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A pricey pewter-colored SUV blocked Carly's driveway Monday evening.
She maneuvered the stroller around the big bumper and glanced at her house. The setting sun's slanted rays revealed an equally expensive-looking man on her porch swing. If he was the dishwasher repairman she'd called this morning, then she seriously needed to consider changing occupations because appliance repair paid better than physical therapy.
He rose as she turned up the walk, unfolding a tall and broad-shouldered frame beneath a black suit and pale yellow shirt and knotted black patterned tie. Short dark hair swept back from his forehead, and as she drew nearer she noticed the intense green eyes set beneath thick eyebrows in a gorgeous face. The kind of face that could launch a thousand sexual fantasies.
Despite the oppressive June heat and Miami humidity, he looked fresh from the boardroom while she dripped with sweat. And he had the successful and affluent thing going for him which meant he was probably one of Marlene's men.
Sadness slammed Carly like a rogue wave and sucked at her footsteps, tugging her into a riptide of grief. Maybe he didn't know Marlene was
Carly swallowed the lump rising in her throat.
Gone. Her twin was gone. Forever. And all Carly had left of Marlene was her sister's precious baby boy.
She blinked at the sting of tears. When her vision cleared, she registered that this guy was young. Early thirties. Her sister had preferred wealthy men, specifically wealthy older men. Like Everett Kincaid. Rhett's daddy.
As if her nephew knew Carly was thinking about the father he'd never met and now never would meet, Rhett let loose a string of one-year-old babble.
God, she loved him. He was so darned adorable she wanted to snatch him up and hug him until he squealed. Hug him like she'd never hugged her own daughter. She tamped down that disturbing thought.
Rhett would get his cuddle, but first she had to deal with her visitor. "Can I help you?"
"Carly Corbin?" His voice was deep, polished, clipped. He descended the porch stairs to join her on the sidewalk and his eyes raked over her, making her conscious of her faded, skimpy running shorts, sweat-dampened T-shirt and stringy ponytail.
She had to tip her head back to look into his face. "Who's asking?"
"I'm Mitch Kincaid."
Anger flashed through Carly. So this was the jerk who'd done everything he could to break up her sister and Everett and who'd later tried to bully Marlene into having an abortion. It was because of his pestering that Marlene had given up her luxury apartment and moved in with Carly.
She'd heard about Everett's older children from Marlene.
Fear expanded in her chest, crowding out the anger. God help her if the Kincaids ever found out about Marlene's plot to snare Everett. Carly was terrified they would use it to take Rhett from her.
But they won't find out. You burned Marlene's journal. Nobody but you knows and you're not telling.
She dampened her suddenly dry lips. "And?"
"I'm here to meet
my brother. Is that him?" His narrowed gaze swept Rhett from his shock of baby-fine dark hair to his drool-covered grinning face to his chubby knees and double-knotted sneakers.
"Half brother," she corrected. "And, yes. This is Rhett."
Mitch's surprise-widened eyes found hers. "He looks like a Kincaid."
"Did you think Marlene lied?"
"DNA proved she didn't." His bitter tone indicated displeasure over that circumstance. "May I come in?"
Carly truly believed in close-knit family ties and wanted those for Rhett, but something was off here. Rhett's handsome half brother hadn't squatted down to the child's level or even spoken to him directly. That made her uneasy.
"Maybe another time. I need to feed Rhett, give him his bath and get him ready for bed."
"It's about Rhett's inheritance."
She bit her lip. Marlene hadn't had life insurance. At twenty-eight, she hadn't believed she needed it. Neither of them had. Carly made a decent salary, but the burial costs, child care and car and house payments consumed most of her income. She didn't know how she'd sock money away for Rhett's college education. "Everett provided for him?"
Kincaid's sexy full lips flattened and his eyes hardened. "Conditionally."
"Up. Up." Rhett held up his arms and squirmed to get out of the stroller.
Carly unbuckled him and lifted his warm, wiggly little body against hers. She held him tight and savored his sweet baby smell. "What do you mean conditionally?"
"Perhaps we could discuss my father's will while you feed the boy."
The boy. Kincaid hadn't even made eye contact with the boy.
Carly wanted Rhett to have everything a growing child needed, and she'd like for him to get to know his half siblingsjust in case something ever happened to her. Marlene's death had been a shocking and sudden reminder that bad and unexpected things did happen. That meant she had to deal with Rhett's handsome half brother sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.
"Okay. But I'm warning you now that you need to shuck your designer suit jacket."
"I'm not going to feed him."
She ought to make him. Just for fun. She fought a smile and lost. "If you're in the same room, you need to be dressed for feeding time. It gets messy."
The intense green gaze locked on her face for several seconds, and his eyes met and held hers. Something deep inside Carly tingled. She squashed the fizzy feeling, pivoted quickly and jogged up the stairs. Her hand wasn't quite steady as she unlocked the front door, then gestured for him to follow her inside.
He'd removed his coat while she wasn't looking, and even though she'd told him to, now she wished he hadn't. Those wide shoulders hadn't been an illusion created by an excellent tailor. She'd bet he had washboard abs under that shirt and long, corded muscles beneath his knife-edged creased trousers. She worked with enough athletes to recognize and admire peak physical conditioning when she saw it.
She led the way through the house, leaving her unwanted guest to shut the door and follow. Or not. In the kitchen she washed Rhett's hands, strapped him into his high chair and poured a sprinkling of Cheerios on his tray to keep him occupied while she prepared his dinner.
She retrieved a sippy cup of milk and a couple of bottles of water from the fridge. Politeness demanded she offer her "guest" a drink and she did so ungraciously by plunking a bottle down on the counter in silent offering to the man who took up far too much space in her kitchen. She twisted the cap off her own. After chugging half the icy liquid, she pulled out a cutting board and started Rhett's dinner.
"So talk." She kept a wary eye on Kincaid.
He transferred the unopened water bottle from one long-fingered hand to the other and back again like a metronome. "Rhett will inherit one-quarter share of myour father's estate."
The knife slipped from her grip and hit the stainless sink with a loud clank. Everett Kincaid had been a billionaire. Anyone who read the newspaper knew that. Kincaid Cruise Lines was a huge firm that for years had been voted one of the top five places in the country to work.
"You're kidding me."
"No." That bitten out word carried hidden nuances Carly couldn't begin to decipher.
Maybe Everett wasn't the lecherous miser Carly thought him to be if he'd made arrangements for his son. She retrieved the knife, rinsed it and then focused on cutting bite-size pieces of bananas, grapes and cheese without severing a digit. "Go on."
"The condition is that Rhett must reside in Kincaid Manor for one full year to claim his share."
It took a second for that to sink in. And when it did, her heart slammed against her chest and her nerves snarled.
Feeling as if she'd swallowed a bucket of wet sand, she swung around to face Mitch Kincaid. "You want to take him from me."
"I'll make it worth your while."
She blinked and shook her head. "I don't understand."
"I'll pay you one hundred thousand dollars for your trouble. The same amount my father paid your sister to have an abortion."
No. Carly sucked a quick breath. Marlene had done a few questionable things over the years, but Carly couldn't believe her sister would stoop so low as to accept money for an abortion and then not have one. Besides, Marlene had been thrilled about her pregnancy and overjoyed at Rhett's birth. She would never have considered ending it.
But then Carly remembered Marlene's plan to coerce Everett into marriage and she wasn't as certain Mitch was lying as she'd like to be. That notebook had revealed an unattractive side of her sister that Carly hadn't known existed.
"Marlene didn't have that kind of money."
"I have proof she did. She lived with you for the last fifteen months of her life. You had to have seen evidence of her windfall." The last word dripped sarcasm. "You probably even benefited from it."
Indignant, she snapped erect. "I did not. And I don't know about any money."
Rhett pounded on his tray, jerking Carly back to the present. She numbly carried him his food.
Mitch Kincaid had to be lying. If Marlene had taken the money, then what had she done with it? She certainly hadn't spent it. Her living expenses after she quit her job as an air hostess for a corporate jet service had been negligible because, as Mitch pointed out, Marlene had moved in with Carly. Afterward the formerly sociable Corbin sister had rarely left the house until after Rhett's birth. She'd claimed it was because she was heartbroken over Everett's betrayal and his refusal to acknowledge his child.
Could Marlene have taken the money and used it for hospital bills? Carly made a mental note to ask the attorney how one went about tracing things like that.
"I don't believe you, and I'm not loaning this child to you."
"I'm not asking to borrow him. I'm offering to take over as his guardian.You'll be free to go about your life unencumbered."
Déjà vu. Her heart clenched in horror and a chill enveloped her. The words sounded eerily similar to those she'd heard twelve years ago. She fought the urge to pull Rhett from his chair and hold him close.
"I love Rhett. I don't consider him an encumbrance. And my sister wanted me to raise him."
"As a struggling single parent?"
"C'mon, Carly, you're young, single and attractive. Why would you want to be saddled with someone else's brat?"
Her brain snagged on attractive, but repudiated brat. Then she recalled how scraggly she looked after a five-mile run. Clearly Kincaid was willing to say whatever it took to get what he wanted.
"I was there when Rhett was born, when he cut his first tooth, said his first word and took his first step. God willing, I'll be there for every other milestone. I'm not giving him up."
"I can offer the boy more than you can." His supercilious gaze encompassed her outdated kitchen.
"My house may not be up to Kincaid standards, but it's safe and childproofed and full of love. I have a huge fenced backyard." She hated that she sounded defensive. She had nothing to prove to this jerk.
"What does a physical therapist make these days? Sixty, seventy grand a year?"
He knew what she did and how much she made. The knowledge sent a prickle of apprehension over her. How did he know? "None of your busin"
"That's nothing compared to the roughly one point two-five billion Rhett will inherit if he comes with me."
"Billion?" she squeaked.
"Not in cash. Most of the assets aren't liquid," he clarified. "Either he moves in with me or he gets nothing."
Light-headed and growing queasier by the second, Carly sank into a chair. How could she deprive her nephew of the inheritance he so rightly deserved, one that would set him up so that he'd never want for anything?
But how could she let him go?
She couldn't. Carly had promised Marlene that if anything happened to her, she'd raise Rhett and love himlove him the way she'd never been allowed to love her own daughter.
Mitch Kincaid wasn't offering love. Other than that first searching glance, he'd barely looked at Rhett and had yet to touch him.
She took a deep breath and tried to think logically. Marlene had yearned for Everett to acknowledge his son, and now, better late than never, he had. Maybe there was a way to make this work. "I need to speak to my attorney. And I'll need a copy of the will."
Kincaid's mouth tightened with impatience. "We have a limited amount of time to implement my father's terms, Ms. Corbin. What will it take? Five hundred thousand for your trouble?"
At first she thought he was joking, then realized from the hard glint in his eyes and the harsh angle of his jaw that he was serious. Carly gaped at him. He honestly wanted to buy her nephew. Worse, he thought she'd sell Rhett. The idea infuriated her.
No wonder Marlene had called Everett's son a dirty, conniving rat bastard.
"You're out of your mind. You can't buy and sell people."
"A million?" He ignored her comment and extracted a checkbook and pen from the jacket draped over his arm as if writing a million-dollar check was no big deal.
She rose on shaky legs. "Rhett isn't for sale, Mr. Kincaid. You need to leave."
Rhett chose that moment to cackle with glee and squish bananas through his fingers. And then the little urchin clutched fistfuls of his hair, moussing the silky strands with the banana mush. "Unless you'd like to help with cleanup."
Kincaid backed away as if a sewage spill threatened his polished shoes. He reached into his coat pocket again and this time withdrew a business card that he laid on the counter next to his unopened water. "I'll have a copy of the will couriered over immediately. Talk to your lawyer tomorrow and call me."
He turned on his heel. Brisk footsteps retreated, then the front door opened and closed.
Carly looked at her adorable nephew and her chest ached. "Oh, Rhett. What are we going to do? I can't lose you."
She dampened a washcloth and attacked his messy hands and face. "But you deserve a share of your daddy's estate. And I'm going to see that you get it."