CHAPTER THREE

Dani stood on the porch of a large, impressive house in Bellevue and told herself that the world wouldn’t end when she rang the doorbell. It might feel as if it would, but that wasn’t real. Besides, just standing out here, lurking, would upset the neighbors. What if they called and told Mark’s wife about a potential thief hovering? Katherine Canfield would open the front door and find her there. It was not how Dani wanted them to meet.

“I’m babbling in my head,” Dani muttered to herself. “This is bad. Seriously bad. I think I need therapy. Or at least a frontal lobe transplant.”

She forced herself to push the bell. As the soft ringing sound echoed inside the house, she felt her heart speed up until it was in danger of bursting into warp eight and zipping off to the nearby non-earth galaxy.

The door opened. Dani tried to brace herself, but there wasn’t enough time. Then all the air flowed out of her lungs when she recognized the man standing there.

“Thank God,” she said before she could stop herself. “It’s just you.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. “Just me? So I wasn’t intimidating enough at our last meeting? None of the threats worked?”

Oops. “No, no. Of course not. You were terrifying. I won’t sleep for weeks. Dragons. I’m going to have nightmares about them. Seriously. It’s just compared with meeting your mother… no offense, but you’re a snap.”

He didn’t even crack a smile. Was it that the man didn’t have a sense of humor or was it her specifically that he didn’t find funny? She thought about pointing out this was actually pretty good material, but decided not to. There was a better than even chance she would be barfing from nerves shortly. Why push her luck now?

He stared at her for several seconds. She smiled tightly. “It’s the whole visitor, front door thing. You’re supposed to invite me in.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You’ll warm up to me.”

“I doubt it.”

“I’m a very nice person.”

He looked unconvinced but still he took a step back and allowed her to ease past him into the foyer.

The interior of the house was large, but homey. It was the kind of place designed to make someone feel at ease-too bad it wasn’t having that effect on her at the moment.

She turned to Alex, but before she could speak a teenage boy rolled into the room. He was pale and thin, with dark hair and eyes. His right hand worked a control on his motorized wheelchair while his left hand lay bent and curled in his lap.

“Are you the stripper I ordered?” he asked as he eyed her. “I’ve been waiting over an hour. I was expecting better service from your company.”

Dani tilted her head slightly as she tried to figure out how to handle the outrageous question. Finally she settled on the truth.

“I’m not exactly stripper material,” she said with a grin. “I’m too short. I always picture them really tall and with those big headpieces like the Las Vegas showgirls wear.”

“They couldn’t drive in one of those feather things,” he told her.

“They could if they had a sunroof and kept it open.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Alex muttered. “Dani Buchanan, Ian Canfield. My brother. He can be obnoxious.”

“An ugly accusation and totally untrue.”

“Nice to meet you.” Dani said and held out her hand to Ian.

He moved his wheelchair close and shook her hand. “You could be stripper material if you wanted,” he said.

“What a lovely thing to say. It’s a compliment I’ll treasure always. My mother would be so proud.”

Ian laughed. “Okay, I like you. That doesn’t happen often. You should treasure the moment.”

Dani laughed. “I will. You’ll be prominently mentioned in my diary tonight.”

He sighed. “It’s a problem I have all the time. Chicks dig me. It’s the supersized battery. They go crazy for power.”

With that, he spun his chair and wheeled away.

When he was gone, she turned to Alex. “See. People like me.”

“He’s young and he doesn’t know who you are.”

“Meaning he won’t like me when he finds out I’m inherently evil?”

Alex stared at her. His dark eyes gave nothing away. “Ian doesn’t usually warm up to people.”

“He’s a perceptive young man. I like him, too.”

“You think I’m going to be swayed by some pity banter with my crippled brother?”

Her brief good mood faded and she suddenly wished she were big and muscular so she could hit him and do some damage.

“Don’t insult me and don’t you dare insult him.” She moved closer and poked him in the chest. “I’ll accept that I’m a complication no one expected. You can be protective of your family all you want, you can even think the worst of me. But don’t you dare take what was a charming moment in an otherwise insane day and make it something disgusting.”

“Are you going to take me on?” he asked, obviously unimpressed by her temper.

“In a heartbeat.”

“Think you’ll win?”

“Absolutely.”

One corner of his mouth twitched slightly. “We’ll see.”

Great. She was furious and he found the situation, or possibly her, amusing. Good-looking or not, she was thinking she could seriously grow to hate this man.

He motioned for her to walk into the large living room. As she passed him, she waved her purse in front of him. “I brought a small bag so there won’t be that awkward moment of you asking to search it before I leave. This will make it so much harder for me to steal the family silver, though.”

“It wouldn’t have been awkward.”

“You really are a lawyer.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“You’re not afraid to say what you think, you don’t worry about insulting me and you’re determined to see me as nothing more significant than lint. That takes a lot of training.”

“Or the right motivation.”

The room was done in earth tones. The comfortable furnishings had an air of grace. The paintings looked original, the carpets thick enough to sleep on, yet there were a few toys scattered around. This was not a room for show. People lived here and she liked that.

Dani turned to take it all in, then noticed a woman in a white coat perched on the edge of a sofa. She rose and walked over to them.

“Whenever you’re ready,” the woman said.

Ready for what?

Oh, right. “DNA test?” Dani asked. “You’re not wasting any time.”

“Do you want me to?” Alex asked.

Instead of answering, Dani turned to the woman. “Swab away.”

She opened her mouth and the lab tech stroked the inside of her cheek with a cotton swab. Seconds later she was done and on her way. Dani stared after her.

“Let me guess. You’re paying extra for a speedy result?”

“It seemed the smart thing to do.”

She felt exhausted by the roller coaster of emotion she’d been through that day. There was enough stress in the situation without fighting with Alex, too.

“I want to know the truth,” she told him. “Nothing more. If Mark Canfield isn’t my father, then I’ll disappear and we can all pretend this didn’t happen.”

Alex didn’t look convinced. “You could have stayed away in the first place.”

“I want to know my father. Even you must be human enough to understand that.”

“I’ve already told you, I find your timing a little too convenient.”

“I just got the information recently. All I want is to figure out where I belong.”

He didn’t actually say “not here,” but the words echoed in the quiet room.

Despite them, Alex motioned for her to sit on the sofa. “Do you want something to drink?”

“No, thanks.” Her stomach was too unsettled from nerves.

“They aren’t telling the children. Not until the test results are back. You’re going to have to go another few days before you can claim your glory.”

She’d been about to sit. Now she straightened. “Dammit, Alex, that’s enough. You’re pushing me for no reason. I’ve committed no crime. I’ve been totally honest and up-front. The fact that you choose not to believe me doesn’t change the truth. You’re going to have to back off or we’re going to have a problem.”

He folded his arms across his chest. “We already do. I don’t trust you. There’s nothing you can say to make me want to try.”

She narrowed her gaze. Part of her respected his stubborn determination to protect what was his. Part of her wanted to back the car over him.

“Then let’s try this another way. How about you let me get close to screwing up before you bite my head off?”

She had no idea if he would accept her offer. She found herself hoping he would and not just because she might be related to his father. Something inside of her wanted Alex to like her. A dangerous possibility, she thought, given her history in the romance department and her potential, non-biological family link with Alex.

“How close?” he asked finally.

“Within sight of, but not actually touching.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Considering how he’d been acting, it was a major concession. Maybe he wasn’t the Terminator. Maybe he could be bargained with or reasoned with. Although she had a feeling if she got in his way, he would rip out her heart without a second thought. Verbally, if not physically.

Silence descended. Awkward silence that made her squirm. She knew she was being tested, that whoever spoke first lost the game, but she couldn’t stand to just sit there.

“The house is great,” she said. “I like how it feels lived-in and not showy.”

“My mother has excellent taste.” He glanced at his watch. “The senator will be down shortly.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear. “You did that before. At campaign headquarters. You call him the senator rather than Mark or my dad.”

“It makes things easier for everyone. We’re in a working environment there.”

“But you’re not at work right now.”

His dark gaze settled on her face. “It makes things easier,” he repeated.

How? “Are you showing respect or trying to make sure no one thinks of you as Daddy’s little boy?”

One eyebrow rose, which seemed to be all the answer she was going to get.

“Did the question annoy you?” she asked. “I think it’s both. The man is running for president.” A concept Dani doubted she would ever be able to get her mind around. “But on a personal note, you’d hate people to think you were here because of your relationship with your father rather than on your own merit.”

“You know this how?” he asked.

“I’m a good guesser. Am I wrong?”

“Would you like something to drink?”

She smiled. “You don’t like questions, do you? It’s that lawyer thing. You want to be doing the asking, not the answering. That’s okay. So if you’re working on the campaign, you’re on leave or something from your law office?”

“Something like that,” he said reluctantly. “If the senator decides to run for president, I’ll work for the campaign.”

“The whole political thing is new to me. I vote, but that’s about it. Sometimes I watch the debates. It’s not really my thing.”

“The democratic process is not for the timid,” Alex told her. “Running for president is not a decision to be made lightly. One good scandal can destroy an honest man’s chance forever.”

Which meant her. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

Dani was used to being liked and disliked on her own merits. She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t channeling the devil, either.

Before she could point that out, a slim, well-dressed woman in her fifties walked into the room. Dani rose automatically as she took in the woman’s classically beautiful features and sleek upswept hair.

Alex stood, as well, crossed to her and kissed her on the cheek. “This is Dani Buchanan,” he said. “Dani, my mother, Katherine Canfield.”

Katherine’s dark blue eyes crinkled slightly as she smiled in welcome. “Dani. How lovely to meet you. We’re delighted you could join us for dinner tonight.”

Her tone was as gracious as her words. Dani knew this had to be awkward for all of them, but Katherine’s smile never wavered.

The older woman turned to her son. “No drinks? Nothing to eat? Are you planning to starve her into submission?”

“I asked,” he said, sounding slightly defensive. “She said she didn’t want anything.”

Dani stared at him. Was this a crack in dragon-boy’s armor? Was his need to protect his family by harassing her about to conflict with his mother’s sense of good manners?

Katherine’s smile widened. “I can only imagine how graciously you inquired.” She turned to Dani. “I always enjoy a glass of white wine. Would you join me?”

“I’d love to,” Dani said and had to fight the urge to stick out her tongue at Alex.

He muttered something under his breath as he crossed to the small bar in the corner.

Katherine sat down and motioned for Dani to do the same. “Mark mentioned you only recently discovered your connection to him.”

“That’s right. It’s complicated, but my grandmother told me a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been working up the courage to go see him.”

“We have both samples for the DNA testing,” Alex said as he handed first his mother, then Dani, a glass of wine. “We’ll have the results in a couple of days.”

Katherine smiled. “There’s certainly room for one more at our table. Mark and I have always wanted a large family. We made the decision to adopt all our children long before we got married. But my husband is a typical man and should you turn out to be his biological child, I know he’ll be thrilled to know he’s passed on the family gene pool.”

Everything about Katherine screamed grace and acceptance. Dani was stunned-but in the best way possible. If their situations were reversed, Dani wasn’t sure she could be so open and friendly toward her husband’s unexpected child, even after all these years.

“You’re being very kind,” she murmured.

“Too kind.” Alex said.

Katherine glanced at her son, then turned back to Dani. “You’ll meet our other children tonight.”

“I already met Ian.”

“Oh, dear.” Katherine shook her head. “Should I brace myself?”

Dani laughed. “I think he’s terrific.”

“And?”

“He wanted to know if I was a stripper.”

“I swear, that boy. I apologize for any offense “

“Please don’t” Dani told her. “He’s funny and charming. I really liked him.” Unlike Alex, Ian had been genuine.

“Ian deals with life in his own way. He’s brilliant. Stanford has offered him a four-year scholarship, as have several Ivy League schools. He’ll get a technical degree and advance to a level where we’ll have nothing to talk about.”

She sounded proud as she spoke.

Alex sipped his drink. “You can always ask him about the latest stripper.”

Katherine sighed. “I should have adopted only girls.”

Dani laughed. “You love him. I can hear it in your voice.”

“Of course I do,” Katherine said. “He’s my son.”

There was such acceptance in her tone. The Canfield children were very lucky to have her in their lives. Mark was, too.

“We are telling them you’re a friend of the family,” Katherine continued. “Until we have confirmation on your relationship with Mark.”

“Of course,” Dani said quickly. “Even if I am Mark’s daughter, there’s no rush on letting anyone know. I don’t want to make any trouble.”

Something flickered in Katherine’s eyes, but before Dani could figure out what it was, she heard the sound of running footsteps. Dani looked toward the door as several children rushed inside.

It was common knowledge that the Canflelds had deliberately chosen special needs children when they’d decided to adopt. Two, a teenage girl and a younger boy, had Down’s syndrome. The other children’s issues were less visible. She glanced at Alex. All she knew about his past was that he’d been adopted when he was eight or nine. So what was his story and why had Katherine picked him?

Katherine held out her arms. The children hurried close, all talking at once. She touched and greeted each one, moving her hands as she spoke to a pretty girl of eleven or twelve.

Alex was next. The group enveloped him in hugs, then bombarded him with dozens of questions.

“You didn’t tell me you’d be here for dinner. Why not?”

“Did you bring me anything?”

“Did you see the Mariners game last night? They kicked butt.”

Finally he pulled two young boys onto his lap and pointed at Dani. “We have company.”

“That’s right,” Katherine said. “Dani, these are my children. You’ve already met Alex, of course. Julie is away at college, so she won’t be joining us. Next is Bailey.”

“Hi.”

Bailey was the older girl with Down’s. She had beautiful wavy red hair and a huge smile.

“I like your hair,” Dani told her.

“I like yours. I’d like it cut short, like you have it.” Bailey swayed slightly as she spoke, her voice was soft.

Dani shook her head. ‘Trust me. Of the two of us, you have the great hair. Don’t change a thing.”

Bailey blushed and dropped her chin to her chest.

Katherine looked at Dani for a second, then continued with the introductions. There was Trisha, who was deaf, Quinn, who looked normal but didn’t speak, then Oliver, the other child with Down’s.

“Last is Sasha,” Katherine said, lifting the little girl onto the sofa.

Sasha sighed heavily. “I’m always last. I hate being last. I want to go first.”

“You’re the baby,” Bailey told her. “Everybody likes the baby.”

“I want to be the oldest.”

Dani crouched down in front of Sasha. “I’m the baby of my family. I have three big brothers. Sometimes it’s okay, but sometimes they don’t tell me anything. I hate that.”

Sasha bobbed her head up and down. “Me, too.”

Alex didn’t realize he was tense until he started to relax. Whatever Dani’s intentions, she was doing okay with the kids. Unlike his ex-wife, who had never known how to deal with them. At least she’d left. Having Fiona at the table would have added a whole new level of awkward.

As he watched his siblings, he was reminded that the world wasn’t always kind. In some ways, Ian had it the easiest. Everyone knew there was a problem the second they saw him. He was either accepted or rejected in an instant. But for kids like Trisha or Sasha, who was HIV positive, things could be more tricky.

He watched as Bailey studied Dani. His sister seemed enchanted by their guest. He shouldn’t be surprised. Bailey was nearly fifteen-she was growing up.

Oliver pulled an action figure out of his pocket and showed it to Dani. She bent over the plastic toy and listened to his slow explanation of the figure’s powers. She glanced at Katherine, who signed with Trisha.

What did she think of all this? Was it what she expected? She was either genuine or putting on a hell of a show. He couldn’t decide which.

His father’s study door opened and Mark walked into the room. The other kids immediately rushed over to him and began battling for his attention. He gave Alex and Katherine an absent smile, then looked at Dani. For a moment, he seemed to forget who she was. Then he smiled.

“You’re here, Dani.”

Katherine rose. “Why don’t we all go in to dinner? Alex, will you escort our guest?”

“Of course.”

He moved next to Dani and offered his arm.

“That formal?” she asked quietly. “Or is this your way of making sure I don’t go exploring?”

She had plenty of spirit, he thought. She wasn’t afraid of him. As she stared up at him, he noticed her eyes were hazel, with long lashes. She smiled easily and she had the kind of mouth that made a man-

He mentally came to a stop. What the hell was he thinking? That she was attractive? Sexy? That he liked her?

Not possible, he told himself. She was the enemy, even if she didn’t mean to be. She was nothing but trouble and he wasn’t getting involved with her. He wasn’t getting involved with anyone. What was that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. He wasn’t about to be fooled again.

After dinner, Mark led Dani into his study. She went willingly. While she’d enjoyed the meal and the lively conversation, it had been impossible for her to keep the children straight. She’d also been aware of Alex’s unfriendly attention and Katherine’s subtle study. She was emotionally exhausted by the energy of the family and doing her best not to screw up.

“What did you think?” Mark asked, after he settled into a black leather chair she suspected was his favorite, and she’d picked a place on the sofa opposite.

“You have a wonderful family.”

“They’re loud,” he said cheerfully. “Katherine is brilliant with them. Adopting was her idea, you know. I wouldn’t have thought of it. At first I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think I could love someone else’s child as much as I could love myown. But I was wrong. They’re all special to me.”

“I could tell.” He’d interacted with all the children. They obviously adored him.

“Katherine insists on being involved in every aspect of their lives. We have Yvette, who helps out, but that’s only so Katherine can pursue her charity work. If she didn’t have that, she would be handling everything on her own. I travel a lot, back and forth to D.C. She’s practically a single parent, but she never complains. It’s just who she is.”

As Dani had been impressed by Katherine, she agreed with the praise. But despite the words, she couldn’t figure out what Mark really thought about anything.

She was being crazy, she told herself. Obviously Mark adored his wife and family. Who wouldn’t? Yet she had no sense of emotion coming from him.

She reminded herself she didn’t know the man. That until that morning, they’d never met. Maybe she could give him a break.

“I, ah, took the DNA test,” she said. “The results should only take a couple of days.”

“Good. I already know the outcome, but being sure is a good idea.”

She nodded, feeling awkward. How could he be sure? And if he was, shouldn’t the moment be more…something? She told herself not every situation could be scripted, like a TV sitcom, yet something felt missing.

“I want us to get to know each other,” Mark said. “Why don’t you come by the office for lunch? It will be more quiet than here.”

“I’d like that,” Dani said.

He probably felt as weird about all this as she did. Lunch was a great idea. After a few low-key meetings, she was sure they would start to connect. All this strangeness would fade and they would understand each other. They would be family.

***

Alex picked up his car keys. Dani had left a few minutes ago, so he could go home now. He’d been unwilling to leave before her, as if without him watching over her something bad would happen.

“You’re frowning,” Ian said as he rolled up. “You were frowning all during dinner.”

“I’m cautious.”

“I like her. She thinks I’m funny.”

“She was being polite.”

Ian grinned. Most people wouldn’t know what the twisted expression meant, but Alex saw the humor lan’s uncooperative muscles tried to hide.

“You don’t want anyone to know, but I think you like her, too,” Ian said.

“I don’t have any feelings about her.” Which was almost true.

“She’s pretty.”

Alex shook his head. “You’re seventeen. You think every female is pretty.”

“They’re my hormones and I can use them if I want to.” His grin faded. “Seriously. You should lay off her. She was cool.”

Dani had reacted well to Ian, Alex thought. He would guess her past was the reason.

An afternoon on the Internet had turned up a lot of information on Danielle Buchanan, the youngest of the four Buchanan siblings. In college, her fianc? had been injured playing football. Despite the fact that he was a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair, Dani had stayed with him through his intensive therapy and then had married him. She knew what it was like to live with someone who didn’t fit in.

“I don’t trust her,” Alex said.

“Because she’s Dad’s real kid?”

Alex stared at his brother. “Why would you say that?”

Ian rolled his eyes. “I’m stealthy, remember? I heard Mom and Dad talking earlier. I know who she is.”

There was worry and fear in his voice. Alex dropped to a crouch and took Ian’s twisted hand in his own. “We don’t know for sure yet. The DNA tests will take a couple of days. But even if she is Dad’s daughter, you’re still his son. This is your family and you’re not getting away from us.”

“She’s normal.”

“All the more reason not to like her.”

Ian grinned again. “I saw you looking at her during dinner. You thought she was hot.”

Alex straightened. “She’s okay.”

“You need to get laid.”

“I’m not having this conversation with my seventeen-year-old brother.”

“You don’t have my good looks and charm,” Ian told him. “But you could still go for it. Unless I get there first. We’re adopted. It’s not like she’s a biological sister. Think she’d want to go to prom with me?”

“She’s too old for you.”

“You know what they say about older women.”

Alex squeezed Ian’s shoulder. “Go torture someone else. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

“So you’re going for it with her? Because if you’re not, I want to know.”

“Say good-night, Ian.”

“Good night, Ian.”

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