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"I'm not looking for a wife."
"Thank you for clarifying, because that's not the box I checked on the nanny application."
Justin Flint, M.D., stared at the young woman sitting across the desk from him, liking the fact that Emma Rob-bins had a sharp, sassy sense of humor. On the other hand, that didn't change the fact that his comment was out of line.
It was just possible he was trying to discourage her because she was too pretty. He was a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and had relocated to Blackwater Lake, Montana, to give his almost one-year-old son a normal life. That didn't include being taken in again by a pretty face, but saying so out loud would be too weird.
"I'm sorry." He dragged his fingers through his hair. "This is going to sound egotistical, but women applying for the nanny job have been coming on to me. That's not the qualification I'm looking for in the person who's going to take care of Kyle."
"You're right. That does sound egotistical." She smiled and, if possible, was even more beautiful. "It also makes you a concerned father, which I can respect. But let me assure you, I'm not the least bit interested in anything but a job."
"Good." It was good but still took his ego down a peg or two. "Okay. Let's take it from the top. This interview didn't start off very well. My fault entirely. And I assure you that normally I behave in a completely professional way with my employees."
"I'd expect nothing less. But I can see why women flirt with you. It just has to be said that I'm not one of them."
If he were still in Beverly Hills, an agency would vet all nanny candidates, but in this small town things were different. Advertisements in the local paper and recommendations from the employees here at Mercy Medical Clinic, in addition to those of the mayor and town council, had generated half a dozen prospects. Unfortunately, the first four had clearly been more interested in batting their eyeslashes and giving him a look at their cleavage.
"All right, then." He browsed through the paperwork. "So, Miss Robbins, you're from California." That was the address she'd listed.
"Yes, Studio City. It's in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles."
"Blackwater Lake is a long way from there."
She smiled. "I can see that."
He knew the Southern California neighborhood and it wasn't far from the entertainment capital of the world. With a face like hers, she could be a starlet and he'd stake his professional reputation on the fact that she'd had no work done. The flawless skin and stunning features were nothing more than excellent genes.
Emma Robbins looked as if she belonged on a movie screen. Long, shiny brown hair streaked with gold fell past her shoulders. Her eyes were brown and framed by thick lashes. But it was her mouth that mesmerized him-full, sculpted lips made for kissing, and he couldn't seem to drag his eyes away from them. That thought definitely hadn't been vetted by his common sense.
"So, what brought you to Montana, Miss Robbins?"
"Have you ever been here before?"
"What made you decide to come here? As opposed to, say, Hawaii?" He would bet she'd turn heads in a bikini. Although right now she looked like a preppy college girl with a white collar sticking up from the neckline of her navy pullover. Tailored jeans and loafers completed the look. "I'm just trying to get to know you."
Was it his imagination or did she not quite look him in the eyes?
"This will sound corny, but one of my favorite books was set in Montana. I was between jobs and did some research. This town was advertised as the new and unspoiled Vail or Aspen. I wanted to check it out."
"So, what do you think?" he asked.
"Words can't describe how beautiful it is here," she said sincerely.
That didn't answer the question about whether or not she wanted to stay. "I need to be honest with you about my situation."
"I would appreciate that, Dr. Flint." The tone was firm, almost abrasively adamant, hinting that maybe someone hadn't been truthful with her.
Justin could relate. "I brought my current nanny with me from Beverly Hills where my medical practice was."
"Obviously there's a problem or I wouldn't be here."
"If you call hating mountains, a lake, trees and blue sky a problem, then yes."
She laughed. "I have nothing to say to that."
"The issue has more to do with missing her grown children and the fact that one of her daughters is a month away from giving birth to her first grandchild."
"That could distort your perception of the most majestic mountains ever and a lake and sky that are prettier than anything I've ever seen in my life."
He thought so, too. "The thing is, I talked her into staying until either her replacement could be found, or two weeks prebirth. Kyle hasn't known any other caregiver, and the change is going to be disruptive for him."
"How old is he?"
She glanced at a photograph on his desk. "May I?"
"Please." He handed her the frame.
"He's a cutie. Just like his father." She caught herself, then met his gaze. "I swear that wasn't flirting. What I meant was, he has your eyes, and the shape of his face is all you."
He took the photo back from her and smiled at the baby, pleased she thought Kyle had inherited something good from him. Hopefully his son would have better judgment in people, specifically women people, than his old man.
"He's little and doesn't understand what's going on. I'd like the change to be as easy as possible for him."
"I can understand that." She folded her hands in her lap.
"If I decide to hire you, what assurance can you give me that you'll fulfill your obligation?"
In truth, there wasn't anything. If the sacred vows of marriage didn't stop his wife from ignoring her responsibilities, what could this stranger say to convince him? Kyle's mother had put her own interests over what was best for her son, their son. Since her death, Justin found that buying the best child care possible was the only guarantee he had.
"Dr. Flint-" She leaned toward him, earnest in her defense. "There's nothing I can say to convince you of my sincerity, but I'm well qualified. I have a degree in early childhood development and the references I provided might help ease your mind. A short-term contract would probably be best. If either of us isn't satisfied with the bargain at any time, a suitable notification period should be spelled out. Enough time for either or both of us to make other arrangements."
That seemed fair to him, but he wasn't ready to say so just yet. Instead, he asked, "What about your life in California?"
"I'm not sure what you want to know."
"Do you have family? Friends? A house to be sold or closed up?" Someone special?
Justin found himself most interested in the answer to the question he hadn't asked out loud. She was pretty. He was a guy and couldn't help noticing. She must have a boyfriend and, if not, candidates were probably lined up around the block waiting to apply for the position.
Emma sat back and crossed one slender leg over the other. "I don't have family. On top of being an only child, my father died when I was ten and Mother passed away a little less than a year ago."
"Thank you." Her mouth pulled tight, but it looked like more than grief. "She left me the house, but I have a friend who will take care of it."
He wanted very much to know if the friend was a man, but asking wouldn't be professional. Before he could say more, there was a knock on his office door just before
Ginny Irwin, the clinic nurse, poked her head into the room. "Dr. Flint, your first afternoon appointment is here."
Since she could have relayed that information by intercom, Justin suspected she hiked upstairs to the second floor in order to get a look at the nanny applicant.
"Thanks, Ginny. I'll be right down."
"Okay." She stared curiously at the young woman across the desk from him, then backed out, closing the door behind her.
"All right," he said, "I guess we're finished."
"There's just one more thing I'd like to say." Emma picked up her purse from the floor beside her, then stood.
"What?" he asked.
"I want this job very much. And I'm very good with children."
He would check that out for himself. "All right. I have one more interview."
"Will you let me know one way or the other?"
"Yes." He stood up and felt as if he towered over her, then hated that it made him feel protective. There was something vulnerable and fragile about this woman, but getting sucked into the feeling was a bad idea. "I'll do a thorough background check and personally contact all the references you listed."
"Good. I'd expect nothing less. And I'll do the same for you."
"It's a live-in position, right?"
"It is. And light housekeeping will also be required. But my primary concern is the well-being of my son. If I get called for an emergency in the middle of the night, trying to find child care could be a problem. I need someone there."
"So if I'll be living under your roof, it would be a good idea for me to know something about you. That way, everyone feels better." She shrugged then held out her hand. "It was very nice to meet you, Dr. Flint."
Justin wrapped his fingers around hers and felt a sizzle all the way up his arm. That was enough to make him want the next job applicant to actually be Mary Poppins. He needed to hire someone right away. His current nanny was very close to leaving him in a real bind when she headed back to the Sunshine State.
So far, Emma Robbins was the most qualified applicant, if her references checked out. That made her the leading candidate. On the downside, he was too aware of her as a woman.
Nothing about that made him feel better.
Emma drove up the hill to Justin Flint's impressive, two-story house. After parking, she took a good look. The place was big and located in the exclusive, custom-home development of Lake View Estates. She took a deep breath and exited the car. The wraparound front porch had a white railing that opened to double front doors with etched glass. Light danced through it and was like a beacon of welcome.
"Homey," she whispered to herself. The warmth was unexpected. Maybe she'd been expecting pretentious from the renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.
She walked up the three stairs and pushed the doorbell, then heard footsteps just on the other side. Bracing herself to face Justin Flint again, she wasn't prepared for the short, plump, fiftyish blonde woman who opened the door.
"I'm Sylvia Foster."
"Emma Robbins," she said, extending her hand. "My replacement." Blue eyes twinkled good-naturedly. "That's my hope, but I'm happy just to have a second interview." Emma hadn't expected it. The doctor had seemed distant after they'd shaken hands.
"I probably shouldn't tell you this, but he's desperate. I gave him an ultimatum and it wasn't easy. Breaks my heart to leave this baby. But.."
"He told me your first grandchild is due soon."
"A boy," Sylvia revealed, excitement sparkling in her eyes. "I'm so torn. I'll miss Kyle terribly, but my three children are in Southern California, not to mention a sister and brother. My whole family is there."
A little voice chattered unintelligible sounds behind her and she turned. On the gorgeous dark-wood entryway floor was the doctor's son, crawling toward the open door as fast as he could.
The older woman tsked, although there was no scolding in the sound. "Kyle Flint, just where do you think you're going?"
She started to bend and grab him as he scooted by her with every intention of getting outside. Emma squatted on the porch side of the low threshold and looked up at the older woman.
"It took a lot of energy for him to make a break for it. Would it be okay if he comes out just for a minute? A little reward to encourage his sense of exploration?"
"I like the way you think." Sylvia nodded and watched the baby touch the slats separating his protected world from the unknown beyond.
He sat and slapped it a few times before going on all fours again and venturing out. Turning wide eyes, his father's gray eyes, on Emma, he took her measure. Just as the doctor had done.
"Hi, cutie." She let him look, get used to her. Overwhelming him with verbal, visual and tactile stimuli could be disconcerting to the little guy.
After several moments, he crawled outside and over to her, putting a chubby hand on her thigh. Then he boosted himself to a standing position.
"He's pretty steady," she observed. "Is he walking yet?"
"Not quite," Sylvia confirmed. "He's a little hesitant to take that first step."
Emma knew how he felt. She had a family here in Blackwater Lake that she hadn't known about until just before her "mother" died. The woman had confessed to kidnapping Emma as an infant from people who lived in this town. Shock didn't begin to express how she'd felt at hearing the words, and she was still struggling to wrap her head around it all.
This trip to Montana was about her own personal exploration. She'd been in town for three and a half weeks, checked out the diner that her biological parents owned and managed. But she hadn't taken the next step of telling them who she was. Everything would change for them and there'd be no going back. She wasn't sure turning their world upside down all over again was the right thing to do. Observation showed that they'd found some sort of peace, and learning the truth might not be for the best.
The little boy slapped her jeans-clad leg and grinned as he took steps while barely holding on.
"Hey, buddy," she crooned. "You're a handsome little guy."
"A heartbreaker in training, just like his father," Sylvia said.
Emma wondered if Justin warned women away because he didn't want to break hearts. He was a doctor, after all, a healer. Or maybe he really wasn't looking for anyone because he was still grieving the wife he'd lost in a car accident. She'd checked him out on the internet and there was a lot of information on the celebrity plastic surgeon who'd given up fame and fortune due to shock and grief over losing the woman he'd loved.
An expensive silver SUV pulled up in front of the house and parked behind the little compact she'd rented at the airport nearly a hundred miles from Blackwater Lake. So the doctor was in. If this second interview went as she hoped, she'd have her car shipped from California and return the rental. The next few minutes would determine her course of action.
"Daddy's home, Kyle." Sylvia smiled at the baby and clapped her hands.
"Da-" he gurgled.
"Aren't you smart," Emma said.
She stood, gently holding the baby's upper arm to keep him from falling. Bending, she held out her hand to see if he was willing to be picked up by a stranger. He smiled and bounced, holding out his arms.
"Hey, sweetheart," she said, lifting him up and cuddling him against her. "You're a heavy boy."
Justin got out of the car and walked toward them, then up the steps. A man who looked as tired as he did had no right to still be so handsome. His short dark hair was sticking up a little, as if he'd run his fingers through it more than once that day. Piercing gray eyes grew tender when he looked at his son. In that moment he was an open book and it was as if the hidden path to his soul were exposed. He could have been a troll, but the feelings so evident on his face made him nearly irresistible.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, stopping beside Emma. "There was an emergency."
"Everything okay?" she asked, automatically swaying from side to side with the baby in her arms. Kyle had discovered the chain around her neck and the butterfly charm attached to it.