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"Itsy-bitsy spider crawled up the water spout."
Alexandra Radonovic—or Miss Alex, as the sixteen preschool-aged students grouped on the round, sunshine-yellow rug called her—hummed the second verse, letting the class fill in the words. The four-year-olds knew the song well and loudly enunciated each phrase for the benefit of their younger classmates, adding a dramatic hand gesture to the word washed.
"Out came the sun...hum, hum..."
"Did you forget the words, Auntie Alex?" her niece, Maya, hissed softly at Alex's elbow.
Alex smiled at the concern she heard in Maya's voice. "No, sweetheart," Alex whispered, "I was just listening to see who needed help."
Satisfied with the answer, the child smiled back. "And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again." Alex led the applause. "Who's ready for outside time?"
"I am, I am." Alex's sister Liz, who'd volunteered to help that morning, jumped to her feet. Liz, who was just fourteen months younger than Alex—and extremely busy with her new herbal-tea company, and her recent engage-ment—hadn't hesitated when Alex had called in a panic. Shorthanded again.
Earlier in the year, their sister Grace had tangled with old family friend Charles Harmon, a powerful and deceitful lawyer and casino owner, who had promised revenge on the entire Radonovic clan. In Alex's case, he'd tried to stir up trouble by spreading untrue rumors about some of the people working for her at her Dancing Hippo Day Care and Preschool.
No charges were ever filed because Alex always did a thorough background check before she ever hired anyone to work at the Hippo. Although it had taken time and a great deal of talking, Alex had personally called each parent on her enrollment roster and explained what was happening. To her profound relief, the parents of her students had stood by her, one and all. Unfortunately, two of her part-time aides hadn't appreciated being the targets of slander and had quit. Alex was still trying to replace them.
She didn't blame anyone for not wanting to deal with Charles's spite, but she really couldn't afford to be short-staffed over the holidays. Stress was not only bad for the kids, it was bad for her health. And she couldn't afford to get sick. Not now.
"You're a lifesaver, Liz," Alex said, helping to escort the energetic herd of youngsters toward the back door after the mandatory pause for putting on coats and sweaters. Late November in Las Vegas might be balmy compared to other parts of the country, but lately the wind seemed to hold a bite that went straight to her core.
"Rita should be back soon. I can't imagine shopping for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving, but she starts at five and buys all of the gifts for her grandchildren in one morning."
Rita, a retired kindergarten teacher, was Alex's most senior aide. Privately, she'd told Alex that she'd been planning on quitting before the Charles Harmon episode but had delayed the decision because she didn't want to add to Alex's problems.
The Dancing Hippo was Alex's baby. Her life, her sisters were quick to point out. Seven and a half years earlier, she'd opened the day-care center partly to stay afloat financially and partly to keep from sinking into an easily justified depression after her fiancé, Mark Gaylord, had broken off their relationship. Alex would never forget the day he'd admitted to spending the night with his partner, Tracey. Alex had barely come to grips with his betrayal when she learned that Tracey was pregnant.
"I didn't mean for this to happen, Alex," he'd said. "But it did and I have to accept responsibility for my actions."
Mark. Ever the hero. The love of her life. The man with the troubled past who worked so hard to rise above his difficult childhood. She knew what being a father meant to him. His concern for children had sealed her love for him, and she'd understood why he'd chosen his unborn child over her. What she'd never understood was why he'd risked their future together for a night in the arms of a woman like Tracey, who had a reputation for partying with all the wrong people.
Alex shook her head to push the thoughts of Mark away. She would have said she was over him completely if not for the fire the night of her sister Kate's wedding last July. Someone had set fire to Liz's date's home and greenhouse, and Liz—the sister who had voluntarily served in a war zone—had been too shaken up to drive, so their mother, Yetta, had asked Alex to play chauffeur.
To Alex's shock, Mark, who had apparently traded in his cop's badge to become an arson investigator, had been on the scene. Seeing him had resurrected all her old memories and she'd barely made it through a night since without bumping into him in her dreams.
"Two steps forward and five steps back," she muttered under her breath.
"Are you talking to yourself again?"
"Again? When have I ever talked to myself?" she asked Liz, who was smiling that smile Alex hated. A cross between know-it-all and smug. Not that Liz was condescending by nature, but at the moment she was on top of the world. She'd just become engaged to a great guy and her specialty blends of herbal teas seemed to be taking off.
"Alex, you're the eldest. Every time you were giving orders to Kate, Grace or me, you were talking to yourself."
Liz's laugh was so infectious Alex couldn't prevent her own guffaw. "Are you saying I was bossy?"
"You tried to be. But in all fairness, it's not your fault. Dad called you Alexandra the Great, remember? So you had a lot to live up to, and since we were your only subjects, you tried to rule us."
Alex stepped in front of three-year-old Madelaine Rose before the child could whack two-year-old Preston Johnson over the head with a plastic shovel. "We are gentle with our friends, Maddie. Treat people the way you'd like to be treated."
To Liz, she said, "I tried to lead by example, not oligarchy."
Liz laughed so hard tears came to her pretty brown eyes.
Alex had never seen her sister so relaxed and obviously happy. Love will do that do you, she thought wistfully.
She'd loved being in love and would have actively sought to find a new man in her life after Mark—except she'd been so busy trying not to lose the house they'd been in the process of buying together.
Without his additional income to secure the loan, she'd been forced to use the money in her trust fund to make the down payment. Even now she didn't have a lot of wiggle room when it came to budgeting, and her ongoing health issues hadn't helped matters. Self-employed, she didn't make money when she had to hire extra help because she was doubled over in pain once a month from an inflamed ovarian cyst.
But she had no real regrets when it came to her career. Instead of becoming a secondary school teacher as she'd intended, she taught preschool. She loved working with children in this fertile—everything was amazing and fresh—stage of life. She loved kids—even if she wasn't always wild about their parents. She'd learned how to handle almost every contingency, from babysitters who forgot to pick up their charge on time to parents who had restraining orders against their mates. The one thing she hadn't found was a mate of her own.
For years, she'd expected to look up one day and see Mr. Right walk through her door. After all, her mother, whose reputation as a gypsy mystic was well known, had foreseen a prophecy for each of her four daughters. Alex's was very clear: "A child's laughter can heal the wounded heart, if first you heal the child."
Child. Preschool teacher.Alex figured she was in the right place to meet the man of her prophecy. And she'd worked with dozens of kids over the years who qualified as wounded. She just hadn't fallen in love with any of their single fathers.
"Hey, did you know Grace is coming back next week?" Alex glanced at Liz for a second, but out of the corner of her eye she detected trouble in the sandbox. She headed that way, motioning for Liz to follow. "Are you kidding? Does that mean she and Nick aren't coming for Christmas? Mom will be heartbroken."
"No, they're coming then, too. This is just Grace alone. Something to do with Charles's trial. He's trying to get it postponed again." She sighed. "I'm ready for some closure where that mess is concerned, aren't you?"
Alex nodded but was too busy redirecting William, before he could wrestle a big red dump truck out of the hands of his playmate, to answer.
Liz kept talking anyway. "Mom also said that Grace is going to train the new bookkeeper Kate and Jo hired at Romantique."
Jo Brighten, Kate's mother-in-law, had purchased Grace's share of the restaurant after Grace had moved to Detroit to be with her future husband, Nikolai.
"That's generous of Grace," Alex said.
"Especially since she misses her job so much. It's too bad she and Nick have to live in Detroit."
"Did I tell you I took my staff to dinner at Romantique two nights ago as a thank-you for hanging in with me through this horrible time? We had a wonderful meal. Jo made beef short ribs that melted in your mouth. And her seven-layer cake. Oh, my G—" Alex stopped mid-exclamation.
"Morgan, what are you doing? MacKensie is your friend. She doesn't want sand in her hair. Do you, MacKensie?"
She took both little girls into her arms and settled the dispute, which was more about them both being three than anything else. "Bend over, MacKensie, and shake like a wet dog. Can you do that for me? Good girl."
To Liz, she said, "Sorry. Would you do me a favor? Go inside and start setting out the snack. Carrots and raisins, I think. This week's menu is up on the wall in the kitchen."
She smiled as she watched her sister wind her way through the boisterous youngsters in the yard. Liz's sense of joy showed in the way she walked, talked and took time to comfort the little girl who tripped and fell in her path.
Just twenty minutes till nap time, Alex thought as she scanned the yard, making a mental head count of her charges. Once, early in her career, she'd "lost" a child who had crawled into a toy box and gone to sleep while the adults had called 9-1-1. Now, some sixth sense kept her connected with her charges.
"We did it," Liz said in a stage whisper half an hour later.
"The entire herd, down for the count."
"Yep. Another exciting morning in the world of child-care," Alex joked as she walked her sister to the front door.
"I really appreciate your lending a hand, Liz."
They stepped outside on the wide, covered stoop that faced the street. A chain-link fence, a four-foot-tall version of the one that enclosed the play yard at the rear of the house, followed the sidewalk. The hinged gate opened to a wheel-chair-friendly ramp leading to the door. Alex hired a yard service to keep her two matching rectangles of grass alive beneath the brutal LasVegas sun each summer. In the middle of the yard to the left was a hand-carved sign carrying her logo—a dancing hippopotamus in a purple tutu.
"No problem. David, I mean, Paul—" Liz smacked the heel of her hand to her forehead in exasperation. "I can't believe I'm still having trouble remembering my husband-to-be's real name. That sounds terrible, doesn't it?"
Alex smiled. David, the name everyone in the family had first known him as, had been hiding his past to escape a vindictive maniac. Once that man was no longer a threat, David had begun resurrecting his former persona, Paul McAffey—the man Liz was planning to marry.
They hadn't set a date, but they had moved in together. "Speaking of Paul, how goes his new position at UNLV?"
"He won't actually be teaching until next semester, thank God. But even getting things ready has been a full-time job. I think he's going to be brilliant, but I could be prejudiced. Gotta run. We have a huge tea order to fill today, and if I'm not there, Lydia and Reezira might not get the ratio of herbs right. We're still overcoming a language barrier although they're catching on pretty fast."
Liz's two employees were one-time illegal immigrants who had been secreted into the United States by Charles Harmon and forced into prostitution. Two more examples of people who had wound up suffering because of one man's greed and lust for power. But, thanks to Liz, the young women now had green cards and a job.
Alex started to ask if the girls were going to join the family for the holidays, but the sound of a car door closing caught her attention.
Liz let out an audible gasp. Alex's breath caught in her throat, making speech impossible.
Mark. "Wow. He looks different without his firefighter gear on. Handsomer. Is that a word?"
"What's he doing here?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, um, I'll stick around. Just in case."
Alex looked at her sister and smiled. She and Liz had always shared a special bond. Growing up, each had seemed to sense when the other was upset or in trouble. But that bond had weakened, for several reasons. One was the man coming up her walk. Liz had been quicker to forgive than Alex had thought appropriate.
"No. You've got more important things to do."
"I know what you're thinking, Elizabeth," she said, using the formal tone their mother always employed. "But don't worry. I can handle him."
"Tell Paul I said hi."
Liz left, pausing only long enough to mutter something to Mark on her way past, then she hurried across the street where her new SUV was parked.