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By JANET DAILEY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe black velvet sky was studded with diamond stars, twinkling in a cloudless Texas night, warm and languid. But there was a crackle of excitement in the air along the banks of San Antonio's famous Riverwalk as watchers focused on the parade.
A man stood in the crowd, but he seemed somehow apart from the festive throng. Tall, whipcord-lean, he was aloof, expressing an aura of detachment. The chiseled lines of his handsome face belonged to a man who rarely smiled, or who had found no reason to smile for a long time.
Thick light-brown hair fell carelessly over his forehead in waves streaked with burnished gold from long hours in the sun. Tanned, with attractive lines, his face had the look of being carved from wood, dispassionate and indifferent, without a soul. His eyes were a changeable color between green and blue, but there was a hint of frost in them.
A lavishly decorated barge floated under the stone footbridge, its bright lights blazing for the benefit of the crowd gathered along the river's bend at Arenson River Theater. A murmur of appreciation rippled through the spectators. The young girl standing in front of the man glanced quickly at him, her eyes shining.
"Look at that one, Daddy," she breathed in awe. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Yes."There was a suggestion of an impatient sigh in his agreement, but the girl didn't seem to notice. Her attention had returned to the parade.
His gaze flicked uninterestedly over the float and back to the child in front of him and the single, plain braid nearly touching the waistband of her dress. Colter wondered how long it had been since her hair had been cut, then chided himself silently for not remembering.
He glanced at another little girl standing nearby, whose braid had narrow, colorful ribbons threaded through it in an intricate design. Her doting grandma gave a gentle tug on the neatly curled tail and the little girl looked up with a smile.
Colter felt a little guilty. He considered himself ahead if he got Missy to comb her hair without complaining. Beribboned braids-no one would expect a single dad to go that far.
Or so he hoped. His thoughts drifted and he began to wonder what he was doing here, anyway. The family atmosphere was getting on his nerves. People stood elbow to elbow, craning their necks for a glimpse of the floats when they could have stayed home and had an unobstructed view of the parade on TV.
Not the same as participating. Unbidden, Flo Donaldsen's statement came to mind.
Yes, it was his aunt who was to blame for his presence in the crowd. But his own conscience pricked him. He'd done the best he knew how over the years, but had he paid enough attention to Missy? His daughter had never wanted for anything. She had beautiful clothes, plenty of food, a fine home on thousands of acres. He had never sent her off to boarding school. She'd lived under the same roof with him since the day she had entered the world.
What else was he supposed to do? He didn't understand his own uneasiness.
This shy, quiet child with the sensitive face was his daughter. Yet Colter Langston felt no surge of emotion when he looked at her now. He cared for her, as much as he could, but there was no bursting warmth of pride to take away the emptiness within him.
He let himself think, just for a moment, that maybe parenthood wasn't as incredibly important as everyone made it out to be. Kids grew up too fast anyway, almost like weeds. Blink, and they turned into teenagers who knew it all and had everything. Missy was only a few years away from that. He wasn't looking forward to the inevitable back talk and bad behavior, and he didn't see any reason to imagine he would somehow be spared. Even if she'd never been anything but good.
Colter glared resentfully at the slow-moving minute hand of his watch, knowing the parade had barely started and wishing it was over. His lean jaw tightened as he reminded himself that he'd committed to accompanying Missy to all the activities of Fiesta Week, the celebration marking Texas's independence from Mexico. The river parade was the first major event and he was already bored. Standing around gawking at events he'd seen before wasn't his idea of a thrill.
He would have to admit that he tended to be easily bored. Growing up an only child, son and heir to the vast Langston holdings in the Texas hill country north of San Antonio, he himself had been denied nothing as a kid, a wild teenager, or a young man. Now at thirty-four, he realized that hadn't been to his advantage. Life held no surprises. Sex, love, marriage-been there, done that, what now? The lasting happiness and satisfaction a man was supposed to find in all that had eluded him, when it came right down to it.
For the last five years, since his father's death, he had been the sole owner of the Langston Ranch and its numerous investments. The power of the family name was his to command and he had influence. Colter Langston had grown accustomed to being obeyed. He didn't mind it. Someone had to be in charge.
Matt Langston had taught him that every man had a price, monetary or otherwise. Colter had admired and respected his father, but they had never been close. His mother had died when he was six and he had only photographs to recall what she looked like.
As for his wife Caroline, she had married him for the wrong reasons. It hadn't taken Colter long to realize that. Within the first year of their marriage, she had died in childbirth, their newborn daughter her last link to the Langston power and wealth. Her diary had callously stated that she'd never loved Colter at all, only his money and name. Looking back, Colter had to admit that he hadn't loved her either. He'd lusted after her, sure. Her beautiful face and body had dazzled him. He'd wanted to have her all to himself and she'd made it clear that he'd have to marry her to do that.
Love had nothing to do with it. Hell, he wasn't certain he knew what it was, except that it made people act like damn fools when they thought they were in it.
He couldn't say that he'd truly loved anyone, not even himself. No one loved him. Missy tried, just as Colter had tried to love his father. Maybe the one who'd come the closest to caring for him had been his aunt Flo. When his mother had died, Matt Langston brought his widowed sister to Langston Ranch to look after his son. She'd stayed on to care for Missy.
But no longer. His mouth moved into a grim, forbidding line. At the end of this month, Flo Donaldsen was leaving, figuratively if not literally. She was a strong, proud woman who spoke her mind and Colter had been told what she thought of him-not much-before he and Missy left for San Antonio.
"I don't like what you've become, Colter," she had told him. "Do you know how cold and inconsiderate you can be? You show more kindness and attention to your horses than you ever do to anyone, including your own daughter, and it isn't right."
He'd listened, stone-faced. What else had she said? Nothing very nice.
"You may be my nephew but I'm ashamed to see that your heart has turned to stone, if you ever had one. Missy needs her father, not just a weary old great-aunty who's not going to live forever. You ought to provide her with a mother. And I don't mean one of your useless girlfriends. I'm talking about a mother."
As if he could just go pick a perfect mom off the shelf, Colter had thought bitterly. Too bad life didn't work like that. But was it worth pointing that hard fact out to Flo?
His aunt had rattled on, finishing up with a statement that wasn't exactly a declaration of independence. "According to your father's will, the cottage by the creek is mine whenever I want it, along with a pension. I'll be moving into it at the end of the month."
Colter hadn't argued. Eventually he knew he could work his way around her. He had no qualms about using the affection she held for him and his daughter to gain what he wanted. Yet he had to admit that she was right-Missy ought to have a mother.
Deirdre, the definition of what his aunt meant by "useless girlfriend," would love to give it a try, but that was never going to happen. Granted, he found her company stimulating, at least for the time being, but Colter knew that Deirdre only tolerated his daughter. The sensually attractive redhead was a man's woman, definitely not the domesticated type. When her physical interest in him ebbed-as it undoubtedly would, because, yes, she was that shallow-she would probably take her vengeance out on Missy. No, he wasn't going to marry Deirdre.
Candy tossed from a float landed at his feet, missing the outstretched hands that tried to intercept it. As Missy bent down to pick it up, someone else's small fingers reached it first. A pair of dark brown eyes peered through the mop of brown hair falling over his forehead, their expression reluctant and hopeful.
"Was this yours?" The little boy's clenched fist opened to reveal the paper-wrapped candy, offering it to Missy.
Colter watched the movement of his daughter's mouth into a timid smile, noticing how easily she related to the other kid, who was probably half her age.
"No, you can have it," Missy assured the little boy.
The small palm remained outstretched as the boy fixed his gaze longingly on the candy. "Nonnie said I wasn't supposed to take things that belong to someone else, and I'm not supposed to take things away from girls, ever."
Missy gave Colter a shy, adult smile before turning a solemn face back to the boy. "You found it, so you can keep it."
Bright brown eyes studied her for an instant longer, then his fingers closed protectively over the candy. For precious seconds he held it in his fist before he began reverently unwrapping the paper.
"My name is Ricky," he said a little thickly after he'd put the candy in his mouth. "What's yours?"
"My name is Missy and this is my father," she replied.
The boy named Ricky had to tilt his head way back to look up at Colter's face. One corner of Colter's mouth turned up in wry amusement at the open inspection he was getting. He rather liked the boldness of the boy's look, forthright and not easily impressed. Nor intimidated, it seemed.
"I don't have a father," Ricky announced, "but some day I'm going to have cowboy boots too."
The two thoughts didn't connect for Colter, but obviously they did for the boy. Colter wondered where his mother was, and then thought briefly of what it would be like to have a son like this. Would he and Missy have been closer if she had been a boy instead of a girl? It seemed mean-spirited to speculate, but it was only a thought. He doubted it, though. Colter probably would have been irritated by the demands and natural competitiveness of a son.
He looked over the heads of the crowd to see if anyone was making their way through or calling for a lost kid. Nope. Everyone stayed more or less in place, craning their necks to see better. He'd keep Ricky with them until someone showed up or he could turn him over to a police officer.
"Did your mother bring you to the parade?" Colter heard Missy ask.
He was a little surprised at her interest in the kid. She'd never seemed to pay much attention to the other children she went to school with, although she seemed to like little Josh Harris. Still, Colter had presumed she was a loner like himself. The one trait they shared.
"Nonnie brought me," Ricky said, adding with a shrug, "but I think she got lost."
"Are you sure you're not the one who's lost?" Missy smiled.
"I don't think so." He screwed up his face in a puzzled frown. "I know where I am, but I don't know where Nonnie is. So she's the one who's lost."
Colter assumed that Nonnie was his grandmother. He looked over the crowd again for a woman of the right age in search mode, with no luck.
Then it was Colter's turn to frown as he saw his daughter touch the little boy's arm and bend slightly toward him in a solicitous movement.
"Yes, but you see, Ricky, your Nonnie knows where she is, but she doesn't know where you are. I'll bet she thinks you're the one who's lost," Missy explained.
He screwed up his face again. "I'll bet she'll be mad," Ricky sighed.
"Where did you last see her?"
Colter guessed where his daughter's questions were leading. The last thing he wanted to do was get involved in a search for whoever had brought the boy to the parade. Old Nonnie should have kept a closer eye on him.
"Over there somewhere." Ricky waved a hand in the general direction of the footbridge. "I was thirsty and she was going to get me a drink."
"And you were supposed to wait for her," Missy concluded astutely.
The boy shamefacedly tucked his chin in and answered in a very small voice. "Yes."
"Give me your hand," Missy instructed him, "and we'll go see if we can find her."
"Missy!" Colter's voice rang out more sharply than he intended as his hand closed over her shoulder. He lowered his voice quickly to a firmer, less abrasive tone. "We are not going to search this crowd."
The hurt look in her accusing eyes hit home, as did her words. "We can't just leave him. He's only a little boy, Daddy."
"Did I say we were going to leave him?"
"I'm not so little," Ricky inserted proudly. "I'll be six pretty soon."
Colter nodded and turned back to his daughter. She had withdrawn again into her shell, a remote resentment clouding her calm blue eyes.
"Look," Colter sighed. He hated being backed into a corner, but he knew he was right. "We'll take Ricky to that policeman over there. The woman who brought him probably already knows that he's lost and will have notified them. That's the right way to do it. And the safest for him."
"Couldn't we take a few minutes to look first?" Missy suggested, glancing hesitantly at him through upcurving lashes.
His jaw tightened when Missy flinched at his tone. Fleetingly, he had to acknowledge that Flo had been right when she'd said he hurt people without meaning to do it. Well, whatever. Tact had never been one of his virtues. He did have a few, if anyone needed to know.
He told himself to snap out of it and turned to the boy. "Come on," he said crisply. "We'll take you to the policeman. He'll help you find your-"
"No." Ricky shrank back. "They don't know where Nonnie is." His lower lip jutted out in a trembling pout.
Colter stared at him for an instant, then reached down and swung the boy into his arms. Tear-wet brown eyes studded his face, now at eye level. Tears or no tears, Ricky wasn't intimidated by the forbidding set of Colter's jaw. He just wanted his Nonnie and that was that.
Colter's expression revealed nothing, or so he hoped-but he had to admire the kid's impertinence. Just why he did wasn't clear to him, but it didn't change anything. He turned toward the distant police officer, aware that Missy was dragging her feet as she followed him. Enough of this. He wasn't required to be her hero, not under these circumstances, and legally speaking, he had to give the kid to an officer or risk seeing his face on an Amber Alert billboard. As far as he was concerned, it was enough that he'd brought her to the Fiesta. There were a thousand reasons they couldn't get involved with a lost child.
A small, grubby hand used Colter's shoulder to balance while Ricky took in his improved view of the crowd and the river parade. Then the boy's fingers tightened perceptibly.
"Wait!" he cried. "There's Nonnie!"
Colter turned in the direction Ricky indicated, his alert gaze immediately picking out the woman frantically searching the crowd. As she drew nearer, his eyebrow rose thoughtfully. Nonnie was no grandmother. She didn't even look old enough to be a mother. If Colter was any judge, she was barely over twenty and Ricky himself had said that he was almost six years old.
He could be wrong about all that. She wasn't that close to him to see for sure.
But she was really pretty, Colter decided, far above average, despite signs of exhaustion and strain etched in her features. He guessed it wasn't just losing Ricky temporarily that had told on her-something had been stressing her out for months.
Then her hazel eyes, almond-shaped and tilted up at the corners, spied Ricky in Colter's arms. A wide smile of relief spread across her sensuously full lips as she hurried toward them. There was an untouched look about her that kindled a fleeting fire of desire in him until he remembered the kid in his arms. He had his pick of available women everywhere he went, women who didn't have children to complicate their lives. Single motherhood was a deal-breaker. He had enough problems being a single father as it was.
Excerpted from Lover Man by JANET DAILEY Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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