Judy Duarte.

His, Hers and...Theirs?





Of course, she hadnt been at the park long enough to observe much of anything when little Kaylee was injured.

She glanced over her shoulder and into the small backseat at the rear of the cab, where the twins sat in matching car seats.

When Kaylees gaze met hers, the little girl smiled, but her bottom lip quivered a bit, as if she was trying to be brave. Evas heart went out to her for the second time in just minutes.

According to Kevin, their mother was in heaven, which was sad. But there hadnt been any mention of their father or any indication of why the kids had come to live with their uncle. If Eva and Dan were alone, she might ask him, but she couldnt bring it up in front of the kids. Not when the answer might be painful for them.

As Dan pulled into the driveway that led to the Brighton Valley Medical Center and turned left toward the entrance of the E.R., Kaylee peered out the passenger window.

Is this where the princesses come to get their owies fixed? the girl asked.

It sure is. And if were lucky, my friend Dr. Nielson will be working. Shes the royal physician, and she takes care of all the queens and princesses.

Kaylee settled back in her seat.

Youre good with kids, Dan said, sliding a grin her way. Im impressed.

His praise nearly knocked her off balance, since she didnt work with children in the lab. But shed had to draw her share of blood when shed been in training, and shed learned a few tricks when working with frightened kids. Of course, once shed graduated with her masters degree in biology, she no longer worked directly with patients.

Its all in a days work, she said, making light of what shed just done.

Then you deserve a raise, he concluded.

She had the strongest urge to look his way, but kept her eyes fixed on the roador rather on the parking space he was pulling into. She still found it hard to believe that shed agreed to ride with him. She certainly wouldnt have if his niece and nephew hadnt been with him.

But earlier on the playground, when Kaylee had thrown her arms around Eva and held on tight, the most stunning sense of warmth and wonder had flooded her chest. And so had a sense of awe.

Eva liked the way her emotional side had kicked in, which didnt happen all that often. But even more amazing was the realization that her own mothers abandonment and her stepfathers abusive nature hadnt damaged her in a way that might hamper her ability to love and nurture her own children.

At least, it didnt appear that way.

She reached up and fingered the side of her neck, where industrial-strength drain cleaner had splashed upon her skin, burning it all those years ago.

She kept the scar covered whenever she could by choosing turtlenecks and scarves to wear, but it wasnt the ugliness she tried to hide. Shed learned to deal with her flaws a long time ago. It was just that peopleparticularly childrenwould sometimes ask what had happened to her, and she didnt like to talk about it.

As an adolescent, shed made up a wild story about an alien abduction, but who would believe a tale like that now? Certainly not the medical professionals with whom she worked.

Of course, she didnt usually mix or mingle with many of her coworkers outside the medical facility.

And it was fairly easy to keep to herself while bent over a microscope in the lab.

The irony struck her as odd, though. For someone who knew a lot of intimate details about people and their health, even before their doctors did, she kept her own secrets close to the vest. It was easier that wayand much safer.

All right, Dan said, as he shut off the ignition. Were here. Lets hope we wont have a long wait.

It was Saturday afternoon, and Eva suspected the E.R. would be packed, but that wasnt her main concern. She was more worried about what shed say to Kaylee if Dr. Nielson, the royal physician, wasnt working today and the little girl worried that she wasnt getting the proper medical care.

So while Eva climbed from the vehicle and waited for Dan and the kids to get out, she tried to come up with a plan B, but wasnt having much luck. After all, Betsy Nielson was great with children and would play along with the princess thing. Another doctor might, too, but Eva didnt know the others as well.

As they headed toward the E.R. entrance, a breeze blew across Evas face and along her throat, causing the scar to tingle as if the years had rolled back and the wound was still in the healing stage, still pink and tender.

She knew it was just her imagination, but she turned up the collar of her blouse anyway, hoping to hide the scar, as well as the fear that she might not have healed completelyon the inside, where no one could see.

And that, in spite of how good she seemed to be doing with Kaylee this afternoon, that she might somehow fail her own children one day.

Chapter Two

Upon entering the E.R., Eva led the way to a triage area, where a nurse was posted to determine the priority in which the incoming patients would be seen.

Kaylees condition certainly wasnt critical, and since the E.R. appeared to be especially busy today, Dan figured they wouldnt see a doctor until the cows came home. And if that were the case, he was going to owe Eva big-time for spending the afternoon at the medical center with them.

The triage nurse sent them to sign in with a clerk behind a desk who took Dans insurance card. Thank goodness hed put the kids on his plan after Jennys death.

After providing all the pertinent information, he returned to the waiting area. There werent many chairs from which to choose, so they opted for a grouping near a TV monitor that was set to the Discovery channel.

The kids and Eva zeroed in on the television, while Dan snatched a magazine from a table. He wasnt sure how long theyd had to wait before Kaylees name was called, but hed just reached the last pages of a battered, two-month-old issue of Modern Horseman.

As they all headed to the doorway that led to the exam rooms, the nurse whod called them, a tall, slender woman with black spiky hair, looked at Kaylee and smiled. What happened, sweetheart?

I fell down, and the slide hurt me.

Thats too bad. But dont you worry. Well get you fixed up as good as new.

Are you the princess doctor? Kaylee asked.

The nurse furrowed her brow and cast a quizzical glance Evas way.

Shes talking about Dr. Nielson, Eva explained. Is she on duty today?

The nurse smiled. Actually, she is working. And we usually assign the children to her whenever we can. So your odds of seeing her are good.

Eva seemed to be relieved, although Dan wasnt sure why. Apparently that particular doctor was good with kids. Was she also a plastic surgeon?

The nurseShannon OReilly, according to her ID cardtook Kaylees temperature and checked her blood pressure, then she left them to wait for the doctor.

Kaylee nibbled at her bottom lip, and Eva eased closer. Are you doing okay, honey?

Im scared. I dont want it to hurt again. Its all better now, and I just want to go home.

Dan didnt know if she meant back to New York or the ranch, but he wouldnt ask. The kids didnt have any options about where they lived now.

Eva slipped an arm around Kaylees shoulder, and the girl leaned into her. It was nice to see her connecting with someone. Shed been a little standoffish with him since hed brought her to Texas.

He supposed he couldnt blame her for that. He didnt know squat about kids, especially girls. And he had a feeling she wasnt used to being around men, especially the rugged and outdoorsy type.

Moments later, an attractive redhead entered the room. She couldnt have been much more than an inch or two over five feet tall, but she had a definite, take-charge presence.

She introduced herself to Dan and Kaylee as Dr. Nielson, then greeted Eva. Is this your family?

No, Eva said. Were justfriends.

Dan would have corrected her if he could have figured out a better answer, but as it was, that would have to do.

As Dr. Nielson slipped on a pair of gloves, then examined the childs wound, Eva said, Kaylees a little concerned about getting stitches and looking like a pirate.

Dont worry about that, the doctor said. Ive got something much better than stitches for this cut. Were going to use skin glue instead.

Dan eased closer, wondering if hed heard her right. Was she really going to close Kaylees wound with some kind of glue? Or was this all part of the magical princess-talk that Eva had been using on the child?

Cool. Kevin eased closer to the exam table on which his sister sat. Can I watch?

You certainly can. Dr. Nielson stepped aside, giving the boy a better view.

When the doctor was finished and Kaylees wound was thoroughly cleaned, then sealed, Kevin stepped back and grinned. Its too bad all the kings men and all the kings horses didnt have that stuff when Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall.

The doctor smiled at the boy. Youve got a point there. They might have been able to put him together again.

So thats all there is to it? Dan asked. That bionic glue will hold together?

Yes, it will. Dr. Nielson removed her gloves and dropped them in the trash. We cant use it on all wounds, but it should work out nicely for Kaylee.

Just like magic, Dan said, realizing that it sounded as if he was slipping into the fantasy zone Eva had created. But thats not what he meant. He was thinking about the marvels of science and modern medicine.

The doctor reached for a clean rubber glove from the box and blew it into a balloon. Then she took a black marker and made eyes and a mouth near the base of the thumb, leaving the fingers to poke up like a Mohawk.

Cool, Kevin said. It has pokey hair like the nurse. Can I have one, too?

You bet. Dr. Nielson handed the blown-up glove to Kaylee, then reached into the box for another.

Dan looked over the sealed wound on his nieces forehead. Hed had plenty of stitches in his daythe gash in his knee for oneso he knew the routine for that. Kaylee would need an appointment for a checkup and suture removal. But what happened with skin glue?

Does she need to come back? he asked.

Not unless you notice any unusual redness or swelling. Dr. Nielson gave them some instructions about keeping the wound dry and protecting it. In fact, after you check out at the discharge desk, youre good to go.

Can I see my owie? the girl asked.

Dr. Nielson found a mirror, then handed it to her.

As Kaylee peered at her reflection, she scrunched her face. It still looks like an owie. You didnt do anything to make the cut go away.

It takes time for it to get better, the doctor said. The red line will turn pink before it disappears.

Kaylee didnt appear to be convinced.

I think it looks like a fairy kiss, Eva said. All good princesses have one, you know.

The little girl brightened. Okay. And its shiny because of all the fairy dust and magic.

If Dan was going to have to make up stories to appease Kaylee, she would be out of luck. His brain didnt work that way. He was more inclined to resort to one of the snide remarks Uncle Hank used to make when Dan had been a kid and had sprained a finger, scraped a knee or stubbed a toe. Just go rub a little dirt on it and quit your whinin.

But Dan couldnt say something like that to a little girl.

Besides, when he was twelve and had a cut along his thigh from a piece of barbed wire, Hank had used that line on him. He hadnt realized the old man hadnt intended for Dan to take him literally, and after following what he thought was sage advice from a real live cowboy, hed gotten an infection along with a fever. Hed had his own medical emergency after that.

While Dan settled the account and signed the discharge paperwork, Kevin slipped up beside him. When are we going to eat the picnic food?

Theyd had a late breakfast and hadnt been hungry when the other picnickers had spread out their lunches. So most of the food Dan had packed for them was still in a cooler in the back of the pickup. But he didnt feel like eating a bologna sandwich right now.

I have a feeling that most of the people at the park have called it a day and headed home. Dan looked at Eva. Youve got to be hungry, too. How about going out to an early dinner with us? After that, I can take you back to your car.

The invitation seemed to take her aback, and before she answered she glanced down at her blouse, which was stained and crumpled.

Well go someplace casual, he added. Maybe the Burger Barn or something.

Oh, please! Kaylee said to her new friend. Come with us, Eva. I dont want to be the only girl.

At the childs request, the tension on Evas face eased, and Dan was again struck by her natural beauty. By the delicate arch of her brows, by the thick dark lashes, by the intoxicating color of bourbon in those expressive eyes.

The collar of her blouse, which shed turned up after removing her scarf, now drooped, revealing the scar shed probably tried to cover.

All right, she finally said. And as luck would have it, Ive got spare clothes in my locker at the lab. So if you dont mind giving me a few minutes to change, Ill go with you.

Kaylee let out a joyful little whoop, and Kevin appeared to be just as happy, which only went to show that kids were better off with a woman than a man. Of course, that wouldnt change the dynamics of the Walker household. They were stuck with two men.

Do you want us to wait in the car? Dan asked Eva.

You dont have to. Why dont you come to the lab with me? You can see where I work.

Sure, Dan said. He had to admit that he was curious about where the pretty scientist spent her days. Besides, he didnt have anything else planned for today, other than grabbing a bite to eat and then heading home.

So he and the kids followed Eva to the elevator and down one floor to the basement, where the lab was located.

Eva let them all in, then asked them to take a seat near the entrance while she changed clothes. Ill just be a few minutes, and then Ill show you around.

Moments later, she returned wearing a cream-colored, lightweight turtleneck sweater and the same pair of jeans. Shed applied a touch of pink lipstick, and when she smiled, he noted a flush to her cheeks. He didnt think it had anything to do with makeup.

Are you ready to check out the lab? she asked.

The kids nodded and got to their feet. As Eva breezed past Dan, he caught the whiff of citrusorange blossoms, maybe?

They followed her through the doorway and into a large room with white walls and various cubicles, where several people in white lab coats either studied machines or sat on stools and peered through microscopes. Eva said hello to her coworkers and introduced Dan and the kids.

Were going to take a quick tour, she explained, as she moved through the lab.

Dan had never been behind the scenes in a hospital before and felt as though he was on some kind of field trip. Still, he found it interesting as she pointed out a refrigerator case that stored blood and blood products, as well as the several different machines and testing apparatus.

So youre the one they call in when they need to take blood, Dan said.

Actually, Eva explained, the lab technicians are the ones who draw blood. Im a technologist and work behind the scenes. I run the needed tests and send the results to the doctors so they can make the proper diagnosis and treat the patients. She led him to a cubicle that had a fancy microscope. This is the station where I work.

Whos that? Kevin pointed to a photograph Eva had displayed on one of the sidewalls of her workspace.

Dan noted a smiling Eva, an elderly woman and a candle-laden birthday cake.

Thats Clara Morrison, Eva said. Shes a friend of mine. We were celebrating her seventy-sixth birthday that day.

Wow, the boy said. Thats a lot of birthdays.

It sure is. Eva reached into a drawer, pulled out a slide and slipped it into the microscope. Here, let me show you what I do. She peered through the lens, then stepped aside to let the boy take a peek.

Ooh, Kevin said. I see a whole lot of little circles.

I want to see them, too. Kaylee pressed against her brother. Let me have a turn.

Kevin moved away reluctantly, then let his sister peer into the microscope. Shed barely had a chance to ooh and ah herself when he said, Come on, Kaylee. Its my turn again.

Dan was tempted to ask for a turn himself, but he was too caught up in watching Eva move through the lab or in trying to catch another hint of orange blossoms each time she brushed past him.

As it was, he stood off to the side and remained an observer, a role he usually slipped into whenever he left the ranch. But not because he was shy or awkward. He just didnt open up around people he didnt know or trust.

Yet as he watched Eva blossom in her natural surroundings, her amber eyes brightening as she spoke to the kids, her tone soft and maternal, he couldnt help lowering his guard just a bit.

And looking forward to having dinner with her.

Dan figured the Burger Barn was their best choice for a meal, and the minute he stepped inside the family-style restaurant, he realized hed been right. He placed their orders, then with Evas help, carried their food and drinks on trays to the dining area.

Im not hungry anymore, Kevin said the minute he spied the colorful, indoor climbing structure that was designed to look like a big red barn with a yellow silo and blue netting.

Not so fast, sport. Dan unloaded the drinks, burgers and fries onto the white Formica table. You need to eat first, while everything is warm. Youll have plenty of time to play when youre done.

Oh, okay, the boy said, plopping into one of the white seats covered with a built-in blue vinyl cushion. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of Matchbox race cars and a Star Wars action figure.

A few minutes later, both kids had wolfed down their kiddie meals and had finished their milk.

See? Dan said. That wasnt so bad, was it?

Without answering, the twins dashed off, leaving Dan and Eva to munch on their burgers and fries.

Kaylee seems to be doing a lot better, Eva said.

Dan agreed. Shed been a real chatterbox at dinner, opening up for Eva more than she had for him in the past two weeks. And he had no choice but to attribute the change to the attractive woman seated across from him.

As he caught Evas gaze, she leaned forward and lowered her voice. So, wheres their father?

Before Dan could respond, Kevin slipped back to the table to pick up the little toys hed left behind and said, Our daddys in New York.

Kaylee, whod returned on her brothers heels, added, Hes rich and has a great big car.

Yeah, her brother chimed in, but we dont get to ride in it. Hes too busy.

Hes always busy, Kaylee said. Thats why we never get to see him.

Eva glanced down at the half-eaten bag of fries resting in front of her, then back at the child. But she let the conversation drop.

When the kids took off again, she blew out a sigh, leaned forward and rested her forearms on the table. I didnt mean to pry. Or to bring that up in front of them.

I know. I thought they were out of hearing range, too.

I take it their father isnt very involved in their lives.

No, he isnt. Dan didnt want to go into all the details. When hed found out his sister was dating a married man, hed told her how disappointed hed been in her. Shed tried to explain that she hadnt known at first, that the guy had kept it from her. And that when shed told him that she was pregnant, hed finally confessed.

Dan had tried to talk her into moving back home, but shed refused. Hed never understood her need to move away from Brighton Valley in the first place, never understood her dreams.

After that, shed been pretty tight-lipped about the kids and her personal life. But hed never been one to keep quiet and had continued to let her know that he believed children should be raised in a loving, two-parent home. And that maybe they should be raised closer to family. But there was no need to go into any of that with Eva.

Their dad has never really been a part of their lives, Dan said instead.

Thats too bad. Theyre cute kids.

Its their old mans loss, I guess. Hed tried to tell himself that they were probably better off without him, which is what Jenny had insisted.

And maybe shed been right.

All Dan really knew about Daddy Warbucks was that he was some Broadway bigwig whod paid only a token amount of child support. And that Jenny hadnt wanted to make trouble for him by asking for more money. At least, thats what Catherine, her roommate, had said.

Dan opened a small bag of ketchup and squeezed a splotch onto his fries. He wasnt going to reveal more than he already had to Eva. It didnt seem fair to the twinsor to Jennys memory. Still, he would have liked to have been able to say that his sister had known better than to get involved in a situation like that, but obviously she hadnt.





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