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The doorbell shattered his dream of Africa.
Jared Hornby shook off the blanket of sleep, raced for the front door and yanked it open. He stifled a groan.
She stood theretall, capable and in control; Lady Justice come to dispense her judgment. Her pansy-blue eyes completed a quick survey of him before returning to his face. Jared found no emotion on her elegantly sculpted features.
Only the cascade of flaming orange-red hair that rippled past her shoulders in a waterfall of waves suggested that this woman might have a heart. That would make her substantially different from the other children's services people who'd contacted him.
He'd put them off as long as he could.
Today was D-day.
"Jared Hornby? I'm Ashley Ross." She thrust out a hand and shook his in a no-nonsense manner, apparently oblivious to the lightning jolt that shot from her slender hand up his arm. "I'm here because"
"I know why you're here, Ms. Ross." Jared drew his tingling fingers away. Despite the "electrical" connection, he didn't bother to disguise his frustration with her visit.
"You do?" She blinked spiky golden lashes.
"Of course." He considered telling her to come back, but really, what good would that do? "Come in."
"Uhthanks." She stepped into his sister Jessie's house, her long narrow feet clad in unbusinesslike red sandals.
Jared's attention strayed to the glittering turquoise polish that colored her toenails. Itshewas nothing like any of the previous social workers.
Ms. Ross shifted her stance, emphasizing her height and her incredibly long legs. She wore jeans, a T-shirt the color of her eyes and a fringed chambray vest. Even for Tucson that was casual dress for a social worker.
Jared had expected something else.
"Where should I start?" she asked. She set a metallic bag that looked like it could carry most of her worldly possessions on the dust-covered hall table.
"I don't know." Jared figured she was new at this. Not one of the other court people who'd shown up to discuss his parenting ability had ever asked his opinionabout anything. "Where do you want to start?"
"Wherever you prefer."
"The kitchen?" he said.
"Okay." Her gaze rested on his shoulder.
Jared tracked her stare to a stain on his T-shirt and immediately visualized a scoreboard with one mark deducted for lack of neatness.
"Breakfast is over?" Ms. Ross lifted an eyebrow. Her face was completely expressionless. So that tingle of awareness he'd felt hadn't affected her?
"Er, no. The twins are still sleeping," he explained.
"Well, I'll start in the kitchen." She moved forward.
"Wait!" Jared stepped in front of her, suddenly remembering he'd forgotten to clean up last night. Not a good place to assess his parenting abilities. Spaghetti for dinner had seemed such an easy choice. Of course, he'd never before made it with the help of two six-year-olds.
Actually he'd never made it at all.
"Uh, maybe the living room?" he offered.
"Fine." She turned and followed him there.
Jared blinked at the wall with the hole in the plaster he hadn't fixed. Then his gaze swerved to the pile of laundry he'd gathered but hadn't had time to wash. First impressionzero. He stopped so abruptly Ms. Ross ran into him.
"Sorry. I'm really sorry," he apologized.
She looked at him as if he'd lost most of his brain cells. He probably had. Instant fatherhood did that to a guy.
"It's just that I wasn't expecting you this early I mean, I'm a little behind" He stopped because her wide blue eyes said she couldn't care less about his silly excuses. "Start wherever you want, Ms. Ross," he said, finally admitting defeat.
"It's Ashley and it really doesn't matter to me where we start, it's just that Connie said Whoa!" She gaped.
Jared guessed that was a reaction to the plywood-covered opening where a door was supposed to go. Or maybe the mountain of dirty clothes littering the sofa shocked her.
But Jared's attention snagged on something else.
"You said Connie?" he repeated carefully.
"Yeah, Connie Ladden. Well, she was Ladden way back when we were in foster care. Now she's Connie Abbot." Ms. Ross frowned. "But you know thather. Don't you?"
"Yes, I know Connie." His brain couldn't make sense of this. Maybe because it got hung up on Ashley Ross's intensely blue eyes.
"Connie said you needed help." As she spoke, Ashley braided her masses of red-gold hair into two plaits and wound them around her head, like a crown. "She was coming herself."
"Yeah?" He remembered that offer.
"Well, she's not feeling well this morning. So I'm here to lend you a hand in her place." Ashley began to sort the laundry, assembling piles of clothes according to color. After a moment she glanced at him, one imperious eyebrow raised. "Don't you want to shower and change?"
"I guess." But Jared didn't move.
"Ew." Her pert nose wrinkled in disdain at mud-covered shorts. "These should have been soaked."
Jared thought the crown of hair made her look like a queen. Royalty vs. the mundane.
"You are not a social worker?" he asked carefully.
"Me? A social worker? Hardly. I'm a nurse. I told you, I'm Connie's foster sister, Ashley Ross." She checked her watch. "It's almost eight-thirty. If these people are coming at eleven-thirty"
"Eight-thir? But I thought" Jared glanced at his watch, shook it, then realized it wasn't running. His mind did a video replay. The kiddies' pool. Eric and Emma giving their toys a bath and his watch?
"The washer's in here?" Ms. Ross stopped, surveyed the kitchen. "Oh, mercy."
"Yeah, it's in there." Jared winced at the look on her face.
"Somewhere in here," she muttered. "This is bad."
"Very bad," Jared agreed. He backed away. "Horrible. A mess."
"All of the above," she agreed, her eyes leveling with his, pink lips pursed.
"Yeah." He backed up. "So, um, I'll just go shower, then."
"You do that," she said, her forehead pleating in a frown.
Jared turned and escaped upstairs like the chicken he was. First he checked on the still-sleeping kids then took the precaution of calling Connie. "There's a woman here," he began.
"Yes, Ashley. I sent her to help you," Connie's husky voice assured him.
"That was nice. She, uh"
"Jared, honey," Connie said, smothering a laugh. "Ashley's one of those people who can do anything in half the time it takes everyone else. If I were you, I'd just get out of her way and let her do her thing while you prepare for that meeting."
Connie's advice was usually good. He decided to take it.
"There is no way you can allow anyone to take the twins from you," she added.
"No," he agreed, "I can't. Thank you, Connie. I hope you feel better soon." Bemused by the morning's events he stared at the phone until the dial tone intruded. Then he hit the shower.
When was the last time he'd taken his time in the shower? Sobered, Jared stared at his freshly shaven face in the mirror and faced the answer. Two months ago. The day his twin sister, Jessie, and her husband, Jeff, had died in a car accident, the night of their annual Valentine's date.
The last sane day of Jared's life.
Ever since then he'd been running on adrenaline, trying to make the world okay for two little kids who didn't understand why their parents weren't around anymore.
Speaking of which, Eric and Emma should be up by now. Jared pulled on his only clean T-shirt and jeanswell, relatively clean. He yanked the quilt on his bed into place in case some nosy social worker checked his room later, and then headed down the hall. Both kids' beds were empty.
Fear gripped his heart and held on. He raced downstairs, yelling their names.
"Relax. They're in the kitchen having breakfast." Ashley beckoned to him.
Having jerked to a halt on the bottom step, Jared carefully stepped across the now-gleaming foyer tiles.
"It's dry. I washed it first thing." Ashley shrugged. "It needed it."
"Yes, it did." He followed the twins' voices.
The kitchen didn't exactly sparkle because unfinished oak floors couldn't, but it looked better than it had sinceJared forgot everything as a fragrant aroma assaulted his senses.
"Have a seat," Ashley said.
Bewitched by the smell, Jared sat. She handed him a steaming mug across the clean table. His mouth watered as he lifted the cup to take a sip.
"Hey, Uncle Jared. We're having oatmeal. Can you make oatmeal?" Eric lifted a spoonful of it to show him then slid it into his mouth. "I like oatmeal."
Since Eric hated almost everything, Jared could only stare.
"It's not my fave, but it's okay." Emma glanced around. "Did you know Ashley was coming, Uncle Jared?"
"No," he said, amazed by the results the redhead had achieved in such a short time. "But I'm sure glad she's here. Thank you," he said to Ashley.
"Not a problem. Your dad stopped by while you were in the shower. He offered to help so I asked him to spray wash the patio. He did but said he had to leave." She shrugged. "We used all the milk so I also phoned in an order for groceries. Okay?"
"I didn't know you could do that," he said, amused by the idea of saving a trip to the grocery store.
"You can if you pay a delivery fee," she said, starting another load in the washer.
It would have saved so much time if he'd only known that.
The doorbell rang. Jared looked at her.
"Probably the groceries." She opened the fridge to show off its sparkling depths. "Once I threw out the moldy stuff, you didn't have much left to eat besides the jars of condiments. You must really like pickles."
Not him. Jessie.
"I've been meaning to clean that," he said, gritting his teeth. Like he needed it emphasized that he didn't have the fridge loaded with healthy stuff. "Thanks."
"No problem." She smiled, her grin open and friendly.
Jared relaxed, just a little. So far nothing seemed to be a problem to Ashley Ross.
As fast as a procession of grocery bags were deposited on the counter, Ashley stored them, leaving Jared to pay. When the delivery boy was gone, she faced him.
"If the kids are finished eating, maybe they should get dressed?" Ashley checked her watch then shot him a pointed look.
Bossy. Pushy. A buttinsky. He knew what needed to be done.
"Their clothes are all laid out. They bathed last night." Jared wiped Eric's chin and dabbed at Emma's dainty nose where a spot of brown sugar had landed. "You guys go on up and get changed. Remember I told you a lady is coming today?"
"We know." A very adultlike Emma gripped his arms as he swung her off the chair then slapped her hands on her tiny hips. "Behave and remember our manners."
"And don't ask questions," Eric added.
"Right." Jared high-fived them. "Don't forget to make your beds, either."
It still amazed him that they could do that. The fluffy duvets were easier for the twins to manage than sheets and blankets. Jessie's idea. She'd been so smart about that kind of stuff, and Jared wasn't. But at least this morning the kids scampered away giggling and carefreefor the moment.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Ashley said quietly, blue eyes dark and serious. "Connie told me. It must be terribly hard for you."
"Yeah." Jessie's loss was profoundly tough, on so many levels. But Jared was not going into that. Not now. Not with her. "Anything I can help with?"
"The garage?" She quirked one royal eyebrow, once more projecting that imperious demeanor. "The door is locked"
"As it should be," he said firmly. "It's off-limits to everybody."
"I'm not sure you should say that to children's services," Ashley warned, her tone mildly chiding. She tilted her golden-red crown to one side. "What's in there anyway?"
"Skeletons," he said.
"Uh-huh." Ashley's queenly jaw tilted upward. "Truthfully?"
"Actually they are skeletonsof cabinets I'm making for this kitchen. I thought if I could show my work, I could earn some extra money at night, while the kids sleep." His dropping bank account grew closer to red every day.
Judging by the way she narrowed her eyes, Queen Ashley wanted to ask more. But then the twins returned. And they were not happy.
"I can't find Mr. Mudrake, Uncle Jared," Emma told him, hands on her hips again. "He was on the sofa but everything's moved."
"I just tidied up a little, Emma." Ashley squatted so she was on the child's level. "Who is Mr. Mudrake?"
"A big ugly frog," Eric said. "He's not ugly," Emma growled.
"I'll bet he's a handsome prince," Ashley teased with a wink at Jared. "I tucked him into the toy box. He was tired."
"Are you sure he's okay?" Miss Em questioned everything lately, Jared noticed.
"I'm positive. But you can check on him if you like," Ashley said.
"Okay." Emma raced away. She returned with a huge smile. "He said he's staying there. He wants a longer nap."
"Sleepyhead." Ashley touched her mussed brown hair. "May I comb your hair?"
"Well, are you going to put it in those knobs that Uncle Jared always makes me wear?" Emma demanded. "I hate those and the kids at school always laugh at me."
"What do you like?" Ashley asked.
"Ponytails?" Emma suggested after some thought.
"Good. I can pull them." Eric caught Jared's glare. "Kidding," he said.
"I hope so." Jared watched Ashley and Emma disappear upstairs. "She should have told me she didn't like how I did her hair." His ever-present parental insecurity multiplied. "Your mom always used to" He stopped. Was it bad to keep talking about Jessie with them?
Another minefield Jared constantly tiptoed around.
"I think that's why Em doesn't like it," Eric said, his voice very quiet. "It reminds her of Mom." Then he smiled. "She was way better at it than you, though. You suck at doing hair, Uncle Jared."
"Thank you very much." Jared tugged his nephew's ear. "Could we please clean up our language? Suck is not on my approved list."
"Derek says it all the time at school. His dad doesn't care." Eric scuffed his sneaker toe against the floor.
"You're not Derek." In those words Jared heard echoes of his parents. "Let's clean up the backyard. Then we could shoot some hoops."
"You suck at that, too. And sometimes you don't keep score right." Eric waited for a reaction then shrugged. "I guess we could, for a while. But it's Saturday. We usually do fun stuff on Saturday, Uncle Jared."
"We have to wait until the lady comes, remember? She made special arrangements to visit today so you guys would be home from school," Jared reminded.
"Why is she coming anyhow?" Eric followed him outside.
They couldn't play hoops because someoneAshley or his dad?had painted the cracked and broken patio with the gray paint Jared had bought last week. His dad hated painting.
Queen Ashley sure was thorough.
It took only a few minutes to pick up the things strewn across the grass. The sun shone strongly but Jared wasn't sure the patio paint was totally dry so he suggested they climb up on the big trampoline. They began bouncing while he struggled to explain in six-year-old terms something he wasn't sure he understood himself.
"They're coming because they need to decide if it's okay for you guys to live with me, if I can look after you all right." Jared wasn't going to tell the kid he was the only alternative to their elderly grandparents. "This lady has to make sure I'm up to the job."
"Are you?" Eric stood perfectly still, head tilted to one side.
"Yes." Jared faked confidence.
"Huh." The boy didn't sound convinced.
I don't blame you, kid. I'm not sure, either, but that doesn't mean I'm going to walk away from you and your sister.
They bounced and talked about school and baseball and summer's soon arrival until Ashley opened the patio door and waved at them.
"There's someone here to see you," she said. "In the living room."