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His secretary was crying!
Conall Donovan stared at the woman behind the cherrywood desk. Vanessa Valdez had been in his employ for more than two months and during that time she'd been nothing but cool and professional. He could hardly imagine what had brought about these waterworks. In the past hour, he hadn't even yelled once! And even if he had, it wouldn't have been directed at her. She was the epitome of a perfect, professional secretary.
Cautiously, he approached the desk. "Vanessa? Is something wrong?"
With one slender hand dabbing a tissue to her cheek, the petite brunette glanced at him. At thirty-five, she looked more like twenty-five, Conall thought. And though he wouldn't describe her as gorgeous, she was an attractive woman with honey-brown hair brushing the tops of her shoulders and curling in pretty wisps around her head. Usually, her large brown eyes were soft and luminous but presently her eyes were full of tears.
"I'm sorry," she said in a strained voice. "It's I Something has happened."
"Your father? Has he taken ill?" he demanded.
Vanessa paused and he could see her throat working as she tried to swallow. The sight of her discomposure struck him unexpectedly hard. In spite of her being an old family acquaintance, they hardly shared a close bond. For the most part, the woman kept to herself. The only reason he knew she'd lost her mother two years ago, and that her aging father now resided in a nursing home, was because he happened to attend the same small church where her parents had been regular members. Still, these past months, Vanessa had become a quiet and dependable fixture in his life and he'd come to respect her dedication to this job and the subtle finesse she used with clients in order to make his life easier.
"No," she answered. "It's not my father."
When she failed to elaborate, Conall fought back an impatient sigh. He hardly had time to play mind reader.
"Do you need to take the rest of the afternoon off?" he asked bluntly. There was still a hell of a lot of work that he needed finished by the end of the day, but if necessary he'd somehow manage without her. Even if it meant calling on his mother, Fiona, to fill in for the remainder of the afternoon.
Shaking her head, his secretary sniffed and tried to straighten her shoulders. Even so, Conall could see tears sparkling upon her smooth cheeks and he was shocked at the sudden urge he felt to round the desk and wipe them away.
Hell, Conall, you've never been good at consoling women. Just ask your ex-wife. Besides, women and tears don't affect your iron heart. Not anymore.
While he shoved that unbidden thought away, she finally answered in a ragged voice, "II'll be all right, Conall. Just give me a few moments to get over the shock."
Shock? As usual, the phone had been ringing all afternoon. The Diamond D Ranch was a huge conglomerate, with business connections all over the world. With it being the middle of summer, they were in the busy height of Thoroughbred racing season. His office was only one of several set in a modern brick building situated north of the ranch yard and west of the main ranch house. His younger brother Liam, the ranch's horse trainer, also had his own office along with a secretary, and then there was the general accounting for the ranch, which took up several rooms. As for Conall's job, he rarely saw a quiet moment during working hours and the overflow of correspondence kept his secretary extremely busy. Especially now that he'd also assumed the job of keeping the Golden Spur Mine operations running smoothly.
"Look, Vanessa, I realize I'm asking you to handle an undue amount of work for one human being. But it won't always be like this. I have plans to hire an assistant for you, just as soon as I have a chance to go over a few resumes."
Her brown eyes widened even more. "Oh, no, Con-all, it's not the work!" She gestured toward the piles of correspondence lying about on her desk. "I can easily handle this. I just received a call from Las Vegas," she attempted to explain. "It was horrible news. A dear friend has passed away. And I well, I just can't believe she's gone. She was"
Suddenly sobs overtook the remainder of her words and Conall could no longer stop himself from skirting the desk and taking a steadying hold on her trembling shoulders.
"I'm very sorry, Vanessa."
Averting her face from him, she whispered, "I'm okay. Really, I am."
Whether she was trying to reassure him or herself, or the both of them, Conall didn't know. In any case, she was clearly an emotional wreck and he had to do something to help her, even if it was wrong.
"No, you're hardly okay," he said gruffly. "You're shaking. Let me help you over to the couch."
With firm hands, he drew her up from the rolling desk chair and with an arm at her waist, guided her to a long leather couch positioned along the far wall.
"Just sit and try to relax," he ordered as he eased her small frame down. "I'll be back in a minute."
Once she was safely settled, Conall hurriedly crossed the room and stepped into his private office, where he kept an assortment of drinks to offer visiting businessmen. After pouring a mug half-full of coffee, he splashed in a hefty amount of brandy and carried it out to her.
"Here," he told her. "Drink this. All of it."
With trembling hands wrapped around the heavy cup, she tilted the contents to her lips. After a few careful sips that made her gasp and cough, she lowered it and cast him an accusing glance.
"That has alcohol in it!"
"Not nearly enough," he said dryly.
"It's more than enough for me." Straightening her shoulders, she offered the cup back to him. "Thank you. I can talk now."
Relieved to see a faint bit of color returning to her face, Conall took the cup and after placing it on the floor, he eased down beside her. "All right," he said gently. "Tell me what happened to your friend."
Closing her eyes, she pressed slender fingers against her forehead. Conall couldn't help but notice the long sweep of her lashes as they settled against her damp cheeks. Her complexion reminded him of a pink pearl bathed in golden sunlight and not for the first time he thought how her skin was the most fetching thing about her. Smooth and kissable.
Now why the hell was he thinking that sort of thing, especially at a time like this? Kissing a woman's soft skin was all in his past. And that was where it was going to stay.
With her eyes still closed, she began to speak. "I became friends with Hope Benson not long after I arrived in Las Vegas. We both worked as cocktail waitresses in the Lucky Treasure casino."
Conall was stunned. He'd not known that Vanessa had ever worked as a cocktail waitress. Not that it mattered. Everyone had to start somewhere. And she'd obviously climbed the ladder. A few months ago, when she'd left Nevada, she'd been a private secretary to a casino executive.
"I didn't realize you ever worked as a waitress," he mused, speaking his thoughts out loud.
The guttural sound in her throat was self-deprecating. "What did you expect, Conall? I left Hondo Valley with nothing. It took lots of long, hard hours to put myself through college."
Of course he'd known that Vanessa was from a poor family. She was the same age as his sister Maura, and the two women had been good friends ever since elementary school. During those years, Vanessa had often visited the ranch. Being two years older, Conall hadn't paid much attention to her. With the house full of six Donovan kids, there were always plenty of friends hanging around and Vanessa had simply been one more. The main thing he recalled about her was that she'd been very quiet, almost to the point of being a wallflower.
After Conall had gone away to college, he'd heard in passing that Vanessa had moved to Nevada. That had been fifteen years ago and since then he'd not heard anything else about his sister's old friend. In fact, she'd completely slipped his mind until two months ago, when she'd called him about the secretarial job.
She'd moved back to Hondo Valley to stay, she'd told him, and she was looking for a job. He was secretly ashamed to admit that he'd not expected Vanessa to be qualified. As a teenager, she'd seemed like the shy, homemaker sort, who'd want to devote her life to raising a house full of kids and keeping a husband happy. He couldn't imagine her as a career woman. But out of courtesy to his sister, he'd invited her to come out to the ranch for an interview. When she'd walked into his office, Conall had been stunned to see a very professional young woman presenting him with an equally impressive resume. He'd hired her on the spot and since that time had not once regretted his decision.
The soft sigh escaping her lips caught his attention and he watched her eyes open, then level on his face. For the moment her tears had disappeared, but in their place he saw something that amounted to panic. A strange emotion to be experiencing over a friend's demise, he couldn't help thinking.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to sound defensive. God knows how He's blessed me. And now I just don't know what to think, Conall. You see, Hope was pregnant. Something happened after she went into laborI'm not exactly sure what. The lawyer didn't go into details. Except that she had to have an emergency C-section. Shortly afterward, she died from some sort of complications. I assume it had something to do with her heart conditiona genetic childhood thing. But she always appeared healthy and I thought the doctors were keeping everything under control. In fact, each time I'd talked with her, she'd assured me that she and the babies were doing fine."
Conall's attention latched on to one word. "Babies? Are you talking plural?"
Vanessa nodded. "Twins. A boy and a girl. They were born three days ago and Hope's lawyer has just now had a chance to go over the legalities of her will and wishes."
"And what does this have to do with you?" Conall asked.
Across the room the telephone on Vanessa's desk began to ring. She started to rise to answer it, but Con-all caught her shoulder with a firm hand. "Forget the phone," he ordered. "Whoever it is will call back or leave a message. I want to hear the rest of this."
Groaning, Vanessa dropped her head and shook it back and forth as though she was in a dream. "It's unbelievable, Conall! Hope wanted me to have custody of her babies. II'm to be their mother."
"Mother?" The word burst from Conall's mouth before he could stop it. "Are you serious?"
Her head shot up and for a brief moment she scowled at him. "Very serious. Why? Do you think I'm incapable of being a mother?"
A grimace tightened his lips. Leave it to a woman to misread his words, he thought. "I don't doubt your abilities, Vanessa. I'm sure you have great motherly instincts. I was questioning the validity of your friend's wishes. Isn't the father around?"
Her shoulders slumped as she thrust a shaky hand through her hair. "The father was only in Hope's life for a brief period before they went their separate ways. When she learned that she was pregnant, she contacted him with the news, but he wanted nothing to do with her or the babies. Seems as though he was already paying a hefty amount of child support to his ex-wife and he wasn't keen on adding more to his responsibilities. By then Hope had already come to the conclusion that he wasn't the sort of man she'd ever want back in her life. And she certainly didn't want him to have any claims to the babies. When she confronted him with legal documents, he was only too glad to sign away his parental rights."
"What a bastard," Conall muttered.
Vanessa sighed. "I knew she was making a mistake when she first got involved with the creep. But she really fell hard for him. Poor thing, she believed he loved her and she desperately wanted a big family. You see, she was adopted and didn't have many relatives."
"What about her parents?"
"If you mean her real parents, she never looked for them. She considered the Bensons to be her true parents. But when Hope was still very young, they were killed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in California," she said ruefully. "Luckily, Hope escaped being physically injured, but I don't think she ever got over the emotional loss of her parents."
"Damn. Sounds like your friend didn't have an easy life."
"No. Life is never easy for some," she sadly agreed. "Hope was forty-two. She figured this would be her last and only chance to have children. That's why she risked carrying the babies. Even though doctors had warned her about being pregnant with her type of heart condition, she wanted them desperately."
"Had you discussed any of this with your friend?" Conall asked. "I mean, about you becoming their mother if something happened to her?"
Vanessa nodded glumly. "At the very beginning of her pregnancy Hope asked me to be their godmother. I agreed. How could I not? The two of us had been good friends for a long time. We.went through some tough times together. And I wanted to reassure her that no matter what, I'd see that the babies would be well cared for. But I also kept telling her that she was going to be okaythat everything with her and the babies would be fine. I wanted her to concentrate on the future she was going to have with her children." Tears once again filled her eyes. "Oh, Conall, I didn't think I refused to believe that Hope might die."
Conall hated himself for not knowing the right words to ease the grief that was clearly ripping her apart. But he'd learned with Nancy that he wasn't good at dealing with women's problems.
"None of us ever wants to consider losing someone we're close to, Vanessa. But we can't go around thinking the worst. Where would that get us?"
Where indeed, Vanessa wondered dazedly. Swallowing at the painful lump in her throat, she rose to her feet and wandered aimlessly across the room.