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"I need you, Alli."
Alison Lind's breath caught and she looked up from the papers in her hand and met the intense hazel eyes of Mark Hartman, convinced she had misheard his words.
Her heart flipped automatically when ever he did more than give her a casual glance. His teak wood-brown complexion held features that were rugged, sexy, mesmerizing. Broad-shouldered with a muscular build, he stood tall at a height of six foot one, and whenever he spoke in his deep, husky voice, her pulse raced.
She had secretly loved her handsome boss ever since he had returned to Royal, Texas, two years ago to open his self-defense studio and she had been hired as his secretary. Recently, he had changed her job title to administrative assistant, and the only time he'd ever indicated that he needed her was when he summoned her to his office to confirm an appointment or to discuss some other urgent business matter.
Inhaling in a deep breath, she held his gaze and asked in a hesitant voice, "You need me?"
"Yes," he said, coming around to sit on the edge of his desk. "Desperately."
How I wish, she thought staring at him, trying to keep the heat of desire from showing in her face; and trying even harder not to notice the way his jeans stretched tight across firm, muscular thighs. There was no doubt in her mind a miscommunication was taking place and he hadn't meant the words the way she hoped. In all honesty, there was no reason her insides should be feeling all giddy and she wished she could stop that warmth from intensifying between her legs. Too bad the attraction was one-sided. The majority of the time, Mark acted as if he didn't know she was alive. To him, she was his ever-efficient administrative assistant and nothing more.
Alli took an other deep breath and asked, "You need me for what purpose?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You need me for Erika? I don't understand." Erika was Mark's eleven-month-old niece. He had become her legal guardian three months ago when his only brother and sister-in-law were killed in a car accident. Thoughts of the little girl sent a soft feeling through Alli. Erika was such a darling little girl and captured the hearts of all those who came in contact with her.
Alli watched as Mark blew out a breath before answering her. "I'm at the end of my rope and I don't know what to do or where to turn. As you know I've been having babysitting issues ever since Mrs. Tucker left to take care of her elderly parents in Florida. It may be months before she returns, if ever. So far I haven't been able to hire a dependa ble, not to mention competent, sitter. Yesterday was the last straw when I dropped by the ranch unexpectedly to find Erika's caregiver too absorbed in her soap opera to notice that Erika had crawled away and was outside on the patio, just a few feet from the pool. I told the woman a hundred times to always keep the door to the patio closed but she had forgotten. Yesterday wasn't the first time it's slipped her memory."
Alli shuddered. She didn't want to think about what might have happened had Erika tumbled into the pool, but looking at Mark, it was evident that he had thought about it. "You let the woman go." It was a statement and not a question. She couldn't imagine anyone being that careless where a child was concerned.
"Yes, immediately "
Alli nodded. "Who's keeping Erika today?"
"Christine. She's been kind enough to be Erika's backup sitter. Lately I've been using her more than I had intended. Now that she and Jake are engaged I'm sure she has more to do with her time than watch Erika for me."
Alli had to agree. Christine Travers was one of her closest friends in Royal and had be come engaged to Jacob Thorne a couple of months ago. Christine had mentioned that she had taken care of Erika a few times and that she had enjoyed doing so. Alli knew all about Christine's busy schedule, especially since Jake was running for mayor and Christine was his campaign manager.
Alli met Mark's gaze. "You still haven't told me what specifically you need me for." For a moment he stayed silent as he studied her and Alli felt the increase of her pulse as the seconds ticked by.
"I know it's a lot to ask, but you're the only person I know I can truly depend on. I've watched you with Erika before when I've brought her into the studio. Not only that, I've seen you with other kids when the mothers come by for their classes and assume we have babysitting service. You're a natural, Alli. Kids take to you and you are the most responsible person I know."
Alli shrugged. His words weren't exactly the accolades she wanted to hear from the man she loved, but something was better than nothing. Besides, he was right. Her ability to care for children came naturally. She had grown up in a household with her mother and her baby sister Kara, who was seven years younger. Her father had abandoned his wife and daughters when Alison was twelve and never looked back. To make ends meet, Alli's mother had worked two jobs, leaving Alison to take care of Kara the majority of the time. When her mother had died right before Alli's seventeenth birthday, Alli had become Kara's sole caretaker. She couldn't help but smile knowing that Kara was doing wonderfully now in her second year of college at Texas Southern University in Houston.
"I'm asking you to be Erika's nanny."
Mark's words cut into Alison's thoughts and she blinked and looked at him, hoping she had heard wrong. "Excuse me?"
Mark met her gaze. Held it. "I need you to be Erika's nanny, which means you'll have to move in with me at the ranch and"
"Whoa, wait a minute," Alli said, coming to her feet. "There's no way I can do that. Have you forgotten that I work every day? I'm your assistant. I'm needed here and"
Mark held up a hand, cutting her off. "Erika and I need you at the ranch with us even more, Alli. You're the only person I can depend on. The only person I can trust to take care of her. Knowing what could have happened yesterday took a good twenty years off my life. If anything had happened to her "
Alli swallowed the lump in her throat. She was seeing a side of Mark she had never seen before, a vulnerable side. It was clearly evident that Erika had wiggled her way into her uncle's heart. When his brother and sister-in-law had been killed so unexpectedly, Mark hadn't been prepared to become a parent at twenty-eight, yet he was doing so and was trying to take care of Erika as best he could. But still there were obstacles in the way of what Mark was asking her to do and she decided to point them out to him.
"I'm majoring in computer engineering and attending college two nights a weekTuesdays and Thursdays."
"I'll make sure I'm at home those nights so that won't be a problem."
Fat chance, Alison thought. He was asking her to move in with him at the ranch, which was a major problem. She was in love with him for Pete's sake. How could she handle being in such close proximity to him? Working with him at the self-defense studio was bad enough; but she wasn't sure she would survive sharing living quarters with him. Although she knew from the one time she had dropped off papers for him to sign that the Hartman Ranch was a huge place, the idea that they would be living under the same roof was unsettling.
"What about my work here?" she decided to ask.
"I'll go through an employment agency and find a temporary replacement. I'm willing to pay you double what you are making here."
Alison's eyes widened. "Double?"
"You heard me right. As Erika's nanny I'll pay you double. I need you just that much and as far as I'm concerned what you'll be doing is invaluable. You can't put a price on peace of mind."
Alison sat back down. Double? She breathed in deeply. As his administrative assistant she was getting paid what she thought was a very good salary, but she could certainly use the extra money for Kara's tuition. Kara had gotten a scholarship but that hadn't been enough to cover all the expenses. Alison had gone into her savings the last two semesters and if an emergency was to come up any time soon, she definitely would be in a tight spot. What Mark was offering would put more than a boost in her savings.
"And there will be a bonus."
Alison glanced up and met Mark's gaze. Once again his words had grabbed her attention. "A bonus?"
"Yes. One thousand dollars up-front just for agreeing to what I'm offering."
Stunned, Alison went speechless for a moment. One thousand dollars? That was money she could use to put down on an other car. She was still driving the one she had bought right out of high school seven years ago, and lately it had been giving her problems. Just last week she had broken down while coming from class. Luckily, someone had stopped to help her, although the man had given her the creeps most of the time he'd been doing so.
She breathed in deeply. Mark was making his proposal hard to resist. And that in itself was the key word. Resist. For two years she had had to resist him, refusing to give into temptation and sharing her feelings. Instead she had fought her attraction and fully intended to continue to do so. She knew the last thing she needed was to place herself in a position where her heart could be broken if she assumed too much. But still, what he said was true. He and Erika needed her and there was no way she could not help him out. And she couldn't over look the fact that he was helping her out financially as well.
"This will be a temporary arrangement, right?" Alison asked, feeling the need to have that point clarified.
"Yes. I'm hoping Mrs. Tucker is coming back to Royal in an other month or so."
"And if she doesn't?"
"Then I'll run another ad in the paper and pray the results are better. There has to be someone in Royal who's responsible enough to keep Erika every day."
Alison nodded. "Will it really be necessary for me to move in with you and Erika at the ranch? I can stay at my place and drive to your"
"No, I prefer for you to be there at the ranch with us. I may have business to take care of at night."
Alison nodded again. She was fully aware that he was a member of the Texas Cattleman's Club. Membership in the state's most exclusive club was restricted to wealthy ranchers, prestigious business men and oil tycoons. She'd heard that the members would often get together a few nights a week to play cards, share drinks and discuss business. But most of the good people of Royal knew that wasn't all they did. There were those who claimed through the generations, the club members had accepted the responsibility for the town's security and over the years had put their lives on the line for justice and peace. The only thing Alli did know for certain was that the club did great things for the community in the way of fund-raisers like the annual Cattleman's Ball, where the proceeds went to various charities.
Christine had talked Alison into attend ing Royal's Anniversary Ball that had occurred several weeks ago, and she had to admit that she had enjoyed herself at least until Mark had arrived. Once he had walked into the room, she had found herself constantly watching him, as every other unattached woman had done. And as usual, he hadn't noticed her.
"So will you do it?"
Anytime and any place with you, she wanted to say. She hated her wanton thoughts, but when it came to Mark Hartman, they just wouldn't go away. She sighed deeply and did what she always did whenever her thoughts toppled onto the side of fantasy instead of reality, which was to scold herself inwardly and get back on track. Mark didn't have a single clue about how she felt about him and she intended to keep it that way.
"Alli? Will you help me out?"
She met his gaze and almost drowned in the plea she saw in his eyes. He did need her, or at least, thought he did. And although it wasn't in the way she wanted, it would have to do.