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The house was finally, blissfully quiet.
Georgia Reed mentally crossed her fingers as she sat down at the antique dining room table, hoping for one hour. If she could have a full sixty minutes to focus on the manuscript pages spread out in front of her, she might actually catch up on her work. Unfortunately, the thought of catching a nap was much more tempting than the book she was currently reading.
Though she was officially on maternity leave from her job as an associate editor at Tandem Publishing, she had agreed to accept work on a contract basis to help out the senior editor and keep some money coming in. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but Georgia hadn't been nearly as productive as she'd hoped to be, especially since she'd uprooted her kids and moved to Pinehurst only six weeks earlier.
She sipped from the cup of herbal tea she'd reheated for a third time and skimmed through the previous chapter to refresh her memory. But just as her mind began to focus on the story, it occurred to her that it was too quiet.
The realization kicked her protective instincts into overdrive. She pushed her chair away from the table and raced across the hall to the living room, where she'd left four-year-old Quinn and Shane with a pile of building blocks. The carpet was littered with the chunky pieces but her boys were both gone—no doubt through the wide-open patio door.
The door had been closed when she settled the boys down to play—closed and locked. But the lock was tricky, and sometimes just tugging on the handle would allow the latch to slip and the lock to slide free. She'd talked to her mother about getting it fixed, but apparently that detail had slipped Charlotte's mind.
And now her children were gone.
She hurried back to the dining room to grab the baby monitor before racing out the back door.
"Quinn! Shane!" She ran across the deck, cursing when she stepped on a red block. They couldn't have gone far. She'd only left them in the room a few minutes earlier. If anything had happened—
No, she couldn't even complete the thought.
A flash of movement caught the corner of her eye, and she spun around, her heart sinking when she didn't see the boys' familiar faces but the shadowed jaw of a grown man standing on the grass.
"Are you looking for two little guys about yay—" he held a hand about three and a half feet off the ground "—high?"
"Did you see where they went?" she asked hopefully, desperately.
"They wandered into my backyard." He gestured toward the adjoining property.
Georgia closed her eyes so he wouldn't see that they'd filled with tears. "Oh, thank you, God."
"Actually, my name's Matt—Matt Garrett."
She opened her eyes again and saw that he was smiling at her.
"And your kids are fine," he promised her.
"Only until I get my hands on them," she muttered.
His smile widened.
Now that the panic had subsided and her heart was beating more normally again, she took a moment to look at her new neighbor—and felt a little tug low in her belly.
Matt Garrett had thick dark hair that was sexily tousled, as if he'd been running his fingers through it, a slightly crooked nose and a strong unshaven jaw. His shoulders were broad, his long, lean body well-muscled. And as his deep blue gaze connected with her own, she felt a subtle buzz in her veins that made her feel hot and tingly in a way that she hadn't experienced in a very long time.
"One of the puppies escaped into your yard and caught their attention," he explained.
"Come and check them out," he invited.
She hooked the monitor on her belt and followed him, surreptitiously checking out his spectacular backside as she did so.
He'd moved in a few days earlier. She'd noticed the moving truck when she'd gone out to the porch to check the mail Wednesday afternoon—and then she'd noticed the tall, broad-shouldered man supervising the unloading of it.
He was in faded denim with an even more faded Orioles T-shirt stretched across his broad chest. Definitely a man's man, she decided, and felt a flutter of something low in her belly. He lifted an arm in casual greeting and flashed a quick smile that actually made Georgia's heart skip a beat before it began hammering against her ribs.
She raised her hand in response, waving her mail at him, then felt the flood of heat in her cheeks as she realized what she'd done. She wasn't sure if it was sexual deprivation or sleep deprivation that was responsible for her distraction, but thankfully, he was too far away to note either her instinctive physical response or her embarrassment. But wow—the man obviously had some potent sex appeal if he could affect her from such a distance.
An appeal that, she knew now, was further magnified up close.
"This is Luke—and Jack," Matt told her, gesturing to the two other men on his porch in turn. "My brothers."
The former was even taller than her six-foot-tall neighbor, with the same brown hair but blue-green eyes; the latter was of similar height but with broader shoulders and slightly darker hair. All three were sinfully handsome.
"I'm Georgia," she finally said, her heart rate mostly back to normal now that the twins were in her line of sight again. "And these pint-sized Houdinis are Quinn and Shane."
"What's a Houdini?" Quinn tore his attention away from the blanket-lined laundry basket for the first time since she'd stepped onto her neighbor's porch.
"A little boy who is in very serious trouble for leaving the house without his mommy," she admonished.
Her son's gaze dropped to his feet, a telltale sign of guilt. "We just wanted to see the puppies."
"Puppies," Shane echoed, and looked up at her with the heartbreakingly sweet smile that never failed to remind her of his father.
She took a few steps closer, as inexorably drawn to the basket as her children had been. But still, she had to make sure they understood that leaving the house for any reason wasn't acceptable.
"If you wanted to see the puppies, you should have told Mommy that you wanted to see the puppies," she said.
"But you told us not to bug you 'cuz you had work to do," Quinn reminded her.
And it was exactly what she'd said when she set them up with their blocks.
"I also told you to never go anywhere—even outside into the backyard—without telling me first."
But how could she blame them for being drawn away when even her heart had sighed at the first glimpse of those white, brown and black bodies wriggling around in the basket?
She looked at her neighbor again. "You have four puppies?"
"No." Matt shook his head emphatically. "/ don't have any puppies—they're all Luke's."
"Only until I can find good homes for them," his brother said.
"How did you end up with them?" she wondered.
"I'm a vet," he told her. "And when someone finds an abandoned animal on the side of the road, it usually ends up at my clinic. In this case, the abandoned animal was a very pregnant beagle that, two days later, gave birth to eight puppies."
"Eight?" She cringed at the thought. As if carrying and birthing twins hadn't been difficult enough.
"My receptionist is taking care of the other four."
"They look kind of young to be away from their mother," she noted.
"They are," he agreed.
It was all he said, but it was enough for her to understand that the mother hadn't survived the delivery—and to be grateful that his response in front of the twins wasn't any more explicit than that.
"Nice puppy," Shane said, gently patting the top of a tiny head.
"Can we keep one?" Quinn, always the more talkative and articulate twin, asked her.
She shook her head. As much as she hated to refuse her kids anything, she'd learned that there were times she had to say no. This was definitely one of those times. "I'm sorry, boys. A puppy is too much responsibility for us to take on right now."
But she didn't object when Matt lifted one of them out of the box and handed it to her. And she couldn't resist bringing it closer to nuzzle the soft, warm body. And when the little pink tongue swiped her chin, her heart absolutely melted.
"He likes you, Mom," Quinn told her.
"She," Matt corrected. "That one's a girl."
Her son wrinkled his nose. "We don't want a girl puppy."
"We don't want any puppy," Georgia said again, trying to sound firm.
"We do want a puppy," Shane insisted.
"'Cept Dr. Luke says they can't go anywhere for two more weeks," Quinn informed her. "'Cuz they're too little to eat and hafta be fed by a bottle."
Shane pouted for another minute, but the mention of eating prompted him to announce, "I'm hungry."
"So why don't we go home and I'll make some little pizzas for lunch?" she suggested.
"With lots of pepperoni," she promised.
But Quinn shook his head. "We don't wanna go home. We wanna stay with the daddies."
Georgia felt her cheeks burning as her gaze shifted from one man to the next.
Matt's smile slipped, just a little; Luke kept his attention firmly focused on the animals; and Jack actually took a step backward.
"They're at that age," she felt compelled to explain, "where they think every adult male is a daddy. Especially since they lost their own father."
"He's not lost, he's dead," Quinn said matter-of-factly.
The announcement made Shane's eyes fill with tears and his lower lip quiver. "I miss Daddy."
Georgia slipped her arm around his shoulders.
Matt's brows lifted. "You're a widow?"
She nodded, because her throat had tightened and she wanted to ensure she was in control of her emotions before she spoke. "My husband passed away eleven months ago." And although she'd accepted that Phillip was gone, she still missed him, and there were times—too many times—when she felt completely overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a single parent. "That's one of the reasons I moved in here with my mom."
"Charlotte's your mother?"
"You know her?"
"I met her the first time I came to look at the house," he said. "But I haven't seen her since I moved in."
"She's on her annual trip to Vegas with some friends," Georgia told him.
"Leaving you on your own with two young boys," he remarked sympathetically.
"And a baby," she said, just as a soft coo sounded through the baby monitor she'd clipped on her belt.
"Pippa's waking up." Quinn jumped up, his desire to stay with the "daddies" not nearly as strong as his affection for his baby sister.
"Pippa," Shane echoed.
Matt looked at Georgia, seeking clarification. "You have three kids?"
She nodded. "Four-year-old twins and a four-month-old daughter."
Well, that explained the shadows under her gorgeous eyes, Matt decided. A pair of active preschoolers and a baby would wear any young mother out—especially one without a husband to help ease the burden. But even exhausted, she was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever met.
She had a heart-shaped face with creamy skin, elegantly shaped lips, a delicate nose dusted with freckles, and the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. He'd caught his first glimpse of her on moving day. She'd been casually dressed in a sleeveless yellow blouse and a pair of faded denim jeans with her honey-blond hair in a ponytail, but even from a distance, he'd felt the tug of attraction.
Standing within two feet of her now, that tug was even stronger—much stronger than any self-preservation instincts that warned him against getting involved with a woman with three children who could take hold of his heart.
"You do have your hands full," he said.
"Every day is a challenge," she agreed. And then, to the boys, "Come on—we've got to go get your sister."
"Can we bring Pippa back to see the puppies?" Quinn asked hopefully.
His mother shook her head. "In fact, you're going to apologize to Mr. Garrett for intruding—"
"Matt," he interjected, because it was friendlier than "Mister" and less daunting than "Doctor," and because he definitely wanted to be on a first-name basis with his lovely neighbor. "And it wasn't at all an intrusion. In fact, it was a pleasure to meet all of you."
"Does that mean we can come back again?" Quinn asked.
"Anytime," he said.
"And within two weeks, you'll be calling someone to put up a fence between our properties," Georgia warned.
He shook his head. "If I did that, they wouldn't be able to come over to play in the tree house."
"Mommy says we can't go in the tree house," Quinn admitted. "'Cuz it's not ours."
"But a tree house is made for little boys, and since I don't have a little boy of my own—" Matt ignored the pang of loss and longing in his heart, deliberately keeping his tone light "—it's going to need someone to visit it every once in a while, so it doesn't get lonely."
"We could visit," Quinn immediately piped up, as Shane nodded his head with enthusiasm and Georgia rolled her eyes.
"That's a great idea—so long as you check to make sure it's okay with your mom first," Matt told them.
"Can we, Mommy?"
He held his breath, almost as anxious for her response as the twins were. It shouldn't matter. He didn't even know this woman—but he knew that he wanted to know her, and he knew that it wouldn't be a hardship to hang out with her kids, either.
"We'll talk about it another time," she said.
Quinn let out an exaggerated sigh. "That's what she says when she means no."
"It means 'we'll talk about it another time,'" Georgia reiterated firmly.
"I'm hungry," Shane said again.
She tousled his hair. "Then we should go home to make those pizzas."
"I'm not hungry," Quinn said. "I wanna stay here."
"If you're not hungry, then Shane will get all the little pizzas."
Georgia's casual response earned a scowl from her son. "And you can help us paint the deck," Matt told Quinn. The furrow in his brow deepened. "I guess I could eat some pizza."
"I'd take the pizza over painting, too," Luke told him.
"Unfortunately, we weren't given that choice," Jack said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"And since you weren't," Matt noted, "you can go get the painting supplies."
Jack headed into the house while Luke picked up the basket full of puppies and moved it under the shade of a nearby tree so the curious canines couldn't get in the way of their work.
Shane and Quinn stayed by Georgia's side, but their eyes—filled with an almost desperate yearning—tracked the path of the puppies. And as he looked at the twins' mother, Matt thought he understood just a little bit of what they were feeling.
In the more than three years that had passed since his divorce, Matt had wondered if he would ever feel anything more than a basic stirring of attraction for another woman. Ten minutes after meeting Georgia Reed, he could answer that question with a definitive yes.
"Thank you," she said to him now.
"Being so patient and tolerant with the boys."
"I like kids," he said easily.
"Then you'll like this neighborhood," she told him. He held her gaze as his lips curved. "I already do."
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