Excerpt from ALMOST PERFECT, May 2003

CHAPTER ONE

Way back in third grade, Jake Meredith decided that only a complete fool would set himself up for failure. Thank God he'd learned that lesson early on.

It was a game plan that had served him well over the years.

Until fate threw him a curve.

Surveying the barn and corrals, Jake stood at the kitchen sink of the main ranch house and shook his head. Buckaroo Ranch. What a waste of good land and stock.

He'd had his fill of this place years ago and left home on his eighteenth birthday. But now, in spite of his distaste for city slickers and dude ranches, the whole kit and caboodle was his.

And since his sister had taken deposits for reservations a year in advance, and he didn't have a clue what she'd done with the money, he was stuck running the place until the guests had a chance to play cowboy for a week.

But that wasn't the bulk of his problems.

He glanced across the kitchen at the eighteen-month-old boy who was making a godawful mess with his bowl of spaghetti. When their eyes met, the toddler flashed a big grin, oozing with red-tinged slobber. Jake wasn't sure whether Sam was pleased with the taste of marinara or just plain happy to smear sauce and noodles in his hair and all over the highchair.

Rosa was going to have a hell of a mess to clean up, but she wouldn't complain. She never did. He supposed the nanny loved Kayla and Sam like her own children, which was lucky for them.

Not that Jake didn't love his niece and nephew, he did. They were the neatest kids he'd ever known, and he had always indulged them like a good uncle should. But one day, the girl and boy who adored him would learn he was a fraud--something they were bound to find out soon, now that he was their full-time guardian.

He took one last look at the court documents that had just arrived, the legal ruling that sealed the fates of his sister's kids, as well as his own. He shoved the papers back into the manila envelope and tossed the whole legal package on top of the fridge--out of sight, but certainly not out of mind.

Jake combed a hand through his hair. He wasn't any good at family stuff. Never had been. Hell, everyone he'd ever loved had failed him, one way or another. Even Sharon, his sister, who'd died and left him in a lurch.

When he and Sharon were kids, she'd tried to look out for him, to keep him on the straight and narrow. He'd grumbled and complained about her nagging, of course, but it had been comforting to know she loved him in spite of his rebellious nature. And that she'd always be there for him.

Times like today, when things were really piling up on him, he would always touch base with his sister. Dying wasn't her fault, but he'd felt deserted, just the same.

Of course, he'd come up pretty damn short on the dependability scale himself. He'd never been one to check in with his sister on a regular basis, so by the time Rosa finally tracked him down at a rodeo in Wyoming and relayed the grim news of the car accident, it was too late to attend the funeral services for Sharon or her husband.

The phone rang, interrupting his thoughts. He snatched the receiver from the wall. "Hello."

A woman's voice on the other end seemed to stutter and falter. "Jake?"

"Yeah?"

"It's me, Maggie."

Thoughts of Maggie Templeton brought a slow smile to his lips. In his mind, she was still seventeen, tall and awkward, with hair the color of corn silk and a splatter of freckles across her nose. As a teenager, she'd been the best friend he'd ever had. His only friend, he supposed.

They hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, but they talked on the telephone periodically, catching up on major life events like marriage, divorce and death.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

Jake looked at five-year-old Kayla, then at Sam. What was he going to say in front of the kids? That he was struggling to be the kind of father his sister would want him to be? That he was scared spitless he wouldn't measure up? "I'm doing okay."

"Is Rosa still working for you?"

Jake didn't know what he'd do without the woman who'd taken care of Sharon's kids since birth. Rosa wasn't just his baby-sitter, housekeeper, office manager and reader of bedtime stories; she was a blessed saint. "I doubled her salary, just to make sure she wouldn't quit."

"That's great," Maggie said. "I . . . uh . . ." She seemed to hesitate over the words, so he waited for her to speak. For a moment he thought the line had disconnected.

"You what?"

She blew out a sigh. "I need a date on Saturday night. And I thought that, if I purchased your airline ticket, you might come help me out."

"Be your date?" He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Yes. As a favor to me."

It wasn't like Maggie to ask for help, and he figured this phone call hadn't been easy to make. "Are you still living in Boston?"

"For the time being. I'm going to be moving to California in a couple of months."

Something didn't add up. He'd never been one to pry, although he did wonder about the details. "Don't they have any eligible men in Boston? Why are you asking me?"

"Because I want a friend to escort me to a benefit dance, and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather go with."

Jake glanced at the Spaghetti Kid, just as Sam chucked a Melmac plate across the kitchen, littering the floor with noodles and splatters of sauce. Several strands of pasta dangled from his downy-fine hair, and Jake couldn't help shaking his head and smiling at the happy little boy.

At the kitchen table, five-year-old Kayla slowly sucked a long string of spaghetti into her mouth while concentrating on a picture book illustration of a bunch of roller-skating bugs parading through a strawberry patch. She'd been grumpy when he wouldn't read to her and Sam while they ate, something Rosa often did.

But Jake refused to read out loud. It put too damn much pressure on him to perform, and it brought back too many memories of childhood.

He looked at the spaghetti-riddled floor. Escaping Texas and going to Boston for a day or two suddenly sounded very appealing. "Okay."

"Are you sure? What about the kids?" she asked.

"Rosa's good with them, and they love her. Shoot, she's already raised three boys and a girl." Sam and Kayla were far better off with Rosa than a bachelor uncle who didn't know squat about kids.

"You're sure you don't mind?"

Mind getting away? Mind seeing Maggie again? "Not at all. I'll line things up around here, then let you know what time my flight arrives."
Dr. Maggie Templeton paced in front of the walkway that led to the terminal gate. What made her think she could call a man out of the blue and ask him to do a favor like this?

Desperation, that's what. And a hospital benefit she didn't want to attend.

Maybe she should have feigned an attack of appendicitis. Or put a cast on her leg. She could have called the dentist and scheduled an unnecessary root canal. How was that for desperation?

She blew out a ragged breath. No matter how plausible the excuse, it didn't matter. Dr. Margaret Templeton would arrive on time, dressed to the hilt, looking comfortable on the outside, while childish insecurities ran amok on the inside. At least she'd have Jake at her side. But Maggie wasn't sure that seeing him again would make her feel any more secure.

A voice over the intercom announced his plane had arrived from Houston, and her steps faltered.

He was here. Would she recognize him after all these years?

Maggie stood transfixed, searching the steady stream of disembarking passengers for someone who resembled the gangly teenager who'd once been her best friend.

Did he still wear his hair long and slightly unkempt? Had he finally grown taller than her? Did he still prefer Wrangler jeans, a worn Stetson and scuffed boots?

As a tall, lean cowboy, dressed in black, sauntered through the door, her breath caught. Jake?

Bright blue eyes, the color of a Texas summer sky, crinkled in amusement, and he flashed her a reckless smile. "Hot damn, Maggie. You grew up good."

"So did you," she managed to say.

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