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The photo in the newspaper sitting on the edge of the table distracted Rafe. The woman looked familiar. Pulling the newspaper closer, he took a second look and immediately identified the woman in the background of the photo. Tabitha.
His gut twisted as a half dozen emotions ambushed him. He knew that silky blond hair even though it was darker now, those sexy blue eyes, that body designed to make a man insane. And, boy, had she known how to use it. She'd wrapped him around her little finger then nearly squeezed the life out of him.
"So, this deal must be pretty big to drag you away from South Beach," his brother Michael said, tugging his attention back to the here and now.
"I don't mind traveling for the right customer. This client purchased two premium yachts and has some friends who want to lease." Rafe also didn't mind taking business away from Livingstone Yachts. In fact, he enjoyed every minute of torturing Tabitha's father, but he would keep that to himself. "What about you? Business looks good," Rafe said, glancing around the bar that his brother had turned into Atlanta's newest hotspot. He shook his head. "Michael's magic touch again."
Michael gave a rough chuckle. "You know better than that. It's me working my butt off."
"The way of the Medicis," Rafe said and thought of their oldest brother, Damien. "Damien would agree, but only to a certain extent since he's happily married now." His gaze was drawn again to the copy of The Atlanta-Constitution. He couldn't believe he'd foolishly considered a future with Tabitha.
"Hey, you're not listening to a word I'm saying," Michael said. "What areyou looking at?"
Rafe narrowed his eyes, spotting the small boy standing beside Tabitha. Couldn't be more than four or five years old he thought. The lying woman had been seeing someone else at the same time she'd been burning up his bed, he thought in disgust. He'd caught her trying to seduce one of his clients.
"Do you know the guy in the wheelchair?" Michael asked.
"What—" Rafe paused and perused the article featuring a Marine veteran making a new life despite extensive disabilities. What the hell was Tabitha doing with him? She was a spoiled rich girl.
He frowned and studied the photo again. The little boy had brown, curly hair and stood shyly beside her leg. Rafe did the math and cold realization rushed through him. The boy looked like a Medici. Despite the fact that she was a cheater, he could be his son.
"Rafe, you're acting weird as hell," his brother said, his voice tinged with alarm.
"Yeah, well—" He shook his head and pointed to the article. "You know where this place is?"
Michael lifted his brow. "Yeah, not the nicest neighborhood in town. You probably don't want to spend a lot of time there after dark."
Rafe glanced at his watch. Eleven o'clock. Damn. He clenched his fist. He would find out if he had a son or not.
"What's going on?" Michael asked.
"I'm not sure, but I'm damn well going to find out first thing in the morning."
Nicole Livingstone pulled her coat around her body more tightly to ward off the January weather. Even though Atlanta was in the South, winter temperatures could dip into the thirties. She headed for her car, noticing a tall, handsome man walking along the same sidewalk toward her.
If she'd been the type to flirt, now would be the time. The man's broad shoulders were encased in a black leather jacket and he walked with a powerful and purposeful gait. His dark hair was tousled by the wind. Strong eyebrows framed his dark eyes. His cheeks held a tinge of color from the chill. The only downside was that his full mouth was set in a straight hard line, as if he were displeased and going to do something about it.
She averted her gaze.
"Tabitha," the man said, stopping in front of her. "Tabitha Livingstone."
Nicole whipped her gaze up to meet his, stunned that he would know her sister's name. "I'm not—"
"Don't try to fool me," he said. "You and I knew each other very well."
Nicole took a short breath, caught between disappointment and trepidation. Being mistaken for her twin had happened to her too many times to count, but not since her sister had died. The problem was that Nicole was never sure exactly how Tabitha had treated the person confronting her. Since her sister had died a few years ago, hearing the mistake came as a shock.
"My name is Nicole Livingstone. I'm Tabitha's twin."
She watched the man digest the news. Disbelief, then confusion crossed his face. "She never told me about a twin."
Nicole's uneasy laugh stuck in her throat. "She liked to keep it a surprise, so if she ever needed to refer to her evil twin…"
"Hmm," he said, his brow furrowing. He rubbed his chin. "Where is she?"
Nicole bit her lip. A stab of pain took her by surprise. Just when she thought she'd adjusted to the loss of her sister, she found out she hadn't. "She died three years ago."
His eyes widened in shock. "I didn't know."
She nodded. "She got a terrible infection and the doctors couldn't help her. People thought she was so headstrong that she could survive anything. It was a huge shock to us."
"I'm very sorry for your loss," he said, but she saw a hardness in his eyes. He extended his hand to her.
She took it and was immediately struck by his warmth and strength. His hand felt good around hers. "Thank you. And you are?"
"Rafe," he said. "Rafe Medici."
The world seemed to tilt sideways. Her heart hammered in her chest as if someone had set off a fire alarm inside her. It took a moment for her to remove her hand from his.
She needed to get away from him. As fast as she possibly could. She took a deep breath and stepped backward. "Thank you again. Good-bye."
She started to walk around him, but he brushed her arm with his hand. Biting the inside of her lip, she paused and looked at the space between his eyes instead of meeting his gaze.
"In the newspaper, I saw a photograph of you with a child. Was he Tabitha's?"
"He's mine," she said, feeling her blood rush to her head. "Joel is mine."
"Did Tabitha have a child before she died?"
"Joel is mine. I need to go," she said and walked down the sidewalk to her Camry Hybrid parked in the lot. Her heart pounding a mile a minute, she unlocked the door and slid inside. She started to close the door, but Rafe Medici appeared beside her and caught it.
"Mr. Medici," she said, terror whipping through her.
"My father died when I was very young. It was a terrible loss. I would not want that for a son of mine."
The humanity in the man's expression caught her off guard. Her sister had described him as possessing a monster ego. Nicole shot a look at the large hand that prevented her departure. "Please step away from my vehicle. I need to leave," she managed in a voice she'd developed to freeze out arguments with uncooperative healthcare agencies.
She felt his assessing gaze as he slowly moved his hand. Not easily intimidated. Why should she be surprised? He stood over a half foot taller than her and with those wide shoulders and well-developed muscles she'd glimpsed as his jacket swung open, he could probably bench press three of her.
"Later," he said.
Nicole pulled her door shut and peeled out of the parking lot. Later. She certainly hoped not.
Now that Joel was ready to turn four, she'd thought they were in the clear. After all, there'd been no sign of Rafe Medici at her sister's funeral. No flowers. Nothing. Droplets of cold sweat forming on her skin, she exited on to the interstate, her mind whirling.
Nicole maintained a low profile. It had been easy for her. Tabitha had been the flashy one, and that had been fine with Nicole. Now, after all this time, she'd taken Joel to meet one of her patient clients to see his dinosaur model collection. A reporter writing stories about disabled veterans had surprised them and captured the three of them in a photograph, which had been published in the newspaper. Of all the dumb luck.
Clenching her fingers over the steering wheel, she wondered if she should take Joel and leave immediately. He was a shy little guy, though, and seemed to be flourishing in his pre-school class.
She remembered the look of determination on Rafe's face and shuddered. She considered her options. Her mother lived on the other side of the world—France, in fact. Nicole and Joel could disappear there, at least for a while. Her mother, however, led an active social life and having a preschooler around would cramp her style.
Tabitha would have turned to their father and performed a butter-him-up act worthy of an Oscar in order to get money from him. Nicole limited her involvement with her father as much as possible. After what he had done…
She took a deep breath to calm herself. She'd always been told she was the practical twin. Something would come to her. No matter what, she would protect Joel at all costs.
She was lying, Rafe thought as he watched her tear out of the parking lot. He felt a tingling sensation in his left hand that had served as a warning throughout his life. The woman would be trouble. Perhaps more trouble than Tabitha had been. If that were possible.
Tabitha had acted as if she'd enjoyed living with him, but soon enough he'd learned that all she wanted from him was his money. To this day, he didn't understand her greed. After all, her father was very wealthy. He remembered the way she'd begged him to let her sell a few of his yachts. He'd indulged her, secretly enjoying the fact that he was one-upping the mighty Conrad Livingstone via the man's daughter. The joke had backfired, though. She'd lied to him in order to pad her commission then tried to seduce one of his customers, a Spanish prince. Unsuccessfully.
Narrowing his eyes as the wind whipped around him, he walked toward his rental car. It shouldn't be difficult to find out the truth about Tabitha, Nicole and Joel.
Sliding into the car, he started the engine then dialed his brother.
"Hey, Rafe. What's up?" his brother Michael asked.
"I need the name of a good P.I. who is thorough, fast and discreet," he said.
"Okay. This wouldn't have anything to do with your bad mood last night, would it?"
"Maybe," Rafe said.
"Does this mean you'll be staying an extra night at my place?"
"Yeah, unless it's a problem," Rafe said.
"No, but I'll be gone most of the time. I just found a new business that I can buy cheap. You want to tell me what all this is about?" Michael asked.
"After I find out. Text me the phone number," Rafe said grimly. He wanted answers and he would get them.
After he received an initial report from his P.I., Rafe met with an attorney. "How much can Nicole Livingstone fight me for custody?"
The attorney shook his head. "She can fight, but unless she can prove you're an unfit parent, then she won't win. All you need is a paternity test that proves you're the boy's father. It's easy enough to get a court order for that."
Rafe thought about the years he'd been cheated from knowing his son, all because of the Livingstones. Bitterness surged through him. "These people have deceived me in the worst way. I want to take Joel away as soon as possible."
The attorney lifted his hand. "Not so fast."
"Why not?" Rafe demanded. "You just told me I can get custody without a problem."
"True," the man said. "But you have to remember the well-being of your son. Do you really want to rip him away from the one person he's known since birth? From all appearances, Nicole Livingstone has taken excellent care of Joel. Would you agree?"
"Yes," he said grudgingly.
"Legally, you may have the right to take him away so that he never sees Nicole again, but you need to consider what's best for Joel. How is he going to feel about being taken away from the woman he knows as his mother?"
Rafe felt a gut-wrenching twist at the thought. He had been through a very similar experience—losing his parents and his family when he was a child, although not so young. The traumatic event had left him feeling lost for years. Despite his grudge against the Livingstones, he had to concede that Nicole Livingstone had been a loving mother to Joel.
She seemed different from Tabitha, but it was too soon for him to be sure. He found it difficult to believe that she could be so different from Tabitha and their father, especially since she hadn't bothered to inform Rafe about Joel.
Another surge of bitterness burned through him. He was in a position to pull off the ultimate revenge with the Livingstones. He could take Joel away and they would never see him again. Ultimate revenge was a gratifying prospect, but selfish. He had a son to think about now. The knowledge blew him away every time he thought of it.
Nicole could be useful. An image of her slid across his mind. She certainly wasn't his usual type. She wasn't the least bit flashy and kept her sensuality under wraps. Something about the woman made him curious in a sexual way. He suspected that when she let loose, she could be explosive. It would take the right man to light her fuse. In other circumstances, he would give in to his curiosity, but something far more important was at stake at the moment. His son.
The following evening, after dinner and a bath for Joel, Nicole helped her nephew into his footed pajamas and sat beside him in his little bed. "Which book do you want me to read tonight?" she asked.
Her heart squeezed tight as he lifted four books with a hopeful expression on his sweet face. He may be her nephew by blood, but in her heart, he was her son. And she'd made sure of that through the courts.
"Four?" she said. "I thought I was just going to read two tonight."
"But I like all of these," he said, looking at the books. The job of narrowing down his choices clearly put him at a loss.
She sighed. "Okay, but just this once," she said, knowing she wouldn't be able to hold the line when he asked her tomorrow night. She suspected she enjoyed these precious moments with him even more than he did.
He plopped into her lap and opened the first book about a giant strawberry and the mouse who wanted to eat it.