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Marlee Britton scowled at her computer and debated giving the machine a hard smack on the side. But she knew from experience she'd only hurt her hand. The little hourglass on the screen would keep blinking at her, taunting her with the promise that things would eventually get moving again.
She massaged the bridge of her nose, fighting the first twinges of a headache, and glanced at the clock. Only eleven. There were hours left in the workday.
"Marlee, there's someone here to see you."
She looked up from a stack of employee time sheets, into her boss's worried face. The manager of the Crowne Towers Hotel in Austin, Texas, Simon Morgenroth was normally a cheerful man, but at the moment his expression was guarded—as though he was about to deliver bad news.
Marlee felt a quiver of uneasiness in the pit of her stomach. "Is something wrong?" She started to stand. "Who is it?" she asked. The tension around Mr. Morgenroth's mouth set off alarm bells in her head again. "Who's asking for me?" Marlee couldn't remember the last time she'd had a personal visitor at work—if she ever had.
An aura of fatherly concern clung to Mr. Morgen-roth's portly, balding figure. His caring attitude elicited midnight confessions from hotel guests and grateful unburdening from his staff, though Marlee wasn't inclined to share details of her private life. "He wouldn't give me his name. He just insisted on talking to you." Mr. Morgenroth shook his head. "It's really none of my business, but he's a rough-looking fellow. If you want, I'll send him away."
"No, no. I'll take care of it." Marlee's apprehension increased. What rough-lookingman would be asking for her? She gave Mr. Morgenroth what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'll talk to this man for a minute, and that'll be the end of it."
Her boss insisted on walking with her to the lobby. Seeing no way to deter him, she passed through the double doors leading from the office to the front desk, Mr. Morgenroth right behind her. But no one waited for her at the polished marble counter. "Perhaps he left," Mr. Morgenroth said.
The new day clerk, Trish, tucked a lock of her short red hair behind one ear and nodded toward the seating area at the far end of the lobby. "If you're looking for the hottie with the motorcycle helmet, he's over there," she said. She flashed a wide smile. "While you're at it, find out if there's any more like him at home."
Mr. Morgenroth frowned at Trish, and started to lead Marlee across the lobby, but his cell phone trilled. "Hang on while I take this call," he said.
"It's okay," Marlee reassured him. "I'm sure this won't take long." Whoever this guy was, she would just as soon deal with him alone.
She headed toward the set of plushly upholstered armchairs. All she could see as she approached was the back of a man's head, his thick dark hair curling up at the collar of his black leather jacket. She was almost beside her visitor before he turned to face her. "Hello, Marlee."
The low voice resonated deep inside her, as familiar as memory. She went absolutely still, her wildly pounding heart the only evidence she had not been turned to stone. It couldn't really be him… The man stood, dark eyes fixed on her—eyes she saw in her dreams sometimes. She swallowed hard, unable to tear her gaze away from him. The dreams were always happy; the panic that swept over her now only came afterward, when she was awake. "Troy!" she gasped.
He reached out as if to touch her and she instinctively jerked away. Anger flared in his eyes as he let his hand fall to his side. His gaze roamed up her conservative black skirt to her silk blouse. She could feel the heat of that gaze, warming every part of her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. At one time, her whole world had revolved around Troy Denton. He was the first—and only—man she'd ever loved.
Then he'd left her in the worst possible way. A way he had to know she could never forgive.
His eyes remained locked to hers. "I came back for what's mine."
"No." Marlee took a step back. This was the last thing she needed. She had a good life now and she wouldn't let him disrupt it.
"I wrote you," he said. "Why didn't you answer my letters?"
What was the point in writing back to someone she never wanted to see again? "I threw them away," she said. All of them. Unopened. She'd believed a clean break was the only way to survive the pain, though a little piece of her had died every time a new envelope arrived.
Troy clenched his jaw. "You could have at least given me a chance to explain."
Why should I give you a chance? she wanted to ask. You never gave us one. But she was conscious of being in a public place, her coworkers looking on. "I don't have anything to say to you."
She turned away, afraid she might give in or let down her guard. She'd loved him so much—but no. That was a long time ago.
Her breath rushed out of her. She swayed on her feet. "How do you know his name?"
She could see the hard lines around his eyes. He hadn't had those lines before. "My mom told me about him," he said.
She took another shaky step back, away from him. "I don't want to talk to you about Greg, or about anything else." Turning on her heel, she started across the lobby, but he caught her arm.
Her body leaned into his touch, even as her mind told her to run. She felt the scrape of his callused hands on her sleeve, the warmth of his skin soaking into her through the silk.
"Don't go," he commanded, his voice a sensuous rumble, another weapon against her resolve. "We have to talk."
Emotion overwhelmed her, a great boiling rush of fury and longing and fear. "Nothing you can say or do will make up for what you did to me—what you did to me and Greg." She wrenched her arm loose. "We've gotten along just fine without you. We didn't need you then and we sure as hell don't need you now."
"Is this man bothering you, Marlee?"
She hadn't heard Mr. Morgenroth walk up behind her.
She shook her head, mortified. "No, I'm all right." She couldn't handle Mr. M. finding out about her former relationship with Troy.
"Marlee and I were having a private conversation." Troy glowered at Mr. Morgenroth.
Mr. Morgenroth turned to Marlee, a question in his eyes. She ignored it, pretending to study the pattern in the carpet. She hated having her troubles on display like this. She'd have given almost anything to be somewhere else.
"You can't come barging in here, interrupting Marlee at work," Mr. M. said. "No matter what she says, it's obvious you're upsetting her."
Troy looked at Marlee, as if he expected her to come to his defense. She averted her gaze and gave a small shake of her head. This wasn't the time or the place for this conversation. Talking wouldn't solve anything between them now.
The hotel security guard, Mike, approached. Trish or Mr. Morgenroth had probably summoned him when Troy had grabbed her arm. "We're going to have to ask you to leave," Mike said, putting his hand on Troy's shoulder.
Troy opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. His gaze burned into Marlee and she shivered. She recognized the pain lurking behind his anger, and part of her wanted to go to him—to comfort him and to take comfort from him.
That the impulse was still there after so long disturbed her.
Troy shrugged off Mike's grip and started toward the door. "We'll talk later," he said over his shoulder, crossing the lobby in long strides.
Marlee fled to her office, where she collapsed in her chair. Why, after all these years, had Troy come back?
"Are you all right?" Mr. Morgenroth set a paper cup of water in front of her. Then he perched on the edge of the desk and stared down at her.
Her fingers trembled as she straightened the stack of time sheets in front of her. "Of course I'm fine." But her voice shook, betraying the lie.
"Who was that man?" her boss asked. "What did he do to upset you so much?"
The questions helped Marlee pull herself together, the familiar defense mechanisms falling into place. Don't talk about yourself. Be vague and change the subject as quickly as possible. "Oh—just an old friend. He was in town, thought he'd stop by and say hello." She tried to keep her tone light, but she could feel the tears clogging the back of her throat. Why did you do it, Troy? Why did you mess things up between us when we were so good together? And why had he come back now, just when she was building the life she'd always wanted for herself and her son?
"I'd better get back to work," she said, avoiding looking at her boss. "Nancy'll have my head if I'm late with the payroll figures."
Mr. Morgenroth stood and started to leave. She could feel him watching her from the door, but she forced herself to focus on the papers in front of her. She didn't want to invite more questions.
"Well, call me if you need anything," he said, and walked out of the office.
Marlee turned to her computer and tried to concentrate on entering the information from the time sheets. But memories of Troy Denton kept pushing their way into her thoughts, as insistent as the man himself.
She'd been the pushy one when they'd first met. Was there anything bolder than a seventeen-year-old girl who knew what she wanted? Her mother used to say Marlee was all hair and hormones. Back then, her brown hair had hung almost to her waist and her hormones had made all the decisions for her.
Common sense certainly had nothing to do with the way she acted around Troy back then. He had been older—twenty-two. The first time she'd laid eyes on him as she walked past the gas station where he worked, her stomach had done a funny flip-flop. His sleeves had been rolled up to reveal tanned, muscular arms, and his well-worn jeans had clung to slim hips. Troy Denton had been all man—not a boy like the guys at school.
She hadn't been looking for romance. She'd wanted to have a good time, and to assert her independence by dating a man her mother wouldn't approve of. Her father had been already out of her life by then, in prison where he belonged.
Marlee had started walking to the station every day after school. She'd told her mother she was going to buy a soda, but really she went to flirt with Troy. She could still remember the smells of grease and diesel that lingered around the mechanics' bays, and taste the fizzy orange soda from the machine by the garage door. She'd drink hers slowly, trying to catch Troy's eye as he worked.
At first, he'd hardly looked up from changing tires or cleaning batteries. But after a while he'd come out of the bay to talk to her. He'd seemed larger than life in her eyes—stronger, more handsome, more masculine than anyone she knew. She could have floated all day on one of his smiles.
Love had caught her by surprise, as had her mother's approval of Troy. "I'm glad you found a good man," her mother had said. "You won't make the same mistakes I did."
But time had proved them both wrong. Troy had been a huge mistake.
And now he was back. Marlee closed her eyes. So much about Troy was the same, from his coffee-brown eyes to his perfectly shaped body, muscular arms and slim hips.
So much about Troy was different, too. He seemed tougher, even menacing. Part of that may have been the black leather and the motorcycle helmet, but there was more than just that. The Troy she'd known before had been very relaxed and easygoing. The man she'd seen today had been deadly serious.
So why had he come back now? What did he want from her?
Greg? Her breath caught. Greg had no idea who his father was and Marlee meant to keep it that way. She'd even suffered the indignity of writing Unknown in the space for the father's name on his birth certificate—better that than admit in black and white that she'd once loved a man like Troy Denton.
What if Troy had come back to claim his son? What if he wanted to take Greg away from her? Marlee's first impulse was to run as fast and as far as she could. She'd take Greg and go somewhere Troy could never find them.
But her heartbeat gradually slowed and her senses cleared. Running away wouldn't solve anything. Especially when she didn't even know Troy's intentions. She forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath. She wasn't going to lose her son.
Troy said he'd come back for what was his. Was he talking about Greg? Her? If he contacted her again, as he'd said he would, she'd listen to his explanations. Words wouldn't change what he'd done, but the meeting would give her the opportunity to make clear that she wanted him out of her life, and out of her son's life.
Marlee tried to focus on work, but shortly before three o'clock, she gave in to the headache that had been building all morning and asked if she could take off early. Mr. Morgenroth studied her a moment. "This doesn't have anything to do with that man who was here before, does it?" he asked.
"Of course not. I'm just a little tired." Which wasn't a complete lie. She'd already had a headache when Troy showed up, but he certainly hadn't helped.
Mr. M. shook his head. "I'm not sure I believe you, but by all means, go home and rest. Just remember—" he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder as she turned to leave "—if you need anything—if you're in some kind of trouble—you can always come to me."
Marlee nodded, then quickly left the office. She appreciated Mr. Morgenroth's concern, but there was nothing anyone could do. She'd have to handle this on her own—the same way she'd handled everything else for the past six years.
A few minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of Waterloo Elementary School.