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By:Day LeClaire

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.