A Celebration Christmas

By: Nancy Robards Thompson

Chapter One

Cullen Dunlevy had never begged for anything in his adult life, but right now he was desperate. “I’ll pay you triple your salary if you’ll stay for two more hours, Angie,” he said. “And you don’t have to clean up after the kids.”

“Dr. Dunlevy, there isn’t enough money in the world to make me stay.” Unmoved, the housekeeper brushed past him. She paused at the top of the stairs. “Call me when you find a home for them.”

A home for them? They’re kids, not stray animals.

Cullen glanced down at ten-year-old Megan Thomas. All the color had drained from her already pale cheeks. Then his gaze found its way back to the hall-bath toilet, which was overflowing with some kind of expanding blue goop that seemed to be growing exponentially. The prank had been the final straw, the reason for Angie’s noon phone call to Cullen at the hospital, informing him he had exactly one hour to get home because she was fed up and leaving.

What happened to the theory “it takes a village”?

Couldn’t Angie have a little heart? Sure, the four of them were unruly, but anyone with an ounce of compassion could see their disobedience stemmed from grief.

The kids had lost both their parents in a car accident. Their dad, Greg Thomas, had been Cullen’s lifelong friend. Given the lingering sting of his own grief, he couldn’t imagine what the kids must be going through. They were homeless and alone in the world except for each other. And they were at the mercy of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

A pang of guilt coursed through Cullen. He had room for them in this big, empty house, but was that enough? Didn’t kids deserve two loving parents? He was married to a job that demanded sixteen-hour days. He worked and slept, only to get up day after day to repeat the routine. He didn’t know anything about raising kids. Hell, he’d thought he was doing the right thing by leaving them with Angie.

Obviously that had been a colossal mistake.

Standing there, alternating glances between Megan and the creeping blue foam, Cullen realized if he were any further out of his element he might sprout fins and gills and start flopping on the tile.

He swallowed an expletive and reminded himself that he might not be the best candidate to parent his friends’ children, but the one thing he could do to honor Greg and his wife, Rosa, would be to make sure the kids stayed together. The kids would live with him until he found the right family that would take all four of them.

In the meantime, he needed to convince Angie to stay just a little longer.

The kids ranged in age from five to ten years old. They were relatively self-sufficient. In other words, Angie wouldn’t be warming bottles and changing diapers. Just one more hour—give or take a few minutes—during which she could go on about her usual housecleaning duties, toilet-clogging blue foam exempted, while he interviewed Lily Palmer, the nanny candidate. At least Lily had agreed to change her schedule and move up their interview to one o’clock that afternoon.

Until he’d explained his dire straits, she hadn’t been free until the end of the week. At least she was flexible. Of course, he’d cushioned the story, telling her that his temporary child care had fallen through and he was in a pinch. There was no way he was going to scare her off with the gory details of pranks and temper tantrums. He prayed to God that she was right for the kids and available to start immediately.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Cullen,” said Megan. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. He’d known Megan and her brother and two sisters since birth. Hell, he’d known their father since the two of them were in kindergarten. Uncle Cullen was an honorary title that he didn’t take lightly, especially now that Greg was gone.

“I told George not to dump the potion in the toilet,” she continued earnestly.

Nine-year-old George was the second oldest after Megan, and he was conspicuously absent at the moment.

As chief of staff at Celebration Memorial Hospital, Cullen ran a tight ship and prided himself on being unshakable even in the face of the most horrific medical emergencies. However, after taking in Greg’s kids, Cullen had discovered he wasn’t as unflinching as he thought.

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