HOME TO CROSSROADS RANCH is dedicated to my late brother-in-law, Bill, a joyful man who was a kid magnet. He could walk in a room with his booming laugh and every kid in the place ran to hang on Uncle Bill’s leg. He always had time for them. If a nephew or niece had a ballgame a hundred miles away, Bill would be there even though he’d worked twelve hours in the hot sun and hadn’t had time to eat. A kid in the family having a birthday? The party didn’t start until Bill arrived with party hats, presents, and lots of laughs. And no one was ever surprised on those weekends when Uncle Bill and Aunt Barb would call with instructions to pack up the kids because they were all going camping. The van would pull up, kids hanging out every window, we’d pile in a few more and away they’d go for weekends none of them have ever forgotten. All kids need an Uncle Bill in their lives.
The point of all this? Bill was a true giver, a man about as Christ-like as any I’ve ever known. He loved kids, but just as important, he saw value in kids. What they had to say and how they felt mattered to him.
In HOME TO CROSSROADS RANCH the heroine, Rainy is much the same way. Kids are her life. Trouble is, she’s single, and the cowboy who’s caught her eye doesn’t exactly share her views. To find out if and how God works everything out, I hope you’ll pick up a copy, kick back in your favorite chair, and spend a few hours with Rainy, Nate, and all the kids at Crossroads Ranch.
Excerpt of chapter one:
Adjusting his Stetson against a gust of March wind, he rang the doorbell expecting the noise to subside. It didn't.
Somewhere inside the modest, tidy-looking brick house at least two kids were screaming their heads off in what sounded to his experienced ears like fits of temper. A television blasted out Saturday-morning cartoons.
He punched the doorbell again. Instead of the expected ding-dong, a raucous alternative Christian rock band added a few more decibels to the noise level.
Nate shifted the toolbox to his opposite hand and considered running for his life while he had the chance.
Too late. The bright red door whipped open. Nate's mouth fell open with it.
When the men's ministry coordinator from Bible Fellowship had called him, he'd somehow gotten the impression that he was coming to help a little old schoolteacher. In his mind, that meant the kind who only drove to school and church and had a big, fat cat.
Not so. The woman standing before him with taffy-blond hair sprouting out from a disheveled ponytail couldn't possibly be any older than his thirty-one years. A big blotch of something purple stained the front of her white sweatshirt, and she was barefoot. Plus, she had a crying baby on each hip and a little red-haired girl hanging on one leg, bawling like a sick calf. And there wasn't a cat in sight.
What had he gotten himself into?
"May I help you?" she asked over the racket. Her blue-gray eyes were a little too unfocused and bewildered for his comfort.
Raising his voice, he asked, "Are you Ms. Jernagen?"
"Yes," she said cautiously. "I'm Rainy Jernagen. And you are…?"
"Nate Del Rio."
She blinked, uncomprehending, all the while jiggling both babies up and down. One grabbed a hunk of her hair. She flinched, her head angling to one side, as she said, still cautiously, "Okaaay."
Nate reached out and untwined the baby's sticky fingers.
A relieved smile rewarded him. "Thanks. Is there something I can help you with?"
He hefted the red toolbox to chest level so she could see it. "From the Handyman Ministry. Jack Martin called. Said you had a washer problem."
Understanding dawned. "Oh my goodness. Yes. I'm so sorry. You aren't what I expected. Please forgive me."
She wasn't what he expected, either. Not in the least. Young and with a houseful of kids. He suppressed a shiver. Kids, even grown ones, could drive a person to distraction. He should know. His adult sister and brother were, at this moment, making his life as miserable as possible. The worst part was they did it all the time. Only this morning his sister Janine had finally packed up and gone back to Sal, giving Nate a few days' reprieve.
"Come in, come in," the woman was saying. "It's been a crazy morning, what with the babies showing up at 3 a.m. and Katie having a sick stomach. Then while I was doing the laundry, the washing machine went crazy. Water everywhere." She jerked her chin toward the inside of the house. "You're truly a godsend."
He wasn't so sure about that, but he'd signed up for his church's ministry to help single women and the elderly with those pesky little handyman chores like oil changes and leaky faucets. Most of his visits had been to older ladies who plied him with sweet tea and jars of homemade jam and talked about the good old days while he replaced a fuse or unstopped the sink. And their houses had been quiet. Real quiet.
Rainy Jernagen stepped back, motioning him in, and Nate very cautiously entered a room that should have had flashing red lights and a Danger Zone sign.
Toys littered the living room like it was Christmas morning. An overturned cereal bowl flowed milk onto a coffee table. Next to a playpen crowding one wall, a green package belched out disposable diapers. Similarly, baby clothes were strewn, along with a couple of kids, on the couch and floor. In a word, the place was a wreck.
"The washer is back this way behind the kitchen. Watch your step. It's slippery."
More than slippery. Nate kicked his way through the living room and the kitchen area. Though the kitchen actually appeared much tidier than the rest, he still caught the slow seepage of water coming from somewhere beyond the wall. The shine of liquid glistening on beige tile led them straight to the utility room.
"I turned the faucets off behind the washer when this first started, but a tubful still managed to pump out onto the floor." She hoisted the babies higher on her hip and spoke to a young boy sitting on the floor. "Joshua, get out of those suds."
"But they're pretty, Miss Rainy." The brown-haired boy with bright blue eyes grinned up at her, extending a handful of bubbles. Light reflected off each droplet. "See the rainbows? There's always a rainbow, like you said. A rainbow behind the rain."
Rainy smiled at the child. "Yes, there is. But right now, Mr. Del Rio needs to get in here to fix the washer. It's a little crowded for all of us." She was right about that. The space was no bigger than a small bathroom. "Can I get you to take the babies to the playpen while I show him around?"
"I'll take them, Miss Rainy." An older boy with a serious face and brown plastic glasses entered the room. Treading carefully, he came forward and took both babies, holding them against his slight chest. Another child appeared behind him, this one a girl with very blond hair and eyes the exact blue of the boy she'd called Joshua. How many children did this woman have, anyway? Six?
A heavy, smothery feeling pressed against his airway. Six kids?
Before he could dwell on that disturbing thought, a scream of sonic proportions rent the soap-fragrant air. He whipped around, ready to protect and defend.
The little blond girl and the redhead were going at it.
"It's mine." Blondie tugged hard on a doll.
"It's mine. Will said so." To add emphasis to her demand, the redhead screamed bloody murder. "Miss Rainy!"
About that time, Joshua decided to skate across the suds, and slammed into the far wall next to a door that probably opened into the garage. He grabbed his big toe and sent up a howl. Water sloshed as Rainy rushed forward and gathered him into her arms.
"Rainy!" Blondie screamed again.
"Rainy!" the redhead yelled.
Nate cast a glance at the garage exit and considered a fast escape.
Lord, I'm here to do a good thing. Can You help me out a little?
Rainy, her clothes now wet, somehow managed to take the doll from the fighting girls while snuggling Joshua against her side. The serious-looking boy stood in the doorway, a baby on each hip, taking in the chaos.
"Come on, Emma," he said to Blondie. "I'll make you some chocolate milk." So they went, slip-sliding out of the flooded room.
Four down, two to go.
Nate clunked his toolbox onto the washer and tried to ignore the chaos. Not an easy task, but one he'd learned to deal with as a boy. As an adult, he did everything possible to avoid this kind of madness. The Lord had a sense of humor sending him to this particular house.
"I apologize, Mr. Del Rio," Rainy said, shoving at the wads of hair that hung around her face like Spanish moss.
"Call me Nate. I'm not that much older than you." Being the longtime patriarch of his family, he might feel seventy, but he wasn't.
"Okay, Nate. And I'm Rainy. Really, it's not usually this bad. I can't thank you enough for coming over. I tried to get a plumber, but today being Saturday…" She shrugged, letting the obvious go unsaid. No one could get a plumber on the weekend.
"No problem." He removed his white Stetson and placed it next to the toolbox. What was he supposed to say? That he loved wading through dirty soapsuds and listening to kids scream and cry? Not likely.
Rainy stood with an arm around each of the remaining children—the rainbow boy and the redhead. Her look of embarrassment had him feeling sorry for her. All these kids and no man around to help. With this many, she'd never find another husband, he was sure of that. Who would willingly take on a boatload of kids?
After a minute, Rainy and the remaining pair left the room and he got to work. Wiggling the machine away from the wall wasn't easy. Even with all the water on the floor, a significant amount remained in the tub. This leftover liquid sloshed and gushed at regular intervals. In minutes, his boots were dark with moisture. No problem there. As a rancher, his boots were often dark with lots of things, the best of which was water.
On his haunches, he surveyed the back of the machine where hoses and cords and metal parts twined together like a nest of water moccasins.
As he investigated each hose in turn, he once more felt a presence in the room. Pivoting on his heels, he discovered the two boys squatting beside him, attention glued to the back of the washer. Blondie hovered in the background.
"A busted hose?" the oldest one asked, pushing up his glasses.
"I coulda fixed it but Rainy wouldn't let me."
"Yeah. Maybe. If someone would show me."
Nate suppressed a smile. "What's your name?"
"Will. This here's my brother, Joshua." He yanked a thumb at the younger one. "He's nine. I'm eleven. My sister's Emma. She's seven. You go to Miss Rainy's church?"
"I do, but it's a big church. I don't think we've met before."
"She's nice. Most of the time. She never hits us or anything, and we've been here for six months."
It occurred to Nate then that these were not Rainy's children. The kids called her Miss Rainy, not Mom, and according to Will they had not been here forever. But what was a young, single woman doing with all these kids? Foster care? Nah, they didn't let singles do that. Did they?
Rainy frantically tossed toys into a basket in an effort to clear up some of the mess. She never let things get like this. Of all the days to have a stranger come into her home. A young, nice-looking stranger at that.
Pausing with a stuffed bear against her ...