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Rachel Madison's cell phone rang just as she parked her small SUV in the driveway of Mark Thomas's house in an upscale neighborhood outside Atlanta, Georgia. She glanced at the caller ID screen without enthusiasm. She wouldn't mind so much if the call were about business, but she doubted that she would be that lucky.
Recognizing the incoming number, she knew that luck was not on her side this time. "Hi, Mother," she said, holding the little phone to her ear.
"Rachel, you absolutely have to talk to your sister. She won't listen to a word from me."
"I'll talk to her," Rachel promised without even bothering to ask what she was supposed to say. "But I'm just about to meet with a client, so this is going to have to wait until later, okay?"
"First let me tell you what she said."
"I'll call you after my meeting and you can tell me all about it. But I really have to focus on my client now."
Her mother sighed heavily. "All right. I suppose you should concentrate on your work. That's more important right now."
Even though her mother couldn't see her, Rachel resisted an impulse to roll her eyes. "You know I don't consider work more important than family. It's just that I have an appointment."
"I'll let you go, then. Call me when you're finished, okay?"
Closing the phone with relief, Rachel groaned when it buzzed again before she could even open her car door. This call, too, was from a number she recognized. "Hi, sis. Look, I've got a meeting"
Typically, Dani didn't give her a chance to finish the sentence. "You have got to talk to Mother, Rach. She's gone too far this time. You have to tell her"
"I'll talk to her," Rachel broke in rashly. "But I have to meet with a client, okay? He's expecting me right now."
"I've got to go. I'll call you as soon as I'm free."
She hung up while her sister was still sputtering. Setting her cell phone to vibrate rather than ring, so that it wouldn't interrupt her meeting if it buzzed againwhich it undoubtedly wouldshe reached into the backseat for the samples and drawings she had brought with her.
She always looked forward to presenting her ideas to her clients, but she had to admit that this meeting was especially exciting. Dr. Mark Thomas wasn't just any client. He was special. Attractive. Amusing. Intelligent. And the first client who had ever convinced her to mix business with pleasure and go out with him for an evening that had nothing to do with decorating.
It had been the most successful date she'd had inwell, in longer than she wanted to admit. No awkwardness, no stilted conversation, no discreet checking of watches, just a few hours of pleasant companionship. With a healthy dose of mutual attraction mixed in.
He'd been a perfect gentleman, leaving her at her door with a light kiss and an assurance that he would like to repeat the experience soon. She had gone to sleep that night replaying that brief, tantalizing kiss and fantasizing about a possible time when an evening together wouldn't end on her doorstep.
The outside of his house was quite nice, if a bit cookie-cutter, she mused, juggling her load on the walkway to his front door. A redbrick Georgian, its two-story center section was balanced by one-and-a-half story wings on either side. Each wing sported two white-fronted dormer windows. Three brick chimneys jutted up from the shingled roof, one on either side of the central section, the other at the end of the left wing.
Multipaned windows were arranged with perfect symmetry on either side of the house. In typical Georgian fashion, the paneled front door was centered in the middle section, the front porch covered by a triangular portico supported by four white pilasters. Four brick steps led up the porch. A row of shining, leaded-glass panes served as a transom above the white door, spilling more light into the foyer.
It wasn't a particularly large house by modern standards, topping out at just over four thousand square feet, but like the other similar size and style houses in the neighborhood, it proclaimed its owner as a successful young professional. Because she knew he had recently been made a partner in a thriving family-practice clinic, she doubted that Mark would have any trouble paying her fee.
Pausing at the door to shift the items she was holding and press the doorbell, she took a moment to reflect on how refreshingly well-adjusted Mark seemed to be. Educated, gainfully employed, apparently happy with his life, despite his lack of family. Perhaps happy because of that fact, she added wryly, though she didn't really believe that.
Such a welcome change from the string of users and losers that had made up her dating pool for the past three years, ever since her divorce from a needy, neurotic man who still hadn't completely accepted that she was no longer available to solve all his problems for him. She supposed she couldn't blame her ex for thinking of her in that light. Everyone else in her life certainly did, she thought with a glare down at her cell phone.
The door opened in response to her buzz. Mark stood in the doorway, blinking at her with an uncharacteristic frown.
She saw immediately that something wasn't quite right. He looked disheveled, she decided. His typically neat brown hair was rumpled and there were shadows beneath his usually smiling green eyes. His old T-shirt and jeans had seen better days, a striking contrast to the impeccable, professional-casual clothing he had worn for their other meetings.
Judging from his expression, she would be willing to bet that he'd forgotten about this appointment. Which wasn't at all like the Mark Thomas she had come to know in the few weeks since she had first met him.
"Rachel," he said, almost as if it had taken him a moment to recognize her. "What oh, damn. We had a meeting today."
So he had forgotten. She shifted the portfolio beneath her arm. "If this is a bad time, we can always reschedule."
"No. No, come in. I " He pushed a hand through his hair, then shook his head impatiently. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm a little distracted today."
She wasn't going to ask. Something had obviously happened to disturb him, but whatever it was, it was none of her business. Despite their one dinner date, he was a client, and she had no intention of getting involved in his problems. The very last thing she needed in her life was someone else's troubles, she assured herself firmly.
He closed the front door behind her and motioned her toward the nearly empty gathering room. "I had some news yesterday that's left me pretty shaken," he admitted. "I'm afraid I forgot about our meeting."
She absolutely was not going to ask. She paused at the top of the three steps that led down into the room. "We can always meet another time. Why don't you call me when you're ready to reschedule?"
"No, this is as good a time as any. Actually, I could use the distraction," he admitted, ushering her down into the room. "Can I get you anything to drink before we start? I have sodas or I could make some coffee."
"A glass of water sounds good." She wasn't really thirsty, but she thought fetching the water would give him a chance to pull himself together a bit, mentally prepare himself for the meeting that had slipped his mind.
"Okay. Make yourself comfortable, and I'll be right back." And then he looked around the sparsely furnished room and gave her a faint, wry smile. "Well, as comfortable as you can get, anyway."
"That's why I'm here," she reminded him brightly. "To help make your home comfortable for you and your visitors."
Still looking distracted, he nodded and headed for the kitchen.
Rachel spent the brief time alone setting up her portable easel, arranging the samples she had brought on the floor and opening her portfolio, all the while lecturing herself about how important it was for her to keep this meeting on a professional basis.
This was business, she reminded herself. For today, she was the hired decorator and Mark was her boss and client. The budding friendshipwith potential for morethat had been developing between them was on hold for the afternoon. Maybe indefinitely, depending on how the next hour or so proceeded. All she wanted now was to put this meeting behind them so she could get to work and he could deal with whatever had been troubling him when she'd arrived.
He'd said he received some disturbing news. Had someone he cared about passed away? Was he in some kind of trouble?
She'd heard that doctors were always worried about being sued by disgruntled patients. She hoped Mark wasn't having to deal with a nuisance lawsuit.
None of her concern if he was, she reminded herself again.
He had seemed so happy when they'd gone out to dinner last week. Excited about his new partnership in a family clinic where he would begin practicing after taking a couple weeks off to get settled in his home. Elated to have purchased his first house, and looking forward to having her decorate it to suit his tastes and needs. Maybe even intrigued by the chemistry that had sparked between them from the start, as she had been.
He'd told her he was pretty much on his own in life. Raised by a single mother who had died several years ago, he claimed to have no other surviving family, only a network of good friends for emotional support. Despite her frequent frustration with her own ever-present and often-demanding family, she had found it rather sad that Mark had none of his own.
As exasperated as she became with them, she dearly loved her mother, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. She knew she could go to them in times of trouble, though it was more often the other way around. For some reason, everyone seemed to turn to her whenever they needed anythingand somehow she usually figured out a way to help.
She had a real problem saying certain phrases. Like, "Sorry, I can't." Or, "Ask someone else this time." Or just plain, "No." After many years of self-examination, she had come to the conclusion that she'd been born with a "backbone deficiency."
Which was why she was not going to get involved this time, she vowed. As alone in the world as he might be, Mark was a successful young doctor with a bright future and enough charm to float a boat. He didn't need any help from her, except for decorating this lovely but empty home.
Mark returned with the glass of ice water. "Here you go. Can I get you anything else before we start?"
His smile was a bit forced, his tone artificially cheerful, but she didn't let on that he wasn't fooling her for a minute. "No, this is fine, thank you."
Playing the game, she took a sip of the water, then looked around for a place to set the glass. Since there weren't any tables in the sparsely furnished room, she set it on top of her portfolio. "If you'll have a seat on the couch, I'll show you the designs and samples I've brought along. If you're still sure you want to do this now," she added.
"Absolutely." He sat on the couch, folded his arms and looked at her easel with such intense concentration that she almost sighed.
He was trying so hard to pretend he had put his problems out of his mind and was interested only in decorating. Once again, she found herself tempted to ask what had happened to upset him so, but she swallowed the question with a firm self-reminder that it was none of her business.
She began her presentation with the same thorough professionalism she would have used with any client. Room by room, she showed him the drawings she had made, the fabric samples and photographs of the furnishings she had selected for his consideration. He watched intently, studying everything she showed him, nodding whenever she paused for breath, fingering the fabric samples she handed him.
He agreed with everything she suggested. He didn't ask one question. And because he had been eagerly involved in discussions about his decor ever since his first meeting with her, she suspected that he was barely hearing a word she said.
Don't ask, Rachel, she admonished herself fiercely. Don't get involved.
"So, you like the cranberry paint for the dining room walls?" she asked him, tapping a crimson paint chip.
He stared blankly at the square of colored cardboard. "Sure. Cranberry. Okay."
He was breaking her heart. It was something about the look in his eyes. The slight slump of his shoulders. Whatever news he had received the day before, it had obviously hit him very hard. And maybe, she thought with a pang in her overly sensitive heart, there was no one for him to turn to for support or advice. Since he didn't have any family.
"I know it's a strong color, but I" She swallowed. Don't do it, Rachel. Keep it about the job. "I think you'll really"
After several moments of silence, he seemed to realize that she had stopped talking. "I'm sorry, did I miss something?"
Oh, give up. Setting down the paint chip, she moved slowly to sit beside him on the worn leather couch. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"About the red paint?"
She shook her head, resignation in her voice when she said, "About whatever is bothering you. I've been told I'm a very good listener."
So much for staying uninvolved
Rachel really was intriguing. Fresh-faced, Mark supposed some would call her. She looked younger than her thirty years, with her dimpled pink cheeks, flawless skin and clear gray-blue eyes. Average height, slender physique, light brown hair she tended to wear in an attractively messy low ponytail. Not beautiful, exactly. But darned close.
And speaking of close
Mark glanced down at the hand Rachel had rested on his knee as she sat only inches away from him on the couch. This was most definitely not a come-on. Without unwarranted conceit, he acknowledged that as a single, young doctor, he'd been at the receiving end of enough insincere gambits to know when someone was pretending to be interested in his problems.
Rachel was different. No hidden agendas here. No self-serving angles. She was the real thing. Or at least, that was the impression he'd gotten of her. He would hate to find out that he was wrong. It actually surprised him a bit to realize how very much he would hate that.
He should politely shrug off her question. Assure her that her concern was appreciated but unjustified. After all, this was a woman he had hoped to impress. Wanted to get closer to. It would hardly help his cause for her to find out what a mess his life had just become.
"Thanks, but I'm okay," he assured her. "Tell me more about this red dining room."
She shook her head. "I don't think you should be making decisions when you're this distracted. You could be surprised to find yourself living in a house you absolutely hate."
"I don't think that will happen. I trust your taste. That's why I hired you."
She smiled. "I appreciate that. But you made it clear that this project is very personal for you. You said you wanted input at every stage, and I want to make sure you have that. So we're not going to make any final decisions today. I'll leave everything with you to go through when you can concentrate. And in the meantime, if there's anything at all I can do for youas a friendI hope you won't hesitate to ask."
She really was a nice person, he thought, focusing on her sympathetic smile. Maybe she would understand if he told her about what had happened to him yesterday. As for her offer that he should let her know if there was anything she could do for him
A glimmer of an idea formed in his mind. "I had an unexpected visitor here yesterday," he began slowly. "Two of them, actually. A man and a woman. I'd never met either of them before."
Proving her assertion that she was a good listener, she merely nodded and waited for him to go on, her gaze focused on his face.
"The woman's name is Aislinn Flaherty. She claims to be a psychic." Before this statement could fully sink in, he cleared his throat and added, "The guy's name is Ethan Brannon. And he says he's my older brother."
"Your brother?" she repeated in surprise. "You were raised as an only child, weren't you?"
He nodded grimly. Being told that he had a brother was actually the least jarring of the news he'd been given during that encounter. "My, um, my mother told me that my father died while she was pregnant with me. She said she had no family of her own and that his family didn't want anything to do with her or with me. We were on our own during my entire childhood, living pretty much hand to mouth, but generally happy."
"This man, Ethan Brannondo you believe what he said? Is there a possibility that he is your brother?"
"More than a possibility. He pretty much convinced me.As convinced as I can be before we get the results of DNA testing, anyway."
"You're going to be tested?"
"We both are. Ethan insisted, and I agreed."
"So he claims he's your half brother? The result of a relationship your father had before you were born?"
"It's a little more complicated than that."
Her left eyebrow rose just a little. "Oh?"
"Ethan doesn't claim to be a half brother. He says he's my full brotherone of two, actually."
Rachel looked understandably confused. "There are two of them? And Ethan said you have the same parents?"
"Yes." He swallowed. "According to Ethan, my motherer, the woman who raised me "
Stopping abruptly, he shook his head. "Never mind. You don't want to hear this. I think we should talk about decorating. What did you say you want to do in here? Add tables, I hope."
"Definitely tables. But you were going to tell me what Ethan said about your mother."
He sighed. Might as well get this over with, he thought.
Rachel was bound to find out the truth if they became involved in a personal relationship, as he'd hoped.
"According to what Ethan told me, the woman who raised me kidnapped me from a loving family. Parents, and two older brothers. Mythe woman I knew as my mother was the nanny. Thirty years ago, when I was barely two, she pushed her car into a flooded river and took off with me, leaving everyone to believe I was dead."
Rachel looked as though she wasn't sure she had heard him correctly. "Your mother ?"
He nodded grimly. "Wasn't my mother, after all. According to Ethan Brannon, my real mother is very much alive and living in Alabama with my father, an orthodontist. They are still unaware that their youngest son didn't drown as a toddler."