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THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Single mom Jenna Loggins had come from the wrong side of the tracks, but she'd vowed to give her beloved baby a better life. So ten years ago, desperate Jenna fled, leaving her daughter in the care of Stone Cameron, the child's father and the son of the richest family in town.
But a near-fatal car crash has given Jenna a second chance to make things right for the man and child she loved but left behind. Now Jenna's back – with a new name and face. And Stone is drawn to the mysterious beauty. Can Jenna risk telling Stone and her daughter the truth, or will she have to hide behind the face of a stranger forever?
Jill Shalvis Long-Lost Mom
Happy New Year! And welcome to another month of great reading from Silhouette Intimate Moments, just perfect for sitting back after the hectic holidays. You’ll love Marilyn Pappano’s Murphy’s Law, a MEN IN BLUE title set in New Orleans, with all that city’s trademark steam. You’ll remember Jack Murphy and Evie DesJardiens long after you put down this book, I promise you.
We’ve got some great miniseries titles this month, too. Welcome back to Carla Cassidy’s Western town of MUSTANG, MONTANA in Code Name: Cowboy. Then pay a visit to Margaret Watson’s CAMERON, UTAH in Cowboy with a Badge. And of course, don’t forget our other titles this month. Look for Dangerous To Love, by Sally Tyler Hayes, a book whose title I personally find irresistible. And we’ve got books from a couple of our newest stars, too. Jill Shalvis checks in with Long-Lost Mom, and Virginia Kantra pens our FAMILIES ARE FOREVER title, The Passion of Patrick MacNeill.
Enjoy them all-and be sure to come back next month for more of the most exciting romantic reading around, right here in Silhouette Intimate Moments.
Leslie J. Wainger
Executive Senior Editor
To Matrice, for believing in me, even when I didn’t. Thank you!
He came every year without fail. Same day, same time, and he wondered, as he always did, if Jenna knew it. If she was haunted by their past, too.
Of course she wasn’t, and never had been.
Annoyed at himself, Stone Cameron tossed a curious squirrel a handful of his trail mix. “This is the last year I do this,” he told the animal over the roar of the surf.
The squirrel sat up on its haunches, hoping for more.
Stone tossed some more food, then laughed in spite of himself when the greedy thing tried to eat it all on the spot.
At the soft gasp Stone shifted on the large rock and looked over his shoulder.
A woman stood on the sand of the deserted beach, covered from head to toe in black. Black trousers, black hooded wool coat, gloves and boots. The early-morning spring sun spilled over her, bathing her in a golden glow, and for an instant she looked so familiar his heart all but stopped.
A shaft of pain sliced through him, neatly destroying his calm. For a moment he’d thought she’d come back, but he knew now that was impossible.
Jenna Loggins was gone. Long gone.
And he was glad.
The woman standing before him appeared rigid, practically unbreathing. All he could see of her was her nose, but somehow it was enough to know she was deeply troubled.
Great. For the past ten years Stone had made it a habit to stay away from women in distress. Far away.
The woman, medium height and willowy as a reed, suddenly swayed on her feet as though feeling faint.
Dammit. “Are you all right?” His voice was rougher and grittier than he would have liked, but sitting here, in this precise spot, where he hadn’t been in an entire year, was tearing his guts out.
She nodded, then raised a glove-covered hand to her face. Behind her mirrored sunglasses he sensed her intense unwavering stare, which he returned.
She didn’t look all right, although he couldn’t see her well at all, just a vague impression of porcelain skin, carefully painted lips and shuttered eyes. “Maybe you should sit down,” he suggested, shifting over on the large rock. There was ample room for two.
Slowly, as if in a trance, the woman walked around the rock to face him. For a long minute she said nothing, did nothing, just stared at him.
And despite Stone’s resolve to be alone and miserable on this day, something about the woman caused a stir deep within him. It wasn’t her body; he couldn’t see it clearly. It certainly wasn’t the face she’d hidden from him with such care. No, it was something much more profound, and it disturbed him in a way he hadn’t been disturbed in some time.
He was inexplicably aware of her as a woman. And he didn’t want to be. God, he so didn’t want to be.
“I…can’t believe it,” she whispered.
Neither could he, but he couldn’t deny it. Some silent connection was drawing him to her.
The squirrel, clearly sensing snack time had come to an end, took off, chattering loudly, and disappeared into the thick woods lining the California beach. The noise seemed to snap the woman out of her spell. Again she lifted a hand to one cheek as if protecting herself from his gaze. Stone couldn’t see her eyes behind the reflective sunglasses, but he knew she stared at him as if waiting for something.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” The minute the words were out he wished them back. Would he never learn to stop trying to fix everyone’s problems but his own?
“You…don’t know me.”
She sounded so shocked that Stone took a closer look. Her hood had fallen back some, revealing a crop of fawn-colored hair, artfully cut to fall in soft waves about her face-a face still more than half-covered by her scarf and the tilt of her head, almost as though she was afraid he would recognize her.
A horrible bone-seizing tension seem to grip her, a tension he didn’t understand and told himself he didn’t want to.
“Don’t tell me you have amnesia,” he quipped, trying to lighten the mood, when in fact, for some reason, he really wanted to take her hand and tell her everything would be okay.
He was an idiot.
“No, I don’t have amnesia. But…” Her voice trailed off and her mouth closed tight. Suddenly she sank onto the rock beside him. “You… I’m a stranger to you.” As if she realized how much she’d revealed, she dragged her hood back over her head and hugged herself with her arms. “A complete stranger.”
“We can fix that easily enough,” he said, disturbed by the anguish in her voice. “I’m Stone Cameron. And you’re…”
“I’m…” She hesitated so long Stone became convinced she wasn’t going to tell him. She continued to regard him intently, as if he could fill in the blank for her. “Cindy,” she said finally, almost regretfully. “My name is Cindy Beatty.”
A lie. He knew it even before she refused to meet his gaze. And just that quickly, his sympathy and curiosity vanished, for he’d had enough of that sort of woman to last him a lifetime. Standing abruptly, he shrugged into his jacket and without another word started walking away, across the sand, toward the steep stairs that led to his truck.
“You’re…leaving?” The last word was a squeak of surprise.
“Yes. Goodbye,” he added politely, unwilling, even in the face of her lie, to be completely rude. Hardening himself to the pained disbelief in her voice, Stone forced himself to keep walking. His reaction was ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Not on this day.
She’d lied, and hated herself for it. Still, Jenna watched him go with hungry eyes, suddenly transported back in time. Ten years since she’d seen him. He’d been the most coolheaded, most strong-willed and honest man she’d ever known. That had obviously not changed with time, for she knew he’d sensed her lie.
Heart aching, she watched his broad-shouldered form slowly disappear from sight. Physically he’d changed little. His laugh lines were deeper, his eyes a bit more cynical, and he wasn’t as lanky, almost gawky, as he’d been at twenty. But he still possessed a raw sensuality that tugged at some elementary core of her, and his body was still honed to a lean toughness by the physical labor he’d done to put himself through college.
She’d gotten that tidbit from the detective she’d hired, and her heart had nearly broken. For it had been her fault that he’d had to work so hard back then.
Her fault. Her fault. Her fault.
The words repeated like a mantra through her head, mixing with the crashing waves.
Why hadn’t she told him the truth just now? Why had she reverted to the young girl of her past and taken the easy way out, using the name she’d adopted for herself-Cindy Beatty?
She could have told him about the car accident that had changed her life. Yes, she’d nearly died-should have died. Instead, she’d been given a new lease on life. A chance to right her wrongs, of which there were an unfortunate many. And oh, yes, thanks to plowing face first through her windshield and then having three cosmetic surgeries to repair the damage, she had a new face with which to do it.
Jenna had waited until today, her twenty-seventh birthday, to make the final move, to come back to San Paso Bay, midway up the California coast and get what she’d always dreamed of.
Forgiveness. And her daughter.
A new birthday, a new beginning.
But sitting on the rock that had once been hers and Stone’s safe haven, all she could think of was how it’d been one of the last times she’d seen Stone. The way he looked without the restriction of any clothes covering that surprisingly savage strength. What she would give to feel him pressed against her, to have his hard arms encircle her body and tighten around her until…
She was crazy thinking like this. Crazy. Drawing a shaky breath, Jenna cleared her head and forced her thoughts in a different direction.
She had to right some of her wrongs, and as hard as it would be, she had to tell everyone who she was.
Or did she?
Confused and surprisingly hurt, she stared at the stairs up which Stone had disappeared.
The detective she’d hired had done his job. She knew all the paper facts about Stone and his daughter-her daughter knew where they lived, what he did for a living, what he drove, and still it wasn’t enough. She yearned for more. She yearned to see her child.
For that, Jenna needed forgiveness. And Stone-she needed him, too. He’d looked so good. So big and powerful and darkly beautiful. So… hers. Only he would never be hers again. She’d seen to that ten years ago, when she’d run from both of them like the frightened seventeen-year-old she’d been. The ache in her heart was so sharp it almost doubled her over.
So did the shock of him not recognizing her-an additionally painful and deflating blow.
Well, what had she expected? A jagged windshield tearing off her face hadn’t helped any. Neither had the reconstructive surgeries or the way her hair had returned darker after being shaved in pre-op. And no one would recognize her voice, which was now throatier-even sexier-thanks to her voice box also being damaged in the accident. But most of all she blamed the ten years that had passed so quickly since she’d left the small town nestled on the California coast.
“It’ll be okay,” she whispered. Stone, in spite of his inner toughness and sometimes blunt nature, was a gentleman at heart. No matter how much rage and resentment he’d built up against her-and she was certain there was plenty-his sense of decency and honor would prevail. He had a will of iron and a stubborn streak to go along with it, but regardless, Stone was honest to a fault.
At the thought, the tears she’d been barely holding back began to fall.
Late that afternoon Stone flipped up the page on the calendar and drew a ragged breath as he reminded himself what he already knew.
She’d be… He pretended to count. As though he’d forgotten it’d been ten years since he’d last laid eyes on her.
She’d be twenty-seven now. And he wondered, as he often did, what she was doing. She wasn’t living in a small town enjoying the quaint lifestyle, that was for certain. Jenna had never been one for restrictions of any kind, and San Paso Bay, a typical small town, certainly posed them. Stone found the place refreshing and real compared with the bigger cities of the world, but he knew Jenna would be doing something entirely different.
Such as hang gliding off the Angeles Crest. Or sky diving in the Mojave Desert. Maybe even mountain climbing in Tibet. Wait-this was the nineties. She was probably bungee jumping off the Golden Gate bridge or extreme skiing in the Canadian Rockies.
In the quiet of his shop Stone felt his anger swell up once again and grab him by the throat.
He turned abruptly from the calendar.
This date always got him, left him feeling as though he’d just taken a sucker punch to the solar plexus. Always left him drowning in a sea of furious emotion that time never seemed to ease. But it was just this one day, he told himself. All the other days of the year he was perfectly fine.
Yet he went to the beach-their beach-on this day every year at dawn. Just as they had together… The pencil he held snapped. He couldn’t keep doing this.
Look what had happened to him this morning with that woman. Hours later, and he was still thinking about the mysterious Cindy Beatty.
Purposely Stone drew a deep breath and let his surroundings calm him. Toy Station, his pride and joy, never failed him. Some said he wasted his talent as an architect designing and building educational toys for gifted children, which he insisted on making by hand for classrooms all over the globe. Others rumored he’d been disinherited by his rich family and therefore had to spend every day working his fingers to the bone.
It was true, all of it. But Stone loved his life. Loved his work.
Sara rushed into Toy Station with a wide grin on her face.
Sara. Just the sight of her completed his thought. He loved his daughter.
“Didja get it?” She bounced from one foot to the other like a Ping-Pong ball. “Didja? Didja?”
Smiling, he handed her the one-hour-photo envelope.
“Cool!” She tore open the envelope, then flipped through each shot, giggling at some, making faces at others. “Come look. I’m getting good.”
Stone glanced down at the mostly blurred and very unbalanced shots, some with suspicious-looking smudges that might have been a finger on the lens, and nodded seriously. “Very,” he said encouragingly.
“Look, there’s Sally pretending my teddy is her daddy. She doesn’t see him since he remarried, so I told her it was okay to pretend, just like I do about Mommy.”
Stone held his tongue, but it was difficult because anger nearly choked him. He had no patience for people who turned away from family. To him, family was everything. Family took care of their own, or rather, they should. It was that simple. Maybe he was just old-fashioned, but it was the way he felt, and he knew nothing would ever change that.
Unfortunately, he also knew that things rarely happened as they should. “Bring Sally over here, Sara. We’ll be her family anytime she needs us. Okay?”
Her smile lit his heart. “’Kay.”
“So what was your hurry to have the pictures developed?”
She didn’t answer, but pulled out the last photograph with a frown. “Oh, Daddy. I can’t believe you took this one.” She moaned theatrically, as only a ten-year-old can do.
Stone glanced at the photo causing the distress and laughed. “This is my proof,” he teased, tugging on a loose curl the color of coal. “You helped me paint your bedroom. You picked out those horrid colors.” He shook his head. “Chartreuse, of all things.”
“Anyway, I needed the snapshot so that in three months, when you come to me with those big baby blues begging for yet another color change, I can pull it out and remind you-this was what you wanted. You wanted it so badly you helped paint it.”
“You already said that.” Stone moved away, heading toward the back of the workshop where he did most of his designing. “You never told me what your hurry was.”
“My album,” she said in a soft dreamy voice that made him turn back to look at her. “I want my photo album to be complete when Mommy comes back.”
His heart stopped. A new wave of rage at Jenna hit him. “Honey…” Hard to talk when his lungs wouldn’t expand, he discovered. “Sara-”
“It’s her birthday today.”
“Yes,” he managed.
She met his unsteady gaze with eyes wise beyond their years. “I know what you told me,” she whispered from the other side of the store, but he caught every word. “That you don’t think she’s ever coming back.”
God. “I’m sorry, Sara-”
“And I know you don’t want me to think about her, but I can’t help it. I want her to come back.”
“Oh, baby.” He sighed and moved toward her. Thankfully he had no meeting, no customers, so there would be no nosy ears listening to this. Gently he took Sara’s shoulders and waited until she looked at him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were thinking about her?”
“Because it hurts you.” Sara, her wide eyes sheened with unshed tears, sniffed loudly. “I hate it when you hurt.”
She hadn’t cried about her mother for some time, and Stone was furious at himself for not noticing sooner that she needed him. “Sara…” Was it possible to feel such overwhelming love for a small child, so much that it was a physical pain? “I don’t want you to keep things inside, ever.” He cupped her chin and kissed her nose. “Even if you think it’s going to hurt me.”
“Then why don’t we talk about her?”
How to explain? How to tell his precious and yes, dammit, sheltered daughter that she’d been abandoned at birth by a mother who had been little more than a child herself? That he’d been too young to take on both the baby and the mother? That even if he could have managed, it didn’t matter because Jenna had run?
But Sara needed to know, needed to understand, and he couldn’t fail her. “I’ll talk about her to you anytime,” he promised, knowing that promise was likely to kill him.
“Why did she go away before I was out of the hospital?”
“She had to go, Sara.” Defending the woman who had nearly destroyed him was easy only because Sara needed answers. Kind ones. “She had to. She had no one to love her, and so she ran away.”
Huge blue eyes waited for more. Jenna’s eyes. They were a more brilliant blue than his, and framed by lush lashes-just like Jenna’s. “I would love her.”
Unable to trust his voice, Stone squeezed her hand.
“Why couldn’t she just have made a family with us and be ours forever? Why did she have to go?”
Solemnly, patiently, she blinked at him, and Stone swallowed hard. His own anguish came back so easily, he discovered. “She was scared, honey. Very scared.” And to be fair to Jenna, there’d been evil forces that had pushed her to leave. Forces he hadn’t been able to protect her from. She’d been betrayed, horribly and cruelly, by her own mother in a single event that had changed Jenna’s life forever. Still, she could have, should have, trusted him to help, and she hadn’t. “She was young, and alone and petrified.”
“But you were with her, and you can fix anything.”
God bless this child who had never wanted for a thing. Stone, with his ruthlessly stubborn streak and single-mindedness, had seen to it. But for the sake of memories and a heartache that had never died, he had to try to make Sara understand. “Yes, she had me,” he told her. “But I was young, too.”
“You were in college. At a fancy expensive school.”
“And your mommy and daddy got mad at you and never spoke to you again. You had to transpose.”
“Transfer,” he corrected with a small smile. “To the local college here. I wanted you with me, Sara.” His parents had disowned them both, the boy barely a man, and the infant without a mother, all because he had “ruined his life” by keeping his baby. The baby he’d been responsible for.
Neither his mother nor his father nor his brother, Richard, Stone’s childhood hero, had spoken to Stone or Sara since.
Regret wasn’t a part of this. He could never look into Sara’s beautiful face and regret one part of what had happened. But it did bring up his worst nightmare, and remind him of the stoic way Sara accepted the fact that they had no family willing to acknowledge their existence.
For what would happen to his daughter if something happened to him? Who would take care of her, love her?
“It’d be nice to have grandparents.” Sara’s casual tone didn’t fool him. “Or…an uncle.”
She wasn’t talking in general, and he knew it. She meant his own parents and his brother. At the wistful tone in her voice, he actually felt murderous toward his own family. “They don’t understand, Sara. They can’t see past their own stubborn noses. But I love you and I’ll never stop. ’Kay?”
She smiled. “’Kay.” Tipping her head, she studied him. “Has she ever been back?”
“I’d tell you if she had. I’ve always promised you that. You don’t ever have to wonder.” He didn’t add that he’d spent more than a small fortune trying to find Jenna over the years. That occasionally he still tried, although now it was completely for Sara’s sake, because he had the feeling he would always be far too angry at Jenna ever to want her in his life. He refused to add to his daughter’s pain, but he couldn’t stand the thought of her waiting expectantly for something he’d become convinced would never happen. And if a small part of him wondered if there’d ever be a woman in his life who could make him truly forget Jenna, he ignored it. He didn’t need another heartbreak. “I’m afraid she’s not coming back, Sara.”
The girl stared down at the last photo of herself, the one where she was decked out in painter’s attire, grinning broadly as she painted her room a somewhat sickening shade of yellow-green. Completely unaware of how much every part of her-her laugh, her carefree attitude, her easy affection-all reminded Stone of Jenna.
“She is coming back,” Sara whispered. “I just know it.” She met her dad’s worried expression and hugged him hard. “Well, she is.”
Holding her close, Stone stared over her head at the calendar.
He was far from the frightened twenty-year-old left with no family and an infant he didn’t know how to care for. As a result, he’d long ago hardened his heart to the memory of the wild needy Jenna who’d so completely stolen his affections. He’d long ago moved on. Yet in spite of all his lingering rage, he’d forgiven her for what she’d done to him. Or so he told himself.
But as he kissed the top of Sara’s head, he had to admit the truth to himself.
He hadn’t forgiven Jenna for what she’d done to their daughter. Hadn’t even come close.
Jenna’s chest hurt. It had nothing to do with any lingering injuries and everything to do with the sight in front of her.
She sat on a tier of stands in the gymnasium of the school watching a basketball game.
Sara-it was really her this time, not some cruel dream her mind had conjured up to tease her-was playing basketball with all her little ten-year-old heart. Her tongue was squeezed between her teeth, her eyes narrowed in fierce concentration as she dribbled-okay, tripped-over the ball.
Her daughter. It had to be. Jenna had seen no pictures over the years. How could she have when she’d so completely disappeared no one could have found her even if they’d been looking? And she wasn’t hopeful or foolish enough to think that anyone had been looking.
“Go, Sara!” came a chorus of cries from the crowd gathered around Jenna.
Sara. Her name really was Sara.
Which meant Stone had kept his fervent promise that day in the hospital, when Jenna had named their baby before vanishing.
She was incredible, with beautiful long dark hair, bright laughing blue eyes and a sweet infectious laugh. A perfect little replica of Stone. Jenna’s heart squeezed as her arms crossed over herself in a mime of the hug she yearned to give her child.
Looking at her, Jenna couldn’t remember why she’d stayed away. None of the reasons she’d thought so important all those years seemed to matter now.
Tears welled in her eyes, but Jenna ruthlessly blinked them back. She had no right to cry, none at all. But Lord, it hurt. She’d never wanted anything as much as she wanted her little girl.
“That’s it, Sara,” someone shouted. “Run, run!”
It was an achingly familiar voice that made Jenna’s heart all but stop. Stone, his hands cupped over his mouth, was giving directions to his team, and God, he looked good. When she’d seen him the day before at the beach, she hadn’t been fully prepared for the sheer physical jolt of being near him again, but the long years of separation peeled away as if they’d never been.
There didn’t seem to be an unsure bone in that tall, toned body. There was something raw and earthy and generally untamed about him, despite the casual athletic clothes.
His shoulders had widened greatly, now physically a match for the weight of the burdens he’d always carried. He shifted back and forth on long muscular legs as he paced courtside, his arms constantly in motion as he directed the team.
Nope, he certainly wasn’t a kid any longer, but a fully mature, incredibly sexy man.
“Down court!” he yelled now in the smooth tone she remembered so well. He leaped into the air and whooped with abandon when Sara passed off the ball to another girl, who pivoted and made a basket.
The stands, full of parents and siblings, erupted as the game ended.
Pride nearly overwhelmed Jenna. She’d had no idea she could feel such a thrill, such joy, from watching a game she didn’t even understand. But it was her daughter down there. Her daughter.
On the court every girl on the team threw herself at the coach. Stone tossed back his head and laughed, hugging each of them back.
There’d been a time in Jenna’s life when seeing Stone smile and laugh like that had caused every productive thought to fly right out of her head, and she discovered with little surprise that hadn’t changed.
Watching Stone live as she’d only been able to dream about suddenly felt like a knife to her chest. She nearly staggered with the pain of it, with the gut-wrenching regret.
How had this happened? How had she allowed so much time to go by without a word? And what would happen now that she’d come back?
Knowing she deserved nothing, not even a fraction of the warmth she was experiencing now, didn’t help. With that dismal thought, the gates of her mind opened and flooded her with unwanted memories of her past.
Her absent father.
The mother she could never please, so she’d finally stopped trying. Instead Jenna had depended on her wild behavior to get attention.
Her perfect sister, the one Jenna’s mother constantly wished was her only child.
Everything had always seemed to be Jenna’s fault back then, even when she’d been merely a victim of circumstances. And a victim she’d been. Yet she’d been blamed and, unable to accept it, had rebelled.
She’d been wild, even before then. Hopelessly, pathetically out of control. Moody. It was all she knew how to do, for she could never get her mother to care unless she was furious about something Jenna had done. Without the bad-girl image Jenna had cultivated, she had no identity. No worth.
She’d been on the fast road to nowhere when Stone Cameron had come into her life. The star athlete and town darling, he was by far the most popular kid in school. Everyone adored him. He came from the rich side of the tracks and lived in one of the biggest and prettiest houses Jenna had ever seen. His parents and brother loved him.
His life had seemed perfect.
She’d hated him for that alone.
He’d found her in a tall tree along the beach one night when she been her most vulnerable, shaking after a particularly nasty fight with her mother-a fight in which Jenna’s mother had refused to believe that the man she was seeing had touched Jenna. A man not only cheating on his wife to sleep with Jenna’s mother, but a man who was a highly respected member of their community.
Scared and alone, Jenna had hidden in the only place she could think of. Without hesitation Stone had climbed up the long branches, sat next to her and smiled. In return, Jenna had called him names and had tried to push him out of the tree.
He refused to fall-or give up.
It’d been the start of the first meaningful friendship in Jenna’s life. Stone cared for her, more than anyone. He was the first to encourage her to stop doing stupid reckless things that would only get her hurt. He worried, he’d told her, and that knowledge had warmed Jenna’s heart and soul for the first time in her life.
But the man who’d victimized her had turned the scandal around, claiming Jenna had seduced him. In the face of the town’s disgust, Jenna folded. Despite Stone’s love and support, she let herself be destroyed.
Sitting there now, wallowing in the memories, agonizing over them, Jenna was gripped by panic.
Could Stone ever forgive her?
She looked down at the basketball court and found Stone’s glittering eyes on her, eyes that had perhaps seen too much to ever be surprised by anything again.
She’d done that, given the most open loving boy she’d ever met that slight cynical edge.
Ashamed, without stopping to think, Jenna grabbed her purse, ran outside the gym, jumped into her car and escaped, feeling no braver than when she was seventeen.
Over the next couple of days, Jenna gained some badly needed perspective. She could do this, she coached herself. She could, she would.
Again she went to one of Sara’s games, and again held her breath the entire time, completely immersed in how it felt to watch her daughter run, laugh, live.
At the end of the game, which Sara’s team won, Jenna looked down from the stands-and her heart simply stopped.
Staring at her from the side of the court was Stone, holding a basketball in one hand and his daughter’s hand in the other.
As the crowd thinned around them, neither of them moved, held there by an invisible string of unspoken questions. Stone was obviously drawn to Jenna, although he could have no idea why-or that she was a nightmare from his past about to resurface. She cringed at that thought and felt more than saw Stone’s gaze narrow in a mixture of concern and curiosity.
Still, he held the connection, and Jenna wished she would see a flash of recognition in his eyes. She knew now she wouldn’t, not with ten years, plastic surgery and dubious maturity on her side. Well, nothing had ever come easily to her, and it seemed this wouldn’t, either.
If she wanted Stone to know the truth, she was going to have to tell him.
Her goal hadn’t changed; she still wanted to atone for the things she’d done, such as deserting her own daughter. But if she told Stone who she was now, she knew he would turn from her, his eyes icy and distant.
But as Cindy Beatty, a complete stranger to Stone and the town she knew would never welcome her back, she could do anything.
Stone continued to maintain eye contact. Jenna couldn’t have torn her gaze away to save her life, leaving her no doubt that their always instant sizzling attraction still lived. It had unnerved her then, just as it did now, for though they’d always been drawn to each other, even as kids, she had never understood what Stone saw in her.
Connected to him this way, by just his gaze, caused an awareness to unfurl from deep within her. And she knew by his slight frown, by the very power of what shimmered between them, that it was the same for him. Only he could have no idea that this…thing between them was not new, that it had been there since the very beginning.
He remained unsmiling, that wide, sexy mouth serious. She felt panic rise.
You’re not seventeen anymore, she told herself firmly, even as her feet shuffled, prepared to run, as was their lifelong habit. You’re twenty-seven and here to right your wrongs. Turn your life around. Do it!
Far below, Sara’s lips moved and Stone nodded in response, but he did not break eye contact with Jenna.
Jenna smiled feebly. It was all she could manage, but Stone’s intense stare didn’t waver. Neither did Sara’s.
Tell them, an inner voice urged. Just go down there and tell them who you are.
Of their own accord, her legs took her down the stands she’d climbed up an hour and a half earlier-when she’d been driven by a need to see her daughter and hadn’t known how else to go about it other than to watch her from afar. And when she’d read the banner listing the names of the all-city fifth-grade champs, she’d been surprised to find Sara Cameron listed. After seeing that, fire-breathing dragons couldn’t have kept Jenna from the games.
“Hello,” Stone said when she got within hearing distance. That warm lazy baritone made her shudder with memories. For years she’d dreamed about that deep silky voice of his, and hearing it now brought her vividly back in time. Shockingly another memory surfaced.
Stone, making love to her the way he spoke, as if he had all the time in the world.
Jenna blushed wildly. Where had that come from? There was more to Stone than the way he’d once touched her, far more. He’d have fits if he knew her thoughts, for he wasn’t smiling now, not the way he had when the game had ended favorably or when Sara had flung herself into his arms for a hug. Jenna had to clear her throat twice before she croaked out a hello in return.
“I saw you at the game the other day,” he said in that voice like dark honey. “You ran off before I could talk to you. It’s…Cindy, isn’t it?”
He remembered her name, or that horrible pretend name Jenna had given him at the beach. She wanted to laugh and, instead, nearly cried.
Tell him the truth.
“Yes,” she murmured, sealing her fate with yet another lie. “It’s Cindy.”
Chicken, Jenna told herself furiously, but she didn’t recant the lie. “And I didn’t mean to run off. I just…”
“It’s all right. I ran off on you first, at the beach,” Stone said, quietly apologetic, his voice velvety and calm. The arm he’d thrown around Sara squeezed as tension seemed to fill him. “And I’m-”
Before he could finish his apology, which was what she should be doing for the rest of her life, Jenna broke in. “No, no. Please.” She clenched her hands together to keep them from moving wildly about as they tended to do when she was nervous. And she was very nervous now. “I understand. I…I acted strangely.”
“Are you new to town?”
Jenna looked at Sara and managed a smile, though her throat tightened as she got her first close look at her child. God. Her child. She was so beautiful and the urge to touch her was so strong that Jenna had to close her hands into tight fists. Her short neatly manicured nails dug into her palms as she forced herself not to cry. “Yes.” Her voice caught on the sob she didn’t quite swallow, so she cleared her throat to hide it, avoiding Stone’s probing gaze. “I’m brand-new.”
And wasn’t that the complete truth? Certainly she’d been rebuilt since the car accident. For whatever reason, she’d been given another chance, and she didn’t want to mess it up this time. No longer did she want to spend the rest of her life job hopping for survival. Drifting from one group of so-called friends to another, living her life on the edge because that was the only way she knew how to live it.
She wanted to come back.
But if what she’d lived with all this time since the accident, knowing she’d pretty much mangled every inch of her face and a good part of her body, had terrified her, the prospect of telling Stone who she really was quite simply paralyzed her. No, petrified her.
Why had she lived?
She couldn’t help but wonder. She hadn’t deserved to-or had she? A part of her so desperately wanted someone to tell her how much she had deserved it.
But she had no one like that in her life, and that was her own fault.
“You’re beautiful,” Sara said.
Beautiful. In the accident, Jenna’s cheekbones had been shattered. So had her jaw and nose. They’d shaved her head completely, whisking away her icy blond waist-length locks without a thought.
It had grown back a bit now, but it was darker and much thicker, totally different than it had been before. Her eyes, normally blue, were covered with both dark sunglasses and even darker prescription contact lenses required for her own comfort-for most light still burned horribly-and also so she could see without wearing her glasses, which she hated.
She was totally and completely transformed. And as Sara pointed out, beautiful. “Thank you,” Jenna whispered, unable to stop looking at her child. It was hard to remain still, to not reach for her and pull her close.
“You moved here all alone?” Sara asked with the avid curiosity of the young.
The question threw Jenna off balance. Her mother had passed away some time ago, but she wasn’t truly alone, not with her sister, Kristen, still alive. Yet she couldn’t imagine her sister rejoicing at their reunion. “All alone,” she confirmed.
“This is my daughter, Sara.” Stone squeezed Sara’s shoulders, his big body shimmering with pride. “She’s very curious,” he added wryly. “And the new county basketball champ.”
“Daddy.” But Sara laughed.
Jenna swallowed hard, consumed by how he’d taken to fatherhood. She’d played an all-too-willing part in that area of his life, a part that to this day haunted her lonely nights with remembered visions of hot searing passion, warm safe arms that kept the outside world at bay and an unbreakable bond of affection. There would have been more, too, if only she’d let it.
She’d left him alone to deal with the consequences of their passion, but she knew, he had handled it as he handled everything-with an unwavering inner strength.
Which of course did nothing to assuage her horrible guilt and regret.
She could feel Stone’s interest like a physical thing, and it was no less for her. Standing this close to him, she had all she could do to remember to breathe. He was so familiar, yet a perfect stranger.
A magnificent perfect stranger she’d never been able to forget.
“Are you gonna eat pizza tonight?” Sara asked.
Jenna blinked at Sara. “Pizza?”
“Tonight’s pizza night at Joey’s. It’ll be packed with all the kids from the game,” Stone explained.
“Joey’s has great pizza.” Sara grinned in anticipation. “Lotsa cheese. I’m really starving, Daddy.”
Daddy. God, the way she said that, it made Jenna yearn. Made her ache. Made her want to cry, something she absolutely could not do with the protective contacts in, for it would burn like hell.
“We’re going, honey.” But Stone didn’t move for an interminably long moment.
Jenna didn’t, either. She held her breath, absorbing the intensity of his gaze. As the nearly visible electrical current ran between the two of them, she wondered how long this could continue.
“I know, Sara.” He smiled down at her, handed her the basketball and a backpack. “Here, take these. I’ll catch up in a sec.”
Happily Sara took his things, shot a shy smile at Jenna and walked away.
Stone waited, wanting to be certain Sara was out of earshot. “Look,” he said to the silent woman, feeling a little foolish. “This might seem odd, but…do I know you?”
Cindy paled. “What…what do you mean?”
He knew that following his gut instinct had been the right thing to do, given her reaction. But it explained nothing, certainly not the strange mixture of dismay and wonder just the sight of her evoked. “Have we met before?”
She raised a hand to her face, just as she had at the beach, as if she wanted to hide herself from him, which made no sense. But she seemed so distressed that Stone took pity on her and said quickly, as gently as he could, “I’m sorry. It’s just that you look…” What? She didn’t look familiar, not at all, and yet, he could swear that he knew her from somewhere.
But if he’d met this slender beauty before, certainly he would remember.
She made a soft sound, one that conveyed a wrenching sorrow. The urge to move forward, to take her arm and offer some sort of solace was strong.
But he’d sworn off damsels in distress a long time ago. The only women he let in his life now were strong-willed, self-possessed, sophisticated women who not only took care of themselves, but were not looking for any sort of permanence.
He might have laughed, for a woman in his life, any woman, was rare indeed. With his booming business and his vivacious daughter, Stone had little to no social time left over for himself. After so long he’d gotten used to it. Almost. But a small part of him couldn’t help but wonder… when would he meet someone who would reawaken his heart?
She smiled, although it was clearly forced. “Well…it was nice to see you again.”
So polite, he thought. So hurt. Dammit. “Wait,” he said just as she turned away, cursing himself even as he took a step toward her. “Are you coming for pizza night?”
Startled, she stared at him from behind those disconcertingly dark glasses. “I don’t think so.” A slim shoulder lifted. “I don’t know anyone.”
“You know us.” He had no idea why he was doing this, but something about her called to him on a deep primal level he was reluctant to explore. “Come on. It’d be a great way for you to acclimate yourself to small-town life.”
Suspicion filled her fine features. “How do you know I’m not used to it already?”
How to disburse that frightened-doe look? he wondered. “Your clothes for starters. We’re a one-school town here, and you’re dressed pretty fancy for a basketball game starring our local ten-year-olds.”
He laughed when she stared down at herself, taking in the expensive leather flats, the slim fitted trousers that outlined her showcase legs, her soft silky blouse, with the hint of lace and sexy curves beneath it. She wore a string of fine pearls on her elegant neck that reminded him of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but-
“Well, believe it or not, I grew up in a small town.” Her face colored slightly when he arched his brows in surprise. “But it’s been a while.”
Stone swiveled toward the voice. Sara stood in the doorway to the gymnasium, waving wildly, making him smile. “Coming,” he called.
He turned back to Jenna and caught the unwitting look of sheer longing she’d cast toward Sara. It wasn’t the thought of pizza that put that look on her face, he somehow knew, but loneliness.
Something he understood all too well. It called to him, but was he really ready for this? “Come on,” he said quietly with an inner sigh of resignation. Hell, no, he wasn’t ready, but he couldn’t ignore the strange pull of attraction. He held out a hand. “Let’s go eat.”
Her deep-rooted fear of again being shunned by the town nearly overcame her, but Jenna had a stiff talk with herself as she followed Stone and Sara in her own car to the pizza joint.
Clearly no one was going to recognize her.
And though she’d come back with the intention of letting everyone know who she was, especially Sara, Jenna was beginning to see the advantage of remaining silent, if only for a little while.
Until she proved she’d changed.
She was no longer a young terrified girl on the path of destruction. She’d become a woman who could control herself and her destiny.
A woman who was going to show everyone how worthy she was. A woman who hoped someday soon to have her daughter back in her life.
Having decided this, it was all she could do to contain herself as she stepped from her car and looked at the two people standing there waiting for her. Stone was leaning against his truck, long legs casually crossed, one hand tucked into his sweatshirt pocket, the other resting on Sara’s shoulders. He was relaxed, yet so clearly strong and vital and content with himself and his surroundings. Jenna knew what iron will and inner strength existed just beneath the surface of that body, and admired him for it.
To be half as confident as he…
He smiled a greeting then, his face transforming into the easygoing carefree Stone she used to know, and Jenna was forced to add yet another trait to her list-utterly sexy.
She stumbled at the thought, as again, ridiculously, she found herself rendered stupid by the impact of Stone’s fathomless gaze. He reached for her, an automatic gesture. Their hands brushed, his large one grasping her much smaller one, and she jumped at the contact. It was startling, that someone who moved and talked with such languid ease had such heat in his skin.
And in his eyes as they held hers.
Stone held open the restaurant door, letting first Sara, then Jenna, into the noisy but warm and welcoming place. It was packed, filled to the brim with hungry laughing talking people. Some Jenna recognized from her past and some she didn’t.
She hesitated, suddenly unsure, panicky.
What if she saw him-the man she’d let destroy her life? It had been so long ago, but seeing the man who had molested her would really make her lose any bit of control she still had. He’d likely be here, principal of the only school in town. Her heart thumped against her ribs as she whipped her head back and forth, searching the crowd.
She was making a big deal of nothing, she told herself when she didn’t find him. For all she knew. Rand Ridgeway had moved on, or at least changed occupations.
No sight of him. Still, she couldn’t relax, couldn’t make herself step farther in.
But then she felt Stone’s big warm hand gently rest on the small of her back in an old-fashioned gesture to guide her, and she nearly leaped right out of her skin.
When was the last time she’d been touched like that? As if she mattered? She looked up and he murmured something incoherent, something meant to be soothing, and it was.
She forced herself to relax, to lose the wide-eyed panic she knew she’d displayed. Stone didn’t keep his hand on her; in fact, he removed it immediately, making it the casual chivalrous gesture it had been meant to be-which in no way explained why her knees wobbled.
“I’m so ready to eat,” Sara declared as they wound their way through the sea of tables.
They were stopped several times by people who wanted to say hello or to congratulate Sara and Stone on the win. Several were business associates, and Stone nodded politely to everyone, while a portion of his mind remained occupied by the enigmatic woman walking in front of him as if to the guillotine.
The farther they went into the restaurant, the stiffer her shoulders became, and again, he wondered why.
Who was she? Why did he care? And why couldn’t he be attracted to someone without problems? Someone who had nothing to hide?
He sighed. The woman who’d stepped between him and Cindy was Nellie, the postal clerk. She loved to keep her nose in everybody’s business but her own. He’d known her since high school, and in all that time, her crush on him had never faded.
Short and wide as the aisle in which they were standing in, Nellie effectively blocked their way, making Stone want to groan, for he knew there would be no moving past her until she was good and finished with him.
Nellie eyed Cindy with undisguised interest, but spoke to Stone. “You didn’t pick up your mail today, hon. Everything okay?”
He used a post-office box for his business because he often received huge shipments of supplies for the prototypes he put together. He had to, dealing as he did with hundreds of school districts and the way his business was growing by leaps and bounds.
Nellie read the return address on every package.
“Everything’s fine.” And if he had told her otherwise, he’d probably hear it on the evening news. “I’ll get it later.”
Nellie still stared at Cindy, who stood directly in front of Stone, her back to him. He had no trouble detecting Cindy’s rigid stance, her increasing stress, which told him exactly how uncomfortable the unwarranted scrutiny was making her. “Excuse us, Nel,” he said, risking another light touch to the small of Jenna’s back so that she at least attempted to move around the postal clerk.
Startled, Jenna glanced at him over her shoulder, her lips slightly parted. And right there, surrounded by insanity and a hungry daughter, Stone felt the most unexpected urge to bend down and kiss her. Just plant his lips on hers and lose himself until her fear was gone, until she wrapped her slender arms around his neck and whimpered with desire into his mouth.
“You have a new friend.”
Cindy took a tiny step backward, as if terrified he was going to introduce her. But she’d miscalculated their closeness and bumped right into his chest. Automatically his hands came up to cup her shoulders, steadying her.
Beneath his fingers, she trembled, and any erotic thoughts fled in the face of his concern.
What was so threatening about this place? he wondered. The crowds? Nellie?
The scent of pizza teased his nostrils. His stomach grumbled, reminding him he’d skipped lunch again, working through it so he could take off early for Sara’s game.
Maybe he was just imagining Cindy’s fear. He’d find out. He had the advantage, for he rarely gave up on something once he’d set his mind to it, and for whatever reason, he’d set his mind on Cindy Beatty.
“Are you new in town?” Nellie asked Cindy.
“Yes,” Stone answered for her, squeezing Cindy’s shoulders gently when she made a sudden movement as if preparing to run. “She’s new and we’re starving. Excuse us?”
Smoothly he maneuvered around Nellie, and walked toward the back where there were still a couple of booths available.
Sara stood there grinning broadly, endearingly, before leaning forward to whisper loudly, “She always wants to talk to Daddy. She likes him.”
“Well, she does. Mrs. Potts said so.”
A startled laugh escaped Cindy, which Stone enjoyed because he could tell she wasn’t a woman who laughed often.
Sara blinked innocently. “Mrs. Potts says Nellie likes your bones and the way they’re put together, Daddy.”
“Enough,” he said firmly, torn between embarrassment and the urge to laugh. Mrs. Potts came to clean his house once a week, had for the past five years, and this apparently gave her pecking rights. And like Nellie, she continuously attempted to run Stone’s life.
“I’m starving,” Sara announced again.
Stone was starving, too, not just for food but for another touch of the woman he knew nothing about yet couldn’t seem to get out of his head. He waited for Cindy to sit, and though his ingrained politeness had him reaching to support her as she slid into the booth, he brought his hand quickly back to his side, not eager to feel the jolt of awareness again.
Not for a woman he sensed was deeply troubled and far too vulnerable. Not for a woman who didn’t know he had commitments in his life he could never turn away from, including the short pigtailed grinning one standing next to him.
“Daddy-” Sara didn’t sit, but shifted eagerly from one foot to another, her hand held out, palm up “-can I have some money while we wait for the pizza? Pretty please?”
“Why? So you can lose it all in the arcade over there?”
“I won’t lose.” Sara’s bony shoulders straightened with pride. “You taught me how, remember?”
Caught, Stone reached into his pockets. “Stay where I can see you, okay?”
“Just do it, sport I’ll call you when the pizza gets here.” He handed her a fistful of change he knew would last all of ten minutes and watched her race off with the abandon of youth, his heart contracting with that odd mixture of bittersweet pride and love.
Cindy watched Sara, too, her expression filled with a longing so acute it took Stone’s breath away. “Cindy?”
The woman sitting across from him didn’t move, just kept watching his daughter with that haunted expression on her face, making him wonder what she could possibly be thinking. It wasn’t happiness that had her so lost to him, not with that much pain in her expression, and he hoped she hadn’t once lost a child.
“Cindy.” It was as if she’d forgotten her name, which was ridiculous of course. Finally he reached across the table and removed her sunglasses, smiling when she seemed to nearly leap out of her skin. “You okay?”
She blinked and flushed. “Your daughter’s remarkable.”
“Yes, and expensive,” Stone said dryly, hoping to tease her out of whatever had disturbed her.
“She’s worth it.”
Her eyes were very dark, almost black, their rims reddened. “Are you a mom?”
“I…no.” Shaking her head, she said more firmly, “No. I’m not.”
The crazy urge to wrap his arms around her was strong, but it was far too soon for that. She didn’t wear a ring, although he knew that was no guarantee she was single. “Is there…someone…?” Lord, he felt awkward. He’d been off the dating track too long.
“There’s no one,” she said softly, staring at her hands as if they held the greatest interest
“Me, either,” he said, smiling when she shot him a look of profound relief. “And you have plenty of time left to have a child when you’re ready.”
Her smile turned rueful. “Am I that obvious?”
“Not at all. I just saw a flash of longing… Well, it takes a parent to recognize it.”
“You make a great father. I mean-” clearly embarrassed, she clenched her fingers together on the table “-you must be so proud.”
He was, but he refused to get caught in the easy trap of light conversation. Not when he was brimming with curiosity he couldn’t seem to ignore. “So, what is it that brings you to San Paso Bay?”
Again a quick flash of unease, almost fear, crossed her face. “I’m going to start a temp agency.”
Automatically reacting to her fear, Stone’s gaze scanned the crowd until he found Sara, safely playing, then he gave his attention back to Cindy. “In this little town?”
She lifted her chin, looking touchingly haughty and uncertain at the same time. “You don’t have one yet, you know. And neither Morro Heights nor El Tara, the two neighboring towns, have one, either. Which means there’s plenty of business.”
She spoke as if she had to convince him. “Okay.”
“I’ve researched carefully, and all three towns have plenty of growing industry. Actually the want ads are overwhelming. There’s enough to keep me busy.”
“I think it sounds good.”
He had no idea why that slight wobble in her voice so touched him. “You’ll do great.”
“I want to settle here-permanently.”
“It’s a nice place to live.”
“And raise kids?”
“Yes. Definitely. It’s a quiet safe town.”
“So safe you have to warn your daughter to stay in sight in a pizza joint filled with people you know?”
Damn, he hadn’t expected to be faced with his own fears, fears that went back ten years to a woman and to an event so horrifying it still dictated how he treated his daughter’s safety. “Maybe I’m just an overprotective parent.”
She gave him a long look. “The sad fact is, no town is completely safe.” Her weary tone said she knew that all too well. Her hands, active only a moment before, settled on the table. “There’s always trouble,” she said quietly. “And it can happen anywhere.”
Of course it was true, and how well he knew it. Even in San Paso Bay, bad things happened. It’d been a while since he’d dwelled on the scandal that had nearly destroyed him, that had driven the only woman he’d ever loved right out of his life. The circumstances had been out of their control, a cruelty from a most unexpected place, but it had happened and nothing could change it.
Jenna was long gone now. She’d not had enough belief in justice to see the crisis through. That, combined with the problem of getting pregnant too young, had made her fall apart.
Stone didn’t blame her for getting pregnant or even for the need to run. But he did blame her for not trusting him or herself enough to let their love prevail.
“I think it depends on your attitude,” he said carefully, “and how hard you try. If you’re looking for a new start, this is a great place to do it. Do you have family?”
She dropped her gaze, studied the tabletop. “Family?”
“As in people related to you?”
“You’re so talkative,” he said, grinning.
She looked at him, startled, and finally seemed to realize he was teasing her. A reluctant smile tugged at her lips. “Okay, let me rephrase that,” she offered. “Yes, technically I have family. But we don’t act like family. Does that clear things up?”
If she’d asked him the same thing, his answer wouldn’t have been much different. Yes, he had family. But they didn’t want to be part of his life.
Simple as that.
“Clear as mud,” he said. “Where do you come from?”
She crossed her arms. Then, as if realizing what that gave away, she uncrossed them, making him smile sympathetically. She frowned at him in response. “You’re full of questions. And I don’t like to talk about myself.”
Maybe she’d been alone all her life, which would account for the way she protected herself. By keeping people at bay, she couldn’t get hurt.
He understood the philosophy. At one time, deserted by everyone he’d ever cared about, he might have gone down that same path. He hadn’t, partly because he was an innate people person. But mostly, despite what had happened to him, he believed people were basically good.
Maybe Cindy hadn’t learned that, and at the thought of someone hurting her, his chest tightened. He wanted her; he had from the first moment he’d seen her. But now that wanting changed, deepened into something else. Something sharper and more defined.
He wanted to protect her, and the fierceness of this desire was startling. Oh, he’d wanted women before, lots of them; it was just that never, since Jenna, had he felt it quite so piercingly. He didn’t stop to think about the significance of that; he simply absorbed it with his usual acceptance of change.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she whispered.
They stared at each other. “Because I do,” Stone finally said. “I look at you and I feel… something. I didn’t like it at first, which is why I took off on you at the beach. But now-now it makes me want to keep caring.”
Her mouth opened, then slowly closed. “You’re scaring me.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” he said.
“I don’t want this,” Cindy told him, shifting nervously. “I don’t want you to think I matter.”
“But you do matter.”
“I don’t…I shouldn’t,” she said, sounding a bit desperate.
“Of course you should.”
She stared at him, soaking it in. A disparaging sound escaped her. “Stone…”
He loved the sound of his name of her lips. Loved it, and wanted to hear it again. “What?”
“What am I doing?” She looked lost, confused. “I just came to watch a basketball game. Just wanted to acclimate myself, and now look at me.” She lifted a bewildered hand. “I’m…”
“I’m doing something I shouldn’t, that’s what.”
“Wanting you.” As soon as the words left her, she slapped both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide and wild. She shook her head violently, as if denying what she’d just admitted. “I didn’t mean… I just meant… I’ve got to go.” She leaped to her feet. “I… Bye.”
Stone caught her just before she would have disappeared into the crowd. “Don’t.”
Her chest rose and fell as if she’d just raced a mile uphill. She glanced down at his hand on her, which he slowly ran down her forearm until their hands met. Hers was slender, delicate, easily swallowed up by his. Entwining their fingers, he squeezed gently. “I didn’t mean to scare you off. You came here to start over, and you’re doing fine. Don’t go yet.”
Her gaze jerked to his. “I never said I was starting over.”
“Well, yes, but-”
“And now we’ve met and you’re nervous. It’s sweet,” he said, smiling when she blushed. “But you’ll be okay. I know it seems unreal, but you’re not alone. Already you’re not alone.”
She stared at him with something akin to marvel. Again, just looking at her tugged at his heart, made him want to take her in his arms and never let go.
Which made no sense, none at all.
A waitress tried to move past them. Stone sat and pulled Cindy back down, this time in the same side of the booth as him. Their thighs brushed, and he felt his body react at just that innocent touch.
“I’d be okay alone, you know,” she said, not sounding nearly as confident as she clearly wanted to. She was nervous and frightened, a combination Stone could never fully resist because he knew well what it felt like.
“I’m used to it,” she added.
“Yeah. You’re fine.” He smiled. “You’re going to be okay. But you don’t have to be alone.”
“I don’t know what to say to you.”
“Say nothing.” He ran a thumb over her knuckles, enjoying the softness of her skin. “Just know I’m here if you need me and you’re going to do great.”
“It’s not going to be nearly as hard as it sounds.” Some of her enthusiasm came back. “I’ve had a lot of experience. I’ve worked temp jobs for years. It was a great way to travel and still have money. And I did some college at night, took some business classes. Plus, my initial investment is minimal and-”
“It only takes a small office and some know-how-”
“So I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure, too.” He narrowed his eyes, taking in the strain so evident on her pale face. “Hey… are you okay?”
“I…” A puff of air escaped her as she deflated. She set her forehead on the table. “I’m fine. Feeling stupid, but other than that, just fine.”
Pulling her hand free, she shot him a sheepish smile. “I don’t often unload on strangers, then admit to…well, you know.”
He grinned. “Wanting me?”
“Yes, that,” she said, rolling her eyes and looking away as a flush crept up her cheeks.
“Then, thank you.”
She gave a surprised little laugh. “I’m not sure what overcame me, telling a stranger…”
“I’m not a stranger anymore, not really.” He hesitated, wondering why he wanted her so much. It increased every time their gazes met, every second he spent with her. “Strange as it sounds, I never felt like we were strangers at all.”
She went still. “We should order the pizza. Now.” Managing a weak smile, she held up the menu.
Stone took it from her. “So, you want it all?”
Her bravado faltered. “Excuse me?”
He grinned. “On your pizza. You want everything on it.
A smile curved her lips then, the first genuine one he’d seen, and man, it was a stunner. It made it easy to throttle back and enjoy the evening, for although he hadn’t planned on becoming interested in a woman he suspected was chock-full of secrets and surprises, he also didn’t want to turn and walk away.
“Yes, everything,” she said, amusement in her eyes. “On the pizza, that is.”
And in that moment Stone knew that he wanted this woman in his life. It wasn’t wise, or even practical, because she wasn’t like his usual “safe” pick-a woman he couldn’t possibly fall for.
Truth was, for the first time ever he just might have found a woman to make him forget Jenna once and for all.
Several days went by before Jenna felt settled enough to face the task she’d been putting off since she’d arrived back in San Paso Bay.
Leaving her old life had not been much of a problem. For ten years she’d avoided emotional attachments like the plague because she hadn’t been able to trust anyone. No way would she risk her heart ever again, although now that vow made her angry at herself. She’d wasted so much time.
Given the ridiculously huge amount she’d been awarded in her settlement, she didn’t have to work again a day in her life unless she wanted to-which she did. It had become vital to her mental health that she completely change her lifestyle. Not only did she want to face her past, but she wanted to settle here and earn her way.
And more than anything, she wanted Sara back in her life. She’d be lying if she didn’t also admit she wanted Stone in that life, as well, but just remembering what she’d blurted out at dinner had her face heating in mortification all over again.
She knew she couldn’t tell him who she was-not yet. Not until he knew she’d changed, that she was indeed a good person, though she herself was still working on really believing that.
While recuperating from that first meeting with her daughter and the man she’d never forgotten, Jenna enjoyed the wonderful cozy new house she’d purchased. It was on top of a hill overlooking the bay. Far below she could hear the ocean roar, watch the sun set on the water. It was a place that had represented happiness to her when she’d been a girl on the other side of the tracks, and it was still a comfy old elegant neighborhood.
While getting her life together, she planned to slowly furnish and decorate the house in hopes that someday Sara would want to visit her regularly, or even live with her part of the time-although Jenna was almost afraid to have hopes for that far in the future.
Today was the first day of the rest of her life, she decided. And to prove it, she was going to call her sister. Then she would go to the office she’d leased and set up her business, which she’d rented because it was in the same industrial park as Stone’s workshop.
Before she could lose her nerve, Jenna picked up the phone and dialed the number the detective had given her, her pulse beating hard in her ears.
Her palms went sweaty. Her stomach hurt.
By the time she heard the soft-spoken hello, Jenna’s heart was pounding so loudly she almost couldn’t hear herself think.
“Hello?” Kristen repeated, clearly annoyed. “Is anyone there?”
“Hello, Kristen. It’s me…Jenna.”
“Jenna?” She heard the audible click of a breath being caught. “Really? Jenna? Oh, my God-” Kristen broke off so abruptly it was as if she’d covered her mouth to hold all noise in.
Jenna squeezed her eyes shut as pain sliced through her. She’d known, hadn’t she? She’d known she wouldn’t be welcomed back with open arms.
Two years older than she, Kristen had run in a completely separate circle. They’d never been close, mostly, Jenna realized now, because she had done everything in her power to push her perfect older sister away so that she could wallow in self-pity-self-pity over never being able to please her mother.
Jenna truly regretted that now, for Kristen could have been an ally in those terrible times, but it was too late. Far too late. Kristen didn’t want to talk to her.
“I’m sorry,” Jenna whispered. “It’s just that I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, about how things used to be.” She couldn’t even hear Kristen breathing. “I… I remember telling you I hated you.” The shame nearly killed her, but she had to say it quickly before Kristen hung up. Even if they never spoke again, Jenna had to get it out. “I didn’t mean it, Kristen, I didn’t. It’s just that I was so angry… I took it out on you.”
A pained sound came over the phone.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” Jenna said, closing her eyes. “I never meant to.”
Another indescribable sound. A muffled sob?
Jenna’s throat burned. Her eyes stung, and dammit, she shouldn’t have put in her contact lenses, should have worn the thick glasses she kept in her purse for emergencies. “I shouldn’t have called-”
“No,” Kristen finally managed. She gulped, sniffed and then gulped again.
Her sister was crying. Damn, she was no good at this. “Kristen.” What else could she say? What? “Please, oh, please, don’t cry. I’m so sorry.”
“Jenna.” Kristen sniffed and sighed. “Oh, honey, I’m glad it’s you. I’ve been wanting…” She drew a ragged breath. “I’ve been hoping you’d call me someday.”
Jenna’s head swam as spots of relief blurred her vision. “You’re…glad? You’re sure? I thought at first, when you didn’t say anything… I nearly hung up, I’m so nervous.”
“No, oh, no,” Kristen said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel… God. I’m just so relieved, so happy, I couldn’t talk for a minute.” Apparently she no longer had that problem. “Where have you been, Jenna?” Kristen’s voice gained momentum as she regained her power of speech, though she still spoke in a tear-filled shaky voice. “And why haven’t you called before? I’ve been looking for you. For years. Years.”
“Yes. Say something else, just so I know I’m not dreaming.”
The fist around Jenna’s heart loosened. “You sound the same. Perfect.”
“You don’t sound the same at all.”
Jenna would never sound the same again, thanks to the accident, but she didn’t want to talk about that now. “You’re sure? You’re really glad I called?”
“Yes! Where are you? Don’t you dare hang up until you tell me, okay? Please, Jenna, let me see you.”
Jenna hesitated, not because she didn’t want to see her sister, but because she was so stunned.
“Jenna! You are going to let me see you?”
Jenna opened her mouth, uncertain how to prepare her sister.
Kristen started to cry. “Please?”
“Kristen,” Jenna whispered, blinking hard as her sister’s soft sobs sounded in her ears. “Don’t cry. It’s going to be okay. Oh, God, I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t…don’t be.” Now she laughed, and that, mixed with the crying, made her difficult to understand, but suddenly Jenna didn’t care because she was laughing and crying at the same time, too.
“I’m just so relieved you’re okay,” Kristen gasped. “And you’re alive. I didn’t know, and-”
“It feels so good to hear you. Jenna, we never talked about what happened-about that big fight with Mom, and then…”
Yeah. And then.
They were both silent as Jenna pushed away the memory of the sexual abuse and then the humiliation that followed.
“And then you got pregnant,” Kristen said quietly. “After that, you were gone.”
The trouble had started about nine months before Jenna had actually left, on a night her mother’s lover had tried to do more than just touch. Again her mother hadn’t believed her, leaving Jenna no choice but to run away for the umpteenth time. She’d run to Stone, and that night they’d become lovers. What they’d shared had been magical, so perfect she’d never been able to get it out of her head, which meant, of course, that the few relationships she’d attempted since had paled in comparison.
Stone had really, truly loved her, and when Jenna realized that, it had terrified her. So had the ensuing scandal when Rand Ridgeway had gone public with his claim that Jenna had tried to seduce him, cleverly turning the tables on the terrified girl she’d been.
“I never meant to judge you, Jenna.”
“I was seventeen and pregnant,” Jenna said flatly into the phone. “Everyone judged me. Not just you and Mom.”
“I’m so sorry for that,” Kristen said in a barely audible voice. “As soon as I was old enough to really understand how terrified and alone you must have felt, I regretted not trying harder to help you. What did you do?”
“I flipped out,” Jenna whispered. “Really flipped out. Just like everyone else. Except Stone.” He’d been her rock, so strong, so caring. When everyone else had pointed fingers and snickered, suggesting she deserved her fate, Stone had stood like a pillar beside her. Her own mother had kicked her out, telling her to never come back. Jenna had been so stubborn, so filled with rage. She had baited her mother, letting her think she’d been sleeping around. That she hadn’t known who the father of her baby was. Jenna had no idea why, except that she’d needed to prove something.
All she’d proved was that she was an idiot.
“Stone would have married me,” she told Kristen now. “He wanted to. But I…”
“You couldn’t handle it? Oh, Jenna, no one could have. It’s all right.”
Jenna had hated herself and everyone around her. “I just ran.” It had been easier for her to do so, although she flinched at the pain of it. At the unbearable agony she’d felt the day she’d sneaked out of the hospital after giving birth. She hadn’t looked back and had made sure to keep herself in enough trouble that she knew they wouldn’t want her back.
Until the accident. Until her second chance.
“You can come back now, Jenna, can’t you?”
Hadn’t she thought about little else? “Yes. I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk to me.”
“I want more than that,” Kristen demanded suddenly, her voice filled with a smile. “Just tell me-when can we see each other?”
“Well…” Jenna walked with the portable phone into her bathroom to glance at herself in the vanity mirror above the sink.
A stranger stared back. A stranger with tentative hope in her eyes and a rare smile on her lips.
“Jenna! You are going to let me see you, aren’t you?”
“There’s something you should know first.” Jenna bit her lip to keep back her nervous laughter. If she gave in to hysterics now, she’d probably never be able to stop. “And it’s sort of a biggie.”
“What? You can tell me anything. Anything.”
“Okay.” Jenna stared at her completely new face. “But you’d better sit down first. I’ve got a shocker for you.”
“Jenna.” Kristen laughed, and the years between them fell away. “Nothing you could tell me will come as a shock, believe me.”
Jenna smiled into the mirror. “Wanna bet?”
“I can have the new prototypes ready in-” Stone leaned back to study his calendar “-four weeks tops.” He hadn’t started on them yet-he’d been so busy with other work-but the order was a good one, and he would love the job of creating life-size wooden puzzles to tickle the minds of gifted second graders.
“No, three weeks isn’t enough time,” he said firmly. He had his annual auction coming up, where he donated his creations to child-development centers all over the country. That would keep him busy.
His one-man shop was quickly growing by leaps and bounds, making him thankful he’d gone with his gut instinct six years before, giving up a promising career in architecture. What he did now was infinitely more rewarding.
Still listening to his customer, he reached for his unopened mail. Flipping past the bills, he smiled at an envelope from an old college buddy who also created prototypes-condom prototypes.
It was time to admit he needed help, Stone thought as he opened the envelope. He had for some time now. It was just a matter of hiring a clerk to help with the paperwork, but somehow, he just never got around to it.
Laughter bubbled as a small foil-wrapped package fell into his hands from the envelope. The stick-it note attached read: “Hey, Buddy-thought you might appreciate my latest in the high-tech world of prophylactics.”
Stone lifted the note off and gaped. The condom was plaid.
Grinning, Stone tossed the thing in his drawer and forced himself to concentrate on his telephone conversation. “Should I ship to the individual schools, or do you want them all to go to you?” he asked, and then immediately shook his head. “No, I can’t deliver them in person. Sorry.”
He refused to travel because it meant leaving Sara, something he couldn’t bring himself to do. Yes, they had Mrs. Potts, who would be happy to fill in for him. But Sara hated it when he left. She became weepy, difficult. Clingy.
Stone considered himself pretty tough, but he caved in like putty when it came to Sara. Watching her regress because of his own actions tore at him. No doubt Sara was afraid of losing him, the only real solid presence in her life, something Stone understood all too well. He hated the thought of being separated from her for days at a time, hated what it did to her, so would do just about anything to ensure it didn’t happen. It hadn’t been difficult to come to an important business decision.
If people wanted his educational products in their schools-and he had to believe they did, since they constantly clamored for him to hurry up and build more-then they had to agree to his terms.
He didn’t travel.
Which didn’t ease his ever-growing fear.
What if something did happen to him? Auto accident, illness-it could be anything. And when he was gone, Sara would be all alone. He’d started to lie awake nights worrying about it, and he knew he had to come up with a plan. A will.
He had to guarantee Sara’s safety and care.
He’d put it off for too long now, simply because he hated to admit that he didn’t know what to do. Turning to his family was out of the question.
Ten years ago, when Jenna had gotten pregnant, his family had surprised and shocked him by refusing to believe Sara was his child.
Though Stone tried to tell them the truth, they turned a deaf ear. Jenna’s trouble, they’d said.
Look at the scandal, they’d said.
You’re a fool, they’d said.
Stubbornly he’d stood by Jenna, knowing the truth.
Sara was his child.
Though Jenna had put on a tough front, she’d let Stone see past her wild ways. She’d shown the real Jenna to him, and Stone had loved that frightened, uncertain, self-conscious Jenna with all his heart.
She’d been a virgin the night she and Stone had first made love, and though they’d used protection, somehow she’d gotten pregnant-with his child.
Stone’s family refused to listen to reason. They were wealthy, disdainful of scandal of any kind, and though he’d once thought of them as loving giving people, the truth was, they were snobs. It’d been a huge shock and major disappointment to Stone, but they’d stood firm. If he kept the baby, he’d be disowned. Stone had loved Jenna, loved their unborn baby, but even if he hadn’t, he wanted to be responsible for his actions. He’d kept his baby, for he could do nothing else.
And he ended up with no family, no Jenna, no money. Just Sara. Somehow they’d made it, and God, he didn’t want to remember those first months, how nightmarish they’d been, but he’d done it. They’d done it.
He and Sara were a family now, and it rankled like hell that he, after all this time, needed his parents.
They didn’t need him in return. They had Richard, and Stone knew his brother had never married. He’d never had any kids.
Which meant Sara was the only grandchild his parents had.
How could they ignore that?
How could they ignore her?
Stone continued to listen with half an ear as his client rambled on about the product he was buying, watching with detached interest out his window as two doors down from him, a moving truck pulled up.
A new neighbor.
The back of the truck opened, and two beefy men started to unload. An oak desk and chair. An elaborate computer system. An expensive-looking couch and matching chairs. A huge bulletin board, filing cabinet.
And Cindy Beatty.
Stone set his feet back on the floor, made quick excuses to his client before hanging up and left his office.
His heart thundered uncomfortably. Truth was, he’d not stopped thinking about this woman since they’d met, which was enough to make him wonder what the hell was wrong with him.
Rarely, if ever, had he let one woman intrude so on his private life. Driven by a need to see if their crazy attraction was real, he walked toward her, his gaze soaking in the first sight of her in days.
She looked the same-irresistible, and any hopes he’d held that he’d be able to turn and walk away were dashed.
Her black jeans outlined her thoroughbred legs to perfection. Her lightweight sweater clung to her soft curves in a way that made him ache, and he came to the uncomfortable realization that he was hopelessly attracted to her.
And he had no idea why.
Never one to run from his fears, he continued toward her. He wanted to see her face, watch her lips curve into a shy smile. He wanted to know her innermost thoughts.
But she was wearing those damn dark glasses, hiding herself from the world. Absorbed in watching the truck unload, she didn’t look up when he stopped next to her. “Hello,” he said. “What’s this?”
She gave a startled little jump. “Oh!” With her hand to her chest, she offered him that tentative smile he’d wanted to see. “Uh…hi.”
“Hi.” She could still do it, he discovered. Still make his heart skip a beat.
“You scared me.”
Vulnerable but determined, hesitant but brave. Such a contradiction, and yet it had been so damn long since he’d wanted to touch anyone quite as badly. Like a hormone-filled teen, he had to slip his hands in his pockets, or he would have actually reached for her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m moving in.” Her smile brightened, and on the surface she appeared to be fine. Great. Mouthwateringly beautiful, actually.
But only an idiot could miss the quivering tension in every line of her body, the delicate purple circles beneath her eyes makeup had not successfully covered. Truth was, tension shimmered off her in waves, and even as he looked at her, she lifted a hand to cover one side of her face and jaw.
He gently took her hand away from her face and brought it to his mouth. She gasped as he kissed her palm.
“Why do you cover your face?” he asked. “You’re so lovely.”
“I… You…” She let out a breath and stared at her hand in his. “You make it difficult to think.”
And she made his heart drum. “You’re opening your office here?” he asked, letting her go. “This is an industrial park.”
“It’s small and affordable. And it’s perfect, actually. Centrally located.” She looked away. “And most of my business will come from the industry around here, anyway.”
“Was that the only reason?”
She regarded the tall oak tree lining the parking lot as if it held the greatest interest. “Not quite.”
Stone had no idea how he felt about her silent admission that she had picked this spot because of him. Disturbed? Wanted? Wary? Appreciated? All those things, yes, but what he felt mostly was relief.
She scraped her teeth over her lip, drawing the skin on her chin tight. And there, on her neck above the scarf, he saw a faint weblike scar that spread… With a gentle hand he brushed her scarf aside. His heart beat faster as he realized the scars spread along both sides of her jaw, and disappeared into her hairline behind her ears.
He jerked his gaze up, meeting her sunglasses-covered eyes, horrified to be caught gaping, even more horrified at whatever it was she’d gone through. “Cindy…”
She took a step back, bringing her hand up to cup her cheek, an instinctive move on her part whenever she was nervous or upset.
Now he knew why. She was trying to hide her scars. God.
“Hey, lady, where do you want this?”
Cindy quickly turned from Stone, clearly jumping at the chance for distraction. One of the men stood there holding two large boxes. Practically falling in her hurry to get away from Stone, she smiled shakily at the mover. “Next to the filing cabinet Thanks. Is there more? Maybe I should help…”
The man shook his head and disappeared into the office.
They were again alone, yet for the first time in his life, Stone didn’t know what to do or say. He wanted to grab her, hold tight and offer comfort, but more than that, he didn’t want to scare her off, and since at the moment Cindy appeared to be braced for flight, he had to be careful.
Her head was ducked, she was busy studying her shoes. Slowly, gently, he ran his hand over her silky short hair, tucking a strand behind her ear before he cupped her jaw and lifted her face. Stroking her skin with his thumb, he murmured, “What happened to you?”
Immediately Cindy looked away.
But Stone forced her chin back up, his clasp on her face firm yet careful, for he was well aware of his strength in a way that most men his size weren’t.
She shrugged. “The how of it is not important.”
Stone thought it was important. “Cindy-”
Imagining the pain and trauma of whatever she’d been through to cause such scarring made him feel sick for her. But he could see that his closeness was unnerving her, so he backed off.
She straightened the damn sunglasses he was beginning to hate. “Because of it, I’m here,” she said simply. “Okay?”
“So there’s a silver lining.”
A ghost of a smile touched her lips. “Let’s call it a mixed blessing so far. I hope it won’t disturb you, having me nearby every day.”
He laughed shortly and rolled his shoulders, which were filled with tension. “Disturb me? You’ve done nothing but.” His easy joking tone was such a complete contradiction to his words, her gaze flew to his. “You disturb me a lot,” he told her more seriously. “But I think I like it.”
Again she gnawed on her lip, and he had the crazy urge to lean forward and put his mouth just there, to that same spot, and nibble her himself. “I wish I knew more about you,” he said, instead. “Why won’t you talk about yourself? About where you come from?”
“It’s not easy to talk about.” She watched the men removing her things from the truck.
“I’m sorry.” And he was, though the enormity of it, and what he felt for her, no longer surprised him. “You’ve had it rough?”
“You…might say that.”
“No family to help you out?”
“None that would.” She tilted her head and regarded him. “I wasn’t always a nice person, Stone.”
“We’ve all made mistakes.”
“Mine are pretty big.” Drawing a deep breath, she let her words out in a rush, as if expecting him to run off in horror. “I was an angry unhappy kid. I hurt a lot of people, and now those people are likely to hate me.”
She stared at him, her expression suddenly filled with so much hope, it almost hurt to look at her. “I’d like to think that’s true,” she said. “I’d like to be able to fix some of my wrongs. Make them right someday.”
“You can do anything you want to do,” he told her. “Especially that.” Her lack of confidence tore at him. Then the men were back with a couch, and Stone took her elbow, drawing her out of their way, even as they both held their breaths at the touch. “I think you’re a wonderful person, Cindy. Others would think it, too, if you gave them a chance.”
“Yeah, well. That’s easier said than done,” she muttered.
He shook his head, smiling. “You need more belief in yourself. Hasn’t anyone ever told you what a really great person you are?”
Not since you, Jenna wanted to cry. Her chest ached with the need to let out some emotion, but she beat it back.
“You are,” Stone said in that dark seductive voice. “Give yourself a break once in a while, okay?”
He didn’t understand. Couldn’t, because she hadn’t been honest. But his generosity of heart nearly broke her. “I have no idea why I thought this would be a good thing.” Shaken, she took a step backward, away from him.
Stone snagged her hand. “Wait,” he said, holding gently but firmly when she would have fled. “I know this is crazy, but there’s something between us already.”
“But I don’t like it,” she blurted.
A smile tugged at his provocative mouth. “Doesn’t seem to matter. We’re attracted to each other, wildly so.” His low rough voice and the admission of his feelings thrilled her. “And as much as we might want to ignore it, it isn’t going to go away.”
She swallowed hard, but didn’t object when he stepped closer, still holding her hand. He seemed so big, so powerful… so unbearably sexy, and he was doing nothing but looking at her, but it was that look, the one that made her knees weak.
Anyone could walk by and see them, see the sexual tension flickering between them like electricity. Heat flooded her face, but Stone appeared unconcerned. And he would be, she thought ruefully, for Stone was not a man to worry about what others thought, not as long as he was doing what he felt was right. He’d always been incredibly strong-willed that way. Even coming from the conservative background he had, Stone Cameron had always marched to his own beat, and it appeared he still did.
Their clothing brushed, clung, and he tipped his head down a bit. “We might as well explore it,” he said huskily.
As they once had. She remembered so well-too well.
And suddenly she was there, back in time, back to when Rand Ridgeway had nearly raped her. He would have, if her mother hadn’t come home, but instead of sympathizing, she’d hit Jenna for telling lies.
Jenna had been in her tree by the beach, high above the ground, crying and holding her aching jaw when Stone had found her.
He’d come looking for her, just as he always did when she needed him most.
What’s wrong? he’d asked.
I’m an awful person.
No. Never. Tell me what’s wrong.
She’d refused, but he’d stroked her bruised jaw, his own tight with anger. Shame had filled her, for she knew he would hear soon enough how she had allegedly seduced her mother’s boyfriend. Her own school principal.
Lies, all of it.
But no one would believe the words of a troubled angry girl. No one but Stone.
She remembered he’d whispered her name before brushing lips across hers that first time. She remembered how he’d waited patiently for her to try to shove him out of the tree as she had before, but she didn’t. He’d kissed her again and she’d responded with every inch of her betrayed heart.
She’d cried and he’d held her, then coaxed her down from the tree. He’d brought her to his house, empty of anyone but them, and there, in his moonlit room, they’d held each other for a long time. She could remember the feel of his strong hands holding her possessively to him. Could remember the low huskiness of his voice as he tried to reassure her. Could remember the taste of him on her lips as their comforting embrace turned into something far more sensual, and soon deeply out of their control.
They’d touched. Explored. Pleasured. And then touched some more, until Jenna had thought she would die of the wondrous feelings shattering her. They’d fumbled their way out of their clothes, stopping for long involved kisses that had left her panting and crying for more.
Then they’d made sweet powerful love, using protection that had gone with the rest of Jenna’s luck and failed. Still, no man in her life since had ever compared to Stone, and no man could. As a result, her heart had forever belonged to him and the lovely product of their passion-Sara.
Jenna winced at that now, the use of the awful fake name she’d given. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t continue the lie. “Stone,” she whispered, coming to the impossibly difficult decision. “Oh, Stone.”
Oh, how Jenna wanted to tell him. The lie was eating at her. But not like this was all she could think, not with their daughter barreling toward them.
Stone glanced at the child heading his way, then back at her. “I’m sorry, Cindy. I didn’t realize how late it was.”
“Don’t apologize for being a great dad.” She hesitated, torn between disappointment and eagerness to learn all she could about Sara. Her curiosity about her little girl was killing her.
“She gets dropped off here.” Stone again turned to Sara, who was nearly upon them now, book bag flying out behind her, hair tangled, sweater off one arm, a blissful expression on her face-all because she’d seen her father.
Jenna knew exactly how the girl felt. What she herself would give to be able to so freely show it!
Without hesitation Sara flung herself into Stone’s arms, laughing and squealing as he easily caught her up against him.
“Hey, princess.” He hugged her tight, and as he did, his expression lost most of its intensity, switching into easy loving father mode.
Jenna watched the two of them, her stomach twisting uncomfortably with… Oh, God, it was jealousy of Stone, for having Sara’s unconditional love. Jealousy of Sara, for being able to put that happy carefree expression on Stone’s face with just her presence.
What kind of monster was she to feel such jealousy of these people who deserved so much more?
“How was your spelling test?” Stone set Sara down. When she didn’t answer, he tugged on a hopelessly mussed lock of dark hair.
“Fine,” she muttered.
Jenna smiled through the pain in her chest as she pictured what life for these two must be like. Laughter, understanding and togetherness were important. She could see that hair grooming-for both of them, she decided as she glanced at Stone’s slightly too long, also wild hair-was a low priority.
But apparently love topped that list, and that was all that mattered. How had she ever imagined she could live without this? Without them?
“How good is ‘fine’?” Stone asked Sara.
“I got an A-, because I missed one. But don’t worry,” Sara was quick to add. “I didn’t stick my tongue out behind Ms. Miller’s back like last time.”
“Good decision, and great job.”
“I didn’t wanna have to write my name on the board.” The girl looked at Cindy speculatively. “Hi.”
“Hello, Sara.” Jenna could hardly breathe. The child looked so good, so healthy, so absolutely perfect. “How are you?” she asked when, in fact, she wanted to know much more than that. Do you like ice cream? Do you love the rain? Do you play with a Barbie?
Are you happy?
Is your life as perfect as it can be?
Do you miss me?
So many questions, none of which would satisfy Jenna’s insatiable need to know everything.
“Why are you here?” the little girl asked directly.
“Sara,” Stone said quietly. “That’s rude.”
“Well, it’s not pizza night, Daddy. There’s not even a game today. Why is she at your office?”
Ah, Jenna thought. Jealousy was a two-way street. It was one thing when Sara invited Jenna to have pizza with the entire town present. It was another thing entirely for Jenna to show interest in her father, for Sara clearly believed Stone belonged exclusively to her.
And didn’t he?
For as Jenna could see all too well, Sara had no intention of sharing him. It made her smile, this show of fierce possessive love.
But it made her ache, too, for she was beginning to understand fierce, possessive love. She was feeling it for Sara, a girl she hardly knew, all because that girl was her daughter.
“Actually, this is my office.” Jenna pointed her front door out to Sara, a door still empty of a sign. “I’m opening a business here.”
Sara looked decidedly not thrilled. “Oh?”
Jenna had once been the Queen of Attitude herself, so she understood perfectly. And seeing the first flash of herself in her daughter was an unspeakable thrill. “A temp business, which means I help people find work.”
“But this is where my Daddy works.”
“Yes, a few doors down. And it will be where I work, too.”
All friendliness died in Sara’s eyes. “Oh,” she said again, a wealth of information in that one syllable.
Stone took Sara’s hand. “Excuse us,” he said to Jenna. “We need to have a chat, then do some homework.”
Jenna saw the firmness of his jaw, knew he was unhappy with Sara for being what he considered rude. She opened her mouth, wanting to protest, naturally coming to her daughter’s defense.
But Sara was Stone’s daughter first, and he had the right to raise the child as he saw fit, which Jenna knew would be with tough loving care.
She watched them walk away and listened to Stone murmur a reprimand. Though his tone wasn’t rough or abusive-it never would be-it had an unmistakable air of authority.
Her throat thickened as Stone tugged a stiff Sara close and set his hand on her shoulder. Immediately Sara melted against him, twisting her head to send him a smile.
They loved each other. No one could doubt that. Stone could punish, could be strict, could even be unhappy with Sara, and yet Sara had no doubt her father loved her.
Just as it should be for every child.
Jenna had never had such unconditional love from either of her parents, and although she regretted it, it was time to stop ruining her life over it.
Determination renewed, Jenna lifted her chin, sent one last watery smile down the path toward Stone and Sara and went into her new office to set up.
Jenna couldn’t keep herself away from Sara’s game the following night.
She tried to go incognito, wearing a hat and keeping her head down, but still, she was the recipient of more than one appreciative male glance. One man, probably a father, tried to make conversation, but she wasn’t up for it.
She wasn’t up for much, other than watching the tall rangy coach as he ran back and forth on the sidelines yelling encouragement to his kids.
Just looking at him did something to her insides, something she was having a hard time dealing with. He’d been by her office at least twice that she knew of, leaving her notes when she hadn’t been there. Now that she’d made the decision to tell him the truth, she hadn’t yet mustered the courage to face him.
“Peanuts?” a kid asked, holding a tray. “It’s to support our school.”
“Thanks.” But Jenna froze. Behind the kid and three rows over from her, sat the man who’d single-handedly set her life on its destructive path.
Her old school principal. Her mother’s ex-boyfriend. Rand Ridgeway.
Fear nearly suffocated her as the image of him leering over her, his stern voice ordering her to be good…and his hands, God, his hands, roaming in a way that made her want to cringe even now, all these years later.
Her vision actually faded before she realized the student selling peanuts was still standing in front of her, hand out, waiting for his fifty cents.
“Sorry,” she whispered, pulling the change out of her pocket with shaking fingers. Somehow she managed to keep breathing when all she wanted to do was run.
Stop it, she ordered herself. No way could Rand recognize her, no way at all. Still, she kept stealing glances at his hard profile. Ten years ago, he had been in his late thirties and in his prime; handsome in a dark dangerous way and powerfully built.
Not much had changed, Jenna noted, trying not to panic again. A bit grayer at the temples, but he was still big, far too big for her comfort.
Be nice to Rand, she remembered her mother admonishing her. Do what he tells you to.
The memory of what Rand had told her to do made her want to puke.
As if he sensed her interest from across at least twenty people, Rand lifted his head and looked directly at her-without an ounce of recognition.
Still, whatever he saw must have pleased him, for he shot her a slow smile that sent a chill racing down her spine.
She dropped eye contact immediately and wrapped her arms around herself, concentrating on dragging air into her lungs one breath at a time.
If she could have gotten up on her shaking legs and left, she would have. Instead, she stayed on the stands, huddled practically into a ball, and watched the game in mute misery.
The sight of her precious daughter racing across the court drew a smile back to her lips and eventually some warmth back into her body.
And when Stone spotted her at halftime, he loped up the stands and sat next to her, warming her some more.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said with obvious pleasure, touching his shoulder to hers.
He was big, too, huge actually, but somehow his brute strength never threatened her. He would never hurt her. Never, she reminded herself when her stomach turned at the physical contact coming so close on the heels of seeing Rand again.
She pulled away slightly, so that they no longer touched.
At the movement Stone frowned, his eyes steady and comforting on her, although he was careful not to touch her again. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” But she spoke too quickly, dammit, tweaking his concern and curiosity, then compounded her error by glancing at Rand again.
Stone followed her gaze. His casual ease vanished. Every muscle in his body tensed, hard and battle-ready. For a split second, the men exchanged glances, Rand’s slightly amused, Stone’s exacting and sharp.
Rand broke eye contact first, looking far from happy now.
Jenna held her breath. Clearly the tension between the two men had not lessened with time. She knew this was because of her, because of that time when Stone had been the only person on earth to believe in her.
With Rand’s eyes off them, Stone turned his attention back to her. He touched her arm softly, and when he spoke, his voice had changed, had become lower, gentler, automatically easing some of her fright and helping her to gain control of herself. “Are you certain you’re all right? You’re shaking and pale.”
With a last careful look at Rand, who was now speaking to someone on the other side of him, Jenna forced a smile. “I’m fine, really. I, um, just love basketball,” she said inanely.
His lips curved in a slow sexy smile. “Do you now?”
“Uh-huh.” She brought a still-trembling hand up to her hot face and hoped he didn’t notice.
His soft laugh brought butterflies to her stomach. Nice ones, she realized, really nice ones, and it had less to do with lust and more-everything-to do with how she felt being with him. Safe, warm, special. His hand reached up, gently touching her hand, still on her face.
She jumped, and this time it wasn’t from fear.
“Did anything else bring you here?”
“I don’t know…” His long fingers skimmed hers, playing havoc with her pulse, reminding her that she was indeed attracted to him. He reached her earlobe, sliding lightly, playfully, racking her body with a shiver.
His eyes, those wonderful all-seeing eyes, went hot. “Like maybe you have a thing for the coach?”
His hopeful and purposefully lecherous grin made her laugh, and it felt so good she laughed again. “Hmm. Do you know him?”
“I could introduce you.” At this, he grinned wider. “He happens to think you’re something, too, you know.” He stroked her jaw.
Good Lord, she thought weakly, if a sexier man than him existed, she couldn’t imagine.
“How about meeting him over pizza?”
She firmly shoved away her fear and smiled. After all, she was older now and wiser. She knew how to protect herself from danger.
Then she looked at the fascinating hot-blooded man waiting patiently for her answer and realized she’d just traded one dangerous man for another, for this one held her heart in his hands.
“Pizza sounds nice,” she said, sealing her fate.
A couple of days later Stone was deeply buried in work. He had his table saw pulled out, and the twelve-foot machine easily dwarfed even his big body as he bent over it, setting the correct measurements for what would become the frame for his latest prototype.
This particular job was new to him, a design he’d created last year. Kids liked big, responded to the visual, and Stone had capitalized on that He was making life-size puzzles, created of wood, designed to stimulate the minds of second graders across the state.
Flipping up his ear protectors, he turned on the saw and started. It was difficult back-aching work. Cutting out the pieces for the frames took hours, and by the time he was nearly done, his every limb trembled with fatigue.
Just two more cuts, he told himself, and then he’d break for lunch. Maybe he’d even catch a glimpse of his new neighbor. Over the past few days, he’d spent more time looking out his window and contriving to be on the sidewalk than in all the years he’d been here.
He would have been annoyed at himself, except he knew it was the same for her. There was no mistaking that he affected her every bit as much as she affected him, for he could see the pulse dance at the base of her neck when they saw each other. Her eyes would widen, her mouth would open slightly. She couldn’t keep her breathing even. She was definitely attracted to him.
Still, she’d done her damnedest to avoid being alone with him. In fact, the only time he’d spoken to her in the past days had been after Sara had arrived home from school
She had a great interest in his child, something that concerned him, for Sara had decided she didn’t like Cindy. Stone knew that was because his daughter sensed his interest, and since he’d never expressed a serious interest in another woman before, it threatened her.
There was one solution to this problem-stay the hell away from Cindy Beatty. Except that he really liked her, unsettling as that was.
Stone shook his head and pushed the last two-by-four through the massive noisy saw. But with his head buried in the clouds, he miscalculated, and didn’t push hard enough, even though he knew that with a saw this big, such an error could be dangerous.
He saw the mistake, but it was too late; he could do nothing to save himself as the saw kicked back the heavy beam directly at him.
No time to duck or even react before it hit him with terrific force, plowing him directly in the belly, knocking him ten feet back into the concrete wall of his workshop.
His head hit the wall with a sickening thud, and he saw stars. With the air socked right out of him, for long torturous seconds all Stone could do was lie there and open his mouth like a dying fish as he began the desperate painful struggle to pump air into his lungs.
“Stone?” Over the roar of the still-running saw, he barely heard her. “Guess what!” she called. “I’ve just taken on two girls looking for clerical and secretarial work, one of which I can place right away and-Stone?”
From his vantage point on the cold floor, all Stone could see was a set of long legs running toward him.
Great legs, he thought woozily.
“Stone!” Cindy dropped to her knees on the concrete beside him. “Oh, my God, what happened?”
He tried to smile. Tried to whisper her name, but nothing came out except a horrible gasping breath.
Well, at least he wasn’t about to suffocate, he thought, as his vision faded to black.
“Stone!” Jenna cried.
There was no response. He only slumped further, and Jenna’s heart nearly jerked right out of her chest.
She leaped to her feet, searching desperately for a phone so she could call for help. The saw screeched, driving her crazy, but she didn’t have a clue how to turn the thing off.
She found the phone base, but the portable was missing from it. Dammit. Whipping around, she searched the cluttered countertop, ready to run out into the street screaming for help if the phone didn’t materialize.
It took her a minute, for she still wasn’t used to that horrible name, and on top of that, the saw still roared.
The weak voice finally penetrated her panic. It was Stone.
Racing back, she hunkered down, wrapping an arm around him for support. “Don’t move,” she ordered, wishing she knew more first aid.
Stone slowly pulled himself up to his hands and knees-one hand clutching his stomach.
“Stone?” Propping him up with her shoulder, she bore most of his weight. With her free hand she cupped his face and tilted it up, waiting until his eyes fluttered open. They were glassy-oh God, didn’t that mean something bad? A concussion? “I’m calling an ambulance,” she told him. “Soon as I find your phone.”
The glistening in his eyes got stronger. His face, looking drawn and tight with pain, flushed. “No.”
He wheezed when he breathed. Under her hand, his bunched back muscles flexed. She could feel him tremble. “Oh, this is ridiculous!” she cried. “Where is your phone!”
His jaw set determinedly, which in a calmer moment she would have recognized as pure stubbornness, but panic had taken over. “Stone!”
He glared at her. “Over there…on left side of the saw…”
Leaping up, Jenna looked and looked, but on the left side of the saw she saw nothing but a black switch.
“Hit…it. Turn off…the damn saw.”
Exasperated, she hit the switch as he’d requested, and the shop fell blessedly silent.
Stone sank back to the floor, silent and still, and Jenna’s heart stopped.
Terrified, she skidded back around the counter and again dropped to her knees beside him. “No,” she whispered, draping herself over his broad back and hugging him tight. Just touching him like this, holding his big warm body, had memories slamming into her: Stone laughing, Stone making her laugh.
Stone caring for her, when no one else did. What if she had lost him now, before she told him the truth? “No,” she whispered again, squeezing him hard, fear overriding all else.
He groaned. “Don’t,” he gasped in a strangled voice when she inadvertently squeezed again. He pushed himself away from her and back up on his knees.
He didn’t want her to touch him, and forgetting for a minute that he had no idea who she really was, Jenna felt a deep self-loathing; she couldn’t blame him for not wanting her to be near him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Grimacing, he wrapped his arms around his middle. “You don’t understand.”
“Yes, I do. You don’t want me to touch you.”
He laughed shortly, then winced, trying to hold both his head and his belly at the same time. “God, that hurt. That damn two-by-four kicked back at me with enough power to stop a locomotive.” He wobbled a minute, then pushed himself to a standing position and groaned again. “Never even saw it coming.” Carefully, as if testing, he drew a breath. Apparently satisfied, he pierced her with his gaze. “Now come here.”
Not waiting for her to move, he snaked a hand out and grabbed her wrist, tugging her close. He ran his hands up her arms, then slowly back down. Grasping her hips, he pulled her closer, then closer still, until they were only a fraction of an inch from an embrace.
Gruffly he said, “I didn’t mean I didn’t want you to touch me. I want that, Cindy. I want it badly.” He rubbed his ribs. “But I hurt like hell, and much as I regret asking you not to hug me, you were squeezing too hard.”
She closed her eyes in embarrassment, but she was just so relieved he was okay. “Oh.”
His eyes gleamed with something far more than pain. There was warmth and affection, just waiting for her to take it. As she watched, it deepened into something more like…hunger. For her. She would have taken a step back from what she saw there, but she had to be able to breathe to move, and at the moment, she couldn’t draw any air at all.
“I’m feeling…a bit better.”
“I’m glad,” she managed. His hands on her hips were making her knees weak again, and she couldn’t hold back the memories of other times, other places, when he’d had those big knowing hands on her, how he’d made her feel like the most important woman on earth.
He was doing it again, with little to no effort, and this time, for the first time, her head was in the right place. She could only imagine how wonderful it would be now to make love with him.
He ducked his head a bit to stare into her lowered gaze. “That thought you just had, the one that’s making you blush.” He arched his brows. “Mind sharing?”
Her face felt hotter. “I don’t think so. No.”
“All right, if you must know, I was thinking about how scared I was, watching you crumble like that.”
“I just had the air knocked out of me, that’s all. And that’s not what you were thinking.”
“Okay, I was thinking of getting you to a hospital.”
His sharp gaze told her he didn’t believe a word of that excuse, either. “I don’t need a doctor, but thanks.”
“Yes, you do, your head…”
“It’s fine,” he assured her, rubbing his chest “But this hurts. What do you have for this?”
“I thought it was your stomach.”
His gaze deepened, his body, his big, warm body, leaned closer. “It was. But my heart hurts like hell. What are you doing to me?”
Oh, she couldn’t face this. The tenderness, the caring… it was going to tear her apart. She didn’t deserve it, and he deserved so much more.
“Your ribs,” she said desperately. “You might have cracked something. You need-”
“You,” he said. “I need you.” And he kissed her, a deep searching kiss.
Jenna’s response to Stone’s kiss was primal and instinctive, because she needed him, too. Needed him with everything she had. Her eyes drifted closed, and though her fear for him didn’t fade, she loosened her grip on him enough to lightly touch his chest. He was okay. She drowned in the knowledge, and a swirling heat that worked its way from deep inside her, spreading to her limbs until she thought she would spontaneously combust. “You’re really okay.”
She hadn’t realized she’d spoken her desperate worry out loud until he reassured her.
Stone’s hands fueled the fire as they slid up her body, over her ribs, grazing the sides of her breasts, then cupped her face. Tilting her head for better access, he nibbled her mouth, making her whimper for more.
His body went rigid for the briefest moment, and Jenna panicked. He knew! He’d kissed her, and somehow he’d discovered the truth.
Frightened, she opened her eyes to find him studying her with a keen probing gaze, as if he was trying to see deep into her soul.
Chicken, he’d called her, and he was right. How could she have lost herself like this? How did it happen that she hadn’t told him the truth but was still in his arms?
Last chance, she thought. Last chance to hold him, because once she told him, he wouldn’t want to touch her ever again. Oh, she’d miss this. To be surrounded by his arms, to hear him groan at her touch.
For so long she’d been on her own, with no one to share her fears and secrets. She’d allowed no one close, not friends, not co-workers, no one.
Now she had this man, the man she’d loved since the first moment she’d seen him years before, and he wanted her. It felt so good to be held like this, so good that she became dizzy with the unexpected luxury of it.
“It’s all right,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her when her legs threatened to buckle. Tenderly, lightly, he nuzzled at her neck. “I’ve got you.”
And he did. She reveled in that, and in being able to count on him. She’d give anything to give that much back and have him accept what she could offer. Tell him. Tell him.
He kissed her again, a questing sensual kiss that had her mind floating along where nothing mattered except his mouth, his tongue, that thrilling low moan he made deep in his throat when she pressed closer.
His muffled oath had her jerking back, startled and dazed.
She leaned against the counter for support and concentrated on dragging air into her lungs. But even breathing didn’t dispel the memory of the pleasure he’d created when she’d been plastered against his heavenly, warm and gloriously hard body.
He hadn’t said a word, was probably horrified at how she’d flung herself at him. “I’m sorry,” she said, staring at her clenched fingers.
He was silent.
Her new determination to face life directly made a mockery of her. Chin up, she looked at him. “I don’t know what came over-Stone?”
Braced against the wall, he was white and visibly trembling.
“See?” she demanded, rushing to him to support him the best she could. “You see? Dammit, I told you. A doctor. Now.”
There was a smile in his voice and surprising strength in his arm as he wrapped it around her, careful to keep her to the side of him, away from his clearly aching middle. “No, no doctor. I’m fine, but I’m enjoying this bossy side of you, so please feel free to continue yelling at me while I catch my breath.”
“You’re impossible,” she said, bewildered by him as she led him to a chair. Dumping the files on it to the floor, she gently pushed him down and put her hands on her hips. “Tell me where your phone is or I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” He was clearly enjoying himself despite his pain. “You’ll kiss me again?”
He looked so hopeful, while at the same time so dreadfully miserable, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He’d broken out in a sweat, his eyes were glassy with pain and she had no idea what to do.
“Stone.” Jenna sank to her knees before him, unable to stop herself from hovering. “Please. You’re hurt.”
Taking her hands in his, he shook his head.
“And stubborn as ever.”
Just as he narrowed his eyes in question, she realized her blunder. “What is it about men that make them this way?” she asked. “Like they know it all?”
Closing his eyes, he drew a careful breath. She tried to rise, but he held her hands tighter now, as if needing her closeness, and loving the feeling of being needed, she stayed. “Stone?”
“It was just a stupid accident,” he said, leaning his head back. He studied the ceiling. “One that could have cost me much more than wounded pride.”
She doubted it was only his pride hurting, but remained silent because she was certain she knew where this was going. Her heart started a heavy drumming in anticipation.
“I’m sitting here thinking that if I’d gotten myself killed,” he said, “where would that leave Sara?” He lifted his head and stared at her. “The thought terrifies me.”
Such emotion, such incredible love and perseverance. And if she’d never gone away, she could have had it from him, as well. But she had gone, and in doing so had cost him just about everything. “Your family?” she asked hoarsely.
“It’s complicated, but they’re not in the picture.”
She knew that, but had hoped beyond hope that it had been a terrible mistake, that his family hadn’t really been able to turn their backs on him and Sara. The way she had.
Guilt swamped her. Guilt and a regret so strong she could hardly speak. “I’m sorry, Stone.”
“You’re alone, too, so I know you understand what it’s like to worry about the future.”
She let out a harsh laugh. “Yeah, well, you don’t know the half of it.” He just looked at her steadily. “Well, maybe you do.”
“My tamily disowned me, not because I got a girl pregnant, but because they didn’t approve of her as a person. Doesn’t matter that I wanted to do the right thing, they still walked away from us. I was twenty then. It’s been ten years and they haven’t spoken to me since.”
“It never fails to amaze me how they can keep Sara out of their lives.”
“How awful of them.” She touched him because she bad to. “And unforgiving.”
“They made their decision, and I made mine. I’m not sorry for that, but for Sara.” Sadness welled in those gray blue depths. Sadness and anger. “But I’ve been selfish,” he admitted. “Hoarding her. I should have pushed my family to change their mind. For her sake.”
She remembered his family. Wealthy snobs. She doubted they could be pushed to do anything. But as she looked at Stone, saw his grit and determination, she realized if anyone could change their minds, it would be him. “It’s not too late, Stone.”
In a sweet gesture that tugged at her already aching heart, he lifted her hands to his lips, kissed her knuckles. “What is it about you?” he wondered. “What is it that makes me want to bare my soul? That makes me want to get to know yours?” He played with her skin, using his teeth, making her shiver.
“Ah…” Difficult to think with his mouth on her. “Maybe it’s the fact I’ve thrown myself at you several times now?” She managed a feeble smile, feeling self-conscious and very unsure.
“It’s more than that and you know it.” Again that deep probing stare. “You feel it, too, or you wouldn’t have done all this. You wouldn’t have allowed me close. You’re a very private woman. You wouldn’t have chosen this building, even if it had been the only one available, unless you wanted to be near me.”
His directness was startling, and somehow, despite her embarrassment, refreshing. She did feel it, in a way she hadn’t expected. How long had it been since she’d had someone to care about? “Yes,” she admitted in a barely audible voice. “I wanted to be near you.” But I’m Jenna, she wanted to cry. I ruined your life once and I’m so afraid you won’t let me back in when I tell you the truth.
She had to tell him.
The phone rang, and she nearly screamed in frustration.
Stone sighed. “I have to get it. It might be Sara. But hold that thought.” He tried to rise and groaned, paling as he sank back into the chair.
Wanting to throw the phone out the window, Jenna whirled and searched for it. Now that she’d determined once and for all to come clean, the delay was killing her.
“Got it,” she muttered, handing the phone over, preparing to leave the room to give him privacy. The shock on his face held her captive.
“What is it?” She asked when he’d hung up. “Stone?”
He didn’t answer, and fear and horror slammed into her. “Sara?” she demanded hoarsely. “Is it Sara?”
“No. No,” he said quickly. “Not Sara. It’s my brother, Richard.” Dropping his hands to the arms of the chair, he attempted to rise, although he almost blacked out while domg it.
She set him gently back into the chair, which was a good thing because his heart was roaring in his ears, his pulse was racing, his vision was gray around the edges.
At her stricken look, he managed to say, “He was killed this morning. In a car accident. My father had his lawyer make the call.”
“Richard’s dead.” Squeezing his eyes shut, he set his head in his hands. “Christ.” Grief and shock struck him at once, a bone-numbing sort of feeling where his body wouldn’t work but his mind whirled.
Richard, he thought, as fury and sadness nearly choked him. Gone. They’d let so much time go by, empty years without talking. Why hadn’t he tried harder, even though Richard had made it so clear he wanted nothing to do with him?
“I’m so sorry,” Cindy whispered, still hunkered between his spread legs, which were now trembling in spite of the fact she was holding him. “What can I do to help, Stone? Anything, just tell me.”
He hardly heard her, for he realized his worst nightmare was coming true.
He’d nearly gotten himself killed this morning, and just that quickly, Sara would have been an orphan. She had little enough family as it was; he was duty bound to let her know the rest of them.
Yet already, it was too late.
She never knew her mother. Now she would never know her uncle.
Life was short, and if he wanted to think about enjoying it ever again, he had to take care of Sara’s future. Now. Before something happened to the rest of it.
“Stone?” Cindy’s hands slid up his thighs, rested on his waist. “Let me help somehow. Please.”
He looked at her through the bleakness of his own misery. “Hold me,” he requested thickly, not waiting for her, but yanking her close. “Hold me and don’t let go.”
Jenna met Kristen that night in Kristen’s condo, which was everything Jenna had expected.
They were seated in the country kitchen, eating at a cute little oak table, surrounded by cream and pale blue accessories that Kristen had made. Cows and chickens and adorable little pigs animated the napkins. Jenna used a finger to wipe at a drop of tea she’d spilled on the bare wood. Glancing up with a horrified expression, she waited for Kristen to admonish her.
Her sister smiled easily, looking not even a little annoyed. Physically she hadn’t changed much in the years since Jenna had last seen her. She was still beautiful. Her hair was still that light blond that Jenna’s had been as a child, and curled down to her shoulders. She was curvy and lush where Jenna was… not, and that age-old green monster reared its head, surprising Jenna.
But for the first time, it was a nice envious feeling, not a stomach-eating one, and it made her feel good. Or it would have if she hadn’t spilled her tea like a clumsy oaf.
“Great tea, isn’t it?” Kristen asked.
“Sorry about the drop here. I-”
“It doesn’t matter, Jenna.” But Kristen looked as if something did matter, and Jenna felt like a stupid clumsy child.
They stared at each other awkwardly.
Kristen inhaled sharply, looked at a point somewhere over Jenna’s head and said, “I just need to come out with it. We can’t go on until I tell you.”
Not sure she wanted to hear, Jenna lifted her chin and prepared to be kicked out.
“I think you should know that I sued Stone for custody of your daughter.”
Kristen smiled faintly and rubbed her temples. “It was years ago, right after…Mom died. You’d been gone only a short time and I’d just turned twenty-one. I… God, I missed you, Jenna. And I wanted to make sure Sara was taken care of. At that point she was all I had left.”
“But…” Floored, Jenna just stared at Kristen, trying to imagine how her sister had felt. And, good God, Stone. How had he felt about this final betrayal? “What happened?” she asked hoarsely.
“Stone fought me tooth and nail.” Kristen gave a ghost of a smile, obviously still nervous revealing what she had done. “He won of course. And in a way I did, too.” She smiled at a very stunned Jenna. “I realized through the course of the proceedings how much Stone loved that child, which had been my greatest fear. Sara was, still is, I’m sure, the most important thing in his life. Knowing that, seeing it firsthand, well…I’d changed my mind about wanting to take her away from him long before the verdict came in.”
Jenna had so many emotions swimming through her, she could hardly think. “God, Kristen.”
“There’s more.” Kristen hesitated, and Jenna saw to her amazement that her sure confident sister was fighting tears. “Afterward, Stone offered me visits of Sara whenever I wanted them.” Stricken with the memory, Kristen shoved her hair back and let out a watery sigh. “Can you believe it? I had tried to destroy him more than he’d already been destroyed, and he was that generous.”
“Why didn’t you stay in touch?”
“I couldn’t,” Kristen whispered, shaking her head. “After what I had tried to pull, I was so ashamed. And he had his family…”
“No, he didn’t” Jenna moaned and covered her face. “They disowned him when they found out I was pregnant. He’s been alone with her all this time. I can’t believe how long I stayed away. I regret that so much, it’s all I can think about. Oh, Kristen… the things I’ve done.”
“We’ve done,” Kristen corrected her, then spoke firmly. “And it’s not too late for you. You could go to him-”
Jenna laughed, a high hysterical laugh that she had to cover her mouth to stop. “You’re not the only one with a confession to make.”
She told Kristen of what she’d done, how she’d come back to town and was now… Cindy Beatty.
“You have to tell him the truth,” Kristen insisted.
“How exactly do you suggest I do that?” Jenna asked desperately. “I’ve lied by omission. We’ve become friends. Friends, Kristen, and oh, my God, that means so much to me, I’m tempted to lie forever.”
“I know, I know. I can’t because I want Sara to know the truth. I want her in my life. But how do I tell him I’ve deceived him yet again? And now, knowing your past and his, he’ll think it’s just another attempt to get Sara away from him.”
Kristen’s shoulders sagged. Both women slumped, defeated.
Jenna took another sip of tea and spilled another drop on the pretty table. She jerked up her napkin, but it seemed too pretty to use. Uncertain, her hand hovered over the table.
“Jenna,” her sister said, laughing, “it’s a table, for God’s sake. It’s meant for spills. So is that napkin you’re staring at in horror.” She sobered as she regarded a very nervous Jenna. “What’s the matter? I mean, I realize we haven’t seen each other in forever, but you’re so…jumpy. Like you’re just waiting for me to get upset over something.”
“I…” Jenna broke off with a sigh, biting back her apology. She felt as though she was always apologizing for something, and it had to stop.
She scrubbed at the spot on the table as if her life depended on it.
Kristen laid a hand on hers, stilling the movement.
“I love the way you look,” Kristen said gently when Jenna didn’t say anything. “Is that it, honey? Are you upset about that? You’re beautiful, now more than ever.”
“I was never beautiful.” But she was now and she knew it. Her mirror told her it was true. But it seemed strange to be so suddenly pretty. “And I have scars.”
“They’re nothing, considering what you’ve been through, and besides, they’re hardly noticeable the way you put your makeup on.”
“It’s not the way I look.” Though Jenna hadn’t gotten quite used to seeing herself. She still gave a start whenever she saw her reflection in the mirror.
“You’re different,” Jenna said in a low voice, avoiding her sister’s gaze. “Friendlier, which is really nice,” she hurried on to say, but it was too late.
Kristen stiffened, then slowly straightened, dropping her hand to her lap. “I see what it is,” she said quietly. “You’re thinking about how it used to be, how we never got along because I was always trying…”
“To make me a better person,” Jenna said urgently, meaning it. “I see it now-”
“No, you don’t. You can’t understand because I never told you.” Kristen sighed heavily. “I used to be so hard on you, hoping Mom would let up if…”
“If I was more like you?”
“Maybe you’re not the only one who has changed,” Kristen said softly. “Maybe I’ve learned to accept people for who they are.”
“You were trying to help.” Wonder filled Jenna as she mulled this over. “You never hated me-you were trying to protect me.” A warm feeling prevailed, and it felt good, so very good, to let go of the past. “I do understand.”
“Do you?” Kristen’s eyes filled with tears. “Do you know how much I loved you, still love you, how I always wished I could make you believe it?” She reached across the table, grasped Jenna’s hands and held tight. “How desperately afraid I was for you, especially when I couldn’t reach through that angry barrier to get to the real Jenna?” She drew a ragged breath and blinked her tears away. “I wanted my sister, Jenna, and I couldn’t get her. I had to stand around and watch you try to destroy yourself, and it killed me.”
“Do you think I don’t know how Mom treated you? How she loved me best? God! I hated that. I still don’t understand it, but I never meant for it to be that way. When I realized I couldn’t change you, I used to do everything I could to make her hate me so she’d like you more, but nothing worked. Nothing. And by the time we were old enough to talk about it, you were gone from me.”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” Kristen practically shouted, rising from her chair and pulling Jenna from hers. “I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want you back.” She placed a hand to her chest as if she ached. “I want you back in my life, because you never left my heart.”
Jenna swallowed hard, but the tears came, anyway. Before she could let out the muffled sob, Kristen had her in her arms.
“It’ll work out,” Kristen promised, rocking them both. “It’ll all work out.”
Jenna wanted to believe that. Oh, how she wanted to. “I don’t have much of that,” she admitted.
“It’s okay. I have enough for both of us.”
Their hug tightened and it felt so good, so right. Jenna closed her eyes and held on for all she was worth.
“I love you, Jenna,” Kristen whispered fiercely. “I love you so much.”
It was the first time in far too many years Jenna had heard those words. She’d never said them out loud before and wasn’t sure she could now, but she continued to hold on, soaking up all the love she could get.
Stone squared his shoulders, gritted his teeth and came shockingly close to putting his fist through the wall of his office. “I realize she doesn’t want to take any calls right now.” He refrained from adding an unflattering oath to the man claiming to be his parent’s butler. “But she might change her mind.”
“I doubt it, sir.”
And just who the hell still had a butler in the 1990s? Stone wondered.
“She’s in mourning, sir.”
Mourning. He’d discovered he was, too, even for a brother who’d written him out of his life with an ease that still disturbed Stone.
It didn’t stop the grief any. “Just tell her it’s her son,” Stone suggested tightly, eyeing the clock and feeling thankful he still had three hours before Sara got home from school.
God help him, he needed a break from the child who’d had nonstop questions flowing from her mouth since the day before, when he’d learned about Richard.
Why is he dead, she’d asked. Why didn’t he ever want to talk to you when you called? Why didn’t he answer your letters?
And why are you crying, Daddy?
Yeah, he needed a break. Sinking onto the stool in front of the counter, he rested his head in one hand. His other hand still gripped the phone.
“Who is this?” that horrible flat voice questioned.
“I told you,” he replied carefully. “Her son.”
“Her son has passed on.”
“Her other son,” Stone grated. “I’m sure she’ll remember.” Was he sure? Seemed she hadn’t remembered his past ten birthdays. The past ten Christmases. Sara’s past nine birthdays.
Dammit, he was furious all over again, at himself and his parents.
For Sara, he reminded himself, repeating it like a mantra. This is for Sara, so swallow the pride and just do it.
“Please.” A muscle in his jaw worked. “Please tell her Stone is on the line. Stone Cameron.”
While silence filled the air, Stone set his hot forehead down on the cool counter.
He was an idiot. An idiot who loved his daughter beyond reason, enough to try to give her the family she’d always wanted.
“I’m sorry, sir,” came that damn voice.
The outer door, the one to his shop, opened. A minute later his office door opened behind him, and before it shut again, he caught that light sexy scent he would forever equate with one woman.
From behind, she lightly touched him, set her hand on his shoulder, and just that simply, some of his burden lifted. He couldn’t explain it any better than that, even to himself, but he wouldn’t hide from it.
“What do you mean, you’re sorry?” Stone said into the phone. He didn’t turn to face Cindy, but reached up and grabbed her hand.
She held on and squeezed. Then stepped closer so that he could feel the heat of her body against his back. It comforted him as little else could have.
“Mrs. Cameron refuses to take the call,” the butler said. “You’re not to call here again.”
Betrayal slashed through him, chilling him. Hurt had a taste, he discovered. Bitter as hell.
“Did you hear me?” asked the butler, his voice a bit louder. “Please do not call here again.”
Behind Stone, Cindy stiffened, her anger and shock flowing through her to him as she clearly heard the words through the receiver.
For some reason, that gave Stone strength. It’d been a long time since he’d felt someone on his side. For years he’d been alone in this, alone against the world in his fight to survive with Sara.
“She’s unbelievable,” Stone muttered beneath his breath. “Unbelievable.”
“The funeral,” Stone said quickly before he was hung up on. “When is the-” At the disconnecting click, he shook his head, then slowly set the phone down.
Cindy held him close, and he was enveloped by her as well as her welcome compassion.
“I’m here,” she whispered. “Just like I promised you I would be. Is…it enough?”
“More than enough,” he whispered back, and turning, he wrapped her slight body in his arms.
He wasn’t ever going to let go, Stone thought as Cindy pressed close to him. Desperate, a little needy, he held her tighter, closing his eyes in relief when she clung to him, just as needy.
“Let me be here for you, Stone.”
A buzzing in his head nearly drowned out her words.
Richard was gone, truly gone.
His mother refused to acknowledge her only living son.
Sara and her precious childhood threatened because he hadn’t provided properly for her future.
So much-his mind couldn’t take it all in. And then there was this warm, caring woman looking at him as if he were her entire world. As if she could make him forget everything bad. As if she alone could make his life perfect.
How to resist that?
“You’re so strong all the time.” Her dark solemn eyes blinked at him. Cupping his face, she met his gaze. “talking care of everyone but yourself.”
“I’m okay.” But he’d started to shake with the effort to remain in control.
She continued to touch him, softly, tenderly-and it was so damn irresistible. “Let me do it for once,” she whispered. “Let me be the strong one for you. You deserve that, Stone. Just let go.”
His heart beat so hard and fast that it almost hurt. His throat was tight, but he managed a strangled “I’m okay.”
It was a lie, a damn lie, and she saw right through it.
“No,” she murmured. “You’re hurting, and I can’t bear to see it.” She met his gaze, hers strong and sure and confident in a way he’d never seen before. “Let me give you this.” She ran her hands over his chest, a light tentative touch that inflamed him so his hurt turned into something else. “Let me…”
She could have no idea how just the thought of making love to her, here, now, had his blood humming. Yet it wasn’t his usual style, using sex to forget the harsh reality of his world. And he refused to use her that way. “I don’t-”
Her fingers brushed his mouth, holding his words in as she shook her head slightly. “Let me.”
And there, in his daze of grief and hunger, he saw it, the flicker of hesitation, the brief flash of emotion that told him she wasn’t nearly as sure and brave as she’d like to be, but was trying her damnedest to hide it from him.
Slipping his hands beneath her short curtain of hair, he cupped her jaw and drew her mouth to his, needing the contact, desperate for the compassion and sensitivity and hope he knew he would find in her arms.
He felt her slide her hand beneath one of his, so that it was between his skin and hers. He wondered, then realized… she was protecting the webbed line of scar tissue from his touch.
“Does it hurt?” he asked huskily, tenderness flooding him.
She dipped her head. “No.”
He could feel the heat in her skin and knew she felt humiliated “You’re lovely, Cindy. Don’t hide from me.”
“It’s ugly to the touch.”
“No.” Gently he pulled her hand away and kissed the hot skin, inching little love bites along the nearly undetectable web of scars, intending nothing but to ease her discomfort. Just holding her eased so much for him. Reality faded a bit, all hurt faded, as he held this wonderful, giving woman.
At first she remained rigid in his arms. But he didn’t give up; he simply pulled her onto his lap and rained a shower of kisses over her jaw and neck, gradually coaxing the tension loose from both of them as he continued to taste her skin before shifting back to her mouth.
Her parted lips responded warmly, eagerly seeking his. With a low sound of consent and need, she pressed close, arching her body against him, fueling the urgency.
Her fingers curled in his shirt, digging into the muscles of his chest, as though she needed to touch him as desperately as he needed to touch her. That need suddenly swallowed them both, making them moan with it as it exploded around them. There was no going back. They couldn’t, not when he couldn’t imagine taking his next breath without her.
He rose off the stool, claiming her mouth with a frantic, almost violent hunger. With a soft little moan, she melted to him, chest to chest, hips to hips, her arms locked around his neck.
“I need you,” he whispered, feeling battered and bruised. “So much-”
“I need you, too,” she whispered, yanking at his shirt. He helped her, pulling it impatiently over his head. “I always have-Oh, my goodness!” Abruptly that fog of need and hunger disappeared from her eyes. “Your stomach.”
“You always have?” he repeated, wondering at her words. “What do you mean, you’ve always wanted me?”
Stricken, she stared at him, and whether she purposely avoided the question or was just horrified at his injuries, he didn’t know. “I-Nothing. Stone, look at you!”
He knew what it looked like-a huge, swirling, black and green and yellow and purple bruise that the span of her two hands, which she gently plastered against him, barely covered. “Oh, Stone.” Her fingers were so soft and enticing on his bare skin that he could hardly stand it. “From the saw yesterday?”
“Yeah.” Sucking in his breath did nothing to ease the tension that had gripped him from just having her hands on him. It’d been a long time for him, he decided, but still, he couldn’t remember ever getting so hot so fast. What was it about her that so destroyed his carefully placed defenses? Was she real? Would she be his, stay his?
“It must be painful.”
What was painful was how much he wanted her. His arousal pressed against the fastenings of his pants, threatening to cut off vital circulation. “It’ll heal,” he rasped, nearly swallowing his tongue when her hands slid down a bit, running over his hips.
“Stone?” she whispered, bold and incredibly shy at the same time, which was a sharp turn-on for reasons Stone didn’t want to examine.
He was a man who, ever since Jenna left, only liked sophisticated women, preferably ones looking for no more or less than what he was willing to give. But he knew that this, with her, was different, and if they continued, nothing would ever be quite the same between them again.
Maybe a better man could have resisted, but Stone felt overwhelmed, uncharacteristically out of control, and he couldn’t have turned from her to save his life.
“The door,” he murmured, pulling away long enough to walk through his office to the outer shop, where he locked the front door.
Bolting the office door, as well, he reached for her again, then was surprised when she flipped off the lights and plunged them into complete blackness.
“No one can come in now,” he assured her, bringing her back into the circle of his arms, loving the feel of having her there. Slender and willowy, yet with wonderful curves in all the places that mattered, she was a dream come true.
His dream, and not only did he want to see her, he wanted her to be just as certain as he was. “No one will bother us. We’re safe in here.”
“I know. I just…” Burying her face in his neck, she went mute and hugged him tight, apparently embarrassed.
He had no idea why she would want the anonymity of the dark. Maybe she was shy. Maybe she had something she wanted to keep covered, like a tattoo.
Which brought back, quite vividly, visions of another woman, a lifetime ago. Jenna, and her own discomfort in the dark, for she’d gotten a small rose tattooed on her hip, and she’d hated it. It had embarrassed her, but she’d been stuck with it.
Stone had never been able to convince her that he didn’t care about a damn tattoo, he just cared about her.
But Jenna had no place here, no place at all.
Cindy did, and she wanted the dark, which was a small request. It shouldn’t matter, but somehow it did. It’d been so long for him, too long, and even then, he couldn’t remember it being like this. He wanted it to be real. Honest. And he wanted to be able to look at her.
“Do… do you hate the dark?” she questioned softly.
It was the scars, he realized suddenly, hoping for her sake that there weren’t more than he’d already seen. She was trembling now, and he held her close. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “It’s all right. We’ll just-”
“No,” she said quickly, urgently, pulling him closer. “Please, I want this. I want you. It’s just that-it’s been so long.”
His chest tightened because he found her admission unbearably moving. “It’s been a long time for me, too.”
And there in the dark, amidst his grief and fear and incredible hunger and need, they came together.
The embrace of her body was as perfect as the embrace of her emotions. Wishing he could see her expression, he touched her face.
“Love me,” she whispered.
His name sighed from her lips, both a question and a prayer. In answer, Stone streaked his hands beneath her blouse, cupping her breasts, feeling the tips harden against his palms. With a rough needy sound in his throat, he peeled away the material of her top and bra and took her into his mouth, making them both moan. She was soft and warm and tasted like heaven, and her sweet body drew things from him he’d forgotten existed. But he would have given it up just to see her face, and to know she was feeling everything he was.
Jenna tried to speak, and ended up murmuring something unintelligible. She was stunned because she’d had no idea how powerful, how absolutely right it would feel to be with him again like this. It was the same, yet subtly different. Maybe it was their maturity; maybe it was simply that even in this short amount of time she’d grown to care about him so much more than she’d ever been capable of before.
She didn’t understand, only knew that whatever it was, it made her weak and strong, needy and sure all at the same time. That Stone was trembling, too, made it even more poignant, and she touched his tense jaw. He spread her thighs and pulled her in closer until their bodies were flush, until he’d nestled her warmest neediest part to the warmest neediest part of him.
She gasped and he shuddered, tightening his hold on her. Raising his head, he kissed her mouth again, and then again, while rocking his hips slowly and purposely against hers, until lights danced in her head and her body was on fire.
She needed to tell him the truth before complicating everything with yet another deception, but she wanted him and the wanting went so much deeper than the physical. It was surging, fierce and undeniable.
“I know, I know.”
He reached around her and shoved whatever he had on the desk to the floor. Lifting her, he set her on the cool surface. The dark consumed them, yet her eyes had adjusted enough that she could see his body loom close, and she knew a true spark of regret that they couldn’t do this properly, in the light, with honest emotions flowing.
How she wanted that, but if he caught a glimpse of that damn tattoo she hated, he would know the truth.
And he would never forgive her.
He was looking at her now, and though she had no way of seeing his expression, she knew it would be powerful, piercing. His eyes would be boring into hers almost painfully, forcing her into the intimacy of what they were doing, because with Stone it was all or nothing.
Gently he laid her back, stretching her out on the desk.
“This should be on a bed.”
Afraid he would stop, she reached for him, unable to get enough of how he felt, so hot and hard and wonderful, beneath her fingers. “Please-”
“Don’t you want me?”
A rough laugh escaped from him. “Cindy, I want you more than I want my next breath.”
Pushing aside her blouse and bra, he cupped her breasts, making a very male appreciative sound that turned her on every bit as much as his touch did. Dipping his head to an upturned aching nipple, Stone danced his hands up her thighs, bringing up the hem of her skirt as he went, until he’d reached her restlessly shifting hips. She’d thought it difficult to breathe before, but then he skimmed those long fingers over her panties. Hooking them with his thumbs, he tugged them off, leaving her bare, trembling and completely exposed, and more needy than she’d ever been in her life.
“I wish I could see you.” He dropped to his knees, startling her, then pressed her legs wide apart with his big hands and kissed her. There, oh, there.
Nobody had done this to her since… since him, and the sensations that swamped her were all the stronger for the new emotional bond they’d shared. Slowly, deliberately, he proceeded to drive her absolutely out of her mind, first with his tongue, then his teeth, grazing, sucking, nibbling until her entire world shrank to this one little pinnacle of delight.
Her sweaty palms slipped off the desk. “Stone?”
He murmured encouragingly and held her hips in his big hands, soothing and exciting her at the same time. She started to shake-not small graceful quivers, but huge racking tremors she couldn’t control. She couldn’t even be embarrassed. She’d never been so far on the edge. Sitting up, she shoved her wild hair from her face, grabbed Stone and yanked him close. “Now.” Desperate, she tore at the buttons of his fly. “Please. Be inside me when I-”
“Yes.” Just as desperate, Stone managed to undo himself, but it was Jenna who pushed his pants down over his hips. Hungrily she reached for the part of him that was hot and heavy and all hers. Marveling over this, dizzy with it, she directed him to her.
At that first heavenly touch of her heat to his, they both gasped. “Wait.” Stone dropped his forehead to hers, panting. “Wait. We need protection,” he said desperately, moving away.
She could hear him, slamming through drawers and cursing in the dark. He let out a triumphant sound. Then he was back, towering over her in the dark, his eyes glittering. “Found it,” he whispered with relief. “Tell me, please, that you don’t have an aversion to…ah, plaid.”
She heard a rustling, and blushed. She’d been so far gone, she hadn’t remembered. “You…carry around a…”
“An old friend sent it as a joke-Never mind,” he said. “Let’s just be grateful and hope it holds, because he didn’t send a spare.” He bracketed her hips with his hands, whispered her name and entered her with one sure thrust.
Pleasure exploded, rendering her deaf, dumb and blind at the incredible feel of him inside her once again. He was hard and huge, and she was wet and ready, and so snug she fit him like a glove. At the soft sound she made, his head whipped up, and there in the dark, she could feel the weight of that stare. She could hear their ragged breathing, imagine the flush on her cheeks, could feel the utter strength of him surrounding her, and she had to bite her lip hard to keep from crying out.
“Don’t…hold back,” he said, touching her face. “Not from me.”
As if she could. When he moved she let out the cry that wouldn’t stay contained. “I can’t.”
Holding on to her hips, he pushed deep, then deeper still, until he had no more to give, and she cried out again, for she’d never felt such intense pleasure. She knew he felt the same when he pressed his face into her neck and moaned. “Just being inside you makes me want to come. Cin-”
Unable to bear that awful name on his lips, not now when he was so far inside her she couldn’t tell where he ended and she began, she quickly lifted her face, seeking out his mouth, kissing him fiercely.
“You’re so lovely,” he told her in a thick husky growl she found incredibly sexy, his arms slipping around her so that his hands could cup her buttocks and pull her closer. “And mine.”
“Not lovely.” But, oh, how she wanted to be his.
And in that moment she felt it, and nothing, nothing had ever meant so much as this unexpected gift of her beauty. He began to move, and she raised her hips to meet his smooth thrusts. Each one took her higher, and she went with it, unable to deny herself the overwhelming glimpse of heaven just beyond.
Her orgasm was long and shuddery and wonderful. Stone buried his face in the crook of her damp neck and followed her into oblivion.
For a long time neither of them moved.
He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of dragging air back into his lungs when Cindy pulled away.
Cursing the darkness and the loss of her wonderful body heat, Stone reached for her. “Don’t,” he said. He wrapped his arms around her and rocked. Sinking back against the desk with her between his spread thighs, he tried to find the right words to reach her. “Don’t regret it. Don’t pull away now-” She leaned back toward him, and she seemed to gain comfort in his arms, so he tightened them and realized that what they’d just shared had been heartbreakingly perfect.
For a long few moments, they remained still.
Then she spoke in a soft husky whisper. “Did what we just did help make you-feel better? About your brother and your family?”
“It made a dent, yeah.” He gave her a warm smile. “A big one.”
“I’m glad.” She burrowed closer and swallowed hard. “I just don’t want…this reduced to…” “To what?”
“To…a one-night stand. Or a mistake.”
“Never.” He didn’t let her go. “It was too intense.”
“And good?” As soon as the words escaped her, she moaned, immediately covering his mouth with her hand. “No! Don’t say anything, I can’t believe I asked. Aaah, just forget it! Forget everything.”
Pulling her hand away from his mouth, he laughed and gave her a hard possessive kiss. “If it’d been any better, you’d have killed me. No way am I ever going to forget what just happened, and you won’t convince me you could, either.”
She sagged against him, throwing her arms around his neck, squeezing him tight, as if she didn’t want to ever let go. Fine with him, he didn’t want to let her go, either.
He felt her tremble. “You okay?” He ran a hand down her back.
“I’m fine, just…”
She didn’t finish, but held on as if her life depended on it. Stone realized she was gripping him as if she expected to be turned away.
It struck him how little he really knew about her and how much more he wanted to. He wanted this woman in his life. “I’ve got you,” he assured her. Cradling her in his arms, he gently smoothed back her hair from her face, then swore softly because he couldn’t see a damn thing. “I’ve got you,” he promised. “And I’m not letting go, okay?”
She nodded, but he wasn’t satisfied. Couldn’t be until he told her how he felt.
“The light,” he decided. “We’ll have it on now.” He shifted to reach for the switch, but she made a sound of refusal. Cupping her face, he stroked her lower lip with his thumb. “I want to see you, Cindy.” He gave her a soft kiss. “I’m not used to this. I don’t like letting you hide from me.”
“It’s just that…” She gulped in a breath, then let it out loudly. “Look, I know it was strange that I insisted on the dark, and I really wanted to explain that first, before we… But then you kissed me, and…and I hadn’t kissed like that in so long,” she confessed. “And you can really, really kiss. I sort of got lost in it all and how you felt and, oh, how you looked without your shirt…”
He’d struggled to follow every halting word, then started to smile at what he thought she might be trying to say, but she groaned theatrically. “Could you just kiss me, kiss me quick and shut me up?”
“Mmm.” Finally something that made perfect sense. “Gladly, sweetheart.” And tipping up her face with his hand, he did, and it was as emotionally wrenching as their lovemaking had been.
When they were both breathless, he rose with her still in his arms, walked to the door and flipped on the light.
Quickly, almost ridiculously shy given what they’d just shared, Cindy jerked down her skirt to cover her hips, but she wasn’t quite quick enough to tug her open blouse closed.
“I want you again.”
She bit her lip, adorably flushed. “You do?”
“Yeah.” He let her slide slowly down his body, enjoying the way her breath quickened when she felt him get hard again. “But not here, not like this. Next time-” he paused to kiss her until she was clinging again “-next time it’s with soft sheets and moonlight and music.”
Staring down into her eyes, he traced her jaw. “There is going to be one. You know that, Cindy.” He bent, kissing her soft lips, but she’d gone rigid at the sound of her name on his lips.
“No,” she whispered. “Oh, no.”
“What is it?”
Mute, Jenna stared up at him.
“Hey,” Stone said softly, touching her hot face with his cool hands. “What could you possibly be thinking about?”
She’d blown it. She’d come back to town to right all her wrongs, to fix her life. To be good, to herself and others.
And she’d destroyed any hope of that because she still couldn’t control her hormones when it came to Stone.
“Nothing,” she managed, withdrawing from him. She struggled with the buttons on her blouse; suddenly her fingers wouldn’t work. She could feel the awkward bunch of her bra, which she hadn’t fastened first. “Dammit,” she whispered, nearly choking on the humiliation she would certainly feel when she finally told him who she was. Much as she wanted to cry out the truth now, she couldn’t. Not after this. He’d think she’d planned it to soften him up for the news.
“Here.” Stone gently pushed her ineffective fingers aside and turned her away from him. His hands encircled her neck, then slid beneath the material of her blouse to flirt with her collarbone. Slowly he slid the blouse down off her shoulders until her arms were trapped at her sides, the blouse at her elbows.
“Stone,” she breathed, clasping the material to her exposed breasts. “I-”
His mouth settled on one shoulder, halting her words as heat spiraled through her again. She felt his hands slip down to her waist, where they lingered for a minute, spreading wide to brush against the sides of her breasts. Swaying, Jenna closed her eyes, unable to speak, much less think.
Then those wonderful talented hands traveled leisurely up her spine, where they easily gathered her bra, straightened it out and then fastened it.
With one last wet openmouthed kiss on her tingling skin, halfway between her shoulder and her neck, Stone lifted his head, drew a sharp breath and let out a heartfelt oath.
She knew just how he felt.
He turned her around to face him, his eyes hot with the knowledge he’d again reduced her to a boneless mass of jelly. He buttoned up her blouse, his fingers sure and strong.
“Th-thanks,” she stuttered. “I’ve… I’ve got to…” What? What did she have to do? She couldn’t possibly remember now. “I’ve got to go. Bye.”
Cringing at how ridiculously juvenile she sounded, she whirled and ran out of his office, through his workshop and out into the bright of day.
“Good heavens,” she muttered, rubbing her chest in an effort to still her pounding heart. That man could seduce the dead.
And Jenna was many things, but she wasn’t dead.
The next morning Sara practically inhaled her oatmeal as Stone watched, both alarmed and amused at his daughter’s ability to chug down food.
Had he taught her to do that? They were going to have to work harder on manners, not something that had been particularly high on the list of their survival tactics.
“Mmm,” she said, dripping milk out a corner of her mouth, which she promptly chased away with her sleeve. The food continued to disappear at a shocking rate. “The cereal is good this time, Daddy. No lumps.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “I think.” He wasn’t much of a cook, never had been. For the most part they’d done okay, especially on the one night a week Mrs. Potts left dinner to heat.
And on the other nights, pizza usually worked. Thank God he could afford the luxuries of a cleaning lady and takeout. The memories of earlier years, when he hadn’t been able to, were now just a distant nightmare, one that made him shudder if he spent too much time thinking about it. In those days, before he’d purchased the house, just paying the rent had been a struggle.
How many nights had he stood in their tiny apartment kitchen, a place so small he couldn’t turn around without banging his elbows, and swore the air blue as he’d tried to make a dinner they could both afford and bear to eat?
More than he cared to remember.
As if she’d read his mind, Sara grinned around a mouthful and said, “You’ve really improved, you know. You hardly ever burn water anymore.”
“Eat, smarty-pants.” He winked at her, earning yet another laugh.
She had his number, this one.
Her hair was in its usual state-wild-even though they’d both attempted to tame it after her shower. But for the life of him, he hadn’t managed in all these years to get the hang of the science of detangling, even using gallons of conditioner.
“Hey, slow down a bit.” He leaned against the kitchen counter, sipping from a mug of steaming black coffee as she continued to shovel in the porridge. “You’ve still got a minute before the bus.”
“A minute ago-” she paused to poke in another mouthful “-you told me to eat.” She blinked huge eyes at him. “Which is why I didn’t brush my teeth, Daddy. I’m saving time.”
“Tell that to the dentist when your teeth rot.” He leaned close and stroked her hair, smiling. “But thanks for trying to cut corners. Maybe you could find a better way to do that, like actually getting up when the alarm goes off?”
She snickered and downed a glass of orange juice. “Can I have some more toast? I’m storing energy for my math test.”
“Which you’re ready for, right?”
“Right.” Grinning, she leaped up and hugged him. “I’m studying real hard. I want to grow up to be as smart as you are.”
He halted in the act of searching the refrigerator for more bread, stunned by the impact of her overwhelming love and faith. For the past few days he’d managed to cope with the death of his brother, the threat of Sara’s uncertain future, the rebuke of his family and his unexpected attraction to Cindy. He’d done it by damming up all emotion, but Sara was making that difficult.
“You will,” he said around the huge lump in his throat. His hug was as fierce as hers. “You can do anything you want to do.”
“I want to stay with you,” she said simply, smiling at him warmly. “Forever.”
She was killing him here, with those beautiful solemn eyes. Blinking hard, he said with mock protest, “But you’ll eat me out of house and home.”
She giggled and continued to tug at his heartstrings by looking at him as if he were her entire world.
And he was, he reminded himself harshly-a situation that had to change. He would see to it somehow.
He was buttering her toast when she delivered another unwitting blow.
“Why can’t we go to Uncle Richard’s funeral, Daddy? I want to go and give him a flower.”
Stone looked at his daughter, at the concern and worry and honest curiosity in her gaze, and wanted to strangle his parents. “We can’t go because…” Because not only had they not been invited, they’d been uninvited.
That was the ugly reality.
To hell with that, Stone decided, standing there trying to reconcile the fact that he would never see his brother again. That their last words had been spoken years ago, and despite all Stone’s attempts to renew contact, Richard had never allowed it.
It hurt. It hurt a lot, and would forever dampen his childhood memories.
But despite his pain, Sara had a right to at least have a glimpse of the only living family she had left.
“You know what?” He set down the piece of toast in front of her. “We are going to go.”
“I’ll hold your hand when you get sad, okay?” She squeezed his hand now. “And you can tell me stories about him. About when you were my age and he let your frog go and it leaped onto Grandma’s table when she had company and you got grounded.”
He’d done his best to regale Sara with tales of his youth so that she would have some sense of where she’d come from. It seemed he’d done an okay job of it. “Sounds like a plan,” he told her, holding out her sweatshirt. “Hurry now, honey. The bus will be here any sec.”
“When I come to your office after school, is she going to be there?”
Stone stilled, then forced himself to smile. “She has a name, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sara stared at the floor.
Resigning himself to the fact that they were going to be late again, Stone hunkered down before his daughter and tugged at her hair until she met his gaze. “What’s up with this?”
He got The Shrug. The one most ten-year-olds have perfected.
“Sara, when Cindy first came to town, you liked her. You even invited her to eat pizza with us, remember?”
Sara sniffed disdainfully. It was so perfectly like Jenna Stone’s heart stuttered.
It hurt suddenly to think of her. It hurt more than usual.
He knew why. Oh, he’d been smug, so certain he couldn’t get hurt again. He’d been that way for years. Until yesterday.
Without meaning to, he’d threatened his security, that wall around his heart. Worse, by doing so, he’d handed a woman the power to bring him back to his knees.
He could only hope she’d be kind.
“What’s the matter with Cindy?” he asked Sara.
“She likes you.”
The reply, soft-spoken and heartfelt, hit hard. In all these years, with all the women he’d seen casually and some not so casually, his daughter had never once said anything like this. “I’ve spent time with women before. And I’m pretty sure a fair number of them even liked me.”
Sara’s lips quirked, but her eyes remained serious. “None of them really really liked you.”
“You know what I mean, Daddy.”
And he did, although it gave his stomach a little trouble to think about. To realize what he felt for Cindy was serious, the most serious he’d felt in ten years.
Maybe even more serious than what he’d felt for Jenna.
She’d been so long ago and he’d been so young. He didn’t know if he could count on what he’d once thought of as love.
“And if you really really like her back, then you’ll forget about Mommy.”
“Honey…” How to tell her that her mom was gone? Truly gone, no matter how hard and long he’d looked for her? “You can’t compare Cindy to your mom.”
“Yes, I can.”
He stared at her, and she stared back unblinking.
The bus honked.
“Dump her, Daddy. You can do better. She doesn’t even like sausage on her pizza.”
With that piece of wisdom, she kissed his cheek and ran out the door.
Kristen popped her head into Jenna’s new office. Jenna’s first reaction was fear that Stone would see her sister. But Kristen offered a smile that warmed Jenna’s heart, leaving her unable to purposely hurt her feelings by asking Kristen to leave.
“You busy?” she asked.
“Not enough,” Jenna admitted, stretching her shoulders and gesturing her inside. “Want a job?”
Her sister came the rest of the way in and checked out the office, which was still being set up. Stepping carefully over an empty box, she plopped down into a plush chair. “What do you have?”
“A head-chef job, two full-charge bookkeeping positions and a dental tech.”
“Can’t cook, wouldn’t work an adding machine if you put a gun to my head, and I have a phobia of dentists.”
Jenna laughed, the first time in a couple of days. It felt good. “Good thing you make enough money cutting hair.”
“Designing hair, darling. So…you tell him yet?”
It was a blatant attempt to stall for time, which Kristen didn’t go for. “Hon,” she said, shaking her head, “not good.”
Jenna dropped her face into her hands. “Oh, Kris.”
“You have to, you know.”
Of course her sister thought she should tell Stone who she really was. Any normal person would urge her to.
But any normal person couldn’t possibly know what Jenna had done, how she’d furthered her lies with the ultimate deceit.
Her sister was trying to help. She’d called often. According to Kristen, this was going to be a regular thing in their lives from now on.
They were going to have meals together when they could. They were going to spend time with each other, lots of it.
They were going to be, for the first time in their lives, true sisters. Jenna couldn’t begin to tell Kristen how much it meant to know they would be family, together no matter what. It was what she’d wanted all along, what she’d been afraid to hope for.
But somehow she didn’t feel quite the overwhelming joy she’d expected. And the reason for that only made her feel worse. Kristen didn’t ask questions; she just accepted Jenna as she was.
But Kristen didn’t know, couldn’t know, that Jenna hadn’t changed all that much. She was still lying, dammit, and now she couldn’t stop.
That Kristen was so happy to be back in Jenna’s life just fed the guilt.
“Tell him,” Kristen urged. “It’ll be hard, but you’ll do it. It’ll work out. You’ll see.”
Feeling like crying, Jenna shook her head. “Can’t.”
“Sure you can. You have to.”
“I know I have to.” Jenna flopped back in her chair and stared at the ceiling. “It’s just that there are…mitigating circumstances.”
Kristen laughed. “Mitigating circumstances? Of course there are! You’ve been on the run for years, scared away from home by a mother unable to show her love and-” She broke off so awkwardly that Jenna lifted her head and stared at her in surprise.
Kristen chewed on her lip, looking characteristically uncomfortable.
“And what?” Jenna inquired, frowning. “The fact that I was a complete jerk? You can say it, you know.” She forced a smile and relaxed back against the chair. “It’s certainly true enough, isn’t it?”
“I wasn’t going to say that.” Kristen’s voice was low, a little hesitant And again Jenna stared.
Kristen eyes were full of apology. And worry. “It’s just that we’ve still not talked about it. And we should.”
And suddenly Jenna understood they were no longer talking about things she’d done, but what had been done to her. The abrupt shift of subject made her dizzy. Sick.
Or maybe it was just the subject matter.
Shame and acute embarrassment hit her. “Oh. You mean, that.”
“Yeah,” Kristen said softly. “That.”
“Forget it.” Jenna certainly wished she could. It had been the last straw in her out-of-control life. Squeezing her eyes shut, Jenna tried not to think about it, but the memories surfaced, anyway.
Her mother’s anger, fueled by a sick jealousy of Rand Ridgeway’s attention.
Jenna’s own belief that she somehow deserved it.
Stone’s unflagging trust, terrifying her all the more.
He’d loved her, really loved her, and she had been completely incapable of accepting that. As a result she’d done everything in her power to destroy her and Stone’s relationship, just to prove she hadn’t been worthy of it.
In the end she’d destroyed far more than just herself, taking both Stone and Sara down with her.
Finally, unable to do anything else, she’d given up and run.
“Oh, Jenna, I’m so sorry.” Kristen pulled Jenna out of her chair, brought her to the couch and sat down next to her. “I’m sorry, honey. Had you forgotten? I didn’t mean to make you remember such awful things.”
“No, it’s all right. And I certainly hadn’t forgotten.” She wasn’t likely to ever forget. Rand holding her down with hot hurtful hands, forcing her to kiss his cruel mouth. In the few times she’d attempted a physical relationship since, her memories had ruined it for her.
But not with Stone. When she’d been with him, there’d been no room for anyone else.
Kristen held her hand. “About Stone. I really think he’ll understand. You were going through such a terrible nightmare. And on top of that you somehow believed you deserved it.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Jenna protested, unable to see herself as so pathetic.
They looked at each other until Jenna was forced to nod. “Yes, okay. Maybe I did feel responsible in some sick way for what happened with Rand. I dressed wild, I acted wild. Maybe I asked for it-”
“No,” Kristen said firmly. “No one asks for that. Honey, listen. Everyone adored Rand, still do. It wasn’t your fault they didn’t believe you.”
“But I don’t know if Stone can forgive-”
“If anyone can,” Kristen promised, “Stone can.”
Her sister looked so certain Jenna could only wish she felt as positive. “I left him alone with our baby, Kristen. Nothing and no reminding him of what happened there is going to change that.”
“You don’t give yourself or him enough credit. Things are different now. You aren’t that same scared little girl anymore. You had a car accident, one in which you should have died, but didn’t, and it gave you an epiphany.”
“Yes, not to mention a huge headache and quite a medical bill. It doesn’t change what I did. Or what Stone will say when he’s done laughing me out of here.” Dropping her head into her hands, she ran her fingers through her cropped hair. “I’m just so tired of making a mess out of my life.”
“Hush,” Kristen said, leaping up to pace. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself while I’m thinking.”
“Well, stop thinking so loudly.”
Kristen grinned at her, dispelling some of their mutual misery. “God, if nothing else, it’s good to have you back. Damn good.”
Jenna smiled at her sister. “Yeah, it’s good to be back.”
“Stone will feel the same, you know.”
“Not now that we’ve-I mean, we…in his office…” She covered her face again.
“Jenna,” Kristen said slowly, eyes wide. “Tell me you didn’t… Jenna! Why aren’t you telling me?”
“God, I’m such an idiot,” Jenna groaned.
“How did this happen? Never mind,” Kristen added sardonically when Jenna lifted her head and gave her sister a long look. “Obviously I realize the logistics. But-”
“Don’t ask.” Misery overwhelmed Jenna. “It’s done, and he still thinks I’m Cindy Beatty.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“Well, no,” Kristen said slowly. “But I’m beginning to see some of your reluctance to tell him the truth.”
For a minute they sat in silence.
“Well, if you wait until he falls in love with you-” Kristen leaped to her feet again “-he won’t be able to resist when you tell him.”
“Oh, sure, like that’s going to happen.”
“I bet he’s halfway there,” Kristen said. “Quite frankly you have nothing left to lose.”
Wasn’t that the truth.
“Are you feeling okay?”
Jenna realized she’d been holding the side of her face again, where the worst of the damage had been done in her accident. It ached sometimes, as it did now, although the doctor had told her it was because, when she felt tense, she tightened her muscles too much.
The office door opened behind them just as Kristen asked, “Any lingering pain?”
Jenna didn’t have to turn to see the newcomer, didn’t have to see to know why her entire body was suddenly tingling with anticipation. And panic. How was she going to explain this? And why hadn’t she told him the truth? Why was she still hiding?
Stone let the door shut quietly behind him. In his slow but sure way he took in the entire setting-and Kristen. His face hardened, although he remained polite. Dipping his head, he still managed to greet Jenna with a solid warmth that seeped into her very nervous bones.
“Cindy,” he said quietly, only his eyes reflecting the fact that he’d recently made love to her until she didn’t know her name.
“S-Stone,” she said rising. “Hello. I’m just-”
But he turned to Kristen, who smiled wobbily and said, “Hello, Stone. It’s been a while.”
His expression gave away none of the thoughts Jenna knew had to be racing through his head. “Certainly has.”
“Ever thought about calling and asking her yourself?”
“I’ve wanted to,” Kristen said softly, her face creased in regret. “I’m sorry I haven’t.”
“I’ve also wanted to apologize. For… the court case back then. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Not many of us were.”
So unrelenting. So stiff. Jenna hadn’t heard him sound so cold before. So utterly uncaring. It was unlike him, but God, could she blame the man? Jenna knew Kristen. had only been trying to do what was best for Sara, but when she remembered all Stone had faced in those early months, she wanted to cry.
He made no move to lighten the tension, which had become so thick she could hardly breathe. In the awkward silence she threw Kristen a panicked look. How would she explain?
Kristen. saved the day, or tried to. “Well, I should get going. Please let me know if something comes up. I can be available to take an assignment on an hour’s notice.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt business,” Stone said, folding his long lean body into a chair. “I can wait.”
He thought Kristen was looking for a job, Jenna realized with relief. Well, what else could he think? He could never in his wildest dreams guess the truth. “It might be a while,” she said, not exactly eager to face what had to be done. What should have already been done.
“Never mind, it’s okay.” Kristen nearly ran to the door. “We can finish another time. Thank you,” she said to Jenna, giving her a look Jenna had no trouble reading.
Don’t you dare leave! Jenna silently begged in response.
“Take care,” Kristen said.
Stone looked surprised at Jenna’s outburst. “No! I need your résumé, remember?” Jenna jumped up, desperate to delay the inevitable.
“I won’t forget. Goodbye, Stone.” Kristen hesitated. “I hope to see you again. Will you tell Sara you saw me?”
Jenna’s heart stopped. Stone’s gaze was shuttered. “Why would I do that?”
“So that maybe you could tell her I asked about her. That I send my-” She stumbled over her words when Stone didn’t make a move to encourage her. “So you can tell her I said hello.”
He stared at her. “I’ll tell her.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, her eyes bright as she left
Stone rose and came toward Jenna. He stopped so close his thighs brushed hers. “Why are you so tense?” He lifted her chin so he could meet her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t hide from me.”
“Hide?” She laughed nervously, pulling away to sit at the chair behind her desk. “I’m right here.”
“You know what I mean.” With slow grace he closed the space between them. He leaned forward, his big hands on the arms of her chair, surrounding her, crowding her in the nicest of ways. One hand lifted and his fingers brushed her jaw gently. Tenderly. Lowering his head, his mouth replaced his fingers, and she felt him kiss the puckered skin of her scars so lightly, with such gut-wrenching care, tears welled.
“What did Kristen mean,” Stone murmured against her skin, “when she asked you about lingering pain?”
“Did you stop by for pleasure or business?”
“I asked first. Are you hurting from this?” As his mouth hovered close, his fingers spread wide over the side of her face, his thumb brushing over her lips as if he wanted to feel her answer, as well as hear it.
“I…can’t think when you touch me,” she said against those warm fingers.
“So don’t think.” His body brushed closer, then closer, so she could feel the heat of him sink into her skin.
His name drifted in a sigh off her lips.
Her name drifted off his and he bent to kiss her.
The door to the office swung open to reveal a shocked Kristen.
“I’m back,” she said too brightly, waving an envelope. “And I’ve got my resumé.” She shot Jenna a glance that spoke volumes. “Stone, I think someone is just pulling up to your office.”
When Stone moved to the window to peek out, Kristen glared at Jenna and mouthed, Stop kissing and start telling!
Stone turned back, strode over to Jenna and, disregarding Kristen’s fascinated stare, kissed her just long enough to have her eyes crossing with want. “I came to talk to you about hiring a clerk for my office, but we can do that later. I’ll see you soon,” he promised quietly.
As he strode out, Jenna fell limply into a chair, thankful down to her curling toes she didn’t have to answer.
Kristen grinned. “Got any brain cells left?”
“Not many.” Jenna fanned herself, feeling ridiculously juvenile to be so bowled over by a kiss. “What are you doing? Why did you come back?” She tossed the empty envelope aside. “You don’t have a résumé.”
“I’m making sure you don’t make another mistake. I stepped aside too many times in our lives, and yes, I realize we’re old enough to take care of ourselves now, but I thought I’d save you, anyway.” She pointed. “Now listen up, little sister. No more hanky-panky until you tell him. You’ll just make it worse.”
“Do you think I plan such things?” Jenna asked incredulously.
“Hmm. No, I can see how you lose yourself. He’s incredible. Just don’t forget, you have a strategy. Make him fall in love with you. Love. Not lust, though…” She glanced out the window at the retreating Stone, whose long amazing legs, strong defined arms and taut backside all moved with the easy grace of a man very much in charge of himself and his emotions. “I can definitely see where the lust comes from.”
Like starstruck giggly teens, they crowded the window, watching Stone walk away. God, he was something, Jenna a thought. A well-honed machine, all those muscles and well put together bones running smoothly.
“He did grow up fine, didn’t he?” Kristen asked a bit breathlessly.
“Yeah.” And the knowledge didn’t ease the ache of unfilled desire pounding through her. Not one little bit.
Make him fall in love with you.
Kristen’s words haunted Jenna as she tried to work the next day, for she had no idea how to accomplish this. Besides Stone, no one had ever fallen in love with her; she’d certainly never contrived to make them do so.
She had a million things to do. Place ads, read the Help Wanted section in all three of the papers she’d dumped on her desk, run checks on two new people she’d interviewed the day before. And that was just the beginning.
Oh, yes, she had lots to do, she thought, continuing to pace her office. Lots to do and all she could think about besides her daughter was that sexy man a couple of offices down from hers.
The night before he’d tried to convince her to come to dinner with him and Sara, and as much as her heart yearned to do just that, she’d declined. It had nearly killed her. Getting to know Sara was so important, but she couldn’t let herself indulge in that luxury, not until she’d told Stone the truth, something she couldn’t do until she had him alone.
“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “Asinine. I’m a complete fool.” Continuing to berate herself, she pulled out her purse. Buried in the zippered compartment in the bottom, was a small photograph.
It had been taken immediately after her birth. It was faded, wrinkled-and her most precious possession.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered, caressing the photo as if it were Sara’s skin she was touching. “I’m trying to fix it, really I am. Right now.” That decided, she once again buried the photo and straightened. She had every right to walk on down there to Stone’s office, didn’t she? His brother had just died, for Pete’s sake. She should go down and see if he was okay.
Leaping on that excuse, Jenna flipped on her answering machine and practically ran out of her office.
She stepped into Stone’s shop, only to come to an abrupt halt.
The phone rang off the hook. The huge saw was on, its roar filling the shop, but no one was near it. The large room was hot, as if the heat had been accidentally left on all night. On the counter a small fan blew ineffectually at the too-warm air.
Flying around it were sheets of paper, and given the unaccustomed emptiness of the counter, Jenna imagined that the fan could be blamed for this, as well.
There were things she remembered about Stone, things she would never be able to forget. Not necessarily a neat man, he did thrive on order.
There was no order here, none at all.
Something was wrong and dread knotted in her stomach.
At the silence more dread filled her, for Stone was always careful. He’d never leave his shop unattended, with important papers flying about and a saw running. Not unless he’d gotten hurt again-
The sun beamed through the windows on the side of the shop, blinding her, but she ran toward his office and jerked the door open without invitation.
It was empty.
When she turned to leave, she saw him. She’d missed him before because of his utter stillness and the glare of the sun, but he stood directly in front of one of the windows, hands in his pockets, his back to her, his wide shoulders squared against the world. His face was hidden from her, but she imagined his jaw tight with strain, his eyes hard and hot.
Her first thought was, He’s found me out. Despite her best efforts, somehow he’d seen her tattoo. Or he’d recognized her kiss. Or…
Her second thought was that she was thinking about herself far too much.
She wanted to run away, wanted to forget the tension that fairly vibrated off him. Instead, she walked over to the saw and flipped it off.
At the startling silence, Stone turned his head. The beginnings of a beard darkened his jaw, as if he hadn’t shaved that morning. He looked tired and just a bit ruthless. Yet at the sight of her, his hard cold expression changed, lightened. The stress lines around his eyes and mouth faded. And then he offered her a slight smile that turned her heart upside down.
Words failed her.
He didn’t speak, either, didn’t move a muscle, just looked at her as if she was the most beautiful woman on earth.
And for that one second she felt it.
Without remembering the actual decision, she moved toward him, not stopping until she stood in front of him. She was scarcely breathing.
When she was near enough, he opened his arms. She walked directly into them, closing her eyes so that she couldn’t see the honest emotion in his. The warm hard strength of him enfolded her, and Jenna sighed.
“This is what I needed,” he murmured roughly, dipping his head to run his lips lightly over her jaw. “You.”
“What is it?” she whispered, dropping her head to the side to give his insistent mouth better access. He bit her lightly, giving her a set of delicious shivers that he promptly soothed away with his hands. “When I first came in, what were you thinking about?”
“Nothing.” His arms tightened around her. “Everything.”
“I’m sorry. Your family?”
“Lack of one. Today is the funeral. I was just thinking of him and feeling…lost. Then you came.”
“I’m so sorry about your brother, Stone.”
“Yeah.” His voice roughened. “It’s Sara I’m worried about. I can’t believe they don’t want to be a part of that precious kid’s life. It kills me.”
She couldn’t believe it, either, and an amazing surge of anger welled up within her, so much so that she had to remind herself she’d supposedly left all the bitterness and fury in her past. “Keep trying,” she suggested with a lightness she didn’t feel. “You have to keep trying for Sara.”
“I know.” He sighed, a heartfelt breath that made her hold him all the more tightly in return, trying to offer as much comfort as she could.
God. How could she tell him now, when he was on the way to say goodbye to his brother forever? He was about to face his parents for the first time in years, and he was so tense he was shaking. To tell him now would be cruel. Selfish.
“Stone-” She sighed. Why did something happen every time she wanted to tell him the truth? Was it meant to be this way?
“Take care today,” she whispered.
His gaze caressed her. “You’ll be thinking of me?”
His lips descended on hers in a soulful, searching kiss that was both sweet and hot. She wished it could be different, that she could have told him the truth now, but she could do something else.
She could tell him how much he meant to her.
She pushed gently at his chest until he raised his head. “Stone.” His mouth, wet from hers, curved.
“Love the way you say my name.” His eyes blazed. “All breathy.”
“I’ll be thinking of you today-” she said shakily, “because of how important you are to me.”
A small bit of the immeasurable sorrow etched on his tight features faded and his fingers traced her jaw. “You’re important to me, too, more every day.” He stroked her lower lip with his thumb, making it tingle. “Can you come over tonight?” When she hesitated, he said, “I can’t leave Sara, it’s Mrs. Potts’s bowling night.”
That was good, she thought. She’d tell him, but first she wanted to see Sara one more time, before he kicked her right out of their lives. “Yes. I…I need to talk to you.”
“If you’d like, we can talk now.”
Telling him before the funeral would be cruel. She couldn’t burden him that way, not on this painful day. “It’ll wait,” she said, aching.
Cupping her face in his hands, he tilted it up and kissed her. It was different, this kiss. Softer, warmer and infinitely seductive, it spoke of things like deep abiding affection, and even more moving, it promised a future. Clinging, delving into the kiss, Jenna felt tears sting her eyes. Would his kisses promise a future when he learned who she really was?
“Tonight,” he whispered, giving her one last lingering kiss.
“Tonight,” she whispered back, her heart growing heavier and heavier with his every touch. “Tonight.”
Good Lord, tonight.
Stone held Sara’s hand during the funeral service. He had no idea if he was giving or receiving the comfort. They sat toward the back of the filled church and listened to the pastor drone on about God’s plan and timing and Fate.
He could see his mother and father, grieving and clinging to each other in the front pew.
Sara had demanded to know, in a not-so-quiet whisper, exactly which people were her grandparents, and he’d dutifully pointed them out.
And the dam he’d built around his heart held, for he hardly felt a twinge. He certainly felt no regret, only a lingering sense of anger at their incredible stubbornness.
“Daddy,” Sara whispered, tugging at his arm, “it’s over.”
Surprised, Stone watched the mourners weed their way to the front to offer their condolences.
He and Sara had already decided that they would not intrude on his parents, not on this day. They would pay their respects to Richard and leave.
So Stone had no idea why he grabbed Sara’s hand, kissed her and then started for the front of the church. Sara looked up at him, pride and love beaming from her face, and Stone knew he was doing the right thing.
The years fell away. His mother, petite and lovely, her small pixie face ravaged by tears, looked the same. His father, tall and rangy much like Stone, had gone gray, but his face, tanned and wrinkled from years in the sun, was also much the same.
Except they’d aged.
Stone’s heart lurched painfully.
“Mother,” he said softly. “Dad.” He waited until they looked at him, their mouths agape with shock. “I’m very sorry.”
For a moment no one spoke.
Finally his father said, “It’s about ten years late for that.”
“I meant,” Stone said firmly but politely, “I’m sorry about Richard. Nothing else.” He turned slightly, exposing Sara at his side. Smiling down into her curious, slightly nervous eyes, he said, “This is Sara. Sara, these are my parents, Lara and Charles Cameron.”
He heard his mother gasp, and he tensed, prepared to protect Sara from anything his mother might say.
But she didn’t speak.
This had nothing to do with his past, Stone reminded himself as his anger built; this was all about Sara. And her future.
He could only hope his parents saw it that way.
Then it happened, the only thing in the world that could have made him relax enough to actually enjoy this meeting. His mother plucked her glasses from the chain around her neck, and set them onto her nose, hungrily drinking in the sight of the child at his side.
Sara stared raptly in return.
“Why, you’re beautiful,” Lara Cameron said to Sara, whose face split into a wide grin.
“I look like my daddy,” she announced proudly.
Lara’s eyes filled once again. “I know.”
Charles swallowed hard, looking back and forth between Sara and Stone, as if unable to believe his eyes. “Son.” He held out his hand formally.
Stone slid his hand into his father’s. “I meant what I said before. I’m so sorry about Richard.”
His father nodded brusquely, turning away to hide his emotion.
“How come you named my daddy after a rock?” Sara asked, forgetting to keep her voice down. “’Cause Stone isn’t really a name, you know.”
His mother let out a choked sound, half laugh, half cry.
“I have an aquarium,” Sara continued, not waiting for a reply. “I’ve got lots of fish. I named two of them Grandma and Grandpa. Wanna see them sometime?”
“Sara.” Stone set his hands on her shoulders, silently reminding her of their bargain-which had been for her to remain quiet.
“Just wanted them to know, Daddy.” She smiled innocently. “’Cause if they decide they want to be my grandma and grandpa for real, I’ll rename the fish, that’s all.”
Lara dropped to the pew gracefully, set her face in her hands and began to cry.
Stone’s father, looking suddenly lost and much smaller $han his height dictated, awkwardly patted her shoulder.
Stone took Sara’s hand and turned away.
“Wait,” his mother gasped. Tears streaming down her face, she managed a weak smile. “I think I’d like to see your fish sometime, darling. Would…that really be okay?”
“Oh, yes.” Sara danced on her feet, excited.
“Are you sure? How about with your father?” Lara said, not looking at Stone. “Do you think he’d mind?”
Sara glanced up at Stone, searching his face for a long moment, before answering her grandma with a solemn tone. “Maybe you could ask him when you’re ready. You know, call him on the phone?”
“Would he like that?” Lara asked.
Sara thought about this a moment. “I think that would make him happier than he’s ever been,” she replied.
Lara nodded slowly, and once again began to cry.
For all Sara’s nonchalance, Stone knew by the way she fell sound asleep in his truck on the way home that his little girl was exhausted, made so by all the heavy emotions of the day.
When he was parked, he went around to the passenger side and scooped her up in his arms as he hadn’t done in a long time. He stared at her in wonder, soaking in the gangly long legs, the thin torso she hadn’t yet grown into and the peaceful at-rest face.
God, he loved her. He wanted to keep her healthy and safe for always.
Just a couple of weeks ago he’d have said he’d do this alone, without his family, without anyone. But that was before three monumental events had occurred, each equally staggering.
He’d lost his brother, forever.
He’d seen his parents and experienced firsthand the proof that they were indeed greatly affected by Sara.
And he’d started to fall for a woman.
It was the last one that had his heart tripping with unaccustomed nerves.
But then he walked up the path to his house and got a very pleasant surprise.
Cindy was sitting on his steps, looking lovely and wary and warm and anxious, making him wish he had two more arms with which to hold her, too.
Her eyes fell to the dead-to-the-world child cradled against him, and her face seemed to crumble. Stone watched in wonder as her mysterious dark eyes filled with a staggering tender emotion.
“Hey, there,” he whispered, shifting Sara so he could unlock the front door.
“Hey, back. Hope you don’t mind my showing up so early,” she said quietly. “But I wanted to be here in case you needed… or in case Sara… Well, I thought maybe you could use the company.” Her breath escaped her all in one big rush as she sagged, looking fragile and very beautiful. “I’m sorry,” she said finally, lifting her uncertain gaze to his. “I just hoped I could… I mean, I just wanted-”
He leaned over Sara and kissed her. “I’m very glad you wanted, thought, hoped, et cetera.”
“Good,” she said unevenly, staring at his mouth in a way that made him instantly hard. “Glad you’re glad, ’cause I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to you.”
“Whatever it is, it’s working for me.”
“I…have to talk to you.”
“Yes, I remember.” Some of her tension transferred itself to him. What was the matter? he asked himself. What had her looking so horrified and hopeful at the same time?
“Are you… all right?” she questioned as she helped him open the door. “Was it hard?”
“I’m better now,” he told her. “Somehow. I know that sounds strange-”
“It doesn’t,” she assured him. “I know what you mean.”
He looked at her, saw the compassion and understanding and grief in her face and realized she did know exactly what he’d been trying to say.
At some point in her life, maybe several times, she’d lost someone important to her. “I’m sorry,” he said gently.
Again he got that sad little smile, the one that made him want to grab her and hold tight. They walked through the big living room.
“Hold on a sec,” he told her, and carefully settled a still-sleeping Sara on the couch. He was covering her with a quilt when he sensed Cindy behind him. Turning, he was once again struck by the way she was looking at his daughter.
It was as if she was starving-not physically, but emotionally, as though desperate to give love. And uncertain it would be returned.
His heart contracted, and as soon as he’d tucked in his child, he reached for Cindy and pulled her close.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, wrapping her arms around him, sinking her fingers into the hair at the back of his neck and holding on in a heart-stopping possessive grip. The strangest thing happened. The embrace triggered in Stone unwanted memories of another woman, in another time, touching him in exactly this same way, as if she couldn’t make herself let go.
As if he was her entire world.
Startled, Stone pulled back and stared at Cindy for a long moment.
“What is it?” she asked quickly, withdrawing as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t have.
“Nothing.” Tugging her back against him, he tried to forget that twinge of warning unease. “Nothing. Touch me again.”
With a glance at the sleeping Sara, Cindy took his hand. Without a word she led him from the living room into his kitchen.
Then she looked at him, a quick glance over her shoulder. As she caught him blatantly admiring her, she grinned.
He jerked to a stop.
God, that grin-it reminded him so forcibly of Jenna.
What the hell was wrong with him tonight? Delayed shock? He’d read somewhere that a death sometimes causes heightened sexual desire, which he was most definitely experiencing. But what about this sudden fixation on a woman he hadn’t seen in more than ten years?
Needing something to do, he moved to the counter, filled a kettle with water and put it on to boil. Then, rubbing his hands together, he circled, searching for what he could do next.
“Want dinner?” he asked suddenly.
“Can you cook?”
She sounded so surprised he whipped around to face her. She was standing there with a small teasing smile curving her lips. Her head was tilted to the side, one hip cocked, and again she looked so absolutely stunningly familiar.
Then he blinked and she looked just like herself again, making him shake his head in denial. But something was different, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, and he didn’t like it.
He felt as though Jenna was right here in the room with him, watching, listening, haunting him. It wasn’t physical. It couldn’t be, for Cindy was as different from Jenna as mght to day.
Her hair was short, a natural soft brown that his fingers yearned to run through. Jenna’s hair had been long and icy blond. Dyed, he reminded himself.
Cindy was slender, but the curves beneath the material of her dress were lush and driving him out of his mind, even from across the room.
Jenna had been much thinner, leaner, barely matured, and he had no business comparing them.
Cindy’s eyes were dark. Jenna’s had been light.
And yet…both women’s gazes had stared at him from behind a mask of bravery, full of haunting secrets.
He was losing it, he realized, as she stood waiting for him to answer.
“I can make tea,” he said a bit roughly in the too-quiet kitchen. “And I’m really good at reheating pizza.”
She laughed, and the sound should have thrilled him, for she so rarely let go enough to laugh.
Neither had Jenna.
Shaking his head at himself, he went to his answering machine on the cluttered counter and hit play.
Jenna listened to the messages, watching Stone smile as someone thanked him for agreeing to some upcoming auction. Apparently he was giving away dozens of expensive prototypes, all to needy children centers.
Well he hadn’t changed much. The old Stone would have given a stranger his last penny. This Stone was much the same.
She studied his kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it was large and homey. Slightly messy, which for some reason made her smile. Obviously housekeeping was a low priority here, and she knew what was a high one.
“You’re so generous with your time and money,” she said quietly. “The children centers must be thrilled to get your help.”
He gave a noncommittal shrug with those broad shoulders, making her smile again. He’d always hated talking about himself, and apparently that hadn’t changed.
“There’s more takeout in this town than just pizza,” he muttered, flipping through the phone book. “What would you like?”
“Do you always do so much for everyone else?” she pressed, already knowing the answer.
“You wanted to talk to me.”
“You’re avoiding my question.” And she was avoiding the inevitable, she realized. But God, she wanted this last evening to be peaceful, up to the end.
“I’m not a saint,” he warned, the muscles in his back tensing as he handled the heavy phone book. “Don’t look at me with rose-colored glasses.”
“I think I’m seeing the real you.”
Tossing the book aside, he rubbed his eyes, shoved his hands through his hair and sagged back against the counter. His exhaustion was a tangible thing, and it made her long to comfort him in some way.
Instead, she was going to make it worse. “I’ve got a better idea than fast food,” she suggested. “Why don’t you let me cook for you and Sara?”
At the unexpected offer he met her eyes across the room. His intense gaze heated her from the inside out.
“I want to do something for you, Stone. You’re always giving. Let me give back.”
A corner of his mouth quirked. “Haven’t you done that already?”
Again she laughed, surprising herself. “I meant… well, more. ”
His look was hooded. Sensual.
“I’m not talking about sex, you know.”
“That’s a shame, because we’re good at it.” Pushing away from the counter, he strode purposely toward her, making her pulse leap.
“There’s more than sex,” she said quickly.
“Yeah, there’s making love.” Snagging her hips, he drew her closer, then dipped his head and dragged that sexy mouth of his over her jaw, nipping as he went.
“Stone.” She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, allowing his lips to connect with the throbbing pulse in her neck. “Stone, wait,” she moaned. “Sara.”
“I know.” He lifted his head and sighed.
He looked so tired. His face was lined with fatigue. His shoulders were slumped, and she suspected that only sheer willpower kept him on his feet. She placed her hands on his chest. So warm, so hard, she thought, her fingers spreading wide to touch as much of him as possible.
With a husky murmur he leaned on her.
“Go lie down on the other couch,” she said softly. “while I cook.”
“Mmm. My bed sounds better.”
“You’re going alone.”
“That’s not as much fun.”
“I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
With a tenderness that never failed to surprise her, he stroked her cheek. “There isn’t much to work with,” he warned.
“I’ll figure something out,” she promised, pushing him from the room. “Just go rest.”
She watched him leave, then opened the freezer and realized he wasn’t kidding.
It wouldn’t be too hard, however, to whip up a meal of pasta and cheese bread. Stone’s kitchen wasn’t too stocked, but he had the basics.
She glanced at the breakfast dishes still piled in the sink. It made her smile to picture him and Sara here this morning, rushing out the door together.
A tide of warmth filled her, tinged with bittersweetness for what she’d lost. No, that was wrong. What she’d purposely walked away from.
When she’d set the table, she went out to get Stone.
She found him crashed out on the couch opposite Sara. He was too long for it, and as a result, he looked incredibly uncomfortable. Yet he seemed to sleep soundly. His feet hung off one end, his head the other, and she knew he would have a kink in his neck from that horribly cramped position. One arm was tucked awkwardly beneath him, the other flung wide over the side. His chest rose and fell rhythmically with his breathing.
As she watched, his face tightened, as if even in sleep he could find no peace. Moving closer, she kneeled at his side, gratefully using this time to have her fill of simply looking at him.
He’d changed clothing, and now wore faded jeans on those long muscular legs. Soft snug denim that outlined his every contour and, oh, his contours were nice.
It felt so good just to gaze at him. All those years when she’d had only her dreams, she’d missed him so much.
He was warm to the touch, she discovered, so she didn’t worry about covering him. She kept her hand on his arm, stroking, then ran her fingers up and over his shoulder, over his wide chest. Some of his tension seemed to dissolve at that connection. When she cupped his jaw, he turned his face into her hand, remaining deeply asleep. But his frown faded and the lines in his face softened.
Tenderness nearly choked her.
What was she doing? God, she couldn’t believe it, but she was falling hopelessly irrevocably in love with him for the second time. He was everything she’d ever wanted-and the person she’d hurt most next to her daughter.
He could never forgive her, never, and just the knowledge of that made her want to run away. But she was done running, forever. She would stay this time, stay and prove herself. She would.
Stone rolled slightly, trapping her hand between his warm body and the couch. “Don’t go,” he mumbled.
Though she had no idea who he thought he was talking to, she blinked back tears and shook her head. “I won’t,” she promised, her heart hurting from just watching him. “I won’t leave you ever again.”
But eventually she had to; she was too tired herself to remain upright another second. She took the only remaining piece of furniture left in the room, the chair.
Sighing as she curled her legs beneath her, Jenna relaxed for the first time in far too long and watched the two people she cared about most in the world. There was something so peaceful, so… freeing about watching them as they slept out their exhaustion.
Her own eyes drooped. Just for a minute, while the pasta was cooking, she told herself, giving herself permission to close her heavy eyes. Just for a minute…
The dream was the same as it had been every night since her horrific accident.
Excruciating pain. It insinuated itself into every nerve, throbbing and pounding. The blackness was good, welcome, but it wouldn’t come close enough. It wouldn’t swallow her up and take her away. And she couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.
People moved around her, over her. Poking, prodding, causing more pain. More fear. No one spoke to her, or if they did she couldn’t understand.
Panic overwhelmed her. She heard her own pathetic whimper, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Always so alone.
Ironically she wanted… the one person she couldn’t have.
She wanted Stone. The only person to have ever been there for her.
“Easy, sweetheart,” a low male voice murmured close to her ear. When she whimpered, a big gentle hand stroked her face in time to the soothing rumbling endearments he was whispering.
Jenna strained toward that voice, eyes clenched shut, unable to shake the dream.
“You’re going to be all right,” the voice told her, still stroking, and somehow, miraculously, some of the pain became bearable. Her fear receded.
And he became Jenna’s entire world.
“Wake up now. I’m right here.”
She jerked the rest of the way awake to find Stone kneeling at her side, staring worriedly down at her.
“Just me,” he said lightly, concern deepening the lines in his face. “Just a dream, sweetheart,” he said calmly, though his eyes were anything but. “Okay?”
“Okay.” She drew a deep breath. “Just a dream.” Closing her eyes, she savored the moment.
“It was a doozy,” he noted.
She felt him stroke the skin on her neck, her jaw. Felt his other hand on her body, firmly establishing contact so she wouldn’t feel alone.
“Want to tell me about it?”
He had enough to deal with, yet was still willing to carry her burdens, too. She grasped his hand, overwhelmed by how much room he had in his heart. “I’m okay,” she said, and sat up. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“No, my stomach did.” He smiled, some of the worry still evident as he searched her gaze with his. “Are you hungry?”
They stood, but Stone held her still when she would have moved to the kitchen. “You can trust me,” he told her. Lifting her chin, he met her gaze. “With anything.”
And amazingly enough, for a woman who’d spent her entire life running from trust, she knew it to be true. And the thought gave her hope for the upcoming evening and her biggest risk of all. When she would indeed have to trust him with her very heart and soul.
Stone insisted on doing the dishes. Then, though it wasn’t a school night, Sara was irritable and exhausted enough to want to go to bed early.
Which left Stone and Jenna alone in the living room, a low fire in the hearth and two cups of steaming tea in front of them.
We’re alone, Jenna thought, nerves jangling. No better time than this.
That was when Stone turned to her with a curious little smile on his face.
“What did you mean before? When you said you wouldn’t leave me ever again?”
Jenna stared at him, her heart in her throat. “You were sleeping,” she said in an accusing voice she couldn’t control, jabbing his solid chest with her finger. “I know you were, I made sure!”
He caught her hand in his and his smile faded. “Yeah, I was zonked out like a light. Then I felt you touch me, and I was enjoying your attention. I knew if I opened my eyes, you’d stop.”
“But…” God. It’d been different when she’d wanted to tell him, but with him looking at her expectantly, concern filling his gaze, she lost some of her nerve.
“That bothers you.”
“No.” She would have leaped off the couch, but Stone slid his arms around her waist, anchoring her to his side.
What she would give to be able to lay her head on his very capable shoulder and cry it all out. To have him understand.
She’d given away that right long ago.
Now, holding herself rigidly away from him, Jenna forced herself to meet his questioning gaze. “I didn’t mean for you to hear me, but maybe it’s better that you did.”
He frowned. “Come here,” he said quietly, tugging at her. “Closer.”
Still she resisted the incredible lure of his arms. “I can’t.” She had to close her eyes for a minute or lose her resolve. “Not until we talk about it.”
“I hate to hear you like this,” he told her. “Whatever it is, we can work it out.”
“I hope you still feel that way after we talk.” For a moment pride deserted her and she clung, gripping fistfuls of his shirt, burying her face in his neck. “Promise you will.”
“I can promise I feel something for you,” he said slowly, stroking her back, his voice rumbly and deep against her ear. “I can’t imagine that changing.”
She closed her eyes, breathing in his wonderful scent, and wished with all her heart she didn’t have to do this.
“Tell me, Cindy.”
“For starters,” she said, lifting her head and straightening away from him to see his face. “That’s not my real name.”
He shifted, his shirt stretching over bunching muscles. His voice was carefully patient, as though he refused to jump to conclusion. “You mean it’s short for something?”
This was so desperately hard. “No. I mean Cindy isn’t my name at all.”
Silence. He didn’t move a muscle. Then, very quietly, “What?”
“I’m not…Cindy.” She grimaced. “Much as I spent most of my life wishing I was.”
“Then who are you?”
“That’s the…tricky part.”
“I see.” His eyes narrowed speculatively. “Now I understand why you don’t always answer to your name.”
Her face felt hot. “Yes,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Why don’t you tell me the rest of it before you go apologizing for something I don’t understand?”
“All right.” She stood, and swiped her wet palms down her pants. Lifting her hands to her eyes, she prepared to remove the dark contacts, wanting Stone to see the real her.
The doorbell rang.
Stone swore and Jenna froze. “No,” she whispered. “Not again. Fate really has it in for me.”
“Tell me,” he said. “Just tell me.”
Jenna stared at him, unable to believe they were going to be interrupted again. It was just too much. “But the door-”
“It’s a salesman.”
“At eight o’clock at night?” Jenna shook her head, frustration so strong she nearly choked on it. Truly unbelievable! “Stone, you’ve got to get it.”
“Fine.” With one lithe motion he rolled to his feet. Looming over her, he looked powerful. Intense. And very annoyed. Unconsciously she stepped back from him.
Jaw tight, Stone reached out and touched her, just a light brush on her shoulder, but it was enough to remind her that his superior strength would never be used against her.
“Don’t forget where we were,” he demanded softly, reminding her that she wasn’t done here tonight, not by a long shot.
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
The bell rang again, a harsh ugly sound echoing in the room.
With a choice expletive, Stone moved toward the door, equal parts anger and frustration making his movements jerky. He nearly tore the hinges off the door as he yanked it open, and then he went still.
From her perch near the couch, all Jenna could see was his broad shoulders blocking the opening. She heard him murmur something in a surprised voice and a woman murmur in return.
Then Stone stepped back, his face pale. Jenna realized why when his mother, Lara Cameron, stepped over the threshold.
The woman had once hated Jenna with all her might, which made it more than mildly disconcerting to have her smile politely at her. Without any sign of recognition.
Looking shocked to his toes, Stone started to introduce his mother, but stopped suddenly and flashed Jenna a disarming but decidedly shaky grin. “Would you like to tell my mother your name, since at the moment I don’t seem to actually know it?”
Jenna’s mouth opened, but all that came out was a short desperate laugh. “Cindy will do for now,” she managed, covering her mouth.
“Nice to meet you,” Lara said formally, gripping her purse close as she made an obvious attempt to remain polite and true to her status. But her gaze kept falling back to her son, wonder and regret filling her eyes.
It was a big moment for Stone. Having stood between them once, Jenna had hoped never to do so again. “I’d better go,” she said quietly, her throat tight with the need to scream in frustration. Surely this was Fate’s idea of a joke, interrupting them continually before she could tell Stone the truth.
“No,” Stone said. “Wait.”
Jenna walked to the door.
God, that name! Tears filled her vision, her hands clenched tight. She had no choice, no choice at all, but it was going to drive her crazy. She moved faster, stepping around his mother without meeting her eyes.
“Just wait, dammit.” Stone stopped her, his voice low, urgent. “We were in the middle of something important. You wanted to tell me-”
“It’s not as important as this,” she said, even though with all her heart she wished it could be.
“Thank you,” Lara said. “You’re right, this is very important. I’ve waited too long as it is.”
But Stone was having none of it. “That you’ve waited at all is not my fault,” he told his mother, “nor at the moment, my problem. This,” he told Jenna firmly, “comes first.”
Lara pressed her lips together, but then inclined her head and said, “As you wish.”
Stone sighed, his brow deeply creased as if he had a headache. “Mother-”
“He wanted to talk to you, you know. Richard.” Lara nodded. “He wanted that more than anything.”
His face grim, Stone shook his head. “No, he didn’t.”
“It’s true,” his mother insisted.
“The hell he did,” he said in a carefully controlled voice.
With his innate courtesy gone, Jenna knew he was near the point of exploding. All she wanted to do was wrap her arms around him and never let go.
“He…he didn’t because he thought he’d disappoint me. I think he was afraid to hurt me more than I’d already been hurt.” Lara shook her head. “The only problem, Stone, is that you were hurt too, more than any of us, and you were all alone. Richard realized that. He thought about you a lot, especially… recently, almost as if he’d known… He started talking about you. I think he was trying to get me to-” She broke off suddenly, covering her mouth with her fingers.
Stone looked out the window into the dark night, his eyes suspiciously bright. Jenna felt tears well up in her own eyes. Tears for a man who’d given so much and received so little. Tears for a man who wouldn’t let his own fall.
Nothing could have kept Jenna from taking his hand. He strung his fingers through hers and held tight, still staring out the window.
I love you, she wanted to tell him, the words nearly bouncing off her tongue with an ease that startled her, for she’d never, ever, said them before.
He whipped his head around to face her, and for a horrified second, Jenna feared she’d spoken out loud.
“Excuse us,” Stone said politely to his mother, and taking Jenna’s hand, he practically dragged her into the kitchen.
“Stone, you’re going to have to talk to her. I’m not nearly as…important”
“Don’t do that,” he said, touching her face gently and stopping her words. “You’re as important to me as she is.”
“No buts.” He rubbed his forehead, reminding her how tired he was. “I have no way of knowing how serious she is, or if this is just a passing phase because she lost Richard. But you…yoa’re not a passing phase.”
“I mean it,” he said gruffly, sinking his fingers into her hair, holding her head. “I know it hasn’t been very long-”
“Do this first,” Jenna said shakily. “Do this with her, then we’ll talk. Then, if you still mean it…” Please let him still mean it. Her voice cracked.
With a low sound of concern, Stone dipped his head and kissed her softly. “Tell me now.”
Jenna glanced at the kitchen door. “No,” she whispered. “Not like this. Not in a hurry. I can’t, I just can’t. God, Stone…I’ve been trying to tell you forever. It has to be right. And most certainly it’s not right now.”
“Okay.” He sighed and straightened. “I’ll talk to her first, but don’t you dare leave. Promise you’ll wait this out, no matter how long it takes. That we’ll finish this once and for all.”
His eyes never left hers. “Promise.”
“I don’t go back on my word.”
He didn’t smile-there was too much heart-wrenching tension in them both for that-but his gaze said it all. And suddenly she wanted to hug him tight.
He beat her to it, wrapping her in his arms and rocking her against him, where they stayed for a long moment
Jenna jerked out of Stone’s arms at the sound of his mother’s exclamation.
“I’m sorry,” Lara said calmly, chin up, cheeks bright. “I was just checking to see if everything was okay.”
Stone didn’t let go of Jenna. “You were appeasing your curiosity.”
Lara looked startled at his frankness, but then smiled. “Yes. Can you blame me?”
“No,” said Jenna quickly. “Of course not.”
Lara beamed at this support, although her smile turned a bit shaky when she turned to her son.
They all stood there, staring at each other with an awkwardness that deepened with every passing second.
This couldn’t get worse, Jenna assured herself. It couldn’t.
At the soft hesitant voice, Jenna closed her eyes and groaned.
Of course it could.
“Come here, Sara,” Stone said wearily. “Before you trap your nose in the door.”
The girl bounded toward them, her cheeks red, her eyes bright with excitement.
A second wind, Jenna thought dully. Sara would never get back to sleep now. “I should really go…”
“No,” Stone said. “You stay here.” Jenna pulled away but kept holding his hand.
With the obliviousness of the young, Sara ran up to Stone’s mother and threw her arms around her. “I knew you’d come, I just knew it! I told Daddy you would, but he said not to hope because he didn’t want me to be disappointed.”
Stunned, her arms hovering uncertainly in the air, Lara Cameron stared down at the dark head pressed to her middle.
Closing her eyes with a soft exclamation of emotion, Lara wrapped her arms around the child. “Well, hello, there,” she whispered. “Oh, you feel good.”
“You do, too,” Sara said. Then she wrinkled her nose. “But you don’t smell good. Icky.”
To Jenna’s astonishment, the woman laughed.
Stone gave a little gasp, and Jenna’s heart went out to him. If she was surprised to see the woman smile and laugh, Stone must be near heart failure.
“That’s very expensive perfume, darling.” Lara tipped up Sara’s chin. “It’s an acquired taste.”
Stone shoved fingers through his already tousled hair and shot Jenna a helpless look before turning to his mother. “Why are you here?”
Lara lifted her head, her eyes as bright as her granddaughter’s. “I…” She laughed again, nervously this time. Jenna couldn’t blame her, for Stone was staring at his mother with a probing suspicious look. “I don’t know exactly,” she said finally. “I couldn’t think after the service, then at the house there were so many people, I just got in my car to take a drive.” She lifted her shoulder in a perfect echo of both Stone’s and Sara’s shrug. “And I ended up here.”
Stone didn’t relax, just regarded her with an inscrutable expression. “That’s not good enough,” he said finally.
Jenna shifted uncomfortably. “Stone-”
“No,” Laura said to her granddaughter. “He’s right, darling.” She met Stone’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Stone. I came to tell you that. I know it’s not worth much in your world, and-” she swallowed hard and hugged Sara close “-I can see why and what you’re protecting.”
“Oh, yes.” She smiled down at Sara with wonder and joy. “And believe me, I understand. She’s…priceless.”
Stone let out a deep breath. “Yes, she is. And she’s ten. Ten times around the calendar without you giving a damn.”
“I gave a damn,” Lara whispered. Her gaze fell to Sara’s fascinated one. “I gave a lot of damns. But pride is a horrible thing, Stone.”
“A couple of visits and some expensive presents aren’t going to cover this one, Mother. It’s not going to be a quick fix.”
“I’m not looking for a quick fix.”
“No?” He arched a brow. “What are you looking for?”
For a minute her chin trembled, as if she was about to cry, but then she stiffened it and said bravely, “Forgiveness.”
“Because of Richard.”
“For Richard. I should have done it sooner, I know that. I shouldn’t have ignored your attempts to communicate over the years.”
Stone didn’t appear moved. “It took a long time.”
“Maybe I’m a slow learner. Maybe I had to suffer great pain first.”
At the unmistakable reference to his brother’s death, Stone relented. “I’m sorry. I’ll never stop regretting that we never spoke again. But quite honestly it doesn’t solve anything. Up until just a day ago, you were still refusing to accept my calls.”
Lara glanced down at Sara, then over at Jenna. “Would you mind terribly…?”
“Not at all,” Jenna said, relieved. “Come with me, Sara, into the living room. We’ll stoke the fire.”
“I want to stay here and listen.”
At the warning in her father’s voice, Sara rolled her eyes and went with Jenna.
“I saw you hugging my daddy,” she said the instant the doors shut behind them. “I don’t want you to do that again. My mommy’s going to come home and he’s hers.”
Jenna nodded seriously, although her heart began to race. Everything she’d ever wanted was standing right in front of her, and she didn’t want to ruin it. “I’m glad your mommy is coming home. Have…” Her voice started to crack and she cleared her throat. “Have you missed her?”
Jenna took a big chance and kneeling before the stubborn wonderful child of her heart, whispered, “She missed you, too. And I bet she’ll tell you that real soon.”
They were playing cards by the fire, with Jenna losing badly at a game of Go Fish, when Stone and Lara came back into the room. Looking stressed out and exhausted, Stone went directly to his daughter, pulled her close and said, “Would you like to go spend the night at your grandma and grandpa’s house?”
“Oh, boy! Really?”
“Really,” Stone told the bouncing grinning girl. “Can you be good?”
Stone helped Sara pack, then walked both her and Lara to the car. Jenna sat in the kitchen, her heart pounding. By the time Stone came back in and looked at her, she thought for sure he’d be able to hear it from across the room.
She was about to lay her life and heart and soul on the line. There was nothing and no one to stop her this time, and panic nearly overwhelmed her.
“Just us.” Stone came right for her, lifted her out of the stool and against him.
He felt so good. Warm and hard and strong and capable, so very capable. How long had it been since she’d had someone like him in her life, someone she could depend on?
She knew the answer to that all too well. He’d been the last person. The one and only.
“Oh, Stone,” she whispered, clinging for just another minute. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry in advance for-”
“Just tell me, sweetheart.” Stroking her sides, her back, his big hands were everywhere.
Because she couldn’t help herself, her hands slid under his T-shirt, traveling slowly up the sleek bunched muscles of his back. Stretching beneath her roving fingers, he made a noise like a big cat on the prowl; a deep husky half-purring sound that had her body reacting in a thousand ways.
When she arched against him with a soft needy murmur, he lowered his mouth to hers.
“Wait,” she gasped.
“Cin-” he started, only to break off with a little laugh. “Okay, you’re right. This before hormones, because I just remembered-I don’t even know your name.” Still standing, still holding her, he looked down into her face. His eyes had a suggestive gleam. “Besides, we have all night now.”
She was desperately afraid it wouldn’t take that long.
“Okay.” But she couldn’t speak past her fear.
Gently he set his forehead to hers, then punctuated each word with a hot kiss. “Tell me why you had to lie to me. Tell me your real name.”
Swallowing hard, she barely managed to speak. “It’s Jenna.”
She felt the shock go through his body, vibrate through hers. Lifting his head, he stared at her with eyes gone cold as ice. “That’s not funny. How do you know about her?”
Before she could answer, he withdrew his arms from her and stepped back, leaving her feeling colder and more bereft than at any time in her life. “I never told you her name.”
“I know.” Her heart was racing even faster. “That’s why you have to believe me. I’m really her.” He just stared at her, frozen in disbelief. “It’s me, Stone,” she whispered. “I’m back.”
Jenna licked her dry lips and forced herself to look him in the eye. “I had to-”
“No.” Shaking his head, Stone backed away another step, banging into the counter behind him. Swearing, he turned around in a slow circle before whirling on her. “Dammit, why are you saying this?”
“Because it’s the truth.”
He stared at her, furious and confused. “Your eyes, they’re different-yet the same.” He shook his head again as if clearing it. “God, I’m losing it.”
“No.” She very carefully took out her contact lenses. With a precision she didn’t feel she set them on the table, then blinked a couple of times in the harsh kitchen light. She opened her purse, fishing out her wire-rimmed prescription glasses-similar to the ones she’d worn ten years ago.
“Look at me,” she ordered softly, her eyes misting over with the glare of the light and the emotions heavy in her heart. “Really look at me.”
He complied, his face a mask as he took in her bright blue eyes.
She fluffed her fingers through her short hair. “Imagine me with that long blond hair,” she said quietly. “In that thin, malnourished body I was always depriving.”
“Minus nearly ten years,” she added. “Without all this makeup I use to cover up the-Never mind that now. Just look, Stone. Really look, past all the exterior.” She stood there, heart and soul bared. Terrified. “Who do you see?”
“My God.” He gripped the counter behind him, and his chest expanded as he drew in a breath with obvious difficulty. “Oh, my God. But how?”
“A car accident.”
“You were in a car accident and got a new face?”
“Not exactly. It was the surgery required to put me back together after I went through a windshield and down a two-hundred-foot cliff.”
Before she could draw a breath, he was there, standing in front of her, yanking her against him and slamming his mouth down on hers.
His hands held her face as his tongue dipped into her mouth. Helpless, she wrapped her arms tightly around his midsection and opened to him.
The hard counter he pressed her against dug into her back while the hard bulge between his thighs dug into her front. But it was wrong. Something was missing.
The warmth, she realized. He held her, he kissed her, yet utterly without care and affection. She pushed away, needing to see his face.
His hand dipped into her collar and pulled out the pearls she wore, which he stared at with barely repressed violence. “I knew I’d recognized these. They were your grandmother’s.”
“Maybe that’s a lie, too.” His hands clasped her waist and with one swift motion, he had her blouse out of her pants.
But he cut off her question ruthlessly, with that knowing, exacting, mind-blowing mouth of his. When she shoved at him, he nuzzled her neck beneath her ear. “You’re good, Cindy. Jenna. Whoever the hell you are. Very good. But I suppose you’ve had lots of practice.”
Jenna squeezed her eyes shut at the insulting words. The accusation was ugly, and it hurt unbearably, especially coming from him. Stone. The man whose touch could send her soaring, whose voice had been a part of her dreams for so long she couldn’t remember what it’d been like before him. He’d been gentle and passionate, tender and fierce, and she wanted all those things now, along with his understanding. “Please, Stone-”
“Don’t ask me for mercy.” He tore the button of her pants open, then jerked down the zipper, while shock held her immobile. Slipping his hand inside, he tugged at her panties.
Before she could voice the protest, he’d dropped to his knees before her, staring bleakly at her exposed hip-and the small tattoo of a rose.
Swearing, he got up and jerked away from her, leaving her to clumsily right her clothes. Unwittingly she lifted a hand to the right side of her face, covering the faint scars. “Do you see me now?” she asked bitterly. “The real me?”
“Yes.” A muscle jumped in his jaw. The fingers on the hand gripping the counter were turning white with strain. His voice had gone cold. “Now get out.”
“You’ve had your fun, Jenna. Or should I say Cindy? Damn you!” He turned away in disgust to stare unseeingly out the window into the darkness. “You must have gotten a good laugh.”
“No. No,” she said hoarsely, moving closer to the man whose shoulders had always carried far too much responsibility. She set a hand on his taut back and ran it over muscles that quivered beneath her touch. “No-”
“Don’t,” he said harshly, and she dropped her hand.
Rounding on her, he grabbed her arms and gave her a shake. “Don’t touch me. Not like that. Like you mean it. Not ever again, damn you.”
“I…I do mean it,” she gasped, letting the burning tears fall. She let go of all pride. “Stone, please, listen. Let me tell you-”
“No!” As if he couldn’t help himself, he shook her again, then let go abruptly when she winced. “I’m sorry,” he said, clearly horrified. “That was unforgivable of me.”
He lifted his hands away from her as if he’d been burned. “I want you to leave.”
“Don’t be sorry!” she cried. “I deserve-”
He swore again, more creatively this time, then covered his eyes as if he couldn’t bear the sight of her. “Go,” he demanded wearily. “Just go.”
“But you have to listen!”
“Listen?” he asked incredulously, dropping his hands. “Listen to what? To why you’ve come back now after all this time? Or how about why you didn’t tell me who you really were? You let me think-God!”
“I don’t want to hear it. Unless, of course, you’re ready to stop lying and tell me the truth.”
“I didn’t lie.”
“The hell you didn’t.” His voice lowered, dripping with rage and sarcasm. “You lied every time you looked at me and let me think you were another woman. Every time you spoke or smiled, it was a lie.” His face darkened. “Every time you touched me, let me touch you… a damn lie.”
“No,” she said. “It was wrong not to tell you right away, I know that. But the rest, oh, Stone, the rest. It was the only truth in my life. Please believe me.”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said politely, with a chill that frightened her, “if I don’t ever believe another word you say.”
“When we…at your office…” Her breath escaped her when his expression changed, going from fury to anguish in less than a heartbeat. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I wanted to tell you before we did, but…”
“But it was such wild animal sex you couldn’t catch your breath enough to enlighten me?”
“Don’t.” His anger sparked her own. “Don’t belittle it like that. We made-”
“Wrong. Love is when two people are being honest. You don’t know the meaning of the word.”
Oh, he knew how to cut deep. “You can call it whatever you want,” she told him shakily. “But what we did in your office wasn’t some cheap one-night stand. It wasn’t just animal sex. It was…”
When she fell silent, he arched his brow, daring her to continue.
Damn him for being so stubborn. “It was…”
“You haven’t changed much, Jenna. Still can’t use the L-word.” He let out a short harsh laugh. “It’s called love, and you know what? I don’t expect you to understand it.” He shook his head in disgust. “Well, now I get the secrecy about your past-you couldn’t have been more vague. And why you kept forgetting to answer to your own name-that threw me. But refusing to take off your clothes until the lights were off. Hell, that makes perfect sense now. Of course you wanted the dark.” He wrenched himself around, away from her. “This is pretty unbelievable, even for you.”
“I had no choice.”
“Oh, that’s right. I hauled you out of anonymity, forcing you away from that basketball game to have pizza. Then I twisted your arm, making you continue to have contact with me. Which you just hated, right?”
At his hard unrelenting glare, she swallowed. “Of course not. But-”
“I won’t,” she said firmly, though her voice trembled. “Not until you listen. I intended to tell you who I was, but-”
“But what? It was so much more fun to torture me?”
There was far more than his rage here, which was what gave her the courage to continue to face him down. Shimmering behind his anger was a deeper, more frightening emotion-unbearable pain. “I was afraid,” she adnutted.
That stopped him, for it wasn’t what he’d expected her to say. All of a sudden just looking at her nearly brought him to his knees. He had no idea how he could feel so much anger, so much pain, so much need for her all at the same time.
But he did.
She’d asked if he could see the real her. Oh, yeah, he could see her clearly now. Agonizingly so.
Uncertain blue eyes that wrenched at his gut. A mouth made to drive a man crazy, he thought as he watched her chew on her lower lip. It was seeing the little things after so long that nearly blew him away. Such as the way she was wringing her hands, just as she always did when anxious or nervous.
God, it was her. Jenna.
The woman who’d haunted him for ten long years.
It was impossible to divide the pain and rage; they just mingled, the emotion crushing him until he could hardly breathe.
“You were afraid.” He laughed coldly, even as his heart squeezed at the look of utter dejection on her face. “Not that I believe you, but of what?”
“You” was the wrenching reply.
“You couldn’t have thought I would hurt you-you know better than that,” he said quietly, stung.
“No. I was afraid you’d turn me away.”
“Why would you think that? You’re the one who left.”
“And you know why.”
“Yes. Because you were a coward.”
She flinched and he felt like the biggest jerk on earth, which didn’t improve his temper. “You acted like a child,” he said.
“Not completely.” Stone derived no satisfaction when she blushed and turned away. “You didn’t trust me.”
“Don’t you see?” she cried, throwing up her hands and turning back. “I didn’t trust anyone.”
“What I see,” he said carefully, coming closer, “is someone too wrapped up in herself to care what she did to others when she left.”
Fire spit out her eyes. Fire and tears, which he refused to allow to soften him.
“You’re being unfair, Stone.”
“Am I?” he asked softly, completely unprepared for her taking that last step between them.
Without warning she poked a hard finger into his chest, punctuating each word with a stab. “Don’t you get it? I hated everyone. Everyone. I hated…”
He grabbed her hand, but she just stabbed him with the other. “I hated my mother, my sister…”
Stone caught her other hand and they grappled for a moment, before she collapsed against him completely.
“I hated myself,” she admitted hoarsely. “Just hated myself.”
Trying to remain unmoved was difficult, because he was moved, dammit. And he didn’t want to be. Gripping her upper arms, he held her away from him, unable to deal with the pull of their physical attraction at the same time as all this hot steaming rage. “You ran away, instead of dealing with it. You left us. You forgot about me, about your daughter, and you left.”
She broke away, shoving at him. “Yes. Yes, I ran away. I was a jerk. God! Do you think I need you to remind me?” Plunging her fingers into her short hair, she turned from him. “Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of it. When I haven’t wondered how I could have handled it differently, how my life would be now if I had.”
“So what now?” he asked wearily, sinking into a chair. “Why are you here?”
“Well, at least you’re not asking me to leave anymore.” She shot him a hesitant half smile.
“Don’t,” he said, closing his eyes to that hopeful expression on her beautiful face. He couldn’t take it. “Don’t think I’m over it. You lied. You made me feel for you again, dammit, and I didn’t want to.”
“I don’t want you to get over me.”
“I got over what I felt for you as Jenna a long time ago,” he assured her flatly, hardening himself to her pain. “Now tell me the truth for once. Why are you here after all this time? Bored? Or do you just want to mess with some more lives?”
She looked at him through tears and regret, and again he had to remind himself to remain unmoved. This wasn’t Cindy, the woman he had thought he was falling in love with. This was Jenna, the woman he’d sworn never to forgive.
“I want to right my wrongs.”
“You want in on Sara’s life.”
“No,” he said firmly, shaking his head and tightening his jaw until his teeth hurt. “No way.”
Her mouth worked, but it took a moment for her to get the words out. “Why not?”
“You’ll hurt her-”
“-again,” he finished.
“No, I won’t. Please,” she beseeched softly, her eyes huge. “Just listen to me.”
“Oh, please,” he growled, shoving away from the table to pace the floor. “Don’t even try to tell me you won’t run off when the going gets tough. And believe me, with a ten-year-old, it can get quite difficult. I won’t have you hurt her. No possible way.”
“But I can explain-” She followed his wild pacing, jumping when he turned so fast he nearly bowled her over.
“Can you explain why you stayed away for ten years?”
“A year ago, I-”
“Not a year, Jenna, ten years.” He folded his arms over his chest, blocking himself off from her. The minute she opened her mouth to speak, he interrupted her, unable to keep his tongue. “God, what an idiot I am. Asking about your past, about your parents. About you. Not Cindy, you!”
“No! It’s different, I’m not that same girl you once knew. I think differently. I react differently. I-”
“Is that right?” he interrupted her. “I don’t think so, Jenna. To me, you acted pretty predictably.”
“Let me tell you all of it. Then maybe you’ll see.” Once again she touched the side of her face, covering the faint web of scars.
Stone’s gaze followed the movement. “I’d let you tell me, Jenna, because I imagine it’s quite an amazing story. But to tell you the truth, I’m not interested in where you were and what you were doing while I was here raising our daughter.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“If that’s true, you couldn’t have stayed away so long.”
“What scared me so much ten years ago has not changed. We were soulmates then, and we still are. We are,” she insisted when he turned from her. “And now you’re the scared one.”
For a minute Stone couldn’t answer, couldn’t even move. She was right on that score, he thought bitterly. He’d given both heart and soul to that seventeen-year-old girl, and he was terrified at how close he’d come to giving them to the grown Jenna ten years later.
He’d allowed her to nearly destroy him-again.
Apparently she was willing to pull on whatever heartstrings she could reach in order to railroad him into falling for this act of hers. He’d felt that light touch of hers on his back, felt his body react to it, and the memory further ignited his anger.
“Please, Stone, if I ever meant anything to you, please listen to me now. Let me tell you my story, and then we’ll go from there.”
God, no. If he did, if he allowed himself to look into her fathomless eyes and listen to her husky emotion-riddled voice, if he allowed himself to feel for her again, she would finish off the job she’d nearly accomplished the last time.
He could hear her fear, her utter vulnerability, and he didn’t want to. Holding on to his anger like a drowning man, he ignored her. He went directly to the back door and jerked it open.
Standing there holding it, he silently invited her to go out into the cold night and leave him alone.
“That’s it?” she asked incredulously. “You find out who I am, you decide you don’t like it much, and you’re done? Just like that?”
“You’re not being fair.”
“Let’s not get started on that issue, Jenna.” He said her name as if it were a filthy word.
“I have things to tell you.”
“Too late. I want you to get out.”
His face was hard, closed off to any emotion except anger. He wasn’t going to listen. He was going to kick her out, and every nightmare she’d ever had was about to come true.
Failure rose up and nearly strangled her. Slowly, hoping he’d say or do something, anything, to stop her, she walked toward the door. On the threshold, sandwiched between the warm cozy kitchen and the cold night air, she stopped and looked at him.
Her shoulder brushed his chest, and at the contact, he drew in a breath and held it.
It was just a tiny insignificant movement.
But hope flared through her, for he was not as immune to her as he wanted to be. “Good night, Stone,” she said quietly.
“Don’t you mean goodbye?”
“No, just good night.” Taking a chance, she touched him, set her hand on the tight unbreathing chest and felt the steady drum of his heart.
Needing more, she dug her fingers, just a little, desperately wanting to feel everything she could.
And his heart sped up.
She smiled through her tears and whispered, “This isn’t over. It can’t be over.”
“Yes, it is,” he said through clenched teeth.
Shaking her head, she raised herself on tiptoe and kissed his granite jaw.
He brought his hands to her shoulders and set her away from him. “Don’t.”
“I’m sorry.” She swiped at a tear. “I know you don’t believe it, but it’s true. Just go to sleep, Stone. Maybe in the morning you’ll feel differently. Maybe you’ll let me explain everything and then-”
“No ‘then,’” he said roughly. “Don’t even think it.”
“And then we can start to heal.”
Before he could further break her heart by telling her that it was impossible, she ran down the steps. But luck had rarely been with her, and she heard him say, “Don’t come back here, Jenna. Ever.”
Failure and despair washed over her as she made it to her car. But she didn’t let herself fall apart.
Instead, she set her shaking hands on the wheel, peeled out of his driveway and let the highway take her away.
Sara lay in bed in her grandmother’s huge wonderful house and wrapped herself around her pillow.
Sleep wouldn’t come. She thought that maybe it was because she’d put the four marshmallows in her hot chocolate the way her grandma had said she could, then when her back was turned, she’d stuffed eight more into her mouth real quick.
She loved marshmallows.
But now her tummy hurt.
Instead of calling her daddy and whining, which is what she would have loved to do, she pressed her pillow close to her belly and told herself she couldn’t get sick all over the pretty lace comforter on her grandma’s bed.
Her grandma was funny. So was her grandpa. And they had a cat named Noodles who was going to have kittens.
She intended to beg her daddy for one when they were born.
Her hopeful grin faded. Maybe he wouldn’t be interested. He seemed to have other things on his mind.
Like that Cindy woman.
Sara frowned now. She’d seen them kissing and hugging, and she didn’t like it.
She didn’t want her daddy to like another woman, even if she was nice and pretty and smelled good the way Cindy always did, because what would her mother say when she came back?
Sara, honey, I don’t think she’s coming back.
Her father’s words rang in her head, and as much as Sara loved her father and always wanted to please him, she really really wanted him to be wrong about this.
Her mother would come back. She would.
And she’d take one look at the way his father grinned like a dork over Cindy and probably get unhappy, maybe even cry.
Or even worse, she wouldn’t want to live with them, which would be the most awful thing of all, for Sara wanted them to all live in the same house happily ever after.
She didn’t want to come from a family with two houses like her friend Sally.
So while her stomach hurt, she lay there and tried to come up with a good plan for keeping Cindy and her father apart, or for at least keeping her father so busy he wouldn’t have time for anyone but Sara.
When she had a plan figured out, she relaxed and fell asleep.
Jenna drove mindlessly up the coast, her fingers stiff on the wheel, the night air lifting her short hair away from her hot face.
Misery and despair were her only company. That, and the taste of failure.
She hit the steering wheel with her fist. Once again she had chosen to destroy her life rather than deal with it. Hindsight was twenty-twenty of course, but even she knew what she should have done. She should have announced herself as Jenna that very first day.
Stone might have been shocked.
He might have been angry.
He might have been really really glad.
He might have been any of a thousand things, only she would never know. Not now.
The highway turned narrow and curvy. To one side was a thousand-foot drop to the Pacific, which churned and pounded. The moon disappeared behind the clouds. It was a dangerous time to be driving with such reckless thoughts, especially along a stretch of highway so similar to the one where she’d had her accident. No one knew that better than she did, but at the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to care.
She tried to remember how free and exhilarating the past ten years had been-without close friends, completely without ties.
She’d traveled, worked when she’d needed to, then took off again at will. She’d loved that free life…well, at least appreciated it.
Now she couldn’t imagine going back to it, not when her heart was firmly ensconced in San Paso Bay. But she couldn’t stay, and as misery continued to drag her into a pit of despair, she barely hung on to the next turn.
Her wheels spun far too close to the edge of the road, and she skidded a bit. Her tires screamed in protest, the sound jarring and grotesque in the night.
Shaken, Jenna pulled to the side of the road and slammed on her brakes. What was she doing?
She sat very still and listened to the night noises. The wind. The crickets. The hoot of an owl.
Normal. Everything was normal-except her life, which she’d effectively ruined for the second time.
Harsh, she knew, but true. Unfairly she’d decided that Stone couldn’t handle the truth, that she had to make him trust her. She’d been wrong-horribly irrevocably wrong. Now she had to pay the price.
Sighing, she rested her head on the steering wheel and let the tears of self-pity come.
She’d acted wrong, nothing new. But as she wept, she remembered something she’d learned about herself in those long months in the hospital.
Nothing in life was certain or permanent.
She thought of Kristen and their blooming relationship. Just a month ago Jenna never would have believed it possible. But her sister had been more than willing to meet her halfway, and Jenna knew this was due in large part to her own new ability to be honest. To admit her faults.
Why hadn’t she trusted Stone with those things, as well?
God, the look on his face as she’d left. Hollow. Bleak. Furious, yes, but hurt, too. And you could only hurt someone like that if…if that person cared. And if he cared, it couldn’t be too late. It couldn’t be over.
She’d fixed up parts of her life; she could certainly do her best to fix this, too. Couldn’t she?
Determination filled her, and rejuvenated her, as well. All she had to do-indeed all that was left to do-was be honest. She could do that.
She had nothing else to lose.
With a faint watery smile, she started her car and drove very carefully home.
Sara came home the following evening. Throwing herself into Stone’s waiting arms, she hugged him close.
He held her tight and tried to surface from a fog of swirling emotions. A fog caused by Jenna.
“They’re nice, Daddy,” Sara said of her grandparents. “Even nicer than I thought.”
Stone looked over her head to his parents, who stood on the porch staring at him with a light in their eyes he understood well. Exaltation and exhaustion, both caused by his whirlwind daughter. “I’m glad you had a good time,” he said, his voice low and husky after a long quiet day. He’d done little but kick himself for falling for Cindy-Jenna. This pit of rage and fear and pain she’d thrown him in was horrible.
“Grandpa took me fishing this morning in the creek!” Sara’s face wrinkled in disgust. “And we caught one, but its eyes and mouth were doing this-” She stopped talking as her mouth gaped open and then shut, her eyes wide with mock terror, in a perfect parody of a fish on a hook.
His parents laughed. Laughed. Something tugged at Stone, something unwelcome that felt suspiciously like acceptance, almost as if his heart had warmed toward them.
No, that couldn’t be. Jenna had just destroyed that particular organ-again. His temper surged, as it had all day long. He’d had no idea he could be so angry!
But watching Sara giggle and gush over the things she’d done with her grandparents did warm his chilled soul. There was no use denying it.
“She’s wonderful, Stone.” Lara’s smile was bittersweet. “And we’ve been such fools. I hope someday you come to believe me when I say how-”
“Don’t apologize again,” Stone ordered, perhaps too roughly. “I know how you feel.”
“Do you? I doubt it. I doubt you’ll ever understand how much I regret some of my choices, how much I have denied myself.” She lifted her chin regally, but spoke with undisguised hope. “But I won’t regret the present, Stone. Not unless you’re against this.”
Stone turned from her to Sara. “Go unpack, honey,” he told the girl.
She started to go, then stopped and faced her grandparents. “Thanks,” she said softly. “I love you.”
Then she was gone.
His mother dabbed daintily at her eyes, which Stone ignored. “What would I be against?”
“We want to see more of her.” His father spoke with a quiet determination, yet with something else, too, something Stone thought never to hear again from him-respect.
But he didn’t need it, not anymore, not from him.
“We know you’re alone. We’re hoping it’s not too late to help you with Sara.” His mother touched his arm for the first time in years, beseeching him with solemn eyes.
“What about Sara’s mother?”
“Her mother?” Lara asked, her tone casual, her eyes anything but. She dropped her arm from his. “Jenna’s been gone for years.”
“What if she’s not gone?”
“I…Oh.” Lara studied her son carefully, as if she could read his oblique thoughts. “You know where she is. You’ve been in contact.”
“Does it matter?”
His father sighed and nudged his mother, giving her a pointed look and a slight shake of his head.
Lara’s lips were pinched with strain. “I already admitted I was a fool, Stone. That includes how I treated her.”
“And she would be welcome, as welcome as Sara or me?” He had no idea why he pushed, for he couldn’t care less about Jenna.
Annoyed at lying to himself, he sighed and rubbed his temples. He cared all right; he just had no idea why he cared.
“I wish you’d tell us what’s going on,” Lara said quietly.
“I’ve been on my own for some time now,” Stone said as kindly as he was able to, while lingering fury at Jenna still raged through him. “And quite honestly much of what I’ve done is none of your business. It’s my life. And Sara’s.”
“And we haven’t earned the right to be included.”
At her anguished expression, he softened his voice, but didn’t give in. “Not about this.”
His parents’ bitter disappointment was clear.
“I understand,” Lara said, her voice a mere whisper. “Good day, son.”
They thought he was turning them away, and he wasn’t cruel enough to let them think that. “Wait.” Stone sighed when they both turned back eagerly to him. “I just meant that I’d like to let Sara call the shots for now.”
“That’s fair,” his father said quietly.
“This is all new to her and very exciting,” Stone admitted. “I’m sure she’ll be thrilled at the prospect of spending more time with you, but I just wanted you to know, at this time, I’m going to leave it up to her.”
“Like I said, that’s fair.” His father grasped his mother’s hand. “Thank you, son.”
“And Jenna?” Lara asked. “What about her?”
“We’ll see,” Stone said. How could he explain what he didn’t understand himself?
Long after his parents had climbed into their car and driven away, Stone stood there, staring at his empty driveway.
He couldn’t have been more thrilled for Sara about the happy reunion, even though he himself felt reserved and not quite rid of his resentment. He wanted this enough for her that he could put aside his own hurt.
He would not deny his daughter what he’d always wanted for her. Family.
But at the moment he had a far bigger issue to face-the fact that Sara was no longer motherless.
Jenna had come back.
“He’s there, Kristen.” Jenna whirled away from her office window in a mixture of panic and hope. “Oh, God. He just opened up his shop. I think I’m going to be sick.”
Kristen laughed when Jenna pressed her hands to her stomach. “Honey, relax, or you’ll have a stroke before you even go try to talk to him.”
“That might be better. He’d have to feel sorry for me then. Maybe I can just stop breathing and he’ll have to give me mouth-to-mouth. You can’t stay mad at someone whose life you just saved, can you? I don’t think that’s possible.”
“Jenna,” Kristen murmured in sympathy, rising and taking her hand. “For Sara, remember?”
How could she forget? “Yes, for Sara.” For the beautiful, wary and wonderful child she wanted to get to know with all her heart.
But first she had to get Stone to forgive her.
“You know, there is one thing to consider here.” Kristen tucked a strand of Jenna’s hair behind her ear and smiled with love. “If he didn’t care so much, he wouldn’t have been so furious.”
“You didn’t see his face, Kris.” Jenna closed her eyes against the memory of Stone’s destroyed expression, but the image was imprinted on her brain to torture her forever.
“Well, you have to admit it had to be a shock,” Kristen said. “Finding out the woman he just fell for is really the woman he’d already fallen for ten years ago.”
“Yes.” Miserable, Jenna slipped bonelessly into a chair. “And now he hates me all over again. And I’ll never get a chance to make it up to Sara.”
“Oh, I doubt it. He may want to think he hates you, but believe me-I found this out the hard way-Stone is one of the fairest men on this planet. He’s also one of the most honest. Even he will have to face the truth-he still cares about you. Too much. Otherwise this wouldn’t have been such a bombshell.”
“Well, it certainly was that.”
“He cared for you as Jenna, and he was starting to care for you as Cindy. It was a double whammy. Can’t blame him much.”
Jenna sighed. “Are you trying to make me feel better? Because I have to tell you, it isn’t working.”
Kristen’s smile was sympathetic. “You came to me and told me the truth. Was it so awful?”
“No.” Jenna swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat. “It was wonderful. You were wonderful.”
“And so are you.” Kristen smiled gently. “Go to him, Jenna. You can do this.”
“You came up with a great plan. Now toughen up and go for it.”
“Just march down there, announce I’ve found him a great clerk and start working?”
“Yup. You’ll whip his office into shape and prove you’re genuine both at the same time.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one putting your heart on the line.”
Kristen studied her for a moment, and when she spoke, the amusement in her voice had been replaced with strength and affection. “It’s about time you put your heart on the line, Jenna. Whether or not you want to admit it, you’ve played it safe most of your life, even when you were running. Face it, honey, that was the safest of all, staying away from anything and anyone who might hurt you. Or care for you,” she added softly, tugging on Jenna’s hand until she met her eyes. “And I’m proud you came back, Jenna. So very proud. I know what it cost you. But you’ve come a long way, so don’t give up until you finish everything you came here to do. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to that man and your daughter.”
“I know. You’re right.” Still, fear chased hope. “But I’m not sure he’ll see it quite that way.”
“Oh, Jenna.” Kristen hugged her. “Give yourself a break. Forgive yourself. You are worth it. And you are lovable, I promise. The trick is believing it. This won’t work between the two of you unless you do.”
When Stone opened his shop Monday morning, he rolled his eyes in disgust at the haphazard stacks of paperwork waiting to be done. At the piles of sawdust everywhere. At the work lined up on his bench, all unfinished parts for the life-size puzzles he had yet to put together. Jenna’s fault. Blaming her made him feel marginally better. It would allow him to forget his pain and work. But he’d promised the producer of the upcoming auction he would have the materials ready for donation. He never went back on a promise. Never.
Before, the simple joy of the place had given him a rush, but now all he could think was that he badly needed a clerk. And something to ease the terrible restriction in his chest, the one he was afraid would never go away.
Himself, playing the fool.
“Dammit.” Shoving away the images he didn’t want to face, he strode forward, determined to put order into his day He had an important meeting with the local school board, where he would propose several new ideas for the GATE-gifted and talented education-classes, something he’d been excited about just last week.
But he’d never felt less like working.
He was so intent on what he had ahead of him, the sound of the front door to the shop opening didn’t register. Not until-
At the sound of that soft, sexy, treacherous voice, Stone tensed. He turned and saw an incredibly beautiful woman. Jenna. Soft brown hair framed her pretty face, full of angles and what he’d always thought were mysteries.
He’d been right on that account.
She wore her dark sunglasses, but when he looked at her, she seemed to draw herself up. Slowly she pulled the glasses off. Blinking rapidly, she remained tense for a few seconds, as if the light hurt her eyes. Finally she relaxed.
He wondered about that, about why the light hurt her, then silently called himself an idiot for even sparing her a second thought.
No colored contacts today Nope, just naked vulnerable blue eyes. Jenna’s eyes. And they were so difficult to face it seemed that his heart actually physically hurt.
Nervousness vibrated off her in waves, not detracting in the least from that willowy body, from the long legs that just a few days before had been wrapped around his waist while she’d writhed and sobbed in ecstasy beneath him.
He swore out loud and she jumped, which made him grimace and turn away from the troubling sight of her
“You get used to it,” she said into the silence.
“My face. You get used to it being so different from what you expect. It just…takes a while.”
“I’m not planning on getting used to it.”
More silence, and he wished she’d leave before he had to make her do so.
“I’m here to start work this morning.”
That had him whipping back to face her. “What?”
She lifted a shoulder and offered a hesitant smile, a blush staining her cheeks, as if she’d read his sensual thoughts of a moment ago. “You mentioned you needed a clerk to help out.”
“I can help, Stone.” She’d been squinting a bit, but then she opened her purse and pulled out her reading glasses. Putting them on, she said, “I’m good at clerical work.”
She bit her lip, then pushed at the glasses on her nose-a vintage Jenna move that made his gut tighten uncomfortably. “We have things to talk about.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Come on,” she chided gently. “You must have a thousand things you want to say to me.”
“Nothing you want to hear, believe me.”
Annoyed, he strode over to his biggest table saw and flipped it on. The rumbling roar made it satisfyingly impossible to speak.
No way could he hear her sweet voice now.
But dammit, he could still smell her, that light scent designed to drive a man out of his mind.
It was working.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she squared her shoulders and walked calmly over to him. God. She wore a long floral-print dress with a hundred tiny buttons down the front. She looked so good it made him ache.
She reached down and flipped off the saw. “Just tell me where I can start,” she said, holding her fingers over the switch so he couldn’t turn the thing back on without touching her-something he had no intention of doing. “Then,” she continued calmly, “I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Why are you here?” he demanded in a hoarse voice he didn’t recognize. “The old Jenna would have fled long ago.”
“I’m not the old Jenna.”
No, she wasn’t, not by a long shot. This Jenna, the seemingly new and improved version, lifted her chin, willingly weathered the storm, stared down anything to… What was it she’d said?
To right her wrongs.
Well, she had many wrongs, and he was ashamed to admit he’d harbored them close to his heart as if he’d had a right to do so. Most people wouldn’t have had the nerve to face his rare but formidable temper. They would have broken down under the emotional burden of guilt she clearly carried.
He didn’t care.
“I’d rather you get out of my sight now,” he said.
“I know you would. But I’m not going.” A shoulder lifted in a careless shrug, reminding him forcefully of Sara.
Jenna’s daughter. His daughter.
And suddenly his anger was too big to be politely held back. Risking the touch, after all, he pushed her hand aside from the machine and flipped the saw back on. “Get out of the way,” he yelled, grabbing a piece of wood. He had no measurements, nothing planned out, but he didn’t care. He needed the diversion.
Stubbornly she stuck close. Over the noise, she called out, “I’m not leaving until you talk to me.”
He shoved the wood through the saw and bullheadedly kept his back to her, unable to look into her red-rimmed eyes. Obviously she’d been crying.
Crying, because of his unreasonableness.
Still, he couldn’t help himself. “If you won’t leave, then at least tell me what you want.”
“A lot of things.” She watched the wood turn to sawdust under his trained hands. Despite the noise of the machine, he heard the way her voice caught suspiciously. “Some simple things, actually.” She met his gaze. “Like… pictures. I’d love to see Sara’s photo album.”
“Humph.” Another piece of wood was demolished under his reckless hands. At this rate he should be able to destroy his entire supply within an hour.
“Why don’t you tell me why you’re really back.”
Hope flared in her expression. She must have thought his interest was a good thing. He took on an air of nonchalance he didn’t feel.
“I guess I had what you would call an epiphany,” she shouted, then nodded at the saw. “Do you think you could turn it off now? Please?”
It was ridiculous, juvenile even, to have this conversation over the roar of the saw. But he didn’t care, and he sent another perfectly good piece of wood to its death. “I’m trying to work here, Jenna.”
“Stone Cameron, you’re just being stubborn.” Eyes flashing her fury, she pushed in front of him, turning so she presented the back of that perfect body of hers to his hungry gaze. Scooting between him and the saw, she bent to reach for the switch.
Her curvaceous bottom bumped into the front of his thighs.
Instinct-and raging lust-had his hands starting to lift to grasp her hips. Abruptly he forced his hands to his sides.
With a good amount of body contact, she finally flipped off the saw, then turned and glared at him. Had she noticed his physical condition? Her cheeks were on fire, and he doubted it was all anger.
Yeah. She’d noticed.
Okay, so hell. They still shared an attraction with the force and unpredictability of an active volcano. He could deal with that, though. He wasn’t just some hormone-driven adolescent.
“Can you listen now?” she asked.
“No. I’ve got a meeting downtown.” He strode to the door, needing to get out now or lose whatever self-control he still had.
“Fine. Great,” she said to his back. He could hear the wobble in her voice and closed his ears to it because his anger was the only thing getting him through. “But I’ll be here when you get back, Stone. Sooner or later we have to talk.”
The later the better, in his opinion. Maybe later he’d be able to squelch down his need to both throttle and kiss her.
And then again, maybe later she’d have taken off again, and the whole point would be moot.
Jenna stood in there, her heart just as empty as Stone’s office. He had preferred work to facing her, a rather deflating thought.
His phone rang, startling her.
So did the message. Sara had been caught “defacing public property,” whatever that meant, and now she was sitting in the principal’s office awaiting parental guidance.
Stone was gone, and Sara needed a parent at the school as soon as possible.
That was her.
Panic faded to fury-at herself.
As she stood there quaking in indecision, her precious daughter, yes, daughter, dammit, was sitting in the principal’s office.
Principal Rand Ridgeway.
A man who’d once terrified Jenna, a man who’d gotten away with it then, but who wouldn’t get away with it ever again if she had anything to say about it.
Without stopping to think, she scribbled a note for Stone, then grabbed her keys and ran out the door.
Thinking of nothing but protecting Sara, she drove to the school. It wasn’t until she pulled into the parking lot and took the last available space, next to the principal-oh, God, the principal-that dread filled her.
What was she doing? No one was going to release Sara to a perfect stranger. No matter that the perfect stranger was Sara’s mother. Jenna couldn’t reveal that until she and Stone had talked this out, until they’d come up with a plan for the best way to tell Sara the truth.
If he ever agreed to tell Sara the truth at all.
No time to think about that, Jenna decided, pressing her hands to her rolling stomach. Not when there were so many other things to get sick over.
Like the fact her childhood nemesis had her daughter in his clutches.
Jenna swallowed hard and forced herself to look up at the two-story school building. Forced herself to picture poor Sara sitting in the principal’s office waiting to be rescued, and afraid he’d do to Sara what he’d done to her.
She ran all the way through the parking lot to the big double doors of the school. The warm stuffy air hit her. So did the old familiar smell of pencil shavings, copy toner and teen sweat. Jenna’s legs turned to rubber.
Horrible memories hit, for school had not been a happy place. She’d been considered a troublemaker and, as a result, had spent much time in this very front office.
The bench was still there against the wall in front of the receptionist’s desk. How many afternoons had she spent sitting on it, waiting for the principal to see her?
Waiting for him to give her that slick knowing smile as he motioned her to come into his office, where he’d then deliver blistering lectures on the evils of disappointing her hardworking mother…
Where he’d set the tone and mood for her to fear him, hate him, so that when they’d been at her own house, with her mother out, she hadn’t known how to protect herself from him.
She still didn’t, she had to admit as her hands went clammy, her pulse threadlike.
“Can I help you?”
Jenna jumped and looked at the receptionist. “I’m here to see Rand Ridgeway.”
“Certainly. Your name?”
“Jen-Cindy,” she corrected quickly, hating herself. “Cindy Beatty. I’m…a close friend of Sara Cameron’s family, and I work for Stone. He’s not available at the moment.” Dragging in a deep breath and willing herself to stop rambling, she gave a tight smile. “Can I see them now, please?”
Jenna knew all too well which way to go. To the corner office, with the closed shutters and thick wood paneling that prevented any sound from carrying through the walls.
A drop of sweat trickled down between her breasts. Each footstep rang hollowly, but she kept moving. I’m coming, baby, she silently vowed to Sara. I’m coming for you.
“Mr. Ridgeway?” the receptionist called out, opening his door. “A Ms. Beatty to see you.”
No, Jenna wanted to cry. I want to see Sara, not him!
But the woman had ushered her into Rand’s office, shutting the door behind her.
Jenna whirled in alarm, staring at the closed door as if it were the last nail in her coffin.
Sara, she told herself as she drew a ragged breath. Remember Sara.
Turning back to face the desk, she glanced around for her daughter, but the room was empty-except for the man who defined her nightmares sitting behind the desk.
He stood immediately and, walking around to the front of his desk, held out his hand.
Jenna stared at it in horror, realizing he expected her to take it. As nausea welled up, she was forced to listen to his slick pleased voice.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Beatty. What can I do for you?”
She was still staring at his hand, felt sickened by the way his big heavy body loomed over her.
Rand’s eyes narrowed slightly when she didn’t speak or move, but he kept his polite smile in place. His eyes roamed over her speculatively, causing her to shudder. “We’ve met before,” he said suddenly, and before she could stop herself, Jenna took a step back.
“No,” she said.
“Yes,” he insisted, closing the space between them, while that grating smile of his never dimmed. “I’ve definitely seen you before. I would never forget such a beautiful face.”
Jenna bit back hysterical laughter and held up her hand as he came closer still, a part of her locked back in time to when she’d been young, naive and helpless. “I said no.”
He tipped his head and studied her. “At a game. I remember seeing you in the stands. Do you have a child here at the school?”
How he’d love that, she thought. “Where’s Sara? Sara Cameron?”
“In her classroom. Why?”
Relief made her giddy. Sara was safe. She hadn’t spent any time alone in this hateful office. Suddenly Jenna wasn’t hot but cold, and she shivered.
“Are you okay?”
Jenna heard his voice, the words registered, but strangely enough, her vision had started to fade around the edges.
She, who’d never fainted before, felt her legs start to crumble, and her greatest nightmare came true.
Hot beefy arms reached for her, and with that jolt of harsh reality, she no longer felt as if she was going to pass out. Her ears stopped ringing. Her eyesight came back.
But none of that changed the fact that Rand Ridgeway was supporting her, leering at her, those hard knowing eyes searching her face as his big sweaty hands continued to grip her.
The office door opened, bumping into them both.
“What the hell?”
Jenna didn’t have time to react to that achingly familiar voice before she shoved at Rand with all her might.
Surprised, the big man fell back, stumbling into his desk. The momentum of the shove had Jenna falling gracelessly to the floor.
Still sitting there, she braced herself, shoved her hair out of her eyes and faced a shocked-looking receptionist and an equally startled Stone.
He turned to the receptionist with a firm nod and polite smile. “Thank you. I’ve got it from here.” And without waiting for her reply, Stone shut the door on the woman’s surprised face.
He came directly toward her, his tall rangy figure quite a sight for her overworked brain. She could do nothing but stare up at him, dazed.
His face filled her vision, his icy blue eyes hot with fear and concern and rage. He hunkered down to her level. “Are you all right?”
The roughness of his voice didn’t faze her, nor did the way his entire body tensed, braced for battle. What did were the tears she felt spring to her eyes.
He was so innately sweet, even when she’d destroyed him. It amazed her that he could put aside his fierce anger at her deception, all to make sure she wasn’t hurt.
“Are you?” His voice changed, lowered, became unbearably gentle. Shifting nearer, he froze when she instinctively winced at the close proximity. Careful not to touch her, which only made her hot tears fall, he lowered his voice even more. “Did he hurt you, sweetheart?” Barely suppressed violence shimmered beneath his control.
“Of course not!” Rand exclaimed indignantly, straightening. “Don’t you have eyes in your head? She shoved me!”
In one fluid motion, Stone rose to his feet, grabbed Rand by the front of his shirt and held him against his desk. “Why were your hands on her?”
“She fainted!” But while Rand shouted this in a holier-than-thou tone, Jenna noticed he did not even attempt to protect himself from the younger, clearly stronger man. “You’re going to be very sorry, Cameron, if you don’t get your hands off me. I feel a huge lawsuit rising.”
And he meant it, Jenna realized. “Stone,” she said, rising shakily to her feet and swiping awkwardly at her tears. “I’m okay.”
Stone didn’t budge, just held Rand with ease. “I don’t know how you live with yourself, Ridgeway. Fooling the whole town, hiding how sick you are.”
“Still holding a grudge, I see,” Rand rasped out.
“Stone. Please. I’m fine.” Jenna set a hand on his back. The muscles beneath her fingers were taut, yet quivering.
“He touched you. He scared you.”
“Yes,” she said quickly. “I started to faint. It was my fault, not his this time. Please,” she added, grasping his shirt in her fist and tugging. “Please, Stone, listen to me.”
Surprisingly he did. The instant he let go of Rand, the older man scrambled behind his desk, straightening his shirt as he glared at the both of them. “Get out.”
Ignoring him, Stone looked at Jenna. “You came here for Sara.”
“I know. I came back for something and saw the note. You dropped everything, faced what had to be your greatest nightmare and came here.” He looked confused. More hurt than angry now, thank God. “For her.”
“I had to,” she said simply.
“You had to.” Stone nodded calmly, but when he let her look into his eyes again, she saw humbling affection, relief, lingering concern-and a need that stole her breath. It was such a staggering show of emotion she could hardly speak. “Please,” she whispered. “Please, let’s get out of here.”
Stone turned to Rand. “Where’s my daughter?”
“She went back to her classroom,” Rand said with a sniff. “It was a case of mistaken identity. It wasn’t her. She’s off the hook and back to work.”
Stone sent him a smile that was only such because he showed his teeth. “See that you don’t make that mistake again.”
Then he opened the door and waited patiently for Jenna to pass through first. He was still painfully careful not to touch her, which left Jenna both grateful for the chance to compose herself and regretful for a lost opportunity.
In the parking lot Jenna climbed into her car while Stone held the door open for her.
He’d insisted on escorting her, staying until he’d satisfied himself that she was not only buckled in, but capable of driving. She’d told him three times she was just fine, but her damn voice kept shaking and her hands were icy.
She’d faced Rand Ridgeway. The thought kept dancing in her head. For her daughter, she’d faced her nightmare. It felt good.
Stone leaned on the still-open door, his body preventing her from shutting it. She wished he’d hold her, but the night before he’d made it quite obvious just what he’d thought of her.
“You can go to your meeting now,” she told him. “I’m fine.” She couldn’t face his anger at what she’d done, not now.
He hunkered down and studied her. “You’re still trembling.”
She was, had been since Rand had touched her, but she couldn’t seem to stop.
“Jenna. Let me…” He reached in, and his arms-those solid warm arms-encircled her, gently easing her against him as if he was afraid of hurting her.
Emotions raced through her, the strongest a terrible fear she was dreaming. If she woke up, he’d be gone. So would Sara.
“This is the first time in a long time that I’ve held you as Jenna.”
He didn’t sound resentful or angry, and she sighed in relief, luxuriating herself in his strength. She felt his lips slide over her forehead, into her hair, then his jaw settled on top of her head. Tucked firmly into his body, she could think of nowhere else she’d rather be, and suddenly, she was holding on for dear life as she shivered in delayed shock.
He just held tighter, holding her for long moments while she struggled for composure.
When she finally pushed back, his grip on her eased immediately, but he didn’t let her go. “I’m sorry,” she said finally.
The words rumbled from his chest, against the ear she had pressed flat against his shirt. She became excruciatingly aware of his every breath, of his arm brushing ever so lightly against her blouse, which in turn brushed against her breasts. And at her hip, she became aware of a growing heat, a pressure that told her he was every bit as aware of her as she was of him.
“Thank you,” he said. “For rushing here for Sara.”
Where was his anger? “You don’t have to thank me for that. She’s my child too.”
“So she is.”
There was his temper. It flashed briefly in his eyes. Regarding her, he again hunkered down, but he didn’t touch her this time. “Are you really okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I’m stubborn, not a complete idiot. I know a good part of what you’ve been running from for so long is what he did to you. I know what you faced in there, how hard it must have been.”
“Yes.” She stared down at her hands. “I can’t believe he’s still the principal.”
“No charges were ever filed, Jenna.”
There was not an ounce of reproach in his voice, but she felt weighed down just the same. “I should have done it, I know.” Squeezing her eyes shut, she dropped her head to the steering wheel. “But no one wanted to believe me.”
A soft sound of regret escaped him, and she felt the light touch of his hand in her hair, confusing her. “You were young. And betrayed in the worst possible way. You can’t beat yourself up for how you reacted.”
She didn’t answer, and cupping the nape of her neck, he gently forced her head up. “That’s exactly what you’ve been doing for ten years, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
He wouldn’t let her look away. “You’ve been running, not from me or Sara, or even the memory of your mother and Rand. You’ve been running from yourself.”
The compassion and understanding in his voice was difficult to take because she thought it might be pity. How she hated having him feeling sorry for her. “No.”
“Don’t lie. You promised you wouldn’t.”
“I…” Sighing miserably, she closed her eyes. “I’m so mixed up, Stone. I just want…”
“I want much more than this.” She spoke so quietly that Stone had to lean closer. A strand of her hair caught in the stubble on his chin, and he nearly succumbed to a desire to rub his face in her hair. His weakness for her sent irritation swimming through him. Remember her deceit, he reminded himself.
“I want you and Sara to like me,” she admitted in that same uncertain voice.
Stone let out a stream of air, releasing his annoyance. He of all people knew she had a right to feel so uncertain, so defensive, and it went a long way toward softening him.
So did the memory of the terror on her face when he’d walked into that office and seen her in Rand’s arms. He’d completely forgotten his own pain and, instead, seen red. It hadn’t occurred to him until he’d had Rand pinned against the desk that the man couldn’t possibly have recognized her. That the pale and trembling Jenna had been reacting to her past.
Yet this new Jenna was different from the old, far more sure of herself. So why had she allowed Rand Ridgeway to get to her like this?
Did she honestly think so little of herself that she still didn’t think people would believe her? Believe in her?
Stone looked at her more closely and saw the truth in her hunched position. in the defeat in her eyes. Jenna still didn’t believe in herself. She still didn’t realize that people could care for her, love her.
On top of this, she was mortified at having to be “rescued,” so much so that she was sucking in all her emotions, desperate to hide her insecurity from him. And evidently she’d taken his thoughtful silence as a further rejection.
Why was he thinking like this? Where had his anger gone?
“I can’t stand knowing if you hate me…” She frowned. “Never mind. I’m sorry, please excuse me.” Pushing him away, she slammed her door shut and drove off.
Stone stood there in the parking lot, devastated by all he felt.
The realization of her insecurity tore at him. All she’d ever asked for was to know that he didn’t hate her.
He didn’t. In spite of everything, in spite of how he wanted to, he couldn’t.
So why hadn’t he told her? Was he that selfish? Yes. All he’d seen, all he’d felt, had centered around him. He hadn’t given her feelings a thought.
“Dammit,” he muttered. And he ran to his truck to follow her.
With grim determination, Stone kept Jenna’s little car in sight. It was hard to think, hard to follow a logical plan of action, and that alone was unusual for him. He gritted his teeth and lay the blame firmly at the feet of the person at fault.
Ahead of him, Jenna took a right turn, heading north, and with a bleak resolution, so did Stone. He watched the ocean sparkle off to his left and argued with himself.
Yes, he was still furious at Jenna. Yes, he was still trying to deal with her return to his and Sara’s life. But he had to make sure she got to wherever she was going in one piece, didn’t he?
The hell he did. Still, he didn’t turn around. Images of Cindy floated through his mind.
From the moment she’d come to town she’d been there for him. Never wavering. That was what confused him most. He was used to being on his own, in charge.
Even years before, when Jenna had been in his life, he’d been the one with all the strength and calm. Back then she had depended on him.
This time, however, there’d been a subtle shift, and he was drawn to her as an equal. Drawn also to her loyalty, her warmth and to her surprisingly iron will. She’d been open in a way she’d never been before and strong enough that he could lean on her.
He’d grown to need her. How had that happened?
Ahead of him, Jenna turned again, going up a hill into a quiet but older residential area on the bluffs at the outskirts of town.
Even though she was running-again-he followed. This time was different, for he realized in his heart that he’d long ago forgiven her need to run, just as he’d now forgiven her need to be back.
Yet it still didn’t change the fact that she’d destroyed his trust, and because of that, he found himself holding something back.
Full forgiveness? Maybe. But more likely he wasn’t quite ready to let go of some of his resentment, which didn’t paint him in a flattering light He didn’t care. For the bottom line was that he wasn’t going to allow himself to fall again, no matter how much Jenna drew him in with her lovely solemn eyes, her natural warmth and basic goodness.
Not when he knew damn well he’d end up hurt again.
Jenna’s car slowed, and so did his. He hung back a bit, knowing she might take off if she suspected he was following her. She’d tried to be so brave in front of him when he just knew she was holding it together until she got home, alone, where she could fall apart in peace.
He didn’t want her to cry alone. She’d been alone too long as it was.
The truth hit hard. In spite of everything, in spite of holding a good part of himself back, he still wanted her. She was lovely and intelligent, and she’d gotten herself together, turned herself into the woman he’d always been confident she could be. He had no idea how to resist her, but he had to try. For himself and Sara, he had to try.
She parked in front of a small house on the end of the street, then ran up the walk, her short hair flying. God, he thought, she has no idea about what kind of a woman she’s become.
Knowing he was acting unconsciously, without acknowledging how hurt he still was, he parked and followed her-just to make sure she was okay, he reminded himself.
Jenna didn’t go to the front door. Instead, she turned onto a small path and ran around the house. Opening a fence, she dashed into the backyard.
Stone followed, frowning when he heard a small gasp of breath that sounded like a sob. For such a small house the backyard was huge. The foliage dominated it, and in a matter of two seconds, Jenna had disappeared into a stand of trees.
“Jenna?” Blindly he plunged through the undergrowth and blinked when he came to a small clearing high on the bluff overlooking the ocean. The yard was fenced in, and the view of the Pacific far below was breathtaking. In the center of the clearing sat a lovely wooden table, several chairs and a chaise longue, which Jenna had plopped on, burying her face in her arms.
As a rule Stone was a man who carefully weighed the odds in any given situation. He liked to think of himself as calm and rational at all times.
But all that dissolved when he saw Jenna so devastated. Her slim shoulders shook as she tried to contain the storm ravaging her, and something inside him cracked.
He didn’t stop to think, but just moved forward on instinct, sinking to the chaise. “Jenna.”
She jerked at the touch on her shoulder. “Just me,” he murmured, leaning over her as if he could protect her with his body from the nightmares of the past.
“Go away,” she said in a barely audible voice, keeping her face hidden. “Please.”
“I can’t leave you alone.” Gently he stroked her back, running his hand up and down her spine. “You know I can’t.”
“You already have enough on your shoulders,” came her muffled voice. “You don’t have to take care of me, too.”
“I know. You’re doing a fine job of that on your own. I just…” He paused. “Look at me,” he said softly, when she kept her wet eyes squeezed tight. His hands bracketed her hips as he leaned over her. “Jenna.”
She opened her eyes slowly. “You’re still angry with me.”
“Yeah.” They stared at each other. It became very close and still within the confines of the yard, their own private little forest. Above them, birds chirped and the wind blew lightly, keeping the air cool. Far below, the surf drummed at the foot of the cliffs.
Looking down at Jenna now, Stone could see her so clearly. How could he not have known? With the sun shining in her hair, her mouth trembling, her eyes clinging to his, her…scars. God, her scars.
Lifting a hand, he spread it flat over the web of scars on her neck, covering the worst of them as if he could take away the reality of them.
“I hate thinking you had to go through all that alone,” he said gravely, feeling raw inside. He felt so mixed up, so confused. But he couldn’t deny his need to be with her, to help her. “Hate it. You should have called me to be with you.”
“Stone-I know you must hate me-”
“Shh. I don’t hate you.” Lightly, he danced his fingers over her skin, seeking to do nothing other than ease her lingering pain. He’d take it all away if he could. He needed to soothe her, because he knew she couldn’t do it for herself. Despite all his pent-up emotional uncertainty of the past, his future-hell, his present-he wanted to know Jenna was going to survive this. “I want you to be happy.”
“I don’t deserve to be happy. Not after what I’ve done to you and to Sara.”
“Stop it,” he admonished gently. “I haven’t worked through my own temper and hurt yet-that’s evident enough. But I mean it, Jenna. Your happiness is important to me.”
“You’re too generous,” she said hoarsely. “Far too much so. How do you know I won’t hurt you both again?”
“I don’t.” He met her gaze. He was probably being an idiot, but he let the statement stand because suddenly, he couldn’t bear to hurt her more than she’d already been hurt. “Be kind, will you?”
“I will be,” she promised fervently. “Promise you believe me. Promise me, Stone, that you know I won’t hurt you or Sara ever again.”
His hand stilled on her as he waged a terrible inner battle. He couldn’t lie, he just couldn’t. It simply wasn’t in him to tell anything but the hard, cold truth.
“I believe you mean it,” he said carefully, his hand once again touching her.
Her eyes fluttered closed at the gentle touch, and when she opened them again, she slipped her arms around his neck and tugged, bringing him down, down, to within a hairbreadth of her lips.
She smiled at him. a smile filled with sadness and need and desire and hope. “That’s all I can ask for. I need you.”
“It seems that I need you, too.”
“It feels so good to hold you, Stone.”
Hating that she was right, he pulled her closer, unable to draw away. He had to keep his hands on her, assure himself it was really Jenna.
“Kiss me,” she whispered, pulling him closer still.
Fulfilling this unfailing physical need wasn’t the answer… and yet, he couldn’t resist the pull of her arms, the yearning in her eyes, couldn’t have moved away to save his life. Maybe he couldn’t admit these feelings, but his body didn’t care. It knew where it belonged-with Jenna.
“Kiss me,” she repeated, arching up, flattening her breasts to his chest and causing him to suck in a sharp breath at the delicious feel of her. “Please-”
“Wait.” But despite his best intentions, when her lips touched his, instant heat consumed them. His hands slid up her rib cage, and her hands pulled his shirt out of his pants, then snaked beneath, racing over the bare skin of his back.
“No more secrets between us,” she said breathlessly, dragging her mouth along his exposed throat and making him moan. At the sound she smiled shakily against his skin, but her smile turned into a gasp when he cupped her breasts. “Nothing between us, please, Stone. Nothing but this.”
Helpless not to respond, he ran his hands down her torso, then back up. He understood the need to have nothing between them but skin because he felt it, too. No more secrets, no more lies. But he was torn, so unbelievably torn. And though he knew this would solve nothing, he couldn’t deny the yearning to hold her close. Just for now, just for a moment, he promised himself. “Jenna, I want you, I need you, but you know this isn’t the answer,” he said in one last ditch effort to be strong.
“It is for now. Stone…there’s been no one but you.” Her eyes were bright as she met his gaze. “No one but you has ever made me feel this way. Do you remember how it was between us?”
Perfect, it’d been perfect. “It was a long time ago.”
“Come here,” she murmured, pulling him down. “Please, Stone…” Her hands played over his body, and he couldn’t resist, captive to his own memories, to his own needs.
He wrestled with her buttons until the silky material of her dress was open to the waist.
Exposed to him, she lay back and eagerly offered herself, but for a minute he didn’t move, mesmerized by the picture she made. Sunlight poured over her, casting her body in a beautiful golden glow. Her breasts swelled out of her bra, and her chest rose and fell with her quickened breathing. Her beauty took his breath away. “Jenna.”
Bending over her, he slid her dress off her shoulders, kissing first a full curve of her breast, then a pebbled tip through the lace. The teasing and caressing made her gasp.
“You do remember-” she whispered, closing her eyes when he moved his hips against her.
“No one has ever been able to make me forget,” he confessed.
“Oh, Stone-for me, either.” She pulled his shirt off, then ran her hands down his quivering stomach to cup him. Her fingers curled around his rigid length until his control and any coherent thought vanished.
Past and present mingled in his head, along with an explosion of emotions. Aching, he unclasped her bra and drew a nipple into his mouth, thrilling to her soft whimpers. His hands slipped down, working at more buttons because he wanted her naked this time, flesh to flesh. But when he grasped the dress to drag it down, she stiffened and put her hands over his.
“What?” Dipping, he kissed the spot near her hip where her hands held her dress to her. “What is it, Jenna?”
“The… tattoo.” Her voice sounded choked, full of tears, and he lifted his head to stare at her. “I’m sorry,” she said around a strangled sob. “I never got rid of it because I wanted to remember my past and how stupid I’d been.”
“Jenna.” Tenderly, he gathered her hands in his, kissing her deeply and leisurely, evoking her helpless response. Before she could protest, he spread the unbuttoned dress and slipped down her body to kiss the small rose. “All of you, Jenna. It’s no good unless I have all of you.”
Rearing up, she slid her fingers into his hair and kissed him back-a frantic passion-driven kiss.
“One of these days,” he muttered, “we’re going to make it to a bed and-” But he broke off when she pulled his undone trousers off his hips.
“I don’t need a bed,” she told him. “All I need is you. You’re all I ever needed.” Her words sent him soaring even higher.
Lurching to his feet, he kicked off his shoes and tore off his shirt and pants. Then he took off all of her clothes.
When he sat and pulled her onto his lap, she went eagerly. Gripping her bottom, he held her over him, teasing her until she was writhing in his arms.
“Wait,” he gasped, hot, hard and dying, but still he reached down and fumbled through his wallet for a condom. She helped him put it on, leaving him so near the edge he was shaking by the time he was sheathed.
“Now,” she pleaded, as she took him inside her in one urgent downward thrust of her hips, taking in every inch until he was buried to the hilt.
She rocked on him, wrenching a moan of pleasure from his throat as she continued to move. Their mouths clung and mated as their bodies strove and strained. Nuzzling a bare breast with his mouth, he slid a hand between their damp bodies, using his thumb to stroke the hot wet core of her.
Her breathing turned into sobbing little pants, and she bent over his shoulder, moving with him while he kept up the torment. Suddenly she tensed and cried out his name, gripping him hard as she came in one long endless shudder.
He couldn’t hold back, not with her sweet body in his arms, her low cries of passion ringing in his ears. With a rough helpless sound, he willingly followed her over the edge.
When he was able to think again, Stone was afraid Jenna would do one of two things-ignore the heart-wrenching lovemaking they’d just shared or run off.
She did neither; she drifted to his side drowsily. He held her close, surprised at his need to do so. But there was still so much unresolved. He was still full of burning questions, still harboring serious resentment and anger, and worst of all, he knew she was holding back, hiding behind their physical attraction, protecting the part of her she was afraid to show him. In a way, they were both hiding, both afraid, and he hated that. How could they ever put the past behind them?
“Not yet, Stone,” she whispered, shivering when the breeze danced over their damp bodies. “Please, not yet.”
His chest tightened and he pulled her closer. “It won’t just all go away.”
“I know. I don’t expect it to.”
Holding her, he stared up at the sky and listened to their breathing return to normal. Far below, down the cliffs, he could hear the ocean, and it soothed his racing thoughts.
And even as he let her draw him back for more, the fist around his heart didn’t ease. The fist which held the knowledge that Jenna was holding back, protecting herself from him, and as long as she did that, she didn’t fully trust him.
She may never fully trust him, and nothing could hurt more than that. Except him not trusting her.
At the big warm hand on her back and the sound of Stone’s sleep-husky voice, she awoke and smiled into her pillow-until she remembered.
She was in her own bed. Stone had carried her here in his arms, the romantic gesture making her heart melt. Then he’d dropped her tenderly on her bed and…well, they’d finally made it to a bed.
Because she had instigated it.
She’d felt like a child when she’d faced Rand Ridgeway. A young terrified child who’d been neglected, molested and then tossed out for her “lies.”
In response the supposedly grown-up Jenna had acted predictably. She’d reverted to her bad-girl status, begging for attention, and oh, Lord, she’d certainly gotten it.
She and Stone had always been sheer magic together, but this afternoon, it’d been heaven.
And for all the wrong reasons.
He hadn’t made her talk. He hadn’t been able to since she’d kept dragging him back to her body. Just remembering how shameless she’d been made her want to curl up and die.
Yet even after sheer exhaustion had set in, he’d been patient about her inability to put words to her feelings. He could have no idea how much it meant, but she would be sure to tell him.
As soon as she could look him in the eye without wanting to cringe in embarrassment.
“We have to talk, Jenna.”
She froze. “Those words never precede anything good,” she said lightly. But she turned over and faced him. Chest bare, jeans unfastened, his eyes solemn, he sat on the edge of the bed looking sexy as hell.
“I have so many questions, Jenna.” His expression was tense. “You can’t ignore them no matter how much you might want to.”
More shame filled her, since he’d hit the nail right on the head. She did wish she could bury her head in the sand. Having no idea what to say, she touched his thigh, hoping the words would come to her.
“Are you going to say anything?” he asked, gripping the hand she’d placed on him. “Or try to delay this little chat with more sex?”
She drew herself up, crossing her arms. Somehow, she thought she could tell him how she felt with her body, but that was wrong. He deserved more. Why couldn’t she give it? What was she still afraid of? If she wasn’t careful, she might never see him-or Sara-again.
But even that terrifying thought didn’t make answers leap to her tongue, and helplessly mute, she stared at him.
His jaw tightened and his probing gaze searched hers while the silence deepened. “I guess that’s my answer.” He rose. “I have to be at the shop when Sara’s bus gets there.”
He finished dressing, silent and angry, his movements jerky. Jenna watched him, heart aching as she clutched the sheet to her chin. She felt so naked. She was going to lose him right now. And she didn’t know how to stop it, what to do to make it okay.
He went to the door and stopped with his hand on the knob. “You know where I’ll be,” he said, “if you decide you want to talk.”
He hesitated, waiting.
Even now, after this, he was going to give her the chance to repair the horrible damage. To explain why she had slept with him yet couldn’t figure out how to open her heart to him. Humiliation rose like bile, and she bit her lip, keeping her silence-not because she wanted to, but because she honestly didn’t know how to change herself. All she did know was that wanting to trust him with the real Jenna and actually doing so were two entirely different things.
“Stone, please.” Please what? She wondered frantically. What could she say to make him stay? What was it exactly that he wanted from her? God, she didn’t know, and frustration overwhelmed her.
He stared at her, slowly shaking his head. “It hurts, you know. That after this, after what we shared today, and in our past, you still don’t trust me enough to share yourself.”
It was true, and that truth slashed at her. “I want to,” she cried, feeling a hot tear slide down her cheek. “I want you and Sara so much I ache with it.”
“Don’t you see?” he questioned softly, his voice heavy with regret and hurt and even anger. “It’s not enough to want. You have to do it. You have to stop running, Jenna. Stop running.”
He looked at her, but when she didn’t speak-couldn’t speak-he left, shutting the door quietly behind him.
By the next morning Jenna was exhausted. Sleep had eluded her; so had any peace of mind.
Instead of going to work, she went to the beach, the place that had once been one of her few safe havens. Sitting on the same rock where she’d first seen Stone again, she concentrated on watching the waves.
Logically she knew she should have faced him the day before. But much as she might regret it, it was too late to be adult about it now.
Or was it?
A figure was walking toward her. Stone. Though she wore dark glasses, she still had to hold a hand up to block the glare of the morning sun before risking a closer look. He didn’t seem surprised to see her, which meant he’d come looking for her.
Without a word, he stopped in front of the rock, as always the picture of calm. But Jenna knew better than to trust what she saw before her, for she’d seen him lose that famed control on several occasions. A couple of them made her blush now.
A light salty wind blew, cooling her heated face. The surf tumbled toward the shore, making the day seem eerily normal.
“Are you still angry?” she whispered.
She nodded and tried to keep her feelings hidden. “I see.”
“But I still couldn’t stay away, damn you.”
“Oh.” Unreasonable hope flared inside her. He looked miserable, which should make her feel horrible, and it did, really. But if he was miserable, then he still cared.
Or so she hoped.
“I have no idea why I’m here,” he admitted quietly.
“Maybe for some explanation of what’s happening?” she asked by way of her own apology.
“That might be nice.” He took a deep breath. “Why did you come back, Jenna?”
“I realized I’d been a fool.”
“Ah, I see.” All traces of good humor vanished. “So just like my parents, ten years go by and suddenly-poof!” He lifted his hands in the air. “You magically feel you have to make amends?”
“Not quite like that, no.”
“Like what, then? Like maybe life on the run isn’t any fun anymore, so let’s go back to Stone because he’s such an easygoing guy he’ll jump at the chance to reunite?”
“Not like that, either,” she whispered, bringing a hand up to her cheek.
“That little gesture of vulnerability isn’t going to work, Jenna. Neither is hiding behind those glasses.” His grating tone, his flashing eyes, told her the opposite. Her gesture had touched him, unbearably so, fueling his temper.
She dropped her hand immediately.
His voice was hard. “I’m trying to understand but it’s damned hard since you haven’t said much. Maybe you decided that since your baby was no longer a baby, since all the hard work had been done, she’d be easier to handle. Is that it?”
“Then tell me, dammit. Tell me about your epiphany. Tell me and try to make me care.”
“I was in a car accident.”
A muscle in his jaw leaped. He crossed his arms over his chest and watched her from carefully hooded eyes. “I know. You told me.”
“But there’s more, a lot more, only you haven’t wanted to hear it.”
She waited, although it was the hardest thing she’d ever done. But her patience won out.
“Okay, but without these.” With a flick of his wrist he removed her sunglasses.
“Okay?” she repeated, squinting against the painful glare.
“Okay, go on,” he said, giving her the one thing she wanted above all else.
Permission to explain herself. And God willing, he’d also forgive her. Because then, just maybe, she could claim back her old life. Maybe even have Stone and Sara in that life.
What Jenna would have given to have Stone take her in his capable arms-the way he would have if she was still Cindy.
But she’d made that impossible.
At least he was listening. She told herself she wouldn’t blow this chance.
“The accident,” he said, moving closer so that he faced her. “You wanted to start there.”
“I almost died.” She thought about how many people she’d hurt in her life. “Should have died.”
“No,” he interrupted, his brows coming together in a line of annoyance. “You still don’t get it, don’t you? You didn’t deserve that accident, no matter what you’d done. No one deserves something like that.”
His words were hard, firm, his arms still crossed over his chest, but the slight softening around his hard mouth gave her courage.
“I’m working on believing that.” She inhaled deeply. “Anyway, it took me a while to recover.”
“A year,” she admitted.
He dropped his hands to his sides. Much of his aggression drained, and when he spoke, his urgency told her how much he cared. “Are there any injuries I can’t see?”
“My eyes bother me sometimes. They were pretty badly damaged.”
“Which is why you wear those dark glasses and contacts?” When she nodded, regret crossed his face. “Not because…”
“I never made a conscious decision to hide from you, Stone. It just sort of happened.”
She watched realization dawn on him, then saw self-disgust cross his face. Solemnly he handed back her glasses. “Wear them,” he said, jaw tight. “Your eyes are watering.” Then he moved so she could face him and turn her back to the sun.
Carefully slipping her sunglasses on, she said, “Somewhere between the hospital and healing, I realized I’d been given a second chance at life.” She hesitated, hoping to get past all his anger and reluctant sympathy, to the living, breathing, loving man beneath. “I went face first through a windshield and down a two-hundred-foot cliff. That’s what I meant when I said I should have died. But I didn’t. I figure that means something, don’t you?”
“You make your own fate, Jenna.” The wind tugged at his dark hair as he stood there looking at her. “I’ve always thought that.”
He had. She could remember him telling that to her ten years ago, on a night filled with tears and anger over something her mother had done.
Jenna had ditched school-again-to go four-wheeling in the mountains with some friends. She was a surprisingly good student, but school bored her, so she often skipped classes to brighten her days.
Her mother had gotten chewed out by Rand Ridgeway, who was incensed by Jenna’s absences. So her mother turned on Jenna.
You’re an idiot.
You’ll never amount to anything, not like Kristen.
You’ll be a hindrance to me for the rest of your life.
Jenna had heard them all-more times than she could remember.
Stone had taken her back up the mountains that night. There, at the peak, overlooking the valley below, he’d taken her in his arms and told her she could make of her life whatever she wanted-and nothing anyone said could make a difference. Unless she let it.
Jenna had looked into his calm affection-filled eyes and panicked. She hadn’t believed him, for it had been much easier to believe what her mother said. That she was indeed a pathetic loser and would never amount to anything.
She’d spent years believing it. Years. All wasted. That she’d nearly proved her mother right was devastating.
“I’ve spent a lot of years dodging my fate,” she said now, turning her face into the sun, enjoying the ocean air.
He dropped wearily onto the rock, taking care not to touch her. “Why are you back?”
“Mostly because I’ve always wanted to come back. Always,” she repeated at his look of doubt. “But it wasn’t until after the accident that I found the courage.”
“Your new face.” He sighed. “It’s beautiful, Jenna. You’re beautiful. But how you look doesn’t matter.”
“I know that. But somehow the shield of anonymity gave me strength. I know that sounds silly to someone like you, who’s never doubted himself…”
His eyes flashed. “That’s not true.”
“Really? When have you ever been uncertain about anything?”
He surged to his feet again and, planting his hands on his hips, he glared at her and said, “Too damn many times.”
“I was uncertain ten years ago that I could keep you safe. And alive,” he added bitterly. “Or that I could show you how good life could be.”
Shock held her immobile.
He turned away, clearly disgusted at himself for the admission.
“No,” he snapped, turning back and pointing at her. “You wanted to know, so I’m going to tell you.” He let out a short laugh, tossed his head back and stared at the sky. “I was uncertain as hell when I started to fall for Cindy.” He looked at her then, his eyes full of challenge. “How’s that for honesty, Jenna? Blunt, no-holds-barred honesty.” He lifted his brows. “You’re still here? Well, good. You haven’t run yet. Maybe you’ll hang around, after all.”
“We were talking about uncertainty,” he interrupted her tightly. “Which just about defines my world-has ever since you told me the truth about who you were. And once again we’re back to the million-dollar question. Why are you really back?” He sat back down on the rock, making her all too aware of the powerful body only a few feet from hers. A body she knew could give strength and courage-but this time she needed to find her own.
“I had to right my wrongs.”
“So you keep saying.” He stared at her. “So that’s what this is really all about? You think you wronged us. Sara and me, and you want to fix it? Then when you’re finished, you’ll be off on your merry way to start a new life?”
“No.” She let out a puff of air and stared at the churning surf. “I’m not doing this right.”
“No kidding.” In one fluid motion he was again on his feet. “And I’m too busy to play games with you.”
She saw her past, present and future running away from her. She couldn’t let him go. “Wait!” she cried, leaping up, grabbing his arm, tugging at him until he turned to face her. “Please, Stone. The truth is simple. I have wronged you and Sara. And yes, I want the chance to make it up to both of you, but I’m not fool enough to hope you’ll easily let me do that.”
“I don’t want you to make it up to us.” Beneath her hand his muscles tensed. “I didn’t keep Sara as a favor to you, Jenna. I kept her because she’s my flesh and blood. Because there were two people responsible that night you got pregnant, and I was one of them. I looked high and low for you all these years to tell you that, to tell you that no matter what you’d decided back then, I’d intended to be a major part of Sara’s life. She’s mine and I love her, and I don’t ever think of her as an obligation.”
“You…looked for me?”
“I didn’t want you running because of me.”
The knowledge was like a warm balm on her raw wounds.
“Forget it,” he said. “Sara is no longer your obligation.” His voice was harsh, reminding her that this man wasn’t here to heal her wounds. She was here to heal his. “She’s my child, my life. And I won’t have you hurt her any more than she’s already been hurt.”
He cut her off, still furious. “So if you’re thinking I’ll introduce you, then watch you break her heart when you’re done ‘righting your wrongs,’ you couldn’t be more mistaken.”
A couple out for a run passed them. The sun beat down. Waves crashed. Life went on around them as Jenna’s world began to collapse. Again.
“I’m not going to leave, Stone,” she said quietly. “I’m here in San Paso Bay for good.”
“You say that now.” Tiredly he removed her hand from his forearm, making her feel abandoned. “You think you want to stay, but when things get tough, you’ll be out of here fast enough.”
“How dare you!”
“How dare I?” He laughed humourlessly. “That’s good, Jenna. I suppose you’re going to deny taking off from the hospital without even saying goodbye.” He lowered his voice when a few kids raced by. “Without so much as a damn word only hours after Sara’s birth. I worried myself sick over you and your condition, and what you would do, where you would go… Why am I even saying this?” Shaking his head, he clamped his mouth shut and studied the stretch of beach in front of them.
He’d worried himself sick over her.
She’d deserted him in his greatest time of need, and still, his thoughts had been for her. Hard to maintain anger now, when her heart was cracking open and dying, but she had to finish. She looked at him. She was so full of things she wanted and needed to say she hardly knew where to start.
“I’m staying this time.”
He lifted a mocking brow.
“You know nothing about me anymore, Stone. Please, could you try not to judge me on what that seventeen-year-old girl would have done?”
His response surprised her. “You’re judging me.”
“I’ve never judged you.”
“No?” he asked in a deceptively quiet voice. “What about when you came back into town and didn’t tell me who you were? You should have told me, Jenna. I’ve tried to understand this, honestly I have. You know that I’d never have hurt you, that I’d never have kept Sara from you.” With a touch so light she might have thought she was dreaming if she couldn’t see with her own eyes, his fingers brushed the faint scars on her face. “You know that, or you should.”
“I do know.” She pressed his hand to her face with her own, overcome by his generosity of spirit. “I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head, his gaze following the movement of his hand on her skin. Just that light connection seemed to mesmerize both of them. It was a touch that entwined their souls. “‘Sorry’ can’t cut it,” he murmured. “It can’t. There’s too much at stake.”
Oh, God. He meant Sara. If he turned from her now, there’d be no Sara in her life. “I can show you with time, then,” she promised desperately. “I’m not going anywhere. Sooner or later you’ll believe that.”
Closing her eyes, she savored the feel of his callused fingers on her face.
“Maybe?” she repeated hopefully. “Did you really say maybe?”
“Let’s make a deal,” he said, pulling his hand back. “I won’t push you to explain how you could have stayed away so long, and you won’t push me for promises I can’t give.”
He wasn’t going to make any promises. She blinked hard, determined to keep her broken dreams to herself.
As always, he saw right through her. Sighing deeply, he said, “I’m not trying to hurt you.”
“Can you honestly tell me you would have rejoiced at the sight of me?” she asked quietly. “Forgiven me completely?”
“We’ll never know.” The impasse between them was heavily weighted. “I’ve got work to do.”
“So do I,” she said, just as stubborn. “If you’ll let me do it.”
“Take the damn job if you want,” he said wearily. “I don’t care.”
“I’ll do that.” She moved away, intending to go to her car, but he stopped her.
She stared down at the hand on her arm, very aware of his strength and how he always tempered it with her, even when pushed to fury. And how had she repaid that? By hurting him at every turn. Looking up into his face, she had to swallow hard against the truth-she’d never loved him more than she did right this minute.
But could she tell him, or would he-rightly so-throw that love back in her face. “This isn’t over,” he said, still touching her. “I have no idea what you want to do about Sara. But that decision is mine, not yours.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to rebuke him, to protest against the unfairness, but she knew it wasn’t for himself that he made these demands. He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body, which meant his stipulation was for the person he had given up a great part of his life to protect.
Sara. He was still protecting Sara, and he would to the end. And she couldn’t blame him.
Her eyes stung. Always on the verge of tears, she thought, annoyed at herself. “I understand.” She turned her face into the wind, welcoming its salty coolness on her hot face. “It will be your decision to tell her or not.” She looked at him. “But I meant what I said. I’m back for good.”
“I know you, perhaps better than you’d like, Stone Cameron. And I know once you realize I’m really not leaving, you’ll do the right thing. You won’t want to keep this from her.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “Forever is a long time, Jenna. Once upon a time I thought we had that.”
It took her a minute to speak because hearing him talk that way, in the past tense, was like a knife to her heart. “I’m going to prove I’ve changed, Stone. I’m not the same person who ran away. You’ll see.”
He let out a breath that had his shoulders relaxing a bit. “You were frightened. Neglected and abused. You had a lot of problems back then that you should never have had to face, and you had no support at home. I understand the fear of that girl you were, Jenna. Don’t apologize for that. And don’t prove anything to me. You don’t have to. Prove it to yourself. Then prove it to our daughter.”
He walked off then, leaving her staring hungrily after him as his long rangy body moved with grace and confidence across the sand.
Her longing was so strong it was painful.
He wouldn’t keep her away from Sara.
He wouldn’t force her to stay out of their lives.
Boneless with relief, she sank onto the rock. It was just as well that he’d left, for words were beyond her. Tough as he might want to be, Stone wouldn’t turn away from her. His personal code of ethics, his very morals, wouldn’t allow it.
Just as they also wouldn’t allow him to forgive her for deserting their child, no matter how scared, alone and frightened she’d been.
“What about your office? Who’s watching it?”
Jenna jumped. This was the first time Stone had spoken to her in hours. Straightening her reading glasses on her nose, she lifted her head from the computer monitor.
His shoulder was propped against the doorjamb, his arms were folded across his chest, and his legs were crossed at the ankle, a posture that proclaimed, despite its apparent nonchalance, a very dangerously annoyed male. Nevertheless she decided to take his inquisitiveness as a positive thing, since he’d been pointedly ignoring her until now.
“I have a part-time secretary,” she said. Her “secretary” was Kristen, who most likely was barely managing to cope with the phone.
Stone said nothing, just regarded her with that hooded, yet infinitely patient expression.
And as he’d probably intended, it made her mouth loose.
“It’s an easy office to run,” she said. “All she has to do is answer the telephone for now and make appointments. I’ll give incoming applicants standard testing for typing and basic math skills, then try to match them with specific jobs that companies have called me with or something from the local papers. Mindless really. Anyone could do it,” she ended inanely.
“And doing this,” he said, “opening a temp agency here in this town is a big dream of yours?”
She licked suddenly dry lips, then again straightened her glasses. She pushed a pencil away, then drew it back.
A master at it, she was disgusted to find herself still doing it with Stone. The worst is over, she reminded herself.
“I won’t lie to you,” she said, meeting his gaze. “Ever.”
“I want to believe that.”
“Why a temp agency, Jenna?”
He hadn’t moved a muscle, just regarded her with an intense probing gaze. Nothing but the truth, she’d promised him, and difficult as it was, she would do it. She owed him.
She rose to her feet and came around to the front of the desk, wanting nothing between them. But the moment she did, she regretted the move.
His office wasn’t large and the desk took up much of the available room. What was left, Stone’s big body filled, and it was impossible to ignore. Not to mention that the last time she’d leaned against this desk had been where she and Stone made love.
A dark brow arched as he silently dared her to mention it.
Instead, she blushed.
And he laughed. Laughed!
The sexy chuckle was music to her ears-until he said, “At least the condom worked this time around.”
Vividly she was thrown back in time, to that one and only other occasion in the past that they’d made love, so many years before. They’d used protection then, thinking themselves responsible. She could remember the joy, the overwhelming sensation of being in Stone’s warm loving arms as she gave herself for the first time.
Then, afterward, discovering the torn condom.
“Guess they make them better now” was all she could come up with, but it worked. His mouth curved in a slight smile. With some of the unbearable tension dissolved, their communication went from chilly and distant to incredibly personal.
But it couldn’t be all light and joking, not if they were to get through this, something Jenna intended to do. “You asked why a temp agency.”
He nodded, still in his nonchalant pose but now meaning it, while she tensed up all over again. He could at least have had the decency to be as uncomfortable as her, she thought.
“I’m not very talented, Stone,” she admitted. “I’m twenty-seven and lacking in skills. I’m not very educated, either. I did manage to get in some junior college over the years, but…” She studied her clenched fingers, wondering why it was so hard to say all this when it was the pathetic truth. “There’s not a lot I’m good at. I-”
“You’re good at understanding and reading people.”
His interjection startled Jenna. “Th-thank you,” she said.
“It’s not a compliment. It’s the truth.”
“Which is why this business is perfect for me. I can match people to the correct job.”
“And?” he asked without a hint of what he was thinking or feeling.
“Why else are you here, Jenna?”
She’d hold back nothing, not ever again, she reminded herself. But oh, it was hard to open up. “I wanted to be near you and Sara.”
“Because of the accident.”
“Because I realized I’d wasted ten years.” Pushing away from the desk, she closed the distance between them, standing so close she had to tip her head back to look at him. “I ran when I should have stayed and fought, but I didn’t know how to fight then. After that I kept telling myself it was no big deal to be alone. For the first time in my life I was free, truly free to do whatever I wanted. I jumped from job to job, from adventure to adventure, always running so I wouldn’t have to stop and think, because if I did, I’d have to admit I’d been an idiot.”
“No, dammit, listen.” She clutched his shirt with both hands. “Please. I didn’t have the skills to deal with all that happened to me back then, and I wouldn’t have let anyone help me gain those skills. I’m not trying to excuse what I did-I can’t. I’m just trying to make it right.”
His voice broke through her rushed speech, and horrified, she realized she was still clutching his shirt. She relaxed her grip, but couldn’t make herself let go completely, not when he felt so solid, so hers.
Firmly he reached up and disengaged her hands, placing them at her sides. Then he stepped back. “You’re Sara’s mother,” he said in a neutral tone. “Nothing I can do will change that. But you can’t go back and make all this right. You just can’t.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“What I want doesn’t matter.”
“You want me to leave,” she whispered, deflated by his composure.
“I’m not that selfish, dammit.”
They heard the outer shop door open, and Stone’s face changed, turning fierce as a mother bear. “Don’t even think about it,” he said harshly.
“Daddy, where are you?” Sara’s light musical voice rang out.
Jenna knew what Stone was telling her. She wasn’t to tell Sara who she was, at least not until they’d finished discussing it.
It wasn’t very flattering that he could think she would. “I won’t.”
He glared. “I mean it.”
Jenna lifted her chin, her eyes flashing angrily, though her voice remained just above a whisper. “I told you I wouldn’t, and I won’t go back on my word.”
“I have to protect her,” he said. “You know that.”
He could have no idea how that protectiveness thrilled her, yet made her yearn at the same time. “Yes, I know.”
When he was about to turn away to greet Sara, Jenna put a hand on his forearm to stop him. “Thank you,” she whispered, not quite succeeding in keeping the emotion out of her voice.
“For not kicking me out. For giving me this chance with my daughter.”
“I’m not giving you anything.”
His vehemence startled her.
“You’re doing this,” he insisted quietly. “You’re making your own destiny.” He stared at her hard, the warning clear. “Just make sure you make the most of it this time, without hurting that child. Or fate or not, I swear I’ll make sure you never get another chance with her again.”
He disappeared then, and she hadn’t even had time to accept her bitter disappointment when he was back. He tossed down a heavy photo album in front of her and said simply, “Here. Before I forget.” Then he turned and left.
Stunned, she sank into his chair. She had no idea how long she sat staring at the leather-bound book before pulling it close and opening it with shaking fingers.
“Oh,” she breathed, as she soaked up the precious photographs.
Sara, one week old, propped up in Stone’s huge hands and apparently wailing at the top of her lungs while Stone grinned down proudly.
Sara, six months old, sitting between Stone’s legs and looking up at her daddy with an expression of rapt love.
Trembling, heart drumming, Jenna closed her eyes, tormenting herself with should-have’s. Forcing her eyes open, she turned the page-and gasped in laughter and anguish.
Sara on her first birthday, shoving a fistful of cake into Stone’s laughing mouth.
Sara at two, then three, then starting kindergarten. The pages went on in time.
Jenna had missed so much. She’d never forgive herself. And, she wondered, if she couldn’t forgive herself, how could she expect Stone and Sara to?
Long after she’d finished studying the photos she couldn’t bring herself to shut the book. Heart thundering, her vision blurry with tears, she got to her feet and looked up. And found herself staring in Stone’s surprisingly kind eyes on the other side of the desk.
He moved around and came up behind her rigid body. Gently he closed his hand over hers, helping her shut the heavy album. Jenna continued to hold herself stiffly, head bowed, but he only moved closer, pressing against her, solid and real.
She tried to hold it all in-oh, how she tried!-but a horrible sound escaped her, a high keening cry she was helpless to contain. Mortified, she covered her mouth.
Stone’s arms came up, sliding around to anchor her back to him, tight to his chest. He bent his head over hers with a soft wordless murmur, meant to console. It did, enough so that she lost control completely.
She couldn’t help herself; his unselfish gesture had stunned her. She’d hurt this man in the worst possible way, and yet he put that aside to offer himself, because she needed him. For Stone, it was that simple.
He turned her to face him and gently removed her glasses.
“I’m fine,” she gasped, and he slowly shook his head. “But Sara…”
“She’s next door at the printer’s, playing with her friend. Let go, Jenna. For once, just let go.”
Blinded by hot tears, Jenna tried to fight it, but it was like holding back Niagara Falls. Then she was in his arms with no idea whether she’d put herself there or he’d pulled her to him.
Still, she might have managed to control herself, but Stone cupped the back of her head with such heart-stopping tenderness suddenly she was sobbing.
Stone let her burrow closer, and while she was appalled by her helplessness, she was powerless to stop. She needed him, needed to have his tall muscular body support her, needed to feel secure. She wished he’d squeeze even tighter, and just as she thought it, he did, making her tears come faster. His big hand held her head close, and the other moved slowly, soothingly up and down her quivering back.
The mix of regret and grief and anger was almost more than she could bear, and she cried herself to exhaustion. And when she stood there, head buried in his now wet shirt, Jenna found herself grateful for his tact and silence.
“Thank you,” she said to him, her voice thick and husky.
He pulled back. “You can keep the album for a while.”
She offered him a watery smile, and he studied her for a long moment.
“Lighter maybe,” she said, jokingly referring to how much water she’d shed.
“Don’t.” At his urging tone, she looked at him.
Slowly she nodded. “Are you still mad?”
He made a disparaging sound. “It’s not that easy to define, Jenna. Only time will tell for now.” And he handed her back her glasses and left her alone.
“You traveled around all the time you were gone?”
Jenna didn’t jump at this question Stone fired at her. She’d gotten used to such questions over the past few days, gotten used to him poking his head around her office door-or his office, if she was working there.
No greeting preceded these questions, no warnings. Other than that day he’d held her while she’d cried, there’d been no apparent softening in his attitude. But Jenna took the fact that he asked her anything at all as a good sign.
Shutting her filing cabinet, she turned to meet his unblinking gaze. His dark hair was damp and so was his shirt, reminding her it was raining rather hard outside. And he’d clearly stalked from his office to hers, needing his question answered, without regard to the weather. Her heart constricted.
“Pretty much,” she said, knowing that one of these days her honesty would break through. She’d see his slow sexy smile, and he’d look at her with enough heat to melt an iceberg.
Although he still looked at her with undeniable heat, he just didn’t allow it to go any further than looking. Not as he had before, when he’d let his natural sensuality come out, when he’d found any excuse to linger, to touch…to taste.
She missed that with all her being.
“Where did you go?”
“You name the state, I was there,” she admitted ruefully. “Never took me long to get bored. I saw Europe, too.”
“What did you do for money?”
“I worked everywhere I went. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can live.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said flatly, reminding her that in the beginning at least, he’d struggled, too. “You never stayed anywhere long. I would have found you.”
“Any ties felt… traitorous.”
“Yes. And to you.”
He nodded as if that made sense and turned back to the door. Head bent, wide shoulders tense, his hand still on the knob, he didn’t move. Discontentment rolled from him.
With all her heart Jenna wished she could ease it, but he had to make the decision to trust her again himself. All she could do now was be here for him and never waver. But she wanted so badly to wrap her arms around him and never let go. “Stone-”
“I’ve got to get back to work.” He yanked the door open, but instead of vanishing, he just stood there, watching the rain. “I thought about you. Every day. I hate like hell that I did, but it’s a fact.”
She came up behind him, heart aching. “I thought about you, too.”
The rain continued to hold his attention, the stiffening of his spine the only sign he’d heard her.
“I did,” she said softly. “Every single day, just like you.”
“You should have called.”
“We can’t go back, Jenna.” And with that he left. shutting out the day, the rain, the man.
Jenna sighed, heart heavy. Of course she should have contacted him. After all, he was a man who would never turn his back on anyone.
How could she expect him to understand her cowardice when he didn’t have a cowardly bone in his body?
But maybe, just maybe, she was changing. She went into the little bathroom, flipped on the harsh light, and when she could open her eyes to the glare, she stared at herself for long moments.
No doubt, she didn’t look the same as she once had. So why was it so hard to believe she didn’t act the same? Certainly the old Jenna would never have stuck this out, not in the face of such overwhelming odds. Yet she hadn’t left, hadn’t even had the urge to run since that night she’d come clean with Stone.
Jenna smiled, enjoying the sight of herself for the first time since her surgery. She was changing-she was getting stronger. She was becoming the sort of woman she’d always wanted to be-one who stood up for what she believed in.
She believed in love.
She believed in herself, and in forgiving herself, too.
And most exciting of all, she believed in being part of a family with Sara and Stone.
If only Stone could believe it, too.
Stone looked down at his daughter. They were standing by the front door ready to go.
And late as usual.
Stone sighed and restated the problem. “So you’re telling me you had your report finished, and it was in your book bag. Then at some point in my office yesterday it just vanished?”
“Not vanished,” Sara said with a shake of her head. “Stolen.”
“Stolen,” he repeated dubiously.
“Cindy did it.”
Stone lifted a brow as he studied Sara. They were rushing to get ready for school and work-again. Somehow his alarm hadn’t gotten through to his exhausted brain, and no wonder. He hadn’t fallen asleep until near dawn.
His life felt a little out of control at the moment, and he hated that. There were so many things consuming him. Richard gone forever, giving him no chance to ever resolve their differences. That was hard enough to accept, but then there were his parents, suddenly interested in forging a new relationship, at least with Sara.
Yet neither of those things even began to touch on his biggest problem.
At just the thought of her, emotions swamped him. Anger, yes. But worry, too, because he still had to figure out how to tell Sara about her, not to mention how the hell he felt about it all.
He was afraid he was doing as Jenna had told him he would. He was beginning to trust her-and it truly terrified him.
Now Sara wouldn’t meet his gaze, and as she stood there under his scrutiny, she kept shifting uneasily from foot to foot-a clear sign of trouble.
“You can do better than that,” he said.
She lifted her head, eyes wide, the picture of innocence. “Cindy stole my report.”
Stone squatted before her and put his hands on her waist “Honey, she’s not a thief.”
“She is so.” Big fat tears welled in Sara’s eyes. “She’s a daddy thief. Ever since she came to town you’ve been too busy for me.”
“Oh, baby.” Tugging her close, Stone enveloped her in a hug. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m never too busy for you. Never.”
Her next words were muffled in his shirt, the second time this week he’d made the mistake of wearing a light-colored shirt while holding a sobbing female. “We lost our game yesterday and you didn’t even seem to mind,” she wailed.
“I minded.” Sitting on the foyer floor, he pulled her into his lap, then tipped up her chin. “But all of you tried your best, right?”
“Yeah.” She sniffed and wiped her nose on her clean sleeve.
Stone rolled his eyes, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her, knowing it could have been worse-she could have wiped her nose on his sleeve. “Try this, sweetheart.”
She blew noisily, then handed him back his now soggy handkerchief. Stoically he balled it up and tossed it aside, silently thanking Mrs. Potts, who would undoubtedly pick it up, wash it and even iron it for him. “So if you tried your best,” he wondered out loud, “why should I make you feel worse by yelling at you guys?”
“Sara, about your report-”
“Don’t worry.” She hugged him back now and offered a watery smile. “The school is pretty crazy. No one’ll notice my missing report.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Ridgeway got caught kissing Mrs. Taylor, the new second-grade teacher.”
“Your kidding!” Of course she wasn’t. Even Sara couldn’t have made that story up. “What happened?”
“Mr. Taylor found them playing tonsil hockey in the storage closet and punched Mr. Ridgeway’s lights out. Now Mrs. Taylor and Mr. Ridgeway are gonna lose their jobs, I think.”
“Tonsil hockey?” Stone asked, shocked at what his ten-year-old daughter knew.
“Yeah.” She frowned. “I’m not exactly sure what that is, but it sounds pretty gross.”
“I see,” Stone said solemnly, but he couldn’t contain his wide grin. “They’re in big trouble, huh?”
His first thought was that Jenna would love this.
“Daddy, don’t fall in love with her!” Sara squeezed him tight and begged him with her baby blues. “Please, don’t.”
“She didn’t really steal my stuff,” Sara admitted, blinking another huge teardrop down her distressed face.
“Really,” Stone said dryly as he patted her back. “Look, honey, I understand how you feel, but you can’t go around making up stories like that. We’re close enough that you can tell me anything. No lies, okay?”
Sara stared at her shoes.
He tipped up her chin. “’Kay?”
“’Kay,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. She’s really…sort of nice, I guess. Even when I’m not.”
“So if she’s nice, what’s the problem?”
His heart stopped. “What about her?”
“When she comes back, she won’t want you if you’re married to someone else.”
Before he could figure out how to deal with this unexpected turn of events, the bus pulled up and honked.
“Sara, wait,” he said when she leaped to her feet. “After school we need to talk about this. About your mom.”
With the maturity of someone much older, Sara’s gaze searched his face. “You know,” she breathed. “You know where she is. Don’t you!”
“Yes, honey, I do.”
“You promised to tell me!”
“I just found out, and I’m telling you now, like I promised I would.”
“When do I get to see her?” Horror and hope and fear crossed her face all at once. “She does want to see me, doesn’t she?”
“More than anything in the world.” Jenna had promised to abide by his decision about Sara, and that had gone a long way toward allowing him to trust her, but Stone no longer felt he had the right to keep them separated. Sara needed her mother. “If it all goes as planned, then you’ll see her after school.”
Sara bounced off toward the bus looking happier than Stone could ever remember. “Love you, Dad!” she called over her shoulder, waving wildly.
When had she stopped calling him Daddy? He stood there, torn between joy and sorrow. His baby was growing up.
He rubbed the grittiness from his tired eyes, startled to feel moisture there. As the bus pulled away, he caught sight of Sara’s beaming face in the window.
She loved him.
With all his heart he hoped she still felt that way when she found out the truth. When she learned the woman she thought of as Cindy was really her mother. When she realized how her father had fallen for both.
It was infuriating that he still harbored a fear of Jenna hurting him, but he knew why. Nothing in his life had hurt as badly as when Jenna had left him.
But even that fear wasn’t enough to keep him from what he suddenly wanted with all his heart.
Jenna, back in his and Sara’s life.
Kristen poured the hot tea, smiling through the rising steam at Jenna. “It’s all over the papers.”
“And on the news,” Jenna added, unable to hold back a wide grin. “Just think, Rand Ridgeway finally got caught with his zipper down.”
They burst into laughter.
“I just wish,” Kristen said, sobering, “that he could have gotten in trouble sooner-ten years sooner.”
“Better late than never.” Jenna refused to continue to run her life on bitterness or anger. Instead, she was concentrating on the things that mattered-loyalty, affection… love.
“I like your new look,” Kristen said softly. “Not the hair, silly,” she said with a laugh when Jenna tucked a strand behind her ear. “The inner look you’ve been sporting lately. All that new belief in yourself and the people around you. It really shows, honey. You’ve changed. And it looks good on you.”
Uncomfortable with the compliment, Jenna shifted her weight uneasily. “Maybe you could tell that to Stone. And Sara, while you’re at it.”
“Is she warming up to you yet?”
“Not exactly.” Jenna grimaced when she took a sip of the tea, then added a generous helping of sugar. “Yesterday she called me a dork when I tripped.”
“I love you-you know that now.” Kristen’s eyes sparkled with good humor. “So I can say this-you’re not exactly graceful. Remember the time you took a swan dive, down that flight of stairs at school? Landed on your tush right in front of Bobby Parker?”
And a million other kids, who’d laughed at her for weeks. One more thing in a very long list that had added up to zero self-confidence. “Very funny,” Jenna said, remembering her past humiliation. “But the truth is, Sara booby-trapped me with a long piece of string. I nearly killed myself in there yesterday. Then she told Stone I tripped her-on purpose.”
“Really? What did Stone say?”
“He told her to watch her big old feet more.”
“He stuck up for you.”
“Yeah, but don’t get excited. He still isn’t exactly thrilled with me.” Although, she had to admit, he never let it show in front of Sara. He always treated her with the utmost courtesy and made sure Sara did the same. Even in the sticky situation of keeping the truth from his daughter, he never wavered in doing what he believed was right. “That girl has an attitude to match…well, quite frankly, it matches her father’s.”
Jenna’s office front door had opened with a blast of chilly morning air just as she finished her sentence. Too late she realized why Kristen’s eyes were wide with warning and that the tall shadow behind her meant the worst possible thing had just occurred.
Stone had heard her.
Grimacing, she turned to face him. “Oh. It’s you.”
“Attitude and all,” he said with a mock salute.
“It’s all right,” he assured her, shutting the door, “especially when you mean it.” He leaned back against the wood and gave her a look so divided between sizzling passion and annoyed fury, she didn’t know if she was excited or terrified.
He didn’t waste time on pleasantries, although he did pause to glare at Kristen. “Well, now your being here makes sense.” He shook his head. “Hope you had a good laugh, both of you.”
“No,” Kristen said quickly. “We never did that.”
He looked at Jenna, and whether he realized it or not, his expression softened slightly. “However it happened, I’m glad you have her. Family is everything.” Voice grim, he crossed his arms. “It’s time, ladies.”
“For what?” Jenna asked, her pulse hammering ridiculously.
“To tell Sara.” He stalked with a sort of lethal grace over to the teapot and poured himself a cup, which he brought unsweetened to his lips.
“It’s too soon,” Jenna protested weakly, forcing her gaze to his. “She doesn’t like me. If you tell her now, she’ll like me even less.”
“You started this, Jenna. You came here without being honest, and now we have no choice but to finish it.”
“Well, that’s not exactly fair…” Kristen started, only to pinch her mouth closed when Stone shot her a dark look.
“Fair?” he questioned evenly. Despite his obvious anger, his voice was polite to a fault. “And it’s fair, I suppose, Kristen, to let my child think her mother ran off without a care. To let her think I’m falling for a woman named Cindy, which has her worrying about what will happen when her mother does come back, because I won’t be available.”
Kristen’s mouth opened, then closed at the look of barely contained fury on Stone’s face.
He said he was falling for her. Jenna stared at Stone unblinkingly. She was afraid to close her eyes even for a second, or he’d go away. “What do you mean?”
Stone’s jaw was clenched tight, his eyes hot and furious, as if he wished he could snatch back his words.
No one spoke in the charged silence, but Jenna’s heart raced.
“I think I should leave you two alone.” Kristen grabbed her purse, kissed Jenna’s cheek and left.
There was more silence while Jenna endured the unrelenting glare of the man who’d held her heart for so many years.
“I don’t know what the hell I meant,” he finally snapped.
Jenna sagged in disappointment.
“We’re ruining Sara’s life, Jenna.” Wearily he set down the cup and folded his body onto the couch. “Much as I hate to think about it, she has to know the truth. Today.”
“Is that wise?” she asked quietly. “I haven’t been back all that long. Maybe-”
“Maybe you should stop thinking of yourself,” Stone interrupted her in an equally quiet voice. “Think of Sara and how she’s being affected by our emotions, no matter how hard we try to keep them to ourselves.”
It wasn’t often Jenna experienced a surge of temper. But now, facing an irritated, hurting, unbearably sexy Stone, she lost it. “How dare you suggest I’m being selfish!” she cried. “I’m thinking of her-and you. It’s what’s kept me silent.”
“No. That was for yourself.” He rose to his feet to face her, eyes blazing. “You didn’t know how to tell me the truth. It was easier not to.”
“You’re judging me again, Stone. You’re judging me on what you remember of that frightened young Jenna. I’m telling you-I’m not the same person anymore!”
“Then stop acting like her.”
“If I was acting like her, I’d have run by now.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t.”
They stared at each other, breathing hard, hands clenched at their sides. And Jenna realized he still believed she could leave. In his own way, he was testing her. Could she blame him? He had Sara to protect, so there was no way he could tell her the truth unless he knew Jenna was going to stick it out.
“I didn’t mean to disrupt your life,” she said, her words barely audible.
“Little late for that.” His cool tone made her flinch. “And now Sara is reacting to what she senses between us.”
“And what exactly is it between us?”
His chest rose with the deep breath he took, but he didn’t speak. His hands ran through his dark hair, the gesture betraying his uncertainty. It was so unlike him she stepped closer.
He stilled, then took another deep breath. “You can trust me, Jenna. That’s what’s between us. Always.”
“But will you ever trust me again?”
He lifted his head, staring at her for one endless beat in time.
“Forget it,” she said quickly “It’s too soon-”
“I’d like to think I can. But I don’t know.” He grimaced. “You confuse the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth.”
“I’m sorry.” Cupping the stubble-roughened line of his jaw, she sent him a bittersweet smile. “I know how I’ve hurt you. I’d hate me, too.”
“I don’t hate you,” he said. “I never could.”
Her brain could hardly soak it m. He was clearly frustrated. In her world when people were angry, they turned from her. Forever.
“Jenna.” He tipped up her face with achingly gentle hands. “I don’t hold anything in, you know that. When there are problems or when I don’t agree about something, you’re going to know it because I’m going to tell you. There have been a lot of conflicting emotions here. It doesn’t mean I’m not proud of you and what you’ve done with yourself.”
“You’re…proud?” The last word came out a bit strangled because she had to speak around the huge lump in her throat. His approval shouldn’t mean so much, but oh it did.
“Yeah.” His eyes were warm and full of things that suddenly didn’t terrify her so much anymore. “I’m damn proud of you.”
“Okay,” she said, clutching at him a little because she had to know this was real. “Here it goes, then. Trust and honesty. Are you sure you’re ready?”
“I’m staying forever and I want you and Sara in my life. For always.”
His eyes glittered. “Come on,” he said suddenly, taking her hand and pulling her toward the door.
Panic and hope warred within Jenna, and panic seemed to be winning. “But…”
Turning back to her, Stone stared deep into her eyes. “It’s simple, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long to see it. You want her to know. She needs to know.”
Stone tugged Jenna out of the office toward his vehicle.
He opened the passenger side of his truck for her. “She can’t wait. She shouldn’t wait. I realized that this morning.”
He drove with his usual intense single-mindedness, and Jenna found herself staring at his strong profile in wonder. He seemed relaxed, driving with calm skill. The strength she always sensed in him was there, an innate part of the man. But she could see beyond that strength now to what lay beneath.
He wasn’t sure of himself at all, at least not in this circumstance, not when it came to possibly hurting Sara. But he believed that his daughter deserved to know, and that was enough for him. Never mind how difficult or painful it would be for him. He didn’t look at it that way.
What mattered was doing the right thing by Sara.
Same thing with allowing his parents back into his life. They’d deserted him when he’d needed them most, yet he’d done everything in his power to ensure he made Sara available to them. Because it had been the right thing to do.
Just looking at him humbled her. He was strong and wonderful and compassionate and caring, and she knew the truth-whether or not he loved her, she loved him with every fiber of her being.
All this time she’d been busy trying to prove her worth to him, yet that hadn’t been the answer at all. He already knew her, and he’d told her how he felt without hesitation.
In return all he’d wanted from her was two things. One, for her to be happy in her own skin, and two, he’d asked for trust. It was terrifying.
She glanced upward at the mirror over the passenger seat. She’d already fulfilled his first request-in spite of the flaws, she’d accepted herself.
And she didn’t need to look at Stone again to feel that warm fuzzy burst of emotion she knew had to be love. She felt it just sitting next to him. Hell, she got it from just thinking about him.
It was almost too much, knowing Stone and Sara were within her grasp, knowing she could have everything her heart had secretly desired, if she just believed in herself enough to take it.
The school loomed in front of them. No panic this time, Jenna thought, not even a little bit. She and Stone got out of the truck and he reached for her hand.
With an ease that no longer startled her, Jenna took it, squeezing his big hand with hers.
They waited outside Sara’s classroom for the recess bell. When Jenna pressed her fingers to her nervous stomach, Stone reached for her. “It’ll work out,” he promised. “Just believe in yourself.”
“I do.” Surprised, she looked at him. “I really do.”
“I know.” He shot her an approving smile. “It’s nice to see.”
But still, when the bell rang for recess and the kids poured out of classrooms, surrounding them with laughter and shouts, Jenna had to remind herself to breathe.
With the practiced ease of a dad used to such things, Stone nabbed Sara as she ran by. Snatching her close in a quick hug, he grinned at her squeal of delight. “Thought I’d come in person to buy you a snack today,” he told her.
Sara beamed-until she saw Jenna. But she went along willingly enough while they bought doughnuts. The three of them sat on a relatively secluded curved concrete bench beneath a cluster of trees. Stone sat in the middle, but because of the arch of the bench, Jenna and Sara faced each other, their feet practically touching. With the sun shining in her eyes, Jenna watched Sara wolf down two doughnuts and two chocolate milks down with practiced ease, and her heart swelled with love.
“Sara,” Stone said gently, sending Jenna a quick glance of silent support, “we need to talk to you.”
“You and Cindy?” Sara gulped down her last bite and dusted her hands off on her jeans, making Jenna smile when Stone rolled his eyes. “Why?” she demanded. “You guys getting married?”
Jenna held her breath, meeting Stone’s gaze.
“Or are you gonna live together?”
Stone let out a short laugh at Sara’s words. “Well, that’s not quite it. Honey-”
“I thought you were going to tell me about Mommy today.”
“I am,” he said patiently. “At least I’m trying. Sara, Cindy’s name isn’t really Cindy.”
Sara stared at Jenna. “Why not?”
“Well, it’s complicated.”
Stone looked at Jenna. “When she was young, a bunch of bad stuff happened to her.”
“Like what? Someone stole her report, too?”
Stone’s smile was sad, but his gaze never left Jenna’s face. “Worse,” he said, holding the connection with such easy warmth Jenna was overcome with emotion. “Lots worse,” he added quietly. “And she went away because of it, although a part of her, the very best part, stayed here.”
“Her heart and soul.”
Jenna swallowed hard, her love for him so strong she thought she might die of it. “Stone,” she whispered, “tell her the rest.”
Stone reached for Sara’s hand. “Cindy’s name is Jenna, sweetheart. And Jenna is-”
“My birth mother.”
Both Stone and Jenna blinked at the flat grown-up term.
“I knew it,” Sara whispered, her eyes huge and focused on Jenna. “I didn’t want to know it, but I did.”
Jenna couldn’t keep silent. She reached for Sara’s free hand. “I’m so sorry for keeping it from you, Sara. I just didn’t know how to tell you. I think a part of me wanted to make sure you liked me first.”
“Or maybe you wanted to make sure you liked me,” Sara responded in a tiny little voice.
God, she looked so young, all bravado gone. Jenna shook her head. “That was never it. I knew I would love you on sight. And I did. Oh, God, I did…” Her voice hitched, caught on a sob she couldn’t contain. “I’ll never forget that first time I saw you.”
Sara’s head whipped up. “Really?” The word was torn from her in a sudden burst, as if she didn’t want to show interest but couldn’t help herself. “I mean, I bet it was no big deal,” she said with a shrug.
“Oh, it was a big deal all right.” Jenna smiled even as a few tears fell. She looked at Stone, who was smiling, too, with both acceptance and assurance, giving her courage. “You were this tiny little thing-” she lifted her hand from Stone’s to show Sara how big “-and you were the most precious baby I’d ever seen.”
“And red. You were really red,” Stone added with a wide grin. “And ugly.”
“Stone!” Jenna gasped, but Sara laughed.
“And you squalled,” he went on, unconcerned with Jenna’s growing horror. “Holy moly, could you yell. You practically brought the hospital walls down.”
“Stop it,” Jenna interrupted him with a laugh that helped dissolve some of her tension. She tore through her purse and pulled out the picture she’d treasured for so long. “Here. I look at this every day.”
Stone drew in a surprised breath. “You kept it.” A wealth of emotion weighed down the words.
“Yes,” Jenna said, meeting his gaze. “It’s my most prized possession.”
Sara stared down at herself as an infant. “You…really looked at this every day?”
After a moment she handed it back. “You left me.”
The bell rang and Sara leaped up, but Stone stopped her with a gentle hand. “Honey, you wanted to know, and I felt you deserved that. I felt you were grown up enough to understand.”
“I am grown up enough.”
“I know it hurts,” he said with a tenderness that tore at Jenna. “It’s hard, it’s unfair, but everything we’re going to tell you is the truth. Don’t you want to hear all of it?”
Around them the school bustled with life as students wound their way back to class. Sara stared at Jenna.
“Do you love my dad?” she demanded.
Jenna was startled at the unexpected question. Both Sara and Stone’s gazes fell on her. Silent and waiting. So easy, but she’d never ever said those words out loud to anyone, not even to Kristen.
And yet she felt them. Oh, how she felt them.
She glanced at Stone, saw his heart and soul open to her, vulnerable, just there for the taking, and she suddenly understood what made him hold back.
As far as he knew, she was still unable to completely trust him, unable to allow herself to love him the way he needed to be loved.
Taking the biggest plunge of her life, she reached out for Stone’s hand and felt him grab on without hesitation. “Yes,” she told Sara proudly through a haze of tears. “I love your dad. With all my heart.”
Stone’s smile was dazzling, and the best reward she could have hoped for. “And you, Sara,” she said, turning to her daughter. “I love you, too, so very much.”
“You probably have to say that,” Sara said, shrugging.
“No.” Jenna grasped the girl’s shoulders, bending down a bit and holding on until their gazes met. “I’ve never said those words before.” She felt the resistance in the thin shoulders. “Never, Sara. I’ve saved them for you and your dad, and I’m sorry it took me so long. But I promise I’ll never stop telling you. Will you try to believe that?”
Another shrug, but something in the girl’s eyes was different. An awareness…and hope. “I suppose,” she muttered.
“Thank you,” Jenna said softly. “You’ve given me more than I could ever have hoped for.”
“I gotta go back to class now.” Sara tried to look nonchalant and failed miserably. “So…are you gonna, you know, like be around?”
“Yes,” Jenna replied. “I’ll be around. Every day of your life.” The tears she’d been trying to hold back fell freely.
“Mom!” Mortified, Sara glanced around to see who was watching them. “You can’t cry here!”
Jenna and Stone both burst into laughter as Jenna did her best to wipe away her tears of relief and joy. “Sorry!” But it was hopeless. She couldn’t control herself. The more she tried, the more she cried.
“Dad!” Sara pushed Stone toward Jenna. “Do something. Make her happy. Quick!”
Stone hugged Sara fiercely, his own eyes suspiciously bright. “She is happy, honey. And so am I. I’m so proud of you.” Sara squirmed in the tight embrace. “And I love you.”
“Just don’t kiss me,” she begged. “Not here in front of everyone.”
“You’re really okay with all this?” Stone pulled away to peer into her face. “You’re going back to class?”
“Yeah.” Sara stared at Jenna as she left her father’s arms. “I’ll…see you later. Right?”
“Right.” Jenna held her breath, didn’t dare ask for the hug she was dying for.
Sara looked carefully over her shoulder. Coast apparently clear, she shrugged again. “You can, you know…hug me. If you want.”
“Oh, I want,” Jenna whispered, pulling Sara close. Closing her eyes, she savored the feel of her daughter in her arms at long last. She was thin, smelled like soap and dirt and peanut butter, and she felt like the most precious bundle on earth.
Over Sara’s head she looked at Stone. And there in his gaze, she found all the love and acceptance she could ever need.
Sara pulled back, shot her a shy smile and ran off to make her class, leaving Jenna alone with Stone.
“I didn’t imagine this happening here, in a schoolyard,” he murmured, reaching for her.
Feeling his strong arms enclose her in his warmth, Jenna sighed with pleasure. “What? Telling Sara?”
“No. Telling you I love you.” He kissed her, a light sweet kiss filled with promise. “Have I told you how wonderful you are?”
Her heart filled, overflowed. Never had she felt such contentment. “Maybe you could tell me again?” Her voice caught on her happy tears.
“I’ll tell you every day of your life if you’d like. I love you, Jenna. Only you. Always you.”
Had she ever felt so wanted? So needed? So loved? “I meant what I said to Sara. I love you, Stone, so much. I think I always have.” Hugging him close, she promised, “And I won’t ever leave you again. We can be together, forever.”
“There is one thing.”
Butterflies ravaged her stomach at his serious tone, and she froze in his arms. “What?”
“How do you feel about changing your name one more time?”
Startled, she pulled back, but his hooded expression gave nothing away. His arms were banded tightly around her as if he was…uncertain. “Change my name?”
“To mine.” Lifting a hand, he slid a callused finger over a lingering tear before he bent and kissed her again.
Off guard, she still just stared at him. “Are you…asking me to marry you?”
“Yes, I am.” A grin tugged at his lips. “You sound so shocked. Is it that big of a surprise?”
“No. No, it’s just that I…” More tears, unstoppable this time. “I’d hoped,” she managed before flinging her arms around his neck. “Oh, Stone, how I’d hoped.”
“Is that a yes? You want to be mine?”
He asked so solemnly it brought fresh tears. “Yes,” she whispered. She’d never felt so right anywhere else as she did in his arms. The pure sense of sweet homecoming made it difficult to speak. “Yes to everything. But as for being yours, I already am. Forever.”
“Wow! Mom! Come look quick! He did it again, I swear!”
Jenna, who, even after two years still thrilled to hearing Sara call her Mom, came running, for the little he in question could have done anything from throwing up his carrots on the den rug-again-to eating the dog food.
Unfortunately Chase Cameron, ten-month-old tyrant of the household, had already learned that people took one look at his pudgy adorable self and turned to mush.
Jenna skidded into the room as fast as her eight-month pregnant body would allow. She eyed her son first, taking in the cherubic expression, the light blue eyes and dark curls almost too pretty to be wasted on a boy. “Did he tear up your book report again?” she asked Sara.
“Ah…no, but hey, that was a good one. I should have saved that excuse,” her daughter admitted.
“You haven’t even started it yet, have you?” Jenna sighed. “You’re supposed to be-”
“I know, I know.” Sara straightened, and in a perfect mimic of Jenna’s voice said starchly, “Studying. It’s the concrete paving the walk to my future.”
“Well it is,” Jenna insisted, with a laugh.
“I know, Mom,” Sara moaned, dragging the last word out.
Sara seemed to think she knew a lot lately, something that Jenna and Stone attributed to her new teen status. They considered themselves lucky they’d gotten married, settled in Stone’s house and had the baby before facing the new challenge of living with a twelve-year-old.
“Watch,” Sara commanded. Turning to the toddler in her lap, she smiled down at him as he happily chewed on his fist. At the sight of Jenna, Chase shot her a slow crooked toothless grin that reminded her very much of Stone. She sighed in contentment.
“Chase! Pay attention now,” Sara admonished, ruining it by kissing him sloppily on the cheek. Reaching around her brother, she picked up her basketball, which had suspicious-looking drool marks on it, and set it in Chase’s lap. “Do it again,” she urged, their two dark heads bending in concentration over the ball. “Show Momma.”
Watching Sara lavish attention on Chase brought a lump of pure joy to Jenna’s throat. Then strong warm arms wrapped around her from behind, and with a watery smile, Jenna leaned back into them.
“She’s so good with him,” she murmured.
“And you’re so good with both of them.” Slipping his hands around to support her bulging belly, Stone kissed Jenna, chuckling when, beneath his hands, the next Cameron baby stirred and kicked. “Ready for yet another, Mrs. Cameron?”
“Who would have thought?” she whispered dreamily, watching Chase lean forward to gum Sara’s ball with his very wet mouth, much to his older sister’s disgust. “Who would have thought I’d be a mom to two-point-five kids, a driver in the carpool and live in a perfect house with a white picket fence-”
“It’s not white.”
“-and be this happy,” she finished on a sigh of contentment.
Stone stilled, then hugged her fiercely, careful to take care with the unborn baby. “Any regrets?”
Before them, on the rug, Sara took the ball away from her brother, turned him in her arms and hugged him with the same fierce love that Stone was hugging Jenna.
Jenna’s heart squeezed tight with love, and in Stone’s arms, she turned to face him.
She kissed him with all her heart, then cupped his face, pulling back so she could see into his eyes. “No regrets. I have everything I ever dreamed about, all because of you.”
“Weeell…” She’d caught the teasing light in his eye, and knew he was referring to the way her hormones had reacted to this pregnancy.
With an eager grin she pulled him closer so she could whisper in his ear, telling him what was missing and exactly how he could fix it.
“Shame on you, Mrs. Cameron,” he whispered in mock shock. A wicked gleam lit his face. “But let’s hurry and put everyone to bed so I can help you out with that, er, particular need.”
She laughed, and they both raced into the den.
When pressed for an answer on why she writes romance, Jill Shalvis just smiles and says she didn’t realize there was anything else. She’s written over a dozen novels so far, and doesn’t plan on stopping. She lives in California, in a house filled with young children, too many animals and her hero/husband.