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Thud. Thud. Thud. Books hit the floor all over the fifth-grade classroom, shattering the relative quiet. Brittany Gorman gathered her survival instincts and forced herself not to react. She tightened her grip on the chalk and continued to write the math homework assignment on the chalkboard. This bratty group of kids pulled some kind of stunt every time she substituted for their regular teacher. Today Brittany was determined not to let their misbehavior bother her.
Brittany wrote as slowly as she could. She didn't want to turn around and see the feigned innocence on their faces until she was sure she could face them with a stoic mask in place. There was no doubt that the instigator of this little trick was the class clown who called her "Miss Carrot Top" or "Miss Freckle Face" under his breath, just loud enough that she couldn't miss hearing his remarks. She always pretended not to notice.
Finally, she set the chalk in the tray and glanced at the clock before turning to the group. Some of the students had already retrieved their books, but other books still lay on the floor. She looked at the students, making eye contact with as many of them as she could before speaking. "You have twenty minutes to work on the assignment. If you have any problems, raise your hand, and I'll be glad to help you."
A few snickers drifted through the air, but Brittany chose to ignore those, too. Without making mention of the book incident, she roamed up and down the aisles between the desks. She breathed a sigh of relief as further conflict faded. Despite situations like this, substitute teaching was still the best of all the bad temp jobs she had tried since she'd lost her position as a financial planner. Glancing out the window at the snowy Montana landscape, she prayed that all would go well until the final bell. While she waited for that sound of freedom, she vowed to double her efforts to find a real jobone that didn't involve kids.
Half an hour later, Brittany fled out a side door and searched the school's parking lot for her ride. She spotted her roommate's sporty silver compact car and dashed toward it. She opened the door and hopped in.
Glancing at Brittany, Heather Watson maneuvered her way to the main road, her dark eyes full of curiosity. "You seem to be in a hurry to get away."
Brittany leaned back on the headrest. "What a day! It didn't end soon enough."
"Want to tell me about it?"
"No. I don't want to relive it. I can sum it up in one word. Dreadful."
"Worse. I'm beginning to think I'm just not good with kids."
"Not true. The kids in the church youth group love you."
"Thanks for your vote of confidence." Brittany smiled halfheartedly. "I guess it's just that one horrible class of fifth graders that drives me crazy."
Heather nodded. "Is your car ready?"
"Yes, but I'm afraid to see the repair bill." Brittany released a harsh breath. "That car is falling to pieces one part at a time. It's a money pit, but without a regular job, there's no way I can buy a new one."
"Well, at least they could fix it."
"I guess I should look on the bright side." Brittany forced a smile. "It's a good thing that today is your day off. Thanks for picking me up."
"No problem." Heather turned onto the street where the car dealership was located. "Are you subbing tomorrow?"
"Not yet, but I could get a call early in the morning. After today, I'm not sure I could bring myself to say yes."
"Then don't. Come skiing with me."
"You know I can't afford to go skiing, especially now with the added expense for my car."
Brittany wished Heather could understand the stress of not having a real job. The need to find steady employment constantly weighed on her mind. And now that she'd broken up with Max, the one reason for staying in Billings no longer existed. She needed to widen her job search.
"I told you that won't be a problem. My uncle Parker pays for everything, even guests. He does this every year for our family on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend."
"I thought I'd met all your dad's siblings. How come I've never met your uncle?"
"Because he's a reclusive bachelor who lives on a ranch about fifty miles from Billings. I call him my mad scientist uncle because he's always working on some kind of invention. We only see him on this ski trip and maybe out at his place on the Fourth of July. And at Christmas. Otherwise, he keeps pretty much to himself on that ranch."
Brittany thought the guy sounded pretty weird, but she didn't want to say anything bad about him. "I'd hate to impose."
Heather gave Brittany a challenging look. "You won't impose. You need a change of scenery, so you can forget about the loss of your job and the breakup with your worthless boyfriend."
Brittany shook her head. "Going on a ski vacation isn't going to help me find a job or make me forget Max."
"Max is very forgettable. You shouldn't waste time thinking about him. You never know. Maybe you'll meet someone who's looking to hire a good financial planner or accountant."
"You are such an optimist."
Brittany was beginning to question her decision to stay in Billings after she'd lost her job, but she had wanted to remain there because of her relationship with Max.
More than ever, she wanted to prove to her parents that she could make the right choices. She had to show them that they hadn't wasted their money on her college degree. That meant widening her search for a good financial job. From the beginning, they'd wanted her to forge her own path rather than follow Max to Montana. Would going home to the Spokane area mean she'd have to admit they'd been right? Could she make the right decision this time?
Giggles floated through the air as Parker Watson entered the kitchen of the six-bedroom, cedar-sided house he'd rented for the annual family ski trip. He relished the sound of harmony coming from Rose and Jasmine, his six-year-old twin daughters, who were having breakfast at the table in the eating area off the kitchen. He stared at the cup of coffee sitting on the counter and wished that somehow a nanny for his girls would appear out of the steam rising from itlike a genie from a bottle.
He was working on a big project that could lead to more medical writing jobs. He was already behind schedule because he'd had to take over the homeschooling duties that had been Jenny's domain. If he was going to give full attention to his work, he had to find a good caregiver now.
He picked up the cup and moseyed over to the table. "Are you girls finished with breakfast? The ski slopes are waiting for us."
Rose took the last gulp of milk, then nodded her head, her dark braids swinging across her shoulders. "I'm done."
"Me, too." Jasmine jumped up from her chair.
As Rose joined her sister, Parker patted each of them on the head. "Then you need to put on your ski clothes."
"We will." Their voices echoed around the vaulted ceiling as they raced for the stairs.
Parker cupped his hands around his mouth. "Don't forget to brush your teeth."
The girls stopped and leaned over the balustrade that surrounded the loft at the top of the stairs. "We won't."
"Sounds like they're pretty excited about today." Delia chuckled.
Parker turned to his housekeeper. "I hope they get along. All I've done the past couple of weeks is break up fights."
"You know it started right after Jenny, Mark and their kids moved away. The girls lost an important person in their lives, and it's upset their whole routine."
"I know, but that doesn't mean they should misbehave." Parker sighed. "I wish Mark hadn't taken that job in Colorado, but I can't blame him for taking a better opportunity. It's tough losing a foreman and the girls' teacher and caregiver all at once. Since I started advertising for a nanny, I've had exactly one inquiry. And as soon as the woman found out that the position was on an isolated Montana ranch, she wasn't interested."
"You know what I've said about that." Delia gave him a no-nonsense lookthe kind she always gave him when she was trying to make a point. "Folks who live closer to the ranch won't have a problem with the location."
"I don't know why you think I'll find a nanny in Stockton. The people in that town have no use for me, and I have no use for them."
Delia's wrinkled face brightened, and she winked. "Heather might know someone. Maybe that friend she's bringing with her?"
"You are such an optimist." Parker rubbed the back of his neck and gave Delia a wry smile before turning his attention to the noisy footsteps on the stairs. "Sounds like the girls are ready. Tell Heather and her friend to head up to the slopes when they get here."
Hours later, Parker stepped into the ski lodge and, as he'd promised Heather minutes before, searched the room for a petite redhead. The color of her hair should make her easy to find. He wasn't looking forward to meeting Heather's friend, but he was doing this to please his favorite niece.
The smell of burgers and fries wafted his way as he walked farther into the Main Lodge restaurant. Finally, he spotted an attractive young woman with bright coppery hair that fell around her shoulders. She sat alone at a table near the wall of windows looking out at the mountain.
Her expression told him she was deep in thought about something that didn't make her happy. He could relate to that look.
He stepped forward. "Excuse me. Are you Brittany Gorman?"
She stared up at him, her appearance still somber. Her light brownish-green eyes held a puzzled look. "Yes. How do you know my name?"
"I'm Parker Watson, Heather's uncle."
"You're Heather's uncle?" The pitch of her voice rose along with her eyebrows.
"I am. Is there a problem?" Parker tried not to frown.
Could she possibly know about his pastseen him on the news when he'd been falsely accused of an inappropriate relationship with one of his high-school students? According to Heather, Brittany had moved to Billings about six years ago, after the scandal had subsided, but that was no guarantee. He knew firsthand how malicious gossip could linger.
Despite being innocent, he'd never gotten his life back. In the beginning, he'd tried to repair his reputation, but the hushed conversations and whispered innuendos had followed him. Frustrated and hurt over the way his former friends and colleagues had turned against him, he'd decided things would be easier if he gave up teaching and kept to himself on the ranch.
She grimaced, a blush creeping up her freckled face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so abrupt. It's just that well, I expected you to be older much older."
"So that's why you seemed startled?"
Nodding, she placed a hand over her heart. "When Heather was talking about her uncle, I had this picture in my mind of a man about the age of her father with a salt-and-pepper beard."
Realizing that she didn't know anything about his past, Parker let his relief come bubbling out in a chuckle. "I'm twenty-five years younger than Heather's dad and only seven years older than Heather. She seems more like a cousin than a niece. I figured out a long time ago that I was my parents' 'oops' baby."
"Oh." She looked away, as if his statement had embarrassed her.
He'd probably given her more information than she wanted to know. He had a bad habit of speaking his mind, no matter what the consequences. Better change the subject. "Heather told me you took a ski lesson this morning?"
"Yeah. Where is Heather?"
"Still on the slopes, but she sent me down here to check on you. How did the lesson go?"
Brittany shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I learned how to snow-plow."
"That's a good start. Are you ready for lunch?"
Brittany nodded. "I thought Heather was meeting me."
"She is, but she wanted to do a little skiing with Rose and Jasmine first before the girls did their afternoon thing."
He was out of practice talking with single women who were close to his own age. What did it matter? He wasn't going to see Brittany again after this weekend. Even if she was pretty, he didn't need to impress her. "Do you mind if I join you while we wait for Heather?"
She looked up at him in surprise. "I'm sorry. I should've invited you to sit with me. I don't know where my manners have gone. Please, join me. In fact, I'm glad to have a chance to talk to you. I want to thank you. It's really generous of you to pay for everything, especially since I'm not family."
"Think nothing of it." Parker smiled. He pulled out a chair and sat across from her.
Now what did he say? He hated small talk, especially since he seldom had face-to-face interaction with anyone except the people on the ranch and an occasional family member. It was better for him and the twins to be surrounded by people who supported and accepted them. But in his efforts to shield his girls from malicious gossip, he'd gotten out of practice at making conversation with strangers.
Parker tried to lasso his thoughts, but her cute freckled face had his mind in a dither. Maybe that's why she had him noticing things about her that he shouldn't be noticing at all.
"Heather tells me you live on a ranch."
"Yeah." An invitation to talk about himselfone of his least favorite things to do. When he was with his family, all he wanted to talk about was his girls, but he didn't want to explain to a stranger why he was a bachelor father.
"Do you raise cattle?"
"I'm more of a gentleman rancher."
"I don't actually do any ranching. I only live there."
"Oh." The word was wrapped in curiosity. Hoping to avoid giving her any other information, he ignored her questioning look. "What about you? What do you do?"
Brittany stared at him for a moment, then glanced away toward the windows. Sighing heavily, she looked back at him. "I'm currently a substitute teacher. I lost my real job a few months ago. I tried some temp jobs, but they were short-lived. Then a teacher I know from church suggested that I sign up to be a substitute, but that still makes for a rather unsettled lifenot knowing how much will be in my next paycheck. It's hard to find regular work of any kind."
Parker couldn't help remembering Delia's speculation about Brittany being a prospect for the nanny position. His desperation to find someone to care for his daughters was making him have irrational thoughts. He knew very little about this young woman. "What was your previous job?"
"I worked for a financial-planning company, and they were downsizing. I was the last hired and the first fired." Brittany laughed halfheartedly.
"Any job prospects in your field?" Now Parker knew what had caused her troubled look. He'd like to commiserate, but he certainly didn't want to explain the false accusations that had cost him his job. The unfairness of it all still troubled him.