It started with a kiss...
Ian North is the one person Darcy Maguire can always count on. So when her daughter's biological father shows up unannounced, she knows Ian will do whatever it takes to help. A kiss, however, is the last thing she expects.
Suddenly their little white lie is out of control. They're spending Father's Day with his family and lying about being a couple. Only pretending isn't enough for Darcy anymore. Ian is the best father her daughter could have and she's ready to make it official. But how can she know for certain where the lie ends and reality begins?
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The man hovering at the entry to Ian North's garage was very tall, very blond, and very late.
"Hey, Ian. Long time no see."
"Xander?" Ian tugged his work gloves from his hands and set them on the anvil where, moments earlier, he had been happily pounding the hell out of a piece of hot iron while singing along to some vintage Queen. With a glance to make sure everything in his home forge could be safely ignored for a few minutes, he ventured toward his old college roommate. "What are you doing back here?"
Xander pulled sunglasses from his face and hooked them casually over the neck of his silky black tee. "I came to get my dog."
"Your dog? Are you nuts?" Thank God Lulu was having a late-afternoon visit to the park with his landlady and her daughter. "She's not yours anymore, buddy."
"Sure she is. I told you I'd be back for her."
"You said you'd be back in a month or so." He crossed his arms and widened his stance. "By my count, two years is a lot longer than a month or so."
Something flashed through Xander's eyessomething Ian would have sworn was determination if not for the fact that the only times Xander had ever shown real resolve were when sex, beer or his latest get-rich-quick scheme were involved.
"It hasn't been that long. A year, year and a half, max. I'm here, just like I said I'd be." Xander peered past him. "What are you doing back there anyway? Making horseshoes?"
Ian thought of the final touches he'd just finished on a detailed picture frame for his dad. Horseshoes. Right. "Not quite. Now, if the only reason you're here is for my dog, you should leave. I'm busy."
"That's it? No 'Hey, Xander. Good to see you!' No 'Jeez, I hope everything was okay.' Not even a simple 'Where've you been?'"
"I don't need to ask." With one finger Ian pushed his safety glasses above his forehead, squinting against the sudden vibrancy of mid-June. In winter, southwestern Ontario was a sea of white, but now the reds of the flowers, the green of the grass and the blue of the sky could be blinding. "I got all the info I needed when the police came looking for you a couple months after you left. Are you on the run or did you land in the pen?"
Xander's face lost some color. Ian cursed.
"It was victimless, okay? A little cyber project that got sidetracked. No one got hurt."
"Except the little old ladies you bilked out of their life savings."
"Hey, I don't do that stuff. I just help people find their way into companies. Nothing with actual individuals."
"Yeah, well, it's still Ah, jeez. You knew you were going to jail, didn't you? That's why you left Lulu with me."
Xander had the grace to look down as he scraped his foot against the cracked pavement of the driveway. "Look, when I left, I knew that the situation wouldn't be good for a puppy. Then things got out of hand and Anyway, that's all in the past. I paid my debt to society. I'm a changed man and I want my dog."
"Let's review the facts, Xander. Two years agooh, pardon me, not that long but I don't feel like doing the mathyou asked if you could stay with me for a week. In a moment of foolishness I said yes." Though to be honest, at that time Ian had been new in Stratford, running from a major life curve that had left him shell-shocked and heartsore. Xander's request had been a welcome distraction. "When the week turned into a month, I didn't say anything. When you brought Lulu home, I didn't say anything. When you took off and left me with her and thirty bucks for foodokay, I said some things then, but you weren't here so they don't count. Now, though, you're here, so listen up. She was a puppy when you left. You only had her two weeks. Not yours anymore." He poked Xander in the chest. "Go back to your computer and do something useful, like making some multinationals pay taxes."
But Xander didn't move. "Look, I know I took advantage of you. But I had a lot of time to think while I was away, and I see what an idiot I've been. From now on it's nothing but the straight and narrow for me. I have a job lined uptotally legitand I'm starting over. Just me, the future and my dog." Xander's eyes darted around the garage, lingering on the steps leading to Ian's second-floor apartment. "By the way, where is she?"
Ah, hell. Ian remembered that tone. Xander's persistence lasted about as long as a boy band's fame, but when he first dived into something he gave it his all. Which meant that right now there would be no changing his mind. Only time and the inevitable roadblocks could do that.
The good news was that if Ian could put the guy off for a day or two, Xander would see something shiny and move on. The bad news was that Lulu and company could return at any minute.
If he could just buy himself a little time
"She's not here."
"Why not? Is she at the vet? Is she sick?"
"She's fine. She's healthy and strong and she can eat me under the table. She went on an outing with friends." Vagueness was his ally. At least, he hoped so. "She's happy here, Xander. If you want a fresh start, do it right. Get yourself a new dog."
Xander shook his head. No surprise there. "Nope.
One of the things they taught us when I was away was about seeing ourselves in our new lives. They had us figure out all the details. Every time I did it, Lulu was in the picture. I don't want any old dog. I need her."
Ian's fear level rose from Damn, I don't need this to Crap, this could get bad. Xander sounded serious. This might still be nothing more than a whim, but given that Xander was the one who'd bought Lulu in the first place, things could get complicated.
Ian hated complicated.
"Listen, Xander, I'm in the middle of a project and I need to get moving. You should do the same."
Xander shook his head, crossed his arms and leaned against Ian's prized Mustang. "I'll wait."
"I don't think so."
"You know," Xander said with a sigh, "there was a time when you would have invited me in and we could have talked this out over a beer."
"And there was a day when you wouldn't have disappeared without so much as a Facebook post. Guess we're even." He returned to the anvil and made a show of examining the cross-peen hammer he'd been using. Yeah, it was juvenile, but hey, Xander wasn't the only one who could trot out the tough act.
Too bad it didn't work. Xander ambled into the garage, hands in his pockets, eyes darting from the forge to the anvil to the wall of hammers and files.
"You know, Ian, I'm thinking I got us off on the wrong foot here. How about we start over? I walk in and say, 'Hey, buddy, long time no see.' Then you say, 'Xander! Talk about a sight for sore eyes!' And I say, 'Same here. How are your folks? How long have you been playing Little House on the Prairie? How's work and your pretty little landlady and my dog?'"
Pretty little landlady? If Darcy heard Xander describe her that way, she'd be the one hefting hammers. "I have another idea. You see this?" Ian lifted a curved length of forged iron. "I think this would make a great hook. You know, for grabbing your sorry, law-breaking runaway ass and dragging it to the curb before I"
His words were interrupted by the sound he'd been dreading mostthe excited bark of a dog approaching home, followed immediately by Darcy's resigned laughter. Lulu must have gotten away from her again.
Sure enough, a second later the driveway was a riot of movement and sound as a yipping, panting streak of beagle blend raced closer, dragging her leash behind her. And unless Ian missed his guess, Lulu was heading straight for him, with barely a curious glance in Xander's direction.
Ian raised his hand. Lulu came to a quivering halt at the entrance to the garage.
"Good girl. Stay."
Xander crouched. "Lulu? It's me, girl! Come here."
Lulu whined and cocked her head but didn't move. Nor did she seem remotely interested in her onetime owner.
Xander pursed his lipsplanning to whistle, no doubtbut Ian shook his head. "Save your breath. I've taught her to wait there until I tell her it's okay. Too many dangerous things in here."
"Oh. Right. I never thought of that."
Of course he hadn't. Xander and responsibility were about as well acquainted as rap and polka.
"So, can I go to her?" Xander asked.
Huh. Ian couldn't remember Xander ever waiting for anything, let alone requesting consent. His motto had always been that it was better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. Maybe the time in jail really had taught him a thing or two.
"Hang on. We have a routine."
The excited edge to Xander's voice wasn't doing much for Ian's peace of mind, but he pushed himself through the steps. Check the anvil, check the forge, check the
"Sorry, sorry." Darcy's laughing apology made him spin around to see her stumbling up the driveway, one hand pushing a stroller loaded with toys, the other curled around the baby bouncing on her hip. Lulu must have led her on a merry chase. The neck of Darcy's blouse veered way over to the side, and her shoulder-length, cinnamon-brown hair curled in every direction. She was a flustered mess, but as always, seeing her made him grin. Even despite Xander's presence.
"I thought I had a good grip on Lu," she called as she approached. "But Cady decided Mommy was overdressed and yanked my blouse half off, and I had to either switch the leash or risk arrest for public indecency. But I messed up and she got away and I"
She stopped just behind Lulu, the hand that had been pushing the stroller rising to shield her eyes as she peered into the shadowy garage. Her cheeks turned as pink as Cady's ruffled sun hat, which had slipped backward, exposing the pale blond head it was supposed to protect.
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't realize you had company."
"It's okay." He walked over to her, automatically taking Cady as she launched herself into his arms.
Xander pushed upright. "Hey, Darcy," he called as he ambled into the light. "Long time no"
He stopped abruptly. Darcy's eyes flew open and she reached across Ian's chest until her hand landed on Cady's thigh. A small sound slipped free, one he couldn't identify because he'd never heard it before, but his gut told him it wasn't good, especially when she stepped closer to him. His arm went around her shoulders.
"Darce?" Xander's voice was filled with confusion and uncertainty and something that sounded like shock. This was more than a simple greeting. What the hell?
Xander shuffled forward as if he'd forgotten how to walk. Darcy pressed closer to Ian. His arm tightened protectively.
As Xander emerged into the sunshine, the light glinted off his very blond hair. Hair that was a perfect match for that on the head now resting against Ian's chest. The tiny head of the wriggling child who had just celebrated her first birthday.
Two years agooh, pardon me, not that long but I don't feel like doing the math
All of a sudden the math took on a terrifying significance.
"Ian?" Darcy whispered. "Would you take Cady inside, please? Xander and I need to talk."
Darcy Maguire had always considered herself a woman of action. In her life BCBefore Cadythere had never been a disaster she couldn't work around, including the time a blizzard had stood between her mother and a major performance. All that had taken was an hour on the phone, a fistful of money and a snowplow driver willing to serve as a taxi.
If only this could be that easy.
Ian did as she asked without so much as a blink, settling Cady on his shoulder and whistling for Lulu to follow him to the house.
Seeing him holding Cady was a welcome anchor.
The rest of her world might be falling apart at the stitched-with-secrets seams, but her little girl was safe and happy in the best possible hands.
Ian had been blindsided. He was probably going to be hurt that she hadn't trusted him with the truth about Cady's paternity. But as she watched him walk away, she held tight to the fact that no matter how much she might bungle the next few minutes, Ian would make sure Cady was fed and diapered and kept laughing. This one little corner of the world would be fine.
Meaning Darcy had no excuse to put off the conversation waiting to pounce on her.
At the muffled slam of the screen door, she risked a look at Xander. His blue-gray eyes stayed fixed on the steps that Ian and Cady had mounted. She tugged her neckline and hoped everything was back in place. She didn't want to find out she'd conducted the most important conversation of her life with a wardrobe malfunction.
Assured that she was as decent as was possible, she pulled herself upright. "Let's go out back."
Xander dragged his understandably blank gaze from the steps to her. She led him to the yard and the picnic table where two summers ago she, Ian and Xander had whiled away long summer evenings with a few beers and a lot of laughs. Maybe the vibrations of that laughter still lingered here. Maybe they would make it possible for her and Xander to get through whatever with the same purpose: to do what was best for hertheir daughter.
Dear God, she hoped she could do a better job of navigating Cady through whatever came next than her own mother had done for her.
While Xander straddled the bench, Darcy climbed onto the patio table, settling under the shade offered by the bright blue umbrella Ian had added the previous summer. Babies shouldn't get too much sun, he had said when she'd come home from the hospital with her newborn. And you can't put sunblock on them, but I know you'll want to sit outside with her. I thought this might make it easier.
Maybe she shouldn't have sent Ian away with Cady. For the past year he had been the one she'd looked to whenever she was sure she was screwing up this parenting gig, which usually happened at least twice a day. Every time he would laugh and tell her she was doing fine, and when she would insist that this time she had really blown it, he would shake his head, grin and say, "Just trust me, Darce."
She really wished she could see him now, rolling his crinkly bronze eyes in the way that meant he thought she was being a total dork but he knew she would figure it out.
"So." She sandwiched her hands between her bent knees. If she couldn't see them trembling, she might be less nervous. "I know you must have a lot of questions, but this will probably be easier if you let me talk first, okay?"
His slow nod was chased by a swifter shake of the head. "Wait. First. I Is she That baby. She's really ?"
His question hung in the air between them, unfinished but no less decisive. Once she answered him, she knew the life she had builther and Cady with a big side of Ianwas all going to change. And most of it would depend on Xander. Someone not family. Someone she knew far less than she should.
It was a feeling she knew all too well, and it was no more welcome now than it had been in the past. Except now it was worse, because it was going to impact Cady.
She took a deep breath. Facts first. Future later.
"Yes." Damnation, her hands were still quivering. Clamping her knees tighterright, Maguire, now you remember to keep your knees closed she forced out the words she'd been dreading for the past year and eight months. "Yes, Xander. She's your daughter."
Somewhere nearby a bird let loose with a delighted trill. Talk about surreal. First Xander reappeared, now her life was turning into a frickin' Disney princess adventure complete with animals performing on cue.
She knew the feeling. On that morning a lifetime ago, when she had finally dragged her gaze away from the test stick in her hand to stare at herself in the bathroom mirror, she had seen that same horror-movie expression now appearing on Xander's face. Yet when she looked closely, she saw in his eyes that same contradictory hint of amazement that had gripped her, as well. That had to be a good sign. Right?
"I did try to find you. To tell you," she added quickly. "But Ian said he hadn't heard from you since you left, and I"
"Wait a minute." He backed up an inch or so. "We only It was just that one night. Once."