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Colton Under Fire
Cindy Dees


“Pooh Bea-uh?”

“Sure. Winnie the Pooh.”

Sloane ducked into the restaurant to grab the baby bag, which doubled as her purse, briefcase, gym bag and zombie apocalypse survival kit.

“You’re leaving? But the steaks are just about to come out,” her biological aunt, Mara Colton, protested. They’d adopted her and Fox after their own parents had died in a car accident. Sloane had been five and Fox seven at the time. She loved them for it, but truth be told, she’d never felt like a real part of their family of three boys and two girls of their own.

“I think Chloe’s sick,” Sloane explained. “I don’t want to share her baby germs with any of you.”

Her brother Decker, general manager of The Lodge, stood up. “I’ll have the chef put your steak in a to-go box and have the valet pull your car around.”

Wyatt and Bailey expressed regret that she had to go and promised to come see her new house soon.

Bailey was awesome. She was a veterinarian who’d recently reconciled with Wyatt after six years of an on-again, off-again relationship and was about to marry him for a second time. Furthermore, Bailey was expecting their first child. She and Sloane had hit it off from the first moment they’d met. Maybe it had something to do with feeling like outsiders in the middle of the loud, overbearing Colton clan.

Sloane followed Decker to the spacious covered portico out front with its huge timbered roof soaring overhead. Stone-clad columns rose to support the roof, and slate slabs stretched away underfoot. This place was solid. Permanent. Safe. The Lodge really was a remarkable resort.

Decker said, “You’re sure I can’t talk you into coming to work for me here, Sloane? That is why Dad paid for your law school.”

“I’ve told Russ over and over that I have no training for nor interest in corporate law.”

“Training or not, you’re smart as hell. I need someone I can trust in my legal department.” He lowered his voice. “We’ve had some cancellations after last month’s murder, and we’ve got a big film festival coming up this summer. I could really use your help managing our corporate image and distancing The Lodge from any unpleasantness.”

“Then you need a publicist, not a criminal defense attorney. Honestly, Decker. Hiring me would raise more questions, not less.”

“You’re a Colton. And this is a family business.”

Chloe fretted, giving Sloane a convenient excuse to end the conversation. She struggled to put the fussy toddler into a snowsuit, and Chloe kept pushing the hood off her head. As a result, her daughter’s fine blond hair stood up in a halo of static. Sloane tried to smooth it down, but Little Bug was having no part of that and threw her head back and forth, shouting, “No way! No way! No way!”

What had gotten into her? She was usually a sweet baby, cuddly and happy when Ivan wasn’t around.

“Terrible twos?” Decker asked sympathetically.

“That and she’s not feeling well. A deadly combination,” Sloane answered.

As her mini-SUV pulled up, Chloe swan-dived off the emotional cliff into a full-blown tantrum and screamed bloody murder.

Women nearby, obviously mothers, threw Sloane sympathetic looks. Everyone else winced and hurried inside to escape the earsplitting screams.

With a sigh, she put Chloe into her car seat and buckled her in around flailing fists and feet. Ahh, parenthood. And she’d thought being a lawyer had been hard. Ha.

Tonight was one of those nights when she wished to be back at the Crooked C with Fox. The adult moral support would help her get through the challenge of dealing with a cranky baby, and her brother would pour her a glass of wine when Chloe finally wound down and crashed.

She’d had no illusion that being a single parent would be hard, but sometimes it was harder than others. Like tonight.

Finally pulling into the garage of the cute craftsman bungalow she’d just bought with a piece of her divorce settlement, she sighed with relief. But the feeling was short-lived because once she extracted Chloe from her car seat, her daughter had gone from rage to even more alarming listlessness. Which was totally unlike her high-energy child.

It took Sloane several minutes to find the box, not yet unpacked, with the baby thermometer in it. She ran the device across Chloe’s forehead.

102 degrees.

Oh, my gosh!

After giving Chloe a quick cool bath and putting her into her footie jammies, then getting into her own pajamas, Sloane made a grilled cheese sandwich, Chloe’s all-time favorite food, but Chloe wouldn’t take even the first bite.

She measured out the recommended medications for a baby with this high of a fever and convinced Chloe to swallow them. Honestly, her Little Bug should have put up more of a fight than she did at taking the medicine. Sloane’s alarm spiked a little more.

She made up a bottle—which Chloe hadn’t used for months—with an electrolyte drink and rocked Chloe like an infant to feed her the bottle.

Sloane desperately missed baby moments like this, but she hated that her child was sick enough to need one. Chloe fell asleep in her arms, and Sloane dozed with her in the big recliner chair that had been her first purchase for her new house.

Sloane woke with a jerk as Chloe whimpered in her sleep.

Good grief. She might as well be holding a furnace in her arms. Chloe was still burning up. Carrying her carefully into the kitchen, Sloane ran the thermometer across her little girl’s forehead again.

103.6.

Oh, no.

She transferred Chloe’s head to her shoulder, grabbed the baby bag, stuffed her feet into fleece boots and headed for her car. Chloe didn’t fully wake up as she got her buckled into her car seat and tucked a blanket around her. Trying to stay calm, Sloane quickly climbed behind the wheel and pulled out of the driveway.

She breathed a sigh of relief when the emergency room was empty as she carried Chloe inside. A nurse showed her to an examining room and agreed to stay with Chloe while Sloane went out front to fill in paperwork and hand over insurance information.

She rushed through a pair of swinging doors that led back to the check-in station...and plowed face-first into a man’s chest. He must have been standing just beyond the doors. Sloane, at five-foot-three and not much over a hundred ten pounds, barely budged the much larger person.

She inhaled sharply, and the scent of pine trees and fresh air filled her lungs. It was as rugged as the Rockies, as big as the endless skies, as free as a bald eagle soaring. She inhaled again, relishing the scent.

Powerful, gentle hands grabbed her upper arms and steadied her. Which was just as well. Suddenly, she was feeling a tiny bit dizzy.

“Sloane? Sloane Colton?” the man murmured in shock.

She looked up into a pair of familiar aspen-green eyes.

“Liam?” she blurted, equally shocked to have bumped into Fox’s childhood best friend.

Bookish, but charming. Smart, but self-deprecating. A good skier on the high school ski team. More handsome than he realized... All the girls had loved Liam. But he’d been oblivious. Suppressing a sigh, Sloane’s eyes drifted over him. He had been tall and skinny in high school but had grown taller since she’d last seen him. And had filled out. A lot. In all the right places. My goodness.

“Liam Kastor, at your service. I was friends with...”

“Fox. I remember. You two tortured me incessantly in junior high and high school.”

“We did not! We just were looking out for you.”

She snorted. “You two drove me crazy.”

“You studied too much to even notice our hijinks.”

Lord, it felt good to smile. She set aside the strange sensation of happiness. “I would love to argue the point with you, but my daughter’s here and I need to give these folks my insurance information and get back to her.”
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