Kurt McCabe had been a burr under her saddle for as long as she could remember, but this was really the last straw!
Paige stared at the six-foot-five-inch Texan with tousled, dark brown hair and McCabe blue eyes. Thanks to her penchant for avoiding trouble—and their medical and veterinary educations, which had relocated them both for several years—she had managed to steer clear of her childhood nemesis for nearly a decade. If one discounted the huge family Thanksgiving gathering several Laramie, Texas, clans held jointly every year, that was! On that day, he managed to get under her skin, same as always….
Then another year would go by, and she'd forget all about him. Or at least try…knowing it would be months before she was likely to run into the handsome scoundrel again.
But now here he was back, living in their hometown, same as she. And much to her chagrin, Kurt McCabe was as sexy, masculine—and downright irritating—as ever.
At her continued silence, Kurt goaded her with "the look" that never failed to send her blood pressure skyrocketing. Paige turned back to Rowdy Whitcombe, another childhood friend. Determined to get a grip on her flaring temper, she enunciated clearly, "You cannot let McCabe jump line like this! You have to replace the plumbing in my house first!"
"I'm not jumping line," Kurt interjected, a smug smile dominating the rugged contours of his face. "You and I have both been waiting on the same shipment of pipe and fittings and it just got here today."
Paige glared at him, highly annoyed to have returned home from work to find the Rowdy Whitcombe Plumbing truck parked in front of Kurt McCabe's century-old Victorian instead of hers. Judging by the empty boxes on the front lawn, work had already begun on this project. "I signed my contract before you did, McCabe," she pointed out.
Kurt lifted a dark brow. "Actually, Paige, you signed yours on the same day I signed mine. I checked."
Know-it-all, she fumed. "It was still before yours— three hours before yours." Because had she known the two of them would be competing for Rowdy's time and skill, Paige would have gone elsewhere to get workable plumbing put in her home. Even as far as Fort Worth, if necessary! She swung around to their short, stocky friend. "Right, Rowdy?"
"Well, yes…" He blushed to the roots of his pale blond hair.
"Then…?" At five foot eleven, Paige towered over Rowdy.
The disconcerted plumber withdrew the red bandanna from his back pocket and rubbed it across his face. "Kurt wanted PVC pipe. You wanted copper. The PVC came off the delivery truck first. So, technically, even though you went under contract first, Paige, the materials for his job were here first."
She drew a long, calming breath. "So you decided to work on his house first." Her voice dripped with disdain.
Rowdy matched her eye roll with one of his own. "Give me a break, Paige. I owe Kurt for saving my horse."
She could hardly compete with that, so she fell back on the immutable facts. "This isn't personal, Rowdy. It's business."
"Actually, Paige," Kurt stated, with the authority all the implacable McCabe men seemed born with, "all business is personal…if it's done right."
She wished she could argue that, but she couldn't. "Don't call me by my first name," she snapped. She hated the way "Paige" sounded rolling off his lips, all falsely intimate and totally smart-aleck.
"You'd prefer sweetheart or darlin' or sugarplum…?"
Paige shook off the shivers prickling down her spine and sent him a withering glare. "Dr. Chamberlain would be fine."
He smiled condescendingly. "All right, Dr. Chamberlain, you can address me as Dr. McCabe."
"If you two are done with your, um, contest," Rowdy interrupted with a long-suffering grin, "I've got to get the rest of the PVC out of this truck."
Paige hadn't gotten to be one of the most prominent pediatric surgeons in the state of Texas by giving up, any more than Kurt had gotten to be a top-notch veterinarian by acquiescing. "Rowdy, I beg of you, please move the work on Kurt's home—"
"That's Dr. McCabe's home, to you," Kurt interrupted glibly.
Scoffing, Paige continued "—to the appropriate place in the line of those waiting for a complete plumbing overhaul." Sadly, her neighborhood was full of homes needing repair. It seemed all the fifty-year-old pipe had decided to rust through and disintegrate at once. Hence, any home that hadn't already been completely replumbed was in trouble, or about to be. Which was good for the Rowdy Whitcombe Plumbing Company. Not so good for everyone else, facing either monumental repairs or the risk of further burst pipes and resultant flooding.
Rowdy's jaw clenched. "No can do," he snapped back.
The plumber held up a work-gloved hand and looked her square in the eye. "You're free to hire someone else if you want, Paige. I won't hold a grudge. But I'm working on Kurt's house first."
Paige knew further arguing would get her nowhere.
"I still promise to get you back into your home by Christmas," he said.
That was four and a half weeks away! "I wanted to be there by Thanksgiving," she reminded him flatly.
Rowdy continued collapsing the emptied cardboard boxes. "What's the big deal? Can't you just stay with your folks on their ranch?"
The big deal was this put a definite crimp in her secret plan to finally get a family of her very own. In order for everything to be perfect from the onset, she needed privacy—and plenty of sleep! But she wasn't about to confide in Rowdy—or heaven forbid, Kurt McCabe!— about that. Running water in her house or not, she was determined to carry out her mission in just eight days. She'd deal with the personal fallout from her actions later.
Paige shook her head. "No can do. My dad is overseeing the editing of the last movie he directed—and meeting with his producers about the next one—and my mom is putting the finishing touches on a new book of film reviews. Their guesthouse and every guest room is occupied." She sighed. "To make matters worse, all the hotel rooms in town are taken by the models involved in the catalog shoot for my aunt Jenna's new fashion line."
Once again, Kurt seemed intrigued, but not in a way Paige appreciated. Which was probably the point—to get under her skin, as usual.
"Still sleeping in an on-call room at the hospital then?" Rowdy asked.
Kurt turned his full attention to her once again. She ignored his laserlike gaze and the warm way it made her feel. She didn't want him imagining her curled up on one of the utilitarian bunk beds. Although he seemed to be doing exactly that…!
With a huff, she turned back to Rowdy. "It makes sense to sleep at the hospital, since I'm there all the time, anyway." A resentful edge entered her voice. "That doesn't mean it's a comfortable arrangement, when I have a large, beautiful home just blocks from the hospital waiting for me." Or it had been beautiful until her kitchen pipe had burst while she was at work, flooding the entire first floor.
Unsympathetic, Kurt shrugged. He challenged her with a lift of his chiseled chin. "I'm sure you could figure out a way to camp out there without working plumbing if you really wanted."
Furious that he refused to be a Texas gentleman in this situation, Paige faced off with him once again. "That's not the point."
He let his gaze travel over her slowly from head to toe, before returning with taunting deliberation to her eyes. "The point," he guessed drolly, "is landing on top of me once again."
Paige flushed at the unbidden image Kurt's sarcastic comment brought to mind. Eager to end the exchange before he got even further under her skin, she turned her nose up. "I'd say it has been a pleasure seeing you again, Dr. McCabe…" Her voice trailed off. But it hasn't been!
He caught the thinly veiled insult she'd been too much of a lady to actually voice. "Same here, Dr. Chamberlain," he drawled, holding her eyes far longer than any respectable man would have. "Same here."
Kurt watched Paige stomp back to the brand-new station wagon she had been driving of late, climb inside and slam the door.
"What happened to that sleek little red sports car she used to drive?" he asked, smiling to himself as Paige tossed her head indignantly and belted herself in.
Rowdy carried another box of pipe into Kurt's house. He walked past the floor that had been flooded by a burst pipe and entered the still intact—but currently unusable—kitchen. "I don't know. She sold it a couple of months ago and traded it in for that mom mobile."
Kurt followed with a box and set it on the floor next to a dozen others, and a stack of already unboxed drains, couplings and check valves. "Any idea why? I mean, is she dating anybody these days? On the verge of getting married or something?"
"Not that I've heard." Rowdy picked up the new disposal that was to be installed, too, and set it on the counter. "Although we don't exactly run in the same circles. She's always hanging out with the sophisticates. I tend to watch sports and play poker with the guys. Just like you." He peered at Kurt. "Why are you suddenly so interested?"
Good question. "Just trying to figure out ways to avoid her."
Rowdy hesitated. "You sure you don't want to just let her get her house fixed first?"
And let Paige think she'd harangued him into letting her jump line? Kurt folded his arms in front of him. "You've already started on mine."
"Barely. And I don't mind finishing it after hers. I can still get both places done before Christmas. Hers probably before Thanksgiving, if I get on it right away and call in some extra help."
Kurt studied his friend. "And why would I want to do that?"
"Because it'd make your life a whole lot easier?"
"In what way?" he persisted.
Rowdy headed back out to the truck to get the last load. "Listen, dude, you have to know that if you go ahead with the work on your place, you are all Paige Chamberlain is going to be talking and thinking about for the next two weeks. Heck, maybe for even longer."
Kurt grinned. "You're saying I'd be the focus of her existence?" Deep down, he wasn't opposed to that. It would make up for all the time he'd spent over the years matching wits and wills with her.
"I'm saying," Rowdy clarified with a frown, evidently still trying to get Kurt to do the right thing, "you could avoid a great big headache by being gallant and letting her go first…."
Kurt recalled the color in Paige's sculpted cheeks as they'd faced off. "I prefer having her think about me day and night."
He couldn't say what it was about Paige. Whether it was her tall, gazelle-like frame, sexy shoulders or endless legs. Or the way her glossy auburn hair framed her pretty oval face. Or even the softness of her full lips when juxtaposed against that stubborn chin. He only knew there was something about her that brought out the conqueror in him, and always had.
Only problem was, Paige Chamberlain was not the kind of woman who would ever surrender to any man.
And he definitely wanted a woman who would surrender to him. Heart, body and soul.
His beeper went off, and Kurt reached for the phone on his belt. He saw his parents' home number flash across the caller ID screen. He clicked the connect button and lifted the cell to his ear. "Hey. What's up?"
"You need to get out to the ranch right now," his mother said, sounding really irate. "You have some serious explaining to do!"
It wasn't like his parents to get involved in the day-to-day dealings of their five sons, Kurt knew. Annie and Travis McCabe firmly believed in letting their children be held accountable for their own actions; it was, they had always maintained, the only way to teach children to be responsible adults. So Kurt found it a little hard to believe they'd be upset about the situation with Paige Chamberlain to the point they'd call him on the carpet about it. On the other hand, Annie and Paige's mom, Dani, were friends.
And Kurt wouldn't put it past Paige to call her mother and complain.
Dani, who was very protective of her only daughter, might have called to talk to Annie, and see if there was anything the two moms could do to eliminate even more controversy.
Still, it wasn't like his normally imperturbable mother to call, bark an order and hang up on him.
So something else had to be going on.
Something that in some way involved him, Kurt figured.
He found out what that was the moment he strolled through the door of the ranch house at the Triple Diamond.
His mother and father were there. Standing next to the biggest, most expensive-looking navy blue baby buggy Kurt had ever seen.
"We'd like an explanation," Annie McCabe said, her petite, well-dressed frame vibrating with emotion.
No joke! So would Kurt.
Travis put a comforting hand on his wife's shoulder. "Let's let him read the letter first," he said. Kurt's father walked past the baby buggy and handed over an envelope with Kurt's name scrawled across the front. It hadn't been opened.
"It came with the baby buggy," Annie explained, in response to Kurt's obvious confusion.
He frowned, ripped open the seal and read the words typed on the page out loud. "'Dear Kurt, please be the daddy Lindsay, Lori and Lucille need, and welcome them into the McCabe clan.'"
He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, and looked up, half afraid he might already know the answer to the question he was about to ask. "Who are Lindsay, Lori and Lucille?"
Annie wheeled the buggy over to where he was standing.
He looked down to see three gorgeous babies, all in pink, snuggled under a crocheted blanket, sleeping soundly. Matching gold ID bracelets, engraved with their names and some sort of filigreed design along the edges, glinted on their tiny wrists. "We were hoping," Annie said softly, "you would be able to tell us that!"
"Whoa," Paige said, as Mitzy Martin turned her car beneath the archway of the Triple Diamond Ranch. "You didn't tell me the babies were found here." Otherwise, Paige wouldn't have been so quick to volunteer to come out and examine the abandoned triplets and make sure they were all okay. Although initial reports indicated that they were in good health.
"Is it a problem?" the vivacious social worker asked.
Paige supposed not.