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Their Texas Christmas Gift by Cathy Gillen Thacker

THEIR TEXAS CHRISTMAS GIFT

Chapter One

“There’s another fella here to see you!” Miss Mim announced merrily.

Faith Lockhart-Hewitt looked up from the accounts-receivable spreadsheet she was working on. And asked, from the way the petite, red-haired senior was beaming, “In military uniform?”

The retired librarian and longtime resident of Laramie Gardens sighed and fanned her face, as if she was about to faint. “Oh, my, yes…!”

Faith grimaced. She knew the Navy SEALs that kept coming to see her meant well. But these visits were hard as heck on her nevertheless.

Evidently recalling just how many visitors she’d had, now that Thanksgiving was almost here, Miss Mim offered sympathetically, “I could tell the lieutenant you don’t have time to see him this afternoon.”

Faith vetoed the kind offer with a shake of her head. “No. He’ll just come back tomorrow or the next day.” Figuring she might as well get the condolence call over with, she cast a fond glance at the infant sleeping soundly in the buggy beside her, then rose reluctantly.

“Did he give his name?” she asked.

“Zach Callahan.”

No one she knew then. Although whether that would make this meeting easier or harder was impossible to say.

“Want me to keep an eye on Quinn?” the older woman asked eagerly.

“Please.” Faith shut down her computer screen, then stepped out from behind her desk. “He shouldn’t wake up for at least another half an hour, but if he does…”

“I’ll wheel your sweet baby boy to you right away!”

“Thanks.” She ran a hand through her hair. Wondering if she should at least hazard a look in the mirror before she met the man, then figured there was no point. It wasn’t like she would ever see him again after today. “Where is the soldier?”

“The solarium in the west wing.”

One of the most comfortable rooms in the assisted-living facility, it was generally used for private family meetings, or quiet activities like knitting and reading. “Anyone else in there?”

Miss Mim waved her hand. “A few. Not to worry, dear. I cleared the room for you.”

Faith was grateful for the privacy. These meet-and-greets could get abruptly awkward or emotional or both. “Thank you.” She squared her shoulders and gathered her courage, then promised, “I won’t be long.”

“Don’t worry about us, dear.” Miss Mim paused to give her a reassuring hug and a gentle pat on the back. “Take your time.”

Faith walked through the halls, past the large community room, the art studio and the dining hall, her steps slowing and her heartbeat increasing with every step. She could tell by the hopeful smiles of some of the female residents that they had seen her visitor. What no one seemed to understand was that she wasn’t interested in another romance. She’d already had the love of her life. And now, the baby boy she was going to adopt in just a few short days…

Squaring her shoulders, she rounded the corner and caught her first glimpse of her visitor.

He was standing with his back to her, legs braced apart, hands on his hips.

Like most special operators, he was hard, rippling muscle from head to toe. His dark brown hair was cut to regulation, and the military-issue fatigues that adorned his six-foot-four-inch frame only seemed to emphasize the width of his broad shoulders, taut middle and long, sturdy limbs. Yet despite this man’s huge, imposing figure, his big body was quiet as he continued to stare out the window, oblivious to her presence.

She had half a mind to run, but Faith forced herself to move just past the threshold. She stopped and said, “Lieutenant Callahan?”

That caught his attention.

He turned to face her. And she felt the full impact of his masculine strength.

Damn, but he was good-looking! With chiseled features, a wide unsmiling mouth and eyes that were a deep sea-blue, and oh, so familiar to her.

*

If Zach Callahan hadn’t known better, he would have thought Faith Lockhart-Hewitt knew exactly why he was here. But that was ridiculous. No one knew but him, and the private investigator he had hired.

He moved toward her, extending a hand and unable to help but note how incredibly beautiful she was. She was a good seven or eight inches shorter than him. Slender-framed. Her white sweater clung to her full breasts, and her brown skirt showed off her narrow waist, hips and shapely legs. But it was her chin-length strawberry-blond hair, feminine features and long-lashed emerald eyes that really caught his attention. Made him realize he really needed to get on with this. Tough as it was going to be.

He clasped her palm. “Mrs. Hewitt. I’m Lieutenant Zach Callahan.”

She returned his grasp politely before abruptly letting go and taking a step back. Huffing out a breath, she looked him in the eye. “Here to pay your condolences. I know.”

Actually, he hadn’t planned to bring that up. Not right away, anyway. But now that she had, he nodded soberly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

She surveyed him dispassionately. “Did you know my husband?”

“Yes. We attended a six-week training course together, several years ago.”

“I see.” Her eyes clouded over.

Compelled to say something comforting, Zach continued, “He was a fearless soldier. Smart. Dedicated. Quick to react, no matter what the situation.”

Her expression grew even more remote. She didn’t seem to want to hear how admired her late spouse had been. “Yes, well, thank you for stopping by, Lieutenant Callahan. I appreciate your condolences.” She moved as if to show him the door.

He lifted a hand. “But that’s not why I’m here,” he said.

She stopped. Waited. Somewhat impatiently.

“I’m here to talk about the child you are adopting.”

Every inch of her delectable body went still. For a second, she barely seemed to breathe. “Quinn?”

A mixture of guilt and determination roared through him. “Yes.”

She came toward him once again. Looking every inch the fiercely protective mama bear now. Eyes sparkling with emotion, she lifted her chin in challenge. Which did not surprise Zach one bit. For four months now, she had been caring for the infant, whose mother had died in a car accident while in the middle of moving across the country. “What about him?” she demanded in a tone that said she had become far more than a temporary foster mother to the boy.

There was no easy way to say it.

“I think he’s mine.”

*

Faith stared at Zach in shock. Certain this must be some very bad joke. “There’s no father listed on his birth certificate!” she blurted before she could stop herself.

He met her gaze equably. “It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think Annette wanted me to be part of our child’s life.”

Her heart pounding, she folded her arms militantly across her chest. “And why would that be?”

Acceptance tautened his handsome features. “Because we had ended our relationship,” he stated with a tinge of regret. “And I’m gone more than I’m around.”

How well she knew that lifestyle. Pushing aside the old bitterness and remembered loneliness, she took a closer look at the insignia patch on his camo uniform and forced herself to lower her voice. “You’re a Navy SEAL?”

“Yes.”

Which meant he had gone through some of the toughest training around and would be a formidable adversary. If it came to that. But it might not. This could all be just a terrible mistake.

She moved away from him, her back to the late autumn sunshine streaming in through the windows. “Assuming what you suspect is correct, why haven’t you claimed your child before now?”

“I didn’t know I had a child until a few weeks ago, when I got back from a three-month mission.”

She knew about those, too. “In which you were incommunicado the whole time,” she mused.

He nodded curtly.

That explained part of it, she thought sympathetically. But not all. She straightened. “What about the two months prior to that?” she persisted. “The time around when Quinn was actually born? Annette gave birth to him nearly five months ago.”

He leveled his gaze on hers. “And we broke up six months before that.”

Faith did some fast calculations. “So she would have been pregnant?”

“While we were still together? Yes.” He squinted. “Annette had to have been in her first trimester.”

Wary of letting him into her and Quinn’s lives in even the slightest way, she declared, “And you had no idea.”

He went very still. “All I can tell you is that after years of her saying being tied down was the last thing she desired…that she suddenly wanted to get married. Pronto. But only if I resigned my commission and went with her wherever she found a job after she completed her surgical residency, which was set to happen in another month.”

Faith didn’t care much for ultimatums, either. “Which you weren’t willing to do.”

His jaw tightened. Broad shoulders flexing, he folded his arms in front of him. “She knew I was career military when we first got involved.”

And still was, from the looks of it. Restless, she paced the cozy solarium, catching a whiff of his brisk, masculine scent as she moved. Damn, but he was physically fit. Not that she should be noticing… “Who ended it?”

Seemingly oblivious to the unexpected jolt of physical awareness he aroused in her, he grimaced. “She did.” Then his gaze narrowed. “But we had taken a break a couple of times before, when one of our careers got too demanding. I figured when Annette cooled off, she might want us to be on again. So, when I got back from my last assignment, I went to see her. And found out she’d had a baby on her own, and then had left Virginia, to take a job elsewhere. ‘Start over,’ she said. She had promised her friends she would get in touch with them when she got settled, but then she never did. No one thought too much about it at the time. Everyone in her residency program was starting over somewhere, and she had always been something of a loner. I had to hire a private investigator to find out what had happened to her. Which led me here.”

She studied his contained expression, the fatigue bracketing his eyes that said this had been quite the emotional ordeal for him. Learning Annette had died, and then finding out he might have a son she hadn’t bothered to tell him about, must have upended his entire world. How could it not? Despite everything, her heart went out to him. “How long were you involved with her?” she asked softly.

He scrubbed a weary hand over his face. Let his hand drop to his side. “Ten years, off and on. Since shortly after we both graduated from college.”

She shifted her gaze over his strong, suntanned neck, past the grim set of his lips, to his intent blue eyes. “That’s a long time to be with someone.”

He shrugged. “We were apart more than we were ever together.”

A tension-fraught silence fell between them. Faith drew a deep, stabilizing breath. She had to know a lot more about this man, if he was here to lay claim to her little boy. Because no way was she going to give up Quinn now, to a soldier who would seldom be around. Needing to see what she was missing, she said, “I still don’t understand why Annette wouldn’t have told you if she were having your child.”

“I don’t, either. She had to know I would have done the honorable thing.”

She looked him over critically. “And married her.” Out of duty.

He nodded with no hesitation whatsoever. “Yes.”

“Well, maybe Annette didn’t want a marriage born out of obligation.” She watched Zach’s frown deepen.

“Or,” she continued, her mood sobering all the more, even as hope that this would work out for her and her son flared again, “maybe you aren’t Quinn’s biological father after all.” Maybe that was why Annette hadn’t told Zach she was pregnant!

The same possibility had clearly occurred to him, too. He inhaled sharply. “Either way, I have to know.”

Was it getting hot in here or what? Willing herself to cool off, she said, “Which is why you’re here.”

Another curt nod. He kept his gaze locked with hers. “I want to do a DNA test.”

Panic roiled through her. She had no idea what rights she had, if any, as a foster mother in a situation like this. “And if I say no?” she challenged quietly, not about to back down, either.

The formidable Navy SEAL was back. “I can hire a lawyer, and go to court to assert my paternity, and then force you, or social services, to allow one.”

How well she knew that. So she threw herself on his mercy instead. “I’m going to adopt Quinn in a few days.”

He nodded. Apparently, his private investigator had told him that, too. “And I’ll be the first to cheer you on,” he promised her, “if it turns out I’m wrong about this.”

Another quiver of fear rippled through her. “And if you’re right in your assumption?” she demanded anxiously. “Then what?”