CHAPTER ELEVEN

When Dani arrived at the hospital, her brothers, Penny, Elissa and Lori were already there. Lori sat with a sobbing Kristie, who stood up when Dani entered the waiting room.

“I’m so sorry” she said, her voice thick with tears. “Oh, Dani, she just collapsed. She was doing so well. Just a couple of days ago we were talking about when my contract would end. With you staying there, Gloria was feeling comfortable being on her own at night. She’s planning her own meals, scheduling her physical therapy, handling her meds. She’s fine. Or she was.”

Dani knew the other woman was just trying to help and maybe make herself feel better, but for Dani, the conversation was a one-way ticket to Guilt Land.

She had moved into Gloria’s house. The expectation was that she would be home at night. But last night she hadn’t gone home… she’d gone to Alex’s. To be honest, after she arrived, she never once thought about her grandmother.

Okay, sure, she’d told Gloria about her plans and the older woman had teased her about having too good a time but neither of them had expected her to stay out all night.

Dani glanced at her watch. It was barely after two in the morning, but it was close enough to all night for guilt purposes.

“It’s not you,” Dani told Kristie. “It’s me.”

Lori shook her head. “Let’s not argue about it. Neither of you could have prevented the collapse. Not unless you’re secretly psychic and could have predicted what happened. In which case, it would be nice if you could tell us what’s wrong with her, so we know how much we should worry.”

Kristie wiped her face. “You’re using logic.”

“It seems like the right time,” Lori said.

“You don’t have to be so smug about it,” Kristie muttered.

The two women hugged.

Dani was glad they’d worked things out, but she was still feeling like crap. She walked over to Cal and let him pull her close.

“I should have been there,” she murmured.

“Want to tell me where you were?” he asked.

“Not really. I was off having fun, which is all that matters.”

Penny came over and punched her lightly in the arm. “Stop it. You didn’t make this happen and feeling bad won’t help. Let’s wait and see what the doctor says.”

Dani scowled. “You sound like Lori.”

“Really?” Penny looked pleased. “Because I like her a lot. She’s so together.”

“Meaning I’m not?” Elissa grumbled as she joined them. “I’m tough.”

“You’re practically titanium,” Walker said as he put his arm around his fianc?e.

“At least we can be neurotic together,” Dani said, doing her best to hang on emotionally. The need to start crying was strong, but she was determined to beat it. She wanted to stay in control so she could be ready in case there was something she could do.

“Look at the bright side,” Reid said. “Last time Gloria collapsed, no one gave a damn. Now we all care about what happens to her. That has to be good.”

Dani nodded slowly. She understood his point, but in some ways it was easier when she hadn’t cared. Last time, there hadn’t been so much to lose.

***

Alex was at his parents’ house by six that morning. Dani had phoned to say there wasn’t any news on Gloria and right after her call, his phone had rung again. He sure as hell hadn’t expected it to be his father.

“It made the morning papers,” Mark had said by way of greeting. “How soon can you get here?”

Alex sat across the breakfast table from his parents. He hated feeling as if he was sixteen and had gotten caught doing something stupid. The need to squirm and explain kept rushing through him but he ignored both. More difficult to push aside was the sense he’d been a disappointment.

He reminded himself he was a successful lawyer in his thirties. He didn’t have to answer to anyone. Too bad he couldn’t believe it.

He wanted to defend himself, but against what? So he accepted the cup of coffee his mother gave him and waited for her or his father to make the first move.

Neither of them seemed in a hurry to speak. There was something in Katherine’s eyes-a lurking accusation, as if asking why he had to pick Dani from all the women available to him.

This had to be hurting her. Dani represented so much failure to her. Now if Alex got involved with her, would that make the wound deeper?

If he got involved? Wasn’t he already there and beyond?

“Is it true?” Mark asked. “There’s a picture of Dani leaving your place around one-thirty this morning. Is it really her?”

“Yes.”

Mark glanced at Katherine, then back at Alex. “We’ll take care of the situation. I’ll call a meeting first thing. Please be available.” Mark stood and left.

Alex didn’t like the sense of being handled, but what was he supposed to say? Sure, his personal life was his business, but as his father was running for president and Dani was Mark’s long-lost biological daughter, there were questions and realitiesto be dealt with.

“Good to be a member of the staff” he said when Mark was gone.

His mother picked up her coffee, then put it down. “He’s in crisis mode. He’s not angry.”

“I got that.” Mark hadn’t been anything. But his father had never been emotionally involved with his family. Not the way Katherine was.

“So you’re seeing her,” she said, her voice carefully polite, as if she didn’t want to give anything away.

“Yes.”

“Is it serious?” Her mouth tightened slightly, her hands trembled.

“Mom, I’m sorry all this is happening and that it’s upsetting you.”

“But you’re not sorry about your relationship with Dani.”

It wasn’t a question. “No.”

He was reminded of his conversation with Dani earlier that evening. How they’d discussed that both their previous spouses had been sorry about being caught, but not about the act itself.

This was different, he told himself. Yet someone was still hurt.

“You didn’t say if this was serious or not,” Katherine pressed.

He shrugged. “I don’t know yet.”

“You’re sleeping with her.”

His mother was the most amazing woman he’d ever met. She had determination and class and more love than any three people he knew. He would take a bullet for her, but he wouldn’t let her run his life.

I’m not discussing Dani,” he said quietly. “Not in that context.”

“I see.”

Two words. Easy, simple words said in a tone that hinted he’d broken her heart. That by shutting her out, he was saying she didn’t matter.

“I know Dani is a complication,” he said, trying to give a little.

“For all of us. You’re aware of the difficulties this relationship presents.”

He nodded.

She drew in a breath. “Alex, I don’t want to run your life or judge you. You’ve been an adult for a long time. You’ve made good decisions and bad ones. I thought you knew the difference.”

“I do.”

“I don’t think so. Why her? Why now? There are so many other women out there. Women like Fiona.”

His concern and compassion turned to anger. “My marriage with Fiona is over. I’ve let it go, I wish you would. I’ve made my position clear.”

“Yes, you have,” she snapped. “Although you haven’t said why. Fiona is far more appropriate than Dani Buchanan. Of course that’s not a very high bar to get over. Is it asking too much for you to have a relationship that doesn’t tear this family apart?”

More guilt, which wasn’t Katherine’s style, he thought as his anger faded. “Are we torn apart? You matter to me, Mom. You always will. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then don’t,” she said, almost pleading. “Don’t hurt me.”

Which was another way of saying “Don’t do this.” But it wasn’t her decision to make.

Long ago he’d vowed to protect his family, no matter what. It had been a vow born of pain and fear as he’d watched his biological mother die on the street. He’d never been in this position before with Katherine. Never felt he was doing the wrong thing.

But being with Dani wasn’t wrong and he refused to let circumstances control his personal life.

“I need to get to the office,” he said. He stood and kissed Katherine on the cheek. “I’ll call you later.”

She nodded, but didn’t speak. There was still tension between them. Unresolved issues. It had never been like that with her and he didn’t like it now.

***

Dani woke up with a stiff back and cramped arm. Somehow she’d managed to curl up in a corner of a sofa at the hospital waiting room. She straightened and saw Cal talking with a doctor. She stood and hurried over.

“What?” she asked. “Is she all right?”

The doctor, a pleasant-looking woman in her late thirties, smiled. “She’s fine. There was a mix-up in her medication. Everything worked its way through her system, so she’ll be perfectly all right. We’re going to be releasing her in a few hours. There aren’t any special instructions. Just make sure she knows what she’s taking.”

The relief was as quick as it was powerful. Dani turned to Cal and hugged him.

“She’s okay. It’s fine.”

“I know.” He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “Let’s tell everyone else.”

They turned back to the full waiting room. Dani looked at her other brothers, their fianc?es, and wondered when her family had gotten so big. For years it had seemed like her and her brothers against the world. But not anymore. With Penny’s, there was even a second generation beginning.

It was more than she could take in on an hour of steep. “You tell them,” she said. “I want to go to her room.”

Dani hurried down the hall and walked into her grandmother’s room.

Gloria lay on the narrow bed, her face pale, her eyes closed. Dani stopped next to her and lightly touched the back of her hand.

Gloria opened her eyes. “I’m not dead,” she said. “That’s something. Of course if you’ve been looking for an excuse to lock me away due to mental incompetence, you’ve found it. I can’t believe I did that. Even an idiot should be able to handle three or four medications. I must be getting old, which I hate to admit.”

Dani felt her throat closing. Emotions flooded her, making it impossible to speak. This was her grandmother. Whatever complications and biological connections might or might not exist, Gloria had been her family her whole life.

“I don’t want you to die,” Dani said, then shocked herself and possibly Gloria by bursting into tears. “I d-don’t want you to die.”

“Hush, child. I don’t want that, either. I have a lot of things to atone for and that’s going to take some time. Being an idiot isn’t fatal. Well, I suppose it could be if I continue to take the wrong pills. But I’ll be more careful. Does that work?”

Dani covered her face with her hands and nodded. Gloria patted her arm for a few seconds, then said, “Bend down so I can hug you. You’ll feel better and so will I.”

Dani did as she asked. Gloria put thin arms around her and squeezed.

“I’ve been a horror to you,” she said, her voice soft and shaky. “So cruel. There’s no excuse, although I’m likely to try to give you one. You’re like me. Oh, not the bad things. You’re better than that. You have a lot of your mother in you. I always liked Marsha. I hated her, too, for being strong. My son was never strong. There was too much of his father in him.”

Dani sniffed and straightened. She wiped her face. “What are you talking about?”

Gloria smiled and blinked away a few tears of her own. “I’m saying I was hard on you. Too hard. I wanted you to be better than me, but I never knew how to say that. You didn’t run away, like your brothers. I kept waiting for you to, so I pushed and pushed and then one day you were gone. I’ve missed you so much.”

Tears trickled down Gloria’s sunken cheeks. “I’m sorry. I know that’s a useless thing to say, but I mean it. I’m so sorry, Dani. I love you. I have from the moment your mother handed you to me and I held you.” She smiled. “Even then you were feisty. You grabbed onto my hair and you wouldn’t let go.”

Dani didn’t know what to think. There was too much information, but in the best way possible. She felt happy and confused and connected with the woman she’d most admired all her life.

“I love you, too,” she said. “I wanted to be like you.”

“Perhaps you need a more inspiring goal. Maybe you should be like Katherine Canfield. She’s a saint, isn’t she? Everyone says she is.”

“She’s very special, but you’re my family.”

Gloria took her hand and squeezed. “They’re your family, too. That could make for very interesting holidays.”

Dani laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that.” She drew in a deep breath. “The doctor says you’re fine. You’re going home in a few hours. I’ll be there to keep watch on you.”

“I live to be a prisoner in my own home.” But she was smiling as she spoke.

The door to her room opened and Dani’s brothers spilled into the room. Dani stepped back to let them reach Gloria, but she didn’t leave. She needed to stay close.

The irony of the situation didn’t escape her. A year ago, she’d felt alone in the world. Only her brothers had been there for her. Now she had Gloria and the Canfield family. What was that old saying? An embarrassment of riches?

Speaking of embarrassment, she had a bad feeling that when she checked out the morning papers, her personal best on the humiliation level was going to sink to an all-time low. She hadn’t said anything yet-not while they didn’t know what was going on with Gloria. But she should probably tell them before they saw it themselves.

She waited for a lull in the conversation, then stepped in front of Gloria’s bed and said, “Guess what I did last night?”

***

It was midafternoon when Alex showed up at Gloria’s house. Dani let him in and led him to the kitchen.

“How’s she doing?” he asked.

“Good. She’s sleeping. The doctor said she would be drowsy for the rest of the day. I’ m staying here to keep an eye on her. Kristie wanted to. She’s flogging herself with guilt-something I can relate to.”

He leaned against the counter. “What do you have to be guilty about?”

“I was off having hot monkey sex while my grandmother was messing up her medication.”

“Hot monkey sex?” He grinned. “Is that what it was?”

“Don’t get all macho and smug. It’s your fault I wasn’t here in the first place.” Not that she actually blamed him, but he was looking too pleased with himself at the moment.

“Because you always check her pills before she takes them?”

“No.”

“Because she’s not capable of managing her own medication?”

“She’s perfectly capable. It was an honest mistake, one she won’t make again. For the record, I deeply resent you using logic at a time like this. You should simply accept the blame and promise never to do it again.”

“Never make love with you?”

Oh. Right. “Well, maybe not that, but something close.”

“I shouldn’t think about making love with you?”

“Did I mention I hate the logic?” she asked. “Plus you have an unfair advantage. You probably got more sleep than me.”

“Not by much.” He closed the distance between them and kissed her. “Want to start over?” he asked.

She rested her forehead on his chest. “Yes. Hi, Alex. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve had a hell of a day.”

“I bet. But Gloria is better now and that’s what matters.”

“It is. I just feel like I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster for weeks. My life used to be boring. I miss boring.”

“Me, too.”

She looked up into his dark eyes. “How was your day?”

“Not one I want to repeat. I had a meeting first thing this morning with my parents. I don’t, as a rule, enjoy discussing my sex life with them. Then there were a series of meetings both with and without the senator, all on how to ‘handle’ the situation.”

Dani pointed to the paper on the table. She’d left it open to the photo and article about her leaving Alex’s place in the predawn hours. No one knew exactly what had happened in his big house, but there was plenty of speculation.

“We can’t even deny what they’re saying. Sex was had by all.”

“More than once,” he agreed.

She fingered the paper. “I haven’t really made it to the big time, though. They’re still accusing me of having sex with a man. Now if we move on to aliens, then I’ll have hit the big time.”

“Good attitude.”

“Really? It’s all that stands between me and a major meltdown.” She stepped away until the table was between them. “I hate this. I hate that my life is being scrutinized. I know, I know, it’s because of who my father is. But I don’t want this. I don’t want to have to worry about being followed and photographed. I’m not a celebrity. I don’t want to be news.”

“Me, either. It comes with the territory.”

“But you’ve been living this way for a while. You’re used to it. Your whole family expects it. Mine doesn’t. My grandmother is going to read this.”

“My mother asked me if it was true. It’s not comfortable, it’s not what anyone wants, but it’s reality.”

Again with the logic. If Alex had a flaw, this was it. “I don’t want this reality,” she said, fighting the urge to blame him for everything. It wasn’t his fault, she reminded herself. They were in this together.

“It’s the one we’re dealing with. Unless you want to go away somewhere.” The edge to his voice told her what he thought about anyone running away.

“I’m not giving up my life so easily. I just hate that I don’t have any choices. That because of the press, I’m on the defensive.”

“You live your life and the hell with them.”

“Is that what you told Katherine?” she asked. “I know this is hurting her and I hate that, too. She doesn’t want to be the subject of speculation, yet she is. Like all of this. Why on earth does Mark want to run for president?”

“Because he thinks he can make a difference. I’m sure he’s sorry that his goals in life are getting in your way.”

She frowned. “Why are you angry with me? I’m the innocent party in all this.”

“We’re all the innocent party. You’re just more vocal than the rest of us.”

She bristled. “What? I’m complaining too much? Is it uncomfortable? Am I expected to just smile and wave, no matter what happens? I don’t get an opinion? I don’t get to complain that my bad luck with men continues on.”

The second the words fell out of her mouth, Dani knew she’d gone too far. Her excuse, if one could be made, was that she’d been on the emotional edge for too long and really needed to get some sleep.

“So I’m just like Ryan and Hugh?” Alex asked coldly, “Good to know.”

“You’re not,” she said quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just running out of energy here. Why can’t I meet a nice guy and have it be easy? Why can’t things go well?”

“They’re not going well?”

He was deliberately misunderstanding her. She hated that, too. “Not by my definition,” she said pointing at the paper. “This is awful.”

“It’s an outside circumstance that has nothing to do with what’s going on between you and me. If you back away because of publicity, you let the press win.”

“I never said I was backing away.”

“You said I was like the other jerks in your life. If that’s true, why would you stick around?”

When had this conversation spiraled out of control? She folded her arms over her chest. “Alex, stop. I don’t want to fight with you. I’m having a hard time coping. I’ll deal with it.”

“You’re not yet. You want an instant solution. There isn’t one. You came looking for your father and you found him. It’s not going to be easy. Are you willing to see it through, or are you going to disappear at the first sign of trouble?”

“What? That is totally unfair. I have never walked away from trouble. Do you think it was easy being married to Hugh? I’m not the one who ended that relationship. You don’t know me, so who the hell are you to judge me?”

“Right back at you.”

She was seriously pissed off, but she was also hurt. This was not how she wanted things to go with Alex. Last night had been so amazing and wonderful. Shouldn’t they be thinking about that instead of fighting?

“I have to go,” he said and walked out of the kitchen.

She started to follow him, then stopped herself. What was there to say? Then she shook her head. No. She wasn’t going to leave things hanging like this.

She went after him, but by the time she reached the hallway, it was too late. She heard the front door close. He was gone.

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