CHAPTER FIVE

Alex let himself into his parents’ house and made his way to his mother’s study. He paused in the hallway, trying to shake off a feeling of guilt. It was like being seventeen and tiptoeing in curfew. Except he wasn’t a kid and he didn’t live here anymore. Still, kissing Dani? What had he been thinking?

He hadn’t, he reminded himself. That was the problem. He’d been reacting-to her, to circumstances. The kiss hadn’t meant anything. How could it? She was a complication in all their lives.

Yet his sexual reaction to her hadn’t faded. He still hungered for her with a powerful need that shocked him.

He ignored the desire and the memories, then lightly knocked on the closed study door.

“Come in.”

He stepped into the small cozy room and smiled at his mother. “You’re still up.”

She rose and stepped around her desk to kiss him on the cheek. “I said I would be.” She took his hand and led him to the small sofa by the window. “I suddenly have reports due on all my charities. It always happens this time of year and I’m always surprised. I wish I were one of those organized women who go through life with a plan.”

“You have eight children. You get slack.”

She smiled as she angled toward him on the couch. “You and Julie are both living on your own. Ian is more independent by the day.”

Alex smiled. “So you’re only worrying about five children, then. You’re right. You should do better.”

She laughed. “I see your point. I can make excuses if I want and people will understand. Honestly, I’d prefer to be more together, but I’ll take what I can get.”

And she would do it all because duty came first. She believed that and she’d raised him to believe it, too.

Alex remembered the first time he’d seen Katherine Canfield. He remembered her eyes- how blue they’d been and how kind. She’d touched him as they’d spoken. Her hand on his, her fingers on his shoulder. No adults ever touched him, except to hit him. The other boys had tried to beat him up, but he’d been tough.

She’d been pretty and gentle and when she’d smiled he’d known he would do anything for her if only she would take him home and adopt him.

She had. She’d loved him with a fierceness that had made him feel safe for the first time in his life. She had a heart that gave and gave. Sometimes, when he saw her with his father, he wondered if she gave too much… to all of them.

Now, he took her hand and gently squeezed her fingers.

“Mom,” he began, only to have her shake her head.

“Don’t worry about speeches,” she said quietly, her gaze meeting his. “I already know. Dani is Mark’s daughter.”

“How did you guess?”

She shrugged. “I sensed it the moment I saw her. There’s plenty of Mark in her appearance- the way she holds her head, the shape of her chin. Your father will be delighted.”

“What about you?” he asked.

She leaned toward him. “That’s my question for you. How are you handling all this?”

“Finding out he has a biological daughter?”

Katherine nodded. “It doesn’t mean anything. You know that, right? It doesn’t change how he feels about you.”

That’s what Alex had told Ian. Neither of them had believed it then and Alex didn’t believe it now.

“Everything changes,” he told his mother. “The family dynamic has fundamentally shifted. Am I questioning my place in the universe? No.”

“I’m more concerned about your place in this family and how you think this will affect your relationship with your father.”

Alex didn’t know if it would. Mark wasn’t like Katherine. He loved his children, but there was always a distance. Would that be there for Dani or not?

“You’re his wife,” he said. “Are you okay with this?”

Katherine leaned back in the sofa and sighed. “Do I get a choice?” she asked.

“He didn’t cheat on you. You were back East when he met Marsha Buchanan.”

His mother nodded slowly. “You’re right. I’ve told myself that. It’s just…” She looked at him. “We’d been engaged before he returned to Seattle. We had a big fight and I broke up with him. He left and came back here. That’s when he met Marsha.”

Alex swore silently. Why did life have to get more and more complicated? So Mark’s affair with Marsha Buchanan wasn’t as disconnected from Katherine as Alex had first thought.

What had they fought about? Did his mother care that Mark had gotten involved with someone else so quickly?

Stupid question, he told himself. Katherine would have been devastated. Had she known about Marsha before Dani had shown up?

“I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly, not knowing what he could say.

“It’s fine,” she told him. “Don’t worry about it.”

But he did worry. He’d always wondered why his parents hadn’t had children of their own. He’d assumed it was a conscious decision. A choice. Katherine talked about wanting to make a difference in the world, one child at a time. But was there another reason? Mark was obviously capable of fathering a child. Did Katherine have a problem?

He felt disloyal for even thinking the question, so he pushed it away. What the hell did it matter why? She was an amazing woman.

“I’m glad you picked me,” he said. “Grateful. You made me who I am.”

She touched his face. “I loved you from the first moment I saw you, Alex. But I didn’t make you anything. You are the man you were meant to be. I’m so proud of you, but I won’t take any credit. Flowers, maybe, but not credit.”

He laughed. “I’ll send starburst lilies in the morning.” They were her favorite.

He didn’t know what other children felt about their parents. How much they loved them or why. He could only go by the little he remembered of his biological mother and what he knew Katherine had done for him-even if she wasn’t willing to accept his thanks.

“I always wanted a big family,” Katherine said lightly. “Now we have one more.”

She said the right things, she even smiled as she spoke. But her pain was alive and tangible. He needed to help, but didn’t know how. Katherine had given him everything and in her time of need, all he could do was stand by and watch her suffer.

***

Dani’s second trip to Mark Canfieid’s campaign headquarters was only slightly less scary than her first one had been. While she wasn’t in danger of being tossed out on her butt, she was about to have a private one-on-one lunch with her biological father for the first time in her life.

What if they didn’t have anything to say to each other? What if he didn’t like her? What if he thought she was boring and wished she’d never found him?

“Not going to happen,” she murmured to herself. “I’m charming.”

The attempt at humor did nothing for the nerves doing Pilates in her stomach.

Dani walked inside the warehouse and gave her name to the receptionist. The young woman smiled.

“The senator is expecting you,” she said. “Just wait here and Heidi will be out to take you back.”

“Thanks.”

Heidi? Heidi who?

She searched her memory and finally recalled the assistant who served as Mark Canfieid’s right hand wherever he went.

Dani hovered by the sofa, but didn’t sit down. She was too nervous. The whole “this is my father” thing was still a weird statement rather than an actual part of her life. She didn’t know Canfield and he didn’t know her. So far their blood ties hadn’t helped form an emotional connection.

She was hoping this lunch would change that. Some private time could make all the difference.

Heidi walked up and smiled. “Hi, Dani. Welcome. The senator just got off a call with Washington and is available now. If you’ll follow me?”

Heidi led the way down hallways to a conference room. She motioned for Dani to step inside, then left. Dani glanced around at the bare space-aside from the long table and ten chairs, there was no other furniture, no decorations. At least the campaign wasn’t spending money on anything frivolous.

Seconds later the door opened and Mark walked into the room. He smiled at her.

“Dani. You’re here. Good, good. Alex told you the happy news?”

He approached as he talked, then unexpectedly pulled her close for a quick hug. When he released her, he gazed into her eyes.

“I knew who you were from the moment we met. I’m not surprised. You’re so much like your mother. She was a wonderful woman. Beautiful, just like you.”

Dani was willing to go as far as pretty or attractive, but she liked being told she looked like her mother. She could barely remember the woman.

She’d been so young when Marsha had died that she wondered if her memories were hers at all, or just recollections formed from the stories she’d been told by her brothers and Gloria.

Mark perched on the edge of the table. “I remember the first time I saw your mother. It was a cold rainy day.” He grinned. “Winter in Seattle-it’s always cold and rainy,” He shrugged. “It was the downtown Bon Marche. Marsha had her three boys with her. The youngest two were in a stroller and the oldest was still only four or five. She was struggling with the door to get inside. There was something about the way she looked, so determined. I jumped in to help, her eyes met mine, she smiled, and I was lost.”

Dani sank into one of the chairs. “Just like that?”

Mark nodded. “We talked for a few minutes. I was about to leave, even though I didn’t want to, when your oldest brother…”

“Cal?” she offered.

“Right. Cal said he needed to go to the bathroom. He said he was too old to go into the ladies’ room with his mother and she didn’t want him to go into the men’s room alone. So I took him. Not the most romantic beginning, I know, but there was something about her.”

Mark was traditionally handsome, with clear blue eyes and a ready smile. Dani had seen his face on billboards and in the newspaper, not to mention on TV. But until this moment, she’d never really seen the man himself. As he talked about her mother and the past, he finally seemed real.

He shook his head. “I can’t believe how clear that day is to me. I invited your mother to lunch. When the hostess seated us, she assumed we were a family. That should have shaken me, but I remember thinking how right I felt with Marsha and her boys. We talked for hours.” He looked at Dani, his expression slightly chagrined. “That was it. I fell for her that day.”

A thousand questions crowded into Dani’s brain. She had just started to ask the first one when the door opened and several people stepped inside, including Heidi pushing a cart with sandwiches and drinks on it.

“Oh, good,” Mark said as he stood. “Lunch. Dani, who do you know here?”

She started to say “No one” when Alex entered the room. She rose to her feet, almost as if she needed to get away from him… or what she remembered about him.

She hadn’t seen him in a couple of days. Not since he’d shown up at Bella Roma, wined her, dined her and kissed her.

The meal she could justify, but there was no way that kiss made sense. Of course her romantic life had been a disaster of epic proportions for nearly a year, so why would she think it would get any better now?

She braced herself for the sexual impact, then bravely met his gaze. Despite his casual, “Hello,” she felt heat spiral through her. It paused in the most interesting places before moving on.

“Alex,” she said calmly, ignoring the sudden visual of him taking her right there on the big table. He nodded, apparently far more able to dismiss the past than she was.

Mark introduced the other three people. There were two men and a woman, all in their rnidthirties, all in suits, looking professional and energized as they took seats at the table. It was only when Alex pulled out a chair and stared at her pointedly that she realized this wasn’t a private lunch with her father. She was one of a crowd.

Disappointment tightened her chest. Had she misunderstood the invitation? She replayed it in her mind and realized he’d said lunch, but hadn’t said they would be alone. She’d assumed.

Okay, this wasn’t what she’d expected, but it was still fine. A political working lunch could be interesting.

She sat next to Alex, across from her father. Sandwiches and bags of chips were distributed, then one of the two guys whose name she didn’t catch leaned forward.

“We can run numbers,” he said. “A simple poll about the governor of Kansas. Midwestern sensibilities are dead on for us.”

“Numbers would help,” the woman added.

“We don’t need numbers,” Mark said. “Not yet. Alex, what are your thoughts on the poll?”

“It’s going to come out eventually.”

Dani felt as if she’d been dropped in the middle of a secret meeting. When Mark turned his attention to the other two men, she leaned toward Alex.

“What are they talking about?”

“You.”

She blinked at him. You, as in her? “What do I have to do with anything?”

His dark gaze was as impersonal as if they’d never met. As if he’d never pulled her into his arms and claimed her with a kiss that had left her breathless.

How did he do that? Should she be insulted or impressed by his ability to compartmentalize?

“When word gets out that you’re the senator’s daughter, we’re going to have a situation to deal with.”

A situation? She was a situation? “I’m not going to tell anyone,” she said, glaring at him. “Stop assuming the worst about me.”

“No one’s doing that,” Mark told her. “Information gets leaked. It’s a reality of the political climate today. No one wants it to happen, but it will. We need to be prepared.”

“Who knows?”the woman asked.

Mark looked at Alex, who glanced around the room. “We do. Katherine, Dani’s family.”

“No one in my family is going to say anything,” Dani said, making a mental note to tell them all not to. “We don’t have a whole lot of press contact.”

“Katherine will be telling the children,” Mark told them.

“That’s not a good idea,” one of the suits said. “Kids blab.”

“It’s what Katherine wants,” Mark said calmly. “Family is important to her.”

And Katherine was obviously important to him. Dani liked that. She liked that Mark had made it so clear he’d fallen for her mother and that now he was standing up for his wife. That meant he was a good guy, right?

She wished they could have spent more time together, just the two of them. But with him running for president, his time was limited. So they would get to know each other slowly.

She glanced around the room. Nothing about the space spoke of a national campaign for the highest office in the country. But it was happening. Her biological father was running for president.

Just thinking the statement made her want to giggle. She was so normal she was practically boring. She didn’t belong in a world like this. Yet here she was-an unexpected member of the Canfield clan.

The lunch meeting wrapped up in less than an hour. Before Dani could circle around the table to speak to her father again, Mark was ushered out of the room by the suit guys.

She stared after him, trying not to feel snubbed.

Alex picked up the pad of paper he’d brought in with him. “He has a couple of conference calls,” he said. “It’s not about you.”

She was torn, appreciating the kind words and wondering if she looked like a lost and abandoned waif. “Thanks. This is different for me. It’s going to take me a while to figure everything out.”

“It’ll get easier.”

He motioned for her to lead the way out of the room. As she stepped past him, he put his hand on the small of her back.

The touch was polite at best, but her body wanted to read a whole lot more into it. She could feel each individual finger pressing against her. The need tostep into the touch flooded her until she had to concentrate so hard on not stepping closer that she was afraid she was going to trip.

“You’ve, ah, got a head start on me,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound flustered or stupid. “And can we talk about how weird it is that we’re not related but we can technically both call him Dad?”

Alex smiled at her. “I call him the senator.”

“I probably should, too, huh?”

“You’re not on his staff.”

“Not unless he plans on getting into the restaurant business.” She sighed. “Is there a book or something-Dealing with Unexpected Biological Parents for Dummies? I could really use that.”

Alex grinned.

Her mouth smiled in return. It was an involuntary response to a sexy grin by a handsome man she liked. Their eyes locked, and suddenly she was, reliving that kiss in real time.

It had been good. Better than good. It had been hot and exciting and really, really tempting.

Oh, God. Talk about a mistake. There were fifteen reasons why they could never get together. It was…

They rounded a corner and she saw Katherine walking toward them. Dani instantly stepped away from Alex, fighting a surge of guilt, which was so weird. She hadn’t been doing anything wrong.

She was so caught up in acting normal and blameless that it took her a second to notice the tall, incredibly beautiful woman at Katherine’s side.

The four of them came to a stop.

“Dani!” Katherine said, sounding delighted to see her. “How wonderful to run into you.” She leaned close and kissed Dani’s cheek. “I want to be the first to welcome you to the family.”

Katherine’s graciousness awed Dani. Was the woman real? “Thank you. You’re more than kind.”

“I am many things, but they’re not all good,” Katherine said with a laugh. “Dani, this is Fiona, my former daughter-in-law. Fiona, Dani Buchanan, Mark’s daughter.”

“Hi,” Dani said, as she processed the information.

“Nice to meet you,” the slender redhead said absently. Her attention was totally focused on Alex.

Former daughter-in-law? Dani turned to Alex. His ex?

Fiona pushed past her and slipped her arm through Alex’s. “I need to talk to you, darling. Do you have a minute?”

She pulled him away before he could answer.

Katherine stared after them. “We were all so sorry things didn’t work out between them. But maybe with time…”

Dani glanced between Katherine and the retreating couple. Alex had been married to the redheaded goddess? Of course. He couldn’t have been with someone average. Who was next on his to-date list? Halle Berry? Scarlett Johansson?

Katherine returned her attention to Dani. “How was your lunch with Mark?”

“Interesting. Political. They’re worried word will get out about me. I’m not going to tell anyone, of course.”

Katherine patted her arm. “Leaks are a way of life. You’ll get used to it. Let them worry about strategy. Did Mark mention I’ve told the children?”

She had? “He said you were going to.”

“They’re very excited to have another sister. Whatever you do, don’t give out your cell number or they’ll start hitting you up for rides.” Katherine laughed. “I want to have you over for dinner again very soon. We can all get to know each other. You’re one of us now, Dani. That’s both a good and a bad thing, so brace yourself. Now that we’ve found you, we’re not going to let you get away.”

“I’m okay with that,” she said, overwhelmed by all that was happening.

“I need to run. I’ll be calling you soon.”

***

“And then she left,” Dani said as she sat on a chair in Penny’s office at The Waterfront. It was still several hours before the restaurant opened for dinner and the building was quiet.

Her sister-in-law frowned. “Katherine sounds great. What’s the problem?”

“It’s not her. You’re right. She’s wonderful. It’s just there’s so much going on. A month ago I barely knew Mark Canfield existed. Now I’m his daughter and part of a huge family. It’s weird. Everything’s happening too fast. I don’t know what to think.”

Penny smiled. “But this is what you wanted. To find out where you belong. Although I have to tell you, you’re still a Buchanan. Don’t think we’re letting you get away, either.”

“Everybody wants a piece of me,” Dani joked. “I’m going to have an entourage.”

“There are worse problems.”

“I know.” She grabbed the mug of coffee on the desk and took a sip. “Fiona was stunning. She’s one of those really beautiful women. The kind that makes every other woman in the room feel like a two-dimensional, badly done drawing.”

“So you hate her,” Penny said cheerfully.

“Only in theory. She may be nice.” Although she hadn’t looked nice. She’d looked… predatory. “I can’t believe Alex used to be married to her. He never said anything about it. I went online and looked-they’re divorced. It’s final and everything. That is one advantage to a family like the Canfields. A lot of stuff gets reported in the press.”

She glanced up and saw Penny staring at her. “What?” Dani asked.

“You checked to see if his divorce was final? Why would you do that?”

Dani stared into her coffee. “I was, ah, just curious.”

“Oh my God! You’re attracted to him? Seriously?”

“No. Of course not. He’s just a guy.”

“You’re lying! I can tell because you’re blushing.”

Dani touched her cheek and felt the heat. Damn. “Look, it’s not what you think. Alex is… interesting.”

“You’re related.”

“Not by blood. Don’t be gross. He was adopted. I think he’s nice and okay, maybe good-looking and there’s some mild interest on my part, but it doesn’t mean anything.”

Penny didn’t look convinced. “It complicates things.”

“There’s nothing to complicate. I’m not getting involved with him.” She couldn’t-no matter how great he kissed.

“No relationships.” she told both Penny and herself firmly. “Do I need to remind you about my past?”

“No,” Penny told her. “But maybe your luck has changed.”

“Not likely.”

***

Alex checked his watch, then excused himself from the meeting. He’d promised to take Bailey to dinner and he didn’t want to be late. The various interactions of what might or might not happen if the press ever discovered Mark Canfield had a grown daughter could be handled by professionals who made their living working those kind of problems. Give him a good corporate lawsuit any day. Compared to politics, that was easy.

Dani wasn’t prepared for the circus that was a national campaign, he thought as he walked toward the front of the building. Someone should talk to her about what to expect. Maybe later he could-

He pushed through the swinging door that led to the reception area. Fourteen-year-old Bailey was there, but so was a man Alex had never seen before. It only took him a second to figure out something was wrong.

Bailey sat on the floor, a yellow Lab puppy sprawled across her lap. The guy crouched next to her.

“Tell me more about your new sister,” he said, a tape recorder in his hand.

Bailey smiled. “She’s pretty and really nice. Ian likes her and he doesn’t like anybody.”

“She’s your daddy’s little girl.”

Bailey wrinkled her nose. “She’s not little. She’s big.”

Anger exploded into rage, but Alex was careful not to let it show. He stepped between Bailey and the reporter, then offered his sister a hand up.

“Bailey, would you please wait for me in my office?”

Bailey’s eyes widened. “Is it okay I played with the puppy?” she asked.

He forced himself to smile. “Of course. Give me a second, then we’ll go.”

“Okay.”

She kissed the puppy’s head, then eased it off her lap and stood. When she’d waved goodbye and passed through the swinging door, Alex turned on the reporter.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

The man was in his late twenties, short and skinny. He stood and scooped up the dog in one arm. “Whatever gets the job done, man.” He grinned. “I hear you have a new sister. Congrats.”

Alex grabbed his arm. “Who the hell do you think you are, using a puppy to get secrets out of my sister?”

The reporter’s grin broadened. “Kids love dogs. Specially kids like her. The stupid ones.”

Alex’s vision narrowed until there was only his anger and the other man. The insult to his sister fueled the need to lash out and before he could consider whether or not he should, he shot out his hand and punched the reporter in ttfe face.

The guy yelped, as did the puppy. Blood poured from his nose. The tape recorder fell to the floor and cracked open.

Alex stepped on it, crushing the electronic guts of the small machine, but it was too late. The damage had been done… in more ways than one.

The newspapers were delivered shortly after four in the morning. Alex was waiting for his. He walked into his kitchen and laid the front page on the dark granite counter. The message couldn’t be more clear.

There was a picture of the senator, a blurry shot of Dani and a headline that read:

Senator Canfield’s Love Child.

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