The secret heiress is back
with a little secret that changes everything
As the long-lost heiress in a notoriously scandalous family, Meg Lathem has always kept her distance. But now her daughter needs lifesaving surgery, so Meg asks for supporteither from the child's unscrupulous father, Grant Sheppard, or the dreaded Cains themselves.
Grant had an agenda when he first bedded Megrevenge against her birth father. But now, confronted by news that he's a daddy himself, Grant finds his feelings for Meg run deep. Can he convince Meg he's there for her this time, and protect her from the Cain legacy even as she claims it?
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Meg Lathem sat in her dusty, beat-up Chevy, cursing the blazing Texas sun, the crowded streets of downtown Houston and her tiny bladder.
She should have stopped at that Dairy Queen in Bay City to pee. Yes, she'd still be nervous as hell about seeing Grant Sheppard again after all this time, but at least she'd have a Dilly Bar to soothe the pain.
Instead, all she had was dry mouth and the beginning stages of an ulcer.
She chewed on her lip for a second. Then dug around in her purse for her lip balm. Instead, she found her cherry bomb lipstick, which she wore to finish up extra-long days when she needed a bit of sass and sex appeal to coast until the bakery closed. Today, she needed neither sass nor sex appeal. She needed sensibility and reason.
She shoved the lipstick back in her purse, slung the strap over her shoulder and was climbing from the car just as her phone rang.
If it had been any number other than her friend Janine's she would have let it roll over to voice mail. However, Janinewho usually helped manage the bakerywas watching Meg's daughter, Pearl, while Meg took this little jaunt to Houston, so she slid back into the car and shut out the noise of Houston traffic. She answered it with, "Is Pearl okay?"
"Pearl's fine, honey. She's happier than the cherry on a hot-fudge sundae."
The knot of anxiety in her chest loosened a smidge. "Then why are you calling?"
"You done it yet?"
"It's a two-hour drive from Victoria. No, I haven't done it yet. I just got here."
"Liar. You never met a speed limit sign you didn't love to mock. I bet you made it there thirty minutes ago and have been sitting outside his office making calf eyes at the words Sheppard Bank and Trust scrawled above the door."
"Am not." Meg glanced at her watch. She'd only been here for twenty-two minutes. And the words Sheppard Bank and Trust were not above the door. They were slapped on the outside of the building near the forty-second floor in ten-foot-tall letters. And she hadn't been making calf eyes at them so much as scowling. "I do not feel that way about Grant Sheppard anymore and you know it. That man is a lying, cheating sack of"
"You don't have to do this," Janine said quietly.
"I know." She brought her hand up to her forehead and rubbed, pressing her thumb near the crest of her eye socket where the tension seemed to be drilling into her skull.
"We can find another way."
"I know," she said again. Except there was no other way. Her daughter needed heart surgery. Meg just couldn't afford to pay the insurance deductible and keep the bakery open. And if the bakery closed, then she'd be out of a job and really wouldn't be able to meet the deductible. The good people of Victoria had all banded together to do a fund-raiser for Pearl. The whole town had come together. It had been the most heartwarming, amazing day.
But they'd only raised nine thousand dollars. She needed almost fifty thousand for the surgery alone. Everyone she knew, everyone who loved and cared for Pearl, had banded together and dug as deep as they could. And it would only cover a fifth of the cost.
And even if she could somehow scrape together the money for this deductible, there was physical therapy. And more appointments down the road. And more specialists. More, more and more things to spend money on. Money she just didn't have. But Pearl's father had the money. Hell, money was his business.
Wasn't it only fair that he paid?
He was Pearl's father.
Going to him wasn't begging. It was only right.
But it would be so much easier if he already knew he had a daughter.
"Honey," Janine said, finally breaking the long silence. "Stop rubbing that spot above your eye. You know how sensitive your skin is and if you're going to see Grant Sheppard after all these years, you don't want to look all splotchy."
Meg jerked her hand away from her face and quickly flipped down the mirror. Crap. She did look all splotchy.
Then she snapped it closed. No, this was good. Splotchy was just fine. Humbling, even. A nice reminder that their relationship was never going to be sexual again. Never.
"Now, go get 'em, tiger. You can do this!"
Janine hung up then, not waiting for Meg to voice the doubts roiling in her gut.
"Right," Meg muttered. "Go get 'em."
She clambered out of the car and started crossing the street. Sheppard Bank and Trust opened up to a plaza with sprawling oaks, a trio of fountains and plenty of outdoor seating. The last of the lunch crowd was still enjoying the nice weather and even though Houston wasn't a town that got a lot of foot traffic, Meg had to weave around people as she reached the sidewalk.
She was still on the other side of the plaza when the big glass doors of the Sheppard Bank and Trust building opened and Grant Sheppard stepped out into the mid-afternoon sun. Her steps automatically slowed. A car honked somewhere, prompting her to dash the rest of the way across the street.
Suddenly she had tunnel vision. It was as if she could see only him and no one else. It had been over two years since she'd seen him. He looked good. Just as tall and fit as ever. His sandy hair was a little long. A little disheveled. A little renegade for this conservative town. But his suit was strictly business. It toed the line. His mouth still curled in that half smile. The smile that made a woman want to do naughty things to his lips.
The smile that made women stupid.
She gave her head a little shake and reminded herselfit wasn't just that it had been more than two years since she'd seen him, it was more than two years since he'd sneaked out of her bed in the middle of the night and disappeared without a trace.
Yeah, there was a difference, and she'd do well to remember it.
She hardened her heart and put a damper on her hormones before she took a step toward him. But as her tunnel vision eased up, she saw the woman standing beside hima willowy blonde, almost as tall as he was. Even though she was thin, there was a softness to her body that was only emphasized by the protective hand he held at the woman's back. There was an intimacy to their posture that spoke of affection and familiarity. A warning bell went off in Meg's head.
She had stopped in her tracks, almost unaware of the other people filtering past her. She kneweven before the other woman turned aroundwhat she was going to see. The woman would be beautiful and sophisticated and classy. Everything Meg was not.
She would also be pregnant.
Meg was so sure that when the woman actually turned so Meg could see her, Meg didn't comprehend what she was seeing.
Beautycheck. Sophisticatedcheck. But not pregnant. No. Worse.
The woman was holding a baby. A beautiful, healthy, bubbling baby. A "perfect" baby.
Grant Sheppard's beautiful socialite wife had given him a perfect, healthy baby.
Whereas the daughter he shared with Meg had Down syndrome and an atrial septal defect in her heart.
Meg never, ever thought of Pearl as being lesser. Yes, the tiny hole in her heart meant she had health problems that sometimes terrified Meg. But Pearl was perfect in her own way.
But would Grant see that? Would he realize how amazing Pearl was? Would she be able to protect Pearl if he didn't?
And beneath her basic mother's need to protect her child lingered some other, more complicated emotion.
Just the slightest twinge of envy that had nothing to do with the baby or with Pearl, but with the woman who appeared to be Grant's wife.
Meg didn't want to be that perfect blonde woman. She didn't want her wealth or her hair or her wardrobe or her babywhose heart probably didn't have a hole in it. She loved her own bank account, hair, clothes and baby. She didn't want anything that other woman had. But for the first time, she realized that part of her might still want Grant. And that scared the piss out of her.
How could she go talk to Grant now?
The answer was, she couldn't. Not while she still had any other options.
Instead, she would do the one thing she'd promised herself she'd never do. The thing she'd promised her mother and her grandfather she'd never do. She'd go see her father. She'd make a deal with the devil himself.
As luck would have it, the devil himselfaka Hollis-ter Cainlived a short drive from downtown in the prestigious River Oaks neighborhood. Nestled in among the homes of former presidents, deposed foreign princes and excessive country-music stars was her father's massive antebellum mansion.
Thanks to Google Maps Street View, she knew the mansion by sight even though she'd never been there. For that matter, thanks to Google Images she knew her father by sight, too. She had never met him either.
No, she was Hollister's illegitimate daughter. Twenty-six-odd years ago, he had seducedand then abandonedher mother, not only because he was a heartless bastard, but for calculated professional gain. Hollister's treatment had led to her mother's slow but steady emotional unraveling.
As a result, Meg had been raised by her grandfather. All her life, she'd known the truth about Hollister and her mother, so she'd naturally assumed that Hollister knew about her too and had just never bothered to claim his daughter. Which was fine by her. Just fine.
She certainly didn't need them or their money or the misery it would bring to her life.
Except now she did need it.
Of course, there was a chance Hollister would flat out refuse to acknowledge her. After all, Hollister was too much of a bastard to open his wallet willingly. Then lawyers would have to get involved. There would be genetic testing and all kinds of nastiness. But in the end, she was Hollister's daughter and there was nothing he could do about it.
But she didn't think it would come to that, because she knew secrets about Hollister's past that he wouldn't want getting out. She had proof of illegal things he'd done that would destroy the Cain family name. In his dealings with her family, he'd broken the law, and she had no problem letting him be judged in the court of public opinion. If he proved difficult, she would make whatever threats she needed to make.
So in her fairy-tale version, her reunion with her father would go down like this: she'd walk in, she'd announce who she was, he'd write her a check for a couple hundred grand, she'd sign some papers promising never to ask for more and she'd be back home with Pearl by the end of the week. What could be simpler than a little blackmail among family?
Still, she wasn't used to making threats like this. And two hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money. That was the number she'd ultimately decided she needed. Fifty grand to cover the surgery and another three times that much to cover anything else Pearl needed in the future. It was an arbitrary number andhopefullya little high. But this was a one-time thing. She had no intention of ever coming to Hollister for money again. This was her one chance to take the money and run.
Which probably explained the knots in her tummy as she stared out her grimy car windshield at the mansion across the street. Surely it had nothing to do with the memory, still so fresh in her mind, of Grant's hand low on the waist of that lovely blonde goddess.
Her phone buzzed and vibrated on the passenger seat. She ignored it as she climbed from the car. Janine had been calling her approximately every fifteen minutes for the past hour. No doubt wanting an update on how her "meeting" with Grant had gone. Meg didn't have the heart to tell her she'd chickened out. She would call Janine after she'd talked to her father.
She marched across the street and up the seemingly endless path, across a veritable sea of lush Saint Augustine grass, to the front porch. Before she could second-guess herself, she punched the doorbell. And then counted every second as it ticked by.
No one on the other side of that door mattered to her.
Not at all.
Still, she'd been on her own a long time. And she was about to meet someone from her family. Maybe even her father.
Or maybe just someone who worked for her family. Did the Cains have servants? Would there be a butler or something? Or would?
Then the door was opening and instead of her father, or even a servant, Meg was faced with a blonde woman with near-perfect features, a willowy athletic body and a faint bump at her belly. Portia Calahan. Dalton Cain's ex-wife. So, Meg's own ex-sister-in-law.
Meg would have recognized any of the Cainsthanks to their prominent position in Houston society and Googlebut Portia she had actually met the first time she'd come to Houston, right after she'd learned Pearl would need surgery. She'd considered asking for financial help and then dismissed the idea just as quickly. She'd thought she'd slipped under everyone's radar.
For a moment, they just stared at one another. Then Meg said, "What are you doing here?" at the same time Portia said, "It's you!"
Portia seemed to sway on her feet and her eyes rolled back. Her legs went out from under her. Meg lurched forward, dropping her purse, and caught Portia just as she crumpled to the ground.
Though Portia was thin, she was a lot taller than Meg. Meg, too, collapsed under Portia's weight and they both went down.
"Help!" Meg tried to control their fall, but she simply couldn't support Portia's weight. All she could do was try to lower Portia slowly as she muttered, "Shit, shit, shit, shit."
Not just because Portia had fainted, nearly hurting herself and crushing Meg, but because Portia was not supposed to be here! Portia wasn't part of the Cain family anymore. And Portia had obviously remembered meeting her.
For a moment, Meg considered bolting, trying to contact her father another day. Trying to get the money some other way. But she was out of time and she had no other way to get the money. And already footsteps were pounding across the tile floor toward them.
She looked up to see five more people crossing the foyer: two women and three men.
The men she all recognized. Her brothers. Dalton and Griffin Cain and Cooper Larson. If she had to guess, she'd say the two women were Laney and Sydney, her sisters-in-law.
To Meg's surprise, it was Cooper who quickened his pace and crouched down beside Portia. He gently cradled her head and shoulders, and Meg wiggled out from underneath her.
"She fainted," she said quickly. "I tried to catch her."
"Thanks," Cooper said, before muttering a curse under his breath. "She's going to be pissed."
"I tried to catch her!" Meg insisted again, scrambling back.
"Not at you," he said gently. "About fainting. It's the second time this week. She hates when it happens."
The red-haired womanSydney, if Meg remembered correctly from the pictures she'd seen in the society column of the Houston Chronicleknelt beside Cooper and rested her hand on his arm. "Is she going to be okay?"
He nodded, but his smile didn't hide his concern. "The doctor says it happens to a lot of women in the first trimester."
Sydney looked up at Meg. "Thanks for catchingoh my gosh."
"Wait. What?" Meg asked, scooting farther away. Her gaze darted from Sydney to Cooper and then to the three people still standing. "I didn't"
But when her gaze met Dalton's, he muttered a low "damn."
Now they were all staring at her. As in, she'd-grown-an-extra-heador-two staring at her. Or, they-somehow-knew-she-was-here-to-blackmail-their-father staring at her.
Meg automatically got to her feet and held out her hands, palms out. "I haven't done anything wrong." Yet.
The other woman, Laneywho had long dark hair and resembled a modern-day Snow Whitesent a chiding look at the others. "For goodness' sake, you're scaring her." Then she stepped forward, smiling. "No one thinks you did anything to hurt Portia. We're glad you were here to catch her. Aren't we?" She gave Dalton's elbow a little nudge.
He stepped forward too. "Yes, absolutely."