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Nearly seven weeks ago…
Baby giggles were the best. Shannon blew another raspberry on her niece’s tummy just to hear the sound again. The high-pitched squeal wrapped around her heart like a long hug and, for a moment, everything was right. Everything was perfect. Shannon lifted her head. An angelic, round face with a toothless smile grinned up at her. Love the likes of which she’d never felt until she’d held Jenna for the first time spread from her toes upward. Grabbing her niece’s legs, Shannon bent down and kissed the little toes. There was just something about baby feet she loved, and no diaper change, bath, or playtime was complete until she’d kissed them.
Shannon finished redressing the baby. Since the tiny apartment didn’t have room for a changing table, Shannon simply left her niece on the floor of the living room while she went to dispose of the dirty diaper and wash her hands. As she dried them, she caught a glimpse of the clock. Nap time. Shannon opened the fridge and pulled out the bottle her sister had prepared. She warmed it in the warmer just long enough to take the chill off.
At nine months old her niece could belly crawl across the carpet and sit up on her own. But, luckily for her aunt, she still liked to be cuddled as she took her bottle. Shannon swept her up and settled into the corner of the couch with Jenna cradled in her arms.
The baby no sooner had the bottle in her mouth than she rubbed at her eye with a plump little fist. Shannon trailed her fingers over Jenna’s feather light blond hair, down a chubby cheek. Her niece’s eyes closed, the picture of innocence and sweetness.
How could anyone not love her? How could anyone not want to know such an angel? Yet that was what her paternal grandfather was doing. Worse, not only did he refuse to meet her, he’d paid her sister, Avery, a hefty sum to ensure she never told his son, Jenna’s father, that he even had a daughter.
Rage burned in Shannon’s gut on Jenna’s behalf. The little girl was innocent. Just because her parents had agreed their few days together were just that, the fact still remained that Hudson Granger had a daughter and he deserved to know about her.
Joe Granger disagreed. Passionately. Unfortunately, so did her sister. Shannon frowned as she watched Jenna suckle. Avery was too independent. Too stubborn. She resolutely stayed behind the agreement she’d made with Hudson that week eighteen months ago on South Padre Island. They’d agreed their tryst was just that. No strings. Even after she’d discovered she was pregnant, she’d refused to seek him out. She was adamant she could raise her daughter on her own and no amount of nagging or cajoling on Shannon’s part ever made a dent in Avery’s resolve.
Not until a few months ago when the child had needed surgery to get rid of a defunct kidney and the infections that kept coming with it. Only then, and only because her medical insurance wasn’t enough to pay for the expensive surgery, had Avery finally agreed to go to Hudson for help. Despite no contact information having been shared, it hadn’t been difficult to find the Granger family in Last Stand. Thank God Hudson had at least told Avery his last name and where he was from.
His father had answered the phone and he’d listened to Avery’s tale and agreed to tell Hudson. Shannon had been thrilled. Not only because Jenna would get the surgery she’d need, but finally Hudson would learn he was a dad. Once he did, Shannon had every faith he’d at least want to see her. And Jenna would have a daddy to take her camping, teach her to fish. Who’d give her rides upon his shoulders. A daddy who’d go to her dance recitals when she was older.
Only it hadn’t gone that way at all. It hadn’t been Hudson who’d been there to meet Avery. It was his father, Joe. And he’d come armed with bribe money. Money he’d only give if Avery agreed to stay out of their lives. With Hudson serving overseas, his son didn’t need the distraction. And her sister, who’d only gone for money for the surgery in the first place, had eagerly agreed.
Oh, Shannon had been livid. Not only with Joe but with Avery. She’d had the chance! Had the chance to fight for what her daughter deserved. Shannon understood accepting the deal, because it was necessary to Jenna’s health, and Avery needed the money. But Shannon had never understood standing behind it. Joe had no business paying her off, using her daughter’s health as leverage, and it still didn’t change the fact Hudson deserved to know.
For a few weeks after the successful surgery, they’d both been too concerned with Jenna’s recovery to focus on the Grangers. But Shannon hadn’t let it go. Especially after Jenna had healed and the doctor pronounced her healthy. She’d resumed her push on Avery to go to Hudson. Jenna was crawling. Soon she’d be talking. Hudson was missing out and so was Jenna, on the chance to have her dad in her life. But Avery was so damn stubborn. More than once she’d told Shannon to back off. Told Shannon if she wanted a relationship with her niece, she’d better leave it alone.
She couldn’t. Not with the memories of her own childhood. Things might not have turned out great with their dad, but he’d been there until they were mostly grown, and they’d had a lot of good years. Just because Avery chose to forget them, to pretend they never happened, didn’t mean Shannon did. And she wanted that for Jenna. Her niece at least deserved to have the opportunity. So Shannon had gone ahead and contacted the Grangers. If Avery wouldn’t go, she would.
Avery had been horrified and seething mad when Shannon told her. But, surprisingly, she’d agreed to meet Joe, who’d once again answered the phone, instead of letting Shannon go.
“And now you’ll have what you deserve, baby girl,” Shannon crooned softly as her niece’s suckling started to slow and she drifted toward sleep. Because, at that moment, Avery should already be on her way back from the Granger’s family ranch in nearby Last Stand.
“We’re going to give you the best life we can. I promise.” At least as long as Shannon had a say in the matter.
The baby’s mouth went slack. Shannon eased the bottle away, set it aside. Coming to her feet she carried her niece to the room she shared with Avery and gently set her in her crib. The air conditioner chugged in the window so Shannon draped a light blanket over the baby. Then she stood there, staring until she heard the key in the lock. Shannon crept out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
“I can’t wait to hear all about it,” she said from the kitchen a moment before she heard the thunk signaling Avery had dropped her bag by the door. Since Shannon had to drive home and Avery didn’t drink, Shannon pulled two sodas from the fridge. They’d celebrate over ginger ale. Feeling especially joyful and in good spirits, Shannon poured the bubbling liquid into wineglasses.
“I’m just getting us something to celebrate,” Shannon said when her sister came around the corner. With a wide grin, she lifted one of the glasses off the counter. Turning, she held it out to Avery. Her excitement drained out of her when she saw her sister’s angry face.
“What happened?” The righteous indignation caught in her chest and burned like a flaming trail of fire from there. If Joe had said something to hurt Avery, so help him . . .
“He had a heart attack.”
“He had a heart attack. We were talking and he turned ashen and clutched his chest. Luckily I got him in the car before he went into full cardiac arrest.” Her gaze narrowed. “It never would have happened if you hadn’t set up that damn meeting.”
Feeling a little sick, Shannon set down the glass then tugged her sister toward the living room. They settled on the couch, facing each other. Shannon wore shorts but Avery was wearing a long summer sundress. The soft cotton brushed Shannon’s knees.
Shannon’s head was reeling. “Is he . . . did he . . .?”
“I was able to perform CPR in the car. He was alive when I left him at the hospital.”
Shannon sagged against the cushions. “Thank God.”
She might not like the man, might not like how he didn’t give a rat’s ass he had a granddaughter, but she didn’t wish him harm. He was, after all, her niece’s grandfather, and Shannon hadn’t given up hope of Jenna one day having a loving extended family.
“I shouldn’t have gone. I should have canceled right away like I wanted to when you told me you’d arranged this second meeting.” Her sister sat up taller, too, and her jaw set in a hard line. “I told you I never wanted anything from the Grangers. Jenna is mine, and I don’t need Hudson or his money or—”
“Jenna deserves a family.”
“She has one. Me, you, and Mom. That’s enough.”
But it wasn’t. Not nearly so. Especially with their mom now sick. Jenna deserved more than just a mother and one aunt. “She needs a father and uncles who care about her.” She narrowed her gaze as Avery’s chin jutted out. “You did tell Joe that, didn’t you?”
“No. That wasn’t why I went.”
“What? We agreed—”
“No, I said I’d see him, nothing else. I was tired of your badgering me, so I agreed to go. But the only thing I’d planned on telling him was that he’d never hear from me again.” She shook her head as she blew out a troubled breath. “But he wouldn’t let me speak. The moment I got out of my car, he started shouting. I’d barely gotten two words out when he had the attack.”
Shannon wasn’t heartless. She took no joy in the fact Joe was in the hospital. But if he’d just been reasonable . . .
“What did you tell his sons when you saw them at the hospital, then?”
“I didn’t see them. Once he was in triage, I snuck out. I told you, Shannon, I don’t want anything from that family and leaving was the smartest thing. This way nobody knows my name or why I was with Joe, and I can continue to raise my child.” Her eyes snapped. “And it’s going to stay that way.”
“And what? Jenna goes through life without a father?”
“It’s not like ours was so fabulous. He walked out on us, remember?”
“Yeah, I haven’t forgotten that part.” Shannon’s words were as clipped as her sister’s. “But neither have I forgotten the years before he left. The years he was there.” She looked pointedly at Avery. “We had a dad growing up. He was in our lives and it was good for a long time.” Until the booze took over. “Don’t you want that for your daughter?”
Hurt shone in her sister’s eyes. “She can’t be hurt by what she’s never had.”
Shannon bowed her head. It was the same argument they’d had since learning Avery was pregnant. She’d hoped in time, especially after their mom had been diagnosed with ALS, that her sister would realize she needed Hudson. Avery managed pretty well on her salary as an RN, but child support would certainly help, especially now that they had to pay for their mom to be in an extended-care facility. And surely, she could use some emotional help as well. Heck, there were times Shannon felt overwhelmed by it all, and she wasn’t also trying to raise an infant on her own.
“Yes, she can. You don’t think she’ll ask, one day, where her daddy is? Or why she doesn’t have a father like everyone else?”
Angry, Avery leapt from the couch. “Better than telling her, her daddy doesn’t love her enough to change. Or doesn’t love her more than he does alcohol.” She sucked in a breath. “I can’t keep having this same argument with you. It’s done. Forget the Grangers. I plan to.” She looked at the clock. “When did Jenna go down for her nap?”
Knowing she needed to back off, at least for now, Shannon sighed. “Just as you were coming in.”
“I’m going to join her. You can let yourself out.”
Shannon remained on the couch long after the bedroom door closed. She stared at the wall and the framed photos Avery had hung in the shape of a flower with Jenna’s baby picture in the center. Around it were photos of Jenna with their mom, with Avery, with Shannon. None of their dad. Granted, their dad didn’t even know about her . . . hard to when he’d walked out of their lives ten years ago, never to be seen again. But in Avery’s mind, that was the day he ceased to exist.
It had taken longer for Shannon to accept he was gone. At fifteen, under the guise of meeting friends, Shannon had walked the streets looking for him. Not a smart idea as some of the areas in San Antonio weren’t the safest, but she’d needed to try. Needed to find him and beg him to come back. He was her daddy and she needed him. More, she didn’t want to live without him.
But as time went by, as each search turned fruitless, she’d slowly started looking less. Every other day. Then once a week. Once a month, until she’d finally given up. She never understood how Avery had cut him out of her life so easily when Shannon had still missed him.
She can’t miss what she’d never known.
Shannon didn’t believe that for a second. Jenna didn’t have to know her daddy to miss having one. She’d see the other dads at school concerts, field trips, graduation. She would absolutely miss having hers there. Sure, there was no guarantee Hudson would be there, but didn’t they owe it to Jenna to at least try?
Avery was as willing to give up on him as she had been with their dad.
But Shannon had never been one to give up easily.
End of Excerpt