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Hannah Callahan stood on the porch of her childhood home, savoring the cool breeze of a perfect summer morning, watching dawn streak across the vast mountains. She had grown up in Summit, Texas, and although she had spent most of her post-college years living out of a suitcase in hotels all over the world, she was glad to leave those nomad days behind her. Glad to be starting a new chapter of her life.
A dark-green Land Rover made its way up the quiet residential street.
Hannah acknowledged the driver and wrestled her suitcase down the broad wooden steps of the prairie-style home.
Thirty-five-year-old Joe Daugherty left the motor running and met her halfway up the sidewalk. He was dressed in loose fitting trousers and a vibrant striped shirt that brought out the evergreen hue of his eyes. As always, the sheer size of his rugged six-foot-three frame dwarfed her considerably smaller body.
Hannah shifted her gaze from his broad shoulders, trying not to notice how petite she felt in his presence. She and Joe had met five months earlier. He'd come into the store, and the two of them had hit it off immediately. She'd been instantly and undeniably attracted to the sexy adventurer. He had seemed similarly interested. Had she not been so ready to settle down, and had he planned to stay in the area for more than the six months it took to research and write his book, maybe they would have gotten together. But Hannah was not interested in beginning an affair that would only have to end, so they'd relegated each other to the category of casual friend, nothing more. The fact he was going on this trip with her was a fluke, the kind of favor not likely to be repeated. She needed to remember that.
The emotion simmering inside her this morning had nothing to do with the arresting features of his masculine face, or the way the short strands of his hair gleamed against the suntanned hue of his skin. Nor did it have anything to do with the amount of time she was going to be spending with Joe Daugherty over the next week. Her racing pulse was caused by the continuing tension between her and the only family she had left. Anticipation of the events to come
Oblivious to her tumultuous thoughts, Joe slipped his strong hand beneath hers to grip the handle on her wheeled twenty-six-inch suitcase. "This all the luggage you've got?"
Hannah nodded around the sudden lump in her throat and clasped the red canvas carryall of important papers and travel necessities closer to her body. "I just need to stop by the Mercantile and say goodbye to my dad." Try one last time to talk some sense into him.
Joe fit her suitcase next to his and shut the tailgate. "No problem." He slid behind the wheel while she jumped in to ride shotgun. He looked over his shoulder as he backed out of the drive. "We've got plenty of time."
But not enough to change her dad's mind. Hannah swallowed, beset by nerves once again. "Thanks for going with me."
Joe shrugged and flashed her a sexy half smile. "Hey. It's not every day somebody offers me an all expense paid trip to Taiwan."
"Seriously." He sent her a brief telling look that spoke volumes about his inherently understanding nature. "You need somebody to accompany you who has a current passport and no fear of the complexities of international travel. Someone who knows that particular region of Asia, not to mention the language, and is footloose and fancy-free enough to be able to drop everything and go once you got the word it was time."
Stipulations that had narrowed the field of possible travel companions considerably. Glad he was not reading anything else into the invitation she had issued him, Hannah relaxed and settled back in her seat. "Ah, the virtues of being an adventure-loving travel writer," she teased.
Joe braked for an armadillo taking his time about crossing the road. As he waited, he grinned at her. "Versus the virtues of being a marketing whiz turned entrepreneur?"
His praise made her flush. Pretending her self-conscious-ness had nothing to do with him, Hannah wrinkled her nose. "You can't really call me an entrepreneur since the business I'm going to runif I can ever get my dad to retirehas been in the family since Summit was founded in 1847." Since then the mountain town had gone from an isolated but beautiful trading post for ranchers and settlers to a popular getaway and tourist attraction.
The armadillo finally hit the berm. Hands clasping the wheel, Joe drove on. "The changes you want to make are good ones."
He was one of the few people who had seen Hannah's plans to turn around the slowly diminishing family business. Hannah caught a whiff of cinnamon roll as they passed the bakery. "Tell that to my dad."
"I have, a time or two." Joe pressed his lips together ruefully. "Not that he's inclined to listen to an East Coast city slicker like me."
Hannah fidgeted when they stopped at a red light. She was so ready to get to Taipei and begin her new life it was ridiculous. "You grew up in Texas."
"For the first ten years of my life" Joe waved at a prominent rancher in a pickup truck "but I went to school in Connecticut."
While she respected Joe's Ivy League credentials, it was the inherently respectful, compassionate way he treated everyone who crossed his path that she admired. Had he intended to stay in the beautiful Trans-Pecos area of West Texas, she might have considered seeing if the two of them could be more than friends.
Unfortunately, she knew it would never happen. He was as much a vagabond at heart as she had once been. For reasons, she suspected, that were just as elusive and privately devastating as her own.
Her mother's death and her father's recent heart attack had made her face the fact that time to address old hurtsor at the very least come to terms with themwas running out. If she wanted to heal the rift between her and her dad, the way her mother had always wanted, it had to be done soon. Whether her dad cooperated or not!
Aware the silence between them had stretched on for too long, Hannah shifted her attention back to Joe and asked casually, "When will you be done with your book?" Last spring, he'd rented a cabin just outside town and used it as a home base for his research on southwest Texas.
"It's essentially done now. I just want to take one more trip to Big Bend, to check out a couple of the hotels I missed on my earlier visits, write the magazine articles I'm going to use to promote the book, and then I'm off to Australia to start my next project."
"So you'll be leaving ?"
"Texas? Right after Labor Day."
Which meant, Hannah thought sadly, she'd rarely if ever see Joe again.
In another three weeks, he'd no longer be stopping by the Mercantile to chat up the tourists shopping there about their favorite haunts in this part of Texas. He'd no longer be teasing her, or making polite conversation with her father. Or stopping by to see if she wanted to grab some lunch at one of the cafés in town, along with whomever else their age he could round up.
Joe turned onto Main Street. The county courthouse and police station sat across from the parklike grounds of the town square, taking one whole block. Farther down, brick buildings some two hundred years old sported colorful awnings over picture windows. In the past few years, restaurants that catered to tourists and natives alike had sprung up here and there, adding to the length of the wide boulevard in the center of town. But it was the imposing Callahan Mercantile&Feed that gave Summit the Old West ambience tourists loved to photograph.
Built shortly after Texas achieved statehood, the sprawling general store still bore the original log-cabin exterior. Improvements had been made over the years, but the wooden rocking chairs scattered across the covered porch that fronted the building still beckoned a person to linger, even after purchases were made.
Joe eased his SUV into a parking space in front of the store. "Any chance the day's pastries have arrived yet?"
Hannah nodded. "My dad stops by the bakery personally every morning to pick them up before he comes in. Help yourself to whatever is there. I'll go find Dad."
Gus was in back, as she figured he would be.
At seventy, he was still a handsome man with expressive brown eyes the same shade as hers. In the two years since her mother's death, his thick straight hair had turned completely white. Gus Callahan had never been an easy man. He was set in his ways. Opinionated. He had a strong sense of right and wrong and had never been known to yield to anyone. Including Hannah.
A lump formed in her throat. Wondering when she would ever stop longing for his approval, she managed to choke out, "Dad?"
He looked up from the account statements he was sorting through.
"I'm leaving," she said wishing, once again, for a miracle.
Gus scowled and set down the stack of billing notices. He looked her square in the eye and said flatly, "It's still not too late to change your mind."
It was not Joe's intention to eavesdrop. Never mind get personally involved in a family dispute that was none of his business. But Hannah's sigh of dismay rang through the silence of the Mercantile, catching his attention.
"Dad." Her voice sounded thick with tears, in a way it never did with anyone else. "Please."
Gus stormed out into the grocery aisles, either not noticing or not caring that Joe was there to witness the familial contretemps. Jaw set, he marched over to the card table in the corner where a large stainless steel percolator that had seen better days was set up. He picked up a disposable cup and held it underneath the pour spout. "I'm not going to pretend this is a good idea, Hannah." Gus glared at her over the rim of his cup. "You want a baby? There are better ways to go about getting one."
She sniffled. "It's not that easy."
"The hell it's not!" He quaffed his coffee the same way he would a shot of whiskey. "You've got cowboys and businessmen lined up from here to Austin, ready and willing to marry you."
She threw up her hands, angry now. "I don't love them!"
Gus lifted his scraggly white brow. "How do you know what could be when you won't even date them?" he demanded.
Hannah's jaw set, in much the same fashion as her irascible father's. "I'm not going to lead someone on just for the sake of filling up my social calendar!"
"If your mother were here "
Now that was a low blow, Joe thought, remembering how hard it had been to get over the loss of his parents.
"Mom would applaud my decision to adopt!" she countered, just as fiercely.
"Your mother, God rest her soul, would be wrong in this instance," Gus snapped.
Hannah shook her head wordlessly and stared at the floor as if praying for strength. She turned back to her father, her composure intact. "When I return, I'm going to have Isabella with me. I'm going to need your support."
It was clear she wasn't going to get it.
The hurt on her face was more than Joe could tolerate. He broke every rule he had about staying out of other people's business. He strode through the aisles and stepped between the warring Callahans. He looked her in the eye. "If we don't want to miss our flight, we better get a move on, Hannah."
Gus looked at Joe with contempt. "You really want to be a friend to her? You'll do everything you can to keep my daughter from getting on that plane."
It was easy to see Gus's words cut Hannah like a knife. Joe's temper roiled as the color drained from her face.
Tears sparkled on her lashes, then were promptly blinked back. "Goodbye, Dad," Hannah said hoarsely, stepping forward to give Gus a cursory hug and turning away with a stricken look on her face.
Joe and Hannah walked out to the SUV in silence. Got in.
He felt for her. He knew the pain of wanting a blood relative to love you the way you needed to be loved, only to be turned away. True, his rejection had been a tad more polite. But it had been a rebuff just the same. Joe started the SUV, backed out of the space and headed for the highway.
"Sorry about that." Hannah's hands were shaking.
You shouldn't be, he thought with a wave of feeling that surprised him. Resolutely, he offered what comfort he could. "I've been in some of those orphanages, Hannah." Forty or more cribs sandwiched into a single large room, infants lined up, one after anothersometimes doubling up in a cribwith only one or two attendants to care for them all. "Without people like you, willing to open up their homes and their hearts," he told her gruffly, remembering their sad little faces and haunted eyes, "those kids don't stand a chance."
Hannah exhaled a shaky breath. "My dad "
"Will come around, once your baby is here," Joe predicted, wishing he could do more to erase the vulnerability on her pretty face.
"You really think so?" She searched his eyes.
Given his own experiences? If Joe were honest, he'd have to give in to his cynical side and say no. But that wasn't what Hannah needed to hear.
"Sure," he said. And left it at that.
"There must be some mistake," a frustrated Hannah told the English-speaking clerk at the registration desk of the five-star Taipei hotel. After thirty-four excruciating hours of travel, she was so tired she could barely function as she held up the index and third finger on her right hand. All she wanted was a hot shower, some clean pajamas and a comfortable bed. "I asked for two rooms. Not one."
The clerk looked confused. He consulted the computer screen in front of him. "Two adults," he replied in carefully enunciated English, with a slight respectful bow of his head. "Two beds."
"Two adults, two beds, and two rooms," Hannah stipulated as clearly as possible. She turned her hand, palm up, hoping that physical action would accomplish what words had, thus far, not. "So I need two electronic key cards."