Eight years ago Brigham Collier broke their engagement, and Molly Darling's heart, when he put the military first. Now Molly is a childless widow, and the returning soldier's back in town…with the most adorable baby she's ever seen. He needs help looking after Laila, left in his care by a fallen teammate. But time is running out. Who will keep Laila when duty calls again?
Molly can't turn her back on an orphan, but Laila reawakens her longing for a family of her own. And her feelings for Brig. If he shared her dream–instead of living for the next dangerous mission–she might dare say yes to him again. But he'll never leave his post, and she won't trust him with her heart a second time.
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"How do women ever manage?"
Brig Collier had no clue. In the past twenty-four hours, through seven and a half time zones, he had seen females nowhere near his size juggle crying infants, fussy toddlers and screaming five-year-olds without breaking a sweat. He figured it had something to do with different elbow joints and pelvic structure.
Even getting out of a cab was a major ordeal. Worse, now he was talking to himself. After fumbling for his wallet, his brain fogged from travel, he paid the fare, then heaved himself from the taxi's rear seat into the pouring rain.
He reached back in for the overstuffed diaper bag and, finally, for the baby. He lifted her out of the mandatory car seat she'd been sitting in, but Laila just didn't fit in the crook of his arm. One tiny leg insisted on poking out from her blanket. Poor kid.
Brig felt like a total failure. Never mind his expertise with the black-ops stuff that was his bread and butter. He was still trying to deal with the shock of becoming all too suddenly a stand-in father.
He waited while the driver unloaded their bags from the trunk. One for him, three for Laila. By the time she reached kindergarten, they'd probably be traveling with a U-Haul.
The cabbie couldn't hide his smirk. "Good luck, mister." He probably had a dozen kids and could handle six at a time. As he pulled away in his cab, he called out the window, "The first one's always the hardest."
Brig frowned. Could it be more obvious that he didn't know what he was doing? He always knew what he was doing. His life depended on it and so, unfortunately, did the lives of others. As if he needed that reminder, now he had Laila, and Brig meant to do right by her.
He gazed around, but for one jet-lagged second he couldn't remember where he was. Oh, yeah, not in Wardak province, Afghanistan. No bullets whizzed past his head here. This was Liberty Courthouse. Small-town America in the heartland of Ohio.
His heartbeat settled. He was looking straight at his parents' neat suburban house, the safe place he needed for Laila.
The baby whimpered. Cold water dripped from Brig's hair, making him shiver. And he realized he was standing in the rain like a turkey with its mouth open. Laila was getting wet, too. Brig hurried up the walk to the modest house he'd once called home.
It looked empty?
Alarm flashed through him. How could that be? After he leaned on the doorbell a third time, he realized no one must be inside.
Brig hadn't been here in a while. He had no door key to the house.
What to do?
Laila would have to have a bottle soon, dry clothes, a clean diaper.
Other than his absent parents, he had no relatives in town. His friends had moved away. As for the neighbors he'd burned that bridge long ago, especially with her.
Nonetheless, the next minute he was picking a path across the sodden lawn anyway with Laila in his arms. He'd left her car seat and most of their luggage on his parents' doorstep to lighten his load, but the insistent memory of a brown-haired girl with laughing green eyes weighed him down at every step. Molly. He'd be lucky if she didn't kick him across the street.
The very picture of a desperate man, he carried Laila up the sidewalk to Molly's house. She probably no longer lived here, either. But no doubt her dad still did, except the man would likely greet him with a shotgun.
Brig climbed the steps, one foot slipping on a wet slate tile. Startled, he lost his balance, nearly tossing Laila and him into the rain-flattened peony bushes that flanked the porch.
He grabbed the railing to steady himself at the same time a blast of noise from inside the house assaulted his eardrums. A party? Not in his honor, for sure.
Maybe he shouldn't have come back to Liberty.
But he had to consider Laila's welfare now, not that of the men under his command. Not his own.
Molly didn't believe in bad omens. As if there were any other kind, including the rain that now slashed the windows. She was already running late, and even the red-and-white banner stretched over the dining room archway didn't bring her usual smile. The party guests in the living room, ranging in age from six months to sixty years, had begun arriving early, well before middayhad she put the wrong time on the invitations?and most of them seemed to be talking at once. Every minute or two, the doorbell rang again.
Normally Molly loved parties. At least, she had loved them when there was something to celebrate with that special someone. Now, in the midst of her annual Valentine's Day bash, she was merely going through the motions for other people.
What else could go wrong?
Maybe the romantic holiday itself had unsettled her.
February was no longer her favorite month, and except for her dad, Molly had loved only two other men in her life. The first she'd rather not think about. The second, sadly, was gone, too.
Determined not to slide further into a slump, she turned to finish with the decorations, hoping no one would notice her disorganization. She should have stayed up later last night, but then, she hadn't expected the horde to get here this soon. She stuck another heart-shaped decal on the back of a dining room chair. And gave thanks for the blessings she still had.
Her friends. Her family. Her widowed father. Thomasalso known as Popwas already in his element, riding small children on his knee, telling corny jokes to the teenagers, ignoring his diet to drink a beer or two with the men. Molly wouldn't spoil his fun.
The familymost of all Pop, who still mourned her motherrelied on her. She was great at holding them together, and proud of it. If this was her fate in life now, instead of a house full of babies to care for and a husband to love, so be it. Molly didn't expect to find love again. Her family and her day care center, Little Darlings, had to be enough.
And they would be. Molly already needed to expand the center. If all her current plans went well, she could take in more children, hire more assistants to improve her already good teacher-to-student ratio and enhance her program.
Still, she couldn't shake this stubborn foreboding, her feeling that something was about to happen that would change her life again.
And as if someone had just been cued, the doorbell chimed once more.
In a last attempt to alter her mood, she dabbed one remaining shiny red heart decal at the corner of her mouth, like a beauty mark. Then she shoved the now-decorated chairs back under the table and went to greet her newest guest, determined to enjoy herself if it killed her.
But when she plowed through the crowded living room and opened the front door, her smile vanished. Molly froze. She knew exactly why she had felt such foreboding.
In the doorway stood a tall, all-too-familiar man. His piercing blue eyes met her gaze of recognition, equally shocked.
Molly's heart tripped on itself as too many memories flooded her mind. She tried to focus on his rain-dampened hair, dark and sleek against his head, but his gaze kept drawing hers back. She had to admit he was still the most attractive man she'd ever seen.
Molly exchanged a glance with her sister, who stood on the other side of the living room, a party hat in one hand. Ann lifted her eyebrows, and Molly stifled the urge to flee. She was no longer a naive twenty-two-year-old. He might still be handsome, but at thirty and a widow, she was immune, she reassured herself. Why let his abrupt reappearance shake her?
Yet the bluish circles of fatigue under those eyes threatened to undo her. If only she could hide behind the red heart pasted at the corner of her mouth, cool the heat that rose in her face. The last person she'd expected to see was the man she had once loved to distraction, the man who hadn't wanted to make that final commitment to Molly on their wedding day. Brigham Collier. Her ex-fiancé, the first terrible loss in her life, had come back.
Holding a baby!
The party went downhill from there. After Brig walked in, Molly was definitely not in a festive mood. The good thing was, nobody noticed except Pop, whose back went rigid with disapproval as soon as he spied Brig. Apparently he hadn't forgotten, either, what had happened eight years ago.
"Look at this adorable baby," one of Molly's cousins cooed, crossing the room with her arms outstretched. "Take off that soaked trench coat and give this poor child to me."
Looking disoriented, Brig didn't move except to relinquish the baby. Like Molly, he seemed numb. He was an only child, and his smaller family never had get-togethers of such utter chaos. Then, too, he wasn't a homebody like Molly, who had never been out of Ohio. No. Brig had left Liberty Courthouse right after he'd run out on her. To this day, according to his worried mother, he preferred flying around the world, getting in and out of trouble on behalf of some quasimilitary outfit no one was supposed to know about. Trying to get himself killed.
Brig was all about risk.
Molly, who had suffered enough loss, hated the very thought of risk.
For years, she reminded herself, she and Brig had literally been worlds apart. The last she'd heard, he was somewhere in Afghanistan.
If he expected her to welcome him warmly, he had some nerve. She peered behind him but didn't see a wife, which didn't mean he didn't have one somewhere. Before she had all her defenses in place, Brig walked right toward her, his gaze as piercing as a laser.
His deep voice sent an unwanted shiver down her spine.
"Hey, Molly." He bent as though to kiss her cheek, but Molly stepped back to avoid contact. Seeming to sense her rejection, Brig glanced away. "I didn't know you'd be here," he said. "Or that you'd still be putting on this show every year. Sorry to burst in"
"No, really, it's a party. The more, the merrier." She pasted a smile on her face but folded her arms across her chest. "Actually, I haven't been here," she went on, "but things change life changes and now I'm back."
Apparently so was he. But why? And for how long?
Not that it mattered to Molly.
"My parents weren't exactly expecting us," he said, then explained about new locks and the key he didn't have. "Do you know where they are?"
She hesitated. "No, but since your dad retired, they come and go all the time." Unlike Thomas, Molly thought, who stayed home way too much. She paused again, wishing Pop had other interests besides the house and, above all, Molly. "We invited them to the party. I thought they were coming, but maybe they made other plans."
Brig frowned. "Do you or Thomas have the new key to their house?"
"I'm afraid not."
Last summer Molly had watered the Colliers' garden while they were on vacation, but that hadn't involved her going inside.
She risked a peek at the baby in her cousin's arms and felt a familiar, deep ache. Surely Brig's parents would have spread the word about their first grandchild. If that had been Molly's baby, Pop would have trumpeted the news.
As for Brig, she hadn't heard a word about any wedding, either.
"I didn't know you were married," she murmured, unable to stop herself.
"Me? In my line of work? No, I'm not." He shifted, looking uncomfortable at the reminder that he'd once left Molly. Across the living room the baby, who was being passed around and admired, began to cry. Brig quickly retrieved the tiny bundle and picked up a bulky diaper bag. "Long story," he said with a harried glance toward the kitchen. "I'll tell you later. She's hungry. I need to fix her a bottle. May I?"
"Follow me," Molly said with a sinking feeling.
She didn't usually turn away from people. Right now that meant Brig.
And, to Molly's utter dismay, a tiny, helpless infant she couldn't bear to even look at full-on.
Brig stood in the kitchen doorway, the diaper bag weighing down one shoulder and Laila fussing in his arms. Two laughing teenagers sat at the table, and Brig watched them swipe red frosting from a lopsided cake.
"Stop that, you two," Molly said, but her tone was laced with affection. "I'm no gourmet chef, and you're not helping my cake appear any better." She smiled. "My cousins," she told Brig. "Second cousins."
Crooked or not, the cake made Brig's mouth water. The whole room smelled of comfort foods: fried chicken, baked beans laced with brown sugar and onions, and, if Brig wasn't mistaken, his favorite macaroni and cheese.
Red heart decalsthe same kind Molly wore on her faceskipped gaily across the kitchen chairs, and in the dining room on his way through, a green balloon had bounced from the ceiling on his head.
He didn't belong here. This was like all those birthday parties he'd gone to as a kid but had never felt part of. As though he'd forgotten to bring a present. With a father in the military, he and his parents had lived all over, and making friends became harder and harder as Brig grew older. It was the only life he knew and one reason he'd followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. Now, after hearing Dari and Pashto being spoken every day in Afghanistan, even the cadence of English sounded foreign to him. Brig kept losing words in what was being said.
Molly, on the other hand, fit right in. She handed the boy and girl a bowl of potato salad and a relish tray from the fridge. "Set these in the dining room, please."
When the giggling pair vanished, she waved Brig toward a chair.
"Sit. You look like you need to."
Brig put down the diaper bag but stayed on his feet, gently rocking Laila in his arms. His head ached.
All he wanted was sleep. All Molly wanted, he guessed, was to avoid him. She hadn't taken one real good look at the baby, either, and like a cat, Molly maintained a deliberate space between herself and him. Obviously, she hadn't forgiven him for breaking their engagement years ago. Not that she should. Not that he expected her to.
At the same time he couldn't seem to stop staring at her. The instant he'd seen her, his memories and his guilt had overwhelmed him. His gaze traveled now from her blunt-cut brown hairshorter than he rememberedto her trim sweater, her fitted jeans and her feet in scarlet socks. But the red heart by her mouth was what kept his eyes riveted. Thick honey seemed to flow through him. And what kind of jerk am I? Molly, with her warmth and openness, had always deserved more.
"Do you have formula?" she asked, still keeping her distance.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Handsome soldier, cute baby and the women he left behind. You won't be disappointed in this book.