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"What are you going to do?"
Erin looked from the worried face of her friend to the letter in her hand and shook her head. "I don't know what I can do."
"You have to find out more. At least then you'll be better informed if you have to fight it," Sasha said vehemently. "What did that letter the other day say? That someone had come forward to say mistakes had been made at the fertility clinic? And with nothing to back up their claims? Seriously, it could just be a disgruntled employee creating trouble."
"Well," Erin said, waving the letter she'd received from a San Francisco law firm out of reach of her baby son's grip. "Clearly someone believes in it enough to follow it up. And besides, if it's true, if the tests prove Riley isn't James's son, do I have any right to fight it?"
"You're his mother, aren't you? You have every right under the sun. This Party A" Sasha sneered over the moniker "is no more than a donor."
"Sash, really? That's a bit harsh. The man and his wife were obviously going through the clinic for the same reason James and I were. I think it's a bit cruel to say he's no more than a donor."
Erin pressed a kiss onto Riley's head, inhaling his special baby smell and relishing anew the wonder of the life she held on her lap.
Sasha had the grace to look shamefaced. "Well, either way, you're Riley's mother. No one can deny you that, and it means the odds regarding custody are firmly stacked in your favor."
It was little comfort, Erin thought as she studied the letter again. She hoped to see something, anything, that would give her some recourse to refuse to submit Riley to a DNA test to prove exactly who his father washer late husband James or some stranger. She adjusted Riley on her lap as her heart constricted painfully. The whole situation was impossible. Riley had to be James's son. He just had to be. Their security hinged on it.
Mistakes like what they'd suggested simply weren't supposed to happen. When she and James had won the IVF lottery, which had taken them from their Lake Tahoe home to San Francisco to complete the procedures that led to baby Riley's birth four months ago, they'd never for one moment thought that the fertility clinic could make such a terrible mistake. Nor had either of them dreamed that the flulike symptoms James had experienced months later masked a bacterial infectionone that led to the congestive heart failure that had taken his life within two weeks of Riley's birth.
She was now left to deal with this all on her own, and the reality of it threatened to overwhelm her completely. The sheet of paper in her hand trembled and she set it down on the well-used kitchen table in front of hera table that had been used by generations of Connells. A table that could only be used by future generations of Connells, according to the terms of the estate's trust. She'd thought that everything about her home was Riley's by right, as James's son. What if she was wrong? She smoothed the letter onto the worn surface and wished to God she'd never gone to the post office to collect her mail todayor ever, for that matter.
Sasha's hand came to rest on top of hers. "Don't worry, Erin. Riley's your son, nothing can change that, no matter who his father is. Write back and request more information before you'll agree to any testing. Nothing in the letter you got from the lawyers acting for the clinic has even been substantiated. It's not as if they've sent you categorical proof that a mix-up happened at alland this letter from the lawyers acting for the other guy is couched in terms of a request, not a court ordered demand?''
Erin felt her heart lift at Sasha's suggestion. "You're right. And, at least if I write to them, that'll delay things a little longer, won't it?"
"Atta girl." Sasha looked at the kitchen clock and sighed. "Sorry, I have to go. School's out soon."
"You go, get your kids. Don't worry about me. And thanks for coming over when I lost it before."
Erin had been a trembling wreck when she'd read her mail. One call to Sasha had been all it took for her one true friend to drop everything to be by her side. In a world that had changed so dramatically over the past twelve months, having her friend's constant and loving support had been a godsend.
"Hey, that's what friends are for, right? Call me when you get any more news, okay?" Sasha gave her a quick hug. "What time is your guest due to arrive?"
"Not until five."
"At least having a paying guest again will help out a bit financially. I still can't believe that James didn't leave you and Riley better provided for."
Erin frowned at the censure in her friend's voice. "He did his best, Sash. Neither of us ever expected he'd die so young. Plus, our medical bills after Riley's birth and James's illnesswell, you know they pretty much cleaned us out."
"I know, I'm sorry, it's just so unfair
Erin swallowed against the lump in her throat. Yes, it was so unfair. After all they'd been through, all they'd survived. Erin felt the old familiar depression begin to creep back in and she gave herself a swift mental shake. Dwelling on the past changed nothing. She had Riley, and that was all she needed to focus on now.
After seeing Sasha off, Erin changed Riley's diaper before nursing him and putting him down for his afternoon sleep. Once he was down, she grabbed the baby monitor so she could hear if he didn't settle, and quickly went upstairs to check on the room for her new guest. It had been ages since they'd taken guests at Connell Lodge, and she was still suffering from pretty hefty doses of baby brain. She wouldn't put it past herself to have forgotten something important.
But no. The room was perfect and, with the afternoon sun streaming through the steel-paned windows, welcoming. Fresh lavender-scented linens graced the wide bed, a selection of roses from the garden, casually arranged in a crystal vase, decorated the tallboy against the wall, and the wide-plank flooring gleamed with polish. The en suite bathroom was equally pristine, with fresh towels on the rail all thick and fluffy, and a newly dry-cleaned robe on a hanger behind the door with its belt neatly knotted. Soaps, shampoos, yes, everything was there in abundance.
She'd arranged for the room across the hall from this one to be converted into a study at her guest's request. He was, apparently, working on a book and had expressed a desire for privacy during his stay. Well, there'd be no problem with that, Erin conceded. He would be the one and only visitor here for the duration. In fact, he would be the first visitor she'd had here in months. His enquiry through their website had come at just the right time.
She'd missed thisthe pride in getting a room ready for guests, wondering what they'd be like, whether they'd return. It was good to be getting back to business. During James's illness they'd stopped taking guests and let their staff go. It had been too much for her to handlebeing pregnant, caring for James, and having to look after everything on her own.
Erin mentally ran through her checklist and gauged what she had still to do before five o'clock. Yep, despite her mini-breakdown over the mail, she was still on track. And, provided the guest was punctual, she'd have time to get him settled in, and his evening meal warmed and served, before Riley woke for his feeding, playtime and bath. As she made her way back downstairs, her feet cushioned by the ornate carpet runner that snaked from top to bottom, she found herself feeling happy for the first time in a long time. Maybe things were starting to look up after all.
Sam Thornton let himself out of the car and gasped a little at the old familiar pain in his right leg and hip.
Sitting for as long as he had during the four-plus hour drive from San Francisco certainly hadn't done his frus-tratingly slow-to-heal body any favors. He should have flown into Reno, but then he would have been stuck with a driver he neither knew nor trusted. So Sam had convinced himself he was better off being driven the whole distance. He straightened, breathing through the pain and slowly stretching out his muscles.
"You all right, sir?" his driver asked, coming around the side of the car.
"I'll be fine, Ray, thanks. I should have listened to you and let you stop more often along the wayfor your sake if not for mine."
Ray cocked an eyebrow. "Was that an admission of fault, sir?"
"You know it was, now shut up and help me with my bag." Sam smiled to take any sting from his words. It didn't matter, though. Even when Sam had been at his worst, and there'd been many days like that, Ray had merely endured whatever his irritable boss had flung at him and carried on doing his job. After all they'd weathered together, Sam considered Ray a friend as much as an employeeand he was silently grateful to have a friend with him at this particular moment as he braced himself for what he was about to do.
Sam looked at the imposing old English-style country house ahead of him. Two-storied, the concrete stucco exterior hosted multiple vines of some kind of creeper. The growth was a little unkempt, as if it hadn't been pruned in a while. In fact, the whole property had the air of something beginning a slow, inexorable slide into neglect.
He shook his head slightly. It wasn't the house that interested him, and he couldn't care less about how well it was maintained. He was here with a far more important agenda.
"Are you sure you don't want me to stay with you for a day or two, sir?" Ray asked as he handed Sam his bag and laptop case.
"I don't need babysitting," Sam responded, a little sharply. He closed his eyes a moment and sighed. "I'm sorry, Ray. What I meant to say is, no, thank you. I'll be fine. You head on off and go vacation at your daughter's as you arranged. I'll call you when I need you. Hopefully that won't be for a while."
Ray gave him a nod, then climbed back into the sleek black Audi A6. He guided the car around the circle of the drive and out onto the road. Alone now in the driveway, Sam knew there was no going back. He bent to pick up his bag and started to walk toward the lodge just as a tall, slender woman with short dark hair opened the wide front door and stepped out onto the shaded portico.
The private investigator he'd hired to track her down had failed to mention just how attractive the young widow was.
"Good afternoon," she said, "Welcome to Connell Lodge. You must be Mr. Thornton."
Sam stopped in his tracks. His hand gripped the handle of his carry bag so tightly it made his knuckles ache. This wasn't happening. He was not attracted to this womanhe wasn't allowed to be. He pushed against the hot thud of desire that beat through his veins, hard. But his body, traitorous thing that it was, was on fire. Flames licked through parts of his physique that he'd ignored now for so long that he thought he'd grown numb. Welcomingly numb.
He was caught by the worried look in her eyeseyes that were a chocolate-brown so deep a man could get lost inside their depths and never care. He gave himself a swift mental shake. He was not attracted to this woman. Not on any level. He would not allow it.
"Yes, I'm Sam Thornton. Please, call me Sam."
He stepped forward, his gait still uneven after his car journey, and held out his hand.
"I'm Erin, Erin Connell, your hostess."
She took his hand in hers, and in that instant he knew he'd lost his battle with himself. A sizzle of awareness started at the point where their palms met and shot up his arm. To his surprise, she uttered a small "Oh!" before releasing his hand and taking a step back. So she was affected, too. Great. Bloody great, he thought dourly. This should not be happening.
"Please, come inside and let me show you your room," she said, her voice a little huskier than it had been before. "Can I help you with your things?"
"No, I'll manage on my own, thanks."
She turned and preceded him into the lodge, affording him an excellent view of her rigid spine and the way it led in a straight line to the gentle arcs of her hips and bottom. Hips and bottom that were firmly clad in white denim that would probably be outlawed in some countries for the way it clung to her curves. Another clench of desire hit him hard and low and he forced himself to breathe through it.
This was insane. Erin Connell wasn't even his type, he thought, as he followed her up the old wooden staircase to the next floor. He didn't have a type. Didn't want one, ever again. And yet, despite his silent protestations, there was still that nagging interest.
"Are you visiting from overseas?" she asked.
He got that a lot. "No, I'm from New Zealand originally, but I've been based in the States for about eight years now."
"Oh, really? I've always wanted to go there. I hear it's beautiful. Maybe one day," she said airily as they reached the top of the stairs.
He was relieved not to have her enticing shape smack bang in his line of vision any longer. He followed her a short distance along the carpeted corridor and into a large, well-lit room that faced formal gardens to the rear of the property. Well, he supposed they must have been formal once. Again, there was that sense of neglect. He looked around the room. Whatever neglect there was outdoors, it didn't extend to the inside.
"This is your room. I'm sure you'll find you have everything you need here," she said, moving through the space and across to open another door that clearly led to his private bathroom. "But if there's anything else you require, please don't hesitate to let me know."
Her smile faltered as he stood there, just staring at her like an idiot. He forced himself to make some sound of approval and clearly he succeeded because her features relaxed once more.
"Now, you asked for an office also, so I've created space for you across the hall from your room. If you'll come this way?"
He followed her directly across the hall to a wood-paneled room, with a desk situated near a deep window that looked out across the private bay and beyond to the lake.
"I thought you might like the lake view while you're working," she continued. "I hope that's all right?"
"It's great," he answered. And it was, even if he couldn't quite infuse his voice with the right level of gratitude. For what little she was charging, he'd have been grateful for a broom cupboard under the stairs. He made a mental note to ensure he paid her a generous bonus for the effort she'd clearly gone to for him, although he doubted she'd accept it when she found out exactly why he was here. "Thank you."
She gave him another of those smiles that hit him square in the gut. "You're welcome. We
well, I aim to please," she said, her voice a little shaky. "I'll leave you to unpack your things. You mentioned in your booking email that you'd prefer to dine early, so I have your dinner warming in the oven downstairs. The dining room is directly opposite the bottom of the stairs on the ground floor and you'll find a bellpull just inside the door. Please ring for me when you're ready."
"Thank you, but you don't have to wait on me hand and foot, Erin."
Her name felt foreign on his tongue, and yet weirdly right at the same time. Had this place cast some strange spell upon him, he wondered, then thrust the random thought away for the foolishness it was. No, there was no spell. If anything, his crazy and sudden attraction to Erin Connell probably had its roots in something older and more primitive. Something that had little to do with sex itself, or the unwelcome raw need he felt for her, and everything to do with the fact he believed she was the woman who had borne his son.