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Melissa Monroe couldn't help but wonder if she was making a huge mistake. A fierce case of déjà vu filled her as she drove the Texas road. The lonely highway, the snow coming down from the overcast sky and the Christmas carols playing on the car radio all evoked memories of the last time Melissa had driven on this particular road.
It had been just a little over a year ago, only at that time the snow hadn't been comprised of pretty little flakes lazily drifting down, but rather a blizzard white-out condition that had eventually forced her to pull over.
A sexy stranger in tight jeans and a cowboy hat had rescued her. He'd told her his name was James and they'd ridden out the storm together in a vacant farmhouse.
It had been a wild and crazy night and she'd acted completely out of character. The consequences of her actions that night were in two car seats in the back.
Joey and James, who were a little over four months old, had been completely unplanned and unexpected, but since the moment she'd realized she was pregnant, they had been desperately wanted and loved.
She glanced back now to check on them and smiled. Snug as bugs they were in their little blue coats and matching hats. They'd been sleeping for the better part of an hour and Melissa hoped to get where she was going before they woke up demanding another meal.
Thirty minutes ago she'd passed the place in the road where she'd had to pull over during the storm a year ago. It was just outside the small town of Rockport, Texas. She was now ten minutes from the Texas town of Dalhart and her final destination.
On that night a year ago she'd been on her way from her home in Amarillo to visit a friend inOklahoma. Tonight she was on her way to someplace just on the other side of Dalhart.
Tightening her hands on the steering wheel, she hoped she wasn't on some kind of a wild-goose chase. Suddenly all kinds of doubts crashed through her mind. Maybe she was a fool to trust her cyber friend, a woman she'd never met in person but had bonded with over the past year in a chat room for single moms.
MysteryMom had been a source of support, information and friendship over the past year. She'd helped Melissa through the difficult pregnancy. Then once the twins were born she'd been a font of advice on everything from colic to diaper rash.
MysteryMom and Melissa's best friend, Caitlin, were the only two people on earth who knew about the circumstances of the twins' conception.
Melissa suspected that MysteryMom had given her directions to her place, that she was bringing Melissa to her home for a face-to-face meeting and to spend the holidays together.
For the past couple of weeks Melissa had been depressed. Christmas was only four days away—the twins' first Christmas—and she hadn't even had any extra cash to buy a tree or a single present.
She'd always dreamed of giving her children the kind of Christmas she'd never had, with family gathered close and laughter in the air. It wasn't all about a lack of money that had depressed her, but certainly financial worries played a role.
She'd been working at building her own interior design business when she'd found herself pregnant. The pregnancy had been difficult and the business had fallen by the wayside. Since the twins' birth Melissa had been living on her savings, which were dwindling fast.
It had been all she could handle to take care of newborns, but after the first of the year she was determined to somehow provide for them and delve back into her work.
She slowed as she reached the Dalhart city limits. According to the directions MysteryMom had sent her she was to turn off the main highway and onto a country road approximately ten miles from where she was now.
With a new burst of nervous tension kicking up inside her, she pulled into a restaurant parking lot and grabbed her cell phone from her purse and punched in Caitlin's number.
"Are you there yet?" Caitlin asked when she answered.
"According to the map I'm about fifteen minutes from the place," Melissa replied.
"How's the weather? I heard they were calling for snow."
"It's been spitting a bit, but nothing to worry me," Melissa replied.
"I don't know why you just didn't plan on coming to my place for Christmas instead of taking off on this adventure of yours."
Melissa smiled into the phone. "You're going to have so many fancy parties to attend, the last thing you need is me and the boys hanging around." Caitlin was single and gorgeous and working up the corporate ladder at blinding speed. "Besides, look what happened the last time I was on my way to visit you."
"It's not my fault you got stuck in a blizzard and then decided to kick it with some sexy stranger."
"True, it wasn't your fault. I've decided it was all Tom's fault," Melissa replied and tried to ignore the faint pang of her heart at the thought of her ex-boyfriend.
"Ah, don't even mention that snake's name," Caitlin replied. "I thought he was a creep when you first starting dating him and he definitely proved me right."
"Water under the bridge," Melissa replied. "Anyway, I just wanted to check in with you and let you know I'm almost there."
"You'll call me when you arrive? Tell me all about this MysteryMom of yours?"
"And, Melissa, I hope you have an amazing Christmas. You deserve it."
Melissa put her cell phone back in her purse and pulled her car back on the road. Dusk was falling and she was eager to get to her destination before dark.
As she drove her mind filled with thoughts of Tom Watters. She'd thought they'd marry and build a family together and after two years of dating she'd begun to press him about setting a wedding date. He'd finally told her there wasn't going to be a wedding, that for the past six months he'd been involved with another woman, one who was much sexier, much more a woman than Melissa.
Once again she clenched her hands on the steering wheel as she thought of that moment. She'd immediately made plans to visit Caitlin, needing to get away from her dismal apartment and all reminders of Tom.
Reeling not only with a broken heart, but also with a damaged ego, she'd been easy pickings for the handsome stranger who had come to her aid.
Her cheeks burned hot as she remembered that night of unexpected passion. James had looked at her with such desire. He'd made her feel so sexy, so wanted. She'd never before experienced that kind of wild abandon and suspected she'd never experience it again.
She cast all these thoughts aside as she drew nearer to the road her directions told her to take. As she left the small town of Dalhart behind, she spied the highway sign where she needed to turn.
In approximately ten miles she should be at the destination that she suspected was MysteryMom's home. Excitement danced in her chest as she thought of finally coming face-to-face with the woman who had been not only a friend, but also a surrogate mom through the trials and tribulations of being a single new mother to twins.
If she didn't like the looks of the place she'd turn around and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive back home. If she got any bad vibes at all, she'd just drive away. There was no way she'd put her babies or herself at risk.
The first surprise was the enormous stone monuments that marked the entry to the address she sought. The second surprise was when she drove down the tree-lined narrow drive and got her first glimpse of the house. No, house was too plain a word for the mansion that rose into view.
The two-story home was as big as a hotel, with several equally impressive outbuildings. Lights spilled with a cheerful welcome from several of the windows as the evening had begun to thicken with night shadows.
"Oh, my goodness," she whispered to herself. The whole place breathed money.
As she drove up the circular driveway she saw that one of the outbuildings was a stable and she was more convinced than ever that this was MysteryMom's house. MysteryMom had mentioned that she loved working with horses.
She parked the car and glanced into the backseat where Joey was awake. Of the two boys, Joey was the most laid-back. He rarely fussed and seemed content to take life as it came at him.
On the other hand, James was a handful. Demanding and impatient, he was the first to set up a frustrated cry if he needed a diaper change or a meal or if she took away his beloved rattle. But, he also had begun to belly laugh when happy and the sound of it never failed to delight her.
She looked at Joey, who gazed at her with bright blue eyes. "Are you ready to go meet Mommy's new friend?" she asked. He waved his arms as if to show his excitement.
As she got out of the car she realized it had grown darker, as if night hadn't just stealthily approached but had rather slammed down without warning.
She opened the door to the backseat and first unbuckled Joey and pulled him up on her hip, then went to the other door and did the same with James. In the past four months she'd become quite adept at not only carrying both boys, but also her purse and a diaper bag all at the same time.
The cold air chased her to the front door, where she managed to use her toe to knock. Her heart hammered with excitement as she waited for MysteryMom to answer. When the door opened her excitement transformed to stunned surprise.
He filled the doorway with his broad shoulders and lean hips, and his blue eyes widened with the same shock that she felt. His gaze swept over the two babies in her arms and his face paled.
For a moment her mind refused to accept what she saw. "Henry? Who's here?" a feminine voice called from somewhere in the house.
Two thoughts flew into Melissa's head. Apparently his name wasn't James and he must be married. Oh, God, this was all a mistake. A terrible mistake.
Before she could take a step backward, before she could even move a muscle, a ping sounded next to her and the wood of the doorjamb splintered apart.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Another ping resounded and James or Henry or whatever his name was leaned forward, grabbed her and pulled her inside the house. He slammed the door behind them.
"Call the sheriff," he yelled. "Somebody is shooting at the house." He opened a drawer in the ornate sideboard in the entry, pulled out a gun, then without a backward glance at her, disappeared out the front door.
Melissa stood in the center of the entry, her heart banging frantically. Mistake. This was all some sort of horrible mistake.
What kind of a man was her babies' father that somebody shot at the house the minute he'd opened his door? Was he a drug dealer? A criminal of some kind?
As Joey and James began to cry, Melissa fought back tears of her own.
Henry Randolf clung to the shadows of the house as he tried to discern exactly where the shooter might be. He thought the attack had come from the stand of trees directly in front of the house.
As he moved forward he tried not to think about the woman who had appeared on his doorstep. Melissa, that was her name. She'd crossed his thoughts often over the past year, but he couldn't think about her now or the two babies she held in her arms. He couldn't afford to get distracted while somebody with a gun was on his property.
One problem at a time, he told himself. The shooter first, then he'd have to figure out what to do about his unexpected visitor.
He clenched his gun tightly as he worked his way to the stand of trees, listening for a sound, seeking a shadow that would indicate where the attacker might be. As he thought of how close those bullets had come to Melissa and those babies, a slow seething rage built up inside him.
This wasn't the first time he'd been shot at in the past week. Three days ago he'd been riding his horse across the pasture and somebody had taken a potshot at him. His mount had reared and taken off for the stables as Henry had pulled his gun to defend himself from the unknown.
He was still outside checking the area when the sheriff's car pulled up. Sheriff Jimmy Harrick lumbered out of his patrol car like a sleepy bear exiting a favorite cave. He pulled his collar up against the cold night air as Henry approached him.
"I've checked the area. There's nobody around now. The shots came from that stand of trees over there but it's too dark to see if there's any shell casings or evidence."
He pointed toward the house. "Let's go inside and talk." Henry didn't wait for a reply but headed for the door. He hadn't felt the cold when he'd first burst outside, but now the damp December air seeped into his bones.
"Got company?" Jimmy asked as they passed the older model car in the driveway.
"Yeah, an old friend." Henry's stomach kicked with nerves as he thought of the woman who had stood on his doorstep carrying twins who looked remarkably like he had when he'd been a baby.
Damn, what mess had he gotten himself into? He had a feeling his life was about to get extremely complicated.
As he and the sheriff walked into the living room he saw Melissa seated next to his mother on the sofa, each of them with a baby in their arms.
Melissa's blue eyes were wide with fear. He couldn't blame her. There was nothing like a welcoming committee of bullets to put that expression in a woman's eyes.