HOT Courage (Hostile Operations Team:Strike Team 2 #5) - Lynn Raye Harris

Chapter One

Noah “Easy” Cross sat at a table in the Early Bird Diner, waiting for the attorney who’d called him yesterday to arrive. He had a cup of coffee that he hadn’t sipped from and a knot in his gut.

The knot had been there since a different attorney had informed him a week ago that his estranged sister had died recently. He’d been out of the country on a mission when it’d happened. He’d missed the funeral, and he had no desire to travel to North Carolina right now when there was nothing he could do. Maybe later, once the pain lessened.

The attorney meeting him today, a Ms. Lillian Calvert, wasn’t with the law firm in North Carolina. She was a DC lawyer who was coming to deliver something from Sally. Perhaps it was Sally’s cremated remains. She’d always said she wanted to be cremated, and it’d be like her to send him the urn.

Jesus.

Noah raked a hand through his hair and frowned at the cars going by outside. Sally wasn’t his sister by blood or marriage, but she was the closest thing to family he’d had in this world.

He’d had. He didn’t miss the significance of the past tense or the hollow way it made him feel.

Sally had been his family, and he couldn’t save her. He’d tried. God knew, he’d tried. But being fostered by the Parkers had been worse on her than it had on him. It hadn’t been easy on him either, but at least he was male and big enough to fight back.

The door opened and a woman in a tailored suit walked inside carrying a cute little girl with blond pigtails. The pigtails bounced as the woman strode across the floor. The little girl held a stuffed animal in one hand, and her other hand curled into the woman’s jacket.

Noah frowned as the woman’s gaze landed on him. Something flared in that gaze before she started in his direction.

“Noah Cross?” she asked as she stopped at the table.

He frowned up at her. “Yeah.”

She stuck out a hand. “I’m Lillian Calvert.”

He shook her hand quickly. A waitress hurried over and asked, “Do you need a high chair?”

“Thank you, yes,” Lillian said, her tone brisk.

Noah wanted to ask her to get on with it so he could go, but apparently she’d had trouble getting childcare that day and he was going to have to wait until she settled the toddler first. He felt a little guilty for refusing to go to her office now, but it was too late for that.

“Mama,” the little girl said as Lillian put her into the high chair and collapsed onto the seat.

“Mama’s not here, sweetie,” Lillian said softly. “Would you like to color?”

She put the placemat with the picture and a crayon the waitress had given her onto the table where the little girl could scribble. The child took the crayon and started coloring big swaths across the paper.

Lillian blew out a breath and rummaged around in the giant satchel she’d set onto the booth seat. Noah had a million questions, but he bit them back and waited.

“Mr. Cross,” she finally said as she pulled out a folder from her bag and placed it on the table. “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your sister left a will, and in it she named you Alice’s guardian.”

Alarm bells clanged deep inside.

What the fuck?

Noah looked at the child. Really looked at her. He could see Sally’s nose, and the hair was one hundred percent hers. Anger flared, along with a sharp sense of betrayal. Why hadn’t Sally told him she’d had a kid? Why hadn’t she gotten in touch instead of ghosting him for the past three years? And what the fuck had she been thinking to leave him in charge of her kid? Not only that, but why hadn’t he gone after her sooner and made her talk to him?

Fucking hell!

He resisted the urge to blurt that Sally wasn’t really his sister and there was no way he could take her kid. From the time they’d been young adults making their way in the world, they’d listed each other as next of kin on any and all paperwork.

Someone now wanting to give him a child because of that was an outcome he couldn’t have imagined.

“It’s not possible,” Noah said, his voice feeling as if it belonged to someone else. Dry. Cracked. Rusty.

Lillian blinked at him. “I assure you it is. There are no other living relatives.”

Noah felt as if steel bands were