Home » , , , , , , , » Lifestyles of the Witch & Famous: Tahiti in Texas (Part 1 of a 4 Part Serial) by Mimi Riser

Lifestyles of the Witch & Famous: Tahiti in Texas (Part 1 of a 4 Part Serial) by Mimi Riser

“Thank you, Ms. Leigh, but I can handle things from here. The sooner the boys learn to accept my authority, the faster they’ll adjust to their new environment. Young children need structure and discipline in their lives to feel secure.”
Lifestyles of the Witch & Famous: Tahiti in Texas (Part 1 of a 4 Part Serial)
Lifestyles of the Witch & Famous: Tahiti in Texas (Part 1 of a 4 Part Serial) by Mimi Riser
Meaning? The implication there, of course, was that “structure and discipline” were the last things someone like Molly Leigh could offer. Standing by the boarding stairs of a luxury private jet, Molly felt winter’s chill on a sunny summer day. Gladys Patton’s glare slid over her like a glacier. It was obvious Ms. Patton didn’t approve of thirty-year-old women who wore silver pentacles, red peasant skirts, and halter-tops made from tie-dyed scarves. Molly drew herself up to her full five-foot-five height and glared back. She didn’t approve of narrow-minded Gestapo-styled governesses who smelled like disinfectant and acted like they had a corncob stuck up their butt. “Considering these kids just lost the last parent they had, and are being ripped out of the only home they’ve ever known, they need my presence right now to ‘feel secure,’ don’t you think? I’m the one who’s been raising them.” And the implication there was that the uncle who suddenly wanted that responsibility had never bothered before to send so much as a birthday card, hadn’t even attended his only brother’s funeral the previous month. As far as Molly could tell, hotshot Uncle Tyler hadn’t even known or cared, until a week ago, that he had any nephews. She was damned if she’d give the boys—her boys—to him now. Not without a fight. “I’m going with you.” She shouldered her purple duffle bag and started to board the jet. Ms. Patton sidestepped, blocking her way up the stairs. Tyler’s henchwoman moved fast for an old biddy, didn’t she? Not fast enough to ride herd on the “James Gang” though, Molly bet. There were three active youngsters waiting in the jet’s cabin—not to mention the dog, cat, and Myna bird. The entire group sounded way too quiet. A dangerous sign, like the soft ticking of a time bomb. Any minute now there’d be an explosion. “Mr. James understands and appreciates what you’ve done for his family, Ms. Leigh. As you’ve already been informed, you’ll be amply compensated for your trouble.” Ms. Patton punctuated the reminder with a saccharine smile. Molly resisted the urge to smack it off her face. This mess wasn’t Ms. Patton’s fault. The silly woman was only following orders. Mr. Billionaire Wheeler-Dealer Tyler James’s orders. A man like him probably thought money solved everything. Hell, with his wealth, it probably did. But not this time. No amount of money could buy love. Especially not hers. For six years she’d cared for these boys and their crippled father—ever since the car crash that killed one best friend and paralyzed the other. Ten-year-old Steven Jr. hardly remembered his mother. The twins, Jeremy and Josh, never knew her at all. They’d been born by an emergency caesarian seconds after Kara James was pronounced dead. Molly was the only mother they knew. How could anyone put a price tag on that? What kind of sorry excuse for a man would even try? She’d find out. Since Tycoon Tyler wouldn’t answer her calls, was too “VIP” apparently to deal with the peasantry except through his overpaid flunkies, she’d have to confront the corporate lion in his private den. David going up against Goliath hadn’t faced such a powerful adversary. But Molly was pretty good with a slingshot herself, and she had one big stone in her arsenal. She tested it in a practice shot at the gray-haired governess. “Your employer hates publicity, doesn’t he?” Ms. Patton’s fake smile soured into a genuine frown. Mary Poppins, she wasn’t. “Mr. James values his privacy, if that’s what you mean.” That was one way of putting it, Molly supposed. She’d been researching the enemy this past week. A quick search on the computer had pulled up some great action shots of him dodging reporters and slugging paparazzi. As a matter of fact, it looked like being decked by the elusive Tyler James was worth more than a photo of him was. He seemed quite happy to pay damages after trashing a camera and breaking its owner’s nose. Always settled out of court, of course. She answered Ms. Patton’s frown with a Cheshire Cat grin. “Then I suggest you let me on this plane. Otherwise, I’ll find my own way to Mr. James’s retreat, pitch a pup tent outside his gate, and camp there until he agrees to meet with me. And”—she paused for emphasis—“I will notify every TV station and newspaper in the country as to what I am doing. And why. I think the media would love a story like that, don’t you?” Ms. Patton paled. “That’s blackmail.” Molly’s grin broadened. “Yep, sure is.” Worked like a charm, too. While the older woman stood sputtering, Molly angled past her and darted up the stairs, her gauzy red skirt billowing about her legs in the airport’s breeze. The expected explosion hit before she was halfway to the top. Shouts, bangs, barking, and the teeth-grating screech of nails on a blackboard—that last from the Myna bird, who seemed able to mimic any sound known to man or beast. And generally did it at full volume. She glanced over her shoulder at General…er, Ms. Patton hurrying up behind her. “I think you’ll be glad I’m here by the time we land.” “I seriously doubt that, Ms. Leigh, and I’ll thank you not to interfere with my duties during this flight. In thirty years of professional service I have yet to meet a child I cannot control on my own.” The Myna whistled like a teakettle and shrieked “Screw you!” just as the governess boarded the jet on Molly’s heels. * * * * “Resigned?” Tyler James stared at his assistant. “She can’t resign. I just hired her.” “Can and did. Sorry.” Barry Baker shrugged his polo shirt clad shoulders. Normally he’d be wearing a custom-tailored Italian suit, but things were more casual on the “Ranch.” He dropped Gladys Patton’s resignation on the mile-long mahogany desk and sank into the cream-colored leather armchair across from his boss. Any other James employee would have waited for permission to sit, but Barry wasn’t just Tyler’s personal assistant. He was his best friend. Maybe his only friend. That didn’t save him from an evil-eyed glare. “She has a contract, damn it.” Tyler shoved the paper aside without even glancing at it. He wanted to feed it to the shredder. No, scratch that. He wanted to feed Patton to the shredder. She’d picked one hell of a time to quit. Barry answered with another shrug. “Her contract had an escape clause written in. It was contingent on her final approval of the assignment, after she’d met the kids. You know that. The agency that sent her said she’s the best in the business. She can afford to pick and choose where she works.” “So why wouldn’t she choose here?” Tyler flung out his arms. He paid top dollar with full benefits and built-in bonuses, gave his household staff luxurious living accommodations. What more did the woman want? “I’m the best, aren’t I?” “You?” Barry snorted. “Frankly, Ty, you’re a pain in the ass to work for. Stubborn, demanding, impatient—” “You left out egotistical and overbearing.” “I was just getting to them. Also, unreasonable, ill tempered, and a real fussbudget,” Barry added. Fussbudget? There was a new one. Tyler’s spine stiffened. “Since when have I been a ‘fussbudget’?” “Since when have you not? You’re the only person I know who lines up his asparagus spears in military formation before eating them.” “I do what? I never line up my… Hell, I don’t even like asparagus.” “You’re so anal-retentive you—” “If you don’t like your job, Beanpole, you know where the door is.” Beanpole Barry—not a very original nickname, but it suited his build—leaned back, stretched out his long legs, and crossed them at the ankles. “Shoot, would I do that to you?” “No.” Tyler sighed. “I’m not that lucky.” “Hey, man, if you don’t like my performance, you can always fire me.” “I have. Several times.” “More like dozens,” Barry corrected. “Or hundreds—” “But you refuse to go away,” Tyler finished. Barry beamed him a broad grin. “Only because you’d be lost without me, good buddy.” “Yeah, probably.” Tyler shot him a wry grin back. Barry was usually right about most things, even his assessment of his boss-buddy’s character flaws. Not that Tyler had any intention of correcting those flaws. He liked himself just the way he was. The traits that made him difficult to live with were the same ones that made him successful. Since his father’s untimely (but not exactly unwelcome) death thirteen years ago, he’d built the old man’s investment firm into a multi-billion dollar business empire. At thirty-six he had more money and power than some heads of state. He hobnobbed with royalty and gobbled corporate conglomerates whole. So why did he feel panic stricken at the thought of three little boys? Like a magnet, a small gold frame on the desk drew his gaze. The frame was a new addition to the room’s décor, but the snapshot inside it was old, a faded view of two other boys, two opposites in coloring and temperament. The older one, devil-dark and tall for his ten years, stood in stark contrast to the six-year-old blond cherub beside him. Both wore shabby clothes. They looked poor, but they weren’t—just born to a cold, miserly man with a heavy hand. Scrooge’s sons. The older one also wore a black eye, but it didn’t seem to bother him. It wasn’t his first, after all. But it would be his last, he’d decided that day. He stared out of the frame, grim and defiant, and had a protective arm slung around the shoulders of the cherub whose bright smile said that he, at least, felt loved—and God knew he had been. The tall boy would have died for his little brother. The man no longer had that option. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… A faint scar ran lengthwise down the center of the photo from where it had once been ripped in half. Tyler had taped it back together—carefully—the night he learned Steve was dead. That had been a week ago, and his brother had already been cremated by then. He’d never have the chance to patch up their torn relationship the way he’d patched this little picture. Sleep had been a scarce commodity ever since. Wearily, he leaned back and closed his eyes. The inside of his lids felt like sandpaper. “You look like shit,” Barry said pleasantly. “But I guess you’ve noticed that.” “Um, yeah. But it’s still nice of you to remind me.” “Anytime, my man. I live to serve.” “Good. Then make yourself useful and nab Patton before she leaves. See what she’ll take to stay just until we find a replacement. Offer her—” “Can’t. She’s gone.” Tyler’s eyes popped open. “So soon?” “Like a bat outta hell. Just grabbed her bags, signed her resignation, and flew.” Barry flapped his arms to illustrate. “I told Rick to take her wherever she wanted to go on the jet, but she refused to wait for it to be cleaned.” Cleaned? Why did it need cleaning? Never mind. Tyler decided he’d be better off not knowing. He had enough worries. “She said she’d feel safer on a commercial flight,” Barry continued. “Karl’s driving her to the Lubbock airport in the Bentley.” Tyler rubbed his throbbing temples while he digested the news. Shit. Now what was he supposed to do? The boys were here waiting to meet him, and he had no one to look after them. Or…maybe he did? Hell, he had a full staff on this estate. There must be someone… His eyes met Barry’s over the desk, and he smiled. “Hey, you like kids, don’t you?” “Oh, no.” Barry held up his hands and shook his head. “You’re not gonna pin that one on me. I have enough to do taking care of you.” “Aw, c’mon. It’ll only be for a few days.” “No. They’re your nephews, Ty. You wanted them. Now you deal with them.” Tyler fought an infantile urge to slink under his desk and hide. Barry was right—as usual—but Tyler had never been so scared in his life. These were Steve’s kids. Kids he hadn’t even known about. Because you never bothered to find out. Because you were too angry, and then too proud to contact your only sibling. Because you expected him to make the first move. He’d wanted Steve to come crawling home like the Prodigal Son, admitting the error of his ways. He’d never even known that for the last six years little brother hadn’t been able to crawl anywhere. Steve had been flat on his back or in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. Dear God… The dull ache inside him became a sharp pain—a knife twisting in his heart, a cold fist squeezing his gut. His gaze held Barry’s, and he knew he must look desperate. Him. Big tough Tyler James, cringing like a whipped dog. “I don’t know what to say to them. How can I explain…” Shit, he sounded pathetic. “Well, ‘hello’ is always a good start.” When the quip fell flat, Barry blew out his breath, rose and strode around the desk. Warily, Tyler watched his approach. Beanpole wasn’t going to hug him, was he? Tyler really hated that touchy-feely “real men do cry” crap his assistant spouted sometimes. “Put your arm around me, and I’ll break it,” he warned. “I don’t want comfort.” He didn’t deserve comfort. He’d let Steve suffer when he might have done so much to help. “I deserve to have my ass kicked,” he muttered. Barry’s warm hazel eyes gazed down at him, sympathetic but firm. “I’ll be happy to oblige if it’ll make you feel better.” Tyler flipped him a bird. “Thanks. I knew I could count on you.” The buzzing of the private in-house phone interrupted them. Tyler stared at it in sudden horror. Barry reached past him to answer it. “Yeah?… Hey there, Rick, what’s up?” He listened a moment. “Uh-huh.” He listened some more. “Well, is anyone hurt?” Hurt? Tyler tensed. “Chill,” Barry mouthed to him, silently. “I meant are the kids okay?” he said to Rick. “The crew are grown men. Surely they can tolerate a few scratches. It’s only a house cat, right? Not like they were mauled by lions.” Barry’s brows pulled together into a frown. “What do you mean, I haven’t seen the cat yet? How big can it be?” His eyes widened. “Really? Wow… Hey, watch your mouth. I don’t care what the security team says. If they didn’t want to spend the flight chained to the toilet, they shouldn’t have let the boys play with their handcuffs… Yeah, I realize they didn’t expect the dog to eat the keys.” Impatiently, he drummed the fingers of his free hand on the desk. “Look, calm down, we can have the jet hosed out later, okay? Just catch the bird, put it back in its cage, and send them up here.” The drumming stopped, and the frown returned. “Don’t tell me ‘easier said than done.’ Use a butterfly net if you have to… No, on the bird, you moron, not the kids… Right, and have Hanson bring them to the poolroom. At least there we won’t have to worry about replacing the carpet if the dog has any more accidents.” The conversation continued another moment while Tyler listened with the fist in his stomach gripping tighter and tighter. Three boys and their pets… What had he been thinking bringing them here? He was way out of his element with this scene, and Barry was right. Again. Tyler was a fussbudget. He liked things clean, neat, orderly. Kids and animals usually meant the opposite. Already he could hear the clatter of his well-structured world toppling around him. He was in deep doo-doo, and he knew it. He looked at the photo on his desk—saw the smile of a blond angel—and knew also that he had no other choice. Tyler wanted these kids, whatever the cost. They were all he had left of Steve. The end of the phone call brought his gaze back to Barry. “So…” He was almost afraid to ask. “Is everything okay?” Barry gave his characteristic shrug. “Could be worse. It seems your nephews, um, redecorated the jet, but nothing that can’t be fixed. They’re creative kids, invented a new game on the way. ‘Hijacker,’ they called it. Took Ms. Patton hostage and demanded the pilot change course for Disney World.” He chuckled. Tyler didn’t. Naturally the boys would prefer a trip to the Magic Kingdom over an uncle they didn’t know from Adam. He couldn’t possibly have hoped they’d be looking forward to meeting him, now could he? “Well, at least that explains why she quit.” He forced a smile. “What else?” There had to be more. “Not much.” Barry leaned back against the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. “Just a little excitement in unloading. One of the twins let the Myna bird out of its cage. Fluffy chased it, then Fang chased him and ended up taking on all comers when they tried to stop him. Everything’s cool now though. No real damage done.” Thank God… Tyler rubbed his temples again. His headache was rolling into overdrive. “It’s a miracle no one was killed. That’s a big dog, isn’t it? A St. Bernard? And with a name like ‘Fang’…” Chills ran down his spine. Was it too late to send the beast to obedience school? He was damned if he’d risk his nephews with a vicious dog. Why had anyone let the kids have an animal like that anyway? And why the hell was Beanpole laughing so hard? Tyler glared at him, and the man laughed harder. “No, no, you got it wrong,” Barry choked out between guffaws. “Fluffy is the dog. Fang is the cat.” Of course. He should have realized that. Everyone knew cats chased dogs. A dull thud sounded as Tyler’s forehead hit the polished surface of his desk. Why did the boys want to visit a theme park when they had a three-ring circus right here? With a deep sigh, he hauled upright in his chair, pushed it back, and rose to his feet. It was time to meet his new wards. High time. Hiding up here didn’t help a damn thing. The longer he delayed, the worse he’d feel. He’d delayed too many years as it was. One last time he glanced at the photo in the little gold frame, and made a silent vow. I’ll give them a good life, Steve, I swear. They’ll have it better than we did. I’ll give them everything, the best money can buy. A well-meant promise, and one he could certainly afford to keep. So why did he have a godawful feeling it wouldn’t be nearly enough? Barry followed him to the door. “One other thing… Molly Leigh wants to talk to you. Privately.” Leigh? Again? The woman who’d been his brother’s housekeeper or babysitter, or whatever the hell she was? Tyler jerked to a halt on the door’s threshold. Shit. He’d been refusing her calls all week. Couldn’t she take a hint? He didn’t want to talk to her. What was the point? After meeting her, Gladys Patton had advised by phone that she considered Leigh to be unstable, a bad influence on the boys. Dangerous even. Patton said the woman was involved in some sort of occult crap, and the sooner Tyler removed his nephews from her care, the better they’d be. The handwritten faxed report he’d gotten from his private investigator, George Farrell, backed up Patton’s assessment. Farrell hadn’t exactly deemed Leigh dangerous—but Farrell wouldn’t, of course, being a little on the shady side himself. You could trust the guy’s facts, but not his opinion. And the facts said that Molly Leigh was a real flaky-cake, just the sort of new-agey tree-hugger that poor head-in-the-clouds Steve would have been involved with. Whereas feet-firmly-on-the-ground Tyler had zero tolerance for that sort. There could be only one reason for her pigheaded persistence. She wanted more money—and he’d offered her quite enough as it was. Six hundred thousand dollars! A hundred thousand a year for her six years of service. Hell, legally he wasn’t obligated to give her a dime, but it seemed the decent thing to do. Regardless of what some said, he usually did try to do the decent thing, especially where woman were concerned. None of his ex-wives had complained about their settlements. So why should a chick he’d never met? And didn’t intend to. Still, if it would shut her up… “Tell her I’m unavailable,” he said. “But you can inform her that if she’ll stop calling, I’ll up the offer. Make it a million.” Why not? He could afford it. “Um, Ty…” Barry hesitated, a suspicious twitching at the corners of his mouth and a wicked glint in his eye. The kind of glint that always made Tyler feel there was a whoopee cushion hidden somewhere in the room, and he was about to sit on it. He braced himself. “What?” “I don’t think she wants more money. I’m not sure she wants any money. I think she just wants to see you—to discuss the kids. She seems to really care about them.” “And I don’t?” Tyler bristled. They were his nephews, damn it, the only family he had left. The woman had absolutely no claim on them, and from what he’d heard of her, he didn’t want her anywhere near them. Gladys Patton might be a tight-ass, but she was the kind of tight-ass Tyler understood. Proper. Orderly. If Patton said Leigh was a dangerous influence, he’d accept her word on that. Especially since it matched his own intuition. For some reason just the name “Molly Leigh” set off warning bells inside him. Why, he didn’t know. But he wasn’t taking any chances. “Well, I don’t want to see her,” he said. “And if she calls anymore, I don’t even want to know about it. Tell her to just take the damn money and…and go hug a tree!” Fuming, he stepped through the door. A firm hand on his shoulder stopped him and spun him around. It was Barry’s turn to bristle apparently. Tyler had sometimes suspected the man had a few “tree-hugging” inclinations of his own, but he’d avoided asking since they always had plenty of other things to argue about. He quirked an eyebrow at his assistant’s tight-lipped expression, then felt a prickle of apprehension as those lips curled into a merciless grin. “Tell her yourself,” Barry said. “She ought to be in the poolroom by now with the boys. Waiting for you.” Chapter 2 Pool? You could float a yacht on that thing! Molly tightened her grip on the struggling tomcat as she stepped through an archway into a high glass-domed courtyard that looked bigger than the Astrodome. Hell, it might be bigger than the Superdome. Three small boys and a large dog pressed in behind her, all hanging close, all of them stunned silent—except Fluffy who was panting up a storm. She didn’t blame them. What could anyone say? That was no pool before them. It was a lagoon, complete with waterfall, white sand beach, tropical flora and palm trees. Palm trees, for godssake, twenty feet high if they were an inch. Their feathery fronds swayed gently in an artificial breeze. The trees were possibly artificial, too, but they were darn good replicas. She stared up into them, half expecting to see automated parrots and toucans roosting in the greenery. Why not? The scene had everything else. Good Goddess, the man’s built Tahiti in the center of his house. Fang scrambled out of her arms, and she didn’t bother to retrieve him. Have at it, tiger-boy. The twins giggled while he scampered to the center of the sand, sniffed around, then scratched out a depression and squatted over it, obviously pleased as punch. “Wow,” she could almost hear him say, “this is the biggest cat box I’ve ever seen!” He was in heaven. Molly wasn’t. The section of the mansion they’d passed through to get here had given her cold chills with its opulent size and décor. This…this poolroom set her teeth on edge. It went beyond opulence. It was downright decadent. What was the power consumption for the air-conditioning and fans in here? How much water did that ocean of a pool require? Too much. And in arid West Texas no less, where there was hardly enough water to go around in the first place. It was sinful. All this for one man’s private retreat. A retreat he used only a few weeks a year, according to the paparazzi he was so fond of slugging. They said he’d built it as a “honeymoon hideaway” for his first wife. Or was it his fourth? Was that the Italian actress or the Swedish model? The fashionista? Honestly, even the celebrity sites couldn’t keep his marriages straight. How many had there been? Six? Seven? Whatever. If he’d wanted a tropical paradise, why hadn’t he just bought an island? Seemed like it would have been simpler than this. Cheaper, too, no doubt. But cost wouldn’t be an issue for him, would it? Control was, Molly guessed. Here he could orchestrate every detail of the setting—just the way he liked to control lives, it seemed. Her stomach knotted. The place was beautiful—if you went for this sort of thing, which she didn’t—but it was almost too perfect. Pristine. There was a sterile quality to it. It wasn’t real. What a stupid waste of precious natural resources, not to mention the personal resources involved. With all the suffering and need in the world, couldn’t Tyler James think of anything better to do with his wealth? Steve would have been appalled by this estate. More than appalled. Ashamed. He must have been heartsick to think of his own roots. How godawful ironic and sad. No wonder he’d barely spoken of those roots, never even hinted he had a brother, let alone who that brother was. James was a common name, after all. Who would have thought to tie the gentle artist-ecologist to the hard-hitting Tycoon Tyler? Where the latter obviously cared squat for the natural world, the former had fought to preserve it. How could two brothers be such polar opposites? “Miss?” Molly jumped at the voice, then realized it was only the butler, Hanson, who’d ushered them in here. She’d forgotten he was still near. She turned to see him standing at attention just inside the arched entranceway, his expression carefully blank, his dark suit impeccably tailored and pressed. The perfect English butler. On a Texas ranch. Of course, it wasn’t really a ranch, no cattle or anything. There was plenty of open prairie around it, but otherwise the place looked more like a palace. Lots of marble and mirrors and gilt. She’d noticed everyone called it the Ranch though. Maybe because the “Taj Mahal” had already been taken. “My apologies, miss. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Hanson inclined his head in a small bow, then held aloft the recently recaptured Myna, secure once more in its large cage. “I was wondering where you wished me to put this.” “Up your arse,” the Myna said in a Cockney-accented gravelly male voice. Goddess knew where he’d learned it. He’d come to them with a full repertoire of sayings and sounds, and added to it daily. Molly offered the butler a weak smile. He seemed a nice man, despite his unfortunate choice in employers. “Sorry. The Admiral doesn’t mean it personally.” A lie. She’d always suspected Admiral Byrd knew exactly what he said. Hanson likely suspected the same thing. His stiff mask cracked into the tiniest of grins. “Even if he did, miss, I’ve been told worse.” Without waiting for instructions, he marched forward and deposited the cage on a bamboo table set between matching chairs under one of the palms. Molly followed with the twins in tow, both hanging on to her skirt. She’d told them to hang on when they entered the house, because her arms were full of Fang at the time, and she hadn’t wanted the boys running off in all directions. The fact they were still firmly attached proved how nervous they were. It would take a crowbar to pry them off her now. The flight here had been an adventure for them, a lark. Too much of a lark perhaps, but that was hardly her fault. Ms. Patton had told her not to interfere. So Molly hadn’t. Nuff said. Uncle Tyler’s house, however—the biggest “house” they’d ever seen—intimidated the kids. Knowing they’d soon meet Uncle Tyler himself had regressed the twins to the clingy phase they’d gone through at age four when she’d put them in nursery school. Jeremy and Josh had adjusted, eventually, to being separated from her a few hours a day, but Molly never had. Nursery school ended up being more anxiety than it was worth, so she hadn’t enrolled them the following year, and had been home-schooling all three boys ever since. Steve had approved. She had a college degree in physical education and teaching experience of one sort already. Adding academic subjects to her repertoire was no big deal. Molly sighed. She and Steve had been right in sync when it came to raising the kids. They’d been right in sync on most things. She should have married him. Not the first time he asked. If she’d married him then, these beautiful boys would never have been born. But after Kara died…sweet, generous Kara… She should have accepted his second proposal. Or the third, or fourth… It became a running joke, him proposing, and Molly putting him off. But there had been no laughter when he first reinstated the subject. Only Steve’s eyes filled with pleading, and hers filled with tears because she couldn’t bring herself to say yes. The memory still haunted her. She glanced at Stevie Jr. hanging on to Fluffy’s leash with both hands, and heard his father’s voice in her head. “I can’t get down on my knees to beg you this time, Molly, but you’re part of this family, you know that. Shouldn’t we make it legal? The kids love you, and… God help me, so do I. I’ve never stopped. I know it’s unfair of me to offer you half a man. I can’t give you the kind of love I once could. But my heart and mind still work. Everything I have left is yours. Please say that’s enough. Please…will you marry me, Molly Leigh?” Right on cue, as though he’d pulled the memory straight out of her mind, the Myna bird began singing in Steve’s clear tenor, “‘Now some had jew-els in their hair, like morning stars did shine. But Molly did surpass them all with but her glitterin’ eyes’…” Ten-year-old Stevie winced at hearing the mimic of his father’s voice, but the twins crowded in closer, sandwiching Molly between them in a hug, and shrilled out the chorus—off key and at the top of their lungs—just like they always did. Programming. Not even their awe at the alien surroundings could deter them from what had become almost a family ritual. Their daddy had trained them well. “‘An’ we’re all gang east and west, we’re all gang aye-a-glee!’” They squeaked on the ee. “‘We’re all gang east and west, a-courtin’ Molly Lee!’” ------- Courtin’ Molly Lee… Tyler’s chest constricted. Several strides into the domed courtyard, and the sound of his brother’s voice halted him in his tracks, struck him like a sledgehammer. He didn’t believe in ghosts, so the singing must have come from something electronic. Maybe Leigh planned to rattle him with a recording of Steve. If so, she’d succeeded. Shit. Except, that was probably just a practice shot—making sure her tape player or whatever worked. She didn’t know he was here yet. Tyler had entered the vast enclosure through a door at the far end and stopped behind a screen of tropical vines, close enough for a little reconnaissance, yet not enough to be noticed or heard. From where he stood, he’d be able to see the beach, but those on it wouldn’t see him unless they stared straight at him. More likely they’d be watching the archway instead, expecting him to use the main entrance. He leaned forward and peered through the greenery—saw a blond boy of about ten, hanging on to a monster dust mop’s leash. A boy who looked just like Steve had at that age. The pain in Tyler’s chest increased. This was going to be even harder than he’d anticipated. Then he saw the woman at the center of the scene, and things got hard all right. Well, one thing did anyway. Hard, in fact, took on a whole new meaning. Ouch. Now Tyler knew why her name prickled his back hairs. It was the same as in that old Scottish ballad Steve used to sing, just one of many songs. Steve was always singing, laughing, joking… Okay, so little brother had found himself a real life Molly Lee. So what? Just a coincidence, no more. It shouldn’t seem such a big deal. Except the woman herself was. A very big deal. Gazing at her, Tyler felt more than his back hairs prickling, and he only had a rear view. Ah, but what a rear. Hair like a gold waterfall tumbled in soft waves over her shoulders and nearly to her waist—a perfect hourglass-figured waist that flowed into ripe rounded hips and ass. He could see the lines of her form by virtue of the little boys stuck to her sides, molding her skirt against her. Oh, to be six years old again and have that kind of license. Tyler was grateful to and envious of the children in the same breath. If the front view was as good as the back, he had a major complication on his hands. Such as how to keep his mind focused on getting rid of her while the rest of him wanted to get her naked and into bed. The mythical Molly Lee of the ballad couldn’t have been half as enticing as the one he saw now. “Rowrrr…” Standing a little before him and to the side, Barry let out a throaty growl. “That’s Patton’s witch? The one she thinks is practicing some kind of voodoo-hoodoo or something?” he whispered. “I don’t know about you, buddy, but if Ms. Leigh wants to cast any spells on me, I’m going to let her.” Tyler pierced him with a sharp look, and took care to keep his own voice low. “Don’t you have anything else you could be doing right now?” “Well, since you ask… No.” “Then find something.” Elbowing past him, Tyler started to step through the vines. “Okay, I guess I could start calling the agencies to see about a replacement for Patton,” Barry offered agreeably. Too agreeably? “It’s Saturday, but I imagine I can drum up someone.” Tyler paused in mid-step. Oh, what an awful idea he had. Someone should whack him with a two-by-four. Then again… “Um, let’s hold off on the agencies till Monday. Maybe we won’t need a replacement.” Maybe they already had one? What if he offered Leigh the job? “Uh-oh.” Barry’s eyes went wary. “I know that look, boss-man. And it always scares me. What are you thinking?” Something very stupid probably. Tyler shoved his hands into his pockets, and struck a casual pose, hoping to appear innocent. Knowing he failed. Innocence wasn’t one of the things he did well. He continued the effort though. Never let it be said he gave up easily. “That maybe I’ve”—he cleared his throat—“um, been a bit hasty about Ms. Leigh.” “Hasty? You? Never!” Sarcastic son of a bitch, wasn’t he? Also lucky that men striving for the guileless look don’t generally hit people. Tyler shoved his hands deeper instead, and shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “What? I can’t change my mind? I’m just thinking I might have judged her too harshly, that’s all. I’m trying to be fair about this.” “Holy sh—” The expletive broke off as Barry staggered back a few paces in overblown shock. Then he caught himself and advanced again, eyes narrowed. “Okay, bub, who are you and what have you done with Tyler James?” Screw guileless. “Beanpole, if you’re looking for a fat lip, you’re very close to getting one.” “Hey, man, you’re the one who said the chick was dangerous, an unstable devil-worshipping kook, a bad influence on the boys.” “No, I didn’t.” Tyler might have thought it, but he didn’t recall actually saying it aloud. “Patton’s the one who said that.” “Well, you believed her!” “Maybe. But Farrell’s damn black-marker fax memos said the same thing. Sort of.” “Ty, Farrell just said Molly is a Wiccan. Just like some people are Christian, some are Jewish, some Buddhist… Wicca is her religion—and an honorable one with high ethics and roots that stretch back to megalithic times when people revered the feminine principle of the universe as the divine creative force. That doesn’t make her dangerous. Wiccans don’t even believe in a devil, much less worship one. They regard all life as sacred and connected; and see deity as multifaceted but balanced energy, manifested archetypically in the form of a supreme Mother Goddess and her consort God. In essence, Wicca is simply an idealistic Earth-centered brand of spirituality that falls under the general heading of ‘Neo-Pagan religion’—a growing trend in today’s world.” Uh-huh. His lanky assistant had been web-surfing again. Tyler could always tell. “Did you memorize that off a new-age site?” Barry grinned. “Yeah. Interesting stuff. I’m thinking of becoming a Druid myself.” He was probably joking, but with Barry you could never be sure. Tyler sighed. On the one hand, this info did ease his mind. A little. He still didn’t approve of what he’d been told of the lady’s lifestyle and ideology. He still considered her a threat. But the adrenaline rush that hit when he looked at her warned the danger was more to him than the kids. Did he really want her on his staff, nearby every day? And night… Shit, he hadn’t gotten where he was by playing it safe. Throwing caution to the breeze—even if it was artificial in here—he met Barry’s eyes. “Okay, okay, she’s a nature-worshipper, not a devil-worshipper like Patton said.” As though that made a difference? God, it was still wacko. But when the wacko came in such attractive packaging… A bad influence, huh? Tyler wondered, suddenly, how bad she really was—and couldn’t help hoping the answer was very. Barry’s grin scaled down to a smirk. “Even if she were a devil-worshipper, I should think you’d like that. Didn’t your second wife call you ‘The Prince of Darkness’?” “She meant it as a compliment.” And there was nothing Satanic about it. A little sinful, maybe. It referred to his prowess in the dark, under the— Oh, never mind what it referred to. How did they get off on this tangent, anyway? “Forget it. We’re discussing Molly Leigh, not my ex-wives.” His chest expanded with an aggravated breath as he stared up into the endless blue beyond the dome, then let his gaze lower, slowly, to the woman and children on the white sand beach. As he watched, Molly ruffled the twins’ red hair and rubbed their little backs while they clung to her. Then she beckoned to the boy with the St. Bernard. Steve’s namesake that one had to be. The boy hesitated an instant, then dropped the leash and ran into her waiting arms, joining his brothers in the group hug. Very touching. Snow White and the three dwarves. Tyler’s throat tightened at the sight, and he rapidly rethought his idea. Maybe he didn’t need this chick around, after all. Why would he want this kind of competition with his nephews? “Well, if you want my opinion, the kids look healthy, so she’s apparently done okay with them so far,” Barry said, sounding blissfully unaware of the mental stew boiling nearby. “And I’ve talked with her enough on the phone to believe she honestly cares about them.” “So you mentioned before.” Even more, it looked like the kids cared about her. Not that Tyler blamed them. What male of any age wouldn’t be smitten by a woman like that? There lay the problem. If he wanted his nephews raised the right way—his way—he had to be the primary influence in their lives. Which he could see now would never happen with Molly Leigh in the picture. With her around, he’d be lucky to have any influence. It might be a little rough on the boys at first being separated from her, but they’d adjust. He’d lost his mother when he was the twins’ age, and he’d adjusted. Molly wasn’t their mother anyway. They called her “aunt,” he’d been told, but she wasn’t even that. This was for their own good. The tightness in Tyler’s throat began to feel more like a noose around his neck. Yeah, a governess like her would be disaster. She’d end up governing way too much. It had been a dumb-ass idea from the start. He’d been thinking with his libido again, and his libido always thought wrong. Six failed marriages were proof of that. And, no, damn it, he wasn’t jealous of the obvious affection the boys had for her. Affection that he wanted… Needed? Aw, screw it. He just didn’t want his nephews raised by some flaky little…little witch. Which rhymed with another female epithet, and she was probably one of those, too; the good-looking ones always were. He was simply guarding the kids’ welfare, doing what was best for them. He was— Molly turned, and he saw her face. Even worse, he felt sure she saw him, too, despite the partial veil of vines. Her eyes struck his like an electric shock jolting through him. Tyler groaned at the impact. Oh, God… He was lost, that’s what he was. Beside him, Barry panted like a dog. “Zowie! Be still my beating heart!” He slapped a hand over his chest. “Hey, Ty, don’t look now, but I think we’ve been spotted. Time to greet the gang. Do you wanna make the job offer, or shall I?” “What offer?” The words came out strained and hoarse. Tyler couldn’t tear his gaze away from Molly’s, could barely hear over the thunder in his ears. Was that the pounding of his pulse? Barry’s voice sounded through the din. “The governess’s job. I assume that is what this discussion is about, right? You’re going to offer her the position.” “Nope.” Tyler had a better position in mind for her. Under him for starters. Then they could move on to a sensual smorgasbord of others. He knew lots. And he was determined to try every one of them with the bewitching Molly Leigh. “I’m going to marry her,” he announced, and reached to sweep the vines aside in order to step through them. “Whoa!” A heavy grip on his shoulder reined him in, and he turned to meet Barry’s censoring stare. Exasperation tinged his friend’s hushed tone. “Ty, why do you always do this?” “Do what?” Tyler shrugged off the hand and glared while Barry heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You know what I’m talking about. The way you leap into relationships without looking. Where women are concerned, you’re about as subtle as a bulldozer.” What was wrong with bulldozers? They got the job done and did it fast, no beating around the bush. Not that that made the analogy any more flattering. “I always look,” Tyler defended himself. “I just looked now, didn’t I? And I like what I saw.” A lot. “You have a problem with that?” “I don’t, but your latest quarry might, O-Great-White-Hunter-of-Female-Flesh. That girl is not your usual sort of meat. I’m advising that you tread softly here. Would it kill you to strike up an acquaintance first? You know, try to make friends with a lady before slamming a wedding ring on her finger? Have you ever heard of dating?” Barry offered one of his most maddening grins along with the question. “It’s a very useful social convention. You should try it sometime.” “And you should try minding your own business.” “Which is, for all intents and purposes, helping you mind yours. I’m trying to steer you onto the right path, man.” Tyler’s teeth grated. He hated this lecture. He’d heard it too often already, and it never sounded any better. He didn’t have the time, energy, or patience for dating, damn it. It just made him feel like he was campaigning for public office, trying to get the girl’s vote. He had to be on his best behavior. He had to be nice. Who needed that kind of aggravation? In business, when he saw something he wanted, he went after it, no holds barred. Why should women be any different? “Hey, in the old days, most marriages were arranged, right? No dating then,” he pointed out. “Let’s face it, it’s still more a business deal than anything else. At least I am decent enough to marry. Plenty of other men in my position would just keep a stable of mistresses. The fact I want a wife ought to say something good about me, shouldn’t it?” “Yeah, and the fact you can’t hang on to a wife says something else, but we won’t go into that right now.” “Thank you.” Tyler’s eyes gleamed a warning. Which Barry, as usual, ignored. “Listen, Romeo, all I’m asking you to do is think this time before you go jumping in head first. Get to know the girl. Give her a chance to know you. Okay?” No. That would never work. “Beanpole, perhaps you haven’t noticed, but women usually don’t like me after they get to know me. That’s why I have to marry them fast.” “Don’t sell yourself short, Ty. You have many redeeming virtues.” “Such as?” He waited while the silence lengthened. “Barry…” “Don’t rush me. I’m thinking.” “With what?” Tyler was rich and good in bed. Those were the only “virtues” he could think of. They were all he’d ever needed to get a woman to say yes. Money and sex, what else was there? Why did women always end up wanting more? Worse yet, why had he begun to feel he wanted more himself? “Carlotta’s a woman!” Barry piped up triumphantly. Like this was news? “I know she’s a woman. I was married to her, remember?” He had the scars to prove it, too. “And she likes you, doesn’t she?” “Only because we’re divorced now.” That marriage had been one of Tyler’s worst, in fact. Carlotta was from a circus family. She knew how to throw knives. And had a razor-edged temper to match. And he hadn’t discovered any of that till after the wedding. His mistake. Did Beanpole get tired of being right all the time? Okay, so maybe if he’d bothered to find out more about his wives beforehand, none of them would ever have become his wives— “Speaking of which, did I tell you Carlotta called this morning?” Barry interrupted the musing. “She said she’s sorry for the short notice, and hopes it won’t inconvenience us, but she wants to use the Ranch for a fashion-shoot. Her other locale cancelled on her, and she needs a new backdrop for LFF’s swimsuit issue.” He almost drooled at the prospect. “I told her to come on out, we’d suffer through the ‘inconvenience’ somehow.” Tyler scarcely heard. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” His gaze fastened on Molly to see her still staring in his direction from across the courtyard, her graceful form framed by palm trees and silhouetted against the pool’s waterfall. He imagined her standing under that shimmering cascade…naked…the water glistening on her skin…and himself close beside her— “Ty? Earth to Ty,” Barry interrupted again. His timing sucked. “Will you promise me you’ll think carefully before making any dumb moves?” “Yeah, sure, whatever,” Tyler repeated. He was thinking carefully right then. This wouldn’t be like the other times, would it? He already did know quite a bit about Molly via those hand printed reports Farrell had faxed him this past week. He was still waiting for the final report on Molly’s early background, but there’d been nothing so far to indicate she had any skill with deadly weapons—like Carlotta. Or that she had a drug problem—like his last wife. She was just a kook. An incredibly gorgeous kook. What else did he need to know? Keep talking, Libido, I’m almost convinced. “Your nephews, Tyler, what about them? You don’t want them under her influence, remember?” his reason reminded. Reason could be a real bore sometimes. “Bite me, Reason,” Libido told it. “You worry too much. Tyler can handle the kids. Wait’ll they see all the cool stuff he’s bought for them. They’ll love him. Marrying Molly will just help his case with them.” Good point. Libido was starting to sound more reasonable than Reason. “Ty,” Barry broke in once more, “you have the strangest look on your face. Why do I get the impression you’re standing here like one of those old cartoons where the character has a little devil whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other?” Tyler slanted a sideways glance at him. “Beanpole, I’m going to disconnect your satellite dish. You’ve been watching too much TV again.” Pushing past him, he strode forward to meet his new bride. There remained but one question. What was the proper protocol here? Should he propose before or after the introductions? Continued in Part 2… ========= <>*<> Sneak-peek Excerpt from Part 2: A bolt out of the blue… Not the heavenly blue beyond the dome. There was nothing heavenly about this bolt. It struck from a pair of eyes so blue they were almost black. Midnight blue, deep and mysterious. Eyes full of secret yearnings and nighttime whisperings. Sultry, seductive… The gaze crackled into her and sizzled down her spine, sparking all her nerve endings to life, bringing a rush of damp heat to the juncture of her thighs. Her nipples hardened against the thin fabric of her halter-top. How embarrassing. Molly blushed. Mesmerized, trapped against her will, she stared as the man who’d stood half hidden behind a curtain of sinuous, swaying green stepped forward into clear view. The paparazzi’s photos hadn’t nearly done him justice. Even in casual-cut gray slacks and button-down shirt, Tyler James was a tall, tanned, muscular Greek god, dark as the devil, and looking infinitely more sinful. Her breath caught as he smiled and walked toward her, moving with a fluid, feline grace. The walk of a predator. A panther stalking its prey—and she knew who that was. He stared back at her as he advanced, those deep blue eyes promising all sorts of steamy pleasures. And his body looked like it could deliver every last one of them. Boy, was she in trouble. Molly gave herself a mental slap. What was the matter with her? She’d never been one to fall for physical appeal before. Even if that appeal was extravagant—like everything else about the man. Didn’t that just figure? It’s what’s inside a person that counts, she reminded herself. And from what she knew of Tyler’s insides, he shouldn’t appeal to her in the least. She’d come here to rake him over the coals, for goodness sake. So why was she having sudden fantasies of the two of them setting new records together in bedroom gymnastics? Someone was being roasted, all right, but it wasn’t him. Resisting the urge to fan herself, Molly shoved the fantasies out of her head when Tyler came to a halt before her and the boys. Her hands flattened against the twins’ backs, holding them close to her sides. Mama lioness protecting her cubs. Stevie pulled out of the crunch and turned around, planting himself between her and the intruder in his own gesture of protection. He understood their situation better than Jeremy and Josh did, and it worried him. Having grown up helping her with his little brothers and a crippled father, he understood more than any child his age should—and that worried Molly. She let go of the twins, briefly, to draw him back against her, but he stepped out of her reach and confronted Tyler. A genuine little David glaring up at Goliath. “Are you our uncle?” He made it sound like an accusation. Tyler winced and glanced down, blinking like he’d forgotten for a moment the kids were there. Stupid man. He was the one who’d sent for them. He cleared his throat and planted a warm smile on his face. A little too warm? He was trying too hard. Then he held out his hand in a put-it-there-pardner gesture. “Yes, I am. And you must be Stevie. I’m very glad you and your brothers are here, son.” “We’re not. And I’m not your son.” Ignoring the offered hand, Stevie turned his back on him. Tyler’s smile froze, and Molly fought a sudden battle to not feel sorry for him. She lost. Stupid her. “We don’t like it here!” the twins chimed in unison. “We wanna go home!” “You’re a dirty bird,” the Myna said. Unfortunately, he said it in Molly’s voice since that was what she told him every time she cleaned his cage. And Tyler was looking at neither Molly nor the bird when the comment came. So he probably thought… Wondering if her face now matched her red skirt, Molly opened her mouth to explain. “Ms. Leigh,” Tyler snapped her off. A midnight blue stare hit her like a slap, sending sympathy scurrying for cover and making her wish she could scurry after it. “I’d like to speak to you privately,” he said, not pleasantly. “Now.” Never mind the explanation. Admiral Byrd had been right on target. So was Fang. Molly’s eyes widened. The tomcat was sniffing the lord of the manor’s leg, and she knew what that meant. “Um, Mr. James—” Too late. Tyler sputtered and jumped back as Fang sprayed him. “I guess that tells us what he thinks of you,” offered a new voice. It came from a tall, lanky fellow with tawny hair and a wicked grin, which widened as he strolled forward to stand beside Fang’s newly marked territory. The “territory” glared at the newcomer. “So why should his opinion be different from anyone else’s?” “Yeah, I’ve noticed. You’re going over with your usual lead-balloon charm, my man.” He turned his grin to Molly. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Leigh. I’m Barry Baker. We’ve, ah, spoken on the phone several times.” “Yes, I remember. I’m prepared to forgive you for that, too.” The phone calls had all been strikeouts, but Barry had fielded them as nicely as he could. Molly returned his grin. Tyler’s glare darkened. He shot a warning glance at Barry, then leveled his deep blue high-beams on her. A fresh jolt of electricity crackled through her as their gazes locked. She saw anger in his eyes, and…something else. Hurt? Hunger. Oh, Goddess… He held out his hand to her. A very nice hand, Molly noticed. Long fingered and sensitive, but strong. Probably very talented. What would it feel like on… She swallowed, hard, and booted the thought from her mind. “Ms. Leigh?” Tyler didn’t tap his foot with impatience, but he might as well have. He looked as though he wanted to tap her—with a club maybe. “Our talk?” “What about it?” Molly rasped out the words, her focus frayed. The intensity in his eyes pulled at her like magnets. It took all her strength to resist. And she wasn’t even sure what, exactly, she was resisting. “You have been demanding a private appointment with me, haven’t you?” Had she? Oh. Right. Of course she had. Why did that suddenly seem such a not-so-good idea? She nodded, trying to rake her wits back together. “Yes, but—” “Well, I’m giving you one. Are you coming with me or not?” He would use words like coming, wouldn’t he? Probably did it on purpose, too. Oh yeah, he knew just what he was doing. And I don’t. Molly floundered for an answer. The question really wasn’t that difficult. She had wanted to confront the lion in his den. She’d been planning on giving him a very large piece of her mind—and had hoped he’d choke on it. Only now she was tempted to offer him a piece of something else, which wasn’t like her at all. A “private appointment” had lost its appeal. Or, rather, it had gained too much appeal. A different appeal. Dangerous. Before, she hadn’t trusted him. Now she didn’t trust herself. Besides, the twins were still plastered against her like wallpaper! She cleared her throat, willing her voice to sound normal. “I’m sorry, but I can’t leave the boys right now. They’re keyed up from the flight and…um, nervous about all this. They need me near.” Tyler’s mouth pressed into a hard line at mention of the kids. He’d shown no signs of trying to talk to them since they’d rebuffed him. Molly suspected he was afraid to. None of the boys would even look at him. Unwanted but inescapable, a new twinge of sympathy stung her. True, this was all his fault. He’d brought on their reaction by his own callous behavior, by the dictatorial way he’d brought them here. The man was obviously a tyrant. But even tyrants must have feelings. This situation was as difficult for him as it was for the rest of them. That was obvious, too. If only she could decide what to do about it… They did need to talk. She couldn’t put off the coming confrontation forever. Even after it, even if she was successful, there’d still be details to discuss. She hadn’t figured on just waltzing in and out with the kids. She’d probably be stuck here for at least another day, maybe several. Molly heaved an inner sigh. “Um, why don’t we set aside tonight for our meeting? After the boys have calmed down. We can do it after I put them to bed.” Tyler’s mouth relaxed into a small grin, rather devilish. Definitely disconcerting. That counter-offer hadn’t come out sounding quite the way Molly had intended. “Doing it with you tonight sounds very enticing, Ms. Leigh. I’m sure we can manage something along those lines. However, I want to get certain…preliminaries settled between us this afternoon. As in now.” Of all the… Her jaw dropped open, then snapped shut. The man did realize there were children present, didn’t he? Jeremy and Josh were too young to understand his implication, but Stevie was old for his years and a little too good at spotting innuendos. She glanced at the boy to see him scowling at Tyler, his small hands balled into fists at his sides. Stevie was rather territorial about his family, and about her in particular. Molly knew he’d outgrow it eventually, but in the meantime it made any inclination she might have toward playing the dating game more hassle than it was worth. Not that she did have any inclination in that direction. And especially not with someone like the arrogant ass in front of her—and she didn’t care how attractive he was. Well…maybe she did, but she was trying extremely hard not to. Groan. Before she could think of a cutting response, Barry stepped into the fray. “I’ll be happy to watch the boys for you.” Thanks a heap, Mr. Baker. Tyler shot him a look. “You wouldn’t watch them when I asked you.” “Of course not.” Barry grinned. “I do plenty for you already.” His gaze shifted to Molly, and he dipped a cavalier bow. “For Ms. Leigh, however, I am more than willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.” Please don’t do me any favors, her narrowed gaze told him. “Thanks,” she said aloud, “but they’re really not used to strangers, and—” “He’s very strange,” Tyler interjected. “Only from spending too much time with you, O-Difficult-One,” Barry replied blithely. He gave the boys a big smile—but a genuine smile. Kids could always recognize the real thing. “Hey, guys, I was just about to send down to the kitchen for an ice-cream sundae. Anyone wanna join me?” An enthusiastic chorus of “Yeah!” answered, and the twins abandoned Molly to run to him. Marvy. He’d found the magic words. Her brood was as chronically hungry as any healthy, growing boys ever were. They’d stick to him like super glue if they thought he’d feed them. Molly gave up. They obviously weren’t going to let her delay this, and it was probably just as well she get it over. Surely she could control her hormones for however long it took to convince Tyler to let her retain custody of the kids. “Okay.” She turned to Barry and the boys, who were giving their ice-cream orders to Hanson to deliver to the kitchen. No doubt the food would arrive back here in gold dishes on a jewel-encrusted tray. “Just make sure those sundaes are small ones,” she warned. “Too much sugar and they’ll be wired all night. I’ll never get them to sleep.” “No problem,” Barry said. “The ice-cream here is actually homemade frozen yogurt with only natural fruit for flavoring and a little raw honey.” He winked. “Ty’s a physical fitness nut.” “Really?” Her brows rose as she looked at Tyler. Whoever would have guessed they had anything in common? “I’m not a ‘nut’ about it,” he replied. “But, yes, I do try to take care of my body.” A sudden gleam in his eye seemed to say, I bet I could take real good care of your body, too. Molly’s mouth went dry. In the second of tension that followed, her voice rang out like a bell. “Kiss-kiss! C’mon, pretty boy, give me a kiss.” “Amazing.” Tyler looked ever so ready to oblige. “Are you a ventriloquist? I never even saw your lips move.” And, at the moment, he was staring at them quite intently. Where was a hole to crawl into when she needed one? “It was Admiral Byrd,” Molly choked out. “The Myna—one of his tricks. I say ‘kiss-kiss,’ then put a bit of food between my lips, and he’ll take it out with his beak.” “Sounds like fun.” Slowly, Tyler leaned toward her. His breath blew out warm and minty with his words. Why had she never noticed before what a sexy aroma mint was? “I have some sunflower seeds in my office, if you’d care to demonstrate, Ms. Leigh.” Oh boy, would she. No. Molly jerked back as she realized she’d been drifting forward to meet him, her mouth parted in readiness, her breasts almost grazing his chest. And right in front of the kids! She was really losing it. Pulling in a deep breath to steady herself, she glanced over her shoulder at the three boys. They were busy putting Fluffy the Wonder Dog through his repertoire of tricks (all two of them) for Barry Baker, and hadn’t noticed her and Tyler. Thank Goddess. They all seemed fine without her, and Barry seemed to have everything under control. He obviously had a way with kids. Relieved, Molly turned back to Tyler, only to see him striding for the far door he’d entered from. Huh? He’d refused to delay their meeting, demanded she accompany him now, yet he was leaving without her? What was his problem? From the way he walked—more of a stalk actually—he looked angry about something. Angry with her? Yeah, well, she expected him to be angry before their impending confrontation was over. But she hadn’t even started to read him the riot act yet. Molly hesitated a moment, staring after him, studying the rigid line of his back, the grim set to his shoulders as he exited the pool area. She read him like a billboard. He wasn’t angry. He was hurt. Damn. She glanced again at the boys hanging around Barry like he was Father Goose, like he was their long-lost relative or something. Tyler was the real long-lost relative, and her trio had spurned him flat-out. He might have expected them to be clinging to her, but it must have been a rough blow to see them take so instantly to someone as much a stranger to them as himself. Oh, hell… Knowing she was probably making a big mistake, Molly hurried after him…

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