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Daddy's Little Girl

Chapter One

 

 

What kind of employer set up a job interview in a restaurant?

Sara’s fingers drummed a ragged beat on the large brown envelope on the restaurant table. The Jason Graham kind, obviously. His business like tones over the telephone last night had allayed her fears about the unusual venue. He’d sounded impatient and tired...as if the interview was just another chore to get over with...as if a few hours on a Friday evening were the only time he could spare.

She’d agreed to meet him at the Treasure Island, Rainbow Valley’s well known seafood restaurant. Sara stared at the fishing nets and other old shipping paraphernalia hung on the walls without really seeing them. The table Jason Graham had reserved was in a small room that held three other tables. If no one else was shown in here, they would have privacy for the interview.

A sudden shaft of worry had Sara wetting her lips. Would Jason Graham see right away that she hadn’t any real job experience worth mentioning in a resume?

She had to get this job, she just had to.

She’d lived right here in Rainbow Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, all her life, her only real experience that of caring for a man who should have been named lifetime President of Scrooge International.

Worry undermines determination.

The book on personal motivation she had borrowed from the library had emphasized positive, not negative thinking.

I need this job.

I will get it.

It had been very kind of Claire, her best friend since high school, to slip the ad into the Valley View for her. Jason Graham’s call was the only response she’d gotten and she had to make the most of this opportunity.

Sara closed her eyes and tried to conjure up positive pictures of the future; working in an office, taking her paycheck to the bank, living in an apartment on her own.

You’ll never amount to anything. You and your mother are parasites, only capable of living off others.

Sara’s eyes flew open. This was no time to let the memory of Uncle Samuel intrude. As it was, he’d had too much power for too long over her and her mother.

It was five minutes to six. Sara decided to make a quick trip to the rest room. A look at her reflection in the mirror made her wish she’d remained at the table. Nerves had driven the color from her face. The freckles on her nose stood out as if they were part of a dot-to-dot picture. All thirteen of them seemed to have popped up especially for this interview.

Sara’s sent a silent prayer to the patron saint of jobs.

All I want is one chance. Just one. Help me get this job.

Jason looked around the room and frowned. There was no sign of anyone in here.

“The lady must have gone to the restroom, sir,” the smiling, mini-skirted hostess said. “We put you at this table.”

“Thank you.”

He saw the large envelope on the table right away. So, at least she was punctual. Placing the car seat that held his daughter Kelsey on the banquette seat beside him, Jason took a deep breath.

Answering the ad had not been the smartest thing he’d ever done according to his lawyer, Moses Judah. Rowena Harris, his secretary and friend for the last eight years, had shown him the ad and pointed out it could be the answer to all his problems.

Kelsey moved in her sleep and Jason placed a hand against his daughter’s flushed cheek. He would do anything for his baby girl. Anything. Even go on a blind date like this one.

They were at her table so he...he must be Jason Graham. Sara’s eyes widened. Her gaze sped to the seat beside him, overflowing with pink frills and lace, topped off by the face of a cherub with auburn hair.

What kind of a man brought a baby to an interview?

She forced herself to move forward.

“Mr. Graham?”

He got to his feet and looked down at her.

“Miss Adams?”

She was small and the brown suit she had on did nothing for her. Neither did the beige blouse buttoned to the top of her neck. What kind of outfit was that to wear on a first date? He’d seen nuns dressed in less.

“How are you?”

The rough palm that he’d held so briefly told him she was no stranger to hard work. It’s icy coldness revealed that Sara Adams was very nervous about this meeting. Seeing her had multiplied his own fears. She wouldn’t do. He shouldn’t have agreed to this.

A waiter materialized as they sat down and asked what they’d like to drink. Sara ordered an iced tea and heard Jason Graham ask for a club soda.

His business suit, his tie, even the way his hair was cut, radiated power and success. Something about the width of his shoulders, the strong lines of his face, the tightness around his mouth warned her Jason Graham wasn’t a patient man. Sara’s heart sank. He wouldn’t hire her.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me here.”

“It was no problem.” Beggars could hardly be choosers.

“Sorry I’m late, but I had to take my daughter to the doctor.” Eyes, a startling chambray blue in his tanned face, hypnotized her.

“That’s all right.”

Jason felt his jaw tighten as the silence dragged on. Evidently the only contribution Sara Adams intended making to the conversation were these little tags on his comments. He did a quick study of her face. The large brown eyes flecked with gold that were her best feature, were laced with fear. Her hair was scooped back; the color an indeterminate shade of brown close to his own.

He needed someone tough to help him, not someone who looked as if she’d lose an arm wrestling competition with a will o’ the wisp. His gaze fell on his daughter’s face. For her sake, he had to give this meeting a try.

“Kelsey had a fever last night,” he said, in an effort to diffuse some of the tension. “The medicine she just had at the doctor’s office has made her sleepy.”

“How old is she?”

“She turned two last month.”

“That’s a cute age.”

“Kelsey can’t talk like other children her age.”

He was obviously very sensitive about it. The mix of pain and anger in Jason Graham’s eyes made Sara wish her words unsaid.

“I worked in a preschool for two years,” she said. “I knew a little boy who didn’t say a word till he was three and a half. A specialist told his mother some children are like that.”

The look he gave her told her Jason Graham didn’t feel comforted. The anger in his eyes seemed to intensify.

Sara leaned back in her seat as the waiter placed their drinks and a huge basket of bread in front of them.

“Thanks, Peter. We’ll be ready to order in about twenty minutes.”

“Sure thing Mr. G.”

Catching the quick, scared look Sara Adams gave him as she picked up her drink, he wondered why she had placed an ad in a dating column. He had to get this over with as quick as possible, and get Kelsey home and into bed. Sara Adams had made an effort to come here, so the least he could do is talk to her and buy her dinner.

“You said on the telephone you haven’t worked for a while because you’ve been taking care of your uncle?”

“Yes. He died four weeks ago.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“He had a stroke three years ago that left him partially paralyzed, and another one ten months ago that left him bedridden.”

That caught his interest. Nursing an invalid took patience and loyalty. If Sara Adams really possessed those two qualities his search had ended. What did it matter what she looked like? “Your ad also mentioned you don’t mind travelling?”

“No. I...I mean yes. I...I mean....” The brow he lifted made Sara stop and swallow hard, before she said, “I don’t mind travelling.”

Jason Graham studied the fishing nets on the walls as if he’d run out of questions for the time being. One look at his face told Sara she’d scored zero so far.

You’ve got to learn to sell yourself, kid, Claire had said, after Sara had returned from the last unsuccessful interview. Self-promotion’s the name of the game.

Failure loomed so close on the horizon she could almost reach out and touch it. Desperation had her clearing her throat, and saying, “I’m very reliable and hard working. You won’t be disappointed, if you give me a chance.”

Jason didn’t miss the shake in her voice. Was she that desperate to get married that she had to resort to pleading?

“I’m a self starter, honest and punctual.”

The anxious eyes that shied away from his, made him stop and think. The woman across from him might be just what he was looking for after all. For the past few weeks since he’d realized a business marriage might be the answer to his problems, Jason had considered the women he knew. Most of the women in his circle reminded him of Diana. He had no time for a demanding, spoiled wife, and he definitely didn’t want any emotional entanglements of any kind this time around.

It was very important that he remain the one in control of this strange situation from beginning to end. He looked at Kelsey again and his misgivings were shoved aside. His daughter came first. A pang of guilt shot through him at the thought he might be taking advantage of her. For a moment the ridiculous idea that Sara Adams was almost as vulnerable as Kelsey crossed his mind. Though he had no other choice, he would make sure Ms. Adams got a good deal.

Kelsey moved in her sleep, and Jason patted her till she’d settled down again. A hand against her cheek told him her fever had receded.

“Is your passport in order?” he asked.

Sara’s breath caught in her throat. Was he offering her the job after all? “Yes. I took a cruise to Europe with my uncle a year ago.”

Jason nodded. “Though this trip’s only going to last six weeks, I live in England five months out of the year. Will that bother you?”

“No.” A job on the moon wouldn’t bother her.

“I use London as a base for my business in Europe. Now a new market is opening up, which I’m interested in cornering.”

“What business are you in?”

Maybe Jason Graham just took a long time getting to the point.

“I’ve developed a variation of the new electronic braking system being used in cars. My company’s in the fledgling stages. To keep the overheads low, I do most of the marketing myself.”

She knew very little about electronic brakes, but she was willing to learn.

“Do you really like children?”

It was an odd digression, but she supposed from the frequent glances he threw his daughter, that Kelsey was on his mind.

“Yes.”

Their gazes met and Sara looked away quickly. There was something unnerving about Jason Graham’s stare. It was as if his gaze penetrated below the surface, probing the secret places in her mind.

“I always take Kelsey with me when I travel.” He reached for a roll, and buttered it generously.

Some of the mystery began to clear as Sara pieced their oddly fragmented conversation together. Jason Graham wanted someone to take care of Kelsey. It was a far cry from the office job she wanted, but it had advantages she couldn’t overlook. Assuming Jason Graham wanted live-in help, even when he wasn’t travelling, she wouldn’t have to worry about the problem and expense of an apartment or food. If she was careful with the money she made, she’d be that much closer to the freedom she dreamed of by the end of this job.

The decision made that beggars couldn’t be choosers, Sara said, “You want me to watch Kelsey?”

Jason Graham frowned. “I suppose there will be times when you might have to, but that’s only part of it.”

“Only part of it?”

“I need more than a baby-sitter. Kelsey’s mother, my wife Diana, died six months ago. Now Diana’s mother has suddenly decided she wants custody of Kelsey. I love my daughter more than anything in the world. To keep her, I have to prove I can provide a stable home background for her.”

Sara nodded. She was as stable as Mount Everest. There was something she had to say, though.

“I need to have some time to myself.”

He’d better make it clear this was not going to be the kind of marriage, she envisioned.

“You’ll have plenty of time to yourself,” he assured her. “You’ll have your own bedroom, and as much freedom as you want.”

Sara frowned. She’d taken it for granted she wouldn’t be sharing a room with Kelsey, and caring for a two year old would hardly give her a great deal of free time.

“To get back to what I was saying,” Jason Graham said, “The pediatric specialist says there’s nothing wrong with Kelsey that time won’t cure, but Dee Dee is trying to prove it’s my lifestyle that’s interfering with Kelsey’s progress.”

Sara’s stomach contracted at the anger in Jason Graham’s voice. This was a different kind of anger from Uncle Samuel’s uncontrollable fits of temper. Jason Graham’s anger was directed inward, not at her. The tense mouth, the muscle that ticked so clearly in his jaw, told Sara, that deep down Jason Graham blamed himself for his daughter’s condition. Responding to his pain, came as naturally as breathing.

“Kelsey will talk when she’s ready,” she said.

“I hope so. There’s nothing wrong with Kelsey’s hearing, so I just have to be patient.”

Jason Graham reached over and ran his knuckles down the side of his daughter’s chubby face. His expression as he looked at his child was filled with love.

Sara’s heart melted. Jason Graham had suffered an enormous loss when his wife died. It wasn’t fair that he should lose the child he obviously loved so much. By taking this job, she would be helping little Kelsey and her father.

Moses Judah, his lawyer, had warned Jason he would have to be very clear about the terms of the prenuptial agreement. He couldn’t run the risk of being taken to the cleaners later. As he looked at the woman seated opposite him, Jason felt like smiling for the first time that evening. He was positive the very thought of blackmailing someone would terrify Sara Adams.

“Could you be ready to leave for England in ten days?”

“Are you offering me the job?” She needed to hear him say the words.

That was an odd way to talk of marriage. Jason nodded surprised by the flare of relief in her eyes. He didn’t want her making any false assumptions, so he said quickly, “I know this is a very unusual approach, but for me its the only way out of a difficult situation.”

“I understand. I’ll do all I can to help.”

“Is there someone you want me to meet, or talk to? Your family? Your parents?”

That was a strange question. As an adult, she didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission before she took a job.

“I don’t have anyone.”

The words renewed Jason’s uneasiness. No matter how much he paid her, it didn’t hide the fact he was using Sara Adams. What other choices did he have? He had to make sure his bases were covered where the lawsuit was concerned. He also had to be in England in two weeks to negotiate a million dollar contract which was in the works. Postponement, even for a few months, meant he’d lose the deal. Discoveries in the electronic world were being made every day. If he waited, a dozen other people would have come up with the same idea he had. Manufacturers in third world countries would offer the product three times cheaper than he could. Being first and being fast, made the difference between success and failure.

“My secretary mailed you some references,” he told Sara Adams. “Did you get them?”

Why on earth would he mail her references? “Not yet. I didn’t check the mailbox before I left the house today. I’ve brought my resume with me.” Sara slid the brown envelope she’d been carrying across the table.

Jason’s eyes narrowed. Why would someone bring a resume to a first date? The only reason he was providing references was because he wanted Sara Adams to know she could trust him. “I brought Kelsey with me, so you could meet her right away. As I said before, she’s the most important person in my life.”

“I can see that. I’ll take good care of her.”

“Loyalty and commitment are very important to me.” He couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. “You have no other personal entanglements that would come in the way of our arrangement?”

“Personal entanglements?”

“A boyfriend? A lover?” Moses had told him to make sure there was no one who might instigate Sara Adams to cause trouble later.

Her face went bright red as she said. “No.”

He hated intruding in her personal life, but it had to be done.

“It’s absolutely imperative you realize that though this is an unusual job, I will not permit any kind of familiarity. As far as you and I are concerned you are my employee, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Of course.” Sara couldn’t prevent the stuffiness that crept into her voice. She wasn’t the type to straighten her employer’s tie, or climb into his lap to discuss his daughter’s progress.

Jason heard the note of hauteur. He’d offended her, but it couldn’t be helped. “There will be times when we’re both in awkward situations, but handled professionally, I think we can make this work.”

“I do, too.” Did the man consider diaper changing and cleaning up after a kid, ‘awkward situations’?

“I know tomorrow is Saturday, but as I’m rushed for time, would you mind meeting me at the lawyer’s office at ten?”

Sara’s brows shot up. She seemed to have lost the thread of Jason Graham’s conversation again. “Lawyer’s office?”

“We have to go over the terms of the prenuptial agreement, before I can get a special license.”

Sara stared at Jason Graham. Had nervousness affected her auditory system? Maybe she should have borrowed Uncle Samuel’s hearing aid for the occasion.

“P...prenuptial agreement?” she stammered finally.

Jason nodded. Why on earth was she looking so surprised? Surely she couldn’t be that naive. “It’s very common these days, and it’s the best way of protecting the interests of both parties before marriage.”

“M...Marriage?”

Jason nodded again, watching Sara Adams go white.

“Surely,” he said impatiently, “you had marriage in mind when you put that ad into the Catch Basin?”

“The C...Catch Basin?” She never even read the matrimonial page of the Valley View. She only knew about the section because Claire always talked about the ads she put in there for herself.

Jason bent and picked up the magazine from the side pocket of Kelsey’s diaper bag. It was opened at the page her ad was on.

“My secretary knows how concerned I am about the lawsuit. She showed me the ad and suggested a business marriage might provide the perfect solution to my problem.”

Sara stared at the highlighted ad blankly, before her gaze went to the top of the page. Horror jumped in to share the space with surprise. Not only had Claire changed the wording of the ad, she’d put it into the matrimonial section of the Valley View. How could she have done something like that?

Busy cleaning the house and packing Uncle Samuel’s clothes and a collection of thirty five years of things he’d never thrown away had kept Sara so busy she hadn’t thought to check the ad herself.

“It’s all a m...mistake.”

Jason’s eyes narrowed. Why the sudden about face?

“There’s no mistake,” he said grimly. “You put in an ad I answered it.”

“M...My friend was supposed to put this ad into the ‘Jobs wanted’, column. I don’t know how it got into the Catch Basin section.”

She should never have agreed to Claire’s plan in the first place.

“You see I needed a job badly,” she explained quickly. “My friend Claire works for the Valley View. She said no one would notice if she slipped an extra ad in....”

Sara stared at the tablecloth. Her mouth was running away with her. She shouldn’t have told him what Claire had done.

Making quick decisions were all part of being a businessman. Metaphoric arm twisting was something he’d never indulged in, but in this instance it was the only thing he could think of.

“I answered the ad in good faith,” he said sternly, suppressing the rising tide of guilt. “Even if it was a mix-up, what do you have to lose? You need a job, I’m offering you one.”

“I can’t marry you,” Sara said miserably.

“If you won’t consider my suggestion, I’ll have to call the Valley View, and complain about what’s happened. I just don’t have the time to look for someone else now, and I’m sure as hell not going to let Kelsey suffer because you’re getting cold feet.”

“It’s all a mistake,” Sara’s heart beat so loudly, she could barely hear herself speak. “You can’t complain to the Valley View. Claire will lose her job. She has a little boy to support, and her husband refuses to pay alimony.”

“Try me,” Jason said grimly. He had problems too, and the fear that he would lose Kelsey overcame everything else.

“I...I need some time to think.”

Sara put a hand up and rubbed her forehead, as if to get rid of the warring pictures there.

“I can give you till tomorrow morning.”

Jason Graham face didn’t show an inch of give. Her first impression of him being stern and tough had been right, after all. Their gazes clashed and Sara felt as if she were drowning in the power of his will.

“You need a job, Sara. I’m offering you one. We could help each other. Please don’t let me down.”

The plea, and the way he said her name startled her. In that second she knew Jason Graham was no domineering ogre; simply a man desperately afraid of losing his child.

“I’ll call you by tomorrow morning.” She got to her feet and held her hand out.

“What about dinner?”

“I can’t eat anything now. Thanks for the iced tea.”

She turned away telling herself she had to get away, give herself a chance to calm down, to think things out. Getting into Uncle Samuel’s old car, she rested her head on the wheel.

Who was it up there that was the patron saint in charge of employment? All she’d asked for was a regular, nine to five, ordinary job. What she’d gotten was enough to shake any human being’s faith in patron saints and prayer. She’d been offered marriage.

Not for the normal reasons of course...just so Jason Graham could keep his daughter.

Sara’s vision blurred as she backed out of the parking lot. She couldn’t let Claire suffer.

What had made Jason Graham decide she was the right candidate for the job? Did she have a stamp on her forehead that said, ‘Easily bullied. Plenty of experience slaving for a manipulative man’ ?

Marriage to Jason Graham would only be a replay of her life so far. Sara could never enter any kind of bondage willingly again. Not if she starved.

It’s a business arrangement.

She’d dreamed about marriage; about finding someone who would love her; someone whom she could share the rest of her life with. Her dreams held a house, a warm loving man, children.

What kind of a man suggested marriage could be a business arrangement?

Pulling into the driveway of Uncle Samuel’s house, Sara stared at it. The four bedroom house with an indoor swimming pool on an acre of land, was as close to a prison as she ever wanted to be.

The mailbox at the end of the drive held two envelopes. One was from Jason Graham’s office. The other was from Uncle Samuel’s lawyer. Her fingers shook as she ripped open the latter. If only she could have a little more time to find another job.

Your uncle specifically mentioned in his will that your occupancy of the house was to be terminated a month following his death. It was not to be extended under any circumstances.

I regret....

The rest of the words ran together as tears filled Sara’s eyes. Angry tears. Even from his grave Uncle Samuel had the power to hurt. Her mother had worked herself to death for him and he hadn’t cared. Sara had given him twenty four years of her life. That was twenty four years too many. She had to get out of here as soon as possible.

An hour later, after a shower and a sandwich, Sara paced the kitchen floor. Claire had taken Bobby to her mother’s in Sacramento for the weekend, so she couldn’t even call her. How could Claire have messed up so badly?

It wasn’t any use worrying about that now. She had to reach some sort of a decision soon. The facts were simple. Sara needed a job and a place to stay. Jason Graham needed a wife.

The ramifications bothered her. Marriage wasn’t a state one entered into lightly. Despite being plain and unattractive, she wasn’t willing to give up on her dreams.

Agreeing to Jason Graham’s ridiculous proposition would mean giving up her new independence. She didn’t want permanent ties to anyone right now, even if Jason Graham did think of those ties as business ones.

By threatening to complain about Claire, Jason Graham had proved he was just like her uncle. He didn’t understand honest mistakes. He was only aware of his own needs. All man. All self-involved.

The next instant honesty demanded she amend that conclusion. The tender way he’d looked at his daughter popped into Sara’s mind. She couldn’t fault his motivation. He loved his child and he wanted to keep her. He was simply doing what he thought would ensure that result. A parent had those inalienable rights.

She reached for the second envelope that had been in her mailbox, Claire’s voice ringing in her ears.

You’ve got to stop thinking about others and start learning to put yourself first, before its too late.

That was Sara’s first challenge.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Jason Graham had enclosed letters of reference from a bank president, a minister, two lawyers, and a woman who had worked for him for eight years. The words ‘good character’, ‘absolute integrity’ and ‘a man of principles’, were repeated over and over again. The woman, Rowena Harris, had added that Jason Graham was a wonderful employer and father. Since his wife’s death, he’d often worked through the night to make time for his daughter.

Sara walked over to the kitchen window. The mountains in the background, their peaks reflecting the glow of the setting sun, offered no solutions. Smart people create their own opportunities, the calendar on the kitchen wall said. Sara looked at it, and her eyes narrowed. Maybe there was something she could do with this situation.

She had to think of Jason Graham’s offer as a door to the freedom she wanted. Helping him win the lawsuit shouldn’t take more than six months max. The amount he’d mentioned he was willing to pay, was very generous. Quick calculations in her head told her she’d have more than enough money to pay a year’s rent on an apartment by then.

But marriage...Sara’s heart still refused to agree to a marriage that was a business arrangement. That was one dream she wasn’t willing to give up on. Dare she voice the only alternative she could come up with to Jason Graham? She could try. Resolution shot up her spine and flooded her brain, clearing fear away. Helping Jason Graham keep his daughter was one thing. Allowing him to bully her into marriage was another.

Sara was plain, not stupid. Living with Uncle Samuel had taught her men took what they wanted, riding roughshod over feelings in the process. There were too many bitter examples around for her to ever forget that. Claire’s bitter divorce, the sadness that had always clouded her mother’s eyes. If her father had been as great as her mother said he was, why hadn’t he waited to make love with her till after they were married?

She’d also learned that there was only one person who could stand up for Sara Adams. It was a job she had to do herself.

Sara stopped pacing and reached for the phone.

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