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Two Weeks Later
The South Carolina sky was black. His boots, jeans, T-shirt, all black. They matched Adam Burdett's silent, gleaming Harleyand his mood.
He narrowed his eyes at the simple frame house before him. Though he had grown up around Mt. Knott, this part of the small town was unfamiliar to him. His family had tended to keep to their fancy homes outside of town and didn't interact much with others.
"Bad for business," his father had said. Better to draw a distinct line between employees or potential employeeswhich is how they saw everyone in townand friends. Never ask a personal question. Never commit anything more than a name and face to memory. Never offer more than the job description spelled out on paper. "You do those things," the old man had warned his sons while they stood in the office of his snack food factory, "and it makes it a lot harder to have to fire a person later. And you will have to fire one of them, maybe a lot of them at some point."
According to the letters to the editor in the Mt. Knott Mountain Laurel and Morning News that Adam had read when he hit town a few hours ago, the old man had known what he was talking about. A lot of people in town were out of work. Even more were out of patience with the lack of a solution to their plight. A few were pretty close to being thrown out of their homes.
He gritted his teeth and forced the mixed-up emotions in his gut to quiet. On one hand the failure of his father's factory was just what Adam had wanted. On the other
He gazed at the humble home again and exhaled, long and low. On the other hand, maybe there was something to be said for making connections,for caring about what happened to people once they walked out the factory door. He never had, and look where his callous attitude toward others had led him.
The empty matchbook in his hand rasped against his thumb as he flicked it open to check the address scrawled there. This was it. In this house, illuminated only by the pulsating light of a small-screen TV, Adam would find his son.
His son. The words tripped over his ragged nerves like a fingernail strummed over taut barbwire. Adam Burdett had a son.
He hadn't even known it until yesterday morning when a slick-haired private investigator had weaseled his way into Adam's office with the news and an unthinkable demandthat Adam sign away all rights to his child, sight unseen. There was about as much chance of that happening as there was of that P.I. ever suggesting such a notion again in this lifetime.
Adam hadn't belted the guy. But then again, he hadn't needed to.
Adam might look like nothing more than a good ol' boy, redneck rodeo rider with beef for brains, but looks, like too many other things in life, could be deceiving. Raised in a family of wealth and influence by a mother who treasured the value of an education, none of the Burdett boys were dummies. They could put thoughts and words together as well as they could fists and flesh.
And Adam had proven as much and then some to that paper-waving P.I. Give up his son for adoption and never look back? Adam huffed out a hard breath. Uh-uh. He'd never do to any child what had been done to him.
He folded his arms over his chest, fit one well-worn cowboy boot over the other at the ankle and leaned back against his parked Harley. EverythingAdam had become in this lifeand everything he had failed to becomehe owed first to his adoptive mother, who and next to his own father. Whoever that was.
He knew who it wasn't. It wasn't his adoptive father, Conner Burdett, the father of Adam's three brothers. Adopted brothers. It shouldn't have been important to add the "adopted" part. Adam had never felt it mattered to his mother, but to the others?
The long-legged and fair-haired Burdett boys claimed Adam as their own even though Adam's broad, muscular build, dark eyes and angular features told differently. The family never spoke of it outright, but Adam sensed the subtle differences. He knew the gnawing ache of never feeling sure that he truly belonged.
To the outside world, at least, Adam was just one of the wolf pack of Burdett boys. A picture flashed in his mind of the four of them standing on the porch of the huge Burdett home in T-shirts they'd had made with their family nicknames emblazoned on them. Those names not only told of each boy as an individual, but said a lot about the real nature of their relationship in the family.
The oldest son, Burke, was born to the title "Top Dawg" and he lived up to the designation. "Lucky Dawg," Adam's next younger brother, Jason, got his name after a near miss that could have cost him his life, or at least a limb, at the factory. The youngest of the Burdett boys, Cody, earned the name "Hound Dawg" for his notorious talent for trailing girls. It had hung with the kid even now that he had become the only Burdett son to marry. It even clung to him when he became a minister.
All three grown men now shared Conner's lean build and eyes, which some called blue green, others green blue. They had straight noses and golden tan complexions.
Adam glanced at his reflection in the Harley's side mirror. Dark-brown, hooded eyes stared back from a face the color of baked red Georgia clay. He swiped a knuckle at the small bump on the bridge of his nose and sneered.
If his looks didn't give anyone doubts as to where Adam honestly fit into the Burdett family they would have only to hear his nickname to figure it all out. His mother said they'd tagged him with it young because they could never keep him in one place, that he shared her wanderlust. Her story rang true enough, he supposed, but that didn't ease the twinge of pain he felt every time the man they all knew was not his father called him by his nickname"Stray Dawg."
All the old feelings twisted in Adam's gut. He refused to let a child of his become another stray, raised by someone who could never fully call the boy his own. No way. Not possible. And he'd do anything within his power to keep it from happeningeven go crawling back to the scene of his greatest bravado and worst behavior. Back to Mt. Knott, if not back to his family.
Not that they'd have him back.
Adam had roared out of Mt. Knott a week after his mother's funeral, with an inheritance in hand, all ties to the family business severed and a hangover that had all but erased the events of his last nights in town.
He hadn't heard from or seen his family now in a year and a half but they had surely heard of him. His new position with a competitor had all but run the Burdett boys out of business. Now in order to do the right thing by his baby, he'd had to come home to a place where he knew he would not be welcome. But he would do it. He'd do anything for this baby he had not yet seen.
He scuffed his boot heel on the pocked driveway as he straightened away from his treasured Harley. He'd waited long enough. It was time to go and claim his heir.
Josie hadn't even bothered to lock up the diner. She had just tossed the keys to the young man who did the dishes and asked him to see to it. The message from the young girl who watched Nathan on Thursday evenings, when Josie stayed open until nine, had been muddled by panic. But two words stood out that had caused Josie to tear off her apron and all but run the two blocks from her business to her small rental house.
man who had the power to grant her the one thing she wanted most in lifethe chance to adopt the baby boy she'd loved as her own since his birthwas in her home.
She drew in the smell of coffee and day-old pie clinging to her pale-blue T-shirt and the fluffy white scrunchie holding back her curly hair. She'd had to wait a week to get up the nerve and the funds to hire a private detective to contact the man on the birth certificate. Not that she couldn't have tracked him down herself but, well, just looking at the name made her anxious. Adam Burdett!
She hadn't known him but she certainly knew of him. And in a funny way, what she knew had filled her with what now seemed false confidence.
After all, he was the one who had turned his back on his own family and a whole town. How serious could he be about wanting to play a part in his son's life when he had done that? He was Mr. One-Night Stand. According to her sister, he hadn't even called the next day to say whatever it is a guy says after an encounter like that.
Josie wouldn't know that kind of thing. She and her sister might be identical twins, but their lifestyles were as different as their personalities. Yin and yang. Their mother, a "free thinker" who couldn't keep a job, didn't want a marriage and seemed always in pursuit of the latest trend in spiritual enlightenment, called them that. Light and dark. Day and night.
Josephine and Ophelia.
Josie snorted out a laugh. Even their names said it all. Josephine sounded sturdy, practical. She worked hard and wanted nothing more than to serve the Lord, make a permanent place to call home, to create a family with a man she could trust and depend upon. And to be the kind of woman he could depend upon in return.
"He's in your bedroom," the sitter whispered the last word as Josie hit the front door of her house.
Josie gave the girl a reassuring nod and headed down the hallway. If she could afford a house with more than one bedroom, he'd be in the nursery, but since the crib was in her room, she had expected to find him there. She pulled in one long breath, peered into the dim room, illuminated by only a soft glowing light on her dresser. She stole a quick peek at her sleeping baby, then pushed open her door with one hand, ready to do battle. "I don't know what you think you're doing. But if you value your life, you'll get your hands out of my drawers."
He looked as if he was about to swear, but he didn't, though Josie suspected it was more from shock than good manners or morality. He shut the small drawer he'd been peeking into. He peered at her, instead, then his whole face changed. His eyes narrowed. He smirked a bit. "I didn't expect to run into you here."
The deep gravel-throated whisper made her shiver. She froze in the shaft of light pouring in from the hallway. Her stomach clenched. "I'd say you're looking good, but then, you know that, don't you? You always look good." He did not move into the light, remaining just a silhouette against the mirror above her chest of drawers.
"Even after all this time and after everything you've been through. You look as good as the last time I saw you, Ophelia."
Josie blinked in the darkness, hoping her eyes would adjust to sharpen his image. At the same time, she wanted to clear up a few things for him, as well. "Listen, pal, you've made a mistake. I'm not"
He stepped from the shadows into the muted light. Josie's mouth hung open, her every sense in that one instant focused on the man who held her future in his big, calloused hands.
He wasn't huge, though he seemed larger than life in presence. His shoulders angled up from a trim waist and western-cut jeans that bunched in furrows over his traditional-style cowboy boots. What she saw of his face, his strong jaw, determined mouth and slightly crooked nose made a compelling, if not classically handsome, image.
He moved in on her, like something powerful and wild sizing up his prey. His eyes glittered.
She pressed her lips together, too angry at his supposition and his presumptive presence to trust herself to speak.
He began to slowly circle her so close that his soft shirtsleeve rasped against her bare elbow.
The man was playing games with heror more to the point, with Ophelia.
Ophelia liked games. They were her stock and trade. The man was no fool to go on the offensive to try to beat Ophelia at her own impressive bag of tricks. A sucker for excitement and danger, this predatory act might have been just the thing to get Josie's twin to go all liquid and make her easier to negotiate with.
But she wasn't Ophelia. She was smart, practical Josie. The dull one. The mom with a child to protect. This man's act was totally lost on her.
His boots scuffed lightly at the floor.
She tossed her head back, lifted her chin in her best attempt at regal composure. If he wanted to deal with her, it would be as two mature adults, no games, no stooping to base animal attraction to put her at a disadvantage. "Listen, cowboy, I know what you're up to."
His shoulder brushed against the curls trailing down her neck from the knot of hair atop her head.
A wolf, that's what he reminded her of, she decided. "I am not the same woman you shared a bed with a couple years ago."