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"He'll be right here. He was on his way into town when the moving truck he was driving broke down. My brother went to get him," Hadley McKendrick explained.
Hadley didn't have a clue as to why Neily Pratt-Grayson had dropped in on this September Saturday morning looking for Chase Mackey, her brother Logan's best friend and business partner. And the social worker wasn't giving anything away.
Instead she said, "I'm sorry to show up now, with the wedding tomorrow and all."
Definitely and all, Hadley thought as her stomach churned in anticipation of Chase's return to Northbridge, Montana.
Neily was talking about Logan's wedding tomorrow. But to Hadley and all meant more than the wedding. Because on top of that, not only would Chase Mackey's arrival be the first time he'd set eyes on her since they were teenagers and Hadley had been a hundred pounds heavier, to Hadley there was also a little matter of an old crush she'd secretly had on Chase.
"Chase isn't only coming for the wedding now, right?" Neily said then. "He's coming for good, isn't he?"
Hadley's stomach took another turn. "This is it," she confirmed. "He'll be here to stay from today on. His place is a huge loft in the top half of the old barn, above what we're using as the workroom and the showroom."
For Mackey and McKendrick Furniture Designs—the business that Logan and Chase owned together, the business that Hadley was now working for. With her brother and Chase…
She just could not stay still another minute!
"Are you sure I can't get you a cup of coffee or a soda or even a glass of water?" Hadley asked hospitably, hoping desperately for the chance to get up from where she was sitting in the living room with Neily and do something to work off a little of the nervous energy that was making her edgy.
"No, thanks, I'm fine," Neily said. "I'm actually here on business or I really wouldn't be bothering you today."
It had been obvious that this wasn't a social call, but Hadley had no idea what business the Northbridge social worker could have with Chase Mackey. He hadn't lived here in over seventeen years. And even when he and Logan had decided to move back, to relocate Mackey and McKendrick Furniture Designs this past spring, Chase had stayed in New York to deal with that end of the move while Logan had handled this end. According to Logan, Chase had been in town only a few times before Hadley had come back to Northbridge in June, and he hadn't been there even once since then.
But he was on his way now and Hadley really couldn't keep herself contained for a minute longer.
"I need just a quick run to the bathroom," she announced to Neily, nearly leaping to her feet.
"Go ahead," Neily encouraged. "Don't worry about me."
Hadley made a beeline for the downstairs bathroom in her brother's house for no reason other than to check on her appearance.
Of course she'd taken extra-special pains with it today, knowing that Chase was coming. She was wearing her tightest jeans and a body-hugging camisole that outlined every inch of her reduced body. After years in the fashion industry, she'd picked up more than one hair and makeup trick and she'd used them all today. Her smoky green eyes were accentuated to their best effect and the high cheekbones that had emerged from beneath the extra weight were highlighted. Not a single pore marred her skin. Her mauve lipgloss looked perfectly natural and her russet-brown, chin-length hair glistened as it fell around her face and showed off her new highlights.
No one who remembered her from her youth in Northbridge hadn't dropped a jaw when they'd seen the transformation in her. She'd taken it in stride—she'd lost the weight so long ago that, to her, it had stopped being the most monumental part of her life. But knowing that this would be the first time Chase Mackey would see her this way? Okay, yes, she wanted his jaw to drop.
It was just human nature to want the object of an old crush to notice a thing like that. It didn't mean that the old crush was still in effect in any way, she assured herself.
The muted sound of a car coming nearer on the road that led to the house alerted Hadley. There were only two possibilities for who it could be: Logan's fiancée Meg, with his three-year-old daughter, Tia, or Logan bringing Chase back from the stalled moving truck.
It was that second possibility that gave Hadley jitters and made her feel as if she was sixteen again.
But she wasn't sixteen, she lectured herself. She was thirty-three. She'd been married. Divorced. She'd lived in Europe for the past ten years. It was ridiculous to be nervous about seeing someone who, ultimately, had only been a fringe part of her youth.
Even if she'd used that fringe part to fuel fantasies galore and an adoration that most teenage girls had reserved for rock stars.
But that was ancient history. She and Logan and Chase were going to work together and live in close proximity. She was going to behave the same way she would with anyone else who might be a friend of her brother's and a business associate of them both. Friendly. Professional. Detached.
So there was no cause for her to be nervous or jittery or uncomfortable. Logan had said that Chase had never given any indication that he had the slightest clue as to how she'd felt about him. Which meant that she didn't have to worry.
Hadley took a deep, cleansing breath, feeling better. It shouldn't be so hard to face him. It should be fine.
Then she heard the sound of deep male voices coming in the back door and she knew it wasn't Meg and Tia who were home. It was Logan and Chase.
"He never knew," she whispered to herself to bolster her courage. "He doesn't ever need to know."
Another deep breath—this one to give her strength—and Hadley opened the bathroom door, stepping out into the hallway just as Chase Mackey appeared at the other end near the kitchen.
His sharply-edged jaw didn't drop when he saw her. But his eyebrows arched over sky-blue eyes that were more remarkable than she remembered.
"Had-Had-Hadley? Is that you?" he asked in enough shock and awe to please her, using the silly version of her name that he'd made up when they were kids. That only he had ever used.
"It's me," she confirmed, wondering how it was possible for him to have gotten even better looking.
But he had.
Not that he was picture-perfect the way the male models she'd worked with were. Chase had a less refined, rugged, masculine handsomeness built around those eyes. His nose was slightly long, his lower lip was fuller than his upper, and his forehead was probably wider than a photographer would have wanted.
But he also had wavy, golden-brown hair cut short on the sides and left just a touch longer on top. There was a slight crease in the very center of his chin that added to his appeal. Over six feet tall, he had a lean, muscular body lurking behind his jeans and T-shirt. There was no denying that Chase Mackey was still a jaw-dropper himself.
"You look amazing," he exclaimed—saying to her what she was thinking about him. "I don't think I would have known you if we'd met on the street."
"I'm half the woman I was," Hadley joked.
"It's more than the weight—"
But years of carrying the weight had caused her to be very self-conscious, and while she was thrilled with his reaction, she couldn't be comfortable under his scrutiny for long. And Neily was a built-in way out. So before he could go on with what he was about to say, Hadley interrupted him.
"We can catch up later. I don't know if you remember Neily Pratt or not, but she's waiting in the living room to see you."
"Neily is here?" Logan said, stepping up behind Chase just then.
"I remember the Pratt family," Chase said, "but not specifically Neily…."
"She needs to see you," Hadley repeated.
"Hi," Neily said, suddenly appearing from the living room to join them.
Logan greeted Neily warmly and after some further back-and-forth that helped Chase place who she was, she said, "I apologize for being here the minute you walk in the door, Chase, and on the day before your wedding, Logan, but I'm afraid I'm here on business that couldn't wait."
"Furniture business?" Logan asked.
"Social-worker business. With Chase."
Chase and Logan looked as confused by that as Hadley was.
"Maybe you and Chase should talk alone," Hadley suggested out of courtesy, despite her own curiosity.
"That's okay," Chase said. "I can't imagine what business I could have with a social worker, but I'm probably gonna end up talking about it with you after the fact anyway, so we might as well skip a step."
Neily pointed over her shoulder in the direction from which she'd just come. "I have a file…"
"Let's all go in the living room, then," Logan suggested.
They did, with Neily returning to her spot on the sofa and Hadley taking the easy chair again while Chase and Logan remained standing, facing them.
"I don't know how much of your background you know, Chase," Neily began.
"I was orphaned at three when my folks were killed in a car accident—about six months after we moved to Northbridge," Chase supplied.
"And did you know that you had siblings?"
That was not anything Hadley had ever heard, and from the look on Chase's face, it was news to him, too.
"There was just me," he claimed.
"Actually, there was also an older half sister, a younger sister and two younger brothers—twins," Neily said, opening the file that she'd taken onto her lap.
Chase focused on Logan. "Is this a welcome-home prank?"
Logan seemed dumbfounded himself as he shook his head. "Like I don't have enough going on with the wedding? "
"It isn't a prank," Neily assured them.
"I don't remember any brothers or sisters," Chase said.
"According to the file, you were barely three—in fact you were a month short," Neily said patiently. "We don't actually begin to retain memory until about four unless it's something traumatic. But by the same token, a traumatic event—like losing your family, being taken out of your home—could wipe out some memories, too. What do you recall?"
"My earliest memory is of the boys' home. There were some dreams… But that's all they were—dreams."
"If they involved sisters and brothers, they weren't just dreams. They must have been your brain's way of reminding you. What about your parents—do you remember them?"
Chase shook his head. "Not really. I have an old wedding picture of them that I've stared at enough to know their faces and I think that's sort of become my memory of them. But to say that I actually remember anything about them—the way they looked other than that picture, or the sound of their voices or ever being with them? No, I don't. Still, it seems like if I'd ever had brothers and sisters I would have remembered that," he said.
"But you don't," Neily concluded. "And you do have them. Your older sister—her name was Angie Cragen—"
"Was?" Logan interjected.
"Was," Neily confirmed. "She was actually your half sister, Chase. Your mother had her when she was seventeen and never married her father. But Angie Cragen was born with a congenital heart problem and she died last week."
Hadley could see that this was one shock piled on another for Chase and to allow him a moment, she said, "How do you know this stuff, Neily?"
"There's a lawyer in Billings who's involved and now so is Human Services there—a social worker contacted me and I've spoken to the lawyer, too. Knowing she didn't have long to live, Angie Cragen hired the lawyer before her death. Since Angie was eight when the accident happened, she remembered you, Chase, and the other kids. After the accident, because she had a birth father, she went to live with him while the rest of you went into foster care."
Hadley wasn't sure if it was the mention of foster care or something else that brought a dark frown to Chase's handsome face.
"The other three kids were adopted," Neily continued. "But because you weren't, Chase, you retained the Mackey name and that's why your half sister was able to locate you."
"It's a little late, isn't it?"
"I only know what I was told, and according to the lawyer, once Angie Cragen began to search for her siblings, it took until just before her death to track you down. She would have liked to contact you herself but she was getting sicker and sicker and—"
"Hold on," Chase said.
His hands went to his narrow hips as he switched his weight from one foot to the other. It took Hadley a moment to realize she was looking at those hips. Appreciating the sight.