PREVIEW OF NATHAN'S VOW:

"If you enjoy traditional contemporary romance packed with a lot of emotion, you will love Nathan's Vow by Karen Rose Smith." Barbara Meyers

Contemporary Paranormal Romance
Search for Love series, Book 1.

     When Nathan Bradley's ex-wife disappears with his daughters, he does everything in his power to find them.  His private investigator hits a wall and suggests Nathan convince psychic Gilliam Moore to help him.  At first, Gillian is reluctant.  She'd come to L.A. from Indiana to get lost in the crowd...to escape her gift that sometimes seemed more like a burden.  As a manicurist, she is learning to relax again and enjoy life.  But when Nathan makes his plea and shows her a picture of his girls, she knows she must help him.  However, the spark and sizzle between them becomes a fascinating impediment to her progress.  Gillian, who was once burnt by a divorced dad, tries to keep her perspective.  But Nathan is a force to be reckoned with.  Will her gift lead her to love or heartache once again?  (Originally published with Silhouette Books as Adam's Vow.)

Prologue

 Don't answer it.

Don't answer it.

Do not answer it.

Gillian Moore convinced herself to ignore the intrusive sound of the ringing telephone as the golden L.A. sun swept through her open living room window, along with the balmy June breeze.

Her phone rang a second time.

Plucking the leatherbound volumes from her bookshelf one by one, she dusted them with a soft cloth.  She always cleaned and straightened her surroundings when her heart or mind was in turmoil.  With a quick glance at the phone on her end table, she knew her mother wouldn't be calling on a Monday evening.  Madge Moore called her daughter from Deep River, Indiana every Sunday at exactly seven p.m.

Gillian's phone rang a third time.

She swiped the cloth across the shelf, back and forth.  In the three months since she'd relocated to L.A., she hadn't confided in anyone or encouraged close friendships.  She needed this respite.  She needed to find out whether her "gift" would continue to be the major force in her life or whether she had a right to keep it in the background, maybe even completely under wraps.

Her phone rang a fourth time.

It could only be him--the man who had called the past two nights, the man with the compelling voice, tinged with authority, commanding in its intensity as it directed her to return his call.  She didn't know what he wanted, but she could guess.  Heaven knew how he'd gotten her number because no one in L.A. had it, not even the manager where she worked.

Her answering machine kicked on with her brief direction for the caller to leave a message.  Her usually lilting tone was serious and cool.  She ran her hand through her long, light brown hair.  Maybe she should get it cut short…make yet another change in her life.  She'd made so many in moving here--she actually had time to herself...to be out in the sun, ride a bike, take long walks.  She'd found peace along with the bright California sun and she wasn't ready to let go of either.

"Ms. Moore.  This is Nathan Bradley.  Again," he added in a deep, almost censuring baritone.  "In case you haven't received my earlier messages, I need to speak with you immediately about a matter of great urgency."  He paused.  "Ms. Moore, I must speak with you.  Please return my call."  He gave his number slowly, hesitated a moment, then clicked off.

Gillian stopped dusting.  He hadn't said "please" in his other messages.  This time there was a quiet desperation in his tone.  She recognized the emotion because the people she'd helped in the past had all been desperate.  Nathan Bradley didn't sound like a man who was accustomed to using the word "please," and the huskiness edging the word made her feel vulnerable and guilty, two of the burdens from which she'd tried to escape.

Now this man had brought them to the surface once more.  She wouldn't return his call.  She deserved unpressured time to think about the direction of her life, to have fun working at something she'd never imagined she'd enjoy.  Nathan Bradley could find someone else to solve his problem, someone else with a "gift" that had begun to feel more like a curse.


Chapter One

 

Nathan didn't want to be caught dead, let alone alive, inside a beauty salon.  As he pulled open the glass door and stepped inside, feminine chatter, strange smells, and the glimpse of a woman with her hair rolled in blue and purple curlers was enough to make him decide he'd rather face ten irate CEO's whose firewalls had been breached in one day than to plow into this women's domain.  But he'd do anything to find his daughters. 

Anything.

Nathan's determination had pulled him out of the poverty of his childhood, earned him a scholarship to college, and pushed him to start his own company specializing in computer security after only a year with another firm.  He'd wanted to be his own boss, bill his own hours, set his own standards. His determination couldn't save his marriage, but by God, it would lead him to his daughters.  After six months of dead ends, he'd decided money and rational strategies weren't enough.  That's why he was here.  That's why he had to speak to Gillian Moore.

At his private investigator's insistence, Nathan had agreed to go this route--the only route left as far as Nathan was concerned or he wouldn't pursue it.  He wouldn't debate about methods, not even weird ones at this point.  He'd used every skill he'd possessed to find his daughters.  So had his P.I.  Now he had to put his logic and wariness aside if he hoped to find his children before he lost more time with them.

The woman at the desk inside the door smiled as her gaze traveled from his dark brown hair, down his charcoal pinstripe suit and striped silk tie, to his black winged-tip shoes.  She tilted her head and her lips curved up a bit more.  "Can I help you?"

Suddenly Nathan felt as if he were the center of attention.  Two customers on chairs in the room beyond had craned their necks to avidly assess him along with the receptionist.  His shirt collar felt tighter, and he resisted the urge to tug down his tie.  "I'm looking for Gillian Moore."

"You want a manicure?" the redheaded, perfectly coiffed and made-up receptionist asked with a mischievous smile.

"No.  My name is Nathan Bradley.  I need to speak with her as soon as possible," he said in his best authoritarian tone.  "Is she here?"

"Hold on a sec," the redhead answered, her smile flagging.  Disappearing into the room beyond, she reappeared a few moments later.  "She's with a client.  She says she'll talk to you in five minutes."

Five minutes.  What the heck was he supposed to do for five minutes?  He spied several magazines in a basket in the corner beside two director's chairs.  "Fine.  I'll wait."

Waiting wasn't something Nathan did well.  He hadn't become a successful CEO with company locations across the country by waiting.  As he flipped one glossy page after the other, he was vaguely aware this publication didn't advertise fast cars or designer clothes.  Tuning in to the sound of feminine voices in the next room, he tried to pick out the one belonging to a woman who had helped police departments solve missing person cases.  As he had many times in the past few days, he imagined what she might look like.  Probably fuzzy, wild hair with a red scarf tied around her head.

He could feel the receptionist watching him as she pretended to study the schedule book.  Finally, a customer with bright crimson nails emerged from the room beyond and gingerly opened her purse at the desk.

"Gillian can see you now," the desk-keeper informed him.

Gillian Moore's lack of response to his phone calls had irritated and frustrated Nathan.  He was accustomed to being in charge.  But his reason for being here brushed all that aside.

Striding into the busy room, he took it in with one glance--the chairs, mirrors, blow dryers, three hairdressers chatting to their customers.  But then his gaze fell on the small white wrought-iron desk in the far corner and the woman sitting behind it.  Her face turned away from him, she slid a pack of acrylic nails to the side of the glass top and straightened her manicure paraphernalia.  At his approach, her gaze met his, and he almost stopped short.

She didn't look like a psychic.

Her long, light brown hair was laced with sunny blond highlights.  A few tendrils wisped along her cheek. Her bangs wafted across her honey brows.  But it was her huge brown eyes that almost immobilized him.  They didn't appraise him physically…they looked into his soul.  He didn't like the invasion.

Gillian had wished her client a good day and unnecessarily  organized her work table, hoping Nathan Bradley had decided not to wait.  When she turned her head and saw a tall man with resolve shouting from his furrowed dark brows, the set of his mouth, and his slightly squared jaw, she realized it would take more than a few unanswered phone messages to deter this man.

Taking a slow breath and maintaining eye contact, she slid her hands into the pockets of her white apron.  Nathan Bradley wanted something from her, all right, and she couldn't give it.  Not right now.

"Ms. Moore."

It was more statement than question.  She nodded.

"Could we talk for a few minutes?"

She gestured to her desk.  "I'm working, Mr. Bradley.  I really don't have time--"

"You don't have a client at the moment," he countered, his blue eyes steady, his voice firm.

This man could be intimidating.  But she was used to dealing with hard-nosed cops, jaded private investigators, and a disbelieving public who wanted her help anyway.  "No, I don't.  But I am working.  Now, if you'd like a manicure..."  She almost had to smile at his expression of distaste, but then his next words made her heart beat faster.

"I want a few minutes with you.  You're the last option I have."

"For what?" she asked, though she sensed what he needed.

"My two daughters.  I need you to help me find them."

As she stood, Gillian glanced around the shop to make sure no one was listening.  "Where did you get my name?"

"Does it matter?"  As he asked, he slipped a photo from the inside pocket of his jacket.

His movement was quick, but Gillian caught a view of a narrow waist, slim hips, and a physique probably as taut as his demeanor and voice.  When he offered her the photograph, her attention returned to the situation at hand and she took a step back.

The two young girls in the snapshot had their father's blue eyes and brown hair.  She could tell that he loved them from the way the camera had caught Nathan Bradley' expression as he crouched down between them, one arm around each daughter.  The pain in his eyes now attested to the fact.

He tried to hand Gillian the photo, but she wouldn't take it.  She knew what might happen if she did.  She might see images and feel emotions she didn't want right now.  Folding her hands in front of her, she said, "I'm no longer doing that type of work."

But it was difficult for her to tear her gaze from the picture.  When she did, the sadness in Nathan Bradley's eyes was almost as difficult to ignore.

"Why?"

For some reason, she couldn't hedge or lie to this man.  Checking again to be sure no one eavesdropped, Gillian lowered  her voice anyway.  "Since I was sixteen, Mr. Bradley, my life hasn't been my own.  I came to L.A. to escape the type of work you want me to do and to make decisions about my future."  She stopped and tears pricked her eyes as she thought about the last few months before leaving Indiana.

Regaining her composure, she swallowed and went on, "For almost ten years, I've helped others when they've asked.  Now I need time and breathing room before I decide if and how I want to use my gift again."

As she spoke, she could tell he listened.  There was a spark of empathy in his eyes, but, of course, his need was more important.  "Take this one case," he insisted.  "I'll protect your privacy if that's what you're concerned about.  Your help doesn't have to be public knowledge.  I'm an internet security specialist.  I know what safeguards we can take.  No one else has to know you're here."

She steeled herself against the man's masculine appeal and turned away from the wonderful smiles of the children in the photo as well as the hurt still lingering in her heart.  That hurt sprang up every time she remembered Brian Reston and the search for his son, the months she'd dreamed about a future for the three of them.

Despite the time that had passed, despite the miles between L.A. and Deep River, Indiana, she knew she wasn't ready for Nathan Bradley and his search...for any of it.  The general public thought psychics could "know" anything they wanted, that they could answer any question, even their own personal ones.  That just wasn't true.  Gillian had realized early on that she couldn't use her "gift" for her own benefit or to predict events.  All she could do was tune into impressions and use them along with her intuition.  Words, pictures, and sounds sometimes popped into her head, but she never knew when that was going to happen.  It hadn't happened since she'd left Indiana.

With the need for self-preservation being her overriding concern, she said, "If you found me, others will be able to.  And I'm not only concerned about privacy.  You make my help seem simple, as if all I have to do is close my eyes and give you the answers you want.  The process is much more complicated than that.  Try a private investigator, Mr. Bradley.  It will be best for both of us."

"A private investigator gave me your name."

She sighed and shook her head.  "Then he can find someone else who does my kind of work."

"It's difficult to find a reputable psychic," Nathan almost growled as his frustration became evident.

Worry stabbed Gillian.  "Sh..."  All she needed was her co-workers knowing. 

Nathan lifted his hands in exasperation and in a loud whisper asked, "Why is it so all-fired important for no one to know what you do?"

Anger bubbled up inside her because this man knew nothing about the hundreds of letters she received each year, the sleepless nights, the burden of parents and brothers and sisters and children depending on her to find someone they loved, or someone who was missing.  What irritated her the most were those who wanted a plan for the future without formulating it themselves.  "If they knew what I was able to do, most women in this salon would want a reading.  They'd line up for hours waiting with bated breath for me to tell them their future.  And if I couldn't tell them anything, they'd say I'm a fraud.  My gift creates a three-ring circus, Mr. Bradley.  No, thank you."

Harriet came in from the front desk.  "A walk-in for nails is waiting, Gillian.  How's your schedule?"

Gillian accepted fate's offer of a neat, non-confrontational way to end this encounter.  "Tell her to come in.  I don't have another appointment until four.  If it's all right with you, I'll take my supper break at five."

"No problem."  Harriet's interest in Nathan was obvious as she gave him a wink and returned to the front room.

He faced Gillian.  "I'd like to continue our discussion."

"There's nothing more to say.  I have to get back to work and I'm sure you do, too.  Call your P.I.  He'll find someone else."

The look the man gave Gillian was not resigned.  If anything, it was more determined than ever.  But he didn't argue.  "I'll call my P.I.  But I'll be talking to you again.  Soon."

With a lift of his brow and a wave of his hand, he was gone.

Gillian first felt relief, then a strange sense of loss.  But she was used to feelings and images not clicking.  Eventually they became part of a bigger picture, and then she'd understand. But there was no bigger picture where Nathan Bradley was concerned.  There was no picture at all.

#

The instant Gillian stepped outside of the Hair Happening, she saw him.  He stood beside a gray Mercedes in the parking lot. She should have realized this man wouldn't give up so easily.  Ducking back into the salon was an option.  So was ignoring him as she walked to the enchilada and chili stand across the parking lot of the strip shopping center.  But she had the feeling when she returned, he'd still be waiting, and not quite so patiently.

A group of teenagers on roller-blades skated by, one of them holding a miniature schnauzer on a leash.  She smiled at the sight, something she'd probably never see in Deep River.  But her smile slipped as she spotted the handsome, very sexy man walking toward her, and an excited little shiver zipped up her spine.  At least six-two, lean and fit, with long legs that quickly covered the distance between them, he was the type of man who could attract a roomful of women without trying.  It wasn't only his looks but his confidence, his dominating male presence.

When he stood before her, he asked, "Can I buy you supper?"

"If I hadn't mentioned my break, you would have waited till I quit for the day.  Right?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Bradley..."

"Nathan.  You have to eat supper. I have to eat supper.  Is  there any reason we shouldn't talk while we do?"

"You have an ulterior motive.  This won't be much of a break for me."

"It's not an ulterior motive because you know what I want."

"Obviously, I need to watch what I say with you," she murmured.

The corners of his mouth twitched up.  "Is that a yes or no?"

"If I say no, you'll be back.  Let's get this over with."

The curve of his lips turned into a frown, indicating he was uncomfortable with her frankness.  Gillian's gaze wanted to linger on those lips.  They were full enough to be sensual, narrow enough to enhance the handsome aesthetics of his face.  She could imagine one of his kisses--dominating, forceful, passion-filled.

The image startled her.  She hadn't thought about kissing a man in over a year--since Brian had decided to reconcile with his ex-wife.  She'd not only lost Brian but his son, too.  At the time she'd thought her heart would break.  But she'd buried herself in her work until she'd realized she no longer had a life outside of her work.  Not eating, not sleeping, working twenty hours a day was a one-way road to disaster.  Thank goodness she'd recognized her destructive direction in time.

"I don't know what you have in mind," she said, "but the chili and enchiladas are good at that stand over there."

Nathan perused the truck/restaurant set-up near an island with palm trees and benches.  "I haven't had an enchilada in..."  He shrugged.  "Too long."

They walked side by side for a few moments, Nathan slowing his stride to Gillian's.  The breeze ruffled his hair, making him look less formal and imposing.  She thought he'd start making his case for her help, but he didn't.

His arm brushed hers, his suitcoat rough against her skin.  "Have you always done manicures for a living?"

She registered the texture of the material, the strength of his arm, and her heart jumped at the contact.  Managing a smile, she responded, "Would you believe I have a degree in business?"

"Neither seems appropriate for a psychic."

Her smile faded.  "And what does?  Theater arts?"

He stopped and faced her.  "Okay.  I stuck my foot in it.  I didn't mean to insult you.  But all this is strange to me.  I'm a logical man.  I make decisions and judgments from facts.  I've always thought psychics were frauds.  But my private investigator told me about crimes you've solved and people you've found.  Even if I don't believe in it or understand it, what you do works."

"I don't understand it, either," she said quietly.

Nathan had been fascinated by the woman since he'd set his eyes on her.  Looking at her now, her soft, long hair, those wonderful brown eyes, her slender curves wrapped in a pink cullotte dress with a white collar and lapels, his muscles tightened and he felt pangs of arousal.

Crazy.  That usually didn't happen simply from looking.

Her soft voice, her calm wonder, urged him to step closer, to find out more about her.  "Tell me about it.  Were you born with this ability?"

She shook her head and pointed to the supper truck.  They began walking again.  "I don't think I was born with it.  If I was, I didn't know it until I was ten.  I was sitting on a dock fishing and a storm came up.  The thunder and lightning hit fast.  The next thing I knew I was lying flat on the dock, the rain pouring down on me.  My head hurt and I was shaking all over.  Mom found me that way, took me home, and put me to bed.  We thought that was the end of it."

His P.I. had told Nathan that Gillian was from Indiana and had lived there all her life.  She traveled often but had never moved from the town where she'd grown up.  L.A. must be quite a change for her.  "When did you realize something was different?"

"A few days later.  Aunt Flora came to visit.  When she hugged me, I saw this picture of her sitting at her kitchen table crying.  I didn't understand it.  Later, I overheard my aunt and my mother talking.  My cousin had dropped out of high school and my aunt was terribly upset."

"And there was no way you could have known that."

"No."

"Did you tell your mom?"

"No. I was afraid of the pictures when they came and uncomfortable with the feelings.  I kept it a secret until I was sixteen."

They reached the vending stand.  Gillian ordered chili and cornbread while Nathan asked for an enchilada.  She opened her purse, but he closed his hand over hers.  Her skin was soft and warm and a jolt of desire more powerful than before stabbed him.  "I've got it," he said, unable to keep the husky rasp from his voice.

Her gaze met his.  The sparks of gold in the brown told him his touch affected her as much as hers affected him.  She pulled away, and he let go.

Gillian busied herself pulling napkins from the holder while Nathan paid for and carried their plates to a bench.  Picking up their sodas, she joined him.  She'd no sooner settled on the bench with her soda by her shoe and the cup of chili with a wedge of cornbread perched on the edge in her hand when the schnauzer she'd seen earlier ran over to her and jumped up and down, finally landing with her paws on Gillian's knees.

Gillian laughed and held her dish a little higher, out of the dog's reach.  "You might want supper, but I'm not sure you should have this."

One of the roller-bladers came skating over, his helmet under his arm, a leash dangling from his hand.  "Sorry if she's botherin' you.  She begs from everybody."

The boy was about twelve.  His spiked brown hair was matted down from his helmet, his snapping brown eyes sparkled with amusement.  Gillian asked him, "Can she have a bite?"

He grinned.  "If you wanna give it to her."

Gillian tried to tear off a piece of the cornbread, but it slid into the chili.  Nathan grabbed the dish and held it for her.  Smiling her thanks, she took the small bite from the wedge and let the dog lick it from her hand.  The schnauzer gulped it down and looked up at her for more.  Laughing again, Gillian scratched the pet behind her ears.  "I should have known that little bit wouldn't be enough."

As she touched the dog and rubbed her rough coat, Gillian felt her gaze pulled to the teenager again.  He and the dog were connected by a strong bond of affection.  A surge of energy made her fingers tingle and she automatically closed her eyes for a moment.  A clear picture of a dark-haired woman on a porch came into focus.  The woman was worried.  Gillian had the distinct impression she was the boy's mother.

Opening her eyes, Gillian cast a wary look at Nathan.  He was watching her closely.  Should she say something to the boy about his mother?  If she did, Nathan would know what had happened.  Why had this vision come now?  Since she'd left Indiana, she'd felt normal--no pictures, no knowledge she shouldn't have.

Gillian looked at the boy, knowing she couldn't let the woman in her mind's eye suffer unnecessarily.  "I think your dog wants a full-course meal."

"What time is it?" he asked with a nod at Gillian's watch.

"Five-thirty."

"Geez.  I was supposed to be home an hour ago.  Mom's gonna be..."  He stopped with a shrug as if a boy his age shouldn't worry about adult authority.  Snapping the leash onto the dog's collar, he gave it a gentle tug.  "C'mon, Peanut.  We'll get us both some supper."  He smiled at Gillian and skated over to his friends, who sat on the curb sipping sodas.

Nathan handed Gillian her plate.  "What happened?"

"You saw what happened.  I gave the dog a snack."

"When you touched the dog, you closed your eyes."

The man was too observant.  "The boy's mother was worried about him."

"You felt that?"

"I saw that.  She was standing on the porch waiting for him."

"You got that from petting the dog?" Nathan asked, astonished.

She'd faced expressions like his many times in the past.  "Mr. Bradley..."

"Nathan," he reminded her. 

Calling him by his first name seemed too familiar.  She already knew she could be attracted to him.  "This 'talent' I have isn't something I can turn off and on like a light switch.  It's more unpredictable than the weather or earthquakes."

"You made him realize she was worried without saying it, without telling him you knew."

"That was easiest."

Nathan finished his enchilada and took a swig of soda before he spoke again.  "My ex-wife took my daughters out of the country six months ago.  I can't find them. My P.I. can't find them.  Will you take my case?"


PREVIEW OF JAKE'S BRIDE:


"Karen Rose Smith always writes romances that touch the heart. They are quick reads with characters that we the readers can relate to."          Kathy Andrico


JAKE'S BRIDE is Book 2 in Karen Rose Smith's Search For Love series.
Contemporary marriage of convenience with a Christmas theme.

     Could Jake ever trust Sara again?  Sara Standish knew private investigator Jake Donovan didn't want children. He'd lost his wife and child and his anguish was obvious. With their wedding only days away, she discovered she was pregnant. Should she marry Jake and trap him with a child he might not want? She loved him too much to do that so she called off their wedding and left Los Angeles without telling him about her pregnancy. Now four years later, a letter from her mother helps her realize she made a terrible mistake. Jake deserves to know he has a son.  When Sara tells Jake the truth, she sees the sense of betrayal in his eyes. He will never be able to trust her again. But when he asks her to marry him for the sake of their son, she hopes her love can heal them both.  Although Jake has hardened his heart against Sara's beauty and gentle nature, he knows he wants to be a father to his son. The only way to do that? Marriage. But he doesn't expect to be caught in the web of loving Sara again. With Christmas near, can they really become a family? Only if he can leave the past behind.   Can the traditions of Christmas make Jake whole? No, but maybe love can.  (Previously published with Silhouette Books as Shane's Bride.)

Prologue

 

Sara Standish's heart thudded with excitement, but with trepidation, too, as she climbed the porch steps to the house where she'd lived all her twenty years.  Surely, Jake would change his mind about not having children once he heard her news.  With their wedding two days away and their future stretching before them, wouldn't he feel joy over a life they'd created together?

But then she remembered the pain in his voice, on his face, in his hands, the night he'd told her about his wife  and child…how he'd lost them...how he never wanted to experience that devastation again.  Her empathy had turned into kisses that turned into making love for the first time.  He'd needed her and she'd needed him.  But afterward, he'd vowed he wouldn't make love to her again until their wedding night, until she was protected, until they were truly husband and wife.  He was that type of man.

Although she loved children, she'd agreed to a childless marriage.  She loved Jake so much she'd agree to almost anything.

Did he love her enough to let go of his past and accept this child?

Sara knew she'd agreed to a childless marriage, praying that some day, knowing the love Jake had to give, he would change his mind.  She'd witnessed his work at the community center with teenagers who could stray from an honest path too easily.  And he didn't express his feelings often, but he did love her.  He'd showed her that with the yellow roses he brought her every Friday night. Each rose signified the completion of another week, their growing feelings for each other, the importance of talking about their successes and failures.  Those special times of holding and caring were more precious to her than she could ever explain.  The two most recent roses in a vase on her desk in her bedroom reminded her daily of the commitment they'd made.

She loved Jake so.  Still, her fear made her throat tight.  What if he couldn't accept this child?  What if...

Stopping the questions, she opened the door and went inside.  She heard voices coming from the kitchen.  Her mother's and Jake's.  Quickly she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it in the foyer closet.  Nervously brushing her short, auburn hair away from her face, she wondered how she could get Jake alone without making her mother too curious.  Maybe she could say she wanted to show him the beautiful November sunset.  Or maybe she should wait to tell him after supper.  They could drive to the beach...

"You're a gem, Mrs. Standish.  Your pot roast could win a medal."  Jake's tone was teasing but conveyed his appreciation of her mother's culinary skill.

Jennie Standish laughed.  "You can tell from the aroma?  I think maybe you just haven't eaten properly all day.  And, by the way, Jake, don't you think since you're marrying my daughter this weekend, you could call me Jennie?"

There was a pause.  "I'd like that."

Sara understood the huskiness in Jake's voice.  He'd lost his own mother and appreciated the bond he was building with hers.

"Jake, there is something I'd like to discuss with you before Sara arrives."

"Is there a problem?"

Jennie Standish's tone was gentle.  "I don't know.  Sara tells me you don't want to have children."

He didn't answer immediately, but finally said, "That's right."

"You know Sara loves children.  For three years she's worked in that day care center.  I told her somehow I'd manage to send her to college full time instead of part time, but over and over she's reminded me the experience would make her a better teacher when she does get her degree.  She loves working with little children.  I think she'd do it even if she didn't get paid."

The house was quiet for a few moments as Sara waited for Jake's response.

"We believe our love is enough."

"Your love needs to spill over, Jake.  It needs to be bigger than the two of you."

His voice was sad with a raspy catch.  "You don't understand."

"Make me understand so I know Sara won't regret this pact she's made with you."

"Did Sara tell you about my wife and son?"

"She told me you're divorced."

"Yes.  Because of what happened.  Because--"

Sara knew Jake held in his emotions and didn't want to appear vulnerable to anyone.  It came from his upbringing, from his years as a member of the police force, from the sticky situations he'd handled as a private investigator, from the loss of his son.

A chair scraped the linoleum and in her mind's eye, Sara could see Jake, his broad shoulders, his wavy black hair, his brown eyes that could hide every thought in his head so well, as he sat in the kitchen chair.

"I grew up in the projects."

"Sara did tell me that.  I figured it had something to do with you becoming a police officer.  But she didn't tell me why you gave it up, why you decided to become a private investigator instead."

"I became a cop because I thought I could clean up the city, make a difference.  But it's not possible, Mrs. Standish."  He corrected himself.  "Jennie.  I was a cop for eight years, and I didn't make a dent let alone a difference.  You wouldn't believe the misery I saw.  Then that misery touched me."

"What happened?" she asked softly.

"I was married.  We had a six year old--Davie.  Full of life and fun.  I was working the night shift.  Mary Beth and Davie decided to go to the video store for a movie.  My car was parked behind hers.  Davie ran out ahead of her and opened the driver's door so he could crawl in beside her.  The car exploded."

"Oh, Jake."

"I heard Mary Beth's screams.  I still hear them.  Neither of us could do anything.  We found out later a guy I'd collared did it.  It was an act of revenge.  But the bomb took the wrong person, and I was to blame.  Mary Beth blamed me, too.  Our marriage fell apart."

"Jake, I'm so sorry."

"I won't bring a child into a world of suffering, into a world that doesn't cherish its children or protect them by keeping criminals like that thug behind bars instead of paroling them.  I will never get over losing Davie.  Not in this lifetime or the next.  Don't you see?  I can't have more children.  I can't put myself through that again."

Sara leaned against the closet door.  She knew his pain went deep, but she'd hoped their marriage would heal the wounds.  Yet, she also knew if he wasn't ready for healing, he'd fight it.  A child could make the pain deeper instead of healing him.  She'd been naive to think the news of her pregnancy might be welcome.  Jake said what he believed.  He was passionate about what he felt.  Could she trap him in a situation he didn't want?  What would happen to his feelings for her?

If she told him about the baby, she knew what Jake would do.  He'd go through with the wedding because he was an honorable man.  But what kind of marriage would they have?

Tears flooded her eyes.  Certainly a marriage he didn't want, a child who'd remind him every day of the son he'd lost.  He'd resent the pain.  He'd resent her.  Worst of all, though he'd never admit it, he'd resent their child.  She couldn't bear to see the love they'd shared erode with each passing day, each time Jake looked at her and their child and realized he was imprisoned in his anguish.

Her love wasn't strong enough to watch the feelings between them die instead of grow.  Yet she had to give them one last chance, one last chance for Jake to put their love before his pain.

With trembling fingers she brushed the tears from her cheeks.  Lifting her chin, she walked into the kitchen.

Jake's head came up.  His brown eyes warmed just for her.  Standing, he took her in his arms and hugged her.  "Hi, there."  His voice was still low and husky from the strain of sharing the past with her mother.  "I was worried.  Did you get tied up at work?"

"No.  I need to talk to you.  Let's go into the living room."

"But your mother has supper ready."

Jennie Standish's gaze passed quickly over the two of them, worried because she knew from the tone of Sara's voice that something was wrong.  "That's all right.  I can keep everything warm."

Jake took Sara's hand and walked with her to the sofa.  When they were seated, he wrapped his arm around her and kissed her.  Her fear kept her from responding with her usual fervor, and he leaned away, never a man to push, never a man to take more than she wanted to give.

The gold in his eyes told her better than words that his desire for her would ignite with a kiss, a touch, a smile.  But she had none of them for him now.  Meeting his gaze, she took a deep breath.  "Jake, I need to ask you something."  She unconsciously placed her hand on her stomach.  "Do you think you'll ever change your mind about having children?"

The gold disappeared as his eyes darkened with pain.  "Sara..."

"I want your children.  And I...need to have a baby.  To feel fulfilled in our marriage.  To feel fulfilled as a woman."  A tiny kernel of Sara inside her heart urged her to believe that her announcement might change Jake's mind, that they could have a happy future.

The nerve in his jaw worked.  "We had an agreement."

A sob lodged in her throat but she pushed out the rest of what she had to say.  "I know.  But I can't keep it."

For a moment, she saw...devastation.  And for that moment, she could see all the pain he tried to hide from the loss of his son, the depth of the wound she thought she could help heal.  She'd been naive again.

Jake turned away, his lean cheeks taut.  When he met her gaze again, she couldn't see anything but his dark brown eyes.  He'd erected a wall...against her.  She could feel it as tangibly as she'd felt his love a second before.

Stoicism marked his face as he asked, "What are you trying to tell me?"

Her heart broke and she knew it would never be the same again.  She loved Jake too much to trap him.  "That...that I need to have children and if you truly don't want them...then I can't marry you."

"Sara..."  He spoke her name with such feeling…then all emotion was gone.  "You're calling off the wedding?"

"Jake, I have to.  I have to think about the future.  Can't you do that?  Can't you imagine--?"

He reached for her, then dropped his hand.  "No, I can't.  I can't imagine you pregnant, worrying day after day, night after night, whether you and the baby will be all right.  I can't imagine caring for an infant, chasing after a toddler, knowing I can't protect him.  And most of all, I can't imagine the aching every time I'd look at our child because I'd miss Davie even more.  No, I can't imagine it, Sara, because at times even now the pain is unbearable.  I can't imagine it being even worse.  If you need children in your life, then you're right to call off the wedding."

He stood, moving away from her, moving out of her life.  "Tell your mom I won't be staying for dinner.  Tell her whatever you need to tell her."

Sara took one last chance.  "Jake, you can't leave like this.  We can talk--"

He shook his head.  "There's nothing to talk about.  We've made our choices.  Now we'll have to live with them."

His tall body was rigid.  She wanted to hold him and make everything right.  But she couldn't.  She had to let him go.

Jake Donovan didn't meet her gaze again, didn't touch her, didn't say good-bye.  He simply walked out the door.


Chapter One

Almost Four Years Later

 

In a fog, Sara walked around the house her mother had rented in Los Angeles for most of her life.  She picked up a needlework magazine on the coffee table.  Crossing to her mother's favorite easy chair, she opened the tapestry bag with her mother's knitting.  A small sweater was almost finished.  Jennie Standish had intended it to be a Christmas present for her grandson.  Christmas...a time for families and love and--

Sara had been debating with herself ever since Christopher was born--as she'd fed him, and changed him, and cared for him in Wasco, a small town about two hours away.  She'd thought her love for Jake and her memories of him would fade with the years, but they hadn't.  She saw him in Christopher's brown eyes, the quirk of his smile, the beauty of him.  She constantly questioned whether she'd done the right thing when she'd left L.A. without telling him about her pregnancy.

With Christopher's first birthday, she'd told herself that Jake had probably gone on with his life.  During Christopher's second year, every time she visited her mom in L.A., she'd thought about calling Jake.  And this past year as Christopher had learned and grown and asked more questions about the world around him, she'd doubted her decision daily.

A month ago, the owners of the day care facility in Wasco where she'd worked had informed her they'd be closing it at the end of the month.  They'd said operating costs were too high and the profit margin not great enough.  Thinking about moving back here, she'd sent resumes all over Los Angeles, seriously considering telling Jake they had a son.

Then two weeks ago, she received a phone call from her aunt in the middle of the night, a phone call that had changed her life.  Her mother's unexpected death had shaken up Sara's world.  It had made her look at her life with Christopher more closely--what he needed.  They had Aunt Eloise, her mother's sister.  But no one else.  Christopher needed his father.  Soon he'd begin to ask specific questions.  Sara couldn't lie to him.  She wanted to tell him what a wonderful man his father was.  She wanted him to know Jake because he deserved to know his father.  Now, all she had to do was pick up the telephone...

The doorbell rang and Sara jumped.  Maybe it was Aunt El.  She'd offered to watch Christopher so Sara could start packing her mother's belongings, so she could spend some time alone with her thoughts--in the house where she'd grown up, in the house she'd soon have to vacate.

When she answered the door, a man in a green uniform stood on the porch.  "Eloise Murray told me I could find Sara Standish here.  I have a package for her."

"I'm Sara Standish."

"Sign here, please."

Sara signed the paper on the clipboard and the young man gave her the manila envelope.  She thanked him, closed the door, and checked the letterhead.  It was from her mother's lawyer.  Sara had met the white-haired, older man when she was a teenager, after her father died.

Slipping her thumb under the flap, she tore the envelope open.  Inside, she found a sealed letter along with a note from the lawyer.

Dear Miss Standish,

Your mother instructed me to deliver this letter to you upon her death.  I will call you in a few days to set up a time for the reading of her will.

My sincere condolences,

George Gunthry

With shaking fingers, she carefully opened the ivory envelope.

Darling Sara,

I know this will be a difficult time for you.  But there is something I'd like you to do.  Do you remember your father's gold pocket watch?  It's in my jewelry box.  I want you to give it to Jake.  George made my will after your father died.  I preferred not to tamper with it because I want this bequest to be a personal moment between you and Jake.  Before Christopher was born, you made a decision considering Jake's wishes.  Maybe it's time to consider yours and Christopher's.

I love you, Sara.  All I've ever wanted is your happiness.  Be happy, sweetheart, no matter what you decide.

Mom

Was this her mother's way of giving her a last bit of guidance, a gentle shove?  Making her face Jake again and her feelings for him?

It was time to face the truth, to let Jake decide if he wanted to be a part of his son's life.  It was time to let go of the guilt and the doubts and put the decision in his hands.

She would go see him.  Test the waters.  Tell him about her mother's bequest.  Then she'd decide what to do next.

#

On Wednesday afternoon, the heat of a September sun poured onto Sara's shoulders as she rang Jake's doorbell, praying he still worked from an office in his house.  Her courage faded as she stood on the doorstep of the Spanish-styled two-story with its black wrought iron trim and terra cotta-colored exterior.  She'd always loved Jake's house with it's old world charm and cozy interior.  Was he sharing it with someone else?

The door opened and a pretty woman with light brown hair and a warm smile stood before Sara.  Sara was speechless for a moment, though she'd thought about Jake marrying another woman.  She swallowed hard, her courage flagging, but her determination taking over.

"Hello?  Can I help you?" the woman asked as her gaze slid over Sara's yellow dress and bolero jacket.

"I'm looking for Jake Donovan.  Are you...Mrs. Donovan?"

The woman laughed.  "Absolutely not."  She extended her hand.  "I'm Gillian Bradley, and I work with Jake.  Are you trying to find someone?"

"Uh, no.  Just Jake."

Gillian motioned her to follow.  "Come in.  He's in the office."

Sara stood in Jake's living room, her emotions tightening her throat.  After four long years, everything was the same, from the native American painting above the fireplace to the hand-carved wooden lamps standing as sentinels on either side of the taupe and green tweed sofa.  The light wood end tables, their tops inlaid with mosaic tiles, even held the same bronze sculptures of wild horses Jake had purchased from an art collector.  She'd stood beside him as he'd bargained for them.  The only new piece was a chest with shelves sitting by the stairway.

Gillian motioned to the office, a sunroom adjacent to the living room.  Sara walked toward it, her heart pounding.

A portable playpen was set up in one corner.  But a child wasn't in it.  Jake stood by the windows, holding a toddler.  Sara couldn't believe it.

Jake said, "I think Matthew's getting another tooth.  I have an extra teething ring in the refrigerator--"  He turned toward the doorway and went perfectly still.

Sara knew she looked different.  She'd let her hair grow longer after Christopher was born.  She'd lost some weight, too.  Working and running after her son had kept her in shape.

But she wasn't the only one who'd changed her hairstyle.  Where Jake had once worn his hair cropped short, it now hung to his shirt collar in the back and over his ears on the sides.  As for the rest of him--  Her heart had already tripled its rhythm.  In khakis and a cream polo shirt, he looked good enough to...hug.  But the stance of his body, the set expression on his face told her this wasn't a reunion he'd anticipated or ever expected.

Suddenly, the baby waved his arms and reached for Jake's collar.  Jake tore his gaze from Sara's and rubbed the little guy's back as if he'd done it many times before.  "I think your mom has plans for you."

Gillian laughed.  "It's time to go home.  He's just trying to coax you into carrying him around a bit longer."  She picked up the diaper bag sitting near the playpen, then held out her arms.

Matthew reached for his mother, then swayed back toward Jake with a smile and a gurgle.  Jake leaned closer to Gillian.  "Go on, pal.  I'll see you tomorrow."

Gillian lifted Matthew from Jake's arms.  After a short pout, he snuggled in his mom's arm.  "Call me if you have any questions on the notes I made.  I'll see you in the morning," she said, glancing at Sara, then back to Jake.

Jake nodded, but his gaze returned to Sara's.  It wasn't until the front door closed that he finally looked away.

Sara felt shell-shocked, seeing him again.  Memories came rushing back along with old feelings.  She remembered the day she'd met him, the workshop he'd presented, his intensity when he'd talked about teenagers needing to be guided in the right direction instead of letting them end up in the criminal justice system.  After his workshop, she'd approached him with a few questions.  They'd gone for coffee and talked, becoming more absorbed in each other than the subject of his presentation.  He'd asked her out over the weekend.  And their courtship had begun.

She remembered the kisses, the touches, that one special night...

She'd matured and changed over the past four years.  Watching Jake hold a child in his arms led her to believe he'd changed, too.

Her memories and emotions kept her immobilized.  Jake had to pass her to get to his desk chair.  When he did, she could have sworn they both held their breath.  The brief contact of his shoulder against hers as he bypassed the playpen acted like a jolt of electricity to her already overloaded nervous system.

Not knowing where to start, she said, "Gillian said she was your partner."

"Yes, she is."

"She brings her baby to work?"

Jake lodged one hip against the desk.  "Sometimes."

"How old is...Matthew, isn't it?"

"Fifteen months."  The lines along Jake's mouth that carved into his lean cheeks when he smiled now looked deeper than they had four years ago.

Sara couldn't keep the burning question in her mind.  "Is Matthew yours?"

Jake looked as though he might not answer, but then in a brisk tone explained, "Gillian is happily married to a friend of mine.  Matthew is theirs."

"I was surprised to see you with a child."

"I never said I didn't like kids.  I just didn't want to bring any into the world."

When the silence stretched into an unbearable awkwardness, he asked, "Why are you here?"

There was no welcome in his voice, none of the gentleness she knew he was capable of.  The wall he'd erected the last time they'd talked, the day he'd left her mother's house, was solid and sturdy.  All she could do was take one step at a time.

"My mother passed away two weeks ago."  Sara's throat tightened and she had to fight back the tears that were all too ready to come to the surface these days.

Jake's stony expression softened.  "I'm sorry.  I know how much she meant to you."

Yes, he did.  In fact, he'd known everything about her because she'd held nothing back.  Not until she'd received the news of her pregnancy.  "I've been staying at Aunt El's."

"How's your aunt taking this?" he asked, his tone bringing back memories of his arms around her, confidences shared, yellow roses.

She shook off the images and the feelings that went with them to concentrate on his question.  Her Aunt Eloise and her mother had been close all their lives.  "It's difficult for her."

Jake stuffed his hands into his pockets, a familiar gesture.  He always did it when he was uncomfortable.  "I am sorry about your mother, but you could have sent me a note.  Why did you come?"  He seemed genuinely perplexed.

"Because Mom left me a letter.  She wants you to have something of my dad's."

The seconds ticked by.  "Why?"

"Because she liked you, Jake.  She...she just wanted you to have it."  Sara knew Jake's memories of his mother weren't all happy ones, that's why she'd hoped he could share her mother.  It was too late.  But it wasn't too late for him to have a relationship with his son.  "I wanted to invite you over to Mom's house to pick it up.  How about tomorrow sometime?"

Jake looked torn.  Finally, he said, "All right.  Around one?"

"That's fine.  I'll look forward to seeing you then."

He pushed away from his desk.  "I'll walk you out."

Jake felt almost numb and didn't try to make conversation as he walked Sara Standish to the door.  He'd never expected to see her again.  He'd told himself she was history.  But he couldn't look at a yellow rose, he couldn't close his eyes sometimes, he couldn't look at the tux still hanging in his closet without wondering what they could have had, without wondering why he still missed her, without wondering if she was now married to someone else, mothering the children she'd wanted.

The sense of betrayal he'd experienced when she'd called off the wedding had never ebbed.  He'd fallen in love with her and he'd trusted her--with his heart and with his life.  But he hadn't been enough for her.  His love hadn't been enough.  She'd wanted more.  She'd wanted something he couldn't give her because in giving her a child, he would have given himself unending heartache.  His grief over his dead son hadn't lessened, it had taken a deeper foothold.  Sara's broken promise had made him more guarded, and he knew he'd built an impenetrable shell around his heart.

So why did Sara's presence in his house make that shell feel not quite as secure, as if it needed another layer?

Jake glanced at her again.  If he looked too hard, too long, he might feel something that after she left again could only hurt him more.  She was so damn pretty.  Those big blue eyes once filled with optimism and sparkling enthusiasm now reflected sadness and something else he couldn't put his finger on.  But it didn't matter.  After tomorrow he'd never see her again.

He opened the door for her.  When she stepped over the threshold onto the porch, he called, "Sara?"

She turned.

"Don't go to any trouble tomorrow.  I won't be able to stay.  I have appointments later in the afternoon."

As soon as he saw her disappointment, he regretted his abrupt words.  She looked as if she was about to say something, but then changed her mind.  Instead, she nodded.  "I'll see you tomorrow around one."

Jake watched her walk down the path to her car, wishing he could deny her effect on him, wishing tomorrow over so feelings he'd kept in check for four years could stay buried.

#

Jake walked up the steps to the house Jennie Standish had rented, remembering the last time he'd left it the night Sara had called off their wedding.

He'd thought he was over her.  He'd thought he'd gone on with his life.  But just one look at her, the scent of her, the lift of her brow when she was unsure, was enough to make every nerve in his body need.  And not just any woman, but her. He hadn't slept last night.  Not that insomnia was new to him.  But too many memories had come crashing back.

When he rang the doorbell, Sara answered immediately.  She must have been waiting.  She was dressed in a navy top and shorts that wasn't intentionally seductive, but showed off  her slim figure.  Had she lost weight?  He'd always liked her short hair, but he had to admit the longer style was sensually enticing.  He wanted to touch it, to brush her cheek, to—

He gave himself a mental kick.

"Come in," she said softly.

That damn soft voice.  He'd never heard it raised in anger.  "I can't stay long."  He knew he was curt, but he had to watch every response, every syllable, every thought.

She led him to the living room couch.  He chose a side chair.  Not commenting, she lifted a small felt pouch from the coffee table.  "This is what Mom wanted you to have."

Her fingers brushed his palm and the years slipped away.  Heat forked through him and he remembered the night they'd made love.  He'd never forget that night as long as he lived--the intimacy, the closeness, the sheer pleasure.

Focusing on the pouch, he opened it and shook the contents into his hand.  A gold watch.  Her father's watch.  A lump formed in Jake's throat.

"Sara, I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything.  I think Mom had a reason for giving that to you."

He heard the seriousness in Sara's voice and his investigative senses went on alert.  More was going on here than a bequest.  Sara had come back into his life for some reason.  "Why did she give it to me?"

He watched Sara's breasts rise and fall as she took a deep breath.  "I've been living in Wasco, Jake.  When Mom died, I wasn't with her.  It was a heart attack, out of the blue..."  Her words faded and she blinked away emotion.

He wanted to comfort her, but he knew better and stayed put.  "Sara?"

She regained her composure.  "When Mom died, I had to rethink decisions I'd made.  Decisions that involved you."

He cocked his head and listened intently, to hear what she wasn't saying.  "Go on."

"I felt it was best at the time.  I thought--  Well, it doesn't matter what I thought.  The last four years I've been doubting my decision.  Since Mom died, I realized I was wrong and you need to know."

"What do I need to know?"  He asked the question slowly, expecting a shock, trying to prepare himself for whatever was coming.

"You have a son.  I was pregnant the night I called off the wedding."

The buzz of a lawn mower penetrated the windows.  The space between him and Sara vibrated with his shock and something much stronger than came from his gut and surged through his bloodstream.

Sara's hands fluttered.  "I couldn't tell you.  I didn't want you to marry me for that reason, not when you didn't want children.  I couldn't see any other way to go."

He could hardly contain his anger, his sense of betrayal, and he felt like a volcano ready to blow.  "You could have told me the truth!"

"No, I couldn't have.  Because you would have done the honorable thing despite the way you felt, and that would have been wrong for both of us."

He'd never imagined Sara could lie or deceive.  He'd trusted her and this was how she'd repaid that trust.  Anger rushed through him, vibrating in his quick response.  "So you did the dishonorable thing.  You lied," he added, his voice sharp and meant to cut through her.

"I didn't lie.  I told you I wanted children.  I wanted this baby.  I never could have given him up for adoption or--"

Jake leaned forward, his arms braced on his knees, his breathing fast, his heart pounding.  "Don't say it.  I can't believe you believed I'd want you to do either.  Not after what we shared."  He remembered her telling him she loved him.  He remembered loving her.

Her voice quivered.  "You didn't want children!"

He straightened and tried to rein in his reaction so he could think clearly, so he could get the information he needed.  "No, I didn't.  But once you found out you were pregnant, I had a right to know.  What's his name?"

"Christopher," she said quietly.

Pictures of Davie flashed in Jake's mind.  Every one of them hurt to see.  "Where is he?"

"Right now he's with Aunt Eloise…at her house.  We'll be staying with her as I empty this one."

"I want to see him.  Now."  He was prepared for any argument she might give to keep him away from his son.

To his surprise, she didn't argue.  Rather she said, "I would have brought him with me but I didn't know if you'd have to think about this--"

"There's nothing to think about."  He stood.  "Let's go.  I remember where your aunt lives.  I'll follow you."  He wouldn't let Sara out of his sight until he saw his son.  And then...  One step at a time.

Sara felt shaken to her core as she locked the door and they went to their cars.  She wished she could say something to cut the tension between them, to diffuse Jake's anger.  But she realized she had to let it wear off…she had to be patient.  And she would be patient as long as it took.  Because she still loved this man.

She always would.

When she pulled into the driveway of her aunt's house, she took a few deep breaths.  She had no idea what Jake's reaction would be when he saw his son, but she'd soon find out.  She didn't wait for Jake but went to the door, opened it, and called to her aunt.  "I'm back."

"In the kitchen," her aunt responded.  "Cookie time."

Jake's car screeched to a stop in front of the house.  He ran up to the porch and came in behind her.

"Christopher's in the kitchen with Aunt El."

Jake grasped Sara's arm.  "Does he know?"

"What?"

"Will he know I'm his father?"

"No.  I haven't talked to him about it yet because I wasn't sure what you'd want to do."

He released her, but the heat from his skin remained.  "Introduce me as his father.  That's what I am.  That's what I'll always be."

Lord, she wished she had a child psychologist at her elbow.  She supposed the best thing to do was to be honest with her son in the simplest way possible.  "Give me a few minutes to explain to him."

Jake searched her face, his eyes probing, anger still in evidence.  "That's probably best for him.  I'll wait here."

Sara breathed a sigh of relief and went to the kitchen.  Her Aunt Eloise stood at the counter mixing a meat loaf.  "I saw Jake get out of his car."

"As soon as I told him, he insisted on coming over."

Eloise smiled.  "Good."

Christopher was eating a cookie.  Sara crossed to him and sat beside him.  "Hi, honey.  How was your morning?"

He took another bite of the cookie.  "Okay."

"I need to talk to you about something."

Christopher kept munching.

"Remember when you asked me if you had a daddy, I said you did but he lived somewhere else?"

Her son nodded.

"What would you think about meeting your dad?"

Christopher's eyes brightened and he smiled.  "A daddy like Patti's?"

Patti was one of Christopher's friends from day care.  Her father had picked her up every day.  "He's your dad so he wouldn't be exactly like Patti's.  He's is the living room.  Should I get him?"

Christopher nodded and put the cookie on the table.

Sara returned to the living room and saw Jake pacing back and forth.  "He's looking forward to meeting you."  It sounded so formal.  But what else could she say?  She didn't know what was going to happen any more than Jake did as he followed her to the kitchen. 

"Hello, Jake," Eloise said simply.  Her aunt had invited her and Jake to dinner a few times when they were engaged.

Jake nodded, but his attention was all on his son.

Sara went over to her three-year-old, who was still munching on his cookie.  She laid her hand on top of his head and ruffled his black hair.  "Honey, this is your daddy."

Her son looked up at her with wide brown eyes.  Sara swallowed hard.  "Jake, this is Christopher."

Jake approached slowly, as if he couldn't believe the three-year-old in front of his eyes.  The lines deepened around his mouth and his quick intake of breath told her he was remembering another little boy, another son.  The pain on his face was almost more than she could stand.  Would seeing Christopher always bring him pain?  How would that pain affect his relationship with Christopher and with her?

Jake crouched down beside his son and glanced at the pile of crumbs in front of him.  "I guess you like chocolate chip cookies."

"Mommy's an' Auntie El's."

"I know your mommy can make a great chocolate chip cookie.  How many have you had?"

Christopher looked up at Sara then leaned closer to Jake and held up three fingers.  "I eat two."

Jake smiled.

Christopher took a cookie from the plate in the middle of the table and offered it to Jake.  "Want one?"

Jake's smile faded as he took the cookie and stood, leaning against the table as he took a bite.  From experience, Sara knew he was reining in emotions, thinking, letting logic decide his next step.

Finally he said to Christopher, "Maybe you and I could go outside and take a walk in the back yard.  What do you think?"

Christopher looked up at Sara.  Trying to protect her son but wanting to give Jake every opening she could, she asked Christopher, "Do you want to?"

Her son examined Jake from his six-one stature, over his face, to his sneakers.  "Okay."  Checking with his mother again, he asked, "Is he a stranger?"

Sara glanced at Jake--the curling black hair at his throat where two buttons stood open, his taut stomach, his long legs and tanned arms, and she took another deep breath.  "No, he's not a stranger."  She and her son had talked many times about not playing or speaking with people he didn't know unless she was there.  Daddy or not, he didn't know Jake.

Jake's gaze met hers briefly.  She felt the shock of it to her toes, anger mixed with anguish, and accusation.  Taking a towel from the handle of the oven, she wiped her son's mouth and hands, then brushed her hand across his hair once more.  "Maybe you can show your daddy the pretty rocks you found."

Christopher jumped from his chair and went to the door.  "See rocks?"

Jake followed his son.  "Sure."

Christopher chattered about where he'd found his treasures, his voice fading as they walked down the yard.

Eloise put her arm around her niece's shoulders.  "It'll work out, dear.  You'll see."

"He's angry with me, Aunt El."

Her aunt patted her shoulder.  "Of course, he is.  He has a right to be."

Sara thought about it as she had a million times before.  "I couldn't marry him.  It would have been wrong.  But I should have stood my ground, not married him, and then told him about the baby."

Eloise dropped her arm and went to peer out the door at Jake and her great nephew.  "You were young, Sara.  Jake was ten years older and a strong-minded man.  If he'd insisted on marriage, I'm not sure you could have held out against him." 

To see Christopher walk beside Jake gave Sara great joy.  To watch Jake take his son's hand also caused her great sadness because she'd kept them apart.  How could she ever make up for that?  Her aunt's words penetrated.

Could she have held out against Jake if he'd wanted marriage anyway back then?  "I don't know.  Maybe that's why I did it the way I did.  But I do know I'm going to move back here and give Jake as much time as he wants with Christopher.  I owe him that."

"You don't know what kind of father he'll be."

"I think I do.  Just look at them."

Father and son hunkered down over a pile of rocks.  Christopher pointed out something.

"The novelty might wear off."

Sara knew her aunt was playing devil's advocate.  "No.  Jake's not that type of man.  He doesn't pretend what he doesn't feel."

Eloise faced her niece.  "Do you think he'll be staying for supper?"

"I have no idea, Aunt El.  I have no idea what Jake's going to do.  I'll have to wait and see."

#

Sitting in the sun on the warm grass beside Christopher, Jake couldn't help staring at the boy.  He looked so much like Davie.  His features--Jake's features.  His eyes--Jake's eyes.  Had Christopher looked like Davie as an infant, as a one-year-old?  How old was he when he cut his first tooth, said his first word, took his first step?

Jake still couldn't believe Sara had lied to him, left him, and cheated him out of three years with his son.  Finding it hard to absorb, fighting off the dark anger he didn't want to influence his attitude toward Christopher, he suddenly felt the immensity of the responsibility that had fallen on him out of nowhere.  Without warning, or time to prepare, he was a father again.  This time he had to do it right.  This time he had to make sure his son was safe every minute of every day.  He didn't want to let the boy out of his sight.  Yet he knew he had to temper his fears.

What was Sara planning?  Why had she told him now?  Was she willing to move back to L.A.?  Would she let him be a parent?  She had no choice.  No matter where she lived, Christopher was Jake's son and he'd get to know his child one way or another.  The problem was--how was he going to handle having Sara back in his life?

The way he handled everything else...very carefully.

"Look, Daddy."

The sound of the title, the childlike quality of Christopher's voice, tore Jake apart.  Because he remembered another time, another voice.  Yet when Christopher handed him the gray stone and his small fingers touched Jake's palm, Jake felt the pride of fatherhood again.  Yes, this time he would do it right.

A half hour later, when Jake and his son returned to the kitchen, Christopher ran to his mother.  "Milk, Mommy?  Daddy drinks milk, too!"

Sara's gaze met Jake's with uncertainty.  The fact of the matter was that he felt such confusion about Sara right now, he knew he needed time away from her and Christopher so he could think, and plan, and decide the best route to take.  He certainly didn't trust her.  He might never be able to trust her again.

She went to the refrigerator and opened the door, pulling out the milk carton.  "Jake, would you like to stay for a while, maybe for dinner?"

Jake looked at Christopher and then back at her.  "No.  I have to get back.  I left some work unfinished."  He turned to his son.  "But I'll see you again.  Soon."  He ruffled Christopher's hair.  "We can have milk and cookies together next time.  Okay?"

Christopher bobbed his head enthusiastically.

Sara waited for the three-year-old to sit at the table, then she poured him a glass of milk.  "I'll be right at the front door.  Aunt El's in her sewing room.  If you go in there with her, don't touch anything unless she says you can."

Jake had trouble tearing himself away from Christopher, putting physical distance between them.  After a last long look, he walked to the front door.  Sara stood a few feet from him.

His voice was gruff with all the unsaid thoughts and feelings churning inside him.  "Are you going back to Wasco?"

She straightened her shoulders and tilted up her chin, looking directly into his eyes.  "What do you want, Jake?"

The question she should have asked four years ago intensified the churning in his gut, and he couldn't keep the anger at bay.  "So now you're going to think about that?"

"I've always thought about what you wanted and didn't want."

She was lying.  She couldn't have thought about him and still kept Christopher away for so long.  Silence stretched between them until he said in a low tone, "I need time to think.  Just don't go running off without telling me.  Because if you do--"

She didn't let him finish his warning.  "I won't.  Do you want to spend time with Christopher tomorrow?"

Could he believe she wouldn't run?  Could he believe she'd stay at least until they made some decisions?  He looked into the kitchen where his son was still drinking his milk.  "I'll call you."

And with that, Jake stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him, in more turmoil than he'd experienced in years.
 
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