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The young assistant's jaw dropped when Jeb McCabe paused in the doorway of the elegantly appointed office. She turned to the stunning boss-lady Jeb had come to see. "Wow, Cady, you weren't kidding when you said you knew just the right guy to hire! That, is one sexy cowboy."
Grinning, Jeb strolled into Cady Keilor's office on the executive floor, of the Texas Star Marketing Group. "Did you pay her to say that?"
Cady tossed him a wry look before giving him a warm and welcoming hug. "No, I did not. And for good reason. Your considerable male ego does not need any further boosting."
"Hey" Jeb spread his hands wide "can I help it if I'm just naturally drop-dead handsome?"
Cady rolled her eyes. Making it clear that she had never found him in the least bit sexually attractive. Which was why, Jeb thought, they were such good pals, and had been since they were in high school. Because, given the lack of chemistry on her part, nothing else was ever going to be possible.
"So I made a mistake then?" The tenderfoot next to Cady cringed in embarrassment.
The twenty-something kid reminded Jeb of Cady in her pre-executive days, when she'd constantly been in the shadow of her glamorous and accomplished older sister, Suki. The days before Cady had come into her own, too.
"Jeb isn't the spokesperson for the Hanover Horseshoes," Cady explained kindly. "I haven't selected anyone yet for the campaign."
"Oh. Dear." The young woman blushed to the roots of her carrot-red hair.
"It's okay," Jeb quipped with exaggerated seriousness. "I'm often mistaken for a male model."
"Actually," Cady murmured, turning her gaze back to Jeb, "in your rodeo days, you graced more than one fancy poster, McCabe."
But his rodeo daysand the "heartbreaker" phase that had deliberately followedwere long over.
Not about to go down memory lane, he turned to the awkward apprentice. "And you're ?"
She clutched her notepad and pen to her chest. "Ma-rissa Adams, Cady's new administrative assistant."
Jeb tipped the brim of his hat at her. "Pleased to meet you, Marissa. I'm Jeb."
"Nice to meet you, too," she murmured shyly.
Cady gathered up the reports on her desk and put them in a folder. Conversationally, she continued, "Jeb is an old and very dear friend from my hometown of Laramie."
Jeb gave her an exaggerated once-over. That they had an audience made the mutual ribbing all the more fun. "Watch who you're calling old, sweetheart." He sent Cady a teasing look. "You're the one with the birthday coming up."
She winced at the mere mention of the upcoming celebration.
Jeb realized the age thing remained a sore subject. Although he didn't see why, since he and Cady had been born in the same calendar year and he was happy. Maybe it was because they both wanted such different things out of life?
Determined to lift the sudden downshift in the mood, he informed the still confused Marissa, "I had my birthday a couple of months ago. I'm thirty-four."
Cady made a face at Jeb, resenting his easy acceptance of his age.
Which prompted him to add, even more devilishly, "And available." He winked playfully at both women. "In case anyone is asking."
Shocked, Marissa laughed out loud.
"Jeb's kidding," Cady corrected sternly, as if a great faux pas had been made. "He's not available."
Actually, he was.
He mocked Cady with an indignant look.
Cady lifted a staying hand. "There's no question Jeb is a nice and very charming guy, Marissa. He's from a great family and he makes a terrific pal, but beyond that."
Jeb was off-limits.
And not just to Cady's assistant.
Legend had it, to any woman with any sense.
Marissa still looked confused, so Jeb added the facts. "What Cady won't tell you is that I got cold feet and left my fiancée at the altar ten years ago. I haven't been serious about a woman since. Bottom line," he confessed matter-of-factly, "I'm a very bad bet. So, you and every other woman in this workplace would be wise to stay away from me."
Marissa sighed. "That's too bad," she said wistfully, not all that discouraged. "Because you really are cute for an old guy."
This time, Cady laughed. Then, getting back to business, she handed the folder to Marissa.
Still smiling shyly, her assistant swept out shutting the door behind her.
Once Cady and Jeb were alone, he couldn't help but confront her about her comments. "Must you always warn women away?" he demanded. If he didn't know better, he'd think she was jealous. Or, as she had claimed on more than one occasion, just way too picky on his behalf.
Cady shrugged, not the least apologetic, and replied frankly, "She's too young for you. And way too naive. You'd break her heart in no time flat and you wouldn't mean to."
"Or she'd break mine," he ventured.
Abruptly, Cady looked as distressed about the possibility as he felt. Then she smiled, obviously knowing, as did Jeb, that that just wasn't possible. He'd have to be interested first And unbeknownst to Cady, the only women who really intrigued him were stunning Texas go-getters like the gal in front of him.
He moved closer to the floor-to-ceiling windows and turned his eyes away from her all-knowing gaze, to the spectacular view of downtown Houston. Another beat of silence fell. Their arsenal of repartee momentarily exhausted, the only thing left was an overabundance of feeling he was determined not to give in to.
"So what is this news you had to tell me in person?" he asked finally, noting the way Cady's stylish dress clung to her figure.
Maybe it was because she was so much smaller and more delicately built compared to his own tall, rangy frame, but he always felt the need to protect her.
She flushed and finally lowered the barbed wire fence she kept around her heart. "I'm sorry I was so mysterious on the phone."
Jeb took in the riot of pink color staining her pretty face, the uncertain twist of her soft, voluptuous lips. He wondered if she knew how pretty she looked, standing there in the late afternoon sunlight. Or how much he wished he could go after her, with any chance of success.
He shrugged, letting her know her demand was no big deal. "I was in the vicinity anyway, delivering livestock for a county rodeo." Working to keep his feelings in check, he nudged her arm playfully. "And you're still stalling. My question is why?" Usually, Cady cut straight to the chase.
She tensed and turned toward him, resting a buff bare shoulder against the wall of tinted glass.
In deference to the intense summer heat, she wore a sexy-as-all-get-out hot pink sheath and matching heels. She ran a hand through her hair, pushing the thick, golden-brown mane away from her face. Her whiskey-colored eyes turning serious, she gazed up at him. "You remember the adoption service I signed up with four years ago?"
The one that had put her through a ton of home studies and evaluations, with very little result? Jeb studied the complex emotions in her wide-set eyes. "The Stork Agency," he recollected easily.
Cady's chin trembled with excitement. "Well, it's finally happened. They think they might have a baby for me. I still have to meet the pregnant teenager. Because it's an open adoption, and we'll be in contact with one another as the child grows up, we're going to need to feel compatible with each other, to proceed. But there's a chance I'm going to get the baby I want so very much."
"And you're nervous," Jeb guessed.
Cady knotted her hands in front of her. She drew a long, quavering breath. "Very."
Silence fell as they contemplated how much was suddenly on the line.
"What if she doesn't like me?" she asked finally.
Jeb bolstered Cady's flagging spirits with a reassuring look. "That's impossible."
"What if she doesn't think I'm mother material?"
Jeb had never met a more loving, caring woman. "We know you are."
Cady swallowed, still on edge.
He covered her hand with his own and gave her a searching look. "What is it you want to ask me?"
Cady relaxed and lifted her face up to his. "Will you come with me?"
There were a million reasons why Jeb should say no. And a very compelling one why he should say yes. They were friends and she needed him. He wasn't going to let her down.
He drew her close for a warm, companionable hug. "Of course I will," he murmured.
Cady instantly felt better the moment Jeb said yes, and even more comforted when he wrapped her in a friendly bear hug that spoke volumes about his casual affection for her.
The truth was, she always felt good when she was with Greta and Shane McCabe's oldest son. Calmer, more content somehow. As if no matter what happened, everything would turn out all right.
Part of it was the fact she and Jeb were both native Texans and had never lost the inherent practicality and friendliness that came from being reared in a small West Texas town.
Laramie was a place where kindness was de rigueur and neighbors looked out for each other. Self-made men and women abounded, and families like her ownof more modest beginningswere treated with the same respect as prominent families like the McCabes, Car-rigans, and Lockharts.
Ambition combined with hard work was a commodity everyone shared. Hence, the possibilities for everyone's future seemed limitless, because one never knew when a big idea or a bold business plan, or even a personal questlike the one she had nowwould come to fruition.
When they were kids, Jeb had been part of the popular crowd. As had Cady's older sister, Suki.
Cady had been a wallflower. Yet Jeb had never treated her as such. Instead, he'd made sure she was always included and made to feel as special as everyone else.
Cady had returned the favor and stood by Jeb when he'd done the unthinkable and bowed out on his wedding to Avalynne Stone, just moments before the ceremony was to start. With four hundred guests looking on in shock, Jeb had called off the ceremony, then made matters worse by refusing to offer any explanation other than that he'd decided commitment wasn't for him.
Neither the Stones nor the McCabes had ever forgiven him.
Although strangely enough, Avalynne had. Every time the former prom queen returned to Laramieand she managed to visit there at least four times a yearshe made time to see Jeb privately. And the two seemed to be getting along as well as ever.
Which was another fact no one could understand.
What kind of woman, Cady wondered, continued to have fond feelings for the restless cowboy who had publicly jilted her? And what about her ex? Was it possible Jeb harbored regrets about what he had done to Avalynne, and that was the real reason he refused to get serious about anyone, even ten years out?
It wasn't that he didn't date. He was always squiring women around to this event or that, but he was never with anyone he could get serious about.
Whereas it seemed, until recently anyway, Cady herself was always going out with potential Mr. Rights who turned out to be Mr. Wrongs.
Tired of that, she had focused on starting a family.
Now maybe it was finally happening . And she was lucky enough to have Jeb right by her side, providing moral support the way she had once provided it to him.
Twenty minutes later, Cady and Jeb arrived at the Stork Agency residence in northwest Houston. They checked in at the front desk and were escorted to a small private courtyard.
A pretty young teenager with dark hair and eyes stepped out of the dormitory. The petite seventeen-year-old was clearly in her last trimester.
Introductions were made by the staff counselor.
"So are you Cady's boyfriend?" Tina Matthews asked Jeb curiously.
Cady could imagine why the young woman would want that to be the case. Jeb wasn't just kind and easygoing. He was six foot three inches tall, with the broad shouldered, muscular build of a man who made his living riding horses and working cattle. A Texas cowboy through and through, he had thick, sandy-brown hair, blue-gray eyes and a ruggedly handsome face.
"Jeb is an old and trusted friend," Cady explained.
Tina fiddled with the notebook in her hands as she took him in from head to toe, studying the fit of his neatly pressed tan shirt and jeans, the smooth leather of his custom boots.
No doubt about it, Cady thought, Jeb looked as inherently masculine as he smelledlike leather and soap and the warm Texas sun.
"Then how come you're hereif you're just a friend?" the pregnant teen persisted.
Because I needed him, Cady thought to herself. I can't say why, exactly, I just did.
Jeb shrugged lazily. "Moral support," he said. "This is a big deal." He reached over and squeezed Cady's hand, before turning back to Tina. With a blast of McCabe charm, he added, "Cady was feeling a little nervous."
She wouldn't have admitted that. She didn't want to appear weak or unprepared in any respect in this situation. But it turned out to be the right thing to reveal.
Tina flashed a weak smile, as some of the tension left her pregnant form. "I'm nervous, too." Her gaze suddenly wise beyond her years, she raked her teeth across her lower lip. "I guess you know another couple was set to adopt my baby, but they backed out a few days ago."
Bolstered by Jeb's steady presence, Cady asked, "Do you know why?"
The teen sighed, her disappointment evident. "They decided adoption wasn't for them."
What a letdown that must have been, Cady thought compassionately. She leaned forward. "I'm sorry."
Tina nodded, accepting her sympathy. "Fortunately, there is no shortage of people wanting to adopt a newborn baby. I met with two other married couples this morning, and I'm meeting another couplewho live together but aren't marriedthis afternoon."
Cady hadn't realized this was a competition. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jeb's expression and tell he was equally surprised. She searched the girl's face. "Is it important to you that your baby be brought up by two parents?"
"Initially, I thought so, but then I saw your picture with your profile, and you looked so nice." Tina shrugged and continued frankly, "I liked the fact that you grew up in a small town, same as me, but then moved to the city and built a successful career all on your own, like I want to do someday. I figured since you and I have so much in common, that might be good for my little girl, too."
A poignant silence fell. Cady didn't look at Jeb, but she could feel his concern.
"I wanted to keep my baby," Tina went on eventually, "but my parents were so embarrassed and upset, it just wasn't going to be an option."
Yet if she were just a year or so older, it would be, Cady thought, because Tina would be eighteen, and technically old enough to be out on her own.
Determined to understand, she asked gently, "How do they feel now?"