CHAPTER TWELVE

Katherine parked in front of Oliver’s school. She knew her attention should be on the coming meeting, but it was hard to focus on anything but the sick feeling in her stomach.

She was losing Mark. She tried to tell herself she wasn’t, that nothing had changed about her situation, that only the information was new, but she couldn’t quite make herself believe it. She had a strong sense of him drifting away and knowing that he might be lost to her forever tore at her heart.

Had he ever gotten over Dani’s mother? She tried to tell herself that Mark hadn’t been in that deep. But she knew that if something happened to him today, she would mourn him the rest of her life. She only ever wanted to love him. Perhaps he felt that way about Marsha Buchanan.

If so, Dani would be a constant reminder of what he’d lost. She would make the past live again. Was that why Katherine felt such a distance from him lately? If only Dani had never come looking for her father.

Katherine tried not to blame the young woman. It wasn’t her fault, but could the timing have been worse?

She glanced at her watch and realized if she didn’t hurry, she was going to be late. So she gathered her briefcase and walked into the school.

Individual education plans or lEPs were the backbone of the special education system. Parents and teachers sat down together to discuss and agree on goals for the coming year. The battle Katherine frequently fought was to push the goals so the child was asked to do just a little bit more than expected. It was the only way to get real growth.

The teachers were committed professionals who saw what was possible. Katherine prided herself on believing in what was impossible.

Ten years ago she’d been told Ian would never survive a regular classroom. That the constant teasing would destroy his spirit and that he wasn’t physically capable of keeping up. Today he was being courted by excellent universities on both coasts, including Stanford and MIT.

But it was always a battle. Her friends told her to stop fighting, to put her children into private school. The family could certainly afford it. But for Katherine, there was something more at stake than making her life flow more smoothly.

She was a high-profile parent. Every time she was able to win a battle, she believed she made things easier for a parent without her connections and resources. So she sat through IEPs and fought for more than the school wanted to give.

She entered the small conference room. Oliver’s teacher, Miss Doyle, was there, as was the school administrator and the special ed counselor.

They worked through the pleasantries, then got down to the logistics.

“Our main focus for next year is Oliver’s reading,” Miss Doyle said. “We think by the end of the year he should be reading at the first grade level.”

Katherine slipped on her glasses and flipped through the pages she’d brought with her. “That was the goal for last year. Along with helping him interact better in new situations.”

The other women exchanged glances, then Miss Doyle sighed. “Mrs. Canfield, Oliver is developmentally disabled. He has limitations. Wanting him to be different isn’t going to change who he is.”

The teacher was maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. Katherine was genuinely torn between feeling old and tired and wanting topoint out that she had been raising children nearly as long as Miss Doyle had been alive. She knew a whole lot more about what her kids could and could not do.

“What I want,” Katherine said slowly, “is targets that stretch us both. Oliver gets help at home. He can get more help. But I do not accept that after two years of reading he should still be at the first grade level.”

“Oliver is a lovely little boy,” the administrator said. “But he will never be normal. As Miss Doyle said, there are limitations.”

“Agreed. But if we all decided he can’t be more, then his fate is sealed right now. I won’t do that. People rise to the level of expectation. It has been proven time and time again. Expect more and you will get more.”

Katherine suddenly thought of Mark. His limitations weren’t about his intelligence, but he sure had them.

“Have you considered Oliver might get more personalized attention in a private school?” Miss Doyle asked.

The administration winced.

Katherine stared at Oliver’s teacher. “Are you telling me you’re not capable of instructing my son?”

“No. Just that…”

“I appreciate this is a challenge for all of us. You have said yourself that Oliver is very well behaved in the classroom. He’s not disruptive or difficult. So there is no reason to move him. I am confident we can come up with a plan that makes us all stretch and is in Oliver’s best interest.”

The administrator leaned over to Miss Doyle and said something Katherine couldn’t hear. She’d been through this enough times to know that a compromise would be reached, but it would take some fighting on both their parts.

It wasn’t that the school didn’t want to give Oliver an excellent education. She knew they had his best interests at heart. Yet special education children were a financial burden on a school district. Despite the increased state funding for each child in the program, the district had to pour in more resources, which came from other programs. It was always a balancing act.

Three hours later, she left and drove to meet Fiona for lunch. Her former daughter-in-law had called to request the lunch the previous day. While Katherine didn’t have the energy to deal with her right now, she understood that Fiona was going through a difficult time. Katherine briefly wondered when anyone stopped to think about her going through a rough time, then pushed the thought away as both selfish and unproductive. She’d been raised to believe it was her duty to give back, regardless of how she felt that particular day. With wealth came responsibility. But just once she would like to call in sick, where her life was concerned, and spend the day curled up with a great book and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

She met Fiona in the restaurant of what had been the Four Seasons hotel, until it had been sold. The food was excellent, as was the service. As the lunch crowd was mostly businesspeople, they were unlikely to run into anyone they knew. An important consideration, Katherine thought as she handed her keys to the valet. Alex was probably going to be a topic of conversation.

Fiona was waiting in the lobby. Tall and beautifully dressed, as always, Fiona was put together in a way that made Katherine feel as if she should check her makeup.

“Have you been waiting long?” Katherine asked. “I was at an IEP for Oliver. It ran over.”

Fiona smiled, then leaned in and kissed her cheek. ‘They always do.”

“You’re right. I fight and fight and hope I’m doing the right thing. Let’s go in to lunch. I’m starving.”

The women linked arms as they walked. Fiona mentioned a blouse she’d bought at Nordstrom and how they should go shopping sometime soon.

The idea made Katherine tired. Mark frequently told her she should hire more help, which probably made sense. But what, exactly, was she supposed to give up to a stranger? Her afternoons with her children? Her evenings with Mark? Her charity work? What she needed was a clone. The thought made her smile.

“You’re in a good mood,” Fiona said. “The IEP went well.”

“It went, which is about the best it can be. I want the moon and they can’t give it to me without giving it to every other parent. It’s a question of resources.”

“I don’t know how you do it,’1 Fiona admitted. “Raise those children. You’re so busy. One or two special needs children would make sense, but all of them. Not Alex, of course,” she added. “At least he’s normal.”

Katherine stared at the other woman. There were so many thoughts in her head, she didn’t know which one to deal with first.

Normal? Fiona was defining normal? How dare she? Yes, some of Katharine’s children had issues, but they could all be dealt with. As for Alex not having problems, hadn’t Alex told her how difficult things had been when he’d first come to live with them? He’d been as far from “normal” as any of the others.

“I’m not sure I could give any of them away” Katherine said lightly, sure that Fiona hadn’t meant anything bad by what she’d said.

“Of course not.” Fiona laughed. “They’re all so precious.”

Were they? In her eyes? Katherine wasn’t so sure. There was something about Fiona’s tone and body language.

The waiter appeared. They both ordered without bothering to look at the menu. Fiona asked for a glass of chardonnay. Katherine settled on iced tea. She was so tired that if she had any alcohol, she was likely to collapse face-first in her salad.

Maybe it was the exhaustion or the stress in her life or just a streak of bad breeding showing up, but she found herself saying, “Alex and Julie always used to argue about who would take the kids when Mark and I got older. I remember heated discussions about having to split them up so they would each have a couple. It made me so proud of both of them.”

Fiona’s expression tightened. “Yes. I remember. Julie being female makes her the more likely choice.”

“I’m not so sure. Alex has a soft spot for his siblings, especially Bailey, Oliver and Quinn. Ian, Sasha and Trisha are likely to be fully independent.”

Fiona pressed her lips together. Katherine wasn’t sure if that was to keep from saying something or to stop herself from shuddering. It was obvious the other woman didn’t want anything to do with Katherine’s “nonnormal” children. Had Alex known about that? Was it one of the reasons for the divorce?

She remembered how Alex talked about so much with her, yet he’d been completely close-mouthed about the reason for the divorce. He would never say anything bad about the woman he’d been married to. She’d thought he hadn’t been specific because there hadn’t been anything to say. But maybe there was another reason.

The waiter appeared with drinks and the bread basket. Katherine usually ignored it, but today the carbs and sweet butter called to her. She could do an extra ten minutes on the elliptical in the morning.

“I saw the pictures in the paper.” Fiona said quietly, nearly ruining Katherine’s first bite of the fresh bread. “I was devastated. How could he do that? And with her of all people. I thought of you, of course. How are you holding up?”

The words were all there. The tone was perfect. Yet Katherine had the sudden impression that Fiona was putting on a very well-crafted show.

Which wasn’t fair. Fiona obviously wanted a second chance at her marriage. From Katherine’s perspective, the other woman had been a good wife. But what secrets did Fiona and Alex keep between them? What had really happened when the two of them were alone?

“I didn’t know what to think,” Fiona continued.

“I would guess that he’s seeing someone else,” Katherine snapped, then sighed against the wash of guilt. She patted Fiona’s arm. “I don’t mean that to sound harsh. I’m saying this for your own good. It might be time to move on.”

Tears filled Fiona’s eyes. “Why are you saying this? Has he told you something?”

Katherine hesitated. “He said nothing will ever change his mind. He doesn’t want to be with you anymore.”

“I see.”

“Maybe it’s for the best.”

“No, it’s not. I still love him. He’s the only man I’ll ever love. He’s my Mark.”

Katherine was less sure. Of the two people involved, the one she trusted implicitly was Alex.

“I’m sorry to hear you say that,” she told Fiona. “I don’t think my son is going to change his mind.”

Fiona nodded. The tears disappeared, as if they had never been. “I see. Thank you for being honest. It’s because of Dani, isn’t it? He’s infatuated by her.”

“I wouldn’t say that. They’re involved.” They were obviously having sex, as the entire world had recently discovered.

“You can’t be happy about their relationship,” Fiona pressed.

“I accept it, as you should. There’s nothing either of us can do to change things.”

Fiona hesitated for a second, then said. “Of course. You’re right. I wouldn’t dream of coming between them.”

***

Alex met Pete outside the courthouse. The hearing was scheduled for nine.

“Nervous?” the other man asked.

“No,” Alex told him. He had done as much as he could to prepare for the hearing. There was little else he could do to influence the outcome.

Even if the D.A. decided to use him as an example and charge him with everything possible, it was unlikely Alex would be spending the night in jail. He had a clean record and close ties to the community. He wasn’t a flight risk.

But knowing he would continue to sleep in his own bed didn’t change the fact that his future was on the line. If he was convicted…

He didn’t want to think about that, about having to find a new career. He didn’t want to think about how it would be wrong for that sleazy reporter to get away with using Bailey. No matter the outcome, Alex refused to regret what he’d done- he’d protected his own. That was much more his job than being a lawyer.

Pete checked his watch. “Let’s go,” he said and they walked into the courtroom.

Alex’s specialty was corporate law. He’d assisted on a couple of court cases, but spent most of his time in an office. It was considered bad form to let a corporate case go to trial. While he’d sat at the table for the defense, it had never been as the defendant. He wasn’t looking forward to it now.

There were already several spectators in the courtroom. Reporters, of course. Neither of his parents were there-he’d asked his family not to come. It would only give the press more to write about. There were a few junior members of his law firm, a member of the campaign and Dani.

Alex stared at her, surprised she would show up. They hadn’t talked in nearly a week-not since they’d fought. As she turned and her hazel eyes met his, he couldn’t remember what they’d argued about.

He paused by the wooden half wall separating the main aisle from the seats.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She stood. “Showing support for truth, justice and the American way.” She smiled slightly. “I thought you could use a friend. You don’t have any family here yet.”

“I asked them not to come. I thought it would give the media too much to write about.”

Her smile faded. “Damn. So now they’re going to write about me.”

He didn’t bother to look around at the reporters, knowing they would be typing furiously on Palm Pilots and laptops.

“Probably,” he said, “But I don’t care.”

“Then I won’t, either.” She touched his arm. “I hope it goes well.”

She was beautiful. Her wide eyes perfectly balanced her full mouth. She wore a conservative pants suit and could have easily passed for a lawyer. Not that she would consider that a compliment.

He wanted her. Not just in bed, although he wouldn’t say no if she asked, but to talk with. To spend time with. He’d missed her this past week. He’d gotten used to having her around and then she’d been gone.

He introduced Pete, then they left her and walked to the defendant’s table. Alex took his seat and waited for the judge.

Thirty minutes later, his fate was sealed, but not in a way he’d expected. The assistant D. A. explained that due to lack of evidence, they were dropping all charges. The judge dismissed the case and left the courtroom.

“Way to go,” Pete said as he shook Alex’s hand. “Congratulations.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Still, this solves a lot of problems. I’m going to phone the other partners. They’ll want to know.”

Pete walked out. Alex stared after him, then turned to watch as Dani approached.

“This is good,” she said happily. “You’re free. I’m so happy. I was worried that horrible reporter would totally screw up your life.” She paused and frowned at him. “Why aren’t you more excited?”

Alex wanted to hit something. Despite having grown up with money and privilege, he’d done his damnedest to never use that to get something he hadn’t earned. He’d prided himself on working hard, on doing the right thing. With a couple of phone calls, Mark had taken it all away from him.

“It has nothing to do with lack of evidence,” he said grimly. “My father did this.”

“What do you mean? He talked to the D.A.?”

“He talked to someone. I don’t know who, but I’ll find out.”

Dani sighed. “I don’t know what to think. I’m happy you’re not facing charges or being arrested or whatever they would have done. That’s good. But him getting involved like that. It’s just not right.”

He stared at her. She got it He didn’t have to explain why he wouldn’t have wanted this. She knew-because of who she was.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Hell if I know. I can’t go to the D.A. and demand he try me.”

“It would make for an interesting conversation.”

“I have to talk to the senator.”

“Another interesting conversation,” she said.

He put his hand on the small of her back and led her out of the courtroom. He’d thought there might be press waiting outside, but no one was there. Had Mark taken care of that, too?

“He did it because you’re his son,” she said. “That has to mean something.”

“He did it because of the campaign.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do.”

She faced him. “Alex, he’s your father. Do you really want to have this fight with him?”

“I have to.”

“You’re very stubborn.”

He managed a slight smile. “It’s one of my best qualities.”

She looked as if she didn’t know what else to say. He touched her cheek.

“I’m sorry about before. About what I said.”

“Me, too.” She shook her head. “I know you’re not like Ryan and Hugh. You’re a good man. My life isn’t easy right now. I was reacting to that. Not to you.”

“I get it. I pushed too hard “

“Yes, you did.”

She smiled as she spoke.

He nudged her back into a small alcove, then leaned in and kissed her.

She kissed him back, her mouth soft and yielding, her hands resting against his chest. She smelled of flowers and tasted of coffee and that sensual essence he remembered from making love with her.

When she parted for him, he swept inside. Wanting moved through him, but he ignored the need to have her. This wasn’t the place or the time, but soon, he thought. Very soon.

They pulled back at the same moment.

Dani glanced around, then looked at him. “This might be illegal.”

“Not technically, but it’s frowned upon.” He rubbed his thumb across her lower lip. “I want to see you again.”

“Good thing. I’m worming my way into your world. You won’t be able to escape me.”

“I don’t want to.”

She trembled slightly and her breath caught. “You’re really good,” she murmured. “And dangerous, Dragon-boy.”

He grinned. “That’s me. How’s your grandmother?”

“Doing fine. She’s being very careful with her medication, so all is well.” She glanced at her watch. “I hate to say this, but I have to go. I’m guessing you have places to be, too.”

He nodded. He had to deal with his father. Although he was thinking he should put that off until he could face Mark without wanting to hit something… or someone.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Dani arrived at the Canfield home for her appointment with Katherine. They were supposed to discuss the charity event. As Dani rang the bell, it occurred to her that she didn’t even know what charity they would be supporting. It was probably a good question to ask.

Katherine opened the door. For once she wasn’t perfectly groomed. Her hair was down, she wore a University of Washington sweatshirt over jeans and had on socks, but no shoes.

“Is it three already?” she asked as she smoothed the front of her shirt. “I wasn’t watching the time. The kids are all home today so it’s been hectic.”

“We can reschedule, if it would be easier for you.”

“No, no. This is fine.” Katherine stepped back to let her in. “I wouldn’t want you driving all this way for nothing.”

Mussed and in casual clothing, Katherine seemed more approachable. Not that she wasn’t always nice. But like this she made Dani less nervous.

Dani followed her into the family room. Sasha, Oliver and Quinn were sprawled on the floor playing with interlocking building blocks. Bailey sat in a chair, reading a Nancy Drew book.

Bailey bounced up when she saw Dani. “Hi. Mom said you were coming by.”

“Here I am.” She waved to the other kids, then turned back to Bailey. “Don’t you love Nancy Drew? My grandmother gave me the whole set one summer and I read one after the other.”

Bailey nodded shyly. “These were my mom’s, but I’m real careful with them. I wash my hands and everything.”

“I’m sure she appreciates that,” Dani said. “It’s so nice that you get how important books are.”

Bailey smiled broadly.

Katherine put her arm around Bailey. “You make me proud in so many ways.”

Bailey leaned against her.

Katherine hugged her then sighed. “Dani, I have to make a phone call. Can you stand me to leave you with my herd while I’m gone?”

“Of course. I can build with the best of them.”

“It should only be a few minutes. Then we’ll discuss that luncheon we’re going to.”

Honestly, Dani would rather play with building blocks for days than finalize luncheon details. She sank to the floor where Sasha promptly crawled on her lap

“Hey, you,” Dani said.

“Hey, you, back.” Sasha giggled. “This is a boy game. We should play a girl game. Like dress-up.”

Bailey pressed her lips together. “That’s for kids.”

“I’m a kid,” Sasha said proudly. “I’m the baby. Mom doesn’t want me to ever grow up. She told me so.”

Dani wondered how the differences in the children affected the dynamics in the family.

“I was the youngest, too,” Dani said. “And the only girl. It’s fun to be the baby, but Bailey is becoming a young woman.”

Bailey looked pleased by that. “I’ll be fifteen soon.”

“Wow. Fifteen,” Dani said. “I remember that. It’s kind of an important birthday.”

“I’ll be six,” Sasha told her.

“Six is also important, but there’s something about being a teenager. My best friend was only three weeks older than me. I remember her mom took us shopping for our first pair of high heels when my friend turned fifteen. It was a lot of fun. I still have those shoes.”

Not that she would wear them anywhere. They were pretty out of date. But they were a good memory.

“Boys don’t wear high heels,” Quinn said.

“You’re right. They don’t.” As a rule. This wasn’t the time to discuss drag queens.

Katherine returned. “That’s all done. Did they torture you?”

“Not at all.”

“Good.” Katherine glanced at her watch. “I think it’s about time for your snack. Who wants to see if Yvette has it ready?”

The boys and Sasha raced off. Bailey hesitated. “Dani, would you like something to drink?”

Katherine smacked her own forehead. “Thank you, Bailey, for being so polite. I can’t believe I forgot to ask. Dani, you want anything?”

Dani smiled at Bailey. “I’m good, but thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome.”

Bailey followed the other kids out of the room.

Dani moved to the sofa. “They’re wonderful. All of them. They’re also a handful, so I’m not sure how you stay sane.”

Katherine laughed. “Sanity is not required. Just a lot of patience and love.”

“You obviously have an excess of both.”

“You’re good with them, as well.”

“I adore them,” Dani admitted. “I kind of have a soft spot for Bailey. She’s a sweetie. Her hair is so beautiful.”

“I agree. A natural redhead. When Alex and Fiona were still married, and people saw us together, they thought she was Fiona’s daughter or sister.” Katherine frowned for a moment, then shook her head. “Part of that is Alex was always so close to Bailey. They have a special bond.”

Dani was more excited to hear about Alex’s connection with his sister than to have information about his ex-wife.

“I’m close with my brothers,” Dani said. “Especially Cal, who’s the oldest. I guess he’s always looked out for me.”

“Family is important,” Katherine said. “As is raising money for breast cancer research, which is what our luncheon is about. I believe I mentioned you’ll be expected to speak.”

Dani swallowed. “Yes, you did. In return I might have murmured something about projectile vomiting.”

“Not to worry. You’ll be fine. We’re talking about five or six minutes of remarks.”

It might as well be a century of remarks, Dani thought, telling herself it was silly to panic now. She should wait until they were closer to the event and then freak out.

“We should coordinate what we wear,” Katherine continued. “We don’t want to match and we don’t want to clash. I don’t usually worry about this sort of thing, but we’ll be photographed. A dress with a nice blazer is always good. A suit works. If you aren’t sure what would be appropriate, I’m happy to look over your choices and give you the benefit of my experience, such as it is. Of course I’m much older, the thought of that might scare you.”

“I’d love your opinion,” Dani said. “You’re always so stylish.”

Katherine glanced down at her sweatshirt. “Not so much today. But that’s all right. Okay, back to the event. The reality is you should eat before you come. So many people will want to talk to you there that you won’t get a chance. Plus, you don’t want to have a picture taken with something in your teeth.”

“Should I be taking notes?” Dani asked, as her apprehension turned to outright fear. “What if I can’t do this? I don’t want to embarrass you or your family. I’m not really good at this sort of thing. I don’t have the experience.”

Katherine touched her arm. “Take a breath. You’ll be fine. It’s not that hard. I’ll admit it can be a little terrifying, but you’ll get through it and the next time will be easier.”

The next time? “I don’t think so,” she murmured, addressing both the possibility of getting through it and any thoughts of there being a next time.

Katherine smiled at her. “Trust me.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Dani said impulsively. “You don’t have to be nice to me or help me or even accept me. Yet you are. I’m sorry. I mean that. I never meant to cause any trouble. I never meant to hurt anyone.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Katherine told her. “I’ll admit that there are some challenges in the situation, but you’re the innocent in all this and I know that.”

“You’re amazing,” Dani breathed.

“I have my moments,” Katherine admitted. “There are times I’m not very proud of what I’ve done, but this is something we all have to deal with. You want to know your father. Why wouldn’t you?” She frowned. “Speaking of Mark, I have something I wanted to show you.”

She stood and crossed to a built-in unit with cupboards on the bottom and bookcases on top. She opened one of the low cabinet doors and pulled out a couple of photo albums, then she returned to the sofa and sat next to Dani.

“Pictures,” she announced. “I have hundreds, so any time you can’t sleep, feel free to come over and I’ll bore you into a stupor. Mark’s late mother put this one together.” Katherine looked at her. “She would have loved to know she had a granddaughter. Leslie died about ten years go.”

Grandparents. Dani hadn’t much thought about extended family. Were there others she was related to?

Before she could ask, Katherine said, “Mark’s father passed away when Mark was five or six. There isn’t any other family that I know about.”

“Oh.” Dani didn’t know how she felt about that. Mark was kind of enough to deal with for now.

Katherine opened the older of the two photo albums. “Mark’s baby pictures,” she said as she pointed.

Katherine flipped through the pages, explaining who the people were. Dani tried to relate to them as family, but in truth they were strangers she would never meet.

“There you are.”

Dani looked up and saw Mark walking into the room. Katherine rose and crossed to her husband. As she leaned in and kissed him, Dani caught a flash of emotion in her eyes.

She really loves him, she thought, oddly pleased by the information. As if Mark and Katherine having a happy marriage somehow made things better.

Mark smiled at his wife, then turned to Dani. “Tell me she’s not making you look at old pictures. Katherine is very big on documenting life.”

“I’m enjoying myself,” Dani told him.

“Good. Good.” He looked back at Katherine. “How long until dinner?”

“An hour.”

“Dani, want to join me in my study? We can talk about family. I’ll even go through those old pictures with you.” He turned back to Katherine. “Is that all right?”

“Of course.”

Mark kissed her again, then patted her butt.

“This way,” he said, motioning for Dani to follow him.

She grabbed the photo albums and trailed behind him.

Bailey stepped out into the hallway. “Dani,” she called. “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

Bailey ducked her head. “It’s my birthday soon.”

Dani smiled. “I know.”

“Could I have high-heeled shoes, like you did?”

Dani hesitated. She had no idea what Katherine would think of the idea. There were degrees of Down’s syndrome and Bailey seemed to be highly functional. It made sense that a fifteen-year-old girl would want to feel a little more grown-up.

“You’d have to clear it with your mom,” Dani said. “But if she agrees, I think it’s a good idea.”

“Could we go shopping? You and me?”

Dani’s smile widened. “I’d really like that. Ask your mom and if it’s okay with her, then we’ll set something up. We’ll go to the mall and eat at the food court and make an afternoon of it. How does that sound?”

“Really cool,” Bailey breathed. “I’ll go ask right now.”

She turned away and started to run down the hall, then turned around, ran back and hugged Dani.

“You’re the best!”

“I think you’re pretty great, too,” Dani said, hoping Katherine agreed to the shopping trip.

She continued into Mark’s study. The room was large and lined with bookshelves. The dark colors and leather furniture made it feel masculine.

Mark sat behind his large, wood desk. He motioned for her to take one of the chairs in front of it.

“Damned pictures,” he said easily as he pointed to the albums Dani held. “They make me feel old.”

She set them on the desk and settled into the chair. “Katherine has everything so well organized.”

“I met her while I was in law school. I thought I was hot shit. I had my future all mapped out. Then I met her. She’s from old money. Her family goes back generations. She liked me but her parents weren’t impressed by some poor kid who grew up on the wrong side of the country.”

He leaned back in his chair, as if staring at memories only he could see. “She was beautiful. Still is. A strong woman, much stronger than me.”

Dani was intrigued by his assessment of himself. She agreed with the statement, but was surprised he would admit it.

“But you’re not here to talk about Katherine,” he said as he glanced at her. “You want to hear about your mother.”

“That would be nice,” Dani said, even as she felt a flicker of disloyalty. As if by discussing Marsha, she was somehow disrespecting Katherine. What was up with that?

“Marsha didn’t want anything to do with me,” he admitted. “She was married and didn’t want to cheat. I convinced her.” He shrugged. “I’m not proud of what I did, but I don’t regret it. Not knowing her or having you. I do wish I’d known about you sooner.”

“Me, too,” Dani said, but even as she spoke, she wondered if it was really true. Mark would have complicated her life. Looking back, she couldn’t find a good time for him to have shown up.

“She was terrified we would be caught,” he continued. “When she ended things, I thought the stress of the affair had finally gotten to her. I never thought she might be pregnant.”

“It makes sense. My grandmother would have made her life a living hell.” Gloria might be different now, but twenty-eight years ago, Dani was willing to bet she’d been the queen bitch.

Except Gloria had known. Or guessed. She’d known Dani wasn’t a Buchanan for years. How had she found out? Had she just figured it out? As Mark could have?

She had the foolish sense that her father should have known about her. That somehow he should have sensed that she was alive, living only a few miles away.

Foolish little girl dreams, she told herself. She knew better. But knowing didn’t seem to make them go away.

“So much has changed,” she said. “For all of us. You’re running for president. That still shocks me every time I think of it.”

“Me, too,” he said with a grin, then his humor faded. “Dani, I’m an influential man. You’re my daughter. I want to help you in any way I can. Money, introductions, whatever. I’ m here for you.”

She blinked several times, not sure what to say. “Ah, thank you. I’m good.”

“The offer stays open. I’m always here for you.”

Is that what he’d told Alex about getting the charges dropped? While she was sure Alex appreciated not having his future ruined, she knew he wouldn’t have wanted Mark to get involved.

She didn’t want that, either. Rather than having her father do things for her, she wanted an emotional connection. Ironically she had a feeling it was the one thing he couldn’t provide.

Katherine was the heart of the Canfield family. For a second, Dani knew everything would have been different if Katherine had been her missing parent.

Crazy, she told herself. And impossible. Katherine never would have walked away from a child. Not that Mark had-he hadn’t known. Still, Katherine was the one she’d connected with and being around the other woman made her miss her own mother.

Dani didn’t remember Marsha Buchanan. She’d been a baby when her mother had died. Gloria had raised her and her brothers. How different life would have been if Marsha had lived. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been different at all. Gloria still would have run their lives.

Families were a complication, Dani thought. Now she had two. What on earth was she going to do with them?

***

Cal walked into Walker’s office a little after three in the afternoon. Reid was already there, lounging on the dark leather sofas his brother had brought in. The room was now done in earth tones-a positive change after Gloria’s white-on-white space.

“What’s so important that it couldn’t be handled by a phone call?” Cal asked as he settled across from Reid.

“The manager of Buchanan’s is leaving,” Walker said. “We need a replacement.”

“Dani’s the best choice,” Cal told him. “She’s always wanted to run this place.”

“Agreed, but she’s not going to take the job. She would think I was offering it because she’s my sister and I don’t know that she’d leave Bella Roma so soon after hiring on.”

He had a point, but there had to be a way to convince Dani this was where she belonged.

“Have Gloria ask her,” Reid said. “Dani will believe her.”

Walker smiled slowly. “That just might work.”

***

Dani sipped the champagne. The taste was subtle but refreshing, with a hint of something… “What did you do to it?” she asked Penny, who sat in an oversize chair with Allison in her arms.

Penny looked up innocently. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You infused the champagne with something. A hint of… Damn, I can’t place it.” Dani stared at the slender glass. “You can’t infuse champagne. You’d lose the bubbles. But you didn’t.”

“I’m intensely gifted.”

“What did you do?”

“I’m not going to tell you. You’ll use it for Bella Roma and this is my private secret.”

“You’re evil, do you know that?”

Penny grinned.

Elissa held up her glass. “I don’t care how you did it, I just want more of it. This is fabulous.”

“I agree,” Lori said. “Plus I’ve never had champagne at two in the afternoon. I like your style.”

“Thank you,” Penny said graciously. “Style is important.”

“She’s tempting you so you’ll want to have this at the rehearsal dinner,” Gloria said. “Plus, she wants you to regret not having her cater the wedding.”

Dani eyed her grandmother. She would bet Gloria was right on both counts.

“I am interested in having this at the rehearsal dinner,” Penny admitted. “But for the rest of it, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Elissa sighed. “You’re never going to forgive me, are you? Even though I’m trying to let you enjoy the wedding.”

“I’ll get over it,” Penny said with a sniff. “Eventually.”

“Don’t let her bully you,” Gloria said. “She’s a total bitch when she doesn’t get her way.”

The room went silent. Lori and Elissa exchanged glances, as if not sure how to handle the comment. Penny stared at Gloria, probably plotting her response.

Dani wasn’t sure if her grandmother was trying to be funny or if this was one of her infrequent sarcastic bursts. After all, no transformation was complete.

Determined to keep the mood light for Elissa, she looked at Gloria and said, “Takes one to know one.”

Gloria sipped her champagne. “Indeed it does.”

Penny laughed and raised her glass to the older woman. “I learned from a master.”

“You learned totally on your own, but I’m willing to take any credit being handed out.” She turned her attention to Elissa. “I have some ideas about the wedding. I don’t want to push them on you, so please tell me to take a hike if you don’t like them.” She frowned. “Young people don’t say ‘take a hike’ anymore, do they?”

“Not really,” Lori said cheerfully. “But that’s okay. I’m quickly falling behind on what ‘young people’ are saying.”

“Me, too,” Elissa added. “Unless you want to count the things Zoe tells me. Of course she’s only five. So what ideas do you have for the wedding?”

She sounded a little nervous as she asked the question.

“Too much input?” Dani asked.

“My mother,” Elissa told her. “We’re making up for lost time in a hurry. I love her desperately and I know she’s just trying to help, but sometimes I want to scream.”

“Hopefully this won’t make you scream,” Gloria said as she braced herself on her cane and pushed herself to her feet. “I don’t know why I even kept it, but I did and it’s yours if you want it. You’re a bit taller, but I wore impossibly high heels with it.”

They followed Gloria into the living room. The furniture had all been pushed aside and in the middle of the room stood a dressmaker’s form wearing a stunning ivory wedding gown.

The dress was silk and lace, with long sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. The lines were exquisite, the lace incredible. Dani didn’t know a whole lot about designer clothing but she recognized an extraordinary gown when she saw one.

“It’s French,” Gloria said from the doorway. “Couture. You are welcome to it, if you want it.”

Elissa went pale. “You can’t mean that. It’s too wonderful.”

“I was impossibly horrible to you, Elissa. I accept that I’m rude and difficult, but I threatened you and your child and that is unforgivable. You’ve been very kind to me. Wary, but kind. This is my way of apologizing.”

Elissa shook her head. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know, but I want to.”

“The dress should go to Dani.”

Dani took a step back. “I’m good with this.” The dress was amazing, but not her style. Besides, Dani liked Gloria making the effort. She had been awful to Elissa.

“Dani already knows I love her,” Gloria said.

“I do,” Dani said, knowing a year ago it never would have occurred to her that the other woman even liked her.

“But you’re so skinny” Elissa murmured. “I’m not even close to that thin.”

“I hadn’t been sick back then. Now if you don’t like the dress, just say so. I’ll understand. But if you’re interested, try it on. We can get it altered to fit you.”

Elissa made a sound low in her throat, then rushed at Gloria. The two women embraced.

Penny moved close and hugged Dani, then pulled Lori into the embrace. Baby Allison cooed between them.

“Hell of a family,” Lori murmured. “Gloria’s got me tearing up. I hate that.”

“Me, too,” Dani said happily as she sighed. “Me, too.”

***

Dani returned to the Canfield home to take Bailey shoe shopping. The teenager had called the previous evening with the exciting news that her mother had said yes, and that she had a Nordstrom gift card in her possession as an early birthday present.

But the person who opened the door to let her in wasn’t Katherine or even Bailey. Instead it was a tall, handsome man she’d recently seen naked.

Alex grinned at her, glanced over his shoulder, then stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind himself. He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her close.

She raised her head in anticipation of the kiss and when his mouth touched hers it was every bit as hot and tingly as she’d hoped.

She loved the feel of his lips against hers. She loved the firm pressure, the way he smelled and tasted and how right they felt together. She loved the way her body melted from the inside out and that all the worries of her life just disappeared. There was only the man, the wanting and the kiss.

She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. The position had the added advantage of allowing a full body press. He was hard to her soft, and very hard in really interesting places. She rubbed against him. He groaned, then stepped back.

“Trouble,” he said as he stroked her cheek. “You’re nothing but trouble.”

“It beats being boring.”

“Yes, it does. Bailey asked me to come along on this historic shopping event. Is that all right?”

“Sure. But are you up to an afternoon of shoe shopping?”

He grimaced. “Not my idea of a good time, but Bailey wants me along and it was a chance to see you.”

“I like that.”

“Good.” He put his arm around her and led her inside. “Give me five minutes to change out of this suit and I’ll be with you. Bailey’s changing, as well. Katherine’s in her office. Why don’t you go say hello to her?”

She considered her options. “I think I’d rather help you change clothes.”

“My first choice, as well. If I say yes?”

She shook her head. “It was cheap talk. Getting naked in your mother’s house is a level of tacky I’m not comfortable with.”

He leaned in and kissed her again. “Then I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Dani watched him head upstairs. She glanced around the foyer, but none of the other children were around. While she wanted to say hello to Katherine, she didn’t want to intrude. Still, saying hello shouldn’t be too much of an interruption.

She walked down the hallway that led to Katherine’s office. The room was on the south side of the house and got a lot of light. She remembered the warm yellow walls and blue pattern furniture from the tour Katherine had given her the last time she’d been there.

The door was partially open. She reached up to knock but lowered her hand when she heard her name mentioned.

“Of course I’m delighted about Mark’s daughter,” Katherine was saying.

Dani shifted slightly and saw Katherine was on the phone. She started to back up, then paused, wanting to hear what the other woman said.

She was going to hell for sure, she told herself. Talk about childish and disrespectful. Yet, there she stood.

“Of course,” Katherine continued. “Yes it was a shock, but not a bad one. Mark is thrilled.” There was a pause, then. “Oh, no. He knew Dani’s mother long before we were engaged. Things ended, I came to Seattle and the rest is history. Uh-huh. I think Dani is very happy to have family. Yes, she was very young when her mother died.”

Katherine turned. Dani took another step back. Okay, she really had to leave. Only before she could, she saw Katherine touch her face. Then the light caught her skin and Dani realized the other woman was crying.

“You know Alex,” Katherine said with a chuckle that sounded forced. “He’s always been unconventional. As they’re not related by blood and we adore her, of course we’re happy. It keeps things all in the family. We could be connecting our families in more ways than one.”

There was pain on Katherine’s face. Her expression and her tears were in stark contrast to her words. Dani wondered who she was talking to. Obviously someone she couldn’t be honest with.

Dani backed away from the room and regretted pausing to eavesdrop. It had been rude and selfish. For her lack of character, she’d learned an uncomfortable truth. That she’d deeply hurt someone she only respected and short of going away-something she wasn’t prepared to do-there was no way to ease Katherine’s pain.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Alex could think of several things he’d rather be doing than shopping at Bell Square, yet the thought of spending the afternoon with his favorite sister-not that he would ever admit that to anyone-and Dani, had been irresistible. If nothing else, he would be distracted from the fact that he knew he had to confront his father about what he’d done but wasn’t sure what to say.

In his heart and his gut, he wanted to walk away. The political world wasn’t his and he didn’t belong. But he owed Mark and he’d been taught the importance of duty from the moment Katherine had adopted him. So leaving wasn’t an option. Which meant he had to figure out a way to make his current situation work for him. If Mark won the nomination and subsequent election, nothing would ever be the same.

After lunch at P.F. Chang’s-ordered by Dani, to keep up their strength-they headed to Nordstrom.

“The perfect place for shoes,” Dani informed him as she linked arms with Bailey and led the way.

“They have a fabulous selection and the employees are always great to work with. You’ll love it.”

Bailey’s big smile widened. “Can I get any color I want?”

“Of course,” Dani told her. “These are your birthday shoes. They have to be special. Maybe red or purple or something with a cool pattern? I always wanted red suede pumps when I was a teenager. My grandmother said they were tacky, but I still wanted them. Maybe I should buy some now.”

Alex walked just behind the women and briefly allowed himself to enjoy the fantasy of Dani in high-heeled red suede pumps and nothing else.

It worked for him in a big way.

They entered the store and found their way to the shoe department.

Alex also shopped at Nordstrom, although usually at the downtown store. He walked into the men’s department, told them what color suit he wanted, tried it on, was fitted and gone in less than thirty minutes. If he needed shirts or ties, Frank, the man he worked with, had a selection ready for his approval. For him, shopping for clothes was about as interesting as shopping for groceries. Wasn’t the point to get what you needed and get out?

But women were their own country, he reminded himself, with different expectations and different customs.

“Look around,” Dani told Bailey. “I need to check on a couple of things.”

She walked toward the counter in the corner, Alex smiled at his sister. “Are you having fun?”

Bailey nodded but didn’t smile. Instead she pressed her lips together, then drew in a shaky breath.

“Are you mad at me?” she asked, sounding terrified to hear the answer to her question.

“No,” he said quickly. “Why would I be mad at you?”

“Because. Before. I talked to that man and you hit him and got into trouble.”

“Honey, no.” He walked over and hugged her. “Bailey, that had nothing to do with you. You didn’t do anything wrong. I love you.”

She gazed up at him, her eyes filled with tears. “You sure?”

“I promise.”

She had never been the problem and he hated thinking that she’d been worried all this time.

“I love you,” he told his sister.

She smiled. “I love you, too. But you’re not my favorite brother.”

The start of their familiar game let him know she was okay now. “Sure I am. Who else could be your favorite?”

“Ian.”

“No way.”

“Way.”

“Crazy girl.”

She grinned. “That’s loco to you.”

“Loco it is.”

He put his arm around her. He loved all his siblings, but he had a special place in his heart for Bailey. He had no idea why, but he welcomed his need to take care of her.

Suddenly the combination of hugging Bailey, the store setting and a sense of protecting his own caused him to remember another time in a store. He couldn’t remember how long ago it had been. Two years? Three?

He’d been married to Fiona at the time and the three of them had gone to some store. Bailey had tripped and banged her arm. She’d been in tears from the pain and he’d been holding her. Fiona had offered a tissue from her purse when an older woman had stopped.

“Your daughter is lovely,” the stranger had told Fiona. “She has your hair.”

“That is not my child,” Fiona had said forcefully. “She’s my husband’s adopted sister.”

Later he’d wondered why Fiona had felt it so necessary to distance herself from Bailey, both by biological and familial connection. Had she been afraid someone would think she was flawed?

It had been a small thing, but it had stayed with him. Finding her on the table, having sex with another man might have been the end of their marriage, but it hadn’t been the only reason he’d left her.

Dani returned with a handful of shoes. “What do you think of these?” she asked. “Now before you say anything, I want you to know that there will be much trying on of shoes. This is an important decision and not one to be made lightly.” She eyed him. “No whining from the male contingent.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Bailey, we’re going to need some help.” She pointed at the two men who stood just behind her. “This is Eric and this is Cameron. They are your shoe slaves.”

Bailey covered her mouth with her hand and giggled before ducking behind Alex.

Dani reached for her and dragged her toward the leather chairs.

“Sit,” she said sternly and pointed. “You’re the princess today, young lady. We’re here to make you happy.”

Bailey continued to giggle. Eric winked at her, while Cameron said her hair was a beautiful color of red. Alex slid close to Dani.

“Your doing?” he asked, nodding at the two guys.

“I said today had to be exceptional. They’ll flirt in a nice, safe way. I want her to feel special.”

“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble for a girl you barely know.”

Dani stared up at him. “I know as much as I need to. I like Bailey. I’m not a saint, Alex. Don’t get any weird ideas. I’m acting selfishly because it makes me happy.”

“I get that.”

He also got that she wouldn’t see her actions as anything extraordinary. But he knew better. He knew exactly what kind of person bothered and what kind didn’t.

Dani collapsed next to Bailey and kicked off her shoes. “I’m thinking something flashy,” she said as Eric, or maybe Cameron, slid a pair of magenta suede pumps on her feet.

“Me, too,” Bailey said. She had on the same pair.

Dani pushed herself into a standing position. Bailey tried to do the same, wobbled, then collapsed back into her chair. Dani sighed. “I see we have some work to do. Gentlemen?”

Eric and Cameron each took a hand and drew Bailey upright. When she was balanced, Dani walked in front of her.

“The trick is to keep your weight forward and low. Those skinny heels will kill you if you let them. But you don’t want to go too far forward or you’ll fall on your face and that’s never pretty.”

With Bailey laughing, Dani demonstrated an exaggerated walk, complete with swinging hips and fancy turns. Bailey followed her, staggering only a little. She nearly fell on the turn, but one of the guys caught her and held her arm while she straightened.

“I’m walking!” she cried as she moved through the center of the shoe department. “Look, Alex. I’m really walking in high heels.”

His baby sister was growing up, he thought as he watched Bailey get more confident with each step. She and Dani returned to their chairs and tried on another pair of shoes.

Two hours later the decision had been made. Both Bailey and Dani had purple suede pumps with impossibly high heels. They elected to wear their shoes out of the store. He trailed behind, holding their shopping bags.

He liked Dani a lot. He wouldn’t have slept with her otherwise. But today he saw a side of her he hadn’t expected. A side that impressed the hell out of him. She was more than a pretty face-she had a giving heart. She was smart, sexy and she cared about people. Which made her an amazing woman. Someone he shouldn’t let get away.

***

“We really shouldn’t be doing this again,” Dani said as she followed Alex into his kitchen. She had the pizza they’d stopped for and he carried a six-pack of beer. “We’re going to get caught.”

“We’ve already been caught.”

“Interesting point.” She wasn’t about to challenge the Fates by saying it couldn’t get worse. It certainly could and that was a place she didn’t want to go. “So long as we don’t get caught again.”

He put the beer on the counter. “Are you worried? Would you rather leave?”

“No, I’m good.” She liked spending time with him and the potential for another close encounter in his bed was enough to make her stroll across hot coals. “You survived our shopping expedition. You must be so proud.”

“It was easy duty,” he told her. “I like hanging out with you and Bailey.”

She was sure he meant the words casually, but they still caused her to get all squishy inside. “Your sister is a lot of fun. I hope she loves her shoes.”

“Do you have any doubts?”

Dani smiled, remembering Bailey’s excitement. “Probably not. Those guys at the store were really great. I’m going to send a letter to their boss and tell her what they did.”

Something flashed in Alex’s eyes.

“What?” she asked. “Are you mad I had them be extra nice to her?”

“Why would I be mad about that?”

“I don’t know. What were you thinking? You looked weird.”

“How flattering.”

“You know what I mean.”

He shook his head. “It was something totally different. Something I should let go.”

She set the pizza on the counter and moved toward him. “Want to talk about it?”

He shrugged. “I’m still pissed about Mark getting those charges dropped. I have to deal with him-I just don’t know what to say. I’m not willing to leave the campaign. I owe him my loyalty. But what he did was wrong.”

“Even though it helped you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“In my book.”

She put her hands on his chest. “Maybe doing the wrong thing for the right reason is okay sometimes.”

“Do you really believe that?”

She sighed. “No, but it sounds good.” She stared into his dark blue eyes. “While we’re on a vaguely uncomfortable topic, I have a subject of my own.”

He covered her hands with his. “Which is?”

“Your mother. I kind of overheard her talking to someone earlier. They were talking about me, about us. She said all the right things, but she seemed…” Dani hesitated, then decided she wasn’t about to tell Alex his mother had been crying. “She was sad,” she said instead. “I’m hurting her, aren’t I?”

“She’s dealing with a lot. You’re one more thing. But you didn’t do anything wrong. You were just looking for your father. The rest of this is incidental.”

It felt like more than that to her, Dani thought. “I don’t want to make her life harder. I admire everything she does. I don’t want to be responsible for anything bad in her life.”

“You’re not.”

Dani didn’t agree with that. “But if she could have children of her own-birth children-don’t you think she would have? Aren’t I a reminder of what she couldn’t have?”

“No more than any of us.”

Which she didn’t believe. “I don’t know the answer,” she admitted. “Sometimes I think about just disappearing.”

He tugged her a little closer. “Running away won’t fix the problem.”

“I’d be less visible.”

“Is that really what you’re going to do?”

“No,” she admitted. “I don’t want to leave. I just hate that she’s in pain because of me. This whole family thing is complicated.”

“Especially our family.”

She laughed. “We are totally twisted. If someone tried to write a movie of the week about us, all the producers would say it was too unrealistic.”

“Some of it is real enough,” he said before bending down and kissing her.

She closed her eyes in anticipation of the gentle yet firm brush of his mouth against hers. The contact was as warm and welcoming as she remembered. She raised her arms so she could wrap them around his neck and pressed her body to his.

He was hard. Hard and confident and deliciously sexy. He was everything she’d ever wanted and exactly what she needed. A strong man with a sense of right and a need to take care of what was his. Did that include her? Because she could sure use a little being taken care of.

He teased her lower lip with his tongue and rational thoughts faded away. She gave herself up to simply feeling the long, slow strokes of his hands as he moved them up and down her back. She surrendered to the wicked marauding of his tongue as he slipped it inside her mouth, moving lazily to kiss him back.

When he reached for the buttons on her blouse, she stepped out of her shoes, then went to work on his shirt. They bumped into each other, laughed and kept on working. He moved to her skirt next. When it fell to the ground, he swore.

Dani glanced down at the thigh-high panty hose she’d worn that day. Normally she would have wrestled her way into regular panty hose, but on the off chance that she and Alex might do the wild thing, she’d gone for sexier lingerie.

The bikinis were second cousin to a thong and matched her lacy bra.

“You’re killing me,” he murmured as he pulled her close and cupped her rear. “Seriously. I’ll be dead soon.”

“No, you won’t. But I can keep the stockings on, if you’d like.”

He squeezed her curves, then bent down to touch the stockings on her legs. As he straightened, he dipped his tongue between her breasts, arousing her with damp heat.

“You’re a fantasy I didn’t even know I had,” he said before kissing her again.

She got lost in the passion stirring between them, but also couldn’t get his words out of her head. Was she his fantasy? She’d never really considered herself fantasy material. Still, a girl could dream.

He nudged her backward a few steps. She took them, then turned and led the way into his bedroom.

The space was as she remembered. Clean and masculine with oversize furniture and a fireplace big enough to live in. He hit the remote as they walked past. Flames jumped to life and provided soft, sexy illumination.

The bed was still huge. Dani stretched out on it, then patted the space next to her. Alex pulled a package of condoms out of his nightstand, moved next to her and began to kiss her.

He moved his tongue in a dance so erotic, she didn’t realize he had reached behind her until her bra fell away. Cool air caressed her breasts, making her shiver. He dipped his head and took her right nipple in his mouth. He sucked gently, then circled the tip, moving around and around until she felt herself get wet and swollen.

She clung to him, wanting him with a desperation that took her breath away. She wanted his weight on top of her, his erection between her legs, stretching her, taking her. She wanted to surrender to this man in ways she never had before. Giving herself, exposing herself. The need was so strong, it frightened her…but not enough to stop what she was doing.

She reached between them and tugged at his belt. After unfastening it, she eased down his zipper then drew his trousers down his hips.

He paused long enough to push them off. He’d lost his shoes on the trip into the bedroom and now removed his socks.

His arousal strained against his boxers. She reached for him, but before she could touch him, he grabbed her around her waist and flipped them so she was on top.

“You weren’t willing to tie me up last time,” he said with a smile. “How about being in charge?”

“I live to be in charge.”

“Good.”

She was kneeling, straddling his midsection. When she would have gone back to allow him to enter her, he urged her forward.

“All the way up,” he said.

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”

She did as he requested, slowly moving up his body. He shifted, sliding his shoulders between her legs, then running his hands up and down her stocking-clad thighs.

She was about to protest that she felt too uncovered this way when he told her to, “Hang on.”

She grabbed the only thing she could-the headboard-then nearly screamed as she felt his tongue between her legs.

He used his fingers to part her flesh so she was totally exposed to him. Then he moved against her, licking, sucking, but letting her set the rhythm with her hips.

She held on to the headboard for support and rode him, rising up when she needed less pressure and sinking down when she needed more. Blood rushed to her groin, engorging her. Every inch of her felt sensitized. Heat and need and pressure built faster than she’d ever experienced before. She was close in seconds, yet desperate to prolong the pressure and not come-even though coming was inevitable.

She moved faster as she got closer. He grabbed her hips and dug in his fingers as he helped her move, urged her on. She gasped, then cried out as her orgasm claimed her.

She stiffened and parted her legs even more, wanting him to touch her everywhere. He sucked her until raw nerves made her shudder, then he backed off, kissing her, licking her, drawing out every last ounce of her release.

She knelt there, leaning heavily on the headboard as she tried to catch her breath. Alex moved away. She heard the rustling of a plastic wrapper, then he was back, turning her to face him.

She shifted and settled herself over him. He filled her, stretching her, making already sensitive nerves sing with excitement.

Passion darkened his eyes and pulled at his features. A smile turned up the corners of his mouth. She braced herself on her slightly trembling arms and rocked back and forth. They both groaned.

She was still swollen from her release, yet as he moved in and out of her, she felt her muscles begin to tighten again. He reached up and began to stroke her breasts. When he brushed against her nipples, her entire body squeezed around him.

She rode him until they were both gasping and reaching, until he pushed in so deep, she couldn’t help coming again. As the first shudder claimed her, he stiffened and rose toward her. Their eyes locked as they lost themselves in their mutual release.

***

Dani hummed softly as she took the elevator to Walker’s office. She’d stayed at Alex’s the previous night and hadn’t seen a single reporter as she’d left. Maybe the reality of her personal life wasn’t so interesting anymore. Wouldn’t that be thrilling?

Even better had been the night” of lovemaking, broken by a few hours of sleep and cold pizza. She loved sleeping in his bed with his arms around her. She felt safe there. Being with Alex was something she could get used to but there were still thousands of complications.

She reached Walker’s office and half expected to see Cal and Reid there. But her brother was alone.

“Just us?” she asked as he stood and walked around his desk to hug her. “I was braced for another explosive family secret. Not that I think I could take another one. It might push-me over the edge and send me screaming into the night.”

“It’s barely two in the afternoon,” Gloria said as she entered the room. “You’d have to wait to scream and run.”

Dani felt the space-time continuum shift and fold. Her grandmother wore a suit Dani had seen before. Elegant, perfectly fitted and in a shade of gold that was both fashionable and flattering. Gloria looked like what she was-a powerful matriarch.

For a second Dani felt swept back a year, to when she’d been doing her damnedest to impress Gloria by making Burger Heaven the best it could be. She could almost feel the burning on her forehead from pounding it against a wall she couldn’t see or understand, but also couldn’t break through.

“Is it bad?” she asked before she could stop herself. “The reason for the meeting? Is it really bad?”

“It’s not bad at all,” Gloria said, pointing to the leather sofa in the comer “It’s good. Have a seat. Walker and I want to talk to you about something.”

“If you’re going to tell me I’m not my mother’s daughter, either, I’m not sure I can take it.”

Gloria smiled. “You can be very dramatic. I think you get that from me.” She looked at Walker. “Do you want to tell her or shall I?”

“It should come from you,” Walker said.

Dani felt as if she was going to throw up. Was someone dying? Was there a genetic disease that was going to eat her flesh? Was the sky falling?

“We want you to run Buchanan’s,” Gloria said. “The manager is leaving and we need someone brilliant in charge. We’ve all been talking about it and you’re the most logical choice. Not to mention the best one. You’ve always loved the restaurant, you’re good at what you do and you’re family. So, what do you think?”

Dani opened her mouth then closed it. She’d never expected anything like this. Buchanan’s?

“No one’s sick?” she asked.

“We’re all fine. Say yes.”

Say yes? Just like that?

While it was true Buchanan’s was her favorite of all the family restaurants, the offer was totally unexpected. “I just started working for Bernie,” she said, more to herself than them. “I love it there. I’m learning a lot. It wouldn’t be right to leave so quickly.”

“She’s a good negotiator,” Gloria said to Walker. “We haven’t even started talking money and already I’m going to have to increase my offer.”

“This isn’t about money,” Dani said, even as she wondered what the opening offer would be. How much did her grandmother think she was worth?

“Of course it’s about money,” Gloria said. “Get as much as you can. Walker’s no kitten to work for.”

Dani laughed. “Hey, I survived you.”

“Yes, you did. You were wonderful at Burger Heaven. I probably never told you, did I?”

Dani was humiliated to feel tears burning in her eyes. “No, you didn’t.”

“I’m sorry about that. I’m telling you now. You did an incredible job and I was always proud of you. While Bella Roma is a perfectly fine restaurant, it’s not enough for you. Besides, Buchanan’s is family. We need you, Dani.”

Dani looked at her brother. “You’re being very quiet.”

“She’s doing a-good job of explaining my position. I figured if I said it you wouldn’t believe me. But coming from Gloria, it has to be true.”

“Interesting point,” Dani murmured.

“You’re the only one on the list,” he continued. “You’re the one we want.”

She was seriously tempted, but there was a lot to think about.

“Give me a few days,” she said as she stood. “I’ll get back to you by Friday.”

“We should talk money,” Gloria insisted.

Dani grinned. “If I decide to take the job, we will. Don’t worry. I’m going to make you pay for the best.”

Gloria smiled. “That’s my girl.”

***

Dani figured her day couldn’t get much better than it was. Last night had been spectacular, the morning relaxing and now she had a shiny, new job offer.

Running Buchanan’s was tempting. Honestly, the only thing holding her back was the fact that she’d only worked for Bernie a few weeks and she hated to hire and run. Of course, if she gave him a lot of notice, that would help.

She laughed out loud as she realized she’d already made up her mind-she wanted the job at Buchanan’s. In some ways it would be like coming full circle.

She walked toward Bella Roma and didn’t notice the woman lurking by the front door until she nearly ran into her. Dani hastily backed up, then stared.

“Fiona? What are you doing here?”

The beautiful redhead drew Dani to a bench by the front door. “We have to talk.”

Dani didn’t like the sound of that. “Actually, we don’t. I need to go. I’m due inside in about thirty seconds.”

“What I have to say won’t take much longer.” Fiona clutched her small purse to her midsection. “It’s about Alex. Based on what I read in the paper I’m guessing he hasn’t been honest with either of us.”

Dani instinctively tensed, then told herself not to be crazy. Fiona was trying to make trouble for her own reasons, but there was no way she was involved with Alex. She couldn’t be. He wasn’t the kind of guy to play someone. Plus, he would never forgive Fiona for cheating on him.

“He’s been honest with me,” Dani said flatly.

“Oh, really. So he told you he’s still seeing me? That I was over there two nights ago, and the previous week and so on?”

Dani took a breath. She would stay calm. Fiona was bluffing. “That’s bullshit.”

Fiona tilted her head. “Don’t you love the fireplace in the bedroom? How it turns on with a flick of a remote? So romantic. Have you used the jetted tub in the bathroom yet? I have.”

Cold thickened Dani’s blood until it nearly felt frozen in her veins. “You’re lying.”

Fiona’s expression turned pitying. “Actually, I’m trying to save you while there’s still time. My problem is I can’t help loving him, no matter how much of a bastard he is. Maybe there’s still time for you to save yourself. I sure hope so.” She reached in her purse, then passed over a digital photo. “I’m about twelve weeks along. It’s sort of hard to tell what’s what, but everything is progressing nicely.”

Dani stared at the picture. It was a blob, but the kind of blob she recognized from Penny’s pregnancy. “You’re having a baby,” she breathed.

“With Alex.” Fiona stood and smoothed the front of her shirt. There was a definite bump. “We’re reconciling. I know I’ll have to live with the other women, but that’s the fate of the Canfield wives. To love their men, no matter what. Look at what Katherine has gone through for Mark.”

A dig at Dani’s mother. Compared to Fiona being pregnant with Alex’s child, it was a poor follow-up. She handed over the picture and stood.

“I have to get to work,” she said numbly, barely able to form the words. She couldn’t think, couldn’t focus. None of this was real, she told herself. It couldn’t be.

Of course she hadn’t thought it was real, either, with Hugh or Ryan.

She’d thought Alex was different-that he wasn’t like the other men in her life. She’d trusted him, given her heart to him. But she’d been wrong and he’d been nothing but a lying, cheating, weasel bastard.

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