Authors: Suzie O'Connell
Hammond Brothers, Book Three
(Northstar Romances #5)
Copyright © 2015 Suzie O’Connell.
All Rights Reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Books by Suzie O’Connell
Mistletoe Kisses – Coming November 2015
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HENRY STARED AT THE PLAIN white envelope and tried to ignore how his hand trembled. In just a few minutes, he’d know for sure. He raised his gaze to study the pudgy, silky-soft face of the one-year-old boy with those wide, innocent brown eyes and crown of downy brown hair. Brown hair and brown eyes, so different from his own blond and blue. When Dylan noticed him watching, he squealed in delight and walked with wobbly but determined steps to him. Henry indulged the little boy for a few minutes, then distracted Dylan with a favorite puzzle ball and returned his attention to the letter.
He hesitated again before sliding the blade of his Leatherman under the flap of the envelope. Almost reverently, he slipped the letter out and carefully unfolded it, scanning the columns of numbers that meant nothing to him. Finally, his eyes reached his answer.
Based on the DNA analysis, the alleged father Henry Hammond is excluded as the biological father of the child Dylan LaBrie-Hammond because they do not share sufficient genetic markers
“Well? What does it say?” Melanie asked. Her voice trembled.
It took Henry a moment to form a coherent answer. He didn’t want to say it because he didn’t want it to be true, but at last, he murmured, “He’s not mine.”
“He’s not mine,” Henry repeated more loudly. His chest tightened as his heart raced erratically, and he suddenly couldn’t breathe around the lump lodged in his throat. Despite his preparation for this result, he was devastated.
I have to get out of here.
Abruptly, he stood and walked out of the room, ignoring Dylan’s pleading “Dada” even though it broke his heart a little more to keep going when everything in him begged him to turn around and scoop the little boy up in his arms. But Dylan wasn’t his son, and if he gave in now, he didn’t know if he’d ever again be able to summon the courage to leave. He strode into the bedroom he had shared with Melanie for a year and a half—the longest they had managed to stay together—and grabbed his duffle bag. The sight of his college mascot, a snarling red bulldog, helped solidify his resolve. He was heading home to Northstar in three weeks for a wedding, anyhow, so maybe he should just stay there for a while. He had enough money saved to cover his living expenses for a year at least, longer if he was back home in his rent-free house on his family’s ranch.
The floorboard in the hallway creaked, and he didn’t have to turn around to know Melanie now stood in the doorway; he felt her eyes on his back. He opened his mouth to say something but didn’t know what else there was to say. At any rate, the nauseating mixture of pain and hatred would probably send accusations flying out of his mouth, and he didn’t want to fight with her. He just wanted to leave.
“I’ll be back for the rest of my stuff tomorrow or the next day,” he managed to say.
“Please, Henry. Please stay. I love you.”
No, you don’t. You love my wallet.
He barely refrained from saying it as he whirled on her. “Why should I stay, Melanie? Dylan is—
—the only reason I’m still with you.” He stuffed enough clothes in the duffle bag to last him a week without doing laundry, then brushed past her and returned to the living room to pick up the paternity test results. He wanted to keep that heartbreaking piece of paper just in case he got to thinking he should come back. Dylan wasn’t his son, so there was no longer any reason to chain himself to a woman he didn’t love. Thank God he hadn’t foolishly decided to marry her.
“Please, Henry. You’re the only father Dylan knows.”
He glared at her and held the paternity test inches from her face. “I am
his father, and as much as I love him, I cannot—
not—be your meal ticket. I suggest you get in touch with his real father, if you can even remember who he is.”
Tears glittered in her eyes, and he nearly retracted his harsh words because Melanie LaBrie wasn’t one to use crying as a weapon. Instead, he only shook his head.
“No, Mel. We were done a long time ago. I tried to make it work for Dylan, but I can’t do it anymore.”
You broke my heart—and thoroughly—this time.
Henry scooted out the door without another word and refused to give in to the temptation to hold and hug Dylan one last time to apologize for leaving.
Dylan is too young to remember any of this
, he told himself again and again as he strode out to his truck. It did nothing to stop the guilt from pounding through him. He chucked his duffel bag into the passenger seat, jumped in behind the wheel, and slammed his door. Hazarding a glance at the front door of the two-bedroom cottage, he immediately wished he hadn’t. Melanie stood on the quaint, white-trimmed porch with a screaming Dylan in her arms. The little boy reached toward Henry, and it took every drop of willpower he had to put his truck in gear and drive away.
He drove aimlessly for almost an hour before he decided to check into a hotel. When the clerk at the front desk asked him how long he would be staying, he inquired about weekly rates. The price she quoted was high enough that he hesitated a moment—he didn’t want to blow that much money for three weeks’ lodging—but he really didn’t have a choice. He had no family here and only one friend he would consider calling about crashing on his couch for a few weeks, but Doug had dated Melanie before Henry had dated her, and he couldn’t handle that kind of reminder of Mel and Dylan right now. So, he paid for the hotel room and hauled his duffel bag upstairs, then dropped it and his keys and cell phone on the desk in the far corner of his temporary living quarters and sprawled on the bed.
What the hell am I going to do now?
The sounds of the city, barely muffled by the walls of the hotel, grated on his frayed nerves, and right at this moment, it was difficult to remember the reason why he’d come to Denver. He’d wanted adventure and to figure out what he wanted from life, and while he’d certainly found both, what little sense of purpose and direction he’d gained in the last eight years had vanished the moment he’d read the words confirming that Dylan was not his son. He hadn’t comprehended just how totally that adorable little boy had become the focus of his life and his expectations for the future, and he had no idea what would fill that gap.
Throwing himself into his job wouldn’t replace what he’d lost. Of that he was certain. He was a good enough welder and machinist that he could probably find a new job just about anywhere, and while he loved his job and the pay that came with it, the lure of home was far stronger than his desire to return to his company. In fact, he felt no desire to return to work at all.
Of course, going home meant he’d have to tell his family why he’d quit his job, and he hadn’t even told them he had doubted Dylan’s paternity let alone doubted it enough to request the paternity test because he hadn’t wanted to upset them in case his paranoia was wrong. The thought of telling his parents was especially troubling, and a new wave of despair pulsed through him.
“Mom and Dad are going to be heartbroken,” he murmured. Glancing at his cell phone on the desk, he winced at the jolt of anxiety and immediately decided against calling them. This was the kind of news he needed to deliver in person.
“What am I gonna do?” he asked himself again.
There was no answer in the empty hotel room.
* * *
“Wake up, Linds. We’re home.”
Lindsay opened her eyes briefly, then tried to rub the bleariness from them before glancing out the window of Evie Gunderson’s SUV. All she saw was a wall of pines, so she leaned a little closer to the window and looked up. A heavily forested ridge rose above the vehicle, a picturesque backdrop to the log cabin at its base. The pictures she’d seen of Vince and Evie’s new home did
do either the cabin or the ridge behind it justice.
“Wow, Evie,” Lindsay murmured. “This is absolutely gorgeous! You’re a lucky woman.”
“Yes, I am. But just wait until you’re out of the car and you get a
taste of your surroundings. Then you’ll see just how lucky I am.”
Lindsay pushed her door open, peeled herself out of the car, and groaned as she stretched. She’d been cooped up in various vehicles—a transit bus, a plane, and most recently Evie’s SUV—for almost eight hours. As she reached skyward and turned around, she inhaled sharply, too awed to drop her arms again. Before her, a wall of mountains stood tall against a cobalt sky littered with fluffy white clouds, and below them, thick pine forests blanketed rugged foothills that grudgingly gave way to lush hayfields and pastures, rolling sagebrush hills, and willow-lined streams.
At last, her arms fell to her side as her gaze swept from north to south and back again. Unwillingly, she pulled her eyes from the stunning view that surrounded her to her two best friends. “Am I turning green yet? Because I am jealous as hell. Skye, I bet your camera hasn’t been out of your hand for more than a few minutes since you got here.”
“I haven’t been
that bad, but yeah, I’ve taken a lot of pictures,” the taller woman replied, beaming.
“This is so not fair. I only get nine days while you get a month and a half.”
She glanced between her friends. Evie had a cherubic beauty and was sociable and bubbly. In contrast, Skye was tall and slender with rich, dark hair and amber-colored eyes and as reserved as Evie was outgoing. Lindsay herself fell somewhere between in both physical appearance and disposition, though she leaned with Skye on the extroversion-introversion scale, so it amused her that it was Evie who would be setting in this sparsely populated ranching community.
“Speaking of my camera,” Skye remarked. “I need to run down to my cabin to get it. See you both back here in fifteen?”
“Sure, but when do I get to see this cabin you rented for the next six weeks?” Lindsay growled playfully. “I could really use six weeks here, but I know you need it even more than I do, so I won’t begrudge you.”
“It’s a pity Noah didn’t want to come,” Skye replied. “Something tells me he would have loved it out here.”
“Yeah, I know he would have.” Lindsay shrugged. “Why don’t I call my son and my parents while you go get your camera so we can get this rehearsal under way?”
“I’ll be back in a few.”
Without giving Evie the chance to remark on the turn of the conversation, Lindsay promptly asked, “How about you show me your beautiful wedding gown and my bridesmaid dress after I call my folks?”
Evie eyed her briefly, but her excitement took over, and she was soon babbling about her gown. Within moments, Lindsay’s momentary irritation was forgotten, eradicated by her friend’s vibrant joy. As they walked up the flagstone path, Lindsay listened to Evie’s descriptions of the wedding planning and wished she could have helped more in the process. However, the way Evie told it, there probably wouldn’t have been much for Lindsay to do; the groom’s family had done much of the heavy lifting with the matriarch of the Carlyle clan—Vince’s grandmother, Livia—marshaling everyone like a drill sergeant.
“It sounds wonderful, Evie,” Lindsay remarked. “But did you
have to pick red?”
Evie rolled her eyes. “You’ll look absolutely gorgeous, Linds. I promise. I picked a red that won’t clash with your red hair.”
“I’ll withhold judgment until I see it, but I doubt such a shade exists.”
With a laugh and a comment about Lindsay’s lack of faith, Evie opened the front door of her home. Lindsay had thought that it was all one story with a vaulted ceiling over the middle section. For the most part, she was right, but there was a loft over the back half of the spacious great room. Below the loft and directly back from the massive front windows were the kitchen and dining room. Down the short hallway to the right were two bedrooms and a bathroom, Evie informed her, and to the left through a door beneath the stairs up to the loft was the master suite. A beautiful stone fireplace commanded attention from the corner between the angled walls at the front of the great room, though even its grandeur could not compete with the view of the Northstar Mountains the big windows provided.
“It isn’t huge,” Lindsay remarked, “but it
huge. Is it really yours and Vince’s now?”
“Not officially until the wedding, but yes, his grandparents really are giving it to us as a wedding gift.”
Must be nice to have a family that can just
you a house,
Lindsay thought. As soon as the sentiment wormed its way into her mind, she buried it. Evie deserved every bit of happiness she’d found here, and though Lindsay was more than a little envious, she
begrudge her friend any of this. Besides, even if her wants frequently went unmet, her needs didn’t, so she had no room to complain.
“I know I said we were putting you in one of the guest bedrooms, but we’ve had a last minute change of plans. My grandmother decided to get over being mad at me for moving to Montana, and she came out with Mom and Dad. Since she just had knee surgery last week, she can’t make it up these stairs. And you know my dad’s irrational fear of heights….”
“The loft is just fine by me, Evie. I rather like it, actually.”
“There’s not much privacy. Just those screens.”
“Why would I need more privacy than that?”
“Well, you never know. There are some very attractive men in these parts.”
“Are you suggesting I should find one to hook up with while I’m here?” Lindsay inquired flatly, more intrigued by the idea than she was willing to admit. A fling to satisfy her long-ignored carnal needs with a man she’d never have to see again had a certain no-complications appeal.
“Your words, not mine,” Evie remarked. With more seriousness, she said, “You’re a great mom, Linds, and I know you work your ass off to make sure Noah has everything he needs, but you’re only twenty-six and single, and you need to think of yourself sometimes, too.” She nudged Lindsay with her elbow. “Besides, with that perfect body of yours, I imagine you’ll have just about every single man in Northstar dying to take you out.”