THE TEXAS COWBOY'S TRIPLETS
“Guess my legendary Texas charm finally paid off.”
Dan McCabe didn’t know how true those words might have been if Kelly Shackleford had been in the market for a man in her life. Thankfully for both of them, she wasn’t.
Reassuring herself that she was not on a fool’s errand, Kelly emerged from her SUV and sauntered toward the irrepressible lawman slash cowboy. Sizing him up all the while. Six feet four inches. Mesmerizing blue eyes. Thick dark hair. A body to die for. And a face so ruggedly handsome it nearly took her breath away.
“What makes you think that?” she asked, stopping just short of where he appeared to be working on extending the height of the fence on some kind of livestock pen. He lifted a fistful of T-shirt and wiped the sweat from his face, giving her an all too brief but tantalizing view of his powerful pecs and taut abs. As the fabric dropped to his waist, she caught a mouthwatering glimpse of the dark strip of hair that arrowed down into the fly of his faded jeans.
He waited until her gaze returned to his eyes before he answered her question with a lazy grin, “You came all the way out to my new ranch to see me.”
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Her heart skittering in her chest, Kelly returned his flirtatious smile. “You’re right. I did,” she murmured, regarding him innocently.
Apparently her false cordiality struck a chord in him. A wrong one. He eyed her skeptically. “Any particular reason why?”
She tightened her fingers on her car keys. “You’ve been saying we should get to know each other better. I’ve decided you’re right.” She flushed beneath the intensity of his gaze, took a deep breath, and plunged on. “Becoming better acquainted could be beneficial to both of us.” And, more importantly, to others as well.
A brief silence fell, in which she feared that he was going to see her awkward explanation as an open invitation to try to sweet-talk her into the one thing he’d been wanting from her, ever since she had moved to Laramie, Texas, the summer before.
A real date.
“I see.” He flashed her an enticing smile. “Is this going to happen before or after you go out with me?”
Kelly tore her eyes from the sensual shape of his lower lip and gave him an exasperated look. “Now, Dan, we’ve been over that.”
She’d fallen hard and fast for a sexy cowboy from a wealthy family once before. Only to be dumped just before giving birth to triplets. No way was she opening herself up to further heartbreak. Never mind with one of the most eligible—and sought after—bachelors in the county.
“We have.” He turned and went back to pounding tall metal stakes into the ground on the outside of the existing pen fence, then slanted her a glance over his brawny shoulder. “But never to my satisfaction.”
Darn it all, the man was persistent. Not that there was any surprise there. Dan McCabe was a man who was used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. The fact he hadn’t been able to add her to his growing stable of former “dates” had no doubt frustrated him to no end.
Reluctantly, she moved with him as he worked his way around the perimeter of the entire pen. Then, with a long-suffering sigh, she reiterated what she told him every time the subject came up. “I’m open to being friends.”
Finished, he picked up a roll of metal mesh. “So am I, as long as that means we get to go out, too.”
When he briefly had trouble attaching the mesh to a tall post with a zip tie, she impulsively stepped in to help him. And just as swiftly regretted it because working together left them in such close proximity.
She swallowed, hard, shook her head, ready to step back. “That can’t happen.”
He slanted her a glance that was so genuinely appreciative she felt compelled to keep right on assisting him. “Because you work full time,” he echoed.
“Yes,” she said, drinking in the earthy male scent of him. Why was that so hard to understand? Why did everyone think she needed a man in her life to be happy?
He moved down the line, quickly securing the fencing while she held it against the post. “And are the mother to rambunctious three-year-old triplets.”
None of whom he’d met yet.
Aware of the heat emanating from his big, tall body, she said, “Precisely.”
He moved a little farther down the line. “And you’re not looking for passion. You want love.”
“Whoa now.” She lifted a hand. Their gazes clashed, then held in a way that had the hot June air between them sizzling. “I never said that.”
“Don’t have to.” Sheer male confidence radiated from him. “The thing is, I’m not looking for a one-night stand or a casual affair, either.”
“So you’ve said.” Unable to decide whether he looked sexier in cowboy clothing or a tan law-enforcement uniform, Kelly continued, reminding him, “Every time you asked me out.”
“That is true.” He shrugged affably and continued working quickly and efficiently around the last of the perimeter. “It’s why I bought this ten-acre property with a family-size home.”
And Kelly couldn’t help but note that the Bowie Creek Ranch property was gorgeous, with its sprawling ranch house and terrain that was a mixture of rolling grass and woods. “Now all you need is a wife and kids to fill it up. Although—” she turned, looking off into the distance “—I see you’ve already got a collie.” Who was absolutely beautiful. The original Lassie, come to life.
“His name is Shep,” Dan informed her.
She squinted to see what the canine appeared to be running around. “And a herd of…goats?”
“Six miniature ones.”
She turned so suddenly her shoulder bumped his. Tingling at the contact, she stepped back. “May I ask why?” Having grown up on a cattle and horse ranch nearby, with two parents and five siblings, he likely had enough cowboy in him to last a lifetime. But she had never imagined the tall native Texan to want to be a shepherd.
“Shep is mine. I rescued him as a puppy two years ago when I first moved back here from Chicago. The goats came with the property,” he explained. “The family that lived here had to move back to Great Britain for the dad’s work, and the goats weren’t allowed to go with, so I had to promise to not only find them good loving homes, but care for them until I do.”
No surprise there. The McCabes were gallant to the core. “Which is why you’re building a fence?”
He sighed. “They keep escaping the pen they were using. As you can see, the original walls are only four feet high. Apparently they need to be at least five feet, so I decided to be extra safe and make it six until I can find them all suitable homes. Then I plan to just take the entire structure down.”
That made a lot more sense.
Aware they were at the end, and he no longer needed her help, Kelly stepped back. She gazed at the collie racing back and forth in the grass next to the woods. “Why is Shep barking at that goat?”
Dan grinned proudly. “I trained him to herd them back toward the enclosure. The doe he’s chasing is getting a little too far away.”
Doe? Kelly squinted. “You can tell the sex from this distance?”
“They’re all female.” Dropping his tools into the box at their feet, he caught her semi-amused look. “I know. I’m surrounded.” His soft laugh was infectious, and oh so sexy. “Why, even you…”
Kelly groaned, refusing to let herself be drawn in by his irresistible charm. “Don’t start.” His constant quips had her smiling and had a way of leading her way offtrack.
“So…” A twinkle appeared in Dan’s eyes. He let his gaze drift over her in another long, thoughtful survey. “Let me get this straight. You want us to become better acquainted, but you don’t want me to flirt with you?”
Only because of where it would inevitably lead. “No,” she said blithely. “I don’t.”
He took a moment to consider that. Then, seeming to know intuitively she was fibbing about her ever-escalating attraction to him, he opened the gate wide and whistled a command to Shep. Immediately his dog began rounding up the goats and pushing them toward the enclosure.
Dan turned back to Kelly. Serious now, as he asked, “So why do you want to get to know me better, if you don’t plan to accept any one of my ten invitations for an evening out? ‘Cause I have to tell you, Kelly, I’m really not interested in being ‘just friends’.”
She knew that, too. Which left her only one option. Distract—with facts.
“Actually, Dan,” she countered, doing her best to put the brakes on his shameless flirting with a haughty lift of her chin, “you asked me out seven times. Not ten.”
“Ah.” He stood with his arms folded across his chest and regarded her smugly. “So you’re counting, too.” The corners of his sensual lips turned up.
Darn him for pointing that out!
Kelly ignored what that might mean. With effort, she met his probing blue gaze. Realizing the time had come to lay all her cards on the table, said, “I’m here because I need a favor. And,” more importantly still, “I’d really like it to come from you.”
Whatever this request was, it was serious. And from the looks of it, highly confidential, as well. “Okay,” he concurred, immediately sobering and calling on the gentlemanly good manners that had been instilled in him since youth. Aware it was uncomfortably hot outdoors, he pointed to the house. “Would you rather go inside to talk?”
Kelly shook her head, looking more beautiful than ever, and he felt his senses kicking into high gear. It wasn’t just the delicate physical perfection of every inch of her that constantly captured and held his attention. It was the way she moved—with a kind of sultry, inherent grace. The way her lips curled up softly when she was happy, and the way her chin tilted stubbornly when she was not. She was all energy, all woman. And the slender curves that were hidden beneath a loose-fitting pink cotton shirt and faded jeans—along with her cloud of shoulder-length caramel blond hair and pretty amber eyes—made it impossible for him to look away.
“No. Out here is fine.” She rocked back on the heels of her sneakers and peered at him intently, her guard up once again. “But first, I want to make sure whatever I do say to you will be held in the strictest confidence. The same way it would be if I went to a doctor or lawyer or minister.”
Disappointment tightened his gut. “So you’re coming to me in my capacity as an officer of the law?” He had a miserable sense of history repeating itself.
“No.” Kelly shook her head and followed him up to the porch. He walked inside and came back out with two bottles of chilled water.
She accepted one and continued as if he hadn’t left. “This is completely off the record. In fact—” she paused meaningfully, watched as he uncapped the bottle and drank deeply “—I don’t want you to report anything of what I am about to tell you.”
Another really bad sign.
Slowly, Dan let the bottle fall to his side. He gave her the kind of once-over he usually reserved for folks who were about to make a terrible mistake. “You understand that I can’t be a party to anything criminal,” he told her gruffly.
Delicate hand flying to her heart, Kelly took a step back from him. “Goodness, yes! I would never ask you to do anything illegal.”
Famous last words, Dan thought, wondering if she had any idea he’d heard them before in a very similar situation. “Or even look the other way if I suspect a crime is being committed,” he added brusquely.
Pink color dotting her high, sculpted cheeks, she carefully set the still-unopened water he had given her on the porch railing. “I understand.” She ventured closer. “But, on the other hand, if there is a personal problem you could perhaps help with, would you be willing to do that?”
This sounded a lot like his ex. Telling himself there was no way that Kelly could be that conniving, he said, carefully, “I would.”
“Good.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Because sometimes things aren’t what they might seem on the surface.”
She looked surprisingly vulnerable now. Subdued. Aware he might have misjudged her—without meaning to—he asked, “Like this conversation?”
Kelly paused for several long beats. Finally, she said, “I have a student in my class I’m worried about.”
He squinted at her. “I’m guessing there is a reason why?”
“There is.” She paused and took a deep breath that lifted the lush fullness of her breasts. “But I’d rather not divulge that just yet.”
As he stood there, inhaling the sweet fragrance of her perfume, he realized he kind of liked her coming to him for help. Assuming, of course, it was all on the up-and-up. “Have you told anyone else of your concern?” he asked kindly. “The school director? Another teacher?”
Her delicate brow pleated. “I spoke with Cece Taylor, another teacher at the school.”
Kelly raked her teeth across her lush lower lip. “She thinks I’m overreacting. Which is why I wanted you to come and speak to our two three-year-old classes at the preschool. I know you’ve worked with at-risk youth, both in your early days at the Chicago Police Department and as a volunteer at the boys’ ranch here in Laramie, so I thought if there was a problem with this particular child, you’d be able to spot it.”
“Why not just get social services or the school counselor—if you have one—involved?”
“Because,” she said, her expression becoming troubled, “then it becomes a whole thing. And if I’m wrong, as I very well might be, then I’m needlessly putting the child and their family through an ordeal that never should have been.”
She spoke as if she’d endured a similar contretemps. “Are there any bruises or signs of physical abuse?”
“No.” Kelly ran a hand through her hair and began to pace. “Nothing like that. Just…something feels off. And I wanted another opinion.” She swung back to face him, more composed now. With a beleaguered sigh, she added, “One not likely to be anywhere near as overly emotional as mine.”
His heart went out to her because she really did seem to care about whoever she deemed potentially at risk. He strode closer. “Is it a girl or boy?”
“I’d rather you not know. That way, you won’t be predisposed to see something that may or may not be there.”
Made sense, he thought, continuing to study her. “You really want to be wrong about this, don’t you?” She look so distressed. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her close. Instead, he touched her arm.
Kelly sighed, and just for one second leaned into his touch. “Cowboy, more than you could ever know.”