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The SEAL’s Ward by Knight, Katie, North, Leslie (1)

One

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat that, please?”

Jed Tremayne, retired Navy SEAL and current private security for hire, had faced down enemy snipers and charged directly in the line of fire to defend life, liberty, and honor. Yet, at this moment, he’d never felt more incompetent in his life—all because of the eleven-year-old girl currently sitting at his kitchen table with her nose stuck in a book, as usual.

The snooty administrator from the private school gave an aggrieved sigh. “I’m sorry, sir, but your daughter is just not making adequate progress in her classes, nor does she socialize with the other children. She is not assimilating into the student body sufficiently to meet her needs or ours.”

Nose wrinkled, Jed held his phone away from his ear and scowled down at it, taking a calming breath before responding. “First of all, she’s not my daughter.” He flinched slightly at the words. The girl glanced over at him before returning to her story. Cursing under his breath, Jed walked from the kitchen into a little alcove near the pantry for privacy. “I mean, she is my daughter, sort of. She’s my ward and she lives with me.” He left unsaid that their living situation was because Nala’s parents were killed in a car accident not long ago. Surely, the administrator already knew—and he didn’t want to say it aloud so that Nala might overhear. Her parents’ deaths had hit her incredibly hard. She didn’t need additional reminders. “All of this should be in your files.” He exhaled slow and scrubbed a hand over his close-cropped brown hair. “Listen, we’re both doing the best we can here. Can’t you give us a break?”

Asking for help wasn’t a skill Jed excelled at. It wasn’t in his nature. He’d been raised to prize independence, to trust only himself, to live by a strict moral compass and remain in control at all times. All things that had made him a huge success as a Navy SEAL.

All things that were causing him to be an enormous failure in the parenting department.

None of this was a surprise—even the phone call he was currently enduring. In truth, he’d realized that he needed help about two weeks after Nala had come to live with him. Between the crazy hours and danger associated with his security jobs, and Nala’s issues with socializing and adjusting to her new life, their road to resettlement had been bumpy, to say the least. Their mutual grief over the loss of her parents only made things worse.

Nala’s father, Martin Jackson, had been a member of Jed’s SEAL team. They’d been good friends. Hell, Jed had even served as best man at Martin’s wedding to Nala’s mother, Ayesha. He’d known Ayesha too, both of them having grown up in the same rough neighborhood here in Baltimore. He’d been the one to introduce Martin to her. The three of them had been tight. When the call had come in six months ago about the car accident that had killed them, he’d been devastated. Even more so when he’d gone to collect Nala from her home and bring her here. Neither Martin nor Ayesha had any other family to speak of, and they’d chosen Jed as Nala’s godfather, never imagining he’d be called on to step into the role of parent.

It all seemed like a horrible dream, except the reality of this nightmare was all too real.

He shook off the past and did his best to focus on what the administrator was droning on about now. “…follow my suggestion, it would work out best for all of us.”

“I’m sorry.” Jed rubbed his hand over his face. “I didn’t catch that.”

He could imagine the administrator’s pinched expression and sour frown at the other end of the line. Like that old Saturday Night Live sketch of the Church Lady, but on steroids. “I said that we believe it’s in everyone’s best interests to remove Nala from classes at the present time. We would suggest hiring a private tutor for her until such time as her social anxiety issues can be dealt with properly.”

Perfect. Jed managed to resist his impulse to slam his fist through the nearest wall in frustration and instead gripped his phone tighter. The plastic case cracked under the pressure. “Homeschooling? Seriously? Don’t you think she’d do better being around other kids right now instead of isolating her at home? How is she supposed to hone her social skills with no one to talk to?”

“She can talk with you and with her instructor, Mr. Tremayne,” the administrator said with a derisive sniff. “And please don’t raise your voice to me. I’m trying to help you with this situation.”

Then why does it feel like another kick in the teeth?

Jed swallowed those words and inhaled deep to slow his pounding pulse. With his background, he’d dealt with plenty of people like her—thinking they were so much better than him, thinking they were above it all in life, above all the petty problems and dirty deeds everyone else in the world had to deal with. Still, he’d hoped things would work out for Nala at the school. It had one of the best ratings in Maryland for helping kids with special needs. Apparently, those needs didn’t extend to stutters. Or bereavement. Or being one of the few black kids in an otherwise all white school.

Dammit. Jed let his head fall back, and he stared at the ceiling. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to find help for Nala. Lord knew he’d been interviewing nannies since the day after she’d moved into his restored Victorian house. Many had applied for the job, none—so far, at least—had passed muster. Too old, too young, too judgmental, too lax. It was getting to the point he feared there wasn’t a person alive who could help him or Nala.

Even the therapist had tried to assist with the search, sending over several people for him to talk with about the job. But there’d been no good match. All he wanted was someone kind and caring and truly concerned about the little girl who’d lost so much already, someone who connected with Nala in a way that no one so far had, not even Jed.

He’d tried, God knew he had. Making her dinners, watching movies on Netflix, even buying her a special, limited-edition Harry Potter series box set because he remembered Martin telling him one time it was her favorite. So far, all his efforts had netted him was a greater understanding of Moana than any thirty-six-year-old man should have, and Nala withdrawing even more because she constantly walked around with her nose stuck in a Potter book.

There was one interview left today and if this one didn’t work out, Jed wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He’d talked to a new potential client a few days prior and if things worked out, it could mean he’d have steady hours and income for the foreseeable future. But only if he had the situation with Nala squared away.

“Mr. Tremayne? Are you still there?” the administrator asked. “Hello?”

“Yes. I’m still here,” he said, his flat tone betraying none of the tension roiling inside him. Marvelous. So now he needed not only a nanny, he needed a tutor capable of homeschooling his kid. Jed leaned back slightly to view Nala, still sitting at the table reading. She looked so small and vulnerable it made his chest ache. All alone in the world and so, so young. His battered heart yearned to make things better for her, and he said a silent prayer for help doing just that. She reminded him of himself as a young boy in so many ways. Granted, his parents were still alive, though he’d not talked to them since the day he’d left to join the Navy. They might as well have been dead for all he cared. For all they’d made him suffer growing up.

Whatever happened, he refused to put Nala through the same tortures he’d faced simply for being different from what others expected. The snooty administrator and her snooty school could both go hang. He and Nala would find their way together, no matter what it took. Jed saw this as a new mission, a new op, and he would not, could not, fail at this. “Fine. Consider Nala no longer a student at Rucks Academy. I’ll find a suitable tutor and homeschool her until we find a better facility for her needs. Your academy is woefully inadequate for a special girl like my Nala. Perhaps you should take a good look at your own values and prejudices before inflicting them on an innocent child. You don’t deserve her as a student, and you could do with a bit more diversity and inclusion at Rucks.”

“Sir, I hope you’re not implying—”

“I’m not implying anything. Goodbye.” He ended the call abruptly.

Feeling an odd mix of vindication and apprehension, Jed slowly walked back into the kitchen.

Nala didn’t look up at him as she spoke softly. “W-was t-that Ms. B-borchelt?”

Jed grabbed a pale ale out of the fridge and twisted off the cap. He wasn’t usually much of a drinker, especially this early in the afternoon, but he needed something to take the edge off, and one ale would hardly do him any harm. At six-two and two-hundred pounds, he could’ve drunk a whole case with minimal side effects. Another skill from the SEALs—he could hold his liquor.

After a few long swallows, he set the bottle aside on the counter and leaned his hips back against the edge of the granite. “How would you feel about taking your classes here for a while?”

She shrugged and turned a page in her book.

“I’ll hire a tutor, someone you like, and they can teach you right here at home,” Jed continued, used to one-sided conversations lately. “Maybe someone who likes to read the same books you do. I’ve got a new lady coming for an interview today, in fact. A friend of mine recommended her.”

He glanced at the clock. His latest interviewee should be here any time.

“I-I d-don’t c-care,” Nala stammered, a slight frown creasing her brow. “She w-won’t l-like me anyw-way.”

The sound of the doorbell cut through the kitchen like a knife and Jed sighed. He wanted to counter Nala’s pessimism with some optimism, but the truth was that his luck with finding a nanny had not been good. He had no reason to suspect his odds of finding a suitable tutor would be any better.

“I’ll just get that,” he said, picking up his bottle and taking another swig as he strode out of the kitchen and down the hall to the front door. His friend at Walter Reed who’d recommended Tessa Frederick to him had described the woman as smart, efficient, and conscientious—all traits Jed would need to see demonstrated for himself before even considering hiring the woman. She had apparently worked as a speech therapist and once owned a bookstore, which he guessed were decent qualifications, though he’d prefer someone with more direct child care experience. He’d reserve judgment until he’d seen her for himself.

Forcing a smile he didn’t feel, he yanked open the door to find the exact opposite of what he expected. The female standing on his stoop looked flustered and rumpled and far younger than he’d expected. Wind whistled around her as she brushed a few strands of honey blonde hair from her eyes and flashed him a tentative grin. “Uh, hello. Tess Frederick. I’m here to interview for the nanny position.”

Jed battled an unexpected intrigue over her slight lisp and her hesitant expression and stepped aside to allow her entry. He didn’t miss the way her gaze dropped to the bottle in his hand and he resisted the urge to tuck the bottle behind his back. He was not going to defend drinking a beer. He cocked his head to the side. “Right. Please come in.”

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