Turning off the motor of her BMW, Sarah Collins braced herself for the inquisition she was surely about to face. After all, hadn't she been avoiding this for the past three months?
"She's here!" A young boy around seven years old scrambled out of the large, dilapidated house. Tommy. He had grown so much since she'd last seen him. The older boy, Chris, chased him, but stopped in his tracks when he caught sight of her car. His face had been alight with laughter while he played with his brother. Now it hardened into a stony mask of rejection.
Sarah felt a twinge of remorse. She was a virtual stranger to her own nephews, and a most unwelcome one at that. Oh well, she fully intended to be gone by tomorrow morning at the latest, then everyone could go about their own lives.
The only reason she was out here in the first place was to make sure Mr. Manning was providing the children with a proper environment and the nurturing they needed. She needed to make sure he was indeed serious about wanting them in his life permanently. He wanted to put his illustrious photography career on hold to play Daddy? So be it. Although she couldn't imagine such a thing, she was well aware of his playboy lifestyle.
Pushing her Dior sunglasses up further on her nose, Sarah viewed the knee-high weeds and varied assortment of rusted garden tools strewn about. An old tire sat in the middle of the yard with an array of wildflowers growing out from the hole in its center. "How charming," she drawled.
The house had definitely seen better days. The remnants of flaking white paint clung to the gray, weathered wood by nothing short of a miracle. She only prayed the inside was in better shape.
Climbing out of the car, the heat from outside smacked into her, nearly singing her eyebrows. "The air-conditioning better be on full blast," she muttered to herself.
As she started to reach back and grab her suitcase, Chris--equally slender and with the same shock of hair as his younger brother--solemnly offered his assistance. "Thank you," she said, noting how they were the spitting image of Debbie. This visit was going to be hard on her already frayed emotions.
She gave a small smile, hoping it was a good cover for the anxiety she felt storming inside her. She really didn't like being in this situation. In fact, her lawyer advised she either sign over guardianship and be done with it, or suggest the kids go into foster care. Sarah could do neither, not until she was certain what type of lifestyle these kids would be living. And she'd take them herself before they ever went into foster care!
Chris offered a grunt in return and trudged back up to the house. Sarah stared after him, feeling about as welcome as the devil in the Vatican. Her sigh was inward and silent. She should have expected such a greeting. Not only had Chris lost his father and mother in that awful car accident, but here she was popping in like some social worker. The thought caused her throat to tighten with guilt, but she pushed it away. She really did have their best interest at heart. Besides, she'd most likely be out of here by tomorrow.
Tommy looked her up and down a good ten times, fists planted on his slim hips, eyes narrowed. "Is something wrong?" Sarah asked, feeling uncomfortable under her nephew's close scrutiny.
"You don't look like a wicked witch."
Sarah pursed her lips. "Thank you, I think."
"Uncle Raif said you were just like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz and you wanted to take us away from him. Is that true?" He took in her attire of linen peach skirt suit and matching pumps. "You don't look like a witch to me."
Sarah closed the car door and crouched down in front of the boy who had a challenging look in his gray eyes. "No, I'm not here to take you away from your uncle Raif." Unless absolutely necessary, she silently added. "I just want to make sure you're being well cared for."
"Then you'll leave?" His tone was so hopeful and solid, Sarah truly felt like scum.
She poked him softly in the stomach and smiled slightly. "I promise."
"Okay. You can come in then, I guess."
"Thanks for the hospitality," she murmured, walking behind him as he led her up to the house where she was greeted by an inviting blast of cool air.
"Uncle Raif's been expectin' you," Tommy said as he held the tattered screen door open for her. She didn't know why he bothered with the formality. She could have just as easily walked through the gaping hole in it. "He's in the kitchen." Tommy pointed the way then turned and ran back outside to play.
Pushing her sunglasses up on top of her head, she walked through the living room, noting it was decorated in Early American Yuck. The carpet beneath her feet looked as if it hadn't been vacuumed in at least a decade, its original color unrecognizable beneath the thick layer of grunge. Floral curtains hung sagging at the windows and were so dingy nearly all daylight was blocked out.
All this charm was set against what were probably at one time white walls, now dull and grimy. Sarah sighed. Things weren't going to be as simple as she'd hoped. She'd never be able to leave knowing the kids were wallowing in this sty.
She entered the kitchen, detecting the scent of tuna fish, dreading what she would encounter next, but her spirits lifted as she was greeted by the heart-stopping sight of a man's backside. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a cowboy hat stood at the counter. She tried to quiet her racing pulse, noticing he filled out his tight jeans quite well. Western wear had never appealed to her until this very moment.
I wonder if the front looks as good as the back?
Her hand tightened on the handle of her briefcase as every muscle in her body stood up at attention. Sweat broke out on her temples and she felt her nipples peak. She blamed it on the quick change of temperatures between outside and inside, but knew it was a lie.
Sarah thought to reprimand her exuberant hormones, but pushed the little voice of shame aside. She was a red-blooded woman who could appreciate a fine looking man just as well as any other female.
"Mr. Manning?" She forced an air of all business into her words.
He had obviously been absorbed in his task of fixing sandwiches since he started at the sound of her voice and spun around.
He stood there mute for a few seconds before touching the brim of his gray Stetson with his thumb and forefinger. "Howdy." The one word seemed squeezed from his lungs.
Sarah groaned silently. Yep, front's even better. It had been awhile since she'd seen any publicity shots of him, and he was quickly creeping up on his forties. With his notoriously wild lifestyle, she fully expected him to look as shabby as the house. Never in her life could she have imagined Mr. Raif Manning looking like this. Those tabloid photos didn't do him justice.
She started to feel a bit self-conscious as his inviting green eyes gave her an intense once-over. Maybe if he wasn't so gorgeous she wouldn't have minded, but here he was, well over six feet tall, that Stetson pushed back on his head revealing a mass of raven curls. A firm, totally male body was clothed in a red and black plaid shirt and blue jeans that might as well have been made of latex. Scuffed black leather boots completed the breathtaking view before her.
Somehow he didn't fit in with the chaos and grime around him. Sarah swallowed hard.
It was she who finally broke the intense surveillance. "I'm Sarah Collins." She aimed to keep her voice clear and steady.
Raif stood there in disbelief. This was nothing like the mental picture he'd created of her. He expected a tall, willowy beauty with her nose held high in the air. Instead, Sarah Collins was more than generously curved, and in all the right places. His gaze dipped to the front of her white blouse and he felt his dick knock against his zipper. Her breasts were full and her nipples tight. He realized it was probably the air-conditioning causing the erotic effect, but he didn't care and certainly appreciated the view.
Her pale blond hair and dove-gray eyes gave her an almost fragile look, but the hard set of her chin and pursed lips told him she could be a real bitch when she wanted to.
Common sense finally kicked in. Remember, she's the enemy. Keep your mind off your libido, get the papers signed, and get her out of here, pronto. Raif blinked back to reality. "You're Sarah?" He aimed for a tone of gruffness and prayed he made his mark.
"Otherwise known as the wicked witch." She gave a flat smile.
Raif let out a little cough. "Seems you've already been talking to the boys." He turned back to his chore of putting tops on the sandwiches, not offering an apology for his remark.
When his task was finished, he turned around, leaned against the pink and blue counter that was chipped and pockmarked in several hundred places, hooking his thumbs in the front belt loops of his jeans. He settled his expression into a mask of complete indifference. "So you finally managed to make an appearance? One that's three months overdue, I might add." Remembering his manners, he offered her a seat at the yellow Formica table.
She took up one of the torn chairs and met his gaze straight on. "Well, I'm here now."
Raif didn't like the look he saw in those icy gray eyes.