Daddy's Home

FAMILY MANLOCAL MAN IS HEROThirty-five-year-old Tyler Brant saved the life of popular TV personality Kristen Kellar when the small plane they were traveling in crashed into the St. Louis River near Hibbing, Minnesota.Brant–single father of a six-year-old daughter–was not available for comment.Tyler Brant has no intention of speaking to reporters. And while he's happy that Kristen Kellar is recovering, he wishes she wouldn't keep telling people he's a hero. All he wants is to put the crash behind him, get on with his life, spend more time with his daughter.Still, he can't forget the beautiful woman he'd carried from the wreck. Unfortunately, Kristen's big news–and Tyler has reason to stay away. But he hadn't counted on Kristen's determination to thank him in person. And he hadn't counted on his little girl's growing attachment to her.He certainly hadn't counted on falling in love….
Содержание:

Daddy's Home

   

   

   “You’re a hero, Daddy.”

   Brittany held out a newspaper clipping. “This is what I brought for Show and Tell.”

   Tyler frowned. In his daughter’s hands was a story of the airplane crash. The headline read: Local Man Is Hero.

   “My teacher says you were very brave—the way you saved that lady” The child gazed up at him.

   He shifted uneasily on the sofa “I’m not a hero, and the newspapers shouldn’t have said I was.”

   Brittany’s face fell. “But my teacher said—”

   “And your teacher’s right,” Tyler’s mother interjected.

   “You father’s just being modest. He most certainly is a hero. Anybody who saves another person’s life is a hero.”

   Brittany moved over to stand in front of Tyler. “Are you mad at me for bringing the newspaper to school?”

   He gave her a squeeze. “No, sweetheart, I’m not mad. It was very nice of you to bring me for Show and Tell.” He gave her an extra hug. “I love you, Brittany.”

   “I love you too, Daddy. And you are too a hero.”

   ABOUT THE AUTHOR

   You need two things if you’re going to survive winter in the Midwest—warm clothes and a sense of humor. Pamela Bauer possesses both. Thai’s why she often uses Minnesota as the setting for her romance novels. She believes there’s something special about this land of 10,000 lakes that makes it the perfect setting for stories about love and family. it also happens to be the place where she fell in love with her own real-life hero, her husband, Gerr.

   Daddy’s Home is this award-winning author’s twenty-first romance for Harlequin. Not surprisingly, it too is set in Minnesota, and has a hero who knows how to warm a woman’s heart It’s a story full of Midwestern charm, which will leave you feeling good about love, about life and about family.

Daddy’s Home Pamela Bauer


   

   This book is dedicated to my father, the most

   honest man I know.

   Thanks, Dad, for showing me what a hero can be.

   CHAPTER ONE

   “DADDY’S HOME!”

   Tyler Brant barely had the door open when his six-year-old daughter flung herself at him. If there was one thing he would never grow tired of, it was the feel of her small, warm body clinging to his.

   “I’ve missed you,” he said, lifting her so that he could twirl her around in a circle. He gave her a hug before setting her down.

   “I missed you, too, Daddy.”

   “Why are you dressed like a squash, sweetheart?” Tyler asked, smiling at the face painted the same orange as the costume she wore. Covering her legs were bright green tights that matched the stemlike satin cap hiding her blond curls.

   “I’m not a squash. I’m a pumpkin!” she said, shoving her hands onto a waist that was stuffed with padding.

   “And a very pretty pumpkin at that. Did Gram make that for you?”

   “Uh-huh. She sewed it on the sewing machine and sprinkled all the sparkly things on,” Brittany answered, wiggling in delight. “I get to be in the parade.”

   “And what parade is that?”

   It was Tyler’s mother who answered. “It’s the Anoka Pumpkin Festival on Saturday. They’ve invited Brittany’s class to ride on one of the floats,” Millie Brant explained, walking toward Tyler with a tape measure draped around her neck. She greeted him with her usual kiss on the cheek. “Welcome home.”

   “Isn’t it a little chilly for a parade this time of year?” Automatically, his brow creased as he shrugged out of his topcoat.

   “She’ll be dressed in warm clothes,” his mother replied.

   “We get to throw candy to the little kids watching the parade,” Brittany added.

   Tyler hid his smile.

   “Are you going to come and see me, Daddy?” She looked at Tyler with big, round blue eyes so like the ones her mother used to flash at him. He saw Susan every time she batted those innocent eyes at him, and a pain caught somewhere between his heart and throat.

   “I’d like to, but I’m afraid I have to work,” he answered.

   The little face fell. “You always have to work.”

   Guilt settled in Tyler’s stomach like a big old rock. It was true he put in long hours—longer than the average father, but he had responsibilities. Something a six-year-old didn’t understand. He looked to his mother for support.

   She didn’t give it. Instead, she gave him a familiar look of reprobation. “You’ve just spent four days working away from home. Surely you can take a Saturday off.”

   “Not this Saturday,” he responded soberly.

   “But, Daddy, don’t you want to see me be in the parade?” Brittany asked.

   “Of course I do. Let’s sit down. I brought you something.” He grabbed her by the hand, reached for his overnight bag and moved into the living room. He pulled his daughter down beside him on the leather sofa. She watched with wide eyes as he unzipped his suitcase and pulled out a small pink bunny.

   “A Beanie Baby!” Brittany cried out in delight, taking the soft stuffed animal into her hands. “Thank you, Daddy.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss.

   “The tag says her name is Hoppity and that she likes to play hopscotch,” Tyler pointed out.

   “She’s a girl! Oh, good. I have to show Walter.” She scrambled to her feet and hurried out of the room.

   “You’re not always going to be able to buy her off with a stuffed animal, you know,” Millie said.

   “I’d love to go to the parade, but it’s just not possible,” he stated, working hard to keep the irritation from his voice.

   He could see his mother was not about to back down. “What’s so important on Saturday that you’re willing to miss seeing your daughter in a parade?”

   “What’s important is getting two hundred people back to work. That fire in Hibbing destroyed a brand-new factory that would have provided income for a couple of hundred families. I have no choice but to meet with the contractors and go over the blueprints. The longer it takes to get the place rebuilt, the longer those people are out of work.”

   “Let someone else look at the plans.”

   “It’s not that easy. I’m the president of the company. With that title comes certain responsibilities,” he tried to explain, but his mother only shook her head.

   “We’ve had this conversation before, Tyler. There’s no point going over it again. It won’t accomplish anything.”

   “Mom, you know I spend every free minute I have with her. What more can I do?”

   “Spend more free minutes with her,” she answered. “She’s growing up and you’re missing the important milestones in her life. I understood your need to bury yourself in your work after Susan died, but I thought that after the plane crash you’d come to your senses and realize how precious life is. I was wrong. Nothing’s changed. Work is still the number-one priority in your life.”

   At the mention of his late wife’s name, Tyler’s insides twisted into a knot. He had thought time would ease the pain of losing her, yet nearly five years had passed and each time he heard her name, he relived the fiery automobile accident that had taken her life.

   “All right, Mom. You’ve made your point,” he said with more anger than he intended. Seeing the hurt look on her face, he immediately apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

   “What’s wrong, Tyler? You’ve been so edgy these past few weeks.”

   “Nothing’s wrong,” he lied. “I’m fine. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.”

   “You look tired. You should have taken some time off after the crash,” she said in a motherly tone. “Instead of rushing back to work, you should have been home resting. Everyone needs time to recover from trauma.”

   “Not me. I needed to work,” Tyler corrected her, trying not to think about the experience. Two weeks ago he’d been in a small commuter plane on his way to assess the damage the fire had done to his electronics plant when the pilot had tried unsuccessfully to make an emergency landing.

   In one horrifying instant, the plane crashed into the bank of the river. Bodies were flung into the icy waters. Eight of the ten people aboard drowned. By some strange quirk of fate, Tyler and one other passenger survived. Just as had happened the day of the car accident, Tyler had been allowed to walk away.

   A shudder unsettled every nerve in his body. He had to force the image from his mind. The last five years had taught him that if he wanted to be of any use to his daughter, he needed to keep the past in the past. Reliving events wouldn’t change a thing.

   Just then, Brittany rushed into the room waving a red folder. “I got something for you, Daddy,” she announced. “It’s my work from school.”

   “Then you better show it to me now.” Tyler smiled as the little girl climbed onto his lap. With his arms wrapped around her, he watched as she opened the folder. First she pulled out a black cat made from construction paper, then a page with several words printed a couple of dozen times. Finally came a drawing done in crayon—three stick people and a rectangular house.

   “This is Gram, that’s me and that’s you. See? I colored you a beard ’cause it was before you had your cushun.” She glanced at Tyler’s now-whiskerless face.

   “It’s concussion, Brittany,” her grandmother automatically corrected her.

   “Con-cush-un,” she repeated. She placed her hand on Tyler’s jaw. “I like you without your beard. It’s smooth.”

   She tipped her head to stare at his only visible injury—an inch-long scar on the underside of his jaw. A piece of metal had sliced open his skin and come dangerously close to severing an artery in his neck.

   “Does it hurt?” she asked.

   “Not anymore,” he answered honestly.

   “Are you going to grow another beard?”

   Before he could answer, his mother said, “I hope not. You’re such a handsome man, Tyler. It’s a shame to hide your good looks behind all that hair.”

   Tyler ignored her comment. He knew that his keeping a full beard had always been a source of irritation for his mother. During his years in college, he had been both long-haired and bearded—about as scruffy as he could be.

   Then he met Susan and everything changed. She not only cut his hair for him, but she shaved his face. She insisted that if he was going to fit into the establishment, he needed to look the part. And in those days, he would have done anything for Susan.

   “Look at this, Daddy.” Brittany stuck a red-and-pink finger painting close to his face.

   “Very nice. I like the bright colors.”

   “Do you know what it is?”

   “Why don’t you tell me?”

   “It’s a cherry pie.”

   “Ah. That’s why you used so much red.”

   “Red’s my favorite color.” She shoved the painting back into the folder, then pulled out some newspaper clippings encased in plastic. “This is what I brought for show-and-tell.”

   Tyler frowned. In his daughter’s hands was an article about the airplane crash. The headline read Local Man Is Hero.

   Brittany held it in her outstretched hands, waiting for him to take it. He didn’t want to look at it. He turned to his mother. “You let her take this to school?”

   “She saw your picture in the paper and wanted to bring it for show-and-tell,” Millie said with an apologetic lift of her eyebrows.

   Brittany smiled proudly. “My teacher said that you’re a hero, Daddy. She said you were very brave.”

   He shifted uneasily on the sofa. “I’m not a hero and the newspapers shouldn’t have said I was.”

   Brittany’s face fell. “But my teacher said—”

   “And your teacher is right,” Millie interjected. “Your father’s just being modest. He most certainly is a hero. Now why don’t you go change out of that costume. Gram still has to iron on the pumpkin’s face.”

   “All right, Gram.” Brittany shoved the newspaper article back into the folder and looked at Tyler. “Are you mad at me for bringing the newspaper to school?”

   He gave her a squeeze. “No, I’m not mad. It was very nice of you to want to bring me for show-and-tell.” He gave her an extra hug. “I love you, Brittany.”

   “I love you, too, Daddy,” she responded, but the words were subdued.

   As soon as she was gone, his mother said, “Every little girl wants her father to be a hero.”

   Tyler rubbed the tight muscles in his neck. “Fine. I can be her hero while we’re here in this house, but she doesn’t need to know everything that happened in Hibbing, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t encourage her to talk about it.”

   “She’s a child. She has questions.”

   He frowned. “Why did you give her the newspaper?”

   “I didn’t give it to her. Tyler, your picture was on the front page. She saw it when we were in the grocery store. It’s rather difficult to pretend you weren’t in that crash when it’s been in the papers and on television.”

   “I don’t know why the media have to hound me. I’m sick and tired of them intruding in my life,” he said, loosening his tie. He walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a Scotch on the rocks.

   “There’s nothing wrong with being a hero, Tyler,” she said gently.

   “Mom, please, not you, too.” He took a swallow of the fiery liquid.

   “You saved Kristen Kellar’s life. At least that’s what she says.”

   He grimaced. “Of course she would sensationalize everything. She’s one of the media. A reporter. And you and I both know they feel that title gives them the right to invade everyone else’s privacy. Have you forgotten what happened after Susan died?” He made a sound of disgust. “They were at the cemetery with their cameras.”

   “That was awful,” she agreed solemnly, “but Kristen Kellar isn’t a reporter. She’s a news anchor,” his mother added. “And a darn good one. She reports the news accurately and with sensitivity.”

   Again he made a sound, this time of disbelief.

   “Well, she’s told the world that without you she wouldn’t be alive. I guess that makes you a hero.”

   “I think the eight people who died on that flight would disagree.”

   “You can’t possibly think you’re responsible for their deaths?” She looked at him with a look of horror. “Tyler, the plane split in two. There was no way you could’ve saved their lives.”

   He took another swig of the Scotch. “Since you weren’t there, I don’t think you know what I could or couldn’t have done.”

   He set his glass down with a bit more force than necessary. Again, he knew he’d been sharper with her than he’d meant to be. What was wrong with him anyway? Lately, he seemed to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.

   “I’m sorry, Mom. Maybe we ought to change the subject. There’s no point in arguing over something that’s in the past. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past four days and I need a shower.”

   “And you’re tired, aren’t you?” His mother became all maternal once again, fussing over him as though he were a child instead of a thirty-five-year-old businessman. “There’s plenty of time for you to rest before dinner, if you like. I’m going upstairs to finish Brittany’s costume and leave you to unwind on your own.” She gave his arm a gentle touch, then headed for the stairway. She stopped in midstride. “Oh, by the way, your mail is on the console in the hallway, and I left your phone messages on your desk.”

   Tyler nodded and watched his mother climb the steps to the second story. Then he walked over to the console where several days of mail had accumulated. He flipped through the pile until he came to a pale pink envelope. His name and address were handwritten and there was no return address.

   He opened the envelope and found a single sheet of pale pink stationery. At the top printed in gray ink was the name Kristen Kellar, her address and phone number.

   Dear Mr. Brant,

   Please forgive me for taking so long to contact you, but as you are probably aware, I’ve been in the hospital until very recently. I wanted to speak to you before I was moved from the Hibbing hospital, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible. Since I was told that you suffered only minor injuries and that you were discharged after a few days, I assume that you are in good health and have returned to work.

   The purpose of this letter is to express my gratitude, although the words “Thank you” seem inadequate for expressing what’s in my heart. I don’t want to think about what the outcome might have been if you hadn’t been on that flight. The value of your strength and determination cannot be measured. Please know that I will always remember the help you gave me.

   Sincerely,

    Kristen Kellar

   Tyler stared at the feminine handwriting until he no longer saw words, but images. An engine on fire. Panic among the passengers. A plane torn in two. His heart began to race, his palms to sweat. He remembered the look on Kristen’s face as she had frantically struggled to free herself from the twisted wreckage of the plane.

   With a grimace, he crumpled her letter in his fist. He turned his attention to the other mail, determined to forget the crash.

   He would forget. He had taught himself a long time ago to block out those images that had the power to play games with his emotions. And the memory of that plane crash was one of those images. He was a survivor. Always had been, always would be.

   So for the rest of the evening, Tyler didn’t once think about Kristen Kellar or the crash. He played a board game with Brittany, sat with her while she watched The Little Mermaid video for the umpteenth time and then, despite his mother’s warning, let her eat a giant chocolate bar while he read her a bedtime story.

   After she’d fallen asleep, he went into his office and worked until midnight. When he finally crawled between the covers, he was weary, but it was a welcome weariness. He’d have no trouble falling asleep tonight.

   And he didn’t. Only it wasn’t a peaceful sleep. No matter how exhausted he was, he couldn’t prevent the dream.

   He was in the broken half of the plane.

   “I can’t get free,” a woman cried out to him, blood streaming down her face. “The seat belt is stuck.”

   Tyler hurried to her side only to discover the seat belt wasn’t preventing her escape. Her right leg was trapped. With a strength he didn’t know he possessed, he managed to bend the metal bar pinning her leg.

   “We have to get out of here,” she urged. “Look.” Her eyes widened as she stared at the open end of the plane. The aircraft was slipping into the water.

   “It’s all right. We’ll be okay,” he assured her as water seeped into his shoes.

   They were jostled as the plane sank lower. “I can’t swim!” she cried as water rose around them.

   Tyler reached for her. “Just hang on to my back,” he instructed.

   He felt two arms around his neck, but they soon lost their hold. He tried to reach her hands, but she was swept away by the strong current.

   “Help me! Please, help me!”

   He swam after her, but every time he thought he’d reached her, she slipped from his grasp. Over and over he tried to grab her hand until she was finally sucked under.

   Gasping for breath, Tyler awoke with a start to find Brittany at his bedside.

   “Daddy?”

   He gulped in deep breaths, trying to calm his unsteady limbs as he swung his legs over the side.

   “Daddy, will you help me find Tudie?”

   For a moment, he was too shaken to speak. Finally, he asked, “Is he lost?” relieved that the cries for help were over a teddy bear and not a human being.

   “I had him when I went to bed, but he’s not there now,” Brittany said in a tiny voice. “And I get scared when Tudie isn’t sleeping with me.”

   “There’s no need to be scared,” Tyler said reassuringly, pulling her into his arms. “Daddy will help you find him, then I’ll tuck you both in real tight so he doesn’t get lost again, okay?”

   Tyler thought how ironic it was that he was telling her not to be scared when he was the one who was trembling. He carried Brittany back to her room, turned on the light and set her down beside the bed.

   “Sweetheart, it’s no wonder Tudie disappeared. There’s no room for him here,” he told her as he pushed aside a collection of stuffed animals and dolls.

   A quick look behind the bed proved his suspicions were correct. Tudie lay suspended between the mattress and the wall. Tyler fished him up over the brass headboard to the delight of his daughter.

   “Thank you, Daddy.” She welcomed the bear with open arms, kissed her father on the cheek and climbed back up onto the bed.

   Tyler tucked her in, kissed her forehead, then turned out the light. As he crawled back into his own bed, he smiled to himself as he thought about his daughter and her beloved bear.

   However, it wasn’t Brittany occupying his thoughts as he fell back to sleep. It was the beautiful but bleeding face of the news anchor. Dark lashes framed frightened blue eyes, the once flawless skin now badly lacerated. He had tried to stop the bleeding, but pieces of glass and metal were embedded in her skin. He still shuddered when he thought about it.

   He had done his best to forget that face. Done his best to put the plane crash behind him. He had put it behind him. It was others who wouldn’t let him forget. His mother. Kristen Kellar. If she hadn’t sent him the letter, he wouldn’t have had her image haunting him tonight.

   Well, he would tuck the memories away in a remote corner of his mind again. The crash was in the past. He had survived. She had survived. End of story.

   He was not a hero. Not even close to being one.

   THE DOORBELL RANG and for one brief moment Kristen Kellar wished she had the time to wash her hair, change out of her sweats and apply some makeup before answering it. Then the moment passed.

   She had spent too much of her life fussing about her appearance. In the past three weeks, she’d discovered that it was hard to worry about her outward appearance when she felt so awful.

   She struggled to her feet, reaching for the crutches propped against the sofa, and hobbled over to the intercom to hear her fiancé’s voice say, “It’s me.”

   Good grief! What was Keith doing at her apartment in the middle of the day? She should have washed her hair. Or at least changed her clothes. Keith always looked as if he’d stepped off the pages of GQ.

   “Kristen, are you there?”

   “Yes.” She buzzed the lobby door open, then smoothed her hand down the front of her gray sweatshirt. When she heard a knock at the door, she checked through the peephole before releasing the dead bolt.

   Standing on the other side with not a hair out of place, looking every bit as polished as he did on television each night, was the man voted the Twin Cities’ number-one news anchor, Keith Jaxson. In his arms were flowers, lots of flowers.

   Ever since the crash, he’d seemed distant and a bit impatient with what he considered her slow recovery. She knew he’d been disappointed by her request for a leave of absence from work. But now here he was bearing flowers, and she pushed such thoughts aside.

   Her smile faded, however, the moment he spoke. The flowers weren’t from him.

   “Mailman.” He grinned as if he’d said something witty. “Bob was going to have a messenger bring these over, but I said I was coming to see you and I might as well take them. I thought that the gifts and flowers would have stopped after a couple of weeks, but they just keep coming.”

   He didn’t drop a kiss on her mouth as he stepped into the apartment but simply marched past her and headed for the dining-room table. Actually, he hadn’t kissed her since before the crash... unless one counted the light brushing of his lips across her forehead he had given her in the hospital.

   “Bob says he’s never seen anyone get so many get-well wishes. You are one popular lady.” He set the flowers and a large shopping bag filled with cards and packages on the table. “It’s a good thing my ego’s healthy, isn’t it?”

   “Isn’t it, though,” she murmured, wondering how she had never noticed just how self-centered he was. As he passed the mirror in the dining room, he smoothed his perfect hair.

   “There are two more bags in my car. I can get them now or when I leave. Which do you prefer?” He didn’t look at her, but rather past her, as if there were a roomful of people behind her.

   “It doesn’t matter,” she answered as she hobbled toward the sofa.

   “Then I’ll get them later.”

   “Fine.” She eased herself down onto the sofa.

   Instead of coming to sit beside her, he stood at the edge of the glass-topped table, his hands in his pockets. “So how are you feeling?”

   “Okay.”

   “Good.” There was an awkward silence, then he tugged on his ear, saying, “I suppose the leg’s starting to itch under that cast.”

   She ignored his comment. “Aren’t you going to sit down?”

   He shifted from foot to foot before finally settling on the chair across from her. He unzipped his black suede jacket but didn’t take it off.

   “I’m supposed to say hi from everyone at the station and tell you they miss you,” he said with the same smile he used during his newscasts. The one that made women’s hearts skip a beat. Kristen knew how easily that smile came to his lips and didn’t return it.

   “I’m sure Janey doesn’t miss me. She’s been wanting more air time.” It was no secret around the station that Janey Samuels’s goal was to be one of the evening anchors, and Kristen knew Janey would make the most of every minute of her absence.

   “The less time she’s in your chair, the less chance viewers will have to grow fond of her,” Keith continued.

   “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

   “You said the doctor’s given you a clean bill of health. Maybe you should think about coming back to work.”

   “My leg’s in a cast! What do you suggest I do? Sit sideways on the set and stick it out behind the desk?”

   “You wouldn’t have to do the entire thirty minutes on the set. You could sit in the newsroom and have the camera shoot a head shot. No one needs to see your cast.”

   “And what about this?” She pulled her hair away from her face and turned her head so that her puffy, discolored cheek was in full view.

   He didn’t try to hide his discomfort. “Makeup will take care of that,” he said weakly.

   Her laugh was without humor. “I doubt it.”

   “How do you know if you won’t try? Bob told me he sent a makeup artist to the hospital and you refused to talk to her.”

   “What’s the point? I told you I’m not ready to go back to work. That’s why I asked for a leave of absence.”

   “Eventually, you’ll be going back. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a professional come here and show you how to apply the makeup? That way, you can practice so by the time you’re ready to return, you’ll feel comfortable.”

   From the way he was staring at her, Kristin couldn’t help but wonder if the practicing-at-home part wasn’t for his benefit. Did he want her to wear the makeup so he wouldn’t have to look at her scars? Not for the first time she had the feeling that he was repulsed by her swollen and bruised face.

   She let the hair fall back across her cheek and angled her head to hide the scars. “Why are you pressuring me about this?”

   “I’m not pressuring you,” he denied. “It’s just that I miss you at work, and in the hospital you told me you wanted to get back to the newsroom as soon as possible.”

   That was before the bandages had been removed from her face and she had seen the damage.

   “I’ve changed my mind. I need more time to get my strength back.”

   “You told me a few minutes ago that you were feeling fins.”

   “I am. I’m just not ready to return to work.”

   “Your viewers will be disappointed.” Then he gave her his heart-stopping grin and said, “I’ll be disappointed.”

   It didn’t stop Kristen’s heart for even a moment.

   “Have you read KC’s column lately? Even she misses you,” he added.

   KC was a gossip reporter who had followed their romance with a fervent passion, never missing an opportunity to mock the two of them in her biweekly newspaper column under a special subheading—“Amorous Anchors.”

   “What she’s really missing are the opportunities to make fun of us,” Kristen said cynically.

   “It’s true we’ve been a target of her offbeat humor, but we should feel flattered,” he said in a patronizing tone. “She says she gets a ton of calls from irate readers whenever she prints something unfavorable about us. I think that’s why she does it. She loves to be controversial.”

   “You mean she loves to dig into people’s private lives,” Kristen pointed out.

   “It’s all done in good humor.”

   “You didn’t say that when she reported that you needed to get rid of some of your big hair.”

   He automatically smoothed a hand over the side of his head. “She was right. I did have big hair when I arrived in Minneapolis. But the point is this. If KC misses the amorous anchors, the viewers do, too. They’ve come to expect that it’ll be the two of us doing the news. We’re the team they want to see. Just ask Bob.”

   Kristen knew that Bob Yates as the news director had only one concern and that was ratings. If he thought another anchor could sustain those ratings, he wouldn’t care if Kristen ever returned from medical leave. The fact that Keith was over here encouraging her meant that so far Janey hadn’t done the job. That gave Kristen little comfort. Because if they were losing viewers, it meant another station was gaining them.

   “You and I are like friends to many of those people who tune into Channel 12 each evening,” Keith continued. “They’re concerned about you just the way they’d be concerned for a friend who was injured. Just look at the stacks of mail over there.” He nodded toward the dining room.

   Kristen knew what he said was true. In the five years she’d been at the station, she’d met many of the people who comprised their target audience. They were warm, friendly, caring members of a community she had grown to love.

   “I’d like to say I could return next week, but...” She didn’t finish, knowing perfectly well that it would be a mistake to go back to work in her present condition. “I really don’t think I’m up to it.”

   “You could always ease back into it. Actually, I’ve come up with a way for you to do just that.”

   Suspicion began to creep into Kristen’s mind when she saw Keith’s eyes sparkling as if he had a great secret. “And what’s that?”

   “I’ve talked Bob into giving me the okay to go ahead with a Profile in Courage.”

   These profiles were special features the Channel 12 news team produced to highlight community members who had performed acts of extreme bravery. “So how do I fit in?”

   “I want you to work with me.” He leaned forward, his face full of enthusiasm. “Guess who we’re going to profile.”

   She gave him a blank look.

   “Who is one of the most heroic men in the Twin Cities?”

   Great. Now he was making it a guessing game. “I don’t know,” she said impatiently.

   “It’s someone who’s important to both of us.”

   Kristen couldn’t think of a single name.

   “Tyler Brant,” he finally revealed.

   “Tyler Brant?” she repeated, her heart skipping a beat. “Has he agreed to the interview?”

   “Not yet, but I don’t foresee any problems in that area. Why would there be? We’re not doing an investigative report. We’re paying tribute to him. The viewers will love it!”

   But would Tyler Brant? Kristen wondered. “He didn’t strike me as the kind who would want the attention.”

   “Are you kidding? Every guy likes to be called a hero.”

   “Maybe,” she said thoughtfully. She didn’t tell him that she had tried several times to contact Tyler only to be told he was unavailable. Even after she’d left her name and phone number, he hadn’t returned her calls.

   “Not only is the man a hero,” Keith continued, “but he’s a well-respected member of the community. And there’s an added benefit. If we do a profile of the two of you, we’ll allow the viewers to see what you’ve been through the past couple of weeks and let them know that you’re on the road to recovery.”

   “Wait a minute. You said this was about Tyler Brant. Why would you profile me?” she asked, uneasiness churning her stomach.

   “Because he saved your life.” He looked at her as if he were telling her the sky was blue.

   “I don’t want to be the subject of any show,” she stated firmly.

   “Why not? You said you were upset with the inaccuracy of many of the reports on the plane crash. This would be a way to set the record straight.” He gestured toward the piles of mail in her dining room. “Just look at all those cards and letters. The viewers are worried about you. If we did a segment where we covered the crash, your hospitalization, your recuperation—”

   “Stop right there,” she interrupted him, holding up both hands in protest. “You’re not thinking about bringing a crew here?”

   “All we’d need are a couple of shots of you at home. We have plenty of video from the crash site. If we interviewed a few doctors and nurses at the hospital, then close with you in the newsroom, staying abreast of what’s going on, we can show the public that you’re still very much a part of the news team.”

   Kristen could hardly believe what she was hearing. “You’re joking, right?”

   “No. Why would I joke about your work?”

   She stared at him in disbelief. “Keith, you can’t honestly think I’d want to be the subject of such a program?”

   “Why not?”

   “Because I don’t want my personal life broadcast to the world, that’s why,” she protested. “And I can’t believe you could be so insensitive as to even suggest such a thing.”

   He looked like a little boy who had been told he couldn’t play baseball until after his homework was done. “It’s a news story, not an exposé,” he reminded her.

   “It’s an invasion of my privacy. Do you know how many times I’ve had reporters banging on my door since it happened?”

   “Because your story is news. You were heroically rescued from a plane crash that killed eight other people. You survived, Kristen. You’ve worked in this business long enough to know that your situation is exactly what interests the public.”

   She knew what he said was true. And at one time she would have understood exactly why he was suggesting she be the subject of the in-depth segment. As a journalist, she was familiar with the attitude members of her profession had about the stories they were covering. After all, she herself had often stuck a microphone into the faces of grieving relatives, crime victims—people who wanted to be left alone. Now she was on the other side herself. And she didn’t like it.

   “I’m not allowing anyone to come here and film my private life,” she said firmly.

   “All right. You don’t need to have the camera crew come here. We’ll skip the personal angle and shoot it from a career perspective.”

   “You won’t shoot it at all,” she assured him. “I mean it. I will not be the subject of any features—for you or anyone else.”

   “You could have complete control over the content. Heck, you could even do the final edit,” he proposed reluctantly.

   “No.”

   “Will you at least think about it?”

   “No.”

   If there was one thing Keith was used to getting it was his own way. When he stiffened his shoulders and tightened his mouth, it was obvious that he wasn’t pleased with her refusal. Kristen discovered his handsome features weren’t so handsome when he pouted. Actually, he looked quite ugly. Funny how she’d never noticed it before.

   “Obviously, this crash has affected you emotionally. Why don’t I give you time to think about it and call you later?” he suggested, rising to his feet, his hands automatically smoothing the wrinkles in his creased pants.

   Kristen realized that his bringing the flowers and mail had simply been an excuse for him to come over and talk business. He hadn’t come out of concern for her but because he wanted to do the feature segment and he needed her cooperation. Not only was she disappointed in him but in the Channel 12 news team, too. They didn’t want her; they wanted her story. It was a sobering thought.

   “I’m not going to change my mind, Keith,” she told him.

   His expression hardened. “Now what kind of attitude is that?”

   She took a deep breath in an attempt to control the emotions swirling inside her, but it didn’t help. “It’s the attitude I have, and if you weren’t so worried about how my absence is affecting your ratings you could take a moment to support me rather than try to put me through more stress.” He looked startled by her outburst.

   “Maybe you should mention these emotional periods you’re having to your doctor. He could probably recommend some medication—”

   “I don’t need any more medication,” she snapped. “What I need is a fiancé who understands what I’ve been through.”

   “I’m trying to understand, but you won’t leave this apartment.” He sighed. “Look, would you at least think about allowing the makeup artist to come for a visit? I’m emceeing the celebrity auction for the Children’s Hospital next Saturday and I want you to be with me.”

   But only if you can cover your scars. He hadn’t said the words aloud, but she knew what he was thinking. “I can’t go.”

   “You won’t even consider it?”

   “I don’t have the energy.”

   “You might feel differently by Saturday.”

   Kristen knew she wouldn’t. Come Saturday, her cheek would still be swollen and bruised. The doctor had said four to six weeks. It had only been three. But she knew that—even if her face had been fine—she wasn’t ready to face the outside world.

   “Don’t count on that happening,” she said firmly.

   He shook his head. “If you come with me to the door, I’ll get those other two bags of mail for you.”

   She stared at him in disbelief. Did he honestly think it was easy for her to hobble around after him? If she used her crutches at all, it would be to beat him over the head, not to walk to the door so that he could hand her a couple bags of mail.

   “Forget the damn mail,” she barked at him.

   He didn’t say another word but quietly left. Without even kissing her forehead.

   Strangely, Kristen was not disappointed.

   CHAPTER TWO

   “I DON’T THINK this is a good idea.”

   “Just do it. Please.” Kristen sat in her usual position on the sofa with her leg propped up on the ottoman. Her best friend, Gayle Shaefer, knelt in front of the VCR, a couple of videocassettes beside her.

   Before she inserted one, she asked Kristen, “Are you sure it wouldn’t be better to see someone who’s experienced in dealing with this kind of thing?”

   “You think I need therapy?”

   “I think talking to someone who understands what happens to a person who’s been in a plane crash is probably a better way to get on with your life rather than looking at a bunch of taped footage,” Gayle said candidly.

   Kristen shook her head. “I’m not going to see any more doctors—and that includes psychiatrists, psychologists or whatever. I don’t want to talk about the crash, Gayle.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’ve done enough of that with my mother. It’s all she ever wants to talk about when she calls.”

   “She’s probably trying to sort through her own feelings. After all, she nearly lost her daughter.”

   Kristen knew Gayle was right. The problem was, while talking about it may have been therapy for her mother, Kristen didn’t need any reminders of how close she had come to losing her life in the plane crash.

   “I didn’t die. I have a broken leg and—” she gestured to her left cheek “—and a face that’s messed up.”

   “And both will heal,” Gayle reassured her in the voice Kristen had come to rely on over the years. “You’ll go back to work and your life will be normal again.”

   “Yes, well, if I’m ever getting back to work, I need to look at those tapes. So let’s see what you’ve got.”

   Gayle looked as if she wanted to protest, but didn’t. “Okay, if you’re sure you’re ready for this.”

   Kristen wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she needed to do something to try to make her life normal again. Ever since the accident, she’d been mired in a quagmire of emotions that were unfamiliar to her. Guilt. Self-pity. Uncertainty.

   None of them made any sense. She was alive. She’d survived an ordeal in which others had died. Yes, her face had required plastic surgery, but it would heal. She should’ve been grateful and happy. Yet she wasn’t. She was this pathetic bundle of nerves.

   “Let’s do it,” she told Gayle, clenching her hands in her lap.

   Gayle pushed the play button. Within seconds, Kristen was shivering as images she remembered all too vividly appeared before her eyes. Gayle didn’t move but stayed in front of the VCR, ready to stop the tape should the experience become too much for her friend.

   As the images continued, Kristen wondered whether she should have listened to Gayle. She watched as the camera scanned the crash site, capturing all that could be seen of the broken plane left projecting out of the water.

   Kristen lost control when she saw a man’s hat floating on the water. “Oh my G—” Her hand flew to her mouth as she choked back a lump of emotion in her throat. “No wonder everyone said it was a miracle we made it out.” Then she started to weep.

   Gayle popped the tape out of the VCR. “That’s enough.” She went over to the sofa and put her hand on Kristen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know this is hard for you.”

   “I’m o-okay,” she choked out on a sob. “R-really. Show me the other one,” she said, sniffling as she reached for a tissue.

   “I will not!”

   Kristen blew her nose. “Gayle, please. I’m okay.”

   “No, you’re not.”

   “I am and I have to see it. I won’t break down again. I promise. It was just the shock of seeing the plane.”

   Gayle didn’t look convinced, but she finally slid the next cassette into the VCR. “Here’s the tape that came from our Hibbing affiliate.”

   For Kristen, seeing the crash reported in a matter-of-fact tone by another reporter did not have the same emotional impact as the unedited footage. Although she shuddered once more at the scenes of the shattered airplane, she was able to separate her emotions from the images on the television so that she was no longer reliving the crash. Until her picture appeared on the screen.

   It was one of the publicity photos the station used regularly. Next to it was a picture of Tyler Brant—the man who had saved her life. He wore a business suit and tie, his dark hair neatly trimmed, his eyes showing no emotion whatsoever. It was a typical business photo that could have been in the pages of any corporate report. There was no smile on his face.

   Kristen watched the entire report, then rewound the tape with the remote until she came to the shot of Tyler Brant. She listened again as the reporter explained that Tyler had been on his way to Hibbing to check out the damage a fire had done to his electronics plant. She freeze-framed the tape.

   “There he is. My hero.” She stared at him thoughtfully, trying to connect the austere-looking man in the photograph with the one who had carried her for miles in the cold, refusing to let her perish in the wilderness.

   If she were to close her eyes, she thought she might be able to feel his warm breath on her cheek, hear his voice commanding her, “Stay with me, Kristen. Don’t you dare go to sleep. Do you hear me?”

   His arms had had a strength that she’d needed, and even if she hadn’t just seen his picture on the screen, she still could’ve recalled every detail of his face.

   It was not as photogenic a face as her fiancé’s. It had no dimples. no flirtatious sparkle in the eyes, no dazzling smile that would cause a woman’s heart to miss a beat. His thick, dark beard had been matted with blood, she recalled, his dark eyes compassionate, despite the pain he must have felt.

   “I think he looks like a mountain man in a business suit,” Gayle commented. “What’s he like as a person?”

   If anyone else had asked that question, Kristen would have said she hadn’t had time to get to know Tyler Brant However, Gayle had always been the one person she could talk to without guarding her words.

   She shrugged. “He didn’t say much. I did most of the talking. He wanted me to because he was worried I’d fall asleep, which is not a good thing to do when you’re suffering from hypothermia. You probably know as much about him as I do just from watching the news.”

   “Does he have a sense of humor?”

   Kristen shot her a look of exasperation. “How would I know? We were fighting for our lives. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “he did laugh when I told him I couldn’t leave the plane without finding my gold cross—you know, the one my grandmother gave me.”

   “Let me get this straight. The plane was sinking, and you were worried about your necklace?”

   “It was special to me...and people aren’t always rational in times of distress,” she said in her own defense.

   “Since you’re not wearing it, I assume you never found it,” Gayle remarked.

   She shook her head. “He did look for it, though.”

   “He must be strong, considering how far he carried you.”

   “Mmm-hmm. And it was so cold. Our clothes were wet, which made me even heavier, yet he never complained.”

   “He risked his life to save you.”

   She nodded. “That’s why I feel this... this debt. Like I need to do something for him. Does that make sense?”

   “Of course it does. Have you spoken to him since the crash?” Gayle asked.

   She shook her head. “He’s never returned my phone calls.”

   “Maybe that’s why you’re having trouble putting all this behind you. Maybe you need to see this guy so you can move on with your life.”

   Gayle’s suggestion wasn’t new to Kristen. She’d had the same thought herself. Ever since the crash, Tyler Brant had been in her thoughts a lot. She longed to know how he was coping. Whether the crash had changed his life. Did he question why he was chosen to survive while the others had died? Did he ever think about that day? Did he ever think about her?

   That last question was the one that nagged her the most. Did he feel a sense of responsibility for saving her life? While she was in the hospital, she’d expected him to visit or at least call.

   He hadn’t.

   On several occasions, she’d tried to reach him at his office only to be told he was unavailable. Then she’d been bold enough to call his home only to have some woman tell her he was out of town on business. Finally, she had put her thoughts in a letter and mailed it to him.

   Still, she’d heard nothing from him. Obviously, he didn’t want to see her again. And yet he’d been so kind that day of the crash. He’d seemed so interested in her, asking about her family and giving her the impression that because they had survived a tragedy together, they would always share a special bond of friendship. Then he had left the Hibbing hospital without so much as a goodbye.

   “I’m not going to force him to talk to me. If he doesn’t think we have anything to say to one another, I’m not going to push the issue,” she told Gayle.

   “But it’s not over for you, is it?”

   “Not yet,” she answered quietly. “But it will be when I’m not cooped up in this apartment. This cast on my leg is making me feel claustrophobic.”

   “Maybe we can drive around in the car and listen to the police scanner,” Gayle suggested.

   Kristen gave her a weak smile.

   “We could take in a movie.”

   “And drag this monstrosity of a cast down those narrow theater aisles? No thanks.”

   “Then I’ll go get us a couple of videos.”

   “You should go home. You have a daughter who needs you.”

   “It’s Tom’s turn to take her to her swimming lesson. He can easily get her ready for bed.”

   “He’s been doing that far too often because you’ve been over here fussing over me. Go home and be with your family. Please.”

   Gayle glanced at her watch. “It is getting late. Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”

   Kristen nodded. “Positive. I have everything I need. A good book, the remote control and a bottle of diet soda. What more could I want?” she quipped.

   She didn’t fool her best friend. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to be patient.”

   Kristen nodded. “I know.”

   Gayle ejected the rewound tape and slipped it back into its case. “You know any time you want to get back into the swing of things you can always tag along with me. You don’t have to go back to the news desk.”

   “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not ready to go back yet,” she said a bit more defensively than she intended.

   Gayle placed an understanding hand on her arm. “Then don’t. Take whatever time you need to feel like your old self again.”

   Long after Gayle had gone, Kristen thought about those words. Would she ever feel like her old self again? How could she when she was having difficulty remembering who that person was?

   It was true that she’d been through the kind of thing that caused people to reassess their priorities in life. To stop and smell the roses, so to speak. But it was more than that. It was...

   It was what? she wondered. Why did she feel so restless? Why did she have periods of weakness even though the doctor had said there was nothing wrong with her physically? Why did she want to cry for no apparent reason? And why could she not stop thinking about Tyler Brant?

   TYLER DID NOT HAVE a good day. It shouldn’t have surprised him. He’d had a restless night. When he hadn’t been tossing and turning, he’d slept fitfully, and most of his dreams—none of them pleasant—had involved Brittany.

   In each of them, she was out of reach. At the top of an escalator, astride a painted horse on a revolving carousel, in a car speeding away from his home. She would call out to him for help, yet although he could see her, he couldn’t reach her.

   They were the nightmares that had haunted him often during the past five years. He didn’t need a therapist to interpret their meaning. He had a fear of losing his daughter. What father didn’t?

   That’s why he hadn’t been pleased when his mother had announced that Brittany was going on a field trip with her class. To the Science Museum, of all places. How was one teacher with the help of three parents going to keep track of twenty-two first-graders in a place that big?

   He’d been tempted to keep Brittany home from school that morning. The last thing he needed was to spend his day worrying about her getting snatched by some pervert wandering the halls of the Science Museum. He knew his fear was irrational, yet he couldn’t stop himself from imagining all sorts of awful things that could happen to his daughter. It was only when his mother said that she would go along on the trip that he had signed his consent.

   Then he’d had a flat tire on the way to work. Not only had he missed his meeting with the director of marketing, he’d had his lunch appointment canceled at the last minute. To top it off, the entire afternoon had been spent with engineers trying to figure out a solution to a mechanical problem that kept automatically shutting down one of the assembly lines.

   By the time he arrived home that evening, he was tired and irritable. He wasn’t the only one. Brittany whined her way through dinner, which only confirmed one thing. The trip to the museum had been too much for her. As much as he wanted to tell his mother this, he wisely held his tongue and patiently put up with Brittany’s whining.

   When the phone rang shortly after dinner, it was his mother who answered it “It’s Keith Jaxson from the Channel 12 news!” Excitement danced in her eyes. “He wants to speak to you.”

   Tyler groaned. Had he known the media were still pursuing that story, he would have let the answering machine take the call. He’d managed to avoid all reporters up to now.

   “Yes, this is Tyler Brant,” he said into the receiver.

   “Mr. Brant, Keith Jaxson with Channel 12 news. How are you this evening?”

   “I’ve been better, Mr. Jaxson.” Tyler could see no reason for social niceties.

   “I’m sorry to hear that. I won’t take up much of your time. The reason I’m calling has to do with Kristen Kellar.” He paused as if waiting for Tyler to ask what about her, but he didn’t. There was only dead air, which Keith quickly filled. “Here at Channel 12 news, we all miss her terribly and we’re doing everything we can to help her get back to work as quickly as possible.”

   “I don’t understand what that has to do with me, Mr. Jaxson,” Tyler said.

   “I’m sure you’re aware that Kristen has a huge audience here in the Twin Cities—an audience that’s very concerned about how she’s doing. Because they’re so interested, we’d like to do a special report to show just how hard Kristen’s working to recover from the plane crash. What she’s been through is remarkable and the public ought to see just what a strong, determined lady she is.”

   “That’s all fine, but I still don’t see what it has to do with me.”

   “Why, you’re the reason she’s here to tell her story. It wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t include an interview with the man who saved her life.”

   “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Tyler stated in no uncertain terms.

   “It wouldn’t have to be a long interview, just a brief visit to either your home or office—”

   “No.” Tyler cut him off before he could finish.

   “You’re a hero, Mr. Brant,” Jaxson reminded him.

   “No, I’m a man who works long hours so I can come home to some peace and quiet and not have to worry about the media invading my privacy.”

   That silenced Jaxson momentarily. “I apologize for disturbing you. I had hoped that you would want to say a few words about the remarkable courage Kristen has shown, but I see that I was wrong.”

   “Yes, you were, Mr. Jaxson. And I would appreciate not being contacted again by your station. I have nothing to say on the subject of the plane crash,” he said with a note of finality that nobody could mistake.

   As soon as he’d hung up, Tyler could see that his mother was upset. However, she didn’t say anything to him but went about the business of clearing away the dinner dishes, her mouth tightly set in a grim expression of disapproval. She disappeared into the kitchen only to return a few minutes later. She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a fistful of papers.

   “What’s this?” he asked as she dumped the pile in front of him.

   “The messages that were on the answering machine when I got home today. Someone from Channel 12 was trying to get ahold of you. I didn’t realize it was Keith Jaxson.”

   Tyler didn’t say anything but glanced through the crumpled papers. They were all from Channel 12. Most from a producer named LeeAnn. All said to please call regarding Kristen Kellar.

   “They just won’t leave me alone,” he complained, shaking his head in disgust. “When are they going to get it through their thick skulls that I want nothing to do with them?”

   Irritation simmered inside him. Maybe if he hadn’t had such a rotten day, he might’ve simply ignored the messages and gone to bed. But he had had a bad day. And he was furious that there were people out there determined to invade what little privacy he had. So he planted a kiss on Brittany’s cheek, reached for his coat and went out to his car. It was time he put an end to this once and for all.

   He was no hero.

   KRISTEN WATCHED JANEY and Keith on the six o’clock news. Saw the two of them bantering the way she and Keith had bantered in what seemed like an eternity ago. It had been only four weeks, but it was the longest four weeks of Kristen’s life. Janey was a natural. She had the look, and as Kristen was painfully aware, looks were everything in television.

   Janey acted as if the anchor desk were hers. So confident, so at ease. With Kristen’s job. With Kristen’s fiance. Kristen knew she should be worried. She wasn’t.

   She told herself that if Janey could maintain the ratings while she was on leave, that was all that really mattered. She didn’t want her job back. At least not yet. So why did she feel like she was on the outside looking in?

   Maybe Keith was right. Maybe she had had too much time to think. Maybe the only way to get back on the inside was to go back to work.

   Maybe not. She tossed a pillow at the television, frustrated with her indecision. She wasn’t happy staying at home recuperating, yet she really didn’t want to return to the newsroom.

   When the intercom buzzed from the lobby, she was tempted to ignore the sound. It couldn’t be Keith since he was at the station, and Gayle had a class on Wednesdays. When the buzzing persisted, she hobbled over to the intercom.

   “Who is it?” she asked, her voice laced with an impatience she didn’t try to hide.

   “Tyler Brant.”

   Kristen gulped. Tyler Brant. The man of her dreams. The man she’d been trying to reach for weeks. The man she needed to thank.

   “Come on up. I’m number 211.” She pressed the button to open the lobby door.

   As she waited for him to arrive, anxiety sent a rush of adrenaline through her body. Why was he here? Did he want to talk about the crash and the impact it had had on his life? Maybe when he read her letter, he had sensed her need to thank him in person for saving her life. Could it be that he needed to talk to her as much as she needed to talk to him?

   When he knocked on her door, her mouth went dry. For weeks, she had rehearsed what she would say to him. Now her mind was a blank. Maybe “thank you” was all that was really necessary.

   She peered through the peephole and got a shock. The person standing outside her door looked nothing like the man who had rescued her from the icy waters of the river. Gone was the thick, dark beard that had covered his jaw. There was nothing, not even a mustache, to darken the lower portion of his face.

   She unlocked the dead bolt and opened the door. Her eyes met his, and she felt an instant connection. They may have spent only a few hours together, but it seemed like so much longer. She’d been right to believe that for the rest of her life she would feel linked to this man in some intangible way.

   Instead of saying, “Hello, how are you?” she blurted out, “You’re okay,” as a way of greeting him, then felt ridiculous. Of course he was okay. He was better than okay. He was healthy, virile and looking strong. She needed to explain her inane remark. “In the hospital they told me you had come through everything with only a few minor injuries, but I never got to see you, so I guess I never really believed you were all right.”

   He only said, “May I come in?”

   His voice was stiff and formal, not at all like the way he’d talked to her after the crash. His eyes were cold and distant.

   “Please.” She motioned for him to step inside. “Would you like me to take your jacket?” she asked, leaning on one of the crutches for support.

   “No, I’ll keep it, thank you. I won’t be staying long.”

   She shivered, wondering what had happened to the man who had talked so tenderly to her after the crash. She hobbled over to the living room. He followed.

   “Have a seat,” she said, noticing how disorderly her apartment looked with the pillow and blanket on the sofa, books and magazines scattered across the coffee table, the end tables littered with glasses and empty plates. She started to fold the blanket, then realized there was no point in trying to straighten up the place now. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked as he took a seat on one of the moss-green wing chairs.

   “No, thank you.”

   He looked around the apartment, his expression revealing nothing of what he was thinking. Kristen was grateful. She didn’t want to see disapproval in his eyes.

   Instead of sitting on the sofa across from him, she took the chair next to his. It put him to her right, which meant she could keep her scarred cheek away from his view. As long as she didn’t look him straight in the eye, he wouldn’t notice it. Since leaving the hospital, she had become adept at looking at people from an angle.

   And the angle from which she viewed Tyler Brant told her his face was very different from the one she had etched in her memory. She found it fascinating that facial hair could change a man’s image so drastically. Without the beard, he looked much younger. He was also extremely good-looking, something she hadn’t really appreciated before. For four weeks she had thought of him as someone who’d rescued her, not as a man she might be physically attracted to.

   “You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” he began.

   “I assume it’s because of my letter,” she said almost shyly. Now that she was in the same room with him, she suddenly felt like a character from one of those old adventure movies. And she was afraid that that was exactly how she would sound if she tried to thank him for saving her life. Like some helpless, simpering female gushing over a big, strong, macho man.

   She needn’t have worried. He was no superhero, she quickly discovered.

   “I wish you hadn’t sent me that letter,” he said, still no emotion in his voice.

   To her dismay, she blushed. “I simply wanted to thank you, Mr. Brant,” She shifted uncomfortably on the chair.

   “It wasn’t necessary. I did what anyone would have done in my position.”

   There was no hint of friendliness in his tone. No softening of the lines on his face, no understanding in those dark eyes. Nothing about him resembled the man who had worked frantically to free her from the plane and carry her to safety. The man sitting next to her could have been a complete stranger instead of the man who had tenderly administered first aid to her wounds.

   “I don’t believe that’s true,” she told him.

   “You’re entitled to believe what you want, Ms. Kellar.”

   Kristen felt as if he had dealt her a blow. Why was he behaving this way? She had thought that when she saw him again it would be a warm, friendly meeting with hugs and smiles. Instead, she was sitting next to him feeling awkward and wishing that he’d leave.

   “If you didn’t appreciate my letter, why are you here?” she asked, seeing no point in wasting any more time.

   “I think we need to get something straight.”

   Kristen’s heart pounded in her throat. “And that is?”

   “I’m not going to do any interview regarding the plane crash—not for you and certainly not for your boyfriend. I don’t want him calling my house bothering my family and I won’t tolerate being stalked just so the two of you can improve your ratings.” The words were spoken so quietly Kristen might have thought he wasn’t overly upset. But one look in his eyes told her he was extremely upset.

   She swallowed with difficulty, then said, “First of all, I didn’t arrange for anyone to call your house. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not working at Channel 12 at the moment and I have no intention of being a part of any story that has to do with the crash.” She leaned closer to the lamp that separated them. Then she turned her head and pulled the hair away from her cheek. “Do you honestly think I want the world to see this?”

   Unlike Keith, Tyler Brant didn’t flinch at the sight of her scarred face. Nor did he look uncomfortable. For the first time since he’d entered her apartment, she saw something other than coldness in his eyes. For several moments, they simply stared at each other without speaking, as if they were once more two people struggling to survive. Kristen was the first to look away.

   He was the first to speak. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, his voice sounding more like the one she remembered. At first she thought the apology was meant for her scarred face. But then he added, “I thought you were involved in the TV report. Your name did come up several times,”

   “It shouldn’t have,” she said quietly, pulling the hair back down across her cheek. She moved away from the lamp, sitting back in her chair. “Believe me, Mr. Brant, you don’t have to worry about my wanting to do a follow-up story on the plane crash. I have no desire to relive that awful day.”

   “I’m glad to hear that. Can I count on you to use your influence with management to stop any plans to the contrary?”

   She chuckled sarcastically. “I’m only an anchorwoman.”

   “I’ve seen the ratings. You’re very popular in the Twin Cities.”

   “That was before this happened.” She was unable to keep the bitterness from her voice and immediately regretted letting him see her self-pity. She reached for her crutches and rose to her feet. “Look, I don’t know if it’ll help, but I’ll talk to my boss at the station. Now if you don’t mind, I’m rather tired. I haven’t recovered my full strength since the crash.” She didn’t look at him but at her crutches as she maneuvered through the maze of furniture in the living room.

   “You don’t need to see me to the door,” he told her. “I can find my way out.”

   “All right.” She watched him walk away, unable to help noticing his broad shoulders. No wonder she had found such comfort in his arms. Tyler Brant was not a weak man, either mentally or physically.

   They didn’t exchange another word. It wasn’t until after Kristen heard the door shut that she sank onto the sofa, laid her head on the pillow and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. Any hope she had been harboring that he felt a connection to her was gone. He was just a guy who had done what he had to do in an emergency situation. Now he wanted to forget it—and her. That much had been evident tonight.

   “Some hero,” she muttered to herself, then swallowed back a tear that threatened but never did fall.

   CHAPTER THREE

   TYLER CHASTISED HIMSELF all the way home from Kristen’s. He shouldn’t have gone to see her. He could’ve telephoned and accomplished the same results. It would’ve been the wiser thing to do because he wouldn’t now be haunted by the look on her face when she’d shown him her swollen, bruised cheek.

   He could still see that angry, defensive stare she’d given him as she thrust her face under the light. She’d thought he’d be shocked into some kind of negative reaction. What she hadn’t realized was that—compared with the way her cheek had looked when he’d last seen her—her face looked remarkably good.

   She must have had the top reconstructive surgeon in the country. It only made sense. She made her living based on her looks. Maybe he should have said something positive about her face.

   But he suspected that no matter what he might’ve said, she would’ve interpreted it as pity. And it was obvious she was already immersed in enough of that herself. Besides, he doubted that she would’ve believed him if he’d told her it didn’t look as bad as she thought it did.

   There probably wasn’t a thing he could’ve said that would’ve eased her pain. Not even the truth, which was that he was surprised at what the plastic surgeon had accomplished

   Even if some scarring remained, her beauty would still be intact. Until today, he had attributed part of her attractiveness to the skill of makeup artists. But tonight there had been no makeup, no fake eyelashes, no designer wardrobe, no hairstyle created by an expensive salon. Tonight he had seen the woman, not the TV news anchor.

   Gone was the self-confident, smiling face that still appeared in ads for the Channel 12 news. In its place was a hauntingly sad face that tugged on his emotions. He wished that his anger with Keith Jaxson hadn’t kept him from acting like a decent human being. It wouldn’t have cost him anything to show her some compassion.

   The problem was, would compassion be all that he needed to give her? The minute she’d opened the door to him, he’d felt as if he were opening a can of worms better left undisturbed. Every instinct inside him warned him that as much as he wanted to help Kristen Kellar, he couldn’t allow himself to be drawn into her life.

   After what happened when Susan died, he knew better than to let his heart dictate any course of action. Tough was what he needed to be. Emotionally and mentally. It was the only way he would survive. And he had to survive. For his daughter’s sake.

   Kristen Kellar would just have to find her way out of the darkness without his help.

   IN THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED, Kristen saw little of Keith. He told her his involvement with a celebrity basketball game was taking all his free time, but she suspected that he simply didn’t want to be around her. As Gayle often said, it was a good thing Keith hadn’t become a doctor. He was seriously lacking when it came to bedside manners.

   So she was surprised when he offered to take her to the doctor on the day her cast was to be removed. Knowing how much he disliked being around hospitals, she saw it as a sign that he was making an effort to fix whatever was wrong between them.

   Although it was a cold, gray November day, Kristen felt as though the sun were shining when she walked out of the hospital minus the cast. On the way home, Keith invited her to lunch at the Chinese Lantern. When she suggested they get takeout, he agreed and told her he wanted to have some time alone with her.

   As they sat across from each other at her kitchen table, it felt almost like old times. She could feel the tension seeping out of her body as they talked.

   “It’s a good thing it’s almost winter,” she commented as they ate Szechuan chicken with their chopsticks. “My leg’s looking pretty puny.”

   Keith smiled his perfect smile and said, “The good news is that you’re no longer confined to this apartment. It’s time you get out and do things. Have some fun.”

   “You’re right,” she agreed, although the very thought sent a ripple of fear through her. She pushed aside her half-eaten meal and concentrated on her tea. “I’ll have to get back into things slowly.” She emphasized the word “slowly.”

   He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “I’m glad to hear you say that because we need to make plans.”

   “Plans?”

   “Mmm-hmm,” he said, turning his attention back to his food, which he ate with enthusiasm. “You know, for our trip?”

   Anxiety crept through her nerves. “Trip?”

   “To the Bahamas. For Thanksgiving.” He gave her a broad grin. “You haven’t forgotten about it, have you?”

   She hadn’t forgotten. She knew they were supposed to meet his family for the holiday, but she’d assumed that because of what had happened those plans would be postponed. She opened a packet of artificial sweetener and added it to her tea. “You still want to go?”

   “Of course. It’ll be good for us. We’ll get away from the cold. Spend some time with my family.”

   She took a sip of tea, then looked at him over the cup. “Maybe we should stay here. I know how to roast a turkey. We could have a quiet dinner for two at either your place or mine.”

   “On Thanksgiving?” He shot her a look of disbelief. “It’s a day to be with friends and family. My mom says there’ll be twelve of the Jaxsons there. And Bob’s already arranged the schedules so we can both be gone at the same time. Can’t you just see it? Four days and nights on the white sand beaches, lying in the sun, drinking pin

a coladas. It’ll be great for you. We’ll tan up that puny white leg of yours.” He looked at her with excitement beaming all over his face.

   Kristen was not excited. The four days and nights on the beach sounded wonderful, but there was one huge problem Keith didn’t know ahout

   There was no way she was ready to get back on an airplane. Not yet.

   “You’re not saying anything.” Some of the excitement faded from his face.

   “It sounds lovely....”

   “But?”

   She wet her lips before she tried to explain. “It’s not that I don’t want to go. I do. But the last time I was on a plane, it crashed.” She had to clutch her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling at the memory.

   “I know it was a traumatic experience for you, but you have to remember that plane crashes are rare. Especially among the big airlines. I think your chances of ever being involved in one are something like one in 250,000.”

   “Well, I lost to the odds, didn’t I?” she said grimly.

   He groaned and threw down his napkin in frustration. “It’s not going to happen again, and you can’t even think there’s a possibility it might.”

   “That’s easy for you to say.”

   “Yes, it is, because I understand the laws of probability. It’s far more dangerous to drive your Audi to work each day than it is to get on a plane.” When she didn’t say anything, he tried another tack. “Come on, honey. You’re not going to let fear keep you from doing something you want to do, are you? Do you really plan to let fear run your life?”

   “You can put away your amateur psychology. It’s not going to work.” She started clearing the dishes.

   “Are you saying you won’t even think about it?”

   “I can’t think about it. It’s too soon.” She scraped the remains of her lunch into the garbage disposal and turned it on, not wanting to look at her fiancé. Because she knew there wouldn’t be understanding in his eyes—only impatience.

   Actually, he was angry. “This isn’t like you, Kristen.”

   “What isn’t like me?”

   “The way you’ve been behaving. Ever since you’ve come home from the hospital, you’ve been moody and indifferent. You haven’t been interested in anything I have to say. You haven’t cared whether we even spend any time together.”

   “Don’t try to make me the villain in all this, Keith. In all the time I’ve been cooped up here in my apartment, I can count on one hand the number of times you’ve visited,” she snapped, still keeping her back to him as she rinsed dishes in the sink.

   “And whose fault is that?”

   She turned around then and glared at him. “Well, I can tell by the tone of your voice you don’t think it’s yours.”

   “Because every time I come over, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster with your emotions. You’re either angry or depressed or anxious or tired.” He rose to his feet and came to stand in front of her.

   “Well, excuse me,” she drawled. “I was in a crash that almost killed me.”

   “Which is all the more reason why you should be deliriously happy. You’re alive!”

   Kristen stared at him in disbelief. He just didn’t get it. It was because she was alive that she was having problems. She had survived; eight others hadn’t. Not a day passed when she didn’t question why she had been given the chance to live. It was a terrible burden to carry, one that had her questioning almost everything in her life.

   Keith grasped her by the shoulders. “What I want to know is what happened to the woman I fell in love with? The one who loved being with people? The one who always had a smile and chose to look at the glass as being half-full instead of half-empty?”

   “I guess you’ll have to accept that she’s changed,” she said soberly.

   “Well, it hasn’t been for the better.”

   The look on his face sent a chill through Kristen. She didn’t want to cry, but she couldn’t keep the tears from misting in her eyes. “I’m trying to get my life back together, but I feel as if my whole world has been turned upside down. Last month there wasn’t a cloud on my horizon. Now...” Her words trailed off on a sob.

   The sight of her tears made him pull her into his arms and hug her. “I know it’s been tough, but you have to get on with your life. You can’t wallow in self-pity.”

   She pushed him away, swallowing back the tears. “Self-pity? Is that what you think this is?”

   He groaned again. “I don’t know what it is. All I know is that you have to make some effort to move forward. I can’t take much more of this.”

   “Is that some kind of ultimatum? Either I get happy or else?”

   He left her question unanswered, only saying, “You’re tired. You’d better get some rest.” He started for the door, grabbing his jacket on the way. “I’ve got to go or I’ll be late for work.”

   And Kristen added one more to the total number of days that had passed without his kissing her.

   TYLER DIDN’T EXPECT that he’d ever see Kristen Kellar again. But it bothered him that he’d been so abrupt with her. He’d blamed her for something she hadn’t done, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he owed her an apology. When his mother showed him KC’s column one morning, he called Kristen to tell her he was coming over to see her.

   According to the gossip columnist, there were problems in paradise. The engagement was all but a thing of the past and her job at the television station was looking pretty uncertain, as well. Rumor was that her injuries from the plane crash were more serious than the station had reported earlier.

   None of these things should have been any concern of Tyler’s. Whatever happened to Kristen Kellar was none of his business. Or at least he didn’t want it to be. But he couldn’t forget the way she looked when he’d been at her apartment. So alone. So lost. So vulnerable.

   She looked as if she needed someone to take care of her. He raked a hand through his hair as he drove. He had made a habit of staying away from women who were emotionally needy. Yet here he was driving over to check on one he hardly knew and bringing her flowers.

   As he parked his car, he made a promise to himself. “You are going to go in there, see that she’s all right, apologize and leave. That’s it.”

   All it took was one look at her and Tyler knew he couldn’t keep any such promise. When she opened the door, he saw that the cast was gone from her leg. Instead of wearing sweatpants cut off at the knee, she had on a pair of dark leggings and a long, baggy white sweater that hid her slender curves. Even without the cast, she looked more fragile than the last time.

   She didn’t smile when she saw him. He wasn’t surprised. He’d given her no reason to do anything but scowl at him.

   “Mr. Brant,” she said, standing with her hip propped against the door, her body language telling him he was not welcome.

   “Tyler,” he corrected her. “These are for you.” He handed her the bouquet of flowers. “I should’ve sent them to the hospital.”

   “It wasn’t necessary, but thank you.” She took the flowers from him.

   “Can I come in?”

   She looked as if she wanted to say no but finally stepped aside. Her hair was shiny and it bounced as she walked. She still combed it so that it fell over her left cheek. He could tell she’d been expecting him by the order in the apartment. Unlike the last time he’d visited, there were no dirty dishes in the living room.

   “You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” he said as once more he took one of the chairs in the living room.

   “When you called, you said you wanted to apologize.” This time, she chose to sit across from him on the sofa. “And as I told you on the phone, it’s not necessary. I know you were upset about the way the media have been prying into your life.”

   “That doesn’t justify the way I behaved, but I want you to know I...” He hesitated as the truth hit him like a ton of bricks.

   He was here not simply to apologize but because of the way she had looked at him. As if he could give her something no one else could give her. He’d responded to her in a purely masculine way.

   “I want to set the record straight,” he finally concluded.

   “Well, you can consider it straightened,” she said with an indifference he found annoying.

   At that point in the conversation, he should have excused himself and headed for the door. The air had been cleared. There was no reason for him not to walk out of her life and not look back.

   But something kept him sitting in that chair. Maybe it was the haunted look in her eyes. Or maybe it was because he could smell the faint aroma of her perfume. Or maybe it was because he simply liked looking at her. Whatever the reason, instead of getting up to leave, he said, “I see the cast is gone.”

   “Gone, but not forgotten,” she remarked dryly.

   “I broke my arm as a kid and I still remember what it was like. Heavy. Itchy.” He shook his head wistfully. “Your leg’s going to be okay, isn’t it?”

   She nodded. “The doctor said it healed remarkably well.”

   She looked everywhere but at him when she talked. Tyler wondered what was going through her mind and finally asked, “And what about the rest of you? Has that healed remarkably well, too?”

   Her head jerked up. “It’s been a slow process, but I’m getting there.”

   “I’m glad to hear that” The silence that followed quickly became awkward. Tyler ended it by saying, “I should probably go.”

   Just as he was about to get up, she said, “Do you ever wonder why we were chosen?”

   “Chosen for what?”

   “To survive.”

   The question caught him off guard. “I don’t think we were chosen exactly. It just happened that way.”

   She looked at him then, her eyes filled with uncertainty. “None of the others had a chance to escape,” she said quietly. “Why us?”

   Tyler knew exactly what she was saying. He would have been lying if he’d told her he didn’t ever question the reason for their survival. But it was a subject he kept tucked away in the back of his mind in a file he didn’t want to access. That’s why he breathed a sigh of relief when his pager beeped.

   “Is there a phone I could use?” he asked.

   She pointed to the one on the end table, then stood. “I’ll be in the kitchen.”

   Tyler waited until she was gone, then phoned the number showing on his pager. It was the security guard at the plant wanting to let him know that a missing set of keys had been found. Nothing that needed his immediate attention.

   Kristen didn’t know that. He could easily have said he was needed at the plant and left. He didn’t. He wandered into the kitchen where he found her filling a kettle at the sink.

   “I thought I’d have a cup of tea. Would you like one?” she asked over her shoulder.

   He glanced at the counter and saw a can of clam chowder for one. He had a pretty good idea that it was going to be her dinner as soon as he was gone.

   “You like seafood?” he asked her.

   “Yes, why?”

   “I know a great place where they make good clam chowder.” He saw her glance at the can of soup. “Want to come with me?” The words were out before he could question their wisdom.

   “Now?”

   “You haven’t eaten, have you?”

   “No, but—”

   “So let me buy you a bowl of real soup.”

   “That’s not necessary,” she said, blushing.

   “You don’t need to eat?” he asked, trying for a lighter tone.

   It didn’t work. “You don’t have to buy me dinner.” She set the kettle on the stove.

   “I’d like to.”

   “It’s a nice gesture, but...” She paused as if considering whether or not she should tell him the reason for the “but.” Finally, she said, “I find it’s better if I don’t go out in public”

   “Better how?”

   She looked a bit uneasy as she said, “Being on television makes me the object of attention. I prefer to stay home rather than have people staring at me.”

   “Did you feel this way before the crash, too?”

   “Not really. With a job like mine, I expect to be recognized, but what I don’t want is pity.” She hugged herself as if suddenly cold.

   “Then you’ll like this place with the great clam chowder. It’s small, and all the people who go there only want a quiet dinner.”

   She raised an eyebrow. “Really.”

   “Really,” he repeated. “So will you come?”

   From the way she hesitated, he thought she was about to turn down his offer. Then to his surprise, she said, “I’ll get my coat.”

   KRISTEN DIDN’T UNDERSTAND why Tyler had asked her to dinner. Even worse, she didn’t understand why she’d accepted. She didn’t want to go out in public, yet here she was in his car on the way to a restaurant where people would stare at her.

   Even though the swelling had gone down and the bruising had disappeared, the surgery had left subtle differences in her face that seemed more noticeable to her than to others—at least that’s what Gayle told her. And although she could hide most of the scarring with makeup so the rest of the world didn’t see, she knew what lay beneath the creams and powders.

   As they pulled into the parking lot across from an old warehouse in downtown Minneapolis, Kristen felt her muscles tense. Neon signs identified several bars and restaurants in the building. Tyler led her through a door with an overhead sign flashing Eddie’s in red lights with an arrow pointing up.

   They climbed two flights of stairs before he pushed open a door that led into the restaurant. The atmosphere was casual, the lighting dim. Piano music drifted across the room, muting the sound of clinking silverware. They checked their coats at the small counter inside the door, then waited to be seated.

   Judging by the maitre d’s enthusiastic greeting, Tyler was a regular guest. Their host led them to a table for two in a corner of the room, smiling knowingly as he held Kristen’s chair for her.

   Before she could sit, however, Tyler said softly, “Why don’t you take this one. That way you can see the piano player.”

   Kristen knew a better view wasn’t the real motive for his suggestion. In his chair, her left side would be hidden from the other guests.

   “Thank you,” she said, changing places with him. Suddenly self-conscious, she fumbled with her napkin, adjusted the silverware and took a drink of water. Then she glanced across the room to where a woman sat at a piano playing a medley of pop tunes. “This is an interesting place.”

   “I like it because you can hear yourself talk and because Eddie makes the best clam chowder in town.”

   “Then you come here often?”

   “Not anymore. At one time, Brant Electronics used to be just around the corner, so we spent a lot of time here.”

   They hadn’t been sitting there long when a couple walked by. Kristen reached for her purse on the floor.

   When she straightened and looked at Tyler, he asked, “What bothers you more? That they’ll recognize you as the Channel 12 anchor or that they’ll see your scars?”

   She looked into his eyes expecting to see pity, but there was none. There was merely an interest she found comforting.

   “Both,” she answered honestly. “Before the accident I knew people often thought I looked different from the way I looked on television, but maybe now they’re wondering if that difference isn’t because of the accident. Everyone knows I’ve had plastic surgery.”

   “That sounds like a normal concern someone in your situation would have.”

   “I haven’t been out in public much since the crash.” She toyed with her silverware again and finally said, “Look. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.”

   “Wait Give me a couple of minutes,” he said, getting up from the table. He was only gone maybe two or three minutes before he returned with the maitre d’. He bent and whispered in her ear, “We’re moving.”

   They followed the host to a door marked Private. It was a banquet room with several long tables. Tyler pulled out a chair for her at the end of one of them, as the maitre d’ left only to return moments later with a tablecloth, silverware, wineglasses and a bottle of sparkling wine. When he finished setting the end of their table, he poured them each a glass and said, “I’ll send someone in to take your order.”

   As soon as he was gone, Tyler asked, “Is this better?”

   She nodded. “Thank you.”

   “You’re welcome.”

   Another silence stretched between them and again Kristen had to wonder why he’d brought her to dinner. Not once on the way over in the car had he mentioned the crash, and from the sober expression on his face, she wondered if he wasn’t regretting his invitation.

   Finally, she said, “I’m sorry.”

   “For what?”

   “For your having to sit in here. You can’t hear the music.”

   He shrugged. “I didn’t come for the music.”

   “Why did you come?” she couldn’t resist asking. “Or maybe I should ask why did you bring me?”

   His eyes met hers. They looked uncertain, something she was convinced was a rarity. Tyler Brant appeared to be a man who knew what he wanted. “Maybe I just don’t like to think of anyone eating soup for one.”

   She lowered her eyes. He felt sorry for her. That was the last thing she wanted to hear. “I’m usually not alone. You forget I have a fiancé.” She waved her diamond solitaire in front of him.

   “Then the crash hasn’t delayed your wedding plans?”

   “No. Why should it?”

   “KC’s column in the paper said—”

   “Do you always believe what you read in a gossip column?”

   “I usually don’t read the gossip column.”

   “Good, because it’s very often just based on hearsay.”

   “Then you haven’t put your personal plans on hold?”

   “No, nothing’s changed,” she answered, knowing perfectly well that her answer wasn’t the truth. However, her relationship with Keith wasn’t something she wanted to discuss with Tyler Brant. She lowered her eyes, worried that what she was thinking might be reflected in her eyes.

   “That’s good,” he answered.

   “Yes, it is,” she agreed with a false confidence. “What about you? I know that you were on your way to Hibbing to survey the damage from a fire to one of your plants that day. Is your life back to normal again, too?”

   “Yes. Busy as usual. Never enough hours in a day, it seems.”

   “You have a daughter, right?”

   “Yes. Brittany. She’s six.”

   “What’s she like?”

   He smiled affectionately. “Precocious. Knows far too much for a six-year-old.”

   “Does she know about the plane crash?”

   He nodded grimly. “She saw my picture on the front page of the newspaper when she was at the grocery store with my mother.”

   “Did it have any lasting effect on her?”

   “No, she’s fine,” he answered.

   “What about you?”

   “I’m fine, too.”

   Kristen felt a wave of disappointment. She’d been hoping he’d give her some hint that he, too, hadn’t completely recovered from the emotional trauma of the crash.

   “You’re lucky,” she told him.

   Any warmth that might have been in his face disappeared. He looked her straight in the eye and said, “No. I wouldn’t exactly call myself lucky.”

   She wanted to ask him what he meant, but the appearance of the waiter preempted any further conversation. At Tyler’s suggestion, Kristen chose the evening special along with a cup of clam chowder.

   When the waiter left, Tyler asked, “Do you know when you’ll return to work?”

   “Is that your way of asking me if what KC said about my losing my job is also true?”

   He gave her an apologetic smile. “Is it? Is there a chance you might lose your spot on the news?”

   She shrugged. “I shouldn’t, but working in television is not like going to work in an office.”

   “Are you saying they can replace you because you’ve had to take some time off to recover from the accident?”

   “No. But as I said before, I don’t know how viewers will react to the way I look now. And in TV that’s what counts. The viewing audience can be fickle. And no station manager likes to see the ratings drip.”

   Again, she wasn’t being quite truthful. But she was reluctant to admit that the issue wasn’t simply one of whether or not the station would replace her, but rather one of her own loss of confidence in her ability to be successful in the anchor spot.

   “However, my boss assures me I have a job whenever I want to return.”

   “I’m glad to hear that. You’re good at what you do.”

   His compliment gave her a warm, tingly feeling. “So you’ve seen me on the air?”

   He smiled then—a wonderful smile that turned the tingle into a shiver of pleasure. “I doubt there’s anyone in this area who hasn’t. You look like you were born to sit in that chair.”

   “I guess it’s really a dream come true. As a child, I always wanted to work in television. I just never thought it would happen.”

   “Why is that?”

   “Well, for one thing, I was very shy.”

   “Now that I find hard to believe.”

   “It’s true,” she assured him. “My mother had to drag me by the hand to school. That’s when she decided to have me enter child beauty pageants. She figured that competing in the pageants would give me self-confidence, make me more outgoing.”

   “And did it?”

   She shrugged. “It did help me get used to being in front of an audience and I did learn how to be comfortable in an interview, but I never really enjoyed the competitions the way some of the girls did. I would gladly have traded the crown, sash and trophy for a chance to be a regular kid. One who went in-line skating in the street and played softball in the park.”

   “You didn’t get to do those things?”

   She shook her head. “Mom was always worrying that I’d skin a knee or bruise a shin. Besides, there wasn’t much time for play. There were dance lessons, piano lessons, voice lessons, sessions with a personal trainer, costume fittings...” She sighed wistfully at the memories. “I guess it probably wasn’t any tougher than what athletes go through when they train for competition.”

   “You don’t strike me as the competitive type,” he observed.

   “I’m not,” she told him, pleased by his comment.

   “But Mom was?” he prodded gently.

   She nodded, then felt embarrassed. “That’s not to say she was some kind of crazed stage mother. It wasn’t like that. She was always so proud of me, even when I didn’t win.”

   “I find it hard to believe you could ever lose a beauty contest.”

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