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Lisa Clarke's life as she'd known it had ended.
She missed her mother; she especially missed the quiet evenings they'd shared these past few months, when they talked about her dad and her mother's early years in the family home in Durham, North Carolina. Her mother had kept that house because she loved it, the house Lisa still lived in today. It was during those evenings that her mom had confided her dream of playing professional tennis, a dream she'd left behind when she married Lisa's father. It was so like her mother to put her marriage first.
They'd been closer in those last months than at any time before, and Lisa was so thankful for all of it.
Today's meeting with Sherman Tweedsdale, the family lawyer, about her mother's will should be short and to the point. Other than a couple of bequests, she was the sole beneficiary.
Having given her name to his secretary, Lisa sat alone in the reception area. She didn't mind waiting for Tank, as her parents had always called him. She had only an empty house to go back to, and pressure from a real-estate agent to sell the property.
She'd spent an hour this morning making a list of things she needed to have done should she decide to put the property up for sale. She'd learned the list-making habit from her mom. She sighed. It all felt too soon. There were so many good memories of her life in that house, memories she wasn't prepared to abandon so quickly. True, her mom and dad had often been overprotective, but Lisa had realized long ago that their protection came from their love for her.
Relieved to have a few quiet moments to herself, she glanced around the paneled walls, her gaze coming to rest on a group of photos showing Tank's achievements. Staring at a photo of her father and Tank at a Chamber of Commerce awards dinner, Lisa became aware of someone approaching the reception area.
Shifting her gaze, she saw Mason Stephens standing there. The room dipped and swayed before it settled back, and still he stood there, his long black hair almost touching the neck of his dark leather jacket. Pain circled her heart, draining the air from her lungs.
Attempting to hide her dismay, she stared at the man who'd walked out of her life five years ago. His eyes still held the same piercing quality, adding to the air of authority he carried so well. Lisa made an effort to block the rush of emotions his presence exposed. She toyed with her purse strap and tried desperately to slow her racing pulse.
She could not let him see how much it hurt to be reminded of her own role in the failure of their relationship—her refusal to agree to children, a refusal Mason could never accept.
"Hello, Lisa," Mason said, his rueful smile lighting his gray-green eyes. Mason was a handsome man, and his good looks, combined with his self-assurance, made him every woman's dream. Or nearly every woman's…
"What are you doing here?" she asked, fighting to keep the tremor out of her voice as memories tumbled around her mind. Very often his evening shifts as a policeman and hers as a nurse had allowed them to meet at his apartment where they'd relax over a late supper. It was their special time together. She couldn't forget the excitement of being with him.
Despite the fluttering sensation in her stomach, she squared her shoulders and waited for his answer.
"I'm here to meet Tank," he said as he continued to look her over from his vantage point near the door.
Part of her wanted to bask in his appraising glance, but she couldn't afford to succumb to his well-honed charms; she knew the emotional toll reliving the past would take. Five years ago she'd loved Mason and believed that he loved her, until the night he'd proposed at their favorite restaurant and talked about the children he wanted. She'd tried to explain that she wasn't ready to have a family. But he hadn't understood and instead had said hurtful things before walking out of the restaurant and out of her life.
She'd seen Mason briefly at her father's funeral two years ago, as well as once at the grocery store with his then-wife, Sara, and their little boy. After that, she hadn't seen him again until last month at her mother's funeral.
So much for staying friends—his idea, not hers.
Still, although she missed Mason after they broke up, not seeing him was easier in so many ways.
Their final argument had ended in a painful exchange that convinced Lisa she was better off without him.
But her mother would want her to be polite, to take the high road. "Thank you for coming to Mom's funeral. I really appreciated it."
The minutes stretched while Lisa struggled to think of something to say to the man she'd once loved.
"So, you've become a P.I. I saw the ad in the paper for your firm. A year ago you left the police force, wasn't it?" she said to ease the awkwardness between them.
Leaning against the door frame, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his sizzling-tight jeans. "Yeah, it's been a pretty hectic year all-around."
His expression clouded over. "You really want to know?"
Why had she asked that? Thanks to Sara's sister Melanie, who was also a nurse and worked at the hospital with her, Lisa had heard that Mason's marriage had ended after a year. She wasn't interested in Mason's ex-wife, and she definitely did not want him to think she was.
But she had always thought Sara and Mason made sense as a couple and deep down she believed they'd get back together. After all, they shared common interests like a love of rock music, motorcycles—and they shared a son, while she and Mason hadn't been able to agree on something as fundamental as having children.
"Melanie hasn't mentioned Sara or her singing career for a while," she said, trying to explain the question to herself as well as him.
Mason shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes dark. "Sara's doing fine—"
"Hello, there," Tank Tweedsdale said, giving Mason a friendly smile as he cruised into the room. "We'll just be a couple of minutes, Mason…if you want to wait here. Lisa, if you'll come with me." He beckoned her into his office and closed the door behind her.
She sat in one of the chairs facing Tank's desk, relieved that all this would soon be over.
Placing his briefcase beside his desk, he bent over and kissed Lisa on the cheek, his goatee brushing her skin. "How are you doing, dear?" he asked, his kindly gaze searching her face as he took his own seat.
"I'm okay." She settled farther into her chair as Tank opened the file in front of him.
"Lisa," he began slowly, "you're aware that other than a couple of bequests to Duke University you're the sole beneficiary in your mother's will. I've filed all the documents necessary to finalize the estate. Your mother's stockbroker will be calling you in the next couple of days to go over your financial situation. You won't have any money worries."
She'd always known that her mom and dad had been careful investors, but money was the last thing on her mind. She nodded, waiting for him to continue.
Tank cleared his throat as he took a sheet of paper out of the file. "And of course you're aware that you're adopted."
Adopted? Why would Tank bring that up? He was the lawyer who'd arranged her adoption thirty years ago. She nodded again. "My birth parents died in a car accident."
Tank stared at the green banker's lamp on the corner of his desk before meeting her questioning gaze. "That's not completely true," he said, passing her the paper. She glanced at the page and recognized her mother's precise handwriting.
My Darling Lisa,
I've loved you since the moment you were placed in my arms. I have something to confess, and I pray you can understand that we did it because we loved you. We thought it best not to tell you that Carolyn Lewis didn't die in the car accident with your birth father, that she is still alive. A lawyer we know in Florida contacted us about a baby girl that needed a home. He said that because of the accident, your mother could no longer take care of you and had elected to put you up for adoption. After your dad passed away, I began to worry that you'd be left without any close family, and so I wanted to tell you about Carolyn Lewis.
But my biggest fear has always been that if I told you about your mother it would make you so upset that you'd never speak to me again. By the time you read this, it won't matter.
I hope you can forgive what your father and I have done. We should've told you, let you have a life with your birth mother, but we couldn't bring ourselves to share you with anyone. We loved you with all our hearts, and you were everything we ever wanted in a child.
I won't dwell on our reasons, or why we did what we did, as it's too late for regrets. Tank is prepared to help you find your birth mother.
Trust him, darling—he's a good man and a dear friend.
Shock and bewilderment made Lisa's heart pound against her ribs. Her throat tightened, warding off the sting of tears. "I don't understand. If my birth mother is still alive, why did they keep her from me? I had a right to know my mother, for heaven's sake!"
"Lisa, I'm sorry you had to learn about it this way, but your parents wouldn't take my advice to tell you themselves. They were very private people who lived for each other—and you."
Feeling betrayed by the two people she'd loved most in the world, Lisa turned on Tank. "What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to find my birth mother? And what if I have brothers and sisters and never had the chance to meet them? I don't get it. Why did Mom wait until now to tell me? I deserved better than that. I've been a good daughter. Everything they ever wanted me to do, I did—"
"Your mother agonized over this for months after she was diagnosed with cancer. Alice tried to tell you, but in the end, she couldn't do it. Finally, she asked that funds be set aside to see that Carolyn Lewis was found. If that's what you want…"
His words reminded her of all the times she'd imagined her birth parents and what they would've wanted for her, all the times she'd wished she could have met them.
And all the while, her mother had been alive.
"What I want? I want my family…my mother, anyone who can tell me who I am. My whole life I believed there was some terrible secret buried in my past."
Was there a dark secret involving her birth parents? Had they been criminals? Were they fugitives when her father died in the car accident? Why had no one come looking for her?
If there wasn't something to be ashamed of, why hadn't her adoptive parents told her Carolyn Lewis was alive? Why had they let her grow up without knowing the truth?
She'd often attempted to ask her mom and dad about her past, but each time they gave the same answer. There was no reason for her to concern herself with that sort of thing. This was always followed by their usual argument—they'd waited so long for her, they'd loved her before they'd even set eyes on her.
The desire to please her parents and to avert her mother's onslaught of tears at the mention of her birth parents had stopped Lisa from seeking answers. Their attitude had increasingly made her feel set apart, isolated in the midst of her parents' love.
"I can't explain their decision, Lisa, but I had to respect their wishes."
"All my questions could have been answered so easily."
"Yes, they probably could have, but the past can't be changed," Tank said gently.
Her voice thick with loss and longing for what might have been, she whispered, "So, my dad—my birth father—died in a car accident, right?"
Tank nodded. "Grant Lewis died in a collision, and your mother, Carolyn Lewis, is somewhere in Florida…we believe."
"Does Carolyn—I mean, my mother—know where I live?"
Tank sat up straighter. "Your parents didn't say. I arranged your adoption, but I don't have much information beyond the fact that your mother was in Florida at that time. I've taken the liberty of hiring Mason to find your mother."
"Mason does my investigative work, and he's completely reliable," Tank said, a sheepish look in his clear blue eyes.
"Is Mason the right person to do this? He was a great cop, and I'm sure he's a good P.I.…" But she couldn't care less about his credentials at the moment. She and Mason just didn't fit together, as lovers or as friends.
"Lisa, Mason's had a rough time with his old partner in the P.I. firm. He's had to start at the bottom and rebuild the business. He's worked hard."