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Darby White chewed on the inside of her lip, involuntarily taking a step back from the appalled reaction of the tall man standing in front of her. She couldn't blame him, under the circumstances.
Circumstances. She swallowed the knot that had been in her throat for the past few hours and looked away while the social worker again explained to Garrett Cullum what they were doing on his doorstep on what should have been a lovely Minnesota summer evening.
"Accident fatal children Social Services."
Darby looked down the quiet street as the social worker spoke. Most of the houses had two stories and were on modestly sized grassy lots. A few of the yards had picket fences, a few were brightened with flowerbeds.
But no matter how hard she tried focusing on this normal, average neighborhood, attempting to block out the news they'd come to deliver, there was no blocking out the memory of the car accident. She'd heard it and had run out onto the street and seen the mangled vehicles.
Her eyes burned and she turned back to the man in the doorway, who looked shell-shocked. And his gaze, as if he sensed her eyes on him, turned toward her even though Laura Malone was still explaining the course of events that had brought them to his door.
Dark green, they were. Surrounded by smoky, smudgy lashes, which on a face less masculine would have seemed feminine. And Darby felt a twinge of guilt for noticing such a thing at a time like this—he'd just learned that his sister and brother-in-law had been killed in an automobile accident earlier that day, and she was cataloging his features.
"You were there?" His voice, husky and low-pitched, rolled from where he stood in his open doorway, down the three steps to where Darby stood with the social worker. "At the accident?"
She nodded, but it was her companion who spoke. "Ms. White was first on the scene, Mr. Cullum. Are you sure you wouldn't like to discuss this inside?"
He shook his head, just as he'd done when they'd arrived. He still watched Darby, and her throat went even tighter. "And Elise my sister spoke to you. Said she wanted me to take care of her kids. She said that. Before she—"
Again, Darby nodded. She felt chilled, even though the night was warm. She cleared her throat. "Her only thoughts were of her children."
"Who were safely inside the child-care center where you work."
"Yes. Marc and Elise were—" She hesitated, scrambling for composure. "Were on their way to pick them up. And the accident happened, um, on the corner
outside our building. I'm so sorry," she whispered. "The children—"
"An associate from my office is with the children right now," Laura cut in. "We thought it best until we'd had a chance to speak with you." She had at least twenty years on Darby's twenty-six, but even she looked a little red-eyed. "If you're unable to take your nieces and nephews, they'll be placed in a temporary foster home until we're able to reach their grandfather. We understand he left on a business trip earlier today. His plane is probably just now arriving in Florida, and we've got someone waiting at the airport there to tell him what has happened. We have very good foster homes in Fisher Falls, but it is something that we would all like to avoid, if possible. Family members are almost always preferred."
His square jaw tightened. "How did you know I was here? I've only been in Fisher Falls for two weeks."
"Your business card was in Elise's purse," Darby said. "Your address here was written on the back of it."
"I'm surprised she kept it," he murmured. Then blinked and raked one long-fingered hand through his thick black hair, leaving it standing in rumpled spikes. His shoulders rose and fell heavily as he looked back, into the modest-size house. "I'm not exactly set up for kids here. This place is just a rental."
Darby wasn't sure if he was speaking to them or to himself. He turned around again and focused those mossy-green eyes on her. "The kids you want me to take in. How old are they?"
Darby blinked, and abruptly gathered herself. Just because he was their uncle didn't mean he had to know their exact ages, she reasoned. He was new to town, as he'd admitted. Perhaps he hadn't seen them in a while.
"Regan is four, Reid is three. The triplets are nine months." She thought she heard him mutter an oath, but decided she'd imagined it. "They're wonderful children, really." Oh, why was she telling this man that? She cared for the Northrop children periodically at the Smiling Faces Child-Care Center; he was their blood. The children had been entrusted to him by their mother's last words; surely he knew how sweet his own nieces and nephews were.
"Mr. Cullum, I know this is a difficult situation. I'm sure we can arrange for any items you may need," Laura inserted calmly. "That is, if you do agree to your sister's wishes. We're not trying to force you to do so. I'm certain your father, once he returns from Florida will be anxious to—"
Darby barely heard the rest of the other woman's words as she watched Garrett Cullum's green eyes harden. No longer soft and mossy-green, they held all the warmth of ice chips. And Darby was glad that he wasn't looking at her just then.
"Where do I pick them up?" he asked abruptly.
The cell phone attached to Laura Malone's hip suddenly chirped to life, and she excused herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "I have to take this. I'm the senior social—"
Garrett waved away Laura's apology and looked at Darby, clearly expecting her to answer him. "They're still at the center," she told him. "We've got car seats and other things that you can use until.well, until." Darby felt sure that Molly Myers, the center's administrator, wouldn't protest her lending out their precious equipment. And in a few days, when Molly returned from her conference down in Minneapolis, she'd confirm it. Darby figured this infraction of the center's rules was understandable. Considering the circumstances.
Her throat tightened up again and her head ached deep behind her eyes. She drew in a short breath and focused hard on the pickup truck parked in the driveway. "Is that yours?" There was no way he'd be able to cart five children around in it. "We'll use my car," she suggested.
She jumped a little. He'd stepped down the porch and stood next to her. Towering over her. "Car seats." Four of them. Regan was old enough to use a seat belt. It would be a close fit, particularly since Garrett Cullum was broad in the shoulder and long in the leg. He was easily as tall as her brother, and Dane cleared six feet by a good two inches.
There was nothing brotherly about Garrett Cullum, though.
"Mr. Cullum." Laura Malone had finished her call and was holding out a business card. "Darby can take you back to the center. I'm sure she'll help as much as possible in seeing the children settled with you. She's been very helpful today, even fending off some reporters. If we weren't shorthanded already, I'd accompany you myself. I'll contact you when we've got a date to meet with the judge who will finalize the matter of the children."
Garrett slowly took the card.
"It probably won't be for a week or so," Laura warned. "We're just backed up all over the place with people going away for summer vacations. You'll be assigned a permanent caseworker, too. But if you need anything in the meantime, my number is on the card, plus on the back you'll note the name and numbers of the psychologists working with our department on cases such as this. You'll probably want to talk to—"
He pocketed the card, but his expression was closed. "Thanks."
The social worker nodded, then paused before walking toward her car parked at the curb. Her stoic expression softened for a moment. "Mr. Cullum, Garrett, I know you don't remember me, but I knew your mother. We went to high school together. And I knew Elise and Marc. Not well, but well, I am very sorry for your loss."
Then Darby and Garrett Cullum were alone.
She looked down at her hands, twisted together, as the evening silence seemed to thicken. No amount of training, of schooling, of experience had equipped her for a moment like this. "Perhaps we should go," she finally suggested. Then frowned at the desperation she heard in her own voice. That wouldn't do. Not at all.
Her keys jangled when she pulled them from the pocket of her pleated shorts and she started toward her car. The green paint was beginning to peel and the engine occasionally backfired, but the tires were sound and it held more passengers than the cab of his pickup truck.
She stopped and looked back at him. He hadn't moved one step.
"It is Darby. Right?"
She was glad for the darkening twilight. And for the distance between them. "Yes. Darby White." After three months now, she'd gotten to the point where she no longer stumbled over the name each time she used it. Yet the way he was watching her made her feel as if there was a giant warning light flashing on her forehead.
"The driver of the other car." He crossed the small patch of grass that was his front yard. "Phil something, I think Ms. Malone said. He didn't make it, either."
Her fingers closed around the jagged edges of her keys. "No. He didn't."
"His family has probably been notified, too."
Darby swallowed and turned to her car. "I have no idea," she murmured. The lie sat heavily, for she knew that Phil Candela had no family. He'd been too devoted to his job. "I think I heard someone say he was from out of town."
Garrett watched Darby round the aging sedan, purpose in her leggy stride. It was a lot easier to focus on her than think about the news she and the social worker had delivered.
Elise and her husband were dead.
And for reasons only Elise could have explained, she had managed to tell Darby that she wanted him to take care of her kids, before she'd slipped from life.
Him. Garrett Cullum. Caldwell Carson's bastard son who'd been shipped out of Fisher Falls nearly twenty years earlier when he'd been only fifteen years old. The half brother Elise had always gone out of her way to avoid, unless she had some specific purpose in tormenting him.
He pulled open the car door and folded himself into the front seat beside Darby. He watched Darby fumble with her keys for a moment, then the engine rumbled reluctantly to life. Maybe her car had more room than his truck, but he had a serious doubt as to whether the engine would survive the trip into the center of town, where he remembered the child-care center was located.
She shifted into gear and set off with only a small jerk, and stared fiercely through the windshield as she drove through the neighborhood. He'd chosen it because it was on the outskirts of town and was one of the few developments around that Caldwell's company, Castle Construction, hadn't built.
Most importantly, though, nobody on this side of town was likely to remember him. He'd come to Fisher Falls with a definite purpose, but the idea of constantly running into people he'd once known hadn't been particularly appealing.
Just as it hadn't been particularly delightful running into Elise the first week he'd arrived. He'd gone into the deli near the temporary office he'd set up, and there she'd been. Sitting alone at a table looking just as pampered and spoiled as she'd been when he was fifteen and she only a year younger.
If she hadn't popped out of her seat and stood in his way, he would have been happy to have pretended not to know her. But she had, and she'd acted as if she was delighted to see him. When he had cynically asked what she wanted, she'd laughed gaily and waved her hand, as if to dismiss his question. But when she'd asked why he was in town, he'd told her. Her smile hadn't wavered at all at his clear statement that he was establishing a new branch of his construction company in Fisher Falls, even though she had to know that he would be in direct competition with their father.
And for reasons that still confounded him, he'd ended up giving her his address and phone number here in town when she'd handed over to him a linen business card imprinted with her name and number in gold script.
As if they were likely to call each other up for a chat or something, for Christ's sake.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering that his half sister wouldn't be calling anyone ever again.
"Are you all right?"
He dropped his hand and looked at Darby. "No, I'm not all right." He saw her bite her lip as she focused again on the road ahead.
But he wasn't feeling impatient with her—only with himself. He stifled an oath and tore at his collar again, finally yanking his tie free and pulling it off. He balled it in his fist and looked at her.
The light was gradually fading, but it had been light enough to see her when he'd opened the door to find her and the social worker standing outside. Unlike Laura Malone, who'd been wearing a navy blue suit, Darby White wore tan shorts and shirt. The shorts were neither too long nor too short, and the legs they revealed were shapely and firm and way too long for someone whose head barely reached his shoulder. Her blue eyes had been moist, and she had a short mop of reddish hair that stuck out at all sorts of angles around her head.
Neither carrot-red nor auburn nor blond, but somewhere in between, the choppy, wavy feathers had captured the setting sun, causing each strand to gleam with fiery light, and she'd looked oddly appealing. Now, in the car's interior, her hair looked like licks of flame against her pale face, and he added vulnerable to the mix.
"The kids. What have they been told?" He watched her slender hands tighten even more around the steering wheel, and felt his stomach tighten, too.
"Um, nothing," she said huskily. "We kept them from seeing the cars through the front windows at the center. Laura thought the news might be better coming from you or Mr. Carson."
He exhaled roughly. Great.
She pulled into a well-lit parking lot beside the cheery-looking building, and Garrett couldn't help himself—he looked toward the corner. There was nothing remaining to indicate that a tragedy had occurred there earlier that day. The traffic signal still turned yellow, then red, even though there were no cars there to stop.
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of all that hadn't been. And all that wouldn't be.
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