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"I had no idea it was this bad." Amy Carrigan reached over and took the hand of her best friend, Teddy McCabe, the day after Thanksgiving.
He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Same here." Being careful to keep to the other side of the yellow tape surrounding the century-old community chapel in downtown Laramie, Texas, Teddy let go of her hand and walked around, surveying what remained of the previously beautiful church.
The once towering live oak tree that had been struck by lightning at the advent of the previous night's thunderstorm had a jagged black streak down what remained of the trunk. The rest of the tree had taken out the bell tower and fallen through the center of the church roof.
By the time the fire department had arrived, the white stone chapel was engulfed in flames. Nearly half the wooden pews had been destroyed. And though the exquisite stained-glass windows were amazingly still intact, the walls were covered with black soot, the velvet carpeting at the altar beyond repair.
Fortunately, no one had been hurt, and plans were already being made to restore the town-owned landmark.
"Do you think they're really going to be able to get this restored in three weeks' time?" Amy asked.
"Given the number of volunteers that have already signed up to help with the cleanup, yes," Teddy replied.
"Trevor and Rebecca were supposed to have the twins' christening here on the twenty-third."
"We'll get it done," Teddy promised.
Amy hoped so. Although there were numerous other churches in the area, the community chapel was where everyone got married and had their children christened. It was small and intimate and imbued with tradition and hope.
Amy had dreamed of being married here.
Teddy studied her. "Everything okay?"
"What do you mean?"
"You've seemed blue. You hardly cracked a smile during the Thanksgiving festivities yesterday."
Amy had been hoping no one would notice. She walked around to survey the damaged landscaping around the chapel. "I had a headache."
Teddy ambled along behind her. He had a good nine inches on her. And though they both owned ranches and worked outdoorsshe growing plants, Teddy breeding horsesone might have a hard time discerning how physically fit she was because she was so delicately boned and slender.
However, it came as no surprise to anyone that Teddy had ranching in his blood. After all, he had the broad shoulders and strong, rugged build of the McCabe men. Being around him like this always made her feel impossibly feminine and protected.
"Headache or heartache?" Teddy probed.
Amy returned wryly, "Thank you, Dr. Phil. But I really don't need your psychoanalysis."
"That, my friend, is debatable." Teddy placed both hands on her shoulders and turned her so she had no choice but to look at him. "Come on, Amy." His grip tightened ever so slightly, the warmth of his palms transmitting through the fleece vest she wore. "Tell me what's going on."
Her skin tingling from the unexpected contact, Amy knelt to examine a fire-singed Buford holly bush. "It's nothing."
Teddy gazed at her compassionately. "Is it the birthday you have coming up in January?"
Amy glared at Teddy and stepped away. "Way to cheer me up, cowboy."
He exhaled. "Thirty-two is not old." He could say that because he was almost thirty-five.
Amy headed toward the parking lot located behind the chapel, where her pickup truck was parked. "It's not young, either."
"You have a lot to feel good about. A family who loves you and a lot of friends. Not to mention the best plant-and-tree nursery in the area."
Amy did feel proud. Over the last ten years, she had grown her business from a rented greenhouse to a prosperous concern.
"True, you don't have a house yet " Teddy conceded with a frown.
Not like the one he had on his Silverado Ranch, anyway. "Now you're dissing where I live?"
The lines on either side of Teddy's mouth deepened. With the familiarity of someone who had been her friend since elementary school, he said, "You don't have to live in a tiny little trailer."
Amy shrugged off his concern. "It suits me just fine right now. Besides, I want to pour all my money into expanding."
Laurel Valley Ranch currently comprised fifty acres and ten greenhouses. She grew everything from Christmas trees to perennials and starter plants, and even had a husband-and-wife team working for her full-time now.
"Then if it's not that is it the time of year that's getting you down? The holidays."
Not surprised that Teddy had seen through her defenses, Amy blurted out, "Can you really blame me?" Tears blurred her eyes. "Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, I'm reminded that Christmas is for kidsand I don't have any! And at the rate I'm going I might never have any!"
To her surprise, Teddy looked as if he were feeling the same. "Then, maybe," he said slowly, "it's time you and I both revisited the promise we made to each other."
Amy backed up until her spine touched the back of her pickup. "I was twelve and you were fifteen!"
Teddy propped a shoulder against the door, blocking her way into the driver side. "It doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea."
Amy stared at him, wishing she could say she was shocked by what he was proposing. The same crazy, irrational thought had been in the back of her mind for months now. She'd just been too romantic at heart to bring it up.
She took a deep breath and repeated the vow they had made. "You want us to marry and have babies togetheras friends? Not two people who are wildly in love with each other."
Teddy exuded McCabe determination. "We said then if we didn't find anyone else to start a family with by the time we were thirty, that's what we would do. And let's face it," he continued ruefully, "we passed that mark a while ago."
Amy's heartbeat kicked up a notch and she put her hands on the metal door panel on either side of her, steadying herself.
"It's not like we haven't been looking for a mate or been engaged," Teddy argued. "We have. It didn't work out for either of us."
Teddy's march to the altar had been abruptly cut short two years ago. Amy hadn't fared any better herself; her engagement had ended in a firestorm of embarrassment and humiliation, five years prior.
Teddy took both her hands in his and looked down at her with a gentle expression. "I'm tired of waiting, Amy. Tired of wishing for that special someone to show up and change my life. Especially now that Rebecca and Trevor have had twins. And Susie and Tyler are expecting their first child."
Amy tightened her fingers in his. "It seems everyone we know is getting married, settling down." Her two older sisters, his two tripletbrothers their friends and former schoolmates.
He held her gaze deliberately, his hazel eyes reflecting the disappointment he felt about the turn life had taken. "Except us."
Silence fell between them as a church bell began to ring in the distance.
The Christmas spirit that had been absent in her soul took root again.
"So what do you say?" Teddy took Amy's chin in his hand and a coaxing smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "How about we make this a Christmas we will always remember?"
"You did what?" Luke Carrigan choked on his drink, later the same day.
Teddy had been fairly certain the overprotec-tive older man would not readily accept anything but a traditional romance for his youngest daughter. In fact, Luke had been ready to start matchmaking to speed things alongif that was what it took to get Amy the husband and kids she deserved .
"Amy and I got married. This afternoon," Teddy repeated. They had driven to a justice of the peace in a neighboring county and cemented their deal before either of them could change their minds.
Teddy had no regrets.
He was sure this was the right thing, for both him and Amy. He only wished their families shared the sentiment. It appeared, as all four parents stared at them in shocked silence, that they did not.
Beside him, in a cranberry-red dress and heels that made the most of a slender frame and feminine curves, her pale-blond chin-length hair in tousled disarray, Amy looked even more beautiful than she had at the courthouse where the ceremony had taken place.
"Is this a joke?" Amy's mother, Meg Carri-gan, finally managed to say.
Her sable-brown eyes widening as if to say I told you this was going to be rough, Amy moved closer to Teddy.
Sensing she needed a show of physicalas well as emotionalsupport, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders in a husbandly gesture that felt as new and unfamiliar to him as the vows they had just taken.
Glad they had opted to break the news to their folks with a champagne toast in one of the private party rooms at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Laramie, Teddy faced Amy's parents.
Luke was a family physician, Meg a registered nurse. They were used to dealing with highly emotional situations.
His parents were no lightweights, either.
Travis ran a cattle ranch, while his mother had founded the Annie's Homemade Food business.
Yet all four looked as if they could be blown over by the slightest wind.
"Of course it's not a joke, Mom," Amy retorted stiffly, as she stepped forward and passed the canapes around.
Annie McCabe struggled to understand. "You're not " Teddy's mother paused and bit her lip as if not sure how to word it. She tried again, ever so gently this time. "Are you two expecting?"
Teddy swore beneath his breath, immediately earning the glares of both fathers.
"Sorry." Teddy poured more champagne for everyone. "And, no, to answer your question," he said tersely, feeling his patience waning, "of course we're not getting married because we have to!" Their parents were behaving as if he and Amy were two reckless teens, instead of competent, responsible adults.
"We don't have that kind of relationship!" Amy insisted.
"Then why did you get married?" Luke Car-rigan countered, passing on the picadillo dip.
"Because we want to have a family." Teddy helped himself to the hearty nacho-style appetizer. "And we've decided to have one together."
This, at least, Teddy noted, was no surprise to either set of parents.
He and Amy had told everyone about their "promise to each other" when they were kids, to the point it had been joked about between the two families ever since.
Amy followed his lead, behaving as if she had absolutely no trepidation about confronting their families with their decisionwhen he knew darn well she had dreaded this contretemps as much as he had.
Looking beautiful and relaxed, she put several chili-flavored shrimp on a small plate. "We're just basing our marriage on friendship, instead of romantic love," she continued casually.
"Although we do love each other as friends," Teddy interjected.
Disappointment resonated all around.
Amy sent their parents a guilt-inducing look as she sipped on more champagne. "We had hoped y'all would support us in this."
"I don't see how we can," Meg Carrigan replied, gentle and direct as ever.
"Romantic love is the foundation of every successful marriage," Annie McCabe pointed out.
"And friendship," Amy argued, taking her place next to Teddy once again.
He slid an arm around her waist and brought her in close to his side. Unaccustomed to touching her this way, he was surprised at how warm and supple she felt.
What stunned him even more was the prompt reaction of his pulse.
Teddy breathed in slowly, trying to suppress his desire. Once he regained his equilibrium, he continued to regard their families with the take-charge attitude that was deeply ingrained in all the McCabes.
"We wanted y'all to be the first to congratulate us," Teddy said, unable to help but appreciate the soft lilac fragrance that clung to Amy's hair and skin.
Or in other words, he thought silently, letting his direct gaze speak the rest for him, we're not here to ask your permission.
To his relief, their parents seemed to get what he had not said out loud, for politeness' sake.
"And we wanted to prepare you for the likelihood of becoming grandparents very soon," Amy said.
Annie McCabe began to warm to the notion, despite herself.
Teddy smiledhe had known they would come around. Although, he had expected it would take a lot more time than this!
"Are you going to adopt?" his mother asked, hope shining in her soft eyes.
Teddy stiffened. This was the part about his arrangement with Amy he liked least. Although he understood why Amy had stipulated they do it this way, his healthy male ego couldn't help but be a bit bruised by this unconventional arrangement.
"No. We're having our children the new-fashioned way," Amy declared, her cheeks turning a delectable shade of pink.
"Via artificial insemination," Teddy finished for her.
Travis McCabe's brow furrowed. He stared at Amy as if unable to believe what he had just heard.
Teddy understood that, too. His parents had a deeply loving and passionate relationship that seemed to transcend all others. It was no wonder that they were thrown for a loop by this shocking news.
They werelike Amy's parents and his and Amy's newly married siblingsthe lucky ones. Couples who seemed to have found it all.
Sadly, for him and Amy, that hadn't happened.
So although Teddy and Amy both still lamented the lack of perfection in their personal lives, they had decided that they'd rather not go through the rest of their lives alone.
Even if it meant making a few hard sacrifices.
"And that's okay with you?" Travis asked Teddy. "Having a baby through a medical procedure?'"
"It works for the horses I've been breeding. They all seem happy enough. And as long as Amy and I get what we want in the endkidswho really cares?"
Amy flashed Teddy a grateful smile.
Unfortunately, she was the only other person beside himself, Teddy noted, who looked accepting of the situation.
"Not to put too blunt a point on it," Dr. Car-rigan refuted, his expression as grim and disapproving as Teddy's own father, "but what about your own sex drives?"
Amy's fair skin flushed an even deeper pink.
Teddy's heart went out to her. Embarrassing as this was for him, it had to be harder for a diehard romantic like Amy. He knew she had dreamed of finding her Prince Charming and having that fairy-tale wedding in the community chapel since she was a little girl.
Unfortunately, just when she thought her fantasies were finally coming true and she'd given her heart and soul to Ken Donoho, Amy had been forced to abruptly end her engagement.
Her reasons were never revealed to anyone outside her family and she had never wanted to talk about it since.
Teddy hadn't pushed her.
Friends did not do that to each other.
He had regretted, however, the damage the failed relationship had done to Amy's outlook on life.
She no longer trusted romance. No longer yearned for the kind of physical passion that would last a lifetime. She was looking for Security Man now.
And he understood that, better than anyone. After all, his own engagement had also ended abruptlyand painfully. The experience had left him equally mistrusting of the initial "infatuation" stage of a relationship.
Since he had been interested in the long hauland a woman who was as entrenched in "reality" as heTeddy hoped he and Amy had at last found what they had been looking for all along. The kind of deep abiding friendship and lifelong commitment that they could use as the foundation for the family they both wanted so badly.
To his disappointment, it looked to Teddy like all their parents could focus on was the lack of intimacy in his and Amy's union.
"So are the two of you ever planning to consummate your marriage?" Travis McCabe asked warily.
Eventually, Teddy thought. When the time was right.