Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Magnificent Seven Reissue

The Magnificent Seven
Silhouette Special Releases
Sep 2009
Miniseries: Montana Mavericks
ISBN:9780373310524 (#30)

Heather Johnson had never intended to return to Whitehorn, Montana. But restoring an inherited ranch seemed the perfect way to pass the summer with her three kids. The moment she hired carpenter Mitch Fielding, though, his motherless twin daughters in tow, those short-term plans suddenly went awry. Mitch was the first man in her life who truly seemed to notice her. And as his skillful hands restored the ranch and ignited a passion she'd never known, her fragile heart began to heal, as well. For once in Heather's life everything seemed magnificent. And that scared her. Because the future she wanted—and the past she'd run from—were forever in Whitehorn….

The Magnificent Seven

Chapter One

Mitch led his twin six-year-olds, Taylor and Ashley, through the lunch crowd at the Hip Hop Café as though he were guiding them through a minefield. Taylor narrowly missed knocking over a gray-haired gent's cane that was leaning against a table edge, and Mitch clamped his hand firmly over Ashley's mouth as soon as he noticed an overweight woman shoveling chocolate-cream pie between her lips.

He got them settled into a booth and released his breath. "There." He picked up the plastic-coated menu and scanned for something nourishing the twins would eat without pitching a fit. "They have hamburgers and chicken fingers."

"Yuck. I want a chocolate malt and a pickle," Ashley pronounced.

"I want skettios," Taylor said.

"They don't have skettios," he replied to one daughter, then turned to the other. "And you can have a chocolate malt if you eat a hamburger."

"Gross. I don't want a hamburger." She folded her arms over the front of her Teletubbie T-shirt. "I want a pickle."

"You can have a pickle with your hamburger. Taylor, they have spaghetti."

"Don't like spaghetti."

"Of course you do. It's the same stuff that comes out of the cans, only real."

"Uh-uh-uh," she said in a singsongy voice with a shake of her head. "It doesn't taste the same."

He resisted the urge to argue or bargain in public, which always made him feel as if his daughters were getting the upper hand anyway. How long could a child survive on pickles, malts and canned spaghetti? It was his job as a parent to see that they were well nourished, but how did he go about it? Some nights he dropped into bed mentally exhausted, feeling lucky to have gotten several bites of anything into them.

A waitress appeared at his elbow, and Mitch glanced up to see the slim blonde in a blue T-shirt proclaiming Breakfast Served All Day give him a curious once-over. Everyone in Whitehorn, Montana, seemed to know each other, and he obviously stuck out as a newcomer. A quick scan confirmed that a dozen eyes had zeroed in on him and his daughters.

"Afternoon," she said pleasantly. "I'm Janie Austin. Which one of Garrett Kincaid's grandsons are you?"

"Mitch Fielding," he replied self-consciously. "How did you know?"

She cast him a friendly smile. "In Whitehorn everybody knows everybody else's business. Anticipating each grandson's arrival has been the hot topic for quite a while."

He didn't know how well he liked being the subject of gossip, but this young woman seemed friendly and accepting enough. Apparently everyone already knew he was one of six illegitimate grandsons the old man had summoned to his ranch. Garrett was still searching for a seventh.

She touched his shoulder in a brief gesture of greeting that put him at ease. "Nice to meet you, Mitch."

He returned her neighborly smile. "These are my daughters, Taylor and Ashley."

"Look at that pretty blond hair. What'll you have, girls?"

He gave her their orders, amid objections from his daughters. Taylor waved her arm to get his attention and knocked the ketchup bottle into the salt and pepper shakers. Pepper spilled on the laminate tabletop, and she promptly blew it into her sister's face.

Ashley sneezed and her eyes watered. She grabbed for the rolled paper napkin that held her silverware and sent the metal utensils flying across the table and onto the floor.

Mitch picked up the utensils, handed them to the astonished waitress and admonished the girls to sit on their behinds.

By the time their food arrived, everyone in the room knew Taylor had to go to the bathroom. He took them to the women's room, standing outside until their food was cold. Finally he rapped on the door.

Thank God it was a one-seater, because he had to go in to dry their hands and pull them out. So that the next person wouldn't slip and break her neck, he mentioned to the waitress that the rest room floor was flooded.

"My spaghetti's cold," Taylor complained loudly.

"So's everything else." With a sigh, Mitch picked up his cold burger and took a bite, just as Ashley knocked over her malt.

Twenty minutes later he released their hands to get his wallet and pay the cashier. He ran back to leave a generous tip at the table for the patient waitress.

A bulletin board on the wall by the cash register caught his attention and, ignoring the yanks on his hands, he scanned the notices of cars and household items for sale. He was particularly looking for someone to watch the girls for him so he could line up a few jobs. Most of the Want Ads had been placed by junior and high school students; the twins needed someone more experienced. Much more experienced. A warden, perhaps.

One notice caught his eye. Handyman Wanted. He released a small hand to tap the card with his forefinger.

"Know anything about this one?" He directed his question to the gray-haired waitress in orthopedic shoes standing near the cash register.

"That's Pete Bolton's ranch," she replied. "His daughter was in here a couple of weeks ago, looking for someone to help her fix up the place to sell."

That sounded like just the job for him. A couple of months back he'd had to sell all of his contracts, to take care of the girls. His mother had been caring for them, but one calamity after another had pulled him from work sites, until it wasn't fair to his customers or his subcontractors for him to continue. While trying to figure out what to do, he'd decided that Garrett Kincaid's invitation was just the solution.

This had been the perfect time to do some traveling, and he'd been eager to spend more time with, and get to know, this grandfather he'd never known existed until last May.

"Do you have some paper I can write the number on?" he asked.

"Sure, sugar." She fished in her pocket, came out with her order tablet and a pen, and scribbled the phone number, tearing off the sheet and handing it to him.

The bell over the door clanged and he turned to see one of his daughters dash outside.

"Thanks." He stuffed the paper into his shirt pocket and pulled the other child out the door behind him.

Lily Mae Wheeler got up out of her permanent seat in the first booth and walked over to Charlene, her gaudy jewelry clanking at her wrists and weighing down her bony chest.

"Heard he was at Garrett's ranch," she said to let Charlene know she'd been the first to hear. "Nobody knows much about him yet, 'cept his wife died when those two were just babies. Those children are holy terrors, have you ever seen the likes?"

"Must be difficult for a young father to raise two girls alone," Janie said sympathetically, coming up beside them.

"They need a good paddling, if you ask me," Lily Mae scoffed.

"Be interesting to see what happens at the Bolton ranch this afternoon, wouldn't it?" Charlene said with a devilish smile.

The three exchanged amused glances.

Engaging her ten-year-old daughter's help, Heather Johnson tackled the stack of dishes from lunch and breakfast.

"We need a dishwasher, Mom." Jessica dried a chipped plate and stood on tiptoe to place it in the cupboard.

"I didn't think we were going to be here long enough to need one," Heather replied with a regretful sigh. She turned and glanced at her sons who sat on the worn linoleum floor with coloring books. With his tongue angled out the side of his mouth, five-year-old Patrick studiously labored to keep the purple crayon inside the lines on the page. Two-year-old Andrew spent more time chasing the crayons under the table and tasting them than he did coloring, but at least her boys were temporarily occupied.

When she'd brought her children to the ranch after her father's death, she'd planned to take a two-week vacation, go through her father's personal belongings, and sell the property. A neat-and-tidy plan, something that should have gone smoothly.

Now, two and a half weeks later, she still hadn't been able to make any progress on selling. She hadn't planned on all the repairs that the real estate lady had suggested be made to get a decent price. Heather hadn't been back to Whitehorn in years, and the property had deteriorated more than she'd imagined. Her father obviously hadn't paid any more attention to the house than he ever had to her.

She shrugged off the depressing thought and gave Jessica a smile. "Thank you, angel. You are a big help to me, you know that?"

Wiping another plate, her daughter nodded in a grown-up manner. "Can we do something fun after this, Mom?"

A little pang of regret snagged Heather. She knew it hadn't been much fun for Jess to help with the boys all morning while Heather went through boxes and trunks and years' worth of accumulated junk. "What would you like to do?"

"Catch turtles in the pond?"

Heather wrinkled her nose. "Who's going to wade out there with the net?"

"You'll help, won't you?"

Heather had to admit she'd been appreciating this much-needed time with her kids. She loved her public relations job in San Francisco, and the sense of self-worth it had always brought, but she often felt guilty about the time she missed with her children. This time with them had been enjoyable, even though it had to be spent here—the last place on earth she'd choose to vacation.

She tapped Jessica on the nose with a sudsy finger. "Okay, I'll help you catch a turtle."

Jessica grinned that knockout smile, revealing dimples that would one day drive young men crazy. Heather's heart gave a sad twinge at the thought. She wasn't too concerned about her daughter's future.

She'd tried her best to ensure Jessica wouldn't make the same mistakes Heather had made.

Patrick jumped up and ran to the screen door that overlooked the long gravel drive. "Somebody's coming! It's a way cool truck!"

Andrew got up, crunching crayons beneath his red-and-blue tennis shoes in the process, and followed his brother. "Thumbody coming!" he mimicked.

Heather dried her hands and moved to the door. She'd been expecting the man who had called earlier about interviewing for the handyman job. The blue-and-silver duel cab Silverado pickup leaving a dust trail must belong to him.

"This is the appointment I was expecting." She hung up the towel. "We'll be discussing business in the other room. I want all of you to play quietly in here until we're finished."

She waited for the children's nods of understanding, then stepped back to the door.

The driver parked in the gravel area behind the house, but instead of getting out right away he turned toward the back seat. Heather noticed a couple of heads she hadn't seen at first. He'd brought children to a job interview? One big strike against him.

She stepped out onto the back porch, the age-splintered boards creaking precariously beneath her feet.

He exited the truck at last, closing the door and glancing over his shoulder.

He was tall, she noticed right away. Maybe thirty, with sandy-brown hair and a golden tan attesting to hours working in the sun.

The jeans he wore encased long legs and slim hips. A navy-blue, button-down knit shirt, work boots, and a slim black folder with a clipboard completed the classically sexy look of a handyman. Heather could picture him with a tool belt around his hips and smiled to herself. Certainly nothing wrong with his appearance.

He neared the porch. "Mrs. Johnson?"

She composed her face and nodded.

"Mitch Fielding."

She reached to shake his hand. He had calluses on his palms. Hardworking. Steadfast. Where had that come from? It had been a long time since she'd noticed a man the way she noticed this one. Perturbed, she released his hand. "We can talk inside."

He glanced uncomfortably over his shoulder.

"Your children?" she asked.

He nodded. "They're supposed to sit there until I get back."

She wondered again why he'd brought them along. It was completely unprofessional. "Would you like to let them come in and color at the kitchen table?"

"No," he said immediately with a shake of his head. "I don't think so."

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