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Colton Under Fire
Cindy Dees

“Ouch. That bad?”

“Worse,” she growled.

“I sense a story.”

“Don’t be a detective tonight, okay?”

He threw up his hands. “No interrogations out of me.” He took a cautious sip of his coffee. “Am I still allowed to ask what brings you to Roaring Springs—as a friend-slash-past-tormentor? ”

She shrugged, sipping at her own coffee. “I’ve moved back home with Chloe—she’s my daughter—to give her a better life.”

“Better than what?”

Darn it. He was being all perceptive, again. “Better than a rotten father and a failed marriage.”

Liam laid his hand on top of hers briefly. Just a quick touch of his warm, calloused palm on the back of her hand. But the comfort offered was almost more than she could bear right now. She was too worried about Chloe. Her emotions—usually carefully suppressed—were too close to the surface.

She spent the next few minutes fixedly concentrating on her food and regaining her emotional equilibrium. Or trying to, at least.

As if he sensed her teetering on the edge of a breakdown, he gathered up the empty food packaging and said briskly, “Take the chips with you. Let’s go see if there’s any news on your daughter.”

As they walked back to the emergency ward, he said quietly, “The docs here are excellent. Chloe’s in good hands.”

She nodded, her throat too tight for a response.

Liam’s timing was perfect because, as they rounded the corner into the emergency area, the nurse who’d taken Chloe away for the CT scan came toward them.

“Where’s my daughter?” Sloane demanded, her inner mama bear on full alert.

“Come with me, Mrs. Durant.”

“Colton. Ms. Colton. I’m not keeping my ex-husband’s name.”

“Right. The doctor would like to admit your daughter overnight.”

“Why?” Sloane croaked.

“The doctor will fill you in.”

She wanted to scream as the nurse walked at far too leisurely a pace to an elevator. Sloane was barely aware of Liam holding the elevator door for her as it opened on the third floor, or that he kept pace beside her as she charged for the doctor standing at the far end of the hall.

Please God, let Chloe be all right. She was Sloane’s entire world.

The doctor stood just outside a room with a glass window in the wall. Inside the dimly lit hospital room, Chloe was asleep in a stainless steel crib. She looked so tiny and lost among the wires and blankets.

“What’s wrong?” Sloane demanded without preamble.

“She doesn’t have appendicitis, or an intestinal blockage, or an enlarged spleen. But since her fever still hasn’t broken, I want to keep her here for observation until we can get her temperature down to a safe level. This is probably just the virus that’s been going around. But babies can get hit hard by things like this.” Fixing his gaze on hers, he asked calmly, “Has your daughter been sick recently? Under unusual stress that might have compromised her immune system?”

“Oh, God.” Guilt crashed in on her. “We moved from Denver recently as part of my divorce. It’s been hard on Chloe, and she has been reverting to baby behaviors. I had no idea I compromised her immune system. I’m a terrible mother. I should have realized something like this would happen—” She broke off on a sobbing breath.

Arms came around her, gentle and strong. She didn’t care whose they were. Her baby was seriously ill and she’d completely missed the signs until Little Bug was burning up with fever. Ivan was right. She wasn’t fit to be a mother. Chloe would be better off with him and the expensive professional nanny he would hire to raise his daughter for him.

The doctor commented from somewhere beyond the circle of Liam’s arms, “This virus comes on fast. You didn’t miss any warning signs, Ms. Colton. The fever was likely the first symptom anyone would have noticed. And you got her here before the fever became dangerous.”

Sloane lifted her head to glare at the doctor. “Don’t coddle me. I suck as a parent.”

Liam’s voice rumbled with light humor in her ear. “You couldn’t suck at anything you put your mind to.”

She would have argued with him, but the doctor commented, “If you’d like to spend the night with Chloe, there’s a daybed in her room by the window.”

Duh. Of course she was staying with Chloe. Her baby would be scared to death if she woke up in a strange place and Sloane wasn’t there for her.

Liam said briskly, “Give me your keys, Sloane, and I’ll run by your place and pick up a few things for you. Toothbrush, a change of clothes...”

For the first time since she’d arrived at the hospital, it dawned on Sloane that she was wearing her pajamas. Thank God she’d put on her practical flannel pajamas consisting of a manly shirt and pants. Liam would think she was a total weirdo if she’d been wearing her footie onesie that matched Chloe’s.

Not that she cared what Liam, or any man, thought of her, of course.

“You don’t have to. I can call my brother to run by and pick up some stuff—”

“And alert the entire Colton clan that Chloe’s sick? They’ll descend upon you like a swarm of locusts, and you won’t get a moment’s rest tonight. You need your sleep, too, you know.” He held out an expectant hand.

He was totally right. “Good point.” She dug around in the baby bag, where she’d randomly tossed her keys earlier. It took an embarrassingly long time, but she finally came up with them. “You’re sure about this?”

Liam grinned. “It’s my job, ma’am. Plus, my prisoner is passed out and likely to stay that way for several hours.”

She rolled her eyes at him. But truthfully, she was grateful for the help.

“I’ll be back in a jiffy. Go be with your daughter and get some sleep if you can. I’ll drop off your things with the nurses so I don’t wake you up.”

What was this? Consideration for her comfort? Huh. So that was what it looked like when a man was decent and caring. Who knew?

Liam turned and headed for the elevator, and she tiptoed into Chloe’s room.

She couldn’t resist brushing the hair off Chloe’s forehead and dropping a featherlight kiss on Little Bug’s hot cheek before she stretched out on the daybed, bunched up the lumpy feather pillow under her head, and pulled a blanket over her shoulders.

She stared at her daughter for a long time while sleep refused to come. The weight of being a single parent, for real now, not just in practical application, landed heavily on her shoulders. She prayed for wisdom to make the right decisions for her baby girl to keep her safe and healthy.

Everyone had told her she had this. That she was a great mom. That she would be better off without her spouse. How hard could it be to raise just one child by herself?

But suddenly, she wasn’t so sure she had this at all.

Chapter 2 (#u594723fe-b6f5-5ca4-b88e-ceeb87581e5a)

Sonofagun. Sloane Colton was back in town. And single, to boot. His boyhood prayers had finally been answered—just a decade and a half too late. The universe had one hell of a sense of humor.

If only Liam had known back then what he knew now about life and about women now. He would’ve gone after her with both barrels back in high school if he’d had the confidence to tell her how he’d felt about her. Instead, he’d kept his feelings hidden. But he’d learned since then to rip the lids off boxes and expose the truth, be it in solving a crime or in personal relationships. Life was too short to waste time being shy.
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