She was the incubator, nothing more
until the parents died tragically
Now she’s having
For Kate Morissey, becoming a surrogate seems like a great way to refill her tuition account and get the education she’s always wanted. After putting her life on hold to raise and educate her two brothers, she’s desperate for freedom and a college degree that will secure her future. Weeks away from realizing her dreams, a freak accident threatens everything.
Adopted as a boy into the safety of the Hawthorne family, Rio swore he’d never become a father. He won’t pass along his cruel legacy of abuse. When he inherits the last Hawthorne heir, obligation and duty dictates he abandon the challenges of guiding safari’s and become a parent. Convincing Kate to teach him infant care was the easy part. Proving his love isn’t her prison may be the hardest thing he’s ever done.
– – – –
Four weeks to freedom.
Katherine Morrisey longed for the day her body wouldn’t be on loan anymore. Not that she’d been abused or taken advantage of. Her surrogate arrangement with James and Allie Hawthorne benefited everyone involved.
So why the quick summons to the Cherry Creek offices of Flynn, Squires, & Forbes, when her contracted duties were so close to fruition? Did the Hawthornes have some last minute stipulation so important it required her driving into Denver? They could have phoned. Until James and Allie had decided on one last adventure before their parental duties started, Allie had called daily for updates on Kate’s condition.
Hurrying up the steps of a squat brick building, Kate held her loose jacket closed against an October chill. That such little effort left her winded filled her with annoyance.
She attempted to shake off the gray cloud of doom that had clung to her since hearing the formal summons on her voice mail, but it stuck tight. Squires personally making the call was a bad sign, but his dour tone had added ominous weight to the word urgent.
Her hand closed around the heavy brass door handle as someone — a wide-shouldered someone — burst through the other side, sending her staggering backward.
“Sorry,” he muttered through clenched teeth before brushing past. A single tortured word, as if it were all he could manage.
Kate gripped the handrail at her back to regain her balance, shock and surprise silencing an indignant retort. In the split second before he’d obscured pain-filled eyes behind dark sunglasses, she’d spied a glimmer of moisture in them.
At the bottom of the trio of stairs, he halted, steadying himself with one hand on the rail. There was such raw power emanating from him, such rigid control, she doubted a tear would be allowed to breach his lashes.
Though she had an appointment to keep, the sight of his bare knuckles gleaming white against tanned skin held her mesmerized. Those were not the soft fingers of a desk jockey. They’d performed hard labor, and recently, from the evidence of a scraped knuckle and torn cuticle.
Her gaze raked over his large form, covered by a dark navy suit. He yanked at his russet tie, unbuttoned the pristine collar beneath it, and drew in a lungful of mile-high air and exhaust fumes. His nut-brown hair, cut close around the sides, hovered rakishly over thick brows that complemented rugged features.
Kate had seen better looking men, but he piqued her interest, nonetheless. Probably the result of months of abstinence and fluctuating hormones. Well over a year had passed since she’d felt a man’s hands roam her bare skin. All part of the contract.
When the urge to cover his hand with her own grew strong, she scurried inside, stepped into the elevator and jabbed at the fourth floor button. Yet another change in her life, this elevator business. Even as little as three months earlier, she would have taken the stairs, considering anything under ten floors a free workout.
One more month and she could follow her carefully laid-out plan. For the first time in years, she would have no responsibilities or obligations except her own. No brothers to raise, no self-absorbed mother to coddle through some imagined illness. She hugged her purse closer for comfort. The University of Northern Colorado acceptance letter inside soothed the ragged edges of her nerves.
Her first step toward becoming a child psychologist.
“Ah. Miss Morrisey. There you are. I was beginning to worry.” Jeremy Squires greeted her before she could step off the elevator, circumventing the check-in process they were usually such sticklers for. The receptionist averted red-rimmed eyes. Flynn and Forbes hovered in a nearby office threshold, their expressions sympathetic.
Kate placed a hand over the knot forming in her throat and swallowed. “I told you I’d come straight away. What’s the big emergency?”
He shot her a startled look, ushered her into his office and closed the door. “We’ll get to that. Give me your coat and take a seat.”
“I had to reschedule a doctor’s appointment and risked a speeding ticket to get here. Allie will have a fit.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Morrisey.” He cleared his throat and indicated a leather couch and chair nearby. “Please.”
His demeanor, the way the receptionist and he both avoided her gaze, combined with the closed door, and the fact they weren’t sitting at his desk but across the room made Kate take a step back. A sense of dread grew with the doom just like when … no. Such a thing was impossible.
Her calves met cool leather. Throwing out a hand she braced herself on the arm of the couch and eased into a sitting position.
The air, fraught with tension, sucked her into memories of another place and time. She was seventeen again, standing in the living room of her parents’ home, watching two highway patrolmen approach with resolute faces.
Her daddy had driven an eighteen-wheeler. Kate didn’t have to be told why they were there. Inside her head, quiet screams accompanied their steps. She shushed her brothers and moved forward on wooden legs, needing to intercept the officers before they could ring the doorbell and disturb her ailing mother.
“But the partners … Well, we didn’t want you to hear about this from any other source,” Mr. Squires was saying. The gravity in his voice made her wish for her coat again, though she hadn’t noticed the cold as much this year.
“Just tell me, whatever it is. You’re … you’re making me nervous.” She blinked rapidly, shivering in the aftermath of old memories.
“I’m very sorry to tell you this, Miss Morrisey, but James and Allie Hawthorne were in a fatal accident two days ago.”
She blinked. Shook her head. Blinked. “What did you say?”
“Their bodies were found early this morning.”
Fatal. Bodies. Accident. The words pressed in on her chest like lead weights.
She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, amazed at the stillness inside her belly. Perhaps the shock had permeated there too. Slowly, she rubbed a hand across her swollen stomach, soothing the live cargo within.
“This can’t be right. They were going skiing. Allie said so. Seven days and they’d be back. What happened?” Stupid question. What difference did it make? Dead was dead.
“Apparently they wanted to see the view along Trail Ridge Road before it closed for the winter. Their car slid off one of those hairpin curves close to the Alpine Visitors Center.” Squires recited the information as if he’d had too many opportunities to share what he’d learned.
Kate stabbed both hands into her cropped hair, though doing so did nothing to help contain her swirling thoughts. She’d traveled that very road in Rocky Mountain National Park, but never this late in the year. The sheer drop-offs weren’t for the faint of heart, even on a sunny summer day.
“What about their baby? They can’t just die. This is their child, their responsibility. Who’s going to raise it?” She jerked her hand off her belly and held it away from her, fingers splayed wide. Dismayed, she glared at the distended mound.
“We’re aware of the rather complicated situation this puts you in. Although I’m sure they never meant to orphan an infant, they’d recently changed their will to award custody of the child to James’ older brother.”
“I can’t believe this.” Kate squeezed her eyes closed, fat tears pushing to the surface. Shame rushed over her, that her first thought had been for herself and the impossible circumstances it placed her in. She couldn’t think about what this meant to Allie’s baby, couldn’t let herself start to have feelings for it. The lawyer’s words began to sink in, and she concentrated on the couple.
Gentle James with his smiling eyes. Gone. And Allie. Oh, God, Allie. So full of life and bubbling with happiness over this baby they’d created and placed within her for safekeeping.
Despite their best efforts to keep things on a business level, she and Allie had become friends. Sisters in this undertaking. Would their son ever know how much his parents wanted him, loved him? How eagerly they anticipated his arrival?
James’ brother must be a wonderful man for them to place such confidence in him. Surely he would honor their wishes. Oh God, what if he …
“Have you talked with this man? He’s going to take it, right? My job was to be an incubator. Nothing more. I’m going to college next semester!” Kate slapped a hand over her mouth, as if doing so would stop the raging panic making her voice shrill and stifle the harsh gasps coming from her open mouth.
“Miss Morrisey, please try to calm yourself. No one is asking you to be responsible for the Hawthornes’ child.”
“So you say. How do you suppose hospital personnel will react when there are no eager parents waiting for this baby and I tell them it’s …” Her throat squeezed closed, and it was several moments before she voiced the frightening truth. “It’s nobody’s baby, Mr. Squires.”
“It’s Mr. Hawthorne’s now, Miss Morrisey.”
Sure it was. But did he have any legal obligation to take it? Would he?
She studied the gaunt man across from her, with his salt-and-pepper hair and angular face. Slightly stooped shoulders provided the framework for a dark gray suit. Nothing else about him suggested he wasn’t completely confident about his statement, until his lashes dropped under her scrutiny.
Kate’s heart plummeted into last week. “He hasn’t agreed to this, has he?”
“You have to understand. Riordan’s been mostly out of the country for several years. He recently returned from Africa. James and Allie planned on surprising him with the news upon their return, so everything came as quite a shock. He needs a few days to process this new reality.”
Kate refrained from comment, fervently praying Riordan Hawthorne was half the man his brother had been. She finally had a life, a bright future within her grasp, and she’d endured a lot to fill it with promise. This baby was her winning lottery ticket to a better future. One separate from the Hawthorne’s and at long last, her own. If this man refused to take the baby …
“What about Allie’s family? Couldn’t one of them —” Kate’s throat closed over the words as Squires shook his head.
“She was estranged from what little family she had and assured me there was no one suitable for the task.”
So Riordan Hawthorne was her only hope. Kate could not and would not allow anyone to saddle her with their responsibilities again. Her life had been on hold long enough. If she didn’t finish her education now, she never would.
James’ brother had been dealt a terrible blow. In deference to that, she’d give him exactly two days to “process” his thoughts before she presented him with her rounded mound of impending fatherhood.
* * * * *
These places were suffocating.
Rio stuffed sorrow and pain into a dark corner of his soul and tried to focus on choosing one of the crematory urns before him. Who knew there were so many choices? Regal ones, ornate ones. Some squat and Buddha-like. There were even some shaped like a treasure chest, a football and a guitar.
Since Allie didn’t have close family, her arrangements fell to him too. Picking one urn to house his brother’s ashes was difficult enough, but needing two for both husband and wife was … obscene.
Together in life, together in death.
His gaze fell on a rather large pot-bellied container the color of fresh snow. “Will that one hold them both?”
The mannequin-like man who’d assisted him through this grizzly process inclined his head as though Rio requested something as common as a drink of water. “If that is your wish.”
Another scribbled notation and Mannequin Man offered him the pen with a small bow. “Initial at the X’s, full signature at the bottom and the arrangements are complete, sir.”
Rio complied and escaped into the kind of day Denver was famous for. Cotton ball clouds hovered over snow-capped mountains in the distance with the wide expanse of sky an intense Robin’s egg blue. He breathed deeply through his nose and whooshed it out through taut lips, expelling the stuffy, too-sweet funeral home air from his lungs. The high-altitude headache that had begun this morning persisted.
At least he’d accomplished the task without his mother having to get involved. She’d have a hard enough time dealing with the memorial service.
He returned to Hawthorne House in time to pay the airport shuttle driver and usher his mother inside the large two-story brick. Margaret Hawthorne embraced him as soon as he’d set her bag down, the familiar scents of Chanel No. 5 and Final Net hairspray as oddly comforting in their familiarity as his mother’s arms. At the same time, they were strangely irritating, as if they might cause his world to spin out of control.
Like it wasn’t already.
He waited until she’d relaxed her hold before he eased away and in doing so found his footing again. “You should have called me with your itinerary. I could have picked you up or sent a car.”
“You’ve had more than enough to handle, and I’m perfectly capable of fending for myself.” She canted her head to one side, cool gray eyes reproachful. “It’s good to see you too, dear. I’ve missed you.”
“Sorry. You know I feel the same. This whole thing has thrown me. How are you holding up?”
She shook her head, her eyes moist. A strand of chin-length blonde hair swung forward across her cheek. She tucked it behind her ear and cleared her throat. “What about you? Do you need help with the arrangements?”
“Everything’s done. I scheduled the memorial service for Saturday. The coroner’s office should release them to the crematory tomorrow.”
“I don’t see how you stood it.”
“I’m … numb.” And he’d just as soon stay that way.
“I’m surprised the press hasn’t found you. There were two reporters waiting for me at the airport. I didn’t expect that.”
“How did you get rid of them?”
“I think that shuttle driver must’ve been a former linebacker. He whisked me past them like they didn’t exist. I hope they’re not bothering Miss Morrisey. Have you checked on her?”
Rio frowned, trying to remember where he’d heard the name. “Who?”
“James and Allie’s surrogate. How’s she taking this? Is the baby okay?”
Blood swooshed to his feet. Sweat popped out across his forehead and upper lip, and black dots obscured his mom’s face. Then he was staring at the leather footrest of his recliner, his head between his knees.
So much for numb.
“Don’t move,” his mother ordered in a tone he hadn’t heard since high school. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
He had no intention of moving. Not until his legs regained solid form and the tilt-a-whirl in his head came to a full stop. Damn. He’d never had this kind of reaction, not even when a rhino had charged his safari vehicle full of shocked, cringing tourists.
He’d drained the glass and set it aside before his mother spoke from her position on one end of a brown suede sofa. “You did know they have a baby on the way? According to Allie, it’s due in a few weeks.”
Rio groaned. “Don’t remind me. Squires mentioned they’d named me guardian in their will. What were they thinking?”
“Probably that you’re a responsible, thirty-year-old, compassionate adult who’s had plenty of adventure in his life and should be ready to settle down.”
“That was a pretty little speech, if a bit practiced, but it won’t sway me. There’s no way I’m raising a kid. Anyone with half a brain could see you’re the logical one for that task.”
“Except that I’ll be on Social Security when this child is in primary school. Even if I had the energy for dealing with two o’clock feedings or a rambunctious toddler, which I don’t, I wouldn’t dream of going against James and Allie’s wishes. Face it, son, you’re going to be a father.”
“Uncle,” he corrected her. “I’ll never be any kid’s father.”
“Not even to Bear’s only grandchild? His last surviving heir?” The words spilled softly into the room, throwing a neat noose around Rio’s neck.
“Now you’re playing dirty, Mom.” Rio had resented his mother marrying Albert “Bear” Hawthorne, feared him, until he’d finally accepted that the Grizzly-sized man had a heart as soft as a Teddy bear.
His stepfather had treated him no differently than James, adopted him, gave him a name to be proud of, loved him and taught him what being a real man was all about. But most of all, Bear had never laid an angry hand on any of them, regardless of how badly they’d vexed him.
If only he could be sure Bear’s influence had erased his biological father’s abusive traits. What if he harbored Hank’s propensity for cruelty?
“Sweetheart, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re not like your father.”
Rio leaned forward, forearms on knees, and shook his head. “You don’t know that.”
“A mother knows her own son. Besides, you’re not just Hank’s son, you’re mine too. Remember that.”
“Mom, please. Take the kid. If not for me, then for its sake. I’ll help you in every way I can. Just don’t ask me to do this.”
“It’s your brother who’s doing the asking. He’s entrusted you with the most precious thing in his life. I wouldn’t dream of going against his dying wishes.”
“You don’t fight fair.”
She rose to her feet, took his hand in a firm grip and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “I’m not fighting you, dear. I’m simply reiterating the reality of the situation. Now, I’m going upstairs to rest. The early morning flight and this mile-high air has taken its toll.”
He’d wager that two sudden deaths in the family factored in her fatigue more than the air. Rio looked closer. More silver filtered through her blonde hair than he’d ever noticed. Fine lines fanned out from her eyes, and she’d lost weight in the last year since he’d been gone. A pity he hadn’t gotten more of her looks and less of Hank’s. Maybe if he looked in the mirror and didn’t see so much of the bastard, he wouldn’t worry about having also received his less desirable traits.
Maybe his mom wasn’t the perfect guardian for Bear’s grandchild, but neither was he. There had to be an alternate choice that didn’t involve him stepping into that role.
A half hour later, plagued by the unshakable feeling this baby noose was too tight to escape, Rio paced in front of the living room’s double-wide window. Occasionally he stopped to stare at what passing traffic he could see through the iron gates kept open during the day. It was at such a moment that a new hybrid vehicle pulled into the driveway and parked.
A sun glare covered the driver’s window. Nervous fingers on the steering wheel were the only movement he could see through the windshield. Using all eight fingers, then switching to indexes only, the driver kept up a steady beat. Drum-drum-drum-tap-tap-tap-tap. Abruptly, the rhythm stopped and the driver’s door swung open. A young woman emerged, swathed in a voluminous blue poncho over jeans and suede boots.
She squared her shoulders and lifted a determined chin, the striking combination of her near-black cap of hair against creamy skin causing a hitch in his breathing pattern. Striding forward, she stopped near the porch and glanced around as if expecting to be pursued, then completed her approach.
Rio dashed to the door, swinging it wide before she could ring the doorbell and wake his mom. “Hey.”
Her dark eyes widened. “It’s you. You’re him. I mean …” She made a little sound of disgust. “I’m babbling.”
“You make it look cute.” Cute? That couldn’t have come from his mouth.
“Cute as a beached whale. We should probably introduce ourselves. I’m Kate.”
“Rio.” He shook her hand, hating that she withdrew it so fast. She was really attractive, even if she did have body image issues.
“Ah … could I come in? We need to talk, what with me carrying your baby and all.”
He swallowed, his gaze following her left hand now resting across a definite lump underneath the roomy poncho. His jaw fell slack. “Y-you’re Katherine?”
“Morrisey. Yes. But I prefer Kate. May I come in?”
“Uh, sure.” Rio couldn’t take his gaze off her stomach and the ripple moving across its extended surface. She stepped inside and closed the door.
“Do you need to sit down? You look a little pale, and I’m in no shape to try and break your fall. Besides, a big guy like you could smash something, and Allie will kill you if … oh.” Kate blinked rapidly and swayed a little.
He reached to support her.
She threw her hands up to ward him off, her fingers curling into tight fists. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s okay. Sometimes I forget too. Come on. Let’s both sit down.” This time he gestured toward the sofa and kept his hands clear of her personal space. He could claim it was because she’d avoided his touch, but truthfully, the whole baby thing knotted his stomach.
He’d stalked the “big five,” which included some of Africa’s most dangerous game, across the Serengeti, in South Africa and Zimbabwe so folks could admire them and take photographs. Lions, leopards and elephants, he could face. But keep the babies and pregnant women at a distance.
“What’s wrong with me. I should’ve expressed my condolences for your loss, first.”
“It’s okay and … thanks. I’m never sure what the correct response should be. It’s awkward all around, don’t you think?”
“Yes. And speaking of awkward, you’re staring. Haven’t you ever seen a pregnant woman before?”
“Sure. Just never thought about having to take care of the end product.”
Kate bit back a grin. “Ah, that would be a baby.”
She placed her hand over the mound that looked too small to hold a nearly full-term baby and her brows drew close. “I’m sorry to bring this up so soon. I promised myself I’d give you two days to come to grips with the situation, but I didn’t sleep well last night. Then those reporters rushed up to me at the end of my morning walk.”
“At your house?”
“Duplex. Yes. That’s when I realized we’re in this together, you and me. Instead of birth parents, he has an uncle waiting to welcome him into the world.” She rubbed the baby bump again. “James once told me this was a family home, not solely his, so I took a chance you’d be staying here.”
“He? You know it’s a boy?” Rio wasn’t about to explain why the baby wasn’t a blood relation of his either. Bear had never split hairs, so why should he?
“That’s what the doctor told us. James and Allie and me. Now you’re his guardian.”
His guardian. She talked about the baby as if it were a little person already, and Rio supposed it was. He stared into eyes so dark the pupils were indistinguishable from the irises. Seductive. If a guy were into pregnant women. Which he wasn’t. Absolutely not. Obviously, he’d been away on safari too long this last time.
Rio shifted his gaze, staring at a small mint green bag on the dining room table. He couldn’t look at Kate and the swell beneath her poncho, didn’t want to see her concern and know he was the cause, nor hear the sadness when she spoke of his brother and sister-in-law.
What were you thinking, James, taking risks when you had a child coming?
She spied the bag and crossed the room to it, reached in and withdrew a tiny one-piece, pajama-looking thing. Too tiny. He looked at his hands with their long, thick fingers and shuddered.
“I thought we might talk about how you envision this playing out.” There was an edge of desperation growing in her voice he didn’t want to hear either.
“Truthfully, I haven’t a clue.” Rio pushed to his feet. “These walls are closing in on me. If you want to talk, let’s do it outside.”
* * * * *
Having never been past the formal living quarters of Hawthorne House, Kate had no idea the grounds behind it were so large. The pale gray brick home, offset from the street a good ways, and the breezeway-attached garage blocked most of the back yard. A small cottage sat to the left behind the main house, separated by a narrow sidewalk. Her nerves stretched tighter when minutes went by and Rio didn’t speak.
He stood with his back to the house and her, an imposing figure in rugged boots, soft jeans and a khaki shirt. When he’d stared at her earlier, she’d been surprised to see his eyes were a silvery gray. She’d expected hazel or brown like his hair. The contrast of warm and cool unsettled her.
She shifted from one foot to the other, trying to discover what held his attention.
Two large evergreens stood guard at the back corners of the lot, linked by a row of Bradford pears whose naked limbs wavered in the chilly air. As with most lawns in this semi-arid climate, wide outer borders of the area were filled in with landscaping materials to conserve water. In this case, irregular slabs of natural slate had been fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, leaving space around the plantings for care and growth.
Oh, to heck with it. There was nothing interesting about a barren wintery landscape. The man was ignoring her. She took a seat on a cushioned chaise, warmed by the sun. “You do understand he’s not mine. This fetus is closer related to you than it is me. When he’s born —” Kate stopped herself, a bubble of panic rising in her throat.
Rio pivoted to look at her. She tried again without the strident demand in her voice. “You have to take their baby. He’s yours now. Part of your family. I’m the incubator, nothing more.”
His eyes narrowed. “If you’re so anxious to be rid of it, why did you agree to have the baby in the first place?”
Kate fought not to react. She leveled her gaze on him and squinted slightly, trying to understand his beef with her. “It’s not like I got pregnant having illicit sex and chose not to abort it. This was a business deal. A transaction. In exchange for a sum of money, I agreed to have James and Allie’s fetus implanted in my uterus, where I would safeguard and nourish it until its birth.”
“Is that why you did this? For the money?”
Ri-i-ight. Like morning sickness, stretch marks and swollen ankles — not to mention labor and delivery — were a thrill ride to riches. But Rio Hawthorne’s opinion of her shouldn’t matter one way or the other. Let him think what he would. “I had my reasons. Money was part of it.”
“I’ll bet. It seems to me you had a lot of reasons and all of them green. A tidy sum at the beginning and if I remember what Squires said, an additional sum when the pregnancy was confirmed.”
What an arrogant ass. They came from money and she didn’t, ergo she must be bilking them? She lifted her chin. “A girl needs to eat. James and Allie insisted I not work during the pregnancy. And if you must know, I’m to receive the bulk of the amount agreed upon after delivery.”
“I suppose a new set of wheels was part of the deal, too.”
Boy, would she like to wipe that smirk off his face. She counted to five, not daring more lest he think she was thinking up a good story. “That was James’ idea. He was adamantly opposed to me transporting his child in a ‘decade-old rusted bucket’ as he called it. I told him it was still reliable, but he wouldn’t listen. He did give in on the hybrid issue, thank goodness. I convinced him greener was the way to go.”
Rio didn’t look convinced though. His lip curled. “Don’t tell me. You recycle, too.”
“Every chance I get, but we’re off topic. You will take their child.” She’d meant it as a statement, but somehow her delivery got screwed up and it became part demand, part plea.
“That remains to be seen. I’m the last person my brother should have left his child to. I know next to nothing about kids. Less about babies.”
He looked so conflicted, Kate almost forgave him his previous snide remarks. Almost. “Tons of people lack experience and still become parents. Is that what’s holding you back?”
“I have my reasons.” He borrowed her earlier excuse.
Kate stood, a determined chin jutted in his direction, her patience all but gone. “Fine, but you need to know this. When this child is born, he’s yours. Plain and simple. My obligations toward him cease. That was the deal. Whatever problems you have, you’ve got a month to work them out. Understood?”
“You weren’t speaking Swahili. Don’t worry, Miss Morrisey, I won’t expect anything of you beyond the scope of your contract.”
She glared back, letting him know she wasn’t the least bit intimidated. “Good. I won’t expect anything of you beyond taking responsibility for this child.”
“You must be Katherine.” The statement came from Rio’s mom, standing beyond Kate in navy slacks and a pink sweater set trimmed in navy.
Damn. How much of that had she heard? He pulled in a lungful of thin air and made formal introductions between the two women.
“It’s Kate, please, Mrs. Hawthorne.” She pushed to her feet and gave both of Margaret’s outstretched hands a brief squeeze. “It’s nice to meet you, but I’m terribly sorry for the circumstances that bring you here.”
“Thank you, dear. Call me Maggie. I’m that baby’s grammy.”
“All right then. Maggie.”
“Allie said you were athletic and carrying well, but you’re amazingly small to be so close to term. May I?” One hand hovered over Kate’s belly.
“Sure, but he’s sleeping right now.”
“Let me guess? Once you lie down to sleep, he does calisthenics.”
How did women do that? They’d gone from strangers to talking like old friends in seconds.
“It’s more like he dances. This kid really gets down. James has me playing rock classics to him so he’ll appreciate ‘good music.’” She performed air quotes, her face alight and animated, then her features froze.
Kate’s use of the present tense rendered them all silent and sober.
A weight pressed in on Rio from all sides, leaving him feeling slightly panicked.
Maggie cupped her elbows and shivered. “It’s chilly out here. Let’s go in. I’ll make some hot chocolate.”
Inside the kitchen, his mom declined Kate’s offer of help and instructed Rio to locate cocoa powder, sugar and marshmallows while she heated milk, flavored with a few drops of almond extract. He was glad to have something to do because he couldn’t seem to stop staring at Kate’s rounded tummy, and worrying about the reality of its contents.
She sat quietly at an eat-in table which would easily seat eight, her expression solemn.
Rio pulled mugs out of the cabinet, glancing up in time to catch her wiping a knuckle underneath her lashes. She’d moved around the house with an air of familiarity and spoke fondly of his brother and sister-in-law. That didn’t jibe with his money-hungry impression from earlier, though there was reason to believe her greedy. Who was Kate Morissey, really?
His mom soon had steaming mugs of fragrant chocolate ready for sipping and joined Kate. Rio leaned one hip against the white granite countertop, warming his hands on the sturdy stoneware. He stared at the rapidly melting marshmallows while the women made small talk.
The more he heard from Kate about the baby, the more it seemed real. Dammit, he wasn’t ready for this. Might never be.
“Kate, have you had run-ins with the press too?” Maggie asked, drawing Rio’s attention.
“There was a TV reporter and cameraman outside my duplex this morning. I think I lost them on the way over, but they didn’t seem like the type to give up.” Harsh light from a bay window paled Kate’s skin, making evident the slight shadows under her eyes. A furrow took up residence between her brows.
His mom picked up her mug. “Those reporters at the airport were newspaper, now it’s TV. Rio, this thing is escalating.”
The thought of either one of these ladies having their privacy invaded like that angered him, especially with Kate in her condition, but he sought to diffuse the situation. “Calm down, Mom. There’s no story here. We’ll ignore them and tomorrow they’ll have found something more juicy.”
Both women focused on him, their faces wearing oh-you-poor-clueless-man stares. Bull elephants were more sympathetic than these two, but how had it become them against him so quickly? “Obviously, you both disagree.”
“John Riordan Hawthorne. Use what’s between your ears. Two fairly wealthy people have died, leaving their orphaned fetus inside a surrogate. If you don’t see tabloid potential in that, you’ve been out of the country way too long.”
Kate chewed on her bottom lip. “They wouldn’t show up at the funerals, would they?”
Rio had a vision of the press swarming like ants, upsetting his mom, peppering them with biting questions. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
“No funerals to speak of. Just one memorial service.” Maggie informed her. “Rio’s idea.”
“I think they’d have liked that.” Kate leaned away from the table, linking her fingers across her belly. “I’d like to attend, but I’ll understand if you’d rather I didn’t.”
Her words encompassed them both, but she looked to Rio for a decision with a plea shining in her eyes. It hadn’t occurred to him, but of course she’d want to be there, if her bond was truly as close with James and Allie as she’d portrayed.
If his brother were here right now, Rio would knock him clear into Sunday for naming him as guardian. The word conjured up images of Masai warriors, sentinels, bodyguards, protectors. Was that how James had viewed him? As his champion?
Several years younger than Rio, James had been delighted to have a big brother when Rio had first shown up on the scene. He’d followed Rio like a puppy.
He swallowed against a hard lump. Misguided or not, James had trusted him to protect his son, Bear’s grandchild. Right now that child resided inside Kate. Whether she was greedy or not, that fact made her his to protect. “Don’t worry about the service being turned into a media circus. I’ll take care of the press.”
Kate tilted her head to one side, eyes questioning.
Maggie reached out and patted Kate’s hand. “I’m sure what Rio meant to say is that you’re welcome to come. We’ll swing by your place so you can ride with us. That way you’ll be safe. Right, Rio?”
He nodded and checked the glowing numbers on the microwave, calculating the time zone difference in his head. Those brothers he’d taken on safari might be able to help. He still had their business card somewhere. “Excuse me. I have some phone calls to make.”
* * * * *
The next morning, Kate had her athletic shoes on before she thought to check out the window for reporters. She pulled the edge of her living room drapes forward and peeked out. Damn. There were even more of them lining her sidewalk today than the previous evening and that hadn’t been fun. They’d followed her to the front door, clamoring for interviews.
Something big and dark moved at the edge of her view. She leaned her cheek against the wall to get a better look. Standing at the edge of the tiny landing in front of her door was a bald body-builder type facing the street. Dressed all in black and with dark glasses on, he looked every bit the part of a hit man or maybe a menacing bodyguard. After years of fending for herself and shouldering responsibilities far beyond her years, Kate almost laughed at the idea of her with a big ol’ meaty man-protector in tow.
She grabbed two bottles of water and was about to reach for her keys when her cell rang. “James and Allie” came up on the display and her pulse hit a bump. She’d have to change the listing to Hawthorne House right away. After setting the waters on a nearby table, she tapped her phone. “Hello?”
“Rio. Don’t go out this morning until your protection detail gets there.”
She bristled at his command. As if he had the right to tell her what to do. “And if I don’t want to wait?”
“Think of someone other than yourself. Dealing with the press on your own will result in stress, which Mom says isn’t good for the baby. Stay put.”
She sighed, unsure why she’d baited him. He might be infuriating at times, but that was no reason to alienate him. “Of course I wouldn’t do anything to harm the baby. There’s already a guy on my doorstep who looks like he could be a pro wrestler.”
“Good. Let me speak to him. No, wait. Make him show you his I.D. first.”
“You think?” She rolled her eyes and lowered the phone, not waiting for Rio’s response. Rather than open the storm door, she raised the glass panel on the screened portion of it and called out, “Excuse me. May I see some identification?”
The big dude flicked a glance over his shoulder, then resumed his watch as he backed toward her door. He produced a business card along with an official looking I.D. and pressed them against the glass.
“Thank you.” She lifted the phone to her ear. “Photo I.D. and card says he’s Toby Foxe of the Bridgerton Agency. Satisfied?”
“Yes, but I still need to speak to him.”
Kate unlocked the storm door and opened it enough to insert the phone through. “Mr. Hawthorne would like a word.”
After a few terse answers and yessir’s, Toby returned her phone and assumed his original position. With his dark glasses, it was impossible to tell whether he’d looked directly at her or not. Since her phone was still open, she raised it to her ear. “Still there?”
“You’ll be safe with Toby.” Rio hesitated before saying. “Don’t leave home without him.”
Was the serious Rio Hawthorne making a joke? Kate wasn’t sure, but his voice had been less terse. It felt weird to have someone taking care of her for a change. “I won’t, but just so you know, I didn’t expect you to go to this expense on my account.”
“I’m protecting the Hawthorne heir. It just happens to be inside you at the moment.”
“Right.” How silly of her to have thought otherwise. Hadn’t she learned a long time ago that the only person she could truly rely on was herself? “Bye, Rio.”
She retrieved the water and her keys and stepped outside.
“Hey, Kate. This dude won’t let me in.” Her youngest brother, Dean, a long-suffering expression plastered on his face, stood a few paces from Toby. The next thing she noticed was that he needed a shave and haircut. His dark blond hair was longer than she’d seen it in awhile, the curls going every which way. Not her business any more. He was on his own.
“It’s okay, Toby. He’s my brother.” She waved Dean in and dumped her keys and the water bottles on the couch. “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be in class this morning?”
“Geez, Kate, relax. I’m eighteen now. I don’t need mothering and my scholarship isn’t in danger. My professor got sick at the last minute so class was canceled. Then Zach called and wanted me to check on you.”
“He did? You’re not just saying that for my sake?”
“He did, but I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“I can tell you’re all torn up over breaking your brother’s confidence,” she said with all the sarcasm Dean deserved. “How is he?”
“Zach? You want to know, call him. I hate being the go-between. I’m really here because I saw something I wanted to ask you about.” He held up a section of newspaper with a picture of her making her way though reporters. “What’s up with this?”
The headline read, “hawthorne surrogate upset after meet with family.” How misleading. She’d been upset because they were blocking the entrance to her half of the duplex. Kate snatched the paper from him. Good grief. Her stomach was huge.
“Is the family giving you a hard time? Is that guy out there to protect you or to keep tabs on you?”
“Oh, don’t you start believing the gossip, too. Rio sent him over to keep the press away.” That wasn’t entirely accurate, but her brother didn’t need to know that. He looked genuinely concerned for her. Maybe he was gaining some maturity after all.
“The baby’s uncle and guardian, now that … well, you know.”
“Yeah, it was on the news last night. Tough break. You okay?”
“I’m adjusting. The baby is fine. In a few weeks, Rio will take charge of his nephew and I’ll start classes as planned.”
“Good. Zach figured you’d be wigging out, afraid of getting stuck with the baby.”
No way she was admitting any such thing. Dean would tell Zach, feeding his belief that she was repeating history. Just because she’d played the role of mom to her brothers didn’t mean she was abandoning them by pulling back a little, regardless of what Zach thought. She smacked Dean lightly on the six-pack abs he was so proud of. “Betcha I can still graduate before you do.”
Dean frowned, his blue-gray eyes smoky with concern. “You sure you can do an accelerated program after popping out a baby? You don’t look so good, Kate.”
She supposed he meant well, but his lack of tact made her want to smack him harder. “Gee, thanks, Mr. Charming. Your foot-in-mouth disease must be real popular with the girls.”
“Whatever. I do okay.”
Kate had no illusions as to his meaning. “You’re using protection though, right? You can’t be too care—”
“I know. I know. You tattooed it on my brain. I’m careful, okay?”
“Okay.” She pulled him down for a quick hug but her belly got in the way.
Dean pulled back with an exaggerated shudder. “It’s so weird seeing you pregnant. I know you were doing a good thing for those people, but now … Isn’t it going to be hard giving him up to this guy?”
“This fetus was never mine, so no. I’m looking forward to the freedom. Don’t get me wrong. I love you and Zach and I don’t regret keeping us together, but I’ve had enough responsibility to last me for years to come. Now it’s time for what I want. I don’t know why Zach can’t understand that.”
“He’ll come around. I think he just feels guilty that you put your life on hold for us.”
“You understand though, right? I don’t have a scholarship like you guys. This delivery will give me my chance.”
“I heard that.” Dean nodded and ducked his head.
Kate recognized the move. “What’s bothering you?”
“Not just me. Zach had the same thought. This is blowing up. If Mom sees the papers and realizes you’re connected to money, she’ll be calling with another sob story.”
“I wouldn’t fall for it if she did, but it’s unlikely she’ll see anything. Last I heard, she was cruising the Mediterranean on some rich guy’s yacht.”
A sound of disgust puffed from Dean’s lips as he checked his cell. “Time’s up. I have to get back for my next class. I’ll tell Zach you’ve got the Hulk standing guard and relay Mom’s situation so he can chill.”
“The Hulk has a name. It’s Toby, and we were just about to enjoy a morning walk.” She reopened the door. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Dean skirted around her as if her belly had cooties. “Same. See ya.”
He ran past the reporters, giving them little chance to catch his likeness with their cameras. Kate sighed. A year ago, he would have hugged her goodbye. Even though they were siblings, she, Dean and Zach had faced a lot more than teen angst together. They’d all grown up too fast, but hadn’t gone wild with the unexpected freedom from parental direction after their mom had taken off. Instead, they’d developed a system to dodge the child welfare workers as much as possible and, in fighting to stay together, formed a stronger bond than most.
This new distance had been her doing, with her practiced speech about abdicating her mom responsibilities and needing to live her own life separate from them. She’d botched the delivery, making it sound like she couldn’t wait to be rid of them. Zach, always the more volatile of the brothers, hadn’t taken it well and had practically cut all ties with her.
That wasn’t what she’d wanted at all, but didn’t know how to make it right when Zach refused to take her calls or see her.
The need for a bathroom break roused her from her regrets. Once that was done, she scooped up her keys and water bottles again, then locked the door behind her. “Toby, I’m Kate, and you’re about to earn your paycheck.”
“I need some exercise.”
“Where to, ma’am?” He edged in front of her, partially blocking her way as the reporters scrambled around and cameras clicked from the edges of her lawn.
“I go for a three-mile walk every morning about this time. I’m not going to get fat and flabby because some reporter wants a story, so let’s go.”
Toby complied with her wishes, and Kate was grateful for his presence. Cameras continued clicking rapidly as they passed by. Others stuck microphones in her face and followed, asking questions, some of them so ridiculous her mouth fell open.
Was the baby okay? Was it really the Hawthorne heir?
Did she have an affair with James? Was this really their love child?
Was she going to fight the Hawthorne’s for the baby or give it up for adoption?
Did she have plans to marry the baby’s guardian so she could be its mother?
Through it all, Toby guided her forward, parting the crowd like a bulldozer. At one point, she could swear he growled. When the group closed in behind them, he rounded on them and issued orders to back off. Kate tensed, but after several frightening moments, the crowd left en masse with cell phones to their ears, running to their vehicles to report … what? She was afraid to guess.
When Toby took her elbow and they started her route, she was surprised to find her insides were shaky and her heart was thumping as if she’d already run the three miles at a fast clip. Now she needed the exercise to reduce stress levels before her doctor visit.
* * * * *
“Rio?” His mom’s voice carried up the stairs. “Rio! Pick up the extension. The doctor’s office is calling about Kate.”
Hearing the alarm in her voice, he snatched up the home office extension, sending his mouse and papers flying across the desk. “I’m here.”
“Mr. Hawthorne, this is Liz at Dr. Krieger’s office.” She went on to explain that Kate’s agreement included medical updates to the parents, but …
“I understand. I’m the baby’s guardian, so you can contact me from now on.” He winced, wondering how much detail Allie had required in the reports. “This is just routine stuff, right?”
“Yes, sir. Blood pressure, the baby’s growth progress, that sort of thing, and there’s usually nothing significant to report.”
Rio sat up straighter. “Usually. But this time is different?”
“Miss Morrisey’s blood pressure is somewhat elevated, and she’s showing signs of edema or swelling in her hands and feet.”
“Has she put the baby in danger?” Before, the idea of a baby had been nothing more than an annoyance, but James and Allie had entrusted the most precious thing in their lives to him. He couldn’t let anything or anyone — not even the woman carrying it — cause harm to their child.
“There’s no danger at this time, but Dr. Krieger feels Miss Morrisey should reduce her current levels of stress as soon as possible. We’ve seen the newspapers. Losing the baby’s parents suddenly was bad enough, but having the press hounding her is compounding the problem.”
Oh, hell, the press. Were they getting worse? He’d gone straight to his computer to take care of some business this morning, only stopping by the kitchen for a mug of coffee. “Tell Dr. Krieger I’ll make sure Miss Morrisey takes care of herself, even if I have to send her into seclusion.”
Liz thanked him and ended the call, leaving Rio sitting there wondering how difficult Kate was going to be about this. The woman was beyond stubborn. Getting her to cooperate could be like trying to herd feral cats.
He took the stairs at a fast clip and darted outside to retrieve the newspaper. Halfway down the driveway, he heard the buzz of people shouting. Rio stopped and stared, taken aback by two young guys draped over the iron gates, filming him. Others shouted questions so fast he couldn’t discern one from the other. Hyenas closing in for the kill.
All this over an orphaned baby. Granted, the circumstances weren’t ordinary, but this was nuts. No wonder his mother and Kate had thought him naïve. He’d been traveling the Serengeti too long, out of touch with the world.
It angered him to think of Kate having to endure this. Stubborn or not, she looked delicate, especially in her current condition.
Thank goodness for those locked gates and the two-way mail and paper slots in the stone wall that ran around the property. He grabbed the contents from both and returned to the house without acknowledging the pack outside the gates.
His mother hovered inside the front door. “Is Kate okay, and the baby?”
“For now, but the doctor is concerned about her stress levels. Those hyenas out there aren’t helping.”
“Hyenas?” Margaret glanced around his shoulder and frowned. “I see what you mean. Should we move Kate in here with us? I doubt her place has this kind of security.”
Have her live with them? That was something Rio hadn’t considered. “I doubt Kate would …” He broke off, whistling at the headline.
DOZENS OFFER TO ADOPT NOBODY’S BABY
“Oh, my lord,” his mother said. “Rio, you need to put these stories to rest.”
She looked at him as if he’d suddenly sprouted feathers and quacked. “Call a press conference. Tell them James and Allie’s child already has a home with you.”
“That matter hasn’t been settled. I thought we could talk about this again, work something out between us.”
Margaret stilled, reproach in her eyes. “No. We can’t. I don’t understand your reluctance to honor your brother’s wishes. James readily split the Hawthorne fortune with you because he loved you and considered you his brother. If not for him and Allie and what they meant to our lives, then do it because of what Bear brought to your life. Honor his memory by being the same kind of influence in this child’s life.”
“And if I can’t?”
“You can.” Her eyes softened. “Son, you’re a good man, much more like Bear than Hank. Believe that.”
Rio wanted to, but memories of Hank’s drunken rages rose every time he got angry, reminding him how much of his old man he’d inherited. Even Bear’s strong influence couldn’t cancel out genes.
Margaret patted his arm. “You’ll see. Now that that’s settled, what are you going to do about Kate?”
Right. Kate. He didn’t like the idea of bringing her here to stay in this house with her scary-round tummy but had to admit it made some sense. The baby’s safety was his responsibility now. “I’ll go get her this afternoon.”
* * * * *
After her doctor visit, Kate was exhausted and tried to nap, but her cargo decided it was time to play. She rubbed her swollen belly until he quieted, then dozed until intermittent thumping woke her, followed by the doorbell.
Swinging her legs around sent her head spinning. Sheesh. The Hawthorne heir was definitely having an impact on her equilibrium these days. Little brat. Kate patted her tummy in apology. Thank goodness all of this would soon be behind her.
Another muffled knock came from beyond her bedroom door.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming. Give a beached whale a break, okay?” she groused to the empty room without heat. She made it to the front door without further incident and opened it to find Rio standing there, his brows drawn together in a scowl. The fierce look didn’t go with his relaxed attire of jeans and a sweater. He absolutely had the body to carry off the thin mock-turtle look, damn him. She couldn’t wait to be svelte again.
“Why didn’t you answer the door?” he asked.
“I just did and might’ve sooner if I’d known you were coming.” She waved him in and shut the door, his neat appearance making her self-conscious. And because his presence shouldn’t affect her one way or the other, the feeling grated. “A phone call wouldn’t have killed you, although that would have woken me, too.”
“Since you showed up at my home unannounced, I figured you wouldn’t mind.” If anything, his scowl intensified. “Sorry if I woke you. It never occurred … well, it doesn’t matter now. How are you feeling?”
“Fat.” Kate plopped onto the couch and waved an ungracious hand toward the armchair. “If you’ve come to tell me you’ve changed your mind about taking responsibility for this baby, don’t.”
A vein in his neck pulsed. “That won’t happen, and if I’ve given you the impression it might, I apologize. I still think James was crazy for doing it, but he entrusted his son to my care. I’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
That? Good grief, with his eyes all steely like that, he was worse than she was when it came to personifying her cargo. But his attitude was none of her concern. Kate shook off the remaining cobwebs of sleep. “It won’t be so bad. Babies have a way of worming their way into your heart before you know it.”
“If you say so. The problem is, I have zero experience with infants and haven’t the foggiest notion how to care for one. Women seem to have a sixth sense about these things. Me? Not so much.”
Kate fought the same urge she’d had the first time she’d seen Rio, of wanting to offer comfort or worse, help. He seemed genuinely worried about caring for a baby. How ironic that the first man to pique her interest in ages was the last man she should be attracted to. “Take a parenting class or hire a nanny. Either one can teach you the basics of feeding, bathing and diapering. It’s not difficult to master.”
“You sound as if you know from experience.”
“Babysat two younger brothers. I could do all those things by the time I was ten.”
He lifted his chin in a slow nod, his gaze remaining on her long enough to make Kate wonder if she had sleep marks on her cheek or bed head. She fluffed her hair and smoothed her maternity tee, but only succeeded in drawing his gaze to her protruding stomach. When she pulled a throw pillow in front of her, his gaze shifted to take in his surroundings.
Kate didn’t quite hide her laugh. “You don’t have to be polite. It’s a furnished, mid-century rental that needs work.”
“Yeah, but it’s well-built and a sight better than a tent in the African bush.”
His comment took Kate by surprise. She remembered Squires mentioning Africa but had assumed Rio traveled a lot when he wasn’t living as James had, in wealth and privilege. It had never occurred to her that he might not live like a Hawthorne. “Is that where you’ll raise your nephew?”
“No. I’m finished with the photo safaris. I have business ventures that will keep me here in Colorado.” He leaned toward two framed photographs on an end table. “Are these your brothers?”
“Yes. Those are their high school senior pictures.” Kate shouldn’t feel anything one way or the other about his plans to stay in Colorado either, but couldn’t help being relieved that the child she carried wouldn’t be on another continent. She felt way too much in connection with this man and the situation they both found themselves in.
No matter how many times she reminded herself that she was carrying a fetus or called it cargo, she was aware that a tiny, living being grew inside her, totally dependent on her for its survival. It was a daily struggle to remain detached. Talking with Allie and James about their son had helped her remain objective. Seeing their eager anticipation had helped. But Rio wasn’t thrilled with his new role. His emotional distance from the baby worried her and brought out her protective instincts.
While he studied the photographs, she took advantage of the moment to observe him. His lips were fuller than a man’s had any right to be and were impossibly kissable, especially with that little dip in his chin. The combination softened the hard planes of his face, a face that would be right at home on a wild animal safari.
How could she be attracted to such a man? That he was ruggedly appealing and looked like a safe port in a storm shouldn’t matter. His duty-bound attitude worried her. Experience had taught her some people never found their nurturing side. What if Rio never found his?
– – – – –
Review snips for Nobody’s Baby:
“Oh em geee!! Carol Burnside has done it again… it is definitely a favourite.” — Boots, 5 stars, Goodreads
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“I’m not done yet but I am really enjoying this book! I hope all ends well. I am already recommending this book to people” — Andrea, 4-star Amazon review
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“The love scenes were steamy and tastefully done. The story line was wonderful and well thought out. I felt like I was there experiencing their troubles and joys right along with them.”
“It plucked at your heartstrings that this little one would never meet his parents that wanted him so much. I thoroughly enjoyed Nobody’s Baby and will look for more from Carol Burnside.”–Beverly Ovalle, 5-star review