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I believe you're my baby's father." Anne Morden tried saying it aloud as she drove down the winding street of the small mountain town. The words sounded just as bad as she'd thought they would. There was absolutely no good way to announce a fact like that to a man she'd never met.
In her mind and heart, Emilie was already her child, even though the adoption wasn't yet final, even though the father hadn't yet relinquished his rights.
He would. Fear closed around her heart. He had to. Because if he didn't, she might lose the baby she loved as her own.
The soft sound of a rattle drew her gaze to the rearview mirror. Emilie, safe in her car seat, shook the pink plastic lamb with one chubby fist, then stuck it in her mouth. At eight months, Emilie put everything in her mouth.
"It'll be all right, sweetheart. I promise."
Emilie's round blue eyes got a little rounder, and her face crinkled into a smile at the sound of Anne's voice... the voice of the only mother the baby had ever known.
Fear prickled along her nerves. She had to protect Emilie, had to make sure the adoption went through as planned so the baby would truly be hers. And confronting the man she believed to be Emilie's biological father was the only way to do that. But where were the right words?
Anne spotted the faded red brick building ahead on the right, its black-and-white sign identifying it as the police station. Her heart clenched. She'd face Police Chief Mitch Donovan in a matter of minutes, and she still didn't know what to say.
Help me, Father. Please. For Emilie's sake, let me find a way to do this.
A parking spot waited for her in front of the station. She couldn't drive around for a few more minutes. Now, before she lost her nerve, she had to go inside, confront the man, and get his signature on a parental rights termination.
For Emilie. Emilie was her child, and nobody, including the unknown Mitch Donovan, was going to take her away.
Parking the car, getting the stroller out, buttoning Emilie's jacket against the cool, sunny March day... none of that took long enough. With another silent, incoherent prayer, Anne pulled open the door and pushed the stroller inside.
Bedford Creek didn't boast much in the way of a police station, just a row of chairs, a crowded bulletin board and one desk. A small town like this, tucked safely away in the Pennsylvania mountains, probably didn't need more. She'd driven only three hours from Philadelphia, but Bedford Creek seemed light years from the city, trapped in its isolated valley.
"Help you?" The woman behind the desk had dangling earrings that jangled as she spun toward Anne. Her penciled eyebrows shot upward, as if she were expecting an emergency.
"I'd like to see Chief Donovan, please." Her voice didn't betray her nervousness, at least she didn't think so.
That was one of the first things she'd learned as an attorney -- never let her apprehension show, not if she wanted to win. And this was far more important than any case she'd ever defended.
The woman studied her for a moment, then nodded. "Chief!" she shouted. "Somebody to see you!"
Apparently the police station didn’t rely on such high- tech devices as phones. The door to the inner office started to move. Anne braced herself. In a moment she'd...
The street door flew open, hitting the wall. An elderly man surged in from outside, white hair standing on end as if he'd just run his fingers through it. He was breathing hard, and his face was an alarming shade of red. He propelled a dirty-faced boy into the room with a hand on the child's jacket collar.
The man emerging from the chief's office sent her a quick look, seemed to decide her business wasn't urgent, and focused on the pair who'd stormed in.
"Warren, what's going on?" His voice was a baritone rumble, filled with authority.
"This kid." The man shook the boy by his collar. "I caught him stealing from me again, Chief. Not one measly candy bar, no. He had a whole fist full of them."
Maybe she'd been wrong about the amount of crime in Bedford Creek. She was going to see Mitch Donovan in action before she even confronted him.
She looked at him, assessing the opposition as she would in a courtroom. Big, that was her first thought. The police uniform strained across broad shoulders. He had to be over six feet tall, with not an ounce of fat on him. If she'd expected the stereotypical small-town cop with his stomach hanging over his belt, she was wrong.
"So you decided to perform a citizen's arrest, did you, Warren?" The chief concentrated on the mismatched pair.
She couldn't tell whether or not amusement lurked in his dark brown eyes. He had the kind of strong, impassive face that didn't give much away.
"Not so old, after all, am I?" The elderly man gave his captive another little shake. "I caught you, all right."
"Take it easy." Donovan pulled the boy away. "You'll rattle the kid's brains."
The boy glared at the cop defiantly, eyes dark as two pieces of anthracite in his thin face, black hair that needed a trim falling on his forehead. He couldn't be more than ten or eleven, and he didn't appear to be easily intimidated. She wasn't sure she could have mustered a look like that, not with more than six feet of muscle looming over her.
"Okay, Davey, what's the story? You steal from Mr. Van Dyke?" His tone said there wasn't much doubt in his mind.
"Not me. Must have been somebody else."
The boy would have been better off to curb his smart remarks, but she'd defended enough juveniles to know he probably wouldn't.
"Empty your pockets," Donovan barked.
Davey held the defiant pose for another moment. Then he shrugged, reached into his jacket pockets and pulled them inside out. Five candy bars tumbled to the floor.
"You know what that is, kid? That's evidence."
"It's just a couple lousy candy bars."
"And I've got a couple lousy cells in the back. You want to see inside one of them?"
The kid wilted. "I don't..."
"Excuse me." Little as she wanted to become involved in this, she couldn't let it pass without saying something. Her training wouldn't let her. "The child's a minor. You shouldn't even be talking to him without a parent or legal representation here."
His piercing gaze focused on her, and she had to stiffen her spine to keep from wilting herself.
"That right, Counselor?"
He was quicker than she might have expected, realizing from those few words that she was an attorney.
"That's right." She glared at him, but the look seemed to have as much impact as a flake of snow on a boulder.
"If she says..." Davey caught on fast.
"Forget it." Donovan planted his forefinger against the boy's chest. "You're dealing with me, and if I hear another complaint against you, you'll wish you'd never been born. Stay out of Mr. Van Dyke's store until he tells you otherwise." He gestured toward the door. "Now get out."
The boy blinked. His first two steps were a swagger. Then he broke and ran, the door slamming behind him as he pelted up the sidewalk.
Anne took a breath and tried to force taut muscles to relax. At least now she didn't have to deal with Donovan over his treatment of the boy. Her own business with him was difficult enough.
The elderly man gathered the candy bars from the floor, grumbling a little. "Kids. At least when you were his age, you only tried it once."
A muscle twitched in Donovan's jaw. Maybe he'd rather not have heard his juvenile crime mentioned, at least not with her standing there.
"You tripped me with a broom before I got to the door, as I recall. You slowing down, Warren?"
The old man shrugged. "Still give a kid a run for his money, I guess." He shoved the candy bars into his pockets. "I'm going to the café for a cup of coffee, now that I've done your work for you." He waved toward the dispatcher, then strolled out.
Donovan turned, studying her for a long, uncomfortable moment. Her cheeks warmed under his scrutiny. He gestured toward his office. "Come in, Counselor, and tell me what I can do for you."
This was it, then. She pushed the stroller through the door, heart thumping. This was it.
The swivel chair creaked as he sat down waved her to the visitor's seat. Behind the battered oak desk, an American flag dwarfed the spare, small office. Some sort of military crest hung next to it. Donovan was ex-military, of course. Anne might have guessed it from his manner.
Maybe she should have remained standing. She always thought better on her feet, and she was going to need every edge she could get, dealing with this guy.
Anne leaned back, trying for a confidence she didn't feel, and resisted the urge to clench her hands. Be calm, be poised. Check out the opposition, then act.
Mitch Donovan had that look she always thought of as the "cop look" -- wary, tough, alert. Probably even in repose his stony face wouldn't relax. He could as easily be an old west gunfighter, sitting with his back to the wall, ready to fly into action at the slightest provocation.
She took a deep breath. He was waiting for her to begin, but not the slightest movement of a muscle in his impassive face betrayed any hint of impatience. This was probably a man who'd buried his emotions so deep that a dynamite blast wouldn't make them surface.
"I realize I have no standing here, Chief Donovan, but you shouldn't have questioned the child without his parents." That wasn't what she'd intended to say, but it spilled out more easily than her real concern.
"I wasn't questioning, Counselor. I was intimidating." His lips quirked a little. "Who knows if it'll do any good."
"Intimidating." There were a lot of things she could say to that, including the fact that he certainly was. "Please don't call me 'Counselor.'"
His brows lifted a fraction. "But I don't know your name."
Intimidating, indeed. She was handling this worse than an Assistant District Attorney newly hatched from law school.
"Anne Morden. I used to be with the Public Defender's Office in Philadelphia." She could hardly avoid identifying herself, but some instinct made her want to keep him from knowing where to find her -- to find Emilie.
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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