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Daniel Kane was going to be very, very glad when Christmas was over and done with for another year.
Gazing out the restaurant window at a spectacular view of rocky beach and Pacific Ocean, he sat sipping his coffee, digesting the damn good pan-roasted filet of halibut he'd just had for lunch and congratulating himself on getting through the permit process and pouring the first foundation in the new development of Craftsman-style homes Kane Construction was building here on the coast half an hour drive south of San Francisco.
He was also listening to Christmas carols. More annoying yet, they didn't sound like the Christmas carols the radio played when he was a kid and actually got excited about the season. These were rock versions of old standards, as well as new, not-so-catchy carols.
Hearing himself, he gave a grunt of amusement. He was thirty-eight years old, and thinking like a crotchety old man. Tune the music out, he told himself. Just because he wasn't a fan of the season was no reason to turn into Scrooge.
Losing his brother, though, mere weeks ago, did make it harder than usual to tolerate the excessive good spirits.
He swore under his breath. Damn it, he wouldn't let himself feel blue. Today was about a beginning, one he had every reason to be pleased about.
More than most of his subdivisions, this one was a major victory. After more delays than he wanted to count, he'd lost financial backing and had to tap into his own investments for Cabrillo Heights. He'd believed from the beginning that it would pay off, but it was a bigger relief than he wanted to admit to actually see the houses start to rise.
The timing had stunk for his money to be so tight. His brother, Adam, twenty years older than he was, had spent at least a month in rehab this fall, in between his second and third strokes. The bills had to have been horrendous. Adam's son, Joe, had somehow taken care of them, but how?
Guilt assailed Daniel. Damn it, I should have asked.
Well, it wasn't too late to make amends. Once this development started paying off, he'd find out from Joe how much in the hole he'd had to go.
The foundations for not just the first house, but the first three, had been poured today. He had come down to watch even though he didn't have to be here. In his mind, Daniel was attending the birth of a major project. He expected these cottage-size houses to sell as quickly as they went up. New trends were for smaller homes, fine craftsmanship and green-built standards, all embodied in Cabrillo Heights, perched atop a hill with sweeping views of the marina, breakwater and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
Despite the ever-present undercurrent of grief for his brother, today, he had decided, was for celebrating. He'd been told the Moss Beach Distillery, built originally in the 1920s as a speakeasy, was the place to go. The restaurant clung to a cliff above the ocean. The best seats were on the patio, but the breeze held enough winter chill he had chosen to stay inside.
Mood restored, he took one last swallow of coffee, signed the credit-card slip and stood to leave.
As he strode through the room on his way out, already thinking about his afternoon, he glanced out the window at the patio. For some reason his eye was caught by two women and a kid sitting at a table, blankets wrapped around their shoulders. The Distillery staff provided the blankets if a diner got chilly, the hostess had told him earlier when offering to seat him outside. Huddling under a blanket hadn't appealed to him.
He dismissed the curly-haired redhead and the kid immediately. But something about the other woman, with sleek, mink-brown hair, reminded him of a former lover. The tilt of her head as she listened to the boy was familiar; even more so was the way she lifted her heavy fall of hair to push it back over her shoulder.
He was right by the doorway to the patio. His feet had already stopped moving when she turned, laughing, and looked right at him.
Her laugh died and they stared at each other. Rebecca Ballard. It really was her. He felt shock and a glint of excitement.
They'd seen each other for quite a while a few years back. She'd gotten to him more than most women did. Or maybe he couldn't forget her because she'd walked away so readily. He was the one to cool the relationship, just to make sure she realized a meeting at the altar wasn't in the forecast, but instead of clinging or getting angry, she'd seemingly shrugged and vanished from his life.
Yeah, that had bugged him. Sure, he'd planned to end whatever they had going on so she didn't start having dreams he'd have to shatter. But it might have been nice if Rebecca had seemed regretful at parting ways.
Daniel had thought more than a few times about calling her. Her compassion and quick mind had intrigued him and made her good company. And physically, he'd never felt as if he could get enough of her.
But there was also a reason he'd put the brakes on their relationship, so Daniel had talked himself out of picking up the phone every time the impulse seized him. He was glad now he had, given the way she was staring at him as if he were the ghost that was reputed to inhabit the old speakeasy.
She said something to the other woman and stood, crossing the patio to him. In jeans, purple sneakers and a form-fitting tee, she was as slim and graceful as ever. A dancer when she was young, Rebecca had dreamed of a career in ballet until she grew too tall. The training had stuck, though. She looked like a ballerina, her carriage erect, every movement graceful, seeming to float instead of walk.
She studied him with wary eyes. "Daniel."
"Rebecca. I'm surprised to see you here."
"This isn't your territory, either."
"Now it is. I'm putting in a development in El Granada. The streets are in and we poured the first foundations today."
"Oh." She cast a glance over her shoulder, then said, "Are you arriving or leaving?"
An expression that might have been relief flickered over her face. She hadn't wanted to invite him to join her and her friend. "Why don't I walk you out?"
He raised his brows. "Fine."
They walked in silence until they were outside in the parking lot, surrounded by wind-shaped Monterey pines. The breeze carried the salty scent of the ocean. Ignoring a car backing out of a slot, she said, "How are you?"
How stilted could a conversation get? Why hadn't she just nodded in acknowledgment and turned back to her friend and the friend's kid?
"Business is booming."
"I'm glad to hear that." She paused. "I'm teaching these days."
"Really?" He vaguely recalled that she'd mentioned having a teaching certificate, but she had been with the Chamber of Commerce then, and had a real knack for marketing the city of San Rafael. She had a gift for reading people, knowing what they really wanted no matter what they said, and articulating those wants in the marketing materials. She knew when to talk, when to shut up. Maybe, he thought, those were gifts useful for a teacher, too.
Presumably anxious to get back to her friend, she stole another look over her shoulder. "Well, I won't keep you. I'm glad to have run into you, Daniel."
"I've thought about you," he admitted. "I almost called you a couple of times."
More like a dozen times, but he wasn't about to tell her that.
Her eyes widened. "That's flattering, but I don't think—"
"I'm getting real hungry," a young voice said from behind her. "When are you coming back?"
Eyebrows raised, Daniel looked past her to the young boy standing in the doorway, the other woman just behind him, flustered enough to make it obvious she'd had to hustle to catch up. What had she been doing—staring at the ocean while her son was making a getaway?
The boy gazed at him with blatant curiosity, ignoring the redheaded woman who'd captured his hand. His hair was a deep auburn close in color to Daniel's.
Rebecca had spun to face the kid, the flash of her eyes seeming alarmed. "I'll be back in in a minute, honey. Why don't you go sit down? You two can order, if you want."
The other woman was tugging the boy back toward the door. "We'll do that. Fish and chips for you? No rush."
The boy, maybe four or five years old, smiled beguilingly at Rebecca. He seemed to know her well. "Okay. But hurry. 'Cuz we're hungry. Aren't we, Aunt Nomi?"
Aunt? He'd assumed the woman was the boy's mother.
"We'll survive for a few minutes while—" she gave a little cough "—Rebecca talks to her friend." She steered him back inside, mouthing, "I'm sorry" over her shoulder.
Not until the boy and Rebecca's friend disappeared inside did Daniel look back at her. "You were saying you didn't think…?"
She stared at him so blankly, he could tell she didn't remember what they'd been talking about. "Think?"
Her face was dominated by her beautiful eyes, a warm brown flecked with yellow that seemed to brighten to gold when she was happy or excited. Her eyes had danced with gold when they made love. They were not dancing today.
His jaw muscles tightened. "Never mind. It was an idle thought, that's all."
"I… it really was good to see you, Daniel."
She was aching to get away from him, he could tell, stealing longing looks at the restaurant door. She might be cold. She was hugging herself. Or, hell, perhaps he was a walk down memory lane she'd rather not take.
"Glad things are going well for you." He nodded. "Maybe we'll run into each other again."
She gave him a tremulous smile. Were those tears shimmering in her eyes? But she said only, "Goodbye, Daniel," and hurried back into the restaurant.
He watched as the door swung closed behind her. At last he made himself walk to his pickup, get in and put the key in the ignition. Then he sat there, fighting the desire to follow her in and say, "I missed you. Please have dinner with me."
She had made her uninterest plain. More than that— she hadn't been happy to see him, whatever she had said to the contrary.
Live with it.
At last he made himself start the engine, back out and drive away.
Rebecca clung to the back of her upholstered chair as if she'd be swept away should she let go. "Oh, God, Naomi," she pleaded. "What am I going to do?"
Her friend gazed at her in bemusement. "Why are you still in a panic? You dodged the bullet today. He must have thought Malcolm was mine. Why would it occur to him to wonder otherwise?"
"Gee, because Malcolm's the spitting image of Daniel at that age? I saw the photo album his mother put together. I can't believe he didn't know the minute he saw Mal!"
Her friend came around the chair and gave her a hug.
"We see what we expect to see. The guy wasn't interested in some kid who happened to be around. Now, if I hadn't been there…"
"Yeah, that could have been bad," Naomi agreed. "But it didn't happen. And what are the odds you'll run into him again?"
Despite her near hysteria, she remained conscious that she had to keep her voice low. Malcolm was in his bedroom just down the hall.
"With him in the area half the week?"
"So don't eat out." Naomi was ever-practical. "Daniel won't be visiting the elementary school, or the preschool. In fact, why would he come to Half Moon Bay at all?"
"To check out the restaurants or the golf courses? Talk to real estate agents?"
"Stay close to home…"
"Naomi, he talked about calling me. He said he's thought about it a few times. I think he would have asked me out today if Malcolm hadn't interrupted."
Her friend stared at her. "What do you mean, would have? You stayed out there with him after we went in!"
"He… dropped it. He could probably tell I was horrified at the idea, even though he didn't know why. But what if he does decide to call? Now that he knows I live around here, all he has to do is phone information."
"Change your number to unlisted."
"It's in phone books!"
"Say no if he calls."
"But he could show up…" She closed her eyes, combating the swell of fear. "I should move. Just pack up. Today! No, I should have left the state in the first place. Why didn't I move to Arkansas or Maine?" she moaned. "Why did I stay so close to San Francisco?"
"Why did you?" her friend asked.
"Because it's home." Stupid, stupid. "It feels so remote here, so small town. He's never done any building in San Mateo County. He liked Sausolito, the East Bay. And what were the odds if he did happen to drive down here to play golf or something that we'd run into him?"
Plus, it hadn't occurred to her, even after Malcolm was born with his father's coloring, that he would end up looking so much like Daniel. She'd been increasingly worried as Mal grew into a toddler and the resemblance became more obvious.
The awful thing was, she couldn't wish for a single thing about her son to be any different than it was.
She took a deep breath. Of course she couldn't throw everything in the car and flee. She had a job, a classroom of kids expecting her to show up Monday morning. Without a recommendation from the Cabrillo Unified School District, she'd never work as a teacher again.
And, darn it, she'd made a good life for herself and her son right here. They had friends, a home. Naomi was right. I'm overreacting.
Daniel had seen Malcolm and not suspected. She wasn't likely to encounter him again by chance; with a four-year-old, she ate at McDonald's more often than she did an upscale place like the Moss Beach Distillery. She hung out at playgrounds.
Rebecca couldn't imagine Daniel Kane running to make a merry-go-round twirl. And fast food was definitely not his style.
She let out a long breath. "Okay. I'm over it. You're right. I did dodge the bullet. The worst has happened, and I got lucky."
"I'm not even sure it was luck," Naomi said. "I meant it. People see what they expect to see. That's all he did. Although if Mal had said Mommy…"
Another whimper escaped Rebecca.
Naomi scrunched up her face in apology. " I almost said 'your mother.' Did you notice?"
"Are you kidding? I thought my knees were going to give out!"
Her friend was the first to giggle. She clapped a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry! It's just… You should have seen your expression!"