The low tone of his voice evoked heat and the sensation of being safely wrapped in warmth. "Good to be seen," she managed and searched his face for any changes. They were minor, for he'd aged beautifully, the lines in his face giving it more character, a harder look than she remembered. At thirty-five he was as handsome as he was when she'd first seen him at a college mixer in her senior year. He'd arrived with his friend Katherine Davenport, Hayley's sorority sister, mentor and owner of Wife Incorporated, just as a favor, and he'd left with Hayley. He was the older man, rich and powerful, who'd swept her off her feet and into his strong capable arms. She sighed, pushing the memory down where it belonged. She'd been a fool, falling for him hook, line and sinker, and she wasn't about to let it happen again.
They stared at each other for a moment longer before Hayley asked the one question she didn't want to say. "So, where's Michelle?"
His features hardened. "She'd dead, Hayley. Killed in a car accident four years ago."
"I'm sorry." She was. Hayley might have a grudge against Michelle and Nash, but she certainly didn't wish his wife dead.
"You know her, Daddy?" a voice asked.
Hayley stepped away and looked at the girls standing on the porch. While her assignment sheet offered only a street address, not a name—which she'd rail at Kat later for omitting—the job was detailed and she'd expected children. She smiled and waved. "Oh, Nash," she said softly, in a tone full of surprise. "They look just like you."
He didn't take his eyes off her, enjoying her unrestrained smile. "I don't know if that's good or bad."
She glanced. "Good," she said honestly as the twins trotted down the wide Federal steps and flanked their father.
"These two beauties," he said, ruffling the top of one dark head, "are Kim and Kate."
"I'm Hayley," she said, and shook their little hands. "And yes, your daddy and I are old friends." She gave them a conspiratorial wink that made the five-year-olds giggle.
Nash felt the tension leave her body as if he owned her skin, and he was glad that any animosity she had for him didn't spill over to his girls. How were they going to work this out? How long could he stand having her in his house, living with him, seeing her every day and knowing she hated him? It was a humiliation he'd continue to bear in silence. Keeping the truth from her would keep any feelings from being resurrected, he decided. And asking her to leave would be his best bet.
She swung her gaze to his, tipped her head to the side as if studying a painting. Her lips curved into a soft smile that caught him in the gut and threatened the seams of his anger.
Hayley sensed it and frowned. What did he have to be so mad about? She was the one who was jilted, while he'd had everything he wanted. A beautiful wife with culture, wealth and the same refinement he possessed. A perfect complement to the rich powerful landowner he'd become. "I can see you're not happy about this," she said, "so how about I call Kat and have another wife for hire here by morning?"
His eyes flared. The challenge was there. Nash had to admire her for it. Even when he wanted her gone. Just seeing her made his mistakes more pronounced. They felt like a knife in his side, and every time their eyes met, it twisted.
"Did you like our daddy?" one of the twins interjected.
Their curiosity was open and charming, yet Hayley could feel their father tense, feel his eyes on her as she looked down at the girls. "I thought he was the handsomest man on earth."
The twins giggled again, huddling closer. Nash glanced down and their smiles fell a little. He supposed he deserved their retreat with the way he'd been barking at them all week; but Mrs. Winslow was off sick, and he had hundreds of horses, cattle, pigs, chickens and two brunette mischief makers roaming where they weren't supposed to. Plus he'd had all his other duties to attend to. Bless their hearts, he loved his babies, but they were a full-time job. He eyed Hayley, wondering if she could keep up with his pair of tornadoes.
"I can handle the situation," Nash said. "Can you?"
The challenge was there, she thought. He should know better than to dare her. "No sweat."
"Fine," he said, then turned and walked toward the house.
"Ooh, attitude already."
He paused and looked back at her, arching a dark brow. She smiled brightly, motioning for him to lead the way. The twins were already stuck to her side and sharing secrets. Great. Outnumbered already, he thought sourly, pushing open the front door. He stepped into the coolness of the house, the girls skipping past him into the den and clicking on the television.
He tossed his hat onto the side table and ran his fingers through his dark hair. "Turn it down a notch, will you, girls?" They did as he asked without a look back.