By: Day LeClaire


“Y ou have no choice, Jack. If you want to keep custody of Isabella, you’re going to have to marry.”

Jack Mason glared at his lawyer. “You know I swore I never would.”

Derek dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “So you’ve said. Ad nauseam, I might add.”

“Then let’s move on, shall we? What’s my next option?”

“Jack, I’m telling you flat out. There is no other choice.” Derek leaned a hip against his desk while Jack prowled the length of the office. “Look, we’ve been friends since our college days. You may not have told me all that went on between your parents, but having met your father, I can guess. That doesn’t change the facts. CPS is very concerned about your niece, thanks to that psychologist’s report.”

“I wish I could call the man a liar.” Jack thrust a hand through his hair and blew out his breath in a long sigh. “But he was simply stating the facts. It’s been three months since the plane crash and Isabella isn’t adjusting at all. Her tantrums have escalated. And she’s still not speaking.”

Sympathy lined Derek’s dark face. “Providing your niece with a stable home life and continuing with therapy will go a long way toward changing that.”

“I’ve hired nannies for her.” Jack could hear the defensive edge in his voice and fought to eradicate it. Getting ticked off at the one person squarely on his side wasn’t his best strategy. “I have a business empire to run, Derek. Isabella is only five. I can’t be her caretaker 24/7.”

“Child Protective Services is well aware that you’ve had an endless stream of nannies since March. According to the letter I’ve received, they’re not happy about it. And frankly, Jack, it’s not helping with Isabella’s recovery.” Derek hesitated. “There is another alternative.”

Jack lifted an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“Let her go. You can afford to find a good home for her. The best possible home. A home with two parents. Someone who has the time to commit to Isabella’s well-being.”

“I can’t do that.” The words were ripped from him, low and guttural. “I won’t.”

Derek didn’t bother to pull his punches. “That’s your guilt talking. Isabella survived the plane crash and your sister and brother-in-law didn’t. You also believe you should have been on that plane with them.”

Jack couldn’t deny it, not when it was the truth. “I was supposed to be. If I had been…If I hadn’t let work delay me…”

“You’d most likely be dead, too, and Isabella would be in the exact same position she is now,” Derek stated with brutal logic. “In need of two stable parents who can give their full attention to her needs—something you aren’t in a position to do.”

“I won’t desert her.” Jack continued to pace the width of his office while frustration ate at him. “I just need to find the right person. It’s taking a bit longer than expected.”

“You need a wife. The caseworker is old-school, Jack. And she’s from the north. She doesn’t care how much money you have or what your name is, or whether your ancestors were among the first residents of Charleston. Her only concern is Isabella.”

Jack shot his friend a black look. “And mine isn’t?”

Derek’s expression softened. “I know you care about your niece. But you’ve seen her exactly twice since Joanne adopted her, both times when she was little more than a baby. You have no blood ties. You’re a stranger to her. And ever since the psychologist released his evaluation, Mrs. Locke has made it clear that she doesn’t consider you a suitable guardian. She’s actually mentioned placing Isabella in a treatment facility.”

Stark fury gripped him. “Over my dead body.”

“You won’t have any choice in the matter. They’ll simply come and take Isabella from you—by force, if necessary.” Derek took a seat behind his desk and released a sigh. “What happened, Jack? You were supposed to talk to Mrs. Locke. Sweet-talk her, to be precise.”

Jack grimaced. “There isn’t sufficient sugar on earth to sweeten up that woman.”

“You should have made more of an effort, instead of throwing her out of your office. Her opinion will carry a lot of weight in court, as will the psychologist’s findings.”

“Are you saying that ticking her off wasn’t my best business decision?” Jack asked drily. When his friend maintained a diplomatic silence, he allowed the moment to stretch while he considered his options. Not that there were many. “What if I do what you suggest and marry?” The words grated like ground glass in his mouth.

“Then you have a real shot at retaining custody, assuming the Locke woman believes the marriage is genuine. I strongly recommend you choose a bride who has experience dealing with special-needs children. A teacher or a social worker. A do-gooder type who will devote all her time to Isabella’s welfare.”

“Just like that? Find a do-gooder and marry her.” Jack folded his arms across his chest. “And how do you propose I accomplish such an amazing feat?”

“I recommend you find her the same way you found your nannies. You advertise.”

Jack stared in disbelief. “You want me to advertise for a wife?”

“No, I want you to advertise for a nanny and then marry her. You find a woman you can live with until CPS signs off on the case, and I’ll draw up an ironclad prenup.”

Jack had never considered himself slow on the uptake. But this left him totally at sea. “How the blue blazes am I supposed to convince the woman to marry me? Lie to her? Trick her? Pretend I’m madly in love with her?”

Derek shrugged. “If you want. Personally, I’d recommend a far simpler method.”

“Which is?”

“Hell, Jack. How many billions do you have moldering away in various financial institutions? Even I’ve lost track. Take a healthy chunk of it and buy the damn woman.”


J ack Mason knew he was in trouble the minute he saw her.

He didn’t know why she snagged his attention, considering she sat in a room crowded with nanny applicants of all shapes, colors and ages, none of whom possessed a clue about his true intentions—choosing one of them for his wife. This woman dressed in a somber black pantsuit that wasn’t the least eye-catching, so perhaps his reaction had something to do with the way she sat reading a paperback novel…perfectly composed and preternaturally still, an expression of absolute patience on a face more striking than beautiful.

Jack examined her with greater care. Interesting. Everything about her appeared quiet and understated. She’d pulled her hair into ruthless obedience, anchoring the ebony mass into a tight knot at her nape. In addition, she’d used a restrained hand with her makeup, just a hint of color on her cheeks and lips. A light brush of taupe across her eyelids drew attention to a startling pair of deep-set eyes that wavered somewhere between honey and gold and were framed by lush black lashes. She looked impossibly young, and yet one glimpse of those eyes warned of someone who’d been through the pits of hell and back again. They overflowed with ancient wisdom and intense vulnerability.

Was that why he’d keyed in on her from all those crowding the room? And what, in particular, about her appearance aroused such intense interest? It was something subtle. Something that stirred instincts he’d honed during his years surviving in the shark-infested waters of the business world. Those instincts warned that this woman, while appearing so calm and controlled on the outside, seethed with secret passion. It was almost as though he sensed the ebb and flow of those restless seas and reacted on a visceral level to a call only he could hear.

If they’d met anywhere else, he’d have moved in on her and cut her from the crowd. He’d have found a way to break through that carefully cultivated self-control and release the inner passion. It had always been that way with him. He’d always responded to the essence of the woman swirling beneath the surface and felt the burning need to strip her down, layer by layer, to that passionate inner core.

This woman would have many layers, fascinating layers. Layers he could explore intellectually and physically. And he wanted to develop—wanted with an intensity he hadn’t experienced in years.

One of his prospective “wives” coughed, snapping Jack’s concentration. Awareness of time and place returned, along with an irritation that he’d allowed such pointless speculation to distract him. He forced his attention back to the business at hand—securing a woman who could act the part of both nanny and wife. On the verge of calling the next name on the list, the door to the outer office flew open and his niece burst in.

Her short, curly hair stood out from her head in matted golden-brown spikes that had yet to see a brush that morning, and he could tell what she’d eaten for breakfast with a single look at her shirt. She’d worked a hole into each knee of her new jeans—with a pair of scissors, by the look of it. And she’d used her watercolor paints to turn her face into a startling mask of red and black swirls.

Isabella scanned the room in frantic anger, her olive green eyes narrowed to slits. Taking a stance dead center in the room, she balled her hands into fists and then opened her mouth, letting out a scream loud and shrill enough to cause the windowpanes in his office to shiver in protest. For a split second, everyone in the outer room froze. Jack considered taking control of the situation, but then decided to wait and see how his nanny applicants reacted.

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