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Of all the mishaps that had happened todaystubborn cattle, broken gates, his ATV running out of gasWyatt Black definitely hadn't seen this one coming.
His boots scuffed in the dust leading to the sagging porch, his gaze riveted on the oddly shaped lump next to his front door. It was rounded and pink. Pink? After a pause, he quickened his steps. A sound came from the bundle, a small squeaking sound.
Three steps later his heart pounded as his eyes confirmed his initial assessment. It was, indeed, a baby seat. For a few brief moments he'd nearly convinced himself he was seeing things. But there was no mistaking the pink canopy. He took the veranda steps slowly, confused. What the hell?
Two steps away from the seat he could see a small white chubby hand, the fingers curled in, delicate pink fingernails tipping the tiny digits.
And then there she was. A small mite of a thing, eyes closed and lips sucking gently in and out with her breath as her hands moved restlessly. A hint of dark fuzz peeked out from beneath a stretchy pink hat, and a blanket patterned with white and pink teddy bears covered all of her but her hands. A baby. And beside her a navy-and-white cloth bag, as if announcing she was staying for a while.
Wyatt's heart raced as the necessary questions flew through his mind. He put down his toolbox with a quiet thud. Who was this child's mother and, more importantly, where was she? Why had a baby been left on his doorstep?
It was inconceivable that this miniature human could be meant for him. There had to be some mistake. The alternative was momentarily staggering. Was it possible that she might be his flesh and blood? He stared at the lashes lying on her china-doll cheeks. She was so little. He counted back several months, then breathed out in relief. No, it was impossible. A year ago he'd been outside Rocky Mountain House working as a roughneck. There'd been no one. He had always kept his relationships on the unserious side and short. There'd been no sense letting a woman get her hopes up when he hadn't been in a position to settle down. He wasn't into playing games.
He exhaled fully. No, this baby wasn't hishe was sure of it. The core of tension in his body eased slightly, but not completely. The baby couldn't be his, but that still left the questionwhose was she?
And what was he supposed to do with her?
As if hearing his question, she lifted her fringe of black lashes and he caught sight of dark eyes. The hands waved even more as she woke. Then, as if knowing he was the last person she should see, her face scrunched up pitifully and a thin cry pierced the silence.
He breathed a profanity in shock and dismay. He couldn't just leave her there crying, for God's sake! What should he do now? He knew nothing about babies. He glanced around the yard and up the road, knowing it was a futile exercise. Whoever had left her on his doorstep was long gone.
He reached out and grasped the white plastic handle of the car seat, picking it up with his right hand and tugging open the front door with his left. He certainly had to get the baby out of the September chillsurely it couldn't be good for her. He didn't even stop to take off his boots, just went straight through to the kitchen at the rear of the house and put the seat on a worn countertop. The thin cry echoedseeming sharper, stronger in the confined space. Wyatt took off his hat and hooked it over the knob of a kitchen chair before turning back to the unhappy bundle.
He lifted the blanket, momentarily marveling that a creature so tiny and fragile could emit such a shrill, ear-piercing cry. A quick search of the recesses of the seat revealed no clues to her identity, and he ran a hand through his hair as the cries increased, feet wiggling furiously now as well as hands.
"Shhh, baby," he murmured, his stomach sinking beneath the weight of the situation. He couldn't just leave her this way. He reached out to unfasten the buckle strapping her in and pulled back once he caught a glimpse of his hands. He'd been herding stubborn cattle and fixing rundown fences all morning. Pulse still hammering, he rushed to the sink and the bar of soap he kept on the rim in an old chipped dish.
He scrubbed his hands in the water, all the while looking over his shoulder at the baby, his nerves fraying as the cries grew more impatient. Instinct told him that he should pick her up. Babies needed to be soothed, right? After all, he'd be pretty ticked off at being strapped into a seat all day. He threw the hand towel next to the sink and went back to the seat. "Shhh," he repeated, desperate now to stop the crying. "I've got you. Just stop crying."
He released the strap and reached out, took the baby, blanket and all, from the seat and rested her on the crook of his arm.
The red blotchy face signaled more crying, and the wee body stiffened with outrage.
"Hey," Wyatt cajoled, wondering now if he shouldn't call 911. Surely this was an emergency. How many people came home to find a baby on their doorstep, after all?
How had this possibly happened?
Dimly he recalled that a bag had been on the veranda along with the seat. It was his best hope for a clue, he realized, so, baby and all, he opened the sagging screen door with his hip and retrieved the bag. His boots thunked on the scarred hardwood as he went back to the kitchen and the counter, putting the bag on top. Trying to ignore the crying, he wrestled the zipper with one hand while holding the baby tightly with his other arm. Perhaps in here there would be a name, an address. Some way to sort out this horrible mistake and return the baby to where she really belonged.
He pulled out a handful of tiny diapers, then a pair of pajamas with soft feet, and a stuffed animal. One, two, three bottles and a can of some sort of powder added to the collection on the counter. Then more bottles. He ran his hand along the inside of the bag. More clothes, but nothing else.
Irritation flared, now that the initial shock was fading away. This was craziness, pure and simple. For God's sake, what kind of person left a baby on a stranger's porch and walked away? What kind of mother would do such a thing? What if he hadn't come back for lunch and she'd been left there all day? He let out a frustrated breath. Okay. Without a doubt the smart thing to do would be to call the police.
And then he felt it. Something stiff near the front of the bag. He lifted a Velcro tab and reached into a front pocket. An envelope.
Adjusting the baby's weight on his arm, he opened the flap, went to a kitchen chair and sat down. Heavily.
His eyes scanned the page. As if sensing something important were occurring, the infant quieted and she plunged a fist into her mouth, sucking noisily and whimpering. Wyatt read the brief words, his back sagging into the chair, staring at the plain paper and then at the tiny girl in his hands.
Holy jumpin' Judas.
Her name was Darcy. He said her name, tried it out on his tongue, his throat closing as the sound of his voice faded away in the quiet kitchen. The answer that greeted him was a fresh wail punctuated by a sad hiccup.
The break had helped only to increase the baby's vocal reserves. Her crying rose to a fever pitch and Wyatt closed his eyes, still reeling from the contents of the letter. He had to make her stop so he could think what to do next. His stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him why he'd come back to the house in the first place.
Maybe she was hungry, too.
As the inspiration struck he grabbed one of the bottles off the counter where he'd unloaded the diaper bag. At the first touch of plastic nipple to lips, Darcy opened her mouth and frantically started sucking at the milk inside. That was it! A sense of pride and relief raced through him as he went to the living room, sitting on the old couch with its sagging cushions and wiggling arms. He leaned back, rested his feet on a wood box he had pressed into use as a coffee table. Blessed silence filled the room as she drained the small bottle, her tiny body nestled into the crook of his elbow. She felt foreign there, unlike anything he'd ever held before. Not unpleasant. Just.different.
Her eyes drifted closed once more. Had he actually put her to sleep, as well? Thank God. With some peace and quiet, he could take a look at that letter again, try to sort it out. One thing was for sure.Darcywhoever she wascouldn't stay here.
The little lips slackened and a dribble of milk slid down her chin into the soft skin of her neck. He was struck by how tiny, how helpless she was. As gently as he possibly could, he slid her back into her seat and covered her with the blanket. Then he went to the fridge, got out an apple to substitute for the lunch he'd missed. He took a bite and returned to the letter he'd left open on the table.
He read it again, and again, and once more for good measure. Half his brain told him there was some mistake. The other half, the part that nagged and taunted him each day of his life, nudged him cruelly and said he shouldn't be surprised. The apple tasted dry and mealy in his mouth, and he swallowed with difficulty.
Darcy was his niece.
Born to a sister he'd pretended hadn't existed.
He rubbed a hand over his face. Oh, he'd known for a long time that his father wouldn't win any awards for parent of the year. But he recognized the name at the bottom of the plain sheet. Barbara Paulsen had been two years behind him in high school. All the kids had known that she had no dad. She'd borne her share of ridicule, all right. Bastard Barb, they'd called her. He cringed, thinking about the cruelty of it now. He'd never joined in the teasing. It would have been too easy for the tables to be turned. He'd deserved the name as much as she had. There'd been rumors back then, of his father having an affair with Barb's mother. Barbara's dark hair and eyes had been so similar to hisand to Mitch Black's.
He'd always hated that he'd favored his father rather than his mother in looks. He didn't want to be anything like his father. Ever.
He'd chosen to turn a deaf ear to the rumors, but inside, a small part of him had always taunted that it was true.
According to the letter, they shared the same father. It wasn't much of a stretch for Wyatt to believe her. It had been no secret in his house that Mitch Black had married Wyatt's mother to do the right thing after getting her in trouble. And it had been a disaster.
Wyatt scowled, staring at the wall behind the table. Hell, even dead, his father still created ripples of destruction. Now Barbaraclaiming to be his sisterfound herself in the same position, and was asking for his help. Temporarily. But asking for it just the same.
The fact that she had left Darcy on his step meant one of two things. Either she was as great a parent as their father had been, or she was desperate. Reading between the lines of the letter, he was leaning toward desperation.
But it didn't solve a damn thing where he was concerned. He was now in possession of an infant. And he was a single man, trying to run a ranch, who knew nothing about babies. Maybe he should simply call the authorities.
He ran a hand over his face, heaving a sigh. The authorities, though, would call child welfare. He knew that much. And if Barbara were truly his half sister, she'd already suffered enough. He'd made no contact with her since leaving Red Deer. It had been easier to pretend she didn't exist. Easier to ignore yet another symbol of the disrespect Mitch had shown his family.
No, if he called, Family Services would take the baby away. Not just from him, but maybe from her, too, and the thought made his stomach clench.
Once he made the call, there would be no taking it back. What he needed to do was buy some time. He needed to talk to Barbara. Figure out the whole situation and make a better decision.
An ear-splitting scream shattered the air, scattering his thoughts into tiny fragments and making his eyes widen with the sheer panic echoing in his ears. He looked overDarcy's face was red and the cries had a new, desperate edge to them. What now? He walked the floor, holding Darcy in the crook of his arm, at his wit's end. Until today, he'd never held a baby in his life.
He needed help. Even to make it through this one day so he could figure out what to do next. Maybe he shouldn't, but he felt responsible. Even if it turned out not to be true, he felt an obligation to make the right decision. It wasn't Darcy's fault she'd been left here. If what Barbara Paulsen said was true, she was family.
You shouldn't turn your back on family. He'd always believed it somehow, but had never had the chance to prove it.
His muscles tensed at the persistent wails. He couldn't do this, not alone. Who could he possibly call? His parents had been gone nearly five years. He'd been in the house only for the summer, after drifting around the upper half of Alberta for years now, earning his fortune in the oil patch and never staying in one place for long. He was alone, and for the most part that was how he liked it.
Until now. Right now he could really use a helping hand.
And then he remembered his neighbor. Not technically his neighbor either. He'd met Ellison Marchuk exactly once. She was housesitting for the Camerons, and despite being incredibly attractive, had no more sense than God gave a flea. Whatever possessed a woman to go traipsing through a pasture housing his bullin search of flowers!was beyond him. And then she'd had the nerve to call him grouchy, with a toss of her summer-blond hair. Grouchy as a wounded bear, if memory served correctly.
Ellison Marchuk would not have been his first choice, but she was a woman and she was next door, both qualifications that put her head and shoulders above anyone else he knew. Surely she would have some idea what to do with a baby. At this point, looking at the tiny face twisted in agony, anyone would know what to do better than he did. His nerves were fraying more by the minute. He just needed help quieting her crying. He'd take it from there.
Amidst the shrieking cries and against his better judgment, he wrapped the blanket around Darcy and headed for the door.
Elli rubbed her eyes and slid a bookmark into the textbook, pushing it to the side. If she read any more today about profit-and-loss statements she'd go cross-eyed by the end of the week. Taking the courses by correspondence had benefits and drawbacks. Still, they'd help her get back on her feet, something she needed to do sooner rather than later. Being laid off from the hospital was just the icing on the cake after the year from hell. It was time to take action. To find a purpose again.
Right now she just wanted a cup of hot chocolate and something to break up her daymake her stop thinking. She'd had way too much time to think lately. About all her failures, mostly.
She jumped as someone pounded on the front door, and she pressed a hand to her heart. She still wasn't used to the way things echoed around the vaulted ceilings of the Camerons' house, including the sound of her footsteps as she went to the foyer. The house was so different from the condo she'd shared with Tim in Calgary. It had been nice, in a good area of town, but this was.
She sighed. This was exactly what Tim had aspired to.
This was the sort of McMansion he'd mapped out for them. Maybe he'd get it yet. Just not with her.
The pounding sounded again. She peered through the judas hole and her mouth dropped open. It was the neighbor, the new rancher who lived next door. Her teeth clenched as she recalled their one and only meeting. Wyatt Black, he'd informed her in a tone that could only be considered brusque at best. He'd yelled at her and called her stupid. The remark had cut her deeply. Normally she would have brushed off the insultshe'd been called so many names as a clerk in the emergency room that she'd developed a thick skin. But in light of recent events, it had made her eyes burn with humiliation. She'd called him something, too, but she couldn't remember what. She vaguely remembered it had been more polite than the words going through her mind at the time. She'd stomped back to the house and hadn't seen him since.
Now here he was, all six brawny feet of him. Elli pressed her eye up to the peephole once more and bit down on her lip. Dark hair and stormy eyes and a mouth pulled tight in a scowl. And in his arms.
Dear Lord. A baby.
As he knocked on the door again, Elli jumped back. Now she could hear the thin cries threading through the solid oak. She reached out and turned the heavy knob, pulling the door inward, and stepped out into the afternoon sun.
"Oh, thank God."
Elli's eardrums received the full blast of the infant's cries mediated only by Wyatt's deep but stressed, voice. "What on earth?"
Mr. Dark and Scowly stepped forward, enough that his body started to invade her space, and she stepped back in reflex.