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RACHEL ADAMS was at war. And the enemy outnumbered her two to one. Hands on her hips she surveyed two plump-cheeked, hazel-eyed cherubs smeared head to foot in baby lotion.
"Cody Anthony Adams," Rachel admonished the unrepentant ten-month-old, "if you can't keep your hands to yourself, I'm going to duct tape them to your diaper during your naps."
The sight of the greasy mess acted like scissors to nerves already frayed thin by exhaustion. Inhaling a calming breath, she reminded herself she was a mother now. That it had happened by default didn't matter. She'd made a vow to provide a home for her orphaned niece and nephew.
But boy did she have a lot to learn.
Already she'd discovered that children, like animals, sensed fear.
God knows she'd had little time to mourn the sister she'd barely known. Instead, Rachel had learned that messes happened. Literally. And repeatedly. And if she didn't keep things far enough out of Cody's reach, creatively. Usually with food, jelly, bananas, potatoes whatever he could get into when she turned her back. He liked to finger paint.And his favorite target was his sister.
Yuck, yuck, yuck.
Armed with rubber gloves and a tub of wet wipes she went on the attack, cleaning bodies, fingers and toes. And hair. Both babies needed a bath to complete the job. She made a mental note to move the crib another six inches from the changing table.
It struck her suddenly; this must be love. When forbearance overshadowed disgust and exasperation, letting affection rule, there could be no other explanation.
Sometime over the last six days she'd fallen in love. And it was huge, bigger than anything she'd ever experienced.
Thefeeling terrified her.
One thing was for sure, if her co-guardian ever deigned to show his face, she'd fight with everything she had to keep her niece and nephew.
"That's right, kiddos, you're stuck with me. I'm wholeheartedly, irrevocably a goner. And I'm keeping you. I promise that you will always know you are loved. You'll never have to worry about simply being tolerated or that you're here only because of a sense of duty.
"We're a family now," she whispered around the lump in her throat.
Stripping off the rubber gloves, Rachel ran her fingers through the slick darkness of Cody's hair. She kept looking for signs of her sister in the twins, and caught the occasional expression. But they must have gotten their dark hair and eyes from their father, because Crystal had brown eyes and light brown hair.
Crystal had gotten her coloring from her father. Rachel took after their mother with white-blond hair that she kept short and manageable and eyes that couldn't decide if they were blue or green.
A sudden knock at the front door interrupted her musings.
Rachel tensed. "Who could that be?" Wearily blowing a strand of hair from her eyes, she looked at the naked babies and considered ignoring the door. Whoever it was couldn't have come at a worse time.
Jolie began to cry. In the week the twins had been in her care, Rachel had learned that Cody liked to be naked but Jolie didn't.
A loner who preferred animals and plants to most people, Rachel didn't usually get visitors; not even her neighbors. But whoever banged on her door meant business, pounding again almost immediately.
Leaving the twins in the safety of the crib, making sure nothing else was within Cody's reach, Rachel made her way to the door reminding herself she wasn't a loner anymore. Through the peephole she saw a man halfturned away from her with hands tucked into the pockets of his dark jacket.
Hmm. Could this be Ford Sullivan, co-guardian of the twins? A Navy SEAL, his commanding officer had explained that Sullivan, aka Mustang, was out of the country when the twins were orphaned but he would be in touch as soon as he returned from assignment.
As far as she was concerned he could stay away.
She opened the door a few inches.
The man appeared bigger and broader than his image through the peephole. Much bigger. Much broader. Dressed in jeans and leather with dark glasses, biker boots and a five-O'clock shadow as accessories, his stance warned he wasn't someone to mess with. Snow fell from a gray sky, landing in white clusters on wide shoulders and dark hair.
This man bypassed bad and went straight to dangerous. A sucker for a good action movie, the sight of this tall, dark and menacing man sent unexpected, and unwanted, tingles down the back of Rachel's neck.
She crossed her fingers he was a motorist who'd run out of gas.
"Yes?" she said. She purposely did not ask if she could help him. Or smile. She'd found smiling only encouraged people to linger when most of the time she preferred her own company.
"Rachel Adams?" he asked. His deep baritone slid as smoothly as hot coffee through the icy afternoon air.
And just as smoothly and potently down her spine. "Yes." She shifted restlessly, thinking in the back of her mind that she needed to put her SUV in the barn.
"Your sister was Crystal Adams?"
So much for him being an anonymous motorist. Her head went back, and she narrowed her gaze on him.
"Ford Sullivan I presume?"
He cocked his head in acknowledgment. "Yes. I've come to collect the twins."
Hackles bristling, Rachel planted her hand dead center of his chest when the military man attempted to cross her threshold.
"Hold it, big guy. I don't know you. And so far, I don't like what I'm hearing."
Sullivan didn't give an inch, but his eyes narrowed and she felt the flex of muscle under her fingers, silent warnings of strength and resolution. He reached inside his jacket and came out with a wallet. He handed her his military ID.
She knew of Navy SEALS. They were elite, Special Forces who were dropped into hot spots all over the world. Granted, her knowledge came from movies and books, but there was no denying it rated as very high security stuff.
After a moment, he plucked his ID from her chilled fingertips. "Lady I've driven a long way, and it's cold out here."
Damn him. She didn't want him in her home, not when he talked about taking the twins away. Not when she wanted to keep the twins herself. But he had legal rights she couldn't ignore.
Reluctantly she stood aside and let him come inside. His commanding officer had said Sullivan was an honorable man. Right. His edges were so rough he practically chafed her skin as he stepped past her.
Blowing out a pent-up breath, she closed the door. Then clenched her teeth against the sight of him framed by the hearth fire. His big body made her blue and gray living room seem entirely too small.
And more disorderly than she'd realized. The babies came with a lot of clutter, and a lot of demands.
Picking up was a luxury that came right after sleeping and showering.
Jolie's cries from the bedroom reminded Rachel where she'd left off. Grim amusement lifted the corner of her mouth. She'd just been thinking she was at war and here stood a warrior.
He wanted the babies? She knew just how he could help.
"I'm so glad you're here." Pretending not to see the disdain with which Sullivan viewed her home, she hooked her arm through his and drew him into the bedroom. "Because the twins need a bath."
To his credit Sullivan didn't flinch. He took off his sunglasses revealing sharp blue, expressionless eyes. He tossed the glasses along with his leather jacket onto the bed.
Jolie immediately stopped crying to stare at Sullivan. Rachel didn't blame her. Soft black cotton defined muscular shoulders and hard pecks. His arms were strong and browned by the sun. He heated the room better than a fireplace.
Something she shouldn't be noticing. Still, she empathized when she cleaned the drool from Jolie's chin.
"What happened?" he asked as he stepped up to the crib.
Rachel took perverse pleasure in explaining Cody's little habit.
He hiked a dark brow. "You might want to check on them more often."
"Wow, why didn't I think of that?" Jerk. She lifted Jolie into her arms. "Grab Cody. The bathroom's through here."
Rachel flinched at the sight of dirty towels and overflowing clothes and wastebaskets. Half the contents of her medicine cabinet littered the sink. And-she cringed-was that a fork?
Ignoring the mess, and the rush of embarrassment, she bent to start the bathwater. Once it ran warm she set the stopper and knelt on a towel still folded next to the tub from the babies'last bath. Then she set Jolie in the warm water.
Sullivan knelt next to her, so close his arm brushed her shoulder as he lowered Cody into the water. Rachel jumped away as if singed by steam.
She shot to her feet. "Watch the babies, I'll grab clean towels."
"Clean would be good," he said, making no attempt to hide the derision.
Stunned she swung around to confront him, but his attention remained on the twins. She waffled for several seconds on whether to appease or challenge him on his concerns regarding the condition of the house.
On the one hand, the house was a mess; on the other, she'd been handling their wards on her own for six days. How dare he judge her?
She'd like to see him do better.
No, she turned away to get the towels, that wasn't true. That would mean he'd have the twins and she needed to care for them, to be there for them, because she hadn't been there for her sister.
If he thought she'd simply step aside and allow him to take them away, he could forget it.
"How did you know Crystal?" she asked as she returned to the tub.
Making sure to leave plenty of room between her and Sullivan, she knelt next to him. She glanced at him, then away, pretending not to notice how the twins' excited play had dampened his T-shirt causing the fabric to cling to his impressive chest.
"Eeey!" Cody shrieked in joy and slapped the water with both hands, splashing everyone. Jolie shied away, the movement causing her to slide sideways. Rachel reached for her, but Sullivan got there first, catching Jolie in his large, competent hands.
He held her with such gentleness, righting her and making her giggle. He appeared so calm despite his obvious frustration with the circumstances.
"It wasn't Crystal I knew." He finally answered her question as he scrubbed Jolie's tummy. "At least not well. Tony Valenti was my friend. We worked together."
"The twins' father?"
"He was a SEAL, too?"
"Yeah." A short pause. "He saved my life."
"I see." Yeah, she did. And the picture didn't look good. An honorable man, he'd feel all the more obligated to take the twins because of what he felt he owed his dead friend.