Operation Cinderella

A Suddenly Cinderella Series Book by Hope Tarr

Manhattan magazine editor Macie Graham always gets her story—and she’ll do anything to uncover the dirt on famous conservative radio personality Ross Mannon. After he smears her article on his show, nearly costing Macie her job, she devises a plan to masquerade as a modern-day Cinderella and get her revenge on the infuriating Texan.

All Ross wants is a woman with old-fashioned values to be his housekeeper and role model for his troubled teenage daughter. When the perfect woman shows up, Ross is relieved—until he finds himself drawn to his gorgeous, red-stiletto-wearing new employee. “Martha Jane” is opinionated and sexy, and Ross is intrigued…and more than a little turned on.

Macie thought Operation Cinderella was foolproof, but Ross, with his rugged good looks and southern charm, proves to be as perfect behind-the-scenes as he does in public. But when she finally uncovers a secret that could destroy Ross’s reputation, she faces losing her job or losing the fairy-tale ending she didn’t even know she wanted.
 
 

Information:

Title: Operation Cinderella (A Suddenly Cinderella Series Book)
Author: Hope Tarr
Genre: Category – Contemporary
Length: 287 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62266-983-7
Release Date: October 2012
Imprint: Indulgence
 
 

 
 
 

Praise for Operation Cinderella:

“Fun, sassy, and sexy…I loved it!” – #1 NYT bestselling author Susan Wiggs

 
 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Hope Tarr

Prologue

 East Village, Manhattan
 
October

 

“Keep your jock strap on, I’m coming.”

Macie Graham stepped out of the shower to her apartment buzzer blaring. Fuck, that was fast. She’d been ordering from All Thai’d Up for two years now, at first because the edgy whimsy of the name appealed to her and later because they screwed up her standard order of Panang Curry with a side of sticky rice fewer times than the average St. Mark’s take-out dive. Bonus: the restaurant was only a few blocks from her apartment. Still, this was the first time one of their bicycle delivery guys had made it to her building in sub-fifteen minutes. Dude must be a regular Lance Armstrong. Impressive.

The buzzer let out another ear-splitting screech. Okay, this was getting annoying. Grabbing her robe off the hook, she called out from the steam-filled bathroom, “Chill already, I said I’m coming.” A stupid thing to do, literally talking to the walls, and yet considering all the stupid to bad things she’d done in the past month and a half, talking to herself didn’t begin to make the list.

She wrapped a towel around her streaming wet hair and raced through the living room, emptied of possessions except for her inflatable mattress, single suitcase, and her cat Stevie’s feeding bowls. Aside from the few boxes in her bedroom, everything else was in storage—in limbo like the rest of her life.

Reaching the door to her apartment—well, hers until tomorrow—she punched the intercom button. “Sorry, I was in the—”

“MJ…Macie, or whatever the hell you’re calling yourself these days, I know you’re in there. Buzz me up—now!” Ross’s voice, armed with an angry edge, rose above the crackling.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…

Whipping away from the intercom, Macie pressed her damp back against the double-bolt, emotions reeling between shock, elation, and a primal fear. Ross. What was he doing here? How had he found her? And now that he had, how could she convince him to go away?

“Macie, it’s no use pretending. I talked to Francesca. She told me everything.”

At the mention of Ross’s ex-wife, every pore in Macie’s body seemed to open, soaking her terry cloth robe. She swallowed deeply, sucking down air like a college freshman quaffing beer at a kegger.

So this is what a panic attack feels like. I always wondered. Maybe I’ll do a story on it someday. Someday—assuming I survive.

She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Had she really gone from features editor of On Top Magazine, one of the hottest, hippest women’s magazines to come on the scene since Jane, to hunted fugitive in six short weeks?

“Macie, I know you’re in there.”

Ross’s voice, angry sounding but weary, too, dragged her back to the madness of the moment. It was time to pull up her Big Girl pants and face the so-called music…which hopefully wouldn’t involve either police sirens or angel harps.

“Buzz me in and hear me out. You owe me that much.”

Swallowing hard, Macie opened her eyes and turned back around. He was right. She owed him that much. That much and so much more.

She reached out a trembling hand and punched in the security code.

 

 

Chapter One

Offices of On Top Magazine, Midtown Manhattan

September, Six Weeks Earlier

“Graham, I want your ass in my office in ten minutes. Ten minutes—got it?” Over the crackle of intercom static, Starr’s pissed voice reverberated off the framed magazine cover blow-ups blanketing the walls of Macie’s office.

Macie opened her mouth to answer, “Sure thing,” just as the line clicked dead. Her managing editor had just hung up on her. Could a pink slip be far behind?

She jerked open a desk drawer and searched inside for something to kill the headache hammering her skull, the double whammy of too many dirty martinis in celebration of Labor Day the night before and being blindsided that morning by her latest ballsy editorial decision blowing up in her face. No aspirin, just her luck—but there was a travel-size bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Loosening the child safety cap almost cost a sculpted nail, but once she had it off, she brought the bottle to her lips and knocked back a soothing bubblegum pink swallow.

Setting the antacid aside, she faced her computer screen, loathing bubbling up like bile. “You…asshole!”

The asshole, conservative media pundit Ross Mannon, smiled back at her from the webcast she’d paused in mid-play. With his cropped dark blond hair, chiseled features, and cerulean blue eyes, it didn’t take much imagination to recognize why the female Newsweek reporter had dubbed him the Robert Redford of the Right.

The Texas sociologist had made national headlines the year before by publicizing his research study showing a strong positive correlation between the hours American teens spent online and their likelihood to engage in a laundry list of high-risk behaviors, including unprotected intercourse. The conservative media had latched onto the study’s findings like a starved leech let loose inside a Red Cross blood bank. Within a week, “Dr. Ross” was making guest appearances on national news talk shows, decrying the country’s “culture of part-time parenting couched in denial and politically correct double speak.” Six months ago, he’d landed his own daily weekday radio program broadcast from the nation’s capital. Currently, three hundred radio stations around the country had picked up “The Ross Mannon Hour” as part of their regular programming, and the show’s website pulled in around 100,000 visits per day.

Until now, Macie had left Mannon alone. On Top might run some pretty candid—okay, in-your-face—copy, but taking on the latest conservative media messiah qualified as just plain stupid.

It was Mannon who’d put the kibosh on their peaceful coexistence. He’d gotten his hands on a copy of On Top’s current issue, spotted Macie’s feature article on the growing number of parents opting to prevent unwanted pregnancies by putting their teenage daughters on birth control before they had sex—“Forget the Fairy Tale. Teen Sex is Fact, Not Fiction”—and made the magazine the target of that morning’s “Ross’s Rant.” He’d ended by giving out On Top’s website, mailing address, and toll-free phone number, urging his listeners to make their voices heard. Within minutes the magazine’s overloaded server had crashed and the switchboard had lit up like a billboard in Times Square.

Along with the phone calls, which had ranged from hostile to deranged, there’d been e-mails to the corporate Powers That Be denouncing Macie’s article as trash. Macie hadn’t really worried much about that. On Top’s readership and Ross Mannon’s radio audience were planets apart, a separate species of entertainment news consumer. But when a major advertising account, Beauté, a manufacturer of high-end hair care products targeting the “tween” to teen market, pulled the ad spread they ran in every issue, citing the morals clause in their contract and concerns over branding and corporate image, well, that was another story.

She clicked her mouse to maximize the clip. Mannon’s blond head and broad shoulders filled her screen, and for a crazy few seconds she forgot why she was supposed to hate him. More than his looks, though, there was something in his eyes that brought to mind long-forgotten fairy tale fantasies about knights in shining armor, princes capable of bringing you back to life with a single, petal-soft kiss, and True Love, forever-after love, the kind of Big Love that outlasted a single sexy weekend or hot hook-up night—only, of course, it didn’t really exist.

All that perfection had to be a smokescreen, a front. Picture-perfect types like Mannon invariably had a less than storybook behind-the-scenes. He was altogether too good-looking, too hot to be living the squeaky-clean life of a contemporary Prince Charming. His website bio, pared down to a smattering of innocuous factoids, stood out as a big friggin’ red flag. Born and raised in Paris, Texas. A football scholarship to the University of North Texas, where he’d stayed on to earn a PhD. One daughter, Samantha, but no mention of a wife, which almost certainly meant he was divorced. Hypocrite! Do a little digging and the frog hanging out inside the pretty boy prince would leap to the surface. Just give her the chance, the access, and she could blow Mannon’s cover—she knew it.

It was all about the access.

She pulled at the ends of her waist-length hair, now straightened and colored jet black, and clicked on the pause button to pick up where she’d left off viewing the video.

Mannon’s deep-timbered Texas drawl blared from her Boston speakers. “Folks, I don’t usually bring up personal stuff on the air, but I’m gonna go ahead and make an exception. Looks like my fifteen-year-old daughter, Samantha, is going to be living with me twenty-four-seven for the foreseeable future, and the plain truth is I’m not much of a cook or a housekeeper…”

The plain truth. Ha! I’ll bet you wouldn’t recognize the truth if it bit you on your uptight ass.

“But what my Sam needs more than any of those things, even more than someone to chauffeur her around—and believe me, that kid’s schedule is packed tighter than the president’s—is a role model, a lady who models the kind of core values we talk about on this show.”

Macie fought the urge to gag. Poor kid. Sight unseen, she felt an affinity with Mannon’s daughter, whose situation struck her as eerily similar to her own childhood. It hadn’t been easy growing up as a precocious free-spirit. But when you were born to people—trolls—whose idea of parenting meant crushing independent thought at every turn, holding onto your self-worth, not to mention your sanity, was a constant struggle.

“Last Sunday,” Mannon continued, “I ran an ad in the Washington Times online. ‘Wanted: woman with old-fashioned values to serve as live-in housekeeper, child care provider, and female role model for precocious fifteen-year-old girl. Salary and benefits negotiable; values firm.’ You’d think ad copy like that would make it pretty clear what type of person I’m looking for, and yet would you believe I must have interviewed a dozen applicants this past week, and the last one showed up with green hair and a nose ring?”

Macie slid a hand over her stomach, feeling the small gold belly button hoop below her cropped body-hugging black angora sweater, and listened on.

“Okay, that’s enough about my domestic issues. This show is first and foremost about you. If any of you listening out there have a topic you’d like us to address in a future Ross’s Rant, shoot me an e-mail and put ‘Rant’ in the subject header. Again, that’s r-o-s-s at r-o-s-s-m-a-n-n-o-n dot com.”

Macie stared at the screen, feeling as if steam must be jetting out of her ears. Pretty clever—make that devious—getting his listeners to come up with the content for his upcoming broadcasts. Slacker!

She had her middle finger pointed to the ceiling when it hit her. Holy shit, it really was all about the access. Mannon had just handed her the proverbial keys to the kingdom.

Adrenaline pumping, she signed off from the On Top local area network and logged on to her personal account. Typing Mannon’s e-mail address into the Send box took balls, but still, it was the easy part. Crafting a message he would buy was trickier. Sticking to the K.I.S.S. rule, Keep It Simple, Stupid, she pounded out a few simple sentences aimed at balancing the requisite background information with just enough bait. She read it over one last time, clicked Send, and darted a look at the chrome-encased wall clock. 4:28. Two minutes to spare—damn, I’m good.

She shoved her feet into her Jimmy Choo platform sling-backs, grabbed her iPhone, and shot up from the desk. Stepping out into the neon-lit hallway, she pulled the office door closed behind her. Fairy tales were for kids. Exposing a fake prince for his true frog self—real grownup life didn’t pack more magical mojo than that.

Watergate Towers, Northwest Washington DC

 

“Sam, I’m home.” Ross Mannon stepped inside the condo foyer and pulled the door closed behind him. He wasn’t ordinarily home by five p.m., but then this had been a special day.

No answer came, not that he’d really expected one, but the backpack dumped by the door told him that Samantha was home. Still, the place was so quiet an ice cube cracking would have sounded like a siren. Ice wasn’t far from the truth, either. His daughter was dishing out the classic cold shoulder treatment—and he was definitely being served.

He dropped his keys on the marble-top foyer table and headed down the beige-carpeted hallway to her bedroom, the scene of his latest parental crime cop bust. Her door was closed—no big surprise there. His fourth knuckle-bruising knock finally brought her to answer it.

She opened it a crack, just enough for him to make out one watery eye and a sliver of pink-rimmed nose. Shit, she’d been crying. Call me Father of the Year—not! “What do you want now?”

Taking a breath, he reminded himself he was the adult in this situation. “You and I have some talking to do.”

The door widened another notch, revealing a ribbon of stiffened upper lip and a sliver of white wire from her iPod headphones. “I don’t feel like it.”

“Feel like it or not, we’re going to settle this thing once and for all. Be in my study in five minutes or you’re grounded for the week.”

She backed up and drew the door closed on what skirted a slam.

So much for starting fresh.

Feeling as exhausted as if he’d just butted heads with Rita Mae Brown, Ross turned and headed down the hall to his study, his sanctuary in an apartment that otherwise felt too super-sized, too sleekly trendy, and entirely too beige to ever really suit him. That’s what came of hiring an interior designer, he supposed. At least he’d stuck to his guns and kept her out of his study. The room’s mission-style furnishings, terra cotta colors, and Navaho woven rug were purely him…as were his books, leather-bound editions of American literary classics from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mark Twain to Arthur Miller, all of which he’d had shipped from his ranch back in Texas. After six months in the city, the study still smelled slightly of…home.

A stab of homesickness struck. Determined to ignore it, he stepped behind the desk, took out his computer, and hit the power button. Logging on and scrolling through his e-mail inbox, he promised himself that unlike the magazine mishap that morning, which he’d bungled badly, he wouldn’t lose his head. If the kid was angry, then let her be angry. Any emotion, even rage, was preferable to the smoldering silence she dished out most days.

A huff drew his gaze to the door. Sam stood on the threshold, one bare foot braced out in the hallway as though she was already planning her exit strategy, her escape.

In a single glance, he took in her mousse-spiked hair, belly-baring T-shirt, and low-rise jeans and felt his parental self-esteem sinking like the Titanic. His baby girl, where had she gone, and who was this sullen, slouching stranger? Heavy black liner rimmed angry blue eyes, taking him back to the month before when she’d shown up in the lobby of his Watergate condominium post midnight, a backpack slung over one bony shoulder and rivulets of mascara running like muddy rivers down her cheeks.

“I’m not going back to Mom’s, and you can’t make me,” were the first words out of her mouth, her chin—shaped just like her mother’s—pointed due north.

He hadn’t been sure what to do first: shake the shit out of her for talking to him like that or hug her because she was, after all, safe and not lying dead in a Dumpster. He’d opted for the hug, squared things with the doorman, and then hurried her upstairs to his apartment. As soon as he’d closed the door behind them, her tough-girl exterior crumbled like a cookie.

“Oh, Daddy…” she cried in that little girl voice he remembered so well, the voice that not only pulled on his heartstrings but threatened to snap them clean through.

And that’s when he’d known Sam wasn’t just acting out. For her to run away, something had gone wrong, very wrong, back in New York.

Just when he sensed she was on the brink of opening up to him, his BlackBerry belted out the first few bars to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” the ringtone he’d assigned to his ex-wife, Francesca.

Sam had closed up like a clam. Sobbing, she made a beeline for his spare bedroom, the one earmarked for her when she came to stay.

The opportunity lost, Ross picked up the call. “Frannie, listen up. Sam’s here. She’s safe.” He spent the next thirty minutes calming her down while trying to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong

Only, Frannie was clueless, too, which scared the crap out of him. Until now, his ex had always been the cool parent, the confidante, the cross between a best friend and a big sister. If she was in the dark, then whatever had gone wrong with Sam wasn’t small. It was major. Learning that she’d apparently shoplifted a bullshit charm bracelet a few weeks before had stunned him to his core.

“How the hell did that happen?” he’d demanded. “And why am I just hearing about it now?”

“Don’t interrogate me, Ross,” Frannie snapped, her British sangfroid on the cusp of a major meltdown. “I know you think I’m a bloody poor parent but—”

“That’s not true.”

Frannie was no Mrs. Cleaver, that was for damned sure, but she loved Sam with all her heart. He might disapprove of her travel schedule and crazy work hours—he did disapprove—but she was a good mom. And a kid, a girl especially, needed her mother, which was why he hadn’t fought for shared custody, settling instead for seeing Sam during summers and every other holiday.

He drew a deep breath and dropped his voice. “Look, whatever went wrong for Samantha went down in New York, and it’s obvious she sees DC and my apartment as her haven—for now, anyway. Let me get her calmed down, enroll her in school here, and see what happens. Just before you called, she was close to confiding in me. I could feel it.”

That last statement had won Francesca over. In the end, they’d agreed he would keep Sam with him, but only until the winter break. In the meantime, he had his work cut out for him. He hadn’t been a full-time parent for years. Hell, he hadn’t been much of a part-time one, either. Still, he’d always thought his relationship with his daughter was pretty solid. Staring at her now, he admitted he’d been kidding himself. Just how well did he really know her? What was she into? Who were her friends? What were her plans for the future, her dreams? Did she even have any? More than the all-black clothing and the tongue stud, it was the dull, dead look in her eyes that had him worrying. Just last summer she’d seemed so bright-eyed, so…happy.

“Why are you looking at me all weird like that?” Sam’s voice snapped him back to the present. “If you have some big-deal thing to say to me, then say it.”

“Okay, I will.” He cleared his throat, steeling himself to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: the confiscated magazine. Not yet able to go there, he started out with, “First off, I want you to know I’m working on getting someone to help us out around here. You know, keep house and cook and drive you back and forth to school and anywhere else you need to go so you won’t be stuck here when I’m held up at the studio.” Someone to watch over you when I can’t. Someone, a woman, to help me figure out what the hell’s going on with you before it’s too late.

Her eyes narrowed. “Isn’t that what Mrs. Alvarez does?”

“Well, sort of. But Mrs. A doesn’t drive.” Nor was she young or cool enough for Sam to consider her as anything but an authority figure.

She snapped out of her slouch. “So you fired her!”

Ross stiffened. Why was she so hell-bent on seeing him as some kind of ogre?

Reaching for what was left of his patience, he said, “I did not. Mrs. A asked for a leave of absence to help out with her new grandbaby. I told her she can come back whenever she’s ready.”

It was the truth, though judging from Sam’s face, she wasn’t buying it. Lower lip dropping, she raked a hand through her hair, the nails painted black and bitten to the quick.

“Seeing as we have an extra bedroom nobody’s using, I figured it would be easier if we had someone stay here instead of commuting,” he added.

Whatever he’d said, it set her off like a firecracker on the Fourth of July. “You’re hiring a live-in!” she shouted, eyes blazing. “Is she going to search my room, too?”

Finally, the elephant in the room wasn’t only acknowledged but paraded around like a prize pony. “Honey, I wasn’t searching your room. When you didn’t answer my knock this morning, I thought you’d overslept. I didn’t want you to be late for school.”

Late for school, my ass. He’d been scared shitless she might have done something to hurt herself. Maybe he was just being paranoid, but she’d been acting so depressed and secretive, he hardly knew what to expect. Hearing the shower running in her bathroom, he’d heaved a sigh of relief. She was running late, end of story. He’d turned to go when the On Top Magazine lying open on the nightstand snagged his attention. The article title, “Forget the Fairy Tale: Teen Sex is Fact, Not Fiction” caught his eye, but it was the subtitle that had him seeing red. “Why smart parenting means prepping your daughter with condoms, the Pill…”

Staring at those big bold block letters, Ross had felt like he’d been belted with a thunderbolt from the sky and a sucker punch to the gut all rolled into one terrifying freeze-frame moment. Time seemed to stop. His breathing seemed to stop. Everything seemed to stop, everything except for the fear. Was Sam thinking about having sex or was she already having it? And if she was having it, was she having it with or without protection? Did protection mean condoms or the Pill, both, or neither? If the answer to any of those questions was yes, then clearly he was doing the asking way late, maybe even…too late? Too late—and his baby was just fifteen!

No previous ah-ha moment had ever hit him so hard or hurt so much. Somehow he’d become one of those parents—the parents he railed about on his radio show—the ones so selfishly wrapped up in their own lives they didn’t have a clue where or who their kid was. Now he was one of them, a lost tribe awash in denial. While he’d been the parental equivalent of Rip Van Winkle, his Sam was being poisoned with toxic cultural messages. The rage ripping through him had required an outlet and there’d been just one place for it to go. He’d picked up the magazine, screwed it into a tight cylinder, and shoved it beneath his arm.

“When I saw that”—rag, piece of trash—“publication, I—overreacted? Okay, flipped out—“felt concerned. That’s not the kind of material you should be exposed to at your age.” Or ever, he wanted to add, but since he couldn’t protect her indefinitely, he could at least exercise the three years of parental rights he had left under the law.

She folded her arms across her chest like body armor, an age-old symbol of defiance. “That’s my decision.”

He glanced down at her latest “decision,” a gold naval ring, and felt another piece of his soul chip away. “No, honey, I’m afraid it’s not. As long as you’re under eighteen, your mom and I are responsible for you.”

She let out a sharp laugh, the cynicism slashing at his heart. “Funny, Mom never censored my reading. Or my Internet access,” she added, referencing the parental controls he’d activated within hours of her appearance.

Maybe she should have, he thought, but loyalty and something else, something deeper, held him back from saying so. Frannie had shouldered the main responsibility for raising Sam for a decade. Dissing her decidedly more permissive parenting style when she wasn’t present to defend herself wouldn’t be fair to her or good for Sam.

Instead he said, “As long as you’re living under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules.” Good Lord, he’d gone from old to positively Paleolithic.

She stared back at him, cheeks red and eyes defiant. “Maybe I won’t be ‘under your roof’ for much longer.”

Her lower lip quivered, reminding him of when she’d been little and a skinned knee or broken doll had brought her running to him to make it all better. Back then he’d been her knight in shining armor, her hero to the rescue. If only he could figure out a way to rescue her now.

“Look, Sam, if something’s…wrong…there’s nothing you could ever do to make me or your mom stop loving you. Come here, baby.” He stood and stretched his arms out into the empty space between them, willing her to meet him, if only halfway.

“Not this time, Daddy.” Eyes on the verge of overflowing, she turned and ran, bare feet pummeling down the hallway.

Absorbing each retreating thud like a gut punch, he dropped his arms to his sides. The familiar sound of her door slamming sent him folding into the leather desk chair. Good going, Mannon. Now she really hates you.

Scouring a hand over his forehead, he reached into his desk drawer and brought out the magazine. On Top. He flipped through, stopping at the cover story. He’d read it several times now, but like a kid picking at a scab, he couldn’t resist another look. Laced with interview quotes, slanted statistics, and colorful sidebar anecdotes, it wasn’t badly written even if its message was crap. Forget the Fairy Tale… He shook his head, thinking of another word beginning with F and swearing it beneath his breath.

As if it wasn’t confusing enough being a teenager, the media had to put out the message that there was no such thing as Mr. Right, let alone Prince Charming. Apparently the best a young woman could hope for was Mr. Right Now, and parents could expect their daughters to go through several Mr. Right Nows before the age of twenty-one. Jesus H. Christ! Teens, both boys and girls, needed to understand that promiscuity brought consequences, serious consequences. Condoms were important for sexual safety but they also weren’t infallible. Sometimes they broke—and so did hearts. If Samantha had questions about sex, he’d like to think she’d bring them to him or, better yet, her mother. Instead, it seemed, she’d looked to a magazine for answers—the wrong answers.

And just what the hell was wrong with fairy tales anyway? He’d believed in a few of his own…once upon a time.

He tossed the magazine back into the drawer and closed it with a slam. If that was the kind of bullshit Samantha was reading, no wonder she seemed so pessimistic and depressed. The housekeeper ad he’d just rerun had better come through and fast. If not, he’d have to break down and go through a regular employment agency, though he didn’t hold out much hope of finding her there, at least not in Washington, DC, because he wasn’t just looking for a child care provider or a housekeeper or a cook, but some magical meshing of all three and more. What—no, make that who—he needed was a modern day fairy godmother, a woman not only young enough but also cool enough to connect with a jaded fifteen-year-old who’d spent most of her formative years in Manhattan. If she came with a magic wand, so much the better.

An automated ding drew his attention back to the laptop, where a new e-mail had just landed. Wanting to be done with work for the night, he clicked on the mailbox icon. The subject line, “Sweet and Old-fashioned,” snagged his eye and piqued his curiosity. Another spam message advertising mail-order brides? It was most likely listener e-mail, although most people weren’t that creative with their headers. Still, with time on his hands, he might as well open it.

Dear Dr. Mannon :

For the past several years I’ve been employed as an au pair in Manhattan to a family with two teenage children. My employers are moving overseas to undertake mission work for their church, and having just learned through your radio program that you are seeking a housekeeper/childcare provider, I’m interested in discussing a possible placement in your home. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Education from the Catholic University of America and will be happy to provide additional references upon request.

P.S. I absolutely *love* your program!

The message was signed Martha Jane Gray and included a cell phone number with a Manhattan 212 area code.

Ross dragged a hand through his hair and tried not to get his hopes up, though the woman sounded promising. Hell, she sounded downright perfect. He read the e-mail again just in case he might have taken wishful thinking to the point of dreaming her up. Her bachelor’s degree was in Education. She had experience dealing with teenagers. She lived in New York! The Manhattan address was sure to be a selling point with Sam, who had the attitude that anyone who lived farther out than Jersey City must be some kind of hay-chewing hick.

And to top it off, apparently her current employers were missionaries. That was just the kind of wholesome, positive influence he was looking to bring into his daughter’s life.

Martha Jane Gray. Even her name seemed to carry him back to a kinder, gentler time. Already he was seeing her as some kind of cross between Julie Andrews from Mary Poppins and Juliet Mills from Nanny and the Professor—solid, serene…magical.

And yet in a world chock full of nuts, you couldn’t be too careful, especially when bringing somebody into your home. First thing tomorrow he’d check her references, starting with a call to her current employers, the Swansons. One more phone call to her alma mater, Catholic University, and then assuming she came up clean, he’d arrange to bring her down to DC for a face-to-face interview. He’d be sure to have Sam come along as well. No matter how good Miss Gray might look “on paper,” the tipping point would be how she handled herself with Samantha.

Ross reached for the computer’s mouse. Well, Miss Martha Jane, let’s see what else you have to say for yourself. Smiling for the first time that day, he clicked on the Reply icon and started typing.

Maybe it wasn’t time to forget the fairy tale, or give up on the dream, just yet.