Scott Walker doesn't have time for a relationship. The sexy mechanic has career ambitions, not to mention a mother and three sisters to take care of. The last thing he needs is Carrie Jameson, the beauty he never forgot, arriving in Templeton Cove over the holidays with some unexpected news.
Scott still finds Carrie irresistible, and he's not one to shirk responsibility. Scott's issues with his own dad make the prospect of parenthood a minefield. But if he and Carrie can overcome their fears, this Christmas could bring them the best gift of all.
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Carrie stared through the murky window of the train station café as she waited for her mother to return from the bathroom. Her heart beat fast and her hands trembled around an oversize latte. When her stomach heaved with trepidation, she pushed the drink away.
Never in a million years did she imagine she'd be in her current position.
Successful, hardworking and entirely independent but also mum to a two-year-old little girl. A little girl with jet-black hair and bright blue eyes so like her father's. Carrie swallowed. Maybe Belle didn't need to know her biological father. Maybe I don't need to find a man I slept with over and over again in the sexiest and most fantastical week of my life.
She snapped her eyes open and inhaled a strengthening breath. No. She had to do this. It was Christmas, and Lord only knew when she'd have a decent amount of time away from the studio again. She had to put things right. She'd promised herself she'd do everything she could do to find Scott. No more deceit. No more secrets. New year, new start.
Tears burned and Carrie closed her eyes against the images of her deceased husband's cut and bruised face. Gerard's green eyes had pleaded with her as he lay in a hospital bed, holding on to the last minutes of his life.
"Find him, Carrie. Find Belle's father. She'll want to know him one day." Gerard tightened his grip on her hand. "Find him. Be happy."
In that moment, everything became clear. Carrie had looked into Gerard's eyes and known how badly she'd failed to convince him Scott was nothing to her, that the night, that had so quickly become a week, was only a distant memory. Tears burned. She'd never forgotten a moment of it. She'd never forgotten Scott .
"Your train's here, sweetheart. Time to go."
Her mother's voice filtered through Carrie's memories and she abruptly stood, hitching her tote bag onto her shoulder. "I am doing the right thing, aren't I?"
Her mother's concerned gaze ran over Carrie's face. "You're having second thoughts?"
Carrie swallowed and closed her eyes as, once again, guilt pressed down on her that her reasons for finding Scott weren't entirely motivated by their daughter. What kind of person grieved her husband for a year and then began to have thoughts about a man she hadn't seen for three years? She opened her eyes. "I'm just scared of what will happen once Scott sees me after all this time." She exhaled and stared through the open café door at the bustling platform. "I have no idea if he still lives in Templeton. Worse, we both made it perfectly clear we would draw a line under that time from the moment I left. Now, when I turn up out of the blue and tell him he has a daughter "
Her mother frowned. "If you're not ready, wait. Belle is little more than a toddler. You have time."
Carrie sighed. "Do I? If Gerard's accident didn't teach me how quickly life can change, nothing will. What I want doesn't come into it. I have to do this." Carrie forced a smile in a bid to allay the worry in her mother's eyes. "I'm being silly. Everything will be okay. Belle has a right to know her birth father. Scott was a really nice guy. I'm sure he still is."
"Well, if he's in Templeton, you'll find him." Her mother gripped her hands and smiled softly. "I can still come with you, you know."
Carrie shook her head. "I have to do this alone." She winked. "Besides, if Dad has to look after Belle on his own for more than a few hours, God knows what we'd come back to."
Her mother laughed. "Well, there is that, I suppose."
Carrie lifted her chin, her stomach knotting.
"I should've done this years ago and then maybe the guilt I'm feeling wouldn't be quite so heavy."
"You were adamant you didn't want a stranger in Belle's life." Her mother cupped Carrie's jaw. "You didn't know this man. You still don't. You did what you thought was right at the time. No good will come of looking back."
Carrie frowned. "But what if I'm wrong now? What if what if this is more about what I need to do to clear my conscience than what's right for Belle?"
Her mother's gaze filled with sympathy. "If you want to turn around and walk out of this station right now, we can. Lord knows, I'd be lying if I said the fact you're getting on a train to find a man you don't know doesn't frighten me half to death."
Trepidation and fear of the unknown battled as Carrie's heart hammered. "I want a fresh start in the New Year. I want to pick myself up and start living again. The chances are Scott won't want anything to do with Belle, or me, which is fine. I can come back home knowing I did my best by Belle and we're free to live our lives, just the two of us." Liar. Scott's her daddy. Her family and you've not had a single day in the last three years when he hasn't snuck into your head.
Despite the lines wrinkling her mother's brow, she smiled and her gaze softened. "You're a brave woman taking control of your life." She glanced toward the window and the idling train beyond. "No matter how much your father and I are going to worry about you the entire time you're in Templeton."
Carrie looped her hand through her mother's arm. "No matter what happens next, Gerard was my husband, and I'll never forget how much he loved us, but I have to do this."
"Then don't let the lessons he taught you about love be wasted. You're human and you need to let this guilt go. Belle is the best thing in your life. She's your daughter and you love her. Tracking down her biological father will never change the fact that little girl is yours."
Carrie exhaled, uneasy, before picking up her suitcase. "Come on. I need to hurry before the train leaves without me."
They walked from the café onto the platform. The smell of bacon, burgers, grease and oil gripped Carrie's stomach as she glanced toward the train waiting to take her on the most terrifying journey of her life.
The conductor's whistle blew, making her start. Her mother pressed a firm kiss to Carrie's cheek. "Your father and I will keep Belle so busy she won't give you a second thought. You'll be home for Christmas and we'll have a wonderful time. I promise."
Carrie grasped the handle of her suitcase and pulled back her shoulders. "I'll call as soon as I'm settled in the hotel. Give Belle a big good-night kiss from me, okay?"
Her mother wavered as tears glazed her eyes. "Of course. Now go. Quickly."
The whistle blew a second time and, with a final glance at her mother, Carrie rushed for the train.
"Hold that door."
The burly conductor scowled as she leaped past him into the carriage. Carrie walked along the aisle as the train rumbled into motion. She drew on every ounce of inner strength that had gotten her through losing her loving husband and Belle's real father no matter what DNA might argue.
She hefted her suitcase onto the overhead rack and slid into a vacant seat, resolutely turning her face from the platform for fear she might see her mother and bolt for the exit.
The train picked up speed and left the station. Barely a mile or two had passed before the slowly darkening sky surrendered its cargo and spat sleet violently against the window. Carrie flinched. It was as though God showed His disapproval of her plans. Only He knew what the next few days held, but either way, she had to go through with tracking down Scott. The past few weeks had been filled with her constant contemplation of whether or not she and Scott could've had a chance of making it work. And she couldn't go on another day wondering, worrying maybe even hoping.
Gerard's death had caused a huge shift inside her and Carrie refused to continue to live with the punishing belief she'd walked away from Scott out of pure, unadulterated fear.
Fear of the passion he brought out in her.
It had been spellbinding and stripped her of her usual sensibility; made her feel she could conquer the world albeit without responsibility or thought of anything or anyone.
Heat rose in her face and she forced the traitorous smile from her lips. No one lived like that.
Yet still she wondered if he would look the same or if he'd recognize her. All Carrie remembered of him was his wild, intense, vivid blue eyes and unruly jet-black hair and his body. Always his damn body.
She dropped her gaze to her clenched hands and stared at her wedding band. Gerard was gone. Killed having suffered severe internal injuries in a motorbike accident. Never to return. Never to hold her in his big capable arms and tell her everything would be okay. Time and again, Gerard had suggested they find Scott and tell him about Belle. and time and again, Carrie suspected his motives were based in his need to ease her anguish, than wanting to invite another man into the life of the little girl he considered his own.
Carrie inhaled. She'd always told him there was no need; that she was happy. His dying request and the look in his eyes proved all too clearly he knew she wasn't as happy as she should've been.
She swallowed. She'd been selfish in her reasons, weak in her motivation. The fear that the sudden and powerful pull she'd felt for Scott the week Belle was conceived would reignite the moment she saw him again had held her back. How would she fight it when it consumed her so completely before? She hadn't looked for Scott all this time for the pure terror of hurting Gerard. She loved Gerard, adored him, but not once had he evoked the same passion.
Carrie swiped at her face. She was a coward and now Gerard had been taken from her. It was a lesson. A lesson she learned fast and felt deeply.
Guilt clenched around her aching heart. She'd clung to Gerard like he was a buoy in the turbulent ocean during the emotional upheaval of an unexpected pregnancy. A quiet, intelligent and funny writer she'd dated on and off and whose company she lovedyet the special frisson she sought in her heart and in her life hadn't materialized between them.
Pregnant, afraid and unsure of the future, Carrie had been prepared to raise Belle alone, but Gerard had softly and patiently shown her she didn't have to. After months of his pursuing her, she'd welcomed his love with open arms and given hers freely. When they married, just a few months after Belle was born, Carrie stood tall and proud before the registrar on that hot August day and pledged her love and life to the man who had shown her his heart.
Now it was time to start again. To face all the fears she'd had when she made the decision not to tell Scott about Belle.
With her parents' love and support, Carrie had gotten through the past twelve months, knowing her precious baby was surrounded by people who loved her. Scott was a stranger. A man who could insist on seeing Belle when Carrie knew nothing about him. If she'd told Scott about Belle when she was born, he might have asked Carrie to move to Templeton, away from everything she loved and worked for at home. She hadn't been prepared to do that then and wasn't sure if she would be now. Either way, she had to reconnect with Scott so she could live her life authentically. No more secrets.
She stared through the window at the passing countryside. She might finally be doing the moral thing, yet the feeling that returning to Templeton would be her undoing lingered. She couldn't allow anything to dissuade her from her plans to build a life of her own making for her and her child. Relying on Scott hadn't been an option in the past, and it wouldn't be now.
Everything in her life would be open, honest and real.
She stared at her wedding band. She wanted to start again, but this only remaining token of her marriage was the hardest to remove.
Scott had made love to her as she'd never been made love to before or since. She'd never forgotten the stranger filled with passion and a brooding intensity that was thrilling and excitingentirely impossible to resist, but lust didn't last. Scott's skillful hands and rock-solid body had taken her to places she would've never known but lifelong trust wasn't built on good sex.
The aura of complexity surrounding Scott sparked an instinct in her that he wasn't ready to love and cherish her. It was very probable she'd feel the same if and when she tracked him down in Templeton.
Carrie closed her eyes.
Hindsight had shown her that her marriage with Gerard was rife with the unresolved, lingering issue of Scott and his paternity to Belle. She refused to allow a hurtful boulder like that to remain in her life any longer.
Her nights with Scott were meant to be a single moment in time then they'd conceived a child. The first time they made love they'd been careful the other times need had overtaken caution and neither of them had thought of protection.
She'd never done anything so impulsive as to call work and say she'd been struck down with a stomach infection so she could spend a few more nights with a man she'd only just met. She never lied. Period. Scott had brought out all sorts of unpredictable behavior in her and instead of her fearing the liberty, Carrie found herself craving it.
Desperate for distraction from the cruel thoughts racing in her head, Carrie snapped open her eyes and yanked her tote bag from the seat beside her. She extracted a paperback and smiled wryly at the cover. Living Your Life Your Way. She opened the book and made a resigned effort to immerse herself in spirited decision-making.
The train rumbled beneath Carrie as it slowed and she shifted forward to get a better view through the window. The track ran high through the hills above the Cove before proceeding on a downward spiral toward the heart of Templeton town center. When she'd last seen this view, it had been a balmy July evening and the sun had lit the small seaside town in all its picture-perfect glory. The multi-colored houses, the rows of quaint thatched cottages on the outskirts and the beach with its tumbling rock formations had been idyllic.
Now the town shone beneath a twinkling blanket of lights and huge, illuminated Christmas decorations. Carrie smiled as the reds, golds and greens flickered and danced. Dusk would soon fall and she didn't doubt the seaside town would look more beautiful than ever. Her smile faltered and she slumped back into her seat. She couldn't be seduced by its beauty and she couldn't be seduced by the thought of anything substantial existing between her and Scott, either.
The train shrieked to a stop and the gray evening light turned dark under the shadow of the platform's metal lattice overhang. Passengers stood to retrieve cases and bags, but Carrie remained stock-still in her seat.
It was six days before Christmas. She'd find Scott, tell him about Belle and if he reacted in any way she couldn't handle, she'd get the first possible train out of there. Everything would be fine. It was nothing more than a case of ripping off the Band-Aid and exposing her open wound to the air so it could start to heal over. Yes, she'd been selfish in her decision-making as far as Scott was concerned, and even though Gerard's sudden death had rocked her soul and broken her heart, she was stronger than ever before. She knew her heart and mind, made her own decisions and molded her own destiny. The first step was making this the last Christmas she kept her secret hidden.