A frozen turkey dinner is just fine for former soldier and widower Evan Paterson. But his five-year-old daughter deserves better. So when she invites her best friend and her single mother to the Double P ranch for the holiday meal, Evan agrees. But not to a fix-up. Social worker Julia Saunders knows as much about heartache as he does, but Evan isn't ready to love again. Until a duo of pint-sized matchmakers show two stubborn grown-ups what being thankful truly means.
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"Am I glad you are finally here, Julia. I need help!"
Olga Terenkov, dressed in a jean skirt with a leather vest, cowboy boots and large pieces of turquoise jewelry, planted herself in front of Julia Saunders.
"What's the problem?" Julia asked and placed her cherry pie on the dessert table.
"Too many pets. When I decided to have Show and Pet for the children, I never thought they would bring everything from a boa to a pig! Those are not pets!" In her exasperation, Olga's Russian accent became heavier.
"And my daughter just brought a goldfish," Julia said and peered around the grief counselor to search for Ellie among the crowd of parishioners at the church picnic. Her daughter had raced toward her friends the second she'd climbed from the car. Ellie stood in the middle of a group of children showing them her new and only pet swimming in its plastic bowl.
Leading a pony, a little girl with light brown shoulder-length hair joined the group of kids. Her daughter immediately latched on to the cute animal, holding her small fishbowl in one hand and stroking the pony with the other. Ellie, even though she was only five, wanted to learn to ride ever since they had arrived at Prairie Springs from Chicago four months ago. Julia was sure she would hear about her daughter's renewed longing later that night.
Olga gestured toward the newest arrival. "See? Next someone will bring a rat."
"What can I do to help?"
"I need someone to get the Show and Pet organized, to be in charge. I thought all we would have were a few cats and dogs. Where are the normal pets?" The older woman threw her arms up in the air. "I've got Paige's dad to help, too. I need all the animals moved over there." Olga pointed toward an area roped off with a few temporary pens set up. "Can you do that for me?"
"I was supposed to help Anna with the food."
"Oh, she's got more than enough with David, Caitlyn and Steve. See?" Olga fluttered her hand toward the end of the long tables.
"Then, sure. I'd be happy to help with the pets." This from a woman who had never owned a pet, except nowa low-maintenance goldfish. Julia spied her friend Anna giving instructions to a small army of volunteers and wished she could take back her words. She would be better handling the food.
"Who's Paige's dad?" Julia asked, still learning all the children's names. This was only her third Sunday attending Prairie Springs Christian Church.
"You see that handsome cowboy over there?" Olga nodded her head in the direction of the group of children Ellie was in the midst of. "That's Paige's dad, Evan Paterson."
Julia found the man Olga indicated. He was the picture of a quintessential Texan cowboy one would see in an ad campaign. His image had plagued her dreams since her first glimpse of him from across the room at Ellie's elementary school. Her daughter had talked about Paige, but Julia hadn't realized the connection between Ellie's classmate and the tall, lean man with sandy brown hair and the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
"I'm surprised you don'tknow him. Paige and Ellie are in the same kindergarten class. That's Paige with your daughter. She brought the pony."
For a few seconds Julia studied the little girl, who had befriended her daughter, before she again found herself zeroing in on the Texan cowboy. "I saw him at Back to School Night a few weeks ago, but we didn't meet. I didn't realize he went to this church."
"He goes to the early service, and don't you attend the late one?"
"Well, then I will introduce you two, and you can start getting that menagerie under control." Olga spun around and moved toward the group of children.
Julia heaved a sigh and followed. Every alarm in her body went off the closer she came to the kids and Evan Paterson. There was something about the man that reminded her of
"Evan, I want you to meet Julia Saunders. I've talked her into helping you with the animals."
He pivoted toward them, tipping back his black cowboy hat, his mouth cocked in a grin. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"Likewise." Julia fit her hand in his and shook it. His firm, self-assured grip left a warmth on her palm that she couldn't quite ignore.
"I'll leave you two to work this out" Olga swept her arm across the scene in front of them "before we have animals running loose all over the place. Now I wish I had gotten more pens."
At that moment one of the Mayhew twins let go of her large dog's leash while turning her attention to the pony. The black Lab darted through the group of children and made a beeline for the food table. Quick, as if he was used to roping dogs, Evan leaped forward and snatched up the end of the leash. The Lab came to a grinding halt a few feet away from the desserts.
Olga clapped. "Very good. For a second I thought we were at a rodeo."
Julia chuckled at the "aw, shucks" look that appeared in Evan's eyes and the touch of color that brushed lightly across his cheeks.
He lowered the brim of his hat to shield his expression and gave the leash back to the little girl. "Josie, keep a tight rein on your dog."
Before Julia could say anything, Evan put his two fingers in his mouth and trilled an ear-piercing whistle that silenced the clamor. "I >need everyone to get their pets and move over there." He pointed toward the corded-off area.
Olga leaned close and whispered to Julia, "That's his military training. A cowboy in uniform. You can't go wrong there."
Then Olga hurried away, leaving Julia speechless for a good minute. She'd heard from Anna about her mother's "little matchmaking" schemes, and now Julia was sure she had become the object of one. Little did Olga know that she wasn't in the market for anything that looked remotely like romance.
When Julia swung her attention back to the problem at hand, she realized she was standing by herself while all the pets and children headed toward the area Evan had indicated. He was more organized than she was.
"That man doesn't need any help," she muttered to herself and started forward.
Julia came up behind Evan. "Reporting for duty." She curled her hand to keep from saluting.
After directing his daughter and her pony to one of the pens, he wheeled around, pushing his cowboy hat up on his forehead to reveal the amusement in his eyes. "It's hard to get away from something that was a part of my life for years. When faced with overwhelming odds, I always fall back into my military training."
"And come out fighting?"
His laughter peppered the air, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes that gave him character deepened. "I was a sergeant and used to giving orders to the men in my unit."
"Then if you've got everything under control, I'll go help Anna with the food."
"And disappoint Olga?"
"Then you know what she's up to."
"I've known Olga for quite some time. She can be a steamroller, a sweet one but nevertheless a determined one, too. I find it easier to go along until she is out of view."
Uncomfortable with the topic of their matchmaking, Julia searched for a safer subject to discuss. "So, you've been a member of this church for a while?"
"Yes, and you're new. How long have you been attending? This is the first time I've seen you here."
"Three weeks. I tried out some other churches in Prairie Springs, but this one fits my spiritual needs."
"Help! I've lost my kitten!" a little boy shouted.
The twenty-pound "kitten" jumped over a rabbit's cage and landed on the pig's back, sending it charging forward. The cat continued its trek through the animals, causing a mutt and a German shepherd to chase after it while dragging their owners. After scurrying up a nearby oak, the pet that started the chaos perched itself on a top limb, staring at the dogs barking at the bottom of the tree. A picture of the cat in Alice in Wonderland popped into Julia's mind.
Shaking the image from her thoughts, Julia hurried into the melee. She intended to calm the children who still had control of their pets while Evan waded through the dogs by the oak tree. He grabbed the collar first of the mutt, then the German shepherd and hauled them both to their waiting owners.
Cradling the fishbowl in her lap, Ellie sat next to Paige. Both girls giggled.
Julia stopped in front of her daughter. "I'm glad someone thinks this is funny."
Ellie put her hand over her mouth in an attempt to contain her laughter. "Taylor did that on purpose. He wanted to see what would happen, Mommy. He thought the dog was funny earlier."
Julia knelt by her daughter and Paige. "Can I count on you two to help me?" After both girls nodded, she continued. "Paige, put your pony into the first pen while I get the pig into the second one."
"What about my goldfish?" Ellie still held her bowl.
"I don't think we have to worry about your fish getting away. You can set it up on something high enough where the other animals won't bother it," Julia said, smoothing Ellie's brown wavy hair back from her face. "Honey, if you and Paige can get all the kids with dogs over there" Julia pointed toward a roped-off area at the far end "that would be a big help."
"When is Show and Pet gonna start?" Paige tugged on her pony's reins.
"When we have some kind of control on the situation." Julia prayed those weren't her famous last words concerning this activity.
Two hours later Evan stood off to the side watching Julia supervise the kids while they showed off their animals and let anyone who wanted to pet them. She would make a great sergeant in the army. Not only efficient and hard-nosed when she needed to be, but she'd also organized the children and their pets while he'd climbed the ladder and brought down the "kitten" that had started the whole mess.
By the time he was back on the ground, he didn't have anything to do except observe her in action, a petite woman with long wavy brown hair and eyes the color of a new leaf on a maple tree. Every movement had a purpose, but when a child needed extra attention she was there to give it, even to the little boy who had caused the commotion with his cat.
Leaning back against a pole, where a goldfish bowl resided, he folded his arms across his chest and let his daughter give some of the smaller children rides on her pony, Sugar. Paige had wanted more responsibility and this was as good a time as any to give her some.
Julia Saunders approached him, a smile deep in those green eyes. He lowered his gaze to her full-lipped mouth, set in a smile directed at him. For a few seconds a trapped sensation took hold of him until he shook some sense into himself. No way was he going down that path. Ever. Again.
"Your daughter's pony has been a huge success. This is Ellie's second ride." She stopped next to him and immediately the scent of lavender wafted to him.
"She wanted to bring all her pets. I put my foot down and told her only one. Now I'm glad I did. That's all we need is more animals."