CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Alex walked into his father’s office at campaign headquarters. He knew Mark was in a meeting and that Katherine had come in for a photo shoot. She stood in front of the wall map of the country.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked.

She turned and smiled at him. “Of course. I’m stuck standing until the photographer is ready. I can’t muss or wrinkle. I can barely make an expression at all, so don’t be funny or all this makeup will crack.”

He grinned. “Makes me want to ruffle your hair.”

“Naturally. Why is it that the small boy always lives inside the man?”

“One of my gender’s many charms.”

“Yes, it is.” She tilted her head. “What’s going on? What do you want to talk about?”

His humor faded. He closed the door for privacy and moved toward her. “What would you say if I told you I wanted to leave the campaign?”

Her blue eyes widened. “Alex, no.” She reached out and put her hand on his arm. “Seriously? You hate it that much?”

“Yeah. This isn’t me or what I want. I’m not a political animal. But I said I’d help and he’s my father.”

She nodded. “Right. Loyalty to family. Doing the right thing.” She dropped her hand. “I’m the wrong person to ask about this.”

“Because you’re too close to what’s going on?”

“That, and…” She drew in a breath. “I know about doing what’s expected. Sometimes when we go the other way we feel free and sometimes we just feel like crap. Do you know which it’s going to be for you?”

“I’m not sure it matters,” he told her, “I never thought I’d get caught in the middle of something like this. I know where my loyalties lie and I still can’t make myself want to stay.”

“This campaign is a complication in all our lives,” she said. “Especially now.”

He looked at her. “You mean because of Dani?”

“She keeps things interesting. Not that it’s her fault. It’s just uncomfortable timing.”

“She’s hurt you, hasn’t she?”

Katherine turned back to the map and touched the center of Texas. “Not really. She isn’t responsible for what people say or how I react to it.”

“She’ll be less of an issue now. We’re not seeing each other.”

His mother tensed slightly. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. That’s the thing of it. I really thought she was someone I could care about. After Fiona I didn’t want to get involved again. I didn’t want to trust anyone like that. But Dani was different.”

More than different. There’d been something about her. He’d wanted to spend every moment with her. He wanted to know everything about her. He could see a future with her.

“And now?” his mother asked.

“She got upset about the poll numbers, which I get, but then she accused me of still seeing Fiona.” The accusation burned. Dani knew what he thought of his ex-wife’s betrayal. She knew loyalty was everything to him and yet she’d still claimed to believe he was screwing around. With Fiona of all people. What the hell was up with that?

Katherine turned back to him. “Are you seeing her?”

“No,” he said flatly. “I would never cheat, and I’ll never go back to Fiona. I just don’t get it. Why her? Why would Dani think I was seeing her?”

Katherine knew exactly why. Because that’s what Fiona had told her.

Her stomach twisted and she fought the need to vomit. How could she have lied to Dani like that? How could she have gotten in between Dani and Alex? She loved her son and if Dani made him happy…

But the relationship was already over, she reminded herself. She hadn’t really destroyed anything.

A feeble attempt to pass the blame, to not accept responsibility.

She told herself that the right thing to do was to confess her part in all this and ask for forgiveness. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Right now her world was already askew. Seeing disappointment in Alex’s eyes, knowing she’d lowered herself to lying because of her own hurt feelings, was more than she could bear.

“She thinks Fiona’s pregnant,” he said, his voice thick with disbelief. “What kind of crap is that?”

“Maybe she is.”

He looked at her, then swore. “Pregnant? Fiona? She never wanted kids.”

Katherine blinked in surprise. “What are you talking about? She always said she wanted a family.”

“It was just talk,” Alex told her. “I bought into it, too. But when we were married, every time I pressed her to get started on our family she had a reason we should wait. She didn’t want children. So if she’s pregnant now, it’s got to be an accident.”

“Or a way to make trouble,” Katherine murmured, wondering how far her former daughter-in-law would go to get Alex back. Would she get pregnant by another man and try to pass that child off as Alex’s?

“You really haven’t slept with her recently?” she asked, then waved her hand. “Forget I’m your mother. I’m serious, Alex. Have you been seeing her at all?”

He met her gaze. “No. The day I moved out of the house was the day I walked in on her with someone else. I didn’t want you to know that- you’re still friends with her. But that’s what finally ended our marriage.”

Her heart tightened with pain. She ached for her child and what he’d gone through. Tears filled her eyes.

“Oh, Alex.”

She walked over and hugged him.

“You’ll muss,” he told her.

“Screw that.”

He chuckled. “You’re getting feisty. It’s charming.”

“Oh, please. Don’t treat me like I’m old and infirm. I’ll get there soon enough.”

“You’ll never be that.”

She stepped back and stared into his handsome face. How she loved this man. She’d loved the boy and every day her feelings had grown. She couldn’t have loved him more if she’d given birth to him herself.

That was her absolute truth, she reminded herself. That she loved her children completely. No one could take away the specialness of their bond-not without her letting them.

“I have to tell you something,” she said as the I tears once again burned. “I did something awful.”

He smiled at his mother. “Not you.”

“I’m serious. And I’m sorry. What I’m about to tell you could damage our relationship. I can’t tell you how much I regret that. I was hurt and angry and I wanted to hurt someone. I wanted to hurt Dani. That was deeply wrong of me. I know that. I’m ashamed of myself. I don’t expect you to forgive me right away, but I hope that in time you won’t hate me.”

Alex stared back at her. She knew he’d probably never seen her like this. His face reflected his unease.

“Mom, it’s okay,” he told her. “Whatever it is, we’ll fix it.”

“I can’t fix this, but maybe you can.” She swallowed. “Dani came to see me a couple of days ago. We went over the speech, or we tried to. She was upset about a lot of things, but mostly you. She told me Fiona had come to her and told her were still seeing each other. Fiona had information that seemed to only come from her having been in your house.”

Alex swore. “She’s never been there. I haven’t had her over.”

“I know that, but there are other ways. She could have found out you had put in an offer the house and then gone to see it herself. Who knows? The point is she convinced Dani she was pregnant and that the child was yours.”

Katherine folded her arms across her chest. “I’m sorry, Alex. I’m so sorry. Feeble, feeble words. I’ve always prided myself on being a good person. It’s a joke. All of it. I’m living a lie.”

“You’re not.” He grabbed her shoulders. “You’re the best person I know.”

“I’m not. Oh, God. I’m so scared to tell you.”

She looked at him. Tears darkened her eyes. Her pain and regret was a tangible beast in the room.

“There’s nothing you can say to make me turn away from you,” he told her, meaning every word.

“You don’t know that. Dani wanted to know if I thought it was possible you and Fiona were still seeing each other. I told her it was.”

He stepped back. Of all the Canfields, Dani most trusted Katherine. Hearing that from her would make it all the more real.

“I know,” Katherine said, tears spilling down her cheeks. “I know it was horrible and wrong and I have no excuse or explanation. I was hurt and I lashed out. I…” She turned away. “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t think he could have been more shocked if she’d told him she’d murdered someone. Katherine didn’t act out of anger or impulse. She wasn’t deliberately cruel. He would never have guessed her capable of hurting Dani… or him.

He didn’t know what to think or say. While a part of him knew he had to find Dani and talk to her, explain the complexities that had conspired against them, the rest of him wrestled with the uncomfortable truth that his mother was not the saint he’d always believed.

“Alex?” Her voice was a whimper. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he told her, knowing being sorry wasn’t going to fix anything.

***

“This was a hard decision for me to make,” Dani said earnestly, wondering if knowing she felt guilty would help. “You’ve been so great and I’ve loved working here. I really want to stay until you find someone else. I’m not leaving you short-staffed.”

Bernie shook his head. “You’re worrying too much. We’ll be fine. I have family I can guilt into working here temporarily.” He grinned. “I learned from the best.”

“I adore your mother,” she murmured, knowing she would miss hearing Mama Giuseppe’s constant comments on everything from the weather to the state of the cannelloni.

“She adores you. I’ll bet you won’t miss hearing about how perfect I am.”

Dani sighed. “If only you were a few years younger.”

He chuckled. “Or you were older.” He put out his hand. “Go with God, Dani. You’re taking a job with family. That’s always the right decision. Give me a couple of weeks to start looking, but no longer. You need to start on the next chapter of your life.”

“You’re being a lot nicer than I deserve.”

He shrugged. “I’m a nice guy.”

He was. Perfectly nice. Despite the age difference, she should have fallen for him instead of Alex. Bernie wouldn’t cheat and lie and break her heart.

She forced her mind away from thoughts of Alex because thinking about him was too painful.

She shook hands with Bernie, then rose. “You’re a good man. Thank you for everything.”

He released her hand and pointed to the door. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”

She waved and left.

She would miss Bella Roma, but working at Buchanan’s felt right. She was grateful she’d made up her mind before finding out the truth about Alex. She didn’t have to worry that her decision was too much like giving up and running home.

A quick glance at her watch told her she had to leave right away or she would be late picking up Bailey for their shopping trip. She’d nearly made it to the back door when one of the wait-staff yelled for her.

“Phone call. A guy. Alex somebody?”

It was the first time she’d heard from him in four days. She hated that her first reaction was pleasure.

How bad did it have to get before she was willing to see him for the snake he was?

“Tell him I’ve already left,” she said.

“Will do.”

Dani grabbed her cell phone and turned it off. There was nothing Alex could say to her that she wanted to hear.

***

An hour and a half later, she was in an oversized dressing room with Bailey and laughing so hard she was afraid she was going to pee her pants.

“Stop!” she insisted, as Bailey danced like a chicken in a seriously ugly, yellow tulle gown. “Stop, I swear, I’m too old. I’ll collapse or something.”

“But it’s so fluffy,” Bailey said, actually doing a fair imitation of the horrible salesclerk “helping” them. “And the yellow is so perfect for my hair.”

Dani blinked away tears and sank onto the floor. “I give,” she said. “This place is awful. We’ll go to another store where they have pretty dresses.”

“But I want to be a chicken,” Bailey insisted, her eyes twinkling with humor.

“Sure you do. Oh, man, what was that woman thinking?”

She’d brought in four dresses, each worse than the one before. One had been marked down three times and Dani wasn’t surprised. Who would buy it?

They’d been to other stores in the mall and nothing like this had happened. Was the salesclerk reacting to the fact that Bailey had Down’s syndrome? Dani didn’t want to think so, but she had a bad feeling that might be the problem.

She reminded herself that people like that were stupid and had their own problems. Dani wasn’t going to sweat it. She would simply get Bailey out of here and they would go somewhere else.

Once Bailey was dressed and the awful gown was on the hanger, Dani led her out of the store.

“So, I’m thinking we need some fuel to help with our search,” Dani said. “How about a snack?”

“Pretzels?” Bailey asked hopefully.

“Pretzels it is.”

They went to the Auntie Anne’s stand and each got a pretzel with a drink, then sat on a bench and ate. Dani listened to Bailey talk about her school.

“I like reading better than math,” Bailey told her. “Sometimes Alex comes over and helps me with my math. You know I’m in special classes, but I’m doing really well.”

“I’ll bet you are. You study hard.”

“I do.” Bailey smiled and tucked a long, red curl behind her ear. “I’m glad you’re my sister. Mom explained about how we’re sisters now.”

“I’m glad, too,” Dani said. “I have three brothers, which means they’re part of your family, too, right? Or are they. I can’t keep it straight.”

“I can’t, either.”

Bailey snuggled close and leaned her head on Dani’s shoulder. “You’re nice. Fiona was never nice.” She looked at Dani and covered her mouth. “I shouldn’t say that.”

“It’s okay. I won’t tell anyone you did.”

“Good.” Bailey rested her head on her shoulder again. “She said mean stuff to me. Not when Alex was around. Sometimes she scared me. But I didn’t want to say anything.”

What a bitch, Dani thought, furious with the other woman. What on earth could Alex have seen in her? To think he knew she cheated on him and he went back to her.

Dani’s stomach twisted at the thought. She wanted to tell herself to give him the benefit of the doubt-that there was a perfectly good explanation-but she couldn’t. Not when Katherine had confirmed her worst fears. Once again her life was a nightmare.

Well, not all of it, she thought as she stroked Bailey’s head. Having a new sister was nice. Today was nice. That was how she was going to get through the pain-one moment at a time.

They finished their pretzels and went into another store. Bailey found a pretty pale green dress that fit her perfectly. She turned back and forth in front of the mirror.

“I love it.”

“You look like a princess”

“Really?” Bailey beamed.

“Uh-huh.”

Dani studied her. The dress was perfect- youthful without being childlike. The neckline was conservative, the bodice fitted, the skirt all floaty, and it twirled when Bailey spun.

“It’s a perfect party dress,” Dani said. “Are you wearing your hair up?”

“I think so. Mom said she knew how to pin it up and everything.”

They paid for the dress, bought a pair of matching shoes and made their way back to the car. It was later than Dani expected, and already dark. She held the packages in one hand and Bailey with the other as she led the way to her car.

Suddenly three teenage boys stepped right in front of her.

“Well, what have we got here?” one of the boys asked. He was the tallest of the three, dressed in jeans, an oversize T-shirt with an open flannel shirt on top. He stared at Dani. “I know you.”

“You don’t,” she said and started to move around them.

Only they stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

She stiffened, not sure what to do next. What did they want? They looked like regular suburban kids. Were they going to steal her purse? Hijack the car?

The kid on the left frowned. “You’re right. I’ve seen her picture.”

“She’s the chick in the paper. The one sleeping with her brother.” The guy on the left snickered. “You know. The daughter of that guy running for president.”

“Senator Canfield” Bailey said. “He’s my dad. Now leave us alone.”

The boys hooted. “Look, J.P., the retard has balls. You got balls, honey? Can you understand me?”

Concern for Bailey overwhelmed Dani’s fear. She started moving toward the car.

“I’m not retarded,” Bailey said clearly, her head held high. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“You look like there’s something wrong with you.” The guy on the left grabbed Dani’s arm. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?”

She jerked free. “To my car.”

“I don’t think so. We’re not done here.”

“Leave her alone,” Bailey said fiercely. “We’re not afraid of you.”

Dani wanted to disagree. She was plenty afraid. Now that the boys were closer, she saw their eyes were dilated. Great-they were high on something. So she wasn’t dealing with rational attackers. Not that any attacker was good.

She pushed the panic button on her key fob. Nothing happened. She must be too far from her car. If she could just get them closer, the loud noise might scare the kids away.

She pushed forward a few steps. The boys continued to crowd around. J.P. pushed between her and Bailey.

“People like you shouldn’t be allowed to live,” he said, his face inches from Bailey’s. “They should drown you at birth, like deformed kittens.”

“You’re nothing but a butthead,” Bailey yelled and pushed him.

Dani turned to get between them, but the other two teens grabbed her arms. She twisted and squirmed but couldn’t break free.

J.P. pushed back, his hands coming down on Bailey’s chest.

“Whoa, lookee here. The retard’s got some curves on her.” He reached for his belt. “Let’s have a little fun with her. I’ll go first.” He smiled at Bailey. “I’ll bet you’re still a virgin, aren’t you? You’re going to like what I do to you.”

Dani lost it. In that moment, it was as if she were possessed by a rage and need to protect she’d never experienced before.

“Get the fuck away from her,” she screamed.

She pulled free of her captors and started swinging her packages as if they were weapons. She shrieked as she cracked one of the kids in the head with the shoe box and kicked out at the second. J.P. swung toward her. His arm came up and before she could get out of the way, his right fist crashed into her face.

Pain exploded. The impact of the blow sent her spinning into a support pole where she hit her head hard. There was a bright light, a blurring of sound, then what looked like a car racing toward them.

“Help,” Dani said weakly as she collapsed to the cement floor. “We need…”

The world went black.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Dani woke up to find herself propped up against a pole in the parking garage. She knew exactly where she was and what had happened.

“Bailey,” she yelled.

The strange man holding a flashlight in front of her eyes smiled at her. “It’s okay,” he said. “Bailey’s good. Nothing happened to her. You’re the one who got hit. You’re gonna have a black eye.”

“Great,” Dani said, still looking for the teenager. Her face hurt, as did her head, but none of that mattered.

There were a dozen or so people milling around. Several EMT workers, police officers and a few shoppers being kept at a distance. Dani continued to search the crowd until she saw Katherine and a young woman she didn’t recognize holding Bailey.

“She looks okay,” Dani breathed in relief.

“She’s fine. Tough. Her mom said she was standing over you like a lioness, prepared to take on all those kids.”

“The boys got away, didn’t they?” Dani asked, wanting them punished for what they’d tried to do to Bailey.

“They’ll be caught. We have good descriptions. Bailey was paying attention.”

Katherine looked up and caught Dani’s gaze. She said something to Bailey and the other woman, then hurried over.

“How is she?” she asked. “She hit her head.”

“Yes, ma’am. She looks good. We’re going to transport her to the hospital to run a few tests, probably keep her overnight. But she’s doing well right now. You want to sit with her a minute?”

“Yes. Of course.”

Despite her pale wool slacks, Katherine sank onto the cement and took one of Dani’s hands in hers.

“My God,” she breathed, as tears filled her eyes. “How can I ever thank you?”

Dani sniffed. “Don’t thank me. It’s all my fault. Those damn boys recognized me from the paper. They started taunting me, then they noticed Bailey. They went after her. If they’d hurt her…”

Katherine reached out and wiped away tears Dani hadn’t even felt fall. “If they’d hurt her, there would be no place on this earth for them to hide. Alex would hunt them down and kill them, then I’d dig up their bodies and do it all over again.”

She spoke so fiercely that Dani believed every word.

“It’s not your fault,” Katherine continued. “Please don’t think that.”

“But they-“

“Were assholes” She smiled slightly. “Don’t let the press know I can talk like that, but I can, if necessary. Little bastards.”

“She was so calm,” Dani said. “I was terrified, but Bailey stood up to them. You would have been so proud of her.”

“I am, and of you. You defended her.”

Dani touched her swollen cheek. “I didn’t do a very good job.”

“You were amazing.” Katherine squeezed her hand. “I can never thank you enough.”

“Don’t thank me. I swear, I feel so horrible about what happened. I was so scared for her.”

“You care about her.”

Dani nodded, then wished she hadn’t as her head began to ache. “She’s my sister.”

More tears filled Katherine’s eyes. “I have been so horrible. I didn’t…” She swallowed. “There’s no excuse for what I did.”

Dani frowned. “I just hit my head and blacked out, which probably explains why I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Did you see a car, just before you hit your head?”

She caught herself before she nodded again and said, “Yes.” *

“It was me. Julie and I had plans for this afternoon. I made her come to the mall so I could spy on you.”

“What?” Dani knew she had brain damage for sure. Katherine couldn’t have just said “spy.”

“I was so hurt and bitter and stupid. I wanted to be the one to take her dress shopping.” She covered her eyes with her free hand. “I’m so ashamed. I love her so much and I wanted that memory. In that moment, I saw you as the personification of everything wrong in my life. I lashed out.”

“You followed us?” Dani said, not sure she was keeping up. “I would never hurt her.”

“I know. I know. I’m so sorry. I was stupid and jealous and ridiculous. I just hurt. It was never about you-not really. I should have said something. I should have asked to come along.” Katherine lowered her hand. “I’m sorry.”

Dani stared at her. “Katherine, I would have loved to have you along. I admire you so much. There have been times…” She drew in a breath. “I’ve often wished you were my parent, not Mark.”

New tears fell down Katherine’s face. “Oh, don’t. I’m not who you think at all.”

“You saved us. I saw the car speeding toward us. You made those guys run away.”

“I saw you defending my child with your life,” Katherine said. “I can never repay you for that. Especially because of what I did before.” She paused and looked away for a few seconds. “When you asked me about Fiona and Alex… If it was possible for them to still be together? I lied. I was hurt and I wanted to lash out, so I did. They’re not together, Dani. They haven’t been since he left her.”

Dani pulled her hand free and pushed herself into a more upright position. She rubbed the side of her head, then winced when she touched the swelling in her face.

Facts and information swirled inside her fuzzy brain. They danced and came together like mismatched puzzle pieces. Nothing made sense except for the fact that once again, she’d hurt Katherine. And…

Wait a minute? Alex wasn’t with Fiona? That was too much for her to take in. She went for the easier topic.

“I’m sorry I made things worse for you,” Dani whispered. “I keep doing that.”

Katherine made a sound that was part laugh, part sob. “Is that all you got from my confession? I was horrible. A disgusting human being. I lied.”

“You reacted. I understand that.”

“Oh, God. You’re going to be sweet and understanding. Can’t you please be angry with me? You could slap me. We could roll in a catfight like they did in those 1980s soaps.”

“My head hurts too much.”

Katherine leaned in and hugged her. “Dani, please forgive me.”

“I do.”

“It can’t be that easy.”

“Maybe it is.”

“But I lied about Alex.”

“I don’t understand what happened with him,” she admitted. “Fiona was so convincing and then when I accused him, he barely defended himself. It was almost like it was all true.”

“Or he was shocked you’d think that and disappointed you wouldn’t trust him. Alex is a proud man, Dani. Honor is everything to him. He’s worth fighting for.”

“He could have told me the truth,” she said, wishing her head would stop hurting.

“Didn’t he?”

“Maybe.” She couldn’t seem to remember anymore.

“I want to offer to help, but I think I’ve gotten involved a little too much lately.” She touched Dani’s arm.

Alex wasn’t with Fiona. Was that possible? So why hadn’t he tried to convince her? Why had he just walked away? Okay, so he hadn’t cheated, but obviously he wasn’t willing to fight for what they had. Better that it was over now.

Only she didn’t feel better. She felt a whole lot worse.

“I’ve never been in an ambulance before,” Bailey said from her place next to Dani. “I’m glad they didn’t put on the siren. It would be really loud.”

Dani was glad, too. The noise would probably finish her off.

“Are you okay?” Bailey asked. “You’re real pale and your eye is all swollen. I can’t believe you were in a fight.”

“Me, either. My brothers are never going to stop teasing me about it.”

“They’ll be glad you’re okay. I’m glad, too.”

Dani reached out and grabbed Bailey’s hand. “You were so brave. The EMT guy told me how you stood over me and kept those boys away.”

“I wasn’t going to let them hurt either of us.”

Dani smiled at her. “I’m proud to have you as my sister.”

Bailey beamed, then rested her head on Dani’s chest. “Me, too. I love you, Dani.”

Dani’s throat tightened. “I love you, too.” She stroked Bailey’s hair. “You’re not going to let this ruin anything, are you? I mean about the dress and the dance.”

Bailey straightened. “I’m still going to the dance. I have a pretty dress and Mom is going to put my hair up. She said I could borrow some earrings, too. Do you think I’ll be as pretty as her?”

Dani thought about Katherine’s confession at feeling left out of her daughter’s life. She wished the other woman were here to hear what Bailey was saying.

“I think you should ask her to make you as pretty as her. I think she’d like that.”

Bailey nodded. “Mom’s the best.”

“I agree.”

***

“There are too many visitors,” the nurse said sternly. “There is a limit to the number of people in a room at any one time.”

Reid walked over to the fifty-something woman and smiled. “But she’s our family. We’ll be real quiet and if the fire marshal shows up, we’ll hide under the bed. How’s that?”

Dani watched Reid Buchanan work his magic. The nurse glared at him for about two more seconds, then relaxed.

“All right, but you do have to be quiet. If my boss finds out…”

“Never,” Reid promised.

“Amazing,” Dani breathed.

“I agree” Lori said as she casually checked Dani’s pulse. “He’s the master. I just stand back and watch.” Lori spoke with the confidence of a woman who was well loved. She released Dani’s wrist. “You’ll live.”

“Was there a doubt?”

“No, but I wanted to be sure for myself.”

Lori moved next to Reid-a bit of a trick in the crowded hospital room. The whole family was there, including Gloria, along with Katherine and several of her children. Only Mark, Alex and the three youngest Canfields were missing.

“Hi, I’m Julie.”

Dani glanced at the beautiful, petite young woman who had moved next to the bed. She had long, wavy dark hair and skin the color of coffee.

Dani smiled. “Second oldest, you’re in college. Do I have that right?”

“You do. I’m sorry we haven’t met before. I’ve been hearing good things about you. It was fun reading about my brother’s sex life in the newspaper. I’m going to be able to hold that over him for the rest of his life.”

Dani winced. “I like your attitude. I need a little of that myself. I still want to crawl under a rock when I think about it.”

“You can’t let the bastards get you down. I don’t.” Julie pointed at Gloria. “Is that your grandmother?”

“Yes.”

“She’s a tough old bird. I’ve read about her. She built an empire from nothing. I’m doing a paper on powerful women for one of my classes. You think she’d let me interview her?”

“I think she’d be flattered.”

“Cool. Nice to meet you. I hope you feel better.”

Julie made her way to where Gloria was talking with Katherine.

Dani rested her head on her pillow. Walker came over and kissed her forehead.

“I talked to one of the cops. They’ve caught all three kids. They’ll be charged. One of the advantages of having a senator in the family.”

“Good thing, otherwise you’d have to kill them.”

He stared at her. “I wouldn’t have killed them.”

She knew her brother. “You would have gotten damn close.”

“You’re my sister.”

She was getting a lot of that lately. A lot of connection, a lot of caring. Katherine was hovering, probably in an attempt to make up for lying about Fiona. When they were next alone Dani was going to tell her she meant what she said-she understood and forgave. She was more upset with Alex’s reaction. Why hadn’t he pushed back harder? Why had he let her go so easily?

***

Three hours later she still didn’t have the answers to her questions, but at least she could wonder in silence. The nurses had finally shoved everyone out so Dani could rest. She’d just closed her eyes, prepared to finally go to sleep, when she heard someone walk into the room.

She opened her eyes and saw Alex standing by her bed.

The only light came from the hallway, so his face was in shadow. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking but she was glad he was here. More than glad. It had to mean something, right? He hadn’t just stayed away.

She was spineless where he was concerned, she thought. Spineless and weak and desperately in love.

“That’s a hell of a black eye,” he said as he lightly touched her cheekbone.

“You should see the other guy.”

He didn’t smile. Instead he bent down and gathered her in his arms. He was strong and warm and the second he embraced her she felt totally safe.

“God damn sonofabitch,” he said his voice muffled by her shoulder.

She clung to him. “I’m taking that as a statement against those guys and not a comment on my lack of makeup.”

He released her, then dragged a chair over to her bed. When he’d sat down, he took both her hands in his.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” he told her. “I want to ask if you’re okay. Stupid question. How could you be?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “A little shaken, but okay. Assuming I don’t fall into a coma or have a seizure or whatever else they expect when they keep you overnight for observation, I’m out of here in the morning.” She pulled one hand free and touched her face. “I’ll have a great story.”

“You had to be scared.”

“More than I’ve ever been in my life. But mostly for Bailey. I was terrified they were really going to rape her.”

“You knocked ’em around. There are bruises.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“I’ve been off intimidating them and their parents. Those teens have a history of making trouble. Nothing this bad, but they’ve always gotten off with light sentences. Not this time.”

“Is Bailey okay?”

He smiled. “She’s being treated like the heroine she is. She says she wasn’t that scared. That she knew you’d take care of her. Then when they hurt you, she wanted payback.” He squeezed her fingers. “She even confessed that she used bad language, but she was given a free pass this one time.”

Dani chuckled. “I believe the phrase was ‘butthead.’ She’s such a sweetheart. I can’t believe how cruel those kids were to her. The things they said.”

“There’s no law against being stupid.”

“Speaking of which,” she said, staring at the blanket on her lap. “I believe I’m falling into that category.” She forced herself to look at him. “I guess Fiona sucked me in.”

He stared into her eyes. “I haven’t slept with her. I’m not interested in her. I won’t go so far as to say I hate her because that implies a level of energy I don’t have where she’s concerned. She’s nothing to me, Dani. I want you to know that.”

“I do. Really. I should have thought it through. I should have asked instead of yelling.”

“No. I’m to blame for that. Your accusation caught me off guard. My pride got in the way. I thought you should have believed in me. Later I realized that given your past and how short a time we’ve known each other, believing what looked like real proof made sense.”

“Yeah?” Did this mean he wasn’t going to let her get away?

“Yeah.” He leaned in and kissed her.

“It’s just she knew stuff about the house. Like the fireplace being on a remote.”

“She’d seen the place. She was pissed I’d left her so when she found out I was interested in that house, she bid against me. The irony is that because of the divorce settlement, she was bidding against me with my own money.”

Dani sighed. “I never thought of her seeing it any way but with you. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I should have handled things differently. The pregnancy thing threw me. I was trying to figure out who she could have been seeing. After the fact I thought maybe you would have seen that distraction as guilt or surprise.”

“Kind of.”

He kissed her again. His mouth was warm and promising. She wanted to keep kissing him, but considering their location and how much her head hurt, it was probably not a good idea.

“I don’t want her,” he said. “I want you.”

“Good answer.”

“Are we okay?”

She nodded, then touched her head. “I have to stop doing that.”

“What about the poll numbers?” he asked. “They were bothering you before.”

“I don’t know. You’re the expert at this-not me. Do we ignore them and hope they go away?”

“You can’t run your life based on the campaign.”

Which sounded great, she thought. But was it reality? Mark was her father. What did she owe him?

“I don’t want to ruin anything,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be the reason he doesn’t become president.”

“You’d walk away from me?” Alex asked.

She studied him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. “Are you saying you wouldn’t? That if Mark asked you not to see me, you’d tell him to go to hell?” She placed her fingers on his mouth. “Be honest. He’s your father. You value loyalty above everything else. This is his dream. Do either of us have the right to destroy that?”

“There will be other scandals.”

But right now she was the scandal du jour.

“We don’t have to deal with this tonight,” Alex told her. “Get some rest. I’ll be by to take you home in the morning.”

“I look forward to it.”

He kissed her and left.

She shifted on the bed, trying to get comfortable. Her head still pounded and that would make it difficult to sleep, although she was plenty tired. Maybe she should-

Someone knocked on her door. She looked up and saw Mark standing in the shadows.

“You’re still awake,” he said.

“I am.”

“Good. Good.” He walked into the room and smiled down at her. “How are you feeling? That’s quite a black eye.”

“I know. I looked in the mirror earlier and frightened myself.”

“You’ll heal.”

He was alone for once. No entourage, no family or staff. Just the man. He seemed less grand by himself, she thought. Still handsome and very much a stranger. Would he always be? Was that just who he was? Someone she couldn’t get close to?

He settled into the chair Alex had just left.

“Do you need anything?” he asked. “They’re treating you well here?”

“They’re great and I’m doing fine. I’ll go home in the morning.”

“Good. Excellent.” He patted her arm. “You made the news. You and Bailey are heroes. That’s what’s important. We’re expecting this to play favorably with the voters. Show them my family has character. The numbers will be back up, especially now that we can leak that you and Alex aren’t dating anymore. Interesting about you and Alex. Not a pair I would have put together. But it’s over now. All’s well.”

All was not well. She and Alex were very much a couple. At least they were trying to be. The road of their relationship was rocky, to say the least.

She looked at the man who was her father. She knew in her heart he wasn’t the fantasy she’d hoped for. But he was a good man who had plans. Big plans. He wanted to be president. She’d only ever wanted to run Buchanan’s. Who was she to stand in the way of his future?

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Alex showed up at his parents’ house early in the morning. Katherine was still in her robe, making coffee in the kitchen, when he walked in. She looked up and froze. Her mouth twisted, her eyes widened, but she didn’t speak.

He’d been more angry with her than he’d ever been in his life. He’d known that not talking to her was punishment because she hated to be disconnected from her children in any way. He’d wanted her to suffer.

But then he’d remembered who she was. That she’d found him, a half-wild boy who had screamed most of the night as he relived the nightmare of his birth mother’s murder. He remembered how she’d patiently taught him how to read, how to add and subtract, how to take a shower, to function in normal society. She’d been the one to assume he would catch up in school and go to college. He still remembered the amazement of overhearing her talking with one of her friends.

“Alex is brilliant. I can already tell. He’s going to do something special with his life. I wonder which college he’ll go to.”

He’d been ten at the time, still struggling to fit in. Her casual words had inspired him. She’d worked a miracle in him. He owed her everything.

But even if he didn’t, he would still have come to see her this morning-because he loved her. He would always love her. Everyone was allowed to screw up-it made her human.

He held open his arms.

She rushed into them and he pulled her close. She was so small, he thought absently. He always saw her as such a powerful woman, but she was almost frail. On the outside-on the inside, she was a powerhouse.

“I’m sorry,” she began.

“No,” he told her. “You’ve apologized. I didn’t come here to get you to say it again. I came to say I appreciate that you regret your actions and that we’re okay.”

She raised her head and looked at him. “Oh, Alex, I love you so much.”

“I love you, too.”

“I can’t believe you’ve forgiven me.”

“I’m an amazing guy. You’re lucky to have me in your life.”

She smiled, then started to laugh. “I guess I am.” She stepped back. “I was making coffee. Want some?”

“Sure.” He settled on one of the stools. “I need to talk to you about a couple of things.”

“I didn’t think you were here for my cooking.”

“You make a mean cinnamon roll.”

“If only. I do a fabulous job opening the package and putting the prepared rolls onto a pan. Later, I’m almost artistic with the little container of icing.”

“Still, I like them.”

“That’s why I make them.”

She would always go out of her way to do something special for each of her children. She was honest to a fault, never searching for the spotlight. She pushed everyone else ahead of herself. Family was her world. A family he was about to rip apart.

“I’m resigning from the campaign,” he said.

Her breath caught. “Alex, no.”

“I have to. I’m not the right person to help him.”

“But it means so much to have you involved.”

He knew he was offering her an impossible choice-siding with the father or the son. Ultimately she would pick Mark because he was her husband, but it would devastate her to choose.

“I haven’t made this decision lightly,” he told her. “He’s important to me, too. I want to do the right thing, but I can’t ignore the feeling in my gut I’m not political. I don’t like it and I don’t do it well.”

She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him. “I know,” she whispered. “I know you were only there because he asked you. Because he wanted it to be a family affair.”

“I’ll still campaign, if it comes to that. I’ll show my support in other ways.”

“He’s going to be disappointed.”

“He’ll get over it.” Alex had a feeling Mark’s biggest concern would be how it looked to the voters, which probably wasn’t fair.

“This can’t have been easy for you,” she said, showing the understanding that always came so natural to her. “You would have seen staying as your duty.”

He shrugged. “This way is better. Ultimately for both of us, although I’m not sure he’ll see it that way.”

She nodded. “He’ll understand with time. When are you telling him?”

“The end of the week.”

Even as he said the words, he felt guilty, as if he was doing the wrong thing. Everything he’d been taught, everything he owed Mark and Katherine, told him he should stay. Just suck it up and deal. But he couldn’t. She’d also taught him to be his own person.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “It’s just one more thing, after the hell you dealt with yesterday.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not me. Dani and Bailey are the ones who really suffered. I’m so glad no one was seriously injured. If those boys had hurt either one of them…”

There was a fierceness in her voice, an anger and a strength. He liked that she was protective of both of them. “They would have had to answer to us.”

She flipped on the coffeemaker, then leaned against the counter. “Are those boys going to be charged?”

“They’re going to be convicted. I’ll make sure of it. How’s Bailey?”

Katherine relaxed. “Mostly empowered. She seems very clear that the boys were bad and what they were doing was wrong. Dani protecting her made her feel special and her being able to save Dani makes her feel tough and capable.”

“Good.”

“I know she’s your favorite.”

He shifted on the stool. “I love all my brothers and sisters equally.”

“Oh, please. You have a soft spot for Bailey. You always have.”

“Maybe.”

“I’m glad. Dani really cares about her, too. Dani’s very special. I like her.”

There was something in the way she said the words, as if testing the waters.

“She hasn’t been easy for you,” he said. “Not because of anything she’s done but because of who she is.”

“Agreed.”

“Is it okay?”

Katherine stared at the coffeemaker. “Okay is such a weasel word. What does it really mean? Do I like what’s happened? Do I enjoy people talking, speculating? Of course not. Do I blame Dani? Not when I’m myself. Do I wish she’d never shown up?” She looked at him. “Never.”

“I love her.”

He hadn’t meant to say the words. He’d barely recognized the truth of it himself. But last night, after he’d left her in the hospital, he’d realized how much he would have been destroyed if she’d been critically hurt. He hadn’t been looking, but he’d found her all the same.

“I sort of figured that out,” his mother said with a smile.

“How?”

“There’s something about your eyes when you talk about her. A light. I don’t know. It’s subtle, but I saw it.”

Hated it, he thought. She had hated it, then accepted it and now she would embrace it. Because of who she was.

“It’s serious,” he told her.

“I figured that, too.”

“I want to marry her.”

He waited for her to react-to collapse or fall into tears. He thought she might get angry or beg him to change his mind.

Instead she poured them each a cup of coffee, handed him his, then said, “Let me be clear. This time I expect grandchildren. Lots of them.”

She smiled.

He might have known, he thought as he put his arm around her. She always took the high road. No matter what.

“Damn, you’re good,” he said.

“I know. I’ m a constant surprise. It’s part of my charm.”

Katherine closed her eyes and knew that finding a way to welcome Dani as Alex’s wife would be easier today than it would have been yesterday. Dani had more than proved herself and was exactly who Katherine would have wanted for her son.

She refused to think about the gossip or potential scandal. That would happen and she would deal with it because she was good at dealing.

“When are you going to propose?” she asked.

“Tomorrow night I’ll plan a romantic dinner. I’m picking her up at the hospital this morning. She probably still hurts from what those bastards did to her, so I’m giving her time.”

She sighed. “I raised you right. You’re a good man, Alex. She’s lucky to have you.”

“That’s what I’m going to tell her.”

“I’ll want details. I’m seeing her tomorrow at the charity luncheon. It will be hard to keep quiet. But I will.”

He stared into her eyes. ‘Thank you. For everything.”

All she’d ever done was love him, the way she loved all her children. She’d made mistakes, but she kept trying to do the right thing. Just as her mother had taught her.

Alex marrying Dani would bind the two families together. Make them both stronger.

“Don’t think that’s enough to get you out of the whole grandchildren thing,” she said with a laugh. “I mean it. I’m tired of waiting.”

He chuckled. “Not to worry. I’ll get right on that.”

***

The charity luncheon in support of breast cancer was held in a downtown hotel. Dani hovered in a bathroom stall and knew that eventually she was going to have to leave the tiny space and go face the room. And she would. Just as soon as she was sure she wasn’t going to throw up.

Her stomach kept flipping and spinning and trying to escape. Her chest was tight and her legs trembled. She was past nervous. She was in that fight-or-flight state. Even with the black eye, she was more than willing to fight anyone rather than speak in public.

“I’m fine,” she whispered to herself as she tried to breathe. “I’ll get through this. It’s only six minutes. Five if I talk fast. I can do it for five minutes.”

She didn’t actually convince herself, but maybe if she kept up the cheerful talk, she would start to feel better. The speech was fine. It was charming and heartfelt. The Canfield speech writers had even given her a funny new opening that mentioned her black eye. Mostly because all the concealer in the world couldn’t hide the bruise.

She clenched her hands together and sucked in another breath, then heard several women walk into the bathroom.

Dani told herself it was time to leave, so she wasn’t hogging a stall for no good reason, when she heard their conversation.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe Katherine went through with this,” one of the women said. “I can’t decide if she’s a saint or just an idiot.”

“She looks tired,” another said. “I’m sure it’s the stress. Mark’s child. Can you believe it? She’s actually going to be seen in public with her. I wouldn’t do it.”

“Your husband isn’t running for president. A woman will put up with a lot to get that kind of life. She sure has. People are talking about her everywhere. It has to be killing her.”

The speaker sounded as if she was thrilled at the thought of Katherine’s pain.

“Do you suppose she told him she couldn’t have children before or after they got married?” another woman asked.

“I don’t know,” the first one said. “Either way, he’s got to be disappointed. That group she’s put together. There’s something wrong with all of them. It’s horrible. Not that we can say that, of course. We all have to pretend she’s just so wonderful.”

Dani’s temper exploded. She stepped out of the stall and faced the three well-dressed women.

“Pretending isn’t required,” she told them. “Katherine is an extraordinary woman. Something none of you can relate to, I’m sure.”

They stared at her. Dani calmly walked over to the sink, washed her hands, dried them and left. She was still shaking when she entered the main ballroom.

Damn those women and their petty comments. Dani didn’t know who they were, but she hoped Katherine didn’t consider any of them close friends. They were like snakes in couture. The only bright side was one of them had obviously had an unfortunate eye lift.

She looked around for Katherine, but instead found herself cornered by two reporters.

“Just a minute of your time,” the woman said. “Please.”

Dani tried to inch away. “This is a private event. Unless you bought a ticket, you have to leave.”

They both held up tickets. Dani stifled a groan.

“Did you stage the attack yesterday to help your father’s campaign?” the man asked.

“Is it true you and Alex Canfield aren’t seeing each other because of the falling poll numbers? Did you give up love for the campaign?”

Dani pushed her way past them and headed for the front of the room. She found Katherine speaking with the event coordinator.

“Standing room only,” Katherine told her as they stepped into a quiet corner. “We’ve sold out, thanks to you.”

“You mean thanks to the fact that everyone is hoping for juicy gossip to tell their friends,” Dani said bitterly.

Katherine’s gaze sharpened. “What happened?”

There was no way Dani was going to mention what she’d overheard in the bathroom. “Some members of the press bought tickets and they tried to talk to me. Honestly, I don’t know how you stand this, being in the public eye. I hate it. I’m not good at it and it’s not how I want to livemy life.”

“There are compensations,” the other woman told her.

Dani was tempted to ask what they were. It wasn’t about money and power. Katherine came from a wealthy family. She was a private person; she couldn’t actually like being so exposed all the time, could she?

Then Dani remembered watching Katherine with Mark and had her answer. The compensation was that Katherine got to be with the man she loved and make him happy. This was all about Mark.

Thinking about her father brought her back to where she’d been the previous night at the hospital. Where she’d realized that her father’s dreams could impact history and that she was in danger of destroying that. Just by showing up, she’d shoved the campaign off course.

“Dani?” Katherine asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve screwed everything up,” Dani said, trying to stay calm despite the feelings welling inside of her. “Those boys would never have attacked Bailey if it hadn’t been for me. They recognized me. That’s how it all started.”

“That’s their fault, not yours.”

Logic. It wasn’t helping. “Bailey could have been seriously hurt. They were going to rape her, Katherine. It would have been because they recognized me. Sure, I wouldn’t have committed the crime, but how could I have lived with myself afterward?”

“Nothing happened. You’re both safe.”

“For how long?” Dani asked. “Who’s next? Who else will I ruin in some way? What about you? Don’t you hate what I represent? Don’t you hate people talking?”

“People will always talk,” Katherine told her. “We can’t stop that.”

“You always say the right thing.”

“Not always. Very recently I said the wrong thing.”

Dani dismissed the reference to their conversation about Fiona with a flick of her hand. “That’s not important. I mean about the big stuff. You’ll deal with me because you have to. You’ll smile and pretend it’s okay when every time you look at me, I’ll break your heart.”

Katherine smiled. “Okay, you’re being a little dramatic here. You’re not breaking my heart.”

“They hurt you with what they say, what they speculate about. It can’t be easy.”

“Dani, stop it. You’re taking way too much credit.”

“I don’t think so. I need to go.”

“You’re giving a speech in five minutes.”

That almost made her smile. “After. Later. I’m leaving Seattle.”

Katherine stared at her. “You’re not running away.”

“It solves everyone’s problems.”

“Shouldn’t we be the ones to decide if we want your help in solving the problem?”

“None of you are going to ask me to leave. You wouldn’t.” Mark might, she amended, but what was the point in saying that?

Leaving was the only thing that made sense, Dani thought. With her out of the way, life could return to normal. She would go somewhere big. L.A., or maybe New York. There were thousands of restaurants there. She could easily find a job.

“You’re not by nature a quitter,” Katherine said quietly. “Why now?”

“It helps the most number of people.”

“What about helping yourself? What about what you want?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“What about Alex?”

Dani didn’t have an answer for that. “He’ll understand.”

Something shifted in Katherine’s eyes. “I don’t think he’ll understand at all.”

***

Dani didn’t want to face anyone, deal with the fights and arguments that were sure to follow her telling them her plans. She just wanted to be gone.

Except for Alex, she thought wistfully. She wanted to be with him, in his arms, talking and touching and being together. She wanted so much with him, from him. She wanted to give him everything she was.

She checked her watch and saw he was due to come by in a few minutes. They were supposed to go out to dinner-somewhere nice, he’d promised.

She would like that, she thought wistfully. A quiet dinner with the man she loved. Spending the night with him. But to what end? Wouldn’t being with him now make it harder to leave later?

She sank onto the bed in the room she’d been using at Gloria’s house. She didn’t want to go- not deep down inside. She wanted to stay because this was her world. This was where she belonged.

But at what price? How could she be happy with herself if that happiness came at the price of destroying all those around her?

She stood and walked into the bathroom. She’d washed off the makeup she’d carefully applied for the luncheon. The dark bruise under her eye was in sharp contrast to her pale skin. She looked lost and beat-up-which fit exactly how she felt.

She hated this. Hated feeling torn. Hated the sense of there being no good solution to her problem. Hated being controlled by circumstances and other people.

All she’d wanted was to find out where she belonged, to find her family. She’d found them, all right, and because of that, everything was a mess. It was time to start fixing that.

She went downstairs to wait for Alex. She didn’t want to think about telling him she was leaving. It was all too sad. So instead she walked through the empty rooms, marveling at the fact that Gloria wasn’t here-she was out. With friends. Friends she’d made at the local senior center.

The image of her grandmother scrapbooking with other old ladies made her smile, yet it was happening. Maybe not the scrapbooking, but the hanging out and meeting people. It had been Lori’s Idea and Gloria had listened.

Dani walked into the living room and stared out at the view of the city. Lori had been good for her grandmother and for Reid. She’d brought the family together. Elissa had healed Walker’s heart and given him something to live for. Cal had always been in love with Penny, he’d just been too stubborn to recognize it for what it was.

The doorbell rang. Dani hurried to let in Alex. As he stepped across the threshold, she took in the sight of him. The strong shoulders, the shape of his jaw, that mouth that could always reduce her to a sexual puddle.

She loved him. After more evil frogs than any woman deserved, she’d found a prince. A prince she was going to be leaving.

“Hi,” he said, then bent down and kissed her on the mouth.

She leaned into him, kissing him back, letting her body say what she wouldn’t let herself speak. That she loved him. That she would always love him and no matter how far away she had to go, she would never forget him.

“Hi, yourself,” she whispered as he straightened.

“I picked a very special place for dinner,” he told her. “Soft lights. Very romantic. You probably want to brace yourself. You know how being with me makes you weak in the knees.”

She smiled because he was funny and charming and always knew the right thing to say.

“It’s a curse,” she said. “You handle it with grace.”

“I know. I use my power for good.” He cupped her face and lightly touched the bruise under her eye. “Seeing that makes me want to go beat the shit out of those three boys.”

“But you won’t.”

He hesitated just long enough to let her know that doing the right thing wasn’t his first choice. “I won’t,” he agreed. He glanced at his watch. “You about ready?”

She took his hand and led him into the living room. When they were settled on the large sofa facing the window, she turned toward him.

“I’m not really hungry,” she said. “I thought we could skip dinner. There are a couple of things I need to-“

“We can’t skip dinner,” Alex said, his face tight in an expression she couldn’t read. “Dinner is important. I talked to the chef. There’s going to be a special dessert. You don’t want to miss this. It will be great.”

“Alex, I’m serious.”

“We have to go to dinner.”

“I can’t. I…”

He frowned. “Are you sick? Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

“No. I…I’m leaving.”

“What?”

“I’m leaving Seattle. I’ve already given notice at Bella Roma and I haven’t started at Buchanan’s, so the timing is good. I need to do this. Go somewhere different. A place where I’m just a stranger. I want my life back. I want to live in my own house and not have the press bother me. I want to stop hurting the people I care about.”

He stood and stared down at her. “What the hell are you talking about? You can’t leave Seattle.”

“I have to. It’s for the best.”

“It’s running away.”

She was disappointed. She’d thought he would at least understand. Although it was gratifying that he was so upset. Maybe her feelings weren’t all one-sided.

“Sometimes a strategic retreat is the best thing for everyone.” she said as she stood and faced him. “Please don’t be angry with me.”

“Why the hell not? You didn’t even discuss this with me. You announce you’re leaving and that’s it? What happens now? You walk away?”

She nodded slowly, then sucked in a breath as her head began to pound. “Everyone’s problems are solved. Katherine won’t be hurt anymore. I know what I’ve done to her and I feel sick about it. Bailey’s safe. It will help the campaign.”

He glared at her. “Fuck the campaign. You think the press is going to forget you because you move away? They’ll run with the story. As for Bailey, you don’t know what would have happened. Those kids were wrong and they’ll be punished, but you have no control over their actions or any way to predict them.” He moved toward her. “You’re giving up. I never thought you were a quitter.”

Okay, she’d been understanding for long enough. “I’m doing the best thing for the greater good.”

“You ‘re not willing to fight for what you want.”

“I’m not willing to hurt people I care about. You should be grateful. You love Katherine and you know how much having me around has devastated her”

“Katherine is stronger than you think. What about the father you were so desperate to find? What about finishing what you started?”

“Mark doesn’t need me. He needs to be president. He needs you at his side, working for that goal. Not fighting the press about me.”

Alex drew in a breath. “I’m not with the campaign anymore. I haven’t told Mark, but I’m leaving.”

Dani stared at him. “You can’t. He needs you.”

“He has a very skilled staff who will take care of business. It’s not my world. I can’t be like him.”

Obviously an announcement hadn’t been made or Dani would have heard about it. When the press found out, it was going to be ugly.

“All the more reason for me to leave,” she breathed. “That will disconnect us in the mind of the press.”

“And that’s what matters, right?” he asked, sounding bitter. “Good to know which side you fall on. You got political real fast. You really are your father’s daughter.”

The unfair accusation hurt nearly as much as her head. “That’s not fair. Do you think this is easy for me? I love my new family. I don’t want to leave them and I sure as hell don’t want to leave my old family, either. I’m making a hard choice for the greater good.”

“It looks pretty easy from here.”

“Then you’re not looking hard enough.” She wanted to grab him and shake him. She hadn’t wanted them to fight. She thought he would be sad she was leaving. Not angry. So much for fantasies, she thought grimly.

He walked to the window and stared out at the view. Finally he looked back at her. “And us?”

“I don’t know how to make it work,” she admitted. “It’s too high a price. Even with you leaving the campaign.”

“So we’re a casualty of war? It’s over?”

No, she screamed inside. She didn’t want it to be over. “I care about you.”

“I feel very special.”

“Don’t,” she said and sank back on the sofa. “Don’t get cold and sarcastic.”

“How should I act? I thought I mattered to you. I thought this relationship was significant. I thought you were the one I was supposed to be with.” He walked back to her. “You’re not the only one with a lousy track record when it comes to relationships. First I fall for a woman who lies about who she is and cheats on me, then I fall for one not strong enough to fight for what matters.”

Fall for one? As in… She looked up at him. “Alex?”

“Are you going to tell Bailey you’re moving on or do you want me to? She thinks you’re friends, so this will come as a shock. But then she’s always led with her feelings. That girl has the heart of a lion. I admire that about her. I thought you had that in common. Guess I was wrong.”

Tears filled Dani’s eyes. Her vision blurred. She blinked to clear it and when she could see again, Alex was gone.

Just like that. He’d heard what she’d had to say and then he’d left.

She covered her face with her hands and gave in to the tears. She didn’t want to go. That’s what was killing her in all this. She didn’t want to go, but she didn’t see another way to stay out of trouble.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“Katherine! I didn’t expect to see you today.” Mark stood and walked around his desk at campaign headquarters. “Is everything all right? Is Bailey…”

“She’s fine,” Katherine said as her husband kissed her on the cheek.

He always looked so happy to see her, one more thing she loved about him.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her against him. “I’ve been busy lately,” he said as he ran his hands up and down her back. “Working here, flying back to D.C. I’ve missed you.”

His light touch was enough to ignite every nerve ending in her body.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she told him. “But we knew it would be like this if you ran for president.”

“The price of glory.”

He bent down and kissed her again. The contact was tender, yet sexual and she melted against him.

Only Mark, she thought as she gave herself over to sensation. Only ever Mark. She loved him more than she’d thought possible. Her guilty secret was that she loved him more than she loved her children. But that didn’t make her blind to his flaws.

She drew in a bream and pulled back. “We need to talk,” she said.

He put his hand on her rear and squeezed. “Can we talk naked?”

She laughed. “At any moment, five of your staff members could burst through that door. Do you really want them to see you doing it with your wife?”

“Why not?” But he straightened as he spoke. Then he took her hand and put it on his erection. “What do I tell this big guy?”

“That I’ll see him tonight.”

“Fair enough.” He led her to the sofa by the wall. “So what do you want to talk about?”

She stared at the man she loved, taking in the familiar features. She still remembered the first time they’d met-how she’d literally seen him across a crowded room and had known that nothing would ever be the same again.

“What would have happened if Marsha hadn’t broken things off?” she asked, jumping right into the uncomfortable conversation. “When I came back to find you, would you have left her for me? You would have had to make a choice.”

She thought he might get angry. Instead he angled toward her and stroked her hair.

“Don’t do this,” he said quietly. “There’s no answer, Katherine. You know that. It’s a situation that never occurred and it doesn’t matter what I say. You’ll believe what you want to believe.”

He was right, of course. He knew her well. “She gave you the one thing I never could.”

“You’re talking about a child. But you did give me children. You gave me eight of them. Selfishly, what’s more important to me is that you gave me myself. I’m the man I am today because of you. That might not be saying much, but I know I’m a better person for having loved you all these years. You are the best part of me, Katherine. You always have been. You see me through eyes blinded by love and most of the time I want to live up to your impossible expectations.”

His words reached out and hugged her heart. She felt both exposed and gratified. “Really?”

“Yes. There’s no choice, there was never a choice. Life happened and now look at what I have. Would I choose Marsha? I can’t regret Dani, but I wouldn’t trade her for one of our children. Who would I have to give up? Julie? Alex? Oliver? Whose smile would I not see? Bailey’s? Sasha’s? They’re my children, too. I can’t live without any of them. Or you. You have always been the heart of me, Katherine. I love you.”

Mark was good with words, but this time she believed him. Believed them. They washed over her, healing old wounds, making her certain that loving him had been the right thing to do.

“You are the light of my life and I would be lost without you,” he said, then he kissed her.

She kissed him back, putting all of her passion into that moment of lips and tongue and breath.

He chuckled. “Okay, now you’re making trouble on purpose.”

“A little.” She stroked his face. “I have to. You’re going to be very angry with me in a minute.”

“Why?”

“Because of what I’m going to say. What I’m going to ask you.”

His humor faded. “You never ask me for anything.”

“I know.” It had been a point of pride with her. Sometimes a stupid point of pride, but there it was. She drew in a breath. “Alex wants to leave the campaign. He’s not a political animal. He doesn’t want to disappoint you, but he can’t do it anymore.”

Mark leaned back and swore under his breath. “I need him. He’s good at what he does.”

“Dani’s leaving Seattle. She feels responsible for what happened to Bailey and for the declining poll numbers. All she wanted was to find her family. She thinks she’s made a mess of everything and the easiest way to fix things is for her to go away.”

He looked at her, his blue eyes dark with questions. “What do you think?”

She took his hands in hers. “That you are the only man I will ever love. That I would change the tide for you, if that’s what you wanted. I would die for you, Mark. You know that. But you can’t do this anymore. The price is too high. It’s time to let the dream go.”

Color drained from his face. He seemed to shrink a little, hunching down as if crushed by disappointment. It physically hurt her to say those words and she would have given anything to call them back, but she couldn’t. There were too many other lives at stake. She might be willing to die for her husband, but she wouldn’t continue to hurt those she loved for him.

She braced herself for the argument, the rage, the accusations. She knew how much he wanted the chance to make history. He stunned her by straightening, then squeezing her fingers and saying, “If that’s what you think is best.”

“What?”

He smiled. “I trust you, Katherine. I’ve always trusted you. You wouldn’t have asked me on a whim. You know what this means to me and what I’ll be giving up. What was that line from that Star Trek movie I like so much? The needs of many? I’ll have them write up an announcement today and get it out to the press. It will be the usual statement about spending more time with my family. Ironically, it will be true.”

That was it? No protesting? No yelling? No anything? “Just like that?”

He kissed her. “Just like that, Katherine. I love you. Someday you’re going to have to start believing that.”

She sucked in a breath, then threw herself into his arms. Tears burned in her eyes. “Thank you.”

“No, don’t thank me. You’re the amazing one in this relationship. I’m just along for the ride.” He ran his hands up and down her back again. “What if I told you the door has a lock?”

She’d always carried a weight inside-the heavy burden of being the one who loved, rather than the one who was loved. For the first time ever, that weight cracked and fell away. She felt light, happier, filled with possibilities.

“I’d tell you to use it and get naked.”

***

Alex sat at a table in the Downtown Sports Bar. He’d been there a few times but it had been nothing more than a place to meet friends. Now he knew it to be part of the Buchanan empire, a place that mattered to Dani and therefore mattered to him.

A busty, blond waitress came over. “Hey, darlin’. What can I get you?”

He barely glanced at her. “A beer. Whatever you have on tap.”

“Sure thing.” She leaned over, giving him a view of her low-cut T-shirt and her impressive, barely contained breasts. “Anything else? My shift ends in about a half hour. We could go somewhere and talk.”

He looked at her face. She was pretty enough seemed friendly and there was no doubt as to what she was offering. He couldn’t have been less interested.

“No, thanks.”

“If you’re sure?”

“l am.”

She straightened and gave someone behind her a thumbs-up. “He meant it. He wasn’t interested. Swear to God, I don’t think he could pick me out of a lineup. Dani’s a lucky girl.”

“Appreciate it, Heather,” Reid Buchanan said as he walked up to the table and gave Alex a rueful smile. “Hey, she’s my sister. I was just checking.”

Alex wanted to hit him. Just once, with enough force to break his nose. Not that he would. While he resented being tested, he knew that he would do exactly the same thing for one of his sisters.

“No problem,” Alex said. “I’m not worried about passing any test you have. I love Dani. I want to marry her.”

Reid sat down. “That’s putting it on the table. So why did you ask me to come meet you? You want permission or something?”

Alex shook his head. “Not permission. Just a little help. I’m planning an intervention.”

“What? Why?”

“Dani thinks she has to leave Seattle. It’s complicated and a lot of it is about the senator’s run for president. She doesn’t like being in the press, doesn’t like that she upset my mother. So she’s going to run away. Or so she thinks.”

“I don’t know anything about this.”

“I doubt she’s told very many people.” He pulled a small, velvet box out of his jacket pocket and put it on the table.

Reid picked it up, opened it and studied the ring. “It’s so sudden,” he said. “We barely know each other.”

“I work fast.”

Reid grinned. “I thought I’d make you squirm.”

“It would take a lot more than that. I’m going to ask Dani to marry me and I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Reid’s gaze narrowed. “It’s not your decision to make.”

“She loves me. She wants to stay in Seattle. But she’s hell-bent on sacrificing herself for the good of the family. The whole family. Your side and mine.”

“So why tell me all this?”

For the first time since Reid showed up, Alex felt uncomfortable. “I don’t know how to approach her. I tried the romantic dinner route and that was a total failure. She’s going to be leaving in the next couple of days so I don’t have much time. I figured a frontal assault might work. You, me, the rest of the family. Together we can convince her to stay, I’ll propose, she’ll say yes and we’ll live happily ever after.”

“You have it all planned out. What if Dani doesn’t want to marry you?”

Alex didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to think about how dark and cold his world would be without her light.

“No one could love her more than I do,” he said at last. “If she says no, I’ll keep trying. She’s everything to me.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Because from what I hear, you know what it’s like to want to sell your soul to be with the one woman who matters.”

Reid nodded slowly. “Good answer.”

***

Katherine rode the elevator to Fiona’s high-rise condo. She only had a few minutes, which was fine. She didn’t have all that much to say.

Fiona wasn’t expecting company so she wasn’t her normally perfectly groomed self. Her hair was loose and a little stringy, her sweatshirt had a stain on the front and her jeans hung open, exposing a growing belly.

“Katherine!” Fiona touched her hair, then pulled her sweatshirt down over her stomach. “What are you doing here?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago.”

“Oh. All right.” Fiona sounded wary. “Please come in.”

“I don’t think so. What I have to say will come more easily in the doorway.” She smiled coldly. “You’re good, I’ll give you that. You played the mourning, lost ex-wife so well that I bought in to the whole story. You had me doubting Alex, which is too stupid for words. I know the kind of person he is and now I know the kind of person you are.”

Fiona shifted uneasily. “I don’t know what he’s been telling you-“

“Very little,” Katherine told her. “That’s part of the problem. If he’d told me the truth from the beginning, I would never have trusted you. But he didn’t want to speak ill of you, which is a statement to the kind of man he is.”

Katherine took a step closer. “I know what happened. I know you cheated, I know you lied and tried to get between him and Dani. I know you’ve been using me to get to Alex, all in the hopes of being the daughter-in-law of the president. I hate to destroy anyone’s dreams, but that isn’t going to happen. Alex will never go back to you, I will never trust you again and for the record, Mark is no longer running for president. Stay away from me and my family. If I ever see you trying to ingratiate yourself with someone I know, I’ll tell that person everything that has happened.”

She glanced down at Fiona’s stomach. “I suggest you get the real father of your baby to marry you.”

“Are you kidding? He’s a nobody. Damn him. This should have been Alex’s baby. He was supposed to stay married to me.”

Katherine wondered how she could have been so wrong about Fiona. She was usually a good judge of character, but apparently everyone had an off day.

“Stay away from Alex. Stay away from me. Go somewhere else, Fiona. Trust me, it would be for the best.”

Katherine turned to leave. Fiona followed her into the hallway.

“You can’t do this,” she cried. “We were friends. That has to mean something.”

Katherine glanced back at her. “We were never friends. You played to win and you lost. Deal with the consequences. They’re relatively minor. If you’re smart, you’ll appreciate that and disappear. If you try to cross me, you will be very sorry. I promise you that.”

“You don’t frighten me.”

Katherine smiled slowly. “Don’t I? Are you sure?”

Fiona took a step back. “Bitch. Stupid old cow. I hate you.”

“Really? I don’t have the energy to even think about you.”

***

“This is a mistake,” Gloria said as Dani pulled out more clothes and put them on the bed. “You can’t run away. I forbid it.”

Dani tried to smile. “Then what? I’ll be grounded.”

“If that’s what it takes.”

“I’m doing the right thing and deep in your heart you know I’m right. There’s no other solution.”

“There’s always another solution. You can’t leave now.”

“I don’t want to” Dani admitted, wishing they could talk about something else. It was hard enough to think about leaving without facing her grandmother. “I can’t keep hurting the people I love.”

“You’re not hurting your Buchanan family. So what if you hurt them?”

“That’s warm and loving.”

“Katherine and Mark have eight children of their own. They’ll hardly notice you. You’re the only granddaughter I have.”

Dani didn’t know if she should laugh or burst into tears. “You do have a way with words.”

“Am I wrong?”

She sank onto the bed. Gloria sat next to her.

“Don’t go,” her grandmother said. “I’m old. What if I get sick and die and you never see me again?”

“Don’t you dare play the death card. That’s not fair.”

“I don’t care about being fair. I want you to stay. Dani, you have to stay. We just found each other.”

It hurt so much, Dani thought as she fought against the pain. It hurt to breathe. She didn’t want to leave-not now when she’d found everything she’d ever wanted. She was supposed to be starting her dream job, learning about her new family while being with her old family, being in love with a great guy. It should have been perfect. If only…

“I know,” Dani said, staring into Gloria’s eyes and seeing the pain there. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Stay. We’ll work it out. I didn’t raise you to be a quitter.”

“I’m not quitting. I’m doing what’s best. Can’t you see those things are bigger than us?”

“They might be bigger than you, but they’re not bigger than me.”

Dani managed another smile. “You are determined, aren’t you?”

“I fight for what’s mine. You could learn from that. What about that boy you’re seeing? Alex?”

“I don’t know. We had a big fight.”

“So that’s it? One fight and it’s over?”

“I can’t make him love me.”

“How do you know he doesn’t? Did you ask? Did you tell him you love him?”

Had she? “Not exactly.” And Alex had said he’d fallen for her. Which meant what?

“Not exactly?” Gloria stood and glared at her. “Dammit all to hell, Dani, you’re really screwing this up.”

Dani opened her mouth, then closed it. “You’re swearing. I’m shocked.”

“Get over it. This is important. This is your life. This is for real. Why do you feel that everyone else comes first? Why do their dreams matter more than your own?”

“Because she’s afraid.”

Dani rose and turned toward the speaker. It was Alex. He stood in the doorway to her bedroom.

Her heart instantly started dancing in her chest. The rest of her body sighed in appreciation, as if every cell had always been waiting for him.

She ignored the biological betrayal and raised her chin. “I’m not afraid.”

“Sure you are. You’ve been fighting your whole life and time and time again you got slapped down. All those years fighting Gloria.” He glanced at the older woman. “No offense.”

“I’ll decide if I’m offended when I see where this is going.”

Alex turned back to Dani. “You gave everything you had to Hugh and he dumped on you. Ryan was worse because he planned it. Gary was…” He shrugged. “I don’t know what Gary was.”

“Biblical humor,” Dani murmured, not sure what she thought of Alex’s words.

“You’ve been burned so many times, you’re afraid to get near the fire. So when you and I got together, you were terrified. Maybe not consciously, but somewhere deep inside. Then you found out you were hurting Katherine, which you hated. You respect her and didn’t want to make things harder. You were totally out of your comfort zone. Throw in a political campaign and the attack on Bailey and you reached your breaking point. It makes sense.”

“Thanks for the recap,” she murmured, knowing he might be right. “Now what are you doing here?”

He stepped into her bedroom. “Fighting for you. I’m making sure you don’t do something you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”

“Which would be?”

“Walking away from me.”

“You’ve never lacked confidence.”

“Not really. But I’ve never been as sure of something as I am of knowing we belong together. You can’t leave, Dani. This is where you belong.”

If only, she thought again, wishing it were possible. She loved him, needed him, wanted him. Only him. Being with Alex had taught her to understand Katherine’s devotion to Mark. “There are complications.”

“Not as many as you think,” Katherine said as she and Mark walked into the bedroom, followed by Dani’s brothers.

Dani found herself backed into a corner-literally. “What’s going on?”

“We’re holding an intervention,” Alex told her. “It was my idea. You can thank me later.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We’re not letting you go” Cal said, then grinned. “I don’t mean that in a scary stalker way.”

“Good to know,” she murmured.

“You belong here,” Walker said. “With all of us. Maybe with that guy.” He jerked his head toward Alex. “He seems okay.”

“I like him,” Reid said. “He’s got good taste.”

“But what about how much I’ve hurt you?” Dani looked at Katherine, then at Mark. “I’m hurting the campaign.”

Mark, as handsome and smooth as ever, put his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I’m pulling out of the race. This isn’t a good time. My press office is issuing a statement-” he checked his watch “-right about now.”

Dani felt the need to sit down. Everything was happening too fast. “But you want to be president. It’s your dream.”

“Some things cost too much.” He looked at Alex. “I got a little carried away before. With the charges. We’ll talk later?”

“Okay. Yeah.” Alex turned back to Dani. “You’re running out of excuses.”

Dani’s mind went into a free fall. If Mark wasn’t running for president, then the press wouldn’t care about her, or anyone in the family. If there weren’t any watchful eyes around, then life could be normal.

Alex reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a velvet box. Dani’s body froze.

Her first thought was that he was going to propose. Her second was that proposing probably meant that he loved her, which made her want to do the happy dance. Her third was how much he was putting on the line by doing this in front of both their families.

Her last thought was that she couldn’t wait to say yes.

“Oh, dear,” Katherine said, putting a hand on Alex’s arm. “I should have gotten to you sooner. I have something to tell you.”

He looked at her. “Mom, this isn’t the time.”

“I know, but I have to say it. I’ll talk fast.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a diamond ring. “If you’d prefer the one you bought, I’ll completely understand. But in case you want something different…” She handed him the ring. “This belonged to my grandmother. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, with Fi-” She cleared her throat “Anyway, I saw it this morning and hoped…”

Alex stared at the ring. Dani knew exactly what he was thinking. That the ring should stay in the family and until that moment, he’d never been totally one of them. She recognized the emotions chasing across his face because she’d felt them herself when she’d been with her brothers. That sense of belonging and not belonging.

Was that the connection she had with Alex? That they shared a basic knowledge of what it was like to be on the outside? That they were both looking for a place to belong?

She moved toward him. “I want to be the one,” she told him, not caring who else was in the room. “I want to be the only one. I want to be that safe place where you can go no matter what.”

“You’re stealing my speech.”

“You had a speech?”

“I was going to tell you I loved you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. That you’re the only one I want to be with. That I belong when I’m with you.”

Belong. There was that word again. Those on the inside would never know how much it meant to feel it.

“I love you, Dani,” he continued.

“Move back,” Gloria whispered. “Everyone move back and give the boy room to kneel. You were going to kneel, weren’t you?”

Alex grinned. “Is it always going to be like this?”

Dani glanced around at the people who loved her, then looked at the one man who would always make things right. “I have a feeling we’re not getting away from that.”

“Is that okay?”

“It’s the best.”

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