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Carolyn St.Clair wasn't having the best day to begin with, but when the doors to Finders Keepers opened to reveal Ben Mulhollandher long-lost lovethings went to heck in a handbasket. Never mind that her pulse jumped erratically and a thrill set every one of her nerve endings on high alert.
Ben's intense hazel eyes settled on her with unyielding focus, and Carolyn managed the most difficult smile she'd ever forced to her face.
''Hello, Ben,'' she said.
''Carolyn.'' He shoved his hands into the pockets of his well-worn jeans and stared at her, clearly uncomfortable.
Time had made strangers of them. She reached for the platitude. ''You're looking well.''
His eyes flickered. ''You are, too.''
The response was too automatic to be a genuine compliment, so she decided to skip the small talk and say what she really wanted to say, no matter how awkward. ''I was sorry to hear about your mom, Ben.'' She swallowed, hoping her stilted tone conveyed the sympathy she felt. But was it more sympathy than he'd welcome from an old girlfriend?
When he nodded in appreciation, Carolyn relaxed slightly.
''Thanks. Mom really liked you.''
Eileen Mulholland had been certain Carolyn and Ben were perfect for each other. When Carolyn broke off the relationship, Eileen had personally called to tell her how sorry she was, and that she'd hoped Carolyn would one day become her daughter-in-law. Eileen never asked why Carolyn was breaking the engagement. She'd merely expressed her love.
Carolyn had felt so guilty. Another woman had become Eileen's daughter-in-law, not too many months later. Sadly, she'd also become her ex-daughter-in-law, shortly before Eileen passed away.
''I saw the pot of daisies in Mom's hospital room,'' Ben said. ''She told me you'd been by.'' He cleared his throat. ''It was nice of you to visit her, Carolyn.''
How could she not? She'd loved Eileen. She'd loved Ben. They were part of the family to which she had desperately wanted to belong; a family she'd always dreamed of.
She'd known for some time she would never have that family of her dreams.
''I hated to see her go, Ben. She had so much love of life.''
''Thanks, Carolyn.'' His lips flattened for a moment, before he said, ''Mom told me you were working here. I came by to ask a favor of you.'' Carolyn's eyebrows rose. ''A favor?'' ''actually, I'd like to hire Finders Keepers for a personal reason.'' He sighed. ''I suppose nobody walks in the agency door unless it's a personal reason.''
She tried to offer him a reassuring smile. He was obviously on edge, but she didn't feel it was because of her. On the other hand, she had tensed the moment their eyes met, despite the years since she'd last seen him. Now she needed to call on her professionalism to keep a wedge between the feelings she still had for Ben and the knowledge that those buried emotions would always be doomed to disappointment. ''Please sit down.'' She gestured to a chair near the desk. ''Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? A soda?''
He shook his head, drumming his fingers on the desk after he sat. One hand riffled absently through sandy hair that needed a trim. He looked tired Carolyn noted, or perhaps worried. Something other than happiness had etched itself into the sun lines around his eyes; the easy smile he'd once possessed hadn't surfaced since he'd walked in the door.
''How can Finders Keepers help you, Ben?''
''By taking my case.''
''We'll certainly review whether our expertise is a match for your needs, but''
''It's important to me that you be the one handling it,'' he stressed.
Startled, she shook her head. ''I don't know if that would be in your best interest, Ben. Dylan and Lily Garrett really hired me to run the office. They're the experienced''
''You haven't even heard the details,'' he reminded her. ''Don't tell me no just yet, Carolyn. Please.''
He hadn't missed her reluctance to agree to his request. She shifted in her chair, unable to meet his eyes for a moment. ''I'm willing to listen, of course. And Finders Keepers will do the best they can to help you.''
He frowned, furrowing the skin between his sandy brows. ''You're uncomfortable.''
She hesitated. ''Perhaps a little.''
Nodding, he said, ''I understand that. I wouldn't be here if this wasn't a matter of urgency.''
When he stared at her, those large hazel eyes pleading for her acquiescence, Carolyn wanted to close her own eyes and sigh. The memory of having to say no to him on another mattermarriagecrystallized painfully in her mind. She pushed the memory into a place she wouldn't let it escape from again today. ''Do you mind if I tape you?'' she asked. ''I'll take notes, but it's better if I have a tape to go back over later, just in case I should miss anything.''
He blinked at her sudden take-charge tone. ''Does that mean you'll handle my case?''
She extinguished the pleasure she felt at the relief in his voice. ''It means I need to get the particulars and discuss them with the Garretts, who run Finders Keepers. It's Dylan and Lily who do all the investigative work.'' She raised a hand to quell his instant protest. ''I'll do my best to underscore your wishes that I handle this for you, Ben. I give you my word.''
He nodded. ''Your word was always good, Carolyn. I'll take it.''
She set out a tape recorder on the desk, fitted it with a new cassette. The agency door opened, and a tall, beautiful blonde walked in, her stride graceful, but almost too long for the little girl beside her. Carolyn's heart stopped in her chest.
Marissa. Ben's ex-wife. The woman he'd married very quickly after Carolyn had turned down his marriage proposal. She made herself smile, girding her heart against the pain.
''This is Marissa,'' Ben said, not knowing that Carolyn had devoured the pictures of him and his new bride in the newspaper six years ago. Nor had she been able to keep from looking at the photos of Ma-rissa in magazines over the years. Marissa in swim-suits, evening gowns, lingerieit had hurt. For some reason, every photo of his glamorous wife had stung, maybe because Carolyn knew that beside Marissa's bright light, she was a nondescript shadow.
''Hello, Marissa,'' Carolyn said. ''I'm Carolyn St. Clair.''
''I know who you are,'' Marissa returned, her tone not warm, but not cool, either. Matter-of-fact. They assessed each other wordlessly, then the little girl Ma-rissa held by the hand leaped into Ben's lap and they broke eye contact.
Carolyn was dead certain she'd be taking a hiatus from doughnuts with her hot tea from now on. And maybe she'd make an appointment for some highlights, start running on the track at the high school in the evenings
''Carolyn,'' Ben said, his voice gentle, ''this is my daughter, Lucy.''
And his daughter's bright smile sent all the misgivings she'd been nursing right out of her head. ''Hello, Lucy. You sure are pretty.''
''I know.'' She grinned at Carolyn. ''Everyone says I look like Mommy.''
Carolyn smiled. ''You do.''
''But I'm going to look like my daddy when I grow up.'' She turned in her father's lap to brush the hair from his eyes. Then she kissed him on the nose and patted his cheek with a soft, pudgy hand. ''I'm going to marry my daddy when I grow up.''
Ben's laugh was quiet and proud. Marissa looked at her designer fingernails. Well, that makes three of us in the same room who have considered marrying Ben Mulholland at one time, Carolyn thought wryly. Lucy's childish wish was the most impractical, but it was obvious she had every centimeter of Ben's heart, and was guaranteed to keep it that way.
''I need a half hour or so,'' Ben said over Lucy's shoulder as he looked up at Marissa.
''Oh, Daddy!'' Lucy protested, clearly unwilling to detach herself from her big, strong father.
Marissa nodded. Her gaze flicked to Carolyn as she reached to take Lucy's hand and guide her off her father's lap. ''It was nice meeting you, Carolyn.''
''Ben has a lot of faith in you,'' Marissa murmured. ''I hope you can help us.''
Help us. The plural caught Carolyn off guard. This was, then, a family situation that had brought Ben to her. Nothing she needed to fear. The past was not going to jump out at her with painful memories. ''I'll do my best,'' she told Marissa sincerely. ''Although I have yet to hear the situation, I certainly hope Finders Keepers can resolve it.''
Marissa nodded, her eyes dark with something Carolyn couldn't define before she turned back to her husband. ''Ben, my plane leaves in a few hours.''
''I'll have you at the airport on time. Bye, honey.'' He kissed Lucy on the side of the cheek. She patted his face and then walked to the door with her elegant mother.
Carolyn glanced down as the door closed behind them. The pain she'd so determinedly avoided suddenly flayed her. ''She's beautiful, Ben,'' she said automatically, meaning Lucy but knowing the word encompassed his wife, as well.
''Lucy is my soul's joy.'' He leaned forward and Carolyn's gaze involuntarily rose to his face. ''She means the world to me. I can't even tell you how much I love my daughter.'' It seemed that the earnestness left his eyes for a moment as he focused inward. Then he said slowly, ''She has leukemia, Carolyn.''
Denial sprang into Carolyn's mind. ''Oh, Ben!''
She didn't know what else to say. I'm sorry wouldn't cut it. How terrifying! was all wrong. Why Lucy? Why Ben? Why his mother and his child?
He put his head down, a slow surrender to pain, and sheltered his face with splayed fingers.
But she'd seen the tear. She heard his heart breaking. She'd seen the panic in his eyes, in Marissa's eyes.
Once again, Ben wanted a yes from her. This time, there was no way she could deny him. She took a deep, steadying breath and reached out her hand to cover the clenched fist he'd braced on his knee.
''I'm going to get you a soda from the kitchen,'' she said softly, knowing he needed a moment to pull himself back together. ''And then you and I will get to work on whatever it is that brought you to Finders Keepers.''
''I need to find a miracle,'' Ben said, his voice rasping with raw emotion.
She squeezed his hand briefly and rose from her seat, not at all certain she was the one he should have come to for a miracle.