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Authors: Laura Marie Altom

The SEAL's Second Chance Baby

BOOK: The SEAL's Second Chance Baby
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A SEAL'S REDEMPTION…

What Navy SEAL Marsh Langtree needs is to make sense of his life. What he gets is a near-fatal snakebite. If it weren't for Effie Washington, Marsh would be a goner. Her blue eyes and gorgeous smile make him thankful he's still breathing. But he shouldn't be flirting with a single mom…

With rambunctious twins and an infant at home, Effie's love life has stalled. Despite the obvious sparks between them, Effie can tell Marsh is holding back, and she won't fall for another man who's not all-in. Will the possibility of a future with Effie finally force Marsh to forgive himself for the past?

“What's up?”

Effie was already behind the wheel with the motor running when Marsh approached the window.

“I wanted to tell you to drive careful and thanks again for the laughs. It felt good.”

“I know, right?” There went her pulse again. He'd pressed his open palms against the door frame, which raised his T-shirt enough to bare a strip of skin and his wholly masculine abs.

Mouth dry, she forced her gaze to his eyes, but that didn't do much to stop the tingly awareness that lately took hold whenever he was around.

“Anyway, good night, Effie.”

“Night.” The sound of her name, pronounced nice and slow with a hint of a Southern twang, produced all manner of havoc in her belly. If she hadn't been crammed into an old minivan that smelled like Cheerios with her grandmother and a pack of kids, would he have kissed her?

Dear Reader,

At the time of writing this letter, Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and the famed City of Light has just experienced a devastating attack by terrorists. In the midst of the horror playing out on the world stage, my daughter and I have been prepping our little flea market booth for a Christmas open house and getting our home nice and tidy for the holidays.

Our home. When I take a moment to truly think about this, I feel inordinately blessed. Most of all, I'm thankful for my family and friends. They are the miracles who make life truly worth living. In between stops for shiny new ornaments and cinnamon potpourri, my mind drifts not only to those poor souls in France who have lost loved ones, but to those grieving here in my own town.

In this story, Navy SEAL Marsh Langtree's life has been shattered by the death of his three-year-old son. His grief is debilitating, as is his guilt and the belief that he doesn't deserve to ever be happy again. All of which winds me back around to the current global unrest. With so much pain, I feel guilty for feeling immensely full and at peace with my lot in life. Is that wrong? How long should we mourn before we once again celebrate life?

These are the issues that Effie Washington helps Marsh tackle. They're not easy questions, but they're necessary for healing and living and most of all…
loving
.

Wishing you a peaceful holiday season,

Laura Marie

THE SEAL'S
SECOND CHANCE
BABY

Laura Marie Altom

Laura Marie Altom
is a bestselling and award-winning author who has penned nearly fifty books. After college (Go, Hogs!), Laura Marie did a brief stint as an interior designer before becoming a stay-at-home mom to boy-girl twins and a bonus son. Always an avid romance reader, she knew it was time to try her hand at writing when she found herself replotting the afternoon soaps.

When not immersed in her next story, Laura plays video games, tackles Mount Laundry and, of course, reads romance!

Laura loves hearing from readers at either PO Box 2074, Tulsa, OK 74101, or by email,
[email protected]
.

Love winning fun stuff? Check out
lauramariealtom.com
.

Books by Laura Marie Altom

Harlequin American Romance

Cowboy SEALs

The SEAL's Miracle Baby
The Baby and the Cowboy SEAL

Operation: Family Series

A SEAL's Secret Baby
The SEAL's Stolen Child
The SEAL's Valentine
A Navy SEAL's Surprise Baby
The SEAL's Christmas Twins
The SEAL's Baby
The Cowboy SEAL

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!
Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards
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This story is dedicated to my precious family:
Terry, Not-So-Little-Anymore Terry, Hannah
& her sweet Steven, Russell, Mom & Dad,
and my adopted sisters—Margaret & Amy.
You all make my life worth living. xoxo

Chapter One

Effie Washington stopped
humming to hold her hand to her forehead, shading her eyes from the brutal August sun. Was she seeing a mirage? Was that a mule deer or man on horseback, slumped in his saddle?

From her vantage atop the roof of her grandmother's run-down adobe ranch house, she narrowed her gaze. In southeast Colorado, judging distance could be tricky. On a clear day, she had the front range to her west, but with miles upon miles of rolling grassland and the vast wide-open sky, the object she thought might be a few hundred yards in the distance could turn out to be a mile away.

“Colt! Remington!” she called to her six-year-old identical-twin boys. They were supposed to be on ladder guard duty—a fancy way of ensuring they didn't run off by making them believe they were charged with a highly important job.

“Yeah, Mom?” As usual, they answered in tandem.

“Did you ever put your boots back on after I caught you messing with the hose?”

“Uh-uh,” Remington said.

“I will now!” Colt darted around the side of the house.

Remington followed.

A few minutes of silence alerted Effie to the chance that her angels were up to no good.

“Cool! A scorpion!”

She peered over the roof to find both boys beneath the yard's sole tree—a century-old cottonwood—engrossed in poking a stick at the potentially harmful creature.

“Leave it alone!” Effie closed her eyes and sighed. Those two would be the death of her. At least once she finally finished her nursing degree, she'd know how to tend to most of their health emergencies. Abandoning the much-needed roof-patching project, she hurried down the ladder to disperse her boys, who not only hadn't left the scorpion alone, but had scooped it into a tin can they'd snatched from the trash barrel.

“But it's awesome!” Colt jabbed a weed at it to watch it rear up and strike.

“Quit!” Remington shouted. “He's gonna sting my eyeballs!”

“Give me that.” Effie took the can, carrying it far from the house to fling the offensive creature over the back fence.

“Aw, why'd you have to go and do that?” Colt pouted. “We was gonna take it to school.”


We were going
to take it—and since school doesn't start for another week—no, no and no.”

“You're mean!” Colt kicked a dirt clump near the toe of his boot.

“But I love you.”
Sometimes
, Effie silently added with secret smile. Motherhood had never been easy—her twins had been a challenge from day one. “How about you get in the house and see if Grandma needs help with Cassidy?”

Colt scrunched his face. “We don't wanna go inside. Grandma's always watchin' her stupid
soap boperas
, and Cass is boring.”

“Go!” Effie pointed toward the back door. “If Grandma doesn't need help, clean your room.”

With the twins grumbling and moping their way into the house, Effie scanned the horizon for the odd sight that had started all of this. Once Colt had his boots back on, she'd intended to send the boys off to scout the situation, but she could now plainly see a chestnut with its rider hunched in the saddle a good hundred yards north of the house.

The four-wheeler was busted, and it would take longer to saddle her trusty paint, Lulu, than it would to walk, so Effie tugged the brim of her straw cowboy hat lower to shade against the sun, then trudged through thick weeds and grasses, dotted with occasional cactus and yucca. They'd had surprisingly good rain throughout the summer, which meant her herd of thirty Angus was fat and happy.

They sold them off as needed for extra income.

The closer she came to the man, the more obvious it became that he was in trouble, Effie started to run.

“Hello? Can you hear me?” By the time she reached him and his horse, she was out of breath and sweat drenched. The sun's heat pressed her shoulders like malevolent hands.

The stranger was unconscious.

“Sir?” She shook him. Looked as though he might have tried using a rope to lash himself into the saddle, but it now hung loose. If his boot heels hadn't been stuck in the stirrups, he'd have fallen off.
Is he dehydrated?

No. A nearly full water bottle hung from the saddle's horn.

His horse neighed, its eyes wide with panic.

“It's all right, boy.” Knowing she needed to get this man to a hospital, Effie took the horse by the reins, guiding him toward the house as fast as she could manage.

She didn't slow until she reached the yard's gate, and even then, she hollered, “Colt! Remington! Mabel!” Please, God, let them hear her through the open window screens.

All three came running. Her grandmother carried six-month-old Cass on her hip.

“Whoa!” the twins cried, racing to her.

“What happened to him?” Colt asked.

“Don't know.” Effie led the man's horse into the only slightly cooler shade alongside the barn. “I need to call 911.” Never had she wished more for the cell phone she'd left back at the house.

“Look at his hand.” Remington pointed. “It's all puffy.”

Effie paused a moment to look. The man's fingers had swollen to the point that his wedding ring would need to be cut off. Twin puncture wounds oozed a nasty mix of clear fluid and blood. She'd seen similar marks on a horse, and then only because she'd witnessed the rattlesnake strike.

She took off running toward the house.

“What's wrong with him, Mom?” Colt called after her.

“Snakebite,” she heard Mabel say.

No doubt from the heat and excitement, just as Effie reached the front porch, Cassidy began to cry.

* * *

M
ARSH
L
ANGTREE
DRIFTED
in and out of a strange new world.

His son, Tucker, was still alive, but older—and somehow there were two of him. A baby wouldn't stop crying. And then there was an angel—petite and blonde with eyes the same deep blue-green as the Indian Ocean.

Let's get that ring off and start an IV.

His eyes wouldn't stay open.

Mom, is he dead?

Maybe I am?

The angel knelt alongside him, stroking his hair.
You'll be all right. They're taking you to the hospital.

Hospital? Marsh thought he'd died. That was the only way he'd ever see his son again.

A man approached with a tool and then there was pressure on his left hand.
Ma'am, would you mind holding his ring? He'll probably want to have it repaired when he comes out of this.

Why were they taking his wedding ring?

Before he could further process the question, his eyes drifted closed and refused to open again.

* * *

“W
E
'
LL
BE
TAKING
him to Arkansas Valley Regional in La Junta,” the older of the two paramedics said to Effie after they'd settled the man in the back of the ambulance. He handed her the stranger's wallet. She felt foolish for not having looked for it sooner. “Since he's gotta be from around here, would you please contact his family? This kind of news comes better from friends.”

“Sure,” she said automatically, hoping her grandmother might know the man's next of kin. “Is he going to be okay?”

“He'll live, but it's too soon to tell how much lasting damage there might be to his hand.”

While the twins chased the ambulance down the dirt drive, Mabel approached with Cassidy still on her hip. “Sure didn't see any of this coming. Some bit of excitement, huh?”

“Yep.” Excitement was one way of putting it. Effie's pulse still hadn't slowed.

Her grandmother wrangled the boys back into the house to help fix lunch. “You coming?”

“I will in a sec.” Effie gravitated toward the barn. “Let me take care of the stranger's horse.”

Effie led the chestnut into the cathedral-like barn, setting the wallet on top of a hay bale. The structure's ancient wood creaked in the light breeze. She never tired of the smells of hay and worn leather tack and a trace of manure.

Mabel had inherited the ranch from her third husband, Dwayne, a few years earlier. They'd celebrated their thirtieth anniversary before he died from cancer. He'd been a kind, loving man—far better than Effie's no-account grandfather, who'd gone to jail for cattle rustling a year after their vows.

Poor Mabel had then married his brother, but that marriage hadn't turned out much better. He'd been a moonshiner who'd gone and gotten himself shot and died a week later from his wound.

After leading the horse to a stall, Effie removed his saddle and set it atop a rack. She then brushed the creature, calming him with each stroke.

The adrenaline rush of finding the unconscious man had reminded her all too much of the first time she'd seen her own ex-husband, Moody, bucked from the back of a bull. He'd lain on the rodeo arena's soft dirt for a good five minutes before paramedics helped him come around. She'd been six months pregnant with the twins and feared going into early labor from the terror of finding her reckless husband paralyzed or dead.

That night marked the beginning of the end of their marriage—not because he'd been seriously injured, but because he hadn't. Instead of being relieved to the point that he gave up his PBR dreams to settle down with a nice, safe nine-to-five job, he'd doubled the amount of bull-riding competitions he entered. She'd prayed that once the boys were born he'd realize it was time to call it quits, but he refused.

She'd fooled herself into thinking love would be enough to sustain her through life on the road with newborns and then toddlers, but when the twins turned five and were eager to start school, she'd put her foot down, demanding Moody stop for the sake of their family.

He'd again refused, leaving her with no choice but to go on without him in the hopes that he'd soon miss her and the boys badly enough to realize he needed them more than adrenaline.

Her parents had offered to take her and the boys in, but they led such active lives back in Oklahoma City, where she'd grown up, that she couldn't imagine how she and the boys would fit in.

When Effie's widowed grandmother, Mabel, suggested it would be a godsend for Effie to move in and help, she'd jumped at the offer. Not for one second did she believe her high-octane, square-dance-a-holic grandma actually needed her, but she was beyond grateful for the safe place for her little family to land.

Once the twins started school, Moody visited whenever he had the chance, but those times dwindled to the point that if she hadn't been so determined to stand by her marriage vows, she might have considered asking for a divorce. Cassidy had been conceived the last time Effie had been with Moody. She'd been two months pregnant when he'd served her with divorce papers.

Wasn't something Effie liked thinking about, but far from missing their little family, he'd eventually swapped them for a hot-to-trot raven-haired barrel racer whose daddy had more money than God and the tricked-out trucks and matching horse trailers to prove it.

“Mom! Gramma says hurry up and come eat!”

Startled by Colt's interruption of the barn's peace and her chaotic thoughts, Effie dropped the horse brush to wipe tears she hadn't realized had been falling. “Coming!”

She knelt to retrieve the brush, then rose to smooth the chestnut's mane. “Guess you're probably ready for lunch, too, huh?”

The horse snorted.

“I'll take that as a yes.” She filled his water trough and gave him plenty of hay and a scoop of grain.

Her mare, Lulu, was out to pasture, grazing.

“Mom! Come on!”

“Almost done,” she said on her way out of the mystery horse's stall.

“What took you so long?” Colt met her at the barn's open door.

“The hurt man's horse was overheated. He needed brushing.”

“Oh. How come your eyes are all red and puffy?”

“They are?” She swiped them again. “Must be the heat. What did Grandma make for lunch?”

He wrinkled his nose. “Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.”

“Sounds good. I thought you loved her grilled cheese sandwiches?”

“Yeah, but when we were at Scotty's house on Sunday after church, his dad cooked steaks for lunch and then we went swimming and stuff. Why can't we ever do that here? And how come Dad doesn't want to see me anymore?”

Effie pressed her lips tight.

Where did she begin with telling her precious son that Daddy knocked up his girlfriend while he'd still been married to Mommy and now he had no interest in anyone but his new family? Then there was the not-so-little matter of child support checks that never seemed to come. Effie had dedicated her entire life to Moody. She'd even dropped out of nursing school one semester shy of graduating—stupid. But that was what love did to a girl. And she had loved that no-good cowboy with every breath of her being.

“Mom? Why can't we have steak? And a pool with a slide? And a house that's so cold inside that even in the summer Scotty's mom wears a big fur coat that looks like a fox.”

Because your father is a low-down, two-timing snake who—
No. She would never make the boys think their dad was anything less than the hero they believed him to be.

“Mom? I want a pool!” Colt gave up walking toward the house to hop.

“I'd like one, too.” She caught up with him and planted her hand atop his head in an attempt to calm him. “Along with a giant bathtub and air-conditioning so cold I need a coat in the middle of summer, but we have something way better than all that.”

“Like what?” The way Colt's chin touched his chest, he didn't look convinced.

“Love.” She smoothed his hair. “Lots and lots of love.”

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