Read an Excerpt
The soft-spoken attorney shook hands with Belinda Eaton and then repeated the gesture with Griffin Rice. "Congratulations, Mom, Dad. If you need a duplicate copy of the guardianship agreement I recommend you call this office rather than go to the Bureau of Records. I've heard that they always have a two-to-three-month backlog."
Belinda still could not believe she was to share parenting of her twin nieces with her sister's brother-in-law. Less than a year after she became an aunt, her sister had asked Belinda to raise her daughters if anything should happen to her and her husband. At that time she'd wondered, why would a happily married, twenty-two-year-old woman with two beautiful children think about dying? Apparently, her older sister, Donna, was more prophetic than she knew. Just weeks after the twins' twelfth birthday, their mother and father had been killed instantly when a drunk driver lost control of his pickup, crossed the median and collided head-on with their smaller sedan.
Belinda forced a smile. The meeting with the attorney and signing the documents that made her legal guardian of her twelve-year-old nieces had reopened a wound that was just beginning to heal. Her sister and brother-in-law had died days after Thanksgiving and it'd taken four months for their will to be probated.
"Thank you for everything, Mr. Connelly."
Impeccably dressed in a tailored suit, Jonathan Connelly stared at the young schoolteacher whose life was about to dramatically change. Her nieces were moving from the two-bedroom condo where they were temporarily living with their maternal grandparents into her modest house in a Philadelphia suburb. Although the children had been wellcared for by their grandparents, Jonathan, the executor of her sister and brother-in-law's estate, felt that the emotional and social interests of the twin girls would be best served living with their aunt.
His shimmering green eyes lingered briefly on her rich nut-brown attractive face with its high cheekbones, slanting dark brown eyes and hair she wore in a flattering curly style. With her wool gabardine suit with a peplum jacket, pumps and the pearl studs that matched the single strand gracing her slender neck, Belinda appeared more like a young executive than a high school history teacher.
"If you need legal advice on anything, please don't hesitate to call me," Jonathan said, smiling.
A slight frown began to creep across Griffin Rice's good looks. "I believe I can help her with any legal problem," he said curtly. Griffin intended to make sure that he was available for Belinda if she needed legal counsel.
He had spent the better part of an hour watching Jonathan Connelly subtly flirt with his sister-in-law. He and Belinda shared guardianship of their nieces, but he'd be damned if he'd allow the smooth-talking, toothpaste-ad-smiling, little-too-slick-for-Griffin's-taste attorney take advantage of her.
Although they were related through marriage, Griffin and Belinda hadn't spent much time together and when they did, they usually butted heads. Most of the time, he was involved in contract negotiations for his pro-athlete clients or taking a much-needed vacation. And whenever he invited her to his home for an informal get-together, she always declined. The last time they had been together was when the two families were making funeral arrangements for Grant and Donna.
Reaching out, he cupped Belinda's elbow. "I think it's time we leave."
Belinda forced herself not to pull away from the pressure of Griffin's hand on her arm. She didn't like him, had never really liked him, but now they were thrown together because they shared custody of their nieces. She didn't know what her sister was thinking when she and Grant decided on Griffin as the girls' guardian. The high-profile, skirt-hopping sports attorney lacked the essentials for fatherhood.
She gave Jonathan a dazzling smile that curved her full, sensuous mouth. "If I need your assistance, I won't hesitate to call you."
Belinda sensed her brother-in-law's annoyance at her rebuff of his offer of legal help when his fingers tightened around her elbow. At five-six and one hundred thirty pounds she knew she was physically no match for Griffin's six-two, one hundred ninety pound viselike grip. Glancing over her shoulder, she glared at him.
Griffin led Belinda out of the lawyers' offices and waited until she was seated in his late-model Lexus hybrid and he was beside her before he allowed himself to draw a normal breath.
"Did I not say that I would take care of your legal concerns?"
Belinda shifted on the leather seat, glaring at the cleft in the chin of an otherwise incredibly handsome man who'd landed unceremoniously in her life. She'd lost count of the number of times women colleagues had asked her whether Griffin was available.
"Watch your tone, Griffin. I'm not one of your dim-witted girlfriends who is honored just to be in your presence." Belinda knew she'd struck a nerve when she saw his flushed face.
"In case you didn't notice, the man wasn't looking to offer legal advice."
She frowned. "Then please tell me what he was offering."
Griffin's comment caught her off guard for several seconds. "How would you know that?" Belinda said when she recovered her composure.
A subtle smile parted Griffin's lips as his gaze slipped from Belinda's face to her breasts and back to her stunned expression. "I'm a man, Belinda. And as such, I recognized all the signals Jonathan was sending your way."
Heat pricked little pinpoints across Belinda's skin as she struggled not to look away from the large dark eyes that were sending sensuous flames through her body.
She couldn't move or blink. "Not every man who looks at me wants me in that way, Griffin."
Griffin's smile widened. "With your face and your body, you look nothing like the spinster schoolmarm."
"Wrong century and definitely wrong woman," she countered. "I'm not a schoolmarm but an educator. And whether I'm thirty-two or sixty-two I'll never think of myself as a spinster."
"The fact remains that Jonathan wants you. So I suggest that you not lead him on if or when you need legal advice. And, the offer still holds. If you need a lawyer, then I'm always available to you."
She shook her head. "Why would I need you when my brother is a lawyer?" Her older brother, Myles, had recently resigned as partner at a leading Philadelphia law firm to teach at Duquesne, a private university law school in Pittsburgh.
Griffin inserted the keyless fob in the ignition slot and pushed a button, starting up the SUV. "Just make certain you use him."
As Griffin maneuvered out of the parking lot, Belinda wondered if he was as brusque with the women he dated or slept with. Other than his looks and his money, she didn't know why any of them would put up with his attitude.
They'd agreed that the girls would stay with her during the week and with Griffin on the weekends. But she doubted, with his busy social life, that there would be many weekends that the twins would stay with Griffin. That suited Belinda just fine, because what they needed more than anything was stability.
Sabrina and Layla Rice had lost both parents and since then had been living with their grandparents for the past four months. Now they would be moving again when they came to live with her. The fallout after the funeral and burial was difficult when grandparents and relatives began arguing about who would raise the twins. As an investment banker, Grant Rice and his family had been financially sound. And the prospect of the girls' inheritance drew relatives Griffin hadn't known or seen in decades like hungry sharks to the smell of blood.
The speculation as to the extent of Grant's wealth ended when Griffin announced that he and Belinda were the legal guardians, and that Belinda was the beneficiary of Grant and Donna's multimillion-dollar insurance policy. He had inherited vacant parcels of land that developers were interested in. The only thing he and Belinda had agreed upon was that all the proceeds and profits would be put aside for their nieces' education and financial future.
Belinda had used the few months that the girls were living with their grandparents to decorate her house to accommodate the growing twins. She wanted the transition to be smooth and stress-free for everyone involved. She'd had more than ten years of teaching young adults, but this was to be the first time Belinda would become a parent in every sense of the word.
The drive from downtown Philadelphia to a nearby suburb was accomplished in complete silence. When Griffin turned off into the subdivision and parked in the driveway where her parents had purchased the town house after selling the large house where they'd raised their four children, Belinda was out of the car before Griffin could shut off the engine. She didn't see his scowl, but registered the slam of the driver's-side door when he closed it.
Ringing the bell, she waited for her mother to come to the door. It's not going to work, she thought over and over as the heat from Griffin's body seeped into hers when he moved behind her. How was she going to pretend to play house with the girls' surrogate father when she could barely tolerate being in the same room with him?
The door opened and Roberta Eaton stood on the other side, her eyes red and swollen. Belinda knew her mother hadn't wanted her granddaughters to leave, but the law was the law and she'd abide by her late daughter's request and the court's decision to have Sabrina and Layla live with Belinda.
"Hi, Mama." Stepping into the entryway, she leaned over and kissed her cheek. "How are the girls?"
Roberta pressed a wrinkled tissue to her nose. "They're much better than I am. But then, you know how adaptable young folks are. I've spent most of the day crying, while they came home going on about an upcoming class trip." Roberta glanced over her daughter's shoulder to find Griffin Rice's broad shoulders filling out the doorway. "Please come in, Griffin."
Griffin moved inside the house with expansive windows and ceilings rising upward to twelve feet. The elder Eatons had downsized, selling their sprawling six-bedroom farmhouse for a two-bedroom town house condo in a newly constructed retirement village. Unlike his parents, who divorced when he was in high school, Dr. Dwight and Roberta Eaton had recently celebrated their forty-second wedding anniversary.
He hadn't remembered a day when his parents did not argue, which had shaped his views about marriage. His mother said her marriage was a daily struggle, one in which she was always the loser. His father remarried twice and after his last divorce he dated a woman for several years, but ended the relationship when she wanted a more permanent commitment.
When his brother had contacted him with the news that he was getting married, Griffin had at first thought he was joking, because they'd made a vow never to marry. But within three months of meeting Donna Eaton, Grant had tied the knot. At first he had thought his brother wanted a hasty wedding because Donna was pregnant. But his suspicions had been unfounded when the twins were born a year later. When he'd asked Grant about breaking his promise to never marry, his brother had said promises were meant to be broken when you meet the "right" woman.
Griffin dated a lot of women, had had several long-term relationships, yet at thirty-seven he still hadn't found the "right woman."
"Aunt Lindy, Uncle Griff!" Sabrina, older than her sister by two minutes, came bounding down the staircase. "Sorry, Gram," she mumbled when she saw her grandmother's frown.
Her grandmother had lectured her and Layla about acting like young ladiesand that meant walking and not running down the stairs and talking quietly rather than screaming at the top of their lungs.
Belinda held out her arms, and she wasn't disappointed when Sabrina came into her embrace. Easing back, she stared at her niece, always amazed that Sabrina was a younger version of herself. She used to kid Donna by saying that her fraternal twin daughters'
genes had been a compromise. Sabrina resembled the Eatons, while Layla was undeniably a Rice.
"How's my favorite girl?"
Sabrina rolled her eyes at the same time she sucked her teeth. "How can I be your favorite when you tell Layla that she's also your favorite?"
Belinda kissed her forehead. "Can't I have two favorite girls?"
Sabrina angled her head, and her expression made her look much older. Not only was she older than Layla, but she was more mature than her twin. She preferred wearing her relaxed shoulder-length hair either loose, or up in a ponytail. It was Layla who'd opted not to cut her hair and fashioned it in a single braid with colorful bands on the end to match her funky, bohemian wardrobe. Both girls had braces to correct an overbite.
"Of course you can," Sabrina said. Pulling away, she went over to Griffin. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. "I like your suit."
The charcoal-gray, single-breasted, styled suit in a lightweight wool blend was Griffin's favorite. He tugged her ponytail. "Thank you."
Sabrina gave her uncle a beguiling smile. "You promised that Layla and I could meet Keith Ennis. The Phillies will be in town for four days. Please, please, please, Uncle Griff, can you arrange for us to meet him?"
It was Griffin's turn to roll his eyes. Keith Ennis had become Major League Baseball's latest heartthrob. Groupies greeted him in every city and his official fan club boasted more than a million members online.
He'd considered himself blessed when the batting phenom had approached him to represent him in negotiating his contract when he'd been called up from the minors. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a three-year, multimillion-dollar deal that made the rookie one of the highest-paid players in the majors, and in his first year he was named Rookie of the Year, earned a Gold Glove and had hit more than forty home runs with one hundred and ten runs batted in.
"I'm having a gathering at my house next Saturday following an afternoon game. You and your sister can come by early to meet him, but then you have to leave."
"How long can we stay, Uncle Griff?" asked Layla, who'd come down the staircase in time to overhear her uncle.
Belinda shot Griffin an I don't believe you look. Had he lost his mind, telling twelve-year-olds that they could come to an adult gathering where there was certain to be not only alcohol, but half-naked hoochies?
"Your uncle and I will have to talk about this before we agree whether an adult party is appropriate for twelve-year-olds." She'd deliberately stressed the word adult.
Layla pouted as dots of color mottled her clear complexion. "But Uncle Griff said we could go."
"Your uncle doesn't have the final say on where you can go, or what you can do."
"Who does have the final say?" Sabrina asked.
Belinda felt as if she were being set up. Unknowingly, Griffin had made her the bad guyyet again. "We both will have the final say. Now, please say goodbye to your grandmother. I'd like to get you settled in because tomorrow is a school day."