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Bargaining for Baby

By:Robyn Grady

Bargaining for Baby
Robyn Grady

       One




Jack Prescott wandered out from the public hospital room, his senses locked in a mind-numbing daze.

He'd received the call at ten that morning. He'd immediately jumped in   his twin engine Piper Navajo and had flown to Sydney with his heart in   his mouth the whole way. He and Dahlia hadn't spoken in three years. Now   he'd missed the chance to say goodbye.

Or I'm sorry.

Through stinging eyes he took in the busy corridor. The air smelled of   antiseptic and, beneath that, death. As of today, he was the last   surviving Prescott and there wasn't a soul to blame but himself.

A passing doctor, deep in conversation, knocked Jack's shoulder. He   swayed, braced his legs then spread out his remarkably steady hands to   examine the calloused palms. How long before the nightmare truly hit?   Before he fell to his knees and cursed this godless world? Where was the   mercy? Dahlia had only been twenty-three.

A woman in the crowded waiting room caught his eye, her fair hair   streaming over one side of a red summer dress. She held a bundle. A   swaddled child.

Jack rubbed a gritty eye and refocused.

Beneath fluorescent lights, tears glistened on her lashes, and as she   gazed back down the corridor at him, Jack wondered if they'd met before.   When her mouth pressed into an I'm-so-sorry smile, his gut hollowed   out.

One of Dahlia's friends.

But he wasn't sure he could put words together yet. Those token   pleasantries like, "Oh, you knew my sister. Yes, she was very beautiful.   Sorry, but I have to leave … make arrangements."

When the woman continued to wait, her pale hand supporting the baby's   head, Jack couldn't avoid a meeting. He forced one leaden foot in front   of the other and, an eternity later, stopped before her.

"You're Dahlia's brother, aren't you?" she asked. "You're Jack." Her   flushed cheeks were tearstained, her nails bitten to the quick and her   eyes …

Her eyes were periwinkle blue.

Jack sucked in a breath. When was the last time he'd noticed something   like that? He wasn't sure he even knew the color of Tara's eyes. Perhaps   he should take note when he got back. Not that theirs would be that   kind of marriage. Not from his perspective, in any case.

After the death of his wife three years ago, Tara Anderson had spent   increasing amounts of time at Leadeebrook, the Queensland sheep station   where he lived. Jack had been slow to appreciate Tara's company; he   wasn't much of one for talking these days. But as close as his deceased   wife and this woman had once been, so he and Tara had become good   friends, too.

Then, last week, Tara had offered more.

He'd been straight. He would never love another woman. His wedding band   was threaded on a gold chain that never left his neck while his wife's   ring lay at the foot of a photo he kept on his bedroom chest of  drawers.  Sue had not only been his wife, she'd been the other half of  his soul.  The better half.

Still Tara had put her argument forward. He needed someone steady in his   life, she'd said. She needed someone to help manage her property. That   had gotten Jack's attention. Twenty years ago, Jack's father buckled   under hard times and had sold half his land to a neighbor, Tara's   great-uncle. Later, he'd tried to buy the land back but Dwight Anderson   wasn't interested.

After Sue's death, Jack's life had seemed pointless. He'd found no joy   in occupations that had once caused the blood to charge hot and fast   through his veins. Even throwing a saddle over Herc and giving his   stallion free rein down a beloved Leadeebrook plain had seemed a chore.   But the idea of fulfilling his father's dream of regaining those choice   acres had offered Jack's darker days a glimmer of meaning.

Tara was a good woman and attractive by any man's standards. Perhaps   they could help each other out. But before he married again, a matter   needed sorting.

The human race relied on the power of maternal instinct-women wanted   children and Tara would make an excellent mother. But he had no wish to   become a father.

He'd made mistakes-one error unforgivable. He thought about it often and   not only when he visited the tiny grave which lay beside his wife's in   the Leadeebrook family plot. Having your heart ripped from your chest   once was enough for any man. He wouldn't tempt fate by siring another   child.

If Tara wanted a marriage of convenience, it would be without plans of a   family. Although she had acquiesced with a nod when he'd told her as   much, the mist in her eyes had said that she hoped he'd change his mind.   Not tomorrow. Not ten years from now. On that point he was firm.                       
       
           



       

Jack's gaze had settled on the lightly-swaddled bundle when the woman in the red dress spoke again.

"Dahlia and I were friends," she murmured in a thready voice. "Good friends."

He inhaled, rushed a hand through hair that was overdue a cut and got   his thoughts in order. "The doctor said it was a hit-and-run."

At a pedestrian crossing, of all places. Dahlia had died of internal   injuries only minutes before he'd arrived. He'd touched her hand, still   warm, and remembered how he'd taught her to ride Jasper, his first   mount, and how he'd consoled her when her pet lamb had passed away. When   she'd reached out and had begged him to understand … when his sister had   needed him most …

"She regained consciousness briefly."

The woman's words took Jack off guard. The back of his knees caved and   he sat, wishing he hadn't. Taking a seat implied he wanted to talk. What   he wanted was to take off his boots, down a stiff Scotch and …

He looked up too quickly and the light faded in and out.

And what? Face forms, funeral directors, a choice of clothes for the coffin?

"She spoke to me before … before she slipped away." The woman's lips were   full and pink now, the bottom trembling the barest amount. "I'm Madison   Tyler." She repositioned the baby and lowered to sit beside him.   "Friends call me Maddy."

He swallowed hard against a closed, dry throat. "You said she regained consciousness … spoke to you."

Surely not about him. Dahlia had been a wreck after their parents'   deaths. Not even his wife's patience and support had gotten through to   her. That final night, Dahlia had shouted she didn't want another thing   to do with her brother, his stupid rules or Leadeebrook. She'd come to   Sue's funeral but he'd been too dazed to speak. Over the years, he'd   received Christmas cards, but no forwarding address.

His hands clenched on his thighs.

Lord and Holy Father, he should have set pride aside and found her. Protected her. Brought her back home.

The baby stirred and Jack took in the sleeping face, the shadow of tiny   lashes on plump healthy cheeks. So new and full of promise.

Full of life.

Clearing his mind and the thickness from his throat, he found his feet and the bulk of his control.

"We can talk at the wake, Miss … "

"Maddy."

He drew his wallet from his back pocket and dug out a card. "I'll see   that the notices are posted. You can get me on this number if there's   anything."

Finding her feet, too, she searched his eyes.

"I need to speak with you, Jack. I need to speak with you now." She   stole a glance at her baby. "I didn't know … Well, Dahlia hadn't spoken   about you before."

When her gaze meshed with his again, her eyes were round and pleading,   as if she wanted an explanation. She seemed sweet enough, and   understandably shaken, but whatever Dahlia had said, he wasn't about to   justify himself to a stranger. To anyone, for that matter.

His gaze broke away as he waved the card. "I really ought to go."

"She told me that she loved you," she blurted out, jerking half a step closer. "That she forgave you."

Bent over, placing his card on the chair, he stopped, clamped his eyes   shut and willed away the thumping heartbeat in his ears. He wanted this   week to be over. Wanted to get back home. Back to his land. What he   knew. What he could keep.

He straightened slowly and kicked up a firm chin. The baby was stirring,   beginning to squeak and complain. A part of Jack was drawn to the  sound  while another only wanted to plug his ears and stalk away. The  last  straw would be to hear an infant cry.

Exhaling, he shoved the wallet in his back pocket. "There's nothing you can do here. You should get that baby home."

"I'm trying."

When she purposely held his gaze, he shook his head then shrugged. "Sorry. You've lost me."

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