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Clutching one of the delicate centerpieces from her brother's wedding reception, Deidre Kavanaugh walked out of the near-empty ballroom alone. She was beyond grateful to have witnessed Liam's happiness at marrying the love of his lifeNatalie Reyestonight. Now that family and friends were gone, however, and the romance and gaiety of the wedding was over, she couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to be flying solo. Again.
She didn't have to be alone, of course. Staying at Cedar Cottage instead of at her sister Colleen's had been Deidre's choice. She was used to her solitary ways at this point in her life, and old habits died hard.
Of course, her mother, Brigit, had invited Deidre to stay at the family home on Sycamore Avenue. Deidre had politely refused and then tried to harden her heart when she saw her mother's hurt, sad expression. Her refusal couldn't have been too surprising, considering that Deidre held such anger toward her mother for keeping the identity of her biological father a secret for so many years. Deidre had only learned Lincoln DuBois was her natural father late last summer. If it hadn't been for Liam and his Natalie's investigation into their past, Brigit would have taken the secret to the grave with her.
A million stars sparkled against the backdrop of an ebony night sky when she walked out of the Starling Hotel. Liam and Natalie had chosen a windless, frigid night to celebrate their marriage. She took a deep breath when she walked out onto the steps, but it didn't help much to revive her. The last three months of her life had been stressful lifealtering. She'd learned the identity of her biological father and then lost him to cancer within months of gaining that knowledge.
Deidre was exhausted, body and soul.
She paused on the steps, inspecting the little town by starlight. It seemed surreal to be back in Harbor Town. The quaint little community had once been the site of so much childhood innocence and bliss. It'd also been the place where she'd made the horrific discovery she wasn't really Derry Kavanaugh's daughter. Derry had had that truth confirmed on the same night. His consequent ragged emotional state was what had led to a traumatic car crash in which Derry had been killed along with three others. Deidre had left Harbor Town the summer before college and never returneduntil last night.
She was in the process of searching for her rental car keys in her evening bag, clutching at the floral centerpiece the whole time, when a man called out to her. She came to an abrupt halt in the parking lot, her breath sticking in her lungs. She recognized that clipped, authoritative voice.
Nick Malone. Hearing it so unexpectedly here in Harbor Town set her immediately on edge. For some reason, one of the first things Nick had ever said to her when she told him about her discovery that she was Lincoln DuBois's biological daughter popped into her brain at that moment.
You must have thought you woke up one day and won the lottery.
She spun around. His shadow looked large and imposing against the backdrop of the night sky.
"What are you doing here?" she asked Nick breathlessly.
"We have important things to discuss. I would think that's obvious, following Lincoln's death."
His face was difficult to make out in the dim light, but what Deidre couldn't see, she filled in from memorythe rugged, bold features, the cool, suspicious gaze that always seemed to be detailing her flaws.
"I can't believe you came here."
"I can't believe you thought for a second I wouldn't find you, wherever you went," he replied dryly. "You knew the reading of Lincoln's will took place yesterday at The Pines," he continued, referring to Lincoln's palatial lodge on the edge of Lake Tahoe.
Deidre shifted in her high heels anxiously. "My brother's wedding was tonight. But you must already know or you wouldn't have shown up here. I guess you've been giving more work to that private investigator you hired to snoop into my personal life."
Her gaze dropped to his coat-draped, broad shoulders when he shrugged. "Nothing so melodramatic. Your sister Colleen told me about the wedding after Linc's funeral. It didn't take a detective to figure out you were probably here. As to your personal life, that pretty much became my business the day you told me about your claim to be Lincoln Du-Bois's daughter."
She tamped down her flare of temper at his arrogant presumption. "Lincoln was my father. I just wanted to know him. I've told you from day one I don't care about Lincoln's money or your precious company," she said, referring to her biological father's multibillion-dollar conglomerate, DuBois Enterprises, where Nick acted as chief executive officer. Nick not only ran Lincoln's company: he was Lincoln's protege and like a surrogate son to her newfound father. As such, he seemed to think it was his business to question her every move and treat her like a conniving gold digger. It seemed an utter impossibility to convince him that she had no designs whatsoever on Lincoln's wealth. She gave an exasperated sigh when he stubbornly remained silent. "Why should you care where I go? What difference does it make what I do, now that Lincoln has passed away?"
"It makes a difference. Look, why don't we go and find a place to have a cup of coffee and talk?"
"There's really nothing left for us to talk about. Besides, didn't you interrogate me enough at The Pines?" she said. Deidre had lived there, nursing her newly found father until he'd finally succumbed to a brain tumor last week.
"Interrogate? You hardly ever stuck around long enough for me to ask a question, let alone interrogate you. You avoided me like the plague whenever we were both at The Pines. If you would just consider the matter rationally for a moment, you'd see the importance of me understanding your motives of knowing you better. Lincoln entrusted me with his company. It's my job to protect his interests."
Deidre glanced away guiltily. She had avoided Nick a lot, but she told herself she'd done so because she didn't care for Nick's patronizing manner. In truth, her avoidance might have had something to do with her reaction to him as a man. Nick Malone was the last man on the planet she should find attractive.
She shivered, whether it was from anger or anxiety over Nick's unexpected presence, she couldn't say. "I'm not interested in Lincoln's estate or DuBois Enterprises. I wanted to know him as best I could, given the short time we had. Why is that so hard for you to comprehend?"
His head went back, his indrawn breath hissing against his teeth. She sensed his profound frustration, but given how bewildering his presence here was, she had a hard time feeling sorry for him. Wasn't her life complicated enough without Nick? She shivered again.
"It's freezing out here, and there's something important I need to tell you," he muttered. He reached out and cupped her elbow. "Will you at least sit in my car so I can turn on the heat?"
Those sharp eyes of his didn't miss much, she recalled. Something in his tense, strained manner sent a distant alarm going off in her head.
"Is it really that important?"
"More important than you know."
"All right," she said cautiously after a moment. She took a step, breaking their contact. His touch unsettled her. He waved to the left and tilted his head.
She followed him into the next row of cars. He hit the remote lock with his thumb and a dark sedan's headlights blinked. Deidre sat when he opened the door for her, placing the floral arrangement on the floor next to her feet. She said nothing when he got in the car and turned on the ignition, but she was highly aware of him. The dim dash lights made it possible for her to make a covert study of him. Nick was the type of man who dominated a room once he entered it. Inside a car, his presence crowded rational thought completely out of her mind.
He wore a suit and an attractive black cashmere dress coat, making her wonder if he'd been prepared to enter Li-am's wedding reception to find her. Deidre had immediately understood upon being introduced to Nick that while he may possess a handsome face and the fit, lean body of an athlete and horseman, he wasn't about looks. He was about power.
The walking embodiment of an alpha-male tycoon, Nick conquered the business world just like cowboys had vanquished the intimidating, rugged landscapes of the American West.
She wouldn't let him conquer her with the same heavy-handed tactics.
He gripped the steering wheel with gloved hands. She tensed, waiting for his attack.
"You're pale," he muttered. "Have you been sick?"
Deidre's jaw dropped open. She looked at him in amazement, but he kept his face turned in profile. His gruff solicitation was the last thing she'd expected.
"You can tell I'm pale by examining me in a dark parking lot?" she asked, saying the first thing that came to mind to cover her embarrassment.
"I saw you at the reception, dancing with that man."
"You actually came into the ballroom?"
"I just stood in the door, looking for you." He ignored De-idre's exasperated sigh. "Who was he?"
She did a double take. "Who was who?"
"The man you were dancing with."
Deidre blinked. She'd forgotten Nick wasn't at The Pines last autumn when her brother Marc had visited to offer her support.
"It was my brother Marc. Can you please get on with whatever is so important?"
"You can't just run away from all this, Deidre. It's naive of you, or stubborn, or both to think you can say you're Lincoln DuBois's daughter and not expect any ramifications to that claim. Why won't you agree to the genetic testing, at the very least?"
Nervousness fluttered in her stomach. She'd been expecting him to broach this topic. Just the term genetic testing had taken on an electrical charge in the past few months. Unbeknownst to Nick, she'd already had the testing done. She'd refused to comply when Nick and DuBois Enterprises's chief legal officer, John Kellerman, insisted upon it. Mostly she'd ignored their demands because they'd made them in such a condescending, suspicious manner. Her body wasn't the property of DuBois Enterprises, and as far as she was concerned, its representatives had no right to make demands upon it. When Lincoln had requested the same thing, however, she'd immediately agreed.
But he'd died before they'd received the results.
What if she wasn't Lincoln's daughter? Deidre wondered for the thousandth time. The thought caused a familiar raw ache to expand in her belly. It frightened her a little, to consider how much hope she'd invested in being Lincoln's natural child. If she wasn't Lincoln's, she'd be right back where she'd been for most of her entire adult life.
An outsider. Anchorless. Different. Fatherless.
"Deidre?" Nick prompted quietly. She blinked. Had he noticed her anxiety? She took a deep breath.
"I've already had the genetic testing done at a place called GenLabs in Carson City."
"You did?" he asked intently.
"About three weeks ago. Lincoln asked me to have it done, but he died before we got the results," she said, her hushed voice quaking. From the periphery of her vision she saw his hand came off his thigh jerkily, but then he replaced it. A strained silence followed. For a split second, she'd thought he meant to touch her to comfort, before logic had set in.
Her heart thrummed louder in her ears as she stared fixedly out the front window.
"And?" he asked in a subdued tone.
"They told me at the lab that the results would take up to seven weeks. We should have the results before Christmas. They agreed to call me and tell me the final result before they send out the report."
She turned when he exhaled raggedly. He looked tense.
"What's wrong? Aren't you glad that I've had the testing? It's what you and John Kellerman and everybody at DuBois wanted all along."
"Of course I'm glad. Now there's nothing to do but get to know one another better. And wait."
"Why should the results matter so much to you? I won't make any claims on Lincoln's assets one way or another."
He laughed softly mirthlessly. He had dimples. It had struck her as amazing the first time she'd met him to see those two indentations in such a formidable face. She recalled how once she'd seen some graffiti painted on a craggy rock face of the mountains several miles outside of the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistana smiley face grinning innocuously from a war zone.
She had a similar reaction to Nick's dimples.
"You make it sound so simple," he murmured.
"It is simple."
"It never was simple, and it just got exponentially more complicated."
"What are you talking about?" she asked slowly.
"I came to Harbor Town to tell you that Lincoln had a new will drawn up. He's left you half of the wealth and property he didn't leave to charity. He's also left you a fifty percent controlling interest in DuBois Enterprises."
"What?" she asked numbly.
"You're an heiress, Deidre. The way things stand right now, you're one of the wealthiest women in the country."
She might have heard the flutter of a butterfly's wings in the ensuing silence. She inhaled slowly, trying to ground herself. This could not be happening.
And yet what was that strange, warm, wonderful feeling growing deep down in her belly?
He made me his heiress. Lincoln truly did believe I was his daughter. His faith was his proof. Lincoln hadn't required the scientific variety.
Something shivered through her. It took Deidre a moment to recognize the feeling as pure joy.