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Travis Carson did not know what he would do without his next-door neighbor, Holly Baxter. And frankly, he did not ever want to find out. The divorced single mom was always on hand to help him out with his two young daughters. And he did the same for Holly and her twin boys. Their kids attended the same Fort Worth, Texas, preschool. Weekdays, they shared a nanny. Weekends, depending on their individual schedules, a little more.
But most of all, they were friends. And right now he needed a friend with a mother's heart—and accompanying wisdom.
"So what's the problem?" Holly dodged a Christmas pi ata and slipped into the booth of the popular Tex-Mex restaurant. She shrugged out of her trendy red wool coat and gloves, then leaned across the table to be heard above the festive strains of "Feliz Navidad," playing in the background. "I assume it has something to do with the kids?"
Travis nodded. He reached into the pocket of the black down vest he wore to ward off the chill at the construction site, and handed over an envelope addressed to the North Pole. "Read it and weep. I did."
Clearly debating whether to take the situation seriously or not, Holly wrinkled her nose, and worked open the seal.
Across the aisle, a tableful of guys in suits were staring admiringly her way. Travis couldn't blame them. At thirty-three, Holly seemed to get more beautiful by the day. Her long golden-brown hair was silky, soft and incredibly glossy. Her skin held the warm glow that came from living in a sunny climate, her five-foot-six frame the sleek, sexy look of a woman who worked out regularly. There was a lot to admire about her lovely girl-next-door features, but it was the genuine trustworthiness radiating from her wide-set aquamarine eyes that really drew him in. It wasn't just that they were friends—Holly seemed accessible to him in a way no other woman ever had. Which was what made all that ogling from that group of guys all the more annoying. Travis turned and gave them a look.
They got the hint and turned away.
Meanwhile, Holly was transfixed by at the letter she had unfolded. With a curious lift of her elegant brow, she read out loud the words that had haunted him since breakfast.
"We have been very good this year so please bring us the only thing we want this year—a mommy. "Hugs and kisses, Sophie and Mia."
The bottom and margins of the page were decorated with childish scrawls, stickers and lots of X's and O's.
Holly set the letter down. "Wow." She rummaged in the canvas carryall that served as her handbag. "It's almost as good as the letter Tucker and Tristan dictated to me last night."
Travis kicked back in his seat, enjoying their usual camaraderie. "You can't beat that."
Grinning, she handed over the letter. "Read it and weep."
In the margins of the boys' letter, were crude drawings of airplanes and trucks.
"We want a spaceship big enough to fly away in.
"Love, Tucker and Tristan."
The waitress appeared with a basket of crisp tortilla chips, still hot from the fryer, and some freshly made salsa. She stayed long enough to take their orders, then disappeared.
"So what are you going to do?" Holly asked.
Travis shrugged as the waitress returned promptly with two large glasses of iced tea. "I don't know. I was so taken aback when the girls dictated their letter last night, I didn't know what to say."
"Me, either." Holly sighed.
"When they get it into their head…"
"…that something is possible…" she murmured, continuing his thought.
"It's awfully hard to change their mind," he finished.
"Supposedly it's a stage all three- and four-year-olds go through." Holly munched on a chip. "You know…. where they think they have everything figured out and you can't convince them otherwise."
Silence fell between them.
They locked eyes and exchanged beleaguered grins, both of them knowing how lucky they were to have these kinds of problems—especially at Christmas.
"So what do you want to do?" Holly continued to hold Travis's gaze.
"The usual dinner and a movie?" he offered with a shrug, glad he didn't have to handle the upcoming "explanation" alone.
Holly perked up. "Tonight?"
He nodded. "The sooner we clear this up with the little ones, the better. And we can fit the 'discussion' between the two events."
Holly grinned as the waitress bustled back to their table with two plates of puffy tacos. "Sounds good to me."
There were times in every parent's life, Holly Baxter thought, when "backup" was required. Tonight was one of them. Which was why she was so very glad she had Travis Carson to help her face life's problems, big and small.
"What do you mean we have to write letters to Santa?" Travis's daughter, Sophie, demanded with all the indignation a four-and-a-half-year-old spitfire could muster.
"We already wrote them!" her three-year-old sister, Mia, complained.
"And we wrote 'em, too," Holly's son, Tucker, stated in frustration.
"Or at least you wrote down what we said," his three-and-a-half-year-old twin brother, Tristan, concurred.
Holly looked around her kitchen table. The four children looked so much alike, with their blond hair, big blue eyes and cherubic little faces, they could have been siblings. Indeed, during the two years she and Travis had lived side-by-side, the preschoolers had spent so much time together they might as well have been.
Which was what made it so easy to deal with them in a group.
"Your daddy and I know that." Holly took the lead with Travis's tacit encouragement. Emboldened by his sexy, reassuring presence, she continued affably, "But there's a problem with what you all asked Santa to bring you. First of all, boys, they don't make toy space ships big enough for you to climb in, and secondly, toys like that don't fly."
"Well, they should," Tucker grumbled, crossing his arms in front of him.
Tristan stubbornly agreed. "Yeah, how are we supposed to get to outer space if they don't go up in the air?"
Travis gave Holly a look from the other end of her farmhouse-style kitchen table. "They have a point," he mouthed.
She ignored him. If Travis made her giggle, it would be all over.
"Second," she said, even more gently to his little girls, "Santa Claus makes toys at the North Pole, not people, and mommies are people."
Travis nodded as if to say, Way to go, team!
"But," Sophie exclaimed, "a mommy is what Mia and I want!"
"Yeah," Mia echoed. " 'Cause we don't have one."
Actually, Holly knew all too well that they'd once had a very kind and loving mother. When she had first moved into this house, two-and-a-half years ago, Travis had just lost his wife. Back then, Diana had been all he talked about. She'd tragically succumbed to a virus that had attacked her heart and killed her in a matter of days.
Eventually, he had come to terms with the suddenness of his late wife's death. But the loss of the woman he had loved more than life had continued to haunt him—just as Holly's unexpected divorce had haunted her.
Eventually, things had gotten better. And now life was pretty much back to normal, Holly thought. With one exception. Neither of them was dating, or intended ever to date again.
"The thing is, girls," Travis interjected quietly, "mommies aren't brought by other people."
"Then how do you get one?" Sophie asked, completely flummoxed.
"Generally, the daddy goes out, and finds a wife. When he marries her, she becomes a mommy," Travis explained.
"Then that's what you should do, Daddy," Mia said, as if it was obvious.
"Yeah," Tucker agreed, waving his arms enthusiastically. "Just go out and find one."
Tristan nodded vigorously. "There's lots of them around. We see them all the time at the preschool."
"Most of those mommies are already married," Travis said.
"Our mom isn't!" Tucker blurted out.
Caught off guard, Holly skipped a breath and felt her pulse ricochet. For a second, Travis looked equally nonplussed. But the moment passed, and Travis took command of the room again.
"What I'm trying to say, kids, is that finding a wife is a long process and it's not something I have time to do today. I'm very busy downtown."
"Building the Water Tower!" Tucker yelled, excited as always by the thought of bulldozers, cranes and all manner of construction equipment and trucks at the site of Fort Worth's newest mixed-use development project.
"It's called One Trinity River Place," Holly reminded her son gently. And it was quite a coup. Travis and four of his friends each played a role in making the development happen. Grady McCabe had put the deal together. Dan Kingsland was the architect who had designed the three-block-wide, thirty-eight story building overlooking the Trinity River. Travis's company was handling the construction. Jack Gaines's firm was installing all the electronic, satellite and phone systems. And Nate Hutchinson's financial services company was taking up a huge chunk of office space. The rest would be leased out independently. Plus there were retail shops and restaurants going in on the lower floors, and luxury condominiums taking up the top floors. All in all, it was a pretty impressive project. And Holly'd had work there, too. Right now, she was finishing up a mural in one of the restaurants on the ground level.
"Anyway—" Travis looked at all four kids "—the point is it is December 5, and we need to write new letters to Santa, amending what you asked for into something he can actually bring you."
"You know," Holly added for good measure, "something he can actually fit on his sleigh."
"Like new baby dolls," Travis told his daughters.
"Or the bikes with training wheels that you boys have been wanting since last summer," Holly said.
The kids shrugged, their excitement clearly dimmed. "Okay," Sophie said finally.
"That's what we want," Tucker agreed with a disgruntled sigh.
"Can we watch the movie now?" Mia asked. "I want to see what Curious George does tonight!"
"Okay," Travis said. "But just thirty minutes. And then we're going home and getting ready for bed. School tomorrow."
The kids scrambled for places on the L-shaped sectional sofa in Holly's family room. They lined up together, various blankets and stuffed animals on their laps. Travis set up the DVD player. A second later, the soothing sounds of the video about the monkey and the man in the yellow hat started.
Travis came back into the kitchen.
From where they were standing, they could see the kids. But the children had their backs to them, and were all focused intently on the story unfolding on the TV screen.
"Well, I guess that went okay," Holly whispered.
He nodded, looking just as uncertain as she felt. Probably because every time the two of them thought they had a situation as tricky as this one handled, it turned out to be not handled, after all. Travis gathered up the pizza boxes and the trash sack. "I'll take this out."
Trying not to think how cozy domestic moments like this felt, Holly forced herself to concentrate on the minutiae of her life instead. "Would you mind getting my mail while you're out there?" she asked. "I think I forgot to bring it in after work."
"No problem. I'll get mine, too." Travis headed out.
Holly loaded the dishwasher.
Travis walked back in, a stack of mail in each hand. "You want to get our trees this weekend?"
Holly nodded. It was something they usually did together. It was easier having another adult helping when trying to select, purchase and wrangle a tree on top of the car in a busy parking lot.
"Saturday morning okay with you?" he asked.
"Sounds perfect." She looked up at him with a smile.
It was funny, Holly mused, how at ease she felt with him. At thirty-six, he bore the perennial tan of someone who spent a great deal of time working outdoors. His dark brown hair was cut in short, casual layers that withstood the elements and the restless movements of his large, capable hands. Like Holly, Travis was a native Texan. He had big ideas, and even bigger goals, and a practical down-to-earth nature she found immensely comforting.
He was also—not that it mattered—a very good-looking man. And quite masculine as well. At six-foot-three-inches tall, he had the big-boned, broad-shouldered build one would expect of a construction worker. A ruggedly chiseled face. Dark chocolate eyes that saw more than he ever said.
He dressed nicely, too. At work, he wore Levi's, canvas shirts, vests and heavy steel-toed boots. The required yellow hard hat. In his off time, the garments he wore were much more expensive. Like the dark brown cashmere sweater he had on tonight, tugged over a T-shirt, with a newer pair of Levi's. His boots were made of really nice, soft brown leather.
He smelled great, too. Like Old Spice and soap, baby shampoo and man…
"Earth to Holly," Travis teased in a low sexy voice, abruptly jerking her back to reality. Startled, she met his grin. "Do you want it or not?" he asked mildly, still trying to hand over the day's mail.
Travis didn't know what was on Holly's mind.
It wasn't like her to lapse into daydreams, unless she was working on a mural. Then she was likely to drift off into that creative place in her heart and mind that brought her so much joy.
But when they were just standing around? Talking?
He supposed it should have been expected, though.
Mrs. Ruley, their shared nanny, could do only so much in the forty hours a week she worked for them. And with both Holly and Travis working full-time, parenting solo, and Christmas coming up faster than a speeding train…
She had a right to be distracted, he thought as he watched her sort through her mail. But not… unhappy. "Holly?" he asked, wondering why her hands were shaking and her face had abruptly gone so pale. "What is it?"
"I don't know," she whispered. She tore open the envelope in her hands, removed the letter and began to read. Her face paled even more. "Oh, no," she cried.
Travis glanced at the kids—they were still entranced by the antics of the monkey and the man in the yellow hat.
His hand around Holly's shoulder, Travis guided her into the mudroom, off the kitchen, where they could talk quietly without being overheard by their brood. "Tell me," he insisted.