When Sam's wealthy maternal grandparents decide they want custody of the child, Brady knows he's in for the fight of his life. Brady's attorney tips him off that one major life change would virtually assure him of winning guardianship of baby Sam at the final hearing: the stability of an impending marriage. And his friend Hope is willing to step in as the loving and devoted fiancée.
Local radio celebrity Hope Daniels has been driven by a solitary goal her entire life, and she's finally been offered her dream job—in Atlanta. Unfortunately, her arrangement with Brady requires her presence in Copper Creek, and she is faced with missing the chance of a lifetime or standing in the way of a dear friend’s dreams.
Both Hope and Brady would give their lives for beautiful Sam. But can they give their trust to one another? With this novel in the Blue Ridge Romance series, Honeysuckle Dreams shines light on the complicated and beautiful angles of love.
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Playing house was just a little too easy for Hope Daniels. Her special chicken casserole waited in the oven, covered with foil; butter beans were simmering on the stovetop; and the yeasty smell of baked rolls hung in the air. Over by the living room window, six-month-old Sam cooed happily from his Pack 'n Play.
She walked over to him, smiling, as her friend's baby kicked happily on his back, making the monkeys on his mobile dance.
"Whatcha doing, sugar? Oh, you're so cute. Yes, you are. Yes, you are! Your daddy sure hit the jackpot with you."
Sam gave a toothless grin, his pudgy cheeks bunching up, his blue eyes sparkling, and she couldn't resist a second longer. She scooped him up and buried her nose in his fresh, clean baby smell.
"Where's that daddy of yours, huh? He's just so late! He's a hard worker, isn't he? Oh, yes, he is!"
She treated Sammy to a session of rapid-fire neck kisses until he was belly-laughing. Oh, this baby! Brady had offered over and again to pay her for watching the little darling, but she'd be darned if he shouldn't be charging her.
A text dinged in.
Sorry! Customer running late. Be in soon.
She one-handed a text, assuring him all was well, and pocketed her phone. "Daddy'll be home soon for some snuggles, won't he, little Sam."
"Ma, ma, ma!"
Hope's smile drooped a little as she pressed a kiss to Sammy's forehead. It was just babbling, she knew. Probably meaningless. But the idea that he might be missing his mama made her chest ache.
Audrey, Brady's ex-wife, had passed suddenly in a car accident just shy of four weeks ago. Hope — and most of Copper Creek — had no love lost for the woman. Audrey hadn't been a very kind soul, but by all appearances she'd been a decent mother.
Now Brady was juggling full-time fatherhood along with his booming auto repair business, which he ran out of his old barn.
Hope was happy to watch Sam when she wasn't filling a shift at WKPC in Atlanta. Other ladies about town had pitched in too, for a morning or an afternoon. But that couldn't go on indefinitely. Brady really needed to find full-time care for the little guy. Sammy needed stability. Routine.
The baby tugged on her ear, fondling it for comfort the way he did sometimes.
"Where's Boo Bear, huh? Where's your little lovey?" Hope wandered back over to the crib and bent for the blue stuffed bear that wore a fraying woven hat.
"Here he is."
Sam clutched Boo Bear, and Hope settled in Brady's recliner, a comfy leather thing that all but swallowed her up. She set Sam on her lap, supporting his weight with her crossed leg — he wasn't quite sitting up by himself.
She played pat-acake with him, chuckling when he did. She couldn't help it. He had the most infectious laugh. "Wheels on the Bus" was next. He liked the swish, swish, swish and the beep, beep, beep parts best, so she did those twice.
"Oh, you are just such a happy guy, aren't you?" He was faring much better the past couple of days. She smoothed down his freshly shampooed hair. It was light and fine and baby soft. His skin like a rose petal.
He stared at her with wide, blue eyes that melted her heart. Then he felt for his pacifier, hanging from a ribbon attached to his sleeper, and plopped it into his mouth.
"Getting sleepy, little guy?" It was only eight o'clock, but he'd awakened early from his afternoon nap, and she knew he hadn't been sleeping well at night. All she had to do was look into his daddy's tired eyes.
Sam laid his head on Hope's shoulder, setting his chubby little hand over her heart. Her womb gave a heavy sigh. Oh yeah, this was just a little too easy.
* * *
Brady Collins closed up his barn as Mr. Lewis started his candy-apple red Ferrari 488 GTB. The businessman regularly put the twin-turbo engine to the test at the track in Dawsonville, and the engine had been in need of general maintenance.
Brady gave the man a wave as the car turned down the gravel drive, letting his ears fill with the hum of a perfectly tuned engine. Music to his ears.
He snapped the padlock and started toward his house, checking his watch. Shoot. He felt bad running late like this. Hated taking advantage of a good friend, being dependent on Hope and everyone else. He had to find a nanny or something.
It had been a month now. He should be doing better than this. Single moms did it all the time and made it look easy as pie. But when he was at work he felt guilty he wasn't with Sam, guilty he was putting out one of his neighbors. And when he was at home he worried about shirking his job. He'd worked long and hard to build a reputation with the local sports car enthusiasts. He didn't want to blow it now.
But his heart broke for his son. Sammy had regressed when Audrey died. He'd been fussy and restless the first couple weeks and was no longer sleeping through the night. The pediatrician had assured him nothing was physically wrong. It was just so hard to watch his boy go through this and feel so helpless to comfort him.
Brady reached the walk that led to his two-story farmhouse. The sun was only now sinking behind the north Georgia mountains, offering a reprieve from the sweltering June heat. He swiped his palm across his forehead, probably greasing himself up good. He needed a shower and food, but that would have to wait till Sammy was down for the night.
His pace picked up at the thought of his boy. Hard as this full-time father gig was, it was his son he longed for at the end of a busy day.
The kitchen light was on, shining through the window over the sink, beckoning. He liked it best when Hope tended to the baby. Not only did she come to the house, making it much easier on him, but she clearly enjoyed taking care of Sammy.
Brady opened the back door and pulled off his boots. Heavenly smells wafted his way, making his stomach growl. Something savory, a hint of garlic and yeast. Whatever it was, it was sure to beat the Hot Pocket he'd been fixing to zap in the microwave.
"Hope?" He padded across the kitchen, the wood floor squeaking in predictable spots. He stopped on the threshold of the living room and took in the sight.
Hope was curled in his recliner, sleeping. Sam was out like a light, his little hand holding a fistful of Hope's dark locks. The lamplight cast a golden glow over them, and heaven's bells if it wasn't the most beautiful sight he'd seen in months.
Hope's hand rested on the baby's back protectively, and her long eyelashes swept over the tops of her cheeks. Sam was tucked under her chin, his mouth slightly parted, the pacifier dangling precariously.
Brady approached quietly, not wanting to give her a fright. "Hope?"
The floor squeaked again, this time louder, and her eyes opened. They darted around before lighting on him, awareness settling in her green eyes.
"I fell asleep," she said quietly. "What time is it?" "Eight thirty. Sorry I'm so late."
"You're fine." She shifted, glancing down at Sam. "I should wake him, or he'll be up in the night."
"Let's not. He didn't sleep well last night. Probably needs the extra z's."
Brady reached for Sam, and his heart skipped a beat as the back of his hand grazed her inappropriately. "Sorry." He shifted his hands, his face heating, but there wasn't a better way to pick up the baby.
She gave an awkward laugh as she lifted Sammy, placing him in Brady's arms. Color bloomed in her cheeks, but her gaze was fixed on the sleeping baby.
Sam's eyes remained closed, but he'd latched onto his pacifier and was sucking away as Brady tucked him against his body.
"Thanks again for watching him."
"Trust me, it's my pleasure. He ate at seven thirty. And your dinner's in the oven."
"You didn't have to do that, Hope."
Her eyes sparkled as she stood. "But aren't you glad I did?" "You have no idea."
She leaned close, brushing a knuckle over Sammy's cheek, gazing adoringly at the baby. "Bye, little guy."
She pressed a kiss to Sam's forehead, coming close enough for Brady to notice the golden flecks in her green eyes, the feminine scent of her.
She stepped away and started gathering her purse and some work she'd brought along, her dark-brown hair spilling over her shoulder. "Same time tomorrow?"
He gave a pained look. "I hate to ask two days in a row."
"Then don't." Hope smiled saucily and waved over her shoulder as she left.
Brady took Sam upstairs and held him for an extra minute before setting a kiss on his forehead and laying him in his crib.
His stomach gave a sharp growl, making him decide on supper before shower. He headed back downstairs, made sure the baby monitor was on, and dug into the casserole. He moaned aloud at the juicy chunks of chicken, smothered in gravy and topped with something crispy.
He ate until he was uncomfortably full and was just rinsing his plate when a knock sounded at the front door. He dried his hands on a towel and went to answer it.
His eyes widened at the sight of the woman on his front porch. "Heather."
His former sister-in-law couldn't look any more different from Audrey, with her mousy brown hair and petite frame.
She had a warm smile, though, and she employed it now. "Hi, Brady." Her eyes flickered over his dirty coveralls, and her face fell a little. "Sorry, I should've called."
"Not at all." He opened the door wider and stepped aside. "Come on in. It's good to see you." He'd seen her at Audrey's funeral, of course, but that had been a strained event, everyone still in shock, little time to talk.
"Can I get you something? Tea? Coffee?"
"Coming right up." He slipped into the kitchen, and Heather followed. "Jeff's not with you?"
"He's home with the kids. Where's Sammy?"
Shoot. That was probably why she'd come. "I just put him down, but I can get him up —"
"No, no. Don't wake him. Maybe I can just peek in on him?"
"Of course. Up the stairs, second door on the right."
The stairs squeaked as she went up. Brady started the coffee brewing and got out two mugs and milk and sugar.
Heather lived a couple towns over in Dalton, where Audrey had moved after the divorce. His ex-wife had been a late-in-life baby, making Heather ten years her senior. Heather had always been kind to Brady even through the divorce, and though she'd never said as much, he sensed she'd understood her sister's flaws better than most.
He wondered why she was here, if not to spend time with Sam. An uncomfortable foreboding filled his chest, but he shook the feeling away.
Once the coffee was poured, he brought the mugs into the living room and sat in his recliner. The smells of motor oil and brake dust filled his nostrils, making him wish he'd taken the time to shower earlier.
He could hear Heather murmuring softly to Sam through the baby monitor, though he couldn't make out the words. His eyes burned at her tenderness. Apparently she'd exhausted that particular trait in the Parker gene pool, leaving nothing for Audrey. He had no idea how Heather had turned out to be such a wonderful person, but he was glad she'd found a good match in Jeff.
He heard her on the stairs and looked up in time to see her pressing a knuckle to the corner of her eye.
"He's so precious," she said as she took a seat on the end of the sofa closest to him. Her feet barely reached the floor. "I could just stare at him all night. Is he doing any better?" "I think so. He's not fussy like he was. And he slept through the night a few days ago."
"I hate that he'll grow up without Audrey. I know she had her ... faults. But she did love that little guy."
"I know she did. And I'll make sure he knows that. And so can you. We should set up a schedule for visits. I want him to know his family, Heather."
She averted her eyes, reaching for her coffee. "I'd like that."
"Do you need milk or sugar?"
"No, this is just fine."
"How are Jeff and the kids?"
"They're faring well. The kids are keeping me busy with baseball and swimming lessons, and Jeff's business is thriving."
"Glad to hear that. How are your parents? They seemed pretty grief-stricken at the funeral, understandably. I hardly knew what to say." The Parkers had never seemed to like him much, though he hadn't a clue why. But they weren't the warmest people, so maybe it wasn't him at all.
Something passed over Heather's features that made the foreboding unfurl in his gut again.
"Well. That's what I wanted to talk to you about." She set her coffee on the coaster and laced her fingers tightly in her lap. Her brown eyes were filled with pity.
"What's wrong? Do they want visitation rights or something? I don't have a problem with that. Like I said, I want Sam to know his family."
According to Audrey, the Parkers had been distant and unaffectionate parents, but visitation was only fair. He wanted his son to know his grandparents, and they did love him in their own way. Plus, Audrey's death had hit them hard, and the baby was the only piece of her they had left.
But judging by the dread rolling off Heather in waves, this wasn't about visitation rights. "You're scaring me, Heather. What's going on?"
"Brady ..." She closed her eyes and gave her head a shake. "I've been round and round with myself about coming to you with this, but I just couldn't keep it to myself another day. They've hired a lawyer. They want custody of Sam."
Brady reared back, his thoughts scrambling. A useless cloud of fear spread like poison through him.
"They've already filed the petition. You'll be getting served in a day or two, and I just felt you deserved to be forewarned."
"That's ridiculous, Heather. I'm his father. They can't take him away."
She gave him a troubled look, her fingers twisting in her lap. "That's just it, Brady ... They're saying you're not Sam's biological father."
His lips parted as his heart kicked into high gear. He shook his head, his thoughts in a whirlwind. He and Audrey hadn't been married when she'd conceived. They'd gone to the same high school, but that was years ago, and he'd barely known her before that night. She'd pursued him hard, and he'd been too filled with grief — and alcohol — to resist. The one night that steadfast, reliable Brady loses his mind and of course this happens.
He'd woken the next morning alone and full of regret. He'd been taught better, and he was deeply ashamed of himself. Never again, he promised himself, promised God. But five weeks later a phone call had assured him that once was all it took.
Audrey hadn't been with anyone else since she'd broken up with her boyfriend almost a year before, she told him. The baby was his. She couldn't bear to give it up.
Brady didn't want that either. Audrey had seemed nice enough. They got to know each other over the next couple months, and he felt compelled to make this work. He proposed on her birthday, and she seemed truly happy as she threw her arms around him, saying yes over and over again.
"That's absurd." His voice sounded thready and strained. His heart raced, and his mind was spinning. Spinning out other scenarios. Scenarios where she might've lied to him. She'd been capable, he knew that now. But she wouldn't have lied about this.
Heather shifted on the sofa. "Mom said Audrey told her some things one night when she'd had too much to drink — that she was already pregnant when she met you."
"That's not true." If he said it, maybe it would chase away this fog of doubt enclosing him. "He has my eyes. My chin. Everyone says so." He had the insane urge to run upstairs and scoop Sammy into his arms. But that wouldn't protect either of them from this nightmare.
"Listen, Brady ... I don't know if it's true or not. Maybe it was just drunken rambling. But I thought you had a right to know what's going on. A little forewarning before they ..."
Her words hung in the space between them, the pity in her eyes doing nothing to ease his fears.
"What? Before they what?" His tone was a little sharp, but he didn't have the capacity to feel guilty about it.
"As part of the custody complaint, my parents made a motion requesting a paternity test." She gentled her voice. "I'm afraid the judge is ordering it."
He blinked. How could they make him do this? "My name's on the birth certificate! I'm his father! I've been taking care of him. I'm all he has now. Your parents have only seen him a dozen times in his whole life."
"I'm sure you'll have legal recourse even if the paternity test is negative. Surely."
"It won't be negative. I'm his father."
But what if he wasn't?
Fear took full-fledged flight. He let himself go there for just a second. Finding out he wasn't Sam's father. Being forced to turn him over to the Parkers. Having no legal rights to see his boy again. The feeling of devastation left him drained. A knot tightened his throat, and his eye sockets stung.
Excerpted from "Honeysuckle Dreams"
Copyright © 2018 Denise Hunter.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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