Monday, November 21, 2011


Chapter 1

Shannon Raleigh turned to get a look at herself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom of her executive office suite and gaped in horror. The tall black boots and short red velvet dress she wore exposed most of her legs and the white fur trimmed “U” at the bodice revealed a sizeable strip of cleavage.

“I can’t go into a roomful of kids dressed like this!”

Even from behind the closed door, she could hear her assistant Wendy sigh heavily. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

“Because I know you’ll say I look fine, when I don’t. I can’t usher kids to Santa’s lap in a skirt so short I can’t bend over.”

“So don’t bend over.” Another sigh. “Look, Shannon, it doesn’t matter that you’re eight inches taller than Carlie. There’s nobody else who’s even remotely thin enough to fit into that suit. Carlie’s car is stuck in a snow drift. If you don’t play Santa’s helper there’ll be no one to–“

The ring of the phone stopped Wendy mid-sentence. The next thing Shannon heard was Wendy’s happy voice saying, “Raleigh’s Department Store. Shannon Raleigh’s assistant, Wendy, speaking.”

In the lull while Wendy obviously listened to the caller, Shannon cast another critical eye over her reflection. The little red dress was kind of cute. The color complimented her long black hair and made her blue eyes seem bluer. If she were wearing it anywhere else, she’d actually think she looked pretty.

A long-forgotten ache filled her. It was the first time in a year she felt pretty, sexy. But sexy wasn’t exactly the way a grown woman should dress in a room filled with babies, toddlers and elementary school kids.

The ache was quickly replaced by fear – which was the real reason she didn’t want to play Santa’s helper. How could she spend four hours in a room full of adorable children? She wanted a baby so badly it hurt, but she couldn’t have kids. And seeing all those sweet faces, hearing their cute little lists, would crush her.

“Um, Shannon?”

“I’m not coming out.”

“Fine. That was Tammy in the Shoe Department. No one’s come into the store for the past hour. Because she could tell the storm was getting worse, she checked the forecast on the Internet. They have no clue how much snow we’re going to get, but they aren’t shy about suggesting we might get another foot.”

“Another foot!”

Shannon raced out of her bathroom and pulled back the curtain behind her huge mahogany desk. Thick fluffy snowflakes cascaded from the sky, coating the tinsel and silver bells on the streetlamps of Main Street, Green Hill, Pennsylvania. It blanketed the Christmas lights that outlined shop doorways, and sat on the roof of the park’s gazebo like a tall white hat.

“Holy cow!”

Her gaze on the little red Santa’s help outfit, Wendy also said, “Holy cow.”

“Don’t make fun. We have a serious problem here.” Or maybe a way out. She turned from the window. “I think it’s time to admit that the storm is keeping shoppers away.”

“And most of the staff is scared silly about driving home. The longer we stay, the worse the roads get.”

“Okay, announce that the store is closing in fifteen and tell the employees they can go home. I’ll call the radio stations so they can add us to their list of closings. Then I’ll lock up.”


As the announcement went out over the loudspeaker, Shannon called all the local radio stations and advised them to let listeners know Raleigh’s would be closed for the night.

Just as she hung up the phone from the final call, Wendy peeked in. “Okay. Fifteen minutes are up. Store’s empty.”

“Great. Thanks. Be careful going home.”

“My boyfriend’s coming to pick me up in his truck. I’ll be fine.”

Shannon smiled. “See you tomorrow.”

“If we can make it.”

“We better hope we can make it. The weekend before Christmas is our busiest time.”

Wendy shrugged. “If shoppers don’t get here tomorrow, they’ll just come on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday or whatever. Nobody’s going to go without gifts this Christmas. I’d say your profits are safe.”

Shannon laughed. Wendy waved and headed off. With a few clicks on her keyboard, she activated the building locks and the alarm system. Reaching for her coat, she peered down at her little Santa’s helper outfit. She should change, but knowing the roads were getting worse with every passing minute, she simply yanked her long white wool coat from the closet and ran out.

At the end of the hall, she pushed on the swinging door that led from executive row to Housewares. Striding to the elevator, she passed shelves and tables bulging with merchandise, all under loops of tinsel and oversized ornaments hanging from the low ceiling. On the first floor, she hurried past the Candy Department, to the back door and the employee parking lot. Putting her SUV into four-wheel drive, she edged onto the street and slowly wound along the twisty road that took her out into the country, to her home five miles outside the small city.

As she stepped out into the eighteen inches of snow in her driveway, a sense of disconnect shivered through her. Though it had been a year, it felt like only yesterday that she was married and living in sunny, happy Charleston, South Carolina – where people didn’t often see snow, let alone need winter coats and boots. Then she’d been diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis and forced to have a hysterectomy, her husband had unceremoniously divorced her and she’d returned home to the comforting arms of her parents.

But just when she’d gotten adjusted to being back in town and working at the store, her parents had retired and moved to Florida. Worse, they wanted her to sell the store to fund their retirement.

Once again, she was alone – and soon she’d be unemployed.

She trudged up the back steps to the kitchen door, scolding herself for being so negative. She knew what was wrong. The near-miss with playing Santa’s helper had rattled her. Four hours of ushering kids to Santa’s throne and listening to their sweet voices as they gave their Christmas lists to the jolly old elf would have been her undoing – a bittersweet reminder her that she’d never bring a child into this world.

Inside the cold yellow kitchen, she’d just barely unwound the scarf from her neck when the doorbell rang. Confused, she walked up the hall, dodging the boxes of Christmas decorations she’d brought from the attic the night before. She flipped on the porch light and yanked open the door.

A snow-covered state policeman took off his hat. “Evening, ma’am. I’m Trooper Potter.”

She blinked. What the devil would the police want with her? “Good evening.”

Then Trooper Potter shifted a bit to his left and she saw Rory Wallace. All six-foot-one, no-more-than-a-hundred-and-eighty-five-gorgeous pounds of him. His black hair and topcoat were sprinkled with snow. His dark eyes were wary, apologetic.


“Good evening, Shannon.”

The policeman angled his thumb behind him. “I see you know Mr. Wallace.”

“Yes. I do.” How could she forget a dark-haired, dark-eyed sex god? While he dated her roommate Natalie their first year at university, Shannon had had a secret crush on him. With his high cheekbones, well defined chin, broad shoulders and flat abs, he had the kind of looks that made women swoon and Shannon wasn’t blind.

“Mr. Wallace was stranded on the Interstate. The hotels filled up quickly with travelers and now his only options are a cot in the high school gym or finding someone to take him in. He tells me that he’s in Pennsylvania because he has business with you on Monday and --”

“I came a few days early to get a look at the store on my own,” Rory interrupted, stepping forward. “But I ran into the storm. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind me staying the night. Normally, I wouldn’t ask such a big favor, but as you can see I’m desperate.”

Mind? She almost laughed. She would bet that fifty percent of the women he met fantasized about being stuck in storm with him.

She opened the door a little wider. Not only would having him stay the night get her out of the doldrums about her life, but this had all the makings of a perfect fantasy. Cold night. Gorgeous guy. And wine. She had tons of wine.

“Daddy, I’m cold.”

Her fantasy came to an abrupt halt as she glanced down and saw a little girl standing beside Rory. She wore a pink ski jacket and carried a matching pink backpack. Little strands of yellow hair peeked from beneath her hood.

Her heart pinched with fear. Her breathing stuttered out. Did Fate think it was funny to let her dodge playing Santa’s helper only to drop an adorable child on her doorstep?

“You can see why I don’t want to stay in a shelter.”

Fear and yearning collided as she glanced down at the sweet little girl with big blue eyes and fine yellow hair. As much as she knew spending time with this child would intensify her longing for her own, she couldn’t leave Rory and his daughter out in the cold or ship them to a crowded gym with hundreds of other noisy travelers and a tiny cot.

She also couldn’t be a Scrooge or grumpy Gus. Her problem wasn’t their problem. She would be a good hostess.

She stepped back so they could enter. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Carrying a duffle bag and brief case as he squeezed into the foyer, Rory brushed against her, setting off a firestorm of sensations inside her. She ignored them. Not just because a man with a child was mostly likely married, but because she probably wouldn’t have made a pass at him even if he’d been alone. In the year since her divorce, she hadn’t been able to relate to men as anything other than employees. After her husband’s anger over her inability to have kids and the way he’d dropped her like a hot potato – no consideration for their five-year marriage, no consideration for her devastation – the fear of another man rejecting her paralyzed her.

Plus, come Monday, they’d be doing business. His family owned a holding company for various types of stores and Raleigh’s would probably fit their collection. That’s why she’d thought of Natalie’s old boyfriend when her parents decided they wanted her to sell the store. It could be a quick, painless sale. She didn’t want to jeopardize that.

But, wow. It had been fun to fantasize about being stranded with him, fun for the ten seconds before reality intruded, reminding her she wasn’t normal.

As Rory dropped his duffle bag, she said, “It’s a terrible storm.”

“Worst in ten years,” the trooper agreed, staying behind on the porch. “If you’re all settled, I need to get back on the road.”

“We’re fine,” Shannon said, as she began to close the door. As an afterthought, she added, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you,” Rory Wallace called out too.

Already on his way down her front steps, the trooper waved goodbye and trudged through the thick snow on the sidewalk to his car.

Awkward silence reined as Rory Wallace took in the foyer of Shannon Raleigh’s home. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he’d been forced to humble himself and ask shelter from a business associate, it appeared she was moving. Boxes blocked half the corridor that led from the foyer to the kitchen behind it. They littered the living room to the right and the dining room to the left.

Which made him feel even guiltier for being forced to ask for shelter. “Thank you. I really appreciate this.”

She smiled graciously. “You’re welcome.” Then she shivered, even though she wore a long white coat and the house wasn’t that cold, just chilled, as if the heat had been on low all day while she was at work. “Give me a minute to turn on the furnace.” She walked to a thermostat on the wall and adjusted it. “You might want to keep your coats on until it heats up in here.”

He unbuttoned his topcoat. “Actually, after spending ten hours in a car, your house is warm to us.” He stooped to help his daughter with her jacket. Realizing he’d never introduced her, he peeked up at Shannon. “This is my daughter, Finley.”

Crouching beside them, Shannon said, “It’s nice to meet you, Finley.”

Finley mumbled, “Nice to meet you too,” then she looked at him as if wanting to make sure he’d noticed that she’d been polite.

Sliding her arms out of her little pink jacket, he gave her a subtle nod of approval. Lately, she’d been something of a six-year-old diva. Disciplining her worked, but not always. And some days he was at his wits end with her. So he was lucky she’d been polite to Shannon Raleigh. He didn’t know how he’d deal with her if she insulted the woman who’d rescued them.

“This is the perfect night to be stranded with me,” Shannon said, taking Finley’s jacket to the closet behind her. “My parents will be home from Florida next Saturday and I promised I’d have the house decorated for Christmas. All these boxes are decorations they left behind when they moved to Florida. You can help me.”

While Rory breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t interrupted her moving, Finley’s nose wrinkled and her eyes narrowed with distaste. Before he realized what she was about to do, she spat, “I hate Christmas.”

Shannon reared back as if someone had slapped her. Her pretty blue eyes widened in disbelief. “Hate Christmas? How can you hate Christmas?”

“How can you believe that a fat guy in a red suit brings you presents?”

Anger pulsed through Rory’s veins and he shot Finley a warning look. He wouldn’t yell at her in front of Shannon, but he did need to provide a few rules for behavior when imposing on someone they barely knew. He faced Shannon. “Why don’t you tell me where we’re sleeping and I’ll take Finley to our room and help her get settled in.”

Shannon winced. “Actually, there’s only one bedroom.”


“It’s no big deal. We’ll give the bed to Finley, and you and I will use sleeping bags. You can put yours on the floor beside the bed and I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

Mortal embarrassment overwhelmed him. He hadn’t realized how much he’d be putting her out when he gave her name to the state policeman. “This is such an imposition. You can’t give us your room. Finley and I don’t mind sleeping in the living room.”

Finley stomped her foot. “I don’t want to sleep on the floor.”

He flashed Finley another warning look. “You won’t. You can have the sofa.”

“I want a bed!”

Rory’s head pounded. He understood that this time of year wasn’t easy for Finley. Her mom had left on Christmas day two years before. So every year, she got moody, and every year he indulged her by taking her on vacation from Christmas Eve to New Years. For a guy who’d also lost his marriage on Christmas Day, a vacation from the holiday was good for him too. But the foot-stomping and the pouting and the demands that everything go her way, those had just started. And he absolutely refused to get on board with them. He had to spend the next week looking at Raleigh’s Department Store for his family’s holding company. He couldn’t have her acting like a brat all week.

He turned to Shannon. “Would you mind showing us to the bedroom so I can get Finley settled?”

“Not at all.”

She led them into a small first floor bedroom that was as neat and clean as the rest of the house – minus boxes. A feminine white ruffled spread sat on a simple double bed. Red pillows on the bed matched the red shag carpet beneath it and the drapes on the double windows.

He dropped his duffle bag to the floor. “Wow.”

She faced him with a smile. Her shiny black hair was a wonderland of long, springy curls. In the years since university, her face had shifted just slightly and she’d become a softer, prettier version of the young girl he remembered.


“I’m just a little surprised by your room.”

Her smile grew. “Really? Why?”

“The red.” He felt the same color rising on his cheeks. The room was girlie, yet incredibly sexy. But he certainly didn’t feel comfortable saying that to the woman giving him and his daughter shelter, especially not after Finley’s mini-tantrum. Still, he never would have guessed this sexy combination of color and style from the sweet Shannon he knew all those years ago at school.

“There’s a private bathroom for the bedroom.” She gestured toward a door to the right. “Over there.”

“Thank you.”

“Just come out when you’re ready.” She smiled. “I’ll start supper. I hope you like toasted cheese sandwiches and soup. I’m not much of a cook.”

“On a cold day like this, soup is terrific.”

She closed the door behind her and Rory crouched down in front of Finley. Smoothing his hand down her shiny yellow hair, he said, “You’re killing me.”

She blinked innocently “What?”

“Ms. Raleigh is doing us a favor by letting us stay. We should be polite to her.”

“I was polite.”

“Saying you want the bed while you stomp your foot is not polite.”

Her bottom lip puffed out. “Sorry.”

And this was why he had trouble disciplining her. The second he pointed out something she did wrong, she turned on that little girl charm. Batted her long black lashes over her pretty blue eyes.

Scrubbing his hand over his mouth, he rose. “I’ll tell you what. You stay in here for a few minutes, while I spend some time getting acquainted with our hostess.” And apologizing and doing damage control. “While I’m gone, you can get your pajamas and tooth brush out of your backpack and think about how you’d want a little girl to behave if she were a guest in our house.”

Apparently liking her assignment, she nodded eagerly.

“And don’t spend all your time thinking about how you’d spoil your little guest, because you wouldn’t. If you had to give up your bed for a stranger, you’d want her to be nice to you.”

Finley nodded again and said, “Okay. I get it.”

Rory was absolutely positive she didn’t, but he had to make amends to Shannon. He left Finley in the bedroom and walked up the hall to the kitchen.

The house was small, but comfortable. The furniture was new and expensive, an indication that Raleigh’s Department Store did, indeed, make lots of money. So maybe the trip to Pennsylvania might not have been the mistake he’d thought while sitting in his car for ten hours, not moving, on the Interstate?

He found Shannon in the kitchen. Still wearing her coat, she drew bread from a drawer and cheese from the refrigerator.

“Thanks again for taking us in.”

“No problem.” She set the bread and cheese on the center island of the sunny yellow kitchen with light oak cabinets and pale brown granite countertops. She reached for the top button of her coat. “Furnace has kicked in,” she said with a laugh, popping the first button and the second, but when she reached the third, she paused. “I think I’ll just take this out to the hall closet.”

She walked past him, to the swinging door. Wanting something to do, he followed her. Just as he said, “Is there anything I can do to help with supper?” her coat fell off her shoulders, revealing a bright red dress.

But when she turned in surprise, he saw the dress wasn’t really a dress but some little red velvet thing that dipped low at the bodice, revealing an enticing band of cleavage. Tall black boots showcased her great legs.

She was dressed like Mrs. Santa – if Mrs. Santa were a young incredibly endowed woman who liked short skirts.

His dormant hormones woke as if from a long winter’s nap, and he took a step back. These little bursts of attraction he was having to her were all wrong. He had an unruly daughter who took priority over everything in his life, including his hormones, and he was a guest in Shannon’s house. Plus, tomorrow morning, when the storm was over, they’d go into her department store as adversaries of a sort. She’d be trying to sell her family business to him and he’d be looking for reasons not to buy. He couldn’t be attracted to her.

He swallowed back the whole filing cabinet of flirtatious remarks that wanted to come out. “That’s an interesting choice of work clothes.”

She laughed nervously. “I was going to fill in for our Santa’s helper in the Toy Department.”

Ah. Not Mrs. Santa but Santa’s helper.

“Well, the dress is very …” He paused. He knew the dress was probably supposed to be Christmassy and cute. And on a shorter woman it probably was. But she was tall, sleek, yet somehow still womanly. He didn’t dare tell her that. “… festive.”

She brought the coat to her neck, using it to shield herself. “That’s the look we’re after. Festive and happy. And it actually works for the girl who fits into this costume. I was lucky Mother Nature saved me and I didn’t have to fill in for her tonight.”

Recognizing her acute nervousness, Rory pulled his gaze away from her long, slim legs. He cleared his throat. “I … um… just followed you to see if I could help you with anything.”

She motioned toward his black suit and white shirt. “Are you sure you want to butter bread or stir tomato soup in a suit?”

He took off his jacket, loosened his tie and began rolling up his sleeves.

And Shannon’s mouth watered. Damn it. She’d already figured out she couldn’t be fantasizing about him. Sure, his shoulders were broad, his arms muscled. And she’d always been a sucker for a man in a white shirt with rolled up sleeves looking like he was ready to get down to business. But as far as she could tell, he was married. That shut down the possibility of any relationship right then and there. Plus, she wanted him to buy her parents’ store. She couldn’t be drooling on him.

She hung up her coat, then scurried past him, into the kitchen and directly to the laundry room. Leaning on the closed door, she drew in a deep breath. God, he was gorgeous. But he was also married.

Married. Married. Married.

She forced the litany through her head, hoping it would sink in, as she grabbed a pair of sweats and a T-shirt from the dryer and changed into them.

When she returned to the kitchen he stood at the center island, buttering bread. “While we have a few seconds of privacy, I also wanted to apologize for Finley. I brought her because she’s on Christmas break from school and I hate to leave her with her nanny for an entire week. But I know she can be a handful.”

Walking over to join him, she said, “She’s just a little girl.”

“True, but she’s also recently entered a new phase of some sort where she stomps her foot when she doesn’t get her own way.”

Standing so close to him, she could smell his aftershave. Her breathing stuttered in and out of her lungs. So she laughed, trying to cover it. “A new phase, huh?”

“She’s was perfectly fine in pre-school and kindergarten, but first grade is turning her into a Diva.”


“Yeah.” Smiling, he caught her gaze, and every nerve ending in her body lit up like the lights on the Christmas tree in central park. Spinning away from him, she repeated the litany in her head again.

Married. Married. Married!

“You know, I can easily handle this myself. You can use the den for privacy if you need to call your wife.”

He snorted a laugh. “Not hardly.”

She set the frying pan for the sandwiches on the stove and faced him again. “I’m sure she’s worried.”

“And I’m sure she and her new husband aren’t even thinking about me and Finley right now.”

“Oh.” Nerves rolled through her. He was divorced? Not married?

Their gazes caught. Attraction spun through her like snowflakes dancing in the light of a streetlamp. She reminded herself that they were about to do business, but it didn’t work to snuff out the snap and crackle of electricity arching between them.

She pivoted away from him. Pretending she needed all her concentration to open two cans of soup, she managed to avoid conversation. But that didn’t stop the chatter in her brain. As difficult as it might be to have a little girl around, she was abundantly glad Finley was with him. She might have had that quick fantasy of being stranded with him, but now that sanity had returned, she knew the sale of the store had to take precedence over a night of … she swallowed…passion? Good God, she hadn’t even thought the word in a year, let alone experienced it. She’d probably dissolve into a puddle if he made a pass at her.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Chapter 1

Suzanne Caldwell shoved against the spot in the door of Amanda Mae’s Old West Diner where the “waitress wanted” sign filled the glass. The scent of fresh apple pie greeted her, along with a rush of noise. Though there were no more than ten people at the counter and in the booths, the place was as rowdy as a party. Women wearing jeans and tank tops sat with men dressed in jeans, T-shirts and cowboy hats. She didn’t get two steps into the room before the noise level began to drop. As if noticing the stranger, people stopped talking mid-sentence.

She clutched her six-month-old baby, Mitzi. There was nothing like walking into a roomful of staring strangers to make you realize how alone you were in the world.

And she was definitely alone. She’d run out of gas about a mile out of Whiskey Springs, Texas, and, literally, had no one to call for help.

No family. Her grandmother had died six months ago and her mom had died when Suzanne was six. Her dad, whoever he was, had never acknowledged her.

Her mom and grandmother were both only children so she had no aunts, no uncles, no cousins.

And no friends. The wonderful sorority sisters who’d vowed to be her ally for life had dumped her when she got pregnant by a popular university professor. It was her fault, they’d said, and had accused her of trying to ruin Bill Baker’s career. As if. The guy had gone on a campaign to seduce her and had wormed his way into her life because of her grandmother’s fortune. When Martha Caldwell made some major mistakes in money management and lost the bulk of her wealth, Professor Baker suddenly didn’t want to see her anymore. And he most certainly wanted no part of their baby.

So, yeah. She was alone. Alone. Broke. Desperate to make a home for herself and her baby. And she’d left Atlanta bound for Whiskey Springs hoping to find some help.

But after walking the last mile on a hot June day, her heels thumped in her black stiletto boots. Mitzi squirmed in her arms. Her heavy diaper bag was dislocating her shoulder. Still, she kept her head high as she made her way to the first empty booth. By the time she got there, the diner was dead silent.

A waitress shuffled over. “Help you?”

She cleared her throat. “I’d like a piece of the apple pie I can smell, a cup of coffee, a glass of milk and some pudding, please.”

“What kind of pudding?”

She swallowed. Not one person had turned back to his or her coffee or food. They just stared as if she were a zombie or vampire or some other mythical creature they’d never seen before. “What kind do you have?”

“Vanilla or chocolate.”

“Mitzi loves vanilla.”

Without so much as a word of acknowledgement, the waitress scurried away.

“You’re not from around here.”

Knowing the man could only be talking to her, she followed the voice and found herself staring into a pair of the shrewdest eyes she’d ever seen. Cool, calculating, so black the pupils were almost invisible, his eyes never blinked, never waivered as they held her gaze.

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

“No, I’m not from around here.”

“What’s your business?”

“None of yours.” She turned away from the penetrating, unsettling eyes and shifted Mitzi on her lap.

To her horror, the man walked over and plopped down on the bench seat across from hers. His full lips pulled upward into a devilish smile. His dark eyes danced with pleasure. “Now, see. That’s not just a bad attitude; it’s also wrong.”

She should have been scared to death. He was big. Not fat, but tall and broad-shouldered. The kind of guy who could snap a little five-foot-five girl like her in two. But instead of fear, a very unladylike shiver of lust rippled down her spine.

“Everything that happens in Whiskey Springs is my business because this is my town.”

Not at all happy with herself for even having two seconds of attraction to an ill-mannered stranger, she said, “Your town? What are you, the sheriff?”

He chuckled. The people at the counter and in the booths around them also laughed.

“No. I’m Cade Andreas. I own this town. I bought all the buildings last year. I lease the businesses back to their proprietors, but I still own every square inch, including the one you’re sitting on.”

Oh, good God. This was Cade Andreas?

Fear and confusion immediately replaced attraction. Wasn’t the Andreas family broke?

She owned one-third of Andreas Holdings stock and hadn’t been able to sell it because the company was on the skids. What was he doing buying a town?

“And I’d like to know what brings you to my town.”

She raised her gaze to his face. A day-old growth of beard covered his chin and cheeks, giving him a sexily disreputable look. His lips were full, firm, kissable. His nose had been broken – undoubtedly in a fight – but it wasn’t disfigured, more like masculine. Definitely not dainty. There was nothing dainty about this man. He was all male. One-hundred percent, grade A, prime specimen sexy.

Finally, their eyes connected. Her chest tightened. Her breathing stalled. She could have blamed that on her unwitting attraction, but refused. A guy who bought a town had to be more than a little arrogant. Definitely past vain. Maybe even beyond narcissistic. And she’d learned her lesson about narcissistic men with Mitzi’s father. It would be a cold, frosty day in hell before she got involved with another self-absorbed man. So she refused to be attracted to Cade Andreas. Refused.

But she still needed a job. She might own stock worth millions of dollars, but nobody wanted to buy it. Potential didn’t sell stock these days. Dividends did. And in the past two years Andreas Holdings hadn’t paid any. So she was hoping that since she owned one-third of the company they could at least let her work there. The choice to approach Cade Andreas, the youngest of the three brothers who owned controlling interest of Andreas Holdings stock and ran the company, was simply a matter of practicality. Texas was driving distance. New York City, the headquarters for the corporate offices, wasn’t. Still, if they gave her a job, she’d get there somehow. She’d go anywhere that she could put down roots and make a home. Maybe find some friends.

“What brings you to my town?”

This time the words were harsh. Not quite angry, but definitely losing patience.
She glanced at the waitress who stood behind the counter, balancing a coffee pot and Suzanne’s piece of pie, obviously holding them hostage until she answered Cade.
She looked back at him. His already sharp eyes had narrowed in displeasure, and she had the sudden, intense intuition that if she told him who she was – in front of his adoring friends and the frozen waitress – he would not jump for joy. She would bet her last dollar that none of these people knew how much trouble Andreas Holdings was in and Cade would not be happy with the person who announced it.

There was no way she could say who she was and why she was here without talking about something he would want kept private, and no way she could explain her presence in this two-bit town so far from a major highway that no one was ever just passing through.

She glanced around, saw the sign in the door advertising for a waitress and grabbed the first piece of good luck that had come her way in over a year.

“I heard about the job for a waitress, so I came.”

“In your fancy boots, with your baby all dolled up?”

“We put on our best stuff --” she said, making herself sound as if she fit the part of a waitress. She regretted the deception, but if anybody ever deserved to be played, this guy did. Owned a town, huh? She potentially held the future of his family’s company in her hands just by whom she chose to sell her stock to, yet he’d never once considered that she might be somebody worthy of his time. “-- For the interview.”

A short, round, dark-haired woman wearing an apron scampered out of the kitchen. “You’re looking for a job?”

“Yes.” The truth of that brought her back to reality. Her purpose for coming to Whiskey Springs had been to get a job – from Andreas Holdings. Now that plan was on hold. She wasn’t exactly here to be a waitress, but money was money. And she needed some. Now. Today. She had enough cash to pay for her piece of pie and even buy extra milk for Mitzi, but after that she and Mitzi were sleeping in her car.

“I’m Suzanne Caldwell.” Because her grandmother had held the stock in a trust, her name wasn’t mentioned on any documents, so she could give it without worry. “This is my baby Mitzi.”

Mitzi picked that exact moment to cry. The little brunette scrambled over. “I’m Amanda Mae.” She shot Cade an evil look, causing Suzanne to immediately love her. “Real men don’t make babies cry.”

Cade held up his hands innocently. “Hey, I was on my own side of the booth the whole time. I didn’t touch her.”

“You’re threatening her mama.”

His face fell. “I never threatened her!”

“Just your voice is threatening.”

He sighed. “Yeah. Right. Whatever.”

She took the baby. “Would you like a bottle, little Mitzi?”

Suzanne said, “I ordered some milk and pudding for her.”

Amanda Mae looked horrified. “June Marie, where are you with this baby’s food?”

The waitress hustled over, set Suzanne’s pie in front of her and poured her a cup of coffee before she rushed away and got both the pudding and the milk.

Eyes narrowed, Cade studied the woman across the booth from him. She was a pretty little package. Eyes so blue they bordered on the purple color of the wildflowers that grew on his pasture in the spring. Black hair cut in a straight, blunt line at her chin, giving her a dramatic look that didn’t fit with a woman who needed a job as a waitress. And those boots. Black stilettos. The kind a man envisioned on his chest, pinning him to a bed.

He stopped those thoughts. She might be a pretty with her perfect nose and full, tempting lips, but he wasn’t interested.

Still, he had no doubt that he had to keep an eye on her. Something wasn’t right with her. It wasn’t just her city-girl clothes. Her demeanor didn’t fit. Waitresses didn’t have smooth hands, perfect posture, an unblinking stare.

He rose from the booth. “Well, seeing as how you got the job you wanted, I guess we’ll be running into each other from time to time.”

She only smiled. A cool, remote smile that heated his blood and all but challenged him to turn on the charm and see how long it would take to get that smile to thaw. Luckily, he was smarter than that.

Amanda Mae said, “Do you have someplace to stay, honey?”

She faced the diner owner. “I – No. Actually, I need a place to stay.”

“Hotel’s in the next town over,” Cade said, striding back to his seat at the counter and his now cold coffee.

Amanada Mae shot him another evil glare. “Or she could use the apartment upstairs until she gets on her feet.”

“I’d like that.” Suzanne pressed her fingers to Amanda Mae’s hand in a gesture of appreciation that stopped Cade cold. Maybe she was in need of a little help? Her crisp white blouse and fancy jeans could be the last good things she owned. He hadn’t heard a car drive up. He glanced out the big front window into the street. He didn’t see a car. She could be dead broke--

Nope. His business sense wouldn’t accept that. Something about her screamed money. Big money. If she was pretending she didn’t have any, there was a reason.

Damn. He was going to have to keep an eye on her.

Immediately after Cade left, Amanda Mae took Suzanne upstairs to look at the little furnished apartment.

“One of the waitresses always lives here,” she said, leading Suzanne into the tiny bedroom that barely had enough space for a crib and a double bed. “So we keep it furnished.”

Gratitude weakened Suzanne’s knees. At least now they wouldn’t have to sleep in her car tonight. She turned Amanda Mae to with a smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Amanda Mae stuffed a few bills into her palm. “And here’s some money to go to the secondhand store down the street and buy some sheets and towels.”

Her face reddened. This time last year she was telling her grandmother she was three months pregnant and that her baby’s daddy wanted no part of her. Her wonderful, loving grandmother had taken her hand and told her not to worry. That everything would be okay. Even though she’d made some bad investments, they still had the Andreas Holdings stock.

A couple of months hadn’t just changed everything; they’d taken away her home, her only family. Instead of being a well-loved granddaughter, she was a broke single mom. So alone her only contacts had been lawyers and accountants, until her grandmother’s estate was settled. Then even they didn’t call.

Tears welled up. She caught Amanda Mae’s gaze. “I’ll pay you back.”

Amanda Mae squeezed her hand. “In good time. For now, I’m just happy to have some help for the breakfast crowd.”

Driving back to his ranch, Cade speed-dialed the number for his assistant.

“Hey, Cade.”

“Hey, Eric.” He’d hired Eric right out of grad school because he was sharp and educated, but also because he had total recall. If someone mentioned an aunt, cousin, sister, brother or long-lost friend even once in a conversation, Eric would remember him or her. “Have you ever heard of Suzanne Caldwell?”

“Can’t say that I have.”


“Who is she?”

“Just a woman who came into the diner today. She took the waitress job, but something just didn’t seem right about her.”

“Ah. I’m guessing your business sense kicked up.”

He scowled at the phone. “Don’t poke fun at my business sense. It’s made me rich enough that I’d never have to work another day in my life. While you, on the other hand, still work for me.”

He disconnected the call. But when he though of Suzanne, the hair on his nape snapped up. Damn it! Why would a waitress activate his business sense? And why was he going back to his ranch when his instincts were screaming that he should be checking into this?

Slamming on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado, he manipulated it through a fishtail and headed back into town. He pulled his truck into a parking space at the diner, but when he walked by the huge front window, he saw that the new waitress wasn’t inside.

His instincts calmed, his intuition quieted and he cursed himself for being the suspicious fool that Eric hinted he was. But before he could turn around and go back to his truck, he saw Suzanne coming down the outside steps from the second-floor apartment, carrying her baby.

A hot rush of desire whooshed through him. Luckily, the hair on his nape also prickled the way it always did right before a negotiation went sour. The first reaction might have been attraction. But the nape prickle? That was his business sense. The one that told him he was about to get into a fight. Not a fist fight, but a disagreement, or maybe a battle to protect what was his. He slid into the alley between the general store and the hardware and watched her head up the street.

Unfortunately, the view from behind was every bit as stunning as her front profile. Her straight black hair fringed the collar of the crisp white blouse that hugged a trim, toned back. It slid along the indent of her small waist to an absolutely perfect behind that swayed ever so slightly with every step of her long legs – legs made to look longer and sexier by her stiletto boots.

Attraction hit him like a warm ocean wave and left him drowning in sensation. This time he had to admit it was only attraction. He tried to blink it away but failed. There was just so much about her that was geared to appeal to a man. No male alive could resist a nice waist curve that took him to a tight butt and long, shapely legs. Especially when the pretty little package had a face to match. Dramatic hair. Eyes that could very well glow in the dark.

He shook his head to clear the haze. Fantasizing would not do either one of them any good. He needed to figure out why she set off his business alarms or it would drive him crazy. Yes, that might make him a control freak. But he was a rich, successful control freak. And if his business sense said jump, his answer was always how high.

When he was sure she was far enough ahead that she wouldn’t see him, he followed her. When she ducked into the secondhand store, he stopped. He waited for her to get deep enough into the building that she wouldn’t notice him hovering beyond the display in the big glass front window.

Judy Petrovic, proprietor of Yesterday’s Goods, ambled over to her.

Suzanne turned and offered her a sweet, sincere smile, which nearly knocked Cade off his feet. He’d never seen her smile. Well, he’d seen her sassy imitation smile, but never a genuine smile until now. And he was glad. Had she smiled at him like that in the diner he worried he would have stuttered.

She handed her baby to Judy, then her heavy-looking diaper bag. Judy bounced the little girl as Suzanne dipped down and rummaged through a table of what looked to be sheets, maybe towels. Walking back and forth from the display to the cash register, she made a pile of linens before she grabbed a pair of secondhand jeans and a T-shirt, and several things for her baby. After Judy rang up her purchases, she paid with crumpled up bills that she’d been clutching in her left hand.

Cade pulled back and slid around to the side of the building, his chest tightening with regret. She’d said she’d come to Whiskey Springs for the job as a waitress and she’d taken it without a hint of regret. Now she was buying somebody’s old, worn sheets to fit on the old, worn mattress on a bed that had seen more years than most of the people in this town.

She really was broke.

And here he was spying on her like some old goof.

He was a goof. The truth was he wasn’t entirely sure that his sixth sense about her really was his business sense. It could be nothing but attraction. Lord knew, it had been so long since he’d been naturally overwhelmingly attracted to a woman that he might have forgotten the signs. He’d botched his first marriage so much that he stayed away from any woman who might inspire anything more than lust. And a woman with a baby wasn’t somebody a man should be fooling around with. Since he didn’t want to be attracted to Suzanne, he could be trying to kid himself into thinking it was his sixth sense. Rationalizing so he didn’t have to admit to anybody that he virtually tripped over his tongue when he looked at her.

A dry dusty breeze swirled around him, reminding him that he was hiding in an alley, spying on a waitress.

Good God. What was he doing?

Friday, April 15, 2011



Chapter 1

“Your ex-wife applied for the job as your assistant.”

Nick Andreas glanced up at his current assistant, soon-to-be-retired Julie Farnsworth. He’d just flown back to North Carolina after six weeks in New York City. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go to his beach house, get out of his monkey suit and take a nap on his hammock. He’d only popped into the office because he had a huge bid due to renew the government contract that was the bread and butter of his manufacturing plant. He had to get an assistant in now.
He just wasn’t sure hiring Maggie Forsythe as Julie’s replacement was the best way to go. When he had a bid due, his assistant worked with him – directly with him, at his side – ten hours a day, six days a week. No man wanted to spend that much time with his ex-wife. Not even an ex-wife he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. An ex-wife he barely remembered.

He tossed his pen to his desk. “You wouldn’t be telling me this if she wasn’t qualified.”

“She’s qualified. Over qualified in some respects.”

“And she actually applied?”

“Well, we certainly didn’t drag her in off the street.”

He laughed and leaned back in his chair. So Maggie wanted to work for him? He smiled skeptically as weird feelings assaulted him. He hadn’t thought about Maggie Forsythe in over a decade. Now, suddenly, he could vividly recall how the sun would catch her red hair and make it sparkle, her wide, happy smile, the sound of her laughter.

“Sorry if I’m finding all this a little hard to believe, but we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. Andreas Manufacturing should be the last place she wants to work.”

His sixty-five-year-old assistant caught his gaze with serious dark eyes. “She needs the money.”

She was broke? The way he’d been when they’d met?

Memories of his childhood and teen years cascaded through his brain like water spilling from a waterfall. Maggie at six, toothless in first grade, dividing her morning snack with him before they went into the building so no one in their class would see he hadn’t brought one. Maggie at twelve, fishing with him so he and his mom could have something for supper. Maggie at fifteen, hanging out in the souvenir shop where he worked, entertaining him on long, boring afternoons before the tourist season picked up. Maggie at eighteen, swollen with his child.

A long-forgotten ache filled his chest and made him scowl. The woman he was remembering with such fondness had dropped him like a hot potato when she’d lost their baby. She hadn’t loved him. She’d only married him because he’d gotten her pregnant one reckless night. Twenty minutes after they returned from the hospital after her miscarriage, she was out the door of his mom’s house. Out of his life.

“She should have as many reservations about working with me as I have about working with her.”

“Her stepmom died while you were in New York. Rumor has it that she came home for the funeral and decided her dad needed her. She quit her job and moved back permanently but in three weeks of looking she couldn’t find work – unless she wants to commute to the city.” Julie peered at him over the rim of her glasses. “Aside from tourism, you’re the only real employer in Ocean Palms.”

He picked up his pen again. “Hire her.”

Julie gasped softly. “Really?”

“Sure. We were married as kids. Fifteen years have gone by.” He wasn’t such a selfish, self-centered oaf that he’d let someone suffer because she had the misfortune of having a history with him. He knew what it was like to have no options. He’d spent his entire childhood living hand-to-mouth. He wouldn’t ignore the person who, as a child, had shared with him, helped him, even rescued him a time or two.

Plus, if Julie said Maggie was the person for the job then she was.

Julie rose. “Okay. She’s in my office. She said she can begin today. I’ll bring her in and we can get started.”

Nick sat up in his seat. Today? He didn’t even have ten minutes to mentally prepare?
Julie walked to his office door and opened it. “Come in, Maggie.”

A true southern gentleman, Nick rose from the tall-back chair behind his huge mahogany desk. Ridiculously, he couldn’t squelch the pride that surged up in him as he took in the expensive Persian rugs that sat on the hardwood floors of his office, the lamps from China, the heavy leather sofa and chair in the conversation area, the art from the broker in New York City. He was rich, successful, and his office showed it. He’d fulfilled the promise of his youth. He had brains and skill and he’d parlayed those into wealth beyond anyone’s expectations. One look at his office would tell Maggie he wasn’t the eighteen-year-old boy she’d deserted anymore.

The click of high heels on the hardwood announced her arrival two seconds before she appeared in his doorway. Her gorgeous red hair flowed around her, but it was shaped and curled in a way that framed her face, not straight as she had worn it when they were married. Her once sparkly green eyes now held soul-searching intensity. Her full red lips rose slightly in a reluctant smile.

Just as he wasn’t the eighteen-year-old she’d left behind anymore, she didn’t look a thing like his Maggie.

He relaxed as his gaze involuntarily fell from her face to her dress. A simple red tank dress that showed off a newly acquired suntan, but also couldn’t hide her only slightly protruding stomach.

She was pregnant?

He gave her tummy a more thorough scrutiny.

She was pregnant.

And suddenly he was that eighteen-year-old boy again. Seeing his woman, the love of his life, swollen with his child. More memories washed over him. The dreams he’d had for the kind of father he would be rose up as if he’d been lost in them only yesterday. Love for her, the woman bearing his child, burst in his chest.

But this wasn’t his child. She’d lost their child.

And she didn’t love him.

Hell, he no longer loved her.

“Come in,” he said. His voice was tight with a bit of a squeak but he ignored that, motioning to the chair in front of his desk.

Maggie took a few hesitant steps inside. Now trim instead of lanky, she wore her pregnancy the same way another woman would wear a designer dress.

That was when he realized she was probably married. Happily married. Not scared and hesitant, but with no other options because her stepmom had kicked her out of the house. But happy. Having a child with the man she loved.

He swallowed the knot that formed in his throat, reminding himself that these emotions churning through him were ridiculous. He was over her. Plus, they hadn’t even seen each other in fifteen years. The feelings weren’t really feelings. They were residue. Like cobwebs that had clung to the walls of his brain and would disappear once he got to know the adult Maggie.

“Julie wants to hire you but I have a few reservations.”

He didn’t even try to stop the words that flowed from his mouth. Though he’d already told Julie to hire her, now that he saw that she was pregnant, he had some concerns. Not about the “feelings” seeing her pregnant aroused, but her ability to do the job.

She gracefully sat on the chair in front of his desk, smiled softly. “You mean because we were once married?”

He snorted a laugh, but Julie’s hand flew to her throat. “You know, I think I’ll just go get us some coffee.”

Nick said, “She can’t drink coffee,” at the same time that Maggie said, “I don’t drink coffee.”

Julie said, “Then I’ll get some coffee for myself.” She fled the room, closing the door behind her.

Nick sat back in his chair, reaching deep inside himself for the calm that was his trademark. He had to treat her as any other employee and speak accordingly.

“For the next four weeks I need to work ten-hour days.”

“Six days a week. I get that. Julie told me.”

“Can you keep up?”

“Of course, I can keep up. I’m pregnant not sick.”

The room plunged into eerie silence. Memories of the day she’d lost their baby haunted him like menacing ghosts.

As if recognizing where his thoughts had gone, Maggie sighed. “Nick, I’m fine. Really. And I need this job. If you don’t hire me I’ll have to get work in the city and commute an hour each way.”

“An hour commute might be better for a pregnant woman than racing around the plant looking for documents I need, assembling information from different departments--”

He paused to catch her gaze and when he saw green eyes sparking with fire, everything he intended to say fell out of his head. He remembered that look very well, remembered how many times it had taken them straight to bed.

“I already told you I can keep up.”

He took in a quiet breath, reminding himself that Maggie was a married woman who wanted to work for him. The last thing he needed to be thinking about was how her fiery need for independence had played out between the sheets.

“Yeah, well, maybe I want some kind of proof.”

She smiled sweetly, calmly. “In a couple of months, I’m not going to be pregnant anymore. Then you’re going to be sorry you lost the chance to hire me.”

A laugh escaped. Dear God. This really was his Maggie. Fiery one minute, serene the next. And the common sense, logical Maggie could be every bit as sexy as the impassioned one.

But she was married.

And he was a runaround now.

Having a father who’d abandoned him had made him want commitments, but Maggie leaving him had set him straight on that score. And he’d changed. He wasn’t simple Nick Roebuck anymore. The guy who hadn’t taken his father’s name. The guy who wanted commitments. A wife. Family. Nope. Nick Roebuck was gone. He was now Nick Andreas, playboy.

“Besides, my father needs me.”

Shifting in his chair, Nick blew his breath out in a gusty sigh. Who he was didn’t matter. Who she was didn’t matter. She was off limits. “I’m sorry about your stepmom.”


“I was out of town or I would have paid my respects.”

Her gaze dipped. “I know.”

“Was everything – you know – okay?” He nearly bit his tongue for his clumsiness. But what could he say? How could he ask if she and Vicki had mended fences? If they’d ever gotten beyond the fact that Vicki had favored Charlie Junior over her? If Vicki had ever forgiven Maggie for getting pregnant? If Maggie had ever forgiven Vicki for kicking her out of the house?

“It was fine.” She shrugged. “Losing someone is always hard.”

Which told him nothing. Not that it was any of his business. He scrambled for something safe to say, but the only thing he could think of was, “Yeah. My father died last January. I know how hard these things can be.”

She smiled and her eyes brightened. “Oh, so you met your father? You had a relationship?”

“Yes and no.” He tapped his fingers on the edge of his desk, tamping down the sudden, unexpected urge to tell her everything. They weren’t friends anymore. She might act like the girl he’d known and loved, but she wasn’t. And he wasn’t the love-sick boy she’d married.

Still, he couldn’t ignore her question. “I met my father but we didn’t really have a relationship. Unless you call having dinner every other year a relationship.”

“That’s too bad.” Genuine regret colored her voice. “So how’s your mom?”

He chuckled. “She’s just like a little general at the daycare. Loves the kids, but keeps them in line.”

Maggie’s laugh was quick and easy. “God I missed her.”

“We missed you.” The words slipped out and he knew why. He was getting comfortable with her. And that was wrong. If they were going to work together, he had to draw lines. Be professional.

She looked away. “No point in staying once I’d lost the baby.”

Hearing her say that now hurt almost as much as it had the day she left. “Right.”

“Before I got pregnant, we both had plans.”

“Is that what you were thinking about while I was talking to my father’s attorney?”
For years he’d wondered. What kind of coincidence could it have been that the dad who’d ignored him his entire life suddenly wanted to give him a trust fund? Had it been a gift from fate to Maggie, or a curse of fate for him?

She caught his gaze. “Yes.”

When his heart squeezed, he swore at himself inwardly for asking the stupid question. He’d already reasoned all this out in his head. Gotten beyond it. There was no point going over it again. Certainly no point rehashing it with her. Fifteen years had passed and he loved the life he’d built without her.

If they were going to work together, the past would have to be forgotten. His only goal should be to make sure she really did have the education and experience to do the job.

“So you’ve have a business degree?”

“Yes.” She shifted on the chair. Her shoulders went back. Her expression became businesslike. “But I’m not looking down on this job. I think there are a lot of ways I can help you.”

“What did you do at your last job?”

“I was an analyst for a firm that put venture capitalist groups together with struggling businesses looking for investors or a buyer.”

“Do you know much about manufacturing?”

She laughed. “Most of the businesses looking for investors or buyout are manufacturing companies.”

He tapped his pen on the desk. He needed somebody and, as Julie said, Maggie was qualified. Now he and his ex-wife would be spending ten hours a day, six days a week together.

He looked over at her just as she looked at him and the years between them melted away. Her eyes weren’t as wary as they had been when she walked in the door. Her smile was genuine.

Doubt rumbled through his soul. In the sea of women that he’d dated since he’d hit puberty, she was the only one he’d loved. It had taken almost five years to really get beyond her leaving; years before he stopped hoping every ring of the phone was her calling; years before he stopped looking for her in crowds. One five-minute conversation had already brought an avalanche of memories. This was not going to be easy.

Saturday, January 15, 2011



Chapter 1

“The Andreas brothers have arrived.”
As the secretary’s announcement came through the speaker phone, attorney Whitney Ross turned from the window in her father’s law office. The gathering January storm clouds above the New York City skyscrapers concerned her, but the Andreas brothers’ visit would be every bit as tumultuous.
Gerard Ross pressed a button on his phone. “Tell them I need five minutes.”
He caught Whitney’s gaze, his green eyes bright with something she decided was a cross between trepidation and humor.

“You’re enjoying this.”

“Not enjoying exactly.” He grimaced, leaning his round body back in his office chair. He rhythmically tapped the blotter on his cherry wood desk. “How about if we say Stephone used his will to accomplish a few important things?”

Though Whitney had never met Stephone Andreas’s sons, Stephone had been a close friend of her father’s. He’d come to dinner at least once a month from the time she was six, and had talked about “his boys” incessantly. So she suspected she knew what was going on. The senior Andreas had always believed his three sons needed a kick in the pants and it seemed he’d finally found a way to give them one.
“You persuaded Stephone to use his will to force them to grow up.”

“This is about more than growing up. All three are smart. All three are good businessmen. Any one of them could take over the family holdings. But not one of them has a sense of loyalty or family.”

“And this is where the will comes in?”

“Yes. Stephone gave everything important to his oldest son, Darius. Whether or not that divides them for good or forces them to unite all depends on whether Darius takes the reins like a true leader and unites them.”

He rose and headed for the black leather sofa in the comfortable meeting area in the corner of his big law office. After he sat, he patted the spot beside him, indicating this is where she should sit for their upcoming meeting.

“But before I bring the brothers in, there’s something you need to know. Missy had something put in her will for you that Stephone agreed would also go into his.”

Whitney took the seat he’d offered. “Missy put something in her will for me?” She wasn’t surprised. Missy Harrington had been her roommate from the time they were freshman at university the whole way through law school. With an alcoholic mom and a dad who’d left when Missy was young, Missy had adopted Whitney’s family. For seven years, she’d shared every holiday and most of her vacations with the Rosses. Though Whitney had hardly seen her since she introduced Missy to Stephone, when they’d run off to Greece together, Whitney and Missy had a strong bond.

“She didn’t exactly leave you something. In accordance with Stephone and Missy’s wills, you and Darius got shared custody of their son.”

Her stomach squeezed. “What?”

“Okay. Look. It’s been three years since the accident that took Burn and Layla. And though I hadn’t known Missy and Stephone would die so soon when I let them put this provision in their wills, it’s still time you came back to the land of the living.” Her dad pulled a small envelope from one of the files in the stack on the coffee table. “She left this note for you.”

Her hand wrapped around the envelope and she paled.

“Stephone wanted Darius to raise their son, but Missy was adamant about you having joint custody. The Andreas brothers are rich and spoiled. And they don’t even know their father had another son. It’s anybody’s guess how they’ll react when they find out. I believe that Missy made you co-guardian to assure Gino was also in the hands of someone she trusted.”

“But I don’t know Gino either! When Missy and Stephone moved to Greece, we lost touch. I’ve never met Gino. I’ll be no better for this baby than his brother.”
He caught her hand. “You might not know Gino, but Missy knew you. She knew you had a sense of family. A sense of right and wrong. You’ve also been a mom. You’ll get to know Gino and, as young as he is, Gino will grow accustomed to you too.” He squeezed her fingers. “Besides, you need this.”

She tried to bounce off the sofa, but her dad held fast to her hand. When she faced him her eyes were blazing. “No! I don’t need this! I’m fine!”

“You’re not fine. Otherwise, getting custody of Gino wouldn’t make you angry.”
He pressed a button on the phone on the coffee table that sat in the center of the circle made by the sofa and three black leather chairs. “Cynthia, bring in Gino, please.”

Whitney’s heart stopped. Her stomach rolled. Her head spun. For the past three years, she’d avoided even being near a baby. The scent of baby powder, the feel of snuggly blankets, the sight of someone so tiny, so helpless, and so beautiful would have been her undoing. And now her father wanted her to take a baby into her home?

The side door opened and Cyndy Smith walked in carrying six-month-old Gino Andreas in a baby carrier, along with a diaper bag and duffle.

Her father squeezed her hand again. “Your mother and I have been keeping Gino during the Andreas funerals, but it’s time you took him.” He rose and accepted the baby carrier from Cyndy. “Thank you, Cyn.”

She nodded and her blonde hair bobbed. “You’re welcome, sir.”

As Cyn left the room, Whitney’s father set the carrier on the sofa, pulled Gino out and presented the dark-haired, dark-eyed baby boy to her. “He’s yours, Whitney.”

Knowing there was no arguing with her father or he’d send her back to therapy, Whitney slid the envelope into her jacket pocket and took the six-month-old with shaking hands. He immediately began to cry.

“Don’t cry, sweetie,” she crooned, automatically pressing his head to her shoulder to comfort him. “It’s okay.”

Her instinctive response to his crying amazed her, but she wasn’t surprised by the pain that sliced through her – the memories that flashed through her brain. Her daughter had been a tiny blonde with huge blue eyes. She’d rarely cried. Except when she missed her mother. She’d loved bananas and puppies. To Whitney she’d seemed the smartest baby on the face of the earth.

Tears filled her eyes. Her stomach tightened.

She couldn’t do this.

Maybe she did need more time with Dr. Miller?

But before she could say anything to her dad, the office door opened. Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a cable knit sweater, Cade Andreas entered first. Behind him was Nick, the dark-haired, dark-eyed brother who most resembled the senior Andreas. And finally Darius. Taller than their father, but with eyes and hair as dark as his, striking in his expensive business suit, Darius was very clearly the leader of the group.

Their expressions were solemn, yet strong. Almost arrogant. The head of the Andreas family was dead. They now controlled one of the largest shipping conglomerates in the world.

Or so they thought.

She glanced at the baby in her arms. For the first time in three years she felt a swell of protectiveness only a mother could feel, and she understood why Missy had given her custody along with Darius. The Andreas men were strong. Maybe too strong. And babies needed love.

The question was did she have any left to give?

“Are you kidding me?”

Darius Andreas gaped at Gerard Ross, his deceased father’s attorney, then his daughter Whitney Ross, a tall, cool blonde with gray-blue eyes who looked nothing like her short, round father. The pair sat on the black leather sofa. The Andreas brothers sat across from them on three black leather chairs. Beside Whitney was a baby carrier and inside the carrier was a baby boy who looked to be only a few months old. His black hair and dark eyes marked him as an Andreas as clearly as Gerard Ross’s pronouncement did.

“I assure you, there’s no joke.” Gerard leaned back, getting more comfortable. “This little boy is your father’s final son. There are four of you now.”

He picked up the will and began reading again. “It is my wish that the remaining two-thirds share of Andreas Holdings be divided equally among my four sons: Darius, Cade, Nick and Gino.”


A baby.

His final half-sibling was a baby!

Darius sucked in a breath, forcing that to sink in, but it wouldn’t. His brain had frozen. He was stunned, speechless, and working not to lose his temper over something he couldn’t change. Silent Nick and Cade appeared to be equally shell shocked.

Finally, the business sense Darius had trusted his entire life came to his rescue. “I want a DNA test.”

The smooth leather sofa sighed when Gerard sat forward. He looked down at his entwined fingers then caught Darius’s gaze. “Your father might not have married Missy Harrington, but he’s named on the birth certificate as Gino’s father. Had Missy not died with your father, you might be fighting her for the company right now.”

“I still want DNA.”

“I understand you’re surprised—“

“Surprised? How about shocked? First, our father calls us to the hospital after the accident to tell us that he gave one-third interest in the company to his first administrative assistant. So we’ll never fully own our own damned company. Then he tells us we have no sense of family and unless we pull together we’re going to lose everything he built. Then he dies. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Now you’re telling us there’s a fourth brother?”

“Mr. Andreas, the very fact that you didn’t know your father had another child is proof that your sense of family leaves a bit to be desired.”
Darius nearly cursed. Who was his womanizing father to tell him that he had no sense of family? His father had abandoned his mother. Hell, Stephone had abandoned him until he was in his teens. And then he’d only appeared in Darius’s life because he wanted to assure that Darius went to a good university so he could be groomed to work for Andreas Holdings.

“For decades our father preached that we shouldn’t take family troubles to outsiders.” He rose. “Yet it looks like that’s exactly what he’s done.” He reached for the baby carrier. Now that the shock was receding, things were beginning to sink in and make sense. He didn’t really need DNA to tell him this was his brother. His father had been living with a thirty-year-old woman. It was no shock she’d gotten pregnant. Gino had all the physical markings of an Andreas. With his father’s name on the birth certificate and Gino’s name in the will, this little boy was family. And his father wanted him to care for him. So he would. Unlike his two brothers, Darius always did want their father asked.

“We’ll take our brother and go now.”

Whitney held back the carrier. “Dad?”

Gerard said, “There’s more.”

Darius just barely controlled his rising fury. “More?”

“You, Darius, get custody of Gino but you share it with Whitney.”

He turned his heated gaze on her.

Her yellow hair was probably pretty, but she had it rolled in a tight, no-nonsense bun at the back of her head. Her gray suit hid any hint of the body beneath it. He caught the gaze of her blue-gray eyes. In spite of the fact that she dressed to downplay her appearance, Darius felt a click of attraction. And it was mutual. He saw the flicker in her pretty blue orbs.

“It’s up to you how you divide Gino’s time. If you want to have him three days a week and Whitney four, or if you want to have him for two weeks a month and Whitney two, whatever you choose is up to you two. But she will vote his share at your board of directors meetings.”

This time Darius did curse. But he quickly pulled in a breath, struggling to rein in his temper, and glanced again at Whitney. The click of attraction he’d felt when he’d first looked into her eyes turned into a current of electricity that zapped between them. They were definitely attracted.

If this were any other day, any other time, any other circumstance, he would have pursued her. Peel off a few layers of clothes, take down her hair and he was just about certain he’d find paradise.

But those eyes, those pretty Persian cat eyes, told him to forget it. It didn’t matter if they were attracted to each other. They had a job to do. Raise Gino.

Whitney stayed perfectly still under Darius Andreas’s scrutiny, though warm, sweet attraction hummed through her. She ignored it. He was a gorgeous man with his dark, brooding good looks, tailored suit made to accentuate his broad shoulders and trim hips, and commanding personality. Any woman would react to him. Simply from the way his other brothers hadn’t even spoken since introductions were made, it was clear that Darius was the brother in charge. And that was very sexy.

With piercing his onyx eyes boring into hers, she suppressed a shiver. But she wasn’t worried about falling victim to the attraction. Attractions frequently grew into relationships and relationships made people vulnerable. The pain that had followed the loss of her husband had been indescribable. She’d never put herself through that again. She’d never even let herself get close. She couldn’t be attracted to Darius Andreas. She refused.

Darius squeezed his eyes shut in disgust and popped them open again. “All right. Fine.” He motioned for Whitney to follow him. “Let’s go.”


“If this baby’s on the board, he’s working for a living.”

Whitney’s dad laughed. “Very funny, Darius.”

“I’m not laughing. My father left the company in a sad state. There’s work to do. And nobody’s excused. Since your daughter has his vote, she’ll pull his share of the duty.”

“That’s preposterous—“

“Dad,” Whitney interrupted her father. “It’s okay. I’ve never been one to shirk my responsibilities.” She straightened her shoulders and looked Darius in the eye, accepting his challenge. If he thought he’d intimidate her on day one, he was sadly mistaken. She could handle a little work. “If everybody’s working, then I will too.”

“All right,” her dad agreed, “but before anybody leaves there’s one more thing.”

Darius turned. His dark eyes were ablaze now.

Whitney’s dad looked from Darius to Cade to Nick and back at Darius again. “With your father’s former assistant in possession of a one-third share of Andreas Holdings, and four brothers sharing the other two thirds, you don’t have to be a math scholar to know that individually none of you has controlling interest in the whole company.” He glanced from Darius to Cade to Nick again. “Your father has instructed me to allow the benefactor of the final one-third interest to remain anonymous until she decides how to handle her position. She’s in her seventies, so she may simply want to sit back and enjoy the profits. But if she decides she wants to be active in the company, you had better be united or Andreas Holdings will end up being run by somebody other than an Andreas.”

Don't forget to go to to read What Came Before...The beginning of Darius's story!