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Why had she thought this was a good idea, cleaning house for Wyatt Johnson? Rachel Waters cut the engine to her car and stared up at the big, brick home that Wyatt had built over the winter. She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head as she mulled the reasons for being here. First of all, she'd agreed to this as a favor to Ryder and Andie. Second, she struggled with the word no.
There were plenty of reasons not to be here. She didn't need the money. She didn't need the headache.
She especially didn't need the heartache.
And Wyatt Johnson had heartache written all over his too-handsome face. Heartache was etched into his eyes. It was the whisper of a smile on his lips. It hovered over his lean features when he picked up his girls from the church nursery, hugging them but saying little to her or the other nursery workers.
So what had she gone and done? As if she didn't have enough to occupy her time, Rachel had agreed when Ryder Johnson asked her to clean the house his brother Wyatt had built on land across the road from the original Johnson ranch house, the house Ryder and his wife Andie now called home.
Rachel eyed the brick, French country-style home. The windows were wide, the porch was brick and stone. The landscaping was professionally done, but the flowers were being choked out by weeds.
It was a far cry from the parsonage she'd shared with her parents for the last year; since her dad took the job as pastor of the Dawson Community Church. Their little house could fit into this one five times. But the parsonage was immaculate. If her father could get hold of these gardens, he could do wonders with the place.
Oh, well, she couldn't put it off forever. She hopped out of her car. A border collie bounded toward her, tail wagging. The animal, black-and-white coat clean and brushed, rolled over at her feet. Rachel leaned to pet the dog's belly.
"So, at least you get some attention, huh, girl?"
That wasn't fair. Wyatt tried, she was sure he tried. But his girls often came to church with ragged little braids and mismatched clothes. Not that the girls seemed to mind. They smiled and hugged him, and then waited for him to pick them up again.
Rachel cast a critical gaze over the lawn and the house. The barns and fences surrounding the place were well-kept. The horses grazing in the fields gleamed in the early spring sunshine. She'd spent a lifetime dreaming of a place like this.
She walked up the patio steps and knocked on the back door. She stood there for a long time, looking out over the fields, talking aimlessly to the dog. She knocked again. From inside she heard children talking and the drone of the television.
She knocked a third time.
Finally footsteps headed her way and a male voice said something about the television show they were watching. She stepped back and the door opened. Wyatt Johnson stared at her, his dark hair longish. His brown eyes with flecks of dark green were fringed with long lashes. Gorgeous eyes and a gorgeous man. She nearly groaned. He stared at her and then looked down. Two little heads peeked out at her. Molly, age three, and Kat, age two. Molly had told her that she'd be turning four in a few of weeks.
"Can I help you?" Wyatt didn't move, didn't invite her in. He just stared, as if he didn't have a clue who she was. Six months he'd been home. Six months she'd held his girls and read them stories. Sundays had flown by and each week he'd signed the girls in, signed them out and she'd asked how he was doing.
She was the invisible Rachel Waters. He was probably trying to decide where he knew her from.
"I'm here to clean," she explained, and she managed to smile.
She held up the bucket she'd taken from her car and the tub of cleaning supplies. "Clean your house. Ryder hired me."
"He didn't say anything to me."
"No, he probably didn't. Surprise!" She smiled at the girls. They giggled. At least they thought she was funny.
Kat, hands pudgy, her smile sweet, pushed against Wyatt and slipped outside. Rachel wasn't invisible to Kat. Or to Molly.
"We have crayons."
"That's wonderful, Kat. Are you coloring a picture?"
Kat nodded. "For Mommy. Daddy said we could mail it to heaven."
"That's a lovely idea." That was the heartache in his eyes. Rachel didn't look up because she didn't want to see his pain. His story was his, private, that's how he'd kept it. She understood. She had her own stories.
Molly remained behind Wyatt, but she moved a little and peeked out from behind his legs. "I like coloring flowers."
"I think flowers are one of my favorite things, Molly. It's April, we'll have lots of flowers blooming very soon."
Rachel glanced up. Wyatt hadn't moved. He just stared for a long minute and then he shook his head and let out a long sigh. It sounded a lot like someone giving up. It didn't seem as if he'd changed his mind about her, though, because he didn't move an inch.
"I don't think we need help with the house."
Rachel peeked past him and her nose wrinkled. "I disagree."
He glanced back over his shoulder and shrugged. "It isn't that bad."
"It is bad." Molly waved a hand in front of her nose. "It's smelly bad. That's what Uncle Ryder said when he came home last week from the rodeo circus."
"Circuit." Wyatt corrected and then his gaze was back on Rachel. "I don't need help with the house."
He leaned against the door frame, faded jeans, bare feet and a T-shirt. She took a step back, putting herself out of his personal space and back into her own.
"Ryder already paid me." And she didn't like backing down. "I have a few hours free today, no time tomorrow. I'm not going to take his money and not do the job."
"Ryder should have checked with me. The girls and I were about to clean."
"After Daddy traces our hands and then does bank stuff." Molly supplied the information with all the innocence of an almost-four-year-old.
"Sounds like fun." Rachel stood on the porch, sun beating down on her back. Wyatt continued to stare and she felt fifteen and overweight. She wasn't, but that look took her back about fifteen years to a place in her life that she really didn't want to return to.
"Honestly, Rachel, we don't need a housekeeper."
"Sorry." She smiled and took a step forward. Ryder and Andie had warned her that he'd be stubborn about this.
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"So, I can come in?" Rachel glanced at her watch. She really didn't have all day.
Wyatt, tall and cowboy lean, shrugged and stepped back. He waved her in and she was pretty sorry she'd ever agreed to do this. Dishes covered the counters and the sink overflowed. Toys were scattered across a floor that hadn't seen a mop in, well, it looked like a long time.
"I guess it's a mess." Wyatt smiled a little and scooped up Kat to settle her on his shoulders. "We haven't really paid much attention."
She wanted to ask how he could not pay attention but that insult piled up on top of a dozen other things she wanted to say to him. His daughters were still in their pajamas and he hadn't shaved in days. This wasn't a life; this was hiding from life.
Wyatt had been home for more than six months and from what she'd seen, he hadn't done a thing to step back into life here, other than church on Sundays and meals at the Mad Cow. Oh, and he'd bought horses. He always had his girls in tow, though. She had to give him credit for that.
He couldn't match an outfit for anything, but he loved Molly and Kat.
So this was how his brother planned on pushing him back into the dating world. She was probably clueless and really thought this was about cleaning the house. Wyatt planned a few choice words for Ryder as Rachel Waters stepped away from him and leaned to talk to Kat, dusting his daughter's hands off in the process. The back of Rachel's shirt came up a little and he couldn't look away.
He must have made a sound because she straightened and shifted her shirt back into place. Her face was a little pink and she glanced away from him as she pulled her dark, curly hair into a ponytail. She continued to ignore him and he couldn't stop thinking about a butterfly tattoo at the waist of her jeans. Did the church nursery worker have secrets?
A little late he remembered to be resentful. His younger brother had a habit of pushing his way into people's lives and shoving his ideas off on them. Rachel cleaning the house was Ryder's idea.
Wyatt kept his own ideas to himself, the way he'd been doing for the last few months. He didn't have time or energy to worry about Rachel or what Ryder was up to.
"I guess if you're here to clean, have at it." He nodded in the direction of the kitchen. He'd put a lot of thought into building this house. Granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and tile floors. It should have gleamed. Instead it looked like a bunch of teenagers had ransacked the place.
He hadn't meant to reminisce, but he remembered his parents' kitchen after it had been ransacked by Wyatt, Ryder and their friends. He and Ryder hadn't been easy to raise. Not that their parents had done a lot of raising; more like they'd just turned them loose and told them to do whatever, as long as they didn't land in jail.
Rachel looked around the kitchen, her mouth open a little. Yeah, it was pretty bad. He didn't have time to do everything. The girls came first, then the farm, then business. Last, and probably least, the house.
"Need anything?" he asked, turning his attention back to Rachel Waters.
"No, thanks. If you don't mind, I'll get started." She smiled, a wide smile that settled in dark brown eyes.
"I don't mind. I'll be in the office with the girls. Don't worry about upstairs."
"Seriously? Wyatt, your brother paid me a lot. I really don't want to do a halfway job."
Kat was tugging on his hand, wanting him to help her finish drawing a pony. He glanced down at his daughter and then back to the woman standing a short distance away. She was already moving around the kitchen, picking up trash and tossing it, putting dishes next to the sink. Long curls were held in a ponytail and she wore flip-flops with her jeans.
The shoes made a flap-flap sound on the tile floors that distracted him for a second, until she cleared her throat.
He glanced up, meeting brown eyes and a hint of a strawberry-glossed smile. Molly's hand slid into his and he squeezed lightly, holding her close, grounded by her presence and shifted back to reality by her shoulder against his leg.
Eighteen months of holding it together, just trying to be a dad and trying to make sense of life, and now this. This, meaning Rachel Waters and the sudden realization that he was still a man. He blinked a few times, surprised that he'd noticed anything other than the broom she held in her hand. When was the last time he'd noticed a woman's lips? Or her hair?
He'd seen her at church every Sunday, though. It wasn't the first time he'd noticed her, her smile, her laugh. It wasn't the first time she'd taken him by surprise.
"Yeah, sure, go ahead. The bedrooms are fine, though. The girls clean their own. Kind of." He grinned down at his daughters because that cleaning part was an exaggeration. "Anyway, there are a couple of bathrooms up there."
"Good, I'll clean those, too." She grabbed a broom and swept at his feet. "Scoot, now."
Scoot. Molly was already pulling him toward the hall. He glanced back at Rachel. She had turned on the CD player hidden under the upper cabinets and in moments Sara Evans was singing about a runaway teen leaving the suds in the bucket and the clothes hanging on the line.
As his daughters led him down the hall to the office, he could hear the chorus of the song and Rachel singing along. Her voice got a little louder on the line about wondering what the preacher would preach about on Sunday. He shot a look back in the direction of the kitchen, but the wall blocked her from sight.
Kat was dragging him into the office, jabbering about ponies and wondering when she would get one of her own. She was two. He considered reminding her of that fact, but she'd been reminded more than once.
For the next couple of hours the girls colored pictures and he went over farm accounts and receipts for taxes that had to be filed. The vacuum cleaner rumbled overhead. Rachel was still singing. She was always singing. Even when he picked the girls up in the nursery at church he could hear her singing to them.
He should be glad about that, that someone sang to them, someone soft and feminine. And she laughed, all the time. At least with the kids she laughed. He tried to remember the last time he'd really laughed. He watched his daughters trade crayons and he remembered. Kat had done something that made him laugh. They laughed more than they had six months ago. Far more than they had a year ago.
He shook his head and glanced back at numbers blurring on the ledger he'd been staring at for the last hour. Ryder had just about let the ranch run into the ground. Not financially, just upkeep, the things that required sitting still.
His cell phone rang and he reached for it, distracted. Wendy's mom's voice said a soft hello. Mother-in-law? Did he still call her that? She was still grandmother to his girls. A week didn't pass that she didn't call to check on them. More than once a month she and William, her second husband, drove up from Oklahoma City to visit.
He didn't want to sound paranoid, but he thought it was more like spying. It was Violet's way of making sure he was surviving and that her granddaughters were being taken care of. He didn't really blame her. There had been a few months when he hadn't been sure if he was going to make it.
"Violet, how are you?"
"I'm fine, of course. The question is, how are you?"
The southern accent should have been sweet and maternal. Instead it held about a dozen questions pertaining to his sanity.
Which was just fine.
"Good, Violet. The girls are coloring pictures and we're getting ready to eat lunch." He glanced at his watch and winced. It was past time for lunch.