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Karyn Lambert took yet another look at her rearview mirror. No doubt about it. She was being followed. Maneuvering her Beetle through heavy 6:00 p.m. traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, she changed lanesand so did the black SUV that had been tailing her since she'd left Disneyland an hour ago. And now, as she was pulling up at Sprinkles Cupcakes to pick up a well-earned red velvet treat, she had to make a decision. Go to the bakery's cupcake dispenser as planned and see if the guy in the SUV followedor lose him in traffic?
Karyn inched past the bakery. All the street parking was taken. She weighed the risk of the parking garage nearby and rejected it after another quick glance at her mirror. Headlights and Christmas lights created a dark, distinctive silhouette of the driver.
"Man Wearing Cowboy Hat, you are following the wrong girl."
This was Karyn's turf. She knew how to zip through the side streets of Beverly Hills efficiently. It didn't take her long to leave the SUV in the dust and make a quick retreat to her Hollywood duplex, its garage tucked in the rear. She'd never been so grateful for that privacy before.
Grabbing her packages, she rushed upstairs to her unit, let herself in and slammed the door shut. She left the lights off, set down her bags on the kitchen table, then waited in the dark for fifteen minutes, going from window to window, peering through the blinds. Finally she turned on the living room light and sat on the sofa, her legs bouncing. Why would someone follow her? In the land of Hollywood-star wannabes, she was the least likely person to stalk.
Then again, maybe it was her imagination, a fanciful notion of her overtired brain. It was six days before Christmas, hell week in her line of work. She was exhausted, so maybe her mind was playing tricks on her.
Of course. That had to be it.
Shrugging it off, Karyn headed for the kitchen. The doorbell rang. She froze.
When it rang again she stealthily made her way to the front door and looked through the peephole. She hadn't turned on her porch light, but she could make out the silhouette. A man in a cowboy hat.
"Ms. Lambert?" he asked through the door. "I know you're there. I just want a few words with you." Not a snowflake's chance in "Please. I'm a lawyer. I'm looking for your brother, Kyle."
Stunned, she covered her mouth with her hand and took an involuntary step back.
"Turn your outside light on and look through the peephole. I'll show you my identification."
"Why do you want Kyle?" she asked.
A beat passed. "He's not in trouble, Ms. Lambert, but I also don't want to shout personal information through your door. I don't need much of your time."
She flipped on the porch light. "Prove who you are."
His driver's license told a basic story. Name, Vaughn Ryder. Six-foot-one, 180 pounds. Lean and rangy, she thought. Brown hair, blue eyes. Thirty-eight years old. Organ donor.
"What else have you got?"
He held up a business card. Under his name was a list: ranch and farm contracts, conservation easements, estate planning, water and power rights. His address said Ryder Ranch, Red Valley, California, with a P.O. box, phone numbers and an email address. She couldn't begin to imagine what a cowboy lawyer would want of Kyle, but she was curious enough to invite him in.
Karyn opened the door then stared for a few seconds. He was a cowboy all right, from his black hat down to his fancy stitched boots. A pristine white dress shirt with silver snaps was set off with a gorgeous bolo tie of silver and black. His black jeans were snug
Definitely a man. And truly a cowboy, apparently, who matched his business card.
"Want to pat me down?" he asked, humor in his voice.
She struggled to look him in the eye. "What?"
"For weapons? I'd like to speak to you privately, and if you need to check me for weapons before you'll invite me in, I'm okay with that." He held his arms out, his briefcase dangling from one hand.
She took a couple of steps back and gestured him indoors, feeling heat in her face at being caught eyeing him. "You've been following me since I left Disneyland," she stated, noting his graying temples and the intensity of his blue eyes as he swept off his hat.
"Guilty. Actually, I've been behind you since you first left here this morning."
"I wanted to get a sense of your life. You shop a lot."
She laughed at the wonder in his voice, and it felt good, breaking the tension. "It's what I do for a living. I'm a personal shopper."
"That pays enough to make a living?"
"Are you implying that I make money some other way?" Ice coated her words. "I assure you everything I do is aboveboard."
"My apologies," he said with sincerity. "I didn't mean to imply that. Ignorance, that's all. May we sit?"
She sat, forgiving him for not understanding her business, which encompassed much more than shopping. Her task list was even longer than those written on his business card.
"Why do you need a sense of my life?" she asked. "You said you're here about my twin brother."
"What I have to say involves you, but primarily Kyle, and he's the one I'd like to speak to first. I've been hunting for him but haven't come up with an address."
"You can't " Karyn's throat burned as memories assaulted her. Hot, painful tears pressed at her eyes with such suddenness and force she barely managed to get words out. "You can't find him because he died, Mr. Ryder. He was killed in combat three years ago in Afghanistan."
She sat there for a moment, trying to tamp down the emotions that were still raw and unfiltered, even after all this time, but especially hard at Christmas. When she couldn't pull herself together, she hurried to her bedroom, shutting the door, leaning against it before falling on the bed, not caring that a stranger sat in her living room.
Vaughn stood automatically, then sank slowly into the chair when he realized she wasn't coming right back. Kyle Lambert is dead. Relief swept through him first. His life had just gotten much easier. Then he recalled the fresh grief in Karyn's eyes. He couldn't imagine losing any of his five siblings. The pain would be overwhelming.
Of course, none of it mattered at all if Kyle turned out not to be the man Vaughn was seekingor even the right Kyle Lambert. But seeing Karyn's curly light brown hair was its own kind of validation.
Unable to sit still, Vaughn wandered the room. A table was stacked neatly with wrapped Christmas presents, a color-coded tag on each one, but otherwise her apartment wasn't decorated for the holiday. On the wall were numerous paintings, mostly landscapes and floral themes. When he looked closer, he noticed Karyn Lambert's signature in the corner.
There were no photographs of any kind, not of people or places or events, which he found odd. Most women displayed pictures.
After a while a door clicked open. Karyn came into the living room, her eyes still damp. She was an attractive woman, not Hollywood-slim but nicely curved, more girl next door. Her height was a mystery because she was wearing very high heels. He'd noted her sexy walk all day as he'd followed her.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"I knew he was a marine, but I didn't know he'd passed away. I should've waited for my private investigator to dig deeper when I was given Kyle's name. He was out of the state on a job, and I was in a hurry to get results. II'm sincerely sorry for how I handled this."
"Dig deeper for what, Mr. Ryder?" she asked.
"Vaughn, please. Ms. Lambert, I believe your brother may have fathered a child with Ginger Dono-hue six years ago."
She dropped onto the sofa, her eyes wide. "Kyle has a child? A piece of him is still here?"
"It's a possibility. Since we can't do paternity testing with your brother, we can do relationship testing with you."
"I'm an aunt? Please tell me about What's the child's name?"
"Cassidy." He pulled out his cell phone and brought up a photo.
"Oh." Karyn ran her fingers over the screen, tears pooling in her eyes again. "She's so beautiful."
"She kinda looks like Kyle."
And you, he thought. "Does the name Ginger Dono-hue ring a bell, Ms. Lambert?"
She shook her head. "I don't understand. Cassidy is six? Why would this woman wait so long to come forward?"
"Are you sure your brother didn't know?" Vaughn asked.
"I'm positive. He would've been there for his daughter, no doubt about it."
"I don't know why Ginger didn't tell Kyle, since obviously he was alive for the first three years of Cassidy's life."
"So, something changed. Is it money? I was the beneficiary of Kyle's death benefits, and I haven't spent much of it. It should go to his daughter"
Vaughn stopped her with a gesture. "Ginger walked out of Cassidy's life two years ago."
Karyn leaned back abruptly, staring at him but her gaze not really connecting, then a slow dawning of excitement came over her.
"When do I get to pick her up?" She looked around her space. "I'll need a bigger place. Near a park. I'll have to check out schools." She smiled and looked directly at Vaughn. "Where is she now? When do I get her?"
He ignored her bubble of happiness. He had to. "If the testing confirms she's Kyle's daughter, you'll meet her, of course, and be part of her life. But, Ms. Lambert, she won't be living with you. I've been her father since the day she was born. I'm not giving her up."
You've been her father?" Karyn shook her head, confused. "I don't Did you know she wasn't yours?"
He nodded. "Ginger was pregnant when we met, but we didn't get married until Cassidy was a month old. The birth certificate lists the father as unknown." Vaughn walked to her front window and looked out. "I asked for years to adopt Cass, but Ginger put me off. Then she left. That's why I started the search for the biological father. I want to legally make her mine."
Karyn's mind spun as shock piled atop shock. She hardly knew what to think, except that this woman, Ginger, must be the epitome of femininity to attract both Kyle, a regular guy, and this Vaughn, who was a cut above. Apparently neither man had seen her for her true self.
"We ran into a lot of dead ends because so many years had elapsed," Vaughn said, his back still turned to Karyn. "An old roommate of Ginger's provided the name Kyle Lambert as a possibility. After that it was a matter of connecting the dots, but I'm still not sure it's your brother. We had a name. There are others of the same name and age around the country. Do you know if he lived in San Francisco seven years ago?"
"No, but that doesn't mean he didn't visit."
Vaughn came back and sat down, resting his arms on his thighs and focusing on Karyn again. "I'm sorry for the pain this is causing you, reliving your brother's death."
"It's never far from my mind, but now there's joy, too, if Cassidy is his child." She touched his arm. "I can see this is hard for you, too."
"Harder for Cassidy. She was old enough to feel the abandonment but without any context to understand it. She used to ask about her mother, but it's rare now. I have no good explanation to give her anyway. We just carry on. Fortunately, I have a big, generous family. She's well loved."
Karyn believed him. But now that the shock was abating, a hunger to know Kyle's child took precedence. "I haven't had dinner yet," she said. "Would you like to join me?" She needed to do something normalheat up a can of soup or leftover pizza, which was all she had on hand. They could talk more while they ate.
"I have a flight to catch. I'm already cutting it close." He opened his briefcase then passed her a tube containing a swab. "You just scrape the inside of your cheeks," he said, gesturing.
She eyed the item. "What about chain of custody?"
His brows went up. "Pardon?"
"One of my clients is a regular on Crime and Punishment, so I watch it every week."
He smiled, which had been her goal. "You're an expert then."
"Absolutely. I know the way this is supposed to be done. The specimen should be collected by a neutral third party, like at a lab."
"I can arrange for that, although this would be a civil case, not criminal, so the same rules don't apply." He sat back, more relaxed than he'd been earlier. "I'll make a deal with you. If it comes back negative for Kyle as the father, we can redo it through every legal step."
She thought that over. "I guess you're just looking for the truthnot playing any games."
"If you knew me better, that wouldn't be a question. Plus, I'm an officer of the court. As an expert in, uh, television justice, you understand what that means."
She smiled at his attempt to bring humor to the situation. "Yeah. Okay."
Karyn felt awkward doing the test in front of him, not looking at him as she did so, then dropping the swab into the tube and passing it to him. He tucked it into a padded envelope then into his briefcase, their own chain of custody.
He stood, so she did, too. "No matter how this turns out, I enjoyed meeting you," he said and headed to the door. "May I ask where you were going before you so effectively ditched me? Nice job of that, by the way."
She smiled. "The ATM at Sprinkles for a red velvet cupcake."
"They sell cupcakes from an ATM?"
"Well, that's what they call it. It dispenses one at a time." She shrugged. "I'd had a long day."
His hand was on the doorknob. "You went to the happiest place on Earth."
"I shopped there. Don't get me wrong, I love Disneyland, but when you go inside to purchase gifts for clients and don't even get to take one ride on Space Mountain, it's not a fun trip."
"I've never been to Disneyland."
"Are you serious? You've never taken Cassidy? We have to correct that."
The air between them felt heavy with sudden tension.
"Maybe we will," he said finally. "Good night, Karyn. Try not to get too anxious waiting."
"I know." He left.