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Authors: Sherryl Woods

The Unclaimed Baby

BOOK: The Unclaimed Baby
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“Sherryl Woods is an author who writes with a special warmth, wit, charm and intelligence.”

—Heather Graham Pozzessere

New York Times
bestselling author

 

It had been a very long time since anyone on earth had believed in Cord Branson.

Before he could get lost in the wonder of that, a heavy thump against the back door startled them both. Sharon Lynn whirled in that direction, but Cord was faster. “You stay put. I'll check it out. Where's the door? Through there?”

Sharon Lynn nodded, and he began twisting locks. When he'd unlatched the last one, he slowly turned the knob and advanced cautiously. He was expecting perhaps a thief.

What he found surprised him even more.

“Holy Mother of God,” Cord murmured.

“What is it?” Sharon Lynn asked, nudging against him.

“A baby. Some damned fool left a baby out here.”

SHERRYL WOODS

Whether she's living in Florida or Virginia, Sherryl Woods always makes her home by the sea. A walk on the beach, the sound of the waves, the smell of the salt air, all provide inspiration for this writer of more than sixty romance and mystery novels. Sherryl hopes you're enjoying
The Unclaimed Baby,
which offers you an expanded story in the And Baby Makes Three: The Next Generation series for Silhouette. You can write to Sherryl at P.O. Box 490326, Key Biscayne, FL 33149, or—from April through December—stop by and meet her at her bookstore, Potomoc Sunrise, 308 Washington Avenue, Colonial Beach, VA 22443. Watch for Sherryl's first mainstream book for MIRA Books, AFTER TEX, coming in October 1999.

And Baby Makes Three
S
HERRYL
W
OODS
THE UNCLAIMED BABY

 

Watch for these upcoming releases from
Sherryl Woods

The Adams of Texas find more romance as
AND BABY MAKES THREE:
THE NEXT GENERATION
continues in Silhouette Special Edition.

THE COWBOY
AND HIS WAYWARD BRIDE
March 1999
Silhouette Special Edition

SUDDENLY, ANNIE'S FATHER
September 1999
Silhouette Special Edition

And look for Sherryl Woods's
exciting debut in MIRA Books

AFTER TEX
October 1999
MIRA Books

Chapter 1

S
leet slashed through the bitter cold February night. A few hours from now it was expected to turn to snow, layering over ice in a way that would leave the roads treacherous. Sharon Lynn stood in the doorway at Dolan's Drugstore and shivered, even though it was plenty warm inside. It was Friday night at eight, an hour when the store should have been closed, but she'd taken to keeping it open later and later. It meant she didn't have to go home to an empty house, didn't have to go to sleep and face the nightmares.

Even though months had passed, the images came back whenever she closed her eyes. The bright headlights glaring into her eyes, weaving across the center line of the quiet country road. The screaming crunch
of metal against metal, then just the screaming. Her own and Kyle's.

And then just her own.

That summer night had been clear, with a vibrant sprinkling of stars and a glorious full moon. No danger on the road then, except for a man who'd had too much to drink.

She had been married for little more than a split second when the tragedy struck. It had been their wedding night, a night she had been anticipating and dreaming about for years, it seemed. She was finally Mrs. Kyle Mason and the rest of their lives was spread out ahead of them, a storybook future with a houseful of kids and her wonderful family nearby. In the Adams clan, family meant everything and she'd been waiting a long time to start her own.

Then, in the blink of an eye, her marriage was over and she was alone again. Worse, she had been driving the car, and even though the accident was another driver's fault, Sharon Lynn had been consumed with guilt and grief ever since, wondering if there hadn't been something—
anything
—she could have done to prevent it. For weeks it had taken every bit of strength she had just to propel herself out of bed.

Buying Dolan's, where she had worked for years and where her mother had worked during her tumultuous relationship with Sharon Lynn's daddy before their wedding, had given her a reason for getting up in the morning, but it had done nothing to heal her broken heart.

She had been in love with Kyle Mason forever.
An honest, decent man, he had bought a ranch that neighbored the family spread at White Pines. Then he had quietly and persistently courted Sharon Lynn, consuming enough milk shakes at Dolan's that it was a wonder he'd been able to stand the sight of them. Once he'd caught her attention, there had been no turning back.

But when it came to getting to the altar, one thing after another had delayed their vows until that fateful night.

After waiting patiently for marriage, only to have it snatched away from her in a heartbeat, Sharon Lynn had finally concluded that she was not destined for either romance or the family she had always dreamed of. She had resigned herself to a quiet, lonely existence—if it was possible to be lonely with an entire clan of Adamses on her doorstep daily with one feeble excuse or another. Cheering up grief-stricken Sharon Lynn had become the family's mission. All the attention was wearing her out.

She wasn't the one deserving of pity, though. It was Kyle, barely thirty when he'd been killed. She shuddered and forced the memory of that night aside. The guilt, however, wouldn't budge, despite what everyone had said. The official sheriff's report had exonerated her completely. Her cousin Justin, who'd been on the scene in the horrible aftermath of the collision, was a by-the-book kind of deputy. If there'd been any question of her guilt, though he would have hated laying the blame on her doorstep,
he would have done it. Knowing that, she should have been able to rest easy, but she couldn't.

Even all these long months later and despite her best intentions, the images crowded back, refusing to be ignored. She'd still been wearing her wedding dress, her beautiful silk-and-lace gown, but by then it had been torn and spattered with blood. Her husband's blood. When her cousins had wanted to get rid of it, she'd refused to let them. It was packed away in the attic as a grim reminder of what might have been. Someday she would have to let it—and the memories—go.

“Oh, God,” she murmured as tears streaked down her cheeks. When were the memories going to blur? When would this unbearable, soul-sick pain stop?

Blinded to everything except her own internal misery, it took a blast of icy air from the unexpected opening of the door to snap her out of it. She hadn't even seen the man approaching, hadn't expected anyone to be out on such a cold and furious night. She glanced up to meet worried brown eyes flecked with gold.

“What's a pretty lady like you doing all alone on a Friday night?” he asked in the easy way of a man to whom flirting was second nature. The words were barely out of his mouth when the crooked smile faded from his lips and worry creased his brow. He stepped closer and skimmed a knuckle down her cheek. “Tears? Darlin', are you okay?”

There was a gentleness to his voice that soothed, even as alarm flared at the startling way that touch
awakened her senses. She looked him over—from the curling black hair damp with rain to the soaked sheepskin jacket, rain-streaked jeans and well-worn boots. Despite the kindness in his voice, there was a hardness to him, not just to his lean body, but in his eyes. It was an intriguing combination, a dangerous one. That must be why her pulse was ricocheting all over the place.

Was he a would-be robber, checking to make sure she was all alone before seizing every penny in the cash register? Her imagination roared off down a frightening path.

Let him try, she thought fiercely, thinking of the gun that Justin had insisted she keep in the store if she was determined to hang around here alone until all hours of the night. She was a better shot than most of the family and not a one of them missed what they aimed for. Of course, there wasn't much cash worth killing over. She'd taken most of it to the night-drop at the bank just before the new pharmacist had left for the evening.

She scowled up at the man, saw then the exhaustion in his eyes, the stubble on his cheeks, the sensuality of a mouth beginning another slow curve into a disarming smile that softened the harsh angles of his face. What she missed was any hint of a real threat. Whatever this man's story, it seemed evident to her that he meant her no harm. His concern struck her as genuine, as impulsive and automatic as his smile.

Satisfied, she met his grin with one of her own and
briskly wiped away the last traces of her tears with an impatient swipe.

“I was just debating whether to close up,” she said, turning back inside and heading for the lunch counter, which was her domain even though she owned the whole place now. A few months back she'd hired a pharmacist and a teenager to work the rest of the store once Doc Dolan had retired and headed off to the Gulf Coast of Texas. “I didn't expect anyone to be out on a night like this. You startled me.”

“Sorry. I've been on the road all day. When I saw the sign and the lights on, I was thinking more about my empty stomach than I was about whether I might scare you to death. If you need to close up, I can go somewhere else.”

Sharon Lynn heard the underlying thread of disappointment in his voice and watched his gaze settling on the stale doughnuts left over from morning. She could toss those in a bag, give them to him with a takeout cup of coffee and he'd be on his way. The idea held no appeal, not when it would mean empty, lonely hours ahead. These days she was eager to snatch a few moments of companionship wherever she could find it.

“I'm in no rush,” she said quickly. “I still have some soup that's hot and I can rustle up a hamburger or a grilled cheese and fries. I doubt you'd find anyplace else in town open on a night like this. Los Piños tends to shut down early when the weather's bad. Nobody likes driving on the icy roads.”

“What about you?”

“I don't drive,” she said and left it at that. She hadn't been behind the wheel of a car since the night of the accident. In fact, she'd moved into her cousin Dani's old house in town, just so she could walk to work. When she wanted to go out to visit the family at White Pines, there was always one relative or another around who could take her. There was no place else she needed to go.

She ladled up a bowl of homemade vegetable soup and set it on the counter in front of him. “Now, what else can I get for you?”

“A couple of cheeseburgers and fries, if you're sure you don't mind.”

Mind? Not if it would keep her here a few minutes longer, provide a welcome distraction from her grim memories. Her inability to shake them earlier indicated tonight they were going to be worse than usual.

“Coming right up,” she told him. Her innate curiosity and friendliness kicked in. “What brings you to Los Piños?”

“A job,” he said. “My name's Cord Branson. I've heard there's an opening on a ranch around here. It's a place called White Pines. Maybe you know the owners.”

Sharon Lynn grinned and relaxed, the last of her fears vanishing. “I ought to. White Pines belongs to my grandfather, Harlan Adams. My father—his name's Cody Adams—and my brother, Harlan Patrick, run it.” She held out her hand. “I'm Sharon Lynn.”

“Well, I'll be a son of a gun,” he said, grasping her hand in his and holding it just a shade longer than necessary, long enough to remind her of that earlier tingle of awareness.

“First I meet a beautiful lady and then I find out she's related to the folks I hope to work for,” he said. “Looks like this is my lucky night, after all. Do you mind telling me about the place?”

“Of course not.” She described the ranch with the affection of someone who'd grown up roaming its vast acreage. “You'll never see any place more beautiful, if you don't mind land that's a little rugged. Grandpa Harlan inherited it when the house was crumbling and the herd of cattle had dwindled down to almost nothing. His daddy wasn't meant to be a rancher, I suppose. At any rate, now it's one of the biggest operations in the state.”

“But you don't live out there?”

“No, I stay right here in town now to be close to the store.”

“Don't you miss it?”

Sharon Lynn grinned. “There's hardly time for that. There's always something going on out at White Pines. I'm back there practically every weekend for one celebration or another or just for an old-fashioned barbecue if granddaddy starts getting lonely for a little commotion.”

She caught the faintly wistful expression on his face. “What about you? Did you grow up on a ranch?”

“If you could call it that. It was probably every
bit as bad as you say White Pines was way back when, but every time my daddy had a chance to make a real go of it, he squandered the money on booze. After he was gone, I sold the place to get a stake so I could move on to someplace where I could learn how a real ranch was run. I drifted a bit through Montana and Wyoming before heading south. Once I crossed into Texas, I kept hearing about your granddaddy and White Pines.”

“Well, you picked the right place. Nobody knows more about ranching than Grandpa Harlan and my daddy, or Harlan Patrick, to hear him tell it.”

She caught herself. “Just listen to me. I'm going on and on. Maybe you'd like to finish your meal in peace. I've got things I could do in the back.”

“No, indeed. Don't even think of it. I've been on the road for days now. I'm glad of the company and the conversation, especially when the company's as pretty as you and the conversation's fascinating.”

The words were all glib charm, but as he met her gaze and smiled slowly, Sharon Lynn felt another of those quick little quivers in the pit of her stomach. Cord Branson was a very disconcerting man, more direct than most she'd met, outside of her brother and her cousins. He was certainly less subtle than Kyle, who had tended toward shyness.

She gazed into those devilish eyes with their golden sparks and something told her that she was in more danger now than she would have been if the only thing he'd wanted was to rob the place.

 

Cord wolfed down two of the best hamburgers he'd had in ages and tried to remember what it was that had brought him to Los Piños. He knew better than most that a man didn't get anywhere in life, if he let himself get distracted.

And yet, he couldn't help thinking that Sharon Lynn Adams would be a damned fine distraction. He'd never seen a woman with more sorrow written all over a face that was meant for angels. He had watched with amusement as she'd run the gamut of emotions when he'd first walked through the door. He'd seen the tiny flicker of fear, the fierce resolve and then the quiet, ingrained compassion that made her take him in and feed him despite the probable inconvenience. He thought he'd also noted a hint of relief in her expression, but, unable to imagine the origin of that, he'd dismissed it.

He pegged her age at late twenties and, after glancing at her ringless fingers, wondered why no man had snapped her up. Even in the past few minutes he'd seen that she was easy to get along with and even easier on the eye. To say nothing of being an Adams. From everything he'd heard, that counted for something in these parts. Maybe for too many men that was
all
that counted and she'd simply gotten used to warily fending them off.

He enjoyed watching her work, the quick efficient movements, the sway of hips a little on the generous side. Even more, he liked the ready rise of color in her cheeks when he teased and the way her laughter sounded when he finally managed to coax it out of
her with one of the worst jokes either of them had ever heard. He'd found himself lingering long after he'd finished his meal, drinking more caffeine than his body needed if he was to get any rest at all tonight. Still, the coffee had been an excuse. He wasn't looking forward to going back out into the cold night or to leaving her.

“Do you have a place to stay?” she asked eventually, when a glance at the clock and the discovery that it was after ten clearly startled her. “There's a motel outside of town, but on a night like this it's probably full and I'm not sure you ought to risk driving that far on the icy roads.”

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