THE CABIN was quiet.
Well, quiet was one hell of a strong term, with Ellen screaming at the top of her lungs and Daniel sobbing hysterically while Peter fixed their bottles, but at least it wasn’t cars and trucks and fire engines and neighbors and stuff.
“Hush, now, you two. Daddy’s hurrying. Ellie, you’re not starving. Danny-boy, breathe. The bottles are coming.”
God, he was tired. Ginnie, his surrogate, had offered to terminate one, when they’d found out two were coming, but he’d wanted his babies, had paid her all his inheritance to carry them, wouldn’t give them up.
Still, he should have saved enough for a nanny.
He put the nipples on the bottles and went over to the crib where they were carrying on, fat little legs kicking furiously, hands reaching for him. The screaming stopped at the sight of the food.
Beautiful, sweet, spoiled beasts.
He laughed, relaxing, enjoying the sudden silence, the look of pleasure in those pretty china-blue eyes.
“See, there? Daddy promised not to make you two starve.”
The trees cast huge shadows over the little yard into the huge bay window, and the sky looked fabulous—violets and pinks and blues. God, it was beautiful here. “Oh, sweets. I want to let you grow up somewhere like this. Somewhere green and alive and not concrete. Somewhere you can go outside.”
Peter had been in the mountains for three weeks, searching for something, someplace he and the babies could afford. His place in the city was tiny.
Not suitable for babies.
He chuckled at himself, picking Ellie up to burp because she always ate faster. Burke and Allan and the guys wouldn’t recognize him now—his hair was scraggly, he had on old jeans and a diaper on his shoulder, and he smelled like baby powder and….
God, he loved his babies.
More than fucking, more than parties, more than the city. Hell, more than writing, and that was saying something.
Allan had stopped by before they’d headed out, all concerned eyes and frowning and “are you sure about this weird baby thing, man.” They’d shared some hard words, harsh ones—Allan called him a sell-out, a breeder, and he’d told Allan that, at some point, life had to be about more than fucking someone, over or otherwise.
The fight had gotten louder and uglier, and then Ellen started fussing—sweet little love, so aware, so sensitive—and he’d been derailed, turning his back on his former fuckbuddy, going to get his daughter and his son.
Ellie burped about the time Daniel started wriggling, and he settled Ellen back in her crib before putting Danny over his knees.
Yeah, he needed to find somewhere for them, somewhere warm and safe. Somewhere where his sweets would remember making snowmen and picking flowers and playing.
He needed that for them, and damn it, he’d find it.
“Come on, Danny. Burp and we’ll all lie down together and rest.”
Ellen kicked, her movements setting the music off on her little mobile, her happy laugh filling the cabin.
WHEN THE fire warning went up to high, Chad got into the jeep and made a tour of the houses that bordered the forest. He put the No Fire signs up at all the campsites and talked to all the hikers and campers he ran into, pressing home the point.
There hadn’t been a fire yet on his watch, and he planned to keep it that way.
He pulled the jeep into the last house. The old Washer place. It had sat empty the last couple of years, but supposedly someone was renting it for a while, looking to buy. They didn’t get too many long-term renters up this way; most folks were summer visitors only, happier leasing and not having to worry about the place in winter.
Straightening his hat, Chad went to the front door and knocked sharply.
He didn’t hear anything and was about to knock again when the door opened, revealing a man dressed in a pair of boxer briefs. Red-eyed, hair curling wildly, the man looked sort of like a hoot owl, all blinky and dazed.
“Shh! You’ll wake them, and then I’ll have to strangle you.”
“Well, I’d hate to see you go to jail for murder, so I’ll do my best not to wake ‘them.’ I’m just here to warn you about the hazards of fire this time of year. There’s a ban on all open flames right now.” He wondered who “they” were. The guy seemed to be too old to be out here with his parents.
“Flames? Oh! You mean outside? I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.” The guy ran his hands through his hair. “Maybe next summer.”
“So the rumors are true—you’re thinking of buying the place.” Time would tell if that was a good thing or not. “Gonna winter here, too, or just picking the place up as a summer home?”
“Well, I want a place for us to stay permanently, but this place only has a wood stove and I worry….” A sharp, shrill cry sounded. “Shit. Come in, I guess. I gotta—she’s got gas and he’ll start up if I don’t get her quiet.” The man disappeared back into the house, murmuring, hurrying.
Children. Pretty young, too, by the sound of it. Chad wondered where the wife was.
He went in slowly, closing the door behind him.
The guy came back out, wearing a bright red robe, two little babies in his arms, dark-haired and wailing. “Sorry. I’m Peter, by the way. Peter Boone. This is Ellen and Daniel.”
“Chad Bristow. And it looks like I woke ’em. Will you forgo the strangling if I help get them quieted down again?” They were damned cute, even with their mouths wide open and screaming.
“You’re a brave man, Chad. Have a seat and I’ll grab their bottles.” Peter hummed and bounced, grabbing two bottles from the counter. “Come on now, beasts. You’re making a bad impression on Mr. Bristow.”
Chad grinned when Peter came back, and he tickled the babies’ ribs.
“Here. Daniel’s usually my hellion, but Miss Ellie’s got a tummy ache.” Peter handed the little boy to Chad, the baby reaching for the bottle, kicking and gurgling.
Chad chuckled and tucked the boy into the crook of his arm, inserting the bottle into the eager little mouth. “You’re a cute little thing, now, aren’t you?” God, he was a sucker for the wee ones.
“Sh, sh, sweet Ellie. Daddy’s got you,” Peter murmured. He smiled at Chad. “Man, I appreciate the help. It’s been a long couple of days.”
“No problem. You on your own with them?”
“Yeah, I am. Most of the time, it’s easy, but when one’s sick? Damn.”
“What happened to their mother? If you don’t mind my asking?” He hoped he wasn’t opening fresh wounds.
“Well, Ginnie was a surrogate. I mean, I donated in a cup and paid the bills. The fact that there were two? Was a surprise bonus.” He gave Chad a tired grin, a wink.
“You decided to bring up two babies on your own? You’re a brave man.”
And possibly crazy.
“Well, I couldn’t have chosen between them, could I?”
The little girl finally settled, curling into her father’s chest.
“I’d probably call you brave even if it was just one of them.” Chad quirked his lips. He didn’t have a lot of faith in the adult version of his species, but this one seemed okay.
Peter laughed softly, patting the baby’s back. “Yeah, well, I wanted…. The party scene only goes so far, and I wanted a family.”
“You could find someone to play surrogate, but you couldn’t find a wife for the family picture?” It was a strange world they lived in. And lord knew, he’d never understood the female mind. One of the many reasons he swung the other way. And he realized suddenly that was a pretty personal question, but he wasn’t good in social settings. And that was one of the many reasons he worked as a ranger.
“Uh. I had a partner when the pregnancy started. I just didn’t have him when it was over.”
“Him?” Well, what did you know? “So there won’t ever be a Mrs. Mommy. That’s even braver, then.” He suspected there were a lot fewer men than women who’d be willing to get into a relationship with a man with kids. Of course, most guys were jerks—he knew this from personal experience. It was nice to meet one who didn’t seem to be.
“Yeah? Brave or stupid, one of the two.” Peter settled Ellen on his chest and leaned back, the little one blinking slowly, playing with the gold chain around his neck. “So, I don’t suppose you have any recommendations about houses around here? I’m wanting to find a good place for my peeps to grow up. Somewhere they can see green.”
“Good for you. This is a good area, and the people are good folks. They’re not packed in like sardines like at some lakes, either. The fact it’s a patrolled park doesn’t hurt. This place and the little cottage a few miles down are the only ones for sale, and that cottage is small, not really winterized right. All the other places are in the town, and that’s… well, I’m not fond of being on top of my neighbors.”
Peter nodded. “Yeah. I guess I’ll just buy a lot of wood for the winter. The babies aren’t walking yet, so it shouldn’t be dangerous.”
“You’ll definitely need a dog, though, if you’re moving out here. A nice sheepdog of some sort—one that’ll round the kids up and keep them from wandering off once they are walking. I take it you don’t have a job to commute to?”
“I’m a writer—plays, novels, articles, anything.” Peter grinned. “I just want them out of the city, you know? And I can write anywhere.”
“I hear you on the out of the city—can’t stand the places myself. I’m lucky I’ve got a job that keeps me where I want to be.” And he wasn’t going to point out that the ranger house was large and airtight and could use a bit of a homey touch. Just because the man was adorable and rumpled, and the little boy in his arms had gone to sleep and was drooling on his arm, didn’t mean anything at all.
And he was not lonely.
He wasn’t fond of people to begin with.
“I used to love the city—the noise, the excitement—but I’m getting older. I have the kids. I just want something that doesn’t suck my soul dry. Have you been a ranger long? It seems like a very rewarding job.”
“Eight years—I was twenty-one, right out of college, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. I put my time in at some of the lesser parks, but I proved I had what it took to patrol a big place like this. Been here four years. It’s home.” And he loved it.
“Yeah? That’s cool! You must know every inch of this place.”
“I’m starting to. There’s some areas that are a little farther flung I haven’t been able to explore properly yet, but anyone gets lost on my watch, and they get found again. Haven’t had a forest fire since I’ve been here either. You and yours’ll be safe living here.”
“Oh, man. I bet you’ve got some stories.” Those tired eyes lit right up, and Peter’s face became animated. “I’d love to hear them one day.” Poor guy, he was probably starving for some company that didn’t drool constantly.
“I’ve got a few. You should come up to the ranger station sometime. Have supper and let me regale you with my witty tales of ranger life.” He gave Peter a wink.
“I’d like that, if you don’t mind the prince and princess tagging along.” Peter grinned wide. “I’d even bring non-formula-flavored dessert.”
“Well, how about tomorrow evening? You won’t be able to enjoy anything cooked over an open flame—my specialty—but I’ve got a few slow cooker recipes that are worth eating. Say 4:00 p.m.? To give the kiddies a bit of time to meet the pack and get into trouble?”
Peter gave him a quizzical look. “The pack?”
“I’d like that. A lot.” Peter nodded enthusiastically, eyes shining. “Where is the station?”
“I’ll get you a map from the jeep. It’s just up the hill and around the corner a ways.”
He looked down as Daniel shifted and yawned. “I guess I should go and leave you to it.” Funny, for once he was reluctant to part company with someone.
“Thank you for the help, sir. I definitely needed it.” Peter placed the little girl in a bassinet, then took the wee boy from Chad’s arms and cuddled him in beside his sister.
“Call me Chad, and it was my pleasure. Kids and animals—they’re my forte.”
He got up and held out his hand.
Peter’s palm was warm, the handshake firm, the smile honest. “I can see that. It’s wonderful.”
He chuckled. “My mother calls it ornery and antisocial. I’m glad you don’t agree with her.”
“You have been more than social to me. Hell, you rocked my son to sleep. You’re the best thing that’s happened in days.”
“Well, it’s been my pleasure.” He gave Peter a nod, with a reluctance that surprised him. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Yes. Oh! Chocolate cake or cherry pie?”
“Bring one tomorrow and you can bring the other the next time.” He hoped he wasn’t being too forward, but he hadn’t enjoyed anyone’s company so much in a long time.
“That’s fair.” Peter smiled again, warm and friendly. “Good evening, Chad. It was great to meet you.”
Chad touched the brim of his hat and nodded. “Nice to meet you, too, Peter. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He fetched Peter the map from the jeep and then headed back to the ranger station, humming along with the radio.