Her heart had always belonged to Wade McKinnon...
When single mother, Skylar Barnett, came to South Dakota, she thought her life was just beginning. Newly pregnant, she waited for the love of her life, Wade McKinnon, to join her so they could start their life near his family. But her joy quickly shattered after learning Wade was presumed killed during a tsunami that hit the small Asian island they'd both worked on in the Peace Corp. She'd spent the last four years making peace with her decision to marry a man she didn't love so her baby would have a father. But marrying the wrong man when her heart belonged to Wade was the biggest mistake of her life.
Secrets and circumstance kept them apart...
No one in Wade McKinnon's life knew that his work with the Peace Corp. was just a cover for his real job in a secret military agency. Not even Skylar, the woman he'd fallen hard for the moment he'd laid eyes on her. But when his mission in Asia suddenly became too dangerous and all agents in the field were ordered to disappear, using the tragic events of the tsunami on the island where they'd met seemed like the only way to keep Skylar and their unborn baby safe until the situation cooled down. As much as it killed him, Wade stepped aside when he learned Skylar had moved on with another man. But now that she's free, he's determined to do everything he can to win back her love and claim the life they'd dreamed of sharing.
The McKinnon clan didn’t need a reason to get together and celebrate, but this Labor Day weekend they were going to get one. Homecomings were always a good cause for a party. But this was one homecoming no one was expecting.
He parked his car in the driveway under a shady tree along the driveway, making note of the fact that there was a pick-up truck parked next to the garage in the spot where he used to park his old sixty-seven mustang. He recognized the truck, although the last time he’d seen Logan McKinnon driving it, the truck had been in better condition.
He paused at the corner of the house and heard laughter filtering through the air. The boisterous laughing he always heard when his brothers were all together. The giggles and shouts of young children he’d yet to meet. It called to him as strong as the smell of food being cooked over an open flame that tickled his senses. But a hunger of another kind was stronger. The voices he heard had been missing from his life for too long. But he listened closely until the female voice that had haunted him grew louder.
“I need to finish up in the kitchen. Hawk can you give me a minute and then come carry a few things out to the table? No, Kate you put your feet up. You’re always serving everyone at the diner. Let me do this.”
The screen door on the back deck opened and then shut. With his heart pounding, he walked to the front door so he could have the precious few moments alone with her before the rest of the family converged on him. He needed those few moments.
His old key still fit the lock on the front door. Turning the knob slowly, he pushed the door open quietly and stepped into the foyer. He glanced into the living room, taking in every detail and exchanging what was different with what he’d committed to memory long ago. The familiar smell of the house magnified the realization that he had finally made it. He was home.
He didn’t want to scare her. He could only imagine her reaction when she saw him. So he slipped through the living room and into the kitchen through the dining room so he wouldn’t startle her. And when he finally saw her, he thought his legs would crumble beneath him.
Skylar Barnett. If there truly was just one great love in the universe for every person, Skylar was surely his.
She buzzed around the kitchen, almost dancing on the balls of her feet as she moved. He used to say she looked like a ballerina, dancing as she walked in the sand. She’d told him it was only because he made her happy.
“I heard the front door. Did I lock the screen door on you by accident again, Hawk?” Skylar asked, licking her fingers of the dressing she’d just stirred in the bowl. “This potato salad has to get into the ice bowl on the table or it will spoil in his heat.”
She turned in the opposite direction towards the refrigerator, opened it, and then pulled out a bottle. “Oh, and I forgot the Italian dressing for the salad. Would you mind bringing that with you, too?”
She still hadn’t lifted her gaze to him. And he didn’t rush to get her attention. He enjoyed just watching her move. He’d always loved the way she moved as she rushed from one side of the kitchen to the next.
Picking up the bowl of potato salad from the counter, she turned to him, her smile as bright as the blazing sun outside, and said, “Those barbeque ribs your dad has on the grill smell so good, it’s making me-”
Their eyes met for the first time in over five years and she gasped. He should have done something to prevent the bowl of food in her hand from slipping through her grip and crashing to the floor. The bowl shattered and the potato salad splattered on the tile floor and the cabinet Skylar was standing near. She barely noticed the remnants of the mess at her feet.
“I’m not Hawk,” he said, never taking his eyes off hers.
Her mouth dropped open, as tears welled up in her eyes. “Wade?”
He barely heard the words escape her lips, but he felt them just as strong as he had the last time they’d been together. The memory of what it tasted like to kiss her, and that small intake of breath she made before her lips touched his.
“Is it really you?”
Her voice was a whisper and surged him forward. He took a slow step toward her as she took in seeing him for the first time in years. Her hand came up to touch his face but stopped short before making contact.
He leaned closer, giving her access to reach him without overwhelming her. When she still didn’t touch him, he took her small hand in his and pressed it against his cheek.
“Flesh and blood, sweetheart.”
He’d had years to dream about this day. He’d waited until the time was right, agonized over the best way, and played this moment in his mind a thousand times. And yet, nothing prepared him for what it would be like to touch Skylar again.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. She did nothing to wipe them clean.
“Wha…where have you been?” A sob escaped her lips before she could finish.
“We have plenty of time for that. I just want to hold you now for a minute.” And then he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close against his chest. The heat of her body penetrated the thin fabric of his shirt, bringing back memories of their burning love making on a hot evening.
Her sob against his neck tugged at his gut. “I’ve missed you so much. How can this be happening?”
“It’s happening. It’s real. I’m never leaving you again.”
“What the hell took you so long? When they couldn’t find you after the tsunami, I called everyone we knew in the Peace Corp. They said there was no trace of you at all. Then your father used whatever connections he had and called every hospital in the region.”
“I wasn’t in the hospital.”
“I heard lots of stories where people had amnesia because of head injuries. They didn’t know who they were. I can’t imagine what that was like.”
He pulled back just a little to look at her face. The last thing he wanted to do now was lie to her. “That’s not what happened. I didn’t have amnesia.”
“Then…where were you? Why didn’t you follow me here like you said you would?”
“It wasn’t safe.”
“Of course it wasn’t safe. There was a tsunami, for God’s sake! That small village we stayed at was washed away by the tide. And all this time I thought you were washed away with it. You know we lost six people from our group that day.”
“You know.” She touched his face and searched his eyes for answers. “Wade, what happened to you? Where have you been?”
“Do you remember me telling you that I was involved in something dangerous?”
“Of course. That was the reason you wanted me to leave the island so quickly. You told me not to tell a soul until you came back and that you’d explain everything then. Oh, my God, are you telling me you were in prison? Couldn’t the State Department have helped you get word to us?”
She hugged him tight.
“There was no way I could get word to you. Not at first.”
“At first. What does that mean? Why couldn’t you have gotten word to me? For God’s sake, why didn’t you get word to your parents?”
“You have to believe me that I wanted to. But it was impossible.”
“I don’t understand, Wade. What happened to you? Where have you been all this time?”
Her mouth dropped open. “Watching? For how long?”
“Ever since you came to South Dakota. I know about Jay, Skylar.”
The screen door creaked. Skylar abruptly pulled away from Wade, leaving him cold. Her eyes widened with confusion and anger as she stared at him. She turned her gaze toward the doorway, placing a hand on her chest. “I…ah…dropped the bowl.”
Wade turned to see which McKinnon Skylar was talking to and his heart filled with emotion beyond capacity when he recognized his best friend and brother Hawk standing there. Hawk didn’t look at Skylar or the mess on the floor around her feet that she’d just confessed to making. Instead, his brother had the same confused expression Skylar had greeted him with.
The next moments were a blur filled with lots of tears and hugs and jumping up and down as Hawk pulled Wade outside into the yard and announced his return to the family. Each of the McKinnons ran to greet him. The moment that was most difficult was seeing his mother and how much the news of his death had worn her down. She still had the twinkle in her eyes, but the years had taken a toll.
“My boy is home,” Kate said through sobs, pulling him into an embrace. “I have all my boys again.”
His father wrapped his arms around both Kate and Wade and gave them a long hug. “Now I believe in miracles,” he said.
They made quick introduction of all the new people in the McKinnon family. Although Wade had been watching closely to make sure his family had been safe, he knew none of the details that changed the dynamics of his family.
He quickly learned that Hawk, the closest in age to him, was now engaged to Regis, a beautiful woman who’d traveled the world with her father while he was in the military. His family as well as Hawk had won her over and now Regis was determined to dig some roots for the first time in her life here in Rudolph.
Wade had known for some time that Logan had lost his wife, Kelly, nearly two years ago and that in the time he’d been gone, they’d had a son who was now five years old. But he was equally pleased to see that Logan’s old flame, Poppy Ericksen, had healed Logan’s broken heart. A wedding was already being planned for the end of the year.
Wade didn’t think he’d ever seen Ethan, Logan’s twin, in love before. But after a stellar military career as a Navy SEAL where he dealt with the tragic death of his best friend, Denny, he’d managed to capture the heart of Denny’s younger sister, Maddie. Whatever ghosts had been haunting his brother all these years were now gone.
But the biggest surprise of all had been Sam, who’d had always had a passion for women and for fighting fires. He’d met his match with Summer Bigelow, a dispatcher who’d moved to South Dakota from Providence. He soon learned that the two of them had taken up residence in his old room above the garage.
As he moved through the crowd of family, Wade stopped in front of Logan and peered down at the young boy who had wrapped himself around Logan’s leg.
“I know who this little man is,” Wade said. “But does he know who I am?”
Little Keith half hid himself from view. “Daddy says you’re Uncle Wade,” he said in a small voice.
Wade laughed as he crouched down. “That’s right.” He held out his hand to shake Keith’s. Keith glanced up at Logan who gave him the okay. Keith reached out and gave Wade a hard shake of his hand.
Wade tried to act surprised by Keith’s grip. “Wow, he’s a McKinnon all right.”
“And who’s this little guy in Auntie Poppy’s arms?” The little boy buried his face in Poppy’s neck, hiding from his view. Wade already knew the little boys name. He’d done his homework before deciding to finally come home.
Hawk tried to pull the boy from Poppy’s arms, but the little guy wouldn’t budge. Then Hawk turned to Wade and said, “This is Alex. Skylar’s son.”
Looking around, it suddenly dawned on Wade that he hadn’t seen Skylar in a while.
“Where did Skylar go?”
“I don’t know,” Poppy said. “Alex didn’t want to leave so I said I’d take him for the night. Then she ran out.”
His stomach sank. “Wait, she just left? Where did she go?”
His mother’s eyes probed his face. She must have sensed the unrest in him from his reaction. She said to Poppy, “Why don’t you bring the boys to the table for something to eat. I’m sure they’re hungry after all this excitement”
Poppy lowered Alex to the ground and took both Alex and Keith by the hand. “Sounds like a good idea. Let’s go see if Grandpa saved the hamburgers from burning. If not, we’ll skip lunch and eat some watermelon first.”
Both of the boys yelled, “Yeah!” Then they pulled from her grip and ran to the other side of the yard where the picnic table was set up.
Kate waited until the boys were fully out of earshot. “What’s going on, Wade?”
He watched the two boys laughing as they climbed onto the picnic table, sitting next to each other. “They could be brothers.”
Hawk took a deep breath and placed a hand on Wade’s shoulder. “Close. They’re cousins.”
Kate’s eyes widened with surprise. “What?”
Wade stared at Hawk’s face to see if he was serious, to confirm what he’d long suspected, but didn’t know as fact.
Hawk nodded. “Alex is your son, Wade.”
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