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He has a face that could frighten small children.
That was the first thing that sprang to Avery Spencer's mind as she stared up at the imposing figure of Cal-lum Shepard. With his stubbled face and long tangle of hair, he didn't look anything like the clean-cut, charismatic groomsman she'd met just over a year ago. And definitely not the image of a doting dad, she thought with dismay. He stood with feet spread wide, one broad hand splayed on the edge of the door, glowering down at her like she'd committed a cardinal sin.
Except if anyone was the sinner here, it was him. And she reminded herself of that fact to keep from being intimidatedas surely that was his intent. She felt the first tiny trickle of sweat sneak down her spine in the cloying summer heat. Everyone always said Alberta was a dry heat, but that sure wasn't keeping her shirt from sticking to her back. It made her shift uncomfortably just at the moment she needed to be in absolute control. This could go so wrong in so many ways .
"What do you want?" he asked sharply.
Apparently he had also acquired the manners of a boor. How lovely. For a brief second Avery considered that making this trip might have been a colossal mistake. But then she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. No, it had been the right thing to do. At least after today there would no longer be any secrets or lies. She wouldn't spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder wondering what would happen if he ever found out about Nell. Far better to face it head-on and get it over with.
Besides, when it came down to brass tacks, Avery really believed that Nell deserved to know both parents. She swallowed, battling against the familiar wave of grief whenever she thought of her sister, Crystal. In this case, Nell deserved to get to know the one true parent she had left. Callum.
"You don't remember me, do you, Mr. Shepard?"
His dark brows pulled together. "Should I?"
That stung. After all, she remembered him, and he'd looked far different the last time she'd seen him, which was one year, one month and what, five days ago? Not that she was counting, mind you. Back then his hair had been precisely cut, his face clean-shaven and he'd been wearing a suit with a single white rose in the lapel. Avery's tongue snuck out and licked across her dry lips. She knew that because the moment he'd stepped into the hotel suite she'd looked up and her mouth had gone dry and her palms sweaty. Callum Shepard had been gorgeous. And when he'd smiled, her stomach had gone all swirly.
Even when he'd looked right past Avery and his gaze had fallen on her sister.
Now his hair hung in straggly waves down to his collar, he looked as if he hadn't shaved in two days and his plaid shirt was only half tucked into old jeans. And smile? More like permanent scowl. The change was remarkableand disheartening considering the circumstances. Not to mention incredibly intimidating.
Being intimidated wouldn't suit at all, not if she were to stay in control of the situation as she planned. "I'm Avery Spencer." She held out her hand, determined to meet the task ahead with politeness and a modicum of grace.
His face stayed blank and his hand stayed beside his thigh. Not much surprise that it didn't sound familiar, she supposed. After all, he'd only had eyes for Crystal that weekend. He probably hadn't given Avery a second glance. Why would he?
"It doesn't ring a bell, sorry." And still he stood in the middle of the doorway. No invitation to come in, no nothing. Gatekeeper, lord and master of his own domain. She lowered her hand again, feeling foolish.
"We met in Niagara Falls last year."
Ah, she thought with satisfaction. A flicker of something passed over his face. Avery swallowed and added, "At Pete and Elizabeth's wedding."
His dark eyes settled on her, so intense it made her want to fidget. She clenched her fingers together and made herself remain still.
"You were there?" he asked.
If that was an attempt to make her feel insignificant, it succeeded. Was she so plain that she wasn't even the least bit noticeable? The slightest bit memorable? Granted, she'd never been as beautiful as her sister and whenever they were together, Avery did tend to fade into the background next to Crystal's perfect figure and pretty face. But confirmation that he didn't remember at all
"I was in the wedding party," she explained, wishing she could just tell him her reason for showing up and get it over with. But she had to ease into it. Especially since she hadn't really been afforded so much as a smile or welcome. This was going to be so much harder than she'd imagined, and she'd practiced the words in her head over and over on the flight from Toronto to Edmonton, and from the drive from Edmonton to Cadence Creek. Now those words didn't seem to fit the situation at all. "You were?"
Why did he keep questioning everything she said? Annoyance flickered and she struggled to tamp it down. She had to keep a lid on her temper. Calm and rational was the only way to get through this first meeting.
"I was one of Elizabeth's bridesmaids. You were Pete's best man." She tried a smile, hoping to soften him a touch. A slight breeze ruffled her blouse, offering a tiny bit of relief from the blazing heat. There weren't even any shade trees to offer respite from the sun, just green and brown fields surrounding the rather plain farmhouse, broken only by a large barn and a couple of sheds.
"Yes, I think I can remember that much," he said, a touch impatiently.
Avery looked over her shoulder, glancing back at the car she'd rented at the airport. So far Nell hadn't made a peepbut that wouldn't hold out forever. She was glad now that she'd chosen to leave Nell in the car, considering Shepard's convenient amnesia about the weekend in question. But time was ticking. The window was rolled all the way down, but it was too hot to leave the baby in the car for more than a few minutes.
She turned back, deciding they were getting nowhere and she might as well step it up. "You probably don't remember me because you were pretty interested in my sister," she stated plainly. "Crystal."
Something lit in his eyes. So he did remember. She wasn't surprised. It was hard to forget Crystal Spencer once you'd met her. Pain flickered at the thought. Avery's sister had been the brightest light in her life. Her death had been sudden and shocking, only a few days after giving birth to Nell. Avery had been plunged into darkness, losing her only real family.
But the darkness only lasted for a short time. Nell had become the new light in her life. Her saving grace.
"I remember your sister," he said, a touch of caution in his voice. "But that doesn't explain why you're knocking on my door what did you say your name was, again?"
"Avery," she repeated firmly. "My name is Avery."
"Right. Look, if this is about Crystal, we had an understanding from the start. It was a weekend thing. No expectations."
Avery noticed he ran his hand through his hair, though, like he wasn't quite as cool about everything as he'd first appeared. And Avery was quite aware that the terms of the weekend had been set out from the start. Crystal had made that abundantly plain each time Avery tried to convince her to try to find Callum. Each time Crystal had flatly refused to budge. She'd been determined to raise Nell on her own. She didn't want some here-today-gone-tomorrow soldier as a father to her child. Especially since they barely knew each other.
Avery had never judged Crystal for how she'd conceived Nell. But she had judged her for willingly keeping silent about her pregnancy. Avery still believed that Callum deserved to know, but she wished she could take back the things she'd said to her sister.
"Crystal is dead, Mr. Shepard."
His hand dropped to his side as silence fell around them. Avery swallowed around the thickness in her throat. Saying the words never got easier.
"I'm so sorry," he said quietly, his voice a low rumble, and his gaze softened. It was the first sign of humanity she'd glimpsed in him.
"I don't know how else to put this, so I'm just going to say it," she said, taking a deep breath and thinking a quick, silent prayer for strength. She was going to need it in the hours in the days ahead. "Crystal died shortly after delivering a baby. Your baby, Mr. Shepard. She's sleeping in the car behind me, and she's just over four months old."
Callum heard the words but they seemed to swim around in his head, not fitting together right. Crystal Niagara Falls baby.
But they'd been careful hadn't they?
There had to be some mistake. He couldn't be a father. He remembered Avery, all right. He'd been flat-out lying about that part, not wanting to give himself away. At the first glimpse of her he'd flashed back to a memory of the bridesmaids, all lined up in dresses the color of a peacock feather. She'd been there, all right, an understated beauty next to the flashier glamour of her sister. At the time he'd thought her fresh and innocent. Perfect. And intimidating as hell.
But that didn't mean Avery was telling the whole story. After all, most scams succeeded because they carried a whiff of truth, just enough to be credible. Her presence here rattled him, so he held his cards close to his chest.
"I'm not a father," he heard himself say. "It's impossible."
"I assure you it's not," she repeated. "You did have sex with my sister that weekend, didn't you?" She blinked at him innocently. "You'll notice I refrain from using the term 'making love' as I'm relatively sure love had nothing to do with it. Considering you'd just met and then never contacted her again."
Her reprimand broke through the haze in his mind and he tightened his fingers around the door. Lord, she was a piece of work. Righteousness all wrapped up in a tidy little package of uptight conservatismfrom her tailored white trousers to her buttoned-up blouse with the scarf precisely knottedjust soaround her neck. His gaze dropped to her shoes. Little heels, not too high, of course. Nothing that smacked of outright sex appeal for this woman. Oh, he had her pegged, all right. Or at least the part she was playing.
He certainly didn't trust her enough yet to know if it was all an act or not. For all he knew, Crystal was fine and dandy. Or maybe this was Avery's kid and she was out to scam him for child support.
For the first time since opening the door, he felt his lips curve slightly. If she was after bags of money she was barking up the wrong tree. He'd sunk every dime he had into buying this place and the milk quota that went along with it. All he wanted from life now was to be left alone. To live his life on this quiet section of land with the open space and some livestock for company.
"Is something entertaining?" she asked, pursing her lips.
"Not a bit," he replied. "In fact, I don't believe a single word out of your mouth. I suggest you turn around and head back to where you came from."
And if his conscience dug at him a little bit, he would just damn well ignore it.
He stepped inside and shut the door in her face.
Only when it was latched did he close his eyes. He pressed his forehead to the door and let out a long, unsteady breath. This was not happening. It was not. Yes, he'd had a fling over a year ago, but it had been a bad time for him. Jane had broken things off and given him back the ring, destroying his hopes for the future. He'd wanted to be anywhere but at a wedding, pretending to celebrate a happy-ever-after he no longer believed in. Crystal had been the perfect diversion. But surely Elizabeth would have mentioned if her maid of honor had ended up pregnant. Women were close like that, weren't they?
But then he remembered that after the wedding, Elizabeth had moved to Quebec with Pete, hundreds of kilometers away from Crystal Spencer. They'd only been married a few months when Petealong with Callum and the rest of their sectionhad been deployed.
Callum had been the only one of them to make it home. That fact still made his guts churn.
Through the wood he heard the slam of her car door. She was going, then. It was just as well. Callum Shepard wasn't anyone's father.
The sharp knock vibrated through his forehead and made him stand straight up. Not going. With a sigh he prepared to let her know in no uncertain terms that he wasn't playing her game. He opened the door and.
And stared, swallowing the words sitting on his tongue.
Avery cradled a tiny bundle in her arms, a still-sleeping bundle, wrapped in a soft yellow knitted blanket with only her head poking out of the folds. Tiny lips were surrounded by plump cheeks; the tiniest button nose dotted the middle of her face and dark hair showing just a hint of curl peeked out from beneath a tiny pink-and-white bonnet.
As much as he hated to admit it, it was hard to keep such a hard stance when the baby was right there in front of him rather than stashed away in a car.
"Miss Spencer," he began, more affected than he cared to admit, "I know what you're doing. You're playing the cute baby card."
"Is it working?"
Avery's clear blue eyes actually looked hopeful. Before they'd only held hostility and derision. She'd judged him for indulging in a brief affair with her sister. Why would she feel the need to do that if she were lying about him being the father? She was either telling the truth or she was an extraordinarily good liar.
Fortunatelyor unfortunately, depending how one looked at ithe been burned before. Burned badly enough that he didn't trust himself to know the difference. No matter how much those extraordinary blue eyes implored him to believe her.
"Cute or not, I'm going to need more proof than your say-so," he answered. Yet he couldn't pull his gaze away from the fringe of dark hair. Avery was blonde. Crystal had been blonde. The baby had dark brown hair, like his.
Which proved absolutely nothing, he reminded himself.
"Could we at least come in?" she asked softly. "It's silly to be standing on your doorstep." She fluttered her hand. "The mosquitoes are out and I don't want Nell getting bit."
Avery nodded. "Short for Janell. It was the name of Crystal's nurse at the hospital."
Something strange passed over Avery's face as she said the words. Callum's jaw tightened as he recognized the emotion. Pain. Grief. Lord knew he was familiar enough with them both. The longer this conversation went on, the more he was inclined to think she might be telling the truth.
He wondered what had happened to Crystal. He'd barely known her, but he did have enough humanity left in his soul to feel sorry she was gone. And to feel sorry for Avery, who had clearly loved her.
Reluctantly he stood back and pushed the door open. "Come on in, then. Don't mind the mess."
She'd soon learn that he came just as he was. And that would have her leaving soon enough.