Read an Excerpt
"Valentine." Renata Thompson sighed. Dramatically. "Won't you be mine?"
Kelly Bravo glanced over her shoulder, coffeepot in hand. "Doubtful."
Renata let out a laugh. "Not a problem. You may be the boss, but you're just not my type."
Kelly filled her mug and put the pot back on the warming plate. She took the chair across from Renata. "So, then. Who's your valentine?"
"His name is Valentine. Mitch Valentine." Renata had the Sacramento Bee spread open on the round breakroom table. She pointed a slim brown finger at a publicity headshot of some guy. Kelly glanced at it without really looking, shrugged and sipped her coffee.
"You must have heard of him," Renata insisted. "Guy has billions. Owns a bunch of companies. Started from zip. Now he's written a book. Making it Happen: Change Your Mind, Transform Your Life."
Kelly sipped again. "Sounds uplifting. But, no. Sorry. The name's not ringing a bell."
Renata's mug said Shrink. She grabbed it and took a swig of the murky breakroom brew. "He's speaking at Valley University tonight. I may have to go. Whether he changes my life or not, he is superhot. And as rich as they come. Hot and rich. Does it get any better?"
"Well, now." Kelly raised her own mug high. "A good sense of humor. Gotta have that."
"Honey, if he's rich and hot, he doesn't need to make me laugh. We'll spend our lives shoppingand having sex."
"I am shocked, I tell you." Kelly put on her most disapproving frown. "Shocked."
Renata spun the paper around and slid it across to Kelly's side of the table. "Look." She plunked her finger down hard right above the photo of Mr. Hot-and-Rich. "Tell me you'd pass up a chance with that."
Kellygroaned. "Sorry. Not interested. I'm a single mom with a full-time job. I don't have time to go chasing after some Tony Robbins wanna-be."
"The eyes alone. In-tense. Look." So Kelly looked. "Oh, my. He's very " The words trailed off. "Not possible," she heard herself whisper.
But Kelly didn't answer. She stared at the photo and couldn't believe what she was seeing.
From somewhere far, far away Renata was asking, "Kelly? Kelly, are you all right?"
She was not all right. Not in the least. Because she knew those eyes. That mouth. That straight slash of brow
He looked older.
But of course he would, wouldn't he? It had been a decade, after all.
His face, once hollow-cheeked, had filled out. His shoulderswhat she could see of themwere broader. Much broader. He seemed, in the photo, so confident. This man looked as if he was ready to take on the world, a mover and shaker if ever there was one, the polar opposite of the boy she had loved.
But still. She would know those eyes and that mouth anywhere. Her thin, withdrawn video-game-obsessed high-school sweetheart, Michael Vakulic, had become someone named Mitch Valentine.
"God. Kelly. Are you"
"Fine." Kelly forced herself to lift her head and aim a smile at the dark, exotic face across the table. "I'm fine." She played it light, pretended to fan herself.
"Whew. You're right. The guy is hot."
Renata's worried frown faded. "Told you so." Now she was looking exceedingly smug. She reached to take the paper back.
But before she completed the action, Carol Pace, the center's business manager, appeared in the open doorway. "Renata. I need the file on the J. Carera family."
Renata was one of the four family counselors Kelly had on staff at Sacramento County Family Crisis Center. The woman was amazing with families in trouble, but not so hot at keeping on top of her paperwork. "It should be there. Filed under C."
"No kidding. Not there."
"All right, all right. I'm coming " Shaking her curly head, Renata got up and followed Carol out.
There was no one else in the breakroom. Kelly had never been so grateful to be left alone in her life.
Ordering her hands to stop shaking, she folded the paper with Michael's picture on it, grabbed her coffee and stood on shaky legs. Once upright, she raced out the door and down the hall, sloshing coffee as she went.
At last, she reached her corner office. She darted inside, then stuck the paper under her arm to free a hand so she could close the door and turn the lock.
The lock clicked shut. She leaned her forehead against the doorframe and whispered desperately, "It can't be him, no way it's him ."
Her heart was galloping like a hundred wild horses. She sucked in a long breath, let it out with agonized slowness and ordered her pulse to stop pounding so loud she couldn't hear herself think.
God. Her whole body was shaking. She'd splashed coffee on the back of her handand her shoes, as well.
With another deep breath, she pushed off from the door, turned and made herself walk to her desk. She set her coffee cup on the stone coaster, where her nine-year-old daughter, DeDe, had personally painted a stick-figure deer along with the words Mommy, you're a dear in shiny pink letters.
The newspaper slid out from under her arm and flopped to the floor. Swearing under her breath, she grabbed it up, slapped it down on the desk and whipped out a few tissues from the box by her computer monitor.
She wiped the coffee off the back of her hand and then slipped off one tan suede shoe and then the other, to try and get the coffee off of them. Were they ruined? She'd take a brush to them when she got home. But at the moment, a wrecked pair of shoes was the least of her problems.
Michael. Oh, God. Michael
Her phone rang. She punched Hold without picking up, then buzzed the receptionist. "Melinda, I'm in the middle of something here." Well, it was true. And it was something bigeven if it wasn't the least work-related. "Could you take that call for me and get a message? And hold my calls until further notice Yes. Terrific. Thanks." She hung up and dropped into her swivel chair.
The section of paper was right there on the desk pad in front of her, folded and folded again, the pages slightly disar-ranged now .
Gripping the chair arms in white-knuckled hands and glaring at the folded paper, Kelly swung the chair sharply back and forth. Such a seemingly harmless thing. The Sacramento Bee for Tuesday, February 13th. Innocuous. Mundane.
Yet it threatened to change her life and the life of her only child. Forever.
DeDe, in pink tights and a tutu, beamed at her from the picture on the corner of her desk. That one had been taken at one of her dance recitals last fall. Next to it, there was one of DeDe and Candy, the ancient black mutt that had showed up on their doorstep five years before and swiftly become one of the family. DeDe, seven at the time the picture was taken, had her arms around the dog's neck. She was smiling wide, proudly displaying the gap where she'd lost two front baby teeth. There were others pictures of DeDe, on the bookcase, as well as on the credenza. Two of them showed Kelly and DeDe together, one was of DeDe with her uncle Tanner and another of DeDe, Kelly, Tannerand Hayley, who was Kelly and Tanner's long-lost sister. They'd found Hayley just that previous June .
Kelly closed her eyes, sucked air through her nose. She could look at all her office pictures again. And again. A thousand times. But eventually, she'd have to open that paper. There was, in the end, no escaping the image there. The truth had to be faced.
With swift, determined movements, she hauled her chair in close to the desk and spread the paper wide.
And there he was again. Michael. Older, bigger, stronger, more confident, more everything. But still. It was Michael. She was certain.