THE TEXAS COWBOY'S BABY RESCUE
It was the day, Bridgett Monroe liked to say, that changed everything. She was on her way to work, same as always, when a puppy galloped out of the predawn shadows and dashed in front of her small SUV.
She slammed on the brakes, barely missing him, then watched as the mutt pranced around her vehicle, barking at her with ferocious urgency before looping back in front of her once again. The adorable beagle/golden retriever mix was splattered with dried mud and burrs, and dragging a tie-out chain and stake behind him.
Clearly, if she didn’t do something, he was going to get hit.
Afraid to move her vehicle at all lest the two of them collide, Bridgett shoved her car into Park, turned on the emergency blinkers and got out.
“Hey there, little guy,” she urged softly, kneeling down in front of the pup and holding out her arms in an attempt to coax him out of the path of her vehicle. “Why don’t you come see me?”
He stared at her with liquid brown eyes, thinking.
“I won’t hurt you, I promise. I just want to be your friend.” Bridgett reached out to rescue the runaway pet.
To no avail. He eluded her grasp, jumped swiftly back out of reach and let out another commanding bark.
Tossing his floppy ears in the direction he wanted her to go, he headed on up the block, still dragging the tie-out chain and stake behind him. Periodically he looked back to see if she was following him.
Worried about what would happen if she left him to his own devices, Bridgett headed up the street after him. The cute little mutt let out a happy woof, raced over several lawns and crossed the street. He waited for her to catch up, then darted past a few more houses, out of the residential area into historic downtown Laramie, Texas, and behind the fire station.
The bays were empty, which meant the crew was out on an emergency run.
Too bad, Bridgett thought, as she stopped just short of the tall brick building. She could have used some help lassoing this frisky pup. Frowning, she glanced at her watch again, debating how much time she could really afford to devote to this when she had a car still parked in the middle of the street two blocks away, and patients in the hospital N-ICU who needed her, too.
And that was when she became aware of a whoosh of frantic activity as the pup dashed up to her once again, caught the leg of her nursing uniform pants between his teeth and pulled ferociously.
Determined, it seemed, to have her continue to follow him.
Curious, she did, the leg of her scrubs clamped in his jaws as he led her along the side of the big brick fire station. Over to a…fairly large cardboard box?
The pup let go abruptly and sat down next to the shipping carton, panting loudly. He stared up at her as if he expected her to know exactly what to do.
Taking a deep, bracing breath, Bridgett leaned over, cautiously opened up the loosely folded flaps and felt her heart stall with a mixture of shock and disbelief. “Oh, puppy,” she whispered in startled dismay as she sank to her knees and reached inside. “No wonder you needed my help!”
ELEVEN HOURS LATER, the rugged Texas rancher who had been systematically avoiding all of Bridgett’s calls and messages strode purposefully onto the maternity and pediatric floor of Laramie Community Hospital.
She wasn’t surprised that the notoriously unsentimental rancher appeared to have come straight from the range. His short, curly, espresso-brown hair still bore the marks of the Resistol in his hand, his handsome face the burn of the spring wind and sun.
Nor was she surprised that he would want to have this conversation in person, rather than over the phone.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the way her heart was suddenly pounding.
It’s not as if he’s all that much older. He’d only been five years ahead of her in school.
Or more successful. Professionally, both were at the top of their game. Although, she had to admit, given his rising success as a cattle breeder and land owner, he was likely a far sight wealthier.
Not that he flaunted that, either, she realized on a sigh as her knees went all wobbly. He was a man’s man, through and through. The dusty leather boots on his feet were well broken in. And though there was nothing unique or expensive about his rumpled chambray shirt, it still cloaked his broad shoulders and muscular chest as if it was custom-made, and his faded Wranglers did equally showstopping things to his sinewy lower half.
Oblivious to the forbidden nature of her thoughts, Cullen McCabe slammed to a halt just short of her. His dark brows lowered like thunderclouds over mesmerizing navy-blue eyes.
Her breath caught in her chest.
“Is this an April Fool’s joke?” he demanded gruffly.
Feeling a little angry about how this all had transpired, too, she gestured at the infant slumbering on the other side of the nursery’s glass window. The adorable newborn had a strikingly handsome face, ruddy skin, short and curly espresso brown hair and gorgeous blue eyes.
Just like the man standing in front of her!
She tilted her head back to better look into Cullen’s face. “Does this look like a joke, McCabe?” Because it sure wasn’t one to her! Or any of the emergency personnel who had been summoned to the scene of the abandonment.
Their eyes clashed, held for an interminably long moment. Cullen looked back at the plexiglass infant bed, lingering on the tag attached to the front of it, marked Robby Reid McCabe?
His dark brow furrowed. “Why is there a question mark at the end of the name?”
Was he really going to play her and everyone else for a fool? Bridgett folded her arms in front of her. “Because we’re not entirely sure of the foundling’s identity.”
“Okay, then…” He jabbed a thumb at his sternum. “What do I have to do with this baby? Other than the fact we apparently share the same middle and last names?”
Bridgett reached into the pocket of her scrubs and withdrew the rumpled envelope. “This was left beside the fire station along with the child. The infant was in a cardboard box, and the puppy—who had upended his tie-out chain—led me to him.”
Cullen gave her another long, wary look. With a scowl, he opened the envelope, pulled out the typewritten paper and read out loud, “Cullen, I know you never planned to have a family or get married, and I understand that, maybe more than you could ever know, but please be the daddy little Robby deserves. And take wonderful care of his puppy, Riot, too.”
Reacting a little like he had landed smack-dab in the center of some crazy reality TV show, like the one his cousin Brad McCabe had famously been on years ago, Cullen looked around suspiciously. Just as she might have in his situation.
To no avail. The only cameras were the security ones the hospital employed. “I don’t see a puppy,” he gritted out.
Aware she wouldn’t have believed it, either, had it not actually happened to her that very morning, Bridgett returned wryly, “Oh, believe me, Riot was here.” Wiggling and jumping around like crazy.
Cullen shoved a hand through his hair. “In the hospital?” His glare radiated swiftly increasing disbelief.
Bridgett flushed. That little irregularity could get her in a whole mess of hot water. Yet what choice had she had at the time?
Aware he radiated an intoxicatingly masculine blend of sun, horse and man, she stepped back. “It was just temporarily. My twin sister, Bess, came and took him to my apartment until you could get here to claim him.”
“And the baby,” Cullen added in disbelief.
“Actually,” Bridgett told him, “because of the way all this went down, that is going to take a few days. And that’s assuming you want Robby and Riot.” She held up a hand before Cullen could interrupt. “If you don’t, then social services is already working on a solution.”
He stared at her, then the Plexiglas infant bed, then back at her. “You really found this infant next to the fire station in a cardboard shipping box?”
Bridgett nodded as her heart cramped in her chest once again.
“I really did,” she said softly, stepping a little closer. “Why else would I have tracked down your cell phone number and left ten messages over the course of the last eleven hours?”
Cullen fell silent once again and just shook his head.
Bridgett had an idea how he felt. She’d had most of her shift to deal with this, and she still couldn’t get over both the miracle and the horror of it.
She had to keep reminding herself that despite the fact the several-days-old Robby Reid McCabe had been swaddled in a disposable diaper and a man’s old chambray shirt, and his knotted umbilical cord was still attached when he was found, he really was okay.
And that was as much a godsend as the fact that she had been in the right place at the right time, for once in her life.
As Cullen stepped closer to the glass and gave the baby another long, intent look, Bridgett inched nearer and stared up at him. At six foot four, he towered over her five feet seven inches. Quietly, she explained, “Robby was apparently surrendered under the Texas Safe Haven law. Or attempted to be, anyway.”
Cullen swung back to Bridgett, all imposing, capable male. “What’s that?”
“Any infant sixty days old or younger can be surrendered—safely and legally—at any fire station, freestanding emergency medical care center, EMT station or hospital in Texas, but they are supposed to be left with an employee. Not just dropped off and left in the care of a dog who was staked nearby. Although, to Riot’s credit, he did do a good job of insuring that Robby got quick aid.”
Cullen rested a shoulder against the glass and folded his arms against his broad chest. “You found him?”
She nodded. “Fortunately, the baby was sleeping. From the looks of it, little Robby didn’t even seem to know he had been abandoned. So he couldn’t have been there very long at all.” Thank heaven.
Cullen’s expression radiated all the compassion Bridgett had hoped to see. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He stepped forward, inundating her with the mint fragrance of his breath. His voice dropped another notch as his eyes met and held hers. “But unfortunately, I don’t have any connection to this baby.”
“Sure about that?”
He frowned at her. “I think I would know if I had conceived a child with someone.”
“Not necessarily,” she countered. Not if he hadn’t been told.
Briefly, a resentment that seemed to go far deeper than the situation they were in flickered in his gaze.
He braced both hands on his waist, lowered his face to hers and spoke in a low masculine tone that sent a thrill down her spine. “I think I would know if I had slept with someone in the last ten or eleven months.” He paused to let his curt declaration sink in. “I haven’t.”
Neither had she, ironically enough. Although she hadn’t ever really been interested in having sex simply for the sake of having sex. She wanted it to mean something, the way it had with Aaron.
She wasn’t sure a man as unsentimental as Cullen would feel the same. For him it might only be about satisfying a need as basic as eating and sleeping.
Studying her, he scoffed. “Obviously, you don’t believe me.”
Bridgett shrugged, aware this was becoming way too personal, too fast. “It’s not up to me to believe you or not,” she returned lightly as Mitzy Martin, Laramie County’s premiere social worker, walked up to join them, sheaf of papers in hand.
Not sure if they knew each other, Bridgett made introductions.
Laramie County Sheriff’s Deputy Dan McCabe—one of Cullen’s younger brothers—strode up to join them, too.
“Let’s take this into a conference room,” Mitzy said, leading the way down the hall.
Once the door was shut behind them, all four moved to take seats at the table. The windowless space was tight, especially with two big, strapping men in it, and Bridgett had to work to keep from brushing shoulders and legs with Cullen.
“Why are you here?” Cullen asked his brother.
Dan sent his older brother a sympathetic glance. “I volunteered due to the sensitive nature of the situation.”
Cullen nodded his understanding, but he did not look happy. Briefly, he repeated what he had already told Bridgett, then asked in the same gruff tone he’d used with her, “Is there any way I can prove this baby isn’t mine?”
Bridgett called on her training to answer what was essentially a medical question. “Not without the mother’s DNA.”
“So, until then?” he pressed.
Mitzy’s answer was brisk. “Robby is going into foster care.”
Bridgett’s heart squeezed in her chest. Aware she was about to learn of an even more important decision, she looked at her friend hopefully. “Was my request granted?”
With a staying lift of her hand, Mitzy allowed, “Temporarily. As long as you understand that this child is not, and may not ever be, available for adoption.”
Bridgett thought about the emotional connection she had already forged with the infant. The reservations she’d had up to now, about opening herself up to further heartache, faded completely. “I can handle it,” she vowed to one and all. “Furthermore, I’ll do as the note requested and take Riot, too.”
CULLEN WOULD HAVE figured the social worker would be happy to hear that, since it meant her job here was done. Instead, Mitzy Martin looked as stressed as Bridgett Monroe had when he’d arrived at the hospital to confront her.
She leaned forward. “Are you sure, Bridgett? Up to now you’ve adamantly refused to consider fostering any child not available for adoption because you have a hard enough time saying goodbye to the babies in N-ICU and didn’t think you could do it in your personal life, too.” She reached over to take her friend’s hand. “And I get that. We all do.”
So, Bridgette Monroe had a heart as soft as her fair skin and bare pink lips. Cullen couldn’t say he was surprised. Any more than he was surprised about his reaction to her. Stubborn, feisty women always turned him on.
“This is different,” Bridgett said, color flooding her face.
“How?” Cullen asked, an answering heat welling up deep inside him.
“I know it sounds crazy…but I think I was meant to find these two.”
It was all Cullen could do not to groan. The last thing he needed was another overly sentimental woman in his life. Even on the periphery. Yes, she was graceful and feminine. Pretty in that girl-next-door way, with her glossy, rich brown hair, delicate features and long-lashed pine-green eyes. She wore a long-sleeved white T-shirt beneath the blue hospital scrubs that seemed to emphasize, rather than hide, her svelte curves and long legs.
But she was also an emotional firebrand—at least, when it came to him. Jumping to conclusions. Pulling him in. Then shutting him out, just as quick.
He did not need those kinds of ups and downs.
Especially not now.
Mitzy and Dan exchanged a wary glance.
“Unfortunately, Bridgett,” the social worker put in gently, “even if what you say is true, that this was all destined to happen the way it did, it doesn’t mean your chances of fostering then adopting a baby on your own have changed. At least, as far as the department goes.”
Cullen watched as disappointment glimmered in Bridgett’s eyes.
Gently, Mitzy continued. “The district supervisor and the local family court judge who hears these cases want infants who are in search of permanent placement in a stable, two-parent home."
"But for every rule or policy there's always an exception that can be made, especially in special circumstances like these," Bridgett persisted resolutely.
"Yes." Mitzy chose her words carefully. "But I wouldn't count on that happening, long term."
Except Bridgett was, Cullen noted in concern.
With a sigh, Mitzy continued, "They’re willing to make an allowance for Robby temporarily because you’re a nurse and Robby is just a few days old with health issues that may or may not crop up, but—”
“Whoa,” Cullen put in. “If there is any kind of risk, why not keep the baby in the hospital?”
Bridgett swung around, her elbow nudging his rib in the process. “Because the few problems he had upon admission have been treated. Hence, there’s no reason to keep him here.”
“So—” Mitzy looked at Dan “—unless there has been any further news on the law enforcement front…?”
Dan shook his head. “Sadly, not yet. But the Laramie County sheriff’s department has sent information requests to all the hospitals, clinics and urgent care facilities in the state.”
Cullen’s gut tightened at the thought of all the people who would hear his name tied to this heartbreaking situation. The assumptions they would make about his character, and by default, the McCabe family, could be catastrophic.
He couldn’t believe he was doing it again, bringing shame upon those closest to him.
“Is this going to be on the news?” he asked tensely.
“No,” Mitzy said. “We don’t want to scare off the birth mother if she does change her mind in the next few days and wants to come forward and reclaim her child.”
Looking as shocked and horrified as Cullen felt, just considering the possibility. Bridgett cut in, “Would the Department of Child and Family Services really allow that to happen?”
Mitzy paused. “It’s hard to say. There could be mitigating circumstances behind the mother’s actions.”
“Like what?” Cullen bit out, not surprised to find himself siding with Bridgett on this.
“Like she’s suffering from postpartum depression and isn’t thinking clearly,” Mitzy suggested.
“The note she left with the baby seemed pretty clear-cut to me,” Cullen said.
“In any case, we’re all aware there has to be much more to this story than we know thus far,” Mitzy explained. “So law enforcement and the medical community are all on alert for a woman coming in, having just given birth but without a baby to show for it. If anything the least bit suspicious occurs, we’ll hear about it, pronto. And go from there.”
Bridgett sat back in her chair, looking dejected again.
Cullen could imagine how the dedicated N-ICU nurse felt.
She’d found the abandoned infant and puppy, and the idea of giving Riot and Robby back to someone who had been unhappy or unbalanced enough to leave a baby alone in a cardboard box with only a puppy to guard it had to rankle.
It sure as hell did him.
“So, if you’re sure this is what you want, Bridgett, even knowing it’s only temporary…” Mitzy began. Bridgett’s expression turned fierce. “I am.”
“And what about you?” Mitzy turned to Cullen.
Not sure what the social worker was asking, Cullen shrugged. “I just told Bridgett. There’s no way on earth that Robby is my baby.”
To his frustration, Mitzy looked as skeptical of that as Bridgette and his younger brother had. “Can you tell us who might want to assign paternity to you, then?” Mitzy asked.
Suddenly, all eyes were upon him once again. Cullen thought a long moment, then, unable to come up with anything, shook his head.
Mitzy pulled a pen from her bag, perfectly calm. Matter-of-fact. “So you’re formally surrendering all claim to this infant, then?” She brought out another piece of paper.
Cullen hadn’t expected to do anything except come to the hospital, straighten out the situation and leave. However, seeing the newborn infant, reading the note, changed things. Made him feel that he just might be involved here.
How, exactly, he didn’t know yet.
But he was a McCabe, as well as a Reid.
And unlike the Reids, McCabes did not shirk their obligations, familial or otherwise. So he was going to have to see this calamity through to its resolution.
Aware what Bridgett Monroe probably wanted him to say, so the way would be clear for her, he paused, then finally said, “No.”
His younger brother Dan looked on approvingly, while sharp disappointment showed on Bridgett’s pretty face.
Mitzy simply waited.
Cullen inhaled deeply, then directed his remarks to everyone in the room. “Someone left the puppy and the baby for me. Like it or not, that makes them my responsibility. At least until their real family is found or permanent arrangements can be made to give them a good home. So I’d like to keep tabs on the child while he’s being fostered. Meet the dog.” Who might have more of a connection to him than anyone except his brother yet knew.
Mitzy turned. “Bridgett? Is this going to be okay with you? Because if you’d rather your first ward be a child who has already been released for adoption, I would completely understand. And so would everyone else at the department.”
For the first time since he’d laid eyes on her, Cullen saw Bridgett falter. She turned to glance at the papers that would make her the baby’s temporary foster mother and, for a second, looked so vulnerable he couldn’t help but feel for her. Pushing aside the temptation to take her in his arms and comfort her, he swallowed hard, reminding himself this situation was complicated enough as it was.
Bridgette drew herself up, raised her chin and looked Mitzy straight in the eye. “I can handle this,” she vowed.
Could she? Cullen wondered.