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The Triplets' Secret Wish by Cathy Gillen Thacker

THE TRIPLETS' SECRET WISH

Chapter One

You’re the landlord?” Her heart pounding, Emma Lockhart stared at Tom Reid in astonishment, taking in his ruggedly handsome face and tall, broad-shouldered frame. Over six years had passed since they had abruptly ended their engagement. Yet here he was. Still heartache personified.

Tom paused next to the historic brick commercial building on the Laramie, Texas, street, as powerfully commanding as ever in that uniquely Texas cowboy way. The corners of his lips curving upward, he tipped the brim of his Stetson at her. “ABC Properties at your service, ma’am.”

The familiarity of his gaze rankled almost as much as his irresistible physical presence. Emma folded her arms in front of her, forcing herself to ignore the way his tan shirt and dark jeans molded to his muscular body. “First of all—” she drew a deep breath, pushing aside the scorching hot memories of the two of them making love “—don’t call me, ma’am!”

And stop looking at me like you want to kiss me again, ASAP!

His golden brown eyes twinkled mischievously. “What would you prefer I call you?” he taunted. He leaned toward her, the ends of his sable brown hair and his smooth, suntanned skin catching the dazzling April sunlight. “Princess Lady Emma?”

Her dreaded childhood nickname. Coined by the sexy mischief-maker in front of her, no less. Pretending a cool she couldn’t begin to feel, Emma squared her shoulders. “Miss Lockhart would be fine.”

He lifted a brow at her arch tone. Using humor and outrageous behavior the way he always did, to keep others at arm’s length, emotionally. “Going formal?” he drawled.

A pleasurable warmth baked down from the sun overhead, and there was nary a cloud in the deep blue Texas sky. She kept her eyes locked on his. “Might be wise,” she retorted. “Given how things stand between us.”

His smile faded. For a moment, he looked like the grieving widowed dad of four-year-old triplets, who, after two long years, was still working hard to get his life all the way back on track. “And how is that?”

His silky smooth voice ratcheted up the tension inside her even more. “Awkward. Tense.”

A provoking grin tugged at the corners of his lips once again. “You mean unforgiving?”

A torrent of longing, destined to go unmet, welled up within her. Reminding herself how quickly he had moved on after their breakup, marrying and starting a family within a year, while she had struggled on alone, Emma frowned. “I forgave you a long time ago.”

She’d had no choice but to do so.

Tom squinted. He ran the flat of his palm beneath his jaw, stroking thoughtfully. “Which is funny,” he drawled. “Because—” he aimed a thumb at the center of his chest “—I don’t think I ever did anything wrong.”

She turned her glance away from all that hard male muscle, and conjured up the heartache from years past to help keep him at arm’s length. “You reneged on our plans to go to Wharton together, to get our MBAs.”

Sorrow tautened his handsome face. Ah, yes. The loss of his wife wasn’t the only tragedy he had suffered in the last decade. “My dad died, Emma. I had to stay here to take care of the ranch.”

She remembered the anguish of losing Samuel Reid. She had been close to him, too. “I’m not debating that.” Her voice grew as rusty as Tom’s. Their last semester at Texas Tech had been horrendous in the aftermath of his father’s death. “But you could have joined me after you got things set up at the Rocking R ranch.”

He stood, legs braced apart, arms folded in front of him. “I couldn’t leave my mom.”

Ignoring the hurt that had dogged her for months afterward, Emma balled her fists at her sides and blurted out angrily, “Your mom encouraged you to go on with your plans.” And in fact, had been really disappointed in Tom, when he hadn’t.

Another long pause as he regarded her with those mesmerizing eyes. “My dad’s fatal heart attack devastated her,” he reminded Emma curtly. “It wouldn’t have been right to leave.”

There, they disagreed. Always had. Always would, probably. He knew it, too.

He returned to the matter at hand. “Do you want to see the space?”

“Yes.” Emma forced herself to regard him with the same businesslike cool he was using with her. “If you wouldn’t mind.”

Like all the historic downtown buildings, the two- story unit on Main Street was made of brick and featured a fancy beveled glass door and beautiful plate-glass windows. The floors inside were gleaming oak. The thousand-foot first floor was divided into three spaces. A large area at the front, where the retail space could be. Another slightly smaller space just behind it, where she would be able to situate her design studio. The third area contained a small break room, a restroom and storage area, as well as a service door that opened up on the alley. Pointing to a staircase, he explained that it led to a second floor apartment.

Acutely aware of his nearness, Emma cleared her throat and asked, “Why did the former tenant leave?” It didn’t really matter, since the business/retail space was so desirable. She just needed to make conversation so she could stop focusing on him. And how emotional he always made her feel. There were no dull days with Tom Reid. She was happy or sad. Angry or entranced. And always, completely overwhelmed. “He needed more room, so he moved his insurance agency to the big new business center on the outskirts of town.”

“Ah...makes sense.” Noticing a bottle of hand soap was a little too close to the edge of the break room counter, Emma moved to set it back before it fell. Tom reached in to rescue it, too, his tall, strong body briefly brushing hers. Her heart began to pound. “How long have you owned this place?” she asked, moving back out into the front rooms.

He followed. “Almost six years.”

Curious, she turned to face him. “So you bought it…?”

“Yeah, the year after my dad died, with some of the life insurance money. I wanted to make sure my mom was taken care of, and I was more comfortable putting the money into property here than commodities or the stock market.”

Emma nodded, knowing for the risk-averse like him, that certainly made sense. She studied the walls, which were a soft pearl gray, and appreciated that they would provide a sophisticated neutral background. “This looks recently painted,” she noted in admiration.

“The first floor has been.”

“And the second?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I was going to let the tenant decide on colors.”

“But there is a painting allowance?”

“Yes.”

Not wanting to stand too close to him, Emma paced the width of the casually elegant space. “What about other changes?”

He remained where he was, standing straight and tall. “I don’t want to do anything structural,” he told her. “That would be a permit nightmare. But small cosmetic updates are permissible within reason.” He studied her a long moment before finally moving nearer. “What are you thinking?” His brow furrowed. “A small shoe or boot store?”

Emma envisioned out loud. “A design studio and sales boutique, actually.”

He nodded, still regarding her intently, reminding her how much his support had once meant to her.

Ignoring the catch in her throat, she went on, “I want a place to showcase my footwear. I think that will be easier if I have a professional space in town, rather than just a workroom at my parents’ ranch.”

“Makes sense…”

Disappointment swirled through her. She felt the “but” coming on.

“You think there is that much of a market for expensive shoes in Laramie County? Other than the hand-tooled western boots they already make at Monroe’s Western Wear?”

Leave it to him to immediately point out the purported flaw in her strategy. “Obviously, I am looking to expand my business.”

He charmed her with a smile. “To…?”

“Other cities. Like Dallas and Houston and Austin. And maybe beyond that, too.”

He regarded her with new respect. “How long do you think that will take?”

“Six months, hopefully.”

Intuitive amber eyes lassoed hers. He swept off his hat, and ran his fingers through the rumpled strands of his dark brown hair. “And then what? Will you keep the store here as your flagship shop?” He settled his black Stetson back on his head.

“Probably not.”

He frowned. “So you’re asking for what then?” he countered skeptically. “A six month lease?”

That was all the money she had socked away. The rest was being spent on materials and promotion for this next phase of her fledgling business. Barely able to look at him and not wonder what it would be like to kiss him again, she nodded her confirmation. “Yes.”

“Then we have a problem,” he told her.

*

Tom Reid wasn’t surprised to see irritation turn the corners of Emma’s luscious lips down. She had never liked being told no. To anything.

Nor had he ever liked disappointing her.

But business was business, as she had once schooled him roundly. He stepped forward, purposefully invading her space.

Her pretty face flushed with indignant color. At five foot seven inches, she was still curvy in all the right places. Her peachy skin was flawless, her slender nose straight and perfect, her expressive eyes a deep emerald. Emma’s chestnut locks fell to her shoulders in soft, silken waves, which he had always found enormously sexy. And she had a lush lower lip, just right for kissing.

Not that they would ever likely be doing that again…

If he ever found himself getting serious about a woman again… and frankly, he couldn’t really see himself doing that, given how complicated and busy his life was…then it would be with a woman who wanted all the same things he did. Marriage. Family. A home here on his family ranch in Laramie County…

That was not, had never been, Emma.

As the silence lengthened, he let his gaze drift over her floral knit dress, with the cap sleeves, formfitting bodice and swirling skirt that ended just above her knees.

Lower still, she wore sexy ankle boots, with a spike heel that showed off her spectacularly shapely legs.

Pushing away the desire pulsing inside him, he told her matter-of-factly, “The standard lease here for commercial property is three to five years. And most prefer five.”

A quirk of her elegant brows. When she spoke, her voice was soft, persuasive. “Can’t you make an exception?”

Could he?

To give himself time to decide, he gestured at the stairs. “You haven’t seen the second-floor apartment yet.”

Emma paused, her slender hand gripping the wood railing. “You say that like there’s a problem.”

Actually, there was. And it had nothing to do with his sudden, reckless desire to flirt with her. Test the waters, just a little bit. Cryptically, he admitted, “There are what some might consider issues.” Especially if they were women who were used to the finer things in life.

She moved to give him room and indicated he should go first. “Lead the way then.”

He climbed the stairs. By the time he had unlocked and opened the door, she was standing beside him.

The dismay he expected never came. She looked at the tall windows that faced Main Street, as if already envisioning living happily there. Then she whirled back to him, her enthusiasm building. “I love the high ceilings. They make it feel really spacious. The light is spectacular, too.”

Surprised at how good it felt to have her close again, even for something as mundane as this, he pointed to the other side of the front room.

Although the wood floors throughout were in fine shape, there were other problems that still needed to be addressed before anyone moved into the apartment.

“The stove and refrigerator both need to be replaced,” he told her. “Same with the faucet on the kitchen sink.”

“Do they work now?”

“Yes, but there is no telling for how long. Plus…” He pointed at the miniscule number of cabinets. “There is no dishwasher or disposal. And I’m not sure the plumbing will support putting either in.”

“That’s okay. I’ve made do with just a microwave, mini-fridge and a sink before.”

He remembered.

When they’d been in college, they’d made many a date night supper together in their dorm rooms. And always made love afterward...

Not that he needed to be remembering that.

“So, for me, even the most basic apartment kitchen seems like heaven.” She shrugged, as if not caught up in similar memories. “Besides, there are plenty of good restaurants and shops within walking distance.”

“True.” But how long before that, too, would get old? Have her wanting to move on? Again?

He had already lost her once.

Then his wife, to a hellacious illness.

He had no interest in going through heartbreak a third time, and whether he liked it or not, any dalliance with Emma was likely to eventually lead to just that. Unless, of course, they kept their emotions out of it. Made it strictly casual. Then….

She gave him a coolly assessing look and shook her head. Heading into the adjacent bedroom, whose ecru paint was as dingy as the rest of the living space, she paused to check out the arched windows that overlooked the county’s premiere shopping district. “I don’t know why you would think I am so fussy.”

Her dig hit the target. Not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her, he lobbed one right back. “You are the one who wanted to be rich and famous.”

It was her turn to be taken aback. Something flickered in her eyes, then disappeared, and the corners of her delectable lips curled downward. “Well, as we both know,” she said with a beleaguered sigh, “that hasn’t happened yet.”

But she still wanted it to; that was clear.

And that meant there was no future for the two of them. Not with he and his three boys making their home in rural west Texas.

Forcing himself to get back to the business of showing the residence, he showed her the bathroom, which was as out-of-date as the rest of the property. The floor was black linoleum, the old nondescript fixtures, including the shower stall, a standard white. It, too, needed to be repainted. “This all could be redone, if you are willing to fold the upgrade cost into the price of the lease and wait for the work to be complete.”

She waved an airy hand. “That’s not necessary.”

Which was exactly what his last tenant, a surgical resident at the hospital, had said. “Planning to rough it?”

“Focus on what is important,” she corrected him.

A taut silence fell between them. “Your work,” he said finally, not sure why he found that so disappointing. After all, it wasn’t any of his business. They both had their own lives now.

She nodded in acknowledgment. “Yes.” Their eyes locked. Held. Without warning, he wondered how it would feel to be close to her again.

Oblivious to the nature of his thoughts, she raked her teeth across her lower lip. “If I give you the security deposit and first and last month’s rent today, could I move in this weekend?” she asked.

“What’s the rush? Your folks throwing you off their ranch?” Where she had been living for the last year and a half.

She made a face, as if that were the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “No. Of course not.”

“Then the answer is no.”

Her chin took on the stubborn tilt he knew so well. “Why not?” she demanded, as if he were the one being unreasonable.

“Because I want all the work done to both our satisfaction before you sign the lease and move in.”

Huffing out a breath, she folded her arms in front of her, tightening the fabric of her dress across the soft, rounded curves of her breasts. “How long will that take?”

Aware it was taking everything he had not to haul her into his arms and kiss her, if only to see if they still had the same explosive chemistry as before, he calculated. “We’re probably looking at early June.”

She stared at him, aghast. “Five weeks! Are you serious?”

Funny, he didn’t recall her ever being this demanding. Or unreasonable.

“It takes time to schedule a painting crew, especially this time of year, when everyone wants to get work done, and the materials are on special order. The appliances are supposed to come in the end of May. The kitchen faucet in about two weeks or so.”

She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, as if she had a giant headache coming on. “Can’t we just deal with all that later?”

“It’ll be a lot more of a hassle after you move in.”

“So?” She propped her hands on her curvaceous hips. Beginning to look more than a little piqued, she prodded, “If I don’t care, why should you?”

He moved closer, curious about what she was holding back. For reasons he did not want to examine too closely, her refusal to fully confide in him, irked the heck out of him.

Maybe because they had been down this road before?

He took in the pink color staining her cheeks, and the exasperated twist of her full, soft lips. His body hardening in response, he countered gruffly, “Give me a reason why we need to do this only on your terms.”

“And maybe you’ll be more amenable?” she queried.

“Exactly.”

Her eyes narrowed. “And if I don’t?”

He shrugged, beginning to wonder if it would be worth the trouble to have her as a tenant. They’d only spent twenty minutes together, and he was already frustrated as hell with her. “Then it will be business as usual. And you can take possession of both spaces, simultaneously, when they are completely ready, in five or six weeks.”

*

Emma knew that time frame would not work for her. She also knew unless she confided something to Tom, that he would not relent on what would be, in any other situation, a reasonable business decision on his part. Which left her only one choice, to open up to him again, just a little bit.

“The reason for the rush is that I have to get my design studio and work space operational well before the next two weeks are up.” His amber eyes sparkled the way they always did when he got under her skin. He leaned in close. Stared her right in the eye. “Because…?”

Damn, he was nosy and difficult. “You promise you won’t tell anyone?”

“Cross my heart.”

Emma fought back a reaction to all that testosterone. “I’ve got someone coming here to meet with me about acquiring one of my footwear designs.”

“One?”

She jerked in a bolstering breath and returned his smile. “I know it doesn’t sound like it but it’s a big deal.”

Another quirk of his dark brow. “Then why don’t you want anyone to know?”

Trying not to think what his steady appraisal and deep voice did to her, Emma cleared her throat. “Because I’ve spoken too soon before.”

Realization lit his eyes. “When you first got back to Texas, and thought you had a deal with that ritzy bridal salon in Houston.”

She blinked, surprised he had kept up with what was going on in her life, post breakup. “You know about that, too?”

“Everyone in town did. They all thought you were going to be the queen of the thousand-dollar wedding boot.”

“But not you?” she prodded.

He thought a moment. Then said with what appeared to be sincere honesty, “I hoped it would work out for you.”

“But it didn’t,” Emma said in discouragement. “And for months I went around answering questions about what had gone wrong and accepting condolences.” She sighed again.

Tom continued studying her. “Is that why you went back to Italy recently? Were you thinking about working there again?”

Still leery of revealing too much, she admitted cautiously, “I thought it would help me figure things out if I went back to Le Marche and visited the family shoe company, where I did my apprenticeship.”

“And did it?”

Sadly, yes. But not about to tell Tom or anyone else about that gargantuan misunderstanding and heartbreak, for fear of bringing on even more embarrassment to herself, and/or pity from others, she simply said, “Yeah, it did.”

The trip had helped her realize she was going to have to be even more aggressive if she ever wanted to fully realize her ambition.

So, she had come back to Texas, ready to work her heart out again, only to be on the receiving end of a serendipitous miracle and have a contact she had been pursuing for nearly two years reach out to her. With real interest this time.

Which was why she had to get this space! “So, are you going to help me out here or not?”

Before he could answer her, his phone buzzed. “Sorry.” He pulled it out of his pocket. “With kids, you can never not check to see who is calling or texting…”

As he scanned the screen, his expression tautened in a way that let her know something was wrong. Her pulse quickened in alarm. “What is it?”

Tom’s face was ashen. “My mom is at the grocery store with the triplets. Apparently, she hit her head and may need stitches. I’m going to have to go.”

“I’ll come with you.”

He gave her a look.

“I love Marjorie,” Emma said fiercely. Always had, always would. “And from the sound of it, you’re going to need help.”

His hesitation faded. “All right. But I don’t want to waste time. So, you ride with me.”