Hope pressed her hand to her mouth, trying to hold back the nausea that churned in her stomach and clawed up her throat. Her gaze flew instinctively to Kyle and Melanie, who were dribbling cracker crumbs all over the picnic table. Those poor babies! To lose both their parents like that…. A drop of moisture dripped off her chin and she realized she was crying at the senseless injustice of a family being destroyed and children being orphaned…and Quinn walking around with a price on his head and the guilt of his brother and sister-in-law’s deaths on his soul.
She flinched as her eyes met the cold bleakness of his gaze. His emotional overload of pain, anger and guilt forcefully struck her like a whiplash to the chest, the whipcord splitting her ribs and curling securely around her heart. Hope swayed and reached out to him, her fingers seeking the iron band of his wrist. A hundred questions formed in her mind. But only one seemed important. “What can I do to help?”
Hope snatched her fingers from Quinn’s arm and stared up at him open-mouthed, not certain she could believe her ears. It was too ludicrous that she could be dumped at the altar by one man and proposed to by another—especially Quinn!—all on the same day, but Quinn’s expression was deadly serious.
“I— I beg your pardon?” she whispered.
“You can marry me. Quent and Carrie named me the children’s legal guardian in their wills. But if a contract is out on my head, I don’t stand much of a chance of being able to fulfill their wishes. I’m a dead man, Hope. I can’t hide out with these kids forever. Every day I stay with them I put them in danger.” He ran a hand over his haggard face. “The very least I can do for Kyle and Melanie is give them a real mother to take care of them if something happens to me.”
She blinked, completely overwhelmed by what he was implying. She didn’t bother to conceal her sarcasm. “That’s why you came here? You want to marry me just like that to give the kids a mother?”
“Yes.” Quinn’s hard, slate gaze held hers and seemed to etch a path into her innermost secret thoughts. As if he knew the hold he’d had over her heart.
Hope wanted to slap him for his audacity, even as she found a kernel of comfort in the knowledge that she was the one he’d come to in his hour of need.
“Surely you don’t have to resort to such a drastic measure,” she said stiffly. “The RCMP must be investigating, they’ll find whoever—”
He cut her off. “I’m not with the RCMP anymore. The Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police are handling the investigation.”
Now Hope was thoroughly confused. Quinn had been completely engrossed in his career with the RCMP when she’d met him at a friend’s wedding. It had been part of his excuse for breaking their engagement. That along with some nonsense about him not wanting her to be constantly worrying about his safety and waiting for him to come home—an issue that had arisen after his father’s sudden death during a reconnaissance mission with the Canadian Forces. “You’re not a police officer?”
His mouth stretched in a wry smile. “My business card says I’m a forensic examiner specializing in counterfeits. I decided to take some of the special skills I learned with the RCMP abroad when a friend of mine, Oliver Wells, turned sixty and retired. Oliver offered me a partnership in a forensic analysis and consultation company. Our company specializes in the prevention and detection of counterfeits and forgeries, which is a long-winded way of saying that we determine the authenticity of currency, checks, credit cards, stock certificates, travel documents. Even university diplomas,” he added. “We travel all over the world. Today’s technology makes it easier for organized crime rings and individuals to commit fraud and most police departments don’t have access to the highly specialized skills and training necessary to conduct these types of investigations. The expertise and skills would only be found at the level of the national police forces in Canada and the United States. European countries turn to Interpol. Our clients are law-enforcement agencies, countries, financial institutions, insurance companies and private businesses.”
Hope bit down hard on her lower lip. She should have known he’d only left the RCMP because he’d found a broader arena in which to court more danger and excitement. What was that compared to a tame life of raising a family? Like father, like son.
“How does my brother-in-law factor into this?”
“He’s my lawyer. He came highly recommended by a friend.” Quinn paused. “I didn’t realize you were any relation until he suggested he had a sister-in-law who might be willing to take on Kyle and Melanie. He didn’t seem to know about our previous relationship so I didn’t bother to enlighten him.”
Hope closed her eyes and felt the hurt rumble from her voice and burrow deep into her chest. “How flattering that you didn’t come up with my name on your own.”
He gripped her shoulders and her eyes fluttered open to meet the uncapped honesty glimmering in the depths of his wintry gaze. Her skin grew sensitized to the heat generated by his touch and the roughened tips of his fingers. Longing unfurled in her like a cluster of spring flowers bursting through a patch of winter ice.
“Frankly, it never occurred to me to seek you out,” he said brusquely. “I thought by now you’d be married with four kids.” She couldn’t move, could barely breathe as he gently extracted a baby’s breath bud from her hair, holding it between his square-tipped fingers. Her heart lifted and contracted as if stretching after a long dormancy, then commenced to beat at an alarming rate. “Tom told me about your fiancé who died. I’m sorry.”
A flush scalded her face. For the life of her she wasn’t going to ask what other information Tom might have confided about her personal life. Had her brother-in-law thought she’d just leap at the invitation to be married? To have an instant family? Her knees threatened to buckle, but pride kept them rigidly locked in place. She pressed her lips closed and counted slowly to ten, trying not to think of Quinn living in her house as her husband. “Aren’t there any other relatives?”
“No. Carrie was an only child. Her mother died last year and her father is in a nursing home. He’s in no shape to take on the responsibility. Unfortunately, there’s no one else. My mother died six years ago.” He released her and shrugged, the muscles bunching and grinding together beneath his gray sweatshirt. “Given the circumstances, Tom told me that the most expedient thing for me to do from a legal standpoint is to marry and appoint my wife the guardian of the children in my will. As the children’s aunt, there’s a much greater chance the court will uphold my wishes because you’re a relative. I know this sounds a little extreme, but I don’t want to take any chances that the kids could end up becoming wards of the Crown.”
This was so absolutely crazy. Hope’s brain scrambled to process all the information he was giving her. Tom had been specializing in family law for a number of years. She had no doubt the advice he’d given Quinn was sound, but a part of her felt she must object on the children’s behalf. “Forgive me for sounding so blunt, but how can you be so sure that your brother and his wife were killed in your place?”
“Quent was a scientist and worked for the Museum of Science and Technology. It’s not exactly an environment that inspires violence. You knew him. You know what kind of person he was. I deal with people every day who’d like to see me take a trip into the hereafter.”