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"Marry you?" Annie Gideon stared, incredulous, at Link Morgan's determined face. "Why would I marry you? I don't even like you."
The annoyed expression Link so often wore when he looked at her intensified. "Maybe you'd better figure out a way, Annie. Because if you don't, we're both going to lose what we value most."
The headache that had been throbbing since the double funeral the day before clutched at her temples. "Why on earth are you saying something so preposterous now? And why here?"
Link gave a quick glance around the living room of her sister's house, as if reminding himself of the delicate French Provincial furniture that was as charming as Becca had been. Then he zeroed in on Annie.
Her heart gave a rebellious thump. Everything about Link, from his piercing dark eyes to his square jaw to his determined stride, proclaimed that here was a man who knew what he wanted and would do whatever it took to get it. She, of all people, knew just how accurate that impression was.
He'd exchanged the dark suit he'd worn at the funeral the day before for gray pants and a black sweater that still gave an aura of mourning. But mourning or not, he was clearly back to business.
"Sorry. I know this is a bad time." His deep voice softened slightly. "But time is just what we don't have. The fact that Davis and Becca died without making a will has put both of us between a rock and a hard place."
The pastel room swam before her eyes, and the scent of the lilies she'd brought from the funeral cloyed. She forced back a wave of grief. If she didn't control it, grief for her sister would submerge every other instinct. She'd be no good to anyone, especially Marcy.
The thought of her twenty-month-old niece, napping unaware in the upstairs nursery, strengthened her. She frowned at the man who'd been Davis's partner and best friend. "I don't see what's so complicated about it. Doesn't Marcy automatically inherit everything?"
"Exactly." Link's straight, even features might have been chiseled from stone. "That's the problem. The baby inherits this house, whatever property Davis owned and Davis's thirty percent of the firm."
Light dawned. He was worried about the construction company he and Davis had shared.
"I can't imagine that will make any difference to the way you run the company. Marcy's certainly not going to interfere."
Contempt probably sounded in her voice. Link's best friend and her sister were dead, victims of a wet road and a missing guardrail, and apparently all Link could think about was his business.
"You don't get it, do you?" A strand of dark hair fell on his forehead, accentuating his lowered brows. "What do you imagine is going to happen now to all this?" His gesture seemed to take in the gracious house that had been in the Conrad family for generations, the construction company, even the sleeping child upstairs.
She turned away from that intimidating stare, trying to get her bearings in a world that was suddenly alien. The wide front windows of Becca's home overlooked the town square with its flowerbeds and gazebo, surrounded by turn-of-the-century shops. She caught a glimpse of blue lake through the trees. Lakeview was a delightful Finger Lakes village, but it had been Becca's place. She didn't belong here.
"I don't know about the property," she said finally. "I guess Davis's lawyer will have to figure that out. If I have to stay until things are settled, I will. Then I'll take Marcy back to Boston with me."
"They won't let you."
For an instant her mind refused to process the words. Then she spun to face him, the room seeming to spin with her. "What are you talking about? Who won't let me?"
"Little Marcy inherits everything." He spaced the words out as if he spoke to someone who didn't have a grasp of the English language. "Whoever controls her controls her inheritance. If you think Davis's cousins will let you walk away with Conrad property, you'd better think again."
She told herself he was crazy, because she couldn't face the possibility that he was right. "Frank and Julia Lester don't want to be bothered with a baby. They've never shown any interest in Marcy." In face, Becca had said the Lesters bluntly proclaimed they wouldn't have a family, because children might interfere with their social life.
"Maybe not." A bitter smile touched Link's mouth and then vanished. "But now that Marcy's inherited, I suspect the Lesters are going to discover that they've always adored her and want her to live with them."
She pressed her hand hard against the oval marble-topped table. "They can't have her. They don't love her. I'm Marcy's closest living relative. With Davis's parents deceased and my mother's illness, there isn't anyone else. Naturally I'll take responsibility for her."
"Naturally." Something that might have been amusement threaded Link's deep voice. "Annie is the responsible one. You always took care of Becca, didn't you?"
"I always tried." Memory pricked her. "Just as you always tried to protect Davis, even when he didn't need protecting."
A grimace marred Link's features. "I wondered how long it would take you to bring that up. It's been eight years, Annie. Can't you forget?"
"No." She shot the word back before she considered, but it was true. She could never forget the summer she and Becca had met Davis and Link, because that was when she'd tumbled head-over-heels into first love.
He seemed to consider that abrupt negative for a moment. "Why? Davis and Becca forgave me. Why can't you?"
"I have forgiven you." Forgiveness for a wrong done to herself was easy. Forgiveness for a wrong done to the little sister she'd always protected wasn't. Still, she tried to live each day as a Christian, and that mandated forgiveness.
"You can forgive." His voice went soft. "But you can't forget."
When Link's bass voice went down to that low rumble, it had a deleterious effect on her morale. She shook her head, trying to shake off the feeling.
"None of that matters now. What's important is Marcy. Becca would expect me to take care of the baby if something happened to her."
Pain clutched her heart at the words. None of them had anticipated the accident.
"I don't suppose you have that in writing."
"I didn't think so." Link rubbed the back of his neck, as if he had a headache, too. "That's what makes it so chancy. You might believe Becca wanted you to take care of Marcy, and I might believe Davis would want me to run the company for his daughter, but neither of us can prove it. That makes us vulnerable."
"To the Lesters, I suppose." She still couldn't believe that. "Frank has been around helping with the arrangements. He hasn't given a hint he's thinking any such thing."
"You don't know Frank as well as I do." Link caught her hand in a quick, impatient movement. The warmth of his fingers startled her. She hadn't known how cold she was until he touched her. "He smiles and smiles, but all the while he's looking for a weakness."
She pulled her hand away. She didn't know about Frank, but showing any weakness to Link could only be bad for her.
"Why did you let Frank buy into the company, if you feel that way about him?"
"We needed some investors in order to get a loan for the lakeside project." He shot her a questioning look. "You know about the project, don't you?"
"Not much. Just that you and Davis are building homes along the east side of the lake." Becca had mentioned the project briefly, but she'd been much more engrossed in Marcy's new tooth than business.
"The project is a gamble for a company the size of Conrad and Morgan, so Davis thought we should form a limited corporation. Frank wanted in, and Davis wouldn't turn down his cousin. Now Frank wants all of it."
"You can't know that."
"I know." His mouth set grimly, sending a little tremor down her spine. "I've given this a lot of thought, Annie. You're Marcy's closest relative, but you're an unmarried career woman. I was Davis's best friend and partner, but I'm not a blood relative. Separately, our claim to Marcy is weak, but if we were married."
"We can't get married just like that." She rushed the words, needing to deny that this thing could possibly be real. The thought of losing Marcy sent a chill into her very soul.
Please, Father. This can't be happening, can it?
"We're not talking about romance here, Annie. I'm telling you, marriage is the only way." He glanced at his watch. "We can apply for a license today and.."
"No!" She folded her arms tightly, hoping her voice projected strength and conviction. "I won't let you rush me into something like this. First, I don't believe you're right about the Lesters, and second, even if you are, I won't jump into marriage until I've explored every other option."
"All the details in a row, in other words." He clipped off the words as if he disliked them, his eyes narrowing. "You really are the perfect accountant, aren't you?"
"There's nothing wrong with paying attention to detail."
"There is if it keeps you from getting what you want."
"I suppose you think it's better to charge right at what you want no matter who gets hurt." Maybe that defined the difference between them. The past blurred into the present. "I won't do things that way, not when Marcy's future is at stake."
"Fine." Link swung away from her, exasperation in every line of his tall, strong figure. "You think, and figure, and debate." He tossed the words over his shoulder at her. "If you end up by losing Marcy, maybe you'll remember I gave you fair warning."
He stalked out of the room, and she heard the front door slam behind him.
He nodded, but his face gave no clue as to his thoughts. Strength showed in the straight planes and square chin. His hair, worn in an aggressively military cut, was as dark as those chocolate eyes. Even the blue police uniform looked military on him, all sharp creases and crisp lines.
"A Philadelphia lawyer. Around here they say if you want to win, you hire a Philadelphia lawyer." His gaze seemed to sharpen. "So whose battle are you here to win, Ms. Morden? Not Davey Flagler's."
"Davey? No." The boy had been only a preliminary skirmish; they both knew it. For an instant she was tempted to say she represented someone else, but knew that would never work. The plain truth was her only weapon.
Her mouth tightened at the implied insult in his use of the title. But one hardly expected police to look kindly on defense attorneys, and most times the feeling was mutual.
"I'm not representing anyone but myself." She glanced down at Emilie, who banged her rattle on the stroller tray. "And my daughter. I'm here because..." The words stuck in her throat. How could she say this? But she had to.
With a sense that she'd passed the point of no return, she forced the words out. "Because I believe you are Emilie's biological father."
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