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Overnight, Caitlyn Villard becomes mother to twin five-year-olds. Her darling nieces are orphaned, their parents fallen soldiers. So Caitlyn trades New York City for Prairie Springs, Texas, the small military town she'd run from at first chance. Loving the girls is easy. Learning how to be a slow-paced soccer mom is not. Which is where handsome army chaplain Steve Windham steps in. Just in time to show Caitlyn that sometimes you find the ...
Overnight, Caitlyn Villard becomes mother to twin five-year-olds. Her darling nieces are orphaned, their parents fallen soldiers. So Caitlyn trades New York City for Prairie Springs, Texas, the small military town she'd run from at first chance. Loving the girls is easy. Learning how to be a slow-paced soccer mom is not. Which is where handsome army chaplain Steve Windham steps in. Just in time to show Caitlyn that sometimes you find the man—and life—of your dreams where you least expected.
It had taken ten years in New York City to eliminate all traces of Texas from Caitlyn Villard's voice. It took only a week in Prairie Springs to bring it back again.
Had she really just said y'all to the kindergarten teacher and her own twin nieces? Caitlyn stepped out into the courtyard of the Prairie Springs Elementary School. She was greeted by a blast of air hot enough to wilt her hairstyle and melt the makeup from her face.
"Um, ma'am?" The warm drawl came from above.
She looked up. A lanky man clung to the top of a wooden stepladder, a paint can in one hand and a dripping brush in the other. "You might want to move out of range a bit."
"Sorry." She took a few steps away, standing under the shade of the roof overhang. She had obviously forgotten just how hot Texas was in July.
Through the window she could see into the room where Amanda and Josie sat at a round table with Sarah Alpert, who was assessing their readiness to start kindergarten in September.
That was still two months away. By the time the twins started school, she would be back in New York, picking up the threads of her interrupted life. Back on the fast track to partner at Graham, Graham and Welch, one of the Big Apple's most prestigious law firms. This interval in Texas, helping her mother cope with the aftermath of her sister's death, would be a memory.
"You brought the girls in for their first taste of kindergarten, did you?"
Caitlyn blinked, as startled as if the spindly potted shrub next to the door had made a personal remark. The painter had descended—tall, lanky, wearing the scuffed boots, blue jeans, western belt and ball cap that were almost a uniform here.
"I begyour pardon?" It was a tone designed to freeze unwelcome attention.
"The twins," he said, as if she was a bit slow on the uptake. "I bet they're excited about starting kindergarten in the fall."
His eyes, intensely blue in a lean, tanned face, now held amusement. They also seemed vaguely familiar.
"I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
"Well, now, I reckon I'm just not as memorable as I thought I was." He didn't look as if he believed that, in spite of the aw-shucks expression he wore. He tipped the ball cap politely. "Steve Windham. Prairie Springs High School. Ring any bells?"
She had to dredge through memories she'd happily buried a long time ago. "Steve Windham. I guess so. You were a senior when I was a freshman, I think."
Actually she knew, but she didn't intend to pander to the man's self-conceit. He looked far too pleased with himself already.
She let her gaze wander over what had to be at least six feet or more of solid muscle. Steve had been the star athlete of his class, and he still looked it. He'd been the valedictorian, too, and probably voted most likely to succeed.
"That'd be about right," he agreed. "That was way too many years ago, I guess."
"And after high school you became a house-painter, did you? I thought I remembered that you had an athletic scholarship to one of the big schools."
That was typical of Prairie Springs. People just settled down to live the way their folks had, instead of getting out into the world and making a mark. Being a painter was fine, if that was what you really wanted, but it was hard to believe someone with Steve's intelligence and talent hadn't had any bigger goals.
Steve's right eyebrow cocked, giving him a quizzical look. "I don't guess there's anything wrong with painting. It's an honest day's work. So what did Ms. Caitlyn Villard turn out to be?"
She hadn't meant to insult the man, and realized maybe she had been a little judgmental. It wasn't any of her business how Steve Windham spent his life.
"I'm an attorney in New York."
That eyebrow lifted a little higher. "Only now you're back in Prairie Springs. Going to practice law here, are you?"
She hoped the horror she felt at his suggestion didn't show on her face.
She managed what she hoped was a polite smile. "You'll have to excuse me. I think the teacher is ready for me to come back in."
He nodded, still with that faintly amused grin on his lips.
She hurried away, aware that he stood there staring after her, with his thumbs hooked nonchalantly in his belt.
Get out of Prairie Springs. That had been her only goal back in high school.
Well, now she'd come full circle. Getting out of Prairie Springs was her only goal now.
Sarah Alpert, the kindergarten teacher, gave Caitlyn a welcoming smile as she reentered the classroom. A slim, fine-boned redhead, she seemed to exude warmth, and her casual jeans and shirt made the situation feel less formal for her young prospective students.
She rose from her place at the low table where she'd been sitting with the twins.
"You girls can finish up your pictures while I talk with your aunt, all right?"
Amanda, the older by twenty minutes, looked a little rebellious at the prospect of sitting still, but she turned back to her picture at Ms. Alpert's firm gaze. Josie never lifted her eyes from the page, appearing lost in whatever she was drawing.
The twins were physically identical, with their straight, chestnut-colored hair and big blue eyes, but they were very different in personality. Caitlyn got them right about eighty percent of the time, and probably the teacher, with her experience, would quickly figure out how to tell them apart.
Sarah led the way to her desk at the end of the room, where they'd have a little privacy. She nodded to a folding chair she'd put at right angles to the desk, and Caitlyn sat down.
"How did they do?"
Caitlyn was surprised to find that she had any apprehension about it. She'd only seen the twins a handful of times in their young lives, but they seemed bright. Certainly her younger sister, Carolyn, had been intelligent, even if she'd scorned the education Caitlyn had always thirsted for.
"They're certainly ready intellectually for kindergarten."
"That's good." That was why they were here, after all, wasn't it?
But the teacher's gaze still expressed some concern. "As to how they'll be dealing with their loss in another two months, I just don't know. I guess we'll see where they are then. Grief from the loss of both parents could affect their adjustment."
"I hadn't thought of that." There were, it appeared, a lot of things she hadn't thought of. Well, what did she know about five-year-olds?
Sarah Alpert nodded sympathetically. "Have you noticed many changes in them since they learned that their parents were gone?"
"I haven't—I mean, my job in New York keeps me very busy. My mother was taking care of the twins after my sister and her husband were deployed."
"Yes, of course. I know that. You have my sympathy for your loss."
"Thank you." Her throat tightened on the words.
Carolyn and Dean, her husband, both gone in an instant on the other side of the world. That was something people in Prairie Springs must have to get used to, living as they did in the shadow of the army's Fort Bonnell.
She cleared her throat. "In any event, my mother says that Amanda has been more mischievous than usual, and Josie more withdrawn, although she's always been the shyer of the two. Ms. Alpert—"
"Call me Sarah, please." The teacher reached across the desk to press her hand. "We all know each other here, and your mother and I have often worked on church suppers together."
"Yes, she said that she knew you. She wanted me to mention to you that Josie will follow wherever Amanda leads, even if it's into trouble."
Sarah smiled. "I'll keep that in mind. I know your mother is very relieved to have you here to take over with the children. You are staying, aren't you?"
Did everyone think that? She supposed she owed the teacher an answer, even if she didn't owe one to Steve Windham.
"I'm not sure how long I'll be here. My career is in New York." That sounded sufficiently vague, when the truth was that she longed to get back to her own life, even though duty demanded that she be here for the moment, at least.
"You might find something to do here in Prairie Springs," Sarah suggested. "I know it isn't really my business to interfere, but I'm concerned about the children. They've been through a rough time, and it would be a shame to uproot them at this point."
It was impossible to take offense at Sarah's comments, given the warmth and concern that shimmered in her blue eyes. And she'd brought up a good point—one that Caitlyn hadn't really considered. Caitlyn's original plan had been to take a month's leave, help her mother and the children recover from their grief and see them settled financially, and then get back to her own life.
That plan had seemed reasonable back in New York, when she was scrambling to get time off work, turn her cases over to someone else and get here in time for the funerals. Now that she was on the spot, things weren't so clear-cut.
"I can't practice law here. I'm not licensed in Texas, and I haven't even considered that. I have to admit, though, that it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to find something part-time to do while I'm here."
She hadn't imagined finances would be an issue when she'd taken a leave of absence, but then, she'd never tried to do without her salary before. She hoped she'd be able to continue working on some cases from here, but it had been made clear to her that the clients of Graham, Graham and Welsh expected and would receive personal attention. At least they were willing to hold her position open.
No one could live on her salary in Manhattan, pay off college and law school loans and still have much left over anyway. When she made partner, it would be another story, but in the meantime, her finances were tight. And her mother had given up her job at the gift shop when Carolyn and Dean were deployed to the Middle East.
The twins had the funds that had come to them on their parents' deaths, of course, but if possible, Mama wanted that put away for their futures.
"You know, I believe I might know just the thing." Sarah looked pleased at the prospect of helping. She turned to her desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper. "I volunteer at Children of the Day. It's a local charity that helps victims of war—does wonderful work. As it happens, they're looking for a care coordinator right now, and I believe the schedule would be flexible. With your legal background, you'd probably be a big asset."
"I'm not licensed in Texas—" she repeated, but Sarah pressed the paper into her hand.
"Just talk to Anna Terenkov, the director. I'm sure this is all going to work out fine."
Sarah was a lot more optimistic than she was, since at the moment she didn't see anything working out fine. Still, if she could get the job, the money would be welcome. Her expenses in New York continued unabated while she kicked her heels in Texas.
Not for long, she reminded herself. She'd do all she could for her mother and the twins, since Carolyn had named her as their guardian, but in the end, her life was back in New York.
Steve worked his way methodically through cleaning up the paintbrushes. He'd volunteered two hours of painting to the elementary school this afternoon, but he had a meeting back on post at four. The group he'd formed to get soldiers to volunteer for community projects was going strong now, and he owed it to the people he'd talked into it to show that he'd be right in there volunteering his own time and effort.
From where he stood, he could see through the windows of the kindergarten room. Amanda and Josie, chestnut heads together, whispered over their papers, while their aunt Caitlyn sat talking with Sarah Alpert.
He worried about the twins, as he worried about all those under his care who had suffered losses. The twins had each other and their grandmother, and now they had their aunt. Was Caitlyn up to the responsibility she'd inherited from her sister?
He studied her, frowning a little. He remembered her well, which was odd in itself since she'd been three years behind him in school. Maybe she'd stood apart because of the fierce ambition she'd shown at an age when most girls were too busy giggling over boys, pop stars and clothes to give much thought to their futures.
Now—well, Caitlyn Villard had grown into a beauty, if you liked women who were sophisticated, even icy. She was tall and slim, carrying herself as if there wasn't a doubt in her mind as to who she was and where she was headed.
The hair that had once been flaxen was now a rich golden brown, tousled in a way that he suspected was style, not nature. Her eyes hadn't changed, though. They were a warm hazel with glints of gold when the sun caught them.
Well, the important thing wasn't how she looked, although she was certainly worth a second glance from any man. What was crucial was whether she could take care of those children.
She'd probably used that single-minded determination of hers that he remembered to take the big city by storm. From what he could see, apparently she'd made it, despite all the obstacles there must have been for a little girl from Texas with no family backing or money.
But now she was faced with even harder barriers in learning how to be a mother to two precious children. Did she have that in her? He didn't know.
His thoughts automatically went inward in prayer. Lord, You know what You have in mind for Amanda and Josie, and for their aunt. If there's a way in which I can help, please use me.
When he looked again, the door was opening and Caitlyn and the twins were coming out.
Amanda spotted him first and let out a squeal. She came running toward him, waving a welcome, with Josie scurrying behind.
He bent to hug them, holding them away from his paint stains and grinning at their enthusiastic greeting. "Hey, you two. Y'all been having some fun in the kindergarten room with Miss Sarah?"
"I made a picture and printed my name," Amanda said importantly. "And I said my numbers, too."
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