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His Plan for the Quintuplets by Cathy Gillen Thacker

HIS PLAN FOR THE QUINTUPLETS

Chapter One

“I wish you had told me you were coming back to Laramie to take care of this today.” Gabriel Lockhart strolled up the driveway of the home Susannah Alexander had inherited six months before. Exuding the cool masculine confidence of a born-and-raised Texan, he met her at the rear door of the half-filled U-Haul truck, next to the loading ramp. “I would have organized a group of people to help you move.”

Wasn’t that just like her old frenemy, Susannah thought resentfully. Ready and willing to volunteer others to get involved. While simultaneously emerging the hero without really giving anything of himself.

She propped her hands on her hips and tipped her head up at the ruggedly handsome doctor, wishing she hadn’t had a secret crush on him since, oh, forever. It would make brushing him off that much easier. She stared into his eyes, trying not to get lost in the mesmerizing depths. “What makes you so sure I haven’t already done that?” she asked sweetly.

He scoffed, as if he knew her better than she knew herself. Squinting down at her, he let his gaze rove over her face and challenged softly, “Have you?”

No. Of course she hadn’t. That would have made this situation far too sentimental. And it was hard enough as it was.

All business now, Gabe reached for the cell phone in his pocket. “It’s not too late for me to make some calls…”

Glad her new golden retriever puppy, Daisy, was still asleep inside the house, and therefore would not distract them, she lifted a staying hand. “You don’t need to do that, Doc. I’ve got it.” And she did.

He regarded her skeptically, looking big and tough enough to manage all her problems. “You’re really going to clear out the place and load this entire truck by yourself?”

The air between them crackled with sexual tension. Her pulse racing, she inquired, “What are you talking about?”

He shrugged. “I assume you’re going to put Brett and Belinda’s home on the market, now that the will has cleared probate and the property is yours, free and clear.”

He really had been keeping up on her business.

Then again, Laramie, Texas, was the kind of community where everyone knew everyone else’s heartbreak. As well as their joy.

The legal finalization of her twin sister and his former best friend’s estate would have been remarked upon. A lot. Although she had gotten the bulk of the married couple’s financial holdings—the payout from the lethal accident, their life insurance, real estate and two cars—some of the belongings, like Brett’s CD and vinyl collection and his sports memorabilia, had been left to Gabe.

While she considered just how much to tell her late brother-in-law’s best friend, Susannah tried hard not to notice how great Gabe looked in a rumpled blue button-up that casually draped his broad chest and worn jeans that did equally nice things for his long legs and muscular thighs. His boots were scuffed and cowboy tough, and in deference to the hot June afternoon, his sleeves had been rolled up to his elbows, revealing strong, sinewy forearms. As usual, his thick, golden-brown hair was in need of a cut, his square jaw clean shaven. With effort, she returned her gaze to his captivating whiskey-brown eyes. “I’m guessing you’re here to take your things, then?”

Seemingly as mesmerized by her as she was by him, Gabe shook his head. “Actually, I was just driving by to see if you had shown up yet.” His expression gentled, and his voice dropped another low, husky notch. “I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Not as well as she would like. That was for sure. Knowing it would do her no good to fib to someone who knew her as well as he did, she admitted, “Probably as well as you would think.”

“Still grieving,” he presumed.

A wave of emotion had her swallowing around the sudden tightness in her throat. Determined not to cry, she fought back her feelings and said, “Aren’t you?”

The look in his eyes said the answer to that was yes. Lifting a noncommittal hand, he pointed out in a low, rough tone, “It’s only been a little over six months.”

Susannah blew out an unsteady breath, recollecting what a tsunami that had been. “And the first year is the hardest. At least that’s what people always say.”

He looked past her, at the Craftsman-style home on Laurel Avenue that had held all the late couple’s hopes and dreams.

“Nevertheless, life goes on,” he countered.

The two of them knew that better than most, Susannah mused sorrowfully, having both tragically lost their parents during their early teens.

After a few rocky years, Gabe and the rest of his seven other orphaned siblings had eventually been fostered, then adopted by Carol and Robert Lockhart and brought here to Laramie County. Whereas Susannah and her twin had been moved from Beaumont to Wichita Falls, where they had been raised by their elderly aunt Elda, who had done her duty while privately considering them a burden. Susannah and Belinda had left her home when they turned eighteen, headed for college, and, because it was what their aunt had seemed to prefer, had never looked back.

Now, she too was gone. Killed by a chronic lung ailment.

Which left Susannah with no family whatsoever. Except for the golden retriever puppy she’d just adopted. While Gabe was still part of a big, lively, loving crew. Not that he seemed as attached to them as she would be, in his position. Instead, he seemed eager to leave the country completely and make his own way in the world.

“Which is why,” Gabe continued, oblivious to her thoughts, “I assumed you were selling Brett and Belinda’s house, so you’d be able to make a fresh start.”

His cool authority rankled. “Well, as usual, Doc, you’re wrong about a lot of things.” She took hold of the handle and pushed the two-wheeled hand truck back up the ramp, into the rear of the U-Haul. “I’m not selling this home.” She paused to look at him long and hard. “I’m moving in.”

*

Gabe stared at Susannah in shock. She was standing in a wedge of summer sunlight, her face pale except for the riot of color spreading across her cheeks. She had lost weight in the months since the funeral, looking almost too thin in a scoop-necked peach T-shirt, tan knee-length cargo shorts and sneakers. And yet her natural beauty shone through, in her silky, shoulder-length honey-blond hair and oval face with delicate features. Her sea-blue eyes. And kissably soft lips…

“What about your life in Houston?” he asked, walking up the ramp to join her in the bed of the U-Haul. Which seemed to be packed with boxes of what he assumed were her belongings and a mattress and box spring. Nothing else.

Turning her back to him, she reached over to add a carton marked Books to the base of the hand truck. “I sold my condo.”

Not about to stand around idly when a lady needed help, he reached for a second carton and set it atop the first. “And what about your job?”

She added a third. “I quit.” She tried to turn the wheels, and just as he had predicted, found it too heavy for her to maneuver. With a frown, she looked down in frustration and said, “I hated being a graphic designer, and life is short, so…”

He took charge of the dolly for her and wheeled it down the ramp, toward the house. He paused at the bottom of the steps leading up to the spacious front porch, with the cushioned wood furniture and chain-hung swing. “Do you really think this is the place to start over?” Where every square inch reminded her of the twin sister and brother-in-law she’d lost?

She put out a hand to stop him from taking the boxes up onto the porch and moved to block his way. The tension that had existed between them from the very first moment they’d met, years before, simmered between them now. “Do you really think you should be asking me that?” she challenged, a flash of annoyance crossing her face. “I mean, it’s not really your business, is it?”

Actually, although she didn’t know it, Gabe thought sagely, it was his business. Thanks to the promise he had made to Brett and Belinda right before they’d left on their ill-fated second honeymoon. At a time when the usually fiercely independent Susannah had been incredibly, unexpectedly vulnerable. A fact that had fired up his valiant side and made him want to protect and comfort her. “Someone has to look after you.”

Without warning, temper flashed in her eyes. “Well, it shouldn’t be you, Doc, of that I’m certain.”

No question, he wouldn’t have volunteered. But since Brett and Belinda had drafted him to do so, and he’d agreed, he had no choice. Not that Susannah’d made it easy on him the last six months or so, in steadfastly avoiding his attempts to get in touch with her since the funeral.

Her delicate blond brows lowering over her pretty eyes, she flashed him a smile that was filled with both fire and ice. “Especially given the fact that you’re about to go off to another part of the world with Physicians Without Borders. Again.”

Funny. Most people saw his efforts to bring medical care where there was none noble. Scoffing, he folded his arms across his chest. “You really resent me for that?”

With equal parts determination and grit, Susannah tried to move the hand truck up the porch steps. And again it was way too heavy. “I resent the fact that you tried to get Brett to join you on your first mission when he was just about to marry Belinda.”

Except it hadn’t happened. His best friend and fellow physician had been as devoted to the community where they had grown up and completed their residencies as he was ready to venture away from it.

He elbowed her aside and easily accomplished what she could not, taking the loaded hand truck all the way up the steps and leaving it where she pointed. Finished, he continued to defend his actions. “It was only for two months, and our expertise was needed in Indonesia.”

Looking skeptical, she stepped closer to peer into the living room windows. Gabe followed her glance to the gorgeous golden retriever puppy still snoozing inside a metal crate. Satisfied all was okay with her pet, she countered, “I don't doubt that your medical skills will always be needed elsewhere, Gabe, but there are infectious diseases in Texas and plenty of people who need care here, too.” She paused to give him a pointed look beneath her fringe of thick golden lashes. “For those who want to be close to their friends and family and share in life’s challenges, anyway.”

He wasn’t running away from their mutual loss or his complicated family, no matter what she thought. “And your point is, darlin’?”

“Brett found a way to serve his community and provide much-needed medical care at the hospital here in Laramie.”

No doubt his late best friend had been a saint. The kind Susannah had been looking to lasso for herself—at least according to her twin. “Yeah, well, I’m not Brett,” Gabe returned gruffly. Which was why he had just quit his regular hospital job in nearby San Angelo, and signed up for his first five-year stint with PWB.  So he would be free to concentrate on international medicine full time.  Instead of just a few months every year.

“Oh, how well we all know that,” Susannah retorted.

Gabe understood why Susannah was lashing out. She had so much pain locked inside her, she had to put it somewhere. He also knew he was tough enough to take it. He watched her navigate her way down the steps with the hand truck and back up into the bed of the U-Haul, long, sexy legs moving purposefully, her silky skin gleaming in the sunshine. Reminding him he’d always wanted to make a move on her, but had known better, then and now. “You want to clarify that?”

“Brett knew how to really be there for the people in his life. Especially Belinda.”

He caught the wistfulness in her low tone. Knew her sister’s intensely happy marriage had been a source of relief, amazement and heartache for her. Guessing how lonely and inadvertently left out she’d often felt in the wake of such contentment, he narrowed his glance at her and goaded her into revealing more of her feelings, “And you think I don’t have Brett’s gift for getting close to others?”

“Not really, and especially not in a romantic way. I mean—” she surveyed the moving boxes still left to be unloaded, waving an airy hand “—it’s not that I think you’re a monk, mind you.” Her eyes sparkled with sudden mischief. “I’m sure you have had your share of the ladies.”

Choosing not to delve too deeply into her remark, he provoked, just as languidly, “And I’m sure you date, too.”

Regret battled with the sorrow in her expression. “Not…successfully.” She sighed. “Which is why I’m back here,” she continued, her usual stubborn optimism returning. “Because I’m going to forget all about trying to find the one and pursue having a family on my own.”

“With…?” he asked, fearing he already knew the answer to that, given the terms of her sister and brother-in-law’s will and the controversial property contained therein.

Her lips quavered slightly, leaving her looking achingly vulnerable once again. “The embryos Belinda and Brett left behind.”

He knew she was heartbroken and bereft, and he privately worried she’d never find the bliss her late family had left behind, but this was crazy talk, pure and simple. No way a woman still in the throes of mourning should undertake such a risky, life-upending proposition. Especially when a happy result was far from guaranteed. “Whoa, whoa!” He lifted his hands in emphasis. “Just because they left you their embryos does not mean you have to personally use them, Susannah.”

“And what would you have me do, Doc?” she shot back angrily, leaning in close and going toe to toe with him. “Destroy them? Because Brett and Belinda were quite clear that they did not want that to happen, even in the event of their death.”

Reminding himself she was still grieving and that he needed to tread carefully here, he suggested quietly, “You could donate them to another infertile couple.”

He watched her lips open in a round “oh” of distress.

“As was also offered as an option for you, if this situation ever came to pass,” he continued. And sadly, it had.

She shook her head, stepped back, distraught. “The thought of strangers taking on their embryos…” Moisture sparkled in her eyes. “No.”

“You don’t have to be related by blood to be a good parent,” he reminded her gruffly, knowing it to be true. Carol and Robert Lockhart had been wonderful to him and his seven siblings, loving them every bit as fiercely as his biological parents had. First through the foster-care system, then adoption.

Yes, there were still underlying issues for all of the siblings, he admitted to himself reluctantly. How could there not be, after experiencing a lightning strike on their Houston home during a terrible thunderstorm, the frantic escape that followed, followed by the eventual roof collapse that had killed both his folks in an instant?

Yet, at the end of the day, he and his sibs were still family. Emotional scars and all. Fiercely loved and protected by their adoptive parents.

Susannah pulled herself together and studied him, the tenuous politeness they had managed for the sake of their late loved ones showing signs of fracture yet again. “I wasn’t trying to insult you or your folks, Gabe.”

“And yet,” he couldn’t help but point out, feeling a little resentful himself now at her attitude, “you said it. And meant it.” Thereby implying that nonbiological ties are inferior to biological ones.

Susannah raked her teeth across her lower lip and tried again, choosing her words carefully. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I know you and your siblings were lucky enough to find a really wonderful second set of parents. But after Belinda and I were orphaned, we landed in a situation with an actual blood relative where that wasn’t the case. Which makes me a lot less trusting that everything will turn out all right, just because a situation looks good on paper.”

“Meaning?” he asked, aware this situation was becoming far too personal, far too fast.

Briefly, a flash of emotion that seemed to go far deeper than the situation they were in flickered in her gaze. “I have no intention of signing Brett and Belinda’s embryos over to someone else to raise. Not,” she said emphatically, coming close enough to inundate him with the wildflower scent of her perfume, “when I am still here to do it for them.”