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"Come on, Josh, it's only a few weeks before Thanksgiving, please stay until after the holiday ."
Joshua P. Redmond III, heir to a conglomeration of holdings that spanned the globe, replayed his mother's words as he stood alone in the elevator of the Rose Garden Residential Resort, watching the floor lights blink their way upward.
Two, three, four.
"My presence is a detriment to Father's firm, and a source of incredible pain to the Wellingtons." His stilted response followed his mother's plea in his replay of that morning's breakfast table conversation.
"You are our son, Josh. Your father cares more about you than he does about the firm." Six, seven, eight.
"Andyou are more important to us than the Wellingtons, too, you know that."
And if tradition provided for a small family gathering at the Redmond mansion, Josh might have stayedto please his mother who'd done nothing but champion him since the day he was born.
Nine, ten, eleven.
But Thanksgiving at the Redmond estate had always been a highly coveted social affair among Boston's elite. To uninvite the Wellingtons would be in poor taste. Beyond indecent.
It wasn't anything that would have crossed his mind six months ago.
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
"I'm leaving this evening, Mom. It's for the best."
She'd nodded then, blinking away tears. He knew she'd given in because his going was for the best. And because she'd already pushed him as far as she could in getting him to agree to relocate to the godforsaken desert town of Shelter Valley.
As godforsaken as he was, he should fit right in there.
A bell dinged gently, followed by the almost imperceptible glide to a stop that preceded the opening of the doors in front of him.
Plush beige carpet greeted him. Stepping out, he hardly noticed the cream-colored walls with maroon accents, or the expensive-looking paintings adorning them. Michelle Wellington's suite, one of four on the floor, was to the right. He headed in that direction.
Who would ever have believed, two months ago, when they'd arrived in separate cars for their combined bachelor/ bachelorette party, that the vivacious and sexy, gracious and gorgeous twenty-seven-year-old brunette would be reduced to living in a long-term care facility? An expensive and elegant one, to be sure, but still a home for those who couldn't function on their own.
Michelle should have been lounging on a private beach on an island off the French coast, enjoying her honeymoontheir honeymoon.
"Hi, sweetie." He announced himself the very same way every time he visited.
Her vacant gaze continued to stare forward.
Approaching the maroon velvet-upholstered chair, he held out the sprig of colorful wildflowers in his hand.
Michelle loved natural arrangements, colorful arrangements, not hothouse or professionally raised blooms. Something he'd learned from her mother while they were both sitting in the hospital waiting room two months before.
Dressed in a silk blouse and linen pants, she showed no reaction to the flowers he'd placed in her direct line of vision. The ties holding her upright and in the chair were discreetand all that he saw.
"I brought flowers," he said. He'd have brought chocolate, too, if she'd been able to taste it through the feeding tube that administered all of her nourishment these days.
No more decadence for Michelle Wellington.
No more sushi or expensive wine, shopping, traveling or any of the other things she'd loved.
And he, Joshua P. Redmond III, descendent not only of the Boston Redmonds, but also, on his mother's side, of the even more influential Boston Montfords, was largely to blame.
"Hey, little fella, where's your family?"
The soft, feminine voice floated through the balmy Arizona night, seemingly out of nowhere.
Stopping on the path behind the Montford University library, a shortcut to the parking lot where she'd left her car, twenty-five-year-old Dana Harris listened.
"It's okay, little guy," Dana heard the woman say. "I won't hurt you."
Dana hardly took a breath as she strained to pinpoint the direction the voice came from.
"Come on, it's okay. See? I won't hurt you. Where do you belong?"
The voice came from the right, and all she could see there was a huge desert plant of some kind. Still fairly new to campus, Dana didn't know what lay behind the large desert bush that stood well over her head. She didn't usually park where she'd parked that evening, didn't usually take this route to her car and had never studied at the library this late before.
"You're all right," the voice crooned. "We're a pair, aren't we? Both of us out alone in the dark and cold? Don't worry, little buddy, I'll take care of you."
Rounding the bush slowly, Dana caught sight of a small figure leaning against a cement wall that matched all the others that surrounded trash Dumpsters on campus, with what looked to be a ten- or fifteen-pound dog in her arms.
"Hey," she called out softly. "I don't want to startle you, but I couldn't help overhearing "
The owner of the voice glanced up, and with the help of the security light shining behind the Dumpster, Dana recognized her.
"You're in my freshman English class," she said, in case the younger woman was nervous, being approached in the dark.
The other girl studied Dana for a second. "Yeah," she said after a moment. "I'm Lori Higley. And you're the woman who always sits in the front row."
"Right." Drawing the sides of her sweater around her, Dana moved closer. "What have you got there?"
"A dog, or rather a puppy, I think. I'm not sure what kind. But his paws are pretty big for his size so I'm thinking he's young and going to be big."
Reaching out, Dana stroked the dog's back. "It's okay, little fella," she said gently when she felt the animal quiver beneath her touch.
"He's scared," Lori said, adjusting the dog in her arms so Dana could get a better look at him.
"And hungry, too, I'd guess," Dana replied, scratching him lightly under the chin, near the throat. "His back is too bony."
"Do you think he's abandoned?"
"He has a collar."
"I couldn't read the tag."
Moving together, Dana and Lori approached the security light and Lori held the dog aloft as Dana studied the tag on his collar.
"He's had his rabies shot, which means he's probably at least three months old," she said. "But there's no name or ID other than the rabies registration number."
The dog shivered, and shoved his nose against Dana's hand. "We can call the vet in the morning and see if we can have this tag traced," she said, lightly massaging the top of the dog's head with her fingers. The more good feeling they could bestow on the little guy, the better chance that he'd relax.
She was also checking for mats or scabs or any other sign of disease or abuse.
"He was cowering in the corner over there by the Dump-ster," Lori said, rubbing the dog's side as she held him. A bit huskier than Dana, Lori took the little guy's weight with one arm.
"Probably looking for something to eat."
"I've got tuna in my dorm.. " Lori's voice faded away, and Dana remembered overhearing the girl say something about being alone in the cold.
"I've got a kitchen full of food at home," she said quickly. "Why don't the two of you come with me and we'll get a better look at this guy while he eats."
"You live off campus?" Lori's gaze matched the envious tone in her voice.
"I have a duplex about a mile from here. You can ride with me in my car if you'd like. That way you can hold him. And I'll bring you back whenever you're ready. Do you have a curfew?"
From what she'd heard, the dorms at Montford were still old-schoolseparated by gender and under pretty firm house rules. Dana started slowly walking toward her car.
"It's not until midnight, and I'm in no hurry to go back." Still cuddling the puppy, Lori fell into step beside Dana.
"A roommate who was great until she met some guy that she can't live without. We have a suite and right now he's in the living room part of it with her and they'll do it even if I'm there."
"I thought the dorms were segregated."
"So he's not supposed to be in the room?"
"Right. But if I tell on them, I'll have made a couple of enemies for life. They don't care if I'm around so it's not like I can act all put-out, like they're keeping me from my room or anything. And I don't want them to get kicked out of school."
"Did you know her before you came to school?"
"Yeah. Forever. She's my best friend. Or she was until she met him. She started drinking with him, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's doing drugs, too."
"Montford's not the place to start screwing around with that stuff." Dana crossed behind the library and headed toward the parking lot in the distance. Her little used Mazda was the only vehicle there. "From what I've heard, they've got zero tolerance for substance abuse. You're caught, you're out."
"Yeah, but that doesn't stop kids from partying. It goes on even here, trust me," Lori said. "Kids are more cool about it, and keep it quieter, but college is college, you know? I just never expected Marissa to get into that scene.
We were like the nerds in high school because we were the only two in our class who didn't party. It's one of the reasons we chose Montford."
They'd reached Dana's car. Unlocking the passenger door, she held it open while Lori, puppy in arms, slid inside.
"Where are you from?" she asked the pretty blonde beside her as she started the car.
Dana had always wanted blond hairnaturally blondinstead of the mousy brown she'd been born with. Her younger half sisters both had blond hair. At least she had their blue eyes.
"I'm from Bisbee. It's a little town in southern Arizona. How about you?"
"I'm from Richmond, Indiana. It's on the Ohio border." She gave the dog a reassuring scratch and put the car in gear. "My folks own a small chain of furniture stores there."
"Indiana is days away from here!" Lori said. "What brought you all the way across the country? You have relatives here?"
"Nope." Dana shook her head, feeling a tug as her long ponytail caught between her back and the seat. "I'm here on scholarship."
"What made you apply to Montford?"
It was just talk. A normal conversation between fellow students who'd just rescued a dog.
And it was excruciating as far as Dana was concernedthe explaining, answering to and thinking about her past. Shelter Valley represented a new start for her. A life where she could just be Dana Harris, a person who wasn't second-best, who didn't wear Cinderella clothes and live a Cinderella life. A woman who'd accepted a scholarship she hadn't applied for, to embark on a life she hadn't planned on, because she hadn't been able to bear the thought of doing as her father had demanded and marry a man she didn't love.
But then, Daniel Harris, for whom she'd been named, the man she'd always called "Dad" and thought was her biological father, wasn't really her father. And no matter how far away she roamed, or how hard she tried to be good enough, that fact was never going to change.
"Your mom and dad are well and send their love." Sitting in the chair opposite Michelle, a chair identical to hers except for the restraints, Josh looked from the still-beautiful woman to the day's fresh flowers in the vase on the coffee table directly in front of them. He'd replaced yesterday's bouquet. Opened the sheers that had been pulled for the night across the window opposite them, giving Michelle a skyline view of the harbor she loved.
He'd turned on the sixty-inch flat-screen television hanging on the wall next to the window. And, when she'd frowned, turned it back off again, although he knew her frown probably had nothing to do with the TV.
Michelle comprehended little, if any, of what went on around her. According to her doctors, frowningand smiling, toowere simple reflexes that came and went. Sometimes her eyes filled with tearsa physiological reaction to medication, dry eyes or something in the air. Her gaze would land on something sometimes, but there was no connection between visual stimulation and a thought process that would translate the view. Permanent vegetative state was the diagnosisand it was the same according to all four specialists Josh and her family had called in from around the world to see to her. She couldn't move of her own volition. Or speak. Or even think.
But somehow she breathed on her own. And as long as that was the case, Josh's inheritance would be providing for her care. Every dime of it. From a trust account he'd established in her name.
Her parents had more than enough wealth to care for her. Insurance covered basic expenses. But as far as Josh was concerned, his money would be dirty if he spent it on himself.
"I'm going away, Michelle." He said what he'd come to say. "I'm on my way out of town now." He'd waited until nightfall so there'd be less traffic.
It seemed fitting that he'd slink away into the night.
Leaning forward, he grabbed a tissue from the box beside her and wiped a drop of drool from the side of her mouth, catching it before it could roll down her chin. "I don't know when I'll be back," he told her. It wasn't right, him leaving her like this. But staying wasn't right, either. His presence in town was hurting his father's business, creating strife for the Wellingtons and embarrassing his mother's family, the Montfords. The Montfords had worked hard to rebuild their reputation of decorum after his distant uncle's scandalous marriage and desertion many decades before. They'd dedicated all the decades since to reestablishing themselves as a family of conservative do-gooders, whose purpose on earth was to contribute to and better the world and whose behavior was always above reproach.
Josh's behavior, his selfishness and lack of awareness, had caused a scandal.
So he'd had to choose between further hurting Michelle, who, by all accounts had no idea he was even sitting there speaking with her, and hurting all of the people who loved him, who'd supported him and given him everything he had. People whom he'd taken completely for granted. People who still had work to do and much to contribute, to better the world in which they lived.
The choice had been a no-win. Hell. Just like the life his years of cavalier unawareness had created for him.
"It's taken the Montfords three generations to gain back the respect my great-great-uncle lost," he told Michelle, something he never would have mentioned to her in the past. Truth be told, he couldn't remember ever having a meaningful conversation with her, period.
Even his marriage proposal had been made on the fly. They'd been skydiving that day. He'd been filled with the adrenaline of having conquered the aircoupled with his newly resolved determination that it was time for him to marry. His marriage would be good for the family name. Good for business.
And because, in all of his travels across the United States and abroad, he'd never found that one woman who stood out above the rest, he'd chosen the most beautiful one he knew.
One he'd dated on and off for years.
"Let's get married," he'd blurted over a glass of celebratory champagne in the back of the family limo on the way home from the airfield.