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The playground at Twin Oaks Park was jam-packed with happy kids, and Dan Walker couldn't feel any more out of place than if he'd walked into a Sunday service at the Brighton Valley Community Church wearing nothing but his boots and his Stetson.
Of course, the family-style event was just what the pediatrician had ordered, and his five-year-old niece and nephew were having the time of their lives.
The grounds were hopping with mommies who wiped noses and kissed boo-boos and with daddies who played catch and flew kites. But it had been a real shot in the dark for him to think that he would somehow pick up everything he needed to know about fatherhood by attending a Parents of Multiples outing.
When Dr. Tomlinson had suggested Dan bring Kevin and Kaylee to play at the park, he'd been desperate and had thought he would give it a try. He figured it might be a good way to check things out without actually becoming a card-carrying member of the group. But being there had only made him feel less confident about doing right by the kids.
As his niece and nephew dashed around the playground, fitting right in with the sandbox crowd, Dan stood along the sidelines and watched. Too bad he hadn't decided to go the library instead. He could have checked out a copy of Parenting For Dummies or some other Daddy how-to book. Surely he would have picked up more information by reading than by osmosis at a family outing.
He supposed he ought to mosey on up to one of the real parents and ask, "How in the world do you do it? What's the trick?"
But he'd learned never to admit his shortcomings. In fact, if he ever thought he had a better than average chance of failing at something, he preferred to hit the high road rather than face the risk.
He chuffed at the irony, since here he was, the least capable adult in the bunch. But apparently Fate hadn't gotten that memo.
Last winter, on an icy Manhattan street, his sister, Jenny, who'd been struggling to make her mark on Broadway, had been struck by a car and killed.
When Dan had gotten the call, he'd been crushed. But it hadn't been the tragic loss of his twin sister that had torn him up. That had been tough enough. But what had made matters worse was that the two of them had been estranged for years, and her death meant they'd never be able to patch things up.
And then there were the kids. Jenny had been a single mom, and even though Dan had only been around Kaylee and Kevin once since they'd been born, there'd been a will, and his sister had named him their guardian.
The fact that she'd done that had been comforting in a sense. It meant that she hadn't completely shut him out of her life, that she'd known somewhere along the line that they'd eventually mend their rift.
Of course, who else was she supposed to leave them with? Their father had been a married man, which was one of several reasons Dan and Jenny had butted heads. So, he supposed, her options had been limited.
Either way, he wasn't sure what his sister had been thinking when she'd chosen him as the guardian of her children. After all, what in the hell did he know about being a parent?
At thirty-eight he was set in his ways, to say the least, and with some luck and a good deal of determination, he'd managed to avoid marriage and family himself. Of course, even though wedding bells and a wife were still out, apparently single parenthood wasn't.
After the funeral, he'd been prepared to take the kids back to the ranch with him in spite of all his insecurities. After all, he remembered how it felt to be young, homeless and unwanted. But it had been a stroke of luck for everyone involved when Catherine Loza, Jenny's roommate, had asked to keep the kids with her in New York for a while.
Dan had been uneasy about leaving them behind, but they'd been so comfortable in a big city environment, in the fourth-floor apartment where they'd lived most of their lives. Besides, they knew Catherine much better than they knew him. So all things considered, it had seemed like the best solution for the kids.
On top of that, Catherine was a woman, and Lord knew that all kids needed a mother figure. Dan sure would have liked having one when he'd been five.
So he'd left Kevin and Kaylee with Catherine, called them regularly and sent monthly checks to cover their living expenses.
But several months later, Catherine got a big part in a Broadway musical and called Dan in a panic. She was looking at a grueling practice schedule followed by evening performances that would keep her out late at night. She could no longer take care of the kids, and Dan had flown back to New York and brought them home to Texas.
And now, two weeks into the whole family ordeal, he hadn't gained much confidence, which didn't sit easy with a man who was proud of the fact that he could out-rope, out-ride and out-cowboy just about anyone in Texas.
But parenting two five-year-olds? That was a whole different ball game.
Dan adjusted his Stetson, making sure the brim blocked the sun from his eyes. Then he hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans and shifted his weight to one hip.
Damn, he wished he were anywhere but here today. But this wasn't about him; it was about the kids.
And right now, they were having a blast playing with the other twins and triplets, some of whom were dressed like mirror images of themselves.
But then again, why wouldn't Kaylee and Kevin be having a good time at the park? Living on a cattle ranch with the uncle they scarcely remembered and a crotchety old cowboy-turned-nanny couldn't possibly be any fun.
It was good to see them laughing and socializing, though.
Off to his right, he noticed a brunette who was also standing along the perimeter of the playground. She wore sunglasses, so he couldn't see her entire face, but her cover-girl profile and shape were intriguing.
She didn't appear to be a typical mom, although he couldn't put his finger on why he'd come to that conclusion. Maybe because her purse was way too small to fit in all the things some of the other mothers packed, like little baggies filled with snacks, wet wipes and Band-Aids. Or maybe because earlier this morning she'd somehow found the time to weave her long dark hair into a fancy braid that hung down her back.
She was dressed differently than the others, too, with a pink scarf that was stylishly wrapped around her neck, a crisply pressed white cotton blouse and a pair of slim-fit black jeans.
Whether she was a mom or not, he decided she was nice to look at—and that she was an intriguing diversion from the hubbub and the energetic chatter that swarmed around him.
Dan had been so caught up in his perusal of the brunette that he hadn't paid much attention to the activity on the playground—until a child let out a scream.
He watched the attractive woman dash across the sand toward the slide. As his gaze followed her, he realized that the screaming child was one of his.
Oh, God. His heart dropped to his gut, and his pulse kicked into overdrive as he hurried toward little Kaylee, who'd gotten hurt while Dan was supposed to be looking out for her.
The sight of blood running along the side of her face and her heart-wrenching screams shook him to the core.
Did he need any more proof of his shortcomings than that? He'd been gawking at an attractive woman, rather than watching the kids play, and he'd failed the kids, just as he'd known he would.
Hell, he wasn't cut out to be a father, no matter what Fate seemed to think.
He dropped to his knees on the sand beside them and started to reach out to Kaylee with stiff arms, but as the brunette continued to tend to the child, he pulled back his hands and let someone more capable do the comforting.
"Oh, sweetie," she said, lifting her sunglasses from her eyes and resting them atop her head. "What happened?"
"I…fell…down," Kaylee sobbed. "And I got hurt. Really bad." She lifted her little hand to her forehead to probe the gash, and as she lowered it, she spotted the blood on her fingers and let out another wail.
"It's okay," the brunette said. "It's just a little blood. The owie isn't very big."
"Yes, it is," her brother said. "And it's bleeding a whole bunch. We better call the ambulance."
At her twin's suggestion, Kaylee cried even louder. Still, Dan thought a 911 call was probably their best bet. He knew that even the simplest head cuts could bleed profusely, but he'd much rather let a professional take charge.
The brunette made a quick scan of the playground and beyond. "Where's your mommy, honey?"
"She's in heaven," Kevin said. "She's watching over us, but I guess she was busy just now."
"I'm their uncle," Dan admitted. "This is Kaylee and Kevin."
The brunette turned to him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interfere."
Her hazel eyes were almost amber in color, and her lashes were thick and dark, but he shook off the compulsion to study her. "Don't be sorry for stepping in. I'm way out of my league when it comes to this stuff."
"Do you have a handkerchief?" she asked.
"No, I never use them. Sorry." He realized one would have come in handy about now.
She smiled, then pulled the scarf from around her neck, revealing a nasty scar that ran from the underside of her chin down to her throat and beyond. A burn of some kind, he suspected.
She held the pink cloth against Kaylee's forehead, applying pressure to her wound.
"Are you a doctor?" Kevin asked the woman.
"A nurse?" the boy continued.
She slowly shook her head. "No, I'm not."
Then probably just a mother, Dan guessed. She'd certainly taken charge like a woman who'd done this a hundred times before.
"I do work at the Brighton Valley Medical Center," she told Kevin, "but not with patients. I'm a medical technologist."
"What's that?" the boy asked.
By this time, Kaylee seemed to realize that she was under the care of a professional, and even if she didn't know what a technologist actually did, her scream had softened to a whine.
"I'm a scientist," the brunette said. "I work in the lab."
Whoa, Dan thought, realizing she was the brainy type. He'd never really known any of those. He tended to date women who were more street-smart than book-smart.
Dated? Now where had that wild-ass idea come from? If she was hanging out at the park with the Parents of Multiples, she was probably a mother—and married, which meant she was off-limits, even if he'd been looking. And he wasn't.
Still, his gaze slid to her left hand, which was ring-free. Not that it mattered, he supposed. His dating days were over now that the ranch house was filled with the pitter-patter of little feet.
Kaylee clung to the woman who dabbed at the wound with her scarf, permanently staining the fabric, no doubt. He'd have to buy her a new one when this was all said and done.
"Are you someone's mommy?" Kaylee asked.
"No," the woman said.
Then what was she doing at the park? Dan wondered. He almost asked but figured it might be best to bide his time and wait for one of the kids to quiz her. The two of them, especially Kevin, were certainly doing a pretty good job of interrogating her.
"Thanks for stepping in to help," Dan said. "Kaylee needed a woman's touch."
"You're welcome." Her smile reached her eyes, turning them to the shade of Tennessee bourbon. "Are you babysitting today?"
Was it that obvious he wasn't an experienced guardian? Probably, since a real father wouldn't have let one of his kids get hurt.
"I'm afraid I'm the man in charge," he said, faking a smile and doffing his hat. "My name's Dan Walker. And you're…?"
"Eva Galindo." She nodded toward the small building that housed the restrooms. "The bleeding has stopped, so maybe we should get some water and wash her face."
"Good idea." He stood, placed his hand on Kevin's head and stroked the straw-colored strands of his hair. "Come on, sport. We've got to get your sister cleaned up."
As they walked toward the restrooms, Dan said, "I really appreciate this, Eva."
"I didn't do anything out of the ordinary. I saw her trip in the sand and take a fall. I guess it was just instinct kicking in."
"Lucky me," he said, meaning it. Hopefully, Fate had decided to give him a break, at least for the rest of the day.
Eva took Kaylee into the ladies' room and came out several minutes later. The little girl's hair and face were wet but clean. And Dan was able to get a good look at the half-inch gash that marred the upper left side of her forehead and the bruise that surrounded it.
"What do you think?" Eva asked, gripping his gaze and setting his heart off kilter.
He didn't dare tell her that he was thinking of her as some kind of superhero right now. So instead, he glanced at her water-splattered, bloodstained white blouse and smiled. "I think I'm going to owe you a new outfit."
"That's not what I meant. Look at that gash, Dan. It's pretty deep."
The bleeding might have stopped, but the wound definitely gaped open.
"You know…" Eva cocked her head and studied the little girl's forehead. "She's probably going to need a few stitches."
"No!" Kaylee, who'd been a little standoffish with Dan the past couple of weeks, clung to the woman. "I don't want stitches."
If Dan had been looking in the mirror at his own face and had seen the cut, he would have let it pass without any treatment at all. But on a little girl?
"Why don't you want stitches?" he asked.
Kevin jumped in with the answer. "'Cause when we lived at our old house, Jimmy Milburn got stitches on his face and got to be a pirate for Halloween."
"Being a pirate is cool," Dan said, hoping to convince the kid that it was some kind of adventure, rather than something to be afraid of.
"Yeah," Kevin said, "but Kaylee doesn't like swords and stuff. She wants to be a princess. Besides, when I told Jimmy that I wanted to have stitches like his, he said it really hurt."
"It won't hurt Kaylee," Eva said. "She has a princess cut. And doctors are very careful when dealing with a princess."
The girl turned to Eva, her tears coming to a rolling stop. "Really?"