Shelby Adair cruised down I-90, trying to drum up some enthusiasm for the evening ahead. No matter how she pitched it, she couldn’t find many bright spots in the prospect of spending two or three hours with her self-absorbed sister.
But Mia’s company wasn’t the reason she’d scheduled the dinner date. She was an aunt. And she was going to be a good one.
She cast a glance over her shoulder and moved into the far-left lane. Soon she’d cross Lake Washington and join the other vehicles that made up Seattle’s rush-hour traffic. But during the late afternoon, coming in wasn’t as bad as going out. Barring the unexpected, she should arrive at Mia’s apartment complex in thirty minutes.
She was seeing her sister twice in one month. That was a record. But she’d had a valid reason for avoiding contact. Between caring for their dying aunt and keeping the diner afloat, she’d had a full plate. Dealing with Mia’s theatrics would have sent her over the edge.
Now that her aunt was gone, she had no excuse. Besides, she did want to connect with her fifteen-month-old niece. And with her dysfunctional childhood nine years behind her, she might have a shot at developing a relationship with one of her siblings.
It wouldn’t happen with her older sister. Lauren had escaped at eighteen, moved to the other side of the country and never looked back. She hadn’t even responded to Shelby’s voice mails and Facebook messages about their aunt. She hadn’t come to the funeral, either.
Ten minutes later, brake lights lit up the road, and Shelby slowed to a crawl. This was one reason she was glad she’d left Seattle for the sleepy, picturesque town of North Bend. It was only thirty miles away but had always felt like a small chunk of paradise.
She finally exited the interstate and negotiated her Lincoln Town Car through a series of turns. Mia’s apartment complex was ahead on the right. Red and blue lights strobed through trees still bare from winter.
As she moved closer, the muscles drew tight across her shoulders. Two Seattle police cruisers and a crime-scene unit sat in front of the building that housed Mia’s apartment.
Her sister’s words echoed in her thoughts, fragments of a conversation they’d had after the funeral. Mia had said there was something going on at the club where she worked, that if she stumbled across exactly what it was, her life would be in danger. Shelby hadn’t taken her seriously at the time.
She still didn’t. Mia was the ultimate drama queen, the proverbial “girl who cried wolf.” Anything for attention. She’d been crafting fantastic stories since she was old enough to talk.
Shelby stopped in a visitor parking space and killed the engine. When she reached for the door handle, the lights strobing in her side mirror sent tension through her again.
She tried to shake it off. This was a three-story apartment complex. There were more than thirty units in Mia’s building alone. The probability that the police vehicles had anything to do with Mia or little Chloe was low.
She stepped into the chilly March air as a Toyota Prius approached. When it passed, her gaze locked onto the back and stuck. Large black letters stretched across the white rear bumper—Medical Examiner. Parked three spaces down was a white van with the same designation.
Her breath hitched and something dark settled over her. The presence of the medical examiner meant one thing.
Someone was dead.
While the Prius parked, she sprinted toward the building, heart pounding in her chest. It couldn’t be Mia. What her sister had said at Aunt Bea’s funeral was an attention-getting ploy, just like all the other times. Having grown up with Mia, Shelby had her number. Letting the tales get to her was never a good idea.
She bypassed the elevator and ran up the steps, taking them two at a time. She’d never been to her sister’s apartment, but Mia had given her the number—312.
When Shelby burst into the third-floor hallway, a vise clamped down on her chest. Two apartments away, the door was ajar. A woman stood in front of the opening, soothing a crying child in her arms. Tears had left streaks in the woman’s makeup. She wasn’t familiar. The child was.
Where was Mia? Why was Chloe being held by a crying stranger?
Shelby rushed forward, then skidded to a stop. The gold numbers affixed to the metal door put to death the irrational hope that the apartment belonged to someone else. The woman shifted Chloe to her other hip, and Shelby peered around her.
Beyond the entry, a crime-scene tech was kneeling with her back to the door. Next to her, a red smear marked the beige tiles.
Shelby’s stomach did a free fall, and her knees threatened to buckle. Maybe that wasn’t Mia’s blood on the floor. A friend lived with her and helped care for Chloe. Addy, if she remembered correctly.
She shifted her gaze to the woman and spoke over the little girl’s cries. “I’m Shelby, Mia’s sister. What’s going on?”
The woman’s gaze met hers. “It’s Mia.”
“What’s Mia? What happened?”
The woman squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “Gone.”
Shelby’s mind spun, searching all the possible interpretations of “gone.” Mia could be gone on an errand. But that wouldn’t explain the woman’s tears. Maybe Mia had decided she couldn’t cope with the pressures of motherhood and disappeared, deserting her little girl.
That was the explanation Shelby clung to, because the most obvious one was unthinkable. Her twenty-one-year-old sister couldn’t be dead.
“I went to the store.” The woman’s tone was flat. “I took Chloe with me, so Mia could take a nap. When I got back, Mia was…” A shudder shook her shoulders. “She was on the floor in front of the couch. Someone had slit her throat.”
“Is she…?” The final word wouldn’t come out.
At the woman’s nod, Shelby collapsed against the doorjamb and sank to the floor. Mia was dead. Shelby had finally decided to mend their relationship, but it was too late.
And Chloe was orphaned. Her playboy daddy wouldn’t step up. Based on what Mia had said after the funeral, the guy was worthless.
So it all fell on Shelby. The realization knocked the last of the wind from her.
She was no stranger to responsibility. Through her adolescent and teen years, she’d pretty much raised Mia. They hadn’t been orphans, at least not in the traditional sense. But with a father who worked long hours, an older sister who took off the moment she became an adult, and a mother who had years earlier retreated to her room and withdrawn from life, managing the Adair household became Shelby’s responsibility.
At eighteen, she’d traded one mantle for another, taking care of Aunt Bea through grueling rounds of chemo and radiation while keeping the diner afloat. At twenty-five, she’d done it again when the cancer returned. That stint had lasted two years, ending with her aunt’s death two weeks ago.
But this was different. She had no clue how to raise a child. The way Mia had turned out was proof.
She pushed herself to her feet and straightened her shoulders. She hadn’t known how to run a diner, either, but she’d figured it out.
She held out her hands, palms up. “Come to Aunt Shelby, sweetie.”
Chloe wrapped her arms more tightly around the woman’s neck. When Shelby tried to take her, the child released an ear-piercing wail.
“She’s not used to you.” The woman’s tone seemed to hold a note of accusation. Or maybe that was Shelby’s own guilt.
“I’ve been…” What, busy? Too busy to be a part of her niece’s life when she lived forty-five minutes away?
The woman rubbed Chloe’s back in slow circles, whispering soothing words. The screams quieted to gut-wrenching sobs.
Shelby crossed her arms. “Are you Chloe’s babysitter?”
“Nanny.” She extended her right hand. “Addy Sorenson.”
Shelby shook the woman’s hand. Addy wasn’t what she’d pictured. Nannies didn’t normally wear skin-hugging jeans and sweaters with plunging necklines. Add the brilliant blue eyes and the thick mane of hair flowing down her back like black silk, and she couldn’t be further from the stereotypical image of a nanny.
Of course, Mia hadn’t gotten her from a nanny-for-hire ad. Right after Chloe was born, Shelby had visited Mia in the hospital. Mia had planned to go back to her bartender job at the club and had arranged child care—a former coworker named Addy. She’d had a hysterectomy and never returned to work. Apparently, the woman loved children so much she agreed to provide full-time care for little more than room and board. So Mia had gotten a live-in nanny on a day-care budget.
Shelby didn’t know what Addy’s job at the club had been. It didn’t matter. If she’d been caring for Chloe the past fifteen months, she had to know what she was doing. Having her around would also provide some stability in the little girl’s life.
A short distance away, the elevator dinged and two men stepped off. One was a couple of decades older than her and was carrying a black case—he was likely from the medical examiner’s office. The occupant of the white van was apparently inside already. The man nodded at her and Addy, then disappeared into the apartment.
When the other one approached, Chloe twisted and reached for him. “Wyan.”
Addy altered her grip to better hold the now squirming child. “Ryan.” Her tone was tight. Maybe there was some history between them.
As soon as he took Chloe from her, the child’s arms went around his neck and she pressed her face against his throat. “Wyan.” The cries faded to shuddering breaths.
Ryan. Shelby frowned. Chloe’s father’s name was Randall. So who was Ryan? And why was the little girl clinging to him when she wouldn’t let Shelby touch her?
Shelby studied the man holding her niece. He was younger than the one who’d just stepped into the apartment, probably in his mid-to-late thirties. He obviously didn’t spend all his time behind a desk. His black T-shirt stretched taut across a well-defined chest, and as he held Chloe in his arms, his pose showed off impressive biceps. Clean-shaven with a buzz cut, he had the air of a military guy. Or maybe a cop.
He leveled serious brown eyes on Addy. “What’s going on?”
His jaw dropped. “What? How?”
“Murdered. Throat slashed.”
The blood drained from his face and he sagged against the wall. His arms tightened around the child he held. “Has a decision been made about Chloe?”
“Not yet. The cops just took my statement. They told me not to go anywhere.”
He swallowed hard, his throat working with the action. “If they’ll allow it, she can come home with me until I can get legal custody.”
“Whoa, wait a minute.” Shelby held up both hands, trying to stop the runaway train she was trapped on. She’d just lost her sister. She wasn’t about to let a stranger walk away with her niece. “Who are you?”
His gaze swept her face. “I’m her uncle.”
The pieces were falling into place, but she didn’t like where they were landing. “Randall’s brother.”
A tightness flitted across his features, but was gone so quickly, she might have imagined it. He nodded then returned his attention to Addy. “It’ll be a while before they let us inside. I’ll go buy whatever Chloe might need for the next day or two.”
Shelby dropped her hands, curling them into fists. Randall wasn’t just Chloe’s good-for-nothing daddy. He also managed his father’s club, where Mia had worked. She’d said something shady was going on there, something that had made her fear for her life. Whatever Ryan’s involvement in his family’s businesses, Shelby wasn’t about to send Chloe home with him.
“I know what Mia would want.” Though soft, Addy’s words jarred her. “I was there when Chloe was born. I’m her godmother. Mia intended for me to raise her if anything happened.”
Shelby frowned. “A godmother isn’t a legal guardian.”
The handsome stranger lifted a brow. “And you are?”
“Shelby Adair. I’m Chloe’s aunt, Mia’s sister.”
“Ah.” His tone seemed to hold a lot of meaning. What was he getting at?
He nodded. “I can see the resemblance.”
She narrowed her eyes. He was trying to soften her so she’d let him take Chloe. But she was no pushover. And she wasn’t swayed by empty flattery.
Mia was beautiful. Shelby had heard it all her life—Lauren was the smart one and Mia was the pretty one. Apparently, Shelby was neither.
That was okay. What she lacked in beauty and brains, she’d always made up for in ambition. And determination.
She planted her hands on her hips. “Chloe’s going home with me.”
If Ryan McConnell thought otherwise, he was in for a fight.