Authors: Tina Leonard
“She’s not asleep,” Jace said. “It looks to me as if Emma’s wondering why her father is telling a fib. Give her to Uncle Jace. She prefers me, I can tell.”
“No, thanks. She just got comfortable.” What was with his family trying to take his child? It was annoying.
“So, how’s Taylor?” Galen asked.
“Fine.” Falcon smiled down at his baby, delighted when she grinned back at him. “Oh, there’s a smile. And it’s not gas, either. That was an old wives’ tale created to scare fathers away from their children.”
Sloan sighed. “Falcon, I have two babies. Twins. And I don’t hold the two of them combined as much as you hold Emma. Although I hold them a lot and hug them and read to them nightly. You’re going to have permanent hooks in your elbows if you don’t take a break from holding her. Give her to me. Uncle Sloan has plenty of experience.”
“What is it with you guys?” Falcon demanded. “Emma is fine right where she is. She likes to be with me. I calm her down. And besides, I like holding my daughter.”
“Yes, we see,” Ash said, “but if you held your wife half as much, you might be a husband as well as a father.”
He gawked at his siblings. “Is that what this is all about? Taylor?”
“We have noticed that you seem a bit more enamored of your baby than your lady,” Galen said, “and no doubt you don’t mean to put that impression across. So for tonight’s meeting, we’d like to offer to watch Emma, up here in this nice, comfortable room, where we’ll all attend her every smile and waved finger,” he cajoled. “Perhaps you’d like to take Taylor out on a date.”
“A couple’s night out,” Ash said, “to give you both a break from hanging around all of us.”
“Well,” Falcon said, looking down at Emma. “I guess we could go out for a little while. Taylor hasn’t had a night out since she’s been back.” He frowned, thinking. “Yeah, maybe a night at a nice restaurant would be good for her.” He got up, walked to the door.
“Wait a minute,” Ash said, walking after him. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Like us, your amazing quartet of babysitters?” She reached to take Emma, and Falcon moved his arms so his sister couldn’t touch the baby.
“We’ll just take her with us. Thank you,” Falcon said politely, and they all groaned.
“That’s it,” Galen said. “Sit down, Falcon.”
“Okay,” he said reluctantly, not certain what “it” was, exactly. Now that they’d mentioned taking Taylor on a date, he was ready to go. “Hurry, though, because I want to give Taylor plenty of time to get ready.”
“Jace, pour our brother a small one,” Galen said. “Ash, begin.”
Jace handed Falcon a whiskey, which he accepted with some hesitation. His sibs were clearly up to no good—and it had to do with Emma. He had news for them: he had supersonic radar when it came to his daughter. They had a bond where they practically read each other’s mind. Of course, Emma didn’t do much reading—she was so very young—but he knew what she was thinking practically every second.
“Brother,” Ash said, “you’ve got to give the baby up.”
“Never,” Falcon said, stunned, and Jace sighed heavily.
“Give the baby to other people to take care of,” Jace clarified. “I don’t know if you’ve even showered in the past month, because you hold her constantly.”
“I’ve showered,” Falcon said defensively. “We shower together, and then I hand her to Taylor. Well, I hold Emma under the spray, and she seems happy, and then Taylor takes her off for a little rubadub in some lavender bath stuff. Then I get dressed, brush my teeth, and take Emma down the hall for our nightly reading. Usually the
Wall Street Journal,
but sometimes we deviate and read
The Wild Baby Goes to Sea,
but sometimes Emma wants something more—”
“I can’t take it,” Ash said. “Falcon, you’ve changed so much from the man who was determined to win Taylor that I don’t even recognize you. You’ve become a mother hen. And that is not a compliment. Now give me the baby and go take your wife out somewhere! Anywhere!”
He gulped. “You guys are being so weird,” he said, but he began to see a sliver of daylight. His siblings thought he was a mother hen—when once he’d been known as a hard-bitten military operative. “The thing is, I know that if Emma’s with me, she’s safe—”
“We know,” Galen said. “Hand us Emma.”
They all moved close, and he reluctantly gave Emma into his siblings’ eager hands. “I hadn’t realized I was spending so much time with Emma.” He looked at his family’s sympathetic faces. “Did Taylor mention it to you?”
“No.” Ash shook her head. “Taylor never says a word that’s not pleasant. That’s why she’s the best. And you’re the best. We want you to find each other again.”
“We—” He stopped. Considered what his family understood that he had not. “Thanks, guys.”
He kissed Emma tenderly on her head, saw her clear eyes looking back at him from Ash’s arms. She was fine. He could see that.
But he needed to take care of her future now.
He headed out the door.
Taylor looked up as Falcon hurried into the kitchen at Rancho Diablo, where she was making lasagna for dinner. Fiona had disappeared, so Taylor had taken it upon herself to begin placing the layers of ingredients in the long pan. “Where’s Emma?”
He stopped and looked at her. “Uh, my family has her.”
“Oh. Okay.” She went back to carefully building the lasagna.
“Taylor,” Falcon said, “do you want to go out to dinner tonight?”
She looked up. “I’m almost finished making dinner.”
He scratched his head. “Yeah, I see that.”
She smiled. “Another time, maybe.”
He hesitated, looked at her. Taylor watched him curiously. “Is something wrong?”
“Not wrong. I’m just trying to ask you out on a date, and obviously not doing a very good job of it.”
“Ohh,” Taylor said. “Have you been talking to Fiona and my mother?”
He blinked. “No, but I have been read the riot act by my family. They seem to think I pay too much attention to Emma and not enough to you. I agree with them.”
Taylor stopped layering. “I just thought you had new-dad symptoms.”
He drummed his fingers on the kitchen counter. “Let’s do something spontaneous.”
She washed her hands and covered the lasagna pan. “Our first and only date was ghost hunting. We never found any, though. I was always a little disappointed about that. We did find your uncle Wolf, however, and I guess he qualifies as a specter of some kind.”
“Yeah.” Falcon pondered that for a minute. “That was fine for a girl I was just dating. We’ve got a daughter now. I need to step up my game.”
“That sounds...interesting. I’ll go dress appropriately.”
He followed her upstairs. They slept in separate rooms since she was still staying at Rancho Diablo; Emma slept in a crib in the upstairs nursery. Taylor suspected Falcon mostly slept in there to be near his daughter—she’d found him a few times asleep in the rocking chair when she went in to check on Emma.
“I need to change, too. I’ll meet you in the kitchen in thirty?”
Her gaze swept him. “Don’t change too much, Falcon. I like you just the way you used to come into the diner,” Taylor said. “Handsome. Sexy.”
He perked up. “You think I’m sexy?”
“Maybe a little. Don’t let it swell your head.”
* * *
later they were sitting at a rodeo in Santa Fe. Taylor looked darling in blue jeans—she claimed she was halfway back to her old size, grumbling about it a bit, but he thought she looked more beautiful than ever—and a white blouse. Her chocolate hair was tied back with a white pearl clip. It had been so long since it had just been the two of them together, having fun and relaxing.
“Good thing my family saved me from myself,” Falcon said. “I’ve been missing all the really good stuff.”
She smiled, and he felt as if he practically fell into her eyes. “I got a little redirection from my family, too,” she admitted.
Once they’d gotten in the truck, he’d felt he could drive for hours with Taylor. No Wolf to worry about, no drama, just the two of them, the way he’d wanted it to be last fall. “I should never have accepted Jillian’s challenge. I should have just dated you. Heck, I should have stood under your window and yodeled every night for you.”
Her eyes crinkled. “Yodeled?”
“It’s the best I can do. But I can yodel fairly decently.” He leaned back against the bleacher in back of him. “Tonight we’re watching the young guys try their hand at the rodeo. Dante and Tighe did this for a while when they were juniors. They weren’t too bad.”
She watched the young children rush out for the mutton busting. Boys and girls scrambled to get in line for their chance on a well-built sheep. None of them stayed on very long, and it was cute to see them try. “I wonder if Emma will want to do that.”
“No way. I won’t let her.”
Taylor looked at him. “Why?”
“I don’t want her to be a rodeo girl. She’s going to go to a finishing school somewhere, and I never want to see her in a pair of cowboy boots.”
Taylor blinked. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.”
He shrugged. “I’d bottle her and put her away until she was thirty, if I could.”
“Falcon, you can’t protect her forever.” Taylor gazed at him with a soft smile. “You’re still scared, aren’t you?”
“Me? Scared?” He shook his head. “I’m a retired sniper. I’m not scared of much, doll.”
That won him a frown. “Then you can’t say Emma can’t ever mutton bust. And that she has to go to a finishing school.”
“Education is important to our family. We all worked hard so Galen could finish medical school. We tried to be good, though usually we weren’t.” He pondered that for a moment. “I’ve been discussing the necessity of education with Emma. We’ve been looking at some schools in the East, and we think we’ve come up with a few good choices she can apply to.”
“Are you talking about boarding school for my daughter?” Taylor sounded horrified.
“Well, that sounds a bit harsh. I prefer finishing school. I mean, the definition is different, isn’t it, but for my purposes, the term seems more appropriate.”
Taylor shook her head. “Okay, helicopter dad. Hover all over your daughter if you want, but she’s going to want to wear Ropers if the other girls are. She might even be a rodeo queen.”
“Emma says she’s going to be a nurse. She’s planning on doing the extra schooling to become a nurse practitioner.” Falcon nodded with satisfaction. “No military for my daughter, although her aunt Ash may protest. Ash thinks the military is a fine place for a young lady to learn real usable skills, but I—”
“Falcon,” Taylor said, “you can’t plan Emma’s life for her.”
“I’m not planning it. We discuss options, and she puts forth her opinion.”
“How does she do that?” Taylor demanded. “When she’s taking her bottle? Her nap?”
“Don’t you worry, little mama,” Falcon said confidently. “Emma and I discuss these things nightly. When we read our book and go to bed.”
Taylor sighed and looked out as the young cowboys began to load up for the first event of bull riding. “Falcon, it’s sweet that you want to protect Emma so much, but planning every second of her life isn’t going to make her safer.”
“It’s better than planning nothing and letting something happen when she’s four years old. Six years old. Fourteen.” Darkness crossed his soul as he looked inward at the fear. “You don’t understand that this might not ever be over. I don’t know how long I’ll be at Rancho Diablo, but at the moment, I’d say the chances of Emma graduating while I’m still riding fence there is pretty great.”
He hadn’t factored a child into his plans when he’d taken on this job. In fact, he hadn’t figured in a woman, either, but this one sitting next to him was too sweet and sassy to ignore. Taylor had caught him the first time he’d laid eyes on her. It wasn’t even about the ranch land he and his siblings were supposed to be battling for—though he’d love to win those twenty thousand acres north across the canyons.
But if he could just come out of this assignment with this woman as his wife, that would be win enough for him.
“I guess if you’re going to send Emma off to a boarding school,” Taylor said, “I’ll go back to work, then.”
He blinked. “Work? At Banger’s?”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “It’s my job, right?”
“Well, yeah.” He rubbed his chin. Men came into the diner, just like he had. Men sat at the bar and stared at Taylor, ogling her, just like he had.
He didn’t want her ogled.
“There’s no rush,” he said, hedging as he stared into her eyes, sensing a trap might be getting laid for him. “Wouldn’t you rather stay home with Emma for a while?”
“But Emma’s going off to boarding school. And if I wait until you ship her off—what, at the age of three?—then my skills will be out of date.”
“Six,” he said automatically. “She’d probably start at six. They can in England, you know.”
Taylor gasped. “Okay, Falcon. That’s the final straw. You’re not sending my daughter to England!”
“Some really awesome schools—”
She put up a hand. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to protect her. But you don’t even want me working at Banger’s. You’re trying to protect yourself, Falcon Chacon Callahan. And control isn’t the way to do it.”
“That’s because I fell for an opinionated woman,” Falcon said. “Independent and feisty.”
“That’s right. So quit trying to send my child away from Rancho Diablo. This is where she belongs.”
He flattened his mouth. “And if she gets stolen?”
“How would that happen? You never put her down!”
He grinned. “There’s no reason to. In the tribe, babies are carried for quite some time.”
“By the mother,” Taylor said.
“But I’m very enlightened,” Falcon said, still grinning, and Taylor sighed.
“Whatever. This is supposed to be a date. So let’s date. Even though you’re a little nutty, Falcon.” She settled back against the bleachers, right where he could wrap his arm over her shoulders and give her a reassuring squeeze.
“Just a normal date night,” he said, and Taylor said, “You and the adjective
aren’t used in the same sentence.”
He laughed. Then his gaze caught something in the crowd, something he hadn’t been expecting. He sat up, staring down into the arena, suddenly alert. “Do you see that barrel?”
Taylor sat up to get a better look. “Yes.”
“Did you see the bullfighter who got in the barrel?”
“No.” She glanced at him. “Did you know him?”
“Know him?” Falcon looked disgusted. “It’s my brother.”
“Dante,” he said. “That duty-shirking freak. Wait until I read him the riot act.” Falcon couldn’t believe it, but he would recognize his wily younger brother anywhere.
“Aren’t they supposed to be doing PBR?”
“Yeah. Not these types of events.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. They left us shorthanded to jump out of barrels.”
“It’s an honorable living,” Taylor said. “It’s a great profession.”
He looked at her with disgust. “We’re trying to protect a ranch for our cousins. It’s the mission we were assigned.”
“Oh,” Taylor said. “I guess that means you’ll be doubly upset when I tell you that I believe I see Tighe over there sitting in the announcer’s booth? He just finished running the mutton busting. I wasn’t going to tell you, but...”
Falcon closed his eyes, sank back against the bleachers. “Worthless. Shiftless.”
Taylor laughed. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“No,” Falcon said. “At least it won’t be if you’ll agree to marry me.”
She raised a brow. “Are you officially proposing?”
“Without all the trappings,” he said sheepishly. “I don’t have a ring. We’d have to stay here for a couple of days to do the proper paperwork, but I’d much rather be really spontaneous and fly to Vegas tonight.”
“I...” Taylor looked confused. “You’re proposing because your brothers have upset you?”
“I just don’t want to be them. I like a plan, as you’ve noticed. I’m afraid if I don’t get you to the altar, you’ll slip away. You have all these opinions and a strong spirit,” he said, very certain for the first time of what it was that had been making him so nervous about Taylor all this time. “You could change your mind about me, and then I’ll be back to worrying about ol’ Benton, and one day, I could end up in a barrel down there with Dante. I think you better tie me down as fast as you can, beautiful.”