Nash blinked and straightened. "Don't you need…?"
She glanced over her shoulder, enjoying his confusion. "What? More instructions? That's not why you hired me. The agency gave me a thorough job description. Go do whatever it is you do on a horse ranch or plantation or whatever." She waved toward the door as she walked into the living room. "We'll be fine. Won't we, girls?"
The twins spun on the sofa, peering over the back of it like squirrels. Hayley winked. They were button cute and itching with energy they'd obviously learned to curtail around their dad. Their gazes shifted to him, then to her.
"Would you like me to fix you some lunch or something before you go?" Hayley asked Nash.
"No." Nash had the feeling he was being dismissed in his own house. "Chow's usually at sundown."
"It'll be ready."
His look said he doubted that as he grabbed his hat, eyed her briefly, then crossed to the sofa, sinking between his daughters and pulling them onto his lap. "I wish I could hang around with you." He made an exaggerated sad face and they giggled.
"Horses won't get fed," Kate said.
"Then they'll be too stubborn to sell," her sister added. "We'll be okay."
They were so grown-up about this, and Nash's chest tightened. "Behave. No mischief like yesterday."
They blushed. "Yup." He eyed them. "Yes, Daddy," they chimed.
"Promise?" He held up his little finger, and his daughters hooked theirs around his and nodded. He grinned, kissed them, then shifted them off his lap.
Hayley felt like the outsider she was and wished she'd been that close to her father at that age. She'd lost her mom when she was seven, and her father, being a salesman, dragged her all over the country. She met many people, saw wonderful sights, but never knew permanence, never had a home until the sorority house in college. If the twins weren't so cute she could almost envy them. They'd grown up in this house with the same people around them, and would probably marry local boys and have their weddings right here. Her heart jerked. Were Michelle and Nash married here? She warned herself not to go there. It was too painful to even ask. And it was the past. Why open up the wound?
Nash crossed to her and for a second he just stared, then said, "Those girls are my life, Hayley."
His heart was on his sleeve just then, and Hayley was touched by the depth of his feelings for his daughters. "I'll take good care of them, I promise," she said.
He nodded briskly and left.
Hayley sighed, a little too drained around that man. She looked at the girls. "There's a lot of work to do. So you can either sit there and watch TV for the next hour, fry a few more brain cells, or you can lend a hand and we'll have some fun later. Whaddaya say?"
"What kind of fun?"
Hayley looked thoughtful. "I think this should be a group decision."
They were off the sofa in less time than it took to take a breath, following her like mice to cheese.
"That your new wife, boss?"
Nash didn't respond to the ranch hand's comment and continued walking toward the barn, yanking his gloves from his back pocket.
"I thought mail-order brides went out in the nineteenth century," Seth snickered.
"Y'all must have your work done if you're sitting on your butts, right?" Nash said, pulling on the gloves.
Young Beau hopped off the back of the truck and hefted another hay bale onto the bed.
Nash paused long enough to issue orders before he strode into the breeding barn. The Thoroughbred auction was a week away, and his stock had better be in prime condition to sell. Briefly he checked on a mare about to foal, thinking how this addition was going to help stock his lands with good Thoroughbreds. Anyone for miles around this country knew it wasn't the horses a breeder had, but the land they had to graze and raise them. This land had been under the guardianship of a Rayburn since before the American Revolution, and Nash had always felt there were generations of his ancestors staring down at him the day he took over the reins. He had a reputation and tradition to maintain, but with the girls growing and needing more of him, it was getting harder to divide his time and do the things he needed to make their life better.
Nash muttered a curse and knew he was just avoiding any thoughts of Hayley. She still made him breathe hard, and he knew he hadn't been very congenial to her. It wasn't her fault he couldn't control his emotions around her. She stirred up every memory he'd suppressed since he'd broken up with her—and married Michelle.
Walking into the stall of the horse he usually rode, Nash saddled the animal. Then he paused with his hand on the pommel. He couldn't tell Hayley the truth, even if it was to ease the old hurt she tried to deny she felt. It would just make the entire situation worse. Mounting his horse, he rode around the rim of the paddock before leaping the fence and taking off across the pasture, trying hard not to think that the one woman he'd wanted in his house was now there. Or that his first honest, totally masculine reaction when he saw her was to wonder whether she still looked as good naked as she did fully clothed.