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Nate Del Rio heard screams the minute he stepped out of his Super Crew Cab and started up the flower-lined sidewalk leading to Rainy Jernagen's house. He double-checked the address scribbled on the back of a bill for horse feed. Sure enough, this was the place.
Adjusting his Stetson against a gust of March wind, he rang the doorbell expecting the noise to subside. It didn't.
Somewhere inside the modest, tidy-looking brick house at least two kids were screaming their heads off in what sounded to his experienced ears like fits of temper. A television blasted out Saturday-morning cartoons.
He punched the doorbell again. Instead of the expected ding-dong, a raucous alternative Christian rock band added a few more decibels to the noise level.
Nate shifted the toolbox to his opposite hand and considered running for his life while he had the chance.
Too late. The bright red door whipped open. Nate's mouth fell open with it.
When the men's ministry coordinator from Bible Fellowship had called him, he'd somehow gotten the impression that he was coming to help a little old schoolteacher. In his mind, that meant the kind who only drove to school and church and had a big, fat cat.
Not so. The woman standing before him with taffy-blond hair sprouting out from a disheveled ponytail couldn't possibly be any older than his thirty-one years. A big blotch of something purple stained the front of her white sweatshirt, and she was barefoot. Plus, she had a crying baby on each hip and a little red-haired girl hanging on one leg, bawling like a sick calf. And there wasn't a cat in sight.
What had he gotten himself into?
"May I help you?" she asked over the racket. Her blue-gray eyes were a little too unfocused and bewildered for his comfort.
Raising his voice, he asked, "Are you Ms. Jerna-gen?"
"Yes," she said cautiously. "I'm Rainy Jernagen. And you are ?"
"Nate Del Rio."
She blinked, uncomprehending, all the while jiggling both babies up and down. One grabbed a hunk of her hair. She flinched, her head angling to one side, as she said, still cautiously, "Okaaay."
Nate reached out and untwined the baby's sticky fingers.
A relieved smile rewarded him. "Thanks. Is there something I can help you with?"
He hefted the red toolbox to chest level so she could see it. "From the Handyman Ministry. Jack Martin called. Said you had a washer problem."
Understanding dawned. "Oh my goodness. Yes. I'm so sorry. You aren't what I expected. Please forgive me."
She wasn't what he expected, either. Not in the least. Young and with a houseful of kids. He suppressed a shiver. Kids, even grown ones, could drive a person to distraction. He should know. His adult sister and brother were, at this moment, making his life as miserable as possible. The worst part was they did it all the time. Only this morning his sister Janine had finally packed up and gone back to Sal, giving Nate a few days' reprieve.
"Come in, come in," the woman was saying. "It's been a crazy morning, what with the babies showing up at 3 a.m. and Katie having a sick stomach. Then while I was doing the laundry, the washing machine went crazy. Water everywhere." She jerked her chin toward the inside of the house. "You're truly a godsend."
He wasn't so sure about that, but he'd signed up for his church's ministry to help single women and the elderly with those pesky little handyman chores like oil changes and leaky faucets. Most of his visits had been to older ladies who plied him with sweet tea and jars of homemade jam and talked about the good old days while he replaced a fuse or unstopped the sink. And their houses had been quiet. Real quiet.
Rainy Jernagen stepped back, motioning him in, and Nate very cautiously entered a room that should have had flashing red lights and a Danger Zone sign.
Toys littered the living room like it was Christmas morning. An overturned cereal bowl flowed milk onto a coffee table. Next to a playpen crowding one wall, a green package belched out disposable diapers. Similarly, baby clothes were strewn, along with a couple of kids, on the couch and floor. In a word, the place was a wreck.
"The washer is back this way behind the kitchen. Watch your step. It's slippery."
More than slippery. Nate kicked his way through the living room and the kitchen area. Though the kitchen actually appeared much tidier than the rest, he still caught the slow seepage of water coming from somewhere beyond the wall. The shine of liquid glistening on beige tile led them straight to the utility room.
"I turned the faucets off behind the washer when this first started, but a tubful still managed to pump out onto the floor." She hoisted the babies higher on her hip and spoke to a young boy sitting on the floor. "Joshua, get out of those suds."
"But they're pretty, Miss Rainy." The brown-haired boy with bright blue eyes grinned up at her, extending a handful of bubbles. Light reflected off each droplet. "See the rainbows? There's always a rainbow, like you said. A rainbow behind the rain."
Rainy smiled at the child. "Yes, there is. But right now, Mr. Del Rio needs to get in here to fix the washer. It's a little crowded for all of us." She was right about that. The space was no bigger than a small bathroom. "Can I get you to take the babies to the playpen while I show him around?"
"I'll take them, Miss Rainy." An older boy with a serious face and brown plastic glasses entered the room. Treading carefully, he came forward and took both babies, holding them against his slight chest. Another child appeared behind him, this one a girl with very blond hair and eyes the exact blue of the boy she'd called Joshua. How many children did this woman have, anyway? Six?
A heavy, smothery feeling pressed against his airway. Six kids?
Before he could dwell on that disturbing thought, a scream of sonic proportions rent the soap-fragrant air. He whipped around, ready to protect and defend.
The little blond girl and the redhead were going at it.
"It's mine." Blondie tugged hard on a doll.
"It's mine. Will said so." To add emphasis to her demand, the redhead screamed bloody murder. "Miss Rainy!"
About that time, Joshua decided to skate across the suds, and slammed into the far wall next to a door that probably opened into the garage. He grabbed his big toe and sent up a howl. Water sloshed as Rainy rushed forward and gathered him into her arms.
"Rainy!" Blondie screamed again.
"Rainy!" the redhead yelled.
Nate cast a glance at the garage exit and considered a fast escape.
Lord, I'm here to do a good thing. Can You help me out a little?
Rainy, her clothes now wet, somehow managed to take the doll from the fighting girls while snuggling Joshua against her side. The serious-looking boy stood in the doorway, a baby on each hip, taking in the chaos.
"Come on, Emma," he said to Blondie. "I'll make you some chocolate milk." So they went, slip-sliding out of the flooded room.
Four down, two to go.
Nate clunked his toolbox onto the washer and tried to ignore the chaos. Not an easy task, but one he'd learned to deal with as a boy. As an adult, he did everything possible to avoid this kind of madness. The Lord had a sense of humor sending him to this particular house.
"I apologize, Mr. Del Rio," Rainy said, shoving at the wads of hair that hung around her face like Spanish moss.
"Call me Nate. I'm not that much older than you." Being the longtime patriarch of his family, he might feel seventy, but he wasn't.
"Okay, Nate. And I'm Rainy. Really, it's not usually this bad. I can't thank you enough for coming over. I tried to get a plumber, but today being Saturday " She shrugged, letting the obvious go unsaid. No one could get a plumber on the weekend.
"No problem." He removed his white Stetson and placed it next to the toolbox. What was he supposed to say? That he loved wading through dirty soapsuds and listening to kids scream and cry? Not likely.
Rainy stood with an arm around each of the remaining children-the rainbow boy and the redhead. Her look of embarrassment had him feeling sorry for her. All these kids and no man around to help. With this many, she'd never find another husband, he was sure of that. Who would willingly take on a boatload of kids?
After a minute, Rainy and the remaining pair left the room and he got to work. Wiggling the machine away from the wall wasn't easy. Even with all the water on the floor, a significant amount remained in the tub. This leftover liquid sloshed and gushed at regular intervals. In minutes, his boots were dark with moisture. No problem there. As a rancher, his boots were often dark with lots of things, the best of which was water.
On his haunches, he surveyed the back of the machine where hoses and cords and metal parts twined together like a nest of water moccasins.
As he investigated each hose in turn, he once more felt a presence in the room. Pivoting on his heels, he discovered the two boys squatting beside him, attention glued to the back of the washer. Blondie hovered in the background.
"A busted hose?" the oldest one asked, pushing up his glasses.
"I coulda fixed it but Rainy wouldn't let me."
"Yeah. Maybe. If someone would show me." Nate suppressed a smile. "What's your name?"
"Will. This here's my brother, Joshua." He yanked a thumb at the younger one. "He's nine. I'm eleven. My sister's Emma. She's seven. You go to Miss Rainy's church?"
"I do, but it's a big church. I don't think we've met before."
"She's nice. Most of the time. She never hits us or anything, and we've been here for six months."
It occurred to Nate then that these were not Rainy's children. The kids called her Miss Rainy, not Mom, and according to Will they had not been here forever. But what was a young, single woman doing with all these kids? Foster care? Nah, they didn't let singles do that.
Rainy frantically tossed toys into a basket in an effort to clear up some of the mess. She never let things get like this. Of all the days to have a stranger come into her home. A young, nice-looking stranger at that.
Pausing with a stuffed bear against her cheek, she chuckled. The poor man looked as bewildered as if he'd walked into the Twilight Zone.
She'd had to call upon the Handyman Ministry before but her friendly rescuers had been older fatherly types, not a lanky young cowboy in starched jeans and boots with stubble on his chin and a dangerous set of dimples that split his cheeks like long parentheses. Killer dimples.
She tossed the bear into the basket and went for a sponge to soak up the coffee-table mess.
With dimples like that, Nate Del Rio was probably like every other guy she'd noticed in the last two years-married.
She heaved a heavy sigh and dabbed at the spilled milk. For years, she'd prayed for a godly husband, but the Lord didn't appear interested in her single, lonely status or in the fact that she wanted kids. Lots of kids. The dates she'd had never filled the bill and after a while, she'd given up the dating game entirely. It was too stressful anyway.
If she couldn't have a husband and kids, she'd settle for kids only.
But she wasn't dead, and Nate Del Rio was an attractive man.
She clicked off the blasting television and then handed each of the babies in the playpen a rattle. Precious little lambs. They looked so bewildered by this new, unfamiliar environment. As soon as she had a minute, she needed to hold and rock them, give them the comfort they craved and deserved.
With the TV off, the room had grown a little too quiet. She glanced into the bedroom to find Katie sprawled on the floor, coloring. Good. Maybe her stomachache was gone. Now, where were the others?
With another quick, reassuring glance at the babies, she headed for the laundry room. The sibling trio was naturally nosy, but they also hungered for attention from any obliging adult.
Sure enough, Joshua and Will were squatting in an inch of water, peppering Nate with questions. Seven-year-old Emma, the blond charmer, hung over the man's back, her slender arms looped around his neck like a small, friendly boa constrictor.
"Emma," Rainy said gently. "It's hard for Nate to work with you hanging on him. Why don't you and the boys come out of here and leave him alone?"
"But, Miss Rainy, he's teaching me how to change a hose so I can do it next time." Will's eyes were dead serious behind his glasses. That was the trouble with Will. He was too serious. He seldom laughed, didn't play like a normal kid and considered his younger siblings to be his responsibility. Even after six months of consistent, loving care, he hadn't loosened up. The boy needed a strong man in his life, one of the reasons Rainy worried about adopting him and his siblings, though she longed to do so. She could love and nurture, but she could never be a male role model. She could, however, expose him to good ones and pray that would be enough.
The cowboy handyman twisted his head in her direction. "He's a quick learner."
Rainy beamed as if the compliment was for her. She saw the flush of pleasure on Will's cheeks and decided she liked Nate Del Rio. "He is. Thanks."
She bent to unwind Emma from the man's neck. "This one is a charmer, but also a pest at times." With a counselor and lots of prayers, they were working on Emma's weak personal boundaries. "Come on, Emma. I need help with the babies."
Emma came, but gazed longingly at the cowboy's back. "He's nice."
Rainy stood in the doorway for a minute, watching and listening to Nate's low voice explaining the great mysteries of washing machines to the two rapt boys.
His patience with them solidified her conclusion that he had kids of his own.
She chided herself for being disappointed. She did not covet another woman's husband. She simply wanted one of her own.
"Is there anything you need before I go on about my business?" she asked.
Without turning, he shook his head. "Got all the help I need right now. Thanks."
She wasn't sure how he meant that, but she let it go and headed back to the disaster area that had once been her home.
By the time she'd set things to right, fed both babies and put them down for a nap, Katie had thrown up again. Wearily, she cleaned up the mess, took the child's temperature and debated calling the doctor. The last thing any of them needed was a virus spreading through the house.
Going to her bedroom to change the now disgusting sweat suit, she happened to glance in the mirror. The Wicked Witch of the West stared back.
Bags the size of carry-on luggage puffed beneath her eyes. Her hair shot out in every direction. She slapped at it. Had she combed it at all this morning?
With a growing sense of chagrin, she knew she hadn't. She had shoved the shoulder-length mass into a scrunchie in the wee hours of the morning when the social worker arrived with the babies. After that she never made it back to bed because Katie had started throwing up. Then the washer had sprung a leak and she'd been too busy to care about how she looked.