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Conway Twitty Cash had only one rule when it came to womennever date one with kids. Period. No exceptions. Not even if the woman sent text photos of her hooters.
Friday afternoon at the Midway Arizona Cowboy Rodeo Days, Conway had been the recipient of a sexy text from a buckle bunny he'd met earlier in the day. Once his eyes had quit bugging out at Bridget's voluptuous tatas, he'd noticed a child's Batman cape draped over a chair in the background of the photo. Alarmed, he'd asked his rodeo competitors about Bridget and had learned she was a single mom. When they'd first met, he'd asked if she'd had kids, and she'd said no.
Too upset to focus on his ride, the bronc had tossed him on his head as soon as he cleared the chute. Afterward, Conway had made a beeline for the parking lothe hadn't been about to wait for Bridget to catch up.
Miffed, ticked off and a whole lotta mad, he pulled into the Border Town Bar & Grill in Yumathe employer of his good friend and pseudo-therapist Isadora Lopez. Two years ago when he'd first met Isi, he'd been drawn to her dark brown eyes and girl-next-door prettiness. He'd turned on the charm and she'd rewarded his flirting with fleeting touches, accidental bumps and sultry looks. Then he'd asked her to dance during her break and when their bodies had come in contact, a zap of electricity had shot through him. He'd been sure the night would end in Isi's bed, until she'd mentioned that she was a single mother of twin boys.
He'd told Isi that he had nothing against kids, but had no intention of ever being a father. From that day on, they'd settled into a comfortable friendship where Isi listened to his dating adventures and offered advice about how to find the perfect womanone who didn't want children.
The bar was packed on this late-September afternoon. The crowd sitting in front of the big-screen TV watched a college football game between state rivals the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Conway slid onto a stool and waved to the bar-keep. Red was a mountain of a mansix feet seven inchesand bald with a crimson beard that ended in the middle of his chest.
After handing a pitcher of margaritas to a waitress named Sasha, Red brought Conway a bottle of his favorite beer. "You rodeo today?"
"Got bucked off."
"Where's Isi?" Conway asked.
"In class." Red checked his watch. "She should be here any minute." Isi was working toward a two-year business degree from the local community college.
Red went to fill a drink order, and Conway picked at the paper label on his beer bottle and silently cursed Bridget. Why was it so difficult to find a woman who didn't want children? After he'd discovered he came from a long line of deadbeat dads, he'd decided he didn't want to follow in their footsteps, but unlike his father, grandfather and great-grandfather Conway wasn't opposed to marriage. He really did want a committed relationship.
He wasn't a braggart, but the face he saw in the mirror each morning had garnered his fair share of female attention. At twenty-eight he'd thought for sure he'd have found "the one" by now, but every time he began thinking happy ever after, "the one" decided she'd like to have children after all.
Maybe he should take a break from his search. He'd been handed the responsibility of managing the family pecan farm, so he had plenty of work to keep his mind off his miserable love life. He lifted the beer bottle to his mouth and knocked his front tooth against the rim when a hand slapped his back. Startled, he spun and came face-to-face with Bridget's tatas.
How the hell had she known where to find him?
She planted her fists on her hips and glared. "Why'd you leave the rodeo after your ride? I thought we were going out on a date."
A date? He'd ended their conversation with "goodbye," not "see you later."
"Howdy, Conway." Sasha winked as she passed him with an empty drink tray.
"Is she special to you?" Bridget dipped her head toward Sasha.
"Hey, Conway." Isi strolled into the bar, backpack slung over her shoulder.
"What about her?" Bridget asked.
Isi stopped next to the bar and glanced between Con-way and Bridget. "What about me what?"
Bridget glared. "Are you and Conway dating?"
Conway wasn't sure if he was offended or amused by Isi's fervent denial. It was true they were just friends, but she didn't have to act as if he was the last man on earth she'd consider going out with.
"You're not his type." Bridget gave Isi the once-over.
"Don't insult her," Conway said. Isi might not have been blessed with Bridget's bust size, but her long silky hair and exotic eyes were sexy as heck.
Squinting, Bridget asked, "Are you sure there's nothing going on between you two?"
"Positive." Isi and Conway spoke simultaneously.
"And Conway isn't dating Sasha, because Sasha's a lesbian." Isi's eyes sparkled with mischief.
"Then why'd you stand me up at the rodeo?" Bridget asked.
"I didn't stand you up," Conway said.
Bridget planted her hands on her hips. "You gave me your phone number."
"He gives all the ladies his number," Isi said.
Conway sent his "friend" an I-don't-need-your-help glare.
"You acted like you wanted to see me again." Bridget stuck out her lower lip in a pout.
"I don't date women with children," he said. "Never. Ever. No exceptions."
"Who told you I had a kid?"
"I saw the Batman costume in the picture you texted me."
"That belongs to my nephew."
"Get lost," Bridget said.
Isi inched behind Conway. He didn't blame her for being cautious. Bridget was getting really worked up.
"I asked a couple of cowboys about you and they said you had a son."
"I swear he won't get in our way," Bridget said. "I'll make sure he's not there when you visit."
"Sorry, I don't date women with children or women who want children."
"Then why did you lead me on?"
"Hey, I never asked you out on a date. I never promised to call you and I never"
Bridget cocked her arm and swung. Having grown up defending his name from bullies, Conway's reflexes were sharp. He ducked in the nick of time and Bridget's fist connected with Isi's nose. The blow sent her reeling. Conway dove off the stool and caught her before she crumpled to the floor.
"What the hell is going on!" Red's booming voice bellowed across the bar.
Bridget took one look at the giant man and sprinted for the door.
"I need a towel and ice," Conway said.
"Here." Sasha shoved paper napkins into his hand and he pressed them against Isi's bleeding nose then led her to a chair. "God, Isi, I'm sorry." He swallowed a curse as the skin beneath both her eyes began to bruise.
Red offered a towel packed with ice, and Conway placed it against her nose.
"I can't feel my face," she moaned.
"Hang on, honey." He wiped away the blood then spoke to Red. "I'm taking her to the emergency room." Damn Bridget. Already Isi's petite nose had swollen to the size of a kosher pickle.
He helped Isi to her feet and Sasha handed him Isi's backpack. Isi swayed after taking a step toward the door, so he tucked her against his side and practically carried her out of the bar.
They drove in silence to the hospital. He figured she was hurting pretty bad if she couldn't give him hell about Bridget. He parked in the visitor lot in front of the emergency entrance.
"I don't need to see a doctor. I'll be fine," she said.
"Let the doctor make that call." When he reached for the door handle, she snagged his shirtsleeve.
"I don't have health insurance."
He wasn't surprised. Isi worked part-time at the bar and by law Red didn't have to offer her benefits. "You got punched in the face because of me. I'll take care of the bill." It was the least he could do.
Once inside, Isi filled out the paperwork then waited almost an hour before a nurse took her to get an X-ray. Conway spoke to a billing representative and made arrangements to pay for Isi's E.R. visit. By the time Isi returned to the waiting room, the bruising beneath her eyes had worsened.
"A clean fracture," the nurse announced. She handed Conway a bottle of pain pills. "No driving while she's taking this prescription."
Conway shoved the container into his jean pocket, thanked the nurse and escorted Isi to his truck. "Do you have a concussion?"
"Want to take a pain pill right now? I'll go back inside and buy you a bottle of water from the vending machine."
"No, thanks. I'll take a pill after I drive myself home."
"You're not driving anywhere tonight."
"I can't leave my car at Red's."
Conway didn't want to pick a fight with Isi when she was hurting. He drove her to the bar and parked next to her 1996 white Toyota Camry. "I'll follow you to your place."
"That's not necessary."
"Maybe, but I'll feel better knowing you got home safe."
She grabbed her backpack then hopped out and slammed the truck door. Conway drove behind her as she pulled out of the lot. He knew she lived in a trailer park nearby but had forgotten which one.
Isi headed southwest a mile then entered the Desert Valley Mobile Home Park. The neighborhood was well keptmostly single wides. She pulled beneath a carport in front of a white trailer with faded turquoise trim. Instead of the traditional rock and cactus landscape, the yard consisted of dead grass and dirt. He parked behind Isi and followed her to the door.
"Thank you for taking care of the hospital bill," she said.
"I'll pay for any follow-up doctor visits."
"As long as your girlfriends stay away from the bar, I won't need to see any more doctors."
"I'm really sorry. I didn't think Bridget would follow me after I left the rodeo."
"You might have to compromise if you want to find the perfect woman, Conway."
He didn't want to discuss his love life. "Do you have a friend who will stay with you tonight?"
"I'll be fine."
When Isi opened the door, he heard a female talking. "Who's that?"
"The sitter. She's always on her cell phone." Conway followed Isi inside.
"Oh, my God, what happened?" The teen's eyes widened in horror.
"I'm fine, Nicole." Isi sent Conway a silent message. "I ran into the kitchen door at the bar."
So she didn't want the sitter to know the truthfine by him, because the truth made him look like an idiot.
"Conway, this is Nicole. She watches the boys when I'm at the bar. Nicole, this is Conway. He's a friend."
"Nice to meet you," Nicole said.
While Isi asked the sitter how the boys had behaved, Conway studied the furnishings. Sparse was the first word that came to mind. The furniture appeared secondhandTV, love seat, chair and coffee table. Kids' artwork decorated the walls and colorful plastic bins filled with toys had been stacked in the living room corner.
"What time did the boys go to bed?" Isi asked.
"Fifteen minutes ago."
"I'm sorry to have to cut the night short." Isi faced Conway. "Where are those pain pills?"
He handed her the bottle and she went into the kitchen and got a drink of water. "I won't be working at the bar this weekend, so I'll see you on Monday, Nicole." Isi disappeared down the hallway then a moment later he heard a door open and close.
"Do you need a ride home, Nicole?" Conway asked.
"No, I live here in the trailer park with my aunt." She walked to the door. "I left a note on the kitchen table for Isi. Will you make sure she reads it in the morning?"
After Nicole left, Conway stood in living room uncertain what to do. Was it okay to leave Isi and her kids alone after she'd taken a pain pill? What if a burglar tried to break into the trailer or the water heater caught on fire? Isi was in no shape to handle a crisis.
The least he could do after she'd taken a blow meant for him was stay the night and make sure she and her sons remained safe. As soon as she woke in the morning, he'd hightail it back to the farm.
A sixth sense told Conway he was being watched. He opened his eyes beneath the cowboy hat covering his face. Two pairs of miniature athletic shoes stood side by side next to the sofa. He played possumnot an easy task when his legs were numb from dangling over the end of the love seat all night.
"Is he dead?"
The question went unanswered. "I bet he's dead." The same voice spoke again. "Poke him and see." A second voice, slightly higher in pitch than the first, whispered.
Conway grinned, glad the hat hid his face.
The sound of a food wrapper crinkling reached Con-way's ears.
"I'm hungry." Crunching followed the statement. Conway shifted on the couch and groaned.
"Maybe he's sick."
"Look under his hat."
Conway's chest shook with laughter as he waited for his assailants' next move. Small fingers lifted the brim of his hat and Cheerio breath puffed against in his face.
On the count of three. One two three. Conway opened his eyes and his gaze clashed with the boys'. The kids shrieked and jumped back, bumping into each other. The Cheerio box sailed through the air, the contents spilling onto Conway's chest. He studied the mess then turned his attention to the daring duo.
"Sorry, mister." The brothers scooped oat rings off of Conway's shirt and stuffed them back into the box. Conway swung his legs to the floor and sat up. The twins were identical. They wore their hair cut in a traditional little-boy style with a side part and both had their mother's almond-shaped brown eyes.
He pointed to the kid holding the cereal box. "What's your name?"
Conway moved his finger to the other boy.
"I'm Miguel. Who are you?"
So Miguel was the outgoing one and Javier the shy one. "Conway Twitty Cash."
"That's a long name," Miguel said.
"You can call me Conway." It wasn't enough that his mother had slept with every Tom, Dick and Harry across southern Arizona, but she'd also possessed a strange sense of humor in naming all six of her sons after country-music legends. "How old are you guys?"
"Four." They answered in unison.
"Are you a real cowboy?" Miguel asked.
"That depends. You asking if I work on a ranch?"
"I'm not that kind of cowboy."
Javier made eye contact with his brother and Conway swore the boys conversed telepathically. "What kind of cowboy are you?" Miguel asked.
"Part-time rodeo cowboy. When I'm not bustin' broncs, I work on a farm."