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"Bring Madison home."
Tension and loathing snatched a knot in Adam's gut at the sound of his former sister-in-law's name. He stared at his father across the motor home's small galley table. "I know your diagnosis was a shock, but bringing her back into our lives would be a mistake."
"I disagree. At times like this we need family support."
"She's not family, Dad. Not anymore. By her choice."
"Madison wasn't responsible for your brother's death. The ice storm was."
"Even if that was true-" and it wasn't "-she betrayed you. After all you and Mom did for her, Madison took the life insurance money and disappeared immediately after Andrew's funeral, and she hasn't bothered to call and check on you since. Family wouldn't do that."
"Madison was grieving, too, son, in her own way. She lost her husband and her son that night."
"A baby she didn't want." His father's stubborn refusal to accept reality made Adam want to punch something.
"You can't know that, son."
"I know what Andrew told me. He said she resented the pregnancy."
"You only heard one side of the story. The pregnancy might have been unplanned and the timing less than ideal, but Madison would have been a good momma once the little one arrived."
"Damn it, Dad, her carelessness killed-" An abrupt slicing motion of his father's hand made Adam bite back his words. Danny Drake had never been willing to hear anything negative against the woman he'd loved like a daughter.
Adam tried again-this time with cold, hard facts. "She was ticketed for 'driving too fast for conditions.' Your son and grandson died in that wreck, and she walked away with barely a scratch. How can you not hold her responsible?"
"Not all wounds are visible. She was injured enough to miscarry her baby. Placing blame doesn't change what's happened. Andrew is gone. Holding on to your anger won't bring him back.
"You asked what you could do for me, Adam. I'm telling you. If I'm going to devote all my energy to beating this cancer, then I need to know my practice is in good hands. Madison is the only veterinarian I trust to do things my way while I'm out of commission."
"But you know nothing about what she's been doing since she left."
"Wrong. I've been keeping tabs on our girl. Bring her home, son, or I'll skip the surgery and take my chances with the chemotherapy radiation treatments. At least then I won't have to miss as much work."
"The odds of a nonsurgical approach-"
"I know the damned odds," his father snapped, then took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Ripping my rib out to get to my lung is going to sideline me for months. I need backup. Reliable backup. This is my cancer. My fight. And I'll do it my way. Bring. Madison. Home."
His father snatched up his newspaper and stormed from the galley down the short hall and into the bedroom, his footsteps shaking the motor home in which Adam's parents had been living since beginning the renovations on their house. The door slammed shut.
Frustrated by his father's refusal to listen to reason, Adam balled his fists. What choice did he have except to comply if he wanted his father to take the most successful course of treatment?
Adam had to go after the one woman he never wanted to see again. If he succeeded, would he finally win his father's approval?
A ghost rose from the rocking chair on Madison's front porch, freezing her fatigued muscles with icy horror and chilling the sweat on her skin.
No. Not a ghost-ghosts weren't tall and tanned. They didn't plant fists on lean hips and scowl with hatred-filled blue-green eyes and flattened lips.
The man on her front porch wasn't her dead husband. It was his identical twin. Adam Drake. Adam so strongly resembled the man she'd once loved with every fiber of her being that looking at him made her chest ache.
Resignation settled over her like a smothering lead X-ray apron. She should've known her self-imposed exile couldn't last. It had taken six years for the nightmare of her past to catch up with her. The Drakes had found her despite her changing names and relocating to another state.
Judging by his expression, Adam hadn't forgotten or forgiven what she'd done. She couldn't blame him. She couldn't forget or forgive her actions that night, either. She pressed a hand over the empty ache in her stomach-a sensation that never seemed to abate.
With a face as rigid as a granite mountainside, Adam glared at her from the top step. She didn't climb the treads to join him, and probably couldn't have even if she'd ordered her gelatinous legs to move. Her run home in the sweltering heat had taken a lot out of her, but not nearly as much as this man's presence. Her mouth was parched, her water bottle empty. She needed to rehydrate. But not so badly that she'd invite him inside her home.
"My father has lung cancer," Adam stated without preliminaries-typical of him. Andrew had been the charming twin.
The bald statement punched the air from her. She struggled to wheeze enough breath to respond. "I'm sorry."
"He wants you to run his practice while he undergoes treatment."
No! Fear and guilt collided, sending razor-sharp fragments of pain slicing through her. She couldn't let Danny Drake back into her life and her heart only to say goodbye to her father-in-law again. She'd already buried too many loved ones. Her parents. Her baby sister. Her husband. Her son.
She wanted to ask about Danny's prognosis, but couldn't handle knowing even that much. Distance, both emotional and geographical, was her ally. "I can't."
"You owe him."
"I have a practice here, Adam. People depend on me." Sweat snaked down her spine.
"In a backwater town this size you can't possibly have enough business to operate five days a week."
True. Quincey was a one-stoplight rural Southern township. But the slow pace gave her just enough time and money to work with her rescue animals. As if to reinforce that point, Bojangles's nicker pulled her attention to the pasture beside the house.
The bay gelding shifted his hooves and pushed his broad chest against the board fence as if sensing her distress and wanting to come to her aid. She and the horse had a lot in common-they'd both been left behind by the people they loved. She'd taken enough psychology courses to know that saving the horse had been a substitute for saving the baby she couldn't.
"I wish your father well, Adam. But I can't help. Give Danny and Helen my best. Goodbye."
He didn't take the hint to vacate her porch. Fine. She'd go around back. She pivoted.
"You owe him, Madison."
Her spine snapped straight under an icy deluge of guilt. Yes, she did owe the Drakes. They'd taken her in even before the tornado had killed her family. For years they'd been her surrogate parents, but then her mother-in-law had said things that still haunted Madison's dreams. Neither Adam nor his father had witnessed Helen's emotional explosion, but Madison had been shredded by the verbal shrapnel.
Reluctantly, Madison faced him again. Sweat-dampened hair clung to her forehead. She shoved it back with an unsteady hand. "Adam, you don't want me there."
"No. But I want my father alive. His wishes are the only reason I'm here."
"What does Helen say about this?"
A nerve in his jaw twitched. "My mother will do whatever it takes to convince Dad to undergo the most promising treatment protocol. We both will."
Hope that Madison hadn't realized she'd been harboring leeched from her, leaving her drained, aching and empty. They didn't want her back. She was a necessary evil, not a long-missed family member. "I can't, Adam."
Disgust twisted his lips. "Andrew was right. You are a cold, selfish bitch."
Cold, selfish bitch. The words sliced her like a new scalpel, reopening the gaping wound left by the hateful argument that night when she'd learned the man she'd loved had sabotaged her carefully made plans. Plans they had discussed. Plans they had agreed upon.
But she would never tell Adam or his parents about those final, horrible moments before the accident. Their memories of Andrew were all they had left and she didn't want to spoil them.
Her nails bit into her palms. "Danny needs to find someone closer to Norcross. Quincey's a seven-hour drive away."
Adam descended the stairs and stopped a yard from her, bombarding her nerves in a dozen different ways. He looked so much like his brother-same dark hair, blue-green eyes, features and height. But he wasn't the husband she'd loved, the one who'd betrayed her, the one she'd buried because she'd lost her temper and made a mistake that she couldn't wash away no matter how many tears she cried or how many animals she saved.
Anger emanated from Adam. "You tell Dad to get someone else. I tried. He won't listen to me."
Although Adam's voice was firm and authoritative, for the first time since she'd met him fifteen years ago she saw naked fear in his eyes. He was afraid of losing his father. She understood that fear all too well, since she'd already walked that lonely path. But she couldn't allow herself to be vulnerable again. She might not make it out with her sanity intact this time.
She pushed away thoughts of the dark days after the wreck, of a cold, clammy hand and blood so much blood.
"I'm sorry. I can't," she repeated and scrubbed her palm against her pants.
Tires crunched on the gravel driveway of her farm followed by the low rumble of a diesel engine pickup truck. Panic clawed up Madison's spine. June, her friend and tenant, was home, and knowing the curious deputy, as soon as she parked her vehicle by the cottage she rented from Madison, she'd come over to investigate the strange car beneath the pecan tree.
She had to get rid of Adam before the tight-knit community of Quincey found out about the atrocity Madison had committed. No one here knew about her unforgivable sin-and she wanted to keep it that way. Otherwise the townsfolk might turn against her and cast her out of the sanctuary she'd created for herself.
Maybe all Danny needed was someone outside the family to make him see reason. She could afford to drive down to Georgia once. Then she'd come home and life would return to normal.
"I'll come Saturday and talk to him."
Adam's gaze held her captive for several tense seconds, making her heart pound as she listened in dread for June's approaching footsteps.
"You reverted to your maiden name," Adam accused.
"Yes, I " How could she explain that she'd wanted to erase everything about her marriage to his brother? She couldn't. "Look, I can't invite you in. I have plans this evening."
A plan to clean cages, but that wasn't how he interpreted it if the revulsion filling his eyes was any gauge. She didn't enlighten him.
"Make sure you show up. Here's the address and my number." He pulled a business card from his pocket and wrote on the back, then thrust it at her. He strode to the sedan and drove away just as June rounded the house.
Madison sagged in relief, but the damage had been done. The scab had been ripped away. All she wanted to do was crawl into the farmhouse and tend her wound. She didn't want to talk to anyone-not even a friend.
"Who's the hunk in the rental car?" the blond deputy asked.
"Rental?" Madison dodged the question.
"Sticker on the back bumper. Rental company license plate frame. Good-looking guy-where'd you find him? Not in Quincey, that's for sure."
Should she claim he was someone who'd gotten lost and was asking for directions? No. She never lied to her friends. She just hadn't always shared the whole truth. But how much should she tell June? Only the basics-
"He's my ex-brother-in-law."
June's eyebrows lifted. "I didn't know you were divorced."
Again Madison hesitated, but she trusted June as much as she trusted anyone. "Widowed. A long time ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Madison. I didn't know. I haven't seen him around before."
"We haven't kept in touch."
Questions filled June's eyes, and Madison scrambled to keep her from asking them. "Are you going to help me feed up tonight?"
"Not a chance. I'm grabbing a quick shower, then heading over to babysit for Piper. What'd he want anyway?"
So much for a distraction. "A favor. I have to go out of town Saturday. Can you watch the menagerie?"
"Happy to. Not much else to do." June scanned the empty driveway. "Is your truck in the shop again?"
"You should've called me. I would've given you a ride home."
"I needed the exercise. It's only a couple miles."
"You ran in this scorching heat?" Madison nodded and June's gaze sharpened. "You should be flushed and sweaty, but you're pale. Sure you're okay?"
Not even close to okay. "I'll be fine. It's been a long day. Mondays usually are."
And it was about to become an even longer week, knowing that at the end of it she would have to face the nightmare of her past.