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It was the third time she had seen him in two days. And because she had a vivid imagination, Fiona Walsh had created all kinds of possible scenarios as to why the most gorgeous man she'd ever clapped her eyes upon appeared to be following her every move.
Who was he? An admirer? Lottery official? Stalker?
Yesterday morning she'd spotted him across the road outside her house, leaning on the hood of his car and speaking into his cell phone. She'd gone to collect her morning paper from the footpath and hung around by the gate for a few minutes, feigning interest in her wilted herb garden. Then he appeared by the foreshore that same afternoon while she ran her dog along the beach. Same car. Same kind of well-cut clothes. Same dark hair and superbly chiseled features.
Now he was at the riding school where she stabled her horse.
Fiona eased Titan, her Thoroughbred gelding, to a halt in the center of the sand arena and lifted the rim of her helmet. The man remained by his car, leaning against the door as he watched her. There was nothing threatening in his demeanor. He appeared more mildly curious than anything else. With the idea he wasn't about to attack her and toss her in the trunk of his car firmly out of her head, Fiona experienced a strange warmth across her skin. Handsome, nice car, the kind of clothes that oozed confidenceshe couldn't help but be intrigued.
He was on his cell again, talking as he watched her. Fiona collected the reins and clicked Titan forward. The big gelding obeyed instantly, and she maneuvered him toward the entrance gate. No more guessing games. She'd find out who the man was and just what he wanted. Right now.
She dismounted and tethered Titan to the hitching rail. Once he was secured, she pulled off her riding hat and wasted a few seconds adjusting her hair. As she left the arena and walked purposefully across the yard, Fiona watched him end his call, slip the cell phone into a pocket and straighten to his full, broad-shouldered height.
Ten feet away she stopped and clipped her booted heels together. He was ridiculously good-looking and appeared to be in his early thirties. Even though sunglasses shielded his eyes, Fiona knew he was staring at her. She suddenly had a silly thought about her appearance and wished she'd worn something other than her grass-stained riding breeches and century-old T-shirt.
Silence stretched like elastic. Finally, she summoned the nerve and drew in a deep breath. "I guess you're not here to tell me I've won the lottery?"
He cracked a half smile and flipped the sunglasses off. "No."
She clamped her hands on her hips and tried to ignore the way her belly rolled over when she met his perfectly brilliant blue eyes. "Then why are you following me?"
"I'm not," he said and took a step toward her.
Fiona widened her gaze. "Three times in two days?" She clicked her fingers. "That's quite a coincidence."
"It's not a coincidence at all," he replied. "I've simply been waiting for the appropriate time to speak with you."
Fiona raised her chin as annoyance wove up her spine. He had a little too much self-assurance for her liking. "With me? What on earth for? I don't know you, and I"
"Are you Fiona Lorelle Walsh?" he asked quietly, cutting her off.
She stilled and her breath grabbed at her throat. "What do you want?" she asked as suspicion crept along her skin.
He took another step. "To talk to you."
Fiona stared at him. He knew her full name? Who was he?
She had the urge to retreat. Get away. Put distance between herself and his lovely eyes. "I'm sorry, but I'm busy at the moment. I have to get back to my horse," she said and pivoted on her heels.
"Miss Walsh?" he called after her. "Fiona?"
She stopped midstride and took another breath, deeper, longer. Titan moved restlessly from his spot by the gate as though he sensed her unease. She spotted Callie Preston, owner of the riding school and her closest friend, walking across the arena toward the two remaining riders. If she needed her friend, Callie would be at her side in a moment. But she kept her wits. Whoever this stranger was, she wasn't afraid of him. Fiona turned around and faced the man behind her.
Her heart continued to thump madly. In the sunlight his hair appeared almost black and shimmered in a way she'd usually find attractive. But a voice told her not to think about him like that. "Who are you?"
"My name is Wyatt Harper."
She didn't recognize it. "What do you want?"
He stepped closer. "Perhaps we could go somewhere a little more private."
Fiona bristled. "This is plenty private."
He glanced toward the other riders and then back to her. After a moment he drew in a breath. "Okay. Firstly, let me assure you that I'm not any kind of threat to you."
Fiona didn't feel threatened. But her curiosity was at an all-time high. Sensing she needed every advantage she could get, she didn't quite let him off the hook. "I guess I'll know that when you tell me what you want." He smiled, and Fiona's insides gave a silly leap. "So, start talking."
He nodded. "Like I said, my name is Wyatt Harper." He pulled a small card from his shirt pocket and held it toward her.
She knew he stood still deliberately, allowing her the chance to move forward so he wouldn't appear intimidating. Smooth, she thought. And clever. She took a couple of steps, snatched the card and read it as she moved backward again. Sure enough, it said Wyatt Harper in bold print, with the title of managing director of Harper Engineering underneath it.
So, he had an impressive-looking job. It didn't explain what he wanted with her. "And?"
He met her gaze directly and took his time replying. "I'm here on behalf of Cecily Todd."
Cecily Todd? Fiona shook her head. "I don't know who that"
"Cecily is my niece," he said quietly, interrupting her, "and the child you gave up for adoption fourteen years ago." Her world quickly tilted on some invisible axis. No. I don't believe it.
Oh, my God is this happening?
She'd thought about this moment for years. Imagined it. Dreamed it and dreaded it. And her knees, usually rock-solid and strong, weakened like a bowl of jelly. Fiona bowed over fractionally as the air tried to squeeze into her lungs.
Breathe just breathe
He stepped forward but she raised a hand to warn him off. "Take deep breaths."
He was clearly concerned but Fiona wasn't in any mood to be grateful. "Yeah," she huffed and cast him a sharp look. "No problem."
"Perhaps you should sit down," he suggested and looked around. "There are steps by the house. You could"
"No," she said raggedly and gulped in air. "Please.. just stop."
He placed a hand on her shoulder. "I can't do that."
She grabbed her knees for support, took a deep breath and then straightened. He dropped his hand and stepped back. She drew in another steadying breath, trying to rally her strength.
"I'd like to talk with you about my niece," he said.
"Your niece?" she echoed vaguely, suddenly light-headed. Fiona put a hand to her temple. It was surreal. Dreamlike. As if it was happening to someone else, in some kind of alternate reality. "I feel a little woozy," she admitted.
He grasped her arm and this time she didn't ward him off. "Come on, you need to sit down."
She let him lead her toward the house. There were three steps, and he urged her to sit on the bottom rung. Fiona dropped her head between her knees. "I'm not normally like this."
"I surprised you," he said evenly. "I'm sorry."
"Surprised?" Fiona craned her neck to look at him. "You just shocked the hell out of me."
"What's going on here?"
She looked up. Callie stood twenty feet away. Her friend looked suspicious and regarded them seriously.
"It's all right, Callie," Fiona said. "I felt a little dizzy for a moment. I'm okay now."
"Who's this?" the other woman asked.
Fiona glanced at the man standing near her and saw his masked irritation at being spoken about in the third person. "Wyatt Harper," he said.
Fiona pulled her head up before her friend had a chance to respond. "Thanks for coming over, Callie, but I'm fine now."
She didn't look convinced. "If you're sure "
"I'm sure," Fiona said quickly.
She lingered for a moment, nodded and then walked off in the direction of the stables.
"Friend of yours?" he asked once she was out of earshot.
"Yes," Fiona replied. "She owns this place."
He nodded vaguely. "Are you really feeling okay?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
He nodded. "About Cecily, I wanted to"
"Are you sure?" she asked, cutting him off. "I mean, are you sure she's or that I'm her."
"Her birth mother?"
She swallowed the heavy emotion in her throat. "Yes."
"If you're Fiona Walsh, then yes, I'm sure. I have documentation to support that you gave birth to Cecily."
She took a deep breath, drawing strength. "And you're her uncle?"
"That's right. My sister and her husband adopted Cecily."
A lovely couple. That's what she'd been told by the adoption agency. People who would be able to give her daughter everything she couldn't. Stability. Safety. A perfect home. She'd had fourteen years to imagine what they were like. Fourteen years where she hadn't known her child's name.
Fourteen years to dream about reconnecting with the baby she'd given up.
But not like this. Not when she was totally unprepared and caught off guard. Whoever he was, and whatever he wanted, Fiona had no intention of falling apart in front of him. She didn't do vulnerable. Ever.
She stood and crossed her arms. The only words she could form came out. "Why now?"
He waited to respond, taking stretched-out seconds as he looked her over. "Because Cecily wants to meet you."
She shook her head instinctively. No one was going to turn her world upside down. Not ever again. She wasn't fifteen and gullible. She was nearly thirty and called the shots in her own life. If Wyatt Harper thought rocking up unannounced was going to give him an advantage, he could think again. If she had this conversation, she'd do it when she was ready, and not before.
"I can't do this here," she said and tilted her chin, defiant and with way more strength than she felt. "I won't. I need time to think. Goodbye, Mr. Harper."
"Fiona, you need to"
"Goodbye," she said again and turned on her boots. She walked in a straight line back to the dressage arena and felt the sear of his gaze right up until she was out of view.
Minutes later she heard the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires. He was gone.
Fiona spent the following hour in a daze. She attended to Titan, got him untacked, fed and rugged, and headed home before Callie had a chance to question her about Wyatt Harper. She wasn't in the mood for an interrogation, not even from her closest friend.
Once she opened the door of her small house, dropped her keys on the hall stand and made her way to the living room, she let out an emotional shudder.
She sank down into the sofa.
My daughter's name is Cecily. Fiona had wondered so often what they'd called her. She hadn't had the strength to name her baby. It was better that way that was what she'd been told.
The only way.
But how she'd despaired over her decision. Even knowing that at fifteen she hadn't been in a position to care for a baby and giving her up had been her only option.
The hardest decision I'd ever make.
That's what the nurses at the small country hospital where she'd given birth had said.
Your baby will be better off.
And then her great-uncle's voice, reminding her about her own mother.
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Back then she'd believed him. Memories of her mother, Shayne, were etched into her mind. Unreliable, self-absorbed, an irresponsible flake, more interested in staying out late and getting high than being a parent. A woman who'd forfeited her chance for an education at seventeen to raise a child she never really wanted, and who'd married a man she'd never loved. A marriage that had lasted two years. Tired of her life in the small town where she'd been raised and the rules she was forced to follow living in her uncle's house, Shayne packed up a then five-year-old Fiona and began following the rodeo circuit. She chased one cowboy after another, dragging Fiona through countless motel rooms and a string of transient jobs.
When she was fifteen, Fiona had been shipped back to her great-uncle alone and scared and pregnant. Fiona had few illusions about Shayne. Her mother's reaction to her pregnancy was borne out of anger and resentment. Three weeks after Fiona was left at her uncle's farm, Shayne and her much younger rodeo-rider boyfriend were killed in a railway-crossing accident. She didn't grieve, didn't feel. There was too much hurt, too much betrayal, too much pain.
Six months later Fiona had given up her baby after only fifteen minutes of holding her. She'd said goodbye to her precious daughter and handed her over to strangers, hoping with all her heart that her baby would be treasured by her new family, knowing that because she'd agreed to a closed adoption she could never look for her, and lived on the hope that one day her daughter would seek her out. But she'd never really believed it. Never let hope linger for too long.
Until Wyatt Harper dropped into her world.
Her daughter's uncle. An envoy. Clearly here to check her out. Although, since he knew her full name, he'd probably done a fair amount of checking already. Fiona gripped her hands together. How much did he know? The paper trail was meager at best. With Shayne dead there was nothing linking Fiona to her mother's lover. Or what had happened on that terrible night.
Nothing except Cecily.
No one knew the truth. No one ever would. Fiona had held on to her secret for over fourteen years. There was no mention of him anywhere. She hadn't talked about it since the day she was dumped on her uncle's doorstep. Her daughter's birth certificate stated father unknown. He was dead. What good would rehashing it do now?
Only.. Wyatt Harper had turned up and she knew he'd have questions. Questions I can't answer. There would be no nice way to admit the truth about her daughter's conception.
So what did he really want? Did her daughter actually want to meet her? And if so, where were her adoptive parents? Why had Wyatt Harper been sent on this digging mission?
If she wanted answers, she had to pull herself together.
First, a shower and a change of clothes. And then a strategy. She liked strategies and lists and being organized. She didn't like being in the dark. She didn't like Wyatt Harper knowing things about her when she knew nothing of him.
She fingered the business card he'd given her. Seconds later she was at her computer and typed Harper Engineering into the search engine. It wasn't long before she had a dozen or so hits. He was from the third generation of Harpers to run the steel-fabrication business. With well over one hundred employees at the huge factory on the outskirts of Sydney, he appeared to be doing everything right. There was a nice picture of him, too, with his father and grandfather. It was clearly a family business in the truest sense of the word.
Fiona flicked off the computer and headed for the kitchen. Muffin, her energetic Tenterfield Terrier, jumped up at the back door, and she quickly let the dog inside and fed her. The card in her hand burned her fingertips. There was only one way to find out what he wanted.