A once-in-a-lifetime reunion in danger…
After a bitter breakup, FBI agent Everett Colton never expected to see his ex-girlfriend, Alyssa Bartholomew, again. Suddenly, tragedy reunites them—and makes them guardians of an orphaned baby girl. Everett suspects that her parents’ deaths were anything but innocent. When his instinct for danger proves correct, it’s his job to protect the child he’s grown to love…and the woman he never forgot.
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Everett Colton had visited the offices of Torrington Law once before. Although he couldn't remember much about the brief meeting, he did recall the lingering odors of wet dog and fried chicken. Back then, Raymond Torrington, senior partner in the firm, had blamed both on the large, elderly bloodhound that had been sleeping in a basket behind the front desk.
Impatiently, Everett pushed open the glass front door. This was going to be a waste of his time, he didn't want to be here, he had more important things to do ... and he didn't want to subject his nostrils to a repeat performance.
As he stepped inside, it became clear that at least one of those things wasn't going to be an issue. There was no sign of the dog, and the place smelled like a regular office.
He approached the reception desk, his mind on the letter he had received a few days earlier:
You are invited to attend a private reading of the last will and testament of Sean Dodd and Delilah Kennedy Dodd.
Although Sean Dodd had once been Everett's best friend, they had barely spoken in the last four years. That is, until recently, when Everett had helped his brother, Casey, arrest Sean, Delilah, and Sean's sister, Georgia, for murder and cattle rustling. Now Sean had driven his car off the road into a wall, killing himself and his wife.
Initially, a suicide note on the dash had led the Sur County Creek Sheriff's Department to the conclusion that the act had been deliberate. Everett wasn't so sure. Not that the cause of death explained the current situation. Sean would want me at the reading of his will because ...? He almost laughed. When had he ever been able to predict what Sean had wanted? He would find out soon enough.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Torrington."
As the receptionist checked her computer screen, Everett breathed in the improved aromas. Copier toner, coffee, some sort of holiday-season air freshener and violets.
"Mr. Torrington has been delayed for a few minutes. But if you would care to go through to his office, his other guest is already here."
"Other guest?" The invitation hadn't mentioned anyone else, and ... wait. Violets? "Do you use Acqua Viola?"
The young woman regarded him nervously. "Can I get you some coffee?"
Everett rubbed a hand over his jaw. He'd thought he was over this. He was over this. It must be the stress of Sean's death. It had come on the heels of the operation his brother had undertaken, together with the woman he was now seeing, Melody Hayworth, to capture the rustlers and murderers. That, along with the speculation about what the will might hold, was triggering a return to the old fantasies. It was at least six months since the last time he'd imagined he could smell Alyssa Bartholomew's favorite perfume. Even longer since he'd experienced that stomach-churning mix of excitement and dread when he glimpsed a certain woman with long, corn-colored hair and momentarily wondered if she'd come back to him.
"Coffee would be good." He tried out a reassuring smile. From the way the receptionist scooted back in her wheeled chair, he wasn't sure it worked. If she had a panic button under that desk, he was about thirty seconds away from explaining to his bosses at the FBI field office in Phoenix why this woman had every reason to believe one of their best agents was acting weird.
"I'll bring it through." She gestured toward a half-open office door.
Everett remembered Ray Torrington from his teenage years. Anxious, pale and lanky, the other guy had always been out to impress the wrong crowd. Even though they'd been six years younger, Everett and his twin brother, Casey, had known to steer clear of the company Ray kept. Only a serious intervention on the part of Ray's dad had gotten him back on track and into law school. Which made the invitation — summons — currently residing in Everett's back pocket all the more irksome.
He pushed open the door with the heel of his hand, his brain simultaneously registering two things — that subtle scent of violets was stronger here ... and it was not his imagination.
The first Christmas he and Alyssa had been together, he'd scoured the department stores in Phoenix, only to come away empty-handed. How could he have known it was a rare Italian brand? On Christmas morning, when he'd given Alyssa the enamel violet on a silver chain, with an apology, she'd laughed and explained that Acqua Viola had been her grandmother's favorite perfume. Alyssa laughed a lot.
A woman was seated with her back to the door, her head bent over her cell phone, and the other thing he took in was the long blond hair, confined loosely at the nape of her neck. Tendrils were escaping the restraint and she pushed impatiently at them, the gesture achingly familiar to him. She didn't look around as he paused just inside the room.
How many times had he pictured seeing her again? Somehow, he'd always thought it would be in a bar, the scene an echo of their first meeting. Pizza and beer. That was more their style than this impersonal setting. The thought brought him back to reality with an uncomfortable bump. It was her.
"What are you doing here, Alyssa?"
She turned her head slowly, her dark blue eyes widening as she gazed at him.
"I don't know." Her hand reached up to clutch the enamel violet at her throat. "But maybe I should ask you the same question."
Her voice was calm as she spoke, but the cell phone slid from her fingers and clattered onto the floor.
Alyssa's mind was spinning. Maybe she should have seen this coming? Cactus Creek was Everett Colton's hometown, after all.
But he had left this place as soon as he graduated from Cactus Creek High, enrolled at the University of Arizona and eventually settled in Phoenix. He'd told her he never missed the stifling, overfamiliar community atmosphere. She knew he rarely returned, only keeping in touch with his family and a few friends.
Of course, she'd thought of him when the invitation had arrived.
You are invited to attend a private reading of the last will and testament of Sean Dodd and Delilah Kennedy Dodd, she mused, recounting the words in her mind.
She'd only known the Dodds through their friendship with Everett, which had gone sour years before. She certainly hadn't enjoyed their company, finding Sean arrogant and Delilah demanding and superior. Now the couple had died in tragic circumstances, and Alyssa had no idea what, if anything, their will could mean to her.
Private. That had been the key word in that letter. I thought it meant just me.
All thoughts of Sean and Delilah were driven out of her head as Everett took the seat next to her. Breaking up with him had almost destroyed her, and she knew it had been equally hard on him. Under the pretense of checking her cell for damage, she risked a few sidelong glances in his direction. He was still the hottest man she'd ever seen.
With his crystal-blue eyes, tousled sandy hair and square chin, he gave off an air of brooding intensity. That was until he smiled — then he could light up a room. One of Alyssa's favorite hobbies during their time together had been making him smile.
Because his looks are the most important thing about this whole situation, right? But her reaction to him wasn't trivial. It summed up the power he still had over her. And the danger of being near him.
Although seeing him again had thrown her completely off balance, she experienced a moment of relief. After everything that had happened between them, she had never imagined Everett would speak to her again. Okay, so a curt demand to know what she was doing there was hardly friendly conversation, but at least he hadn't ignored her and walked out.
"So ..." he began. Her phone was in danger of flying out of her grasp again as he turned her way, his light blue eyes catching hers. "How's the pool playing going? Did you turn professional yet?"
Alyssa made a sound midway between a gasp and a laugh. It was so like him to take her by surprise with humor when she was expecting anger, and he'd done it with a reference to their first meeting.
Her heart was in turmoil, but she figured if he could keep it light, she could, too. "No, but the Pocket Rockets have my number anytime they need a substitute."
He nodded. "I can see why Phoenix's premier women's pool team would have a recruitment drive among elementary-school teachers."
"If I remember rightly, this third-grade teacher has whipped your ass on more than one occasion —"
He checked his watch. "Less than two minutes."
The way they had slipped so easily back into a familiar, teasing rhythm was almost scary. She should stop it now. Distant and aloof, that would be the best approach ... "Okay, Colton. I'll take this bait. What are you talking about?"
"Four years apart, and two minutes is all it took for your obsession with my ass to resurface." He grinned at her. It wasn't just any grin. It was the grin. The one that weakened her knees a little.
And that was it. All those times she'd told herself he couldn't flip her heart over with a look? Lies. Every last one.
"Sorry about the delay. That coffee machine is so slow," the receptionist said as she scooted quickly past Everett and placed a tray on the desk.
"My visitors don't need that sort of information, Brenda." The man who entered the room dabbed at his brow with a large handkerchief.
"I don't know. Sometimes it's good to know why you've been kept waiting." Alyssa regarded Everett in surprise. He was no diplomat, but he usually managed a basic level of politeness.
The other man's face reddened. "I apologize for my lateness. I was unavoidably delayed." He took a seat on the other side of the desk and gave Alyssa a tightlipped smile. "I'm Raymond Torrington. Thank you for coming, Miss Bartholomew." The smile disappeared as he nodded in Everett's direction. "We've met before, Agent Colton.
"I'll get straight to the point." He opened a drawer in his desk, withdrew a folder and placed it in front of him. "Since their marriage, I've been Sean Dodd and Delilah Kennedy Dodd's lawyer. I am also executor of their will. Following their tragic deaths, it now falls to me to ensure that their estate is disposed of according to their wishes." He withdrew a single sheet of paper from the folder. "The will is very straightforward. There is one beneficiary who will inherit all property and investments."
"If that's the case, why are the two of us here?" Even if she hadn't known him as well as she knew herself, Everett's body language would have been easy to interpret — arms folded across his muscular chest, jaw clenched, one foot tapping out a restless beat.
"My clients wrote this will just over four years ago, not long after their marriage." Raymond scanned the sheet of paper as he spoke.
Four years. Alyssa looked at Everett, wondering if the significance of the time frame had registered with him.
Clearly it had. "That was around the time Georgia Dodd, Sean's younger sister, left my brother, Casey, at the altar." His voice was tight with remembered anger. "Sean masterminded the incident because he thought that a deputy sheriff wasn't good enough for his kid sister. Or possibly he didn't want a law-enforcement officer in the family taking a closer look at what he was getting up to. The reason doesn't matter. It was the end of our friendship."
He flicked a look Alyssa's way to let her know he hadn't forgotten the rest. Soon after that incident, but for unrelated reasons, they had broken up.
"I'm assuming that Georgia, whom I recently had the pleasure of arresting at gunpoint, is the beneficiary." Alyssa jumped slightly at Everett's words. It wasn't just the fact that he'd been involved in apprehending Georgia. They were a stark reminder of the dangers he faced every day.
"Although Georgia was released on bail, she broke the terms of her bail by attempting to leave town. She's now back behind bars but that won't affect her inheritance. So can we cut to the part where you tell us what our role is? Did Sean name us as trustees four years ago and forget to change it?"
"Georgia Dodd is not named in her brother's will. The circumstances are ... unusual. There is a section in the document that involves the two of you. Twelve months ago, Sean and Delilah came to see me to check it was still legal." Raymond dabbed at his upper lip with his handkerchief. "This will be easier to explain if I invite my other guests to join us." He pressed a button on his desktop phone.
"Other guests?" Alyssa looked around as the door opened and a middle-aged woman entered the room. She leaned to one side under the weight of a large bag shaped like a pink elephant; in her other arm, she carried a sleeping baby.
"This is Patty Griffiths of the Arizona Department of Child Safety." Raymond indicated the child. "Kennedy is Sean and Delilah's six-month-old daughter, and she has been left in your joint custody."
Everett's brain was spinning like a top. As he was trying to get his thoughts under control, the baby woke up and started to cry.
Alyssa was out of her seat in a heartbeat. Children had always drawn her in like a magnet. "Hey, honey. What's wrong? Are you hungry?"
Patty Griffiths handed Kennedy over to her with a look of relief. "She probably is. When she came to us, she'd recently started on solid food, but she still has at least one bottle of formula a day."
"Have you been caring for her?" Everett watched as Kennedy hitched in a sob and gazed up at Alyssa through tear-filled eyes. He'd had no time to come to terms with the bombshell Ray had delivered, yet he was getting the impression that events were already spiraling out of his control.
"She's been staying in one of our facilities since her parents died." Patty reached into the bag and withdrew a baby bottle in an insulated carrier. When she handed it to Alyssa, Kennedy made a cooing noise and reached out chubby hands for it. "There are some basics here in this bag, and her car seat is in the front office. Once I have your address, I can arrange to have her other belongings delivered within a few hours."
"Wait." The spell that had been holding him silent snapped and Everett finally found his voice. "We're not together, and neither of us even lives here in town. This is all moving way too fast. We can't be expected to put our lives on hold and go along with a plan we knew nothing about."
He was conscious of Alyssa watching him as she resumed her seat, Kennedy tucked into the crook of her arm. The baby grasped the bottle, making contented noises as she suckled greedily.
"If you could leave us alone while we continue this discussion?" Ray waved a hand in the direction of the door and Patty went out. He tapped a pen on the top of his desk and shuffled his papers before continuing. "This is exactly what I said would happen when Sean and Delilah came to me with this plan. They had named you as guardians while you were still friends and had never gotten around to making the necessary changes. When Delilah found out she was pregnant, they wanted to know if they could leave things as they were. I told them that, if they left the custody details in the will without consulting you, there was every chance you would just walk away without agreeing to it."
"If it was against your advice, why did they go ahead with it?" Everett asked.
"Sean's reasoning was that although you had drifted apart, he couldn't imagine anyone who would be better parents to his daughter."
"The guy always was a piece of work." Everett shook his head, his emotions ranging between exasperation and a reluctant, lingering fondness for the man who had once been a good friend. "But we can say no to this, right?"
"Let's be clear." It was Alyssa's don't-mess-with-me voice. The one she used with her students. "We aren't saying no. We're not saying anything. Not yet. We're gathering information. You said Kennedy had been left in our joint custody. If one of us is unwilling to be involved, can the other take sole responsibility for her?"
Raymond shook his head. "The will clearly states that she is to be cared for by both of you."
Alyssa's indrawn breath touched a point at the center of Everett's heart. "What will happen to Kennedy if we don't do this?"
"If you choose not to accept custody, Kennedy will be placed back into the care of the Department of Child Safety, where she will enter the foster system," Raymond said.
Everett knew what those words would do to Alyssa. When he turned his head to look at her, he could see her own past in the depths of her eyes. There was also a plea for help there. And it was aimed at him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Colton 911: Family Under Fire"
Copyright © 2019 Harlequin Books S.A..
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