Hayley stepped into the bedroom half an hour later and found Nash asleep in the chair between the twin beds, a storybook on his chest and his hands clasped around each of his daughters'. The tender scene stabbed through her with a longing so keen her breath snagged in her chest. Oh, to be loved and needed like this, she thought. To have a home and family. Nash was trying hard to be both father and mother and make a living at the same time, and she thought of how hard it must have been for her own father, raising her alone. She glanced around the room, just now noticing that, while there were several framed photos of Nash and the girls and other relatives, there were none of Michelle. None anywhere else in the house, either. Nor had the girls mentioned her. Not once. But then, Hayley thought, she rarely spoke of her own mother, her memories too faint to recall. Kim and Kate probably had no recollection of their mother. Since Michelle had died when they were infants, they'd never known her and really had no concept of her. Was that why there were no pictures?
Hayley moved to Nash, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. He stirred.
"You're going to regret it in the morning if you sleep in that chair all night," she whispered close to his ear.
His lips curved softly, his eyes still closed. "You still have the sweetest voice, Hayley."
"Say that when I get hopping mad."
His forehead wrinkled for a second. He'd never seen her mad. Not even hurt, really. He'd never given her the chance. He opened his eyes. Hayley was covering up his children, tucking their stuffed toys close. Her hand lingered over Kim's hair, and his throat tightened at the sight. Her expression was incredibly tender, and Nash thought of how easily Hayley gave, as if she'd known his girls for years.
He looked at his babies. How could their mother have walked away without a backward glance? The memory tormented him at times like this, when he knew his girls were missing a mother. He reminded himself that Hayley was temporary. And he didn't want his daughters to get so attached to her they'd be hurt when she left. But with Hayley, he thought, as she whispered good-night and swept past him, well, it was just plain hard to keep "temporary" in his mind.
Nash stayed in his office most of the next day, working on bids for the coming auction. The house was surprisingly quiet, and though he made progress in his work, the lack of activity and his curiosity forced him out. The house was immaculate, and something heavenly simmered on the stove. He sampled a taste of the stew, nearly burning his tongue. He called out. No answer. And he realized just how big this house was when he was alone. A rare occurrence, he knew. Grabbing his hat and striding to the front door, he flung it open and stepped onto the porch. He spied Hayley out by her car, then trotted down the steps and crossed the driveway.
With his daughters playing close by, she was bent under the open hood of her car, grease on one bare thigh.
Nash peered under the hood. "Good Lord, is that a pair of panty hose for a fan belt?"
She jerked upright, knocking her head into his chin. "Ow, yes, it is." She rubbed her head. "A girl has to make do when she's alone on a dark country road."
"All the more reason to get a better car. This thing is falling apart."
"Not quite yet." She leaned back under the hood to adjust the panty-hose belt. "Besides, Lurlene just needs a rest, dontcha, baby?" She patted the fender. "Can you hand me the torque wrench?" She waved at the toolbox behind her. He pushed the wrench into her hand.
"Why are you fixing this now?" he asked when she straightened.
"The girls and I are going to the market to pick up some household stuff."
His features tightened. "You're not taking my children anywhere in that pile of junk!"
"Shh." She covered up a headlight as if covering ears. "Insults won't make Lurlene your friend, Nash."
His lips twitched. Hayley always did have a great sense of humor.
"So what do you propose I do?" she asked.
He folded his arms over his chest and called for Jimmy Lee. The ranch hand came around the corner of the barn, hopped the fence and strode toward them.
"Bring the sedan around for Miss Albright, will you?"
"Sedan?" Hayley said, looking for one in the yard. There were half a dozen trucks, flatbeds, and five horse trailers neatly lined up behind the breeding barn, but no sedan.
"Want me to drive her?" Jimmy asked.
Nash glared. The man was eyeballing Hayley's bare legs and cropped T-shirt as if she were spicy barbecue on a summer night. "No, I do not. She's capable of driving herself and the twins."
"You trust me with the girls?" Hayley asked.
He met her gaze. "Of course," he said as if she was foolish to ask.