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Olivia Hastings slipped away from the crowd at the hilltop wedding reception to regain her peace of mind. She set her bridesmaid bouquet on a rock before wandering farther downhill and away from the laughing guests.
A few moments of solitude were all Olivia needed.
"We're not s'posed to come here."
That childish warning, barely audible, floated toward her on the soft summer wind, rousing her curiosity. The Woodward twins?
Olivia kept walking, stepping carefully around thistles as she followed the voices. The twins, Brett and Brady Woodward, were the bride's nephews. They'd taken part in a fundraiser Olivia had directed last month. The twins had stolen the show, though their father hadn't bothered to see it.
Reese Woodward was busy, his sister Sara claimed. Olivia thought he was too busy.
"Uncle Cade said he caught fish in here when he was a little boy."
The stream! Olivia picked up her pace downhill, over hillocks topped with cropped grass, not caring that her silk dress would probably be ruined.
Two four-year-old boys near water spelled disaster.
"I want to catch a fish."
"No, Brett. Uncle Cade said "
His voice dissipated. Olivia strained, but couldn't see the boys. She glanced around to call for help and realized no one would hear above the wedding reception music. Anyway, the wind would carry her voice away. She'd have to manage on her own. Olivia felt certain that, given the love she'd witnessed the Woodward family lavish on the twins, one or another of Denver's famous wedding-planning family would soon come looking.
"Brett, you can't go in. Daddy said—"
"You boys get away from that water," Olivia yelled in her sternesttone, praying she wouldn't be too late. She stubbed her toe on a rock and bit down to smother her cry as she climbed over it, using both hands to speed her descent.
There. She could see them. Brady hovered at the edge of the water, obviously uncertain about his next move. But Brett already had one shoe off.
"Hey!" Olivia shouted, waving her hands. Brady saw her, smiled and waved back. Brett was wading in. "No!"
But in the next moment Brett tumbled face-first into the swiftly moving water. When it looked like Brady would go in after him, Olivia threw caution aside and raced downhill, ignoring the stabs and jabs of anything that tried to impede her progress.
Brady teetered on one leg, about to lose his balance. Olivia plucked him up and sat him on a big rock several feet from the water's edge.
"Don't you dare move," she ordered. "I can't see Brett."
Big, fat tears tumbled down chubby cheeks. Brady pointed.
"There." He sniffed. "He's not swimming."
Brett lay facedown in the water, floating farther away.
"I'll get him, Brady, but don't you move. Promise me."
"Good boy." Olivia stepped into the stream. Moving as swiftly as possible, she kept going, though the water was icy cold against her warm skin. In seconds her thin dress was soaked and she was chilled.
Olivia ignored it as she'd learned to ignore the pain of loss that so often gripped her heart. When she was deep enough, she began swimming. It seemed to take forever, but finally she was able to grab a corner of Brett's white tuxedo and tug him into her arms.
Moving as fast as she dared over the sharp yet slippery rocks, Olivia carried the still body to shore. She laid Brett flat and began lifesaving maneuvers she'd learned years ago in a Red Cross class. While she worked, she prayed, vaguely aware that Brady was bawling at the top of his lungs. At least he hadn't moved.
Neither had Brett.
Olivia kept working. Finally the boy responded, spewing a mouthful of water all over her before he gasped for oxygen.
"Thank you, Father," she whispered, holding him as the last of the water gurgled out and his breathing grew more normal.
"No, thank you." Reese grabbed his son's shoulders and helped him sit up. When Brett tried to stand, Reese wrapped him in his arms and held on, eyes squeezed shut. His chest heaved with the exertion of running downhill. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. His gray-white face looked like an ice sculpture as he hugged the shivering little body against him.
Olivia stayed silent for a few minutes, but finally she touched the shoulder of the man who'd played best man to her bridesmaid in his sister's wedding. His eyes flew open and he stared at her as if awakening from a nightmare.
"Come on, we need to get away from here."
"Yeah. I know." His voice grated, frosted with fear.
Olivia understood that horrible choking awareness that a child you'd protected and adored since birth, a child you would sacrifice your very life for, had almost been snatched away.
Only in her case, there was no almost.
"I'm cold, Daddy," Brett stuttered, his teeth chattering.
"The water comes from snow on the mountains." The leashed tension in Reese's voice chastened the young miscreant into silence as he carried the boy to safety.
Olivia followed them, picking her way back along the water's edge. Her feet screamed a protest, but she ignored it, smiling when Brady blubbered with joy at the sight of his bedraggled twin.
"He's fine, Brady." She led them to a massive boulder that felt deliciously warm to the touch. "Reese?"
"Yeah?" He looked at her, his blue eyes dark as storm clouds.
"He can sit down here." She touched the rock, but Reese didn't move. His arms remained locked around his child. "Brett's cold, Reese. We have to warm him up."
The frantic father studied her for a moment before he looked down at the boy he held. He seemed unable to let go.
"Brett is all right, Reese. But he's cold and wet and we need to fix that." She didn't want to frighten Brett, but his shivering bothered her. She stood on tiptoe and whispered in Reese's ear. "You're scaring him. Put him down, okay?"
He looked at her as if she'd asked him to move mountains.
"Put him down, Reese. I only want to help."
He finally nodded, loosening his grip by degrees until at last Brett had been lowered to the big rock she'd indicated. But Reese remained close by, obviously not quite trusting her with his precious child.
Olivia's heart ached to comfort him some other way, but she was only his wedding partner. So she smiled, then began removing Brett's shirt and pants.
"Come on, sweetheart. Slip out of these wet things. We'll let that big old sun warm you up." When she fumbled, Reese helped, but his stiff, jerky actions gave away his distress.
After a moment, Reese moved toward Brady. His hand shook as he reached for the boy's fingers and a strangled breath squeezed out from his throat at the contact.
"Brady's fine, Reese. Everything is all right now," Olivia soothed softly, hoping to reassure all of them. As she brushed damp brown curls off Brett's forehead, she couldn't resist pressing a kiss against his sweet cheek. "Feeling better, sweetheart?"
"K-kind of." He stared up at her, his spiky lashes stuck together. "Are you going to take off your dress? It's wet, t-too?"
"I'm fine." She suppressed a shiver. "Brady, slip off your jacket, will you? Brett needs it to warm up."
Once Olivia had Brett buttoned inside the white jacket, she gave way to her own weakness and sank down beside him, smothering a groan at the sweet heat of the stone against her skin. Still Reese hovered, silent and grim, holding Brady close.
"It's okay," she repeated softly. "It's okay."
Several minutes passed before Reese nodded. He drew an audible breath, then sat Brady next to Brett. He cupped his palm around each miniature chin, forcing his sons to look at him.
"What were you doing, Brett? Uncle Cade told you not to come down here."
"Y-yes. But I wanted to catch a fish. I almost d-did, too," he chattered, his chin thrusting out with pride.
Olivia's heart lurched at the thought of what might have been. Anika had been four when—
"Uncle Cade said we shouldn't go past those blue flowers." Brady pointed uphill to blooms that were at least three hundred feet above them. "You said that was the rule, didn't you, Daddy?"
Olivia struggled to control her shivering. If only she had enough strength to drag herself back up the hill. But the truth was, she felt drained. Death had come too close.
But it had not taken another child this time.
"Why did you disobey me and your uncle?" Reese demanded in a rasping voice.
"I don't like rules," Brett said as if that explained everything.
"Too bad. Everybody has to follow rules, Brett." There was no give in Reese's tone. "That's the way life is. Rules help protect us from bad things."
"They didn't pro-teck my mom." Brady mourned. "I heard Great Granny say my mom followed the rules when she stopped at the sign. But my mom got dead." His bottom lip trembled as he glared at his father. "Dead means she's gone, and she isn't coming back ever again."
Reese's mouth worked, but he said nothing. So Olivia took over.
"Do you remember your mother, Brady?"
From her many conversations with Sara, Olivia knew Reese's wife had died several years earlier. The twins would probably not remember her, but Olivia knew it would be helpful to encourage them to talk about her anyway. Maybe something today had triggered a sense of loss.
"Brady doesn't remember nothing."
"Do so. She had brown hair." Brady glared at his brother. "Like choc-lat."
"You saw that in a picture. You don't remember it." Brett's voice wobbled. "I think I do sometimes, but—" He shrugged, his little face confused.
Olivia glanced at Reese, expecting him to soothe them. But he was still dealing with his own shock. His stare remained frozen on the children.
"Sweetheart, your mom is tucked inside here." Olivia tapped Brett's little chest. "She wouldn't care if you remembered what she looked like. All she'd care about is that you remember that she loved you very much."
Brett studied her for a few minutes.
"There's only Daddy and us in our house. It's not like the kids at day care. Most of them have daddies and mommies. I wish I had a mommy."
"Why do you wish that, Brett?" Years of training and thousands of phone calls to a kids' radio show Olivia had taken from a small New York station to national syndication had taught her that talking was often the best therapy.
"The other kids' mommies send cookies on special days and push them on the swings and help say prayers at night." Brady, not Brett, volunteered the information.
"But your dad does things with you, too, doesn't he?"
Please don't let me be wrong.
"Not cookies," Brady corrected. "He does other things."
"The minister at church said God made families with moms and dads." Brett blinked at her through the hank of dark brown hair that flopped over one eye. "We don't gots a mom."
Implying God didn't make his family?
Realizing Reese wasn't capable of responding at that moment, Olivia hurried to reassure.
"God loves all kinds of families, Brett. He loves families with lots of kids and families with only one little boy or girl. He loves families with only a daddy or only a mommy, too. That part doesn't matter to God. What matters is that families love each other. I know you love your daddy."
"Yep," Brett squealed, jumped up. "I love you, Daddy."
"I love you, too." Reese's voice emerged hoarse, choked as he swung his son into his arms and hugged him close. He smiled at Olivia, but it was a distracted courtesy. His attention returned to Brett.
"Why did you come here?" The question held a warning.
Brett's bottom lip jutted out. "To fish."
"What did Cade say?" Reese squatted with Brady resting on his knee. "What did I say, Brett?" His voice was stern, his gaze intense, but his hand, as he lifted it to drag through his hair, trembled. When the boy didn't speak, Reese repeated, "What did I say?"
"What did you promise? Both of you?"
"Not to come." Brady looked at his brother. "I told him not to."
"But you came along with him. After you'd both promised me."
Olivia admired the way Reese forced them to admit their wrongdoing without raising his voice. Though his olive-tanned skin had sallowed and his rich blue eyes still looked haunted by the near disaster, he was trying to teach them.
"I make rules to protect you guys, so you won't get hurt. I do that because I love you and because I don't want anything bad to happen to you." Reese inhaled to steady his voice. "Brett could have drowned. This water is dangerous. It's not a place for kids to come by themselves. Cade told you and I told you, but you disobeyed anyway."
"If I had swimming lessons I could—"
The little boy gulped, raised his head and looked at his dad, shame washing over his face.
"I'm sorry, Daddy."
"Me, too," Brady chirped right before he wrapped his chubby arms around Reese's neck and squeezed.
Olivia's heart tightened. If only she could feel Anika's beloved arms once more. If only Trevor Her heart wept as she sent a prayer for peace heavenward.
"I'm sorry, too." Reese sat the boys back down, his tone firmer now. "But being sorry isn't always enough. It wouldn't do any good to be sorry if Brady didn't have a brother anymore, would it, Brett?"
The twins stared at each other as if they'd never imagined such a thing.
"Obedience is important. The only way I can do my daddy job properly is to keep you two safe. That's why you have to obey me."
Fatherhood equaled safety? Olivia frowned.
Reese looked in control, but she saw signs that his emotions were still riding high. And little wonder.
"Do you understand?"
Two brown heads slowly nodded.
"Are we getting punished?"
"Yes, Brett, you are. After Auntie Sara's party, when we're at home. Right now I want you to put on your shoes, take your brother's hand and get back up the hill. Your backpacks are in the house. You can change clothes. Emily will help you." He pointed to the teenage girl who stood at the crest of the hill, watching. "Understand?"
They began gathering their belongings.
They turned, studied Reese with question marks in their eyes.
"Do you have something to say to Olivia?"
"Thank you for helping my brother," Brady said. He gave her a shy hug.
"Yeah. Thanks." Brett offered his hand. Once she'd shaken it, he backed away. "I'm sorry you got wet and your dress got wrecked."
"I'm glad you're okay, Brett."
"No more disobeying," Reese ordered. "You either behave yourselves or we'll go home right now."
"And miss seeing the horsies?" Brady's eyes swelled.
"And miss seeing them," Reese confirmed.
"Come on, Brett." Brady shoved his brother's shoes at him, then nudged him upward. "We gotta be good."
Olivia smiled as she watched the adorable pair scurry uphill. Then her attention returned to Reese.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm not sure I'll ever be all right again," he muttered half under his breath. Then he shook his head at her, smiled. "I'm fine. I lost about five years when I saw you dragging him out. He could have drowned."
"But he didn't. They're all right, thank the Lord."
"The Lord. Yeah." Reese didn't sound as if he was giving God any of the credit for the twins' safety as he tracked their progress uphill.
"They really are all right," Olivia whispered.
"Yeah. I know." But he didn't look away until the young girl, Emily, had them by the hand.
Olivia tried to hide the shiver that rippled over her, but Reese's moody gaze had registered her discomfort.
"I'm sorry. I should have done this earlier." He slid out of his tuxedo jacket and draped it over her shoulders. "Better?"
"Thanks." She sighed as his warmth caressed her goose-pimpled skin.
"It's I who should thank you. When I saw Brett floating on that water, I thought my heart would stop. I couldn't have wished for a better rescuer." His hands fisted at his sides, but when Reese noticed her glance he shoved them in his pockets. "You know your first aid."
"I took a course—the basics, nothing extra. It came in handy."
"Yeah." A half smile lifted his lips. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She strove for levity to break the tension. "You didn't step on my bouquet on your way down, did you?"
"Ha! Very funny." His broad white-covered shoulders lifted with his sigh. "What a day."
"A wedding here, a swim there." Olivia shrugged. "Pretty ordinary."
"I'd like to know what kind of life you lead."
"A boring one," she said quickly before he could ask more.
"You have a great rapport with my sons. Of course, Sara told me that when the boys were in that theater project of yours. I must have blocked it."
"Ah." Blocked it or didn't notice?
"Life with those two—" he raked a hand through his hair before jerking a thumb over one shoulder "—doesn't allow a lot of time for thinking. I'm always in protect or prevent mode. They're so little and I couldn't bear it if—"
"I understand." Too well. Losing a child was the nightmare every parent feared most, the thing she'd never thought she'd live through.
Olivia's admiration for Reese grew. Sara's comments about her overprotective brother had painted a very different picture of the man who now looked shaken and disturbed by the incident that had just occurred.
Reese Woodward was actually quite charming.
"We should go." He glanced at her feet. "Your feet must feel horrible. And you seem to have lost your shoes."
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