A quick, convenient marriage was the only way Jake Peterson could keep custody of the adorable orphaned baby left in his care. The only woman suitable as the bride-to-be was Candy Jacobshis ex-wife. Though circumstances had forced them to part long ago, the sizzle between them was stronger than ever. But would the price of marriage cost love-wary Jake more than he bargained for?
No matter how hard she tried to resist, Candy was soon roped in by baby Bonnie's little hugs and Jake's toe-curling kisses. But before she would agree to become this bachelor dad's wife, Jake needed to understand that Candy wanted his heart first
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Inherited: One Baby!
By Laura Altom
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Come again?" Jake Peterson said to the silver-haired dynamo in charge of his infant daughter's adoption case. The metal desk she sat at had probably once been painted a color, but over the years it had become a crazy quilt of smiling faces. Children's faces captured in photos. Hundreds of them - maybe even thousands. Mrs. Starling had made all of these children happy. Why couldn't she do the same for his baby girl?
"You're telling me that just because this Elizabeth Mannford is related by blood to Bonnie that that makes her a better parent? Having me raise their daughter was my friends' dying wish. You can't take Bonnie away from me - the only family she knows!"
"Mr. Peterson, please, there's no need for raised voices. Butterscotch?" She gestured toward a lumpy clay dish brimming with gold-wrapped candies. "I find butterscotch to be the most soothing of flavors, don't you?"
Jake hardened his jaw.
He didn't want to come down on this grandma. Really, he didn't, but what else could he do?
He wouldn't break his promise to Cal and Jenny who had been killed six weeks earlier by a drunk driver. He wouldn't lose this chance in a million to make good on a dream he'd long since had for himself. The dream to somehow, some way become a father - just as long as that way didn't include having a wife.
"Look," he said, taking a calming breath. "I love Bonnie. And as CEO of Galaxy Sports, I make much more than an adequate living."
"Miss Manning doesn't dispute either of those things."
"Then what's her problem? Why is she doing this?"
"In a nutshell," Mrs. Starling said, lacing her fingers atop a stack of manila folders. "After speaking with her at length this past Tuesday, it's my opinion that she's just plain lonely. Bitter about the way her life has turned out ... and is now wanting to make amends, but not quite sure how to best go about it.
"From what you've told me about her relationship within her great-niece's family, she was an outcast. The black sheep, if you will. Her niece, Jenny, was all she had left in the world - and, of course, Bonnie. As such, I can see where she wouldn't want her last remaining link to family - even if it is a family she previously wanted nothing to do with - being signed away to a virtual stranger."
"But that's just it," Jake said, leaning forward in his chair. "I'm not the stranger here - at least not to Bonnie."
Mrs. Starling lowered her gaze, making a slight clucking sound before once again glancing his way. "I'm so sorry about all of this. I've seen you and the infant together. The way the child seems so at peace when she rests her little cheek on your shoulder. Precious. Just precious. Believe me," she said, gesturing to all of her pictures. "No one likes happy endings more than me. These photos, they aren't just snapshots, they're my life. My successes. Tangible proof that I've turned healing broken hearts into my life's work." Again lowering her gaze, she added, "Unfortunately, for all of these smiling faces, I've seen an awful lot of tears."
On the edge of his seat, proverbial hat in his hands, Jake swallowed hard.
Yeah, well, if I have anything to say about it, tears you'll never see are mine or my baby's.
To anyone else, it might sound selfish, but what this woman didn't realize was that it wasn't just Bonnie's future at stake, but his.
Growing up, he'd had an idyllic childhood. His parents were the best - especially his dad. Which was probably one of the reasons Jake had always wanted to be a dad. To do the Little League and birthday party routine. To help with homework and to tuck freshly scrubbed rug rats into bed.
After marrying Candy, his high school sweetheart, Jake had thought all of those dreams were finally within reach. But that was before she'd become obsessed with her business and started spouting nonsense about never wanting to be a mom.
He thought he'd die from the pain when, after five years of marriage, Candy had filed for divorce. But ten years after signing the papers, here he was, still going strong without her - or any woman. Here he was, holding steadfast to his vow to never again fall victim to love, and to his conviction that if it took a wife to have children, then he'd just have to suffer through life without them.
When Cal and Jenny died, fate had given Jake his dream after all. Finally, finally, he was a dad, and no matter what it took, there was no way in hell he was giving up his precious baby girl.
"Look," he said, softening his voice. "I can do this. The diaper changing, bottle washing, shopping for prom dresses - none of it's a problem. Besides which, I'm all Bonnie's got. Her parents weren't just friends, but family."
"In a strictly nonrelated way. You must understand, Mr. Peterson, I can't hand out babies to anyone who asks. There are procedures to follow, all of which center around not just the current well-being of this infant, but her future, as well. Please don't think for a minute that I don't believe you'd make an excellent father. All I'm saying is that sometimes judges ... well, they tend to side with the law, which all too often sees these matters as being neatly tied with a bow when the man or woman appointed custody also happen to be a blood relative."
"But that's not right - or fair. In Elizabeth Mann-ford's case, her being a member of Bonnie's family is nothing more than semantics."
Lips pursed, Mrs. Starling said, "I'm afraid you're right. Now, if you were married, I could maybe -"
She scrunched her nose. "Excuse me?"
"That last part," he said, making a hurry-up gesture. "Come again on that last part."
"I was only pointing out that if you had a wife, then - Oh, my. A wife. That's it. Why didn't I think of that?" Her gray eyes sparkled in direct proportion to the lifting in his heart. "Mr. Peterson? Where are you going?"
Leaving the office, Jake let out a whoop. "Where do you think I'm going? To my country club. Surely there's a blonde lounging around the pool who'll temporarily marry me."
"Not so fast!" Mrs. Starling shouted.
Stopping dead in his tracks, Jake groaned. "Now what?"
Excerpted from Inherited: One Baby! by Laura Altom Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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