Who's That Baby? Diana Whitney Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR DEAREST LUCY–When I first held you in my arms, I was Claire Davis, baby doctor. But soon I'll be "Mom." You looked at me with your dark, magical eyes–Johnny Winterhawk's eyes–and you instantly became the child of my heart. Your daddy's an incredible man, Lucy. Surely, like you, Johnny is one of God's perfect creatures. As a man, he's handsome, powerful, noble. As your father, well, there are none better. When he learned of you, he took you into his heart and home without reserve. I love him, Lucy, and I love you. And that's why I've agreed to marry him. And although he doesn't yet realize he loves me, too, soon he will… SO MANY BABIES Four heart-tugging stories about the littlest matchmakers—as they find their way through the Buttonwood Baby Clinic and into a family’s welcoming arms! THE BABY LEGACY by Pamela TothSpecial Edition #1299 On sale January 2000 When an anonymous sperm donor tries to withdraw his “contribution,” he learns a beautiful woman is eight months pregnant—with his child! WHO’S THAT BABY? by Diana Whitney Special Edition #1305 On sale February 2000 A handsome Native American lawyer finds a baby on his doorstep—and more than he bargains for with an irresistible pediatrician who has more than medicine on her mind! MILLIONAIRE’S INSTANT BABY by Allison Leigh Special Edition #1312 On sale March 2000 Pretend to be married to a millionaire “husband”? It seemed an easy way for this struggling single mom to earn a trust fund for her newborn. But she never thought she’d fall for her make-believe spouse.… MAKE WAY FOR BABIES! by Laurie Paige Special Edition #1317 On sale April 2000 All she needed was a helping hand with her infant twins—until her former brother-in-law stepped up to play “daddy”—and stepped right into her heart. Dear Reader, Happy 20th Anniversary, Silhouette! And Happy Valentine’s Day to all! There are so many ways to celebrate…starting with six spectacular novels this month from Special Edition. Reader favorite Joan Elliott Pickart concludes Silhouette’s exciting cross-line continuity ROYALLY WED with Man…Mercenary…Monarch, in which a beautiful woman challenges a long-lost prince to give up his loner ways. In Dr. Mom and the Millionaire, Christine Flynn’s latest contribution to the popular series PRESCRIPTION: MARRIAGE, a marriage-shy tycoon suddenly experiences a sizzling attraction—to his gorgeous doctor! And don’t miss the next SO MANY BABIES—in Who’s That Baby? by Diana Whitney, an infant gir1 is left on a Native American attorney’s doorstep, and he turns to a lovely pediatrician for help…. Next is Lois Faye Dyer’s riveting Cattleman’s Courtship, in which a brooding, hard-hearted rancher is undeniably drawn to a chaste, sophisticated lady. And in Sharon De Vita’s provocative family saga, THE BLACKWELL BROTHERS, tempers—and passions—flare when a handsome Apache man offers The Marriage Basket to a captivating city gal. Finally, you’ll be swept up in the drama of Trisha Alexander’s Falling for an Older Man, another tale in the CALLAHANS & KIN series, when an unexpected night of passion leaves Sheila Callahan with a nine-month secret. So, curl up with a Special Edition novel and celebrate this Valentine’s Day with thoughts of love and happy dreams of forever! Happy reading, Karen Taylor Richman, Senior Editor Who’s that Baby? Diana Whitney www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To Mona, David and all their beautiful babies. Books by Diana Whitney Silhouette Special Edition Cast a Tall Shadow #508 Yesterday’s Child #559 One Lost Winter #644 Child of the Storm #702 The Secret #874 * (#litres_trial_promo)The Adventurer #934 * (#litres_trial_promo)The Avenger #984 * (#litres_trial_promo)The Reformer #1019 † (#litres_trial_promo)Daddy of the House #1052 † (#litres_trial_promo)Barefoot Bride #1073 † (#litres_trial_promo)A Hero’s Child #1090 ‡ (#litres_trial_promo)Baby on His Doorstep #1165 ‡ (#litres_trial_promo)Baby in His Cradle #1176 †† (#litres_trial_promo)I Now Pronounce You Mom & Dad #1261 †† (#litres_trial_promo)The Fatherhood Factor #1276 Who’s That Baby? #1305 Silhouette Romance O’Brian’s Daughter #673 A Liberated Man #703 Scout’s Honor #745 The Last Bachelor #874 One Man’s Vow #940 One Man’s Promise #1307 †† (#litres_trial_promo)A Dad of His Own #1392 Silhouette Intimate Moments Still Married #491 Midnight Stranger #530 Scarlet Whispers #603 Silhouette Shadows The Raven Master #31 Silhouette Books 36 Hours Ooh Baby, Baby DIANA WHITNEY A three-time Romance Writers of America RITA Award finalist, Romantic Times Magazine Reviewers’ Choice nominee and finalist for Colorado Romance Writers’ Award of Excellence, Diana Whitney has published more than two dozen romance and suspense novels since her first Silhouette title in 1989. A popular speaker, Diana has conducted writing workshops, and has published several articles on the craft of fiction writing for various trade magazines and newsletters. She is a member of Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Published Authors Network and Romance Writers of America. She and her husband live in rural Northern California with a beloved menagerie of furred creatures, domestic and wild. She loves to hear from readers. You can write to her c/o Silhouette Books, 300 East 42nd Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017. Contents Chapter One (#uc45662e5-ba5b-5f2f-8fd7-fa0c679de866) Chapter Two (#u8a4d9e4c-b47b-5deb-bb51-5453e2f32f4f) Chapter Three (#u8d6dc97b-5452-57f1-8d0f-d2f67bfd7d77) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One The moment he turned on the light, he saw the limp orange lump floating in the fishbowl. It had been that kind of a day. The loss pained him. He’d told Spence he didn’t have time for a pet, even one that required no more than a bowl of water and a daily dose of food flakes. His gregarious law partner had insisted that everyone needed something to care for, even a stoic isolationist like Johnny Winterhawk. Johnny had capitulated, accepted the finned creature despite misgivings. Living things didn’t do well in his company. The last such offering had been a vigorous pothos plant presented by Rose McBride, administrator of the Buttonwood Baby Clinic, in appreciation for having discovered and stricken a particularly onerous clause from the clinic’s lease agreement. Johnny had been pleased by the handsome little plant. He’d placed it on a sunlit windowsill and watered it religiously every morning. Within weeks, the shiny green leaves faded to mushy yellow. Now yet another life force had shriveled in Johnny’s clearly inept hands. Sighing, he removed the deceased fish and carried it into the bathroom for disposal. “Rest in peace, little fellow.” He pulled the handle. With a whoosh and a swirl, the tiny creature disappeared. A prick of real remorse startled him. It was only a fish, after all, although he’d been oddly fond of it, and had rather enjoyed watching the creature snap up the food flakes poured into its bowl each day. Not that he’d been emotionally attached to it, of course. Johnny knew better than that. Nothing in this world was permanent. Not plants, not fish, not people. Especially not people. Still, he’d put forth serious effort to provide what the little fish had needed, just as he’d made a serious effort to care for the plant. He always made a serious effort. It was never enough. Perhaps the Creator was displeased. Johnny’s grandfather would have commanded a four-day fast, along with communion into the dreamworld, a place where spirits of earth, sun and sky might bestow spiritual awakening to those who’d broken their spiritual harmony with the earth. To Grandfather, all living things were one, and all knowledge was bestowed by ancestral whispers to those who had the courage to listen. Johnny respected that philosophy. He simply had a different approach—easy come, easy go. Not particularly profound, but it worked. And it kept him sane. Returning to his nightly routine, Johnny poured his usual nightcap—two fingers of amber whiskey served in an etched-crystal brandy snifter—then he methodically turned on both the stereo and the television, cranking the volume until every square foot of the expansive house vibrated with sound. A glance at a gold-and-diamond watch worth more than his grandfather had earned in a year confirmed that it was barely 10:00 p.m. The night was young. He settled at the table, opened a fat, triangular valise stuffed with documents and went to work. An hour later, he’d finished his first drink and poured himself another when the doorbell jangled above the din from the stereo and television. He pushed away from the table, swearing under his breath. No visitors announcing themselves an hour before midnight brought good news. The last time it had been this late, he’d found a sheepish neighbor on the doorstep, reeling drunk and slurring apologies for having flattened Johnny’s mailbox. Johnny hadn’t cared about the mailbox. He had, however, been furious that the intoxicated fool had gotten behind the wheel of a car, and Johnny had said so. Explicitly. There had also been a late-night prank that resulted in half the neighborhood being draped with toilet paper, and an unpleasant visit by the doddering widow from down the street, who’d been served with a small-claims-court summons and had actually scolded him for working late, thus forcing her to stay up past her bedtime for the free legal advice to which she felt utterly entitled. Steeling himself, Johnny strode to the door, prepared for a drunken neighbor, a mountain of toilet paper or a wild-eyed widow clutching a summons. He was, in fact, prepared for just about anything. Anything, that is, except a wailing infant with a note pinned to its blanket. It really had been that kind of day. Stifling a yawn, Claire Davis stuffed her stethoscope in the pocket of her lab coat and had nearly made her escape when she heard the desk phone ring. Nurse Jansen intercepted the call. “Buttonwood Baby Clinic. How may I help you?” Claire dodged the nurses’ station and slipped into the doctors’ lounge. She was so tired she could have slept standing up. Her back ached, her eyes burned and her contact lenses felt as if they’d been fused to her eyeballs with Super Glue. If she hadn’t been such a sucker for a panicky new mom who couldn’t tell the difference between scarlet fever and prickly heat, she’d have been home by now lounging in a hot bubble bath and preparing to sleep through her first day off in a week. Instead, she’d spent the past two hours soothing a frantic Mrs. Martinez, and explaining that a newborn really didn’t need three layers of clothing in an overheated room. Now Claire leaned against the cool metal locker, weary to the bone. The bubbles beckoned. She could practically smell the steam, feel the sensual slither of silky soap caressing her skin. The image lent momentary buoyance, bestowing enough energy for her to exchange her lab coat for a warm sweater and the lumpy canvas backpack that served as a portable communications center, research facility, office and purse. The lounge door creaked open. Claire heaved a sigh, spoke without turning around. “Unless it’s an emergency, just page whoever is on call. I’m officially off duty.” “You’ve been officially off duty since five this afternoon,” came the cheery feminine reply. “That didn’t keep you from coming back in to see the Martinez baby.” “Personal patients get personal perks.” “Then you may want to take this call.” A teasing lilt to Nurse Jeri Jansen’s voice made Claire glance over her shoulder. “Is it one of my patients?” The young woman sported a taunting grin and a gleam of sheer mischief in her huge hazel eyes. “Nope.” “Is it an emergency?” “It doesn’t seem to be.” “Doesn’t seem to be?” “It’s a little difficult to tell. All the caller says is that he wishes to speak with a physician.” Jeri lowered her voice, which quivered with a peculiar hint of amusement. “I heard a baby fussing in the background.” If curiosity hadn’t taken so much energy, Claire might have been intrigued by the gleam in the young nurse’s eye and the sparkle in her voice. She cast a weary glance at the marker board to see whose name had been written in for the evening calls. “Page Dr. Parker. He’s great with fussy babies.” Jeri’s grin widened. “Are you sure you don’t want to take this call yourself?” “I’m positive.” Closing the locker, Claire shouldered her backpack, dug out her car keys and displayed them with a provocative jangle. “My bubble bath awaits.” “Ah, a bubble bath, is it?” Jeri sidestepped neatly as Claire exited the lounge. “Well, no one can say you haven’t earned it,” she called as Claire hurried down the hallway toward the elevator. “Don’t worry about a thing. You just enjoy your evening, and have a nice day off tomorrow.” A prick of guilt slowed Claire’s progress. Frowning, she glanced over her shoulder just as Jeri returned to the phone at the nurses’ station. The nurse grinned, winked, mouthed “Good night” before picking up the receiver. Claire responded with a nod and a smile, then poked the elevator call button before she changed her mind. She could already feel those fragrant bubbles massaging her aching body. Jeri’s voice filtered down the hallway. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr. Winterhawk—” Claire went rigid. Mr. Winterhawk? “I’m afraid we don’t have a pediatrician available at the moment. However, I’d be happy to take a message and have Dr. Parker return your call.” The remainder of Nurse Jansen’s voice floated around Claire in a fog. All she could think about were the images spinning through her mind. Obsidian eyes, shoulders to die for, lips so sensual that the merest curve of a smile turned her knees to water and melted her heart like warm butter. She spun on her heel, her pulse pounding, to make eye contact with the nurse whose gaze twinkled with amusement. “I understand, Mr. Winterhawk. I will impress upon Dr. Parker the urgency of your situation.” It was him, the one man on earth who possessed a mystical power to turn a no-nonsense, professional pediatrician into a quivering mass of longing with no more than a quiet gaze, a stoic glance in her direction. The moment Claire leaped forward, Jeri crooned into the receiver. “Oh, wait a moment. I do believe Dr. Davis is now free to assist you.” With that, Jeri pushed the hold button, uttered a slightly maniacal laugh and held out the receiver. Claire snatched it out of her hand, stupidly found herself smoothing her hair. Few things on earth were more enticing to Claire Davis than a hot bubble bath. Johnny Winterhawk was one of them. He loomed in the doorway, not a tall man but a powerful one, bronze and obsidian, copper and jet, so male that every ounce of moisture evaporated from Claire’s mouth and the icy night air steamed against her heated skin. “Good evening, Mr. Davis. I’m Dr. Winterhawk.” At his blank stare, her smile stuck to her cheeks as if stapled. “I mean, I’m Dr. Davis. You’re Mr. Winter-hawk. Of course, you already know that.” Was that a giggle? Claire felt dizzy. She’d giggled, actually tittered like an idiot schoolgirl. “I mean you know who you are. You certainly don’t know who I am. Except that I’ve just told you—” Dear Lord, please strike me mute. “—or at least, I’ve just tried to tell you, but it seems as if my tongue has a mind of its own this evening….” Another giggle. This was not acceptable, not acceptable at all. Claire snapped her mouth shut, felt her lips curve into what must have appeared to be a demented grimace. She felt like a raving lunatic, but he was so close, so very close. Close enough to smell him, to see the gleam of bewilderment in eyes so intensely dark that a woman could get lost in them. Close enough to observe sparkling drops of milky moisture on his cheek, damp blotches on his pin-striped shirt, a puff of snowy powder marring his perfectly scissored black hair. “Thank you for coming, Doctor.” His voice was resolute, but a quiver of tension caught her attention. She regarded him more analytically now, mustering enough lucidity to recognize veiled panic in his eyes. “I know what an imposition this is, but under the circumstances—” A thin wail emanated from inside the room, barely audible beyond the cacophony of television and radio noise also blaring from inside the house. The fragile cry instantly snapped Claire into physician mode. She straightened, glancing past the impressive man to the interior of a surprisingly lush home. He’d barely stepped aside to allow her access when she pushed past him, following the sound to a tiny infant nested in a blanket-padded car seat that had been placed on a dining-room table amid a clutter of documents and legal briefs. With her attention completely attuned to the child, the din of music and television chatter grated on her last nerve. “For heaven’s sake, turn off the television,” Claire muttered. “If I had to listen to that racket for more than five seconds, I’d cry, too.” Johnny leaped forward to silence the television. A moment later, the music ceased, and a semblance of blessed silence settled over the house, broken only by the pitiful sobs of the fussing infant. Claire set her knapsack on a chair and scooped the unhappy baby into her arms. The baby stiffened normally at the movement, flailing little arms that seemed strong, well developed, normally coordinated. “There, there, precious, what seems to be the trouble, hmm?” The baby sobbed, bobbled its little head against her shoulder to gaze up with eyes as dark as those of the man who watched anxiously. “She’s been crying for over an hour,” he said. “I found some powdered formula….” His gaze slipped to a diaper bag that had been opened, its contents strewn about the sofa as if eviscerated in a panic. “I tried to feed her.” Claire smiled, wiping the remnants of the meal from the infant’s feathery black hair. Crusted formula was splotched on the baby’s face, and her pajamas were saturated, as well. “Looks like she’s wearing most of it.” She angled an amused glance in his direction. “Or perhaps you are.” He blinked, glanced down at his own stained shirt. “I have no experience with children.” “Too bad they don’t come with instructions, isn’t it?” Rubbing gentle circles on the baby’s back, Claire glanced around the luxurious room. The ambience surprised her. It was modern, sparkling clean, a tapestry of warm earth tones and shining crystal that seemed as far removed from the inner soul of this man as did the Ivy League clothing in which he wrapped himself. On a bookcase, nested between modern crystal and a stack of worn leather volumes, was an odd bowl of murky water with a thick coating of muck on the gravel. There was also a glass display case containing a pair of small beaded moccasins and what appeared to be a tanned-hide pouch of some kind. In the foyer, she’d noticed an embroidered replica of the Southern Ute tribal flag, lovingly framed and displayed in a place of honor. The home was a collage of the old, the new and the peculiar, as much a dichotomy as the man himself. Perhaps that was what had always fascinated her about Johnny Winterhawk—the incongruity of what she saw in him versus what he displayed to the world. Of course, it was all just a fantasy, the safety of worship from afar. Claire had been smitten by the handsome lawyer the moment she’d laid eyes on him. In the two years Claire had worked at the Buttonwood Baby Clinic, they’d passed in the hallways, exchanged an occasional nod of greeting. Claire had sighed, shivered and had sweet dreams for a week after such encounters. They’d never officially met until tonight. The infant bobbled in her arms, capturing her full attention. “I’d like to examine her. May I use the table?” Johnny blinked, then rushed forward to gather papers from the table. He jammed them into a worn leather valise, fat at the bottom and narrow at the top, with a strap clasp and rolled leather handles darkened with the patina of constant use. It rather reminded her of an old-fashioned physician’s bag. Johnny glanced around, retrieved a small receiving blanket from a wad of items that had apparently been dumped from the diaper bag and spread it across the polished oak surface. “I was afraid to remove her out from the car seat,” he murmured. “She seems quite fragile.” “Babies are tougher than they look,” Claire assured him. She placed the infant on the blanket and began to undress her carefully, angling a glance at the staunchly distraught man hovering nearby. “Tell me again how you happened to be, er, baby-sitting this evening?” He paled slightly. “It’s a rather delicate matter.” “Is it?” Resting her palm on the baby’s tummy, Claire used her free hand to unsnap her case and retrieve her stethoscope. “Physicians are a discreet breed. I’ll take your secrets to my grave.” He hiked a dark brow, whether in shock or anger she couldn’t tell. “Are you mocking me?” “I’m teasing you.” She smiled, surprised herself by absently patting his arm. Her fingers tingled at the touch. He was firmer than she’d imagined, his muscles rigid beneath the smooth fabric of his expensive dress shirt. Licking her lips, she focused her attention back to her tiny patient. “You’re clearly upset by whatever has happened here tonight. I was trying to break the tension. I meant no offense.” “Of course not.” He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose. When he glanced up, the confusion in his eyes touched her. “It’s just that this is…quite personal.” She considered that. “So I’ve gathered. Since you’ve requested my assistance, and since the wellbeing of an infant is at stake, I’m obliged to ask certain questions, and frankly you are quite obliged to answer them.” A flush crawled up his throat. He coughed, glanced away. “My apologies, Dr. Davis. You’ve gone out of your way to be helpful, and I’ve repaid you poorly.” Her heart fluttered. He was without a doubt the most perfect man God had ever created. Claire wondered if he was aware of that. “A nice cup of coffee would go a long way in paying my bill. You could use some yourself.” She issued a pointed nod toward a brandy snifter of amber liquid on the wet bar, remnants of the nightcap he’d mentioned on the telephone and ostensibly the reason he refused to drive the infant to the clinic. Claire had admired that about him. She also had an aversion to operating a vehicle after having imbibed even a moderate amount of alcohol. “Coffee. Of course. How thoughtless of me not to have offered.” Clearly frustrated, he brushed his hand along the side of his head, spreading a new smear of powder across his ebony hair. “Graying at the temples is a good look for you,” she said cheerily. Removing the baby’s pajamas, she grimaced at the wafting aroma. “I presume you didn’t get around to a diaper change.” “Diaper?” He blinked as if unfamiliar with the word. Comprehension dawned slowly. “Diapers,” he repeated, seeming horrified at his oversight. “It didn’t occur to me….” His voice trailed off as he gazed helplessly from the red-faced, kicking infant on the table to the crystalized powder coating his hand. Claire wondered how much of the formula had actually gotten into the bottle the indomitable Mr. Winterhawk had gamely prepared. She had to hand it to him; he’d certainly given it the old college try. An irked squeak brought her attention back to the infant, who kicked her fat legs wildly and flailed a tiny fist against her tummy. Claire’s heart felt as if it had been squeezed. Babies were her business. She’d seen hundreds of them, all beautiful, all adorable. There was something special about this black-eyed, button-nosed babe, something almost mythical and chilling. It was as if this tiny infant had the power of a magus, the eyes of an old soul trapped in a newborn body. She felt a kinship to the child, an instant bonding so sudden and forceful that her own body vibrated with it. She brushed her knuckles across the silky soft baby cheek. “What is her name?” Johnny yanked at his collar, skewing his tie to the side. “Lucy.” “Lucy,” Claire crooned. “A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.” At that moment, Claire fell utterly and completely in love with this precious infant. It wasn’t professional. It wasn’t even rational. But it was nonetheless real. And it would change the course of her life forever. The coffee dripped quietly, its fragrance wafting through the kitchen to mingle with the peculiar aroma of warm milk and sweet powder. Johnny slumped against the counter, willed his trembling knees to stay the course. From his vantage point, he could see through the open door into the dining room where a lovely Titian-haired doctor nurtured the now content infant with heartrending tenderness. Claire Davis. So that was her name. It was a good name—strong, independent, yet delicate and feminine, like the woman who wore it. Johnny remembered her from the clinic. She was not a woman one could easily forget. He vividly recalled the first time he’d seen her. While idly glancing out the glass door of Rose McBride’s office, he’d been surprised to discover a gorgeous redhead in a lab coat staring back at him. She’d blushed prettily, walked into a counter and dropped an armful of charts on the floor. Johnny had been fascinated by the wreath of color circling her porcelain complexion, the dazzling impact of her embarrassed glow as a nurse bent to assist her. She’d angled a glance at him, seen him staring at her, then flushed to a bright fuchsia, scooped up the strewn folders and fled. From that moment on, he’d searched for the beautiful redhead every time he’d gone to the clinic, and made it a point to study her when she wasn’t looking. Now she was here, in his home, with light from his dining-room chandelier dancing in her hair with the sparkling hues of warm sherry in sunlight. Every nuance was alluring, every smile, every dimple, every twist of auburn brow, every whisper from moist, full lips. Few women were natural beauties, but this one was. Her blue eyes were large, round, exquisitely framed with thick dark lashes that didn’t appear to have been coated with black goo that so many women seemed obliged to paint on themselves. A pale smattering of freckles shone golden across otherwise alabaster skin untinted by makeup. Her brows were pale, neatly plucked, but otherwise natural. Yes, she was pleasing to the eye. But it was her manner that held Johnny’s rapt attention, the radiance as she whispered to her tiny patient, the expertise with which her slender fingers caressed and stroked and gently probed. Professionalism was evident in every movement, efficiency in every touch. She turned the child competently, positioned the stethoscope around the small, bare back. Johnny flinched at how easily she’d managed to unwrap the infant that he had been too cowardly even to remove from the car seat. Claire Davis. Here. In his home. Holding both his past and his future in her very competent hands. He wondered if he could trust her with either. Then realized that he had no choice. Claire set her coffee cup aside and reread the note Johnny had shown her. Please take care of Lucy. I have faith in you. Samantha. She swallowed hard, handed the note back to him. “This was pinned to her blanket?” Johnny nodded, sat heavily in a plush lounge chair across from the sofa where Claire held the sleeping infant. “May I assume that you are familiar with this Samantha person?” Although Claire had meant the question to be kind, Johnny flinched at the inference. Evasive banter was a waste of time even when performed as a courtesy, so she cut to the chase. “Is Lucy your daughter?” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “I presume so.” “Presume?” His shoulders squared slightly, increasing their impressive width. A powerful man, she noted, with an extraordinarily well-muscled upper body that provided a potent contrast to provocatively slim hips and lean legs that probably weren’t as long as they appeared. “Samantha and I were involved during the time the child was apparently conceived,” he said simply. “Since she has seen fit to bring Lucy to me, I must presume that the child is mine.” Claire nodded. The infant was gorgeous, with dark skin, high cheekbones and exquisitely crafted Native American bone structure that mirrored her father’s. “She looks like you.” Johnny’s gaze softened. “She looks more like her mother, actually. Samantha’s eyes are the same almond shape, and she has the same round little nose that always seemed like God had put it there as an afterthought—” He bit off the words, as if realizing that they had revealed more intimacy than intended. When he spoke again, his voice was firm, his eyes guarded. “I don’t understand what has happened here tonight. If Samantha had required my assistance, all she had to do was ask. There was no reason for such…clandestine measures.” The bewilderment and pain in his eyes struck Claire with unexpected force. “I can only imagine how unsettling it must be to suddenly discover you have a child.” Not to mention having that child dropped on the doorstep like the morning paper. A wave of anger surged through her chest, forcing her to take several calming breaths. “Have you contacted the authorities?” The suggestion clearly shocked him. “Of course not.” He licked his lips, then stood so quickly that the massive lounge chair vibrated. “I won’t pretend to understand Samantha’s motives here, but I do know her to be a loving, honorable woman who would never willingly cause pain to a living thing. There has obviously been a misunderstanding.” “Of course,” Claire murmured. “This is merely temporary. Samantha will clear everything up as soon as she returns.” “And when will that be?” His jaw dropped only for a moment before he tightened it with a stoic clench. “Soon.” “I’m certain you’re right.” Claire wasn’t certain at all. A woman who’d leave a child on a doorstep didn’t seem to be sending a message that she’d be back anytime soon, but Claire would rather gnaw her own arm off at the elbow than to say that aloud. Judging by the confusion and hurt in Johnny’s eyes, he clearly wasn’t willing to accept that a woman he’d once cared about deeply, a woman who had betrayed him by having kept his child secret, would have betrayed him again by abandoning that child, perhaps as she’d once abandoned him. Claire couldn’t comprehend how any woman could leave a man like Johnny Winterhawk or this precious infant who had so deeply etched a groove in Claire’s own heart. Gazing down at the sleeping child on her lap, she was drawn to stroke the baby’s silky scalp, catching fluid strands of short ebony hair between her fingers and smiling as baby lips twitched. A glimmering bubble appeared at the corner of her slack little mouth. A twinge of real pain twisted Claire’s heart at the realization that this precious, innocent child had been betrayed by the one person on earth she’d trusted to love her, nurture her, care for her always. To Claire, maternal desertion was the most heinous of crimes. She could not, would not allow Lucy’s mother the same benefit of doubt that Johnny was plainly willing to offer. In fact, she did not like this Samantha person one bit. It took every ounce of control not to reveal the extent of her anger to the man who was desperately trying to excuse the inexcusable. “Samantha is a good woman,” Johnny said suddenly. Claire felt herself flush, wondering if he could also read minds. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to agree with him. “She must have had her reasons, although I won’t pretend that I can conceive of a single one that excuses the choice she has made.” Reluctantly shifting the sleeping babe back to the car seat, Claire stood. “However, Lucy appears to be well nourished, normally developed and in good health. You should probably bring her into the clinic tomorrow for a more thorough examination and a few tests.” Johnny stiffened as if he’d been shot. “I can’t do that.” “Why not?” “I have appointments in the morning.” “The clinic opens at 6:00 a.m.” “I’ll be at my office by then and I won’t be home until ten at night. I have a law practice to run.” His brows rose into a ridiculously pompous arch that she might have found amusing if fatigue hadn’t sucked the humor right out of her. “I wouldn’t know anything about hard work and long hours. I’m just a doctor.” She scooped up her bag, tossed her sweater over her arm. “As for the baby, just toss her into the car seat on your way out in the morning. I’m sure she’ll be fine on her own for a good fifteen or sixteen hours.” Pained comprehension dawned, etching itself in every line of his handsome face. The long-term consequences of fatherhood had no doubt just occurred to him. “Oh, my God.” Now it was Claire’s turn to arch a brow. “Exactly.” He dropped into the chair, ashen. When he slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, she thought he’d fainted. After a long moment, he spoke without looking up, his authoritarian tone having softened to an almost palpable panic. “What am I going to do?” Claire could practically feel his terror, his confusion, his abject misery. For some odd reason, it touched her as if it were her own. She set her knapsack down, and knelt beside him. “You’re going to do what you have to do,” she said gently, “to take care of your daughter.” “I don’t know how.” “I’ll teach you.” He shook his head. “That would be too much to ask. Besides, this is just—” “I know, I know, it’s just temporary.” She sighed, sat back on her heels. “Temporary or not, a baby needs full-time care and attention. Which is not to say that you have to let your career go to hell in a hand-basket. You’ll have to make some adjustments, true, but nothing you can’t handle.” He raised his head, angled a doleful glance. “How do you know what I can and cannot handle.” “I’m a good guesser.” Her teasing wink got a small smile out of him. Very small, but very potent. An army of goose bumps slipped down her spine at even the hint of his smile. “Besides, lots of parents have to work, which is why there are places like the Buttonwood Child Care Center.” “Child care?” He brightened, as if the thought of such a wondrous place hadn’t occurred to him. “Of course.” She stood. “Joy Rollings runs the center. I’ll give her a call first thing in the morning, and tell her to expect you.” Gratitude in his eyes turned to panic so quickly she barely had time to react before he shot from the chair and clutched both of her hands in one of his powerful palms. “Tomorrow? What about tonight?” “The center is open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.” “But I can’t possibly…I mean, I nearly drowned her with a bottle. What if I drop her? What if…?” He shook his head. “No, no, that is not acceptable, not acceptable at all.” Claire’s empathy cooled as quickly as it had evolved. “In that case, your options are limited.” She unsnapped her case, retrieved a card from a pouch and handed it to him. “Call this number. All your problems will be solved.” He stared at it blankly for only a moment, then every trace of color drained from his face as his feigned bluster melted before her very eyes. “The state welfare agency?” “They’ll send someone out to pick up the child, and you can wash your hands of the problem once and for all.” Claire knew her tone was cold. She meant it to be. “Oh, you’ll have to send a pesky check once in a while. Oddly enough, the state expects parents to support their children with money even if they’re unwilling to support them in any other way, but hey—” she gave his back a chummy slap “—a fancy high-priced lawyer like yourself shouldn’t care about a few paltry dollars, particularly if it alleviates that handsome legal mind of yours from dealing with unimportant details, such as changing diapers and mixing baby formula. Sound like a fair trade?” Most of the color had returned to his face, and his eyes had gone completely black. “Involving the authorities could result in charges being filed against Samantha.” “True, but that’s not your problem, is it? I mean, once the state gets its paternalistic paws on baby Lucy, she might end up in foster care, bounced from hither and yon until her poor baby psyche has been permanently damaged. As long as it doesn’t interfere in your law practice, what do you care?” He flinched again, but to his credit never broke eye contact with her. “Touchå, Dr. Davis, your point is well taken.” “Oh, call me Claire. After all—” she elbowed him playfully “—I know all your secrets now, so it seems a bit highfalutin to stand on formalities, don’t you think?” “You don’t know all my secrets, Claire.” He smiled, not a full-blown smile, exactly, but much more well formed than his prior effort. The effect was devastating. “At least, not yet.” Chapter Two Late-night shadows scattered along the sidewalk, pooling in between amber shafts of illumination from porch lights that dotted the Eastridge apartment complex. Shifting the precious bundle in her arms, Claire managed to position her key in the lock and elbow the light switch as she stepped inside a room filled with lush house plants and unlit scented candles. “Welcome to my humble abode,” she murmured to the bright-eyed infant. “I know, I know, it’s been a busy night for such a tiny girl, hasn’t it? But it’s been a busy night for your daddy, too, and I think he needs a few hours to get himself together. Discovering that one is a father can be a bit disconcerting, even for the strong, silent type.” Lucy seemed intrigued by the one-sided conversation, which gave Claire yet another opportunity to convince herself that the impulsive decision to bring Lucy home with her was based more on sound logic than emotional whim. It was reasonable, she told herself, to give a stunned man time to gather his thoughts, rearrange his schedule and make room in his life for a child whose existence had been completely unknown to him. “No, sugar-bug, your daddy hasn’t rejected you. He’s just upset because that’s how men get when they lose control over their lives.” Lucy widened her eyes. Claire’s heart melted. Her daddy hadn’t rejected her, but her mother had. A clench of fury tightened Claire’s chest. Despite Johnny’s gallant defense, Claire disliked Lucy’s mother intensely. She told herself that she wasn’t being fair, that she was prejudging the woman without the slightest understanding of what tragedy might have warranted such desperate measures. But in Claire’s mind, there could be no excuse to give away one’s child. She shrugged the diaper bag off her shoulder, carried the cooing infant into her bedroom. Because she couldn’t help herself, she hugged Lucy close, brushed her cheek against her soft little scalp. A tear burned, clouding her contact lens. “Don’t you worry, little one. You have people who love you, who will take care of you always.” Lucy looked up, blinked and burped. For some reason, that tickled Claire immensely. “I swear, you are the sweetest baby I’ve ever seen in my life. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my share of sweet babies.” Claire laid the infant in the middle of her bed. At two months old, Lucy was just learning to arch her little body, and might be able to turn over, so Claire placed a couple of pillows on each side of the child to keep her safe. “We’re going to have a lovely time, you and I.” Bright baby eyes blinked up, struggling to focus on Claire’s movements as she slipped off her skirt and blouse and tossed them over a nearby chair. “Tomorrow morning we’ll go shopping,” Claire told the infant. “Your wardrobe leaves a bit to be desired, don’t you think?” She shimmied into a frumpy but practical flannel nightgown, traded her dried-out contacts for a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses and stretched out on the bed beside the squirming infant. “Red would be a smashing color on you. Something in gingham, maybe, with a few well-placed ruffles. Nothing garish, of course. All in the best of taste.” She finger combed the peculiar thatch of dark baby hair, unsuccessfully attempted to curl the straight strand around her finger. “Maybe we can find one of those adorable elastic head bows. You’ll be so beautiful your daddy will be putty in your tiny hands.” Lucy cooed, whacked her tummy. Claire’s heart gave a lurch, and her biological clock suddenly issued an irresistible tick. All her life, Claire had wanted children, had simply presumed that someday she’d have them. She’d always wanted to be a doctor, too. It had never occurred to her that the two longings would be incompatible. Never until now. It hit Claire with sudden clarity that she was thirty-two years old, single and sliding toward the middle of her life without having ever looked up from her first goal long enough to realize that she may have jeopardized the second. She’d worked hard to get where she was today. There had been little time for relationships, and those few she’d attempted had been less than satisfactory. Most men had expected sex. Claire had not been inclined to offer that. She’d possessed the same urges as any woman, of course, but had been leery of committing herself either physically or emotionally ever since her best friend had become pregnant in high school. Giving in to those urges, she’d decided, was not for her, not until her life was in order and her future assured. So Claire had thrown herself into her work, and she’d waited for the right time, the right man, the ring on her finger. Well, her finger was still bare, and she’d yet to experience lovemaking. Now she wondered what it would be like to be held by Johnny Winter-hawk, to be loved by him, to have borne him this beautiful child. The image made her shiver with delight. It was fantasy, of course. Claire had her secret yearnings, but she was above all a pragmatist. She understood that about herself, just as she understood that simply having children could never be enough for her. She wanted a family, a real family, with two loving parents who would cherish each other as much as they cherished the issue of their union, the precious lives they had created. It was that lack of intimacy, of love and family, that left a nagging void deep inside, a cold emptiness in a place she never searched too carefully. Tonight that void had suddenly become full and vibrant, throbbing with a sensation that had first exploded when Johnny Winterhawk stared into her eyes, and had settled into sweet reality when she’d gazed upon Lucy’s precious little face. This is merely temporary. Johnny’s words echoed in her mind. Claire sighed. “This is dangerous territory,” she murmured. “I can’t afford to fall in love with you, sweetie.” Even as she spoke, she knew it was too late. Two years ago, Claire had come to Buttonwood looking for something indefinable, something she hadn’t even recognized. Now she finally understood why she was here, why she’d plucked one particular professional-opportunity flyer off a Cincinnati hospital bulletin board at the end of her residency and found herself in the one place on earth where she’d instinctively known that her destiny awaited her. Now she’d found that destiny. In the dark, innocent eyes of this beautiful abandoned babe, she saw the reflection of another discarded child, one who had grown up loved and cared for yet had never escaped the secret heartache of having been given away by her birth parents. Claire saw herself in Lucy. Perhaps that’s why the pain of this infant’s abandonment sliced so deeply into her own heart. A scrap of pink fabric peeked from beneath the sofa. Johnny scooped it up, spread the tiny shirt in his palm. His chest constricted with a peculiar ache. He had a daughter. He had a child. Dear God, how had this happened? How could he not have known? “Samantha,” he murmured. “Why?” In a wave of emotion, he crushed the shirt in his fist, pressed the soft cotton to his throat. A sweet scent wafted up, powdery and cloying. Silence suffocated him, a loneliness in the gut as sharp as a blade. He turned on the television, cranking the volume up, then hit the stereo switch as he paced. Noise flooded the house, shaking the walls. Good noise. Distracting noise. Music drowned out the wail of a used-car salesman, weather reports mingled with the stilted dialogue of old movies, headline news segued from the cheery jingle of a cereal commercial. Night surrounded him. Fatigue weakened his muscles, but sleep was the enemy, a place haunted by secret loneliness and memories he couldn’t control. Emotions could be bottled during the chaos of waking hours; pain could be ignored through the focus of work. Work was Johnny’s life, had always been his life, first to achieve the success that was so important to him, and later to keep him from dwelling on past failures or acknowledging the emptiness of a heart betrayed too often. Now that heart was in jeopardy again. The image of his precious daughter floated through his mind. Everyone Johnny had ever loved had been lost to him. His parents, his wife, even the woman who had borne him a child. Love was temporary; people were temporary. Fatherhood was forever. The concept gave him chills, made his palms sweat. Johnny had never allowed himself to think in such permanent terms before. Now he must, for no matter when Samantha returned or why she had left in the first place, his life would never be the same. Part of him whispered that was a good thing. But another part, the largest part, was absolutely terrified. Myra Bierbaum glanced up from the word-processing keyboard, arched a raspy brow above her tortoise-framed spectacles and eyed Johnny’s fatigued features a bit too acutely for comfort. “Tough night?” “No worse than usual.” Avoiding his office manager’s knowing gaze, Johnny absently flipped through the stack of messages she handed him. “Call the ranch-association president, and see if you can reschedule the monthly meeting until next Tuesday, then cancel my afternoon appointments and clear my evening schedule for the rest of the week.” “You got it, boss.” Matronly, motherly and totally irreverent, Myra cocked a knowing eye. “Dare I hope you had a hot date last night, and have finally been convinced that there’s more to life than striking option clauses from corporate personnel contracts?” “See if Spence can take over the school-board meeting tonight. If he can’t, contact the district administrator and have the busing contracts postponed to next month’s agenda.” “Blonde, brunette or redhead?” Johnny refused to make eye contact or lend credence to the woman’s prying. He loved Myra to death, but she drove him nuts. She was a busybody, of course, but so was just about everyone else in Buttonwood. Gossip was the town’s official pastime, which was why Johnny took such pain to keep his personal life personal. The woman grunted. “You need a life. All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.” “It also makes Johnny your employer.” “In name only.” She yawned hugely, allowing her glasses to slip from her wrinkled nose and bounce on a garish pearl chain at her bosom. “You and Spence couldn’t survive without me.” “We wouldn’t even try.” He sorted the phone messages with practiced efficiency. “You can handle this one. Give this to this week’s law clerk to check precedents and give me a list of citations for court next week.” He flipped through the rest of the stack, trashing several, pocketing one, delegating the rest with succinct instructions. At the end of the routine, he spun on his heel, took two steps toward his large, sunlit office at the end of the hall before hesitating. He spoke without looking. “And Myra, get Hank Miller on the phone for me.” He heard the squeak of her swivel chair, the soft intake of breath. When she spoke, the sting had evaporated from her voice. “I knew it, knew the minute I laid eyes on you this morning that something was wrong.” Myra uttered a concerned cluck. He recognized without looking that she’d probably pursed her lips while squeezing her thick hands together the way she did when she was worried about him. She was always worried about him, it seemed. Much as he tried to discourage that, he nonetheless loved her for it. Squaring his shoulders, he forced an even glance over his shoulder. “Nothing is wrong, Myra. I simply have business to discuss with the sheriff, business that is mine and mine alone. Are we clear on that?” A prick of regret stung him as he noted the sorrow in her eyes. She nodded briefly, forcefully enough to vibrate the poodle pelt of graying curls on her scalp. He would have turned away, but she extended a hand. The pleading gesture stopped him, forced him to meet her empathetic gaze. “You can’t keep people from caring about you, Johnny.” He studied her, softened his voice with a smile. “I can try.” With that, he strode into his office and closed the door. Ten minutes later, the intercom buzzed as Myra announced that Hank was on line one. Johnny took a deep breath, pressed the button. “Hank, how’s it going?” “Can’t complain,” came the jovial reply. “Had me a real lively time at the steak house over on the highway last night. There was a pair of twin beauties there from out of town that couldn’t keep their hands off me. Had to flip a coin just to keep the both of them happy! Now if you’d have been along, I wouldn’t had to wear myself into such a frazzle.” Johnny smiled, pinched the bridge of his nose. Hank enjoyed bachelorhood to the fullest, and was always trying to entice Johnny into joining his tomcatting forays into the local singles’ scene. “My loss, Hank. I’m sure you took up the slack.” “Did my best, and that’s a fact.” A hiss of air filtered over the line, as if Hank had heaved a sigh. “So what’s going on, Johnny? Myra sounded like a woman who’d just scraped her favorite cat off the pavement. You got problems?” “No, no problems.” He spoke quickly, too quickly. Puffing his cheeks, he exhaled slowly, forced himself to lean back in his chair. “Actually, I just need a favor.” “Name it.” “Do you remember Samantha Cloud?” “Sure do. Pretty woman, ran off to Albuquerque a year or so back with that ne’er-do-well boyfriend of hers.” Johnny flinched. “Yes, well, I need to find her, and I was wondering if you could do a little checking for me.” A nerve-racking silence followed. Johnny felt compelled to break it. “Just a few discreet inquiries…off the record.” There was a rustling sound, as if Hank had shifted to peruse papers on his desk. “Sure, I can do that.” More rustling was followed by the unmistakable rasp of a throat being cleared. “Don’t want to tell me what this is about, do you?” The office door cracked open, startling Johnny. He glanced up to see his partner, Spence McBride, peering into the room. He motioned Spence inside, and completed his conversation with Hank. “Not at the moment. Let me know what you find out.” “Will do,” Hank said. Johnny cradled the receiver as Spence settled into the guest chair across his desk, a half-eaten sandwich in his hand. He kicked one lean ankle over his knee and sucked mustard from his fingers. “Myra’s worried about you.” “Myra’s always worried about someone. Worry is what she does.” “Yep, she’s good at it, too.” Spence licked his lips, took another bite of his breakfast. Johnny nearly gagged at the sight of it. “Good Lord, what is in that thing?” “This?” Wide-eyed, Spence gazed at the huge conglomeration, yet another of his famously atrocious sandwich fetishes that were the talk of the office. “This is my newest specialty,” he said proudly. “Sardine, banana, mashed avocados and sliced kiwi fruit on a garlic-onion bagel. All the major food groups. The perfect meal.” “You’re a sick man.” “Perversity is its own reward.” He smacked his lips. “So why are you hunting for Samantha?” Apparently, he’d overheard more of the conversation than Johnny had hoped. He managed a noncommittal shrug. “That’s my business.” Spence quirked a brow. “Guess you just have a hankering to get that old heart broken again, huh?” “Samantha never broke my heart.” “Oh, that’s right. It was your ex-wife who broke your heart. Samantha just laid the pieces out and stomped them a little flatter.” With some effort, Johnny unclenched his jaw, dug a familiar agenda packet out of his in basket. “I need you to take over the school-board meeting tonight.” “Sure, no problem.” Spence popped the final bite of sandwich in his mouth, wiping his hands on the napkin as he chewed. He retrieved the agenda, gave it a halfhearted glance, then tossed it aside. “If you don’t tell me what’s going on with Samantha, you leave me no choice but to turn Myra loose. Once that old bloodhound gets the scent, there won’t be any stopping her. Whatever you’re trying to hide will be all over town before sundown.” Johnny closed his eyes, swallowed a surge of panic. “It’ll be all over town by noon, I imagine. I’m meeting Claire at the child-care center after lunch.” “Claire?” Spence perked up. “Who’s Claire?” “Claire Davis. She’s on the pediatric staff at the clinic.” Spence nodded as if that made sense. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and he waited. There was no sense in putting it off. If Johnny trusted anyone in this town, it was Spence McBride. They’d known each other in high school, although they hadn’t been close back then. They’d become good friends since Spence returned to Buttonwood a few months ago and brought his ranch-law expertise to Johnny’s law firm. Yes, Johnny trusted Spence as much as he was capable of trusting any human being. Even if he didn’t, there wasn’t much point in keeping a secret that would be all over town by the end of the day. Buttonwood would be buzzing about the mysterious dark-eyed baby that Johnny Winterhawk was caring for. Speculation would run rampant. Most of it would be true. “So,” Spence prodded, “are you going to tell me why you’re looking for Samantha?” Johnny sighed. “Because I want to find out why she left our child on my doorstep last night.” Whatever Spence had been expecting to hear, that obviously wasn’t it. If he hadn’t already finished his sandwich, he probably would have choked on it. As it was, his face turned beet-red, his breath caught in his throat and his jaw drooped like a broken gate on a rusty hinge while Johnny methodically related grisly details. Spence wiped his forehead, visibly shaken. “You’ve got a kid,” he muttered. “Wow. Better you than me.” “Thanks for the support.” “Cripes, what are you going to do?” Johnny wished he knew. Still, he heard himself uttering the same mantra he’d repeated last night. “It’s temporary. Samantha will be back any time now.” He’d almost begun to believe it, until the phone rang. “Hope you’re sitting down,” Hank said. “You’re not going to like this.” It was nap time at the Buttonwood Child Care Center, although one wouldn’t have noticed from the chorus of tiny voices, grunts and fusses emanating from the cheery sleep room. Colorful mats were arranged in neat rows on the clean, carpeted floor, some topped by thumb-sucking toddlers dozing drowsily, some supporting youngsters who kicked, rolled, sang and hummed with dogged determination to keep their eyes open to the bitter end. Three women hovered among the throng, offering drinks of water, tucking thin covers over wriggling bodies, then moving into the infant room to check sleeping babies in their cribs. Across the room, Joy Rollings waved. “I’ll be right with you, Claire.” “Take your time,” Claire called back. Johnny wouldn’t arrive for another thirty minutes or so. “I’m early.” A wail from the baby room captured the day-care owner’s attention. As Joy went to check on the source of the displeased cry, Claire shifted Lucy in her arms, and went to wait in the deserted play area. The moment Claire entered the sunlit room strewn with bright toys and tiny, child-size furnishings, she spotted the lonely figure at the far end of the playroom. “Rachel?” Startled, Nurse Rachel Arquette spun around, absently cupping one hand around her bulging belly. Her eyes widened in surprise. She offered a thin smile of greeting. “Dr. Davis, how nice to see you.” Claire lifted Lucy against her shoulder, and picked her way through the clutter of discarded toys. “You look wonderful,” she said, although the woman actually looked fatigued and terribly sad. “How are you feeling?” As if reading the worry in Claire’s eyes, Rachel forced a brighter smile. “I’m fine, just fine. Thank you for asking.” A lot of people had been asking about Rachel Arquette lately. More specifically, they’d been asking about the mysterious father of Rachel’s child. Speculation had been creative, widespread and not always kind. The latest grist for the gossip mill had been the constant attention heaped upon Rachel by Dr. Dennis Reid, the clinic’s pompous and controlling chief of staff. Anyone with half a brain could see that Reid had designs on Rachel, and Claire suspected him as the source of the rumor that he was in fact the father of her unborn child. It was possible, Claire supposed, although Dennis Reid certainly didn’t seem to be Rachel’s type. Actually, Reid didn’t seem to be anyone’s type. He was universally disliked by the nursing staff for his arrogance and high-handed manner, and held in relatively low regard by clinic physicians for basically the same reasons. Still, he was Claire’s boss, so she was careful to keep her opinions to herself. Meanwhile, Rachel had refused to respond to the growing curiosity about her child’s father by becoming sadder and more withdrawn each time Claire had seen her. “I’ve been hoping you’d attend our Lamaze classes,” Claire said. Rachel glanced away. “I’m a nurse. I already know how to breathe.” The reply was issued softly, without rancor. Claire’s heart went out to her. Instinctively, she touched the woman’s thin shoulder. “There’s more to the classes than perfunctory exercises, hon. We support each other, share our joys, our worries. We’re a family.” A shimmer of moisture brightened Rachel’s eyes. She took a shaky breath, clamped her lips into a tight smile and focused on the wriggling infant in Claire’s arms. Her lips loosened; her breath slid out all at once. “Ohh, who do we have here?” A ridiculous pride puffed Claire’s chest as she shifted the infant to allow Rachel access. “This is Lucy. I’m watching her for a friend. Isn’t she beautiful?” “She is precious,” Rachel whispered, stroking a tiny hand with her fingertip. “I just love babies.” Claire hiked a brow, aimed a pointed look at Rachel’s pregnant tummy. “Under the circumstances, I’m glad to hear that.” A bubble of genuine laughter from Rachel warmed Claire’s heart, but it lasted only a moment before the sadness returned to Rachel’s eyes. She circled a protective palm over her stomach. “I can’t wait for my son to be born. He’s all I have now.” Claire hesitated. “Rachel—” “Goodness, look at the time.” She stepped back, averting her gaze, her body language pulling back into herself. “It’s been lovely seeing you again.” As she brushed past, Claire spun around, managed to touch her wrist, stopping her. Rachel met her gaze slowly, sadly. “Here,” Claire said, fumbling in the pocket of her blazer with her free hand to retrieve one of her business cards. “Take this. My home phone is on the back, and so is my pager number.” She pressed the card into Rachel’s cool palm. “Call me anytime, for any reason.” Rachel stared at the card, bit her lip and nodded silently. A sparkle of moisture slipped down one cheek. “I care,” Claire whispered as Rachel reached the doorway. The woman paused, her shoulders quivering. She glanced back, seemingly choked by emotion. A moment later, she slipped through the opening and was gone. Claire sighed, lowered herself into a sunny yellow plastic chair. “With so many people in the world, why is it that so many of them are lonely?” The baby gurgled, and bobbed her head sideways as if following the sound of Claire’s voice. “Ah, but you mustn’t worry, sweet girl. There will always be enough love for you. I promise you that.” It didn’t occur to Claire to question the peculiar affirmation. In some faraway part of her mind, she understood that she was in no position to promise this child anything, that she was merely a temporary caretaker and that their time together would be all too fleeting. She understood that, although dwelling on it would have been too painful. She felt blessed to have these moments with Lucy, and she wasn’t about to waste them on the realities of what was to come. Claire carefully laid Lucy on her lap, tucking her in the dip between her own thighs. “Do you know how lucky you are to have such a wonderful daddy?” The baby’s head swung around. A fat tongue poked out, wrapped in baby bubbles. “Yes, you most certainly are a lucky girl. I never knew my real daddy. Odd how one can so desperately miss a person one has never met.” As she spoke, Claire unwrapped the thin receiving blanket to once again inspect each tiny leg and count the sweet button toes. “Why, there they are again! One, two, three…” She gave an exaggerated gasp, hiking her eyebrows. “Ten of them! Imagine that!” Lucy grinned. Or perhaps she just had gas. It didn’t matter, because Claire couldn’t have been more delighted as Lucy kicked her fat legs and flailed her tiny fists. With the sweet heaviness of the warm, wriggling body, the powdery fragrance, the fresh scent of laundered cotton and gentle oils, Claire was surrounded by the auras of motherhood—a soft ache in the chest that made her feel more whole, more alive than she could ever remember. Layer by layer, Claire removed fabric, examined the soft, round belly, the reddened skin beneath her little armpits, the perfect fold of a baby ear, the delicate quiver of a fleshy little throat. Every inch was perfect. Every inch. It was a silly thing, she supposed, this compulsion to constantly reassess the infant. She couldn’t explain the joy it gave her to touch this precious baby, to smooth the soft cotton shirt, caress each delicate baby finger. Such dark little eyes, so intense, so wise. “You mustn’t worry, precious. Your daddy won’t let anything bad happen to you. And neither will I,” she whispered. “Neither will I.” As Claire bent forward to kiss the infant’s silky cheek, a tingle slipped down her spine. She straightened slowly in the small chair, instinctively knowing before she gazed toward the doorway what she would see. Johnny Winterhawk stood there, hovering just inside the room with an expression of awe and wonder that moved her to the marrow. His powerful form filled the doorway, shoulders seeming even more broad by the fit of a dark, tailored business suit that hugged him like a supple second skin. From his perfectly groomed ebony hair to the tips of his gleaming Italian shoes, he exuded grace, power, control. And danger. Danger for any woman whose heart raced at the sight of him, whose blood steamed in his presence, whose breath backed up in her throat until she feared her lungs might explode. Most women looked twice at Johnny Winterhawk. Most women sighed, exchanged a yearning glance, silently wondered what ripple of bone and sinew lay hidden beneath the elegant, tailored cloth. He was masculine perfection, a walking wonder of sheer sensuality silently raging behind a wall of civility. He was magnificent. He was vital. He was gorgeous. Claire wanted to rip his clothes off. “Hi.” She cleared the horrifying squeak from her voice, and tried again. “You’re early.” “Am I?” “A little.” His gaze slipped to the infant in her lap. His eyes glowed softly, with wonder. “You’re so good with her.” “It’s easy to be good with her. She’s such a good baby.” Managing to take in enough air to clear the cobwebs from her brain, Claire gave the blanket a quick wrap and lifted the infant to her shoulder. As she started to stand, Johnny took two massive strides and cupped his palm around her elbow, assisting her. A spark from his touch shot into her shoulder. She swayed briefly, then stood. Her knees did not buckle. But they wanted to. “So…” She sucked a breath, offered a bright smile. “Are you ready to take over your daddy duties?” “I—” His gaze darted, his lips thinned. “I wonder if I might impose upon you a bit longer.” “Of course.” A rush of relief startled her, although the steely glint in his eye gave her pause. “Is something wrong?” He ignored the question. “Lucy will be spending more time in my care than I had originally anticipated. I would appreciate some, ah, instruction. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” he added quickly. “No trouble at all. Lesson number one, holding the baby.” Before he could protest, Claire placed Lucy in his arms, nearly laughing out loud at his horrified expression as he shrugged up his shoulders and hunched forward, awkwardly cradling the baby as if she were a porcelain football. His eyes rolled frantically, his skin paled and beads of moisture traced his upper lip. “She’s so fragile,” he whispered. “I can barely feel her.” “You’re doing fine.” The terror in his eyes was perversely endearing. Claire decided one just had to love a man who took fatherhood so seriously. “Lesson number two, we’ve already touched upon. Babies are tougher than they look. They don’t break easily, nor do they bounce, so try not to drop her.” His head snapped up. He looked as if he might faint. “Now, on to lesson number three.” Claire shouldered the diaper bag, dug her car keys out of her pocket and dangled them in front of his stunned face. “Shopping!” Johnny groaned. Chapter Three “You have to snap that whatchamacallit into the doohickey, and tighten tension on some kind of switch lever.” Claire turned the instruction sheet over, scratched her head. “That’s if you want to use the portable crib function. If you want to transform it into a playpen, you’re supposed to loosen the lever, unsnap the whatchamacallit and twist the doohickey into the thingamajig. I think.” “Huh?” Shifting one segment of the mesh-sided portable crib under his arm, Johnny hoisted himself on one knee, grunted as he rapped his elbow on the coffee table. Claire turned the instruction sheet over, angled a sympathetic glance. “It’s a little crowded in here.” The observation was unnecessary, since the formerly immaculate living room was cluttered with mounds of stuffed shopping bags, tiny garments, toys, crib mobiles, baby supplies, a stroller still in its packing carton and one “handy-dandy all-in-one nursery”—a bewildering assortment of tubes, pads and mesh panels that could supposedly shift from crib to playpen to changing table with the merest flick of a finger. Johnny frowned, inspected his elbow. “It would be easier to replicate the space shuttle out of bottle caps. Why would someone engineer this kind of monstrosity for an infant?” “It’s not for the child—it’s for the parent.” Smiling, Claire glanced around the once tidy room. A screwdriver poked out of an expensive silk-flower arrangement on the polished oak coffee table. A pair of needle-nose pliers sagged against the breast pocket of Johnny’s expensive monogrammed dress shirt. The handle of a claw hammer stuck from between tapestry sofa cushions. “Some Christmas Eve in the future, you’ll have to assemble a tricycle in the dark using nothing but a pair of fingernail clippers and the toothpick from your holiday martini. This is good practice.” For a moment, Claire actually thought he was blushing. His gaze lowered, his lips curved into a half smile that did peculiar things to her insides. Clearly, he was getting used to the idea of fatherhood, but he was also still shaken by it. His smile dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. He squared his shoulders, rearranged his features into an unreadable mask. Without responding to Claire’s teasing comment, he returned his attention to the assemblage problem, moving his lips as he worked as if giving himself silent support for the effort. Claire watched him greedily, fascinated by every nuance of expression, every hint of frown or smile. There was something vulnerable about his struggle with the unfamiliar equipment, a nervous determination in his effort that was exquisitely touching. His collar yawned open, his tie was askew and his sleeves were rolled up to expose muscular forearms dusted by a smattering of dark hair. As cool and confident as he’d been in his formal business attire, he was now charmingly befuddled, sitting cross-legged on the floor amid a nest of packing material, cardboard and bubble wrap. Lying beside her on the sofa, Lucy yawned hugely and stuffed a baby fist in her mouth. “Someone is getting sleepy,” Claire said. “I think your daughter has given up hope of having a nap in her brand-new crib.” “Have faith,” Johnny muttered. Squatting on one knee, he bent to inspect a bewildering array of template holes stamped on the metal frame. “Wait a minute, I think I know what this is for….” He grunted, snapped a spring-loaded steel arm into one of the openings, grasped the tubular mesh-side frames and hauled the unit upright. With a click, a shudder, a whoosh, the little crib stood firm and sturdy amid the chaos. Johnny grinned in triumph. Claire’s heart gave a lurch. She licked her dry lips. “Congratulations. You’ve passed the first test of fatherhood, crib construction.” He looked so inordinately pleased with himself that Claire couldn’t keep from laughing. “Now all we have to do is move it into the nursery and tuck Lucy in for a nice quiet nap.” “The spare room is at the far end of the hall.” He grabbed a bulging shopping bag and began to root through the contents. “I wouldn’t be able to hear her.” “Most babies sleep better in a quiet room. Besides, you shouldn’t have to turn your living room into a nursery.” He grunted, retrieved a package of crib sheets from the bag. “It’s only temporary.” Claire considered that. “You’ve purchased a lot of permanent stuff for a temporary situation.” He shrugged, struggled to extract the linens from their packaging. “The child needs these things no matter where she is.” “She needs a solid-silver hairbrush?” He looked stung. “She has hair.” “Yes, she does indeed.” “Grooming is important.” Claire couldn’t argue that. “And three separate crib mobiles?” “The saleswoman said that infants need visual stimulation.” “And the computer that teaches ABC’s?” “Educational toys give a child a better start in life.” “She can barely lift her head, Johnny.” Claire bit her lip, so amused by his adorable sulk that she feared she’d laugh out loud. “And what on earth is she going to do with two dozen stuffed animals? Not to mention the fact that you bought her so many frilly dresses, she’d have to be changed four times a day just to wear them all before she outgrows them.” “Proper clothing is important to a child’s self-esteem.” Something in his eyes alerted Claire that Johnny might have been speaking more from experience than parroting the salesperson’s pitch. She regarded him thoughtfully. “I guess you weren’t born rich, were you?” The question seemed to unnerve him. “I was not a ragged little Indian kid scuffing barefoot through the reservation in feathers and a torn loincloth, if that’s what you mean.” She hiked a brow. “A little touchy, are we?” He sighed, allowing his shoulders to roll forward. “Sorry. Guess I do get a bit defensive about the stereotype of my heritage. Actually, my parents struggled when I was quite young, but by the time I was in school, they were middle-class suburbanites, just like your own family.” “What do you know about my family?” He blinked up from the drape of balloon-and-bow fabric he’d finally extracted from the package. “Nothing, I suppose. I just presumed—” A slow flush crawled up his throat. His smile was a little sheepish. “Touchå. I guess we all fall into the stereotype trap.” Her heart fluttered. “It’s only a trap if we can’t find the way out.” Johnny studied her as if seeing her for the first time. A smile spread slowly, sensually, lighting his face from within. “How did you get so wise?” “It just soaks into my head with the auburn hair rinse.” “So that beautiful copper tone isn’t natural?” “It would be more natural if I left those pesky gray sprouts in it.” To her horror, she giggled. “I cannot believe that I have just entrusted you with my most solemn personal secret.” He laughed then, a genuine guffaw from the solar plexus that vibrated down her spine like a sensual massage. She’d never heard him laugh before. It nearly undid her. “Attorney-client privilege,” he said, clearly amused. “Your secret is safe with me.” Returning his attention to the packaged crib sheet, he frowned, tore at the plastic wrap and muttered under his breath. Claire plucked the item from his hand, removed the packaging and handed it back. Johnny held the limp cotton fabric studded with tiny balloon-and-bow stencils as if he’d never seen a fitted sheet before. “I take it you have maid service?” He glanced up, startled. “Certainly.” “Ah. In that case, you are clearly inexperienced in the fine art of bed making. Allow me to demonstrate.” She took the sheet, gave it a shake. “These cupped corners are molded to fit around the crib pad, like so.” Johnny leaned over her shoulder, watching. His scent surrounded her like soft arms, musky and sweet, an aching combination of aromatic body wash, grooming fragrance and pure man. Her fingers trembled. She cleared her throat. “First you tuck one side over the mattress, left and right, then you smooth it over the crib pad and tuck in the far side, like so.” “Amazing. It fits perfectly.” If he’d smelled any better, Claire wouldn’t have been able to resist taking a nip out of his throat. “We also have these cute little blanket clips—” she rooted through a shopping bag to retrieve the package “—which fit through the mesh walls, clip to the blanket and keep the baby from kicking the blanket off.” His eyes lit. “An excellent idea.” “Didn’t you purchase a new crib blanket?” “Yes, several.” He stepped over a mount of torn plastic wrap to retrieve yet another shopping bag, from which he extracted a soft, fleecy blanket embroidered with tiny sheep. “Do you think she’d prefer the yellow or the pink? I think there’s a white one, as well….” “Yellow is fine.” Her fingers brushed his arm as she took the blanket from him. She moistened her lips, waited for the tingling to subside, then fastened the blanket clips and stepped back to view her handiwork. From the corner of her eye, she saw Johnny struggling with a mass of wires and colorful butterflies. While clamping the crib mobile on the tubular frame, he angled a defensive glance in her direction, as if daring her to criticize the extravagance. “This one is also a music box. You wind it up, and the butterfly wings flap. It should be quite interesting for her to watch.” She smiled. “Indeed.” A muscle jittered at the curve of his jaw. “I do have a responsibility to make her life as comfortable as possible for the time that we are together.” Claire’s smile faded. “She’s your daughter, Johnny. You’ll be spending time together for the rest of your lives.” The subtle tilt of a brow was the only indication he’d heard her. “Perhaps the star-collage mobile would be more appropriate for an infant of her age.” To give herself a moment for thought, Claire busied herself clearing some of the packing materials from the floor. There was something going on here, something Johnny wasn’t telling her. On the one hand, he insisted that he was merely caring for the child temporarily, until her mother returned. If that were the case, why had he spent hundreds of dollars on infant equipment for a weekend of baby-sitting? There was only one way to find out, Claire decided. The direct approach. She glanced up, saw him tightening the mobile clamp on the crib frame. “When is Samantha returning, Johnny?” His fingers paused in their task, but only for a moment. “Soon.” “When?” “I don’t know.” “But you know more than you did last night, don’t you?” When he didn’t reply, she dumped an armful of trash by the front door, then circled the diminutive, net-sided portable crib to confront him. “You made some phone calls this morning, didn’t you? You know something.” He studied a small purple-and-pink butterfly, rubbing a gleaming plastic wing between his thumb and forefinger. “I know that when Samantha does return, she’ll need help to care for Lucy properly.” “And you plan to give her that help?” “Of course.” “By retaining custody of Lucy?” Startled, he glanced at Claire, then averted his gaze. “I’m not qualified to care for a child.” His gaze settled on the bowl of murky water that Claire presumed had once been occupied by an unfortunate and now defunct creature of the finned persuasion. “I will, however, see that Samantha has assistance from those who are qualified.” “You’re making this all sound very mysterious.” The pain in his eyes shocked her. He raked his fingers through his hair, took a step backward and sat heavily in his lounge chair. “I spoke with Hank Miller this morning.” “The sheriff?” He nodded. “Hank placed a few discreet phone calls to friends in the Albuquerque police department. It seems that Samantha’s boyfriend, one Rodney F. Frye, is well-known to them. He was arrested for burglary last week. Sam bailed him out. He didn’t show up for the arraignment.” Claire’s heart sank. “He skipped bail?” “Apparently.” Johnny rubbed his forehead. “Hank used credit-card slips to track them as far as Montana. It appears they’re heading to Canada.” Claire sat slowly on the sofa beside the dozing infant. “If that’s true, it doesn’t seem Samantha is planning on returning any time soon.” Johnny shrugged. “Samantha is not a bad person, but she is an emotionally frail one. She left Lucy with me out of love for her, not because she believed the child would be an inconvenience.” “That’s an assumption on your part.” Claire flinched at the roughness of her own tone, but couldn’t suppress her anger at this woman. “So when she shows up, you’re simply going to hand Lucy back to her?” The allegation clearly annoyed him. “Of course not. I will, however, see that Lucy has the best professional care available, and that Samantha receives the help and counseling she needs until she’s able to be a proper mother to our child.” Johnny studied Claire intently, extended a pleading hand. “You don’t understand what Samantha has been through. She’s had a difficult life—” “So that makes it all right for her to choose a felonious lover over the well-being of her own child?” Unable to contain herself, Claire stood quickly, spun away from the man who was regarding her with unnerving acuity. “A child is not a puppy to be bounced from owner to owner every time it’s too much trouble! No matter how loving a caretaker you purchase for Lucy, no matter how luxurious her surroundings or how many expensive stuffed animals you buy her, that little girl will never forget that her own mother abandoned her. She’ll live with that for the rest of her life, Johnny, the rest of her natural life. How can you defend that? How can you defend a woman who would do that to her own child?” Johnny regarded her, his dark, intense eyes boring straight into the very core of her. “You seem to be taking this rather personally.” Claire wiped the moisture from her eye, angry with herself for having revealed too much. “I take child neglect personally. Everyone should.” He said nothing for a moment, simply leaned back in the chair and studied her in silence. Claire felt her skin heat. She absently smoothed her chambray shirt, rearranged the covers around the sleeping infant on the cushion beside her. “Tell me about yourself, Claire.” It was a command, issued softly but in the tone of a man used to having his requests honored without question. Sharing personal information didn’t come easily to Claire. “There’s not much to tell. I grew up like you did, with middle-class parents who worked hard and loved me the best they could. I went to college, became a doctor, settled in Buttonwood and am happy with my life.” “Are you really?” “Am I really what?” “Happy with your life.” “Yes.” “And your parents, do you miss them?” “We talk on the phone every week, but yes, I miss them.” She angled a glance. “Are you close to your parents?” “No.” When he said nothing further, she prodded him gently. “Do they live nearby?” “My father is dead. My mother lives in California with her new husband.” “Oh.” She fidgeted with the corner of the baby blanket. “How old were you when your mother remarried?” Clearly, the conversation had shifted into forbidden territory. Johnny responded, but with a gruffness that brooked no further discussion. “I was twelve. She walked out on my father and me, so when it comes to mothers abandoning their children, I have some small experience with that.” Claire nodded, was shocked by the unexpected sound of her own small voice whispering from a place she hadn’t explored in a very long time. “I do, too.” She paused a beat, gathered her courage to share something that few people knew about her, something she rarely discussed because it was too personal, too painful. “I never knew my birth parents. My mother gave me to an orphanage when I was Lucy’s age. No one knows who my father was. I was lucky enough to have been adopted by dear, loving people who gave me everything I ever needed in life. Everything except—” her voice broke “—except the knowledge of who I really am and where I come from.” “That’s important to you?” “Yes.” She sniffed, dabbed the wetness on her cheek with the back of her hand. “It will be important to Lucy, too.” “Samantha has not abandoned Lucy.” “Hasn’t she?” His jaw clenched, his fingers tightened into a white-knuckled fist. “No, she hasn’t. She wouldn’t.” Tears welled in Claire’s eyes, blurring her vision, stinging her lids. She gazed over her shoulder, unable to quell the trembling in her limbs. “You must have loved her very much,” she whispered, and was stunned by the pain that thought evoked. “You must love her still.” Johnny went ashen. He swallowed hard, glanced from the sleeping infant on the sofa to Claire, then back again. “I never loved Samantha,” he said quietly. “Nor did she love me.” Whatever Claire had expected to hear, that wasn’t it. Johnny inhaled deeply, leaned back in the lounge chair and covered his eyes with his hand. “Samantha and I had been friends since childhood. I ran into her again shortly after my divorce.” “I didn’t know you’d been married.” He shrugged. “My ex-wife’s father owned the Phoenix law firm where I’d planned to spend a long and lucrative career. We had a whirlwind courtship, after which I was determined to lavish her with every imaginable luxury. Unfortunately, that took a great deal of my time.” “She felt neglected?” “Yes. So I bought two tickets to the Bahamas, and came home early one afternoon with them to surprise her.” He plucked a piece of packing material off his slacks, studied it as if it were a small nugget. “She was surprised, all right. So was the guy in bed with her.” “Oh, Lord.” Claire sat heavily on the sofa. “I’m so sorry, Johnny.” “Don’t be. It was for the best.” He flicked the tiny piece of plastic away, brushed his palms together. “I moved back to Buttonwood, started my own practice and the rest is history.” “That’s when you and Samantha, er, began your relationship?” Pursing his lips, he furrowed his brow. “I wouldn’t call it a relationship, exactly, but she’d just experienced yet another emotional breakup with the volatile Mr. Frye, so we were both alone, miserable and in need of comfort. There were no promises made, no pretense of anything beyond what it was—the sharing of two friends who needed each other.” He sighed, lowered his hand and leaned forward, propping his forearms on his knees. “Both of us understood that what we shared would be temporary. I wasn’t looking for permanence, and Sam had already spent years in a turbulent relationship in which estrangements were as routine as the sunrise, and nearly as frequent. I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked when I returned from work one evening to find her closet empty except for a note saying she and Frye had reconciled yet again and they were moving to Albuquerque. Apparently, he has family in the area.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925186&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.