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The baby, sleeping soundly with her tiny thumb pressed in her mouth and her index finger crooked over her button nose, was cooperating beautifully.
The car seat, not so much.
Sergeant First Class Nathan Morningway scowled at the offensive piece of equipment and grunted as he tried the release lever again. At least he thought it was the release lever. The directions enclosed in the box had been less than helpful, and he'd chosen to wing it instead. He now wished he'd at least kept the useless instructions instead of wadding them up and tossing them in the nearest garbage can.
How hard could this be?
As a marine, he'd taken apart and reassembled countless firearms. He'd defused hundreds of bombs and improvised explosive devices over the years. And he couldn't handle a simple baby seat?
Nate tried the lever once more, and then decided it wasn't worth the effort. He'd just have to figure out how to use the uncooperative piece of equipment after he'd spoken to his brother.
Instead, he unhooked the straps, intending to take baby Gracie out of the car seat and carry her in his arms. The only problem wasand Nate hadn't noticed this until he'd already unbuckled the harness Gracie's arm was wrapped like a noose around one of the straps, anchored by the thumb she was sucking.
Oh, boy. He really hated to do this, but he didn't see any other way around it. Holding his breath, he gently pulled on Gracie's little fist. She made a small murmur of protest and sucked even harder.
Nate tried again, more firmly this time. Gracie's thumb left her mouth with a pop. The baby's enormous brown eyes opened and blinked back at him. Her chin started quivering, her face scrunched up adorably and a moment later she was howling at the top of her lungs.
Nate grimaced. He still couldn't believe something that small could make so much noise. He'd never been around babies before in his entire life.
His throat tightened and burned as he fought to suppress the memories. He had to concentrate on other issues right now, the most pressing of which was letting his brother, Vince, know he was back at the lodge. That was enough to worry about all by itself.
"All right, little one," Nate soothed, pulling the pink-clad infant awkwardly to his chest. "I'm here for you. Don't cry, sweetheart."
Nate was surprised when the baby instantly calmed to his voice, curling into his chest and gurgling contentedly. He got a whiff of her soft downy hair and the unique smell of baby shampoo, and his heart flipped right over. Little Gracie had him wrapped around her tiny pinky finger, and there was no denying it.
Gracie wasn't just his responsibilityshe was the love of his life. From the moment he'd signed the legal documents that made him not only her godfather, but her legal guardian, Nate had fallen hard for the little one hook, line and sinker.
Too bad he didn't know the first thing about raising an infant. That would be problematic, but Nate had more immediate concernsshowing up at Morning-way Lodge unannounced.
His parents'his father'sdream, and now his brother's ministry, the lodge was an affordable retreat center for families of those recuperating from spinal injuries at the nearby Rocky Mountain Rehabilitation Hospital. The lodge was his family's business, and Nate's worst nightmare.
Or rather, his brother Vince was Nate's worst nightmare. He had been in the past, and in all probability, he would be again now.
There was only one way to find out, and Nate had never been a procrastinator.
Kissing his baby girl on her soft cheek, he tucked his palm beneath her head and marched up the stairs onto the pinewood porch of the main lodge. He inhaled deeply of the fragrant wood as he let himself in the front door and moved up to the courtesy desk. It was the scent of home and his childhood.
It felt odd to be back home.
Since no one was manning the desk, Nate shifted Gracie securely into one arm and rang for service. He waited a moment, and then, when no one appeared, he bounced his palm several times on the bell.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting." A young woman whirled into the office behind the desk, brushing her shoulder-length wavy blond hair from her forehead with the tips of her fingers. "Oh, what a darling little baby girl!"
When the woman met his gaze, Nate's breath stopped short in his throat. She had the most luminous chocolate-brown eyes he'd ever seen, and they were openly friendly.
More than that. Brimming with joy. He thought the look in her eyes exactly matched her spacious, heart-stealing smile.
How could anyone be truly happy working as a clerk at Morningway Lodge? Despite the fact that he was glad to be coming back home at last, Nate couldn't think of anything he'd rather not do other than work here. Tucked inside the foothills of the great Rocky Mountains, this place was officially the middle of nowhere.
Nate had always been a social person and loved being part of a crowd. It had been that way since he was a small boy.
He couldn't imagine spending his whole life working in such an isolated area. Coming home to the lodge now was a temporary solution to his immediate problem, until he could work out something more permanentand more agreeable to his outgoing nature. If it weren't for his father's possibly life-threatening stroke, Nate wouldn't be here at the lodge at all.
Anywhere was better than this.
He glanced down at the baby, who was wiggling in his arms and babbling sweet, nonsense syllables that reminded Nate of the call of a dove. Gracie leaned her whole tiny frame toward the woman behind the desk, her arms outstretched to the lady. To Nate's surprise, the baby was smilingthe first time he could remember seeing Gracie smile since her parents had passed.
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. Gracie certainly never smiled at him that way.
Nate wrapped his other arm around the baby and pulled her close to his shoulder, feeling oddly possessive of the still-wiggling infant, who protested audibly at his restrictive action.
The clerk had, perhaps instinctively, reached toward the baby, but when Nate adjusted Gracie onto his shoulder, the woman dropped her arms, choosing instead to reach for a large date book on the counter and flip through the pages to the appropriate date.
"What name is your reservation under?" she queried in a soft, sweet voice that matched her looks exactly.
"Ierdon't have a reservation," Nate stammered, thrown off by her question.
The woman's smile wavered. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. We don't take walk-ins. Do you have someone staying at the physical rehab center? I can put your name on our waiting list. I know it's around here somewhere." She fumbled around the desk, rifling through piles of papers in search of the elusive file. "I'm sorry if I appear disorganized. I don't usually run the desk."
"That's okay, ma'am. I'm just here to see Vince," Nate informed her. "Could you get him for me?"
"I'm sorry, sir," she apologized again. "Mr. Morningway asked not to be disturbed. Would you like to leave him a message?"
Nate frowned and shook his head to dislodge the uncomfortable image which had formed there, the caricature melding of his pop's and brother's faces. His brother was getting formal in his old age, two years older than Nate's own twenty-eight years.
"He'll want to see me," Nate insisted.
The woman glanced uncertainly over her shoulder toward the back office.
Smiling inwardly, Nate was about to give his name when a harried-looking Vince slipped behind the booth, pushing his rectangular glasses up on his nose and then scrubbing a hand through his already ruffled hair. A surprising thatch of gray fell across his forehead, a shockingly light streak through his otherwise dark brown hair.
"Is there a problem out here?" Vince queried the woman before he spotted Nate.
Nate could tell the very moment his elder brother saw him, as Vince's face creased into a frown, his brow furrowed. Nate smiled, but Vince only grunted and continued to glower.
"Hello, brother," Nate said, ignoring Vince's sour-lipped expression.
"Nate," Vince replied, his blue eyes narrowing and shifting between Nate and little Gracie.
Leaning close to the baby to inhale her sweet, unique and somehow calming scent, Nate fidgeted, waiting for Vince to take the lead. Even after all these years away from the lodge and his brother, Vince somehow unsettled him, which only served to annoy Nate more.
The good son glowering at the black sheep of the family. Nate couldn't help but think this whole idea was a gigantic mistake and wondered for the hundredth time why he had decided to come.
"What are you doing here?" Vince asked after a long pause. His voice was a severe monotone that Nate remembered well.
"This is my home, too," Nate reminded him gruffly, though that wasn't completely true.
Morningway Lodge had been his childhood home, but he'd been gone for nearly ten years now. And here he stood, lingering at the front desk like a regular patron. It was hardly the same thing.
"Your home?" the woman standing next to Vince echoed, her voice laced with surprise. "You never told me you had a brother, Vince."
"This was your home, Nate," Vince said, glancing between Nate and the woman at his side and shrugging apologetically to her before turning his gaze back on Nate. "You left, remember?"
Nate did remember. And he hadn't regretted it for a single moment. He had his reasons for leaving, and Vince of all people knew what they were.
"Jessica, this is my brother, Nate. Nate, Jessica," Vince offered curtly, almost as an afterthought.
Nate nodded at Jessica, wishing the woman wasn't present to hear this interchange between him and his brother. It was humiliating.
Grasping in desperation, Nate switched tactics. He didn't want to argue with Vince, especially in front of a woman who was nothing more than a stranger to him. "Don't you want to meet your new niece?"
Vince's expression instantly went from angry to astonished, his eyes widening to enormous proportions as he looked at the baby with new eyes. His mouth opened and closed several times without sound.
"My what?" Vince squeaked, his voice a good octave over its usual deep tone.
Nate chuckled. He hadn't planned to spring this news on his brother in quite this way, but it was worth it just to see the look on his face. "Your niece. Vince, this is Gracie."
"I didn't know you had a child," Vince grated, but he reached out a tentative finger, which Gracie promptly clasped and pulled toward her mouth. Vince smiled at the baby.
"She's not mine," Nate amended. "I mean, she's mine. But she's not mine."
Vince's eyebrow shot up in surprise. He reached for Gracie, softly cooing to her. Nate was surprised at how easily and naturally Vince held little Gracie. Nate always felt like a big, uncoordinated gorilla with the baby in his arms.
He shrugged as emotion welled in his throat. Explaining the situation to Vince was going to be the most difficult part of an entirely excruciating exchange.
"Hi there," Vince said, directing his words to the baby. "I'm your uncle Vince. I'm afraid your daddy didn't tell me anything about you."
Daddy. Nate wasn't sure he was ready for that word yetor if he ever would be.
"Like I said, she's not mine. She is my friend Ezra's daughter. Ezra was my battle buddy in the marines and my best friend. He had my back in Iraq. I would be dead a dozen times over if it wasn't for him."
Nate paused when his voice cracked. Shaking his head, he cleared his throat and tried again. "When Gracie was born, Ezra and his wife, Tamyra, asked me to be Gracie's godfather. Two weeks ago, Ezra and Tamyra were involved in a fatal car accident. Tamyra died on the scene. Ezra was in critical condition for twenty-four hours before he passed."
Vince frowned, his blue eyes surprisingly empathetic. "I'm sorry to hear it."
When Nate didn't immediately continue his story, Vince pinched his lips together for a moment, debating, Nate thought, on whether or not to ask the question that was obviously plaguing him. "I still don't understand. Why do you have Gracie?"
"I was at Ezra's side when he passed on," Nate explained tightly, absently brushing Gracie's dark, curly hair back from her forehead. He felt the need to touch the baby even as Vince continued to hold her. "Ezra was an only child, as was Tamyra. He " he swallowed hard " asked me to raise her."
Vince whistled low and shook his head.
"Wow. That's quite a story." He kissed Gracie's forehead. "But I have to askwhy didn't you just tell him you wouldn't do it? I'm sure you'll agree you aren't exactly father material, Nate."
The woman laid a hand on Vince's forearm as if to restrain him. Her gaze darted to Nate before she flashed Vince a cautionary warning glance.
A nice gesture, Nate thought sardonically, but decades too late.
He glared at Vince. Nate privately agreed with his brother's assessment of his character, but he still didn't like it that Vince had voiced his opinion aloud, especially with a beautiful, smiling stranger present.
Besides, the man Nate was now didn't even remotely resemble the boy who'd run off and joined the U.S. Marines ten years ago. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts enough to voice them.
He could argue, but really, what was the point? Vince wasn't going to change his mind.
"Be that as it may," Nate growled at last, "it was Ezra's dying wish that I take Gracie's guardianship. They even wrote me into their will. To be honest, I'm not sure there were any other living relatives who could take Gracie. The bottom line is that I made Ezra a promise, and I'm not going to go back on it."
Vince scoffed and shook his head again. "That would be a first."
"Vince," Nate warned with a hiss, his eyes narrowing. "Lay off."
How dare his brother question his honor? Nate was a marine now. Or at least he had been. He'd been honorably discharged at the end of his last tour of duty in order to take care of Gracie. It had been his own decision. The life of a military single father wasn't what he wanted for the baby girl.
Besides, he didn't know how he would be able to properly care for Gracie if he was gone all the time. He finally had the time and opportunity to return to his childhood home and see his ailing father, and at the time, it had seemed the right thing to do.