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No Longer Strangers

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2005 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Mitch Huntington groaned as the sound of the doorbell sliced into his unconscious thoughts. Reluctantly, he swam through the murky waters of sleep and managed to open one eye, the other still firmly smashed into his pillow.

“Coming,” he called in a croaky voice that wouldn’t have made it past his bedroom door, much less carried to the porch. The brightness spilling in from his window was painful, and he blinked that single eye several times to help it adjust. Who would wake him up before eight on a Saturday morning? He hoped it wasn’t one of the neighbor children, newly let out of school for the summer. They often came to see his animals.

Ding, dong!

“All right already!” He put both hands on the bed and heaved himself off his stomach, twisting his legs to the floor. Trying to stand, he tripped over the tennis shoe Muffin the Mutt had been using to sharpen his teeth. Mitch’s face hit the carpet and the top of his head slammed against the ten-gallon glass aquarium that was home to a pair of his gerbils. Or had been. The two animals were no longer alone.

Mitch opened his other eye, now pressed up close to the glass. He blew his hair out of his face. “One, two, three, four, five, six . . .” That was all he could count before Hiccup covered her new babies, aided by Elvis, her faithful companion of two months.

“Well, looks like you had a productive night,” Mitch muttered, more than a little irritated. He’d spent half the night waiting for the blessed event and had missed it entirely.

The doorbell rang three more times, staccato and short, like an impatient woman tapping her foot. Mitch hauled himself to his feet and hurried to the door of his room, stubbing his toes first on the edge of the gerbil cage and then on the smaller aquarium containing Lizzy Lizard, his western fence lizard, who was fighting a cold with antibiotics and two extra heating lamps.

“That’s it!” Mitch yelled, grabbing his sore toes and hopping around on the other foot. “Tonight, you’re all going back to your own room. I don’t care how many babies you have or how many respiratory diseases you get!”

Hobbling down the hall and through his living room, he opened the front door in time to see a woman in a trim black suit moving gracefully down his steps.

She turned. “Oh, good, you’re home,” she drawled with a faint accent Mitch thought might be Texan. She was an attractive woman with long black hair, a full mouth, and dark eyes that were clearly annoyed. Mitch straightened his tall frame that was still too-thin despite the ten pounds he’d recently gained. Belatedly, he realized he was wearing his black pajama bottoms, spotted with white soccer balls and topped by a black, short-sleeved T-shirt.

“I had a late night,” he felt obliged to say. He drew a hand through his brown hair, which was barely short enough to be acceptable to his family. Parted near the middle, his hair reached to the bottom of his ears, falling forward whenever he dipped his head.

“You’re Mitch Huntington?” She sounded as if she hoped he’d say no.

He wondered if he’d done something wrong. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

“I’m Dolores Clark, attorney for Lane and Ashley Grayson.”

“Lane and Ashley?” Mitch’s stomach twinged with a warning that something was wrong. He and Lane had been like brothers during their missions to Brazil, sweating together over Portuguese verbs while tracting in the humid temperatures near the equator. Their friendship had continued after they left Brazil—even when Ashley Steele entered the picture. In fact, if Lane hadn’t married Ashley, Mitch would have tried to marry her himself. Instead, he’d remained their best friend.

Dolores Clark shifted her slight weight to her other foot. Her high, thin-heeled shoes didn’t look comfortable, and Mitch was sure they added to her impatience and irritation. “Yes,” she said. “I’m their attorney and the executor of their estate.”

“They’re in Texas,” he began. “Wait a minute, did you say executor? What do they need an executor for?” His friends and their baby daughter had moved from Utah to Texas six months earlier when Lane graduated from Brigham Young University and started a new job. Mitch had kept in touch by phone and e-mail. Only last week Ashley had e-mailed a snapshot of their family. He’d marveled at how much Emily Jane had grown. Looking like a baby doll, she was in her mother’s arms, one hand caught in Ashley’s long curly red hair, as it always seemed to be. They had all looked happy.

“You haven’t heard?” For the first time there was an emotion other than annoyance in the lawyer’s pretty face. But what? He couldn’t tell.

He was beginning to feel light-headed. “Heard what?” he asked, gripping the doorway.

“Five days ago the Graysons were killed in a boating accident. I’m sorry, I thought you might have heard.”

Mitch shook his head slowly, knowing there was no one to tell him anything. Lane was an only child whose parents had died when he was in high school. Ashley’s mother had died when she was a child, and she hadn’t talked to the rest of her family since they’d disowned her when she joined the Church four years ago. “Lane and Ashley didn’t have anybody,” he said for the lawyer’s benefit, still reeling from shock. “Except each other . . . and me.”

“I know. That’s why I’m here. You’re listed in their will.”

Mitch stepped out onto the porch and sat down in the doorway, tears blurring his vision. He felt sick and dizzy, as he did each time his allergy to cold temperatures kicked in. But the porch had been warmed by the morning sun, and there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze in the air. Not since his brother-in-law’s death a year and a half ago had Mitch felt so horrible and lost. “Oh, Lane,” he murmured. He couldn’t even say Ashley’s name. And when he thought of the baby . . .

Tears slid down his cheeks. “She was only a year old,” he murmured. “That’s too young. Way too young.” He tried telling himself it was better that they were all together, but he found it impossible to bear the thought of never seeing them again in this life. Why hadn’t he gone to visit six weeks ago in April for Emily Jane’s first birthday? They’d invited him, but instead he planned to fly out during his vacation time in August. He let his head drop to his hands and wept.

A comforting hand squeezed his shoulder. He was surprised to find the lawyer hunched down next to him. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I did try to call repeatedly this week before the funeral, but you don’t have an answering machine, and there was no time for a letter. Emily Jane needs to get on with her life. Of course, I have some papers you’ll need to see.” She tapped the briefcase she’d set down on the porch. Standing, she went down the stairs toward the sedan parked out in the street.

Mitch stared after her. What did she just say?

The car door opened before Dolores reached the sidewalk, and a short, older woman emerged with a baby in her arms and a fat diaper bag slung over her shoulder. She moved aside as Dolores brought out a car seat and a large suitcase.

Mitch stared, hope bursting to life in his heart. The baby had a mass of fine, curly hair a shade or two paler than a carrot. Just like Ashley’s. Emily Jane, he thought. Could it be? He urged himself to meet them halfway, but he only managed to stand, his tears abruptly halted and drying on his cheeks in the morning sun.

The short woman came up the stairs and pushed the baby in his direction. “I was the Graysons’ neighbor,” she said, with a Texas drawl much heavier than the lawyer’s. “I run a daycare. Emily Jane came over in the mornings while Ashley went to school. She’s been staying with me since the accident.”

Mitch’s arm instinctively secured the baby to his chest. She opened her blue eyes wide at him as though unsure how to react. “Emily Jane,” he breathed. He recognized her now. Would she remember him?

The baby glanced at the short woman and then back at him. Her face wrinkled as she started to cry. “It’s okay,” he murmured, patting her back awkwardly. He tried to return her to the woman, but she shook her head.

“Better keep her,” she said, her hazel eyes kind and compassionate. “She’ll stop in a minute. Usually she’s good with strangers, but she’s been sad and upset. Probably misses her parents. She’ll get used to you. Just talk to her.”

The baby’s large eyes reminded him of a wounded or frightened animal. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” he told her. “You remember me, don’t you? Okay, so maybe you don’t. Anyway, I know your mom and dad.” He stopped. He had known them. He tried to swallow a sudden lump in his throat, biting back his own tears. “It’s okay. Don’t cry, sweetie. You know what? I have something to show you. Come inside with me.” Vaguely aware of the women following him, he walked to the large dog kennel in the kitchen where Muffin was yipping in excitement.

“This is Muffin,” Mitch said to Emily Jane. “He normally sleeps in my room, but I had to put him in here last night. I promise he won’t hurt you.” He bent down with the baby on one knee and opened the kennel door.

Muffin shoved his wet nose into Mitch’s hand before exuberantly sniffing Emily Jane. The baby’s tears stopped, but she clutched at Mitch in fear, trying to climb up his chest.

“Oops. Sorry. Down, Muffin! Down boy!” Mitch stood to keep Emily Jane out of reach. At least she was no longer crying.

“I’ll leave these papers,” Dolores said, placing something on the table. “There’s a list of finances and other items regarding custody. You’ll need a lawyer here to finalize everything. As Emily Jane’s lawyer, I’ll be happy to help things along in Texas, although you may have to make an appearance there. I’ll keep in contact with you about that and about the rest of the estate. I’ll need to know what you want done with the house and car. And of course the Division of Child and Family Services here will be in contact to make sure everything’s okay on this end.”

“The suitcase by the door has Emily Jane’s clothes,” the older woman added. Mitch was too stunned to reply to either of them.

“We’ll get out of your hair now.” Dolores walked to the door, followed by the other woman whose name Mitch had never learned.

“Wait! What about Emily Jane?” He hefted the baby in his arms.

Dolores arched an impatient brow. “You’re her godfather, aren’t you? The will stated clearly that I was to bring her to you.”

Mitch remembered signing something in front of a lawyer soon after Emily Jane was born. Ashley, weighed down with the responsibility of new parenthood, had planned for every possibility. “If something ever happened to us, I’d want Emily Jane to be raised in the Church,” she had said. “I can’t bear the thought that she’d go to my dad or my sister. It would be different if they were members. Please, Mitch. Will you do this for me?”

Mitch had agreed—anything to set Ashley’s mind at ease. Besides, he’d loved Emily Jane from the minute she was born. But he’d never imagined that being named her guardian would mean anything more than pony rides on his shoulders, presents at birthdays and Christmas, and maybe an occasional day at the circus. It simply couldn’t mean that Emily Jane now belonged to him.

The women descended his steps, and Mitch panicked. It was one thing to be an exceptional uncle to five nieces and nephews or to be a “godfather”—but to be solely responsible for a child?

“Hey, I don’t know anything about babies!” he protested. “What am I going to do with her?” He felt guilty saying the words with little Emily Jane watching him so seriously, her lightly freckled face rigid with fear.

Dolores shrugged. “We just came to bring her to you. Of course, if you’d rather, Mrs. Sumner and I can turn her over to Texas state custody. I’m sure an adoptive family could be found for her. She’s young enough.”

Ashley’s voice echoed in his head: I’d want Emily Jane to be raised in the Church.

“No,” he said, backpedaling quickly. “We’ll be okay. I have sisters with children who’ll help. My mom lives only fifteen minutes from here. Less, maybe.”

He was about to say more to convince them, but the women nodded and continued to their car, relief apparent on their faces. As they drove away, Mitch clung to Emily Jane as tightly as she clung to him.

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