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His Unexpected Family

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His Unexpected Family Patricia Johns HarperCollins EUR When a baby is dropped into her life without warning, Emily Shaw is overjoyed.Its a bit odd that her distant cousin named single Emily as guardian, but shes thrilled all the same. She never thought shed get to be a mom. Another unexpected blessing is that baby Cora arrives in the arms of Police Chief Greg Taylor.Despite all three of them instantly bonding, Greg has promised himself hed never be a father. And now Emilys smooth-talking relative is challenging her right to raise Cora. Will Emily have to make an impossible decision between the child she already loves and the man who loves her? Suddenly A Mother When a baby is dropped into her life without warning, Emily Shaw is overjoyed. Its a bit odd that her distant cousin named single Emily as guardian, but shes thrilled all the same. She never thought shed get to be a mom. Another unexpected blessing is that baby Cora arrives in the arms of police chief Greg Taylor. Despite all three of them instantly bonding, Greg has promised himself hell never be a father. And now Emilys smooth-talking relative is challenging her right to raise Cora. Will Emily have to make an impossible decision between the child she already loves and the man who loves her? Youre willing to walk away from this? Emily forced the words out, unsure if she really wanted to hear the answer. Her heart hammered in her throat, and she met Gregs gaze. Walk away? He shook his head and his eyes met hers, snapping in irritation. Do I look like Im walking away to you? He was angry now, too, and she could feel the tension in the room mounting. Shed rather face him angry than keep butting her head up against his self-controlled calm. Then what are you doing? she demanded. He dropped his arms and stepped toward her. He pinned her with those fierce blue eyes, emotions battling over his rugged features. Im trying really, really hard not to fall head over heels in love with you, Emily. Thats what Im doing. And how is that working out for you? she asked, lifting her chin in defiance. His answer was a last step toward her, his strong arm sliding around her waist and pulling her close to him so that she could feel the steady beat of his heart. PATRICIA JOHNS willfully became a starving artist after she finished her BA in English literature. It was all right, because she was single, attractive and had a family to back her up just in case. She lived in a tiny room in the downtown core of a city, worked sundry part-time jobs to keep herself fed and wrote the first novel she would have published. That was over ten years ago, and in the meantime, shes had another ten novels published. This book is her first for Love Inspired, and her dedication to the written word hasnt diminished. Shes married, has a young son and a small bird named Frankie. She couldnt be happier. His Unexpected Family Patricia Johns www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17 To my mom, who raised a writer Contents Chapter One (#u71c24361-e8f8-5f2c-93e1-2b80a18471da) Chapter Two (#u88588c38-0c18-5a68-af00-57bb06b5da80) Chapter Three (#ua77c0ef0-11b6-5dcc-88b7-980f94f98276) Chapter Four (#u6c156b45-013b-5ea8-b880-d2982e885911) Chapter Five (#uad91ab3c-e88e-526d-90cc-640707049e51) Chapter Six (#u9cff4239-7ea0-54cd-926e-8da7ef165ccb) 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) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Dear Reader (#litres_trial_promo) Questions for Discussion (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One Emily was expecting a baby. In fact, she was expecting the little one to arrive that very afternoon, and every car that passed by on the road outside made her look up. She attempted to keep herself occupied by sorting through the boxes of decorations shed taken from her kindergarten classroom the week before, but the distraction wasnt working terribly well. Emily looked down at the laminated cards with big, colorful letters printed across them. As she absently arranged them and tucked them into an envelope to be used in September, her eyes flickered back toward the window. Her plan had been to get as much work out of the way as she could before little Cora arrived, but perhaps that had been overly ambitious. Pulling her dark waves away from her face with one hand, she dropped the envelope on top of a box of art supplies. The crunch of tires on her gravel drive made her look up again, her eyes trained out the window. A police cruiser eased behind her SUV, and before the drivers-side door even opened, Emily pushed herself out of her seat and went to open the front door. The police officer faced away from her as he leaned into the backseat. Broad shoulders tapered down to a strong back, and she half expected him to lift some heavy weight from the car. But then he straightened and turned toward her, a baby car seat in one hand, his steel-blue eyes moving over her matter-of-factly. Miss Shaw? he said. Hi, Emily said. Yes, thats me. Sorry Im late. He walked across the last of the drive to the shade of her front door. His biceps flexed under the weight of the car seat, and he gave her a professional smile. Its nice to meet you in person. Im Chief Greg Taylor. We spoke on the phone. Yes, yes, absolutely. She stepped back to let him inside, and as he passed her, his arm brushing hers, she could just detect the musk of his cologne. He was better-looking than shed given him credit for during their telephone conversation. With close-cropped blond hair, going just a tiny bit gray at the temples, he had a calm and collected look about him. His blue eyes seemed to take in every detail as his gaze swung around the room. He placed the car seat on the couch, and Emily moved closer to the little bundle, bending down to peek at the tiny face. The baby was sleeping, a baby girl so tiny that Emily was almost afraid to touch her. She had a downy frosting of red hair on top of her head, and her skin was so pale that Emily thought she was nearly translucent. The little thing lay there in the car seat, her small pink tongue sticking out in her sleep, and Emily let out a soft sigh. There she is. Emily touched one little hand, feeling the baby-soft skin. When she looked up, she saw Chief Taylor watching her thoughtfully. Im sorry about your cousin. He pressed his lips together. Were you close? Not really. Emily felt slight embarrassment flush her cheeks. I didnt know she trusted me this much...you know, leaving me as guardian in her will. How long since you saw her last? he asked. Years...maybe five or six? Emily tried to recall the last time she and her cousin had been in the same room. It had been some sort of family reunion, and she was pretty sure it was the time that one of her uncles broke his leg falling off the porch. She obviously thought a lot of you. Emily nodded. She was quite private. I mean, we were Facebook friends, but she didnt really post anything. I didnt know much about what was going on with her. Its understandable. He gave her a sympathetic smile and made a couple of notes on a pad of paper. I didnt know she was pregnant, Emily added. She didnt tell anyone. She looked back down at the tiny baby and shook her head sadly. But looking at Baby Cora, there is no denying who her mother was. Emily bent down and unbuckled the harness. Cora wriggled as Emily slid a hand under her little rump and lifted her out of the car seat. The infant nestled into Emilys arms, snuggling close, and she felt a wave of tenderness for the tiny thing. Are you going to be all right? he asked. Do you need social services to come give you a hand with anything? Social services? Emily laughed softly. Do we even have social services in Haggerston? Well, social services consists mostly of Madge Middleton. Shes a foster mom who gives some pretty sound advice. He shot her a wry grin. My mother would be insulted. Dont you worry about me. I have a big family with lots of women just waiting to tell me exactly how to do things. Good. He seemed to relax. Youll be fine, then. I probably know some of your family. In a place this size, its hard not to. She laughed. You graduated high school a few years before me. Really? He eyed her with an amused look. Are you related to Steve Shaw, by any chance? My cousin. Well, now Im going to have to root out my old yearbook. He chuckled softly, the sound oddly comforting. Oh, dont. Ninth grade wasnt graceful. Emily rolled her eyes. Trust me. I was entirely forgettable. He gave a slow smile and tapped his notebook with a nub of a pencil. Can I see your ID? My ID? Policy. Ive got to make sure you are who I think you are before I leave a baby with you. Oh, of course... She blushed and headed to the kitchen to grab her wallet. While she rummaged through her bag, she mentally chastised herself. He was here on business, not here to flirt with her. Finding her wallet with one hand and holding the baby in the other, she came back to the living room, determined to be nothing but professional herself. How are you doing for baby things? he asked while he looked over her ID. I think Im all right. The officers at the station brought in a few things from home, if youre interested, he said, raising his eyes from her drivers license and meeting hers with a steady gaze that made her cheeks feel warm. The officers who have kids, that is. Oh, thats really nice, she said. Thanks. Should I drop them by tomorrow, then? Yes, thanks. I really appreciate this, Chief. Thank them for me. Chief Taylor handed her back her license and gave her a formal smile. Take care. Ill see you tomorrow. Tomorrow. With that, Greg Taylor, the handsome chief of police of Haggerston, Montana, trotted down her front steps and got back into the squad car. Emily looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms. Coras little hands lay limply across her chest, and she let out a deep sigh in her sleep. She was a beautiful little thing, and looking down at her, she felt an involuntary wave of love. Oh, Lord, she prayed silently. Is this real? Is she really going to be mine? As she watched Gregs car pull out of her drive and disappear, she smelled something, and she laughed softly to herself. Well, one thing was very real tonight, and it was this diaper. It looked as though things were just beginning! * * * As Chief Greg Taylor walked back into the Haggerston Police Station, he stifled a yawn. It had been a long day, to say the least, and as he strode through the towns small station, the officers he passed glanced up and gave him polite nods. The station always looked busy, with telephones ringing, officers coming and going and the general hubbub that came with twenty-odd people focused on their own work. It might not be considered much compared to a city station, but for a place the size of Haggerston, it was something. It might look like chaos to an untrained eye, but to Chief Taylor, who had spent his entire adult career as a cop, it was a smoothly oiled machine...or at least as oiled as discipline, training and several gallons of coffee could make it. Hey, Chief! A sergeant waved a file at him. Some paperwork from that 11-80 the other day. You want it on your desk? Ill take it. Chief Taylor grabbed the file on his way by and headed around the desks toward his office at the far side of the station. He tossed the file on his desk and swung the door shut behind him. He stood in the relative quiet and glanced at his watch. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number to the Shady Pines Nursing Home. Shady Pines, the nurses voice sang. Hi, this is Chief Taylor. Im just wondering how my mother is doing. Hi, Chief, this is Fran. Your mom had quite a good day. She had her favorite dinner tonightSalisbury steak. Oh, good. He felt the smile come to his lips. And how is she...otherwise? Shes been confused. Sympathy entered the nurses tone. She wouldnt let us bathe her today, but were hoping that by later this evening, shell be calmer. Sometimes evening routines have a more relaxing effect on her. Greg ran a hand through his hair. Do you need me to come by? Youre always welcome, Chief, but shes been very wary around men again today. Im not sure it would do much good. He nodded, more to himself than to the nurse on the other end of the call. Well, keep me posted. Ill call back later. Absolutely, Chief. You have a good evening. He hung up the phone and picked up the file on his desk. His shift had been over for two hours already, but for some reason he couldnt bring himself to go home. His mind was still on that 11-80. 11-80. It was easier to refer to it numerically than to voice the reality of the situation. It had been a terrible car accident with crumpled metal, leaking fuel and a gravely injured driver. The semitruck that hit the little car was relatively unharmed, and the truck driver was incredibly shaken, but in one piece, which was more than could be said for the occupant of the car. He tried to push the mental images out of his head, but the one that remained was the pleading face of the injured mother, her face covered in blood and her eyes filled with fear. Her name is Emily Shaw. Shes Coras godmother. You have to call her. Please. I dont want my baby with a stranger. You have to call her! Hed sworn that he would, and there was something about that young mothers intensity, her insistence that he take care of this, that stuck with him. Fourteen hours later, that little baby became an orphan when her mother succumbed to her injuries and passed away in the E.R., and the least he could do was fulfill that frightened mothers last wishes and personally bring the baby to Emily Shaw. Which he had done this afternoon. The baby was now settled with her godmother. Job complete, right? So why couldnt he let it go? Why was Emilys face now swimming in his mind, too? But the image of Emily Shaw, with her dark, wavy hair and her sparkling eyes, didnt bring up the same anxiety and guilt that the other images did. A young, dying mother, terrified for her baby. His own mother, suffering from Alzheimers, unaware of who he was. A tiny infant, orphaned by a fatal accident. Yet there was something comforting in that calm kindergarten teacher with her disheveled papers and self-deprecating laugh. While he knew that his professional position didnt make a personal relationship with her very appropriate, thinking about Emily Shaw was infinitely more pleasant than the other options. Hed pick up those baby things the officers had collected and bring them by. Maybe that would tie up this case in his head and let him move on. Chapter Two The next afternoon, Greg pulled into Emilys drive in his unmarked squad car and parked. He sat motionless for a moment or two, listening to the background noise of voices on the police radio. Apparently, there was a 10-33a triggered security alarmfrom a locked store. Across town another officer was taking a Code 8a restroom break. Like most things, that just sounded better in a numerical code than to state the obvious. Gregs thoughts werent on the voices, however. He found himself feeling somewhat nervous, something he didnt feel very often. He took a deep breath and opened the car door. Emilys home sprawled just south of the small community of Haggerston. A bungalow-style rancher, it had a large yard hemmed in by a log fence. The effect was quite rustic, and he liked it. The well-maintained yard sported flower beds arranged naturally, as if little patches of flowers and leafy plants had just decided to push up around a rock or a tree, although in Montana, that sort of natural sprouting rarely happened without a good deal of loving care. Her front door had a woven twig wreath hanging on it, and he imagined that come the holiday season, it would be festooned with berries and holly. Her windows were covered with shuttered blinds that were open at the moment, letting the summer light in and keeping prying eyes out. As a police officer, he approved of her use of privacy. In the trunk, Greg had several bags and boxes of baby things hed picked up from the station, and he carried them to her front door before ringing the bell. He didnt hear anything for a few moments, and he was about to ring again when he heard the sound of footfalls. Her peephole darkened for a moment. Then the lock scraped, and she pulled the door open. Emily stood in the doorway, her hair still damp from a shower, wearing a pair of jeans and a loose, pink blouse that brought out the color in her cheeks. Her hair had left wet patches on her shoulders, and her face was makeup free. She looked fresh, albeit a little tired, the warm June breeze tugging at some wisps of hair around her face that were drying faster than the rest. Hi. She angled her head to gesture him inside. Wow, thats a lot of boxes. He looked at the pile next to the door and nodded his agreement. Ive been assured that all of it is absolutely necessary, he said. I took their word for it. She smiled, her eyes meeting his with a sparkle of amusement. I hope this isnt too far out of your way. Weve all taken a personal interest in Cora. He gave Emily a shrug. And youre her new mom. Well... A glimmer of something crossed her face, and she made a concerted effort to mask it. Im hoping, at least. Ive heard that these things can be a bit complicated. Greg nodded. It was true, and he wasnt one to give false reassurances. Custody cases could be incredibly complicated, and no one could say what would happen with this one. Instead of answering her, he put his attention into bringing the rest of the boxes inside, piling them neatly inside the door. How is everything going with Cora? he asked instead. Surprisingly well, considering how little I slept last night. She gave him a wry smile. He had to admit, she looked pretty good for not having slept, but then, he probably wasnt noticing the same things she was. Emily Shaw seemed like the kind of woman who could look pretty good wearing a paper bag. Well, this is it. He nodded toward the boxes. This should help get you started. Are you on the clock? she asked. Not officially, maam. Did you want to come in for a cup of iced tea or something? Greg cleared his throat. He hadnt come over to shoot the breeze, but he had to admit that the prospect of an iced tea on a hot day with some beautiful company appealed. Unless youre busy She blushed. Well, I suppose a few minutes wouldnt hurt. Emily rewarded him with a brilliant smile and angled her head into the house. Come to the kitchen. Well be more comfortable there. Greg followed Emily through a cool, spacious living room into the kitchen. It was lined with bright windows opening up onto a large veranda out back. The kitchen was a cooks dream, with polished black appliances, a gorgeous amount of counter space and an island in the middle with a selection of stainless-steel pots hanging above. Next to a small kitchen table by a window sat a little bassinet, baby Cora nestled under a light knitted blanket, snoring softly. Emily peeked in on her, pausing for a moment on her way to the refrigerator. So you were friends with Steve, were you? she asked, glancing over her shoulder. Friends might be a strong word. I knew him. Greg perched on the edge of a stool by the counter, grateful for a topic of conversation that didnt involve anything too personal. Whats he up to now? He got married about ten years ago, Emily said. His wife, Sara, and he have three little girls. Theyre very sweet. Always dressed alike. The girls or Steve and his wife? Greg allowed a smile to twitch at the corners of his lips. The girls. She laughed. Whats he up to? We lost touch when he left for college. Hes an accountant, she replied. Hes doing pretty well for himself. They live in Billings. That sounded like Steve. Hed always been the number-crunching sort, acing math classes and taking on the role of class treasurer. Greg would have guessed that hed end up with a comfortable lifestyle, and Billings was a logical place to land. There had always been something about Steve that Greg hadnt liked, thougha cockiness that rubbed him the wrong way. Emily poured them each a glass of iced tea, and he took a sip of the sweet brew. Did you know Jessica? she asked. Greg shook his head. I think I knew that Steve had a younger sister, but He paused. No, I didnt know her. Im not sure why she chose me. A blush rose in Emilys cheeks. You said you didnt know she was pregnant. Did her brother know? Gregs gut told him that there was a lot more to this story, but just because a familys story was deep and complicated didnt mean that there was anything criminal going on. Heck, his family had pretty deep and complicated things going on, too. Emily was silent for a moment, then shrugged. Not that he said. This is all pretty strange. He nodded slowly. So youd lost touch, and all of a sudden theres a baby in the picture? Pretty much. She let out a sigh. It feels like a dream right now. Itll be an adjustment. He heard the cop-sound in his own voice. It came out naturally, especially when he felt uncomfortable, and this beautiful kindergarten teacher definitely made him uncomfortable. So how long have you been in law enforcement? I joined right out of high school. My dad was a cop, too. I didnt realize that. I dont think I knew your dad. He was before your time. Greg shrugged. The story of his police-chief father wasnt one he intended to tell. Youve done well for yourself. Youre police chief here, youre well respected Thanks. Youve done well, too. He looked around at the rancher. Oh, this wasnt on a teachers salary. She laughed softly. My grandparents left me an inheritance, and my parents kicked in a graduation gift, which meant I could just afford the mortgage payments. Youve got family behind you, and thats a good thing. Everything is easier with family, she agreed, taking a long sip of iced tea from her glass. So what about you? Do you have a lot of family around here? Not a lot. We moved out here for my dads job when I was young, so most of the family is back east. She nodded thoughtfully, but remained silent. Are you doing this alone? he asked. A little hiccup-y cry came from the bassinet, and she slid off the stool and went to pick up the baby. Cora wriggled in Emilys arms for a few moments before settling against her neck. Glancing at her watch, Emily walked over to the fridge and grabbed a bottle, his question apparently forgotten. I think shes hungry.... Her voice was soft and soothing, her tone different now that the baby was in her arms. After running the bottle under hot water, shaking it up and testing it, she popped the nipple into the babys mouth, who slurped at it hungrily. Yes, Im doing this alone. Her tone grew quiet as she fed the baby. Im single, so this is my chance. Im not getting any younger, either. I always wanted children of my own, but She stopped and laughed self-consciously. You must like kids a lot, teaching kindergarten, he said. I love kids. She gave him a grin. Do you? Oh, definitely. He chuckled. I have a couple of nephews who come to visit me every spring break. We have a great time. Emily looked down into the infants face tenderly. She loved the baby already, he could tell. That was a good thing. A very good thing. The image of the crumpled car, the blood and the baby wailing from the backseat was still very fresh in his mind, and seeing her cuddled and loved was helping to dispel it. If you ever need anything, just let me know, he said. And Im serious about that. Thanks. She looked up at him, her dark eyes meeting his warmly. The other officers, well...lets just say that Cora stole quite a few hearts, and we all care about her. Tears misted Emilys eyes at that, and she nodded. That means a lot. Itll mean a lot to Cora, too. Cora, who had been busily draining the bottle, slurped the last sip of the milk, and a little white trail dribbled down her chin. Emily lifted the baby onto her shoulder, patting her back gently. What about you? she asked suddenly. What about me? he asked. Did you get married? Have a family? No. He shook his head slowly. Never did. Why not? Emily fixed him with a curious stare, her hand still rhythmically patting Coras back. She blushed and shook her head. Sorry, that was blunt. The baby lifted her head and wriggled her legs, then dropped her face back into Emilys neck. Why didnt you? he countered, and she shot him a grin. Touch, but I have good reason. Oh? He looked over at her, his interest piqued. Whats your reason? She blushed and waved it away with her hand. It doesnt matter. The fact remains, Im on my own, but I do have a family behind me, so Ill be all right. Just then, there was a burp, and Emily looked over at her shoulder, making a face. I should have seen that coming, she said with a grimace. There was a nice little patch of baby spit-up on her shoulder, starting to drip. It didnt look comfortable. And he was getting too comfortable. She had a way of making him want to talk, and he knew well enough that he shouldnt be going down this path. I should go and let you get cleaned up, he said, pushing himself to his feet. I guess so.... She gently laid the baby back into the bassinet and turned her attention back toward him. Despite the soiled shirt, her eyes met his with a cheerful sparkle. But this was nice. It was, he admitted, lulled by that stunning smile of hers. As Greg made his way back to the front door, he realized something a little disturbing. Hed been looking forward to seeing her and getting this case out of his system, and now he found himself wondering how he might be able to see her again. Instead of closing it, hed just stuck his foot in the door. Chapter Three As Emily pulled up to the little cemetery just outside of town, she could see her extended family already milling about, talking in small groups. She parked her SUV behind her parents sedan and sat there for a moment. Cora was asleep in her car seat in the back, and Emily looked at the tiny form, her pink tongue sticking out of her mouth. She was adorable, and shed never remember todaythe day her mother was buried. Part of Emily felt guilt for all of thisfor not being Jessica, for being the stand-in mother and not the real thing. Emily smiled wanly as she saw her grandmother tottering past with a cane. Her sixty-year-old son walked along next to her, a hand under her arm. This was what family did. They came together when they needed each other most. As Emily got out of her vehicle and went around to unfasten Coras car seat, she noticed her mother walking in her direction. She was a plump woman with red dyed hair, wearing a black-and-white print dress. There you are, her mother said as she bustled up. And there is the little one.... Her mothers eyes misted, and her chin quivered a little as she looked down at sleeping Cora. Im nervous, Emily admitted quietly. Dont be. Is it crazy to feel guilty? Yes. Her mother nudged her teasingly, blinking back her tears. You didnt choose this, sweetheart. Jessica chose you. Feel honored. Emily nodded and lifted the car seat off the base. It was a lot heavier than just the baby, but shed always seen mothers packing around car seats with babies inside, so she thought there must be some logic to it. As they walked together over the lush, green grass, Emily looked up at the gray, overcast sky. It was somber and threatening rain, a combination that seemed appropriate today. How is Uncle Hank? Emily scanned the people already there, looking for Jessicas father. His wife had passed away a couple of years ago from breast cancer, and now hed lost his only daughter. Hes over there, with Aunt Eunice. Emilys gaze traveled past one of her cousins with triplet toddlers she was trying to control, to her uncle, who stood a little ways off next to an older woman who was patting his arm. He looked weak and exhausted. Poor Uncle Hank.... Emily sighed. She saw him look up and notice her. He probably wants to see Cora. They angled their steps in Hanks direction, the soft sod sinking under their heels. The lines of graves were straight and solemn, drawing her gaze along them. All eyes seemed to be on Emily as she passed, but aside from a few waves of greeting, they seemed to sense where she was going and let her continue on her way. Isnt that Steve? Her mother looked across the cemetery. A man was bending down to talk to a little girl. It was her cousin Steve, all right, with his too-serious air that she used to tease him about when they were younger. His wife was slender and petite, and true to form, her navy blue dress matched the three little girls. They seemed to be just arriving, as the toddler was being strapped into a stroller by her father. Emily was silent for a long moment, watching her cousin. He was a few years older than Emily, a very conservative, straightlaced man with a picture-perfect family. Sara still looked svelte and young, despite three pregnancies, and she had that gentle mother quality about herthe kind of woman you expect could kiss a boo-boo better and halt an escaping toddler in her tracks at the same time. She stood up straight and looked in Emilys direction, but didnt lift a hand in any kind of hello. Emily could feel the tension zipping toward her from all the way across the cemetery. Go on and see Uncle Hank, her mother said. Ill give my condolences to your cousin. Emily nodded, and her mother gave her arm a quick squeeze before heading off in the other direction on her mission to intercept. A cool breeze picked up, carrying with it the electrical scent of threatening rain, and Emily shivered. She adjusted the knit blanket a little closer around Cora and took a deep breath. Lord, I can feel the tension already, she prayed silently. I hate this. As she made her way across the sod, an image rose up in her mind of the handsome chief of police. Somehow, the thought of him was comforting, and on a day like this, comfort seemed to be what they all needed. Uncle Hank looked up at Emily morosely as she came up to where he stood. He gave her a small smile of hello and looked down into the car seat. He stretched out a finger to stroke one little hand, then stood up straight again. She looks like her mother. I thought so, too.... Emily blinked back the tears that misted her eyes. I thought you might want to see her, Uncle Hank. Thanks. Why dont you come by later? Emily asked. You come hold her anytime you feel like it. He nodded slowly, then swallowed hard. I didnt even know... Did anyone? Emily asked. I dont think so. Why didnt she tell us? Emily just shook her head. That was the million-dollar question. Well, the little one is here, and shell be much loved. The lines in the older mans face deepened as he looked down into Coras tiny face. I wish June could have seen her. Emily felt her eyes brim with tears at the catch in his voice. Are you going to be all right, Uncle Hank? Oh he took a deep breath Ill keep on keeping on, I suppose. Cora needs you, too, you know. He nodded silently. I still cant believe she didnt tell me. Not even when the baby was born. The pain he felt was more than loss; it was betrayal. Jessica had been a loved daughter, the girl who looked nothing like either parent, and more like a fairy left by the door. She was slender and beautiful, hair bright red and eyes deepest green. Her mother had often joked that if she hadnt given birth to her herself, she wouldnt have believed that theyd produced her. But the past few years had been hard on the family, and relationships had got strained. You were a good dad, Uncle Hank, Emily said softly. But was I? He turned his grief-stricken eyes onto Emily, and she had no answer for him. Emily hadnt seen her cousin in several years, either, a small detail that meant little to a cousin but was heartbreaking for a parent. Hi, Dad. Emily turned to see Steve approaching quickly. He passed Emily without a glance and wrapped his arms around his fathers neck. They held each other for a long moment and Emily looked away, sensing their need for some privacy. She stepped back, not wanting to intrude, but as she did so, Steve released his father and looked toward Emily. Hi, Em, he said. Good to see you. You, too. Im sorry about Jessica. Steve nodded and gave a sad shrug. This is the baby? He bent down over the car seat in Emilys hand and looked at the tiny infant for a long, silent moment. Hi, he whispered softly. Cora stirred in her sleep. She looks like Jessica, doesnt she? Emily asked. Steve looked up at Emily, his expression unreadable. He pushed himself back to his feet and looked up as his wife and daughters approached. Sara came straight toward Emily and bent down to look into the car seat. Hi, Cora, she whispered. Sara had perfectly straight, dark hair cut in a short bob. She gave Emily a sad smile. This must be harder on you, Emily, she said. Emily wasnt entirely sure what to say. A newborn is a big responsibility, Sara went on, her voice low and sympathetic. No sleep, the expense, the change in lifestyle... Its all right. Well, it is when you have a husband to support you through it all. I cant imagine doing it alone. Im handling it. Its been, what, a week? Sara smiled wanly. Trust me. Ive done this three times. This is the easy part. With a smooth smile, Sara turned her attention to her father-in-law, putting her arms around him and crooning out her condolences. Emily took a deep breath. What were her responsibilities here? Im just going to say hello to... Emily started to edge away from the group, not even bothering to finish her sentence. Wait, Em. It was Steve. He walked toward her, shoving his hands into his pockets. Can we talk? Sure. Emily waited till he was at her side, then started walking back toward the rest of the family. Steve matched her pace. This cant be easy for you. Thats what Sara said. Oh, come on, Em. Youre single. Do you ever want to get married? Finding a guy with a baby isnt going to be easy. Dont worry yourself over my romantic life, she retorted. Look, Steve, I know this is really hard. None of us knew about this baby. Jessica is gone. Its a hard time on the whole family. No, its worse for me. Of course. Jessica was your sister. I didnt mean to imply And Cora is my niece. Shes only yourwhatsecond cousin? The scent of the approaching rain was getting stronger now, and the wind started to pick up. She shivered and began to walk faster. What do you want, Steve? She belongs with me and Sara. What do you mean? Were her closest relatives. You arent. Jessica chose me. This wasnt my idea. She named me Coras guardian in her will. Steve stopped, and Emily turned to face him. She could hear the low rumble of thunder far off in the distance and tears welled up in her eyes. What did he want from her? Did he expect her to just hand the baby over and walk away? You dont want this. Steve shook his head slowly, as if disappointed with a small child. It might seem all romantic and sweet now, but babies are a huge amount of work. What about your career? Let me worry about that, Steve. Im a grown woman. Fine. But when you change your mind, call me. Ill come and get her. The dripping condescension in his voice was almost more than Emily could bear, and she turned around and walked away, moving toward the grave site. The service would begin soon, and they would all pay their last respects to Jessica Shaw. When Emily looked back, she saw Sara staring after her with a strange intensity, the wind ruffling her short hair and her little girls standing at her knees. Uncle Hank didnt seem to be noticing very much in his grief, and he was talking to Emilys father, both men nodding sadly. They expected to bring Cora home with them today, she realized with a chill. Did Steve and Sara really think it would be that easy, to simply point out the hard work a baby would be and have her pass Cora off like a piece of luggage? That image of Chief Greg Taylor rose in her mind again, and she knew exactly who she needed to talk tothe one person without a personal interest in this. The service is going to start soon. Emily looked up in relief to see the compassionate face of her mother. Come on, sweetie. Together, they made their way with the rest of the family toward the grave site where the minister was waiting, the pages of his Bible fluttering in the rising wind. It was time to say their goodbyes. * * * Rain pelted the sidewalk outside Gregs office window. The afternoon light turned almost dusky in the rainstorm, and he leaned his elbows on his desk and looked out at the downpour. The plains offered little shelter from a summer storm, and as the clouds gathered, the wind whistled through the buildings. The air smelled of electricity and wet earth, and he inhaled deeply, enjoying the finger of air that wriggled through the crack of the open window. It was an old building, the kind with windows that opened at the top, leaning back on a brass hinge, and today he was thankful for the connection to the outdoors. It had been a long morning. Before coming into work, hed dropped by the nursing home to see his mother. The dementia was worse lately. A few months ago she remembered him perfectly and would look up at him with a smile, but this morning she frowned at him in confusion. Why are the police here? she asked. Is everyone all right? He hated scaring her like that. Yes, maam, hed said softly. Everything is fine. Im sorry to disturb you. He knew better than to try to remind her of who he was. It would only upset her furthershe would seem to remember for a moment, and then suddenly look fearful, wondering why an officer was in her room and what the bad news must be. She always associated police with bad news when she was confused. One of the nurses had given him a sympathetic pat on the arm, promising to call him when she was more aware. What he hated worse than scaring his own mother was the helplessness. As a cop, he was used to solving problems. He had the authority to stop bad things from happening, and he made sure he did that. He was a big man, muscular and tall, and he was accustomed to the automatic respect his physique demanded, but when it came to his mother, none of these things mattered. She didnt see him as her protector; she saw him as a threat. He wanted to do somethingfix it, if he could. He wanted to put his big, brawny body between his mother and the disease that snipped away at her memories, but he couldnt. Sitting at his desk, hed been going through the mounds of paperwork that came with his position, but his mind kept slipping back to his mother. After his dad was gone, his mother had a lot more to worry about, raising two kids on her own. She went back to work as a secretary. It was a job she was good at, but it kept her away from home more often than she liked. Greg and his sister, Lynn, generally looked out for each other after school. But during school hours, Richard Pike, one of the bigger guys in his class, decided it was his lifes mission to make Greg as miserable as possible. From his head being plunged into the toilet to being beaten up during recess, Gregs school life had been misery. Then hed come home to the empty house and hed sit there watching whatever show was on, trying to forget about the ache in his heart from losing his dad, and trying not to think about the next day, when hed have to go back to school and face Richard all over again. Times like those, all he wanted was a hug from his mom, but she wouldnt be home from work for hours yet. That was before he learned how to box. His mother wasnt the only person on his mind, however. Thoughts of Emily had been worming their way in there, too...images of her with Cora in her arms and that sparkle in her eye just before a smile slid onto her face. Greg knew all too well that mixing work with pleasure was a really bad idea, but somehow his thoughts of Emily were the most comfortable thoughts available to him, so he didnt push them away. Scanning a form and signing the bottom, he put the paper aside and flipped down to the next triplicate form waiting for his attention. Outside, thunder boomed and the room suddenly lit up with a flash of lightning. He glanced up again. The wind had shifted direction, blowing rain in through the open window, and he stood up to shut it. There was a tap on the door, and as he flicked the lock on the window into place, his secretary, Joyce, poked her head in. Chief? Theres a Miss Shaw to see you. Do you have time? Yes, definitely. Hed answered rather quickly, to his chagrin, and Joyce smothered a smile. He hated it when she thought she could read him like a book, and he gave her an annoyed look as she stepped back and pushed the door open. Come on in, Miss Shaw, she said, and she gave Greg one more look of amused knowing. Emily stepped inside, Coras car seat in one hand, a blanket draped over it. Emily, on the other hand, was completely drenched. Her hair was slicked down against her head, and a trickle of water ran down her cheek. She wore a black pantsuit that was equally sodden. What happened to you? he asked, coming toward her. Joyce, would you go get some towels, please? You bet, Chief. Emily shrugged and laughed self-consciously. It was really coming down out there. I should have just waited in my car till it let up, but then I thought I could make it and she waved her hand it doesnt matter. Greg laughed. Well, its nice to see you. Cora looks dry. Emily looked down at Cora with a tender smile. Warm and dry, she agreed. Here. Greg helped her to peel off the black suit jacket she wore, and he took his sport coat off the hanger on the back of his door. Draping it over her shoulders, she shivered involuntarily and looked up at him gratefully. Have a seat. Emily sank into the chair across from his desk. He could see the tension in her face, along her jaw and around her eyes. I hope Im not disturbing you. Its a welcome break. He gestured to the pile of paperwork. So how are you? Im fine. She gave him a smile that didnt reach her eyes, then she shrugged. Im not fine. Today was Jessicas funeral. Thats right. Im sorry I wasnt there. He avoided the funerals. It was part of his attempt to compartmentalize the suffering he had to see in this line of work. No, its all right. Dont worry about that. She shook her head, dismissing it. Steve was there. Oh, how is he? Steve is Steve. She gave him a tight smile. He wants me to give him custody of Cora. I see. Greg wasnt entirely surprised to hear this. Custody was a complicated thing at the best of times, but it got worse when the children were so tiny. Everyone wanted to raise a baby. It was the kids who were old enough to have attitude and emotional issues that got shuffled around a lot. He was pretty pushy about it. Sara was... I dont know how to describe her. She was pretty intense. I got the distinct impression that they expected me to hand Cora over, and theyd go home with her today. Did they say that? Not exactly. Emily sighed and looked away for a moment. I know I probably sound like a crazy person right now, but they kind of scared me. No, you dont sound crazy. Thanks. She gave him a grateful smile. I just wanted to come by and pick your brain a little. My pleasure. He leaned back in his chair, and just then, the door opened again, and Joyce came in with a couple of towels from the womens locker room. Thank you, Emily said, taking one and shaking it out. She blotted her face and hair. Joyce slipped back out without a word. Emily peeked down under the blanket at the sleeping baby and then let the towel fall to her lap. She looked at Greg silently for a long moment, worry creasing her brow. He let the silence stretch, waiting for her to speak. Greg, what happens in these cases? she asked finally. Youre the guardian named in the will, he said. That makes you her legal guardian, and Steve cant just bully you into changing that. She nodded. Is that final? Well... He didnt want to scare her, but he didnt want to lie to her, either. Nothing is ever entirely final, I suppose. Unless you adopt her. Can Steve contest the will? she asked. In theory. Do you think hed go that far? Emily sighed. I have no idea, but he was pretty focused on convincing me to give her up today at the funeral. A finger of irritation wormed through his stomach. He didnt like the thought of someone trying to bully her, and it made him want to throw his weight around a little. Instead of voicing his feelings, he asked, Did he threaten you? No. She laughed softly. This is Steve were talking about. He got snide and condescending, but that was it. Hes my cousin, after all. Greg made a noncommittal sound. Yes, he remembered Steve well. Hed been both snide and condescending in high school, too. Hed never been cruel on the level of Richard Pike, but hed made a couple of junior guys pretty miserable senior year, and Greg had taken it upon himself to stand up for them. Steve was a bully, and if there was one thing Greg could not abide, it was a bully. Do you want to raise Cora? Greg asked, changing the subject. More than anything. I know this seems strange because Im not exactly in a position to be taking children into my home, but I do. Ive fallen in love with her. I dont want to give her up. He nodded silently. Of course she didnt. Who wouldnt fall in love with that baby? The entire department here in Haggerston had fallen in love with her. Have you seen these sorts of cases before? she asked, her full attention focused on his face. He nodded slowly. Yes, a few times. What normally happens? Well, normally, the parents have named the godparents in their will and nothing changes. She nodded, visibly relaxing. Have you ever seen a will contested? Greg sighed. Its probably best not to worry about this sort of thing unless you have to. Maybe so, but Im worried now. She didnt look the least bit daunted. What happens when the will gets contested? It gets ugly, he admitted. Everyone loves the baby and wants to raise it. Everyone has a reason why the other people are a terrible choice. People say things they cant take back and close-knit, loving families end up fractured. It can get really bad. Thats what I was afraid of. Her voice softened, and he had to lean forward with a creak of his chair to catch her words. That doesnt mean that will happen to you, he added. Youre her legal guardian, okay? That hasnt been contested. She nodded. I know. Thanks. She slipped his jacket off her shoulders and rose to her feet. I appreciate this. Greg stood up, too, and he came around his desk, then sat on the edge of it. Im not a father, he said. But I deal with a lot of parents in this job. Me, too. She chuckled. Yeah, thats true. He shot her a grin. Then youve probably been told the same things Ive been told. Parents start worrying from birth. They worry about all sorts of worst-case scenarios, most of which never happen. So dont be silly? she asked. Not at all. He chuckled. I was going to say that worrying is part of the package when youre a parent. Maybe just realize that youre not alone in your worries. Consider it more a welcome to the club. Emilys warm gaze met his, and her eyes crinkled up into a smile. Thats the sweetest thing Ive heard all day. Greg felt a sudden wave of satisfaction. Anytime. He meant it more than she realized, he was sure. Just then, Cora began to fuss, and Emily rocked the car seat gently. Id better get her home, she said quietly. I dont have another bottle with me. Take care. Emily turned toward the door and opened it. Oh, and Emily She turned back, those deep brown eyes meeting his once more. Come by anytime, okay? I mean that. Thanks. She flashed him a smile. I appreciate it. With that, she slipped out, and he listened to the sound of her heels clicking as she made her way through the station, the rhythm blending into the hustle and bustle of police activity. With a smile to himself, he turned back to his paperwork. Chapter Four A couple of days later, on a warm summer evening, Emily sat on the couch across from her two friends, Nina and Beth. Beth sat with her legs tucked up underneath her, her pregnant belly protruding out in front of her. She was only about six months along, but she was all tummy, as she put it. She had a mop of curly mouse-brown hair and two swollen bare feet that were normally swathed in Birkenstocks. She rubbed her stomach absently, looking over at Cora, who lay nestled in Ninas arms. Nina sat next to Beth, looking down at the tiny infant with a wistful look on her face. Her blond hair was cut short in a pixie cut, and her makeup was impeccable. With legs a mile long, Nina had pretty much everything that Emily envied. Shes beautiful. Beth looked over at Emily and shook her head in wonder. I cant believe that you have a baby. Me, neither. Emily grinned over at her. Youre not far behind, you know. Three months. Beth leaned her head back against the couch. Im going to be the size of a house! But a cute house. Nina shot Beth a teasing look. Oh, stop worrying. Youll be fine. Youre blissfully married to Howard. Hell love you, anyway. Emily looked over at her two best friends. Theyd been there for each other since their idealistic days when Beth was a feminist with a loudspeaker, and Nina was plotting her financial empire. Emily had been the boring onetaking early childhood education and going to bed at sensible hours. In the meantime, life had unfurled in that way it always seemed to, in the very last way any of them expected. Nina looked up with a glint in her eye. What about this Chief Taylor, Em? What about him? Emily pasted on her most innocent look. Well, youve dropped his name often enough, Beth pointed out. Theres nothing to tell. Emily shrugged. He was the one who dropped Cora off, so it stands to reason that wed talk from time to time. Nina and Beth exchanged a look. Actually, it doesnt stand to reason at all, Nina quipped with a grin. He knew my cousin, so were acquainted with some of the same people. There was no use trying to explain this to Nina and Beth when they had that look on their faces. She laughed and shook her head. So whats he like? Beth asked. Nice, Emily said. Cute? Nina prodded. Yeah, hes a good-looking guy. Emily tried to keep her tone neutral. Huh. Beth nodded. And you manage to keep conversation going between the two of you. Oh, stop it. Emily laughed. Hes the chief of police and nothing more. In fact, if anything, he seems really uncomfortable and serious around me. So dont be getting your hopes up. You sure? Nina pressed. Were a little worried about how long youve stayed single. Look whos talking! Emily laughed. This baby needs a change. Nina lifted Cora out of her lap and deposited her with Emily. Just then, the phone rang. Would you mind getting that? Emily asked. Beth leaned over to grab the handset and picked it up. Hello? Cora kicked her legs happily as Emily set to work on the diaper. Just a minute. Beth pushed herself out of her seat and brought the phone to Emily. A lawyer? she whispered, passing the handset over. Emily felt her heart speed up as she took the phone from her friends hand. Beth took over with Cora as Emily answered the phone. This is Emily Shaw. Hello, Miss Shaw, this is Paul Hanson. Mr. Hanson. How are you? It was her lawyer who had been dealing with the paperwork for her guardianship. Im sorry to call so late, but I thought youd want to know. Whats going on? Emilys voice sounded breathless in her own ears. Someone is contesting your guardianship. His voice was quiet and professional. A Mr. Steven Shaw. My cousin... Hes filed the paperwork. What does this mean? Thats up to you, really, he replied. Do you want to fight this? Emily looked over at her friends, sadness welling up inside of her. Id better give you a call back, she said, trying to control the tremor in her voice. Thanks for letting me know. Absolutely. Call me tomorrow morning, if you can, so I know how you want to proceed. Thank you. As she hung up the phone, Beth and Nina looked at her mutely, their eyes betraying their apprehension. Well... Emily said, the tears welling up in her eyes. Steve is contesting my right to raise Cora. Oh, Em, Beth breathed. Oh, God, is this it? Is this my brush with motherhood? What will you do? Nina asked. Beth just stood there, a hand protectively over her belly and tears misting her eyes. Lets pray. They didnt pray together often. It wasnt their style; but tonight it felt right. Standing there with her two best friends, the three women bowed their heads. * * * Nates Steak was a local joint that had been thriving for the past thirty-five years. Nate retired and left the place to his son, Mike, who didnt change a thing. The wings came in three flavors: hot, really hot and honey garlic, and the steaks were grilled to perfection. There was a reason why the officers at Haggerston made this their favorite meet-up place. The sun was setting over the town when Greg parked in front of Nates Steak and stepped out into the warm evening air. The smell of grilling meat met the sweet scent of hydrangeas that hung in baskets along the downtown streets. Greg looked around the parking lot and spotted three cruisers and a few pickup trucks he recognized from some nearby ranches. Hed be in good company tonight. As Greg stepped inside, he was met with the hum of voices, the clink of knives and forks against dishes and the general hubbub from the kitchen. Scanning the few tables, he nodded to the people he knew, then headed toward the back of the restaurant where the other officers were. Hi, Chief, Benny called, and the others looked up in welcome. Hi. Greg pulled up a chair. Whats good tonight? Does it matter? Nancy asked with a laugh. She was a muscular officer with a steady gaze and a gorgeous smile. Her hair was pulled back in a low-maintenance ponytail, but she was out of uniform, sporting jeans and a T-shirt from Graceland. You want the regular, Chief? Mike called from the counter. Greg gave a thumbs-up and Mike disappeared into the kitchen. He ordered the same thing every time he came by: hot wings and an herbal tea. Couldnt get enough of us, Nancy? Greg joked. Just cant stay away. Her tone was dry. Actually, this beat grocery shopping. And reruns on TV, Benny added. Nancy gave a shrug of agreement. A jukebox started playing a honky-tonk tune, and Benny tapped the table in time to the music. How about you, Chief? Nancy asked. Long day? Greg nodded, then frowned. Actually, Ive been thinking about that 11-80 the other daythe one with the baby. Hows Sweet pea doing? Benny asked with a grin. Theyd nicknamed her Sweet pea that night when Greg brought her back to the station, and Benny had settled in with a bottle of formula and held her for a solid hour. Shes doing great. Greg could feel the smile coming to his face. She is very well cared for. Emily Shaw had been on his mind more often than he cared to admit, but his concern for the case was more than the beautiful kindergarten teacher with her quick smile. So whats not sitting right with you, Chief? Nancy leaned forward. What did we find in the victims car? Greg asked. The accident happened outside of Haggerston, so were assuming she was on her way here. She had family here, after all. Thats right. Benny nodded. Emily Shaw, for one. Greg nodded. Emily topped his list, too, especially since Jessica Shaw had thought enough of her to name her godmother, but even Emily seemed surprised by the honor. Something felt wrong. But what did she have with her? A diaper bag and a purse with a toothbrush inside. She was two hours from Billings, where she lived. Does that seem right? Two hours there and another two back... Benny shrugged. Could have been a day trip. What do you think, Nancy? As a woman? Yes, as a woman. Nancy gave him a smug look. So now Im a woman, am I? Im just one of the guys when I beat you at push-ups. Greg shook his head and laughed. Dont rub it in. What do you think? No woman travels two hours one way with a newborn and only brings a toothbrush and a diaper bag. No extra clothes for the baby or anything. Nancy shrugged. Something feels off with that. Who does that? Greg asked. A distressed woman, Nancy replied. That packing didnt show any forethought. She was upset about something. Greg nodded. Thats what I was thinking, too. Or a woman who might not make great decisions at the best of times, Benny said. Greg gave a smile of thanks to the server as his wings and tea arrived. The wings were plump and saucy, and the little dish of blue cheese dressing on the side was overflowing onto the wings. Crunching on a carrot stick, he looked across the table at Benny and Nancy thoughtfully. So was she running away from something? Or someone? Benny took a sip of his cola and shrugged. Greg shook his head and picked up a wing. Wish it made more sense. Is the family suspicious? Benny inquired. Greg shook his head. Not that anyone has mentioned, formally or otherwise. He sank his teeth into one of the wings, the spicy sauce making his mouth water. For a few minutes he put his attention into his food, and when hed sucked the third bone clean, Nancy suddenly said, If the victim thought someone had tried to kill her, she would have mentioned it, dont you think? She was alert. But in shock, Benny pointed out. Nancy nodded and gave a shrug. Something isnt adding up. It might be nothing criminal at all, Greg agreed, but something is nagging at me with this case. Is it a case right now, Chief? Benny asked. Im not saying that I think this was murder. Greg frowned thoughtfully. Im going to need a little more information, though, before I formally close the case. Chapter Five The next evening, Emily pulled open McRubens front door, a blast of air-conditioning meeting her in a welcoming wave. There was no lineup, and the only other patron was an old man nursing a coffee in a disposable cup by the bathrooms. A bored teenager took her order, and Emily watched in silent delight as he filled her fries up to overflowing. When the boxed burger was deposited onto her plastic tray, Emilys mouth watered in anticipation. Extra pickles, extra mayo and a dab of their secret sauce... This was the kind of dinner she looked forward to more than she cared to admit. Need a hand with that? Emily started at the familiar voice and looked up to see Chief Taylor standing there in uniform. Chief! She looked down at her tray piled high with burger, fries, a milk shake and a sundae and felt her cheeks heat. Get me the same, would you? He pointed to her tray and put a bill on the counter. Do you have a secret love of fast food? she teased. Im actually here for a perfectly professional excuse. He shot her a grin, the most relaxed Emily had seen him yet. I dont believe you. She felt a smile tickle the corners of her mouth. All right, truth be told, I want a burger. But since youre here, it could save me some time. Thats more like it. She chuckled, picking up Coras car seat. Let me carry this for you. He picked up her tray. Leading the way to a booth by a window, Emily looked back over her shoulder. So what is this good professional excuse of yours? Just some unanswered questions, mostly, Miss Shaw. Greg waited until Emily had Cora settled on the bench beside her before he eased into the seat opposite her. He nodded his thanks to the teen who put down an identical tray to Emilys in front of him. About Jessicadoes anyone know why she was coming to Haggerston? Emily shook her head. I dont know, but I guess Id assumed shed been on her way here. Her dad was here, after all. I did ask people at the funeral, but no one was really sure. He unwrapped the burger and peeked inside, his expression unreadable. What is this? Emily laughed. You did ask for what I was having.... Its a burger with extra pickles, mayo and secret sauce. Its delicious. Dont knock it till youve tried it. Greg took a cautious bite, then smiled. Good. He wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin. I normally do extra bacon and tomato. Emily raised her eyebrows as an idea struck her. I should start putting some bacon on this. That would be perfect. Greg shot her an amused look and then sobered. So no one knew Jessica was coming? Emily shook her head. Everyone was saying the same thingwe had no idea she was pregnant, let alone already a mother. We hadnt heard from her in a long time. Greg nodded slowly. Did she have drug problems? What would isolate her from her family like that? Well... Emily opened a ketchup package and made a little mound to dip her fries into. Her parents were good Christian people, and Jessica was the black sheep of the family. She was the one who went out partying as a teenager and defied her parents at every turn. She shrugged. When she moved out of her parents house and went off to the city, she came back a couple of times for family events, but things were pretty strained between her and her parents. But no substance-abuse problems? Emily shook her head, opening another packet of ketchup as she talked. I think their biggest problem was that she was sleeping around, and they didnt like it. She drank a little at parties, but I dont think she was ever involved in drugs. Why not? She put herself through a fine-arts degree, Emily said, raising her gaze to meet his. She painted and drew. She was quite the artist. She worked too hard to get that degree on her own. She couldnt have done it high. So more of a free spirit. Emily nodded. Dont you remember her from Steve? No. He shook his head and popped a fry into his mouth. I didnt know Steve terribly well, not well enough to know his sister. Why does any of this matter? she asked, turning her attention to the food in front of her. She took a bite of her burger, the mixture of meat and condiments hitting her brain right in the pleasure center. Greg looked at her thoughtfully for a long moment, as if weighing his words. Finally, he shrugged. Maybe it doesnt, he admitted. I just dont feel quite right about all of this. Theres something missing. It might be nothing, but... He shrugged again. Emily licked a dab of ketchup off her finger, regarding Greg thoughtfully. Tiny lines were starting to appear around his eyes, and she could see that he shouldered a great deal of stress. He had the rugged features of a man accustomed to hiding his thoughts, but she could see something behind his eyes that she recognizedkindness. I suppose I should tell you, Emily said quietly, that Steve is contesting my custody of the baby. Greg winced, then nodded. Yeah, I could see that coming. Emily shot him a quizzical look, and he put his hands up. Not because you arent an excellent choice to raise the baby, but because these things do tend to happen. Emily sighed. Well, regardless, I have a big decision to make. What decision is that? Whether to fight this in court or not. That is a big decision. He gave her a sympathetic look. Im sorry. Its okay. She smiled sadly. I just dont know what the best thing is for Cora. A big legal battle hardly seems in her best interest, but then, Jessica chose me, and Id like to think that was for a reason. Greg sighed. So how are you holding up? I have good friends, but the family is already choosing sides. My mom will always be behind me, but I was close to my uncle Hank, toothats Jessicas dad. Hell want his son to raise Cora, no doubt... Its getting complicated, he said softly. Very. What do you want? he asked. To raise this baby. She looked over at Cora sleeping peacefully in the car seat. I cant have children of my own. Oh, I see. He nodded and took a bite of his burger. Stupid, she thought to herself. It was a personal thing to blurt out, and she wished she could take the words back. What did Greg want to know about her fertility? Seriously, Emily, she chastised herself. So what are you going to do? he asked. I dont know. She took a long, creamy sip of her milk shake. Its just so complicated. I can see that. His blue eyes met hers, and she was relieved to see compassion in them. I wish I knew why Jessica chose me instead of her brother. If I knew that, Id know if I should be fighting for this or not. I need to know what she wanted, really wanted. He nodded slowly and leaned back in his chair. The comfortable quiet stretched out between them as they each finished their burgers. Greg? He raised his eyebrows in response. Are you going to be investigating my cousins death? Ill be looking into it, he said. I dont have any reason to suspect foul play, but Id like to get a few questions answered to put my own mind at ease. While youre doing that, would you mind keeping an eye open for something that might explain why she chose me? Emily asked. Like what? I wish I knew. I just need a few answers, too, about now, and I dont know how to get them. Greg was silent for a moment, his gaze moving slowly over her face. His blue eyes seemed to be filled with conflicting emotions, something he wasnt hiding very well. Finally, he took a deep breath. Sure. Really? Emily laughed nervously. I didnt think youd agree. Greg smiled at that. I think you could use a favor about now. Thank you. This means a lot to me. Just then, Cora began to cry, a thin, hiccup-y wail coming from the car seat, and Emily rummaged through the baby bag for a bottle. Im prepared. She gave him a wink and gently picked up the wriggling Cora in her arms. * * * Emily tried to give Cora the bottle, but the baby scrunched her eyes shut and wailed all the louder, turning her face away from the milk. Emily patted her and shushed her, but to no avail. She peeked in the diaper and felt her little face for fever. At first, Gregs thoughts were focused on the crying, wondering when it would stop, but then he saw Emilys face and he felt a sudden surge of sympathy. She looked ready to cry, too. Whats the matter? Greg asked. Tears welled up in Emilys eyes, and she shook her head. Im not her mother. Greg could hear the pain in Emilys voice as she said it, and the thought of the tiny thing crying desperately to find her motherthe mother who had been absent for a couple of weeks nowwas heartrending. Cora wailed harder, her face turning red as she cried out her frustration or grief, Emily patting her little rump and shushing fruitlessly. The restaurant was empty except for them, and when he looked over at the teens working, he found them staring. Can I try? he suddenly asked, and as the words came out of his mouth, he was already regretting them. He was more of an iron-pumping kind of guy than a baby-soothing kind of guy, but there was something about the sadness in Emily and the unwanted audience that made him want to fix it if he could. Emily agreed mutely, and he took the squirming infant out of her arms. What was he thinking? Cora screamed, her eyes squished shut and her tiny tongue quivering with the effort of her wails. When he tried to hold her close, she writhed and wriggled. He wasnt sure exactly how to hold her, but he decided to simply use logic. When apprehending a suspect, first you needed to stop the perpetrator and then subdue the limbs. Coras legs were squirming quite actively, so he simply pushed the little knees up and pulled her against his chest. Once she was there, she seemed a bit surprised by her position, so he took advantage of the pause in her cries to hum a low, soft note. It wasnt a song. It wasnt anything, really, just a low sound in his throat that rumbled in his chest. Cora gave a few more squirms, then leaned her tired little head onto his chest, listening to the sound. Emily came around to his side of the table. Have some milk, sweetie, Emily murmured, and she slid the bottles nipple into Coras mouth. The infant started to suck noisily. There. Greg caught her eye and grinned. Now dont move... Emily gave him an impressed look. Wow, youre good with babies. Im normally not. How did you know what to do? Lucky guess? He looked down at the top of Coras little head with the damp little swirls of golden-red hair. I think I just surprised her. The sound of Coras soft slurps as she drank her milk filled the space between them, and he looked down at Emily with her dark hair swept away from her face and her long lashes brushing her cheeks with each blink. She sat close to him on the bench as she held the bottle for the baby to drink, and the soft scent of her shampoo mingled with the scent of baby. Just another couple of inches and she could rest her head on his shoulder, too. He pulled his thoughts away from dangerous ground. Ill have to remember that trick. She smiled sadly. I cant change the fact that Im not her mom. Steves wife wouldnt be her biological mother, either. Well, thats true. Some of the sadness left her eyes, and he felt gratified to see it. She was hard on herself, that much was obvious. And she was under a tremendous amount of pressure. What would it be like to belong with Emily and Cora? This was a sweet moment with the baby in his arms, drinking her bottle, and Emily so close to him that if he just leaned over... No, this wasnt productive. There was no point in imagining what it would be like to have a familyto have them. Maybe you should take her back, Greg said gruffly. Oh, no, Emily replied, nonplussed. You seem fine, and she seems happy. With that, Cora finished the bottle and Emily moved around to her seat across the table from him. Greg looked from Emily to Cora and back to Emily again. Burp her, would you? Emily said. Heres a cloth. She said it so matter-of-factly, as if asking someone to burp a baby was the most natural thing in the world, that he found himself wondering if it werent in fact the most natural thing in the world. He took the proffered cloth and put it over his shoulder the way hed seen Emily do it. Granted, she was more graceful, but after a couple of tries he managed it, and he started to gently tap Coras back. You know, I used to see myself with a whole houseful of kids. Emily turned her attention to her fries, swirling them slowly through the ketchup. I dont even know why I thought Id have so many. I suppose it comes with always having a class full of five-year-olds. And now? Now Im grateful for the chance to raise one child. Its all in perspective. Cora let out a resounding burp, and Greg looked down at her with a grin. Hed never expected burping a baby to be so...satisfying. It was as if hed just slam-dunked. Nicely done. Emily grinned at him, popping another fry in her mouth. What about you? Do you ever think about having kids? Greg felt the moment disintegrating around him, caving in on itself like the old mall when a wrecking ball connected with a load-bearing wall. He shook his head. Not at all? Her brow furrowed as her eyes met his. You dont want kids? No, he said. I dont. It was the truth, wasnt it? He couldnt lie to her, but he could see the disappointment in her eyes as he admitted what was inside of him. No matter how adorable Cora was, no matter how sweet it might feel to imagine having a family of his own, children were simply out of the question. Chapter Six The next day, Emily stood at the kitchen sink washing a sink load of dishes while her mother rocked Cora. The sink was loaded full of pots and pans, some muffin tins sitting to the side taunting her with the sheer amount of scrubbing they were going to require. It was a bright and sunny day, and as Emily stood there by the sink, wrist-deep in soapy water, she could see some robins poking through her lawn in the shade of an apple tree. It was peaceful. Emilys mother stood behind her, Cora in her arms. She looked down at the baby with the wide-eyed expression people used with babies, and Cora looked entranced. Emily chuckled softly as she rinsed another mug and put it in the dish rack. Uncle Hank came by this morning, Emily said. Poor man. Her mother sighed. Did seeing Cora help him at all? I dont know. Emily put her attention into some egg welded onto a plate. He didnt stay long. He cuddled her for a little while, then he said he had to go. I cant imagine how he must be feeling right now.... Her mother put Cora up onto her shoulder and leaned against the island. To lose a daughter. She shook her head. Its unthinkable. Emily nodded. He and Jessica had a complicated relationship, her mother commented thoughtfully. That would almost make it worse, I think. What happened between them? He thought that being tough on Jessica would straighten her out. Her mother shrugged her shoulders. Was he wrong? I guess so, considering that she left and never really came back. He thought she needed more discipline, and by the time he realized he was wrong in that call, it was too late. Emily pulled another plate out of the sudsy water and looked back at her mother. I think it did him some good. He said Cora looks a lot like Jessica did as a baby. She does, doesnt she? The older woman looked down at Coras little face. Her mother had been a natural redhead once upon a time, and now she dyed it back to red, but it never looked very natural anymore. The line of white at her roots didnt help. Emily was avoiding the topic that was on her mind, but she was afraid to bring it up. Had Uncle Hank felt uncomfortable in her home because of Steve contesting custody? Did he think she was taking something away from his family? She washed a pot, rinsing it in hot water and listening to the sound of her mother making mouth noises for Cora. What about the custody thing? Emily asked finally. What do you mean? her mother asked. Has anyone said anything? Her mother was silent for a long moment. Then she took a deep breath. Uncle Hank hasnt said anything, but he isnt much of a talker. Your aunts didnt think too much of Jessica, so they think that she should have left her daughter to Steven. He was her brother, after all. Grandma is just really sad. She says that Jessica did a good thing by leaving Cora to you, and she thinks Steven is being willfully difficult.... Emily listened as her mother went on with a description of everyones opinions on the matter. She knew that every family member would have one, but it was another thing hearing them all. She probably shouldnt have asked. ...Aunt Helen thinks that Sara wants to raise Cora because she gave Jessica such a hard time when they first got married. She thought Jessica was far beneath her and didnt make any bones about it. Aunt Helen thinks that Sara feels like she needs to prove something. My cousin, Edith, on the other hand... . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926330&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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