The Rebel's Return

Maddie Delarue didn't know who was kissing her until Dylan Bridges–the rebel she once lusted after–whispered his name in her ear. Yet the magic of the moment was soon eclipsed when the body of Dylan's father was found floating in the pond.Accusing fingers pointed at Dylan, who had just returned to Mission Creek, but the former bad boy claimed to have mended his ways. And as far as he was concerned, clearing his name was easy compared to proving himself a gentleman of substance in Maddie's eyes.
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The Rebel's Return

   

   CLUB TIMES

   For Members’ Eyes Only

   Murder-Mystery Gala Turns Deadly

   Last night Maddie Delarue’s murder-mystery gala was filled with more drama than a soap opera when the body of Judge Carl Bridges was found floating in the club’s front pond! Sources say our very own members were questioned and then released by authorities, but before long, the most likely suspect emerged from the darkness—Dylan Bridges, bad-boy son of Judge Carl who had recently returned to Mission Creek to make amends with dear old dad. If the wealthy stockbroker truly believes an Armani suit can cover up the scoundrel that lies beneath, he’s been watching too many Dallas reruns. Word has it, though, that Maddie was quick to give Dylan an airtight alibi, claiming she was with him all night. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what those two were up to….

   On a lighter note, all members will be happy to know that the investigation into the abandoned baby found on the links is making some headway, thanks to P.I. Ben Ashton and his team. And the Club Times has also learned that newlyweds Flynt and Josie Carson are about to expand their little family. Talk about some Texas two-stepping!

   As always, members, make your best stop of the day right here at the Lone Star Country Club!

   About the Author


   BEVERLY BARTON

   was delighted to take part in the LONE STAR COUNTRY CLUB continuity series and was especially pleased to write The Rebel’s Return because the bad boy/poor boy and good girl/rich girl theme is one of her favorites. She found it challenging to incorporate characters from other series books into her story and discovered that the residents of Mission Creek, Texas, were quite fascinating. Being able to include a murder mystery in the plot was an added bonus, and turning Dylan and Maddie into multifaceted people with personal histories that bound them together was gratifying indeed.

   Award winning, USA TODAY bestselling author Beverly Barton is a very happy wife, mother and grandmother, a sixth-generation Alabamian and a proud American, with deep family roots in this country that go back over two centuries.

The Rebel’s Return Beverly Barton


   

   Welcome to the


   Where Texas society reigns supreme—and appearances are everything.

   A shocking murder rocks the town of Mission Creek….

   Dylan Bridges: When this hard-hearted loner makes a stunning entrance at the LSCC’s murder-mystery gala, romance reignites with the woman of his dreams. But an evening of passion is not in the works when a grisly discovery is made and all fingers point to him as his own father’s murderer!

   Maddie Delarue: This good-girl socialite can’t believe her eyes when the roguish rebel from her past strides into the LSCC and boldly sweeps her into his arms for the kiss of a lifetime. Can their newfound love withstand a devastating turn of events?

   Mission Creek Musings: What is visibly bereft waitress Daisy Parker doing at Carl Bridges’s funeral? Could the real murderer still be at large? And is there any truth to the rumor that missing-in-action international playboy Luke Callaghan could be Baby Lena’s proud papa?



   To Melanie Davis Austin, who grew up with my daughter as a cousin and as a dear friend.

    Because of who you are and what you’ve meant to us, you will always have a special place in my heart.

Contents

   Prologue

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

Prologue

   Dylan Bridges glared across the courtroom at his father and for one horrific moment felt nothing but hatred for the man. He had kept hoping, up to the very last minute, that his dad would do something—anything—to help him. But the high and mighty, all-important Judge Carl Bridges hadn’t lifted a hand—hell, hadn’t lifted his damn pinky finger—to help his only child.

   Dylan felt like a fool for believing that his father would somehow find a way to stop the inevitable, that he’d pull strings, call in favors or at the very least speak in Dylan’s defense. But oh, no, not Carl Bridges, the by-the-book, high-principled, no-excuses lawyer, judge and absentee father. For the past four years, ever since Dylan’s mother died, Carl had had no use for him. Leda Bridges had been the buffer between father and son, keeping peace in the family. It seemed to Dylan that once his mother was gone, his father had stopped loving him, and had devoted all his time and attention to his job.

   Well, you’ve had it now, Dylan told himself. You’re on your way to the Texas Reform Center for Boys. Two years! He wouldn’t be getting out until he turned eighteen. How the hell had this happened to him? He’d done a lot of stupid things in the past few years, even had some skirmishes with the law; but stealing a car had been a major screwup, even for him. A string of misdemeanors was one thing—auto theft was something else entirely.

   “I’ve never been more disappointed by anyone in my entire life,” Carl Bridges had said. “Son, what were you thinking? You took that car for a joyride and dragged Jock Delarue’s daughter into this mess with you.”

   Had that been the real problem, the fact that he’d dared to corrupt Mission Creek’s reigning princess, Maddie Delarue, whose old man had more money than God? If he had simply borrowed the car from the country club and hadn’t whisked Maddie off her feet and practically kidnapped her, would he still be in as much trouble? Probably not. Had his father decided it was easier to betray his son than to displease Jock Delarue? If Dylan knew one thing about his dad, it was the fact that he enjoyed being a golf buddy with the movers and shakers in Texas, especially men like Delarue, Archy Wainwright and Ford Carson.

   So, why, of all the girls at Mission Creek High, had Dylan set his sights on Maddie? He’d known she was way out of his league. Was it because the fiery-haired cheerleader was the most popular girl in school? Was it because she represented the unobtainable? Or was it simply because every time he looked at her, he got hard? Whatever the reason, he had become obsessed with the one girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. Other girls found the tough-guy, bad-boy image he’d cultivated intriguing. At sixteen, he was considered the hellion of Mission Creek, Texas—and the bane of his father’s existence.

   He supposed he could lay all the blame on Maddie; after all, she was the reason he’d taken the sleek silver Porsche that day. Like a fool, he’d been damned and determined to impress her, to show off, to get her alone, even if only for a few minutes. The whole thing had started several months ago, the day he’d finally worked up enough courage to ask Maddie for a date. He had cornered her in the school parking lot that afternoon as she and several of her giggling fellow cheerleaders passed by.

   He leaned casually against the hood of his old truck. Unlike a lot of the other guys whose fathers had given them new cars on their sixteenth birthdays, Dylan had been told that if wanted a vehicle, he’d have to work for it. His two part-time jobs—as a weekend valet at the country club and his summer and after-school job at the local hardware store downtown—had earned him just enough money to buy the beat-up, aqua-blue Chevy pickup.

   “Hey, Red,” he called as she walked past him.

   Maddie paused momentarily, shook her head just enough to toss about her long red hair, but didn’t turn or acknowledge his presence in any way. But her girlfriends turned and looked at him, all smiles and fluttering teenage silliness.

   “Look, Maddie, it’s Dylan Bridges,” one girl said as she curled a lock of her blond hair around her index finger and gave him the once-over.

   “Why don’t you leave Maddie alone?” Another perky blonde asked. “She’s not interested in the likes of you. Why would she want anybody else when she’s practically going steady with Jimmy Don Newman?”

   Ah, yes, Jimmy Don Newman, a high school senior and captain of the football team. Every girl’s dreamboat. Not rich by Wainwright, Carson and Delarue standards, but acceptable because his mother’s family had deep roots in Mission Creek and Jimmy Don’s athletic prowess had gained him the town’s admiration.

   “Is that right, Maddie?” Dylan eased away from the truck and took a tentative step toward her. “Do you really agree with all these other airheads who think Jimmy Don’s so wonderful? Or are you dying to find out what it would be like between you and me?”

   Maddie jerked around and glared at him. “There is no you and me and there never will be.”

   “Never say never.” He winked at her.

   She huffed.

   When he walked toward Maddie, her friends stepped aside and moved behind her.

   “Come on, honey, let me drive you home.”

   Maddie lifted her chin, stuck out her snooty little nose and glowered at him; then she glanced at his rusty, battered, old truck. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a rattletrap like that. I’d never date a guy who didn’t have a decent car.”

   Her words stung him, but what pissed him off royally was the fact that she stood there so smugly, looking down her nose at him while the tittering laughter of her friends echoed in his ears.

   Oh, yeah, he could certainly lay the blame for his present predicament at Maddie Delarue’s feet. But his father shared at least half the blame. The very morning he’d borrowed the Porsche from the country club, he and his father had gotten into another rip-roaring argument and he’d stormed out of the house, bitterly angry. Adding to his bad mood when arriving for his valet job at the Lone Star Country Club was Maddie’s arrival to play tennis with Jimmy Don. When he saw the two of them together, he’d never wanted anything more in his life than to grab Maddie and run away with her.

   And that was just what he’d done.

   

   “That Bridges boy is being sent to the Texas Reform Center for Boys in Amarillo,” Jock Delarue said. “It’s a damn shame that a fine man like Carl has such a worthless, troublemaking son.”

   “Perhaps his hoodlum tendencies come from his mother’s side of the family,” Nadine Delarue commented in her usual superior manner. “Who was Carl Bridges’ wife? I don’t think we ever knew her, did we?”

   “Can’t recall her name.” Jock laid the Mission Creek Clarion aside as he lifted his second cup of coffee. “I vaguely remember meeting her once. Curvy little blonde. Rather pretty. Didn’t we send flowers when she passed away?”

   “I’m sure Dodie took care of that.”

   Yes, I’m sure Dodie did, Maddie thought. Her daddy’s private secretary, Dodie Verity, took care of anything Maddie’s mother considered beneath her. Nadine Gibson Delarue didn’t bother herself with underlings, except to issue orders or complain about their lack of intelligence or breeding. Her mother had been born in Georgia, the granddaughter of the governor, and once arriving in Mission Creek, Texas, a good twenty years ago, set about procuring herself a position as one of the town’s grand dames.

   Sometimes Maddie wondered how her cultured, Southern belle mother had ever wound up married to a gruff, plainspoken Texan, who, despite being the richest man in the state, was a down-to-earth, good old boy. Jock Delarue’s granddaddy had made a fortune in oil, and his daddy had taken that fortune and tripled it by making smart investments. Maddie sighed. Maybe what she’d heard was true—maybe her mother had married her father for his money.

   Growing up, Maddie had basked in her parents’ doting love for her and had always been daddy’s little girl. Believing herself to be the child of a loving union, she had never questioned the solidity of her parents’ marriage. Not until recently. She certainly hadn’t seen much affection between the two lately. And even at sixteen, she wasn’t totally naive. She’d heard the rumors about her father’s other women.

   “May I be excused?” Maddie tossed her napkin on the table and scooted back her chair.

   “You look a bit pale, dear,” her mother said. “Are you upset because your father mentioned that awful Bridges boy? I know how traumatic being kidnapped by that delinquent was for you.”

   “Hell, Dinie, the boy didn’t kidnap Maddie,” Jock bellowed. “She told us, she told the police and she testified in court that he didn’t force her to go with him.”

   “I refuse to believe that any daughter of mine would have willingly—”

   “Shut up, woman!” Jock looked at Maddie, who stood behind her chair, trembling, tears swimming in her eyes. “You’re excused, honey pie.”

   Maddie nodded, offered her father a weak smile, then ran from the dining room. She didn’t stop running until she reached her bedroom, upstairs. And all the while her mind whirled with unanswered questions, with doubts and uncertainties and with an un-bidden sympathy for Dylan Bridges.

   She tossed herself across her bed and cried as if her heart were breaking. And in all honesty, she wasn’t sure her heart wasn’t breaking. Her safe, secure and sane life had in a few short months begun to unravel, to come apart at the seams. And there didn’t seem to be anything she could do to stop it.

   She couldn’t help wondering if she was responsible for the constant bickering between her parents; it seemed they seldom had a kind word for each other. When the police had called her parents the day Dylan had taken her for a ride in a stolen car, her mother had blamed her father.

   “It’s all your fault for allowing her to attend public school and to associate with riffraff,” Nadine had said. “If you had listened to me and we’d sent her to private school, she would have known better than to even speak to someone like that Bridges boy.”

   “My father sent me to public school and it didn’t hurt me one bit,” Jock had replied. Her mother had simply rolled her eyes. “I felt Maddie needed to learn how to deal with people from all walks of life, just as my father believed that was best for me. Along with great wealth comes great responsibility, you know.”

   “You should have acted in a more responsible manner toward your daughter!”

   Could she have prevented what happened that day? Maddie wondered. Had her comments about Dylan’s dilapidated truck a few days earlier prompted him to steal the car that Saturday? Had the embarrassment her mother experienced because of her involvement with Dylan’s car theft created a rift between her parents?

   Maddie curled into a fetal ball in the middle of her bed and cried until her eyes were red and her nose stuffy. As she uncurled her body, turned over and gazed up at the ceiling, she sniffed several times and wiped her face with her fingertips.

   Enough of this feeling sorry for yourself, she thought. Your life hasn’t been drastically changed; not the way Dylan Bridges’ life has been. He’s going away to a correctional facility for underage criminals.

   You shouldn’t waste your time feeling sorry for him, she told herself. He doesn’t mean anything to you.

   Was she lying to herself? Was she trying to convince herself that Dylan Bridges had no effect on her whatsoever? If only that were true. She hated the very idea that Mission Creek’s rebel without a cause plagued her thoughts day and night. For goodness sakes, she didn’t even like him. But she did feel something for him. Those strange, unnerving feelings scared the heck out of her. During the past six months, whenever she saw him, her heart beat a little faster and a her stomach quivered. And heaven help her, she had daydreamed about him kissing her. Her reaction to Dylan was different from anything she’d ever felt. Even when Jimmy Don Newman French-kissed her, she didn’t get weak in the knees.

   Maddie closed her eyes as memories of that Saturday at the country club six weeks ago flashed through her mind like a movie.

   Jimmy Don had picked her up in his red Corvette at ten-thirty for their tennis date. They had played doubles with friends, then eaten lunch at the country club’s Yellow Rose Café before Jimmy Don and several of his buddies left the girls alone to go play billiards. Bored with the idle chitchat and endless discussion of next year’s Debutante Ball, Maddie wandered around on her own and finally went outside. Looking back at what happened that day, she wasn’t a hundred percent sure she hadn’t deliberately gone looking for Dylan. But if she had, it had been an unconscious action.

   “Hey there, Red.” Dylan surveyed her from head to toe. “Looking good today, honey. But then you always look good. Mighty good.”

   She pretended to ignore him.

   “Get tired of Jimmy Don?” he asked.

   “No, I did not get tired of—Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you.”

   “What would you like to do to me?”

   Maddie gasped, understanding the none-too-subtle innuendo.

   Dylan laughed. “How about going for a ride with me? It’s a beautiful sunny fall day.”

   “Aren’t you working?” She told herself to go back into the country club, to get as far away from Dylan as possible, but she didn’t heed her own warning.

   “I get a lunch break,” he replied.

   “Oh. Well, it doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t be caught dead in that old truck of yours.”

   “See that silver Porsche over there?” He pointed to the sleek sports car in the private parking area at the club. “How would you like to take a ride with me in that?”

   “But that’s not your car.”

   “It belongs to a friend. He won’t mind if I borrow it.”

   Maddie’s moment of indecision obviously prompted Dylan to assume she wouldn’t reject his request. By the time she managed to form her thoughts into words, he had raced over to the car, jumped in and started the engine.

   Oh, no. Now what? She was not going anywhere with him. Not even in a Porsche. Her mother would be appalled if she ever found out that her daughter had even talked to Dylan Bridges, let alone taken a ride with him.

   Dylan eased the car around to the front of the club, flung open the passenger door and grinned at Maddie. “Come on, Red. Live dangerously for once in your life. You know you’re dying to come with me.”

   “I can’t.”

   “Yes, you can.”

   “No, Dylan, really, I can’t. I wish you’d stop pestering me. You get me all confused and I don’t like it.”

   With that confession, Dylan hopped out of the Porsche, grabbed Maddie’s hands and dragged her toward the car. She skidded across the sidewalk, her efforts doing little to halt Dylan’s determination. She realized that she really did want to go with him, so her protest was only halfhearted. When they reached the car’s passenger side, Maddie jerked her hands back, but Dylan held tight.

   “Come on, honey. Don’t chicken out on me now.”

   “I—I…Oh, all right. But—”

   Dylan swept her off her feet. She cried out in surprise, barely able to believe that he’d lifted her up into his arms. He deposited her in the bucket seat, then bolted around the hood and got behind the wheel. As he sped down the circular drive, the wind whipped Maddie’s long hair into her face.

   I’ve lost my mind, she thought. A niggling sense of uncertainty fluttered inside her. What was she doing here, flying down the highway with Dylan in a borrowed car?

   About fifteen minutes later, Dylan turned off on a bumpy dirt road. After pulling under a tree several yards from the highway, he killed the motor, then threw his arm across the back of Maddie’s seat as he leaned toward her. Before she realized his intention, he kissed her. A quick brush of his lips over hers. She gasped.

   “What’s the matter, honey? You’ve been kissed before, haven’t you?”

   “Of course, I’ve been kissed,” she told him. “And much better than that.”

   Without warning, Dylan grabbed her, lifted her up and over the console and into his lap. She was jammed between the steering wheel and Dylan’s lean body. When she felt his erection pressing against her bottom, she panicked and tried to pull free. He manacled her wrists and held both in one hand while he lowered his head and kissed her again. But this time, he took her mouth hungrily, shocking her with the fury of his possession. She trembled. She felt hot. She ached between her thighs. Oh, mercy, this can’t be happening.

   Maddie knew that she had to stop him now, before he went any further, before she wouldn’t have the power to resist. But he kept ravaging her mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. She wriggled and squirmed, but he seemed to enjoy it and moaned into her mouth. She immediately stopped moving. Finally, he lifted his head so that they could both breathe again.

   “I didn’t tell you that you could kiss me!”

   He grinned. A cocky, self-assured smile that created a flurry of butterflies in her belly. “But you wanted me to kiss you, didn’t you? You’ve been wondering what it would be like, the same way I’ve been wondering.”

   “No, that’s not true, I haven’t…”

   She looked into his eyes, an earthy moss green, and recognized a kindred passion unlike anything she’d ever experienced with Jimmy Don or any other boy. Was it possible that he could see the same overwhelming emotion in her eyes?

   They stared at each other for an endless moment. Maddie tugged on her bound hands, and he loosened his hold. She lifted her arms up and around his neck, then moved against him, her breasts pressing against his hard chest. When she leaned forward, he watched her, waiting for her to make the next move. She kissed him. Softly. Sweetly. But suddenly that wasn’t enough. She wanted more. She wanted a lot more.

   Taking charge, Dylan deepened the kiss.

   Just as he undid the top two buttons on her blouse and kissed the swell of her breasts spilling over the top of her bra, she heard the sirens. But she disregarded them. By the time she had Dylan’s shirt undone and her fingers were caressing his chest, she realized the sirens came from two police cars that were turning off the highway onto the dirt road.

   “Damn,” Dylan muttered under his breath.

   Within minutes two uniformed policemen had parked and were approaching the Porsche.

   “What’s going on?” she asked Dylan.

   “Both of you get out of the car, nice and slow,” one of the officers said.

   “Dylan?” She stared at him.

   “Do what they say, Maddie.”

   “I don’t understand.”

   “The guy I borrowed this car from must have called the police.”

   “You stole this car?”

   “I borrowed it, dammit.”

   “You stole it!” Maddie flung open the door and got out. Glaring at Dylan, she shouted, “I hate you, Dylan Bridges. Do you hear me? I hate you and I never want to see you again as long as I live.”

   That had been six weeks ago. Six long, agonizing weeks. Jimmy Don hadn’t spoken to her for days afterward. All her girlfriends had asked her a hundred and one questions about Dylan. Her mother had all but disowned her. Only her daddy had comforted her. But she suspected that he’d spoken to Carl Bridges about Dylan. She had wanted to ask her father to intervene on Dylan’s behalf—and he could have. With one word from Jock Delarue, Flynt Carson, the owner of the silver Porsche would have dropped the car-theft charges against Dylan. But she didn’t dare let anyone, least of all her daddy, know that she cared about Mission Creek’s bad boy.

   Wasn’t it for the best that Dylan was being sent away to Amarillo for two years? At least now she would be safe from him. And safe from her own confusing emotions.

One

   Dylan Bridges removed his coat and tie, tossed them on the bed, then slipped out of his Italian loafers and padded across the lush carpet to the closet. He removed a pair of faded jeans from a wooden hanger and retrieved a Texas A&M T-shirt from the top drawer of a built-in dresser. After all these years, he still preferred casual wear to hand-tailored suits and five-hundred-dollar silk ties. He supposed that at heart he was still just a middle-class guy from Mission Creek.

   As he changed clothes, he chuckled, thinking about how surprised the good folks in his old hometown would be if they could see him now. Seventeen years ago he’d been shipped off to the Texas Reform Center for Boys in Amarillo, and when he’d walked out of that hellhole after serving his full two years, the last place on earth he’d wanted to go was back to Mission Creek. And the last person he’d wanted to see was his father.

   Yeah, his feelings for his old man had only grown more hostile during his incarceration. And even a sweet little letter from Maddie Delarue while he was serving time hadn’t lessened his resentment toward her.

   Dear Dylan,

   I wanted to tell you how sorry I am that you were sent away to reform school. I know I should have tried to help you in some way, but at the time I didn’t have the courage to speak to my father on your behalf. Please know that I think about you. Stay strong and keep out of trouble while you’re there. I’ve learned the hard way that life isn’t always fair and can throw you some cruel punches.

   If you want to write to me, send your letter to the post office box address on the outside of the envelope.

   Maddie

   Figuring that she’d written the letter either as some do-good, philanthropic club project or simply because she had a guilty conscience, Dylan hadn’t responded. And he never received another letter from her. But truth be told, he’d never forgotten Maddie Delarue. In a totally illogical way, she remained the ultimate, unattainable goal.

   Dylan made his way into the living room of his luxury penthouse apartment, poured himself a drink—Jack Daniel’s, straight—and relaxed in the overstuffed, tan leather easy chair. Why was he thinking about Maddie, a girl he hadn’t seen since he was sixteen? It wasn’t as if he’d been pining away for her all these years. He hadn’t. In his twenties women had come in and out of his life like tourists through a revolving door at a New York hotel. And now, at thirty-three and the wealthiest stockbroker in Dallas, all he had to do was snap his fingers and the lovely ladies came running.

   The only reason he’d thought about Maddie was that he planned to return to Mission Creek. He was going to do something he’d thought he would never do—go home to see his father. And who knew, he’d probably run into Maddie while he was there. Maybe he’d make a point of it.

   Nothing would please him more than to show her—and everybody in Mission Creek—that the town bad boy had turned out all right. Actually better than all right.

   After leaving Amarillo, he’d bummed around the country for a couple of years, had attended some night classes at several community colleges and then had come home to Texas and settled in Dallas. The odd thing was that when he finally channeled his energy—including his anger and aggression—into something productive, he discovered he had a talent for finances, the stock market in particular.

   The kid who’d been sent to reform school for stealing another man’s Porsche now owned one of his own. And a Jag and several antique vehicles. His penthouse apartment had cost him in the millions, he owned a home in Aspen and he was part-owner of a chain of resort hotels in the Bahamas.

   Oh, yeah, a part of him would love to rub Maddie Delarue’s nose in his success. Of all the people back home, she was the only one he really wanted to impress. She was probably married now, with a couple of kids. Surely she hadn’t married Jimmy Don Newman, Dylan thought.

   Since her father’s death a few years ago, she was now the richest woman in Texas. Dylan chuckled. Hell, maybe she wouldn’t be that impressed with him after all.

   Grinning, Dylan sipped on his whisky. Even after several days of mulling over the entire matter, he still found it difficult to believe that his father had called him. Out of the blue, after all this time, Judge Carl Bridges had set aside his unswerving pride and telephoned his only child.

   “Son, I’m asking you to forgive me,” Carl had said. “Can you find it in your heart to give your father a second chance? Is there any hope that we can put the past behind us and build a new relationship?”

   Strange that he hadn’t vented years of frustration and rage directly at his father. Even stranger was the fact that he, too, wanted nothing more than to put the past to rest, to reach out and forge a new relationship with his father. As a man of experience, he now realized what a rebellious hellion he’d been as a teenager, and how both he and his father had allowed their grief over Leda Bridges’ death to separate them instead of bring them closer together. Yes, his father had made mistakes, had concentrated on his career more than his son, had given Dylan no room for failure. But Dylan knew that he had made a lot of mistakes himself, that he’d acted up time and again hoping to get his father’s attention.

   If staunch, unyielding Carl Bridges could admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness, then so could his son.

   Dylan had ended his conversation with his father by saying, “Yeah, Dad, I’ll think about coming to Mission Creek for a visit. I just need some time to get used to the idea.”

   This morning when he awoke, he decided right then, even before his first cup of coffee, that there was no better time than the present to find out if his dad and he could reconnect as father and son. Besides, he needed a vacation. He worked too much; even his closest friends told him he’d become a workaholic. But despite his wealth and great success, he didn’t have anything else in his life that truly mattered. Only work.

   Long ago, he’d come to the conclusion that a guy couldn’t count on anyone or anything except himself. Family was a bogus term. He felt as if he’d lost his only family when his mother died. The desire to marry and start a family of his own had eluded him, mainly because he’d never met a woman he thought he could spend the rest of his life with—never loved or trusted a woman enough to make a serious commitment.

   He supposed he should call his father and apprise him of his plans, but he liked the idea of just showing up on his dad’s doorstep and surprising him. He’d already gotten a reservation on a flight to Mission Ridge, the nearest airport to his hometown. He’d be home in time for supper. Maybe he’d take his dad to the country club, to the Empire Room. Now, wouldn’t that be something—to go back to the Lone Star Country Club as a guest instead of an employee.

   And who knew, maybe if things worked out with his father, he might even relocate to Mission Creek.

   

   “Mrs. Delarue, please stop.” Alicia Lewis jumped up from behind her desk in Maddie Delarue’s private office space in the Lone Star Country Club and rushed forward toward her boss’s mother. “Maddie is very busy and I’m not supposed to let anyone disturb her.”

   “Well, my dear young woman, I’m Maddie’s mother and I can assure you that I’m not just anyone.” Over the years Nadine Delarue had perfected the royal put-down. “My daughter’s position as the events manager here at the club is nothing more than a hobby for her anyway, so she can’t possibly be that busy.”

   Hearing the ruckus outside her office, Maddie groaned. Oh, Lord, just what she needed this afternoon—dealing with her self-pitying, hypochondriacal mother. For the past sixteen years, ever since her parents’ widely publicized, bloody divorce and her father’s death a few years back, Nadine had clung to Maddie with a tenacious stranglehold. Only by sheer force of will had Maddie been able to live her own life. But her life was often interrupted by her mother’s histrionics. Maddie did her best to be the dutiful daughter, but there were times when the burden became almost too much for her to bear.

   When Maddie opened the office door, she found Alicia standing there blocking Nadine’s path. The moment her mother saw her, she burst into tears.

   “This awful girl wouldn’t let me see you.” Nadine hiccuped. “And I told her that I was your mother.”

   Oh, great, her mother was tipsy. “It’s all right, Alicia.” Maddie patted her assistant’s shoulder. Alicia was new on the job, so this was her first encounter with Nadine the Terminator. When the bewildered young brunette stepped aside, Nadine flung herself at Maddie, who wrapped her arm around her mother’s shoulders and led her into her office. “Have you had anything to eat today? You seem a little unsteady.”

   As Maddie closed her office door, her mother wiped her eyes and sniffed several times. “I had lunch with the girls here at the club,” Nadine said.

   “I see.” Lunch had undoubtedly consisted of several martinis. “I don’t mean to rush you, Mother, but I am very busy this afternoon. The Mystery Gala at the club is this weekend and I have a zillion loose ends to tie up. Is this something that could wait?”

   Nadine slumped down on the sofa, upholstered in a beige-and-white striped silk. Maddie groaned internally. No way was Nadine going to let her get off so easily.

   “You’re always too busy for me.”

   Nadine stroked the soft waves of fine white-blond hair that lay close to her face in an attractive, modern style that her hairdresser had assured her took years off her appearance. But not nearly as many years as her most recent facelift, Maddie thought. Since the day her husband had walked out on her, left her for a much younger woman, Nadine had been obsessed with staying young. After the divorce, she’d gone through a succession of suitors half her age, but was left high and dry by each one when they realized that her divorce from billionaire Jock Delarue had not gained her half his net worth. Grandfather Delarue had been a smart old buzzard; he’d insisted Nadine sign a prenuptial agreement before she wed his only son, something not standard procedure in the mid-sixties.

   “I’m sorry, Mother. Really I am. But I do have a job, you know. Responsibilities. People counting on me.” Maddie eased her behind down on the edge of her elaborately carved, antique mahogany desk.

   “I’m counting on you, Maddie. You’re all I have in this world.”

   Oh, here we go again, Maddie thought. I’m all alone. No one needs me. No one loves me. I gave birth to you. An excruciating labor. You were a colicky baby. My every thought since the day you were born has been of you. She’d heard it all before—ad nauseam.

   “What do you want? What can I do for you today?” Maddie focused her attention directly on her mother.

   “I—I…well, I’m not sure. It’s just that the others, my friends…well, they were all going home to husbands. And you know that I don’t have a man in my life. And they all have grandchildren to dote on. I’d think the least you could do is give me a grandchild.”

   “I’d like nothing better, and maybe someday I’ll—”

   “Why must you work here? Why do you bother with such a mundane little job? You’re the wealthiest woman in Texas. For God’s sakes, Maddie, your father left you several billion dollars. You don’t need to work. If you spent half as much time socializing as you do playing with this silly job of yours, you might find a husband.”

   Maddie groaned. Nadine hiccuped, then shook her head, as if trying to clear the cobwebs.

   “I socialize,” Maddie said. “But let’s face it, I haven’t had much luck with men. They all seem far more interested in my money than in me. Does that ring a bell, Mother?”

   “No need for you to be cruel. And there’s no need for you to remain single, either. There are several eligible men in Mission Creek. Young men wealthy in their own right. You could have had Flynt Carson or Matt Carson if you hadn’t let them get snapped up by other women. Neither of whom was half as suitable as you to become a Carson bride.”

   “Let’s don’t go there again. I’ve known Matt and Flynt all my life. They’re simply my friends. They could never have been anything more.”

   Tears trickled down Nadine’s rosy cheeks. She sniffed several times. “Why must you scream at me? I’m not a well woman.” She clutched her silk blouse where the material draped across her breasts. “Sometimes I don’t know why the good Lord sees fit to let me go on living. I suppose I haven’t suffered enough.”

   Nadine stood on wobbly legs and made a valiant—if somewhat overly dramatic—effort to walk toward the door. Halfway there, she stumbled. Maddie rushed to her mother’s side, slid her arm around Nadine’s waist and sighed deeply.

   “Let me drive you home,” Maddie said. “A nice, long drive in the fresh air will be good for both of us.”

   “Yes, dear, that would be lovely.” Nadine patted Maddie’s cheek. “You can be such a good daughter…when you want to be.”

   Maddie sat her mother back on the sofa until she could clear off her desk and retrieve her handbag. On the way out, she instructed Alicia to forward any important calls to her cell phone and take messages about anything that could be handled tomorrow.

   Ten minutes later, with Nadine secured by the seat belt in Maddie’s white Mercedes-Benz convertible, they headed down Gulf Road, past County General Hospital. With wind humming around her, her hair flying like a bright red flag, Maddie shut out the sound of her mother’s droning whine. Complain, complain, complain. Was there never any end to it? Why couldn’t her mother be content? Sometimes Nadine didn’t care that no one responded to her incessant chatter; all she seemed to require was an audience to listen.

   Still tuned out to everything except her private thoughts about the upcoming gala at the club, Maddie whipped the convertible off the road and into her mother’s private drive. After their divorce, Jock had generously given Nadine the home they had shared for nearly twenty years, and Maddie now paid for the upkeep as her father had once done. The palatial Georgian sat on twenty acres, all immaculately groomed.

   Maddie parked, helped Nadine from the car and to the front door. Instead of bothering with trying to unlock the door, she simply rang the bell. Ernesta Sanchez, her mother’s longtime housekeeper, opened the door.

   “Oh, my, Señora Delarue, are you all right?” The short, squat Ernesta’s concern was genuine. Maddie knew, even though her mother would never admit being fond of a servant, that Ernesta was probably her mother’s best friend.

   “Mother’s had a busy day.” Maddie escorted Nadine past Ernesta and into the huge marble-floored foyer. “She had lunch with the girls at the club.” Maddie and Ernesta exchanged so-she-had-too-much-to-drink glances. “I’ll have one of the valets bring her car home later. She didn’t feel quite up to driving herself.”

   “Let me help you.” Ernesta took Nadine over completely, her big arm securely circling her employer’s waist. “What you need is a nice, long afternoon nap.”

   “Yes, you’re probably right,” Nadine said, smiling forlornly at her housekeeper. “I am a bit tired.” Nadine glanced at Maddie. “Do you mind terribly, dear? I’m sure you’d hoped we could spend the afternoon together. But I’m afraid I suddenly have a horrific headache.”

   “I don’t mind,” Maddie said. “Let Ernesta help you up to your room. I’ll run along, but I’ll phone later this evening to check on you.”

   “Yes, do that. Please. I do so look forward to your calls.” Nadine allowed Ernesta to lead her toward the massive staircase. “You should phone more often. I get terribly lonely.”

   “I promise that I’ll do better in the future.”

   While Nadine leaned on Ernesta as the two walked up the stairs, Maddie let herself out and rushed to her car. She sat behind the wheel for a couple of minutes, contemplating her mother’s life and their relationship. She had been trying—unsuccessfully—for the past ten years to get her mother to see a psychiatrist, to seek professional help for her depression, but Nadine adamantly refused.

   “I’m perfectly sane,” she’d said. “As sane as any woman could be whose husband humiliated her in front of the whole world. The man promised to love and honor me, to be faithful to me until death. Whatever you do, Maddie, never trust any man. They’re all alike. They’ll break your heart.”

   Snap out of it, Maddie told herself. If you let yourself, you could wallow so deeply in your mother’s self-pity that you might wind up drowning in it the way she has.

   Twenty minutes later, Maddie parked in the garage in the basement of her condo. After college, her mother had insisted she move home with her, but Maddie had struck a blow for independence then and there. And she’d never regretted having moved into the condo and separating herself from her mother. If she hadn’t done that, she doubted she would have survived without psychiatric help of her own.

   As she unlocked the door of her three-thousand-square-foot, two-story home, she heard music playing. That could mean only one thing. Thelma was here. Thelma Hewitt was her personal maid, a five-foot-tall ball of fire, with gray-streaked, short black hair and keen brown eyes that saw straight through most people and especially Maddie. Highly efficient, but a notorious busybody, Thelma had worked for Maddie for twelve years. Maddie hadn’t wanted a live-in maid, having grown up with a house full of servants. Being a daily maid had suited Thelma just fine. After all, she needed time for her husband, five children and fifteen grandchildren.

   After tossing her handbag and keys on the velvet Louis XIV chair in the foyer, Maddie followed the sound of the country-western music, which led her into the kitchen. There stood Thelma, singing along with an old Eddy Arnold tune, peeling apples and dropping the slices directly into an uncooked pie shell.

   “You look busy,” Maddie said.

   Thelma gasped, dropped her knife and the half-peeled apple onto the granite countertop. “Good Lord, gal, you scared the bejesus out of me!”

   “Sorry, I thought you heard me walk in.”

   Thelma wiped her hands on her apron, reached over to turn off the radio, then looked Maddie up and down. “What are you doing home at three o’clock?”

   Maddie eased up and onto a stool at the bar area that ran behind the work center. “I had to drive Mother home from the club.”

   Thelma raised her eyebrows. “How is Nadine?”

   “The same.”

   “Are you okay?”

   “Sure, I’m fine.” Thelma was a mother-to-the-world type of woman and she’d been mothering Maddie since the first day she came to work for her. “I just wish there was something I could do for Mother, some way I could help her.”

   “Nadine doesn’t want to be helped. She wants to be pitied. So you just go on pitying her and doing what you can. Can’t nobody help that woman but herself. You should be concentrating on your own life a bit more.”

   “Is this the get-married-and-have-babies talk that we’ve had on numerous occasions?”

   Thelma picked up the apple and the paring knife. “I know you modern girls think you don’t need a man to complete your life or kids of your own to give you a reason to live, but—”

   “But you think I’m the kind of woman who needs to have a husband and children.” Maddie reached over and picked up an apple slice from inside the pie pan. “On that one subject, you and Mother agree totally.” Maddie popped the apple bite into her mouth.

   “There’s a man out there waiting for you. You just haven’t found him yet.”

   “There are dozens of men out there waiting for me,” Maddie said. “Probably hundreds, if not thousands. And they all want one thing—my money. You know the funny thing is that Mother wants me to get married and give her grandchildren, but at the same time she warns me to never trust any man. And you know what, Thelma? I don’t trust men. Not any of them.”

   “Ah, but one of these days—”

   “One of these days, what? Some daring man will sweep me off my feet, make mad, passionate love to me and not give a damn that I’m the richest woman in Texas?”

   “Something like that.”

   “You’re daydreaming.”

   “Dreams are free, Maddie, my girl. If we don’t have our dreams, we don’t have anything. So what’s wrong with your dreaming about being swept off your feet by some handsome man?”

   “The last time I got swept off my feet, I wound up at the police station. It seems my Romeo had stolen a car to impress me.”

   “You’re talking about that Bridges boy…Dylan Bridges. That youngun sure was a boil on his daddy’s backside. Did everything and anything to rile the judge. I wonder whatever happened to him. Last time I saw him was right before he got sent off to Amarillo to that reform school. Lord, he was a sight, with that long hair and that earring. Looked like a damn hippie.”

   Maddie hopped off the stool, opened the refrigerator, removed a bottle of Perrier and headed for the door. “I think I’ll get some work done in my study. Say goodbye before you leave, okay?”

   “Sure thing. And I’ll bring you a piece of this pie, just as soon as I take it out of the oven.”

   Maddie smiled, then escaped to her study, a small, cozy retreat, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three sides and a wall of windows on the fourth. As she positioned herself in the oversized, navy-blue leather chair and placed her feet on the matching ottoman, she thought about Dylan Bridges. Over the years she’d thought of him from time to time, and always wondered what had happened to him. Rumors had abounded: he’d become everything from a mercenary to a priest. Which was highly unlikely because his family wasn’t Catholic.

   Where was Dylan now? And what was he doing? He’d been one boy who hadn’t given a damn that her daddy was Jock Delarue. He’d liked her. Wanted her. She’d known that fact as surely as she’d ever known anything. If only Dylan had come into her life later, when she’d been more mature—when they’d both been adults.

   If she met a guy like Dylan Bridges now, would she have the guts to reach out and grab him? Or would she let her doubts and insecurities about love, marriage and men in general stop her from taking a chance?

   Maddie shrugged. What difference did it make what she might or might not do? She was about as likely to meet a man like Dylan Bridges as she was to sprout wings and fly.

Two

   For just a split second Dylan felt as if he’d stepped back in time. Seventeen years. The old home looked the same, there on the big, level lot in the middle of town, only a few blocks from the courthouse. Did his father still walk to work every morning and then home again in the evenings? Probably. Carl Bridges was a creature of habit. If other things had changed about him, that probably hadn’t.

   His father had inherited this 1920s Craftsman style house from his uncle, who’d died a bachelor. Like many of the homes of its day, the Bridges house possessed two stories, a sloping roof line, a large square front porch with a swing and a detached two-car garage. The white picket fence around the property boasted a fresh coat of paint, as did the house. Dylan wondered if his great-uncle’s old Packard was still parked inside the garage. As a teenager, he had longed to get behind the wheel of that antique gem, but his father had refused to let him even sit inside the car.

   A large American flag, waving slightly in the wind, hung over the porch. His father, a Vietnam veteran, had been, in the best of times, a patriotic citizen, and no doubt he was now more so than ever. Looking back to his boyhood, Dylan could recall many reasons to have been proud of his dad. Why couldn’t he have realized it at the time?

   As he stepped away from the cab and onto the walkway that led up to the front porch, Dylan experienced a moment of uncertainty. Standing at the front door, he hesitated before ringing the bell. Maybe he should have telephoned first to tell his father he was coming. Why the hell had he wanted his arrival to be a surprise?

   Reminding himself that his father had been the one to call him, to extend the olive branch, to ask forgiveness, he punched the doorbell. Within seconds he heard footsteps inside the house, then the front door opened and there stood a broad-shouldered, stern-faced man of sixty, with a stock of neatly trimmed white hair and the same watery-blue eyes that Dylan remembered so well.

   A sudden smile flashed across Carl Bridges’ face as he reached out to grab Dylan’s arm. “Come on in, son. Come on in.” Carl draped one arm around Dylan’s shoulders and escorted him into the house.

   Dylan wasn’t sure what he had expected. A cordial handshake at most. But certainly not this warm, enthusiastic welcome. His father had never been an overly emotional man, and never one for displays of affection. The only hugs and kisses Dylan had gotten as a boy had come from his gentle, loving mother.

   “I had no idea you would come home so soon,” Carl said as he led Dylan into living room. “I’d hoped you would want to see me as much I wanted to see you, but…” Carl cleared his throat.

   Dylan stared at his dad, startled by the fact that the old man was almost in tears. This wasn’t the Carl Bridges he remembered. And this softer side of his father unnerved him. He had been prepared for both of them to feel and act a bit awkward, but it had never entered his mind that his father might have mellowed with age.

   “Have you had supper?” Carl asked. “I could make us some sandwiches here at the house. Or if you’d like we could run over to the Mission Creek Café for some barbecue. Whatever you’d like.”

   “Sandwiches here are fine with me, Dad.” Odd how easily he could say that word. Dad. And even more strange was how comfortable he felt in this house. The place had never felt more like home than it did at this very minute.

   Dylan glanced around the living room and found fresh tan paint on the walls and a new sofa and chair. The same simple wood paneling around the fireplace and the sturdy coffee and end tables remained, but wooden shutters had replaced the heavy curtains and window shades.

   “Come on back into the kitchen with me, son, and let’s talk.” Carl nodded the direction. “I’ll fix ham and cheese. That used to be your favorite.”

   His dad actually remembered what his favorite sandwich had been. He would have sworn that his father hadn’t known a thing about him back then, certainly nothing as personal as his preferences in food. Guess it just went to show how wrong he’d probably been about other things, too.

   “Yeah, it’s still my favorite.” Dylan followed his dad into the kitchen, a room that had changed even less than the living room. A new refrigerator seemed to be the only major difference. And the walls were now beige instead of the sunny yellow his mom had painted them.

   “Sit down. Sit down.” Carl opened the fridge and began removing items, laying ham and various condiments on the table. “Tell me about yourself, Dylan. I know you live in Dallas and that you’re a stockbroker. That private detective I hired to find you told me that much.”

   Dylan pulled out one of the wooden ladder-back chairs from the table and sat. “Why did you hire a private detective? Why didn’t you just use your local and state law enforcement connections?”

   “You know me, boy, I go strictly by the book whenever possible. I call in favors only if I have no other choice.” Carl sliced several thick slabs of ham. “There are times when a man gets himself in a jam and he has to do whatever is necessary to get himself out of trouble.”

   Staring at his father, Dylan wondered if he’d heard him right. “Are you in some sort of trouble? Is that why you asked me to come home? Do you need my help?”

   Carl took a loaf of bread out of the cupboard, removed four pieces and placed them on two earthenware dinner plates. “I asked you to come home because I want a chance to get to know my grown son and—” Carl cleared his throat “—to make amends for past mistakes.”

   “You weren’t the only one who made mistakes,” Dylan said. “I wasn’t blameless. I screwed up a lot, and most of the time it was on purpose. It seemed to be the only way I could get your attention.”

   “I’m not making any excuses, but…well, I had a mighty difficult time after your mama died.” Carl spread mayonnaise and hot mustard on the bread, then stacked ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and dill pickle slices before adding the top piece of bread. “I should have been a better father. I should have done something to help you after you stole that Porsche from the country club. I let my stupid pride keep me from doing what I really wanted to do. But at the time, I told myself I was doing the right thing, letting you learn your lesson the hard way.”

   “That’s exactly what I did,” Dylan said. “I had to learn everything the hard way back then. Even when I left the reform center, it took me a few more years to get on track and turn my life around.”

   “You’ve done well, son, and I’m awfully proud of you.”

   Dylan swallowed hard. “I…uh…I thought about calling you, you know. Over the years. From time to time. I even considered coming home, but I always chickened out. I wasn’t sure you ever wanted to see me again.”

   Carl placed the plate in front of Dylan, walked around the table and laid his hand on Dylan’s shoulder. “Not a day has gone by since you left for Amarillo that I haven’t thought about you, worried about you and…cared about you.”

   Dylan clenched his teeth, then lifted his hand and laid it on top of his father’s. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. That’s why I’ve come home for a while.”

   Tears misted Carl’s eyes. “Thank you, son. Thank you.”

   

   While nibbling on a Caesar salad, served to her at an umbrella-shaded table on the patio adjacent to the club’s outdoor swimming pool, Maddie went over her checklist for the Mystery Gala coming up in only a few more days. Everything was set. The menu had been approved by Chef Tomas. The jazz band from New Orleans was due to fly in on a charter plane on Friday afternoon at one. Actors from the local Little Theater had been hired to play the murder victim and the police detective, and both had been sworn to secrecy on the mystery plot. Mrs. McKenzie, the talented designer who owned Mission Creek Creations, had whipped up a perfectly divine little black satin gown for Maddie, and a matching satin shawl with pearls and Austrian crystals dripping from the edges. She’d wear diamond earrings and a couple of her diamond bracelets, but no necklace. Understated elegance was the style she preferred.

   One of the things Maddie enjoyed most about being filthy rich was being able to afford the best clothes money could buy. Some people called her a clotheshorse; maybe she was. Well, actually, no maybe about it. Her walk-in, fourteen-by-sixteen closet was a dead giveaway.

   A young waitress who was part of the staff that rotated shifts in the Empire Room, the Yellow Rose Café and the temporary Men’s Grill replenished Maddie’s iced tea, then asked, “Would you care for dessert today, Ms. Delarue?”

   “I’m not sure.” What was the young woman’s name? Maddie tried to remember. Daisy something or other, wasn’t it? “Maybe some fruit. Let me think a minute, please…Daisy.”

   The waitress smiled. Ah, Maddie thought, I must have gotten her name right.

   Wearing a modest one-piece dark green bathing suit, Josie Carson stopped by Maddie’s table on her way to the pool. “Working hard, I see.”

   “Just going over things for the Mystery Gala Friday night. You and Flynt are coming, aren’t you?”

   “We wouldn’t miss it.” Josie smiled, her face alight with a surreal glow. “Unless I have another serious bout of nausea and wind up in bed again.”

   “Nausea? Have you been sick?” Maddie asked, thinking the young bride looked the very picture of health.

   Josie laughed. “I’m not sick. Not the way you think. I’m pregnant.”

   “Oh, Josie, how wonderful!” Maddie shot up out of her chair and hugged Josie. “Flynt must be ecstatic.”

   “He’s so attentive that he’s driving me crazy.” Josie’s emerald eyes sparkled. “You’d think no other woman had ever had a baby.”

   “The man’s madly in love with you, so just relax and let him pamper you. That’s what prospective fathers are supposed to do. Right?”

   “I guess so. By the way he acts with Lena, he’s already shown me what a wonderful father he’s going to be.”

   “How is little Lena?”

   “Growing bigger and prettier every day.”

   “I don’t suppose there’s any news about her real parents?”

   Josie shook her head, swinging her shoulder-length, platinum-blond hair about her face. “I’m really torn about Lena. I know it’s selfish of me to want to keep her. Flynt and I adore her so much. But somewhere out there she has a mother, possibly both parents.”

   Maddie suddenly remembered the waitress who stood attentively waiting for her to decide about dessert. “Oh, Daisy, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. I’d like a bowl of strawberries. No cream.”

   “Yes, ma’am.” Daisy turned to Josie. “Mrs. Carson, may I add my congratulations about your pregnancy? This must be a wonderful time for you and your husband. And I imagine having a child of your own will help y’all give up little Lena when…if her real mother shows up to claim her.”

   “Thank you, Miss…Daisy, is it?” Josie smiled at the young waitress.

   “Yes, ma’am. Daisy Parker.” Daisy turned her attention to Maddie. “I’ll bring those strawberries right back out, Ms. Delarue.”

   “Thank you,” Maddie said, then when Daisy hurried off, Maddie hugged Josie again. “Give Flynt my love and tell him how happy I am for the two of you.”

   Josie nodded, then headed toward the pool. Maddie slumped down in her chair and glared sightlessly at her planning book lying open on the table. Josie Carson was pregnant. How did it feel, Maddie wondered, to be carrying the child of the man you loved—a man who adored you. She’d probably never know. Not all of her billions, not even all the money in the world, could buy her the kind of happiness Josie and Flynt shared.

   

   Dylan and Carl sat up until nearly midnight. Father and son talked—really talked—for the first time in Dylan’s life. They reminisced about the years before Dylan’s mother died, when they had been a family. Then they caught up on the years they’d lost during Dylan’s self-imposed exile, each cautiously sidestepping any discussion of the events directly prior to and following Dylan’s two-year term in the Reform Center. Twice during the evening, Carl had received phone calls that obviously upset him, but he assured Dylan that it wasn’t anything to worry about, simply legal matters that he was having a slight problem solving. And since he was just getting reacquainted with his father, Dylan didn’t press Carl to disclose the particulars.

   As the evening wore on, they shared a pot of coffee and kept talking. Carl wanted to know everything about Dylan, all the details of the years they had spent apart. And Dylan found himself questioning his father about Mission Creek and some of the people he remembered from his youth.

   “So, whatever happened to Maddie Delarue?” Dylan asked.

   Carl sighed. “Jock’s dead, you know. Died a few years back.”

   “Yeah, I’d heard. When a man as important as Jock Delarue dies, the whole state knows about it.”

   “Maddie inherited everything, except for some sizable charitable donations and the trust fund he’d set up for his second wife, Renee,” Carl said. “You know he divorced Nadine and married a girl not ten years older than Maddie, whom he’d been having an affair with for years.”

   “When did that happen? The divorce?”

   “Oh, about a year after…” Carl paused, then looked Dylan square in the eyes. “You were still in the Reform Center, so I suppose Maddie was seventeen.”

   Seventeen? He’d been seventeen when he’d received that strange letter from Maddie, the one telling him that life could throw you some cruel punches. Hell, she’d probably written to him around the time of her parents’ divorce. Back then, he’d been too self-absorbed to have considered that maybe she needed him to write back to her, to be a strong shoulder for her to cry on. God, what a terrible time that must have been for a girl like Maddie, who’d always been the center of her parents’ lives.

   Carl sighed. “There was a big scandal and a messy divorce. I don’t think Maddie spoke to her daddy for quite a few years after the divorce. And of course, Nadine was a basket case, so Maddie wound up taking care of her instead of the other way around.”

   “So, what’s she doing now?” Dylan asked. “Running all of Jock’s business interests, or is she leaving that up to her husband?”

   Carl shook his head. “Maddie’s never married. She’s been engaged twice. To that Newman boy first. But it didn’t work out. And then to some English count or duke or something. He turned out to be a penniless phony. Don’t guess it’s worked out too well for her. A woman with that much money could never be sure if a man was marrying her or her bank account.”

   If Maddie the woman was half as fabulous as Maddie the girl, Dylan couldn’t imagine a man wanting her for anything other than herself. She’d been pretty and smart and had done a real number on Dylan’s teenage hormones and his young heart.

   “Then I guess Maddie’s the big businesswoman, huh?” Dylan wondered if she’d cut that mane of golden-red hair and started wearing severe, nondescript business suits.

   “Actually, she has a group of financial advisors and company executives that handle things for her.” Carl finished off his fourth cup of coffee. “Of course, she makes all final decisions, but she doesn’t deal with the day-to-day running of Delarue, Inc. No, Maddie’s got herself an ordinary job as the events manager over at the Lone Star Country Club, and from what I hear she’s good at it, too. She’s always got something going on. Take this weekend for example. She’s put together some sort of black-tie murder-mystery gala. You know, one of those interactive things.”

   “This weekend?”

   “That’s right.”

   “Are you going?”

   “I’d planned on it.”

   “Would you like for me to go with you?”

   Carl beamed. “I’d love for you to go with me. It’d give me a chance to show you off.”

   And it would give me a chance to see Maddie Delarue again, Dylan thought.

   “Then we’ll go and make a night of it,” Dylan said. “I’ll wear one of my Armani tuxedos and we’ll drive to the club in my Porsche. I’m having it driven here.”

   Carl grinned from ear to ear. “Can’t think of anything I’d like better.”

   

   Maddie opened the French doors that led onto the second-floor balcony. As she stepped outside, the warm summer air enveloped her and the muted hum of a midsize town at midnight drifted up from below. Her plush, ultra-modern condo was located in the center of Mission Creek, and the entire complex of luxury housing belonged to her as it once had belonged to her father. As a matter of fact, her father had kept his mistress in one of the adjacent condos, then after they married, he and Renee had lived there for almost a year before they moved out of town and resettled in Corpus Christi.

   It had taken her years after the divorce to forgive her father for breaking up their family, and in time she had even learned to like her stepmother. But she’d never been able to reestablish the kind of relationship with her father that she’d wanted, mostly due to the fact that her mother expected her to choose sides.

   Illumination from the town brightened the dark night like soft lights on a Christmas tree. Often she stood out here and drank in the serenity of Mission Creek in slumber, peaceful and beautiful, the cares of the day laid to rest for a few brief hours. She couldn’t help thinking about all the families in all the houses in town and on the surrounding ranches. Men, women and children living perfectly normal lives and never realizing how lucky they were.

   Don’t do this! An inner voice commanded. Stop wallowing in self-pity.

   What was wrong with her? She had a wonderful life. She was rich—filthy rich—and relatively young and quite attractive. She had a job she enjoyed. Being the country club’s events manager might have started out as a lark, but over the years, it had become an integral part of Maddie’s life. After all, a person could be a guest at only so many social functions, head up only so many charitable organizations, take only so many holidays abroad.

   Besides, with far more knowledgeable people than she taking care of Delarue, Inc., people she trusted as her father had trusted them, Maddie needed a real job of some kind. Otherwise, she would have been available twenty-four hours a day for her mother’s never-ending succession of crises.

   Then again, as Nadine had said, if she had several grandchildren to dote on, to spoil rotten, then maybe she’d have something else to concentrate on other than herself.

   So, what are you going to do, Maddie, marry some money-hungry Don Juan just so your mother can have grandchildren? The very thought turned her stomach. What about artificial insemination? What about adoption? Neither solution required a husband.

   Off in the distance an ambulance siren wailed. It struck a sad, sobering note in the stillness of the night. Illness? Death? Another life with problems far more serious than hers? She felt almost guilty for wanting more when she already had so much. Far more than most people. But was it too much to ask for a man who would love her and her alone? Out there somewhere, there had to be a guy, rich and successful in his own right, who could look beyond the huge Delarue fortune and see the woman who longed to be loved and cherished. A man who would teach her to trust again, to believe in the happily ever after that had eluded her parents.

   Where are you? Maddie whispered. Where’s the man who will sweep me off my feet and carry me away with him? Where’s a guy like Dylan Bridges when you need him?

Three

   Carl Bridges had handed over his caseload to another circuit court judge three days ago, the day after Dylan arrived in Mission Creek. It was that one gesture, probably more than anything else, that showed Dylan the extent of his father’s love for him. He could waste time regretting the past, but he preferred to savor the present. After all, his father wasn’t getting any younger and Dylan suspected Carl had problems of some sort to deal with these days. He’d noticed his dad ate antacids as if they were candy. And every time the phone ran, Carl tensed. Was he expecting news from the doctor? Dylan had tried to broach the subject of what was bothering his father, but every time he did, Carl simply dismissed his suspicions as groundless.

   For some crazy reason, this evening Dylan felt like a teenager getting ready for his first date. He’d been nervous all afternoon. Whenever he thought about seeing Maddie Delarue again, he reverted to a testosterone-driven sixteen-year-old. It had been years since his body had controlled him so completely.

   Dylan inspected himself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Not bad, if I do say so myself, he thought. He’d had his housekeeper FedEx one of his Armani tuxedos, along with accessories. He looked exactly like what he was—a rich, successful businessman who knew how to dress well. Gone were any remnants of the long-haired bad boy whose attire had been faded jeans and a white T-shirt. He bore only a vague resemblance to that rebellious hellion. He’d stopped wearing an earring when he was twenty-two, and over the years the hole in his ear had closed. He’d grown a few inches taller and now reached a solid six feet, and he’d put on enough weight that his once lanky frame was now toned muscle.

   He doubted anyone would recognize him tonight, not even Maddie, but for the fact that he’d be showing up with his dad. How tongues would wag. What would the good townspeople be saying behind his back? Once Carl started bragging about Dylan’s success, he suspected that more than one former naysayer would be surprised. He grinned at the thought. A perverse part of him wished that Jock Delarue was alive. Would Jock still think Dylan wasn’t good enough for Maddie?

   “Son, you certainly look handsome.” Standing in the hall, just outside the bathroom, Carl surveyed Dylan. “I wish your mother were here. She’d be so proud of you.”

   Carl still wore his everyday clothes, a pair of khaki slacks and a short-sleeved cotton shirt.

   “Dad, you aren’t dressed,” Dylan said. “You’d better get a move on or we’ll be more than fashionably late.”

   “I…uh…I’m not feeling very well tonight,” Carl said. “Nothing serious. I think I’ve picked up a bug of some sort.”

   “Have you called your doctor?” Dylan asked.

   “No. There’s no need for that. I just need to stay close to home, get a little rest. I should be fine by tomorrow.”

   Dylan whipped off his bow tie. “I’ll change out of this tux and we’ll—”

   “Don’t change clothes,” Carl said. “I want you to go to the country club and enjoy yourself. Tell everybody there tonight who you are. And explain that you and I have reconciled our differences and the reason I didn’t show up tonight is because I’m just a bit under the weather. I don’t want you to miss out on the fun.” Carl offered Dylan a feeble smile. “Besides, if you stay here, you won’t get to see Maddie.”

   “What makes you think I want to see Maddie?” Dylan grinned.

   “Just a calculated guess. It seems her name has come up in our conversations more than once these past few days.”

   Dylan shrugged. “Okay, so I’m curious about her. After all, Maddie was my first love.” He laughed, but a bitter inner voice reminded him that Maddie had been his only love. The only girl who’d ever gotten under his skin.

   

   Maddie buzzed around inside the Lone Star Country Club, issuing orders, greeting guests and double-checking everything, down to the most insignificant detail. Her detail-oriented personality lent itself well to planning and executing grand affairs. Dinner had been planned for the Empire Room, for those who came early. The Mystery Gala would be held in the ballroom on the third floor, and Maddie had assigned her new assistant, Alicia, to be in charge of the event itself, leaving Maddie free to greet guests and make sure every aspect of tonight’s extravaganza went off without a hitch. An elaborate buffet table had been set up to accommodate those who hadn’t dined in the Empire Room and for those wanting to snack throughout the evening.

   Dressed in her simple yet elegant black gown, diamonds dripping from her ears and wrists, Maddie stood several feet from the entrance to the grand two-story, pink granite foyer. Using the tiled, granite fountain in the middle of the lobby as her backdrop, she smiled and spoke to each new arrival. From her vantage point in the lobby, she could see the cars lined up outside the club. Jaguars, Porsches, BMWs. Tonight, the elite of Mission Creek would take part in a fun and games party, and the proceeds from the event would be given to the Red Cross. Maddie especially enjoyed putting together charity events like this one, knowing that her efforts not only entertained the club’s members and their friends, but also provided assistance to those in need.

   Joan O’Brien, the manager of Body Perfect, the ladies’ spa at the club, entered the lobby on her husband Hart’s arm. Such an attractive couple, Maddie thought, and so lucky to have found each other again. Their love story was one right out of the pages of a fairy tale—or a romance novel. During the past half dozen years or so, Joan had become one of Maddie’s best friends and she adored the O’Briens’ nine-year-old daughter. Although she wasn’t officially Helena’s godmother, she adored playing the role of “Aunt” Maddie to the hilt.

   No sooner had she and Joan started chatting when Hart whisked his wife away before the onslaught of the Carson clan. The big daddy of the family, Ford Carson, a robust, belly-over-his-belt type of man with a shock of white hair and bushy eyebrows, led his plump, blond wife Grace into the lobby. Following the patriarch came Flynt and Josie, Matt and Rose, then Fiona and Cara.

   Seven o’clock passed quickly, turning into seven-fifteen and finally seven-thirty. Preparing to leave her post in the lobby to go upstairs to the ballroom, Maddie noticed a sleek, black Porsche pull up under the canopied entrance to the club. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about the man who stepped out of the car that attracted her attention. From this distance she couldn’t make out his features clearly, but there was something about the way he carried himself, a self-confidence in his stance and walk that proclaimed to one and all that he was a man to be reckoned with. Maddie shook her head. Where had those thoughts come from? She wasn’t prone to fanciful musings about perfect strangers.

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