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Small-town cop Luke Walker smelled trouble the moment Karis Pratt arrived on his doorstep, claiming the baby she held in her arms was his. Luke had been devastated once before when Karis's sister left town with the daughter she confessed wasn't his. And though his mind and his heart had every reason to be skeptical, Luke soon realized that Karis was nothing like her impetuous sister. From birth, the little girl who could be his daughter had gripped his heart in ...
Small-town cop Luke Walker smelled trouble the moment Karis Pratt arrived on his doorstep, claiming the baby she held in her arms was his. Luke had been devastated once before when Karis's sister left town with the daughter she confessed wasn't his. And though his mind and his heart had every reason to be skeptical, Luke soon realized that Karis was nothing like her impetuous sister. From birth, the little girl who could be his daughter had gripped his heart in her tiny fist and wouldn't let go. Was it possible that these two females could ultimately be his to have and to hold?
There was no response from the back seat and Karis glanced over her shoulder at the fifteen-month-old baby girl buckled into a child carrier behind her and to her right.
It was late for Amy to be awake and Karis wouldn't have been surprised to find her niece asleep. But instead Amy was peering out the side window, her two middle fingers in her mouth, kicking her feet up and down the way she did when she was tired.
There was absolutely nothing about the scene that should have brought tears to Karis's eyes, but there they were anyway. Hot and stinging.
She blinked hard and swallowed to keep them from falling. "You don't know how much I don't want to do this," she told her niece. "How much I don't want to do either of the things I've come here for. If there was anything else I could do—"
Karis's voice cracked and she paused to clear her throat, to fight for some control.
When she had a semblance of it, she sighed and said, "But there isn't. And there's nothing else I haven't already done, or we wouldn't be here."
Here, in the middle of a snowstorm that had made visibility so slight they'd been driving for the past two hours at a snail's crawl to the place Karis's sister had called a "one-horse town, hick hole-in-the-wall."
It was after nine o'clock on the last Friday of October and Karis hadn't intended to arrive so late. If she was going to show up on someone's doorstep, she thought it should probably have happened earlier in the day or evening. But she couldn't turn back time and she also couldn't risk keeping Amy with her overnight. Not when she was going to have to sleep in the car. So she resigned herself to get started on what she was dreading and unbuckled her own seat belt.
"It'll be all right," she said, unsure whether the reassurance was for herself or her niece. "This is for the best."
Karis got out of the compact sedan and peered through the snow at the red brick house she was parked in front of. It was a moderate-sized two-and-a-half-story structure with a covered front porch and big black numbers running vertically alongside the door, letting her know she had the right address. The address she'd used to answer the sole letter her sister had sent when Lea had lived here.
Karis was glad to see the buttery glow of light in the curtained front window. Hopefully that meant the man her sister had been married to for barely ten months was inside and she wouldn't be taking Amy into this cold for no reason.
She pulled her own coat close around her, smoothed her chin-length auburn hair behind her ears and went around the car.
Amy raised big, trusting blue eyes to Karis the moment the door opened and Karis felt her heart clench.
How am I going to do this...?
But just then a frigid gust of wind hit her from behind and once more the thought of spending the night in the car was all the motivation she needed. She ducked inside, pulled up the hood on Amy's coat to cover her short reddish-brown curls and to keep her tiny ears warm. Then she unfastened the seat from its moorings, and took out baby and carrier.
Karis didn't hesitate to rush for the house then. To climb the four steps to the porch. To ring the bell.
While she waited, she bent over and kissed Amy's forehead and again said, "It'll be okay. Everything will be okay."
The door opened a moment later and Karis straightened, peering through the screen at the man who stood there. Tall, broad shouldered, imposing—that was about all she could make out with the light coming from behind him.
"I'm looking for Luke Walker," she said. "That's me," he answered with curiosity in his tone.
"I know you don't know me..."
How could he when they'd never met? But she was loath to tell him who she was. For Karis this entire trip and the two ugly errands she had to do were just added humiliations heaped on a whole pile of them that had made up the nightmare she'd found herself in the past several weeks.
But with Amy in mind, she shored up her courage and said, "I'm Karis Pratt. Lea's sister."
His first response was to reach for the edge of the door he'd just opened, as if he were going to slam it in her face.
But he didn't. Instead he kept his hand on it as his head dropped enough so, even though Karis couldn't see his eyes, she knew he'd looked down at the baby carrier she held in front of her with both hands.
He muttered an epithet under his breath that certainly wasn't welcoming, and then pushed open the screen door.
"Come in out of the cold," he commanded, as begrudging an invitation as she'd ever received.
But Karis was in no position to be particular about the amenities. She took Amy into the warmth of the entryway, moving far enough to the side of the door for Luke Walker to close it.
He turned to face her and Karis felt the faintest hint of relief. Her sister's taste had sometimes leaned toward men who could be rough around the edges, and Karis knew she would never have been able to go through with what she'd come for had that been the case with Luke Walker.
But if he had rough edges, they were nowhere to be seen. The man had runway good looks, sable-brown hair cut short and neat. A ruggedly masculine bone structure made his lean face a collection of planes and angles and sharp edges, which worked together to make a masterpiece. A slightly longish but perfectly shaped nose. A mouth that was neither too big nor too small. And eyes that were vibrant and intelligent, penetrating and piercing, discerning and disarming all at once. Teal-green eyes that were remarkably thick lashed.
And all atop a body that just wouldn't quit—shoulders and chest a mile wide, narrow waist and hips, and long, tree-trunk-mighty legs.
Karis had known he was a local police officer, which was why she'd held out hope that he might be different from Lea's other men, but this man standing steady and strong before her exuded a kind of trustworthiness that helped ease Karis's mind. Not much, but some. And some was something these days.
She bent over to set the baby carrier on the entryway floor, noting that wide-eyed Amy was surveying Luke Walker almost as intently as Karis had been.
Then she straightened, noting the dark blue uniform that told her he'd just gotten off duty. His face showed no signs of warmth; instead, he was glaring at her and steadfastly not looking at Amy.
"Why are you here?" he demanded, notably not suggesting they move any farther into his house. In fact, with his legs planted shoulder-width apart and his arms crossed over his chest, he was a towering wall-of-man, keeping her from even seeing into the living room behind him.
Karis saw no point in sugarcoating her answer. Obviously Luke Walker bore no tender feelings for her sister, and with good reason. So she said, "Six weeks ago, in Denver, there was an explosion that killed Lea, our father and the man Lea left here with."
Her sister's ex-husband offered no condolences. His only response was a slight crease that appeared between his eyebrows and a tightening of his jaw.
"It's a long story that you're probably not interested in," she went on. "But because of things that led up to that, I—" Karis stalled, choking on the words she needed to say.
But she did need to say them, she reminded herself. She didn't have a choice.
She swallowed hard. "I can't keep Amy. Not right now anyway or for a—"
"She isn't mine," Luke Walker said bluntly. "Even though she was born while I was married to your sister, Lea made it clear when she took off that Amy belonged to—"
"I know what she told you," Karis said, afraid that if she let him say what he wanted to before she refuted it, he might shove her out the door and never give her the chance. "I know she told you that she was leaving with Abe because Abe was really Amy's father. But Lea told me that she wasn't absolutely sure that was true. That she only said it to cut the ties with you so she could go back to Abe. And her addictions. She did things like that. But it is possible that you're Amy's father."
"I don't know whether you think Lea was lying to me or I'm lying to you, but that is what she said. If I didn't think there was any possibility you're Amy's father, I wouldn't be here. But the fact is I do think there's the possibility—"
"So even you're saying there's only a possibility." Karis looked him square in the eye. "Yes," she admitted.
"And probably not a very good one."
Karis didn't want to acknowledge that, so instead she said, "I knew my sister. The ups and downs of her. Sometimes, if she was desperate—or determined— enough, or if she wanted to get out of something she'd gotten herself into, she'd say something that suited her purpose. But the thing is, it didn't suit any purpose to tell me Amy might be yours."
Okay, maybe that wasn't strictly the case. Karis had voiced her disapproval of what Lea had done and it might have caused Lea to say what she had to to defend herself, however feebly. It was just that Luke Walker was Karis's last resort, and even though she understood his doubts and didn't blame him for having them, she had to hope that for once Lea might have been telling the truth, that she hadn't known who Amy's father was and that he might be Luke Walker.
"But apparently it suits some purpose for you, now, to believe it," the big man guessed, making it clear he wasn't easy to put anything past.
"Look," Karis said. "Something Lea did cost me everything I had—and I mean everything—to keep other people, people who trusted me, from losing their business. What you see before you, the twelve dollars in my purse, the car parked in the street loaded with my clothes, and one credit card that will be maxed out after two more fill-ups of my gas tank, are all I have left in the world. I've borrowed from and imposed on friends as much as I can, but with no place to live, no job, and no references to give potential employers, I can't keep Amy with me right now. And since you're listed on her birth certificate as her father—and may be her father— you have to step up."
The man merely stared at her, those aqua eyes like hot lasers.
Karis continued anyway. "I think that for your own sake and for Amy's, you should have DNA tests done to find out the truth. I know that takes time and if you'll keep her during that time so I can just have a little while to dig myself out of this hole I'm in, then we can reevaluate the situation."
Karis had come here imagining three possible outcomes. One, of course, was that he might just flat out refuse and turn his back on Amy completely. She didn't think that needed to be said, so she only relayed her other two scenarios.
"If Amy proves not to be yours, I wouldn't expect or ask anything else of you, and I'll take her. Happily. Or maybe you'll find out she is yours but decide you don't want her because of Lea or because you don't want to be a single father, or whatever. Again, if I'm up and running again, I'll gladly take her to live with me and raise her and never ask another thing of you again because no matter who her father is, I love her and I want her with me and I certainly don't want Amy to ever be with anyone who—"
There were those damn tears again, filling her eyes, cracking her voice, reducing her to something she didn't want to be reduced to in front of this guy.
"Forget it," she said, not certain where that had come from. Maybe from the last shred of dignity she had left.
She bent over to retrieve the baby, glad that somehow, even in the midst of the tension hanging thick in the air, Amy had fallen asleep and wasn't witness to this.