It is said that if rains falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven. If a clap of thunder is heard right after the burial, it signifies that the soul has arrived. How telling then that the skies above Oak Ridge Cemetery were cloudless and cerulean—the sun shining so brightly I was squinting under my aviators.
The late Wesley Gerber had most likely ended up roasting marshmallows with Lucifer than singing hymns with the angels. The handful of mourners in attendance bespoke the fact he wasn’t popular or beloved. Most of us were here out of obligation, not to grieve. The only one shedding any tears over the man was the little girl standing graveside.
Wesley’s daughter. A human being I wasn’t aware existed until just this week.
I'd learned from his personal attorney that Wes was slapped with a paternity suit eleven years ago by a frat party one-night stand. That he couldn’t recall either the woman or event didn’t matter. DNA proved him the biological father and he was mandated to pay child support. Which he did up until four years ago when the baby mama died of a drug overdose and he wound up with full custody of the kid.
Instead of taking her in and giving her a home, he had the poor girl shipped off to boarding school several states away. Out of sight, out of mind. Wesley Gerber could be a heartless bastard like that.
He was my business partner and someone I’d known since grad school. We weren’t friends, however, and I was okay with that. The lack of simpatico didn’t prevent us from launching a company together. Drive and ambition may have been the only things we had in common, but that’s all we needed to turn Cornerstone into the largest and most successful commercial architecture firm in the Twin Cities.
Now Wes was gone. Fucking dead, just like that. The man was way too young, only thirty-four. Same age as me, for Christ’s sake. Like so many things regarding his personal life, he’d kept his illness to himself. I had no clue he was even sick and assumed his recent weight loss was due to our latest bitch of a project taking its toll. Though we were both unapologetic workaholics, we coped with the daily pressures of running a company very differently. While I handled stress by working out, Wes drank. Often to excess.
Turned out booze wasn’t to blame for his run-down appearance but stage four prostrate cancer. Within months of being diagnosed, the man was six-feet under and my own life forever affected. Not only was I left to run Cornerstone solo, but Wesley Gerber added a codicil to his will that inexplicably saddled me with a responsibility I never saw coming. To say I felt blindsided would be an understatement. I believe my exact words to his lawyer were, “What the fuck?”
A tall, elegant redhead made a beeline for me, towing Wesley’s daughter in her wake. From my understanding, the woman was an administrator from that academy—Briarwood? Briarfield?—where the girl had been cloistered. Just another over-priced institution where parents can dump their unwanted spawn under the guise of privileged education.
I removed my sunglasses, hooking them on my breast pocket as she approached. If I didn’t have other things on my mind I would’ve thought her attractive.
“I’m Sandra Kemple.” She shook my hand, holding onto it longer than necessary.
“Miss.” A coy smile accompanied the correction. “I’m not married.”
“Miss Kemple,” I amended, politely inclining my head and sliding my palm free.
“Please, call me Sandy. It’s a pleasure meeting you in person, Mr. Dornan.” Her appreciative gaze took a leisurely stroll down the length of my custom-tailored Tom Ford to the tips of my Ferragamo’s before returning to my face. “Your online photos don’t do you justice,” she purred.
It was all I could do not to roll my fucking baby blues at that. Any other time and place and I might have been flattered. Might even have taken her number. Maybe even taken her out to dinner before definitely taking her ass. But for fuck’s sake, we were at a funeral. Wesley’s funeral. With Wesley’s kid present.
My annoyance must’ve shown because she lowered her lashes self-consciously before glancing up at me again. “Um, I was informed by Mr. Gerber’s attorney that you’ll be responsible for Hailey’s tuition from here on out. Should anything come up concerning her care, we’re to call you now instead of him.”
Christ, this was really happening. I didn’t realize my jaw was clenched until the words had to fight their way through my teeth. “That. Is. Correct.”
“We’re delighted that you’ve decided to keep her enrolled at Briarbrook. We’re committed to continuing providing Hailey with…”
The woman’s prattling faded into the ether as my attention was drawn like a magnet to the child standing stoically behind her. She was blinking up at me, her teary eyes bloodshot and puffy. The color of her irises looked as inky-dark as her hair, which was cropped into a mullet with too-short bangs that bisected her forehead in a jagged slash. The cut was so haphazard and uneven I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it herself.
Hailey Gerber was an odd little creature even without the unfortunate hairstyle. With her too round face, Kewpie doll mouth, and eyes so large they could’ve been drawn by Margaret Keane, the girl looked like a fictional street urchin. An underfed orphan straight out of a Dickens novel. She was tiny, easily in the lower percentile for her age group. If I didn’t know she was eleven, I would’ve guessed her to be around seven or so.
No wonder Wes had insisted on a second paternity test. With the exception of her pale skin, his accidental progeny looked nothing like him. Dude had been a giant, a fucking Viking with white-blonde hair and eyes such a pale shade of blue they appeared almost translucent. This girl was his opposite in every way.
Hitching up my trouser legs, I crouched down in front of her so that we were eye level. “Hello, Hailey.” Having had little interaction with children, I was completely out of my element and hoped my smile appeared friendly and not what it was, forced. “I’m Declan.”
She didn’t respond. Probably because she already knew who I was—no doubt apprised of her new circumstances only a few days ago, same as me.
“My condolences." As soon as the words spilled out of my mouth, I cringed. Shit, seriously?
She regarded me blankly for what felt like an eon. Other than the streaks down her cheeks that reminded me of dried milk, there was no outward show of emotion. Maybe what I took for grief was really allergies.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” I said.
Without taking her eyes off me, she dragged a sleeve across her runny nose.
The quintessential child-like gesture pierced my gut. “Your daddy and I worked together,” I said, making another attempt to reach out.
“He talked about you all the time.”
When I saw her eyes flare at the patent lie before narrowing into slits, I knew I’d gone too far. The girl was young yet obviously no fool. My gaze darted upward to Sandra Kemple, imploring her for a little help.
She simply shrugged. “Hailey’s not much for conversation.”
Conceding defeat, I straightened. “It’s all right, sweetheart… I’m not much of a talker, either.” I ruffled the top of her head, instantly regretting the lame move.
“Thought Irishmen were good at blarney.”
The softly uttered statement took me aback. After playing the mute all this time, I hadn’t expected the child to speak—let alone use the word “blarney.”
As I stood staring at her, there was an unexpected, indefinable change in her demeanor that made the little sprite seem so grown-up of all of a sudden. Eleven going on forty. I had to admit I found the transformation somewhat bemusing.
I cocked my head. “What makes you think I’m Irish?”
“Your name,” Miss Kemple interjected, not wanting to be upstaged by a child.
The precocious tyke emitted a small scoff, dismissing the woman’s answer as clichéd. I stifled a laugh. In a span of minutes, Hailey Gerber had morphed from wallflower to spitfire. “You’ve got an accent,” she informed me.
My brows shot skyward before I promptly schooled my features. “Do I?”
“Uh-uh.” She slowly bobbed her head. “A teeny one. Like when you said the word ‘worked.’ It came out wahrked.”
I almost choked on my surprise. Although it was common knowledge that I originally hailed from Limerick and moved to the States when I was a teenager, only those who knew me well were able to discern my Irish roots through my speech. Every now and again, my brogue would make an appearance—noticeable on certain words but only at certain times. Like when I felt flustered or was tired or let down my guard.
With a smirk so fleeting that at first I thought I’d imagined it, she added, “I think it was a slip, though.”
My eyes went wide. Well, I'll be damned. I was wrong about the girl. She had inherited her father’s traits. Along with his uncanny knack for sizing up a person within minutes of meeting them, she possessed the same acuity that had served Wes so well in business. And that Gerber smugness was unmistakable.
“You’re a lot like your daddy,” I told her.
What I thought might be taken as a compliment had the opposite effect. Instead of brightening, her face turned stormy and her head lowered. “That would make me an asshole,” she murmured.
I heard the quaver of bitter resentment in her voice, the sadness. It pressed on my chest like an anvil. Was it sympathy or remorse making me feel like I couldn’t breathe? Admittedly, it was both. I was going to add to the girl’s pain and my decision angered me. I was no better than Wes. Out of sight, out of mind. No, I was worse because I actually gave a shit. I cared what happened to the child. Just not enough to do the right thing, however.
But what the hell was I supposed to do with a kid? What did I know about raising one? Fucking nada, that’s what. I never asked for this, damnit. I wasn’t the irresponsible douche who fucked some random coed without a condom. So why had I been condemned to serve a seven year sentence for another man’s mistake?
My gaze sliced to the girl. As her huge dewy eyes looked up at me with their soulful intelligence, I realized that she could never be considered a "mistake." She was special. From our brief interaction, it was apparent there was more to Hailey Gerber than met the eye. That I wasn’t willing to find out what, would be my loss if not my greatest regret.
From inside my jacket, I extracted a business card and handed it to the Briarbrook administrator. “My assistant’s contact number. Whatever the girl needs… if there’s an emergency… anything at all… just let her know and she’ll handle it.”
Then I turned toward my ward.“Hailey…” Her name came out a sigh.
Whatever excuses I had come up with, whatever words of comfort I had planned died in my throat. All I could offer was a wan smile, which she understandably didn’t return.
Adjusting the silk tie that suddenly felt as tight as a hangman’s noose, I gave Miss Kemple a parting nod. “Take good care of her.”
Without sparing the little orphan a backward glance, I strode toward the parking lot. I couldn’t walk fast enough to escape her sniffling—the sound like fingernails rasping against that place on my chest where my heart used to be.