7

Sam poured himself a scotch, then moved to the sofa where Francesca had already settled.

“This is crazy,” he said, leaning his head against the back of the sofa and resting the glass on his flat belly. “Twelve-year-olds do not fly across the country on their own.”

“This one did. Kelly explained the process.” Francesca told him about the Internet purchases and the limo service.

“She’s resourceful,” he admitted. “Independent. Mouthy.”

And used to being taken care of, Francesca thought, remembering the dishes Kelly had left on the counter. She was not a child who picked up after herself.

He took a sip of his drink. “She informed me that the room was acceptable, but she needed a DVD player, and when things were settled she wanted to talk about redecorating.” He glanced at her. “Apparently blue isn’t her color.”

“She’s not afraid to ask for what she wants.”

“Somehow I’m not sure that’s a good thing.” He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath. “A daughter. After all this time.”

Francesca knew she felt shell-shocked, and she was only an interested bystander. Sam must feel as if he’d been hit by a truck.

“Are you going to check paternity?” she asked.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. “DNA test? I thought about it. I guess I’ll have to at some point. But while Tanya has no problem lying to get what she wants, she’s not stupid. She knows I wouldn’t keep a child who wasn’t mine, and the last thing she wants right now is Kelly being returned to her. I don’t know. Do you think she looks like me?”

“A little. Around her mouth. But she didn’t get that hair from you.”

“You’re right.” He stretched out his legs. “I don’t know what to think about all of this. I had no idea. When Tanya left-hell, I don’t remember much about that except wanting her gone. All these years I never guessed.”

“Why would you? You had no clues. She’s been living on the other side of the country. It’s not as if you ran into her and Kelly.”

“Good point.” He took another drink. “I should be mad or something. I missed out on Kelly growing up. But I can’t get angry.”

She leaned toward him and lightly touched his arm. “Give yourself a break. Right now you don’t feel anything, and that’s not so bad. You’ll start processing the information over time, and with that will come emotion.”

He glanced at her and smiled. “That’s your degree talking.”

“Sure, but I have to use it every now and then or it gets dusty.”

“Okay, Ms. Psychologist. What’s my next move? Is it mentally healthy for me to run for the hills?”

“Probably not. As for what’s next, you’re going to have to play that by ear. You and Kelly need to get to know each other. That will take time.”

“Time, huh? Want to give me a ballpark of how long it’s going to take?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Me, either. About any of it.” His smile faded. “The bitch took money.”

It took Francesca a second to figure out who he meant. “Tanya?”

He nodded. “My mother paid her off to keep Kelly a secret. Two hundred and fifty thousand up front, five thousand a month, plus expenses.”

Francesca felt her mouth drop open. She consciously pressed her lips together. “But why would she want to get rid of her own grandchild?”

“You’d have to know my mother to understand that.” He took another drink. “Lily Reese liked to rule her kingdom, and she would use any means to keep her subjects in line. My father died when I was pretty young. I don’t remember him much. When Lily was around, her word was law. When she was gone, which was most of the time, I lived with my paternal grandfather. Gabriel.”

“The one you hired Elena for.”

“Right. He was sane and normal. Two claims my mother couldn’t make. God, they fought. He threatened to sue for custody more than once, but she got right back in his face. She was more than willing to take him on. She had money, power, and was fearless.”

The tone of his voice told her he didn’t mean the words as a compliment.

“By the time I was ten, I had already learned to mistrust everything she said. She lied because she liked to. Because it worked. As I got older, I was sent away to prep school. I spent holidays with Gabriel. After college I escaped to Europe, where I met Tanya.” He raised his glass. “A Miss California runner-up, well traveled, but not rich. She wanted money, I wanted…” He shrugged. “We met, I fell in love, or so I thought, and we got married two months later. My mother was furious.”

“Didn’t she like Tanya?”

“They loathed each other because they were so much alike. In one of those humorous twists of fate, I’d traveled all the way to France only to find the one woman exactly like my mother.” He glanced at her. “You could write a paper about me.”

She winced. “People fall for partners just like one of their parents all the time. If that parent is a good, loving person, the relationship works.”

“If the new wife is lying and manipulative, it doesn’t,” he said. “It took me three months to figure out my mistake. By then my mother was already campaigning for the marriage to end. I was torn between my own happiness and doing what she wanted. Rebelling against that kept me in the marriage another six months. Then I ended it. All Tanya wanted was a big settlement. There were no broken hearts on either side.”

He told the story easily, as if it no longer mattered. As it had been twelve years ago, Francesca didn’t doubt Sam was long recovered. He’d moved on. Until Kelly had arrived, literally at his door, bringing the past back to life.

“So when she found out Tanya was pregnant, she paid her off to keep her away from you,” she said.

He nodded. “If I’d known she was pregnant, I would have put the divorce on hold, at least until the baby was born.” He frowned. “A baby. I still can’t believe it.”

“She’s not a baby anymore.”

“You have that right.” He straightened. “So what do I do with her? Are you sure she’s not old enough to be left alone while I’m at work?”

Francesca shook her head. “She’s certainly capable of taking care of herself for a few hours, but I wouldn’t leave her in the house by herself all day. She’s into ballet. That gives you a place to start.”

“That’s right. She mentioned a school or a class. That will fill some time. Then what?”

“Then you get to know her.”

“But what does she eat? How much? What about clothes? She wants a DVD player. Should I buy her one?”

She held up a hand. “You can’t solve all the problems at once. Having a child dropped in your lap with no warning is going to offer some logistical challenges. Take them one at a time.”

He grinned. “Logistical challenges? Is that the professional term for this?”

“Yes, and I hope you appreciate that I’m volunteering all this information for free. I’m a highly paid professional.” She smiled. “Well, I will be in about eighteen months.”

He shifted so he was facing her. After setting his glass on the coffee table, he stretched out his arm along the back of the sofa and touched her shoulder.

“You’re being great. I appreciate it.”

“I told you, I don’t mind helping.”

What she didn’t tell him was the way he’d handled the entire situation had made her like him more. He wasn’t just a pretty face and great in bed. He could have gone ballistic when Kelly showed up. Instead he’d remained relatively calm. Despite the shock he had to be feeling, he was planning things through, worrying about his daughter, and not blaming anyone.

He leaned forward and kissed her. His mouth was warm, firm, and tender, but not passionate. Francesca understood. Having an unexpected child show up had a way of changing the flow of a date.

“I don’t have much going on over the next few days,” she told him. “I should be working on the outline for my dissertation, but I’m practicing creative avoidance instead. Would you like me to come over tomorrow morning and help out with things?”

He hesitated. “You have no idea how much I want to say yes. But this isn’t your problem.”

“You’re right. It’s yours. So? Do you really want to do this all on your own?”

“No way. But we had that definition of great sex and no complications.”

“I’ll make an exception this one time.” She looked into his eyes. “I mean it, Sam.”

“Then I’ll stop pushing back and say thank you.” He glanced at his watch, then shook his head. “I can’t make any arrangements tonight, so I guess I won’t be going into work tomorrow.” He touched her face. “If you wouldn’t mind coming over, that would be great. At least then there will be two of us on the side of the grown-ups. You think that will make things even?”

Francesca thought about Kelly’s precocious sophistication. “She’ll probably still outthink us, but at least we can band together.”

He chuckled. “You’re terrific. Thanks for all of this.”

His words made her feel warm inside. Sort of melty and squishy. Good thing she’d sworn off romantic entanglements years ago, or she could be in real danger here.

She rose. “I’m going to head home. We’re both going to need our rest for tomorrow.”

He stood. “When we face the terror of the preteen?”

“Exactly. Just remember. You’re the adult.”

“Oh, I know that. Kelly’s the one we have to convince.”

“You sure she’s not dead?” Gabriel asked as he leaned back in the kitchen chair. “It’s after nine. Maybe you should check on her.”

Sam didn’t think Kelly had passed away in the night. He doubted he’d been lucky enough that she’d run away. Of course, her leaving would be only a temporary reprieve. He would be forced to find her and drag her back. Not exactly how he wanted to start his day.

“I’ll give her another half hour, then go check on her.”

Gabriel shrugged. “She’s your daughter.”

Sam still hadn’t made peace with that concept. A child. It didn’t seem right. Not after all this time. And from what he’d seen of Kelly, she wasn’t exactly the kid he would have chosen.

“What are you going to do with her?” his grandfather asked.

Sam glanced out the large window over the sink. “Hell if I know. Get her settled. She wants to take some ballet classes.”

“What about carting her around? She can’t drive. You’re going to have to hire someone.”

“I know.” He’d already spent some time on the phone, but professional day care for preteens was sadly lacking. “The nannies all want to work with little kids and babies. I have a few people checking. They’re supposed to get back to me.”

His grandfather picked up his coffee mug. “Tanya’s a bitch.”

“Tell me about it.”

After Francesca had left the previous evening, Sam had called his grandfather to tell him what had happened. Gabriel had been furious at the deception, but not surprised. He’d shown up bright and early to examine his great-granddaughter, but Kelly had yet to make an appearance.

“At least the kid isn’t an idiot,” Gabriel said. “It took brains for her to travel all this way herself. You should be proud.”

“Uh-huh.” Sam was trying not to say much until Gabriel had met Kelly. Maybe she would be better this morning. Maybe last night’s demands and attitude had been more about being tired than anything else.

Unlikely, he thought grimly. Very unlikely.

“Whatever happens, I’m taking responsibility for her,” he said.

“You make me sound like a dog you brought home,” Kelly said as she breezed in the kitchen. “Do I get my own leash and water bowl, too?”

So much for a good night’s sleep improving things, Sam told himself.

“Good morning,” he said. “Gabriel, this is my daughter, Kelly. Kelly, this is your great-grandfather Gabriel.”

The old man looked her over. Sam saw she’d pulled on the same low-rise jeans and yet another abbreviated T-shirt. This one was green, tight, and proclaimed “Girls Rule.” She was barefoot. Her toes were painted, her skin pale.

Kelly tucked several curls behind her ears as she walked past them and headed for the refrigerator. “Whatever. So is there anything for breakfast?”

Sam’s temper boiled, but before he could say anything, Gabriel pounded his cane on the tiled kitchen floor. Kelly jumped.

“What?” she demanded.

“You should lock this one up until she learns some manners,” he said.

Kelly planted her hands on her hips. “We’re not in that century anymore.”

Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t say she was a smart-mouth, Sam. She got that from her mother.”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Are we done? Can I eat now?”

“I don’t know,” Gabriel said. “Can you?”

Kelly stared at him as if he’d started speaking Russian.

Sam sighed. “May I eat now,” he told her. “Can is ability. May is permission.”

“Oh. You’re one of those.” She turned back to the refrigerator and muttered something about “weird old men.”

“You have a lot of freckles,” Gabriel said.

“Gee, thanks,” Kelly said. “Because until this moment I hadn’t been sure. I kept scrubbing my face, but they wouldn’t come off. Freckles. Who knew?”

Gabriel scowled. “Can we send her back?”

I wish, Sam thought. “We all need time to adjust.”

Kelly shut the refrigerator. “I’d rather be back in New York. Tell you what, Grandpa. Just set me up in an apartment and I’ll be fine. I’ll go to school, then my ballet classes, and you won’t even have to remember that you ever met me.”

Gabriel grumbled something under his breath. Sam wondered if he was doing the math to figure out how much it would cost him.

“You’re not going back to New York,” Sam told her. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours. Why don’t we back off for a few days.”

Kelly scowled. “Tell him to back off.” She walked to the pantry. “What did the ballet teacher say when you spoke with her?”

“I haven’t.”

Kelly turned on him. “What? I asked you to do one thing. Just one. Not twenty, not even five. And you couldn’t do it. Why? Is this just to torture me or do you have a reason?”

“I’ve been busy.”

“With things that are important to you. Not with things that are important to me.”

Sam gripped his coffee mug so tightly, he thought he might snap it in two. His first instinct was to send Kelly to her room and ground her for life. Not that he knew what terms would be considered grounding. Locking her up sounded pretty damn good, though.

He thought about telling her she’d just lost her chance at ever attending a ballet class, but quickly reconsidered. Getting her out of the house for a few hours a day could be a blessing for both of them.

He sucked in a breath. “You know that DVD player you wanted?” he asked. “You can forget it until you learn to speak politely and respectfully.”

She stared at him. “You are so kidding.”

“Not even close, kid.”

“Whatever. I’ll buy it myself.”

That’s right. The credit card, compliments of his mother’s estate. He would have to take care of that next.

“When are you calling the ballet teacher?” she asked through gritted teeth. “I want you to do it now.”

“I will get to it when it’s convenient for me. You can hurry the process along by being civil or you can wait. Your choice.”

She glared at him. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I absolutely am. I know you’ve been through hell, and I’m sorry about that. However, your circumstances don’t give you the right to mouth off.”

Kelly looked at him as if he were dog crap on her shoes. “If you’re so worried about what I say, then you shouldn’t swear in front of me. Or do the rules only apply to me? Don’t you have to be civil, too?”

With that she turned on her heel and left the room.

Sam clutched his mug, not sure if he was going to drink the contents or throw it across the room.

“She’s a handful,” Gabriel said.

“Tell me about it.”

“I guess locking her up would be against the law,” Sam said.

Francesca wasn’t completely sure he was kidding. “You know it would be. And it wouldn’t solve any problems.”

“Maybe it would. You could report me and the state would take her away.”

“Is that what you want?”

He shook his head. “No. What I want is for this to be easier.”

“It’s only day one,” she reminded him.

It was mid-afternoon. She’d arrived about an hour before to find Kelly eating lunch by herself and Sam holed up in his office. Neither of them seemed to be speaking to the other, and Kelly had barely acknowledged her.

She and Sam were out on the deck, enjoying the warm afternoon, with a soft ocean breeze blowing over them. He was holding her hand, which made her want to talk about tangled sheets instead of his daughter. But that wasn’t an option right now. Which was really too bad.

“It’s been a long day,” he told her, then explained what had happened that morning when Gabriel had been over to meet Kelly.

Francesca winced. “Okay, so we won’t describe her as shy or timid. What did your grandfather say?”

“Nothing I can repeat in mixed company. He wasn’t a fan of my ex-wife’s, either, and to his mind, Kelly is too much like her.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you handled the situation really well. If she wants a DVD player, that gives you something to hold over her head.” She glanced at him and smiled. “I mean that figuratively, not literally.”

“I know. I’m not interested in hurting her. What I would like instead is to deal with a regular child instead of Teen-zilla.”

“Does she have access to a computer?”

“Yes. In the other guest room.”

“Then she could go buy the player herself. She’s good at that.”

He grinned. “Not anymore. I’ve canceled her credit card.”

“How?”

“I contacted the law firm handling my mother’s estate. Tanya had already told them that I had custody of Kelly. The lawyer I spoke with said I was entitled to the same monetary provisions Tanya had-Kelly’s expenses covered plus five thousand a month.” He shook his head. “I told them that wasn’t necessary.”

“She’s going to be crabby when she finds out she can’t shop at will.”

He chuckled. “I know. I figured I’d let her find out for herself.” His humor faded. “The lawyer told me something else. When Kelly was born, my mother had the paternity checked. The kid is mine.”

Francesca was afraid to ask if that was good or bad. “At least you know.”

“There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt, but yeah, I know.” He shrugged. “I got in touch with that ballet teacher, too. Angelina something. She’s willing to see Kelly tomorrow. Apparently there’s an audition process to get into this class. It must be a big deal. She has an appointment at eleven.”

“Want me to take her?”

Sam looked at her. “You have your own life and it doesn’t include Teen-zilla.”

Francesca smiled. “Agreed, but I was serious when I said I would help. Hey, I spent the morning organizing my closet just to avoid working on my outline. Driving Kelly to her ballet audition would be a far better displacement activity. I could come here first thing and you could go to work.”

He looked as hopeful as a drowning man spotting a rescue boat. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’ll be sure to return the favor.” He brought her hand to his mouth and lightly kissed her knuckles.

The brush of his lips against her skin sent heat racing through her body, but before she could do something wild like throw herself at him and beg to be taken, he lowered his arm back to the table between their chairs.

Oh, well. Maybe next time.

“I have this theory about Kelly,” she said. “I was thinking about her while cleaning out my closet. I think she’s in a lot of emotional pain.”

Sam looked at her. “From her mother dumping her on me?”

“It’s more than that. The way Kelly talks about her life in New York, she was completely on her own. Even if you factor out a child’s inclination to exaggerate, it’s still pretty awful. You mentioned that Tanya was seeing someone she wanted to marry who never knew about Kelly. Combine those elements and you have a child who feels unloved and unwelcome. In her mind she could be thinking she’s so horrible, she has to be kept a secret. Then her mother abandons her, and she meets a father she never knew about. Kelly has to be terrified, lonely, and really hurting.”

He considered the information. “You think that’s why she’s being so difficult? She’s lashing out like a wounded animal?”

“Exactly. With some time and positive attention, she’ll be a completely different person.”

“What if that person is worse?”

Francesca chuckled. “She won’t be.”

“You can’t know that for sure.” He rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand. “I went online, looking for some parenting books. There are a bunch on raising teens, and the descriptions scared the hell out of me. I want to back up and get her younger. Or when she’s eighteen. Plus none of them had any practical information on things like what to feed her and how much sleep she needs.”

Francesca did her best to ignore the tingling brought on by his light stroking and instead pay attention to the conversation. “She’s not a llama. She doesn’t have a special diet. Offer her healthy food and let her pick what she wants. As for sleep, by the end of summer you will know how much she needs so she’s alert for school.”

“Healthy food? I was going to order in Chinese tonight.”

“That’s fine once in a while. You don’t have to dine on tofu every night.”

“I’m not dining on tofu ever.”

“Still a steak guy?”

He turned toward her. “I’m a man of simple tastes. I know what I like and I go after it.”

She melted. Right there on the chair. Sam leaned forward and kissed her. Just as she parted her mouth, a door slammed in the house. Sam swore.

She considered the single word, then sighed. “Maybe next time.”

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