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The flowers, balloons, and stuffed bears at the foot of Alana Morgan’s front door resembled a shrine for the dead.
With one hand on her suitcase and the other holding her keys, she stood in the hallway outside her condo and stared down at the colorful exhibition in dismay. The display wasn’t a memorial for someone. It was for something; a relationship with Dylan O’Rourke that should have never happened.
The door of the condo next to hers cracked open a few inches. Gina Alfonsi poked her graying head into the hallway. “He’s been here every day this week. Now that you’re back home, you need to either kiss and make up or get a restraining order.” Shaking her head in disgust, Gina stared at the items piled on the floor. “Put the poor guy out of his misery.”
Alana deactivated her security system then put her key in the deadbolt lock and turned it. “We had it out just before I left for Paris and I gave him back the engagement ring. He begged me to forgive him but I refused. A couple of nights ago, I described the situation to my girlfriends and they agreed I’d be crazy to take him back.” She pushed the door open. “I don’t care how sorry Dylan is; he’s history. There is no second chance for a man who cheats.” Leaving her suitcase behind, for now, she stepped over the obstacles in her way and entered her condominium.
She would have never known about his infidelity if her business trip to Los Angeles hadn’t been cut short. A product manager in retail price management for a private software firm, she’d planned to be in L.A. for five days to work with a client. The meetings, however, were very productive and wrapped up a day early, giving her an extra day to get ready for her trip to Paris. She’d caught the red-eye back to Minneapolis on Thursday night. Arriving home early Friday morning, she’d purchased muffins from a coffee shop and had gone straight to Dylan’s place on the sixth floor of her condo complex. She wanted to surprise him before he left for work, but a nasty surprise was in store for her when she let herself in and discovered her fiancé in the shower with another woman...
Alana grimaced. Why do I always manage to pick losers?
Successful, sexy, and sweet-talking, Dylan’s charming personality was the kind she always fell for, but obviously, his kind wasn’t right for her. A relationship had to be based upon more than physical attraction and she realized now theirs had been merely skin-deep. That’s why he’d cheated on her. In the end, he’d come to that conclusion too, and that’s why he wanted to start over, but it was too late. She could never trust him again.
Alana crossed the living room to the floor-to-ceiling windows and pulled open the fabric blinds, filling her spacious home with afternoon sunlight. She loved living on the thirtieth floor of Marquette Towers. Situated on the south edge of downtown Minneapolis, the spectacular view of the metro area from her balcony stretched as far as she could see. Looking downward, her gaze swept across the lush, eleven-acre grounds of the Sculpture Garden a couple of blocks away and Loring Park with tall, shady trees and its centerpiece, Loring Lake. She’d had a great time in Paris, but it was good to be back in Minnesota again.
Well, it would be once she’d returned Dylan O’Rourke’s gifts and purged him from her life forever.
Gina stood in the doorway wearing black leggings, a lacy white tunic, and a necklace of chunky aqua beads. She smiled, revealing a space between her front teeth. “Did you have a good trip?”
“Oh, yes! I always have a great time with my ex-roommates from college. We take a vacation together every year at the end of the summer for some girls-only fun. It’s been our tradition since we graduated.”
Alana dropped her purse on the coffee table and began to collect the items in the doorway. The flowers went into the trash. “On our first day, we had lunch at a sidewalk café and spent the afternoon shopping,” she said as she poured the water from the vases into the sink. “On other days, we wandered through The Louvre, took a river cruise on the Seine, and watched the evening light show at the Eiffel Tower.”
“How was the wine?”
“Wonderful!” Alana knelt in front of the doorway holding a white garbage bag in her hands. “One evening we went to a place on Rue des Boulangers where we drank Bordeaux and snacked on wild boar sausage with cheese and crackers.” She shoved a stuffed bear into the bag.
Gina laughed. “The wine sounds good. I’m not sure about the wild boar...”
“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It tasted like summer sausage to me.”
As Alana worked, she thought back to that balmy night in Paris. Josie, Ryley, Annika, and she had started confessing their tales of relationships gone bad as they sipped on delicious Bordeaux. By the end of the evening, they’d all promised to hit the “pause” button on love and swear off men for one year so they could focus on pursuing their professional goals instead.
Deep in her heart, Alana truly wanted to find Mr. Right, get married, and have a couple of kids, but for now, the prospect seemed so remote. Were all the good men her age taken? It certainly felt that way. Maybe her friends were right about putting relationships on hold for a while to focus on their careers. The thought of pursuing a high-level promotion at work energized her, giving her a renewed sense of purpose.
“Here, let me help you with that,” Gina said as she tucked her chin-length hair behind her ears and knelt on the floor to push a couple of Mylar balloons into the bag. They suddenly slipped from Gina’s hands and popped out, rocketing toward the ceiling.
“Hold on. I’ll fix this.” Alana went into the kitchen and grabbed a pair of scissors from one of the drawers. She pulled down the balloons, stabbing a hole in each one and dropping them, deflated, into the bag. She quickly pulled the bag’s drawstrings tight and tied them in a knot. “It needs one more thing.” She went back into the kitchen to retrieve a notecard, a black Sharpie, and some cellophane tape. On the card, she wrote “Delivery Refused - Return to Sender” and taped it on the bag. “That should do it. I’ll go down to the sixth floor and set it in front of his door.”
Gina folded her arms as she leaned against the door frame. “Judging by how persistent he is, I doubt it will deter him.”
Alana set the bag aside with a sigh. “You’re right. When he sees the bag, he’ll know I’m back and he’ll try to talk me into giving our relationship another chance. The problem is, it’ll simply be round two of the same argument we’ve already had. I have nothing else to say to him.”
“It’s too bad you couldn’t go back to Paris for another week.”
“I’d love that!” Alana glanced at her suitcase, packed full of new clothes from Paris and she winced at the thought of how much she’d already overspent her travel budget. “Unfortunately, I can’t afford to go back there right now. Besides, I called my mom at the airport to let her know my plane had arrived and she talked me into spending the other half of my vacation at my grandmother’s house. I’m supposed to start packing Grandma Essie’s things and doing some serious cleaning to get the house ready to put on the market.”
“You sound like you’re dreading it,” Gina remarked.
“This isn’t my idea of a fun vacation.” She looked back at Gina. “My parents rarely ask for my help so I feel duty-bound to set my own plans aside and get the project started for them while they’re in Europe celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Grandma Essie’s passing took an emotional toll on Mom so she really needs this time away. Well, it was tough on all of us. It’s going to be difficult going back there because I have so many memories tied to that house, but I guess I should see the place one last time before it goes up for sale. Growing up, I spent a lot of my summers there and I’m really going to miss it.”
It would be a nice change for a few days to wake up in the same bedroom her mother had occupied as a child in Grandma Essie’s big house in Merrick. The small, southern Minnesota town was a little boring, perhaps, but at least she’d have some peace and quiet for a few days. Nothing ever happened there…
Until Essie’s untimely death.
How? Why? At Mom’s Fourth of July picnic, Grandma Essie was her usual self—funny and in good health. She’d lived in that house for sixty years and never had any problem with the back steps. What had caused her to take such a bad fall now? I wish I knew!
Alana shook off the sad, frustrating thoughts. “Why don’t you come in for a few minutes, Gina, and visit with me while I repack my suitcase? I’ll get you a bottle of sparkling water. I need to get on the road before rush hour starts or it will be a nightmare trying to get out of the metro area. Fridays are always the worst.”
After retrieving a couple of cold bottles of Voss water from the refrigerator, Alana pulled her suitcase into her bedroom and dumped the contents onto her bed. Gina sat on the corner of her king-sized mattress and chatted with her about Paris as Alana packed enough clothes to stay at Grandma Essie’s for a week. When she finished, she went back into her living room and closed the blinds then went into the kitchen and filled out a new index card.
“Enjoy the rest of your vacation,” Gina said as she tossed her empty bottle in the recycling bin under the sink. She followed Alana out the door. “If lover boy shows up again, I’ll act like I haven’t seen you.”
“Great, thanks!” Alana locked the door and set the alarm with her key fob. “I’m all set. See you when I get back, Gina!”
Setting her purse on top of her suitcase, Alana took one last look around. “Oops, I almost forgot this…” She held out the notecard with a piece of tape on it and stuck it on the door.
She made her way toward the elevators rolling her suitcase with one hand and dragging Dylan’s bag with the other. At the corner, she stopped and looked back to make sure the sign on her door hadn’t fallen off. It was still there. The notecard simply read, “Gone Fishing.”
Reid Sinclair sat at the computer in his home office, working from his notes on a keynote address to be given at a leadership summit in late September. He needed to complete the first draft by the end of the week and send it to his colleague and business partner, Nate Gilbertson, for review. A management professor at the University of Minnesota, Nate critiqued all of Reid’s manuscripts, conducted research projects with him, and filled the role of agent for Reid’s conference schedule and his published books. Reid needed peace and quiet to concentrate, but his private landline phone had been ringing off the hook all day with family and friends calling, grating on his nerves, and repeatedly disrupting his concentration.
“Da-dee, the phone is ringing!”
“I know that, Hannah,” he replied to his five-year-old daughter who was supposed to be watching a children’s show on television. “Just let it go to the answering machine. Daddy will play the messages back later.”
“You always say that,” she wailed from the living room. “I like to answer the phone.”
“No, Hannah, let the machine take a message—”
“Hallo?” He suddenly heard her little voice chirp. “Who is this? I’m Hannah and I’m five...” The little pause meant Hannah was nodding at the phone while holding up five fingers. “My da-dee? He’s working.” Another little pause. “Oh-kay!” Little footsteps scampered through the living room to the door of Reid’s office. “Da-dee, the lady says you haf to talk to her.”
Reid swiveled his chair to see Hannah standing in the doorway with the white cordless phone in her tiny outstretched hand. Instead of becoming angry with her for disobeying him, a twinge of guilt embraced his heart at her sweet, but disheveled appearance. Her white leggings and pink unicorn shirt were stained with the macaroni and cheese she’d spilled on herself at lunch. Her blonde braids were yesterday’s hairdo, now coming apart with stray hairs poking out everywhere.
Hannah came into the room and leaned against his knee, her bright blue eyes shining up at him. “Here,” she said and offered him the mobile handset. “It’s important!”
“Okay, honey,” he said as he accepted the phone. “Now you be a good girl and go back into the living room to watch TV. Okay?”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Can I haf a fruit snack?”
Reid nodded, anxious to get her back in front of the TV until he’d finished his call. “But only one. I don’t want you to spoil your appetite for dinner.”
Hannah beamed. “Oh-kay!”
“What do you say?”
“Thank you!” She turned and ran out of the room.
“Don’t—” …run in the house… He shook his head, letting it go for now, and hit the speakerphone on the handset. “This is Reid.”
The clear, feminine sound of his ex-wife’s voice startled him. The fingers on his free hand, white-knuckled and tense, gripped the arm of his chair. He hadn’t spoken to her in years and their last conversation had been less than friendly. He still remembered every word. Why was she calling him after all this time? His mind swirled with suspicion. “How did you get the private number to my home? It’s unlisted.” Only a small number of people knew it. One of them had betrayed him.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied hastily. “I’m calling to find out how Hannah is doing.”
His temper flared. “What do you care? You haven’t seen her since the day you abandoned her.”
Hannah had just turned three months old when Monique left. Their daughter was registered to start all-day kindergarten in a couple of weeks. He was glad Hannah had been too young to remember Monique or recognize her voice on the phone. The less Hannah knew about Monique, the better.
“Look, Reid, I know you were angry about the divorce. I understand what a shock it was at the time, but that was five years ago. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the way I acted and I want to make amends.”
“I forgive you. Case closed. Don’t bother calling again. As soon as I hang up, I’m changing this number.”
“Reid,” Monique countered in a low, warning voice, “Hannah is my daughter, too, and I want to see her. I want to get to know her and start the proceedings for joint custody.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He sat ramrod straight, his heart hammering behind his eyes. “Not in a million years would I trust you with her!”
“You can’t stop me from seeing my daughter.”
“I’ll keep you in court for the rest of your life if that’s what it takes,” Reid snapped. “When my lawyers offered you a fortune to sign away your parental rights, you couldn’t wait to put your signature on the agreement to get your hands on the money. You got exactly what you wanted and so did I. There’s no going back now.”
“I want joint custody of Hannah,” Monique repeated acidly. “She’s my daughter and I have a right to see her.”
Reid had all he could do to keep from throwing the phone on the floor and pulverizing it with his heel, but he kept his voice calm. “Not after what you did. You don’t deserve her.”
“I knew you’d try to keep me from seeing her. If you persist, I’ll go after full custody.”
Good luck with that, lady. Any lawyer that got involved in your case would be just taking your money…
He drew in a deep breath. “Look, I still have the security tapes and plenty of evidence to show you’re not fit to be Hannah’s mother. When she’s old enough to understand the situation, I’ll let her decide if she wants to see you or not. In the meantime, leave us alone. Don’t call here ever again.” Shaking with fury, he ended the call and blocked the number.
“Da-dee,” Hannah cried breathlessly as she ran into Reid’s office. She pointed to the window. “Someone is at Grandma Essie’s house!”
Monique’s call had distracted Reid so intensely he could barely concentrate on anything else. He stared at the floor, trying to calm down and wondering what to do now.
Hannah tugged at his sleeve. “Da-dee! Look!”
Reid pulled his thoughts away from the current crisis to gaze out the window at his neighbor’s house. The elderly lady had passed away a month ago with a head injury from a bad fall and since then, except for the man who mowed the lawn every week, the house had been ignored.
A car had pulled into the gravel driveway dividing the two properties and it was partially hidden by Essie’s white picket fence and giant pink hollyhocks, but he could see enough of it to make out a bright red Mercedes convertible. A tall, slender woman with elbow-length dark hair who looked to be in her early thirties stood next to it, taking in the house and yard. The pricey car, oversized sunglasses, and fancy purse on her shoulder gave her a pampered, ultra-feminine look. Someone who was used to having money and expensive tastes—like Monique. Even so, he had a hard time pulling his gaze away. Something about the woman caught his eye. The way she leaned against the car, her hands at her sides, staring at the huge red brick, Queen Anne-style house intrigued him. She seemed hesitant…longing for something…
Hannah tugged at his sleeve. “Can we go see her? Pweeease?”
He spanned his hands around Hannah’s waist and pulled her onto his lap. “Honey, she’s probably a realtor who’s been contracted to sell the house. If we went over there, we’d just be bothering her. Besides, it’s damp outside from the rain and the mosquitoes are really bad today.”
Hannah began to cry and rub her eyes with the back of her hands. “I wanna go to Grandma Essie’s house!”
Reid slid his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. She’d missed her nap today because he’d been too busy working on his speech to put her in bed with a picture book after lunch and she was clearly overtired. “You miss Grandma Essie, don’t you?” he murmured.
Hannah nodded her head and continued to cry.
“I do, too.” He wiped her tears away with his thumbs.
Ever since they moved to Merrick ten months ago, Grandma Essie had taken care of Hannah whenever he needed a sitter. She’d even kept Hannah overnight when he had to go out of town on business. The elderly lady had been recommended to him by the Lutheran pastor in town and because of her excellent references, he’d trusted her explicitly. It was an unfortunate accident that had taken her life and he missed her. He didn’t know what he was going to do without her.
“Hey,” he said in a soft voice and brushed a lock of stray hair from Hannah’s face. “Do you want to go to McDonald’s and get a Happy Meal for dinner?” He only took her out for fast food on days when his schedule was tight, and given the interruptions he’d had today, he was definitely in no mood to switch gears and cook. He’d print out what he had written so far and review it while Hannah ate her chicken nuggets.
“Oh-kay,” Hannah said through her tears.
“But first, go to your room and put on a clean outfit. Then we’ll wash your face and brush your hair.”
Momentarily appeased, she slid off his lap and ran out of the room.
Reid leaned back in his chair and covered his face with his hands. He didn’t know if Monique truly meant what she said about going after him in court, but he couldn’t afford to ignore her threat. He needed a plan—and fast. It had cost him nearly everything to get rid of her, including his position as CEO of a nationwide auto parts company. In the years since the divorce, he’d relocated, become a full-time caregiver to his daughter, and reinvented himself in the business world.
He took his hands away from his face and stared at the phone. No way would he allow Monique to upend their lives again. No way…
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