THE TEXAS COWBOY'S QUADRUPLETS
“So,” the way-too-handsome Chase McCabe drawled in a low, sexy voice, “the boot is finally on the other foot.”
Mitzy Martin stared at the indomitable CEO standing on the other side of her front door, looking more rancher than businessman, in nice-fitting jeans, boots and tan Western shirt. Ignoring the sudden skittering of her heart, she heaved a dramatic sigh meant to convey just how unwelcome he was. “What’s your point, cowboy?” she demanded impatiently.
Mischief gleaming in his smoky-blue eyes, Chase poked the brim of his hat back and looked her up and down in a way that made her insides flutter all the more. “Just that you’ve been a social worker for Laramie County Department of Children and Family Services for what…ten years now?”
Electricity sparked between them with all the danger and unpredictability of a downed power line. “Eleven,” Mitzy corrected, doing her best to ignore the impressive amount of testosterone and take-charge attitude he exuded beneath his amiable demeanor.
And it had been slightly longer than that, since she had abruptly ended their engagement…
“And in all that time, my guess is, very few people have been happy to see you coming up their front walk. Now you seem to be feeling the very same disinclination,” he continued with an ornery grin, angling a thumb at the center of his masculine chest, “seeing me at your door.”
Leave him to point out the almost unbearable irony in that! Mitzy drew a breath, ignoring the considerable physical awareness that never failed to materialize between them. No matter how vigilantly she worked to avoid him.
She remained in the portal, blocking his entrance. And gave him a long level look that let him know he was not going to get to her…no matter how hard he tried. Even if his square jaw and chiseled features, thick, short sandy-brown hair and incredibly buff physique were permanently imprinted on her brain. “There’s a difference, Chase.” She smiled sweetly, tipping her head up to accommodate his six-foot-three-inch frame. “When people get to know me and realize I’m there to help, they usually become quite warm and friendly.”
“Well, what do you know!” He surveyed her pleasantly in return. “That’s exactly what I hope will happen between you and me. Now that we’re older and wiser, that is.”
Twins Bridgett and Bess Monroe, there to assist with her two-month-old quadruplets, appeared behind her. “Hey, Chase.” Bridgett grinned.
“Here to talk business, I bet?” Bess added, a matchmaker’s gleam in her eye.
He nodded, ornery as ever. “I am.”
Mitzy glared. She and Chase had crashed and burned once—spectacularly. There was no way she was doing it again. She folded her arms in front of her militantly. “Well, I’m not.”
He stepped closer, deliberately invading her personal space, inundating her with his wildly intoxicating masculine scent. “Mitzy, come on. You’ve been ducking my calls and messages for weeks now.”
So what? She gave him her most unwelcoming glance. “I know it’s hard for a carefree bachelor like you to understand, but I’ve been ‘a little busy’ since giving birth to four boys.”
He shrugged right back, meeting her word for cavalier word. “Word around town is you’ve had plenty of volunteer help. Plus the high-end nannies your mother sent from Dallas.”
Mitzy groaned and clapped a hand across her forehead. “Don’t remind me,” she muttered miserably.
The sympathy on his face matched his low, commiserating tone. “Didn’t work out?”
“No,” she bit out, “they didn’t.” Mostly because they had been even more ostentatious—and intrusive—than her mom. Telling her how things should be, instead of asking her how she wanted them to be. “Just like this lobbying effort on your part won’t work, either.”
“I know you’d rather not do business with me, Mitzy,” he said, even more gently. “But at least hear me out.”
Silence fell between them, as fragile as the still-shattered pieces of her heart. He rocked forward on his toes and lowered his face to hers. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it were crucial.”
Mitzy caught her breath at the unexpected reminder of what it had been like to kiss him. Or how much the reckless side of her wanted to do so again.
Just to see…
“You could use a break,” Bess pointed out.
Bridgett, who’d recently found her own happily-ever-after with Chase's older brother, Cullen, agreed. “And you may as well get this talk over with. If…” she paused heavily “…that’s all it is.”
That’s all it could be, Mitzy told herself bluntly. Since there was no way she was opening up her heart to this impossibly sexy cowboy CEO again. “Fine.” She ducked inside long enough to grab a fleece to ward off the chill of the November afternoon and hurried back outside. “You’ve got five minutes, Chase, and that is all!”
Five minutes wasn’t much, but it was better than what he’d had in a very long time. Plus, he had promised her late father he’d take care of Mitzy, and her quadruplets, whether she wanted him to or not.
Chase followed Mitzy to the end of the porch on her Craftsman-style home, taking a moment to survey the recent changes in her. The birth of her four sons had given her five-nine body a new voluptuousness. Her thick medium brown hair was still threaded with honey-gold strands, but she’d cut it since he last saw her in town a month ago, and now it just brushed the tops of her shoulders. Her fair skin was lit with the inner glow she’d had since she was pregnant, her delicate features just as elegant as ever, and her lips soft and full and enticingly bare.
Which meant she still favored plain balm over lipstick. A fact he had always liked…
She bypassed the chain-hung swing and settled instead on a wicker chair. Acutely aware of how hard this was going to be for her to hear, he removed his hat, set it aside and took the seat kitty-corner from her.
Resisting the urge to take her small hand in his, he leaned toward her, hands knotted between his spread knees. Looked her in the eye and got straight to the point. “Word on the street is that Martin Custom Saddle is in big trouble financially.”
Anger flared between them, even as her long-lashed aquamarine eyes widened in surprise. “I think—as CEO—that I would know if that was the case.”
She certainly should have, Chase thought reprovingly. “Have you been there recently?”
Mitzy straightened. “I’ve been in touch with Buck Phillips—the chief operating officer—at least once a week.”
Chase focused on the pretty pink color flooding her face. Matter-of-factly, he ascertained, “But you haven’t actually been to the facility where the saddles are made.”
She ignored his question. Stood, walked a short distance away, then swung back to face him. “What’s your point, Chase?”
He hated to be the bad guy. In this situation, he had no choice. Gently, but firmly, he said, “You can’t simultaneously run MCS—at least not the way your late father would have wished—and be Laramie County’s best social worker. And all the while care for four infants all by your lonesome to boot. No one could.”
Mitzy stalked toward him. “I’m not trying to do all that. I’m on maternity leave from the Department of Family and Child Services for the next ten months. Maybe longer. I haven’t decided yet.” Ignoring the seat close to him, she perched on the porch railing. “And Buck Phillips is running the business side at the saddle company, same as always.”
Noting the way the dark denim hugged her slender thighs, and the swell of her breasts beneath the snug-fitting black fleece top, he rose and ambled toward her. “Are you sure about that?”
“Someone would have told me if there were issues. Financially, or otherwise.”
Unless they were trying to protect her.
Her lower lip slid out in a sexy pout. “The employees there are not just personally invested in the success of the company, they’re like family to me and each other.”
With effort, Chase ignored the urge to kiss her. “It takes more than good intentions to run a company, Mitzy,” he said quietly.
She tilted her chin at him, a myriad of emotions running riot in her pretty eyes. “You don’t think I have it in me?”
He came closer and perched beside her. Bracing his hands on the rail on either side of him, he murmured, “Your father had a passion for saddle making.”
“I know that.”
He knew this would hurt. Still, it had to be said. “And you don’t.”
She gasped, indignant. Hands balled into fists at her sides, she bounded to her feet and swung on him once again. “I don’t need to have that same passion. All I need to do is keep everything exactly the way it was when he was alive, and honor him by carrying on his legacy. And we—the company and all its employees—will be fine!”
Taking charge of a business was a lot more complicated than that. Clearly, though, she wasn’t ready to hear that.
Help my daughter make it through the holidays, Gus Martin had said. The first, after my death, will be the most difficult.
And with Thanksgiving almost upon them…
Chase could see Mitzy was struggling. Even if she wouldn’t admit it. He tried again, even more gently this time. “The point is, darlin’, I’m interested in doing that, too.”
Abruptly, Mitzy looked like she wanted to deck him. “Like you did when you worked for my dad? Before he was forced to fire you?”
Of course she would bring up the business crisis that had precipitated the end of their engagement. Their break-up had ripped him up inside, Chase shrugged regretfully. “I admit, I was overly ambitious.”
An even rosier hue flooded her high, sculpted cheeks. “You insulted him and everything he stood for with your plans to turn his artistry into a mass manufacturing business.”
Chase squinted. “I’m not sure your dad saw it that way.”
You’re meant for bigger things, Chase. You’ll never be happy here…was what Gus had said, when he’d cut him loose.
And Mitzy’s father had been right.
Chase had since had time to reevaluate and reconfigure his earlier career plan to something much more laudable and practical. But, sensing Mitzy was in no mood to hear that now, if ever, he slowly rolled to his feet. “Regardless of the way I left MCS, I learned a lot from your dad when I worked for him, Mitzy. I also built my own company, McCabe Leather Goods.”
Her expression both contemptuous and resentful, she scoffed, “Yes, I know. It’s the premiere provider in the entire Southwest of all sorts of leather products. Everything from boots to saddles to leather interiors on pickup trucks and automobiles. And you did it by buying up lots of little entities and folding them into the one bearing your name!”
So she had been following his rise in the business world, Chase noted in satisfaction. He met her level gaze. “Every one of those business units is better off, their employees happier and more financially secure.”
Her expression guarded, she raked her teeth across her lower lip. “So what does that have to do with me?”
“If your family business is in even half as much trouble as is rumored, you’re going to need help getting it back on track.”
She rolled her eyes skeptically. “You’re volunteering?”
Yes, although first I was drafted. “Your dad was always good to me, even after I stopped working for him,” Chase admitted, acutely aware of how much he missed Gus. And Gus’s beautiful, intractable daughter.
Missed the extended family they might have been. “I’d like to repay his kindness.”
Mitzy tilted her head at him, thinking. Seeming to know instinctively there was more to this than what he was letting on. Not about to tell her about the deathbed promises he had made, however, Chase waited for her to make a decision.
Finally, she swallowed, let out a soft little sigh. Wearily, asked, “Don’t you think it would be a little awkward under the circumstances?”
He could handle awkward. Hell, he could handle anything if it got him back into her life, and her into his. Because actually getting to have a sit-down with her, brief as it might be, had shown him certain things had not changed.
The sparks were still there.
His need to protect her was stronger than ever.
And as for the rest? Well, he guessed time would tell.
Although he couldn’t imagine either of them ever being content to be just friends. Not after what they had once shared…
From the first time he’d laid eyes on her when they were kids, he’d known she was something special. Not just because she was smart and pretty or kinder and more inherently compassionate than anyone he’d ever met. From the very beginning, she just ‘got’ him the way no one else ever had.
She hadn’t wanted to date him. She’d preferred to be friends. So, they started there, but by the time they were in college there was no denying their sexual chemistry. One thing led to another. Before they knew it they were a couple and then engaged. He’d expected to spend his entire life with her.
Would have, if his need to tell it like it was, in business and in life, and her wariness of lasting love, hadn’t gotten in the way. But both had, so…
Aware she was waiting, he shrugged with a great deal more carelessness than he felt. “We’re both adults, Mitzy,” he reminded her gruffly. “We can handle it.” He pulled out a business card, wrote his cell phone number on the back and pressed it into her hand. “So if there is anything I can do,” he said sincerely, resolved to keep his promise to Gus as well as atone for any and all mistakes he had made in the past. He paused to give her a long, steady look. “Anything at all, just pick up the phone and call.”
Two days later, Chase still hadn’t heard from Mitzy. So he did what he always did when he was trying to understand a woman. He went to see his little sister, Lulu, hoping she’d have the insight he lacked.
She listened to the recap of his visit while making her own special brand of honey iced tea for the McCabe family Thanksgiving celebration they were having later in the day. “You didn’t even see the quadruplets?”
Funny how disappointed he was about that. He’d never been what one would call a baby person, but he’d been hoping to lay eyes on the four infants the stalwartly independent Mitzy’d had via an anonymous donor and a fertility clinic, nevertheless.. Keeping his feelings to himself, he shrugged. “Kind of hard to do when she didn’t even let me in the door.”
His cell phone buzzed. Chase looked at the screen. Speak of the devil… Smiling, he strode a distance away. “Hey, Mitzy. What’s up?”
“Are you busy?”
She sounded stressed.
“Not at all,” Chase said.
Lulu grinned and shook her head, then sauntered out of the kitchen to give him privacy.
“I’m headed over to Martin Custom Saddle,” Mitzy continued in the too casual voice he knew so well. “Want to meet me there?”
Luckily, his sister’s honeybee ranch was closer to town than his. “Be there in ten.”
When Chase arrived, he expected her to already be inside the ten thousand square foot production facility.
Instead, she was sitting in the new custom eight-passenger luxury SUV she’d been driving around town, staring at the front of the one-story rectangular terra-cotta brick building emblazoned with her father’s name like she had never seen it before.
Noticing his pickup truck parking next to hers, she shook herself out of her reverie, and emerged from the driver’s seat. Her hair was swept up in a neat twist on the back of her head and she was wearing a burnished gold wool dress and heels that seemed more appropriate for a formal afternoon tea.
As she neared him, he saw the diamond earrings she’d received for her college graduation glittering in her ears, and caught the whiff of her citrus and floral perfume. He also saw faint shadows beneath her eyes that hadn’t been there when he’d last seen her. Sensing her mother’s holiday visit was already doing a number on her, he asked gently, “Everything okay?”
She squared her shoulders defensively. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
He moved to stand beside her, wishing he could take her in his arms and not get chastised for trying to comfort her. “You look tired, I guess. A little on edge.”
She flashed a wry, self-effacing smile and led the way toward the sprawling brick building. “Guilty—to all.”
He moved swiftly to catch up with her and fell in step beside her, adjusting his strides to hers. He tucked his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Figuring the very least he could do was be a sounding board for her, asked kindly, “Babies giving you a hard time?” Maybe if she would actually allow him to assist her in some way, the way her dad had privately wanted, he would actually get to see them.
“No. My four boys are sweet as ever.” Mitzy sighed. Her eyes took on a turbulent sheen. “It’s the rest of my family that’s putting me through the ringer.”
The idea of rescuing her was a lot more appealing—on a soul-deep level—than it probably should have been. “Judith?”
Her lower lip slid out in a delectable pout. “She and Walter—”
Her mom’s fifth husband, Chase recalled.
“—arrived in time for dinner last night. Along with four nannies.”
Four again. Wow. But then that was Judith. She never did anything on the down low when the completely spectacular was possible. “One for each baby,” he guessed, noting how the sunlight brought out the honey gold highlights in her hair.
“Right.” Mitzy paused to punch in the security code. Failed. Then, releasing a frustrated sigh, she looked at her phone and tried again. This time the light turned green.
She pushed open the door and, together, they walked on in.
He caught a whiff of her flowery shampoo as she sauntered beside him. His body reacted, way too fast. Ignoring the pressure behind his fly, he asked, “You’re not happy about that?”
Oblivious to the desire welling up inside him, Mitzy waved a dismissive hand and continued to look around as if she had never seen the place. Which was ludicrous. She’d been there frequently as a kid. When he briefly worked there, too. And in all this time nothing had really changed. There were a couple of offices and a break room near the front door. The rest was comprised of the twenty-nine different workstations needed to handcraft the custom leather saddles.
It smelled the same, too. Like leather and dye and industrial-strength cleaner.
Aware she hadn’t answered him yet, he turned back to her again. Even in the fluorescent lighting near the door, he could see she was pale.
“This set of nannies are fine.” She looked over her shoulder at him, as she walked over to the main panel and switched on the rest of the lights in the facility. “I mean, they’re warm and gentle, not stern and impersonal like the first group she brought with her. And they’re just going to be here for the holiday weekend. They’ll all be leaving Sunday afternoon.”
Chase studied her, befuddled over what was really bothering her. “Then what’s the problem?” he asked.
The problem, Mitzy thought, was that she should have come back here way before now. Instead, she’d neglected to do so, figuring time and the birth of her children would ease her grief.
And they hadn’t.
Because being here at the warehouse-like workshop that her father had built over the course of forty-five years, in the very place that held so many bittersweet memories for her, was like a punch square in the solar plexus. Making her entire chest hurt to the point that it was hard to breathe. As images of her larger-than-life dad striding through the facility flashed in her brain, she remembered how he had called out to everyone, stopped to admire the workmanship even as he gently added suggestions for making the final product better. How he had charmed the customers and cared for his employees with the same loving familial attitude he exhibited toward her.
With a disgruntled sigh, she also recalled the day he and Chase had gotten into it right in the middle of the shop, their voices rising. How her dad had been forced to do what he had never done in his entire business life—fire someone outright. How furious Chase had looked as he had sworn he was quitting anyway and stomped out.
And most of all, she remembered how frail her dad had been, his body ravaged from multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, the last time he had been able to walk through here. How he’d still kept up the cheerful attitude, even as he had been forced to lean on her for strength.
Her dad had been incredibly strong to the very end.
Just as she needed to be strong now.
Abruptly, Mitzy became aware that Chase was still watching her, ever so patiently waiting for her to confide in him what was really going on with her and her mother.
Telling herself there was no need to lean on his strong, broad shoulders, she drew a deep invigorating breath, said finally, “It’s just the usual stuff.”
He strode closer. Clad in a pine green brushed cotton shirt, jeans and dark brown custom boots, he looked sexy and totally at ease. “Judith still doesn’t like the fact you’re a social worker?”
He stopped just short of her and gave her the slow, thorough once-over. “I’m guessing there’s more.”
His soft, husky baritone sent shivers ghosting over her skin, but Mitzy stiffened her resolve, in a valiant attempt not to lose herself in his potent masculine allure. There was too much water under the bridge between the two of them, after all, and getting swept up again by passion would not be in either of their best interests.
Still avoiding her dad’s private office, she moved through the shop, surveying the various workstations, finding that everything looked the same as she recalled.
Chase moved with her. “She also doesn’t like me living here in Laramie, now that Dad’s gone.”
“She wants you back in Dallas?”
Mitzy suppressed a groan. “Permanently.” Coming to the rear of the building, she stepped out onto the covered patio, where employees often took their lunch breaks.
Chase rubbed the flat of his hand beneath his jaw. “That’s not so surprising, is it? Now that you’ve had children and made her and Walter grandparents?”
Mitzy perched on the edge of a picnic table and took in a breath of the bracing November air. “I can’t go back to Dallas, Chase.” She rubbed the toe of her Italian pump across the cement floor. “I never belonged there. For so many reasons, Laramie has always been my home.”
Chase settled next to her, his arms crossed in front of his chest. “Me, too.” He slanted a commiserating look at her. “Even when I lived away from here, I always knew I’d come back eventually.”
In that sense, she and Chase were the same.
Maybe always would be.
It was too bad so many other things kept them apart. Their attitudes about business, and the role it played in a person’s private life, paramount among them. He hadn’t been able to understand that disrespecting her father, had in turn disrespected her. And instead had insisted that she should have not only defended his right to speak his mind to whomever he chose. He’d also felt that, as his potential wife, she should have sided with him on principle! Even though he was clearly wrong!
When they couldn’t come to terms about that, he had wanted to pretend as if their quarrel had never happened, and simply move on. She couldn’t because she knew, as a social worker, that ignoring problems did not make them go away, it made them fester. A lasting relationship required a lot more than friendship, amusing repartee and incredible skillful lovemaking. It required being on the same page—about everything important—and she and Chase weren’t. And weren’t going to be.
Heartbroken, she did the responsible thing and called off their engagement. Even as a tiny part of her wistfully hoped they might still find a way to meet each other halfway and work things out.
Instead, Chase had tersely agreed a split was probably for the best. Since she wasn’t giving him what he needed, either. And there was no reason for them to get married, if they were only going to get divorced down the road.
And that had been that. Until now.
Aware he was waiting for her to go on, Mitzy continued cavalierly, “And of course, Judith’s not happy about the whole ‘single mother via artificial means’ business. She would have much preferred I did things the old-fashioned way.” With even Chase as her baby daddy, instead of some anonymous donor. “But since I didn’t choose the more traditional route, she at least wants me to provide them with a proper father, to grow up with.”
He looked down at their perfectly aligned thighs. Though an inch and two layers of fabric separated their limbs, she could still feel the warmth exuded between them. And knew he could, too.
His glance returned to hers. Stayed in a way that had her heartbeat increasing.
“You’re not enthused about finding the quads a baby daddy?”
Surely he wasn’t volunteering for the position?
And even if he were, in some alternate reality, it was impossible.
She returned his assessing look. Stood, and replied, as matter of fact as possible, “If I were going to get married, cowboy, I would have done so ten years ago.”
His eyes gleamed. “Funny. Me, too.”
Thinking maybe they should go back inside, before she did something really stupid, like kiss the smug look off his handsome face, Mitzy headed for the door.
Able to feel the heat of his smoldering gaze, she tossed the words over her shoulder, “This is no joking matter, Chase.”
For him, either, apparently.
He sobered, the heartbreak of the past dragging them back to the troubled confines of the present. They crossed the threshold. “I gather you asked me to come here to talk about business,” he prodded.
Not sure where or even how to begin, Mitzy nodded. She might not want to turn to her ex, but he had the expertise and the dispassionate outsider’s view that she desperately needed. “I did.”
He looked her in the eye with a sincerity and warmth she found disquieting. “What can I do to help?”
“I went online and read some reviews of our saddles after you and I talked. They weren’t as good as usual.”
He hooked his thumbs through the belt loops on either side of his fly. “I’m aware. I’ve been reading them, too.”
Guilt welled up inside her. She’d promised her dad she would take care of things. She hadn’t. Thus far, anyway. That was about to change. Deliberately, she continued, “Which got me to wondering what’s going on.”
“Have you talked to any of the Martin Custom Saddle employees?”
She shook her head. “I wanted to come in and look around first. And the perfect time for that is today since it’s Thanksgiving, and no one is slated to be working.”
“And I’m here to…?”
She led him toward the front of the facility again, where production of the saddles began, her shoulder briefly nudging his bicep in the process. “Look around,” she said, working to keep a more circumspect physical distance. “See if anything jumps out as a potential problem.”
The first was apparently easy for him to spot. “This leather isn’t top grade.” He moved to another workstation. “The oils and dyes they’re using aren’t top quality, either.”
She frowned, alarm causing her pulse to flutter. “You’re sure about that?”
“Positive.” His gaze narrowed. “But you don’t have to take my word on that. You can look up the reputation of these suppliers yourself.”
Mitzy rubbed the tense muscles of her forehead.
Chase squinted down at her. “I don’t recall your father ever skimping on materials.”
Mitzy winced. Admitting miserably, “He didn’t.”
His brows furrowed. “And you didn’t order it?”
“No.” Heaven’s no!
His expression remained maddeningly inscrutable. “Any idea when the change might have been made?”
Her throat constricting, she headed for her dad’s private office, thinking a clue as to why this all happened might be there. “I don’t know.” Hoarsely, she admitted, “I haven’t been here since Dad died last May.”
And as CEO, she should have been. Frequently. No matter how difficult or gut-wrenching she found it.
Silently berating herself for her inexcusable lapse in judgment, she slogged past the door that had always stayed open. Flipped on the lights. Saw her dad’s worn denim jacket slung over the back of his chair. A box of his favorite mints sitting open on the desk. The World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug she had made for him in elementary school sitting there, next to his calendar, clean and ready to be filled.
For a moment, it was almost as if her father had just stepped out for a spell. And would come striding back in, larger than life, at any second.
A sob caught in her throat, as she realized just how much she wanted that to happen.
An anguished cry left her mouth.
And then the grief and tears she’d been holding back came pouring out in a harsh, wrenching torrent.
The next thing she knew, Chase’s arms were wrapped around her. He pulled her close as even more tears flowed and her slender body shook with sobs. She clung to him and he held her until the worst of the storm passed. And for one sweet moment, time really did stand still. There’d been no decade apart. No heartbreaking end to their engagement. No years of them pretending each other didn’t exist. No years of not speaking.
There was only him and her, and her overwhelming need for comfort and the urge to lean on his incredible strength.
The surprising yearning to kiss him one last time.
So she lifted her head, and did.
Though it was supposed to be the goodbye kiss she had never given him, the final denouement in their ill-fated relationship, the brief caress quickly turned into something else entirely.
A reminder of all they had shared that was at once passionate and tender, sweet and loving, as well as a jarring testament of all they had given up.
And that, too, was more than she could bear on this very emotional day.
She and Chase had let each other down and crushed each other’s hopes and dreams once. She’d be a fool to venture down the same path and hope for a different result.
Hand pressed against his chest, she tore her mouth from his and pushed him away. “No,” she gasped, common sense returning with reassuring speed. It didn’t matter how much she was hurting or how alone she felt.
She looked Chase in the eye. “There’s no way in hell we’re getting involved again!”