Chapter One

      There were two lines in the window of the pregnancy test. Two. Not one.

      “Oh, God.” Emma Campbell Gibson’s breath shuddered out of her body. She reached for the hand of her best friend and sister-in-law, Zanny Campbell. “I’m pregnant.”

      Zanny didn’t say anything, simply waited for Emma to get her emotions under control.

      It wasn’t that Emma being pregnant was a bad thing. But since she’d married Archer Gibson, the love of her life, three years earlier, she’d had two miscarriages. She was afraid now to hope and dream and feel joy.

      “Does Archer suspect?” Zanny asked.

      “I don’t think so,” Emma said. “There hasn’t been any morning sickness. If I wasn’t late… Do you think that’s a good sign? It’s how things were with Sydney. And I was so sick the other two times.”

      Sydney was her eight-year-old daughter.

      “Maybe. I’ll take a positive sign—no pun intended—where I can find one,” Zanny said. “What do you want to do?”

      That was an interesting question. “Sit here and not move?”

      “Okay. I’ll have Sam take over your appointments.”

      They were at the photography studio Emma owned and Zanny ran. They’d come in early so Emma could take the test in privacy. Her assistant, Sam, would be in soon.

      Zanny went to open the shop, and Emma did just what she’d said she wanted—she stayed on the couch in the sitting room upstairs and stared into space. After a little while, though, she had to do something. Crossing to the phone, she called her doctor’s office and made an appointment, then went downstairs.

      “I’m going to go see Dr. Jones,” she told Zanny. “They got me right in, considering. Wish me luck?”

      Zanny stood and hugged her tight. “Good luck. Want me to go with you?”

      “No. I need to do this alone.”

      Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long at the doctor’s office before she was called back. While she got into the gown the nurse had provided her, she thought about the other pregnancies. She and Archer wanted kids so badly, wanted to add to the family they had with Sydney. And since she’d not had a single problem with that pregnancy, there was no reason to expect problems in the future. But twice now she’d made it to eight weeks only to end up losing the baby.

      Emma wouldn’t say the losses had put a strain on her marriage, exactly, but some of the joy she felt at building a life with the man who was her soul mate was marred. Not a tremendous amount, but enough that the edges of that happiness were burnt. Archer had never once made her feel like he thought she was less than a woman because of the losses, but Emma herself had started to carry a bit of that burden. She’d never confessed that truth to him though she had discussed it with Zanny, who’d suffered her own loss several years earlier.

      So this time around when her period was first late, Emma didn’t say anything. Archer had to go out of town for one of his rare conferences the same week she was scheduled to start. She didn’t tell him she’d missed a period when he returned. Maybe it was duplicitous of her to let him assume she’d had one, but she didn’t want to get his hopes up if she was wrong.

      When the time came around for her second period and nothing happened, she knew she had to take a test. She’d put it off so far, thinking that if she didn’t know she was pregnant, maybe she wouldn’t lose the baby.

      Zanny, who was aware of the first missed period, had shaken her head at Emma’s recalcitrance. But she’d kept her mouth shut, supporting Emma’s decision to wait. That quiet encouragement and love had kept Emma sane the last few weeks.

      As she was only a few days late past the second period, she didn’t think Archer suspected anything just yet. But she knew time was up—if he didn’t suspect now, he would soon. Her breasts were getting tender and fuller, and she’d almost swear she was starting to develop a tiny baby bump. And while she hadn’t had any morning sickness in the traditional sense of the word, certain smells were becoming rather off-putting, like that of peanut butter and of tomato soup, of all things.

      A soft tap sounded on the door.

      “Come in,” Emma called.

      The nurse poked her head in with a smile, then came inside. “He wants me to get some blood and urine so we can do some labs while he examines you.”

      “Okay.”

      By the time her doctor came in several minutes later, Emma was a nervous wreck. “Well?” she asked before he even had a chance to close the door.

      He smiled. “Congratulations. You’re definitely pregnant. Hop up on the table and we’ll see what we see.”

      Scared to death, she did as instructed. “Are you going to do an ultrasound?”

      “That depends. How far along do you think you are? The chart said you’d missed two periods?” He settled in the chair and started the exam.

      “Yeah. And I’m not sure how far along. I’ve been afraid to even consider it, given my history.”

      “Does Archer know?”

      “No. We’re doing an ultrasound, right?”

      He finished the examination, then moved back and stripped off his gloves. “Are you going to be able to sleep if we don’t?”

      Emma sat up halfway, propped on her elbows. “You’ve been my doctor for ten years now. What do you think?”

      “I’ll get the machine.”

      Ten minutes later, she was ready to come apart from nerves as he hmmm’d and pursed his lips as he stared at the black and white screen.

      “Well?”

      He turned it so she could see better and pointed. “Right there’s the baby. Everything looks perfectly normal. Heart’s beating just fine. Want to see if we can hear it?”

      With tears choking her, all Emma could do was nod. He pushed the buttons that turned on the sound, and a minute later, what sounded like a tiny, fast washing machine could be heard.

      “Judging from what I’m seeing, you’re almost nine weeks along. You’ve passed the mark,” he said quietly. “So stop worrying about that. Is that why you waited to come in?”

      She took the tissues the nurse gave her and wiped her face. “Yes. I was afraid to get my hopes up. It’s really okay?”

      “As far as I can tell,” he said, putting the equipment back in its holder. “There’s no guarantee, but I’m hopeful. I’ll print you out a couple or three of these images. I imagine you’ll want to take them home?”

      “Please.”

      Now that the exam was over, she felt like she was going to throw up. As she got dressed and took care of paperwork on her way out of the office, all she could think about was how in the world she was going to tell Archer. She called the office to ask a favor from Zanny.

      “Could you get Sydney tonight?” she asked after she’d relayed what the doctor had said.

      “Absolutely. I’ll pick her up at Mrs. Hendricks’ when I get my brood. Want her to spend the night with us?”

      “Is that going to be too much trouble?”

      Zanny growled. “Emma Jean. I can’t even…”

      “I had to ask. Thanks, Zan. You’re a lifesaver.”

      “Any idea how you’re going to break the news?”

      Emma blew out a breath. “None. I’ve got a little while to figure it out, though. Wish me luck?”

      “As much of it as I can send your way, sweetie.”

      She got home a little past one, having stopped to grab a salad from a drive-thru for lunch. But she was so tired she didn’t even want to eat it, so she stuffed it in the fridge and headed up to the bedroom, printouts in hand. Stifling a yawn, she looked at the bed with longing.

      “A good, old-fashioned nap sounds like an excellent idea,” she muttered. She quickly changed into one of Archer’s T-shirts and crawled under the covers with a sigh. “Just a few minutes of rest, and then I’ll figure out how to tell him.”

      Before she could even form another thought, she was sound asleep.

 

Chapter Two

      Archer hurt from his shoulders to his waist. When he walked into the house that evening, all he wanted to do was take a hot shower and relax. The day had been rough, and spending time with his two favorite girls was high on his list of priorities. Even though he’d been married for three years now, he still felt a welcoming rush of love just thinking about home, much less when he walked in the door.

      But the house was dark, quiet. Emma’s car was in the garage, but if she and Sydney were home, he didn’t hear them.

      “Em? Syd?” he called, turning on the lights as he went in the kitchen. “Hello?”

      Nothing answered him but the welcoming meows of their two cats, Huff and Puff, as they wound around his legs.

      “Maybe they went for a walk,” he said as he gave them some kibble. He wasn’t terribly concerned—they’d been known to get stuck talking to a neighbor here or playing with a friend there—and he decided to head upstairs and get that shower. He’d just reached the door to his and Emma’s bedroom when he heard her soft sigh. The rustling of the bedclothes sounded, then a quiet snore.

      “Em?”

      No response.

      Archer frowned and turned on the switch next to the door that controlled the bedside lamps. Sure enough, Emma was curled up in bed, sound asleep.

      “She must be sick,” he said, inching closer. But when he saw the printouts on the nightstand, his breath caught in his throat. With hands that shook, he picked the top one up.

      An ultrasound, dated today. With Emma’s name on it.

      The shape on the image was fuzzy, a little tiny blob that he wasn’t even sure he was supposed to be focusing on. He might not know how to read an ultrasound, but the significance… They were pregnant.

      His first instincts were to grab her up in his arms, wake her up and question her, kiss her, love her. But he didn’t want to get ahead of himself. He could be reading things wrong. This might not be good news. Besides, he was covered in grease and oil and grime from work, and he’d get her filthy. Some days that had its advantages but not today.

      He put the ultrasound back on the nightstand and quietly went to the shower. As soon as he was clean, he’d crawl in bed with her and find out what was going on. He figured Zanny probably had Sydney. Again, he didn’t know if that was a good sign or bad. Praying for all that he was worth that it was good, he started scrubbing.

      Emma woke up when the bed dipped and strong arms came around her. She smiled as Archer’s hand touched her face.

      “Wake up, sleeping beauty,” he said, his voice low as he kissed her forehead.

      “Mmm, no. I like this dream just fine.” She snuggled close to him, running her hands over his bare chest. When he jerked and drew in a breath, her eyes flew open.

      “Archer?”

      “I’m okay.”

      But he wasn’t. There was a large bruise on his chest between his shoulder and his heart. Sitting up so fast she got dizzy, she reached out a hand, stopping just shy of touching him. “What happened?”

      “It’s nothing. One of the guys at work swung an engine around. I walked into it. It’s just sore. I’m fine, Em.”

      “Did you get checked out? Nothing’s broken, is it?”

      He moved his arm in an arc, wincing when he stretched it up over his head, but managed a clear range of motion. “I’m fine. I promise. How are you?”

      She blinked at him. “Um.”

      “Something you want to tell me?” he asked patiently. Even so, she could feel the concern coming off of him, as well as the coiled tension.

      Emma couldn’t find her voice. She bit her lip, staring at him.

      Archer sat up, reaching past her to the nightstand. He handed her the printouts. “Maybe this will help,” he said, his lips quirking up at the corners.

      Trembling all over, she set the pictures aside and wound her arms around him, taking care not to put pressure on the bruise. “I’m afraid if I tell you, it won’t be real anymore. And I want it to be real more than just about anything in the world.”

      He held her close, pressing soft kisses to her hair. “I can wait until you’re ready, then. But are you okay?”

      She nodded. “I love you, you know that?”

      “I do. And I love you back.” He kissed her, this time fully on the mouth.

      Emma was more than happy to follow him down to the mattress, to help him get her naked, to feel his body pressing against hers as they made love. He knew about the baby without her telling him, and that was sufficient for now. That he understood her fears and didn’t press her for more of an explanation only made her love him more.

 

Chapter Three

      The world blew up the next morning. As it was Saturday, they’d not set the clock to go off, deciding to sleep in late. Emma hated their alarm clock, had threatened to replace it a thousand times. But she would have preferred its raucous screech to the sound that did wake her—the sound of her husband gasping for air and not being able to find it.

      The memory of that morning would be etched on her mind for the rest of her life. Archer’s face so pale, his lips blue, his eyes frantic as he tried to breathe but couldn’t. The 911 call and miraculously fast response time. Getting dressed in whatever clothes she could find so she wasn’t naked when the EMTs got there. The ride in the ambulance to the hospital. The sight of her husband being rushed away from her, and the terror of not knowing whether that was the last time they’d see each other or not.

      At some point, someone called her parents. Emma didn’t remember telling anyone not to notify them, and she didn’t much care how they’d found out. Owen and Sarah were just there. Soon after, other members of her family started trickling in. When Logan, Archer’s brother, came in with his wife Emma’s sister Amelia, Emma burst into tears.

      “What happened?” he ground out as he hugged her. “Em, what happened?”

      She shook her head. “I don’t know. He couldn’t breathe. And they haven’t told me anything. I had to sign some papers. He’s in surgery.”

      Sarah had been trying to find out details, and she came back in then with Emma’s cousin Michelle, who was a pediatrician. Both their faces were grim.

      “It’s not good,” Michelle said bluntly. “Apparently, when he was shot all those years ago, they missed a bullet fragment. He’s got a big bruise on his chest that Emma said came from getting hit at work yesterday. The surgeon thinks that knocked the fragment loose. They’ve got to get it out. It’s lodged between his lung and his heart.”

      “Wh—what are his chances?” Emma asked faintly, sinking into her chair.

      Michelle sighed, taking a seat beside her. She grasped Emma’s hands tightly. “The surgeon who’s operating has good hands, steady hands. If anyone can get it out, he can.”

      “That isn’t what I asked.”

      Michelle hesitated. “Not good. Less than thirty percent.”

      “Oh, God,” Logan said. He sat as well, leaning into Amelia, his head in his hands. “That’s not enough.”

      Emma nodded slowly as she took it in. “Where’s Sydney?”

      John, Zanny’s husband, spoke up. “At our house.”

      “Good.”

      That was the last thing she said until the surgeon came out three hours later, dark circles under his eyes. His scrubs were soaked with sweat and, Emma saw, there were spatters of blood on the legs. Archer’s blood. She steered her mind firmly away from that line of thought.

      “He’s critical, but he made it through the surgery,” the man said. He thanked the nurse who’d followed him as she handed him a cup of coffee. “The next few hours are crucial. He may not survive, and if he does, I don’t know if there’s going to be any permanent damage. He went into cardiac arrest a couple of times on us. I’m sorry I can’t give you any better news.”

      All around her, the family reacted. Logan was angry, pacing, and cursed under his breath as Amelia tried not to cry. Her parents sagged against each other. John and Ben, her brothers, asked questions about what to expect. Rachel, her other sister, who was seated beside her, put her arm around Emma’s shoulders.

      “I need some air,” Emma said, patting her hand before standing carefully. “And then I want to see him.”

      “He’s being brought to the ICU. You can only stay a few minutes,” the doctor said.

      “No. I’ll stay until he’s awake. I know you and your team need to work. I won’t get in the way. But I’m not leaving him.” She raised her chin and dared him to contradict her.

      The surgeon eyed her with a shrewd gaze. “If you do get in the way, that’s it. You won’t get back in.”

      “I understand.”

      She let Rachel and Sarah guide her to the bathroom where she promptly threw up. When she came out of the stall, they watched her with worried eyes.

      “Emma—”

      “I’m fine, Mom,” she said as she splashed her face with cold water. “Will you and Daddy make sure Sydney’s okay? She’ll be worried.”

      Sarah’s mouth compressed in a thin line, but she nodded. “If you need anything, just say the word.”

      “Who has all the kids?” Emma asked as they made their way to the ICU waiting room.

      “Aunt Gilly, Nonny, and Uncle Eli are at Zanny’s, and I’ll probably head out soon to help,” Rachel said. “Easton’s with his dad, but Bear goes on shift in a little while. Do you want me to bring you more clothes? Anything?”

      Emma glanced down at herself. “Whatever you think I’ll need. Thank you.”

      The surgeon had left word with the ICU nurses to expect Emma, and they let her and Logan go in.

      “You can stay ten minutes, no more,” a short, pudgy nurse with a soft voice told Logan. “Mrs. Gibson, Doctor Davies said you’d be staying. If we have to get in there to work, you will wait outside the glass. Understand?”

      Emma heard the steel in her voice and respected it. “Yes.”

      When they reached Archer’s bay, he was hooked up to what looked like every piece of equipment in the hospital. Emma staggered against Logan. He caught her easily, but she wondered if she wasn’t holding him up as much as he was her.

      Archer wasn’t a small man at six feet four, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he looked pitiful lying in that hospital bed. It was almost more than Emma could bear.

      “I’m okay,” she told them after a moment. “I’m okay. How can I help?”

      The nurse directed her to a chair on the opposite side of the bed. “Don’t touch any of the equipment, and don’t try to wake him up. Right now, he needs to stay as quiet as possible.”

      There was a wide bandage running down the middle of Archer’s chest. Realization struck Emma.

      “You had to open him up?”

      The nurse nodded. “It was the only way to get to his heart.”

      Logan, on the other side of the bed, laid a hand lightly on his brother’s head. “Another scar to add to the collection. Sydney’ll love the bandage.”

      “She will. Can I hold his hand?” Emma asked.

      “Of course. And you can talk to him. Just keep your voices low, and like I said, don’t try to wake him up. Push that red button on the wall if you need anything.”

      She left them alone, pulling the curtain part of the way across the glass window in the front of the room.

      “I thought we were past this,” Logan growled, leaning in toward Archer. “We agreed we wouldn’t do this anymore, remember? We’re not supposed to disturb you, little brother, so I won’t give you too hard of a time right now. But when you get out of here? I’m going to kick your ass for scaring me like this.”

      She saw the tears on his cheeks and had to look away to keep from screaming.

      After he’d gone, Emma carefully wound her hands around Archer’s. That hand was the one spot on his body he didn’t seem to have a tube or line or electric feed attached to.

      “Don’t think you’re getting out of parenthood so easily. I made it past the eight-week mark, Archer. This baby is happening. I was so afraid to tell you I thought I was pregnant. You are not leaving me to raise your children on my own. I still need you. I’ll always need you,” she whispered. “So you rest, you heal, you fight this thing. And when you wake up, we’ll go on with this happily ever after we’ve been living. You hear me, you stubborn bastard?”

      His fingers tightened around hers. That was all, just a slow movement that could have been a muscle spasm. But she knew better. And that gave her hope.

 

Chapter Four

      Five weeks later, Archer was sitting in his recliner, his feet propped up in front of him, trying not to laugh as Emma rattled around in the kitchen, cursing the stove, the recipe, her father, and the universe for not giving her the cooking gene. He’d offered to help her get supper ready, but she’d glared at him with such a ferocious snarl that he’d held his hands up and backed out of the kitchen in self-defense.

      Owen, who’d shown up not long after Archer had retreated to the living room, stood with a sigh. “Guess I’d better try to help her.”

      Archer grinned. “Good luck with that.”

      A minute later, Emma came stomping out of the kitchen, hands on her hips. “I almost had it,” she called back.

      Whatever Owen’s muffled response was, Archer got the impression from the way Emma’s eyes narrowed that he would be better off not asking his father-in-law to repeat it.

      “Come here,” he said instead, holding his hands out.

      With a tiny pout, Emma took his hands. “You did not marry a cook.”

      He laughed and tugged, not letting up until she eased into his lap. “I didn’t, no. But I love you anyhow.”

      “Yeah?”

      “Mm-hmmm,” he said, kissing her lightly. “But once I’m allowed back in the kitchen, don’t expect to eat spaghetti again until this baby’s a year old.” Spaghetti was the one dish Emma did well, and they’d had it so much the last few weeks, even eight-year-old Sydney was starting to curl her lip at the dish.

      She settled in against him with a sigh as his hand came to rest on her belly. “We’re going to have to tell the family soon.”

      What with Archer’s surgery and recovery, letting everyone know they were expecting had fallen by the wayside. But now that he was almost well again, they were starting to get some funny looks.

      “They’ll figure it out soon enough. It’s getting hard to disguise,” he teased.

      “Mmm, that it is,” Emma said around a yawn as she drifted off. Archer tucked her closer against him, enjoying the feel of her safe and sound in his arms.

      When Owen came out of the kitchen a couple of minutes later, wiping his hands on a dishtowel, he smiled. “I saved the chicken. It’s in the oven, should be ready in about half an hour. She’s wiped out, huh?”

      Archer nodded. “I feel guilty about that.”

      “You shouldn’t. Sarah was almost narcoleptic with a couple of her pregnancies. Em doesn’t seem overly tired, just pregnantly tired. You may have noticed we’ve all been pitching in to keep her as rested as possible.”

      “I had noticed that,” Archer said with a happy smile. “Thank you. When did you figure it out?”

      “About a week after you had surgery. Sydney told us all that her mommy had a baby in her belly.” He sat down on the couch, studying them. “How far along is she?”

      “Fourteen weeks or thereabouts. Finally in the safer zone and out of that first trimester, thank God.”

      Owen’s smile grew a bit misty. “Good. When’s she going back to work?”

      “As soon as I can convince her I’m okay. I should get the all clear from the doctor next week, so hopefully that’ll help.”

      They talked about some of the books they were reading as they waited for Sarah to arrive with Sydney, who’d had her own doctor visit that afternoon. Owen and Sarah stayed for dinner, and after they left, Archer got Sydney upstairs and bathed.

      Emma came up soon after. “I locked up downstairs. Once we get her in bed, can we just hold each other? Maybe watch TV in the bedroom?” she asked as she hugged him from behind.

      “Sure.”

      They’d not been intimate since he had surgery, something else Emma had put the kibosh on despite his doctor’s telling them he was safe to resume those regular activities at last week’s visit. So when Sydney was asleep and they retired to their own room, Archer sat down on the bed and pulled Emma to him, caressing her hips.

      “I need you.”

      She traced his lips with a finger. “Archer…”

      “Em, I’m fine. We can be careful, we can go slow, but I need you.”

      “I’m afraid.”

      “I know. I’m asking you to do this for me.” He slid his hands under her top and eased it over her head, then undid her bra. She’d already had to go up a size, and he cupped the tender flesh gently. “I promise you’ll enjoy it,” he cajoled.

      A reluctant smile spread across her face even as she arched into his touch. “What if I hurt you?”

      “I’m already hurting.”

      She scowled, not amused, and he sighed. Sliding his hands to her hips, he drew her so that she was in his lap, her knees on either side of his hips.

      “You didn’t hurt me before. Making love is not what put me in the hospital.”

      Emma tugged his shirt off, then placed her hands carefully on his chest on either side of the new scar. “If we do this and you have any chest pain, any pressure, you tell me right away. We’ll stop. Promise?”

      “I promise.”

      She stared at him for another minute, then shook her head. “I’ve missed you like this,” she confessed as they kissed.

      There were no more words as they touched one another, the heat building to a flashpoint that made going slow impossible. When Emma settled over him, warm and welcoming, Archer buried his face in her throat. Their movements were fast and frantic after that, need driving them each to a stunning climax. It came too soon and not fast enough, and Archer could hardly wait to do it again.

      The second time they made love, the pace was slow, unhurried, and just as intense. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get enough of you until we’re ninety and living in a home somewhere. Not even if we do this every single day,” he whispered once they’d come down. “And I have my doubts that I’ll be satiated even then. You’re addictive.”

      Emma wrapped her arms and legs around him and held on tightly. “So are you. I love you.”

      Though he would have been more than happy to go for round three, she wasn’t willing to risk it. So he pulled her into his arms instead, more than content to hold her close as they drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Five

      The purring woke her. “Huff, Puff, ask Archer to feed you,” Emma said as warm cat breath lifted her hair off her face. She buried her head deeper into the pillow. “After last night, I think he’s more than able to open a can of cat food.”

      A hoarse rawr answered her as the purring faded, and the bed shook hard. Harder than it normally would have with Archer or the cats getting up. Opening her eyes, Emma glanced at the bedroom door. It was closed. The room was bathed in morning sunlight, even though the clock only said seven.

      A second rawr sounded, this one closer, as the purring resumed. A very solid head butted her behind, and a large tawny paw came across her hip, resting there. A paw that was as big as her own hand, bigger even.

      With a shocked gasp, Emma rolled over and sat up, coming face to face with a beautiful mountain lion who was gazing at her with something akin to impatience.

      “What…?”

      The cat yawned, showing off impressive teeth, then licked its paw. Satisfied she was awake, he rolled over and into the floor. From the twitching of his tail, she wondered absently if he’d intended to fall off the bed or not.

      “Logan, this isn’t funny.” She clutched the sheet to her, grateful beyond words she’d had to put her nightgown back on last night after she and Archer had finished making love. “What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded in a whisper. “It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning! Where’s Archer? I’ll skin you two alive for this.”

      Letting out what sounded suspiciously like a sigh, the cat padded to the door and scratched at it, not using his claws. He looked back over his shoulder at her as if asking her to let him out.

      Emma scrambled off the bed. “Does Amelia know about this?” She let him out, then closed the door behind him, hanging her head. “Shape-shifters. God bless ‘em, I’m going to strangle those men.”

      Archer didn’t know quite what to do. He’d never expected Emma not to realize it was him. He knew she didn’t typically come fully awake until she’d had a cup of coffee, but for her not to know what was going on… Maybe it was pregnancy brain, he thought as he twitched his tail, annoyed and frustrated at not being understood.

      Thanks to his enhanced hearing, he knew she was in their bathroom. With an aggravated huff, he crossed the hall to Sydney’s bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. Emma might not recognize him, but he was betting their daughter would. She rolled around and played with Logan every time she was around him after he shifted.

      More than a decade earlier, Archer’s first wife had decided widowhood was cheaper than divorce. She’d pumped two bullets into his chest, not counting on him surviving. But he had, for the most part. The part of him that could shift into a mountain lion? That had died on the table.

      Or so he’d thought.

      Sydney, who could sense certain elements about some people, had said ever since she was five that his cat was asleep. His brother Logan’s cat, on the other hand, was not. The family had long taken that to mean Archer’s cat was dead.

      When he’d awakened a short time earlier, his entire body tingling from head to toe, Archer had thought he was dying. He’d gotten to his feet, then fallen to his knees, somehow without disturbing Emma. He was terrified he’d not be able to wake her in time to say good-bye. But then he’d shifted. The change into the cat had happened so fast, he hadn’t realized what was going on until it was done. Even then, he wondered if he’d died or was dreaming. He’d gone through some strange things while he was unconscious in the hospital, after all.

      But after a couple of minutes, he figured he wasn’t dead. He wasn’t in a weird coma or something. He had, somehow, someway, gotten his cat back. And he desperately needed to run.

      Easing Sydney’s door open, he crossed to the bed. One of her little feet was sticking out from under the covers, and he butted his head against it, purring loudly as he rubbed.

      “Uncle Logan?” she said, coming awake almost instantly. She rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes, then reached for her glasses. Archer rolled onto his back, then got up on his feet and stood there, watching her patiently. He saw the moment when she put it together.

      “Daddy?” she whispered, her eyes huge.

      He nudged her bed again with his head.

      She was off the bed in a flash, her arms thrown around his neck as she squealed with excitement.

      “Mommy! Mommy, Daddy’s a cat! Daddy’s a cat!” Sydney ran across the hall to their bedroom, opening the door without knocking to dash inside. “Mommy!”

      Archer followed.

      Emma was coming out of the bathroom, dressed, toothbrush in hand, frowning. “What did you say?”

      “He’s a cat, he’s a cat, he’s a cat!” Sydney grabbed her hand and danced in place for a second, then dashed back to where Archer stood and hugged him. “Look!”

      Emma’s face paled. “He can’t be.”

      Archer let out a rumbling, growling purr and did his best to nod.

      “Oh, my God.” She leaned against the doorjamb. “Oh, my God.”

      “Can we take him to the farm? Please?” Sydney begged. “And let Grandma and Grandpa see him?”

      As that was exactly what he wanted to happen, Archer prayed Emma would agree. He chattered and paced, not taking his eyes off her.

      “You need to run?” Emma asked faintly.

      This time, the roar he let out was louder than he’d intended, and she jumped.

      “Okay. Okay. I’ll call Daddy and then we’ll go. Sydney, grab your robe. Get dressed. Shoes. You’ll need shoes. I need shoes,” she said as she went to the closet. “Shit, the phone.”

      She was panicking, the last thing Archer had wanted. Desperate to calm her down, he went to where she stood and raised up on his back legs. Pinning her to the door, he licked her neck and face, trying to tickle her and make her laugh.

      It worked.

      “Stop it!” she said, dodging his tongue even as she giggled. He’d never heard her giggle before, and he chuffed at the sound, amused. He let his head rest on her shoulder for a moment, then got down. She was laughing now, still shaking but no longer completely freaked out as she grabbed the phone off the nightstand and dialed.

      “Daddy? I’m bringing you a cat.”

      Archer went back in the closet while she got her shoes on and tugged on a pair of his jeans. He pulled so hard the hanger broke, pieces of plastic flying everywhere.

      Emma got the message. “You’ll need clothes. Okay. Stop that and move before you tear something down.” She hastily pulled an outfit together, including shoes when he nudged them, and they were out the door.

      “Sydney, we’re going to cover him up so that no one else sees him,” she said as they piled in her SUV. She grabbed a blanket from the back and tossed it over him as he settled in the backseat next to Sydney. “Thank God I parked in the garage yesterday.”

      Archer was concerned that she’d wreck, but before she backed out of the garage, she drew in several breaths. He peeked out from under the blanket and was relieved to see that she’d calmed considerably. “Okay, I have this. Let’s go.”

      He couldn’t tell how fast she was driving, but she handled the vehicle well enough. That’s my girl, he thought. It seemed to take forever to reach the farm, but they finally did.

      As soon as she opened the door and uncovered him, he was out. Owen and Sarah were standing on the porch, their mouths open with shock. A quick glance around showed him he was in the clear. Letting out a loud roar, he ran like hadn’t been able to in years.

 

Chapter Six

      Owen and Sarah hurried down the steps, meeting Sydney and Emma halfway to the car.

      “What in the world? When you said you were bringing us a cat, I thought you meant one like Huff or Puff. Was that Logan?” Owen asked.

      Emma shook her head, laughing. “It was Archer.” And she promptly burst into tears.

      Half an hour later, she was sitting on the porch steps, alternating between laughter and tears. Owen had his arm around her, laughing as much as she was. Sarah’d taken Sydney in for some breakfast.

      “I can’t believe it,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I thought he was Logan when I woke up and he was in the bedroom, and that they were playing some kind of trick on me. I was ready to skin them both.”

      “I imagine so.”

      They watched as Archer trotted around the side of the barn across the meadow, then turned ninety degrees to dash as hard as he could toward the spot the family often set up for picnics at.

      “He’s playing.” She sniffed back her tears. “Oh, Daddy. How is it possible for your heart to break from being so happy?”

      “It just is. Happened to me every time one of you kids was born. Every time we have a new grandchild to love on,” he said, sending her a sidelong glance.

      Emma smiled. “Yeah, about that.”

      He kissed her temple. “Congratulations, sweetheart. I couldn’t be happier for you.”

      She sighed happily and watched Archer roll down a grassy slope. “I wish I’d brought a camera.”

      “Your mom might have one inside somewhere.”

      An hour later, Archer was having some bacon and eggs when Logan and Amelia arrived. He’d been running nonstop, and he’d needed to refuel. But when he saw his brother’s truck, he stiffened, every muscle in his body going on alert. Before Logan could even get the driver’s door open, Archer was beside him.

      Emma’s tears, which had calmed down, started again. Sarah just patted her shoulder and handed her a box of tissues.

      Logan had been devastated when he’d learned about Archer losing the cat. It had taken him a long time to get over that loss. Now, he got out of the truck and sank to his knees, laughing as Archer nudged him and head-butted him.

      “How much do you want to bet me they run together?” Owen said as they headed to the truck to help Amelia with the kids.

      “Oh, I’d put money on it,” Sarah said.

      Logan looked up as they approached, the biggest grin Emma had ever seen on his face, not counting when his and Amelia’s two sons had been born. Tears were coursing down his cheeks. Unashamed, he wiped at them with his hands.

      “Can you believe it?”

      Archer took advantage of his position to knock him over, then settled across him and licked the top of Logan’s head. He let out a self-satisfied purr as he glanced at Emma and chuffed.

      She snickered, wiping away her own tears. “No, I can’t. I thought the two of you were playing some kind of trick on me this morning. Oh, Logan.”

      He stood and hugged her, then went to the barn to change clothes and shift so he and Archer could run together. As the rest of the family sat on the porch, Amelia—who was also a shifter—shook her head.

      “If he hadn’t gone through what he did a few weeks back, he probably never would have been able to do this. All this time…”

      “It’s hard to think about him losing the cat, especially now,” Emma confessed. “He’d accepted it. I never saw real regret in his eyes when you all would shift. But now, I wonder.”

      Owen patted her hand. “I think he’d made his peace with it. He’s happy, no doubt in my mind about that, and he has been since you two got married. But sometimes you don’t know how much you miss something until you get it back after you think you’ve lost it and you’ve accepted that loss.”

      When they’d finally run enough, the brothers shifted and got dressed, then made their way up to the farmhouse. Logan was still smiling, even though he was rubbing his hip. Archer was as relaxed as Emma had seen him… well, since ever.

      “How do you feel?” she asked.

      He kissed her hard. “Human again, if that makes sense. And starving to death.”

      They all laughed, and Sarah waved a hand toward the door. “Sandwich fixings are laid out in the kitchen, boys. Help yourselves.”

      That night when they were home, once again wrapped around each other in bed after making love, Emma propped herself on an elbow and studied him.

      “What?”

      She shook her head and traced his scar, which had healed quite a bit more since the previous night, one of the benefits of being a shifter. “Just thinking. Feeling beyond grateful for everything we have.”

      “It’s a lot,” he said, touching her face. “I was scared to death this morning. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I kept thinking ‘I can’t go out this way. I can’t do this to Emma, to Sydney.’ And then I shifted, and if a cat can cry, I did. Did you see Logan’s face, Em?”

      “Oh, yes. Daddy said this morning that you’d made your peace with losing the cat, but I don’t think Logan ever did. You gave him a part of his heart back today.”

      He pulled her down and kissed her forehead, then tucked her under his chin. “I love you. Thanks for calling him.”

      “You are very welcome. And I love you, too. I’m so glad you fought for us, did I ever tell you that? That you never gave up on Sydney and me? On our family?”

      Archer rolled them so that she was on her back, then gently placed his hand over her belly. “You tell me every day.”

      The look they shared was more intimate than words, deeper than a touch.

      Emma smiled and ran a hand through his hair. “My very own big cat.”

      “Forever and ever,” he whispered as he lowered his head. “Amen.”