"It isn't a housekeeper you need, Mr. Thompson, it's a wife."
"A wife." The word went through Travis like a bullet, and he soared to his feet. He slammed his Stetson back on his head, shoving it down so far it shadowed the starkly etched planes of his jaw and cheekbones. He paled beneath the weathered, sun-beaten tan.
It had been two months since his brother and sister-in-law's funeral, and he'd barely stepped outside the ranch house since he'd been appointed the guardian of their three children. He might as well forget thirty-six years of ranch life and take up being a full-time mother. All he seemed to do was cook, wash clothes, and read bedtime stories.
The worst of it was that according to five-year-old Beth Ann and the two boys, Jim and Scotty, he wasn't doing any of those jobs worth a damn.
"Mommy wouldn't like you saying the 's' word," Beth Ann announced each and every time the four-letter word slipped from his mouth. The kid made it sound as though his sister-in-law would leap straight out of the grave to reprimand him. Hell, she probably would if it were possible.
"Mom used to say 'yogurt' instead," Beth Ann announced, her eyes a soft cornflower blue. Janice's eyes. Everything about the bundle-size youngster reminded Travis of his petite sister-in-law. The thick blond hair, the gentle laugh, and the narrowed, disapproving look. The look that spoke a hundred words without uttering a one of them. Janice had had a way about her that could cut straight through an argument and silence him as no one else had ever done. Travis stared at Beth Ann, and his heart clenched. Godalmighty, he missed Janice. Nearly as much as he did Lee.
"Your mother used to say 'yogurt'?" Travis had asked, confident he hadn't heard her correctly.
Jim nodded. "Mom said yogurt was a much better word than the 's' word."
"I think yogurt's a fine word," Beth Ann added.
"If one of us got into something we shouldn't," Scotty, who was eight, was quick to clarify, "Mom would say we were in deep yogurt."
That was supposed to have explained everything, Travis guessed.
His language, Travis learned soon enough, was only the tip of the iceberg. Within a week he discovered that washing little girls' clothes with boys' clothes damn near ruined the girl things. Hell, he didn't know any different. Okay, so Beth Ann wore a pink dress, one that had once been white, to church on Sunday. It could have been worse.
Church was another thing, Travis mused darkly. Generally he attended services when the mood struck him, which he freely admitted was only about once every other year, if then. Now it seemed he was expected to show up every week in time for Sunday school with three grade-school children neatly in tow. It was less trouble to wrestle a hundred head of cattle than to get those youngsters dressed and to church on time.
Raising God-fearing children was what Janice would have wanted, Clara Morgan had primly informed him on the first of her proven-to-be-weekly visits. Dear Lord save him from interfering old women.
God, however, had given up listening to Travis a good long time ago. No doubt it was because he swore with such unfailing regularity.
Everything had come to a head the day before. Heaven knew Travis was trying as hard as he could to do right by Lee and Janice's children. He'd damn near given up the management of his ranch to his hired hands. Instead he was dealing with do-good state social workers, old biddies from the local Grange, and three grieving children.
The final straw came when he'd arrived home with a truckload of groceries a few days earlier. The boys, Jim and Scotty, were helping him carry in the badly needed supplies.
"You didn't buy any more of those frozen diet dinners, did you?" Jim demanded, hauling a twenty-five-pound bag of flour toward the kitchen, helped by his younger brother.
"No. I told you boys before, that was a mistake."
"It tasted like . . ."
"Yogurt," Travis supplied testily.
Scotty nodded, and Beth Ann looked on approvingly.
Travis dealt with the fencing material he'd picked up in town and left the three children to finish with the groceries. That was his second mistake in what proved to be a long list.
When he entered the house, it was like walking into a San Francisco fog. A thin layer of flour circled the room like a raging dust storm. Beth Ann, looking small and defeated, held on to a broom and was swinging madly.
"What the hell happened in here?" Travis demanded.
"It's Scotty's fault," Jim shouted. "He dropped his end of the flour sack."
"It was heavy," Scotty said. "It caught on the nail."
The nail. No one needed to tell Travis which nail. The blunt end of one had been protruding from the floorboard for the last couple of days . . . all right, a week or more. He'd meant to pound it down; would have if it had been a real hazard, but like so many other things, he'd put it off.
"I tried to sweep up the flour," Beth Ann explained, coughing.
Travis waved his hand in front of his face and watched as a perfectly good bag of flour settled like a dusting of snow on every possible crevice of the kitchen. "Don't worry about it," he said, taking the broom out of her hand. He leaned it against the wall and surveyed the damage.
"If Scotty wasn't such a wimp, none of this would have happened," Jim said.
"I'm not a wimp," Scotty yelled, and leaped for his brother. Before Travis could stop them, the two were rolling on the floor, wrestling like bear cubs, stirring up the recently settled cloud. Travis broke the two of them up, ordered Jim out to the barn to do his chores, and did what he could to clean up the mess in the kitchen.