the secret truth at dare ranch

The Secret Truth at Dare
Ranch

 

By Cheryl Gorman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheryl Gorman

http://www.cherylgorman.com

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2012 Cheryl Gorman

 

Cover Art by Rae Monet Designs
http://www.raemonet.com

 

All rights reserved. This e-book is not
transferable. No part of this e-book may be reproduced or shared in any form
including but not limited to printing, faxing, e-mailing, photocopying or by
any manner of information retrieval through electronic means or through the
postal service without the express permission of the publisher. This e-book is
a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to
any person or persons living or dead, places, incidents, locations or
businesses is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

"You
still take a man’s breath, Lexie."

Alexa
Dare froze with her hammer in mid air and her right foot planted in a pile of
horse manure. Seven years had passed since his husky baritone had rippled over
her nerve endings. Her heart jerked in her chest like a colt not used to the
feel of a saddle on his back.

What was he
doing here?

She inhaled
a breath, turned and faced Mitch Quinn.

He
stood in the alleyway of the barn with Colorado afternoon sunlight streaming in
behind him and dust motes dancing in the air. No stubble covered his stubborn,
arrogant jaw the way it used to. A thin, white crescent scar still showed on
his left cheekbone where years ago, her father had slugged him.

An
expensive suit and tie had replaced his jeans and T-shirt, but his six-foot
frame was still hard and lean enough to make a woman sigh. His blond-streaked
brown hair was no longer pulled back with a strip of leather, but cut short
exposing his smooth, toned neck. A neck she'd tasted with her lips and tongue,
a neck she'd nipped with her teeth.

His
gaze skimmed her face and he threw her the same, heart-stopping cocky grin she
remembered from their youth. "Mitch. What are you doing here?" Thank
goodness her voice was composed.

"Business."

Lexie’s
misgivings about Mitch showing up out of the blue increased by the second as
she looked past him toward the open doorway.

Dani
would be home soon.

She
leaned over and grabbed a couple of nails out of the toolbox. She closed her
fingers tight around them, the metal biting into her skin. "What kind of
business? You haven’t shown your face around here in years.” Not since that
awful night.

When
she straightened, Mitch's gaze still rested on her. "You understand why I haven’t
been back," he stated in a low, steady voice.

She
understood all too well. Through his haze of bitterness and grief, her father
had threatened anyone named Quinn with a snoot full of buckshot if he so much
as set one toe onto Dare land.   

"I’d
like to say I’m sorry the old man’s dead but...”

Lexie
thought of her father, Mason, buried on the ridge behind the house, and cursed
him even as love expanded in her heart. She'd been desperate to heal the gap
between them and ease the hurt from his disinterest that had plagued her all of
her life, but his unexpected death had put an end to her desperation forever. Lexie
hammered some nails into a loose board. "You haven’t answered my question."

"The
ranch is in bad shape."

She
looked at the worn walls where golden fingers of sunlight trickled through the
spaces in between the boards. "Dad fell apart after Parker died...drinking,
gambling. But you know that. After you left town, the ranch went down hill
fast, but I'm determined to bring it back up to speed. Parker would have wanted
me to try." And she was determined to succeed.

"He was
a wonderful son of a bitch, your brother," Mitch said with a ring of
sadness in his voice. "The best friend I ever had."

Lexie
glanced at Mitch over her shoulder. "Impossible not to love him, wasn't it?
He was such a scamp, but not a mean bone in his body. I wanted so badly to tag
along with the two of you, but all I got for my trouble was a yank on my pony
tail and a pat on the head.”

Despite
his treating her like a pesky little sister, Parker had always been there for
her when her father brushed her aside like an irritation. He would put his arm
around her, lift her chin, and throw her a crooked grin. Often, he berated
Mason on his insensitive treatment of her, but the old man's attitude toward
her never changed.

Tears
stung her eyes just thinking about the brother she’d loved and lost. "I
miss him every day. Each time I go riding, or look out over the land, I still
see him there. How could something he loved so much be the site of his horrible
death?" Her voice cracked. She shuffled into the tack room and slid the
toolbox onto a clear spot on the bottom shelf.

Parker's
saddle still sat on the rack in the corner. She knew she should sell his tack
or put his things into storage, but if she did she would close a door in her soul
she wasn't ready to close.

Lexie
bit her lip and choked back tears before crossing the alleyway to the feed room.
She gathered pails to prepare the horses' dinner.

Mitch's
voice drifted to her from outside the feed room. "Barn's full of horses. These
all yours?"

She
rejoiced over the occupied stalls, the bright faces of the horses that stared
eagerly out at her each morning and evening but they weren’t all hers no matter
how much she wished it. Training horses had kept her head above water.

Lexie
filled the buckets with sweet feed and oats then placed a piece of raw carrot
on top. She wiped her sweaty palms over her thighs as she stepped back into the
alley way. "No, they’re not all mine. Why don’t you stop stalling and tell
me why you’re here?"

"Why
do you love the land so much?” Mitch asked ignoring her question. He leaned
against the wall of the alleyway, crossed his arms over his chest and cocked
his head to one side. "Why is the ranch so important to you?"

Her
heart swelled with pride. "Because when you give to the land, the land
gives back. I tried to give to my father, but he only took and never gave
anything back. I give love and attention to the land and it flourishes.”

She
gave love to her daughter and she flourished too. The land was in her blood. The
ranch was a part of her like Dani was a part of her. She wanted a legacy to
leave her daughter and she wanted Dani to know that no matter what happened in
her life she always had a home.

What
if the ranch were snatched away one day? What if she couldn't turn things
around? What then? The thought of losing the land opened a cold, dark place
inside her. As long as she kept the land, Parker's memory would remain alive.

"I
know I can save this place if I put my mind to it.” She sighed and voiced the
longings she held close in her heart. "I want to build back the herd and
train championship horses and be totally self-sufficient. I want to make Dare
Ranch one of the best working ranches in the state."

When
she walked out of the feed room, Mitch was examining the barn. His gaze slid
over the loose boards in the walls and scrutinized the cracked concrete of the
alleyway, the worn and ragged condition of the stalls. After a moment, Mitch
tilted his head and stared at the hayloft. A kind of stillness came over him; a
slight smile played over his mouth. Quickly, his gaze shifted and fixed on her
eyes.

He
remembered.

Anxiety
rose into her throat. She didn’t need to be reminded. Every time she came into
the barn or looked into her daughter’s face, she remembered.   

To
hide her reaction, she moved on to the next stall. The black mare called
Morning Star nibbled at the latch on her stall, rattling the metal clasp
against the wood until the door swung open. Aspen, next door, pushed his muzzle
in her direction and blew softly in her face. Morning Star bobbed her head then
nipped Aspen lightly on the nose.

Lexie
skirted around Mitch standing by the door and stepped inside the stall. His woodsy
male scent wafted past her and blended with the scents of the barn. Awareness curled
in her stomach. She shook her head slightly and smiled to herself. You're not a
teenager anymore, Lexie. Stop acting like one.

When
she exited, Mitch closed the stall door. With practiced ease, he stroked his
large hand over Morning Star's ebony coat.

"You're
a pretty girl, aren't you?” His softly spoken words stirred Lexie’s memory. Mitch
had said almost the exact same words to her that long ago night. He'd made her
feel pretty, desirable and most of all, wanted.  

She
moved to Aspen's stall. The big palomino gelding crowded the door and shoved
his nose into the feed. With a gentle nudge, she pushed him out of her way and
poured the grain into his feeding trough. She patted him on the withers and
smiled.

Mitch
shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on an eye hook used to attach a lead
line when Lexie brought the horses out of their stalls for grooming. He grabbed
some buckets and helped her finish feeding the rest of the horses.

Muscles
knotted between her shoulder blades and a ball of panic tightened in her
stomach. He had to leave before Dani got home. Lexie closed the door on the
last stall then strolled to the doorway of the barn. She glanced nervously at her
watch. Two-forty. Dani would arrive in a few minutes. She had to get Mitch out
of here.   

To
calm her nerves, Lexie skimmed her gaze over the verdant land. Clouds, fat and
gray with rain, floated across the azure sky painting fleeting shadows over the
pastures. "I love this patch of earth. I'm sure there must be some of the
dirt from this place swirling through my blood.” In the distance, her two
remaining ranch hands cruised the fence line and moved a stray calf into the
herd. They were down to one hundred head on the eighteen hundred acre ranch.

Mitch
moved up beside her. His scent reached out and caressed her skin but she
refused to allow him to get to her. At least now, his nearness was no longer
the searing burn of a young girl's inexperienced emotions.

He'd
been irresponsible, headstrong and careless in his youth. She supposed those qualities
were what attracted her to him when she was an impressionable teenager, who
longed to be a bit careless and irresponsible herself. She’d been so desperate
for her father's love and attention she didn't dare be anything other than
responsible.

Until
he’d given her no other choice.

On
that night seven years ago she'd thrown caution and sensibility into the
brilliant night sky but she had no regrets. She'd grown a woman’s heart since
Mitch left town.

Some
mornings when she pulled on her jeans and boots as the sun struggled over the
horizon, the burden of responsibility weighted down her twenty-three year old
shoulders almost to the breaking point. She was glad for the years she’d had to
grow and change since Dani was born. The grief and anger between the Dares and
the Quinns had built a wall between the two families that even the tender feelings
of two love struck kids couldn’t tear down.

Mitch's
hands settled on her shoulders. The heat from his fingers seeped through her
shirt, warmed her skin and brought back images of his hands stroking her body,
his lips hot and hungry on hers. She pushed away the memories and eased out of
his hold.

"Lexie,
we never really talked about that night." His voice was silky with
encouragement urging her to talk.

The
breeze, still warm and ripe with summer, but tinged with a hint of autumn,
stroked her face, and ruffled her shoulder length hair.

He
opened the top button on his shirt before he loosened the tie at his throat. Her
mouth went dry at the sight of light brown hair curling through the opening.

Why
did he still have to look so good?

After
Parker's death, she spent more and more time in the barn with the horses in an
effort to escape from her father’s drunken rages. The night Mitch came to say
goodbye, her loneliness spread invisible fingers around her soul. She
understood why he had to leave town and make a life for himself, but her heart
broke when he told her he was leaving.

Her
happiest memories were tied up with Mitch and Parker. She’d never wanted to lose
those memories, but she desperately wanted to escape from the cold, distant
relationship she’d had with her father. She’d asked Mitch to marry her and take
her away from Mason Dare because she had no resources of her own.

Lexie
remembered his soft, indulgent tone when he’d turned her down. He had made it
clear they were too young for marriage and needed lives of their own.

Mitch
spread his left hand around the nape of her neck bringing her thoughts back to
the present. Her pulse skittered and her skin tingled. He turned her to face
him and Lexie cocked her head and tried to hide the attraction growing inside
her. "Don't tell me the live-for-today Mitch Quinn felt guilty about the
night we spent together."

"Yeah,
believe it or not, I did. I knew you were hurting. You were innocent, Lexie and
I let myself forget that fact until it was too late.”

Mitch
lifted his hand from her neck and crossed his arms over his chest. "I
remember we talked about Parker and old times. One minute we were laughing and
the next you were bawling. Those tears scared the life out of me.” His voice was
warm and tender. "I'd never seen you cry like that before. You looked at
me with those big, weepy eyes and I took you in my arms only to comfort you,
but after one little kiss...I didn't have a prayer.”

A
brief, sharp pain stung the secret regions of her heart for reasons she
couldn't explain, but at the same time a sense that she'd made the right
decision seven years ago lightened the emotional weight on her shoulders. "You
shouldn't feel guilty. I wanted to know what it was like to be with a man and I
wanted that man to be you.” Her voice broke in a tremulous whisper.

Tenderness
filled his gray-green eyes. He stepped closer and caressed her cheek with the
back of his hand leaving a trail of heat behind. "That was quite a gift."

A
little shiver of pleasure darted through her stomach at his words but she
pushed it away. "Don't let it go to your head. I survived.” She’d survived
her father’s wrath and much more, but she had never been the type to let life
get her down. Lexie forced a smile. "So, do you have anyone special in
your life?"

"No,
I travel too much. Women like their men to hang around longer than a day or two.
Besides, I have no interest in commitment. What about you?"

What
about her? Dates were few and far between. Not many men wanted to become
involved with a single mother who was drowning in debt. "No.” She grabbed
a broom and started sweeping the bits of hay and dirt off the alleyway. "Let’s
cut the idle chit chat shall we? Why are you here?"

He
waited a beat. "I heard you have a tax problem." His voice was cool
and all business.

She
gripped the broom handle tighter until her knuckles turned white and the wood
bit into her skin.

"Why
would that interest you?” Despite the forced lightness in her question, a sense
of foreboding filled her chest.

His
expression grew serious. "I have my reasons."

She
pushed the broom against a small clump of dung and flicked it in Mitch's
direction. "That's not an answer."

The
chunk landed on top of his shiny, leather shoe and his gaze snapped to hers. A
gleam of amused tolerance shone in his eyes. He jerked his foot and tossed the
clod away.

"Why
are you so interested in my finances? What's going on?"

"The
foundation I work for wants to buy this ranch."

Her
heart leapt into a gallop. She inhaled a shuddering breath. Why did they have
to send him? Did he want to take the assignment? "What kind of foundation?
What do they want with my ranch?" She blurted the words aware of the alarm
in her voice but unable to temper it.

He
assessed her reaction while one dark brow arched in surprise. "Why are you
upset? Look, I've done my research. I know this place is in debt. You're barely
hanging on by a boot strap, Lexie. If you sold the ranch to the foundation, they
could pay off the debt and turn this place into something really useful."

A
sudden gush of fury whipped through her blood. "Really useful? The ranch
is damned useful. This is my home. I've never lived anywhere else.” The anger
she fought to control shoved into her throat frosting her words with ice. "You
know how much this place means to me.” Or did he even care anymore? "No
amount of money will ever tempt me to sell."

"Don't
bet on it. Everybody has a price, Lexie.” He ambled over to one of the horses and
rubbed his muzzle. "Everybody.” Mitch pivoted and stared at her. "Even
you."

"You're
wrong. I won't sell no matter what." She was pleased at the uncompromising
tone in her voice. Who was she kidding? The bank would leap at the chance to
recoup their money. Not to mention the IRS. She could have a clean slate. But,
then she wouldn't have the ranch.

"I
know you owe back taxes. I did my research. The foundation could pay the taxes
today and own this ranch."

A
sudden chill leached the warmth from her body. "You can't do that."
She hated the desperation in her voice but she couldn’t stop it. She loved the
ranch.

"Sure,
I can. I have the power to decide how millions of dollars are going to be spent
and where. I'm good at what I do. I always make the deal.” He moved over to
Aspen and rubbed his golden neck. "Your horses will be just as happy
living someplace else."

"My
horses aren't going anywhere, Mitch, and neither am I."

Mitch's
mouth spread into a tight-lipped smile. "Lexie, I work for the Brookfield
Foundation, the largest charitable organization in the country.” His voice
sounded resolute and unyielding, his eyes glittered with lethal self-assurance.

Lexie
swallowed against a knot of trepidation building in her stomach.

"I
cut my teeth working for an investment banker before the foundation recruited
me."

Lexie
brushed some dirt from her jeans in an effort to still her shaking hands. "So,
what is it exactly that you do?"

"I
allocate funds to build rehab hospitals, set up hospice care, provide
assistance to families who've had a family member severely injured or
handicapped in an accident or the result of an illness.” His voice was oddly
gentle and full of pride. Softness bloomed in his eyes and the stiff posture
he'd held in his shoulders seemed to drain away.

"The
ranch would be perfect."

He
pushed his hands into the pockets of his trousers and stepped outside the barn
where the land dipped and flowed until it grew into rocky peaks. "There's
plenty of land for expansion. Trails could be made and therapy pools built."
He gestured toward the land outside the barn. "Not to mention the healthy
atmosphere away from the brown cloud of Denver.”

A
cold wave of apprehension swept through her. What was she going to do? Determined
not to let Mitch sense her panic, Lexie lifted her chin and squared her shoulders.
She would do what she'd always done. Fight like the devil. Dani depended on her.

She
rolled her head from side to side to relieve the clawing tension in her neck. She
inhaled a deep breath and prepared for battle.

"I've
been working damn hard to save this place. But I love the hard work because I
love this ranch. I'm not a quitter, Mitch. I never have been. I won't give up
this land. Tell them I won't sell."
You’re a fool, Lexie Dare
.

Mitch
threw her a knife edged smile and stroked a finger over the bridge of her nose.
Lexie jerked away and he nodded in acquiescence. "You won't have a choice,
Kitten.”

The
use of her old nickname made yearning for what had been lost rise lightly in
her chest, but she fought the emotion.

Lexie
stared into his eyes. "I do have a choice. What can I do to make you go
away?"

He
grinned. "Is that a challenge?” The rich timbre of his voice and his
arresting smile made her knees turn to water. He wanted to take the ranch. How
could she be attracted to him? "You won't win, Lex."

"How
do you know?" She reached for the strength that had sustained her the past
several years.

"Your
debt load is breaking your back, the IRS is breathing down your neck, the bank
is ready to foreclose and you can't run this place much longer with the number
of hands you have working for you. Besides, I like challenges," he
finished with the confidence of a man who never accepted failure.

"So
do I." And saving Dare Ranch would be her biggest challenge yet.

He
smiled grimly and shook his head. "The tax man doesn't give a hang how
much you love this ranch, neither does the bank."

Did
he
? Does he care at all? He's been gone for seven years.

"They
just want to be paid. The foundation has the means to do just that.” A steely
determination edged his voice.

Lexie
breathed a heavy sigh. A crazy mix of hope that she could save the ranch and
fear that Mitch and his foundation would take it from her warred inside her
chest. Mitch was right. This foundation could pay the back taxes, settle her
debts and there would be nothing she could do about it. She was grateful they
hadn't. "Why are you doing this?"

A
squeal of brakes snagged Lexie's attention. A green station wagon skidded to a
halt in the ranch's driveway with a rooster tail of dust whipping out behind it.

Oh
God, Dani's home.

The
passenger door flew open and Dani bounded out.

Her
yellow dress flapped around her skinny legs, a Barbie knapsack jostled against
her back. She ran to Lexie and wrapped her arms around her waist.

"Mommy!"

 

Chapter Two

 

Shock
clouded Mitch's brain. Mommy?

"Mom,
I got all my spelling words on the test today." Excitement and pride rang
in the little girl’s voice.

He
watched Lexie cradle her daughter's face and smile down at her. The love in her
face and eyes reached out and stroked the loneliness in his soul, a loneliness
he'd only become aware of in recent years.

"That's
great, honey."

The
little girl turned and looked at Mitch with curious gray-green eyes. A breeze
blew a lock of her dark brown hair across her cheek and she brushed it away. "Who're
you?" Her voice was soft.

"This
is an old friend of mine," Lexie said. Her voice shook. Anxiety gleamed in
her eyes. Why was she so nervous? "He's Mr. Quinn's son. Mitch, this is my
daughter, Dani.”

He
still couldn’t believe Lexie had a daughter. Who was the father? His father had
never mentioned a word about Lexie being married or having a child.     

Dani
smiled at Mitch. A smile of open innocence. Something familiar tugged at the
corners of his mind. For a moment, she looked a little like his father. No that
couldn’t be. "Hi, Dani. Call me Mitch."

Her
smile melted and her face grew serious. "Mommy doesn't like it when I call
adults by their first name." Her voice was a loud whisper. "She says
it's presume..."

"Presumptuous?"

"Yes,
sir."  

Lexie
wrapped an arm around Dani's shoulders and pulled her close. Dani hugged her
back then scooted out of her mother's arms and over to Morning Star. She fished
her small hand into her pocket and retrieved a cube of sugar. The horse nibbled
the treat from her flat, open palm.

"Morning
Star, I'll go change and be right back." She gave the horse a kiss on her
soft muzzle. "I'll bring you an apple.” She hefted her backpack and jogged
toward the door of the barn.

Mitch
shifted his attention back to Lexie. Nervous tension flickered over her face. She
fidgeted and her lower lip trembled. Her bright blue gaze darted everywhere,
but she refused to look at him. What the hell was going on?

"Dani,"
Lexie called.

She
stopped in mid-stride and kicked up dust from a sneaker clad foot. Dani turned
and gave Mitch a smile. "I forgot. Nice to meet you, Mr. Quinn.” She
darted off before Lexie's voice stopped her again.

"Aren't
you forgetting something else, young lady?"

Dani's
small shoulders slumped. She breathed a gusty sigh. She swiveled her head and
looked at Lexie over her shoulder. "Just this once, couldn't I go riding
first?" If that plea was directed at him he’d be a goner.

"You
know the rules. On a school night it's homework first.” Lexie was gentle but
firm. "Go on up to the house. I'll be there in a few minutes to help you.”

"Okay,"
Dani said with resignation before she disappeared around the corner of the
barn.

"Well,
it's been nice seeing you again, Mitch." Lexie’s voice was high pitched. "I
hope you'll drop by before you leave town.”

"Why
are you so skittish?"

Lexie
threw him a weak smile. Her gaze lit on his face then flew away. "I have a
lot on my mind, that's all."

"I
didn't know you had gotten married.”

Her
skin blanched. She lowered her head and glanced at the ground before lifting
her chin. Lexie gave him a cool stare, but anxiety shimmered in her eyes. "I
didn't get married, but I don't regret having her. I love her and she loves me.
Unconditionally."

Why
did he feel relief at not finding her married? He and Lexie hadn't seen one
another in years. Surprise at his own reaction to Lexie's situation reeled
through him. He knew about her finances so why didn't he know she had a child? And
why was she being so evasive? "Of course you love her. She's your daughter.
We've known each other a long time, Lex. You can tell me who her father is."

She
hesitated and remained silent. He shoved a hand through his hair. Her silence
annoyed the hell out of him. "Is what’s his name her father?" He
tried to hide the bitterness in his voice and failed.

She
shook her head and turned away.

"Okay,
where's Dani’s father now?"

Dani’s
face flickered through his mind. She had a stubborn chin. Just like his. A
startling thought ripped into his brain. No, she couldn’t be. Lexie would have
told him if she’d had his child or at the very least his own father. It had to
be somebody else. Mitch reached out, clasped her shoulders and turned her
around to face him. "Did the bastard knock you up then skip town?” 

She
glared at him. "No, it wasn't like that."

"What
was it like?"

She
tilted her head and looked at him. "Give me some time to collect my
thoughts then come up to the house and we’ll talk."

# # #

Twenty
minutes after Lexie stepped inside the house, the doorbell rang. All she'd had
time for was to get Dani settled down with her homework and start dinner. She'd
had no chance to freshen up. Lexie swiped a hand over her wind-blown hair, strode
out of the kitchen and down the hallway to the front door. She stopped beside
the door, looked through the sidelight and saw Mitch standing on the front
porch.

Her
heart hammered like a foal being separated from its mother for the first time.
A cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach. Thank goodness Dani was upstairs
doing her homework.

She
flicked the lock on the door and swung the panel open. Lexie squared her
shoulders. His tie was gone, his eyes clear and focused. His feathers smooth
and unruffled. She'd been churned up since the moment she laid eyes on him in
the barn earlier.

"Can
I come in?"

"Sure,
I'm making dinner. Come into the kitchen.” She moved to the side so he could
enter. He followed her down the hall, close on her heels. His footsteps echoed
on the wood floor like a death knell. Her nerve endings burned. Oh God, time to
tell him the truth.

She
walked into the kitchen and headed for the stove. "Have a seat. Would you
like something to drink?"

"No,
thanks."

Mitch's
gaze bored into her back. She removed the chicken from the pan and laid it on a
platter. Her hand shook when she reached for the green beans to give the pot a
stir. The kitchen clock ticked, refrigerator hummed. Everyday normal sounds. Only
today was far from normal.

A
chair scraped over the kitchen floor. Her heart leaped into her throat and she
spun at the noise. Mitch lowered his tall, very male frame into the chair. His
gaze observed her every move. His mouth curved, but it wasn’t a smile.

"Ready
to talk?"

How
will I ever make him understand?

Lexie
turned down the flame under the beans and walked to the table. She sat down and
rubbed her sweaty palms over the top of her jean covered thighs. There was only
one way for her to say it. "Dani's your daughter." She heaved a heavy
sigh. The truth was out. She’d finally said the words out loud to Mitch.

She
waited a few seconds then shifted her gaze up to his. Mitch slumped back in his
chair and nodded as understanding dawned on his face. "I thought she
looked a little like my dad. How could I not have recognized my own child?” 

A
frown creased his brow. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

Shudders
of apprehension quaked through her body. Her nerves sparked. Lexie laid her
hand on his arm. He moved his arm away and she let her hand settle on the
table’s surface. "I didn't want you to feel trapped into coming home to
Chimney Rock.”   

She
stared at the stubborn set of his jaw and the grim line of his mouth. "We
didn't love each other, Mitch. That night we were just two people reaching out
to one another. When I asked you to marry me, I was desperate," she said
with a slight lift of her hand. "Nothing more. I realized later it
wouldn't have been fair to you. Or to me. And certainly not to Dani.” She
prayed with all her might that he would understand.

He
stared at her. "Fair? That's a lousy excuse." He spit the words out like
chunks of ice.

Lexie
straightened and refused to let him make her question her decision. "I did
what I thought was right."

"You
think it was right to keep my child from me?"

Lexie’s
heart panted in her chest.
I did the right thing.
She rose from her
chair and walked to the kitchen window. She stared at the rose bushes in the
back yard, their once bright yellow petals turning brown. She turned her head
and looked at Mitch. "I know you're mad, but please try to understand."

He
laughed, a cold, mirthless sound that chilled her to the bone. "Understand?
I'm Dani's father for Christ's sake and I never knew about her until today."

His
scathing words clawed over her already frayed nerves. He exhaled in frustration.
"Tell me what happened. Tell me everything."

Lexie
walked back to the table and sat down. She put her palms together and clasped
her hands between her knees to keep them from trembling. She hated confrontation.
Her stomach churned. "Eight weeks after you left I started getting sick to
my stomach first thing in the morning. I went to the doctor and discovered I
was pregnant."

She
looked at Mitch. The lines around his eyes had softened, the anger had faded. "How
did you feel about it?"

Lexie
massaged the muscles in the back of her neck. "I was terrified, excited,
happy. I told Vivian right away since she was my best friend and swore her to
secrecy. When I knew I could no longer hide my pregnancy I told your father.

"They
both wanted me to tell you and tell my father. I refused both. They threatened
to tell you if I didn’t, but I begged them not to. I knew in my heart you
didn’t want to be caught in a loveless marriage."

"How
did you know what I wanted? You never asked me.” His words were brittle and dry
like fallen leaves.

"I
wanted you to get an education and to succeed. If you had been saddled with a
wife and child you would have ended up resenting us both.” Lexie paused to
restore her composure. Her voice broke with emotions she’d kept bottled up for
years. Didn't he understand the she had cared enough about all three of them to
let him go? "We both would have suffered, but Dani would have suffered the
most." Her voice was steadier now. "I didn't tell you because I knew
you didn't want a commitment and I wasn't sure about my feelings for you. I was
sure of only one thing: I wanted to have the baby."

Mitch
shifted in his chair. His jaw locked. A tiny muscle twitched beneath his right
eye. A sure sign he was about to explode. She understood why. He’d just found
out he was a father.

Lexie
looked down at her jeans and molded her fingers over her knees. "Dad blew
a gasket." She’d longed for him to fold her in his big arms and tell her
everything was going to be okay. But no, that was too much to ask of Mason
Dare. "He got raging drunk and called me a whore.” The hurt in that long
ago moment still stung like a needle pricking her skin. She swallowed against
the anguish and blinked back her tears. "He couldn't bear the thought of his
daughter bearing
your
child, the son of the man he blamed for killing
Parker, his only son.” Her voice was fragile to her own ears. She inhaled a
deep breath to help ease the hurt.

Mitch’s
gaze cut to hers. "Go on," he demanded in a rigid voice.

She
licked her lips and swallowed. "He kicked me out. I had no place to go except
to Vivian. I lived with her until Dani was born. The night she was born a snowstorm
blew in. We barely made it to Doc Grant’s clinic." She smiled remembering
the most joyful and frightening moment of her life.

"Vivian
stayed with me the whole time. She even helped me with the baby after the birth.”
Lexie chuckled as the memories of caring for a newborn came flooding back. "We
knew next to nothing about babies, but boy did we learn fast."

He
leaned forward his hands resting on his thighs. "So everybody knew about
Dani but me." Scorn seethed in his voice.

Compassion
for him at her deception nudged against her heart. She needed to finish this,
to tell him everything. "My father came to see me at Vivian’s house. He said
tongues were wagging about him abandoning his daughter and he wanted me to come
home. Since he'd been on the city council and even served one term as mayor, he
was worried about his precious reputation."

I
don’t care what you want, girl. You and that brat are coming home with me. Now.

Mitch
rose from his chair, placed his palms on the table and leaned close to Lexie. She
pressed against her back into the chair. She’d never seen him so furious.

"How
could you hurt me like this? And my father was in on it too?” His voice rang
with pain.

How
could she hurt
him
? She was tired of shouldering the guilt about keeping
Dani a secret. Lexie straightened her shoulders and leaned forward until they
were eye to eye. "You didn't come back to Chimney Rock for seven years,
not even to visit your father. He always visited
you.
You didn't call or
even write me a letter. For all I knew you were
never
coming back. When
during that time of not receiving even one token communication from you was I
supposed to tell you about Dani?"

He
turned his back and started toward the door. "I’ve got to get out of here
before I say something I’ll regret."

# # #

Mitch
stood at the edge of the yard, inside the back gate and watched his father,
Judson, tamp rich, black earth around a clutch of golden mums. Overhead, dark
clouds bunched and thunder rumbled.

He
was a father. He had a little girl. Shock whirled through him along with deep
layers of unanswered questions. All of them beginning with why.

Fragrant
smoke drifted from a pipe Judson had clamped in his teeth. His chestnut hair
was a bit grayer, but his build was the same, solid and muscular with maybe
just a little extra padding around the middle. Aggie, his chocolate brown
Labrador, lay at his feet. Mitch listened to her muffled snore as rain began to
fall.

"Pop."

Aggie
woke, jumped to her feet and barked, while her tail wagged in a lazy circle. Judson's
head whipped around. He snatched the pipe from between his teeth and started to
smile but the expression faded. In a slow movement, he stood up. Mitch watched
his father's gaze, a brilliant, piercing blue, move over him, reading his mood.
Love unfolded in his heart despite knowing his father had betrayed him.

"You've
been to see Lexie." He stepped forward and gripped Mitch’s upper arms. The
scents of tobacco, aftershave and a light whiff of sweat surrounded him.

Mitch
wanted to slap a hand down on his father's shoulder and feel the soft, red
flannel of his shirt. For a moment, he remembered them back on their land,
working side by side, tending a colicky horse, and laughing with Parker over
some stupid joke. His heart burned at the memory.

"Let's
go sit on the porch,” Justin said.

Mitch
settled onto the oak glider on the large, screened porch, sucked down a gulp of
iced tea he didn’t want and eyed his father.