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Weddings made Travis Evans nervous.
Standing at the altar of the Huerfano Community Church with his good buddy Sebastian Daniels was like hanging out with a guy who had chicken pox. One wrong move on Travis's part and bam! He'd catch the marriage bug. And that would mean the end of life as he knew it.
But somebody had to be there for Sebastian. By rights Sebastian should have had four guys lined up to give him moral support, but he and Matty hadn't been willing to wait for folks to rearrange their schedules.
Sebastian's brother Ed was stuck in Alaska, and as for the three cowboys who made up Sebastian's inner circle, only Travis was available. Nat Grady was overseas working in a small, war-torn country with a name Travis had trouble pronouncing. Boone Conner was on the road in New Mexico with his mobile horseshoeing business and tracking him down had been impossible.
So Travis was Sebastian's best man, which was just as well, Travis thought, because that balanced out the wedding party. Matty's family hadn't been able to make it on such short notice, either, so her only attendant was Gwen Hawthorne, maid of honor. Or matron. Travis wasn't sure which it was when a woman was divorced. Divorced and marriage-shy. It was a hell of a promising combination, in Travis's opinion. Too bad Gwen hated his guts.
Even though Sebastian and Matty were light in the wedding-party department, they weren't short of wedding guests. The tiny clapboard church was packed. The men had dusted off their best Western-cut suits, and the women…. Travis sighed with longing. The women looked like a bouquet of Colorado wildflowers in their pastel-colored outfits. The air was still cool on this May afternoon, but the women of Huerfano had dressed for spring.
Travis loved how warmer weather invited the ladies to bare a little more of their delectable skin, and ordinarily he would have taken delight in the number of eligible females within range of his smile. But weddings were a dangerous time to flirt. Weddings gave single women ideas.
The minister, Pete McDowell, had been a hell-raiser in his youth according to what Travis had heard, but he'd entered the ministry and reformed. With his neatly trimmed gray beard and long robe, he looked like the sort of person who could tie the knot good and tight.
Besides, everybody agreed Pete had been born with a voice that belonged either in the pulpit or on the radio. He turned now and nodded toward the church organist, Sarah Jane Ashfelder, who began to play.
Out of habit, Travis glanced over and winked at her. She blushed and bobbled a chord. Immediately he regretted the wink, partly because he'd flustered her and partly because everybody in the valley knew Sarah Jane was desperately seeking a husband. A wink from him while Sarah Jane was playing the organ at a wedding gave the wrong impression all the way around.
"Got the ring?" Sebastian whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
It was about the hundredth time Sebastian had asked since this morning, but Travis cut him some slack. A guy had a right to be wrecked on his wedding day. "Yeah, I've got it," he murmured. "How're you holding up?"
"Shaking like a newborn calf."
"This is a good move, Sebastian." Travis thoroughly believed that. Even though he wasn't interested in matrimony himself, it fit some guys like a glove. Sebastian was one of those guys. And Matty Lang was perfect for him.
"I know it's a good move," Sebastian said softly. "But I'm no good at public displays like this. This collar itches, and my coat's too tight across the shoulders. I—"
A baby's loud wail rose above the deep tones of the organ. The congregation turned toward the back of the church, their murmurs of curiosity getting louder as they strained to see where the noise was coming from.
"That would be Lizzie, kicking up a fuss in the vestibule," Travis said. "I knew it was a mistake, making her part of this shindig."
"It is not a mistake," Sebastian said in a low voice, although he could have spoken normally and not been heard above the bellowing organ, the screaming baby and the excited chatter of the guests. This baby had been the subject of much speculation, and folks were obviously dying to see her.
"She's not even four months old," Travis pointed out. "That's too little to be in a wedding."
"No, it's not. She's advanced for her age. Besides, Elizabeth brought Matty and me together. She belongs here. We forgot the pacifier, is all. I want my daughter to be part of this."
Travis felt like strangling Sebastian with his string tie. The guy wouldn't give up his wrongheaded insistence that he was Lizzie's father. "She's not your daughter. She's mine, as you damned well know." Travis was dead sure about it. The evidence was in the note he'd received three weeks ago in Utah, a note he'd now memorized.
I'm counting on you to be a godfather to my daughter Elizabeth until I can return for her. Your playful approach to life is just what she needs right now. I've left her with Sebastian at the Rocking D. Believe me, I wouldn't do this if I weren't in desperate circumstances.
In deepest gratitude,
Lizzie was his, all right. Maybe he couldn't remember the specifics of that night when he, Sebastian, Boone and Jessica had celebrated the anniversary of their escape from an avalanche, but he was the likely candidate for fatherhood.
He recalled that all the guys had been drunk, drunk enough to make passes at Jessica, even though she was only a friend. And like a good friend, she'd driven them back to their cabin and tucked each of them in bed. He remembered her leaning over him, a smile on her face. He must have coaxed her in there with him, and that was when Lizzie had been conceived.
And yes, Sebastian had received a similar note asking him to be a godfather when Jessica left the baby on his doorstep. But Sebastian wasn't the type to get wasted and make love without protection. Travis hadn't ever done that before, either, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility for him the way it was for Sebastian.
Nevertheless, Sebastian had taken credit for that baby and wouldn't give up. He was presently glaring at Travis, his jaw clenched. "She's my baby. She's got the Daniels nose."
"In your dreams. She looks exactly like a picture of my mother at that age."
Sarah Jane launched into the wedding march, pulling out all the stops to drown out the baby's cries.
"Oh, yeah?" Sebastian said. "Then I guess I never showed you a picture of my mother at that age. She—"
"Gentlemen." Pete McDowell lifted his eyebrows in censure. "I don't think this is the time or the place to argue your paternity issues. The processional has begun."
Sebastian gulped and faced the back of the church.
Travis turned in that direction, too. Sure enough, here came Gwen pushing the antique baby buggy she'd unearthed from the attic of her Victorian house. People on both sides of the aisle craned their necks hoping for a glimpse of the mystery baby that two men claimed to have fathered.
Gwen had pushed Lizzie down the aisle in the buggy during the rehearsal, and the little girl had seemed to love it. But today was a different story, apparently. Today Lizzie was having nothing to do with that buggy.
Gwen had decorated it with flowers and ribbons so it looked real pretty, and she'd found a way to hook her bridal bouquet onto the buggy handle. Lizzie didn't seem to appreciate any of Gwen's efforts. But it wasn't the buggy decorations that held Travis's gaze. One glimpse of Gwen and his hormones snapped to attention.
She wore a dress the same color as new aspen leaves, and the pale green looked amazing against her golden skin. He vaguely remembered hearing that she had Cheyenne ancestors somewhere in her family tree. That also explained her jet-black hair, worn up today in some elaborate arrangement that mystified and tantalized him. She'd woven green ribbons and flowers through her shiny curls, making her look like a Native American princess—a modern princess who knew her way around a curling iron.
Travis licked his lips. He was of the firm belief that women spent all that time putting their hair up hoping that some man would itch to take it down. And he did.
The sleeves of her dress were long, with little conservative buttons at the wrists, but the neckline wasn't even remotely conservative. Travis stared at the most spectacular cleavage he'd seen in a coon's age. He sighed as he calculated the odds of ever enjoying that bounty. She was the only single woman in the valley he hadn't been able to charm.
And that frustrated him, especially at this moment when Gwen was walking toward him displaying her wares so effectively. Travis was relatively unacquainted with frustration, considering that women seemed to enjoy giving him what he wanted when he wanted it.
Because he was used to having his needs satisfied in short order, he'd never realized that rejection could be a more powerful aphrodisiac than acceptance. Good thing these fancy pants Sebastian had rented for him had pleats.
Gwen held her head high and smiled as she pushed the buggy containing the screaming baby, but Travis noticed the tension around her eyes. And then, for one electric moment, her dark gaze met his. Her silent plea for help might have been unconscious, but it was unmistakable.
Without thinking, Travis reacted. He crossed in front of Sebastian and the minister and met Gwen as she reached the altar.
She paused, and her eyes widened as he lifted a squalling Lizzie out of the buggy and cradled her against the shoulder of his tux.
They'd decked the baby out in a white eyelet dress and white booties, which was reasonable, but some idiot had decided to torment her by putting a bow on an elastic band around her head. No wonder she was upset. Travis took the bow off and kissed the little girl's damp cheek.
Gwen cleared her throat. "Travis—"
"Go on over to your spot," Travis murmured, tucking the bow gizmo in his pocket. "I'll handle her."
"Go on. I'll get her to stop." And in fact he already had. Lizzie snuffled against his shoulder and grabbed on to his lapel as if she didn't plan to let go. He smiled at Gwen. "See?"
Gwen shook her head. "Unreal," she muttered.
He shrugged. "Most girls like me." With a wink at Gwen he returned to his place holding Lizzie.
Gwen didn't want to be touched by the picture of Travis standing at the altar letting a baby slobber on his tux. On her way to the front of the church, in addition to worrying about Elizabeth's crying, she'd noticed that Travis looked like a god up there. She'd known he was mouth-watering in jeans, but she hadn't been prepared for the sight of him in a tux.
Because she loved everything Victorian, she had a weakness for a man in a tuxedo, a man who looked as if he'd stepped out of another era. Dressing Travis in a tie and tails and setting him smack-dab in front of her should be against the law.
She'd nearly forgotten Elizabeth's wailing as she took in the allure of the high, white collar emphasizing his strong neck, the black coat stretched tight across his broad shoulders, and the snug fit of his dove-gray vest. Vests were made for men built like Travis. The delicate pink rosebud in his lapel only emphasized his virility.
In order to get her hormones under control, she'd convinced herself that Travis was vain as a peacock. She visualized him preening in front of the mirror, combing his rich brown hair, gazing into the tawny depths of those bedroom eyes of his and winking at his reflection before he walked out to face his admirers. But a peacock wouldn't let a baby suck on the shoulder of his coat. A peacock wouldn't let that same baby pull on his string tie until it came undone. A peacock wouldn't have come to Gwen and Elizabeth's rescue in the first place.
The organ music swelled, and with some effort Gwen turned her gaze away from Travis and Elizabeth in order to give Matty the respect and attention she deserved.
Matty came down the aisle, regal in the simple white gown Gwen had insisted she wear, despite this being a second marriage. Gwen had advised her on the flowers, too, and the old-fashioned bouquet of rosebuds, lavender and ivy was exactly right for Matty. Watching her, Gwen felt her throat tighten with happiness, pride, and a trace of longing.
Her friend had never looked more radiant. The expression of pure love on Matty's face made Gwen yearn for something she hadn't wished for in a very long time—a love of her own. Both she and Matty had hooked up with scoundrels the first time around, but Matty hadn't let that stop her from dreaming. Now she had a man who would lay down his life for her.
Gwen swallowed the lump in her throat. Men like Sebastian Daniels were rare, and she knew it. The rancher's good looks could have served him well as a lady-killer, but instead he was humble, sweet, and adorably dense about the effect he had on women. He was the exact opposite of Travis, who was all too aware that women swooned when he walked by.
But Gwen would not swoon. By God, she would not swoon.
As Matty joined Sebastian at the altar, Gwen sneaked a peek at Travis to see how he was getting along with Elizabeth. He was rumpled and damned sexy-looking from dealing with the baby. He'd removed his bouton-niere, probably so Elizabeth wouldn't stick herself on the pin or try to eat the rosebud. Gwen was impressed with his caution.
Continuing to keep the baby entertained, he played nosey-nosey with her, and she chuckled, a low sound of feminine delight. No doubt about it, Travis had a way with the fairer sex, regardless of age.
On a hunch, Gwen glanced around the small church. The men were watching the ceremony. But as she'd expected, the women, ranging from eight to eighty, were watching Travis. From their expressions of open adoration, Gwen figured Travis would be booked up for the rest of the summer on the basis of this one little scene.
Well, good. The busier he was, the less chance she'd have of running into him. And she wanted to steer clear of Travis Evans. She certainly did. Definitely. The sexual tingle she felt every time she looked at him would go away eventually, especially if she didn't have to look at him very often. This wedding would be the worst of it. After today, she'd have clear sailing.