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Royal, Texas was the perfect place to go to die.
Kyle Wade aimed to do exactly that. After an honorable discharge from the navy, what else lay ahead of him but a slow and painful death? Might as well do it in Royal, the town that had welcomed every Wade since the dawn of timeexcept him.
He nearly drove through the center of town without stopping. Because he hadn't realized he was in Royal until he was nearly out of Royal.
Yeah, it had been ten years, and when he'd stopped for gas in Odessa, he'd heard about the tornado that had ripped through the town. But still. Was nothing on the main strip still the same? These new buildings hadn't been there when he'd left. Of course, he'd hightailed it out of Royal for Coronado, California, in a hurry and hadn't looked back once in all his years as a Navy SEAL. Had he really expected Royal to be suspended in time, like a photograph?
He kind of had.
Kyle slowed as he passed the spot where he'd first kissed Grace Haines in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Or what used to be the spot where he'd taken his high school girlfriend on their first date. The Dairy Queen had moved down the road and in its place stood a little pink building housing something called Mimi's Nail Salon. Really?
Fitting that his relationship with Grace had nothing to mark it. Nothing in Royal proper anyway. The scars on his heart would always be there.
Shaking his head, Kyle punched the gas. He had plenty of time to gawk at the town later and no time to think about the woman who had driven him into the military. His shattered leg hurt something fierce and he'd been traveling for the better part of three days. It was time to go home.
And now he had a feeling things had probably changed at Wade Ranchalso known as homemore than he'd have anticipated. Never the optimist, he suspected that meant they'd gotten worse. Which was saying something, since he'd left in the first place because of the rift with his twin brother, Liam. No time like the present to get the cold welcome over with.
Wade Ranch's land unrolled at exactly the ten-mile marker from Royal. At least that was still the same. Acres and acres of rocky, hilly countryside spread as far as Kyle could see. Huh. Reminded him of Afghanistan. Wouldn't have thought there'd be any comparison, but there you go. A man could travel ten thousand miles and still wind up where he started. In more ways than one.
The gate wasn't barred. His brother, Liam, was running a loose ship apparently. Their grandfather had died a while back and left the ranch to both brothers, but Kyle had never intended to claim his share. Yeah, it was a significant inheritance. But he didn't want it. He wanted his team back and his life as a SEAL. An insurgent's spray of bullets had guaranteed that would never happen. Even if Kyle hadn't gotten shot, Cortez was gone and no amount of wishing or screaming at God could bring his friend and comrade-in-arms back to life.
Hadn't stopped Kyle from trying.
Kyle drove up the winding lane to the main house, which had a new coat of paint. The white Victorian house had been lording over Wade land for a hundred years, but looked like Liam had done some renovation. The tire swing that had hung from the giant oak in the front yard was gone and a new porch rocker with room for two had been added.
Perfect. Kyle could sit there in that rocker and complain about how the coming rain was paining his joints. Maybe later he could get up a game of dominos at the VA with all of the other retired military men. Retired. They might as well call it dead.
When Kyle jumped from the cab of the truck he'd bought in California after the navy decided they were done with him, he hit the dusty ground at the wrong angle. Pain shot up his leg and it stole his breath for a moment. When a man couldn't even get out of his own truck without harm, it was not a good day.
Yeah, he should be more careful. But then he'd have to admit something was wrong with this leg.
He sucked it up. The only easy day was yesterday. That mantra had gotten him through four tours of duty in the Middle East. Surely it could get him to the door of Wade Ranch.
It did. Barely. He knocked, but someone was already answering before the sound faded.
The moment the door swung open, Kyle stepped over the threshold and did a double take. Liam. His brother stood in the middle of the renovated foyer, glowering. He'd grown up and out in ten years. Kyle had, too, of course, but it was still a shock to see that his brother had changed from the picture he'd carried in his mind's eye, even though their faces mostly matched.
Agony exploded across Kyle's jaw as his head snapped backward.
What in the
Had Liam just punched him?
Every nerve in Kyle's body went on full alert, vibrating with tension as he reoriented and automatically began scanning both the threat of Liam and the perimeter simultaneously. The foyer was empty, save the two Wade brothers. And Liam wasn't getting the drop on him twice.
"That's for not calling," Liam said succinctly and balled his fists as if he planned to go back for seconds.
"Nice to see you, too."
Dang. Talking hurt. Kyle spit out a curse along with a trickle of blood that hit the hardwood floor an inch from Liam's broken-in boot.
"Deadbeat. You have a lot of nerve showing up now. Get gone or there's more where that came from."
Liam clearly had no idea who he was tangling with.
"I don't cater much to sucker punches," Kyle drawled, and touched his lower lip, right above where the throb in his jaw hurt the worst. Blood came away with his finger. "Why don't you try that again now that I'm paying attention?"
Liam shook his head wearily, his fists going slack. "Your face is as hard as your head. Why now? After all this time, why did you finally drag your sorry butt home?"
"Aww. Careful there, brother, or people might start thinking you missed me something fierce when you talk like that."
Liam had another thirty seconds to explain why Kyle's welcome home had included a fist. Liam had a crappy right hook, but it still hurt. If anything, Kyle was the one who should be throwing punches. After all, he was the one with the ax to grind. He was the one who had left Royal because of what Liam had done.
Or rather whom he'd done. Grace Haines. Liam had broken the most sacred of all brotherly bonds when he messed around with the woman Kyle loved. Afghanistan wasn't far enough away to forget, but it was the farthest a newly minted SEAL could go after being deployed.
So he hadn't forgotten. Or forgiven.
"I called your cell phone," Liam said. "I called every navy outpost I could for two months straight. I left messages. I called about the messages. Figured that silence was enough of an answer." Arms crossed, Liam looked down his nose at Kyle, which was a feat, given that they were the same height. "So I took steps to work through this mess you've left in my lap."
Wait, he'd gotten punched over leaving the ranch in his brother's capable hands? That was precious. Liam had loved Wade Ranch from the first, maybe even as early as the day their mother had dropped them off with Grandpa and never came back.
"You were always destined to run Wade Ranch," Kyle said, and almost didn't choke on it. "I didn't dump it on you."
Liam snorted. "Are you really that dense? I'm not talking about the ranch, moron. I'm talking about your kids." Kyle flinched involuntarily. "My
what?" Kids? As in children?
"Yes, kids," Liam enunciated, drawing out the i sound as if Kyle might catch his meaning better if the word had eighteen syllables. "Daughters. Twins. I don't get why you waited to come home. You should have been here the moment you found out."
"I'm finding out this moment," Kyle muttered as his pulse kicked up, beating in his throat like a May hailstorm on a tin roof. "How
His throat closed.
Twin daughters. And Liam thought they were his? Someone had made a huge mistake. Kyle didn't have any children. Kyle didn't want any children.
Liam was staring at him strangely. "You didn't get my messages?"
"Geez, Liam. What was your first clue? I wasn't sitting at a desk dodging your calls. I spent six months in
a bad place and then ended up in a worse place."
From the city of Kunduz to Landstuhl Regional, the US-run military hospital in Germany. He didn't remember a lot of it, but the incredible pain as the doctors worked to restore the bone a bullet had shattered in his legthat he would never forget.
But he was one of the lucky ones who'd survived his wounds. Cortez hadn't. Kyle still had nightmares about leaving his teammate behind in that foxhole where they'd been trapped by insurgents. Seemed wrong. Cortez should have had a proper send-off for his sacrifice.
"Still not a chatterbox, I see." Liam scrubbed at his face with one hand, and when he dropped it, weariness had replaced the glower. "Keep your secrets about your fabulous life overseas as a badass. I really don't care. I have more important things to get straight."
The weariness was new. Kyle remembered his brother as being a lot of thingsa betrayer, first and foremostbut not tired. It looked wrong on his face. As wrong as the constant pain etched into Kyle's own face when he looked in the mirror. Which was why he'd quit looking in the mirror.
"Why don't you start at the beginning." Kyle jerked his head toward what he hoped was still the kitchen. "Maybe we can hash it out over tea?"
It was too early in the morning for Jack Daniel's, though he might make an exception, pending the outcome of the conversation.
Liam nodded and spun to stride off toward the back of the house. Following him, Kyle was immediately blinded by all the off-white cabinets in the kitchen. His brother hadn't left a stone unturned when he'd gotten busy redoing the house. Modern appliances in stainless steel had replaced the old harvest gold ones and new double islands dominated the center. A wall of glass overlooked the back acreage that stretched for miles until it hit Old Man Drucker's property. Or what had been Drucker's property ten years ago. Obviously Kyle wasn't up-to-date about what had been going on since he'd left.
Without ceremony, Liam splashed some tea into a cup from a pitcher on the counter and shoved the cup into his hand. "Tea. Now talk to me about Margaret Garner."
Hot. Blonde. Nice legs. Kyle visualized the woman instantly. But that was a name he hadn't thought about inwow, like almost a year.
"Margaret Garner? What does she have to do with any"
The question died in his throat. Almost a year. Like long enough to grow a baby or two? Didn't mean it was true. Didn't mean they were his babies.
It felt like a really good time to sit down, and he thought maybe he could do it without tipping off Liam how badly his leg ached 24-7.
He fell heavily onto a bar stool at the closest island, tea forgotten and shoulders ten pounds heavier. "San Antonio. She was with a group of friends at Cantina Juarez. A place where military groupies hang out."
"So you did sleep with her?"
"Not that it's any of your business," Kyle said noncom-mitally. They were long past the kiss-and-tell stage of their relationship, if they'd ever been that close. When Liam took up with Grace ten years ago, it had killed any fragment of warmth between them, warmth that was unlikely to return.
"You made it my business when you didn't come home to take care of your daughters," Liam countered, as his fists balled up again.
"Take another swing at me and you'll get real cozy with the floor in short order." Kyle contemplated his brother. Who was furious. "So Margaret came around with some babies looking for handouts? I hope you asked for a paternity test before you wrote a check."
This was bizarre. Of all the conversations he'd thought he'd be having with Liam, this was not it. Babies. Margaret. Paternity test. None of these things made sense, together or separately.
Why hadn't any of Liam's messages been relayed? Probably because he hadn't called the right officeby design. Kyle hadn't exactly made it clear how Liam could reach him. Maybe it was a blessing that Kyle hadn't known. He couldn't have hopped on a plane anyway.
Kyle couldn't be a father. He barely knew how to be a civilian and had worked long and hard at accepting that he wasn't part of a SEAL team any longer.
It was twice as hard to accept that after being discharged, he had nowhere to go but back to the ranch where he'd never fit in, never belonged. His injury wasn't supposed to be a factor as he figured out what to do with the rest of his life, since God hadn't seen fit to let him die alongside Cortez. But being a fatherto twins, no lessmeant he had to think about what a busted leg meant for a man's everyday life. And he did not like thinking about how difficult it was some days to simply stand.
Liam threw up a hand, a scowl crawling onto his expression. "Shut up a minute. No one wrote any checks. You're the father of the babies, no question."
Well, Kyle had a few questions. Like why Margaret hadn't contacted him when she found out she was pregnant. While Liam had little information on his whereabouts, Margaret sure knew how to get in touch. Her girlfriend had been dating Cortez and called him all the time. She'd known exactly where he was stationed.
It was nothing short of unforgivable. "Where's Margaret?"
"She died," Liam bit out shortly. "While giving birth. It's a long story. Do I need to give you a minute?"
Kyle processed that much more slowly than he would have liked. Margaret was dead? It seemed like just yesterday that he'd spent a long weekend with her in a hotel room. She'd been a wildcat, determined to send him back to Afghanistan with enough memories to keep him warm at night, as she'd put it.