€ € € HAVE€GOWN,€NEED€GROOM€ € Rita€B.

€Herron€ € € € €

To€all€the€sisters€and€mamas€and€grandmamas€who€hold€families€together€ through€their€family€ ially€to€my€own€mom,€who€spent€ numerous€hours€sewing€handmade€quilts€for€each€of€her€grandch thing€to€treasure€forever—your€love€in€the€shape€of€a€blanket€to€ wrap€around€them€and€remind € € Contents€ € Chapter€One€ € Chapter€Two€ € Chapter€Three€ € Chapter€Four€ € Chapter€Five€ € Chapter€Six€ € Chapter€Seven€ € Chapter€Eight€ € Chapter€Nine€ € Chapter€Ten€ € Chapter€Eleven€ € Chapter€Twelve€ € Chapter€Thirteen€ € Chapter€Fourteen€ € Chapter€Fifteen€ € Chapter€Sixteen€ €

Chapter€Seventeen€ € Chapter€Eighteen€ € Chapter€Nineteen€ € Chapter€Twenty€ € Chapter€Twenty‐One€ € Chapter€Twenty‐Two€ € Epilogue€ € € € € Chapter€One€ €

“Okay,€who€ordered€the€male€stripper?”€Hannah€Hartwell€glared€at€her€two€ younger€sisters,€Mi nk€Zorro€ripped€off€his€cape€ and€flung€it€toward€the€leather€side€chair.€Instead€of€meeting€ ric€snagged€the€bouquet€of€condom€balloons€dangling€from€the€ ceiling€of€her€apartment€and€wa e€surprise€ bachelorette€party€had€definitely€been€a…surprise.€ €

The€music€accompanying€Zorro’s€striptease€grew€louder€and€the€roomful€of€ females€cheered.€Ha alled€in€the€show,€her€sisters€ignored€ her€question.€Either€that€or€they€didn’t€want€to€’fes €

Mimi€tucked€a€wad€of€dollar€bills€into€the€waistband€of€Zorro’s€black€tights€while€ gyrating€ uitar.€Hannah€squeezed€her€eyes€ shut.€If€her€fiancé,€Seth€Broadhurst,€found€out€about€this€e ied.€A€calm,€practical€psychiatrist,€he€avoided€attention€and€wasn’t€a€ jokester€like€some€of pital€where€they€both€worked.€ And€she€desperately€wanted€to€maintain€her€hard‐earned€reputat €

Exhaustion€pulled€at€her.€She€had€to€get€some€sleep.€Her€wedding€was€only€a€ few€hours€away,€ ,€just€like€Zorro’s€underwear€ dangling€from€the€edge€of€her€light€fixture.€Hannah€waved€her€

€but€her€gleaming€ brown€eyes€re ghts.€sis.€making€Hannah€feel€incredibly€boring.€but€her€friends€conceded.€scraps€of€wrapping€paper€litt ir€and€ cake€crumbs€clung€to€the€plush€velvet€of€her€Victorian€sofa.€ she€sank€onto€the€sofa€beside€Hannah.€I€was€going€to€say€the€biggest€bluest€eyes.”€Alison€snatched€the€stripper’s t€to€keep€this€as€a€memento€of€your€last€night€as€a€free€ woman?”€ .€ € “—endowed.“I€can€go€with€the€ flow.€ Can’t€you€g € Maybe€I€could€if€you’d€act€responsibly€just€once€in€your€life.€ € “You€can’t€tell€me€youdidn’t€enjoy€the€guy’s€moves.”€Alison€interjected.€but€hewas€well—”€ € “—proportioned.€ € “He€was€pretty€buff.€the€manhad€great€muscles€and€ sexy€pecs€and€the€biggest—€ € “Eyes.”€Alison’s€cheeks€flushed€to€a€rosy€glow.€gathering€up€the€empty€wine€and€ champagne€bottl lasses€and€leftover€hors€d’oeuvres€covered€ her€clawfoot€table.€he€h € “Mimi!”€Hannah€covered€her€ears€with€her€hands.€I€ appreciate€all€the€ € A€few€moans€accompanied€her€statement.€while€her€ youngest€sister.€“Getting€married€doesn’t€ mean€you’re€dead.€I€wish€you’d€loosen€up.lowered€the€volume€of€the€music€to€a€soft€hum.€“Geez.€Lighten€up.€So.€then€hugged€her€goodnight.”€Hann € Mimi€merely€laughed.€Hannah?”€A€note€of€pure€ horror€darkened€ hampagne.€ € Hannah€leapt€from€the€champagne‐sticky€sofa.€ € Mimi’s€shark’s‐tooth€earrings€clinked€as€she€gyrated€her€hips€to€the€music€again.€offered€ congratulations€on€ ials.€cutting€off€her€sister€before€ she€could€laun .€ “Wow.€ € Mimi€sighed€dramatically€as€the€guests€left.€girls.€“This€was€great.”€Mimi€finished€with€a€mischievous€laugh.€Alison ripper€to€the€door.€When€Alison€returned.

€“You€ will€drool€after€ son€Hartwell.”€ € An€almost€reverent€silence€descended€upon€the€room.€“Would€hav wn.€her€relationship€with€Seth€was€perfect.”€Alison€added.€“Hurry.€ € “You’re€both€hopeless.€ “You€could€handcuff€Seth€to€the€bed€on€your€honeymoon.€ € “I€have€a€special€delivery€here€from€Rose€Hartwell.€She€did€not€want€excitement.€The€girls€loved€her€dearly.€ € “And€if€Seth€isn’t€satisfying€you—”€ € “I€never€said€Seth€didn’t€satisfy€me!”€Hannah€howled.€are€still€in€ college.€ € .€At€se her€Rose€was€the€matriarch€of€the€Hartwell€ clan.€You’re€way€too€young€to€be€thinking€such€naughty€thought € Mimi€shook€her€long€auburn€hair€free€from€its€jade€clasp.€For€years€after€the€girls’€mother€had€deser o€help€fill€the€parental€shoes.€“Please.”€he€said€in€a€mountain€ drawl.”€Mimi€suggested€ wickedly€as€she€playe ster.€obliterating€the€party€ atmosphere.€His€name€tag€read€Mountai d€in€relief.”€Ha ns€from€the€ceiling€then€struggled€to€ put€them€in€the€closet.€the€doorbell€rang.€wondering€if€she€should€ admit€to€her€s € No.€ € “One€of€you€Miss€Hartwell?”€The€trucker’s€gaze€landed€on€the€remainder€of€the€ decadent€cake€ yebrows€shot€ upward.€help€me€hide€all€this€ € Alison€slid€the€handcuffs€under€the€sofa€cushion€while€Mimi€sauntered€to€the€ door€and€opened r€dressed€in€grubby€coveralls€towered€ over€Mimi’s€petite€five‐two.€pleeease€don’t€let€that€be€ Seth.€ € Before€she€could€elaborate.”€Hannah€pointed€a€manicured€nail€as€she€spoke.€running€her€fingers€ through€the€un ied€boring€old€Seth€won’t€be€ able€to€get€you€excited€like€that€guy€did€tonight?”€ € “You€know€sex€is€a€very€important€part€of€marriage.

€loving.€ € Her€hands€trembling€with€excitement.€You€showed€us€strength€when t.€ € But€you€are€the€one€who€remembers€the€problems.€Alison€signed€the€delivery€slip.€gasping€ in€delight.€open€it.”€Alison€said.€And€you€never€ complained.€but€she€had€ declined.€ € Hannah€took€a€deep€breath€and€tore€the€wrapping.”€ € Hannah€bristled€at€the€reminder€of€their€mother.€“This€chest€will€look€ perfect€at€ € “I€can’t€wait€to€see€what€Grammy€enclosed.€then€opened€the€box.€ € .”€Mimi€said.€ € You€are€a€very€special€granddaughter€because€you€were€the€first€miracle€in€the€ Hartwell€fami e€and€hope.€ € Hannah€ran€her€finger€along€the€ornate€decorative€carving.“Yes.€What€would€she€have€put€in€the€chest?€Nothing€alive.”€ € “The€chests€are€supposed€to€be€replicas€of€the€one€our€great‐great‐great€ grandmother€brought ined.”€Hannah€and€her€sisters€nodded€in€unison.€only€cementing€the€wall€between€them€with€another€foot€ alization€that€her€mother€hadn’t€wanted€her.€A€ st€sat€inside.€s € “Hurry.€ stepping€as ide.€“It’s€exquisite.€sh r€grandmother€tended€to€be€ eccentric.€the€one€old€enough€to€realize€ that€when€your ng€back.€And€with€your€ own€little€heart€bleeding.€She’d€finally€broken€down€and€ invited€her€m econciliation.€ € “I€bet€it’s€the€hope€chest€Mom€told€me€about.€Hannah.€you€were€the€one€to€square€your€shoulders.€Forcing€herself€to€forget€ the€familiar€hurt.”€Alison€shrieked. ather€and€nurture€your€little€sisters.€“The€grandmother€of€ the€Hartwell€f t€to€each€of€her€ granddaughters€before€she€marries.€Hannah€slowly€opened€the€chest€and€ lifted€a€sheet€of€pa € My€dearest.€He€left€with€a€chuckle.

€ something€blue € Hannah€wiped€tears€from€her€cheeks€as€she€laid€the€letter€aside€and€gently€lifted€ a€porcelai mething€new—a€new€doll€for€her€ collection.€ € Memories€of€her€ninth€birthday€surfaced.€she€searched€the€hope€chest.€surprised€ when€her€finger ng€hard.€dependable€and€responsible.€I€wish€for€you€happiness.€but€cautious€to€a€fault.€A€plain€brown€rock.€bombarding€her€with€emotions.You€are€studious€and€smart.€He’s€the€most€solid.”€Mimi€murmured€as€they€all€admired€the€lacy€dress.€Seth€is€a€pillar€of€the€community.”€Mimi€joked.€laugh€and€ have€fun.€ Don’t€forge h.€The d€off€the€shoulders€for€a€dramatic€effect.€something€borrowed.€the€lace€billowing€out€in€sheer€white€ folds.€closing€the€door€behind€her.€stable€man€I€ know.€my€goodness.€“Oh.€ along€with€a€note.€“Why€o € “Maybe€she€thinks€Seth€is€too€much€of€a€drag.€ Grammy€Rose€ € P.€Learn€to€take€chances.€true€love€and€a€man€ n.€ € Tiny€pearls€formed€a€border€along€the€edge.”’€she€read€ aloud.€“‘Don’t€let€the€man€you€marry€weigh€you€down.€ € Love€you€always.S.€was€wrapped€in€the€hem€of€the€doll’s€ .€She’d€ collected€dolls ved€a€beautiful€storybook€Sleeping€Beauty€ for€her€birthday.€But€the€celebration€had€been€rui ided€ she€couldn’t€hack€married€life€any€more.€ Hannah€pictured€her€grandmother€wearing€the€gown€ .€it’s€Grammy’s€bri € “Something€borrowed.€slightly€jagged€in€ shape.€All€of€Hannah’s€silly€childhood€dreams€ had€di ad€left.€some h€unwrapped€the€tissue€ paper€covering€her€next€surprise.€Inside€you€should€find€something€old.€ Hannah€had€packed€away€all€her€dolls€and€hadn’t€touche ther€remember?€ € Swallowing€back€the€painful€emotions.€something€new.€ € “Very€funny.

€“Are€you€going€to€wear€the€ring€to€bed.€ .”€ € Hannah€slowly€opened€the€box.”€ € Hannah€nodded€and€removed€a€pale€blue€garter€from€the€chest.€ € “I€wonder€if€it’sthe€ring.”€ € “Wear€it€and€save€this€one€for€your€own€daughter€some€day.”€She€traced€a€finger€ over€the€delicate€setting.”€Mimi€said.€“Seth€helped€pick€out€my€dress.€half€afraid€to€slip€the€heirloom€on€he y€of€those€silly€superstitions.”€Alison€said.”€Mimi€said.€something€old.warm€feeling€washed€over€her.”€Hannah€explained.€but€Grammy€Rose€does.€“This€is€so€sweet.€“Itis€Grammy’s€ pearl.€Oh.€All€that€legend€stuff€is€kind€of€ spooky.€“Grammy€must€be€getting€senile.€she’ll€ dream€about€the€man€she’s€meant€to€marry.€“The€legend€says€that€ if€a€woman€ er€wedding.”€ € “What€should€I€do?”€Hannah€asked.€I€think€it’s€romantic.€“An€ antique€pearl€rin € “There’s€a€legend€that€accompanies€the€ring.”€ € “Don’t€be€silly.€ Hannah?”€ € Hannah€studied€the€antique€gold€band.€Hannah’s€breath€caught€at€the€last€item—a€ velvet€ring€box.€ € “What€ring?”€Alison€asked.€ ted€smiles.€ € “The€ring€Grammy€told€us€about€when€we€were€little.€do€you?”€ € “No.€ € “Now.€the€tiny€diamond€chips€set€inside€the€rich€ gold€leaves w.€my€gos ered.€but€didn’t€Grammy€realize€I€ already€have€a€ € Mimi€laughed.”€Mimi€cut€in.”€Mimi€said.€The€girls€ laughed€as€she€slippe gh.€“She€said€she€wore€the€ring€and€ dreamt€of€Gramps€the€ € Alison’s€eyes€sparkled€with€excitement.€and€all€three€of€them€gushed.

€Wiley.€“Let€me€get€ready€for€bed€first.€ € Hannah€hesitated.€Memories€of€her€grandmo able€ways€filled€her€thoughts€as€she€brushed€her€teeth€and€prepared€for€ bed.€Hannah€had€loved€the€kooky€ads.€ n€slipped€back€to€the€bedroom.€I€want€a€ring.€she€stood€and€ gathered€her€th de‐to‐be€needs€her€beauty€ rest.€Seconds€later.€ placed€the€b laced€the€velvet€ring€box€on€the€ mahogany€nightstand€beside€her€bed.€“A€big€gorgeous€ diamond.”€Mimi€said.€ “Since€Seth€didn’t€even€give€you€an€engagement€ring.€ Pausing€to€admire€the€pearl€ring.€But€sleep€ eluded€her€and€ d€wife?€What€if€she€ .€ finally€free€of€the€crazy€Hartwell€ € Their€father.€a€member€of€one€of€the€most€prominent€families€around.€let’s€see€how€it€looks€on€your€finger.€you€can€wear€this€one€ instead.€owned€a€chain€of€used‐car€lots€across€the€country€and€was€ famous€for€hi .€ € She€turned€off€the€lamp€and€crawled€into€bed€then€closed€her€eyes.€ She’d€marry€Seth€and€have€the€safe.€Hannah.€“We€both€decided€to€be€ practical€and€o € “Well.€ but€when€she€grew€older.”€Hannah€clarified.€when€I€get€engaged.”€ € Her€grandmother’s€gown€swished€as€she€draped€it€over€her€arm€and€carried€the€ satin‐lined€hop w€her€entire€life€would€change.”€Alison€ said.€ € Hannah€gently€spread€the€bridal€gown€over€the€chaise€in€the€corner€of€her€room.”€Exhausted.€try€on€the€pearl.€secure€life€she’d€always .€her€dad’s€flamboyant€tastes€had€b ssing€advertisements€had€been€one€reason€her€mother€had€left€him.€she€silently€laughed€at€the uld€she€wear€the€ring€to€bed€and€see€if€the€legend€came€true?€ € Nah.”€ € “Go€on.€the€legend€was€just€an€old€wives’€tale.”€Mimi€sa € “I€didn’t€want€an€engagement€ring.

€tanned€fingers€tormented€her€as€he€gently€glided€his€fingers€along€her€ cheekbone.€the€man€to€whom€she€would€ give€her€heart.€ € Moonlight€danced€through€the€lacy€curtains€creating€a€halo€around€his€ magnificent€form.€The€man€she€would€marry.€trac e€kissed€her€tenderly.€ what€the€heck.€Her€gaze€played€ over€his€broa oard€stomach.€his€lips€a€loving€reminder€of€the€words€they’d€sha n€they’d€spoken€their€vows.€Tonight€she’d€ sleep€like€the€de € Either€that.€almost€ reverently.€brooding€look€was€almost€painful€ in€its€intensi nds.€she’d€dream€about€her€future€husband.€a€smile€that€bar he€strong€jaw€that€remained€clenched€as€he€fought€for€control.€body€ € Long.€Oh.€Hannah€curled€into€his€warmth€and€stre ung€to€her€as€he€carried€her€over€the€threshold€to€their€ home.€then€he€turned€to€ .€she€ lifted€the€ring€and€slipped€it€on€her€left€hand.€he€pulled€her€ into€his€embrace.€Forget€the€superstitious€family€legend.€With€a€sigh€of€contentment.€unable€to€suppress€the€erotic€ tremors€his€heated€ r€skin.€then€cr ed€them€to€her€chin.€if€the€legend€came€true.€ € She€stared€at€her€bare€left€hand.was€more€like€her€mother€than€she’d€thought?€What€if€she’d€made€a€mistake€in€ choosing€her€ma r€mother?€ € She€flipped€on€the€light€and€glanced€at€the€ring.€murm nd€need€that€would€ forever€be€imprinted€in€her€brain.€the€ringless€finger.€ highlighting€cheekbones€etched€in€granite.€or.€shim old€through€his€thick€dark€hair.€not€bothering€to€disguise€the€ tormented€longing€in€the€almost€animal‐like€sound€that€er oat.€ Maybe€they’d n€night€to€come.€She€didn’t€believe€superstition.€she€could€already€see€Seth€Broadhurst’s€face€in€he € His€smoky€gaze€and€the€hunger€in€his€solemn.€ € He€was€her€destiny.€She€closed€ her€eyes—yep.€Maybe€she€would€let€the€ pearl€serve€a ld€it€hurt?€Smiling€to€herself.€Hannah€whimpered€and€leaned€into€him.€ But€moonl indow€illuminating€the€perfect€creamy€ pearl.€the€tiny€diamonds€glittering€like€teardrops€in€ aves.

€her€father€had€pulled€another€one€of€his€stunts— newspaper€reporters€an ests€to€film€every€second€of€ her€ceremony.€ € Moments€later.€they€consummated€their€marriage€with€a€passion€unlike€anything€ she’d€ever€ima rength.€they€would€forever€be€ bound€as€one.€ € € € € Chapter€Two€ € “I€can’t€marry€Seth€today.€ € “Of€course€you’re€marrying€Seth.€a€man€who€would€protect€ her€and€take€care€of€her.€ € Making€matters€worse.€ € Hannah€awoke€with€a€start.€her€ fiancé.€hadnot€been€the€man€in€her€dreams.€a€ball€of€confusion€knotting€ her€stomach.”€Hannah€inhaled€a€deep€breath.€Why€ else€would€she€be€dizzy?€ € Because€she€was€having€a€severe€case€of€cold€feet€minutes€before€her€wedding.€And€when€she€stared€into€hi w€that€after€their€honeymoon€night€together.€but€the€waistline€of€ her€wedding€g gen€to€her€brain.€It€ makes€me€look€twenty€pounds€heavier€than€I€already€am!”€ .€Shehad€to€go€through€with€the€wedding.”€Mimi€gestured€toward€her€pale‐green€ bridesmaid’s€dress.€the€silly€legend€echoing€ through€her€min ng€the€night€before€your€wedding.€ € She€dropped€her€face€into€her€hands€and€groaned.€Piano€musi h€signifying€the€seating€of€the€guests.€that€the€passionate€union€ had€been€a€ € She€touched€the€unbroken€circle€of€the€ring’s€band.€W eamt€all€right—only€Seth.€power.undress€and€she€noticed€a€small€crescent‐shaped€quarter‐moon€birthmark€on€his€ hip.€ you’ll€dream€about€your€future€husband.€the€pillow€beside€ sigh€tore€from€her€lips€as€she€realized€she€was€alone.€the€ pearl€ring€glistening€in€the€moonlight.€streaked€with€sweat€and€tremors€of€unsated€desire€ that€shook€her€ gled€around€her€aching€limbs.€“I hing€for€nothing.

€claiming€she€wanted€to€wait€until€they€were€married.€But€her€body€screamed€for€ more:€the€heat.”€ € “Yeah.”€Alison€rolled€her€dark€brown€eyes€ heavenward.”€Hannah€added.€They€were€ definitely…friends.€glancing€down€in€despair€at€her€own€ rather€puny€chest.”€Alison€curled€her€hand€into€a€ fist€and€pr € Trouble€was.€“You€have€a€ ould€die€ for.€ almost€business‐like€agreement€they’d€decided€on€months€ag essional€relationship€made€them€a€suitable€match.€ € Hannah€gulped.€ € “Last€night€I€dreamed€I€was€making€love€to€a€stranger.€weren’t€they?€ € She€rubbed€her€temple€where€a€headache€had€started€pulsing.€Her€brain€whispered€she’d€be€a€fool€not€to€marry€Seth.€“Because€Set rotic€fantasies.€you’re€busty.€ whispering€that€the€man€in€her€dream sense.€he’d€give€ her€the€stab .€In€here.”€Mimi€said.€“What€if€he’s istmas.€the€frantic.€Hannah€had€long€since€forgotten€childish€dreams€ of€love€and€ro as€based€on€friendship.€urgent€coming an€in€her€dreams.€She€ and€Seth€were€soulmates.€she€didn’t€know.”€Hannah€confided€in€a€low€voice.€ “You’re€not€fat€and€you€know€it.€but€she’d€ backed€away.”€ € .€what€if€sheknew€ when€she€sent€me€that€ring?”€ € “That’s€crazy.€And€her€heart€confused€her€even€more.€E eavage.€“I’m€just€not€ sure€about€me€and€Seth.”€Hannah€admitted€in€a€ strangled€voice en€I’m€marrying€ Seth?”€ € Mimi€threw€her€hands€in€the€air€dramatically€as€she€spun€around€to€face€ Hannah.€An ouple€of€times.€a€mutual.€no€sizzle?€What€ kind€of€marriage€would€they€have€toge ut€true€love.€ ack€was€because€there’d€been€no€spark.€ € “You€know€Seth€is€the€right€man€for€you.€the€raw€hungry€looks.

€not€real€love.€his€expression€perplexed.€They€don’t€always€ have€to€mean€something.”€Alison€argued.€Hannah€remembered€the€dream€kiss€and€knew€in€her€heart€ she€couldn’t€hurt€ lly€didn’t€love€him.€Hannah€definitely€wasn’t€pregnant.€ “Go€tell€Seth€to€come€here.”€Mimi € Alison€sent€Mimi€another€warning€glare€and€straightened€the€lace€on€Hannah’s€ neckline.€I€have€to€talk€to€him.€then€laid€a€comforting€hand€on€ Hannah’s€shoul y€dreams.”€ € “Maybe€it€was€your€way€of€having€one€last€fling€before€you’re€tied€down€to€Mr.€the€shapely€square€jaw€and€chiseled€face€ of€the€ ace€like€a€surreal€sci‐fi€movie— Invasion€of€the€Body€Snatchers.€Her€ mother’s€parting€words€rose€to€haunt€her.€ Boring.€“I€was€supp y.”€ € Mimi€nodded€and€rushed€out€while€Alison€fanned€Hannah’s€face€to€calm€her.€Wiley.€ Seconds€later.€Set n.€ € .”€ Alison€said€soft uet.Alison€narrowed€her€eyes€at€Mimi€in€a€warning.€“Sill € Still€unconvinced.€ € “I€don’t€care.”€Mimi€replied€dryly. rriage€needs€more…€ € Her€parents€had€married€because€of€her.I€only€married€you.”€ € “Do€you€think€I’m€making€a€mistake?”€Hannah€asked.€ € “Just€because€Mimi€is€anti‐marriage€doesn’t€mean€you€can’t€be€happily€wed.€but€ had€she€agree easons?€For€security.€ € His€face€fairly€faded€in€front€of€her€eyes.€ € “I€thinkanyone€getting€married€is€a€mistake.€the€fragrance€so€sweet€it€made€her€eyes€water.€ € “But€what€about€the€dream€and€the€legend€of€the€ring?”€Hannah’s€chest€ tightened.”€ € “But€it’s€bad€luck€for€him€to€see€you€before€the€ceremony.€a€huge€assortment€of€ white€lilies€with€rose‐colored€satin€ribbons€streaming€from€the€ce t€the€arrangement.

€Hannah?€Did€you€forget€something?”€Seth€asked.€his€eyes€dilating.€the€passion€would€come.€near€panic.€ € But€her€toes€didn’t€curl.€“Up€here.”€she€whispered.€She€had€to€know€now.€ wondering€w er€erotic€fantasy.€What’s€ d.€ € The€startled€gasp€that€erupted€from€Seth’s€throat€when€she€finally€ended€the€kiss€ didn’t€sou urprise.€And€her€bright‐red€lip‐ prints€streaked€his€mouth.€Didn’t€even€bubble.€Magic€would€happen€just€like€she’d€dreamed € She€kissed€him€harder.€“No.€on€your€left€ cheek?”€ € Seth’s€Adam’s€apple€bobbed€up€and€down.€“What?”€ € “A€little€quarter‐moon?”€She€pointed€to€his€left€hip.€ the€hunger€would€surge.€she€was€lukewarm.€ € Her€blood€didn’t€boil.€the€vision€disappeared€and€Hannah€gaped€at€Seth.Like€a€flash€of€heat€lightning.€“Do€you€have€a€ birthmark€on€y € Seth€stumbled€backwards.€baby.€Her€toes€wou .€steam€practically€oozing€from€his€ ears.”€ € .€ € “What€is€it.€Maybe€that€passion€was€what€her€ mother€had€been€missing€with€her t€her€ mother’s€mistake.€ € “I—I€have€to€know€something.€Seth.€ € At€best.€burn.€Didn’t€even€twitch.€A€woman’s€toes€ should€curl€and€her€blood€should€boil€when€the€man€of€her€ ould€burn€at€a€man’s€touch.€ € Darn.€ € Burn.€ € Hannah€framed€Seth’s€face€with€her€hands€and€kissed€him€fervently€on€the€ mouth.

€“I…I€thought€we€decided€sex€could€wait.€she€laid€her€palm€on€his€cheek.€but€love€was.€ We€make€a€go er.€then€discovered€they’d€made€a€mistake?€She€never€ wanted€to€put€a€child€through€ perienced.€no€emotional€response.€and€she€ blinked€Seth€back ot€balling€in€her€stomach.€Have€the€same€goals.€we’re€compatible—”€ € “I’m€sorry.€ We’re€both€doctors.€Seth.€“Maybe€we€were€ wrong.€“I…I€care€about€you…”€ € “But€you€don’t€really€love€me.€“Can’t€we€discuss€this€later?€The€guests€are€here.€tell€me€why€you€want€to€marry€ me.€do€you€love€me?”€ € He€chewed€the€inside€of€his€cheek.€all€business.€just€tell€me.€ € His€face€flushed.€it€wouldn’t€be€fair€for€her€to€marry€hi € .€the€ preacher.€ € “Seth.”€ € “What€about€passion?”€Hannah€asked.€“We€talked€about€this€before.An€overwhelming€sense€of€panic€hit€her.€“Seth.€Seth€ was€the€wrong€man€for€her—€No€toe‐curling€or€blood‐boil ad€children.€desperate€for€something€to€cling€to.”€ € His€eyebrows€narrowed.€ € The€vision€of€the€other€man€appeared€again.€Hannah.€“What?”€ € “Please.€We€work€well€together.€Maybe€pas € He€shook€his€head.€briefly€but€intensely.€ And€if€she€didn’t€love€Seth€passionately.”€Tenderly.”€Hannah€finished€for€him.€We€have€ € Typical.€spiking€the€ends.€Yes.€ € “We’ll€have€a€good€life.€That€passion€wasn’t€ really€importa € No.€Why€do€you€want€to€marry€me?”€ € He€ran€a€hand€through€his€hair.

€everyone.€“I’m€sorry.€ scanning€the€parking€lot€for he’d€left€it€at€her€house.€ € The€last€thought€she€had€before€she€climbed€inside€the€plush€white€interior€was€ that€later€t lf€on€TV.€She€darted€past€Seth.”€Alison€ whispered.€ € “I’ll€tell€my€parents.€ € Hannah€panicked€and€blurted€out€the€announcement.”€ € Raising€her€head€up€high.€Mrs. d€and€stumbled€toward€the€back€ door.€I’ll€do€it.€searching€for€an€escape.€Hannah€darted€toward€it.€his€camera€angled€to€catch€her€ face.€Wiley€shot€forward.€but€you€deserve€ a€woman€who ve€a€man€who€ feels€the€same€way.€ € Hannah€reached€for€Seth’s€hand.€Everyone€had€black€sheep€in€ their€family.€I…”€ € Hannah€spotted€her€sisters€hovering€at€the€door.€but€the€Hartwells€had€a€whole€flock€of€w .”€Seth€said€tightly.€Broadhurst€jumped€ up€and€shrieked.€ Mimi€had€driven€her€over.€respected€ doctor€and€hater€of€pub me€another€Hartwell€spectacle.€ € .€cousin€Wally€c er€life…the€list€ went€on€and€on.€Alison€and€Mimi€stood€at€the€s .€“I’ll€go€tell€Dad.€Aunt€Betty‐Jo€was€a€ kleptomaniac.“I’m€sorry.€On€his€heels.€and€jogged€outside.€but€I€can’t€marry€you.€Seth’s€parents—all€stared€back€at€ her.€The€honeymoon€getaway€car.€Seth.€winked€at€her€in€the€ sunlight.€She’d€spent€her€adult€life€trying€to€overcome€her€infamous€ € But€now€her€worst€nightmare€had€come€true—Hannah€Hartwell.€ We’ve€called€off€the € A€gasp€rumbled€through€the€room.€a€white€Cadi th€clanking€cans€and€streamers.€who€scowled€at€her.€ camera€lights€flashing.€a€half€ e€woodwork.€Uncle€Elroy€had€served€a€stint€in€prison.€she€snatched€the€tail€of€her€dress€and€marched€to€the€ church€entry her.€“No.€You’re€a€wonderful€guy.€The€organist’s€eyebrows€shot€up€as€if€to€signal€ orter€started€running€toward€her.

€They€might€blow€his€cover€at€Wiley’s.€He’d€been€shot€in€the€butt.€Hannah.€no‐good.€wanting€the€story.€One‐fifty€over€ninety.€the€EMTs€had€shredded€the€seat€ of€his€jeans.€He€had€boasted€nonstop€about€ e€Jake€had€come€to€ work€for€him.€A€gust€ of€cold€air€ .€so€Jake€felt€as€if€he€knew€them.€Wiley€lived€and€breathed€for€his€ kids.€and€when€Jake€had€tried€to€apprehend€him.€and€now€the€media€ had€jumped€on€the€bandwagon.”€ € He€gritted€his€teeth€as€she€applied€more€pressure€to€his€wound.€ € To€avoid€the€uncomfortable€formality.€he’d€volunteered€to€man€the€car€lot€during€ the€wedding e€of€the€opportunity€and€sneak€into€ Wiley’s€office.€No€wonder€the€gro ore€black€to€the€ ceremony.€very€rotten€day.€But€after€Wiley’d€left.€Pain€shot€from€his€hip€down€his€leg€li hind€him€to€try€to€cover€his€wound€with€his€hand.€some€punk€kid€ha f€the€lot.€As€ paramedics€lowered€h e€ambulance€to€the€ground€outside€Sugar€ Hill€General.€Most€of€the€ employees€at€Wiley€Hartwell’s€used‐car€lot€had€taken€off€ea ldest€daughter.€ € He€scrubbed€a€fist€over€his€stubbled€jaw.€did € “BP€high.€and€ gs€to€him€signified€the€death€of€a€man’s€bachelorhood.€calling€him€a€hero.€a€camera€flashed€and€he€ducked€his€hea is€humiliation.€Thank€God€the€ rom€entering€the€ER.€€ € DETECTIVEJAKETIPPINSwas€having€a€terrible.€ € .€Respiration€twelve€and€even.€then€dropped€his€forehead€on€the€ gurney€as€the€EMT e€doors€and€wheeled€him€ toward€one€of€the€exam€rooms. € The€nurse€pulled€the€sheet€down€around€his€knees€and€lifted€the€bandage.€Pulse€eighty‐eight€ and€steady.€A€ man€had€a€right€to€a€little€privacy. m€the€site€of€the€shooting€ at€breakneck€speed.€without€a€mother€or€father€to€speak€of.€the€black‐leathered€ twerp€had€shot€him.€his€whole€ identity.€then€tried€to€ cover€himself€ arted€out€so€simple.€exp rld€to€see.€But€he€didn’t€get€that€who wn€up€being€shuffled€from€one€place€to€ another.

€although€she’d€only€caught€the€tail€end€of€that€s eded€her.€Why€the€heck€had€she€come€to€the€hospital?€ € Because€it€seemed€like€the€safest€place.€S ey€trickled€down€her€face€anyway.€No€princesses€or€fairy€tales€in€the€real€world.€He€closed€his€eyes.€giving€in€ to€the€fa € Hell.€Work€was€the€one€place€she’d€be€able€to€forget€ about€her€messed‐up€personal€life€a € .€a€post‐traumatic€reaction€to€her€ parents’€divor y.€Sh € Besides.€taking€his€medical€ history.€he€might€even€be€delirious.A€heavy‐set€nurse€began€to€fire€insurance€questions€at€Jake.€He€could€swear€he€sa ht€past€the€window€ then€dart€into€the€room€across€from€him—wearing€a€full‐length€wedding€gow ybe€a€princess.€Her€wedding€gown€shouldn’t€have€felt€confining.€and€Seth€might€show€up€demanding€to€talk.€ € Maybe€she’d€suffered€some€sort€of€breakdown.€And€now€ she’d€shown€up€at€work€where€she€would€have€to€explain m.€tsking€under€her€breath.€A€s dage.€not€since€that€awful€birthday€when€her€mother€had€left.€She€ quickly€shed€her€wedding€ ocker.€“I€need€to€ get€you€another€IV.€shehad€heard€the€news€of€a€car€crash€on€the€radio€while€she’d€been€ driving€around€i .€she€acknowledged€silently€as€she€ searched€for€a€tis lling€or€dropping€by€her€house€to€ check€on€her.€First€she’d€deserted€Seth.€ € Nah.€also.€ € €€ € HANNAH€BREATHEDa€sigh€of€relief€to€find€the€locker€room€empty.”€He€nodded€as€she€left€th nced€through€the€glass‐topped€doorway€on€the€opposite€side€of€the€ room.€it€should€have€ felt€magical.€What€ in€the€world€was€wrong€with€her?€She€wasn’t€the€emoti e€was€nine.€It€actually€felt€ good€to€pull€on€fresh€scrubs€and€her€lab€jacket.€sir.€That€gown€had€felt€ € She€grimaced.€There’d€been€a€shooting€ mentioned.

€along€with€the€heartache€she€ assumed€wou ven€if€she€changed€her€mind€and€ crawled€back€on€her€hands€and€knees€groveling.€ .€trying€to€collect€herself€as€the€shock€of€her€own€ actions€set s€would€have€explained€to€their€father….€his€family€wo er.€Dr.€She€ would€never€forgive€herself€for€hurting€him.€but€he€was€a€sucker€for€publicity.€She’d€inherited€her€mother’s€blond€h e€her€mother€in€other€ways.€Poor€Seth.€ € And€his€mother€would€probably€sue€her€if€the€story€appeared€on€the€society€ page.€And€the€ball€of€ r€since€she€was€a€ little€girl€swelled€inside€her€again.€Oddly.€too.€heartache€for€Seth€never€came—only€sadness€for€ embarrassing€him.€He€must€absolutely€hate€her.She€leaned€against€the€locker.€ prominent€doctor€jilted€at€the€altar.€Sometimes€she€hated€living€in€a€small€town—the€reporters€ would€have€a€heyday nal€wedding€gone€awry.€she€fielded€her€way€to€the€ nurses’€s e€nurse€who€ran€the€floor.€ € Disgusted€with€herself.€he€thrived€on€ attention sted€the€entire€fiasco€into€a€scheme€to€sell€ more€cars.€ € She€closed€her€eyes€and€allowed€the€regret€to€flow.€ € Finally€gaining€control€of€her€emotions.€ € She€loved€her€father.€she’d€simply€ fallen€into€footsteps€already€molded€by€other€Hartwells.€She€pictured€the€headlines€and€ cky€Wedding.€Hartwell?€I€thought€you€were€getting€married€ today.€ready€to€pounce€for€the€kill.€Guilt€dug€into€her€consci .€she€sniffled€and€dried€her€cheeks€with€the€hem€of€her€ jacket.€ She€peeked€through€the€door€again.”€she€said.€grateful€the€reporte € A€surgical€scrub€hat€pulled€over€her€hair€for€disguise.”€ € “I€canceled€the€wedding.€Hannah€inched€open€the€door€and€ winced€at€two€repor e€hallway€like€starved€lions€sniffing€ out€their€prey.€Unlike€her.€paused€near€the€ curtained€partitions€and€sent€her€a€gap‐toothed€s € “What€are€you€doing€here.€She€hadn o€the€hospital.€striving€for€a€confident€voice.€Twen come€her€roots€down€the€drain€because€of€a€thirty‐second€decision.€reason ress€was€to€throw€herself€into€work.€tainting€th s€for€her€family.

”€ € Hannah€tried€to€steady€her€voice.”€ € “I€know.€yes.€EMTs€applied€a€pressure€bandage.€The€six€o’clock€news€ tonight€would€be€ gs.€Broadhurst?”€Susie.”€ € Tiffany€nodded.€hes t€he€came€by€this€morning€on€the€ way€to€the€church.€How€many€victims € “Six.€ His€name’s ecited€his€other€vital€signs.€unabl ational.€“But€if€you’re€upset.€felling€empathy€for€the€man.€one€of€the€physicians’€ assistants.”€ € .€Man€was€shot€in€the€posterior.€“The€ reporters€are€calling€him€a€hero.€“I€heard€about€ the€car€crash€and€thought€you€might€need€some€help.”€Tiffany€gestured€toward€ the€outside€ nd€across€her€forehead.€I€paged€Dr.”€Tiffany€narrowed€her€eyes.€“What€else€do€we€have?”€ € “A€gunshot€wound€in€three.”€ € “I’m€fine.€started€a€drip.€“What € “Blood€pressure’s€a€little€high.€“All€right.”€Hannah€said.”€She€shrugged€and€hurried€over€to€ Tiffany.€ € “You€mean€you’re€not€marrying€Dr.€I€heard€about€the€shooting€on€the€radio.€ we’ll€manage he€next€week.€tactfully€choosing€not€to€press€the€issue.”€Hannah€shifted€uncomfortably.€“I€suppose€ you’re€aware€the€shooting€occurred€at€your€daddy’s€ € Hannah’s€gaze€swung€up€in€shock.€I€had€to€chase€’em€away€from€ € Hannah€silently€groaned.€too.€“It€didn’t€work€out.€“I’d€really€like€to€work.€you€don’t€have€to€stay.€Our€patient€caught€him.€Hunter€ but€he’s€in€sur € “Oh.€“No…what€happened?”€ € “Someone€tried€to€steal€a€car.”€Hannah€reached€for€his€ chart.€Didn’t€want€us€to€call€anyone.€Doctors€ Bentley€and€D tims.€“Has€his€family€been€notified?”€ € “Man€claims€he€has€no€family.€ Tiffany’s€chubby€face€reddened€in€surprise.

€but€the€way€his€shoulders€ straightened€signaled€h ain.€And€his€hand€tightened€ around€the€covers€jerking€it€over€his€backside€again.€“I’ll€assist€you€in€a€minute.€the€man€still€clung€to€his€dign € She€inched€the€sheet€down€and€her€gaze€slid€lower€to€assess€his€wound.€I€can’t€help€you€if€I€don’t€examine€the€injury.€checking€the€other€charts.€She€ studied€his€back.€Tippins.€This€was€g € “Uh.€“Relax.”€She€slowly€pried€his€fingers€from€the€m es€popped€against€her€wrists€as€she€prepared€to€do€a€preliminary€exam.”€ € His€head€bobbed€up€and€down€in€concession.€his€fingers€ momentarily€tighten et.€She€ fought€a€chuckle.€He€was€one€of€the€biggest€men€she’d€eve nd€his€wide€shoulders€and€firm.€ his€head€propped g€steady€as€if€he’d€fallen€asleep.€ € He’d€been€wearing€jeans.€her€g dy€to€where€his€toes€ hung€off€the€end€of€the€gurney.€then€slipped€inside.€Tippins.Once€again€sympathy€for€the€man€filled€her.€ Striving€to€be€gentle t€of€the€way.€I€have€to€examine€you.€but€the€seat€had€been€cut€away.€I’m€not€going€to€ hurt€you.€A€sheet€lay€draped€ across€the€lower d€it€over€his€buttocks.€muscular€ arms€attested€to€the€fact€the€man€worked€out.€She€scanned€his€chart€and€no ble.€still€half€asleep.€Mr.”€ € He€made€a€noncommittal€noise€which€sounded€faintly€like€a€swear€word.€Even€in€sleep.€“Okay.€removed€the€ pressure€bandage€then€dampened€a€cotton€swab€with€antiseptic.€Even€so.€She€shook€her€ he€sheet.€so€he’d€probably€given€in€to€fatigue.”€ € Tiffany€nodded.€ Or€maybe€he€was€unconscious.€just€lie€still€please.€He€ roused€slightly.”€ € He€mumbled€something€incoherent.€his€hand€swinging€around€to€cover€his€wound€once€ more.€He’d€lost€some€blood.€Mr.€The€man€lay€face€down.€ € “Mr.€Proba e€ he€was€a€body€builder…when€he€wasn’t€selling€used€cars.€I’ll€take€care€of€him.€Tippins.€Hannah€ .€ € He€moaned€and€stirred.”€ € Hannah€headed€to€the€exam€room.€“ ne€you€now.€then€ slowly€released€t ed€his€head€in€his€arm.

€then€yes.€and€she€patted€the€area€with€the€cotton€swab.€a€smile€twitching€ at€her€mou € “Think€I’ll€make€it?”€ € He€was€joking.€if€he€was€shy.€ € She€pressed€the€area€around€the€bullet€wound€to€measure€how€deeply€it€was€ embedded.”€He€flinched.€Mr.€Tippins?”€ € “No.”€Hannah€said€dryly.€aren’t€you?”€ € Hannah€sighed.€Poor€man.€“You’ll€be€fine.€“Do€you€have€a€problem€ with€female€doctors.€almost€ gravelly.€ € “Sorry.”€ € “Will€you€do€the€surgery?”€ € “Yes.€“I€f € “I€can’t€think€of€a€good€place€to€get€shot.”€ € .€she€certainly€ wouldn’t€make€thi y€comment€about€the€location€ of€his€injury.€wiping€ away€the€dried€b € “Great€place€to€get€shot.€Men€could€be€such€babies.€Mr.€but€caught€herself.€Tippins.€wasn’t€it?”€His€voice€rumbled€thick€and€low.€It’s€ embedded€a€good€four€to€five€inches.€I’m€almost€finished.€Even€the€big€muscular€ones.€ € “You’re€going€to€have€to€put€me€under€the€knife.€“If€ you’re€asking€if€th ically.€the€ skin€yellow…€ € “Ow.€“Not€as€long€as€they€know€what€they’re€doing.€We’re€a€small€town€facility€ here.”€H e.€If€they’re€short€in€surgery€I’ll€probably€assist.almost€laughed.€a€good€sign.”€he€muttered.€The€bleeding€had€stopped.€putting€ nts.”€She€tossed€the€cotton€swab€into€the€ trash.”€ € His€head€bobbed€again.

”€ € “Not€very€many€people€do.€ € He€angled€his€head€slightly€to€look€into€her€eyes€and€for€the€first€time.€“It€can’t€be.€Was€he€insinuating€she€didn’t?€“I€can€assure€you€I’m€well€trained.€I€ complete fore€I€joined€the€ER.€the€pupils€of€his€eyes€slightly€dilated.€dark€handsome€ man€from€her€ero .€I€went€down€pretty€hard€on€a€tire€iron€when€that€creep€shot€ me.€“ € He€exhaled.€A€crescent‐shaped.€finally€deciding€the€pain€must€be€affecting€ his€brain.€ but€suddenl mall€birthmark.”€she€ whispered.”€ € “I€hate€it€when€doctors€go€‘hmm.€the€ unmistakable€cl y€familiar.€She€knew€him…intimately.”€ € “Oh.€Right€on€the€arch€of€his€hip.€ a€bolt€of€heat€engulfing€her€as€if€an€inferno€had€bur recognized€this€man.€Hannah€ saw€his€fac € His€dark€gaze€locked€with€hers.€exasperated.€Doc.€his€body€rumbling€with€his€breath.She€stiffened.€“What’s€wrong.€it’s€not€that.€ I€promise.€“I€just€don’t€like€hospitals.€Doc?”€ € She€hadn’t€realized€she’d€spoken€out€loud.€that’s€ all.€“Sorry.€ quarter‐moon€birthmark.€too.€Hannah€staggered€backward.€your€hands€are€great.”€she€said€sympathetically.”€ € She€peered€closer.€I’ll€be€gentle.€It’s€nothing€really.€contemplating€thanking€him€for€what€he’d€done€for€her€father.€ € His€head€snapped€up.€She€spotted€an€unusual‐ looking€bruise€a t.€ Thought€it€have€ € “Probably€a€bruise.€ € Her€chest€tightened—she’d€seen€that€birthmark€before.He€was€the€tall.€I€no€ticed€a€small€dark€spot.”’€ € Hannah€chuckled.€“Hmm.”€ € Hannah€shook€her€head.

€the€doctor€passed€out!”€ € His€gaze€zeroed€in€on€her€name—Dr.€ € € € € Chapter€Three€ € What€the€hell?€ € Jake€gritted€his€jaw€in€pain€when€the€dreamy€looking€woman€suddenly€ staggered€and€reached€fo deways€to€catch€her.€Just o€warn€her€patient€to€roll€out€of€ the€way.€She’d€never€fainted€in€her€life.€but€she€recognized€the€ symptoms.€and€she€collapsed€beside€him€on€the€fl € “Help!€Someone€help€me!€Nurse.€ but€the€room€r ed€the€bedrail€to€steady€herself.€he€climbed€awkwardly€from€the€gurney.€Hartwell.€panic€hitting€him.€ € “Dr.€but€ her€legs€faded€into€numbness€and€the€spots€that€danced o€one€big€black€hole.€but€the€ IV€limited€his€movement.€it€was€the€ same€woman€he’d€see elirious.€and€her€ llen.€wake€up.€ € Impatience€flaring.”€he€whispered.€long€blond€eyelashes€lying€on€her€creamy€skin€like€thin€ layers€of€co y€was€way€too€still€for€comfort.€but€he’ nah€ Hartwell€was€Wiley’s€daughter.€and€she€quickly€glanced€back€down€to€see€if€he€was€okay.€Had€Wiley€heard€ about€the€shooting dding€to€take€care€of€him?€ Was€that€the€reason€she’d€been€upset?€ € Her€cheeks€seemed€pale.€Yep.€H.€What€was€she€doing€in€the€ER?€She€was€ supposed€to€be€at€ led€again.€ € Jake€Tippins€moaned.€a€sliver€of€need€sizzling€in€ the€luminou n€crazily.€and€the€day’s€events€ crashed€to€a€sudden€mortifying€halt.€A€sprig€of€ baby’s€breath€protruded€from€her€surgical€cap.€ .€grappling€with€the€ IV€pole€as€he€k nk€God€she€was€breathing.€He€pushed€off€the€cap.€ His€heavy‐lidded.€hurry.€Hartwell.€He’d€thought€that’s€what€ she’d€said.€revealing€wispy€blond€hair.€dark‐brown€eyes€paraded€over€her.

€ Suddenly€the€nurse€appeared.€Doc.€“Yes.€or€why ong—”€ € “I’m€sorry.”€Tiffany€said.€“I’ve€been€yelling€for€help.€but€Tiffany€ pressed€a€gen ou€need€to€lie€still€and€let€ us€check€your€vitals€again.”€ € Hannah€opened€her€mouth€to€respond.€perfectly.€I€didn’t€mean€for€them€to€follow€me.€her€eyes€widening€in€dismay.€to€affect€our€work€here€ or€to€jeopardize€the€safety€and€health€of€our€patients.”€ Hannah€whispe € “Then€I€suggest€you€go€home€until€you’ve€had€time€to€recover.€Porter€pursed€his€thin€lips.€“Need€I€remind€you€this€is€a€hospital?€We’re€here€ to€treat€ apades.”An day.€and€let€this…this€ circus€you’v € .€“Dr.€“I’m€fine.”€ € A€tall.€but€he€silenced€her€with€a€lethal€look.€ “We€can’t€allow€ al€lives.€ € The€chief€of€staff€frowned.€Tiff.€“What€in€the€ world…?”€ € “She€passed€out.€Hartwell.€Hannah€tried€to€get€up.”€Hannah€said€weakly.€Jake€ watched€helples rtwell€onto€a€gurney€and€wheeled€ her€away.€ € Dr.€Is ll?”€ € The€seriousness€of€his€words€brought€a€wave€of€shame€to€her.€really.”€ € Hannah€bit€back€a€moan.€I€just€need€something€ to€eat.€older€physician€with€a€scowl€on€his€face€stormed€into€the€room.€I€don’t€understand€what€you’re€doing€ here.€mortified.€ € €€ € “I…WHAThappened?”€ € “You€passed€out€on€us.”€Jake€explained.

€“I€hope€ € “Mr.”€Hannah€put€her€hand€across€her€ forehead.€really.€I€think€he’ll€be€all€right.€ € But€not€stable.€ You’re€not€going€anywhere€until€I€know€you’re€okay € Hannah’s€heart€squeezed€at€Tiffany’s€unusual€show€of€concern.€I€need€to€see€about€ that€patient.€Hannah€had€always€been€the€care erable€feeling.€ € Because€bizarre€things€like€this€didn’t€happen€to€her.”€Hannah€avoided€Jake’s€hard€gaze€as€she€ instructed€him€on€ ry.€biting€her€lip€as€her€superior€turned€and€strode€from€the€room.”€ € Hannah€accepted€the€juice€Tiffany€offered.”€ € Tiffany€laughed.€He€simply€couldn’t€have€a€birthmark€like€the€man€in€ her€dreams.€hardworking.€Mr.€ Tiffany€patte ly.€“I’m€fine.Hannah€nodded.€ Tippins?”€ € .€maybe.€ but€only€u covery.€that€just€about€covers€it.€Then€she’d€visit€the€man.€levelheaded.€Tippins€looked€like€a€pretty€tough€man€to€me.€Tippins€climbed€down€and€took€your€pulse€while€he€yelled€for€help.”€ € “Great.€mature€Hannah.€“We’ll€get€you€something€to€eat.€She’d€witnessed€ the€woman€moth s€but€had€never€been€on€the€ receiving€end€of€such€treatment.€ € Mimi.€secure.€ apologize€and€beg€his€forgiveness.”€ € “But€Mr.€the€patient€doctoring€the€doctor.€“No.”€ € “Thank€God.€“Do€you€understand.€on€the€floor.€deciding€she’d€rest€for€a€few€minutes.€Doc.”€Worry€assault n€top€of€ him.€ € €€ € “WELL.€Tiffany.€And€she’d€find€out€if€s xamined€him.”€ Tiffany€chec ng€the€bullet€just€about€ now.

”€ € “No€problem.”€Still€lying€on€his€stomach.€“Ahh€gee.”€ € Hannah€averted€her€eyes.€Somehow€she€had€to€forget€that€she’d€seen€this€ man’s€naked€backsi son€she’d€canceled€ her€wedding€and€jilted€her€fiancé€at€the€altar€was€because€of€the€erotic€ € Back€to€business.”€ € But€she€did€have€problems.€her€fingers€trembling.€ € The€chief€of€staff’s€warning€rang€in€her€ears.€I€want€to€thank€ you€for€catchin ze€for€fainting€on€you.€ “That€wasn’t€my tic€day.€“Are€ you€in€pai € “I€was€earlier.”€ .€she€probably€would€do€just€th ppins?”€ € “Just€peachy.€She€had€to€salvage€her€reputation.”€ € Hannah€resisted€the€urge€to€pinch€him€and€wipe€that€cocky€grin€off€his€face.€ Either€that€or€the€pain€medication€had€affected€his€brain.€“On€behalf€of€my€father.€he€propped€his€face€on€his€hand€ and€looked r€awkwardness.€“Well.€ € Tension€knotted€Hannah’s€shoulders.”Just€coming zies.€ € “Your€color’s€looking€better.€but€you€distracted€me.“Yeah.€and€here€I€thought€I€was€ special.”€ € “It€was€no€big€deal.€his€voice€slightly€slurred€from€the€medication.€lifting€the€bandage€slightly€to€check€his€incision.€I’ll€definitely€be€more€careful€from€now€on€and€watch€ € He€rolled€his€shoulders€in€a€slight€shrug.€“How€about€you?”€ € Hannah€tucked€a€strand€of€hair€behind€her€ear.€“I’m€ fine.€And€if€she€didn’t€start€acting€ more€professionally.”€he€said.”€he€said€in€a€deep€drawl.€She€might€have€lost€Seth€and€ the€Broadh e€her€job.€I€truly€am€sorry.€and€I€hadn’t€ eaten€anything.€Doc.

€ Maybe€her€hormon oupled€with€nerves.€She€should€check€her€estrogen€leve ay€too€young€for—€ € “Doc?”€ € She€signed€off€on€his€chart.€His€ only€sign€of€pa enched€when€she€retaped€the€ bandage.€stunned€by€the€sudden€hot€sensations€weaving€through€her.€ € Something€else€for€her€to€feel€guilty€about.€Tippins.€“Did€I€say€something€to€upset€you?”€ € Hannah€pulled€her€hand€away.€“I€could€have€sworn€I€ saw€you€in€a€w ucinating€from€the€pain.€“How€did€you€ know€I€was€gettin € “Wiley€let€everyone€at€the€dealership€off€early€to€attend€your€wedding.€“Get€some€rest€now.€she€said.€ € Hannah€swallowed.”€ € .€I€need€to€check€my€ other€patie € “Aren’t€you€supposed€to€be€on€your€honeymoon?”€ € Hannah€paused.€he€worked€for€her€father.€Mr.€absentmindedly€tapping€the€chart€with€her€pen.€her€eyes€glued€to€his€long€tanned€fingers.€ The€man€was€incorrigible.€an€imbalance€ could€cause€hot€flashes.€We€should€be€able€to€release€you€ tomorrow.€“I…er.€“Get€some€rest€tonight.€ € Ignoring€him.€That’s€the€ reason€I€ € Right.€how€could€she€forget?€Maybe€if€there’d€been€ someone€else€wo n€shot.€ € His€fingers€brushed€over€her€knuckles.”€ € He€must€have€been€exhausted€because€he€simply€nodded€and€smiled€tightly.€ I€didn’t€get€ € His€dark€eyebrows€lifted€slightly€over€high€cheekbones.

€probably€at€h nsciously€ she’d€found€him€physically€attractive€and€conjured€him€in€her€dream.”€Hannah€admitted.€ € End€of€story.€Something€dangerous€and€dark€that€called€out€to € Something€that€scared€the€life€out€of€her.€ € .€And€ he€was€a€s € “I’m€sure€my€dad€will€come€by€to€thank€you€for€your€heroics.€ € “I€need€to€see€those€other€patients€now.”€Jake€mumbled€in€a€low€voice.€He€didn’t€sound€as€if€he€thought€it€was€bad€at€all.€she€backed€ toward€the an’s€broad€shoulders€and€ remind€him€he€was€a€hero.€She’d€run€ out€on€a€goo his€stranger?€ € Forget€hormone€pills.€bedroom€eyes.”€ € Hannah€frowned.€figuring€he’d€hear€ the€news€from€th ing.”€she€said.€Catching€that€guy€was€a€freak€thing.“No.€ € “What?”€ € “I’m€no€hero.€Simple.€ € “Tell€your€dad€he€doesn’t€need€to€come€by.€“That’s€too€bad.”€ € A€streak€of€surprise€lit€his€sleepy.€But€the€memory€of€the€erotic€dream€floate y€sending€a€sliver€of€uneasiness€up€her€spine.€I€was€wearing€one€when€I€arrived.€Dr.€Except€Seth€was€the€ best€psychiatrist€in€town€and€she€had€a€feeling€he€wouldn’t€be € She€suddenly€felt€dizzy€again.€She€needed€to€get€away€ from€this€man d€troubled€lurked€in€the€depths€of€his€ eyes.€confused€by€the€intensity€of€his€words.”€ € She€arched€a€brow€at€him.”€Without€waiting€for€a€reply.€She€ must€have€seen€Jake€before.€Hartwell.€She€should€call€the€men€in€the€little€white€coats€to€come€ and€haul€her hiatrist.€ reverting€back€to€th € A€brooding€expression€tightened€the€lines€at€the€corner€of€his€mouth.

€Her€lithe€figure€disappeared€just€as€a€plan€ formulat ed€about€Hannah’s€intelligence.€he’d€use€Hannah€to€fi € Exhausted.€He’d€rather€take€another€bullet€than€get ke€her.€And€obviously€ Hannah€Hartwell€f ion€well—she’d€just€jilted€her€fiancé€at€the€ altar.€But€Hannah€wasn’t€married€ now€or€engaged.€he’d€learned€the€hard€way€about€untrustworthy€females.€Had€the€woman’s€poor€fiancé€cheated€on€ her€or€done€something€equally€hei would€be€ticked.€ € Like€a€vision.€and€ Joey€DeLito.€ Where€he€could€live€in€peace€and€die€the€ himself€to€anyone.€And€he€always€would€be.€ € Hell.€his€brain€foggy€from€the€sedatives€the€nurses€had€ administered.€he€closed€his€eyes.€Where€he€could€simply€exist€as€a€number.€she’d€never€ever ed€with€a€used‐car€ salesman.€deciding€his€plan€to€see€her€had€nothing€to€do€ with€the€fact€ le€in€his€backside€and€an€IV€in€ his€arm€he€was€rock‐hard€from€wanting€the€woman.€Wiley’s€top€salesman.€And€he’d€do€anything€he€could.€commented€that€she’d€ w€times.€his€thoughts€r hat€Hannah€Hartwell€had€ canceled€her€wedding.€Her€sister€Mimi€was€dating€Joey.€He€had€to€get€transferred€back€to€the€city€where€he€belonged.€one€Wiley€would ropped€by€to€visit.€There€had€to€be€a€story€there.€it€had€everything€to€do€with€his€job.€she€glided€out€the€door.€so€he€cou ister€was€too€young€for€him.€ € No.€Even€though€the€man€was€sexy€as€homemade€ sin.€Where s€crowds.The€dream€wouldn’t€come€true.€Perhaps€she€knew€something€about€her€father’s€business€that€ could€aid€his€investiga or€a€way€to€embed€himself€in€ the€Hartwell€family.€Especially€one€who€worked€for€her€lovable€but€notoriously€outla € €€ € JAKE€GROANED.€He€was€a€loner.€ € € € .€ useanyone€he€had€to e€sleepy€backwards€ town.

€I€told€him€ nothing€could€get€this€old€lady€down.€ € Hannah’s€fingers€trembled€as€she€punched€in€her€grandmother’s€phone€number.”€ € “Grammy?”€ € “I€said€hello.”€ € “I€didn’t€exactly€get€married.€“Hello.€Herman€Whitewall€ had€passed€away€thr .”€ € Hannah€laughed.€ Please€let€her€b ach€lurching€when€the€phone€rang€at€ least€a€half‐dozen€times.€ Chapter€Four€ € She€must€be€losing€her€mind.€Hannah.€ .€her€grandmother€answered.€ € It€was€the€only€plausible€reason€for€her€to€have€such€intense€feelings€about€a€silly€ dream—a ard€a€strange€man€who€differed€so€ drastically€from€the€men€she€normally€dated.€How€was€the€wedding?€I€wanted€to€be€there€so€badly€but€the€ doctor€made€me€ nia.€Whi d€to€see€a€shrink€or€to€find€out€if€some€ cursed€psychic€power€she€didn’t€know€existed€ran€in € The€answer€lay€with€Grammy€Rose.€but€not€surprise.€dear.€ € Until€that€dream.€ € She’d€let€that€silly€legend€destroy€her€sensibleness€and€dictate€her€choice€in€ marriage.€Her€grandmother€must€be€getting€senile.€Herman€Whitewall’s€been€ plowing€up€ r€hear€my€own€ self€think.€hello.€on€the€seventh€ring.”€ € “Oh.€ € Finally.€ € Hannah€Hartwell€had€always€been€predictable€and€cautious€and€rational—she€ never€did€anything eous€or…oremotional.€Grams.€it’s€me.”€ € “Really?”€Her€grandmother’s€tone€held€a€hint€of€amusement.€Speak€up€now.€my€left€ear’s€full€of€dust.

€ “No.€I…I€called€off€the€wedding€at€the€last€minute.”€ € “Decided€Simon€didn’t€light€your€torch,€huh?”€ € Hannah€smiled.€“No.€And€his€name€is€Seth,€Grammy.”€ € “Seth,€smeth.€I€didn’t€think€that€man€was€right€for€you.”€ € “You€didn’t?”€Hannah’s€fingers€tightened€around€the€phone.€“Why€not?”€ €

Her€grandmother€made€a€chortling€sound.€“Woman€ought€to€light€up€when€the€ man€she’s€going€to ,€honey,€you€didn’t.€But€ don’t€worry,€you’ll€make€a€beautiful€bride€some€day.€When€the€right €

Hannah€twisted€the€phone€cord€in€her€fingers.€“Grammy,€I€appreciate€the€hope€ chest€you€sent€ wn€was€beautiful,€but€I€have€to€ know—are€you€psychic?”€ €

“Heavens,€no.”€Her€grandmother€chuckled.€“I€wish€I€was.€I’d€win€the€lottery€and€ buy€myself€a €

Hannah€smiled,€mentally€adding€the€cane€to€her€Christmas€list.€She€took€a€deep€ breath,€and€h ded€on€the€pearl€ring.€“If€you€aren’t€ psychic€then,€I€need€to€ask€you€about€the€ring—”€ € “What€did€you€want€to€know,€dear?”€ € “Did€you€wear€the€ring€and€dream€about€Grandpa€the€night€before€your€ wedding?”€ €

Grammy€Rose’s€soft€laughter€echoed€over€the€line.€“Lordy,€did€I?€Honey,€it€was€ X‐rated.€I€wo omers.”€ €

Heat€climbed€Hannah’s€neck.€Her€father€had€definitely€inherited€his€ outrageousness€from€Gram ccentricity€ran€in€the€same€ gene€pool.€“Really?”€ €

“It’s€the€truth€or€my€name€ain’t€Rose€Hartwell.”€Her€grandmother€paused,€ lowering€her€voice€ idence.€“Did€you€ dream€about€somebody,€Hannah?”€

€ Hannah’s€throat€clogged.€“Uh…yes.”€ € “The€man€in€your€dream€wasn’t€Seth,€right?”€ € “How€did€you€know?”€ € “Destiny.”€ € Destiny?€“I€don’t€think€so.€He’s€totally€wrong€for€me.”€ €

A€shriek€of€laughter€burst€through€the€phone.€“Heavens,€honey,€you€can’t€fight€ it.€Now€tell€ ?”€ €

Hannah€relayed€the€episode€at€the€hospital,€describing€Jake’s€injury€and€her€ fainting€spell. ened,€occasionally€mumbling,€“Mmm‐hmm.”€ €

“Actually€I€think€I€must€have€seen€him€at€the€car€lot€before,€but€we€weren’t€ introduced.€His e€suddenly€ appeared€in€my€dream.”€ € “Love€at€first€sight.”€ € “No,”€Hannah€said€emphatically.€“IfI€saw€him,€I€barely€even€noticed€him.”€ €

“When€do€I€get€to€meet€your€new€young€man?”€Grammy€asked€as€if€she€hadn’t€ heard€Hannah’s€pro €

Hannah€rolled€her€eyes€at€her€grandmother’s€enthusiastic€tone.€“He’s€not€my€ new€young€man.€H .€And€he’s€all€ wrong€for€me.”€But€Grammy€Rose€continued€to€ask€her€questions,€and€Hannah€ co e.€A€half€hour€later,€Grammy€Rose€hung€ up,€sounding€as€smug€and€satisfied€as€if€she’d€just€p d€at€the€ring,€more€confused€than€ever.€She€must€be€losing€her€mind—her€ grandmother’s€exuber elieving€the€legend€ might€be€true.€ € Ridiculous.€ €

She€tugged€off€the€ring€and€laid€it€on€the€table,€the€diamonds€glittering€beneath€ the€light. ue.€And€she€wouldn’t€allow€it€to€affect€her€ rational€judgment€any€more€than€it€already€had.€

€

She€should€wear€the€ring,€she€thought,€with€a€twinge€of€nerves€gnawing€at€her.€ She’d€never€b e€legend.€ €

Determination€filling€her,€she€picked€up€the€ring€and€slid€it€back€on€her€left€hand.€ There.€ tart€flying€off€the€shelves,€no€genies€ suddenly€appeared€from€any€bottles.€ €

Feeling€relieved,€she€decided€she€must€be€having€some€kind€of€temporary€ meltdown.€She’d€hear ly€ER€physicians,€suffered€from€stress.€ The€doorbell€rang,€and€Hannah€jumped,€confirming€her € Mimi€rushed€in.€“Dad’s€on€his€way.€I€just€thought€I’d€warn€you.”€ € Hannah€gripped€the€door.€“Thanks.€Was€he€upset?”€ € “Not€upset,€really.€Just€worried€about€you,€sis.€Are€you€okay?”€ €

“Yes,€I€think€so.”€Hannah’s€mind€reeled€with€all€the€miscellaneous€wedding€ details€she’d€lef ow€could€she€have€been€so€ irresponsible?€Not€that€she€thought€she’d€made€the€wrong€decision€ t€why€couldn’t€she€have€seen€the€truth€sooner?€“What…what€ did€Dad€do€about€all€the€food,€the €

“You€know€Dad,”€Mimi€said€with€a€light€laugh.€“He€invited€all€the€guests€to€ have€refreshment € “Oh,€God.€What€did€Seth’s€parents€do?”€ €

“They€left€in€a€huff,”€Mimi€said.€“Dad€said€he€planned€to€take€the€rest€of€the€cake€ and€punc rve€it€to€his€customers.€ The€reporters€loved€the€idea.€Josephine—that€lady€from€theGazette€— b€some€pictures.”€ €

Hannah€laughed€in€spite€of€her€misery.€“Leave€it€to€Dad€to€find€an€advertising€ venue€for€wed € “I€suggested€he€freeze€some€of€the€leftovers€for€Thanksgiving.”€ € “You’re€kidding?”€ € “It€would€save€us€some€cooking,”€Mimi€said,€her€tone€serious.€

€I€don’t€ think€I€ sgiving.€ he€seems€lik .€too.€“And.€Oh.€He’d€been€on€his€own€ since€he’d€turn runken€fit€and€ never€returned.€as€if€the€legend€ was€bound€to€come€true?€ € €€ € JAKE€CLUTCHEDthe€covers€in€his€fist€as€he€awakened.€focusing€on€the€present.€Why€had€the€dreams€ returned€from€ w?€Because€he€was€alone?€ € Hell.€Mimi.€Heliked€being€alone.€then€followed€her€to€ the€door.”€ € “Good€luck.”€ € Hannah€brushed€a€tear€from€her€cheek.€She e€right€thing.”€Mimi€paused.€the€sharp€sting€of€his€ nightmares€still€ ybe?€ € No.€She’d€been€a€ .€She—”€ € The€doorbell€rang€and€Hannah€tensed.€ € Jake€Tippins€was€a€die‐hard€cop€who€didn’t€need€anyone.€Not€this€time.€ “I’d€rather€have€one€of€your€specialty€desserts€from€the€coffee€shop.€I€think€you€did€the€right€thing€today.€For€both€her€and€ Seth.€did€you€take€ Alison€back€to€school?”€ € “I€just€got€back.€You€and€Seth…well.€ € He€fought€off€the€familiar€anger.€ € Darkness€draped€the€hospital€room€in€a€cloak€of€loneliness.€sis?”€ € “Yeah?”€ € “For€what€it’s€worth.€his€mother€hadn’t€been€too€devastated.€Hannah.€thanked€her€sister.€“That’s€probably€Dad.€he’d€always€been€alone.€Hey.€ € So€why€did€her€spontaneity€and€newfound€freedom€suddenly€scare€the€bejeebies€ out€of€her?€And unded€so€confident.

€ € .€giving€her€the€perfect€ opportunity€to€manipulate€the r€Mimi€was€so€tight€with€ Joey.€the€woman€was€sexy€ enough€to€make€him ith€or€without€a€medical€ exam.€not€a€princess.€And€ she€didn’t€lik € Ever.€ probably€based€at€Wi y’s€daughter.€the€sweet€honeyed€ scent€of€her€shampoo.€ € She’d€entertained€one€man€after€another€until€Jake€had€grown€sick€of€being€ invisible€and€aba y—into€a€life€of€crime.€ € She’d€jilted€one€man€today—would€she€move€on€to€another€target€tomorrow?€ The€answer€had€bett € Jake€grimaced€as€he€recalled€Wiley’s€earlier€visit.€ € He€rolled€to€his€side.€half€in€pain.€he€felt€a€nudge€of€something€ like€hope € If€everything€Wiley€Hartwell€said€about€his€daughter€proved€true.€about€her€ ed€her€father€with€his€books€sometimes.€Hell.€He€didn’t€want€thanks€for€doing€hi e€man€repeatedly.€For€the€first€time€in€his€life.€but€investigated€him.€ Stealing€cars.€groaning.€her€sprint€ from€the€altar€ cter.€He€half€hoped€the€good€doctor€ would€prove€the€rest€of€his€theory€wrong€too.€was€a€beautiful€b € No.€half€in€frustration€as€he€remembered€ the€gent ded€to€his€wounds.€she€might€be€his€accomplice.€the€ woman€he’d€decided€to€use€to€speed€up€his€investigation.beautiful€blond€temptress€who€hadn’t€gotten€her€kicks€from€raising€a€kid.€Not€only€lied.€His€boss€had€stopped€by€to€ thank€him€for ed€to€fall€asleep€while€the€man€ expounded€on€his€heroics.€ € Sometimes€undercover€work€sucked.€those€pale€gold€eyelashes€flutter remarkable€blue€eyes.€A€beautiful€blond€temptress.€ € How€ironic—now€he€was€a€cop€assigned€to€uncover€a€major€car‐theft€ring.

€He’d€ even€managed€a€manicure.”€ € Wiley€shoved€stubby€fingers€through€his€curly€brown€hair.€“You€want€to€talk€about€the€breakup?”€ € She€shook€her€head.€Dad.€And€ if€Wiley’s ter€Mimi€were€involved…€ € €€ € HANNAH€STIRREDsugar€into€her€father’s€coffee€and€handed€him€the€mug.€ € “I’m€fine.€ € “Honey.€sending€the€ unmanageable€strands€i air€gel€had€no€doubt€worn€off€hours€ ago.€she€note lish€on€his€ blunt€nails.€ € “I’m€sorry.€Dad.€ € Hannah€sipped€her€own€hot€tea€and€perched€on€the€armchair€beside€the€fire.€please€stop€staring€at€me€like€I’m€going€to€break€apart€any€ minute.€I€didn’t€mean€to€embarrass€you.€ € He€frowned.€honey?”€Wiley€studied€her€intently€over€the€rim€of€ his€cup.€a€sign€he’d€repeatedly€done€the€gesture€several€tim s€she’d€inflicted€on€him.€ wondering€if€she€ ks€and€let€publicity€die€ down.€Simply€looking€at€his€p nt€leather€shoes€reminded€her€of€her€earlier€debacle.€So.€I…”€Her€father€stared€into€his€mug€as€if€the€rich€dark€coffee€held€the€ answers.€ € “Are€you€sure€you’re€all€right.If€he€discovered€Wiley€was€running€a€car‐theft€ring.”€Unaccustomed€as€she€was€to€ sharing€her€per ldn’t€offer€an€explanation.€“Dad—”€ € .€with€Wiley’s€latest€statewide€ads€and€her€wedding€disas e€able€to€escape€the€notoriety€of€being€Wiley’s€daughter€ anywhere€she€went.€Only.€“I€k € The€anguish€in€his€voice€startled€her.€he’d€have€to€arrest€him.€She€only€ wished€he’d€changed€from€his€garish€gray€tux.€ aware€he’d€been€watchin ugh€the€door.

”€ € Guilt€suffused€Hannah.”€ € He€clenched€his€hand€around€his€knee€as€if€he€wanted€to€reach€for€her€but€knew€ she€wouldn’t€ uddly.He€held€up€his€hand.€ € “I’m€sorry€I€left€you€to€handle€all€the€details.€but€she€couldn’t€bring€herself€to€voice€ her€thought € He€gently€took€her€hands€in€his€and€squeezed€them.€that€her€mother€had€deserted€the€famil € He€sipped€his€coffee.€and€I€ didn’t€want€to € “Like€I€did€with€your€mother?”€ € The€pain‐filled€words€hung€between€them.€exactly€as€she€always€did€when€he€tried€to€get€too€clo he€wedding.€“No€problem.€not€ the€flamboyant€TV€salesman.€I€love€you€ gi € “I€know€that.”€she€finally€said.€She€wished€she€knew€something€to€say€to€alleviate€the€ hurt€in€her€fat en€able€to€talk€about€her€mother.€but€I€don’t€mean€to.€maybe€they€wouldn’t€have€teased€her€ unmercifu d€forget€the€fact€that€his€stuntshad€ embarrassed€her.€“It’s€okay.€“I€simply€realized€we€weren’t€right€for€each€other.”€ Wiley€said.€I’m€not€trying€to€pressure€you.€I’m€going€to€try€to€make€good€use€of€the€cake.€“Heaven€ knows€though.€“Just€tell€me€one€thing—did€ Broadhurst€hurt€ € A€smile€curved€Hannah’s€mouth.€“I’m€not€trying€to€make€ things€worse€here .€honey.€Dad.€And€ you€didn’t€emba ly.€a ason.”€Tears€burned€Hannah’s€eyes.€eas € .€If€only€all€the€kids€she’d€grown€ up€with€cou owy€exterior.€that€I€embarrassyou€sometimes.€She€ached€to€walk€over€and€wrap€her€arms€ around€her€father.€“You€want€to€talk€about€it?”€ € Hannah€sighed.€his€voice€deep€and€husky.€Hannah.€affectionate€ one—that€had€been€Mimi.€she€found€ herself€holding€back.€ € Wiley€shrugged.€Dad.

”€ € So.€ bumping€Hannah’s€canceled€wedding€and€photos€of€h e€third.€“Yep.”€ € Wiley€nodded.€maybe€he€didn’t€like€a€lot€of€attention€the€way€her€father€did.€the€small‐town€paper€full€of€ Hartwell€happe ng€at€the€car€lot€occupied€the€first€page.€“I’m€glad.”€ € € € € Chapter€Five€ € .”€Wiley€said.€One€day€maybe€he’d€star€in€one€of€her€dad’s€commercials.”€ € Wiley€picked€the€newspaper€off€the€coffee€table.€Maybe€you€could€give€Jake€a€ride€ home€from€the€hospital.”€ € Hannah€nearly€spilled€her€tea€in€her€lap.€We’re€tapi n€Atlanta.€I€wanted€to€talk€to€you€about€checking€on€him€when€he’s€ released.€ € “I’m€glad€you€saw€him€at€the€hospital.€“Odd€thou ics.€Heard€he€even€ refused€to€give€an€interview€for€the€paper.€but€he€fell€ asleep€while€I€was€there.€“ omeone€trying€to€steal€a€car.€I€certainly€don’t€want€to€have€to€eat€it.€Tippins€is€a€good€man.”€Wiley€continued.€“What?”€ € Wiley€grinned€as€if€one€of€his€wild€brainstorms€had€just€hit€him.€the€vivid€images€from€her€dream€ bombarding€her.€That€still€didn’t€ mean€s € “As€a€matter€of€fact.Hannah€laughed.€And€I€have€to€go€out€of€town€tomorrow.€ € “I€heard€you€took€care€of€my€salesman€at€the€hospital€today.€ € Hannah’s€fingers€tightened€around€her€cup.€“Poor€guy€ doesn’t€have€any ere.€A€little€rough€with€his€sales€ technique.€ € Surely€he’d€be€out€of€her€dreams€by€then.€but€he’s € Great.€oblivious€to€her€ turmoil.

€but€recently€the€suspicions€about€the€ car‐theft€ring€revolved€around€the€town tely€been€moved€ through€Wiley’s€lots.”€ € “Stupid€kid.€but€ decided€to€hold€off.€Adding€insult€to€injury.€“Last€year€he€ha .€by€the€way.”€Walker€made€a€clicking€sound€ with€his€cheek.€Jake€had€bigger€fish€to€fry.€He€might€have€blown€ his€cover€if€his€picture€had€appeared€in€the€p m.€He’d€have€to€take€a€few€days€off€to€recover own€even€longer.€ € “Did€you€question€the€kid?”€Jake€asked.€ € Sheriff€Walker€shook€his€head€in€disgust.€“H lly€good€people.€“Anything€else€you€can€tell€me?”€ € “That’s€it.€Not€that€sleepy€little€ Sugar€ tbed€of€crime.€He€didn’t€like€to€stay€in€one€place€for€ very€long.€so€he€shot€ you.€a€tall€man€in€his€late€fifties€with€a€slight€paunch.€“Bunch€of€his€buddies€dared€him€to€ take€the€car€fo u€nabbed€him.€“Oh.€ Maybe€a€little€jail€time€will€do€him€good.€remembering€how€dumb€he’d€been€at€the€same€age.€The€whole€thing€happened€in€a€matter€of€minutes.Jake€shifted€sideways€in€the€hospital€bed.€Getting€shot€ in€the€bu fe€in€more€ways€than€one.€unable€to€get€comfortable.€studied€the€ statemen .€ € The€sheriff€headed€to€the€door.€“Find€out€what€caused€the€punk€to€do€ something€so€st tity€to€the€sheriff.€my€daughter€recently€got€her€ license.”€ € Jake€frowned.€he’d€probably€be€sitting€on€one€of€those€silly€ foam€doughnuts€fo € The€local€sheriff.€the€very€reason€he’d€opt hat€ placed€undercover€detectives€in€various€hotbeds€of€crime.€ € “Got€the€gun€from€his€dad’s€drawer€at€home.€I€thi n€cut€me€a€deal€on€a€ good€used€car.€ Unfortunately.”€A€chuckle€reverberated€from€his€chest.”€Jake€said.€Serving€time€could€go€either€way—harden€the€boy€to€crime€and€ add€another€dark€ ant€to€turn€things€around.”€Jake€glanced€out€ the€window€at orful€array€of€fall€leaves€ twirling€in€the€wind.

€“Your€doctor?”€ € “Yeah.”€ € “We’ll€follow€up€on€the€kid.”€ € “Yeah.€man.”€Trevor€ € “I’ll€have€the€case€solved€by€then.€So€far.€Hartwell.”€ € Jake€nodded.salesmen€dress€up€like€elves€for€the€Christmas€specials.€use€ every€av ad.€ € No€sooner€had€the€sheriff€left.€but€there€was€no€way€in€hell€he’d€put€on€a€silly€elf€suit.€Better€get€yourself€healed€ so€you€c een€tights.€ constantly€urged€Jake€to€search€for€a€go ut€the€ difference€his€marriage€had€made€in€his€life.€He€was€also€ o€keep€a€family.”€ € .”€Jake€said.€Jake€admired€the€older€ man€and€his€commitment€to€his€job.€I€need€more€ time.€Trevor€Muldoon.€Jake€rolled€ his€eyes.€p ion€before€Christmas.€He’ ooking€for.”€Jake€said.€Jake€hadn’t€bought€any€of€the€ € “Don’t€say€it.€“The€chief€wanted€me€to€find€out€if€this€shooting€had€ anything€to€do€with€ € “I€don’t€think€so.€You’d€better€get€out€of€here.€ loped€in.€than€Jake’s€partner€and€friend.€Muldoon€enjoyed€dispensing€advice.€“The€local€sheriff€was€just€here.€knowing€the€older€man€intended€to€make€him€the€ butt€of€his€joke € Muldoon€chuckled.€wal eep€the€streets€safe.€Chief€wants€you€to€tie€this€thing€up€before€ Christmas.”€ € The€man’s€booming€laughter€echoed€off€the€walls€as€he€left€the€room.€didn’t€want€anyone€to€see€me.€I€hid€in€the€hall.€ € The€intercom€buzzed€in€the€hallway€and€a€voice€paged€Dr.€Every€job€had€its€ limits—he’d€run€through€a€jungle€full€of€snakes.€gr n€was€in€his€fifties.€He’d€step€up€the€investigation.€ € Trevor€frowned€at€the€announcement.€I€saw€him€take€off.”€Jake€warned.€“Sheriff€claimed€the€punk€kid€who€shot€me€tried€to€steal€the€car€on€ a€dare.

€though.€Her€stomach€clenched€ as€she€spotted€Seth’s€p ff’s€office€ahead€of€her.€Not€one€of€the€salesmen€from€Wiley’s.€and€she€shook€off€the€uneasiness.€could€make€herwant€to€leave.€and€Jake€leaned€back€against€the€ pillow.€Hmm st€he€had€a€ visitor.”€Trevor€slipped€out€the€door.€ could€create€dissension.€He’d eautiful€doctor€had€been€this€ morning.€ € €€ € HANNAH€WASon€her€way€to€answer€the€page€when€she€saw€a€man€slip€from€ Jake€Tippin’s€room.€Who€was€the€stranger.€ knowing€bigger€prob ing€just€completed€an€early‐morning€ rotation€in€the€ER.€the€man€had€slipped€behind€a€medicine€cart€u d.€ € Maybe€she€should€simply€ask€for€a€transfer.€They€couldn’t€ have€her€fi ut€they€could€make€her€life€hell.“Keep€me€posted.€Wiley€had€phoned€first€thing€to€tell€him€he’d€enliste ke€had€considered€telling€Wiley€to€forget€it.€ € The€Broadhursts€were€prominent€retired€physicians€who’d€donated€scads€of€ money€to€the€hospit luence€and€the€backing€of€the€board.€that€he’d€take€a€cab.€ € Why€had€she€been€asked€to€meet€them€in€the€chief’s€office?€Had€they€listened€to€ the€apology€ t€home€and€decided€to€ confront€her?€ € She€twisted€her€fingers€together€as€she€stared€at€the€closed€door.€In€a€small€town€like€ Sugar€Hill€whe ossip€about€her€jilting€Seth€ would€linger€for€months.€she€was€exhausted.€had€rubbed€it€in€Seth’s€face€when€she€dumped€him.€And€how€odd—she’d€ notice he€hall.€When€the€sheriff€ had€left€Jake’s€room.€She€could€move€to€Atlanta.€Adrenaline€spurred€by€nerves.€ She’d€already€heard€some€nasty€rumors€floating€a ffair.€complete€ her€residenc ke€the€situation€less€awkward€for€everyone.€ .€but€ then€he’d€decided€wh tter.€and€why€wouldn’t€he€want€ Sheriff€Walker€to€see€him?€ € The€intercom€announced€her€name€again.€ € And€they€most€likely€hated€her.€but€the€minute€sh ne€had€kicked€in.

€

Striving€for€courage,€she€raised€her€hand€and€knocked.€Dr.€Porter’s€curt€voice€ invited€her€i ook€a€seat€in€a€wing€chair€facing€the€chief€ of€staff.€Seth’s€parents€situated€themselves€on€ r€ surprise,€Seth€stood€on€the€far€side,€leaning€against€the€wall,€looking€grim.€ € “You’re€probably€wondering€why€I€asked€you€join€us,”€Dr.€Porter€said.€ €

“I€think€I€have€an€idea,”€Hannah€said,€deciding€to€take€a€direct€route.€At€six‐ three,€the€el sive€and€intimidating,€not€ only€because€of€his€size,€but€because€he€had€practiced€medicine€h putation€as€a€renowned€surgeon,€and€contributed€regularly€to€a€major€ medical€research€journa ed€the€year€before,€he’d€left€a€ prominent€Boston€facility€to€manage€this€small‐town€hospital sure.€ € Hannah€certainly€hadn’t€helped€his€situation€any.€ €

Seth’s€mother,€an€attractive€brunette€in€her€early€fifties,€stared€blankly€at€her€ while€her€ is€displeasure.€ €

“I€know€I€owe€you€all€an€apology,”€Hannah€said,€praying€she€sounded€sincere.€ “I’m€sorry€if€I d€I’m€really€sorry€for€ the€way€I€handled€things€yesterday€with€Seth.”€She€gave€Seth€a€wary€s € Seth€nodded,€his€gaze€oddly€understanding.€ € Seth’s€mother’s€mouth€tightened€into€a€thin€line.€His€father€arched€a€bushy€brow.€ €

She€directed€her€gaze€at€his€parents.€“I€never€meant€to€hurt€Seth,€I€hope€you€two€ believe€th € “And€an€important€part€of€the€hospital,”€Dr.€Porter€pointed€out.€ €

“Yes,”€Hannah€said,€hearing€the€unspoken€message,More€important€than€a€ young€resident.€“He’s till€would€like€to€think€of€ him€as€a€friend.€I€honestly€believe€that€I€did€the€right€thing,€ .€I€think€one€day€Seth€will€agree.”€ € His€arched€brow€said€he€wasn’t€sure,€but€he€was€contemplating€what€she’d€said.€ €

“You€couldn’t€have€told€my€son€this€before€his€wedding€day?”€Mrs.€Broadhurst€ asked€with€disa € “Or€maybe€like€your€father,€you€simply€enjoy€public€displays?”€Mr.€Broadhurst€ snapped.€ €

Hannah€winced€at€the€comment€about€her€father,€half€wanting€to€defend€him,€ the€other€half€wa d€public€displays.€Surprisingly,€ Seth€spoke,€saving€her€from€commenting.€ €

“Mother,€Dad,€that’s€enough,”€Seth€said.€“What€happened€between€Hannah€and€ myself€is€our€bus € Mrs.€Broadhurst€bristled€while€Mr.€Broadhurst’s€nostrils€flared.€ €

Hannah€searched€for€a€plausible,€rational€approach€to€winning€their€ understanding,€but€she€c he€remembered€the€crazy€dream,€ the€legend—no,€she€could€not€tell€them€about€the€legend.€They .€ €

Which,€of€course,€she€was€beginning€to€think€also.€Especially€considering€how€ composed€and€l eared€in€the€aftermath€of€their€canceled€ wedding.€ €

Dr.€Porter€folded€his€hands€on€his€desk€and€cleared€his€throat,€cutting€off€her€ thoughts.€“T ou€all€to€meet€here.€The€ personal€lives€of€my€staff€are€really€of€no€consequence€to€me,€Dr.€ avior€affects€the€ethical€code€and€the€respect€of€other€ professionals.€I€must€admit€I’ve€hea alls,€and€ I’ve€seen€the€newspaper€photos.”€ € “I’m€sorry,€Dr.€Porter.€I€had€no€idea€the€reporters€would€mention€the€hospital.”€ €

“I’m€concerned€that€this€debacle€might€affect€both€your€working€relationships€ and€the€morale €

Hannah€chewed€on€her€bottom€lip.€“I€can€assure€you€that€I’ll€remain€ professional.€I€know€I€c r€a€stern€ look,€“…um,€with€Dr.€Broadhurst.”€ € “I€certainly€have€no€problem€with€Dr.€Hartwell,”€Seth€said€amicably.€ €

Dr.€Porter€stood€as€if€dismissing€them.€“Well,€I,€for€one,€thank€you€for€your€ honesty,€Dr.€H rd.€If€not…”€ € Hannah€nodded€as€he€let€the€sentence€trail€off,€wincing€at€his€silent€warning.€ €

Seth’s€parents€shook€Dr.€Porter’s€hand,€Hannah€apologized€to€them€again,€and€ the€Broadhursts though€Hannah€sensed€they€weren’t€ totally€satisfied.€Seth’s€gaze€caught€hers,€an€awkwardness ated.€He€forced€a€small€smile€for€which€she€would€forever€be€grateful.€Maybe€ they€could€rema commend€a€good€shrink….€ €

When€the€door€had€closed€behind€them,€the€chief€of€staff€caught€her€hand.€“Dr.€ Hartwell,€you ts’€contributions€mean€to€this€ hospital?”€ € “Yes.”€ €

“Then€I’m€asking€you€to€do€everything€you€can€to€rectify€your€relationship€with€ them.€Do€you € “Yes€sir.”€ €

Hannah’s€stomach€plummeted.€She€would€do€everything€she€could€to€smooth€ things€over€with€the t€marry€Seth.€With€a€heavy€heart,€she€ slipped€out€the€door€to€follow€through€on€the€promise€ ore.€ €

She€was€going€to€find€Jake€Tippins,€the€man€who€had€virtually€seeped€unwanted€ into€her€dream y€and€drive€him€home.€And€ she’d€have€to€do€it€without€letting€the€man€know€that€she’d€seen€h eason€she’d€called€off€her€wedding.€ € €€ €

JAKE€RUBBEDhis€hand€over€his€eyes,€trying€to€block€images€from€his€latest€ dream.€After€Trevo nstead€of€having€another€ nightmare€about€his€childhood€he’d€had€erotic€dreams€of€sleeping€wi rtwell.€ € She’d€been€naked€and€hot€and€writhing€beneath€him.€ € Boy,€he€was€in€trouble.€

€ but€I€did€ € He€opened€the€bag€and€peered€inside€at€the€shapeless€black€drawstring€pants.€do€you.”€ € The€door€opened€and€Wiley€poked€his€head€in€the€doorway.€Mr.€ € Oh.€“Hey.€ how’re€you€doing?”€ € “Fine.”€ € Heat€climbed€his€neck.€ Mr.€“You€don’t€mince€words.”€ € A€soft€chuckle€escaped€her€as€she€tossed€a€paper€bag€at€him.€Tippins.€ € “I€thought€you€were€out€of€town.”€He€indicated€the€backless€hospital€gown.€“What€you€see€is€what€you€get.€ As€if€temptation€had€his€number.€no€suitcase.€ “Thanks.€ € “Like€I’ve€been€to€hell€and€back.€well.”Except€for€the€fact€that€ he€wasn’t€a p€of€a€hat.€ € “Can€I€see€you€a€minute.€but€I€don’t€want€to€get€ arrested€for€indecent€exposure.”€ € Dr.”€ € She€blushed.€Actually€blushed.€the€good€doctor€walked€through€the€door.€Hartwell€lifted€a€narrow€blond€brow.€this€is€great.€Doc.€ € And€he’d€like€to€see€the€slender€curves€that€lay€beneath€that€lab€coat.€Not€that€I€haven’t€enjoyed€ giving€all€the own.€Tippins.€“Hi.”€ .”€Jake€said.€“Yeah.€hell…he€wasn’t€handling€this€well€at€all.€ Tippins?”€ € “No€reason€to.€ € “Are€you€ready€to€go€home?”€ € “Yeah.€Hannah?”€Wiley€asked.€“Just€let€me€grab€my€luggage.€“Sorry.€Had€he€ever€seen€a€woman€look€so€innocent€and€ so€wanton€at€th igured€sweats€would€ be€more€comfortable€with€the€bandage.”€he€said.

”€ € When€she€slipped€out€the€door.€professional€smile€curved€Hannah’s€luscious€lips€when€she€walked€ in.€he€chuckled€at€the€blush€that€had€stained€her€ cheeks€and€kick ag.€Hannah€sometimes€ helped s€he€paying€her€to€be€an€accessory€to€a€crime?€ € Wiley€squeezed€Hannah’s€arm€and€she€nodded€stiffly.€She€told€Jake€she’d€be€right€back.€then€ disappeared€i € Curious.€His€suspicions€mounted.€sending€his€ backside€into€a€painful€spas € A€friendly.€jammed€her€hands€in€her€ lab‐jacket€pocke om.€Hannah€Hartwell€appeared€at€the€door€with€a€wheelchair.€Bitin o€yank€on€the€sweatpants.€ “I’m€on€my€way.€but€fell€against€the€bed.€“I’ll€go€get€a€wheelchair.€ € Jake€noticed€Hannah’s€shoulders€tense.€They€appeared€to€be€a ips€and€thought€he€saw€Hannah€say€something€about€the€car€ business.€that€she€didn’t€want€his d€an€envelope€ into€her€pocket€with€a€frown.€Had€she€bought€ ng€silky€or€some€ of€those€bikini€G‐string€things?€ € Several€minutes€later.€he€found€a€pair€of€plain€ blue€plaid€cotton€boxers€from€a€discount€store€and€pulled€them€ s.€dragging€the€gown€together€in€ the€back€as€he€h e€peered€through€the€door€crack€ and€saw€Hannah€frowning€at€her€father.€and€he€wondered€if€she’d€bought€them€extra€large€because€of€ the€stitches.€Jake€awkwardly€climbed€from€the€bed.€I’ve€never€had€a€woman€offer€to€help€meget€dressed€before.€“Do€you€need€ help?”€ € He€grinned.€ bumped€into€the€lunch€tray€and€nearly€broke€his€toe.€indicating€his€state€of€undress.”€ € She€simply€rolled€her€eyes.”€Wiley€said.€“Doc.€and€Jake€cl sery.€He€scrambled€back€to€the€bed.€ “Ready€to€go? € .€just€running€a€little€late.€ € “Are€you€all€right?”€she€asked.€He€must€look€ridiculous€with€his€ pants€around€his€ankles.

”€ € Two€nurses€bustled€past.€and€pushed€him€through€the€hallway.”€ € Jake€glanced€at€the€man’s€name€tag.€If€anyone€should€leave.€“I’m€not€going€ anywhere.€Two€nurses€ watched€from€their€station.€Seth.€ He€hated€feeling€ de€her.€Dr.€The€man€was€obviously€still€ in€love€with€Hannah—why€else€would€he€have€to€leave€town d€wedding?€ € .€lean€forward€and€kiss€her€on€ the€cheek.€hated€that€he€had€to€lean€on€ Hannah€to€situate€himself€in€the€chair.Jake€nodded€and€limped€awkwardly€across€the€room.€Seth.€Seth€Broadhurst.€feeling€surly€but€not€knowing€the€reason.€it€should€be€me.€ € Jake€noticed€Broadhurst€squeeze€Hannah’s€hand.€Jake€ strained€to€hear€t € “I’ve€decided€to€take€a€little€trip.€ € “Since€when€are€you€escorting€patients€out€the€door.”€Hannah€set€the€brake€on€the€wheelchair.€grateful€he€could€stand.€ushering€him€into€a€corner.€ € Jake€shrugged.€ € “Sure.€this€ is€the€man€wh her’s€car€lot.”€ € Hannah€smiled€and€took€Broadhurst’s€arm.€Hannah?€Are€we€short€on€ volunteers€or€n € Hannah’s€smile€seemed€strained€when€she€turned€to€look€at€him.€and€a€woman€dragging€a€screaming€toddler€ toward€the€doorw f€the€conversation.€ € It€seemed€everyone€wanted€a€word€in€private€with€Hannah€today.€ € “Can€I€talk€to€you€for€a€minute?”€Broadhurst€asked.€chatting.€han l€items€in€it.€I€don’t€want€you€to€go€away.€“Mind€if€I€leave€you€here€for€a€ second.€She€smiled.€Mr.€ let€so € “Oh.€Dad€asked€me€ to€drive€him€home.€a€ eing€them€with€ interest.€go€to€that€confer€ence€in€Dallas€for€a€few€days.€“No.€A€tig tomach.

€He€didn’t€have€to€think€twice€to€ see€the€di ormer€fiancé—in€her€eyes€he€must€ look€like€a€low‐life€salesman.€She€also€avoided€ personal€relationships€wi € Especially€patients€who€worked€with€her€father.€he’s€a€psychiatrist.€Jake€had€ no€idea€why€the€thought€irked€him€so€much€but€it€did.”€ € Jake€fisted€his€hands€on€his€lap.€ € .€When€Hannah€returned€to€his€side€and€ pushed€him€in ly€asked.€or€in€some€other€doct ilty€about€being€with€her€during€the€interim.€I…”€She€stared€at€the€numbers€on€the€elevator€as€if€willing€ them€to€sign y€personal€ relationships€to€you.€clean‐cut€type.”€ € “The€man€you€left€at€the€altar?”€ € Her€sharp€look€told€him€he’d€spoken€out€of€line.€Tippins.€“No.€Obviously€not.€Mr.€ € “I€didn’t€dump€him.€He€supposed€women€thought€ Broadhurst€handsome.€ignoring€the€little€ embarrassed€ he’d€placed€the€foam€doughnut€in€the€ seat.€So € Judging€from€the€tension€between€her€and€the€shrink.€“Right.€and€ fort€to€help€her€patients€maintain€their€dignity.€ € € € € Chapter€Six€ € Hannah€helped€Jake€settle€into€the€front€seat€of€her€Volvo.Curiosity€won€over€his€rational€thoughts.€Being€a€patient€definitely€humbled€a€person.€ € And€with€Broadhurst€out€of€town.€he’d€have€the€perfect€opportunity€to€cozy€up€ to€Hannah.€“That€one€of€the€surgeons?”€ € Hannah’s€blue€eyes€darkened€with€anxiety. al€who€probably€made€megabucks.€a€half‐crippled€one€at€that.€if€they€liked e.€there€still€might€be€ something€between€ eturned€from€his€trip.€Hannah€ would€probably€wind€up€back€in€his€arms.

€I€just€wanted€you€to€be€able€to€relax€and€take€it€easy.€Jake.€Jake.€and€his€legs€were€so€long€th ny€ body€and€sexy€gaze€oozed€with€testosterone.€Apparently€she’d€stepped€on€that€abominable€male€pride€again.€ Tippins?”€ € “Call€me€Jake.”€ € His€tone€implied€he€didn’t€relish€the€idea€of€a€forced€vacation.€Where€can€I€take€you?”€ € “I’m€renting€one€of€those€little€duplexes€on€Ivy€Street.€plus€the€hospital€bills€and€any€ further€treatm u€were€hurt€on€the€job.€ € “Dad€will€definitely€cover€your€salary.€But€Hannah€insisted€on€paying€her€own€way.”€ € “I’m€not€worried€about€the€money.€“All€ right.€he€ er€medical‐school€ loans.€ Masculinity€oozed€fro rk€stubble€ grazed€his€wide€chin.€Do€you€know€where€they€ are?”€ € “Sure.€Mr.€had€never€taken€money€fr t€least€not€for€herself.€Hannah€caught€him€staring€at€her.€I€suppose€I’ll€be€taking€a€couple€of€days€off€work.”€Out€of€the€corner€of€her€eye.Why€had€Wiley€been€so€stubborn€earlier?€Just€because€he’d€made€a€good€profit€ this€month.€she€ maneuvered€he oon€traffic.”€he€said€tightly.€“Where€do€you€live.€ € Hannah€winced.€So t€name€seemed€so…intimate.€She’d€simply€put€the€ money€in€a€fund€for€a€graduation€party€for€Ali € Determined€to€spend€as€little€time€as€possible€with€her€father’s€employee.€ € “Sorry.€I’ll€have€you€home€in€a€jiffy.€his€bronze€skin€giving€him€an€even€darker.€ € “No€hurry.€more€sensual€ lo ere€wrapped€around€the€envelope€containing€his€ wallet€and€keys.”Then€I€can€get€away€from€you.€And€those€eyes.”€ € “Doctor’s€orders?”€ € “Yes.€darker€than€any€ .”€ € Hannah’s€fingers€tightened€around€the€steering€wheel€at€the€sound€of€his€husky€ low€voice.

€sounds€too€formal.€Their€meeting€hadn’t€ been€personal.€Mr.”€ € “Jake.€Jake.€but€back€to€my€car.€why€aren’t€you€driving€a€Porsche€or€some€sporty€ little€conver € “I€happen€to€like€my€Volvo.€ € “So.€Mr.€uncharacteristic€of€her.€safe.€were€tinted€with€flecks€of€gold€that€made€her€think€of€ snuggling€ € A€lazy€grin€spread€on€his€face€as€if€he€recognized€the€electricity€humming€ between€them€and€ .Hannah€bit€down€on€her€ lip€and€shot€him ed€Seth€and€I€weren’t€right€for€ each€other.€Mr.€someone€who€didn’t€rattle€her.€I€like€Volvos.€Tippins€again.€You’re€my€patient.€He€was€the€exact€oppo anted€calm.€b ore€reason€I€should€stick€to€ formalities.€then.€all€ € “All€right.€At€least€not€technically.€Tippins.€They’re€safe€and€ dependable.€I€cancelled€the€wedding€after€I€dreamt€about€you.€huh?”€ € “Hardly.€We’re€still€friends€though.”€ € “That€the€reason€you€decided€not€to€get€hitched€yesterday?”€ € No.”And€boring € “You’re€not€a€daredevil.€She€didn’t€like€ this…this€weird€hot€feeling€that€strummed€through€her€body€eve ke€her€name.€especially€ considering…”€ € Heat€rushed€up€Hannah’s€neck.€sexy€smile.chocolate€she’d€ever€seen.”€ € .€“Humor€ me.€she€didn’t.€Her€granny€had€been€mistaken€about€ him€being€her€destiny.€Tippins.”€ € “Not€anymore.€with€Wiley’s€connections.”€ € “What?”€ € “You€called€me€Mr.”€He€smiled€a€warm.

€she€didn’t€truly€love€Seth€and€she€knew€that€now.€Two€little€girls€wearing€T‐shirts€and€jeans€ jumped€rope€in€t d€old.€ € .€Seth’s€even€more…conservative€than€I€ am.€“No.€Hannah€decided€to€change€the€subject.”€ € “I€see.€as€if€the€owners€either€did es€or€couldn’t€afford€the€upkeep.”€A€vague.€She€admired€his€ professional€manner.€the€very€reason€I€wanted€to€marry€him.€a€little€of€this.”€ € He€was€safe.€ € Yet.€the€man€obviously€wanted€more.€“It’s€a€decent€living.€Couple€of€weeks.€a€little€of€that.€a€little€unkempt.€the€grass€ growing€in€haphazard€patches.”€ € “Oooh.”€ € “You€like€the€job?”€ € Jake’s€big€shoulders€lifted€slightly.€Your€dad’s€a€pretty€ interesting € She€let€that€comment€slide.€didn’t€you?”€ € “No.€ “How€long€hav € His€dark€gaze€finally€pivoted€toward€the€scenery.Judging€from€their€earlier€encounter.€short€answer.€“So€ Broadhurstis€the€da € Hannah€chuckled€in€spite€of€herself.€ € Perturbed€at€the€way€he’d€read€her€mind.€you€started€to€say€boring.€“You’ve€sold€cars€before?”€ € “No.€Was€he€simply€a€drifter€taking€odd€jobs€or€was€he€ hiding€som nnah€turned€into€the€complex€ of€apartments.”€ € “What€did€you€do€before€you€came€to€Sugar€Hill?”€ € “Oh.€“Not€long.€ ove?€No.”€He€shaded€his€eyes€with€his€hand€at€the€ blinding€s ove€around€a€lot.€A€few€children€rode€paint‐chipped€bikes€in€the€s yed€softball€in€the€cul€de€sac.

€ For€a€fraction€of€a€second.€we’ll€be€h € He€nodded€tightly.€grabbed€the€sides€of€the€ car€door€a nnah€recognized€a€man€full€of€pride€ and€placed€a€tentative€hand€out€to€help€him.”€he€said.€illicit€affairs€or€dea ok.”€ € “Jake.”€he€said€between€gritted€teeth.€his€gaze€lowered€to€her€ mouth.€ € “Look.€Why€ hadn’t€she € Hannah€sucked€in€a€sharp€breath.€pointing€to€a€gray€wooden€structure€with€a€broken‐down€ fence.€“Am€I€hurting€you?”€ € He€meant€was€his€weight€hurting€her.€then€to€ t.€Mr.€his€only€concession.€ € Sweet.”€ € “That€a€fact?”€ € “Yes.€Hannah€curved€her€arm€around€his€ waist.€ € She€parked€the€car€in€the€drive€and€killed€the€engine.€She€didn’t€ indulge€in€one‐night€stands.€I’m€a€doctor€and€you’re€an€injured€man.€ € “I€can€do€it.€But€the€sharp€flicker€of€emotion€that€ darted€in€his€ey is€size.€ € Desire.€although€she€instinctively€ knew€that€gett ould€hurt€her€much€much€more.€He€smelled€of€ antiseptic€and is€solid€muscular€chest€like€a€wall€ .€Tippins.€she€realized.€I’m—”€ € “Jake.€“Just€sit€tight€and€I’ll€come€ around€ € Before€she€could€circle€the€front.€fiery€hunger€that€sent€a€ripple€of€heat€soaring€through€her€body.€he’d€opened€the€door.€her€breath€h ly€draped€his€arm€around€her€shoulders.€At€the€harsh€sound.”€Hannah€whispered.€hating€the€breathy€sound€of€her€voice.€his€gaze€locked€with€her ize€and€strength€almost€intimidating.“I’m€in€3B.€hot.€If€you€fall€and€reopen€your€ wound.

€A€ regular€little€caretaker.€At€the€ hospital.€as€if€he€read€the€questions€in€her€eyes.€ determined€ et.€a€thread‐bare€plaid e€straight€from€Goodwill.€the€contents€ spilling€out€as€if€he€virtually€lived€out€of€them.€adorned€the€walls€or€filled€the€built‐in€wooden€shelves€flanking€the€ gas€fireplace.€He€leaned€against€her€slightly€while€diggi e€for€ the€key.€N lothes€and€underwear.”€ € “You€don’t€need€to—”€ € .€ € “I€rented€the€place€furnished.€ “It’s€easi € The€second€time€he’d€mentioned€that€he€moved€around€a€lot.€When€he€finally€opened€the€door.€awkwardly€up€ the€steps.of€granite€beneath€her€hand.€His€house€mirrored€ the€truth€of€h at€in€the€small€den.€then€leave€you€alone€to€rest.€then€packed€them€in€his€cupboards.€he€tried€to€push€away€from€her.€but€now€she’d€bought€him€food.€They€moved€slowly.€she€remembered€Jake€saying€he€had€no€family€to ened€to€them.€but€Hannah€refused€to€ release€him€until€they€stood€beside€the€couch.€ € So€why€the€heck€had€she€dreamed€about€him€as€if€he€were€her€destiny?€ € €€ € JAKE€WATCHEDHANNAHfidget€with€her€hands€and€fought€a€chuckle.”€he€said.€ € “I’ll€just€heat€you€some€soup.€An€eer d€off€the€shabby€bare€walls.€pound€ing€with€an€intensity€ that€spoke ation.€ € She€gave€herself€a€mental€shake€while€he€angled€himself€into€a€semi‐comfortable€ position€on€ n€was€all€alone€in€the€world€or€ wandered€the€streets€with€no€job€at€all€shouldn’t€matter€to€ act€that€he€wasn’t€a€settle‐down€type€of€guy€so€he€obviously€ didn’t€miss€his€family€or€want€ annah€would€ever€get€involved€with.€No€pict .€After€ he’d€situated€himself€on rip€to€her€car€and€returned€ with€two€bags€of€groceries.€His€heart€beat€steadily.

€would€be€running€the€place.”€ € That€image€definitely€disturbed€him.€I€promised€my€father€I’d€take€care€of€you€personally€today.“Yes.€Or€maybe€Wiley€ n€Sugar€Hill€and€wanted€Hannah€to€spy€on€him.€As€if€she€read€his€lascivious€thoughts.€“Look.€If€she€ .€Was€it€his€second.€I€ know€you’re€a€busy€lady.€trying€to€forget€her€intoxicating€ scent€and€w as€up€to€in€Atlanta.€Besides.€ or€had€it€been€his€third€foster€mom€who’d€liked€gard € “Dad€had€to€go€out€of€town€this€morning€to€film€that€ad€or€he€would€have€driven€ you€home€him € “I€know.€An€innocent€ad€or€ something€more€devious—like€meeting€with€potential€bu ritation€crawled€through€him.€Sh nous€blue€eyes€sparkling€in€her€ heart‐shaped€face.€If€you€need€to€go€back€to€the€hospital.”€He€grimaced€silently.€ € His€gut€clenched€at€the€wariness€in€her€expression.€but€she€beat€him€to€it€and€placed€it€beside€ him€on€th ightly€as€he€took€it.€so€ I’ll€onl ed€in€bed.€And€the€sweet€scent€of€her€ delicate€skin ng€him€of€gardenias.€doc.€ € The€mere€thought€angered€him.”€He€reached€for€the€remote.€He€ could€have€wat fuge.€I’m€sure€you’re€still€tired€from€the€surgery€though.€male€pride€reared€its€stu ay.€maybe€even€found€some€ concrete€evidence€to€tie€up€this€case€so€he€could€move€on.€ € “I’m€fine.€There€was€ nothing€per ell.€Wiley€was€probably€afraid€ he’d€sue€him€so€he’d€sent€Hannah€to€baby‐sit.€Wiley€told€me.€Joey€DeLito.€Wil n€ Jake€suspected€of€being€the€main€front€man.€I€can€tak € “My€shift’s€over€for€today.€cementing€his€resolve€to€have€her€help€him.€Wiley’s€absence€from€the€dealership€would€have€ provided€the€pe or€Jake€to€sneak€into€his€office€and€check€out€ his€computer€files.€I€do.€He€felt€a€current€of€something€spark€to€life€b he€way€her€hand€trembled€and€the€small€hitch€of€her€breath.€she€ scurried€aw e€caught€in€the€headlights€of€a€car.”€she€said€ softly.€ € “Jake.€ Still.€are€you€all€right?”€The€concern€in€Hannah’s€voice€startled€him.€and€ their€gazes€locked.

”€She€appeared€in€the€doorway€again.€You€probably€ate€instant€pudding€and€their€eggs€tast € “I’m€not€a€picky€eater.€Of€course.€Jake€prayed€his€cover€wouldn’t€be€blown€by€the€picture.intended€to€spy€on€him€for€her€dad.€a€soda.€ € Good€lord. ross€a€firm€little€backside.€the€ im.€rising€ slightly€to€give€him€an€enticing€view€of€her€ankles.€although€I€picked€up€a€can€of€vegetable€and€one€of€ clam€chowd e€hospital€food€is€less€ than€desirable.€ € This€little€plan€of€his€might€be€more€difficult€than€he’d€imagined.€frowning€at€the€news€report.€coffee?”€ € “Maybe€some€coffee.€ € From€his€position€on€the€sofa.€He€wanted€to€assure€her€she€ could€relax€bes is€words€would€be€a€lie.€she€certainly€lacked€experience€or€else€she’d€ probably€a uth€from€him.€ € “The€soup’s€heating.€ € He€flipped€on€the€TV.€ Her€hesitancy€to€get€near€him€suggested€she€wouldn’t€warm€to€the€id tten€all€over€her€delicate€features.€For€some€ reason.€“Can€I€get€ you€anything€else?€Ginger€ale.”€ € Her€shy€gaze€met€his€and€he€felt€sucker€punched.€Finally international€news.€she€might€feel€weird€being€near€him€after€her€ recent€breakup€with€that€shrin d€plotting€a€ reconciliation.”€he€said.€he€saw€her€bend€over€to€search€for€a€pot€in€his€tiny€ kitchen.€he€was€getting€turned€on€by€her€ankles.€evident€in€the€way€she€ held€herself€in€the€doorway€edge ll€for€more€than€ two€seconds.€chuckling€at€the€way€she€rambled€on.€A€short€clip€highlighted€news€ of€the€atte ef€photo€of€Jake€and€the€subsequent€arrest€ of€the€punk€responsible€for€the€shooting.€ € .€her€slender€arms€ folded€across€her€ ing€sight€of€her€breasts.€ € “I€hope€you€like€chicken€soup.€Because€they€were€ in€his€apartment€alone?€It€certainly€wasn’t€like€he€had€enough€energy€ hot.

€he’d€first€looked€at€her€with€ .€Wiley€might€have€even€funded€her€me ned€through€illegal€means.”€He€broke€the€crackers€into€the€steaming€broth.€as€comfortable€as€she’d€been€in€the€ e€him€want€to€reach€out€and€comfort€her.€When€she’d€offered€to€help€him€to€bed.€who€drove€fancy€ lligence€and€brains€and€ the€class€he’d€never€have.€He€didn’t€know€why€the€gesture€ snuck€under€his€ r€hadn’t€bothered€to€take€ care€of€him€when€he’d€been€sick€as€a€child.”€Hannah€said€when€his€gaze€flew€to€her€face.€And€he€couldn’t€allow€her€soft€vulnerability.€all€kinds€of€doctors.€are€you€okay?”€ € He€dragged€his€gaze€away€from€her€worried€face.€Or€was€she€simply€being€ coy?€Since€she’ e’d€have€her€choice€of€men€ pursuing€her.€ € He€had€a€mission.€Yet.An€odd€reaction€for€such€a€beautiful€tempting€woman.€no€matter€how€ real.€and€reminded€himself€she€was€ only€doing€her€ isguided€duty€to€her€father€ who€felt€he€owed€Jake.€ € €€ € HANNAH€CHUCKLEDto€herself€as€she€drove€home—she’d€never€met€a€man€ more€full€of€male€pride€th uch€mixed€ messages.€Disting e€salaries€were€quadruple€his.€After€all.€ he€had€to€win€her€trust€if€she€was€going€to€confide€the€details€of€Wiley’s€ bu € She€disappeared€into€the€kitchen€again.€His€eyes€narrowed.€his€stomach€kno € “I€thought€it€might€cheer€you€up.€She’d€left€him€to€fend € “Jake.€ € Nobody€had€ever€given€Jake€Tippins€a€flower.€ € “I’m€fine.€Men€who€had€degrees€from€Ivy€League€ schools.€Tease€her€until€ she€released€those€inhibitions€and€ m.€to€mello e€did€break€through€that€barrier€ between€them.€He€had€to€forget€the€damn€rose.€gliding€back€seconds€later€with€a€tray€ laden€with€so ffee€and€a€slender€flower€vase€holding€a€ single€red€rose.€determination€ replacing€any€senti .€Heck.€other€profes€sionals.€any€steamy€looks€she€might€possibly€give€him€ e€when€he€locked€dear€old€Wiley€in€jail.

open€invitation€in€his€eyes.€things€that€ seemed€to€b e.€of€love€and€good€times.€as€nicely€as€she€knew€how.€kitty.€I€can€see€why€he’s€such€a€grouch.€Hannah€smiled€at€the€ dozens€of€photographs€framed amily—she€and€Mimi€ and€Alison€growing€up.€Soft€light€il .€So€sad€not€to€ have€anyon ed€the€feline€on€ his€special€placemat.€the€Tiffany€lamp€she’d€inher r€had€passed€away.€He’s€all€alone.€ € Men—who€could€figure€them€out?€ € The€porch€light€gleamed€across€her€neatly€manicured€lawn.€Compassion€welled€in€her€chest€ and€she€snuggled€Oreo€tighter.€ € Still.€All€along€the€wa med€to€jump€out€at€her—the€lace€doily€her€ grandmother€had€made.€ € “Poor€man.€casting€golden€shadows€around€the€foyer.€pausing€to€ nd‐white€feline€purred€and€ nestled€against€her€chest€as€she€unlocked€the€door.€the€Victorian€settee€her€parents€had€bought€ when€they’d€first€married.€he’d€barked€out€that€she€didn’t€owe€him€because€he’ n€she’d€asked.€then€went€to€the€bedroom€to€undress.€ € And€in€her€bedroom—the€hope€chest€her€Grandmother€Rose€had€just€sent€her.€the€tidy€pots€of€ pansies€adding€co comed€her.€she€climbed€from€her€car€and€walked€up€the€ stoop.€the€wall€painted€a€picture€of€family.€if€he€wanted€her€ to€place€the€rose€by€his€bed.€ € Seconds€later.€blatant€sexuality€and€raw€hunger€so€strong€that€it€ seemed€to€fl t€the€minute€she’d€mentioned€her€ father.€ € Ignoring€a€twinge€of€sympathy.€the€achievement€ribbon€Alison€had€had€framed€after€Hannah€had€ encouraged€ ons.€They€also€reminded€her€ of€the€rundown€place€where€Jake€lived.€th hen€she€was€ five.€he’d€become€sullen€and€all€but€thrown€her€out€of€his€apartment.€their€Dad€in€some€of€his€silly€moments€as€he€enter € But€no€pictures€of€her€mother.€All€alone.€ € .

€then€walked€over€and€ fingered€the€delicate€lace€of€Grammy€Rose’s€bridal€g re€the€heirloom€ring€winked€at€her€in€the€light€from€the€window.€She€stared€at€the€beautiful€ bride€doll€per de€the€hope€chest.€but€his€ gaze€caught€the€flash€of€color€from€the€red€rose€Hann ing€suffused€him.€Jake€hobbled€to€the€desk€in€the€corner€of€the€bedroom€and€set€ up€his€lapto ngine€to€check€for€an€update€on€the€ movement€of€any€stolen€cars.€Determined€to€end€this€irrational€ musing.€ highlighting€dust€mot t€on€the€walls€behind€his€bed.€ € Why€the€heck€had€the€simple€gesture€affected€him€so?€ € The€sexy€doctor’s€image€had€filled€his€dreams.€He’d€ found€himself€waking€to€an€empty€bed€and€not€liking€it.€her€elusive€scent€mingling€with€ the€sweet€hin aw€earthy€smell€of€desire.€ € Shaking€off€the€sensations.€she€decided€ th€a€psychiatrist.€he€frowned€when€the€doorbell€rang.€He€scrubbed€a€hand€over€his ching€for€his€coffee€and€sipping€the€strong€black€brew€while€he€ waited€for€the€requested€inf en€him€a€deadline.€ € That€crazy€dream.€The€man€even€sang€in€the€morning.€but€he€ hoped€to€have€the€case€solved€way€before€Christmas€and€get€back€to € Early‐morning€sunlight€flickered€off€the€white€vase€on€his€nightstand.Flashbacks€of€her€wedding€disaster€assaulted€her.€spreading€his€exubera d€planning€another€of€ his€outlandish€advertising€stunts.€ € € € € Chapter€Seven€ € The€next€morning.€ € .€The€man’s€good‐natured€bantering€had e€the€past€two€weeks—Wacky€Wiley€was€perpetually€happy€and€ boisterous.€She’d€find€ someone€outside€the€hospital€so€she€wouldn’t€feed€the€hospital lready€had.€ € She€needed€to€have€her€head€examined.€wondering€if€ Wiley€had€return ropped€by€with€his€burly€good€cheer€ to€thank€him€again.

€to€kiss€away€the€redness.€Only€he’d€nip€gently € “I…well.€but€I€really€didn’t€mind.€but€I’m€walking.”€She€bit€down€on€her€lower€lip.€he’d€been€staring€at€h nd€hair€like€a€lust‐struck€teenager.€ € The€doorbell€rang€again.€ “I€have€to€ u€before€I€started€my€ shift.€I€can’t.€Jake t€you€could€get€ around€by€yourself€today.”€ € “I€may€be€slow.”€ € “Did€you€want€to€come€in?”€he€asked.€ € Damn.€ € Snapping€the€screen€top€to€his€laptop€closed€in€case€Wiley€wandered€back€to€his€ bedroom.€ € “Good.”€She€gestured€toward€her€dependable€Volvo€parked€in€the€drive.€no.€Instead.€I€noticed€your€ cupboards€w sh.€laden€with€a€paper€bag€full€of€doughnuts€ and€a€smile€tha hining€in€the€clear€blue€sky€ above.€His€stomach€growled€just€as€ he€swung€it€open.€but€you€ don’t€owe€me—”€ € “I€know.€I€guess€I€should€go€then.€“Thanks.€the€sensitive€skin€puckering€red€with€the€ nervous€ges y€the€tension€from€her€ mouth€with€his€tongue.”€ € .€ € “Oh.€kicking€himself€for€forgetting€his€manners€ and€his€plan t€and€seduce€her€into€ spilling€information€about€her€father.€Jak e€door.€Doc.€but€he€didn’t€mention€that€tidbit.€“I’m€a€ doctor.”€he€said.He€wondered€if€Hannah€Hartwell€did€also.€ € Hannah€Hartwell€stood€on€the€stoop.€saving€him€from€further€torturous€musing.€ € And€so€was€his€bed.€Had€she€been€humming?€ € “I€thought€I’d€drop€off€some€breakfast€on€my€way€to€the€hospital.”€Her€worried€gaze€flickered€over€him.

€um.€she€reached€inside€her€ pocket.€okay.m.”€Her€professional€smile€back€in€place.€ € Dinner€would€be€a€start.€“My€shift€technically€ends€at€three.€For€the€first€time€in€his€ life.€For€a€ ey’d€had€an€unusual€number€of€ emergencies€today.€do€you€ need€some€help? € “No.€ wondering€about€Hannah.€“Here’s€the€number€for€ the€hospital€and€my€beeper€number€if€you€need€anything.€ € .€he€truly€hoped€one€of€his€suspects€turned€out€to€be€a € €€ € HANNAH€STEPPEDout€of€the€elevator.€almost€laughing€when€her€eyes€widened€in€ shock.€I€was€just€wondering.€Was€she€the€temptress€her€beauty€suggested€or€the€ s red€to€be?€ € Could€she€possibly€know€something€about€her€fa€ther’s€business.€inhaling€sharply€at€the€frantic€sounds€ around€her.It€was€barely€6:00€a.€be€involved€in€ the€illegal€a ly€oblivious€to€the€situation€brewing€at€ Wiley’s€famous€used‐car€lots?€ € He€had€to€know€for€sure.€She€obviously € “Well.€yanked€out€a€creme‐ filled€doughnut€a fused.€The€ER€had€been€a€hotbed€of€chaos€since€she day€rush.€pulle d€it€to€him.€She’d€secured€her€beautiful€blond€hair€in€a€topk rils€curving€around€her€slender€face.”€ € “I€can€come€by€and€bring€dinner€for€you—”€ € “Dinner€sounds€good.€Her€demure€ manner€and€conservative€clothing€certainly€ ed€as€wanton— except€in€his€wicked€mind.”€he€said.€He€hobbled€back€to€his€laptop.” € Then€she€turned€and€fled€toward€her€car€as€if€a€pack€of€bloodhounds€had€picked€ up€her€scent€ hed€her€drive€away.€“How€long€do€you€work?”€ € Her€eyes€crinkled€together.€Why.

€ summoning€strength€and€locking€her€emotions€into€a€stee pins€firmly€out€of€her€mind.€and€a€woman€who€claimed€she€was ad€referred€her€to€the€psyche€ward.€He€had€ stopped€by€on€hi € “Fine.€HOW€AREyou€feeling.€ € Sirens€wailed€and€the€staff€gathered€near€the€entrance.€ € .€Something€ t.€Her€father€was€fine.€ € “Car€accident€coming€in!€We’ll€need€a€crash€cart!”€ € “Skateboarder€with€head€injury€on€his€way!”€ € She€cringed€as€she€thought€about€her€youngest€sister.€each€falling€into€place€as€ the€doors ed€in.And€the€oddest€things€had€come€in€today—a€little€boy€with€reindeer€ears€ superglued€to€his€he n€her€ear€weeks€ago€ and€had€sprouted€beans€in€her€ear€canal.€and€all€the€ daredevil€sports€s € No.€ € But€Jake€Tippins€wasn’t€family.”€Jake€poured€Wiley€a€bourbon€and€cola€and€fixed€himself€a€club€soda€ while€Wiley€strod mself€at€home€in€the€ comfortable€recliner.€ his€thick€curly€hair€slicked€away€from€his€forehead€with€something€that€smelled€ fain e€stretched€out€his€legs€and€crossed€his€ankles€as€if€he€ planned€to€stay€a€while.€Alison€was€fine.€Hannah€took€a€calming€breath.€Tippins?”€Wiley€asked€later€that€afternoon.€Alison.€Mimi€was€fine.€ They€would€al .€Dressed€in€a€p nties.€ € He’d€been€firmly€entrenched€in€the€midst€of€his€research€when€the€older€man€ had€suddenly€app im€from€going€into€his€ bedroom.€ € For€some€odd€reason.€but€ Wiley€had€bounded€in.€Grammy€Rose€was€fine.€Jake€had€tried€to€get€rid€of€him€at€the€door.€One€look€at€the€information€he’d€printed€from€his€computer€a stor.€ € €€ € “SO.€Jake’s€face€sprang€into€her€mind.

€Either€he€was€a€consummate€liar€or€actually€ s elings€of€guilt.€he’d€d ssing€from€south€Georgia.€how€did€the€taping€go?”€Jake€asked.€I€figured€I€could€move€faster€than€him.€ € Wiley€could€have€contacts€in€Atlanta.”€Jake€said.€Although€I’d€never€ expect€one€of€my€emp e€of€our€ vehicles.€ Of€course.€and€Wiley€wouldn’t€ ne€to€surface€at€a€time.€Thirteen€reported€stolen€in€one€month— he’d€have€to€be€on€the€looko gh€the€dealership.€ € Jake€didn’t€buy€into€the€act.€downplaying€his€instinctual€ reactions.€Getting€co nd€the€awkward€silence€in€the€interim€ gave€Jake€time€to€study€Wiley.”€Wiley’s€voice€grew€gruff.€could€have€met€with€someone€today€who’d€ recognized€Jak ashed€on€the€news€when€he’d€ been€shot.€are€you?”€Wiley€asked.€ € “Not€in€pain.€new€tag€numbers€issued.€he’d€never€ known€a€doti d.€“ € “You€didn’t€realize€he€had€a€gun?”€ € Jake€shrugged.€ € “No.€Minutes€earlier.€“He€was€only€a€kid.€ € “So.”€ € Wiley€laughed€good‐naturedly.€wincing€as€Jake€hobbled€across€the€room.€just€a€little€stiff.€they’d€be€painted.€“Guess€I’m€not€as€ young€as€I€used€to€be.€But€Wiley€barely€knew€him—why€ en’t€worried€about€a€lawsuit€or€his€illegal€activities€ being€exposed?€ € “I€didn’t€mean€to€put€myself€in€danger.”€He€ indicated€his g€laugh.€then€sipped€his€drink€while€Jake€tried€to€sit€ down.€and€Wiley€had€to€be€acting.€Except€Wiley€did€seem€ to€genuinely€care€for€his€daughters.€After€all.€ € .His€suspicions€had€instantly€mounted.”€ € “You€know€I€can’t€thank€you€enough€for€what€you€did.

€He€hated€being€cooped€up€in€the€ house€and€much€ nement.€Another€product€of€ his€upbringing.€ € Wiley€stood€and€polished€off€his€drink.”€Jake’s€hand€tightened€around€his€glass.€Do€some€advertising€for€me.€except€the€turkey€wouldn’t€cooperate.€unable€to€ .€if€you€know€what€I€mean.”€He€o e€accepted€it.€“I€also€arranged€to€have€some€food€delivered.€“Wouldn’t€mind€having€a€little€of€that€bir er.€St nt€for€his€highly€skilled€illegal€ operations.€son.€Wiley.€we€had€a€couple€of€big€gobblers€just€to€add€some€authenticity.€“Please€accept€the€gesture.€to€tide € Jakewas€ready€to€go€out.€It’s€a€vintage€ silver€El€Ca € Nothing€conspicuous.€Then€one€ of€the€salesg y€rubbed€his€hands€across€his€ thighs€and€laughed.€that’s€fine.€“Anything€else€you€need.€you€just€let€me€ know.€unless€you’d€rather€drive€the€pink€Cadillac—”€ € “No.€ you€should€ h€grin€tilted€the€corner€of€his€ mouth.€no€o g€the€mastermind€of€a€statewide€crime€ring.€but€you€can€give€it€a€rest.”€ € “A€real€turkey?”€Jake€asked.€but€didn’t€comment.”€ € “I€know.€“But€lending€me€a€car€ isn’t€neces € Wiley€raised€his€hand€to€silence€him.€ € “That€is.€wondering€at€Wiley’s€common€sense€when€it€came€ to€publicity.€Dumb€bird€kept€ getting€its€fea n€I€jumped€in€with€my€line.€ € “Yeah.“Went€pretty€good.€If€he€appeared€to€be€a€harebrained€comic.”€ € Jake€forced€a€grin€at€the€glib€comment.€You’re€a€hero.€Wiley€seemed€to€enjoy€women€although€ he€hadn’t€actua he€man’s€life.€ € “I€arranged€to€have€one€of€my€finest€dropped€off€for€you€to€drive€around.€just€as€ a€thank‐yo € “I€have€my€Jeep.

€you€have€something€on€your€mind?”€Dr.€ € She€gripped€the€chair€and€started€to€stand.€the€next€minute€he€appeared€to€be€a€gen ned€parent.”€ € One€dark€brow€arched.”€A€motor€rumbled€outside€and€Wiley€darted€ to€the€window.€but€a€bribe.€Dr.€Hartwell.€ € Hannah’s€stomach€lurched.€ € All€the€more€reason€he€should€cozy€up€to€Wiley’s€darling€daughter.€Edwin€McCoy. siasm.€ € “Call€me€if€you€need€anything.€son.€Wiley’s€right‐ hand€man.grasp€the€real€Wiley€Hartwell.€“There’s€the€truck€of€food€ now.€they€were€acquaintances.€She€absolutely€drew€the€line€at€lying€ down.€McCoy€began.€ € “Why€don’t€you€tell€me€what’s€on€your€mind?”€Dr.€ € A€thought€suddenly€hit€him.€drove€up€in€the€shiny€silver€El€Camino.€If€Wiley€had€discovered€Jake’s€true€identity.€ planning€outlan nd€dressing€his€sales€staff€up€like€birds€and€ elves.€then€finally€forced€herself€to€ relax€on€the€p .€ € € € € Chapter€Eight€ € “So.€propped€ a€gold€pen€against€his€notepad.€ perhaps€this€littl k€for€his€heroics.”€ € Hannah€paused.€ready€to€listen.”€ € Jake€stood€in€silence€as€two€men€began€to€unload€bags€of€groceries€from€a€white€ van€and€haul ey€DeLito.€“Stress€with€ the€job?€Personal € Although€McCoy€didn’t€work€at€Sugar€Hill€with€Seth.€One€minute€the€man€acted€like€a€raucous€fool.€struggled€to€control€her€panic.€ .€“I‐I’m€not€sure€I€need€to€be€here.€a€ specialist€in€dream€ to€his€leather€chair.€“Which€probably€is€a€good€indicator€that€you€do.€Earlier.€it€had€seemed€like€a€good€idea€to€consult€a€ psychiatrist€ y€felt€foolish.

€“You€don’t€believe€in€magic?”€ € “No.€do€you?”€ € He€chuckled.€Everything€you€tell€me€will€ be€held€i € Meaning€he€wouldn’t€tell€everyone€she€was€having€psychotic€thoughts.€“You€see€I€have€this€kooky€grandmother…”€ € Thirty€minutes€later.”€ € His€mild€tone€and€less€formal€posture€helped€to€put€her€at€ease.€ exhausted.€ He€obviously€knew€about€her€canceled€wedding.€she€finished€and€leaned€back€against€the€love€seat.€I€do€think€magic€exists€between€people€though.€well.”€she€said€slowly.€Oh.”€ € “Professional€acquaintances.€ € “Personal€then?”€ € Hannah€nodded.€Dr.€Most€of€the€time€ it’s€referred .€ € The€doctor€put€his€pen€aside.€Was€he€defensive€for€Seth?€ “Maybe€this€isn’t€a ends.€she€ might€as€well f€she€was€a€candidate€for€the€ loony€farm.€That’s€all.€but€her€stomach€quivered€too€ much€for€her€to€relax.€“It€doesn’t€matter€what€I€believe.€Hartwell.”€ € A€small€smile€curved€his€mouth.€“Hannah.€But€I€don’t€believe€in€folktales…it’s€like€believing€in€ magic.€I€ can’t€help€you at’s€bothering€you.€ € “It’s€not€work.”€ € “But€do€you€think€there€can€be€any€truth€to€that€silly€legend?”€ € “I€don’t€know.€Relief€ should€have€spil ought.€We’re€talking€about€you.€“I€need € “You€say€there’s€no€history€of€psychic€tendencies€in€your€family?”€ € “Not€that€I’m€aware€of.€folded€his€hands€and€leaned€forward.

”€ € The€doctor€steepled€his€fingers.”€ € “Are€you€sure?”€ € “Are€you€sure€you€don’t€want€to€show€me€some€ink€blots€and€let€me€analyze€ them?”€ € Dr.”€ € “Are€you€attracted€to€the€man?”€ € Hannah€twisted€the€cuff€of€her€blouse.€yes…I€mean€ physically.”€ € “You€say€that€with€hesitancy.€“Sometim ings.€“I€suppose€the€day€my€mother€left€could€account€for€my€ feelings.”€Hannah€concluded.”€Hannah€argued.€Dr.”€ e’s€totally€wrong€for€me.€but€we’ve€only€ suppressed€them.”€ € “Everyone€grows€up.€“Did€you€believe€in€magic€when€ you€were€a€chi € “Well.”€ € “Is€there€some€other€reason€you€stopped€believing?€Some€incident€that€forced€ you€to€grow€up€ € Hannah€chewed€her€lip.€avoiding€eye€contact.€McCoy€chuckled.€studying€her.€I€think€talking€is€much€more€helpful.€yes.€“Well.”€ € “I€told€you€this€has€nothing€to€do€with€my€mother€leaving.€but€ s€it€have€to€do€with€the€ present?”€ € “A€parent’s€desertion€can€have€devastating€results.€“I€ simply€want€to n€with€whom€I€have€ absolutely€nothing€in€common.€Hannah.€“No.€ “A€simple€physical€response.”€he€said€in€a€low€ tone.”€ € .€“I’ve€read€all€about€ pheromones.€McCoy.

”€ € “You€think€it€might€be€an€early€hormonal€thing?€Premature€menopause?”€ € A€grin€tugged€at€the€corner€of€his€mouth.€working€in€the€ER€is€ definitely€stressful.€And€I€don’t€think€you’re€losing€your€mind.€unwind€ when€things€happen.€you’re€only€in€your€ twenties.€intelligent.€Her€whole€dream€had€ been€a€reaction€to € “Maybe€you’re€confused€about€what€you€really€want€in€a€relationship.€“Perhaps€those€are€qualities€you€think€you€ want.€some—”€ € “Hannah.€I€don’t€believe€your€dream€is€a€symptom€of€a€serious€illness.€“There€could€be€ several€reasons.€settled—”€ € The€doctor’s€eyebrows€rose€again.Stress.€ tapping€it€agai ook€me€up€to€some€electrodes€ and€see€if€my€brain’s€functioning€okay?”€ € “I€don’t€think€that’s€necessary.€because€it€wasn’t€him€spilling€his€guts€and€soul.€Someone€dependable.€You€deal€with€life‐and‐death€situati conds€to€react.€“Hannah.€“I€can€handle€the€stress€of€my€job.”€Hannah€said.€making€you€panic€about€your€o € Thank€God€he’d€said€something€that€made€sense.€“You€have€to€be€ affected€when€you€lose nd. t€it€or€not.”€His€voice€held€a€note€of€compassion.”€ € “I€don’t€like€to€burden€people.Yeah.€But€on€a€ obably€saw€this€man€ .She€jiggled€her€foot.€“There€could€ be€other€factors rriage€didn’t€work€out€might€ have€played€on€your€subconscious.€although€Hannah€sensed€he€didn’t€quite€believe€her.”€ € He€nodded.”€ € “Maybe€I€have€a€chemical€imbalance.€Most€ specifically€in€a€ € “I€know€exactly€what€I€want.”€ € Frustration€filled€her.€“Then€why€would€I€have€an€erotic€dream€about€a€ stranger?”€ € His€mouth€twisted€sideways€as€he€contemplated€her€question.

€but€he€represents€excitement.€ She’d€jog€until€she€dropped€from€exhaustion.€ She’d€stopped€and€bought€a€book€on€relaxation€techniques€and€d p€Italian€food€for€dinner.€considering€the€fact€that€your€mother€left€you.€it’s€ understandable€you€mig se€to€someone€for€fear€of€ abandonment€and€getting€hurt€again.”€ € “I’m€not€afraid€of€excitement.€He€was€ wrong.€On€her€way€home.€his€first€comment€had€hit€the€nail€on€the€head.€take he€only€positive€thing€ about€having€such€a€hectic.€Or€maybe€she’d€take€up€exercising.€Her€ throat€thick€with€ anked€him€for€his€time.€ € “Maybe€not.€ € .€retreat€ to€her€own€place.€and€his€image€triggered€other€qualities€that€ sparked€your€i u€should€get€to€know€him€and€see€if€you€two€hit€ it€off.€or€bu r€moods.€but€ determined€to€carry€throu eck€on€her€father’s€employee.€found€him€attractive.”€ € “Because…?”€ € “You€felt€a€certain€chemistry€with€him€that€you€hadn’t€experienced€before.€Then€her€life€would€return€to€normal.€nonstop€afternoon—she€hadn’t€had€time€to€ ll.€Her€work€in€the€ER€created€ stress.€unt ing€any€more€weird€dreams.€not€much€anyway.€she€told€herself€as€she€left€his€office.€My€ guess€is€the€f r€need.€annoyed€when€tears€suddenly€moistened€her€eyes.€She€w ad.€She€was€not€a h€her€mother’s€desertion€a€long€time€ago.€taking€a€risk f.€He€may€or€may€not€be€ a€suitable€partner.”€ € Hannah€stared€at€him.Hannah€pulled€into€Jake’s€drive.somewhere.€wincing€at€the€petulant€edge€in€ her€voice.€exhausted.€She€intended€to€drop€off€the€meal.€But.€And€she€didn’t€intend€to€ dwell€on€her€lost€childho € No.€she’d€ stop€and€buy€one€of€those€books€on€some€kind€of€meditation.”€Hannah€argued.€ € €€ € LATER€THAT€EVENING.

”€ € His€dark€gaze€raked€over€her.€ € Feeling€calmer.€she€dragged€herself€from€her€car.€thanks.€ € Jake’s€tight€smile€didn’t€surprise€her.€Said€ d€the€door€wider.€trying€to€be€patient.€A€pair€of€loos n€his€lean€hips.€it€wasn’t€actually€easy€for€him€ cked€again.€even€tried€to€comb€the€overly€long€strands€of€his€dark€hair€into€a€ l€looked€like€some€renegade€who€should€be€driving€a€ motorbike.€also€drawing€attention€to€his€incredible€male€ physique.€Seconds€ticked€by€ while€she€tap ent€step.With€a€weary€sigh.€I’m€really€tired.€“You€ want€to€come€in?”€ € “No.€ The€poor€man€had€been€shot.€I’m€going€home—”€ € “Wiley€tried€to€call€you€around€five€but€they€said€you’d€already€left€the€ER.€She€wondered€w ught€about€her€father’s€kind€gesture.€From€his€musky€scen ed€and€obviously€ shaved.€and€came€t ired.€He€appeared€in€the€ doorway.€her€gaze€resting€on€the€ classic€convert t€SUV.€How€are€you€feeling?”€ € “I€wish€everyone€would€stop€asking€me€that.€Bad€day?”€ € “We€had€a€lot€of€emergencies.”€ € Hannah€arched€an€eyebrow.€wearing€a€d d€his€muscular€arms€and€ broad€shoulders€and€emphasized€his€tanned€complexion.€lingering€momentarily€on€her€disheveled€ appearance.”€ € “I€see€he€dropped€by€bearing€gifts.€she€raised€her€hand€and€knocked€on€the€door.”€Hannah€nodded€toward€the€plush€ convertible.€ “Yeah.€He€obviously€didn’t€like€to€owe€anyone.€ € The€door€swung€open€and€she€blinked€in€astonishment.”€ .€Your€dad.€No€doubt€her€father€had€ dropped€the€vintage€car€off€for€Jake€to€drive.€ € “Hi.€“Everyone?”€ € “You.

€Fumbling€for€ an€excuse.€ € Without€another€word.”€ € “That’s€ridiculous.€she€ told€herself.€But€she€was€simply€too€exhausted€to overs€tomorrow.€she€tapped€her€fingers€along€the€bag.”€She€ realized€she€was€rambling€and€closed€her€mouth.€Besides€I€do€have€work€ to€do d€forget€about€you.€ € Her€lips€tightened€into€a€thin€line.€“I€like€my€life€just€fine.€she€turned€and€headed€to€her€car.€she€thought€she€should€ relent.€ The€paper€bag€of€food€crinkled€in€Hannah’s€hands.€I€needed€to€stop€by€the€drugstore….€ ntly.€teasing.€I€really€have€to€go.€ € . eded€a€good€night’s€sleep.€but€I’ll€fix€something€at€home.”€ € Remembering€her€conversation€with€the€psychiatrist.”€he€said.€suffer€th d€prove€to€herself€that€Jake€Tippins€did€not€ affect€her.€Did€she€really y€using€her€job€as€an€excuse€to€avoid€spending€time€with€him?€Was€his€ company€so€distasteful ith€him?€ Granted€he€wasn’t€a€doctor€or€a€shrink€like€her€former€boyfriend.€and€he€didn’t€ ha € He€refused€to€compare€himself€to€Broadhurst.€but€she€ trist.€She€wasn’t€afraid.”€He€indicated€the€hefty€bag€she€carried.€but€her€attitude€irked.€it€wasn’t€like€he€ wasreally€interest s€just€work.€ € “No.€After€all.”€ € “All€work€and€no€play€makes€for€a€dull€life.€ € Jake€tried€to€ignore€the€sting€of€rejection€that€accompanied€Hannah’s€refusal€to€ have€dinner g€and€served€himself€a€plate€of€the€ steaming€lasagna.€She’d€been€in€Dr.€ € “Have€you€already€eaten?”€Jake€asked.€“I…had€some€errands€to€ s.€“Whatever€you€have€ in€there€sme rought€enough€for€an€army.€McCoy’s€ office.€free€ from€dreams€of€Jake€Tippins.

€“Why€not?”€ € Because€Jake€will€be€there.€He’ ven€talked€about€ trying€to€find€some€real€reindeer€this€year€for€the€Christmas€commercial.€jarring€him€back€to€his€senses.€Hannah€still€felt€a€knot€in€her€stomach€every€ time€she€thou d€yet.€you€know€Dad€ always€decorates€the€car€lot€for€Christmas€the€day€before€Thanksgivin ome€lights.”€ € So€they€would€kiss.€ Hannah€had€once€t ny.He€thought€about€her€odd€reaction€when€he’d€mentioned€Wiley’s€phone€call.€but€her€mother’s€abandonment€ .€ € She€wondered€how€Jake’s€mouth€would€taste.€I’m€going€to€help€Joey€hang€bows€on€the€glass€ windows€and€mistletoe€over€the€ent od.€Wily€had€been€ anxious€to€talk€to d€frazzled€when€he€couldn’t€ locate€her—maybe€it€had€something€to€do€with€the€car€ring.€ She’d€tapped€her€f rves.€if€his€kisses€would€be€as€hot€and€ dark€as€his€eye € “I€think€Dad€bought€an€eight‐foot€Santa€to€perch€on€the€back€of€one€of€the€ convertibles.”€ € Every€year€their€father’s€Christmas€ads€grew€more€elaborate€and€inventive.€ € “I’m€not€in€the€mood€to€go€by€Dad’s€car€lot.”€ € Mimi€cut€off€her€protests€with€a€wave.€ € Mimi€paused€and€planted€her€hands€on€her€hips.€ € Even€three€days€after€the€dream.€But€why€would€she€lie?€ € The€answer€hit€him€swiftly.€flashing€her€new€nail€polish—a€ fluorescent€pink€she€c l€be€fun.”€Hannah€said.€He’d€bet€anything€ she’d€been€lying.”€Mimi€tugged€Hannah’s€hand€and€dragged€her€off€the€sofa.€ € € € € Chapter€Nine€ € “Come€on.

€“The€salesmen€can€help€him.€dispassionate.€to € “That’ll€certainly€draw€a€crowd.€ € “Come€on.€“You’ve€ been€workin er€since€you€called€off€your€wedding€to€ Seth.€punish€yourself?”€ € Hannah€winced€at€how€close€her€sister€had€come€to€the€truth.€philosop ll.”€ Although€Jake€shouldn’t€b hought€with€a€ twinge€of€worry.€ € “The€salesmen€will€probably€be€swamped€with€all€those€early‐bird€specials€Dad€ advertised.”€M .€What€are€you€trying€to€do.€Too€bad€it€hadn’t€jolted€her€father€into€a€ more€mature € “I€think€he’s€going€to€hire€some€teenage€girls€to€dress€up€like€elves€and€give€out€ candy.€Had€she€really€been€so€serious€about un.€Mimi€had€always€been€able€to€coax€a€ smile€from€her.”€ € Hannah€laughed€at€the€silly€childhood€name.€And€work€was€the€only€thing€that€kept€her€from€obsessing lly€insane€attraction€to€Jake€Tippins.€indicating€her€disheveled€appearance.€even€how€to€enjoy€the€holiday€spirit?€ € Was€sheafraid?€ € Her€sister€wagged€a€finger€at€her.€ € Of€course.”€Hannah€admitted.”€ € “Then€we€should€go€someplace€besides€Dad’s€car€lot.€maybe€he€wouldn’t€be€at€the€dealership.€ € “Dad€doesn’t€need€me.”€Mimi€grabbed€her€arm€ and€jerked€her€ me€fun.€sane.€Or€maybe€he’d€be€so€busy€ selling€cars€he€ e€saw€him€this€ time.had€fast€launched€her€into€adulthood.€her€reaction€would€be€rational.”€ .€I€won’t€take€no€for€an€ answer.”€Mimi€motioned€toward€the€door.€She€had€thought€ she€should€some ible€by€helping€out€more€in€the€ ER.€ € “I’m€not€letting€you€stay€here€like€some€monk€anymore.€When€she’d€lapsed€into€her€too‐ serious.”€Hannah€argued.

€It’s€tra € And€tradition€was€important€to€Mimi.”€ € “Strip€club€or€Dad’s?”€ € “How€about€amovie.€she€will.”€ € “Yes.€how€about€a€strip€club?”€ € “Mimi.€how€are€you€and€Joey€gettin .€forcing€thoughts€of€her€own€ life€on€hold nd€the€expanse€of€smooth€ stomach€the€tiny€garment€revealed.”€Hannah€said.€can’t€you€think€of€anything€besides€sex?”€ € Mimi’s€smile€faded€into€bewilderment.€“Well.€Hannah.€ “Okay.€Dad’s€worried€about€you€and—”€ € “Tell€Dad€not€to€worry.€you’re€the€Scrooge€who€doesn’t€ want€to€help€us€ € “I’m€sorry.€ You€know€the€whole€family€gets€together€to€decorate.€“But€Alison€won’t€be€there.€She€came€home€this€morning.€ € “I€told€you€I€won’t€let€you€sit€here€and€pine€anymore.€well€aware€Mimi€had€good€intentions.€I’m€coming.€she€h he’d€always€insisted€on€family€ gatherings€for€special€occasions—probably€to€make€up€for€thei € Mimi€pointed€to€her€little€red€sports€car.€”€Hannah€tried€to€extract€herself€from€Mimi’s€catlike€ clutches.€at€least€do€it€for€me.€“Now€get€in€or€I’m€going€to€phone€ Dad—”€ € “All€right.€“So.€I€can€take€care€of€myself.”€ € “I’m€not€pining.”€ € Mimi€huffed.€ “You€are€so urself.€As€fun‐loving€and€erratic€as€Mimi€ seemed.€but€Mimi€ uled€her€up€the€ sidewalk.”€Hannah€climbed€in€the€car.€lifting€her€curly€bangs€from€her€forehead€as€she€paused€at€her€car.€ € “Look.”€ € A€sharp€pain€hit€Hannah€for€her€selfishness.

€bracing€herself€as€Mimi€streaked€from€the€ driveway.€Maybe€he’s€saving€to€buy€ you€a€nice€present€for€Christmas.€she€closed€her€eyes.€She€thought€of€the€advice€h ven€her—before€speaking€in€front€of€a€group€or€before€an€interview.€She€did€have€an€ imagination.€so€far€ none€of€them€had€worked.”€ € Hannah€buckled€her€seat€belt.€“Maybe€I’ll€have€to€ show€him€th ed€it€to€rehearse€for€a€part€I’m€ auditioning€for.”€ € Mimi€laughed.€“You’re€so€old‐fashioned.”€ € “Yeah.€trying€to€ remember€so ques€from€the€book.€In€fact.€Did€you€know€they’re€going€to€be€filming€a € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes.”€ € “They€do€say€that€the€way€to€a€man’s€heart€is€through€his€stomach.€I€didn’t€know.€calm€ your€nerves€by€pict n€their€underwear.€“No.€Just€use € Hannah€bit€down€on€her€lip€and€stifled€a€comeback.€Jake€in€his€underwear€was€the€last€image€she€needed€in€her€mind—and€it€ did€nothing€to€ € €€ € JAKE€SPOTTEDtwo€of€Wiley’s€daughters€arriving€in€Mimi’s€little€red€sports€car€ and€gulped.€her blems€lately—but€ unfortunately€all€her€dreams€had€to€do€with€the€sexy€man€who€worked€for€her € Realizing€she’d€allowed€her€mind€to€wander€again.€flashing€her€long€legs€as€she€slipped€onto€the€ cushy€lea tle€strange€lately.€Working€day€ and€night.€Wh d€sex€appeal€with€that€mass€of€curly€ .”€ € Mimi€brightened€at€the€possibility€and€revved€up€the€engine.€peeling€ru ar.€ € Only.€ Mimi€sprinted€to€the€driver’s€seat.€Problem€was.€I€have€a€present€for€Joey€tonight.€it’s€calledScandalous.€sis.€There€are€other€ways€to€a€man’s€ heart.€I’m€ going€to€surpri d€strawberries.€Anyway.

burnt‐copper€hair€and€mile‐long€legs,€something€about€her€quiet,€subdued€sister€ crawled€insi y€male€nerve€ending€in€his€body.€A€deeper€ kind€of€innate€beauty€that€wasn’t€boisterous€or€sh ate€frame.€He€could€almost€see€that€honey‐colored€hair€fanned€out€across€his€ pillow,€could€a e€of€her€rose‐tipped€lips€as€she€allowed€ him€to€sip€at€her€mouth….€ €

“Young€man,€are€you€listening€to€me?”€Leopard‐skin‐clad€and€statuesque,€Berta€ Simpson€held€o fty‐dollar€bill€in€his€hand.€ “You€know€I’ve€been€eyeing€this€little€baby€all€week.€I€have€to €

Jake€tried€to€ignore€Hannah€as€she€emerged€from€the€sports€car,€and€forced€ himself€to€focus€ e€didn’t€have€to€make€a€living€ selling€cars€or€he’d€be€homeless.€He€definitely€didn’t€have€t €

“I’m€sorry,€Mrs.€Simpson,€but€I€can’t€accept€a€bribe—tip€for€helping€you.€I’ve€ given€you€Wil n€her€chubby€face.€He€ didn’t€want€to€cheat€the€lady,€but€a€fifty‐dollar€tip€wouldn’t€cut€the ed€Jake€had€shaved€another€ten€thousand€off€the€price.€ Some€people€wanted€everything€for€not €

He€simply€wanted€to€solve€this€case€and€get€the€hell€out€of€Sugar€Hill.€Too€much€ hominess,€s it€his€tastes.€He€needed€to€be€back€in€ the€city€where€he€could€lose€himself€in€the€anonymity €

Buster,€one€of€Wiley’s€other€salesmen,€pulled€the€gate€shut.€Although€normally€ they€remained ey€had€decided€on€a€six€o’clock€closing€due€ to€Thanksgiving€the€next€day.€Another€commercial t€ sourly.€ €

Wiley€wandered€out€of€the€cement‐and‐glass€building€which€housed€the€offices,€ waving€at€his€ rms€around€her€father,€waving€ exuberantly€toward€Joey€DeLito.€Wiley’s€right‐hand€man€had€set ndulge€his€coffee€and€chocolate‐bar€fetish€while€he€wrote€up€the€five€ sales€he’d€made€that€d ance€all€day,€ cataloguing€every€movement€Joey€made.€He€intended€to€follow€up€on€Joey’s€ reco l€of€DeLito’s€customers.€He’d€managed€to€ use€his€miniature€camera€and€had€taken€snapshots€of pare€them€to€every€criminal€in€the€police€database.€

€

Oddly,€Hannah€didn’t€rush€to€hug€her€father.€The€two€of€them€spoke€with€a€ slight€hesitancy€b pital.€Strange—what€ was€going€on€between€Hannah€and€Wiley?€ €

Not€that€he€cared€personally,€he€told€himself.€But€if€they’d€had€a€rift€or€if€tension€ existe ss€might€have€something€to€do€with€the€ case.€ €

Berta€exhaled€noisily€as€if€she€realized€she’d€lost€his€attention.€“I€guess€I’ll€just€ have€t ad€reminiscent€of€a€mother€ hen€with€her€feathers€ruffled,€she€turned€and€stalked€toward€the€ t€purse€banging€her€ripe€hips€as€she€strutted.€Jake€averted€his€ thoughts—she€reminded€him€of ercial.€Jake€ had€seen€the€early‐bird€special€ad€at€breakfast€and€nearly€choked€on€his€coffee orked€though—the€dealership€had€been€swamped€ all€morning€with€early€Christmas€shoppers€hopin sy€ with€his€sales€technique€as€a€rookie€with€a€Glock,€Jake€had€actually€managed€to€ sell€two €

Berta€launched€herself€at€Wiley€and€Hannah€glanced€at€him,€her€blue‐eyed€gaze€ wary€but€full€ anted,€even€hooded,€but€he€ definitely€saw€the€spark€of€sexual€arousal€in€those€vibrant€blue€ €

Wiley€suddenly€wove€an€arm€around€Berta’s€ample€frame,€whispering€ something€that€made€the€wo nly€did€know€how€to€ schmooze.€Within€seconds,€Berta€hurried€inside€the€glass‐enclosed€office o€make€a€deal.€He€heard€Wiley€agree€to€meet€her€shortly€and€ realized€he’d€been€staring€at€Ha er€hair€and€ face€with€a€soft€glow,€the€darkening€sky€creating€sultry€shadows€around€her€ fem €

Not€wanting€Wiley€to€guess€his€intentions€toward€his€oldest€daughter,€he€ scanned€the€parking er€but€remembered€they’d€closed€the€ lot.€Determined€to€overhear€if€Wiley€and€Hannah€discusse he€string€of€Christmas€lights€Wiley€wanted€around€the€building,€grabbed€the€ ladder,€climbed€ pe€the€colorful€lights.€ €

Mimi€sauntered€inside€to€meet€Joey.€Through€the€front€glass,€Jake€saw€her€plant€a€ lip‐lock€o €

“Jake,€look€who’s€here!”€Wiley€yelled,€ushering€Hannah€toward€him.€ € Jake€stuck€his€finger€with€a€tack€and€yelped.€ € “Are€you€all€right?”€Hannah€asked.€ € Why€was€he€forever€getting€hurt€around€this€woman?€ € “Fine.”€ € “I’m€not€sure€you€should€be€up€there,€Mr.€Tippins,€not€with€your€injury.”€ € So,€she’d€reverted€to€Mr.€Tippins€again?€ €

He€shot€her€a€sexy€grin€meant€to€rattle€her.€Although,€when€her€lips€parted€ slightly,€his€ow ady€himself€by€inhaling,€almost€ lost€his€balance€and€nearly€toppled€off€the€ladder.€His€legs ripping€the€metal€rungs€in€a€deathgrip.€ € Hannah€and€Wiley€grabbed€the€ladder€just€in€time€to€save€him€from€falling€on€ his€face.€ € “See€what€I€mean,”€Hannah€said€in€that€irritating€professional€voice.€ €

The€streetlight€flickered€on,€illuminating€her€golden€hair;€his€gaze€was€drawn€to€ her€rosy€m d€his€throat,€and€Jake€realized€Wiley€was€ watching€him€with€an€odd€look€in€his€eyes.€Did€he€ pect€Jake’s€growing€interest€in€his€oldest€daughter?€ €

“I€think€I€can€handle€hanging€a€few€Christmas€lights,€Doc,”€Jake€said.€Actually€ there€werehu ospital?”€ € “I’ve€already€pulled€my€shift.”€Hannah’s€gaze€tracked€the€enormous€tangled€vine€ of€lights.€ €

“Decorating€this€place€is€a€big€job,”€Wiley€said€in€a€booming€voice.€“But€it’s€your€ lucky€da o€help.”€ € Hannah’s€smile€melted€into€a€frown.€“Actually,€Dad,€I—”€ €

€ € € € € Chapter€Ten€ € Hannah€averted€her€gaze€from€Jake.€He€hadn’t€been€invited€to€join€the€ family.€releasing€his€grip€on€the€ladder.“No.”€ € Wiley€ambled€off.€He’d€take€advantage€of€the€ opportunity€to€watch€Hannah€and€Mimi€with€their€father.€he€was€only€doing€a€job€here.€the€height€of€the€ladder€putting€him€at€an€ awkward€level.€ € Then€again.€untangling€ the€winding€ma rs.€Now orcise€it€just€as€she’d€tried€to€ do€to€the€dream.€Alison’s€hanging€bows€on€all€the€windows.€Family€affairs€had€never€been€his€ forte.€his€jovial€smile€indicating€his€excitement€over€the€family€ project. o€see€his€face€or€stare€straight€at€ his€backside.€ € What€was€wrong€with€her?€She’d€never€been€sentimental€or€dwelled€on€the€past.”€Wiley€said.€ € Obviously€that€psychiatrist€had€planted€the€seed€about€her€parents’€divorce€in€ her€mind.€as€Christmas€music€suddenly€began€to€blare€ through€the€sp ommy€Kissing€Santa€Claus€did€ nothing€to€alleviate€the€tension€thrumming€between€the€two€of€t annah€of€her€missing€mother€and€her€childish€dreams€of€having€her€ parents€back€together.€which€was€definitely€a€mistake.€ € Brushing€aside€the€painful€memories.”€Jake€said.€right.€His€muscul ed€by€the€way€the€fabric€of€his€khaki€slacks€stretched€taut€across€his€ body.€Jake€s tsider.€this€is€perfect.€ “Decorating€for€t he€Hartwells.€and€it€did€stra € “Hold€that€end€for€me.€baby.€Hannah€grabbed€the€long€cord.€ I’ll€enlist€Jo ile€I€talk€to€Berta.€Jake€looked€almost€as€uncomfort€able€as€ .€ € “You€just€stand€here€and€help€Jake.€ Hannah?”€ € Hannah€nodded€tightly.€simply€ s.

€So€why€was€Jak € “Maybe€we€should€get€in€the€swing€of€it€the€way€they€are.”€Jake€agreed.€Did€he€mean€ they€should€be€k € A€half‐cocky€grin€slid€onto€his€face.€“But€you€look€like€the€picture€of€gloom.€A€faint€breeze€stirred.€ € He€draped€a€cord€over€the€front€entrance.€Hadn’t€he€ever€strung€Christmas€lights€before.”€ € “Then€you’re€just€a€Scrooge.€huh?”€ € Her€temper€bristled.€Hannah€silently€groaned€and€squinted€ through€the€light€from€the€streetlamp€to€see€him€sta ok€ of€sexual€interest€seared€through€her.€“I€thought€your€dad€said€you€guys€ always€decorate€ € “Mimi€likes€to€but€I…well.€I€intend€to€help€decorate€the€tree€in€ the€ER€ € “Then€you€like€this€kind€of€stuff?”€ € Hannah€shrugged.€or€did€he€think€she’d€ come€here€to€ € “I€want€you€to€know€I€didn’t€plan€to€do€this€today.€“No.€bringing€ with€it€a€ t.€the€heat€crackling€between€them.”€ € “Avoiding€me.”€ € “She€is€pretty€enthusiastic.€“No.”€Hannah€said.€heating€her€already€warm€face.”€Hannah€glanced€at€the€doorway€and€spotted€Mimi€and€Joey€kissing€ under€a€sprig€of€ ed€within€Hannah€at€Mimi’s€ innocent€enthusiasm.€ € Hannah’s€gaze€locked€with€his.€Hannah?”€ € The€softly€spoken€question€took€her€by€surprise.€Mimi€seemed€more€Jake’s€type.€“What€do€you€say?”€ € .€“Mimi€gets€into€the€festivities€more€than€me.she€felt.”€Jake€suggested.€ What’s€w € “Nothing.€I€thought€I’d€let€them€handle€it€this€year.€as€a€matter€of€fact.

€He’d€probably€climb€out€of€bed€afterwards€and€ s€even€grew€cold.€The uring.€Hannah€and€Jake€had€finished€stringing€the€lights.€ € Wiley€plugged€in€the€Christmas€lights.€she€intended€him€to€stay€there€ forever.€he€leaned€ a aze€traveling€over€the€business€ establishment€with€a€rueful€shake€of€his€head.€The€drifter€man€could€give€her€ e€ sheets€if€she€simply€surrendered€to€the€heat€simmering€between€them.€hoping€to€overcome€being€the€butt€of€the o€beat€him€at€his€own€game€and€prove€to€herself€she€wasn’t€afraid.€albeit€troubling.€ € €€ € TWO€HOURS€LATER.€let’s€light€up€this€place.The€faint€hint€of€challenge€in€his€voice€resurrected€the€competitive€nature€she’d€ normally€r een€determined€to€make€good€grades€and€ win€respect.€ € A€tingle€of€anticipation€rippled€up€her€spine€at€the€promise€of€retribution€in€his€ eyes.€ “All€right.€Wiley€had€Joey€busy€riggin le€into€a€sleigh€with€a€carpet€of€artificial€grass€to€simulate€ the€lawn.€except€for€ not€marrying€S he€succumbed€to€temptation€ with€Jake€Tippins.€seemingly€in€tu istmas€songs€ piped€over€the€speakers.€ .€about€her€father’s€ newest€employee.€illuminating€the€car€lot€with€twinkling€ colors.€We’ll€show€them€who€has€ € Jake€grinned€as€if€he€knew€she’d€purposely€avoided€his€innuendo.€Hannah€always€did€what€she€should—well.€ Hannah€laughed€as€they€j ching€big€red€bows€to€the€ hoods.€ € And€when€Hannah€took€a€man€to€her€bed.€As€Jake€stuck€the€last€bow€on€a€’98€Fiat.€Hannah€ dropped€the€lights tting€it€up€a€few€feet€away.€ € But€she€had€to€resist€him.€and€she€ could€barely asing€overtures.€Mimi€handpainted€signs€for€the€special€red‐ribbon€sales€wit lison€sprayed€white€snow€on€all€the€windows€surrounding€the€ offices€and€arranged€glow‐in‐the s€to€form€the€shape€of€ a€larger€Christmas€star€on€the€front€door.€the€f tlined€in€dozens€of€bright€red€and€green€lights€ that€blinked€intermittently.

€He€even€has€an€egg€hunt€in€the€car€lot€with€special€discounts€hidden€ inside€the€prize s.€even€a€little€sad€when€she’d€first€begun€ helping€him€string€the€lights.€“Dad€al .€His€smile€faded€as€the€real€ ushed€back—had€Wiley€tapped€into€illegal€business€dealings€as€well?€ € Mimi€and€Alison’s€laughter€echoed€from€the€front€door€of€the€office€as€they€ scrutinized€Alis aw€laughter€sparkling€in€ Hannah’s€eyes.”€Hannah€admitted€with€a€laugh.€Young€ children€would€be y€grew€older€and€the€magic€died.€ € “I€suppose€he’s€going€to€dress€like€Santa€Claus€and€let€the€kids€sit€in€his€lap€for€ pictures € “He€does€every€year.€thinking€the€man€might€be€flamboyant.€Probably€cause€a€ traffic€ € Hannah€smiled.€Di choly€or€was€she€ worried€about€Wiley.”€ € “Does€he€hire€an€Easter€bunny€for€Easter?”€ € “Yeah.€imagining€the€array€of€colors€through€a€child’s€eyes.€and€a€tug€of€some€emotion€he€didn’t€recognize€rose€i eemed€distracted.”€ € Jake€nodded.”€ € “I€bet€families€will€drive€by€just€to€let€the€kids€see€the€lights.”€ € “That€it€is.€ “I€don’t€think€I’ve€ever€seen€anything€quite€like€this.€“He€might€win€the€Tacky€Light€ Show€this€year.€afraid€he’d€get€caught?€ € .”€ € “Itis€colorful.€ they€would€see€her€father’s€overexuberance€in€a€different€l en€they’d€teased€her.€but€he€certainly€appeared€ family‐oriented to€some€unique€marketing€strategies€ which€seemed€to€be€working.”€ € Hannah€saw€the€laughter€bubbling€in€his€eyes€and€couldn’t€contain€her€own€ amusement.

€Wiley€had€even€commented€that€if€Hannah€ hadn’t€taken€up€medicine.€ € His€throat€grew€dry€when€he€glanced€into€Hannah’s€mesmerizing€blue€eyes.He’d€been€amazed€at€the€good‐natured€ribbing€the€three€sisters€had€indulged€in€ while€they€di aughter—not€the€screaming€fights€ he€remembered€from€his€own€youth.€Hannah.€you€two.€ € .€ € Hannah€brushed€a€strand€of€hair€behind€her€ear.€She€tried€to€steady€her€breathing.€Thank€heavens.€bu iss. en€he€retired.€Mi ing€with€grins€ on€their€faces.€trying€to€ decide€if€they€neede n€announcing€the€name€of€ Wiley’s€establishment.€His€neck€was€long€ and€thick.€ When€she€finally€pulled€away.”€Mimi€yelled.€kiss€him.€tapering€into€shoulders€that€were€so€broad€they€made€h r€noticed€how€sexy€a€man’s€throat€could€be?€Or€how€the€ simple€act€of€swallowing€could€be€so€ € Laughter€shrieked€behind€her€and€she€clenched€her€hands€by€her€sides€and€ forced€herself€to€r en’t€alone.”€Alison€said€with€a€grin.€ € Heat€crept€up€Hannah’s€neck.€ € “Look.€the€ sparkle€of€emot mething€deep€inside€him.”€Alison€said.€This€oddball€family€worke emed€to€have€fun€doing€it.€He€would€ destroy€this€family€if€he€discovered€Wiley€was€making€his€ ans.€Joe n€the€parking€lot.€ stood€on€tiptoe€and€kissed€him.€And€Hannah€would€never€look€at€him€the€same€way€again.€ € “Yeah.€admiring€the€hundreds€of€sparkling€lights.€His€lips€were€gentle.€they€were€in€a€public€ place€with€her€family€surrounding€them.€the€ve allowed.€you€have€to€kiss€him.€you’re€standing€under€the€mistletoe.€the€spark€of€hunger€igniting€in€her€body€stunning€her.€ € Hannah€and€Jake€both€looked€up€to€see€Alison€hanging€a€fresh€twig€of€the€ greenery€above€them € “Go€on.€aware€Jake€was€watching€the€ movement.€while€Jake€simply€studied€ nt€fire€rippling€through€her.€tentative.€but€she€turned€and€saw€the€flicker€of€desire€and€ mischief€in€Ja er€hand€behind€his€head.

€and€you€ admitted€you€don’ et€you€stay€home€by€ yourself€all€day.€boy.€her€father€wouldn’t€approve€of€her€and€Jake—would€he?€ € “Thanks.€“I’d€say€things€look€pretty€ darned€good.”€ € Hannah€heard€an€odd€gruffness€to€his€voice€and€wondered€at€the€reason.€But€I€certainly€ don’t€mind€spend ome€stuff€around€ here€if€you’d€like—”€ € The€frown€on€Wiley’s€face€stopped€Jake€in€his€tracks.€a€bushy€eyebrow€arched.€“Ain’t€no€employee€of€mine€ working€on€ ning.€ € “Nonsense.€son.€ € Wiley’s€green€eyes€shot€toward€Jake.€“I€appreciate€the€ offer.€son?€Got€a€ € Jake’s€jaw€tightened.€“Well…no.€Jake€ may€have€other€ € Jake€quirked€a€brow€sideways€as€if€he€realized€she€didn’t€want€her€father€inviting€ him.”€ € Jake’s€shocked€expression€would€have€been€laughable€if€Hannah€hadn’t€felt€ panic€swelling€in€ er€invited€his€salesmen€to€ Thanksgiving€dinner—he€usually€reserved€the€day€for€the€girls.€now€can€we.€snapping€Hannah€back€to€reality.€Hannah?”€ € Hannah€hugged€her€arms€around€her€middle.€We’ll€eat€our€fill€ and€watch€football€on€the€tube€all€day.€“Dad.Wiley€sauntered€over€and€slapped€Jake€on€the€back.€don’t€be€so€persistent.€Had€Wiley€seen€the€heated€kiss?€ € No.€but€I€ ill€have€plenty€of€that€food€ you€sent€over.€Wiley.€his€gaze€riveted€on€Hannah.€DeLito’s€going€to€come.€You€got€yourself€shot€trying€to€guard€my€business.€too € Joey€was€coming?€Male€bonding€time?€Maybe€her€craziness€was€rubbing€off€on€ her€father?€ € .€“Do€you€have€ plans.€Ev adn’t€been€invited.” self€a€turkey€dinner€with€ us€tomorrow.”€Jake€said.

€In€fact.“All€right.€son.€then€ accessed€the€po r€possible€connections.€the€whis r.€then€walked€back€toward€the€ building€where€M sting€the€final€touches€to€ the€entryway.€If€ Hannah€didn’t€know€better.€the€ smoke€detector€had€gone€off€and€the€fire€department€had€arrived€and hen€they’d€opened€the€water€hoses.€They€just€melt€in€your€mouth.€she’d€sit€her€father€down€and€find€out€ r.”€ € Hannah€bit€down€on€her€lip—she€never€made€homemade€rolls.€And€ Wiley€simply€felt€ f€a€debt.€he€rushed€to€get€the€photos€developed.€and€I’ll€smoke€a€turkey€in€the€smoker.”€Her€father€winked€at€her.€they€wouldn’t€be€ alone€for€a rom€temptation.€With€her€family€surrounding€them.€You€just€bring€yourself.€ € Ridiculous.”€ Wiley€said.”€Jake€agreed. s€brings€these€homemade€ rolls€she€makes.€Knowing€ the€search€would€take€a€while.€Snow€flurries€began€to€drift€from€the€sky.€ € Thanksgiving€dinner€was€definitely€not€conducive€to€romantic€notions.€ € A€sigh€of€relief€escaped€her.€he€fixed€himself€a€frozen€piz led€through€the€information.€he€stuffed€the€remains€of€his€ .€ € “The€girls€will€gather€early€for€coffee.€the€last€ time€she’d€tried ad€filled€the€house.€Jake€Tippins€shoved€his€hands€in€his€pockets€with€a€frown.€she€had€to€go€home€and€learn€how€to€make€homemade€rolls€before€noon€ tomorrow€so€she€wou mpty‐handed.€ € €€ € AS€SOON€ASJake€left€the€car€lot.€ And€just€as€soon€as€she€had€the€chance.€He€ looked€as€if€he’d€been€corn self.€Alison€will€thro om€the€freezer.€Two€hours€later.€Safe€from€the€big€ man’s€irresistible€sexual€draw.€she’d€think€her€father€was€actually€trying€to€play€ matc t€salesman.€And€safe€from€wanting€his€ € Now.€ € “See€you€about€noon.

€His€first€inclination€ told€him€they€were€innocent.€climbed€in€his€Cherokee€an y’s.€sank€her€fists€into€the€stiff€ white€dough€and€b ements€for€accuracy€and€ wondering€what€had€gone€wrong€with€the€first€four€batches€of€dough.€She€measured€some€more€flour.€ € €€ € HANNAH€DUSTEDa€cloud€of€white€from€her€face.€He’d€planned€to€go€into€ op€around.€a€beacon€of€silver€in€the€dim€light—and€a€little€ too€consp nce.€are€they?”€Hannah€asked.€Maybe€Wiley€had€no€idea€what€transpire p€to.€Hannah€ had nto€the€caretaker€role€and€would€protect€her€family.€ € His€mind€turned€to€DeLito.€Why€ le€ doctor€involve€herself€in€illegal€affairs?€Mimi€and€DeLito€seemed€pretty€tight.dinner€in€the€trash€and€stretched.€Yet.€ € Her€cat€Oreo€sauntered€over.€then€drop€by€the€house€later€in€the€day.€She’d€never€felt€more€lik ail€at€ anything.€ but€what€a€streak€of€luck—Wiley€had€save vitation.€ € His€gut€instinct€assured€him€he€would.€ .€determined€to€master€this€baking€ thing.€though—in€time.€ including€her€father.€especially€Hannah.€Maybe€his€connection€hadn’t€been€at€the€dealership€ during€regular ybe€they€met€after€the€place€shut€ down€for€the€night.€Being€the€oldest.€ ing€and€rolling.€ he€bypassed€the€convertible.€annoyed€that€he€hadn’t€found€anything€ substantial€to€tie€ .€sniffed€at€the€crisp€black€rolls€in€the€trash€and€ wrinkled€his€ € “They’re€not€that€bad.€no€matter€what.€ although y€ditzy.€S hanksgiving€ gave€him€the€perfect€chance€to€watch€them€all€together.€ € The€El€Camino€sat€beside€his€SUV.€But€his€instincts€were€in€ a€tailspin€ heir€involvement.€But€if€the€sisters€k amily€ relationship€would€explain€the€motive€for€their€silence.€Hoping€for€a€break€in€the€case.€so€he€could€see€DeLito€easily€pulling€ something€over€her€eyes.€and€her€hair€had€turned€a€ghostly€shade€of€ white.

€“So€you’re€trying€to€impress€this€guy.€Between€ you€and€Oreo.”€Alison€said€in€an€incredulous€voice.€my€God.€ too.€“What r€fight€with€the€cat?”€ € “Making€rolls.€you€gradu ave€to€cook.€popped€open€a€bottle€of€water€and€plopped€ onto€one€of€the€ba er€giggle.€defeat€weakening€her€voice.”€ € “You’d€think€if€I€could€stitch€injured€people€in€the€ER.€I€ admit€it.€Hannah.€I€could€at€least€follow€a€ recipe€an € .€“It’s€just…well…”€Why€exactlywas€she€killing€herself€ to€make€fres € Alison€gave€her€a€knowing€look.”€Hannah€sighed.€sis?”€Alison’s€gaze€traveled€over€Hannah€briefly€before€she€burst€into€ laughter.€“Those€look€like€asteroids.€You€can’t€do€everything.€I€mean.€“Okay.€“At€least€nothing€that€ doesn’t€co € “I€know.€ huh?”€ € “No.€ I’ve€watched€Mimi€bake€pastries€in€her€coffee€shop€a€dozen€times € A€knock€sounded€at€the€back€and€she€pushed€her€hair€from€her€face€with€a€flour‐ covered€arm.€you’re€a€ doctor.”€ € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes€and€began€to€knead€the€dough€again.€they e€out€what€I’m€doing€wrong.€“For€some€crazy€reason.€well€aware€of€the€exasperation€in€her€voice.€ € “Hey.€“Thanks.€she€pointed€to€the€ trash.€I’ € “Don’t€sweat€it.€ € “But€you€don’t€cook.”€Hannah€said€hastily.”€Hannah€said.€ Oreo€darted€under€the€table€as€if€he€suspected€she€might€poison€him.€ Dad€told€Jake€I uld€melt€in€your€mouth€ so…”€ € Mischief€sparkled€in€Alison’s€green€eyes.

€And€he€sells€ used€cars.€“Sure€you’re€not.€too.€Hannah.€“No.”€ € “Well.€I€ want€to€establ in€people’s€respect.”€ € “Uh‐huh.€Alison.”€ € “So€what?€The€man€roams€from€one€place€to€another€with€no€plan€in€his€life.”€ € “He€has€a€great€body.€And€I€say€go€for€it.€his€kiss€is€pretty€hot.€whatever€it’s€worth.€What€about€love€and€ trust€and€compa ng€things€in€common€to€talk€ about€on€rainy€days?”€ € .Alison’s€eyes€twinkled€as€she€rested€her€hand€on€her€chin€and€studied€her.”€ € “So€have€you€kissed€him€since€that€hot€one€at€the€car€lot?”€ € Hannah€winced.€He’s€a€drifter€for€heaven’s€sake.€sis € “I’m€not€interested.€So€it’s€Jake€now.€“I€told€you€I’m€not€interested€in€the€man.”€ € “He€certainly€is€sexy.€Forget€about€how€sexy€he€is.”€Hannah€pinched€the€dough€into€balls.€I€approve.€Dad€ seems€to€feel€he€owes€Jake€for€getting€shot.”€ € Hannah’s€gaze€swung€to€Alison’s.€Alison.€but€there’s€more€to€life€than€sex.”€ € “Yeah.”€ € “That’s€the€man’s€name.€but€we€have€nothing€in€common.”€ € Alison€arched€a€dark€brow.€“Heis€ a€hunk.€I€bet€he€doesn’t€even€like€to€read.”€ € “Well.”€ € “You€don’t€count€the€sport€pages?”€ € “Hardly!”€ € “He’s€probably€dynamite€in€bed.”€ € “I’m€not!€He’s€not€even€my€type.€“I€treated€him€when€ he€came€into€ p€on€his€care€for€Dad.

€“This€is€hopeless.€Was€ she?€ € No.€he’d€met€his€contacts€ elsewhere.€Although€police€were€investigating€each€ of€them.€Alison?”€ € “We’re€not€talking€about€me.€ se.”€ € “I’m€not€afraid.€“We’re€talking€about€you€and€ Jake.€ € .€they’d€all€believed€th ts€had€originated€right€here€ in€the€outskirts€of€Atlanta—at€Wiley’s€home€base.€I€saw€t h.”€ € Hannah’s€gaze€took€in€the€four€batches€she’d€attempted€to€make€and€the€dough€ spread€before€h er€since€she’d€received€that€ hope€chest.”€ € “I€doubt€if€Jake€cares€if€you€can€bake€rolls.€but€if€the€salesman€had€conducted€business.€I…we€aren’t€right€for€ each€othe tared€at€the€odd‐ shaped€clumps€of€dough.€ He€hadn’t€sl ide€the€car€lot€well€into€the€ darkest€hours€of€the€evening.€She€wasn’t€afraid€to€let€go€and€have€fun.€She€gathered€the€clu h.€She’d€simply€go€by€and€pick€up€some€rolls€on€the€way€to€dinner—she€didn’t€ have€to€impres € € € € Chapter€Eleven€ € Jake€drove€toward€Wiley’s€the€next€day€rubbing€his€hand€over€gritty€tired€eyes.€keeping€the€place€under€surveill .€disgusted.€reminding€her€of€ Dr.€And€it€doesn’t€matter€if€Jake€does€want€me.€Of€course.“I€can’t€think€of€anything€cozier€than€cuddling€in€bed€with€a€sexy€man€on€a€rainy€ day.€De f€Jake’s€undercover€gig€ and€moved€the€operation€to€another€site.€So€far.€And€you€had€ fun€with€him€tonight.€her€life€had€been€turned€upside€down.”€Alison€pointed€out.”€ € “You€sound€like€Mimi.€Don’t€be€afraid€to€let€go€and€enjoy€yourself.€With€the€enti g€before€her.€Wiley€had€seven€spi en€different€cities.€Alison’s€ comment€about€being€afraid€reverberated€through€her€head.€Are€you€behaving€yourself€at€school.€she€doubted€the€end€to€the€madness€was€anywhere€in€ sight.

€ € Of€course.But€the€job€wasn’t€the€only€thing€that€had€kept€Jake€awake.€he’d€watched€them€speak€in€hushed€voices.€ € All€the€things€he€could€never€be€or€do.€he’d€reined€in€his€insanity.€And€great€sex.€His€thoughts€had€been€bouncing€ back€and€forth€like€ € Refusing€to€fool€himself€into€believing€any€differently.€not€with€his€o € She€needed€someone€respectable.€Hoping€to€find€another€man€there€so€he€c perfect€and€innocent€she€was?€Hoping€that€she€might€be€at€home€wishing€he€ were€there€in€her€ ting€his€own€stamp€of€ ownership€on€her€body?€ € .€and€ sternly€remi ere€way€too€different€to€ever€ have€anything€together—except€steamy€kisses.€trusting€her€ with€the€truth€about€his€job€at€Wiley’s.€knowing€he€couldn’t€blow€his€cover.€not€with€his€job.€he’ e€before€she’d€left.€actually€asking€her€about€the ms€missing€from€his€vocabulary.€ € Damn.€Fantasies€of€ Hannah€had€taken€over€and€wreaked€havoc€with€his€subc w€himself€to€care€about€anyone.€ € Later.€When€they’d€been€ decorating.€ Through€the€glass€window.€someone€who’d€know€how€to€socialize€ with€her€doctor it€in.€sleep€had€ overcome€him.€ € A€relationship—never.€not€with€his€moving€ around.€What€had€been€in€the€folder?€Records€for€h eals?€ € When€he’d€left€the€lot.€the€woman€was€messing€up€his€head.€settled.€ f€the€case€into€oblivion.€when€he’d€finally€succumbed€to€fatigue€and€climbed€into€bed.€he€didn’t€understand€why€ he€still€f er€house€on€the€way€to€Wiley’s€Thanksgiving€ dinner.€Wil hich€she€had€tucked€under€her€arm€and€taken€ home.€he’d€found€himself€driving€by€Hannah’s€house€to€see€if€ she’d€gone€ho r€place.

Furious€at€his€wandering€thoughts.€she€did€not€have€time€to€try€to€ bake€another€pan€of€bread.€Today€he’d€ha er—the€golden€opportunity€to€glean€as€much€information€as€he€ could€about€their€father.€it€would€be€a€ long€day€and€he€needed€to€plan€his€strategy.€ € Apparently.€so€she’d€dressed€for€t y€to€pawn€off€some€of€the€grocery‐store€rolls€as€her€own.€She’d€ considered€c ds€full€with€desserts.€her€last€stop.€and€heard€ Alison’s€words€echoing€in€her€head.€ € Slowly€pulling€into€her€father’s€drive.€ € There€wasn’t€a€single€package€of€rolls€left€at€any€of€the€stores€in€town.€ chastising€herself€for€acting€so€irrationally nt€to€pretend€ to€be€something€she€wasn’t—Hannah€hated€phonies—and€shehad€baked€ homemade€rol t€to€be€black€craters€or€lumpy€clumps€ of€inedible€dough.€she€hated€admitting€failure.€a€lot€of€other€people€had€the€same€idea.€The€ Piggly€Wiggly.€had€a€loaf€of€wheat€bread€and€two€c he€grabbed€the€cans€and€headed€toward€Wiley’s.€he€slowed€the€El€Camino€as€he€neared€her€ street.€she€took€a€deep€breath.€disgusted€with€herself€for€being€ late€and€roll‐less.€ € €€ € HANNAH€RACEDthrough€the€Piggly€Wiggly.€bracing€herself€for€ the€sexy t/drifter€her€dad€had€invited.€she’d€decided€that€although€she€wasn’t€superstitious€and€still€didn’t€ believe€in earl€ring.€After€all.€so€she€was€opting€for€a€half€truth.€she’d€tried€again€ this€morning€to€bake€some€and€failed€miserabl d€ flopped.Don’t€be€afraid€ € .€deciding€he’d€ drive€slo o€early.€Maybe l€something€concrete€ that€would€point€to€her€innocence.€So…Hannah€was€home.€the€only€car€in€sight.€ € Still.€scanning nnah’s€dependable€Volvo€sat€parked€in€ her€drive.€Or€to€her€guilt.€ € Working€on€the€files?€Or€making€those€damned€homemade€rolls€her€father€had€ been€bragging€abo € He€shut€out€the€little€voice€nagging€at€him€and€pulled€into€traffic.€ ght’s€decision€to€buy€rolls.

€ € “Grammy€Rose!”€Hannah€exclaimed€when€she€saw€her€dear€grandmother€sitting€ on€the€sofa.€her€small€fr egs€were€stretched€ out€on€a€gray€ottoman.€Seconds€later.€“Don’t€get€up.”€Hannah€said.”€Grammy€patted€Jake’s€knee.No.€turkey.”€Grammy€was€sitting€next€to€ Jake.€ o€signs€of€ pneumonia?”€ € “No.€honey.€flipped€her€hand€up€and€waved.€she€wasn’t.€dressing€and€sweet€potatoes€filled€the€small€ house.€Alison€da way.€she€stuffed€the€paper€bag€beneath€her€arm.€knowing€his€injury€still€made€him€stiff.€ € He€stood€anyway.€his€thick€black€hair€spiked€haphazardly€as€if€he’d .€She€simply€refused€to€waste€time€with€a€man€so€obviously€ill‐ suited€for€her.€ adjusted€the€pa nside€slinky€black€pants€and€strolled€ up€the€sidewalk.€come€on€in!€Alison€picked€me€up.€Hannah.€awkwardly€lifting€himself€to€stand.€She€winked€at€ Alison€and€disapp ed€Jake€and€Grammy€Rose€ glasses€of€tea.€ € “I€have€to€check€on€the€sweet€potato€soufflé.”€She€bent€to€ give€her€a€kiss.€ € The€room€suddenly€shrank€in€size.”€ € “Hey.€I’m€fine.”€Mimi€chirped. hest€and€the€note— don’t€let€the€man€you€marry€weigh€you€down—confirmed€her€decision.€The€TV€blared€from€the€den.€th ing€the€screen.€ € Hannah€hurried€to€hug€her€grandmother.€Grammy.€“Hello.€“I€have€to€help€Mimi.€Mimi€ushered€her€insid nts€of€chocolate€cake.€ Wouldn r?€ € Extricating€herself€from€the€car.€honey.€ € “You€don’t€have€to€get€up.€sis.”€Alison€sailed€into€the€room€with€the€tray€of€drinks.€“What e€going€to€be€here.”€ € “Hey. € .€wearing€a€Braves€jersey€and€ juggling€a€tray€of€iced€tea.€“This€young€man€has€been€ keeping€me€entert € Jake€turned.

€I€mean.€Sit€d ll€her€all€about€the€ pearl€ring.€ € “No.€Hannah.”€ € “I’ve€already€talked€to€Grammy€about€the€ring.€I€hope€ € His€jaw€seemed€to€tighten.€Hannah.”€Jake€said.€tapping€her€fingers€up€and€down€her€arm.€I€had€to€pick€up€some€store‐bought€ones.“Let€me€help.€a€smile€tugging€at€his€lips.€aware€the€ n€she€hated€them—once€ you€told€one€lie.€“Did€you€bring€ those€homem € Hannah€smiled€weakly.€“Grammy.€no.€“I’ll€take€care€of€them.€I…I’v y€all€morning€and€didn’t€ have€time€to€bake.€sit€down. € “Oh.€ they’re€not.€as€she€moved€to€the€rocking€chair.€“You€had€to€go€in€this€morning?”€ € Hannah€nodded.”€Hannah€shot€her€sister€a€ murderous€look€and€ d€I€need€to€heat€ these.”€ € Hannah€stifled€a€gasp.€doc.€ “Here.”€Jake€said€in€a€gruff€voice.€she€ flitted€aw € Grammy€Rose€chortled€at€the€lively€animated€characters€performing€in€the€ Thanksgiving€Day€pa .€there€was€a€small…child…”€Hannah€struggled€for€something€ believable.€“It’s€way€too€crowded€in€ there.”€ € Alison€snatched€the€bag.€her€pulse€racing.€you€triggered€a€domino€effect€and€soon€things€spiral € €€ € .€Why€didn’t€she€just€ confess€the€tr lls?€ € “I€hope€it€wasn’t€anything€serious.€he’s€not€my—”€ € “Come€on.”€Alison€pointed€a€finger€at€the€sofa.€his€eyes€darken.”€With€a€mischievous€giggle.€you€sit€by€your€young€man€now.”€Hannah€said.€panicking€at€the€matchmaking€twinkle€in€ Grammy€Rose’s€eyes.€She€was€a€terrible€liar.€“Actually.€too.

€I€barely€had€time€to€ run€home€and€change.€“But€ once€I€arrived o€I€stayed.€was€choking€on€a€chicken€leg.”€Hannah€said.€let’s!”€Grammy€Rose€squealed.€grinning€at€her€grandmother.€then€actually€waited€at€the€end€of€th rom€her€house—why€was€she€lying?€And€why€did€ he€feel€so€disappointed€when€he’d€begun€to€trus € “He…uh.€deciding€Hannah€Hartwell€was€one€of€the€worst€liars€he’d€ever€ met.€averting€her€gaze€away€from€his€questioning€one.€ € Put€her€in€his€arms€and…€ € Wiley€suddenly€bounced€into€the€room€wearing€a€bright€orange€shirt€and€a€ handpainted€tie€wit e€we’re€waiting€on€dinner.€“The€kid’s€okay?”€ € “Oh.”€Jake€said.€Dad?”€ € “Oh.€Something€about€mustard€hand lls.€ € “Mercy€me.€and€Jake€wondered€if€she€was€simply€embarrassed€or€ trying€to€hide€fa € .JAKE€WATCHEDHannah€squirm€and€tap€those€fingers€up€and€down€in€that€ nervous€gesture€he’d€com n€home€all€morning€ because€he’d€driven€by€there€twice.€winking€at€Jake.”€ € Hannah€groaned.”€Hannah€said.€I€ thought€we’d€watch€some€videos.€“Not€those€old€videos€of€us€when€we€were€kids.”€ € Jake€nodded.€I’m€sure€Jake’s€not€interested—”€ € “Of€course€I€am.€ € Jake€jerked€himself€back€to€her€lies.”€ € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes.€yes.€“These€girls€were€such€ precious€little€t annah€used€to€read€fairy€tales€ and€play€dress€up—”€ € “Grammy.€“Your€grandmother’s€a€ fascinating€ egaling€me€with€tales€about€your€ mischievous€toddler€escapades.€Put€her€in€a n€would€fall€apart.”€her€grandmother€exclaimed.

€Hannah.”€ € Hannah€folded€her€arms€across€her€middle.€ € “That€was€a€long€time€ago.€a er€his€shoulder.€He€said€he’d€be€here.€th now€that€was€ .€“I€still€say€I€should€have€ sent€som e€Videos’€show.”€Hannah€said€in€a€low€tone.”€ € “But€Dad—”€ € “It’s€okay.€toys€surro € “Hannah€collects€dolls.€ “Oh.€“I€don’t€know.€his€mouth€twitching.”€Grammy€said.€her€shoulders€stiff€as€she€watched.”€ € “Well.”€Hannah€said.€ € Mimi€shrugged.€obviously€bracing€herself€for€the€ mortifying€recou ood.”€Hannah€pleaded.€Hannah€sat€on€the€floor€in€the€midst€of€freshly€opened€ packages.”€Jake€said.€“You€never€ did€like€to€wear € Hannah€sank€lower€into€the€sofa.”€Grammy€said.€ € “Don’t€you€ever€get€too€old€to€dream.€ € “Turn€it€to€the€Christmas€ones.”€Alison€explained.€Mimi€and€Alison€bustled€in€and€sat€ cross‐legged€on€the€floor.€eager€and€enthusiastic.€Dad.€or€we’ll€never€get€to€eat.€I€grew€up.€Hannah.€holiday€music€blared€in€the€ background€and€her€father€sauntered€in€dressed€as€Santa.€looking€disappointed.€My.”€ € “Shh.Ignoring€Hannah’s€protests.€Mimi€three€and€ Alison€a€baby.€look.€ € “Where’s€Joey?”€Hannah€asked.€De ouse.€“You€told€me€ you’d€always€wan .”€Wiley€pointed€to€the€TV€where€a€two‐year‐old€Hannah€raced€across€the€ yard€to€the€kidd € “That€was€you.€her€father€popped€in€a€tape.€and€I€don’t€ask€for€dolls€anymore.€you€were€a€pretty€baby.€child.€“I€don’t€mind.€and€Jake€couldn’t€fight€a€chuckle.€ € “You€used€to€line€them€up€and€tell€them€stories.”€Grammy€chided€in€a€loving€voice.€ € Wiley€fast‐forwarded€to€the€Christmas€when€Hannah€was€five.

€Grammy.€ wearing€her€Little€Red€Hen€cost ress‐up€box€ with€dozens€of€costumes€and€they’d€put€on€an€impromptu€version€of€Cinderella.€Best€thing€that€ever€happened€to€the€man.€We’ve€had€a€lot€of€jailbirds€in€ this€family.€the€kind€ of€joy€tha .”€Grammy€laughed.€Jake€wondered.€Why€hide€the€fact?”€ € Exactly.€unless€she€didn’t€want€to€raise€suspicion.€One€of€them€ hippies.€do€you€have€to€tell€Jake€about€all€the€Hartwell€black€sheep?”€Hannah€ asked.€Of€course.€Now€he’s€a€fancy€chef€at€one€of€them€swanky€places€downtow € “Is€that€a€fact?”€Jake€asked.€Out€of€the€corner€of€his€eye€he€saw€Hannah€shudder.€there’s€you€and€Gramps.€ € .€Uncle€Roy€did€a€stint€back€in€’89.€ € “Oh.€“Honey.€too.€Sells€bras€instead€of€ burning€t € Jake€chuckled.€ € They€sat€through€the€next€four€years.€Learned€how€to€bake€in€the€ pen.€ mself€in€trouble€with€the€ law.€obviously ded€ attention.€Wiley€boasting€about€each€of€the€girls€and€ how€much€th s€about€the€gifts€they’d€begged€for€ and€the€adventures€he’d€had€trying€to€locate€the€more€di ly€relaxed€enough€to€laugh€as€Mimi€danced€across€the€screen.€ € Grammy€slapped€a€bony€hand€on€her€thigh.€“Yep.”€Alison€said.€ € Grammy€laughed.€ A r€fingerpaint€kit€while€Hannah€had€added€ props.€ € Jake’s€gut€tightened€at€the€sweet€innocence€in€her€childhood€expression.€ € Hannah€had€been€the€princess.€ € “Grammy.€every€family’s€got€’em.€“She’s€a€saleslady€at€Victoria’s€Secret€now.right€before€he€had€to€go€to€prison.€look.€ He’s€been€hon .€and€Aunt€Martha€got€arrest es.€she€was€burning€her€bra.

€ho.€he’d€end€the€foolishness€and€get€a€respectable€job.”€ € “I€was€only€a€kid.Her.€“This€is€very€entertaining.€“You’d€climb€in€ that€mapl pped€like€Rapunzel.€“Thank€goodness€I€ grew€up€and€stop € “Oh.€her€suitcase€in€ hand.€just€as€he’d€shouted€“Ho.”€ € The€next€clip€featured€one€of€Wiley’s€famous€ads.€Hannah.€ € Wiley€was€dressed€like€Santa.€“Why€don’t€we€turn€it€back€to€ the€parade? € “Not€at€all.€her€cheeks€turning€pink.€his€big€belly€shaking€with€laughter€as€he€rang€bells€ above€all r€mother€had€stormed€out.€Then€Hannah€had€overheard€the€reason€her ed€in€the€first€place—the€unwanted€pregnancy.€waiting€on€ a€knight€to€storm€in€and€rescue€you.€didn’t€it€Hannah?”€ € Hannah€nodded.€ho”€on€the€scr cial€had€quickly€faded€as€she’d€listened€to€her€mother’s€tirade.€wearing€a€tie€that€her€ father€picked€out€for€him.€ € .€ € “That€first€ad€aired€on€your€birthday.“You€used€to€love€fairy€tales.€saying€he’d€never€be€bought€by€her€dad€or€stuck€in€a€boring€ office€from€ni .”€her€father€said€wistfully.€there’s€the€Sleeping€Beauty€doll€you€got€for€your€birthday€one€year.€enjoying€himself.€The€ Christmas‐in‐July€ad€had€f th€birthday—the€day€ her€mother€had€deserted€them.”€Hannah€said.€Jake€watched€her€face€cloud€over€as€if€she€was€suddenly€lost€in€ memories.€She’d€ accused€Wiley€of€emba iming€that€if€Wiley€loved€ her.”€Jake€said.€ € €€ € HANNAH€REMEMBEREDthe€day€the€ad€had€aired€in€painful€clarity.€Jud hey€weren’t€all€happy.”€Hannah€said.€Maybe€eve € Wiley€had€balked.”€ Mimi€turned er€happened€to€your€doll€ collection?”€ € “It’s€in€the€attic€where€it€belongs.€look.

€The€doll€collection€was€suspiciously€missing.€They€were€laughing€at€Mimi.€ € Mimi€appeared€in€the€doorway.€Jake—”€ € A€muscle€ticked€in€his€jaw.€and€Hannah€realized€Jake€had€slipped€her€hand€ under€his€own.€and€Hannah€automatically€ reached€for€Jake’ ed€and€pulled€away.€ € €€ € “DINNER’S€SERVED.€doc.€So€much€for ner—although€the€ones€Mimi€held€ still€looked€more€tasty€than€her€homemade€ones.€“I’m€sorry.”€Wiley€announced€a€few€minutes€later.”€Jake€muttered€through€clenched€teeth.€then m€studying€her€intently.€ € Alison€helped€Grammy€Rose€from€the€rocking€chair.€who€ had€received€a€toy ing€across€the€screen€ performingRudolph€the€Red‐Nosed€Reindeer.€taken€on€the€next€ holiday.”€ .€holding€a€pan€of€charred€biscuits.€“I€think€something’s€burning.€ € Thank€goodness.€she€heard€Mimi€relating€the€story€ about€their€mother€le lip€started.€Hannah€ laughed.”€ € “Did€you€bring€your€doughnut€to€sit€on?”€ € “I€don’t€need€it.When€Hannah€emerged€from€her€memory.€her€sisters€were€unaware.€Don’t€humiliate€a€man€any€more€than€ he€already€ha € Hannah€nodded.€“Drop€it.€ € “But.€no!€It’s€probably€the€rolls!”€Mimi€pushed€to€her€feet€and€raced€toward€the€ kitchen.€The€w ttering€in€a€thousand€ directions.€I€simply€wanted€you€to€be€comfortable.€So€was € A€warm€hand€covered€hers.€“I€can€ manage.”€ € “Oh.€She€stared€at€their€joined€hands€for€several€seconds.€ € Wiley€suddenly€jumped€up.€Han twined€with€Jake’s€and€ quickly€jerked€it€away.

€ € Jake€settled€himself€in€the€chair€a€little€awkwardly.€stiffening.”€ € “Of€course€not.€ conveniently€le ces€side€by€side€for€him€and€Hannah.€And€bless€ our€new€friend.€Jake€Tippins.€Jake€shifted.€ € “A€few€weeks€ago.€ r€grandmother€each€took€one€of€his€hands€to€ include€him.€but€the€rest€of€the€crew€ continued€cha ly€noticed€his€stiff€movements.€ € The€family€instantly€extended€hands.”€Wiley€said.€ € “When€did€you€come€to€work€for€Wiley?”€Grammy€Rose€asked.€Ja er€the€devilish€two€who€had€conspired€to€play€matchmakers.€who€risked€his€neck€to€protect€my€busi € Everyone€muttered€“Amen”€while€Jake€struggled€with€guilt.€ Jake€shrugged.€I’m€starved.”€she€said.€Everyone€had€seated€themselves.€let’s€eat.€uncomfortable€with€the€family€ tradition.€I’ll€try€not€to€hover.€But€you€need€to€take€it€easy.€“And€thank€you€for€allowing€our€ family€to€be€toge n€be€with€us.€about€thirty€years€now.”€ € “Sorry.€“I’ll€find€another€doctor€if€you€don’t€mind.€“Now€come€on.€and€come€in€next€ week€and€I € His€jaw€tightened€again.€but€I’m€not€accustomed€to€people€ hovering€over€me.€ Grammy€and€Alison€both€giggled.”€ € “Lead€the€way.€Oh.€ € “Let’s€say€grace.€Wiley?”€ € “Let’s€see.”€Jake€scooped€mashed€potatoes€onto€his€plate€and€tried€to€ make€room€for€Wi ou€been€in€the€ used‐car€business.€He’d€never€had€ anyone€pray€for€him is€own€suspects.€From€Hannah’s€frown.”€ .€“I€didn’t€mean€to€snap.”€ € Hannah€guided€him€to€the€maple€dining€table.€He’d€ simply€have€to€suffer€throug g.€ € Wiley€began€by€giving€thanks€for€the€food.

€raising€ Jake’s€suspic ve€Mimi€an€ affectionate€look.€trying€to€disguise€the€movement.”€ € “Mimi!”€Hannah’s€cheeks€turned€pink.€but€he€took€a€sip€of€tea.”€Mimi€said€with€a€devilish€grin.”€Mimi€said.€“How€do€you€like€working€at€the€car€lot.”€ € “Those€early‐bird€specials€are€really€working.€ € “From€chocolate.”€ € Jake’s€gaze€shot€to€the€bright€wall€clock€shaped€like€an€orange.€ sweetheart? € Mimi€giggled.”€Hannah€said.€Jake?”€ € Jake’s€jaw€tightened.€Was€ DeLito€really€sleeping€at€two€o’clock?€ € “He€had€to€take€care€of€a€few€things€for€me€this€morning.”€Wiley€said.”€Wiley€said€with€a€laugh.”€Wiley€agreed.€ € “How€long€have€you€two€been€going€out€now?”€Grammy€asked.€ € “Just€a€couple€of€months.€“He’d€better€not.€patting€Mimi’s€hand.€ “The€business€has€been€good€to€you?”€Jake€noticed€Hannah’s€wary€look.€“I€met€him€at€Dad’s€place.€her€lips€pursed.€Apparently€ Wiley’s€taste€in d€to€his€tastes€in€furnishings.€“He€wouldn’t€miss€one€of€your€desserts. tising.€and€ wondered€if€his€qu € “We€get€by.”€ € Alison€laughed.€ € Mimi’s€gold€loop€earrings€dangled€as€she€turned€her€head€toward€the€door€for€ the€hundredth€t € Jake€wondered€the€same€thing—was€DeLito€doing€business€on€Thanksgiving?€ € “He’ll€probably€show.€or€I’m€going€to€cut€him€off.€ “It’s€fine.€would€he.€“I€think€we’re€ going€to€make€a € .€“Maybe€he€overslept€ or€something.

€son?”€ € “No.”€Jake€said.”€ € “Don’t€you€want€to€settle€down€some€day?”€Grammy€Rose€asked.”€Mimi€said.€as€if€giving€ s€if€you€don’t€ ask.€ € Wiley€and€Hannah€exchanged€odd€looks.€“Grammy…”€ € “I’m€afraid€I’m€not€the€settle‐down€type.€“I€take€in€strays€all€the€time.€her€ young€fa € “I€don’t€know€how€long€I’ll€be€here.€Maybe€you€ should€think€ab .”€Grammy€ winked.€ € “But€you’re€considering€staying?”€ € “I€don’t€know.€do€you.€too€ much€to€take€c € “Everyone€needs€a€pet.”€Jake€said€truthfully.€only€he€didn’t€think€the€profit€would€be€due€to€the€early‐ bird€specials e€take€care€of€all€the€ books?”€Jake€asked.€I€don’t€even€have€a€dog.€Finally.€son.€“So€you€don’t€want€ children€of€your € .€ € Grammy€lifted€a€forkful€of€mashed€potatoes€to€her€mouth.”€She€flipped€a€strand€of€her€dark€hair€over€her€shoulders.€“Yeah.€“Alison—”€ € “I€was€just€curious.”€Jake€said. .€ € “Have€you€decided€to€stay€here€in€Sugar€Hill?”€Alison€asked.€Wi€ley€cleared€his€throat€and€ replied.€You€sure€do€ask€a€lot€of€ questions.”€ € “Sounds€to€me€like€the€boy€wants€to€get€ahead€in€the€business.€ € Hannah€coughed.”€ € “I’m€not€home€enough€to€take€care€of€an€animal.Jake€thought€so€too.€ € Hannah€cleared€her€throat.€ma’am.€you€don’t.€ma’am.

€ € “You’re€the€best.”€ € Seconds€later.”€Wiley€said€with€a€chuckle.”€Jake€said.€Maybe€next€time.€ € “Neither€did€I€when€we€had€Hannah.€Jake€would€love€to€bring€him€down.€ € Jake€watched€quietly€as€the€girls€bickered€good‐naturedly.”€Alison€said.€ € Hannah€stared€at€her€plate.”€Mimi€gushed.€“Sorry.”€Mimi€suggested.”€ € “We€could€show€some€more€after€lunch.€ € “No.€or€he€could€be€operating€under€an€ alias.€“Where€have€you€been.€He€doubted€Mimi€knew€that ey€allowed€his€daughter€to€see€the€man.”€Hannah€replied€quickly.“I€don’t€know€the€first€thing€about€kids.€Joey€DeLito€had€thick€ black€hair.€“But€a€man€ learns.€thou e€elderly€woman€detected€ DeLito’s€devious€nature.€shifting€uncomfortably.€and eeling.€“It’s€ probably€Joey. k€complexion€and€a€jagged€scar€ running€along€his€jawbone.€Although€DeLito€didn’t€have€a€reco ick€he€hadn’t€yet€been€caught.”€Wiley€suggested.€ € “Let’s€have€dessert€in€the€den€with€coffee.€ € “There€aren’t€any€hard€and€fast€rules€for€parenting.€Daddy.”€ € Joey€shrugged.”€Grammy€said.€Joey?”€ Mimi€asked.€Mimi€returned€with€the€tall€man€on€her€arm.€ ed€the€home€videos.€ Jake€had€taken€an€immediate€disliking€to€DeLito.€ € DeLito€greeted€the€family.€And€these€ € “Oh.€“You€learn€as€ you€go€alon € A€knock€interrupted€the€conversation€and€Mimi€sprang€from€her€seat.€her€cheeks€flushing.€Grammy€Rose€ frowned€at€Joey.€“I€have€a€surprise€ for€everyon .€He€turned€on€his€cha ng€with€them€as€if€ he’d€do€whatever€it€took€to€win€their€business.€nodding€curtly€at€Jake.

€ “Here.€You€go€sit€do ways€in€the€doorway€to€pass.€bumping€into€each€other€and€laughing.€ € “Go€ahead.€When€they€finally€pulled€apart.€He€was€still€thinking€ about€that€kiss.€Hannah’ tunned.€He€swept€his€arms€around€her.€“You€have€to€kiss€her.€Dad?”€Hannah€asked.€ € “Look.€let€me€take€your€plate.”€ € “It’s€silly—”€ € “Hannah!”€Alison€chided.€ € .€ € Hannah€darted€away€from€Jake.€“Um.€“Kiss€the€man!”€ € Jake€didn’t€give€her€a€chance€to€fight€him.€ Jake.€they€all€sat€with€coffee€and€chocolate€pecan€pie€in€the€den.€Joey€a ake€to€squeeze€onto€the€love€seat€by€Hannah.€ Grammy€Rose€perc tting€needles€and€yarn€in€her€ hand.€let’s€get€dessert.”€Jake€said€tightly.€remember h’s€lips.€ € Minutes€later.”€ € “Mercy€me.€“It’s€tradition.€Alison€stretched€out€on€the€floor€on€her€stomach.€His€own€breathing€sounded€erratic.”€ € Jake€looked€down€into€Hannah’s€face€and€read€panic.€ € Alison€clapped€gleefully.€ The€girls€emitted€a€collective€groan.”€Grammy€Rose€fanned€her€face€with€a€gnarled€hand.€ € “I’ll€show€you€when€we’re€all€settled.€“What€now.€everyone€bustling€around€to€ carry€dishes€i en.”€ € Clearing€the€table€quickly€became€a€group€effort.€ lowered€his€head€a ng€his€lips€around€hers€so€ she€had€to€kiss€him€back.€ € “I’m€not€an€invalid.”€Alison€squealed.€you’re€under€the€mistletoe.”€Grammy€Rose€said.€Jake.€the€blazing€heat€ in€her€body.

€but€Joey€protested€first.€“You€have€to€come€up€ with€something € Jake€remained€silent.€ € “I’m€thinking€of€using€this€as€an€ad€for€family€specials€for€the€holidays.€his€eyes€narrowing.”€Hannah€said.”€ € Jake€had€never€been€at€a€family€gathering€per€se.€ € Alison€waved€for€her€to€be€quiet.€remaining€suspiciously€quiet.€The€camera€ focused€on€Jake€for d.€and€it€would€tie€in€ with€the€holidays.€Her€frown€grew€when€Wiley€reached€for€ another€tape.€not€another€one!”€Hannah€groaned.€Music€blared€in€the€background ss€the€lot€at€the€lights.€ € “No.€he€certainly€wouldn’t€want€to€be€exposed.€It’s€just€not€a€good€idea.€honey?€I’m€already€ working€on€a€slog ns?€DeLito?”€ € Jake€opened€his€mouth€to€mutter€a€reply.€“I’m€not€sure€I€ want€to€b € “Trust€me.€ € Wiley€scratched€his€head.€It€might€blow€his€cover.€ € But€why€was€Hannah€so€against€the€ad?€ € Wiley€walked€over€and€massaged€Hannah’s€shoulder.€we’ll€talk€ about€it€later.€hoping€Hannah€would€save€him€a€reply€by€convincing€her€ father€not€to€u e€plastered€across€the€southeast€ on€a€car€ad.”€Wiley€ explained.€honey. € “No.€ € DeLito€slung€an€arm€around€Mimi.€and€an€odd€feeling€stirred€in€the€ pit€of€h ion.€Dad.€refusing€to€ .”€Hannah€said.€And€if€Joey€had€been€ ng€the€illegal€theft€ring.€Dad.But€Hannah€did€not€look€happy.€Dad.€he€thought.€Jake€prayed€no€one€else€ noticed€the€raw€look€of€hunger€between€them€as€they’d€conversed.€I uld€be€nice.€“Why€not.€you€can’t.€“Okay.€Wiley€punched€ the€remote€cont reen€flashed€with€images€of€the€group€ decorating€the€car€lot.€recapturing€the€fun‐filled€evening.

€Could€she€manage€a€relationship€with€Jake€if€ he€became€a€permanent€fixture€at€Wiley wn?€ € .€She€wanted€ both€some€day.€He€didn’t€intend€to€marry€or€have€kids.€Jake€had€done€his€own€ share€of€insisting€also—right€before€they’d€left.€Mimi€had€begged€Joey€to€go.€ € Hannah€Hartwell€seemed€to€be€open€and€trusting€and€caring€and€he…well.€he’d€stopped€believing€in€fairy€tales€as€a€kid.€then€Jake€had€ insisted€on€accompanying€them.€He€didn’t€want€tolike€Hannah€Hartwell€ or€any€of€he ke€it€harder€to€turn€them€in.€ € Only€now.€Maybe€he€wanted€to€move€up€the€ladder€of€success etition.acknowledge€that€his€sudden€bout€of€emotion€might€be€related€to€this€family€and€ their€obviou € Like€Hannah.€Because€that€was€his€jo or€his€work.€Jake€had€insisted€he’d€ follow€her€home y.€ leaving€his€husky€ma € But€when€Wiley€had€shown€concern.€ € And€why€had€Jake€asked€so€many€questions€about€her€dad’s€business?€She’d€ sensed€tension€betw as€more€ambitious€than€ she’d€first€thought.€She€had€no€i ings€on€families€clear.€Wiley€had€asked€h t€day.€anxious€over€the€fact€that€Jake€ had€followe arters€with€him€all€day€had€been€ difficult€enough—she€certainly€didn’t€want€him€making€himse .€he€didn’t€like€that€connection.€imprinting€images€of€his€big€sexy€body€in€various€parts€of€her€house.€he€ plain€out€wasn’t€a € € € € Chapter€Twelve€ € Hannah€bristled€as€she€pulled€into€her€driveway.€so€atypical€of€him.€That€was€something€ they€had€in€ ched€for€her€hand—because€ he’d€felt€some€silent€connection.€ And€hewould€turn€them€in€if€he€had€to.

€even€injured.€“Everything€looks€okay.€I’ve€been€on€my€own e.”€ € “I€told€Wiley€I’d€make€sure€you€were€safe€and€I€intend€to€follow€through€on€my€ word.€ € “Let€me€go€check€out€the€house.”€ € Jake€nodded.”€ € Jake€leaned€an€elbow€on€the€kitchen€counter.€well€aware€Jake€had€parked€ and€was€climbin g€at€her€neatly€manicured€lawn.€his€dark€eyes€hooded.”€ .€ € “That’s€not€necessary.€I€ don’t€know€what’s€gotten€into€my€father.€“All€right.€My€dad’s€being€overprotective.€ € “You€were€a€good€sport€through€all€those€silly€videos.”€Jake€said.€“It€looks€like€you€have€some€pretty€good€ memories€of€be € “Better€than€some€children.€he€appeared€in€the€doorway.”€ € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes.€a€pained€look€in€his€eyes.€quickly€checking€the€downstairs.”€Hannah€said€instead.€then€hurried€upstairs€while€she€ worked€in€the€ € A€few€minutes€later.Hannah€locked€her€car€and€walked€up€the€sidewalk.€I’m€sure.€knowing€she€should€say€something€to€prove€she€ reciprocated€the€f her—only€she€had€trouble€showing€ her€affection.”€ € “I€told€you€I’d€be€fine.€“He€ obviously€c € Hannah€bit€down€on€her€lip.€his€body€only€inches€from€hers.€Jake€exuded t€all€the€other€men€in€her€life€to€shame.€Apparently€seeing€the€shrink€ hadn’t€helped€her€one cted€to€the€man.€unlocked€the€door€and€ slipped€inside€t g€sure€I€arrived€home€safely.€I€do€appreciate€my€father.€Then€she€remembered€he€had€no€ family.”€She€quickly€inserted€the€key.€and€sh ry.€ It’s€just€he€can€be€overzealous€about€things.€Check€the€house€and€I’ll€make€some€coffee.€ she€tried€to€ignore€the€fact€that.”€ € Jake€shrugged€again.€ € Jake€shrugged.

€T € He€jammed€his€hands€in€his€pockets€and€stared€at€her.€well…let’s€just€say€she€li € Compassion€swelled€in€Hannah’s€chest.€Jake€had€ certainly€seemed d€a€handle€on€how€a€ father€should€behave—he’d€certainly€taken€care€of€her€tonight.€I€wound€ up€in€foster€ho at.€I€do.€“My€old€man€ skipped€out€when€I€was€a€kid.”€ € “That€must€have€been€so€hard.€“I’m€sorry.€My€mom.€his€gaze€locking€with€hers.”€ € Jake€nodded.”€Although€he’d€claimed€he€didn’t€ever€want€a€family.€“Ancient€history.€ Why€didn’t€you€want€your€dad€to€use€that€video€for€his€ € “The€hospital€isn’t€very€happy€with€me€right€now.€Jake.€Maybe€he€ aid€to€admit€his€feelings.€“The€chief€ of€staff€warn e.€A€ frisson€of€a ake’s€husky€voice.€Jake?”€ € “You€don’t€want€to€know.€ “Wiley€means€well.”€ € “I€guess€not.”€Hannah€admitted.”€ € He€shrugged€as€if€the€past€meant€nothing.€“He€cares€about€you€and€your€sisters.€to€comfort€him.€“Probably€wouldn’t€impress€your€old€boyfriend€either.€I€hardly€think€being€in€one€ of€Wiley’s€ads€will€impress€him.€you€can’t€ fault€a€fathe rs.€but€Hannah€suspected€he’d€learned€ his€drifter€ways ing€swept€through€her—she€ wanted€to€reach€out€and€touch€him.”€ € .€Maybe€he€secret o€proud€to€admit€it.€she…she€wouldn’t€have€gotten€any€awards€for€Mother€of€the€Year.€Do€you€still€see€her?”€ € “No.€“What€happened€to€ your€parents.€ “Yes.€as€if€he€could€frighten€her€ with€his€s rked€in€the€ER.€I—”€ € He€touched€his€finger€to€her€lips€to€silence€her.”€ € Hannah€lifted€her€hand€and€brushed€a€dark€lock€of€hair€away€from€his€forehead.€“Jake.”€Jake€said.

€The€sweet€erotic€scent€of€her€longing€poured€over€him€a hroat.€ € Her€lips€parted€slightly.€He€envision altzing€back€into€her€life€and€giving€her€everything€she€ever€wanted.€he€lowered€his€mouth€and€pressed€his€lips€firmly€to€hers.€remembering€the€sizable€contributions€the€ Broadhursts€made€ ir€displeasure€toward€her.”€Hannah€handed€him€a€cup€of€coffee€and€poured€herself€one.€And€once€I€finish€my€ surgical€rotation.”€Hannah€agreed.€but€they€can€persuade€the€chief€of€sta ve€me€an€unfavorable€recommendation.€She€threaded€her€ fingers€through€his€h eedily.€moaning€when€she€ parted€her€lips€and€allowed€him€to€taste€the€coveted€recesses€of€he d€deeper€as€his€hands€swept€down€her€back.€Perhaps€near€ Broadhurst€himself.€ € Touching€her.€holding€her€in€the€night….€I€plan€to€start € “So€you€aren’t€going€to€stay€in€emergency€medicine?”€ € “No.€“They€can’t€ have€me€fired.€in ender€as€he€claimed€her€mouth€with€his.“Or€his€parents.€Her€hair€felt€like€softly€spun€silk€draped€across€his€ fingers.€Ja ghts€of€Hannah€reconciling€with€ the€man€bothered€him.€Her€breasts€pressed€against€his€c gainst€his€hardness€in€a€way€Jake€had€never€imagined.€ € The€kiss€should€have€been€soft€and€gentle.€her€skin€the€smooth€te is€heart€pounding€in€his€ chest.€shooting€all€the€ way€to€his€sex.€ € Forgetting€all€the€reasons€why€he€shouldn’t€want€this€woman.€ € Everything€he€couldn’t€give€her.€tightening€his€chest.€loving€her.€then€lower€to€cup€her€ .€testing€the€waters.€“Eventually€ I’d€like€to€find € €€ € SHE€OBVIOUSLYwanted€to€settle€down€here€near€her€family.€but€the€realization€stung.€but€the€hunger€in€ Jake€rose€s ed€man€who’d€suddenly€been€tossed€a€ crumb€of€gourmet€food.€all€the€reasons€he€ could€never€ ed€his€hand€at€the€nape€of€her€ neck.€the€dawning€of€desire€flickering€in€the€moonlit€shadows€ of€the€por ody.

€His€sex€swelled.€dropped€ small€butter eek.€She€dug€her€hands€into€his€hair. t€her€in€his€arms.€he€ released€the€front€clasp.€Her€breath€fanned€his€ cheek.€and€ he€looked€up€to€see€pass € The€whisper€of€his€name€on€her€lips€sent€his€heart€racing€again.€slowly€ releasing€ tenings€one€by€one.bottom.€ € Hannah€reciprocated€by€scraping€his€back€with€her€fingernails.€but€his€ conscience€invaded.€He€wanted€her€so€badly€ he€couldn’t€move.€ € If€she€was€as€innocent€as€he€was€starting€to€believe.€to€t gue€before€he€drew€a€taut€nipple€ into€his€mouth€and€began€to€suckle.€ € Her€sweet€voice€nearly€drove€him€to€his€knees€but€he€forced€himself€to€love€her€ slowly.€th e€curve€of€her€breasts.€Maybe€pity.€he€couldn’t€make€love€to€her€ without€t d€his€reasons€for€being€here.€Maybe€the€ .€She€arched€against€him.€He€felt€the€urgency€ in€both€of€them.€he€gentled€his€kiss.€his€thigh€wedging€itself€between€ her€legs.”€he€whispered.€Jake.€sensed€the€chemistry€that€mig ct€ of€loving€would€be€mind‐numbing.€His€hands€slid€to€her€blouse€buttons.”€ € “You’re€perfect.€then€into€her€hair.€He€ would€not€take€this or€him.€ surging€again t€of€his€pants.€and€he€kissed€the€ fine€tips€of€her€ k€of€his€thumb.€hot€and€raspy€as€he€nibbled€at€her€neck.€ € Feeling€the€heat€of€his€arousal€diminish€slightly. € Only€moments€earlier.€what€if€Mimi€were€involved?€She imi€didn’t€have€a€professional€career€like€Hannah.€She€murmured€his€name€on€a€sigh€of€pleasure.€his€heart€pounding€as€her€breasts€spilled€into€ € “Oh.€Inhibitions€faded€to€the€background€as€his€need€grew.€ € But€he€had€to€walk€away.€he’d€heard€compassion€in€her€voice.€by€teasing€his€lips€ with€her€ ot€kisses€along€his€neck.€And€ even€if€she€were€innocent.

€She€smiled€as€the€soft€lamplight€glowed€against€the€ bride’s€creamy€porcelain€ es.€ € Feeling€dizzy€and€slightly€disoriented.€If€so.€It€took€every€ ounce€of€his€self‐restraint€to€leave€her€standing€there € €€ € HANNAH’S€FINGERSslowly€roamed€across€her€lips.€ Hannah € He€gently€eased€her€from€his€arms€and€looked€into€her€face.€her€eyes€widening€as€if€she€suddenly€realized€what€had€happened€ and€still€wanted king€his€guilt€double.€ sensual€kisses€sti hy€had€she€never€felt€such€erotic.€lips€ painted€a€pale€pink.€ Maybe€he€can€give€me€something€to€alter€these€weird€mood te.€wild€ abandon€when€she€and€Seth€had€kissed?€And€why€had€he € The€question€she€should€be€asking€herself€was—why€hadn’tshe€pulled€away?€ Why€had€she€let€her ing€love€to€Jake€in€her€ kitchen€when€she€hadn’t€been€able€to€give€herself€to€Seth?€She’d€gua hrough€college€and€med€school.€yet€she€barely€ p€ her€into€his€arms€and€almost€take€her€on€the€floor.€drawing€her€into€its€ magical€spell.€vowing€to€save€ herself€for€her€wedding€night.€ .€pausing€to€ pet€Oreo.€“ ave€to€go€back€and€see€that€shrink.€poured€herself€a€glass€of€cold€lemonade€to€ cool€her€bod nto€her€bedroom.€stark€blue€eyes.€momentarily€admiring€the€intricate€ carvings.€the€imprint€of€Jake’s€hot.€“I’d€better€go.€the€bride€doll€her€grandmoth € The€empty€curio€cabinet€where€she’d€once€stored€her€dolls€loomed€silent€and€ lonely€in€the€co on€she€slowly€lifted€the€bride€doll.€ € She€tossed€her€purse€on€the€counter.€ spread€the€lacy€white€beaded€gown€down€over€the€doll’s€ he€hope€chest.€Suddenly€wistful€from€the€family€trip€down€me .€determined‐to‐avoid‐the‐man€the€next.pressure€of€following€along€in€her€older€sister’s€footsteps€had€gotten€to€her.€illuminating€the€hope€chest.”€ € She€nodded.€she€stumbled€through€her€den.€thinking€she€should€ look€over€that€paperwork€her€father€had€asked€her€to€ch hrough€the€sheer€curtains.€the€bridal€gown.

€ € Wanting€what—her€love?€ € Impossible.€Doroth z€ with€her€ruby‐red€slippers.€carefully€ wrapped€in€tissue€paper.€Snow€White.€ € One€by€one.€she€climbed€into€the€attic€and€ brought€d ls.€Most€of€the€others€were€storybook€dolls.€or€her€compassion. € Sleeping€Beauty€had€been€awakened€by€a€prince’s€kiss—just€as€long‐dormant€ feelings€and€desir sessed€had€been€ awakened€in€her€by€Jake’s€kiss.€ € But€the€sultry€hot€kiss€had€been€so€full€of€yearning.€ unbridled€ye at€he€found€himself€wanting€more.€yes.€resurrecting€silly€ visions€of€love€and ily‐ever‐after.€except€for€ he€left€ sitting€on€top€of€the€hope€chest.€a€shiver€rippling€up€her€spine.and€still€dizzy€from€the€frenzied€kisses€with€Jake.€or€ her…what€exactly€did€he€want?€ € Her€body?€ € Hell.€the€g nth€birthday.€so€steeped€with€a€deeper.€gently€wiping€each€one€with€a€soft€ cloth€so€the raightening€the€delicate€clothing€as€she€ arranged€them€inside€the€curio€cabinet.€The€last€doll.€ hy.€ although ted€ones€had€found€their€way€into€the€ assortment.€was€Sleeping€Beauty.€Little€Orphan€Annie.€Cinderella.€ € .€Tears€burned€the€backs€of€her€eyelids€as€she€stroked€the€long€ shiny€black€hair e€flitted€through€her€mind€and€her€ fingers€went€to€her€lips.€Pippi€Longstocking— all€her€fav € Sweet€wonderful€childhood€memories€swept€through€her.€Goldilocks.€his€mind€reeling€from€unwanted€emotions€ over€Hannah€Hartwell.€she€removed€the€treasured€dolls.€Madeline.€ € €€ € JAKE€DROVE€BACKto€the€duplex.

€I€guess€you’re€celebrating€with€the€rug‐rats.€The€doctor€you€seem€so€taken€with.€he€decided€to€check€out€Wiley’s.”€ € “Well.€bud.€Maybe€ DeLito€had€been her€deal.”€ € “There’s€nothing€to€tell.€right.€ € “Yeah.€Now.€ € He€climbed€in€the€SUV€and€dialed€Muldoon€while€he€drove€away.€Tippins.€Do€you€have€an€update?”€ € “Always€working.€do€tell.€The€rose€Hannah€had€given€him€stil ightstand.”€Muldoon€said.Irritated€with€himself€for€letting€emotions€and€guilt€even€enter€his€conscience.€he€ hurried€ n€and€see€if€there€were€any€new€developments€in€ the€case.€Maybe€you€need€to€get€a€good€woman€and€settle€ down.€The€sooner€Jake€could€solve€the€case€an .€When€had€he€told€Muldoon€he€was€attracted€to€Hannah?€“You’re€ reading€between€ € Muldoon€laughed.€yeah.€its€fragile€petals€blooming€with€a€fragrant€sweetness€that€reminded€ him€of€her€so etness—the€essence€of€Hannah.€tell€me€about€the€doc.€Maybe€he€ would€even€go€back€there€tonight.€ € Knowing€he€wouldn’t€be€able€to€sleep.”€ € “You€know€which€one€I€mean.€“You€know€I€spend€the€holidays€with€my€family.”€ € A€little€white€house€with€a€picket€fence€and€three€kids?€With€Hannah?€ € .€His€partner€ answered€on€the€th € “Happy€Thanksgiving.”€ € Jake€grimaced.”€ € “Damn€right.€I€ wish€you’d€join € “I€spent€the€day€with€the€Hartwell€family.€“Yeah.”€Muldoon€said€in€a€jovial€tone.€Anything€going€on€with€that€daughter€of€his?”€ € “Wiley€has€three€daughters.

”€ € Jake€nodded.€but€we€did€confirm€that€the€ dates€Hartwell€ e€commercials€coincide€with€dates€ of€major€movements€of€stolen€cars.€just€as€her€father€had€said.€“All€right.€Snuggling€with€a€wife€after€the€kids€were€asl € Disgusted€with€himself.”€Just€listening€to€the€words€reinforced lationship€with€Hannah.€She’d€been€studying€the€fi ing€seemed€off.€ € His€heart€wouldn’t€be€broken—because€he€would€neverever€let€himself€fall€in€ love.€ € “That’s€it€for€now.€a€little€boy€of€ his€own.€his€ thoughts€straying.€ € Something€he€would€never€know.€ € € € € Chapter€Thirteen€ € After€Hannah€had€arranged€the€collection€in€the€curio€cabinet.€he€turned€the€radio€to€a€country€and€western€song.“You’re€the€one€who€told€me€the€chief€wants€this€thing€solved€before€Christmas.€I€don’t€have€much.€acc € Jake€heard€Muldoon’s€wife€calling€him.€and€his€ daughter.€she€dragged€ herself€from€her€ ed€to€focus€on€the€paperwork€her€father€ had€asked€her€to€examine.€“Gotta€go€read€my€boy€a€ bedtime€sto € Jake€thanked€him€and€hung€up.A.€Mimi.€ “Achy€Breaky€Heart.€“Any€of€the€contacts€Hartwell€made€suspicious?”€ € “Two€of€the€men€he€had€lunch€with€in€L.€ grimacing€as€the€ ger€belted€out€the€nineties€hit.”€ € Muldoon€chuckled.€She€still€hadn’t€quite€figured€ .€He€wondered€how€it€felt€to€have€a€wife€ at€home.€ I’m€working€ en.€Because€af r€heartache€followed.€I’ll€keep€you€posted.€have€priors€for€fraud.€H ing€to€a€small€child.€his€mind€envisioning€the€homey€scene.”€Muldoon€said.

€ .”€ € Hannah€suddenly€saw€erotic€images.€you€areso€naive.€Go€on.€then€three€times€in€rapid€succession.€Hannah.€ sniffing.€she€hurried€ toward€the€door.out€the€discrepancy€when€the€doorbell€rang.€throwing€her€hands€in€the€air€dramatically.€ Whoever€i tient.€Not€after€the€way€they’d€ parted.€ € “I€don’t€know.€“I€d one€back€to€my€ place€and€he€loved€my€dessert.€ € .€ € Uncomfortable.€sometimes€I€can’t€believe€you€were€ engaged.€ € The€buzzer€cut€through€the€air.€ she€decided€ nel€would€be€best—neither€one€of€them€ needed€the€temptation€of€anything€slinkier.€jumped€up€and€hurried€into€ the€kitchen.€Irritated ere€being€literal.”€ € Mimi€slumped€into€the€big€armchair€and€flopped€her€long€legs€in€front€of€her.€he€wouldn’t€be€so€bold€as€to€come€over€this€late.”€ € Mimi€shook€her€head€as€if€Hannah€were€a€lost€cause.€“But€ Joey€deserted€ € Hannah€frowned.€Her€fingers€momentarily€tightened€ over€the€edges d€be€at€the€door?€ € Jake?€ € No.”€Mimi€wailed.€honey.€Seconds€later.€waiting€for€Mimi€to€elaborate.€checked€the€peephole€and€saw€a € “What’s€wrong?”€Hannah€quickly€opened€the€door€and€ushered€her€sister€inside.€only€not€of€Mimi€and€Joey.€Hannah€ran€he ss.”€ € “I€can’t€believe€he€could€eat€anything€else€after€that€Thanksgiving€feast—”€ € “Oh.€She€poured€them€each€a€glass€ and€made€herself€comfortable€on€the€sofa€again.€ringing€two.€but€of€her€and€ Jake.€she€glanced€down€at€her€flannel€pj’s€and€frowned.€Scrambling€into€her€robe.€handing€her€sister€a€tissue€to€dab€at€her€mascara‐stained€eyes€ and€puffy€che on.€“Sit€down€and€tell€me€what€ happened.

€the€nameBuffy.”€Mimi€downed€her€drink€and€poured€another.€It€must€have€b .€He€dashed€into€his€Beamer€and€raced€from€t .”€ € “Her€name?”€ € “Yes.€actually€ blushing€as€if€she€didn’t€want€to€blurt€out€the€particulars.€ hoping€not€t inutes€before.€for€her€sister’s€cheeks€to€redden.€looking€ frazzled€and€out€of€sorts.€ € What€exactly€was€Mimi’s€boyfriend€up€to?€ € €€ € JAKE€SAWJOEYslip€into€the€used‐car€lot€office.€ € “Did€he€give€an€explanation?”€ € “He€said€he€had€work€to€do.€Mimi.€some€floozy€named€Buffy.€You€don’t€know€anything€for€sure.€he’s€not€a€doctor€or€even€a€veteri€narian!€Used‐car€salesmen€do € Hannah€studied€Mimi’s€disappointed€expression€and€wished€she€had€some€ answers.€don’t€jump€to€conclusions.€She’d€discovered€a€woman’s€name€scrawled€in€the€ margins€of€one€of€ n€her.”€Mimi€said€in€a€shrill€voice.”€ € “I€know€the€woman’s€name.€He€sank€lower€into€his€Cherokee.€“I€just€know€he’s€in€ bed€with€her€r € “Now.€like€I€said.€ € Hannah€wrinkled€her€nose.“Well.€Jake€peered€thr f€the€building.€ € .€jumped€from€his€ BMW€and€hauled€inside€like€a€bat€out€of€hell.€“What€kind€of€ work€is€so€im o€do€it?€For€ heaven’s€sakes.€Unfortunately hy€do€you€think€he€left?”€ € “He’s€found€another€woman.”€Mimi€hugged€her€knees€to€her€chest.€we€were€enjoying€our€dessert.€then€Joey’s€pager€went€off€and€ he€got€up€a itated.€saw€lights€flicker€on€and€he€tracked€Joey€with€his€ eyes€as€he€darted€through eLito€emerged.

€th a€ envelope€across€the€scarred€table.€ he’d€never€seen€the€connection€between€Mimi€and€DeLito.€Jake€slipped€from€his€Jeep€and tools€down€so€DeLito€wouldn’t€spot€him.€It€was€ th€a€nurse€from€obstetrics.€his€shoulders€ hunched€against€th ight.€past€a€row d€DeLito€might€stop.€Mimi€obviously€ p e€a€little€more€than€her€older€sister.€Jake€couldn’t€ make€out€what€they€were€saying.€making€sure€to€keep€a€safe€distance€through€ traffic.€ € A€brassy.Jake€cranked€his€Jeep€and€followed.€ his€other€h ize€his€words.€ € €€ € HANNAH’S€EARSstill€burned€from€gossip€as€she€drove€toward€her€father’s€car€ lot€the€next€day.€A€few€ customers€nearby€glanced€their€way€and€DeLito€seemed€to€realize€he’d€dr ward€the€woman€as€if€to€shield€them€from€curious€ onlookers.€ € Jake€parked€across€the€street€and€watched€DeLito€climb€out.€They€ wound€through€the€central€part€of€town.€The€stench€of€cigarettes€ and€sweat€surrounded€him.€but€the€man€traveled€on.€ € . umors€that€Seth€had€left€ town€because€he€was€devastated€over€their€canceled€wedding.€And€still€others€claimed€ he’d€gone€to€a€New€Age€retreat€to€lock€ and€rediscover€his€inner€soul.€He€strode€into€the€bar€as€if€he€ had€a€definite€purpose.€but€they€ordered€drinks€and€ta ed€a€beer€and€tried€to€figure€out€the€relationship—personal€or€ business?€The€woman€was€a€dis ister.€stuffed€it€inside€his€leather€ jac e€tossed€a€few€bills€on€the€table€to€cover€his€tab€and€ stalked€outside.€alw wo€so€Joey€wouldn’t€notice€the€tail.€more€certain€than€ev olved€in€the€theft€ring.€DeLito€picked€it€up.€blew€a€puff€of€smoke€in€the€air€and€glared€at€the€woman.€then€again.€finally€pulling€in€at€a€local€ pub.€Something€about€washing€and€anointing€each€ other’s€bodies€wit ng€to€the€moon….€c hrough€an€old‐fashioned€ jukebox.€hard‐edged€blonde€wearing€leather€pants€and€a€biker’s€jacket€wove€ between€the€patr th€with€DeLito.€ € DeLito€lit€a€cigarette.€A€heated€exchange€took€place.

€ € A€laugh€bubbled€in€her€throat€when€she€saw€the€car€her€father€had€fashioned€as€a€ sleigh.€He’d€strategically€placed€a€ful he€cover€on€a€huge€sign€hanging€above€the€makeshift€sleigh.€she€parked€the€car.€a€little€boy€who€resembled€Jake.€Her€son.€ € Shaking€herself€from€the€stupor.€where€his€latest€car€lot€had€opened.€With€any€luck.€His€shiny€black€hair€gleamed€in€the€ sunlight.€tugging€at€ Wiley’s€fake€white€beard€with€the€other.€the€rumors€were€all€false.€then€saw€the€real.€Apparently€Wiley€was€offering€free€Santa€visits€to€the€ customers’€kids.€ € .€his€black‐boo ck€seat.€ and€he€sat€on€the€back€wearing€a€Santa€costume.€she€couldn’t€imagine€Seth€doing€anything€so€ outlandish r€a€stranger’s€naked€body.€but€the€chief€ of€staff’s€look€of€disapproval€when€she’d€passed€hi e’d€have€to€move€across€the€country€to€escape€the€gossip— although€she’d€probably€have€toleav rom€ the€east€coast€all€the€way€to€the€west.€fully€ grown€man€emer e€wore€a€denim€shirt€with€the€sleeves€ rolled€up.Of€course.€a ees€lit€with€white€lights€were€interspersed€ throughout€the€town.€He’ s€and€garland€and€candy€canes.€ € Christmas€decorations€glittered€from€the€sidewalks.€ € Dear€heavens—she€was€hallucinating.€ € A€brief€moment€of€insanity€passed€through€her€again€as€her€imagination€swung€ into€overdrive— e€boy€with€black€eyes€climbing€onto€ Santa’s€lap.€revealing€dark€arms€dusted€with€fine€black€ ged€his€muscular€hips€and€thighs.€her€father€would€go€in s€he’d€mentioned€the€day€before.€A€todd hing€a€half‐eaten€sucker€in€one€hand.€garland€was€draped€around€ phone€poles.€Th d€to€ find€out€if€Hannah’s€father€was€the€real€Santa.€along€with€ ned€coloring€book€ featuring€a€dozen€different€kinds€of€cars.€She€steered€past€the€newly€ e€lot.€past€ the€old‐fashioned€soda€shop€and€Cindy’s€Cut€&€Curl€until€she€reached€her€ father nd€Alison€here€so€they€could€go€ tree€hunting€together.€ Already€a€line€of€eager€kids€sna e€a€photographer€ stayed€on€hand€to€capture€the€tender€moment€for€a€mere€five€dollars.

”€ € “It’s€too€big.€sending€a€tingle€ of€awareness€up€her€spine.€much€le ess€he€didn’t€have€to€ play€Santa.€Joey?”€Mimi€ asked.€ .€ € “No.€Although€the€sight€of€her€in€that€pale€pink€sweater€hugging€her€soft€ curves€and€that€pair d€his€careful€control€into€ shreds.€He€was€so€close€to€ cracking€this€case€t lf€to€become€emotionally€ entangled€with€the€beautiful€doctor.€it’s€perfect.€and€she€paused€to€steady€herself€before€ approaching€him.€Surely€he€could€resist€temptat r. d€kisses€surfaced.€ hoping€to€watch€Mimi€a€lit € But€he€didn’t€know€the€first€thing€about€Christmas€trees.€It’ll€look€great€in€Dad’s€den.€For€her€own€peace€of€mind.€He€claimed€his€daughters€believed€in€ tradition.€so€Jake’s€plan€to€exp e’d€decided€to€keep€his€promise€to€Wiley€and€go€on€the€tree€hunt.€He’d€never€had€one€ before.€He’d€been€quiet€and€ moody€all€da ng€her€sister€but€was€too€ big€a€coward€to€tell€her.€ € “I€love€it.€situated€right€next€to€Wiley’s.€ € €€ € JAKE€SAWHANNAHapproach€and€willed€himself€to€behave.€Don’t€you€think€so.”€Hannah€argued.€sh ould€bow€out€of€the€Christmas‐tree€hunt.€Tradition€to€Jake€meant€finding€ en€and€ forgetting€the€cheery€day€with€beer€and€pretzels.€ € Damn.€The€morning€had€been€frustrating€enough€without€having€his€body€ cramped€from€unsated€a eLito€had€been€hovering€in€his€ office.€ € Joey€slanted€a€look€at€the€gigantic€pine€tree€and€shrugged.€Wiley€insisted€they€hike€into€the€woods€and€find€a€real€tr ot€in€town.€ € €€ € “LET’S€GETthat€big€pine!”€Mimi€shouted.The€breath€whooshed€from€her€chest.€“The€branches€are€so€full.”€Alison€agreed.

€let’s€cut€it€down.”€Alison€begged.€Every€tree€Hannah€found.€She€doubted€it€would€be€a€good€idea€to€be€alone€ with€Jake€in€the nting€for€a€tree.€ € “I’ll€get€the€saw.€quick€trip— completely€unromantic € “Don’t€get€lost.”€ € Hannah€imagined€the€den€filled€with€the€huge€tree.€as€if€ € “Please.”€she€agreed.”€Mimi€said.€“We’ll€cut€this€one€down€if€ you€two€want€ ady€picked€out€one€ for€my€apartment.€but€you€tw € Mimi€laughed€with€delight€and€handed€Joey€the€saw.€“You’ll€probably€have€to€cut€off€the€top€ to€get€the r€backup.€And€ it€was€daylight.€But€she€couldn’t€disappoint€ her€sisters.€too.€ € Hannah€paused.€Dad€has€a€ton€of€ornaments.€so€she€finally€agreed.€ € Hannah€eyed€the€height€from€base€to€top.€Alison?”€ € Alison€gave€her€a€devious€look.”€Alison€offered.€Mimi€always€want e€she€could€ find.€She€was€so€much€like€their€father. ver€an€hour.€thinking€they€would€have€a€simple.€You€two € Hannah€bit€down€on€her€lip.€Hannah.€so€she€supposed€he€ € “All€right.€ saying€it€was€too€puny.€“Maybe€we’d€better€come€back€another€day.”€ € .”€ € “You€want€to€come€with€us.€I€think€they’ll€need€my€help€to€carry€this€ one.€It’ll€be€dark€soon.€And€Jake€did€work€for€her€father.”€Mimi€teased€as€they€started€to€walk€down€the€path.€Jake’s€steady€gaze€didn’t€waver.€“And€I€know€ he€bought€a€ne re€are€a€thousand€of€ them.€“All€right.€“No.€Mimi€refused.€ “Come€on.€but€he’d€ staunchly€avoided€offering€an€opinion€on€any€of€the€possibilities€so€far.€the€branches€shimmering€ with€so€many€ligh nded.

€sturdy‐looking€spruce€jutting€from€the€ground€ in€the€clearin ne.”€Hannah€said.€All€we€have€to € “Okay.€The€only€tree€we€ever€had€was€this€little€ silver€thing.€let’s€go€ahead€while€we’re€here.€ € “I’m€considering€not€putting€up€a€tree€this€year.€The€North€Star€shone€straight€above€it.€trying€to€fill€the€ awkward€s e€seemed€to€have€a€natural€sixth€ sense€for€directions€and€had€wound€them€through€the€thick€o € “My€mother€never€bothered€either.€Somewhere€in€the€ distance€she€he s€as€squirrels€scampered€for€ food.€His€stark€raw€power€seemed€magnified ty€and€beauty€of€the€woods.€just€quiet€acceptance.€but€I€can€find€my€ way.€stunned€ iked€being€compared€to€his€ mother.”€Hannah€said.€ € “That€one.€seemingly€abandoned€by€nature€in€the€ twi€light.€knowing€every€minute€ with€Jake€only€pr mnants€of€daylight€filtered€ through€the€branches€of€the€trees.€Hannah€ stopped.€creating€shadows€and€slivers€ hen€the€breeze€fluttered€through€the€woods.€but€was€she€ € “Do€you€want€to€turn€back?”€Jake€asked.Jake€shrugged.€Fresh€air€steeped€with€the€ scents€of€moss€and€wi ed€her€awareness€of€Jake€and€his€ masculine€musky€smell.€“We€can€come€back€tomorrow€if€you€want.”€she€said.”€A ked€like€a€pitiful€piece€of€ aluminum€foil.€She’d€sensed€his€mother€was€an€awful€person.”€ € His€tone€held€no€accusation€or€hint€of€hurt.€feeling€uncharacteristically€emotional.€ € Hannah€suddenly€spotted€a€tall.”€ € € € € .€ € A€shadow€fell€across€his€face€as€he€turned€to€stare€at€her.€ ent.€“I€think€it€needs€a€ home.

€I€may€have€ to€get€Dad’ € Jake€arched€a€brow€from€where€he’d€stooped.€frustrated€and€tired.€ € “In€the€den.”€Hannah€dug€through€the€box€and€produced€a€strip€of€green€plaid€ flannel.€ € Hannah€laughed.”€Hannah€led€the€way€through€the€entrance€to€the€hall.€ € Within€seconds.€ € Hannah€laughed€harder.€S llowed€Hannah€into€her€house.€Then€Mimi€ma he€decorations€on€one€side.€careful€not€to€knock€the€antique€coffee€table€and€the€ small€tea€set€s g€wood€surface.€except€that€ DeLito€was€about€as€enthusiastic€a€tree‐hunter€as€Jake€himself on€between€Mimi€and€DeLito€and€wondered€what€had€caused€the€rift.€she’d€located€a€tree€stand€and€he€settled€the€tree€inside.€ He€didn’t€understand€why€Hannah€had€chosen€the€lopsided€spruce led€with€sturdy€pines€rich€in€needles.€“I€think€it’s€leaning€because€the€branches€are€so€much€fuller€on€ the€right€s € He€tried€to€readjust€the€base.€Dad€had€to€tie€the€tree€trunk€to€ the€wall€so€it€wouldn’t€fall€ov € .€juggling€the€scraggly€tree€down€from€ his€Cherokee.€ € “Okay.€studying€the€details.€where€do€you€want€it?”€he€asked.€The€first€year€Alison€ chose.€He€hadn’t€learned€ anything€ unting€adventure.€the€tree€was€so€lopsided€it€would€hardly€stand.€“What?”€ € “Dad’s€belt.€ frowning€when€he€ ways.”€ € He€lowered€the€spruce.€“I’m€not€sure€it’s€going€to€stand€up€straight.Chapter€Fourteen€ € Jake€parked€the€Jeep€in€front€of€Hannah’s.€The€family€ oilies€that€looked€like€they’d€been€handcrafted€by€a€loving€ grandmother’s€fingers.€“Dad€u e.€The€fine€ antiques€and€old erent€from€his€own€place€he€ found€himself€staring€at€them.€but€only€managed€to€make€it€worse.€ € “Just€sit€it€in€the€corner€by€the€fireplace.

”€Hannah€ explained.”€Jake€said. ars€and€punched‐tin€stars.€ € “It€is€beautiful.€And€my€Grammy€ Rose€sends€us€a€homemade€ornament€in€our€stocking€each€year.€catching€ e€as€she€began€lifting€ornaments€ from€the€box.€surprised€that€several€ornaments€ seemed€to€be ystal€or€china€or€glass€balls€as€he’d€ expected.€knowing€Wiley€would€still€be€at€the€dealership€and€ DeLito€and€M gger€tree€to€Wiley’s€house.€scrutinizing€the€ problem.”€he€commented.€Hannah€plugged€in€the€ lights€and€the€angel€and ights€reminiscent€ of€snowflakes.€He€ swallowed.€I€can€finish.€He€stood€back.€too.€“He ol.€Her€whole€family€was€starting€to€get€under€ his€skin€in€a d€no€place€in€police€work.€I€can€stay.€how€ easily€they€see t€enabled€him€to€reach€the€taller€ branches€while€Hannah€draped€the€lights€along€the€lower€on d€the€ladder€and€placed€a€white€angel€on€top.”€Hannah€admitted.Jake€chuckled.”€ € Jake€studied€the€simple€reindeer€made€from€a€clothes‐pin€and€felt.€the€crocheted€ little€pig.€awed€by€the€close‐knit€family.€Hannah€Hartwell’s€ tree€painted€a€picture€of€loving€family€memorie € He€shifted€and€stared€at€his€hands.”€Hannah€said.€ € “My€dad’s€a€packrat.€ € Did€she€want€him€to€leave?€ € “No.€ And€neither€did€getting€involved€with€a€suspect€or€a€relative€of€ .€Odd.€Hannah€rummag tions€on€the€Victorian€settee.€then€ o€right€it.€finally€leveling€the€base€off€ with€the€saw€and€aligning€the€trunk.€Every€year€he€gave€us€an€ornament€for€Christmas.€ € “You€have€a€lot€of€decorations.€ € Hearing€the€soft€admiration€in€her€voice€touched€a€chord€inside€him.€ € “If€you€need€to€get€going.€ € She€unwrapped€a€string€of€tiny€white€lights€and€handed€him€one€end.€She€alwa .

€McCoy€was€wrong.€Occasionally€she’d€glimpsed€a€sadness€in€Jak nger€both€sexual€and€emotional.€sadly.€Desire€stirred€along€her€nerve€endings.€ € His€gaze€met€hers.€r is€dark€gaze€raked€over€her.€He€needed€to€hurry€up€and€unearth€the€truth€about€ the€car€ring€be hed€to€the€oddball€bunch.€doc.”€ € “Thanks€for€your€help.€stood€back.€“You€did€a€good€job.€maybe€Dr.€his€own€tree€she€realized.€ € He€was€going€to€kiss€her.€and€then€again€when€he’d€become€melancholy€over€her€ description€of€th mily€traded€every€year.€ A€twinge€of€panic€hit€him.€when€his€gaze€fell€to€her€lips.If€it€ wasn’t€already€too€late.€ € Maybe€she€was€becoming€psychic.€maybe€ o€belong.€and€she€was€wrong€about€Jake.€folded€his€big€arms€and€ admired€the€tr hite€lights€glittered€from€ the€tree€branches€like€diamonds.€Only€she€doubted€the€big€proud€man€would€ever€admit€it.€finding€the€idea€not€quite€as€ unsettling€as€she € Or€maybe€he€was€her€destiny—her€soulmate?€ € Then€again.€ € .€and€ she€was€losing€her€ € If€she’d€learned€anything€from€her€own€childhood.€ € €€ € HANNAH€HAD€TRIEDher€best€to€keep€the€conversation€light€while€they’d€ decorated€the€Christmas algic€ornaments€had€somehow€ seemed€so€intimate.€a€hunger€she€doubted€he€knew€ she€could€see.€a€reminder€of€the€times€their€fingers€had€brushed€as€they’d€ hung€the€trea e€had€sounded€low€and€husky€as€ he’d€said€her€name.”€Hannah€said€softly.€He’d€revealed€a€ ed€the€ aluminum€tree.€Hannah€realized.€He€wanted€ his€own€ornament.€she€thought.€she€knew€that€trying€to€ change€someone€to€ sn’t€the€settle‐down€ type€and€they€couldn’t€make€her€stay—Jake€was€a€drifter€and€would€leave € He€flipped€off€the€lamp€on€the€end€table.

€ € The€dreams€of€her€wedding€brought€her€back€to€reality.€Shadowed€by€desire.€ nd€turmoil€that€was€almost€frightening.€as€his€hands€covered usal€pounded€against€her€belly.€ma heir€hands€found€each€other.€merely€walked€her€backward.€His€hands€slid€beneat asts.€blocking€her€path€to€the€bed.€Sh ents.€ through€the€dim€moonl ecognized€the€hope€chest.€she’d€still€only€known€him€a€short€time.€groaning€in€ pleasure€wh r€breasts€through€the€soft€knit€of€ her€sweater.€Her€pulse€beat€wildly€as€ he€trailed€hot€kisses€over€her€neck.€Hannah€felt€something€press€a ing€hard€and€cold.€“In€the€bedroom.€nestling€into€his€ body€as€if€she is€frame.€breaking€down€fragi .€They€entered€her€ darkened€bedroom.€then€slowly€looked€into€ his€eyes.€sweeping€her€tongue€along€his€face.€Their€tongues€ collided.€ € Jake€slid€his€hand€to€the€hem€of€her€sweater€and€the€silly€folk€legend€rose€to€ haunt€her.€to€trace€a€featherlight€line€ over€her€lips.€his€hands€and€mouth€ everywhere€on€her€fev h.€She’d€promised€to€wait€until€she’d€ given€her€he e€shefeared€she€might€be€falling€ in€love€with€Jake.€the€air€between€them€humming€ with€sultry€looks€and€touches.€ all€coherent€thought€lost€in€the€moment.€ Hannah€sighed€in€contentment€when€his€arms€embraced€her.€still r.”€she€whispered.€urging€him€ € He€didn’t€release€her.€the€heady€scent€of€his€hunger€like€an€ aphrodisiac€to€her€he n.€ € .”€he€murmured€just€before€their€mouths€met.€then€to€slide€into€her€hair.€his€eyes€had€darkened€to€black.€clinging€ and€holding€on€as€passion€erupted.€drawing€her€to€him€with€a€moan€of€desire€that€broke€the€ silence€humming€be € “You€are€so€beautiful.She€parted€them€in€anticipation.€She€glanced€down€and.€nearly€setting€her€ablaze. € And€she€had€no€idea€how€he€felt€about€her.€ € She’d€vowed€to€save€herself€for€her€husband.€ € She€dug€her€hands€into€his€hair.€hers€lifted€the€buttons€loose€from€his€shirt.€Tilting€his€head gers€in€her€hair.

€unaware€of€the€reason€she€had€denied€him€as€he€massaged€his€ aching€hip.€and€ he€could€see€in son€she€didn’t€stop€ him€when€he€turned€and€walked€away.€almost€hurt€edge€to€his€voice.€ € Because€somewhere€deep€inside.€ € “I€really€am€sorry.€ bumped€his€backsi ob.€she’d€be€reminded€of€their€differences.”€she€whispered.€hating€the€quiver€in€her€voice.She€panicked€and€pulled€away.€He€was€simply€a€rebound€affair€ for€her.€a€low.€And€ th€the€least€amount€of€damage€possible.€she’d€probably€decide€she’d€been€crazy€to€cancel€her€wedding€and€go€ running€back€to€th € He€should€be€glad.€she€knew€he€spoke€the€truth.€someone€to€ease€the€confusion€over€her€brea nce€Broadhurst€returned.€It€would€only€make€things€harder€for€him€to€walk€away.€He€toppled€backward.€he€ would€lose€his€h ot€completely.€ € He€nodded. € “And€we’re€too€different.€I’m€sorry.”€he€said.€ Why€hadn’t€he€been€able€to€control€himself?€ € Maybe€passion€had€momentarily€taken€its€toll.€ € “I€can’t…Jake.€ € €€ € ANGER€BALLEDa€knot€in€Jake’s€stomach€as€he€drove€away€from€Hannah’s— anger€that€Hannah€had€be mself€almost€to€ sleep€with€her.€ € Although€he€suspected€his€loss€of€control€might€be€due€to€the€fact€that€he€already€ had€given € .€tears€filling€her€eyes.€he€had€a€feeling€if€he€slept€with€Hannah.€but€once€daylight€had€broken€she€ would€have€re ecision.€Are€you€all€right?”€She€gestured€toward€his€injury.€ € “No.€ € Hell.€“But…it’s€just€ too€soon.”€Even€as€Hannah€denied€his€accusation.

€ € “Muldoon€here….€confusing€him€even€more.€I’ll€call€you€tomorrow€when€I€find€ out€more.Details€from€the€case€bombarded€his€musings.€ Broadhurst€and€wi te€pants.€shucked€his€clothes€and€went€to€the€refrigerator.€ € Forcing€himself€back€to€work.€Broadhurst€shrieked.€Tony€Leery.€“What€about€the€woman?”€ € “All€we€know€so€far€is€that€her€name€is€Buffy.€and€he€could€leave€Sugar€Hill€this€ week.”€ € “DeLito€has€an€alias.€forging€ signatures.€He€was€alone.€ € He€flipped€on€the€lamp€and€told€himself€to€get€over€it.€ € .€Did€you€find€anything€on€DeLito€ or€the€woman erday.€With€a€beer€in€one€hand€and€a€roas ed€onto€his€sofa€and€stared€at€the€empty€den.€ Hannah’s€house€had€seemed€so€cozy€and€full€of€ s€tree€lighting€up€the€room.€He€has€priors€for€auto€theft.€“I’ve€been€out€of€touch€all€day.€plowing€into€Mrs. ley€had€sent€and€yanked€out€ contents€and€made€a€sandwich.€always€ would€be.€He’d€ already€sent€the€ ad€met€to€headquarters.€Mumbling€ beneath€his€breath.€w oes€on€and€on.”€ € Exactly€the€kind€of€report€Jake€had€expected.€A€jelly‐smeared€toddler€esca rreled€toward€the€soda€machine€in€a€nearby€waiting€area.€he€hurried€home€and€called€his€partner.€ € Mrs.€And€he€ still€didn’t€know€for€sure€if€Mimi€and€Wiley€were€involved.€fraud.€their€ cking€the€ER€to€make€certain€things€were€ being€run€efficiently.€ € €€ € THE€NEXT€MORNINGHannah€saw€the€Broadhursts€walking€the€halls€with€the€ chief€of€staff.€T e€needed€to€wind€up€the€case.€What€the€hell€are€you€doing€calling€me€so€late?”€ € Jake€grimaced.” € Jake€hung€up.€And€h er€had€before€he’d€ met€Hannah€Hartwell.

€With€a€ click€of€her€teeth.€ € She€thought€of€her€family€as€she€did€so€often€in€the€ER.€that€maki r€heart.€then y€thought€she€was€some€kind€of€ tease.€Roberts€jogged€toward€the€gurney.€Rationalizing€that€the€hope€chest€had€brought€her€back€to€ .€ € “Patient’s€going€into€cardiac€arrest!”€another€team€yelled.€With€rum lls.€she€glanced€at€Hannah.€issuing€orders€to€the€ orderlies€and€assi d€other€needed€equipment.€ € Guilt€plagued€her€for€leading€him€on€the€night€before.€for€inviting€him€to€her€ bedroom.€ € She€walked€past€the€nurses’€station€and€saw€the€doors€open€and€a€team€of€ paramedics€rush€in.€Get€the€paddles€ready!”€ € Tiffany€hauled€around€the€corner€from€an€exam€room.€her€face€solemn.€ € Maybe€he€could€be.€Maybe€you€should€give€him€a€ chance—takea€chance€a .€“Room€five.€The€mother€darted€forward€and€retrieved€her€little€ escapee.€I’m€calling€psych€for€a€ consult.”€Dr. ks€he’s€Napoleon€in€room€one.€she€ headed€to€the€locker€room.€a€tiny€voice€whispered.€And€Jake.€She€had€just€finished€a€close€call€with€a€suicide.€She€wanted€him€to€understand€her€reluctance.€Mrs.€Broadhurst€glared€at€Hannah€as€if€ she’d€ordered€the€little€girl€to€maul€her.€grateful€her€shift€had€end he€whispered€a€heartfelt€prayer€for€any€incoming€patients.€she€imagined€she’d€be€getting€called€into€the€chief€of€staff’s€office€any€ minute€now.€had€sent€the€ patient€to€th g€her€sterile€gloves€into€the€bin.€motioning€the€paramedics€toward€him.”€ € Hannah€sighed. € “Head€injury€here!”€ € “I’m€with€you.Hannah€almost€laughed.€ € Dr.€ € But€Jake€wasn’t€family.€rushing€through€the€ corridor.€chastisin .€Porter€shouted.€Alison.

€she€strolled€upstairs€to€the€children’s€ward€to€ offer€ g€faces€would€undoubtedly€take€her€mind€off€ her€own€problems.€all€over€her€fingers€as€she€ beamed€ s€magic€stardust.€“I€ think€I’l € “I’m€making€one€for€my€daddy.€Except€they€had€the€information€incorrect€and€had€ rumored€she€an € She’d€have€to€warn€Mimi.€ € Glitter€sparkled€on€the€third€child’s€nose.€ “Go€take€a€break.€ € Not€too€far€from€the€truth.€“He€t € “And€I’m€giving€mine€to€my€sister.€stifling€a€giggle€at€the€globs€of€glue€the€little€boy€ dumped€on€his € “Hey.”€Hannah€said.her€senses€didn’t€seem€to€help€since€the€darned€hope€chest€had€triggered€her€ migration€from€ € She€tightened€the€ribbon€around€her€ponytail.€she’s€just€a€baby.€An€elderly€volunteer€finished€reading€the€ last€few€pages€of€“The€Christmas€Story”€whil Hannah€listened€quietly.€I’ll€watch€them€for€a€while.€She€can’t€cut.€cutting€yellow€stars€from€construction€ paper.€ € Three€children€sat€in€the€activity€room.€then€turned€toward€the€volunteer.€“I€think€I€will€grab€a€cup€of€coffee.”€ € The€elderly€lady€nodded.”€the€little€boy€ said.€“Mind€if€I€help?”€ € The€elderly€volunteer€stood€and€stretched€her€legs.€hunched€her€shoulders€and€left€the€ locker€room s€glances€from€two€nurses.”€ € Hannah€collected€some€of€the€brightly€colored€art€paper€and€a€pair€of€scissors.€guys.”€the€girl€with€the€mop€of€strawberry‐blond€hair€ chirped.€decor tter.€Hannah€ruffled€the€little€ boy’s€dark€hai .€More€gossip€today— apparently€they€claimed€Hannah€had€been€cavorti father’s€salesmen.”€the€little€girl€ .€in€her€hair.€ € Deciding€to€get€in€the€giving€spirit.

€ .”€Jake€said.€“I€didn’t€mean€to€lead€you€on.€the€vulnerable€look€in€her€eyes€gnawing€at€his€ conscience.€wondering€ what€the€dickens€she€was€up€to€now.€Suspicions€mounting.”€ € “There’s€no€need—”€ € “Yes.€relieved€he’d€ finally€found€a€mo e.€but€he’d€come€up€ empty‐handed.€he€simply€stared€at€her.€Jak € “I€realize€that.€I’m€not€like€ that.€ € “Not€more€food.€hunting€for€abandoned€warehouses€or€ property€where€the€stol bly€be€hidden.€cutting€him€off.€She€held€out€a€small€square€of€tissue€paper€and€ gestured€for€h gether.€ € Now€he€studied€the€files€he’d€copied€from€Wiley’s€computer. s.”€she€whispered.€ € Shocked€to€find€Hannah€Hartwell€at€his€door.”€Hannah€said.”€she€said€without€preamble.€you€don’t€have€to—”€ € “It’s€not€food.”€Jake€said.€already€knowing€she€would€give€ hers€away€too.€“I’m€really€healed€enough.€and€you€may€think€it’s€silly.€he€guessed rmation€Wiley€planned€to€adjust€to€cover€his€underhanded€ business€dealings.€He€had€two€more€ ll€rang.€whose€quiet€masculinity€ haunted€her€sanity—a€big€fearless€man€who€had€come€out€of€nowhere € €€ € JAKE€HAD€COMBEDthe€town€earlier.”€A€sly€ little€smi pology€for€last€ night.€but€I€wanted€you€to€have€it.€“And€ I’m€givin € Hannah€smiled€and€began€to€cut€the€star€shape.€ € “I€have€something€for€you.€ € “It’s€not€much.€but€confused€over€the€ segments€that€seemed€to€be€missing.said€as€she€shook€another€boatload€of€gold€glitter€onto€her€crudely€cut€star.€trying€to€ fight€the€ur nseless.

€“I€ know€that.€sending€the€long€golden€strands€ cascading€ hen€brushed€her€fingers€lightly€across€his€palm€ as€she€threaded€the€ribbon€through€the€star.”€Jake€said.€Now€a€stupid€homemade€paper€sta lly€gifts€that€melted€his€normally€ironclad€control€to€ molten€lava.€“I’ll€keep€it€always.€he€realized.€striving€for€a€calm€voice€when€his€heart€was€pounding.€maybe€you€can€hang€it€above€the€doorway.€it’s€pretty€crude€and€you€do € “It’s€beautiful.€ € She€slipped€the€silky€white€ribbon€from€her€hair.€“I€don’t€usually€decorate€one.€that€ yesterday€w € Jake€accepted€the€tissue€and€opened€the€folds.€“but€I€don’t€give€ mysel € He€licked€his€lips.€I€simply€wanted€you€to€know€that€I€was€thinking€about€you.€ € He€shook€his€head.”€she€said€a€little€too€softly.€his€throat€suddenly€thick.€A€night€where€ he€forgot€the€case€and€simply€savored€holding€her€in€his€arms . e€ your€doorway.€aching€to€thread€his€fingers€into€ Hannah’s€hair er.€and€his€heart€gave€a€ painful€tug.”€His€ gaze€rose r€eyes.€ € “You€don’t€have€a€tree.”€Hannah€said€in€a€rush.”€ € Jake’s€finger€glided€along€the€silky€ribbon.€do€you?”€Hannah€asked.€stunned€to€find€a€handmade€ glittery€star€insi € “It’s€a€Christmas€ornament.€ “And€it’s€not€that€I€didn’t€want€you.€First€a€damn€rose.”€ € Jake€chuckled€at€her€rambling.€too € “Then€take€this.”€ € “Well.€“I€kept€rambling€on€about€ all€my€homemad ese€with€the€children€at€ the€hospital€today€so€I€decided…€Well.€We€let€the€kids€make€dozens€ of€them€and€we€h e€children’s€ ward€so€it€looks€like€a€sky€full€of€stars.

€ €€ €

HANNAH€SMILED,€biting€down€on€her€lip€at€the€less€than€subtle€look€of€hunger€ in€Jake’s€eyes. € “Have€you€eaten,€doc?”€ €

Hannah€glanced€down€at€her€rumpled,€worn€clothes.€“No,€but€I’m€not€really€ dressed€to€go€out. now€what€ happened€at€the€hospital.€Let’s€just€say€I€don’t€feel€presentable€enough€for€a€ res re€private,€quiet,€so€she€could€mellow€out.€ € “I€have€an€idea.€Let’s€throw€together€a€picnic€and€go€for€a€drive.”€ €

“A€picnic?”€Somehow€that€didn’t€sound€like€a€good€idea.Too€private.€Especially€ with€her€horm € “Sure,€you€do€like€picnics,€don’t€you?”€ € “Well,€yes,€of€course,€but€you—”€ €

“Then€come€on€in,€put€your€feet€up€and€relax€for€a€few€minutes.€You€can€have€a€ glass€of€wine €

Hannah€frowned€as€he€took€her€hand€and€led€her€in.€“Listen,€Jake,€I’m€the€doctor€ here.€I’m€s ay€around.”€ €

Jake€reached€up€and€gently€tucked€a€strand€of€hair€behind€her€ear,€silencing€her€ protests.€“ o€this.€I’m€healing€nicely.”€His€ dark€eyes€roamed€across€her€face,€desire€flickering€in€his€ e€been€way€too€generous€and€I€have€a€lot€of€energy€to€expel.”€ €

Hannah€narrowed€her€eyes€as€he€dropped€his€finger€from€her€mouth€and€poured€ her€a€glass€of€C y€to€expel?€Exactly€what€did€ the€devilish€man€have€in€mind?€ €

What€did€it€matter?€Hannah€decided,€catching€a€glimpse€of€the€pearl€ring€ shimmering€on€her€h c€an€act€of€defiance—by€going,€ she’d€prove€to€herself€she€wasn’t€as€afraid€as€Dr.€McCoy€and€ €

€ € € Chapter€Fifteen€ €

Daylight€started€to€fade€as€they€drove€north€around€the€Georgia€mountains.€ Jake’s€reservatio artwell€thrived€full‐force.€He€really€ thought€she€was€innocent.€Or€if€she€was€involved€at€al ng€her€dad€or€her€sister.€Maybe€she€would€even€thank€him€later€if€DeLito€ had€been€using€her€ lent€behavior.€ € Yeah,€right.€She’d€thank€him€for€lying€to€her.€ €

A€seed€of€guilt€nagged€at€him,€reminding€him€he€shouldn’t€become€physically€ involved€with€th r€and€father€were€innocent.€But€ temptation€in€the€form€of€two€liquid€blue€eyes€lasered€throu ords€haunted€him—I€don’t€give€myself€easily.€ € But€she€had€almost€given€herself€to€him.€Did€that€mean€she€was€starting€to€care€ for€him?€ €

“Blacktop€Bluff,”€Hannah€said,€pointing€to€the€magnificent€view€of€the€parkway€ as€he€pulled€ ntain.€A€few€people€lingered€ in€the€park,€children€throwing€Frisbees€and€skipping€rocks€acro e€had€lit€a€grill€and€the€steamy€scent€of€charcoal€and€grilled€burgers€ cooking€warmed€the€ch €

“My€dad€brought€us€here€for€a€picnic€when€I€was€a€kid.€I€remember€eating€cold€ fried€chicken€ ng€in€awe,”€Hannah€said.€“I€ thought€I€could€see€all€of€Georgia€right€here€from€the€top€of€th hought€I€could€see€the€whole€world.”€ €

“It€is€beautiful,”€Jake€said,€admiring€Hannah€as€much€as€he€did€the€view.€He€ barely€resisted icate€perfect€cheek.€From€ the€wind€blowing€in€their€faces€on€the€drive€up,€her€hair€lay€in€s s.€Her€cheeks€had€a€rosy€glow,€her€eyes€were€a€little€brighter€than€ when€they’d€first€set€ou ,€but€so€far€she€hadn’t€ opened€up.€They’d€simply€listened€to€a€soft€blues€tape€and€enjoyed€t g€countryside€in€silence.€The€temperature€had€been€ unusually€warm€for€November,€but€now€they itude€of€ the€mountains,€the€air€had€turned€nippy.€His€gaze€caught€two€kids€frolicking€in€

the€creek,€and€he€had€an€idea—a€little€out€of€character€for€him,€but€a€way€to€ lighten€the€mo o€have€a€few€ pleasant€memories€to€take€with€him€when€he€left€Sugar€Hill.€To€take€some€of€the tend€they€were€a€normal€couple€on€a€date.€ €

He€spread€a€blanket€on€the€ground,€set€the€picnic€basket€on€top,€then€gently€ reached€out€and hind€her€ear,€his€voice€husky,€ “I€know€just€what€you€need,€doc.”€ €

“What?”€Hannah€hugged€her€arms€around€herself,€suddenly€suspicious.€He€had€ that€teasing€glin ips€were€so€darned€close€that€if€she€ stood€on€tiptoe€she€could€kiss€him.€An€ache,€soul€deep, o€rise€on€her€toes….€ €

But€he€caught€her€hand€instead.€“Let’s€go€wading€in€the€creek.”€He€gently€pulled€ her€down€to € “What?€But€that€water’s€probably€freezing.”€ € “Come€on,€Hannah,€it’ll€be€fun.”€ €

Hannah€nodded,€smiling€at€the€children€and€picnickers€scattered€along€the€edge€ of€the€stream ocks€and€rolled€his€jeans€up€his€shins,€ revealing€a€layer€of€dark€hair€on€his€muscular€calve to€overdrive€big€time.€Hannah€swallowed,€her€nerves€fluttering€at€the€sight€of€ his€long€masc g€about€Jake€Tippins€was€big—his€every€ feature€radiated€strength€and€power€and€masculinity.€ € “Well,€are€you€going€to€remove€your€shoes,€doc,€or€do€you€need€help?”€ € Hannah€gaped€at€him.€“You€wouldn’t€dare.”€ € The€cocky€grin€he€slanted€at€her€indicated€he€would.€ €

She€kicked€off€her€pumps€just€as€he€reached€for€her€trouser€socks.€Shrieking,€she€ pushed€awa oes,€and€she€broke€into€laughter.€ With€a€jubilant€shout,€he€yanked€off€her€socks€and€tossed€ o€a€standing€position,€and€pulled€her€into€the€icy€water.€The€frigid€ temperature€numbed€her€ m€across€the€rocks.€ € “Be€careful,”€Hannah€called.€“You€don’t€want€to€fall€and€reinjure€yourself.”€ €

€landing€with€his€ knees€splashing€in€the€frigid€water.€slow€down!”€Hannah€ran€to€catch€up€with€him.€after€they’d€almost€fallen€twice.€put€this€on.“Okay.€his€hands€groping€on€the€slick€rocks.”€ € “Playing€it€safe€is€boring.€growing€warm€at€his€touch.€He€remembered€how€her€bare€breasts€had€lo .€Her€body€reacted€instantly.€laughing€harder€ when€he€slipped€ ater€sloshed€against€her€ ankles€and€shot€icy€prickles€up€her€shins.€doc.€then€ seemed€to€r pped€it€over€her€head.€as€if€he’d€handed€her€a€rattlesnake.”€He€stretched€out€his€legs€and€rolled€to€his€side€so€ he€wou o€she€thought.€Hannah€took€pity€on€him€and€moved€to€ help€him.€but€miss nds.€Jake’s€foot€hit€a€pebble n€lost€his€footing€and€fell€forward.€his€feet€slipping.€Hannah€shrieked€and€reached€ to€break€his€fall.€strong€ sinewy€male€muscle€that€rippled€across€his€chest€and€back€and€arms.€J er.€ € Hannah€rubbed€at€goose€bumps€cascading€up€her€arms.€too.€“You€are€a€dangerous€man.€ € Sliding€one€arm€around€his€waist.€ € “Jake€Tippins.€running€faster.€Lord.€the€ man€weighed€a€ton.€when€ h kside.”€ € She€gave€him€an€odd€look€for€a€moment.€They€both€slipped€and€almost€fell€tog aggering€and€shrieking€as€they€regained€their€footing.€ Laughter€bubbled€inside€Hanna ed€to€ stand€again.€ € Several€minutes€later.€the€sleeves€dangling€over€her€ fine‐boned€hands.€doc.€Every€ce h€muscle.€The€sharp€ stab€of€hunger€that€flashed€into€his€eyes€sent€heat€bolting€through he€water€with€the€fire€of€desire.€he€ couldn’t€help€but€notice€the€way€the€silky€fabric€of€her€blouse€mo wallowed€her€petite€frame.€his€long€body€contorted€awkwardly tain€his€balance€and€not€fall€the€rest€of€the€way€on€his€face.€She€rolled€the€cu attened€the€bottom€ of€the€sweater€over€her€thighs.€ti gers.€she€managed€to€help€him€ out€of€the€ e€blanket€in€a€fit€of€giggles€and€a€tangle€ of€wet€arms€and€legs.€Finally.€she€hugged€his€front€with€her€other€and€tried€ to€right€him ah€gasped€as€his€cold€hand€came€ up€to€grab€her€wrists.”€he€called.€and€he€grabbed€a€ sweater€he’d€thrown€on€ .

€ € Hannah’s€eyebrows€rose€in€surprise.”€ € “Like€I€told€your€dad.€aren’t€you.in€the€dim€light€of€her€den.€ “You€sounded€more€like€a€mother€than€a€doctor.€Why€the€hell€ had€he€made€ sides.€fried€chicken id€with€a€smile.”€He€poured€them€both€a€ plastic€cup€of€ ould€just€let€ things€die€down.€teasing€again.€but€we€have€to€ drive€home.€she€opened€up€the€containers€of€food€he’d€packed.”€ € The€outdoors€reminded€him€of€camping€out€when€he€was€young.”€ € Her€lips€tightened€momentarily.€I€simply€reacted.€Jake.€ € “Don’t€act€so€shocked.”€ € Her€gaze€flashed€toward€him.”€he€said.€No€big€deal.€For€ heaven’s€sakes.€I€may€not€run€in€your€circles.”€he€promised.€“I’m€sorry.€Jake.€And€I€am€the€oldest€of€three € “You€are€a€caretaker.€doc.€you€t o€be€responsible.€doc?”€ .€“The€doctor€ingrained€ in€me.”€ € She€was€referring€to€his€comment€about€not€running€in€her€circles.€She€ removed€a€wine€bottle€from€the€basket.€I€suppose.€of€freedom€ from€his€confining€ho € Ignoring€the€innuendo.€how€soft€and€sensuous€they’d€felt€in€his€hands.€“I€didn’t€mean€to€imply€you€were.€“I€do€like€wine.€but€I’m€not€a€total€ slough€when€i € Embarrassment€heated€her€cheeks.”€ € “We’ll€just€have€a€glass.€I€didn’t€mean€to€offend€you.€I’m€suddenly€ starved.€The€fresh€air€feels€wonderful.€then€she€seemed€to€realize€he€was€teasing€and€ laughter€spill ous€beautiful€laughter.€Jake€grinned€and€opened€the€ Cha € Laughter€sparkled€in€her€luminous€eyes.€and€ he€ached€to € “This€was€a€great€idea.€ “Wow.

”€ He€let€the€ e€conversation.”€ € She€leaned€her€back€against€a€tall€poplar€tree€and€nibbled€at€her€food.€ € No.€ € “Some€days€are€fine.€“It€is.”€ € And€he€might€destroy€hers€if€he€didn’t€clear€Wiley€and€Mimi.”€She€went€on€to€tell€him€about€a€ teenage€boy€ ice.€ .”€she€said.”€ € Her€earlier€smile€faded.€potato€salad.€you€know.€as€if€she€should€be€able€ to€save€the e’s€nothing€more€ important€than€family.€suddenly€st € “You€said€you€had€a€bad€day€at€the€hospital.€Jake€accepted€the€plate€and€dug€in.€playing€with€the€ends€while€she€talked.€but€others€are€difficult.”€ € Maybe€she€ought€to€let€someone€take€care€of€her.€Tippins.€Couldn’t€start€liking€this€woman.€Jake.€baked€beans€ and€bread.€Jake’s€heart€c ll€the€horrible€things€he’d€seen€on€the€streets€bombarding€ him.€ € But€you€won’t€be€the€one.€ Couldn’t€start€i ng€a€life€together.€she€began€ hicken.€He’d€thought€he€and€Hannah€H ybe€he€ was€wrong.€“Yes.€But€ the€work € “It€has€to€be€hard€when€you’re€constantly€dealing€with€life‐and‐death€situations.€he€couldn’t€start€thinking€like€that.€and€she€picked€a€ blade€of€grass.€ € “Thanks€for€suggesting€this€picnic.”€ € “It€must€take€a€lot€of€strength€to€deal€with€crisis€situations€the€way€you€do….€I€guess€I€needed€an€outing€and€some€ fresh€air€more € As€if€deciding€she’d€revealed€something€about€herself€she€shouldn’t€have€ exposed.€ € “My€heart€went€out€to€his€parents.€but€I€enjoy€helping€people.€Working€in€the€ER€must€be€ stressful.€he€thought.€ “I€guess€so.

€ € He€set€his€plate€aside€and€studied€her€as€she€walked€over€to€the€stream.€ € Jake€shrugged.€ € “I’m€sorry.€ € “Yeah.€he€always€has.”€Jake€commented.”€Jake€said.€wanting€to€steer€the€conversation€back€on€safe€territory.€brushing€at€her€slacks.”€he€said.€biting€into€another€biscuit€with€gusto.€Why€was€she€lying?€ € “He€certainly€gets€into€those€commercials.€ Whoa—when€had€his€job€become€to€clear€them€instead€of€to€find€evidence€ against€them?€ € “I€suppose€not.€“Business€ must€be€good€for€ € “I€suppose.”€ € The€anguish€in€her€eyes€startled€him.€“Your€dad€ certainly€has € “Yeah.€she€announced€that€she€was€full.€emptied€her€half‐eaten€plate ood.”€Her€eyes€flickered€shut€briefly€as€if€she€didn’t€quite€ approve€of€how ly€shrugged.€watching€her€for€a€ reaction.€I€didn’t€mean€to€get€so€melancholy€or€be€insensitive.€because€the€anguish€she€felt€was€forhim.€“No€big€ deal.€he€had€seen€her€take€the€files€home.€ € “How€do€you€like€living€in€Sugar€Hill?”€ € “It’s€all€right.€he’s€excited€about€the€new€branches€opening€up.”€Hannah€shifted€and€tapped€her€nails€along€her€arms€again€as€if€the€ topic€made€h t€involved€in€the€business€ myself.”€She€reached€out€ to€cover€ tle€and€sincere€it€nearly€ took€his€breath€away.€The€ gurgling€brook€ e€he’d€run€away€and€lived€in€ .€trying€to€appear€nonchalant.”€ € Jake€shrugged€and€continued€eating.€hardening€himself€to€her€pain€as€reality€crashed€around€ him.€With€a€ loud€sigh.”€ € Jake€frowned.

€her€head€angled.€He€had€worked€hard€to€tak er€had€left.€are€you€all€right?”€ € Hannah€started€as€she€realized€Jake€had€moved€up€beside€her.€She€ should€be€proud€of€Wiley.€Why.€and€ she€simply€checked€his€numbers€before€he€turned€them€over€to€ rom€admitting€his€learning€disability.€an€ earthy€mascul at€and€reminded€her€of€the€man€ who’d€brought€her€here.€ € With€her€shoulders€slumped.€It€wasn’t€like€ she’d€done€a rassed€about€his€dyslexia.€that€little€nine‐year‐old€girl€inside€who’d€overheard€her r€had€left.€but€not€one€of€his€more€unpleasant€memories€ either.€still€felt€a€twinge€of€resentment€at€Wiley’s€ choice€of€careers.€She’d€been€so€lost€ in€thought€s en€heard€a€twig€snapping.€he’d€even€hidden€the€ secret€from€Mimi€and€Alison as€something€to€be€ ashamed€of.€At€least€she€had€one€parent€and€two€t ne.€Even€though€some€of€his€crazy€stunts€had€brought€ridicule€to€ her€and€her€sister ved€them.the€woods.€But€a€small€part€ of€her.€making€him€ache€for€her.€ € And€if€her€mother€hadn’t€been€pregnant€with€her…€ € She€shouldn’t€have€lied€to€Jake€about€helping€her€father€either.€maybe€her€mother€would€have€stayed.€Hannah€had€stumbled€on€the€truth€by€mistake€and€had€tried€to€ s€more€common€than€he€realized.€Not€a€happy€time.€ € “Doc.€But€the€big€ proud€man€still€insisted€on€secrecy€and€she’d€ag € Speaking€of€big€proud€men…the€scent€of€Jake’s€cologne€clung€to€his€sweater.€ .€Was t€she’d€lost€or€about€her€father€and€how€he€made€his€money?€Had€he€hit€on€ a€sore€spot€with€h € €€ € HANNAH€STAREDinto€the€crystal‐clear€water€rippling€over€the€jagged€rocks€ and€fought€off€the€ o€Jake’s€questions€about€her€father.€If€he’d€left€the oach€to€ business.€Hannah€looked€impossibly€small€ as€she€leaned€ag e€whisper€of€her€breath€in€the€cool€night€ air€radiated€sadness.

€anywhe zing.€She€looked€at€the€trees.€which€had€faded€into€a€smoky€gray.€so€near€she€could€feel€his€breath€on€her€neck.€ one.€The€two€of€them€ together—€ € No.€se re€of€a€toll€on€me€than€ I€realized.€sanity‐stealing€eyes.”€She€stepped€sideways€to€avoid€touching€him€and€looked€up€ into€his€dark.€ € His€husky€voice€pulled€her€into€a€web€of€desire€as€he€spoke.€they€were€far€too€different…yet€were€they€really?€Even€in€the€midst€of€her€ busy€family.€Her€knees€t ed€to€ignore€the€passion€simmering€between€them.€ € Jake€studied€her€face.€ € But€dreams€didn’t€come€true€and€neither€did€silly€legends.”€ € The€same€way€she’d€made€up€stories€with€her€dolls.€his€penetrating€gaze€unraveling€emotions€she’d€thought€ long€dormant.”€ € “You€don’t€have€to€apologize.€and€Hannah nsations€spiraling€ through€her.€but€caution€warned€her€to€run€ the€other€ ed€a€tender€line€down€her€cheek.€ Hannah€rememb m€she’d€had€about€this€man—that€he€ was€her€soulmate.€ r€unlike€anything€she’d€ever€experienced.€He€obviously€fe izzling€between€them€as€strongly€as€she€did.€Panicking€at€the€strength€ of€her€attraction€to€ y.€ aware€the€other€picnickers€had€left€and€the € “Hannah?”€ € “Yeah.He€moved€closer.€His€dark€eyes€roamed€greedily€over€her€face.€then€ at€the€clear€sky.€ € Her€senses€begged€her€to€invite€him€into€her€heart.€could€almost€feel€ the€heat€f n€he€reached€out€and€rubbed€his€ hands€up€and€down€her€arms€as€if€to€comfort€her.€ .€“I€used€to€hang€out€ in€the€wood s€and€make€up€ stories€about€kids€from€other€planets€who€lived€in€another€solar€system.€Her€destiny.€ € The€dark€soulful€look€he€gave€her€radiated€heat€and€hunger€and€hidden€secrets.”€He€reached€out€and€thumbed€her€hair€from€her€ eyes.€I’m€fine.

€A€groan der€rumbled€from€his€chest€right€ before€he€pulled€her€into€his€arms.€they€slowly€moved€back€to€their€picnic€spot.rubbing€his€finger€in€a€slow€circle€across€her€mouth.€his€need€growing€as€her€breasts€f € Hand€in€hand.€a€slow.€Heat€flared€inside€him.€he€dropped€a€soft€kiss€on€her€face.€her€hands€dropped€to€grip€his€shoulders.€then€ swept€around s€senses€floated€back€slowly.€gently€teased€her€mouth ed€her.€but€rational€thought€finally wed€his€ urgent€explorations.€desire€ still€surging€through€him.€ € € € € Chapter€Sixteen€ € With€Hannah’s€soft€warm€body€cradled€in€his€arms.€so€real.€ F nds.€not€quite€releasing€her€as€he€pulled€himself€gently€off€her.€steady€ache€that€ threatened€to€torment€him € .€sent€desire€burning€through€him€again.€The€simple€ movement.€Fire€blazed€a€path€down€his€bo egs.€then€at€the€sensitive€skin€bene ered€against€ his€cheek.€the€curve€of€ o€her€waist.€finally€breaking€the€kiss€enough€to€nibble€at€ her€chin.€her€female€scent€filling€him€ with€desire.€and€all€her€reservations€ died.€plunging€one€ hand€into€her€silky€hair€while€the€other€stroked€her€back.€He€felt€her€heart€pounding€against€his€ chest.€while o€touch€her€mouth.€but€oh.€one€hand€draped€over€his€ chest.€ f€in€the€kiss. ling€himself€over€her€as€she€ looped€her€arms€around€his€neck.€her€sigh€of€passion€overrod ll‐consuming€urge€to€take€her€right€there.€the€fact€that€her€fingers€were€now€tracing€the€tende r.€ searing€him€with€a€need€so€strong€he€deepened€the€kis nce€of€Hannah€as€she€surrendered€to€his€touch.€beneath€the€ stars€and€the€moon€and€the€wide€dark€ € But€he€suddenly€felt€her€tense—subtle.€then€rolled€ to€his€side€and€simply€hugged€her€again € She€lay€snuggled€against€him€for€several€long€seconds.€Her€hands€stilled.€A€low€moan€rose€in€his€throat€ at€the€sweet€mo t€his.€With€a€growl€of€pure€ male€hunger.

€ € His€imagination€was€alive€and€kicking—just€like€his€sexual€drive.”€she€whispered.€but€just€as€strong€and€ potent.”€but€sh ment€at€the€moment.€ € Hell.€ holding€him€as€he€lowered€his y€down€her€neck.€ € He€struggled€for€something€to€say.€pressing€against€her.€right.€ € But€the€fact€that€she€was€Wiley’s€daughter.€ € Kissing€Hannah€was€the€most€erotic€few€moments€he’d€experienced€in€years.€ then€slid€her€shirt€up€and€suckled€her€breasts€through€her€bra.€even€if€ he€received€noth € He€gently€traced€a€finger€down€her€blouse.€ € “I—I’ve€never€felt€this€way€before.€she€looked€confused€as€if€she€didn’t€know€how€to€handle€the€che € “It€was€incredible.€he€didn’t.€pulling€her€to€him€so€their€bodies€ touched€from€h nquishment€of€control€and€his€sex€ hardened.€He€unclaspe .€ Maybe€ever.€so€moved€he€wanted€to€give€her€pleasure.€But€this€moment€was€for€Ha € He€lowered€his€mouth€and€kissed€her€tenderly€with€the€pure€urge€to€satisfy€a€ woman’s€needs.€maybe€more€than€the€ones€she’d€shared€with€her€fiancé.€ king€and€massaging€the€tender€ muscles€of€her€shoulders€and€lower.€Her€words€ lingered€with€a€hi n€more€than€she’d€ bargained€for.€She€sank€her€fingers€into€his€shoulders.€until€he€cradled€her€hips€ to€his€male€hardness.€and€he€was€lying€to€her€slammed€into€ him.”€she€murmured€breathlessly.€An € “I…”€What€could€he€say?€That€he€regretted€kissing€her.A€different€kind€of€desire€this€time—sweeter.€ € He€was€moved€by€her€words.€ In€fact.€more€gentle.€The€only€thing€that€came€to€mind€was€“I€want€ you.€ € Yeah.

€ € “Just€relax.€ € Her€passion‐laced€voice.€He’d€marked€her€as€ his.€would€she .€the€slight€tilt€of€her€hips€outlined€ beneath€hi sing€him.€Let€me€love€you.€He€saw€a€tiny€bite€mark€at€the€corner€of€her€ear€ and€silentl ame€time.€moving€his€mouth€to€love€her€other€breast.€He€would€almost€swear€that€her€innocent€act€was€re emaking€as€he€had€been.bra€and€traced€his€tongue€over€a€taut€nipple.€“I€jus € Her€stunned€gaze€darted€to€him.€sent€his€whole€body€into€a€ tailspin€of€e € “I€want€you€to€enjoy.€ suckling€dee sed.”€he€whispered.€doc.€ € “Jake?”€ € “It’s€okay.€ € He€studied€her€rigid€back.”€Hannah€whispered.€baby.€his€other€hand€shifting€to€slip€inside€ her€sla € “Oh.”€She€stood€and€righted€her€clothes.€against€her€neck.”€ € She€dragged€his€head€up€to€kiss€him€deeply.€ € “I’m€sorry€if€I€let€things€get€out€of€hand.€so€full€of€wonder€and€joy.€If€he€told€her€the€truth€about€his€ reasons€for€being€here.”€ € “I—I€shouldn’t€have…have€let€you….€and€he€felt€her€moan€in€his€throat€as€ her€body€c he€lay€spent€in€his€arms.€But€she€turne rrassment€and€concern€flooding€her€eyes.€ € “Jake?”€The€soft€uncertainty€in€her€voice€tore€at€him.€let€it€go.€Concern€that€he€wasn’t€ satisfied.”€He€gently€reached€up€and€curled€a€ strand€of€her sistible.”€he€whispered.€yet€he€didn’t€really€have€the€right….€you€feel€so€wonderful.€she€was€one€hell€of€an€ actress.€finally€saying€the€words€from€his€ heart.€her€slender€legs.€her€ expression€of€rapture€one€he€would€never€forget.€moved€ away€to€the€str e€stony€brook€held€ the€answers€to€her€confusion.€stroked€her€femininity.€Jake.

”€he€reminded€her.€I’m€not€on€call.€then€silently€ cursed€himself€for€feeling€possessive.€“I—I€was€engaged€ only€a€few€days€ € “But€you’re€not€engaged€now. € “Still.€not€until€the€case€was€solved.€He€saw€the€fine€hint€of€desire€still€lingering€ in€her€ey assment€and€a€truckload€of€regret.€“It’s€the€hospital.€ But€he€couldn’t€tell€her.€“But € Was€it€his€imagination€or€had€relief€filled€her€voice?€ € .€her€hand€automatically€going€to€her€waist.€ € “Then€you€have€no€reason€to€feel€guilty.€ massaging e€stiffened€at€first.”€He€slowly€lifted€the€hair€from€her€neck.€ € Struggling€to€get€up€on€his€injured€hip.€He€had€no€right.€She€ opened€her€mouth€to€speak€just€as€a€shrill€beep€burst € Her€eyes€widened.€it€doesn’t€seem€right.€then€finally€ sighed€and€relaxed€with€the€movement.”€She€cradled€her€arms€around€herself.€He€found€ himself€gri ith€that€shrink.€“Are€ ?”€ € A€slight€shake€of€her€head€indicated€no.”€ Lifting€his€sweater t€from€her€belt€and€checked€the€ number.€his€body€still€aching€for€her.€ € Finally.€but€caught€herself.€ € “Hannah?”€ € She€lowered€her€head€at€the€sound€of€her€name€on€his€lips.€“My€pager.€“I— I€don’t€u € She’d€started€to€say€from€one€man’s€bed€to€another.€not€yet.€she€exhaled€and€faced€him.€Then€ ind€whirring€with€half€truths€ and€questions.€ € A€long€silence€followed.€giving€him€time€to€wonder€if€she€regretted€calling€off€ her€wedding.€he€grunted€and€groaned€until€he€was€ standing.”€she€said.€shivering.

€he€made€her€ feel€warm€and€cherished€and€safe… € But€even€if€the€man€was€sexy€and€all€alone.”€ € He€nodded.€those€blue€eyes€bright€with€emotions€and€ questions.€he€sat€in€the€dark€and€stared€at€the€blank€drab€walls.€ g€sweet€erotic€nothings€into€ her€ear.€ € And€the€thought€of€loving€someone€else€and€having€them€walk€out€was€too€scary€ to€even€imagin .€she€knew€one€thing€ with€excruciatin sibility€and€family€meant€everything€to€ Hannah.€ € But€Jake€Tippins€couldn’t€be€her€destiny.€Of€ course.€the€call€a€grim€reminder€of€reality.”€she€said€softly.€They l€they€can€get.€wondering€ what€he€was€going€to € €€ € UNBIDDEN€IMAGESflew€into€Hannah’s€head€as€she€drove€to€the€hospital— images€of€Jake€Tippins.“I’d€better€get€my€cell€phone.€ € Because.€His€husky€voice€murmured€all€the€wicked€things€he’d€li ve€as€he€held€her€in€his€muscular€arms.€“Over€a€ dozen€people€have€been€injured€in€an€apartment€fire.€quickly€packed€up€the€picnic€and€stored€the€basket€in€the€back.€her€job€came€with€odd€hours€also.€Que e€to€go.€even€in€the€middle€of€all€her€muddled€thoughts.€the€ cloud€of€desire€and€confusion€hovering€between€them.€ € She€made€the€call€and€turned€to€him.€Even€if€he€wasn’t€ investigating€her€f ite€close€relationships.€A€man€who€had€no€obvious€roots€and€clai er€to€unpack€or€get€a€steady€job€because€he€ wanted€to€be€able€to€skip€town€at€the€drop€of€a€ € A€man€who€had€brought€her€to€ecstasy€and€taken€nothing€for€himself.€he€was€still€a€drifter.”€ € He€nodded€curtly.€And tment.€even€if€she€did€feel€sorry€for€him€and€ even€if€s cting€her€father’s€ business.€They€ rode€back€to pping€her€hair€around€her€face.€Oddly.

€ € Grabbing€his€camera€and€binoculars.€As€soon€as€DeLito€and€the€woman€ left.€holding€a€cigarette€in€one€ hand.€The€out‐ uld€be€the€perfect€spot€to€hide€the€stolen€ cars€in€transit€to€the€dealerships.€Blocking€ ft€body€in€his€arms€took€every€ounce€ of€strength€he€possessed.€ €€ € LATER€THAT€EVENING.€half€dreading€that€he€would€see€ Wiley€or€Mimi€appear.€and€he’d€kiss€ Hannah€Hartwell€good‐bye€forever.€he€eased€out€of€the€Jeep.€But€he€saw€DeLito€leave€work.€Instead.€He€crept€slowly€along€the€road.€Jake€ followed.€DeLito€veered€onto€a€dirt€and€gravel€road€through€ the€countrysi aiting€till€the€dust€settled€behind€Joey€to€ follow.€dodging€ d€ rocks.€h n€the€location€and€get€a€search€ warrant.Jake€drove€toward€the€dealership.€an€envelope€in€t € Jake€raised€his€camera€and€photographed€the€couple.€his€gut€sensing€ that€he€was€defin € Five€miles€down€the€highway.€ € Was€he€actually€considering€allowing€their€relationship€to€progress?€ € DeLito€stopped€by€his€dumpy€apartment€first. d€to€solve€the€case€before€he€even€considered€letting€things€progress€ further€with€Hannah.€They€might€ev int€ the€hot€vehicles€and€change€the€license€plates.€planning€to€stake€ out€DeLito.€maybe€even€tie€up € Now.€and€Jake€had€almost€decided€he€ was€wasting€his€ ut€to€his€car€and€took€off.€and€crept€through€ the€woods€to ing.€finally€stopping€behind€a€cluster€of€bushes€in€a€wooded€area€near€an€old€ abandoned ace€Jake€had€been€searching€for.€he€wound€through€the€mountains.€he€simply€had€to€figure€out€whether€or€not€Wiley€was€involved—and€if€his€ daughters€knew ory€of€Hannah’s€lips€burned€ through€his€brain€and€he€doused€it€with€cold€reality.€surprised€when€DeLito€drove€toward€the€northeaste utes€later.€the€same€brassy€blonde€D ed€from€the€dark€shadows€of€the€warehouse.€ .€The€case€w r€former€fiancé€would€probably€return.€Tomorrow€they’d€search€the€place.€adrenaline€surging€through€ him.€Jake€followed.

€huh?”€ € “No.€Weary€from€work€ and€from€anxiety€over e€let€herself€in€the€house.Tired€of€living€in€la‐la€land.€“What?€A€drifter€who€barely€even€unpacks€ when€he€moves€t oday€and€will€be€ doing€God€knows€what€tomorrow?”€ € Her€grandmother€clucked.€ Grammy.€hon?€Maybe€you€only€think€he’s€wrong€for€you.€ she€wouldn’t€sleep€a€wink€tonight.”€ € “Grammy.”€ € “Are€you€sure€about€that.”€Hannah€twined€a€strand€of€hair€around€her€fingers€and€sighed.€Hannah.€four€times€before€her€grandmother€answered.€is€everything€all€right?€You€sound€plumb€out€of€sorts.€ € The€phone€rang€three.€I€just€don .€She€had € Would€Grammy€Rose€still€be€awake?€Remembering€her€grandmother’s€penchant€ for€late‐night€movi nyway.€the€heat€of€ Jake’s€ki ing€with€an€intensity€that€startled€ her.€made€a€ cup€of€tea€and€changed€into€a€pair€of€silky€pajamas.€“Not€ exactly.€clearly€reminding€her€of€her€broken€engagement.€Maybe€ he’s€exactly€w € Hadn’t€Dr.€“I€don’t€understand€how€I€could€feel€so€drawn€to€him.€ And€the€reason€for€it.€“So.€ € She€explained€about€Jake.€ € Settling€on€top€of€her€bed.€McCoy€made€a€similar€comment?€ € Hannah€still€refused€to€believe€it.€“Hello.€The€ e€hope€chest.€If€she€didn’t€get€some€advice.€“Iam€tired.€it’s€me.€leaning€against€ the€bank€of€p oard.”€ € Perhaps€her€grandmother€was€psychic.€she€pressed€her€fingers€to€her€lips€again.”€ € “Mercy€child.€He’s rong€for€me.€this€is€about€his€job€and€your€dad.”€Hannah€said.€ €€ € IT€WAS€ONLY€TENwhen€Hannah€returned€from€the€hospital.

€“If€you€dreamt€about€the€man€while€wearing€the€ heirloom€ring.€Some€are€good.€didn’t€want€a€family.”€Her€ grandmother€sounded€as€if€she€really€believed€the€silly€folk€legen n.€not€just€for€you€but€for€the€whole€family.€ € “Grammy—”€ € “I€may€be€old€but€I’m€not€dead.”€ € “Life€is€full€of€surprises.€“In€fact.€ “I€do€know.”€ € “But€what€if€my€heart€is€confused€because€of€this…this€chemistry€stuff?€What€if€ it’s€not€lov € “—lust?”€ € “Infatuation.€And€I€saw€the€way€he€kissed€you—mercy€me.€hot€kisses€don’t€make€a€marriage.€ ll€quit€fighting€it.€hon.€Hannah.”€ .€You€heard€ him€at€Than € “I€also€saw€the€hunger€in€his€eyes.€a€good€ healthy€love€ les€to€a€ minimum.”€Grammy€Rose€chuckled.€Iam€on€the€rebound€from€breaking€up€with€Seth.”€Her€grandmother€laughed€ again€and€Hannah€ € Grammy€Rose’s€voice€softened.€ € That€kiss!€ € “But€Grammy.€but€trust€and€love€do.€He€ enjoyed€th lly€want€to€be€alone.€ hon.€but€we€learn€from€ all€of€the ut€I€do€believe€that€legend€has€ some€truth€to€it.”€ € “No.”€ € “Grammy!”€ € “And€it’s€good€exercise.€keeps€the€heart€pumping.€some€not€so.”€her€grandmother€said€without€preamble.€child.”€ € “But€Jake€told€me€he€didn’t€want€to€settle€down.

€ € Fate.€But.€ € “Honey.€ They’d€all€let€ ittle€voice€whispered.€his€mother.€Sometimes€they€say€one€thing€while€they€ really€want€someth o€get€involved.€Destiny.€Whatever.€ he€saw€Jake€ standing€on€her€doorstep.€ Dr.€he’d€returned€to€the€drab€duplex.€without€asking€for€anything€in€retur € Hannah€thanked€her€grandmother.€Maybe€she€simply€had€to€open€herself€ up€to€the€possibilities.€a€ ting hrough€her.€seen€the€ .€A€strange€feeling€ e€maybe.€She€grabbed€a€robe€and€hurried€to€the€door.€then€chatted€a€few€more€minutes€and€hung€ up.”€ € What€exactly€did€Jake€feel?€She€had€no€clue.€Suddenly€a€knock€s mped.€Maybe€she€and€Jake€ were€more€alike€than€she’d€ever€imagined.€and€ the€search€warr h€the€warehouse€had€ been€locked€and€he€couldn’t€see€inside.€He’d€talked€to€his€superior.€she€thought.”€ € Could€Jake€be€afraid?€ € She€remembered€the€few€little€things€he’d€said€about€his€family.€you€have€to€listen€to€what€he€says€with€his€heart.€wondering€if€ it€might€be€Mimi€again.€Maybe€silly€dreams€did€come€true.€his€instincts€told€him€they€woul erwards.€She€made€a€fire e€pearl€on€her€finger.€the€tiny€ diamonds€glittering€in€the€dim€moonlight.€ € € € € Chapter€Seventeen€ € Jake€had€no€idea€why€he’d€come€to€Hannah’s.€ e€in€a€physical€way.€Men€get€their€ hearts€broken€just€like€we€do.€ “Then€why€would€he€say€he€did?”€ € “Some€men€aren’t€good€with€words.€Except€that€he€had€said€he€wanted€to€ love€her.€She€opened€the€door€and€invited€him€in.€McCoy’s€words€echoed€in€her€head—he’d€said€she€might€be€afraid€be use€of€her€mother’s€desertion.€the€way€ men€showed€their€feelings.

”€Hannah€said€softly.€ luminated€the€room.€possessing€her€body.€He€backed€away.€Wanted€to ss€he€felt€inside€ before€she€found€out€the€truth€and€despised€him.€ A€faint€hint€of€roses€clung€to€the€air.€but€he’d€b tically€foolishly€ever€since€he’d€met€her.€engulfing€him€in€a€spiraling€staircase€of€desire.€willing€her€to€ change€her€ ying?”€ .”€Hannah€said€softly.€Foolish€and€irrational.€Instead€he€told€her€part ou€off€my€mind.€know€that€he’d€lied.€ € “Jake.€but€he€glanced€around€the€room€and€noticed€the€ den€fireplace€wasn’t€lit.€He€ached€to€feel€her€ in€his€arms€because€she’d€already€climbed€into€h he€layers€of€his€soul.€highlighting€her€gold€hair€with€streaks€of€pale€ yellow€and€shimmering€on y’d€been€dusted€with€gold.€ € The€admission.€he€knew.€ .”€ € “I’ve€been€thinking€about€you.€Jake?”€ € “I…”€Why?€Because€he’d€be€leaving€soon€and€he€wanted€her€just€once€before€he€ left.€He€stared€at€her.€although€silent.€the€sultry€scent€of€Hanna kground.€and€he€nodded.€Jake.€too.€cost€him€and€panic€tore€at€him.€But€his€hunger€ went€far .€“I€thought € “I€made€a€fire€in€the€bedroom.€ € A€slow€smile€curved€her€luscious€lips.handcrafted€star€Hannah€had€given€him€along€with€that€rose€that€refused€to€die.€and€she’d€ probably€hate€him.€sparking€his€arousal€to€life.€ and€he’d€dri € Tomorrow€she’d€learn€the€truth€about€him.€his€gaze€locked€ with€hers€as€h d€in€the€crystal‐blue€depths€of€ her€eyes.€to€pretend€that€ none€of€the€lies€would€matter.€Wanted€to€know€how€it€fel t€he€couldn’t€tell€her€that€or€the€truth€or€he€might€ blow€the€case.€don’t€you€want€to€come€in?”€ € Hannah’s€soft€voice€broke€him€from€his€stupor.€ € “Don’t€go.”€ € The€softly€spoken€request€halted€him€midstride.€“Why€are€you€here.

€his€mouth.€ € .€too.€tasted€love€in€every€caress€she€offered ders.€p d.€casting€ shadows€on€the fing€the€room€with€the€air€of€intimacy.€mimicking€the€intimacy€they€ both€desired.€the€fire€ in€her€unleashing€a€demon€of€desire.€He€threaded€his€hands€in€her€hair.€ € “Jake…”€ € He€heard€the€hesitancy€in€her€voice€and€sweet€hunger€seared€through€him.€ € This€time€there€was€no€stopping.€ making€his€muscles€ d€restraint.€a€scrap€so€femi oared.€ Her€scent€sent€passion€tingling€up€his€spine€and€he€ t€of€her€silk€pajamas€and€began€to€work€them€free.€She€dragged€her€hands€ through€his€hair.”€ € “You€don’t€have€to€do€this€because€of€earlier.€but€he€silenced€her€with€his€mouth.€stroked€her€nipples€ to€hardened€buds€with€his€ ng€at€his€shirt€until€he€ released€her€enough€to€discard€the€garment.€mated.€ Desire€riddled€with€acceptance€lit€her€eyes.€Firelight€flickered€orange€and€gold.€he€dragged€her€into€his€arms.€tong ther.€“And€I’m€ not.€“Yes.€Hannah.”€She€pulled€him€toward€her.€placed€a€hand€over€his€heart.€Then€he d€the€soft€weight€of€her€breasts€in€his€hand.€“You’re€so€ beautiful. € She€started€to€speak.€clinging€to€him€as€he€walked€her€ backwards€to€the€bedroom.€her€smooth€skin€begging€for€his€kisses.€Her€eyes€darkened€with€ ut€he€held€her€at€arm’s€length.€I€don’t€think€I’ve€ever€seen€anything€so€perfect.€I€want€you.€a€guttura e€way€she€threw€her€head€back.€tearing€at€his€shirt.€plunging€his€tongue€ inside€to€tast ith€his€hands.€He€ lowered€his€mouth€ e€skin€of€her€neck.€She€arched€into€him€ and€he€slid€his€hands€to€the€waistband€of€her€pajamas€pus loor.€She€stepped€out€of€them.€out€of€control.€because—”€ € “I€know.€his€jaw.€I’m€doing€i € The€second€she€voiced€the€words.€wanting€to€look€at€her.€Their€mouths€ met.€revealing€a€pair€of€pale€pink€bikini€ panties.€painting€an€erotic€ picture€of€her€naked.€tasted€fire€ in€her€burning€skin.

€and€he€picked€her using€to€look€into€her€eyes.€A€hint€of€fear.€Lowering€his€head€to€whisper€sweet€nothings€in€he er€skin.€Jake.€She€moaned€again.€her€legs€buckling.€ € His€heart€raced.€but€moved€by€the€ fact€that€h ad€and€looked€into€her€eyes.€hating€that€he’d€hurt€her.€her€voice€a€husky€ whisper€in€the€da ay€I€want€you.€he€held€himself€in€check.€ .€Then€he€lifted€himself€ above€her.€ripp ed€himself.€and€surrendered€to€her€unbidden€ request.€“Hannah?”€God.€ she€wasn’t€a…€ € “Jake.€the€heady€scent€of€arousal€and€his€muscles€clenched.He€licked€her€neck.€ € She€cried€out€softly€and€he€stilled.”€she€whispered.€I€want€you.€then€stopped€when€he€felt€a€small€resistance.€nud nee€and€pressed€himself€into€her.€taking€his€boxers€with€them.€all€the€way€to€her€ breasts€wher pples€before€taking€one€in€his€ mouth.”€ € Cupping€her€face€with€his€hands.€don’t€stop.€her€eyes€ablaze€with€hunger.€pulled€out€a€foil€packet.€of€awe…he€wasn’t€sure€which.€ shaken€by€the€emotions€he€saw€glittering€in€the€expressive€dept € “Please.€Wanting€ wered€his€head€one€more€time€to€ suckle€at€her€breasts€before€plunging€into€her.€fighting€for€ control.€But€passion€ overrode€her€anxiety€and€she€re € His€arms€and€hands€found€her.€ € She€watched€the€movement.€nibbling€down€the€curve€of€her€shoulder.€ € “You’re€sure?”€ € She€looped€her€arms€around€his€neck€and€kissed€his€neck.€please.€He€reached€inside€ the€pocket€of€his€jeans.€his€lips€tasted€every€delicious€inch€of€her€body€ until€she€was g€him€to€fill€her.€Her€eyes€widene ze.€frantic€now€with€the€onset€of€her€release.€studied€her€face.”€ € His€arousal€surged€against€her€hip€as€he€pushed€the€comforter€aside€and€gently€ laid€her€on€t nbuckled€his€pants€and€slid€ them€down€his€hips.€saw€ the€yearnin .

€She€felt€her€face€turning€a€thousand€shades€of€ red.€Loving€Jake€ ender€and€potent€at€the€ same€time.€Jake.€tremblin an.€She€clawed€at€his€naked€back.€ I…never€ima € A€chuckle€rumbled€from€his€chest.€ He€teased€her€ e.€hugged€his€aching€sex€within€ her.€ € Had€he€felt€the€same€way?€ € He€cradled€her€against€him.€ tortured€her€with€the€soft€whisper€of€his€breath€in€h € Until€she€exploded.€Who€would€have€known?”€ € “That€I€was€a€virgin€or€a€tigress?”€ € “Either€one.€That€was€wonderful.€ € His€husky€voice€sent€another€thrill€through€her.€his€legs€entwined€ with€hers.€so€full€of€emotions€and€sensations€that€she€had€actually€ ehind€her€eyes.€ He€smiled.€and€he€rolled€her€to€her€back€and€climbed€on€top€ of€her€aga e.€“What’ € “The€virgin€tigress.€and€the€faint€scent€of€sex€ lingered€in€the€air.€And€her€soft€cries€and€moans€of€ rapture€sounded€so€deep€and€heartfelt€that€his€own€passi € €€ € HANNAH€SNUGGLEDinto€Jake’s€arms.€One€of€his€hands€strok ced€a€long€puckered€scar€along€his€upper€thigh€and€wondered€how€he’d€ gotten€it.€drove€her€to€madness€with€his€body.€more€content€than€she’d€ever€been€in€ her€life.”€ € She€swatted€his€chest€playfully.€his€breathing€finally€steadying.€Sw se€hair€on€his€chest.€male€pride€warring€with€tenderness€as€he€began€to€rock€inside€her.€ € “Are€you€okay?”€he€asked.€“Yes.€doc?”€ € .

€“You€were€meant€to€ be€my€firs st.€for€lack€of€a€better€explanation.€aware€that€ he€watche lled€again€against€her€thigh.€“But€why€not€that€shrink€guy€ you€were€e € Hannah€stared€at€his€chest.€She€couldn’t€be€involved.”€she€finally€said.€ € €€ € SUNLIGHT€STREAMEDthrough€the€window.€It’s€just…I’ € She€licked€her€lips€and€traced€a€line€across€his€chest€with€her€finger.€earning€her€a€sexy€grin.€ waking€Jake€to€the€reality€o ty€of€what€had€happened€ the€night€before.€uncomfortable.€ € He’d€made€love€to€Hannah€Hartwell€with€an€intensity€that€had€shaken€his€inner€ core.€dappling€the€room€in€gold.”€His€smile€faded€to€seriousness.The€gruff€tenderness€in€his€voice€sent€a€rush€of€emotions€to€the€surface.€Not€after€she’d€offered€him€the € So€why€had€she€lied€about€the€files?€About€helping€Wiley?€There€had€to€be€some€ logical€reaso .€did€he?€Would€he€think€her€foolish€and € “You’re€irresistible.€“I’m€not€trying€to€make€you€feel€ awkward.€He€ wouldn’t€al t€after€the€way€she’d€given€herself€to€him€ the€night€before.And€I’m€finally€ allowing€my € “Well.€ € He€tipped€her€chin€up€with€his€thumb.”€she€said€instead.€ € “Hannah?”€ € “Destiny.€that’s€true.€the€first€ of€which ter€man€certainly€didn’t€want€to€hear€ claims€of€love.€A€part€o € But€today€he€planned€to€get€the€evidence€to€indict€DeLito€and€to€find€out€the€ truth€about€Ha € A€fierce€sense€of€protectiveness€surged€inside€him.

€ The€unanswered€question€nagged€at€him.€ fighting€arousal€at€ l€naked€form€cuddled€beside€him.€savoring€ the€scent€ m€bed€and€tiptoed€to€her€desk.€Her€desk—where€Jake€sat.€ € Fighting€panic€that€he’d€climbed€from€her€bed€and€already€skipped€town.€But€the€space€beside€ her€was€empty.€She€had€made€love€with€ ccording€to€the€legend€of€her€grandmother’s€heirloom€pearl€ring.€with€or€ without€promises.€ € €€ € HANNAH€ROLLED€OVERand€stretched.€he€glanced€across€the€room.€ € Cold€and€empty.€with€his€back€to€her.€Sunlight€lit€the€ hope€chest.€hoping€ to€slip€into re€he€awoke.€ was€her€destiny.€ € He€was€leaning€back€in€her€padded€chair.€He€glanced€at€her€sleeping€body.€but€maybe€she’d€simply€ wanted€to€save€ e€did€love€Jake.€What€the€ .€feeling€content€and€sated€and€ unbelievably€sore.€found€her€desk€and€decided€ he€could€slip€ es€and€have€some€of€his€questions€ answered€without€Hannah€ever€knowing€he’d€suspected€her€of € Unable€to€resist.€ sleeping€so€trustingly.€sending€a€ delicious€rush€of€pleasure€through€her.€ € Opening€one€eye.€falling€in€golden€rays€across€the€chaise€lounge€ o€lines€on€the€wall€beside€her€desk.€ remembering€all€the€ways€he’d€loved€her€during€the€night.€she€peeked€beside€her€to€see€if€her€lover€had€awakened.€She€could€ ught€with€a€smile.€The€real€thing€ s€she’d€had.€Would€he€have€to€arrest€Wiley€today he’d€put€in€him€by€bringing€him€to€her€bed?€ € Aching€with€confusion.€his€feet€crossed€at€ the€ankle rawn€in€concentration.€The€heady€ efore€rushed€back.€ € She’d€promised€to€save€herself€for€her€wedding€night.€he€leaned€over€and€planted€a€tender€kiss€on€her€cheek.€she€ rolled€to€her€kn hing€the€room.

€Didn’t€want€her€to€have€to€be€ questioned.€she€tied€it€at€the€waist.€she€realized€as€chills€raced€ up€her€body.€ € Maybe€even€loved€her.”€ € His€voice€sounded€clipped.€Why€was€the€room€suddenly€so€cold?€Had€h € Slipping€into€a€silk€robe.heck€was€he€doing?€Thinking€about€what€to€say?€How€to€handle€the€awkward€ morning€after?€ € How€to€dump€her€without€a€scene?€ € Not€wanting€to€startle€him.€And€this€time€I€wa s.€his€hands€reaching€up€to€clutch€her€hands.€ € .€wincing€as€her€bare€ feet€hit€th ked€also.€she€slowly€slipped€from€the€bed.€ so€Hannah€had€to€have€been€helping€Wiley.€“Good€morning.”€ € He€stiffened€in€her€arms.€“Morning.€At€least€protecting€him.€to€kno d€about€her.€ Hadhoped€she€was€inno s€confirmed€the€cover‐up.€tiptoed€over€to€Jake€and€slid€her€ arms€ k.€ € What€a€mess. € He€didn’t€want€her€to€be€implicated€at€all.€“I€might€ask€you€the€same€thing.€To€think€he’d€thought€she€was€an€innocent.€ € “What€are€you€doing?”€She€leaned€over€him€and€noticed€the€files€she’d€brought€ home€from€Wile € He€released€her€hands€and€stood.€his€broad€shoulders€drawing€back€as€the€ mouth€she’d€kissed€ s€before€now€pulled€into€a€ fierce€frown.”€ € € € € Chapter€Eighteen€ € Anger€rippled€through€Jake.

€He€st owing€good€and€well€he’d€fallen€ for€the€same€performance€before.€trying€to€protect€your€father?”€He€ran€a€hand€through€hi ime.€ Sure.€And€you’re€an€accessory.€But€something€else—hurt.”€ € .€“I€do€look€over€ my€dad’s€re nd€too€embarrassed€ to€tell€his€bookkeeper.“What€lies?€What€are€you€talking€about?”€All€evidence€of€the€emotions€she’d€ shared€with€him€ is€whisker€burns€marred€her€ neck€and€face.€needing€her.€And€her€fing ime.€Doctored€numbers.€ € He€still€wanted€her.€some ence€is€there.€dammit.€ And€I’d€never€ € His€gaze€swung€back€to€her€and€he€saw€fury.€ € “I€thought€you€said€you€didn’t€help€your€father?”€ € Her€lips€pressed€into€a€thin€line.€ Hannah.€reminding€him€that€he’d€been€in€her€bed€only€hour g€her.€looking€lost€ and€small.€ € “Why€are€you€looking€through€my€stuff?”€she€whispered.€her€eyes€wide.€Tap.€ € She€ran€a€shaky€hand€over€her€face€as€if€to€wipe€away€his€touch.€What€were€you€ doing.€“I€don’t€know€anything€about€any€stolen€cars.€ € “You’re€crazy!”€Hannah€shouted.€sinking€into€her€arms.€tap.€ € “Proof€that€your€father€is€running€a€car‐theft€ring.€Notes€on€Buffy.€his€temper€rising€as€he€shoved€the€files€toward€her.€I € “Proof?€Proof€of€what?”€She€hugged€her€arms€around€her€middle.€“Don’t€lie.€But€Jake€Tippins€wouldn’t€allow€himself€toneed€ anyone.€There€went€those€fingers€again.€tap€ along€her€a € He€arched€a€brow.€“It’s€all€here.”€ € She€staggered€backwards.€ confusion.”€ € He€waved€the€file€for€emphasis.€“I€don’t€know€what€you’re€talking€ about.

€“Joey€is€ involved€in€the€car€ring.€if€Joey€was€a€th oing€something€at€the€dealership?”€ € “He’s€involved.”€He€slapped€his€hand€on€the€desk.€hugging€herself.€you…”€She€backed€around€the€chest.”€ € “Mimi€a€party€to€a€crime?€My€God.”€Her€voice€ trailed€off€as e€put€two€and€ two€together.€she’s€as€innocent€as€they€come….”€he€said€matter‐of‐factly.€I€suspect€Erma€J € “Ifwhat€I’m€saying€is€true?”€She€sliced€her€hand€through€the€air€angrily.€but€he€is€not€a€crook.€ € “And€that€day€you€caught€that€thief.€“He€has€a€prior€record.€but€no€one€knows.Jake€narrowed€his€eyes.€then€sink€against€the€pillow.”€ € “And€so€could€the€bookkeeper.€She€staggered€backward.€are€you?”€ € He€saw€the€anger€rising€in€her€blue€eyes€and€shook€his€head.€I€just€need€to€know€if€your€dad€or€Mimi€are€in€on€the€deal.€I€suppose.€Helples oward€the€ chaise€on€shaky€legs.€A€look€of€pure€horror€darkene hought€of€returning€to€the€place€they’d€warmed€with€ their€bodies€only€hours€earlier.€studying€her.€ e€he’s€been€storing€the€stolen€ vehicles.€And€if€what€you’re€saying€is€true.€The€ bookkeeper€could€have€be nnah.€her€knees€hitting€that€gold€chest€at€the € “You’re€not€a€car€salesman.€almost€ falling€onto€ aw€the€rumpled€covers.€“My€ father€may€be€ yant€and€a€little€ showy€in€his€commercials.€“You’re€some€ € .€Besides.€“Wiley’s€dyslexic?”€ € “Yes.€He€could€have€figured€it€out.€ his€jeans€lying€on€the€foot€of€the€bed.€He€reverses€his€numbers€so€I€check€them€before€he€gives€ them€to€Erma € “What€about€DeLito?€Does€he€know€your€father’s€dyslexic?”€ € “I€don’t€know.

€Jake.€ € She€ignored€his€anger.€“A€detective.€“I€wondered€why€ someone€like€ € “What€do€you€mean.€right€ along€with€your€dad’s€businesses.€someone€like€me?”€he€asked€angrily.He€cleared€his€throat.€stark€shock€setting€in.€a€good€father.€That’s€too€big€a€coincid € Her€face€paled.€“My€father€asked€me€to€check€the€books€this€week.”€ € “About€the€files?”€ € He€nodded.€a…”€Her€voice€ broke.€although€trust€had€never€ come€easily€t uld€I€believe€you.€weren’t€you? € He€let€the€silence€be€his€answer.€using€me€to€find€out€about€ Wiley.€“You€were€watching€me.€he’s€a€wonderful€man.”€ € “You’relying€now.”€ € “What€about€Thanksgiving€morning?€You€said€you€were€at€the€hospital€all€ morning.€Hannah?€You€ lied€to€me€before.€but€you€wer € “How€do€you€know?”€Her€eyes€widened€again.€Guilt€warred€with€the€truth.€I’ve€been€working€ undercover€trying€ or€and€it’s€been€spreading.€He€did€believe€her.€her€voice€growing€stronger.”€Her€hands€clenched€the€side€of€the€chaise.€He€said€he€ thought€somethi n€messing€with€the€ numbers.€striving€for€calm.€ € “But€I€explained€that.”€she€said.€clogged € A€sharp€pain€tightened€his€chest.€ € “So€Joey€and€Erma€conspired€without€Wiley€knowing?”€ € “My€father€is€not€a€crook.€“You€ spied€on€me?”€ € “I—I€just€drove€by.€all€jumbled€together€ in€his€h € .€her€knuckles€white.

”€ € With€a€sweep€of€her€hand.€but€he€couldn’t€find€the€man.€Still.”€ € Her€gaze€darted€to€the€bed.€ You€didn’t€have € He€had€to€defend€his€actions.€We€grew€up€on€Mimi’s€Easy€Bake€oven€recipes.€she€indicated€the€door.€she€bit€down€on€ her€lip.€searching€her€face.”€Hannah€said.€I€felt€like€a€failure.€her€chin€rising€a€notch.€ “I€lied€because€I€tried€all€morning€to€make€those€stupid€ho em€up.€“Maybe€I€wouldn’t€have€been€suspicious€if€you€ hadn’t€lied.“And€you€use€anyone€you€have€to€to€get€the€job€done.”€ € Jake€gritted€his€teeth.€his€heart€pumping.€“Now.€Jake€ € €€ € HE€HAD€SCREWED€UPbig€time.€ hed€tears€glistened€in€her€eyes.€“You…you€could€have€simply€asked.€Her€ voice€took€on€ an’t€cook.€“I’m€sorry.€I€want€you€to€get€out€of€ here.€her€voice€low.€his€ mind€a€mess.”€ € “My€dad€is€innocent.€ € Jake€drove€toward€the€warehouse€to€meet€his€partner.€“Why€would€you€lie€about€something€so€ insignificant€as€rolls € She€stood€and€folded€her€arms€across€her€chest.”€ € “But€Wiley€said—”€ € “Wiley€likes€to€exaggerate.€“Why€didn’t€you€tell€me?”€ € “Because…I€hate€to€admit€failure.€her€voice€a€soft€whisper.€Ho .€hating€the€anguish€settling€in€her€face.”€ € He€frowned.€He’ owing€Hannah€might€try€to€warn€ him€about€the€investigation.€“Which€pro ol.€I€wanted€to€impress€you.€right?€Including€my€ family?”€ € He€nodded€curtly.€doc.”€Hannah’s€voice€ broke.

€ € He€had€to€tie€this€case€up€today€and€get€the€hell€out€of€Sugar€Hill.€ € And€he€didn’t€blame€her.€a€l e?€Thrown€it€in€her€face€by€ treating€her€like€a€criminal.€signaling€the€ end€of€the€investigation.€he€realized€he€wanted€to€take€care€of€ her.€he€wasn’t€a€man€who€deserved€her.€Shoulder€some€of€her€respons d€relax€and€ smile—that€heart‐stopping.€gloomy€and€run‐down.€ € Pain€cut€through€him.€The€devastated€look€on€her€face€when€she’d€realized€his€identity.€ yslexic.€ adrenaline€starting€t utes€ticked€by.€ that€he€h n€his€brain€forever.€something€his€own€mother€hadn’ en€him€a€damn€rose€and€made€him€a€homemade€ Christmas€star€out€of€art€paper€and€glitter.€flanked€ by€scraggly€overgrown€weeds€and€bushes.€and€if€he€didn’t€know€ better.€ € .€he€had€known€th .€sharp€and€relentless.€She’d€tried€ to€impress€him€by€making€homemade€rolls.€dazzling€smile€that€drove€him€crazy.€she€had€given€him€a€part€of€herself.€he€hadn’t€believed€they€even€existed.couldn’t€either.€ Not€some€broken‐down€cop€who€was€as€scarred€on€the€in € She€deserved€someone€like€her€old€boyfriend.€ € She€hated€him.€ € Hell.€settled€in€his€stomach€like€a€ rock.€but€he€pushed€it€away.€He€steered€his€SUV€down€the€graveled€road.€P dn’t€lie.€Jesus.€ € He’d€be€a€bigger€fool€than€he’d€already€been€if€he€continued€to€doubt€her€ innocence.€And€his€time€in€Sugar€Hill.€deeper€and€colder€than€anything€he’d€ever€felt.€She’ € Worse.€her€virginity.€too€late.€She€deserved€ ho’d€know€how€to€romance€her€in€style.€And€now.€Even€if€ Hannah€would€fo n€good€people€ couldn’t€forgive€such€deceit.€ € Guilt.€The€dirt€road€ leading€to€ f€him.€Snowflakes€had€b ite€that€fogged€his€vision.€Deep€in€his€heart.

€remembering€every€touch.€he€must€have€laughed€himself€silly€when€she’d€given hristmas€star.€ € Now€they€only€reminded€her€of€her€own€foolishness.€let€the€nurses€ wrap€them€up€as€gifts€for€the€sick€children.€ € What€a€naive€idiot€she’d€been.€How€could€she€have€not€seen€the€signs?€No€wonder€he’d€been€such€a€ clumsy€salesman.€ € The€tears€she’d€fought€since€Jake€had€walked€out€spilled€over€and€she€finally€let€ them€fall.€God.€Furious.€but€even€the€thirty‐minute€shower€hadn’t€completely€ cleansed€Jake’s€scent€from€ d€her.€the€way€she’d€come€ apart€in€his€a ddenly€she€felt€ill.€She’d€actually€started€ dreaming€about€all€that€silly.By€this€time€tomorrow.€She’d€furiously€scrubbed€her€body€ he€memories.€Maybe€they€would€mak y€as€they€had€her—once€upon€a€time.€stable€future.€ € She€stared€at€the€rumpled€sheets.€Darn€him. € Angry€with€herself.€she€raced€to€the€curio€cabinet.€she€ jerked€off€the€sheets€and€threw€them€into€a€pile€in€the€fl f€of€the€image€of€him€in€her€bed?€ € Her€gaze€fell€on€the€lighted€curio€cabinet€and€she€laughed.€ € And€she€should€never€have€let€Jake€touch€her.€t ll€those€questions€on€ Thanksgiving.€ .€childish€stuff€again—comparing€ Beauty.€a€sarcastic€bitter€noise€ that€di hroat.€Hannah€ thought€mis e€shower€and€wrapped€herself€in€her€ big€terry€cloth€robe.€taken€her€ virginity€and€stolen€her€heart.€the€death€of€her€happy.€ € She€should€never€have€paid€any€attention€to€that€stupid€legend.€ € € € € Chapter€Nineteen€ € The€hope€chest€had€started€it€all.€he’d€be€out€of€the€Hartwell€family’s€life€for€good.€yanking€out€the€dolls€one€by€ one€and€pla e€hospital.

€impulsive€thing€in€his€life.€but€ d€message.€ She€only€hoped€he€didn’t€despise€her€to ly€ punching€in€his€number.€He€had€treated€Mimi€like€a€little€sister€ when€they€ d€have€returned€from€ the€conference€last€night.€but€he€was€he he€world€to€take€care€of€her.€ € Good€grief.€she€waited.€She€should€have€stuck€by€her€ convictions.€She€di art.€She€could€see€the€headline—The€ Legacy€of€the€Hartwell€Clan€Continues.€She€had€to€hurry.€it’s€me.€ € Mimi.€“What€is€it?”€ € “I…something’s€come€up.€h € “Seth.€her€movements€jerky.€I€wondered€if€you’d€meet€me€at€Mimi’s.€She€phoned€Alison.€worried€about€ Joey€two‐timing€ rt?€ € Time€was€of€the€essence€here—she€couldn’t€let€either€of€them€find€out€about€ Jake’s€investiga hem.”€ € “Hannah?”€He€cleared€his€throat.”€ € “What’s€wrong?”€ € .€what€would€poor€Mimi€do€if€Joey€wound€up€in€jail?€The€newspaper€ would€cover€it€a g.€Who€else€ could€she€call?€ € Seth.€gripping€the€phone€in€a€panic.€ € A€sigh€of€despair€escaped€her€and€she€ran€to€the€closet€and€dragged€out€some€ clothes.€ € But€what€about€Mimi?€She€had€been€acting€so€strangely€lately.€p nd€taken€care€of€her€sisters.€ hoping€she’d€sit€with€Mimi€while€Hannah€went€to€see€her€father.€Hannah.€He€answered€on€the€ third€ring.€her€heart€pounding.€She€had€to€talk€to€ Mimi€and€warn€her€father€before€Jake€showed€up€and€threw€them€all€in ed€her€to€try€to€warn€her€father.€ She€paced€across€the€floor.€Unlike€gullible€her.€And€he€was€the€most€levelheaded€person€she’d d.€It€was€her€turn€to€stand€up€for€him.€He’d€been€a€good€friend€for€years.€ Wiley€might€be€an€oddball.

Hannah€explained€briefly€about€the€investigation.€ € No.€she€quickly€amended—by€the€man€she€hadthought€she€loved.€Seth.€Hannah’s€ face€flashi € .€You€know€I€think€of€Mimi€and€Alison€as€little€ sisters.”€ € Hannah€hung€up€and€hurriedly€dressed.€his€stomach€still€balled€in€a€knot.€ € €€ € “THEY€HADa€first‐rate€operation€going€here.€grateful€her€dependable€Volvo€had€ power€as€she€drove€l ther.€for‐going€any€details€about€her€ bedroom€re e.€I’d€like€for€us€to€sit€down€and€talk.”€Seth€agreed.€You€ can€never€tell€what€she’ll€do€when€she€finds€o € “She€is€pretty€unpredictable.€ € Jake€grimaced.€Okay?”€ € “Sure.€Hannah.”€Hannah’s€mind€raced€ahead€to€her€father.€didn’t€they?”€Muldoon€said.€Tippins.€“You€know€how€impetuous€Mimi€is.€after€what€I€did€to€you?”€Hannah’s€voice€broke.€“Yep.€ Everything€from€paint s€right€under€our€noses.€I€ want€to€g € “All€right.€I€don’t€mind.€ € “Then€you€don’t€mind?€I€mean.€Be€careful.€“I’ll€see€you€in€about€an€hour.€“In€spite€of€ your€injury € Jake€glared€at€his€partner’s€smirk.€glad€the€warehouse€held€the€evidence€they€needed.€ tears€spilling € “Shh.”€His€partner€slapped€him€on€the€back.”€He€sound ?”€ € “Yeah?”€ € “After€we€see€Mimi.€She€couldn’t€bear€to€see€ the€man€who€had€raised€her€and€loved€her€unconditionally€haul e€loved.”€ € “You€did€a€good€job.

”€Jake€said.€The€day€her€mother€had€walked€ out.€HON.”€ € “That€has€to€be€an€alias.€then€jogged€after€him.€referring€to€the€woman’s€name.”€ € His€partner€issued€an€order€to€the€crime€lab€team.€ Jesus.€what€are€you€doing€here€so€early?”€Wiley€poured€a€cup€of€ coffee.€The€woman€changes€names€and€addresses€as€often€as€she€ does€hair€color.”€ € Jake€nodded.€The€day€the€boys€at€school€told€her€she€couldn’t€b e€mouth.€But€we€have€a€good€lead€ and€I’ve€put€out€an€APB€on€her.€his€normal€ch € Hannah’s€heart€squeezed.€ dusting€for€prints he€monotonous€details€that€would€ help€them€make€the€case€stick€in€court.€ € “One€of€about€twenty.€Why€hadn’t€she€appreciated€her€father€more?€He’d€ always€been€there€ st€bike€and€crashed€and€ skinned€her€knee.€Even€the€day€she’d€canceled€her€wedding.€and€his€contact.€deciding€he’d€use€the€direct€approach€with€Wiley.€ € “Where€are€you€going?”€ € “To€Wiley’s.€Hannah€was€most€likely€on€ her€way€to€Wiley’s.€Buffy€Ford.€“Did€you€find€out€a € “Not€a€thing.€“I’m€ right€behind€ € €€ € “HANNAH.€The€locals€say€he€checks€out€clean.€He€was€tired€as€ hell€of€lying € The€hair€on€the€back€of€his€neck€pricked€and€an€uneasy€feeling€slid€into€his€gut.€ € .€whi s€up.€What€if€Wiley€were€innocent€and€DeLito€s € He€took€off€running€to€his€car. .“I’m€sure€fingerprints€will€place€DeLito€here.”€ € Jake€watched€as€the€team€from€the€crime€lab€began€to€sweep€the€warehouse.

€ shame€burned€her€t € “What€is€it.€of€being€left€again.€hone € She€pulled€back€and€gazed€up€at€him.€you…you€don € His€right€eyebrow€lifted€slightly€as€he€folded€his€handkerchief€and€stuffed€it€back€ in€his€p € Hannah€smiled.€“I’m€sorry.€ € He€jerked€a€bright€orange€handkerchief€from€his€pocket.€“I’ € Hannah€pressed€her€hands€to€her€father’s€cheeks.He’d€loved€her€and€supported€her€without€question.”€ € “And€I€never€meant€to€make€you€or€your€mother€ashamed€of€me.€“I€love€ you.€He€ embraced€her. € “I€know.€“I€do€ love€you.€ € He€gently€stroked€her€back.€Not€ ever.€the€same€way€he’d€done€when€she€was€little.€baby?”€The€look€of€affection€brimming€in€his€eyes€tore€at€her.€It€hurt€too€much.”€he€mumbled€ in€a€low€voice.€pulli s€if€she€were€a€child.€ € “I€love€you.€the€bitterness€of€her€mother’s€parting€words€fading€as€she€ realized€the€depth e.€ “Has€your€old€ ss€you€again?”€ € Hannah€nearly€choked€at€the€understanding€she€saw€dawning€in€his€eyes.€dabbing€at€her€tears.”€ € He€paused.€remembering€all€the€times€he’d€reached€ out€for€her€and€ ubborn?€ € Because€she€had€been€afraid€of€loving.€You’re€the€best€father€a€girl€could€ever€want.€“No.”€ € .”€Hannah€suddenly€swayed€forward€and€collapsed€into€his€arms.€Tears€burned€her€eyes.€Dad.€hoping€ he€could€see€ ed€of€you.€not€now.€his€hand€shaking€as€he€set€his€coffee€cup€on€the€white€counter.€ Dad.€looking€into€his€eyes.€I€never€meant€to€ make€you€feel€that€way.€Daddy.€too.

€“Honey.€exactly€like .€stunned€when€Joey€walked€in.€that€you€couldn’t.€then€a€little€more€relaxed.€the€words€too€painful€to€say.”€ € “And€he€thinks€I€am.€his€eyes€full€of€fury.€He€claims€that€the€cars€ have€been€sold€through€your€car€dealerships.”€Hannah€said.€he’s€not€who€he€says€he€is.€So€beautiful.€his€ hand€holding € €€ € JAKE’S€HEARTwas€roaring€so€loudly€he€could€hear€the€blood€pounding€in€his€ ears.”€ € “I€see.€resigned.€ that€you€would € “Well.€ investigating€an€illega th.€do€you€know€ how€much€I’ve€wan € They€both€laughed€then.€But€she€wouldn’t€divulge€her€ humiliating€ex eelings€weren’t€important€right€ now.€his€chin€quivering.€“I€told€him€he€was€wrong.€painting€the€trees€and€ ground€with€a€thin€layer€of€white.€You’re€my€tough€one.€too?”€ € Hannah€nodded.€Dad.€soft€at€first.€ € “And€what€do€you€think.€“He’s€been€working€here€undercover.€Snow€flurrie ighway.€ € “He€says€Joey€is€involved.”€Wiley’s€voice€grew€soft.€“He’s€not?€Then€who€is€he?”€ € “He’s€a€policeman.Moisture€pooled€in€his€brown€eyes.€“Dad .”€Hannah’s€voice€broke.€Hannah?”€ € “Oh.”€ € Her€father’s€eyebrows€drew€together.€isn’t€this€a€happy€little€family€reunion?”€ € Hannah€jerked€sideways.€only€her€father’s€freedom€and€reputation€mattered.€making€Hannah€shiver.€so€I€know€something€ is€seriously€wro € He’d€hit€closer€to€home€than€she’d€have€guessed.€ € “Now€tell€me€what€brought€this€on.

€ He€spotted€Hannah’s€Volvo€perched€in€front€of€the€office€and€his re€to€warn€her€father€and€might€have€put€herself€in€ danger.€trying€to€ € “Look.€he€ peered€through€the€crack.€“You’ve€been€too€busy€making€your€dumb€ commercials€to€kno € “That’s€not€true.€But€she€might€be€in€ trouble.”€ € Terror€rippled€through€Jake.”€ € “You’re€bluffing.€ € “I’ll€cover€you.€ € Damn.€What€the€hell€was€Hannah€doing.€Fury€swept€through€him.€channeling€his€weight€so€he€barely€made€a€sound€on€the€ plush€carpet€until€ ng€against€the€doorjamb.€trying€to€get€ herself€killed?€ .€scan€ning€the€lot€to€see€if€Wiley€ and€DeLito€ r€Wacky€Wiley’s€to€be€open.”€DeLito€snarled.€Joey.€ € Jake€nodded€and€inched€inside€the€building.€ € DeLito’s.€the€locals€are€on€to€you.€Wiley’s.”€Wiley€said€in€a€low€voice.€DeLito€stood€in€the rained€on€Hannah€and€Wiley.€easi € “You€think€DeLito’s€here?”€ € Jake’s€eyes€raked€the€lot.€I€figured€ out€what he€sheriff.€He€has€his€pick€of€demo€cars€to€drive€ and€never€sh lass‐ windowed€office.€“Hell.€ Hannah’s.€“Dad€suspected€something€was€amiss.€Muldoon€flew€up€behind€him.€He€asked€ me€to€check€you .”€Hannah€said.”€Muldoon€said.€His€throat€closed.€ € He€raced€into€the€parking€lot€and€climbed€out.€ € He€moved€forward.€“I€don’t€know.€but€he€ held€himself€in€check.been€in€that€wedding€dress€the€first€time€he’d€seen€her.€easing€the€door€closed€so€as€not€to€ alert€anyone ted€from€Wiley’s€office.

€ € “Look.€though.€startled.€“Are€you€o € She€nodded.€Joey.€“Drop€it.€He€had€to€act€now.€ DeLito’s€jaw€snapped€tight€as€he€pressed€the€gun€to€Hannah’s€chin.€“I€think€I’ve€ been€seeing€the€wrong€sister€anyway.€man.€“Don’t€hurt€her.€being€ blown€to€smithereens.€“I’ll€ take€both€of€y e.€he€decided€to€use€his€advantage—the€element€of€ surprise.€I€have€clout€in€the€town.”€Wiley€said.”€ € The€three€of€them€all€swung€toward€him.€He€ge to€was€inside.”€Wiley€said.€ people€will€listen€if€I€tell€them€to€let€us€through.€Muldoon€nodded.€The€ game’s€over.€Wiley€jerked€Hannah€behind€ him€and€Jake€ru he€floor.€He€couldn’t€let€DeLito€hurt€the€woman€h € Loved?€ € Did€he€really€love€Hannah?€Of€course€he€did.€Jake€had€ confiscated€DeLito’s€gun€and€had€the€man€pinned€to€the€fl ark‐skinned€face€paled€as€he€snarled€back€an€expletive.€ € Jake€breathed€a€sigh€of€relief€when€he€saw€Hannah€safely€huddled€in€Wiley’s€ arms.€I€ already€alerted € “No!”€Joey’s€fingers€tightened€around€the€gun€handle.€ € Slipping€away€from€the€crack.€ .€leave€Hannah€out€of€this.€You€can€ta € DeLito€yanked€Hannah€in€front€of€him€and€pressed€the€gun€to€her€throat.€Take€me€with€you.”€ € A€pained€expressed€crossed€Hannah’s€face.€disgust€in€her€eyes€as€Joey’s€hands€ slid€down€to€p pinning€in€front€of€him.€ € Jake€pushed€open€the€door€and€aimed€his€gun€at€DeLito.€his€voice€ blustering€o e.€“I€think€ you’d€better€shu € Wiley€threw€a€hand€up.€her€eyes€huge€in€her€pale€face.€“She’s€right.€Within€seconds.€ € But€he€didn’t€have€time€to€contemplate€his€revelation.

€ € € € € Chapter€Twenty€ € The€next€hour€flashed€by€in€a€buzz€of€activity.€Reporters€and€the€l e€scene.€ € But€would€her€heart€ever€be€free€of€Jake?€ € All€she€knew€was€that€it€was€breaking€right€now.€snapping€pictures€and€dragging€out€camera€equipment.€cool.€knowing€Wiley€wouldn’t€thank€him€when€he’d€heard€the€ whole€story.€ € “If€you’re€through€questioning€my€daughter.€could€she€live€with€a€cop€when€she€wante uld€never€be€safe….€Especi t€with€his€daughter.€“Thank€you.€she€knew€her€dad€would€be€cleared.”€ € Jake€nodded€grimly.€And€with€every€passing€ impersonal€look€from d€a€little€bit€more.€although€he€insisted€he€had€nothing€to€hide.€Even€if€Jake€ really€loved€her.€a€man€who€would€walk€aw ther.€ € Hannah€sipped€a€cup€of€coffee.€ € In€her€heart.€ in‐control ected€others€to€follow.€son.€The€local€ sheriff€vouche em€that€Wiley€had€come€to€him€with€ suspicions.”€Wiley€ said€in€a€curt € .€then€advised€her€dad€to€wait€for€his€attorney€before€ stions.€A€man€who€ stood€alone€and€liked€it€that€way.€ Wiley€gave€him€a€half‐hearted€relieved€smile.€Jake€already€had€a€search€warrant€for€DeLito’ ection€between€him€and€an€ex‐con€who’d€been€swiping€the€ cars€in€south€Georgia€and€shipping€t d.€She’d€seen€a€different€side€of€Jake.€ trying€to€interview€everyone€i unchly€ordered€them€in€the€ background.€I’d€like€to€take€her€home.€a€calm.€ € Her€father€had€agreed.€ The€local€s e’s€partner€and€his€superior€to€take€ statements€from€her€and€her€father.€Hannah€felt€dizzy€from€watching.

€Hartwell.€but€she€refused€to€give€in€ imi.€ blocking€her€way € Hannah€remembered€his€hands€and€lips€on€her€body.€but€Wiley€pushed€them€aside.€Mayb € “I’ll€drive€you€home.€ € Hannah€and€her€father€turned€to€leave.€ € So€she€forced€her€chin€up€a€notch.€Dad.”€ € Jake€flinched€as€she€tossed€his€own€words€back€at€him.€ € Hannah€shook€her€head€and€turned€to€her€father.€A€shudder€shook€her€to€the€ core€and€her€knees€went€weak€again.€glaring€at€the€story‐hungry€journalists.€She€paused.€“I€don’t€want€to€hear€any€more€of€your€lies.€You€ have€to€st ow€the€police.€ € Reporters€jutted€forward.€Prove€to€them€ you’re€the€good€guy€your€daughters€know€you€to€be.€Jake€climbed€in€his€Jeep.€guarded.€so€just€make€yourself€available.”€her€father€murmured.€her€dad’s€ hand€cupp e€car€take€off€in€a€whir€of€lights€ and€sirens.€“There’ll€be€time€for€that€later.€I’d€rather€ her€hear€about€this€from€me€than€see€it€on€the€news. € Hannah€nodded.€shutting€the€painful€images€ from€her€mind.“All€right.€but€Jake€stepped€in€front€of€Hannah.€his€gaze€locking€wi xpression€was€unreadable.”€ .€We€may€have€more€questions€later.€“ ee€Mimi.€ Dr.”€ € “After€we’ve€finished.€she€saw€Jake€haul€a€cursing€Joey€to€the€police€car.€That€is.”€Jake€said.€cold.€ € Outside.€but€Hannah€ignored€his€ reaction€as€he h€the€throng€of€cameras€and€stalked€ from€the€room.€as€if€he’d€already€ distanced€himself€from€her.€“I’d€like€to€go—”€ € Hannah€pressed€her€hand€along€his€jaw.€if€she€has € He€nodded.€“My€daughter€is€not€ speaking€to€the€p ortly.€then€the€cold€reality€of€ learning€he€had€c .

€The€TV€droned€softly€in€the€background.€the€very€reason€that€had€brought€ them€together ng€he’d€ever€been€committed€to€in€his€ life.€ He€nodded.€the€storm€had€ already€hit.€her€hands€trembling.€And€his€job.€To€her€surprise.€Hannah€felt€tears€pressing€against€her€eyelids€ again€and€b ave€been€awed€by€Jake’s€heroics€when€ he’d€burst€into€the€room€and€saved€their€lives.€He€hadn’t€r ito’s€hands€all€over€ her.€And€so€had€his€lies.€into€his€heart.€had€just€torn€them€apart.€ € .€she€intended€to€show€him€her€gratitude€ and€love.€ € €€ € JAKE€DROVE€TOWARDthe€police€station.€he’d€been€the€stable€one€in€her € He€was€a€real€hero.€But€Wiley€had.€nursin ike€orange€juice.€his€heart€in€his€eyes.€It€wasn’t€her€fault€or€her€ fat ther€simply€hadn’t€loved€them€enough€ to€stay.€ € He€didn’t€blame€her.€he’d€let€someone€sneak€under€his€ skin.€Then€again.€an€ache€soul‐deep€pressing€in€his€ belly€and€spreading€t nnah€hated€him.€and€he€couldn’t€pry€her€out.€ he’d€been€taking€care€of€ tionally€ crippled€from€her€mother’s€desertion€to€realize€it.€her€knees€hugged€to€her€chest.€until€the€slime€had€shoved€that€gun€to€her€throat.€ € €€ € HANNAH€KNOCKEDon€Mimi’s€door.€ Seth€greeted€her€and€wal ere€Mimi€sat€on€the€sofa€ wearing€a€hot€pink€silk€robe.€but€her ad€offered€to€become€the€hostage€so€she€would€be€free.€Now ecome€involved€with€anyone€before.€And€she€had€ice€running€in€her€veins.€ € He€followed€along€behind€the€police€car.€trying€to€forget€the€hurt€he’d€seen€in€her€ eyes.€ a€weather€report€about€an€impendin .€And€from€now€on.€Th ife.€but€his€heart€was€splitting€wide€open—because€he€loved€ her.€ € Because€it€was€too€damn€painful.

€Are€you€all€right?”€ € Hannah€smiled.€Thanks€for€being€here.€I’m€so€sorry€if€I€hurt€you.Seth€crossed€the€room€and€sat€down€beside€Mimi.€Seth€ really€was€a€wonderful€guy.”€He€pulled€her€into€his€arms€and€hugged€her.€accepting€the€drink€ from€her€sister.€“Have€a€mimosa€with€me.€ € Alison€sat€cross‐legged€on€the€floor€in€jeans€and€an€FSU€sweatshirt.€her€ expression€a€mixtur .€“You’re€so€great.€I’m€sorry€about€ Joey.”€He€reached€out€and€ gave€her€a€hug.€He€kissed€her€cheek.€“Yeah.€the€two€of€you€ and€all€those€co € Hannah€grimaced.€Seth.”€ € Mimi€looked€up€at€Hannah€through€watery€eyes.€“Are€you€all€right?”€ € “Yes.€Seth€approached€her.€ € She€had€to€thank€him.€gently€patting€her€knee.€sis?”€ € Hannah€ran€a€hand€through€her€tangled€hair€and€smiled.€ € “It€was€all€over€the€news.”€ € “Shh.”€Alison€exclaimed.€okay?”€ € When€he€pulled€away.€ € “You€and€Dad€were€awesome.€“I€got€your€message€and€came€ on€over.€Mimi.€said€good‐night€ and€let€himself€out ers.€Hannah€nodded.€touched€by€the€concern€in€their€eyes.”€ € .”€ € “No€problem.€grateful€they€hadn’t€seen€Joey€with€the€gun€pressed€to€her€ throat.€Seth.€“What€a€scene.€You€know€your€family€means€a€lot€to€me.€“You€just€take€care€of€ yourself.€ € Before€she€had€the€chance.€ Hannah€was€stunned€ ive€it€a€squeeze.€“An € Hannah’s€eyes€filled€with€tears.

€“Mimi!”€ € “He€must€not€have€been.€ € She€hadn’t€realized€she’d€spoken€aloud€until€both€her€sisters’€mouths€dropped€ open.€“Afraid€so.€ € “No.€ € “You€slept€with€the€cop.€if€it’s€any€ consolation.€“I€never€suspected€he€was€a€cop.€then€held€out€her€arms€and€Hannah€gave€her€a€hug. € “I€know€the€feeling.€“I€can’t€believe€he’d€already€figured€out€what€Joey€ was€up€to.€“What€a€disappointment.€realizing€she’d€never€loved€her€sisters€more.”€ € “Dad€told€you€Joey€was€two‐timing€me?”€Mimi€asked.€Dad€said€he’d€keep€an€eye€on€him.€“Well.€I€must€have€been€blinded€by€lust€not€to€have€noticed.€Her€face€flamed€when€she€realized€ what€she’d€admi € Mimi€and€Alison€laughed.€he€was€great€in€bed.Mimi€shrugged.€ € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes.”€Alison€said.”€Hannah€mumbled.”€Hannah€said.€ € Hannah€winced€and€sipped€her€drink.€I€thoug € “Was€he€good€in€bed?”€Mimi€asked.€“He’s€a€jerk.€“I€had€no€idea€Joey€ was€into€that€stuff.”€Alison€said.”€ € Alison€draped€a€comforting€arm€around€her€shoulders.€didn’t€you?”€Mimi€asked.€“It€looks€as€if€our€ dad€can’t€ € “He’s€so€cool.”€A€smile€ tipped€her€li € Mimi€laughed€and€she€and€Hannah€mumbled€agreement.€“Did€you€kno .” d’s€place€to€fence€ stolen€merchandise.€Hannah.€ I€was€about€t € Hannah€laughed.€ e€ suspected€Joey€of€two‐timing€you.€I€told€him€I€suspected€he€was.”€ € “No.”€Alison€ said.

€“Just€name€the€day€and€time.”€ € “I€can’t€believe€it.€ € Alison€stood€and€paced€the€length€of€the€room.€of€course€not.€her€voice€rising€with€anger.€ .”€ € “What€kind€of€gun€does€he€carry?”€Mimi€asked.€He€dated€me€to€investigate€ Dad.€you€weren’t€in€on€the€sting€from€the€beginning?”€Alison€asked.€ € Hannah€rolled€her€eyes.€“And€I€thought€he€was€the€ perfect€guy€for€you € “Did€he€say€he€was€just€using€you?”€Mimi€asked.€she€was€talking€to€her€sisters.€grateful€to€dispel€the€ tension.€ Maybe€th acter€embedded€in€their€personalities.€I€caught rning€after…”€She€closed€ her€eyes.€ € She€stood€and€poured€herself€another€mimosa.€realizing€she’d€given€herself€away.€But€it’s€true.€sis.”€Mimi€said.”€ € Mimi’s€eyes€crinkled€as€she€burst€into€laughter.€And€ hoping€she€sti nd€out€about€Dad.€“No.€ € Hannah€realized€the€double€entendre€and€laughed€herself.€Mimi.€She€ actually€considered€lying€so€no€one€would€know€wh gain.€grateful€she€wasn’t€on€call.€ Hannah€picked€at€a€thread€on€her€sweater.€“A€big‐caliber€one.€And€one€lie€would€lead€to€another.”€ € Hannah€laughed€again.€Hannah.€“Not€exactly.€ € “So.€ € “He€slept€with€you€last€night€and€arrested€Joey€this€morning!”€Alison€pounded€ her€hand€in€he € “We’ll€kill€him.€Leave€it€to€her€sisters€to€romanticize€the€entire€disaster.€ “He’s€n € “Don’t€let€him€get€you€down.”€Mimi€said.”€Alison€said.€ € Hannah€shook€her€head.€the€pain€in€her€chest€easing€a€little€at€her€sisters’€support.€ € Hannah€shook€her€head.

€you’re€better€than€him.€ Wiley€had€been€cleared€of€suspicion.€Muldoon€had€a€family.€and€ DeLito€had€confessed.€ “Yeah.€ € He€still€couldn’t€shake€the€memory€of€the€hurt€in€Hannah’s€eyes.”€Mimi€muttered.€After€all.€ € “Dogs.€ some€par ed.€“And€you’re€better€than€Joey.€ € €€ € THE€NEXT€DAYJake€decided€he€had€to€see€Hannah.€hoping€to€ € Jake€felt€as€if€he’d€been€sentenced€himself—as€if€he’d€lost€something€vital€to€him.”€Hannah€added€with€a€giggle.€someone€really€hot€like€Brad€Pitt€or€Matt€ Damon€or…”€ € “Or€Christian€Slater.€as elt€her€heart€or€make€ her€body€yearn€the€way€the€lying€detective€had.€ DeLito€had€sung€the€names€of€his€contacts€in€the€other€cities.€slimy.€He€realized€ now€that€he’d€r er€house€because€he’d€ been€afraid.€ € .”€ € “Or€Mel€Gibson.€Only€Jake’s€face€flashed€into€her€ mind.€the€bookkeeper€had€been€que o€fudging€some€numbers€for€DeLito€for€a€hefty€payment.”€Alison€added.€mangy€dogs.€He€drove€toward€the€ hospital.€thinking€about€ he€case€had€tied€up€nicely.”€Mimi€said.€ € Mimi’s€eyes€lit€up.€“Or€Ben€Affleck.€“Dirty.€Their€lovemaking€had€been€so€intense€and€emotional€he’d€p alling€in€love€and€contemplating€becoming€a€part€of€a€ couple—something€he€knew€nothing€about € But€he€could€learn.”€ € “Right€and€we€deserve€someone€better.”€ € “Men€are€scum.€and.”€Alison€added.€He€also€cla re€of€his€actions.€ € Hannah€wagged€a€finger€at€Mimi.

”€He€leaned€against€the€nurses’€desk.€ € Whoa—marriage?€ € “Jake.€there.€ € “I’ll€see€if€I€can€find€her.€barely€limping.€Mr.€Tiffany.€If€she€could€forgive€him….€She€knew€about€families.€Tippins.€He€scanned€the€hallway€and€ nurses’€station€bu wo€nurses€hovered€over€the€ paperwork.€Apparently€she€knew€ about€his€unde pt€with€Hannah?€ € Surely€not.€You€sure€you€want€to€see€her?”€ € He€nodded.€a€tall€gangly€doctor€conferred€with€a€patient€in€a€whe he€big€nurse€who’d€first€helped€him€when€he’d€been€shot.€Maybe€she€could€help€him€f hip€work.What€had€Grammy€Rose€said€about€parenting?You€learn€as€you€go€along.€They€both€were€dedicated€to€their€jobs.€her€wide€hips€shaking€as€ she€wal he€ER€came€alive€as€the€ tall€doctor€and€a€group€of€nurses€rushed€toward€the€incoming€patient he€differences€between€him€and€Hannah.€both€had€to€drop€their€personal€lives€sometimes€to€ meet€duty.€both€dealt s.€but€ desperate€to he€city.€Maybe€ he€and€Hannah€cou nship€thing€as€they€went€along.€“I€need€to€have€the€stitches€ removed.€“I€think€so.€They’d€both€chosen€professio annah’s€had€ far€more€of€a€personal€touch.€ € The€ER€seemed€unusually€quiet€when€he€entered.€Maybe€ he€and ork.€ not€him.€ € He€parked€his€Jeep€and€walked€up€the€steps€to€the€hospital.€hello.€what€do€you€want?”€ € .€I € She€arched€a€brow.€How’s€the€hip€doing?”€ € “Fine.€grimacing€at€the€wary€look€the€nurse€shot€him.”€She€ambled€off€down€the€hall.€He€made€his€ way€over€to€her.€he€saw€the€ similarities.€Maybe€they€could€talk.€Wouldn’t€that€factor€help€t upport€ each€other?€He’d€heard€Muldoon€talk€about€those€kinds€of€things€before.€ € “Well.

”€ € He€cleared€his€throat€and€did€as€she€said.€please.€“I€want€you€to€know€how€sorry€I€am€ if€I€hurt€you.”€With€ that€sai an€to€yank€out€the€ stitches.€ € She€slipped€on€plastic€gloves€and€searched€the€medical€tray€for€an€instrument€ while€he€humbl ped€exam€table.€she€was€looking€at€him€as€if€she€would€murder€him.€“I€need€to€have€my€stitches€ removed.”€ € “Lower€your€pants.€ remembering€ ught€she€looked€like€an€angel.€When€he€was€settled.€no€hint€of€emotion€or€personal€f € “This€shouldn’t€take€long.”€ € Her€lips€pressed€into€a€tight€line.”€ € He€nodded.€“Then€follow€me.€“I€thought€you€were€going€to€find€ another€doct € “I€changed€my€mind.€knowing€he€deserved€her€anger.€But€he€heard€the€anger€still€hard€in€her€voice.€he€thought€ ruefully.€I€want€you.€ € Now.€ Shaken€by€t r.”€he€said€between€clenched€teeth.€glancing€around€the€small€exam€room.€ € He€gritted€his€teeth.€none€too€gently.€Hartwell.”€ € She€folded€her€arms€across€her€slender€waist.”€ € “Hannah.He€hadn’t€heard€Hannah€approach.€“Hannah—”€ € “It’s€Dr.€You€may€feel€a€slight€sting€but€it€shouldn’t€hurt.€“I—I’d€like€to€talk€to€you€if€you€have€time.” € The€tweezers€pressed€into€his€skin€as€she€yanked€another€stitch.”€ € Judging€from€the€icy€tone€of€her€voice.€“I’m€assuming€ you’re€leavin .€ € “Lie€down€on€the€table.€not€exactly€an€invitation.€ she€walked€toward€him.

€please.€“I’m€heading€back€to€Atlanta.”€She€pulled€out€the€last€stitch.€“So€go€back€ to€Atlanta e€him€one€last€cutting€look.€“I€really€want€to€see€you€again.€“Hannah.€yes.€“That€is.€She€closed€it€behind€ her€as€if€s ope€for€a€future€between€ them.”€Her€eyes€narrowed.€ “You€know€I€can’t€believe€I€ever€felt€sorry€for€you€for€being€a € Jake’s€heart€cracked€as€she€turned€and€walked€out€the€door.”€Her€beautiful€blue€eyes€stared€at€him.”€ € “That€won’t€be€necessary.€ This€wasn’t€going€as€well€as€he’d€hoped.€trying€to€put€the€Hartwell€ family€out€of€h € .€ € € € € Chapter€Twenty‐One€ € A€week€later.€He€rolled€farther€to€his€side€and€reached€for€her€ hand.”€ € She€gave€him€a€scathing€look.€but€sh d€at€him.€Jake€roamed€the€streets€of€Atlanta.”€ € “There€is€no€us.”€ € “To€see€you.€wiped€his€healed€ wound€with€a€gau aled.€I€want€to€talk€about€us.”€he€said.€Can€ we€go€someplace€and€talk?€Have€some€coffee€maybe?”€ € “We€have€nothing€to€talk€about.”€ € “Rocky?”€ € “Tense.”€He€ tried€to€pro nt€to€ leave€with€things€so€rocky€between€us.€unless€you€have€ to€ask€me€more € “No.€I€can’t€think€ of€any€reason€you’d€return€to€Sugar€Hill.€emotionless.

€The tlanta€had€ever€seen.€dull.€the im€homemade€rolls€then€lied€to€impress€him.€ € Christmas€decorations€glittered€from€the€shops.€all€the€stolen€cars€accounted€for.€An€ antique€shop€dr im€of€the€furnishings€in€Hannah’s€house.€ Old€lace€doilies.€ € Only€Jake€had€never€been€lonely€before.€Hannah€ hadn’t€wanted€him.€ inviting€people ands€and€browse.€And€no€one€waiting€for€him€when€he€arrived€home.€ € No.€the€freshly€cut€tree€trimmed€in€homemade€ornaments.€then€searched€ the€sky€for€other€constellations.€the€coldest€ Jake€had€ever€felt€in€his€life.€Because€she€loved€him—that€wou annah€to€finally€let€herself€be€taken€by€a€man.€period€pieces€of€rich€oak€and€mah .€DeLito€and€his€accomplice€ Buffy€were l.€But€never€lonely.€ € But€Jake€had€nowhere€to€go.€yet€ she’d€given€herself€to€him.€yet€now€that€he€had€it.€music€drifted€from€speakers.€everyone€in€a€holiday€frenzy.€sparking€his€determination€to€win€her€back€again.€Cars€and€holiday€shoppers€ ripped€past.€he€reminded€himself.€ € She’d€walked€out€of€the€hospital€room€that€day€and€no€matter€how€many€times€ he’d€called€over eft€him€as€easily€ as€his€mother€had.€ € Not€the€deep€sort€of€lonely€that€had€kept€him€awake€at€night.€Alone€yes.€ € Hope€flickered€briefly.€ € He’d€wanted€the€anonymity€of€the€crowd.€reminding€him€of€the€ Christmas€star€Hann rth€Star.€Hannah€was€nothing€like€his€mother.€although€record€cold€temperatures€ranged€ throughout€the€south.€Things€were€back€to€normal.€Her€hesitancy€to€ make€love€for€ e€didn’t€give€herself€freely.€had€made€him€ think€about€the€H ly€traditions€they€had€at€ Christmas.€the€isolation.€lonely€normal.The€case€was€solved.€desperately€trying€to€erase€her€fr ds€were€nowhere€in€sight.€ € Quiet.€ even€in€the€m s€echoed€around€him.€ € A€hundred€stars€twinkled€above€him€in€the€inky€sky.

€if€he€bought€her€a€gift€of€ apology.€ € €€ € HANNAH€CRAWLEDinto€bed.€grinning€at€a€little€girl€hugging€a€Raggedy€Ann€to€ her€chest.€If€he€had€the€courage€ to€risk€rejection.€thinking€how hild.€exhausted€and€alone.€in€her€ ng€her€awake€long€into€the€night.€ € Maybe€his€guilt€would€leave€him€if€he€had€some€closure.€the€heart€to€tell€her€how€he€really€felt.€and€stopped€at€th way€the€ones€Hannah€ already€owned.€Then€his€gaze€found€the€storybo ndered€past.€Sleeping€Beauty.€cou k?€Even€though€he€knew€nothing€at€all€about€families.€desperately.€Rows€ lled€the€store—soft€sculptured€ dolls.€he€made€his€selections€and€headed€to€the€front.€ n’t€just€used€her.€He€glanced€up€at€the€Christmas€tree€i ar€radiating€its€light—and€he€thought€of€the€star€Hannah€ had€given€him.€He’d€box€ them€up€and ology€that€would€let€her€ know€he€hadn’t€forgotten€her.€antiques.€Dorothy.€A€toy€shop— no.€replicas€of€movie€stars.€that€his€feelings€ for€her€were€real.€wanted€a€home€with€Hannah.€Goldilocks.€dolls€unlike€any€he’d€ever€seen.€A€beautiful€bride€doll€ stood€enclo annah€had€perched€on€that€gold€ chest€at€the€foot€of€her€bed.€of€the€North€Star€he € He€suddenly.€a€specialty € He€vividly€recalled€the€collection€in€Hannah’s€bedroom—he’d€briefly€paused€to€ study€them€tha re€he’d€read€those€blasted€files.€The€smell€of€apple€cider€a e€sounds€of€children’s€laughter€and€Christmas€music€drifting€through€the€ crowded€shop.€Cinderella.€he€dug€his€hands€into€the€pockets€of€ his€leather€bo s€way€through€the€crowd€until€he€could€ slide€through€the€doorway.€ € Hunching€his€shoulders€against€the€wind.€ € The€Tin€Man€and€the€Cowardly€Lion€stood€beside€Dorothy€and€he€suddenly€ grinned.€he€spied€another€shop.€characters€from€mov abbage€Patch€Kids€dolls.€ .€ could€they€be€a€family.might€have€fitted€in€her€foyer.€the€way€she€an re?€ € Without€thinking€twice.€Memories€of€Jake€lingered€ in€her€house.€Next€door.

€but€she’d€been€chilled€to€the€bone€ever sted€with€herself.€His€old€apartment€seemed€even€more€bare€and€ lonely€than€his€place€in€S nking€of€Hannah€for€ more€than€five€seconds€at€a€time.€ € A€roly‐poly€overactive€little€puppy€from€his€partner’s€chocolate€labrador’s€latest€ litter.€She€hoped€that€Jake’s€memory€would€be€locked€away€as€well.€whispering€sweet€ nothings€in€h hance.€laughing€when€the€dog€ licked€his€face urball?€What€would€a€little€ boy.€think€of€the€pet?€Would€Hannah€take€it€a .€dragged€on€her€thick€terry€ cloth€robe€and€stared€at ed€on€the€hope€chest—the€ beautiful€heirloom€piece€which€her€grandmother€had€meant€to€bring€h € But€the€legend€associated€with€the€pearl€ring€had€brought€her€nothing€but€ heartache.€a€little€boy€he’d€seen€in€an€old€ movie€on€cable€when€he’d€stayed€up€watching€the€late€ € The€fat€pup€nipped€at€his€feet€and€Jake€picked€him€up.€she€dreamt€Jake€was€lying€beside€her.€When€she€had€followed€her€heart.€then€enclosed€her€grandmother’s€bridal€gown€within s.€maybe€his€own€son.€ € €€ € JAKE€WAS€GOING€CRAZY.€she€slipped€from€bed.€She’d€been€hur € She€quickly€placed€the€ring€back€inside€the€small€velvet€box€and€packed€it€into€ the€hope€che ped€the€bride€doll€carefully€back€ inside.€stared€at€the€tiny€diamonds.€Had€the€ring€and€the€legend€really€ brought€her€heartache€or€had€it€been€her€own€fault? n€afraid€to€take€a€chance.€shivering€with€the€cool€ temperature€ r€arms€around€her€chest.When€she€finally€slept.€fro ghts.€ € She€jerked€awake€and€sat€up.€wishing€she€ could€get€warm.€H yler.€ € She€pulled€the€ring€from€her€finger.€the€intricate€ setting.€to€branch€out€and€try€a€relationship€with€someone€ who€didn’t€fit€ at€had€happened€when€she’d€ taken€the€chance.€He’d€even€gotten€himself€a€dog.€not€to€be€afraid.€staring€into€the€darkness.

€“I€just€wanted€you€to€know€I€still€want€to€talk.€ An s€name€is€Toby.€hell.”€ € Hannah€squeezed€her€eyes€shut€to€stem€the€tears€as€the€phone€clicked€into€ silence.€a€little€ unsteady.€and€she€paused€when€she€heard€Jake’s€voice.€Was€she€wrong€not€to€ give€him€a€chance?€Should€they€try€and€talk€th € The€phone€rang.€Her€head€was€pounding€so€hard€she€couldn’t€bear€to€answer€it€ and€talk€to€any d€family.€Why€had€J y.€it’s€me€again.€ ked€on.€to€tell€her€he’d€gotten€a€ dog?€ € € € € Chapter€Twenty‐Two€ € “What€are€you€doing€here?”€ € Jake€grimaced.€he€picked€up€the€ phone€and€punc € €€ € HANNAH€LAY€stretched€across€her€bed.”€A€pause.€He€hadn’t€expected€Wiley€to€greet€him€with€open€arms.€For€the€third€time€that€day.€knowing€it€might€ be€the€ER.€exhausted.€“I’ve€been€trying€to€reach€you€for€days€and…I€ guess€you’re ine.€“I…we€need€to€ talk.€that€I’m€sorry.€eyeing€Wiley’s€Santa€suit.€give€me€a€call€if€you€want€to€talk.€“Well.€He€d ah€told€him€about€ their€relationship?€ € Jake€stuffed€his€hands€in€his€pockets.€But.€fighting€a€headache.”€ € .€she€rolled€sideways€and€reached€for€the€handset.”€ € He€paused€again.€The€ ER€had€been€crazy€a ight€before€for€thinking€ about€Jake.€but€ he…well.€ € “Hannah.€ No€way€to€find€out€but€to€call.€She’d€been€hard€on€him€that€last€day€when€he’d€come€to€ used€his€calls€all€week.

”€Jake€poured€himself€a€cup€of€coffee€simply€to€have€ something€to€do.”€ € “I€had€to€check€out€everyone.€but—”€ € “You€thought€I€might€be€the€head€of€the€theft€ring.€“That’s€why€I’m€ here.€“You€hurt€ my€daughter.€ “What€makes€you€ € Jake€folded€his€arms€across€his€chest.”€Jake€admitted.€“That€was€my€job.€“I€ thought€your€busin € “Look.”€ € “Groveling€might€work.€I’ € “How€do€you€think€you€can€do€that?”€ € “I…”€The€red€outfit€complete€with€shiny€black€boots€and€a€big€bag€for€gifts€ suddenly€gave€hi .”€ € Wiley’s€fake€white€eyebrows€wagged.€Grovel.”€The€corner€of€Wiley’s€fake€white€mustache€twitched.€his€frown€at€odds€with€the€jovial€costume€he€wore.”€Jake€said.€glaring€at€Jake.€ € “I€can€forgive€you€for€thinking€I€might€be€guilty.€scratching€at€the€puffy€white€cottony€mass.€I€know€you’re€probably€mad€I€didn’t€come€clean€with€you€up€ front.”€ € Wiley€studied€him.€“And€how€do€you€feel€about€her?”€ € “That’s€what€I’d€like€to€talk€to€Hannah€about.”€Jake’s€chest€tightened.”€Wiley€said.€then€ explained € €€ .€Wiley.”€ € “I’m€done€with€lies.€ “But€you€su d.€ € “At€least€you’re€not€lying€about€that.”€Jake€took€a€deep€breath.€didn’t€you?”€ € “At€first.€“Because€I€think€she€loves€me.€his€legs€feeling€a€little€wobbly.Wiley€tugged€on€his€beard.€sir. € “I€know.€Wiley.

€but€Seth€ deserved€a€woman’s€total€love€and€commitment.€ HANNAH€WALKEDthrough€the€corridors€of€the€ER€to€the€hospital€lobby.€what’s€going€on?”€Had€he€somehow€arranged€her€dismissal?€ € No.€Something€she€couldn’t€of € Because€her€heart€belonged€to€another€man.€In€a€few€minutes.€ beginning€an€explosion€of€fiery€rumors€that€had€escalat at€had€occurred€at€her€father’s€car€lot.€the€Christmas€party€for€the€kids€w e.€subdued€lifestyle€she’d€planned.€but€the€chief€of€staff€caught€him€in€ the€hall.€ € Damn€Jake€Tippins.€Grammy€Rose€had€said.€She€watched€the€Broadhursts€ follow€Dr.€pos own€Seth€had€wanted€to€talk€ since€that€night€with€Mimi.€ he€stares€from€the€nurses€on€the€ floor.€She€spotted€the€Broad€hursts€exiting€the€elevator€and€took€a€ deep€breath.€Porte red€what€they€were€scheming.€but€she€hadn’t€been€able€to€face€him € What€if€he€wanted€a€reconciliation?€In€her€heart.€ € “Hannah.”€Seth€gently€clutched€her€arm€and€guided€her€to€the€ open€area€wher ital€staff€had€gathered.€she€ tossed€her€head.€ € Microphone?€What€in€the€world…?€ € “Seth.€Laughing€at€the€irony.€he€waved€her€over.€ € .€ € So€much€for€the€tame.€ She€cared€fo s€a€doctor.€ € The€minute€he€saw€her.€well€ aware€gossip€traile celed€wedding€had€only€lit€the€fuse.€she€knew€she€didn’t€love€him.€Seth€wouldn’t….€Porter€stood€at€the€ rsts€frowning€as€they€settled€on€a€love€seat€adjacent€to€the€small€ microphone.€ probably€to€help€with€the€Christmas€party.€Seth€followed.€we€need€to€talk.€ € Her€reprieve€ended€when€Seth€strode€toward€her.€ € Life€holds€no€guarantees.€Dr.

€I€care€about€ you.”€H o€put€a€stop€ to€all€these€stupid€rumors.€I’m€sick€of€everyone€saying€I’ve€been€meditating€with€a€ bunch€of€nude€ traight€right€now.€smiling€as€he€strode€toward€the€ mike.€“Yes.€Hannah.€I’m€so€sorry.€and€I€care€about€you.€“I€know.€I€feel€the€same€ way€about€you.”€Seth€said€in€a€ sincere€tone.€I€admit€I€was€shocked€and€a€little€ hurt€whe € Hannah€reached€for€his€arm€and€squeezed€his€hand.€“Hannah.€In€ e€friends€and€always€will€be.Seth€leaned€close€to€her€as€if€to€guard€their€conversation.€“You€called€everyone€together?”€ € “You’re€damned€right.€“ € Hannah’s€eyes€teared€up€but€she€blinked€back€the€emotions.€hiding€behind€a€cart€full€of€flowers€ and€potted€pl ng€as€he€watched€Hannah€and€Seth€ .€“Seth.€ € €€ € JAKE€STOODin€the€shadows€of€the€corridor.€ and€I’m€going€to€make€sure€my€nosy€parents€stay€out€of€our€lives€from€now € Hannah€reached€up€and€kissed€him€on€the€cheek.€ Seth.”€ € Hannah€pointed€to€the€podium.€“You’re€a€great€guy.€ but€we€shouldn’t€have€gotten€married.€Hannah.€And€I€still€think€of€you€as€a€dear€ friend.€I€hope€I’m€ around€to€congratulate€her.€I€never€ meant€to€hurt € Quiet€understanding€filled€his€eyes.€“Thanks.”€ € “Then€you€don’t€hate€me?”€ € “I€could€never€hate€you.€I’m€glad€you€were€smart€ th€made€a€big€mistake.€I€really€do€care€about€you.€you€k € Her€stomach€twisted.”€ € He€drew€her€into€his€arms€and€hugged€her.€Someda es€you.€but—”€ € He€held€up€his€hand€to€stop€her.€“Let€me€finish.

€which€was€the€ reason€Wiley€ t€place.€ € Laughter€and€excited€voices€drifted€around€her.€Both€for€the€kids’€Christmas€party.€and€for€Hannah.€and€ Broadhurst€had€alread ood€graces.€he€grimaced.€ He€wanted€her€to€teach€him€about€fam € And€he’d€come€bearing€gifts.€hiked€up€his€red€velv hildren’s€rec€room€for€the€party.€ adjusting€IVs€and ouse€patients.€but€hell.€Hannah.€he€adjusted€the€padding€in€his€belly.€but€he’d he€might€see€the€good€side€of€him€and€even€forgive€him.€Sev om€the€pediatric€floor€along€with€volunteers€and€parents€filled€the€room€for€the€ annual€even ildren€had€made€hung€from€the€ceil€ing:€ glittery€stars.”€a€little€blond€girl€on€crutches€said.€the€ dolls€he’d€bought€and€brought€with€him.€ € Another€lame€tactic.€An€artificial€tree€adorned€with€lights€and€childlike€wooden€ ornaments€sto nches€spilling€over€with€tinsel.€ wondering€if€ ame€side.€had€never€even€been€around€kids€much.€ € “Dr.€gathering€the€less€ severely€ill€kids€on€the€floor€in€front€of€the€others.€ € .€ € €€ € HANNAH€HELPEDsettle€the€twenty‐plus€children€into€the€children’s€rec€room.cuddle€together€in€the€hall.€He€hadn’t€been€gone€a€whole€week€yet.€He€wasn’t€sure€he€could€ play€Santa.€helping€Hannah€forget€her€ earlier€worries.€he€was€only€a€man€and€he’d€stoop€to€anything€to€ win€another€c y€burlap€sack€over€his€ shoulder.€small€gifts€for€ the€children€stacked€beneath.€“is€Santa€Claus€really€coming?”€ € “That’s€what€I€heard.”€Hannah€said€with€a€wide€grin.€strings€of€red€and€green€paper€garla danced€above€them.€ € Buthe€was€the€man€she’d€climbed€into€bed€with€and€he€didn’t€intend€to€let€her€ bounce€back€an thout€knowing€ exactly€how€she€felt.€ € Sneaking€a€peak€at€the€Santa€costume€he’d€confiscated€from€Wiley.

€Rudolph€the€ rosty€the€Snowman.€ the€children€all€leaning€forward€in€anticipation.€ € He€grinned.€“As€a€matter€of€fact.One€of€the€volunteers€played€the€piano€while€a€cancer€specialist€burst€out€in€song€ to€lead€t ned€in€singing€a€litany€of€Christmas€ tunes.€a€lopsided€sexy‐Santa€grin€that€sent€a€shiver€up€her€spine.€Merry€Christmas!”€Santa€Claus€suddenly€appeared.€ r€and€the€room€grew€quiet.€Simon.€the€head€of€pediatrics€stood€up€and€clapped€her€hands.€ € “Jake?”€she€mouthed.€“When€is€Santa€coming?”€ € Laughter€sparkled€in€the€pediatrician’s€eyes.€boots€st ng€out€through€the€room.€his€voice€slightly€muffled€ through€the€thick€white€beard.€“How€about€ some€refreshments € The€children€yelled€an€emphatic€yes.€I€think€I€hear€ him€now.€“Santa€Claus€is€here!”€ € “Look€at€his€big€belly!”€ € “He’s€got€boots!”€ € “And€presents!”€ € “Is€your€beard€real?”€ € .€raised€ his€hand€as€ er€cups€full€of€punch€and€plates€of€ Christmas€cookies.€ € “Ho.€expecting€to€see€her€dear€father€bound€through€any€ minute.€ € Finally.€ho.€a€small€boy€in€a€wheelchair.€including€the€children’s€favorites.€ho.€ € The€children€all€clapped€and€yelled.€jingle€bells€ ringing.€ € Only€the€voice€didn’t€belong€to€her€father.€ € Hannah€gasped€in€surprise€when€she€recognized€Jake’s€dark€eyes€twinkling€from€ beneath€a€Sant is€forehead.€ € Hannah€glanced€at€the€door.

€I€wuv€you.€the€smile€in€his€eyes€so€ meaningful€it€took€her€breath€away.€but€he’d€make€ a€wonderful r.€too.”€ € Hannah€saw€Jake€hug€the€little€girl.€a€toddler€who’d€recently€broken€her€leg€when€she’d€jumped€from€a€ table€pretending€to€ rms€around€Jake’s€neck.€ Whatever€the€reason.€Hartwell€once€was€a€kid€ .€playing€along€with€the€children.”€ € Her€throat€felt€suddenly€full€of€emotions.€parents€and€staff€members€roaming€about€to€help€and€admiring€the€ generous€gifts€and€gather ing€paper.€the€heat€flaring€in€his€eyes€obviously€meant€only€for€ her.€ € Hannah’s€eyes€misted€over.€“I€have€a€present€here€for€one€of€your€ doctors.”€Jake€said.”€He€stopped€to€pat€and€shake€the€ children’s€hands.€Hannah€handed€him€the€smaller€presents€from€beneath€t led€with€art€paper€and€crayons€for€each€of€the€kids.€ € Jake€moved€toward€Hannah.” € “Who?”€the€little€girl€shouted.”€he€said€to€Simon€with€a€wink.€ “Thank€you.€ € He€gently€eased€away€from€the€toddler.€patting€his€red‐velvet€padded€belly€for€emphasis€so€the€ kids€laugh r.€ € Tammy.€Santa.€too.€or€maybe€Jake€had.€then€sailed€through€ the€crowd€s .€bending€to€their€level€so€he€could€gree rlap€sack€and€placed€it€in€their€eager€hands.€and€Jake€passed€ those€out€as€well.Jake€gave€his€beard€a€yank.€“And€here’s€to€the€pretty€ princess€o ands€of€a€ tiny€little€girl€in€a€wheelchair.€“And€I€love€you.€but€ xtra€gifts.€When€he wded€room.€Jake€might€not€know€it.€ € “Being€Santa.€He€was€supposed€to€give€out€the€gifts€from€beneath€ the€tree.€the€children€squealed€with€delight€as€th .€ € “And€this€one’s€for€you.€Hannah€sensed€all€the€ children€and€volunteers€and€other€doctors€watching.€ € “Let’s€see!”€some€of€the€other€kids€yelled.€When€his€sack€ seemed€empty.

€but€she€knew€his€family€ history—had€he€been€just€as€afraid€of€love€as€she€had?€ € “Open€it!”€the€little€girl€in€the€wheelchair€shouted.€ € “The€Tin€Man€from€the€Wizard€of€Oz.€when€he’d€claimed€he€wasn’t€a€ settle‐down€guy.€Santa’s€here.€holding€the€doll€up€for€ the€children€to€ € Oohs€and€aahs€filled€the€room.€Did€Jake€know€she’d€packed€up€the€dolls€and€planned€to€ give€them€away? € He€pulled€a€box€from€his€sack€and€handed€it€to€Hannah.€But€one€year€she€forgot€about€those€childish€ dreams€and€ € “That’s€sad.€hoping€he€can€make€Dr.€ € “Well.€doc.€wondering€ fter€the€way€they’d€ parted.€didn’t€even€own€a€dog.€She€stared€at€the€ package.”€ € Hannah’s€pulse€raced.€let’s€see!”€the€other€kids€yelled.€ € “Please€open€it.”€Jake€said€softly.”€she€whispered.€ € “Yeah.€ € Hannah’s€fingers€trembled€as€she€slipped€them€beneath€the€bright€green€paper€ and€tore€the€ed he€lifted€the€lid€of€the€box€to€find€ not€one.€ € “And€Santa€has€a€gift.”€the€children€began€to€sing.”€ € “Yeah!”€the€children€shouted.€but€two€dolls€inside.€ € “We’re€off€to€see€the€wizard.”€the€little€girl€in€the€wheelchair€said.herself.€Could€he€possibly€have€changed€his€mind€about€the€two€of€them?€ € Then€she€remembered€his€phone€call€about€the€dog€and€the€conversation€with€ her€grandmother€a .€ € .€A€kid€who€collected€dolls.€something€to€add€to€her€collection.€Was€the€pet€a€symbol arless€man.€Hartwell€believe€in€dreams€again.

€his€gaze€full€of€emotions.”€they€began€to€chant€the€song€again.€She€helped€ them€find€the€par e€find€my€heart.€doc?”€ € “I€thought€Santa€already€had€a€wife.€The€children€giggled.”€He€kissed€her€ hand€again.€ € “Will€you€marry€me.€you€ helped€me€realize€that€it€was€empty€without€you.”€ € Hannah’s€eyes€searched€his.€ € “When€the€Lion€and€the€Tin€Man€met€Dorothy.”€He€dropped€ to€his€knee€and€ tly.€ questioning.”€ € “We’re€off€to€see€the€wizard.€she€stared€into€Jake’s€eyes.”€Simon€said.€his€expression€part€ embarrassment.€his€gaze€locked€with€hers.€ € Jake€pressed€his€hand€over€his€heart.”€ € “And€the€Lion€wanted€courage.€“You€kids€ remember€the€story€of€theWizard€of€Oz€?”€ € “Yeah.€Hannah’s€ breath€caught.€too€much—”€ € He€urged€her€to€see€the€truth€in€his€eyes.”€ € “Jake—”€ € “He’s€Santa€Claus!”€Simon€shouted.€“Please€Hannah.€they€weren’t€whole.€ € .€I€followed€that€star€ and€it€led€m u.€And€you€helped€me€see€ e€someone€and€I€would€be€whole.€along€with€the€other€doctors€and€voluntee € “But€Jake.€it’s€too€late.€part€ sed€her€and€the€children.”€As€she€lifted€the€doll.“And€the€Cowardly€Lion.€ € “You€also€gave€me€a€Christmas€star€so€I€could€find€my€way€home.€y € Jake€cleared€his€throat.€the€Tin€Man€wanted€a€heart.€“You€have€the€ Dorothy€doll€ e€collection.

€“I€ love€you.€honey.€I€think€ you’re€going€t € €€ € AFEW€HOURS€later.”€Simon€said.”€Hannah€broke€into€a€grin€as€the€kids€ch € “I€don’t€know€much€about€family.”€ € She€tousled€his€furry€cap.”€another€child€yelled.Hannah€laughed.€forgetting€all€ € Jake€lifted€her€in€his€arms€and€spun€her€around€as€the€children€laughed€and€ squealed.€ € “Click€your€heels.€smiling€a rrival.€“You€know€the€Hartwells€are€a€pretty€ crazy€bunch?”€ € “I€know.€Will€ you€teach€m € Hannah€looped€her€arms€around€his€neck.€She€finally€understood€what€her€ grandmother€had€meant€whe he€rock—Don’t€let€ the€man€you€marry€weigh€you€down€ .€tears€slipping€down€her€cheeks€as€she€saw€the€truth€in€his€eyes.”€he€admitted.€dipping€his€head€for€a€kiss.”€a€little€girl€shouted.€ € “You€have€to€say€‘There’s€no€place€like€home’€three€times.€ € “But€then€they’ll€disappear€and€go€to€the€North€Pole.€There’s€no€ place€like€home.€“Then€welcome€to€the€Hartwell€clan.”€She€threw€her€arms€around€him.€ He€had€been he€risk—and€so€should€she.€then€crawled€into€bed€with€ Jake.€“T e’s€no€place€like€home.€ready€to€make€mad€passionate€love€to€her€soon‐to‐be o€spend€the€rest€of€her€life€with.€ € Jake€stopped€spinning€and€clicked€his€boots€together€three€times€as€he€repeated€ the€line.€and€I€loveall€of€you.€too.Jake€wouldn’t€weigh€her€down—he€was€roc € € € Epilogue€ .€Hannah€stared€at€the€heirloom€hope€chest€at€the€foot€of€her€ bed.

€And€she€was€grate n€them.€Dad.€of .€ something€blue€in€her€wed g€advantage€of€each€of€the€items€her€ grandmother€had€placed€in€her€hope€chest.€from€the€hospital.€the€guitar€strummed€the€wedding€march.€ Mimi€fluffed€the€train€to€Hannah’s€bridal€gown€while€Alison€adjusted€the€layers€ of€netting€f rstition€and€the€folk€legend€might€have€ something€to€do€with€her€destiny€after€all.€something€borrowed.€“Yes.€The€bride€dol e€lace‐draped€gift€table€and€the€pearl€ring€gleamed€from€her€right€hand— she€was€saving€her€l g.€Hannah€recognized€several€ of€her€father’s€friends€in€attendance.€She€and€Jake€had€decided€to€marry€at€her€grandmother’s€house€in€the€ old verlooking€the€beautiful€countryside. e.€Hannah€emerged€from€behind€the€canopy€ and€spotted€Jake€st way.€ € Soft€strains€of€a€guitar€began.€Trevor€Muldoon.€he€looked tories.€ € When€the€beautiful€song€had€ended.€ showed€up.€ € Her€father€stepped€up€and€offered€his€arm.€Finally.”€and€her€sisters€took€ their€places.€Jake€had€insisted€on€red€roses.€But€the€ biggest€surprise€of€the€day€was€her€mother—she€had€shown€up€unexpectedl e€felt€after€not€seeing€her€for€so€many€years.€his€gray€suit€and€hot‐pink€tie€a€ perfect€accent€t nd€the€roses€that€were€ scattered€everywhere.€They€decorated€ e.€and€the€wedding€ arch€of€the€gazebo€where€they€wou p€of€Pine€ Mountain.€Hannah’ ather€offered€her€to€him€in€ marriage.€“I€Will€Always€Love€You.”€ € The€two€of€them€walked€slowly€down€the€aisle€together€until€they€reached€the€ gazebo.€Grammy’s€minister€from€Pine€Mountain.€the€red€carpet€on€which€she€would€walk.€Hannah€h ess€and€included€something€old.€too.€ Grammy€Rose€waved€a€dainty€handkerchief€from€the€front s.€This€time€I’m€ ready.€hon?”€ € Hannah€smiled€at€her€father€and€squeezed€his€arm.€The€preacher.€ her€eyes€twinkling€with€pleasure.€Even€Jake’s€partner.€something€new.€along€with€a€few€doctors iffany.€Dressed€in€a€black€tux€with€ his€dark€hair€combed€and€a€sexy€grin€on€his€face.€ € “Ready.

€And€you.€child.”€ € Jake€swept€her€into€his€arms€and€kissed€her€to€the€sound€of€clapping€and€ laughter.”€ € Hannah€and€Jake€nodded.€then€began€the€service.€the€fragrance€of€ spring€grass€and€f th€the€promise€of€rebirth.€ € Grammy€Rose€patted€his€arm.€Several€m ad€hugged€them€and€offered€ congratulations.€ € The€minister€continued.”€ € The€minister€completed€the€ceremony€by€having€them€exchange€rings.€my.€“I€understand€you’d€like€to€say€your€own€ vows.€knowing€the€wedding€band€would€complement€her€grandm he’d€finally€told€Jake€the€story€about€how€the€ring€had€brought€ them€together.”€ € “I€know€that.€he’s€got€some€muscles€on€him.€One€day€she€w n€to€her€own€ daughter.€then€began.€brought€me€ou nce€and€not€be€afraid.”€ € Hannah€had€to€swallow€against€the€tears.€Jake€Tippins.€You.€But€then€ one€day€I€forgot€how€to€dream.€“I€ came€to€Sugar€H ing€of€love€or€family€or€ belonging.€ “As€a€little y€a€prince€someday.€“I€now€pronounce€you€husband€and€wife.€Hannah€saw he€corner€and€was€grateful€they€could€all€be€friends.”€Jake€assured€her.€ € Grammy€Rose€cupped€Jake’s€handsome€strong€face€between€her€gnarled€ wrinkled€hands€and€kissed y€granddaughter.€I€will€l s€ of€my€life.€She€pressed€Jake’s€hands€to€her€heart.€You€may€kiss€ the€bride.€ € Jake€folded€her€hands€between€his€own€and€kissed€them€gently.€taught€me€how€to€open€my€heart h€you€as€long€as€I€live.€Grammy€Rose€stepped€up€to€greet€them.”€ € .€Hannah€Hartwell.€“My.of€prayer.€you€ hear€me?€She’s€a€special€one.€Hannah€ smiled€at€the€soli mple€gold€band€she€and€Jake€had€ chosen.€You€are€my€prince—you€rescued€ me€from€a€life€without€dreams.€and€I€will.€Silence€descended€on€the€meadow.

€“Don’t€worry.”€Hannah€warned.€ € “What€about€Zorro?”€Jake’s€dark€eyebrows€arched€teasingly.€my€wife€won’t€need€Zorro€around€ anymore.€ € Jake€chuckled.€Gram?”€Hannah€asked.€ € “He€was€fabulous.”€Mimi€explained.€ € “Yes.€Jake’s€a€cop.€Hannah.€And€I€can’t€wait€to€get€you€ alone€to€sho € “You’ve€got€your€work€cut€out€for€you.€I€bet€he’ll€know€ what€to€do€w € Hannah€laughed€again.€Jake.€I€think€Hannah€and€I€can€figure€things€out.€“I€couldn’t€ have€chosen€a€more€perfect€husband€for€you€if€I’d€h € .€Now€she€h € Alison€whistled€suggestively.€Mimi.€ € Jake€dragged€Hannah€into€his€arms.€“I€certainly€do.”€Mimi€gestured€toward€a€bright€ silver€gift€bag€ u€a€honeymoon€ goody€bag€for€starters.”€Grammy€said€with€a€wink.€but€his€voice€held€a€ note€of€poss € “He€was€a€stripper.€All€kinds€of€erotic—”€ € “You€don’t€have€to€explain.€“By€the€way.”€Alison€and€Mimi€said€in€unison.”€ He€bent€her€ iting€sighs€and€cheers€from€ the€family.Hannah€laughed€at€the€coy€expression€in€her€grandmother’s€eyes.€ € Hannah€finally€caught€her€breath€and€noticed€her€grandmother’s€eyes€twinkling€ with€appreciat h.€Mimi.€“Well.€was€he€as€good€as€they€say?”€ € Hannah€blushed.€“Alison!”€ € Jake€nuzzled€her€neck€with€kisses.€I€ always€meant€ at€stripper€I€sent€to€your€ bachelorette€party?”€ € “You€sent€Zorro.€“You€know.

€S h€her€own€romance€ hero€and€three€kids.€and€now€she€writes€romantic€ comedies€and€romantic€suspense.€so€please€visit€her€W m.€ € € .€ but€didn’t€think€ .€A€former€kindergarten€teacher€and€wor rytelling€to€kids€for€romance.€Now€she€writes€so€she€doesn’t€ have€to€get€areal€job.€She€loves€to€hear€from€readers.€ RITA€HERRON€ € Award‐winning€author€Rita€Herron€wrote€her€first€book€when€she€was€twelve.