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Their Inherited Triplets by Cathy Gillen Thacker

THEIR INHERITED TRIPLETS

Chapter One

“What are you doing here?” Lulu McCabe rose to her feet and gaped at the big, strapping cowboy with the wheat-blond hair and the mesmerizing gold-flecked eyes. Even with a good ten feet and a huge table between them, just the sight of him made her catch her breath.

Sam Kirkland strolled into the conference room at their Laramie, Texas, lawyers’ office in his usual commanding way. He offered her a sexy half smile that warmed her from the inside out. “I could ask the same of you, darlin’.”

With a scowl, Lulu watched as he came around the table to stand beside her.

Clad in jeans, tan shirt and boots, his Resistol held politely against the center of his broad chest, he was the epitome of the highly successful, self-made rancher. The way he carried himself only added to his inherent masculine appeal.

Ignoring the shiver of awareness pooling inside her, Lulu looked him square in the eye. “So you don’t know what this is about, either?” she guessed finally.

“Nope.” He gave her a leisurely once-over, then narrowed his eyes at her, as always appearing to blame her for every calamity that came their way. “I figured you engineered it.”

Anger surged through her, nearly as strong as the attraction she’d worked very hard to deny.

Lulu drew a breath and inhaled the brisk, masculine fragrance of his cologne and the soapy-fresh scent of his hair and skin. Determined to show him just how completely she had gotten over him, she stepped closer, intentionally invading his space. “Why would I want to do that?”

He held her eyes deliberately. Gave her that slow smile, the one that always turned her legs to jelly. “Honestly, darlin’,” he taunted in a low tone, “I don’t know why you want to do lots of things.”

Really? He was going to go back to their last argument? Claim she was not making any sense! Again? Slapping both her hands on her hips, she fumed, “Listen, cowboy, you know exactly why I want to join the Laramie County Cattleman’s Association!”

His gaze drifted over her before she could make her proposal again. “And you know exactly why, as organization president, I’m not about to let you.”

She had a good idea. And it had a lot to do with what had secretly happened between them a little over a decade ago. With exaggerated sweetness, she guessed, “Because you’re not just a horse’s behind, but a stubborn, sexist mule, too?”

Finally, his temper flared, as surely as her own. He blew out a frustrated breath, then lowered his face to hers. “It’s not enough to just own a ranch in Laramie County, Lulu,” he reiterated.

Both hands knotted at her sides, she glared up at him, aware her heart was pounding, and lower still, there was a building heat. “Well, it should be!” she argued right back.

“You have to raise cattle. Not honeybees.”

“Okay, you two, calm down.” Family law attorney Liz Cartwright Anderson breezed into the conference room, her husband and law partner right behind her.

“Or someone might think something besides a show of heat is going on with you,” Travis Anderson quipped.

“The only thing we share is an immense dislike of each other,” Lulu grumbled. Well, that, and an unwillingness to forgive. Because if they had been able to do that…things might be different. But they hadn’t… so…

Liz sent a questioning look at Sam. He lifted an amiable hand. “What she says,” he quipped.

An awkward silence fell.

“We could meet with you separately,” Travis offered finally. “Since Sam is my client, and Lulu is Liz’s.”

Lulu shook her head. They wouldn’t have been called in together unless the matter involved them both. “Let’s just get it over with,” she groused.

“Okay, then.” Liz smiled. “Travis and I called you both here together because we have some very important things to discuss,” she began, as a somber-looking man with buzz-cut silver hair walked in to join them. He was dressed in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase and appeared to be in his late fifties.

Travis made the formal introductions. “This is Hiram Higgins. He’s an estate attorney from Houston. He’s enlisted our help in making what we hope will be a smooth transition.”

“Transition? For what?” Lulu blurted, glancing over at Sam. For once, the big, sexy cowboy looked as clueless as she was. Unsure whether to take comfort in that or not, she opened her mouth to speak again.

Liz lifted a hand. “It will all become clear in a moment. Why don’t we all sit down?” she suggested kindly.

Everyone took the chair closest to them, which put Sam and Lulu on one side of the table and Liz and Travis opposite them.

Hiram took a chair at the head of the table and opened up his briefcase. “There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “so I am going to plunge right in. I’m handling the estate of Peter and Theresa Thompson. They were killed in an auto accident in Houston two months ago.”

Lulu sucked in a breath. She hadn’t seen her sophomore year roommate, Theresa, and her husband, Peter—one of Sam’s old college friends—since the two had eloped years before, but shock and sorrow tumbled through her. Sam seemed equally taken aback by the tragic loss. He reached over and put his hand on top of hers.

Normally, Lulu would have resisted his touch. But right now, she found she needed the warm, strong feel of his fingers draped over hers.

She actually needed more than that.

Given the grief roiling around inside her, a hug wouldn’t have been out of bounds…

Had the person beside her been anyone but the man who had stomped her heart all to pieces, of course.

Unobtrusively, Lulu withdrew her hand from his.

Hiram continued, “Peter and Theresa left three sons, two-year-old triplets.”

Lulu struggled to take this all in. Regretting the fact they’d all lost touch with each other, she asked hoarsely, “Where are the children now?”

“In Houston.”

“With family?” Sam ascertained.

Hiram grunted in the affirmative. “And friends. Temporarily. We’re keeping them together, of course.  Which is where the two of you come in.” He paused to give both Lulu and Sam a long, steady look.

“Peter and Theresa came to see me shortly after their children were born. They wanted to make out wills, but sadly, were never able to agree on who should take care of their children, in the event something happened to them. So, they did what a lot of people do when it comes to thorny guardianship issues. They agreed to discuss it some more…and put off finalizing anything with my office.”

He cleared his throat. “In the meantime, they went on one of those do-it-yourself legal websites and made out practice wills. They never had those notarized, so they aren’t official and may or may not hold up in probate court. But thanks to the copies they left behind, we do have their wishes on record, which is what we are using to guide us now.”

“And those wishes are…?” Sam prodded.

After a long silence, Hiram finally said, “Sam, you were Peter’s third choice for legal guardian. And Lulu, you were Theresa’s fourth choice.”

Third! And fourth! “Who was first?” Lulu asked, curious.

Hiram looked down at his notes. “Theresa chose the great aunt who raised her. Mabel had the boys for about two weeks, before she fell and broke her hip.”

Sam and Lulu exchanged concerned looks.

“From there, they went to Peter’s first choice—his best friend, Bob, who is also the father of three, all under age five.”

Sam nodded, listening.

“The kids all got along great, even if it was something of a madhouse. Unfortunately, Bob’s wife is pregnant and had to go on bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy.”

Lulu sighed in dismay.

“So the triplets then went to Theresa’s second choice—a cousin of hers who is a flight attendant.”  Hiram frowned.  “Olivia had them for a week and a half before deciding there was no way she was cut out for this.”

He looked up.  Adding in concern, “From there, they went to Peter’s second cousin. Aaron’s engaged and wants a lot of kids, but his fiancée is not on board with the idea of a ready-made family. So that trial run also didn’t work out.”

“And now…?” Lulu asked, her heart going out to the children for all they had been through.

“They are with Theresa’s business colleague and her husband. Unfortunately, although they adore the boys and vice versa, they both travel a lot for work, so permanent guardianship is not a viable option there, either. Which brings us to Sam, the last person on Peter’s list.”

“Or…actually, me,” Lulu interjected with her usual gung ho enthusiasm for all things family. She was more than ready to take on the challenge. “If you just want to cut to the chase.”

*

Sam didn’t know why he was surprised Lulu was jumping headlong into a situation neither of them was cut out for. She’d always been romantic and impulsive. Never more so, it seemed, than when she was around him.

The trouble was, he felt passionate and impractical around her, too.

Part of it was her looks. She really was drop-dead gorgeous, with that thick mane of sun-kissed, honey brown hair, those long-lashed turquoise blue eyes, elegant cheekbones and cute, determined chin. And she had impeccable fashion sense, too. Her five-foot-eight-inch frame was currently decked out in a short-sleeved black polo, bearing the Honeybee Ranch logo above one luscious breast, a snug-fitting dark denim skirt that made the most of her trim hips and long lissome legs, and a pair of Roper boots that were as sturdy as they were feminine. She had movie-star sunglasses on top of her head, a leather-banded watch on her left wrist and four handmade bracelets, probably made by her four nieces, pushed high on the other.

But it was the skeptical twist of her soft, kissable lips as she leaned toward him and shot him a disdainful look that captivated him the most.

“Let’s be real here,” she said, inundating him with the scent of her signature fragrance, an alluring combination of flowers and citrus, along with a heady dose of that saucy attitude he recalled so well. “There’s no way you’re going to take on two-year-old triplets for more than a week or so without changing your mind, too, the way everyone else who’s had them already has.”

The fact she had such a low opinion of him stung. Unable to keep the growl out of his voice, he challenged, “What makes you think that?”

“Because.” Lulu shrugged, her eyes taking on a turbulent sheen. “You’re a man…and you’re busy running a big cattle ranch…and you’re single…”

All of which, last time he’d heard, were facts in his favor. “And you’re a woman. And you’re busy running a honeybee ranch and now a food truck, too. And you’re single.”

Lulu’s mouth dropped into an O of surprise. She squared her shoulders and tried again. “The point is, cowboy—” she angled her thumb at her chest “—I’m cut out for this.”

He let his glance sift over her, head to toe. Before returning, with even more deliberation, to her eyes. “Really?” he countered softly. As always, when they were together, the world narrowed to just the two of them. “`Cause I am, too.”

Indignant color flooded her cheeks. “Sam, come on, be reasonable!” She gave him a look he was hard-pressed to deny. “I’ve wanted a family forever.”

He cocked his head to one side, once again forcing himself to do what was best, instead of letting his emotions get the better of him. “Mmm-hmm. Well, so do I, darlin’.”

She stared at him. He stared back. Years of pent-up feelings entered the mix, combining with the ever-encompassing grief and sense of loss. Both feelings she seemed to be struggling with, too.  Then, breaking the silent standoff, she pushed her chair back from the table and pivoted to face him.  As always, when overwrought, she let her temper take charge. “You’re just volunteering to do this in order to be difficult.”

Actually, he was trying to honor their late friends’ wishes, and keep them all from being hurt any more than they already had been. “You couldn’t be more wrong, Lulu.”

“Is that right? Then please enlighten me.”

With a grave look, hoping to get through to her once and for all, he said, “I’m taking this on because Peter was once a very good friend of mine, and he trusted me to care for his sons, if the worst ever happened. Since it has…” Sam’s voice caught. Pushing his sorrow aside, he went on huskily, “I will.”

Hiram interjected, “Y’all understand. The request isn’t binding. You both are free to say no.”

Lulu turned back to the children’s lawyer. “And if we were to do so?” she asked in concern.

Hiram said, “Then we’d notify social services in Houston and have the agency start looking for suitable adoptive parents.”

Not surprisingly, Sam noted, Lulu looked as upset by the thought of leaving the kids at the mercy of the system as he was. Once again, without warning, the two of them were on the exact same page.

“And in the meantime?” he asked gruffly.

Hiram explained, “They’ll be put in foster care.”

“Together?” Lulu queried.

Hiram’s face took on a pained expression. “I would hope so. But honestly, there’s no guarantee a placement like that could be found, at least right away.”

Lulu sighed, appearing heartbroken. “Which would likely devastate the children.”

Hiram nodded.

She swung back toward Sam, and concluded sadly,  “So, it’s either going to be you, or it’s going to be me, taking these three kids on and raising them.” She gave him a long, assessing look. “And you have to know, deep down, which one of us is better suited for parenting toddlers.”

He did.

Although he doubted they agreed.

“Which is why, given the options that are left,” Sam said, pushing aside his own welling grief, and ignoring the pleading in her soft turquoise blue eyes, “I think I’m the right one to assume responsibility.”

“Okay, then,” Hiram declared, looking happy everything had been resolved so very quickly. He reached into the folder in front of him and brought out a file of paperwork. “I’ll make arrangements to have the boys brought to Laramie County as soon as possible. All you’ll need to do is sign here—”

“Whoa! Wait! That’s it?” Lulu sputtered. “You’re not going to even ask me if I’m interested in being the triplets’ legal guardian?”

Hiram paused, papers still in hand. “Are you?”

“Yes! Very!” Hands clasped tightly, she leaned toward the estate lawyer urgently. “I would love to do this for Peter and Theresa’s boys!”

“Until it starts to get hard and reality sinks in,” Sam muttered, thinking of their torrid past, and knowing there was no way he would visit such a reversal of fortune on those boys. “Then we both know where you will be, don’t we, darlin’?” he returned bitterly. “Out the door. Without so much as a look back.”

Lulu glared at him. “I’m not a quitter, Sam,” she told him fiercely.

Wasn’t she? It seemed like that was exactly what she had done ten years ago, albeit in a roundabout way. He regarded her skeptically. “But you are still very emotional. And impetuous.”  Two character traits that were intensified by their mutual sense of loss.

Lulu winced. “And you’re overbearing and hopelessly set in your ways, so—”

Travis let out a referee-style whistle, signaling everyone needed to stop before anyone else said anything regrettable, no matter how upset they were. He turned to his wife, giving her the floor.

“Obviously,” Liz interjected gently but firmly, “this has been a tremendous shock, and we’re all feeling a little emotional and overwrought right now.”

“Which is why, on second thought,” Hiram Higgins concurred, putting the papers back in his briefcase before leveling a look at Sam, “I’m going to ask you to take a little more time to think about this.” After a beat, Hiram continued, “If, after due consideration, you still feel inclined to accept temporary guardianship, you can call me and let me know, and I’ll arrange to have the boys and their belongings driven here. The guardianship papers can be signed when you take custody of them.”

“What about me?” Lulu said, clearly hurt and disappointed.

Hiram stood. “As I said, you’re next in line if things don’t go well with Sam and the boys. But for right now,” the lawyer concluded firmly, “he is the one being tapped to take care of the triplets.”

The meeting broke up.

Sam and Lulu walked outside.

As they reached their respective vehicles, she studied him with wary reserve. “How are you going to do this?”

It irked him to realize she did not think he could. He squinted down at her. “One step at a time.”

“I’m serious, Sam!”

He shrugged. “Obviously,” he drawled, “I’ll need help.”

Lulu opened her mouth to respond just as her cell phone went off. She plucked it out of her purse and stared disbelievingly at the text message.

Concerned, Sam stepped closer. “What is it?” he asked.

Her brow furrowed. In a dumbfounded tone, she admitted, “The sheriff’s department has been called to my ranch!”