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"If you're here about my father, you're too late." Jenna Darley took time enough to bite back tears and lift her chin. "I buried him two days ago."
Gage Cameron glanced over from where he was crouching on the lawn, introducing himself to the Darleys' curious Alsatian. A moment after his ice-gray gaze found hers, his square jaw relaxed with a smile that was supportive and, in spite of it all, faintly seductive.
Unbidden heat curled low in Jenna's stomach.
Suits worth thousands had replaced the bad-boy jeans he'd worn twelve years ago, but clearly the lone wolf she'd once loved hadn't vanished completely. Good thing she'd made the choice to grow up. Move on.
Too bad he'd done it first.
With a final ruffle of Shadow's ears, Gage pushed to his feet. Taller than she remembered, he brushed his large tanned hands and surveyed the extensive manicured grounds of her family's Sydney home. Not that it belonged to "family" anymore.
Her father, twin sister and brother-in-law were all dead, victims of a freak helicopter crash. Although she'd received the news ten days ago, Jenna still had trouble believing it. Half the time she was crying, or close to it; the other half she felt
numb. The horror was real, yet it wasn't.
Earlier this week, while she'd sat, dazed, in a lawyer's office, she'd discovered that her father's entire estate had been left to her stepmother, a polished middle-aged woman whom everyone adored
everyone but black sheep Jenna.
The nightmare didn't end there.
Gage sauntered over, the broad ledge of his shoulders moving in a languid, almost predatory roll. When he stopped an arm's length away, his head tilted and chin tipped lower as if she were somehow broken and he could spare the time to fix her.
"I was tied up in Dubai when I heard," he said in a rumbling voice that had deepened over the years. "I flew back as soon as I could."
Jenna twined her arms over her ribs and pressed the sick, empty ache in her stomach. "A waste of your time, I'm afraid."
Jump on your private jet and fly back to your high-powered lair, she thought. There's nothing for you here.
His gaze sharpened as if he'd read her mind. Still he persisted. "If there's anything I can do
Her bland expression held. "Thank you. No."
Nowadays Gage raked in millions the way other men raked up leaves. Although his base was Melbourne, Australia, his soaring success was praised in every medium all over the world. From Paris to Penang, wherever Jenna traveled for her freelance writing, Gage's rugged good looks, those piercing gray eyes, seemed to find hertoday in the unforgettable flesh.
Unfortunately nothing, including status and wealth, could bring back three members of her family she missed so deeply that she couldn't see this darkness ever lifting. But there was a fourth and final member her three-month-old niece. It was little Meg that she must concentrate on now.
Anchoring his weight, Gage slid both hands into his trouser pockets. "I'm staying in Sydney for a few weeks."
Through bleary eyes, Jenna tried to focus. "You have business to conduct?" A few more million to make?
Raw magnetism radiated from his tall and impressive frame while little other than cool detachment shone from the depths of those crystal-cut eyes. So commanding and assured. She could only imagine how ruthless he'd become.
"Your father would want me to make sure you're all right," he replied.
Her mask broke.
"You were the housekeeper's son, Gage. My father gave you a bed, an education, and you left without so much as a goodbye. I'm sorry, but why do you think he would care what you said or did now?"
His eyes narrowed so slightly, so briefly, she wondered if she'd imagined it.
"If I thought it would make a difference," he said, "I'd tell you."
She pinned him with a jaded look then turned and sank onto the wooden slats of a nearby garden bench. "Whatever."
If that sounded dismissive or rude, she simply couldn't help it. What little energy she had left needed to be spent on one thing and one thing only.
What do I do now?
She was that little girl's blood, not Leeann Darley. It was wrong that her stepmother should raise Meg, no matter what that stony-faced lawyer or those wills had said. True, these last ten years she'd had no fixed address, and at present she had no legal right to Meg.
She also had no intention of giving up.
Elbows on knees, Jenna gnawed around a thumbnail. When her restless gaze landed on a stick, she picked it up and tossed it for Shadow to fetch while Gage slowly circled her.
"You and your father always locked horns," he said after a long, considering moment. "Everything was left to his wife, wasn't it?"
A withering, dizzy sensation ran through her. Everything was right.
But then she studied him more closely. "What was that? A good guess?"
His mouth tilted. "Surely you've heard of my sixth sense where finances are concerned."
She thought it through and had to concede. Of course Gage's intuition with regard to money matters was well known. Aside from that, it wasn't unusual for a husband to leave the majority of his worldly goods to his wife, including the family property and everything in it.
A dry eucalyptus leaf dropped into her lap. Jenna covered the leaf in her hand and broke it in her fist. The trees had been saplings when they'd first moved here. It seemed that as they'd grown taller, she'd grown more unhappy until one day she'd simply up and left. The frustration of trying to fit in with a blended family
the deep sense of loss whenever she thought of her mother
What she wouldn't give to turn back time to when they really had been a family.
But fairy tales were for children. And sometimes even children missed out.
"I don't care about my father's possessions," she said. There were things far more important than money.
"Tell me, Jenna, twelve years on, what do you care about?"
She gazed up into that strongly hewn face, at the faint scar nicking his upper lip. "If I thought it would make a difference," she quipped, "I'd tell you."
A lazy grin reflected in his eyes. "Try me."
God help her, she was tempted.
She was light on friendshopping from country to country didn't nurture long-term anythingand she did have an overwhelming urge to confess to someone who knew her background that she'd forgiven her father for remarrying so soon after her mother's death. It hurt like hell that she'd lost the chance to tell him that she loved him, despite their ongoing feud.
Worse, she would never talk to her sister again, the one person she'd truly trusted. Amy had been more than a sibling, more than a friend. She'd been a part of her. And an important part of her sister lived still.
The inescapable truth spilled out. "I have to fight for her child."
His eyebrows nudged together and his hands emerged from his pockets. "What did you say?"
Jenna bit the inside of her cheek, but she couldn't take it back, just as she couldn't will away the salty trail curling around her chin.
She knocked the tear aside. "These last few days have been
His frown deepened. "What are you talking about? Whose child?"
"Amy has" She swallowed against the wad of cotton clogging her throat and rephrased. "Amy had a three-month-old."
He sank down beside her, too close and yet, in other unwelcome ways, not close enough. "He didn't mention a baby."
Jenna's attention caught and she looked at him. "Who didn't mention a baby?"
His preoccupied gaze blinked back from some distant point. "I mean the newspaper report my second-in-charge passed on. It only cited your father's widow, yourself and the three passengers who'd flown out to survey a development site."
She nodded as the details looped their well-worn groove in her brain. "Brad, Amy's husband, wanted Dad's opinion on some acreage he was interested in buying. They left at ten in the morning. Meg stayed with my stepmother."
Jenna had originally booked a flight for her niece's christening next month and had planned on staying a while. Amy had been so excited. The sisters saw each other regularly, but as Jenna had grown olderparticularly now that she was an auntit hadn't seemed nearly enough. But when she'd received news of the accident, she'd boarded the first flight to Sydney.
Before arriving last week, she'd seen photos of her niece. Since the accident, she gazed at them constantly. Her favorite was Meg's first bright-eyed smile, hugging the panda bear her auntie had sent by Express Mail the day Margaret Jane had been born.
Now that little girl had lost both her parents and was living with a woman who cared more about facials and status symbols than lullabies and kisses good-night. At the funeral, Leeann had mentioned that she and Meg would be flying to San Francisco to visit her aging parents for Christmas; she wasn't certain when they'd return.
Christmas was only three months away.
Jenna clutched the bench slats at her sides and prayed.
I'll do anything, give anything. Just help me find a way.
Shadow trotted back and carefully placed the stick at Gage's polished shoes. He stooped, cast the stick spinning with absentminded skill, then laid an arm along the back of the bench. The heat of his hand radiated near her nape and some crazy, needy part of her almost leant back to absorb it.
"Who has the baby now? Leeann?"
She nodded then forced her mouth to work. "She's always wanted a child of her own."
Leeann's parents had shuffled her off to boarding school at a young age. Jenna and Amy had decided that because Leeann hadn't felt loved growing up, there was a great gaping hole where her heart ought to be, and Leeann thought a child would fill it. A couple of years back, in her early forties, Leeann had faced the fact she might never conceivewhich couldn't be a bad thing. From what Jenna had sampled of Leeann's parenting skills, a starving rat would treat its young better.
"Amy told me that Leeann was getting desperate," Jenna continued. "She'd looked into in vitro fertilization and even adoption."
After doing a story on an orphanage in the Jiangxi Province last year, Jenna had wanted to adopt every dewy-eyed child there
so vulnerable and innocent. Now there was another orphan in the world.
"She's the testamentary guardian?"
Jenna's burning gaze drifted up from her sandals. "My father and Leeann were both named as Meg's guardians in her parents' wills."
"I guess Amy and Brad thought if they'd ever needed someone to step in, my father was settled here, while I wasn't in one place long enough to take care of the day-to-day needs of a child."
"They were right." When she slid him a look, Gage shrugged. "I've seen your byline on travel articles from all over the world. The ones I've read were very good."
The compliment sank in. Perhaps she should thank him, but she didn't want flattery. What she needed now was a solution.
"Brad had no living relatives," she continued, peering past the pines to the orchid hothouse her father had loved. "I know they both trusted Dad, and Amy wasn't the type to hold grudges, not even against Leeann." Family fractures had been Jenna's specialty. "But Amy would never have meant for Leeann to take sole responsibility for Meg. No one could've foreseen this kind of tragedyall three gone. If she had, Amy would have known I'd give up everything" Her rush of words ran dry. "You wouldn't understand."
"Because I didn't have a family I was close to?"
Although he'd crushed her heart when he'd left, she scanned his questioning gaze now and found she didn't want to hurt him. But the truth was too obvious. She pressed her lips together and nodded.
He broke their gaze, threw the stick, and Shadow sped off again. "Have you spoken to a lawyer?"
"My father's. He said babies are a full-time job, and Leeann has the resources and sense of commitment Meg needs. But he's being narrow-minded. There's no reason I couldn't find work here and settle down."
"Would you want to?"
Images of Hawaii at sunset and the iridescent greens of Germany in spring clicked like snapshots through her mind, but she pushed them aside. There was no question. She would give it all up tomorrow.
But if Gage had implied that people who moved around somehow lacked a sense of responsibility
"I doubt you're in a position to cast any stones," she replied.
He flicked open his jacket button and his deep chest expanded beneath his crisp white shirt as he leant back more. "Oh, I understand a wandering spirit, Jenna. Owning stock in companies across the globe gives me a reason to migrate regularly and often. I don't like to grow roots." His approving gaze brushed her cheek. "Neither do you."
A tingling rush swept over her skin, but she wouldn't respond based on physical awareness. Instead she fell back on cynical amusement. "Well, who'd have guessed? We're practically a match made in heaven."
"Heaven's a little too tame for us."
When his eyes crinkled at the corners, a delicious warmth seeped through her veins.
So, after all this time, at their deepest level, they knew each other still. She felt so fragileso much in need of his strengthshe could almost forget the heartache of that summer, fall into those powerful arms and actually forgive him.
A phone rang. Gage slipped the cell from his belt and checked the display. "Excuse me. I'll be five minutes. Ten tops."
Letting go of the tension, she inhaled a lungful of pine air and Gage's frighteningly familiar scent. Then she stood and moved away, leaving Gage to his call.
Her laptop and Internet connection were still open in her father's study. She'd been about to hit send and decline an offer on a story about a chain of bed-and-breakfasts from Tuscany down through to Campania when Shadow had barked and she'd crossed to the French doors. A tall dark stranger had been walking up the path from the arched iron gates. Two disbelieving seconds later she'd realized her visitor was none other than the man she'd fallen in puppy love with after her first year of college.
Jenna passed through those French doors now, crossed the spacious room decorated in forest-green leather and handcrafted oak, then folded herself into the chair set before her laptop. Her gaze settled on the photo her father had kept on his deskherself and Amy, aged eight, in Cinderella dress-up. Amy, the nurturing one, was fixing Jenna's lopsided tiara.