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Tricia McBride came to a quick stop a few feet from the interview room of At Your Service, a prestigious Sacramento domestic-and-clerical-help agency. She stared in disbelief at the owner, Denise Watson, who'd been filling her in on the details of a job opening.
"Hold on a second," Tricia said. "Let me get this straight. I'm not being interviewed by the person I would be working for, this Noah Falcon? I would be taking the job, boss unseen?"
"That sums it up," Denise replied. "It happens all the time, Tricia."
"Remember, I screen all my potential employers, just as I do my employees. If you find yourself in an impossible situation, you'll leave, but I don't think that'll be the case. Noah's a successful business owner, a widower with four children. Pillar of the community."
"Yet he's not doing the interviewing." Tricia didn't like how two and two were adding up. "There's something you're not telling me."
Denise hesitated. "Well, to be honest, he doesn't know his current employee is quitting. She told Noah's brother in confidence, and he decided to take matters into his own hands and do the hiring himself."
"You can ask him yourself." Denise opened the door, leaving Tricia no choice but to follow her inside.
An attractive man about her own age stood. Denise made the introductions. "Tricia McBride, this is David Falcon."
Greetings were exchanged, then Denise left them alone.
"Your résumé is impressive," David said, taking his seat at the conference table again.
It is? Tricia thought, but she said thank you then sat. "Why me, Mr. Falcon?"
He raised his brows at her directness. "Why not you, Ms. McBride?"
"I'msure Denise told you I'll be leaving Sacramento in January to move to San Diego to start a new job. I would be in your brother's employ less than three months. That seems unfair to the family."
"And you're absolutely committed to this other job?"
"Yes, absolutely, unequivocally. I've given my word."
"Just checking," he said with a smile. "You know, it's obviously not the ideal situation for us. But the important thing is that we'll have that three-month cushion to find someone perfect, someone who will stay. Who knows, it could happen next week, and you'd be on your way. We're not guaranteeing the job for the whole three months, either. But in the past Noah has been forced into making expedient choices. You'll be giving him the luxury of time to find just the right person."
"By that you mean he loses employees frequently?"
David hesitated. "My brother tends to hire people fresh out of college who don't have a clue about life yet, not to mention how to handle four children. You were a kindergarten teacher, which leads me to believe that you like children, certainly a necessity for the job, plus you have actual experience working with them. You're thirty-four, so you have life skills, as well. Denise has done a thorough background check on you, and I feel comfortable that you'll be an asset."
She eyed him directly, not easily fooled. "And what's the real reason you're doing this behind his back?"
He half smiled. "Truth? Noah's children are in need of a woman like you, even if it's only for a few months. Their mother died three years ago. The house is quiet. They need laughter. And someone who will stand toe-to-toe with Noah."
"He needs help, but he usually resists suggestions. Noah is still grieving. He doesn't know how to deal with his children."
"Deal with them?"
"Wrong word, I guess. He loves them. He just doesn't know how to show it."
He sounded to Tricia like a man out of his element and on the edge. "When Denise called me yesterday to talk about the job she made it seem like a nanny position, but after the details she gave me today, I'd say it's beyond that."
"It's more teacher than nanny. The kids are homeschooled, so your teaching background is important."
"Homeschooling four children is a far cry from being a nanny."
"Which is why the salary is so high. But the kids are bright and eager to learn."
"How old are they?"
"The boys are nine and the girls are twelve."
"Twins? As in two sets?"
He gave her a dry, apologetic smile. "Which is the other reason the salary is high. Yes, two sets of twins, who aren't nearly as intimidating as you might imagine. Just the idea of them tends to scare off the prospective help, which is why I asked Denise not to mention it."
"I'm really not sure about this ."
"I understand your reservations, but if you'll just give it a chance " He leaned forward. "Denise is good at what she does, finding the right person for the job. In fact, she's downright uncanny at it. Why don't I just take you to Noah's house now, while he's at the office? You can meet the children and see the environment."
The children. Tricia pictured them, sad, and lonely for a father who didn't know how to show he loved them. She blew out a breath, trying to dispatch the heart-tugging image. "Where does he live?"
"About an hour's drive north of Sacramento, a little town called Chance City, although not within the town itself."
"You mean it's in the country?" Tricia couldn't contain her horror at the idea. She'd spent her entire life in the city. She liked concrete and grocery stores and fast-food restaurants.
"Depends on what you mean by country. It's in the Sierra foothills," David said. "His home is large and comfortable, on ten acres of property."
"As in no neighbors for ten acres?" This was getting worse and worse.
"So, I'd have to live in? What about my house? I'm getting it ready to put on the market."
"You could get Saturdays and Sundays off. He can hire weekend help locally, if he wants to," David said.
Silence blanketed the room. Living in, with weekends off. Not exactly what she'd signed up for. Or expected. Then again, it was only for three months, and her mantra of the past year kept repeating in her head: Life is short. Make it an adventure. She just needed to keep her usual safety net in place, too.
"Okay," she said at last. "Let's go check it out."
Claws of tension dug into Noah Falcon's shoulders as he turned into his driveway and followed it to the back of his property. He drove into the garage, shut off the engine and sat, trying to shift out of work mode and into parent mode. The demands of owning a company were a breeze compared to being with his children each night. Somehow during the past three years they'd become almost strangers to each other.
Lately he'd found himself coming home later and later, knowing they would be ready for bed, if not already asleep, thus avoiding contact beyond a query about how their day had gone and what they'd learned. When he did manage to make it home for dinner, he tried to carry on a conversation at the table, but unless he continually asked questions, they were almost silent. He didn't know how to breach that silence, to get them to open up on their own.
And this was Friday, which meant another whole weekend with them.
At least tonight he didn't have to worry about what to do, since it was past their bedtime. But as he walked toward the house he saw his daughters' bedroom light on and realized he'd come home too early, after all. The rest of the second-floor rooms visible from the back side of the house were darkthe master suite and the bedroom the boys shared. Although there was a bedroom for each child, both sets of twins remained doubled up, choosing not to be separated.
He understood their need to be together and hadn't pushed them to split up, even though he remembered having to share with his middle brother, Gideon, when they were young, and begging to have his own space, not getting it until he was a teenager.
But twins were different. Closer. At least his twins were. And Adam and Zach were only nine, so they probably wouldn't be ready for individual rooms for a while yet. Maybe Ashley and Zoe never would.
Noah let himself into the kitchen through the back door. As usual, a plastic-wrap-covered dinner plate was in the refrigerator, along with instructions on how long to heat it in the microwave. He peered through the clear wrap and saw meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. His stomach growled. He shoved the plate into the microwave, set it and headed upstairs to say good-night.
As he neared the landing he heard a woman speaking, her voice dramatic. The girls must be watching a movie, because it wasn't their nanny, Jessica.
He'd almost reached the doorway to the girls' room when he spotted all four of his children reflected in Ashley's floor-to-ceiling ballet mirror on the bedroom wall. They wore pajamas. The boys were nestled in beanbag chairs they'd dragged into the room from their own. The girls were lying on their stomachs on Ashley's bed, chins resting on their hands. All of them were focused on a woman standing off to the side a little, an open book in her hand.
She was tall. He was six-four, and he figured she was five-ten, maybe taller. Her hair was a wild mass of golden-blond curls that bounced as she dramatized the story. She used a different voice for each character and put her whole body into the performanceher whole very nice body. Blue jeans clung to long legs; her breasts strained against a form-fitting sweater. Incredible breasts.
She would look magnificent naked, like some kind of Amazon. A warrior woman
Noah scattered the image. She was a stranger in his house, in his children's bedroom. Who the hell was she? And where was Jessica?
He moved into the room. The children turned and stared but said nothing, just looked back and forth between the woman and him.
"Good evening," he said to them.
"Good evening, Father," they answered almost in unison.
He saw the woman frown for a moment, then she came forward, her hand out. Brilliant green eyes took his measure. "Hi. You must be Noah Falcon. I'm Tricia McBride, your new schoolmarm."
"My new schoolmarm?" he repeated as he shook her hand. "But, where's Jessica?"
"Watching television in her bedroom. We can do an official changing of the guard on Monday." Tricia leaned close to him, sympathetic to his shock. "You need to call your brother David."
His mouth hardened. "In the meantime, may I speak to you in the hall?" he said, more a command than question, then he left the room without waiting for a response.
Tricia steeled herself for the discussion. She'd expected surprise and resistance, based on David's comments, as well as Jessica's. But having spent the afternoon and evening with his children, she'd decided she would make him hire her. They needed her. Period.
She set down the book and smiled at the children. "I'll be back to finish it with you. Why don't you have a pillow fight or something in the meantime?" She grinned as they looked at each other in astonishment.
She crashed straight into her new boss as she left the room.
"What took you so long?" he asked.
"Ten seconds is long? I was assuring your children that I'd be back to finish reading the story."
"Aren't they kind of old for bedtime stories? They do know how to read."
She was definitely going to have more problems with the father than the children. And, really, someone should've told her how incredibly attractive the man was, with his rich dark brown hair and eyes, and all that height and broad chest and shoulders. Too bad he didn't have a funny bone.
"Personally, I still love a good bedtime story," she said, realizing he was waiting for her to answer.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. "I take it Jessica is quitting."
"That's the scoop."
"And my brother found out and intervened and hired you."
"Yes. I imagine he's waiting to hear from you."
"Oh, he'll hear from me, all right."
She wouldn't want to be on the other end of that call.
"What's your background?" he asked.
"Kindergarten teacher." She figured he didn't need to know yet that she hadn't taught for five years. "Jessica showed me the curriculum. It looks doable." Just needed a little shaking up to add some fun to the program.
He angled away from her. "I'm going to talk to Jessica, then call David. Please come to my office when you're done reading to the children. Do you know where it is?"
"Jessica gave me a tour." Seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, three stories. The tour lasted half an hour.
"Good." He started to walk away.