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Anna Aronson aimed a measured breath at the plastic wand and wished the bubbles exiting the opposite side could magically carry her worries away on the breeze.
The boys playing at her feet in the thick emerald grass squealed and gurgled in the infectious way only toddlers can, making her smile despite impending disaster.
She had to get this job.
A flash of movement caught her attention. She glanced away from the boys scampering after the bubbles, and spotted the woman who'd interviewed her earlier coming toward them. Tension wound inside Anna like an Archimedean spiral.
"Mr. Hollister will see you now, Anna. He's waiting in his office. Take the doors on the left side of the patio." She gestured to the luxurious, sprawling Greenwich, Connecticut, home.
Anna licked her dry lips and lowered the wand. "The boys "
"I'll watch them while you talk to the boss. He has the final say. But for what it's worth, you have my vote." Mrs. Findley held out her hand for the bottle of bubbles and wand.
Anna, feeling as if she were surrendering a life preserver in rough seas, handed them over. This interview felt very much like a sink or swim situation. If she didn't get this job she wouldn't be able to pay this month's rent or electric bill, and she'd be left with no option except to swallow her pride, go home and beg for help even though her mother had already made it clear that Anna and Cody would not be welcome in the retirement community where she resided.
But hopefully it wouldn't come to that. "Thank you, Mrs. Findley."
"Call me Sarah. And, Anna, don't let Pierce intimidate you. He's a fair employer and a good man despite the armor plated personality."
Armor plated personality?
Trepidation closed Anna's throat. She couldn't have spoken even if an appropriate response had materialized in her seized up brain. Instead she nodded and headed for the house. The distance seemed endless, and by the time she reached the stone porch stairs of the two-story colonial her breaths came quicklyas if she'd run a mile instead of walking a few hundred yards.
Through the glass door Anna spotted her prospective employer sitting behind a massive wooden desk. The air jammed in her lungs. Please, please, please let this go well.
She knocked on the glass. He looked up from a stack of papers, scowling, then bid her to enter with one sharp snap of his head. Her hand slipped on the polished brass knob. She had to blot her damp palm on her dress before trying again and pushing open the door.
Pierce Hollister, with his supermodel chiseled features and thick, dark hair styled in one of those intentionally messy cuts, looked as if he belonged in a glossy magazine advertisement for an expensive product that any young millionaire might want to buy, and though he'd dressed casually in a black polo shirt opened at the base of his tanned neck, he still reeked of power and prestige.
But a handsome, charming, wealthy man had contributed to her current financial predicament. She couldn't afford to let her guard down with this one.
"H-hello, Mr. Hollister. I'm Anna Aronson."
Hazel eyes without a trace of friendliness inspected her from head to toe. She hoped her simple shirt dress and sandals passed muster.
"Why were you fired from your last position?"
Flustered by the terse question even before she'd closed the door, she bought time by focusing on theohmigod originalart on the walls around him and pushing the door until she heard the lock catch. So much for a polite handshake greeting.
"I was let go because I refused an after school playdate with the father of one of my students."
"He propositioned you?"
"Why didn't you file a complaint with the headmaster?"
"I did. But the parent in question is one of the school's primary benefactors and his wife is their most successful fundraiser. My complaint was ignored."
"How long did you work for the school?"
"The dates are in my resume."
"I'm asking you."
Why would he question her credentials unless he thought she'd made them up and wouldn't recall them? "The academy hired me part-time straight out of college as a tutor for some of their struggling students. Six months later when a teacher quit unexpectedly they offered me a full-time teaching position. All totaled I worked for the school for three and a half years."
"And despite your history as an employee the school fired you because of one parent's allegations. They chose to take his word over yours."
"The headmaster believed generous private school donors were harder to come by than elementary school teachers."
"Or perhaps they were looking for an excuse to get rid of you because you weren't good enough."
The unjust allegation stole her breath. "I've received exemplary evaluations at every review and the salary increases to go with it."
"And if I call the school to verify your story?"
Her hopes sank. He didn't believe her. He wasn't the first. And until someone did she'd never find a job that would pay enough to cover decent day care for Cody while she worked. Maybe if she could pick up more students to tutor and college papers to edit she could make ends meet.
Who are you trying to fool? That won't be enough.
She fought the urge to fidget beneath his condemning stare. "If you call the school you will be told the parent in question said I picked on his son unmercifully after hethe fatherrefused my advances."
"Did you make advances?"
She jerked in surprise. No one had asked that before. "Of course not. He's married."
"Married men have affairs."
"Not with me they don't."
"Your resume states you graduated with honors from Vanderbilt. My assistant tells me that's one of the best education programs in the country. How is it you can't find a teaching position?"
This felt more like an interrogation than an interview.
"Apparently, saying no to powerful, well-connected people has repercussions that carry far beyond the local job market."
She suspected she'd been black-balled.
"You have no nanny experience."
"No, sir, but I routinely handled twenty children at once, more when I worked the academy's summer camp program, and I am a parent used to coping with bed, bath and meal times."
He leaned back in his leather chair, steepling his fingers and pinning her with his unblinking gaze. She looked back hopingprayinghe'd see the truth and willingness to work hard in her eyes. The silent scrutiny stretched interminably until she was as uncomfortable as she'd been that day in the headmaster's office when she'd been unjustly accused.
"For what it's worth, I don't believe your story."
His words settled like a weight on her shoulders. Frustrated because she couldn't prove her innocence, Anna could only stare hopelessly into that uncompromising face as hope left her like a soda going flat. Until the headmaster, her integrity had never been questioned. She'd always been the smart one, the levelheaded and trustworthy one who always got the job done. And now nobody believed her.
If she ever wanted to teach again she'd have to find a way to clear her name. But until then she had to feed and house her son.
"I wanted a more mature woman to look after the boy," Hollister continued. "And you come with a liability in the form of another baby."
"Cody is seventeen months old, only six months older than your son. They should be good company for each other and provide a little social interaction," she insisted but when Hollister's expression turned even more formidable she wished she'd kept her mouth shut.
"One noisy child in the house is bad enough. Two will be a disaster. I ought to show you the door. But Sarah swears you are the most qualified candidate, and I need a nanny today. You're the only one available."
Anna's hopes started to rise then he stood and leaned forward on his fists, scaring her optimism right back into its hidey-hole. "But I will be watching you, Anna Aronson. One false move and no matter how desperate I am you and your carrot-top kid are out the door. Do I make myself clear?"
Her lungs emptied on a rush of relief and tears pricked the backs of her eyes, because even if he didn't like or trust her, Hollister was giving her the job. "Yes, Mr. Hollister."
"How long will it take you to pack and get back here?"
She quickly regrouped and calculated the travel time and then the cost. Did she have enough cash in her wallet to cover cab fare to and from the station? Twice. Barely.
"It's an hour's train ride each way and I'll need an hour to pack. We can be back in time for Graham's dinner."
"You don't have a car?"
"No." Not anymore. Public transportation wasn't all that bad if you were careful about which times you traveled. "I need you to assume your duties sooner. I'll drive you." That meant being alone with him in her apartment. "But"
"There is no but. Either you want the job or you don't."
"I do. But I, um have a question."
"What?" he snapped.
"Mrs. Findley wasn't exactly clear on how long you'd need me. She said 'until Graham's mother returns from an overseas job,' but she didn't specify whether that involved weeks or months."
"She didn't provide the information because we don't have it. This contract is openended. You'll be paid monthly whether you work one day of the month or thirty, and you'll be given an additional month's severance pay when the job ends. If you have a problem with that then stop wasting my time."
"No. No, sir. Ithat will be fine." Difficult to budget around, but better than nothing. And it explained why the salary offered was so ridiculously high.
"Then sign." He shoved several pages and a pen toward her.
"May I read the contract first?"
"Read during the drive to your place." He rose, came around the desk and loomed over her. She took an involuntary step back. He stood well over six feet and his shoulders stretched twice as broad as hers. A powerful mannot just financially. The same kind who had gotten her fired. "Let's go. Sarah will watch your boy while we collect your belongings."
Alarmed, Anna's gaze shot to the window. She wasn't really keen on leaving Cody with a stranger around so much water. Not only was the property riverfront, the large pool and bubbling hot tub would be an invitation to a little boy who loved to splash. But what choice did she have?
"Do you mind if I say goodbye to Cody and have a word with Mrs. Findley first?"
Her question seemed to irritate him. "Make it quick. I'll get the car. Meet me out front. We'll stop by the drug testing lab on the way to your place. I shouldn't need to tell you that if the test comes back positive or if your references don't check out you'll be fired. No excuses. No severance pay."
"Yessir. I understand. You have nothing to worry about. And thank you, Mr. Hollister, for giving me a chance." She offered her hand. He ignored it. Feeling awkward, she let hers drop to her side.
"Don't make me regret it."