Never Too Late
Never Too Late
“It’s hard for you to see the prison, isn’t it?”
Hunter opened his mouth to deny it, but somehow the lie caught in his throat.
“I lost two and a half years there. It’s a little hard to get past that.”
Kate’s blue eyes softened with understanding, and she reached a hand across the SUV and touched his arm with gentle fingers. “I’m so sorry, Hunter.”
He jerked his arm away. “I’m sorry enough for myself. I don’t need your pity, too.”
She paled as if he had slapped her and quickly pulled her hand away. “Right. Of course you don’t.”
He opened his mouth to apologize, then closed it again. Maybe it was better this way. It was going to be tough enough for him to stay away from her on their journey without having to endure shared confidences and these casual touches that would destroy him….
Never Too Late RaeAnne Thayne
lives in a graceful old Victorian nestled in the rugged mountains of northern Utah, along with her husband and two young children. Her books have won numerous honors, including several readers’ choice awards and a RITA® Award nomination by the Romance Writers of America. RaeAnne loves to hear from readers. She can be reached through her Web site at www.raeannethayne.com or at P.O. Box 6682, North Logan, UT 84341.
For Kjersten Thayne, the best daughter in the world! I couldn’t have written this one without you.
What was wrong with her? Kate Spencer wondered as she watched her brother twirl her best friend—his new wife—around the room. The small train of Taylor’s elegantly simple ivory gown brushed the floor and her face glowed with joy at being in the arms of the man she loved.
They looked perfect together, the lanky cowboy author and his lovely, serene bride. But instead of sighing over the romance of the moment, Kate only felt restless, edgy, uncomfortable inside her skin.
She sipped at her champagne as an odd combination of emotions floated through her veins along with the bubbles.
She was thrilled for Wyatt and Taylor. How could anyone look at the two of them together and not be thrilled for them? She loved Taylor and wanted her friend to be happy and though she couldn’t say she’d really had the chance to get to know her brother in the nearly six weeks since he had found her, her gut told her Wyatt was a good man who would rather cut off his arm than hurt his new bride.
And there was the cause of her restlessness—that she didn’t really know Wyatt at all. She shifted and set the flute on the table. Wyatt was her flesh and blood yet she barely knew him. Or her other brother Gage or their parents, Lynn and Sam.
She was suddenly overflowing with family. A mother, a father, two strong, handsome brothers. And now two sisters-in-law and even two step-nieces from Gage’s marriage to Allie DeBarillas.
For a woman who had grown up believing she was nothing—less than nothing, just the throwaway kid of a homeless junkie—this sudden surplus of relations was daunting.
Intellectually she knew she belonged here with them. DNA tests proved without a doubt that she was the child of Sam and Lynn McKinnon, sister to Gage and Wyatt. But emotionally, they were still all strangers to her, all but Taylor.
If circumstances had been different, she would have known that her father wasn’t very graceful on the dance floor and that Gage and Wyatt both looked strong and masculine and gorgeous in their tuxedos.
She would have known her mother didn’t drink anything stronger than white wine and that Gage had broken both his legs earlier in the summer and that Sam had the incredible skills to carve the delicate wood angel that graced the soaring twenty-foot-high Christmas tree.
She was only now just learning all of those things because her entire life with these people had been stolen from her one hot summer afternoon twenty-three years ago.
She needed to move, to channel some of this restless energy into something constructive.
As Taylor’s maid of honor, shouldn’t she be doing something? Mingling or labeling gifts or helping out in the kitchen? She jumped up, intent on finding something to occupy her mind beyond her own problems. Before she could escape, though, Lynn whirled past her in the arms of her oldest son Gage.
Blond and petite, Lynn looked radiant and far too young to have two sons in their thirties, one a decorated FBI agent and one a bestselling true-crime author.
And a daughter, Kate had to remind herself, a daughter who barely knew her.
Bitterness welled up inside her and threatened to spill out but she staunchly suppressed it just as Lynn disengaged from her son’s arms and wrapped Kate in a sweet-scented embrace. Her mother was a toucher, she was discovering. Lynn rarely let a conversation go by without holding her arm or squeezing her hand or patting her knee.
Kate had wondered more than once if perhaps Lynn needed somehow to make up for the twenty-three years they’d been apart, for all the hugs and kisses they had missed. Or maybe she was afraid if she didn’t touch her to make sure she was real, Kate would once more disappear.
“Hasn’t this been the most wonderful day?” Lynn beamed. “I’m so happy I just want to dance all night.”
Kate managed a smile and hugged her back. “It’s lovely. Everything is perfect. I don’t know how you and Taylor threw this together on such short notice.”
Lynn laughed. “We didn’t have any choice. Wyatt refused to wait once he found his Taylor. Gage was the same way.”
Gage smiled at both of them and Kate thought again how ruggedly handsome the FBI agent was. “We McKinnon men are impatient creatures,” he said. “Once we find what we want, we move fast.”
She watched his gaze scan the room until it rested on his wife, Allie, who was laughing as she tried to show her daughter Gabriella the steps of a waltz. Allie didn’t seem to mind Gaby’s shiny black Mary Janes planted on top of her own evening shoes as she moved through the dance.
Gage smiled at them both and the love in his eyes blazed brighter than all the stacks of candles gleaming around the room.
Kate knew Gage and Allie had been married for three months but they still acted as if they couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s sight. She hadn’t been there, of course. She hadn’t even known she had a pair of brothers three months earlier.
“I’m sorry I missed your wedding,” she said on impulse, then regretted it when Lynn hugged her again, her eyes sorrowful.
“Oh my darling. We’re just so glad you’re here now. It seems like a dream, the most wonderful of miracles, that we’ve found you again after all these years. And just in time for the holidays!”
Kate blew out a breath. She had barely given Christmas a thought between helping Taylor with her wedding, finishing up her E.R. rotation in her second year of residency and dealing with this wild tangle of emotions at learning her true identity.
Finding out she had been kidnapped at the age of three from the arms of a loving family and thrust into the hell she’d lived as a child tended to make everything else on her to-do list fade into the background. How was she supposed to adjust to the fact that the person she thought she was all her life didn’t exist?
She supposed she needed somehow to summon the energy and get busy about the holidays. It was unlike her to procrastinate so long—her friends always teased that she usually had her shopping done by Halloween.
Though she typically only bought a few gifts—something for Taylor and a few other friends, and for Tom and Maryanne Spencer, her foster parents in St. Petersburg—she was stunned by the sudden realization that her list had now grown by leaps and bounds.
She already had something for Taylor, a stained-glass wall hanging she had purchased at the arts festival in Park City last August, but now she would have to find something for Lynn and Sam, for Wyatt, for Gage, and for Allie and her children.
Before she could give in to the panic spurting through her at the idea, Lynn squeezed her hands. “I know I’ve mentioned this at least a dozen times before,” her mother went on, “but I wanted to remind you again that I’m having dinner Christmas Eve at my home in Liberty. We’ll all be together. Even Sam is staying until after the holidays.”
A blush stole across Lynn’s still-lovely skin like autumn’s touch on a delicate leaf and Kate wondered at it. She looked for her father and found him on the dance floor with Allie’s youngest daughter, Anna.
Sam McKinnon was still a handsome man, she thought, even though he was probably nearing sixty. He was exactly the kind of man she would have selected for a father if she’d been given a chance—quiet and strong, with powerful shoulders, a deep desert tan from years of living in Las Vegas, and the nicked and callused hands of a carpenter.
Her parents had divorced decades ago, a year after she’d been kidnapped. Could Lynn still have feelings for Sam after all this time? And if she did, why had she never acted on them?
Did their divorce stem from the trauma of losing a child? Though she knew it was irrational, she couldn’t help a pang of guilt, as if somehow she had been responsible.
“We’ll be eating around seven,” Lynn said. “A little early because of the girls.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” she lied smoothly.
The fact that her words were a lie only made her more angry. These were wonderful people—loving and kind and painfully eager for her to take her place in their family. Why couldn’t she? Why was she so damn conflicted every time she saw the love in their eyes?
Why couldn’t she become the daughter they had lost?
Sam suddenly swung Anna around in their direction through the crowd to join them. The moment they were close enough, Anna jumped from his arms and threw her arms around Gage’s waist.
“Gage-Gage-Gage,” she chattered. “Grandpa Sam and me were dancing. He says I dance just like Clara in The Nutcracker. Wanta see?”
She didn’t give him a chance to answer as she pulled him out to the area of the room that had been cleared of furniture for dancing.
“Looks like I’ve lost my partner,” Sam said with that warm smile of his. “How about if I take my beautiful little girl for a spin around the dance floor instead?”
She gazed at that smile. How many other dances had she missed with her father over the years? What would her life have been like if she’d had Sam, with his broad hands and his warm smile, to help her over all the rough patches along the way?
She thought of the times when her home had been the back seat of a broken-down car, when her stomach had churned with hunger more often than not, when her only friend had been a tattered doll Brenda had picked up at the Salvation Army during one of her good moods.
Suddenly she couldn’t bear this. She cared about these people and she wanted to love them. But how could she, when she couldn’t see past her own bitterness over all that had been taken from her?
She blew out a breath, loathe to disappoint this kind man more than she feared she already had been a great disappointment to all of them. “Um, I’m a bit warm. I think I need to sneak out for a little air. Do you mind?”
“Not at all, honey.” He winked at her and slipped an arm across Lynn’s shoulders. “I’ve been waiting all night for my chance to sweep the mother of the groom off her feet.”
Lynn blushed again but went willingly into his arms. Neither of them noticed as Kate slipped through the huge gathering room of the Bradshaws’ski lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon with its heavy log beams and soaring cathedral ceiling.
The large home was the perfect place for a December wedding. Besides the huge tree in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, with its twinkling gold lights and plump burgundy ribbons, more lights winked from fresh garlands hanging on the stairway and around the doorways. Gold and burgundy candles speared out of more greenery on the mantel of the huge rock fireplace, where a fire burned merrily.
It was a magical scene, one she would have delighted in for Taylor if circumstances had been different. She barely noticed, though, as she hurried through the house and slipped out the door leading to the wide deck that circled the rear of the house.
The twinkling lights extended out here and gave her just enough light to pick her way carefully across the deck. The December cold was a welcome relief from the warm house and from the heat of her own emotions as she leaned against the railing and lifted her face to the gentle snowfall.
After a moment, she could feel the tension in her shoulders begin to seep away as tiny flakes caught on the mossy-green velvet of her dress, in her hair, on her eyelashes. She relaxed enough that she even stuck her tongue out to catch a few stray snowflakes.
Growing up in Florida, she’d never seen snow as a child. It wasn’t until she came to Utah for college that she had experienced her first snowfall and she still remembered how entranced she’d been by the sheer beauty of it.
Eight years later, she’d seen enough snow for it to lose much of its magic—it was mostly just a pain to drive in and a hassle to scrape off her car on her way to class or to the hospital.
Until moments like this.
Inside, the string quartet played something low and lovely and the mountains gleamed white in the moonlight. Tiny, gentle snowflakes kissed her cheeks.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, but she did know this was the nearest thing to peace she had known since Wyatt had revealed to her the results of the DNA testing he had secretly ordered after they’d met through Taylor.
“You stay out here much longer, you’re going to catch pneumonia.”
The voice from the darkness startled her and she whirled so quickly she nearly lost her footing on the snow-slick wood of the deck. A large, dark shape stepped out of the shadows at the edge of the deck and into the light spilling from the lodge windows.
She recognized Hunter Bradshaw, Taylor’s older brother, and pressed a hand to her suddenly racing heart. To her chagrin, she suddenly wasn’t sure if her increased pulse stemmed from being caught unawares or from suddenly finding herself in such close proximity to Hunter.
In a dark suit and white shirt, he was gorgeous, with dark hair the color of hot cocoa, lean, elegant features and dark-blue eyes that gleamed in the night. And, she had to admit, he had been making her pulse race since they’d met five years earlier.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I didn’t realize anyone else was here.” Her voice sounded breathless and she cleared her throat to conceal her reaction to him. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Oh, about fifteen minutes before you showed up.”
He had watched her the whole time? While she lifted her face to the sky and caught snowflakes on her tongue like a kid on the playground at recess? Heat rushed to her cheeks, surely enough to melt any flakes left there.
“I’m sorry I interrupted your solitude.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he finally said after an odd pause.
“I’ll leave. You obviously wanted to be alone.”
He shrugged. “Not really. I just can’t seem to spend enough time outside.”
He didn’t add any other explanation, but he didn’t need to. She knew exactly why he craved fresh air, even cold and snowy fresh air. It all must seem heavenly to a man who had only been out of prison for a little over a month.
Hunter had spent more than two years on death row for a hideous crime he didn’t commit. He had only gained his freedom after Taylor and Wyatt had uncovered the truth behind the slayings of Hunter’s pregnant girlfriend, her mother and her unborn child.
Relieved to be able to focus on someone else’s problems for a change, she studied him in the moon’s glow and the twinkling lights. He looked tired, she thought, and the doctor in her wondered how he’d been sleeping since his release.
“How are you doing? I mean, really doing?”
He was quiet for a moment, as if not very many people had asked him that. “When I was first released,” he finally said, “I wanted to do everything I’d been dreaming about inside that miserable cell for thirty-one months. I wanted to climb the Tetons again and feel the water rushing around my waders as I stood in a stream with a fly rod and ski every single black diamond run I could find.”
His laugh was rueful and a little bitter. “The first week. Now for some strange reason I can’t seem to generate enough energy to do anything but sit out here and breathe the mountain air.”
She knew exactly what he meant—his discontent and malaise mirrored her own.
“You’ve been through a terrible ordeal. It’s going to take a while to adjust to normalcy again. Give yourself a little time.”
Hunter had to smile at that crisp, professional note in her voice. “Thank you, Dr. Spencer. I don’t believe I realized psychiatric medicine was your specialty.”
He watched as color climbed her high cheekbones and wondered if Taylor had any clue how very much she resembled Lynn McKinnon.
“You know it’s not,” she said. “But in family medicine you need to do a little of everything. Sorry for the uninvited advice. Hazard of the profession. I’m afraid I always think I know what’s best for everyone.”
“No, I appreciate it. Intellectually I know you’re right—I just need more time to adjust. But I’ve never been a particularly patient man and I’m having a hard time trying to figure myself out right now.”
He paused, uncomfortable talking about this with anyone, but especially with Kate Spencer, and decided to change the subject. “Taylor tells me you’re doing well with your residency.”
“Right. I just finished an E.R. rotation and on Christmas Day I start one in the neonatal intensive care unit at Primary Children’s Medical Center.”
He hadn’t been a cop for a while now but even his rusty detective skills could hear the definite lack of enthusiasm in her voice and he wondered at it. As long as he had known her, Kate had been focused on only one thing—becoming a doctor. It had been the strongest tie binding her to his sister, the common ground that had led them to becoming friends.
“You don’t sound very thrilled about it.”
“I am. I’ve been looking forward to working in the NICU. I know I’ll gain valuable skills there.”
She sighed and turned back to the ghostly mountains. “But just like you, I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for anything right now.”
“You’ve had a wild few months, I guess.”
“We both have.”
They drifted into a comfortable silence. After a moment, she stirred next to him and he caught the scent of her, that mouthwatering smell of vanilla sugar, and suddenly became very uncomfortable.
With her blond hair piled up on her head and that slender green dress, she looked elegant and graceful and delicious. He wondered what Dr. Spencer would do if he gave in to his sudden urge to yank the pins out of those luscious curls, bury his fingers in them, and pull her toward him.
He hadn’t had much to do with women since his release and his body was loudly reminding him of the fact.
That had certainly been on his to-do list, one of those things he’d dreamed about in prison—sex with a different woman every single day for a month.
But the reality was, he didn’t enjoy meaningless sex. He’d had plenty of offers since his release from prison but all from the kind of women who didn’t appeal to him at all, the kind who found his dark history a turn-on and wanted to make it with an ex-con, even an innocent one.
He cleared his throat and tried to figure out how he could escape without being rude.
“Do you think you’ll take your old job back?” she asked, unaware of his torment.
If any question could deflate his fledgling lust, it was that one. He stared out into the night. “That’s still one of those things in the undecided column. I don’t know.”
“You were a good cop, Hunter.”
“Yeah, I was.” He didn’t say it out of ego. “I loved it. But I have to admit I don’t have much faith left in the system.”
How could he, when that system he’d worked so hard to uphold had failed him so miserably? Despite an unblemished—even stellar—career with the Salt Lake City Police Department, he had first been arrested and then convicted of taking three lives, one of them an unborn child, one a dying cancer patient and one the woman he thought he loved.
He would still be in that cell on death row if not for his sister’s unwavering faith in him. God knows, his former buddies on the force had all turned on him. The system of justice he had built his life around had failed him with disastrous consequences, and he didn’t know if he could ever believe in it again.
And if he didn’t believe in it, he sure as hell couldn’t pick up his detective shield again and take up where he had left off before his arrest nearly three years earlier.
“So what will you do?” Kate asked.
He shrugged. “For now, I guess I’ll just stay out here and watch the mountains.”
She laughed a little, then shivered as a cold gust of wind blew across the porch. “We’re both going to turn into blocks of ice if we stay out here much longer.”
“I suppose we’d better go inside.”
He was surprised to see her expression become guarded, reluctant.
“Why the hesitation? That’s your family in there.”
“I don’t know. I must be crazy, right?”
He gave a harsh laugh. “Believe me, I know crazy. You can’t spend thirty-one months behind bars and not get real good at telling the nuts from the wackos. You’re neither—in fact, you’re one of the most sane women I know.”
“Not the last six weeks. I’m a mess, Hunter.”
She faced him then and he was stunned to see tears gathering in her vivid blue eyes. He didn’t know what to do for a wild moment, then he placed a hand over hers, struck by her icy fingers.
He squeezed her hand and she gave him a tremulous smile. They stood there for a moment, then she slipped her hand away and returned to the deck railing.
“I should be happy. I know I should. I’m suddenly surrounded by this wonderful family, people who love me and want me to be part of their lives. I want that too but I’m just so damn angry.”
“Whoever did this to us! I’m filled with rage toward the person who kidnapped me, who took me away from a sane, normal, happy family and dragged me into…”
Her expression closed up and he wondered about her childhood after she was taken from her family, about what she might have been through to put that bleak look in her eyes. “Into a world far removed from the safe, happy life I likely would have known as Charlotte McKinnon.”
Someone had kidnapped her more than two decades before. He hadn’t been so self-absorbed that he didn’t know all about that. Who was it? he suddenly wondered. And had they paid for the crime that had devastated the lives of so many people?
For the first time since his release—hell, since the shock of his arrest three years ago—he found himself concerned about someone else’s problems, found himself actually interested enough to want to solve the mystery.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to care, but he had been a cop too long to turn it off completely.
“Any idea who kidnapped you?”
“Until six weeks ago I thought my mother was a woman named Brenda Golightly. She’s all I can remember until I was taken away from her and put into foster care when I was seven.”
“And you think she was the one?”
“She must have been. My earliest memories are of her—driving beside her along a lonely stretch of highway. Sleeping in some dingy motel somewhere. Eating peanut-butter sandwiches and washing them down with warm soda. She’s the one listed on all my records as my mother. I have a birth certificate and everything. I don’t know how she did it but my name was Katie Golightly until I changed it at eighteen to Kate Spencer.”
At least she had a name. He could work with a name. “Any idea where she is?”
“We don’t exactly exchange Christmas cards. Brenda was a prostitute and a junkie, stoned more often than she was sober. After I was taken from her, she used to write or phone me once in a while but by the time I was in high school, she seemed to have lost interest—the letters and calls had trickled down to maybe once every couple of years. I was glad she didn’t seem to want much to do with me. It was easier that way.”
She paused, and again he wondered what dark images she was seeing in her memory.
“Anyway,” Kate went on, “I haven’t heard from her in nine years, since I left for college, but last I knew she was living in Miami somewhere.”
He could drive to Florida in two days if he pushed it. The thought sneaked into his mind and Hunter drew in a sharp breath. Now who was the crazy one, contemplating a drive across the country on what was probably a fool’s errand?
On the other hand, he didn’t have anything else to do right now. He was restless and edgy and a road trip might be just the thing to help him figure out what to do with himself.
“Either she kidnapped me herself,” Kate went on, “or she had to know who did it. I only want to know why. Why me?”
He studied her there in the moonlight, this small, beautiful woman with shadows in her eyes. He could help her. Like she said, he’d been a damn good detective once. Maybe he could be again. He had considered going into private-investigator work, the logical second career for a burned-out cop. This could be a way to test if he had the temperament for it.
One of them at least ought to be able to put some ghosts aside and move on. With a sneaking suspicion that he was going to have some serious regrets later about ever opening his mouth, he took the plunge.
“You want to know why you were taken,” he finally said. “Why don’t I find this Brenda Golightly and ask her?”
Kate stared at him. He looked perfectly rational, his eyes dark and intense as he stood there in the cold night air with the soft snow sifting down around him like powdered sugar. But looks could be deceiving, she thought.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? She’s probably in Florida! The last address I had was Dade County.”
“Sunshine sounds nice right about now.”
No wonder, she thought. Since his release, sunny days had been few and far between in Utah. The state had seen a wet, cold fall—a boon for the ski resorts but probably not so enjoyable for someone who had been incarcerated for more than two years.
She had to admit, though she had grown to love the Utah mountains, the first place she would head if she had just been released from prison would be somewhere with an ocean view. Somewhere she could bask in the sun and lick salt from the air and dig her toes into warm sand.
But how could she ask him to travel across the country for her on little more than a whim?
“I haven’t heard from Brenda in nearly a decade,” she said. “She might not even be in Florida anymore. Heavens, for all I know, the woman could be dead.”
“Then I’ll find out where she’s gone. Or at least where she’s buried.”
He said the words with complete confidence. She would have thought it an idle boast if he hadn’t been such an outstanding detective. But if Hunter Bradshaw put his mind and energy into finding someone, he would. He had been dogged about his job, completely focused on it.
She had so many unanswered questions. Since finding out she had been kidnapped, her mind seemed to be racing on an endless loop of them.
Why had she been taken? Not for ransom, certainly, since the McKinnons said no one ever contacted them. And why her? What about Kate had made her a target of the kidnapping?
If Brenda had taken her, why had she then just surrendered Kate to the foster-care system, keeping only enough contact to ensure that no one could adopt her?
Finding the answers to those pressing questions was tantalizing. But the idea of Hunter Bradshaw offering to help her baffled her.
She was nothing to him, only the roommate of his younger sister. She couldn’t even say she was a friend. Before his arrest and imprisonment, he had always been distantly polite to her but never more than that. She had even wondered if he disliked her because he seemed to go out of his way to avoid situations where they might be alone.
Yet here he was offering to chase after her past.
“Why would you do this for me?” she asked.
“Why not?” Hunter asked. In the dim light, his eyes wore an inscrutable expression. “You deserve to know the truth. I know how frustrating unanswered questions can be, just as I know what it’s like to be punished for someone else’s sins. I’d like to help you find out why.”
She wasn’t sure why—perhaps something in those shadows in his eyes—but she sensed another reason, something deeper. “What else?”
Hunter turned away from her to lean his forearms on the deck railing and gaze out at the shadowy mountains.
“Because I can.” His voice was low and without inflection but suddenly his offer of assistance made perfect sense. It had nothing to do with her at all, she realized, but with him and his new freedom.
He had spent nearly three years of his life behind bars, where his choices had been severely limited. Others told him what he could eat, where he could go, even how he could dress. What a heady sense of control he must find in the idea that he could pick up and drive across the country on a whim!
“I see,” she murmured.
He slanted a look at her. “Do you?”
“You know, you could take a trip wherever you want without having the burden of tracking down a drug addict and a prostitute who could be anywhere.”
“I’ve been at loose ends since my release. I could use a distraction. This is a good one.”
“It might take weeks, Hunter. I can’t ask you to give up so much of your time.”
His shrug rippled the fabric of his well-cut suit. He had always been a good dresser, she remembered. Back when he was a detective, he always took care with his clothing.
Before his arrest, he would sometimes stop by Taylor’s house after work for some reason or other. Even with his tie loose, a hint of dark shadow stubbling his jaw and his white shirt perhaps not as crisp and starched as it had likely been in the morning, he had been enough to make her mouth water. She had always thought Hunter Bradshaw was strong and masculine and gorgeous.
She wasn’t sure which she preferred, that slightly rumpled end-of-day Hunter or this elegant man in evening wear.
“You didn’t ask, I offered,” he said in answer to her earlier comment. “Anyway, my time is my own now.”
“So take a cruise around the world if you want to go somewhere!”
Kate knew that like his sister, Hunter didn’t need to work. He could spend the rest of his life traveling the world if he wanted to. Both of them had fathoms-deep trust funds that would support them forever if they wanted to live lives of luxury and ease.
Their parents had come from old money, although like Taylor, Hunter had always shunned the accoutrements of wealth. He had become an underpaid Utah public servant and lived quietly here in the family ski cabin.
“Let me do this, Kate. You’re looking for answers and I’m looking for something to fill all this free time I’ve suddenly got. Seems to me this is a good way for both of us to get something we want.”
She looked inside the house and caught a glimpse of her family. Wyatt danced with their mother now, Lynn small and delicate next to his lean rangy height. Gage stood in one corner talking to Sam, with a tired-looking Anna in his arms.
A gust of wind blew across the deck, sending the fairy lights dancing, and Kate shivered.
She should be inside with her family. They would be looking for her soon. But despite the cold out here and the snow that was swirling around a little harder, she dreaded returning to that happy, bright group inside. The joy that lit their eyes whenever they caught sight of her scraped along her spine like a chipped fingernail.
She couldn’t be the daughter and sister the McKinnons wanted and her own failure to be open and relaxed around them sat heavy and thick in her chest.
Brenda Golightly had stolen twenty-three years of her life. She had taken so much from Kate—didn’t the woman who had caused such horrible pain in so many lives deserve to pay for what she had done?
Perhaps if Kate could find answers to some of the questions that had haunted her for six weeks since learning her true identity, she might at last be free to accept the love and nurturing this family seemed painfully eager to shower on her.
Didn’t she owe it to the McKinnons and to herself to try and reclaim some of what had been taken from her?
She blew out a resigned breath. “It won’t be easy to find her,” she warned. “She could be anywhere. Brenda was always good at slipping under the radar.”
Hunter gazed at her for a moment, his expression unreadable, then he nodded, recognizing she had decided to let him help her.
“If you have a previous address for her, I can work with that. I can leave tomorrow and start digging. I should be able to call you with information by the end of next week.”
She looked at him standing in shadow, then shifted her gaze to that bright, gleaming window again. Laughter and music spilled out into the night. Would it always be this way? Would she always be on the outside looking in, separated from her family by the walls a stranger had erected between them by snatching her away so long ago? Would she always be unable to let herself partake of the love the McKinnons so wanted to give her because of her anger and bitterness?
That restlessness prowled through her again, edgy and fretful, and she blew out a breath and turned to face Hunter again in the shadows.
“You won’t need to call me to report your progress.”
He frowned. “Why not? Don’t you think you’ll want to know how things are going.”
“Absolutely. That’s why I’m going with you.”
His mind already busy mapping a route and making plans, Hunter barely heard her. When her words pushed their way through his crowded thoughts, shock just about sent him toppling over the deck railing. She wanted to go along? Yeah, right!
He would never have suggested helping her if he thought for one second it might involve spending time alone with Kate Spencer.
“Really, that’s not necessary.”
Not necessary and not at all appealing.
“It is to me. This woman stole my life. My identity, my family, everything. If you can find her, I believe I have the right to confront her to find out why.”
Okay, he would give her that. If he had been in Kate’s shoes, he would have moved heaven and earth to locate this woman who had wreaked such havoc in her life.
He understood her need for answers and her desire to be involved in finding those answers but he didn’t think she quite comprehended the implications.
“If I were flying out there for a quick trip,” he explained, “I would have no problem with you going along. But I won’t be taking a plane. If I go, I’m driving.”
For one thing, he couldn’t leave Belle, especially with Tay and Wyatt leaving for their Cozumel honeymoon in the morning. Since his release, his Irish setter clung to his side like a mother hen watching her chick. Though normally calm and well-mannered, she turned into a nervous wreck if he left her alone for even a few hours.
He wouldn’t put her through the stress of a lonely kennel for a week or two, nor was he willing to subject her to the trauma of putting her on an airplane. The one time he had taken her on a plane before his arrest, she’d been a quivering mess for a week afterward.
He had to admit, Belle was part of the reason behind his sudden desire to drive, but she was by no means the only reason. The thought of taking off across the wide expanse of the United States with the road in front of him and Utah in his rear view mirror seemed just the thing to shake this malaise he’d suffered from since his release.
Those months he had spent on death row sure his life would end there in that miserable prison, he used to dream about hopping on his Ducati and zooming off across the country. When he would lie awake at night in that thin, lumpy cot staring up at cement walls, he had grieved for the trips he had never found time to take, for the scenery he would never have the chance to savor.
The Ducati would have to wait since December wasn’t the greatest time for a motorcycle trip—not to mention the minor little detail that he hadn’t yet taught Belle how to hang on behind him. But he could enjoy a cross-country trip from inside the brand-new Jeep Grand Cherokee he’d bought just days before.
What better way to celebrate his newfound freedom than loading up his dog and trekking across the country—eating in greasy diners, blasting his favorite songs on the radio at top volume, outrunning his past with every white line passing under his tires.
He would have thought his announcement would be enough to dissuade her, but Kate didn’t seem at all fazed by his declaration. “Driving is fine. I don’t mind a road trip,” she answered.
Damn. So much for his peaceful jaunt across the country.
“Don’t you have to work?” he asked, not willing to give it up just yet. “I thought residents worked sixty hours a week without a day off.”
The Christmas lights sparkled in her glossy hair as she shook her head. “I’m free until I start my new rotation on Christmas Day. That gives me two weeks of freedom. This is a perfect time for me to go. I should have thought of it myself.”
Now what the hell was he supposed to do? He couldn’t just come out and tell her she couldn’t go. For one thing, he was oddly loathe to hurt her feelings. For another, from his admittedly limited experience with Kate, he knew she was enough like Taylor that she would push and poke at him until she pried out the reason he didn’t want her along.
He was well and truly stuck. He should have kept his big mouth shut about the whole thing.
It would take them a bare minimum of two days to drive to Miami. Two days alone in a car with Kate Spencer. For a man who hadn’t been sexually intimate in nearly three years, that prospect was guaranteed to be a recipe for disaster.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t sleep with his sister’s best friend just to slake his hunger. If he did, he would be exactly the kind of beast he’d been trying to prove to the world—and himself—that he wasn’t.
“Look, Kate—” he started to say, but his words were lost when the door opened and Lynn McKinnon walked out onto the deck, her lovely features concerned.
“There you are, Charlotte!” She winced and reached for Kate’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Kate. I keep forgetting. It’s just that I’ve thought of you as Charlotte for so long. But I’ll get it, I promise.”
“It’s fine,” Kate murmured. The animation of the last ten minutes was gone from her features as she gazed at the small, energetic woman who looked so much like her.
“You’re going to catch your death out here! Is everything all right?”
“We were just enjoying the snowstorm.”
“Your father is still waiting for his dance.”
“Of course.” Even in the pale light, Hunter thought her smile looked strained. “I just need a few more minutes of air, okay? And then I’ll be in.”
Lynn’s mouth softened as she gazed at her daughter, and Hunter thought she would have reached up and grabbed the moon for Kate if she asked for it. “Take as much time as you need, darling. Sam will be there whenever you’re ready.”
Kate managed another smile before her mother slipped back inside, though Hunter was surprised to see a bleakness in her eyes.
He muttered a string of curses in his mind. He couldn’t leave her here twiddling her thumbs while he went off dragon hunting. This was her life.
Of all the people at this wedding gig, he could certainly understand her need to take back some kind of control over the circumstances that had buffeted her for the last six weeks. If finding and confronting her kidnapper would help her achieve some measure of peace—would help her move past her pain and be ready to accept the McKinnons’ love—how could he deny her that?
Surely he was tough enough to control himself around her for a week.
“What time are we leaving?” she asked after Lynn closed the door behind herself and returned to the festivities, leaving them once more in the still, quiet night.
“Early. I’ll pick you up at eight. Does that work?”
Was it just his imagination or did the pinched look around her mouth ease just a little?
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this,” she said. “Going after Brenda is a brilliant idea.”
“Let’s see how brilliant you think it is after a week on the road.”
This had to be the craziest idea she had ever come up with.
Worse, even, than the time when they were second-year med students and she and Taylor had tried to break into the anatomy lab for a little extra study time working on their cadavers.
In the cold, pale light of a December morning, what had seemed so logical the night before seemed shortsighted and foolish when faced with the cold, hard reality of spending at least a week in intimate quarters with Hunter Bradshaw.
Kate stood at the front window of the small second-floor apartment she had moved into the month before, watching for him to pull into the driveway below.
A quick glance at the clock on the microwave told her that even if he was obsessively punctual, he wouldn’t arrive for at least ten minutes, but she couldn’t seem to pry herself away from the window where she stood tracing the filigreed frost collecting on the other side.
She hadn’t slept well, with her nerves on edge and her mind racing. She had finally tired of her tossing and turning a few hours before dawn and had climbed out of bed to start preparing for the trip.
The few things she planned to take had been packed and waiting by the door for hours and she spent the rest of the morning wrapping her few Christmas presents and scrubbing her apartment. Since she barely spent any time at all here, she could find little to clean, but at least she wouldn’t be coming home to a mess.
With all her preparations done, she had little else to do now but stand here at the window watching for him and panicking about the sheer insanity of this situation her impulsiveness had thrust her into.
Whatever had compelled her to insist on traipsing along with Hunter Bradshaw? In what feeble-minded moment would that ever seem like a good idea?
How could she ever have been stupid enough to think she could travel blithely across the country with him when simply finding herself in the same room with the man left her flustered and giddy?
He had always made her insides tremble and her heart rate accelerate. She had been friends with Taylor since their first semester of medical school, more than five years ago. She could still remember the first time she met her friend’s older brother. She and Taylor had been cramming for finals their second semester and had decided to grab a midnight snack at their favorite all-night diner, a humble little place downtown that served divine mashed potatoes with thick, creamy gravy.
They had walked in and Kate had only a few seconds to register a gorgeous man sitting in a booth in the front window with a couple of uniformed cops when Taylor had let out a delighted laugh and dragged her over to meet the brother she often talked about.
She could still remember her first impression—that the two of them shared an obviously close, affectionate relationship completely foreign to someone who had never had siblings of her own, except in a few foster families where she had been barely tolerated.
Her second impression of Hunter Bradshaw had been far more elemental and astonishing—an intense physical awareness of him unlike anything she’d ever experienced. As she gazed into dark blue eyes while Taylor introduced them, her stomach did a long, slow roll and she felt as if something had just squeezed out every molecule of air in her lungs.
The off-duty uniform cops had been flirtatious and charming to a couple of weary young med students and had insisted she and Taylor join them. To her growing dismay, Kate found herself squeezed next to Hunter in the red vinyl booth.
Throughout the next hour she had been painfully aware of every movement he made—the way he leaned an elbow back on the seat cushion, how his mouth quirked up a little higher on one side than the other when he smiled, the way his dark hair curled just a little on the ends.
Her sudden absorption with him had been as unexpected as it was mortifying.
She had always considered herself rather cold when it came to the opposite sex. Men had never been a high priority in her life. Sometimes they hardly seemed worth the energy it took to cater to their egos and their self-absorption.
She thought perhaps she’d been passed over on the whole libido thing because most of the kisses she had experienced in her twenty-two years on the earth to that point had been pleasant, certainly, but nothing to write home about.
In that tired old diner looking out at neon gleaming in the wet street, with her pulse jumping every time Hunter’s long legs would brush against hers under the table or his shoulder would bump her, Kate finally started to get an inkling what all the fuss was about.
Taylor often gave her a hard time because she rarely dated the same man more than a few times. She never told her friend this but she was always looking for that same crazy, exciting, terrifying breathlessness she experienced whenever Hunter was around.
Not that she ever did anything about it. How could she? When she first met Hunter, he had just started dating Dru Ferrin, the ambitious, talented crime reporter at a local television station.
A few months later, Dru had announced she was pregnant and Hunter had become totally absorbed in trying to convince Dru to marry him, in the prospect of becoming a father.
Or so he thought, anyway. After Dru and her terminally ill mother were murdered, DNA tests proved Hunter had not fathered the eight-month-old fetus that had also died from his mother’s gunshot wound.
She had grieved right along with him, first at the child’s death then when he found out Dru had lied to him throughout her pregnancy. And then had come the horror of his arrest and the subsequent trial and wrongful conviction.
She had had a major crush on him. The knowledge mortified her. She was a doctor, for heaven’s sake. Twenty-six years old, well on her way to being established in her chosen career path, and she had a crush on a sexy, dangerous, unreachable male as if she were thirteen years old fantasizing about a pop star.
How on earth would she keep her silly feelings to herself for a week or longer when it would be just the two of them alone on the road?
She would just have to do her best to treat him like she did male colleagues and her other male friends—casual and cheerfully friendly.
Could she pull it off? She was still trying to figure that out when she saw an SUV turn into the small parking area behind her battered six-year-old Honda.
As usual, her stomach performed a long, slow tremble at the sight of that muscular body climbing out of a gleaming Jeep Grand Cherokee the color of a mountain forest.
He wore jeans and a suede jacket that did nothing to hide his powerful build. His years in prison had turned what had already been a sexy, muscled build into something potent and dangerous.
Kate huffed out a breath, heat crawling across her cheeks. Not the kind of thing she should be noticing. She would never survive riding in such close quarters with him if she couldn’t shove those kinds of thoughts completely out of her head.
She was a doctor who had seen more than her share of men’s bodies, both muscled and otherwise. It might require a great deal of effort on her part but she needed to treat Hunter Bradshaw with the same courteous, impersonal distance she treated her patients.
The man was doing her a huge favor by helping her trace her past. The last thing he probably wanted was for her to go all gooey over him.
The doorbell chimed through her apartment and Kate pressed a hand to her stomach, where a whole brigade of butterflies were doing their thing.
After a few deep, cleansing breaths, she pasted on a polite smile and opened the door.
“Good morning,” she said.
He returned her attempt at a smile with one of those shuttered looks he excelled at and she could feel more heat crawl across her cheeks.
“I’m all ready.” She gestured to the few bags by the door—one suitcase, her laptop case and the emergency medical kit she always carried with her.
He blinked a few times at her meager luggage. “This is all you’re taking? We might be gone a while.”
“I don’t need much. A few pairs of jeans and a toothbrush and I’m set.”
He looked even more surprised by that piece of information. She wondered why, until she remembered his most recent experience with females, not counting his sister, had been Dru Ferrin—a girlie-girl if Kate had ever met one.
Dru probably wouldn’t even have driven to the all-night grocery store at 3:00 a.m. unless she’d worn full battle armor. Kate doubted if Dru Ferrin could have gone anywhere without a footlocker full of makeup.
As soon as the thought flitted across her mind, she felt small and catty. She hadn’t much liked Dru Ferrin, but the woman had died a horrible death. She deserved better than to be the object of malicious spite, simply because Kate was jealous that Hunter had loved her.
She made a face at herself and her own small-mindedness but Hunter must have misinterpreted the reason behind it.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked quickly. “I can go by myself. It’s not too late if you want to back out.”
For just one moment she was tempted—horribly tempted—to do just that, especially when a hint of his aftershave wafted to her. He smelled divine, something leathery and outdoorsy and male, and for a moment she wanted to stand right here in her tiny living room just sniffing him.
She could handle this. Yes, she was attracted to the man but that was nothing new. She’d been dealing with that for five years now and had never done anything about it. A few more days wouldn’t make much difference in the scheme of things, especially if she could keep the purpose for the whole trip uppermost in her mind.
“I need to do this, Hunter. I realized during the night that I have to try to make some kind of peace with my past. I can’t spend the rest of my life being eaten alive by my anger.”
“You think finding the woman you thought was your mother will help you find that peace?”
“I can only hope. I won’t know for sure until I find her, will I?”
He studied her for a moment then shrugged. “Let’s go, then.”
He reached down and picked up her luggage effortlessly, then headed back down the stairs.
With an odd, tingly feeling in her toes like she teetered on the brink of something precarious and shaky, Kate made one last check of her apartment to ensure she had turned everything off, grabbed her coat, then locked the door behind her and followed him down the stairs.
Hunter was stowing her suitcase in the cargo area of his new SUV next to Belle’s travel crate when Kate walked down the steps of the old Victorian that had been split into three or four apartments.
“All set,” she said. “Everything’s turned off and locked tight.”
He wondered if she realized her chipper tone seemed as forced as her smile—and about as enthusiastic as he felt about this whole thing.
Was she as apprehensive as he was about this whole road trip? He ought just to back out right now, let her fly down to Florida by herself on this quest of hers.
He couldn’t do that, though. If he hadn’t opened his big mouth and suggested it, she wouldn’t even have grabbed onto the idea.
No, he had started this and he would see it through. He had offered to help her, had made a commitment, and he was a man who honored his promises, no matter how difficult.
How tough could it be anyway? All he had to remember was that those columbine-blue eyes and that honey-blond hair and those lush delectable lips were off-limits. No worries.
To his surprise, Kate immediately opened the back door of the Jeep to greet Belle.
His setter barked in greeting and jumped from the vehicle, writhing around Kate with her tail wagging like crazy. Hunter was about to apologize and order Belle to settle down but before he could, Kate knelt down and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, sweetie. How’ve you been?”
She didn’t seem to mind Belle’s slobbery greeting or the dog’s enthusiastic licking of her face, or the hair she was undoubtedly depositing on Kate’s gray sweater.
He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised by their happy reunion. While he had been locked up, Belle had lived with his sister and her roommate and best friend. Kate.
In truth, Belle had probably spent more time with Kate than she had with him. She was really more theirs than his. Belle had only been a few years old at the time he had been arrested.
His dog certainly hadn’t suffered at all under their care. By the looks of things, the Irish setter adored Kate as much as him.
He let Belle work out a little of her energy by dancing around Kate a few times, then opened the door of her crate.
With one last enthusiastic lick of Kate’s hand, the dog leaped into her travel crate and settled in.
“It’s safer for her to ride back here,” he explained. “For her sake and for the driver’s. Belle’s a good traveler but she can be a distraction.”
“I know. Once she tried to attack the rear windshield wiper in Taylor’s Subaru—from the inside of the vehicle, of course. She spent about ten minutes trying to figure out why she couldn’t wrap her teeth around the thing.”
Her smile looked more natural, a little less forced, and he had forced himself to look away, focusing instead on the clouds hanging heavy and dark in the December sky.
“We’d better get going,” he said brusquely.
“Right,” she said after an awkward moment, then headed for the passenger door of the SUV.
He beat her to it and held it open for her, earning himself an odd look, as if she weren’t quite sure how to react to that small courtesy.
As he walked around the Jeep, he couldn’t help thinking about the somewhat old-fashioned lessons his father had constantly drilled into his head about how to treat a woman. With respect and civility and basic human courtesy.
He and his father had certainly had their differences but he could never fault the Judge in that regard. His father’s example had been lesson enough. Even when his mother had been at her most difficult—days when she had been barely coherent and had raged at everything in sight—Hunter never saw his father treat her with anything but dignity.
He doubted the Judge would find anything courteous about the thoughts he was entertaining about this particular woman. Like how the ivory December morning light gave her skin the soft delectability of a bowl of fresh apricots and how that full mouth begged to be devoured.
He paused outside the driver’s side for one more last-minute lecture to himself. He had to send those kinds of thoughts right out of his head.
Okay, so he’d been a long time without a woman. He could have remedied that anytime these last six weeks if he’d chosen, but he hadn’t and now it was too late. It was his own damn fault if he found himself in a near-constant state of arousal for the next few days.
With a heavy sigh, he opened the driver’s side door and immediately wished he hadn’t. He felt invaded. Overwhelmed. Instead of the comfortably male scent of leather and new car he expected, he smelled Kate—that subtle, alluring scent of shampoo and woman and the vanilla sugar that always clung to her. The smell seemed to slide over him like silk and he wanted to close his eyes and sink into it.
He gritted his teeth and climbed into the SUV.
They drove in silence for a block or so before he dared unclench his teeth to speak. “Your apartment seems comfortable.”
She looked a little nonplussed by his comment coming out of nowhere. Okay, so he was a little rusty at making small talk. His companions for the past two years had been the other inmates on death row, who weren’t exactly big on social chitchat. He was going to have to work on it, though, or this trip with Kate would be excruciating.
“Thanks,” she said after a moment. “I had to find something in a hurry and this was one of the first places I looked at. I thought it was a graceful old house and I liked the fact that it was an established neighborhood. That was one of the things I enjoyed most about sharing Taylor’s house in the Avenues, having neighbors who actually knew your name.”
Guilt pinched at him and he felt like he had shoved her out onto the street. “You had to find somewhere else in a hurry because of me, right? I’m sorry about that.”
“I’m not. You were coming home and that was the important thing. Anyway, the house in Little Cottonwood Canyon was yours. Taylor and I were only staying there temporarily after her cottage burned.”
“After it was torched, you mean.”
Her mouth tightened at the reminder. “Right. I was always planning on finding somewhere else. You and Taylor deserved some time alone without me hanging around.”
“You could have stayed. There was plenty of room.”
She laughed a little. “Right. The roommate who would never leave. That’s me. Don’t worry about me, Hunter. I like my new place, even if I don’t expect to be there long. I only signed a six-month lease—I imagine when my residency is over and I start my own family-medicine practice somewhere, I’ll buy a house somewhere.”
Her words reminded him of his own aimlessness since his release. He needed to give some serious thought to what he was going to do with the rest of his life, now that it had been handed back to him. Maybe with the open road stretching out ahead of him, he might find inspiration.
“I do like my apartment,” Kate went on, “but this is the first time I’ve ever lived alone and I have to admit I’m finding it a little odd.”
“You’ve always had roommates?” There. That sounded just right. Casual and interested but not too inquisitive. They were almost having a normal conversation.
She nodded. “I’ve been a struggling med student, remember? I found it hard enough to make ends meet. Sharing the rent helped ease the financial strain a little.”
She lifted one shoulder. “Maybe by my second or third year I would have decided I’d had enough of roommates and moved out on my own but then Taylor bought her house and asked me if I wanted to share it. I couldn’t say no.”
Hunter had to admit, that decision of his sister’s to take on a roommate had come as a surprise to him. Taylor had bought her little cottage in the Avenues outright with her inheritance from their father. She certainly hadn’t needed a roommate to share expenses but she had taken one anyway for the company.
Taylor wasn’t like him in that respect, he reminded himself. He had never been much of a pack animal, but his sister loved having people around her. He knew she had been lonely those first few months after she’d bought her house and she’d been eager for Kate to move in.
Kate seemed to be waiting for him to respond, so he fished around in his mind until he found an appropriate question. “So do you miss having a roommate?”
She gazed out the windshield, at the minimal Sunday-morning traffic, then finally looked back at him. “I miss Taylor,” she admitted. “That sounds silly, I know, but she was more than just a roommate. She was my best friend. The closest thing I had to a sister.”
“You’ll still be close.”
“It’s not going to be the same. I understand that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for her and Wyatt. They’re perfect for each other, I could see that right away.”
“Your brother is a good man.”
“I know. Wyatt is strong and smart and funny. Just the kind of man Taylor needs.”
What kind of man do you need? he almost asked but stopped himself just in time. None of his business. That kind of question would lead their fledgling conversation in a direction he absolutely didn’t want it to go.
“He makes her happy,” she said. “When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters.”
“Right,” he murmured. He had to admit, he enjoyed seeing Taylor find some happiness. She deserved it. Both she and Wyatt did.
If not for the efforts of his sister and of Wyatt McKinnon, he would still be in that prison, feeling his soul shrivel more each day. Taylor had worked tirelessly to free him. She had put her dream of becoming a doctor like Kate on hold, switching instead to law school so she could fight for his appeal. Taylor had finally enlisted the help of Wyatt, who had been writing a book about Hunter’s case.
In the process of trying to free him, she had been threatened, her house set ablaze, and finally had faced down death for his cause. He hadn’t wanted her to sacrifice her dreams for him—or, heaven forbid, her life—and Hunter knew he could never repay his sister for all that she had done.
He supposed that was another of the reasons he was driving through the sparse Sunday-morning traffic heading south on I-15. He owed Taylor and Wyatt everything for all they had risked. Maybe by turning around and helping Kate—someone both of them cared about—he could start to check off a little of that debt.
“You’re not taking I-80?” Kate asked as he passed the interchange—the Spaghetti Bowl, as the locals called it, for the various lanes twisting off in every direction like pasta in a dish.
He shook his head. “The weather report said that light snow we had last night gathered strength as it headed east and was due to hit Wyoming with a vengeance today. I figured if we head south now, down through Albuquerque and Amarillo, we’ll escape the worst of it.”
They encountered no delays traveling south across the Salt Lake Valley and, all too soon, they reached Bluffdale where the Point of the Mountain state prison sprawled out to the west of the highway, its buildings squat and depressing.
This was the first time he’d been this way since his release, Hunter realized. Perhaps he had made a point of staying north of the area without even realizing it.
If he had come this way before, he might have been prepared for the rush of anger and hatred rising like bile in his throat.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Sunday mornings were relatively quiet at the prison. Many prisoners chose to sleep the day away, while others attended the various religious services offered.
Hunter had quite deliberately chosen to stay in his cell reading. By the time he’d found himself on death row, he had lost whatever faith might have lingered in his soul.
He had been less than nothing in prison. Inhuman, like a dog locked up in a cage at the pound. He had been out for six weeks and he wondered if that feeling would ever go away.
“It’s hard for you to see the prison, isn’t it?”
It seemed a sign of weakness to admit the truth. It was just a cluster of buildings, after all. A part of his life that was over forever.
He opened his mouth to deny he was at all affected by the sight but somehow the lie caught in his throat.
“I lost two and a half years of my life to that bastard Martin James. Three lives were lost while he tried to protect his web of lies and deceit. Who knows how many more he would have taken? It’s a little hard to get past that.”
Her blue eyes softened with understanding and she reached a hand across the width of the SUV and touched his arm with gentle fingers. “I’m so sorry, Hunter.”
Despite his grim thoughts, heat scorched him where she touched his arm and he was suddenly aware of a wild, terrible hunger to drown in that heat and softness, to lose some of this rage always seething just under the surface.
He jerked his arm away, just firmly enough to be obvious. “I’m sorry enough for myself. I don’t need your pity, too.”
She paled as if he had slapped her—which he guessed he had done, verbally at least—and quickly pulled her hand away.
“Right. Of course you don’t.”
He opened his mouth to apologize for his rudeness, then closed it again. Maybe it was better this way. They weren’t buddies. It was going to be tough enough for him to stay away from her on this journey without having to endure shared confidences and these casual touches that would destroy him.
He had been without any kind of physical affection since his arrest and he hungered for gentleness and softness as much as for sex.
It was a grim realization, one that certainly didn’t make their situation any easier.
She had two choices here, Kate thought as his blatant rejection burned through her like hydrochloric acid. She could let herself be hurt and pout for the rest of the day. That was the course that appealed to her most, but what would that accomplish?
Yes, her feelings had been hurt. All she had been trying to do was offer comfort and he had slapped her down like she was one of those inflatable punching bags she used to beat the heck out of when she was in foster care, angry at the world and unsure of her place in it.
But she decided not to let herself be offended. Hunter was a proud man who had seen his entire world crash down around him. He had lost friends, his job, his standing in the community.
It must have been agony for him to know the whole world believed him capable of murdering a pregnant woman and her dying mother.
He had a right to be prickly about it, to deal with his wrongful conviction and everything else that had happened in his own way. If that way included being surly and hostile when an unsuspecting soul tried to offer comfort, she couldn’t blame him.
His bitterness and anger must be eating him up from the inside and she could certainly understand all about that.
She would take the higher road, she decided. Instead of snapping back or sulking all day, she would swallow her hurt feelings and pretend nothing had happened.
She decided a change of subject was in order. “I brought music if you’re interested,” she said, then risked a joke. “I figured your CD collection might be a few years out of date.”
He sent her one of those dark, inscrutable looks she could only imagine must have been torture for any crime suspect he was questioning. He said nothing, but she thought she registered a vague surprise in those dark-blue eyes at her mild reaction to his rudeness, and she was immensely grateful she hadn’t gone with her first instincts and thrown a hissy fit.
“What are you in the mood for?” she asked. “Jazz? Rock? Country? Christmas music? I’ve got a little of everything.”
“I don’t care. Anything.”
“Okay. I’ll pick first and then you can find something.”
She chose Norah Jones and felt her own stress level immediately lower as soon as the music started.
They drove without speaking for several moments, Belle’s snoring in the back and the peaceful music the only sound in the vehicle, then Kate reached into her bag again and pulled out Wyatt’s latest bestseller that had come out a few months earlier.
“You don’t mind if I read, do you?”
“Go ahead. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us. I imagine we’re going to run out of small talk by the time we hit Spanish Fork.”
She laughed. “You might. I never seem to run out of things to say. But I’ll take pity on you and pace myself.”
To her delight, that earned her a tiny, reluctant smile, but it was more than she’d seen since his release. It was a start, she thought. Maybe by the time this journey was through, he would be smiling and laughing like the man she had met five years ago with Taylor in that all-night diner.
She picked up her book, one of only a few of Wyatt’s she hadn’t had time to read yet. She had actually discovered his books long before she ever knew he was her brother, and had read each one with fascination.
He wrote true-crime books—usually not one of her favorite genres—but Wyatt had a way of crawling inside the heads of both the victims and the killers he wrote about, and she found his work absorbing and compelling.
This one was no different, and she was surprised by the warm contentment stealing over her as she rode along with Hunter’s sexy male scent drifting around her senses and the tires spinning on the highway while the windshield wipers beat back a light snow spitting from the sky.
Combined with the peaceful music, Kate felt herself begin to relax and slip further into that warm, cozy place where she didn’t have to worry about the family waiting patiently for her love—or the man beside her who wouldn’t want it, if he ever guessed it might be his for the taking.
She must have drifted off to sleep. One moment she was reading the introduction to Wyatt’s book, the next she woke facing Hunter, with her left cheek squished into the leather seat.
She blinked, disoriented for a moment, then whispered a fervent prayer that she hadn’t done something humiliating in front of the man, like snore or drool or—heaven forbid—talk in her sleep.
They had stopped moving, she realized. The cessation of movement must have been what awakened her. The SUV was parked at the gas pump of a dusty, dilapidated filling station, far from the traffic and houses of the Wasatch Front.
“Where are we?” she asked, her voice gruff with sleep.
“A ways past Price. Sorry to wake you but Belle needed to get out.”
“No. It’s fine. I can’t believe I fell asleep.”
“Don’t worry about it. You looked comfortable so I figured you needed it. I know what kind of hours you M.D.s keep.” He started to say something more but Belle’s sharp, impatient bark cut him off.
Kate winced. “That sounds urgent bordering on desperate. Why don’t I go to that park across the street and play with her for a few moments while you fill up?” she offered.
“Thanks. I brought along a ball and a Frisbee. She likes either one.” He looked a little embarrassed. “But I guess you know what she prefers, don’t you? Probably better than I do.”
That bitterness tinged his voice again and again she had to fight her instinctive urge to offer comfort.
He opened his car door and she caught sight of the gas pump again, which reminded her of something she meant to bring up earlier in the trip. She reached for the huge, slouchy purse she’d bought in Guatemala when she was there on a medical mission a few months earlier, and dug through it until she found her wallet.
She pulled out a credit card and handed it to him. “Use this for the gas.”
With one hand on the frame of the SUV and the other on the door, he gazed at her, another of those unreadable expressions on his face. His mouth quirked a little as if he wanted to say something but he just shook his head.
“No,” he said, and shut the door in her face.
Undeterred, she climbed out after him before he could come around and open her door. A cold wind nipped at her and lifted the ends of her hair. The air felt heavy, she thought. Moist and expectant, as if just waiting for the right moment to let loose. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to skirt around the snowstorm after all.
She shoved away inane thoughts of the weather and focused on what was important. With her Visa tight in her hand, she marched to the rear door of the Grand Cherokee, where he stood hooking on Belle’s leash so he could let her out of the crate.
“I mean it, Hunter. The only reason you’re even here at some armpit of a gas station in the middle of nowhere is because of me. I intend to take care of expenses on this trip.”
“I’m here because I want to be here,” he corrected her. “It was my idea to go after the woman you’re looking for.”
“Right. The woman I’m looking for. That’s my point. For all intents and purposes, you’re my private investigator. You’re working for me, so I should be footing the bill along the way.”
He paused at that, his hands on Belle’s crate as he closed the door. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not working for you. I’m doing this because I want to do it, because I was looking for something to occupy my time, and because I need to be doing something useful.”
“And I appreciate all those reasons. Believe me, I do. But you’re still here because of me.”
He sighed at her obstinate tone. “Look, I can afford it, okay?”
She lifted her chin. “So can I.” So she had a pitiful resident’s salary with medical-school debts that would probably take her the rest of her natural life to repay.
“Anyway, that’s not the point,” she went on, thrusting the card out to him again. “You’re already going to have to give up a couple weeks out of your life on this quest. Please let me pay for expenses.”
Belle chose that moment to break in, a slightly frantic note to her bark this time. Hunter let her jump from the vehicle, where she danced around them, eager to be off.
“You’d better take her,” Hunter said, holding out the leash.
“Okay, as long as you take this.”
She didn’t wait for an answer—as she reached to accept the leash, she handed the Visa to him in return. With a victorious laugh, she hurried away after Belle, certain she was leaving him glaring after her.
By the time he finished pumping gas into his Jeep, that cold, damp wind seemed to have picked up and a few stray snowflakes drifted down.
Hunter looked up at the heavy gray sky. The weather forecasters said the storm wasn’t supposed to hit this part of the state, but it sure looked to him like those black-edged clouds were boiling around up there, ready to blow.
Maybe they could still outrun it before the center of the storm passed over. If the storm was heading east, as most low-pressure systems moved here in the Intermountain West, it might clip past them.
He might still have to drive through a little snow, but by the time they hit southern Utah in a few hours, it would probably be mostly rain.
Anyway, he didn’t mind snow. He had spent his youth driving the canyons of the Wasatch Front, skis strapped to the roof, looking for fresh powder.
When he was a kid, skiing had been his passion. He’d even been on the junior U.S. ski team for a while.
For the adult in him, skiing had been therapy. When he was stressed over a case and couldn’t quite find the answer to whatever puzzle he was working on, he would take a few hours of personal leave and head for the slopes. More often than not, while his body focused on turns and terrain, his mind was able to come up with an answer.
He was chagrined to realize that even though most of the ski resorts had been open since mid-November, he hadn’t been able to summon the energy to go yet.
The nozzle clicked off, signaling the tank was full. With a sigh, Hunter tightened the gas cap, then went inside to pay.
On the way, he pulled Taylor’s credit card out of the pocket of his jacket and shoved it in his wallet before pulling out one of his own, new since his release and still shiny enough that the gilding on the numbers hadn’t worn off.
He had absolutely no intention of letting Kate foot the bill for this trip. He meant what he’d said to her—this whole thing was his idea. He would pay his own way.
He decided he wouldn’t make a big deal about it, though. He would just keep her card in his wallet until the trip was over, then give it back to her. He wasn’t prepared for another confrontation with her, not when it made her eyes look bright and vibrant and gave her skin that appealing flush, raising all kinds of questions in his vivid imagination, like if she would look like that in his arms.
Inside the convenience store, he grabbed some liquid caffeine from the soda dispenser. He probably should have asked Kate if she wanted something, but he hadn’t thought of it and he didn’t have the first idea about her beverage preferences.
Being forced to consider someone else’s likes and dislikes was a novel experience. Or at least not something he had considered much since his arrest three years earlier.
That was one of the unfortunate side effects of prison—behind bars, the world condensed to one of survival, to thinking of self before anything else.
At least for him it had. He knew men with families on the outside could spend their time thinking about them. He hadn’t had anyone but Taylor. Though he worried about her, in his heart he had known she could take care of herself, as she had proved so adroitly a few months earlier.
It would take him a while to get into the rhythm of having someone else to consider.
He paid for the gas and his drink then carried it outside. He moved the Jeep so someone else could use the pump, and a few moments later he walked across the street to the park, where he could see Belle still gleefully chasing after a ball.
Without direct sunlight, colors were saturated in the over-cast sky. The russet, sleek dog and Kate with her bright blond hair and gray sweater looked vibrant and alive playing in the light snow covering the ground.
Even from a hundred yards away, he could see Kate’s smile light up her face as she watched Belle scramble through the snow after that ball as if it were made of raw hamburger.
She was breathtaking in that pale light, like something out of an impressionist painting.
He had always been attracted to Kate, he acknowledged now. He had never done anything about it, in fact he had gone out of his way to avoid situations like this one where they would be alone.
He couldn’t do anything about it. For one thing, she was Taylor’s closest friend. His sister hadn’t had all that many close friends and he wasn’t about to screw this up for her by messing around with Kate.
He had a poor history with women. Until Dru, most of his relationships had ended after only a few months, usually because the women he dated tired quickly of his complete dedication to his job. Dru hadn’t minded; in fact she had encouraged him to talk about work. In retrospect, he wondered how much of that was genuine interest and how much was her reporter instincts, nosing around for a good story.
He had a feeling their relationship would have gone the way of all those others if she hadn’t told him after only a few months of dating that she was pregnant.
Since her murder, he’d had plenty of time to think about things between them. He knew now that he had tried to convince himself he loved her because he’d thought she was pregnant with his child and he’d wanted fiercely to make things work between them.
His son deserved a father and Hunter intended to be part of his life. The best way to accomplish that—the right thing to do—was to marry his child’s mother.
Dru had refused, though. Oh, she hadn’t minded him taking her to doctor appointments and fussing over her, but she wasn’t ready to marry him, she said. Now he knew the reason why. She had likely known—or at least suspected—that he wasn’t her baby’s father.
Kate’s laughter rippled across the cold air suddenly, distracting him from the grim direction of his thoughts.
He could never act on this attraction simmering through him, he thought as he approached them. He didn’t have room in his life right now for a woman and, even if he did, it wouldn’t be this particular one.
“Hey.” She greeted him with a smile. “I’ve almost worn her out. A few more throws and I think she’ll be good for a while.”
He held a hand out for the ball. When she gave it to him, he hurled it to the other side of the park.
“All right, show off.” Kate laughed as Belle let out an ecstatic bark and set off after it. “Let me guess. You were a baseball player in another life.”
He shrugged. “All-state in high school. When I wasn’t skiing, I was throwing a ball through a tire hung up in the backyard. I played one year of college ball and had dreams of the majors, then I messed up my shoulder.” Not that the Judge had ever encouraged those dreams for a second.
“So you decided to become a cop instead.”
“Right.” He didn’t add that he had dreamed of being a cop as a boy but had entered the police academy mostly in an effort to piss off his father, who would see nothing else for his son except that Hunter should follow in his footsteps and study law.
To Hunter’s surprise, he had thrived at the academy. By the time he’d graduated first in his class, he knew he had discovered his calling.
Or he thought he had, anyway. As much as he had loved being a cop, first on the beat then as a detective, he had been betrayed by the brotherhood. He couldn’t work upholding a system he no longer respected.
“Do you miss it?”
He wasn’t sure what to say, since the answer to that question was anything but an easy one. Did he miss it? Yeah. He’d been a good cop, a dedicated one. But he certainly didn’t miss it enough to jump right back into the fray.
He was spared from having to answer by the return of Belle, who came panting back with the ball tightly clenched in her teeth. She rushed to Hunter and dropped the drooly thing like an offering at his feet.
“Good girl.” He rewarded her with one of the treats he’d brought from the Jeep. She gulped it down then barked with joy when Hunter threw the ball hard for her again.
What was it about dogs? he wondered. They never seemed to get tired of the same activity. Give Belle a ball and a little attention and she was content for hours.
“Do you?” Kate asked again. He sighed. He hoped she would let the matter drop, but he supposed he wasn’t really surprised when she didn’t. The woman was nothing if not tenacious.
“Sometimes,” he admitted. “I loved being a detective, helping people find justice. Giving them answers. The badge meant something to me.” He gazed across the park at a pair of forlorn swings, chains rattling in the cold wind. “But I had already come to hate the politics of the job before I was arrested.”
She nodded her understanding. “I suppose it’s the same as medicine. I love treating patients but I can’t stand dealing with insurance companies and HMOs. I guess it’s true that sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.”
“And sometimes it’s easier to walk away from both.”
She opened her mouth to argue but before she could say anything, Belle came bounding back with the ball. She came running at them just a little too fast, though, and bumped into Kate’s legs in her rush to get to Hunter.
Kate wobbled a little and tried to keep her balance but the light layer of snow made gaining traction difficult. She gave a small cry as her legs started to slip out from under.
He didn’t take time to think—if he had, he would have known reaching for her was a bad idea. Still, he couldn’t let her fall.
He grabbed her to keep her upright, blocking her from falling with his own body. Her hands came out to grab something solid to hang onto—his shirt, as it turned out—and his arms came around her.
Though she was small, only five-four, maybe, she was sturdy. Still, she felt tiny and fragile in his arms.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice gruff.
“Yes. Yes, I think so.”
Hunter wasn’t. He felt frozen, cast in bronze like that statue in the corner of the park of a couple of soldiers crouched over what looked like a piece of World War II heavy artillery.
How long had it been since his arms had held a warm female? Forever. So long, he’d forgotten how absolutely perfect it could be to feel all those intriguing curves and angles, to be surrounded by the mouthwatering vanilla-sugar scent of her, to know he only had to bend his head down a little to capture that perfect, lush mouth for his own.
He had to let her go. The thought flickered through his mind then flew away like a killdeer on the side of the road.
Her eyes, wide and lovely in that delicate face, gazed up at him, full of confusion and embarrassment and what he thought might be sexual awareness—though it had been a hell of a long time since he had seen it, so maybe he was wrong about that last bit.
She made no effort to pull away. Instead her hands seemed to curl in his sweater and her dewy lips parted a little as she hitched in a ragged little breath.
They stood there, eyes locked and bodies entwined, as the moment seemed to drag on forever. He was vaguely aware of the cold seeping through his boots, of those swings creaking in the wind, of a pickup truck driving past. But nothing else mattered but this moment.
He had to think he would have gotten around to letting her go eventually, but Belle took matters out of his hands. She whimpered as if she knew she’d messed up and nudged the back of his leg.
The contact seemed to jerk him back to his senses. What was he doing? In another second, he would have thrown caution to that cold wind and done exactly what his body was loudly urging him to do. He would have kissed Kate Spencer right here in a public park in Nowheresville, Utah.
And what a disaster that would have been!
Kate took a step backward quickly, and he was instantly cold, far colder than he should have been even with the chill wind.
“We should probably be on our way again,” Kate murmured. Her voice sounded a little thready, a little breathless, as if she had just hiked the steep trail behind his family’s ski cabin in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“Yeah. You’re right.” He scrambled for something to say. Should he apologize? No, he hadn’t done anything. Not really, only held her a moment—or two or three—longer than strictly necessary.
“I, uh, need to give Belle some water now. That will take me a few moments, if you need to make a trip inside the gas station.”
She looked blank for a moment, as if she couldn’t quite figure out why she might need to make a trip inside the gas station, then he saw understanding dawn in her eyes.
Despite his best intentions, he couldn’t help being amused, charmed, by the color that spread across her elegant cheekbones.
She was a doctor who had undoubtedly seen things that would make his hair curl, but she could still blush at a suggestion that she might need to use the ladies’ room.
“Right. Yes. I’ll only be a moment.”
They walked across the street together, then their paths diverged as he headed for the SUV and she went inside the gas station. He paused and watched until she went inside, reliving the heat and rightness of holding her in his arms for those few seconds.
If he responded so forcefully just to a platonic embrace, how the hell was he going to keep his hands off her this entire trip?
In the surprisingly clean restroom of the gas station, Kate stood at the sink for several moments, her cold hands covering the heat still soaking her cheeks.
She was such an idiot. She wanted to die, to sink through the floor—or at least to hide in this bathroom for the rest of her natural life.
What must he think of her? He had only been trying to keep her on her feet after that lovely show of grace and poise she had demonstrated. Just extending a courteous hand—like his habit of opening the door for her, keeping her upright had been only another polite gesture.
But the moment she found herself in such close contact, surrounded by those hard muscles and that rugged, masculine scent of him, she dug her hands into his sweater and held on for dear life.
And then she had made things worse by standing there, staring into his eyes, willing with all her heart for him to kiss her.
She fought the urge to bang her head against the mirror a few dozen times. She was an idiot! One who should certainly know better than to make mooneyes at a man who had no interest in her whatsoever.
Still, there had been a moment there when she thought she saw something in those dark blue eyes. Something intense and glittering and just out of reach. And he hadn’t exactly pushed her away, either, even after she regained her balance.
Why not? she wondered.
She certainly wasn’t going to find any answers staring into the mirror of some convenience-store bathroom. If she didn’t hurry, they would be on the road forever.
She blew out a breath, did her best without a comb to straighten the wind-tangles from her hair, then walked out into the convenience store.
By the time she bought a couple bottles of water, some power bars and deli sandwiches that looked surprisingly fresh for later, she had nearly regained her equilibrium. At least she felt a little more centered, almost in control.
At the Jeep, Kate found Belle in her crate and Hunter leaning against the vehicle gazing up at the dark clouds, his arms folded across his chest. He straightened at her approach.
“Sorry I took so long,” she said, hating that breathless note in her voice. “I bought some provisions so we don’t have to stop for lunch.”
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