Romance with heat and heart...
"Get up, Jared!" Luke Allred snapped. He was determined to start things right now that he was back in Mountain Meadow. For one thing, they would go to church, but getting his teenaged son out of bed was turning into torture for them both. As Luke's tone edged over into anger, he felt a tug on his sports coat. He glanced down to where Emma now stood next to him with her thumb creeping into her mouth. Her delicate blond brows were drawn together in a worried frown, and Luke choked back another snarl for Jared to wake up. Instead, he bent down to his daughter.
"I'm sorry, baby." He sighed. "I'm not angry. I just need for Jared to get up and get dressed so we're not late."
"I don't wanna go," came a mutinous voice from beneath his son’s pillow. "It's stupid. You're only doing it to make Uncle Jake and Aunt Holly think we're one big happy family. What a fake! We haven't been a family since mom died."
Emma sniffed, and Luke closed his eyes. When he looked at her again, two big, fat tears rolled down her cheeks. There were times he wanted to strangle his son, but then he would remind himself his children were having a much more difficult time moving on from Colleen’s death. Luke had his work as a veterinarian and now he had the added bonus of being back in the town he’d grown up in, complete with at least one of his brothers, Jake, still here.
Luke crouched next to Emma and wiped the tears away with his thumbs before leaning forward to press an awkward kiss to her forehead. "It's okay, Em. Why don't you go on downstairs and get some toast started for all of us while I talk to your brother?"
Her enormous, spiky-lashed gaze slithered to the mound of Jared. She nodded and hurried out of the room. Luke turned, narrowing his gaze on his son. As soon as he was sure Emma was downstairs, Luke yanked the covers back and growled, "Get your butt out of bed, or I'll drag you bodily into that church in your boxer shorts."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Try me. I've had it with your smart mouth and your angry-at-the-world attitude. I'm sorry Mom’s not here. I'm sorry you think I'm such a terrible father, but I draw the line at you making your sister cry. Now get out of that bed and get dressed. If you're not downstairs in fifteen minutes, you're toast!"
It was a bad start to a day that only got worse. Jared was sulky and hostile. Emma was clinging and withdrawn, not even letting go to smile at Melodie, the pastor’s daughter who lived next door. When his sister-in-law Holly’s little brother, Tyler, invited Jared over after church so they could go swimming at the park, Luke gave his okay just to get his son out of his hair for a while. As he and Emma walked back around the block to the house, Luke glanced at the watch on his wrist. They would have enough time to change before they drove out to the old Crawley place, where his sister-in-law had told him he could find Rachel Hastings, the woman he hoped he could talk into taking a temporary nanny job.
Jake, said they'd all gone to school together, though Rachel had been in between the two of them. For the life of him, Luke couldn't remember her. So many years had passed, bringing a succession of classmates, clients, and neighbors. The fact he couldn’t recall her made him nervous and even more taciturn than usual.
Since Colleen's death, they'd had a host of housekeepers parade through. Between Jared's attitude and Emma's emotional distress, it was more than most people wanted to handle. Luke hadn't made it any easier. Since the accident, he'd been as closed off in his own way as Emma. He wanted to change that dynamic. Needed to. That's why they'd moved, but now he wasn’t so sure his kids were as ready to get on with life as he was.
* * * *
Rachel sat on the glider swing on her front porch, a plastic dishpan full of tiny well-fed kittens next to her. The final one to get lunch she cradled in her hand as it nursed from a baby doll size bottle. The kittens were a switch from the opossum triplets she’d released last month and the raccoon cubs she’d be releasing in the next few days. This time of year always seemed to be busy.
As she put the kitten back with its brothers and sisters, Rachel heard a vehicle bump its way down Mistletoe Lane. The whimsically named road was a running joke around the county because it was little more than a glorified goat path. She was more nervous than she wanted to admit.
Holly Allred had called her last night wondering if she could help her brother-in-law by watching his kids until school started in the fall. It had taken Rachel a minute to figure out Holly was talking about Luke. Two years ahead of her, Luke had been her crush. Of course, he'd never noticed her. No one had.
Rachel Crawley, as she'd been then, had been a tiny mouse of a girl made even more awkward by having skipped two years of school. As a twelve-year-old high school freshman, no one paid any attention to her, least of all a popular jock like Luke. She tugged at the braid that hung over her shoulder. Not much had changed.
“Back in the house with you,” she murmured to the sleeping kittens as she picked up the pan and shouldered her way back inside. Ernie was there to greet them, jumping up and down as he followed her. Rachel narrowed her gaze on him. “You keep an eye on them and mind your manners.”
By the time she stepped back out on the porch, the hulking, red SUV had halted in the shade of a sturdy maple. Rachel swallowed as Luke stepped out of the driver's side. Twenty years had passed since she watched him graduate from high school. Part of her hoped he had grown a paunch, a receding hairline, something that would lessen his impact, but if anything, he was only more attractive. As tall as she remembered, his hair was still dark and his light gray-green eyes met hers without an ounce of recognition.
Embarrassed anger made her smile stiff. Couldn't he at least pretend? Someone must have mentioned they had been in high school around the same time.
He extended his hand. "Mrs. Hastings? I'm Luke Allred, the new veterinarian. My sister-in-law Holly called you."
"Call me Rachel," she responded automatically, but with an edge of reserve in her voice she knew made her sound cold. She took his hand, noting that as soon as she dropped it he jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, while she wanted to press her palms together to savor the tingle. "Holly said you were looking for someone to help with your kids. Is this until your wife joins you?"
"My wife died a year ago," he said.
“My concern now is my kids. They’re in a new place and I don’t want to rely totally on family to help us get settled.”
Rachel was embarrassed. Holly had probably mentioned some of his background, but Rachel had been distracted. She focused her irritation on Luke. After all, he was the cause of her current discomfort.
"I can't take on anything long-term, Dr. Allred. School starts in September."
"I'm not looking for long-term. They'll be in school in the fall too. I'd need you weekdays all summer. If you're afraid it would upset your husband..."
Her chin lifted. "That's not a concern."
"Look, I'll pay you five hundred dollars a week."
The tone was offhand, even if she sensed an edge of desperation in his expression. The money was more than she expected for this part of the world, but Luke Allred's cold attitude put her back up. She was letting him get to her more than she should, but it hurt that he didn't remember her. Of course, why should he? The first time he’d seen her, he mistook her for someone’s kid sister at the high school just to drop off textbooks.
Rachel shook her head. She didn't need any complications in her life. She'd just gotten away from one.
"I don't think..."
The rear passenger door opened and a blond-headed little girl appeared around the edge of it. Luke turned at the same time Rachel glanced at the child. In her peripheral vision, Rachel noticed the sudden defensive set to his broad shoulders. She looked at his daughter again. The child had her thumb stuck in her mouth while she clutched a stuffed dog in her free hand. Her gray-green eyes, so like her father's, were filled with such bone-deep sadness that Rachel almost gasped. She looked more wounded than many of the animals Rachel cared for as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
The girl must be around eight or nine, but so far hadn’t said one word. Again, not like the children Rachel was used to. Ernie set up a clamor from inside the house at the sight of the girl. He loved kids. When the child squeaked in startled fear, Luke moved.
"Emma!" His tone was sharp. "I thought I told you to stay in the car."
Rachel walked past him. "It's okay, Dr. Allred." She smiled at Emma and held out her hand. Purely from reflex, the little girl took hold of it. "I'm Rachel. I guess you heard Ernie, huh? He's my dog, but don't tell him because he believes he's a person, and he loves kids. I see you have a dog too. Do you like dogs?"
"Ernie's a little mad at me because I made him stay inside. Would you like to meet him?"Again she nodded but never said a word. Rachel began to suspect that if she took this job with Luke Allred's family, she would earn every cent he paid her.