Locked In His Heart by Catherine Stang by Catherine Stang - Read Online

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Summary

He kept his secrets for seventeen years....until she came along. Melanie Rivers is on a mission to help a friend fulfill her dying foster mother's wish. So far every road she takes leads to a dead end until a chance meeting with enigmatic lawyer, Nick Sinclair, leaves her wondering... Could he be the break she has been looking for? As a victims' advocate, Nick Sinclair has helped many abused children, battered women and other crime victims to come forward over the years, but has kept his own painful past buried deep. All he ever wanted was to be left alone until now. Yet if he acts on his attraction to Melanie, it will set his past and present on a collision course. Can Nick let Melanie close enough to heal his wounds or will he allow fear to keep them apart? Genre: Romance SubGenre: Mainstream
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781603132220
List price: $3.99
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Locked In His Heart - Catherine Stang

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you.~~

Chapter 1

Des Moines, Iowa

Melanie couldn’t explain it, but she sensed there was something her best friend, Sarah, wasn’t telling her. A tingling shiver of apprehension skittered up her nerve endings as she walked into the coffee shop. This time of the morning it was crowded with students studying and various artist types huddled around tables expressing themselves. She glanced around, finding Sarah at a corner table by the window in their I-need-to-talk spot.

She waved at Sarah as she stepped into line behind a couple of giggling college girls who were babbling on about what they were wearing to the winter formal. Staring at the menu on the wall, she tried to focus on her order, but she kept being drawn back to the new book she needed to write. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she tried to start her project the characters wouldn’t talk to her. It was beyond frustrating. She’d never had writer’s block before. Ever since she’d discovered at the age of ten that she could write, she had written almost every day. Not having a story unfolding in her head made her feel empty and awkward.

Sarah’s phone call hadn’t helped her uneasy mood. Although she claimed otherwise, Melanie knew Sarah’s situation must be urgent. She never would have interrupted her writing time. Could she be of any help to Sarah as flustered and distracted as she was right now?

Normally, she didn’t leave the house during her writing time. It was just easier all around to not subject her friends to her inattentive behavior when she was in creative mode. Today was different, though. In her present mood, she would have done anything to get away from the blank computer screen that kept taunting her.

Jeez, it was her turn to order and here she was fretting and not paying attention. The kid behind the counter was looking at her like she was a freaking moron.

I’ll have a Chi tea and a piece of coffee cake warmed with butter.

A girl with a dark ponytail, whose nametag read Cindy, stared at her from behind the counter. I know you. She pointed at her with a bottle of whipped cream. Didn’t I see you on The Factor the other night? My little sister loves your books. I didn’t know you were pro-war.

Melanie blinked her shocked reaction. She wasn’t used to being recognized by anyone over the age of ten and that was usually only at a book signing. Most people had no idea who she was or what she did for a living, which was just fine with her. This suddenly being famous was a bit unnerving.

I’m not pro-war. She pulled money out her wallet. But you can’t deal with the middle ages without talking about the crusades, and to understand what happened you have to know what led up to them. I’m not making a social comment on what is happening today, just giving historical perspective.

She winced at how that must have sounded. Could she be any more defensive?

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like I was lecturing you. She lowered her voice, leaning over the counter to talk more privately. This being instantly famous is new...

Oh, wow, the lady next to her said before Cindy could reply. You do the chess kids time travel books. My daughter is so upset that your next one is being delayed. That’s all she wanted for Christmas.

She blushed, not used to all this attention. Tell that to my publishing house she wanted to scream. I’m working on that. Here, I have a bookmark. She dug deep in her big leather purse, handing her one. She handed one to the teenagers working behind the counter, too.

Can you sign this for my sister, Cindy asked. Man. Amy won’t believe I met you. She had me help her send out flaming emails to all the shows you’ve been on that weren’t nice to you. Are there really not going to be any more chess club books?

So much for the bad impression she feared she’d made.

I hope not. I’m starting a new series. Liar. You can’t even get the plot going.

Wow, Amy will be glad to hear that. She bugs Mom to be the first one at the store when one of yours is released.

Tell her I hope my book will be out soon. When it is, I’ll be doing a book signing here. My website is on the bookmark. You can log on to it for an undated schedule.

Yeah, we’ve been to it. That’s how Amy knew it wasn’t coming out.

Nice meeting you, she said, trying to end the conversation before she totally used up all the patience of the people standing in line behind her.

She took the tray with her order and headed toward Sarah, who was talking on the phone but hung up as she approached.

Sarah tried to smile as Melanie put the cake between them and handed her a fork. But the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

You look like you could use this. Melanie sat, relieved no one followed her. Sarah didn’t need to be in the middle of the mess that was her life right now.

I think you might need it more or are you too excited to eat? Were you just recognized? Am I having coffee with a famous person?

She shrugged. I guess I’m this week’s news. I’m still not comfortable with all the attention. I always knew it could happen, but I never actually dreamed it would.

I bet this will increase your sales dramatically.

That is if... Melanie waved her hand. Let’s not get into that. If we get on that subject we’ll never get around to the real reason you wanted to meet.

Right. Sarah stared down at her cake, but made no attempt to pick up the fork.

Not a good sign.

You going to tell me what’s bothering you, or do I have to play twenty questions?

Sarah added more sugar to her coffee and stirred. A ploy for time, she knew. They couldn’t have been more different. Sarah was the methodical one who talked when she was ready, as opposed to Melanie who blurted out every thought that came into her head. Sarah was the studious, little blonde while she was the wild, leggy redhead, who would rather be a cheerleader than play in the band. The only two things they agreed on were loving to read and not letting go of something that needed fixing.

Sarah shifted nervously, stirring her coffee before finally looking up at her. I want you to find Adam.

She choked on her hot tea. Wait a minute. You want me to find Adam? The Adam? The foster child your family never talks about. Are you sure? I thought you gave up on that.

Sarah sighed. I’ve tried to let go of him. Honest, I have. In my head I know seventeen years is a long time, but to my heart it feels like yesterday. I can’t forget him. I guess that’s because I feel responsible for getting him removed from our home.

But why now, after all these years, do you want to find him now?

In the last few weeks Mom has woken up crying out Adam’s name. I’m hoping if you find him that you can give her some peace before she goes.

Before she goes. Melanie stiffened. Her heart was pounding in her throat. She didn’t want to contemplate losing Sarah’s mother, Ruby. The woman had been the closest thing to a mother she’d had since her own died after she was born. Ruby was her rock during the hard times when her family had come close to falling apart. Thinking of life without Ruby’s calming voice, big hugs, understanding eyes and warm cookies was unbearable.

Is she going down hill that fast? Melanie whispered, hating to even voice the question. I thought she’d rallied.

Sarah swiped the back of her hand across her damp eyes. "I thought so too, but I think she’s trying hard to hang on to see my younger brother, Zach, graduate from high school. I know, as much as we all want that too, it isn’t going to happen. Mom gets weaker everyday. She can’t breathe at all without her oxygen. Then her breathing is ragged. We got her a hospital bed, because she can’t lie flat. She’s slipping away more each day. I can’t even leave her alone to run an errand. My brother, Sullivan, stayed with her so I could meet you this morning. I honestly don’t know how much time she has left.

I’d go if I could, but with Sullivan’s physical limitations he can’t care for Mom by himself. I think handling Zach and Mom would be too much for him. As it is poor Sullivan is spending more time at home than his office. I know he’s been burning the midnight oil getting websites updated for his clients. He feels added pressure because he’s basically supporting all of us, since I took a leave of absence. I’m just not comfortable asking any more of him right now. I think he has his hands full doing what he’s doing.

She let out a harsh breath. And Zach, well, ever since he turned seventeen he thinks he knows it all. Instead of dealing with the seriousness of Mom’s situation, he’s burying himself in school, work and activities. I worry that he’s spending too much time with his girlfriend, Cassidy. He likes to project this ‘I can do anything, no sweat’ image around her.

I’d say he was a typical teen.

I know. Sarah rubbed her forehead. I guess I’m just feeling overwhelmed trying to be a mother to Zach, take care of Mom and let Sullivan have the space he needs. Maybe I’m just trying too hard to make everyone happy. That’s why this deal with Adam has me rattled. I feel like since Mom can’t see Zach grow up, maybe knowing Adam is okay will ease her mind. Show her she did something right.

Melanie frowned. Could Ruby really not see all the good she had done in her life?

Your mom did more than something right. Look at you and Sullivan. You’re practically a doctor or will be as soon as you finish your residency. Sullivan is doing well with his graphic design company. Your mom kept him from giving up and feeling sorry for himself by making him focus on what he could do instead of what he couldn’t.

I know.

Think about all the other foster kids who have thrived because Ruby took a special interest in them. Mia is a pharmacist and Whitney got a scholarship to Yale last year. Without her help, my family would never have made it through Dad’s relapse and trip to alcohol rehab.

I know. She knows. I just feel that Adam is unfinished business. She knows what happened to all the other kids who lived with us, but not Adam.

Sarah sighed. Here I am blathering on and I haven’t even asked how you’re doing. Have you been able to write?

Melanie froze, tea half way to her mouth. Leave it to Sarah to bring the conversation back full circle. The girl was never one to let anything drop. That was what would make her an awesome doctor, because she would leave no stone unturned until she found the answers.

Normally when her family pressed her about not writing she got defensive, but she could tell by the concern in her friend’s eyes that she cared and wasn’t judging her.

No. I’ve been staring at the computer screen day after day with no results. It’s been almost three weeks. I’ve never gone this long between books. Usually the next one is playing out in my head before I finish editing the one I’m working on. Right now I’m stuck. I can’t go forward and start a new series that my heart isn’t in and my chess club series is on hold. I’ve had no word on my proposal for the next book. Since they delayed the release of my last Chess Club book, I’m hesitant to start another one in this series. Like I said, I’m stuck.

Is my project going to be good thing or just another unneeded distraction for you? I feel guilty for using your situation to my advantage. I’d go if I could, but... She held her hands palms up.

You can’t. I understand. I just don’t want to let you or Ruby down.

Melanie sat back in her chair, studying her friend. Sarah looked beyond weary. The people I find for my brother, Jack, are wealthy with a large paper trail. Melanie let out a harsh breath. How could she even consider not doing it? She owed Ruby more than she could ever repay. Give me what you have on Adam and I’ll see what I can do.

Relief spread across Sarah’s face. I don’t know where to tell you to start. I don’t have much information. She pulled out a small cardboard box from under her chair, sliding it across the table.

Melanie slowly examined the contents. On top of a few toy cars and a small stuffed bear was a school picture of a boy about nine with dark hair and huge haunted blue eyes. He looked a bit too thin and his hair cut was crooked. He wore a faded blue shirt with a familiar elementary school logo on the front.

She set aside the picture, the cars and the bear and began looking through the rest of the stuff. Two folded up hand-made valentines, one for Sarah and one for her mother, a Mother’s day card with ‘Thank you for being my new mom’ printed in a child’s block writing on the inside that made her throat clog with tears. There was also a tooth bag and a small well-worn beanie bag bunny. One other photo showed a birthday party. The foster kids who had lived with Ruby were all piled in a restaurant booth. A boy she didn’t recognize was blowing out the candles on a race car birthday cake. Adam watched with a guarded expression.

Melanie’s tearful gaze met Sarah’s. Is this all you have of him?

Sarah nodded.

Do you have any idea where he might be?

"No. He floated in and out of a couple foster homes after he left us. Mom tried to get the authorities to give him back, but they refused. Then, suddenly, he was adopted, but all paperwork was sealed by request. Mom’s attempts to make contact through the social worker were denied.

"She never forgave herself for letting them take him that night at the hospital. She thought they were just keeping him for observation. Mom never dreamed they’d terminate her rights.

She regrets the way she handled things that night and feels like she let him down by not trying harder to get him back. She just didn’t have the energy for a fight. With Sullivan’s complicated health problems and our father’s sudden death, she couldn’t meet his needs. The social worker insisted he needed a male figure in his life and special treatment. I think he was too young to understand. I think we all were.

It must have been hard on all of you. I wish I could offer some assurances, but this search won’t be easy. I can’t make you any promises.

I know. I haven’t said anything to Mom yet, so if you don’t find him she won’t have her hopes dashed.

Do you think she wants me to find him?

If you ask her, she’ll say no. That his life has moved on and we have no right to impose ourselves on him.

She may have a valid point.

Sarah sighed. I know. But I still can’t get past the fact that Mom says his name in her sleep. Am I crazy for pursuing this?

Melanie reached across the table, squeezing her friend’s trembling hand. No. I know why you feel compelled to do this. I just fear we’re setting ourselves up to be hurt. We don’t even know this person any more. What if he doesn’t want us in his life?

That concerns me, too. Would it be worse for Mom to never know what happened to him or be rejected by him? I don’t know the answer. All I do know is that I can’t go back to fix the past for her and I can’t help ease her mind now without finding him. I can only hope Adam can forgive us.

Melanie had no reply. She just squeezed Sarah’s hand again.

* * * *

You shouldn’t be in here, Cassidy Richardson said, dabbing her eyes with a cool, wet paper towel.

So. Zach Weston grinned lopsidedly, leaning back against the door of the girl’s restroom, folding his arms as he stared at his best friend. She was usually so bouncy, but today she seemed off. Actually, she’d been that way for a couple weeks now and he’d been debating whether of not to say anything. Normally, Cassidy was very pulled together from the matching hair ribbons in her long blonde hair to her shoes. The outfit she had on today didn’t show her usual style flair. Her pretty face was tear-streaked and mascara blackened her eyes. She didn’t even have on the rose colored lip gloss she always wore.

Is there anyone else in here? he asked, trying to break the uncomfortable silence between them.

Cassidy rolled her eyes, peering under the stall doors. No.

Then we’re okay. See. He pointed up as the bell rang for their next class. No one will be here for a while. It’s too soon to ask for a pass. Now tell me what’s wrong.

Nothing.

Yeah, right, and you’re scrubbing off your makeup for no reason.

My mascara is burning my eyes.

Crying will do that to you.

I’m not crying.

And I’m not cutting Advanced Chemistry.

She let out a sigh, moving in front of him. Let me go.

He shifted, preventing her from opening the door. Not until we talk. You’ve been avoiding me for the last few days. I want to know why.

She tried to push him aside, but to no avail. She was almost a head shorter than him even in her high heeled boots and he out weighed her with muscle mass, so he knew he’d win this argument. She couldn’t move him, so he stood, patiently waiting for her to meet his eyes and talk.

I’m late.

He blinked, not comprehending what she was saying. For what, class? Heck, babe, we both are. But I’m still not budging.

She sighed, jerking her head up to meet his gaze. I haven’t had my period.

Now, that was an unexpected announcement. He frowned, pulling away from the door. Oh. Are you sure?

I didn’t get it in September, but I figure I was freaking out over color guard tryouts, because of the new sponsor and all. Then in October I blamed it on obsessing about the new routine we had to learn for band competition. Now November is almost over and I still haven’t had one.

He paused for a moment, unsure exactly how to respond to that. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? How could that be?

Have you bought a pregnancy test? he asked, hoping that was the right response.

She bit her lip, shaking her head. I’m too nervous. I’m afraid someone will see me or Mom will find it in the trash can when I’m done.

We’ll go after school and buy one. Then you can take it at my house.

Don’t you have to help Sarah take care of your mom?

Not this afternoon. Mom has a doctor’s appointment."

I don’t know. It sounds kind of risky. Besides, you have to do it first thing in the morning when you wake up. I read on the back of a box I picked up at the drug store that you need to use your first pee.

Okay, that was way too much detail.

Then come over first thing and you can do it before everyone gets up. I’ll tell Sarah we’re finishing some homework. She’s busy with Mom’s breathing treatment then. It takes Sullivan awhile to get up and dressed with his leg braces. Besides, he never comes upstairs to my room anyway. I dump the trash and it’s picked up on that day, so we’re safe.

The door banged into him and the pretty young English teacher whose room was next to here came in.

Zach, I swear you spend more time in here than you do in class or the boys’ restroom, Mrs. Allen said. I keep warning you that I’m going to report your behavior.

I know. He threw up his hands. But you hate to see me get in trouble.

Mrs. Allen frowned, looking between him and Cassidy. Is something wrong?

Cassidy had something in her eye.

She shot him a disbelieving glare. And I suppose you were helping her get it out.

That’s what friends do.

Head off to class and I’ll forget this. Next time, you’ll be in trouble.

He grinned, taking Cassidy’s hand, pulling her out with him.

Zach, Mrs. Allen said.

Yes, Ma’am. He paused, turning to look at her.

Use a bathroom someone else is in charge of for a change.

You got it. Next time we’ll talk on another floor.

Cassidy punched him playfully in the shoulder. You shouldn’t toy with her so. One day, Mrs. Allen is going to run out of patience with you.

He shrugged. Do you feel better?

No.

He stopped, making her bump into him. Don’t worry. First we’ll get your answers. Then we’ll figure out what to do.

She folded her arm defiantly across her chest. Her eyes narrowed in that way that told him he might have crossed the line. "What is this we stuff? I..."

He raised a hand. I’ll stop being so bossy. Just promise to meet me after school.

Okay. She unfolded her arms. Now, let me get to class. Mrs. Henderson is probably wondering what’s taking so long. I’m supposed to be helping lay out the newspaper, so it can be printed today.

Then scoot. I have Mr. Johnson and he’ll be none too pleased I don’t have a tardy pass.

Cassie?

She turned half way up the hall.

It’ll be all right.

I hope you’re right.

He hoped so, too, because for the first time in his life, he didn’t have a plan, but he had no intention of letting Cass know the invincible Zach Weston might just be human after all.

* * * *

How is she? Sarah took off her gloves and coat, smiling wearily at her brother, Sullivan, who was reading a mystery novel by their mother’s bed.

His head jerked up at the sound of her voice and he rolled his wheelchair backward. She slept the whole time you were gone.

He rolled closer to her, so they could talk without being overheard. Did Melanie agree?

Man, she was tired. Sarah leaned back against the wall, pulling off her shoes. Yes.

His eyes brightened. Good.

I hope so.

Mom’s eyes flickered open. Agreed to what? Not another of your blind dates, I hope. You really must leave the poor girl alone.

They hadn’t been as quiet as they thought they were. This would be a reminder to them to watch what they said when they were in her room. They laughed at how, even half conscious, their mother still seemed to know what was going on and still kept her fingers in the pie.

She’s helping me with a project. Nothing to worry about." Sarah sat in the rocking chair that was pushed up next to the bed and took her mother’s cold hand, rubbing it gently.

Does this involve a man? Mom croaked. Her eyes shut.

Sullivan grinned, not answering, of course.

Possibly, Sarah said, but didn’t offer any further explanation because she didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t get her deeper than she was prepared to go at this point.

Okay. Her mother’s voice faltered. I get the message. Won’t press. You’ve been scheming since you were a giggling girl.

Her mother’s breathing grew ragged. Where’s Zach?

Sarah and Sullivan exchanged glances. At school. He should be in Advanced Chemistry about now.

Keep an eye on him. He’s...lost in the shuffle. Are you back at the hospital?

Sarah sighed, hating to go back over this. I took a leave of absence, remember?

Go back. You need to finish your medical training. You can’t keep putting your life on hold for me.

Mom. She blew out a harsh breath, stalling for the right words. We’ve been all through this. You need me. Nothing is more important. The rest can wait.

She brushed back her mother’s thinning dark hair.

Not too long or you’ll lose out.

I’ve got that under control. You worry about getting better. Go back to sleep. You’ll need your energy to go to Dr. Wilson’s this afternoon.

Mother’s eyes drifted shut. I’m too tired, she mumbled."

Don’t worry, Melanie’s brother Brad is coming over to help us. You won’t have to walk at all.

He’s a good boy. Is he settling down with that nice Shelby?

I don’t know, Mom.

I’ll have to ask.

She’d bet Mom would, too. Melanie laughed. Even sick, Mom kept track of everyone.

She and Sullivan passed each other a silent look that spoke more than words. Would Melanie find Adam and convince him to see their mom? They were running out of time, because Mom was getting weaker every day. How were they going to survive without her?

Chapter 2

I didn’t know there were so many of these things, Zach muttered, looking through the large selection of pregnancy tests at the superstore.

You don’t have to pick up all of them and read every cover, Cassidy hissed, trying to hide behind diapers as someone walked by the aisle. Just grab one and go. Honestly, you over analyze everything.

Okay. This one says you can tell sooner and can take it any time of day. I vote we take it. Shit, it’s twenty-eight bucks.

I only have ten.

I have twenty.

I don’t want to take all your money.

He shrugged, wondering why she was making such a big deal out of the money issue. Sullivan needs me to clean his studio. I’ll earn the money back then.

Cassie rolled her eyes. Okay, grab one and let’s get going. Any idea how we can get it up to the counter?

Here. He thrust a box of tampons at her. Hide it under this. We’ll go to the self check out lane and you can leave them.

They’re still going to know what we bought, because it shows up on the guy’s screen. What if someone tells?

We’ll go to the distracted guy’s lane. Come on.

She followed him to the self-check out lane. No one was in line ahead of them. She quickly put the tampons on the candy shelf with the gum, pressed English on the screen and scanned the kit.

Item not recognized, the monotone voice chirped.

Shit. Her voice rose in panic. Let’s just go.

Before they could leave, a young guy barely older than them stumbled up. This one isn’t working. Want to move over to the other one?

No, she said.

Zach could see she was poised to flee and forget this whole thing if he didn’t stop her. They needed to do this now, while they still had the guts.

Zach stepped in front of Cassidy. Sure. He flipped the tampons in the air, hiding the pregnancy kit behind his back. Girl stuff. Needs them, but hates to buy them.

Cassidy glared at him as he flashed her a cocky smile.

The guy grinned sheepishly. I have three sisters. He swiped his card across the scanner. There, this one should work.

Hey, a lady on the aisle over said. My books won’t ring up. This happens every time I come here. What’s wrong with this crazy thing?

The man disappeared to help her. Zach dumped the tampons and quick scanned the kit, dropping it into a bag. Thank goodness it rang up this time. He paid, grabbed the bag and pulled Cassidy out of the store before she got any paler.

Clicking open the locks on his little black sporty