EXCERPT: The Naughty, The Nice and The Nanny - Author Willa Nash

October 31, 2021

EXCERPT: The Naughty, The Nice and The Nanny

Chapter 1

Natalie

“She’s an angel.”

“Aren’t they all?” I deadpanned.

“Of course not,” my boss muttered on the other end of our phone call. “Some kids are shitheads.”

“Whoa.” I giggled. “Cathy.”

“Natalie, I know you’re on vacation, and I know you’re overdue for a break, but you’re the only one available to take this job. You know I hate turning down clients.”

I scrunched up my nose. Cathy hated turning down clients, and I hated turning down Cathy. But this was my vacation. The first vacation I’d had in ages, and one I’d purposefully timed to coincide with Christmas.

I was going to enjoy the holidays with my own family instead of caring for someone else’s.

This morning I’d come downtown for a hearty breakfast of eggs and pancakes at Main Street Overeasy before setting out to do some last-minute gift shopping while enjoying the festive décor.

Enormous gold, red and green garlands were strung high across the road, their strands twinkling beneath the clear blue sky. The trees, wrapped in tiny lights, glittered from last night’s snow. Window displays were teeming with Santas, ornaments and intricately wrapped gifts. The morning sun was out, bright and cheery, warding off the winter chill. It was the perfect kickoff to my vacation.

“Cathy, I can’t.”

“Please,” she begged. “The father sounded desperate. He’s in town for the holidays. Sounded like the workaholic type. You’ll be caring for his daughter during the day while he works. He mentioned a family holiday function as well, though I told him you were only obligated to work during the day. Apparently, his regular nanny walked out yesterday.”

“I thought you said this girl was an angel. Nannies don’t walk out on angels.”

“He agreed to pay twice your regular rate.”

I groaned. Of course, she’d tempt me with the money. “I never should have told you about Magdalena.”

My beloved 1969 mint-green Volkswagen bus. Magdalena. Three weeks ago, her transmission had crapped out. The mechanic had ordered a new one from a parts store online that specialized in vintage Volkswagen parts, but with shipping, it was going to cost me over four thousand dollars.

I was a governess not a gazillionaire.

“And it’s only for a week?” I asked.

“Yes. Just a week.”

“Oh, stop your smiling. I asked a question. I didn’t agree.”

“How can you tell I’m smiling?”

I rolled my eyes. “You always smile when you get your way.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“Yes,” I grumbled. “I’ll do it.”

“Excellent! Thank you. I’m sure this week will be a breeze.” Cathy’s famous last words.

She knew I preferred to work on long-term assignments. I’d been with my last family for three and a half years. The Scullys had been the best of the best family in Bozeman, Montana. Their kids were actual angels, sent from heaven to reward me for being the person Cathy could call upon for these breezy assignments.

The Scully boys had turned fourteen and sixteen this past year. Both were active in school, playing football, basketball and running track. Now that the oldest had his driver’s license and they went to the same school, they didn’t need me to shuffle them around from point A to point B.

My last day with them had been yesterday, and I’d cried like a baby while hugging them goodbye. They’d teased me mercilessly for my blubbering, and even though Instagram wasn’t cool for kids these days, they’d promised to post a selfie every week as proof of life.

After New Year’s, I’d be starting with another family. The kids were five and nine. Assuming we had a good vibe, I might be their nanny for years.

Short-term jobs, like the one she was pitching, were more like glorified babysitter gigs.

But for Magdalena, I’d be the babysitter.

“Send me the details,” I said.

“Okay. They’re expecting you by ten, so you’d better get going.”

“Ten.” My feet ground to a halt. “Today? I thought you’d at least give me one day off. Can I start tomorrow?”

“Um . . .”

“It’s three days before Christmas. I haven’t finished my shopping yet.” Because I’d blocked off my vacation days to buy and wrap gifts. “You’re killing me, Cath.”

“The mall is open until nine.”

“You know I hate the mall,” I muttered.

This served me right for putting off my shopping. Every year I swore I’d start earlier. And every year, I procrastinated. The mall this close to Christmas Eve was a particularly sweltering level of hell.

“Thank you, Natalie. I can always count on you.”

“If it wasn’t for Magdalena . . .”

She was smiling again. I could practically hear the stretch of her lips. “You’re the best.”

“You’d better pick me as Employee of the Year.”

“You were Employee of the Year last year. Everyone will think I’m playing favorites.”

“Because I am your favorite and you do play favorites.”

“True.”

“Bye.” I ended the call and checked the time.

Ten o’clock was in twenty minutes.

I spun around, retreating to my dad’s Subaru parked in one of the lots off Main. He’d loaned it to me while Magdalena was in the shop.

Dad always said I was fiercely loyal. At the moment, I felt epically spineless. Cathy might believe she had no one else to call, but that was because she always called me first. For short-term engagements like this, when my primary family was on vacation, or for a weekend when a client needed additional help, I was usually her first request. And I’d always said yes.

But she’d earned my devotion by treating me right over the years and giving me the best families, like the Scullys.

Cathy owned a local nanny agency in Bozeman, and with the growing online services available to parents these days, she survived by setting herself and her staff apart. We were not the caliber of nannies you’d find scouring the classifieds. Our reputation was unmatched and new clientele was sent through referrals only, hence the reason she hated to tell a prospect no.

This dad in desperate need of a holiday nanny for his angel probably hadn’t blinked twice at a double-rate fee.

Magdalena, baby, this one is for you.

I reached the Subaru—Barney? Barley?—I was still in the process of picking the perfect name. My reflection in the car window had me whipping out my phone to call Cathy.

“If you’re telling me you’ve changed your mind, you’re too late,” she answered. “I already called the father back and told him you were on the way.”

“I don’t have time to go home and change. Is there a dress code?”

“No dress code, but what are you wearing?”

“Blue turtleneck sweater. Ripped jeans. Duck boots.” I was dressed for a day of shopping, not working. The Scullys hadn’t had a dress code, but I never would have showed up in jeans with frayed knees. “I also haven’t washed my hair yet.”

“I’m sure it will be fine. I’ll email him a note, letting him know that we’ve interrupted a personal day. If he has specific requests, he can let you know before tomorrow.”

“Okay. Bye.” I unlocked the car and got behind the wheel just as a text dinged from Cathy with the address. I punched it into my phone, then followed the GPS across town.

I’d lived in Bozeman for all of my twenty-nine years, and the fall after graduating from high school, I’d started working for Cathy.

As one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Bozeman had transformed before my eyes and was no longer the town of my youth. Where there’d once been farmland, there were neighborhoods packed with new homes. Big-box stores were chasing out the small, local shops, and the number of new restaurants was staggering.

The directions took me to the outskirts of town, where the homes got larger and larger with every passing mile. As the mountain foothills neared, the properties sprawled and every private drive was blockaded by an iron gate.

“In one hundred yards, your destination is on the left.” The navigation rang through the Subaru’s Bluetooth.

Magdalena was too old for Bluetooth. I’d miss it—and these heated leather seats—when I returned the Subaru.

A log archway towered over the upcoming driveway entrance. The black metal gates were open as I eased onto a narrow lane lined with evergreens. Their limbs hid most of the house from sight until I rounded a gentle corner and then—whoa.

“Oh, hell. I definitely should have washed my hair.”

It was a ski lodge masquerading as a family home.

With its dark wooden siding and red-trimmed windows, the house stood as proud and bold as the mountains at its back. The front door was wooden with a stained-glass window in its face. Where most porches would have a standard light, this home had two roaring gas lanterns, their flames flickering even during the day.

I’d been to many wealthy homes in my tenure as a nanny to Bozeman’s elite but this one was the pinnacle. If Kevin Costner walked through the door and told me to get off the Dutton Ranch, I wouldn’t be surprised. Only this wasn’t the Yellowstone TV series, and as the clock on the dash glowed ten after ten, it was time for me to get to work.

Parking in the looped driveway that I suspected was for guests, I swiped up my purse from the passenger seat and checked my hair in the rearview. The blond waves I’d added this morning made my ponytail fancy—sort of.

The kid wouldn’t care what I looked like, right? And the father, well . . . he’d have to deal with short-notice Natalie.

I stepped outside and hurried to the house, pressing the doorbell. Its chime was a familiar tune. Was that . . .

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I gave the door my best lip curl. That stupid song would be stuck in my head all damn day.

Footsteps sounded from inside and I put on my smile, ready to greet my new employer. The door flew open and—

“Hi—oh.” My. God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

I’d just said hi-oh like one of Snow White’s singing dwarves to Maddox Holiday.

The Maddox Holiday. The handsome boy turned holy-shit-he-was-hot man who’d once occupied each and every one of my teenage fantasies.

Maddox Holiday.

He’d been the most popular guy at Bozeman High. He’d been the boy every girl had shamelessly crushed on. He was the rich dad in need of an emergency nanny?

I definitely should have asked more questions before agreeing to this. I definitely should have washed my hair.

“Hi. Are you from Cathy Caron’s agency?”

“Yes. Hi.” I managed it without the oh. Better. “I’m Natalie Buchanan.”

“Maddox Holiday.” He waved me inside and closed the door behind us. “Nice to meet you, Natalie.”

Wait. Nice to meet me? Seriously?

He’d already met me.

When. I. Was. Seven.

I stepped past him, wishing, hoping and praying that there’d be a faint flicker of recognition in his mesmerizing blue gaze. But . . . nothing.

The guy had no clue who I was. Damn.

Maddox was three years older than me, so it wasn’t like we’d run in the same circles. But for many years, we’d gone to the same schools. His twin brothers were my age. He should know me.

Still . . . nothing.

Fourteen-year-old me died a little inside. Her fantasy that one day Maddox Holiday would realize she was the love of his life went poof like a tuft of snow in the wind.

What was I doing here? When was I going to learn to tell Cathy no? For the next week, Maddox Holiday would essentially be my boss. And the man didn’t have a clue that I’d once fallen off my skateboard and scraped my knee in his driveway.

“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” he said.

“Sure.” More wishing. More hoping. More praying.

Nope. Nada. He didn’t recognize me.

Captain’s log. December twenty-second. Today marks the most humiliating day of my life.

Should I tell him? Would that make it weird? Probably.

Magdalena was counting on me to rescue her from the mechanic, so I squared my shoulders, put on a smile and pretended that I was standing across from any other father who was paying me to care for his child.

“Did Cathy explain the position?” he asked.

“At the highest level.” Though she’d left out his name, one I would have remembered. I suspected the full details about this position were in my email inbox. “You need a nanny for a week, correct?”

“A week. Your predecessor walked out yesterday.” His jaw clenched, and wowza, it was chiseled. The corners were so sharp they deserved a snowman statue in their honor.

Just another dad. He’s just another dad.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t exactly like other dads. None of the fathers I’d worked for in recent years were this insanely handsome. None had eyes like crystal-blue jewels. None had a gravelly voice that sent shivers down my spine.

Time had only improved Maddox Holiday.

He seemed taller now, standing a head over my five-foot eight. Maddox’s face was clean-shaven, and his dark hair had been finger-combed away from his face. In high school, he’d kept his hair short, but if he would have had this hair, he would have had girls shoving their panties in his locker.

He probably already had.

Breathe, Natalie. It’s just Maddox mega-hot Holiday. Focus on work. The job. The kid. “You have a daughter, correct?”

“I do. Violet.” His gaze softened at his daughter’s name. “She’s seven. We’re home for the holidays to visit my parents. This is their house, so I’m afraid there’s never a quiet moment.”

“Oh. Okay.” The ski lodge belonged to Hannah and Keith? I wasn’t sure why I was surprised. The Holidays were one of the most successful families in Bozeman.

Hannah was a real estate broker, and her face was on at least half of the for-sale signs around town. Her brokerage was the most well-known and most respected in the county, partly because she sold the best homes—those her husband built.

Keith Holiday was the most sought-after custom-home builder in the area. People paid a premium for a Holiday Home and were never disappointed.

Keith must have built this place. Even though I’d only seen the foyer, the interior was as grand and gorgeous as the exterior. A chandelier hung high above my head, its pendants refracting the light. Sunshine poured through the abundance of windows. The natural stone tiles beneath my boots were a beautiful shade of grayish blue.

It would not be hard to work in this house for a week.

When Maddox and his brothers had been growing up, they’d lived in town. Two blocks over from my house.

Heath and Tobias used to ride their bikes past my childhood home on their way to our neighborhood park.

Wait. His brothers. Maddox might not remember me, but Heath and Tobias would. Were they going to be here?

“Is that okay?” Maddox asked.

“Huh?”

“You look worried.” He studied my face, his eyes narrowing. “The extra people in and out. Will that be a problem?”

“Not a problem,” I lied, fixing my smile.

“Good. I wish I had the week off work, but it’s a critical time for my company. I’ll be working in the house, upstairs in the office, in case anything comes up. But with the phone conferences and emails—”

“Adding a seven-year-old into the mix is too much.”

“Exactly.” He nodded. “I just need some help. My parents would normally jump in and watch her, but they’re busy planning the annual party on Christmas Eve. Plus they’re working this week too. I don’t want Violet bouncing between us all, feeling lost. I want her to have some fun while we’re here.”

That was sweet. Then again, Maddox had always been sweet. It was the reason all the girls had crushed on him. He’d never let his popularity or good looks turn him into the arrogant playboy like so many other guys in his social circle.

“And Violet’s mother?” I asked. Maddox hadn’t mentioned a wife and there was no ring on his left hand. “Will she be here?”

“No, I’m divorced. She’s in LA.”

“Okay.” Single dad. Grown-up Maddox just kept getting sexier.

“I’ll let Violet give you the tour of the place. But please make yourself comfortable while you’re here.” Maddox studied me and for a moment my heart swelled. Did he remember me? Yes? Please? “Violet is probably in her room.”

Gah. This guy sure knew how to crush a girl’s ego. Not that I had an ego. Geeks who loved board games and volunteering at the senior center to call the Sunday bingo games couldn’t afford egos.

While Maddox had been dominating the football field as quarterback and dating the head cheerleader, I’d spent my Friday nights in high school babysitting for the neighbors.

“Thank you again for coming.” Maddox gave me a small smile that crinkled his eyes. Another improvement of man over boy. Except beneath the smile and rugged good looks, he looked . . . tired. I’d seen that type of exhaustion before in a lot of parents who’d brought in a nanny to help. Mostly it had been from mothers and fathers with demanding jobs who’d realized they couldn’t do it all.

Natalie to the rescue.

“You’re welcome. It’ll be my pleasure. Cathy said she is an angel.”

A flash of panic crossed his gaze. It was as telling as the previous nanny’s hasty departure. “Let’s, uh . . . let’s go find Violet.”

I followed him as he walked deeper into the house, doing my best not to stare at his firm ass in the best pair of jeans I’d seen in my life. His long legs moved with a natural swagger, the kind that most attractive men must have been taught in college.

Maddox glanced over his shoulder.

I tore my eyes away, barely in time, before he busted me staring at his behind. “It’s a beautiful house.”

Smooth, Natalie. Really smooth.

“My dad built it.”

I forced my gaze to the house and off the man. “He did a fantastic job.”

The walls were painted a soft white. The decorative wood accents gave the tall, open spaces warmth. The windows were a feature on their own, providing views at every angle of the sprawling snow-covered property beyond the glass.

Maddox led me past a living room full of cozy leather pieces. Red embers glowed in the stone fireplace. Past the hearth, a sweeping staircase with a beautiful, spindled railing led to the second floor.

“I’ll get you the gate code for tomorrow morning in case it’s closed,” Maddox said, glancing over his shoulder as we started up the steps.

“I parked in the front loop. Is that okay or would you prefer I park in a different spot?”

“The front is fine. Mom hired a chef for the week so there’s no need to cook for Violet. If you have any dietary restrictions, just let him know.”

“None unless vegetables count. I trade vegetables for Christmas cookies this time of year.”

Maddox chuckled and the smile that stretched across his face nearly sent me careening over the banister. Straight white teeth. Full lips. A dimple. I’d forgotten about that dimple over the years.

Boss. He’s my boss-ish. Which was why I only stared at his ass for three stairs instead of five. In my defense, it was at eye level.

The second floor was as beautiful as the first. At the top of the stairs, a balcony overlooked the living room. Plush carpets padded our footsteps as we walked down a hallway.

Maddox stopped at the third door. “Violet?”

The bedroom was bigger than my living room. A fluffy, white bed sat in the center of the room, draped with a gauze canopy. The toy chest against the wall was open and the floor littered with books and stuffed animals and . . . was that a Nerf gun?

Excellent. I’d expected Barbies but Nerf guns were much better. After years with boys, I’d become a self-proclaimed sharpshooter.

“Violet,” Maddox called again.

No answer.

“She was just in here.” His forehead furrowed. “Violet, if you’re hiding, please come out.”

Silence.

“Violet.” He marched into the en suite bathroom, coming out seconds later to check under the bed. “Maybe she went to the kitchen.”

I followed as he led the way to the main floor. We’d just reached the living room when a crash echoed through the house.

“Shit.” Maddox’s steps hastened down one more hallway.

The scent of sugar and vanilla hit my nose. Cake. Or cookies, but I was guessing cake. When it came to sweets, I was also a self-proclaimed expert.

We rounded a corner and stepped into a wide kitchen I suspected most restaurateurs would drool over. Standing in front of a cluttered island, a red-faced man in a chef’s coat was wiping a glob of chocolate cake batter off his neck.

His nostrils flared. His gaze was narrowed on a girl in the middle of the room.

She wore a red tutu and matching glitter slippers. In one hand, she held a wooden spoon. In the other, a butcher’s knife.

“You must be Violet,” I said.

The angel.

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