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LITTLE GIRL LOST AND FOUND?
The moment she laid eyes on the little girl with the butterfly-shaped birthmark, reporter Sophie Markham swore she was looking at her long-lost niece. And yet this child's parents claimed to have met the birth mother who had perished in a fire. Digging into the adoption quickly became dangerous, but her biggest challenge was the child's uncle, and Sophie's ex, Gary Barksdale. Being near him reminded Sophie of the passion that had once driven their careers and their relationship. And working together now felt as natural as it had back thenexcept this time someone wanted them dead.
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Sophie Markham stood in the middle of the Hilton's ballroom and stared into her past.
Looking at the child was like looking at a ghost—a vision of the young girl her sister had once been, many years before she'd perished in a senseless house fire.
Smoking in bed. Sophie blinked and shook her head. What a waste. She eyed the young girl again, watched how she interacted with her mother, the fund-raiser's organizer.
If Rebecca's infant daughter had survived the fire, she'd be about the same age. Five, Sophie guessed, though goodness knew she had so little experience with kids she wasn't terribly gifted at guessing their age.
"Live in three, Sophie." John Cook, WNJZ's cameraman, spoke from just behind her left ear.
"Thanks." Sophie wrenched her attention away from the young girl, smoothed the front of her designer suit and smiled at the camera. "Look okay?"
"Gorgeous as always."
"I'm telling you, Cookie, if only you weren't married."
Cook, who was old enough to be her father, shot her a wink then tipped his head toward the event's organizer, Maggie Alexander. "We'd better get set up."
As Sophie crossed the room to where the girl's mother stood, she couldn't keep her focus away from the little girl. When the child's gaze locked with hers, Sophie's breath caught in her throat.
The little girl had the same chestnut-brown hair Becca had as a child, the same button nose. Sophie smiled at the way the girl's pixie haircut framed her curious expression.
"Ally, Mommy's got to talk to Ms. Markham now, so you'll be a good girl, right?"
The child's face softened into a huge grin revealing a wonderfully toothy smile, but as Ally turned to give her mother a quick nod, it was something entirely different that captured Sophie's attention. It was a birthmark on the back of the girl's neck in the shape of a perfect butterfly. A birthmark identical to the one Sophie's niece, Robin, had been born with.
Sophie blinked, disbelief rushing through her. She never thought she'd see anything like the mark again.
Like a cruel glimpse into the past, the patch of dis-colored skin brought back memories of the night Becca and Robin had perished. What were the odds two children would have identical birthmarks? Apparently not as high as she might think, because there Ally Alexander stood, bearing Robin's butterfly.
Robin. Who would have been the same age.
A wave of grief threatened to overtake Sophie's emotions, but she shoved it away. Now wasn't the time to let the past get the best of her.
"Sophie." Cookie squeezed her elbow. "Thirty seconds. You all right?"
Sophie swallowed away the tightness in her throat and pasted on a smile, her expression nothing more than a reflex at this stage in her career. She compartmentalized the old grief, locking it inside the back of her brain as Cookie counted down on his fingers. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
"Sudden infant death syndrome," Sophie began.
"It takes the lives of 3,000 children in this country every year and yet it cannot be prevented or predicted.
"With me tonight is Maggie Alexander, chairperson of this year's SIDS gala. Tonight's carnival seeks to raise funds for local organizations that provide support services for area families who have suffered a loss. Organizers hope to spread awareness of the steps you can take to help reduce the risk of SIDS."
She turned her cheek to the camera and gave Maggie a generous smile, hoping the woman would sound as competent and articulate in the interview as she had during their initial conversation. "Mrs. Alexander, this year's attendance seems better than ever. Can you tell me a little bit about how tonight's event can help our community?"
Maggie Alexander proceeded to concisely deliver what Sophie was certain must be a series of practiced talking points. The woman was effective in her comments and kept her tone conversational, without the visible nerves so many interviewees suffered as soon as Cookie turned on the camera light.
"Please, call me Maggie."
Sophie nodded and let her expression grow serious.
"Maggie. If it's not too personal, might I ask how you came to be involved with the program?"
Even though they'd discussed the question beforehand and Sophie knew Maggie was prepared for it, she felt like a heel invading the woman's personal pain for the benefit of a story.
A shadow passed across Maggie Alexander's face as she visibly swallowed. "Of course. Like so many of us active in raising funds and awareness to fight SIDS, my husband, Robert, and I lost a child. Our son." She shot a knowing glance to where her husband stood holding Ally.
"I'm so sorry."
Maggie forced a weak smile. "Thank you." Sophie reached out and gently placed her hand against the woman's arm. "Thank you for caring enough to take action. You have my sympathy and my respect."
She turned back to the camera. "And with the help of those in attendance tonight and our viewers at home, together we can work to better understand SIDS."
Cookie extinguished the camera light and headed for his bag of gear.
Mrs. Alexander's throat worked, and Sophie regretted opening the wound of the woman's personal pain. After they said their goodbyes, Sophie turned to the door where Cookie stood waiting.
That's when she saw him.
Another vision from her past. This one taller, darker, definitely male.
She hadn't seen Gary Barksdale in seven years, yet the sight of him affected her senses much now as it had the first time she'd set eyes on him.
She'd been a junior at the University of Delaware, testing the waters at a tailgate party before a home football game. She'd always kept to herself, and the party had been a huge step out of her comfort zone.
Sophie remembered thinking she couldn't decide whether her inability to breathe had been due to Gary, or due to some sort of antisocial panic attack.
Based on the current tightness in her chest, she'd put her money on Gary.
As if one ghost hadn't been enough for the night. He visibly flinched when he realized she'd spotted him watching her.
Their relationship had been brief but intense—overwhelming both of them with emotions too strong for a pair of college juniors. Sophie had broken things off when she'd realized she'd grown to need and want Gary's presence. Of course, the fact he'd proposed had played a small role in the speed of her departure.
Sophie had once vowed never to need a man after watching her mother's parade of losers. As much as she'd cared for Gary, she couldn't afford to let him past her defenses then—or now.
He looked more solid than she remembered, not in the sense of physique, but in terms of his presence. He'd visibly matured, soft lines edging the corners of his mouth and the patch of skin between his brows, as if he'd spent too much time frowning.
The old, familiar flicker of attraction edged through her, causing her to fake a cough and momentarily glance away. The last thing she needed was for Gary to know she'd never quite gotten over him.
When she recovered from the shock of seeing him, Sophie closed the gap between them, ignoring the tiny voice that told her to run—as fast as she could—in the opposite direction. Seeing Gary was just what her emotions didn't need on top of the memories of Becca and Robin.
The crooked grin she'd once dreamed about slid across Gary's lips, dimpling one cheek.
The rough notes of his voice sent a shiver up the back of her neck. Damn. After all these years, her nerve endings still snapped to attention at the sound of his voice.
"What brings you here?" One dark blond brow lifted. Sophie narrowed her gaze. "Working."
His grin spread into what appeared to be a sincere smile. "Kind of figured that out by the television camera and the microphone." He tipped his chin toward her cobalt-blue suit. "Not to mention the getup. Far cry from those sweats you lived in at U of D."
The heat of a blush fired in Sophie's cheeks, and she turned away as if admiring the crowd. "Guess your investigative skills are sharp as always."
"Still with the Inquirer?" As if she didn't know. She turned back to face him now that her warm embarrassment had left her face.
He nodded. "Thinking about making a move, actually."
Sophie widened her eyes, asking the question silently. "Los Angeles." Gary shrugged. "I'd rather not jinx it by talking about it."
"I never knew you were superstitious."
His only response was a deepening of his tantalizing grin.
Sophie's stomach clenched, but she ignored it. If Gary had plans to relocate cross-country, that gave her all the more reason to ignore any attraction that still lingered between them after all this time.
She redirected the conversation—and her thoughts—to work. Work was safe. Chitchat was not.
"So what brings the award-winning Gary Barks-dale to a fund-raiser for SIDS?"
The words had no sooner left her lips than she wondered whether or not he'd lost a child. Good heavens. It had been so long since she'd seen him, he was probably married with a house full of kids by now. Some people actually developed lives after college.
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