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Megan McNeil was already exhausted.
By the time she'd herded two wildly excited seven-year-old girls, three carry-on bags, two backpacks, a wheelchair, a walker and a small cooler of medications that had needed to be hand-screened by security at O'Hare, she only wanted to curl up somewhere and take a nap.
It didn't help that she really, really didn't want to be here in the first place.
"We're going to Hawaii. We're going to Hawaii," her daughter Sarah chanted in a singsong voice.
Grace added her own verse. "We're gonna swim in the ocean. And I can't wa-ait."
A few passersby smiled at the identical twin girls and their exuberance.
"Yes, we are," Megan said, trying to tug her shoes on again and stuff all their stray possessionshoodies, cell phone, laptopback into the carry-on bags. "It's going to be wonderful fun, isn't it?"
But first, they had to survive the nine-hour trip.
When everything was carefully stowed again, Megan hung Grace's bag on the back of her chair, helped Sarah into her backpack, grabbed her own carry-ons and checked their gate assignment one last time. Of course, it would be the farthest one from their current position. Nothing about this trip was likely to be easy.
"All right, let's go catch an airplane," she said to her daughters.
"I'll push," Sarah insistedas she so often did on the rare occasions when Grace's moderate cerebral palsy tired her so much she needed the chair for distances. Sarah moved behind her twin's wheelchair to do the honors.
"Thank you, sweetheart. We're looking for Gate 21. Can you watch for that?"
"I'll find it, Mommy," Grace offered, ever helpful. They made their way, weaving and dodging around other travelers until they finally found the right gate. Even if Megan hadn't seen the sign, she would have figured it out by the preponderance of brightly colored Hawaiian shirts
"Look! There's Daddy," Grace exclaimed, clapping her hands. She and Sarah both gave vigorous waves and Sarah called out to Nick.
He and Cara stood surrounded by family members, but when he heard Sarah he immediately hurried over to them.
"There're my girls. I was starting to worry you wouldn't make it!" He hugged Sarah tightly and kissed her cheek, then bent down to do the same for Grace.
After he had greeted their daughters, he turned to give Megan a warm hug.
"Thank you so much for doing this, Megs. It means the world to both Cara and me."
She hugged him back, gave him a kiss on the cheek and then stepped away. He looked good, she had to admitsmiling, relaxed and far happier than he had ever been during their short-lived marriage.
"The girls are both over the moon," she told him. "The beach and their dad's wedding all in one trip. What could be more fun? I don't think either of them slept a wink last night. I went in after midnight and had to put Sarah back in her own room or they would have giggled all night."
She didn't add that she wasn't looking forward to a nine-hour f light with two tired girls. She could only hope they would nap a little on the way.
Before Nick could respond, his fiancée, Cara, approached them. She glowed with happiness. If she didn't like the other woman so much, Megan might have been seriously annoyed at how great she looked, considering her own chaos of the last hour.
Cara hugged her. "You're here! I was worried you would miss the flight."
"We made it. No worries."
She was happy for Nick and Cara. She really was. The two of them made a beautiful couple, the handsome firefighter and his blonde, lovely bride. They were deeply in love and it was obvious to everyone who knew them.
Nick had never looked at her the way he did Cara. Theirs hadn't been a romantic destination wedding with all their closest friends and family, but rather frightened, hurried vows exchanged in her hospital room. She'd been on strict bedrest to avoid going into extremely premature labor with the twins.
Megan and Nick really had barely known each other, had dated for only a few monthsand had slept together exactly twice. While she had liked Nick, and had been lonely and a little lost at the time, they never really generated much spark.
By mutual consent, they had both begun dating other people when Megan discovered she was pregnant, despite the condom Nick had used. As he was the only man she'd slept with in more than a year, she knew he had to be the father.
More than eight years later, she could still remember her stunned devastation when that pregnancy test turned positive. At the time, she was still a year away from graduating with her RN, living on scholarships and financial aid and the carefully parsed-out proceeds of her parents' life insurance policies.
She could barely take care of herself, forget about another human beingand then came the further shock when an ultrasound revealed twin girls.
She and Nick had considered giving the girls up for adoption. That had seemed the logical decision for two people who had no real foundation to build a life togetherand never really wanted to take that step in the first place.
But when she went into labor eighteen weeks early, everything drilled down to a fight for their daughters' survival.
They had decided to marry so she and the girls could be covered by his medical insurance policy as a Chicago firefighter. It had seemed the logical, wise decision.
They'd never been in love, though they tried to pretend otherwise through the frightening weeks she'd been on hospital bedrest, each moment tense and anxious, then the long weeks while their girls were in the neonatal ICU, and afterward, when their life had become a blur of medical appointments and tests.
Eventually, they couldn't pretend anymore. By the time the girls were two and Grace had been diagnosed with prematurity-related cerebral palsy, both of them had realized they made better friends and coparents than husband and wife. Megan had always considered their divorce the very definition of amicable.
Friendly or not, Megan still didn't feel she belonged at this wedding.
Grace's medical needs were complicated, though, between her overnight gastric-tube feedings, her medications and her breathing treatments. Megan couldn't put her on a plane and send her away with just anyone. While Nick and Cara were experienced enough to handle any complications, and Nick's mother, Jean, was comfortable caring for her, all of them would be focused on the wedding, not on a needy seven-year-old girl.
The hard reality was that Grace couldn't go to Kauai unless Megan went along to take care of her, and Sarahsweet, loyal, loving Sarahwouldn't attend her father's wedding unless her sister could go, too.
So here Megan was, swallowing her social awkwardness at feeling like an interloper and focusing instead on her genuine happiness that Nick had found someone as wonderful as Cara to be stepmother to her twins.
"We should have thought to help you through security," Cara exclaimed. "Was it a nightmare?"
"Not too bad," Megan lied.
"The good news is, the plane is on time. They should be boarding in twenty minutes or so. Let's find you a place to sit. Looks like there's room over by my brother. I'm so excited you finally have the chance to meet him. He's fantastic. You'll love him."
Cara led them over to a row of chairs with a few empty seats on the end and a convenient spot to park Grace's wheelchair. She could see a tall guy with dark hair, but she couldn't see his facehe was turned away, speaking with an elderly woman she guessed was a grandmother.
"He can help you carry all this stuff onto the plane. Shane, this is Megan, Nick's first wife, and these are their gorgeous daughters, Sarah and Grace. Girls, this is my brother Shane. I guess he'll be your new step-uncle."
Her brother turned around with a smile and Megan's stomach did a somersault.
It was him. Sexy ER Guy.
Oh. She only needed this to ratchet the fun factor into the stratosphere. She felt as if she'd just thrust her face into a hot, steamy sauna and her vague sense of awkwardness at being here for Nick's wedding suddenly nosedived into excruciating embarrassment.
She saw startled recognition flash in his blue, blue eyes before he smoothly hid it.
"Hi, Megan. Nice to meet you," he said. Oh, how could she have forgotten that delicious voice? It had been one of the first things she had been drawn to a month ago during their brief ER interaction.
"Um, hi," she mumbled.
"Sit by me," Grace demanded of her sister, and Sarah dutifully plopped onto the aisle seat next to the wheelchair, which only left the spot right next to Cara's extremely sexy brother.
Despite the heat still burning through her cheeks, she stood frozen with indecision. Oh, could this day possibly get any worse?
Nick's mother, her former mother-in-law, Jean, came over just then. She brushed her cheek to Megan's before greeting her granddaughters. "Hello, my darlings!"
Since their grandmother was there, Megan seized on it as a ready excuse to escape for a moment. "I need to go talk to the gate attendants about stowing the wheelchair when we board. I'll be right back," she told the girls.
They barely heeded her, happy to be surrounded by people fussing over them. She walked quickly away, feeling Shane's gaze on her retreating back.
The gate attendant had her fill out a claim ticket for the chair, which would be stowed in cargo during the flight and would be waiting for them when they made their connection in Los Angeles. To her vast relief, he also told her those with special needs would be boarding in only a few moments. At least she wouldn't have long to endure the torture of sitting next to Cara's brother, whom she had treated abominably.
With deep reluctance, she returned to her daughters and sat down beside him, aware of his heat and strength. What could she possibly say to him that would explain her actions of a month earlier? She didn't know where to start.
She was further relieved when he spoke first. "Your daughters are adorable," he said. "How old are they?"
"Seven," she answered. Her voice came out a little on the ragged side, so she tried again. "They're seven."
"How long have you and Nick been divorced?" he asked in an undertone, after a careful look to make sure the girls were busy with a couple of coloring books their grandmother had brought along.
She wondered at the hard note in his voice. "Five years nowwhich, incidentally, is about three years longer than the marriage lasted. Just in case you were wondering or anything."
He glanced between her and Nick, who was holding hands with Cara. Shane's sister. Megan forced herself not to squirm. She had long ago accepted that she and Nick had tried as hard as they could to make a marriage work that never should have happened in the first place.
Still, right now she would rather be anywhere else on earth than waiting to board a plane for her ex-husband's destination weddingalongside an extraordinarily great-looking guy she was fiercely attracted to. Especially when she'd acted like a stupid, immature girl around him the first time they'd met.
"How's the shoulder?" she asked. As much as she'd like to pretend they were strangers, it seemed pointless.
He rotated his left arm reflexively. "Good. I get a little twinge here and there, but it was only a through-and-through, like the ER docs said. I was back on the job just a few days later. I'll have to be a little careful body surfing while we're in Hawaii, but other than that, I'm good."
"Did they ever catch the guy who shot you?"
"Yeah. He's in custody now. He was only a stupid kid trying to earn a little street cred by shooting at a cop. I'm still not sure he meant to hit me."
"I'm glad you're okay." She might as well say it, just come out and apologize and clear the air, but the gate attendant's voice suddenly came over the loudspeaker, inviting those with special boarding needs to come forward.
She stood. "That's us, girls," she said.
"We get to go on first?" Sarah's eyes widened, as if someone had just offered her a free puppy.
"Aren't we lucky?" Megan said dryly. To her, boarding a plane early only meant more time sitting in one spot, waiting to be jostled by other passengers trying to stow their luggage.
She grabbed their bags and started pulling one while trying to push the wheelchair with her other hand.
"Let me help." Before she could protest that she could handle it, Shane grabbed the bag from her and started tugging the other one.
She reminded herself to be grateful. One of the first things she'd learned when she had twinsone with special needswas to take whatever help was offered, even when her pride bristled.
The girls handed their boarding passes to the agent with excited flourishes that made the woman smile.
"Do you need further assistance aboard?" she asked.
"No. Thank you.
"We're going to have to leave the wheelchair here for them to stow," Megan told Grace at the door to the aircraft. "Do you want me to carry you?"
"No. I can walk," she insisted.
Despite the stress and turmoil of the day, she wanted to hug her brave, wonderful, independent daughter who had come so far. Grace stood up from her chair and moved with her careful, stiff-hipped gait down the aisle.
"Look for Row 14, and seats C, D and E," she said to Grace.
"There's a coincidence," Shane said behind her. "I'm in Row 14 as well. Seat F."
The jet had two aisles, with two seats by the window, four in the middle and two more across the other aisle. She and her daughters and Shane were assigned the middle seats.
Since the girls didn't like to be separated, she took the aisle for herself and settled Grace beside her, with Sarah on the other side next to Shane. At least the girls would provide a little buffer between them.
It was a good plan, in theoryuntil their grandmother boarded and settled into the seat across the aisle from Megan.
"Grandma, guess what?" Sarah said. She leaned across her sister and Megan to launch into a story about her soccer game that week, all while other passengers filed past.
"You'll have to wait to finish your story," Megan told Sarah, when she saw her daughter growing frustrated at each interruption.
"Why don't you change seats with her, my dear?" Jean suggested. "It's a long flight, and you surely won't be able to entertain the girls by yourself."
She wanted to argue, but knew she'd sound ridiculous explaining that she couldn't spend the four hours until their Los Angeles connection sitting by the brother of the bride.
She forced a smile. "Sarah, do you want to sit by your grandmother?"
"Yes!" her daughter exclaimed. Aware of Shane watching the interaction with interest, she and Sarah traded places.
"I think we're settled now," she said, after swapping Sarah's backpack for her own tote bag. "Sorry for the chaos."
"It's fine. You must be a brave woman to trek nine hours to Hawaii for your ex-husband's wedding."
She was fiercely aware of him beside her, edgy and uncomfortable, which didn't bode well for the long flight to LAX.
"Nick's a good father and our girls love him," she said. "It didn't seem fair to deprive them of the chance to see his wedding just because it would be hard."
The flight attendants made an announcement about boarding quickly and storing luggage. She could see Grace and Sarah both growing increasingly nervous about the flight. By necessity, she turned her attention to calming her daughters while the flight crew prepared the cabin for takeoff.