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She turned around, saw him, and her world suddenly went still.
Iain was back!
Her heart began beating in triple time as she moved toward him through the crowd of six-year-olds. She met him in the middle of the room, supremely conscious of many things, not the least of which was the eighteen pairs of young eyes that surrounded them.
The chatter and play of the children melted away, and for just a moment, nothing existed except the two of them.
"I didn’t know you were back!" she heard herself say.
"I just got back today," he replied with the same wonderful smile that had made her heart skip beats since the first time she saw it, so long ago.
She nodded and willed her heart to return to normal and her voice to remain steady. Now was not the time to go off into dreamland over Iain’s smile. She had eighteen kids waiting for a birthday cake that was still too frozen to cut, and the party was far too close to being out-of-control, thanks to the nonexistent nature of the help offered by Iain’s missing brothers.
Dared she ask for Iain’s help?
She thought it over for a split second and decided. No, she couldn’t. Asking would give him a chance to refuse.
She took him by the arm, tried to ignore the feel of his muscles under her fingers, and pulled him through kids begging for birthday cake. He accepted the knife, and she kept moving; kept talking; forcing herself to tackle the next duty that presented itself and just act normal.
He asked about the party.
She told him that it was for her young cousin.
He asked how she had ended up in charge, and she explained how circumstances had conspired against her.
He stood around looking lost and out of his element, and she pressed plates of cake and cups of punch into his hands to give him something to do.
Seventeen of the children eventually left with their parents, leaving only her cousin. He sat at a table, playing with a few toy figures in the quiet world that was his. He glanced up, and his hands moved, signing his request for the last cup of fruit punch.
She nodded and turned to face the scattered remains of the party. Plates covered tables. Crumbs covered the floor. She squared her shoulders and tackled the mess, beginning with the table nearest her.
Iain joined her without a word, and gratitude surged through her poor tired heart.
Only when his brothers arrived and joined in stacking chairs and tables, did she allow herself a few stolen glances.
He was still the same Iain that he’d been when he left for college, two long years ago. Yet he wasn’t.
He still carried himself with confidence, still smiled that same beautiful smile, and still handled everything he touched with a dexterity that was both gentle and powerful. He still ran his fingers through his heavy dark hair in the way that had always delighted her, and his dark eyes still flashed when something roused his emotions.
But those eyes had lost their boyish uncertainty. He’d left as a nineteen-year-old, steady and serious beyond his years, yet still intimidated by the responsibilities he’d been born to.
He had come back a man.
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