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Gina Rigoletti's heart pounded as she followed the sounds of deep male laughter and happy baby squeals to a child's playroom in the Barnes mansion. She'd been here before… years ago. Back then, this room had been a sitting area attached to Logan Barnes's bedroom. Fate had brought her here again.
On the threshold of the playroom, she shut down the memories before they paralyzed her altogether to focus on Logan Barnes. He was sitting on the floor in front of an easy chair. With ease, he lifted his fourteen-month-old son high in the air. Little Daniel giggled and his dad laughed again.
The love between father and son was palpable as Gina took a step toward them, swallowing her anxiety. She called softly, "Logan?"
The tall, muscled, tawny-haired Texan stilled. Then he got to his feet and slowly turned—his son in his arms—and faced her.
"I should have called you after your pediatrician set up this appointment with me for Daniel. But I knew the conversation would be awkward. And Tessa gave you my name so if you'd wanted to cancel—"
"I did my homework on you after Dr. Rossi made the appointment," he cut in, stopping her.
Though he had been relaxed before she'd entered, now his shoulders were straight, his stance taut and determined as he went on, "You're the only expert near Sagebrush with your credentials—an M.A. in pediatric physical therapy and a Ph.D. in infant and toddler development. When did you move back here and open the Baby Grows practice?"
Yes, he had done his homework. She should have expected that.
She moved into the playroom, settling her bag of evaluation materials on the round coffee table, then nervously pushed her tangle of curly black hair behind one ear. "I returned to Sagebrush about six months ago."
When she'd learned the Family Tree Health Center in Lubbock—fifteen minutes from Sagebrush—was looking for a baby development practitioner, she'd impulsively submitted her résumé. It was the first impulsive decision she'd made in a very long time.
In the palpating silence, her heart beat hard and fast, and words seemed to jam in her throat. She had to act perfectly normal. She had to act as if years and distance and memories didn't make any difference.
"I'm living in the Victorian where Tessa used to live," she added, "sharing it with another doctor from Family Tree."
Logan's son, Daniel, was staring at her, just like his dad. Now the little boy tilted his head, laid it on Logan's shoulder and gave her a smile.
She'd take whatever she could get. "And you must be Daniel."
The toddler straightened again and babbled a combination of "Da da" and "Dan Dan" with a few other syllables thrown in. His hair was sandy-brown like his dad's, his eyes the same shade of green. He was adorable in his cargo pants and red T-shirt, much more casual than his father who was still wearing a white shirt and dress slacks.
"Do you do all your clients' evals?" Logan asked, patting his son's back. "You couldn't have sent someone else?"
"I do the evaluations. I have therapists who work with the children, but they follow my plan."
Although Logan had been confident and assured from the day she'd met him in the estate's barn when she was eighteen, now he seemed to be debating with himself.
Suddenly Daniel leaned forward as if to take a better look at her. She raised her hands automatically as she would with any child, and he practically jumped into her arms.
"Hello, there!" she said with a laugh, comfortably clasping him securely. After all, she was used to being around babies.
"You have him?" Logan looked worried, hovering close, his arms practically around her and his son.
Oh, how she remembered the strength of those arms. Oh, how she remembered Logan's six-foot-two height, his protective consideration that had made her feel like a princess. So near to him again, she could feel his body heat, could feel her own rise.
It had always been that way between them.
Daniel put his tiny hands on her cheeks, one on each side of her face, and looked into her eyes.
She was fascinated by this little boy who, if his records were correct, hadn't learned to walk yet at fourteen months. He'd been a preemie and she didn't know the whole story behind that.
Logan seemed to decide she was capable of holding Daniel and stepped away. He pointed to the flannel bag on the coffee table. "A bag of tricks instead of a briefcase?" he asked.
At one time, Logan's green eyes would have twinkled and there would have been a smile at the corners of his mouth. But now he was making conversation, trying to figure out what was going to come next.
"It's more interesting than a briefcase, don't you think?"
The blue flannel bag almost looked like something Santa Claus would carry, only it was the wrong color.
The housekeeper, who had introduced herself as Mrs. Mahoney, peeked in the door. In her late forties, she wore her brown hair in a gamine cut. After a smile at Gina, she asked Logan, "Is there anything you need?"
"No, Hannah." He glanced at Gina. "You two have met?"
"We introduced ourselves when I came in," Gina assured him.
Mrs. Mahoney made her way into the room and ruffled Daniel's hair. "I forgot to tell you Daniel had his supper early so he should be in a good mood until he starts getting sleepy. Logan, you have leftovers in the oven. I'll be watching TV if you need me."
Mrs. Mahoney bent and gave Daniel a kiss on the forehead. "I'll see you at bedtime, big boy." Then with a wave to them all, she headed out the door toward her quarters.
The silence of the big house surrounded the three of them.
The three of them.
Gina tightened her hold around the warm cuddly weight in her arms. This toddler could have been her life. This child could have been hers. If only she'd turned around and come home. If only she hadn't gone to that frat party and had her life changed forever.
Too late. Too late. Too late.
The window of opportunity with Logan had passed. Even if it hadn't, she wasn't the same woman now that she'd been then. Nothing had ever been the same after her freshman year at college. She'd had to rebuild her world…alone.
Gina shifted Daniel to get a better idea of his weight and balance. When she tickled his tummy, he giggled.
"Maybe we'd better get started." Logan's voice was low and husky.
Her gaze met his and what she saw there shocked her as much as what she didn't see. His eyes used to be expressive—caring, amused, warm, simmering to share what had begun with one chaste kiss. Now they were turbulent, and she couldn't hold eye contact. That one look had made her feel such guilt. How could he do that without saying a word?
Fortunately Daniel was getting restless, rocking back and forth in her arms, and she could focus on him. "Where does Daniel spend most of his playtime?"
"Good. I want to evaluate him with his own things around him."
Daniel wriggled more vigorously and Logan reached for him. "Do you want me to take him?"
Her pulse sped up with Logan so close. She noticed the way his cheeks had gotten leaner over the years, though his shoulders had grown more muscled. His waist was still tapered, and she recalled exactly how taut those stomach muscles had been.
Apparently Daniel thought his dad was going to pull him away from her. The baby slid his fingers into her curls and held on tight.
For years Gina had straightened her curls into more manageable waves. But over the past few months, she'd decided to let it curl naturally again. Now her concern was more for Daniel and his desire to hold on to her than her hair. "It's okay, little one. I'm not going anywhere. We're going to play for a bit."
Instead of scolding his son, Logan settled his hands over Daniel's and loosened the boy's fingers. When his tall, hard body leaned into her, Gina was overwhelmed with emotion—and memories. Logan's fingers in her hair reminded her of the time he'd stroked her curls as they lay on the sofa in the poolhouse.
"God gave you too many curls to count so they'd drive me crazy."
"Silky and soft and I want to touch every one of them."
Now, however, Logan just tickled his son, letting his laughter spill around them. Then he lifted Daniel from Gina, high into the air, causing the little boy to give a cry of joy.
Watching them together, Gina's heart hurt and her arms felt so empty. She wrapped them around herself, knowing her evaluation had to be objective. She could do this… she really could.
Logan sat straight on the cranberry leather sofa watching his son. Daniel crawled to Gina gleefully as if he'd been doing it ever since he could.
Maybe he just wanted to reach those bright-colored pegs on the board she held on her lap.
Unclenching his fist, Logan attempted to relax his posture so he didn't look like a man on guard. Why should he be on guard? Gina was just evaluating his son.
His son. His and Amy's son… the son his wife had died to save.
He might as well admit it. He was angry Gina was in his house, reminding him of a time he'd shoved behind him, reminding him of her desertion, reminding him of his father's stroke and the fact she'd left and hadn't looked back.
As Daniel plopped beside her on the floor stretching his hand toward the pegs on her board, Logan had to ask, "Why did you come back to Sagebrush?"
She didn't answer right away, rather set the board aside, picked up the remote-controlled car she'd removed from her bag and set it on the floor in front of her.
"My mom heard about the opening at the Family Tree Health Center and called to tell me about it. She and my dad have always wanted me to move back here, or at least closer than New England."
She pressed the button on the remote and the car skittered across a patch of hardwood floor. Daniel crawled after it as fast as his little legs would go.
"You know he can crawl," Logan grumbled. "Why keep encouraging him to do it?"
"I'm not encouraging him to crawl," she answered quietly. "I'm watching how he problem-solves, what he reaches for first, what muscles he uses when he does. He's not even thinking about using the coffee table or any other piece of furniture to stand up, and I'm wondering why."
Logan wondered the same thing.
Tessa had given Logan exercises to do with Daniel since he was a few months old. But recently, with his son still not walking, Logan had worried. Was Daniel simply a premature baby, slow in development? Or was there another problem, perhaps more serious? Gina was here to assess that possibility.
She directed the car back to where she sat and Daniel followed it. Levering herself to her knees, she clasped the little boy at the waist and encouraged him to stand. He did… while she supported him. Slowly she let her arms take less and less of his weight until he was standing on his own.
"You're such a big boy! Can you take my hands and come over to me?" She offered them to him, but he ignored her and plopped back down onto the floor as if that was where he was safe.
Suddenly she asked Logan, "Do you and Mrs. Mahoney carry him wherever he wants to go?"
Logan tried to restrain his impatience. "The house is huge. Usually I just scoop him up and bring him along. I guess Hannah might do the same."
If Gina noticed his impatience, she didn't respond to it. Instead she asked, "What about when you're relaxing in here, watching cartoons, something like that? Do you go to Daniel if you want him? Or do you encourage him to come to you?"
Logan thought about it. "Now that you mention it, I probably go to him and take him what he needs."
"Like a puzzle, or crayons, or blocks." She saw all those on the colorful shelves to the side of the room.
"Are you saying this is my fault?" He knew he sounded defensive and, dammit, he was. After all he'd been through with Amy, as well as Daniel, he'd done the best he could.
Gina handed Daniel a plastic bowling pin and watched him turn it upside down. "I think you can call Mrs. Mahoney now. I'd like to talk to you about Daniel and I think it would be better if he's not in the room."
"He's not going to understand—"
Gina's concerned brown eyes locked to his and her voice held conviction. "Daniel will understand our tone of voice. He'll understand our expressions. He'll understand if we're happy, sad, angry or frustrated."
Gina Rigoletti was the baby expert and with reluctance Logan recognized that fact. He pressed a button on the console where the cordless phone sat on the end table.
Long minutes later, Hannah entered the room. "Is Daniel ready for bed?"
"If you could get him ready, that would be great," Logan said. "I'll be in as soon as Dr. Rigoletti leaves."
As soon as Hannah left with Daniel, Gina began gathering assessment sheets and toys she'd stacked on the coffee table and the floor around her. She slipped the papers onto her clipboard. The rest went back into that flannel bag.
She stood, seemed to debate with herself, and then joined Logan on the sofa. "I'll e-mail your copy of my formal evaluation tomorrow. For now, I'll give you the highlights." She looked down at the notes she'd taken. "First of all, Daniel was a preemie. He's within the normal range of walking, which is fifteen months. I think with encouragement—the right kind of encouragement—that can happen."
"What do you mean the right kind of encouragement? I'm always asking him to come to me."
"We'll get into that." She checked her notes again. Because she didn't want to look at him?
"I know you're doing exercises with Daniel now. We're going to expand those a little if you decide to put him under my care. I'd like you to do them with him daily in between sessions. In addition, you have to stop carrying him when he can get somewhere on his own. You need to be patient enough to wait for him, encourage him to stand and walk with you. I think he'll do it if you simply let him lag behind. He won't like that. He needs motivation to get up and walk. You have to help him develop that."
Logan let out a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "I thought kids learned to roll over, sit up, crawl and walk instinctively. I never expected Daniel to have problems with those things."