"Is it a her or a him?" Kelly asked in an amazed whisper.

A long pause, a giggle and then she answered, "Yup, darlin', it's a girl."

Three females in his house. A man couldn't win with those odds. Yet he leaned against the window frame and listened, wanting to be a part of it. Wanting to see Kelly's face when she held the ball of fur in her hands. And misery claimed him again.

"She has eyes like you, Miss Laura."

"Oh, I don't think mine are quite that green or that beautiful."

They were, Richard thought. Feline-emerald and mysterious.

"Let's get her warm. Oh the poor thing is shivering. We can go in the living room, and I'll make a fire. You just keep her wrapped in that towel and let her get used to you."

"What do we name her?"

We. She was already attached to Laura, Richard thought, and when their voices faded, he couldn't stay where he was. He had to keep them at least in hearing range. It was bad enough he couldn't see his little girl, he thought, stepping into the servants' staircase, descending.

"…but I've never known a cat that answered to its name, anyway," he heard moments later.

"You've had kittens?" Kelly asked, and Richard slipped out the hidden door and stood in the kitchen, watching Laura build a fire in the hearth.

"Oh, sure, when I was little we always had at least three. And a couple dogs, a goat or two." She flashed the child a smile that sent sparks shooting through Richard's veins. "Cattle, chickens, and lots and lots of peanuts."

"Peanuts?"

"My daddy is a peanut farmer."

Kelly's face lit up. "Does he make peanut butter?"

"No, he sells the crops to the peanut butter makers." Kelly's quick laughter was sweet and filled his heart. "How's that?" Laura asked, nodding to the now burning fire.

"Nice and warm, but the kitty's still shivering."

"Well you just talk to her real soft-like so she gets used to your voice and knows you won't hurt her. Gently dry her coat, too. I'll go get her some warm milk."

Scrunched in the corner of the sofa, Kelly beamed up at her. "Thank you so-o-o much, Miss Laura."

"You're welcome, precious," Laura said, and kissed the top of her head.

Laura moved away, pausing at the door to watch Kelly and her pet comfort each other. Animals were one of the best things about growing up on a farm, she remembered.

In the darkened kitchen, the only light coming from over the stove, she opened the fridge, pulled out the milk, then went to the cupboards for a saucer. Her hand stilled for a second as she set the saucer on the counter.

"How long have you been there?" she said softly, feeling him behind her, on the other side of the counter. In the silence she could hear him breathe. She hadn't been this close to him since their kiss at the staircase, and her insides jumped and tightened at the memory. Dang. She'd hoped time apart would dull the sensations. Apparently all it took was to know he was there to send her body rocketing off in all directions like fireworks set off too soon.

"Long enough to know you're a farmer's daughter."

Laura laughed shortly as the old joke came to mind. "That's me. Silas Cambridge's oldest."

"How many kids are in your family?"

"Five. Three girls and two boys." She poured milk into the saucer. "We're only a couple years apart."

"Must have been nice. I was an only child."

There were times she'd wished she was an only child, but not many. "It was loud, and cramped, but I wouldn't part with my kin for anything."

He smiled to himself, loving how her roots flowered in her accent sometimes. Her past made him curious. "So, what made you enter beauty pageants, aside from the obvious?"

The obvious. How many times had she heard that? It's obvious she's too pretty to do anything more than walk down a runway. Obvious that she must be snobby because she's attractive. It's obvious men only want her for her face and body. "What difference does it make?"

"I'd like to know more about the woman caring for my daughter, and I'm curious as to how you got from a peanut farm to the State Department."

He had the right, she thought. And if she were a parent, she'd be doing the same thing. "My family is dirt poor," she admitted. "My mother saw that we could make some extra money, so she put me in pageants and commercials when I was no older than Kelly." She shrugged and, with the saucer, turned toward him. "When I was old enough to really understand what a rotten business it was, the vicious competition, I chose which pageants to enter for the biggest prize money and scholarships so I could go to college and get off the farm."

"Admirable."

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