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Justin Morant recognized trouble when his buddy Ty Spur-lock texted him a link to a dating website. This was what happened when you had to leave the rodeo circuit thanks to a careerending injury: your friends decided you needed a woman with whom to share your retirement, and maybe a spread to call your own because you were going to need something to do with your new spare time. The woman would run your life and the spread would rule your life, and maybe it was one and the same. You'd work hard, be tied to the land and the woman, never have two nickels to call your own. You'd have children and, suddenly, you were up to your neck in obligations and debt.
He'd seen it happen too many times. At twenty-seven, Justin was in no hurry to be fobbed off on a woman who was so desperate for a man that she'd use an online service.
He packed up his duffel, tossed it in his seen-better-days white truck and headed away from Montana, destination unknown, knee killing him this fine summer day.
His phone rang and Justin pulled over. This was a conversation that was going to follow him every step of his self-imposed sabbatical if he didn't stamp it out now.
"I'm not going to answer the ad, Ty," he said, skipping the greetings.
"Hear me out, big guy. I'm from Bridesmaids Creek. I know where the Hawthorne spread is. It's the Hanging H ranch, or, as we locals fondly call it, the Haunted H. Go check out the place. You've got nothing better to do, my friend."
"What kind of a name is Haunted H?"
"The Hawthornes used to run a yearly haunted house for kiddies there, and folks remember that. It was bad to the bone, and rug rats to small-fry attended like bees at a hive. Mackenzie's folks did everything they could to turn a dime with it. Her family raked in dough nine months a year with puppet shows, petting zoos, pony rides and lots of good treats."
"Nine months a year?"
"Well, three months a year it was turned into Winter Wonderland at the Haunted H, to go with the town's annual Christmastown on the square," Ty said, as if Justin didn't understand the importance of holidays. "You have to appreciate that a haunted house wouldn't be as much of a draw as Santa Claus for the youngsters."
"So what happened to the place?"
"Hard times hit us all, buddy," Ty said, a little mysteriously for Justin's radar. "Give Mackenzie a call. You're burning daylight on this deal. Someone's going to answer that ad, which will come as a shock to her because she doesn't know what's been done on her behalf." Ty laughed. "The only thing I haven't been able to figure out is why someone in Bridesmaids Creek hasn't already gotten her to the altar. I'm not suggesting you try to do that, of course. Small towns usually keep their own pretty well matched up, and judging by her profile on the dating site, that should happen soon enough. Good luck, my friend."
Ty hung up. Justin tossed his Stetson onto the seat with some righteous disgust and pulled back on the road.
He wasn't going to Texas. Not to Bridesmaids Creek to a woman whose family had operated a haunted house.
Just because a man could no longer ride didn't mean he had to make a laughingstock of himself.
Mackenzie Hawthorne smiled, looking at the four tiny babies finally sleeping in their white bassinets. "Whew," she said to Jade Harper. "Thanks for the help."
"That's what best friends are for." She arranged soft white blankets over each baby, protecting them from the cool drafts blowing from the air conditioner, which seemed to run almost constantly this baking-hot July. "Who would have ever thought Tommy possessed the swimmers to make four beautiful little girls?"
Mackenzie smiled at her adorable daughters, all scrunchy-faced in their tiny pink onesies. "Don't talk to me about my ex. Every time I think about him dating that twenty-year-old, I want to eat chocolate. I'm trying very hard not to do that. Your mother keeps me busy enough with desserts I can't resist."
Jade laughed. "Tommy Fields was never right for you. What you need is a real man." She hugged Mackenzie. "You rest while these little angels are asleep. Mom will be over this afternoon with dinner and to help out. I've got to get down to the peach stand and help make ice cream. 'Bye, darling."
"Thanks for everything."
Jade flopped a hand at her. Mackenzie was grateful for all the friends she had in Bridesmaids Creek. Everyone had been pitching in almost nonstop, bringing food, baby clothes, and giving their time so she could shower and even nap sometimes. She hated to be a burden, but when she mentioned that to anyone, she was reminded that she gave generously of her time to the community, as had her parents.
Mackenzie walked through the huge, heavily ginger-breaded old Victorian mansion, wondering how she was going to fix the fences that were rotting and sagging, not to mention the gutters on the house. Never mind run the horse operation. With four-month-old babies, she was constantly running, taking care of them.
But she wouldn't trade her babies for anything. Tommy might have turned out to be a zero as a husband, but Jade was right: he'd left her with four incredible gifts.
And a lot of bills.
But her parents had been entrepreneurs, smart with money. She had a small cushion, if she was very careful with those funds. She wasn't destitute, thank God. Raising four children was going to take everything she had and then some.
She needed a miracle to keep herself from going into debt, and with no income coming in and no way for her to work until the babies were older, things could get tight fast.
Justin was nobody's idea of a miracle, certainly not from his point of view. If the little lady was looking for one, she was doomed to disappointment. Yet here he stood on the porch of the strangest-looking house he'd ever seen two weeks after Ty had tweaked him about it, wondering what in the hell he was thinking by letting his curiosity get the best of him.
The house hovered tall and white on the green hilly land several miles outside Austin. Four tall turrets stretched to the sky, and mullioned windows sparkled on the upper floor. A wide wraparound porch painted sky-blue had a white wicker sofa with blue cushions on it, and a collection of wrought-iron roosters in a clutch near a bristly doormat with a big burgundy H on it.
Quaint. The place was homey in a well-worn sort of shabby way, and he'd be sure to tell Ty that he didn't appreciate him sending him out here to see a doll's house in the middle of nowhere. Miles and miles of green pas-tureland badly in need of mowing surrounded the house, wrapped by white-painted pipe fence so it wasn't totally hopeless, but still. No man would live here willingly.
The door opened, and a petite brunette stared out at him. She didn't come up to his chest, not totally. Brown eyes questioned why he was taking up space on her porch, and he asked himself the same. She was cute as a bunny with sweet features and a curvy body. The matchmaking ad had probably gotten hundreds of interested hits. Not to mention the nice breastsand as she turned to answer someone who'd asked her something, he noted a seriously lush fannyyeah, her ad would get hits. He wondered if she knew what Ty had done on her behalf with the dating ad and pulled off his hat, telling himself he'd just introduce himself and go.
This was no place for him.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Mackenzie Hawthorne. My name's Justin Morant. Ty Spurlock sent me by."
Her voice was as pretty as she was. Justin swallowed. "Ty said you might need some help around here."
Pink lips smiled at him; brown eyes sparkled. He drew back a little, astonished by how darling she was smiling at him like that. Like he was some kind of hero who'd just rolled up on his white steed.
And, damn, he was driving a white truck.
Which was kind of funny if you appreciated irony, and, right now, he felt like he was living it.
Sudden baby wails caught his attention, and hers, too.
"Come on in," she said. "You'll have to excuse me for just a moment. But make yourself at home in the kitchen. There's tea on the counter, and Mrs. Harper's put together a lovely chicken salad. After I feed the babies, we can talk about what kind of work you're looking for. Mrs. Harper will love to pull your life story from you while you eat."
She made fast introductions and then the tiny brunette disappeared, allowing him a better look at that full seat. Blue jeans accentuated the curves, and he figured she was so nicely full-figured because she'd just had a baby.
Damn Ty for pulling this prank on him. His buddy was probably laughing his fool ass off right about now, knowing how Justin felt about settling down and family ties in general. Justin was a loner, at least in spirit. He had lots of friends on the circuit, and he was from a huge family. He had three brothers, all as independent as he was, except for J.T., who liked to stay close to the family and the neighborhood he'd grown up in.
Justin was going to continue to ride alone.
Mrs. Harper smiled at him as he took a barstool at the wide kitchen island. "Welcome, Justin."
"Thank you," he replied, not about to let himself feel welcome. He needed to get out of there as fast as possible. The place was a honey trap of food and good intentions. Another baby wail joined the first, and Justin's ears perked up. Two? Maybe she was babysitting. He looked at Mrs. Harper, worried.
Mrs. Harper laughed. "Yes, she probably does need a hand," she said, misunderstanding the question on his face. "Run on in there and help her out for a second, and I'll serve up a lunch for you that'll take the edge off any hunger pangs you've got." She pulled a fragrant pie from the ovenan apple pie, he guessedand his stomach rumbled.
Okay, he could go check on the little mother for the price of lunch. But then he was heading out, with a "Sorrythis job doesn't fit the description of my talents," or something equally polite.
He was going to kick Ty's butt hard, over the phone, which wouldn't be nearly as satisfying as doing it in person. He'd driven a day out of his way to apply for what he'd thought might be bona fide employment.
He walked into the den, guided by the baby cries. Mackenzie glanced at him from the sofa. "Don't be scaredthey'll calm down in a moment," she said, but he was anyway, unable to stop staring at the four white bassinets, three babies tucked into them like pink-wrapped sausages working free of their casings. Mackenzie held a fourth writhing baby close to her chest, and Justin realized she was nursing.
Holy crap. She had four babies. He backed up a step, belatedly removed his hat. "I'm not scared. I'm something else, but I'm not sure I can identify the emotion." He looked at the three squalling babies, clearly deciding they all wanted their mother's attention at once. "What can I do?"
He hoped she'd say nothing, but instead she pointed him to a bottle. "If you're sincerely asking, Holly's next in line."
Holly? He glanced back at the baskets. Tiny nameplates adorned the bassinets, which for some reason reminded him of the carved beds of the seven dwarves. Only Mackenzie was no Snow White under an evil spell, and he was certainly no handsome prince.
But the lady did need help; that much was clear. She was in over her head by any reasonable metric, whether it was the ranch (which she probably would lose, if he were a betting man) or these tiny babies (which would require an army of assistants that he figured she couldn't affordagain, no hard bet for a man who liked betting on sure things). This would only take an hour, he figured, and an hour he certainly did have, damn his torn PCL.
Justin studied the nameplates to make certain he picked up the right baby. Holly, Hope, Haven and Heather. All chosen, no doubt, to go with the Hanging H of the ranch, which was sort of a hopeless exercise because they'd all get married one day and their last names would change. To Thomas or Smith or whatever. Then he remembered that Mackenzie's last name was Hawthorne, and she must not have ever changed her name when she got married.
If she'd been married.
Gingerly he picked up Holly, who had a pretty annoyed wail going, grabbed one of the bottles off a wooden tray and slipped it into her mouth. Oh, yeah, that was exactly what she wantedfoodand what he wantedgolden silence.
"Thank you," Mackenzie said. "They all decide they want to eat at once, every time."
He sank onto a sofa, carefully holding the baby. "My brothers and I were the same. It lasted through our teens and drove our parents nuts." He glanced at the other two babies, who were now occupying themselves with listening to the adult voices in the room. "I guess these are all yours."
She smiled, and he noticed she had very shapely lips. He avoided staring at the blanket at her breast, not wanting to catch an accidental glimpse of something he shouldn't see. He was a gentleman, even if he found himself at the moment feeling like a fish out of water.
"They're all mine." She smiled proudly at her children. "We're still working out some things, but the girls are coming along nicely now. They have a little better routine, and the health issues are more manageable."
He turned his gaze back to Holly so the doubt wouldn't show on his face. The overgrown paddocks, the sagging gutters and the chipping paint stayed on his mind. These four childrenwas the father totally useless? Did he not care about the state of his property? Or these four sweet-faced babies? Not to mention the sexy mother of his children.
"Their father is in Alaska," she said, somehow reading his thoughts. "Working on an oil rig. And when he's not working, he's otherwise engaged. We don't hear from him," she said. "Not before the divorce or after. I'd been on a drug to help me get pregnant, and he was unpleasantly surprised by the results." She put a now-content baby into the empty basket marked "Heather," diapered her, kissed her and picked up Hope. "This one was born with lung issues, but we're slowly getting past that. And Holly has struggled with being underweight, but time has been the healer for that, too." She smiled at Justin, and he saw how beautiful she was, especially when her face lit up as she talked about her children. "So tell me what kind of work you do, and we'll see if our needs match."