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Colin McCarthy had returned to Hopetown, and Abby Hopewell's world had tilted off its axis.
Life as she'd known itas she'd carefully recreated ithad just ended in a flash of thunder and lightning.
He stood in Cliff Walk's gleaming foyer, dripping on her carefully restored hardwood floors. Worse, he still looked every bit as gorgeous as the last time she'd seen him.
Same thick mane of mahogany-colored hair. Same stormy blue eyes. She still felt the same electricity just being in his presence, the overwhelming need to feel his arms around her.
She clenched a fist under her desk. He was still the same man who'd become her first and only lover, then turned into a coldhearted stranger within minutes.
"Abby," Colin said, and stared, clearly as shocked to see her as she was to see him. For a moment, his expression was gentle and loving, then hot and hungry the way it had been that one time but then his lips tightened, his jaw hardened. His eyes went glacial.
"What's an illustrious Hopewell doing working as a desk clerk in a backwater bed-and-breakfast?"
The change puzzled her now as much as it had then. She'd done nothing but admit to loving him. Nothing but give him all she wasall she had to give. He was the one who'd changed. Who'd hurt her.
Nevertheless, hearing the tone in his voice tore her heart in two all over again, reminding her of the most painful moments of her life.
She'd stepped out of Colin's bedroom that long-ago night they'd made love, still feeling cherished yet prepared for a bit of awkwardness. That would have made sense. What she hadn't been ready for was Colin's harsh dismissal of her and the feelings she'd thought they shared.
Abby had spent years rehearsing for this moment but, by showing up on her doorstep out of the blue, he'd taken her by surprise. She reached inside herself, searching for the calm she desperately needed, clearing her senses of the longing he'd always made her feel.
She wasn't less nervous but she was in control, her tone cool and collected. She said in her frostiest tone, "Cliff Walk is actually a very successful and highly acclaimed establishment. And since I happen to be part owner and manager here," she went on, her voice managing somehow to chill even further, "I have the right to ask you to remove yourself from the premises. Good night."
The Hopewells didn't have the money they'd had before her father's death and the subsequent lawsuit that had all but bankrupted his estate. But they were no longer so badly off financially that she had to put up with having someone so detestable under her roof.
She looked back down at the receipts she'd carefully sorted. They'd been stirred like leaves in a hurricane when Colin had opened the door. With an annoyed huff Abby began resorting her piles, pretending his presence was of little consequence. She hoped he didn't notice the way her hands shook.
Then a small voice brightened the stormy night while making Abby's heart ache. "Oh, Daddy! I was right. It is a palace. And you bringed me to meet Snow White!"
Abby looked up to see a tiny cherub about four years old clinging to Colin's leg under his dripping slicker. Without warning, the child broke away and zipped across the foyer to the Victorian desk where Abby sat rooted to her chair.
The little girl wore an expression of complete and total awe. Like Abby, she had pitch-black shoulder-length hair, but hers looked as if it hadn't seen a comb in a week. Unlike Abby, who'd often cursed her fair skin, the child had a soft olive complexion that happened to be smeared with some undeterminated food. She had big, deep brown, nearly-black eyesthe left sporting a genuine black eye. Right then they were wide and adoring as she stared at Abby. The child's clothes were rumpled, spotted with raindrops and more suited to a boy than a girl.
She was adorable.
And had her father not turned out to be the scum of the earth, she might have been Abby's child. The night of Abby's high school graduation had caused her so much grief that nine years later she still loathed the entire month of June.
And, of course, Colin McCarthy. "Do you live in this palace?" Colin's daughter asked, still apparently confusing Abby with a fairy-tale character.
Colin advanced and put his hands protectively on the child's shoulders. "The lady just runs this bedand-breakfast, Jessie. She lives in a big fancy house by the river."
"Actually, I do live here," Abby told the child, only too happy to contradict her father. "That way if a guest needs me for something in the middle of the night, I'm available. The house your daddy was talking about is Hopewell Manor. It's where I grew up and it's about half a mile up the road from Torthúil. That makes us neighbors."
The little cherub crossed her arms. "Daddy says Torhool," she pronounced carefully, "is a Irish word. Right, Daddy?"
Colin nodded, still hovering.
Jessie McCarthy was simply darling. Abby fought a grin as a new pain stabbed her heart. If there was a child, there was a mother? A wife.
Abby glanced at the door, but no one had followed them inside. So where was she?
"Torthúil mean fruitful," Jessie said, grabbing Abby's attention again.
"And when it was a farm it certainly was fruitful," Abby agreed. "I used to walk down the road to buy pints of strawberries from your grandparents. Blackberries, too. Sometimes I'd get a nice crisp apple or peach to eat on my way home." Memories flowed from her tongue, and she hoped Colin hadn't noticed. In those days catching even a glimpse of him had been half the reason for the long walks.
And she'd told him so that fateful June night.
"I don't like it there," Jessie declared. "It's a creepy house. I want to stay here. Then I can be a princess, like you."
"I'm not really a princess," Abby protested.
"That's not the way I remember it," Colin muttered. Abby glared at him. Honestly, you'd think she was the one who'd hurt him and not the other way around. Not only had he cruelly dismissed her after she'd given him her bodyand her lovehe'd cost Abby her friendship, with his sister, Tracy.
Colin's parents must have found out about that nightthey'd probably overheard him talking to his friend, Harley Bryant, lying about how she'd offered herself to him and he'd turned her down. Whatever had happened, his parents had forbidden Tracy to be in Abby's company ever again. Losing her closest friend had been devastating enough, but the rift had also set Tracy on a downward spiral that had killed her within months. Colin hadn't been able to come home for Tracy's funeral and so had robbed Abby of the opportunity to tell him his sister's death was his fault.
Abby wanted badly to tell Colin what she thought of him right then and there, but didn't want to upset his sweet child. Besides, she was no longer sure she wanted him to know how much past events still haunted her. She didn't want him to have the satisfaction.
Colin stooped down to eye level with Jessie. "Kitten, why don't you go explore that room in there," he said, pointing toward the parlor. "But don't touch anything. Okay?"
"Okay," she sang out as she went to explore.
Colin watched her go, then turned to Abby. "I didn't know the house had fallen into such disrepair or I would have made other arrangements."
She'd liked his father and felt it only right to acknowledge his passing. "Before you go further, I was sorry to hear about your father. He was a good man."
He nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss, too. My father's death is part of why I came back to take possession of Torthùil. But it's not safe to stay there with Jessie. We could go into town but" A loud clap of thunder and a bright flash of lightning lit up the foyer, Jessie shrieked in fear as she ran back to her father's waiting arms. Colin scooped her up and held her tight. "It's okay, Jess. I've got you."
Abby stared at them for a long moment, remembering how it felt to be held in those arms in a very different type of embrace. Then Colin's gaze returned to her and Abby snapped out of it, looking away.
As angry as she was, Abby couldn't send a child back out into the storm. There were bed-and-breakfasts along the road leading to Hopetown, but her brother-in-law had already called to warn her how dangerous the road was tonight. The look in Colin's eyes said he was well aware of the deteriorating conditions.
Abby sighed in defeat. "I wouldn't send a dog out into this weather and certainly not a couple with a child. Is your wife in the car?"
Abby's question took Colin by surprise. All his friends in L.A. and, of course, his family knew the story of his inconvenient marriage. He and Jessie had been on their own for so long that he'd forgotten most people would assume Jessie had a mother in her life.
"It's just Jessie and me. We're McCarthy and Daughter, right, partner?" he said and gave the child a short, affectionate squeeze.
Jessie, fright forgotten for the moment, pulled her head off his shoulder to kiss him on the cheek. Her smile stretched from ear to ear when she looked back at Abby and nodded vigorously. "Daddy and me am partners. We do everyfing togever."
Abby stared for a long moment then nodded. "I have a room with twin beds." She smiled at Jessie. "I don't imagine Jessie wants to be far from her partner on a night like this."
Colin frowned. "If you could show us to the room, I'll get Jessie settled, then go back out to the truck for our things."
"And leave her all alone in your room?" She shook her head. "Go now. I can keep an eye on her here."
Colin hesitated. Even though Jessie was squirming to get down again so she could talk to "Snow," he wasn't sure he was comfortable leaving Abby with his child.
Abby sighed. "Oh, for heaven's sake, she'll be perfectly safe here with me."
He thought about it then gave her a quick nod. "Fine. I won't be more than a minute or two." He set Jessie down and rushed back out into the deluge. As he reached the edge of the perfectly restored Victorian's porch, the sky lit up once again. He blinked. In the distance he would swear he'd seen what looked like a Tuscan village. On the next flash, row after row of grapevines blinked into view before the dark of night returned to hide them.
What on earth had this place become?
A deafening clap of thunder reminded him of his mission. Without further delay, Colin ducked his head and ran out into the torrential rain. He jumped into the cab of the truck in an effort to stay just a bit drier while gathering up their things. He reached back and pulled the overnight luggage from the backseat then noticed Jessie's toys and her precious stuffed dog abandoned on the floor. He grinned as he picked it up. Can't leave you behind, Dog-dog.
Jessie had been just shy of eleven months old when one of his sisters sent the stuffed animal for Christmas. Jessie had seen it under the tree and said "Dog-dog"her first words after "Da-da." The toy had been her constant companion since. Colin didn't know if that was because Angelina had walked out of their lives for good around the time the toy arrived. Because of her attachment to Dog-dog, Colin worried constantly that there was a void in Jessie's life that he'd failed to fill.
He'd married Angelina when she'd learned she was pregnant. The condom had failed and she'd been bitter about her pregnancy and the disruption of her acting career. Luckily he'd been able to appeal to her strict Catholic upbringing to convince her to carry the baby to term.
Angelina had married him for legal and insurance purposes only. They'd never lived together as man and wife. She had visited Jess sporadically for nearly a year, but then she'd decided to cut all ties to them and return to her native Brazil where stardom and a television series awaited.
Jessie had been his and his alone from the day she'd gone home from the hospital with Colin, and they'd been inseparable since. He chuckled as he stuffed her other toys into his bag and thought back to the looks he'd gotten when he'd shown up on the construction site the next workday after he brought her home. He'd had Jessie and a young nanny in the pickup's cab and had parked a dilapidated construction trailer out front where they'd spend their days. The trailer had looked pretty bad, but he'd renovated and sanitized the inside within an inch of its remaining lifespan and had turned it into a traveling nursery.
The guys had all stood staring at him as if he'd lost his mind, but he'd taken Jess and that trailer to every house he'd renovated or flipped since. It had been her home away from home until just last week. She really was his partner. And she had more than fifty honorary aunts and uncles from his crews.
But she'd never really had a mother.
Lightning struck again, reminding him that she did have a father and she was probably missing him. Tucking Dog-dog inside his raincoat, Colin gathered up the luggageone old UCLA gym bag and one brandnew Snow White rolling suitcase.
Snow White, he thought with gritted teeth as he ran for the front porch again. He'd had the same reaction to Abby the first day he'd become aware of the little girl growing up on the property next to Torthúil. She'd been farther upstream with her family on a picnic. The current had caught her inner tube and carried her away from them. She'd been unconcerned and laughing happily when he'd fished her out of the river near Torthúil's levee. And the resemblance to the fairy-tale princess had only strengthened as she'd grown.