A Cowboy Kind of Daddy
"Annie, you can't keep putting this off," Travis McCabe's deep voice rumbled over the phone lines.
Want to bet? Annie Pierce thought, giving her soon-to-be-famous Texas-style barbecue sauce another stir. "I know, Travis," Annie replied dutifully, reminding herself that Travis was not only her neighbor again, and the closest thing her late father had ever had to a son, but a person who had done her countless favors over the past two years. Favors she had, as yet, done nothing to repay.
"It's just I'm very busy today." Annie frowned at the four-year-old boys roughhousing in the middle of the kitchen floor. Identical triplets, they all had her red hair and freckles, fair skin and hazel-green eyes. They also had her fun-loving, feisty nature. Without, unfortunately, the wisdom and judgment her thirty-three years of experience brought.
Annie winced as her three sons rose in a tangle of arms, nearly knocking a half-dozen just-sterilized mason jars onto the kitchen floor. Annie dropped her spoon with a clatter and sprang into action to avert disaster, putting her slender body smack in the middle of them. Phone cradled between shoulder and ear, she used both hands to separate the wrestling trio.
"Tyler, Trevor, Teddy! You-all stop that right now! "Figuring this was no time to be talking to her know-it-all neighbor, Annie shouted into the phone, "I'll call you later, Travis!" Then she reached over their heads, jammed the phone back into the wall-base and, with a scolding look, put an end to the roughhousing once and for all. "Honestly," she said in her enough-is-enough tone. "Can't you boys behave for five minutes?" Completely exasperated, Annie stepped back to the stove and turned the heat from low to simmer.
"He started it!" Trevor elbowed Teddy.
"Did not!" Teddy pushed Tyler.
"Hey, watch it!" Tyler tried to shove Teddy and hit Trevor instead.
Immediately, they picked up the frey-for-all where they'd left off. Once again, Annie vaulted forward and stepped in the middle of them. "Boys! I'm warning you!"
"It's not our fault, Momma. We just got too much energy," Trevor said.
Teddy, knowing a good excuse when he heard one, nodded vigorously. "Yeah, I 'spect that's just it, Momma. We probably need to be playing outside or something."
"Yeah, running around would make us tired. Then we would probably even take a nap!" Tyler enthused.
That'll be the day, Annie thought. In the foreground, the clothes dryer buzzed, signaling the clothes were dry. Annie looked longingly toward the laundry room. She really needed to get that. And it was a beautiful day. Only ninety degrees so far that morning. By afternoon, it'd be over a hundred. It would be too hot for the boys to be outside playing then. She'd have to keep them inside, in the air-conditioning. In that sense, summers in Texas were as bad as winters up north.
"You promise me you'll behave, and stay close to the house?" Annie said sternly. All three boys nodded. "No more wrestling. And no playing with the hose again. That was a big mess last night."
The trio took heed to her warning. "We'll be good," they promised in unison.
"Okay," Annie said, unable to completely curtail a sigh of relief. Her three precocious boys were a handful and always had been. "I'm going to hold you to that. Find your sneakers now."
"Do we hafta?"
"Yes." Annie regarded them sternly. "No shoes. No outside play. You know the rules."
While the boys scampered for their sneakers with the Velcro clasps, she headed for the laundry room, where a mountain of laundry awaited.
TRAVIS MCCABE DROVE slowly up the shady, tree-lined lane winding through the Triple Diamond cattle ranch Annie Pierce had inherited from her father. Rolling green pastures were interspersed with streams and enclosed with top-quality brown creosote fence. Thanks to the hard work of Travis's ranch hands, the property was still in top-notch shape and he wanted to keep it that way. Not an easy proposition now that Annie had moved back to the ranch with her three boys.
Travis frowned as he neared the house. It looked as if the second-story doors of the brand-new barn were standing open. Even more unbelievably, he caught sight of two of Annie's triplets-impossible to tell which ones since they were all identical-leaning over the edge of the loft. The third was standing on the ground beneath them. Hands cupped around his mouth, he appeared to be shouting something to his brothers above. They grinned, waved, disappeared from view then popped back out again seconds later, hanging even more precariously over the edge.
He wasn't sure what they were up to, but it was obviously no good. Travis swore and cut the engine on his truck. Heart racing, he vaulted out and hurried toward them. He only hoped he could get there in time.
"LOSE SOMETHING?" Travis McCabe drawled.
"Travis!" Annie's breath caught at the sight of him standing in her back door. Some five years older than her, he was as handsome and commanding as ever in that uniquely Texas, cowboy way. Clad in jeans, chambray shirt, boots and Stetson, he had one triplet braced on each hip and another riding on his shoulders. All three of her boys looked chagrined, as well they should, Annie decided, considering the runny white and yellow goop smeared all over them and Travis's imposing, broad-shouldered six-plus frame, too.
Annie neared the four of them as Travis gently set down the boys, one at a time. Shaking her head at the sight of them, she wondered what in the world had happened. The boys had only been outside for about ten minutes. Travis wasn't supposed to be here at all. Though maybe it was good he'd happened along, considering what the triplets had been up to this time, she thought wearily. She peered at Travis's handsome face, taking in the nicely suntanned skin, blunt nose and sexy mouth-all of which seemed to be hopelessly smeared with something really yucky.
"Is that egg on your face?" Annie asked, lifting her eyebrows in astonishment and looking into his twinkling golden-brown eyes. "And...the boys?"
Travis swept off his hat, revealing cocoa-brown hair worn in a side part and cut in short tidy layers.
He frowned at the messy goop staining the brim of his creased bone Stetson. "It's not marshmallow cream."
"How did you-" she started, confused. Then lightning hit. "Oh, no." Annie turned to the refrigerator, ducked her head inside, came back out again. Hands on her hips, she regarded the boys. "Not all two dozen!"
In unison, they shrugged their small shoulders aimlessly, and tucked their hands in the pockets of their shorts. "Well, we know eggs are baby chickens, 'cause we saw it on Mr. Rogers," Tyler stated reasonably enough.
Trevor nodded enthusiastically. "The baby chickens popped out of the eggs. And we know birds fly."
"And so we had to see if the ones in the refrigerator could, too," Tyler explained.
Annie shut her eyes and took a deep, tranquilizing breath. Most of the time she was proud of how brilliantly inventive, creative and precocious her children were. But there were times when precocious times three twenty-four hours a day was too too much. Annie opened her eyes. "How exactly were you doing this?" Annie demanded, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Suddenly, all three boys got busy looking at their toes.
Annie looked at Travis. He was so much taller than her boys. She couldn't believe he didn't know how to duck. The only explanation had to be a surprise attack. "Were they in the trees?"
Holding her eyes deliberately, Travis drawled, "Try the loft."
The loft. "The hayloft?"
Travis spread his hands on either side of him. "Is there any other?"
Annie's heart stopped at the thought of what could have happened had Travis not come along when he had. Feeling all the blood drain from her face, she pressed a hand to her chest and whispered a silent prayer of thanks. Thank heavens the boys were all right. Although not exactly unscathed, she decided as she dropped her hand and looked down at them once again.
"Uh-oh, guys, we're in trouble," Teddy said, correctly reading the expression on her face.
"You bet you are," Annie fumed as the barbecue sauce began to bubble over on the stove. She rushed to remove the heavy pot from the burner then swung back around to her boys. "Time-out!"
"Awwwwwww, Mom!" they said in unison.
"One more word-one more sigh-and it'll be the longest time-out you've ever had in your life," Annie said, even more sternly.
Immediately, the boys fell silent. One by one they climbed onto their chairs at the kitchen table and sat there glumly, their arms folded truculently in front of them.
Satisfied everything was under control, for the moment anyway, Annie turned to Travis, who was most in need of immediate attention. "I am sooooo sorry Travis," she said, gesturing at his eggy state. She swept a hand from his head to his toes. "Your hat...your shirt...your face..."
Travis's eyes twinkled with amusement as, hat in hand, he said, "Got it all, didn't they?"
"Thank you for riding to my rescue yet again," she said, noticing his frank perusal of her. Feeling self-conscious in her skimpy white shorts, snug-fitting scoop-necked yellow T -shirt, and bare feet, Annie backed up until she touched the kitchen sink.
Travis gave her that slow, sexy smile, the one that had always turned her legs to jelly. He focused on her unmade-up face and loosely pinned-up hair. "You're welcome."
Looking away, Travis stared at all the jars on the table. "What's happening here?"
Aware her heart was pounding, Annie pulled a clean dishcloth from the drawer and dampened it beneath the water faucet. "I'm making the last of the barbecue sauce to take to the food exposition tomorrow."
Travis moved around beside her and leaned against the counter. "I didn't know you were involved in that."
Annie turned toward Travis, inhaling the brisk masculine fragrance of his cologne and the soapy-fresh scent of his hair and skin. She handed him the cloth so he could wipe the egg off his face. "I'm going to market my own sauce," Annie said, unable to completely keep the pride and ambition out of her voice.
To Annie's irritation, Travis looked surprised. "That sounds like a tough thing to do," he said, after a moment. He rubbed his face, getting about half the smeared egg in a single swipe.
Annie's slender shoulders stiffened. Travis's wasn't the first skepticism she had encountered, but for some reason she couldn't quite fathom, it rankled the most. "It's a long and complicated process, but I'm sure I'll get there eventually," she told him with determination.
He looked less sure. But to her relief said nothing further to discourage her.
Seeing a spot he had missed, she pointed to his cheek. He dabbed just below the spot. She pointed again. He scrubbed above it. Behind her, all three of her boys began to giggle quietly.
"You do it, Momma. He'll never get it!" Teddy said.
Figuring this probably could go on all day, Annie took the cloth from Travis and got the spot he'd missed, just above his cheekbone, being very careful not to actually touch him with anything but the cloth. Nevertheless, her breathing was as erratic as if she'd just run a race as she completed the task and stepped away from him. To her dismay, Travis looked equally distracted in a decidedly sensual way, too.
Which was impossible, Annie told herself sternly.
Travis had always been handsome. Rugged. Appealing. In that no-nonsense, take-charge, always-coming-to-the-aid-of-some-woman way of his. But she'd never been personally attracted to him. Never thought about him as anything but the cowboy next door.
If she was going all weak-kneed and silly on him now, it had to be...her nerves... The... Well, the something. Anything. But him.
"They got your car, too," Travis announced.
Annie dropped the dishtowel in the sink. "What?"
Travis inclined his head in the direction of the mess. "Not to mention the sidewalk leading up to the house."
Annie shot another very disgruntled, disapproving look at the boys.
Not surprisingly, they remained impervious to all but the remaining dilemma of the "experiment" they had been conducting. "We wanted to see if they would fly on the ground first, and when that didn't work we took them to the loft," Teddy said, scrunching up his forehead contemplatively.
"Hitting the car was an ax-cident," Tyler explained while Trevor nodded vigorously in his brothers' defense.
"We're sorry, Momma," Trevor continued sincerely. "We didn't mean to make a mess."
Annie never had been able to stay irritated with them for long. Especially once they recognized the error of their actions. "All right," she said wearily. "Go in and wash up and put on some clean clothes and then watch television, while Travis and I see to the mess outside, "Annie said. "And no more trouble, boys," Annie scolded sincerely. "I mean it. Or you'll all be in time-outs for the rest of the morning. In separate rooms."
Nodding their agreement, the triplets leaped off their chairs and rushed to obey Annie's instructions. Annie located and slipped on her sandals, while Travis waited-somewhat impatiently this time. Why, Annie couldn't begin to fathom.