LONE STAR TWINS
"Christmas has come early this year," Poppy McCabe announced from her impeccably decorated living room in Laramie, Texas.
Lieutenant Trace Caulder stared at the screen on his laptop. He'd never seen his best friend look happier.
The only bummer was that they were separated by thousands of miles, as was usually the case. Determined to enjoy every second of their video-slash-web chat?despite the fact he was currently stationed on an air base in the Middle East?he kicked back in the desk chair and drawled in the native Texas accent that mirrored hers, "Really, dar-lin'? And how is that?" Given that even Thanksgiving was still several days away.
"You remember when you were home on leave two months ago?"
Hard to forget that weekend in Fort Worth. For two people who'd never been in love and likely never would be, they sure had amazing chemistry.
Oblivious to how much he wanted to hold her lithe, warm body in his arms and make sweet love to her all over again, Poppy persisted on her verbal trip down memory lane. "When we went to the Stork Agency and met Anne Marie?"
That had been the only serious part of the entire rendezvous, but important nonetheless. "Sure, I remember," Trace said, pausing to take in the sexy fall of her thick, silky mahogany hair. A sweep of bang framed her oval face; the rest tumbled over her slender shoulders. Lower still, the fivefoot-seven interior decorator had shapely calves, delicate feet, a taut tummy and trim waist, and full, luscious breasts that were meant to be worshipped. Very little of which he could actually see, given that the image on the screen only showed her from the ribs up.
But then, given how much time he'd spent paying homage to her lovely form, and vice versa, he didn't really need to see her body to remember it. Fondly. He could tell by the way she often gazed at him that Poppy felt the same.
"Anne Marie was a nice kid." And at seventeen years old, Trace recollected, way too young to be pregnant. That was why she was giving up her children for adoption.
"Well, she's picked us to raise her twins!" Poppy exclaimed with a joyous twist of her velvety-soft lips.
"Yes! Can you believe it?" She paused to catch her breath. "There's only one itty-bitty problem."
Trace saw the hesitation in Poppy's dark brown eyes. Waited for her to continue.
She inhaled sharply. "She wants us to be married."
Whoa now. That had never been on the table.
Trace swung his feet off the desk and sat forward in his chair. "But she knows we're just friends?" and occasional lovers and constant confidantes "?who happen to want to be parents together." He thought the two of them had made that abundantly clear.
Poppy folded her arms in front of her, the action plumping up the delectable curve of her breasts beneath her ivory turtleneck. Soberly she nodded, adding, "She still gets that neither of us want to get hitched."
No woman prized her independence more than the outspoken Poppy. For a lot of very different reasons, he felt the same. "But?" he prodded.
Wrinkling her nose, she reluctantly explained. "Anne Marie's decided she would feel better if we were actually married at the time of the adoption. And, as it happens, the Stork Agency apparently has a requirement of their own?that any time more than two children are adopted simultaneously, there be two married adults with a longstanding relationship doing the adopting."
"The agency officials didn't say anything about this when we were there, meeting Anne Marie and the other girls."
"Apparently they didn't expect Anne Marie to choose us.but they wanted to give her a basis for comparison. As it turns out there was another couple that was also in the running, which Anne Marie's mother met and prefers, and they are married. But in the end, Anne Marie decided she wants us. On the condition," Poppy reiterated with a beleaguered sigh, "that we get hitched and the kids have the same last name."
"I have no problem with you becoming a Caulder," Trace said. "In a nontraditional sense, of course."
"Or you could become a McCabe." Removing a coated elastic band from her wrist, she swept her hair up into a messy ponytail on the back of her head and secured it there.
Aware when she wore her hair that way it reminded him of her college cheerleading days, he volleyed back. "Or, better yet, you could just drop the Elizabeth?" her middle name "?and change yours to Poppy McCabe Caulder. Like a lot of married women do, for practical reasons, to cut down on the confusion."
Finally, realizing this was one battle she wouldn't win with him, Poppy conceded, "Fine. If you insist!"
"I would." Thanks to two parents who couldn't stop marrying?and then divorcing?he'd been saddled with a lot of different "family names." He had no intention of ever inflicting the same on any offspring. Whatever it started out with was what it would stay.
He studied the ambivalence in her dark brown eyes. "You're sure you want to get married, though?"
Trying not to think that if things had gone the other way, he and the woman opposite him might very well be married now, Trace watched her rise to pace around the room, then return, her taut-fitting jeans doing very nice things for her waist and hips.
A river of desire swept through him.
He wished they were close enough to touch.
He wished he could inhale the tantalizing apple blossom fragrance of her soap and shampoo.
Meanwhile she looked perfectly content with the way things were; the two of them thousands of miles apart.
"It's a big step," he cautioned her. "Even if it is only on paper."
She twisted off the top of a water bottle. "I'm sure I want to adopt those twins with you." She paused to take a long, thirsty drink then shrugged. "And since this is the only way."
Travis knew how frustrated and upset she was, deep down. And with good reason. He and Poppy had abandoned contraception ten years ago, when she'd told him she wanted to start a family, on her own. As her best friend, because he still felt responsible for a very sad time in her life, he had readily agreed to help her achieve her goal of having a child on her own.
After six years, and many a passionate rendezvous, she still hadn't been able to conceive. She hadn't wanted to see a fertility doctor, because she didn't want to risk having multiples. So she had signed up to adopt. Again with his full emotional support. For the first two years, strictly on her own, as a single woman. When that hadn't panned out, he had signed on to be the dad in the proposed arrangement. Except that they hadn't been selected by any of the mothers wanting the type of open arrangement they did.
Hadn't even come close. Until now.
But there was a catch.
The babies were twins.
And, of course, when he'd agreed to all this a couple of years ago, he had never considered the fact that he and Poppy would have to get married.
That, for a lot of reasons, neither of them wanted.
Yet with both of them thirty-five and her biological clock ticking, passing on the marriage requirement and waiting for another baby to come along?a single-birthed child this time?did not seem wise.
It would be foolish to not do whatever was deemed necessary to make this happen. Even if getting hitched wasn't something they would choose under any other circumstance. "What's the timetable?" Trace asked finally, aware that nothing about their long-standing relationship was exactly conventional.
"According to the agency, we'll need at least three weeks to get all the legalities in order, after we're married. That is, if we want the babies to come home from the hospital with me."
"And naturally we do." After waiting so long, Poppy would be heartbroken if she had to miss out on a single second of motherhood.
She took another long, thirsty drink. "The twins are due on December twenty-fourth."
That gives us less than a month, all told. Trace frowned. "Only one problem with that. I'm still deployed and not due for leave again until next spring."
Suddenly looking plucky as ever, Poppy beamed with her trademark Can Do attitude. She might not have been a twin or triplet, like her five younger sisters, but she knew how to go after what she wanted, no matter the obstacles in her way. "Fortunately, I have a solution." She pushed on. "A marriage by proxy."
Trace had heard the term bandied about by his fellow airmen and women, mostly as a joke. Realizing he was thirsty, too, he got up to get a bottle of water from his room's mini-fridge. He returned to the desk, his dog tags jingling against his chest. "You can really do that?"
"In exactly four states in the USA. California, Texas, Montana and Colorado. Luckily?" her grin widened "?we are both permanent residents of the Lone Star State."
"So how does that work?" he asked curiously, wishing he'd had time to clean up since coming off duty before they'd connected.
Poppy sobered. "I can't speak to the process in the other three states. But under Texas law, a member of the military who is deployed out of the country can request to be married by proxy. Generally, there need to be extenuating circumstances?like the birth of a child or some other reason for urgency?and the ceremony will have to take place here in Texas. We'll just get someone to stand in for you at the courthouse."
Physically take my place? Next to Poppy? His jaw tightening, Trace tried not to consider how much that rankled, or why it might. "You're kidding," he said gruffly and then paused as he studied her slightly crestfallen expression. "You're not kidding?"
"This is the only way we're going to be able to adopt Anne Marie's babies," Poppy reminded him. "And you know how long I've been on the waiting list."
Forever, she had often lamented.
A fresh wave of guilt stung Trace. He was part of the reason Poppy had had such trouble getting the family she'd always wanted. Although no one but he and Poppy knew about the specifics, at least in her hometown of Laramie.
Mostly because she hadn't wanted anyone else to know about the tragedy and he'd had no choice but to abide by her wishes.
"Anne Marie is also the only one who's ever been amenable that we want to raise these children more as friends than anything else. The fact you're constantly deployed in the military, like her late father, actually gives you a heroic edge in her view. Just as the fact that I was big sister and eventual babysitter to both the twins and the triplets gives me a unique perspective on what a child in that situation might feel or need."
That was certainly true. Poppy had been through a lot even before they'd hooked up. Mostly because, as the oldest sibling and the only single-birthed child in the Jackson and Lacey McCabe brood, she had often been overlooked in a way that the other girls had not.
Not that she had ever complained about it.
Rather, she'd joked it had given her a freedom and autonomy her other siblings could only envy.
Poppy inhaled deeply. "I mean, what are our chances of ever finding someone else who thinks our situation is ideal for the children she's relinquishing?" There was a long pause. "We just have to comply with the agency's requirement and demonstrate our lifelong commitment by getting married."
Well, put that way.he supposed it didn't seem too much to ask.
"You're right," Trace said finally. "This is our chance."
Poppy took another deep breath, the action lifting the soft swell of her breasts, and then slowly released it. Steadfastly, she searched his face. "So you're okay with a marriage by proxy?" she asked.
Trace pushed any lingering reservations he felt aside. This was Poppy they were talking about. A woman who knew her own mind and had more than proved over the years she wouldn't go all fickle on him, no matter what happened.
He nodded. "It's not as if a piece of paper or a marriage pretty much in name only is going to change anything between us."
Poppy smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners in the way that always made him want to take her in his arms and hold her close. "Right," she said.
Wishing he was close enough to hug her, Trace continued. "And if it sets Anne Marie's mind at ease, so much the better."
Visibly relaxing, Poppy laid a hand over her heart. "So you'll do it? You'll request a marriage by proxy?"
Trace knew he owed Poppy this much?and more. Hoping this would finally balance the scales between them and allow the last of her lingering grief to slide away, he nodded. "Yes, darlin'," he promised. "I'll talk to my commanding officer right away."
"About time the two of you decided to tie the knot," Jackson McCabe said when Poppy stopped by the hospital to inform her parents of their plans.
Her dad had just come out of surgery and her mom was winding up a long day on the pediatrics floor.
"I agree." Lacey beamed, looking as lovely as ever in her blue scrubs and white doctor's coat.
As always, feeling a little in awe of her super-successful, still-wildly-in-love parents, Poppy followed them into her father's private office. She held up a hand. "You both understand that Trace is still going to continue on with his life's work in the military and I'm still going to be running my design business here. Right?" That was actually a blessing in disguise. There would be no risk of getting too romantically entangled, since they both wouldn't be under the same roof most of the time.
"You may change your mind about that when the babies actually get here," her mom predicted.
Her dad nodded. "Little ones have a way of changing even the best-laid plans."
"Well, not ours," Poppy said stubbornly.
If there was one thing she loved?and Trace was adamantly against?it was living in the rural Texas town where she'd grown up and he'd moved to briefly as a teen. Luckily, the two of them had attended the same college, where they'd gotten even closer, and had almost everything else in common.
"We're just doing this because it's required of us if we want to adopt the twins from the Stork Agency."
"It's still cause for celebration!" Lacey picked up the phone with a wink. "And that means family!"
Half an hour later Poppy was ensconced at her parents' Victorian home in downtown Laramie. Her folks were busy opening champagne and setting out food, picked up from a local restaurant. Trace was once again connected via Skype, as were her San Antonio-based twin sisters and their families. The triplets had arrived with their families, too. And, as always, everyone had an opinion about what would be best for the oldest of the Jackson and Lacey McCabe brood.
"You can't get married at the courthouse," her mom said.