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Stephanie Cartwright would have described the Texas prairie in early spring in two words: dry and barren. Endless miles of dirt, rolling hills of dry grass and dark, skeletal weeds, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
The land was a mirror of her heart. Or maybe it was her frame of mind that was coloring the landscape in dreary shades of gray. As if that wasn't enough, she exited her subcompact rental car to find her nostrils angrily assaulted by a strange, pungent odorno doubt the scent of cows or horses or other livestock.
Did it smell like this all the time? She hoped it was just the direction of the wind adding to the eye-watering stench in the air, because for better or for worse, Serendipity, Texas, was where she'd be living for the next couple of months. As far away from the east coastand her ex-boyfriendas she could get. Hidden from the world in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
And way, way out of her comfort zone.
But it wasn't as if she could turn around and go back home. There was no home to go back to. Trying not to breathe too deeply, she clenched her fists and fought for control as her feelings once again vacillated between devastation and anger. At any given moment since she'd boarded the plane for Texas, she had struggled with one of those emotions, sometimes both at the same time.
Her eyes widened as a large, square-headed and very intimidating dog wandered up and situated himself on the wood-planked porch steps to the house where her new employer, Drew Spencer, presumably waited.
Peachy. Another obstacle. Just what she needed .
Stephanie was a nanny. She'd expected to be greeted by children, not canines. She had little experience with animals and had never even owned a pet.
The dog shook his head and licked his chops. He appeared to be welcoming her, though she couldn't be certain. For all she knew he was putting her on the menu.
"Hello there, big guy," Stephanie crooned, speaking in the same soft, gentle tone of voice she used to calm small children. She prayed it would work. "Nice puppy."
The dog's ears pricked. His mouth curved up naturally, as if he was smiling at her, and he wagged his tail with unreserved enthusiasm. Was that a good sign?
"Don't worry. He's harmless." Warm laughter emanated from behind the screen door, startling her.
If she wasn't a twenty-three-year-old woman in perfect health, she probably would have thought she was experiencing a heart attack. Every nerve ending in her body crackled with an unexpected jolt of electricity. She hadn't realized someone was watching her, and her face flamed in embarrassment.
A man who quickly introduced himself as Drew Spencer opened the screen and stepped out onto the porch. "Sorry about that. The four-legged Welcome Wagon that greeted you is Quincy, the overenthusiastic pit bull. I should have put him in the house."
"He's very friendly." Stephanie straightened her shoulders and curled her lips into what she hoped was an inviting smile.
"Very," Drew agreed, chuckling. "He may look like a tough old watchdog, but Quincy is as harmless as they come. If you were a robber he'd invite you into the house and show you where the silver was."
"I'm more interested in your gold," she teased as her gaze locked with Drew's intelligent but darkly shadowed green eyes.
Her breath caught. It was as if the scene had suddenly gone from black-and-white to a rainbow of color. To put it bluntly, the guy was one tall drink of water.
Which is to say, he was nothing like she'd imagined him to be.
In the emails they'd exchanged, Drew had seemed staid, rigid and academicat least on paper. Even the times they'd spoken on the telephone, she'd thought his voice was dull and lackluster, with little emotion or variation in his tone. Somehow she'd imagined he looked the way he sounded.
The man standing in front of her, however, wasn't anything like her mental picture.
Uh-uh. Not even close.
He was wearing a pair of worn but polished brown cowboy boots, crisp blue jeans, a navy button-down dress shirt and a loosely knotted burgundy-colored necktie. He had strong-boned, even facial features, and thick brown hair lightly brushed his forehead. He looked as if he'd be as comfortable on a horse as he was in the classroom. All that was missing was the cowboy hat, and Stephanie had a good notion that he owned one.
There were no dark-rimmed, pop-bottle-thick glasses. No nerdy slouch or nutty-professor grin. Just a long, lean and fantastic-looking elementary school teacher in the guise of a cowboy.
She shook herself mentally, thoroughly appalled at where her thoughts had gone. What difference did it make whether her employer was a gorgeous cowboy or a geeky academic? She was here solely to watch over his children, not to gawk at him, and she knew how important first impressions were.
Specifically, his first impression of her.
She'd intended to appear poised and confident when she met Drew face-to-face for the first time. Not that she generally felt composed or self-assuredbut she was good at faking it.
Widening her smile, she extended her hand. For a moment, Drew just stared at it as if he didn't know how to finish the gesture. The left corner of his mouth curved up, then down and then into a tight, straight line that matched the unyielding right side of his lips.
Stephanie nearly pulled back her arm. She couldn't tell what he was thinking. Had she botched things already?
Waves of relief washed over her when he finally reached out to shake her hand. His firm, steady grip reassured her, as did the way his mouth finally relaxed, his lips bowing upward in what could almost be considered a smile.
A tow-headed young boy peeked around Drew's leg and sized Stephanie up with a thoughtful stare. She paused, observing the child and allowing him a moment to adjust to her presence before she introduced herself to him. Presumably he was one of her two future charges, and he was a real cutie-pie, with large blue eyes and trim white-blond hair combed over to one side like a miniature Cary Grant.
Stephanie immediately relaxed. Her senses had been jarred by both the dog and the man, but kids she could handle. She was comfortable with the little ones.
She was one of the lucky ones who'd found out early what she wanted to do with her lifecare for children, whether it was as a babysitter for her younger foster brothers and sisters, in her first official job as a superintendent at a bounce house or as a nanny for a high-society family. As long as there were children, she was happy.
Eventually she wanted to teach in a preschool and had already gotten her degree in early childhood education, but she had not yet pursued her teacher's certification. For now, she was content being a nanny.
"Who are you?" the three-year-old asked bluntly.
Drew coughed into his hand but she could see he was covering a smile. His eyes lightened for a moment, sparkling with barely concealed laughter. She arched an eyebrow at him, amused at how valiantly he tried to keep a straight face at the nerve of his precocious offspring.
She struggled not to giggle, herself. It was funny.
She was glad Drew hadn't corrected the boy on her behalf, as many of her foster parents over the years would have done when their children had misspoken. The child's question was direct, but it was equally as innocent.
Leave it to a three-year-old to get right to the point of the matter.
Stephanie didn't mind. She was used to the straightforward, curious nature of children. She much preferred it, in fact, versus lying, deceitful adults. At least kids were honest.
With a smile, she crouched down to the boy's level, looking him straight in the eye to let him know she was taking himand his questionseriously.
"My name is Miss Stephanie," she answered earnestly. "And I'm happy to meet you"
She hesitated, glancing up toward the door, seeking Drew's input on the little boy's name, since she knew she'd be caring for identical twins. Instead, the answer came from a gruff, guttural voice from somewhere behind Drew's right shoulder.
"His name is Matty." Using his cane for leverage, an older, scruffy-faced gentleman Stephanie presumed must be Drew's father inched around him. "He's the bold one. And this sweet little guy," he continued, gesturing toward the child cuddling in his arms with his face tucked shyly into the old man's chest, "is Jamey."
As far as Stephanie could see, the twins were completely identical in looks, but she had no doubt she'd be able to tell them apart once she'd spent some time with them. There were bound to be differences in personality, if not tiny distinctions in their looks.
"Hello there, Matty and Jamey," Stephanie responded as she stood upright. "How are you fellows doing today?"
Jamey curiously peeked out at Stephanie, and Matty laughed and ran around the old man's legs.
"I figure you already know that the rude fellow blocking the doorway and not inviting you inside the house is my son, Drew," the old man continued. "Although most everyone in town calls him Spence, on account of our last name." He grunted noncommittally. "And I, my dear, am Frank. Please come in."
Drew's father winked and flashed an engaging grin, then set little Jamey on his feet and ushered both boys through the door. Quincy the pit bull stood up, stretched lazily and followed the twins inside.
Drew hesitated a moment, the corners of his lips once again curving down as his brow furrowed. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, looking a great deal more like the staid, solemn school teacher Stephanie had initially imagined him to be. Something was definitely bothering him, and she wondered if it had anything to do with her. Why else would he be smiling one minute and frowning the next?
Her apprehension hung almost palpably in the air, on her part, if not on his. He certainly wasn't what she'd expected. Perhaps she wasn't what he'd anticipated, either. Maybe he was wondering how to gently let her down, to send her packing again. But Drew obviously had some serious motivation in bringing her here to take care of his twins, something beyond what they'd discussed when she'd interviewed for the position.
She had no clue why he had decided to look so far out of town to find someone to watch his children, and it was one of the first questions she planned to ask him when the opportunity presented itself. Granted, Serendipity was tiny, but it was hard to imagine there were no adequate forms of child care Drew could call upon in a pinch. At the very least, there must be a few teenagers who would be vying to earn a little extra spending money.
So why her?
It was a fair question, and one that she eventually meant to get to the bottom of, but in the end, she realized it didn't matter to her all that much what his motivations were. The point of the matter was that she was here now, and this man had unknowingly offered her a way out of a really bad situation. He'd given her a place to hide from a spoiled, abusive boyfriend who didn't know how to take no for an answer. Drew Spencer's offer to hire her as a live-in nanny from now until the end of the school year was truly an answer to prayertwo months to heal her heart and get back on her feet, to give herself a fresh start.
It wasn't enough that her ex-boyfriend Ryan had torn her heart to shredshe'd also ripped her home and her job right out from under her. She'd naively given up everything for him, only to find out he was playing her.
She was proud of herself for finding the self-esteem to walk away from a toxic relationship, but that didn't stop her from being a little bit anxious about the way it had endedRyan was used to getting his own way, and he was frighteningly possessive. He'd alienated her from everyone else in her life, wanting her all to himselfeven though he never had any intention of putting a ring on her finger.
How could she help but look over her shoulder, even knowing she was far away from New Jersey? Ryan had threatened to come after her, and he had power and money behind him to do it. She hoped she'd done enough to keep herself safe.
She needed somewhere secluded and private to regroup and refocus her life, to make plans for her future, though at the moment, she had no idea what that would beother than finding more permanent housing and a stable job.
In the meantime, Serendipity was a good place to hide.