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Special Agent Kade Ryland raced up the steps of the Silver Creek hospital. Whatever was going on, it was bad. No doubt about it. The voice message from his brother had proven that.
Get to the hospital now, Grayson had ordered.
Since his brother Grayson was the sheriff of Silver Creek, it couldn't be good news. Nor was the fact that Grayson wasn't answering his phoneprobably because he was in the hospital, a dead zone for reception.
Kade prayed that someone wasn't hurt or dead, but the odds were that's exactly what had happened. He had four living brothers, three sisters-in-law, two nephews and a niece. Since all his brothers were in law enforcement and one of his sisters-in-law was pregnant, there were lots of opportunities for things to go wrong.
The automatic doors swished open, and he hurried through, only to set off the metal detector's alarm. Kade mumbled some profanity for the delay. He'd just come from work and was still wearing his sidearm in a shoulder holster concealed beneath his jacket. He also had his backup weapon strapped to his boot. He didn't want to take the time to remove either of them.
The uniformed guard practically jumped from the chair where he was reading a battered copy of the Silver Creek Ledger. His name was Rowdy Dawkins, a man that Kade had known his whole life. But then Kade could say that about half the town.
"The sheriff's waiting for you in the emergency room," Rowdy said, waving Kade through the metal detector. His expression was somber. His tone dripped with concern.
Kade didn't even take the time to ask Rowdy for details, though the man no doubt knew what was going on. He didn't just hurryKade ran to the E.R. that was at the other end of the building. The hospital wasn't big by anyone's standards, but it seemed to take him an hour to reach the E.R. waiting room.
No sign of his brother or any other family member.
Kade's heart was pounding now, and his mind was coming up with all sorts of bad scenarios. He'd been an FBI agent for seven years, not nearly as long as his brothers had been in law enforcement, but that was more than long enough to fuel the worst sort of details about what could be wrong.
"Your brother's in there with Dr. Mickelson," a nurse volunteered as she pointed the way. She, too, gave him a sympathetic look, which meant he was probably the only person in the whole frickin' town who didn't know what the heck was going on.
Kade mumbled a thank-you to her and hurried into the doctor's office, the first door in the hall just off the waiting room. He tried to brace himself for what he might see, but he hadn't expected to find everything looking so normal.
Grayson was indeed there, standing, and looking fit as a fiddle as his granddaddy Chet would have said. He looked as he usually did in his jeans and crisp white shirt with his badge clipped to his rodeo belt.
Dr. Mickelson, the chief of staff, was there, as well, practically elbow to elbow with Grayson. Nothing looked out of the ordinary for him, either. The two had obviously been expecting him.
"I was in the middle of an arrest when you phoned," Kade started. "That's why your call went straight to voice mail, but I tried to get in touch with you after I got your message. I tried your office, too, and the dispatch clerk said her orders were for me to speak directly to you. What's wrong? Who's hurt?"
"No one's hurt," Grayson said, but then he wearily shook his head. "At least no one that we know about." He stepped closer and looked directly into Kade's eyes. Ice-gray eyes that were a genetic copy of Kade's own.
Oh, yeah. This was bad.
And downright confusing.
"What do you mean by that?" Kade asked.
Grayson and the doctor exchanged glances. "You'd better sit down. We have something to tell you." The doctor tipped his head to the chair next to his desk, which was cluttered with folders, computer equipment and papers.
The one thing Kade didn't want was to sit. "Does someone in the family have cancer or something?"
Or God forbid, had there been a suicide? It wasn't something the average person would consider high on their list of worries, but since his own mother had committed suicide when he was barely eleven, it was never far from Kade's mind.
"No one has cancer," the doctor answered. He flexed his graying eyebrows, but he didn't add more.
Like the security guard, Kade knew Dr. Mickelson.
The doctor had been the one to deliver him thirty-one years ago, but Kade couldn't read the doctor as well as he could read Grayson. So, he turned to his brother.
"Tell me what happened," Kade pushed.
Grayson mumbled something under his breath. "I would if I knew where to start."
"The beginning's usually a good place." Kade's stomach was churning now, the acid blistering his throat, and he just wanted to know the truth.
"All right." Grayson took a deep breath and stepped to the side.
Kade saw it then. The clear bassinet on rollers, the kind they used in the hospital nursery.
He walked closer and looked inside. There was a baby, and it was likely a girl since there was a pink blanket snuggled around her. There was also a little pink stretchy cap on her head. She was asleep, but her mouth was puckered as if sucking a bottle.
"What does the baby have to do with this?" Kade asked.
"Everything. Two days ago someone abandoned her in the E.R. waiting room," the doctor explained. "The person left her in an infant carrier next to one of the chairs. We don't know who did that because we don't have security cameras."
Kade was finally able to release the breath he'd been holding. So, this was job-related. They'd called him in because he was an FBI agent.
But he immediately rethought that.
"An abandoned baby isn't a federal case," Kade clarified, though Grayson already knew that. Kade reached down and brushed his index finger over a tiny dark curl that peeked out from beneath the cap. "You think she was kidnapped or something?"
When neither the doctor nor Grayson answered, Kade looked back at them. Anger began to boil through him. "Did someone hurt her?"
"No," the doctor quickly answered. "There wasn't a scratch on her. She's perfectly healthy as far as I can tell."
The anger went as quickly as it'd come. Kade had handled the worst of cases, but the one thing he couldn't stomach was anyone harming a child.
"I called Grayson as soon as she was found," the doctor went on. "There were no Amber Alerts, no reports of missing newborns. There wasn't a note in her carrier, only a bottle that had no prints, no fibers or anything else to distinguish it."
Kade lifted his hands palm up. "That's a lot of noes. What do you know about her?" Because he was sure this was leading somewhere.
Dr. Mickelson glanced at the baby. "We know she's about three or four days old, which means she was abandoned either the day she was born or shortly after. She's slightly underweight, barely five pounds, but there was no hospital bracelet. We had no other way to identify her so we ran a DNA test two days ago when she arrived and just got back the results." His explanation stopped cold, and his attention came back to Kade.
So did Grayson's. "Kade, she's yours."
Kade leaned in because he was certain he'd misheard what his brother said. "Excuse me?"
"The baby is your daughter," Grayson clarified.
Because that was the last thing Kade expected to come from his brother's mouth, it took several seconds to sink in. Okay, more than several, and when it finally registered in his brain, it didn't sink in well.
All the air vanished from the room.
"That's impossible," Kade practically shouted.
The baby began to squirm from the noise. Kade's reaction was just as abrupt. What the devil was going on here? He wasn't a father. Heck, he hadn't been in a real relationship in nearly two years.
Grayson groaned and tipped his eyes to the ceiling. "Not impossible according to the DNA."
Kade did some groaning, as well, and would have spit out a denial or two, but the baby started to cry. Grayson looked at Kade as if he expected him to do something, but Kade was too stunned to move. Grayson huffed, reached down, gently scooped her up and began to rock her.
"The DNA test has to be wrong," Kade concluded.
But he stared at that tiny crying face. She did have dark hair, like the Rylands. The shape of her face was familiar, too, similar to his own niece, but all babies looked pretty much the same to him.
"I had the lab run two genetic samples to make sure," the doctor interjected. "And then Grayson put the results through a bunch of databases. Your DNA was already in there."
Yeah. Kade knew his DNA was in the system. Most federal employees were. But that didn't mean the match had been correct.
"Who's the baby's mother?" Kade demanded.
Because whoever she was, all of this wasn't adding up. A baby who just happened to match an FBI agent's DNA.
A bottle with no fingerprints. And the baby had been abandoned at the hospital in his hometown, where his family owned a very successful ranch.
All of that couldn't be a coincidence.
"We don't know the identity of the child's mother," the doctor answered. "We didn't get a database match on the maternal DNA."
And that did even more to convince Kade that this was some kind of setup. But then he rethought that. Most people didn't have their DNA recorded in a law enforcement system unless they'd done something to get it there.
Like break the law.
"Since you haven't mentioned a girlfriend," Grayson continued, "you're probably looking at the result of a one-night stand. Don't bother to tell me you haven't had a few of those."
He had. Kade couldn't deny there had been one or two, but he'd always taken precautions. Always. The same as he had in his longer relationships.
"Think back eight to nine months ago," Grayson prompted. "I already checked the calendar you keep on the computer at the ranch, and I know you were on assignments both months."
Kade forced himself to think and do the math. He could dispel this entire notion of the baby being his if he could figure out where he'd been during that critical time. It took some doing, but he picked through the smeared recollections of assignments, reports and briefings.
The nine-month point didn't fit because he'd done surveillance in a van. Alone. But eight and a half months ago he'd been in San Antonio, days into an undercover assignment that involved the Fulbright Fertility Clinic, a facility that was into all sorts of nasty things, including genetic experiments on embryos, questionable surrogates and illegal adoptions.
"What?" Grayson demanded. "You remembered something?"
Oh, yeah. He remembered something.
Kade squeezed his eyes shut a moment. "I teamed up with a female deep-cover agent. A Jane we call them. She already had established ties with someone who worked in the clinic so we partnered up. We posed as a married couple with fertility issues so we could infiltrate the clinic. We were literally locked in the place for four days."
Kade had been on more than a dozen assignments since the Fulbright case, the details of them all bleeding together, but there was one Texas-size detail about that assignment that stood out.
The tough-as-nails petite brunette with the olive-green eyes. During those four days they'd worked together, she'd been closemouthed about her personal life. Heck, he knew hardly anything about her, and what he did know could have been part of the facade of a deep-cover agent.
"We didn't have sex," Kade mumbled. Though he had thought about it a time or two. Posing as a married couple, they'd been forced to sleep in the same bed and put on a show of how much they loved each other.
"There must be someone else, then," Grayson insisted.
"Alice Marks," Kade admitted. "But the timing is wrong. Besides, I saw Alice just a couple of months ago, and she definitely wasn't pregnant."
Everything inside Kade went still when something else came to him. It couldn't be that.
"The Jane agent and I posed as a couple with fertility problems, and the doctors at the Fulbright clinic had me provide some semen," Kade explained.
"Could the doctors have used it to impregnate the mother?" Grayson asked.
"I'm not sure. Maybe," Kade conceded. "The investigation didn't go as planned. Something went wrong. Someone at the clinic drugged us, and we had to fight our way out of there. But maybe during that time we were drugged, they used the semen to make her pregnant."
The doctor shook his head. "If the birth mother was an agent, then why wasn't her DNA in the system?"
It was Grayson who answered. "If she was in deep-cover ops, a Jane, they don't enter those agents' DNA into the normal law enforcement databases. The Bureau doesn't want anyone to know they work for the FBI."
His brother was right. The odds were slim to none that Special Agent Bree Winston's DNA would be in any database other than the classified one at FBI Headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.
Kade forced his eyes open, and his gaze immediately landed on the baby that Grayson was holding. The newborn was awake now, and she had turned her head in his direction. She was looking at him.
Kade swallowed hard.
He felt the punch, and it nearly robbed him of his breath. The doctor was right. He should have sat down for this.
The love was there. Instant and strong. Deep in his heart and his gut, he knew the test had been right. This was his baby. His little girl.