Page 11

Through the glass front door of the law firm, Grant watched Ellie walk away. Why had he asked to see her again? Was it just to talk about the firm and his brother? Or was this a desire of a more personal nature? If it was, he’d have to cool his libido. He didn’t have the time or energy for unwanted desires, personal or otherwise.

What was wrong with him? He was thinking about a pretty woman while carrying his brother’s effects? But he couldn’t seem to help himself. When was the last time he’d had a date? In the army, fraternization was limited to other officers, and the number of female officers was limited on the remote base, unlike if he’d been stationed in Kabul or even Kandahar, where US military facilities were larger. At the moment, his career was a lonely one, but it wouldn’t always be this way. He’d date again when he was transferred back to Texas.

As he drove out of town, he occupied his rambling mind with Roger’s request. The law partner was understandably concerned about confidential client information going missing, but Grant’s instincts told him Roger was hiding something. Of course, Grant would much rather dive into a mystery than simply accept that Lee and Kate were dead.

He drove back to the house with sorrow clamping around his chest. AnnaBelle greeted him in the foyer, pressing her head against his legs. Grant knelt down and rubbed her neck. No doubt the dog was missing her family, too. “The kids’ll be here soon.”

He’d barely hung up his jacket before a bark from the dog alerted him to an approaching car. Grant let the locksmith in, and while the man rekeyed tumblers, Grant went into Lee’s office and boxed up all the case files he could find. He had enough on his plate. He didn’t need an imaginary conspiracy.

He’d just seen the locksmith drive off when tires grated on gravel outside. The dog leaped from her bed and bolted into the hall. Nerves humming, Grant went out onto the front porch. He pushed the whining dog back in the house with his knee and closed the screen door. A middle-aged woman in slacks and a coat exited a tan sedan. She opened the rear door. Carson slipped out, his skinny body dwarfed by a thick ski jacket. He didn’t look much bigger than he had been last spring.

Grant approached the car. “Hey, Carson. Do you remember me?”

Crack! Slam.

On instinct, Grant nearly dove on top of his nephew. He stopped his forward motion just in time as the dog bolted past, reminding him he was in Scarlet Falls, not Afghanistan. The social worker’s eyes bugged. Grant’s pulse hammered.

“It’s OK,” Grant said, not sure who he was trying to reassure, the social worker, Carson, or himself.

The boy dropped to both knees and flung his arms around AnnaBelle’s neck. Grant glanced back at the house. The screen door flapped against the house on one hinge. Note to self: the screen door will not hold the dog.

Carson loosened his grip on the retriever’s neck. The dog whined, and the boy returned to the car for a red backpack. AnnaBelle took the strap, turned, and raced for the front door, backpack dangling from her mouth.

“I’ll be damned,” Grant muttered. He turned back to his nephew and went down on one knee. “Do you remember me, Carson? I’m Uncle—”

The boy launched himself at Grant. He caught the tiny body. Carson’s arms wrapped around his shoulders with more strength than Grant expected. The boy’s entire frame shook. He buried his face in Grant’s sweatshirt and held on, as if he could lose Grant at any second. Overwhelmed by the boy’s desperate embrace, Grant wrapped his arms around the slight frame. His eyes burned, and he blinked back unshed tears. Anger rushed through him. This should not have happened. Carson shouldn’t have lost his parents.

“I’m glad to see he remembers you, Major.” The woman offered a hand. In her other, she held an infant car seat with a baby strapped inside. A tiny face peered out from under a thick pink blanket. “I’m Dee Willis from child services.”

Balancing Carson in one arm, Grant shook her hand. Carson was clinging so tightly, Grant could have let go and the boy wouldn’t have fallen. But he would never do that.

He took the car seat, the responsibility of two children loading him down far more than their combined weight.

“Let me get the rest of their things.” The social worker returned to her car.

Grant led the way inside, Carson still wrapped tightly around him. AnnaBelle spit out the backpack, then pranced and whined around Grant’s legs as he led the way back to the kitchen. He set the baby seat on the floor next to the kitchen table. AnnaBelle gave her a happy sniff and rose on her hind legs to paw at Carson. Crouching down, Grant let the dog give the kid a solid slurp. The boy’s grip loosened, and he reached out one hand to stroke the golden head.

Mrs. Willis set a small suitcase on the floor and a tote bag on the kitchen table. She was frowning at the dog. “There’s enough formula and diapers in the bag for a few days, but she’s a bit colicky.”

“Colicky?”

“She cries at night.”

“Oh.” Grant wrote all of the baby feeding information down on a notepad by the phone.

She fixed Grant with a doubtful look. “I wouldn’t let the dog get too close to the baby. Have you ever cared for an infant, Major? Because the foster family informed me that this baby is a challenge, even for an experienced caregiver.”

“Yes.” Technically, he’d only babysat Carson a few times each year during his annual visit, but she didn’t need to know that. He gave her a level stare.

“Can you change a diaper?”

“Yes.”

Her brow wrinkled as if she didn’t share his confidence.

“If it’s too much for you, the children can always go back into foster care,” she said, and he decided he didn’t like her very much.

Carson’s grip tensed, the bony arm around Grant’s throat pressing against his windpipe and threatening to strangle him. This was not the time to have this discussion, not with a terrified kid within earshot. Carson needed the same confidence in Grant’s abilities as the troops he’d led into enemy territory.

“Ma’am, I’ve cleared buildings in a-hundred-and-thirty-degree heat wearing seventy pounds of body armor. Faith is a baby, not an IED. I assure you. We will be fine.” He wasn’t worried about feeding the kids or changing diapers. Those were tasks. Tasks were learned, but the emotional and psychological aspects of caring for two orphans terrified him. How did he talk to Carson about his parents’ deaths? “My sister will be here tomorrow, and I’m expecting to hear from my brother any time.”

“All right, then.” She placed a business card on the table. “Call me if you need anything. We’ll need to have a discussion about permanent arrangements for the children.”

“Thank you.” He showed the insensitive bitch out, with Carson clinging to him as if they were neck-deep in floodwaters.

Returning to the kitchen, he sat down. Carson’s legs were wrapped around his waist. They sat in the quiet kitchen for a few minutes. What should he say to the kid? Faith made a fussy sound, breaking the silence.

“You hungry?” Grant asked Carson. “Sounds like Faith might be.”

Carson shook his head.

“I guess it’s time I figured out how to feed your sister.”

Carson gave him a squeeze, then climbed off his lap. God, he was small, all bony arms and legs. His sad blue eyes peered out from under a shock of straight blond hair and freckles.

“Can you feed her?” Carson’s look was more hopeful than doubtful.

“I’ll get the hang of it,” Grant bluffed. How hard could it be?

With a serious nod, the boy went to the tote bag and pulled out a bottle. “You put the powder in here. Then you add water and shake it up.”

“Good to know. I’m probably going to need your advice from time to time.” Grant rooted through the bag and came up with a can of formula. “Is this it?”

Carson nodded. Grant read the back of the can and mixed up the formula. The baby’s fussy sounds escalated into crying. A high-pitched shriek pierced the kitchen. Grant jumped and fumbled the bottle, catching it just before it hit the floor. Faith launched into a scream that sent a flood of apprehension through Grant. Holy . . .

“Hurry up!” Carson covered his ears with his hands.

“Hello, Faith.” Grant crouched in front of the wailing baby and unsnapped the car seat’s harness. He picked her up, his efforts to be gentle hampered by her stiff body and kicking legs. He hadn’t held a baby since Carson was born. He’d forgotten how fragile they seemed. He settled in a kitchen chair and tucked her in the crook of one arm. She took the bottle with a greedy mouth, her big eyes staring up at him with rapt attention while she sucked away between hiccups. He snatched a tissue from the box on the table and wiped the tears from her face. A small current of relief eased though him as she calmed and drained the bottle.

“Now what about us, Carson?” he asked.

“I’m not hungry.” Carson sat next to him, resting his head on a bent arm, watching. At least while he’d been helping, he’d been reactive. Purple smudges underscored his eyes. Freckles popped on fair skin. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

“I am. Any suggestions for lunch?”

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