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The letter arrived out of the blue.
"I don't know what it is, my lord." Mrs. Upham sniffed, then dangled the smudged and tattered pale-blue envelope from between two fingers with clear disapproval. "It's very dirty."
She had put the rest of the post on Flynn's desk in neat sorted stacks as she always did. Estate businessthe biggest stack. Fan mail and book businessthe midsize stack. Personal letters from his mother or brotherneither of whom seemed to believe in phones or e-mailin the third.
All very tidy and organizedas if she could do the same to Flynn's life.
Good luck, he thought.
As his life currently consisted of Dunmorey, a dank and crumbling five-hundred-odd-year-old castle full of portraits of disapproving ancestors who looked down their noses at Flynn's efforts to literally keep a roof over their heads, its attendant farms, lands and tenants, as well as his horse-mad brother, Dev, who had great plans for reviving the Dunmorey stud but no money to accomplish it, and his mother, whose mantra since his father's death seven months ago had been, "We need to find you a bride," Flynn didn't think Mrs. Upham was likely to find any joy in it at all.
The only joy he could give her would be to tell her to throw it out.
His father certainly would have.
The late eighth earl of Dunmorey had no patience for anything that wasn't proper and traditional. He had once thrown out a letter Flynn had scrawled on a piece of a paper bag from a war zone where he'd been working on a story.
"If you can't be bothered to write a proper letter, I can't be bothered to read it," his father had informed him later.
It would have been nice if the late earlhad stopped saying things like that since he was dead. But the fact was, Flynn spent most days trying to deal with all of Dunmorey's demands while inside his head he heard the virtually unceasing drone of the dead eighth earl saying, "I knew you couldn't do it."
Save the castle, he meant. Be a good earl, he meant. Be dutiful and responsible and Measure Up, he meant.
If you can.
The implication had always been that Flynn couldn't. "My lord?" Mrs. Upham persisted.
His jaw tight, Flynn glanced up. He needed to run these figures again, to see if somehowthis timethere was enough to put the new roof on and still get the stables in order by the time Dev brought his new stallion home from Dubai.
There wouldn't be.
He had more chance of hitting the New York Times bestseller list with his new book coming out in the States next month. At least he had a talent for hard-hitting interviews, for insightful stories, for the written word.
It was what he'd donewhat he'd been good atbefore the earldom had changed his life.
But he was not going to give up on Dunmorey, even though the battle to keep the grim old Irish castle from crumbling to bits under his watch was fierce. It was his obligation, not his joy. And frankly, as a younger son, he had never expected to have to do it.
But like everything else in his life these days, he'd inherited while he was making other plans.
His late father would have said it served him right.
And maybe it did.
It wasn't what he would have chosen, but by God, he was determined to show the old mandead though he wasthat he could do it right.
"Everything you need to deal with is here, my lord," Mrs. Upham said. "I'll just throw this nasty old thing out, then, shall I?"
Flynn grunted and started again at the top of the column.
"May I bring you a cup of tea, my lord? Your father always liked a cup of tea with his post."
Flynn ground his teeth. "No, thank you, Mrs. Upham. I'm fine on my own."
He had learned rather quickly that while in Mrs. Upham's eyes, he would never be his fatherand thank God for that, Flynn thoughthe did have his own version of the Voice of Authority.
Whenever he used it, Mrs. Upham got the point.
"Very good, my lord." She nodded and backed out of the room. He might as well have been the king of England.
He did the figures again. But they still didn't give him the total he wanted. He sighed and slumped back in his chair, rubbed his eyes and flexed his shoulders. He had an appointment with a contractor at the stables in an hour to see what else needed to be done before Dev brought the stallion home in a fortnight.
As the horse was a proven winner and thus a money-making proposition, the stables were an absolute priority. Stud fees and book royalties didn't seem like enough to keep Dunmorey afloat.
The castle had been in the family for more than three hundred years. It had seen better times, and, hard though it was to believe, it had seen worse times as well. To Flynn it was the physical embodiment of the family motto: Eireoidh Linn, which he knew from his Irish schooldays meant, roughly, We Will Succeed Despite Adversity.
His father had always told English-speaking guests it meant, We Will Survive!
So far they had; though since the castle was no longer entailed, it could be sold.
They hadn't had to sell it yet. And Flynn was damned if he was going to be the one to lose the fight.
But the post brought more renovation estimates that were depressingly large, and bills that were equally so. They'd borrowed against the castle to get the money to get the stud up and running. When it was, things would be better. If his book did well, they would certainly improve. In the meantime
Flynn shoved back his chair and got up to prowl the room, cracking his knuckles. It was on his return to the desk that his eyes were drawn to the spot of blue paper in the bottom of the bin.
It was every bit as dirty and crumpled and unappetizing as Mrs. Upham had said. And yet it intrigued him.
It wasn't another bill or another set of estimates. It wasn't a circular about a farm auction or an invitation to Lord and Lady So-and-So's house party. It wasn't stuffy. It wasn't embossed.
And it was, he could see, addressed half a dozen times over, to him. A call from his old life.
"Junk," his father would have said, dismissing it.
But he had never been his father, as they all well knew.
Flynn reached down and fished it out. The original address had been sent to him in care of Incite magazine in New York City.
His brows lifted at that. Once upon a time he'd done entertainment personality pieces and feature articles for them. But he hadn't written articles for Incite in years. Not since he'd covered what had been dubbed "The Great Montana Cowboy Auction" in tiny Elmer, Montana, six years before.
His father had always called those articles "fluff" and said it was a pity Flynn hadn't been good enough to write real news about something that mattered.
In fact, he had been. And the succession of addresses crossed out on the envelope were pretty much a record of where he had proved exactly that: Africa, the East Indies, west central Asia, South America, the Middle East.
One hot spot after another, each one hotter than the last.
Now he stared at the envelope, caught up in a flickering cascade of memoriesof excitement, of challenge, of life.
He studied again the firm but neat feminine handwriting beneath the others. He didn't recognize it. He was amazed that the letter had caught up with him at all. It must have been a labor of love or sheer stubborn perseverance on the part of the world's post offices. The single U.S. domestic postage stamp had first been canceled in November five years before.
Five years ago last November Flynn had been in the middle of a South American jungle, writing a "real news story" on twenty-first-century intertribal warfareby experiencing it firsthand.
"You sure you want to do this?" His editor in London had been skeptical when Flynn had announced he was going. "You've already been shot once this year. This time you could get yourself killed."
That had been the general idea at the time.
His older brother, Will"the heir," his father had always called himhad died just months before. And depending how you looked at itcertainly if you looked at it the way the earl didWill's death had been Flynn's fault.
"He was going to the airport to meet you!" the earl had railed, feeling only his own pain, never even acknowledging Flynn's. "You're the one who had to come home to recover! You're the one who got shot!"
But not the one who'd died.
That had been Willsteady, sensible, responsible Will who had stopped on the way to the airport to help a motorist change a flat tire and got hit by a passing car.
In a matter of an instant, the world changedWill was gone and Flynn had become "the heir" in his place.
It was hard to say who was more dismayedFlynn or his father.
Certainly when he'd recovered from his gunshot wound received pursuing one of those "real news stories that mattered"the one he'd come home to recuperate from when Will had been killedno one, least of all his father, had objected when he'd left for the intertribal warfare in South America.
No one had objected when he'd pursued increasingly dangerous assignments after that.
But no matter how dangerous they were, no matter that he got shot again, more than once, Flynn hadn't died. He'd still been the heir when his father had dropped over from a heart attack last July.
Now he was the earl. He wasn't traveling the world anymore. He was stuck at Dunmorey Castle.
And a five-year-old letter that had chased him around the world and finally tracked him down seemed far less demanding and much more appealingthan thinking about any of that.
Flynn slit it open. Inside was a single sheet of plain white paper. He took it out and unfolded it. The letter was brief.
Flynn. This is the third letter I've written you. Don't worry, I won't be writing any more. I don't expect anything from you. I want nothing. I just thought you had a right to know.
The baby was born this morning just after eight. He was seven pounds eleven ounces. Strong and healthy. I'm naming him after my father. Of course I'm keeping him. Sara.
Flynn stared at the words, tried to understand them, put them in a context where they would make sense.
Expect nothing right to know baby.
The paper trembled in his fingers. His heart kicked over in his chest. He started againthis time with the signature: Sara.
An image of intense brown eyes, flawless ivory skin and short-cropped dark hair flickered through his mind. A vision of smooth golden skin and the taste of lips that spoke of cinnamon and spice teased his thoughts.
Dazzling delightful Sara from Montana.
He stared at the letter as its meaning became clear. Sara had been pregnant. Sara had had a baby.
It was Valentine's Day.
Sara knew this because last night she had helped her five-year-old son, Liam, print his name laboriously on twenty-one Valentine cards complete with cartoon-art mutant creatures saying, "Be Mine" and "I'm 4 U."
She knew it because together they had covered a shoe box with white paper and red hearts to be his own "mailbox" at kindergarten and because she had baked cupcakeschocolate ones with chocolate frosting and red and white candy hearts on themas right before he went to bed Liam remembered he had volunteered to bring the cupcakes for the class party today.
And she knew becausefor the first time since Liam was bornshe actually had a date.
Adam Benally had asked her to dinner. He was the foreman out at Lyle Dunlop's place. He had come to the valley a few months ago from Arizona. A widower with a past he didn't often talk about, he was at least candid about "trying to outrun his demons." He'd brought the ranch accounting work in for Sara, and that was how they'd got to know each other.
No stranger to demons herself, Sara thought she and Adam might have a lot in common. He at least was getting past his demons. It was about time she got past hers.
"You can't be a recluse forever," her mother, Polly, had told her more than once. "Just because you had one bad experience "
Sara let her mother talk because that's what Polly did. A lot. And her mother was probably right about the recluse part. It was the "bad experience" part that was the sticking point.
It hadn't been bad. At least not while it was going on. While it was going on it had been the most amazing three days of her life. And then
That was the bad part. That was the part that made her gut clench every time she thought about it. The part that spooked her, that made her hesitant to ever open up to another man, to ever try again.
But finally she'd said yes. She'd made up her mind to try again with Adam. A dinner date. A first step.
"About time," Polly had said when Sara told her the plan. "I'm glad. You need to banish some ghosts."
No. Just one.
One Sara saw in miniatureright down to the tousled black hair and jade-green eyesevery time she looked at her son.
She shoved the thought away ruthlessly. Now was not the time to be thinking about that. About him.
Liam might be a reminder, but his father was past. Ordinarily she went whole days without thinking of him at all. It was just todaybecause it was Valentine's Day, because she'd accepted Adam's invitation, determined to kill two memories with one night outthat he kept plaguing her thoughts.
"Don't," she told herself out loud. The past was over. She'd rehashed it often to kill it from over scrutiny. It had done no good. Now she needed to concentrate on the futureon Adam.
What would Adam expect? She paced the kitchen, made tea, thought about what to wear, how to be charming and make conversation. Dating was like speaking a foreign language she had no practice in. It was something she'd done very little of before
No! Damn it. There she went again!
Determinedly she carried her mug of tea to the table and laid out files so she could work. If she could get the hardware store accounts finished before Liam got home from school, then she could take a break, maybe go out and build a snowman with him, have a snowball fight. Do something to distract herself.
Liam was going to spend the night at her aunt Celie's who lived up the street with her husband, Jace, and their kids.
"Why all night?" she'd demanded when Celie had offered.
"We're only going to dinner. I'm not spending the night with him!"
"Well, you might want to invite him in after," Celie said innocently. "For a cup of coffee," she added with a smile. It wasn't what she meant.
Sara knew it as well as she knew that she wasn't up for anything beyond dinner. Not now. Not yet.
How on earth could she have let six years go by without a single date?
Well, really, she rationalized, when had she had time? She'd spent the first three years after Liam's birth finishing a degree in accounting, then setting up in business. Between her son and her schooling and the jobs she'd taken to make ends meet, she'd had no time to meet eligible men.
Not that she'd wanted to.
Once burned, twice shy and all that. And while she supposed there was wisdom in the notion of getting right back on a horse once you'd been thrown, there was also wisdom in being a damn sight more cautious the second time around.
She'd been too reckless the first time. This time she was taking it slow and easy and that meant dinner, perhaps a quick peck on the lips. Yes, she could do that.
But first she had to get to work. One of the pluses of her job as an independent certified public accountant was that she could set her own hours and work from home. That made it easier to be home when Liam was. The downside, of course, was that it was easy to get distractedlike today. There was no boss to crack the whip, to make demands. It was more tempting to think about checking her closet to see what she wanted to wear or to put in a load of laundry, make a cup of tea and talk to Sid the cat when she really needed to focus on work.
So she started again, made herself settle down at the kitchen table, which was also her desk, and spread out the accounts from the hardware store. Adding columns of figures required that she pay close attention and didn't allow her mind to wander, to anticipate, to worry.
A sudden loud knock on the front door made her jump. She slopped tea all over her ledger sheet. "Damn!"
She went to the sink and grabbed the dishrag, mopping up the spill, cursing the delivery man, who was the only one who ever came to the front door. He left her office supplies when she ordered them. But she didn't remember
Bang, bang, bang!