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"Did you really think you could keep my child from me?"
Jada stopped on the courthouse steps, the hair on her arms standing on end, the back of her neck prickling with cold sweat. It was the voice of her most dreaded nightmare. A voice she'd never heard before outside of her dreams, and yet she knew that it was him.
A stranger. The man with the power to come in and rip the beating heart from her chest if he chose to do so. The man with the power to devastate her life.
The father of her daughter.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jada said, inching up the stairs that led to the courthouse. But she knew. She absolutely knew, and apparently he did, too.
"You had the court date changed."
"I had to change it," she said, defiant, confident in her lie. It didn't feel wrong, or even like a lie, not when she'd told it to protect her child. Jada had spent her life behaving, following the rules, but there were no rules for this situation. There was no right, no wrong. There was only need. The need to keep Leena with her.
"And you thought that since I had to travel halfway around the world on short notice, I would be forced to miss it. Too bad for you I have a private jet."
He didn't look like the kind of man who owned a private jet. He didn't look like a man ready for a court hearing. He was wearing low-slung jeans, held onto his lean hips with a thick belt. He had a rumpled button-up shirt on that somehow looked all the better for being wrinkled, the sleeves pushed up past his elbows, revealing muscular forearms. And aviator sunglasses. Like he was some sort of rock star or something.
He turned his hand and adjusted the buckle on his watch, revealing a dark tattoo, an anchor, on the underside of his wrist. She wondered, briefly, how much something like that had hurt. She wondered what it said about him. He was danger personified, and just looking at him made a shiver course through her body.
On the plus side, his blatant lack of regard for convention made her feel more and more confident about her chances. She'd had Leena in her custody for a year, after all. And this man, her father, had no claim on her beyond the genetic.
Blood was certainly thicker than water, but dirty diapers trumped blood. And she had changed more than her share of those over the past year.
He looked at his watch. "Looks like I've made it with time to spare. I'll be back in a moment."
"Don't rush," Jada said. She took a seat in one of the chairs that lined the door outside of the family courtroom. She wished she could hold Leena right now, but Leena was with the social worker. Jada's arms felt empty. She picked her purse up from the floor, her phone out of one of the pockets, opened an app and played it mindlessly. She just needed to keep her hands busy. And her mind vacant.
"Good. I didn't miss anything."
She looked up and a swear word rushed out of her mouth. He looked it wasn't fair how he looked. He was in a black suit, open at the collar, everything fitted perfectly to his well-muscled physique. The dark fabric poured over him like liquid, flowing with his movements, revealing strength, power. He looked like the sort of man who got what he wanted with the snap of a finger. The kind of man who had women falling at his feet with a glance.
He'd gone from rumpled traveler to James Flipping Bond in ten seconds flat.
Although, Bond was always fighting the Russians, so maybe he was more of a Bond villain.
"I see you decided to dress for the occasion," she said.
He'd removed the sunglasses, and for the first time she could see his eyes. They were somewhere between blue and gray, like the sea during a storm.
"It seemed the thing to do," he said, his lips quirking up into a smile. He seemed entirely unruffled, as if the outcome of this didn't matter to him at all. It meant everything to her. This, Leena, was her entire life. All she had left.
"It seemed the thing to do? Well, I suppose it's good that going out for Chinese food didn't seem the thing to do at the moment instead. Is that all she is to you? Just is this just an experiment for you? Why did you even bother to show up?"
"She's my daughter," he said, his tone betraying no emotion, no concern. Just stating a fact. "That means I must claim responsibility for her."
"Responsibility? Is that what she is to you?"
She caught a hint of steel in his eyes. "She's my blood. Not yours."
Jada snorted and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. "I've only raised her from the time she was born. What do I matter?" She didn't know where this strength was coming from. She only knew she had it, and she had to use it. There was no one standing behind her. No one on her side. No one but herself.
"I didn't know about her," he said.
"Because her mother thought you were dead. And why did she think that? Did you tell her you were going off on some secret mission? That's the sort of thing a man like you might say to get a woman into bed."
"If I told her that, it was true," he said. She blinked. "If? You don't remember?" He shrugged. "Not specifically."
And then her brain caught up with the rest of his claim. "And you were on a mission of some kind?"
"How old is the child?"
Jada blinked. "You don't know?"
"I know nothing about this," he said. "I got a phone call while I was in Brussels, telling me that if I didn't come and claim a child I didn't know I had by a certain date, I would lose my rights to her forever. Then I went and got testing done to confirm that I am in fact the father, and I am, just so you know. Then yesterday I got a letter saying my parental rights would be terminated and she would be adopted to someone else if I failed to come to a hearing that had been moved to today."
"She's one. She just had her birthday." Just the two of them in Jada's little house, on the same street where she'd lived for eight years. "Where were you a little over a year and a half ago?"
His mouth twitched. "Near here. I was in Portland seeing to some business."
She put her hands on her hips. "Ah. Business."
"I can't talk about the exact nature of it."
Disgust filled her. He was the sort of man she'd been blessed never to have had any interaction with. She'd married too young and her husband had been completely decent. She didn't think men like this, men who bed-hopped with zero discrimination, were real outside of terrible movies. "I can guess. I've been caring for the results of that business.'''
One brow shot upward. "Just an added bonus to my trip. I'm not a sex tourist."
Jada blinked, heat rushing into her cheeks. "You are direct, aren't you?"
"And you are prickly. And extremely judgmental."
And not accustomed to people who were so comfortable talking about their bad behavior. He seemed to wear it like a badge of honor. "You're here to take my child from mewhat reaction did you want me to have to you?"
He looked at their surroundings. They were the only two people in the antechamber. "I didn't anticipate being stuck in the lobby with you, I have to say."
"And yet you are. Answer me this what does a man who travels the world, doing Lord knows what, want with a baby? Do you have a wife?" She hoped not, all things considered.
"Not as far as I know," he said, a smile that could only be described as naughty curving his lips. "Clearly these things can surprise you."
"Not most people, Mr. Vasin," she bit out. "So, why do you want her?"
It was a good question. One Alik didn't know the answer to. All he knew was that if he turned and walked away, if he never met her, never made sure she was cared for, if he left her to fight her way through life as he'd had to do, then there would officially be no hell hot enough for him.
Forgetting about the phone call had crossed his mind. Not making it to the hearing had crossed his mind. But with each thought had come a twinge in his chest, a brand on a conscience he hadn't known he'd possessed.
He didn't particularly want her. But no matter what, he found he couldn't leave, either.
He gave the only answer he had. "Because she is mine."
"Hardly a good reason."
"Why do you want her so badly, Ms. Patel?" he asked, returning her formality. "She is not your child, no matter how you feel."
"Is that so? Blood relation, even to a stranger, is more important than the care that's been given? Is that how you see it?"
Alik looked down at the woman in front of him, all fire and passion. Beautiful, and if it was any other situation, his thoughts might have turned to seduction. Black, glossy hair, golden skin and honey-colored eyes, combined with a petite and perfect figure, made her a very tempting package.
Though, at the moment she was also a dangerous one. She was tiny, barely reaching the middle of his chest and yet she did not fear him. She seemed ready to physically attack him if need be.
Not in the way he would like, he imagined.
"It is not an emotional matter," he said. "It is black-and-white in my eyes. I am her father. You are not her mother."
She drew back, a cobra preparing to strike. "How dare you?"
"Mr. Vasin? Ms. Patel?" A small woman in a black jacket and slacks opened the door and poked her head out. "We're ready for you both."
As Mr. Vasin is here and clearly of sound mind, and, having submitted to a paternity test, has proven to be the father, we have no reason not to release his child into his custody.
Jada replayed the last ten minutes of the hearing in her mind, over and over again. The judge was sorry, the caseworkers regretful. But there was simply no reason why Leena shouldn't be with her father. Her billionaire father, as it turned out, which she knew had bearing on the ruling regardless of what anyone said.
How could it not? Jada was a housewife with no spouse to support her. Her only source of income came from her late husband's life insurance settlement and as generous as it was, it wasn't a billion dollars.
That, combined with the irrefutable proof of his paternity, when it was made clear that he had been wronged, the victim of a misunderstanding, had meant Jada hadn't had a case. Not in anyone else's mind. In hers, she had the only case that mattered. But no one else cared.
And now, Leena was with this Alik Vasin, in a private room so the two of them could get to know each other. Have an introduction. They couldn't let Jada take Leena with her. She was a flight risk. Another thing everyone was very regretful about.
Jada leaned against the wall in the empty hallway and gasped for breath. No matter how much air she took in she was still suffocating. Her chest was locked tight, and she tried to breathe in, but her lungs wouldn't expand. She wondered if her heart had stopped beating, too.
Her knees shook, gave way, and she slid down the wall, sitting with her legs drawn up to her chest, not caring that she was in a skirt, not caring if anyone saw. She hated that this feeling was so familiar. That it slipped back on as easy as an old pair ofjeans. Shock. Grief. Loss.
Losing Sunil had been hard enough. Unfair. Unexpected. No one planned to be a widow at twenty-five. Coming to terms with it, with being alone, when she'd leaned on her parents, and then her husband, for all of her life, had been the hardest thing she'd ever gone through. She was still going through it.
Losing Leena on top of it it wasn't fair. How much was one person expected to lose? How long before she was simply gutted, left empty, with nothing and no one to care for her? No one to care for. And then what was she supposed to do with herself?
Her shoulders shook and a sob worked its way up her throat, her body shuddering with the force of it. People were walking by, trying not to stare at her as she dissolved, utterly and completely, in the hall of the courthouse.
And she didn't care. What did it matter if a bunch of strangers thought she was losing her mind? She might very well be. And if they felt uncomfortable being in the presence of her grief, she didn't care. It was nothing compared to trying to live inside her body. Nothing compared to contending with the pain she was dealing with. "Ms. Patel." That voice again.
She looked up from her position on the floor, and saw the man, the man who had taken her baby from her. There was only one thing that stopped her from going for his throat. Only one thing stopping her from opening her purse, finding her mace and unleashing her fury on those stormy gray eyes.
He was holding a squirming Leena in his arms. And she was squirming to try to get to Jada. She could only stare at her daughter for a moment, hungry to take in every detail. To remember every bit of her.
Jada scrambled to her feet and extended her arms. Leena leaned away from Alik's body, and he had no choice but to deposit the fussing, wiggling child into her arms.
Jada clung to her daughter, and Leena clung to her. Jada closed her eyes and pressed her face into her daughter's silky brown hair, inhaled her scent. Lavender shampoo and that sweet, wonderful smell unique to babies.
She didn't feel like she was drowning now. She could breathe again, her heart finding its rhythm.
"Mama!" Leena's exclamation, so filled with joy and relief. And Jada broke to pieces inside.
"It's okay," she whispered, more for her benefit than her daughter's. "It's okay." And she knew she lied. But she needed the lie like air and she wouldn't deny herself.
"She does not like me," Alik said, his voice frayed. For the first time since she'd seen him, he was betraying his own discomfort with the situation.
"You're a stranger," she said.
"I'm her father." He said it as if a one-year-old child cared about genetics.
"She doesn't care if you're related to her or not. Not in the least. I am her mother as far as she's concerned. The only mother she knows."
"We need to talk."
"About this," he said, his voice slightly ragged, a bit of that smooth charm of his finally slipping. "About what we need to do."
She didn't know what he meant, but she knew that right now she was holding Leena, so the rest didn't matter.
"Where?" she asked.
"My car. It is fitted with a car seat."
"Okay," she said. Going with him should feel strange; after all, she didn't know the man. But the court had found no reason he couldn't be a fit father. That meant they were going to send her baby off with this man, by herself. So she was hardly going to hesitate over getting in his car with him, all things considered.
She swallowed hard. There was no one else to do this. She was the final authority here, the only one who could change things. And she would take every second with Leena she could get.