Inherited: One Child

By: Day Leclaire

Prologue




“You have no choice, Jack. If you want to keep custody of Isabella, you’re going to have to marry.”

Jack Mason glared at his lawyer. “You know I swore I never would.”

Derek dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “So you’ve said. Ad nauseam, I might add.”

“Then let’s move on, shall we? What’s my next option?”

“Jack, I’m telling you flat out. There is no other choice.” Derek leaned a hip against his desk while Jack prowled the length of the office. “Look, we’ve been friends since our college days. You may not have told me all that went on between your parents, but having met your father, I can guess. That doesn’t change the facts. CPS is very concerned about your niece, thanks to that psychologist’s report.”

“I wish I could call the man a liar.” Jack thrust a hand through his hair and blew out his breath in a long sigh. “But he was simply stating the facts. It’s been three months since the plane crash and Isabella isn’t adjusting at all. Her tantrums have escalated. And she’s still not speaking.”

Sympathy lined Derek’s dark face. “Providing your niece with a stable home life and continuing with therapy will go a long way toward changing that.”

“I’ve hired nannies for her.” Jack could hear the defensive edge in his voice and fought to eradicate it. Getting ticked off at the one person squarely on his side wasn’t his best strategy. “I have a business empire to run, Derek. Isabella is only five. I can’t be her caretaker 24/7.”

“Child Protective Services is well aware that you’ve had an endless stream of nannies since March. According to the letter I’ve received, they’re not happy about it. And frankly, Jack, it’s not helping with Isabella’s recovery.” Derek hesitated. “There is another alternative.”

Jack lifted an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“Let her go. You can afford to find a good home for her. The best possible home. A home with two parents. Someone who has the time to commit to Isabella’s well-being.”

“I can’t do that.” The words were ripped from him, low and guttural. “I won’t.”

Derek didn’t bother to pull his punches. “That’s your guilt talking. Isabella survived the plane crash and your sister and brother-in-law didn’t. You also believe you should have been on that plane with them.”

Jack couldn’t deny it, not when it was the truth. “I was supposed to be. If I had been…If I hadn’t let work delay me…”

“You’d most likely be dead, too, and Isabella would be in the exact same position she is now,” Derek stated with brutal logic. “In need of two stable parents who can give their full attention to her needs—something you aren’t in a position to do.”

“I won’t desert her.” Jack continued to pace the width of his office while frustration ate at him. “I just need to find the right person. It’s taking a bit longer than expected.”

“You need a wife. The caseworker is old-school, Jack. And she’s from the north. She doesn’t care how much money you have or what your name is, or whether your ancestors were among the first residents of Charleston. Her only concern is Isabella.”

Jack shot his friend a black look. “And mine isn’t?”

Derek’s expression softened. “I know you care about your niece. But you’ve seen her exactly twice since Joanne adopted her, both times when she was little more than a baby. You have no blood ties. You’re a stranger to her. And ever since the psychologist released his evaluation, Mrs. Locke has made it clear that she doesn’t consider you a suitable guardian. She’s actually mentioned placing Isabella in a treatment facility.”

Stark fury gripped him. “Over my dead body.”

“You won’t have any choice in the matter. They’ll simply come and take Isabella from you—by force, if necessary.” Derek took a seat behind his desk and released a sigh. “What happened, Jack? You were supposed to talk to Mrs. Locke. Sweet-talk her, to be precise.”

Jack grimaced. “There isn’t sufficient sugar on earth to sweeten up that woman.”

“You should have made more of an effort, instead of throwing her out of your office. Her opinion will carry a lot of weight in court, as will the psychologist’s findings.”

“Are you saying that ticking her off wasn’t my best business decision?” Jack asked drily. When his friend maintained a diplomatic silence, he allowed the moment to stretch while he considered his options. Not that there were many. “What if I do what you suggest and marry?” The words grated like ground glass in his mouth.

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