Judy Duarte.

His, Hers and...Theirs?

I think kids ought to be raised by people who want them, he said.

So do I. And Im glad they have you.

Dan sure as hell wanted to do right by them. Hed 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 hed fall short in that department.

When did your sister die? Eva asked.

About six months ago.

And youve 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 didnt ask. But for the damnedest reason, Dan felt compelled to explain. After the funeral, my sisters roommate, Catherine, suggested that they stay with her. And it seemed like a good idea to me. They hardly knew me. Id only seen them oncewhen they were three. My sister came for a visit, but she didnt stay long.

Theyd argued, as they were prone to do, and shed left earlier than shed 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 didnt know me very well. He didnt mention Uncle Hank, whod finished raising Dan and his sister, Jenny, when theyd 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 jobthe lead dancer in a Broadway musicaland daycare became an issue for her.

To be honest, even if he didnt feel like sharing it with Eva, when hed left the kids in New York after the funeral, hed felt a little uneasy about the whole setup. Hed wondered how Catherine would handle the childcare on her own, but shed seemed so sure of herself.

And, just as hed suspected, when the kids had become too much for her to juggle, shed contacted him and hed immediately jumped on a plane.

So now theyre living in Texas with you, Eva said, connecting the dots with the information hed given her.

Yeah. Thats 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 wasnt 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 hed arrived in New York, it had been too late to get the kids. So hed taken a cab to an over-priced hotel, where hed been too keyed up to sleep a wink.

Then hed gone to Catherines 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 hed felt, as afraid as he was that hed somehow mess up and do damage to their psyches and scar them for life, he hadnt been able to get them to the airport fast enough.

But once hed brought the kids back to the ranch and tried to create some kind of family, hed 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?

Ive always wanted to go. Id love to see a Broadway show. But I doubt that Ill get to travel anytime soon.

Whys that? he asked, reaching for a fry.

Because Im pregnant.

His hand froze in midreach. You gotta be kidding.

She wasnt, and he soon came to that conclusion.

Im sorry, he said, but you dont lookpregnant.

Im 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. Im not used to being around small children, so Im 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 wouldnt have doubted it for a minute.

Eva couldnt 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 wouldnt 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 didnt just chance upon the park today. I went specifically because Id 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?

Not yet.

Before he could respond, little Kaylee ran to the table. Uncle Dan, Kevin said youre going to give him a horse and teach him how to be a real live cowboy.

Dan nodded. Yep, thats 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-dont-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 shed 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 hadnt 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. Ill have to pass on becoming a cowboy, but maybe someday, after you learn how to ride, you can show me how its 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, hed made the natural jump from pregnant to married.

It seemed important that she set the record straight, so she said, I dont have a husband.

Sorry. I just assumed He shrugged. Then bring your boyfriend.

I dont have one of those, either.

Other than a twitch at the corner of his left eye and a slight crunch of the brow, he didnt respond.

She realized that he might have concluded that shed 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 Dans brow failed to completely relax until Kevin returned to the table.

A big grin was splashed across the boys face. See, Kaylee? I told you so. Im 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. Youre going to really like it at the ranch. We got horses and cows and dogs.

Mostly cows, Dan said. Its a cattle ranch. And, of course, youre welcome to come out and visit anytime.

Yeah, Kevin said. Come home with us tonight and

Whoa, there, pardner. Dans voice held a dash of humor. You cant just pick up people at the park and then ask them to come home with us.

And as much as Id like to see the ranch, Eva said, tonights not really a good time for me.

Yeah, itll 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 whats-a-guy-to-do sort of way.

Eva thought for a moment as she felt her heartstrings being pulled by Kaylee and Kevin. She didnt 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 childs 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, shed be darned if she could wrap her mind around any of them.

Chapter Three

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 hed told her aboutSam Houston Elementary School, Roys Feed and Grain and the Flying K Auto Parts Storeshe 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 hed 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 hadnt made a mistake by agreeing to visit the twins and their uncle, but shed 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 drivers 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. Shes 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. Evas gaze traveled back to the porch where Dan stood. Shed thought he was handsome yesterday, but hed somehow morphed into a real live cowboy overnight, and she couldnt 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 shed 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 couldnt 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. Shed assumed Dan and the kids lived here alone, although she didnt know why. They hadnt 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, Im a medical technologist.

Sounds important.

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. Hes a dermatologist at the clinic.

Weve 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 Im 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 hes complaining.

Liking him has nothing to do with griping about the bills hes 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 aint all that good anymore.

Maybe you should see the princess doctor, Kaylee said. She fixed my owie and didnt 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 ones 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 thats true. Too bad I didnt listen to my Mama. She told me to quit smokin and drinkin, but I didnt 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 uncles 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. Ill have lunch ready for you when you get back. Then the old man gave a respectful nod to Eva. Nice to meet you, maam.

She smiled. Same here.

Hank turned and shuffled back to the house.

Come on, Dan said to Eva, well start by showing you the barn.

The kids ran ahead, followed by the cattle dogs, and Eva fell into step beside her host.

Hanks a good man, Dan said. Hes just a little old and crotchety. But he means well.

You dont need to explain. I have a soft spot for the elderly. In fact, Ive been volunteering my time at the Brighton Valley Senior Center.

You dont 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 hadnt been anything to it, that her admission had merely surprised him.

But she hadnt done anything special. On a whim, shed gotten involved with the center, hoping to fill and brighten the days and evenings when she wasnt working at the lab.

The game plan had worked, and as an unexpected bonus, shed acquired a better understanding of those who were lonelier than she was.

I wish I could tell you that Hank didnt always used to be cranky and ornery, but it wouldnt be true. Hes been short-tempered and snappy for as long as I can remember. But for what its worthdeep insidehes a good man. And loyal to a tee.

Buena jente, she said.

Excuse me?

Its a Spanish term for good people. You know, one of the white hats.

Then that suits Hank just fine. Youll never find a man whose word holds more truth and follow-through.

Evas steps slowed. It must be frustrating for him to not be able to do the things he once could do with ease.

Im sure youre 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, hes babysitting Kaylee and Kevin.

Is he good with them? she asked.

Theyre 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, Dont 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 didnt admit was that she was glad that shed accepted the kids invitation to visit. She couldnt remember having such an enjoyable day.

Kevin and Kaylee had both warmed up to her, and shed 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 shed earned her spot by hard work and attention to detail. This was different. Shed been temporarily drawn into a family situation, and she hadnt done anything out of the ordinary to be completely accepted.

When they returned to the house, Dan parked near the barn. Eva wasnt sure how long theyd been gonean hour or so, she suspected.

Thanks for giving me a tour, she said. I had a good time, and Im glad I came. It had certainly been a lot better than hanging out at home, watching television or reading a book.

Youre welcome, Dan said, but dont take off yet. Hank probably has lunch ready for us, although I hope you like bologna sandwiches. Its his specialty.

Oh, not again, Kaylee groaned. How come he doesnt like peanut butter and jelly? Or grilled cheese?

Cause hes a cowboy, Kevin explained. And thats what real ones eat.

Then Im going to be a princess instead. At least Ill get better food.

Once inside the house, Dan led Eva to the kitchen, which was cleaner than shed 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. Shes got an outside job. When she comes here, she looks after them. But for the most part, its just Hank and me.

Apparently the situation worked for them, but it was too bad they couldnt get a full-time nanny to come in and help more often. Hank didnt appear to be all that sweet and loving, and it seemed to her that the kids were missing a womans touch. Not that Eva was of the mindset that men werent 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 hadnt 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 Ill be darned if I know where to look. Im under the impression that a bad sitter is worse than no sitter.

Im sure youre 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.

Shed really enjoyed her time with Dan and the kids. And last night, as well as earlier today, shed 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 hed been taken aback by the offer.

I guess thats what Im 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, itll actually give me an opportunity to polish my mothering skills. And if youd like me to, I can help you interview nannies. Ill 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 shed offered.

I hate to take advantage of your kindness, he said, but to be honest, I could use someone in my corner.

Then its 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 shed 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 didnt go empty-handed. From what shed been told, Kaylee and Kevin were tired of bologna, which she assumed meant there hadnt been much variety to their meals. So she planned to make them a nice dinner tonight.

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