—at least when it came to running a household.
For as long as she could remember, she'd wanted to be an attorney. And now that she'd made it, she wanted to excel in her new career. But something always interfered.
Something at home.
Get your mind back on work, she told herself as she entered Martin's office.
Her boss wasn't alone. Seated in front of his desk was a rugged, dark-haired man who looked to be in his forties, although it was hard to say for sure.
He was a big man, with broad shoulders and an imposing air. Instead of the typical garb of another attorney or most of their clients, he sported western wear—expensive black boots, denim jeans, a hand-tooled leather belt, a crisply pressed white shirt. Even seated, there was something commanding about him, something that drew her attention in a way that was more than professional curiosity.
He stood when she entered, and his presence seemed to take up the entire room.
"Clay," Martin said to the client, "this is Daniela de la Cruz, our newest attorney. Don't let her youth fool you. She's a real go-getter." Then he looked at Dani and grinned. "Daniela, this is Clay Callaghan. The firm handles all his legal affairs."
Dani had never met Mr. Callaghan before, but from the first day she was handed a key to the front door, she'd made it a point to learn all she could about the firm's major clients. Clay Callaghan was one of them.
He owned an impressive cattle ranch and was involved in several other business ventures—all successful and thriving. However, this denim-clad cowboy didn't look at all like the successful businessman she'd imagined. No fancy suit, no flashy smile. Instead, he reminded her of a Marlboro man. An outdoorsman who would be uncomfortable in a board-room.
Yet it was she who was caught off guard, unbalanced by his presence.
As he reached out a hand to greet her, stunning eyes, the color of a mountain meadow, locked on hers.
He'd taken off his hat, but by the way his dark, unruly hair had been compressed, she doubted he went without it very often.
His hand continued to hold hers in a warm grip, his callused skin stimulating her senses and sending a shimmy of heat up her arm and into her chest, where it kicked her pulse up a notch.
"How do you do?" His voice, deep and gravelly, did a real number on her, too, intriguing her as much as his touch. Like his skin, it was weathered and sun baked.
As he loosened his grip and released her, she fought the impulse to clasp her empty hand to her chest and study him like a mesmerized child on a field trip to a Wild West museum.
Yet he hadn't really let go of her. The intensity in his expression made it difficult for her to breathe, let alone speak, and she wasn't at all sure why.
"Martin tells me that you speak Spanish," Mr. Callaghan said.
She cleared the cobwebs from her throat. "Yes, I do. Fluently."
He nodded, as though she'd passed some kind of hurdle. And it pleased her that she had. Working with one of the firm's top clients gave her a bit of a professional rush.
Or was it the man himself?
There was something about Clay Callaghan that appealed to her, interested her. His cowboy demeanor, she supposed. The way he stood when a lady entered the room. The fact that he didn't carry his wealth and success the way another man might.
He had fifteen or twenty years on her, she suspected. But it didn't seem to matter at all—professionally, speaking, of course.
Martin pushed his chair back from his cherry wood desk, placed his elbows on the armrests and steepled his fingers. "Nearly a year ago, while participating in a semester abroad program in Guadalajara, Trevor, Clay's only child, was killed in a car accident."
"I'm sorry," she said, her gaze lighting on the brooding client and recognizing it was grief that clouded his expression.
Mr. Callaghan didn't respond, allowing Martin to continue.
"A couple of hours ago, he received word that Trevor fathered a child while in Mexico. He needs to fly out this afternoon and pick up his orphaned granddaughter. He's going to need an attorney, as well as an interpreter, to go with him."
Uh-oh. He'd also just asked if she spoke Spanish. Were they suggesting that she...?
Think fast, she prodded herself. "How long will it take for you to pack?" Martin asked her.
Dani struggled to keep her reaction casual and like that of any other twenty-five-year-old, unmarried professional who didn't have any pressing family obligations to consider.
She could think of a multitude of reasons why Martin should ask another attorney to make the trip. First of all, there was the issue of her anxiety—God, she hated to fly. Just the thought of taking off in a plane and heading to Mexico scared the liver out of her. Second, she couldn't just up and leave the kids. She'd need to find a competent sitter, which wouldn't be easy. Then there was the fact that she'd volunteered to take Marcos and Delia to a movie tonight. Even sitting through a whacky cartoon this evening, followed by Revenge of the Zombies, was more appealing than going on a business trip to Mexico.