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Authors: Donna Clayton

Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction

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BOOK: Bound by Honor
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Shock made her jaw go slack for an instant. "I never asked that of you."

"Good. Because it isn't going to happen."

Feeling strangely rejected and not understanding why, Jenna just sat there. Finally, she calmly said, "Gage, I don't know what your problem is, but I'm not going to allow you to treat Lily badly."

"Then the thing you need to do —" he snatched up the sandwich she'd made him and stalked to the back door "— is keep her away from me." The door slammed in his wake.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

Lily slapped her hand on the surface of the water, the resulting splash eliciting bubbly laughter from her. The baby enjoyed her bath time, no doubt about it. She could be completely out of sorts, but the moment Jenna turned on the faucet and began undressing her, Lily would grin and coo and kick her legs excitedly.

The past four days had been a crash course in parenting for Jenna. She'd thought that her thorough Internet research prior to gaining custody of Lily had prepared for the task of raising her sister's baby. But what she'd learned was that nothing could prepare one for the frequently satisfying, occasionally frightening, oftentimes frustrating and chronically exhausting job called motherhood.

Bedtime was the worst. In fact, Jenna had come to dread it. Lily seemed to struggle against her body's need for sleep. She was sure the baby wanted her mother, and she did all she could to soothe and comfort Lily. But her niece seemed inconsolable. After what seemed like hours, Lily would finally drop off into a deep slumber
only
t
o jerk
awake after ninety minutes or so, and the whole jarring routine would begin again. Jenna had gotten to the point that she was a nervous wreck, lying awake in the dark just waiting for the baby to start crying.

She'd tried every suggestion she could find on the Internet baby sites, and she'd called Arlene for advice, too. She rocked, she sang, she walked the floors. Most nights, she ended up moving to the other side of the house, pacing through the kitchen and dining rooms with Lily so as not to disturb Gage. Nothing seemed to help. And after four nights with little sleep, Jenna was truly suffering. The dull ache at the base of her skull refused to go away. Her eyes were bleary, and her temper was short.

Jenna let Lily play in the tub until the tiny pads of her fingers were wrinkled and the water turned tepid.

"Okay, sweet stuff." Her words came out on a weary sigh as she lifted Lily from the water. "Time for nighty-night."

The large terry towel made short work of drying the baby
after which Jenna put a di
aper on Lily, followed by a pair of pajamas made of whisper-soft jersey. She crossed the hall to their bedroom and sat in the chair, cuddling Lily in her lap, then opened a pi
cture
book just as she had every night since
moving into Gage's home. Every article she'd read recommended a strict nighttime routine. Even Arlene had said that following a schedule was important. Hopefully, Lily would soon get used to falling asleep in her new surroundings.

However, just as Jenna had feared, it didn't take long before Lily was rubbing her eyes, squirming and whimpering. And thirty minutes later, Jenna felt like crying herself.

"Okay, okay," she whispered in a soothing voice. "Let's take a walk." Jenna stood, turned Lily so the baby's head rested on her shoulder, and picked up a light receiving blanket on the way out of the bedroom.

Jenna hummed as she made her way down the hall and into the living room, smoothing her flattened palm against the baby's back. Fatigue had her feeling impatient and she hoped Lily didn't sense that.

The sound of the back door opening and closing told her that Gage had come in from the stable. After he'd so bluntly told her that he wasn't interested in dealing with Lily, Jenna had decided it would be best to avoid him as much as possible. As it turned out, doing so hadn't been a problem. He rose early and stayed out with the horses most of
the day, returning to the house only to grab a quick meal or make a phone call or two. Jenna had no idea what he did out there in the stable and other outbuildings. She'd been too busy with Lily, trying to unpack and get settled to give it much thought.

She'd borrowed a high chair from Arlene, but realized that the other big-ticket items she needed required a trip into Forsyth. However, transporting a stroller and a crib and mattress would require the use of Gage's pickup. And since they weren't exactly speaking, she hadn't made it to town.

Gage hadn't even approached her to complain that Lily was disturbing his sleep, and Jenna couldn't imagine that the baby's crying
hadn't
been keeping him awake. The first couple of days, she'd worried about it. But as the seemingly endless days and sleepless nights wore on, she just didn't have the energy to feel too concerned about Gage.

Jenna looked at the whimpering baby and regretted her silent complaints. The good far outweighed the bad. Lily filled her days with many moments of sheer delight, but a body simply couldn't go for days without rest.

Gage nodded at her in greeting when he entered the living room, his mouth a firm, straight line.

"I made dinner," she told him over Lily's cries. "It's not much. I opened a tin of soup and made sandwiches. The soup just needs reheating, and your sandwich is in the fridge. I'd offer to —"

"Don't give it another thought," he said.

He'd told her early on she didn't have to cook for him, but it was just as easy to prepare a meal for two as it was for one.

"I'm going to get a quick shower," he told her.

As Jenna paced back toward the bedroom with the baby, she heard the water running in Gage's master bath. She sat down in the chair and rocked Lily, hoping she could get the baby to sleep before he finished.

Although he wasn't outright hostile, he was quite cool. Her time in his home — in their short-lived marriage — didn't have to be like this. His unwillingness to make the best of the few months she'd asked for had proved without too much doubt that he had a wintry personality.

Maybe he had perfectly good reasons for his behavior, but right now Jenna was simply too drained to ponder them.

Nearly twenty minutes later, the baby's sobs persisted in tearing at her heart and jarring her nerves. The dull ache in her head had transformed into a pounding pain.

She'd gone back to pacing and returned to the living room.

"Lily," she murmured as calmly as she could, "please stop crying. Relax.
Please,
sweet stuff."

"Jenna."

She whirled at the sound of Gage's voice, unaware that he'd come into the living room.

His long hair was damp. He sometimes secured it with an elastic band at the back of his neck, but now it hung loose about his shoulders. The fabric of the fresh gray cotton T-shirt he wore pulled taut across his broad chest, and a pair of black jeans hugged his thighs. His feet were bare and nicely shaped. She realized her gaze had lingered on them several seconds too long.

She dragged her gaze back to his face. And although she was tired to the marrow of her bones, she couldn't stop the wayward thought running through her mind . . . the man's physique was impressive.

Blinking several times, she inhaled deeply.

"I'm sorry if she's disturbing you," she said. "I'm sure she'll be asleep soon. She
s
imply can't hold out much longer."

She fully expected him to march off to the kitchen, hut he took her completely by surprise when he came closer. The heated soapy scent of him swirled around her. "May I?"

Jenna wasn't sure what he was asking, but then he reached out his hands. Stunned, she searched his gaze.

"Let me have a go at this," he said softly.

Jenna handed over the baby to Gage. It was amazing that someone so big and formidable could be so gentle.

"Hey, Lily," he greeted. He didn't smile, but his tone was affable.

Jenna couldn't say the exact moment the baby stopped crying. She didn't know if it had been upon Gage's approach, or at the sound of his voice, or when he'd actually scooped her in his arms. Jenna had been too focused on Gage to be conscious of it. All she did know was that the silence was truly blissful.

Lily stared into Gage's face as if she were entranced.

"Can I have that?" he asked, pointing to the receiving blanket that was draped over her shoulder.

"Sure."

Their fingers brushed when she handed it over, his work-roughened skin warm against her own. He moved to the couch, spread the blanket on the cushion as best he could with
one hand and then placed Lily on it.

"Little ones like to be bundled up," he said. He wrapped the baby in a neat little package, tucking the blanket around her. "It reminds them of the security they felt in their mother's womb."

Jenna hadn't read that tidbit of advice on any of the Web sites she'd visited. All she could do was gawk as he picked up the now quiet baby and cradled her in the crook of his right arm.

"Come," he said to Jenna. "Sit down. You look like . . . well, like you could use a break."

Jenna was too darned tired to even smile at his remark. "You're being kind, I'm sure. I look like a bad train wreck."

"I wouldn't say that."

She paused before sitting down, some unexpected tone in his voice impelling her to take a moment to study his handsome face. Hut she wasn't able to discern if some hidden meaning lurked behind what he'd said, or if he was merely being polite.

Sighing, Jenna took a seat and reclined against the couch back. "I feel as if I've been rocking her for hours. It hasn't been that long, I know, but ..."

Lily let out the cutest coo Jenna had ever heard, and Gage chuckled. Although an unmistakable nervousness edged the sound, his deep, soft laughter resonated through her being.

"I understand what you're saying," he said, his eyes never leaving Lily. "There's something about that cry that breaks your heart. And you have no idea if you're meeting their needs. The fact that they can't clearly communicate what they want with words makes it all the more frustrating."

Ah, Jenna thought, so Lily's crying
had
disturbed his sleep.

Amazed at the baby's reaction to Gage, Jenna said, "Look at how she's staring. It's almost as if you've hypnotized her or something."

He smiled down at the baby and, again, chuckled. And for the second time, Jenna felt the vibration hum through her. She liked the sound. More than she probably should.

"It could be that I've triggered a memory of her father."

"Could be," Jenna agreed. "David had dark eyes, too. And he kept his hair long, like yours."

But her brother-in-law hadn't been nearly as handsome as Gage.

The thought made Jenna's breath catch
in her throat. Exhaustion was really taking its toll on her.

"She's so quiet," Jenna said, sliding a few inches closer to him. "Maybe I should go lay her down on the bed. Maybe she'll go to sleep."

"And maybe she'll start crying all over again," he said. "She seems content enough right where she is. Why don't you take the opportunity to lay back and rest your eyes?"

"Oh, no." She shook her head hard enough that a lock of her hair fell over her shoulder. "I couldn't do that."

"Of course you can." Gage gathered the baby in his arm, bent over and curled the fingers of his free hand around her ankle. In one fluid motion, he scooted himself off the cushion and lifted her feet onto it.

Jenna was very aware of the heat of his touch on her leg. Before she even realized what was happening, she was lying prone, her head resting against a throw pillow.

"I really shouldn't, Gage," she murmured. "What if Lily starts crying? She fights sleep as if she were a boxer competing for the world title."

"Tell me about it. She's a champ."

She felt guilty again that her niece had been keepin
g him up during the night, but t
he humor in his lone helped her to relax.

She stifled a yawn.

"Like I said,”
he continued, easing himself down onto an adjacent chair, "she seems happy at the moment. Close your eyes and enjoy the peace." He smiled. "However fleeting it turns out to be."

She didn't understand why he was being so nice. The drowsiness closing in on her didn't let her think on it too hard.

He had a nice smile, she thought as her eyes fluttered closed. Smiling was something he should do more often.

"I'll work on that."

The rich timbre of his voice sounded soft and fuzzy, as though he'd whispered the response into a long tunnel. Jenna was sure she must have dreamed it. She didn't think she'd voiced her observation aloud. And then she thought no more as she faded into exhausted oblivion.

 

Jenna stirred and stretched, then opened her eyes with a soporific sigh. The sound of birdsong was so pleasant to her ears that the corners of her mouth curled. The delicious scent of smoky bacon and coffee wafted in the air, and her stomach grumbled.

It was daylight. The realization made her sit up with a jerk, the thin cotton blanket covering her pooling in
her
lap. The living
room was empty, but she heard activity in the kitchen.

She'd slept through the night. Her mind raced back to the evening before. Gage had come to the rescue. Lily had seemed utterly captivated by him. And then he had suggested she rest her eyes.

Could she have slept through Lily's cries? She had been tired, but could she have zonked out to the point that she hadn't heard her niece during the night?

BOOK: Bound by Honor
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