Can she free his heart from the demons that plague him, or will his fears keep him from loving again?

Following the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law, Kaya Brehna is awarded custody of their three children. To avoid financial ruin, she must move them to Palm Beach where her successful career in interior decorating can provide financial security. Her plans are, however, thwarted by New Hampshire business mogul, Bryce Fontaine, who is determined to keep his godchildren in Granite Falls at all costs—even emotional blackmail.

Believing Ever since his family was killed, Bryce Fontaine has been plagued by torment and regret. Five years later, his three godchildren are the closest thing he has to a family. But when their parents’—his dearest friends—sudden deaths threaten their close-knit relationship, Bryce would be damned before he allows some stranger—aunt, or not—to uproot them from the only home they’ve ever known, and move them a thousand miles away from him.

Can Bryce and Kaya find a way to work together for the good of the children whom they both love, or will the pain in each of their hearts keep this blended family divided?

The Mogul’s Reluctant Bride  (Billionaire Brides of Granite Falls #2)

Chapter 1

“There must be some mistake, Steven.” Kaya Brehna’s hands tightened around the arm of the chair.

“I really wish there was, Kaya.”

“They— they left nothing?”

“Nothing,” the man behind the mahogany desk reiterated with a shake of his head.

Kaya pressed an unsteady hand to her chest. Her heart raced with fear, and her mind swam in a pool of confusion and uncertainty. Even though she’d never had a close relationship with Lauren, when Steven had called with the news of her sister and brother-in-law’s deaths, and that they had named her guardian of their children, Kaya had dropped everything to be with her nephew and two nieces.

Up until a minute ago, she had every reason to believe that nine-year-old Jason, four-year-old Alyssa, and two-month-old Anastasia were financially secure. She hadn’t met the children until yesterday, but the minute she saw them, Kaya knew she could never abandon them. She was all set to put her life on hold to nurse them through this most grievous time of their lives, but how on earth could she do that after what the executor of Michael and Lauren’s will just told her?

They died bankrupt.

Nothing made any sense.

Forcing back the hysteria in her throat, Kaya struggled to her feet, and braced her hands against the edge of the desk. “Steven, I’ve worked in the homes of some of the wealthiest people in Florida. I know money when I see it. That three-story, eight-bedroom mansion my sister lived in is worth millions, yet, you’re telling me she died penniless?”

“I’m sorry to give you more bad news, Kaya, but, yes, those are the facts I’m afraid.” His tone was apologetic, as if he was the one who had caused her dilemma.

“Well, in light of that, Steven, I can’t stay in Granite Falls now. I have no choice but to return to Palm Beach, and take the children with me.”

Steven rose and strolled around the desk. “I’m aware that you and your sister weren’t very close, Kaya, and that there are events about her life you may not be aware of. But I was Michael and Lauren’s friend as well as their attorney, and if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that they would not want you to take their children to Florida. Granite Falls is their home.”

Was, Steven. Was.” Kaya threw her hands up in frustration. “Everything is changed now. I was willing to settle down in Granite Falls, put my life on hold for a while, until they got used to me as their caregiver, but that option is off the table. My career in Palm Beach is the only fighting chance I have to provide a decent living for all of us.”

“I understand the financial dilemma you’re facing, but it wouldn’t be wise to uproot the children so soon after the loss of their parents. They have ties in Granite Falls. Ties that shouldn’t be severed at this precarious time of their lives.”

“And their strongest tie is Bryce Fontaine, I suppose,” she said, rather grudgingly. Bryce was the children’s godfather, and from what Kaya had learned from friends of the family who were gathered at the house when she arrived yesterday, he was a very present figure in the children’s lives.

“Bryce is a big part of their lives,” Steven voiced her thoughts out loud. “Despite the fact that you are their aunt and only living relative, they will need him to get them through this tragedy. He has been like a second father to them, ever since they were born, and now that Michael is gone, they will need him more than ever.”

Kaya tried to ignore the insinuations in Steven’s words. She needed no reminders that the children didn’t know her, that they’d never met her until yesterday. If only she’d been more congenial toward her sister, met her halfway. A few weeks ago, Lauren had invited her up to celebrate Michael’s fiftieth birthday. She’d agreed to come, and they’d promised to take care of her travel arrangements. But unable to get past her juvenile sibling resentment, she’d reneged at the last minute. If she’d come up like she’d promised, she would have seen her sister and met Michael and the kids, but she hadn’t.

“When is Bryce coming back?” she asked Steven. She was still to meet this Bryce, who’d been on a skiing trip in Switzerland the day Michael and Lauren died. 

“His jet could be landing anytime soon. You know what that means for Jason.” His brows drew together and his blue eyes clouded with unease. “I can’t force you to stay in Granite Falls, Kaya. I can only strongly advise that you consider sticking with your initial plans to remain here, at least for now.”

Kaya walked over to the window and stared out across the parking lot. She felt as listless as the wind-blown snowflakes tumbling aimlessly to the ground. Steven was right about keeping the children in a familiar environment, around familiar faces. But what was she to do? They were destitute. Returning to Florida was her only option. Even there, with three children to support, she could still end up broke, like Michael and Lauren.

Kaya never anticipated that her life could spiral out of control so quickly and unexpectedly. There was only one other time in her life when she’d been this scared—the day she saw her father for the last time.

She raised a hand to her chest and closed her fingers around the locket that her father had given her when she was five years old—the one with the code to a safety deposit box. Her father had instructed her not to go to the bank until she was eighteen, and now, even after five years, Kaya was still awed at the contents of that safe.

She’d had the jewel appraised, and almost fainted when she learned how much it was worth. Her father had left a letter explaining how he’d come into possession of the gem. He’d written that he wanted her to know that it wasn’t stolen. Unsure of what to do with it, Kaya had just left it alone. Had her father given Lauren a similar gem? Had Lauren sold her inheritance to purchase L’etoile du Nord, her multimillion-dollar estate? Had she squandered the rest on an extravagant lifestyle that she couldn’t maintain?

Kaya sighed as the questions surged through her mind. Steven was right again. There was so much about her sister’s life she didn’t know. What she did know was that the contents in that safe was all she had of her father’s memory, the only tangible bond she had to her ancestry. She couldn’t bear the thought of parting with it, even though it would solve her newly acquired financial problems, and set her and the children up for life. But that was asking too much. It wasn’t fair that she should have to spend her inheritance on Lauren’s children. She had preserved her heirloom, while Lauren had wasted hers on a big…

Kaya turned from the window as the only other solution took root in her mind. “The estate,” she said, walking back over to Steven. “It’s worth millions, hopefully more than Michael and Lauren owed their creditors. If I sell the estate, I can—”

“Um, Kaya, you can’t sell that estate.”

“Why not? Don’t tell me there’s a lien against it.” That faint thread of hysteria was back in her voice. If their father had given Lauren the same kind of gem he had given her, Lauren could have paid cash for the estate. Did she mortgage it off to sustain her luxurious lifestyle?

“No. There’s no lien against it,” Steven said.

Kaya breathed a sigh of relief. “Well then, why can’t I sell it?”

“Because it didn’t belong to Michael and Lauren. It doesn’t belong to the children.”

Kaya’s mouth dropped open. “What do you mean, it didn’t— doesn’t belong to them? If it isn’t their estate, then whose is it?”

“Mine. L’etoile du Nord belongs to me,” came a rumbling voice behind her.

Kaya spun around, her heart flying to her throat when her eyes collided with the powerful bronze body of the man standing on a pair of legs that would make a Viking proud.

Bryce Fontaine, New England’s business mogul—CEO and president of Fontaine Enterprises—in the flesh.

He was far more handsome than his pictures portrayed, she thought, staring in admiration as he bent his snow-dusted head to get his large frame through the door.

The ample shoulders, stretching beneath a dark-green sweater, the sharp chin, and generous mouth, all spoke of power and resolute strength. The man possessed a captivating presence and an air of authority that made you stop and take note when he entered a room. She was taking note—a lot of notes.

If Kaya had to sum Bryce Fontaine up in one word, it would be “intimidating”.

A tingling sensation generated in Kaya’s belly and traveled south to her thighs, and then to her knees, making them go weak. She slumped against the edge of the desk and tried to bring her escalated breathing under control.

Steven walked over and met him near the door. Even Steven—who was about six feet, two inches tall—had to roll his head back to face the giant, as they talked in low voices.

Steven had called Bryce the night of the tragedy, but a blizzard in the Alps had delayed his return. He must have flown all night, Kaya thought, taking in his stubbled chin and disheveled appearance that made him seem even more imposing.

When Kaya had enquired about the hunk in her sister’s family pictures, Libby—Steven’s fiancée, and a close friend of the family—had given her a short version of his accomplishments.

Bryce Fontaine had started out in real estate—buying up a substantial amount of land in Granite Falls and the neighboring towns, then quickly expanded to the rest of the business world. He devoured companies from glass blowing to computer software programing, and as he’d just claimed, he also owned the estate on which her sister lived.

Seemed like the man owned the entire town, she thought, recalling driving by the Youth Performing Arts Center, Granite Falls Towers, and Country Club, to name a few buildings and skyscrapers that bore his name. His signature was everywhere in Granite Falls. He’d even built an airport with a runway long enough to accommodate his private jets and those of his friends, Libby had told her.

As if sensing her scrutiny, he turned his head and pinned her with a calculating stare. Breathless seconds ticked by before he stepped around Steven and headed in her direction. A compelling energy seemed to coil within him at each step he took.

Forcing her legs to support her, Kaya pushed off the desk as he came to a stop and towered over her. His gaze was bold and penetrating. His eyes, enigmatic and unfathomable, were like midnight’s deepest black. As she gazed up at him, Kaya had the dizzying sensation of falling into blackness. She’d never felt so susceptible to a man in all her life. He could reach out and take a hold of her, do anything he wanted to her, this very moment, and there was not a damn thing she’d be able to do about it. Vitality zinged through her bloodstream, even as her body began to shiver from an unfamiliar awareness. How could she feel this vivacious and weak at the same time? Kaya wondered, as she once again leaned on the desk for support.

If he could cause her to lose control of her motor skills by just looking at her, then God help her.

“Bryce,” Steven said, coming to stand next to the titan, “this is Lauren’s sister, Kaya Brehna. Kaya, Bryce Fontaine.”

Bryce shook the hand the petite woman, with a thick curtain of dark-brown curls tumbling off her small shoulders, offered him. Such soft honey-hue skin, he thought, as he gazed into her beautiful brown eyes—eyes like little Alyssa’s. Where Alyssa’s were innocent and mischievous, Kaya’s were mesmerizing, large and exotic, with tones of soft amber that seemed to speak to him from within. He could easily lose his way in those spellbinding eyes, he thought.

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Brehna,” he said, releasing her and ordering his brain to buffer the bolt of electricity charging through him. It had been ages since the touch of a woman caused his heart to pound out an erratic rhythm. He didn’t know what to make of it.

“It’s nice meeting you, too, Mr. Fontaine,” she said in a soft unsteady voice.

Bryce smiled as her dark, long lashes came down to shield her eyes from his.

Steven cleared his throat, reminding Bryce that there was someone else in the room.

“I’ll leave you two alone to get acquainted while I make a phone call,” Steven said, walking into an adjoining room and closing the door.

“Take your time,” Bryce said, his gaze following Kaya’s movements as she laced and unlaced her fingers in front of her. He wondered if she was this nervous in the company of all men, or was it just him. He let his ego believe it was just him. He was so used to assertive women, who let him know up front exactly what they wanted from him. It was a welcome change to encounter one who was still shy, demure, who made a man feel like a man. Protective. Male—pumped full of adrenaline in anticipation of the chase, he thought as his eyes took in the radiance of her heart-shaped face and her full, pouty, sexy lips. How he would so love to test their subtlety, feel them quiver, then open to accept him.

If he’d passed Kaya on the street, in a restaurant, or pulled up beside her at a traffic light, Bryce knew he would have given her a second look, maybe a third. He most certainly would have asked for her number.

And to think he could have had it months ago, when Lauren had been telling him that she wanted him to meet her sister. He’d shut Lauren down because he hadn’t wanted to jeopardize their friendship. What if he’d met Kaya and didn’t like her? Well, that wasn’t an issue anymore. He’d met her, and he liked her, too much, he realized at the stirring in his loins. But the outcome would have been the same, because when he’d had his fill of little Kaya, he would have walked away like he always did. His friendship with Lauren had meant too much to him. It still did, even though she was gone. So there was no messing with her little sister. Stand down, boy.

“So, here we are,” she said, raising her head to offer him a heart-stopping smile.

“Yes, here we are.” Dear God, he was dumbstruck. Only once in his life had Bryce ever felt this powerless to a woman.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, crossing her arms about her.

Bryce shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, to cover his fascination with her. “It’s just that, you look nothing like Lauren. You’re so petite, and Lauren was—well, Lauren.” He formed a generous figure in the air with his hands. “I expected some small hint of resemblance, at least.”

“Maybe it’s because we were half-sisters,” she said, a smile lighting the soft features of her face.

“Half-sisters?” He tilted his head to one side. “Lauren told me she had a younger sister, but she never elaborated. I just assumed you had the same parents.” He frowned as he studied her. “I didn’t think you’d be this young, either.” He hadn’t thought anything of her at all, since he never expected to ever meet her. She couldn’t be much older than twenty-two or three. Lauren had to be at least ten years her senior.

His eyes appraised her petite form, dressed in a cream sweater and a knee-length skirt. Even in her black high-heel boots, the top of her head hardly made it to his chest. She looked very soft, very warm, very female—his ideal type. Lauren knew him well. A fond smile touched his lips at the memories of his friend, his sister, whom he missed so much already.

“Let’s just say Eli Brehna would never have been nominated Father of the Year,” Kaya said, as her fingers closed around a fist-shaped locket resting against her chest. “Neither Lauren nor I ever spoke about it.”

He wanted to ask her about the “it” she and Lauren never spoke about, but knew it was not the right time. He and Lauren had been very close, yet she’d never mentioned “it”.

Whatever secret they’d shared, Lauren had taken it to the grave with her. He wondered how much she’d told Kaya about him, about...

“I was also surprised when I saw your pictures, Mr. Fontaine.”

“Please, call me, Bryce. There’s no need for formality between us.”

“Okay, then I’m, Kaya.” Her lips spread on a warm smile. “As I was saying, Michael was a lot older than Lauren, so when she wrote that you were best friends, I assumed you were his age. Besides, there aren’t many thirty-something-year-old men out there who’ve built billion-dollar empires from the ground up.”

“When I want something, I just go out and get it.”

“I’m just the same way. I believe in fighting for what I want. I let nothing stand between me and my heart’s desires.”

Bryce smiled. “We have something in common already, I see.”

“It would seem as if we do, Bryce.” Her brown eyes sparkled, and her lips quivered on an inviting smile, one that lit up her eyes this time, and caused the amber hues around her irises to shimmer.

Bryce’s heart responded with a leap, ever so slightly. He liked the soft sound of his name falling from her exquisite lips. Tightening his jaw, he blanketed the warm feelings it generated in him. No need to travel down troublesome paths. Paths that would lead to nowhere, and that would only leave him in a lingering state of frustration. Kaya was in Granite Falls for one reason only—her sister’s funeral. When it was over, she’d be going back to Florida, and he may never see her again. He hoped.

He turned and held the back of a chair. “Have a seat, Kaya. We may as well be comfortable while we discuss the children’s welfare.”

She nodded and sat down.

Bryce sat down in the chair facing her, his heart heavy at the thought of discussing the gruesome reason he’d left Switzerland, just hours after his jet landed. He hadn’t even gotten the chance to attack the slopes, burn off the frustrations that had driven him there in the first place. “Who’s taking care of them?” he asked Kaya, deciding it was best to just tackle the issue they’d been avoiding since he walked into the office.

“Libby,” she answered.

“Great.” He would have gone directly to the house, but when he’d called Steven and learned that Lauren’s sister would be in his office, he’d opted to meet her here. They had a lot to discuss, and he’d rather not do it with the kids around. “How are they coping?”

“Alyssa’s fine, as resilient as a rubber ball,” she answered with a gentle softness in her voice. “But Anastasia has been fussy, and Jason, well—”

She started that nervous twisting of her hands again. She couldn’t be scared of a little boy. “What about Jason?” Bryce asked, fighting the urge to reach out and cover her hands with his.

“He’s in denial. He completely ignores me. Samantha Kelly, the grief counselor from their church, came by last night, but he wouldn’t talk to her. He thinks his parents went to Switzerland with you, and that you’re bringing them home.”

Bryce frowned. “Why does he think that?”

“Well, they died the same day you left for Switzerland, remember?”

“Yes, but—”

“You’ve taken the family to Europe on your jet several times, so in Jason’s mind, his parents merely took another trip with you. Samantha called it a coping mechanism, and she thinks you’re the only one who can get Jason to accept the truth.”

Bryce felt pressure building in his chest. Propping his elbows on his knees, he buried his face in his hands, groaning inwardly. If Michael and Lauren’s deaths seemed so inconceivable to him, he could only imagine what it was like for Jason losing both his parents so suddenly and tragically.

Many times he’d put smiles on the children’s faces when he’d replaced a broken toy. How could he attempt to fix their little broken hearts, when he could never bring their parents home?

Fate had dealt them a crushing blow, and he would have to see them through this most frightening period of their lives. He would be there for them—night and day until... Bryce slowly raised his head and stared at Kaya. “When I walked in, you were discussing the option of selling my estate. Why?”

She blushed and glanced away briefly. “I didn’t know L’etoile du Nord belonged to you. I’m just trying to close out Michael and Lauren’s affairs as soon as possible, so that the children and I can get on with our lives. As you know, Michael had no relatives, and I’m the only family Lauren had.”

“And I imagine coming here for the funeral and finally meeting the children will give you some closure and a measure of peace when you return to Florida.” He paused as the door to the adjacent office opened and Steven rejoined them. “I can assure you, the children will be well cared for. I love them dearly, and I’ll raise them as if they were my own.”

“Um, Bryce,” Steven interjected. “That wouldn’t be necessary.”

“On the contrary, Steven, it’s absolutely crucial. There’s no one else to take care of them.”

Steven shot Kaya a furtive glance. “There is someone else, Bryce.”

“Who?”

“Kaya. Michael and Lauren named her legal guardian. She has full custody of the children, and she’s planning to take them to Florida after the funeral.”

Kaya watched a kaleidoscope of emotions flitter across Bryce’s face. Shock. Confusion. Hurt. Betrayal.

He staggered out of his chair and slammed a fist down on the desk. “They did what?”

Anger.

Kaya jumped and hugged her arms about her middle tightly, her eyes flashing back and forth from Bryce to Steven, then back to Bryce.

“Michael and I were closer than most brothers, for God’s sake. I loved Lauren like a sister. I adore those kids. How could they ever doubt that?”

“Bryce, believe me, when they asked me to write the will, I raised those same points on your behalf. But they were quite certain about what they wanted.”

“When did they make this ridiculous decision?”

“About a year ago.”

Kaya sat up straight. It was a year ago was that Lauren tracked her down, and began sending her pictures of the children. She’d invited her to come up and meet the family. But old fears had kept her away.

Bryce turned his mercurial eyes on her. His big hands were clenched into fists. His broad shoulders heaved from his deep, harsh breathing.

The mixture of hurt and betrayal in his eyes resonated in her own tormented heart. He just lost his dearest friends, and now he was about to lose his godchildren, whom he obviously adored.

“They didn’t even know her.” He flung his hands in the air. “They might as well have pulled a stranger off the streets and asked her to raise their kids. That’s what you are. A stranger. To all of us!” He took a threatening step toward her.

Kaya felt his despair in the pit of her stomach, but she steeled herself against the looming threat, and pushed to her feet. “Bryce, I know how hurt and betrayed you must feel right now. But I’m the only living relative the children have.”

“I’m the closest thing to family they have, Kaya. The fact that people share the same blood, doesn’t make them family. You don’t know those kids, and they certainly do not know you.”

“They’ll come to know me. They’ll even love me in time,” she said, forcing stability into her voice.

“They love me now,” he grounded through clenched teeth. “I’ve been in their lives from the moment each one of them was born. Where were you?”

In high school. But she was sure that’s not what he meant.

“I’m not the kind of godfather who ignores them all year, and then drop by with expensive gifts on Christmas and birthdays. Which is a lot more than I can say for you, their only living relative, who never even took the time to visit her sister.”

That hurt far more than Kaya ever thought it would. But she gathered courage from the knowledge that even though she and Lauren were estranged, her sister still named her legal guardian of her children.

Lauren had her reasons. Kaya didn’t know what they were. What she did know was that she would not fail her sister. She had failed her in life by not reaching out to her, meeting her halfway; she would not fail her in death by walking away from her children. She would fulfill her request, no matter the cost.

Kaya glanced at Steven, hoping he would intervene on her behalf. He shrugged and spread his hands, obviously reluctant to take sides in a dispute between an old friend and a new client.

“I hope you haven’t told the kids about your absurd plans.” Bryce’s acerbic tone drew her back to his scowling face.

“Of course not. They have enough to deal with already. I’ll tell them when the time is right.”

“It’ll never be right, Miss Brehna.”

So they were back to last names.

He looked her over judiciously. “You’re a career woman, whose main priority in life, I’m certain, is to climb the corporate ladder of success. It’s not easy for a single woman to raise a child alone.”

“And how would you know?” Kaya retorted, hands on hips.

“I employ a few of them, Miss Brehna. I overhear their complaints. Can you honestly tell me that you’re ready to sacrifice all you’ve worked for to raise three children you don’t even know?”

Kaya knew it wouldn’t be easy, and that it may even jeopardize her job at Pearson’s Interior Decorating. Wayne had already pointed out the demands her new position as head designer would have on her time, not to mention her obligation to the clients she’d left hanging when she got the call from Steven.

And then there was Jack, her fiancé, whom she still hadn’t told she’d inherited three little orphans. Jack was adamant about not having children after they were married. She never thought she wanted children, either, until she met these three, who had Eli Brehna’s blood flowing through their veins. Was she picking up a heavier load than she could hoist over her shoulders, much less carry?

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, do you?” Bryce was like a hound dog, sniffing out her fears. “You’re already neck-deep in financial problems or you wouldn’t have been thinking about selling my estate. You probably can’t even afford the funeral.”

The funeral. Kaya hadn’t even thought of that after Steven dropped the bombshell on her earlier. When she’d thought there was money to pay for the funeral, she’d picked out two elaborate coffins, and hadn’t bothered to give a second thought to the expense of keeping them in the funeral home. Well, she’d have to take a much cheaper route now, and get Michael and Lauren buried as quickly as possible. Tomorrow.

“This is what we’re going to do, Miss Brehna.” Bryce glared down at her as if she were one of his insubordinate employees. “I’ll pay for Michael and Lauren’s funeral, then I’ll even pay for a first class ticket back to Florida for you. Better still, I’ll have my pilot fly you back in my jet. I’ll reimburse all expenses you’ve incurred so far. Just sign the kids over to me and you can leave Granite Falls as freely and as unencumbered as you came.” He pulled a checkbook from his back pocket, and opened it. “Name your price, Miss Brehna.”

Kaya seethed at his arrogance, his assumption that he could buy her. In all of her twenty-three years on this planet, she never had this strong a desire to slap someone across the face. Too bad it was beyond her immediate reach.

“Money isn’t everything, Mr. Fontaine. It can buy a lot of luxuries, I’d grant, but it cannot buy love. I love my nephew and nieces. In time, they’ll grow to love me. Love is a price you certainly cannot afford.”

His eyes narrowed to dark slits as he tossed the checkbook on the desk. “You obviously have no idea who you’re dealing with, Miss Brehna. I promise, I will—”

“Time out,” Steven finally interjected, coming to stand between them. “I realize emotions are running high at the moment. But you both need to stop before you say something you’ll regret. Let’s get Michael and Lauren buried, then you two can work out the details over the children.”

“Actually, there’s nothing to work out,” Kaya stated in the calmest voice she could muster under the circumstances. “Steven, I would like you to prepare the necessary papers to finalize my custody of the children, so I can get out of this town as soon as possible.”

She threw her head farther back to encounter Bryce’s angry glare. Even though he’d managed to push her within a hair’s breadth of striking him, she knew what drove him. He was fighting for three little kids who weren’t even related to him, when her own parents had walked away without a backward glance. For that, she admired him, and for the children’s sake, she would try to get along with him.

In spite of her empathy, she had to let him know that she didn’t scare easily. Her years in foster homes where she had to fight for what was hers, then fight some more to hold on to it, had instilled a warrior’s spirit in her. She wasn’t backing down. Not for him. Not for anyone.

“Mr. Fontaine, I’m sorry we had to meet under such tragic circumstances. I can see that you care about your godchildren, and only want what’s best for them. But, I’m their family, and good or bad, rich or poor, family is the most important thing to a child. I wouldn’t get in the way of your relationship with them. You can visit them whenever you want. But get this, I’m not signing them over to you, or anyone else. Ever.”

Bryce could barely contain his fury as he watched her sashay across the floor, pull a leather jacket from the coat rack, and snatch up a handbag from a corner table.

The second Steven closed the door behind her, Bryce exploded. “The nerve of that woman! Who does she think she is?”

“Their aunt and legal guardian.” Steven ran his fingers through his hair, a helpless, skeptical twist to his lips.

“You are my friend. You should have told me what Michael and Lauren had done.”

“Bryce, you know I couldn’t do that. They were my friends too, but they were also my clients. I owed them certain fiduciary rights. Loyalty and confidentiality—”

“You dare talk to me about loyalty, Steven? Where was their loyalty to me and to their defenseless children?” Bryce shook his fists in the air and began to pace the floor. “She’s taking them to Florida. Michael and Lauren would not want their children living anywhere, but in Granite Falls. This is their home.”

“I pointed that out to Kaya. I don’t know if it did any good.” Steven sighed. “If I’d seen this coming, I would have instructed them to include some kind of condition on her guardianship. It’s beyond my power. Kaya has custody, clear and free.”

Bryce came to a halt in front of Steven. “It may be beyond your power, but it isn’t beyond mine. I’m not going to stand by, and let that woman take those kids from their home, from people they’ve known all their lives. People they know and trust. People who love them.”

“Bryce, I don’t want you going off—”

He cut Steven off with a flip of his wrist. “I don’t care what I have to do, or whose neck I have to step on to keep those kids in Granite Falls. I will not lose them, Steven. I will not lose them!”

Chapter 2

Kaya pulled her rental into the four-car garage at L’etoile du Nord. She slammed her palms against the steering wheel, releasing the anger and frustration that had been stewing inside her since she left Steven’s office.

She never thought it possible that anyone could awaken that raging little girl she’d buried years ago, but Bryce Fontaine had done it. Kudos to him.

She’d been looking forward to his return, mainly for Jason’s sake. Now she wished she’d never laid eyes on the man. He was the most arrogant, overbearing, egotistic male she’d ever met.

Dangerous, too, since he had enough money and power to break her. He could keep her tied up in a custody battle for the next hundred years if he wanted. And from the imminent rage in his black eyes and thunderous voice, Kaya had no doubt that was exactly what he intended to do. He would fight to keep the kids in his life because he loved them.

He shared a mutual love and trust with his godchildren—the kind of love and trust that would take her months, if not years to build. Especially when it came to Jason who’d made it clear that he did not like her. 

The courts would look favorably on their emotional ties to Bryce, and take into consideration that Bryce was older, shared a history with each of them, and was far more financially capable of taking care of all of them. She was twenty-three years old, a stranger to them, had no experience with children, had no clue how to be a parent, and would probably be broke in three months.

Yes, it was true that she had a piece of paper that gave her legal rights to them, but Kaya had spent enough time in Florida’s child welfare system to know that a notarized piece of paper wasn’t enough. She’d witnessed a lot of cases where the courts ruled against legal rights because they didn’t think it was in the best interest of the child—her own case was one of those where best interest won out over legal and maternal rights. Kaya knew now exactly how all those parents who’d fought for their children and lost them felt. She knew how Nadine felt when she lost custody of her. The only difference was that Nadine hadn’t really fought for her; she’d used her parental rights for her own selfish reasons that had nothing to do with love. The courts had been on little Kaya’s side, and had made the right decision in her favor. Would they do the same for Jason, Alyssa, and Anastasia?

If she were honest with herself, Kaya knew she couldn’t expect the courts to side with her in this case. She couldn’t think of one person who would be on her side. Not one.

Kaya sighed as she exited the car and walked toward the mudroom. The shock of learning about Michael and Lauren’s sudden deaths, inheriting the children, then finding out they didn’t have a penny to their names—all in two days—was hard enough to fathom. She never thought she’d have to fight for them, too.

The thought of losing her nephew and nieces to Bryce Fontaine left a hollow feeling in the pit of Kaya’s stomach, and as she sat on the bench in the mudroom to shed her boots, she squeezed her eyelids together to stop the stinging tears from falling. If she lost them, she had no one to blame but herself. A stupid, childish grudge against her sister could cost her the three most precious things that have ever entered her life. She had to find a way to keep them.

Kaya opened her eyes and stared at the white ceiling. “God, help me. Make a way for me to keep the children, please.”

As an adult, Kaya didn’t practice any religion, but as a child, she’d lived in a few foster homes where the norm was to attend church on Sundays. She’d sat in the congregation with her foster families and listened, unimpressed, as people shared miracles that God had done in their lives. Before she’d become a ward of the state of Florida, Kaya had spent years praying for her father to come back and take her out of the hellhole he’d left her in. Since God never answered that prayer, she’d stop believing in miracles.

From what she’d learned about Michael and Lauren, it seemed as if they’d been regular church attendees, so perhaps God would grant this wish—not for her, but for Michael and Lauren and their children’s sakes.

Feeling a little more balanced in spirit, Kaya got up and opened the door that led into the house. But as she entered the palatial foyer and took in the grandeur of the marble Grecian columns separating several richly furnished areas of the first floor, and the myriad of Palladian windows that afforded breathtaking views of Crystal Lake and the rolling mountains behind it, Bryce’s claim rang loud and clear in her ears.

Mine. L’etoile du Nord belongs to me. 

This was Bryce Fontaine’s house. And she’d bet anything that in that big head of his, he thought that he owned everything in it, including her sister’s children. Yet, she thought, biting into her lower lip, nowhere in this house, not even in the third-floor unfinished master suite, was there a sign that Bryce Fontaine lived here.

Why didn’t he live here? Why were her sister and her family living in his house? And why didn’t anybody bother to tell her what was going on?

Lauren never explained anything about her private life in their occasional snail-mail correspondences. She’d merely sent pictures of the family with short captions to explain who each one was, but at the end of each letter, she expressed her wish that the two of them would have a chance to meet again, get to know each other, and talk about their father. It was the last part that always got to Kaya. Back then, she’d had no desire to talk to Lauren about the father who’d chosen Lauren and her mother over her. Today, she’d give anything to sit down with her sister and learn about the man she’d once loved with all her little heart and soul.

“Auntie Kaya, you’re home. You’re home.” 

Kaya looked up at the sound of the cheerful voice and the pitter-pattering of feet on the landing linking the two sprawling staircases to the second floor. She smiled as Alyssa, with Snoopy clutched under one arm, raced down a flight of steps as quickly as her little legs would carry her.

All of Kaya’s doubts vanished at the glee on the little girl’s face. She couldn’t remember anyone ever being this excited to see her, but she could remember being just as excited to see her father when she was a little girl. She dropped her purse on a nearby table and opened her arms as Alyssa ran to her.

“Hey, baby.” She hugged the dark-brown curly-headed child and kissed her relentlessly. How could she have forgotten she had Alyssa on her side? This darling little child had accepted her without question. She was Kaya’s glimmer of hope, her assurance that all would work out for the best.

Alyssa was still too young to understand the sudden void in her life, and last night at bedtime when she’d asked where her mommy and daddy were, Kaya had simply told her that they had gone to heaven.

“Did they go for a vacation? Can I go to heaven to see them, Auntie Kaya?” she’d asked.

“One day, honey. One day,” Kaya had replied on a sob.

“You didn’t kiss Snoopy,” Alyssa said, holding up her favorite stuffed animal that was once white and fluffy, but was now a tattered dull grey from four years of heavy loving.

Kaya gave Snoopy a tight-lipped peck on his scruffy black nose. She refused to think of the plethora of germs crawling all over that dog. Snoopy went everywhere with Alyssa, even to the bathroom.

“Did you bring me a present, Auntie Kaya?” Alyssa fiddled with the locket around Kaya’s neck. 

“Not this time, sweetie.” Kaya gazed into her sparkling eyes—Eli Brehna’s eyes, eyes that she’d also inherited, eyes that Nadine cursed each time she looked at her daughter.

“Why didn’t you bring me a present, Auntie Kaya?”

“Because when Little Brownie Locks was climbing up the snowy mountain,” she began while tickling Alyssa’s tummy, “she met a big bad bear who scared her so much…” Kaya growled for emphasis. “Little Brownie Locks was so frightened, she forgot all the important things she had to do, and she ran all the way home, screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy, the big bad bear is after me. Mommy, Mommy, help me.’”

As Alyssa screamed in delight, the parallelism of that tale to her encounter with Bryce made Kaya’s heart race. She’d been so preoccupied with his threats, she’d forgotten to stop at the quilt shop in town to pick up a new dress for one of Alyssa’s many dolls. Last night, she’d learned that Alyssa was a doll collector, and never said no to a new one, not even duplicates.

“Tickle me some more, Auntie Kaya,” Alyssa yelled, wriggling around in her arms. 

Kaya obliged and pressed her close as she giggled uncontrollably. Kaya breathed in the sounds of joy. Anything was better than the ominous cloud hanging over the house, waiting to burst and drench their hearts with sorrow. She took a few wavering steps and plopped down on the sofa closest to the deep-ledged fireplace that separated the living and dining areas.

For a few moments, she gazed out at the winter wonderland beyond the tinted glass windows. She was surrounded with a white calmness, so different from the unceasing din of Palm Beach. Life will be very different for these children in Palm Beach, she thought, turning her attention to Alyssa who was now fiddling with her locket again. “Where’s everybody?” she asked.

“Jason’s in his room and Miss Libby is in Stasia’s room.” Alyssa clapped her hand over her mouth, her eyes opening wide. “Shhhh.”  She brought her lips close to Kaya’s ear. “Miss Libby says be quiet ‘cause she’s putting Stasia to bed.”

Kaya chuckled. “Now you tell me after all that screaming you just did.” Thank God the house was huge, and that the nursery was on the second floor on the opposite side of house.

“I thought I heard you.”

Kaya smiled at the freckled-face redhead descending the stairs. She’d known Libby for less than twenty-four hours and she already felt as if they were close friends.

Kaya had felt very welcomed since she’d stepped off the plane in Manchester to find a Fontaine Enterprises jet, albeit a small one, waiting to fly her to Granite Falls. She’d arrived at L’etoile du Nord to meet Libby and Steven, Ethan Bennett—whom she learned was Jason’s best friend—and his mother, Adrianna. She’d also met Pastor Reuben Kelly and his wife Samantha from Granite Falls Community Church. They’d all raced to the house the night Michael and Lauren died, and had stayed with the children until Kaya arrived.

If it was one thing that was made clear to Kaya right away, it was that the children had a strong support system in place. They’d shown up in the time of a crisis, and Kaya was grateful for the time they’d spend with her and the children, but once they felt that she could handle the situation, they’d returned to their families and lives. Pastor Kelly had a church to run and Samantha had other clients to attend to. Adrianna had two more children at home—a toddler and an infant—and Libby had a previously scheduled bridal dress fitting.

If Kaya were to be honest with herself, she’d admit that after everyone went home last night, leaving her all alone with a screaming infant, she’d been tempted to catch the first flight back to Florida this morning. But when Alyssa had crawled into her bed in the early hours of dawn, wrapped her arms about her neck and told her that she loved her, all thoughts of running had been vanquished from Kaya’s mind. This situation was different from any she’d ever faced, and she knew she was already messing up, big time, but she wasn’t a quitter. She wasn’t going to quit these kids just because her circumstance looked impossible to overcome.

“Is she sleeping?” Kaya asked, jutting her chin at the monitor in Libby’s hand.

Libby set the monitor on the marble table in front of the sofa and sat down beside Kaya. “I got her to take a couple ounces of formula. That will hold her for a little while. She misses nursing.” She rolled her eyes in Alyssa’s direction.

Kaya nodded her understanding. Samantha had instructed them not to say anything to Alyssa about her parents’ deaths until Bryce was back. Samantha thought he should be the one to tell her since he’d been like a father to her for her entire life. Only now did Kaya understand the gravity of those words. Would Samantha testify on Bryce’s behalf in a custody battle?

Kaya swallowed and smiled at the child sitting on her lap. “Alyssa, can you go play with your dolls for a while? I need to talk with Miss Libby.”

“I wanna stay with you.” Alyssa tightened her hand around Kaya’s waist. “I’ll be quiet and not interrupt.”

“I know you’ll be quiet, but I need to talk about some grownup stuff with Miss Libby. It’s just for a little while. Okay?”

Alyssa pouted and reluctantly climbed off her lap. “Will you play dolls with me?”

“In a little while.”

“Okay, Auntie Kaya. Don’t forget, now.”

“I wouldn’t. I promise.”

Alyssa skipped across the floor and descended three short steps that led into a playroom near the kitchen area.

“So, how did your meeting with Steven go?” Libby asked.

“Interesting.” Kaya noted the sparkle in Libby’s eyes at the mention of her fiancé. Kaya never felt enthusiastic when she spoke about Jack, thought of him, or even when she was with him. He seemed more like an old familiar friend than a fiancé. The sight of him caused her no real delight, just a warm comfortable feeling, like she would get from slipping on a cozy sweater on a chilly evening, and being grateful that it still fit, and could do its job.

But her heart was pounding out of control at the mere thought of Bryce Fontaine. Her fingers still tingled from his touch, and those gnawing pangs in the core of her belly were back at the memory of his dark probing eyes, sexy brown lips, and bronzed giant stature.

The man had set her on fire with just one look.

Kaya let out a harsh breath. “Is he always so damned arrogant?”

“Who, Steven?” A frown wrinkled Libby’s forehead.

“No. The godfather.”

“Oh.” Libby split a wry, freckled smile. “You met Bryce.”

“Collided with Bryce would be a more accurate account.” Kaya had to bite back her impression of the man since Libby worked at Fontaine Enterprises as head of the accounting department. “Why didn’t you tell me this house belonged to him?”

Libby shrugged. “I assumed you knew. Didn’t you and your sister talk?”

“I wish we did. Then I might understand why Bryce thinks her children belong to him. He went ballistic when he heard I’d inherited them and that I was taking them to Florida with me. For a minute there, I thought he was the biological father instead of the godfather.”

Libby dropped her gaze and her expression turned somber.

“What is it, Libby? Is there something I should know, besides what I don’t already?” 

“Bryce loves these kids, Kaya. It would break his heart if you took them away from here.”

“So do you and Steven, but I don’t see you going into a rage over it.”

“It’s different for Bryce. Ever since—”

“Ever since what?” Kaya prompted when Libby stopped.

“Bryce experienced a horrific heartbreak a few years ago, Kaya. It changed him in more ways than any of us anticipated, even his parents. He still hasn’t recovered from it. Just go easy on him, okay? I know he can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but his heart is always in the right place.”

That was hard for Kaya to believe after the way he’d tried to pay her off. She should have known there was something profound driving that man. He’d been warm and charming when she’d first met him, then in the space of a heartbeat, he’d turned into a raging tyrant. Now Libby was telling her that the omnipotent Bryce Fontaine wasn’t that invincible after all. He was human and vulnerable like the rest of them.

“What happened to him, Libby?” The depth of Kaya’s curiosity, the force of her need to know more about the man who rubbed her in all the wrong ways, surprised even her.

“I shouldn’t have said anything.” Libby shot to her feet and clasped her hands over her mouth as if to keep more gossip from spilling out.

Kaya followed her up. “But you did. And you can’t leave me hanging like this. Maybe, if I know what’s going on in his head, I could better understand his irrational behavior.”

“Would it change your mind about taking the kids to Florida with you?”

“I don’t know.”

Libby eyed her speculatively. “Just forget I said anything. When and if Bryce wants you to know about his past, he’ll tell you. Please, don’t tell him that I mentioned it. He trusts very few people in this world, and two of them just died. I don’t want to give him a reason not to trust me.”

“Okay, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say anything.” Accepting that any more discussions about Bryce were over, Kaya walked to the fireplace and stretched her hands toward the leaping flames behind the glass-enclosed hearth. Libby was clearly concerned about ruining her relationship with Bryce. Not only was the man domineering and intimidating, he had his entourage of loyal disciples to protect and defend him.

In spite of the internal havoc he was already causing to her being, and the obstacles he could place in her path to retaining custody of the children, Kaya couldn’t help but wonder about the painful experience Bryce had suffered.

Whatever it was, she was certain that he didn’t want her pity or her sympathy. He wasn’t the kind of man to wear his heart on his sleeve, either. She’d only spent a few minutes in his presence, but she already had him figured out. Bryce Fontaine wasn’t the kind of man who would let anyone know he was hurting, emotionally or physically. He was proud.

Sensing someone was watching her, Kaya gazed across the wide open space of the first floor. Sure enough, Jason was standing in an informal dining area off the kitchen, observing her. Even from a distance, she felt the disdain in his silver-grey eyes.

He was the most light-footed child she’d ever known. She could hear Alyssa coming from a mile away, but Jason made his presence known only when he was ready. Several times yesterday, she’d caught him eyeing her like a full-bellied cat would eye a bird with a broken wing—not knowing whether or not to be bothered.

Unlike Alyssa, he’d been wary of her, but politely civil when she first arrived. But last night, it all changed when she’d offered to tuck him in. He’d screamed at her, telling her that she was not his mother and to leave him alone. Then he’d slammed his bedroom door in her face.

He’d given her a glimpse of Little Kaya. After her father walked out on her, she’d become filled with rage. Nadine had tried to beat it out of her, to no avail. As Kaya thought about it, she realized that it was only after Nadine abandoned her and she was placed in foster care that her anger began to subdue. She wasn’t mad at the world; she was just mad at Nadine. It was Nadine’s fault that her father had left. Kaya wished her father had fought for her, like Bryce was prepared to fight for Jason and his sisters. Oh, to know love like that.

Jason sauntered up to Libby, ignoring Kaya altogether. “Miss Libby, when are Uncle Bryce and Mommy and Daddy coming home?”

“Soon, Jason.” Kaya gave Libby a silencing shake of the head.

“Yeah, soon,” Libby backed her up.

She didn’t want him to know that Bryce was back, not until she figured out how to deal with the man. As she watched Jason’s shoulders droop, Kaya felt like someone was snipping little pieces of her heart out with a pair of giant scissors. His moment of truth was near.

“Can I stay at your place until they come home?”

Libby rested her hands on his shoulders. “I’ll tell you what. I have to go into town to run some errands. Would you like to come along for the ride? We can stop at Mountainview Café and have a bowl of Miss Eloise’s homemade clam chowder that you love.”

“Okay, and maybe if Ethan is there, I can see him?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Libby ruffled his curly black hair.

Kaya wished she could have been the one to cause the hint of a smile that flitted across Jason’s face. She knew that deep down inside, he was a sweet kid. She wanted so much to put her arms around him, tell him that she loved him.

“Ethan’s grandmother owns the café,” Libby told Kaya.

Kaya nodded. “I see.”

“Run on upstairs and put on some warm clothes.” Libby tugged on the sleeve of Jason’s T-shirt. “We don’t want you getting sick.”

He left without giving Kaya a second glance.

“I don’t mean to take over,” Libby added when they were alone again. “But he’s been cooped up in this house for two days, now. It’s school winter break, and he would have been out on the ski trails with his father every day if—” She shrugged. “You know.”

“I understand.” Kaya placed a hand on her shoulder. Nobody seemed to want to utter the words, “dead” or “died”. “You know them better than I do. I get it.”

“Auntie Kaya, me and my dollies are ready for tea,” Alyssa called from the playroom.

“I’ll be right there.”

Libby cleared her throat. “Um, my sister asked me to pick up my niece, Courtney, from daycare. She’s Alyssa’s age, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to take her with me, too. Anastasia is asleep and I’m sure you could use some rest.”

“What do I tell Bryce when he comes knocking?” She could just imagine his ire at not finding his children at home. 

“Use the time to talk. Get to know him. He’s a good man, Kaya. You’ll see that once you get past his hard exterior.”

Kaya doubted that very much. “I feel awful you’re using your week off from work to help me out when you have a summer wedding to plan,” she said.

“I’ll have plenty of time for wedding plans. The kids are much more important right now.” She gave Kaya’s arm a comforting squeeze. “Jason will come around. Just give him time.”

Time? Time was one luxury Kaya didn’t have. Not with Bryce Fontaine breathing down her neck.

* * *

As she paced the nursery with a screaming Anastasia in her arms, Kaya wondered why Bryce still hadn’t shown up with the sheriff and the town’s two cops in tow.

On the other hand, she was grateful he hadn’t. With Jason and Alyssa gone, she’d used the alone time to get some important things done—like asking the undertaker to use his least expensive caskets since she now knew that the funeral cost was coming out of her pocket. She would love to give her sister and brother-in-law a more glamorous burial, but she had to watch every penny she spent from now on.

She’d also called Jack at his job, and was holding until he got off the line with a supplier when Anastasia’s whimpers came through the monitor. She’d hung up with semi-regret. She wasn’t looking forward to having a conversation about her new charges with Jack. He didn’t really like kids. Needy and annoying were his constant description of them. Dah!

She’d agreed to marry him—not because she also disliked children, but because she wasn’t planning on having any. She’d been too afraid that she’d turn out to be as despicable a mother as Nadine. But now that she’d inherited three little ones, Kaya knew she’d do everything in her power to see that they were loved and well taken care of. She could only hope that Jack’s attitude towards children would change once he met hers.

“Hush, baby,” Kaya whispered as Anastasia hit a higher note, causing a horrendous ringing in her ears. She’d changed her, tried to feed her, unsuccessfully, then sang, terribly off-key, every lullaby she could pull from her childhood memories. But Anastasia refused to be comforted. As a last resort, Kaya had finally called Dr. LaCrosse, her sister’s OB/GYN, who was also the children’s pediatrician, only to be told that he was away on his honeymoon. The physician who was filling in for him was in surgery, and would call her back when he was done. She was still waiting.

“Please, Stasia. Stop crying,” Kaya begged, rocking her gently in the crook of her arm.  “I wish I knew what was wrong with you, but I don’t. Please—”

“Why is she screaming like that? I heard her all the way from the courtyard.”

Kaya tensed at the deep voice rising above the piercing cries. She spun around. Bryce’s imposing figure hugged the doorway. He’d shaved, and had changed into jeans and a pullover shirt that lay snugly against the hard muscles of his stomach, his wide powerful chest and broad shoulders.

She’d told herself that nothing he did or said would shake her confidence. But as she gazed into his censuring eyes, Kaya’s heart began to pound with fear of the trouble he could cause her.

He pushed away from the door, picked up a pink blanket from the changing table and draped it over his shoulder. “You told me she’s been fussy, not that she’s been trying to start an avalanche around us. Give her to me.” He towered over Kaya, arms outstretched.

“I can handle it.” Kaya tightened her hold and backed up a step. His demand to give Anastasia to him was tantamount to the one he’d made in Steven’s office to hand over custody of all the children to him. “I don’t need your help,” she said tersely.

“Oh, really?” he drawled, his eyes laced with skepticism. A humorous smile played at the corner of his mouth as he took in her petite framed swallowed up in one of Lauren’s huge sweaters.

Kaya took another backward step, only to discover he’d cornered her between the crib and a chest of drawers. Realizing he was not going to move, she pressed her bare feet into the lambskin throw rug and held her ground. As unbearable as the screams were, it would be worse if Bryce proved he was more adept than her at handling a fussy baby. It would be one more weapon he could use against her in court.

Kaya’s mind fast-forwarded. “Your Honor, when I walked into the nursery, Miss Brehna was holding the screaming infant, little Anastasia. It was clear that she had no idea what she was doing, and that the child had been crying for quite some time. If I hadn’t shown up when I did, I— I—” His voice would crack deliberately. “I tremble to think what could have happened to that baby. We’ve heard of young inexperienced mothers who have shaken their babies…” A tear would slip from his eye. “I thank God that I got there in time to prevent another tragedy.”

Bastard!

“Kaya, just give her to me. Come on.”

Kaya shook her head and rewound to the present. She glared at Bryce and tightened her hold on Anastasia

“This screaming isn’t good for her lungs, and quite frankly it’s hard on my ears.” Bryce reached out again, his dark eyes daring her to disagree with him.

Kaya glanced down at the red-faced, squirming child in her arms, wanting so much to be the one to give her comfort, to get her used to the idea that her auntie Kaya, and no one else, was now her sole provider. Pride tempted her to ignore Bryce, but sensibility pushed her to hand over the baby since all of her novice attempts at calming her had failed. “Okay. Okay. You can have her.”

As she placed Anastasia in his arms, Bryce’s scent, his nearness, and the brush of his fingertips against her arms sent a host of dizzying sensations rushing through Kaya. Their eyes locked, and somewhere in the blackness of his, Kaya detected a flash of lust. Elemental need. Unadulterated want. She knew that look. She’d encountered it many times from a multitude of men. But she’d never been this terrified of her reaction to it.

It was exciting, suffocating, and weakening, all in one. Yet, she found herself powerless or unwilling to avert her gaze. Another reason she’d agreed to marry Jack was that he never looked at her that way. Perhaps Jack never really looked at her, just through her and around her. He’d never seen her. She felt comfortable with him. Too comfortable

Kaya let out the breath she’d been holding when Bryce took a backward step and shifted his gaze to the baby. In that spellbinding moment, Bryce had awakened something deep inside her. Curiosity? No. She told herself that it was antipathy. He was on a mission to destroy her. It would be in her best interest not to lose sight of that fact. His penetrating stare was one of intimidation. That was all it was.

She watched as he cradled Anastasia’s tiny head in one of his large hands and clasped the other around the scrawny little body. Ignoring the flailing arms and legs, he raised her close to his face and began to sing a song Kaya had never heard before.

Sweet baby child, hush, don’t you cry

Momma’s gone away for a little while

Soon she’ll be home with a bright happy smile

And she’ll hug and rock, her sweet baby child

Sweet baby child, hush, don’t you cry...

As she listened to the words that would never come to pass, tears pooled in Kaya’s eyes. Lauren was gone, not for a while, but forever. She would never kiss, nor hug, nor rock her sweet baby child again.

In the midst of her troubling thoughts, the deep, soothing rhythm of Bryce’s voice resonated through Kaya, melting away her fears and frustrations over his meddling.

She felt blessed relief.

The man could sing a fledgling from the safety and comfort of its nest, she thought, watching him pace back and forth with Anastasia in his arms. Luther Vandross had nothing on him. With a voice so beautiful, so touching, he could have been a star.

Anastasia apparently thought so, too, because as Bryce chanted the chorus over and over again, her screams eventually faded to an occasional hiccup and a series of soft, throaty gurgles.

He’d succeeded where she had failed.

“Yes, that’s it, sweetheart,” he cooed, gazing into the tiny face with the most tenderness and patience Kaya had ever seen in a man. “Uncle Bryce knows just what you need, doesn’t he?”

He settled her against his wide chest, his enormous hands supporting her back, his long brown fingers wrapping around the perimeter of her body. Kaya would never have dreamed a man holding a baby could look so irresistible. Especially a man she didn’t trust with that very same baby.

“That’s my baby,” he said as Anastasia blew out a bubble and gurgled at him. “You miss your mommy and daddy, don’t you? I know, darling. I miss them, too. But Uncle Bryce is home now. He’ll take good care of you, Little Stasia. I will always be here for you. I promise from the bottom of my heart.”

He came to a halt in front of Kaya, sending a pleasant combination of masculine odor and baby powder up her nostrils. “You’re not taking these children out of Granite Falls,” he warned in a low, gruff tone. “This is their home. It’s where they belong and it’s where they’ll stay. Why don’t you make it easy on everyone, Kaya, and just sign them over to me? I know what they need.”

“That’s not what their parents wanted, Bryce. They named me legal guardian in their will.”

“Where there’s a will, Miss Brehna, there’s always a way to break it.”

Kaya folded her arms and stared up at him, not knowing whether he was referring to her heart’s will to take the children to Florida, or the legal document that gave her custody of them. Perhaps a little of both. “I don’t want to argue with you again, Bryce. At least not today,” she added, remembering what Libby had said, or not said about the “something awful” in his past.

“We don’t need to argue at all, Kaya. Just do what you know is best for them.”

Kaya strode to the east window overlooking the snow-covered hills of the White Mountain National Range. Apart from an immediate abundance of love and patience, she had no idea what was best. It took a lot of money to raise kids. She could remember her mother’s constant complaints about not having enough money for one thing or the other. And Nadine only had one child, plus she was receiving a monthly child support check from Kaya’s father.

She, on the other hand, had just inherited three children. With formula, diapers, after-school and daycare added to her rent and car payments, not to mention the emergencies that were sure to pop up every so often, Kaya knew that life as she’d known it was over. No more exclusive clothes and pricey shoes. No more eating out at expensive restaurants. No more weekend getaways. It was work, work, and more work from here on in.

She would have to take on more customers and work longer hours. Her career required that she live in a big city where she had access to an infinite number of wealthy people and thriving businesses. Granite Falls was a wealthy, thriving town, she had to admit, but it was small. There wasn’t room for expansion up here in the mountains, and it was bitterly cold. Even if she sold her father’s jewel and stayed in Granite Falls, the money would run out eventually, and she’d be back to square one.

Florida was her only choice. She had to make Bryce understand the position she was in, and at the same time, find a way to establish a friendship with him for the children’s sake.

Chapter 3

“Where are Jason and Alyssa?”

Kaya turned around as the anticipated question broke into her thoughts. “Libby took them into town to see Ethan and Courtney. They needed some fresh air. I hope you don’t mind that they aren’t here.”

“Not at all. Freed me up for this little one. She needed special attention.” He smiled at the baby before looking Kaya up and down, quizzically. “Why are you wearing Lauren’s clothes? Don’t you have any of your own?”

Kaya pushed the oversized sleeves up her arms. “Since Anastasia’s been crying so much, Adrianna Bennett suggested I wear Lauren’s clothes to give Anastasia a sense of Lauren’s smell. She said it worked for her mother when she babysat her children.”

“Did it work for you?”

“Did it look like it was working when you barged in?” The mockery in his voice and eyes fueled her exasperation. “How did you get into the house, anyway? I know I locked the doors after Libby left.”

“I have a key. Mike and Lauren allowed me to go and come as I please. Do you have a problem with that?”

Kaya shrugged. “It’s your house.”

He closed the distance between them and glared down at her, his mouth taking on an unpleasant twist. She was quite taken aback when instead of delivering some curt remark, he merely held the baby out to her. “Would you like to hold her? Experience the feel of a happy baby in your arms?”

Kaya took a swift glance at Anastasia, who seemed quite content to remain where she was. “She might start screaming again. Maybe she’s allergic to me.”

He sat down on the window seat. “She just misses her mommy and daddy. You have to learn how to calm her.” He put his thighs together and placed Anastasia on her back, her head resting on his knees and her legs toward his belly. He began to rub her tummy in slow, circular motions. “She likes this position. It’s her favorite.”

What’s your favorite position, Mr. Fontaine?

Kaya shook her head, shocked as the question formulated in her mind. What was wrong with her? She’d never had these scandalous thoughts about any man before. Ever since she’d met Bryce this morning, he’d been making her feel things, want things that were foreign to her. And she didn’t even like the man.

The sight of his long fingers making circular motions on the baby’s tummy made Kaya’s knees weak. With a shudder, she dropped down on the window seat, being careful not to sit too close to him. She couldn’t handle another surge of current ripping through her. The man exuded enough bolts to short-circuit her heart. “She seemed to like that lullaby you were singing to her,” she told Bryce. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“You wouldn’t have.” The sharpness in his black eyes dimmed a notch, and for a split second he looked as if he’d been transported back into a dark time in his life.

Did he lose a child? Kaya wondered. Was that the bad experience Libby had mentioned? If he’d lost a child, where was the mother? Had he lost her, too? Was he married? Her heart skipped a beat. No. If he was married, he would have a ring on his finger, and his wife would be in the pictures he’d taken with Lauren and her family. He wasn’t married. She knew she couldn’t ask him anything without giving Libby away, so Kaya tucked her questions away for another time. “It’s a beautiful song,” she said with a bright smile. “And Anastasia thinks so, too. Look at her, gurgling and happy.”

“Here, hold her,” he offered again, gathering Anastasia into his arms.

Still reveling in the peaceful moments, Kaya put up her hands to stay him. Once she learned that song and mastered the art of baby-tummy-rubbing, she would have plenty of time to enjoy a quiet baby, whereas his time with her was limited. “You seem to have a way with her. Or maybe you just have a way with all women, no matter the age, Mr. Fontaine.”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that if you stick around long enough, Miss Brehna.”

“Then I guess I’ll never know. The children and I are leaving for Palm Beach next week.” The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them. He’d just saved her day. She could be a little more understanding, a bit more sympathetic to his feelings. “I’m sorry, Bryce. I shouldn’t have said that.”

He graced her with an unexpected smile. “It doesn’t matter, Kaya. You may be going back to Palm Beach, but these kids aren’t going anywhere.”

“You seem so sure of—” Kaya stopped at the sound of feet thundering down the hall. Jason and Alyssa were screaming Bryce’s name as they raced each other to the nursery.

“Here, you have to take her.”

She got Anastasia out of his arms mere seconds before two excited kids burst into the room and threw themselves at him.

“Oh, boy.” He fell to his knees and wrapped them in a big hug. “I’m glad somebody’s happy to see me.”

Kaya mouthed a thank-you to Libby, who waved a goodbye from the door before hurrying away.

“Did you bring me a present, Uncle Bryce? You promised you’d bring me a present,” Alyssa said.

“You sure know how to deflate a man’s ego, darling Alyssa.”

Kaya smiled as Bryce sat on the rug and settled the little girl on one thigh while Jason perched on the other, their arms linking around his shoulders.

“What’s an ego, Uncle Bryce?” Alyssa asked.

“Something you don’t have to worry about for a long, long time, my sweet.” He tweaked her nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“So, did you bring me a present?” Alyssa rocked impatiently back and forth.

“Am I merely a present uncle to you, Alyssa? Is that all I’m good for?”

“I’ll give you a one hundreds of kisses.” She slapped her hands on his cheeks and lathered his face with noisy smooches.

“Okay. Okay. Hold the saliva. I brought you a new doll. It’s in your room.” 

“Cool. Wicked cool.” She skipped out of the nursery.

“Such a little manipulator.” He wiped at his wet face, his broad smile softening his dark features. “That one would do anything, say anything, to get what she wants.”

“I know. Last night she justified getting into my makeup by claiming she wanted to be pretty like me. She’s mischievous, but so adorable. You can’t help but love her.”

Bryce chuckled.

Kaya laughed out loud. It was endearing to see this jovial side of him brought out by the antics of a four-year-old girl. He reminded her of her father and the fun times they used to have before he disappeared from her life. She was just a few months older than Alyssa the last time she saw him. So young to lose the most important man in her life. It saddened her to know that Alyssa had to experience a more permanent loss, but she was consoled that her niece had her uncle Bryce to fill the void Michael’s absence had created.

Yes, there was a definite bond of love and trust between Bryce and his godchildren, she thought, easing into the big, comfy chair near the crib and arranging Anastasia on her lap as she’d seen Bryce do. If she took these children away from him, they would see her as the mean old dragon for breaking that bond, just as she’d thought of Nadine for driving her father away.

You’re nothing like Nadine. You would never hurt these kids. The fact that you are willing to fight for them proves you’re different.

“I brought you a present, too, Jason.” Bryce’s voice reclaimed Kaya’s attention.

“What?”

“A set of skate skis and a snowboard. They’re the fastest and most popular on the market. All the kids in Europe are going bonkers over them. They’re black and chrome. I think that’s the color you wanted.”

“Yes, it is. Thanks, Uncle Bryce. You’re the best.” He wrapped his arms about Bryce.

Bryce hugged him close, but the grim look on his face told Kaya that he dreaded the next few moments.

He cleared his throat. “So how are you, son?”

“I’m fine. Why didn’t Mommy and Daddy come home with you? Are they having too much fun on the Alps?”

Bryce inhaled deeply and sharply.

Kaya shuddered. Jason’s heart was about to be broken.

“Jason, your parents didn’t go to Switzerland with me.”

“Yes, they did. Daddy said he and Mommy had such a good time when we all went before that they were going back again. I know they’re still there. You left them there, like you left us the last time when you had to come back home for business. Right?”

Bryce hesitated, swallowing, as if fighting his own affirmation, as if trying to find the right words for the little boy who wanted so much to believe the impossible.

He took Jason’s hands in his, and stared into his eyes. “Jason, listen to me. Your mom and dad didn’t go to Europe with me this time. And I didn’t leave them behind. They were in a terrible car accident two days ago. They died, son. They died.”

“Noooo.” Jason shook his head, his eyes wide with negation. “Noooo. Why are you lying, Uncle Bryce? Mommy and Daddy aren’t dead! They wouldn’t ever leave us. They promised. They promised they would never leave us.”

“Have I ever lied to you, Jason?”

He shook his head.

“Then believe me now, son. Your mom and dad are really gone. They didn’t want to leave you and your sisters. They didn’t want to break their promise to you, but it wasn’t their fault. They’re not ever coming home, Jason,” he reiterated.

Jason closed his eyes and his lips trembled as the words sank into his heart, crushed his young soul. “Why?” he wailed, trying so hard to make sense of a loss he didn’t understand and couldn’t accept. “Why did they have to die? Did me and Lyssa and Stasia do something wrong?”

“No! You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Then why did God take them away from us? Why did He take the two of them? Couldn’t he have left us just one?”

“I don’t know, son? I don’t know.” Bryce’s voice trembled with his own anguish and helplessness.

Tears rolled down Kaya’s face as Bryce hugged the child to his chest. Jason’s astute questions rang in her ears. Why did God take both of them? He could have left them one. She had wondered the same thing. Why did they both have to die?

“It’s not fair.” Jason’s body rocked with sobs. “It’s not fair. I want my mom and my dad back, Uncle Bryce. Please, bring them back home.”

“I wish I could, Jase. I really wish I could.”

“I hate God. I hate Him for taking them away from us.”

Bryce pulled the boy’s hands from around his neck and stared into his face. “Jason, I never want to hear you say that again. Promise me you won’t.”

Jason swiped the back of his hand across his nose. “You told Daddy you hate God for taking Aunt Pilar from you. I want to be like you, Uncle Bryce. I want to hate him, too.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t want to be like me. You cannot hate God. You hear me. You cannot hate him.”

Jason ran out of the room, sobbing. 

Kaya stared at Bryce. His face was contorted, and his hands were pressed against his temples as if he were trying to muffle noises in his head.

A cold knot formed in her stomach. Pilar was Bryce’s horrific experience.

Who was she? His sister? Lover? Wife? Whoever she was, her death had caused Bryce to hate God. He must have loved her deeply.

That’s why Michael and Lauren had left the children to her. As much as they loved Bryce, and as much as he loved them, they couldn’t leave their children to a man who hated a God they evidently believed in. Not that she was any better when it came to religious matters. She didn’t even attend church. She probably knew less about God than Bryce did, but she didn’t hate him. She wasn’t that stupid to alienate the Almighty Power and bring his wrath down upon her.

With a shake of her head, Kaya pulled her wits together. Whatever had happened in Bryce’s past was his business. It was none of her concern. Her concern was that little boy who’d just declared that he wanted to be like his Uncle Bryce, the man he adored, the man who may very well replace his father in his young malleable life.

The man who hated God.

“Go on, say it.” Bryce was on his feet, glaring down at her.

“Say what?”

“That I’m an ungrateful rebel for hating God. I mean look at me. I’ve been blessed with more wealth than any one man should have a right to, and I still can’t enjoy it. Tell me I’m a horrible person. It’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”

“No,” she answered, meeting his stormy gaze. “If you’re a rebel, you probably have a cause. As to you being ungrateful, I don’t know you well enough to make that assumption. You’re obviously hurt, angry—stuck in neutral, maybe. But I do know that you’re not a horrible person, Bryce Fontaine. These children love you. If you were as bad as you think you are, they wouldn’t give you the time of day. Children are like that. They instinctively shun the bad and embrace the good.”

“What are you, some kind of shrink?”

No, but I’ve spend enough time with one to know what she would have said. “I’m just very worried about Jason,” Kaya said in an attempt to steer the topic of conversation away from Bryce. She hadn’t come to Granite Falls to fix his problems. She had her own. “I knew he’d be upset when he heard the truth. I didn’t expect this outrage.”

“He’s in shock. He doesn’t really mean what he said.” Bryce wiped his hand over his short crop of black hair. “I should call Samantha.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. She said to call her after you talked to him.”

Anastasia began to whimper again. Kaya rubbed her tummy the way she’d seen Bryce do. It didn’t help. Her whimpers grew louder.

“What’s wrong with her now?” he asked, looking at the infant with a bit of impatience.

“I think she’s hungry.”

“Then feed her.”

“That’s the problem. She misses being nursed. She doesn’t take the bottle well. Or maybe it’s the formula she doesn’t like. I— I called her pediatrician—”

He glanced at the half empty feeding bottle sitting on the dresser. He picked it up and pinched the nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

Kaya inhaled sharply, and to conceal her response to his actions, she gathered Anastasia and hoisted her over her shoulder.

“Did you try a different kind of nipple?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Of course, what would you know about babies and bottles and nipples? Rearranging furniture is your specialty.” He set the bottle back on the dresser.

“There are different kinds of nipples? A nipple is a nipple, isn’t it?”

“No, Kaya. A nipple is never just a nipple. Nipples come in different colors, shapes, sizes, and textures.”

The slow, seductive sound of his voice, especially when he said “nipple” coupled with the sensual flame in his dark eyes, caused Kaya’s own nipples to tingle and harden beneath her lacy bra. She was so happy she was wearing one of Lauren’s bulky sweaters. 

When his eyes shifted from her face to her heaving chest, then back to her face, she knew that he knew that she knew they’d moved beyond discussing the nipple on a baby bottle. Heat and moisture gathered at the junction of her thighs. Her throat became dry, and she had no power to stop the soft moan that escaped her.

“Babies get attached to the feel and texture of their mothers.”

God, he wasn’t done. If he said that word one more time…

“What you have to do is find a nipple that matches the shape—”

“Okay! I got it.” Just shut up, already.

A satisfied smile curved his lips.

She wanted to smack him. Again. Twice in one day.

Maybe seduction was his way of convincing women to yield to his desires. If he thought he could just sing her a lullaby and she’d lie down beneath him, he’d better think again. She had to remember that they were still at odds when it came to the future of the children. “How do you know so much about babies? You don’t even have kids of your own. Or do you?”

“Kaya, as far as I’m concerned, these kids are just as good as mine.”

Just the answer she was expecting.

He pulled his cell from a case at his waist and strode out the door on his Viking legs, leaving her just as he’d found her—in the middle of the nursery, holding a fussy baby in her arms.

* * *

“They’ve been up there forever,” Kaya said as she walked into the kitchen from the playroom where she’d just put on a movie for Alyssa, Snoopy, and her dolls.  

“It hasn’t been that long,” Bryce replied from the chair where he’d just sat down to feed Anastasia.

“It feels like it.” Kaya stared at the mess of bottles and nipples of varying sizes, textures, and colors scattered on the counter top. There were nipples made from latex and some from silicone; there were angled, orthodontic, and vented-shaped nipples; there were small, medium and large nipples with varying ranges of flow speeds. And then there was a huge variety of bottle textures and shapes to chose from.

There was definitely an acute science to this bottle and nipple amalgamation, Kaya thought, as she watched Anastasia suckling greedily from the “nipple she had chosen” according to Bryce—a latex, orthodontic, medium-flow nipple. They’d tried several, until she latched on to that one, which Kaya supposed most closely resembled her mother’s.

Kaya finally took Bryce seriously when he said that he was close to the children and knew how to take care of all their needs. He’d called someone who owned a baby store in downtown Granite Falls, and instructed her to deliver one of every baby bottle and nipple she carried. The man didn’t even have to go out. He called, and the town came running. That was how powerful he was around here. Did she really want to go up against such force?

No, but she would do it for her new family—especially Jason, who she still had to win over. The timing of her return to Palm Beach hinged heavily on his psychological and emotional demeanor, and from what she’d witnessed in the nursery, plus the amount of time he was now spending with Samantha, Kaya knew it would be a while. The thought of spending too much time in Granite Falls filled her with anxiety. The longer she stayed, the stronger the bond between Bryce and his godchildren would become. They might realize that they didn’t need her at all. But she needed them.

“Do you think Jason will be okay?” she asked Bryce grudgingly.

He raised his head. Sorrow and antipathy mingled in his glance. “I don’t know, Kaya. Would you be okay if you’d just lost both your parents?”

“I guess not.” She was never okay after the day she last saw her father.

“I trust Samantha. She knows how to help people through tragedies such as this,” he remarked in a more amicable tone.

So how come she hasn’t helped you through yours? She pulled out the chair at the far end of the table and sat down.

“Jason is a very quiet and sensitive boy. Not the average nine-year-old who’s ashamed to kiss his mother in front of his friends. He and Lauren were very close. They shared a very special kind of love. Maybe it’s because he was her first child and only son. I don’t know. Some people accused Lauren of babying him. Losing her wouldn’t be easy for him.”

“Nor for you.” He was grieving for his friends while trying to stay strong for the children, and still obviously dealing with a loss of his own. It couldn’t be easy for him. The torment in his eyes when Jason had mentioned Pilar in the nursery was embedded into Kaya’s mind forever, and in spite of her protest, her heart took on the weight of his pain. “I’m sorry about the way I acted in Steven’s office, Bryce.”

“I wasn’t that kosher, either. I said some pretty unpleasant things to you.”

“I should have been a little more sympathetic to your grief and more understanding about your close relationship with your godchildren.” She picked up a bottle ring and twirled it around on her finger. “It’s just that, I fell in love with these kids the moment I saw them. They’re family—”

“If you feel that strongly about family, why didn’t you ever come up to visit Lauren?”

Kaya dropped the bottle ring on the table and watched it spin to a stop. Because I was jealous of her. She had the father who’d abandoned me.

She raised her head to find Bryce studying her. “I guess I was too busy building my career. You know, climbing my way to the top of that corporate ladder of success.”

“Touché, Miss Brehna.”

Despite their estrangement, there were details of her sister’s life Kaya wished she knew. Simple things like... “How did Michael and Lauren meet?” she asked, verbalizing her question.

Bryce seemed to enjoy a slow smile before answering.

“They met when Lauren came to Granite Falls to compete in a skiing tournament. She beat Michael’s prized student and took home the gold. Michael was so impressed he offered her a job as an instructor at his school. She returned to Granite Falls after she lost her mother to breast cancer. A mother who until today, I assumed you both shared.”

Kaya was too embarrassed to admit that she didn’t even know when or how Lauren’s mother had died. She’d only met her sister once, and it wasn’t under pleasant circumstances. Then shortly after their father died, Lauren and her mother moved to a town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

“It was love at first sight,” Bryce continued, obviously happy to relate the heartwarming tale. “I was very skeptical of Lauren at first. She was barely an adult, but she soon proved that age was just a number, and that love knew no boundaries.”

“Michael was a lot older than her,” Kaya said of the salt and pepper-haired, distinguished-looking, silver-grey-eyed man she’d seen in the family pictures.

“Quite a bit.” Bryce brushed the pad of his thumb back and forth across Anastasia’s cheek. “Michael was a kid at heart, though. Perhaps that’s why he gravitated toward the younger generation.”

“How long had you known him?”

“Hmm. About twenty years. I signed up for ski lessons at his school. He was the best instructor in both alpine and Nordic skiing around here. Michael took one look at me and said, ‘Son you have a better shot at making a profitable career in football or basketball. Why waste your time and talent on skis?’”

“I’m sure it’s not just because of your quarterback size, but more precisely because of your skin color?”

“Yep. Michael was prejudiced and he didn’t even know it.”

“Well, he must have changed. He married Lauren.”

“That was the best decision he ever made in his miserable life. They were perfect for each other.”

Kaya smiled. “I believe that.”

He gave her a quizzical look. “You’re multicultural.”

“Yes. My mother is white. Are you originally from Granite Falls?” she asked to keep the conversation away from Nadine. That topic was off limits.

“I’m from Queens, New York, actually.”

“A city boy, huh? What brought you to Granite Falls?”

“Boarding school. I fell in love with the natural landscape—the mountains, lakes, rivers, and the people.” He looked out the wall of glass, to the four-season porch and the line of evergreen trees bordering the lake. He smiled like a man who knew he was home and was happy about it. “I had no desire to return to an overcrowded city after this.”

“But Granite Falls is a buzzing city, too,” Kaya remarked. “I was totally surprised when I drove through downtown the first time and saw skyscrapers towering against the snow-covered mountains, and the beautifully restored mill buildings that housed department stores and elite boutiques. Who would think there was a little mecca like this buried in the foothills of the White Mountain National Range? Nobody.”

“Shh. We try to keep it quiet.”

Kaya giggled like a schoolgirl. He did have a sense of humor. “Do you have any other family?”

A frown settled between his brows. “Just my parents. They live in New York. But they like to spend the winters in warmer climates. They’re in Cambodia right now. Last time I heard, they were teaching Cambodian children English at a monastery. I’ve been trying to get them to move here, but they keep putting it off.”

He’s lonely, Kaya thought with a thud in her heart. “How did you finally convince Michael to teach you how to ski?” she asked to brighten the mood.

He chortled. “Michael liked to go off on his own at the end of the day. One afternoon, I followed him out on a pond and he happened to fall through a crack in the ice. I helped him out on the promise that he’d give up his archaic notions about black people and teach me how to ski.”

“So you both got what you wanted?”

“You could say that.”

“Was that when you began honing your negotiating skills?” His reputation as a relentless negotiator preceded him. He’d given her a taste of his shrewdness this morning in Steven’s office, and then later in the nursery when he’d tried to manipulate her with seduction.

The corners of his eyes crinkled on a smile. “Probably. I learned that if people want something badly enough, they’re always willing to make a deal.”

“Your tactics work. Look at what you’ve accomplished in such a short time. This is probably the most beautiful house I’ve ever set foot in. And I should know. I’ve been in some of the grandest on the East Coast.”

His countenance suddenly turned somber and he dropped his gaze to the baby in his arms.

Did speaking about the house bring back unhappy memories for him? Did it have anything to do with Pilar? Did he build the house for her? Did they live here together before she died? Questions swirled around in Kaya’s head. Questions she dared not ask.

They’d only met a few hours ago. She had no right to probe into his private life. The lives of her sister and brother-in-law, however, were open for discussion. She had a right to know how they came to financial ruin, and the reason her whole life had changed overnight at their deaths. “Why were Michael and Lauren living in your house, Bryce?” she asked.

He gazed up through thick, dark lashes. “Lauren never told you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Have you noticed the small scar over Alyssa’s left eye?”

“Yes. But what has that to do with anything?”

“Everything. About a year ago, Alyssa fell and hit her head on the bathtub. She got a nasty cut and Lauren had to rush her to the hospital. Jason was at school and Michael was at work. While they were out, the house exploded.”

Kaya grabbed the locket around her neck. “Oh my God. What happened?”

“A gas leak Michael thought he’d fixed. Lauren had left a fire going in the fireplace. They lost everything, except Snoopy, who was with Alyssa.”

Kaya swallowed back a sob. If Alyssa hadn’t fallen, she and Lauren would have perished in that explosion, and Anastasia wouldn’t be here today. Only Michael and Jason would have survived. As bad as this present loss was, Kaya knew that one would have been worse. She couldn’t imagine a world without Alyssa and Anastasia in it.

Now that she thought about it, it was around that time that Lauren began writing to her, sending her pictures of her family. That accident had brought Michael and Lauren face to face with their own mortality. It had motivated them to make plans for their children’s future care. 

“Michael was having some health issues with his heart,” Bryce said. “He couldn’t work as much. Lauren tried to help between taking care of him and the kids. Then his business failed due to lack of snow for three consecutive winters. Pride kept him from accepting my help.” He paused and sighed. “Anyway, after the explosion, I insisted that they move in here until they got back on their feet. He couldn’t refuse. They had nowhere else to go.”

Kaya gazed at Bryce, moved by his kindness and altruistic nature. She now saw the good man Libby said dwelled beneath his hard exterior. He was kind to the people he cared about, and even though that did not include her, Kaya was happy her sister had known him. “It was really nice of you to let them live here, Bryce. But why would you build such a magnificent home and not live in it yourself? Is it because of Pilar?”

Like shades pulled against the glare of the sun, an impenetrable mask descended on his face. He got up and brought Anastasia to her, transferring the infant into the crook of her arm without breaking the feed. “Your twenty-twenty question session is up, Miss Brehna,” he said and strolled to the sliders.

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