The Single Cowboy’s Nanny by Elizabeth Grey
It felt like I was staring into some kind of terrible mirror as I stood over my twin brother, the angles of his face softer than mine in death. His casket sat next to my sister-in-law’s, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath as my eyes flitted between them.
Just like that—both of them, gone. It was a numbing scene.
I settled into the front pew to listen to the last few minutes of the memorial. Robin’s best friend stepped up to the microphone, a wad of tissues balled in one fist. She choked her way through the beginning of her prepared statement.
“Fourteen years of marriage. Three beautiful children. Robin and Joseph may have met young, but they defied the odds. They didn’t have a long time to spend together, but there haven’t been two people who lived life more fully than them….”
A growing pit in my stomach made me restless. I tried to listen, but her words faded into the background along with the dreary patter of rain against the stained-glass window.
I heard a giggle and turned. A few rows on the opposite side of the aisle, Lonan—the youngest of my brother’s three kids—was snickering into his hands, trying to hold back his laughter. He was talking to the woman sitting beside him.
I tried not to stare, but I didn’t have to see this woman’s face to know she was beautiful. Her dark dress, the color of ash, wrapped her earthy brown skin, the hint of a tattoo peeking out from beneath the edge of one sleeve.
I’d lived in New York City for the past ten years, where beautiful women were just as commonplace as the pigeons on the sidewalks. Yet this woman had the most beautiful back I’ve ever seen.
“Well, would you look at that,” Enara marveled. “That’s the first time I’ve heard Lonan laugh since the accident.”
I turned to my sister, her eyes glossy with tears. She managed a small smile with a nod toward our nephew.
“They’d be glad to see that,” she added. Internally, I agreed. I knew both my brother and his wife would want to know their children still had happiness within them, even if they were in pain right now.
“Who is she?” I asked. “That he’s talking to?”
“That’s Sierra Wood,” my sister replied. “Her mother works at Magnolia.”
I nodded, though I didn’t say anything back. Magnolia Ridge. Dad’s empire, one of the biggest equine training facilities in the country.
As if she knew we were talking about her, the woman turned, her stunning, deep brown eyes catching mine. She held my gaze for a quick few seconds that seemed to stretch on in slow motion, causing an odd flutter in the pit of my stomach.
Enara nudged her shoulder against mine. “Pretty, isn’t she?”
I straightened up in my seat and gave the collar of my suit jacket a sharp tug, ignoring her and the warm embarrassment flushing over my cheeks.
After scanning the room again, my eyes landed on Star, Joseph’s older daughter. The memories started crashing through the floodgates, just as they had been in big sweeps for days—ever since I heard the news.
I could see it so vividly still.
Joseph and I had just finished our second year at the University of Montana’s School of Business. We had big plans to take over New York’s financial district one day. That is until he came to me that night to tell me his plans had changed. He wouldn’t be returning to school with me in the fall.
“Jay, promise me you’ll carry on with our dream. Go to New York without me.”
“What?” I laughed in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”
It seemed to take him forever to finally choke out, “Robin’s pregnant.” His face ran the gamut of jubilation within a few seconds. “I’m going to marry her.”
“I know she’s only nineteen,” he’d said, “But, I can tell you right now, Jay. She’s the one I want to spend the rest of my life with. I’m serious.”
I knew what he was giving up, but I also knew what he was gaining. I could see it dancing around in his eyes—visions of the happy home and family they would have together.
I hugged him, clapping him on the back as I congratulated him.
“I’m happy for you,” I said. “You and Robin were made for each other. Anyone can see that.”
“I just don’t know how I’m going to tell Dad,” he’d said. “He’s not going to be happy.”
“I’m sure he’ll come around,” I said. “He knows how good you are together.”
I never could’ve imagined then that I’d be sitting in this musty old funeral home less than ten years later, staring down their caskets. Or that I would be responsible for their three children.
Years ago, they asked if they could name me the kids’ legal guardian in their will. I said yes in a heartbeat without so much as a second thought. I told them it would be an honor, and it was.
But there’s no way either of them ever thought something like this would happen. Jay dead at thirty-five, and Robin at only thirty-four—leaving their three kids behind with me of all people. If they had seen this coming, they would have made a better choice for the role.
The air in the room seemed to grow thicker by the second, making me tug at my collar and tie every few seconds like I was suffocating. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there when the service was finally over.
I pushed my way through the crowd filing out the front door, desperate for some fresh air. I was in such a rush, and I didn’t see her standing there.
“Oh, excuse me, sorry!” a woman gasped as we briefly bumped into each other in the hall. “I didn’t see you.”
“No, it was my fault,” I replied as her wide-brimmed hat went flying down to the concrete.
She kneeled to catch it, but I beat her to it, handing it back with a smile.
“Thank you,” she offered, opting to hold the big hat in her hands this time rather than placing it back over her crown of honey brown hair, pulled back into a chic bun.
I stopped suddenly, realizing the woman was Sierra Wood. She was even more beautiful up close. She had a wild spark to her, a passionate hunger that glimmered in her fierce eyes. A passion for what I didn’t know. Maybe a little of everything. All I know is it was striking and instantly intriguing.
Her smile, in contrast, had an almost shy quality to it, coupled with her thick eyelashes that fluttered like butterfly wings over her piercing gaze.
“It was a lovely service, don’t you think?”
My throat clenched with the reminder as I restlessly skidded my shoe along the pavement. “As lovely as these things can be, I guess.”.
Her lips parted to speak, but then a horrible look washed over her face as she stared at me closer. “Oh, oh right,” her brow furrowed. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize—you must be Joseph’s brother.”
“How could you tell?” I quipped.
Her smile returned, which was a relief to me. “It’s good to find any reason you can to laugh at times like these.”
“You certainly proved that with Lonan in there. My sister says that’s the first time he’s laughed since the accident.”
“Poor thing,” she clicked her tongue. “That’s all little boys his age should be doing, laughing and getting into trouble. He didn’t belong here on a day like this, that’s for sure.”
I gave a quick shrug, sliding my hands into my pockets. “None of us do. And yet…”
“Here we are,” she nodded. “I’m Sierra, by the way.”
“My sister also told me that,” I grinned.
“Is your sister around to tell me your name, too?” she joked.
I liked this one. She was clever, and she had a certain kind of spark to her, one that was hard to put my finger on.
My eyes skipped across her skin, landing everywhere I spotted the flash of tattooed ink. I was particularly drawn to the cursive writing just below her right ear, which after staring at it longer, I realized spelled the word Courage. It was an unusual choice but seemed fitting for the day.
It made me wonder what had called on her to have courage in her life, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking what it meant to her.
“I’m Jay Branson,” I answered, pulling my hand out of my pocket to shake hers.
Her fingers felt gentle and frail, slipping into my palm. “What happened to Joseph and Robin… It just, well, it sucks.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “It’s nice to hear someone just say it straight.” There was just something about Sierra that made the tension melt away. She didn’t seem stiff or worried about saying the wrong thing. Her calm openness brought a sense of ease over me.
I glanced at her slender hand softly, rubbing her right elbow. The absence of a ring told me she was single.
Without warning, a stab of grief tore through me, my heart and lungs and brain stalling for one horrible second as Joseph’s voice floated through my mind. I know that I keep nagging you to start dating, but I didn’t mean you should be checking out girls at my funeral, Jay.
I almost burst out laughing, the combination of stress and the longing to talk to him washing over me. I could hear him so clearly, the way his voice smoothed out when he was making fun of me.
You should ask her on a date. You can’t spend your whole life being the awkward bachelor. It was exactly what the real-life Joseph would have said, always worried that I would grow old and die alone.
But before I could recover and segway into another topic with Sierra, I felt an arm wrap around my neck. I turned to see Tyler standing there with one eyebrow raised. “Hey man, you holding up okay?”
Tyler was a country singer and the most famous of the Branson family. Sure, everyone knew Gavin Branson around these parts and in the horse business, but that wasn’t the same as getting invited to the Country Music Awards.
“You’ve barely said three words to me since you got here!” he roared.
“Yeah, because you never stop talking long enough,” Jackie, my younger sister, interjected, jabbing Tyler in the ribs as she skirted around us to start packing up the slideshow equipment.
I opened my mouth to apologize to Sierra, but she just waved silently in farewell and started heading for the door. Tyler groaned. “Aw, Jay, I’m sorry. Were you in the middle of something important?”
I waved away his concern. “No, no. Not at all.”
My brother was dead, and I suddenly had three kids to look after. My definition of “important” was shifting by the second.
For the past few nights, the kids had stayed at Dad’s house, where I’d been holed up in the room I used to share with Joseph. But Dad had been adamant that we needed to get a new routine in place as soon as possible, so I brought the kids back to their ranch the night of the funeral.
I wasn’t sure if it would help them or hurt them. After Mom died, the house itself had haunted me. It was like there were echoes of her everywhere. It took years before I saw that as a comfort instead of a curse.
Now that I was alone with Lonan, Callum, and Star, the gravity of what had happened began to sink in. They’d lost both of their parents in a single day. I was the one that Joseph and Robin had chosen to step into their shoes for some reason. I needed to honor that, no matter how unprepared I felt.
We still had leftover food from the reception, so at least I didn’t have to worry about cooking something that we’d all enjoy. It was bizarre to think that I’d need to put that much thought into every meal from now on. I had no concept of what children generally liked to eat. Did they have any allergies? Why didn’t I know this?
We ate on the oversized sectional while one of Callum’s favorite movies played on the TV. Thankfully, I’d been able to watch Dad corral the kids and show me their basic schedule. “It’s time for bed,” I said, nudging Lonan. “And almost time for you, Callum.”
“I’m not tired,” Callum protested.
“You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do have to go to your room.” I stole the words verbatim from Dad, his tone always more patient with the grandkids than it had ever been for me. “You can’t stay up all night watching television.”
“I want to stay here, though.”
“Shut up and go already!” Star shoved him.
“Come on. Don’t fight.” I patted each of them on the shoulder. “Today’s been awful for all of us. We have to stick together, okay?”
Callum left without another word. Star disappeared into the kitchen with a grumble. I heard the stove beep, but I figured she was old enough not to set the house on fire. As I ushered Lonan up the stairs, I hoped that these judgment calls were anywhere near the right thing to do.
Lonan looked exhausted as I tucked him into bed, and even with his stuffed teddy bear tucked under his little arm, he looked older somehow, wiser.
I grabbed the book resting on his nightstand and shuttered at the thought that Robin was likely the last one to hold it in her hands and read it to him.
“Pete the Cat,” I read the title out loud. “Want me to read this to you, buddy?”
“I haven’t read Pete the Cat since I was five years old,” he answered dryly, turning his back to me as he rolled over and clutched his bear tighter. “I read other things now. Goodnight, Uncle Jay.” His shoulders shook, and I sat there, frozen, one hand hovered an inch above his arm. His sniffles dissolved into sobs.
I tried to remember what it had been like after Mom’s funeral. I’d been closer to Star’s age, but people had still insisted on hovering around when all I wanted to do was be left alone. “I’ll be downstairs if you want to talk, okay?”
I rose to my feet and backed out of the room, flicking the lights off on my way out. I couldn’t take away the pain the kids were feeling, but I could respect it. That would have to be enough for now.
When I got back downstairs, Star was still in the kitchen. “What are you up to besides flaunting your lack of bedtime to your brothers?”
Between the bite to her voice and the way she was beating the hell out of that batter, I knew better than to force a conversation.
Instead, I grabbed a bottle of scotch from the liquor cabinet and went into the den, sinking deep into my brother’s favorite leather chair by the fire. I smirked to myself as I scanned the room. Joseph had always had such exquisite taste without being ostentatious. I smiled at a framed picture of us from Joseph’s wedding, where I’d been best man and gave the worst speech. The family photo beside it showed the three kids on their trip to Alaska, all beaming at the camera.
Not too long ago, my ex left me because I couldn’t commit. I didn’t blame Amy for leaving, but the irony of it grated on me as I contemplated what to do next. I’d told Amy that I wasn’t ready for a family. Now, I had three children counting on me to help them through the worst moments of their lives.
Lonan chose sadness. Callum and Star were wrapped up in anger. But me? Even more than the devastation of death and the frustration I felt at the unfairness of it all, there was one feeling that had consumed me from the moment I stepped foot back in Cedarview. Fear.
How the hell was I going to pull this off?