Authors: Kristina Weaver
All Rights Reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to events, businesses, companies, institutions, and real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
I’m not as shocked by those two words as you would think.
Like I said, that smile had told me more than I wanted to know about why I’d opened my front door to find a raggedy waif, alone on my doorstep.
Lucian’s face is wide open for the first time, something I’d never thought to see, and what I do see here is complete shock and devastation. I can hardly breathe as I split my gaze between the two of them, watching the byplay as they inspect each other silently.
“Who are you?” he breathes, taking one step closer before pausing at the arm of the couch.
The girl doesn’t say anything, just sits there quietly, her shoulders scrunched up and tense, waiting for I don’t know what.
Now, I could be the classic evil stepmother here and totally freak out, because inside I am so totally freaking out, but the kid, well, she’s not to blame for whatever the hell is going on, and the poor thing looks half-starved and frozen.
“Her name is Madeline Barker,” I say when she doesn’t answer, just stares at him like she’s seeing her first Barbie doll.
I watch his face for any signs of recognition and get my answer when he closes his eyes and lets out a tortured groan.
“Uh, why don’t we leave your…Luc, and go get you something to eat?” I ask, floundering but determined to do something good while my husband has a nervous breakdown.
No, I’m not too thrilled to have his love child show up at my door to meet her father for the first time, and you’d better believe I’m taking a chunk outta his ass later, but right now I’m working on mommy mode, and the kid needs some comfort as much as I need to get the heck out of the room to collect myself.
“Come on, Maddy, let’s go feed you and get you bathed and dressed. You look like you could use something warm and pink.”
Her little face, that cute feminine version of Luc’s, tells me she would rather stay exactly where she is, but at a nod from him she crawls out from beneath her blanket and takes my hand, looking up at me uncertainly.
“Luc,” I whisper, pausing at the door to see my usually cool-headed husband still frozen in shock.
“I need to make a few calls, love.”
His voice is raspy, and I notice he hasn’t met my eyes once, keeping his head down and his face hidden from me.
“We still have guests, Luc.”
“Ah, yes, I’ll…I’ll take care of them,” he mutters. “Ash.”
I pause at the door, keeping my back turned, and smile down at Madeline, squeezing her hand reassuringly.
“Later. We’ll talk later,” I say, pulling her out and closing the door with a soft snick.
I need time, or a large shot of something strong, before I can safely beard that lion’s den and get the answers my stunned brain hasn’t yet been capable of asking.
I’m still stuck on that smile and the completely serious expression I’d seen on her face, the very same one that’s been staring at me for all these months.
The one that’s been driving me crazy because I can’t tell what he’s thinking, no matter how hard I look. This kid is his carbon copy…
“How old are you, honey?” I ask after seating her at the counter and getting to work on a ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of milky tea.
“Six and a half, Mum.”
“Oh, call me Ash, I’m not…well, anyway, how did you get here, honey? It’s awfully dark and cold out. You must have been pretty creeped out if you had to come through the trees in the dark.”
I know I would have been terrified and screaming hysterical. I’ve been there. But the little cutie just smiles around a huge bite of sandwich and shakes her head.
“I’m not afraid of the dark M—Ash. I prefer it.”
I nod and keep my mouth shut as she attacks the sandwich like a starving animal, her little throat bulging when she swallows half-chewed bread and glugs it all down with the luke warm tea I made.
The kid is literally starving. She’s eating so fast, and I feel the first stirrings of unholy anger unfurling in me, replacing the shock with the need to hurt whoever had let her go without food and proper clothing.
“Thank you, Ash.”
I just smile and push another sandwich her way, slowing her down when she tries to lay into it with the same veracity as before.
“You’re most welcome, honey. Um, can you tell me how you got here? Who brought you? And…”
“Aunt Carrie. She said my daddy would take care of me now that mummy’s gone.”
Please don’t tell me your mom’s dead, kid, please just do not say it. It’s downright pathetic for me to think, but I’m not sure what’ll happen if this kid’s mother is out of the picture.
That would mean one thing and one thing only. I’ll be mother to two kids and pregnant and…it’s damn near killing me to think of her age, and doing the math on that is making my stomach lurch in a way that hurts. If she’s six and a half, that means—
“They’ve gone. I told them you were unwell.”
Taking a deep, fortifying breath, I look up at him and take in the closed down expression he’s managed to wrestle back into place. He’s not as cool as he’d like to pretend, though, because his knuckles are white where they’re wrapped around the chair he’s standing behind, almost as if he’s using it to keep himself up.
Goddammit, I want to go over there and soothe whatever it is he’s feeling, an emotion I do not welcome right now, not with all these unanswered questions and the sinking feeling that’s taken up residence in my chest.
“Um, are you done, honey? I think we should get you bathed and into bed. You look beat.”
The kid nods once and gets up to put her dishes in the sink before taking my hand back in hers and letting me lead her past Luc and up the stairs.
I take twenty minutes to bathe her, wash the leaves and dirt from her silky hair, and dress her in some of Ben’s smaller clothes. She’s out as soon as her head hits the pillow, with a trust possessed only by the young and envied by most adults the world over.
I sure wish I felt that trusting or calm, I think, leaving the door open a crack and making my way downstairs on wooden legs. When I get to the kitchen Luc’s hunched at the table, staring sightlessly down into a tumbler of amber whiskey, his shoulders tense and signaling the turmoil his face won’t show.
“Tell me you didn’t know.”
I don’t know how to deal with any of this. Not a bloody clue. That child—oh God, my child— is sleeping upstairs right this minute, unaware of the chaos that her arrival is causing.
It sounds horrible, but I sort of resent the timing. Why now, when I’ve just managed to get things the way I want them, when Ash has finally stopped giving me vacant smiles and is looking at me the way she used to?
One more week, four days max, and I would have had my baby eating out of my hand and telling me she loves me. Now, she’s looking at me with a mix of dark suspicion and a contempt so thick I can almost taste it.
“I didn’t know.”
It’s not a lie, not fully at least. It’s why I’d dropped everything seven years ago and rushed to the airport instead of staying and confronting Ashley the way I’d wanted to.
One phone call had totally changed the entire course of my life. And now it’s come back to fuck up what little progress I’ve made with my woman.
I hear her blow out a breath and risk a glance at her from beneath my lashes, feeling like the world’s worst when she sighs tiredly and falls into the chair across from mine, her soft shoulders slumping.
“Well, there’s no doubt: that kid is definitely yours,” she says slowly, chewing at her lips.
“Yes, I can see that. The question is—”
“And I can’t fucking believe some piece of shit just dropped her off and sent her through the woods! It’s dark and cold out there. Jesus, she wasn’t even wearing shoes. And she’s skinny, Luc, like really skinny, like she doesn’t eat enough, and…who leaves a defenseless little girl to meet her dad for the first time after making her walk through that jungle out there!” she hisses, getting really worked up.
“And do not get me started on the way she attacked a crummy ham and cheese sandwich! You
the crummy asshole who didn’t feed her so I can beat them to death!”
This moment, right here, is when I fight a smile and blow out the breath I’ve been holding since my love called me into the study and introduced me to my daughter.
This moment is one that I will never forget, because in her indignation and maternal glory I know that I haven’t lost her yet, that I’m not doomed to spend the rest of my life without her, only seeing her when she allows me to visit the kids.
“Love, not to get ahead of myself here or anything, but does this mean you’re not preparing to rip my balls off tonight?” I ask, raising a brow.
“Well, I mean…you really didn’t know you had a kid floating around out there being neglected?”
She’s chewing her lips, something that drives me crazy with lust, the current dilemma taking a back seat as my cock goes stiff and starts sniffing at his territory.
“But, how? And when?” she asks, giving me a suspicious look. “When exactly did you knock up that girl? Madeline says she’s six and a half, so if that’s correct…”
Ah, I understand the look now. She’s jealous.
This is going to be really uncomfortable, really, really difficult to explain to her, because obviously my love has done the math here and knows that I’d done something that I’m in no way proud of.
“It happened. Just… It happened.”
I’d been a normal teenage boy, drinking and sleeping my way through the last year of school before buckling under and following in the footsteps of generations before me, as was to be expected from the heir to the family’s throne.
That attitude and my selfish, disillusioned ways had all fallen away after I’d met her, though, so imagine my shock when Courtney Barker, a one-night stand I’d had months before, had called me to tell me she was pregnant.
I’d dropped everything, Ashley included, and gone back home, intending to do the right thing and provide for my child. It hadn’t happened that way, though, because instead of becoming a father I’d gotten a call just as I’d gotten into the taxi and learned that she’d had to be rushed to hospital and that… I’d wept when she’d told me there was no baby anymore.
Wept because, despite my age and the hard work ahead, I have always been one of those men who wants a family. Sure, the woman I’d imagined bearing my offspring had not been Courtney. No, that woman has always been and will forever be Ashley, but I’d cried for what I’d lost and sworn to myself that next time the child would be mine and Ashley’s.
“Before you met me I was…” My mouth twists, and she smirks, raising a lofty brow. “Yeah, anyway, we had a one-night thing, and then… She called me the day that—well, she called and told me that she was pregnant, and I hopped a plane to get to her. When I got home I learned that something went wrong.”
“Wait, do you mean to tell me she told you the baby died?”
“Yes. Which was obviously a lie, and something I fully intend to get to the bottom of,” I say darkly, feeling and reveling in the familiar coldness that had deserted me before.
I have every intention of finding the truth, and then I will make everyone involved in this mess suffer. They’d not only neglected my child—she’s bloody half-starved and undernourished—but she’d been left to find her way to me, something I have no intention of overlooking.
“Well, she spoke about someone called Aunt Carrie, if you need somewhere to start,” she says equally darkly, turning me on even more with that cold bloody glint in her eye. “That bitch is mine when you find her. Got me?”
Oh yes, I bloody well do, my little mama bear. I’ve got you, and I bloody intend to keep you.
“I know this must be difficult for you, what with Ben and the baby and, well, the plain fact that Madeline is mine—”
“Do yourself a favor, Jasper, and do not finish that sentence, unless you want to sleep on the sofa for the next three years of your life. The kid stays, and that’s final. Now come on, we have a lot of shit to do tomorrow and two kids to introduce. Christ, I really do not envy you that task. Ben can be a real little bastard when he feels threatened.”
She’s trying to joke around, bless her heart. The woman does not deal well with awkward situations.
“No. Please, let’s just go to bed and face all of it in the morning. I can’t deal with everything right now without freaking out, and I really don’t want to freak out right now.”
I sigh and take her hand, flinching when she pulls away and walks up the stairs, her back stiff, her body sending out danger signals. She doesn’t want me touching her. Not yet, anyway.
Well, fuck that.
I wait till she’s changed and under the covers before dropping my clothes and crawling in behind her, pulling her in to my body.
“You can be angry and hurt, I understand, but you will never turn away from me. Not now, not ever. You’re mine.”