Secret Child by Ann Major by Ann Major - Read Online
Secret Child
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Summary

"No one provides hotter emotional fireworks than the fiery Ann Major." RT Book Reviews

"Engaging characters, stories that thrill and delight, shivering suspense and captivating romance.

Want it all? Read Ann Major."—Nora Roberts, New York Times Bestselling Author

"From the infant stages of the romance genre Ann Major has been a significant contributor.

Her name on the cover instantly identifies the book as a good read."—Sandra Brown,

New York Times Bestselling Author

"Ann Major's Secret Child sizzles with characters who leap off the page and into your heart.... This one's hot!" —New York Times Bestselling author Lisa Jackson

When Passion and Fate Intertwine in this gripping romantic mystery suspense novel by USA Today bestselling author ANN MAJOR, will two Lost Souls get a Second Chance at True Love?

When a woman with a tragic past is struck by a runaway cab, she gets a brand-new face. Unfortunately, there is a string attached: a pretend marriage to her dangerous lookalike's sexy, Texas cowboy husband. Believing her to be his wife, Jack West is dead-set against her, no matter how powerful his attraction to her. Or is he?

Wrongfully sent to prison, Jack has vowed in his darkest hour to punish the wife who put him there. But the woman he finds is so transformed, he soon wants something far more dangerous than revenge from this woman claiming to be innocent. Will the truth destroy him, or set him free?

The Texas: Children of Destiny western romance series includes:

Passion’s Child

Destiny’s Child

Night Child

Wilderness Child

Scandal’s Child

The Goodbye Child

Nobody’s Child

Secret Child

Published: Ann Major on
ISBN: 9781942473251
List price: $0.99
Availability for Secret Child: Texas: Children of Destiny, #8
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Secret Child - Ann Major

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Bio

Prologue

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The urge to run was almost overwhelming.

When a raindrop hit her cheek, Bronte’s fingers involuntarily tightened the metal clasp of her purse. Then a second drop splashed her prim, white collar.

She’d walked only one block from her mother’s brownstone, where her world-famous mother had taught her she wasn’t beautiful enough or talented enough to ever amount to anything when it began to rain. She was still nine long blocks from her hotel.

Bronte Devlin hated big cities. Especially New York. She preferred wide-open spaces and big blue skies just as she preferred men who wore jeans and Stetsons and lived outside to these stuffy, pale-skinned businessmen in their suits and ties.

She glanced at her watch. She’d been standing on Fifty-Fourth Street for ten minutes, trying without success to hail a cab during rush hour on a warm October evening.

The sky was growing blacker by the second. Its thick, humid heat was so oppressive she felt faint. Or was it her childhood memories mixed with her grief that had her feeling unusually depressed?

There was a bronze plaque in front of her mother’s former home that told of Madame Devlin’s operatic accomplishments. The handsome brownstone mansion on W 69th had been divided into a dozen fashionable apartments. Strangers raised canaries on the second floor where her mother had entertained movie stars. The fourth-floor balcony where Bronte had hidden when her mother was angry was jammed with red geraniums and bicycles.

Why had she come back to this monument of her loveless childhood?

As usual New York City bustled with an endless stream of cabs and buses, and the air was thick with exhaust fumes. The sidewalks were jammed. People of all races, ages, classes, shapes and sizes rushed past her, on their way to jobs, restaurants, hotels and homes.

A bolt of lightning crisscrossed the sky. She hissed in a breath when a stranger jostled her, glanced at her pale, unpainted features, tangled red hair and slim figure. Without apologizing, he hurried away.

As always she felt invisible in this vast city of strangers. Did they see themselves as more important because they were beautiful and gifted or had what she no longer had—purposeful careers and loving marriages? Children to go home to?

Precious children like her Jimmy...

When her eyes burned, she sniffed and blinked back tears. Were they still whole? Did they still believe life could be bright and beautiful and expansive as her famous, beautiful mother, the opera singer, had taught her it should be?

More than anything, her mother had wanted Bronte to be beautiful and stand out. In that, as in all things Bronte, who was ordinary, had disappointed.

Frantically, Bronte wiped at her eyes. She had to leave this city where she’d been born—and fast.

As soon as she got back to her hotel, she would pack and go. She had no idea where. Certainly not back to Wimberley, Texas, where she’d stood in her principal's prison-green office and torn up her teaching contract. Where she'd sold her clothes in a garage sale and given her cat, Pogo, to a friend.

Divorced, she had no one to go home to.

Kindergarten would be starting soon, but she’d known she couldn't face teaching children another year. She couldn't bear the way she saw Jimmy's face every time another long-lashed little boy with copper-colored curls looked up shyly from his coloring book or raised his hand.

A kindergarten teacher needed illusions. She’d lost hers.

Her Jimmy was dead.

Remembering his pale skin, fiery hair and constant grin caused a faint smile. Light boned and hyperactive, Jimmy had loved all things ordinary: his dog, his cat, his horse, his skateboard, his chocolate-chip cookies with ice-cold milk and his three best friends—Sam, Harry, and Donald. And her.

She’d loved the hectic job of raising him. She hadn't minded if his friends used their outdoor voices indoors or slammed her screen door a hundred times a day.

And then suddenly one stormy, rainy afternoon, with no warning, he was gone.

When they’d buried Jimmy in his boots and cowboy hat, Bronte had died, too. So had her marriage to her cowboy husband and her dreams of other children—although more gradually.

Bronte had tried to go on as Bryan—dear placid, unimaginative Bryan, had advised. But she’d been too angry and filled with pain.

After Bryan left, she’d tried to teach kindergarten, struggling minute to minute, hoping that something in the daily process of life would renew her faith. When she’d remained dead on the inside, she’d fled to New York. She’d even taken her maiden name back, but the memories of growing up as a daughter who’d been a constant disappointment to her extraordinary mother had deepened her pain.

The emptiness inside her seemed to be expanding. New York made her feel even more worthless than she had in Texas. So worthless, she’d even thought of taking the coward’s way out.

Every night she told herself that if giving up on life was a good idea today, it would be a good idea tomorrow. So, she’d managed to hang on, living day to day, night to night.

Who had said, Everywhere I go, there I am?

There was no escaping her grief. But if she could make it until tomorrow, maybe she could live through it and be okay...someday.

Suddenly two large men sprang from a shop door and charged after a teenager like a pair of stampeding bulls.

Thief! a bull bellowed as rain pelted the sidewalk.

Get him!

Bronte barely got a glimpse of the boy. Fat raindrops had begun splattering the pavement, and she'd been worrying about the dark sky and keening wind.

The biggest man lunged, ripping the bundle of money out of the boy's arm.

The brown paper sack burst.

Fifty-dollar bills exploded from the bag. A gust from the storm sent green bills sailing over the crowd. Everybody started pushing and grabbing and jumping to catch them.

The tough-faced storeowner slugged the boy hard in the stomach and then in his jaw, sending him reeling backward into Bronte, whose leather-soled flats slid on the slick sidewalk. She careened backward off the curb into the street just as the light turned yellow and the downpour began.

Just as a speeding taxi driver stomped on his accelerator to make the light.

While money and rain flooded the street, Bronte held up her hands—in a vain attempt to signal the taxi to stop.

A woman saw her and screamed. Get out of the street, girlie!

Terror froze Bronte's raised hands when she heard the squeal of tires as the blur of yellow and chrome hurtled toward her.

Funny how she hardly felt the blow, how there was only an odd, numbing warmth as she was lifted into the air. Then she was flying. Falling. Still, she felt nothing. Not even when black asphalt rushed up and slammed her face.

While she lay on the street, a vast dome seemed to close over the skyscrapers and encase her lifeless body like a huge jar. Only there weren't any holes punched in the lid, and she had to fight for every breath. The ferment of people and taxis and buses were all on the other side of the glass. Even the rain couldn't touch her.

The cabdriver got out and screamed at her in a foreign language. Others were screaming as well, but the babble seemed to come from a long way away.

High above her, against a liver-colored skyscraper, a huge matinee sign with the bold image of her favorite movie star, Hunt Brooks, floated. He had dark skin, dark hair and an incredibly fierce demeanor. How many nights had she stayed up late watching his old movies and fantasizing after Bryan had walked out that she'd fall in love again and start over? But it hadn't happened. Now it never would.

Someone knelt and touched her face with fingertips she couldn't feel. A white-haired lady told her she was going to be okay and that she was calling 911.

In the absolute silence and aloneness inside her jar, Bronte felt the beating of her heart. She tasted blood. She watched fluttering green bills sift slowly down on top of her.

She remembered herself as a child, parading up and down the staircase of her mother’s townhouse in long, glittering robes, and her famous mother's rage later when she'd found one of her extravagant costumes had been torn. Bronte remembered all the other rages, too. Rages over a little girl’s dirty fingernails, over clumsy curtsies when Bronte was introduced to somebody her mother, the international diva, the most beautiful woman in the city and maybe the world, had wanted to impress at one of her soirees.

Bronte had been so...so ordinary. Unable to sing even the simplest melody. And so plain her mother had found her unendurable.

Why couldn’t you have been beautiful like me? I wouldn’t have minded you lacking talent if only you were beautiful.

Shadows began to darken.

Hunt's face dissolved.

Was she dying?

Her fierce moan of denial was so loud it startled her.

Jimmy was dead.

Bryan had needed more attention than she could give him and had left her for a younger, more cheerful woman, who could adore him, a woman who was not haunted by ghosts. His new wife had quickly become pregnant.

Bronte had lost everything.

But suddenly, miraculously, she knew that despite her pain and loss, she wanted to live.

Funny, how she hadn’t known how much she wanted to live until she was dying.

When she heard sirens, a vise closed around her chest. First it was only pressure, deep and constricting.

As she gasped for every breath, the wall of brown buildings blurred. Then everything went black.

***

Jimmy. Jimmy. Jimmy.

Bronte felt her little boy's rowdy presence.

Happiness filled her. He was all right. He was all around her.

The doctors had lied. Bryan had lied. She hadn't failed.

Jimmy wasn't dead.

She'd been right all along. God couldn't be that cruel.

She tried to open her eyes and see her son.

But heavy, lead weights lay upon her eyelids.

She didn't have the strength to move even the tiniest muscle.

Still, his presence instilled a wonderful peace as well as a belief that she had to live....

***

When Bronte regained consciousness, she was lying on a gurney in a crowded emergency room. Someone was squeezing her hand.

She could barely feel the firm, blunt fingers of the stranger who probed for her pulse. All she could feel was the searing pain every time she tried to breathe.

God Almighty! a young nurse behind him said. What happened to her face?

She was hit by a cab, a sterner, older voice said.

Hey—quiet! the doctor said. I'm getting a pulse!

Poor thing. Who'd want to live looking like that?

***

Bronte Devlin? Webster's heart was racing as he thumbed through the young woman's chart. Madam Devlin’s daughter?

He’d noticed her red hair when he'd seen her staring at the bronze plaque in front of her mother's home.

He hadn't been sure who she was, but he’d followed her, just in case. But before he'd had a chance to speak, she'd been hit by that cab.

Coincidence? Webster Quinn preferred the current buzzword—synchronicity.

Any other plastic surgeon might have blanched at the sight of the young woman in the blood-smeared, white dress, but the notorious, silver-haired Dr. Webster Quinn, famed for his bizarre genius and immense ego, thrived as both a rebel and an outcast.

Professionally, nothing turned him on more than achieving the unachievable. His successes had dazzled the world. Secretive by nature, he rarely shared his innovative methods and aggressive procedures. Never did he advertise his failures.

Awestruck, Webster knelt low, fingering a matted lock of the girl's hair.

Even in his blue scrubs, he looked more like a television actor playing a fifty-year-old doctor than a real doctor. His keen blue eyes, which were usually cold, blazed with a fanatical light.

He couldn't believe his good fortune.

She was Madame Devlin's daughter. That’s why her bright red hair was a perfect match.

When he probed the young girl's eyelids, she made a small, whimpering sound. But it wasn't compassion for her obvious discomfort as she struggled for every breath that made his heart stop. It was the vivid green hue of one swollen eye.

Her eye color was an exact match, too.

She was slim and tall. Like the other one.

And the bone structure...

She was the original's daughter. So, her bone structure was closer to the genuine article than the other one.

His palms grew sweaty. His heart raced.

He felt like Michelangelo stumbling upon a perfect piece of Carrara marble.

Webster studied the mangled face of Bronte Devlin. Instead of pity or revulsion, he felt an excitement he imagined to be like that of a gifted sculptor who saw in an ugly slab of rock what other fools could not see.

This poor, broken creature would be the raw material for his second masterpiece.

The damage wasn't nearly as extensive as it might appear to those less talented and less sure.

As soon as the other doctors patched her ribs and saved her life, he would spirit her away to his clinic in Costa Rica. Although it was perfectly legal for any simpleminded goose with a medical degree to perform the most complex sort of plastic surgery in the United States, Webster preferred to do his highly innovative procedures out of the country, as far as possible from the prying eyes of jealous, vengeful colleagues. Not that he couldn't make a few basic repairs here while she was healing from her life-threatening injuries.

Webster, who had left California and moved east under a cloud of scandal, was the most controversial plastic surgeon in the state of New York despite his impeccable credentials. He’d even graduated first in his class from UCLA Medical School and had operated on some of the most famous movie stars in Hollywood.

Everybody agreed that he was a creative genius who routinely worked miracles. But since Webster played by his own rules, his creativity and genius were considered dangerous liabilities by his critics. His admirers cited that he’d donated as much of his time and expertise to charity cases as he had to the rich.

But neither his admirers nor his enemies would have suspected his motivations as he studied the injured young woman.

For a moment Webster remembered another tall, slim redhead who’d slipped inside his office after hours five years ago.

He’d given her a new face, which had been her key to wealth and fame.

She’d become his lover. And his obsession.

He’d shown her into a suite of offices called the Magic Rooms. The walls had been painted black, and his magic paraphernalia and memorabilia had been on display in lighted, glass cases.

You have to change my face, she’d said in a desperate whisper. It's a matter of life and death. She’d picked up a pair of dice and rolled them.

A pair of sixes lay on his desk.

Whose?

If only he had not stared straight into her green eyes.

Terrible people...you cannot imagine how terrible...have forced me to do this, or I would never... You must make me beautiful. Very beautiful. The most beautiful woman in the world.

Plastic surgeons are not magicians. The idea that I am a sculptor of the flesh who can transform an ordinary woman into a magnificent goddess is fantasy.

She stroked a case that contained a top hat and a black velvet cloak lined with red satin. You underestimate us both. I am no ordinary woman, and you are no ordinary surgeon.

He’d started to argue, but she had exerted such an incredible power over him that he’d been struck dumb. He’d noticed that her perfume smelled of gardenias.

A framed portrait of Madame Devlin, the diva, whose voice and beauty had electrified him his whole life, had graced the wall behind his desk.

He’d felt a sudden shocking rush of inspiration as he’d compared Madame's slender face to the real woman's pale, triangular features. A stillness had descended upon him as he began to wonder if he could perform such a miracle.

She would believe it to be her miracle.

But it would be his.

Can you do it?

It will be risky and expensive.

I'm not afraid. Money is no object. And there will be other...rewards. She loosened his tie and jerked his top two shirt buttons apart.

Pushing her hands away, he gasped, I live with someone.

Not any longer.

She’d unbuckled his belt and ripped it from its loops. Then she’d unfastened his trousers and ripped his shirt out. She’d begun touching him, slowly at first while deliberately avoiding his most erogenous zones. Still, from the moment her talented fingertips had begun stroking his bare skin, an electric stillness had descended upon him.

Then his flesh had started to burn, a meteoric burst of lust overpowering his will. Forgetting his rigid code of medical ethics, he’d torn off her black dress and pushed her down on the floor, falling on top of her like a heavy animal. All that had mattered was to shove himself inside her, to plunge deeply, to know the fierce ecstasy of her long limbs writhing under his. Their bodies had been fluid and electric, like two snakes on a shadowy, forest floor, as graceful as eels in a dark, undersea world.

When it was over, there had been red marks on his back and purple bruises on her breasts. He’d never hit a woman before, and what they’d done made him feel cheap and dirty. But on fire for more. He’d sworn to himself that the new perversions she’d introduced him to would lose their appeal, and her hold on him would end soon.

He hadn't known that the well-ordered pattern of his life had shifted into something obscene and that she was already a dangerous obsession.

He thought of her constantly, of the things she did to him when they were alone. Of the things she did with other men when she was away. It had been a mistake to give her the face of a goddess.

Sometimes he hated her. Sometimes he wanted to escape. Sometimes he wanted revenge. But most of all, he wanted her.

Still, he was glad he’d found Madam Devlin’s daughter.

Because she’d told him to make another one.

The wretched young woman on the stretcher, whom he'd believed to be unconscious, moaned. Startled, he came back to the present and to the gravity of the matter at hand.

He felt shaken by a twinge of conscience. What would this young woman think and feel when she found out what he had done? It didn't matter.

He leaned down and whispered soothingly in his much-practiced, movie-star doctor's voice against her ear.

She opened her eyes, and he noted with relief that the peculiar frightening aspect in the other's eyes was absent. This woman could never hold him in thrall.

Do you want to live or die? he whispered.

Like this? Without my face? She turned away from him. My son is dead. Everybody's dead. I'm all alone.

Your parents?

Dead.

He felt a wave of unwanted pity. I'm a plastic surgeon. I can leave you as you are...or I can make you into the most beautiful woman in the world. You will be the envy of every woman, and every man will desire you.

Every man but me.

Your injuries are not as terrible as you believe. But I must get started at once if we are to have even a chance at success. Do you want to live or die? he repeated.

His deep, melodious voice was soothingly hypnotic. His cool blue eyes were tender.

Of the evil in his soul there was no trace.

Part 1

Wild Child

Chapter 1

The siren was shrill, cutting the eerie silence like a knife.

Jack West awoke with a start, his black gaze as alert as a cat's as he glanced fiercely about his cheap, San Antonio motel room. He half expected to find himself back in cell block C, a knife-tip against his throat, a murderer's legs straddling his waist. But he was alone. And safe.

Even so, his heart pounded a few seconds longer, his senses having been honed by constant danger.

He felt the familiar loneliness close over him. It was deep and dark, but he surrendered to it.

The name Jack West had once meant something in south Texas. He'd been rich and famous. He’d had a beautiful wife.

No more.

Jack West. Crisp, prison-cropped black hair.  Dark brooding eyes that could flame with hate or go as cold as ice and stare straight through his enemy.

Before prison he'd been tough.

After prison his carved face and tall, muscular body were harder and leaner. Scars crisscrossed his broad back from the night he'd gotten drunk on smuggled gin with a black inmate named Brickhouse.

When Jack had sobered up, he'd been in lockdown. He'd been badly beaten and slashed. He'd had vague memories of being held down while Brickhouse used a ballpoint pen and a sewing needle to tattoo matching hunting knives onto their forearms. There had been even cloudier memories being jumped by six inmates with knives.

Jack's once healthy, dark skin was sallow, and the scars on his back were nothing compared to the ones on his soul. He couldn't forget that even before his conviction, Theodora had thrown him off the ranch, seized his daughter and cut him off from his old life forever. Once he’d almost believed his life might count for something, after all.

No more.

Jack West wasn't much different than a dead man.

He was even worse off now than when he'd started as a beggar and a thief in Matamoros, Mexico. Back then his mama had been a cheap Mexican whore, his father an Anglo ranch foreman who'd paid for his five minutes with her. He'd known his father's name only because his mother had stolen his wallet.

Jack had spent his earliest years in a small shack in a dusty Mexican barrio, where he'd had to steal or starve. He'd lived the second half of his life like a cowboy prince in the big, white, stucco house on El Atascadero, one of the grandest of the great, legendary ranches in south Texas. Not that anybody there had ever let him forget where he'd come from or what his mother had been.

Jack owed his Anglo looks and height and his ranching talent to his father, but on the inside he was more Mexican than Anglo. He knew that because when they'd locked him up, his soul had left him. He'd watched it go.

His mother would have said he had the susto.

Whatever. His soul hadn't come back yet. Not even after they'd let him out. Not that he had much use for a soul.

What he wanted was a drink.

But he'd decided to stay sober for at least one full night.

Outside in the sweltering dark, an ambulance raced north on San Antonio's Loop 410, its scream dying as if snuffed out by the Texas heat.

Jack blinked, forcing himself to relax when he didn't hear the sound of boots racing toward his cell. Instead of blue uniforms and fists bulging with brass knuckles or spoons sharpened into clumsy knives, he saw the rosy rectangle of light behind thin drapes and heard the constant, muted roar of traffic. The lumpy pillow he'd used to cover the phone, because he'd taken it off the hook when the reporters kept calling, still lay across the telephone on the nightstand.

There were drapes on the windows. Instead of bars. The soft mattress and clean sheets were real. The five-year nightmare in an eight-by-six cell was over.

He was free. Whatever that meant.

Bastard from a barrio. Ex-con. Starting over at the bottom again.

When he laughed harshly, his neck began to ache, so he pulled the pillow off the telephone and bunched it under his black head. Gently he replaced the receiver on the hook.

He couldn't sleep; he hadn't slept through a night in years. Still, he lay back and closed his eyes, dreading the dawn.

Yesterday he'd been in solitary, his ankles shackled, his hands cuffed to his waist. His toilet had been overflowing, permeating his narrow cell with a foul stench. When he'd asked for something to clean up the mess with, the fat guard had laughed.

Then this morning the same guard had yelled at him to grab his bedroll; he was moving.

Jack had been stunned when they'd handcuffed him, driven him to San Antonio and set him free.

Nobody, not even his lawyer, had bothered to inform him about the serial killer who'd made headlines all over Texas when he'd confessed to the crime Jack had been locked up for.

Jack hadn't been prepared to deal with reporters demanding to know how freedom felt when he'd been shoved out the gate into blinding sunshine and sweltering heat.

Since he had nowhere to go and there was no one to care, freedom had only changed the nature of his fears. He'd blinked and rubbed his wrists, stalling, keeping his eyes on his cheap, prison-issue running shoes, not knowing what to say. Five years ago, the press had crucified him. So when reporters had pestered him with calls after he'd checked into the motel, he'd taken