Authors: Kaitlyn Rice
Abby felt a rush of relief. “Of course,” she said. “Are you planning to leave Wyatt with me?”
“No,” Jack said, dashing her hopes in a word. “I'll sublet my place in the city and find a place to rent around here. You know of any place?”
She thought of the land surrounding the farm. The land that Jack owned. And the farmhouse on it that was now hers.
Her gaze swooped across to the precious baby girl she'd been entrusted to raise, and then to baby Wyatt. She loved these babies. She wanted to be near both of them every single day and night. She'd do anything to achieve that goal.
“We could both move in here,” she suggested.
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
972âTEN ACRES AND TWINS
1051âTABLE FOR FIVE
1085âTHE LATE BLOOMER'S BABY
1104âTHE RUNAWAY BRIDESMAID
1119âTHE THIRD DAUGHTER'S WISH
As a child, Kaitlyn Rice loved to lie on the floor of her bedroom and draw pencil sketches of characters. She remembers assigning each one a name and personality, and imagining what their lives might be like. This study of people and relationshipsâboth real and made upâhas always fascinated her. By her midteens she was drawn into the world of romance fiction.
Through the years, Kaitlyn's most enduring pastime has been to curl up with a good romance novel, and her fondest dream has been to create full-fledged versions of those character sketchesâin book form. She's thrilled to have finally realized that goal. Kaitlyn lives in Kansas with her husband and two daughters.
had outgrown temper tantrums well over twenty years ago, when she still wore bandages on her knees and thought marshmallows were a satisfactory lunch entrÃ©e.
Still, if someone didn't answer her questions soon, she was considering lying on the floor, screaming like a forgotten tea-kettle and thrashing around as wildly as the most precocious of toddlers.
Even in her brand-new business suit.
After she'd announced her arrival to the receptionist, she had sat on the edge of the sofa to begin her wait. She must have glanced at her wristwatch at least a hundred times. The second hand kept whirling around its perpetual circle with easy fluidity, but the minute and hour hands seemed sluggish. Twenty-eight minutes she'd waited. It may as well have been twenty-eight hours.
Abby's mother had always said she was intense, while her father called her spirited. They were apt descriptions, she knew, since she'd spent her adolescence diving blindly and defiantly into a sea of mistakes.
Over the years, however, she had developed patience for most things. Anyone who made her living as a gardener learned to wait.
She could scatter a few handfuls of seeds, and in a season orchestrate the blooms of enough bouquets to please every bride, mother, wife and lover in Topeka, Kansas, and the surrounding county. She could plunk the rooted end of a twig into the ground and nurture it for years, until it became a robust
tree capable of bearing bushels of fruit so tender their flesh melted in your mouth.
But some things were too hard to wait for, and this appointment must rate at the top of the charts in importance. Whatever that slick lawyer was doing right now, it could hardly compare to the weighty deliberation about the future of two precious babies.
Abby's indignation had risen with every minute, and now she tapped her foot forcefully on the cushioned carpet, trying to achieve a loud enough sound to catch the notice of the delinquent receptionist. But the woman tapped away at her keyboard, apparently unaware of the hateful thoughts being directed toward her pencil-punctured bun.
The painting on the wall above the receptionist's head caught Abby's eye, if only because it was unimaginative. She wondered if any client had ever been distracted by the watery scene. She wanted to slash it with her pen, paint vivid, deep purple figures across it to express a hurt so deep no lawyer's meeting could ever truly mend it.
Paige and Brian were dead, which was reason enough for her impatience, and for the relentless ache in Abby's gut. The fact that her sister and brother-in-law had died a quick death did little to lessen the agony.
Each of them had been only twenty-two years old, and they had left behind much. A wide network of friends and acquaintances. A couple of broken-hearted families. And a pair of adorable twins, not yet six months old.
The sound of footsteps drew Abby's attention to the conference room door. It swung open, and a tall man stepped out. His eyes bore the dazed look of a person in shock. His jaw was clenched, his face chalky. His appearance was worlds apart from the tanned and relaxed man Abby had met at her sister's wedding, but she couldn't fail to recognize himâJack Kimball was Brian's older brother.
He hesitated midstep when he saw her, as if he was once again struggling to place her in their out-of-the-ordinary
surroundings. At the funeral, they'd traded arm-patting hugs and the expected words of comfort, but it had hardly been a time for renewing their acquaintance. Now, Abby sat up straighter and smoothed a long wisp of hair behind her ear. Then she balled her fist and dropped it in her lap, perturbed with herself for caring about her appearance.
She knew the exact instant he recognized her by the renewed hint of life in his expression. He gave a curt nod as he walked past her toward the exit, offering only one word in greeting. “Abby.”
She had scarcely enough time to question his presence in the law office before the conference room door opened again. Sheila Jeffries, upstart attorney and daughter of the firm's founder, poked her head through. “Miss Briggs,” she said. “I'm ready for you.”
Abby picked up a briefcase containing every pertinent document she'd been able to find among her sister's things, and went inside. The attorney smoothed her hands down the lines of her red linen suit as Abby stepped in, then motioned toward a chair at a corner of the table.
“Coffee?” she asked. Without hesitating, she walked over to a setup on the far end of the room to pour herself a cup.
Abby swallowed. Her throat had been so dry lately. She wondered how much bodily fluid a person could actually lose by crying. “I'd love a glass of water.”
“Certainly.” The attorney pushed a button on the wall, and the hum of an intercom pervaded the room.
“Yes, Ms. Jeffries,” said a crackling voice.
“Please bring Miss Briggs some ice water.”
The hum faded, and the lawyer took a seat across from Abby and started thumbing through the papers stacked in front of her. The only movement on her face was the occasional blink of her perfectly made-up eyes, beneath a pair of perfectly arched eyebrows.
She looked refined. Disinterested. Detached.
As an attorney, she must deal with this type of situation
constantly. People died all the time. But since it was her kid sister who'd been snatched away from this earth in a tragic accident, Abby couldn't be detached. She stared at the other woman, shaken by her composure. How could she sit there so calmly, as if the entire world hadn't tilted on its axis?
One of the strangest aspects of losing Paige was having to exist in a world that, for the most part, didn't recognize its loss.
The door opened and the receptionist walked in, carrying a pitcher and glass. She set them near Abby and left the room, closing the door behind her with a soft click.
Ms. Jeffries waited until Abby had poured a glass of water and taken a drink before saying, “You have a document you wanted me to see?”
Abby released the clips of her briefcase, searching inside for the note. “Yes, I do,” she answered. “When Paige was pregnant, she asked me to raise her children if she and Brian ever died. No one ever thinks that'll happen, butâ¦”
Breaking off when the lump in her throat got too big to talk around, she shrugged, finally locating the note and shoving it across the table. The smell of roses reached her nostrils, and she willed back the threat of tears that came all too often now.
Her sister had always written to her on rose-scented stationery, as a sort of gentle ribbing about Abby's middle name. A sisterly prank that had begun when they were kids had developed into a loving habit that seemed poignant now. Who would have thought that Paige could die so young?
Ms. Jeffries studied the note. She read the first side slowly, then turned it over to skim the rest before tossing it back down in front of Abby. “This is not legally binding,” she stated bluntly. Almost cruelly.
“It's all I have in writing, but I've been taking care of the babies since the night of the accident andâ¦well, actually, I watched them quite often before.”
“If you can prove that, it might help,” the attorney said.
“But a handwritten and unwitnessed letter won't hold up in court.”
“And I could lose the twins?”
In the middle of sipping her coffee, Ms. Jeffries answered with a one-shouldered shrug.
“What can I do to change that?” Abby asked, reaching over to touch the attorney's crisp red sleeve.
She frowned. “You're lucky. A few months ago your sister and her husband drew up a will specifically stating what should happen to their children and their property if they died. Paige didn't tell you?”
“No, she didn't. A legal will?”
“I have a copy here. All you have to do is sign a statement petitioning the court for guardianship rights. If the judge agrees, you'll have every right to make decisions on your ward's behalf.”
Huffing out a bellyful of air, Abby wondered why Ms. Jeffries couldn't have shared that information as soon as they stepped into the conference room. She could have been halfway home by now. “And I'll get to raise the twins?”
“Not both of them.”
A wave of dizziness swept through Abby's head. “What do you mean, not both? Paige wouldn't have separated them.”
“It appears that, in a way, she has.”
“Who gets the other twin?”
“I'm not at liberty to say until the hearing tomorrow morning at nine o'clock,” said Ms. Jeffries. “Either you or the other party has the right to surrender guardianship at that time. If you both agree to uphold the intentions of the will, the judge will likely do the same. If you don't, we'll have to fight it out in court.”
Abby frowned down at the note her sister had written nearly a year ago. Ignoring its scent now, she studied the curlicue letters of her sister's handwriting, scrawled across pink paper. Paige had been young and suggestible. Brian must have con
vinced her to change her mind. She shouldn't even have been allowed to sign that will.
Abby drew a ragged breath and pressed a thumb and index finger against her eyelids. “Is there anything else?”
“There is. Do you prefer legalese or plain English?”
“Plain English would be fine.”
“You've been named as the desired guardian for the baby girl, Rose Allison Kimball. You've also been left the house, its contents and the land and structures within the confines of the fenced yard.”
“The farmhouse?” Abby asked, looking up.
Abby clenched her eyes shut, once again feeling faint. Her usually capable demeanor had been hammered with one too many traumas lately. But at least this surprise had been welcome newsâshe could continue developing the farm into the profitable enterprise she and her sister had envisioned.
“Are you all right, Miss Briggs?”
“Fine,” she said, opening her eyes. “Is that it, then?”
“Look over this document.” The attorney slid a paper in front of Abby. “If you agree, show up in court tomorrow prepared to sign it. If you don't, call me tonight.”
“The twins are with a sitter now?”
“Yesâwith my mother.”
“Bring them tomorrow. All family members have been told about the hearing, and some of them may be at court. If all goes as planned, you can take little Rose back home with you in time for lunch tomorrow.”
Abby slid the document into her briefcase alongside her sister's note, and left the building without uttering another word.
At this moment, she didn't know which news had been harder to takeâthe sheriff's department phone call informing her of the car wreck, or this idiotic notion that she might not get to keep both twins.
She loved those babies. She'd been a doting aunt since their birth. She should be the one to raise them.
She climbed into her truck, stashed the briefcase on the passenger seat and stared out at the office building in front of her.
The adrenaline that had been coursing through her veins in anticipation of this morning's meeting was dwindling, and in its place was sheer exhaustion.
Last night the babies had each awoken twice, at different times. Abby had sat alone in her dark living room, tending to their needs. Worrying about their future. Ignoring her own pain so she wouldn't upset them more.
The fitful night had made her understand the burdens of single parenthood better than she ever would have imagined. Her short period of full-time caregiving had been an intense and powerful lesson.
She rubbed her temple, trying to remember where she'd put her grocery list. Wasn't it on the seat beside her? She lifted the briefcase, searching, and peered over the edge to the floorboard. The sheet was sticking out from under the seat; it must have fallen when she'd gotten out. After snatching it up, she started her truck. She'd have to buy groceries on the way home.
Forty-five minutes later, she walked through the door of her apartment carrying two bags full of baby supplies. She'd bought one single item for herselfâa frozen chicken entrÃ©e that she could heat later, after the babies had gone to sleep for the night. “Mom, I'm back!” she called out.
Faye Briggs stepped through the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a tea towel. “Hello, dear. How did it go?” she asked, taking a bag and carrying it to the table.
Abby followed her, putting the other bag down before giving her mother a hug and a peck on the cheek. “I'll tell you in a minute. Where are they?”
“On your bedroom floor, asleep.”
Abby scurried through the apartment, then slowed to peer
quietly around the door to her bedroom. Her queen-size mattress covered most of the floor space. Pillows and blankets were stacked alongside every edge, creating a giant, makeshift crib in the middle of the room.
Drawn by some maternal force she'd had no idea she had until two weeks ago, she walked into the room and knelt beside the mattress, looking down at the twins. Rosie's fist was pulled next to her plump cheek, and ringlets haloed her headâjust like Paige's had.
Wyatt was beside his sister, his mouth sucking gently in his sleep. His tiny sock had slipped halfway off his foot, so Abby pulled it off and tucked his blanket over his legs.
Although both babies were sleeping soundly, their faces were turned toward one another, as if each one had fallen asleep in the comfort of the other's presence.
Tears blurred her vision. Rosie and Wyatt had already lost both parents. They shouldn't lose one another, too. And she couldn't lose either one.
She had to find a way to keep them both.
When a shadow fell across the bed, Abby realized her mother was standing beside her. “How long have they been asleep?” she asked, swiping a knuckle under her eyes.
“Just a few minutes.”
Abby tugged Rosie's blanket over her shoulder, looking down at the babies for one more minute before she got to her feet. Then she and her mother tiptoed out, and Abby closed the door quietly behind them.