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The Courage To Dream
By Margaret Daley
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I wondered when you would finally show up, Rachel." Michael Hunter stopped several feet from her on the river landing.
There was none of the remembered warmth in his voice, and Rachel Peters shuddered in the heat of the day. "I came as soon as I found out." Everything around her seemed to come to a standstill, the breeze, the flow of the river, the chirping of the birds, her heartbeat.
"We couldn't wait for you. We buried Flora yesterday."
"I was working halfway around the world as a guest chef on a cruise." The tightness in her throat prevented her from explaining further. She'd only found out the day before about Aunt Flora's death. Her aunt had been like a mother to her. It had taken more than a week for the message from the family lawyer to finally catch up with Rachel. She hadn't even had time to think about her aunt's death, much less grieve properly. Swallowing hard, Rachel asked, "How are Amy and Shaun?"
"Do you care?"
The hostility in his question sparked her anger, but she was determined not to let him see his effect on her. "Where are my sister and brother?" she asked in an even voice, suppressing her rage.
Michael gestured toward the riverboat. "They're with Garrett. Why?"
"Why? Because I've come to take them home."
"Whose home? Aunt Flora's or yours, wherever that may be?"
"I don't have to defend myself or my lifestyle to you."
The harsh glint in his eyes intensified. "They've been through a lot this past week. I think it'll be better if they stay with me for a while."
"You!" Her anger began to infuse her voice, her expression.
"Yes, me. I know Amy and Shaun. Can you honestly say the same?"
"They're my family."
"And that automatically gives you the right to decide what's best for them?"
"Where were you when Shaun broke his arm or Amy went on her first date?"
Rachel clamped her teeth together so tightly that pain radiated down her neck. "They're my responsibility now. Take me to them - please," she said in a slow, deliberate voice.
For a long moment he stared at her, his gaze hard, unyielding. Pieces of their past came together in her mind like a patchwork quilt. There had been other times when their gazes had clashed in silent battle and times when they had connected in friendship and mutual affection. The blare of a boat's horn startled Rachel, the pieces of the quilt unraveling. Blinking, she looked away from Michael.
"Don't bother. I'm sure I can find them." She headed for the gangplank, more resolved than ever to remain in control and not let Michael get to her.
"They're in the main salon."
Rachel kept walking, feeling the scorch of his regard on her back. All she wanted was to get her sister and brother and leave. She'd known when she returned to Magnolia Blossom, Mississippi, that she would probably see Michael again, but she hadn't been prepared for the emotional impact of their meeting.
Remembering the location of the main salon, Rachel went straight to it. She paused in the doorway to scan the room that had once been beautiful and grand. Amy, Shaun and Michael's son, Garrett, sat at a table, their voices low, their heads bent together. When Amy glanced up and stopped talking, Rachel entered the salon, realizing the next few minutes might be even more difficult than the last ones.
It had been almost a year since she'd seen Amy and Shaun. She'd talked to them on the phone, but it wasn't the same. They've grown up a lot in that time. I don't know them very well, she thought, fighting a surge of panic. Once or twice a year isn't enough time to know what they're feeling, thinking, to be a family.
"Hello, Shaun. Amy." Rachel attempted a smile that quivered at the corners of her mouth, the tension in the air as thick as the humidity that draped her. When neither one said anything, she turned to Michael's son, hoping he would break the taut silence.
"I'm Rachel Peters, Amy and Shaun's sister."
"I'm Garrett. Nice to meet you." The young boy stood and extended his hand.
The similarities between father and son disarmed her. It was as though she was staring at a younger version of Michael, more relaxed, more carefree - like he had once been around her. Then she remembered his marriage to Mary Lou and the betrayal she'd felt when she'd heard about it. She realized she had no right to feel that way, but sometimes emotions weren't easy to control. The memory gnawed at her composure until she determinedly pushed it away.
"What are you doing here?" Amy's question cut into the silence like a sharpened butcher's knife into a piece of thick meat.
Rachel looked at her sixteen-year-old sister. Amy's expression was defiant, and for a moment Rachel didn't know how to answer her. "Aunt Flora asked me to take care of you two if anything ever happened to her. I promised her I would."
At the time she hadn't thought she would ever really have to take care of her brother and sister. She had only been concerned with making her aunt feel better.
Amy shot to her feet. "We're doing just fine the way things are now. Michael doesn't mind us staying with him. Go back to wherever you came from. Shaun and I don't wanna leave."
Rachel glanced from her sister to her eight-yearold brother then back to her sister, not sure what to do. "I'm not going back just yet. I've come to take you to Aunt Flora's."
Amy pushed back her chair, its scraping sound reverberating in the silence. Standing behind Shaun, she placed her hands on his shoulders. "We don't need your help. I'm sure you have better things to do than baby-sit us."
Michael walked into the salon, sharpening Rachel's awareness of the hostility in the room. Her nape tingled, and the humid air felt even heavier and more oppressive. "Let's go home and we'll discuss everything there. I'm not going to make any decisions without talking it over with you two first."
Excerpted from The Courage To Dream by Margaret Daley Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.