Excerpt: Secrets of the Heart

Secrets of the Heart by Laurie LeClair

Book 1: The Heart Romance Series

Chapter One

“You could always marry her.”

Nicholas Carletti froze, staring at his longtime friend and lawyer, Gil Lambert. Nick thought nothing could stop his pacing as he waited for Bree Hansen to show for their meeting. But, as he gazed at Gil, he realized that little bit of advice shook him to his core. The suggestion drove Nick’s mind insane and his body flaring with heat.

Curling his hands into fists, he squashed the reaction. He denied his deep-seated longing to be close to Bree. “Marry her? Are you crazy? I want her daughter in my life, not her.”

“Liar!” Gil’s retort sliced through Nick with a stinging edge, ripping apart that mended portion of his heart.

Dragging in a ragged breath, Nick inhaled the lemony wax polish in the book-lined attorney’s office.

He swallowed the bitterness. Disloyalty crowded his center. I can’t have what I really want. Not then. Not now.

Standing behind his big, cluttered desk, Gil tunneled a hand through his salt and pepper hair, causing it to stand on end more than usual. The morning sun streaming in through the window highlighted his rumpled tan suit, adding to his overall disheveled appearance. His gaunt face and tall, lanky frame seemed at odds with his razor-sharp mind and keen perception.

“It will solve the custody battle that’s brewing between the two of you.” Optimism threaded Gil’s gravelly voice.

The look of hope that entered his friend’s blue eyes halted Nick from saying what he truly thought. “I have every right to spend time with Sydney,” he pointed out. A pang echoed behind his ribs. I miss her.

He resumed his pacing, impatience and denial warring to take the lead.

Gil sighed. “Of course you do. But isn’t trying to take a little girl from her mother a little drastic?”

A stab of acceptance pricked his conscience. Of course it is. But it’s the only way I know how to hang onto a part of my family. “Bree works twelve or more hours a day, six days a week keeping that beauty shop of hers in the black. And that cracker box she calls an apartment isn’t fit for a five-year-old. Is that any way to raise a child?”

Frustration burned a deep, red-hot path in his gut. He could give Sydney so much more, if only he had the chance. If only her obstinate mother would take what he offered.

“She’s doing the best she can. She’s a darn good mother to that little girl.”

With his anger suddenly diffused, Nick realized no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t deny that glaring fact. She didn’t spend a lot of time with her daughter, but, when she did, nothing caused her to waver from her devotion.

Bree, gentle, loving, and nurturing, proved it time and time again. Her tenderness toward Sydney shook him. Nick wished Bree would share some with him.

He tossed that thought away. But his heart tugged painfully, reminding him how their relationship had disintegrated.

Nick admitted silently that selfish reasons, not neglect, forced him to play out this scenario with Bree. He yearned to spend more time with her little girl; she was all he had left in this world. If only I could find another way, one where it wouldn’t hurt Bree.

“She’s been reasonable with your visitation when she didn’t have to be. Connecticut laws would agree,” Gil reminded him gently.

Irritation grated along Nick’s nerve endings. “Don’t tell me you’re on her side.”

“Whoa, now. I never said that.” He stuffed his large hands into his pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I look at both sides. That’s my job. I’m thinking of the child and what’s best for her.”

“And I’m not it? Is that what you’re saying?” The truthful answer to that question wounded Nick more than he’d dare admit. But the thought of losing Sydney terrified him even more.

“Granted, you love the child and would provide a wonderful home life… Well, with Nana gone now it isn’t as ideal as it once was.” Gil’s pep talk petered out. Nick slowed his steps.

Grief, heavy and burdensome, swamped Nick’s chest. He’d lost his feisty grandmother two months ago and it still felt as raw and fresh as the first day. Nick knew from experience the pain wouldn’t end, not anytime soon. Maybe never. Hadn’t he gone through that with Vinnie? Didn’t he still ache from that crushing blow?

Gil’s tone changed to one of compassion, splitting Nick in two, exposing the vein of loneliness that ran wide and long. “Taking her child won’t replace–”

“What?” Nick interrupted, jerking to face his friend, throbbing with pain. “Go ahead and say it.” Silence crashed down with resounding tension. “All right, then I will. I want my family back. Is that a crime?”

“You and I both know it’s not. Legally anyway.” He paused. Nick’s narrowed gaze captured Gil’s sympathetic one. “You’re a cop, Nick, you tell me, is tearing a little girl from her mother any better?”

A sharp knock on the door cut off Nick’s reply. He stilled, knowing Bree waited, knowing he had to check his heart rate before he faced her.

Gil rounded the desk, hesitated a moment at Nick’s side, and then patted his friend on the shoulder. “Marry her. It’s the only way. For the three of you.”

Nick tried to absorb the enormity of it all as his friend moved on. Was it his single best option to hold onto his crumbling family? he wondered, afraid of the answer, yet tantalized with the idea of marrying Bree and all it encompassed.

Devotion, deep-seated and age-old, to Vinnie flashed through his mind. Betrayal came on its heels. That feeling plagued him since the first moment he set eyes on Bree Hansen.

Nick Carletti played by the rules: in work, in life, in everything. Loyalty seethed in his chest like a beacon, always guiding him. So how could he even contemplate wedding Bree? How could he ever imagine double-crossing a dead man?

With his back turned, Nick heard the soft click of the door, and then Gil’s hearty greeting. “Why, Bree, it’s a pleasure to see you.”

“No disrespect, Gil, but the pleasure isn’t returned.” Her husky voice sounded deeper, richer. Nick’s breath caught.

“No harm. Come in. I think you and Nick might be able to work this out without me, so I’ll leave you two alone for a bit.”

Nick strode to the far side of the room. He perched on the edge of his lawyer’s paper-strewn desk. The solid piece of wood lent support and stability to the churning sea of emotions inside him.

Folding his arms across his chest, he stared as Bree advanced toward him. He braced himself. So beautiful. Wispy, short blonde hair, the color of pale spun gold, framed her large hazel, cat-like eyes and fanned her high cheekbones. Her lush, sensual lips tugged downward at one side.

The absence of her usual smile and sunny disposition nagged at Nick. She reserved that special blend of welcome to everyone but him, now and always. A hollow ache engulfed him each time he witnessed it.

He’d thought seeing her again would appease the hungry need inside of him, would fill up the empty space. He realized now that nothing short of Gil’s recommendation would even come close.

“What’s this all about, Carletti?” Her words pelted him with their fierceness.

He nodded for her to sit in the chair in front of him. Waiting for Bree to comply, he observed the slight tremor in her hand as she reached for the chair while keeping her eye on him. Something inside him twisted at his part in her distress.

“How’s Sydney?” he asked, struggling to find a way to work this out without hurting her any more. How can I not hurt her?

She frowned in confusion. “You just saw her at her birthday party.”

When she finally took a seat, he leaned forward to get a closer view of her telltale hazel eyes. The color shifted to gray, a clear indication of how perturbed she felt about meeting with him.

He inhaled, and then wished he hadn’t as her haunting, floral scent tickled his senses. Gathering his strength, he tried to ward off any more of her hidden weapons.

“It’s been ten days.” Ten long, barren days since I’ve seen you both.

In the back of his mind, he noted how her small, capable hands gripped the burgundy leather armrests until her neatly rounded fingernails turned a ghostly white. Fear, pluck, or a combination of both, he mused.

Nick shied away from the more obvious indication: She wished to strangle him and had a difficult time keeping her hands from circling his neck and squeezing.

“She’s anxious to start kindergarten in a few weeks.”

He smiled, recalling how excited Sydney always was at the mention of school. “You’ll let me know if she needs anything. Ah…clothes, supplies, anything at all.” He’d offer her money, but he’d swear on Nana’s grave Bree would toss it back at him.

Her pride showed itself as she stuck out her cute little chin, saying, “I’ve got it covered.”

Way to go, Carletti, alienating her yet again and you haven’t even gotten to the tough stuff.

Awkwardly, he shifted his gaze, his eyes landing on the low scoop of her blouse, giving him a wonderful glimpse of her dusky cleavage. His abdomen knotted with tension and he tried to banish the swirling dregs of desire.

“Well? Aren’t you going to tell me why you asked for this meeting?” she prompted, the strain in her voice evident.

Clearing his throat, he finally answered her. “We have to talk.”

Scanning the rest of her, he flexed his aching fingers, fantasizing about how soft and warm she’d feel in his arms. He choked back a groan. The rumble vibrated in his chest. Her crossed leg nearly reached his right one, her black, ballet slipper clad foot tapping air. If he just moved a little bit more…

He stanched the movement, yanking back on the free rein his imagination had taken. Forbidden, he reminded himself. She was Vinnie’s. Always had been, always will be. It doesn’t matter that Vinnie’s dead.

“That part was obvious from Gil’s urgent call this morning.”

Reluctantly, he dragged his wandering gaze back to her face. Thick lashes cast dark shadows on her creamy skin when she blinked.

“Come on, Nick, don’t keep me in suspense any longer.”

In the back of his mind, he heard her words, registered the anxious quality of them. But all he could concentrate on was the way her rosy lips moved. What would they taste like? he wondered as he allowed his stare to linger there, thinking of cotton candy, sweet and addictive.

Shaking himself mentally, Nick silently berated himself. What the hell is wrong with me?

Taking a deep breath, he blurted out, “I want Sydney.”

Confusion chased across her features. “You want to see her more?”

Now that he voiced it, he knew how ridiculous it all seemed. But he had to take a shot at it. He had to use everything in his power to resurrect his disintegrating family. “In a sense, yes.”

She stilled. “What exactly does that mean, Nick?”

“Custody.” Clenching his jaw, he steeled himself for her expected outburst. It didn’t take long. But not before he witnessed a flash of raw, blinding panic, which she instantly suppressed.

The color drained from her face and he experienced a wave of remorse for the showdown. She gulped for air, and then said, “I’m her mother. And you’re her–”

“I’m well aware of my relationship to your daughter, Bree.”

“Then you know how silly this all sounds, don’t you?”

Doggedly, he pursued his course of action. “I’m serious.”

“Joint custody?”

He played out his hand. “Full.”

As she stared him down, the taut silence in the oppressive room stretched to an unbearable eternity. Dust motes danced lazily in the warm ray of sunshine beaming into the room. The large branches of a tall oak tree stirred in the slight breeze outside, softly scratching the panes of glass, shifting the shadows.

His heart galloped in his chest. His ears filled with the whoosh of his pounding blood. He swallowed to combat the dry sensation in his throat. He’d faced gun-wielding criminals with more poise. Never let them see you sweat, Nick reminded himself now as he often told rookies he trained.

With a great deal of grace, she rose, standing ramrod straight before him. Steely determination radiated from her.

Mere inches separated her from him. Nick allowed himself to take a tiny breath, and then chided himself as her heady scent filled his lungs.

He met her cold, hard stare.

He’d seen that look a thousand times before in a thousand different situations: freezing out a frisky admirer, facing down anyone who stood in her way, and getting her hackles up when someone had the audacity to say she couldn’t do something she wanted to.

Stubborn, obstinate were too mild to describe this narrowed-eyed glare. The set of her chin added concrete evidence to her single-minded resolve. Conviction, plain and clear, sparkled bright.

He knew from past experiences she wouldn’t give up until she got what she wanted. The word failure wasn’t in her vocabulary. Only success stamped in large letters ran through her mind whenever she stumbled upon any resistance.

Damn, he admired this woman.


Chapter Two

“Go to hell!” Bree Hansen bit out as fury whipped her into a tornado of clashing emotions.

“I’m already there.” His rich, baritone voice ripped through the strained atmosphere, tearing it to shreds.

She gasped, the tiny sound catching in the back of her throat. Shadows of grief loomed in his dark eyes, twisting a knife in her middle. It turned her wrath into sorrow for the man as nothing else could.

“Nana?” she whispered, distracted from her anger. A faint waft of his sandalwood after-shave ticked her senses, stirring her blood.

“Vinnie.”

An ache, hot and blinding, spread from her chest to fan out in all directions. This man had suffered more than anyone over Vinnie’s death, even more than she, Vinnie’s wife. Guilt riddled Bree like bullets piercing paper, leaving big gaping holes in their wake.

“I’m so sorry, Nick,” she whispered, wishing she could wash away his misery.

Looking her fill, she skimmed over his neatly styled, chestnut brown hair to scan Nick’s strong, handsome features. His broad forehead topped his squarish face. Defined cheekbones flanked a nose broken in a high school football game, the slight bump just below the bridge adding character and strength.

“Yeah, so am I.” His striking, chocolate brown eyes echoed his pain, layer upon layer of it. His firm, masculine lips thinned into a straight line now.

Staring at his mouth she recalled one time, so long ago, when she’d dared to return his stolen kiss. He’d tasted of the sweet, heady wine they’d shared, and heat, wonderful glorious fiery passion.

If only… Flustered at her wayward thoughts, she dropped her inspection to his broad shoulders, wide chest, and bulging biceps covered in a blue shirt. Rock solid, sturdy, she thought, knowing, without a doubt, she’d always battle this powerful, gripping attraction.

The sharp contrast between her late husband and Nick reared its head as it usually did. Nick, strong, supportive, and always there when either Sydney or she needed him. And Vinnie, younger than herself, immature, weak… She’d always compared the two men with Vinnie coming up lacking in so many ways. Years of disgrace bathed her.

Clinging to the remnants of her dignity, she tried to focus on the issue at hand. Full custody. The recalled demand splashed Bree like a bucket of icy water, jarring her from her stupor.

Renewed temper ignited in her middle. She welcomed the flames of indignation. “How dare you try to take Sydney away from me, Nick. That’s low.”

She suddenly realized just how close she stood to Nick as he perched on the desk. His thick muscular thighs, in blue dress pants, veed out with her planted between them.

He shifted. His left inner thigh brushed her right outer thigh. Heat scorched her where he’d touched. She jerked her gaze to his. Did he feel it, too? Was it there burning in his eyes, searing her just as his unintentional stroke had? Or was it his usual storm brewing just below the surface?

“Nick, listen to me,” she said, placing a hand on his upper arm. She felt the ripple of muscle as he flinched. Rejected, she dropped her hand, and then backed up. He rose, striding to the window, creating space and distance. His broad, stiff back faced her.

“She’s a part of me. She’s family.”

She’s all I have left, Bree heard his unspoken words. They tugged at her heart.

He sighed, long and loud. “All right, I’ll settle for joint custody. I don’t want to rip Sydney away from you. I just want more time with her.”

“You’re asking me to be a part-time mother. Do you think I’d give up my own daughter?” She winced at her fear-laced tone, cursing herself for allowing any sign of weakness to shine through.

He spun around, startling Bree. “Isn’t that what you are right now? A part-time mom.”

A well of frustration and how unfair the world was nearly choked her. “I have to work. And, come to think of it, so do you.”

His lips thinned into a straight line again. “If I have to I’ll take early retirement from the force.”

Bree clasped her hands. “And I’ll go to hell and back to fight for Sydney.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt there’d be a fight, but I have more resources than you do.”

The constant nugget of dread that resided in her center for the past five and a half years now seemed to expand to boulder-size terror. With her daughter’s well-being paramount, Bree lashed out at him. “Judges in your pocket, Nick? I thought you were more of a man than that. I’d be the last one to think you, Sergeant ‘By The Book’ Carletti, would stoop so low, be so damned underhanded.”

That struck a chord, she noted, as red flags slashed across his cheeks. A hint of satisfaction slid into her, barely warming her chilled, numb body.

A muscle jumped along his clenched jaw. “Rest assured I don’t operate on your level.”

A fistful of hurt slammed into her belly, stealing her breath away. The hot sting of tears smarted the backs of her eyes. She blinked several times, holding them at bay. How could she ever convince him he’d been wrong about her from the very beginning? How could she ever gain his respect?

No matter how many times she pled her case Nick would never trust her, Bree realized hollowly now as she stared at his uncompromising stance. The rigid set of his shoulders and balled up hands spoke volumes.

There was only one way to set the record straight. She balked at the solution; she’d put Sydney in danger. No matter what, she’d protect her daughter, at any cost, even her soul. Her secret would die with her, the terrible truth buried in the casket inside her heart.

In order to ensure the lid stayed firmly on the facts, she couldn’t risk the exposure of a custody battle.

Taking a shaky breath, she said, “I’ve tried to work out a suitable arrangement for you to see Sydney.”

“It’s been nowhere near to suitable. Four, maybe five, hours in tiny increments a week, if that. You have some nerve suggesting you’ve been generous. Hell, even the babysitter sees Sydney more than I do.”

“I’ve been–”

“Reasonable, is that what you were going to say?” He listed the many times he’d call to talk to Sydney or try to arrange more visits with her only to be turned away or shut out.

As he made an impassioned point, Bree noted his large, long-fingered square hands hacking the air. Every slight movement, every change of expression, every shift of his dark eyes only endeared him to her more, stabbing at her treacherous heart. He loves her just as much as I do.

He finally ended. She rallied her defenses, saying, “You will not take my daughter away from me.” The vow ignited her purpose, fueling her undying love for her precious little girl.

He arched an eyebrow, baiting her. “You think?”

A mixture of fury, frustration, and fear nibbled at her conscience. It broke her staunch conviction she could change his mind just by talking, jarring her usually unshakable confidence. “That’s what you’ve been after for a long time, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice throbbing with pain. “For Sydney’s sake, I beg you not to go through with this.”

Granite-like features answered her. Nick’s stony expression gave nothing away, probably from years of honing it to perfection in his line of work.

But was that something entirely different she read in his dark eyes? Was it a certain grimness that spoke of hating what he was doing? Whatever she thought she witnessed vanished an instant later.

Worry gnawed at her middle, tying her in knots. Bree dug in her pocket for her keys. Metal jangled against metal. “I guess there’s no way around my having to hire a lawyer. I don’t know why Gil assumed we could work this out by ourselves.”

“He doesn’t agree with the custody suit.”

Shocked and confused by Nick’s confession, Bree dropped her keys. They hit the carpet with a dull jingle. On trembling legs, she moved toward him, stopping when she stood a foot away. His body heat washed over her. A hazy fog of longing tickled her senses. “I don’t understand. Isn’t he representing you?” Her question came out on a whispery note.

“He highly recommends another avenue altogether,” Nick said softly, stepping closer, causing her temperature to rise drastically. “One, he assures me, will be best for everyone involved.” His warm breath fanned her face, sending tingles down her spine.

She’d nearly forgotten what it was like to be this close, this intimate with him. Part of her loved the exhilarating way her body sprang to life. Part of her hated her traitorous being.

Frowning, she said, “I don’t follow.”

“Marriage.”

That answer, short and direct, drained the color from her face. The room began to sway around her. She closed her eyes for a moment, praying for strength, for composure.

Large, strong hands circled her waist, steadying her, scorching her. She brought her hands up to shove at his shoulders. Instead, she found herself clinging to his broad chest, hanging on to the alluring stability he offered. She curled her fingers, grasping his shirt. His heartbeat increased, matching hers.

Speechless and dizzy, she leaned her forehead on his rock solid shoulder, seeking a safe haven. The warmth of his body and his sandalwood after-shave mingled together to overwhelm her fragile senses. Memories flooded in her mind, memories of when she’d first met this man.

That long ago spring afternoon rushed back. Fresh cut grass had sweetened the already crisp, clean air. A slight breeze had ruffled her then shoulder-length hair as she stood on his doorstep. He’d answered on her first knock as if he’d been anxiously awaiting her arrival.

As she faced him, a tiny current of electricity zinged through her blood. His bold stare, filled with male appreciation, seemed to strip her of her simple lavender wedding dress.

Her weak smile tugged at one corner of her mouth, betraying her nervousness. Without so much as a word, he ushered her in. His disapproval smacked her then. Was it because she was already with child or because she was clipping Vinnie’s wings?

Vinnie rescued her quickly, introduced them, and then rushed her to the lovely sun room where they planned to conduct the short ceremony.

Sweet, dear Nana ordered Nick to gather a bouquet of flowers in the garden for Bree. In less than five minutes, he returned with a fistful of lilacs, her favorite flower. He held the hastily plucked arrangement out to her.

Grateful at his thoughtfulness, she accepted with tears in her eyes. His warm hand brushed hers and they both jerked at the charged touch. Gasping for breath, she stared at him in dazed wonder. His sandalwood after-shave mixed with the delicate lilac fragrance, entwining the two scents forever in her mind.

Everything had seemed to blur for Bree after that until, one striking moment when, the justice of the peace asked Vinnie and her to face each other.

Bree had glanced fleetingly over Vinnie’s right shoulder, briefly encountering Nick’s probing, questioning gaze. She had looked again, this time longer and more intently. Her heart had whispered a single word that echoed through her mind: Forbidden.

Now, she dragged her guilt ridden thoughts back to the moment. Nick pressed his cheek to her hair, his hot, ragged breathing stirring little wisps. His chest rose and fell quickly, enticing her as the motion brought the hard muscles in contact with her aching breasts.

Nick’s fingers bit into her back, his thumbs digging into her waist just under her rib cage. But the pressure hadn’t cut off her air supply. His reply had.

Marriage, he’d said. How tempting, how tantalizing, Bree thought, wishing it had come ages ago without prompting, without the need to rectify their undeclared war on each other. Did she dare?

She opened her eyes and tilted her head back to look up at him once again. Awestruck, she stared at him.

He frowned down at her. Tiny lines fanned out from between his dark eyebrows, making her long to smooth them away, to soothe his troubled soul. His stare narrowed, probing hers.

Bree saw astonishment reflected in the dark depths and something more, something intangible shifted, and then expanded.

Closing her eyes for several long seconds, she opened them again, this time catching sight of his firm, masculine mouth. A part of her urged her on. If she stood on tip-toe…

Berating herself silently, she forced her gaze back to his. Banked desire singed her blood, kindling her own passion until she could no longer run from the lie that haunted her.

A tiny pocket of her heart opened, allowing her to look inside and release the damning kernel of information she’d tucked away so long ago: She’d always been far more attracted to the father than the son.


Chapter Three

“Of course I told Gil he was crazy.”

Nick’s scornful tone penetrated Bree’s foggy mind, forcing her to tune into her rational side. Common sense took over. “Of course,” she bit out, jerking away from his hold. “You wouldn’t dream of putting Sydney’s happiness and peace of mind first in all of this, now would you?”

“That’s exactly what I am doing.” The censor radiating from him cut her to the quick.

Dragging in a deep, cleansing breath, Bree concentrated on the disastrous outcome if he won. He could not discover the damning truth about her.

Pushing aside the fresh wave of fear, she rallied her wits. “You may very well dislike me, but she doesn’t. As much as it annoys you, she loves me. And she loves you. We’re all she has left. Please don’t tear her world apart any more than it already has been.”

With that she turned, scooped up her ring of keys, and then walked on unsteady legs to the door. She grasped the shiny brass knob as if it were a lifeline.

Before she twisted it, Nick halted her actions by planting a hand against the wide wooden door, a hairbreadth from her. She jumped, wondering how such a big man could move so fast, so silently.

Tension surrounded him as if it were a living, breathing being. He stepped closer, holding his body scant inches away. Immobilized, she waited for him to move, to speak, to do anything.

He didn’t make her wait long. His hot breath made her shiver. But his voice, angry and dangerously low, sliced her to her core, shredding all hope of a compromise. “Is that how you operate? Is that how you tethered my son to you? By using your daughter?”

***

With her keys digging into her palm, Bree trudged up the concrete stairway to her tiny, second floor apartment. Each step was more leaden than the last. The pungent scent of flowers floating on the warm summer night breeze did little to refresh her from the hellish day she’d endured.

All afternoon and evening she went through the motions of styling hair. People’s faces, many of them longtime friends and customers, blurred now as she recalled the numerous haircuts, blow drys, dye jobs, and permanents she’d accomplished. Usually, she loved her demanding creative work, but today proved different.

“All because of Nick,” she whispered, still disturbed after the passage of ten hours. “Marriage? To Nick?”

She halted on the top step, momentarily paralyzed. Weariness seeped in and she turned around, plopping down on the hard cement as she reviewed their meeting.

The debacle played havoc with her mind, body, and soul. Every fiber of her being pulsed in memory. Her thoughts shunned the possibility of losing Sydney and drummed up the close contact with Nick.

Her body flared with remembered desire. But her soul suffered the most, twisting in agony. Dagger-like spears of guilt stabbed at her conscience, torturing her for her silence, her secret. It’s the price I have to pay.

Bree blinked rapidly as if she could will the painful confrontation into nonexistence. Nothing would sweep away the bitter taste it left in her core.

Leaning her forehead against the cool iron railing, Bree released the tidal wave of regret, for the horrific present and for the loss of the past. What had gone so very wrong?

Vinnie, so young, so scared, either wouldn’t or couldn’t cope well with her problem pregnancy. With countless doctors’ appointments and numerous tests always looming, he had either volunteered to work more hours or planned his class schedule accordingly, leaving Bree to fend for herself. Or, she’d thought.

Nick came to her rescue more than once, creating an undeniable bond between them, an unmistakable connection. One she longed to reestablish for her sake, if truth be told.

More often than not, he taxied her back and forth, making certain any bad news be filtered through him first. On many occasions it was his strong shoulder she cried on when the risk, the pressure, became too great.

And eight months into it, when Vinnie left her alone while he went to the cabin for a breather, it was Nick she called in the middle of the night.

The contractions gripped her in frighteningly painful squeezes. He, with Nana in the backseat, rushed her to the hospital in his police cruiser with the siren blaring, clasping her hand, lending her his strength.

And it was Nick who coached her through the arduous labor and delivery, even being the first one to hold Sydney after the nurse brought her to him.

For all intents and purposes, Nicholas Carletti was more of a father to Sydney than Vinnie had ever been. So how could she fault Nick for seeking custody when they both knew he deserved more time with her daughter?

Nick’s ingrained sense of right and wrong, his loyalty, his integrity, always impressed her. She welcomed, even cherished, his positive influence on Sydney. Bree admired him and had come to depend on his solid, steady presence in her life.

Now she felt bereft, lonely, without his ready brand of security, his assistance. A big gaping void nearly swallowed her whole.

She missed him, missed the man he had been before Vinnie died eighteen months ago, before all their lives had been shaken upside down like a snow dome, upsetting the norm.

Even with all their bickering, all their differences, all his unspoken accusations, Nick had always come through for her, time and time again.

Nick Carletti had been her Rock of Gibraltar, her Sir Galahad, and her Knight in Shining Armor. “And your substitute husband,” she murmured. The stark reality penetrated her thoughts, confounding her at this shiny new nugget of startling information.

Bree discovered more solace, more comfort in Nick’s arms than in Vinnie’s. And, with that one, all-too-brief kiss, more passion, she admitted ruefully.

Shame stung her cheeks.

Mentally shaking herself, she tried to brush aside the clinging cobwebs of despair, the darkness dogging her heels.

With more energy than she felt, Bree stood, dusted off her bottom, and then approached her humble dwelling. She fit her house key in the lock and opened her door.

“I’m home, Tilly,” she called softly, not wishing to awaken Sydney. The muted sounds of the television reached her in the cheery yellow kitchen. She placed her purse along with her keys on the nearby scarred secondhand pine tabletop.

“It’s me, Ms. Hansen,” Tilly’s teenaged granddaughter answered. “Gram has another one of her migraines, so I offered to take care of Sydney.”

Bree moved to the living room archway, and then leaned against the frame. The only light in the dark, spartan room came from the flashing images on the boob tube.

Sprawled on her stomach on the square of beige carpeted floor, the tall, willowy fifteen-year-old gazed intently at the small screen, absently flipping her long, reddish blonde hair over her shoulder. She obviously favored the hard floor over the Bentwood rocker and worn armchair.

“Thanks, Ali.”

“Mmmm,” she murmured, glued to the popular Thursday night comedy.

Bree chuckled at the single-minded absorption. “Ah, if life were that easy,” she muttered, feeling ancient all of a sudden. Today thirty seemed so much older than normal.

“Huh? Did you say something?”

“Just talking to myself. I’ll go check on Sydney.”

Tip-toeing down the short hallway, Bree wished for a real home with a great big yard for the puppy Sydney longed for. Selling the house Bree shared with Vinnie, along with most of its contents, to pay off their debts and finance her beauty shop provided continued security, a future for Sydney.

Guilt ridden from taking so much from her daughter, Bree poured the little bit of extra money into a special place for Sydney. The pink and white bedroom was a little girl’s dream, one Bree happily supplied for her daughter.

She pushed open the door. The glow of the night light yawned across Sydney’s tiny, pink pajama-clad form as if standing guard over her daughter, protecting her.

Entering, Bree almost stumbled as a well of love, so deep and so pure, rocked her. How did I get so lucky?

She halted at the side of the twin bed, a ghost of a smile tugging at her mouth. Gazing down at the angelic sleeping child brought tears to her eyes. A tight band of steel constricted around her chest, squeezing off her air supply.

She yearned to spend more time with Sydney. The constant ache of missing her daughter, the loss of witnessing all the wondrous things happening to her, became so unbearable.

More often than not lately, Bree toyed with the idea of asking her two best friends and employees to buy into her business. The plan would solve the time issue since she’d cut back on her long hours. But, she reasoned, the assuredly lower income would only add to her struggle to make ends meet.

Gently, she sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress dipped slightly. She tucked the white sheet around her daughter’s shoulders. Undisturbed, Sydney slept on in blissful wonderland with her thumb stuck in her mouth.

Bree’s heart hitched; she knew Sydney only sucked her thumb now when she was emotionally troubled. Nana’s death certainly caused this new bout of upheaval. Bree suspected the thick, oppressive tension between Nick and her contributed to the situation.

Reaching out, she tenderly brushed back the white blonde bangs and chin length hair, grazing the full, soft cheek and exposing the dusting of freckles dotting the tiny nose.

Bree longed to see the cobalt blue eyes staring up in joy at her, but denied herself that reward, putting Sydney first as she always did.

“Oh, sweetpea,” she murmured, feeling the tug of war with her conscience, watching her daughter’s little chest rise and fall. “How can I keep you safe?”

The risk of a custody battle loomed like a huge rain cloud over her head, dark and threatening. The alternative frightened her to death; she’d worry endlessly on guarding her overwhelming attraction to Nick.

On the other hand, marrying him would cease his relentless prodding and probing into her merits on mothering Sydney, into her past. Into the circumstances on the shameful conception of my daughter, she added that painful reminder, shying away from the dreadful memories it evoked.

“What’s more important here?” she whispered softly. “My pride or Sydney’s safe, secure knowledge that she was conceived in love?”

If she allowed Nick’s search to continue he’d ferret out every kernel of truth, holding it up to the harsh, unforgiving light of his high standards. And, in doing so, she’d lose everything, including her daughter’s unwavering love, respect, and trust. “And Nick,” she said, experiencing a hollow sensation in her middle.

She chuckled. It came out raw and pain filled. “He doesn’t trust you now, silly.”

If Nick uncovered her deceit it would destroy all her hopes of developing a more satisfying, more intimate relationship with him. But, far worse, Sydney’s life would be irreversibly harmed, ruined.

“I can’t let that happen,” Bree vowed.

Taking a shaky breath, Bree made her decision. Even if she had to grovel she’d get Nicholas Carletti to marry her and put an end to his constant nagging suspicions about her.

***

In his refinished basement gym, Nick grunted as he lifted the ten-pound weight, performing arm curls. The unusual night time workout had nothing to do with conditioning his body. It had everything to do with sexy, disturbing Bree Hansen.

“Damn woman,” he bit out between gritted teeth. He prayed expelling this restless energy that plagued him since seeing her this morning eased his troubled thoughts. So far it proved futile.

She’d been a constant companion in a corner of his mind since their first meeting. The time and space she occupied seemed wrong, forbidden.

As much as he fought it, as much as he hated himself for it, Nick couldn’t stop it from occurring. She slipped into his musings at the strangest of times, bringing a smile to his lips or a chuckle rumbling from his chest.

Cold stark reality hit him square between the eyes: Sydney, a miniature version of her mother’s zest for life, kept him close to Bree, kept him connected to a woman that didn’t want anything to do with him.

“You fool, Carletti,” he cursed himself for hurting Bree today. “In order to get your family back you tried to steal a child away from her mother. You’re a sorry excuse for a man.”

Admit you want Bree back in your life, that’s why you went after sole custody of Sydney, that’s why you won’t stop pestering Bree.

Nick could almost feel Nana’s chastisement raining down on him. He figured it didn’t even measure up to the pile of recriminations he heaped on himself.

He gave in to the burning in his overworked muscles, putting an end to his brutal pace. Placing the weight on the floor produced a ting of metal. He ignored the rivets of perspiration sliding down his bare chest.

Instead, he focused on blotting out the fresh wave of agony every time he recalled how close he’d been to Bree only hours earlier.

He cringed inwardly at his ruthless attacks on her. Why should he be so surprised at her withdrawal from him, at her rejection? Why should he care if she didn’t want him as her husband? But he did.

The sharp, piercing peel of the doorbell ripped through his disquieting reverie.

“Who the hell’s visiting at this time of night?” he growled as he snatched up a handy white towel and took the stairs two at a time. At the last minute, he remembered he’d left his T-shirt downstairs.

Passing through the pitch black, newly renovated kitchen, he wrapped the towel around his neck, using a dangling end to mop his forehead.

The annoying sound shrilled through the house again as he skirted the dining room and made his way into the living room.

“Hold your horses,” he said as he yanked open the front door. Shock rippled through him as he stared at his late night visitor on the other side of the screen door. She never made unscheduled visits. “Bree.” Her name came out on a thready breath.

“Can I come in? I need to talk to you.” Her husky voice sent tingles down his spine.

He shoved open the screen door. The hinges protested sharply. He kept his hand on the cool metal, his arm stiff, so she could pass by. She took her sweet time entering.

A waft of her heady scent tickled his senses. Her lengthy perusal of his nearly naked body caused his middle to knot. Her gaze lingered on his gray workout shorts, making him fear she’d get an eyeful in a minute.

“Why are you here?” he asked, still standing less than a foot away from her as he released the door. The squeak that followed grated along his strained nerves.

“I told you, to talk.” She broke the invisible threads that bound them together as she moved inside. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”

Lady, you always disturb me, more than you’ll ever know.

Closing the door, he cupped her elbow and directed her beyond the night shrouded dining room and into the starlit sun room.

Her warmth seeped into the empty spaces in his splintered core, making him want to hold on for much longer. With his thumb he found the pulse point in the fold of her arm, detecting the jump in the rapid beats. He figured he wasn’t the only one affected by the closeness and the physical attraction.

She pulled away when they entered the plant-filled, glassed-in addition, creating distance. A sharp ache behind his rib cage throbbed to life.

The lush potted plants blended to concoct a fragrant bouquet. The overhanging blossoms caressed Bree’s cheek as she passed by. Nick longed to do the same.

Switching on a lamp near Nana’s favorite stuffed peach armchair, Nick squinted at the blare of harsh light, and then focused on Bree’s pale, almost pasty, complexion.

“Is Sydney all right?” His heart stilled.

“Yes. I’d tell you right away if she were hurt. You know that.”

Nick released a ragged breath, thankful that his granddaughter’s health hadn’t brought Bree on this late night mission. But Bree’s profile warned him of the serious nature of the conversation.

“I…I think we should reconsider Gil’s advice,” she choked out.

It felt like a bombshell went off in his head. Jolting himself out of his frozen stance, Nick moved to Bree’s side. She turned to face him.

Her hazel eyes, now a medium blue, halted the countless questions buzzing in his head. He’d seen that shade only when she cried.

Something inside Nick twisted, wringing out a river of sympathy, a well of despair. “Is marriage to me so distasteful?”


Chapter Four

Bree gulped in a breath, furious at the tears smarting the backs of her eyes. Part of her wished she could walk out and erase the whole humbling episode. The other half, the half that cheered on Sydney’s welfare, kept Bree’s feet planted firmly in place.

“I barely know you,” she lied, sidestepping a direct response. “I want what’s best for Sydney.”

“And what about you?”

She stared at his firm chin, avoiding the tempting display of hard, male flesh and the whorls of damp dark hair peppering his wide chest.

Silence hung in the air. Tension swirled between his heated body and hers. Sandalwood after-shave mingled with his male scent, making her dizzy.

What had he asked her? She dragged her attention back to the question. An alarm rang in her head when she remembered.

Holding her breath, she ran several options through her scrambling brain. She always came back to one: lie like the devil. “Oh, all right, I’ll tell you, if you must know. I need help.”

She chanced a peek at his face. A puzzled look replaced the stunned expression of earlier.

“What kind of help?” The hint of sympathy in his words surprised her.

“Uh…I’ve taken on too much with the shop and all.” Well, you have, she soothed herself for the exaggeration, the blatant deception. “I’m working night and day to keep it afloat and I miss Sydney. Hiring a lawyer to battle it out in court with you… Well, it will set me back, way back.” Her voice cracked.

She disliked this weakness, this vulnerability. But she knew she had to convince Nick of the soundness of this proposition, for her daughter’s sake. And the one sure way to achieve that lofty goal seemed to be by baring her concerns, her soul.

After all, he isn’t heartless, even where I’m concerned. Hadn’t he shown her that time and time again?

“If you needed more money than all you had to do was ask me. I’ll write you a check right now. How much?”

A blistering heat slapped her cheeks. She stepped away, hiding her embarrassment. She prided herself on her financial independence, her resourcefulness. It rankled to have Nick think she failed.

Think of Sydney, she reminded herself.

Facing the back glass wall once again, Bree encountered the abundance of Nana’s gardening passion, her labor of love. Breathing in deeply, inhaling the pungent floral perfume, she curtailed her retort, the unvarnished truth. Instead, Bree said tightly, “I’m not destitute.”

“Even if you were you’d reject my offer, wouldn’t you?” he snapped.

Watching his reflection through the spindly arms of an Ivy, she noticed him dragging the end of his towel over his face. His frustration, thick and rock-like, swelled in the silence that followed.

“I didn’t come here to fight with you, Nick,” she said gently, mindful of his banked emotions.

“No, but that’s what we always end up doing anyway.”

“Not always,” she reminded him.

He sighed. “Vinnie was our referee on more than one occasion.” He paused. “Then Nana.”

“There were some civil moments.”

“Some. Mostly after Sydney was born.”

“Yeah.” She paused, debating the wisdom to probe a sore subject. Twisting around to face him, she put it on the table. “I didn’t corrupt Vinnie. Being six years older than him doesn’t mean I manipulated him or the situation. He’s the one who insisted on marrying me.”

“I should hope I raised him right so he wouldn’t shirk his responsibilities. But he was far too young to get involved with you.”

A fiery ball of resentment sat in her chest, heavy and pressing. She held back the bubbling candor, robbing herself once again of the acquittal, the satisfaction.

For Sydney’s sake, for my little girl’s peace of mind, she reminded herself, knowing in Nick’s eyes she’d always be branded as an older woman stealing his son.

Even an all-out brawl would fail to solve the many differences they hung onto, Bree admitted. She bypassed her normal direct combativeness and doggedly proceeded with the matter at hand. “As long as we always put Sydney first I don’t see any problems with a marriage of convenience.”

Cold, stark pain mixed with stunned disbelief in the glare he shot her. “You’ve lost your mind.”

“Probably.”

“For God’s sake, I can’t marry my son’s wife.” She heard the sense of betrayal coloring his words.

“Widow,” she corrected, a fresh wave of heat igniting in her cheeks. She’d rip out her tongue before she admitted that “wife” hardly described her role in her sham of a marriage.

“It adds up to the same for me, no matter how you present it.”

Her chest ached with the violent action her thundering heart put her through. “So, I take it the answer is no then.”

Nick froze, his hands curled around the ends of the crumpled white towel circling his neck. Despair robbed her of action. If she wished for even a thimbleful of dignity she’d leave right now. Instead, she waited for his final reply, the final blow to her self-respect.

She saw, as well as felt, Nick relax. The palpable tension siphoned out of him like a leaky balloon, slow and steady.

He sighed. “All right, I’ll marry you.”

***

Two weeks later, Nick still found it difficult to explain his agreeing to the ridiculous farce about to take place.

At forty-two he never intended to wed again. His first experience proved he didn’t do the compromising route very well.

Dorthea and he had battled, long and hard, for ten years, hanging on to a dead, non-existent relationship for their only child. He felt a well of sadness, regret even, after she died in a car accident when Vinnie was nine.

An image of twisted, blackened metal flashed through his head like a lightning bolt. The next zigzag of blinding light brought a picture of Dorthea’s charred body. A river of guilt swelled; she’d wrapped the car around a tree trying to escape him and their loveless marriage on her way to her lover.

Thank heavens he’d arrived home earlier to stop her from taking Vinnie. Nick had snatched his son from the car with only moments to spare. He’d saved Vinnie that time, but failed later on.

A shiver coursed through Nick. He shook off the ghosts of the past and focused on the here and now.

The eerie stillness of the holy sanctuary of Father Thomas O’Malley’s rectory office seemed to mock Nick’s forthcoming union.

Even with the stacks of books littering the floor and the cluttered scarred desktop, Nick felt the power. The reverence of the church seeped into the tiny, tucked away room.

Alone, he prowled the perimeter of the dark space. Drawing near to the waist high book stand which bore the heavy weight of a huge weathered Bible, Nick hesitated. He shrugged, and then stopped, “Aw, what the h–” he cut himself off before correcting the word, “heck.”

With a quivering hand, he touched the worn black leather. He jerked back as a ray of heat seared his palm. “Naw,” he said shakily, rubbing his still hot hand. “It’s all that force-fed religion growing up,” he pacified himself.

He turned his back on the Bible just as he had his faith a year and a half earlier when Vinnie’s life was snatched away, snuffed out.

Shaking his head to clear it, Nick patted the top left hand side of his black suit coat. The faint ruffling sound assured him that the legal document still remained in place.

He continually reiterated that the soon-to-be spoken nuptial’s had more to do with raising Sydney than with the undeniable attraction he experienced with Bree. If he had to marry her, then he’d control the situation, he reasoned, tapping his hand against his chest once again.

He’d blindly gone into his alliance with Dorthea, relying on trust and faith. The end result proved sorely disappointing and disillusioning.

I’ll never make that mistake again. This marriage would be far different than his first dreadful one. He held the insurance close to his heart.

Dropping his hand a couple of inches, Nick outlined the square jeweler’s box resting in his inside pocket. A niggling sense of unease tickled his mind.

How could he present Bree with a wedding gift right after he issued his conditions? How would you feel if she did this to you, Carletti?

Grimacing, he mentally kicked himself for the single-minded insistence he’d applied to Gil. If he had any compunction at all he’d yank out the paper and rip if into tiny pieces. He slipped his hand between his suit jacket and shirt ready to follow through on his last twinge of guilt.

The door burst open then, crashing against the wall. Nick spun around, withdrawing his hand.

“Poppa,” Sydney cried, rushing in. A whirlwind of white tulle dashed across the floor and launched itself at Nick.

He bent, scooping up the little girl. Hugging her tight, his heart expanded, filling to overflowing with love. “Princess.” He kissed her soft, flushed cheek, and then pulled back a little to get a good look at her.

She smiled widely, showing off the small dimple at the corner of her mouth. Her blue eyes sparkled with delight. No sign of sadness shadowed her round features, something he’d longed to see.

“Do you like my new dress? Isn’t it pretty? I just love the pink roses.” With a stubby digit, she pointed to the silky waistband, fingering the clusters of pink roses circling her. “I picked them out and Mommy made it for me.”

“She did?” Wonder and admiration colored his answer. “It’s beautiful. And so are you.” He kissed her on the cheek, making her giggle. It sounded like sweet music to his ears.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Bree’s husky voice, with a catch of hesitation in it, tugged at his middle.

Nick jerked his head to the doorway. His breath stuck in the back of his throat. The mid-thigh, ice blue satiny dress she wore molded itself to all the right places and exposed her long, shapely legs. “Wow,” he whispered.

Sydney giggled again. “I think he likes it, Mommy. That means you’re beautee…beautee…”

“Beautiful,” Nick corrected, meaning it. He lowered Sydney to the floor and she raced to her mother’s side, grabbing her hand.

“Why, thank you,” Bree said almost shyly.

She failed to meet his gaze. Second thoughts? he wondered. Determination grew roots. She’d get one hell of a fight if she backed out.

That thought took him by surprise. But, once noted, it cemented itself in his mind, in his resolve. Bree would become his wife today, even if he had to fling her over his back caveman style and dump her on the altar.

He’d have his family, the family he yearned for, within the next hour. Nothing would stop him now.

“Go in, child,” Father Thomas O’Malley said as he stood impatiently behind Bree.

Bree stepped in, moving to the desk. Sydney followed, but the angel paper weight soon caught her full attention. Bree leaned against the sturdy structure, gripping the edge as if her life depended on it. Nick saw the white-knuckled clasp, realizing this wasn’t easy for her either. A knot of empathy crowded in his chest.

“I’m sorry for my shortness, Bree. I’m a little cranky today.” Father Tom’s kind, craggy face wrinkled in dismay.

His gray, fluffy brows lifted at the corners, like angel wings. Midnight blue, peeble-like eyes usually held a wealth of peace and serenity. Now, directed at Bree, they shone with contriteness. His bulbous nose dominated the center of his face, but his wide, ready smile captured the most attention.

He explained, “Gil and I have a standing bet every time the Red Sox plays the Yankees.” He pulled out his tarnished silver pocket watch and flipped it open. “The game starts in a half hour.” He clicked the lid shut, and then returned it to his vest.

“How much did you wager this time?” Bree asked, her tone one of forgiveness and understanding.

The sly grin transformed his worry-filled expression, his eyes twinkling in mischief. “If the Sox wins he has to come to church for a month of Sundays.”

“And if they don’t?” Nick prompted, arching a brow, curious at the losing end of this gamble. Father Tom and Gil were known to stack the decks high each and every time their teams competed, sometimes with hilarious outcomes.

The priest shuddered. “Now, son, we won’t discuss that prospect. All I’ve got to say on that matter is it involves a chicken suit. I put in a good word, so we’ll just have to have faith in the power of prayers.” Father Tom looked heavenward and mumbled a desperate plea.

Bree’s laughter sparked liquid fire in Nick’s blood, tantalizing him, unnerving him.

Sydney slapped a hand to her forehead, saying, “Oh, brother.”

“In this case, Oh, Father, would be more appropriate, wouldn’t you agree, young lady?” Father Tom asked, fighting a smile, and then beaming as Sydney burst out laughing. He shook his head, muttering, “The lengths I go to to get parishioners to come to mass.”

“You can’t fool an old fool, Father,” Nick said, wagging a finger at him, “you love the Sox just as much as I do.”

“Care to place a wager yourself, Nick?” Gil asked, entering the room in long strides.

“Count me out,” Nick said. “I’ve got a wedding to attend, then a nice long honeymoon.”

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t you two be getting this thing moving?” Gil shoved back the gray sleeve of his sport coat and checked the face of his oversized watch.

“You’re right.” Nick knew, with a degree of regret, he had to follow through on his initial plan. “You go with Father Tom, Princess, we’ll be along in a minute.” He caught the priest’s curious look. “You don’t mind, do you, Father?”

“No, not at all.” Directing the way, he patted Sydney on her shoulder, saying, “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the Boston Red Sox, now would you?”

She looked up at him, smiling brightly. “Yep. I watch with Poppa all the time.”

When the door closed and their conversation became muted, Nick turned to Bree. If anything, her grip had tightened and her face seemed devoid of color. The fear emitting from her pulsed, heavy and thick, clogging the air.

He hesitated, silently questioning the soundness of his intentions once again. The wreckage of his first marriage carved through his doubts, reminding him how it had soured. His resolve returned.

“What is it?” Bree asked, her voice reed-thin.

She dropped her gaze to his neatly knotted black tie, avoiding his direct stare. Part of him ached at her discomfort. The other part, the stronger part, pressed him onward.

Don’t do it, Nicholas, Nana’s sharp warning blasted in his head, causing him to waver for another moment.

Gil, silent until now, burst out, “You mean you didn’t tell her?” His disbelief and anger bounced off the walls.

Bree jerked to face Gil, and then twisted back to Nick. This time she chanced a look at him, a real honest-to-goodness minute passed as he captured that hazel stare, holding steady. He swore the shade changed several times, from distressing murky blue, to steely gray, to passionate jade green.

That last shade sent a whole host of impure thoughts cascading through his mind, thoughts better left unexpressed in a Catholic church. But there was no denying it: He wanted her. And by damn, he’d have her, his way.

He dug a hand into his inside breast pocket, extracting the thin folded piece of paper that defined who they were to become.

Stepping forward, he came within two feet of Bree. He held the form out to her. She snatched it quickly, as if he’d yank it away if she didn’t grab it soon enough.

With trembling hands, she peeled back the edges, and then read. He watched and waited. Gasping, she turned a ghostly white.

Nick experienced a sinking sensation in his gut as he realized just how big a blunder he’d just made.

With wounded eyes, she found his, saying in a stunned whisper, “A prenuptial agreement.”


Chapter Five

The concrete evidence of Nick’s lack of trust sat before Bree, chilling her to the bone. Crisp, black lettering against pristine white parchment blared the news. She skimmed the contents of the first paragraph: He wanted a real marriage.

Her knees buckled. She felt Gil’s strong hands guide her to a nearby chair. She sank onto the cracked, black leather cushion, grateful for something to support her weight. Maybe it would help absorb the shock.

“I object to this, Nick,” Gil spat out. “This union is an unorthodox situation to begin with. One I thought would bring a family together and smooth over the animosity brewing between you two. May I remind you, the only two people a little girl has left in this world. But, you can’t blindside someone like this. What kind of marriage do you expect to have after pulling this kind of shenanigan?”

“One based on honesty.” Nick growled, low and deep, rattling Bree even more.

Her body hummed with the foregone conclusion, the powerful enormity of the situation. He’d make love to her. She’d hoped, but never expected it. A flare of heat curled in her center.

The seductive, years old attraction would finally be culminated, consummated. With no barriers, she reminded herself, except the ones you erect yourself.

Gil’s hand pressed down on her shoulder, warm and comforting. “You don’t have to go through with this, Bree. Under the circumstances, I feel I can’t legally, nor morally, advise you on this agreement. Find a good lawyer to take a look at this before you decide anything.”

Craning her neck, she looked up at him. His features clouded, growing dark and filled with concern for her. She frowned. “So you don’t think a real marriage will benefit me, a faithful one, it says here?”

“It’s not that part that worries me.” He shot Nick a glare. “I know this comes as a shock–”

“What part is the problem?” Silence greeted her question. She jerked her gaze back to the paper she held between her numb fingers. Scanning the rest of the page, she nearly tripped over the section devoted to Sydney.

Fury erupted, blazing a white-hot trail through her veins. Jumping to her feet, she confronted Nick. His granite-like expression gave nothing away. She jabbed a finger into his rock solid chest, emphasizing each word with a poke. “I will never give up my daughter, Carletti.”

He endured the punishment. “Good, because I don’t believe in divorce. This will assure both of us we’ll stay together.”

She pulled away, dropping her hand into a fist at her side. Somehow that didn’t surprise her. Once, when Vinnie expounded on his unhappy childhood, he’d revealed his mother’s penchant for threatening a divorce. Nick’s adamant refusal was the only thing that kept the family intact.

“If I give you my word will that be enough?”

Skepticism washed over his features. “I tried trusting a woman once and it didn’t work. I can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.”

What have I gotten myself into? Will I always pay for what his first wife did to him? Vinnie had also disclosed Dorthea’s remote, standoffish behavior, not only to her own son, but to Nick as well.

Apparently the only person the woman hadn’t kept at bay turned out to be her young lover. The knowledge gave Bree an insight she welcomed, understanding the many demons of this complex man standing before her.

Dorthea betrayed her husband. Bree’s heart clutched in her chest, in affinity, in renewed shame.

Didn’t I betray Vinnie by kissing Nick? No wonder he can’t trust me now.

She staggered under his piercing stare, under the incredible weight of the decision.

“If you really are solely motivated by Sydney’s well-being then you’ll have no problem signing on the dotted line.” Nick threw down the challenge, an open invitation for her.

From her side of the fence, Bree had three choices: call the whole thing off which would disappoint her very excited daughter, plus create an opportunity for Nick to press on with the custody battle and undoubtedly expose Bree’s secret; beg for more time to seek out a reputable lawyer; or sign the damn thing to show Nick she’d never been more serious about protecting her little girl.

Holding out her right hand, palm side up, she said, “Have you got a pen I can borrow?”

***

Standing beside Nick, brushing arms, Bree shook. The bouquet of white roses Nick had given her took a firm grip in order for it not to fly out of her trembling, sweaty hands and crash to the altar floor. Father Tom’s continual soothing tone did nothing to calm her shattered nerves.

Nick shifted, glancing down at her as he wrapped a warm, steady arm around her, absorbing her shakes, smoothing over her fears and her many doubts.

Soon the quivering died down. Bree, encircled by Nick’s heat and scent, allowed hope to spread. Some small part of him must feel something other than dislike, she reasoned, or he’d be immune to my distress.

Admiration, she guessed, having observed it in the look he sent her when she asked for his pen. She’d passed his test.

But one crystal clear fact haunted her: Nicholas Carletti didn’t trust her worth a fig. The prenuptial agreement enforced that with icy, harsh reality.

What would he do if he ever found out I’ve been lying to him all these years?


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