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It wasn't the first time Michelle Anderson had noticed a "gift" left on Thad Garner's front porch. In the three months she had lived across the street from the sexy E.R. doc, a parade of hopeful single women had presented the most eligible bachelor in Summit, Texas, with everything from baked goods and homemade casseroles to gift baskets and balloons. But this was the first time she'd seen an infant car seat, diaper bag and a Moses basket left there.
Aware the latest offerings hadn't been there when she'd left the house for her early-morning run, Michelle wondered if the baby gear was supposed to be some sort of message.
If so, it was an interesting one, given that Thad Garner had the reputation of a player and the attention span of a gnat when it came to women.
The handsome thirty-three-year-old doc said he wanted a wife and kids. Sooner, rather than later.
But he rarely dated a woman more than two or three times before ducking out of her life as genially as he had eased in.
"The chemistry just isn't thereI'm hoping we can be friends" was what he reportedly said more often than not.
But that wasn't what the women of Summit wanted.
They wanted the passion Thad declared lacking from his side of the equation.
They also wanted, Michelle thought with a sigh, what she wantedwhen the time and the man were finally right. Marriage, a fulfilling life together, kids. As well as a career. Realistically, she didn't know if it was ever going to happen for her.
Professionally and financially, everything was in place. She was thirty-two. Partner in a law practice. Had her own home. She was even considering adopting a baby on her ownand
Is that the sound of a baby crying?
It couldn't be, Michelle thought as the high-pitched sound sputtered, stopped and then resumed, now a frantic, all-out wail.
She scanned Thad's porch and yard, as well as the street. At seven on a Saturday morning, the area was usually quiet. Not today. Not with the unmistakable sound of a crying infant.
Heart pounding, Michelle jogged across the street and onto Thad's lawn. She hurried up the steps to the covered front porch of his Craftsman-style home.
Sure enough, an infant, red-faced and upset, lay in the elaborately decked-out Moses basket. HeMichelle assumed it was a boy because he was swaddled in bluecouldn't have been more than a few days old.
Heart going out to the tiny thing, Michelle knelt down on the porch. She removed the soft blanket covering the squalling child and lifted him out of the portable baby bed and into her arms.
And it was at that moment the front door jerked open.
Her too-sexy-for-his-own-good neighbor stared down at her.
And Michelle's heart took another giant leap.
Thad rubbed his face with the palm of his hand and tried to blink himself all the way awake. "What's going on?" he demanded, sure now he had to be fantasizing. Otherwise, his gorgeous, ice princess of a neighbor would not be standing on his doorstep with a baby in her arms. "And why were you ringing the doorbell like there's a house on fire?" he asked gruffly. He'd thought he dreamed it, and had gone back to sleepuntil he heard the infant crying.
Michelle Anderson's glance trailed over his bare chest and low-slung pajama pants before returning to his face. A warm flushat odds with the cool mountain airspread across her pretty cheeks. "I didn't ring the bell," she said.
Thad had no idea how long ago it had been when he heard the bell. Five minutes? Fifteen? It still felt like a dream. Except for the flesh-and-blood woman and tiny newborn in front of him. "You're sure standing here next to it," he observed wryly.
"Only because I wanted to ask you what was going on," she shot back.
Aware he probably should have grabbed a T-shirt before bounding outside, Thad studied Michelle and the newborn in her arms. He didn't know why, but she seemed to be accusing him of something nefarious. "You're the one with the baby," he pointed out.
Michelle patted the baby snuggled against her. The protective note in her sweetly feminine voice deepened. "True, but I'm not the one who left said baby on your front porch."
She sounded like a lawyer. "What are you talking about?"
She pointed to the infant paraphernalia next to her feet. "Someone left a baby on your doorstep."
Single women in Summit had done a lot of crazy things to get his attention, but this topped everything. "Someone should have told you it's way too late for an April Fools' joke," Thad scoffed.
"I'm well aware today is April sixth," Michelle replied coolly, "and if this is a ploy to get your attention, Dr. Garner, I assure you, it's not mine."
Thad looked into Michelle's face. He rubbed the last of the sleep from his eyes. "Why would anyone leave an infant with me?"
Michelle motioned at the piece of white paper wedged between the side of the baby bed and the mattress in the bottom of it. "Perhaps that envelope will tell you."
Thad knelt down to get it. His name was scrawled across the front, all right.
He tore into it and read.
Brice and Beatrix may have changed their minds about becoming parentsI haven't. It's up to your brother, Russell, to decide what to do about William, since William is his kid.
I'm sorry it didn't work out, but again, it's not my problem. I did what I signed on to do. And that's all I'm going to do. Sincerely, Candace P.S. I hope you have better luck tracking down Russell than I did.
"What the ?" Thad muttered, scanning the letter once again.
Still trying to make sense of what it said, he held it out so Michelle could read it, too. "Who are Brice and Beatrix?" she asked with a frown.
Aware the baby looked blissfully happy snuggled against his neighbor's soft breasts, Thad said, "No clue."
Michelle pulled the blanket closer around the baby's tiny body. "Candace?"
Thad shrugged and studied the wisp of dark, curling hair escaping from beneath the crocheted blue-and-white knit cap. The baby's clothes looked expensive. "Also no idea."
"But Russell ?"
"Is most definitely my brother and my only living relation," Thad replied, taking in the baby's cherubic features and fair skin. Was that his imagination or did William have the Garner nose? And Garner eyebrows? And chin?
He knew his older brother prided himself on his vagabond lifestyle, but could Russell really have turned his back on his own son? Or did he not know about him? Had the mother of this obviously unwanted child decided Russell was a bad bet as a father and put their baby up for adoption without consulting Russell? Only to have the adoptive parents back out at the last moment?
Michelle stared down at the baby as if he were the most adorable infant ever to grace the earth. Thad knew how she feltthe kid was certainly cute enough to grace a baby-food ad.
Michelle looked up at Thad. "Do you think your brother even knows he's a father?"
Thad exhaled. "Hard to say."
Irritably he scooped up the diaper bag, infant car seat and Moses basket and set them in his foyer. "Please come in," he said gruffly.
Michelle did so, albeit hesitantly, warily.
Not that she had ever been particularly friendly with him, Thad thought.
Since moving to Summit some three months earlier to take over the law practice of a retiring local barrister, she'd barely had the time of day for him. He wasn't sure why she was so aloof, at least where he was concerned. He'd never been anything but cordial to the attractive attorney.
Of course they hadn't encountered each other all that often. She worked from nine to six Monday through Friday. His shifts were generally twelve hours and varied according to the demands of the Summit, Texas, emergency room.
Nevertheless, he'd had a hard time keeping his eyes off the willowy strawberry blonde.
Michelle Anderson carried herself with the self-confident grace of an accomplished career woman. On workdays she could usually be seen in sophisticated business suits and heels. On weekends and evenings, she was much more casual.
This morning, she was wearing a pair of navy running shorts that made the most of her long, shapely legs, a hot-pink-and-navy T-shirt that paid similar homage to her breasts. Her running shoes and socks were white. Her hair was caught up in a ponytail on the back of her head, and the few escaped tendrils were attractively mussed. Her peaches-and-cream complexion had a healthy glow, while her emerald-green eyes held the skepticism of a woman who had seen and heard way too much in the course of her profession.
But then, Thad thought, walking over to snag a navy-blue T-shirt off the back of the sofa and pull it on, so had he
"Well?" Michelle asked, bouncing slightly to comfort the now squirming newborn, as Thad slid on a pair of moccasins and came back to stand beside her. "Does that letter make any sense at all to you?" she demanded.
Thad watched the baby root around as if looking for a nipple. "Unfortunately, yes," he admitted reluctantly, not proud of this part of his family heritage. Spying a baby bottle in the pocket of the infant seat, he plucked it out and unscrewed the lid.
The formula smelled fresh. He screwed the top back on and handed it to her. "My brother is as reckless and shortsighted as they come."
"Meaning?" Michelle offered the bottle to William and smiled when he latched on immediately.
Thad frowned. "It's possible Russell's gotten himself in a mess and left me to clean up." And that was all Thad was prepared to say until he had talked to his only sibling.
At Thad's invitation, Michelle sat down on the sofa and gave William his bottle while Thad went off to make some phone calls.
When he returned some thirty minutes later, he was dressed as if for work, his broad shoulders and impossibly masculine chest covered by a starched green shirt and tie, his trim waist, hips and long, sinewy legs draped in khaki dress slacks. His custom-made leather boots were buffed to a soft sheen.
He smelled so good. Like the forest after a drenching spring rain. And he looked great, toohis square jaw newly shaven, his golden-brown eyes alert with interest. "I left messages for Russell everywhere," he reported grimly.
Trying not to notice how the early-morning sunlight streaming in through the windows glimmered in his short, sandy-brown hair, Michelle shifted William to her shoulder to burp him. Up close, she couldn't help but noticeonce againhow ruggedly handsome Thad was. No wonder all the women in town were wild about him. When she tore her gaze from his chiseled jaw and sensual lips, it was only to meet the warm intimacy of his amber eyes.
Finally she found her voice. "Any idea how long it will take for your brother to get back to you?" she asked, surprised at how casual and unaffected she sounded.
Thad looked unhappy. "No telling." He clipped a pager and cell phone to his belt, searched around for his keys. "Russell could be in any time zone. He's a photojournalist for a wire news service, always off on assignment somewhere, but he checks his messages every day, unless he's in a war zone. Then, of course, it can be harder to get in touch with him."
Michelle was rubbing William's back gently. "What are you going to do?"
Thad eyed her reluctantly. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about." He sat down next to her and smiled tenderly at the baby, who was looking back at him with sleepy blue eyes. "I'm due at the E.R. in twenty minutes. I'm trying to get someone to cover my shift for me. Meanwhile, I need someone to watch William." He offered his index finger to the baby and grinned when William instinctively wrapped his tiny fist around it and held on tight.
Anxiously, Thad looked back at Michelle. "You know any babysitters I could call on short notice?"
Michelle knew what he was really asking. "You can't take him with you to the hospital?"
Thad shook his head. "It'd be a bad idea. Too many germs in the E.R."
He had a point there. She looked down at her tiny charge. It didn't matter what she thought of Thad. This child needed tender loving care. "How old do you think he is?" she asked softly, smiling when William finally let out a healthy-sounding burp.
Thad chuckled, too. "A few days. Maybe."
And already abandoned. Michelle felt tears welling in her eyes. "That's what I thought, too," she murmured thickly. She wished she could simply take William to her place and give him the home he deserved. But life was never that simple.
Wishes were never granted that easily. She would not get the baby she wanted in her life this way.
"So back to the babysitter dilemma," Thad persisted, oblivious to the yearning nature of her thoughts. "Any idea who I could call?"
"Besides any of your legion of female admirers?" she quipped, offering the last of the bottle to William.
So was she. Michelle tested the waters with an idea. "Violet Hunter knows a lot about kids."
"We dated a couple times, when I first came to town."
So Michelle had heard. The pretty single mom had been one of Thad's most persistent admirers.
"It was about six months after her husband died," Thad continued cryptically. "It didn't work out. From what I can tell, although it's been about two years now, she's still pretty vulnerable."
Michelle had met the twenty-nine-year-old nurseand her two little girlsat a charity fund-raiser the previous summer. She was very nice. And very much in the market for another husband.
She looked at him, waiting.
"I don't want to give Violet the wrong idea," Thad said finally.
Michelle studied him. Close up, he didn't appear to be the kind of guy who enjoyed stringing women along. In fact, the opposite. Life had taught her that appearances could be deceptive. She did better relying on facts in her personal life, just as she did in her practice of the law.
"And the wrong idea would be?" she probed.
Thad regarded her with the patient cool of an expert witness. "That something might be possible when it's not." Regret turned down the corners of his mouth. "And if I call Violetor someone else I've datedand tell them I need help with the baby I suddenly have on my hands "
"You'd probably be getting more than chicken enchilada casserole on your front porch," Michelle said wryly.
"Whereas if you were to put me in charge "
He suddenly seemed defensive. "It's pretty clear where you stand regarding dating me."
"But you've never asked me out, so I've never had the opportunity to turn you down."
"But you would," Thad countered.