Authors: Gina Wilkins
She gave his arm a little squeeze. “Have a safe trip, Nathan. I hope everything works out for the best—for everyone.”
He would have liked to kiss her then, if nothing more than a brush of his lips against her cheek. Just a gesture of gratitude, he assured himself, because she’d been so nice today. But, since their association to this point had not included even casual kisses, he decided the time wasn’t right to initiate such a gesture now, even with the most innocent of intentions.
Or were they really that innocent?
He reluctantly released her hand. “Good night, Caitlin.”
He waited until she was safely inside her car before he turned, squared his shoulders and moved determinedly back toward the entrance.
After all, he reminded himself grimly, a promise was a promise—no matter how inconvenient. That thought reminded him of the implied promise he’d made to his father when he’d agreed to be Isabelle’s executor.
His head was pounding in earnest when he reentered the country club with dragging steps.
he offices seemed different without Nathan in them. Quieter. More solemn, somehow. For some reason people tended to speak in near whispers—both the clients in the waiting room and the few employees at their desks.
Did Nathan really make that much noise, Caitlin wondered during a brief respite Friday afternoon, or was everyone responding to the tension in the offices due to his extended absence?
Appointments and court dates had been shuffled, reshuffled and rescheduled, and Caitlin was having to work frantically to keep up. Irene worked the organizational miracles Caitlin had come to expect from her, but Caitlin had to admit the efficient office manager was a rather intimidating presence. Nathan’s habitual joviality served as a counterbalance to Irene’s pragmatism and Caitlin’s naturally quiet manner. Without him the office simply wasn’t as…well, as alive.
She missed him. And the next time she saw him, she fully intended to let him have it for leaving work dangling this long with little notice and even less explanation of what was keeping him in California.
The few calls they had received from him had been brief, uninformative, and carefully timed so that Caitlin wouldn’t be there to talk to him. The messages had all come relayed through Irene or one of the other staff members. Basically they all said the same thing: “Sorry. Still tied up here. Be back as soon as possible.”
No personal messages for her, but, then, she hadn’t expected any, she assured herself. She simply wanted him to hurry back because she was tired of trying to handle everything here by herself.
Late in the afternoon she sat at her desk, focusing on her computer screen and popping M&M’s into her mouth in lieu of the lunch she hadn’t had time to eat. Irene tapped on the door and entered carrying a stack of folders. “Here are the files you asked for.”
“Thanks. Another wild day, isn’t it?”
“It has been…eventful.”
Caitlin pushed a hand through her slightly disheveled hair. “You haven’t heard from Nathan this afternoon?”
“No, Mr. McCloud hasn’t called.”
Caitlin bit her lip, making no comment about the heavy disapproval in Irene’s voice. The office manager seemed to think Nathan was off on an impulsive vacation, leaving her and Caitlin and the rest of the staff to deal with the resulting chaos. Caitlin couldn’t believe that. Nathan might duck out for an afternoon of golf or fishing, but surely he wouldn’t leave them in the lurch this long unless something was wrong.
He had told his mother he was taking a few days of well-deserved vacation time. His siblings, of course, knew where he was, but Caitlin doubted they had shared that information with their mother.
Had there been a problem with putting the child up for adoption? Had the girl’s guardian changed her mind despite her grave illness? Or maybe Nathan was staying until he was certain the child would be safely placed in a suitable home. That wouldn’t surprise her. Despite his sometimes lackadaisical approach to work, Nathan’s sense of responsibility to his family was hyperdeveloped.
Or maybe he was simply having a hard time letting Isabelle go.
Caitlin still sympathized with his dilemma, but, oh, was she getting tired, she thought with a sigh, rubbing the back of her taut neck.
To add to her tension level, she had taken on a new case—a medical malpractice claim—that had seemed fairly straightforward at the beginning, but was mushrooming into what could very well prove to be an extremely expensive legal action. She had no doubt that her client had been the victim of malpractice, but such claims were difficult to prove, and the doctor in question was practically a legend in this part of the state. Wealthy, highly visible, socially powerful.
She was beginning to wonder if she’d gotten in over her head. And it didn’t help that her partner wasn’t around for consultations.
She was developing an incipient headache that threatened to become a migraine. Tapping on her computer keyboard with one hand, she used the other to toss two pain-killers into her mouth, washing them down with a sip of cold coffee. The taste made her shudder, but she kept working, refusing to let the stress get the best of her.
Someone tapped on her open office door. Without taking her eyes from the computer screen, she said, “Whatever it is, just lay it on my desk. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”
“I don’t really think your desk is the right place for me to put what I’m holding.”
Her physical reaction to the sound of Nathan’s deep voice rather surprised her. Her heart jumped, her pulse sped up and a quiver went through her…..
Relief, she assured herself. What else could it be?
She hit the buttons on her keyboard to save her work. “It’s about time you got back,” she said, turning to face him. “I—”
Her words trailed into silence when she saw him. Or, more specifically, when she saw the sleeping toddler he held in his arms, her golden head resting trustingly on his shoulder.
“Irene, hold my calls, please.” Releasing the intercom button on her phone, Caitlin leaned back slowly in her chair, still staring at Nathan and the child. She kept her voice low to avoid waking the little girl when she said, “You brought her back with you.”
His expression was a complex mixture of sheepishness, defensiveness and what might have been a touch of fear. “Yes.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
He grimaced. “Probably. But I really had no other choice.”
The funny thing was, she wasn’t as surprised as she should have been. Maybe deep inside she had expected this all along.
She sighed. “What happened?”
Balancing the child with a rather endearing awkwardness, he settled carefully into a chair before replying, “She recognized me as soon as she saw me, can you believe that? She’s just a baby and it’s been months since I saw her last, but the minute I walked into the room, she came running up to me saying ‘Nate,’ which is what she’s always called me.”
“That is surprising.” The tot hardly looked old enough to talk, much less to remember names and faces.
“I can tell you it gave me a funny feeling when she put her arms up for a hug as if it were only the day before when we saw each other last.”
“Was that when you decided to bring her home with you?”
“No. I was still trying to convince myself that it would be better to give her up. Anyway, I spent a couple of hours with her, and then I went to the hospital to visit her great-aunt, Barbara Houston. While I was there, one of the nurses, who seemed quite nice, called me aside to tell me that she and her husband were interested in adopting Isabelle.”
He shifted Isabelle to a more comfortable position in his arms. “The nurse said she met Isabelle when the pastor brought her to the hospital to visit Mrs. Houston. She claimed she’d become quite fond of her. And then she proceeded to ask me a few dozen questions about Isabelle’s trust fund and whether any of it would be available to whoever adopted her.”
Caitlin winced. “Ouch.”
“She tried to be subtle about it, of course. She claimed that she simply needed to know the details for Isabelle’s sake, that she wanted to be sure the child would have her needs met during her childhood. But I’ve dealt with greed enough to recognize it when I see it.”
“So because one woman was more interested in the trust fund than the child, you decided everyone would be?”
He hesitated, then grimaced. “I know how it sounds, but you didn’t see that woman’s eyes. There isn’t quite a fortune in the trust fund, but the insurance settlement from the tourist helicopter company was sizable enough to draw plenty of attention. No matter where Isabelle ends up, the trust fund is secure until she’s eighteen, but some people might think there are ways to get around the safeguards.”
“There are plenty of couples who would love to have a little girl like Isabelle whether or not she has a dime to her name,” Caitlin reminded him.
“I’m aware of that. But there would be no way for me to know for certain,” he said stubbornly.
She decided not to bother suggesting that he’d latched on to the first valid excuse he’d found to change his mind about the adoption. He’d probably known from the moment Isabelle had run to greet him that he couldn’t give her to strangers, no matter what the repercussions.
“So what are you going to do now?”
He swallowed before he answered. “I’ve spent the past few days having myself named her guardian. The process was expedited because of Mrs. Houston’s illness, but it still took some finagling. Fortunately, Alan has some influence there.”
Caitlin shook her head in amazement as the reality of what he had done sank in. “You’re her guardian.”
She would have sworn he lost a bit of color, but he nodded gamely. “I have sole responsibility for her now. As I said, there wasn’t anyone else.”
“So now what? You’re surely not going to try to raise her yourself?”
She felt herself sink further into her chair. “Nathan, you can’t. What do you know about raising children? A little girl?”
“Nothing,” he admitted frankly. “But I’ll learn.”
“Just like that?”
“What other choice do I have?”
“You can—” She glanced at the child to make sure she was still asleep, then lowered her voice to a whisper, anyway. “You can still put her up for adoption. Take a little time to find a nice family you can trust with her safety and her trust fund.”
“I figure I’ll adopt her myself. I’ve handled a few adoptions in my time, even a couple for single parents. With the advantage of being her biological half brother, I shouldn’t run into any serious problems.”
And then what? Caitlin stared at him, trying to imagine footloose Nathan McCloud trading in his sports car for a minivan. Cooking macaroni and cheese, doing laundry, attending PTA meetings….
lost your mind,” she decided aloud.
“I can see why you might think so,” he answered rather stiffly.
“Have you told your family?”
“Not yet. I came here straight from the airport.”
“Do you…” She paused while she mentally groped for the right words. “Do you think they’ll be able to accept her?”
She watched as he held the toddler closer. “I hope so. They’ve got good hearts, despite the pain my father caused them. I find it hard to believe they could look at Isabelle and not fall for her, despite the circumstances of her conception.”
Caitlin wasn’t so sure. Lenore McCloud was a woman who was greatly concerned with her social standing. Having just rebounded from her former husband’s betrayal, she wasn’t going to easily accept this reminder. Gideon was a taciturn, withdrawn man—a writer who seemed to live more inside his head than in the real world. She couldn’t imagine him melting in response to a child’s smile.
Caitlin had only met Deborah a couple of times, but Caitlin had gotten an impression of a woman who was impulsive, tempestuous and stubborn—a volatile mixture of her brothers’ diverse personalities.
Nathan had a tough road ahead of him.
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Are you kidding? I don’t have a clue. I’m open to any advice I can get.”
“Don’t look at me.” She held up both hands. “I know nothing about raising kids—or placating irate family members. I was an only child, remember, and my family actually got along pretty well, despite our other problems.”
“You’ve never told me much about your family,” Nathan remarked. “I’d like to hear about them sometime.”
She didn’t want to talk about her family now. She wondered if it was incredibly selfish of her to be wondering how Nathan’s impulsive move would affect her. Professionally speaking, of course, she assured herself—though she knew there was something more to her stunned reaction than that. Something she didn’t want to think about right now.
With a drowsy murmur, Isabelle roused and lifted her head from Nathan’s shoulder. Her big blue eyes were still heavy-lidded when she looked around in curiosity at her new surroundings, her gaze finally settling on Caitlin’s face. “Hi,” she said.
A bit surprised by the calm greeting, Caitlin attempted a friendly smile, hoping it wasn’t as stiff as it felt. “Hello, Isabelle.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Caitlin.”
“Miss Caitlin,” Nathan murmured, deeply ingrained Southern traditions kicking in.
“Are you Nate’s friend?”
Apparently Nathan hadn’t exaggerated when he had gone on about how smart and well-spoken his half sister was for her age. There was hardly a baby lisp in the clear little voice. “Yes, I’m Nathan’s friend.”
“I’m his sister.”
Caitlin couldn’t help smiling again at the quiet pride in the statement. “Yes, I know.”
“I’m going to live with him now. Aunt Barb is sick.”
The desk intercom buzzed before Caitlin could reply. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Ms. Briley, but the call you’ve been waiting for is on line two.”
“You’d better take that.” Nathan stood. “Isabelle and I are going to my office to see how much work has piled up while I’ve been away.”
“You probably don’t want to know,” Caitlin warned as she reached for the phone. “Don’t you want to go home for a while before you dive in?”