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What in the world was this about?
"Housekeeper wanted." The words were handwritten, and the notice was tacked up on the bulletin board in Mil-larville's post office.
Kip Cosgrove ripped the notice down and glared at it, recognizing his younger sister's handwriting. What was Isabelle doing? Where did she get the idea that he needed a housekeeper?
Kip crumpled the paper and threw it in the garbage can of the post office, hoping not too many people had read it.
He spun around, almost bumping into an older woman.
"Hey, Kip, how's your mom?" she asked. "I read on the church bulletin that she had knee surgery."
"She's in a lot of pain," Kip said with a vague smile, taking another step toward the door. He didn't have time for Millarville chitchat. Not with two rambunctious five-year-old boys waiting for him in his truck parked outside the door and a sister to bawl out. "I'll tell her you said hello."
He tipped his cowboy hat, then jogged over to his truck. He had to get home before anyone responded to the advertisement.
"What's the matter, Uncle Kip?"
"Are you mad?"
Justin and Tristan leaned over the front seat of the truck, their faces showing the remnants of the Popsicles he'd given them as a bribe to be quiet on the long trip back from Calgary.
"Buckle up again, you guys," was all he said. He started up the truck, too many things running through his head. Besides looking after his mom and his rebellious younger sister, he had a tractor to fix, hay to haul, horses' hooves to trim and cows to move. And that was today's to-do list.
He managed to ignore the boys tussling in the backseat as he headed down the road, lists and things crowding into his head. Maybe his sister wasn't so wrong in thinking they needed a housekeeper. Even just someone to watch the boys.
No, he reminded himself. Isabelle could do that.
He hunched his shoulders, planning his "you're sixteen-years-old and you can help out over the summer" lecture that he'd already had with his sister once before. Now he had to do it again.
The road made a long, slow bend, and as it straightened, he sighed. The land eased away from the road, green fields giving way to rolling hills. Peaks of granite dusted with snow thrust up behind them, starkly beautiful against the warm blue of the endless sky.
The Rocky Mountains of Southern Alberta. His beloved home.
Kip slowed, as he always did, letting the beauty seep into his soul. But only for a couple of seconds, as a scream from the back pushed his foot a little farther down on the accelerator.
"Justin, go sit down." Kip shot his nephew another warning glance as he turned onto the ranch's driveway.
"Someone is here," Justin yelled, falling over the front seat almost kicking Kip in the face with his cowboy boots, spreading dirt all over the front seat.
Kip pulled to a stop beside an unfamiliar small car. It didn't belong to his other sister, Doreen, that much he knew. Doreen and her husband, Alex, had gone with a full-size van for their brood of eight.
Probably one of his mother's many friends had come to visit. Then his teeth clenched when he noticed that the farm truck was missing, which meant Isabelle was gone. Which also meant she hadn't cleaned the house like he'd told her to.
The boys tumbled out of the truck and Kip headed up the stairs to intercept them before they burst in on his mother's visit. No sense giving the women of Millarville one more thing to gossip about. Kip and those poor, sad little fatherless boys, so out of control. So sad.
Just as he caught their hands, the door of the house opened.
An unfamiliar woman stood framed by the doorway, the late-afternoon sun burnishing her smooth hair, pulled tightly back from a perfectly heart-shaped face. Her porcelain skin, high cheekbones, narrow nose and soft lips gave her an ethereal look at odds with the crisp blue blazer, white shirt and blue dress pants. It was the faintest hint of mystery in her gray-green eyes, however, that caught and held his attention.
What was this beautiful woman doing in his house?
She held up her hands as if to appease him. "Your sister, Isabelle, invited me in. Said you were looking for a housekeeper?" The husky note in her voice created a curious sense of intimacy.
Kip groaned inwardly. He'd taken down the notice too late. "And you are?"
"My name is Nicole."
"Kip Cosgrove." He held out his hand. Her handshake was firm, which gave him a bit more confidence.
"I'm sorry about coming straight into the house," she said, "but like I said, your sister invited me in, and I thought I should help out right away."
She looked away from him to the boys. Her gentle smile for them softened the angles of her face and turned her from attractive to stunning.
He pushed down his reaction. He had to keep his focus.
"So how long have you been here?" Or, in other words, how long had Isabelle been gone?
"A couple of hours. I managed to get the laundry done and I cleaned the house."
In spite of his overall opposition to Isabelle's harebrained scheme, Kip felt a loosening of tension in his shoulders. He and Isabelle had had a big argument about the laundry and housework before he went to Calgary. Now it was done.
He'd had too many things going on lately. His responsibility for the boys, his mother, Isabelle. The ranch seemed to be a distant fourth in his priorities, which made him even more tense.
Maybe the idea of hiring a housekeeper wasn't so farfetched.
"You realize my mother has had surgery?" he asked, still not sure he wanted a stranger in the house but also fully aware of his sister's shortcomings in the housekeeping department.
"I've already met her." Her smile seemed to underline her lack of objection. "Isabelle gave me some of the particulars."
"Will you be able to come only certain hours, or do you have other obligations?" He still had his reservations, but since she had come all the way here and had done a bunch of work already, he should ask a few questions.
"I'm not married, if that's what you're asking," Nicole said, brushing a wisp of hair back from her face with one graceful motion.
The gold hoops in her ears caught the sun, as did the rings on her manicured hands.
She didn't look like she'd done much housekeeping. His first impression would have pegged her as a fashion model or businesswoman.
But then he'd been wrong about people before. Case in point: his one-time girlfriend, Nancy. The one who took off as soon as she found out he had been named the guardian of his nephews.
Nicole looked back at the boys, who hadn't said a peep since she had appeared in the doorway. "I'm guessing you are Justin and Tristan?" she asked.
The boys, while boisterous and outgoing around family, were invariably shy around strangers, especially since their father, Scott's death. They clung to Kip and leaned against his legs.
"It's really nice to meet you at meet you." Nicole crouched down to the boys' level. He caught the scent of lilacs, saw the curve of her cheek as she glanced from one boy to the other. Her hand reached out, as if to touch them, then retreated.
Something about the gesture comforted him. She seemed drawn to the boys, yet gave them space.
"My nephews are five. They'll be going to school this fall." He tightened his grip on the boys' hands. "Though I hate the thought of putting the little guys on the school bus." Why he told her that, he wasn't sure.
"I told Uncle Kip we have to stay home. To help him with the chores," Tristan said.
"I don't know much about farm chores," Nicole said, glancing from one boy to the other. "What kinds of things do you have to do?"
"We have to feed the dog," Tristan offered quietly. "She has puppies."
"You have puppies?" Nicole's eyes grew wide. "That's pretty neat."
"And we have to help with the baby calves," Justin added, as if unwilling to be outdone by his brother. "But we're not allowed to ride the horses anymore." He shot a hopeful glance Kip's way but he ignored it. The boys had been campaigning all summer to ride again, but there was no way he was putting anyone he loved on a horse. Not since Scott's accident.
They were too young and too precious.
"Now all I have to do is figure out which one of you is Tristan and which is Justin." Nicole looked from one to the other, and the tenderness in her smile eased away Kip's second thoughts.
"He's Tristan," Justin said, pointing to his brother. "And I'm Justin. We're twins."
"I see that. So how should I tell you apart?" Nicole asked.
"Justin has a little brown mark on his back. In the shape of a horseshoe," Tristan offered.
"Do you think it was because you were born on a ranch?"
"Wasn't borned on the ranch. I was borned in the hospital in Halifax." He sighed. "My daddy is dead, you know."
"Dead?" Nicole frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He died when he got on Uncle Kip's horse."
Tristan's comment was said in all innocence, but again the guilt associated with his brother's death washed over Kip.
"Your father is dead?" Nicole said, one hand pressed to her chest.
Why did she sound so shocked? Kip wondered.
"He died when the horse he was on flipped over," Justin continued. "But we know he's in heaven with Jesus. I talk to Jesus and tell him what to say to my daddy every night."
"That's interesting." A faint note of skepticism entered her voice that concerned him.
"We go regularly to church," Kip said by way of brief explanation. "I hope that's not a problem." He wasn't about to get into a theological discussion about what Jesus meant to him. If he decided to hire her, then she'd find out that faith was woven into every aspect of the Cosgroves' life.
Nicole waved her hand as if dismissing his concerns. "No. Of course not."
"And our mommy is gone," Tristan offered, unwilling to let Justin do all the talking. "She just left us one day. All alone with the babysitter."
"Then Daddy rescued us. He was a good daddy," Justin said.
"How do you know your mommy left you?" A faint edge had entered her voice as she glanced up at Kip. "Do you know where their mother is?"
Kip shook his head, wondering why she wanted to know.
The reality was, no one in the Cosgrove family knew where Tricia was or whether she was dead or alive. His brother, Scott, and Tricia had been living in Nova Scotia when Tricia took off without a word six months after the boys were born.
Scott and his sons then moved back to the ranch.
"Do you want to see our dog's puppies?" Justin tugged his hand free of Kip's and reached out to Nicole.
"Shouldn't you go and say hi to your Gramma?" Nicole asked.
Kip was pleasantly surprised at her consideration, but he also knew the boys would rather be outside.
"They can go." He wanted a few minutes alone with his mother to get her impression of Nicole.
Tristan grabbed Nicole's other hand and before she could lodge a protest the three of them were off.
Kip watched them head down the sidewalk toward the barn, still unsure. Hiring her would give him a break from the constant nagging he did to get Isabelle to help.
He sighed, glancing at his watch. He should go see his mother and then make sure the boys didn't get into any trouble. Then he had to see what he could do about his tractor.
What had she done?
Nicole bit her lip as she looked down at the sticky faces of the two boys looking up at her, jabbering about cows and puppies and Uncle Kip and Auntie Isabelle and other relatives.
She tried to stifle her guilt.
She was no housekeeper. Nor had she come because of an advertisement. Her real reason for coming to the ranch was to see her nephews. Her sister's boys.
That Kip's sister Isabelle assumed she was the housekeeper had been a coincidence she capitalized on.
She clung to the boys' hands as she felt buffeted by a wave of love. Justin. Tristan. Tricia's twins. A remnant of the true Williams family now that Tricia was dead.
When Tricia had stormed out of their lives all those years ago, yelling that she'd never come back, Nicole had hoped her beloved sister would someday return. Nicole had prayed and had clung to this hope for eight years. However, four weeks ago a police officer showed up at the Williamses' home in Rosedale, Toronto, with the news of Tricia's death and crushed that hope.
Three years ago Tricia had been struck by a car while out walking late at night. She had no identification. It wasn't until Tricia's roommate registered her concern for the missing Tricia that the police were able to identify her body. The roommate knew only that Tricia had recently moved to Halifax and when she had earned enough money she planned to head out west. Then Tricia had had her accident.
The years had slipped by. Then, a month ago, the roommate moved out of her apartment and in the process had found an envelope behind a desk.
Inside the envelope were letters from Tricia to someone named Scott Cosgrove, a man Tricia apparently had been living with after the boys were born. From what Nicole and her father, Brent, understood from the letters, the boys' biological father was dead. Scott, who was just her boyfriend, had somehow taken Tricia's boys away from her while she was in a drug-rehabilitation program.
These letters had been mailed but returned, marked Address Unknown. These envelopes also contained letters to her sons expressing her love for them and how much she missed them. The final paper was a last will and testament addressed to her parents, asking Brent and Norah Williams to be her sons' guardians in case something happened to her.
The roommate brought all this to the police, who were finally able to inform Nicole and her father what had happened to Tricia. It was also the first time Norah and Brent found out about Tricia's sons.
Nicole had done some detective work and had discovered that Scott had moved back to his family's ranch in Alberta. It took little work from there to discover a Cosgrove family in Millarville, Alberta. Nicole decided to go to the ranch, to talk to Scott about the boys and to see them.
Nicole's father desperately wanted to come along, but his emphysema was especially bad and his doctor discouraged him from taking the trip. So Nicole came alone.
When Nicole came to the ranch house she wasn't sure what she would do or say or if she was on the right track. She just knew she wasn't leaving until she saw the boys for herself.