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Luke Walker peeled back the edge of the curtain to get a glimpse of the woman getting out of her car in his driveway. "Not on your life, lady," he muttered.
Ignoring the tug on the leg of his jeans, he watched what should have been a prospective employee walk up the path leading to the house. But walk was the wrong thing to call the seductive advance. Panthers on the prowl were less graceful.
The wind caught the young woman's long, straight dark hair, blowing it over one shoulder, and she reached up to brush it back with her fingers. Luke saw very little of any of it, focused instead on her long legs in the trim, short skirt she wore.
He must've been crazy to let his sister talk him into interviewing the woman. He'd always thought his sister had more sense than to send him someone who looked remotely like a Miss America contestant. But if he really thought about it, Erin had done some far from smart things in her life.
The doorbell rang, dragging a moan from deep within his chest. How would he manage to send this woman away without hurting her feelings? Erin would skin him alive if she learned he hadn't hired the vixen waiting at the door. And if he hurt the woman's feelings in the process, he'd never hear the end of it. Even worse, if he didn't hire her, who would he find to"Up! Wannup!"
"Not now, Brayden. Be good and let go." Reaching down, he pried the two-year-old's chubby arms from his legs and noticed the smear of grape jelly Brayden left in his wake. Taking the toddler by one of his gooey hands, Luke moved to the front door as the bell chimed a second time. "Be there in a sec!" he called.
There wasn't time to wipe Brayden's hands. Not with the woman ringing the damn bell every two seconds. Where the hell had Brayden gotten the jelly, anyway? But Luke wasn't eager to check out the source, even if he had the time. Which he didn't. No telling what kind of damage the kitchen was in, after a visit from Brayden.
Drawing in a deep breath, Luke reached for the doorknob, hoping he could make the interview as brief and as painless as possiblefor both of them. But when he opened the door, his son wrapped both arms around his legs again in the two-year-old equivalent of a viselike grip, throwing Luke completely off balance. He managed to save himself from falling by bracing his hand against the door frame.
"Mr. Walker?" the young woman asked, slipping off a pair of dark glasses he hadn't even noticed.
"Uh, yeah, that's me." Distracted by the need to keep his balance, Luke tried to concentrate on presenting a formidable appearance. Not an easy feat, he decided, with a jelly-smeared son attached at his knees, and made even worse by the deep blue of the woman's eyes.
Her gaze traveled down to where Brayden held Luke in a death grip and moved back up again. She smiled and extended her hand. "I'm Hayley. Hayley Brooks? Your sister"
"Yeah. Erin. My sister." He cringed and hoped she didn't notice, as he took her hand and gave it the briefest of shakes, then immediately let go. He wasn't quick enough. A wave of warmth snaked quickly up his arm. This was not a good thing.
"I guess this is Brayden." She knelt to the little boy's level. "Hi, Brayden."
Brayden hid his face behind Luke's legs and shook his head. Luke reached down and ruffled his son's curly hair. "He's a little shy."
Straightening, she faced him. "Typical two-year-old," she said with a blazing smile. "Now, about the job "
"The job," Luke echoed. He didn't have a clue what to say to this woman. He desperately needed someone to take care of his son, but this one wasn't the type of someone he'd had in mind. Nope, not even close.
Before he had a chance to make up an excuse that wouldn't hurt her feelings, Brayden let out an earsplit-ting wail. The grip on Luke's legs tightened, but he finally managed to extricate himself and hauled the boy into his arms, jelly and all. "Maybe this isn't such a good time," he told the prospective nanny, over the howls coming from his son.
"It's as good a time as any." She reached out and took Brayden in her arms, completely oblivious to the goo.
Brayden immediately quieted.
Luke stared at the pair.
"There," she said, brushing the front of Brayden's hair away from his forehead with her fingers. "Isn't that better?" Turning to Luke, who was struck speechless, she smiled. "If I can just come inside?"
"Oh. Yeah, sure," Luke answered, completely taken off guard. He stepped back, waiting until she'd moved through the doorway and past him with his silent but somber son in her arms. "It's kind of a mess," he warned, more than aware of the state of the house.
"It usually is with little ones around." She flashed him yet another smile and followed him into the living room. Moving aside the newspaper he'd earlier unfolded while he waited for her, she took a seat on the sofa and settled Brayden on her lap. "There are five kids in my family. My mom says she doesn't know what to do with a neat house, now that we're grown."
Luke barely heard her. He was watching his son, whose attention was on the brightly painted wooden beads of the woman's necklace, nestled in the V-neck of her top. When Brayden reached for the beads with his chubby hands, Luke tensed, prepared to grab the child before more damage could be done other than sharing the jelly. Holding his breath, he wondered how he could intercept the disaster he knew was coming, without frightening the woman.
"Would you mind sitting?" he heard her say.
He jerked his gaze away from the beads at her throat to stare at her. "What?"
"I'm sorry," she answered with an apologetic smile. "It's awkward having to look up at you. Would you mind sitting?"
Without replying, he continued to keep his attention on his son, while he tentatively perched on the chair facing the sofa, ready to intervene when needed. He loved his son to distraction, but he also knew firsthand that Brayden could leave disaster in his wake in the blink of an eye. And those beads were obviously intriguing the little guy.
She shifted Brayden in her lap, but completely ignored the boy's hand on her necklace. "What time does your day start, Mr. Walker?"
"Early," he answered. "I get up around five and am out of the house by seven." Or at least he tried to be. With Brayden to get out of bed, dressed and fed, it was more often later. Much later.
"Who watches Brayden that early?"
Luke looked down at his work-worn hands. "Right now, nobody." He glanced up at her and hurried to add, "I mean, I've been taking him with me later in the morning, when I can't find someone to watch him."
"Have you checked into day care in town?"
He nodded, thinking of the hassle it had been for everyone. "We tried it, but the best place was full before it even opened. And it isn't like my hours are nine to five or anything. There are some days that I don't need to leave the house until later, and I can't see taking Brayden to town when he doesn't need to be there."
Luke wasn't sure he liked the way she said that. The real problem was that both he and Brayden had taken an instant dislike to the woman at the day care center that did have an empty slot. Several, in fact. They were on the list at Libby Miles's new place, but had been warned the wait might be a long one.
"Let me put it this way," he said, uncomfortable about sharing everything. "They charged me the same, no matter what time I took him in or what time I picked him up, or even whether he was there at all. That's a waste."
"I understand how difficult it can be," she answered, as Brayden scrambled down from her lap. "I grew up on a farm, so I know what work schedules can be like. I think we can find an arrangement that works for both of us."
Luke's first reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief, until he realized that he'd already decided not to hire the woman. Having met his sister's candidate, he suspected Erin was doing a little matchmaking, and he wasn't about to let that happen. If he was smart, he wouldn't let this go any further. "I'm sure we could, but"
Frowning, he pulled the ringing cell phone from his pocket and saw the caller was his brother. "I need to get this," he said, in lieu of an apology for the interruption. Standing, he made sure Brayden was busy playing with his toys, before crossing the room and hitting the talk button.
Just when I was getting up the nerve to send her on her way.
"Yeah?" he barked into the phone.
"I'm glad I caught you," Dylan said. "I need to tell you something."
Luke turned his back to the woman and kept his voice low. "Make it quick, will ya? I'm interviewing that niece of Erin's friend."
"Interviewing? Oh, yeah," Dylan replied. "To take care of Brayden. Hope that's going good."
"Not really." Luke sneaked a quick look at the nanny he couldn't hire over his shoulder and saw that her attention was on his son. "But that's my problem," he told his brother. "So what do you need to tell me?"
There was silence for a moment until Dylan finally spoke. "I'm taking off for a couple of weeks."
"Taking off?" Luke asked. "Again?"
Dylan's heavy sigh echoed across the wires. "I gotta get away, Luke. I can't explain it. I just gotta get away."
"I don't know yet. Maybe I'll go down and visit Erin. Or maybe I won't. I just know I need some time away from the ranch. From everything."
Luke's first thought was to tell his brother that he couldn't leave right now. Not until arrangements were made for Brayden's day care. For years, Luke had tried to talk to Dylan about his annual disappearance, but because Luke suspected those weeks had to do with the anniversary of their parents' death, he hadn't pushed it. Getting away always seemed to help Dylan, so maybe it would be a good idea to keep quiet.
"Okay," Luke finally answered. "If that's what you need. When are you leaving?"
"As soon as I finish loading up my truck."
"That soon?" Luke tried to conceal his surprise. "When will you be back?"
"A week. Maybe two. It depends."
Luke did a quick mental check of what would need to be done during his brother's absence. "I can cover it," he promised.
They ended the conversation and, as he slowly put his phone back in his pocket, Luke realized there was only one way he could make good on his promise. Without Dylan around, he'd have to have someone to care for Brayden. There was no way around it.
He shook his head. He'd let his brother put him somewhere between a rock and a hard place, and it was damned uncomfortable.
Hayley tried her best to ignore the one-sided phone conversation going on across the room and concentrated on getting to know the little boy playing on the floor beside her.
Getting down to his level, she knelt next to him and watched him gather the small plastic cows. "Do you help your daddy with chores, Brayden?"
His hands stilled and he looked up at her. "Cows."
She picked one of the animals from the pile and held it up. "Yes, a cow. Do you have cows?"
He continued to stare at her for a moment and then returned to his play.
Hayley looked up to see Luke Walker towering over her. "I was just getting to know Brayden," she explained. Taking the hand he offered to help her stand, she wished she hadn't. Unlike when they'd met at the door, only minutes before, this time she felt the male strength it heldalong with a totally unwanted flash of something. She'd make sure not to let it happen again.
He released her, raking his other hand through his light brown hair. She recognized the sign of distress and noticed that his eyes mirrored it. "The phone call was bad news?"
"No. Yes." He shook his head. "A minor setback is all. Short-term."
She waited patiently for him to continue. She wasn't comfortable about being hired out of what she was fairly sure was desperation. It certainly didn't say much for her skills. But she did need the job, and she would be a fool not to accept the position.
When he didn't elaborate, she realized she would have to ask for the information she needed. "When would you like me to start?"
She nodded, wondering if Luke Walker was stable and if she wouldn't be better off looking for a job somewhere else. But she'd promised her Aunt Rita that she would do what she could for her friend's brother. She couldn't back out now.
"Start the job," she clarified, adding a smile she didn't particularly feel at the moment.
He lowered himself to the chair and shook his head, looking like a man who didn't have a clue what was going on. "As soon as possible, I guess," he answered.
Hayley tried her best to be patient. The interview wasn't going nearly as well as she'd hoped. "Possible for you or me?"
"For you, of course," he replied, as if she should know it.
"All right." She took her seat on the sofa again. "We've determined that your day begins early," she said, hoping to move things along. "That isn't a problem for me. I have some things to attend to later today, so if I arrive at, say, six-thirty tomorrow, will that work for you?"
"In the morning." It was clear that his mind wasn't on their conversation, and she started to rise. "If you would rather we discuss this at another time"
"No!" he said, startling her. She regained her composure and waited while he ran his hand through his hair a second time. "Look, I'm sorry," he said, his distress evident in his deep blue eyes. "Please, don't leave. Please. It's just that I Damn, this is a mess," he finished as a mutter.