Inherited: One Child(3)

By: Day Leclaire

Some of the women took decisive action. They bolted for the door. Jack sighed. Three down. Several of the others exchanged uneasy glances, clearly uncertain how to respond to the crazed child who’d erupted into their midst. One large-set, no-nonsense woman rose and approached Isabella.

“You stop that this instant,” she demanded.

Isabella responded by kicking the woman in the shin and increasing the volume and shrillness of her screaming, something Jack would have thought an impossibility. But somehow, his darling niece managed it. The woman exited, muttering furiously beneath her breath—four down—and Jack thanked his lucky stars. He didn’t think he could handle a wife with a moustache. Nor did he think Mrs. Locke would believe theirs was a real marriage.

Successfully having rid herself of four of the applicants, Isabella took control of the room. She darted from person to person, giving them an exclusive, one-on-one performance. Each reacted differently. Some attempted to cajole. Others took the first woman’s approach and made demands. One actually threatened Isabella with a spanking. Several made shushing noises. Only the woman in black didn’t react. She continued to sit quietly, reading her book as though she neither saw nor heard the chaos exploding around her. Isabella took note and her jaw assumed a determined slant.

Jack winced. Hell.

Rushing over to stand in front of the woman, Isabella gave full throttle to her displeasure. It didn’t make a bit of difference. The only response was a leisurely turn of the page. Finally, Isabella’s voice gave out and she croaked into silence. Only then did the woman look up. For an instant the two stared at each other, a silent contest of wills.

An odd expression burned in the woman’s eyes, something that might have been fear combined with an intense vulnerability, which didn’t bode well for her ability to control a child of Isabella’s willful nature. In the next moment, the look vanished, replaced by a gentle relentlessness, a searing look of hope combined with determination. The expression took his breath away. She’d only been in Isabella’s presence for mere moments, and yet he could practically see her weaving an emotional connection with his niece.

She said something to Isabella in a voice so soft it didn’t carry any farther than his niece’s ears. Then she stood and walked to the door. Opening it, she scanned the area. “Who’s in charge of this child?” Jack heard her ask.

The temporary babysitter he’d hired, who’d no doubt been cowering in the hallway, reluctantly stepped forward. “I am.”

Without another word, the woman ushered Isabella through the door and, before the child could react, closed it decisively in her face. Then she returned to her seat, picked up her book and resumed reading. A scattering of applause broke out around her, not that she took any notice. Even so, Jack could tell the incident had affected her. A telltale pulse throbbed at the base of her throat, betraying her agitation. It impressed the hell out of him that she could hide her reaction so well. He checked his watch and grimaced. Time to move this show along.

He called the next name on the list. “Annalise Stefano.”

He wasn’t the least surprised when the woman he’d been studying tucked away her book, shouldered her purse and stood. Somehow, the name fit. She walked toward him with a long, easy stride that suited her lean, coltish build. A tiny curl sprang loose from the tight control she’d attempted to impose on it and bounced against her temple in joyful exuberance. He almost smiled. Her hair was one of the layers he’d love to peel away. How would she look with all those curls tumbling down her back in total abandon?

“I’m Annalise,” she said, and offered her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mason.”

He took her hand in his and felt the odd dichotomy of fine bones in opposition to a tensile strength. Did it reflect the woman? He suspected it did. He forced himself to release her, when in truth he experienced a sharp desire to tug her closer, if only to see how she’d react, to see how deep that self-control ran. Not good. Whomever he chose for this job would be his temporary wife, a woman he’d want out of his life as soon as feasible. That meant their relationship could be boiled down to two words.

Hands. Off.

“Ms. Stefano,” he said. “Come with me.” He started to close the door to his office and caught a glimpse of another of the applicants scurrying toward the exit. Hell. Five down, though at least it was the one who’d advocated spanking. He closed the door and waved a hand toward one of the two chairs in front of his desk. “Have a seat while I review your résumé.”

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