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"And this one's Asteroid Man "
Another plastic action figure landed on Sergeant Carter Wallace's lap tray, adding to the growing number of soldiers that had formed a perimeter around the coffee cup the flight attendant had set down in front of him.
"I got him for my birthday." A pair of eyes the color of Texas bluebonnets regarded Carter solemnly, waiting for his opinion.
"Cool." Just like the coffee he hadn't taken a sip of yet.
A wide, gap-toothed grin rearranged the pattern of butterscotch freckles on the preschool boy's cheeks. "He can fly, too. And the bad guys can't see him coming because he's inbisible when he lands."
Across the narrow aisle, the boy's harassed grandmother caught Carter's eye and mouthed the words I'm sorry as she tried to calm the fussy toddler in her lap.
The frustrated looks the woman had been receiving from their fellow passengers had only compounded her stress. Which explained why she hadn't noticed her grandson unbuckle his seat belt and commandeer the empty seat beside Carter after the beverage cart rattled past.
Without an invitation, the kid had settled in next to him and announced that his name was Josh and that he was four years old.
"Are you a real soldier?" he'd whispered, staring at the patches on Carter's camo jacket in open fascination.
Carter wrestled back a smile. "Yes, I am."
"I like soldiers."
Those three simple words had derailed Carter's plan to get some shut-eye. Josh had plunged both hands into a backpack and proceeded to pull out his action figures, an eclectic blend of superheroes and guys in camouflage, all working together to save the world.
The kid might have prevented Carter from the luxury of a long-overdue nap, but he'd also kept the nightmares at bay.
At least for a few hours.
"This is Mike." Josh carefully placed another action figure behind a Lego bunker. "When he's in trouble, Asteroid Man does this" The action figure came down right in front of Soldier Mike with a thump that rocked the lap tray and sent coffee sloshing over the side of the cup. "See? He saves him 'cause they're friends."
Carter felt beads of sweat pop out on his forehead as a memory slammed against the barricade he'd built around it. Josh's chatter was muffled by the deafening blast that sucked Carter back in time. He felt the sun-baked ground shudder beneath his feet. Saw a fireball bloom in the distance, reaching so high the flames licked the clouds. By the time he'd reached the scene, two trucks in the convoy had been reduced to smoking metal skeletons.
Along with the buzzing in his ears, Carter had heard shouts and the pop of gunfire from a sniper who'd moved in to finish what the roadside bomb had started.
You'll be nominated for a Silver Star, Wallace.
Carter didn't know why. Sure, he'd saved three men that day. But he'd lost Rob. His closest friend.
He hadn't reached him in time. And God hadn't bothered to intervene .
Carter was almost relieved when the seat belt sign blinked on a few minutes later and the flight attendant told the passengers the plane would be landing soon. Josh's soldiers retreated to the backpack once again, and he scrambled back to his grandmother's side.
Carter stared out the window as the wheels came down and the plane began its descent. Sheets of gunmetal gray clouds began to unravel, offering a teasing glimpse of the city below. It had been over a year since he'd stepped on Texas soil.
A lifetime ago.
The plane rolled to a stop by the gate, and the child's grandmother smiled at Carter across the aisle. "I can't thank you enough for keeping Josh occupied."
A smile hooked the corner of Carter's lips. "Not a problem, ma'am. Marines are trained to handle all kinds of situations."
"Are you home for good?"
Carter hesitated, not knowing quite how to answer the question. He chose the safest response. "For a little while."
The woman frowned. "But someone will be here to meet you?"
Carter nodded, touched by her concern. "My sister." In her last email, Maddie had promised to pick him up at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, but that had been several weeks ago and he hadn't been in touch with her since then.
She'd hinted that she had something important to tell him, but insisted the news be shared in person. Carter couldn't imagine what it would be, but there were times he'd been grateful for the distance that separated him from family drama. Besides that, she had Grayson, their older brother, to confide in. The two had always been close, bound together by some invisible thread that Carter had never been able to grab hold of.
There was a flurry of movement around them as the passengers collected their bags. Josh grinned up at him. "Bye."
"Take care, bud," Carter said.
"I will." The boy's thin arms locked around Carter's leg and then he was gone, swallowed up in the line of passengers exiting the plane.
Carter slung the camouflage duffel bag over his shoulder and made his way toward the baggage claim. A businessman glanced up from his laptop and gave him a respectful nod. A woman on the escalator caught his eye and tapped the tiny yellow ribbon pinned to her collar.
Carter had learned that when he wore his uniform, he wasn't just a soldier named Carter Wallace. He was someone's dad. Brother. Son. Across three time zones, people had sought him out. Smiled at him. Thumped him on the back. By touching him, they were touching someone they loved.
It was strange. Humbling.
At the bottom of the escalator, he began to look for Mad-die. She was the kind of woman who stood out in a crowd. Stylish and sophisticated.
Out of the corner of his eye, a blur of movement began to take shape.
Auburn hair. Big brown eyes and cowboy boots?
Carter had only a split second to brace himself for impact before Maddie dived into his arms. His throat swelled shut when she clung to him. He couldn't remember his older sister ever being so demonstrative.
"I can't breathe," he managed.
The choke hold around his neck loosened. A little. "Sorry. It's just" Were those tears in her eyes? "I'm glad you're here." Sniffling, Maddie stepped back and clasped his shoulders. "Let me look at you."
Carter's lips quirked. "I haven't changed since the last time you saw me."
Not on the outside, anyway.
"You, on the other hand " His gaze skimmed the Western-style plaid shirt and jeans and paused to linger on her feet. "Nice boots. Are you on some kind of undercover assignment for Texas Today?"
"I'll leave the undercover stuff to Grayand I'm not working at the magazine anymore."
"Not working. I thought you loved your job."
Maddie flashed a wobbly smile. "I told you there have been a lot of changes."
"That's an understatement."
Carter's head whipped around at the sound of a familiar drawl. His brother, Grayson, sauntered up, hand in hand with a beautiful, dark-haired woman and a small boy sporting a cowboy hat and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt.
Carter had come home on leave several times since he'd enlisted, but he'd never been greeted at the airport by both his siblings before.
"I didn't expect to see you here." He extended his hand but Gray ignored it and hugged him instead, adding a manly thump to his back for good measure.
The lump in Carter's throat doubled in size. Had the plane landed in Fort Worth or The Twilight Zone? Because things were getting weirder by the second.
"Carter, I'd like you to meet my fiancée, Elise Lopez, and her son, Cory." Gray smiled down at the woman, an expression on his face that Carter had never seen before. Identical to the one he'd seen on Rob's face whenever he'd talked about Savannah.
He thrust the memory aside.
"Congratulations." Carter glanced at Maddie. "I guess this must be the big news you had to tell me about in person."
A look passed between his siblings.
And that's when Carter felt it. The prickle of unease that skated up his spine and lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. He recognized the signs, similar to the ones he'd experienced trudging through the mountains of Afghanistan.
Suddenly, this no longer felt like a reunion. It felt more like an ambush.
"Let me get this straight. There are two of each of you?" Carter leaned forward, staring at his siblings in disbelief.
His half siblings, if what Gray had just told him was true.
"We thought it would be better if we waited until you got home to break the news," Maddie said softly.
It would have been better if they hadn't told him at all, Carter thought, still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that his mother, Sharla Wallace, hadn't given birth to Maddie and Gray. They'd spent the past hour explaining that a woman named Belle Colby was their biological mother and both Maddie and Gray had an identical twin.
Which meant their dad had never bothered to mention that he'd been married once before. Brian Wallace might be a distant fathermore available to the missionary patients he served than his own familybut he wasn't the kind of man who would keep something like that a secret.
Unless there was a good reason.
Maddie reached for his hand across the kitchen table. At least they'd chosen the privacy of Gray's condo to drop this bomb on him. Gray had left Elise and Cory at Mad-die's apartment, where they'd been staying now that his sister was living at the Colby Ranch near a small town named Grasslands.
Carter's older brother was apparently tying up loose ends in Fort Worth before starting his new job at the Grasslands Police Department. Gray and Elise planned on making a permanent move to Grasslands after they were married.
Carter had barely recovered from the news that his brother was engaged when Maddie spilled the rest of the story. Starting with how she'd recently reunited with Violet, her identical twin.
According to Maddie, Violet was the one who'd set things in motion. Her mother, Belle, had been badly injured after falling off a horse last July and she'd set out to find her biological father. A search that had led her to Maddie, instead.
"I know it sounds unbelievable"
"Unbelievable?" Carter interrupted, shifting just out of Maddie's reach. "How about impossible? You both have an identical twin that you didn't know about. Dad was married before he met Mom. I think we've gone straight from unbelievable to a guest spot on the Dr. Phil show."
No one smiled. Probably because they knew it was true.
"We've been having a hard time accepting it, too," Gray said carefully. "Unfortunately, Belle can't answer our questions until she comes out of her coma. And Dad" He stumbled over the word, which suddenly made the story more real than fantasy. Carter wasn't used to seeing his big brother, a tough undercover cop, lose a grip on his emotions. "I'm still trying to track him down."
Carter tried to put himself in Gray's position. While tracing their roots to an old address in Fort Worth, Maddie had met a woman named Patty Earl who'd cast doubts on the fact that Gray and his twin, Jack Colby, were even Brian Wallace's sons. Her late husband, Joe Earl, had claimed that he'd fathered the twin boys.
Carter had always felt like the odd man out in his family, but if the woman's claim was true, it meant that he was Brian's only son by blood.
He wanted to talk to his father, demand to know why he'd kept all this a secret. But according to Gray, their dad had disappeared while traveling near the Texas-Mexico border and no one in the family had been able to reach him for several months.
Brian wasn't expected to return until Thanksgiving, but his wallet and cell phone had turned up recently and there was a growing concern that something had happened to him. Another piece of information that Gray and Maddie had waited to tell Carter until he was back in the States.
"I know it's going to take some time to sort all this out," Gray said. "We're still working on it. It's been just as hard on Violet and Jack."
The names meant nothing to Carter. He tried to picture another Maddie. Another Grayson. The "country" equivalents of his big-city sibs. Under different circumstances, the thought would have made him smile.
"I'd like you to meet Ty." Maddie touched the engagement ring on her finger. The last Carter knew, she'd been engaged to Landon Derringer, a Fort Worth CEO who'd been a close friend of the Wallace family for years. Carter was having a hard time keeping up. "And Violet and Jack have invited you to stay at the ranch until we hear from Dad."
"Why?" Frustration sharpened the word but it didn't faze Maddie.
She lifted her chin. "Because family should stick together."
Family? Is that what they were? Because Carter had no idea how to define this tangle of relationships.
"Come on, Carter." Gray met his eyes and Carter saw a glint of stubbornness there. Or maybe he was seeing his own reflection. "What would it hurt to hang out at the Colby Ranch for a week or two?"
"You'll love it there," Maddie said earnestly. "I promise."
Carter's hand closed around the photograph in his pocket.
"Give me a few days."
Maddie's expression clouded. "Carter"
"There's something I have to do first."
"Did you see the guy who just sat down at table four? Because he sure can't take his eyes off you!"
"That's your section." Savannah Blackmore brushed aside her coworker's sly comment as she continued to restock the shelves behind the counter.
Libby hadn't been working at the diner very long, so all she knew was that Savannah was single, but not the reason why. Not that it mattered. The "cosmetology student by daywaitress by night" fancied herself a modern-day Emma, matching up people with the hope they would find their own "happily ever after" ending.
Over the past seven months, Savannah had learned there were endings, but they weren't always happy ones.
"He has broad shoulders, too." Libby fanned herself with the order pad.
Some girls noticed a man's smile or the color of his eyes. Libby judged a man by the width of his shoulders. Savannah doubted she could find a pair strong enough to carry her burdens. Guys avoided women with baggage and she had enough to fill up the cargo hold of a Boeing 747. The delicate flutter below her rib cage reminded Savannah there was someone else to consider. Someone she needed to be strong for.
That's why she wasn't even tempted to look at the guy at table number four.
"I'll be in the kitchen."
"You can run but you can't hide," her coworker teased.
"Watch me." Savannah made a beeline for the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the dining area.