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"Go to sleep. Please go back to sleep," Mia pleaded as she dragged the stroller holding her twin toddlers backward into the bookstore. Jennifer had been fussing for the past twenty minutes. She couldn't be hungry. Mia had given both baby girls and her two sons a good supper before heading out the door into the cool of the late-fall evening. A better supper than she managed to wolf down before her babysitter, Angie, showed up. Though Angie wasn't her regular babysitter, she had offered to take the two boys and the twins. Mia took care of four children all the time, but she didn't feel right doing that to a temporary babysitter so she had taken the twins with her.
Fatigue dragged at her, and for a moment Mia entertained the idea of skipping the bookstore. However, she had promised Josh and Nico she would get the books. And ever since her husband had left her pregnant with twins and two preschool sons, Mia was firm on keeping promises to Josh and Nico.
As Jennifer's whimpers turned into a cry of protest, Mia fished a pacifier out of the overstuffed diaper bag dangling from the handles of the stroller. She wiped the lint off and eased the pacifier into Jennifer's mouth. Her daughter resisted a moment and then the pacifier began bouncing as the baby eagerly sucked on it.
Really? Shouldn't one-year-olds be weaned off pacifiers by now?
Mia closed off the scolding voice in her head-Other Mother, the annoying amalgamation of every parenting article she had ever read, with a pinch of her perfect sister thrown in.
"Hey, my dear girl, shall I take the twins around the store while you shop?"
Sophie Brouwer smiled at Mia over the top of the stroller, her bright blue eyes surrounded by a network of friendly wrinkles. She wore her usual velour jogging suit today in a shade of bubblegum-pink that no female over ten should wear. And Sophie was easily six decades past that.
"I'll be okay," was Mia's automatic reply.
Sophie shook her head and nudged Mia aside. "Don't be so independent." Sophie grasped the handles of the stroller. "You go talk to your friend."
Then she pushed the stroller behind a shelf of books, leaving Mia no choice but to go to Evangeline.
Her friend was crouched down on the floor behind the counter, her long skirt puddling around her as she sorted through a box of books. Evangeline straightened as she saw Mia and pushed her long hair back from her face with a smile. "Hey, girl. Where're the kids?"
"Angie is taking care of the boys and Sophie just kidnapped the twins."
"You want a cup of coffee before I get your books?" Evangeline asked, waving a delicate hand toward the back of the store, her diamond engagement ring refracting the overhead light.
Mia's mouth watered, and for a moment she allowed a "maybe" to test her resolve.
"Only if it's quick," she said, keeping her voice firm as if to convince herself as much as her friend. "I have to catch Mr. Truscott before he closes up his law office for the night."
Mia sighed. "The usual. Support payments from Al, who's disappeared off the radar again. And after that I have to get groceries and pick up my van from the mechanic." She fought down the usual panic that hovered over her every day. Too much to do and not enough time to get it all done. "Hey, have you heard from Renee and Zach today? My phone's been wonky."
"I got a note from Renee this morning. I can't believe she's texting us on her honeymoon," Evangeline said as she walked to the room in the back that doubled as a storage room and meeting place for the book club that Evangeline hosted every other week. "And why is Angie babysitting for you? What happened to Blythe, your usual babysitter?"
"Blythe had some hot date tonight. Lucky her." Mia leaned against the doorway as Evangeline sorted through the books she had ordered for other customers.
"Hey, someday your prince will come," Evangeline said.
"I can't afford to let a prince into my children's lives and I have no energy or time for romance. This morning I was so tired I punched my passcode for my bank account into my microwave."
Evangeline gave her a sympathetic look as the jangling of the bell above the entrance announced more customers.
Then Mia heard the murmur of male voices in the store behind them. "I think Denny's here," Evangeline said, looking past Mia with such pleasure Mia couldn't stop a faint twinge of envy.
They walked out of the room just as Sophie Brou-wer walked past them, pushing the stroller toward the two men standing by the till. One Mia recognized as Denny, Evangeline's fiancé. The other man was unfamiliar. He wore a cowboy hat like Denny, but his had a feather in the band. His twill shirt was torn at the elbow and accompanied by worn blue jeans and scuffed cowboy boots. As Sophie passed them, the unfamiliar man crouched down, reached out and took Jennifer's finger.
"Hey, you two cuties," Mia heard him say with a laugh as Jennifer gurgled and Grace, awake now, batted at his cowboy hat. "Easy on the hat," he said, letting Grace grab his other hand. "It's been through enough."
Denny grinned at the girls, but walked around the stroller to Evangeline and gave her a quick kiss.
"Looks like Nate is in love again," he said with a laugh as he looked from Mia to the man playing with her twins.
The man Mia assumed was Nate stood, still grinning down at the girls. His brown hair spilled across his broad forehead from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, giving him a casual look. His hazel eyes had a fan of wrinkles at the corners. The eyes of a man who worked outside, squinting against the sun. His hands were tucked in the pockets of his jeans, his thumbs resting on a wide buckle that Mia assumed had, at one time, been a prize in a rodeo. His rolled-up shirtsleeves revealed muscular forearms.
An appealing package, she thought, unconsciously tucking a stray strand of short hair behind her ear.
"They're cute as buttons," Nate said, glancing from the girls back to Mia as Sophie pushed the stroller away, obviously happy to keep watching them. Mia had to get going, too, but she found herself unwilling to leave. Especially with this attractive man giving her a steady look and a flirty smile.
"Evangeline, look who came rolling into town this morning. My little brother, Nate." Denny laid a hand on the handsome man's shoulder, solving the temporary mystery. Mia had heard bits and pieces about Nate, Denny's foster brother. She knew he trained and rode cutting horses in competitions. A loner who worked at various ranches over the winter and was on the road all summer following the cutting horse circuit. Charming, attractive, single and unsuitable.
Not that Mia was looking.
Nate pulled his hat off, messing up his thick, brown hair and reached out to shake Evangeline's hand.
"Poor guy had a wreck with his horses this morning and he needs a place to hole up for a while and for his horses to heal," Denny continued. "I told him he could stay with me. On the ranch."
"I'm so sorry to hear that," Evangeline said, turning to Nate, concern in her voice. "Are the horses okay? How did it happen?"
Nate's gaze drifted from Mia to Evangeline. "I got cut off by a semi and had to hit the ditch. My horse trailer rolled. Tango is banged up pretty bad. Thankfully, my mare, Nola, is okay as are the other two mares. Dog was shook up a bit, but he's okay."
"Oh, my goodness, what a fright," Evangeline said. "Of course you can stay on the ranch. Olivia is taking care of Ella right now, and she's staying in the trailer, but she's leaving tonight so you can stay there."
"I don't want to push anyone out," Nate protested, his eyes cutting back to Mia's again. "And if Socks is a problem I'm sure-"
"You and your dog are more than welcome."
"But you and Denny are getting married-"
"In half a year. I still live above this store until that happy event." Then she glanced over at Mia and lifted a hand in apology. "Sorry. I'm forgetting my manners. Nate, this is my friend Mia VerBeek. She runs the flower shop next door."
Nate turned his full attention back to Mia, his smile deepening.
"Nice to meet you, Mia," he said, his voice holding a hint of humor as he held his hand out.
You need to get going. You don't have time for this.
But Mia ignored Other Mother's chiding voice and let Nate take her hand. He held it a beat longer than necessary in his warm, rough one and when he let go, she felt an unexpected moment of loss.
"Nice to meet you, too," she replied as his smile widened, creating a curl of attraction.
"So you own the flower store," he said, dropping his hat back on his head and slipping his hands into the back pockets of his worn jeans. Was it her overactive imagination or was he leaning closer? "That's ambitious," he continued.
Desperate, actually. Mia needed to support her family after Al ditched and then divorced her. She had no marketable skills. Candace, the previous owner, cut her a good deal on a ten-year buyout and had spent time training her. It wasn't Mia's dream job, but it was work and it came with an apartment above the store. The whole setup had been an answer to many desperate prayers Mia had sent toward God.
"It definitely keeps me busy." Mia held his gaze a beat longer than she knew she should. His smile grew and when he shifted his weight it moved him a few inches closer.
Walk away now, Mia. This man is flirting with you and we both know how that will end.
Mia knew she should listen to Other Mother's prim advice, but for this small moment she felt like an attractive and desirable woman. She didn't feel like Professional Mommy weighed down with obligations. Of course she loved her children, but still
She returned his smile.
Just then Sophie arrived, pushing the stroller, wails emanating from it. "I think one of your little girls is hungry," she said to Mia. "The one with the green bow in her hair."
"That would be Grace and she's probably thirsty." Mia shifted mental gears so quickly she was surprised she didn't hear a grinding sound. She turned the stroller to look inside at one very upset baby waving her chubby hands in protest, releasing another howl when she saw Mia. "Oh, honey," Mia murmured, lifting the wailing little girl out of the stroller, patting her on the behind. "What's wrong with you, munchkin? You thirsty?"
"You can heat up the bottle in the microwave in the book club room if you need to feed her," Evangeline offered.
As Mia reached into the diaper bag to get a bottle she caught Nate frowning at her.
"Those are your kids?" he asked.
She didn't imagine the shuttering of his expression. Nor the step he took away from them. Like a rejection of her girls. Like Al.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't know you were-"
"A mom?" Mia couldn't stop the hint of annoyance entering her voice. "It gets worse. There's two more of these at home and no father," she said, reality extinguishing the small attraction she had allowed herself to feel. Nate wasn't the first man put off by her brood.
She bounced Grace in her arms then turned back to Evangeline. "I'll heat up her milk and feed her. Thanks for the books. I'll pay for them on my way out."
"You know you don't have to-"
"I'll pay for them on my way out," she insisted, unable to stop herself from shooting a quick glance at Nate. He was still looking at her but the pity on his face ignited a flare of annoyance.
She juggled her baby in one hand and with the other worked the stroller around the desk. It caught on the corner and the diaper bag fell off, spilling diapers, bottles, snack packages, extra clothes and old cookies all over the floor.
Of course this would happen as she was trying to make a quick getaway. Of course this would happen in front of this handsome, single guy.
"Here. Let me help you." Nate stepped toward her and bent over to straighten the mess just as she reached for the bag. His hand brushed hers and to her dismay she felt a faint tingle again.
"I'm okay. I got this," she returned as Grace's wails grew in intensity.
But Nate set her and the large diaper bag on end.
"I'll take care of Jennifer." Sophie Brouwer made a sudden appearance and before Mia could say anything she wheeled the stroller and its lone passenger away. Evangeline showed up with a broom and nudged Mia aside. "I can finish this," she said.
"You should take care of your little girl," Nate said, glancing over at her as he gathered up the embarrassing detritus of her diaper bag.
"I'm sure I know what I need to do," she returned, frustration and pressure and everything that had piled on her shoulders the past few months making her snappier than normal.
She stood and strode to the back room with the sobbing baby. But by the time she got there she realized she had left the bottle of milk lying on the floor. With a groan of frustration she turned to get it, only to end up face-to-face with Nate in the doorway, holding out a bottle.
With a muttered thanks she took it from him, closed the door to the back room and rocked a now furious Gracie.
As soon as the milk was ready she snatched it out of the microwave and Gracie grabbed for it and shoved it in her mouth. Silence, blessed silence, now reigned and Mia dropped into the nearest chair, cuddled her little girl close and fought the inexplicable urge to break into tears.