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Santa Fe, New Mexico
"You're sure about the boy—and his mother?" Jordan's grip tightened on the phone.
"You're the one who has to be sure, Mr. Cooper." The private investigator's voice was as flat as a digitized recording. "The packet's on its way to your ranch by courier—birth certificate, hospital records, the mother's address and several discreet photos. Once you've seen everything, you can draw your own conclusion. If you need follow-up—"
"No, there'll be nothing else. I'll transfer your fee as soon as I've seen the documents."
Jordan ended the call with a click. The packet would be arriving from Albuquerque within the hour. If his hunch was right, it would hold enough legal and emotional dynamite to blast his wellordered world into chaos.
Stepping away from the desk, he stared out the window of his study, which commanded a vista of open ranchland stretching toward the horizon. In the distance, the San-gre de Cristo Mountains, rich with autumn color, glimmered in the November sunlight. This was Cooper land, as it had been for more than a hundred years. When his mother died it would pass to him as the sole surviving heir of the family trust. He was the last Cooper heir—or so he'd thought. But if the report confirmed what he suspected
Jordan turned away from the window, leaving the thought unfinished. It wasn't too late to back off, he reminded himself. When the packet arrived, he could burn the damned thing unopened or shove it through the shredder. But he'd only be destroying paper. Nothing could erase the memory of Angelina Montoya or change the reality of what she'd done to his family.
Jordan's eyes shifted toward the far wall, bare except for a group of framed family photos. The largest showed two young men grinning over a stringer of freshly caught rainbow trout. Their features were so nearly identical that a visitor would've been hard pressed to tell which was Jordan and which was his twin brother, Justin.
When the picture was taken the two had still been close. Three years later, Justin had fallen for dark-eyed Angie Montoya, hostess in an upscale Mexican restaurant off the Plaza. His determination to marry her had torn the family apart.
Convinced the woman was a gold digger, Jordan and his parents had taken every action they could think of to separate the couple. The resulting schism between the brothers had never had a chance to heal. Rushing home from a ski trip on the eve of Angie's birthday, Justin had flown his Cirrus SR22 plane into a storm and crashed into a Utah mountain.
Grief had dragged Jordan's father into an early grave and made a bitter old woman of his mother. As for Angie Montoya, she had simply vanished—until last week when, after nearly four years, Jordan had come across her name. Searching further, he'd found a picture that had him on the phone within the hour with the best private investigator in the state. He'd wanted answers, and now he was about to get them. The report would almost surely confirm what Jordan had suspected.
Angelina Montoya had not only stolen Justin from his family—she had stolen Justin's son.
"You've been working hard on that picture, Lucas." Angie swiveled her chair away from the bedroom computer hutch to give her son her full attention. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
Lucas held out the drawing—three lopsided stick figures sketched in crayon on a sheet of copy paper. "It's our family. This short one is me. This one with long black hair is you."
"And who's this, up here at the top?" Anticipating the answer, Angie felt her throat tighten.
"That's Daddy, up in heaven. He's looking out for us, just like you said."
"That's right. Do you want to put this picture on the fridge to remind us?"
"Okay." Clutching his masterpiece, the boy scampered down the hall toward the tiny kitchen. Angie gulped back a surge of emotion. It wasn't easy, living with daily reminders of Justin. But she'd wanted to make sure Lucas didn't feel fatherless. She kept Justin's framed portrait at the boy's bedside and an album of snapshots on the bookshelf, within his reach. His small fingers had worn the pages thin at the corners.
Most of the photos showed Justin and Angie together or Justin alone. There were no pictures of Justin's family. After the way they'd treated her, she wanted nothing to do with any of them—especially Jordan.
It was Jordan who'd come on her birthday to bring the news of Justin's death. He hadn't said much, but Jordan's manner had made his feelings clear. Weeks earlier, the family had offered her fifty thousand dollars to walk away from Justin. If she'd taken it, Justin would still be alive.
Angie would never forget the bitterness in those contemptuous gray eyes. How could two brothers who looked so much alike be so different? Justin had been warm and loving, quick to laugh and quick to forgive. The thought of Jordan conjured up words like cold, judgmental, mercenary
And manipulative. She'd had firsthand experience with that particular trait of his.
The sound of the door buzzer broke into her thoughts. "I'll get it!" Lucas called.
"Stop right there, mister. You know better." Striding into the living room, she scooped him up in her arms. Their cramped two-bedroom apartment was affordable, but the neighborhood wasn't the best. When someone came to the door, Angie made it a rule to send Lucas to his room until she knew the situation was safe. Maybe by next year, if her web design business continued to grow, she'd have the money to rent a small house with a fenced yard. Until then.
The doorbell buzzed again, twice. Setting Lucas on his play rug, Angie closed the bedroom door and hurried back down the hall. She didn't get many visitors here, and she certainly wasn't expecting company. Any unexpected knock tended to raise her suspicions.
Jordan tensed as the light, rapid footsteps approached. Seeing Angie again was bound to be awkward as hell. Maybe he should have sent somebody else first—someone who could assess the situation without putting the woman on her guard. But no, whatever waited on the other side of that door, he was duty-bound to face up to it. He needed to do the right thing—for his family legacy, for his brother's memory even for Angie, if time had mellowed out her stubborn streak enough to let her see reason.
The dead bolt slid back. The latch clicked. Jordan held his breath as the door opened to the width allowed by the security chain.
Eyes the hue of rich black coffee stared up at him—eyes framed by lush, feathery lashes. Jordan had almost forgotten how stunning those eyes could be. He watched them widen, then narrow suspiciously.
"What do you want, Jordan?" Her husky little voice, taut with strain, pricked his memory.
"For starters, I'd like to come in."
"Why?" She made no move to unfasten the chain.
It seemed her stubborn streak hadn't mellowed in the slightest. "So I won't have to stand out here and talk to you through this blasted door."
"I can't imagine we'd have anything worth saying to each other."
Jordan's thin-drawn patience snapped. "You have a choice, Angie," he growled. "Let me in so we can talk like civilized people, or I'll shout loud enough to be heard all over the building. Either way, I'm not leaving until you hear what I came to say." He paused, reminding himself that it wouldn't do any good to threaten her. "Who knows," he added, "this might be something you'll want to hear."
He braced himself for a stinging retort. Instead, she simply closed the door. Jordan waited in the silence. Seconds crawled past before he heard the rattle of the chain. Slowly the door swung open.
He willed himself to look at the apartment first. The living room was bright and clean, the walls freshly painted, the slipcovered sofa decorated with red, blue and yellow cushions. But the place didn't look much bigger than one of Jordan's horse stalls. The building itself was run down with no security system at all—anyone could walk in off the street, as he had done. And he had seen what was outside—the loitering teens, the gang graffiti on the walls. If this was the best Angie could afford, she had to be struggling financially.
There was no sign of her son. Only a battered copy of Goodnight Moon on the coffee table betrayed the presence of a child in the apartment. She would've put the boy out of sight, of course. Maybe that was the reason she'd taken so long to undo the chain latch.
As he stepped inside, closing the door behind him, Angie moved into Jordan's line of vision. She was dressed in a simple black tee and faded jeans that fit her shapely body without being provocatively tight. Her dark hair fell past her shoulders in silky waves. Her feet were bare, the toenails painted a soft baby pink.
She was still seductively beautiful. But Jordan had been aware of that even before his brother fell in love with her—and afterward, too.
He braced himself against the replay of that unguarded moment in his car, the taste of her tears, the willing heat of her ripe mouth, the sinuous fit of her curves in his arms. It had been a mistake—one that hadn't been repeated. He'd done his best to block the memory. But forgetting a woman like Angie was easier said than done.
He cleared his throat. "Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?"
"There's room on the sofa." She was clearly ill at ease. He imagined she would have liked to settle herself in a chair on the other side of the room, but aside from the couch, there was nowhere else to sit other than the floor. After Jordan had taken his seat, she perched on the padded arm at the far end, her toes working their way beneath the seat cushion.
Jordan shifted his position to face her. She didn't trust him, and he couldn't blame her. But somehow he had to make her listen. He had to make this right—for Justin's sake.
If he could help his brother's son and the woman Justin had wanted for his wife, then maybe his brother's soul would forgive him and perhaps someday, Jordan could forgive himself.
Jordan hadn't changed. Angie studied the frigid gray eyes, the pit bull set of his jaw, the unruly brown hair with the boyish cowlick at the crown. If he smiled he'd look a lot like Justin. But she'd hardly ever seen Jordan smile, at least not at her.
The sight of him had sent her pulse careening like a cornered animal's. Jordan had the face of the man she'd loved. But his heart was solid granite. If he'd taken the trouble to track her down, she could be sure it wasn't out of kindness.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"Internet. Your name was on a web site you'd designed for a printing business. Pure chance that it caught my eye, but after I saw it I was curious. I clicked through to your page and saw the photo of you working at your computer. I couldn't help noticing you weren't alone."
Angie's heart dropped as his words sank home. A neighbor had taken the picture. At the last second, Lucas had moved in so close that the lower edge of the frame showed the top of his head from the back.
A sick fear crept over her. She could have cropped the photo. Such a simple precaution. Why hadn't she done it? What had she been thinking?
But the picture couldn't have told Jordan enough to bring him here. Angie's temper flashed as the truth dawned. "You had me investigated, didn't you?"
His jaw tightened. "Where's the boy, Angie? Where's Lucas?"
"You have no right to ask!" She was on guard now, a tigress ready to strike in defense of her cub. "Lucas is my son. My son!"
"And my brother's son. I have a copy of the birth certificate. You listed Justin as the father. I'm assuming that's the truth."
Something crumbled inside her. "I did that for Lucas, so he'd know. But Justin." She gulped back a surge of emotion. "He never even knew I was pregnant. I was going to tell him when he came home for my birthday."
"So you were never married. Not even secretly."
"No. You needn't worry on that account, Jordan. I have no claim on your family's precious money or anything else. So go away and leave us alone."
She studied his face for some sign that her words had made an impact. But his expression could have been chiseled in basalt.
"You might have told us," he said. "It would've meant a lot to my parents, knowing Justin had left a child."
"Your parents hated me! How could I expose my innocent baby to those ugly feelings?"
"I want to see the boy."
No! Angie's heart slammed. She'd had no warning, no time to prepare Lucas for this.
"I don't think—" she began. But it was too late. She heard the opening of the bedroom door and the cautious tread of small sneakers. Evidently, Lucas had grown tired of waiting and decided to check things out for himself.
Short of lunging for her son, there was little Angie could do. She watched in mute horror as Lucas emerged from the hallway and caught sight of their visitor.
His brown eyes opened wide. Then his face lit with joyous wonder. "Daddy!" he cried, racing across the room. "Daddy, you came back!"
It was the last thing Jordan had expected—this pint-size bundle of energy hurtling toward him, flinging eager arms around his knees. A sense of helplessness crept over him. Lord, did the boy think he was Justin?
He lifted his gaze to meet Angie's. She looked as if she'd been punched hard enough to break a rib. With visible effort she found her voice. "He has Justin's picture. I've told him that his daddy's in heaven, but he's so young." The words trailed off. Her eyes pleaded for Jordan's understanding.
With a firm hand, Jordan peeled the boy off his legs and boosted him onto the edge of the coffee table. The investigator had included some pictures in his packet, but they'd all been from a distance, at skewed angles as the photographer tried to avoid attention and stay out of sight. This was his first good, clear look at the boy.
If he'd had any doubts the child was Justin's, they vanished at once. Lucas had his mother's vivid Latina coloring, but aside from that he was all Cooper. The straight nose, the dimpled chin and unruly cowlick at the crown of the head mirrored Justin's features—and Jordan's.
Identical twins were genetic copies of each other. This boy could be his own son.
Lucas regarded him with adoring eyes, but his lower lip quivered, as if he sensed something was wrong. Maybe he was wondering why his long lost father wasn't happier to see him.
Jordan suppressed the urge to jump up and leave. He'd never spent much time around children, didn't understand them or even like them much, truth be told. But the situation called for some kind of response. He cleared his throat.
"Listen to me, Lucas. I'm not your father. I'm your uncle Jordan, your father's brother. We look alike, that's all. Do you understand?"
A single tear welled, then trickled down Lucas's cheek. Jordan glanced toward Angie. Pain was etched on her lovely, sensual face. From the moment he'd met her, he'd found himself wondering how it would feel to kiss those lush, moist lips. Then he'd found out to his everlasting regret.
"Come here, Lucas." Angie gathered her son close. Clasping him fiercely, she glared at Jordan over the boy's head. "You still haven't told me why you're here," she said in a glacial voice.
Jordan exhaled. Where to start? He'd rehearsed his speech in the car. The words he'd chosen struck him as stuffy and arrogant now, but nothing better came to mind.
"I have a duty to my brother," he said. "Justin would want his son to have all the advantages money can buy—a home to be proud of, a quality education, social and cultural opportunities—advantages you can't afford to give him."
She pulled her son closer. "I can give him love. And when my business picks up I'll be able to give him other things, too. If you think I'd accept one cent of your money—"
"Money isn't what I had in mind, Angie."
Posted January 21, 2013
Posted January 4, 2013
I do not read Harlequin Books as a rule but for some reason this one appealed to me (combination of Title and cover Picture)... I am so happy I read it... A wonderful story, a bit different story line and the characters were so real and believable... I loved Lucas (age 3) and it was so great to see the trust and love grow between Jordan and Angie... I hate to admit that I stayed up until 3:40 am with this one... Could not put it down until it ended.. Great supporting cast of characters.. And, for once I am not going to say it ended too abruptly... I will buy this author again.
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