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In a perfect world there would be no tragic news that your sister and brother-in-law had been in a fatal car accident. No baby left behind. No difficult decisions to be made about the child's future.
But the world wasn't perfect.
No one knew that better than Hallie Weston.
The past three weeks had been a nightmare, her emotions spinning so fast Hallie felt trapped inside a revolving door. Disbelief. Inconsolable grief. Blind anger at the drunk driver who had taken Janet and David from her. Back to disbelief again.
At the moment, all Hallie felt was numb.
She was sitting in the boardroom of her dead brother-in-law's law practice, waiting for a Monday morning meeting with David's partner, Greg Holder, and all Hallie kept thinking was how adamant David had been six months ago about tying up loose ends after he and Janet adopted their daughter, Ahn. Hallie had believed then that David was simply in his usual attorney mode, dotting his i's and crossing his t's when he'd produced the joint guardianship document for her and his brother Nate to sign at the baby's christening.
Now Hallie had to wonder.
Had David somehow sensed that he and Janet wouldn't live to finish the journey they started with the precious baby girl they'd brought back from Vietnam? Had Nate wondered the same thing?
And even though Nate sat right beside her it wasn't a question Hallie would ask.
Because every woman had a guy from her past whom she'd made a complete fool of herself over. Nathan Brock happened to be that guy for Hallie.
Ten years later, she still hadn't forgiven him.
She'd been only twenty-one then, fresh out of college, and willing to take a peon's job in order to get her foot in the door at Boston's top television station. Nate had been thirtya gorgeous, confident older guy Hallie couldn't resist. He'd also been her boss, the TV station's shining star, and already on his way to becoming the award-winning photojournalist he was today.
She'd fallen for Nate hard and fast.
The admiration had not been mutual.
After only one week of working as Nate's gofer, he'd transferred her to the production department. And he'd told Hallie if she really intended to make it in television she needed to focus on her career and drop the silly schoolgirl crushes.
His smack-down had been cold and swift.
The humiliation had crushed her young ego.
Had Hallie not dragged Janet to Nate's going-away party for moral support when he got his first big break with CNN, they wouldn't be together in this boardroom now. Nate's brother David had also been at the party and their siblings had the instant sparks that Nate and Hallie never had. After Hallie's big sister married Nate's little brother, they settled into a polite disregard for each other.
Just as they were doing now.
Sitting in silence, carefully not engaging.
From the corner of her eye Hallie saw Nate's arm come up to check his watch again. It didn't surprise her when he rose and walked to the other side of the boardroom.
Nate had always been a restless spirit. He'd never been tied down to any one person or any one place, and Hallie doubted he ever would be. She studied him as he stood at the window staring out at downtown Boston from their tenth-floor advantage.
He was still the sexiest man Hallie had ever seen.
Everything about him said one hundred percent male. Tall. Broad shoulders. Sun-streaked hair that curled just above his collar. Even the way he was standing oozed masculinityhands at the waist of his khaki pants, his blue dress shirtsleeves rolled up, exposing strong arms Hallie had once dreamed of having around her.
She sighed and looked away.
The reflection in the glass walls of the boardroom made Hallie gasp. The woman staring back at her looked horrible. There were ugly dark circles under her eyes. Her short black hair looked lifeless. And the tailored dress that had once fit now hung on her like a sack.
Hallie reached up and pinched her cheeks, trying to bring a little color back into her face. It didn't help. Running her fingers through her hair didn't improve her looks, either. The spiked effect only made her look even more like some homeless stray who had wandered in off the streets wearing someone else's clothes.
Even sadder, that was how Hallie felt.
Janet and David's home had been her go-to place, where she'd always celebrated her birthday, and the holidays, or any other special occasion. There she'd gone if she needed comfort, or advice, or just to unwind and get out of Boston for the weekend. Where she'd never needed an invitation and where she'd always felt welcome. And now what had made that house her soft place to land was gone.
So of course she felt homeless. Her life would never be the same again.
She glanced at Nate, still standing at the window with the same fatigued look on his face that Hallie had seen on hers only a few seconds ago. How tragic, she thought, the games people play.
They were both devastated, both hurting, yet they couldn't even comfort each other thanks to something stupid that had happened ten years ago. Hallie was tempted to get up, walk over to Nate, and tell him he could cry on her shoulder the way she so desperately needed to cry on his.
Maybe then the screaming in her head would stop.
She wouldn't, of course, walk over and tell Nate anything. Hallie hadn't even thanked him yet for taking charge once he'd arrived home from his current assignment in Afghanistan.
Nate had taken care of everything she couldn't.
He'd made funeral arrangements she was in no shape to make. He'd handled the endless details the crisis had created. He'd spoken with well-wishing family members and friends Hallie couldn't bring herself to face.
Nate had given her time to pull herself together something she was pretty sure she hadn't yet accomplished.
And the hardest part was knowing she'd survive.
Somehow, she'd have to learn to live with the loss. Someway, she'd have to find the strength to move on. And someday, maybe the pain inside her chest wouldn't hurt so much it took her breath away.
"Sorry I've kept you waiting," Greg Holder said as he hurried into the boardroom.
He paused by Hallie's chair long enough to give her shoulder a supportive squeeze. Next, he shook hands with Nate, who had approached the table when Greg entered.
Greg was a handsome guy, in his late thirties and blond. He was dressed the way a successful attorney should dress: designer suit, tasteful tie, expensive loafers. He'd been David's college roommate and best friend. He was also the executor of David's and Janet's wills.
Knowing Greg personally was a comfort to Hallie. It took some of the sting out of the unpleasantness that had brought them here this morning.
"I know this is hard for both of you," Greg said as he took a seat across the table from them and placed a large folder in front of him. "And the last thing I ever wanted to do was act as executor of my best friend's will. But the sooner we settle David and Janet's affairs and set the wheels in motion to find new parents for Ahn, the better it will be for everyone."
Hallie gave Greg a brave nod.
Nate said, "I agree."
Greg opened the folder, then looked at both of them. "The wills are identical, as is the case with most husbands and wives. And I want to go over the will provisions first because this is always the hardest part for the family."
He paused, sympathy for both of them evident on his face. "No one ever wants to benefit financially from a loved one's death. But I hope you will accept David's and Janet's final wishes in the spirit in which they were given. Out of their love and their concern for your well-being and your future."
Hallie swallowed past the lump in her throat.
But she didn't cry.
She didn't have any tears left.
"You are the two main beneficiaries, and everything is to be divided equally between the two of you," Greg said. "There are three exceptions. A trust fund for Ahn's college education that the firm will manage until Ahn reaches legal age. A trust fund the firm will also manage to pay for your mother's care at the nursing facility, Nate. And a monetary gift to Hallie and Janet's stepmother. I'll discuss the details with Roberta later."
Roberta was taking care of Ahn this morning so Nate and Hallie could have this meeting.
Greg pushed a sheet of paper across the table.
"This is an itemized list of the assets."
Hallie only half listened as Greg rambled on about Janet and David's house in Winchester on Wedge Pond. About their personal property. About their investment and retirement accounts and their life insurance. About the proceeds Janet had received when she'd sold her accounting firm so she could be a stay-at-home mom. About David's equity in the law practice.
She looked at the paper when Greg's finger finally reached the bottom of the sheet. "This is the total amount of all assets," he said, "with the exception of the insurance settlement from the accident. Beside your name is the amount that represents your half of the inheritance after necessary taxes."
Hallie stared at the figure beside her name. The 2.5-million-dollar amount was staggering.
She'd never given a thought to Janet and David's net worth before. She'd known they were successful. But their finances hadn't been any of her business.
"It's in your best interest if we don't settle with the other driver's insurance company until after the readop-tion," Greg said. "If we can't find adoptive parents and one of you ends up raising Ahn, the settlement needs to reflect the expenses you'll incur in taking care of her until she's out of college and on her own."
Hallie panicked. She couldn't even consider the idea of raising Ahn. "But readoption is what Janet and David wanted. They were adamant about that. They wanted Ahn raised by two parents who could give her the same stability they were giving her. It states that plainly in the guardianship agreement."
"And I'll do everything possible to make the re-adoption happen," Greg said. "But Ahn's age and her delayed speech and physical development could be an issue. Most couples want an infant instead of a toddler. And frankly, any type of disability makes a child less adoptable."
Hallie was reeling over this reality. She and Nate weren't parent material and Janet and David had known that. In fact, she and Nate were as far from parent material as any two people could be.
Nate's life was devoted to the dangerous assignments he accepted wherever trouble was brewing in the world. And she had focused on her career. Her position as an executive television producer required one hundred percent of her time.
If either of them had a spouse, Janet and David might have felt differently about their prospects for raising Ahn. But Hallie couldn't even boast a significant other at the 3. And unless Nate had someone hidden in the background, he had no one special in his life, either.
They were both married to their careers.
Definitely not parent material.
But Hallie had been sister material. And she was aunt material. And since they were now talking about the readoption, Hallie decided to bring up something that had been bothering her. "What if I want to maintain contact with Ahn? Is that even a possibility?"
Nate looked at her, his gray eyes zooming in on Hallie like the lens of one of his fancy cameras. "And why would you want to do that?"
Hallie wasn't surprised he would disagree. She and Nate never agreed on anything. "Because she's my niece," Hallie said simply. "And yours," she added for spite.
"And if she were older," Nate said, "I would agree with you. But Ahn's only two, and David and Janet were her parents for six short months. She isn't going to remember them, much less you or me. She needs to bond with her new parents. She doesn't need any interference from us."
His reference to Ahn's age hit home.
Hallie had been two years older than Ahn when her mother died of breast cancer, yet any personal memories of her mother were vague at best. But what she did have were the memories Janet had shared with her.
Janet, who had been eight when their mother died, had been her memory keeper.
And though Janet never intended for Hallie to raise Ahn, it only seemed right that Ahn should have a memory keeper, too. Hallie was determined to remain Ahn's aunt so Ahn would never doubt how much Janet loved her.
"If you can pretend Ahn never existed after the readoption, good for you," Hallie told Nate. "But I can't. I don't intend to interfere in her life, but I don't like the idea of handing her over to strangers without keeping tabs on her. I owe Janet that much."
"That's guilt talking over reason, Hallie," Nate said.
"Maybe," Hallie admitted. "But now that Greg told us about Ahn's trust fund I feel even more strongly about staying in touch with her. Someone has to look out for her interests."
Greg cleared his throat. "I should have made myself clear about the trust fund. The adoptive parents won't have access to that money. Only Ahn can access it when she reaches legal age."
"I'm not worried about the money, Greg," Hallie said. "I'm trying to point out that eventually Ahn will know that Janet and David were her first adoptive parents. Don't you think she'll wonder why Janet and David's family didn't care enough about her to stay in touch?"
"Again," Nate said, "you're letting your heart overrule your head. David and Janet knew all you and I had to offer this child was choosing the best possible parents to raise her. Don't intrude on Ahn's life to ease your conscience. An occasional call or a card now and then, and birthday and Christmas presents aren't worth it."
Hallie felt like slapping him.
He'd lectured her once, but those days were over. What she did was none of Nate's damn business!
Hallie turned to Greg. "If Nate doesn't want to .