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Wade Hunter trudged up the rickety stairs of the rent-by-the-week apartment hotel. As he climbed to his second-floor unit in the fading October daylight, he repeated the words that had kept him going in the months since the Northern California town of Pine Tree had laid off half its police force: "Today something will change my life for the better."
He didn't bother glancing at the handful of mail he'd pulled from his locked mailbox. That could wait until he sat down. His feet hurt from his part-time job providing private security for a cluster of warehouses, his cheek still smarted from the punch he'd taken at his second job as a bar bouncer and his heart ached from losing the close-knit group of fellow officers who'd been like a family.
Quit feeling sorry for yourself. You'll turn this around.
Inside, Wade tossed the envelopes and advertisements on a chipped end table. After hanging his jacket over the back of a chair, he kicked off his shoes and sank onto the creaky couch. With a sense of homecoming, he picked up his lovingly polished guitar and flexed his hands.
For a few indulgent moments, he fingered chords and hummed a country-and-western song. Not loudly, though. Downstairs neighbors had complained the last time he sang full-out.
What were they complaining about? It had been a reasonable hour, and he'd won prizes in karaoke contests.
Too tired to get up and stick a frozen dinner in the microwave, Wade reached for the mail. Most of it had been forwarded several timesthere'd been an interim month when he stayed at a more expensive motelbut there was one address he'd kept current. And here it was, the envelope he'd been waiting for, from the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.
His breath catching in his throat, Wade opened it.
His muscles relaxed. It confirmed that he'd passed the exam to earn his private investigator's license. All he had to do was submit the licensing fee of $175.
Ouch. He'd been saving every penny he could, but that wasn't easy, especially with child-support payments. Still, this license might help Wade find a job with a detective agency. While he'd prefer a position at another police department, layoffs throughout California made that unlikely in the short term.
Becoming a P.I. wasn't what he'd dreamed of nearly a decade ago when he'd earned his degree in criminal justice. But if there was one thing Wade had learned in his thirty years, it was to focus on today and let the future take care of itself.
Invigorated by the sense of moving forward at last, he heated a beef dinner before scanning the other mail. Since he kept up with his bills and bank statements online, these were mostly ads. One long envelope, creased and marked with forwarding addresses, bore the logo of a law firm with a return address in the Southern California town of Safe Harbor.
Wade stiffened. The only people he'd stayed in touch with in his hometown were his father and, indirectly, a woman he'd rather not think about. Now here was a letter from Geoff Humphreys, attorney. According to the logo, the man specialized in family law.
No doubt this had something to do with Vicki Cavill. She'd driven Wade out of town by threatening to file false charges that could have derailed his law enforcement career. She'd also deprived him of the most precious thing in his life.
And, goaded by bad advice and his own immaturity, he'd let her.
No more running. Since the first of the year, she hadn't cashed his child-support checks. The woman was hopelessly disorganized. This wasn't the first time she'd gone for months before cashing a batch of checks, although it had never been this long.
Now she'd apparently hired a lawyer. Did she plan to shake him down for larger payments? If so, she'd have a fight on her hands.
He tore open the envelope.
"What do you mean he won't waive his parental rights?" Dr. Adrienne Cavill stared across the desk at Geoff Humphreys. "My sister barely knew him, and he abandoned his son as an infant. Vicki's will appointed me as Reggie's guardian. Why should what's-his-name have any rights?"
Hearing the shrillness in her voice, she stopped to take a deep breath. Working the overnight shift at Safe Harbor Medical Center's labor and delivery unit wreaked havoc on her body's sleep rhythms. And although the hospital's attorney had mentioned there might be complications when he'd referred her to Geoff, she hadn't anticipated any serious obstacles to adopting her nephew.
She wished now that she'd pushed harder to complete the adoption right after her sister's death in a single-car crash last New Year's Eve, but it had seemed little more than a formality. Also, between working long hours to pay off medical-school bills and providing a loving home for Reggie, Adrienne simply hadn't had the energy.
"Matters were not exactly as your sister represented them." With his receding hairline and calm manner, Geoff had a reassuringly paternal air. He was also the husband of a popular teacher at Reggie's elementary school and a father himself. "He's been sending checks to her at a post-office box. When I reached him by phone yesterday, he was wondering why they hadn't been cashed since the first of the year."
"He was helping support Vicki?" Adrienne hadn't paid much attention to her sister's messy finances, aside from the legal necessity of closing out Vicki's meager checking account and paying off her bills after her death. Suffering from bipolar disorder and drinking heavily, Vicki had spent every penny she earned as a housecleaner, and more. "She described him as a deadbeat."
"He emailed me copies of the canceled checks." Geoff gave a sympathetic sigh. "He also says that he sent gifts for his son. I presume she gave them to your nephew without revealing where they came from."
Adrienne could scarcely speak. "I had no idea." She rallied quickly. "But he's a total stranger to Reggie, and Vicki appointed me as guardian."
Geoff winced. Attorneys ought to have poker faces, Adrienne thought irritably, despite how much she'd appreciated his sympathetic glance a minute ago.
"I'm afraid that under California law, his rights trump yours," the lawyer said. "His name is on the birth certificate, and he informs me that he took a DNA test."
"And then skipped town," Adrienne replied bitterly. "Where was he when Vicki went off her medication and my mom was dying? I moved in with them for Reggie's sake. He could have used a father."
"According to Mr. Hunter, your sister threatened to accuse him of abuse and file a restraining order," Geoff said. "Since he was a police officer, that could have damaged or destroyed his career."
Vicki had been capable of unreasonable behavior. Despite a sweet and loving nature during her best periods, she'd been unstable, to put it mildly. That didn't excuse the man's neglect of his son. "Surely he's moved on. Married, with kids?"
"Not married, no kids," Geoff said. "I hate to mention it, but there's another issue."
Oh, great. "Which is?"
"As Reggie's father, he could claim control over the half interest in your house that his son inherited." The lawyer paused to let that bombshell sink in.
"He could what?" Adrienne wasn't sure why she bothered to reply, because she understood what she'd just heard. But it was unthinkable. "I'll see him in court."
Geoff raised a hand placatingly. "Naturally, a court will take into account what's best for the boy. You're an obstetrician with a steady income and a lifelong relationship with your nephew. And Mr. Hunter is, I understand, between jobs."
"Unemployed?" Typical of Vicki's boyfriends. "Naturally."
"However," the lawyer continued, "a court battle will be expensive and may not be in Reggie's best interest. In the worst-case scenario, Wade Hunter wins, insists you buy out his half of the house and takes his son away. And since you've become his enemy, he refuses to allow contact."
Tears of frustration burned behind Adrienne's eyelids. She'd weathered so much these past few years, standing strong for her sister while taking responsibility for Reggie. Did his so-called father have a clue how hard she'd worked to find trustworthy sitters, to maintain friendships that substituted for family and to nurture her vulnerable nephew?
"An antagonistic attitude isn't in your best interest or Reggie's," Geoff went on. "My recommendation is to reach an agreement with Mr. Hunter to share custody or to gain primary custody with generous visitation for him."
Adrienne felt an urge to pound on something, except that as a doctor, she didn't dare risk damaging her hands. Also, it would be childish. "What do you suggest I do next?"
Geoff smiled, clearly pleased at her decision to accept his advice. "He's driving down this weekend to stay with his father, who lives in town. He's eager to meet his little boy."
"If he thinks he can blow into Reggie's life and then out again " Adrienne halted. Wasn't that exactly what she hoped Wade Hunter would do? "Fine. Reggie's sixth birthday party is Sunday but his real birthday isn't until next Tuesday. I suppose this man will expect to see his son on his birthday."
"I'll find out if he can meet with you and me before then to lay some ground rules. How about Monday?"
Since that was one of her days off, Adrienne nodded. "Early afternoon would be best."
"If it's any consolation, he seemed like a rational fellow on the phone."
Okay, so the man had paid support and sent a few presents. Still, it was hard to adjust her mental image when for so long she had pictured Reggie's father as a jerk.
And he hadn't been there for his son. Despite Vicki's threats, he could have tried harder.
As she left the office, Adrienne considered how to break the news to her nephew. At this age, Reggie spun fantasies about his dad being a superhero who would swoop in to rescue him if trouble threatened. All Wade Hunter had to do was show a little kindness, and he'd capture the boy's heart.
In reality it was Adrienne who'd swooped in to rescue Reggie. And she suspected that once this stranger tired of playing Daddy to a kid with real needs, she'd have to do it all over again.
Might as well wait until Monday to tell Reggie. She'd rather keep everything normal for him as long as possible.
When Wade exited the freeway at Safe Harbor Boulevard, he inhaled the briny tang in the air with bittersweet nostalgia. This used to be his home. After six years away, he felt like a stranger.
Although he kept in touch with his father, Daryl, and they met for the occasional camping trip or for a weekend of watching NASCAR races, Wade rarely made the nine-hour drive to his hometown. His last visit had been years ago, and memories of a wrenching argument with his grandfather still stung. Now he figured he'd stay with Daryl while he secured his claim on his son and put out feelers for a job in the area.
Having worked at the Safe Harbor Police Department early in his career, Wade had applied there, but the department's tight budget meant there were no hiring plans. He'd received the same response at other nearby agencies.
But while he might not be able to provide little Reggie a home instantly, he intended to demand custody as soon as it became feasible. As for the kid's aunt, he appreciated that she'd stepped up to the plate in the past, but with a sister like Vicki, how reliable could she be, even if she was a doctor?
Wade steered his black sports coupe downhill from the freeway. At barely eight o'clock on Sunday morning, not much was stirring. He'd left Pine Tree late last night after working a final shift at the warehouse. Every paycheck counted.
To the south, he glimpsed an expanse of blue where the Pacific Ocean sprawled beyond the town's namesake harbor. Wade could also see the six-story medical center where Vicki had barred him from the maternity ward after Reggie's birth. Based on whatever she'd claimed about him, a guard had escorted him out, refusing to let him hold his son. Maybe he should have hired a lawyer and insisted on his rights, but the situation had caught him unprepared.
Anger and shame twisted inside him as he stopped for a red light. He'd do things differently now, but at twenty-four he'd been unsure of what it meant to be a father.
When he'd told his captain at the police department about Vicki's threat to file for a restraining order if he insisted on contact, the man had warned him to keep his distance. Pay the child support and be more careful who he hooked up with in future had been the gist of the captain's remarks. Wade's father had put it more succinctly: Save yourself. Get the hell out of Dodge.
Now everything was about to change. He had a son, and he refused to let anyone stand between them.
Except that you have no idea how to be a father. Daryl hadn't been much of a role model, acting more like a buddy than a parent. And in Pine Tree most of Wade's socializing had been with other bachelors.
Well, he intended to learn. There were books and the internet and, he hoped, some long-dormant instincts.
A few blocks farther, he turned into an apartment complex and parked in a visitor's spot. Carrying his laptop, his guitar and a duffel bag containing essential gear, he followed a path to the manager's unit.
Carefully, Wade twisted the knob. His father, who got free rent by handling caretaker duties in addition to his job as a mechanic, had promised to leave his place unlocked rather than be awakened this early.
The instant the door opened, the smell of beer hit him. He stopped, uneasy. His father had a tendency to go on occasional drinking binges, punctuated by periods of sobriety. Daryl always claimed he could control his drinking, and despite serious doubts about that, Wade realized he had no power to run his father's life.
He was reaching for the light switch when he heard a snore. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Wade made out his father sprawled on the couch, sitting with his head thrown back as if he'd fallen asleep while watching TV. A couple beer cans littered the coffee table, but the TV was off. It must have a sleep setting.
Morning light, faint as it was, proved unkind to Daryl Hunter. Even at this angle, Wade could see the pallor of his father's skin, the red veins in his nose and the thinning hair. Some of that might merely be signs of age, butquick mental calculationhis dad was only fifty-two. At roughly the same age, the police chief in Pine Tree looked healthy and fit. Or had until he'd gained a few worry lines over the layoffs.
Stepping softly to avoid disturbing his father, Wade headed into the bedroom. The smell of unwashed sheets gave him pause. He hoped this was a weekend spree rather than an indication that his father's condition was deteriorating.
Daryl had left his career as an Orange County deputy sheriff years ago, supposedly because he hated the shift schedule, although later Wade had wondered if alcohol had been a factor. Then he'd worked for a while at Grandpa Bruce's detective agency, Fact Hunter Investigations, but Daryl and Grandpa had butted heads. Not surprising considering Bruce's rigid nature, which was one reason Wade wouldn't consider applying there now.
After depositing his cases on the carpet, he went out to his car and brought in his large bag and bedroll. In the living room, Daryl had shifted position and was now snoring full force.
Wade unrolled the sleeping bag on top of the bed and took off his shoes. As he lay waiting for sleep, he conceded that two things had become obvious.
He should forget about trying to find a job through his father's contacts; if Daryl was drinking heavily, a recommendation from him was more likely to work against Wade than for him. Also, the sooner he found a job and his own apartment, the better.