CHAPTER EIGHT

Dani sat at a corner table in the Daily Grind, waiting for Alex. She was reminded of her meetings with Gary-how they’d met at a different Daily Grind and what a disaster that had turned out to be. She still felt guilty for ending things when she’d discovered he’d only recently left the priesthood. Maybe a better woman would have tried harder to make things work. All she’d been able to think was that this was a clear message from God to stop trying to date.

All of which had nothing to do with Alex, but everything to do with the anticipation knotting her stomach. She was eager to see him. Had been anticipating the meeting ever since he’d called and asked if she had a few minutes for coffee. Which was a serious problem.

A relationship between them would be a massive disaster, and she knew plenty about relationships that ended in disaster. But they’d kissed and she got all quivery whenever she thought about him. The way things were going, all she needed was an iceberg and a ship named Titanic to complete her day.

She sipped her latte and tried not to react when he walked into the shop. He glanced around, saw her and smiled. Instantly her entire body went on alert. She flushed from the inside out, and she desperately wanted to start squirming like a nervous teenager. Talk about trouble.

After getting a double espresso, he joined her at her table. “Thanks for meeting me,” he said as he settled across from her.

“No problem. What’s up?”

“You’ve been the subject of intense meetings and we have what we hope is a solution to the problem.”

The problem being her. “Will I like it?”

“No. We think you and Katherine should appear together at a charity function. Something big and splashy, with lots of press. By showing a united front, the appeal of the story goes away.”

Dani stared at him. Dark soulful eyes or not, he had to be crazy. The panic was as sudden as it was powerful.

“You want me to show up in public with your mother? At a charity event? Like a ladies luncheon or something?”

“Yes. You’ll both speak and it will-“

She held up her hands in the shape of a T. “Stop right there. I don’t speak in public. I never have. I’m sorry I’ve caused trouble for the campaign and I do want to help make things right, but couldn’t I just stuff envelopes?”

“No, you can’t. This is important, Dani. You’re the senator’s daughter. This is what his family does.”

There wasn’t a hint of warmth in his dark eyes. It was as though he was the dragon again and she was an annoying serf who got in the way.

She wanted to protest that she wasn’t family, except biologically she was. Talk about inconvenient.

“I can’t,” she said. “I’ve never spoken in public. And it would be too weird to be with your mother like that.” Not to mention potentially embarrassing. She liked Katherine. She didn’t want to do anything to make Katherine not like her.

“Dani, this isn’t an option,” he told her, his voice almost impatient. “It’s the right thing to do. I’ve already talked to my mother and she’s more than willing to move forward. This is much harder for her than it is for you. You’re the long-lost child the senator knew nothing about. Katherine is just the wife. Do you realize what your presence has cost her? Two weeks ago she was a respected, admired woman who had taken in disabled children and made them her own. Now there’s speculation that she can’t have children and she was only making the best of a bad situation.”

Dani understood what he was saying, but didn’t appreciate the lecture. “I’m not some wayward child,” she snapped. “I don’t need to be told my responsibilities. I respect Katherine and am sorry for any discomfort this is causing her. But you’re missing the point. I didn’t ask for any of this and I’m not the one who leaked the information to the press.”

“Dani-“

“I’m not finished,” she told him. “You come in here and tell me I have to show up for a charity function and speak in front of God knows how many people. Then, when I don’t jump for joy, you get on me like I’m a sixteen-year-old who took the family car without permission. I’m not the bad guy. Give me a minute to take this all in, will you?”

She braced herself for the explosion and was shocked when Alex leaned back in his chair, nodded once, then said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry. I got in your face. I should have given you time to get used to the idea.”

Wow. That was unexpected. And very human of him.

“Yes, you should have. I’m going to say yes to the charity, I just need some time to get used to the idea and some space to whine about it.”

“Fair enough.”

The tension between them eased. She studied him. “Katherine is really lucky to have you on her side. You’re loyal.”

“I owe her everything,” he said flatly.

“That’s extreme.”

“It’s true.”

He paused, as if not sure what more he should say. Dani was intrigued and leaned forward.

“Why Katherine?” she asked. “Why not Mark?”

“Because she’s the one who saved me.” He drew in a breath. “I grew up on the streets of Seattle. My mother did drugs and God knows what else. She turned tricks to pay for food and her fix. I remember growing up cold and wet and scared. We lived in abandoned buildings in the winter and outside in the summer. When she had to do business-” He grimaced. “I still remember that’s what she called it. ‘Mommy has some business.’ I had to go hide. That was the rule. Hide and stay quiet.”

Dani willed herself not to react physically. She didn’t want to let her horror show. Alex had started life on the streets? Like that? Was it possible?

“One guy got mad. I don’t know why. He started hitting her. I ran out to save her and he backhanded me so hard, I passed out. When I came to, she had been beaten to death. I don’t know if he meant to kill her or if it was an accident. Either way, she was dead.”

His dark eyes stared beyond her, as if seeing a past she couldn’t begin to imagine.

“I stayed with her body until the police came. I don’t know how long that was. A day? Two? They couldn’t find any family. I didn’t know anything about where my mother had come from, so I went into foster care.” He looked at her. “I never lived in a house or had access to a real bathroom. I didn’t know how to read or take a shower on my own. I was a wild animal put in a cage. It didn’t go well.”

“Alex,” she breathed, not sure what to say. The man in front of her was sophisticated, educated, charming and funny. How had he come from that abandoned little boy?

“I bounced around for two and a half years and ended up in a group home. One day a beautiful lady came and read me a story. There was something about the way she looked at me that made me feel safe. I’ll never know why, but she applied to be my foster mother that day. A week later, I’d moved in with her and Mark.”

“Katherine?”

He nodded. “She spent every minute with me. She taught me to read, how to live in a house. She let me sleep on the floor until I was ready to be in a bed. She came at night when I dreamed about my mother being murdered and she held me while I cried and screamed and waited for the bad man to kill me, too.”

Dani’s stomach turned over. No child should have to experience anything like that. Not ever. Her heart ached for all Alex had been through.

“She found me in March. By September I was enrolled in a regular classroom. I was behind in everything, but Katherine made sure I caught up. The following year, the adoption was final. She became my mother, my family. I thrived, because of her. I’m here, because of her.”

Dani swallowed. “I don’t know what to say. ‘I’m sorry’ seems ridiculous and inadequate.”

“It happened. It’s over. I couldn’t save my birth mother. I was a kid. But I am perfectly capable of protecting my family now and I will. Against anyone.”

She believed him. “She’s a wonderful woman. I already figured that out. I don’t know what to say about what happened to you, except you’ve done incredibly well. You’re both amazing. I already said I’d do the charity and I meant it.”

“I’m not trying to impress you,” he said. “I’m trying to explain my position. Why family and duty matter. Most people don’t know about my past.”

He said it as if he wasn’t sure why he’d told her.

“I won’t say anything,” she murmured. It wasn’t her story to tell.

Maybe he’d meant to scare her away. Maybe he had just been explaining his loyalty to Katherine. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to impress her.

Too late, she thought. He’d done a hell of a job. She was stunned by what she’d learned and more intrigued than ever by a man who had started with nothing and come so far. It spoke to a strength of character she could admire.

It was one more item on the “reasons to fall for Alex Canfield” list. If there were many more added, she would be in serious danger of losing her heart.

***

Later that week Dani returned to campaign headquarters for lunch with her father. This time she knew better than to expect any serious one-on-one time with Mark, which was good. It was another lunch by committee.

The suits were back, along with Heidi, Mark’s assistant. Unfortunately Alex didn’t show up, which made her more than a little disappointed.

“You’re tracking well in the polls,” John said. At least she thought his name was John.

“I have polls?” she asked.

John nodded. “We put a couple of questions into the field in the Midwest and the results were mixed. Here, we started with falling numbers, but once the senator issued his statement and gave an interview, the numbers started rising.”

Dani felt totally out of the loop. She glanced at Mark. “You gave an interview? About me being your daughter?”

He smiled. “It seemed the best way to handle things. Heidi, get Dani a copy of the interview.” He turned back to Dani. “You can watch it at home.”

“Sure.” Because she’d been planning to get to know her father on video. It could be a new hobby.

The other suit-guy said, “The senator always comes across as sincere. The voters like that.”

Dani wondered if there was a difference between coming across as sincere and being sincere.

“He told the interviewer he’d wanted some private time to get to know his daughter, but a reporter tricked Bailey into telling him about you. The reporter looked mean, Alex is painted the hero and everyone loves the senator,” suit-guy concluded.

“Poll numbers jumped after that,” John added with a grin. “Good for us.”

“It is good,” Mark said.

Dani didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, she was sorry her presence had caused a problem. On the other, she felt a bit used-as if her situation had been spun or exploited, which probably wasn’t fair. Presidential campaigns weren’t won by being retiring. Still, it was overwhelming. Too much had happened too quickly.

“We were thinking you could do an interview.”

Dani had reached for her sandwich. Now she left it untouched on the paper plate and stared at nameless suit-guy. “Excuse me?”

“An interview. Maybe with People. You’re exactly the kind of story they’d jump on,”

He kept talking, but Dani wasn’t listening. An interview for People magazine? All the blood rushed to her head. Or maybe it was away from her head. Either way, she got a little dizzy and her heart started pounding.

“I don’t want to do an interview” she whispered. A charity event with Katherine was one thing, but People magazine? Not in this lifetime.

Mark met her gaze and grinned. “Breathe, Dani. You don’t want to pass out in your egg salad sandwich.”

“What?” She sucked in a breath. Her head cleared.

Mark turned to suit-guy. “Let’s hold off on interviews for now.”

“But-“

Mark shook his head. “No interviews. Leave Dani out of things.”

“Fine.” Suit-guy scribbled on a pad.

The meeting continued. Dani risked nibbling on her sandwich. She couldn’t seem to get a handle on Mark. One minute he seemed distant and totally political, the next he was saying she didn’t have to do a national interview. So who was the real Mark Canfield?

A few minutes later, the meeting wrapped up. Mark motioned for her to stay after everyone left.

“How are you handling this?” he asked. “Katherine mentioned it had to be difficult for you.”

The door opened and Alex stepped into the room. “Am I interrupting?” he asked.

Dani stared at him. Something was wrong- she could feel it.

“No,” Mark said. “What is it?”

“It’s official. I’m going to be charged with assault. The particulars haven’t been worked out by the D.A.’s office.”

Dani stood. “That’s just wrong. How can someone do what that man did and it’s okay, but when you defend your sister, you’re the bad guy?”

“I appreciate the support,” Alex said. “But I hit him. Not a good thing.”

Mark held up a hand. “Don’t worry. Either of you. This isn’t about what happened with Alex. It’s about the campaign. It’s a distraction. We’ll get it fixed.”

Dani might not be a political expert, but she wasn’t sure the charges had anything to do with the campaign. And she didn’t think Alex would appreciate something that could end his career being called a distraction.

“I’ll fix it,” Alex said.

“We’ll talk,” Mark told him. “Fortunately we both have access to excellent legal counsel.” He glanced at his watch. “I have another meeting.” He smiled at Dani. “That’s how I spend my days. Going from meeting to meeting. Thanks for coming by. I’m glad we were able to spend some time together.”

“Right,” Dani said, thinking that thirty-seven seconds alone with her father wasn’t exactly bond-building.

“Alex, walk Dani out, will you?”

“Sure.”

Dani waited until Mark left before standing and turning to Alex. “I can find my own way to my car. It’s daylight, so I should be safe.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Ooh, now I’m going to fall for you, for sure. How smooth and seductive. ‘I don’t mind.’ Words every woman lives to hear.”

He smiled. “Have I mentioned you’re not easy?”

“Yes, and thank you for the compliment.”

He put his hand on the small of her back. “Come on. Let’s fight those snipers and get you to your car.”

His touch was warm and made her want to step closer. They’d nearly made it out of the building when Heidi called Alex.

“The senator needs you to sit in on the meeting,” she said.

Alex looked at Dani. “Think you can make it on your own?”

“I’m wearing body armor.”

“Good.”

He took her hand in his and squeezed lightly. There was something in his eyes, something that made her think about sex and being naked. Two good things. Dangerous, but good. Then he was gone.

Dani sighed heavily. At least her life was never boring. That had to be worth something, didn’t it?

The not-boring continued as she stepped into the parking lot and nearly ran into Fiona, the beautiful. The tall, perfectly dressed stunner paused, a tiny frown drawing her fabulous eyebrows a little closer together.

“Dani?” she asked. “It is Dani, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Hi. I was having lunch with the senator.”

“Good. I think it’s great the two of you are getting to know each other. Family is everything and I’m thrilled to have you part of mine.”

Dani stared. Part of hers? As in, the Canfields were Fiona’s family, too? But she and Alex were divorced.

“I didn’t think you were married to Alex anymore,” she said carefully.

Fiona shook her head. “I know. We went through a bad patch. Have you been married? You know how that happens, right? We were young and reckless, but so in love. Desperately in love. We’ve started talking and spending time together again. I’m hopeful.” She held up her right hand, showing her fingers crossed. “Alex is, too.”

“That’s great,” Dani said, feeling sick to her stomach. Fiona had to be playing her. Alex wouldn’t be kissing Dani and making time with his ex-wife, would he?

She wanted to think the best of him, but honestly, how well did she know the man?

“It’s not just Alex,” Fiona continued. “It’s the whole family. Katherine and I are like sisters. I love working with her. We’re making a real difference. Plus, I’ve never brought trouble to the family. Trust me. The Canfields don’t like that sort of notoriety. In case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” Dani said as she shifted her purse to her shoulder.

“Don’t hate me,” Fiona told her. “I’m simply the messenger. It’s just everyone would be really upset if you were the reason Mark didn’t get the nomination.”

With that, she smiled and walked into the warehouse.

Dani was left standing in the parking lot, feeling grateful she hadn’t eaten too much at lunch. It meant there was less for her to throw up later.

When Dani’s cell phone rang, she considered ignoring it. She didn’t need any more hits in one day. But when she glanced at the number, she didn’t recognize it and curiosity won over apprehension.

“Hello?”

“Dani? It’s Katherine. How are you?”

Katherine should be the one person Dani was avoiding these days, yet she actually felt pleased to hear her voice.

“I’m good. How are the kids?”

“Great, and they’re why I’m calling. They know about you. Obviously. Poor Bailey is sick about what happened. When I think about that reporter, I want to jam him in my microwave and hit full power. It makes me furious. Which is not the point of my call. It would be so nice if you could get to know the children.”

Dani didn’t know what to say. “I-I’d love that.”

“Perfect. How about dinner one evening? I’ll check my calendar and get back to you. I believe Mark mentioned you work?”

“I’m an assistant manager at a restaurant. Bella Roma. I mostly handle the lunch shift, but I do work a couple of evenings a week.”

“All right. Let me get some dates and we’ll find a time for you to come over.”

“Thank you, Katherine. For everything. You’re being so gracious and kind. I appreciate that.”

“You’re family, Dani. What else would I be? Bye.”

Dani hung up, then stepped out of her car. So much was happening so quickly. She felt as if she were living inside an emotional tornado.

Taking a second to relax, she stared at the restaurant in front of her.

Buchanan’s was the steak house in the family restaurant empire. It had been around longer than she’d been alive and it had always been her secret dream to run the place. She loved everything about Buchanan’s, including the glass and wood doors that welcomed guests to a unique steak house experience.

She glanced at her watch and saw she was right on time for her meeting with her brothers.

The interior was cool and cozy. There were booths rather than tables, plenty of wood and fresh white linens. The smell-a combination of leather, steak and great wine-was a heady perfume. Afternoon light sparkled through the windows, but at night candles flickered at every table.

Back home, buried in the back of her closet, was a notebook filled with ideas. Ways to improve the service, the menu, the wine list. She’d even played with a few recipes and had asked Penny to work them up for her.

Foolish dreams, she told herself. She wasn’ t truly a Buchanan anymore and this restaurant would never be hers. Her words-not theirs. As far as her brothers were concerned, nothing had changed.

She saw her brothers seated at a booth in the back. As she approached, they slid out and each hugged her in greeting. Cal held on a little longer before kissing the top of her head.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“I’m hanging in there.”

He stared into her eyes. “You need anything?”

If she did, he would be there in a heartbeat. They all would. As they’d told her over and over, she might have a different father, but she was stuck with them for life. Thank God.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I believe we’re here to talk about Walker’s wedding in the land of twinkle lights.”

Walker passed her the open bottle of wine and a glass. “I’m not talking about twinkle lights. That’s Elissa’s thing.”

Dani poured herself some wine, then glanced at Reid. “Rumor has it you’re eloping. Is that true?”

Reid nearly choked. “Who said that?”

“Lori.”

Cal and Walker leaned forward. “When were you going to tell us?”

“There’s nothing to tell. We’ve talked about it. There aren’t any plans yet.”

Dani sighed happily. “I love knowing something first. It never happens. This is a good moment.”

“Brat,” Reid grumbled good-naturedly.

“That’s me. Just don’t elope before Walker’s wedding. That would distract everyone and not be fair to Elissa.”

“I already know that,” Reid told her. “We’re waiting.”

They discussed wedding details until Walker said he couldn’t take it anymore. Cal turned to Dani.

“What about you?” he asked. “You’ve been in the paper. How’s that working for you?”

“Ugh. I hate it. I’m normal. Normal people do not make the front page of a newspaper. Do you know the campaign people have been running polls on what my appearance means to the American people? Because they now get a vote in my personal life.”

“But it’s worth it?” Cal asked. “With Mark?”

She shrugged. “I have no idea; I’m happy to know who my real father is. Sure. But it’s not what I thought. Mark isn’t… He’s just different.”

“Different how?” Walker asked.

“I thought we’d bond or feel a connection. I like him, but I don’t know him. I’m not sure I ever will. I had unrealistic expectations, I guess. I blame television. Too many family sitcoms. Maybe if we had a soundtrack when we were together.”

“It takes time,” Reid said. “It’s only been a few weeks.”

She eyed him. “I’m not comfortable with you being the emotionally sensitive one.”

“It’s just how I am. A real special guy.”

Cal nearly choked and Walker made a gagging noise. Dani smiled at her brothers. At least she had them. This part of her life was totally secure.

“Somebody said something to me earlier,” she said. “About the campaign. That I could lose it for Mark.”

“Not possible,” Cal told her. “His ability to govern has nothing to do with having a kid he didn’t know about.”

“But will anyone else agree with that? More than one presidential hopeful has been derailed by a scandal.”

“You’re not a scandal.”

“Not yet. But if I became one…” Dani hated that Fiona had planted that particular seed in her head, but she couldn’t seem to get rid of it.

“Let it go,” Walker told her. “Worry about what you can control.”

“Where Mark’s concerned, that’s exactly nothing.” She drew in a deep breath. “His wife, Katherine, called. She’s invited me over to get to know the family better. I want to go. I like the kids and she’s great. She could have joined the ladies who lunch crowd. Instead she’s taken in all these special needs children and made them her own. That takes a kind of courage not many people have.”

Reid put his arm around her. “You have good qualities, too. I can’t think of any, but I’m sure you have them.”

She punched his arm. “Gee, thanks. I feel so special.”

“You are,” Cal said.

Walker nodded and raised his glass to her. Reid did the same.

Dani felt a tightness in her chest, but it was a good sort of ache. It was as if her heart was so full of love, it couldn’t possibly hold any more.

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