Part-time caregiver Thea Gayle is left to care for two young girls who've been abandoned by their father. She turns to the man who is the only family the twins have--their uncle, Logan McCall. But is Logan--a wildland firefighter who is never home--up to the job? Thea has to know because she won't leave the twins with someone else who is going to let them down.
Logan's been in a slump ever since his twin sister died. The biggest mistake of his life was allowing his nieces to be taken away, all because he thought he couldn't take them on his own. He's going to try to make it right this time, by giving the girls—and Thea—the happiest home her can.
Heat level: medium.
“Can we go home now?” Hannah asked as she plucked a dandelion from the sparse grass at her feet. A gentle breeze lifted wisps of blond hair that escaped from her braid.
Thea glanced down at her charge. Perched on the corner of a big black suitcase, the ten-year old could have fit in it, had it not been stuffed with everything the girl owned.
“We don’t have a home.” Tess announced in a wobbly voice, even as she stuck her little chin out, daring Thea or Hannah, her twin, to contradict her.
Swallowing back a pang of despair, Thea stepped over her laptop computer and drew Tess to her. As usual, Tess kept her body stiff, staunchly refusing to show any sign that Thea comforted her in any way. Tess had to be the brightest, most standoffish child Thea had ever come across. And despite Thea’s best efforts these past two months, she’d been unable to break through the barriers Tess and Hannah had erected around their hearts after their mother died.
“Home is where the heart is. You know, where you hang your hat and park your flip flops.” Thea tried to keep the words light, knowing she failed. Their mom was dead and their dad gone missing. And since Thea could relate to mothers leaving and dads not caring too much, how upbeat could she be? “There’s a better home for you out there. One with a…a backyard…and trees.”
Since she was a kid, Thea had tried to go through life looking for the silver lining and encouraging those around her to do the same. She wouldn’t let a few minor setbacks, like being evicted or not knowing where her employer was, get her down.
Thea forced her gaze away from the piles of chaos that surrounded the twins she’d been hired to care for. Three bulging suitcases, a laptop computer, several boxes of textbooks and notebooks, two pink scuffed backpacks and one box with the meager remnants of their pantry were scattered in disarray around the porch of what had formerly been their sparsely furnished apartment.
“A house.” Hannah made a wish, blew the white dandelion fronds into the air and shut her eyes tight, adding in a whisper, “A house with a staircase leading up to a magic room.”
“With lots of friends nearby.” Tess surprised Thea by adding.
“That’s the spirit.” Thea managed a weak smile before the trio descended back into a lost silence.
“You won’t leave us, will you?” Hannah turned her big blue eyes to Thea, her bottom lip quivering.
“No,” Thea hastened to reassure Hannah. She may only be their nanny, but she cared about them.
If only they’d let themselves care in return.
“This is all his fault,” huffed Tess, turning her back to Thea and crossing her skinny arms over her thin chest, although she didn’t shrug off Thea’s arm.
Assuming Tess referred to her father, Thea didn’t refute her words. The girl was right. If Wes Delaney had paid the rent, his cell phone bill – or even paid Thea – in the past few months, they’d be on the other side of that apartment door right now. If Thea could turn back the clock, she wouldn’t silently complain about the peeling paint on the door or the walls so thin you could hear the couple next door fighting. She’d be sitting contentedly at the kitchen table, studying for her PhD exams while the twins did their homework on either side of her.
Two months ago, Wes’ advertisement for a nanny/housekeeper had seemed a blessing. Working on her PhD in textiles had taken Thea longer than she’d planned. She’d finished her coursework and was studying for her written and oral exams. Her savings had dipped dangerously low, so she’d taken the position with the Delaneys, which would have been fine if she’d been better at prioritizing the extra needs of the twins against progress on her studies. Now her exams were rapidly approaching and she was woefully unprepared.
Uncertainty, sour and unpleasant, clutched Thea’s heart. No place to live. Less money than ever. Running out of hope that she’d ever fulfill the promise she’d made to make something of herself. And with Wes gone to heaven knew where – he couldn’t be dead, could he? – what was she going to do with the twins?
As if aware of Thea’s rising panic, Tess walked down the front path to the curb where Thea’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle was parked. After a moment, Hannah followed her sister, stopping a careful distance away from her twin. Neither spoke. Neither touched. But Thea had the distinct impression that they knew what the other was thinking.
What had the twins been like before their mother died? Thea closed her eyes as she tried to envision Tess’ small face with a joyous grin or scrunched up in tickle-induced laughter. She tried to imagine a more outgoing, confident Hannah. Or the two sisters holding hands as they walked home from school, giggling and sharing confidences as siblings were supposed to do.
Much as she tried, Thea couldn’t quite picture them that way. Having buried their mother six months ago and being raised – if you could call it that – by a malingering father, who didn’t seem very interested in his daughters the four or five days he was home every month, it was no wonder the girls were so withdrawn.
Turning them into the police or some impersonal social agency was out of the question. They’d just be passed from one foster home to another. Tess would continue to refuse to eat more than kept her alive and Hannah would continue to eat to salve her pain. They may have been identical twins, but their grief had taken its toll on their bodies in different ways.
Unfortunately, Thea knew she couldn’t be responsible for them forever. As it was, she’d have trouble figuring out a way to keep them fed more than a few days with less than one hundred dollars to her name.
“I want to go home.” Hannah turned back to Thea, fingering the hem of her yellow sundress. “To Idaho.”
“He won’t take us.” Tess shook her head without facing them. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jean shorts.
“Is that where your father is? In Idaho?” Thea asked, her spirits rising. Maybe this was just a huge misunderstanding. Wes could wire them some money and the landlord would let them back into the apartment. She’d spend more time studying and a little less time trying to coax the girls out of their shells.
Ignoring her sister, Hannah stepped around a box of Thea’s books, something uncharacteristically bright shining in her eyes. Hope. “Uncle Logan lives in Idaho. In Silver Bend. Where we used to live.”
Thea’s spirits deflated as quickly as they’d risen. She hadn’t heard about their uncle before. He hadn’t called since she’d been with them. He hadn’t written to ask about the girls or sent them birthday cards. If she had to guess, Thea would say he didn’t care what happened to his nieces.
“Please.” Hannah touched Thea’s hand with one finger before stepping back. The gesture said so much more than the reticent little girl ever would. The twins tolerated Thea’s hugs, but didn’t seek out physical contact.
Why on earth would this uncle in Idaho help them now?
An ant crawled up the side of the box containing the bread, peanut butter and cereal. If Thea didn’t decide to do something soon, the ants would claim the last of their food.
Perhaps the twins’ uncle was the only person they could turn to.
Lifting her gaze to the blue spring sky above, Thea refused to think about the folders filled with notes at her feet, or the looming intense written and oral exams, or the balance on her credit card that was already too high to pay off.
And she would not think about the penalties for taking the girls without their father’s permission. She’d filed a missing person report on Wes three weeks ago. As far as she was concerned, if Wes Delaney was alive, he’d abandoned his daughters.
“Let’s load the car.” Thea brushed the ant away, picked up the box of food and headed to her car.
She was taking the twins to Idaho.
The Story Behind the Story
This is the 2nd book in my Hot Shot series. When I was plotting out this book, I was reading a historical romance that used the beauty and the beast theme. And I thought: I should try using a theme like that! Only I didn't choose a fairy tale. I chose The Wizard of Oz. Not that the threads of that story run deeply through this one. But the hero's nickname was The Tin Man (he was a heartless playboy), my heroine was Thea Gayle (not Dorothy Gayle) and the dog's name was Whizzer (the Wizard!). I'll let you look for the other character's names and the flying monkeys...
I had a lot of fun writing about Thea's shoes. She didn't like silence. She threaded her tennis shoes with bells and wore slippers with squeakers in them. The hero - who was grieving and valued silence - literally got shocked right into speaking. Several times.
Cover buzz: I like this cover. So did my editor. She bet the other editors in her group that it would sell best for its debut month because the dog is adorable. I do, however, remember putting in a character description of the Tin Man in my cover notes - he has big, strong arms. Boy does he ever!