Since the loss of his wife, Alex Ryan has been living a half-life. But with one phone call, Alex discovers he's the biological father of a four-year-old girl and everything changes.
Single mom Paige Kenner preferred to have a family without the man. Now suddenly there's Alex, who desperately wants to be a father to her little girl. A gorgeous, kind and committed father. Letting a stranger into their lives is far too dangerousespecially if his presence stirs a part of Paige that she longs to forget
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He didn't have to know.
Alex Ryan sat outside the pretty white house on the quiet street in Bonne Terre, Missouri. It was an older home with a wide front porch and ivy growing up the two posts on either side of the three steps leading to the front door. It had a peaked roof with gingerbread trim. It wasn't a true Victorian but someone along the way had added a few Victorian touches to the two-story home. He could see the tops of a wicker couch and rocker on the porch. Pots overflowing with red snapdragons and bleeding hearts hung from the ceiling and wound their way over the steps. In a few more days those plants would begin to die off, but for now they were pretty in the October afternoon sunlight.
There was a hopscotch course painted in sunny yellow on the front walk.
It looked like a happy house. A peaceful house. The kind of place he'd have liked to have grown He didn't have to knock on the pink front door. Didn't need to introduce himself. He could turn the key, put the gearshift in first, make a right at the corner and be back at his own house within twenty minutes.
He could forget about the phone call that led him here. Go on with his life. A gauzy curtain in the front window flicked but he couldn't make out more than a shadow inside. There was a late-model Honda parked in the drive, and the woman who lived here would probably like him to start up the truck and leave.
Alex looked down at his knuckles, white from gripping the steering wheel. He'd been fine before that damned phone call. His job as a park ranger at St. Francois State Park and St. Joe State Park was demanding and required all his focus. When he went home to his big, rambling house in Park Hills he was so tired that all he needed was a TV dinner, a sitcom laugh track and his bed. But the phone call came and now all he could think about was the tricycle he hadn't been able to resist buying four years ago. The trike that was gathering dust in his attic, and was an almost exact replica of the pretty pink model that sat in this front yard now.
The trike he bought had been green, a compromise because Deanna insisted that, when they finally became pregnant, she wanted to be surprised at the birth.
But Deanna had gotten sick, so there hadn't been a baby at all.
What could he gain from pushing himself into the lives of a strange woman and her daughter?
A four-year-old you didn't know about until a week ago, he reminded himself. A four-year-old who lives in a pretty house on a quiet street in a town with an almost invisible crime rate.
She and her mother had been doing fine for four years.
You have a daughter The soothing voice of the lawyer tasked with telling him about the mix-up at the fertility clinic echoed around the truck cab as if she sat beside him on the leather seat.
He had done the love thing. Married his college sweetheart and had a good life, but all that changed when Dee died. What could he give a four-year-old kid? He didn't know how to act around adults anymore, much less children. It was one of the reasons he turned down every promotion in favor of hiking the park trails alone as a ranger.
Late-afternoon sun peeked from behind a cloud, caught on the chrome handlebar of the pink trike and winked at him.
He had to know.
The front door opened slowly and a slim woman stepped out onto the porch. Watched the truck for a moment as if she needed to think about something. Like whether or not to call the cops because a strange man was loitering on her curb. She started down the steps toward his truck and Alex swallowed hard. Too late. No chance for a clean getaway now. Sweat rolled down his neck, and he switched the air conditioning on. It didn't work. The air conditioner pumped out enough cold air to make an elephant hypothermic but the nervous sweats continued. The woman shot a glance back into the house.
She was pretty, in a girl-next-door sort of way. Faded denim outlined her slim hips and red flipflops protected her feet from the warm concrete. The old tee she wore with "Navy" emblazoned on the chest was splattered with paint. She tucked a long strand of honey-colored hair behind her ear as she opened the front gate and let it slide closed behind her.
Then she stepped onto the pavement and tapped on his window.
Alex hit the button to lower the glass and inhaled a slow breath filled with the smell of fall leaves and something tropical. Like mangos and bananas. Her. Sea-green eyes met his gaze. A splash of freckles played over her pert nose. He'd always been a sucker for freckles. Freckles and laughs. Deanna had both, along with white-blonde hair, short legs and an infuriating habit of finishing his sentences. Physically the women couldn't be more different. Where Dee was short, this woman was tall. Willowy. Alex shifted in his seat.
He would not be attracted to her. Not, not, not.
You're not here to be attracted to the mother.
Definitely not. He had nothing to offer her, but the little girl, maybe he could give her something.
Still, he was mesmerized by the light tan dots over the woman's nose and those long, long legs covered in tattered denim.
"I've had four neighbors call to let me know a strange man is casing my house. And Mrs. Pur-cell" she pointed toward a green-shuttered home with a cracked sidewalk and an old Chevy Impala in the drive "has probably also called 9-1-1. So, unless you just like being interrogated for sitting in your truck you might want to come in." She offered him a kind smile but her hands trembled against the door. Her voice had a light twang to it that a lot of Southern Missouri residents had. Not so twangy that single-syllable words became multisyllabic, more of a slow, I'm-not-in-a-hurry twang. "Unless you've decided against it?" The words were semihopeful and Alex couldn't blame the woman for that.
He tapped his booted foot against the floorboard and flipped the key. "I haven't really decided anything but maybe we could talk?"
She blew out a breath, nodded, and the strand of hair she'd tucked behind her ear slipped forward, hiding her face for a moment. "They told me you'd like to meet. I kind of hoped we could talk over the phone first."
Alex shrugged and his shoulder pushed against his seat belt. He pulled the key from the ignition and then released the belt. "It's easier to hang up a phone than not answer a doorbell." He got out of the truck and shut the door. Paige, the lawyer told him her name was Paige, watched him, arms folded over her chest and an annoyed slant to her full lips. "I didn't Not that you wouldn't answer." This was going wrong. So wrong. This situation was completely out of his grasp. "I'm not sure where to begin."
Her voice was quiet, resigned. Like she knew she couldn't stop what was coming, but wanted to all the same. "I'd rather not have this conversation on the street." She stepped away from him. "I'm Paige Kenner, by the way. And you're Alex Ryan."
"I know." She raised her eyebrows at him. Alex ran a hand over his face as if that might wipe away the discomfort he felt now that he was face-to-face with Paige. It didn't. Paige seemed normal. Nice. She hadn't run screaming for the cops when a strange man sat outside her home, anyway. And he'd just swung from arrogant to meek and back to arrogant in about two seconds. He held out his hand and waited a long moment before Paige reached out. Her skin was soft against his and he told himself the little shock he felt was from his smooth-soled boots rubbing against the carpet on the floor of his truck and not because he was attracted to her.
"Sorry, yeah, I'm Alex. I'm your daughter's father."
Paige wanted to do anything except lead Alex Ryan into her home. But there were at least four pairs of eyes on them right now and one of those pairsMrs. Purcellwould be right back on the phone with the Bonne Terre police department if Paige ran screaming down the street.
Maybe that wouldn't be the worst thing.
The police would come, and crazy teenage reputation or not, the officers would take her seriously. She was a teacher now, a single mom. Valued member of the community. He might look perfectly adorable in the black tee with the park ranger logo over the chest, faded jeans and boots, but there were only a few reasons a stranger would sit outside a home for hours. None of them good. The cops would take Alex Ryan into custody and delay this meeting. Maybe even make him reconsider stepping into her life.
God, let him reconsider. Her life worked now. She liked who she was, liked being Kaylie's mom, giving her daughter all the love and attention Paige was denied in her own childhood. When she was a child, her parents either ignored her completely or interfered to the point that Paige couldn't take it and lashed out. Those actions had sent her down the road of rebellion until she realized the one person she hurt with her antics was herself. It was a shock and had sent her down a new path. A path that led to the stupidest fertility clinic in the tristate area, apparently, but as crazy as it was that they'd used Alex's semen instead of the donor she'd chosen, she still had Kaylie. The most amazing four-year-old on the planet.
For a moment she wondered about the strange man in the truck outside, and then she caught a glimpse of tawny hair and saw the way his head cocked to the side as he studied her home.
Both characteristics were exactly the same as her daughter's.
Paige opened the front door and waited for Alex to pass by. His broad shoulder brushed against her and tension bubbled up in her belly. She took a moment to steady her hands against the doorknob at her back and mentally shook herself. There was nothing to be afraid of. Those four pairs of eyes would keep watch over her house until the blue truck sitting on the street had driven away. It was one of the reasons she chose this neighborhood. The house was the perfect size for her and Kay-lie, and it was one of those places where neighbors watched out for one another.
Paige's mom side appreciated the sentiment, even if the Mrs. Purcells of the world sometimes paid a little too much attention to her.
Alex stood in her entryway looking around as if he was lost. Her paint supplies took up most of the space in the living room to the left and Kaylie's latest infatuationLalaloopsy dollstook up the rest. She led the way through to the open-plan kitchen and family room.
"Would you like some iced tea?" Prim and proper and not at all what she wanted to ask. She wanted to be direct, tell him he had no business here. That he needed to leave. Something held her back.
Alex shook his head and Paige motioned him to sit at the island counter while she refreshed her glass. She wasn't thirsty but it was something to do with her hands so she fussed with slices of lemon and added more ice before putting the pitcher back into the fridge.
Finally there was nothing left to do so she turned back to the man at the counter, trying to ignore the assessing way he watched her. Despite the casual clothes, Alex Ryan was the mirror image of everything she had left behind in her parents' home, from the set of his shoulders to the judgment she saw in the thin line of his mouth. Rigid standards and rules she could never live up to. Expectations that had left her heartbroken and wounded. She didn't need his approval, she reminded herself. It wasn't like she'd asked him to come into her home and disrupt her life.
It wasn't as if she'd had his permission to use his semen, either.
The clinic sent a file with his pertinent information, but Paige couldn't force herself to read it. A small piece of her had hoped that if she ignored the report the man would ignore her. Now she wished she had read it cover to cover instead of putting it in her bottom desk drawer.
Her gaze caught on the picture of Kaylie at her fourth birthday party, cake frosting up to her eyebrows, princess crown askew, charging after the boys with her blue lightsaber.
Kaylie was the reason for all of this. Paige had wanted a family, so much so that on her twenty-fourth birthday she'd decided to take life by the horns and create the family she dreamed of. The sweet, smart, silly girl was everything Paige needed. No men needed to apply and since Kay-lie had been born, not even a handful had stuck around through dinner.
And here was one more. A man so afraid of commitment he hadn't known whether to get out of his car or run screaming into the warm Missouri afternoon.
No, that was unfair. She didn't know anything about Alex Ryan.
A man so gorgeous the rebellious part of Paige, the part of her she couldn't get rid of no matter how much she tried to pretend it didn't exist, was glad her daughter wasn't here. Wanted to flirt. Wished they'd met at a bar or under any other circumstances so that she could flirt and touch and see if the attraction she felt for him, he felt for her, too.
She glanced at her watch. Just over an hour until her best friend, Alison, would bring Kaylie back from her swim lesson at the rec center. The principal at her school required impromptu meetings now and then; today Alison was able to step in and help Paige. She was grateful. Alison was her biggest supporter and cheerleader. Paige hated missing the lesson, but Alison liked playing auntie for Kaylie from time to time. This introduction needed to get moving and get over with because, until she knew exactly what Alex Ryan's intentions were, he was not getting anywhere near her daughter.
"So, this is awkward." She blurted the words out, not sure where else to start. "We have a child together but I don't know anything about you."
He offered her a half smile, making his eyes crinkle at the corners and accentuating a little scar at the corner of his full lips. The tension she'd felt when he'd brushed past her ratcheted up a notch and she admitted to herself it wasn't fear at all. It was flat-out excitement. Want. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt such an instant attraction to a man. Attraction was bad. Very, very bad. Attraction meant throwing all her rules about relationships out the window. Attraction led to mistakes and mistakes could hurt Kaylie.
She gulped some tea, hoping it would put out the sizzle of heat that seemed to grow with every second Alex was in her kitchen.