Still grieving his wife’s death, Sam Jenkins needs a mother for his children. He can’t build his ranch and care for three precocious youngsters alone. Emma Witherspoon has accepted the fact that she will never have a husband and children of her own, but that doesn’t ease the ache in her heart. When Emma makes Sam an offer he can’t refuse, neither of them can foresee the changes in their lives because of two little words – “I do.”
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“Please don’t send us away, Pa.” Six-year-old Nathan tugged on the rolled up sleeve of his father’s shirt. “We’ll be good. We promise. Don’t we, Joseph?”
Beside him, his older brother nodded vigorously, then scrubbed at his tear-stained eyes with his grimy knuckles.
Studying the two boys, Becky’s head bobbed in agreement, setting her pale blonde curls bouncing. She was too young to understand the significance of what Sam had just told them, but whatever her brothers did, Becky followed suit, as much as any three-year-old could.
Sam Jenkins raked his fingers through his hair. God, if there was any other way … But there wasn’t. It was the right thing to do. He’d done his best to look after the children and the ranch, if it could be called that – but it wasn’t good enough. He was failing at both, and now he had to muster up the courage to do what was best for them, no matter how painful it was. Seeing the children lined up in front of him, looking at him as if he was some kind of monster, just about tore his heart out.
Leaning over, he picked Becky up and settled her on his lap. Her pudgy arms reached up around his neck, and she planted a loud smacking kiss on his cheek.
Swallowing painfully against the grief choking him, he took Nathan’s small hand. His gaze rested on the calluses on the little boy’s palm. Dammit, his hands shouldn’t already show signs of hard labor. Youngsters shouldn’t have to work that hard.
This was exactly why he’d made the decision, the decision the children hated him for right now. But they’d thank him later. He had to believe that.
He was doing this for their own good. Sam had to remind himself of that every single day. By sending them back east to live with his wife’s parents, he was giving them the life they deserved, a life of privilege and wealth. But even though his reasons made sense, he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that he was making a huge mistake.
“It’s just for a little while.” He tried to sound convincing, but the promise rang false even to his own ears. “Right now, I need to work too hard–”
“We can help,” Joseph volunteered. “I’m almost a man. You said so yourself when Ma died.”
When Ma died. That said it all. Their lives had fallen apart when Catherine died six months before. The children had lost their mother, and he’d lost the only woman he’d ever loved.
“I did say that, didn’t I?” he asked, ruffling the boy’s hair. “And I meant it, too.”
Catherine had always called Joseph her little man, and a melancholy smile twitched at Sam’s lips at the recollection. He’d called him that, too, as Joseph had stood beside him at the cemetery when they laid Catherine to rest. Joseph had stood in the rain, his head held high, determined not to cry even though his eyes brimmed with tears and his chin quivered throughout the short service.
“I can work–” Joseph put in.
“Me work–” Becky smiled up at him, the dimples in her cheeks and the clear blue gaze in her eyes bringing back the image of Catherine’s angelic face.
God, couldn’t they see how badly he wanted to keep them with him? They were all he had left, and sending them away was slowly killing him. But they had no way of knowing that. They only knew they were being sent to live with people they’d never met, in a place they’d never seen.
“Joseph,” he said, trying to make his tone as stern as possible. “I can’t keep you here right now. Your grandparents are looking forward to seeing you.
So I need you to be a man now and promise me you’ll take care of the younger ones. That’s the way it has to be.”
Joseph sniffled. His voice cracked when he replied. “Yes, Pa.”
Nathan wiped his face again, and hiccupped. “Yes, Pa?”
“I want you to listen to Joseph. You do what you’re told and stay out of trouble.” Like asking the seasons not to change, he thought wryly.
“Now you two go and finish your chores while I fix us supper.”
Both boys hesitated for a moment, then turned and shuffled out.
Sam watched the boys cross the yard and disappear into the barn. Feeling something tugging on his sleeve, he turned his attention to the little girl in his lap.
“What am I going to do without you?” Sam nuzzled Becky’s neck until she giggled, that sweet sound he’d have to remember during the lonely nights to come. How he’d miss her dimples, and the way she’d look up at him with her head cocked to one side and that same quizzical expression Catherine used to give him when she was confused about something.
Best not to dwell on what can’t be helped. Getting to his feet, he settled Becky back on the chair.
He had to send the children to Boston. He had no choice.
Night after night, he’d lain awake trying to find a way, some way to keep his family together. When Catherine first died, the neighbors had flocked to the house with food and offers of help with the children. Gradually, the visits had lessened. Now, he was left alone to try to keep the ranch going and care for the children by himself.
Sure, his closest neighbor, Fred Holloway, still came by with his wife, Lou, from time to time. But Fred had his own place to worry about. With planting season upon them, he didn’t have time to help Sam out, and Lou was too busy cooking for their own hands to help Sam with the children.
Getting up, Sam picked up a wooden spoon and stirred the pot of beef stew on the stove. It seemed they ate stew almost every night since Catherine died, partly because it was one of the few things he knew how to make, but mainly because it was easy and he could leave it simmering, giving him more time to work the ranch rather than preparing meals. If only he had the money to hire a few hands …
But he didn’t. He’d sunk every cent he could scrounge together into building his herd. There was nothing left over.
He’d exhausted all the possibilities until finally, he’d given in and written to Catherine’s parents, asking them to take the children. Until he got back on his feet, he’d said.
And he meant to get back on his feet, too. He just didn’t know how long that might take.
“Papa!” Becky’s voice filtered through his thoughts. “Look!”
Following the direction of Becky’s outstretched arm, Sam noticed the stew bubbling over the side of the pot. “Damn!” he cried, grabbing a towel and lifting the heavy iron kettle away from the heat.
“Papa said a bad word,” Becky told Nathan, who had just opened the door and trudged into the kitchen carrying a pail of water.
Nathan scowled. “Ma doesn’t like you cussing.”
Sam gave Nathan a soft smile. Even after all these months, Nathan still talked about his mother as if she was still alive and had just stepped into the other room for a few minutes. Sam didn’t have the heart to remind him again that she was gone. Permanently. It didn’t matter any more how much he cursed. Catherine couldn’t scold him now.
“Where’s your brother?” Sam asked.
“Feeding Lulu and Samson. He won’t be but a minute.”
Asinine names for horses, Sam thought, but he kept quiet. He’d let the boys name them, and he would have to live with it.
Sam nodded. “Good. Then go wash up and sit down before supper gets cold.”
A few minutes later, Sam and the children sat down to their meal. Only the crackling of the logs in the fireplace and the rustle of the wind through the trees outside broke the silence.
Sam tried to coax Joseph into a conversation, but he merely responded with one word answers to Sam’s questions. Nathan moved his food around on his plate with his fork, but Sam noticed none of it actually made its way into his mouth. Becky ate her supper in silence, her accusing gaze resting on Sam’s face. Her expression was enough to make Sam want to cry.
Finally the meal was over, and the table cleared. Sam reached up and set the last plate on the shelf. “You’d best get off to bed now,” he said to the children. “We have to go into town tomorrow and buy the train tickets for your trip to Boston.”
Nathan and Becky looked at Joseph, as if electing him the spokesperson. Joseph took one step forward and cleared his throat. “Pa?”
“What is it?”
“Uh … when … do we have to go?”
Joseph shrugged. “No reason. Just wondered.”
“How many days is that?” Nathan asked.
“Four,” Joseph answered. “Come on.”
Taking Nathan by one hand, and Becky by the other, Joseph led the two children up the stairs to the bedrooms, leaving Sam alone, staring into the flames licking at the logs in the stone fireplace.
Four days until he lost the only worthwhile part of his life.