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Pants on backward. Jelly smeared on his nose. And hair sticking up as if Yep, that had grape jelly on it, too.
"How'd you manage to get a faceful of jam?" Rafe Montoya asked, hauling his four-year-old nephew into the bathroom and hoisting him onto the counter. "I fixed you guys cereal for breakfast."
"I hate that kind of cereal." Juan, a stocky tyke with eyes almost as dark as Rafe's, folded his arms defiantly as his uncle rubbed a washcloth across his scrunched face.
"You asked for that brand." Or had he? Maybe it was his twin sister, Sofia, who adored graham-cracker-flavored cereal, Rafe conceded while he tackled the hair. It was impossible to get clean. Slightly less sticky was the best he could do. "Anyway, it wouldn't kill you to be a good sport."
Juan thudded a sneaker-clad heel against the shelf below him. "Mom used to make us tortillas and jam for breakfast."
"I'm out of tortillas."
Rafe supposed this mess was partly his own fault, for failing to supervise breakfast. He'd been interrupted by a phone call from his chief mechanic, Mario Stenopo-lous, who'd opened the garage early and called with the good news that parts had finally arrived for Sherry LaSalle's luxury sedan.
Rafe had told him to tackle that job straightaway. The sooner they got his snobby new neighbor off their backs, the better.
What really grated was that he had to do the job for free. That was cheaper than hiring a lawyer to fight her lawyer, who insisted the mess was all Rafe's fault.
Two months ago, he'd finished repairing the engine and had handed the keys to Sherry's fiancé, an arrogant jerk named Winston Grooms III, believing the man was collecting it on her behalf. Instead, the man had fled just before an FBI investigation began, abandoning the car stripped of removable partsat the Las Vegas airport.
Rafe got stuck restoring it, while Sherry, whose fortune Winston had scammed, now lived across the street from Rafe in a cottage she'd once planned to tear down and replace with an ugly mansion. Oh, to heck with the woman. He had more important matters to think about this morning, like getting his recently adopted niece and nephew ready for day care.
"Unc' Rafe?" Sofia appeared in the bathroom doorway. The kid had a talent for sneaking up on him. "Brush my hair?"
"Didn't I do that already?" He lowered Juan, who bolted for the hallway, narrowly missing his sister.
She shook her head at Rafe. Her dark hair was tangledand full of graham-cracker crumbs.
Apparently she'd mussed it with her own little hands. The kid craved contact and attention. Reminding himself of how much she'd been through, Rafe retrieved her brush and set to work. Again.
Until the previous summer, he'd survived more than thirty years of living without once untangling a little girl's locks or scrubbing a preschooler's face. Aside from buying gifts for the twins and playing with them during family get-togethers, he'd left them to the doting care of his younger brother, Manuel, and sister-in-law, Cara.
But last summer, a brush fire had swept the estate north of Los Angeles where they'd worked, killing them and the horses they'd been trying to rescue. Fortunately the twins, who had been celebrating their fourth birthday, were spending the night with their grandparents.
Afterward, when ill health sidelined the elder members of the family, Rafe stepped in to claim the orphans. Still, even after the adoption ceremony in April had transformed Rafe into an instant dad, he felt lost at sea. How was he supposed to handle Juan's rebellious streak and Sofia's clinginess? He could only do his clumsy best day by day.
"Okay, guys," Rafe announced. "Grab those backpacks."
Juan grumbled, and Sofia made a valiant attempt to wrap herself around her uncle's leg. Luckily they only had a short walk to the neighbor's home day care center.
Outside, clouds dimmed the Southern California sky. During June, the sun typically didn't break through until afternoon here in Brea, a cozy shopping mecca in inland Orange County.
On the porch, Rafe locked the door before escorting the children down the walk. Hardly a breath of wind stirred the palm trees that fronted his stucco home. A gardening truck rumbled by, the only traffic on this lower curve of Harmony Road.
The U-shaped street, which held slightly fewer than twenty homes, lay at the heart of a 350-unit development called Harmony Circle. Rafe loved his comfortable, friendly neighborhood. He wasn't exactly glad Winston had absconded with Sherry's money, particularly since the thief had ripped off many of her friends, too. But thank goodness Rafe didn't have to worry about her building an oversize monstrosity across the street anymore. Rafe had led the fight to preserve her charming cottage, one of a pair of 1920s bungalows that predated the rest of the development by over half a century.
"Oh, look." Sofia released a fluttery breath. "It's the princess."
She was staring at a petite figure emerging from Sherry's cottage. A frothy pink dress swirled around his new neighbor as her high heels tapped down the steps from her porch. A ray of sunlight pierced the clouds, turning her blond hairtoday done up in a twistto spun gold.
He had to admit the twenty-seven-year-old former prima donna of Orange County society still looked like a million bucks as she marched toward the aging vehicle Rafe had been forced to lend her. Despite her proud posture, he noted a hint of vulnerability in the set of her mouth, and felt a twinge of sympathy. Living among residents she'd offended, and being reduced to pinching pennies must be tough on the young woman.
Then, as she slid behind the wheel, she glanced toward him. Through the glare on the windshield, he saw a sneer distort her pretty face.
"Princess is right," he muttered.
"I thought she was a witch," Juan piped.
Rafe had privately referred to his neighbor that way more than once during the heated battle over the cottage. "Come on, guys. Can't you hear the cars waiting for me at the garage? They're rumbling and smoking and spelling out my name."
"Can she do magic spells?" Juan asked doggedly as they swung left toward the nursery.
"If she could, she'd summon that creep of a fiancé from whatever hole he's hiding in." Rafe had summarized the situation for the children by saying her boyfriend had run off with her money. He wondered if he should have explained more or avoided the topic altogether. It was hard to tell how kids perceived things.
"Does she have a fairy wand?" Sofia asked dreamily.
"Maybe. She's pretty good at making men disappear." Before the debacle with the now-infamous Winston, whose real name was Wally Grinnell, Sherry had landed in the news with her divorce from the wealthy older attorney she'd married when she was nineteen. Not only had she raked in vast alimony, she'd received an already substantial inheritance from her parents.
Published estimates gave her former worth as ten million dollars, all gone thanks to her "fiancé." How ironic that Rafe, a mechanic who'd struggled to afford this house and to buy his own business, now had more money than the woman who used to look down her nose at people like him.
Judging by her expression a moment ago, she still did.
He guided the children across the street and past the second cottage, which belonged to octogenarian Minnie Ortiz. At the stucco home next door to hers, he heard the happy noise of youngsters at play.
Sofia gripped Rafe's hand. "You'll be fine," he told her as they waited for the owner to answer the bell. "You like Mrs. Hughes and her kids."
"I want to go home," Sofia whimpered.
"You will. As soon as I'm done working."
"Our real home."
"We have to make the best of things." How long before the children accepted their loss? Rafe didn't mean to ask too much of them, but just wished there was a way he could put all their painful memories behind them.
Maryam Hughes, an elegant, dark-skinned woman in her early forties, admitted them with a strained smile. As the children ran past, she addressed Rafe. "Could you step inside for a moment? I need to speak with you."
"Sure." Uneasily, he recalled that Juan had had a squabble the other day with Maryam's little boy, Luther. Rafe had hoped the whole thing would blow over.
Maryam got her charges settled in the den. There were six, including her pair and two other girls. Although the room seemed filled with screeching, wiggling bodies, his hostess skillfully sorted the kids and started them on coloring projects.
"Sorry for the delay." She accompanied him to the living room, which was furnished with an eclectic blend of ethnic pieces and antiques. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
"Is your husband all right?" J. J. Hughes, a college history professor, had seemed fine when he'd played softball with Rafe on Saturday.
"Yes, but my mother isn't." Tension marked her usually composed face. "She suffered a stroke last weekend. It's mild as these things go, but she'll require a lot of care over the next few months. After the hospital releases her on Friday, she'll be moving in with us. Between her and my kids, I'll have my hands full."
"I hope she recovers quickly." The significance of her statement broke through Rafe's concern. "Friday? That's three days away."
"I'm sorry for the short notice." Maryam waved a hand vaguely.
One more move for the children. One more concern for Rafe. Yet he didn't want to add to the caretaker's burden. "Can you recommend a place?"
"I have a few suggestions, but frankly " She made a clicking noise with her tongue.
Surely she didn't anticipate trouble placing Juan just because of a little rowdiness. "Juan's behavior isn't that aggressive."
"I didn't mean that," she said quickly. "The problem is that most day cares like mine are filled for the summer, and attending a center with a lot of children would be hard on those two. What they really need"
Before she could finish, a dispute erupted in the den. Rafe recognized his nephew's voice, shouting, "Give it here!"
"Hold on." Maryam ducked out. The TV set clicked on and music filled the air.
Returning, his hostess said, "I put on a sing-along. Those seem to calm Juan, and the other kids enjoy them, too."
"I know." Videos had saved Rafe's bacon more than once since he became a sudden dad.
"My point is, Juan and Sofia are still in crisis mode.
Their parents' deaths would have been horrible for them, and that's not something you recover from overnight."
"I'm aware of that. I arranged for therapy right away, you'll recall," Rafe countered.
"That helped them through the initial shock," Maryam agreed. "However, I believe they need one-on-one attention from someone who's with them all day and gets to know them intimately." She raised a hand to stop his protest. "You've done a great job, but they're about to turn five, and in the fall they enter kindergarten. That's a huge step. If they don't start school feeling secure, they could develop behavioral problems that could seriously affect their education."
Rafe's stomach clenched. He'd been afraid of something like this. "Maybe we should see the psychologist again."
"A psychologist only listens for an hour or so a week," Maryam said. "That's no substitute for parenting."
What were the options? "I can't ask my mom to look after them. She has too many responsibilities already." Eight years ago, Rafe's mother had quit her job as a nurse's aide to care for his father after a disabling construction accident. Last year, she'd also taken in Rafe's grandma, who'd suffered a heart attack when she learned of Manuel's and Cara's deaths.
"What about Brooke?" Maryam referred to Rafe's cousin Oliver's new wife. Bubbly and outgoing, she lived up the street and adored the kids.
"She's still working at the orthodontist's office," he pointed out.
"Surely she'll be taking maternity leave."
"Not until September." Brooke's baby was due the following month. "Then I presume she'll need to adjust to her new role. Besides, that'll be too late. Your mother's coming on Friday."
As the noise level from the den rose again, Maryam sighed. "Maybe you should hire a nanny."
"A nanny?" Rafe had once joked with Oliver about employing one, but he hadn't been serious. "I doubt I could afford it."
"The Yellow Pages list several licensed registries." Maryam had apparently looked into the matter. "I have no idea what they charge. Perhaps for a few months you could manage it."
Clearly, he had to do something. "I'll check on that. Is Friday absolutely your last day?"
"That's going to be hard on them." Despite Sofia's grumbling this morning, his niece and nephew had grown accustomed to this environment.
"Our kids can play together, so there won't be a complete break. In fact, I suspect they'll enjoy being playmates a lot more when they aren't around one another all day," Maryam said.
Rafe had to accept the inevitable fact that his convenient day care arrangement was about to end. "Thanks. I appreciate all you've done this past year." She'd offered valuable advice and occasionally kept the children late when business delayed him. "Give your mother my best wishes."
"I will. Let me know how it goes."
He poked his nose into the den to say goodbye. While the musical video ran in the background, the girls were playing with dolls, and Juan and Luther zoomed toy cars across the floor. They barely acknowledged him, which he took as a good thing.
Despite their earlier protests, his niece and nephew really had settled in at Maryam's. Now if the wind would only change and bring Mary Poppins fluttering to his doorstep with her umbrella unfurled, Rafe would be a happy man.
In the meantime, he had a business to run.
At the garage, Mario had done his usual excellent job of performing triage on early-arriving customers. Too bad the guy didn't plan on sticking around. A tenor who studied music at nearby California State University, Fullerton, Mario dreamed of a career in opera.
Despite having sung in his own church choir while growing up, Rafe couldn't tell Puccini from what was that other composer's name? Oh, yeah, Verdi. But he did enjoy Mario's occasional bursts of song while working.
Sending the mechanic to tune up a Volkswagen, Rafe took over the repairs on Sherry's car. The sedan carried a pleasant scent of leather and perfume, despite the beating it had endured since Winston absconded with it.
The morning flew by. Rafe took a short break at lunch to consume a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a bag of chips. He'd cut back on expenses to save money for the kids' future needs.
Now they needed a nanny. Rafe wondered what that was going to cost.