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Gillian Baron formed a fist, lifted it in the air and let it fall to her sidetwicebefore finally forcing herself to rap on the door of the upscale apartment.
Even then she had to fight the urge to run away like a naughty child, who'd pulled a prank on the neighbors.
Considering that this portal to the past had never been closed to her before, knocking on it now shouldn't feel so surreal.
Maybe he isn't home.
Gillian leaned forward on the balls of her feet and assumed the ready position.
Ready for what? To bolt again? To run away from all that had once been good and true in her life? Back when life had been as close to perfect as humanly possible and she'd had the key to this man's homeand his heart.
Before everything went so terribly, irreparably wrong.
Before he'd come to hate her.
Sighing in relief at her good fortune to avoid the awkward encounter she'd been dreading, Gillian turned to go.
"I tried," she said, rehearsing what she would tell her sisters when they demanded why she'd failed to speak to him. "Really I tried."
The belated sound of footsteps from inside the apartment caught Gillian midstride.
"I'm coming," rumbled a deep voice.
How she hated being here, dredging up old memories and wallowing in a sea of what once was. Hated dragging Bryce back into the complicated mess that was her life. Hated feeling so terribly vulnerable and weak-kneed after coming to terms with her own solitude at long last.
She doubted he would believe that she was here only on behalf of her father. With typical arrogance, he would more than likely misconstrue her presence on his doorstep as a ployto finagle a way back into his life. Her pride already sorely tested, Gillian prepared to have the door slammed in her face.
When it finally swung open, Bryce McFadden stood before her in just a pair of faded jeans. His heavy-lidded eyes snapped open in recognition. A flash of something tender streaked across those blue orbs before dark clouds shadowed them and the perfunctory greeting on his lips froze.
"O?" Gillian finished, hoping that was the intended salutation rather than a deliberate invective. "I hope I didn't wake you."
Seeing him stand at the door half-dressed with his hair bed-tousled and wearing a look of confusion on his unshaven face, she hoped it was just his sleep she'd interrupted and nothing more intimate.
Not that it mattered to her one way or the other. Still, her stomach rolled as all logic ceased. Dropping her gaze from the silver-blue eyes that were pinning her down, she trained her own on his bare chest, where a mass of curly blond hair dusted its smooth surface. It turned a darker shade just below the sternum before eventually disappearing under the band of his unbuttoned jeans. Heat infused her cheeks when she realized she'd been caught gawking.
Hooking a lazy thumb through a belt loop, Bryce leaned back against the door frame and proceeded to rake her from head to foot with an overtly masculine gaze, with which she was far too familiar. Gillian reminded herself that pure animal magnetism couldn't overshadow the fact that this was the singularly most infuriating creature God ever put on this earth. And that she could never forgive him for letting her down when she'd needed him most.
"May I come in?" she asked, feeling more like the Avon lady than someone with whom he'd once had a life-altering relationship.
As Bryce stepped aside to let her in, Gillian took in his home with a sweeping glance. A big-screen TV, roomy leather couch, matching recliner and exercise equipment saved the place from looking like an efficiency apartment, but the lack of decoration gave it a spartan feel nonetheless. Not a single painting or photograph graced the walls.
Idiot! Did you think he'd keep a photo of you enshrined in his bachelor pad just because you couldn't bring yourself to destroy your own pictures of him?
"Nice place," Gillian said, feigning a nonchalance that matched his own.
She noticed that he hadn't bothered with a Christmas tree this year; a cheerful holiday bouquet on the coffee table was the only acknowledgment that the holiday was only a week away. The arrangement seemed out of place in such masculine digs, but she had to admire his attempt to add color to the austere black-and-white decor that dominated the room. This luxury apartment was nothing like the quaint little Victorian they'd once shared. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought to forget the images of well-tended flower beds, hand-stenciled accents, antique furniture, a cozy little room decorated with teddy bear wallpaper and
She couldn't afford to let maudlin memories sidetrack her from the task at hand. Just breathing in and out was proving difficult enough without attempting to battle ghosts at the same time.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" he asked. Grateful for anything to keep her hands occupied, Gillian gave him a tight smile.
"That'd be nice."
Bryce helped her shrug off the heavy coat, which was more of a necessity in Cheyenne winters than any kind of fashion statement. The small act of courtesy seemed both familiar and unworldly. In spite of the snow falling outside the window, Gillian felt her temperature rise. Standing in this strange living room inhaling Bryce's familiar musky scent, she could easily recall why she'd loved this man once upon a time. When he left the room to get her coffee, she glanced at the bouquet again, admiring it, and noticed a card sticking out of the blooms. Although Bryce would be back in a minute, she couldn't resist sneaking a peek.
Yes, yes! A thousand times yes!
Who the hell was Vi?
Gillian's thoughts turned catty. Had she misread the name? Maybe it was the Roman numeral six and Bryce was into numbering his women now. Or was that hackneyed expression written in feminine scrawl an acceptance of a weekend getaway or something more permanent?
The possibility of Bryce actually asking someone to marry him caused the floor beneath Gillian's feet to undulate. Sternly telling herself that there was too much riding on this meeting to let her imagination get the best of her, she stuck the card back into its little plastic holder before he returned a moment later with two steaming cups of coffee. Her hands shook as she accepted one from him.
"It's instant," he apologized. "Not nearly as good as yours."
Gillian felt a stab of regret that lives once so rich had been reduced in a single word to the state of a lousy cup of caffeine.
Instant heartache. "Thanks," she said, taking both the proffered cup and a place on the couch.
She was relieved when Bryce chose a seat in a nearby recliner rather than the empty spot next to her. That way she could speak to him without the risk of physical contact.
Truth be told, it wasn't the current arcing between them that worried Gillian but the deep emotional response this man evoked in her. ThatVi's note had the power to send a hot spurt of jealousy coursing through Gillian's veins was disconcerting to say the least.
Taking a sip of coffee, Gillian realized he wasn't lyingit was truly awful. Suddenly she felt inexorably sad to think of him drinking such tepid stuff out of his chipped mug every morning in this sterile place. Especially knowing how much he once savored starting his day with her special brew.
In bed with her.
Setting her cup on the table, she watched Bryce rub the stubble on his jaw. She couldn't help remembering how rough it had felt between the palms of her hands. Not the type to carry on small talk while ignoring the elephant in the room, he looked at her expectantly.
"Why don't I save us both the agony of trying to make small talk?" she offered, searching frantically for the right words to do just that.
"That'd be nice," he drawled.
Bristling at the sarcasm in his voice and unable to think of any way to soft-pedal what she'd come here to say, Gillian simply blurted out the reason for her unannounced visit.
"Stella and Rose want to have Dad declared incompetent."
Launching a grenade in the room would have caused a less appalled reaction on Bryce's face. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and his eyes turned the color of polished gunmetal.
"What's that got to do with me?"
It wasn't exactly the first question Gillian was expecting from him, but it was nonetheless a fair one. Who could blame him for not wanting to be sucked into the drama that was her family all over again?
"By all rights this really isn't your problem," she consented, "but it's not by choice that I'm here."
"Has something happened that I should know about?"
Bryce had always been close to her father, and Gillian knew his concern was genuine. She struggled to explain the situation without somehow sounding as guilty as she felt. It hadn't been easy pulling her life back together the past two years, but just because her father lived clear across the state and she was keeping limitless hours at work didn't make her feel any better about neglecting the man who had raised her single-handedly after her mother had passed away.
"Stella says he's fallen a couple of times and has been spending money so frivolously and erratically that both of them think he might be suffering from early stages of A-Alzheimer's."
It was hard enough getting the word out of her mouth let alone wrapping her mind around all its awful implications.
Not having actually seen her father since the last holiday when he'd expressed his disappointment in her decision to leave Bryce, Gillian had to rely on her sisters' judgment of his current physical and mental state. And while she couldn't bring herself to believe that either one of them would commit their father to a nursing home just to gain access to his money, she was worried they might be overreacting. Unfortunately their threat to take the matter to court put the onus on her to do something before things got out of hand and irreparable damage was done to the entire family.
Nothing short of a full-blown emergency would have compelled Gillian to be here otherwise.