His, Hers and...Theirs?
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ďI think kids ought to be raised by people who want them,Ē he said.
ďSo do I. And Iím glad they have you.Ē
Dan sure as hell wanted to do right by them. Heíd feed them, clothe them and educate them by sending them off to college or trade school. But no one knew more than he did that kids needed love and affection, too, and he was afraid heíd fall short in that department.
ďWhen did your sister die?Ē Eva asked.
ďAbout six months ago.Ē
ďAnd youíve had the kids all that time?Ē
ďNo, they just moved in with me a couple of weeks ago.Ē
If Eva wondered why that was, she didnít ask. But for the damnedest reason, Dan felt compelled to explain. ďAfter the funeral, my sisterís roommate, Catherine, suggested that they stay with her. And it seemed like a good idea to me. They hardly knew me. Iíd only seen them onceówhen they were three. My sister came for a visit, but she didnít stay long.Ē
Theyíd argued, as they were prone to do, and sheíd left earlier than sheíd planned.
Eva remained silent, but seemed to be hanging on his words. Her eyes asked, And you agreed to leave them in New York with a stranger?
ďThe only other option I had at the time was to take them away from their comfort zone and drag them back to Texas to live on the ranch with me, and, like I said, they didnít know me very well.Ē He didnít mention Uncle Hank, whoíd finished raising Dan and his sister, Jenny, when theyíd had nowhere else to go. The crotchety old cowboy meant well, but he spent the bulk of his day grumbling about his lot in life.
ďHow are they doing?Ē Eva asked. ďWas the move hard on them?Ē
ďProbably. Who knows?Ē Dan lifted his chocolate milkshake and took a sip, relishing the cold, creamy drink. ďCatherine recently landed her dream jobóthe lead dancer in a Broadway musicalóand daycare became an issue for her.Ē
To be honest, even if he didnít feel like sharing it with Eva, when heíd left the kids in New York after the funeral, heíd felt a little uneasy about the whole setup. Heíd wondered how Catherine would handle the childcare on her own, but sheíd seemed so sure of herself.
And, just as heíd suspected, when the kids had become too much for her to juggle, sheíd contacted him and heíd immediately jumped on a plane.
ďSo now theyíre living in Texas with you,Ē Eva said, connecting the dots with the information heíd given her.
ďYeah. Thatís about the size of it.Ē If there was one thing to be said about Dan, it was that he tried his best to do the right thing, and that come hell or high water, he was loyal and responsible.
ďWhat did you think of New York?Ē she asked.
ďIt wasnít my cup of tea.Ē He preferred wide-open spaces and rolling hills to skyscrapers.
ďHow long were you there?Ē
ďToo long.Ē His flight had been delayed in Houston, and by the time heíd arrived in New York, it had been too late to get the kids. So heíd taken a cab to an over-priced hotel, where heíd been too keyed up to sleep a wink.Then heíd gone to Catherineís apartment the next morning and picked them up. ďTo be honest, I felt like a real fish out of water in Manhattan.Ē
As awkward as heíd felt, as afraid as he was that heíd somehow mess up and do damage to their psyches and scar them for life, he hadnít been able to get them to the airport fast enough.
But once heíd brought the kids back to the ranch and tried to create some kind of family, heíd been more out of place than ever.
ďHow about you?Ē he asked.
ďMe?Ē Eva reached for her milk.
ďHave you ever been to New York?Ē
ďIíve always wanted to go. Iíd love to see a Broadway show. But I doubt that Iíll get to travel anytime soon.Ē
ďWhyís that?Ē he asked, reaching for a fry.
ďBecause Iím pregnant.Ē
His hand froze in midreach. ďYou gotta be kidding.Ē
She wasnít, and he soon came to that conclusion.
ďIím sorry,Ē he said, ďbut you donít lookÖpregnant.Ē
ďIím only about three months along.Ē
He paused for the longest time, the French fries long forgotten. ďIs that why you were hanging out at the play ground, watching the kids?Ē
ďIn a way. Iím not used to being around small children, so Iím intrigued by them.Ē
ďI never would have guessed that. You were so good with Kaylee. If you would have told me that you were a preschool teacher or a mother of three, I wouldnít have doubted it for a minute.Ē
Eva couldnít help but smile. Her sole purpose for being at the park this morning was to learn how to parent and deal with two kids at one time, and here someone assumed she was a natural.
She certainly wouldnít admit otherwise. But it was nice to know that even after growing up in a dysfunctional family, she had what it took to be a loving mother and that she would have enough TLC to go around.
She lifted her apple juice and took a drink. ďI didnít just chance upon the park today. I went specifically because Iíd heard there was going to be an event sponsored by the Parents of Multiples. I was hoping to learn a few tricks in dealing with a set of twins.Ē
He furrowed his brow, looking even more confused. ďYou have twins at home?Ē
Before he could respond, little Kaylee ran to the table. ďUncle Dan, Kevin said youíre going to give him a horse and teach him how to be a real live cowboy.Ē
Dan nodded. ďYep, thatís what I told him.Ē
ďBut what about me? I want to ride a horse and be a real live cowboy.Ē
ďI thought you wanted to be a princess,Ē Dan said.
The child nibbled on her bottom lip, then looked up at him with please-donít-say-no eyes. ďCan I be both?Ē
Dan chuckled. ďSure. Why not?Ē
Kaylee broke into a bright-eyed grin. ďAnd can Eva be a cowboy, too?Ē
ďI doubt sheíd like that,Ē Dan said.
ďYes, she would.Ē Kaylee turned to Eva, placing a small hand upon her knee. ďYou could ride a horse and everything.Ē
Eva hadnít meant to encourage a relationship with the girl, though she could see how Kaylee had jumped to that conclusion. Now she needed to do some serious backpedaling. ďIíll have to pass on becoming a cowboy, but maybe someday, after you learn how to ride, you can show me how itís done.Ē
Kaylee quickly turned to her uncle. ďIs it okay? Can Eva come to our house and watch me ride?Ē
ďSure,Ē Dan said. ďShe can even invite her husband, if she wants to.Ē
Apparently, heíd made the natural jump from ďpregnantĒ to ďmarried.Ē
It seemed important that she set the record straight, so she said, ďI donít have a husband.Ē
ďSorry. I just assumedÖĒ He shrugged. ďThen bring your boyfriend.Ē
ďI donít have one of those, either.Ē
Other than a twitch at the corner of his left eye and a slight crunch of the brow, he didnít respond.
She realized that he might have concluded that sheíd had a one-night stand or an indiscriminate affair and, while it was none of his business, she felt compelled to explain. ďI had in vitro fertilization.Ē
Her decision made perfect sense to her. She would soon have her own little family without the involvement of another parent who might not look at things the way she did. But Danís brow failed to completely relax until Kevin returned to the table.
A big grin was splashed across the boyís face. ďSee, Kaylee? I told you so. Iím going to be a cowboy, just like Hank and Uncle Dan.Ē
ďI get to be one, too,Ē his twin sister countered. ďAnd Eva gets to come to the ranch and watch me ride.Ē
Kevin turned to Eva with a whopper of a grin. ďCool. Youíre going to really like it at the ranch. We got horses and cows and dogs.Ē
ďMostly cows,Ē Dan said. ďItís a cattle ranch. And, of course, youíre welcome to come out and visit anytime.Ē
ďYeah,Ē Kevin said. ďCome home with us tonight andóĒ
ďWhoa, there, pardner.Ē Danís voice held a dash of humor. ďYou canít just pick up people at the park and then ask them to come home with us.Ē
ďAnd as much as Iíd like to see the ranch,Ē Eva said, ďtonightís not really a good time for me.Ē
ďYeah, itíll be too dark.Ē Kaylee turned to her uncle. ďSo how about tomorrow?Ē
Dan let out a little chuckle and turned up his hands in a whatís-a-guy-to-do sort of way.
Eva thought for a moment as she felt her heartstrings being pulled by Kaylee and Kevin. She didnít have to go to work again until Monday, and she had no real plans for her day off.
She glanced at Dan and caught an intensity in his gaze that seemed to second the childís invitation.
ďOkay,Ē she said, surprising herself for agreeing so quickly.
Something told her there were a hundred reasons she should steer clear of the little family, but as her heart strummed in the nicest way, sheíd be darned if she could wrap her mind around any of them.
Bright and early Sunday morning, Eva left her two-bedroom townhouse, climbed into her silver Toyota Celica and followed the directions Dan had given her last night. Then she drove about ten miles out of town.
As she continued along the county road, passing the landmarks heíd told her aboutóSam Houston Elementary School, Royís Feed and Grain and the Flying K Auto Parts Storeóshe realized she was getting close.
Cattle grazed in pastures along both sides of the road now, so she slowed, looking for the driveway that was marked by the big green mailbox heíd told her about, a plastic replica of a John Deere tractor. When she saw it, she turned left and followed the tree-lined driveway, her vehicle kicking up dust and gravel until she reached the house and outbuildings.
She parked by the barn, next to the pickup Dan had been driving yesterday, and shut off the ignition. She hoped she hadnít made a mistake by agreeing to visit the twins and their uncle, but sheíd really enjoyed their time together last night, and getting to know the kids had been a special treat. Besides, spending time with them would be good practice.
Before she could open the driverís door, two cattle dogs ran up to her vehicle, barking to announce her arrival. Rather than get out immediately, she scanned the old clapboard house, noticing that the yellow walls and white trim had been freshly painted, that the shingled roof appeared to be new.
The front door swung open, and Kaylee stepped onto the porch. ďSheís here!Ē As the screen slammed behind her, she tore across the porch and down the steps with Kevin just a couple of strides behind her.
The dogs seemed to realize Eva was a welcome visitor, so she climbed from the car, shut the door and greeted the children. ďGood morning.Ē
ďYou came,Ē Kaylee said. ďYou really came.Ē
ďI said that I would.Ē Evaís gaze traveled back to the porch where Dan stood. Sheíd thought he was handsome yesterday, but heíd somehow morphed into a real live cowboy overnight, and she couldnít help but note the change.
He had an almost heroic aura now, as if he belonged on the set of a shoot-íem-up western.
Tall and lean, he hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his worn denim jeans and moseyed toward her with a Texas swagger that made her breath catch.
ďDid you have any trouble finding the place?Ē he asked.
ďNo, your directions were easy to follow.Ē She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, wondering if she should have braided it earlier. A pulled-back style would have been more practical for a day at the ranch, but as it was sheíd fussed in front of the mirror long enough.
ďDo you want to start with a tour?Ē he asked.
Something told her she ought to try and include the kids in the conversation, but she couldnít seem to tear her gaze away from the cowboy. That is, until the screen door squeaked, alerting her to the fact there was someone else at the ranch.
She turned to see an old man who appeared to be in his mid-seventies shuffle across the porch. He used a cane to support him, but his gait was a little unsteady. Sheíd assumed Dan and the kids lived here alone, although she didnít know why. They hadnít actually addressed the issue.
The old man carefully climbed down the steps. Upon his approach, Dan introduced him as Uncle Hank.
ďEva works at the Brighton Valley Medical Center,Ē Dan added. ďThe kids and I met her at the park yesterday.Ē
ďYou a nurse?Ē the old man asked.
ďNo, Iím a medical technologist.Ē
Eva smiled. She liked to think her job and her contribution to the hospital were more than important; they were critical.
ďDo you know Oliver Westfield?Ē Hank asked. ďHeís a dermatologist at the clinic.Ē
ďWeíve met,Ē Eva said. ďBut I believe Dr. Westfield is a specialist in internal medicine, not dermatology.Ē
ďWhat the hell difference does it make?Ē the old man asked. ďFar as Iím concerned, those doctors all skin ya.Ē Then he chuckled to himself, pleased with his own humor.
ďActually,Ē Dan said, ďHank likes Dr. Westfield, even if it sounds as though heís complaining.Ē
ďLiking him has nothing to do with griping about the bills heís been giving me.Ē Hank leaned against his cane. ďThere was a time I could have given Doc Graham a couple of chickens and called it good. But now these young doctors want you to give íem an arm and a leg, even when the ones you got ainít all that good anymore.Ē
ďMaybe you should see the princess doctor,Ē Kaylee said. ďShe fixed my owie and didnít make us give her anything.Ē
ďSo there you go,Ē Dan said to his uncle. ďYou need a new doctor.Ē
Hank chuffed. ďI need a whole new body. This oneís falling apart.Ē He looked at Dan, challenging the man whose body was young and strong to disagree.
ďYou heard what Dr. Westfield said, Hank. All that whooping it up when you were younger is taking its toll on you now.Ē
ďI suppose thatís true. Too bad I didnít listen to my Mama. She told me to quit smokiní and drinkiní, but I didnít listen to her.Ē He gave Kevin a little nudge. ďLet that be a lesson to you, boy. Pay attention to what your elders tell you.Ē
Dan placed a hand on his uncleís frail and stooped shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. ďYou want to take a tour of the ranch with us, Hank?Ē
ďNo. You go ahead. Iíll have lunch ready for you when you get back.Ē Then the old man gave a respectful nod to Eva. ďNice to meet you, maíam.Ē
She smiled. ďSame here.Ē
Hank turned and shuffled back to the house.
ďCome on,Ē Dan said to Eva, ďweíll start by showing you the barn.Ē
The kids ran ahead, followed by the cattle dogs, and Eva fell into step beside her host.
ďHankís a good man,Ē Dan said. ďHeís just a little old and crotchety. But he means well.Ē
ďYou donít need to explain. I have a soft spot for the elderly. In fact, Iíve been volunteering my time at the Brighton Valley Senior Center.Ē
ďYou donít say.Ē He sketched a gaze over her, sending her senses reeling and knocking her off balance.
She did her best to shake off the inappropriate reaction to the look he tossed her way, telling herself there hadnít been anything to it, that her admission had merely surprised him.
But she hadnít done anything special. On a whim, sheíd gotten involved with the center, hoping to fill and brighten the days and evenings when she wasnít working at the lab.
The game plan had worked, and as an unexpected bonus, sheíd acquired a better understanding of those who were lonelier than she was.
ďI wish I could tell you that Hank didnít always used to be cranky and ornery, but it wouldnít be true. Heís been short-tempered and snappy for as long as I can remember. But for what itís worthódeep insideóheís a good man. And loyal to a tee.Ē
ďBuena jente,Ē she said.
ďItís a Spanish term for Ďgood people.í You know, one of the white hats.Ē
ďThen that suits Hank just fine. Youíll never find a man whose word holds more truth and follow-through.Ē
Evaís steps slowed. ďIt must be frustrating for him to not be able to do the things he once could do with ease.Ē
ďIím sure youíre right. Hank used to be the king of the ranch, and now he sits in a rocker and guards the front porch. And instead of riding herd or breaking horses, heís babysitting Kaylee and Kevin.Ē
ďIs he good with them?Ē she asked.
ďTheyíre getting used to him.Ē
What did that mean?
When they reached the barn door where Kevin and Kaylee had been waiting, Dan pulled it open and waited for them to all go inside. Then the tour began in earnest.
The twins introduced Eva to a pregnant broodmare named Sugar. Then, as Dan began to lead them back outside, Kevin said, ďDonít forget about Midnight. She catches all the mice and rats that like to eat the hay and grain.Ē
ďWhere is she?Ē Eva asked.
ďEither napping or working,Ē Dan said. ďMidnight is a great mouser and a real asset on the ranch.Ē
Once outside again, Dan showed Eva a few things around the immediate yard, like the corral where he kept a couple of cutting horses. Then they piled into the pickup and drove along a dirt road, where he pointed out the creek that ran through the property.
When he showed her a small, private lake surrounded by cottonwood trees, she decided it was a beautiful stretch of land and told him so. What she didnít admit was that she was glad that sheíd accepted the kidsí invitation to visit. She couldnít remember having such an enjoyable day.
Kevin and Kaylee had both warmed up to her, and sheíd felt a part of something for the first time in her life.
Okay, so she was an important member of the Brighton Valley Medical Center team, but sheíd earned her spot by hard work and attention to detail. This was different. Sheíd been temporarily drawn into a family situation, and she hadnít done anything out of the ordinary to be completely accepted.
When they returned to the house, Dan parked near the barn. Eva wasnít sure how long theyíd been goneóan hour or so, she suspected.
ďThanks for giving me a tour,Ē she said. ďI had a good time, and Iím glad I came.Ē It had certainly been a lot better than hanging out at home, watching television or reading a book.
ďYouíre welcome,Ē Dan said, ďbut donít take off yet. Hank probably has lunch ready for us, although I hope you like bologna sandwiches. Itís his specialty.Ē
ďOh, not again,Ē Kaylee groaned. ďHow come he doesnít like peanut butter and jelly? Or grilled cheese?Ē
ďíCause heís a cowboy,Ē Kevin explained. ďAnd thatís what real ones eat.Ē
ďThen Iím going to be a princess instead. At least Iíll get better food.Ē
Once inside the house, Dan led Eva to the kitchen, which was cleaner than sheíd expected it to be with two men and a couple of kids living here.
ďYou sure keep things tidy,Ē she said.
ďWe try. But to be honest, I have a woman who comes in every two weeks to clean, and she was just here yesterday.Ē
ďCan she help you with the kids?Ē
ďNo. Sheís got an outside job. When she comes here, she looks after them. But for the most part, itís just Hank and me.Ē
Apparently the situation worked for them, but it was too bad they couldnít get a full-time nanny to come in and help more often. Hank didnít appear to be all that sweet and loving, and it seemed to her that the kids were missing a womanís touch. Not that Eva was of the mindset that men werenít able to nurture children. But Kevin and Kaylee had lost their mother recently, and with the way they both had seemed to draw close to her, she suspected there was some kind of maternal hole in their lives that hadnít yet been filled. And for that reason alone, her heart went out to them.
ďI wish there was someone we could hire to come in more often,Ē Dan said, ďbut Iíll be darned if I know where to look. Iím under the impression that a bad sitter is worse than no sitter.Ē
ďIím sure youíre right about that. Maybe you should advertise and request references.Ē
He shrugged. ďThat might work.Ē
She was just about to tell him that she was sure it would, when an idea struck.
Sheíd really enjoyed her time with Dan and the kids. And last night, as well as earlier today, sheíd found herself wondering if her life would soon be filled with similar days, with happy chatter and heartwarming smiles.
ďWould you like me to help out for a while?Ē she asked.
ďWith daycare?Ē His brow furrowed into a V, and she could tell heíd been taken aback by the offer.
ďI guess thatís what Iím offering. I can come out to the ranch on my days off. At least until you find someone to take the job permanently.Ē
The tension on his face eased some. ďI hate to put you out.Ē
ďWell, itíll actually give me an opportunity to polish my mothering skills. And if youíd like me to, I can help you interview nannies. Iíll need to hire my own daycare provider one of these days, so the research and the hiring experience will be eye-opening.Ē
He seemed to struggle with the decision, and for a moment, she was sorry sheíd offered.
ďI hate to take advantage of your kindness,Ē he said, ďbut to be honest, I could use someone in my corner.Ē
ďThen itís a deal.Ē She reached out her hand in a playful but businesslike fashion, but when they touched, when their hands clasped, an unexpected thrill shuddered through her, and her heart skipped a beat.
She could have pulled away, could have ended the connection, but sheíd never felt the like before. And for some reason, she wanted to relish the rush for as long as she could.
Eva returned to the ranch the following Saturday morning, but she didnít go empty-handed. From what sheíd been told, Kaylee and Kevin were tired of bologna, which she assumed meant there hadnít been much variety to their meals. So she planned to make them a nice dinner tonight.
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