Authors: Peggy Webb
Tags: #star crossed romance, #romance with single dad, #small town romance, #sequel, #sweet romance, #romance, #Peggy Webb backlist, #Southern books, #Peggy Webb romance, #classic romance, #contemporary romance
A Prince for Jenny
by Peggy Webb
Copyright 2011 Peggy Webb
Cover design copyright 2011 Pat Ryan Graphics
All rights reserved. Copyright 1993 by Peggy Webb.
Once again in memory of Cooper, who was special in so many ways, and in honor of her grandparents Jack and Shirley, who understand the true meaning of love.
"Mr. Sullivan, that tight-lipped fool your children call a nanny has fainted dead away on the floor..."
Holding the telephone in a death grip, Daniel Sullivan bolted from his chair and stood glowering at the yellow roses on his desk. The woman on the other end of the line went on without pausing for breath.
"... and looks as though she won't be able to navigate her way to the bathroom, let alone get your children home, and I'm calling to see what you want me to do about them."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Watch your language, Mr. Sullivan. You're talking to an old woman." She didn't sound old: She sounded spry and decidedly wicked as she chuckled into the phone. "I'm Gwendolyn Phepps, Miss Jenny Love-Townsend's executive assistant."
Daniel cursed under his breath. If his secretary weren't out there pouring champagne to a bunch of hand-kissing bigwigs, he'd have known who she was. Hell, he wouldn't even be talking to her. Helen would have taken care of everything.
"Where are my children now, Miss Phepps?"
"They're with Jenny in the backyard."
What kind of secretary was she? Calling her boss Jenny? The dossier had listed Jenny Love- Townsend as the best portrait artist in the nation. You'd think she'd run a tighter ship.
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Stay right where you are."
Daniel slammed down the phone and grabbed his jacket. Then he pushed open the door of his office and waded through the mob attending the open house to find his secretary. The mayor and the chief of police had her cornered over by the fireplace.
Daniel lifted one eyebrow, and she came running.
"Mr. Sullivan?" She pressed her hand over her heart. "I wondered where you'd disappeared to."
"I didn't disappear; I was hiding."
"Mr. Sullivan ... from your own guests?"
"I just pay for the games, Miss Gibbs. I don't have to mix and mingle with the players." He explained where he was going. "Make my apologies."
"I always do."
He took the Corvette and roared out of the company garage, hell-bent for leather. The modest shops and quaint restaurants of Florence, Alabama, blurred together as he whizzed by. He didn't take the time to look, didn't even care to look. Florence was just another city to conquer, another base for Sullivan Enterprises; Alabama just another state to put between himself and Claire Louise Montague Sullivan.
The portrait studio was located in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. A hand-painted wooden sign proclaiming simply The Studio stood in front of an old-fashioned house with a wraparound veranda, fanlight door, and ornately carved cornices.
A woman who had to be Gwendolyn Phepps met him at the door. She looked as feisty as she'd sounded. Tight corkscrew curls dyed a bright yellow bounced around a face lined with age. Her massive hips were encased in dungarees, and her sweatshirt sported a hand-painted frog and the slogan, You have to kiss a few frogs before you meet your prince.
"Well, Daniel Sullivan, if you're not a sight for sore eyes." She tipped her head back and squinted up at him. "I can see why the whole town's buzzing. Especially the females."
"Miss Phepps, I presume."
She threw back her head and roared with laughter. "Damned if you don't sound like something out of a bad English movie."
A pompous ass. That's what he sounded like, but it served its purpose.
She stepped aside to let him in. The entry hall was wide and gracious, with polished wooden floors, beaded wood walls painted white, and Miss Nell Williams propped up in the corner looking green.
He knelt beside his children's nanny and took her limp wrist. "Miss Williams, are you all right?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Sullivan." She pressed a washcloth to her forehead.
"No need to be sorry. I'll call a doctor."
"No," she said, attempting to rise. Daniel helped her up and led her to a chair. "I'm not sick, just a little woozy, that's all."
"She didn't mind the dogs," Gwendolyn said, bustling in with a glass of water. "She didn't even mind the cats. It was the guinea pigs that did her in."
"Franklin and Eleanor." She thrust the water at Miss Williams. "Roosevelt," she added grinning. "Jenny loves animals."
Maybe he should have read that dossier more closely. He'd meant to send his children to a portrait studio, not to a zoo.
"Where are my children?"
"Out back" Gwendolyn Phepps nodded toward a door at the end of the hallway. "I'll take care of the swooning nanny, but I'm warning you, don't bother Jenny if she's painting. It breaks her concentration."
Painting portraits in the backyard? He'd bother her all right. He was going to get his children and go to somebody who knew how to pose them on a large velvet settee and create a portrait worthy of hanging over a marble fireplace.
He strode down the hall and pushed open the back door, expecting the worst. What he saw took his breath away.
His two children were flying through the air in rope swings, their voices bright with laughter. And beside them was the most exquisite creature he'd ever seen. Her white skirt billowed around shapely legs that were all woman, but her hair framed a face that was more heavenly than earthly, more angel than mortal. The wind caught her laughter as she swayed back and forth in the swing, and Daniel thought of bells, silver bells like those he'd heard somewhere in a church in the Alps.
"Go high, Jenny, go high," his daughter Megan chanted.
"Yeah, real high," Patrick chimed in.
"Let's go high together." There was an odd, breathless catch in Jenny's voice, but it had the lilt of music. She touched one delicate foot to the ground and pushed off, sending her swing gliding through the summer air.
Standing in the doorway, drinking in the sight of her like a poor desert wanderer who'd discovered water, Daniel heard snatches of some long-forgotten lullaby. At first he thought he must be dreaming, then he realized the music was real.
Jenny was humming.
It was an Irish lullaby his grandmother had sung to him when he was a child no older than Patrick and Megan, a song so fraught with memories that tears burned the back of Daniel's eyes. If he'd had a heart, he'd say that Jenny touched it; but everybody knew Daniel Sullivan didn't have a heart.
Impatient with himself for being a sentimental fool, he swung wide the door and stepped into Jenny's backyard. It was an enchanted place worthy of the woman in the swing, a fairyland of graceful willow trees and fragrant flowers and white wicker furniture with cushions the color of the sky. Jenny's easel was set up beside a white wicker stool, and swaths of pastel-colored oils streaked the white canvas. Even a utilitarian type like Daniel could see that the finished painting would be as exquisite as its artist.
The three in the swings were having so much fun, they didn't even see him.
"Megan ... Patrick ... watch this." Jenny set her swing in a circular motion. The ropes twisted tightly together, then released in a quick burst that sent Jenny spinning round and round.
Fascinated, Daniel stood beside a wicker chair watching. What manner of woman was she?
Her hair whipped loose from its pins and spread across her face in a pale golden curtain. A capricious breeze lifted her bow and sailed it through the air. It landed with a plop in Daniel's outstretched hand.
Holding the bit of satin as if it were a burnt offering, Daniel started toward the swings.
"Daddy... Daddy," his children called, racing toward him. They tagged him on the legs then raced on, chasing each other around the yard.
Jenny dug her feet into the ground, and her swing came to a bone-jarring halt. For a moment she sat very still, then slowly she lifted one delicate hand and parted the hair covering her face.
"Oh," she said, peeking through her curtain of hair, her mouth deliciously rounded and her face as rosy as the flowers climbing the trellis behind her swing.
"I didn't know women still blushed."*
"I'm ..." Her face got even pinker when she saw her hair ribbon in his hand. She patted her hair as if searching for the bow might miraculously send it back to its rightful place. "I seem to have lost my bow."
She tilted her head to one side and looked at Daniel with eyes so wide and blue and innocent, he was almost taken in.
"And I seem to have found it." He held it out, and for a moment he thought she wasn't even going to take it. Then she reached out shyly, almost like a child. Her fingers brushed his skin with a touch as delicate as the wings of a butterfly.
"Thank you," she said. Prim. Proper. Like a lady. Daniel wasn't fooled. Nobody was that innocent.
Jenny caught her hair and anchored it back with the ribbon. She put the bow in crooked, and then smiled up at him.
"Thank you," she said again with that breathy, lilting voice. The rakish angle of the bow made her look like a mischievous imp. An innocent, mischievous imp. He wondered what her game was. "I'm Jenny."
"Daniel Sullivan. Miss Phepps said I'd find you here."
"Gwendolyn... Yes, I like to paint in the garden. Especially children. They're like the flowers..."
She stood up, tall and elegant and so close, her soft skirt brushed against his leg. For a moment he was caught up in the nearness of her, her delicate face and heart-shaped mouth and sweet scent.
"Like this lovely yellow rose." She reached up and touched the boutonniere his secretary had made him wear to that damned open house.
Her hand lingered on the rose, and she was so close, he could see each separate eyelash, the fine, silken texture of her skin, and the tiny drop of moisture on her upper lip where she touched it with the end of her tongue.
He did have a heart, after all. It was probably cast iron, but it was beating such a rhythm, he figured Jenny Love-Townsend could hear. She was tempting, dangerous. He stepped back, determined not to be seduced by her feminine wiles.
She blushed again, then without a word turned away and started toward her easel. There was an odd little hitch to her walk, as if she had a leg injury. But he'd seen her legs, had stared at them like some besotted fool while her skirt blew round them in the wind. They were perfect. Beautiful.
"I suppose you want to see the portrait."
"Yes." He approached her cautiously, stopping close enough to see but not close enough to touch. Jenny lifted the canvas and held it toward him, smiling expectantly. "I'm a businessman, Miss Townsend ..."
"Just Jenny ... please."
"You could be drawing a pig in a poke there, for all I know." At her crestfallen look, he hurried to make amends. "But I'm sure it will be a wonderful portrait. I'm told you're the best."
"My talent is not mine. It's a gift. I treat it the way all gifts should be treated... with great care."
There was no rebuke in her voice, not even of the most gentle kind, but he suddenly felt guilty and ashamed, as if he'd taken some precious gift and treated it with careless disregard.
She held the portrait between them a moment longer, watching him with such intensity that he began to think she was seeing all the way through to his shriveled soul. Finally she turned and put the canvas back on the easel, and Daniel breathed a sigh of relief.
"I understand you'll need the children back for further sittings?"
"Yes. Some artists work from photographs. I have to see life to paint life."
He wondered how much life she had seen, this beguiling, ephemeral-looking woman in her Victorian dress and her lopsided hair ribbon. Then he was angry at himself for wondering.
Turning quickly, he summoned his children. "Megan! Patrick!" They raced to his side, their cheeks whipped pink by the wind and the sun, and their eyes bright with laughter. He hoped Jenny captured their sense of wonder and innocence, for he knew how soon it would fade. "Go inside and wait with Miss Williams."
They started off at a trot.
"And don't run in the house."
"We won't, Daddy." Megan, the ringleader, spoke for both of them. He could tell by the tone of her voice that she'd race through Jenny's polished hallways as soon as she got out of sight.
The child-rearing books didn't tell what to do about things like that.
" 'Bye." Jenny waved at them.
" 'Bye, Jenny. Pet Eleanor for me." Megan, the animal lover.
He watched his children through the door, then turned back to Jenny. The impact of her hit him afresh, and she blushed under his gaze. He rammed the hand that had held her hair ribbon into his pocket.