Lily Palmer is in for the Christmas of a lifetime! When the nanny signs up to watch Dr. Cullen Dunlevy's four foster kids, she's got her hands full. The Thomas clan is the most mischievous group of youngsters she's ever had to wrangle, but Lily loves the job. After all, what girl wouldn't adore spending the holidays with a warmhearted new familyand their irresistibly handsome foster dad?
Cullen doesn't mind Christmas, but his Scrooge-like facade is there for a reasonto protect himself. His tough childhood caused him to hide behind his work and avoid entanglements at all costs. That includes avoiding falling for the deliciously tempting new nanny that Santa left for him this year
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Cullen Dunlevy had never begged for anything in his adult life, but right now he was desperate. "I'll pay you triple your salary if you'll stay for two more hours, Angie," he said. "And you don't have to clean up after the kids."
"Dr. Dunlevy, there isn't enough money in the world to make me stay." Unmoved, the housekeeper brushed past him. She paused at the top of the stairs. "Call me when you find a home for them.''''
A home for them? They're kids, not stray animals.
Cullen glanced down at ten-year-old Megan Thomas. All the color had drained from her already pale cheeks. Then his gaze found its way back to the hall-bath toilet, which was overflowing with some kind of expanding blue goop that seemed to be growing exponentially. The prank had been the final straw, the reason for Angie's noon phone call to Cullen at the hospital, informing him he had exactly one hour to get home because she was fed up and leaving.
What happened to the theory "it takes a village"?
Couldn't Angie have a little heart? Sure, the four of them were unruly, but anyone with an ounce of compassion could see their disobedience stemmed from grief.
The kids had lost both their parents in a car accident. Their dad, Greg Thomas, had been Cullen's lifelong friend. Given the lingering sting of his own grief, he couldn't imagine what the kids must be going through. They were homeless and alone in the world except for each other. And they were at the mercy of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
A pang of guilt coursed through Cullen. He had room for them in this big, empty house, but was that enough? Didn't kids deserve two loving parents? He was married to a job that demanded sixteen-hour days. He worked and slept, only to get up day after day to repeat the routine. He didn't know anything about raising kids. Hell, he'd thought he was doing the right thing by leaving them with Angie.
Obviously that had been a colossal mistake.
Standing there, alternating glances between Megan and the creeping blue foam, Cullen realized if he were any further out of his element he might sprout fins and gills and start flopping on the tile.
He swallowed an expletive and reminded himself that he might not be the best candidate to parent his friends' children, but the one thing he could do to honor Greg and his wife, Rosa, would be to make sure the kids stayed together. The kids would live with him until he found the right family that would take all four of them.
In the meantime, he needed to convince Angie to stay just a little longer.
The kids ranged in age from five to ten years old. They were relatively self-sufficient. In other words, Angie wouldn't be warming bottles and changing diapers. Just one more hourgive or take a few minutesduring which she could go on about her usual housecleaning duties, toilet-clogging blue foam exempted, while he interviewed Lily Palmer, the nanny candidate. At least Lily had agreed to change her schedule and move up their interview to one o'clock that afternoon.
Until he'd explained his dire straits, she hadn't been free until the end of the week. At least she was flexible. Of course, he'd cushioned the story, telling her that his temporary child care had fallen through and he was in a pinch. There was no way he was going to scare her off with the gory details of pranks and temper tantrums. He prayed to God that she was right for the kids and available to start immediately.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Cullen," said Megan. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. He'd known Megan and her brother and two sisters since birth. Hell, he'd known their father since the two of them were in kindergarten. Uncle Cullen was an honorary title that he didn't take lightly, especially now that Greg was gone.
"I told George not to dump the potion in the toilet," she continued earnestly.
Nine-year-old George was the second oldest after Megan, and he was conspicuously absent at the moment.
As chief of staff at Celebration Memorial Hospital, Cullen ran a tight ship and prided himself on being unshakable even in the face of the most horrific medical emergencies. However, after taking in Greg's kids, Cullen had discovered he wasn't as unflinching as he thought. But wait
"The potion?" Cullen asked, Megan's words belatedly sinking in.
"Yeah," said the little girl. "We like to pretend we're scientists and the bathroom is our lab. We make potions out of all the things we find in there."
He tried to remember where Angie stored the cleaning supplies that produced noxious fumes if mixed togetherlike bleach and ammonia.
"Yeah, that sounds like fun," he said. "But it can be kind of dangerous. So you have to be careful. What did you mix together to make the potion expand like that?"
The girl had started to give him a laundry list of ingredients when Angie called from downstairs, "Goodbye, Dr. Dunlevy. I'm leaving now."
He'd let her go downstairs to cool off a bit, hoping he could talk some sense into her. Or bribe her.
"Angie, please wait."
He looked at the little girl. "I need to go apologize to Angie and try and talk her into staying. We'll talk about the potion later. In the meantime, please don't conduct any more chemistry experiments. And don't flush anything else down the toilet. Will you please make sure your brother and sisters don't, either? I'm counting on you, okay?"
Megan nodded and swiped at her tears. He ruffled her hair to show her he wasn't mad at her. He was mad at the situation, but what else could he do except go down and plead with Angie?
He was so out of his league. But when he'd gotten Megan's distress call three days ago, he'd had no choice but to bring the kids to live with him.
People could say a lot of things about Cullen Dunlevy, but no one could deny that he was a man of his word.
Six months ago, after Greg and Rosa's funeral, it seemed as if the kids were settled. They were set to move in with a great couple. Dan and Carla, friends of Greg and Rosa, had agreed to take in the kidsall four of them. They'd promised to love them as their own. But then Carla had gotten sick. Terminally ill. In the weeks before the adoption was to become final, they had to back out.
No warning. No opportunity for Cullen to point out that he wouldn't make a good guardian since he practically lived at the hospital. But he'd made a promise to Megan at her parents' funeral. He'd told her if she needed anythinganything at allshe could call him and he'd be there.
When he'd made that promise, he'd intended anything at all to mean money, a ride, advice. He'd never imagined the little girl would call, asking him to give her and her brother and sisters a temporary home.
But she had called, and he intended to keep his word for as long as it took to find the kids a new adoptive family where they could stay togetherall four of them.
Cullen swallowed bile as he headed toward the kitchen to try to sweet-talk Angie into staying until he'd had a chance to talk to Lily. He and the kids would sort out the blue mess in the bathroom and their behavior later.
"Angie, will you please just help me out today? I'm desperate. I need you. Just until after the interview. And maybe to show the nanny the ropes. Then you're off the hook."
When Cullen had asked Angie to watch the kids, she'd made it very clear that her schedule was full. She'd built a nice business cleaning house for many of the doctors and professionals at Celebration Memorial. In fact, she delighted in telling him she had a waiting list, which Cullen knew mostly consisted of single doctors who worked so many hours that they were never home to mess up their homes. Of course, dust fell and spiders spun webs whether or not a person was home.
Angie had found her niche. It was a pretty good gig. The only reasonbesides the monetary incentiveshe agreed to put in extra hours at Cullen's house to babysit was that he was her original client.
He'd milked that for all it was worth. And then he'd made her an offer she couldn't refuse. Now she was threatening to quit altogether.
Why should he be surprised? Had he ever been able to count on anyone?
"Please, Angie. Stay."
With her purse on her arm, the harried fiftysome-thing woman sighed and shot him a pained look. The unspoken reality was that the four kids needed to be watched. Like a hawk. They wouldn't sit quietly in front of the television or entertain themselves. In the three days they'd been at Cullen's house, he'd discovered entertaining themselves produced foaming blue potions that clogged toilets and stained bathroom floors.
Angie, who had confessed that she didn't like kids, had told him that while she had her eye on one or two of them, the others would be doing something behind her back.
"It's a wonder they haven't burned down the house," she'd said. Until today, Cullen thought she'd been exaggerating.
"You don't have to clean up the mess they made. I'll deal with that. All I'm asking you to do is keep the kids occupied until after I interview Lily Palmer. Play a game with them. One hour at the most and then you can go. I promise."
He wasn't even going to think about what he might do if Lily didn't work out or if she couldn't start today.
Before Angie could answer, Cullen's cell phone rang. He didn't recognize the number. So that meant he had to answer it. Lily might be calling to say she was lost or to cancel. Maybe he shouldn't answer.
He was already pushing it by leaving the hospital in the middle of the day, asking his colleague Liam Thayer to cover for him. Thayer was the one who had recommended Lily. Cullen prayed to God that she was as perfect for the job as Liam's wife, Kate, had promised.
"Please, Angie." He was relieved when she heaved a resigned sigh and set her purse on the kitchen's granite-topped center island.
"I need to take this call. Just play a game with them. Please. And thank you.
"Cullen Dunlevy," he said as he made his way to his office, where he could still hear the doorbell if the nanny arrived while he was on the phone.
"Hey, Doc, it's Max Cabot. Got a sec?"
Max was the contractor who was building the new pediatric surgical wing at the hospital. The entire Celebration community had rallied to raise money for this much-needed improvement to Celebration Memorial Hospital.
A door slammed in another part of the house. Cullen heard kids shrieking and laughing. Franklin the dog, who had come as a package deal with the kids, barked.
Had they been outside? Wasn't it raining? Judging by the noise level, they were definitely inside now.
"Hold on, Max." Cullen put his hand over the phone. "Hey, guys, can you keep it down, please? I'm on the phone. Play a game with Angie. Play that new Monopoly game we just bought."
His words were lost in the cacophony and the sound of running feetlike a herd of stampeding buffalo. He shook his head.
"Max, I have to call you back, buddy. This is not a good time. I have a situation here, and I have an appointment that should arrive any minute."
"No problem," said Max. "If you're at home, I'm going to drop by some documents for you to review. I won't stay. It'll just be a drop and run."
Before Cullen could answer, Angie's voice screeched above the kid noise and the barking dog. "Get down! Get off me. You nasty mutt. You stink. Ugggh!" She made a guttural sound like an angry bear. "What is this? What did that dog get on my pants? Get him out of here before I open the front door and put him out myself!"
What the hell?
The dog's bark had changed to a protective growl.
The kids were all talking at once. One of them started crying as Angie continued her nasty-dog tirade.
Cullen put his hand over his free ear as he walked toward the kitchen to make sure Angie and the kids hadn't come to blows. "Good, Max. See you soon. I have to go."
Cullen hung up the phone and hurried into the kitchen.
"What's wrong?" Cullen asked. "Why all the noise?"
Angie had a wet paper towel in her hand and was dabbing at something brown and suspicious on the thigh of her khaki pants. The wet dog, a shaggy black Heinz 57 variety, had taken a protective stance and continued his growl-bark at Angie. Hannah, the youngest of the four kids, was sobbing into her hands. "You can't put him out front. He'll go away just like Mommy did."
The middle girl, Bridget, put her arms around her little sister and hugged her. "Don't worry, Hannah. I won't let her do anything to Franklin."
Angie looked over at Cullen with crazy eyes. "I did not sign up for this." Her hand made a sweeping gesture. "This dog has ruined my new pants with his filth and he's tracked up the floor I mopped. You're going to have to clean that up yourself along with the blue mess, Dr. Dunlevy, because I quit. I'm out of here."
She tossed the wadded paper towel into the garbage, grabbed her purse and speed-walked out of the kitchen toward the front door.
"Good! I'm glad she's gone," said George. He punctuated his declaration with a loud raspberry.
Oh, for the love of all things holy. "Angie, wait, please. Send me a bill for the pants. I'll replace them."
One hand on the door, she paused and looked back. "They cost ninety-five dollars. You can include it in my final paycheck, which you may mail to my house."
Ninety-five dollars? Was she kidding? Who wore expensive pants to clean a house? Of course, with her cushy gig, she didn't have to get her handsor her pantsvery dirty. Angie was all about making the most money expending the least amount of energy.
He and his colleagues were the ones who paid her.
Who was the smart one in this scenario?
Angie opened the door and nearly missed running head-on into a perky blonde who stood there smiling, one hand raised as if to knock on the door.
Lily Palmer? Had to be.
One look at her sparkling green eyes and her dimpled smile and Cullen had to fight the urge to hire her right on the spot. She looked like a blonde angel back-lit by a ray of sunshine that had finally broken through the gray storm clouds.
As the sound of bickering kids trailed through the half-open front door, he wondered if he could interview her on the front porch and not let her inside until she had taken an irrevocable pledge to work as a nanny for the month of December, which was the length of time she was available to nanny.
God, please don't let the kids run her off the same way they sent Angie packing.
"Hello," she said. Her smile didn't falter and the sparkle in her green eyes didn't fade despite the unwelcoming sounds coming from the house and the figurative horns and fangs that Angie sported as she stood next to Lily on the front-porch step.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a quick Christmas read with a Sound of Music sort of theme. Nanny comes to save the day when a bachelor is overwhelmed after taking in his best friend's four children, orphaned due to a car accident. Lily loves children and is looking to make some extra money during the Christmas break from her teaching job. She thought she'd be married and working on her own family by now, but unexpected events have left her to only dream about a loving husband and family. Cullen is a busy doctor whose own tough childhood and divorce have left him certain he has no business being a father. But he is attracted to Lily immediately, even though she is nothing like the string of women he usually dates. Lily makes the children feel loved and secure, and Cullen soon starts rearranging his schedule to be with them more and more. Could this actually work out, or will old fears lead them to walk away from the chance to be a real family?
A great Christmas read.