Born in Secret

Born in Secret

Susan Kearney

July 2014 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-501-0

Book 1 of The Braddacks

 
Our PriceUS$13.95
Code978-1-61184-501-0
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Blurb

Best Mom ever.

When a checkup reveals that 5-year-old Skye is not Brooke Evan’s daughter, a heartbroken Brooke hunts down the biological parents. It’s the right thing to do . . . for Skye. 

Inventor. Business man. Dad?

But when Brooke shows up on Max Braddack’s doorstep, he suspects she has ulterior motives. It’s hard for the laid-back, billionaire Max to believe that Brooke is simply doing what’s best for her daughter. 

A child to love. 

Yet, the more time Max spends with Brooke and Skye, the more he comprehends that other forces besides his growing feelings are in play. The little girl who was born in secret is in terrible danger . . . and she needs Max and Skye to protect her.

 


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Excerpt

Chapter One

THE PEDIATRICIAN returned to the examining room with an anguished look in his usually composed eyes. "Brooke, I need to speak with you in my office.”

Not like to, but need to speak with you.

At the doctor’s soft words, a cool shiver slid down her spine. Something was wrong. Never before had Skye’s pediatrician suggested they speak in private.

What could be so terrible that Dr. O’Brian couldn’t speak in front of Skye? The thought of losing another family member had panic pounding behind her eyes and at the base of her skull. After Brooke’s sister died six years ago, love for Skye had drawn her out of her grief. Now her precious little girl was the last remaining link with family. Any family.

Brooke took a deep breath and glanced at her daughter. In five years, Skye had rarely been sick. The child glowed with health.

The doctor opened the door wider. "Skye can stay with my receptionist while we talk.”

Her daughter gazed at Brooke, her cherubic face shining with curiosity. "I want to stay here. With you.”

Brooke stooped until she was at eye level with the little girl and forced casual words through a mouth dry with tension. "It’s okay, sweetie.”

"Don’t let the doctor change your mind,” Skye said. Always perceptive, her daughter had clued in on Brooke’s anxiety. "You promised I’m going to camp like a big kid. I’m old enough. I’ll be starting school soon.”

"I’m just going to talk to the doctor about your paperwork,” Brooke reassured her.

Skye threw her arms around her neck for a quick hug, and as Brooke scooped her daughter into her arms and carried her from the examining room, she breathed in the scent of shampoo and chocolate chip cookies. She wanted to hang on tight and never let go. Skye was really too old to be carried, but she couldn’t resist one all-too-short embrace before setting Skye on her feet. Brooke handed her a book from her purse and steered her daughter toward the receptionist. "Be a good girl. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

While Skye settled happily in the front office, Brooke followed Dr. O’Brian down the hall. The minute his office door shut behind her, she spun around on shaky legs. "What’s wrong? Is Skye sick?”

"She’s a healthy little girl. I’m sorry to have alarmed you, but during my examination, something else came up.”

The knotting in her stomach eased, but her eyes must have mirrored her confusion. "I don’t under—”

"Please, let’s sit where we can be more comfortable.” Creases of compassion and puzzlement deepened in his weather-lined face.

Brooke had never been in his office with its dark paneling and lush emerald carpet. Instead of seating himself behind his mahogany desk, he led her to a leather sofa.

Her words came out in a rush before she sat. "What is it?”

"Until you brought Skye here for her summer camp physical, I’ve never typed her blood.”

Brooke crossed one leg over the other. She leaned forward, her bouncing foot betraying her nervousness. "And?”

"We triple checked the blood test.”

"And?”

"There’s no mistake.”

"Tell me,” she demanded.

"Skye isn’t your daughter.”

THE SETTING Louisiana sun cast shadows through the overhead branches along the dusty road as if taunting Brooke’s resolve. The decision she’d made during this past week to search for Skye’s biological family hadn’t been an easy one. Wrestling with her conscience had taken its toll in restless nights and a tension that had grabbed her stomach and wouldn’t let go.

Now that she was close to her destination, Brooke hesitated. Despite the closed windows of her air-conditioned car, a film of dust that tasted of ashes and shattered dreams coated her mouth, stifled her breathing. Perhaps she shouldn’t have come to the marina. She could still hang a U-turn, go home to her daughter, mind her own business and forget what she’d learned from her investigations.

Any sensible woman would do just that.

But she had to think of Skye’s future first—no matter how much pain it might cause Brooke. Stepping on the gas, she turned down the dilapidated lane overhung with century-old oaks draped with Spanish moss. Doing her best to avoid potholes around a bend, she cornered too fast. The rear tires slid. She braked hard. The car skidded to a halt, launching clouds of dust so thick she was tempted to turn on her windshield wipers.

Instead she waited for the grime to settle in the sultry air, chagrined to discover her clumsy entrance into the boatyard had drawn attention. Standing on a step-ladder behind a cigarette boat, a man wearing stained mechanic’s coveralls worked on an engine, his arms covered in oil up to his elbows.

The mechanic squinted at her through a haze of swirling dirt. Head up, dark eyes staring arrogantly and broad shoulders squared, he scowled. Her gaze wandered to the broad chest peeking through the open vee of his uniform. Grabbing a rag, he descended the ladder in one graceful leap and approached her car, wiping oil from his hands as he advanced.

Sweat mixed with dust trickled down the sculpted planes of his cheekbones in grimy rivulets. Sapphire eyes framed by jet lashes locked with hers. Hard eyes that saw everything and gave away nothing.

He walked closer, and his inscrutable expression made her think twice about unlocking the car door. Good shoulders, flat stomach, long legs—altogether a chiseled body, albeit ten degrees too dirty for her taste. A five o’clock shadow outlined a broad jaw. As he made a futile attempt to clean his hands, the corded muscles of his tanned neck tensed.

She should have waited until Saturday. The marina would have been busier then. The place was deserted, except for several seagulls cawing overhead. A glance toward the docks showed them as empty of humanity as the patch of dirt used for a parking lot.

She hadn’t cut the engine. She could still drive away. But since she’d been unable to reach Ford Braddack, the man she’d learned might be Skye’s father, Brooke would settle for speaking to another family member. While Ford and the oldest brother Craig were currently unreachable, she’d lucked out when she’d found Max Braddack’s address in the phone book. After leaving Skye with a babysitter, she’d driven here determined to discover the truth. If she chickened out now, she might not find the courage to come back again. As her sister Nicole used to say, it was too late for should-haves and could-haves.

Still, if it weren’t for the challenging smile curling the man’s bottom lip, she couldn’t have found the nerve to silence the engine and exit the car. Then he was close, too close. She craned her head back to look him in the eye.

Her breath caught in her throat. She couldn’t stop her stare. The resemblance hit her with the force of a tornado. This man’s coloring, tanned to a deeper hue, mirrored her daughter’s. The shape of his eyes, the angle of the brows and the thickness of his lashes were Skye’s features staring back at her. Even the way he tilted his head in amusement reminded her of Skye. The only difference was in the color of the eyes, his a deep blue, her daughter’s a few shades lighter.

"Sorry about the dust,” she said breezily in an effort to hide her nervousness. "I’m looking for Max Braddack.”

One oily finger pushed the car door shut, keeping out the dirt but also preventing a quick escape. "Lady—”

"The name’s Brooke Evans.”

"You just clogged my carburetor with dust, not to mention what you’ve done to me, and all you can say is ‘sorry’?”

Her stomach danced a quick jig. But sensing no violence in the stranger’s Southern drawl and guessing that he simply wanted to toy with her, she raked her gaze from dark, slicked-back hair to the tips of his dingy sneakers. "It’s not like you didn’t need a shower anyway.”

He grinned at her gibe, radiating a confident but easygoing vitality under the last rays of the setting sun. "I clean up just fine, thank you. However, I’ll be flushing the dust from that open engine for—”

"You’re Max Braddack, aren’t you?”

"Why do you want to know?” His smile, which made him look five years younger than her original estimate of thirty-five, took the sting out of his evasive answer.

Her eyes narrowed. "You’re Max Braddack? Brother of Ford Braddack—‘Wonder Boy of Wall Street’? Can you help me find your brother?”

He folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head at a wry angle. "I should have guessed you didn’t drive out here for a boat mechanic. You know my brother?”

"I’ve been trying to reach him. His private number’s unlisted. His secretary keeps putting me off—she won’t even convey a message unless I tell her why I’m calling.”

One cavalier brow arched. "So tell her.”

"It’s personal.”

He studied her thoughtfully for a moment. "How personal?”

Very personal. And coming from his lips, "personal” took on the most intimate of meanings. The last thing she wanted was to explain her predicament to this all-too-perceptive man. But he wasn’t giving her much choice.

At her first remark about his identical twin, all traces of his amusement had vanished. Was he being protective of his brother? Or perhaps this was a case of sibling rivalry. After all, Ford was wealthy, famous, respected. Craig was not so famous but almost as successful. Max didn’t seem any of the above. Yet she didn’t sense jealousy from Max but wariness, like a just-fed tiger, not hungry but ever ready to strike. With pulse-skittering certainty, she knew he wouldn’t send her to his twin until she’d satisfied his curiosity.

At least he was part of the Braddack family. She took a deep breath, held his gaze and blurted the pent-up secret she’d kept all week.

"I think your brother Ford’s the father of my daughter.” He went absolutely still. His sapphire eyes glazed over as if shielded by a protec­tive screen.

She’d just told him he was an uncle, and she’d prepared for denial, laughter, questions. She got nothing but piercing silence. For a moment in the fading sun she thought his swarthy skin had paled, but it must have simply been a trick of the light.

She waited for him to say something. Anything.

But he loomed silent and still in the marina parking lot. Yet if the throbbing vein at his neck was any indication, beneath the cool exterior, he seethed. With rage or disbelief—she couldn’t say, didn’t know him well enough to guess.

She only knew she had the overwhelming urge to talk fast, explain, spit out the story and her suspicions.

That would be a mistake. Now that she’d shaken him out of his amusement and had his full attention, she intended to keep it. At least until he told her what she wanted to know.

As coolly as she could manage, she stared back at him, determined to outwait him. A flag flapped in the breeze. Boat riggings clanged as their hulls rocked. The air between them crackled. Her feet itched to take a step back in the Louisiana dirt, but she didn’t retreat.

Grudging respect flickered across Max’s face and disappeared in a heartbeat. "I’ll finish and clean up, and then we’ll talk.”

With an economy of motion, he climbed back to his engine and used an air hose to blow away the dust. He looked so much like her daughter that she wanted to cry. But this past week, alone in her room as she’d thought of losing Skye, she’d cried so many tears, she had none left.

Quick, efficient actions of his hands and the easy grace of his motions as he folded the ladder and stored it with his tools in a shed, drew her from her thoughts. He reappeared from the building with a clean towel, a bar of soap, and a bottle of shampoo. Obviously he intended to bathe—perhaps in the Gulf?

After tossing a towel over a waist-high fence, he pulled his arms out of his coveralls to reveal a broad, tanned chest slick with sweat. As if sensing her gaze on him, he gestured past the shed. Next to the dilapidated building and beside the towel he’d tossed over the fence was a shower, really little more than a hose hooked to a spigot.

"I’m too filthy to rinse at home.” He spoke easily as if unaware of her interest in him.

When he peeled the coveralls past his waist, she turned and looked out to sea. He might not give a fig about modesty.

"Don’t worry.” His words carried to her, threaded with laughter. "I’m wearing running shorts.”

At his reassurance that he’d maintained his decency, she turned back to catch him striding into the shower behind the waist-high fence. Although the fence hid him from waist to knees, when he kicked off the running shorts, she swallowed hard. As water sluiced down, she studied his calves—muscular, lean, and powerful but in familiar proportions.

"If you see something you like”—his tone mocked her—"you’re welcome to share the water.”

Heat rose to her face. She hadbeen staring. "Sorry.” Why did she always seem to be apologizing to this man? "You reminded me of Skye.”

Determined to regroup from confronting an adult, male version of her daughter, Brooke strolled to the docks and watched the splendid colors wash across the sky. The sun had set, leaving a trail of lavender and pink clouds hovering under darker thunderheads in the distance.

Had she done the right thing in coming here? The decision had been a difficult one—the most pain-racking of her life. After Dr. O’Brian dropped his bombshell, she had to find out what had happened.

She’d tried to talk to Ford Braddack to find out what he knew. When she couldn’t reach him, she’d come here to speak to his brother. She had to be insane, risking the loss of her child to strangers. Yet if Ford and Rhonda Braddack were Skye’s genetic parents, and this man Skye’s uncle, her daughter had a right to meet them. Didn’t she?

With Ford unreachable and Max clearly suspicious, Brooke was glad she’d left Skye with a babysitter. Until she was sure of her daughter’s welcome, Brooke wouldn’t disturb Skye’s happy world.

Even now, doubts troubled her. Perhaps Skye would be better off not knowing. But suppose something happened to Brooke? Skye would be totally alone and could find herself in the same foster care system that Brooke and her sister had hated. Fiercely, Brooke strengthened her resolve. Hiding from the truth was not a solution. Besides, Brooke had known the loss of growing up without any family except one sister, and she couldn’t deprive her daughter of relatives.

Brooke took a seat on a wooden bench, pulled her feet up and hugged her knees. She’d gone over the same thoughts a thousand times. Each time she came to the same conclusion: Skye had a right to the truth. The right to an extended family.

Once Brooke had made her decision, she hadn’t expected contacting Ford Braddack would prove so difficult. Apparently, the man had almost star status. If to get to Ford she had to go through every member of the family, she’d do so. Ford’s parents were next on her list. And she'd fly to California to find Craig if necessary. But she’d prefer to explain the difficult situation only once.

Convincing Max wouldn’t be easy. On first acquaintance, Ford’s brother had appeared playful, prideful, and imbued with stubborn confidence. So why hadn’t he bombarded her with questions?

His seeming disinterest had thrown her off balance, and her thoughts raced. She hadn’t expected Ford Braddack’s twin to be a mechanic—not that she’d thought much about it beforehand.

Footsteps interrupted her musings. Max joined her on the dock, smelling of soap and shampoo. His dark hair glistened, and his lashes were spiked with water droplets. He wore ratty but clean jeans and a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut out. Max hadn’t only taken time to clean up and change, his previously casual demeanor had turned more serious. She sensed a tautness in him that hadn’t been there before. He offered her a beer—as what, a peace offering? More likely a way to get her to let down her guard.

"No, thanks. I’m driving.”

"Suit yourself. After that shower of dust, I’m thirsty.”

Leaving plenty of room to avoid rubbing elbows, Max sat next to her, stretched out his long legs and tipped his beer to his mouth. His unreadable eyes stared across the lake. Sensing he wasn’t going to start a conversation but would leave that to her, she braced herself for a difficult discussion. "Will you help me talk to Ford?”

"That depends.”

"On what?”

"Your story.”

Damn, he could be frustrating—just like Skye. Maybe stubbornness ran in the family. She’d learned from newspaper articles that Max and Ford were identical twins, sharing the same genetic makeup. It was likely Skye had inherited those genes. When her daughter made up her mind, it was set in concrete. Orders, cajoling, even outright bribery, failed to change her opinion. Only one thing could do that—a logical argument that had no loopholes.

Resigned to telling him the entire story, Brooke’s hands shook with the fresh attack of nerves scrambling through her. She made herself lift her chin. "Skye needed a physical to start summer camp. Last week her pediatrician did a blood test.”

"So?”

"She can’t be mine.” Brooke choked over the words. Held back tears. She would not break down in front of him.

"It’s usually the fathers who don’t know when a kid is theirs,” he said dryly.

"My sister Nicole couldn’t have kids, so I donated an egg.”

Max stiffened. "Donated an egg?”

"The Kine Fertility Clinic specializes in helping women get pregnant. My egg should have been fertilized in a test tube with my brother-in-law’s sperm, then implanted in my sister. At least, that’s the way it was supposed to happen.”

An odd look crossed Max’s face, but then he swigged some beer and hid his thoughts behind downcast lids. When he didn’t comment, she forced words past a throat dry as sand. "Two months after my sister bore Skye, Nicole and her husband John died in a drowning accident. At the time, I was babysitting Skye.”

"You kept the baby, thinking she was yours?” His face was unreadable, and she had no idea what he was thinking.

"I would have kept Skye whether she was Nicole’s or mine. She’s the only family I have left.”

"Now you think Skye is my niece. Why?” His drawl softened to an ominous murmur, a direct contrast to the nonchalance of a moment before.

His lightning mood change confused her, but she tried to ignore it. "After I spoke to Skye’s pediatrician, I thought maybe Skye could have been mixed up with another child at City Hospital. But while she wasn’t the only delivery that morning, she was the only girl. My sister went home the day after Skye was born.”

"Go on.”

"Once I learned a hospital mix-up was unlikely, I went back to the Kine Clinic. If I’m not Skye’s biological mother, I need to find out who her parents are. I’d also like to learn what the clinic did with the egg I donated.”

"You didn’t find any answers, did you?”

She flinched at the skepticism in his tone. In the nightmare she’d been living every day since she’d heard Dr. O’Brian’s news, she’d expected to face wariness. But she hadn’t thought explaining could be so difficult. He was staring at her intently, and she shifted her gaze back to the water. "Dr. Clifford Arnold, my sister’s doctor, wasn’t available. His secretary refused to give me any information.”

Out of the comer of her eye, she saw him lean back and sip the last of his beer, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Not surprising. The legal implications could force them into bankruptcy. But there is a lot more at stake here than legal ramifications.”

Brooke’s throat tightened. She could lose Skye, and she would never have another child, but she had to speak past the lump in her throat. She owed it to the daughter she loved to find her family.

"A researcher...” She paused, unsure how to tell him the rest. Discovering that Skye wasn’t her child had scared her to the bone. She still hadn’t recovered from the shock of learning that Skye’s father might be an international businessman who could—besides offering a two- parent family—give Skye advantages she couldn’t.

Max perused her face, a hint of impatience in his eyes. "What?”

Just say it. She had to tell him. Obviously he wouldn’t believe her unless she did. She spoke in a rush. "Karen Forester keeps track of equipment and supplies at the Kine Clinic. She told me about six years ago she had overheard that your brother and sister-in-law’s embryo was implanted in my sister.”

"What else did she tell you?” He balled his fingers into a fist, belying his casual words. "Did she offer proof? Who was responsible? Did she think the mix-up was an accident or deliberate?”

She should have known he’d leave no statement unchallenged. Brooke sighed. "Karen wouldn’t say more. I have an appointment to meet her tomorrow. But whether or not she has proof doesn’t matter except to find out how and why the mistake happened.”

"And just why are you so sure Skye is Ford’s daughter?”

"Because she looks just like you. And you and your brother are identical twins.”

She took out her cell phone and flashed him a picture of Skye. He stiffened, stared. Stared some more.

Finally he looked away. "Looks can be deceiving. My brother won’t believe he’s a father unless the researcher provides us with more information. I hate to get his hopes up. Ford and Rhonda have wanted a child for a long time.”

She struggled to keep her tone even. "A genetic test will prove the truth.”

"If you’re right, then what?” His tone was soft but woven with steel. "Will you give your daughter to my brother?”

"No!” Anger layered over her fear, and she stiffened, barely containing her fury. "I have no intention of giving my daughter away. But if Ford and Rhonda are her parents, they have a right to know. So does Skye.”

He lowered his voice to a menacing whisper. "You want money, don’t you?”

Her hand itched to slap his arrogant face. Instead she reiterated her reason in as calm a tone as she could manage. "Skye should know her parents.”

All his intensity focused on her. "The thought of the Braddack millions never crossed your mind?” Although it was likely some people were after Ford for his money, she resented Max’s assumption that she was no different. She fought to hold steady under his scowl. "Something very wrong happened at the most prestigious fertility clinic in the country. I want to find out what happened and why. The idea that Skye isn’t my daughter is tearing me apart, and I have her best interests in my heart. Why else would I be searching for her genetic parents?”

"For Ford’s money.”

"Wrong.”

Clearly, he didn’t believe her. An icy knot coiled in her stomach. How dare he accuse her of ulterior motives when all she cared about was Skye’s welfare?

She twisted on the bench to face him, her eyes burning with pride. "I’m here for Skye.”

"Sure, lady.”

Cut deep by his sarcasm, she refused to bleed in front of him. Taking a quick, sharp breath, she stood, back straight, refusing to crumple at his condemnation. "If your brother knew about his daughter, surely he would want the best for her, wouldn’t he?”

BROOKE HAD A point. One Max didn’t wish to concede until he decided if the indignation in her tone and the fury in her shimmering eyes were due to his insults, or because he’d seen through her plan so quickly.

She was bold, this schemer. Usually women sank their hooks into him before making demands. Especially the pretty ones. Like her. He’d always been a sucker for redheads with attitude, and Brooke Evans had it in spades. From the sassy tilt of her head, he read her ambition while her soft, pouty lips suggested greed.

Of course Brooke was the first attractive woman who hadn’t thrown herself at him in a coon’s age. But then he’d been too busy to notice women much lately. With readying the Sea Mist for the race, his socializing had suffered. Now that he’d finally come up for air, she’d stolen the wind right out of his mainsail.

Why did she have to be slender yet curvy in all the right places? Her incredibly long legs encased in blue jeans distracted him as did the ribbed T-shirt that molded her breasts. Round breasts of the variety a man could worship, and right now, they heaved with each furious breath she drew.

As much as she appealed to him on a physical level, Brooke Evans wasn’t for him. Even without the complications of her daughter and his brother and wife, there was so much more at stake here than she knew.

He debated his next step, wishing he could dump Brooke Evans in Ford’s lap. But even if Ford and Rhonda weren’t out of the country on vacation, Max wouldn’t go to Ford with Brooke’s story without substantiating facts. Ford and Rhonda had wanted a child for too long for him not to consider the ramifications of carelessly divulging such information.

Rhonda had suffered through numerous miscarriages and disappointments. His brother adored his wife, and he wouldn’t appreciate Max raising Rhonda’s hopes that Skye might be their daughter, only later to possibly find out otherwise. Before Max informed Ford of the situation, he needed to check out Brooke’s story.

Yet he didn’t want to spend too much time in her company. Max had a habit of picking the wrong type of woman—a habit he was determined to break. So as the clouds moved in over the marina, casting shadows across the lake’s curling crests, he resisted his attraction to the leggy redhead.

"Ford and Rhonda have wanted a child for a very long time,” he admitted.

Her eyes flashed. "Then I think it’s time you put me in touch with them.”

"Not just yet.”

The air, charged with the electricity of a storm about to break, was temperate compared to the bottled pressures inside the woman in front of him. She stood, the wind whipping her T-shirt and hair, her chin angled defiantly. Seemingly too young to be a mother, too scared to be scheming, she revealed a vulnerability that appealed to him on a level he didn’t care to acknowledge. Damn!

He had one thing in his favor. She didn’t want him, didn’t like him. He should be safe from any flirtation on her part. Now if only he could curb his own desires and concentrate on the child.

A Braddack granddaughter. His mother would be ecstatic. She’d gladly cancel all her social engagements to spend time with a grandchild. Dad would enjoy sitting a kid on his lap as he drove his golf cart over the green. Craig might even come out of mourning and make a trip home... But first Max had to make sure little-miss-ambitious-for-her- daughter’s-sake wasn’t fabricating her story.

"What will you do if my brother decides to take Skye from you?”

"He won’t.”

Pain laced her words, and yet he couldn’t stop himself from wounding her further. "Do you have the kind of money it would take to fight him?”

She swallowed hard. "Not on a secretary’s salary.” He suspected she was close to tears, but she stood proudly on the dock, as if courage and determination made her invincible.

Fear wouldn’t make her back down, and he didn’t understand why. Surely she knew the forces his brother could bring to bear on her, his influence in the judicial system, the clout of the best attorneys. She couldn’t be so ignorant that she thought to fight and win.

Was it possible to share a child? Turning off his roiling emotions in what he saw as a painful situation for everyone, Max finally asked the question he couldn’t hold back, unsure he wanted to hear her answer. "Suppose you lose your daughter?”

She squared her shoulders, meeting his gaze straight-on and without flinching. "I hope your brother and his wife won’t be so heartless. I’m doing what is right. I can’t give her two parents. I owe it to her to find out the truth.”

"On a mere hope, about people you’ve never met, you risked your future?”

"Skye’s future,” she insisted, "is what is most important. To keep father and mother and daughter apart is wrong.”

No one could possibly be that selfless. Rhonda was a wonderful, giving woman, and Ford worshiped her, but Brooke had no way of knowing that no matter how badly Rhonda wanted a child, she was not the kind of person who would take Skye away from the only mother the child had ever known.

Max looked at Brooke, really looked at her, past the pretty facade to the pouty lips trembling with stress, to the ruler-straight back held so stiffly she seemed ready to snap. And he reconsidered. Her spirited eyes flashed with an iron will she appeared to impose over welling panic.

Perhaps she was telling the truth.

The thought startled him into testing her resolve. "Go. Leave here. What my brother doesn’t know won’t hurt him. We’ll forget this conversation happened.”

While he had no intention of forgetting what she’d told him, he saw no reason he couldn’t do a little investigating on his own. He’d keep his inquiry quiet.

But when every curve in her body blazed defiance, he got the distinct impression she wasn’t about to drop her mission. She snapped her fingers. "Just like that you make the decision for your brother, his wife, and my daughter. Just who the hell do you think you are, mister?”

A pushover—with a tendency to allow redheads to wrap him around their little fingers—that’s who. A habit he’d hoped he’d broken.

If she was telling the truth, she hadn’t deserved what he’d put her through. Guilt pricked at him. On the other hand, he couldn’t allow himself to announce the possibility of a Braddack grandchild just yet—not until he was certain.

He eased to his feet and towered over her. "I think it’s time I met Skye.”


 

 

Chapter Two

BROOKE’S EYES widened in outrage. "Why? Why do you want to see her?”

Max took her arm and led her toward her car. The sun had set, and as they walked through the dusty boatyard amid the chirps of crickets and croaks of tree frogs, mosquitoes buzzed around their heads. But Brooke’s reaction to his suggestion was sharper than any mosquito bite.

In spite of the fact she had no reason to trust him, that he’d deliberately goaded her, he’d foolishly hoped she wouldn’t hold his skepticism against him. But clearly she didn’t want him anywhere near her daughter.

Too damned bad.

"My brother will want to know what Skye looks like—”

"I showed you her picture.”

"It could have been Photoshopped.”

"Really?”

"He'll want to know where she lives, how she’s been treated—” Brooke yanked her arm from his grasp, and her eyes flared with anger. "Skye’s been treated just fine. She’s a healthy and happy five-year-old child. I won’t let you upset her just to satisfy your curiosity.”

When he spoke, he kept his voice flat. "You’re the one who wants to bring her to my family. But if it will put your mind at ease, I have no intention of discussing her parentage with her.”

Brooke looked deep into his eyes, swallowed hard and nodded, acceding to his request.

As he followed Brooke in his pickup truck southward from Lake Pontchartrain and its massive levees, Max debated what he would say to the child. He was no closer to an answer as he passed through the Vieux Carre, the old French Quarter with its street-front Creole houses, iron balconies and sizzling nightlife. When he finally left the city and drove past the Superdome, he was glad she lived in the suburbs. He imagined it was a better atmosphere in which to raise a child. Not that he was any expert.

He’d always liked children and had planned to spoil Ford and Rhonda’s kids rotten. Unfortunately, the couple had had difficulty conceiving, and not even the renowned Kine Fertility Clinic had helped.

Panic gnawed his stomach. He supposed people gradually became used to babies and learned how to talk to them as they grew. The idea of meeting the five-year-old while Brooke watched curiously had him almost squirming in his pickup seat.

Much too soon for his liking, she pulled off the broad avenue into a parking lot. They passed a swimming pool and a playground in a brick apartment complex before he’d begun to set his edgy thoughts in order. He rolled his shoulders to loosen them and, resigned, wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans before exiting his truck.

Get a grip. Skye’s just a kid.

But she wasn’t just any kid. Would Skye’s eyes light up with curiosity like his mother, Eva? Would she possess his father, Red’s, calm determination? Or would she have Rhonda’s easy personality?

When he joined Brooke on the sidewalk, she already had keys in her hand. A slight jiggle of the metal revealed he wasn’t the only nervous person here. A need to get this over with suddenly overwhelmed him.

As if sensing his unease, she shot him a warning look from eyes clouded with worry. "Remember, Skye knows nothing about this. Don’t scare her. Right now I’m the only family she has.”

He had the strangest urge to take her into his arms and kiss her—not a passionate kiss, but a gentle show of affection on the forehead to reassure her. The front door flung open, interrupting his thoughts. A little girl in pink overalls flew over the threshold and made a beeline for Brooke.

"Mommy, Mommy. Look what I made.”

Max barely glanced at the pot holder in the child’s hand or the babysitter following close behind. The parking lot lights revealed a dark-haired child with glossy curls framing her rounded face. She looked up at Brooke with deep-set blue eyes the exact same shape as his and Ford’s.

Skye was a miniature—an almost exact feminine version—of him and Ford.

Stunned, he rocked back on his heels and stared in marvelous fascination. Her pixie lips split into a wide grin, revealing gleaming white teeth beneath a button nose. She spoke in animated torrents, her sunny face bursting with pride. "I’ll already know how to weave pot holders when I go to camp.”

At the sight of her daughter, Brooke’s face brightened. "Max, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Skye. Skye, this is Max, a friend of mine.”

Skye glanced at him, seeming not the least bit shy. "Hi. Do you know how to make pot holders?”

She certainly was a friendly kid, and he was grateful she’d given him an opening. "Think you could teach me?”

Skye looked to her mother. "Can I teach him? Can I?”

Brooke nodded at her daughter, then nailed him with an I-told-you-she-was-a-Braddack expression in her eyes. "Sure, sweetie. Take him inside.”

Brooke paid the babysitter while Skye took his hand. "Come on. We can make a red and white design. You do like red, don’t you? It’s my favorite color. Mom says I can take my red sleeping bag and pajamas when I go to camp. Course I won’t be sleeping over until the special weekend.”

Max grinned at Skye’s contagious enthusiasm. He could see he needn’t have worried about what to say. Skye could chatter on like a magpie, and he wondered who she got that from. Her hand felt tiny in his and surprisingly strong.

As she tugged him into the apartment, she looked up at him with those big blue eyes that branded his heart. It wasn’t fair that Ford and Rhonda and his parents had missed watching her grow up. He’d bet she’d been a beautiful baby. While Brooke had taken care of her, the Braddacks had all missed Skye’s first tooth, her first word, her first steps. Now more than ever he understood the sacrifice it had taken for Brooke to contact him.

He glanced around the apartment. Although not large, the place was clean and comfortable, consisting of a combination kitchen and den with the bedrooms down a short hall. Evidence of Skye was everywhere. Her crayoned pictures stuck to the refrigerator with cartoon magnets. A child-sized red tent with a matching sleeping bag unrolled inside stood beside the coffee table scattered with children’s books, and the couch had a doll propped in a comer.

Skye led him to the kitchen table where a plastic frame with colorful cloth loops awaited. Instead of letting go of him, she turned over his hand and examined it. "Your fingers may be too big for the frame. This may be hard for you. But my mom says we can do hard things if we try.”

"Your mom is a smart lady.”

He sat next to Skye who busily explained pot holder making as Brooke entered the apartment and puttered around the kitchen. Over the phone hung a framed black-and-white photo of two girls with their arms around one another. In the background was an old Victorian farmhouse with peeling paint on dilapidated shutters.

Brooke must have picked up on his interest as she wiped down the kitchen counter. "That’s Nicole and me in front of the foster home where we grew up.”

"In New Orleans?”

Brooke shook her head. "We were originally from Baton Rouge, but when the oil business went flat, the family ended up in Bayou Goula. The people who ran the foster home said our parents were there looking for work when they both succumbed to swamp fever.”

"Nobody dies of the swamp sickness anymore,” Skye piped in. "They have medicine now.”

"So how did you end up in New Orleans?” Max asked, steering the subject away from losing one’s parents.

Brooke dried her hands on a towel. "Nicole fell in love with John when she met him at Tulane University. Nicole was the only family I had—”

"Till me,” Skye interrupted.

"Yes, till you, sweetie.” Brooke ruffled her hair. "And now it’s time for bed.”

"But, Mom. I haven’t finished showing Max how to make the pot holder. You always say I should finish what I start.”

Brooke shook her head with a grin. "Nothing like having your own words used against you. You can finish tomorrow. It’s bedtime. Say goodnight to Max and don’t forget to wash your hands and face and brush your teeth. I’ll leave the pot holder right here. It’ll be waiting for you in the morning.”

"But I want Max to have one.”

"I could stop by tomorrow,” he offered, the words out of his mouth before he stopped to think. The homey atmosphere was more enticing than he’d expected. He liked the easy mother-daughter relationship between Brooke and Skye, the way Brooke valued family— a trait he found in so few people. They clearly cared for one another the same way his family did. When Brooke’s head jerked at his suggestion, he wheedled an invitation. "Your mother has an appointment tomorrow. I thought I’d go with her.”

"Goodie.” Skye slipped off the chair and hugged Brooke. She turned to him next and with an impish grin, blew him a kiss and skipped off down the hall. "Night-night.”

"Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” he responded with a sheepish grin, drawing on childhood memories long buried.

"You did well with her.” Brooke complimented him, clearly aware of his previous nervousness. "Thanks. She made it easy.”

Brooke placed the last plates in the dishwasher, poured soap and set the timer. "After I tuck her in, I’ll be right back.”

"What time are you leaving for your meeting with Karen Forester?” he asked as she followed Skye down the hall.

"Nine o’clock,” she told him over her shoulder. "I’ll see you tomorrow then.” He slipped out the door, acknowledging the cowardly action for what it was. She watched him leave, her eyes narrowed in frustration. Tomorrow she’d probably give him hell for his rude behavior. But he couldn’t face talking with her about Skye—not until he settled his feelings.

Ah, Skye. The child had captivated him the moment he’d seen her. Her dark, curly hair framed a round face, but it was the shape of her eyes beneath arched brows that made a genetic test superfluous. The girl was pure Braddack, tempered with his sister-in-law’s sweetness but with a practicality that had to come from Brooke.

He couldn’t deny Brooke had done a terrific job raising Skye. And as a single parent, struggling to make a living, raising a child couldn’t be easy.

Skye’s presence had spun him for a loop. He drove back to the marina knowing one thing for sure. Skye was going to be welcomed into his family. Skye's photo had rocked him. But he hadn’t really believed Brooke until he’d seen Skye in person. Now he felt as if he’d been flattened by a ten-ton truck. He should have been happy, yet heartache awaited both families. To take Skye from Brooke would be cruel. She loved the child and had taken great pride in raising her. His brother and his wife would face unimaginable pain. They could never regain the years they might have had with Skye. And what kind of relationship with their daughter could they hope for in the future?

Back at the garage apartment over the marina’s shop, he glanced at his cell phone. He should probably call Ford, but his brother would want to know who was behind the mix-up at the Kine Clinic and how it could have happened. And Max wouldn’t have more information until tomorrow, after he spoke with Karen Forester.

Tomorrow he’d see Brooke and Skye again. As he lay in bed, for the first time in a long time, he was eager for a new day.

BROOKE DIDN’T sleep well. She’d tossed and turned after Max’s abrupt departure. She’d finally fallen asleep only to have the alarm blast her awake. A few hours of sleep hadn’t relieved her anxiety from the night before. Why hadn’t Max waited to leave until after she’d put Skye to bed and they’d had a chance to talk? He’d raced out the door as if the apartment had been on fire.

She’d kept glancing at Max and Skye as she’d straightened the kitchen, but she hadn’t been able to read him. Had he recognized his own features in Skye? Or had he refused to see the evidence right before his eyes?

The pressure had her on edge, and she hoped he would put her in touch with his brother today. Waiting was nerve-racking. Even if Ford and Rhonda agreed to the genetic test that could prove Skye was their biological daughter, it would take two weeks for the results to come in.

But Brooke didn’t need scientific proof. In her heart she knew. Skye was Rhonda and Ford’s child, and her throat tightened.

For once, oblivious to Brooke’s feelings, Skye ate quickly so she could work on her pot holder. The sitter and Max arrived at the same time, and, again, Brooke had to wait until she got him alone.

He showed up in a faded shirt and frayed jeans and sauntered through the front door whistling "Dixie.” Freshly shaven and with his hair still damp, he had an appealing bright-eyed quality that made her notice him more than she would have liked. "Morning. You ladies ready?”

Skye looked up from the table, saw the babysitter, and turned to her mother. "I want to go, too.”

"Not this time.”

Skye’s lower lip trembled. "But you said you would take me on an adventure today.”

"How about when we get back, we’ll take you on a streetcar ride?” Max suggested.

Brooke didn’t appreciate him offering a treat without first clearing the idea privately with her. If she said no, she’d be the bad guy. But she supposed Max didn’t know better, so she forgave him. Besides, it was difficult to stay angry at a man who was trying to make her daughter happy.

At Max’s suggestion, Skye immediately brightened. "Can we go? Please, Mom.”

"As long as it doesn’t rain. Now give me a kiss and a hug.”

While Brooke issued instructions to the babysitter, Skye insisted Max help her brush her teeth. He pretended horror Skye brushed after every meal, and she giggled in amusement at his silliness.

Finally Brooke and Max were ready to leave. As he opened the door for her and she stepped outside into the crisp morning air, she hoped it would stay sunny. The radio had predicted rain later, but she wouldn’t mind a trolley ride herself.

"I’m sorry,” Max said as he headed for his truck. "I should have cleared the outing with you first. It won’t happen again.”

"Thanks.”

Damn, he could be charming and intuitive when he wanted, and he looked even better than she remembered. The dark hair framing his piercing blue eyes both unnerved and interested her. But then how could she not find him appealing when she’d fallen in love with his features, Skye’s features, years ago?

Still, she wasn’t about to allow him to charm her out of her annoyance with his disappearing act last night. She let him open his truck door for her, then she fastened her seat belt and waited for him to pull out of the parking lot before she asked the questions that burned in her mind.

"Did you call Ford?”

"Not until we talk to Karen. Do you have directions?”

"Karen lives in an apartment in the Old Quarter.” She shifted so she could watch him. His body language clearly said he was loose, eager and ready to go. He kept his gaze on the road, checking the rearview mirror every thirty seconds or so. At first appearance he seemed relaxed, but then she noted how he avoided her gaze, and reconsidered. Perhaps he wasn’t finding this as easy as she’d thought.

She tempered the sharpness in her tone. "What do you think of Skye?”

"She’s inquisitive, intelligent and damned cute.”

"And?” she pressed.

He raised a brow. "And she looks just like me. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

No, she wanted to scream at him. That’s not what she wanted to hear. She wanted Skye to be hers in every way. But she tried to remain calm and keep her voice even. "Then there’s no reason to avoid calling Ford and Rhonda.”

"Fine. We’ll call after this meeting.”

At his sudden capitulation, relief flooded her, but as his words sank in, wariness overtook her once more. "Can’t I talk to them in person?”

"Ford and Rhonda are skiing in Switzerland. A phone call will have to do for now.”

While she absorbed the surprise that the Braddacks were out of the country, Ford switched on the radio and jazz engulfed them. Fifteen minutes later he parked in front of a three-story building that borrowed from both French and Spanish designs. They walked on uneven pavement through wrought-iron gates into a courtyard with dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas.

"That’s Karen’s apartment.” Brooke pointed. "Number twelve.”

Max rapped on the door. A curtain in the window moved. The door opened about three inches, and the Kine Clinic researcher, Karen Forester, peeked through the opening left by a latched chain. "I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you.”

She closed the door in their faces. The latch snicked shut.

Puzzled and frustrated, Brooke spun to look at Max. He furrowed his forehead and shrugged.

Unwilling to give up, she knocked on the door again. "Karen. Karen, it’s Brooke. Brooke Evans. We met yesterday. We have an appointment.”

The door remained closed. The curtain didn’t move. Karen had been willing to talk to her yesterday. What had happened since then to change her mind?

When no one answered, Brooke’s shoulders slumped. Without verbal confirmation, Max might not call his brother. She’d be right back where she’d started.

"Let’s get out of here.” Max took her elbow and ushered her away. "She’s not going to talk to us.”

"I don’t understand. Do you think she has a guest?” Brooke asked as they walked back to the truck, disappointed with Karen’s refusal and all too aware of Max’s fingers on her elbow.

"It’s possible. But I think someone got to her.”

"What do you mean?”

"This smells like a cover-up.”

"I don’t understand.”

"Someone scared her into keeping her mouth shut.”

She jerked up her head. "But how? Why?”

"How is the easy part.” Max started the truck and headed to Brooke’s place. "She could have been told that if she talked to us, she’d lose her job.”

"But no one knew I spoke with her.”

"They didn’t have to see you. You were at the clinic asking a lot of questions. Word must have got around.”

Max stopped in the traffic as the cars waited for an old mule-drawn carriage to clip-clop by. Brooke shook her head at the mule decked in ribbons, flowers and a hat, glad she didn’t have to drive. Her head pounded, and the sunshine hurt her eyes. "Why would someone threaten Karen with losing her job for talking to us? Isn’t that illegal? She could just go to the police.”

"Not necessarily. Medical records are confidential. Someone in authority at the clinic would be within their rights to tell her if she talked out of turn, she’d be fired or sued.”

"But why did she tell me anything in the first place?”

"Look, the best-case scenario is someone accidentally screwed up in the clinic when Skye was implanted in your sister. The clinic could be sued for millions. If a doctor is found negligent, he could lose his livelihood—not only be sued and fired, he could lose his medical license.”

She sighed. "We need to talk to Dr. Arnold, but he won’t return my calls.”

Max weaved through the heavy traffic with expertise. "Ford is on the board of directors of the Kine Clinic. His name ought to get us in to see the chief administrator.”

"Ford’s on the board of directors? I didn’t know. You’d have thought he’d have gotten VIP treatment.”

Max frowned. "Yeah. You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

Max used his cell phone to make an appointment with the administrator, turned his pickup around and headed into the city. Driving straight to the Kine Clinic, they had parked and entered the building in less than fifteen minutes. An elevator whisked them to an upper floor of the facility. A strawberry-blond secretary escorted Brooke and Max around a saltwater aquarium into a corner office with a magnificent view. Glass windows provided a panorama of an elbow of the muddy Mississippi and the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

Dr. Edward Henschel, a short, balding man with a baby-smooth face sat behind a massive desk covered with papers. "Max. It’s good to see you again. What can I do for you?” He stood and held out his hand. "Is Ford enjoying his vacation?”

Max introduced Brooke and gestured for her to take the chair beside him. "I haven’t heard from Ford. That probably means he’s having a great time.”

Brooke stared at the framed diplomas over the desk, unable to read specifics from her position. Before she’d always taken for granted the integrity of a physician. Now she realized doctors were people, and, just like in any other profession, they sometimes made mistakes.

To find out if an honest mistake or an accident had caused the mix-up would be tricky. When faced with trouble, doctors usually closed ranks, but Karen’s whispered words about overhearing a conversation and naming Ford Braddack as Skye’s father, indicated that someone might be hiding beneath the Kine Clinic’s spotless reputation.

Brooke would have preferred to speak with Dr. Arnold, the physician who had culled her egg for Nicole. He’d always seemed pleasant and professional. She had no wish to malign Dr. Arnold and wondered why he hadn’t returned her calls. That he hadn’t responded sent suspicion prickling at her nape.

Dr. Henschel moved a few papers out of the way, adding them to a stack, and then placed his forearms on the desk. "How can I help you?”

Brooke fidgeted in her seat. "I—we were hoping to speak with Dr. Arnold.”

"I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult.”

"Why?” Max asked. "He still works here, doesn’t he?”

Dr. Henschel sighed. "He’s on his sailboat for a few weeks. He prefers to take vacation time in late spring.”

Max leaned back in his chair and peered at the doctor. "Does he have a cell phone?”

"Oh, yes. But don’t get your hopes up. He never turns it on. Arnold says if we could reach him, he’d never have any time off. And he’s right. There’s always some kind of medical crisis in a facility the size of this one.”

Upset that Dr. Arnold was unreachable, Brooke’s thoughts raced. Arnold had been in charge of the fertilization and implantation stages, but there must be records on file.

"Could we look at my sister’s file?”

Dr. Henschel focused a genial smile on Max. "Patient files are confidential.”

She glanced at Max, sprawled in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. He tilted his chair onto its rear legs with an unruffled poise and confidence that surprised her. He seemed as comfortable in this fancy office as he did with boat engines.

She turned to the doctor. "Six years ago, through the efforts of the Kine Clinic my sister had a baby girl, Skye. I donated the egg. Last week after a blood test, her pediatrician told me the child cannot be mine—nor was she Nicole’s.”

Dr. Henschel removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Dr. Arnold works directly with patients. My talents run toward administration. I’m afraid I can’t be much help. Is the child healthy?”

"The point is that Skye’s blood proves she couldn’t be my daughter or my sister’s.”

Dr. Henschel replaced his glasses. "Dr. O’Brian, your pediatrician, called me last week.”

While Henschel spoke, Max leaned forward and reached down to tie his shoe. Out of the comer of her eye, she watched him pick up a piece of paper that had missed the trash can. When he straightened, he thrust the paper into his pocket.

Dr. Henschel didn’t seem to notice. He continued to speak nonstop. "But with everyone working extra shifts to cover my colleague’s patients, I didn’t take the call. Since your sister wasn’t my patient, I’m unfamiliar with the particulars of her case. I’ll check our records, talk to our attorney. Why don’t you stop by tonight around seven, and I’ll see if I can give you some answers?”

Max nodded appreciatively. "That would be very helpful.”

"But why consult an attorney?” Brooke asked impatiently. "Right now, all we want is evidence the mistake was made. My sister is no longer alive. I assure you, I’m only here to learn the truth.” It seemed such a simple thing for Dr. Henschel to check the files and give them the information they sought. She had no plans to sue, or even to expose the mistake because of the publicity it would bring on Skye. Max didn’t look any more pleased by the delay than she did, yet he seemed to be taking the news more in stride.

"It’s our policy—uh... Ford’s and the board of directors’—to have our attorney deal with these matters.” Henschel’s tone indicated he disagreed with this practice, but what was a poor doctor to do except follow the rules?

Max stood. "We understand. Thank you for your help and your time, Doctor. I’ll see you this evening.” When Brooke and Max left Dr. Henschel’s office, the secretary was nowhere to be found. Frustrated by Dr. Henschel’s delay, Brooke gazed with longing at the unattended file cabinets behind the reception desk. They might hold some answers, but with the door still open to Henschel’s office, she dared not attempt to peek in his files.

They strode past Dr. Arnold’s office. Max looked up and down the empty hall. Then his hand snaked to the doorknob while her heart leapt into her throat. What would happen if someone caught them trying to get into Arnold’s office?

Max shook his head. "It’s locked.”

As he held the elevator door open for her, she didn’t know whether she was disappointed or relieved they hadn’t stolen inside. The doors swished shut, and simultaneously they pushed the elevator buttons. Max for the lab, Brooke for the ground floor.

"Let’s find Arnold’s lab assistant and ask a few questions,” he sug­gested, his stance relaxed, but she didn’t miss the hint of determination in his eyes.

He was obviously smart. But how did he stay so calm and composed? Perhaps she’d been mistaken about the seething emotion she sensed deep beneath his surface. Her perception might be way off, especially when she was so worried about the possibility of losing Skye.

"What did you take from Henschel’s office?” she asked curiously.

Max smoothed the crumpled paper while the elevator descended. "It’s a note from the company accountant. He says he needs to talk to Dr. Henschel about overbilling.”

"That could mean the clinic is being overcharged. Perhaps someone is taking kickbacks,” she suggested.

"Or it could mean the clinic is overcharging for its services.”

For all of Max’s laid-back ways, she couldn’t criticize his resource­fulness. She took in the strength of his shoulders and followed the clean lines of his shirt down to his hard flanks. She couldn’t help but admire his persistence in looking at every possibility—and the way his clothes fit. Stop it.

Annoyed by her lapse, she redirected her thoughts from the sensual strut of his walk to the cunning, patience and intelligence he’d displayed during their quest for information. She needed to follow his example and keep her mind on business.

Max stuck the paper into his back pocket. "I’ll ask Ford about this when I call him.”

They exited the elevator and approached the brightly lit entrance to the lab. From the locked metal doors barring their entrance, she guessed they had new problems to solve.

A security guard stood in front of the laboratory, his arms crossed over his chest. "This area is off-limits.”

"We just want to speak to Dr. Arnold’s assistant.” Brooke smiled, hoping the man would allow them by. He didn’t.

"Sorry. Without permission from Dr. Henschel, no one goes in there.”

Max’s hand squeezed her elbow, a silent signal to let him try. "Could you ask Dr. Arnold’s lab assistant to come out here?”

"Sorry. I’m forbidden to go inside.”

Max gestured to the intercom on the wall. "What about calling?”

"Sorry. That’s only for emergencies.”

With each refusal, Brooke’s annoyance grew. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. As they returned to the elevator, she barely contained her temper.

Once the doors closed, Max chuckled. "Do you think he begins every sentence with ‘sorry’?”

His laughter aggravated her exasperation. "This isn’t funny. This place is locked up tighter than the Pentagon.”

Max faced her and his serene blue eyes drilled her with innocence. "Hey, I’m on your side.”

"Then act like it.”

"What do you want from me? Would putting my fist through that guard’s face have made you feel better?”

"How perceptive of you to notice my annoyance,” she snapped, realizing she did indeed wish to goad him into a reaction, although not one so violent.

His forehead creased. "Why are you so angry?”

"When you don’t show the same frustration I’m feeling, it seems as if you don’t care.”

He raked a hand through his hair. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Would you feel better if I cursed, started a fight, got myself arrested?”

She almost smiled at the image. Yesterday, in the boatyard, she’d have believed him capable of violence, but now she was thankful for his self-control.

Still, she refused to allow his statement to go unchallenged. "There’s detachment in your calmness.”

"It works for me,” he admitted. "If I acted otherwise to make you happy, I’d be living a lie.” The doors opened, and he switched topics. "Why don’t we try the research department?”

"I shouldn’t have taken out my frustration on you, but we’ve wasted half the morning and haven’t found anything useful. I want to know how this happened. And I want to know what became of the egg I donated to my sister.”

Max winked. "Patience.”

She wanted to choke him. "Something obviously went wrong in this clinic.”

"Agreed.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. "And somehow I don’t see the clinic’s attorney giving us information. Whatever happened took place six years ago. There’s been plenty of time for someone to cover their tracks. All documentation would have been destroyed long ago.”

Brooke moved past him and through a door into a fifth-floor windowless office. A brass plate on the door told them the researcher’s name. Grant Donovan had the build of an NFL linebacker, and his huge frame looked ridiculous cramped behind a desk. His meaty fingers lumbered over the keyboard, his face fixed in concentration.

"Excuse us,” Brooke interrupted. "We thought you might help us solve a problem.”

"Problem-solving isn’t exactly my department.” He’d stopped typing and looked up, his lips twisted in a parody of a smile.

"Look, all we want to know is how the Kine Clinic mistakenly placed his brother’s embryo,” she pointed to Max, "in my sister. We know from the blood tests someone in the clinic made a mistake. We want to see the records.”

Grant shrugged and returned to his typing. "Sorry, lady, I can’t help you.”

"I want to know what happened to my egg,” Brooke insisted, hoping a different tack might sway the man.

Grant cracked his knuckles. "Look, I’d like to help you, but I could lose my job.”

Brooke didn’t blame the man. Still her thoughts whirled in frustration as she and Max exited the office and, finally, the facility. "We aren’t getting anywhere,” Brooke complained as they made their way to the pickup. "Surely there must be a record of Rhonda and Ford’s blood type somewhere?”

"Since we’re identical twins, Ford’s blood is exactly the same as mine.”

"Then there’s no need to return to the lab. If you’ll consent to a tissue scraping of the inside of your cheek, a genetic test will prove within a week or two whether Skye is Ford’s daughter.”

"After seeing Skye, I’m convinced she’s a Braddack,” he said, opening her door. "Do you think the mix-up could have been deliberate?”

The idea worried her. "I can’t help wondering how a distinguished institution, renowned for ethical and compassionate treatment of fertility problems, could treat us as if they are a fly-by-night facility.”

"We should consider all the possibilities. What would be the motive? Tonight if we get a chance to look around, maybe we’ll pick up a few clues. If there are records to be found, no lawyer worth his pay will let us within a hundred miles of them.”

Her stomach lurched. The idea of skulking around in the dark had her nerves jumping. "But suppose we’re caught?”

He winked at her. "We’ll tell them Ford gave us permission.”

 


 

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Susan Kearney

November 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-370-2

If she saves his life, he’ll be her enemy forever.


 

Our Price: US$14.95

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Devil in Paradise

Susan Kearney

January 2014 $5.99
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-297

Available in E-book ONLY. This item is not available directly from BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books.

Ari Dillon is not your ordinary hero.

 

Our Price: US$0.00

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