Three nannies in one month was more than overwhelmed single father Jason Garrett could handle. But from the moment Maggie Shepherd picked up his infant son, Jason knew he'd found what he was looking for. He needed a mother for Brady; the orphaned nanny needed a place to call home.
And he had the perfect solution .
Tying the knot with her gorgeous employer wasn't in Maggie's job description. But she had to admit, the irresistible father-son duo packed a powerful punch. She knew her marriage to Jason was strictly a business arrangement. But that didn't stop the temporary wife from wanting to carve out a permanent place in the billionaire developer's heart .
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Enrolling your children in school should be easier than filing your federal taxes.
But it didn't feel that way to Hank Friesen as he sat outside the principal's office on a plastic chair two sizes too small for his six-foot frame and tried to register his ten-year-old twins in the fourth grade.
The secretary shot questions at him, rapid-fire. Yes, he knew it was April. Yes, their address was the Graham Nolter Resort and Conference Center and, yes, that was their permanent residence.
A lump formed in his throat as he continued to respond to the secretary's inquiry. No, there was no Mrs. Friesen. His wife died five years ago. No, his children had never before been enrolled in any other elementary school. Their maternal grandmother had homeschooled them these past five years.
Hank had also provided the secretary with immunization records and copies of Ethan's and Alli's birth certificates. He'd filled out emergency cards in triplicate. He was now working on a health history, the last form, he hoped, as his left hand was beginning to hurt. The secretary leaned over the old-fashioned laminate-and-metal counter to check on his progress before disappearing from view again.
"Are we going to see the classrooms, Dad?" Ethan, who'd arrived ten minutes before his twin sister, Alli, kicked his legs back and forth, making a loud thunk every time the soles of his tennis shoes connected with the metal rungs of the chair's under-the-seat book rack. He'd developed a distinctive rhythm, the staccato annoying and impossible to tune out. "So are we, Dad? Huh? Are we?"
"I don't know," Hank answered, wishing he'd brought the children's Nintendo DS handheld game systems along. That would have given them something to do while they waited. He'd assumed someone would at least give the kids a tour of their new school while he completed the necessary paperwork, but so far that hadn't happened.
He glanced at Alli. She'd bowed her head almost to her chest and sat with her hands folded in her lap. He had the urge to tickle her or something, anything to get her to crack a smile.
For a ten-year-old, Alli was far too serious. Unlike Ethan, she could sit perfectly still, prim and proper for hours on end. Where Ethan was rambunctious and boisterous, Alli was shy and demure. Ethan saw his dad's new resort-manager job as a grand adventure. Living in a hotel meant room service, endless indoor and outdoor pools and access to all sorts of fun activities like miniature golf and icecream-sundae bars.
Alli hadn't been as impressed. She'd assessed the hotel and their oversize suite with her quiet reserve before shrugging and saying, "It's okay."
Hank wanted to wake his daughter up, shake her out of the doldrums she'd mired herself in since they'd moved to Missouri a week earlier. His kids might have similar features blond hair and blue eyesbut they were worlds apart.
Hank finished the form and stood. It felt great to stretch his legs. Seeing he was ready, the secretary came over and thumbed through the stack of papers. "It looks like everything's in order," she said.
"So they can start Monday?" he asked. He'd used the resort's child-care services this week. He'd wanted to have the kids with him immediately on his relocation, but he still had to go to work.
"I don't see why not," she said. "Let me get you a school-supply list and "
A woman walked into the office then, a teacher, Hank surmised, since the building had been locked for security purposes when they'd arrived and they'd had to be buzzed in.
She appeared to be in her thirties, a decade he'd left behind when he'd turned forty a few years ago. He was the class of 1982, Kickapoo High School, Springfield, Missouri. He'd been on the tennis team and student council with famous alumnus Brad Pitt.
The teacher stepped behind the counter and gave him a big smile, one she also directed toward his kids. "Hi," she said, tossing her long reddish-brown hair over her shoulders.
Hank automatically smiled back. Not only did she seem nice, but she was also very attractive. Something long dormant inside him flickered to life as he shook her hand. It was attraction, he realized with a start. If only he had time for such things, he might be tempted to flirt with her a little.
"Ah, Ms. Tomlinson, you'll probably be having one of these two. This is" the secretary checked her paperwork "Ethan and Alli Friesen. They're twins entering the fourth grade."
"Then one of you will be in my class," Ms. Tomlinson said with another radiant smile that Hank couldn't help but find fascinating. His fourth-grade teacher had been Mrs. Lemongrass. She'd been at least sixty. He had the urge to be a fourth grader againbut only if he could be in Ms. Tomlinson's class.
Ethan stopped kicking his feet and stood. "I'm the oldest."
Ms. Tomlinson's soft green eyes sparkled with amusement. "You must be Ethan. Nice to meet you. And this is your sister"
"Alli," Hank filled in. His daughter had stood up, but social awkwardness had kept her from opening her mouth.
Ms. Tomlinson didn't seem to mind Alli's silence. "I'm glad you're here, Alli," she said warmly. "Welcome to Nolter Elementary. If you aren't in my class, you'll have Mrs. Hillhouse. We all call her Mrs. H."
Ms. Tomlinson reached out her hand, which was long and slender. As she waited for him to offer her his hand, she stared him in the eye, meaning she was just about as tall as he was. Few women were, and Hank was impressed by how well she carried herself. She was slim but toned, and looked as if she ran every day. "I'm Jolie Tomlinson," she said.
"Hank Friesen. I'm the new resort manager for the Nolter. We just relocated from Chicago."
He took her hand, appreciating the firm grip. He might be older, but he had the sudden impression she was wiser, that this was her area of expertise, like hotels were his. He felt better about his decision to enroll his children in a public school. He wanted them to be out in the real world, socializing with other children, as he had been at their age.
Now that he was back in southwestern Missouri, about sixty miles south of where he'd grown up and where his parents still lived, he wanted normalcy for his kids. At least as normal as you could get, living on-site at a top-notch destination hotel on the shores of Table Rock Lake.
"Well, welcome Hank, and Ethan and Alli. I'm looking forward to working with you. My class is at art right now, so I'm on my plan time. Has anyone given you a tour?"
"We haven't seen anything but this office," Ethan inserted before his father could reply.
"That's because Mrs. Johnson, our counselor, is out of the building today at some very long and drab state meeting, as is our principal, Mrs. Jones. I hate meetings," Jolie said with a disgusted expression Hank assumed was for Ethan's benefit.
"Me, too," Ethan agreed, although he could have no idea what a meeting was like, having never been to one. Hank, however, had no less than three a day.
Jolie glanced at the clock on the wall. "I have ten minutes, so if we make this quick I can take you."
She handed the secretary a single sheet of paper. "Will you make me twenty-four copies of this before we get back?"
"Not a problem," the secretary said, and Hank wondered if she'd agreed so readily because she was glad everyone was leaving her alone.
"So you're from Chicago?" Jolie asked as she opened the office door and led them out into the hall. Nolter Elementary was a single-story building designed in the shape of an E.
"Dad's originally from Springfield," Ethan said. "But we've lived in Chicago all my life. I'm not sure if I'm going to like Missouri."
"I've lived in Missouri my whole life and like it fine," Jolie reassured the boy.
"I live in a hotel now," Ethan added.
"We had a house in Chicago, but we're currently living at the Nolter," Hank explained. "I want the kids to settle in before doing any house-hunting."
"I've been to Chicago twice," Jolie said, showing them the main corridor, onto which the library and the art and music rooms opened. "It's a great city."
"Dad worked at the hotel right by American Girl Place," Alli offered. Her speaking startled Hank. He ruffled his daughter's blond hair, so like her mother's. Hank himself had a full head of dark hair.
Jolie showed them the cafeteria next. "Lunch is two dollars and you can set up an account that we automatically debit. Or kids can bring lunch from home. So, Alli, do you have any American Girl dolls?"
"I have Kristen, Felicity and one made to look like me," she said.
"I always liked Kit. That's the one I have," Jolie said, and Hank was impressed by her ability to make such an immediate connection with his shy daughter.
"I've read a book about Kit," Alli said.
"Good. We have many of the American Girl books in the library here. Soyou like to read."
"I know I do. Goosebumps are the best!" Ethan shouted as Jolie opened a door. Hank noticed that Alli fell silent the moment her brother spoke and overshadowed her. Hank made a mental note to do something about that.
"This is my classroom," Jolie said, stepping to the side and letting them enter.
Hank hadn't been in an elementary school since he'd been a student, well over thirty years ago. Things had changed a lot since his time. A white marker board replaced the old green or black chalkboards he was familiar with. A SMART Board currently displayed a math equation. While the SMART Board screen was about the size of the old classroom pull-down movie screens Hank remembered, that's where the similarity ended. Using an LCD projector hooked up to the teacher's computer, the SMART Board became an interactive display. Each student desk had a handheld computer and a clicker, both of which could interact with the board.
"I wrote a grant for the handhelds," Ms. Tomlinson said. "Both fourth-grade classrooms have them. We even have wireless Internet on them. The clickers are for pop quizzes. They make the classroom like a game show. The children press in their responses to questions and the results come up on the SMART Board."
"Wow," Ethan breathed. "This is better than Grandmother's boring workbooks."
"They've been homeschooled until now," Hank explained.
"Missouri has quite a few students who are homeschooled. It's not uncommon, especially in this area. I'm sure they'll settle into public school with few difficulties," Jolie said.
Hank nodded as he watched his children explore their new environment. Alli was checking out the reading corner, which had carpet and beanbag chairs.
Jolie's next words caught everyone's attention. "Well, I need to go get my class from the art room, so that'll have to end our tour for today. Let me take you back to the office."
When they reached the office, she picked up the copies that were waiting on the counter and extended her hand again to shake Hank's. "It was nice to meet you." She pivoted slightly to address the children. "I'll see you two on Monday."
"Thank you for the tour," Alli said politely.
"Yeah, thanks," Ethan chimed in, belatedly remembering his manners.
Jolie smiled. "You are both very welcome. Thanks for the copies, Beth," she told the secretary before leaving the office.
"And here are copies of your paperwork, and our school handbook," the secretary told Hank, handing him a folder. "Do you want to put anything in their lunch accounts?"
He hadn't thought that far ahead, but figured buying their lunches from the school cafeteria might help them fit in better. He also knew he wouldn't have time to pack brown-bag lunches, although he could probably have one of the hotel chefs whip something up.
"Sure," he said, taking out his checkbook. He wrote a check for one hundred dollars, putting fifty into each account. That should cover the rest of the school year.
Afterward, he ushered the twins out the school doors and back to the hotel. Deep down, he hoped this relocation worked out and he worried that it wouldn't. He'd received quite a promotion when he'd been named the Nolter's manager. The next step up the chain would be running a bigger hotel, like the one in New York or Paris, or even back in Chicago.
As it was, he had hundreds of employees under him, including various day managers, night managers, accountants, human resources personnel, cooks and groundskeepers. Everything at the hotel, in the minds of the brass at corporate headquarters, started and ended with him.
It was a job he'd been working more than twenty years for, ever since he'd graduated from college. The Premier Corporation had fifty hotels scattered all over the world. The company promoted management from within, rarely hiring outsiders over its existing employees.
Despite the opportunities to work abroad, Hank had always requested to be kept stateside because of his wife and children. He'd even turned down a promotion to Seattle after his wife, Amanda, had told him she really didn't want to leave Chicago and her parents.
Now, five years after her death from ovarian cancer, Hank finally felt strong enough to move forward with his life. He couldn't put his career aspirations on hold any longer. The Nolter job was the first step in making a fresh start for himself and the twins.
Hank slid his key card into the lock of their suite. He'd taken the four-bedroom suite in the east wing. The main portion of the hotel towered thirty-five stories and offered a fabulous view of Table Rock, one of Missouri's largest lakes.
The east and west wings of the hotel were fifteen stories tall, and their suite was on the top floor, with a view of both the lake and the golf course.
He glanced at his Rolex, a gift from the company when he'd received the promotion. Almost three. That meant Elsa, who sang in the hotel lounge at night and did child care during the day, would be available to babysit for a few hours. He'd promised the kids they could see a movie tonight, but that didn't start until seven-thirty. If Hank hurried, he could get his reports done today, instead of waiting until Monday.
"I'm going to get Ms. Tomlinson for a teacher," Ethan announced after their father left them yet again with Elsa.
Not that there was anything wrong with Elsa, Alli thought, ignoring her brother's bold comment. Elsa was pretty nice as babysitters went, not afraid to take them to the indoor water park or get her blond hair wet.
Alli had blond hair, too, and she'd always been a little afraid of the water because Grandmother said the chlorine could make her hair turn green. Now that Alli was ten, she'd learned there were "clarifying" shampoos that kept that from happening.