Annie Knight has her work cut out for her as the McGregor family's newest nanny. Dr. Ian McGregor means well, but the distracted single dad's lost touch with his four kids. The new nanny brings much-needed calm to the chaos, including finding a service dog that could be a real lifesaver. And soon the good doctor's making Annie's heart respond in ways it hasn't for years. But Annie's cheery demeanor hides a heart-wrenching secret that's as much a part of her as her carefully hidden scars. Annie doesn't think she deserves happinessbut Ian and his kids will show the caretaker that with the love of family, everything's possible.
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Dr. Ian McGregor sank into a chair at his kitchen table, exhausted after wrestling with Joshua to take a much-needed nap. With his elbows on the oak surface still cluttered with the lunch dishes, Ian closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands, massaging his fingertips into his pounding temples. How did Aunt Louise handle Joshua when his youngest was dead tired yet fighting to stay awake?
With a lot of practice, no doubt. Something he lacked. Ian glanced at the clock on the wall and shot to his feet. The next candidate for nanny, one who had come highly recommended, would be here in ten minutes. He had high hopes she would work out because no one else had since Aunt Louise had passed away six months ago. Ian missed his aunt's bright, cheerful smile and all the love she'd had for his family.
Locking away his sorrow, Ian looked at the chaos around him and noted he now had nine minutes. He snatched up all the dirty dishes and crammed them into the dishwasher, leftover food and all. Then after wiping down the counters, he stuffed all of his four-year-old son's toys and the clothes he'd dragged out into the utility room off the kitchen and slammed the door closed.
Two minutes to spare. He wanted to be outside before Annie Knight rang the doorbell. He didn't want Joshua scaring her away if he woke up from his nap, especially without the rest he needed.
Lord, please let this one work out. On paper she looks great. We need her.
He'd turned to God so many times in the two years since his wife had passed away. There had to be an answer to his most recent problem somewhere.
As Ian made his way toward the foyer, the doorbell chimes pealed through the house. He sighed, realizing that he should have foreseen, after the day he'd had so far, that Annie Knight would arrive early. He rushed across the foyer and swung the door open before she rang it again.
The woman greeted Ian with a bright, wide smile, and he looked at it for a few seconds before he lifted his eyes to take in the rest of her His mouth began to drop open. He quickly snapped it closed and stared at the young lady, probably no more than eighteen, standing on his porch. She couldn't be Annie Knight. That nanny had worked for six years, the past three years for a doctor he knew. She had graduated from college with a double major in psychology and child development.
Ian craned his neck, peering around the woman with thick shoulder-length blond hair and the biggest brown eyes he'd ever seen. Maybe she'd come with Annie Knight. But no one else was there. "Yes, may I help you?"
"Are you Dr. Ian McGregor?"
He nodded, surprised by her deep voice.
"I'm Annie Knight. Am I too early for the interview?"
"No, right on time," Ian finally answered as he frantically thought back to reading her résumé. She'd graduated from high school ten years ago, which should make her around twenty-eight, twenty-nine. "Come in." He stepped to the side to allow her to enter his house.
As Annie passed him in the entrance, he caught a whiff of vanilla, and he thought immediately of the sugar cookies Aunt Louise used to bake. The young woman paused in the foyer and slowly rotated toward him, waiting.
Ian waved his arm toward the right. "Let's go in there."
He followed her into the formal living room that he rarely used. As she took a seat in a navy blue wingback, Ian sat on the beige couch across from her. The large chair seemed to swallow her petite frame. She couldn't be any taller than five-one. His eldest son would surpass her in height in another year or so.
Ian cleared his throat. "I'm glad you could meet me here. My youngest son, Joshua, didn't go to school today. He's been sick the past two days but is fever-free as of this morning."
"How old is he?"
"Four. He's in the preschool program at Will Rogers Elementary."
"Dr. Hansen told me you had four children. How old are they?"
"Jade and Jasmine are eight-year-old twins and Jeremy is nine, soon to be ten, as he has informed the whole world. I'm sure Tom told you that I need a nanny as soon as possible. My aunt who helped me with the children passed away six months ago and since then, I haven't found anyone who fits my family."
Annie Knight tilted her head to the side. "What has been the problem?"
All the good nannies have jobs. My family can be difficult. My childrenand Iare shell-shocked after losing two important people we've loved in the past two years. Ian could have said all of that, but instead he replied, "The first nanny stole from me, and the second woman was too old to keep up with my childrenher words, not mine, but she was right. Then the third one decided to up and quit without notice and left my kids here alone while I was in surgery. That was last week." And the seven days since then had not been ones he would like to repeat. Ian had had to rearrange several operations he'd scheduled and change appointments.
Annie frowned. "That's so unprofessional."
"Tom is moving at the end of this week. I know he wanted you to go with the family to New York. May I ask why you didn't?"
"My family is here in Cimarron City, and a big city like New York doesn't appeal to me. Besides, his two eldest are teenagers and don't need a nanny. His youngest will be twelve soon. Dr. Hansen will be able to hire a good housekeeper."
Ian watched her as she talked and gestured. Warmth radiated from the woman across from him. Her face was full of expression, and when she smiled, dimples appeared on her cheeks. She had nice, high cheekbones. Her hair curled under and covered part of her face, which wasn't unpleasant but not what most people would consider beautiful. As a plastic surgeon he was always drawn to how a person looked, but from experience he knew the importance of what lay beneath.
"Tom told me he hated losing you." Why didn't she use her college degree? Why did she choose to be a nanny? Ian decided to tell her everything so she would know what she would be up against. He heaved a composing breath. "Four children can be a handful."
"I loved working with Dr. Hansen's three children. We fell into a good routine. One more child shouldn't be a problem. I grew up in a large familyfour brothers and two sisters. I'm used to a full house."
"I want to be blunt with you because I don't want you to decide to leave after a few days. My children need stability. There have been too many changes in their lives lately. Their mother died two years ago, then my aunt. Joshua is" he searched for the right word to describe his youngest "adventurous. He'll try anything once. He's fearless."
"Which could get him in trouble. My younger brother was like that. Actually, still is. He certainly tested my mother's patience."
"Jade and Jasmine desperately need a woman's touch. They can be adorable, but if they don't like you they will pull pranks on you. I suspect the reason the last nanny left was because of them, but I couldn't get the truth out of any of my kids."
"Are the twins tomboys?"
"Jade is, but Jasmine is totally the opposite. That's the way you can tell them apart, because they do look exactly alike." Ian stared at a place over her left shoulder while trying to decide how to explain his eldest son. "And Jeremy is angry. That his mother died. That Aunt Louise did, too. That I have to work to make a living. That the sky is blue. It's sunny. It's rainy."
Therehe'd laid it all out for Annie. If she stayed he would be surprised, but he didn't want another nanny starting then leaving right away.
"I've worked with kids like that. They haven't moved through the anger stage of grief. When my mother died, I got stuck in that stage."
Ian studied Annie's calm features, and for a few seconds he felt wrapped in that serenity. She seemed to know how to put people at ease. "He went to a children's counselor, but little was accomplished. Frankly, I don't know what to do next." The second he said that he wanted to snatch it back. He was Jeremy's dad. He should know what to do, shouldn't he? "I've reduced my hours at the clinic to be around more, but all Jeremy and I do is butt heads."
A light danced in the young woman's eyes. She leaned forward, clasping her hands and resting her elbows on the arms of the chair. "There will be a period of adjustment with any new nanny, but I don't run from problems. I like challenges. They make me dig in. They make life interesting."
Ian would be trusting Annie with his children, so he needed to trust her with all the background on his eldest child. "I should warn you, Jeremy is also having trouble at school. He never talks about his mom like Jade and Jasmine do. They are always asking me to tell them stories about Zoe and me. Whenever they start talking about her, Jeremy leaves the roomor rather, stomps away. I'm at my wits' end." For three months he'd been thinking that, but now he'd spoken it out loud to another person. The very act made some of his stress dissolve.
"Counseling is good, but sometimes you need to be with a child outside an office to understand what's really going on. I'll do my best to help Jeremy."
When Annie said those words, Ian felt hope for the first time in a while.
"I've checked your references, and they are excellent. I know how picky Tom is, and he never would have recommended you if you weren't good. Do you have any questions about the job?"
Annie sat back again, scanning the living room. "What are my duties?"
"I have a cleaning lady who comes in three times a week, but in between there may be light cleaning. I love to cook, but there will be times when I'm held up at the clinic. Tom told me you are a good cook."
"I like to when I get a chance."
"The kids will be out of school for the summer in six weeks. The older ones have some activities you'll need to drive them back and forth to, but Joshua doesn't yet."
"In other words, he'll need to be watched closely," she said with a chuckle.
"Yes. One time he managed to climb to the top of the bookcase then couldn't get down."
"Where will I be living?"
"I have an apartment over the garage you can use. We have a breezeway that connects the garage to the house. You'll have your own place but be close if needed quickly. Will that be all right?"
"That will work perfectly. I'll need Sundays off unless you have a medical emergency, and I'll take off the other time according to the children's schedules."
"That's fine with me. I'll supply health insurance and a place to live. Your starting salary will be five hundred a week on top of your benefits. After three months we can discuss a raise. Is that all right with you?"
"When can you start?"
"Monday. I'll move in on Sunday. I'll have my family help me."
Only four days away. "Great. Will you share Sunday-night dinner with us so I can introduce you to the children? I'm cooking."
"I think that will be a good way for me to meet them. A school day is always hectic with everyone trying to get where they need to be."
"I have a Ford Explorer you'll use to drive the children. It'll be at your disposal at all times." Ian rose. "Let me give you a tour of my house, then the apartment, before you leave. I'm afraid it was a mess from the last nanny. The guy remodeling it will be through in a couple of days. We'll only be able to peek inside because he's refinishing the wooden floors today."
"Will I get to meet Joshua before I leave?"
"Probably. When he takes a nap, it's usually only an hour or so."
Annie pushed to her feet, looking around. "I imagine you don't use this room much, or your children are neater than most."
"They don't come in here often. The cleaning lady comes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. She has her own key, so she'll let herself in."
"That's good. If I have to do any shopping that'll be the time to do it. Do you want me to go to the grocery store for you?"
"Yes. I understand you did that for Tom and his wife."
Annie nodded as she followed Ian into the dining room. "If you plan some meals, you can add what you need to my list. With such a large family, I'll probably have to go twice a week."
When Ian walked into the kitchen, he swept his arm wide. "Right before you came, this place was a disaster." He crossed to the dishwasher and opened it. "I'll have to empty this and refill it properly after you leave."
She laughed, a light musical sound that filled the room.
Ian went to the utility room and swung open the door. "This is where I stuck all the mess I couldn't take care of. I didn't want to scare you away."
"Then, why are you showing me now?"
He smiled. "Because I believed you when you said you like a challenge."
"I don't scare easily." Annie chuckled.
"Good. The nanny who stole from me used to hide the mess rather than pick up. Sadly, I copied that method." Ian gestured toward a door at the other end of the utility room. "That leads to the short breezeway and garage."
The next place Ian showed her was the huge den. "This is where the family hangs out the most." He indicated the room full of comfortable navy-blue-and-tan couches, a game table, a big-screen TV and several plush chairs with ottomans.
"I can see kids relaxing and enjoying themselves in here."
"The only other room downstairs is my home office." Ian pointed to the closed door across from the den then headed for the staircase. "On the second floor I have six bedrooms. I had the first nanny staying in Aunt Louise's room, but my kids got upset. I quickly renovated the area over the garage, but she was fired before she had a chance to move into the apartment."
"Those women give the nannies of this world a bad name. The ones I've gotten to know love children and go above and beyond."
At the last room at the end of the hallway, Ian stopped and gestured. "This is Joshua's bedroom. I'm surprised he isn't up, but he's been getting over a virus or" He eased open the door to find his son drawing on the wall.
After church on Sunday, Annie joined her large family at her twin sister Amanda's house for the noon meal. When not working, Annie spent a lot of time with her twin. Annie had been thrilled when Amanda had married Ben last year. Amanda would be a great mother, and Annie knew her sister wanted children.
The day was gorgeous with the temperature around seventy degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Annie made her way around back where her father stood talking with Ben at the grills, flipping hamburgers. With his thinning blond hair and the deep laugh lines crinkling at the corners of his brown eyes, Dad was no doubt telling her brother-in-law another Amanda and Annie escapade from childhood.
The scent of ground beef saturated the air and Annie's stomach rumbled. She scanned the yard, enjoying the sound of merriment from the children playing on the elaborate swing set. Her twin might not have children yet, but she spoiled her nieces and nephews.
"Ah, it's about time you arrived," Amanda said as she put a Band-Aid on the youngest child's knee. "We're almost ready to eat. What took you so long?" She rose as her nephew ran back to play with the others.
"I went back to the house to say goodbye to the Hansen family. The moving van will come tomorrow. They were heading to the airport when I left."