Merri Duncan turned to her best friend, Emily McCabe Reeves, aware she had never been so nervous in her life.
"That obvious, hmm?" Merri drawled, glad she had thought to get a babysitter for the twins. Right now, as they all waited for their beloved guest of honor to show, she could barely contain herself, never mind two rowdy preschoolers.
Over two hundred other local residents and family friends had gathered on the Armstrong ranch. Texas barbecue scented the air. A country and western band warmed up next to the dance floors set up on the lawn.
"I know the last time Chase was home was pretty awful," Emily commiserated.
"An understatement," Merri murmured back. Together, she and Chase had weathered the aftermath of a horrific helicopter crash, and buried her sister and his brother. Then Merri had taken custody of Sasha and Scott's eight-week-old infants, and Chase had headed back to the army field hospital in the Middle East.
Four and a half years had passed.
Chase hadn't been back to the States since.
Although Merri and the twins had heard from him sporadically—mostly at Christmas, and on birthdays—the big, strapping Texan never disclosed what he intended to do, long-term.
If anything… All Merri knew for sure was that he had finally completed his tour of duty and had accepted a job at the Laramie Community Hospital.
She and the twins were now settled comfortably on the once-luxurious ranch where Chase and his brother had grown up, and where her business, though still small, was thriving. In addition to the excitement and upheaval of Chase's homecoming, the Christmas holidays were approaching and Thanksgiving was just a few days away.
Merri released a tremulous sigh. Life sure had a way of taking unexpected turns.
And she had the nagging feeling that as soon as she and Chase talked about the information she had accidentally discovered, her already complicated life would take another unscripted detour. Merri knew from firsthand experience that the circumstances of the twins' origins would not be dealt with as simply as she had initially hoped. And soon, like it or not, Chase would realize that, too.
Misreading the reason behind Merri's obvious apprehension, Emily gave her friend an encouraging hug. "Stop worrying! It's going to be a great welcome home party for Chase."
Merri sure hoped so. The returning trauma surgeon deserved to be celebrated for the true hero he was.
And she…she needed to stop agonizing.
Chase was a decent guy, and he would do the right thing, just as he always had. In fact, that was likely the reason he was back—to lend a hand in the way only he could.
Although what he would want to tell people about the truth of their situation was as much a mystery as it ever had been.
Emily smiled and lifted her arm in an excited wave as her husband's pickup truck turned into the long, tree-lined drive. "Here they come now!"
Merri slipped into the ranch house and emerged with the twins in hand.
Curly blond heads tilted upward and their big brown eyes gleamed excitedly as they watched the truck come to a halt. A tall man emerged from the passenger seat, and when Merri got a look at Chase Armstrong, her heart took a little leap.
She hadn't realized until this very moment how scared she had been. That something would happen over there and the sexy physician wouldn't come back. At least not alive.
But there was no question the ruggedly handsome, sandy-haired man was very much alive.
His skin was tanned, his shoulders every bit as wide and inviting as she recalled, his body lean and hard and solidly muscled enough to make her insides quiver. He should have looked tired and unkempt after the long flight, but his face was cleanly shaved, his short, clipped hair as neat and clean as the army fatigues he wore.
Dark sunglasses shaded his beautiful amber eyes, and a slow grin tugged at the corners of his sensual lips as, with an unhurried stride, he moved toward the crowd waiting to greet him.
A cheer went up.
Caught in the raw emotion of the moment, Merri found herself cheering, too.
The crowd parted. Chase continued on his mission, coming closer still. Then he was standing directly before her and the kids, lazily taking off his sunglasses and slipping them into the pocket of his shirt.
At six foot four, he had always dwarfed her five-foot-seven frame. Today was no exception; she had to tilt her head back to look up at him.
And as their eyes met and held, there was absolutely no clue in his about what he intended to do about this fix they were in. Or when he planned to talk to her about the biggest conundrum of all.
Chase knew coming back to the only real home he had ever known was going to be difficult.
Just being on the ranch reminded him of the family he'd lost and the nonstop disappointment life had brought his way.
Seeing the crowd gathered on the property he could no longer call home made it even harder.
It reminded him of the aftermath of the dual funerals, when everyone who had ever cared about Scott and Sasha had stopped by to pay their respects. And the burials of his parents, in the half-dozen years before that.
There had been a lot of loss on the Broken Arrow Ranch. Now the future of it was embodied in the two impossibly cute preschoolers holding on to Merri Duncan's hands.
Their sweet, cherubic appearance was no surprise. He had seen dozens of photos and the occasional video of the kids during the years he had been overseas, so was well-versed in the milestone events of Jeffrey and Jessalyn's infant and toddler days.
But Merri had always managed to keep herself out of the photos.
And now Chase could not help but be stunned by the changes he saw. Her shoulder-length, golden-blond hair was still thick and silky, her face just as elegantly beautiful, her wide, friendly smile as arresting as ever. But there was a soft, maternal air about her now. A tenderness in the way she gently clasped the twins' hands, and held them even closer to her sides. A new maturity—as well as a lingering question—in her pretty, glacier-green eyes. And a lithe, sexy body that made him all too aware just how long it had been since he'd been physically close to any woman. Too long.
Their eyes locked and his heartbeat kicked up.
Warning himself to play it cool, he leaned over to give her a casual one-armed hug and a light kiss on the brow.
"Welcome home," she said in a husky voice.
Her emotion was contagious. Chase cleared his throat to get rid of the catch in his own voice. "Thanks." He released Merri as quickly and efficiently as he had hugged her, and then knelt before the kids.
Jeffrey and Jessalyn regarded him shyly.
"Say hello to Chase," Merri prodded.
An awkward silence fell. The twins stared at him mutely, probably still deciding if he was friend or foe. To his disappointment, they seemed inclined to put him in the latter category.
Deciding it would be best not to push them, Chase looked into their eyes. He smiled at them reassuringly once again, letting them know they could trust him, then stood. "It's okay," he told a concerned Merri under his breath. "We'll have a chance to get acquainted later."
Eyes glistening, she nodded, as if suddenly not trusting herself to speak.
Chase knew exactly how she felt. Confronted with the only real family he had left, he had a lump in his throat, too.
He had never expected to feel so alone and adrift at this point in his life. But maybe that would change now that he was back in Laramie. Back where he'd grown up, Chase thought, as familiar figures came forward to shake his hand and give him a hug.
"Hey, Chase!" His old high school classmate, Travis Anderson, stepped up to shake his hand. "Didn't think we'd ever see you again!"
"Great to have you back in Texas!" His former high school English teacher beamed. "Don't leave us again, you understand? We missed you!"
"I was beginning to think you'd left us for good," the owner of Sonny's Barbecue teased, giving him a slap on the back…and a hug. "Come by and see me when you get a little time."
And so it went. Everyone complaining good-naturedly about how long he'd been gone, worrying he'd up and leave Laramie County again, warning him that if he did take off again their hearts would be broken beyond repair. The twins' eyes got even wider as they soaked it all in.
"I think you'd all survive," Chase joshed back when the rush of sentiment got a little much. Any more of this and they'd have him getting all weepy, too.
He looked around for help. Merri seemed to have faded into the background, but members of the band—also old pals of his—got the hint. They immediately started playing a rowdy rendition of the perennial Texas party favorite, "Friends in Low Places."
An appreciative roar went up. Everyone joined in the raucous singing and swaying. Dancing soon followed. And, to Chase's joy, the real homecoming began.
Hours later, Chase and Merri stood side by side as the last of the taillights disappeared down the drive. It was the first time they'd been alone since he arrived, and Chase was more than a little aware of her. Not that this was a surprise. The first time he had seen her, at his brother's engagement party, he'd wanted her. But Merri had been living with another guy and practically engaged, so he'd done the honorable thing and walked away.
She turned to him now with heartfelt apology. "I'm sorry about the cool reception you received from the twins."
Cognizant that he probably should have expected as much, given how little contact they'd had, Chase shrugged. "Don't worry about it."
"I tried to prepare them for actually meeting you, instead of just seeing your face on the screen in a video chat, or hearing your voice on the phone."
Which, Chase reflected, given some of the rough-and-tumble sites where he had been stationed, hadn't happened all that frequently. He tore his eyes from the curves beneath Merri's snug-fitting T-shirt, cropped denim jacket and jeans. Her burgundy western boots were nice, too. Obviously custom, from Monroe's. He recognized the signature Texas rose hidden in the fancy feminine embroidery adorning the sides.
"But I'm not sure they believed it was really going to happen," Merri continued, oblivious of the impact she was having on him. "Or understood what your coming here would mean to them." She released a sigh. "Because at the time I told them, I wasn't sure if you were just coming for a visit or staying long-term."
Had she always smelled this good? Like lavender…and woman? Wishing he could make a move on her, without complicating things unnecessarily, Chase shrugged. "I'm sorry about that." Because the kids were already inside, fast asleep, he remained on the porch, speaking quietly with Merri. His gaze roved her upturned face. Although she'd been gorgeous in daylight, she looked even more radiant in the soft glow of the porch light.
Gruffly, he confessed, "I didn't know what I was going to do myself till a few days ago." It had been a tough decision to make. Complicated by the fact that if he came back to stay, Merri was going to expect him to be an uncle to the kids, and behave in a brotherly fashion to her. And his feelings for her were anything but fraternal. Although, thankfully for both of them, she didn't know that.
Merri studied him, a new realism shining in her lovely green eyes. As if the fairy-tale wishes she had once harbored had faded, and she knew now what life was—and what it wasn't. She stepped a little closer, further inundating him in her deliciously feminine scent. "You were really thinking of reenlisting?"
Chase ignored the mounting desire generated by her closeness; and the sight of her running a delicate hand through the soft, thick layers of her honey-blond hair. "It's important work. I made a lot of good friends over there. But…there's important work to be done here, too, and I also have a lot of friends here, so…I finally decided to come home."
Chase saw her shiver a little in the cooling night air. She pulled the edges of her jacket together, but not before he noted her physical reaction to the declining temperature.
"I'm glad you did." Flushing self-consciously, she said, "I know the kids are, too. They just don't know how to express it yet. In any case, I prepared the guest room for you."
"You don't have to put me up tonight," Chase said. "I can sleep in an on-call room at the hospital, till I have time to find a place." Thanks to the local auto dealer's cooperation in making an advance sale, he even had a brand-new pickup truck to drive, waiting in the parking area next to the ranch house.
A mixture of disappointment and guilt colored her expression. "This is your home."
"It was once," Chase agreed, his tone flat, as old decisions neither of them had anything to do with came back to haunt them once again. He brushed aside the hurt he'd felt for years now. The hurt that had helped keep him away, and made him wonder if he should return to Laramie County at all. "But not anymore."
Merri wondered if this was the reason behind the rift that had existed between Chase and his younger brother. One that had seemed to only get bigger as time passed, reaching a point of no return shortly before Chase went off to war. Which, of course, made his eventual generosity regarding the birth of the twins even more difficult for her to understand.
Now that he was back, however, and going to be part of the twins' lives, it was time she rectified that.
"I never understood why your mother willed the entire property to Scott." The one-sided terms of the late Lydia Armstrong's estate had shocked everyone when the will had been read. Especially Chase, Merri remembered, because he hadn't known the disinheritance was coming.
He glanced up at the half-moon overhead, then restlessly walked the length of the porch that lined the large stone-and-cedar ranch house. His gaze traveled over the manicured lawn and the lush shrubbery, to the now-empty pastures. He didn't seem to find fault with anything he saw in the pastoral scene. Which was no surprise to Merri. She had done a good job as conservator of the property, on behalf of the twins, who had inherited it all upon their father's death.