A baby, its tiny lips puckered, slept in a car seat at Jake West's feet. The child suddenly whimpered and jerked as if startled.
Jake's insides jerked in response.
He dragged his gaze back to his cousin with her hair in a messy ponytail and no makeup. His heart banged against his ribs. "You can't do this, Remy."
With red-rimmed eyes, she stared at the baby.
Had she been crying or—"Are you high?"
She sighed. "No, I've been clean for a year."
"Then come on, don't be talking crazy."
"You owe me, Jake."
He'd heard those words the last time she'd popped into town—long enough to steal his wallet. "I don't owe you anything." His conscience pricked. Maybe he did. Maybe he was the whole reason for her problems.
A freebie diaper bag plastered with hospital and baby product logos slid down her shoulder. She plunked it on the floor, the gesture so final he flinched.
"You're not leaving that baby here with me," Jake said. "Take her to your parents."
"No, I want you to raise her, and I put a letter in her bag saying so."
A quick glance at Remy's stomach showed her as thin as ever. "You are her mother…aren't you?"
"And the father?"
"He died. No family." She drew in a stuttering breath. "All her papers are in the bag, including a medical consent form."
"Come on. Let's sit down and talk this out. You have other options."
One tear slid down her cheek, and she slapped it away, her expression remaining stony. "Don't you dare let her down." She glared at Jake, her eyes full of agony. "You're the responsible one, the good kid, remember?"
Words his aunt and uncle, who'd raised him, had always said about him as they'd measured their rebellious daughter against his be-good-so-they'll-keep-me behavior.
Remy reached out as if she wanted to touch her daughter but shoved her hands into the pockets of her wrinkled jeans instead, her gaze so full of longing it made Jake's chest hurt.
"Come on, let me fix you some dinner," he said, trying to sound friendly, upbeat. "I'll make your favorite. We'll talk."
"You can't make everything all better with a peanut butter and banana sandwich anymore, Jake. Now I need you to take care of her."
"Come on, Rem."
"I mean it." Desperation flashed in her widened eyes. "Promise."
What could he do? Refuse? "I promise."
She turned and strode out the front door and down the steps toward an ancient beat-up sedan.
The hot July sun on the western horizon forced him to shield his eyes. "Where are you going?" he called. "You need help, Remy."
"I'll be fine. I'm just not mother material." She climbed in the car and started the engine.
Torn, he glanced back inside the house, afraid to leave the baby alone. He quickly went back to grab the carrier. By the time he made it outside, his cousin had peeled out of the driveway and sped down the street, too far away to catch the license plate number.
Tension in his neck sent throbbing pain to his head. With a palm mashed against his temple, he watched her vehicle slip into the distance.
He didn't know a thing about babies. He had a construction company to run. Had to be on site the next day. Not a place for infants.
Loud squalling dragged his attention back to the child, her chin quivering, fists and feet pumping.
Yes, there was a nearly newborn baby in his grasp. A baby he was now responsible for. And she was crying her little head off, turning wrinkled and red.
"Lord, help me." He headed back inside and set the carrier on the couch.
The little gal was buckled in some sort of car seat contraption with straps that looked like something from a race car. It took him a minute to figure out the harness. He finally worked her out of it and very carefully lifted her to his chest, gasping when he realized just how tiny she was. "You're no bigger than a minute."
She seemed so…breakable. As she cried, she rooted against his rough work shirt, dirty from the job site. He moved her to the crook of his arm, terrified he would lose his grip. Like holding a football, he reassured himself.
He rocked his arms a bit, and the crying stopped. She seemed to try to focus on his face, yet he wasn't even sure she could see him.
Such delicate features. And that head full of wispy black hair so much like Remy's made her seem even more vulnerable. His heart warmed. But fear, yes, fear prevailed. What would he do with a little baby?
"I don't even know your name."
With a mewl, she scrunched up her face again. Was she in pain? Was all this crying normal?
His heart jammed up in his throat. He needed help. Someone to check her out to make sure she was okay. Someone to tell him what to do—at least until he could track down Remy to insist she come back and get the baby.
Surely Remy would come back to get her daughter.
Think, Jake. Calm down and think.
First, the baby needed to be checked by a doctor. But Jake's uncle, the town pediatrician, had recently sold the practice and was living in south Florida.
The new pediatrician? Jake hated to take his tiny charge to Violet Crenshaw. Just thinking her name made his blood pressure shoot up. The doctor had come in with her big-city lawyer, negotiating his uncle and aunt down to a rock-bottom price, practically stealing the struggling business from them at a time when they were worn down from dealing with Remy's problems and disappearance.
The baby's peeping threatened to turn to a wail. As he grabbed the diaper bag and dug through it looking for a bottle, his movements seemed to soothe her and stalled a full-blown fit.
Bouncing to keep her moving, he located several bottles. All empty. Then he discovered a can of formula. "Yes!" He shook it. Powder?
The baby couldn't drink powder, so was Jake supposed to add water or milk? And did he need to boil it first? He twisted the can to read the label.
Another mewl sounded, and then she revved up like a band saw.
The little thing sure had a set of lungs on her. Was something hurting her?
Shoving aside resentment of the new pediatrician, he returned the child to her car seat and quickly rebuckled her. Slinging the diaper bag over his shoulder, he headed to his truck.
He opened the back door of the crew cab, set the carrier on the seat and tried over and over to figure out where the seat belt was supposed to attach. The car seat appeared to be yard-sale quality, scratched and tattered, and if there had ever been instructions, they were worn off.
Doing the best he could, Jake got the seat strapped in and prayed for a safe drive.
As much as it galled him, he needed Violet Crenshaw's help. And badly.
Violet Crenshaw bid her assistant and receptionist goodbye and locked the door behind them. Then she stepped into her office, which was blessedly quiet, to enter figures into the computer. The tiny, utilitarian room hadn't been updated in years, probably decades. Rickety metal desk, worn-out computer chair, plain two-by-four wooden shelves spray-painted and set on brackets, boring beige walls. Violet's mother would have a conniption if she saw it. Would insist on calling in her favorite decorator to gut it and start fresh.
Of course, Violet's mother wouldn't see this office. Wouldn't see her cute rental home, either.
Pushing away old hurts, Violet clicked numbers into the computer. Until business picked up, she was stuck with the 1990s decor. And it was not picking up as she'd hoped.
Looking at the stack of bills, she let out a heavy sigh. The flailing practice had been a bargain, but attracting new patients was tough for an outsider in a small town. Especially when unfounded gossip abounded, fueled by the nephew of the beloved previous owners who'd said she'd supposedly stolen the business from them.
She had made an offer she could afford, and it had been accepted. According to her lawyer, she'd paid a fair price. She clung to the belief her good reputation would overcome the talk.
Word-of-mouth recommendations would take time, though. She hoped she could make it that long financially because she loved taking care of children and building relationships in a solo practice. Loved the small-town feel of Appleton, Georgia.
She shut down her computer. Time to head home. Maybe she'd make some pasta for dinner. She could watch a movie or—
What was that pounding sound?
Stepping into the hallway of the old house-turned-office, she listened. Someone was banging on the front door. She hurried to unlock and open it.
A burly man in dirty work clothes stood with his fist poised to knock again. "Oh, good, you're still here," he said.
Recognition dawned. "You!" She scrunched her nose at Jake West, the man who'd single-handedly tried to make her arrival in Appleton a living nightmare. "What do you want?"
His scruffy, bearded jaw twitched as if he was clenching his teeth. Bright blue eyes narrowed.
Well, good. She hoped her attitude aggravated him. He deserved it for all the aggravation he'd caused her.
He inclined his head toward his truck. "I need your help. A baby."
At the word baby, personal feelings fled, and she focused on the task at hand. Zipping over to the vehicle, she opened the door. "What's wrong?"
"I have no clue."
"Is she injured or sick?"
"I don't think so. She's crying a lot."
"I need more than that to go on." Incredulous, Violet jerked her gaze away from his wild-eyed baby blues. She unbuckled the seat belt from its unorthodox position and tried to untangle the car seat. "What on earth?"
"Let me get it," he sniped.
"Fine. Come inside." She marched ahead of him and waited, holding the door open.
He strode through the entryway, brushing against her, once again setting off her irritation.
"I'd heard you're single," she said. "When did you have a baby?"
He raised a brow. "I haven't birthed a baby lately. She belongs to my cousin. I'm…uh…babysitting."
Likely story, buddy. Probably some fling had landed him with this new responsibility. It would fit this rabble-rouser she'd had the displeasure of meeting.
"So why did you bring her to be seen?"
"I, uh…" He cleared his throat. "My cousin had to leave rather suddenly. I'd like to have the baby checked over to make sure she's okay. To get some instructions on caring for her."
Squinting, Violet gave him the once-over. "How do I know you didn't take this baby?"
Anger flashed in his eyes, eyes that had just turned ice-cold. "You know my family. We don't steal children."
Fine. Of course they didn't. But he was acting strangely. "Do you suspect the baby has been harmed or neglected?"
His steely gaze held hers, almost as if testing to see if she was trustworthy. "No. But since I don't have experience with kids, I'd feel better if you'd check her. I have signed medical consent."
Violet suspected there was a good bit more to this story of suddenly babysitting an infant who couldn't be more than a week or two old. "Of course. Bring her back to an exam room."
She turned on lights as she went. "Next time, please make an appointment."
"Will do, if I have more than five minutes' notice."
As soon as Jake set the carrier on the examination table, the baby started to fuss.
Violet lifted her out of the seat, and the little one began to root against her chest. "Hungry, are we? Well, I'm sure your cousin Jake will get you a bottle ready while I weigh you."
Jake froze, eyes wide, as if she'd blinded him with her otoscope.
"You do have a bottle for her, don't you?"
He reached inside the diaper bag and pulled out a can. "There's this powdery formula. And bottles."
He sounded clueless. How would this child survive? How had his cousin dared leave the baby with him?
Violet huffed. "Go down the hall. There are samples of that exact brand in the storage closet on the right."
"Yeah. I know where the sample closet is."
Of course he did. He'd probably spent time in his aunt and uncle's office.
While he was gone, she weighed and measured the baby girl, jotting the figures on the paper covering the exam table. "I'll need to make her a file," she called. "And I need that medical consent form. Do you happen to have any of her records with you?"
He lumbered into the room holding up a disposable, formula-filled bottle, smiling as if he'd discovered precious gold. "Yes, in her bag. I'll find them."
"What's her name?"
With his back to her, he ignored the question and seemed to frantically search, tossing out diapers and wipes, empty bottles and clothes. At the bottom of the bag, he found a folder. "Here it is."
She broke the seal off the bottle, popped the top and began to feed the hungry baby, who slurped down the food. As Jake flipped through the records, Violet headed to grab another bottle to send home with him.
Sweet blue eyes stared up at her before finally turning sleepy. Violet's chest tightened.
Holding and feeding a precious baby never failed to open up old wounds, renewing the pain of having her own baby taken from her and put up for adoption by her parents.
Yet the opportunity reminded her that there were many children around town who needed a caring touch. Needed someone to look out for them.
"She's falling asleep." Violet put the baby to her shoulder and patted her back. "Be sure you always burp her like this after you feed her."
Once the baby belched, she returned her to the exam table. "I'll do a quick check and then she can have a nap in her car seat."
Violet glanced at Jake. He was watching every move she made, his eyes taking it all in like a first-time parent overwhelmed by a new life depending on him, afraid he'd do something wrong. She couldn't help but smile as she examined the baby's ears. "You never told me her name."