His, Hers and...Theirs?
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“I think kids ought to be raised by people who want them,” he said.
“So do I. And I’m glad they have you.”
Dan sure as hell wanted to do right by them. He’d 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 he’d fall short in that department.
“When did your sister die?” Eva asked.
“About six months ago.”
“And you’ve had the kids all that time?”
“No, they just moved in with me a couple of weeks ago.”
If Eva wondered why that was, she didn’t ask. But for the damnedest reason, Dan felt compelled to explain. “After the funeral, my sister’s roommate, Catherine, suggested that they stay with her. And it seemed like a good idea to me. They hardly knew me. I’d only seen them once—when they were three. My sister came for a visit, but she didn’t stay long.”
They’d argued, as they were prone to do, and she’d left earlier than she’d 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?
“The 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 didn’t know me very well.” He didn’t mention Uncle Hank, who’d finished raising Dan and his sister, Jenny, when they’d 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.
“How are they doing?” Eva asked. “Was the move hard on them?”
“Probably. Who knows?” Dan lifted his chocolate milkshake and took a sip, relishing the cold, creamy drink. “Catherine recently landed her dream job—the lead dancer in a Broadway musical—and daycare became an issue for her.”
To be honest, even if he didn’t feel like sharing it with Eva, when he’d left the kids in New York after the funeral, he’d felt a little uneasy about the whole setup. He’d wondered how Catherine would handle the childcare on her own, but she’d seemed so sure of herself.
And, just as he’d suspected, when the kids had become too much for her to juggle, she’d contacted him and he’d immediately jumped on a plane.
“So now they’re living in Texas with you,” Eva said, connecting the dots with the information he’d given her.
“Yeah. That’s about the size of it.” 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.
“What did you think of New York?” she asked.
“It wasn’t my cup of tea.” He preferred wide-open spaces and rolling hills to skyscrapers.
“How long were you there?”
“Too long.” His flight had been delayed in Houston, and by the time he’d arrived in New York, it had been too late to get the kids. So he’d taken a cab to an over-priced hotel, where he’d been too keyed up to sleep a wink.Then he’d gone to Catherine’s apartment the next morning and picked them up. “To be honest, I felt like a real fish out of water in Manhattan.”
As awkward as he’d felt, as afraid as he was that he’d somehow mess up and do damage to their psyches and scar them for life, he hadn’t been able to get them to the airport fast enough.
But once he’d brought the kids back to the ranch and tried to create some kind of family, he’d been more out of place than ever.
“How about you?” he asked.
“Me?” Eva reached for her milk.
“Have you ever been to New York?”
“I’ve always wanted to go. I’d love to see a Broadway show. But I doubt that I’ll get to travel anytime soon.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, reaching for a fry.
“Because I’m pregnant.”
His hand froze in midreach. “You gotta be kidding.”
She wasn’t, and he soon came to that conclusion.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you don’t look…pregnant.”
“I’m only about three months along.”
He paused for the longest time, the French fries long forgotten. “Is that why you were hanging out at the play ground, watching the kids?”
“In a way. I’m not used to being around small children, so I’m intrigued by them.”
“I 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 wouldn’t have doubted it for a minute.”
Eva couldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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. “I didn’t just chance upon the park today. I went specifically because I’d 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.”
He furrowed his brow, looking even more confused. “You have twins at home?”
Before he could respond, little Kaylee ran to the table. “Uncle Dan, Kevin said you’re going to give him a horse and teach him how to be a real live cowboy.”
Dan nodded. “Yep, that’s what I told him.”
“But what about me? I want to ride a horse and be a real live cowboy.”
“I thought you wanted to be a princess,” Dan said.
The child nibbled on her bottom lip, then looked up at him with please-don’t-say-no eyes. “Can I be both?”
Dan chuckled. “Sure. Why not?”
Kaylee broke into a bright-eyed grin. “And can Eva be a cowboy, too?”
“I doubt she’d like that,” Dan said.
“Yes, she would.” Kaylee turned to Eva, placing a small hand upon her knee. “You could ride a horse and everything.”
Eva hadn’t 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. “I’ll have to pass on becoming a cowboy, but maybe someday, after you learn how to ride, you can show me how it’s done.”
Kaylee quickly turned to her uncle. “Is it okay? Can Eva come to our house and watch me ride?”
“Sure,” Dan said. “She can even invite her husband, if she wants to.”
Apparently, he’d made the natural jump from “pregnant” to “married.”
It seemed important that she set the record straight, so she said, “I don’t have a husband.”
“Sorry. I just assumed…” He shrugged. “Then bring your boyfriend.”
“I don’t have one of those, either.”
Other than a twitch at the corner of his left eye and a slight crunch of the brow, he didn’t respond.
She realized that he might have concluded that she’d had a one-night stand or an indiscriminate affair and, while it was none of his business, she felt compelled to explain. “I had in vitro fertilization.”
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 Dan’s brow failed to completely relax until Kevin returned to the table.
A big grin was splashed across the boy’s face. “See, Kaylee? I told you so. I’m going to be a cowboy, just like Hank and Uncle Dan.”
“I get to be one, too,” his twin sister countered. “And Eva gets to come to the ranch and watch me ride.”
Kevin turned to Eva with a whopper of a grin. “Cool. You’re going to really like it at the ranch. We got horses and cows and dogs.”
“Mostly cows,” Dan said. “It’s a cattle ranch. And, of course, you’re welcome to come out and visit anytime.”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “Come home with us tonight and—”
“Whoa, there, pardner.” Dan’s voice held a dash of humor. “You can’t just pick up people at the park and then ask them to come home with us.”
“And as much as I’d like to see the ranch,” Eva said, “tonight’s not really a good time for me.”
“Yeah, it’ll be too dark.” Kaylee turned to her uncle. “So how about tomorrow?”
Dan let out a little chuckle and turned up his hands in a what’s-a-guy-to-do sort of way.
Eva thought for a moment as she felt her heartstrings being pulled by Kaylee and Kevin. She didn’t 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 child’s invitation.
“Okay,” 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, she’d 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 he’d told her about—Sam Houston Elementary School, Roy’s Feed and Grain and the Flying K Auto Parts Store—she 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 he’d 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 hadn’t made a mistake by agreeing to visit the twins and their uncle, but she’d 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 driver’s 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. “She’s here!” 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. “Good morning.”
“You came,” Kaylee said. “You really came.”
“I said that I would.” Eva’s gaze traveled back to the porch where Dan stood. She’d thought he was handsome yesterday, but he’d somehow morphed into a real live cowboy overnight, and she couldn’t help but note the change.
He had an almost heroic aura now, as if he belonged on the set of a shoot-’em-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.
“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” he asked.
“No, your directions were easy to follow.” 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 she’d fussed in front of the mirror long enough.
“Do you want to start with a tour?” he asked.
Something told her she ought to try and include the kids in the conversation, but she couldn’t 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. She’d assumed Dan and the kids lived here alone, although she didn’t know why. They hadn’t actually addressed the issue.
The old man carefully climbed down the steps. Upon his approach, Dan introduced him as Uncle Hank.
“Eva works at the Brighton Valley Medical Center,” Dan added. “The kids and I met her at the park yesterday.”
“You a nurse?” the old man asked.
“No, I’m a medical technologist.”
Eva smiled. She liked to think her job and her contribution to the hospital were more than important; they were critical.
“Do you know Oliver Westfield?” Hank asked. “He’s a dermatologist at the clinic.”
“We’ve met,” Eva said. “But I believe Dr. Westfield is a specialist in internal medicine, not dermatology.”
“What the hell difference does it make?” the old man asked. “Far as I’m concerned, those doctors all skin ya.” Then he chuckled to himself, pleased with his own humor.
“Actually,” Dan said, “Hank likes Dr. Westfield, even if it sounds as though he’s complaining.”
“Liking him has nothing to do with griping about the bills he’s been giving me.” Hank leaned against his cane. “There 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 ’em an arm and a leg, even when the ones you got ain’t all that good anymore.”
“Maybe you should see the princess doctor,” Kaylee said. “She fixed my owie and didn’t make us give her anything.”
“So there you go,” Dan said to his uncle. “You need a new doctor.”
Hank chuffed. “I need a whole new body. This one’s falling apart.” He looked at Dan, challenging the man whose body was young and strong to disagree.
“You heard what Dr. Westfield said, Hank. All that whooping it up when you were younger is taking its toll on you now.”
“I suppose that’s true. Too bad I didn’t listen to my Mama. She told me to quit smokin’ and drinkin’, but I didn’t listen to her.” He gave Kevin a little nudge. “Let that be a lesson to you, boy. Pay attention to what your elders tell you.”
Dan placed a hand on his uncle’s frail and stooped shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You want to take a tour of the ranch with us, Hank?”
“No. You go ahead. I’ll have lunch ready for you when you get back.” Then the old man gave a respectful nod to Eva. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
She smiled. “Same here.”
Hank turned and shuffled back to the house.
“Come on,” Dan said to Eva, “we’ll start by showing you the barn.”
The kids ran ahead, followed by the cattle dogs, and Eva fell into step beside her host.
“Hank’s a good man,” Dan said. “He’s just a little old and crotchety. But he means well.”
“You don’t need to explain. I have a soft spot for the elderly. In fact, I’ve been volunteering my time at the Brighton Valley Senior Center.”
“You don’t say.” 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 hadn’t been anything to it, that her admission had merely surprised him.
But she hadn’t done anything special. On a whim, she’d gotten involved with the center, hoping to fill and brighten the days and evenings when she wasn’t working at the lab.
The game plan had worked, and as an unexpected bonus, she’d acquired a better understanding of those who were lonelier than she was.
“I wish I could tell you that Hank didn’t always used to be cranky and ornery, but it wouldn’t be true. He’s been short-tempered and snappy for as long as I can remember. But for what it’s worth—deep inside—he’s a good man. And loyal to a tee.”
“Buena jente,” she said.
“It’s a Spanish term for ‘good people.’ You know, one of the white hats.”
“Then that suits Hank just fine. You’ll never find a man whose word holds more truth and follow-through.”
Eva’s steps slowed. “It must be frustrating for him to not be able to do the things he once could do with ease.”
“I’m sure you’re 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, he’s babysitting Kaylee and Kevin.”
“Is he good with them?” she asked.
“They’re getting used to him.”
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, “Don’t forget about Midnight. She catches all the mice and rats that like to eat the hay and grain.”
“Where is she?” Eva asked.
“Either napping or working,” Dan said. “Midnight is a great mouser and a real asset on the ranch.”
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 didn’t admit was that she was glad that she’d accepted the kids’ invitation to visit. She couldn’t remember having such an enjoyable day.
Kevin and Kaylee had both warmed up to her, and she’d 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 she’d earned her spot by hard work and attention to detail. This was different. She’d been temporarily drawn into a family situation, and she hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary to be completely accepted.
When they returned to the house, Dan parked near the barn. Eva wasn’t sure how long they’d been gone—an hour or so, she suspected.
“Thanks for giving me a tour,” she said. “I had a good time, and I’m glad I came.” It had certainly been a lot better than hanging out at home, watching television or reading a book.
“You’re welcome,” Dan said, “but don’t take off yet. Hank probably has lunch ready for us, although I hope you like bologna sandwiches. It’s his specialty.”
“Oh, not again,” Kaylee groaned. “How come he doesn’t like peanut butter and jelly? Or grilled cheese?”
“’Cause he’s a cowboy,” Kevin explained. “And that’s what real ones eat.”
“Then I’m going to be a princess instead. At least I’ll get better food.”
Once inside the house, Dan led Eva to the kitchen, which was cleaner than she’d expected it to be with two men and a couple of kids living here.
“You sure keep things tidy,” she said.
“We try. But to be honest, I have a woman who comes in every two weeks to clean, and she was just here yesterday.”
“Can she help you with the kids?”
“No. She’s got an outside job. When she comes here, she looks after them. But for the most part, it’s just Hank and me.”
Apparently the situation worked for them, but it was too bad they couldn’t get a full-time nanny to come in and help more often. Hank didn’t appear to be all that sweet and loving, and it seemed to her that the kids were missing a woman’s touch. Not that Eva was of the mindset that men weren’t 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 hadn’t yet been filled. And for that reason alone, her heart went out to them.
“I wish there was someone we could hire to come in more often,” Dan said, “but I’ll be darned if I know where to look. I’m under the impression that a bad sitter is worse than no sitter.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that. Maybe you should advertise and request references.”
He shrugged. “That might work.”
She was just about to tell him that she was sure it would, when an idea struck.
She’d really enjoyed her time with Dan and the kids. And last night, as well as earlier today, she’d found herself wondering if her life would soon be filled with similar days, with happy chatter and heartwarming smiles.
“Would you like me to help out for a while?” she asked.
“With daycare?” His brow furrowed into a V, and she could tell he’d been taken aback by the offer.
“I guess that’s what I’m offering. I can come out to the ranch on my days off. At least until you find someone to take the job permanently.”
The tension on his face eased some. “I hate to put you out.”
“Well, it’ll actually give me an opportunity to polish my mothering skills. And if you’d like me to, I can help you interview nannies. I’ll need to hire my own daycare provider one of these days, so the research and the hiring experience will be eye-opening.”
He seemed to struggle with the decision, and for a moment, she was sorry she’d offered.
“I hate to take advantage of your kindness,” he said, “but to be honest, I could use someone in my corner.”
“Then it’s a deal.” 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 she’d 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 didn’t go empty-handed. From what she’d been told, Kaylee and Kevin were tired of bologna, which she assumed meant there hadn’t been much variety to their meals. So she planned to make them a nice dinner tonight.
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