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Donovan McCoy tossed his duffel bag into his rented SUV, then ran a mental checklist of his briefcase contents—e-ticket, passport, voice recorder, laptop, cell phone. Chargers? He needed to double-check that he'd gathered all of them. An hour ago he'd added a stack of Internet research to pore over during the flights. Last night he'd said goodbye to his family at a farewell barbecue, thirty-two goodbyes, to be precise, from his eighty-nine-year-old grandmother to his two-month-old niece.
The McCoy clan knew how to throw a party.
Donovan shut the car door with more force than necessary. He was on edge this morning. Not wanting to analyze why, he strode back up the walkway to his brother's house. A car pulled up, a shiny red Miata, the convertible top down to take advantage of the warm July day.
"I hear you're leaving," the driver called out.
Laura Bannister. He'd managed to stay in town for two months without any one-on-one conversations with her. Intentionally. Their long-ago-but-brief history amounted to a single event when she was a freshman in high school and he was a senior. She'd made him an offer he'd been smart enough to refuse, but had regretted his decision ever since. Even though fifteen years had gone by, the memory hadn't faded.
Donovan ambled over to her car, studying her as he went. Her hair was down, rare for her, and wind-tossed, even rarer. He'd never seen her looking anything but perfect—sedate, elegant and neat. Her wild look wasn't the image he wanted stuck in his head from now on, not this accessible, sexily messy woman with the ash-blond flyaway hair, her trendy sunglasses hiding eyes he recalled were hazel and always direct.
He rested an arm on the top of her windshield, checked out her white shorts and pink tank top. Her nickname around town was "The Body."
"It's Tuesday and you're not working, Laura?"
"I'm playing hooky."
"Hell froze over? Pigs flew?"
She gave him that look, her lawyer look, the one that set a person in his place. He'd always found it sexy.
"So, where are you headed this time?" she asked.
"I'm going to mosey down Mexico way. Do a follow-up on the article I did last month for NewsView."
"Is it risky?"
"Guess I'll find out."
She shoved her sunglasses up into her hair and squinted against the sun. "Your family loved having you home for so long."
"I'm sure Joe'll be glad to have his house to himself again." His brother hadn't said anything, but Donovan figured he'd overstayed. Which might be a clue that he shouldn't wait another twelve years to take a vacation and be in such need for time off.
"You're probably right," Laura said. "I've lived alone for so long, I'm not sure I could ever adapt to sharing space with someone."
"You and me both." He was glad they hadn't had this conversation anytime in the past two months. He didn't want to discover anything in common with her. She was five foot eight, shapely, stunning and smart— a deadly combination, the kind of woman he went for. And a complication he didn't want….
Because she was from here, Chance City, his hometown, the place he'd left behind without regrets the day after high-school graduation fifteen years ago.
"I should let you get on the road." Laura settled her sunglasses back in place and grabbed the gearshift knob.
He tapped the windshield to get her attention.
"What does Laura Bannister, ex-beauty queen and attorney-at-law, do when she plays hooky?"
"Just that—I play. It's a day of self-indulgence. I had a massage, and now I'm going to go home, take a swim, then stretch out on a lounge chair and read something other than case files."
An image flashed in his mind, based on an old e-mail from his brother Jake. "I heard about the bikini you wore at a Labor Day party last year."
"Did you?" Her mouth curved into the sexiest smile he'd ever seen, her lips glossy and pale pink. "Well, I don't bother with a swimsuit at home. Too confining. Bye, Donovan. Be safe."
He decided not to stare after her like a randy teenager as she drove off, although he felt like one, so he went inside to make a final check of the house. From the dining-room table he picked up a copy of a photo his nephew had taken of the whole family at the barbecue last night. The teenager had rushed home and printed copies for everyone, had even put Donovan's in a travel frame, now tucked away in his duffel. People always had a hard time believing he had five sisters, two brothers and seventeen nieces and nephews. Now he had proof to show.
It'd been a good couple of months, especially spending time with his brothers. Jake, older by four years, had gone fishing with him, like the old days. Joe, younger by three years and the baby of the family, had become a man—probably long ago, but Donovan had finally spent enough time with Joe to recognize his maturity.
And his loneliness. But that was for Joe to figure out.
With nothing left to do, Donovan poured himself a to-go cup of coffee, checked his briefcase for the chargers, then headed out. The phone rang. He debated whether to let it go to Joe's answering machine. Most people called his cell phone, so it was probably a telemarketer.
But because Donovan was in stall mode, he picked up the phone.
"Oh, good, I caught you in time. This is Honey." The forthright woman owned the Take a Lode Off Diner, the local gathering place where truth and gossip mingled freely, but he couldn't hear the usual diner noise in the background.
"I'm headed to the airport right now, Honey. What's up?"
"There's a woman here at the Lode looking for you."
"Didn't catch her first name. Blond. British. Last name sounded like Bogart, maybe?"
"Bogard," he corrected automatically. Anne Bogard. What the hell was she doing here, especially after all these years without contact?
"Donovan? Are you there?"
"Yeah." Now what? "What did you tell her?"
"That I would see if you'd left town yet."
He should trust his instincts and ask Honey to say she hadn't caught him. But curiosity—and something even stronger—changed his mind. "Send her here to Joe's, please, Honey."
Donovan shoved his hands in his pockets, memories assaulting him. He and Anne had ended their relationship over five years ago. They'd both been covering the war in Afghanistan, both freelance photojournalists working as close to the front lines as possible. It was where he'd made his name, garnering credibility and a few awards, opening up his world, personally and professionally.
The breakup with Anne had been bitter, neither of them willing to compromise their blossoming careers for a personal relationship. He'd seen her name on a byline now and then, but her career hadn't gone the same way as his. He took every chance in the book. She played it safe, for several years writing character pieces, and articles about members of royalty from all over Europe, but nothing at all lately, not that he'd seen. A far cry from their time dodging missiles.
He was over her. Had been over her for a long time. Yet his heart pounded when he saw a dark blue sedan park in front of the house. Should he wait for her to knock? She knew he was home and waiting for her, so it hardly made sense to stay inside.
He opened the front door, stepped out.
Her car door swung open—
Not Anne. It was Millie, Anne's mother. She raised her hand, gave a tentative wave.
Dread curled inside Donovan, burning hot. If Millie had come all the way from Great Britain to see him, the news couldn't be good.
On autopilot, he kept moving down the walkway as she came around the front of the car.
"Hello, Millie," he said, questions rushing through his mind.
"Donovan. You're looking well."
She hugged him, sending all that red-hot dread skittering through him. She wasn't a hugger. It had taken him a while to get used to, because his mother hugged everyone, long and hard.
He waited, mind whirling, pulse racing, heart thundering.
"I'll tell you straight out, then," she said. "Anne died last month."
His world tilted. "What happened?"
"Lymphoma. She fought it for a long time."
Shock hit him, followed immediately by grief. She'd been so beautiful, so vital. "I'm very sorry, Millie. She was an incredible woman."
"Yes, she was." She paused. "I suppose you're wondering why I've come."
He nodded, especially since he was rarely here, had never given out this address as his.
She looked ready to speak, then clamped her mouth shut. "I'll just show you, then."
She opened the back door of the car and held out her hand. A child emerged. A boy. With black hair and blue eyes.
Like me, Donovan thought, as Millie confirmed it out loud.
"This is your son, Ethan."
-Donovan brought Millie a mug of tea and Ethan a glass of milk, then set a plate of his mother's homemade chocolate chip cookies on the coffee table.
Ethan. His son. A son he'd been denied for almost five years.
Why? What possible reason could Anne have had to keep his own son from him?
"Had enough time to get used to it?" Millie asked Donovan as he joined her on the couch. Ethan played quietly with race cars from Joe's toy cupboard, but looked up now and then at Donovan, his gaze serious. So far, the boy hadn't said a word.
No, Donovan hadn't had enough time yet, but he needed answers. He leaned toward Millie. "Does he talk?"
"Oh, yes. He's a regular chatterbox, that one. He's had a long day, that' s all. Give him a little time, and he' ll be right as rain." She sipped her tea. "Lovely, thanks."
"Don't you think we should discuss this privately, Millie?"
"Perhaps you should read the paperwork first." She passed him a portfolio a couple of inches thick, filled with folders and envelopes. "I'd start at the top. It'll make more sense that way."
Because he needed to know the big picture before the details, he sifted through the folders and envelopes to determine the contents. He found legal documents—Anne's trust, Ethan's birth certificate with Donovan's name listed as father, Anne's birth certificate. One envelope held a journal, the first entry being the day she learned she was pregnant. The final entry on Mother's Day, two months ago. Another envelope contained pieces of Ethan's artwork and crafts, from first scribbles to more complex collages.
"There's more," Millie said. "In my suitcase."
Ethan had put away the race cars and was now building a tower with interlocking plastic squares. His mouth was set in concentration, a dab of chocolate at one corner.
Finally Donovan went back to the beginning and opened the first envelope in the stack, a handwritten letter from Anne. He closed his eyes for a moment, then began to read.