In the Finding Fatherhood series, these shifters become daddies in unconventional ways.
U.S. Marshal and bear-shifter Lucas Anderson failed to protect his pregnant witness, so when she asks him to adopt her daughter as her dying wish, he can’t refuse. Angel is a sweet baby, and he soon feels like Papa Bear, and maybe she’ll be the key to help him wear down his mate’s resistance. Libby has shut him down for months, and he knows they belong together, but she won’t give him a chance to prove it. Can the stubborn bear and his baby win her over to their ready-made family? Can he keep his mate and child safe when the cartel that killed his witness comes after him, putting all three in danger?
“I can’t believe it’s finally time. I’m soon going to hold my little girl.” Astoria Martin’s eyes gleamed with excitement as she said the words, seeming not at all bothered by the contractions that had grown steadily closer and longer, prompting them to leave the safe house and head to the hospital.
Lucas was impressed by her equanimity and her lack of nervousness. He glanced at his partner, Tim Crosby, with a small grin. The other man seemed more nervous than the expecting mother, which was amusing. He didn’t allow his amusement to show, or his focus to stray from the street around them, as they stepped out of the apartment they had holed up for the last six weeks, going to ground to protect Astoria. Her testimony was crucial, but it wasn’t just her status as a witness that prompted him to protect her any longer. He’d grown close to the young woman, and though Tim was one to play it close to his chest, he must have done the same.
Astoria suddenly grabbed her stomach and slumped forward, and he knelt beside her, at first assuming a powerful contraction had seized her. It was only when he lifted her slightly upright that he saw blood staining the front of her white maternity dress. It was far too high to be from a birth complication, and his training as a federal marshal kicked in, allowing him to instantly identify it as a gunshot. “We’re under fire,” he said to Tim.
Tim pulled out his gun, clearly searching high and low for the source of gunfire. Lucas focused on Astoria, lifting her into his arms and running to the line of cars on the street. He hunkered down with her there, wincing at the scrape of metal as bullets dinged around them. He caught Tim’s eye and pointed upward, certain from the trajectory that their sniper was a level or two above them. Tim nodded before slipping around the apartment building and out of his view, clearly intent on tracking down their sniper from behind.
Lucas didn’t have a radio, but he used his cell phone to call emergency services, routed through his department. He demanded an ambulance, along with backup, and then hung up the phone and shoved it back in his pocket. He stripped off his jacket, using it as a crude compress against the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Astoria’s eyes fluttered open as he pressed against her wound. “Is the baby all right?”
He felt helpless, which he hated. “I don’t know, Asti. Can you feel her kicking?”
She hesitated for a moment, closing her eyes, and it was difficult to tell if she was unconscious or focusing on the baby inside her. A moment later, her lids fluttered open, and she managed a small smile. “She’s still kicking. Kind of frantically. Do you think the bullet hit her?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t. It’s too high up, but she’s probably sensing your distress.” Either that, or her blood supply was interrupted, prompting fetal distress, but he didn’t want to share that theory with the young woman and make her fear even worse.
Thankfully, the sweet sounds of a siren rapidly approached, and as Tim came back into sight, walking out in the open, Lucas realized he hadn’t heard any shots fired for at least a couple of minutes. “Did you find the fucker?”
Tim shook his head as he knelt down beside them on the sidewalk, careful to skirt the pool of blood forming around Astoria. “I got a glimpse of him, but he was quick. He must have realized we’d identified his location, and I chased him, but he was already gone. That fucker is fast.”
Something about Tim’s words bothered him, but he didn’t have time to dissect them at the moment. The arrival of the ambulance, along with three paramedics, distracted him and returned his focus solely to Astoria. She clung to his hand as the paramedics bundled her onto the gurney, careful with her, but moving quickly. As they started to load her into the ambulance, she said, “Please come with me, Lucas.”
He nodded, prepared to insist if the paramedics tried to prevent him from doing so, but they didn’t say anything. One got behind the wheel, and the other two were in the back working on her, so he climbed inside and tried to tuck himself into the corner near her head. The door slammed shut a moment later, and they were off.
He pushed the fine blonde hair off her face, alarmed by how pale and clammy she was. “Hang in there, kiddo. Your baby needs you.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she gave him a sad smile. “I’m dying, Lucas. Aren’t I?”
His knee-jerk reaction was to deny it, but as he glanced up at one of the paramedics and saw him nod, he admitted the truth to her instead. “Yeah, it looks like it. I’m sorry I failed you and Angel.”
Her grip tightened marginally around his hand, and it was difficult to tell if she was trying to comfort him or in response to pain ripping through her as she wailed suddenly. “I think the baby’s coming. Now.”
It wouldn’t surprise him if the stress of the last few minutes had accelerated her labor, and he glanced up as one of the paramedics lifted her dress, quickly averting his eyes back to hers. He heard the paramedics discussing her dilation and detected something about ten centimeters, which sounded familiar. He’d spent the last six weeks studying birth manuals and parenting books with Astoria.
“I want you to take her.”
He jerked. “What? Take who?”
She was panting, and it took her a moment to gain her breath. “I want you to take the baby. Promise me you’ll raise her, Lucas. I don’t have any family, and I sure as hell don’t want her to end up in foster care like I was for my whole life. You’ll love her and take care of her. I know it. Will you take my daughter?”
He froze, not certain how to reply. The idea of him raising a child seemed laughable. He was thirty-six years old and fully dedicated to the U.S. Marshals program. His ex-wife could have given the young woman a million reasons why he’d make a terrible father, but it was impossible to deny her dying request. “If that’s really what you want, but she might be better off with a mother and a father.”
Somehow, Astoria managed to find a shred of strength to tease him. “You’ve mentioned your neighbor Libby more than once. Maybe Angel will have a mother soon enough.”
He was startled anew at her perceptiveness, and also at the realization he’d been talking about Libby. Ever since running across her six months ago and recognizing her as his mate, his bear had been all for pursuing her. Libby so far had shut him down the few times he’d invited her to go out, so he no longer bothered with invitations, but he hadn’t given up on finding a way to claim her yet. He also hadn’t realized he was so obvious about his feelings. “Maybe so,” was all he could think to say.
The birth escalated rapidly, and while one of the paramedics delivered the baby, the other had set up an IV, and they were squeezing whole blood into her as quickly as possible, applying pressure to the bag in an effort to get it into her body that much faster.
With one last scream from Astoria, the baby slipped into the paramedic’s hands. She started crying right away, and the paramedic quickly placed her on the woman’s stomach, careful to avoid the gunshot wound. As he worked on the baby, cutting the umbilical cord and whatever else he had to do for a newborn, she weakly lifted a hand and caressed her baby’s hair. “I can’t be sorry about anything, since it gave me her.”
He didn’t like the weak, thready tone of her words, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. The whole situation left him helpless, and raging against that feeling would do nothing to fix it. “I regret plenty. I’m sorry you were shot. We thought it was safe.” Tim had gone out for recon before they’d ever left the apartment, returning with the news that everything appeared clear. He’d been gone for fifteen minutes, so he must have conducted a thorough sweep of the neighborhood, yet he had somehow overlooked the sniper. It made Lucas’s stomach churn with nausea, and guilt settled heavily on him.
“I want to hold her,” she said in a slurred voice.
Lucas looked up at the paramedic, asking, “Are you done with the baby so she can hold her?”
“I should get her Apgar scores.”
He frowned with impatience. “Angel’s mother is dying, and it’s her only chance to hold the baby. Can’t that wait?”
After a brief hesitation, the paramedic nodded and lifted Angel from her mother’s stomach and stretched to place the baby into her arms. “Help her hold the baby so she doesn’t drop her.”
Lucas nodded and leaned forward, placing an arm around and under Astoria’s to support the small bundle in her arms. He didn’t know what color eyes Angel had, but she had dark hair, indicating she’d inherited that from her father, Deacon Hunt. He grimaced at the idea of the poor little girl having anything from that criminal, but it certainly wasn’t Angel’s fault.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Her words were barely audible.
He nodded. “She’s very beautiful.”
This time, he didn’t have to hesitate, and when he uttered the words, he meant them. “I promise I’ll raise Angel just like my own daughter. I’ll make sure she knows all about her brave mother, and I won’t let her forget you.”
Astoria looked stricken for a moment. “She’ll never even remember me.”
His heart stuttered in his chest, and he had to swallow to clear the lump of moisture from his throat before he could speak. “She will. I’ll make sure she remembers you, or at least knows so much about you that she’ll be unable to tell the difference between a real memory and everything she’s heard about her mother.”
That seemed to satisfy her, and she managed a tiny smile before her eyes closed. A moment later, her arm under his went slack, and the baby started to slip from her grip. He lifted her instinctively, bringing her against his chest. She fit there perfectly, and she was so tiny that he could hold her with one arm, and his large hand completely covered the back of her head. He was larger than average, so perhaps it was simply that, but she seemed tiny, delicate, and fragile. Looking down at her, a surge of love swept over him, and he knew he’d have no problem keeping his promise to Astoria to raise her daughter. She already felt like his.