“You’re going to tell me that I’m crazy,” Tanner Malone said as he paced the length of his brother’s office. “Maybe I am. Maybe I’ve been working too hard, or maybe it’s because I’m going to be forty in three years. I don’t know why I have to do this—I just know that I do.”
He paused in the center of the office and stared at his brother, Ryan, who sat behind his large wooden desk. “You’re not saying anything,” Tanner told him. “Don’t you want to talk me out of this?”
Ryan gave an easy, familiar smile. “I’ve got three kids already. Who am I to advise anyone against fatherhood? You might find that you like it.”
Tanner nodded once, then collapsed into the leather chair opposite Ryan’s. “Fatherhood,” he muttered under his breath. “I am crazy. What do I know about being a father?”
“You’re a really great uncle, if that helps. My kids adore you. All kids adore you. For that matter, women seem to find you irresistible. I’ll bet that puppies and kittens follow you around, too.”
Tanner didn’t have to glance at his older brother’s face to know that Ryan was kidding him. “This is serious,” he said. “I have to make a decision.”
“I know you do, and I’ll give you whatever information you want. It’s just…” Ryan shrugged. “I can’t help it, Tanner. For years you made fun of my boring married life, all the while being the carefree bachelor. You’ve gone through girlfriends like most guys go through a six pack of beer over Super Bowl weekend. You gave it a good race, but someone finally caught you.”
“So what you’re saying is I’m due.” Tanner didn’t like the sound of that, but he wasn’t sure his brother was wrong. He’d avoided paying for his lifestyle for a long time. But in the next twenty-four hours, that was all going to change.
“I’m pointing out that it’s taken you a long time to come to the place where you have to make some difficult choices,” Ryan said. “Most men have already gone through this by the time they’re your age.”
Tanner leaned back in his chair. He knew Ryan was right—about a lot of things. What his older brother wasn’t saying was that Tanner had occasionally needed to fall on his butt before life or circumstances or whatever got his attention. Well, he was paying attention now. The problem was what to do.
“I don’t know how to be a good father,” Tanner said as the knot in his stomach went from the size of a baseball to that of a basketball. He felt as if he’d taken a tumble from one of his high-rises, and, while the fall hadn’t killed him, it had sure shaken him up some.
“No one knows anything at the beginning,” Ryan said. “You learn by doing.”
“What if I mess him up? I don’t want my son suffering just because his old man couldn’t get the hang of parenting.”
“He or she needs you to love them and be there. Everything else is negotiable.”
Ryan continued talking, but Tanner wasn’t listening. His brain had frozen at the sound of a single word. She. Dear God, the baby could be a girl! That would be worse. Based onhis messed-up personal life, the amount he knew about women wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.
“She can’t have a girl,” Tanner said, interrupting Ryan. “I can’t have a daughter.”
Ryan chuckled. “There’s logic. I hate to remind you about this, Tanner, but that decision was made a long time ago. About nine months, to be exact, and the decision was made by you.”
Tanner swore under his breath. He glanced at the clock. Lucy had called him two hours before to say she was on her way to the hospital. The mother of his unborn child had long since signed the papers giving the baby up for adoption. Lucy expected him to do the same. It was what they’d agreed to do. It was the smart thing to do. It was what nearly everyone had told him to do. But he hadn’t been able to do it. All the logic in the world couldn’t make Tanner sign away a life that was a part of him.
He pushed to his feet and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Ryan asked.
“To the hospital.”
“What are you going to do?”
Tanner gripped the door handle and glanced back at the only family he’d ever known. His big brother had always been there for him. This time, Tanner was on his own.
“Hell if I know,” he said and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Pretty girl,” Kelly Hall murmured as she stared down at the squirming newborn she held. “You look so worried, but I promise that we grown-ups know how to take care of you.”
Sandy, one of the obstetrics nurses, stroked the infant’s cheek. “You tell her, Dr. Hall. But I don’t think it’s going to help. I’ve been watching babies being born for over twenty years, and every one of them has had that same worried look.”
“It’s our job to reassure them.” Kelly gave Baby Ames a last smile, then reluctantly handed her over to Sandy. The competent nurse would take her to the nursery, where, for the next couple of days, she would receive excellent care. As for what would happen after that, who could say? The child was being given up for adoption.
Kelly had long since learned that it wasn’t her place to judge her patients or question their nonmedical decisions. Even so she couldn’t help glancing at the weary woman about to be wheeled to her room.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see your daughter?” she asked one last time.
Lucy Ames, a platinum blonde who managed to look stunning, even after giving birth, rolled her eyes. “Get over it, Doc. I know you were hoping that I would get bitten by the maternal bug when the kid popped out, but it’s not gonna happen. I signed the papers a long time ago, and I haven’t changed my mind. I’m heading to LA, and I’m not coming back. With luck, I’ll be there by Thanksgiving. I plan to live in the land of sun and movie stars. The last thing I want in my life is some kid messing everything up.”
“I understand,” Kelly said politely, even though she didn’t. Lucy was a grown woman with options. How could she turn her back on her own child?
“I appreciate everything you did,” Lucy told her. “You’re good at this.”
“It’s my job,” Kelly said lightly, then slipped off her gloves. “I’ll be in to check on you in a few hours. Just to make sure everything is fine. But based on the delivery, you’re going to heal quickly.”
Lucy gave a little wave as the nurse wheeled her out of the delivery room. Kelly followed more slowly. She thought about the patients she still had to see that day and about those who would soon be giving birth. Most of her patients were thrilled to be pregnant and anxiously awaited the births of their new babies. The holidays added their own special magic to the moment in a family’s life. With Thanksgiving next week and Christmas soon after, new moms, dads and grandparents had even more of a tendency than normal to go overboard on gifts for the baby. But occasionally she had one like Lucy—a woman to whom giving birth was an inconvenience.
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand Lucy. In some ways she understood too well. Maybe that was what got to her. Maybe Lucy’s situation reminded her too much of her own shortcomings.
Knowing that she should head back to her office, Kelly walked toward the elevator. Hospital volunteers had decorated the hallways in an autumn theme that would soon give way to Christmas. Instead of pushing the button for the ground floor, she found herself heading over to the nursery. She told herself she just wanted to quickly check on Baby Ames. A complete lie because the pediatrician on duty wouldn’t have finished examining her yet.
Regardless of her reasons, twenty minutes later Kelly stood in front of the glass-enclosed nursery. Nearly a dozen babies slept or squirmed in their soft blankets. Pink and blue caps clearly defined gender.
She could see through to the opposite wall, where a man stood with his arm around a young woman in a bathrobe. They were both pointing and smiling at a tiny child. The woman wasn’t Kelly’s patient, but she recognized the slightly stunned glow. Their child had been the couple’s first, she thought. As new parents, they were equal parts thrilled and terrified. She knew that over time, love and joy would replace the terror, right up until their baby became a teenager, at which point they would want to pull their hair out.
The thought made her smile. She pressed her hand against the glass and studied the infants. She found three that she’d delivered in the past twenty-four hours, then watched as one of the nurses put Baby Ames into her Isolette.
“Let it go,” she murmured to herself, knowing there was no point in getting upset or attached. Lucy Ames had made her decision, as was her right. The beautiful baby girl would be given up for adoption. It wasn‘t as if she, Kelly, had done any better.
But I was only seventeen, a voice in her head whispered. Didn’t that make a difference? Kelly wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe she’d never be sure.
The low male voice broke through her musings, and she turned to face the man who came up to stand beside her.
The overhead lights were bright in the hallway. Even so Kelly blinked several times to make sure she was really seeing who she thought she saw. Tanner Malone.
She thought about cursing him, or simply walking away. She thought about giving him a piece of her mind, then reminded herself it wasn’t her business. She was Lucy’s doctor, nothing else. Still, for once, she was grateful for her five feet ten inches and the fact that she’d changed out of scrubs and back into a skirt, blouse and heels. With them she could look Mr. Malone in the eye…or almost. His work boots gave him an inch or so on her.
She wondered how he knew her name, then figured it wouldn’t have been difficult to track her down. From what Lucy had told her, she and Tanner weren’t an item anymore, but that didn’t mean the couple didn’t talk. After all, they’d just brought a child into the world.
Kelly fought against the anger rising inside her. So what if Tanner Malone was an irresponsible bastard? She could be courteous for a few minutes.
“I’m Dr. Hall,” she said.
She was afraid he was going to hold out his hand for her to shake, but he didn’t. Instead he shoved them both into his jeans pockets and blew out a deep breath.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” he admitted. “Now that you’re here, I don’t know what to say.”
“I see.” She glanced at her watch. It was nearly noon. Her morning patients would have been rescheduled, but she still had afternoon appointments. “Perhaps when you think of it you can call my office and we’ll—”
“No.” He grabbed her arm before she could step away. Even through her temper she felt a quick jolt of…something…as his fingers closed around her. Was it heat? Was it—
Don’t even think about that, she told herself angrily. How dare her body react in a favorable way toward this man? He was slime. He was lower than slime. He was the single-cell creature fifteen million years away from evolving into slime.
“I need to talk to you about the baby.” He gestured to the nursery behind them. “I…” He released her. “I want to know what Lucy had. I asked at the desk, but because she already signed the adoption papers they’re not giving out information.”
He looked tired, Kelly thought irrelevantly. Shadows pooled under impossibly blue eyes. Malone blue, she’d heard a couple of nurses saying a while back. Yeah, he was good-looking. So what? He was still slime.
“I don’t understand why anything about the baby is important to you, Mr. Malone,” Kelly said crisply. “Once you sign the release forms, the child ceases to be your responsibility.”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I haven’t signed them. I’m not sure I can.”
Kelly didn’t know if she would have been more surprised if he’d started yapping like a poodle. She felt her mouth drop open, and she couldn’t seem to pull her jaw back into place. “What?”
Tanner glanced over his shoulder, then waved toward the corridor. “Is there somewhere we can go to talk for a minute? I’m sorry if I seem out of it, but I haven’t had much sleep in the past few weeks. Between the hours I’ve been working and thinking about the baby, I’ve been pacing more than I’ve been sleeping.”
She pressed her lips together. Tanner Malone had to be playing some kind of game. A man in his position would never consent to raise a child alone. He was the head of a busy commercial construction team, and he had something of a playboy reputation. Still, he’d captured her attention, so she decided to hear him out.
“There are a couple of consultation rooms just down here,” she said, leading the way.
They turned left at the nurses’ station and paused as Kelly checked the first room. It was unoccupied. She entered, then waited for Tanner to follow her before closing the door.
The room was small, maybe eight by eight, with a desk and three chairs. She moved around Tanner and settled into the single chair behind the desk, then motioned for him to take one of the remaining seats. He glanced at it, then shook his head and paced from the door to the wall. It took him all of three steps.
“The thing is, I know it’s crazy,” he began, not looking at her and instead staring at the floor. “The hospital is adding a new wing.”
The comment seemed irrelevant until Kelly remembered that Tanner Malone owned the company building the wing. Construction had been going on for months. “Actually, I’ve noticed that.”
He glanced at her, and she was again caught up in the realization that his eyes were really a very deep blue. Forget it, she told herself firmly. Ignore the man—listen to the words.
“Then you probably know that my company is in charge of the construction. It’s a huge project, involving thousands of man-hours, not to mention dozens of subcontractors. I’ve been working twelve-, fourteen-hour days.”
“We had a couple of delays, and now we’re playing catch-up,” Tanner continued. “I rarely see my house. We’re going to make the March deadline for the dedication, but it’s going to be tight. So I don’t have time for a child in my life. Certainly not a baby.”
Kelly leaned back against the chair and worked hard to keep her face impassive. So he hadn’t been asking about the child at all, she thought grimly. He only wanted to talk to her so that he could explain his case to someone—anyone. He wanted to make excuses. She waited for the anger to return, but it was gone—transformed into a sadness she wasn’t sure she could explain.
There were so many hopeful couples wanting to adopt infants. Baby Ames would be placed with a loving family. She might grow up with every advantage. It was probably best for everyone. Kelly drew in a breath. If only she could let this go. Why was this one child getting to her?
“I can’t do it,” Tanner said.
“Mr. Malone, you don’t have to explain this to me, and frankly I’m not interested in your reasons for giving up your child for adoption.”
“But that’s my point,” he said. “I can’t do it. I can’t give him up.” He pulled a thick sheath of papers from his back pocket and dropped them on the desk. “Lucy and I talked about this, and we both agreed it was the best thing. She’s got a job waiting for her in LA, and I’ve got a busy life here. Adoption made sense.”
Kelly picked up the sheets and flipped through them. Lucy had carefully signed away all her rights to the child, but the space for Tanner’s signature was blank.
“What do you think?” he asked.
She glanced up and saw that Tanner had braced his hands on the back of one of the chairs and leaned toward her. His thick, dark hair fell over his forehead. He wasn’t the kind of man who usually populated her day. Most of them were other doctors or husbands of patients. She saw more suits than jeans and work shirts. Tanner might own Malone Construction, but he obviously didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. She could see scars on his fingers, and there were thick muscles bulging in his upper arms and chest. She nearly matched him in height, but he had to outweigh her by forty pounds, all of them muscle.
“What do I think about what?” she asked.
“What should I do? Should I sign the papers?”
“I can’t answer that for you. We’re talking about a child, Mr. Malone. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly. Your daughter’s future is at stake.”
His eyes widened, and a grin split his face. If she’d thought he was good-looking before, he was amazingly handsome now. That smile could cause a woman to stumble at fifty paces, she thought, refusing to soften toward him.
“A girl!” He sank into the chair, then rubbed his eyes. “Damn. Like I know anything about women.”
“You know enough to get one of them pregnant.” Kelly regretted the words as soon as they passed her lips. She sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Don’t apologize. You’ve got a point.” He leaned forward. “Is she okay? Ten fingers and toes?”
Kelly smiled. “She’s perfect. A real beauty. Her Apgar score was a nine at one minute and a ten at five minutes.” When Tanner looked blank, Kelly explained. “We check newborns for several characteristics right after birth. Their heart rate, whether they are crying, moving around, that sort of thing. Your daughter scored very high. There’s every indication that she’s healthy and normal.”
“A girl,” he said, his voice filled with awe. “Jeez. I feel like that changes everything, but I’m not sure it does.” He looked at her. “Tell me that the adoption is the best thing. Tell me that I have no business trying to raise a kid on my own. When would I find the time? Tell me I don’t know the first thing about babies or children.”
“No one can make that decision but you, Mr. Malone.”
Standalone Reissue of Their Little Princess
October 31, 2017
'TIS THE SEASON
Dr. Kelly Hall had lost all hope of ever having a family—until single father Tanner Malone burst into her hospital, asking her how to raise his newborn daughter. What else could she do, so soon before Christmas, but lend her expertise to the gorgeous contractor? His charming smiles and come-hither glances draw her like a moth to a flame, but she's in no position to get involved with anyone. After a devastating heartbreak, Kelly has given up on happiness.
Nonetheless, Kelly can't deny the attraction…or the hope she'll get the husband and family she's always longed for. As the days move closer to Christmas, it's clear to Kelly that Tanner —and his daughter—is what's missing from her life.
First published as Their Little Princess by Silhouette Books in 2000.
Hold Me, Cowboy by New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates
The last thing Madison West expected was to be stranded for Christmas, let alone snowed in with a cowboy who drives her wild. His proposal: twelve days of hot sex before Christmas! But will it ever be enough?
COPYRIGHT © 2018 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.