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“You’re late. Ricky can’t find his jacket, and Maxie won’t drink her apple juice. I have a meeting, like now. They have twenty minutes to get to school. Instructions on the refrigerator.”
Kara Benton blinked at the handsome but frazzled man issuing orders and tried again to make herself known.
“But I’m here to speak to you, Mr. Westfield. We had an early morning appointment.”
A tiny dog came running up, making squeaky yelps at Kara. Not much bigger than her handbag, but fierce. She stepped back. “Does he bite?”
The man lifted his hand and waved at the snarly little dog. “Buttons, go back to the kitchen with Maxie.”
The tiny creature sent him a low growl then whirled and trotted back to the more fun part of the house. A house devoid of any Christmas decorations.
Richard Westfield, Denver tech-industry giant and the most confident-sounding man she’d ever researched, didn’t look so confident right now.
After shoving his laptop and papers into a briefcase, he turned her toward the kitchen, one firm hand on her arm. “I usually give the kids a ride, but I’m running late.” He glanced around. “Please get them to school. I’ll be back as soon as I can to discuss everything regarding the children. I’m sorry, but since you’ve been fully vetted and approved to work, you’ll have to start before we talk. My housekeeper is on vacation and my assistant called in sick.”
“I see,” Kara said over the screeching and barking coming from the huge kitchen she spotted on the left of the elaborate entryway. “Can we discuss—?”
“Maxie, Ricky, let’s go.” He wore a tailored suit and bright red tie, ready for business. But right now, he’d become a distracted father. “You don’t want to be late.”
Buttons proceeded to bark and dance back and forth from the kitchen to the hallway, clearly confused about where his loyalties should lie.
Kara tugged her leather tote against one shoulder then picked up the yelping Chihuahua and rubbed his tiny golden-haired head. “You’re certainly fierce.”
Buttons stopped barking and began to shiver. “Oh, don’t be scared. I love dogs. You are such a cutie.”
Giving Kara an odd stare, Mr. Westfield said, “You’ll find directions to the school on the refrigerator. They need to be there by eight thirty.” Glancing at his designer watch, he let out a groan. “And I’m going to be late for another meeting. Denver traffic is heavy at this hour.”
She heard a crash in the kitchen, but Kara turned back to Mr. Westfield. “I don’t—”
“We’ll discuss details when I return later,” he said. “Right now, the kids need to meet their new nanny.”
Oh, now she understood why he’d ordered her around. Before she could tell him she wasn’t the nanny but the event planner, Kara heard another crash, followed by a loud cry. Then a bright pink Frisbee flew through the air, headed toward her. Kara caught the Frisbee with one hand and held on to her tote and Buttons with the other.
“Nice save,” Mr. Westfield said with an impressed grin. “I’m glad you’re here. We’ll talk later.”
She heard the plea in those words. The man wanted out of this house.
Kara could see the panic in his deep blue eyes. He looked exhausted, in a good-looking, commanding way, dark curls falling over his forehead and fatigue deepening his expression. Even well-dressed entrepreneurs had bad days.
This man needed help, and she needed to win him over. The last event planner had run away screaming because he was hard to pin down. Kara could make this work, but right now she had to move fast and step up. They’d sort out the details later.
“I’ve got it,” she said, taking in his nervous pacing and how he kept edging toward the door.
“Go, go. I’ll wait for you here.” Kara motioned to him. She’d straighten this out when he returned. “We can talk about my duties when you have time.” Realizing she hadn’t introduced herself, she tried again. “I’m—”
Halfway out the door, he held it long enough to shout, “Good, I’m glad we’re on the same page. Call the number on the sheet if you need anything.”
Not exactly on the same page, but Kara had helped her widowed father raise her three younger siblings, so she could handle a little morning rush chaos. Turning, she walked into the kitchen, her heels tapping a beat on the aged wooden floors. “Someone lost a Frisbee.”
“He took it from me,” the girl—Maxie—wailed, her long hair curling over her shoulders. “Why are you holding Buttons?”
“He likes me,” Kara said, dropping the adorable dog onto the gleaming wooden floor. “But I don’t need this Frisbee.”
“Pink Frisbees are so wrong,” the boy, obviously Ricky, said in disgust. Then he threw a wad of dry cereal at his sister. With a daring smirk, he glanced at Kara.
“Stop throwing cereal at me, Ricky.” This from the little strawberry blonde who had a pout that would break hearts one day. Buttons immediately slid toward the cereal on the floor and did his best to vacuum it all up.
“You know, pink is not just for girls,” Kara said, trying to be diplomatic. “Pink is the color of cotton candy and strawberries. I once had a pink Christmas tree in my room.”
Ricky gave her a confused glare. “Strawberries aren’t pink. They’re red.”
“They make cupcakes turn pink,” Maxie pointed out. “Mrs. McCoy says it’s magic. She drops one drop in the batter, and they turn pink, but she calls them strawberry cupcakes.”
“There you have it,” Kara said, moving into the kitchen so she could drop her overloaded tote onto the messy table. “Ricky, do you eat Mrs. McCoy’s pink cupcakes?”
She guessed Mrs. McCoy must be a cook or maybe the missing housekeeper.
Ricky bobbed his head before he realized what that meant. “I don’t care. I still don’t want a pink Frisbee thrown at me.”
“That’s because you’re mean,” Maxie replied, her arms folded across her tummy. “I never have anyone to play with but him.”
Ricky ignored his sister and threw a few more kernels of oat circles, two of which landed in the girl’s long hair.
“Maxie, you have cereal in your hair,” her brother said with a devious grin. “Ewww.”
The little girl looked at Kara. “Are you our new nanny? Ricky scared away the last one. She doesn’t like snakes.”
“I can see why. Ricky has forgotten his manners, and I don’t mind snakes. Held a python once while visiting Florida.”
“What’s a python?” Maxie asked.
“It’s a big snake,” Ricky said, making hissing sounds at his sister. “So big it can swallow little girls.”
Maxie squealed and ran to Kara. “Our grandparents live in Florida. They don’t like snakes, either.”
“They sure don’t hold them,” Ricky admitted, his distrust almost changing to appreciation.
Kara didn’t tell Ricky she’d held a plastic python, but she didn’t want to get into what must have happened with the snake and the former nanny.
“It’s okay, Maxie,” she said. “I’m pretty sure pythons like the Florida heat more than they like snow.”
Then she picked up some of the cereal and threw it back at Ricky. That got the attention of both the children and the dog.
“Why are you here?” Maxie asked, grinning while she threw cereal at her brother.
“Hey, stop that,” Ricky said, doing the same with justifiable aim. He didn’t seem as smug now, Kara noted.
But that didn’t mean she could turn and leave. “I’m, uh…I’m here to help.” Then she whirled to Ricky. His raised eyebrows dared her to say anything else. She’d stepped up and now she’d stay put. This wasn’t her job, but she’d been left in charge, so she refused to mess this up. “Did you know that cereal makes girls prettier?”
“That’s not true,” the boy said, his dark hair the same rich brown color of his father’s. “She doesn’t look any better to me.”
Maxie stuck out her tongue at him, endearing her to Kara forever. “I’ve got more toys than you.”
Kara grabbed the cereal box and reached inside to pull out a handful of the sugary orbs. Then she carefully arranged them across her own auburn curls. “See, I’m wearing my cereal like a crown.”
“I can do that,” Maxie said, rearranging the cereal on her head. “How do I look?”
“Like you can take care of things,” Kara replied, grabbing a chunk of cereal from her hair to pop in her mouth. “And it comes in handy when you’re hungry. But right now, according to your father, it’s time to get both of you to school. If I don’t do that, I won’t get to come back and practice Frisbee games with Ricky.”
Ricky gawked at her, summing her up with direct eye contact. She held her gaze on him firmly—she would not let him sense her fear. She stared him down while she tried to swallow the lump of cereal. She’d certainly used that tactic many times with her two rambunctious brothers and one bossy sister.
The boy looked at her with such disdain, Kara almost laughed. “We’re having parties at school today. Maxie’s all excited about going.” Then he shrugged. “Our mom used to bake cookies and come to our school parties, but now Dad just has someone order cupcakes and deliver them.”
Maxie gathered her backpack, her bottom lip jutting. “Mom got sick and had to go to heaven.”
Ricky stood still. “Dad has to leave us with other people all the time.”
Kara’s heart swelled. No wonder these two were acting out. It had taken Kara and her dad both to make her two brothers and younger sister behave, when really, they were all suffering from grief. But those days were over. Her siblings were grown and thriving on their own, while she had big plans of becoming a partner with her boss, Stella Connor.
But first, she had to save this day.
She’d done extensive research on Richard Westfield. His wife had died from cancer a few years ago, and according to finance and industry sites, he was on the cusp of creating a fool-proof, burglar-proof home security system that could identify anyone with facial recognition and screen them almost immediately through biometrics that would be sent straight to the police. But nothing she’d found had mentioned him as a family man. Mostly, he had a different woman on his arm at every society event, but no one special in his life. Did he use that front to protect his children? Right now, she had to think he’d lost control of the home front. Putting these problems in someone else’s hands seemed like denial to her.
Kara had little time to waste on figuring the man out. She’d nabbed him as a client through his assistant, Judy, after she’d heard the previous event planner had quit at the last minute. After talking to Judy, who took care of the details while Westfield stayed busy creating state-of-the-art security systems, Kara could understand why. With Christmas a little more than two weeks away, Kara had been in the right place at the right time, and she never missed an opportunity. She needed to make this one work if she wanted to move from event planner to full partner of Connor Creatives.
She’d finally have her dream job and the partnership that would allow her to implement some of her plans and update the business.
Kara bent down and lifted Maxie’s chin. “I lost my mom a long time ago, so I know it’s hard sometimes, but your daddy loves you both.”
“Did your mom have can-cer?” Maxie asked, carefully pronouncing the word.
Kara slowly nodded. “Yes.”
Ricky came up with a handful of cereal, his scowl shouting rebellion. “Dad likes work. That’s what he’s always doing.”
Maxie bobbed her head. “He keeps promising to decorate and get a tree. He says he’s behind on everything.”
Buttons ate cereal out of Ricky’s hand. Probably not good for the little guy. She’d have to explain that to these two.
Kara stood. “Well, when your dad and I meet, I’ll remind him of a lot of things that need to be done. Now, while I figure out the way to school and load it onto my GPS, I want both of you to clean up this mess, okay?”
“I’m not,” Ricky said, holding his backpack like a shield.
“Why not?” Kara asked. “You made the mess, and your sister will help you pick it up, right, Maxie?”
Another pout. “I don’t like this plan.”
“It’s a win-win,” Kara replied. “If the cereal’s cleared away, your dad and I will have more time to discuss ideas for decorating this place. And he’ll be in a good mood. We might even have time to bake cookies.”
Maxie squealed, jumped, and clapped. She’d make a great cheerleader one day. Then the pout came back. “Dad said he’d help us with that, but he always forgets.” Buttons barked in agreement.
“If we get this kitchen clean, I’ll convince your dad that decorating is important during Christmas, and not just at his party. And so is keeping a promise.”
She watched as they both shouted with glee and bumped into each other in their efforts to clean the kitchen. In a few minutes, she had Maxie and Ricky loaded into her car and on the way to the nearby school.
“You sure are a different kind of nanny,” Ricky said. “You threw food at me, and you didn’t make me go to my room or sit in the corner.”
“I don’t do that kind of thing,” Kara replied, grinning at him in the rearview mirror. “Too much fun in your room, right? Games, television, books. And sitting in a corner always made me want to draw pictures on the wall. I don’t recommend that at all.”
“The other nannies liked the walls. We stared at the walls a lot,” Maxie said. “You aren’t a mean nanny.”
Maybe because she wasn’t the nanny. “I prefer to be part of the solution rather than the problem.”
“Mrs. McCoy says we are the problem,” Ricky replied. The kid seemed a tad skeptical, and who could blame him?
“Who is Mrs. McCoy?” Kara asked, determined to meet all the major players around here.
“She cooks and cleans sometimes,” Maxie explained. “She tries to make us behave. She went to visit her family.”
Ricky kicked the back of the passenger-side seat. “We have a problem, she always says. Then she hugs us.”
Touched by that, but not enjoying the kicking, Kara started hitting the steering wheel each time he kicked, until he stopped. Smiling into the rearview mirror, she said, “Well, I guess that makes me the solution. Plus, I like hugs, too.”
“And you dress pretty,” Maxie said. “I like your boots and that green sweater.”
I dress for the season, Kara thought. Today, she’d tried to look professional but not overly stuffy or too Christmas-y. Good thing since she’d somehow taken on a temporary role. But only until she could explain to their father, who obviously focused on one thing: work. His assistant had described him as the absentminded professor type. Good-looking, however. Hard to miss that.
After she made sure both children were met by school staff and escorted inside, Kara stopped for coffee. What to do next? Mr. Westfield had said he’d be home soon. But soon could mean two hours from now or five hours from now. And considering the falling snow, Denver traffic, and the man’s obvious penchant for being late, she had a feeling that wouldn’t be anytime soon. She sat in her car, taking in the small town covered with snow, Christmas lights sparkling through the trees in the square. A winter wonderland.
After trying to call him one more time and getting nowhere, she gave up and let the options pour in. She’d go back to the house and wait. And while she waited, she’d mull over new ideas and prepare to tell the man that he’d gotten things mixed up.
Would he fire her on the spot for not telling him who she was right away? Why hadn’t she thought this through better? I did what he told me to do, she reasoned. She’d planned to win him over, but now she had doubts.
Kara pulled her car up the drive, once again admiring the Craftsman-style two-story house made of stone, brick, and wood, the beams of the huge front porch shimmering a deep golden brown in the morning sun. With snow all around the sloping yard, she could envision sparkling lights on the trees, and evergreen wreaths with bright red ribbons on the wide double doors. Maybe battery-operated candles in the many windows.
Since she had a key code on the instruction sheet, Kara opened the front door. Did Mr. Westfield have any staff other than his vacationing housekeeper? Probably not, from what she’d seen.
Buttons popped up from his tiny bed by the fireplace, happy to see a human.
“Do you get lonely here, little fellow?” she asked as she scooped him up and rubbed his head. The dog didn’t shiver and shake this time. Maybe the cereal fight had won him over.
“C’mon. You can give me the tour,” she told Buttons.
Dropping him to the floor, she motioned. He followed, anticipation in his eyes. She studied the house and the vast property surrounding it, so she could decide on the layout and presentation for the gala.
The house sat silent huge and drafty and lonely, but also beautiful. This venue needed decorated trees, fresh evergreen wreaths, and people laughing. This house needed Christmas.
And she was just the person to make that happen. If she ever got a chance to talk to the owner.
End of Excerpt