A Dad Of His Own

FOR THE CHILDRENFATHER FOUNDTen years ago, Chessa Margolis thought one lie wouldn't hurt anyone. But when little Bobby tracked down the dad on his birth certificate, Nick Purcell appeared–claiming his newfound son! Chessa knew she and Nick had never actually met, but Bobby longed for a father, and Nick desperately wanted to be one. Yet she never thought they'd grow so close…and the last thing she expected was to fall for Nick herself….But the closer she and Nick became, the more Chessa had to lose. She knew before long she'd have to reveal the truth…and risk losing Nick….Sometimes families are made in the most unexpected way!
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A Dad Of His Own


   

   “I’d already left town before you could possibly have known you were pregnant,”

   Nick said, holding a piece of paper.

   

   

   Chessa recognized the copy of her son’s birth certificate. The cetificate with Nick’s name on it. “I’d like you to leave now.”

   

   

   A peculiar sadness shadowed his gaze. “You know I can’t do that.” He stepped back, regarding her with unnerving intensity. “Chessa, you have every right to be hurt. But I want you to know that what we had together was very special.”

   

   

   All she could do was stare at him in utter awe. How gallant of him, she thought, to fake memories that didn’t exist, about a relationship that never happened. Until five minutes ago, Chessa Margolis and Nick Purcell had never even met.

   

   

   

   

   FOR THE CHILDREN

   I Now Pronounce You Mom & Dad (SE #1261)

   A Dad of His Own (SR #1392) The Fatherhood Factor (SE #1276)

   Dear Reader,

   

   

   September’s stellar selections beautifully exemplify Silhouette Romance’s commitment to publish strong, emotional love stories that touch every woman’s heart. In The Baby Bond, Lilian Darcy pens the poignant tale of a surrogate mom who discovers the father knew nothing of his impending daddyhood! His demand: a marriage of convenience to protect their BUNDLES OF JOY...

   

   

   Carol Grace pairs a sheik with his plain-Jane secretary in a marriage meant to satisfy family requirements. But the oil tycoon’s shocked to learn that being Married to the Sheik is his VIRGIN BRIDE’s secret desire.... FOR THE CHILDREN, Diana Whitney’s miniseries that launched in Special Edition in August 1999—and returns to that series in October 1999—crosses into Silhouette Romance with A Dad of His Own, the touching story of a man, mistaken for a boy’s father, who ultimately realizes that mother and child are exactly what he needs.

   

   

   Laura Anthony explores the lighter side of love in The Twenty-Four-Hour Groom, in which a pretend marriage between a lawman and his neighbor kindles some very real feelings. WITH THESE RINGS, Patricia Thayer’s Special Edition/Romance cross-line miniseries, moves into Romance with Her Surprise Family, with a woman who longs for a husband and home and unexpectedly finds both. And in A Man Worth Marrying, beloved author Phyllis Halldorson shows the touching romance between a virginal schoolteacher and a much older single dad.

   

   

   Treasure this month’s offerings—and keep coming back to Romance for more compelling love stories!

   Enjoy,


   Mary-Theresa Hussey

   Senior Editor

   Please address questions and book requests to:

   Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

A Dad of His Own Diana Whitney


   

   To Heather MacDonald, who has been a joy, a friend and an inspiration. Thanks, Heather, for being the beautiful person that you are.

   DIANA WHITNEY

    is a three-time Romance Writers of America RITA finalist, Romantic Times Magazine Reviewers’ choice nominee and finalist for Colorado Romance Writer’s Award of Excellence. Diana has conducted writing workshops, and has published several articles on the craft of fiction. She is a member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Published Authors Network and Romance Writers of America. She and her husband live in rural Northern California, with a beloved menagerie of furred creatures, domestic and wild. You can write to her c/o Silhouette Books, 300 East 42nd Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017.


   Chapter One

   “Chocolate chip. Cool.” Bobby Margolis plucked a cookie from the heaped platter and took a healthy bite. “Umm...good.” Between chews he remembered his manners. Wiping a moist crumb from his chin, he managed a hasty swallow, a sheepish grin. “Thanks.”

   “’Tis welcome you are, lad.” A wrinkly woman with hair like cotton balls set the platter on a doilydraped table next to his glass of milk. “Help yourself now. A growing boy needs nourishment.”

   “Okay.” He took another cookie, slyly palmed a third for later. Mom always said it was rude to be greedy, but he’d sneaked away from the class outing before lunch, and his stomach was rumbling like an old school bus on a bumpy road.

   Humming softly, the nice lady with the pretty smile busied herself laying fancy napkins beside the platter of warm treats, pretending not to notice the extra cookie hidden in his hand. Bobby was pretty sure she’d seen him take it, though, because her eyes got all twinkly, and her mouth kind of twitched the way Mom’s did when she was trying not to laugh.

   A sweet fragrance wafted around him as the lady moved, a scent that reminded him of the funny heartshaped packets his mother laid in closets and drawers. Lavender, she called it, and said it made things smell good. Only Bobby didn’t want his underwear reeking like girl stuff, so Mom had promised to keep all her flowery junk out of his bedroom. Mom always kept her promises. Well, not always. There was one promise she hadn’t kept.

   That’s why Bobby was here.

   He swallowed, squirmed, twitched his sneakered feet, which dangled several inches above the gleaming hardwood floor. “So when do I get to meet the lawyer?”

   “You already have.” With an amused tilt of her head, the lady’s face spread into a wreath of wrinkles that made her look about a million years old. “Clementine Allister St. Ives at your service, young man.” She extended a leathery hand with swollen knuckles that were all red and lumpy.

   Arthritis, Bobby thought, on account of his greatgreat-aunt Winthrop, who was his gramma’s mother’s sister, had arthritis, too. It made her hands all bumpy and swollen, and she said it hurt, so he was careful not to squeeze Clementine’s hand when he shook it. “You don’t look like a lawyer.” His gaze wandered across to a wall papered with oldfashioned flowers and studded with framed certificates. There were school names he didn’t recognize—Harvard, Stamford, Berkeley—and all kinds of peculiar terms that he’d never seen before. He knew what attorney-at-law meant, but he didn’t know what professor of genealogy was, and some of the other terms confused him as well. “What’s a fid?”

   Clementine followed his gaze, smiling. “That’s a Ph.D. certificate, lad, a doctorate degree in psychology.”

   Bobby sat up straighter. “You’re a doctor, too?”

   “Not in the medical sense.” She settled into a big wooden rocking chair, flinching slightly. “I counsel families now and again.”

   “Counsel?” The word evoked an unpleasant image of his elementary school vice principal lecturing kids about chewing gum and homework. “I don’t like counselors. They’re always bawling people out.”

   “Bawling people out, are they?” Clementine regarded him kindly. “Well, lad, as my sainted da used to say, if God didn’t want folks to listen more often than talk, He wouldn’t have given them two ears and only one mouth.”

   A tubby gray cat peeked out from behind a frilly lace curtain, then hopped onto the woman’s lap. She idly stroked the animal, which curled comfortably under her squishy bosom and purred so loud Bobby could hear it all the way across the room. The animal diverted Clementine’s attention long enough for him to surreptitiously snag another cookie.

   “I got a cat,” he announced between bites. “His name is Mugsy. I want a dog, too, but Mom says a dog would be too lonesome, on account of she’s at work all day and I’m at school.”

   “Are you now?” Reaching for a manila file on the desk beside the rocker, she retrieved her dangling glasses, slipped them efficiently into place. “And what grade would you be in?”

   “Fourth.” Bobby figured she should know that, because he’d filled out a form for the pretty lady who worked in the front office. Deirdre, her name was. She had really nice eyes and a laugh that made him go all wiggly inside. She’d spent a lot of time with him, asking his address and stuff. She’d wanted to know what his birthday was, and that’s when he’d given her the birth certificate that he’d sneaked out of the metal box Mom kept in the back of her closet. Deirdre had made a copy of it.

   Squinting at a document inside the file, Clementine ignored the cat batting at the pearl-studded loop dangling from her funny-looking spectacles. “So you’d be nine years old, would you?”

   “Nine and a half.” He swallowed, reached for the glass of milk and drained half of it in a single swallow. “I’ll be ten in March.” He started to wipe his mouth with his sleeve, then noticed the stack of linen napkins Clementine had laid by the cookie platter and used one of them instead. “Mom says I’m smart for my age.”

   “That you are, laddie, that you are.” Wise blue eyes twinkled over lenses that looked like they’d been chopped in half. “You must be a crafty young man to have found your way into San Francisco all by yourself.”

   Bobby shrugged. “It wasn’t no big deal. My teacher got a big bus to take the whole class to the museum today, so when the rest of the kids went inside, I ran around the corner and looked for a cab.”

   “Ah, how clever. Don’t you think your teacher might be a wee bit perturbed when she notices you’re gone?”

   “Nah. If she asks where I am, my best friend, Danny, is gonna tell her I’m in the bathroom.” Bobby glanced at an ornately carved wall clock positioned between a pair of intricate tapestries. “Only I’ve gotta be back by two o’clock, ’cause that’s when the school bus is gonna be back to take everyone home.”

   “And home is—” she adjusted her glasses, peering down at the file “—in Marysville? That’s quite a distance. How is it you decided to visit me instead of enjoying the museum with your class?”

   Bobby sucked in a breath. His hands were sweaty and kind of cold, so he wiped his palms on his jeans. “A long time ago you helped my friend Danny get adopted. He told me I should call you, on account of you’re real good at finding parents for people.”

   “I see.” Clementine studied the open file. She looked sad, so Bobby figured she was looking at his birth certificate. His whole name was there, Robert James Margolis. So was his mom’s, along with the name of a man he’d never known.

   “Can you find my dad?” Bobby blurted.

   “Ah, so it’s your father you’re seeking, is it?”

   Without warning, Bobby’s throat went dry, and his eyes went wet. He laid the half-eaten cookie aside, took another healthy swallow of milk. His heart was beating really fast, and his hands were still cold.

   Closing the file, Clementine rocked quietly for a moment, stroking the sleeping cat in her lap. “Your mum doesn’t know you’re here, does she, child?”

   Bobby sniffed, shook his head. “She doesn’t like to talk about my daddy. I think she figures it’ll make me sad.” Actually, Bobby had only asked her once, when he’d been just a little kid. Her eyes had gotten all red and watery. She’d promised they’d talk about it when he was older. Bobby was older now. He was almost grown up. But his mom had broken her promise.

   Squaring his shoulders, he hiked his chin, willed his lip to stop quivering. “I brought money.” Digging into his pocket, he retrieved a crumpled wad of bills, $18.65 that represented his life savings. He plunked it all beside the cookie platter, then remembered he’d need cab fare, and stuffed five dollars back into his pocket.

   Noting a peculiar expression on Clementine’s wrinkled face, he quickly added, “I got more.” Squirming in the chair, he pulled the boom box reverently into his lap. It had been a Christmas gift from his mother, and was his most treasured possession. “This is worth a whole bunch of money, maybe even fifty dollars. It has real good sound. You can make it so loud that the speakers puff out. It’s got bass and treble adjustments—” he demonstrated with a flick of the slide bar “—and it plays tapes and CDs and all the cool radio stations. It’s really neat.”

   Clementine’s smile was kind of sad. “Is it now?”

   “Want me to turn it on for you?”

   “That won’t be necessary. ’Tis a fine instrument, to be sure.”

   “Oh.” Swallowing a stab of disappointment at not being able to play his beloved music one last time, he reached inside his shirt, pulled out a wrinkled envelope with the name of the man he’d yearned for all his life. He touched the smeared ink with his fingertip, then passed the envelope to Clementine. “It’s a letter to my dad, for when you find him.”

   She took it gently, cradled it in those gnarled hands as if it were as fragile as a butterfly. “Tell me why you’re wanting to locate him after all these years.”

   The request surprised him, made him think for a moment. “’Cause there’s gonna be a father-son picnic next month, and I don’t wanna get stuck with dorky old Mr. Brisbane again.”

   “Mr. Brisbane?”

   “Yeah. He’s the school janitor, and he always partners up with kids who don’t have dads so they don’t feel, you know, left out and stuff.”

   “That’s very nice of him.”

   Bobby shrugged. “Yeah, I guess, only I’m sick of borrowing dads all the time. I want my own dad.”

   “Of course you do,” Clementine murmured. “Every boy deserves a father of his very own.”

   Hardly daring to breathe, Bobby leaped to his feet, clutching the boom box to his chest. “So you’ll do it, you’ll find him for me?”

   “I’ll do my best, lad.”

   A tremor of excitement shook him to his sneakers. He heaved a sigh of relief, and would have laid the boom box on Clementine’s desk had she not extended a hand to stop him.

   “You keep it safe for me, child, until I find just the perfect place for it.”

   He swallowed hard. “You mean it?”

   “I do indeed. Deirdre?” In less than a heartbeat the pretty, dark-haired woman stepped into the room. “Will you please call a cab for young Mr. Margolis? He has a bus to catch.”

   Deirdre flashed Bobby the brightest smile he’d ever seen in his whole life. “Of course.”

   At the doorway, Bobby hesitated, glanced over his shoulder. “Danny was right. You’re a real nice lady.”

   Clementine’s chuckle startled the snoozing cat. “Thank you, lad.”

   His gaze flickered to the small wad of bills and scattering of coins on the corner of her desk. Chewing his lip, he motioned to Deirdre, who bent down so he could whisper in her ear. “Do you think that’s enough money?”

   “More than enough,” Deirdre whispered back. “Clementine doesn’t care about the money.”

   “Then why does she do stuff?”

   “For the children, of course. It’s always for the children.”

   

   

   The house was larger than he’d expected, old and quaint, with fading gray clapboards and a covered porch hung with a riot of blooming flowers. A pair of peaked-roof dormers protruded from the second story like startled eyes keeping watch on the neighborhood. The lawn was sparse, closely clipped but barren in spots, as if well used by the same children who played there now. Happy laughter echoed in the dry autumn air, a universal symbol of boyish joy.

   A fat gray cat sprawled on the porch rail, tail twitching in time to the music blasting from one of those massive portable stereo units with speakers powerful enough to blast paint off a wall. It blared with the pulsing discordance popular nowadays, although the undulating rhythm made his teeth ache and raised the fine hairs along his nape. Aggravating adults was the purpose of youthful music. In that context, the chaotic sounds emanating from the shiny black boom box had done its job.

   The entire image was enthralling, the scampering children, the biting noise punctuated by thrilled laughter, hoots of joy. Memories in the making, he thought, sweet images of childhood that would someday be cherished beyond measure. Childhood was such a fleeting thing. His own had ended all too soon.

   From his vantage point across the street, he gazed out his car window at the youngsters playing soccer on the scuffed lawn. A gregarious blonde was the leader, a shouting, whirling, whistling bundle of knobby-kneed energy shrieking orders like a five-star general, orders that his teammates cheerfully ignored. A sweating, heavyset child puffed around the makeshift field as if every step was an effort. Others encouraged him, included him, although it was painfully apparent that the chubby child’s soccer skills were far below those of his friends.

   Joining the game was a lanky youth with hair shorn over the ears to leave a peculiar hank at the crown pulled into a ponytail, and a youngster wearing a ripped football jersey who seemed to be the clown of the group. He pranced, danced, cheered, jeered and wiggled his bony butt at the slightest provocation, much to the delight of his giggling comrades.

   There was also a boy slightly smaller than the others, quieter, wearing a white T-shirt so huge it hung nearly to his denim-clad knees. Tufts of straight brown hair poked out from under a blue baseball cap worn backward so the bill covered his nape, but exposed large, anxious eyes.

   It was this boy who tossed a chummy arm around the heavyset child’s shoulders when a kick-pass was missed. The smaller boy said something with a grin and a shrug that made the chubby youngster smile. He liked that.

   In fact, he liked everything he saw. The hoots and hollers of kids at play, the sweaty little faces and the whirling energy of youthful exuberance on a clear Sunday afternoon. Even from a distance he could see that the boys were very different from each other, every bit as unique in style and personality even at this tender age as the adult men they would become. Each of them appeared happy, well cared for and loved. Each undoubtedly possessed special talents, specific gifts. Children at play, laughing, eager, filled with joy. A lump lodged in his throat as he watched, awestruck.

   He wondered which one was his son.

   

   

   “Bobby, lunchtime!”

   “Aw, Mom, five more minutes, please?”

   Stifling a smile, Chessa Margolis forced a parental firmness that had never come easily. Her son was the light of her life. She adored him beyond measure, and was loath to deny him anything, preferring to wheedle his acquiescence rather than insist upon it. “It’s up to you, sweetheart, but the pizza will be cold by then.”

   “Pizza?” Bobby straightened, eyes huge, shoulders quivering. Rotating the black-and-white soccer ball in hands that seemed too small for the task, he angled an apologetic glance to his disappointed teammates. “Gotta go.” He flipped the ball to his best friend, Danny, a skinny blond dynamo who lived two houses away. “Later, dudes.”

   Ignoring grumbles from his buddies, Bobby snatched up his beloved boom box, hit the porch running, dashed through the screen door his mother held open for him and skidded into the kitchen, sniffing the air like a hungry hound dog.

   “Wash your hands.” Chessa waited for Mugsy’s unhurried entrance before releasing the screen door, which squeaked shut with a hollow shudder. “And take off that filthy hat before you eat.” A peek into the kitchen confirmed that the grungy blue baseball cap had been hooked on a peg by the back door while Bobby scrubbed up in the kitchen sink beside a large bowl of whole peeled apples waiting to be sculptured.

   Wiping clean hands on his dirty T-shirt, Bobby spun from the sink, bounced into the nearest chair and helped himself to a slice of the freshly baked pizza. He bit into it without a trace of fear, as if a blistered mouth was small inconvenience compared to the joy of devouring his favorite food.

   Chessa turned off the blaring radio on her way to the sink, eliciting a muffled protest from her chewing son. “You know the rules. No television or music during meals.”

   Having polished off one slice of pizza, Bobby reached for another. “Danny’s got a new pair of sneakers,” he announced between chews. “They’re really cool. You can pump them full of air and stuff.”

   “That’s nice.” At the sink, Chessa completed the apple processing with a diluted lemon juice bath, then set them into a colander to drain. Later that afternoon she’d carefully carve them, dry them and use the unique results to create country craft dolls that provided a tidy second income for Bobby’s college fund.

   “I wish I had a pair.”

   “A pair of what?”

   “Air pumps, like Danny’s.”

   “Oh. Do you have enough money saved up?” When he didn’t reply, she glanced over her shoulder. He shook his head, avoiding her gaze. “How much more do you need?”

   A limp shrug. “A lot.”

   “There are some extra chores around here I could use some help with.” She set the draining apples aside and wiped her hands on a tea towel. “We’ll sit down and count out exactly how much money you have, then we’ll calculate how much more you need and—”

   “Never mind.” Pushing away his half-empty plate, Bobby leaped up from the table with startling speed and an expression that could only be described as apprehensive. “I don’t want to count money and stuff.”

   “Managing finances for things you want is important, sweetie. You know that. We do it all the time. That’s how you saved up for that remotecontrol car you love so much.”

   Eyes darting like a cornered cat, Bobby snatched up his radio, sidestepped toward the door. “Can I go outside now?”

   “You haven’t finished your lunch.”

   “I’m not very hungry.”

   “Not hungry for pizza?” She frowned, concerned by the peculiar flush staining his cheeks. “Aren’t you feeling well?”

   “I’m okay, I just wanna go out—” A knock at the door spun him around, flooding his tense features with obvious relief. “That’s Danny. Can I go, Morn?”

   Heaving a sigh, she nodded, and watched her son bolt from the room. Bobby had been acting strangely for the past week. He’d been elusive, jumpy, even more anxious than usual. Just as disturbing was his refusal to acknowledge anything was wrong, let alone agree to discuss it.

   Chessa knew her son, understood every nuance of expression, every subtle tilt of body language. He was biding something, something that both worried and excited him, something that, for the first time in his young life, he’d chosen not to share with the mother who adored him.

   Lost in thought, she retrieved a paring knife and was absently eyeing the peeled apple in her palm when a peculiar sound caught her attention.

   She returned the apple to the colander, laid down the paring knife and listened. It was a man’s voice, not a boy’s. A man speaking quietly, gently, in a tone too soft for words to be deciphered. Bobby’s response was choked, broken, inaudible.

   Alarmed, Chessa rushed to the living room and nearly fainted. There he was, a specter from the past with the power to destroy everything she held dear.

   From the doorway the man gazed over Bobby’s head, expectantly at first, then his eyes slowly clouded with confusion. “It’s been—” he paused, swallowed, studied her for a moment longer “—a long time.”

   Her mouth went dry. She steadied herself on the doorjamb. The room continued to spin. It was her worst nightmare.

   This time it was real.

   

   

   She was beyond beautiful. The woman staring at him as if seeing a ghost affected him like a punch in the gut. A twist of sable hair above a fragile, heartshaped face with huge, liquid eyes so blue they took his breath away. It was a remarkable face, exquisite in its perfection even as its color dissipated to a sickly pallor. She clutched the doorjamb with a white-knuckled grip.

   “Yes.” A whisper more than a word. “A long time.”

   He wanted to sweep her into his arms. He wanted to beg her forgiveness for having abandoned her so very long ago. He wanted to heap blessings and gratitude upon her for having gifted him with such a precious son. Most of all he wanted to know why he couldn’t remember ever having laid eyes on her.

   This was a woman no sane man could forget.

   Then again. Nick Purcell’s youth had been anything but sane. Town bad boy, blamed for everything and responsible for much, he’d been an angry adolescent who’d risen above poverty and abuse by having removed most of it from his mind. He could barely remember those years, didn’t want to remember them. That was his cross to bear, not this lovely woman’s. Clearly he’d hurt her enough. Nick would rather gnaw off his own arm than cause her more pain by confessing his own failure of recall.

   “It’s wonderful to see you,” he told her, and meant it.

   She swayed slightly, those gorgeous eyes so wide the China-blue pupils were completely surrounded by white. Lush lips quivered, moved slightly.

   A sob, a sniff, a small hand clutched his sleeve. “I knew you’d come, I knew it.”

   Dragging his gaze from the trembling woman, Nick knelt before the child whose eyes, as blue as his mother’s, gleamed with moisture and excitement. Words choked in Nick’s throat, caught behind a lump of emotion. Gazing into the face of his child was like a religious experience. His heart felt swollen, raw. His son, his flesh and blood. It was the proudest moment of his life. And the most poignant.

   Bobby’s chin quivered. “Are you really my dad?”

   In the breast pocket of his suit coat, a folded birth certificate forwarded from the St. Ives Law Firm burned over his heart. “Yes, Bobby, I’m really your dad.”

   “Don’t go away again.” A tear slid quietly down his small cheek. “Please don’t go away.” With that, the child threw himself into Nick’s arms, sobbing.

   Nick hugged him fiercely. “I won’t,” he whispered, barely about to choke out the words. “You’re my son, and I’ll never leave you. Never.”

   The woman issued a strangled gasp. Nick barely heard it.

   

   

   This wasn’t happening.

   Icy fingers of fear closed around Chessa’s throat. Terror choked her dry. Dear God, she prayed silently. Let this be a dream.

   Across the room that man, that horrifying phantom from the past, knelt down to gaze at her beloved child as if regarding a small god. In a blatant display of mutual veneration, Bobby focused on his newly discovered father with an expression of utter adulation that quite frankly drove a stake through Chessa’s heart.

   For over nine years Bobby’s happiness had been the driving force of her life. Nothing else had mattered. Chessa had completely devoted herself to meeting her son’s emotional and physical needs. She’d thought it had been enough. It hadn’t.

   That hurt.

   There was more, so much more. Bobby didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, that what he clearly believed to be the happiest moment of his life was in reality the worst thing that could possibly have happened. The joy in his young eyes would soon be replaced by pain and loathing. Chessa couldn’t allow that to happen but didn’t know how to stop it.

   With a choked cry she spun back into the kitchen, staggered to the sink. Bracing herself, she gasped for breath, propped herself against the counter with widespread, trembling arms. Perhaps this was all a hoax, a cruel joke played by an impeccably groomed imposter wearing Italian loafers and a designer suit that probably cost more than her monthly mortgage. After all, the vision of prosperity in her living room bore little resemblance to the angry young man she remembered, the sullen adolescent in low-slung jeans and trademark black T-shirt with the sleeves torn out.

   The young Nick Purcell had been wild, rebellious, always on the cutting edge of trouble, with a doleful James Dean sex appeal that teenage girls had found irresistible. He’d been the subject of gossip, whispers, speculation, and had been rumored to enjoy a love life more active than a rock musician.

   Every town had at least one bad boy. The central California farming community where Chessa grew up had more than its share, although Nick Purcell had been far and away the most notorious. It was in the blood, folks had said. Like father, like son.

   Like father. Like son.

   “Chessa?”

   She spun around, faced him with terror in her heart. Her chest heaved as she struggled for air. She blinked rapidly. The image did not disappear.

   He was there. He was real.

   Extending a hand, Nick started to speak, then dropped his arm to his side with an anguished expression. His gaze flickered around the neat kitchen to settle on the plate of half-eaten pizza on the table. He smiled. “Sausage and mushroom,” he murmured. “It’s my favorite, too.”

   Chessa found her voice. “Why are you here?”

   The smile faded, tucked itself back into a face that was stronger than she remembered, but just as handsome. A square jaw. Perfect nose. Lips that were both virile and vulnerable, and dark eyes beneath a swath of brow that gave him a uniquely brooding appearance.

   His sigh was nearly imperceptible, more sad than impatient. “I had to see him.”

   She closed her eyes, clamped her lips together. This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t.

   Pivoting around, she snatched a paring knife off the counter, grabbed an apple and carved frantically. “You had no right to come here.”

   “He’s my son.”

   Breath caught in her throat. She closed her eyes, bit her lip, then refilled her lungs and dug the paring knife into the pale fruit flesh to shape the bridge of the nose, the gouge of a mouth. “Bobby is my son, not yours.”

   A moment of silence. When Nick spoke again, she realized he’d moved closer to her. “I don’t blame you for being angry. I should have been there for you. I’m sorry I wasn’t.”

   The knife hovered over the partially carved apple. She chanced a glance over her shoulder, regretted it instantly. The expression on his face was one of guilt and torment.

   He covered his pain quickly, clasping his hands behind his back the way a powerful man does to display command of an uncomfortable situation. “I wish you’d been able to tell me about our child. Of course, I understand why you couldn’t.”

   Caution deadened her voice into a dull monotone. “Precisely what is it that you understand, Mr. Purcell?”

   Raising his chin a notch, he twisted his mouth in a type of a shrug. “Calculating back from the date of Bobby’s birth, I realize that I’d already left town before you could possibly have known you were pregnant.”

   She couldn’t have been more shocked if he’d punched her. “How do you know when Bobby was born?”

   Apparently baffled by the question, he retrieved a folded sheet from his breast pocket, stepped forward to display it.

   A moment before the room started to spin, Chessa recognized the copy of her son’s birth certificate. Without realizing that she still held the paring knife, she absently clasped her trembling hands, oblivious to the sting until Nick sprang forward.

   “You’ve cut yourself.” Alarmed, he dropped the document, pried the paring knife from her hand, then snatched a tea towel from the counter and pressed it to the superficial wound. His touch was warm, firm, exquisitely gentle. “Do you have any bandages?”

   “That isn’t necessary.” She pulled away, feeling strange. “I’d like you to leave now.”

   A peculiar sadness shadowed his gaze. “You know I can’t do that.”

   “Of course you can. You’re good at leaving.”

   The snap in her voice jarred him. He stepped back, regarding her with unnerving intensity. “I understand how you feel.”

   “No, you don’t.” She hated the frantic quaver in her voice, the high-pitched hysteria hovering at the back of her throat. “You can’t possibly understand. Please, please, I’m begging you, just go away and leave us alone.”

   His eyelids fluttered shut, and she saw a scrape of white as his teeth grazed his lower lip. A shudder moved through him. When he opened his eyes, he regarded her with a peculiar hesitance. “Chessa, you have every right to be hurt, and to feel abandoned. I want to make that up to you.”

   “You can’t.”

   “I can try.” As she tried to turn away, he touched her arm, and the warmth radiated from his fingers like a small flame. “I want you to know that—” he paused for breath “—that you were always special to me.”

   Chessa stiffened. “Excuse me?”

   He licked his lips, tried for a smile that didn’t quite make it. “What we had together, what we shared was very special.”

   All she could do was stare at him in utter awe. How gallant of him, she thought, to fake memories that didn’t exist about a relationship that never happened. Until five minutes ago, Chessa Margolis and Nick Purcell had never even met.

   Chapter Two

   During the few minutes it took for Chessa to retrieve an adhesive strip and bandage her hand, her mind was in chaos. There was no easy escape from the tangle of lies. Truth was the only option now, a truth that would deeply disappoint the son she adored. Postponing the inevitable would only intensify his disillusionment.

   There was no choice, of course. Chessa knew that, and gathered her courage for what was to come. A deep breath, a silent prayer, and she faced the stranger in her kitchen. “We have to talk.”

   Nick glanced up. “Isn’t it easier just to slice them?”

   “Slice them?” She followed his gaze to the partially sculpted fruit draining on a paper towel. “Oh, the apples aren’t for pie. I sculpt them into novelty dolls as part of my craft business. Creations by Chessa.” To her horror, high-pitched laughter bubbled off a tongue quite clearly out of control. “It’s not a big business, of course. Just spare time. I make wreaths out of dried foliage, too. And holiday decorations, of course.”

   “I see.” Clearly he didn’t see at all, although a distinctly amused glint lightened an otherwise dark gaze. “Are all of your apple faces as grumpy as this one?”

   A glance at the sculpture in question revealed deep-set eyes beneath a slash of intense brow, a slightly imperfect nose above a mouth more detailed and exquisitely carnal than any she’d sculpted before. It was without doubt the scowling, apple-carved equivalent of Nick Purcell himself.

   “Are you all right?”

   Her head snapped around. “Of course.” She took a step back, her gaze darting to the window beyond which her excited son was telling every child in the neighborhood about his newly discovered father. A wave of nausea folded her forward.

   “You’re ill.” Instantly concerned, Nick helped her to a chair, brought her a glass of water, then seated himself across the table from her.

   She sipped the water, keeping her eyes closed until the sickness passed.

   “Are you pregnant?”

   Her eyelids snapped open. “I beg your pardon?”

   “I’m sorry.” Having the grace to look embarrassed, he pushed away Bobby’s plate of half-eaten pizza and heaved a strained sigh. “It’s none of my business—”

   “You’re right, it’s none of your business, I am none of your business, and my son is none of your business.”

   “That’s where you’re wrong.” Although his voice was mild, a bolt of danger erupted, displayed by the subtle clench of his jaw, the warning twitch of his mouth. “Bobby is also my son. That makes him my business.” A flash of anger, a striking image of defiance and danger that, for a fleeting moment, echoed the passion of his youth.

   Then he blinked and it was gone, replaced by the circumspect comprehension of a man experienced in exercising absolute dominion over his own emotions. He adjusted his cuffs, a gesture Chessa perceived as a delaying tactic by one who disliked losing control.

   Feeling hollow inside, she twirled the glass between her palms. “This has all been a terrible mistake.” She barely recognized the guttural croak as her own voice. “It’s my fault, of course. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I have to explain—” She gasped as Nick reached across the table to cup his hands around hers, squeezing them between the warmth of his palms and the coolness of the glass. His touch was firm yet tender, so warm that the heat radiated up her arm to tingle at the pulse in her throat.

   Compassion softened his features. Regret clouded his eyes. “I’m the one who begs forgiveness. If I’d known, if I’d realized that—” he paused, clearly confused and struggling for words “—that our time together had resulted in a child, I never would have left. You must believe that.”

   Groaning, Chessa could only shake her head. “No, no, you don’t understand.”

   “Yes, I do,” he insisted, and confirmed that by squeezing her hands. “That was a foolish time in my life. I did things I’m not proud of, things I deeply regret I was angry and impulsive, resentful of those who had the kind of family life that I could only dream about. I acted out what was expected of me. It was all I knew at the time, all that I’d been taught.”

   A poignant ache spread behind Chessa’s ribs. Memories flooded back, rich and textured, the distant image of a sad young man with no joy in his eyes, the lonely adolescent who’d become a man long before he was ready.

   Everyone in town had known Nick as Crazy Lou’s kid. According to local lore, Lou Purcell had always been down on his luck, a less-than-ambitious fellow who’d tried to support his family with a variety of jobs that for one reason or another had never worked out When his wife died, Lou stopped trying and started drinking. Chessa thought Nick had been about twelve at the time.

   Pitied at first, the bereaved youngster had been subjected to whispered speculation about bruises he couldn’t hide, the constant hunger in his eyes. Over the years, Nick had grown taller, angrier, wilder. Eventually town gossip turned from sympathy to condemnation. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Rotten to the core. Like father, like son.

   From Chessa’s perspective, Nick had done everything humanly possible to prove them right. He’d hung with a rough crowd, faced his detractors with swaggering bravado and garnered a reputation for never turning his back on a fight.

   For some reason, girls adored him. At the time, Chessa hadn’t understood the attraction. He’d been handsome enough, but there was always an aura of danger about him that she’d found personally offputting. They’d never spoken to each other. She doubted he’d even noticed her. It hadn’t been difficult to keep her distance, since he’d been two years ahead of her in school. Even so, most of her female classmates swooned whenever the town bad boy sauntered past, and by the time he was a senior in high school, townsfolk had been willing to believe any sordid story attributed to him, no matter how skimpy the source.

   When he finally skipped town one step ahead of the law, most folks said good riddance, and presumed they’d seen the last of Nick Purcell.

   Which is exactly why his name had been chosen for her son’s birth certificate. Now Chessa had to explain it to him. She didn’t have a clue how that could be done, particularly since she barely understood it herself.

   “Mr. Purcell,” she began, amending it when he hiked a brow. “Nick.” She swallowed, extracted her hands from beneath his and folded them in her lap. “I made a terrible mistake ten years ago, and I regret it.” The shock in his eyes stung her. She quickly looked away. “I never meant for you to be involved in this.”

   His gaze narrowed. “In other words, you never meant for me to know about my own son.”

   Shaking her head, she sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose. God, this was difficult. “Bobby is not—”

   An envelope was dropped on the table, an envelope with Nick’s name printed in an all-too-familiar childish scrawl.

   Stunned, she straightened, staring at the item as if it were a ticking bomb. “What is this?”

   “Read it.”

   Every fiber of intuition in her body forbade her to do so. She didn’t want to know what was inside, didn’t want to open this paper Pandora’s box that she instinctively realized would turn her life, and the life of her son, completely upside down.

   It was too late for caution. Nick Purcell was here. Their lives had already been irreversibly altered. All she could do now was minimize the damage. Perhaps the contents of this envelope held a clue as to how she could do that.

   Trembling, she extracted a folded sheet of lined paper. One edge was ragged with circular tatters, as if torn from one of the spiral notebooks Bobby favored for his schoolwork. She carefully opened the letter and started to read:

   Dear Dad

   Hi. My name is Bobby. I’m your son. I don’t know how come you never come visit me. I figured maybe it is because you don’t know where I am.

   The reason I am writing you is because my school is going to have a father-son picnic next month. It will be real fun if you can come. If you don’t want to, that is okay, but I don’t want to borrow other people’s dads anymore so I will just watch TV. We have a real cool TV. Mom bought it last year. It is not very big, but I like it anyway.

   I think about you all the time. What do you look like? Are you real tall? Do you like to play soccer? Mom promised she would tell me all about you when I got big. I am big now. I wish she would tell me, but it makes her sad.

   I hope you can come to the picnic. I love you.

   Your son, Bobby Margolis

   Their address and phone number had been carefully printed at the bottom of the page.

   Moisture gathered in Chessa’s eyes, blurring the lines. “Where did you get this?”

   “It was couriered to me from a San Francisco law firm, along with a copy of Bobby’s birth certificate.”

   “San Francisco? I don’t understand.”

   “Neither did I.” He leaned back, regarding her thoughtfully. “So I called the law firm and spoke to Bobby’s lawyer.”

   “Bobby doesn’t have a lawyer.”

   “Oh, but he does. One Clementine Allister St. Ives, Esq. She claims Bobby has put her on retainer to handle his affairs. Don’t worry,” he added when Chessa’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “I’ve checked it out. Ms. St. Ives is quite legitimate, a highly regarded family-law attorney with a fine reputation in the community.”

   Chessa pushed away from the table. “This is madness. My son is nine years old, for heaven’s sake. He doesn’t need an attorney, he doesn’t have any ‘affairs’ to handle, and he’s never even been to San Fran—” the memory of a recent school outing popped into her mind “—cisco,” she finished lamely. “Good grief. His class museum trip.”

   “Apparently.” Tucking the letter back into his pocket. Nick relayed what he’d learned about how Bobby had sneaked away from his classmates, taken a cab to Clementine’s office and hired her to find the man whose name graced his birth certificate.

   With every word Chessa’s heart sank lower in her chest. Over the years she’d pushed the memories away, always believing she’d never have to face what she’d done, what she’d been forced to do. She’d thought her son was happy, that the life she’d struggled to create for him had been enough.

   It hadn’t been enough. The pain and loss expressed in his letter had proven that. How could she tell her son that the father he’d searched for, the father he’d dreamed about all his young life, didn’t even exist? Tears swelled, spilled down her cheeks. She couldn’t stop them.

   “Chessa, please, don’t cry. It’s all right.” Reaching across the table, Nick slipped his thumb beneath her chin, a touch so gentle it made her heart ache. “You don’t have to do this alone anymore. I’m here now. I can help.”

   Her breath backed into her throat, nearly choking her. There was something miraculous in his eyes, a poignancy and compassion the depth of which she’d never seen. It soothed her, comforted her, made her feel as if everything might be all right after all. It wouldn’t be, of course. It couldn’t be. But at that moment Chessa wanted desperately to believe.

   A jarring slam broke into her reverie. “Dad, Dad!” Muffled thuds shook the living room floor as a dozen sneakered feet stomped into the house. Bobby skidded into the kitchen, followed by a sweating group of his buddies. “Dad, Dad, Danny wants to see your gun!”

   “Gun?” Chessa’s head snapped around. “What gun?”

   Nick, too, seemed perplexed. “I don’t own a gun.”

   Crushed, Bobby avoided Danny’s smug grin. “But I thought private investigators always carried guns.”

   “I’m not a private investigator, son.” Smiling, he shifted in his chair, laid a paternal hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I own a private security business. We install alarm systems, communication equipment, that kind of thing.”

   “Oh.” Clearly disappointed, the child managed a brave shrug. “That’s kinda cool, I guess.” He brightened. “Do you like to play soccer? You wanna come outside and see my bike? There’s a really neat park down the street. You wanna go there? And Danny’s got a swell dog. He knows how to shake hands and roll over and everything. We could play with him, if you want. Oh!” Bobby grabbed Nick’s hand, half hauled him to his feet. “You’ve gotta come up and look at my room! I’ve got all kinds of neat car models and some airplanes. Do you like Star Wars? I’ve got a real Jedi Knight light saber!”

   Before Nick could respond, he was surrounded by the gaggle of chattering children and hustled away. A moment later the front door slammed again. The house fell into eerie silence. Chessa was alone. Alone with her fears, alone with her memories, alone with the crushing guilt.

   

   

   “I know about the bid opening tomorrow morning, Roger. I’ll be there.” Shifting the cellular phone, Nick paced around the sofa in Chessa’s small living room, using his free hand to riffle through his appointment book. “Have my secretary reschedule all appointments to end by two o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the next ten weeks.”

   “Impossible.” Roger Barlow’s voice was thin and strained, as always, and high-pitched with the stress of being second in command for a business growing faster than a paranoid pragmatist could comfortably handle. “We’re meeting with the CEO of National Technologies on Thursday to pitch a marketing strategy for outfitting their corporate headquarters and three satellite manufacturing facilities. That contract could be worth a half million dollars. We can’t reschedule.”

   Barlow was a good man, with a by-the-book persona that provided needed balance to his own loosely creative management style. His constant whining was irritating, but Nick respected his business acumen. “If it can’t be rescheduled, you’ll have to handle the meeting yourself.”

   “Me?” The poor man’s voice squeaked like a rusty hinge. “I don’t know a surveillance cam from a zonal keypad. I’m only a lowly finance director. You’re the technology guru. Without you, there is no meeting.”

   That was true. Nick had always been good with electronics, he had put himself through college installing alarm systems designed by others. Now he designed his own systems and had built a successful company from the ground up.

   “Okay, fine. Cancel the meeting.”

   “Cancel it? Have you lost your mind? What in hell could be more important that a half-milliondollar contract?”

   “Soccer.”

   The poor man sputtered as if he’d swallowed a peach pit, but Nick was distracted by voices upstairs, where Chessa was explaining that Bobby couldn’t stay up any later because it was a school night. The frustrated boy was pleading his case, quite eloquently at that, insisting it wasn’t every day a kid got to meet his very own father.

   Nick’s chest tightened. He was suddenly impatient with Roger’s nattering on about meetings and money as if there was nothing more important on earth. A week ago Nick might have agreed with that. Today he knew better.

   Today he was standing in a home filled with odd bric-a-brac, decorative crafts and unique furnishings that would have appeared garish in less-talented hands. Chessa clearly had a knack for creating character out of chaos. A giant cable spool had been turned into a telephone table from which huge, dried flowers bristled in an oddly appropriate wilderness bouquet. Coats by the front door dangled from the plywood antlers of a Bullwinkle cartoon character, five feet high and lacquered in primary colors bright enough to make the eyes bleed.

   An olive-green sideboard stenciled with Dutch designs towered beside a brocade sofa spruced up with embroidered throw pillows and a draped afghan, studded by riotous cartoon characters. Every space on the wall was filled with twisted wreaths of dried twigs and flowers, puffy quilt miniatures trimmed with handmade lace, and peculiar garage-sale items like gigantic carved salad tongs, eighteenth-century bedwarmers and a rusted wagon wheel studded with spears of dried lavender and windflowers.

   And of course there were photographs. Dozens of them, set proudly on the spool telephone table, the green sideboard, an iron plant stand that had been converted to a knickknack shelf, and dotting the walls—all lovingly framed with handmade lace or tucked into a nest of braided twigs.

   Every photograph was of Bobby. Bobby as an infant, as a drooling toddler, as a grinning first-grader with no front teeth. Bobby in a football jersey. Bobby at the beach. Bobby throwing a snowball. School portraits, candid snapshots, year after year of his son’s life captured in pictures.

   Nick had already missed all those years. He wouldn’t miss any more.

   Closing the appointment book, he tucked it back into his pocket, interrupting Roger’s sniveled protest with a tone that brooked no argument. “I’ve agreed to assist my son’s soccer coach. The team practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ll be unavailable on those afternoons for the duration of the season. As for the National Technologies meeting, you can either reschedule it, cancel it or handle it alone. You decide.”

   “But—”

   “I’ll be in the office tomorrow morning. We’ll discuss it then.”

   The poor man sounded apoplectic. “But what about the fish?”

   “Fish?”

   “There’s a goldfish in the water cooler.”

   “Oh, that fish.” Nick chuckled, having nearly forgotten what was bound to have been one of his most memorable pranks. “Is the fish in question causing any distress?”

   “Er, well, Ms. Pipps from Accounting is quite troubled. She won’t drink the water, of course. No one will.”

   That came as no surprise, although the cooler had been disabled lest an unobservant soul attempted to use the converted fish tank for its original purpose. “You’ll find several cases of imported spring water in the lunch room. Oh, and there’s a box of fish food on my desk.”

   “Fish food?”

   “Just a pinch, Roger. Mustn’t overfeed, you know.” With that, Nick thumbed the cell phone off, folded it into his jacket pocket, and focused his attention on the soft footsteps descending the stairs. He knew it was Chessa. There was a distinctive pattern to her movement, a delicate rhythm to her step.

   Over the past few hours he’d studied everything about her, from the timid smile that she offered too rarely to the way her eyes widened when she was taken by surprise, as she had been when Bobby had insisted Nick stay for dinner. He’d recognized her anxiety and felt guilty about not having graciously extricated himself from the situation.

   The truth was that he’d wanted to stay, had wanted to continue his study of this intriguing woman with the haunted eyes. Everything about her fascinated him, even her unique manner of wielding a dinner fork as if it were something regal. Nick had pieced every mannerism into his memory, searching for something, anything that would jog him into recalling details of their past together. The image remained elusive, a fleeting ghost from a past he’d escaped long ago and the memories he’d left behind.

   Halfway down the stairs, Chessa paused when she saw him, gripped the varnished oak banister so tightly that even from his vantage point in the living room, Nick could see her fingers whiten.

   She moistened her lips, regarded him with thinly disguised disapproval. “Bobby would like to say good-night to you.” Avoiding his gaze, she descended the final steps and crossed the living room without so much as a glance in his direction. “Please leave his bedroom door open and turn the hall light on when you’re through. Bobby is afraid of the dark.”

   With that she disappeared into the kitchen. Nick went to say good-night to his son.

   

   

   Thirty minutes later Nick came downstairs just as Chessa emerged from the kitchen carrying a flat sheet of carved apples. Her eyes widened a moment, but she recovered quickly and swished past him as if unaffected by his presence. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten how to get downstairs.”

   He stepped around the old steamer trunk that enhanced the eclectic decor by serving as a coffee table. “Bobby is a very verbal young man,” he said. There seemed no reason to explain that he’d spent the past half hour explaining why refusal to move into their guest room didn’t mean he wasn’t going to be a part of his life. Not that the idea didn’t hold a certain appeal, although it didn’t take a psychic to realize that Chessa would be less than amenable to the idea.

   Stopping at a closed door behind the stairwell, she propped the flat pan against her hip, freed one hand and opened the door, disappearing inside before Nick could spring forward to assist her.

   The hollow sound of footsteps on wooden stairs filtered from the open doorway, along with the occasional creak of old boards strained with age. A light sprayed from the opening, which Nick presumed led to a basement.

   Acutely aware that he hadn’t been invited to follow, he clasped his hands behind his back, rocked impatiently on the balls of his feet. He glanced at his watch, then back toward the basement door. Sounds filtered up. A clunk, a thunk, a rustling scratch, as if something heavy had been dragged across metal.

   It was a two-hour drive back to Marin County. If he left now, he’d make it before midnight.

   More scraping from downstairs. Nick sidled toward the doorway, peered down the narrow basement stairs. A low ceiling obstructed his view, so he descended the first few steps. Fluorescent lights flooded the room with brilliant illumination. Two more steps, and he stopped in his tracks, stunned by what he saw.

   The huge basement had been transformed into a large assembly bay, with supply bins and long counters heaped with fabric. Sheaths of dried weeds and flowers hung from the rafters, and one section was a mailing area, complete with stacks of boxes, tapes and labels. “Good grief,” he mumbled. “You’ve got quite an operation down here.”

   Startled, Chessa leaped away from the large dehydrator into which she’d been arranging the carved apples, touched her throat, then sagged against the counter.

   “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Continuing down the steps, Nick glanced around the room, noticing an old sewing machine on a counter heaped with bolts of cloth, and bins of what appeared to be tiny doll clothes. “You actually sell these things?”

   “Yes.” Across the room, Chessa completed loading the apples without embellishment. She’d been quiet all day and apparently wasn’t feeling any more talkative now.

   Nick sauntered past the mailing area, glancing at a few of the packed boxes, which had been neatly labeled to specialty stores around the country. “A nationwide clientele? I’m impressed.”

   She closed the door, crossed her arms and regarded him warily. “Is there something I can do for you?”

   Puffing his cheeks, Nick blew out a breath and jammed his hands in his slacks pockets. “I didn’t mean to intrude. You left the basement door open, so I presumed you didn’t mind if I joined you.”

   “I always leave the door open so I can hear Bobby.” Her gaze skittered away, settled on a spot in thin air. “He sometimes wakes up during the night.”

   “Nightmares?”

   “No, not really. He just wants to make certain I’m here.”

   Nick regarded a nervous twitch at the corner of her mouth. “Has he ever awakened and not found you here?”

   The nervous twitch hardened into a flat, angry line. “I have always been here for my son,” she snapped. “How dare you imply otherwise?”

   He managed to stifle a groan of regret at having uttered such an asinine and insensitive comment. “I’m sorry. Of course you have. We both know that I’m the one who hasn’t been here. I can’t change the past. I’m here now, and I intend to be part of my son’s life from this day forward.”

   Every trace of color drained from her face. She swayed slightly, and for a moment Nick feared her knees might buckle. As he reached out, she stiffened, held out a hand like a shield. Since she appeared ready to bolt, he dropped his hands to his side and stepped back, giving her space.

   She took one deep breath, then another. When she finally met his gaze, her expression was steel hard and determined. “I realize you’ve been put in an untenable position, Mr. Purcell, and I deeply regret it. Please understand that none of this is your fault, but my son is my first and only priority. The longer this goes on, the more deeply he will be hurt. I don’t want you to be a part of his life. In fact, I don’t want you to see him again. Ever.”

   For a moment Nick simply stared at her. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

   Her chest deflated slightly, as if she’d exhaled all her air at once. The relief in her eyes stung. “I’m the one who is sorry. You’ve been very kind to Bobby, and I appreciate it. I would also appreciate you respecting my wishes.”

   “I do respect your wishes. Unfortunately I cannot and will not honor them.”

   Comprehension dawned slowly in her eyes, which widened from disbelief into an appealing combination of anger and indignation. “Perhaps you didn’t understand. I do not want you to have any further contact with my son.”

   “I understand perfectly.” Nick, too, was growing angry. “But I’ve already been denied nine years of my son’s life. I have no intention of being denied any more of it.”

   “Bobby is not your son!” The words were shrill and sharp, shockingly so. Recovering quickly, she clasped her hands, hiked her chin with royal dignity. “I’ve already apologized. I don’t know what else to do. I never meant for you to become involved in this. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined—” Biting her lower lip, she struggled for control. She crossed her arms, hugging herself. “Please, just leave us alone.”

   Inside, Chessa was shaking so violently she feared she might collapse.

   Bobby is not your son.

   She’d said it. The words were out. There was nothing she could do to make amends to Nick Purcell for all that she’d put him through, but he seemed a strong man, and despite his shaky start in life, she believed he was a good man, as well. Eventually she would try to explain what had happened. Maybe he’d understand; maybe he wouldn’t. Either way Nick Purcell had always been a survivor.

   Bobby was another matter. Her beloved child had wrapped all his hopes and dreams around this man, hopes and dreams that his own mother hadn’t even recognized. Chessa would carve out her own heart to avoid hurting her son, but there seemed no way to avoid it now. For a brief and shining moment, he’d had a dad of his own. Now she had to take that away from him.

   He would hate her for it.

   Footsteps snapped across the concrete floor, catching her attention. Nick Purcell was leaving. A rush of relief was tempered by a peculiar sense of loss. She wasted no time analyzing that. An interminable night stretched before her, an agonizing night during which she must decide the gentlest way to break her son’s heart.

   At the base of the stairs Nick stopped abruptly. “I’ll be here Tuesday afternoon around four. Please inform my son that I’ll meet him at the soccer field, as planned.”

   Nick had moved halfway up the stairs before Chessa found her voice. “Wait!”

   He favored her with a cool look. “Yes?”

   “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

   “I heard you.”

   “Bobby is not your son.”

   “This says that he is,” Nick replied, patting the breast pocket into which he’d slipped the copy of Bobby’s birth certificate. “You’ve done a fine job raising our child, Chessa. After all these years, I can understand why you wouldn’t be pleased by the prospect of sharing him. But share him you will, or our lawyers will meet in court and the truth will be laid bare.”

   The truth. Laid bare. In court, where her son would be devastated by it

   Chessa couldn’t let that happen. Not now, not ever.

   Nick’s gaze burned straight into her soul. “Do we understand each other?”

   Somehow she managed to lift her chin a notch to keep it from quivering. “Yes, we understand each other.”

   “Tuesday, then. You’ll tell him?”

   “I’ll tell him.”

   With a curt nod Nick strode up the stairs. A moment later Chessa heard the front door open and close. Only then did she sag against the drying counter and allow the tears to flow.

   All these years she’d believed her secret was safe. She hadn’t realized how desperately her son wanted a father, nor could she possibly have imagined how desperately Nick wanted to be one.

   There was no choice now. No choice at all.

   Chapter Three

   Stars above, lights below, brilliantly twinkling and pulsing in the velvet night. A midnight bluff overlooking a sleeping town blurred by fogged windows and the heady scent of love. The car shuddered. Soft moans, sweet breath, shudders of ecstasy.

   His body sighed; his mind swirled. A whisper of silken hair, the embrace of soft arms, fragrant with perfume. A veiled face, nebulous and obscure, clouded by passion and the misty muddle of an intoxicated mind.

   From somewhere beyond conscious thought, a melody beckoned. A voice, fresh and lyrical, summoned him, rousting his mind from pleasures of the flesh to something deeper, more poignant. Sweet arms held him, a gentle whisper begged him not to look. He had to look, had to lay eyes upon the vision from which such mellifluous beauty could emerge.

   Condensation mysteriously evaporated, revealing a circle of clarity on the cloudy glass. A face floated in the darkness, a face of such stunning beauty that he was paralyzed by its intensity. Sable hair, ruffled by an invisible breeze. Eyes blue enough to blind a man with radiance. Dewy lips, lush and alluring, set in a regal face of such dignity that he was humbled in its presence.

   It was her, he realized. It had always been her.

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