Julianne McCabe had no intention of giving up her sister's child––the child she loved as her own––without a fight. Yet that was before Kevin started bonding with his daughter. Before he awoke feelings that made the grieving widow long to share more than late–night feedings. But was she ready to risk her heart again to be the wife Kevin needed? To become the family they both wanted?
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Kevin Vaccaro slouched behind the wheel of the rented compact, his left arm sizzling in the early-June sun. His stomach felt like that poor kid's must've on the last leg of his flight, right before the twerp hurled into the barf bag.
It's not too late to turn back.
He shifted out of the searing sun, watching the house. Ignoring the voice. On the surface, he was ready. He'd ditched the ragged jeans and baggy, wrinkled T-shirt he'd traveled in for a striped polo and khakis he'd borrowed from one of his brothers. He was combed and shaved and generally as presentable as he was gonna get without help from those gay dudes on that make-over show.
Inside, however, was something else again.
The house sat there, inscrutable. Aloof. Two stories. Yellow stucco. Recently painted white trim. A Spanish Territorial jewel, sparkling against a sky so bright it hurt to look at it, one gem among many in Albuquerque's casually upscale Country Club area near the river. Kevin had only seen it once before, when Robyn had taken him by to see where she'd grown up. It had been Halloween; they'd sat across the street for more than an hour, watching her father open the door over and over to dozens of trick-or-treatersmostly kids minivanned in from other, poorer neighborhoods, she'd saidhanding out full-size Butter-fingers and Snickers and Twix instead of those wussy bite-size things.
He remembered the almost wistful envy in her voice. Weird, he'd thought at the time, through the haze of assorted controlled substances. Still weird, he thought, now stone-cold sober.
Whether Victor Booth was there now, he had no idea. The man wasn't exactly listed in the phone book. In fact, despite his regular appearances on one of the morning talk shows a few years back, even though you could hardly go into Costco and not see his face plastered on a stack of hardbacks, it was next to impossible to find out anything about "Dr. Vic." Apparently the paparazzi had bigger, blonder, boozier fish to fry.
A breeze nudged aside the heat clinging to Kevin's skin, rustled the cottonwood leaves, shimmering coins in the clear midmorning light. He sucked in a breath. Then another. Two thousand miles was a long way to come to possibly run into a dead end. But he had to find Robyn, to apologize for running, even if at the time he'd felt he had no choice. Then maybe he could finally get on with something resembling a real life. How he was supposed to go about that not a clue. But for sure his Peter Pan days were over.
A grinning golden retriever edged into his peripheral vision, a toned matron in a sleeveless shirt and cargo shorts marching smartly behind. The woman glanced at the parked car, curiosity buzzing from behind bumble-bee-eye sunglasses. A second later, she flipped open her cell phone, tossing another furtive glance over her shoulder as she soldiered on. On a weary sigh, Kevin unfolded himself from the car, giving the womanclearly keeping an eye on hima little wave and smile.
She jumped, nearly tripping over the dog as she scurried away.
Feeling moderately cheered, Kevin hauled in another steadying breath and started across the street, thinking it was a shame Hertz didn't provide barf bags as part of the rental fee.
"What on earth are you watching so hard, Julie-bird?"
Ignoring her father's much-loathed pet name for her, Julianne McCabe shifted slightly at the living room window. All the better to see the tall, lanky malethe last vestiges of boyhood clinging to his loose-limbed gaitheading toward the house.
"See for yourself," she said, removing her glasses to clean the lenses on the hem of her sleeveless blouse. Pointlessly, as it happened, since her father, in his usual summer uniform of loose linen shirt and Dockers, had already hobbled across the room to peer over her shoulder. Smelling of aftershave and peppermints, like all good daddies should, Victor Booth was supposed to be in his office, working or resting the pulled muscle in his back or something. Not here, hovering. Being "there" for her.
Julianne pushed her glasses back on, wincing slightly when the corners of the steel frames caught in her too-long bangs. When had she last worn her contacts? Or makeup? Had the energy, or inclination, to fix herself up?
"Who the hell is that?" her father muttered a moment before the young man vanished behind the massive, obscenely blossomed Spanish broom blocking their view of the front entry. A second later, the doorbell rang.
And wasn't it a sad commentary on what she'd let her life become, that a stranger at the door should produce something almost like a thrill? Over the ripple of self-disgust, she said, "Guess we're about to find out."
"Don't bother. It's probably just somebody trying to either sell us something or save our souls."
Too late on that last thing, Julianne thought as she shook her head, aiming an indulgently patient look in her father's direction. The sort of look adoring and/or grateful daughters were supposed to give doting fathers. Especially fathers with the confidence-inspiring visage that sold books and filled auditoriumsthe thick, tweedy hair and crinkly blue eyes, the precisely clipped hedgerow of also-tweedy whiskers edging a Dudley Do-Right jaw.
"Since he's empty-handed, I think we're safe," she said, heading toward the door, amazed to find herself almost awake.
"And besides, he's been sitting in his car watching the house for ten minutes."
A cane shot out in front of her. "Stay here."
Julianne crept into the tiled entryway behind her father, who was shuffling toward the door as fast as his pulled back muscle would let him. Although what she hoped to see, she had no idea, since his Mack-truck build easily blocked the doorway. Gus, their older-than-dirt chocolate Lab, dozed on the warm, unevenly textured clay tiles in a blurred pool of sunlight from the clere-story over the doorway. Wouldn't mind spending my days like that, she thought, her arms folded over her stomach, only to realize she pretty much did. Except for
"Sorry to intrude, Mr. Booth," said a strong New England accent. "My name's Kevin Vaccaro. I'm, uh, a friend of Robyn's? She here, by any chance?"
Julianne sucked in a breath over her father's, "No, she's not," his words riddled with grief, anger, regretthe same triad of emotions that had battered Julianne's soul, in never-ending waves, for far too long. Dad shifted to lean heavily on the three-pronged cane he'd already sworn to burn. "Robyn died three months ago, Mr. Vaccaro."
Blood drained from a face downright Michelangelo-worthy. No surprise there, given her sister's penchant for the cute but clueless, each hook-up less connected with reality than his predecessor, every one summarily dumped before they could dump her.
Except this one, who'd beaten her to the punch.
"I'm so sorry," Kevin said, shock turning to horror in guileless brown eyes. "I didn't know. I should go"
"No," Julianne said, elbowing past her father, in a split second making a decision that would in all likelihood rock her universe.
"No, come in"
"For heaven's sake, Dad, he's in shock! We can't just send him away!"
Confusion cramped Kevin's face as Julianne's presence seemed to finally register. Dimly, it occurred to her how she must look, the epitome of the haggard young widow who doesn't give a damn anymore.
"You know who I am," Kevin said.
"You bet your ass I know who you are," her father said. Not budging. Not forgiving. "And you are not welcome in my house."
"Dad. It wasn't his fault."
That much Julianne knew, even if her father still couldn't accept the truth: that Kevin's leaving Robyn, while not doing her any favors, had played little part in her inability to shake a substance-abuse problem that had been in place long before his involvement with her. Julianne also knew she'd win this battle. Although whether because Dad wasn't as adamant about his plan as he'd have her believe, or because he wouldn't deny her anything reasonably within his power to give her, she couldn't say. Nor did she care. At the moment she'd play whatever hand had been dealt her and deal with the consequences later.
"Can I get you something?" Julianne asked inanely, as she led Kevin past the quivering, gray-muzzled dog, the family photos lined up against a taupe wallthe Gallery of Illusions, Robyn had called itinto the brightly lit living room cluttered with corpulent leather furniture, local artwork, Southwestern native crafts. "Coffee? Water?"
"A beer?" her father said behind them, deliberately provoking.
Irritation flashed in toffee-colored eyes. Kevin was younger than she, she knew. Not by much, a few years. Enough to make a difference, though, to someone who felt old as Methuselah. His shirt was a little too loose, his pants rode a trifle too low, the hallmark of a guy who hadn't yet figured out that size mattered. Still, she thoughthoped?she saw the signs of someone playing a hard, fast game of catch-up.
"I'm a recovering addict, Mr. Booth," Kevin said softly, reaching down to scratch a panting, grinning Gus between his ears before meeting her father's lockjawed expression. "I've been clean for more than a year." He turned to Julianne, wearing the slightly blank look of someone unsure of his next line. At the moment, the dog was probably registering more on his radar than she was. "And thanks," he said, "but I'm good."
Then he dropped onto the sofa's edge, his hands clasped between his knees as he stared at the floor, clearly trying to absorb the news. Finally he lifted his eyes to Julianne's father. "What happened?"
Victor's gaze bounced off Julianne's, scrupulously avoiding the baby monitor on the coffee table not two feet from where Kevin was sitting. Not that it was likely he'd make the connection, but still. "I don't have to"
"I came here for answers," Kevin said, his voice surprisingly strong. Unintimidated. "No, actually I came to apologize to Robyn, but now that I'm here " His hands clenched. "Now that I know "
"This is private family business. We're not obligated to tell you"
"My sister was killed in a swimming accident," Julianne said quietly. "While we were on vacation in Mexico."
Kevin swore, softly and bluntly, his reaction genuine enough for Julianne to feel a spurt of sympathy. Robyn hadn't loved him, she knew that much. Oh, she'd been pissed when he'd left, but that had been more the wounded pride of an emotionally scarred, and very young, woman outraged at being the dumpee. What Kevin's feelings had been for her sister, she had no way of knowing, of course. Not that she blamed him for leaving. Few people would have nominated her sister for a congeniality award.
Her father's eyes cut to hers, pleading. Unflinching, she returned his gaze, shaking her head.
Even though she knew what her act of defiance would cost her.
"Was she using?" Kevin asked, shattering Julianne's thoughts.
"Yes," she said over her father's "What concern is that of yours?"
"Of course it's his concern!" Julianne said, startled at her own vehemence. It had been a long time since she'd felt vehement. Since she'd felt much of anything. "It's always been his concern! He has a right to know! He's"
The cane jabbed into the carpet as her father advanced on her, his anguish colliding with hers. Her only excuse, perhaps, for not having fought him harder before this about ending the lie. But, oh, dear Godhow incredibly out of whack their lives had been these past few months, focusing on loss instead of gain, on separation instead of connection. A crippling confederacy of negatives Julianne was now determined to overthrow
"Don't do this, Julie-bird. Don't tell him."
whether her father was on the same page or not.
"Don't tell me what, for God's sake?" Kevin was on his feet, his bewilderment clawing at her sense of decency. "Would someone please tell me what the hell is going on"
Kevin's gaze jerked to the monitor, crackling with the distinct sounds of a baby waking up from her nap.
"Robyn was pregnant when you left," Julianne said quietly, her heart splitting in two as she watched her words slowly register in toffee-colored eyes.
When, all those months ago, good senseand an awakening survival instincthad finally shoved Kevin off the track to nowhere, he'd naively believed the temptation to backslide would never be an issue. At least, after those first few days. Weeks. Then it would get easier, right? Only he hadn't counted on fate lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to send him to his knees.
Because to be completely honest, he thought, as he gripped the rails of his baby daughter's crib, at that moment the sickly sweet promise of escape sounded pretty damn good. Except he knew there was no such thing as just one drink, just one toke, to dull the edge. Not for him. No more than he could take one step off a cliff and not end up smashed at the bottom. Literally.
The crazy thing was, he'd never really understood what had driven him off that cliff to begin with. His family was nuts, sure, but no worse than anybody else's. A lot better than most, actually. Why he'd hurt them, hurt himself, he had no idea. But even through the fog of shock, as his babyoh, dear God: his baby!fixed her calm, blue-gray gaze on his and smiled, pumping her chubby bare legs as she lay on her back, Kevin knew he would never, ever, do anything to hurt her.
Pippa, they called her. Short for Phillipa. Where Robyn had come up with that name, God only knew. Still, weirdly, it seemed to fit, he thought as he lowered one hand into the crib, his own smile far shakier than the baby's. Five chubby fingers curled around his index finger, snaring it in a death grip. Rosebud lips pursed, eyes went huge, chunky little legs ratcheted up the pumping to the next level. Despite Robyn's sister and father being right out in the hall, arguingabout him, no doubta soft chuckle broke the vise constricting his lungs.
He almost couldn't blame Robyn's father for not telling him. Hell, in his place Kevin wasn't sure he wouldn't've done the same thing, if somebody'd knocked up his daughter and then fled the scene of the crime. But it wasn't like that, and you damn well know it, a faint, barely comforting voice put in.
His finger still locked in his baby's hand, Kevin propped his other elbow on the crib rail to cradle his overstuffed head in his palm, as bitterness, disbelief and helplessness threatened to undo more than a year's worth of hard work.
Yet another tick-mark in the Kevin-screws-up-again column, he thought, heartsick. What the hell was he going to do? He barely felt confident enough to take care of himself, let alone anybody else.Yeah, he was beginning to think about settling down, focusing on the foreseeable future, but he wasn't there yet. At the moment he had no job, no home of his own and no funds, except for a small stash left over from what he'd earned helping his brother Rudy fix up his newly purchased inn in New Hampshire. How in the name of all that was holy was he supposed to take care of a baby?
Not that, if the heated discussion outside the door was any indication, Pippa's grandfather was about to let him.
Kevin shoved the heel of his hand into his forehead, trying to push out the dizziness. Talk about your one-two punches. First, Robyn's death, then
"Are you all right?"
He hadn't heard Julianne come into the room. Or noticed when the arguing had stopped. Still, he definitely caught the slightly off-key note of judgment in her voice. Obviously, since she'd bucked her father about letting Kevin know about Pippa, she'd felt compelled to set the record straight. Didn't mean she was happy about it. Happy about him.
On a shuddering sigh, Kevin dropped his hand. "Not really, no," he said, his eyes still on his daughter.
"Sorry. Stupid question."
He almost smiled. "Where's your father?"
"Downstairs. Regrouping." She paused. "But don't get any ideas about grabbing the baby and making a run for it. He'd be all over you in a New York minute."
He shifted enough to catch Julianne's gaze, riveted to the baby. And so would you, he thought. But all he said was, "Yeah, I bet that cane could inflict some serious damage. Not to mention Killer, there."
Wagging his tailafter a fashionthe barrel-shaped dog hobbled over to lick Kevin's fingers, then collapsed at his feet with a sigh. Which Julianne echoed. "Okay, so Gus probably isn't much of a threat. But never underestimate a man who can still bench-press two hundred and fifty pounds. On his better days, at least."
"I take it he's pissed at you for going over his head?"
"He'll get over it," she said, unexpected steel underneath the softness. Another pause. "I know what you're thinking. But believe it or not, Dad's not a bad man. Just a hurting one. And I don't mean his back."
Kevin let the words settle into his brain, one at a time, before he said, "Believe me, you have no idea what I'm thinking."
"No," she said after a moment. "I don't suppose I do." Outside, a couple of doves hoo-hooed, off-sync. "She's a miracle, you know."
Kevin finally tore his attention away from the baby to really look at her aunt, still by the door. Sticklike arms pretzled across a white, shapeless top, over a pair of those pants that looked like brown paper bags with legs. Behind steel-rimmed glasses, pale blue eyes regarded him warily from deeply shadowed sockets. Cripes, the woman was so fair you could practically see straight through her, her shoulder-length hair as blond and fine as a little girl's. Even at her most wasted, Robyn hadn't looked that bad.
A few brain cells wondered what her story was, even as he said, "A miracle, how?"
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