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A handsome blond stranger walked into the day care at closing, charm radiating from him like a picturesque snowbank on a bunny slope, its sparkling surface hiding a deep, dark crevasse. Like Ted Bundy.
Tara Montgomery shuddered and stepped between the man and the doorway to the playroom where her son raced small metal cars with the one child left to be picked up. The three of them were alone with this guy, and she'd already turned out all the lights except for those in the playroom and the foyer. Rain clouds had obscured the late-May sun, leaving the room shadowed.
She swallowed down the knot warning her the man was danger. This was Howard, Missouri, after all. Population around three thousand. Crime rate around zero. Just because she'd expected to see one of the girl's parents coming to pick her up didn't mean this guy wasn't Trouble. She really had to stop watching so many TV crime shows.
"Hi." His smile widened, sharklike. "I'm guessing you're Tara."
The hairs on the back of her neck rose to alert status. He knew her name? That wasn't unusual, she assured herself, not in their small town. Maybe he had a child he wanted to enroll. Maybe he'd visited before and she was the only employee he hadn't met.
Maybe she should edge nearer to a telephone just in case she needed to call for help.
If she had to look through mug shots later, she'd remember this guy. His slate-blue eyes shone with an interest that might have been flattering if she weren't so creeped out. White teeth smiling from a tanned face generated shivers in her that were only partly fear. Six feet tall or so with long legs in twill slacks, broad shoulders filling out a butter-yellow polo shirt, and large, well-kept hands. The perfect size for caressing a woman or strangling her.
Get real. Small town, small dangers. The pep talk restored her usual confidence. "Yes, I'm Tara. How can I help you?"
He extended his hand. "I'm Dylan Ross. Is my mom in her office?"
"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry." Tara wiped her sweaty hand on her work apron, feeling the heat in her face even as her body sagged with relief. The boss's sonand she'd been memorizing his face for a police lineup. Jeez. She shook his hand, noticing the strength he held in check. His gentleness warmed her to him. She knew his reputation as Mr. Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, but her body didn't listen to her brain. Too many women had declared him Mr. Love 'Em and Leave 'Em Smiling.
His sun-bleached hair and tan had probably been gained on one of his trips scuba diving in the Caribbean that Bettyher boss and his momhad told Tara about. He took his widowed mother out to dinner every other week and helped his brother and sister-in-law with their eight children. Strong, handsome, family-oriented. She sighed, a little wistful.
Don't even think about it, the little voice in her head warned. Even his mother described him as a "ladies' man." Tara had had one go-round with an undependable good-time guy like that, and had learned her lesson.
"I should have recognized you from the pictures in your mom's office," she said. "You're the computer son."
He quirked one eyebrow in question.
"Process of elimination, since I've met your brother a few times when he's picked up the twins and Caitlyn. Adam builds houses, right?"
"Right." He grinned. "Although being called 'the computer son' makes me sound like a robot."
"Your mom's at a meeting. The town Founder's Day planning, I think. She said she might be late."
"We're going to dinner. I'm surprised she didn't call me."
"But it's Wednesday." Tara cringed at her exclamation. Betty and Dylan had a set dinner date every other Tuesday. Tara left at three o'clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which was why she hadn't met him before tonight. She wished she hadn't made it so obvious how much she knew about the man's life.
Dylan cocked his head. "I was out of town yesterday."
"Sorry." She stuck her hands in her jeans pockets, feeling like a stalker herself. A quick glance at Jimmy and Hannah, now encircling themselves with multicolored blocks, eliminated the possibility of using them as an excuse to escape. "I feel like I know you. Your mom talks about you and Adam all the time."
He winced comically. "I can only imagine."
"You come off pretty good, usually." Depending on one's outlook, that could be true. Betty's stories of his escapades were related with parental amusement. Tara didn't find the ones of him as an adult, dating every woman he saw, all that humorous. But his preteen years sounded endearing, just as she imagined Jimmy would be one day too sooncurious and adventurous, collecting bugs and rocks and playing sports to drain off his boundless energy.
"Usually?" Dylan chuckled. "I guess I should be grateful for even that concession. Adam and I didn't give her and Dad an easy time when we were growing up."
A smile tugged the corner of her mouth against her will. "So I've heard. She calls you 'the boy terror.'"
Their gazes caught. The admiration in his eyes reminded her of when she was just a woman, not a mom. Back when she could have flirted a little and encouraged him to ask her out. When she would have been free to accept a dinner invitation.or more. Ah, the good old days.
Four long years ago. Before the mistake that had become the greatest blessing of her lifegetting pregnant with Jimmy. Now she wanted stability and a future, not just a good time.
"Mom's told me a little about you and your son, too." He glanced over her shoulder at the kids in the playroom before returning to meet her gaze.
She searched his expression, pleased to find no reproach. She wasn't up to a debate on single parenthood.
"Mom says you've been a godsend here."
Tara hunched her shoulders, embarrassed. Betty had overstated the matter. "Oh, I don't know about that."
"I do." He stepped nearer and, despite her better intentions, her skin prickled with awareness. "I want to thank you for how you've eased the burden for Mom. The office work pretty much overwhelmed her. She'd never have been able to take this trip to Europe without you to run the office while she's gone."
"She should have had help long before this. The woman juggles like magic." Tara realized they stood only a foot apart now. She felt his pull like the moon's on the tide.
"She has, up till lately, but her age is catching up to her."
Tara waved a hand in dismissal, almost hitting him in the chest. His hard, broad chest. She swallowed, fighting the urge to test its firmness with her hand. "If she's slowed down any, I wouldn't know it. She has more energy than I do."
"Maybe, but I still wish she wouldn't go. I'd be happier if she stayed here where I know she's safe."
This near to him, she could feel the heat of his body. He smelled like sunshine and the threat of rain and.a man. A scent she hadn't had a chance to enjoy in quite some time.
Self-conscious now, she tucked a strand of her shoulder-length hair behind her ear. Get back to the subject.
Wait. Had he really said he wanted his mom to stay home from her dream trip to Europe just so he wouldn't have to worry about her? She must have misunderstood. She took a step backward to gain distance and perspective. "Is there something wrong with Betty's health to prevent her from traveling?"
"Not particularly. But she's sixty-seven. You never know what could happen."
Tara frowned. "She's going to be with tour groups and traveling with friends in between the tours."
"For three months? It bothers me. She's never been one to travel."
His smile edged over into being a tad too patronizing to ignore. Tara put her hands on her hips, willing herself to hear him out. "Then maybe it's about time she did."
"I think you've misunderstood me." He stepped forward, closing in, filling her lungs with his scent, making her eyes go wide at the surprising electricity. "Maybe we could discuss it over dinner?"
The chirping of his cell phone cut off her response. Which was fortunate, as she didn't know what she'd say.
Yes? Tara determined to clear her head as he mouthed "sorry" and stepped away to take the call.
"Marissa." His deep voice caressed the woman's name. "Of course. I was going to call you this evening."
Tara's jaw set as he walked farther away, presumably for privacy. She didn't want to hear him sweet-talk some woman. The reminder of his playboy lifestyle settled the decision. Dinner with him? Not likely.
Dylan returned with a cat-ate-the-canary smile. "Sorry for the interruption. Now, what were we talking about?"
"When your mom will be back. I expected her before this."
His eyebrows drew together as he did a quick study of her expression. Then he nodded his concession. Smart man, recognizing a lost cause.
"I'll call her cell phone," he said. "See if the meeting's over yet."
His phone rang again. "Maybe that's her now."
He flicked a glance at the display. "Hmm. I don't recognize the number. That's out of state."
A long-distance booty call? Tara showed her teeth in a smile he couldn't misinterpret as friendly.
After a second's deliberation, he pocketed the phone, letting the call go to voice mail, and stepped backward. "I guess I'll be leaving then. Are you going to be okay here alone?"
"Yes, but thanks for asking." His thoughtfulness shouldn't affect her. "I won't be too far behind you."
A clatter cut off further words. Jimmy chortled, eyeing the spilled blocks. Hannah beamed with an equal amount of pride.
Tara gave Dylan a wry glance. "Or maybe I'll be a few minutes longer than I'd planned." She walked toward the kids. "You know what happens when you make a mess."
"Kean up, kean up," they sang.
"Nice to meet you," Tara said to Dylan. She knelt beside the children and joined them in the cleanup song. They should pick up the blocks themselves, but helping gave her an excuse to evade Dylan. Glancing over her shoulder, she noted he stood watching.
He backed away, keeping his eyes on hers. "It was nice to meet you, too, Tara. Very nice."
Despite knowing he was a womanizer, she couldn't deny the pleasure his words produced. Darn it. Seemed she had a type, after all. Good thing she'd grown out of it, though.
She reminded herself of that all evening.
By the next morning, she had to drag herself and poor Jimmy to the day care to open at five-thirty. Not a chance she'd admit Dylan Ross had kept her awake most of the night. Sure, images of his smile, and memories of his intriguing scent, his deep voice and the humor in his eyes had made her toss and turn. But that was irritation. Irritated that he was wasting his time, his looks, and his perfectly good genes on one-night stands. Irritated that he'd received a phone call from another woman just as he'd asked her out. Irritated that she hadn't had the chance to shut down his game and prove that some women were immune to his so-called charms.
Because she would have said no. She was almost positive.
It was the "almost" which had kept her awake. Not Dylan Ross but her own uncertainty.
Tara stifled a yawn as she approached the day care, juggling her work keys in one hand and keeping hold of her squirming son's hand with her other. Neither of them had wanted to roll out of their beds when the morning sun had yet to perk up the gloomy gray sky.
"Are you Tara Montgomery?" a male voice asked from behind her.
She squealed and pivoted toward the man, who had stepped out of nowhere. Instinctively, she pushed three-year-old Jimmy against the building and blocked him with her body.
The man stood waiting, a half smilea darned scary half smileon his face. He was bland and forgettable, other than starting to go bald and being slightly paunchy. No child accompanied him, so why was he hanging around a day care at 5:30 a.m ? For the first time, she wished she didn't open by herself three days a week. Betty would be lethal swinging a broom.
Tara scanned the parking area, but no one else had arrived, nor did she expect anyone for fifteen long minutes.
Fight or flight? She wasn't much of a fighter, unless the almost too-normal guy threatened her son. As for flight, she wouldn't get far, as she'd have to carry Jimmy.
Whoa, she admonished herself. She'd thought these things last night, and the stranger had turned out to be the boss's son. This guy was probably some long-lost cousin.
Calling on years of bravado she'd used facing her overbearing parents, she took a deep breath. Arching an eyebrow to look imperious and heaving a sigh to appear too-busy-to-be-bothered, Tara faced down the stranger.
"So you are Tara Montgomery? Tara Scarlett Montgomery?"
A wince broke her facade. "That's me, unfortunately."
How did he know?
"I have a delivery for you."
"Oh!" She grinned as relief swept through her, leaving her feeling foolish for suspecting another innocuous man of being a maniac killer.
He handed her a brown envelope. "You've been served."
Dread squeezed her heart as he walked away. Innocuous, my ass.
"Mommy? Who was that?"
Tara sifted through her vocabulary for a description appropriate for her son to hear. Then her sense of fairness kicked in; he was only doing his job. "Just a delivery man, like Cedric, our mailman."
"Oh." Jimmy fidgeted, and she realized she still held him pressed against the building.
She stepped away. "Sorry, baby."
"I'm not a baby."
"Right. Sorry again, puddin' pie."
He giggled, and her day settled back on its axis.
After she settled Jimmy to one of the morning chores to keep him occupied, Tara ripped open the envelope. She scanned the letter, then read it once again, frozen with anxiety.
Jimmy's paternal grandparents were suing her for custody.
She fell into a chair, stunned.
The grounds for the hearing cited her being unfit to raise a child. She unclenched her teeth and conceded they would have had a point if she were the girl they remembered. As a teenager, she'd partied, drank, stayed out late, and had numerous boyfriends before their son, Jay. She'd been a typical rich girl with too much money, too much free time, and too few responsibilities.
Then the stick had turned blue.
Not only had her life changed with her pregnancy, but she'd changed her life. However, since the first of those life-changing steps had been to leave home, his parents couldn't know she'd become a responsible adult and a good mother.
Her own parents hadn't wanted her to have the baby. Tara had fled and, aside from monthly phone calls home to assure them she was fine, had stayed missing for the past four years. She'd left it to Jay to tell his family. Admittedly, she'd been a coward, not wanting to face their censure after her own parents' rejection.