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"This is a joke, right?" Captain Jace Monroe of the United States Marine Corps made a visual sweep of the pine forest flanking the main entrance and guard post of Olive, Alabama's Camp Morgan. No lurking video crews from Punk'd or Candid Camera. In fact, for only six on a Monday night, the place was inordinately quiet, which made Jace all the more suspicious. "Whatever Granola paid you, I'll double it if you'll help flip this back around on him."
"Granola?" The vaguely familiar blonde wrinkled her nose.
Two identical babies in carriers at her feet whimpered. Females, judging by the pink blankets, hats and miniature sandals.
"Don't act like you don't know him," Jace said with a chuckle, glancing over his right shoulder to see if the guard on duty was having a good laugh. Oddly enough, the guy had missed the whole bit, focusing instead on paperwork. Whatever. Despite his pal's best efforts to up him in the practical joke department, Granola had failed. Everyone knew if no one witnessed the stunt, it didn't count.
"Jace?" The woman slid her oversized black sunglasses down her narrow nose. Eyes red and skin blotchy, she asked, "Don't you remember? Our night in Mobile? How we ended up at that motel overlooking the bay? How you told the manager we were honeymooners, and he gave us a suite for no extra charge? Remember the Jacuzzi tub? The minibar? The chaise lounge out on the balcony?"
Lord, what a night. Heat roared through him like a well-aimed missile.
Where was all the damned air?
She exhaled sharply. "Thank goodness, you do remember."
"Um, yeah," he said, simultaneously shifting his weight from one leg to the other while running his hands over his buzzed hair. As an AH-1 Cobra pilot, his specialty was multitasking. What he wasn't so great at was dealing with women, which was no doubt why his mouth was dry and his pulse was pounding harder than it had on his last combat run. "We halved an order of spaghetti and meatballs at like 2:00 a.m. I remember because you hogged all the garlic bread. I love garlic bread."
Her faint smile didn't come close to reaching her eyes. "Yes, well, I wish all we had to discuss were your food preferences, but at the moment, there's something more pressing on your proverbial plate."
She eyeballed the squirming pink bundles at her feet.
He prayed she wasn't heading where he feared she was.
"One baby, I probably could've handled on my own," she said, "but two?" Sniffling, she shook her head. "I never thought I'd be the type to walk away from my own flesh and blood, but I've got college to finish and it takes two jobs to pay the bills. Do you have any idea how expensive babies are? Diapers and formula and clothes and the pediatrician. I can't keep up, and they deserve better. I'm sorry, but since you're their father, you'll have to take over."
"E-excuse me?" Blood rushed to Jace's head.
"They're yours now." She looked away, her lips quivering.
It might not be manly, but Jace was seriously on the verge of passing out. "Wait a minute. How do I even know they're mine?"
"Look at them. See anything familiar?"
The baby nearest him gummed her fist and cooed.
Kneeling in front of her carrier, Jace braced his hands on either side, staring into the infant's striking green eyes.
His green eyes.
Vicki said, "Your gorgeous eyes were one of the first things that attracted me to you, Jace. I'd never seen such a brilliant shade on anyoneever. That being the case, do you honestly think I slept with your long-lost twin the same weekend as you?"
"It could happen," Jace mumbled.
Standing, he stared off into the pines, losing himself, if only for a moment, in the sight. The whoosh of wind through the boughs. Somewhere amongst the trees a woodpecker did his thing. The relatively normal sound struck him as being out of sync with his runaway pulse.
A few minutes earlier, he'd searched those woods for a video crew.
It felt like another lifetime ago.
"I've got to go," Vicki said, aiming her key bob at her blue sedan's trunk. It popped open, and she dragged out a case each of diapers and canned formula, dumping them on the blacktop parking area. Two cardboard boxes were next, followed by a yellow plastic tub heaped with toys, stuffed animals and rattles and rubber squeaky things that looked like the toys Granola bought for his golden retriever. "I'm sorry to take off like this but you'll catch on soon enough."
"You're not really going to leave them with me? These are your kids."
"Funny you should mention that," she said with a wistful smile. "But seeing how they're your kids, too, I thought it was high time you had a turn at raising them."
Silent tears streaking her cheeks, she opened the vehicle's driver's-side door.
"You're not seriously leaving them with me," he repeated, more out of incredulity than not knowing what to say. She was their mother for God's sake. Even if the kids were hisif she'd carried them inside herself for nine long months. "What about maternal instinct?" he shouted when she'd shut and locked her door.
Revving the engine to life, she ignored his banging on the window. He tried opening the door latch, but it didn't give.
"Vicki! Open the damned door!"
One baby began crying, then the other.
Sobbing now, she put the car in Reverse, shooting out of her parking space, narrowly avoiding the diapers.
"Stop!" he hollered above the racket of two wailing kids and her gunning the car's engine. "Don't do this! I don't even know their names!"
Ignoring him, she bolted out of the lot and his life.
Emma Stewart knelt to pluck a sand dollar from the foamy surf.
Cool Gulf water swirled around her toes, tickling, but not making her smile as it once had on long-ago vacations.
In the month since she'd rented the beach-front cabin, she'd collected one hundred and thirty-eight sand dollars. Some the size of half dollars, some dimes. One, with a tiny chip off the top, was as big around as a saucer.
Expression grim, she tucked her latest find among the shells, beach glass and driftwood already piled in the pink plastic sand bucket she'd found at Olive's dollar store. As a fast-tracked foreign currency trader in the heart of Chicago, her legal tender had once been the Swedish kroner. Chinese yuan. Swiss francs. Now? Her days weren't measured by financial successes, but she claimed a small victory if she managed to think about somethinganythingother than the full life she'd once led.
Veering from the shore, she took the sandy path leading through sea oats, ground cherry and bluestem. The powdery, sunwarmed sand soothed her cold feet.
For June, the sea air was unusually crisp, layered with scents of salt and drying seaweed and the occasional whiff of coconut suntan oil from the bustling resort hotel a half mile up the beach. Speaking of which, it must be Reggae Tuesday, as, even at nine in the morning, the chirpy sound of steel drums rode the breeze.
She snatched the newspaper from the packed-sand driveway, and then mounted the fourteen steps leading to the deck. Mechanically, she set the kettle to boil, then popped a raisin bagel in the toaster.
While she waited for her breakfast, she turned off the central A/C and opened all of the windows, welcoming the fresh air. Having lived her whole life in Illinois, it'd been tough adjusting to the sometimes oppressive Alabama humidity and heat.
Bagel topped with cream cheese, orange spice tea loaded with honey, she sat at the breakfast-nook table, cracked open the paper, and then jumped upon hearing the phone's shrill ring.
Only one person aside from the kindly old couple she'd rented the home from even had the number. Emma frowned. Might as well go ahead and pick up. Once her mother started calling, she was relentless.
"Hi, Mom," Emma said into the handset of the ancient rotary-dial phone, catching it on the fourth ring.
"Don't you dare 'hi, Mom,' me. Do you know how long it's been since Dad and I have heard from you? Would it kill you to at least get an answering machine? Angel, we know you're still sad, but"
"Sad?" Emma interjected. "Sad is when your college football team loses or your favorite sweater shrinks. I lost my son, Mom, then my husband. Sorry, but I think I've earned the right to spend a little quality time figuring out how to live the rest of my life."
On the other end of the line, Emma's mother didn't even attempt to hide her sigh. "We know that what you went through with Henry was devastating, but at this point you only have a few options."
"Oh?" Leaning against the kitchen counter, Emma tightly folded her arms.
"You either find a new man and start over "
"Out of the question."
"Borrow a baby. You know, sit for a neighbor."
Drumming her fingers on the counter, Emma said, "That'll make me feel just swell for a few hours."
"Okay, then you adopt another child, then"
"Please, stop. I lost my son. Henry wasn't just a puppy, Mom. He's not that easily replaced."
"Don't you think I know that? I lost a grandson. But you can't spend the rest of your life walking the beach. After a while, your money will dry up, and you'll have to"
"I know," Emma practically growled. "I get all of that. I just need time."
"For what? We think there's a part of you scared Rick might've been right. That you did have something to do with poor Henry dying, but sweetie, nothing could be further from the truth. Your father and I have discussed this at length, and truly feel the best way to help you through this is by helping you to find a way to prove not to the world, but to yourself, that you wereand still can bean amazing mother."
Drumming her fingers on the table, gazing past the tears in her eyes to the churning surf, through a throat nearly closed from grief, Emma said, "Mom, I have to go. I can't do this."
"Emma, I didn't mean to upset you. But you've always been so vibrant. Holding down an impressive job while still keeping a lovely home, that we just"
"Sorry, Momreallybut I have to go." Emma not only hung up the phone, but unplugged the cord from the wall jack.
"Quit being stubborn, Jace, and try it again."
Lips pressed tight, two days after Vicki's abrupt arrival and departure from his life, Jace faced the task in front of him, and wished he were on a combat mission. Lord knew, it would've been easier than trying to get those damned sticky tabs lined up straight. He was having a tough enough time even telling which twin was which. Changing diapers was impossible.
He'd hired a PI to find Vicki, but the man hadn't had much luck.
"Jace," Granola's wife, Pam, said with a not-so-gentle poke to his back. "Quit staring at Beatrice like she's an alien, and get on with it before she catches a chill. Worse yet, before her sister wakes up."
"Give me a sec," he snapped. "This isn't as easy as you say." Was he supposed to add lotion, then powder? Or was it the other way around? Pam had six younger brothers and sisters, meaning she'd handled this sort of thing a lot. Jace was an only child. "Plus, she's naked. I've never seen a naked baby before, and it's kinda freaking me out."
Pam gently shoved him out of the way. "You have to get a grip, Jace. The paternity-test results are due back tomorrow. What happens when you're proven to be the twins' father? I can't stay here forever. I already have a husband."
"You guys about done in there?" Granola hollered from the living room. "I really need some chow!"
Shaking her head and frowning, Pam easily diapered the baby, then dressed her in one of the pink jumpsuits Vicki had left, along with a brief note concerning their care and listing the girls' names. Bronwyn had a freckle on the bottom of her left big toe. Other than that, the kiddos were identical.
"Men," Pam grumbled, passing off Beatrice to him. "You're impossible."
Jace trailed her into the living room where Granola sat all comfy in Jace's favorite recliner, watching his new plasma screen. "What the hell?"
"Language!" Pam snapped.
Jace rolled his eyes. "The kids can't say more than 'goo.' How are they supposed to know what hell means?"
"I've had itwith both of you." She pulled the lever on the recliner, forcing it upright.
"What the hell?" Granola said.
"Your wife's out of control," Jace mumbled.
"She's also leaving," Pam said, snatching up her purse then storming to the door. "Come on, William. If you're so hungry, then you can take me out for dinner."
"What about me?" Jace asked, eyeing the pink bundle squirming in his arms. "What happens when the other one starts crying? You haven't left me alone with them since they got here, and"
Pam glared. "And my back aches from sleeping on your sofa. Face it, Jace, sooner or later, you're going to have to figure out this whole parenting thing."
"Later works for me."
"Come on," Pam said, dragging Granola by his desert-camo shirtsleeve. To Jace, she said, "When we've finished dinner, we'll stop by to check on you and get our stuff. After that, you're on your own."
Friday morning, following her breakfast routine, Emma walked the beach. Summer heat had set in. Even at nine in the morning, humidity made the air feel thick to breathe. The Gulf was glassy, the usual churning surf little more than a slap on the sand. Despite the climbing temperature, Emma walked and walked, cooling her feet in the water, doing her best to ignore the sun beating down on her head.
As she neared the resort-style hotel, the fifties-era pop that she'd heard faintly at her house became loud enough for her to recognize Elvis.
She'd never been all the way to the hotel, but today, drawn by children's laughter, she kept walking. Heart pounding, she strode past hotel employees setting out white beach chairs and red umbrellas along the powdered-sand shore. She mounted wide, whitewashed steps leading to the wooden boardwalk guests used to traverse the low dunes.
At the boardwalk's end, paradise awaited. Majestic palms circled a free-form pool featuring a two-story rock waterfall and a slide on one end, and a swim-up bar on the other. From hidden speakers, Johnny Mathis crooned, and now she was close enough to hear every word. Red hibiscus and cannas lined winding, sun-bleached brick paths leading to tennis courts and mini-golf courses.
The air smelled of coffee from an outdoor dining patio, chlorine from the pool and decades of sun-baked tanning lotions and oils.