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Jefferson Aquilon manhandled the crate into place beside the cabinet, took a deep breath and wondered, for the hundredth time in the past hour, if he was doing the right thing.
Actually, it was a bit late to be thinking like that. Everything he owned had been moved — lock, stock, barrels and sculptures — from Boise to this small ranch near the county seat of Council, Idaho. All his hopes and plans hinged on making it in this new place.
Worry hit him like a sluice of icy water from a mountain spring. He'd made the move for the orphans in his care. Eighteen-year-old Jeremy, who'd taken on a man's responsibility while still a boy, was his nephew. Thirteen-year-old Tony, who'd almost forgotten how to laugh, and Krista, who was ten going on thirty, weren't blood relatives, but they were his second brother's stepchildren, and Jeff was their only surviving relative.
Both his brothers had died young. Lincoln, father of Jeremy and the oldest of the three Aquilon boys, had had a heart attack at thirty-nine. That had been a shocker.
Six months before that, Washington, the middle son, had rolled his truck on an icy road one night and was dead by the time he was found and brought to the hospital. He'd married Tony's and Krista's mom when the kids were still toddlers. Although no adoption records had been found, the two children had taken his last name.
Jeff grimaced. Around the same time, he'd lost his left foot to a land mine while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Life had continued to hand the Aquilons a raw deal. Nearly two years ago, the do-gooders at the Family Services Agency had taken the younger children away from him, saying his two-bedroom trailer wasn't big enough, and put them in foster care.
The foster father had beaten the children until they'd come to Jeremy for help. The three had run away and hidden in the Lost Valley area until found last fall by the Dalton family, who had a ranch there.
Jeff clenched his hands into fists as anger buzzed through every nerve. He forced himself to relax and unpack the crate of woodworking tools.
Things were working out, he assured himself. While his family name may not have been enough to convince the juvenile court judge that the orphans would be fine in his care, the Dalton name had.A First Family of Idaho and all that, they'd come through for him and the kids and for that he was grateful.
Moreover, one of the Dalton wives was manager of a private charitable foundation. She'd convinced the directors to supply the down payment for the modern ranch-style home with a bedroom for each child — as Family Services insisted they must have — and that, along with the money he'd saved while in the army, had enabled the move.
Due to high demand for land in the city, he'd sold his place in Boise for top dollar and bought sixty acres adjoining the highway that led to one of the prime vacation spots in the area. The Daltons had helped pack and load his household goods onto a rented truck. They had also repaired the old barn on the property, making it into a shop for his salvage-and-recycle operation, which earned him a living, and his sculptures, which didn't.
So, here he and his little improvised family were, less than a year after the custody hearing, settling into their new home, the kids enrolled in the local school system and the spring season — it was the last day of March — erupting into daffodils and birdsong.
His heart rate went up while an odd emotion skit-tered around inside him. He paused while unloading a box of old estate ogees he'd recently purchased and analyzed the feeling. Surprise caused a smile to tug at his lips.
Hope. Anticipation. An expectation that everything, at last, would be right with their world.
And what planet would that paradise be on? the doubting part of him inquired.
Something his mother had once said while she'd hidden him and his two brothers from their father, who'd been in a drunken rage at the time, came to mind.
"Shh," she'd murmured at their whimpers.
"Someday you'll grow up and make your own life, one that will be much better than what your father and I have given you."
Going outside to retrieve another box, Jeff squinted into the bright afternoon sunlight while recalling his determination to make a decent life for himself. He'd finished high school and joined the army, becoming a Ranger. However, nothing had turned out quite as planned.
A car turned into the lane leading to his place, interrupting the relentless flow of memories. A woman was at the wheel. Putting aside the lingering worries, he left the workshop and started for the house as the woman parked and headed for the front door.
She stopped on the new sidewalk made of rosy-toned pavers and lined with flowers planted by the kids, surveying the place as if thinking of buying it.
Wariness caused him to pause.
Her attire was all business, but there was something youthful, even graceful about the way she stooped to sniff a particularly aromatic rose.
He assumed she was there on business, probably referred by one of the local building contractors or interior designers who used his salvage services, but for an instant he wished she were there for him.
He frowned at the odd sensation and attributed it to spring fever or whatever had caused the mixed emotions of the morning. "Hello," he called.
She straightened and pivoted toward him. She was older than he'd first thought. Probably around his age, he decided as he came closer, noting the faint lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes.
"You looking for someone?" he asked politely. She removed her sunglasses and looked at him. Her eyes were light green with gold flecks in the center. For a strange second, he felt as if she were gazing into his soul and wasn't impressed by what she saw.
Caileen Peters glanced at her notebook. "Jefferson Aquilon?" She gazed at the man who approached her with only a hint of a limp. He matched the description given to her.
Except the file hadn't mentioned he was a man straight out of a Brontë novel — dark and brooding, wary and watchful, interesting as only a mature man could be — one who was experienced and confident of his place in the world.
An odd shiver danced over her skin, leaving a trail of goose bumps along her arms and scalp.
Get a grip, she advised, reining in her imagination and concentrating on the business at hand. She raised her eyebrows as the silence spun out between them. In Family Services parlance, this was known as "taking charge."
"You found him," he said, a question in his eyes and no smile of welcome on his angular, attractive face.
He was a bit over six feet, with broad shoulders and a muscular frame. The laugh lines radiating from his eyes nicely balanced the frown line across his forehead.
He had dark hair, a shade between brown and black, and his eyes were so dark they, too, appeared black. Looking into them was like staring at a blank wall. There was a closed aspect to him, as if he didn't allow anyone into his inner thoughts.
He was a year older than her own forty years — forty years! — and a veteran who'd had his foot blown off by a land mine while in Afghanistan. He'd also had some problems with the people at Family Services down in Boise last year, so she hesitated in telling him the purpose of her visit. No one liked to be poked and pried at by strangers.
"You have the advantage," he finally said. "Are you going to tell me who you are?"
She introduced herself and added, "I work for the county. Family Services."
His frown line deepened. "What do you want?"
A new life might be nice. "I've been assigned to this case. Now that you've completed your move," she added when he didn't respond.
"I thought we already had a case worker."
"Not in this county. I've spoken to the counselor in Boise and to Lyric Dalton up here, so I think I have a pretty good idea of your situation."
"Do you now?"
The tone was more than a little cynical, with an undercoating of sarcasm and suspicion. Exactly like most of her clients at the first meeting, only more so.
Her counterpart in Boise, Mrs. Greyling, had been a tired, bitter woman who should have retired before she reached burnout. She'd been instrumental in removing the children from this man's care and had been humiliated when they ran away from the foster home she'd recommended.
Caileen smiled at the man who'd taken the orphans in. That the children had asked to stay with him was in his favor, and Lyric had assured her he was a truly caring person. His present attitude wouldn't influence her impression of him. Only time would do that, and she would have lots of time to get to know him and his family well.
Well, maybe not. She'd turned forty last week. Her daughter had informed her she was middle-aged and didn't understand anything about the younger generation.
"I'm so glad your place here is finished," she said, focusing on the silent man. "The children have settled very well into school and the community, from all reports."
"So you've checked them out and now you've come to do the same with me," he stated.
She held her smile in place. "Yes. I need to see the house, if you don't mind."
"Would it do any good if I did?" His unexpected smile was heavy with irony, but it did nice things for his face.
Not believing in evading the issue, she said, "Not if you want to keep the children."
He took one step and was in her face. "Let's get one thing clear from the beginning. Those kids have been pushed around enough. The judge said they could live with me and this is where they will stay."
"I think that would be best, too," she said in the calmest voice she could muster. She inhaled deeply.
A scent like wild thyme and balsam filled her, along with the clean odor of sweat and soap and aftershave lotion. The pure male aroma did something to her insides, and for a moment, she remembered being young and in love.