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He was burning the candle at both ends.
More than that, both ends were closing in on him. Fast.
New Orleans police officer Jake Castro dragged his hand through his unruly light blond hair as if that could somehow help him drag his mind into some sort of optimal focus instead of the dazed fog it had been in for the last few weeks, ever since his life had taken this dramatic turn that had completely changed his life.
With a deep sigh that came from the bottom of his toes, he glanced at the clock on his nightstand.
That was all he'd had. Five minutes.
Five minutes of sleep before Marlie had begun to cry loud enough to wake the dead. Or, at the very least, him.
Getting up, still more than half–asleep, he stumbled over to the newly placed crib at the other end of his heretofore bachelor bedroom. Bleary–eyed, he stared down at the small occupant.
"I'll buy you a car if you let me sleep just twenty–five more minutes." His efforts at bargaining fell on completely unreceptive ears. If anything, Marlie cried even louder.
So much for bribery.
With another, now–resigned sigh, Jake reached into the crib and picked up his seven–month–old daughter.
For the moment, Marlie began to quiet down. Ordinarily, he might take some pride in that, that the baby was bonding with him, but he was way too worn out to take comfort in even that.
He was running on empty and had been for a number of days now.
"I can't keep doing this, you know," he said as he made his way over to the rocking chair, also newly acquired, as was his status as a single dad.
Marlie responded best to the swaying motion of being walked around, but Jake was far too wiped out to pace the floor. He'd pulled a long, draining shift today and had come home later than usual, a fact that had made the woman he paid to watch Marlie—Mrs. Rutherford—none too happy.
At this insane juggling act for less than three weeks and he was discovering, much to his chagrin, that he couldn't be Officer Castro, super–cop by day and then turn into super–dad at night. Somewhere in that time span he needed to get some sleep—desperately—before he had a complete meltdown.
"It's my own fault," he acknowledged, addressing his words to the tiny human being in his arms. Oblivious to her father's words, Marlie began to suck on her thumb—hard—as if it could give up some sort of sustenance if she sucked on it hard enough. "All I had to do was say 'no.' 'No, Maggie, I won't do it,' and none of this would have happened. Hell—sorry."
Jake came to a skidding halt in his self–examination. No more cursing, at least not in the house while Marlie could hear him. He'd made up the rule himself, but it wasn't easy sticking to it, especially not when he was this punchy.
"Heck," he amended, "who am I kidding? Your mother was so pigheaded she would have found someone else to say yes to her. In a heartbeat." Someone else to donate the male component that had gone into creating this tiny miracle of nature with the mighty lungs made of steel whom he was holding in his arms.
Besides, he'd been half in love with Maggie O'Shea from the first moment she had walked into the squad room and Lieutenant Franco had told him that this vision in a blue uniform was his new partner. Maggie had been sharp and witty and so damn gorgeous with all that red hair that it made him ache just to look at her.
They'd had a good relationship, both on the job and off. And they'd talked about their futures, their goals and visions. That was when he'd discovered that she was determined to be all that she could possibly be—a kick–ass police officer and a mother as well.
She'd been well on her way to becoming the first when her damn biological clock had begun to nag her. And she, in turn, had begun to subtly nag him, working on him every day, eventually relentlessly, until he had finally given in.
For a fleeting moment, he had thought they would go about it the age–old, time–honored way. But Maggie had been very up–front with him about her intentions. She'd told him that she didn't want any sort of a romantic entanglement, definitely didn't even want any sort of physical encounter happening between them.
"It's not that I don't feel attracted to you, Castro," she'd said. "It's just that I don't like complications. Never have."
Seemed ironic, in light of all the complications he was facing now.
She'd laid out the plan. It was all going to be very clinical, very professional. And once the process was in motion and the procedure "took," Maggie made it clear that he was free to move on. She wasn't going to ask him for anything further.
Until she'd asked him for everything.
Somewhere along the line, between agreeing to this antiseptic, clinical insemination procedure and acting as her coach in the delivery room when her actual coach couldn't be reached in time, Jake had found himself really falling in love with Maggie. Hard.
She'd seen it, too.
Seen it in his eyes, heard it in his voice. Enough so that it had spooked her into asking for another partner once she went back to work.
That, too, had been a bone of contention between them. She'd gone back to work a great deal sooner than he'd thought was prudent. He certainly wasn't happy about it. He didn't think she should leave Marlie so soon and secretly—or not so secretly—worried about the risks she'd be facing every day with that badge pinned to her chest.
But he couldn't talk her out of it. The more he talked, the less she heard. The upshot was that Maggie had gone back to work three months after bringing Marlie into the world.
And three months after that, she was gone.
He remembered how he'd felt when he'd heard the news over the dispatch radio. As if someone had shoved a blade right into his belly and gutted him. He remembered the speedometer reaching the other side of a hundred miles an hour as he'd raced to the hospital where they'd taken Maggie.
She'd managed to stay alive long enough for him to arrive and see her. Long enough to extract a promise from him to take care of their little girl—as if he would have allowed anyone else to take the baby. Marlie was all he had left of Maggie.
Maggie had died right after he'd said yes. Died with a smile on her lips.
Died despite the fact that he'd been holding on to her hand so tightly, trying with all his might to pull her back among the living. He must have been crazy to believe that he could.
All his efforts had naturally come to nothing. He hadn't been able to save Maggie, hadn't been able to pull her back. She'd died in front of him, leaving him to deal with monumental guilt. Guilt that had sprung from the very real belief that partner or no partner, he should have been there for Maggie, covering her back. Protecting her.
But he hadn't been able to and now Maggie was gone and he was here, trying to be what he'd been before a crack in the world had shaken his foundations, plus something new. Trying to be a father.
Right now, in his opinion, he was failing miserably at both.
Marlie began to fuss again, her displeasure growing louder. Jake recognized the cry. The infant was hungry. Did that mean he was getting better at this, or just lucky when it came to guessing?
He didn't know.
Getting up, keeping Marlie tucked against his chest, Jake made his way into the kitchen.
He already had a small saucepan half–filled with water waiting to be pressed into use on the stove. Heading straight for the refrigerator, he opened it and reached in.
Like tall, innocent soldiers, bottles of formula were standing on the top shelf. Right beside equally tall bottles of beer. They clinked slightly as he pushed a couple aside to get at the milk.
"That was your mom's favorite brand," he told Marlie, pausing to let her "look" inside. "Your mom liked to kick back at the end of the day and have one or two, just to unwind—before she was pregnant with you, of course," he qualified.
Jake closed the door with his hip, then leaned against it for a second, trying to pull himself together.
He had to stop doing this to himself, had to stop connecting every deed, every detail he came across with something to do with Maggie. Weaving her into every single second of his life was not going to change anything.
It wasn't going to bring her back.
Jake went through the familiar steps, steps he knew in his sleep now, then stood there, staring at the bottle he'd just placed into the saucepan, waiting for it to heat. Three minutes later, he took the bottle out, testing the liquid against the back of his wrist. It was stone–cold.
"Why isn't this—?" The rest of his question evaporated as he looked down again at the burner. No wonder the formula hadn't warmed up. He hadn't turned the burner on.
He needed help.
Putting the cold formula bottle back into the saucepan, Jake switched on the burner and turned up the temperature. Only then did he reach for the cordless phone on the wall and call his sister.
The phone rang five times on the other end. Jake was about to hang up and redial when he heard a sleepy voice answer, whispering, "Hello?" uncertainly.
Even when she whispered, he recognized Erin's voice. "Uncle," he said, giving the universal word for surrender. "I give up. You're right. I need help. I'm in way over my head."
"Jake?" His sister still sounded somewhat confused, but she was no longer whispering hoarsely.
He heard a deep male voice in the background ask, "Who is it, Erin?"
Jake heard a noise that told him Erin was attempting to cover the receiver in a semi–bid for privacy as she apparently turned her head away to answer, "I think it's Jake."
"Yeah, it's me," Jake acknowledged. "How many other men do you know who are in over their heads?"
"No one who would call this number at two in the morning," she replied. "I thought that I was still asleep and dreaming."
"Damn—darn," Jake corrected himself again, in deference to the infant in his arms. Curbing his words was turning out to be a lot harder than he'd thought. "I forgot about the time difference," he confessed. He was calling from New Orleans. His sister lived in Thunder Canyon, Montana. "I'm sorry I woke you up. I'll call back in the morning."
"No, no," Erin insisted, her voice now clearer and insistent. "Don't hang up."
It was half a plea, half an order. Erin knew her older brother. She knew he could very well not call back in the morning. He'd sounded desperate just then. Who knew how long that would last? But while it did last, she could use it to her—and more importantly to Jake's— advantage.
Jake could be incredibly stubborn at times and making him see reason was not always an easy matter—or one that was very readily accomplished. She couldn't afford to allow this opportunity to slip right through her fingers.
"My offer to help still stands, Jake. You and the baby can stay with Corey and me for as long as you need to," she told him, referring to her brand–new husband. Like the rest of the family, he'd been there for the wedding, and then had gone back to New Orleans. "Lord knows we've got plenty of room here."
Jake laughed shortly. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the offer—he did—it was just that he wasn't so self–centered or desperate that he couldn't put himself into his new brother–in–law's position.
"That'll sure endear me to my new brother–in–law," he told his sister. "Nothing like having a third—and part of a fourth—party around as you're trying to adjust to married life."
Erin had to concede that her brother had a point. "Okay, maybe you're right, but this isn't a small house," she pointed out. "You could stay here for weeks and we wouldn't even know you were here. Besides, I can help you out taking care of my new niece."