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Every Breath

Painted Hearts Publishing

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 89,004
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Mobi

Brianna ran with her daughter from Arizona all the way to Minnesota to escape her blackmailing sister, Kathy. Melinda belonged to Brianna now, not Kathy, who gave her up for adoption to Brianna, and now Kathy suddenly has a desire to be a mother? Ha! There’s money out there for single moms and cold hard cash is the only thing Kathy understands. Besides, Minnesota has something Brianna finds she is very interested in – Hockey.

Okay, maybe not hockey, but one specific hockey player by the name of Devon Saint Martin. Big, gorgeous and wealthy, Devon has it all. Including a long string of stunning ex-girlfriends. So Brianna knows he would have no interest in her plain-Jane looks.

Except, the first time they meet, it was up close and personal and they were both naked.

Devon made it perfectly clear he was not only interested, he wants Brianna AND her daughter. But the man is famous for his “never gonna get married” attitude and there’s no way Brianna is going to fall victim to the devastating “Devon charm” and be yet another notch on the man’s hockey stick.

When some troubling incidents begin to take place, both Devon and Brianna question who could be behind the attempts to harm Brianna, and jeopardize their fledgling romance.

Excerpt

Brianna laid her head back on the seat and sighed. Traveling with a small child was exhausting. Actually doing anything with an “I can do it myself” three-year-old was a challenge. She decided though that being confined on an airplane for three solid hours with one who was in desperate need of a nap had to be one of the more grueling experiences she had had to date.
But even through her own fatigue, Brianna chuckled.
Because at this moment, ten minutes before the plane was supposed to land, Melinda finally fell asleep. Brianna looked down into Melinda’s beautifully innocent face. So perfect. She had blond curly hair, plump cherub cheeks, amazing blue eyes, and adorable pink pouty lips, all traits inherited from her mother, Kathy. Brianna hoped and prayed they would be the only genetics of Kathy’s playing a part in Melinda’s life. Sadly, Kathy had little else worth coveting, to the point she couldn’t help but wonder how someone so messed up could produce something this perfect. How could anyone look at this sweet little girl and not want to gather her up in their arms and just never let go?
Not Brianna, that’s for sure. And she wasn’t going to, either. Not for anything.
Ever.
Which was the exact reason for the panicked escape from Tempe.
Ahhh, my dear sister, Kathy. What are you and that pig of a boyfriend of yours going to do now that you can’t blackmail me anymore?
The whole chaotic mess was exceedingly embarrassing. And scary. To think the woman had the audacity to believe she could waltz back into both Brianna’s and Melinda’s life, not even knowing Melinda’s name, and simply take up being a mother, was absolutely insane. And that, after walking out nearly three years ago, right after Melinda’s birth, and never once, not once, sending a letter, or making a phone call. Of course, the only reason she wanted Melinda now was the money the state was willing to fork over to single mothers like her. She made that perfectly clear and thank God she did. Because then Brianna had something to bargain with. Again.
Just like when Kathy had come to her that long ago yesterday, scared, penniless and pregnant.
“Hell, no, Brianna! I don’t know who the father is! I’ve been whoring, as that asshole of a parole officer of mine always says. Damn it! What am I going to do?”
Kathy begged for the money to abort the pregnancy, said she just could not have a kid right now. But Brianna couldn’t stomach it. Abort the baby? No! This child was her family. And Brianna’s “family” had been reduced to just Kathy ever since their father had died. This absolutely couldn’t be the end of family.
It took weeks but Brianna had finally convinced Kathy to go through with the pregnancy. However, only after promising she could stay with Brianna and Brianna would take care of everything. The rent, the food, the bills. Kathy wouldn’t have to think about anything. Except, Brianna had a demand as well. Stay off the liquor and drugs and no “whoring” for the duration of the pregnancy.
Evidently, and thankfully, Kathy hadn’t been addicted at that point. How that was even possible was something Brianna chose not to think about. She simply praised God for it and moved on.
On to two jobs, that is. Records clerk at the court house by day and bar waitress at the Needy Devil, a club downtown, by night and weekends. Brianna even ended up promising she would take the steps necessary to put the baby up for adoption once it was born even though it made her sick to even think about. Every time she went to the internet to research what it was a person needed to do, her stomach did flips to the point of nausea. She always ended up shutting down her computer and walking away wondering how in the world she was going to be able to let go of this baby when she couldn’t even take the first step. That, in turn, made her thankful for the first time in her life, that Kathy was too busy watching day time soap operas and playing video games to do it herself. Was there a way to encourage Kathy to keep the baby?
But Kathy flat out laughed at Brianna when she suggested going back to school.
“Are you insane? Me? College? Fuck, Bri, the only reason they gave me a high school diploma was so I would leave and never come back.”
Yes, that was true.
Sadly, adoption was the only path. At least the baby would live.
Except Brianna ended up being in the delivery room when Melinda was born. She fell in love with the five pound, three-ounce bundle of slime and wailing cries the second she breathed in life. Brianna’s heart went out to that tiny helpless being who knew nothing of how cruel the world could be. And if Brianna could help it, she never would. So when Kathy wanted nothing to do with “Baby Grayson,” wouldn’t even touch the baby for fear of it “pissing on me,” Brianna took action. First, she gave Melinda her name. The sweet little girl was going to have an identity before she left the hospital. Next, she needed to get the baby home. Thankfully, Brianna was able to talk Kathy into it but it took lying about “knowing a couple” who might be interested in Melinda. Kathy wasn’t a fan of anything to do with the law or the government for that matter thus loved the fact she could tell the social worker who came to collect the baby to go fuck herself.
So Brianna bundled up mom and daughter and whisked them home, absolutely convinced it would only take a few days of being together and the two would bond, life for Kathy would turn completely around and the world would be in perfect order.
Wrong.
Brianna was the one who fed, rocked, cared for and loved that child. She dressed her, changed her, sang to her, kissed and hugged her, falling more and more in love every day. Thankfully her job at the court house offered onsite daycare services that catered to employees. Brianna was assured Melinda was well cared for even when the baby wasn’t with her.
And yes, the daycare was the only option even though her biological mother didn’t have a job and could have easily cared for her. Kathy couldn’t be bothered for such a chore, had never even once said the name Brianna had given the child. Kathy was somehow able to ignore the beautiful baby. Brianna agonized between being heartbroken for Melinda because of it and being fearful that at some point Kathy would actually develop some motherly instinct and take Melinda away from her. Finally, unable to take it a minute longer, she confronted Kathy when she came home one early morning.
“What the fuck do I care, Bri? Besides, whatever happened to putting that screaming brat up for adoption, that’s what I want to know? You said you knew someone!”
For a moment Brianna hadn’t even been able to breathe. Her heart had lodged right in her throat. Adoption? After all this time Kathy still wanted Melinda to be adopted out? She still wanted to get rid of her? “Kathy, no…we can’t…” Melinda belonged here with Kathy! No. That wasn’t right. Not Kathy. Brianna! She belonged with Brianna. Not with some unknown family! Was it possible after all this time Brianna could lose Melinda? “Look, I’m doing all the work. Like you said, what do you care?” Oh please no! Why did I open my mouth?
“Because she’s constantly crying! Every time I come home she’s crying! That’s why I’m never here. I can’t stand the crying!”
Brianna wanted to point out that she could count on one hand the times Kathy and been “home” long enough in the past two months for her to witness any behavior of Melinda’s. She also wanted to emphasize that Kathy could move out any time she wanted as well just as long as she left Melinda behind. But that would only add fuel to a fire Brianna knew she needed to put out. It wouldn’t matter to the courts who was the one taking care of the child. As biological mother, Kathy had the right to do whatever she wanted. Including putting Melinda up for adoption against Brianna’s wishes. Brianna knew, because Brianna had researched it.
“I’ll adopt her.”
The words had escaped Brianna’s mouth before she even realized she had thought them. But once they were out and hanging in the air between them she knew it was the exact right thing to do.
“You? Adopt my baby? Are you crazy?”
Oh yes! Crazy in love with this child you won’t even touch. “Yes. I want to adopt her.”
“Really?”
Brianna had looked up at Kathy at that point and saw something in her sister’s eyes she hadn’t seen for many years. Hope. Was it hope for herself…or for her child? Of course it didn’t matter. Not anymore. “Yes, really. I love her. I have since the moment she came into this world. Let me adopt her, Kathy. I can give her the home she needs. Please?”
“I don’t care, Bri. Fine. Let’s do that. Where do I sign?”
And it was done. Melinda became Brianna’s legal daughter, and Brianna became Melinda’s legal mother. For good. Forever.
It was disconcerting that Kathy asked for money.
“Not like you’re buying a kid, or anything. I just need to start a new life, get away from here, you know?”
Brianna gave her as much as she possibly could and Kathy left soon after. Suddenly life became something Brianna had no clue it could be. Happy.
For the next two and a half years Brianna and Melinda lived well, settling into a routine that felt for all the world like what life was supposed to be. There were times when Brianna felt lonely for that significant other she should have been pursuing at her age, but dating was out of the question completely. There was absolutely no one good enough for Melinda. Brianna knew she was probably being over protective but it felt right to her.
Then out of the blue, as if she had never left, Kathy was back. Brianna and Melinda came home to her sitting on the couch flipping through TV channels.
“Hey, there, little sister,” Kathy drawled slowly, slurring her words slightly, making Brianna think she might be strung out on something.
“What are you doing here?” Brianna should have asked for that extra key to the apartment Kathy obviously still had but she had honestly forgotten. Until now.
“I need money.”
At that moment Brianna heard the toilet flush and the water running in the bathroom. “Who else is here?” She asked, alarmed as she backed up toward the front door still holding a squirming Melinda in her arms.
“My boyfriend, Michael.” And with that statement “Michael” walked out into the living room wiping his hands on a towel. The man was tall and muscular and intimidating with dark stringy hair that hung in his eyes. He sported a beard and mustache so not a lot of his face was visible, but the man’s gruff stare made a shiver race up Brianna’s back. Brianna watched as the man threw the used towel on one of the chairs as he stopped in the middle of the floor planting meaty hands on his jeans clad hips. Brianna remembered thinking he had at least the decency to wash his hands but his stained t-shirt did not support the thought he had a healthy sense of hygiene.
Kathy gazed up at him with something Brianna thought looked an awful lot like love on her face before she glanced back at Brianna. “Hey, hon. This is my sister, Bri, and that’s my kid…” Kathy screwed up her face a second, obviously trying to remember something. “What’s her name again?”
Are you kidding me?
Brianna decided to ignore the question. “She’s my daughter, Kathy, remember? I adopted her. Legally.” She took one more step back trying to decide if leaving would be wise. If she did, it would leave this couple to ransack her apartment. Not that she had much in the way of anything of value. But it was still her place, her things. However, her precious Melinda was far more important to protect and keep safe. Still, panicking and running was probably immature. It was only her sister after all. “What do you mean, you need money?”
“Simply that, sis. Michael and I have decided to move back to the Phoenix area. If we have a kid we get all this free housing and education and stuff from the state. So we came to get…come on, remind me what her name is.”
“You no longer have a child, Kathy. I adopted her. She isn’t your child any longer.” Brianna had tried to keep her voice steady even though the speed of her heartbeat had made her feel flushed and dizzy. Her head knew the law would be on her side in this. Kathy willingly gave up her parental rights. She walked away. For nearly three solid years there had been no contact. The chances of Kathy being able to take Melinda away were nearly zero. But Brianna was never one for taking chances.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been looking into that, too. Seems I can get her back.”
“No, you can’t. Not in Arizona. Some states, maybe, but not here.” Brianna had researched all of that back when she first decided to adopt Melinda. She hired a lawyer immediately but also read everything she could get her hands on. The only way that Kathy could even attempt such a thing was if she could prove Brianna unfit. And that wasn’t going to happen.
“Well, I understand that adoption is basically contract law. That’s what I was told. If I was under duress to sign those papers it makes them null and void.”
“What? You were not under any kind of…”
“I also understand if I was maybe under the influence, you know, drunk, that makes me not legally able to sign the papers, also making them null and void. All I have to do is get a few of my friends together and they’ll be more than happy to tell a judge that I was rarely sober back then.” She giggled. “Hell, I’m rarely sober now! Plus, I guess it really gets interesting the fact you paid me to give her up.”
“I did not pay you to give her up! You wanted money to…to…”
“You paid me to give up my child, Bri. That’s the way I remember it.”
Strung out or not, Kathy had sounded intelligent, and even more frightening – determined. “You! You’re…lying!”
“No. I’m broke.”
“So you would use a child…my child, for such an awful reason?”
“Well, let’s just say I know you well enough that you wouldn’t let me use…oh hell, Bri, your child, then, if you won’t tell me her name.”
“What? What are you…oh. I see. You mean, I need to, how did you put it, pay you off again?”
Kathy shrugged. “I’m not saying anything other than I think you bribed me into giving up my rights as a mother. I might not be incredibly smart, Bri, but I think a judge will definitely listen to something like that. I don’t think it would be too difficult to prove either. Michael here says they would check your account at the bank and see that you took out a large sum of money right around the time the baby was born and that I left shortly thereafter.”
Brianna had glanced at Michael and saw the smirk in his eyes. What could she do? She had talked to her lawyer about this very thing over two years ago. What happens if she comes back? He had assured her it shouldn’t matter. Any judge would see the truth.
As much as Brianna wanted to turn around and run, she had finally put Melinda down and told her to go play in her room until dinner. Brianna smiled and her heart flipped when those beautiful blue eyes shined up at her and said “Hoses, Mommy? Hoses?”
“Of course, darling. Play with your horses.” It was a stable set that usually required Brianna to sit down and play as well “talking the baby,” which was Melinda’s way of having Brianna play the part of the small horse. Melinda always played the mother who went to work, cleaned the stable, and made dinner. Invariably, dinner usually consisted of vegetables, which Melinda pronounced “begables” and always made Brianna laugh. “Mommy will be in in a minute, okay?”
Melinda cheered and jumped all the way through the living room, never even glancing at either Kathy or Michael, chanting “Hoses, hoses, hoses.”
“So, exactly what is it you want, Kathy? How much money this time?” Brianna swung her purse onto the hook on the wall near the entry like she always did, and walked into the small kitchen which was open to the living room where Michael now sat down next to Kathy on her couch. She thought briefly about the fact she had about five thousand in the bank, intending on being able to do several things with it including taking Melinda to Disney World in a couple of years. Now she was hoping it would be enough to make Kathy “disappear” again.
“Moving is expensive.”
“Ah yes, moving. So when is that taking place?”
“Well, it already has, actually. We moved to Glendale. That’s where Michael’s dad lives so that’s where we are right now.”
Brianna opened her fridge and took out the package of chicken breasts. She had planned on cheesy chicken pasta, Melinda’s favorite. She also grabbed a bottle of water and turned back to Kathy, her words sinking in. “Glendale? How long have you been in Glendale?”
Kathy shrugged. “Couple months.”
A tremor passed through Brianna. Two months? Kathy had been that close for two months? Brianna’s mind raced. Had Kathy let herself and her greasy friend into the apartment before this? Had they watched Brianna and her precious Melinda as they came and went, noting their routine? Had there been a time Kathy considered simply snatching Melinda and running? How much could Kathy get for a child as beautiful as Melinda on the black market or whatever such a market would be called? Even if this visit was spur of the moment, the fact Kathy had been living basically down the road for two months was incredibly unsettling.
Setting the chicken on the counter, she opened the water bottle and poured a small amount in a sippy cup she took out of the cupboard. She snapped the cap on and walked back out of the kitchen, heading in the direction Melinda had gone. “I’ll be right back.”
She usually didn’t allow Melinda to have water in her room because it usually ended up on the floor. But the truth of the matter was she just needed a moment alone with her. She slipped into her daughter’s bedroom, handing her the cup. “Here you go, sweetheart.”
“Thanko,” her sweet voice chimed. Brianna laughed at the mess Melinda had already managed to make. “Fowsty,” she said as she took a noisy drink. “Pay, Mommy?” Melinda set the cup down on the floor.
“In a little while, honey. Mommy has some company right now, okay? Then I need to make dinner. It’s your favorite. Cheesy chicken pasta.”
“Howay!” And with that Melinda went back to bouncing the horse she had in her hand around on the floor, naying the way she thought a horse would nay. Brianna thanked God for her every single day. She loved this little girl more than she could even comprehend and the thought that anyone, even Kathy, could possibly take her away from her was just inconceivable.
And exceptionally frightening.
Brianna walked back out into the living room and sat in the chair opposite the couch where Michael had joined Kathy. For the first time since she had accepted them from a friend, she really looked at her furniture. Tattered things, really. Stuff not worth keeping, that was for sure. She could give them away to the Salvation Army if they would take them. Otherwise, the trash bin would have to be their fate. As she looked around at the things she had collected over the last couple of years she thought a lot of it would have to be given or thrown away. Too bad there wasn’t going to be time to sell at least some of it. “How much? I don’t have a lot, but I can give you some.”
“Well, that’s rather cold, Bri. So you’re admitting to buying her this time?”
“I’m not going to talk about my daughter with you. How much money do you need?”
“Ten thousand.”
Brianna nearly choked. “Good grief, Kathy, who has that kind of money? I…I can give you forty-five hundred. It’s all I have.”
Kathy turned to look at Michael and he smiled. Brianna had inwardly groaned thinking she should have haggled a bit. Maybe she could have kept more of her money. And being able to do what she had just started thinking she needed to do, was going to take money. But it was too late.
Kathy looked back at Brianna. “Five thousand.”
“Kathy, forty-five hundred is all you are going to get. That or nothing. Take your pick.” It was a risk. But if she knew her sister, it wasn’t much of one.
“Okay. Fine. When can you get it?”
“I’ll write you a check right now.”
“No. Cash.”
“Kathy!”
“Cash!”
Oh, this woman was exasperating! “Fine. Tomorrow, then. I’ll meet you back…” No. Not in her apartment again. “I’ll meet you at that coffee shop on the corner. Did you see it?”
“Yeah. What time tomorrow?”
“About this time?”
“Fine.” Both Kathy and Michael rose from the couch. “We’ll let you get back to what you were doing.” They headed toward the door. Suddenly Kathy stopped but she didn’t turn to face Brianna. “You never told me her name.”
“Yes, I did.”
Kathy huffed, obviously not happy with her, then left.
Brianna thought about the fact her boss was not going to be happy with her either. Tomorrow she was going to not only clean out her bank account, but give her notice at work. If Kathy was not going to disappear for good, Brianna and Melinda would.