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FATHER BY CHOICE

Prologue

Eight years earlier

Brady Ward didn't stir as the bed dipped and rose. Maggie's feet slapped lightly against the wood floor. The sound of her gathering her scattered clothes from around his childhood room broke the otherwise silent morning. Even the old rooster hadn't woken to greet the day.

The last few stragglers from Luke's graduation party had left minutes before. The sound of engines had awakened him from the light sleep. Apparently, it had woken Maggie, as well. His side cooled where her body had been moments before.

Brady remained still so she could slip out of his life as easily as she had slipped into his bed last night. He could almost taste the potential in the air. That this could be more if they wanted it to be. If things were different, they could be more than just one night.

The metal rattle of his doorknob stopped suddenly and he swore he could feel her gaze on his bare back. As if giving him that final moment to reach out and welcome her back into his bed, give her the promise of something more. But he couldn't give anyone that.

The light floral scent of Maggie drifted over him like a Siren beckoning. Her soft voice lingered in his mind-I don't normally do this. Her rich, blond hair had felt like silk in his hands while her hazel eyes had made him feel like the only man in the world.

The door whispered open with a sigh, and she was gone.

Brady rolled and stared up at the ceiling. The graying plaster had cracked, and a daddy longlegs had taken up residence in the corner of his room. He rubbed the dull, familiar ache in his chest.

Last summer had been hard enough. He'd come home from college to help Sam with the farm and tried to keep Luke from getting into too much trouble. Burying the fact that without their mother and father, the three brothers weren't as close a family as they had once were.

No use pretending sleep would come. Brady rolled out of bed and pulled on some jeans before plodding down to the only bathroom in the house for a quick, cold shower.

As if he hadn't been away at college for a full year, he fell into the rhythm of chores like he'd always done, because it was expected. Summer break didn't mean he got to laze around the house all day.

By the time the cows were fed and milked, the sheep moved into a new pasture and the pigs slopped, Brady's muscles ached. Being home felt like slipping on a suit that didn't fit right. It had never fit.

Kicking off his muddy boots on the porch, he walked into the kitchen in his socked feet.

"Morning." Sam stood at the stove with a spatula, pushing around brown chunks of what might have been sausage at one point in Mom's cast-iron skillet.

"Morning." Brady started the coffee and hoped there was some cereal or something that didn't need to be cooked-or in Sam's case, burnt-for breakfast.

"Glad you could make it out of bed this morning."

Noting the sarcasm, Brady said, "I'm not here to argue with you."

Sam grunted but kept pushing around the darkened meat. "The back forty needs to be plowed. I promised John at least two loads of hay. The barn needs repair and a fresh coat of paint."

"Where's Luke?" Brady tried to divert the conversation from the long litany of chores.

The back of Sam's neck tinged red like it didwhen Mom had caught him out late. "He went out this morning."

"What did you do?" Reaching into the old, white, metal cupboards, Brady pulled out their father's favorite coffee mug with #1 Dad emblazoned on the side in red.

"Nothing." Sam cranked the stove off and slammed the spatula. "Breakfast is ready."

"That nothing is definitely something," Brady mumbled as he found a box of Cheerios toward the back of the cupboard. Even stale, it would be more edible.

"Leave it, Brady." Sam's tone left no room for additional conversation. Typical Sam. Which meant that something had happened but Sam was unwilling to confront it. Instead, it would stew inside until he lashed out. Confrontation had never been the Ward family way.

Luke had only been fourteen when Dad died and sixteen when Mom died. If that weren't enough, dealing with Sam for the past two years as his guardian couldn't have been easy. The kid had promised Brady he would straighten out for his senior year. And he had. Luke had graduated with honors and a full-ride scholarship to University of Illinois. He'd managed to escape Tawnee Valley High without a permanent record, an unplanned fatherhood and with all his limbs intact.

With a bowl of cereal and slightly bent spoon, Brady joined Sam at the table. Sam scarfed down the burnt food on his plate. Probably so he wouldn't have to taste it. When he finished, he leaned back in the chair with his cup of coffee and studied Brady.

Undaunted by the appraisal, Brady ate his cereal at his own pace. He might have slowed down slightly to irk his brother. Each bite felt like a lump into his stomach. He should have written a note and left. But he needed to act like the man he wanted to be.

"Maggie Brown is a good kid," Sam said.

Brady knew it had been coming. Ever since Mom got sick, Sam stuck his nose into everyone's business.

"She's not a kid." Even though Brady had seen Maggie around for years, he'd never gotten to know her. Two years behind him in school, she'd just graduated with Luke.

"I suppose not." Sam folded his hands over his stomach. "She seems to have her head on straight. I'm not sure why she slept with you."

The spoon clattered against the bowl. Heat flooded Brady's system, rising until even the tips of his ears were warm. "What of it?"

"She isn't a one-night kind of girl." Sam's fatherly tone had Brady biting his tongue.

Not that any of it was any of Sam's business, but neither of them had made any promises last night except one night was as far as their relationship would go. There wouldn't be any holding hands in Parson's Park or heading over to Owen, the next town over, to watch a movie and get some dinner. Even if he wanted to, they were at different points in their lives. his plans were taking him far from this place.

"She's the kind of girl you settle down with, " Sam added.

Brady shoved away from the table and rose to slowly glare down at Sam's dark hair. "Are you going to arrange a shotgun wedding?"

Sam didn't budge. "I'm thinking you should give the girl a chance. You've only got two more years of school before you come home. She'd make you a good wife and would probably be a better cook than I am."

"If you want a woman's touch around the house, why don't you get married?" Brady tried not to think of what Sam was proposing.

"I'm not exactly the catch of the county." Sam's smirk was Brady's undoing. The same damn smirk Sam used to give them when they were kids and Brady had made better grades than Sam had.

"Neither am I." Brady ran his hand through his hair and stared up at the yellowed ceiling tiles. "Don't you see how people in this town treat us? Don't you see the pity? The poor Ward brothers who lost their parents. Hell, in their eyes, you are probably a saint for raising Luke, while I'm the coward that ran away."

"You didn't run away."

"Didn't I?" Brady stared into the blue eyes of his brother that were duplicates of his father's and his. "You don't think I wanted to escape when Mom died? That I needed to escape?"

"And you did. And I didn't stop you." Sam's voice had a slight edge to it. "You went to college, and I stayed here with Luke. I kept the farm going and when you get done with college, you can come home and help out."

"Home?" The word was so foreign to Brady that it tasted bad in his mouth.

"Like Dad always wanted. Like Mom wanted. The three of us together."

The backs of Brady's ears burned. "This isn't home."

Sam's lips tightened. The humor and patience drained from his face. He stood, but the extra inch of height Sam had on Brady wouldn't intimidate him today.

"God, Sam, have you deluded yourself that much?" Brady wouldn't back down.

"This can't be home, because home if Mom and Dad. Home was an illusion we had as kids. A safety net to keep us protected. Now? Home is shattered all around us."

"Stop it." The threat behind Sam's words only made Brady push harder. This had been building for too long.

"Luke is a mess. You are a mess. I'm a freaking mess. We don't belong anywhere. You can't keep trying to bind us to this place. We don't belong together."

"Stop." The word was an angry whisper.

"I'm not staying here anymore, Sam." Brady took a deep breath and the weight released off his shoulders. "I have an intership and scholarship waiting for me. In London."

"England?" Sam staggered backward as if Brady had hit him.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime. It's what I always wanted." Brady changed tactics as some of the anger drained from him. "They don't offer this to just any student, Sam. I'd be a fool not to jump on it. Most people who go end up getting a job overseas. My flight leaves in two days."

"And that's what you want?" Sam straightened to his full height. "To be as far away from here as possible?"

"It's not like after school I'd return to Tawnee Valley, settle down with someone like Maggie Brown and raise a passel of children. The farm is your dream. Not mine."

"What about Luke?"

"Luke?" Brady looked out the window toward the old barn across the drive.

"Who's going to protect Luke? Who's going to watch his back as he tries to become a man?" Sam's voice was tight.

"You were-"

Sam shoved Brady. Caught off guard, Brady almost fell over the chair. The sibling rivalry that had been playing out for years rose to the surface, bringing with it the pent-up rage. But Brady held himself in check, even though he wanted to plant his fist in Sam's face.

"That's right. Me. I'm the one who left college to come home when Mom got sick and Dad died. I'm the one who is stuck on this farm destined to watch everyone leave our dying hometown. I'm the one who had to step in when Luke made bad decisions. I'm the one who will have to clean up the messes you two leave behind."

"I never asked-"

"Mom did." Sam didn't raise his voice, but he'd struck for Brady's heart.

"But you didn't have to." Brady knew his reply was weak as it left his mouth. The venom in Sam's words seeped through Brady's veins and sapped away his anger.

Their mother meant the world to them. Their parents had tried for years to have children before finally getting pregnant with Sam. Their father had a heart attack when he was fifty-three. That same year their mother found out she had widespread cancer. If the boys could have, they would have taken her place. But none of them could and it was time to get on with their lives.

"I can't keep coming back." Brady took in a deep breath. "Mom's in every square inch of this house. I keep expecting her to come around the corner, to shout from the bedroom for help, to be here. Every time that door squeaks and slams shut I keep hoping to see Dad coming in from work. You have to stay. But I don't have to."

Sam turned and braced his hands against the sink as he stared out the window. "Please don't ask me to." Brady tried to sound confident, but the words were a shaky whisper.

Sam stared out the window for so long Brady lost track of time. Sam's shoulders sagged from the weight he carried and Brady had helped put it there. Away from Tawnee Valley, Brady could pretend that everything was fine, but here...it hurt to breathe.

Sam finally pushed away from the counter and turned to face him. Brady braced himself to defend his decision. Sam wouldn't understand how hard this was on him. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

"I won't ask you to stay." Sam lifted his gaze to meet Brady's. He didn't raise his voice, but Brady knew he meant every word. "I won't ask you to come home. Not now or ever."

"I wouldn't expect you to." Brady knew this was goodbye. He'd hoped to be leaving on better terms, but knowing Sam, how else could he leave?

"I'll tell Luke." Sam picked up the dishes and took them to the sink.

The conversation was over and so was their relationship. "I'll send what money I can."

The dishes crashed into the sink. Brady winced as the cup he'd given his father cracked.

Sam's words were stilted as he bit out, "I don't need your money."

Brady nodded, but he would send some, anyway. "Bye, Sam."

 

Chapter 1

Eight years later

"Amber! You need to get out to the bus stop now!" Maggie Brown flipped over aother paper on the desk. More bills. They just kept piling up.

"I'm going." Amber bounced into the dining room with her backpack strapped tightly to her shoulders, her dark hair swinging from side to side. Her blue eyes were serious, even as she paused next to Maggie's chair for a quick hug.

"You don't have to wait with me." Amber skipped her way out the front door, calling over he shoulder, "I'll be fine by myself."

Maggie rose and followed her. "I like to wait with you."

Amber swung around in a circle, so carefree and full of life. Maggie could barely breathe with the weight on her chest. It had only need a few months since her mother succumbed to cancer. Amber had been their blessing during the hard times. She'd given Maggie and her mother the chance to focus on life instead of death.

"You all right, Mommy?" Amber had stopped her twirling and walked over to take Maggie's hand. Through the bad times, they had each other.

"Yeah, baby. I'm good."

The squeal of the bus's brakes announced its arrival.

"Time to go." Maggie squeezed Amber's hand and dropped it.

"Love you." Amber flung her arms around Maggie's waist. Before Maggie could return the hug, Amber took off for the school bus.

"Love you." Maggie shouted as the doors folded shut. She wrapped her arms around her waist against the chill of the early autumn breeze that swept the first fallen leaves across the sidewalk. The leaves continued past her neighbor's house.

The air felt light and free, but Maggie's insides kept tying themselves into knots. As the bus pulled away, Maggie noticed a truck across the street in front of the Andersons' house. Not unusual given the teenaged kids. It seemed like a different vehicle was parked there every day. Shrugging off a nagging feeling, she turned to go inside.

Her mom's house needed work. The old Victorian had seen better days, and the wraparound porch needed a fresh coat of paint. But painting would have to wait. Other bills needed to be paid this month.

"Maggie!"

She froze. She'd recognize that voice anywhere.

Spinning around, she saw Sam Ward jogging over from the old, white truck. His familiar black hair, blue eyes and strong build marked him as one of the Ward brothers. Brady had always seemed more approachable than his stern older brother, though.

Sam stopped in front of her with a grim look on his face. "I'm glad I caught you." "I was just leaving," she said coldly.

"I saw you at the store with Amber the other day. She's growing up fast." His smile had an edge of worry to it.

Even though everyone in town speculated which Ward brother had done the deed, Maggie had never told anyone except her mom and her best friend.

Luke was always the first guess. They were the same age. It lined up perfectly with their graduation. A few thought it was Sam. Sam didn't talk to her or Amber unless to say a brusque hi if they passed in a store. Not one person in town laid the blame on Brady. He was their golden child, football hero, the most likely to succeed and he had. He'd gone off to England without a backward glance. She hadn't expected any long goodbyes. And when she'd sent Brady a letter with the fact she was pregnant, Sam had started dropping off money to help. Sam had never said anything, just handed her the envelope or left it with her mother. Brady hadn't even written a note.

As embarrassed as Maggie had been, she'd been grateful for the financial help. But the fact that the Wards, who had lost so much family, didn't want Amber to be a part of their lives left a sour taste in Maggie's mouth.

As far she knew, Sam hadn't spent any time with Amber. He never stuck around long enough for conversation. Maybe Brady shared the pictures that she sent once a year by mail to the Ward farm like everything else she had to share with Brady. Never any response, but the money always came. Never a note or any request to see his child. Just money like that was all Amber needed from her father.

"We go to the same store every week, Sam." She emphasized his name like he had a few screws loose. "What's this all about? I have to get ready for work."

"I heard about your mom." Sam rubbed the back of his neck. His nervousness was starting to make her worry. What if something had happened to Brady? "I'm real sorry to hear she passed."

"It was the end of a long battle," Maggie said automatically. Even though it had been different cancer that had taken Mrs. Ward, Maggie knew that in this respect Sam and she had something in common. Her gut clenched momentarily.

They stood there awkwardly for a moment. He looked around as if he wanted to be anywhere but here. The feeling was mutual. "I really need to..." She gestured to the screen door.

He hesitantly stepped on the first step. Apparently, he wasn't going to leave until he'd had his say. "Would you mind if I came in? I need to talk to you."

She stared him down, trying to determine whether she was willing to listen to anything a Ward had to say. But he seemed open and sincere.

She shrugged and opened the screen door. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. Fine as far as I know." Sam followed her into the small living room. Out of habit, she gestured to one of the worn recliners. Her furniture may be worn but it was clean and paid for.

"Would you like something to drink?" Manners won out over the burn of anger. Why now? After eight years of silence, why was Sam here? Was he coming to tell her that Brady was through sending money? She'd have to put in more hours as secretary at the furniture store if that was the case.

"No, thanks." He sat on the edge of the chair, leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands. Then he sat upright and half stood. He gestured to the chair opposite. "This would be easier if you sat."

Her stomach knotted. She moved toward the chair but didn't sit. What would be easier?

"I've done some stupid things in the past, Maggie." Sam seemed to think she was in the mood for confessions.

"I'm sure you have, but I have work to do-"

"Sit down, Maggie Brown." His stern expression had her lowering to the edge of the seat. Obviously remebering where he was, he added, "Please."

"You have a lot of nerve-"

"Yes, I do." Sam ran a shaking hand through his shaggy hair. "You have no idea how much nerve I have."

She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

"I've done some really stupid things-"

"You said that part already."

He looked up to the ceiling before returning his gaze to her. His eyes softened. "I know Amber is Brady's."

She flushed and started to rise.

"But Brady doesn't."

She fell into the chair as if he'd punched her in the stomach. The air sucked out of the room and she gasped to draw it back in. Blood thundered in her ears. Her thoughts scattered into a million shards. "What are you talking about? I...I told him. He sends money."

His eyes remained sad, but determined as Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out some opened envelopes. "I'm sorry, Maggie. I thought I was doing right by my brother. Protecting him. I didn't mean to hurt you or Amber."

She took the envelopes. Each one was a letter she wrote to Brady, including the first one. One for every birthday.

"Brady doesn't know about Amber?" Maggie felt as if the room had been turned upside down. With her mother needing constant care after chemotherapy, Maggie had been so startled and scared when she found out she was pregnant that she hadn't known what to do. Brady had vanished overseas somewhere. Taking the cowardly approach, she'd written a letter and sent it to the farm. When Sam dropped off the money, she'd been crushed that Brady didn't want anything to do with Amber, but maybe a little relieved, too.

"I messed up." Sam leaned forward again, his hands clasped before him and his head hung. "I want to make this right."

"Right?" She felt like a mockingbird, but her chest felt hollow and her mind couldn't put her world right side up. All these years, she'd been angry with Brady and he hadn't even known.

All those missed birthdays. The long nights awake with Amber when she'd been sick. Brady had missed everything from Amber's birth to kissing her scrapes and bruises better to holding her when she cried at her grandma's funeral.

A rush of heat went to her cheeks. She could have tried harder to reach out. Even searched for Brady on the internet, but she'd been afraid of further rejection to reach out through any means but the letters.

"I got you a plane ticket for this weekend and talked with Penny about watching Amber. I didn't open your last letter. You should give it to him in person." He held out the sealed envelope.

She looked at him as if he was the Mad Hatter. "What are you talking about? You walk into my house to tell me you've lied to me and Brady for eight years. Do you know how hard it is to raise a child alone? How hard it is to care for your mother and your daughter when both are sick?"

Maggie jumped up and paced away. This was Sam's fault, not hers. Her mind raced to keep up with her emotions. "You had no right."

"You're right." Sam didn't move from his spot. His face was grim.

"Why?" Her shoulders shook with the anger bubbling within, but tears pressed against her eyes. A million what-ifs weighed heavy on her soul. Would she have had to do it on her own? Would Brady have held her when her world fell apart? Would he have been the strong one when she felt small and overwhelmed? Would he have grown to resent her for keeping him from his dreams? Or would he have rejected her like her brother had made her think? "Why would you do something like that? How could you treat your brother that way? What did I ever do to you?"

Sam rose and set the letter and another envelope on the table. He took a heavy breath and blew it out. "I didn't think about you. I had my reasons. It's time to fix this. Go to New York and let Brady know."

"New York?"

"Luke told me Brady transferred to the New York office of Matin Enterprises a month ago. I figured if Brady was this close again, it was time he knew."

"Why don't you tell him?" She shoved the envelopes toward him.

His lips drew in a thin line. For a moment, it seemed like he wouldn't say anything. But something inside him broke. She recognized defeat because she felt it far too frequently herself. She refused to feel any sympathy for Sam, though.

"Because Brady won't talk to me. His words came out stilted and harsh. "He hasn't spoken to me in eight years. The only reason I know anything about his life is through Luke and he barely speaks to me, either. This is the only way to clean up this mess."

She stared at the plane tickets that had fallen out of the envelope. "I can't go to New York and leave Amber at the drop of a hat. I have a job. I need to work." Her gaze fell on the stack of bills. "I have obligations."

"I'll take care of it." Sam stopped by the front door.

"What? Like you took care of this?" She held the old letters crumpled in her tight grip. Her stomach clenched. Heat flushed through her. This couldn't be happening. Brady had to know. How could he not?

"Damn you, Sam Ward." She made sure all the anger and frustration she felt was directed solely at him.

"I can't change the past, Maggie."

She refused to see the pain in his eyes.

"All I can do is try to fix the future. Brady needs to know about Amber."

 

Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Berry
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Harlequin Enterprises
Limited Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or
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