A Family for the Rancher
In a heartbreaking instant, rancher Sam Denver becomes guardian to his baby nephew and the young foster twins his late brother and sister-in-law hoped to adopt. With the Triple D ranch to run and two sets of grandparents to look after, the guarded cowboy is desperate for help. But when the children's maternal aunt finally returns home to Buffalo Gap, Kelly Krause's difficult past prevents her from believing she has much to offer Sam or the little ones. Yet when custody of the twins is in jeopardy, Sam discovers just how much his makeshift family needs Kelly if only she'll stay.
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Sam Denver's mind wasn't on Valentine's Day or Canada's frosty winterscape outside the airport in Calgary, Alberta.
Thanks to a huge poster advertising tropical vacations, he was mentally immersed in the azure waters of the Mediterranean as it lapped against warm sandy beaches. Ocean breezes caressed his face, carrying the pungent whiff of salty brine and the cheerful whistle of nearby fishermen in small bobbing boats with white billowing sails as they hauled aboard their catches. He'd be thirty this year, and he couldn't remember a time when he hadn't dreamed of seeing the world.
"Flight 455 from Toronto has now arrived. Passengers will emerge at gate "
The announcement ended Sam's reverie and drew him back to the cold, hard sting of reality.
Traveling the world now was as likely as sharing this romantic day with a sweetheart. But it was nowhere near as hard to let go of his travel dream as it was to let go of Jake, his twin, the best friend Sam had never been without. That aching void was compounded because Jake's beloved wife, Marina, had died in the car accident with him. Now Sam was alone to care for their infant son and almost-adopted twin girls.
The kids needed him. Marina's parents needed him. His own parents needed him. The ranch wouldn't survive without him. If Sam thought about it for very long, the weight of his responsibilities brought waves of trepidation. How could he possibly be what they all needed and still keep the Triple D running?
With help. From one passenger on flight 455.
Sam tilted back on his boots and studied the emerging travelers. Eager yet anxious about the upcoming meeting, he tossed out his halffull coffee cup and scanned features of each traveler as they passed by. None matched the face of the woman he remembered from almost ten years ago.
Nervousness built inside. Where was she? She would have cleared customs in Toronto. There should be no holdup here. He pulled out his phone and rechecked her email. Yes, this was the right flight, and there was no new message saying she'd been delayed. Maybe she wasn't coming?
Then a tall, slim woman appeared, and a rush of relief surged through Sam. Kelly Krause. He'd have known that tipped-up nose anywhere. Her glossy dark brown hair fell straight and thick to her shoulders, cupping her cheeks in a caress that emphasized high cheekbones and big dark eyes. For some reason his heart did a little giddyup.
A lot of time had passed since Sam had stood beside Kelly at the front of a church while his twin married hers, but she looked as beautiful now as she had then, except that her tanned olive skin bore signs of recent weeping, as did her red-rimmed eyes. She paused to scan the area before striding toward him.
Sam couldn't help noticing how well Kelly's jeans fit or that her peacock-blue shirt and matching sweater did great things for her figure. He tamped down his reaction. This was his sister-in-law. Yes, she was gorgeous, but anything beyond that was out of bounds for him. Sam didn't do relationships, not since Naomi. Still, as she moved toward him, he thought Kelly still looked young and vulnerable with her lime-green backpack swinging from one hand.
The answer to his dilemma had arrived. If Sam was a praying man he'd be asking for help to convince Kelly to stay. But he'd given up everything to do with God the day Naomi died, unable to reconcile the loving God he'd always believed in with the One who let his beloved fiancée suffer so terribly before dying of cancer at twenty-five. If God so loved, why hadn't He prevented No!
He stepped forward as Kelly halted in front of him. Her gaze meshed with his.
"Hi, Sam." Her soft voice barely penetrated the happy din of reunited families around them.
"Hi, Kelly." He hugged her quickly then stepped back.
She tried to smile, her perfect, even teeth blazing white against the tan of her face. But then tears filled her eyes. "Oh, Sam."
"I know." He gulped, swallowing his own emotions to deal with the next step. That was the only way he could handle things right now. "Where's the rest of your luggage?"
"It will come later. The cruise line's sending it. I didn't want to wait. I just wanted to get here." She stopped suddenly, as if realizing that there was no point in rushing. Not now.
"I'm glad you did." Kelly's weary demeanor told Sam she was worn out by her long flight from Europe. "Would you like to stop for a coffee or something to eat before we head to the ranch?"
"How far is it?" she asked. "Marina never" She gulped as tears returned to roll down her smoothly sculpted cheeks. "I'm sorry," she whispered helplessly.
Sam knew exactly how she felt. He wanted to bawl himself, but he kept rigid control of his emotions because the kids needed him to make everything okay in their world.
"Come on," he said gently. He slid an arm around her shoulders, ignoring the flutter in his stomach when his hand brushed her warm skin. "Let's get a coffee. There's no hurry." He thought of the almost ten years of Jake and Marina's marriage when Kelly could have visited and didn't. But what did the past matter now? They had the future to deal with. "Was the trip okay?"
She shook her head. "Bumpy from Toronto. I didn't feel well."
"But you're okay now?" Relieved when she nodded, Sam said, "So maybe you need breakfast. You sit here and I'll get it."
Sam waited until she was seated then strode to the counter. He ordered two breakfast sandwiches, hash browns and two cups of coffee, even though he didn't want anything to eat or more caffeine. He wanted to get back to the ranch, to get busy with something, anything that would dull the pain and take his mind off his loss. But sharing a meal might help Kelly relax, so he'd go through the motions. He carried the loaded tray back to her and pretended to relish unwrapping his food.
Kelly ate daintily, carefully, but she finished only half her sandwich and just a bite of the hash brown before pushing away her tray and leaning back in her chair, her coffee cup pressed against her cheek as if she craved the warmth it offered.
"Sam Denver the Fixerator," she murmured with a tiny smile that didn't quite make it to her sad eyes. "How are you, Sam?"
"I'm okay." He shrugged and would have let it go, but Kelly raised an eyebrow and tilted her head forward, obviously unsatisfied with his brief answer. "Dad hasn't been that well, and since Jake's death" He swallowed, struggling to get past that awful word.
"You've taken over, huh?" Kelly nodded as if she understood the pressure he was under. "Well, if anyone can manage it, I'm sure you can." She frowned at the table-top then lifted her gaze to meet his. "Sam, I phoned home several times but nobody answered. Do you know where my parents"
"They're at the ranch." He chided himself for not informing her earlier. "I should have told you in my email, but I figured you had enough on your plate just getting here, and I didn't want to add to your worries."
"Something's wrong, isn't it?" she asked in a tight voice.
"Yes." Sam hated watching her lose the calm that had barely begun to ease her weary posture. "Kelly, your dad was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's."
Her back went rigid. "But" She stopped, unable to voice her thoughts, her face appalled.
"I was in Victoria on business and I stopped by to see them," he continued. "I could see something was off with him and that your mom was struggling, but she wouldn't admit to me that anything was wrong."
Kelly's nod told him she understood what he wasn't saying, that Arabella Krause was not a woman to be easily persuaded of anything.
"Go on," she whispered, her expression showing stark fear.
"With Marina's help, I convinced her to take your dad to the doctor. I went to my conference then stopped by to see them again. The tests had worn out both of them so I invited them to come to the ranch and stay with Marina while they waited for results. Vancouver Island was too far away for her to help them. We only heard the diagnosis shortly before."
"No one told me." Her lips tightened. Her dark eyes flashed at him angrily. "Why?"
"You haven't exactly kept in touch, Kelly." Sam veered away from that, refusing to issue blame. She had enough to deal with. "Marina was going to email you about it but then the twins' adoptionsyou know about the twin girls they fostered and were trying to adopt after the mother died?"
"Yes. Marina seemed ecstatic about it." Kelly's forehead pleated. "But I thought the adoption would have been completed by now. They had the twins for whata year?"
"Almost." Sam shrugged. "They had to allow time to search for family. Only after that was complete could the adoption process proceed. Marina and Jake were coming to Calgary to make their final case before the judge." This part was so hard to say, so hard to accept. He'd given Kelly the bare facts about their deaths in his email, but it was time she knew the details. He cleared his throat, but that didn't erase the wobble in his voice. "A semi-truck lost control on black ice and hit them head-on. They died instantly."
When Sam finally looked up, his breath caught in his throat. Kelly's face had paled to ashen white. Her tear-filled gaze darted around as if she was searching for something, anything, to make the horror of their deaths understandable. He knew a thousand questions were tumbling through her mind, most of all, Why? He knew that because he'd asked himself the same thing over and over. And never found an answer that satisfied.
"Where were the kids?" she choked when she was finally able to squeeze out the words.
"At home with my parents." He smiled, hoping to ease her anxiety. "They're fine."
No, they weren't. Five-year-old twins Emma and Sadie were lost and confused. They couldn't understand why their Mommy and Daddy didn't come kiss them good-night. And six-month-old Jacob Samuel, upset by everyone else's turmoil, cried for familiar arms to rock him to sleep.
"Thank God they're okay," Kelly managed to say on a broken sniffle. She dislodged her tears with her fingertips, though more quickly followed. "I keep asking God why He allowed this. They were so happy. Marina seemed to adore the twins, and then she finally had the baby she'd longed for since they were married. Her emails made it sound like everything was perfect. So why?"
Since Sam didn't have an answer, he remained silent.
"So you're saying the girls aren't Denvers. Is that right?" Kelly stared at him as she waited for a response.
"No." Sam hated that admission. The twins were Denvers in every way that mattered.
"Marina never gave me the details about how they came to be at the ranch," Kelly said softly. "Would you mind explaining?"
"Sure." Sam couldn't deny her the information, but man, it hurt to go back to those halcyon days. He steeled himself against emotion and laid out the facts. "Abby Lebret owns Family Ties, an adoption agency in Buffalo Gap. Calgary Children's Services contacted her to see if she could find the twins a home where they could live while their mother underwent chemotherapy. She asked Jake and Marina. Sadly, the mother died. Since the twins' father was married with a family and had disowned them and the girls were by then very much at home on the Triple D, not to mention that our siblings had come to adore the twins, Abby helped Marina and Jake petition the court for adoption."
"Poor kids but fortunate to have Jake and Marina," Kelly mused, her gaze far away.
"Yes. They went all out to make a home for them." Sam fought for composure. Even though he'd had five days to adjust, the loss of the lively couple still seemed so surreal. "That day the twins were sick. Marina didn't want to leave them, and Abby couldn't persuade the judge to come to Buffalo Gap, so"
"Jake and Marina went to Calgary to see the judge," she finished. "I'm guessing my sister couldn't wait to officially become their mother." Kelly managed a small smile when Sam nodded.
"They wanted things finalized." Would he ever forget that horrific phone call?
"I see." Kelly paused, blinked away the moisture in her eyes then asked, "But there's no issue with you adopting the twins, right?" She frowned when he didn't answer and touched his sleeve. "Sam?"
"Since the adoption decree wasn't registered before Jake's and Marina's deaths, Children's Services has applied to the court to regain custody citing concerns that Sadie and Emma no longer have parents or a proper home." He cleared his throat. "Since I went through the foster parent training classes with Jake and Marina, Abby begged the judge to let the girls stay with me at the ranch while I apply to adopt them. Abby thought you and I being named as guardians of the three children might influence his decision."
"I understand them naming you." Kelly's dismay was the last thing Sam wanted to hear. "But why me?"
"Because you're Marina's sister, and because they knew neither of our parents are well enough to care for three active kids." Sam inhaled, hoping she'd understand. "It's up to you and me to keep this family together, Kelly."
"But I know nothing about kids," she protested, obviously taken aback. "And I can't be their guardian for long. I have a job I have to return to."
"When I was trying to locate you, the cruise line told me you're going on leave for six months." Irritated that she considered her job as a port consultant more important than her family, Sam blurted, "Are you willing to see your sister's children raised by someone else?"
"No, but you don't understand." Poor Kelly looked confused and lost.
Sam's heart ached for her. Part of him wanted to gather her in his arms and comfort her. He knew the loss of Jake and Marina had hit Kelly as hard as it had him, maybe harder, because she hadn't seen her twin in so long. But the other part of Sam wanted to demand Kelly stop holding her grudge or whatever it was that had kept her away all these years and act like part of the family. Because she was.
He hadn't expected Kelly's refusal but perhaps he should have. Marina had told him how hard Kelly had worked to move up in the industry. He'd known Marina occasionally sent Kelly newsy emails about her life, their parents and her growing family. He'd admired his sister-in-law for trying to include Kelly as part of the family, for trying to build a bridge. But other than sending a Christmas package every year, Kelly had stayed away and maintained only sporadic contact.