Who will get the baby? Find out in this story from USA TODAY bestselling author Barbara Dunlop
When tragedy strikes, Cole Henderson must claim his true legacy and provide for his baby half brother. Luckily, the innocent infant is in the very capable hands of Amber Welsley, a woman Cole soon finds impossible to resist. But a bitter custody battle and rumors of financial double-dealing force Cole to claim the fortune he never wantedand the child Amber considers her own. Will his secrets destroy Amber's faith in him? Or can Cole win her back and create a family of his own?
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Cole Henderson propped himself against a workbench in Aviation 58's hangar at the Juneau, Alaska, airport and gazed at the front page of the Daily Bureau. He realized news of the Atlanta plane crash deaths should make him feel something. After all, Samuel Henderson had been his biological father. But he had no idea what he was supposed to feel.
A nearby door in the big building opened, letting in a swirl of frigid air and blowing snow. At ten o'clock in the morning, it was still dark outside this far north.
His business partner, Luca Dodd, strode in, crossing the concrete floor alongside the sixty-passenger Komodor airplane that was down for maintenance.
"You looking at it?" Luca asked.
"I'm looking at it," said Cole.
Luca tugged off his leather gloves and removed his wool hat. "What do you think?"
"I don't think anything." Cole folded the paper and tossed it on the bench behind him. "What's to think? The guy's dead."
A drill buzzed on the far side of the hangar, and the air compressor started up, clattering in the background as two maintenance engineers worked on the engine of the Komodor.
"He was your father," Luca pointed out.
"I never met him. And he never even knew I existed."
Cole shrugged. His mother Lauren's marriage to billionaire Samuel Henderson, whose family owned Atlanta-based Coast Eagle Airlines, had been short-lived and heartbreaking for her. She'd never hidden Cole's heritage from him, but she'd certainly warned him about the Henderson family.
"Eight dead," said Luca, spinning the paper so the headline was right side up.
"Sounds like it all went to hell in the final seconds." As a pilot, Cole empathized with in-air emergencies. He knew the pilots would have been fighting to safely land the airplane until the very end.
"Early speculation is a combination of icing and wind shear. That's freakishly rare for Atlanta."
"We all know how bad that can go."
"An Alaskan pilot might have helped," said Luca.
Cole didn't argue that point. Pilots in Alaska had more experience than most in icy conditions.
He glanced over his shoulder at the headline once again. On a human level, he felt enormous sympathy for those who'd lost their lives, and his heart went out to their friends and family who had to go on without them. But for him personally, Samuel Henderson was nothing but a stranger who'd devastated his mother's life thirty-two years ago.
By contrast, when his mother, Lauren, had passed away from cancer last year, Cole had mourned her deeply. He still missed her.
"They put up a picture of the baby on the website," said Luca.
The article had mentioned that Samuel and his beautiful young wife, Coco, had a nine-month-old son, who, luckily, hadn't accompanied them on the trip. But Samuel's aging mother and several company executives had been on board when the family jet had crashed into the Atlanta runway.
"Cute kid," Luca added.
Cole didn't answer. He hadn't seen the picture, and he had no plans to look at it. He wasn't about to engage in the Henderson tragedy on any level.
Luca leaned forward, putting his face closer to Cole's. "You do get it, right?"
"What's to get?" Cole took a sideways step and started walking toward a hallway that led to the airline's offices. November might be Aviation 58's quietest month, but there was still plenty of work to do.
Luca walked beside him. "The kid, Zachary, is the sole survivor of that entire family."
"I'm sure he'll be well cared for." For the first time, Cole felt an emotional reaction. He wasn't proud, but it was resentment.
Immediately after their secret marriage in Vegas, Samuel had succumbed to his parents' pressure to divorce Lauren. As a young woman, she'd walked away, newly pregnant. With only a few thousand dollars to her name, she'd boarded a plane for Alaska, terrified that the powerful family would find out about her baby and take him away from her.
Hidden in Alaska, she'd scraped and saved when Cole was young. Then he'd worked night and day to put himself through flight school and to build his own airline. Zachary, by contrast, would have an army of nannies and protectors to ensure he had everything a little boy could needfrom chauffeurs to private schools and ski vacations in Switzerland.
"He's all alone in the world." Luca interrupted Cole's thoughts.
"Hardly," Cole scoffed.
"You're his only living relative."
"I'm not his relative."
"You're his half brother."
"That's just an accident of genetics." There was nothing at all tying Cole to Zachary. Their lives were worlds apart.
"He's only nine months old."
Cole kept on walking across the cavernous hangar.
"If the Hendersons are as bad as Lauren said they were " Luca's voice trailed off again, leaving the bangs and shouts of the maintenance crew to fill in the silence.
Cole picked up his pace. "Those Hendersons are all dead."
"Except for you and Zachary."
"I'm not a Henderson."
"You looked at your driver's license lately?"
Cole tugged the heavy hallway door open. "You know what I mean."
"I know exactly what you mean. The j ackals in Atlanta might very well be circling an innocent baby, but you'd rather walk away from all this."
"I don't have to walk away from this. I was never involved in it to begin with."
Cole's operations manager, Carol Runions, poked her head out of her office. "One seventy-two has gone mechanical."
Cole glanced at his watch. Flight 172, a ninety-passenger commuter jet, was due to take off for Seattle in twenty minutes. "Is maintenance on board?" he asked Carol.
"They're on their way out there now. You want me to prep Five Bravo Sierra?"
"What's the problem?" Luca asked her.
"Indicator light for cabin pressure."
"Probably a faulty switch," said Cole. "But let's warm up Five Bravo Sierra."
"You got it," said Carol, heading back into her office.
"If we take the Citation, we can be there in four hours," said Luca.
Cole stared at his partner in confusion. "There are ninety passengers on 172." The Citation seated nine. "I meant you and me."
"Why would we go to Seattle?" And why did Luca think it would take them four hours to get there? "Atlanta," said Luca. Cole's jaw went lax. "You gotta do it," said Luca.
No, he didn't. And Cole was done with talking about the Henderson family. Without answering, he turned to walk away, shaking his head as he went.
"You gotta do it," Luca called after him. "You know as well as I do, the jackals are already circling."
"Not my problem," Cole called back.
The Atlanta Hendersons had gotten along perfectly well without him up to now. He had no doubt their z"s were dotted and t's crossed for every possible life or death contingency. They didn't need him, and he didn't want them.
Amber Welsley folded her hands on the top of the massive inlaid-maple table in the formal dining room of the Henderson family mansion. She was one of a dozen people riveted on Max Cutter at the table's head. Max's suit was well cut, his gray hair neatly trimmed and his weathered expression was completely inscrutable as he drew a stack of papers from his leather briefcase.
From the finely upholstered chair next to hers, Amber's friend Destiny Frost leaned in close. "Six lawyers in the same room. This is not going to end well."
"Seven lawyers," Amber whispered back.
Destiny's glance darted around. "Who'd I miss?"
"You. You're a lawyer."
"Yeah, but I'm the good guy."
Amber couldn't help flexing a tiny smile. She appreciated the small break in the tension.
Max was about to read Samuel Henderson's last will and testament. The others gathered in the room had an enormous amount at stakeabout a billion dollars and control of Coast Eagle Airlines. But the only thing that mattered to Amber was Zachary. She hoped whatever arrangements Samuel and her stepsister, Coco, had made for the baby's guardianship would allow Amber to stay a part of his life.
Amber was ten years older than Coco, and the two had never been close. But Amber had been instrumental in her stepsister meeting Samuel at a Coast Eagle corporate function two years ago, and Coco's pregnancy had brought them closer together for a short time. Since then, Amber had felt a special kinship with Zachary.
Across the wide table from her, vice president of operations Roth Calvin shifted in his seat. Since the day the company's president, Dryden Dunsmore, had been killed in the plane crash, the three vice presidents had been running the show. Now Samuel's will would reveal who would get control of Coast Eagle.
Whoever it was would control Roth Calvin's future. Much further down the corporate ladder, as assistant director of finance, Amber didn't much care who took over the helm of the company. Her day-to-day job as an accountant wasn't about to change.
"My personal apologies for the delay in scheduling this reading," Max opened, his gaze going around the room. "But there were several complexities to this case due to the number of deaths involved."
Amber's throat thickened. She quickly swallowed to combat the sensation. Poor Coco had only been twenty-one.
"I'll start with Jackie Henderson's will," said Max. "I'll follow that with her son, Samuel's, which was written jointly with his wife, Coco. In addition, there is a small codicil, executed by Coco alone. I would caution you all to draw no conclusions until I've finished reading all three."
Max straightened the papers. "Aside from some small bequests to friends and long-time staff members, and a generous donation of ten million dollars to the Atlanta arts community, Jackie Henderson has left her estate to her son, Samuel, including her twenty-five percent ownership of Coast Eagle Airlines."
Nobody in the room reacted to Max's statements, and they gave only a cursory glance to the list of bequests handed around. That Samuel was Mrs. Henderson's heir was completely expected. And though Mrs. Henderson had been an exacting and irritable old woman, she had long been a patron of the arts.
"As to the last will and testament of Samuel Henderson " said Max.
Everyone stilled in their seats.
Max looked down at a page in front of him. "Mr. Henderson has also left a list of small, specific bequests, and has made several charitable donations, also ten million dollars to the Atlanta arts community, along with an additional ten million dollar scholarship to the Georgia Pilots Association."
Max took a sip of water. "As to the bulk of Mr. Henderson's estate, I'll read directly from the document. 'My entire estate is left in trust, in equal shares, to my legitimate children. So long as my wife, Coco Henderson, remains guardian of my children, and until they reach the age of majority, business decisions pertaining to the children's interest in Coast Eagle Airlines will be made by Dryden Dunsmore.'"
There was a collective intake of breath in the room, followed by murmured sidebar conversations.
"Well, there's a complexity," Destiny whispered to Amber.
It was obvious Samuel had not contemplated Dryden Duns-more dying along with him.
Max cleared his throat, and everyone fell silent.
"'Should my wife predecease me,'" he continued, "'guardianship of my minor children will go to Roth Calvin.'"
The room went completely silent, and a dozen gazes swung to Roth. He held his composure for a full ten seconds, but then an uncontrollable smile curved his thin lips, gratification glowing in the depths of his pale blue eyes.
A buzz of conversation came up in the room.
Roth turned to the lawyer on his right. His tone was low, but Amber heard every word. "With Dryden out of the picture, do I have control over the shares?"
The lawyer nodded.
Roth's smile grew wider and more calculating.
"The codicil," Max interrupted the various discussions.
People quieted down again, and Roth's expression settled into self-satisfaction.
"To give some context to this." said Max. "And I do apologize for being so direct on such an emotional matter. Samuel Henderson was pronounced dead at the accident scene, while Coco Henderson was pronounced dead during the ambulance ride to the hospital."
Amber's stomach tightened. She'd been assured Coco had not regained consciousness after the crash, but she couldn't help but be reminded of the fear and horror her stepsister must have experienced in those final seconds while the plane attempted to land in the storm.
"As such, Samuel is deemed to have predeceased his wife." Max held a single sheet of paper. "Given that fact, Coco Henderson's codicil is legal and valid. It modifies the joint will in only one way." He read, "'I leave guardianship of my child or children to my stepsister, Amber Welsley.'"
Amber could feel shock permeate the room. Jaws literally dropped open and gazes swung to her. Roth's glare sent a wave of animosity that nearly pushed her backward.
Beneath the table, Destiny grasped her hand.
"What about business decisions?" Roth barked. "That woman is in no position to run the company. She's an assistant."
"Assistant director,'" Destiny corrected.
Amber was in a management position, not a clerical one.
Roth sneered at them both. "Samuel clearly wanted someone qualified in charge of business decisions on behalf of his son."
"It's a valid question," said Max. "For the moment, Amber Welsley has guardianship over Zachary, including all rights and responsibilities to manage and safeguard his ownership position in Coast Eagle."
"But" Roth began.
Max held up a hand to forestall him. "For any changes to that, you'll need a decision from a judge."
"You can bet we're going to a judge," spat Roth.
Amber whispered to Destiny, "What does this all mean?"
"It means we're going to court to duke it out with Roth. And it means he just became your mortal enemy. But right now, it also means you get Zachary."
Amber's chest swelled tight. Zachary would stay with her. For now, nothing else mattered.
Walking through the entrance of the Atlanta hotel ballroom, Cole gazed at the crowds of people attending the Georgia Pilots Association annual fund-raiser. Tonight was the formal recognition of the new Samuel Henderson Memorial Scholarship, so he knew the who's who of Coast Eagle Airlines would be in the room.
Luca was beside him, dressed in a formal suit. "You'll be glad you came."
"I'll mostly be glad if it shuts you up."
Cole had told himself a thousand times that the Hendersons of Atlanta were none of his business, and he still believed it. But Luca had kept after him for three long weeks. Finally, Cole had given in and checked out a picture of Zachary on a news site.
The baby was cuter than he'd expected, and his face had seemed strangely familiar. But Cole chalked it up to the power of suggestion. When you started looking for a family resemblance, everything took on new meaning. Sometimes gray eyes were simply gray eyes.
But once he'd scratched the surface, he'd ended up reading the rest of the article, learning there was a court challenge for guardianship. He didn't necessarily agree with Luca that everyone involved was a jackal out to get the kid's money. But he did find himself analyzing the players.
In the end, his curiosity won out, and he agreed to make the trip to Atlanta. He had no intention of marching up to the front door and introducing himself as a long-lost relative. He was staying under the radar, checking things out and returning to Alaska just as soon as he confirmed Zachary was safe.
"Right there," said Luca. "In the black dress, lace sleeves, brown hair, kind of swooped up. She's at the table below the podium. She's moving right now."
As Cole zeroed in on Amber Welsley, she turned, presenting him with a surprisingly pretty profile.
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