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"Are we here, Mama? Is Daddy here?"
Emily smiled, though Sam's innocent question made her heart quiver. Sam looked for Rob everywhere, never giving up hope no matter how often he was disappointed. "Yes," she replied, "we're here. But Daddy's not coming, remember? I'm here to start a brand-new job."
She touched the brake pedal as she entered the farmyard of Evans and Son. It was bigger than she'd imagined, sprawling across several acres criss-crossed with fence lines and dotted with leafy green poplar trees. She slowed as she approached the plain white two-story house that rested at the end of the drive. It was flanked on one side by a gigantic barn and on the other by a large workshop with two oversized garage doors. More outbuildings were interspersed throughout the yard, all of them tidy and well-kept. The grass around them was newly clipped and the bits of peeling paint made for a broken-in look rather than broken-down.
Evans and Son looked to be doing all right in the overall scheme of thingswhich was more than Emily could say for her family. But she was going to change all that. Starting today.
She parked to the right of the house, inhaling deeply and letting out a slow breath, trying to steady herself. When she looked into the back seat, she saw Sam's eyes opening, taking a moment to focus and realize the vehicle had stopped. "But I want to see Daddy."
"I know, baby." Emily told herself to be patient, he was only five. "Once we're settled, I'll help you write a letter. Maybe you can draw him a picture. What do you think?"
Sam's eyes still held that trace of confusion and sadness that had the power to hurt Emily more than anything else. Sam had been clingier than usual lately. It was hardly a surprise. She'd put the house up for sale and their things in storage. She'd announced that they were leaving the city, which also meant leaving playschool friends and everything familiar, and a five-year-old couldn't be expected to understand her reasons. But the house in Calgary held too many memories happy and devastating by turns. Both Emily and Sam were stuck in wishing for the pasta past that was long over. Rob had moved on, withdrawing not only his financial support but, more importantly, severing emotional ties with both of them.
Emily would never understand that, especially where his son was concerned. But now it was time to let go and build a new life. One where they could be happy. One where Emily could support her son and find her own way rather than wishing for what should have been. There was a certain freedom to be found in knowing she could make her own decisions now. Her choices were hers to make and hers alone. A massive responsibility, but a liberating one, too.
She reminded herself that a happier life for the two of them was why she was here. "Wait here for just a moment while I knock on the door, okay? Then we'll get settled, I promise."
"It's quiet here."
"I know." Emily smiled, trying to be encouraging. "But there is still sound. Listen closely, Sam, and when I get back you can tell me what you heard."
Sam had only ever lived in the city, with the sounds of traffic and sirens and voices his usual background music. But Emily remembered what it was like to live outside the metropolitan area, where the morning song wasn't honking horns but birds warbling in the caragana bushes and the shush of the breeze through poplar leaves. For the first time in months, she was starting to feel hope that this was all going to turn out all right.
"Wait here, okay? Let me talk to Mr. Evans first, and then I'll come for you."
"Okay, Mama." Sam reached over and picked up his favorite storybook, the Dr. Seuss one with the tongue twisters that he'd practically memorized. Emily paused, her tender smile wavering just a little. Sometimes Sam seemed to see and understand too much. Had the breakdown of her marriage forced her son to grow up too soon?
"I won't be long, sweetie." Emily blew him a kiss, shut the car door and straightened her T-shirt, smoothing it over the hips of her denim capris. It was really important that everything got off on the right foot, so she practiced smiling, wanting it to seem natural and not show her nervousness. She climbed the few steps to the front porch, gathered her courage and rapped sharply on the door.
No one answered.
This was not a great beginning, and doubts crept in, making her wonder if it was a sign that she was making a big mistake with this whole idea. Selling the house and uprooting the two of them was a bit of a radical move, she knew that. She glanced back at the car only feet away and saw Sam's dark head still bent over his book. No, this was best. Her experience as a mom and homemaker was what made her perfect for this job, she realized. She'd loved being a stay-at-home mom, and being with Sam was the most important thing.
Maybe Mr. Evans simply hadn't heard her. She knocked again, folding her hands. It was a bit nerve-wracking being hired for a job sight unseen. She'd interviewed at the agency but this was different. She'd have to pass Mr. Evans's tests, too. He had the final say. When was the last time she'd had a real interview? All of her resumes over the last year had been sent out without so much as a nibble in return. No one wanted to hire a lab tech who'd been out of the work force for the past five years.
She forced herself to stay calm, stave off the disappointment she felt as her second knock also went unanswered.
"Can I help you?"
The voice came from her right and her stomach twisted into knots as a man approached from the shop, wiping dirty hands on a rag. This was Mr. Evans? He looked younger than she was, for heaven's sake. He wore faded jeans and dusty roper boots, his long stride eating up the ground between them. His baseball cap shaded his eyes so that she couldn't quite see them. The dark T-shirt he wore was stained with grease, stretched taut over a muscled chest. All in all he had the look of honest work about him. And honest work ranked high on her list of attributes lately, she thought bitterly. Good looks didn't.
"I I'm Emily Northcott. I'm here from the agency?" She hated how uncertain that sounded, so she amended, "From Maid on Demand."
There was a slight pause in his stride while Emily went back down the steps. They met at the bottom, the grass tickling Emily's toes in her sandals as she held out her hand.
The man held up his right hand. "Luke Evans. I'd better not. You don't want to get grease on your hands."
Embarrassment crept hotly up her cheeks, both because she knew she should have realized his hands would be dirty and because of his flat tone. Emily dropped her hand to her side and tried a smile. "Oh, right. I hope we I haven't come at a bad time."
"Just fixing some machinery in the shed. I heard the car pull up. Wasn't expecting you though."
"Didn't the agency call?"
"I'm not often in the house to answer the phone." He stated it as if it were something obvious that she'd missed.
Emily frowned. His communication skills could use some work. Didn't he have a cell phone like most normal people? Or voice mail? Or was he being deliberately difficult?
"I was specifically given today as a start date and directions to your place, Mr. Evans."
He tucked the rag into the back pocket of his jeans. "They probably called my sister. She's the one who placed the ad."
"My sister Cait. They might have tried there, but she's in the hospital."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I hope it's nothing serious." His answers were so clipped they merely prompted more questions, but his stance and attitude didn't exactly inspire her to ask them.
Finally he gave in and smiled. Just a little, and it looked like it pained him to do so. But pain or not, the look changed his face completely. The icy blue of his eyes thawed a tad and when he smiled, matching creases formed on either side of his mouth. "Nothing too serious," he replied. "She's having a baby."
The news made his smile contagious and Emily smiled back, then caught herself. She clenched her fingers, nervous all over again. She hadn't really given a thought to age or to the fact that the rancher looking for a housekeeper might be somewhat attractive. What surprised her most was that she noticed at all. Those thoughts had no place in her head right now, considering the scars left from her last relationship and her determination not to put herself through that again.
And Evans wasn't a looker, not in a classic turn-your-head handsome sort of way. But there was something about the tilt of his smile, as though he was telling a joke. Or the way that his cornflower-blue eyes seemed to see right into her. He had inordinately pretty eyes for a man, she thought ridiculously. Had she really thought "somewhat" attractive? She swallowed. He was long, lean and muscled, and his voice held a delicious bit of grit. His strength made up for the lack of pretty. More than made up for it.
Suddenly, being a housekeeper to a single man in the middle of nowhere didn't seem like the bright idea it had been a week ago.
"The agency hired me," she repeated.
He let out a short laugh. "So you said."
Emily resisted the urge to close her eyes, wondering if he'd seen clear through to her last thoughts. Maybe the prairie could just open up and swallow her, and save her more embarrassment. "Right."
"You're able to start today?"
Hope surged as she opened her eyes and found him watching her steadily. He wasn't giving her the brush-off straight away after all. "Yes, sir." She forced a smile. "I can start today."
"Mom, can't I come out now? It's hot in here."
The nerves in Emily's stomach froze as Sam's soft voice came from the car. Luke's head swiveled in the direction of the car, and Emily gave in and sighed. Dammit. She hadn't even had a chance to talk to Evans about their arrangements or anything. A muscle ticked in Luke's jaw and he looked back at her, the smile gone now, the edges of his jaw hard and forbidding.
"My son, Sam," she said weakly.
"You have children."
"Childjust Sam. He's five and no trouble, I promise.
Good as gold." That was stretching it a bit; Sam was a typical five-year-old who was as prone to curiosity and frustrations as any child his age. She looked again at Evans and knew she had to convince him. He was the one who'd advertised. She'd gone through the agency screening and they had hired her for the job. If this didn't work out she had nowhere to go. And she wanted to stay here. She'd liked the look of the place straight off.
Another moment and he'd have her begging. She straightened her shoulders. She would not beg. Not ever again. She could always go to her parents. It wasn't what she wanted, and there'd be a fair amount of told-you-so. Her parents had never quite taken to Rob, and the divorce hadn't come as a big surprise to them. It wasn't that they didn't love her or would deny her help. It was just.
She needed to do this herself. To prove to herself she could and to be the parent that Sam deserved. She couldn't rely on other people to make this right. Not even her parents.
"Mrs. Northcott, this is a ranch, not a day care." The smile that had captivated her only moments before had disappeared, making his face a frozen mask. The warm crinkles around his lips and eyes were now frown marks and Emily felt her good intentions go spiraling down the proverbial drain.
"It's Ms.," she pointed out tartly. It wasn't her fault that there'd been a mix-up. "And Sam is five, hardly a toddler who needs following around all the time." She raised an eyebrow. "Mothers have been cleaning and cooking and raising children since the beginning of time, Mr. Evans."
She heard the vinegar in her voice and felt badly for speaking so sharply, but she was a package deal and the annoyance that had marked his face when he heard Sam's voice put her back up.
"I'm well aware of that. However, I didn't advertise for a family. I advertised for a housekeeper."
"Your sister" she made sure to point out the distinction "advertised with Maid on Demand Domestics. If any part of that ad wasn't clear, perhaps you need to speak to them. The agency is aware I have a son, so perhaps there was a flaw with the ad. I interviewed for the job and I got it." She lifted her chin. "Perhaps you would have been better off going without an agency?"
She knew her sharp tongue was probably shooting her chances in the foot, but she couldn't help it. She was hardly to blame. Nor would she be made to feel guilty or be bullied, not anymore. If he didn't want her services, he could just say so.
"It's not that I tried putting an ad in the paper and around town oh, why am I explaining this to you?" he asked, shoving his hands into his pockets despite any grease remaining on his fingers.
"If it's that you don't like children " That would make her decision much easier. She wouldn't make Sam stay in an unfriendly environment. No job was worth that. She backed up a step and felt her hands tightening into anxious fists.
"I didn't say that." His brow wrinkled. He was clearly exasperated.
She caught a hint of desperation in his voice and thought perhaps all wasn't lost. "Then your objection to my son is."
"Mom!" The impatient call came from the car and Emily gritted her teeth.
"Excuse me just a moment," she muttered, going to the car to speak to Sam.
It was hot inside the car, and Emily figured she had nothing to lose now. "You can get out," she said gently, opening the door. "Sorry I made you wait so long."
"Are we staying here?"
"I'm not sure."
Sam held his mother's hand something he rarely did any more since he'd started preschool and considered himself a big boy. Perhaps Evans simply needed to meet Sam and talk to him. It had to be harder to say no to children, right? It wasn't Sam's fault his life had been turned upside down. Emily was trying to do the right thing for him. A summer in the country had sounded perfect. This place was new and different with no history, no bad memories. She just needed to show Evans that Sam would be no extra trouble.
"Mr. Evans, this is my son, Sam."
Evans never cracked a smile. "Sam."
"Sir," Sam replied. Emily was vastly proud that Sam lifted his chin the tiniest bit, though his voice was absolutely respectful.