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Why can't Robert and I adopt Natalie Cummings's baby?" Dana Phillips asked.
Brianna tensed at the cold hardness in the young woman's eyes. Dana and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for three years, had tried fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization but none of it had worked. Worse, they had been on the adoption list for two of those stressful years.
"You said you'd find us a baby," Dana screeched, "but you've done nothing to help us. And now there's a baby we could have and you won't give him to us."
Brianna understood their desperation, but Dana's emotional state worried her. The woman was obsessed with having a child to the point that Brianna worried about placing one with her.
"I'm sorry, Dana, but Ryan is not up for adoption."
Dana crossed her arms, tears glittering in her eyes. "Why not? His mother is dead, and he has no father. And don't forget, I grew up in this town. I know that Natalie's family is gone now."
Grief for Natalie was still so raw that Brianna's throat thickened with emotions. The fact that Natalie had been anxious her last few weeks and seemed frightened gnawed at Brianna. Women dying during childbirth were uncommon these days. Had Natalie really had heart failure?
"You know I'm right," Dana said, her shrill voice yanking Brianna from the worry that something hadn't seemed truthful about the doctor's explanation.
"I understand that you've waited a long time, Dana, but Natalie asked me to be guardian of her child, and I promised her I would."
"You would be taking good care of him if you gave him to us," Dana pleaded.
"But Natalie wanted me to raise him." Brianna reached for Dana to calm her, but Dana jumped up and paced across Brianna's office, her anger palpable.
"Listen, Dana, I know you're desperate, but we'll find you a child. I promised Natalie that I would raise Ryan, though. Natalie was like a sister to me. I have to keep that promise." Besides, the moment she'd held the newborn, she'd fallen in love with him.
"That little boy deserves to have a mother and a father, Brianna, and you can't give him that. You're not even married."
Brianna sucked in a sharp breath. "Dana, I'm not going to argue with you. I've already legally adopted Ryan. Believe me, it's what Natalie wanted."
"It's what you wanted," Dana said in a high-pitched voice. "You're selfish. You took him for yourself even though you know he'd be better off with two parents. You act like you care and that you're some Goody Two-shoes, but you don't give a damn about Robert and me. You're only thinking about yourself."
"Dana, I will keep looking and find you a child. I promise. Maybe we can find a private adoption—"
"We can't pay thousands for a baby and you know it," Dana cried. "That's why you have to give us Ryan."
Brianna stood, her voice firm. "Dana, Ryan is my child now, and no one is going to take him from me."
Derrick McKinney settled into the chair at the Guardian Angel Investigations Agency, his mind heavy. Now he was back in Sanctuary, North Carolina, he had to visit Natalie Cummings's grave and pay his respects.
But visiting any grave after his last case was going to be a bear. He still couldn't get the image of the child's small tombstone out of his mind. If he'd only been sooner, figured out that the mother was lying….
Footsteps sounded from the upstairs of the old house that had been converted into a business, and Gage McDer-mont strode down the steps. Derrick hadn't seen him in ten years, but Gage still exuded confidence and authority.
Derrick had read about Gage's departure from the Raleigh Police Department and how he'd found Leah Holden's little sister Ruby a few months ago when she'd gone missing, and was glad to hear Gage had opened his own agency.
The fact that Gage had focused his investigative services on missing children had been a big draw. The fact that, at the agency, he wouldn't have to play by the rules was another major plus.
To hell with rules. They could be too damn confining.
Although he wasn't sure Gage would want his help. They hadn't exactly been friends in school. Gage had been the popular jock whereas he'd been the sullen bad boy on a Harley.
"Derrick McKinney, good to have you here." Gage extended his hand and Derrick stood and shook it, surprised not to find any hesitation in Gage's tone.
"Thanks for bringing me into the agency."
"Are you kidding?" Gage grinned. "I know your reputation, McKinney. Your specialty is missing kids and that's what we do here."
Except the last one which had ended badly, and he'd received some bad PR from it. "Yeah, but you saw what happened on my last case."
Gage's smile faded slightly, but understanding lit his eyes. "I don't go by rumors. Besides, I know how the job goes. We have to be tough to do it, but we're only human. We can't get them all."
Derrick's throat closed with emotions he didn't dare show, and words he dare not say. He'd learned a hard lesson on that case.
Never trust a woman. Pretty eyes, tears and seductive voices could lead a man astray real fast.
"Thanks," he finally said.
Gage gestured for him to follow him up the stairs. When they reached Gage's office, Gage offered him a drink, but Derrick declined. For a few days after he'd found that kid's body, he'd drowned himself in booze.
Then one day he'd realized that drinking himself to death was too easy. He needed a clear head to remember what he'd done wrong, and he'd spend the rest of his life trying to make up for it.
Over the next hour, they reviewed office business, salary, benefits and other candidates Gage had brought into the agency. Slade Blackburn, agent. Benjamin Camp, a computer and tech specialist. Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler. Brock Running Deer, an expert tracker. Caleb Walker had special skills that he didn't elaborate on. Colt Manson, a guns and weapons specialist. And he was trying to recruit a woman named Amanda Peterson, a renowned forensic anthropologist. Caleb and Colt hadn't started yet, but Levi, Ben and Brock were on board.
"Do we have a case now?" Derrick asked.
Gage fingered a file. "Not at the moment. I sent Slade Blackburn to recover a young teenager who ran away. He called and will be bringing her back soon."
Gage nodded. "Yeah. The mother is a local, Carmel Foster. She'll be thrilled to have her daughter, Julie, back home with her."
"That's what it's all about," Derrick said. "Connecting families."
A smile curved Gage's mouth. "Exactly. But we're still growing the agency. I'd like you on board."
Derrick shrugged. "Hell, a few days off won't hurt me. But I am ready to go back to work, just in case you're wondering."
"I have no doubt." Gage stood. "In fact, that's why I wanted you here now. Leah and I plan to take a little second honeymoon. Ruby is staying with a friend. I need you to hold down the fort."
"I appreciate the opportunity," Derrick said. "I won't let you down."
Derrick shook his hand again, then strode down the steps and walked out into the cool December air. Christmas was coming, the town was lit up with decorations, winter on its way.
But the holidays had never been high on his list. He'd seen too much over the years, had lost faith too damn long ago to think about singing Christmas carols or shopping.
Besides, he had no one to shop for. No one to celebrate with. No one to share a cozy dinner or decorate a stupid tree.
And that was fine with him.
He climbed in his Jeep, stopped by the florist, picked up a bouquet of lilies, and drove to the cemetery on the edge of town. The little white church needed paint, but vibrant colors from the stained glass windows danced in the waning sunlight across the parched grass and dead leaves. Snow fluttered from the sky in a light downfall, sticking to branches and painting the graveyard in a soft white that made the grounds look almost ethereal, a contrast to the sadness there. A small blue sedan was parked in front of the church, and he wondered if it belonged to the minister or another visitor, but dismissed it without thought.
Tugging his coat around him, he walked through the cemetery searching for Natalie's marker. Sprays of flowers circled a grave in the distance, and he instantly realized it had to be hers. A lone figure stood beside it, burrowed in a coat, head bowed.
He hesitated for a moment, then curiosity overcame him, and he picked his way through the rows of graves until he was close enough to see the figure more closely.
The woman wore a long black coat, and as she leaned forward to place the flowers in the vase at the head of the marker, he spotted a bundle in her arms.
A baby wrapped in a blanket.
The two of them looked like angels in the midst of the snow, like a mirage so beautiful it couldn't be real.
Then she turned to leave, and he sucked in another pain-filled breath.
It was Brianna Honeycutt, Natalie's best friend. Brianna, beautiful Brianna. Brianna with the raven hair and sky blue eyes. Brianna with a voice that sounded like sugar and spice and everything nice. Brianna with skin like a porcelain doll, and a body like a goddess.
Brianna who'd never wanted anything to do with him.
Her face registered shock as she spotted him, and instant regret slammed into him. He'd never had the courage to talk to her when he was young.
Then he'd slept with her best friend, a night that was a blur. Natalie had been in Raleigh, and they'd run into each other at a bar. He'd been upset about a case, and she'd had a sympathetic ear.
Too many drinks later, and they'd ended up in bed. But they'd both known it meant nothing and had gone their separate ways.
Judging from the glare Brianna sent him, she knew exactly what had happened that night and didn't think too highly of him.
His gaze dropped to the baby, and shock hit him. Brianna had a child? He hadn't heard that she'd gotten married.
A quick check to her finger and he saw there was no ring.
"You have a child?" he asked, wondering who Brianna was involved with.
She hesitated, her look wary, then stroked the baby's dark blond head. "I adopted Natalie's son. It was what she wanted."
A knot settled in his gut. He had kept up with the town through the online news and knew that she'd died in childbirth. "Of course."
Then the date of Natalie's death flashed into his head, and the months fell away as he ticked them off in his head.
The dark blond hair… Hair just like his.
Was it possible that that baby was his?
Brianna clutched baby Ryan to her, a frisson of alarm ripping through her at the sight of Derrick McKinney.
That same feeling of hopeless infatuation she'd felt as a young girl followed. Hopeless because he'd never even noticed her.
Just as she remembered, he was tall, muscled and broad-shouldered. The wind tossed his wavy dark blond hair across his forehead, snow dotting his bronzed skin. His eyes were the color of espresso, a magnetic draw to them that made her body tingle with want. She could still see him dressed in all black, tearing around the mountain roads on that Harley.
Sexuality leaked from his pores just as masculinity radiated off his big body. But even as need and desire swirled through her, fear sank like a rock in her stomach.
He suddenly stalked toward her, his jaw clenched, his eyes darkening as they raked over her and settled on the bundle in her arms.
She'd wondered who the baby's father was, and had feared it might be Derrick, but Natalie had insisted he wasn't. Besides, he hadn't been in Natalie's life the last nine months, nor had he attended the funeral, so she'd assumed that if he was the father, he didn't want anything to do with the little boy.
She stiffened. His voice sounded rough and deep, the sensuality in his tone igniting desire inside her.
She had to get a grip. Had to steel herself against him. He'd slept with her best friend—not her.
And she couldn't forget it.
Tears pricked her eyelids as she zeroed in on the bouquet in his hands. He'd even brought Natalie fresh flowers.
Natalie had loved roses.
God, she was pathetic. Jealous over her friend because Derrick had obviously loved her.
He cleared his throat. "I was sorry to hear about Natalie. How tragic."
Brianna couldn't speak. Instead she swallowed back tears. As if the baby overheard the reminder that his mother was gone, he whimpered and began to fuss.
"I know how close you two were." He shifted awkwardly on the balls of his feet. "This must be really hard for you."
She nodded. "I still can't believe she's gone. I miss her every day."
His gaze dropped to the fussing baby in her arms. "So Natalie had a little boy?"
Brianna took a deep breath and tugged the blanket over his face to ward off the wind. Or was it so he couldn't see the little boy's face? "Yes."
"What about the father?" Derrick's voice warbled slightly over the word father.
Wariness filled Brianna, and she rocked the baby, trying to soothe him. "He's not in the picture."
Derrick's broad jaw tightened. "Where is he?"
"I don't know," Brianna said, trying to stick as close to the truth as possible. "Natalie never told me."
Surprise registered on Derrick's face. "I thought you two shared everything."
At one time they had. But Natalie had glossed over the details of that night with Derrick. And the last few weeks she'd acted strangely, secretive, even shut her out.
Because Derrick was the father of her son? Because she knew it would hurt Brianna even more to know that Natalie shared a child with the only guy she had ever wanted?