Authors: Victoria James
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Victoria James. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.
Alethea Spiridon Hopson & Wendy Chen
Cover design by Libby Murphy
Manufactured in the United States of America
To Andrew, my husband. You are my partner in life, my soul mate, my hero. All my love, always.
Hannah hated Thursday nights.
All she felt like doing after counseling a group of single, unemployed mothers was changing into her penguin flannel pajamas, and having two glasses of wine and a large bag of fat and calorie-laden potato chips while watching mind-numbing television.
Luckily for her waistline she had nixed that habit after the first two months of the workshop when she spotted an emerging muffin top over her favorite jeans. Now she only allowed herself the indulgence once a month. And she had switched to half-the-fat organic chips. There was no point in killing herself one chip at a time just because she couldn’t save the world and every child who ended up in foster care—or so she kept telling herself. Nights like this tested that theory.
Hannah jiggled the key until she heard the lock click shut on the ancient church door. She swung her bag over her shoulder and tread down the shallow stairs two at a time, her mind preoccupied by the woman who hadn’t attended the meeting tonight, Louise. Her pace faltered on the last step and she paused despite the chilly wind. Something felt off. She slipped her BlackBerry out of her pocket and glanced down at the display. No messages. She bit her lower lip while she stared at the lit screen; she had expected a phone call from Louise. Maybe she’d stop by her apartment on her way home.
Hannah pulled her collar up, but instead of walking toward her car, she put her keys and BlackBerry back in her pocket and slowly turned to look at the church. The old stone structure stood like a comforting beacon, illuminated in the yellow glow of the old-fashioned street lamp. Snow fell like powdered sugar through a sifter and the faint scent of cedar was laced through the crisp late November wind. She knew this scene perfectly.
But something was different tonight.
A small cry rang out as clear as a singing bird at dawn. Hannah’s eyes followed the sound. Her heart jerked when she spotted a Moses-like basket with pink lining sitting on the stone porch. Had she walked right by it? The massive oak doors towered over the tiny bundle like a giant tree protecting a nest of baby birds. Hannah tried to swallow past the painful ball of dread in her throat.
She knew that basket. She had bought it.
The distraught cries from the baby lying in the basket snatched her from the present and catapulted her back to a past she rarely dared to visit. She stared at that basket, its image becoming blurred by her tears. She fumbled back up the steps with trembling legs and knew with every ounce of her being and in every goose bump that taunted her arms whose baby that was. And what it meant.
Hannah took a deep breath and looked down into the basket, struggling for control. She stumbled onto her knees before the baby, the stone steps tearing through her sheer nylons, but she didn’t notice and didn’t feel a thing because her eyes were on the baby. Pink blanket, pink fuzzy sleeper, pink hat; the ones she had picked out for her and given to her when she was born.
Her skin was pale with blotches of red from her crying and the chill of the winter air. Hannah struggled to peel off her gloves with fingers that felt like rubber. She reached out and picked her up and felt a surge of relief when Emily stopped crying. Hannah held her close, with shaking arms, enveloping the infant in the folds of her coat. She rubbed the baby’s back, nestling her own face into the tender spot of impossibly soft skin at the base of her neck. She took deep breaths and let the baby’s angelic purity calm her.
Snow swirled around them as Hannah sheltered and warmed the baby. Minutes trickled by slowly, until Hannah finally stopped rocking Emily and looked into her wide, porcelain blue eyes wondering what had brought her here, but deep down she already knew. Louise was gone. Emily’s mom was gone.
Hannah rose slowly, knowing she’d have to notify the police and knowing that she was going to have a hell of a battle on her hands with the child protective services office tomorrow. She wasn’t going to play this one by the books. She had been there when Emily was born, and she was going to do whatever she could to make sure she didn’t go through the foster care system.
She cradled the baby with one arm, ready to take out her BlackBerry and call her contact at the police station when she spotted something attached to the inside of the basket. She crouched down and read the note. It was scribbled on the back of a grocery receipt, in thick, black marker:
“I’m sorry, Hannah. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too hard. This life is too hard. Please find my brother, Christopher James. Please find Emily’s uncle. He will raise her.”
Acid burned her throat and Hannah fought the bile that threatened. This couldn’t be happening. She had just spoken with Louise yesterday.
How had she missed the warning signs?
Hannah held the infant closer to her chest. Emily’s breathing became calm, her steady heartbeat a complete contrast to Hannah’s erratic one.
What have you done, Louise?
She buried her head against the baby’s soft hair, and the tears that had been threatening finally triumphed for the heartache that Emily would one day face knowing that she’d been abandoned. She knew the depth of that pain. Hannah knew that kind of pain could never be erased.
“Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas…”
Hannah pounded the volume button on her car stereo so hard her index finger bent backward painfully. She rubbed her throbbing finger, glaring at the now black display. It was
not going to be a Merry Christmas. The odds were stacked against merry and highly in favor of miserable.
She had lied to her boss, co-workers, and broken some of the cardinal rules in child protective services to be here. While other people were decorating their homes, doing Christmas shopping, and attending holiday parties,
was sitting in a cold car, spying on a man from behind a snowdrift with a sleeping infant in the backseat.
But she’d finally tracked him down, and after three miserable, long weeks, she’d found baby Emily’s uncle. Now all she had to do was knock on his door and introduce him to Emily.
Oh, and then convince him to adopt her.
Right. Great plan, Hannah.
If she had any sense of self-preservation she’d throw her car into reverse and hightail it out of Northern Ontario. She would brave the nightmare road conditions over convincing a man who had turned his back on his family for over a decade to drop everything and adopt his niece. But she knew she couldn’t do that. Hannah turned in her seat to check on Emily who had been sleeping contentedly in her car seat.
Hannah glanced back at the rustic log cabin in front of her. She had everything rehearsed. She would approach the situation with compassion and honesty. She could
to do this. Hannah bit her lower lip as she peered through the peephole she’d created in her windshield. Her half-full cup of Starbucks holiday blend, long since abandoned, sat in the cup holder beside an empty baby bottle.
She ducked as she spotted movement in the house. Luckily, she was almost sure that the man hadn’t noticed her silver Jetta buried in the snowdrift in the driveway. As soon as she had exited the highway and pulled out onto the back roads she’d felt like a moving snowman on wheels. When she finally found the cabin, located in
, she had drifted down the unplowed drive, saying a silent prayer she wouldn’t hit the parked Range Rover.
Gurgling from the backseat jolted her. She had to go in before Emily woke up.
It’s now or never, Hannah.
She turned on the engine one last time, blasting the heat on high before she had to leave the car.
She slipped her lucky red wool knitted hat with its oversized pom-pom onto her head with a decisive tug—she’d need all the luck she could get. She had a good ten minutes before she had to worry about Emily getting cold, but she added a few more layers of blankets onto the baby, who was already bundled in a bunting bag, hat, and mittens. Hannah reached over to the passenger seat, her hands blindly seeking out her purse and mittens, while her eyes stayed riveted on the cabin. She tucked the vintage Santa tin filled with homemade, sparkle-laden sugar cookies under her arm. No one could resist her Christmas cookies.
She hoped Louise’s brother, once Christopher James, now Jackson Pierce, was the type of man to appreciate homemade cookies. His name change had added a few extra days to her search, but thanks to her friends at the police department and her own bit of ingenuity, she’d found him at this cabin. There was no trace of Christopher James when child services had looked for him, but Hannah knew the details of his past, and knew this man would want nothing to do with Louise’s baby. She’d been pretty shocked by his identity. He was the founder and CEO of one of North America’s largest computer software companies.
Hannah opened the door and the wind whipped snow onto her face as she struggled to get out quickly before the cold air infiltrated the car. She stepped into at least three feet of snow and fought the urge to yelp out loud as it made contact with her feet.
So much for waterproof boots
. Careful not to fall and drop the cookies, she walked as fast as she could, her feet feeling like lead as she reached the front porch. She glanced around the house and confirmed what she’d suspected from the inside of her car—there was no Christmas wreath on the door or Christmas lights. Or anything remotely Christmas-
It was an omen. A bad one.
She gave herself a mental shake, forcing herself to calm down.
Hurry up, Hannah.
She took a deep breath of icy air and knocked. Her thick red mittens made it sound more like the paws of a furry animal thumping on the door…
maybe he couldn’t hear the muffled knocking against the sound of the storm
. She was about to yank off a mitten when the door swung open. Her hand froze in midair, and the only thought she could process was why oh why did she have to be wearing the hideous red hat?
Jackson Pierce was at least six foot two inches of raw masculinity—the type of man who looked as though he belonged to no one, shared with no one. The kind that would normally make her run in the other direction. His hair was the color of expensive cognac, slightly mussed but clean cut, with eyes a few shades deeper. He was tanned, in that natural, not-from-a-tanning-salon sort of way, with dark stubble across a firm jaw and chin. Jackson was not what she expected.
Definitely built and definitely mouth-watering…
if you were into that sort of look.
And she was
He frowned at her. “Are you lost?”
Hannah realized she must look like an idiot standing on his porch not saying a word. She lowered her arm, straightening her shoulders, and tried to project the image of the calm, cool, collected professional she usually was. “No, no. Not really.”
In the six-hour car ride and the twenty minutes of stalking in her car outside, she’d had everything rehearsed. She had even practiced her speech in front of Emily and had earned a few enthusiastic gurgles. But now, in front of him, she couldn’t bring herself to say the words she’d carefully planned. He raised his eyebrows, bracing his shoulder against the doorjamb. His fitted navy Henley shirt outlined his muscular arms and wide chest. The cold air obviously wasn’t bothering him in the least.
“Do you need help?”
. Sort of like smooth silk and rough suede. Unfortunately, his carefully enunciated question also implied that he thought she was mentally challenged.
It was now or never
. She cleared her throat and was sure to maintain eye contact.
“Are you Christopher James?” she blurted out, deciding to use his real name at the last minute.
His brown brows snapped together. He pushed away from the doorjamb, and stood straight up. Suddenly he looked much more intimidating, and not at all nice.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Hannah Woods. Look, I’m sorry to bother you—” She took a deep breath. “I’m here because of your sister, Louise.” Self-preservation was a skill she’d learned early in her life, and right now her instincts were telling her to run in the other direction.
“I don’t have a sister.”
Hannah cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I know that—”
He scowled. “What? What do you know?”
“I know that you changed your name and—”
He slammed the door in her face and Hannah was in disbelief. She stood still and stared at the black door. One thing was for sure—Jackson Pierce or Christopher James or whatever his name was, was definitely not a Christmas sugar cookie kind of man. What had she been thinking anyway? That she could shove cookies down the man’s throat while having a heart-to-heart about his sister and abandoned niece?
Tears began to blur her vision as she stared at the bare door, the reality of her situation setting it. Emily’s temporary foster placement with Mrs. Ford would end soon and after that Hannah would have very little control over what happened to the baby. Hannah had fought vigorously to have the woman be Emily’s interim guardian. Mrs. Ford was one of the best foster parents she’d ever come across. Hannah had gone to visit Emily every day after work. Spending time with the baby had become the highlight of her day. Hannah had been able to sleep at night, knowing the baby was in good hands while she searched for her uncle. It was Mrs. Ford’s faith in her that allowed Hannah to take Emily to find her uncle without going through the child welfare office. There was no way Hannah’s boss would have given her approval.
Hannah clutched the tin tightly to her chest and tried to ignore the lump in her throat that she suspected was due in part to feeling like a moron and in part to desperation. She would not cry. She did not cry. Before the night she’d found Emily, she hadn’t cried in years. What was she going to do? The man she had gambled on was nastier than a man that good-looking had any right to be. And to top it all off, she was in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard with a two month old baby and only her car for shelter.
She squinted against the wind, looking at the car. She had to make a move and fast. She pictured little Emily being removed from Mrs. Ford’s care. What if they didn’t find permanent placement for her? Emily could have years and years of being shuffled around, never having a home of her own. Hannah knew all about that. She wasn’t going to let that happen to this baby.
The minute she had picked up that baby outside the church she knew it was for a reason. Louise believed in her. And Louise believed in her brother. There had to be more to this man than what she’d just witnessed. She owed it to Louise. She had to honor Louise’s wishes, no matter how miserable of a man Emily’s uncle was. She couldn’t chicken out now.
Hannah took a deep breath, straightened out her not at all fashionable hat, and knocked on the door again. She didn’t know what she was going to say, but Jackson Pierce was not going to get rid of her that easily. Adrenaline and panic intertwined and wove their way through her body as she gave herself a mental pep talk. She wasn’t a quitter. Emily needed her.
There was no answer.
She ripped off her mitten and pounded. Hard. But there was still no answer.
. Jackson Pierce thought he was stubborn? Well, he was about to meet his match. She lifted her foot and gave the door a swift, hard kick. Just as she was about to give it another one worthy of a champion soccer player, he whipped open the door. She struggled not to fall backwards as she almost lost her balance. She quickly lowered her foot, composed herself, and forced a smile on her face.
He didn’t smile back.
“Look, Mr. Pierce, this is a matter of life or death.”
He raised his eyebrows, clearly unimpressed. “Whose death?”
She frowned at him. “It’s really a matter of life, actually.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Hannah, Hannah Woods.” She was relieved by his more reasonable tone. The life or death line was always a winner at getting someone to take her seriously.
“Do you realize, Hannah Woods, that you are trespassing on private property?”
Okay, so maybe that line didn’t work on Mr. Pierce
. She felt her insides twist into a knot as she stared into hostile brown eyes.
She nodded carefully. “Yes, I realize that. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but your sister Louise died…”
He cursed loudly. “And let me guess, she left a pile of bills?”
She shook her head. She was about to explain when he cut her off.
“I don’t associate with money-grubbing, junkie friends of my sister. So get your ass off my property and—”
“I’m not a friend of your sister’s.”
He leaned forward so that his face was a few inches from hers. “I don’t care,” he hissed. “I don’t care if you were a friend of hers or a friend of the frickin’ Pope. I. Don’t. Care. So get the hell off my property.”
He stepped back and this time he slammed the door so violently that she actually shuddered. It took her a few seconds to process what had happened.
Jackson Pierce was a jerk.
In all her imaginings about how this was going to unfold, him yelling at her and slamming a door in her face,
, wasn’t what she’d envisioned. She’d thought he’d at least hear her out. But he hadn’t even given her a chance to tell him about Emily. She knew deep down, under that nasty temper, there had to be a good man. Louise had told her all about him, what a good brother he’d been. But that had been a long time ago, and Louise had made so many mistakes. He had obviously never forgiven her. When he hadn’t been at the funeral Hannah assumed it was because he didn’t know she had died. But now, after witnessing his palpable anger toward anything Louise, she wondered if he just hadn’t cared to show up. So where did that leave Emily?
Hannah stood unmoving on the porch, the harsh wind hammering snow and ice up and down her body as though it too were taking a turn at trying to knock her down. Her car was already buried under the snow and must have lost most of its heat. She wasn’t a quitter, but it was obviously time to think of a Plan B. She needed to get moving. But where the heck were they going to go at eight o’clock at night during a blizzard?
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Pierce,” she grumbled to herself, as she carefully climbed down the porch steps, still holding her Santa tin filled with cookies. She could sit in her car and gorge herself on cookies until she came up with a plan. Luckily, she had two cases of baby formula in the trunk.
So much for the lucky hat
. Maybe she should rip it off and then stomp on it. She was exhausted and cold and now, thanks to Jackson Pierce, miserable. She trudged through the snow as quickly as the wind and snow would allow, her sights on the car. Emily was going to need to eat again in under an hour, and the last thing she wanted to do was pull over in the middle of nowhere to give her a bottle. Maybe she could try and knock on the door of that charming bungalow at the end of the street—it had been adorned from top to bottom in Christmas decorations and lights. Surely, whoever lived there wouldn’t turn a woman and a baby away in a blizzard.
What kind of a jerk would let a woman go out alone during a blizzard anyway?